Results tagged “gospel” from Reformation21 Blog

Standing Firm on the Slippery Slope

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A few weeks ago, the editorial team at Ref21 asked me if I would be willing to write something regarding Fred Harrell (pastor of City Church, San Francisco) and his recent postings in which he attacked the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. In doing so, I made a connection between Harrell's prior shifts (first, adopting the ordination of women and, second, endorsing homosexual relations) and his most recent movement away from the clear teaching of God's Word. My conclusion was to posit this as evidence of a slippery slope, further noting that in our cultural moment the slippery slope is usually entered at the point of ordaining women to office in the church.

It would be an understatement to observe that this post touched a raw nerve for some readers.* Two responses, however, were somewhat surprising to me. First, in commenting on Harrell's trajectory, I found it necessary to provide some context. In doing so I noted some of his former ministry associations, drawing an accusation that I was smearing particular people and groups--as if to suggest that they too must hold similar views to Harrell. This criticism seems to me to arise from a most uncharitable reading of what I wrote. But I am happy to clarify that my point was simply to note that Harrell is a product of reputable ministries and not a wild-eyed liberal whose trajectory bears no relevance to his former denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America). I do not mean to suggest that his former associates inevitably share his views. Likewise, if someone was to draw conclusions from my career it would be necessary to note my association with James Boice and Tenth Presbyterian Church. To do so would not be to tar Boice with my failings but simply to provide necessary context.

A second response to my post was to deny that there is validity to the idea of slippery slopes. My initial response to this criticism is to marvel that people can take this position in light of recent church history. Cue the Santayana reference! Still, the topic is important enough that I think it good to defend the position I took earlier.

First, let me define what I mean in referring to the slippery slope. The slippery slope simply notes that those who remove the restraint against worldly conformity place themselves in peril of further and more damaging accommodations. The slope becomes slippery when the source of friction is removed. Far from the logical fallacy of which it is charged, there is a logical basis for the slippery slope argument: when the authority of Scripture is yielded to cultural demands, the loss of that authority renders us vulnerable to further cultural demands. Herein lies the wisdom of Scripture: "If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Ps. 11:3). Indeed, the very first Psalm begins with a portrayal of the slippery slope, charting a progression from "the counsel of the wicked" to "the way of sinners" and ultimately (one thinks of the so-called Jesus Box) to "the seat of scoffers" (Ps. 1:1).

In making these observations, I do not mean that anyone who changes his or her view in the direction of cultural preferences is irrevocably bound to further concessions. It is blessedly true that people and churches have taken a perilous step to the left (or right) and later reconsidered, and to note examples of this happening does not prove that their previous action had not been imperilled. It is because the slippery slope can be escaped by recommitting to Scripture that warnings of peril are of value. Moreover, I do not mean to suggest that those who make any concessions to culture over Scripture have already abandoned the atonement of Christ. I am suggesting, however, that the slippery slope is...well, slippery. Those who remove traction from their feet may very well slide much further than they first thought possible. As Fred Harrell's progression illustrates (together with those of the PC(USA), CRC, RCA, Church of Scotland, and other denominations), the abandonment of clear biblical teaching at one cultural pressure-point (women's ordination), imperils us with further capitulations (homosexual acceptance), and if unchecked will find itself challenged to avoid "touching the Jesus Box."

Second, I noted that in our time, the slippery slope is usually entered at the point of women's ordination. This tendency is not surprising, since the assault of secular culture against the Bible is most tenaciously focused on gender and sexuality. To uphold biblical gender norms, including the Bible's clear teaching on male-only ordination (see the recent PCA study committee report), is the single most inflammatory position that Christians may hold in our culture. For this reason, it is hard to find an example in recent history when a Christian leader or church denomination moved from biblical conservatism to unbiblical cultural conformity when the slide did not begin with the ordination of women to church office. It stands to reason, then, that we should avoid thinking that we can conform to the worldly demands regarding gender and avoid further accommodations of greater significance.

This brings me to the topic of women deacons. Several critics accused me of asserting that to support the ordination of women to the office of deacon is to abandon the gospel. This response is noteworthy because I made no mention of women deacons in my post. I will admit, however, to being unpersuaded that the move to ordain women deacons is unrelated to a broader agenda of cultural accommodation. In saying this, I do not mean to question the sincerity of those individuals who advocate the position that women should hold the office of deacon. But I would note the growing tendency among these same persons to employ women in roles that are as associated with the office of elder. For example, in many churches pastored by ministers who are supportive of the ordination of women deacons, women are placed in the pulpit during worship services for the public reading of Scripture and to offer the congregational prayer. Women are assigned to distribute the elements of the Lord's Supper (an action historically associated with what the BCO calls "the admission of persons to sealing ordinances," i.e., church discipline). These are functions associated with the office of elders, not deacons. Moreover, it is a matter of record that increasing numbers of men are seeking exceptions from their presbyteries on the matter of women elders and pastors. Word has recently come that pressure is being exerted in one PCA presbytery to install a woman as its stated clerk, making her a member of a court composed exclusively of ruling and teaching elders. Where is the outcry against these tendencies from those who say that they are only wishing to ordain women as deacons?

In light of this growing body of evidence, and without wanting to question anyone's sincerity, I would suggest that unity and mutual trust are strengthened not only by assurances but by actions. The slippery slope runs in many directions, of course, depending on the cultural pressures. Everything I have noted about the gender pressures of the left, for instance, equally pertains to racist pressures on the right. If we are to have unity in the coming years, it behooves us all carefully to consider how our actions line up with our assurances. Moreover, since the sole restraint to all our sin and tendency to compromise is our obedience to the voice of the Spirit of Christ speaking in Holy Scripture, the counsel given by Jeremiah at another moment of cultural of peril seems urgent: "Stand by the crossroads, and look and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls" (Jer. 6:16). In this way alone will we navigate the perils of our times, fortifying both our fidelity to Christ and our mutual bonds of unity and trust.

 

*One well-known pastor wrote me privately to accuse me of being schismatic. It is a feature of our times, I am afraid, that to defend the consensus on which we have built unity is to be labeled as divisive.

Double Black Diamonds: Navigating the Slopes

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In his helpful blog post "The Slippery Slope and the Jesus Box" Rev. Rick Phillips explains that there is indeed a slippery slope about which we must be concerned in theology.  I say indeed, because many will be aware that the slippery slope is typically considered a logical fallacy: one assumes that adoption of one position will lead to the adoption of another position, without showing causal relationship between the two.  However, if you can demonstrate a causal relationship then the argument becomes plausible.

In theology, it does indeed seem to be the case there is a valid concern regarding a weak doctrine of Scripture as a plausible slippery slope.  So Phillips writes: "It is the unstoppable descent into liberalism and unbelief that begins when the authority of Scripture is compromised out of cultural accommodation. The slope is slippery because without the friction of an inerrant, divinely authoritative Bible, faithfully interpreted, there is nothing left to restrain the downward gravitational pull of the world's demands."

I would suggest that we label this type of slippery slope the Hermeneutical Slippery Slope.  The sin of our heart and the pressure of our culture place special tension upon those passages of Scripture that oppose them.  Jesus says, "The Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). But that does not mean that the world, our flesh and the Devil won't try.  As Phillips notes, in a culture hostile toward distinctions of roles based on gender, passages that restrict ordination to males will come under extreme pressure.  At the personal level, a person struggling deeply with sexual temptation may find special tension upon passages forbidding extra-marital sexual gratification.  When we are reading Scripture and feel this tension from without or from within we have three options before us:

(1)   In faith, we can let Scripture push back against the culture and the sin of our hearts.  Under the power of the Holy Spirit the living and active Word of God will wage war against the sin of our flesh and sustain us against the pressure of the culture.

(2)   In unbelief, we can reject the Scriptures entirely.  In some ways this is a position of integrity. Rather than twist the Scriptures, we own the reality that we no longer believe them.  It is ultimately foolish because we are rejecting the word of God, but it is an honest kind of foolish.

(3)   In self-deception, we could adopt hermeneutical strategies that allow us to yield to the flesh and the culture while attempting to hang on to our faith.  Unfortunately, there are a number of strategies to assist in this effort.  If one finds limits on women's ministry in Ephesus too restrictive (1st Tim. 2), emphasize the local and historical context in that city when Paul was writing while downplaying the normative aspects of Paul's argument which are intended to ground those restrictions in creation.  If clear prohibitions against homosexual sex are offensive, then look for local and historical reasons in Rome, Corinth or even throughout the Roman Empire that you may use to relativize what, on first reading, would appear to be normative for all people in every age.

Option three above is a Hermeneutical Slippery Slope.  It is valid to regard it a slippery slope because one cannot use one hermeneutic for one set of hard texts without applying the same method to other hard texts.  So we observe the slip and the slide: a change in one's view of women's ordination precedes a change in one's view on homosexuality. The hermeneutical strategies employed to arrive at those positions are very similar; indeed, in some cases identical. The slippery slope does not always materialize, but if it does not it is against the force of logic not with the force of logic.  This slip and slide won't stop at social issues either.  Miracles, the doctrine of the Trinity, and God's holy demand for justice will all come under the scrutiny of the world, the flesh and the Devil.  Indeed, we must be on guard against the Hermeneutical Slippery Slope.

But there is another type of slippery slope in theology and church life that is fallacious and spiritually dangerous.  It is akin to the way that the Pharisees read certain commandments, being sure to put a hedge around certain laws so as to not get even close to violating them.  We might call this slope the Slippery Slope of Fear. One may be tempted to react against a certain position for fear that it will lead to a more permissive position or action contrary to Scripture.  It is not the immediate position in question that is the concern, but fear of some future position that may come later.

On the Slippery Slope of Fear, however, Scripture is still not being honored.  Rather than breaking the Scripture, the one slipping down the Slope of Fear seeks to add to Scripture.  Some comfortable distance is located between his actual practice and what Scripture allows or encourages.  For example, one may choose to object to the Session appointing godly women to assist the deacons in ministry to the congregation not because it is unauthorized or unbiblical (it is authorized in BCO 9-7), but for fear that it will lead to women being ordained to the office of deacon or elder.  "Won't they just want to be deacons next, then elders?  Why get on that train?"

I have characterized this type of thinking to my own officers as the temptation to respond to error with its opposite.  It may feel right, but it is not right.  We don't respond to error by its opposite.  When the culture goes left we don't go right.  We go Biblical.  The Biblical response may be the natural opposite in some cases, but it is not always.  We must let Scripture guide us in responding to error or adopting policies and practices.  We should always endeavor not to add to God's word by placing additional burdens on people that God has not made clear in Scripture.

Discerning the Slippery Slope of Fear can get a little more complicated, however. The reason is that for some people positions that are a matter or wisdom can become Slippery Slopes of Fear when made normative for all people.  A common example is the consumption of alcohol.  There are those who cannot consume alcohol because they know that they will be led down a destructive path of addiction.  For them that position is a wise one to take. But to restrict all people from consuming alcohol because Scripture forbids drunkenness is to go down the Slope of Fear that any consumption of alcohol will lead to drunkenness.  Ultimately when we fail to discern the difference between matters of wisdom for individuals and matter of law for all we end up in a place of legalism: forbidding what God allows.  That distorts the gospel and creates an unhealthy church culture too.

Next time you are in a theological or pastoral discussion of whether an issue or decision is a slippery slope try to discern whether it is a Hermeneutical Slippery Slope or a Slippery Slope of Fear.  In both cases the Scriptures are not given the clear and final word in matters of faith and practice.

The Slippery Slope and the Jesus Box

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Over twenty years ago, while in seminary, I was present during a hallway conversation with a professor who then seemed to be moving toward liberal theology. A student asked how this man's higher critical methods would enable him to remain a Christian. The professor gave quite the revealing answer: "I have a Jesus Box that I never touch." By this, he meant that he had drawn a line of piety around his faith in Jesus to keep out the implications of his liberal scholarship. I remember thinking at the time how vain was this hope. Method always gobbles up message, and no pietistic zeal will ever protect us from our actual lack of faith. That professor has long since moved on, and from his seat in a liberal college he has not surprisingly revised his former evangelical faith in Jesus.

This conversation came to mind yesterday when I learned of Fred Harrell's tweet endorsing a denial of Christ's propitiation on the cross.1 He commented: "As the living Word of God, Jesus regularly forgave sins without the need for retributive justice." The article to which Harrell linked, written by Derek Vreeland on Missio Alliance, asks: "Is the Cross Even Necessary?" Informed readers will recognize the argument made here, which amounts to a blend of Abelard's moral influence theory and the New Perspective on Paul.

More interesting than Vreeland's standard denial of penal substitutionary atonement is Fred Harrell's endorsement. Trained in ministry under Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, Harrell planted a high-profile and well-funded PCA church in San Francisco in 1997. His career charted a path that progressive ministers in the PCA long to emulate: RUF campus minister; associate at progressive-leaning urban church; pioneering church plant in a progressive city. In 2006, Harrell led City Church out of the PCA and into the liberal RCA on account of a change of heart regarding the ordination of women (which the PCA does not permit). At the time, defenders chalked up the change to the pressures of charity in an uber-progressive setting. In 2015, however, Harrell announced that City Church had changed its view on homosexuality, so as to "no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation." Harrell insisted that City Church had not abandoned its high view of Scripture. Yet it was clear from Harrell's explanation that the shift resulted from factors other than more careful exegesis: LGBT men and women were coming to the church, wanting to be Christian while also enjoying homosexual marriage; Harrell lamented hearing "stories of harm" resulting from the church's rejection of homosexuality; and based on "pastoral conversations and social science research," he and his elders decided to change their view of Scripture's teaching. Those who defended Harrell argued, "What's the harm if they are trying to reach people for the gospel?" Yesterday's tweet supplies the answer: the method of cultural accommodation in theology and Bible interpretation eats up the gospel and demands that it, too, accommodate to the doctrines of the world.

What are some of the lessons of Fred Harrell's progression from the ordination of women to the acceptance of homosexuality and now, apparently, to the rejection of penal substitutionary atonement and the propitiation of Christ? I can think of at least three:

  1. There is such a thing as a slippery slope in theology and faith. While this claim infuriates progressives, Fred Harrell serves as exhibit no. 4,742. What is the slippery slope? It is the unstoppable descent into liberalism and unbelief that begins when the authority of Scripture is compromised out of cultural accommodation. The slope is slippery because without the friction of an inerrant, divinely authoritative Bible, faithfully interpreted, there is nothing left to restrain the downward gravitational pull of the world's demands.
  2. In the late-20th century and early 21st century, the slippery slope has tended to begin over the issue of women's ordination. The reason for this is not because there is something especially nefarious about women being ordained, but because this is the point of maximum cultural outrage at which progressives have tended to capitulate. "We will never accommodate homosexuality," they then cry, "and we will certainly never abandon an evangelical understanding of the gospel." Yet - let the PCA beware! - the fact is that the cost of abandoning the clear biblical teaching of male-only ordination is the abandonment of the authority of Scripture against all further demands of secular culture. As Paul Gilbert once wrote about Harrell: "The principles of biblical interpretation employed in embracing the ordination of women opens the door wide for these same principles to be employed in more devious ways in relation to the core doctrines of Scripture."
  3. Yes, the slippery slope will destroy your "Jesus Box." In short, it is not an aberration that Fred Harrell has tweeted in rejection of penal substitutionary atonement and the doctrine of propitiation. It was only a matter of time. And this will not be the end. Harrell's example adds just one more straw that is breaking the camel's back in proving where the slippery slope ends up: in a blatant rejection of the very gospel, on behalf of which well-meaning progressive Christians called themselves humble, gracious, and open-minded--when, in fact, they were proudly and callously abandoning the authority of God through his Word.

Wisdom Christology in the Gospel of John: The Prologue

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Having grown up in traditional Black churches, I have learned that being Reformed is more than simply assenting to a number of important doctrines (e.g. the doctrine of grace, the regulative principle of worship, covenant theology, etc.). By sitting under Reformed preaching and probing the mind of godly men, I have come to discover that the mode of Christian spirituality as expressed within the Reformed tradition is quite different than my own upbringing. In particular, I believe that wisdom theology has profoundly shaped the thinking of many of the fathers of the Reformed faith (especially John Calvin) and the temper of Reformed piety in general.

Calvin's greatest appreciation of biblical wisdom theology is discovered in his commentaries on the Johannine literature--in which Old Testament wisdom concepts are put into Christian form and developed into the Logos theology of the early church. According to Calvin's commentary on the Gospel of John, the Apostle calls the Son "the Word" because "He is the eternal wisdom and will of God, and secondly because He is the express image of His purpose." Throughout the remainder of his commentary on the prologue of John, the word "Wisdom" is used as a synonym of "Word". This is a crucial insight because (as Calvin understands it) when the apostle John was speaking about the Word, he had in mind the divine Wisdom.

In the first book of the Institutes where Calvin is developing his doctrine of the incarnation, Calvin calls attention to the logos theology of the prologue to the Gospel of John. Calvin states:

"Word' means the everlasting Wisdom, residing with God, from which both all oracles and prophesies go forth. For, as Peter testifies, the ancient prophets spoke by the Spirit of Christ just as must as the apostles did [1 Peter 1:10-11; 2 Peter 1:21], and all who thereafter ministered the heavenly doctrine... And Moses clearly teaches this in the creation of the universe, setting forth this Word as intermediary. For why does he expressly tell us that God in his individual acts of creation spoke, Let this or that be done [Genesis 1] unless so that the unsearchable glory of God may shine forth in his image?... And indeed, sane and modest men do not find obscure Solomon's statement, where he introduces wisdom as having been begotten of God before time [Ecclesiasticus 24:14], and presiding over the creation of things and all God's works [Proverbs 8:22]... But John spoke most clearly of all when He declared that that Word, God from the beginning with God, was at the same time the cause of all things, together with God the Father [John 1:1-3]. For John at once attributes to the Word a solid and abiding essence, and ascribes something uniquely His own, and clearly shows how God, by speaking, was Creator of the universe. Therefore, inasmuch as all divinely uttered revelations are correctly designated by the term 'Word of God,' so this substantial Word is properly placed at the highest level, as the wellspring of all oracles. Unchangeable, the Word abides everlastingly one and the same with God, and is God himself." Institutes of Christian Religion, I, xiii, 7.

In this excerpt, Calvin explicitly states that "Word" basically means Wisdom. What is even more interesting is that he draws this idea out of two very important passages of the wisdom literature - Proverbs 8 and Ecclesiasticus 24. At this point in the Institutes, the wisdom theology is primarily of interest to Calvin because it helps him understand John's Christology. According to Calvin, understanding Christ as the Wisdom of God aids in understanding how the Father has a priority to the Son while simultaneously being co-eternal with the Son (since there was never a time when God was without wisdom).

However, the chief point that Calvin emphasizes in his exposition of the prologue of John is that the Word of God is the source of life and light. It is the Word - the divine Wisdom of Proverbs 8 - who was with God from the beginning, whom the Gospel of John proclaims to be incarnate in the flesh of Jesus. This Jesus, as the only begotten Son of the Father, is Savior of the world. He is the divine Wisdom who empowers, enlightens, and animates those who receive Him by faith. Christ is the divine Wisdom who imparts wisdom; because of His Word - the Word of grace and truth - believers are brought from darkness to light. From Calvin's commentary on the prologue to the Gospel of John, we gather that Calvin understands in that crucial passage the main wisdom themes of the fourth Gospel.

A question that arises is how does this approach to the gospel of John affect one's view of Christian spirituality and discipleship? Because wisdom theology is characterized by its emphasis on the Word as divine wisdom, this sapiential approach to piety places a high value on teaching and preaching in the life of devotion. The Judaism in which Jesus was brought up gave a tremendous amount of time to the study of the sacred text, the scholarly exposition of the Scriptures, and the hearing of sermons which applied this scholarly work to the life of the community. The "School of Wisdom" produced a scholarly bent to piety and practiced a very devout type of scholarship. The same was true of the early Christian church. Studying Scripture, memorizing it, meditating on it, and interpreting it were regarded as the most sacred of tasks and the most essential devotional disciplines. Therefore, the study of Scripture was understood as worship in its most profound sense. Calvin's view of Christian faith and life is particularly clear in his commentary on the prologue to the Gospel of John when he says:

"For the knowledge of God is the door by which we enter into the enjoyment of all blessings. Since, therefore, God reveals Himself to us by Christ alone, it follows that we should seek all things from Christ. This doctrinal sequence should be carefully observed. Nothing seems more obvious than that we each take what God offers us according to the measure of our faith. But only a few realize that the vessel of faith and of the knowledge of God has to be brought to draw with."

From this passage it should be clear how important the knowledge of the truth is to our salvation. This saving knowledge, received by faith, is very different than being saved by mere knowledge. For Calvin (consistent with the Wisdom School), the divine Wisdom is a rich and comprehensive wisdom. The divine Wisdom is filled with every blessing, with power and vitality, and with all the holiness and righteousness for which we hunger and thirst. According to wisdom theology, as we find it in the Gospel of John and as we find it in Calvin, the imparting of the divine Wisdom - in all its power, all its illumination, and all its vitality - is of the essence of God's saving work in Christ.

This approach to religious devotion had a profound influence on Calvin and other 16th century Reformers. In many ways, it encapsulates the mode of religious devotion that characterizes the Reformed faith.

What You're For, What You're Against!

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"Be known for what you're for rather than what you're against." This statement--in various forms--has become something of a Christian cliche over the past decade. Nearly every time I hear it, I wonder if those who so often state it understand the irony of the potential false dilemma that they have inadvertantly created for themselves. Insisting that we should want to be known for what we're for rather than for what we're against includes being known for being against being known for what we're against. You may actually be making a statement akin to that which almost every unbeliever makes when they, in opposition to the Bible's condemnation of sin, misuse the only verse in the Bible that they know, "Judge not..."--which, ironically, is a quite judgmental response.

To be fair, I strongly sympathize with the well intentioned sentiment behind the adage, "Be known for what you're for." I want to be known as a pastor who is for the gospel, for the church, for the Kingdom of God, for life, for marriage, and for a whole list of other God-ordained, and spiritually beautiful things. I'm also for gourmet food, all natural ingredients, and fancy restaurants. But for the good of humanity, I'm against kale chips and turkey bacon. Likewise, for the good of souls and for the good of the church, I'm against false gospels, false worship, false doctrine, and false teachers. Being for biblical things means that we must necessarily be against non-biblical ideas and practice.

Some people have made a career out of controversy. Watch blogs, conspiracy theory websites, and gossip media are all the rage. While the feel-good news stories get circulated around social media with comments such as, "THIS is real news," or "It's about time we see something positive," anyone looking at blog statistics can tell you the most read articles aren't filled with heartwarming testimonies or affirmations of true doctrine. Humans like drama, and even if we say we don't, our Netflix history proves otherwise. It's why the Bible warns us to, "Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths" (1 Timothy 4:7). Those who devote the better part of the life determining what everyone else is doing wrong and saying improperly are a danger to their own soul--and, I would add, aren't much help to others. More often than not, the controversies we allow into our hearts don't serve the great end of conforming us to the image of Christ.

However, in 2017 we celebrate 500 years of protest--something for which I and deeply thankful. The Protestant Reformation was perhaps the most important era of church history since the founding of the church, and it was an era of incredible opposition. Just as the Apostle Paul wrote, "If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:9), it was good and right that men like Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli took on the Roman Catholic Church with its false gospel and practice in order to recover the truth. Yet, the writings of the Reformers weren't entirely polemical. Today, the five Solas of the Reformation are positive affirmations of truth thrown against the background of falsehood. There were certainly times when Luther needed an editor (for instance, the time he wrote against some of his opponents with words like, "For he is an excellent man, as skillful, clever, and versed in Holy Scripture as a cow in a walnut tree or a sow on a harp"1) Nevertheless, the best the Church has offered throughout history has rightly balanced being for what we're for with being against what we're against--rather than to the exclusion of one or the other.

Those who believe that Christians too frequently voice opposition often make reference to the tone or manner in which certain matters are addressed. We cannot forget the biblical imperative to, "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted..." (Ephesians 4:32) and to remember that our speech (and writing) should be, "Good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear" (Ephesians 4:29). We must speak "the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). I confess that I have hammered out emails, blog articles, and social media posts that--while even today I can say were true in content--were a far cry from living up to what Paul exhorts in Ephesians 4. This is the case not just in how I wrote what I wrote, but more grievously, in the intentions of my heart.

The Bible is filled with warnings and prohibitions, and sometimes the best way to understand what is true is to understand and reject what is false. The Church has solidified much of orthodoxy by standing against false teachers and their doctrine. While the Western world moves further down the road of insisting that tolerance (read: "as long as you agree with me") be our battle cry, the growing temptation for Christians is going to be to win friends and influence people by only stating what we're for. However, faithful, God-glorifying Christianity isn't frilly and soft, and our spokesmen aren't supposed to be motivational speakers pumping us full of positive sunshine. I love preaching peacetime sermons full of true, positive affirmations from God's Word. But sometimes the reality of war is present in the text, and if we don't get in the trench and fire back, we're going to die.

[1] Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 41: Church and Ministry III, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 41 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 219.

If Christ is Not Risen...

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I've always had something of an aversion to the "if Christianity is not true what do you lose" sort of apologetical approach--precisely because Scripture is God's word and because it is perfect in all that God reveals in it. To raise the question almost seems to inadvertantly jeopardize the veracity of it. Nevertheless, that is precisely the kind of reasoning that the Apostle Paul utilized in 1 Corinthians 15 after he appealed to the clear teaching of Scripture about Jesus' death and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1-3). Writing to a church that was in danger of allowing false teaching to creep in, the Apostle tackled the issue of what was at stake if we deny the resurrection. Beginning in verse 12, Paul raises eight "ifs" (following them up with some of the weightiest of all theology) in order to explain the significance of the resurrection for the life of the believers. Consider the following eight "ifs" about the implications of denying the resurrection:

  • If Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (v. 12)
  • If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen...If the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. (vv. 13, 16)
  • If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. (v. 14)
  • We are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up--if in fact the dead do not rise. (v. 15)
  • If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. (vv. 17-18)
  • If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. (v. 19)
  • If the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead? (v. 29)
  • If the dead do not rise, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!" (v. 32)
According to the Apostle's argument, one can categorize all that is lost--if the resurrection never occurred--under the following heads:

1. The Apostolic Message. The first thing that is lost, if we deny the resurrection, is the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the Apostolic message. That is the central message of Christianity. How can some profess to be Christians and deny the central message of Christianity? The resurrection cannot be said to be a mythological or analogical story. It was an historical event that turned the world upside down. This, Paul, said--at the outset of the chapter--was an essential part of what was "of first importance." In essence, Paul is saying, "If there is no resurrection, we have nothing left to preach because our message centers on Christ having been raised from the dead." 
2. A Living Redeemer. Next, the Apostle heightens the argument by insinuating that if there is no resurrection from the dead then "Christ is not risen." We not only lose the central message of Christianity, if there is no resurrection--we lose the central figure of Christianity, namely, the living, reigning and returning Lord Jesus Christ. 
3. The Efficacy of the Apostolic Word. As Paul proceeds with his argument, he told the Corinthians that the resurrection ensures the efficacy of the word of God. If Christ is not risen, there is no power behind the message proclaimed and there is no power in the life of those who receive the preaching of the Gospel. Paul uses a form of the word κενος in verse 10, 14 and 58 in order to bolster this argument. He tells his readers in verse 10, "God's grace to me was not in vain." Then in verse 58, he reminds them that the resurrection of Christ ensures that their "labor is not in vain in the Lord." Couched in between these bookends, Paul emphasizes that if Christ is not risen then his preaching and their faith is in vain (i.e. empty and powerless). 
4. Apostolic Trustworthiness. Moving on to another aspect of the resurrection, Paul explains that if Christ is not risen from the dead then he and the other apostles are false witnesses. He goes so far as to say that they would then be "false witnesses of God," because they "bore witness of God." There is an inseparability between the apostolic testimony and the testimony of God. Not only would the apostles be found untrustworthy--God would be found to be untrustworthy. The resurrection of Jesus secures the covenant faithfulness and absolute trustworthiness of God and His appointed witnesses. 
5. The Forgiveness of Sins. Perhaps the greatest of Paul's arguments is that which he sets out in verses 17-18. If Jesus is not raised then no one has their sins forgiven. The logical implication of this is that those who have professed faith in Christ but who have already died have perished because they would not have had their sins forgiven. The forgiveness of sin is the greatest of all needs that we have. If Jesus was not raised from the dead then we would have to conclude that His sacrifice was insufficient to atone for the sins of God's people and propitiate the wrath of God that we deserve for our sin. The writer to the Hebrews captures the connection between the atonement and the resurrection so well when he writes, "The God of peace brought again from the dead the Lord Jesus...through the blood of the everlasting Covenant" (Heb. 13:20). The blood of Jesus is the efficacious cause of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is the validation that His blood was sufficient to atone for the sins of His people. 
6. An Everlasting Hope. The Apostle began to introduce the idea of eternal hope when he claimed that those who have "fallen asleep in Jesus" have perished if He has not been raised from the dead. Now, Paul shows another side. He focuses on the hope that believers have in this life. He speaks of this hope elsewhere, when, speaking of the death of beloved Christians, he tells believers that we do not sorrow "as others who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13). 
7. Union with Christ. Everything in 1 Cor. 15 centers on the believer's union with Christ in His death and resurrection. Our resurrection from the dead is guaranteed on the basis of our faith-union with Christ. When the Apostle asks the incredibly confusing question, "Why then are they baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise," he appears to be speaking of the union that believers have with Christ (represented by their baptism into Christ). If this is correct, the argument would run thus: "If the dead do not rise--and Christ then belongs in the category of the dead--why then are you baptized into union with the dead." Interestingly, Jonathan Edwards espouse this particular way of explaining the Apostle's argument
8. Joy in Tribulation. Finally, Paul argues that if there is no resurrection then he and the other apostles suffered for nothing. It was joy in the truth about the risen Christ--and the hope of the resurrection of believers--that drove the Apostles forward to endure all of the persecution that they bore for the sake of the Gospel and the building up of the people of God. Paul reasons that, if there is no resurrection, we should give ourselves entire to hedonistic living--because that would be all there would be in which to find joy in this empty, futile and passing world. 

There is so much more that Paul brings forward in this chapter to show the significance of and inevitable consequences of the resurrection; however, these are the explicit arguments that he puts forth to establish in the minds and hearts of believers what we lose if we do not hold firmly to the biblical truth about the resurrection from the dead. In short, we have everything to lose if we don't preserve the truth of the resurrection and everything to gain by constantly abiding in it.

Good teaching begins with definitions. Effective schoolteachers tell their students what they are doing and why in order help students learn well. This often means defining terms specific to each subject. Math students need to learn what a hypotenuse is and students of physics need to understand what mass, acceleration, and velocity mean. The Bible also has its own vocabulary, which includes "preaching." Yet many Christians sit under sermons, and some even preach them, without a working definition of what preaching is in light of Scripture.

In 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2, the Apostle Paul gave an implicit definition of preaching when he wrote, 

"Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: 'In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.' Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation."

The passage cited above implies that preaching is a public authoritative proclamation of the gospel, through ordained ambassadors of Christ, who plead with people to be reconciled to God on Christ's behalf, on the grounds of Christ's person and work. Understanding what preaching is helps us understand its purposes and what we should expect when listening to sermons. This is important because Christ designed preaching to be an ordinary part of evangelism and discipleship (Matt. 28:19-20).

This text teaches us what preaching is. Preaching is a public, authoritative proclamation of the gospel. Paul's preaching was public proclamation. He implored people and he pled with them. His self-description as an "ambassador" meant that his preaching carried authority. Whether referring to the twelve apostles (Matt. 10:5-15) or to the seventy-whom Christ sent (Lk. 10:1-12), Christ words apply: "He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me" (Matt. 10:40)." Preachers implore sinners and plead with them on Christ's behalf. This is how they "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim. 4:5). Preaching is "the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18) through which Christ's pleads with and implores us through his messengers. When we receive the message of Christ's ambassadors then we receive Christ. When we reject their message then we reject the Christ whom they preach. This is true with respect to all faithful gospel preaching. Preaching comes with the authority of Christ through his ambassadors and we must submit to Christ through it.

We also learn here who preachers are. Preachers are ordained ambassadors of Christ. In 2 Corinthians, Paul defended his ministry at length against false apostles (2 Cor. 2:17, 11:5). In doing so, he not only defined the nature and purposes of his apostolic ministry, but he established the pattern of gospel ministry more broadly. Being an ambassador implies gifting, calling, and ordination. I will address the last link in this chain more fully in my next post in relation to Romans 10:14-17. Preaching is defined primarily in relation to office. Christ gifts church officers for their office and he gives officers as gifts to his church. Ephesians 4:11 teaches that the ascended Christ gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers as gifts to his church. Some of these teaching offices were extraordinary and temporary while others are ordinary and permanent. Yet all of them instruct the church for its purity and unity, its maturity and growth in Christ, and its protection from false teaching (Eph. 4:12-16). Believers in general evangelized (euangelidzomai) as they were scattered abroad while Philip preached (keruso) Christ (Acts 8:4-5). All teaching offices come from Christ and revolve around proclaiming his person and work. Christ preached the kingdom of God (Mark 1:39). Christ cleansed a leper, warning him to tell no one (Mark 1:40-44). Yet the man preached (keruso) without being gifted, called, and ordained (v. 45). All Christians must evangelize, yet not all are permitted to preach. All Christians are Christ's servants, but not all Christians are Christ's ambassadors.

We learn next why Christ appointed preaching and preachers. Preachers plead with people on Christ's behalf to be reconciled to God. Preaching flows from the fear of the Lord in preparing people for the final judgment (2 Cor. 5:9-11). The love of Christ compels sound preaching (v. 12-15). Preaching aims to provide a true view of God's savings aims through his person and work (v. 16-19). Preaching is God's act of calling sinners to be reconciled to him through Christ (v. 20, 6:1-2). As we must define preaching in relation to office, so the Christ, who is the source of church offices, dominates the content of preaching.

Lastly, preaching is founded on Christ's person and work. Preaching is possible because God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). Preaching proclaims Christ's person and work for the salvation of all (v. 21). God reconciles sinners to himself in Christ because Christ is fully God, enabling him to match God's infinite majesty and the infinite weight of sin. He is fully man, enabling him to obey, suffer, die, and rise in his human nature for us. God becoming man alone could enable God to purchase the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Christ became sin for sinners, removing God's wrath and curse from them, so that sinners might become the righteousness of God in him, being justified freely through him (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 3:24). Christ gifts and calls preachers to be his ambassadors by virtue of his ascension (Eph. 4:8). He makes preaching possible through making himself the ground of the message preached. We must receive Christ by faith through preaching as he presents himself to us through his ambassadors.

This passage helps us understand what preaching is both negatively and positively. Negatively, not all gospel proclamation is preaching. Neither does all preaching have the right object. Preaching must impart the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) in a way that that demonstrates that all of the promises of God are yes and amen in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). Positively, preaching is the public, authoritative, proclamation of the gospel through ordained ambassadors of Christ. Preachers plead with people to be reconciled to God on the grounds of Christ's person and work. Preaching is Christ's ordinary means of seeking and saving the lost. This means that there is continuity in how preaching addresses believers as well as the unconverted. Paul implored Christians at Corinth "not to receive the grace of God in vain." Christ is set forth in preaching to believers and to unbelievers alike because the accepted day of salvation is a perpetual "now." All subsequent posts in this series will expand and explain the ideas presented here. We must understand what preaching is in order to understand how and why we should listen to sermons. Do we receive Christ through his ordained ambassadors as we press onward and upward towards the culmination of our salvation in Christ? (Phil. 3:14).

*This is the first in a series of posts on "Preaching Christology or Preaching Christ." 

Dr. Ryan McGraw is Professor of Systematic theology, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is the author of A Heavenly Directory: Trinitarian Piety, Public Worship, and a Reassessment of John Owen's Theology (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014); The Foundation of Communion with God: The Trinitarian Piety of John Owen (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), Christ's Glory, Your Good: Salvation Planned, Promised, Accomplished, and Applied (RHB 2013), and, By Good and Necessary Consequence (RHB 2012).


Death, The New Year And The Hope of Christ

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2016 was a sobering year for our celebrity-driven culture. A recent CNN article reminded us of the many well known individuals that we lost over the course of the last year. More names have been added just in this past week. More than usual, it seems that many of these celebrities and artists lost in 2016 were icons of culture--a part of people's personal identities and memories. Social media has provided an unprecedented forum for shared grief and lament. (On a humorous note, one man even started a Go Fund Me page to "protect Betty White from 2016".)

From a biblical perspective, these social laments don't go far enough; and, sadly they seem to miss the point altogether. 2016 has not been all that unusual of a year--although it may have been more providentially jarring for some. People are shocked by tragedy and tragedies are supposed to be shocking. But tragedies are not surprises. They are reminders. Tragedies help to awaken us out of an illusion of what is not to what is actually the norm in this world. There is nothing more normal to history than evil and death. It is not strange. It is tragically normal.

I heard someone once say that people in this world are like people in prison who pretend most of their lives that they are not in prison. And every once in a while when tragedy strikes, they are forced to come out and stare at the bars and be reminded of what is real.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a Christmas letter from prison during WWII in which he said, "A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent. One waits, hopes, does this or that--ultimately negligible things--the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside."

So what is the biblical lesson and answer in the face of a tragic reality? Can Christianity offer any hope in the New Year in the face of death? To the surprise of many, the Christian answer does not sugar-coat reality. The Christian Gospel has always been set in the midst of tragedy--from the cradle to the cross.

Matthew's Gospel shockingly records how Jesus' birth led to the slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18). Why would the Lord want such a story associated with Christ's coming? How could God warn Joseph while allowing those little boys to be killed? Why would He allow any things like that in the first place?

It's not an easy question. And the Bible doesn't candy-coat the response. This is the reality of a fallen world. This was the reality of Jesus' birth, the kind of world He came to--a world where tragedies are not surprises, where 152,000 people die every day around the world, where 21,000 children die every day, where the U.S. alone averages 5 child murders a day. And this is actually what the Gospel story is about--not a shallow joy and peace, but a deep joy and peace in the face of a tragic world because of a Savior has come to redeem us.

The fact that an angel had to warn Joseph tells us that the incarnation was real. God really became man, which means his life was truly threatened. God really and truly came into the reality of a fallen world, into the valley of the shadow of death, and became exposed and vulnerable.

The fact that Jesus got away and survived the slaughter of Bethlehem was actually for the comfort of Bethlehem; it gives us the only answer and comfort possible in the face of tragedy.

One got away. And because of the one who got away, there is hope. Like Moses before him, Jesus got away at his birth to provide a greater salvation. Jesus survived as an infant so that he could later do something no one else could do for His people. When the dragon of death sought to devour Him and his brethren (Rev.12:1-17), He was rescued for the proper time in order to go under the waters of death, and to destroy death once for all, and to crush the serpent's head (Gen.3:15, Heb.2:14). He became the firstborn from the dead (Col.1:18), the one who truly got away, and the one who goes before us to lead us all the way to the promised land.

So what is the real answer to death and the New Year? As we face the reality of a fallen world and the fact that "a few more years shall roll, a few more seasons come and we shall be with those that rest asleep within the tomb" (Horatius Bonar), we must recognize that what Bonhoeffer said is true: "The door is locked and can only be opened from the outside." There is one real hope in all this world. And it's not a sentimental movie answer, that we all become "one with the Force and live on in all things". It's a very real, gritty, tragic, hope-filled answer - that God gave his only Son, that he came into this fallen world, that he came to be with us, to touch all of our uncleanness, even death itself - to break our chains and to lead us out.

Today the gate is open, and all who enter in, 
Will find a Father's welcome, and pardon for their sin. 
The past shall be forgotten, a present joy be given, 
A future grace be promised, a glorious crown in heaven. (Oswald Allen, 1861)

Matt Foreman is the pastor of Faith Reformed Baptist Church.  Matt is a graduate of Furman University and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He currently serves as the Chairman of the General Assembly for the Reformed Baptist Network, as secretary for the RBN Missions Committee, and as lecturer in Practical Theology at Reformed Baptist Seminary. Matt also writes music for worship; some of which be found here. Matt and his wife, MaryScott, have four children: Katy (2002), Darsie (2004), Liam (2007), and Molly (2010).

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know...

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On April 23, 1962, Karl Barth (the renown 20th Century Swiss-German, neo-orthodox theologian) spoke at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago. Many have reported that, during the Q & A time, a student asked Karl Barth, if he could summarize his theology in a single sentence. As the story goes, Barth responded by saying, "In the words of a song I learned at my mother's knee: 'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.'" Whether or not this story will ever be historically validated or not, the statement itself is one of the most profound biblical and theological truths; and, with Andy Stanley's recent outlandish rejection of this truth (take time to read the excellent critiques offered by David Prince and Mike Kruger), it is all the more important that we are settled on this issue when we come to answer the question, "How do I know that Jesus loves me?"

In recent years, myriads of books have been written to seek to convince men--and particularly women--of the love of Christ. Jesus Calling is one such example. Instead of rooting the subjective experience of the love of Christ in the objective revelation of His love in Scripture, authors and teachers often seek to root the subjective experience of the love of Christ in the subjective, immediate revelation of Christ to individuals. On the surface, doing so seems to offer people a more easily attainable experience of the love of Christ. Instead of calling people to commit to a diligent study and patient continuance in the word of God, many writers and teachers encourage a mystical experience that shortcuts the need for biblical revelation. In doing so, they actually rob individuals of the great need they have to know and to be established in the love of Christ by means of the revelation of His love in Scripture. 

The quest for a subjective experience of the love of Christ apart from Scripture also often comes in the form of superstitious readings of nature or providence. One sees a rainbow or a beautiful sunset and thinks, "This is a sign of God's love for me." Someone narrowly escapes a near-death incident and thinks, "Now I know that God loves me!" While we readily acknowledge that the rainbow (i.e. the sign of God's covenant mercy) and the magnificently colorful sky "declare the glory of God and show forth his handiwork" (Ps. 19:1)--and, while it is true that God reveals his overflowing goodness in the protection of His creatures by virtue of His kind providences--the reflection of His glory in creation and providence is insufficient to bring men to a saving knowledge of Christ, and are no sure mark of His saving love for His people. 

The problem with adopting a superstitious approach with regard to the love of God is that such an approach does not account for the hardship, trials and suffering experienced by those upon whom God has set His great love in Christ. The Scriptures are clear that those whom God loves from the foundation of the world, and for whom Christ died, are often those who suffer the most in this life. If I know and am assured of the love of God for me by seeing the beauty of creation and the kind providences of life, how will I interpret natural disasters--not to mention the dark, hard and painful providences that I experience personally? While natural disasters and personal suffering may be a sign of God's judgment, they may also be signs of His chastening love (Heb. 12:5-11)--as well as trials designed to drive me to Him more and more. We can never conclude that a sunset is a mark of God's saving love (Matt. 5:45) but physical affliction a mark of His righteous indignation (2 Cor. 12:7-10). 

The only objective evidence of the saving love of God and Christ for His people is the cross on which Jesus died. The Apostle Paul made this abundantly clear when he wrote, "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8) and "The Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). As Augustine illustratively put it, "The cross was the pulpit in which Christ preached His love." The doctrine of special revelation teaches us that we can only know of the crucified Savior, and the meaning of His crucifixion, by means of the Scriptures. It was by means of the Scripture and the sacrament that the risen Jesus opened the eyes of the two on the road to Emmaus to know and understand what He had accomplished in His death and resurrection (Luke 24:13-35). It was by means of the Old Testament that the resurrected Jesus taught these things to His disciples (Luke 24:44-47). 

As a pastor, I long to see the men, women, boys and girls of our congregation established in the revelation of the love of Christ in the Scriptures. While multitudes are searching for immediate mystical experiences, or looking to creation or experience, to lay hold of the knowledge of the love of Christ, we must run to the Scriptures to lay hold of Christ crucified. As we do, we will begin to understand the profundity the statement, "Jesus Loves Me This I Know, for the Bible Tells Me So." 
The Protestant Reformers, following Scripture's lead, roundly rejected the notion that believers might be justified in part or in whole by their own good works. Sinners, they maintained, are justified wholly on the basis of Christ's perfect righteousness imputed to them, a righteousness appropriated by faith alone. The doctrine of justification by works which gained traction in medieval theology and was defended by Rome at the Council of Trent was anathema to them. They took a much more positive view, however, of the doctrine of justification of works; that is, the doctrine that not only the believing sinner himself or herself but also the believing sinner's good works are cloaked in Christ's own perfect righteousness (apprehended by faith), and so are most pleasing to God.

Robert Rollock (1555-1599), the first regent, principal, and professor of theology at the University of Edinburgh and a key figure in the course of reform in Scotland in the sixteenth century, articulated this position well in a short treatise on good works published with his Romans Commentary in 1593. Rollock writes:

"Man already regenerated, having through faith recovered some portion of sincerity of heart, can by virtue of that portion be described as ready unto good works--according to that measure, of course, in which integrity and sincerity of heart has been recuperated. But the work of a regenerate man is good only according to its share of conformity to the law, and does not give all that is required to the Law of God, who is most holy and most perfect. Hence it does not, insofar as it possesses even the smallest degree of imperfection, satisfy God. For, then, a work to be satisfying to God and to conform to his own law and will, it must appear, as it were, before him--it must be led into his own light and view--cloaked in Christ's merit, which is apprehended by faith. Thus it is said in Rom. 14:23, "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." And similarly in Heb. 11:6, "without faith it is impossible to please him," which statement means not only that man's heart, by faith in Jesus Christ, is made clean and recovers some part of its sincerity and integrity, but also, in truth, that the imperfection of works proceeding from a heart only in part reborn are covered by that same faith. Therefore, faith accomplishes two things with regard to the good work of the regenerate man: first, it purifies the heart and fount of that good work (Acts 15:9); and second, it covers, as it were, the defects of that work which proceeds from a heart only partially reborn. The work of the man without faith, moreover, suffers a twofold loss: first, without faith there is clearly no beginning of regeneration, from whence that work should proceed; and second, without faith there is no veil for the impurity under which that work labors."

The doctrine of justification of works, unlike that of justification by works, stands to provide sinners of sensitive conscience with much relief. It encourages us to broaden our appreciation for what Christ accomplishes for us; he has not merely justified our persons by his perfect obedience, he has also justified our efforts to conform our lives to God's law and Christ's perfect example. It also encourages us to make greater efforts at good works, confident that our works, however imperfect, are most perfect in God's estimation. It encourages us, in other words, to act in faith, not apart from it, but still to act -- contra the perennial claim that Protestant teaching on justification encourages indifference towards good works.

Rollock develops the theme of the justification of believers' good works more fully in his treatise on the subject. That treatise, along with several other previously untranslated writings of Rollock, is now available in English translation in a short volume titled Some Questions and Answers about God's Covenant and the Sacrament That Is a Seal of God's Covenant: With Related Texts, published last month by Wipf and Stock's Pickwick Publications imprint. The principal work included in this volume is the titular catechism, which Rollock published in Latin in 1596. In addition to the treatise on good works noted above, the volume also includes treatises on the divine covenants and the sacraments which were likewise included in Rollock's Romans commentary. All the writings included in the volume make significant use of the doctrine of the covenant of works. That, indeed, was the logic of their inclusion. I've translated the texts myself, and have included an introductory essay which intends to shed new light on Rollock's role in the development of Reformed covenant theology. But, as hopefully indicated above, the treatises on good works and on the sacraments in particular are theologically interesting beyond the use they make of the doctrine of the covenant of works. The book is available from Amazon in hard copy or as an e-book, or directly from Wipf and Stock itself at a slightly reduced price. I dedicated the work to my dog Oakley for reasons explained in the acknowledgments, and all proceeds from the book will be devoted to his ongoing maintenance. So please, for his sake, consider purchasing a copy.

The Savior at the Well

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"I am the woman at the well, 
I am the harlot 
I am the scattered seed that fell along the path 
I am the son that ran away 
And I am the bitter son that stayed

My God, my God, why hast Thou accepted me 
When all my love was vinegar to a thirsty King? 
My God, my God, why hast Thou accepted me? 
It's a mystery of mercy and the song, the song that I sing." (Caedmon's Call)

As a young believer--having been redeemed by God out of a prodigal lifestyle--I wept nearly every time that I listened to Caedmon's Call song, "Mystery of Mercy." Having been redeemed by God out of a prodigal lifestyle, I found myself in solidarity with the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the prodigal son, Zacchaeus and the thief on the cross. I came to see, by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, that I was no better than any of them. In fact, I saw that I was worse than they were. I came to realize that convicting His people of their sin and making them aware of the judgment they deserve because of it it is one of the greatest gifts of God's grace.

I also quickly came to realize that many Christian authors used aspects of biblical passages about Jesus' mercy to the undeserving in order to promote an antinomian understanding of the Gospel. For instance, Brennan Manning emphatically stated--with regard to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11)--that Jesus "didn't demand a firm purpose of amendment" and "didn't seem too concerned that she might dash back into the arms of her lover" (The Ragamuffin Gospel, p. 167). Manning also suggested the following: 

"I don't think that anyone reading this would have approved of throwing rocks at the poor woman in adultery, but we would have made darn sure she presented a detailed act of contrition and was firm in her purpose of amendment. Because if we let her off without saying she was sorry, wouldn't she be back in adultery before sunset?" (The Ragamuffin Gospel, p. 173).

At the outset, I want to be clear that I stand firmly against those who teach that legal repentance and reformation is necessary in order for someone to come to Jesus--as if one needed to clean himself or herself up to make oneself acceptable to Christ. However, what Manning taught (from a disputed passage of Scripture, I would add) is not in keeping with the details of the text or the general manner of Christ's saving work in the lives of sinners. After telling the woman caught in adultery, "Neither do I condemn you," Jesus says to her, "Go and sin no more" (John 8:11). Having forgiven this woman of disrepute, Jesus called her to live out a godly life in keeping with the redemption that she had experienced by His grace. 

Of a somewhat different nature than Manning's misrepresentation of the woman caught in adultery is Sammy Rhodes' recent apology to members of the LGBTQ movement--in which he references Jesus' dealing with the woman at the well (John 4:1-30). While presumably seeking to draw attention to what a loving posture should be towards those who are engaged in sexual sin, Rhodes goes so far as to insist that Jesus "cared far more about sharing a drink with her than he did about her sexual choices." In doing so, Rhodes presents an inadequate picture of the Savior at the well. Additionally, by saying "We're all the woman at the well," Rhodes--perhaps inadvertently--leads us to believe that we are acting self-righteously, rather than in love, if we speak out against sexually sinful lifestyles. 

The Savior at the Well

In the first place, it should be noted that Jesus asked the woman at the well for a drink of water in order to teach her about her own spiritual thirst and His ability to quench that thirst by means of His redemption. Jesus didn't simply care about "sharing a drink with her." He wasn't on a night out on the town. In the second place--and vastly more significant--is the fact that Jesus cared deeply about speaking to the woman about her "sexual choices." This is clear from the fact that he told her to call her husband, told her that He knew that she had previously been married five times and that He knew that she was currently committing adultery with the man with whom she was now living (John 4:16-18). Uncovering the sinful hearts of men and women is one of the chief ways in which the Savior works in the lives of those He is redeeming in order to draw them to Himself. To downplay Jesus' use of the Law with the woman at the well is to dimmish the way in which the Gospel works in the lives of believers; it is to present a Jesus who is less than determined to save His people from their sin (Matt. 1:21). Jesus loved the woman at the well enough to tell her about her sexual sin so that she might see her need for Him. The most loving thing that we can do for others is to tell them about the Savior and about the sin from which they need to be redeemed by the Him. 

We see the importance of Jesus convicting the woman at the well of her sexual sin by the fact that John tells us: "the woman then left her waterpot" (a symbol of her empty life) and went her way into the city, and said to the men, 'Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?" This woman had spent the better part of her life seeking to satisfy herself with men--the very thing that Jesus revealed to her. However, having finally found eternal life and satisfaction in Christ, she went and told the men of the city, "Come see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?" She didn't go into the city and say, "I just met a really great guy who had a drink with me and didn't condemn anything about my sinful lifestyle." She told them that Jesus knew all about her sinful lifestyle. She said, "Come see a man who told me all things that I ever did." It was necessary for Christ to convict this woman of her sinful lifestyle and to show her the futility of it in order to help her see her need for Him and the redemption that can only be found in Him. 

Speaking Out in Love

It has become commonplace in our day to hear Christians say things like, "We can't lead with condemnation if we are ever to reach our LGBTQ neighbors." Sadly, I have, on numerous occasions, heard those same words propagated within the ecclesiastical circles in which I minister. Contrary to this mantra, The Apostle Paul marched into the epicenter of idolatry and sexual immorality with a condemnation of sin in order to lovingly help men and women see the greatness of the grace of God in Christ (see Romans 1:18-3:26). In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul took his readers from plight to solution in order to convince them of just how unrighteous all men are by nature. The Apostle was not self-righteously condemning others; rather, he was showing them more fully the need that they have for Christ. In fact, the Apostle went so far as to single out homosexual sin as the highest form of idolatry in a world full of people who "suppress the truth in unrighteousness." After all, "Androgyny," as Jungian psychologist June Singer has noted in her book Androgyny: Toward a New Theory of Sexuality, "is the sacrament of monism." 

While the Apostolic writings on this point are clear (e.g. Romans 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11), it has become increasingly common to hear professing believers suggest that Jesus never condemned homosexuality. Anyone who reads the Scriptures honestly will find it a futile exercise to attempt to pit the ethics of Jesus against that of the Apostles. The Savior was crucified by the hands of men, in large part, because He exposed the sin that fallen man so desperately loves. Jesus said, "The world...hates Me because I testify of it that its works are evil" (John 7:7). In the days of His flesh, Jesus preached against all sexual sin under the general category of "sexual immorality" (e.g. see Matt. 5:32 and 19:9). We dishonor the holiness and majesty of God by refusing to mention God's condemnation of particular sin when seeking to speak to our culture. 

In addition to dishonoring God and His holiness, we do our fellow image bearers a great disservice if we present a Gospel void of the accompanying conviction of God's Law. No one will ever see their need for Christ until they come to terms with the fact that they are sinners deserving of judgment. In the church membership vows of the PCA, we ask those coming for membership, the following question: "Do you acknowledge yourself to be a sinner in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?" Acknowledging that we are deserving of judgment for our sin is an indispensable part of being a Christian. The Holy Spirit works through the Law of God to convince us of the fact that we are "sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure." 

We have unique cultural challenges in our day--challenges that tempt us to be silent on the difficult truths of Scripture, challenges to fear man rather than God and challenges to allow sin to go unchecked. We all feel the temptation to want to make Christianity more palatable for the masses by taking away from our presentation of it whatever our culture deems offensive. There is something right about our need to be cautious about our own offensiveness. We should never want to be offensive by means of our personal tone or motives in presenting the Gospel to men and women; however, we must always recognize that the Gospel is necessarily offensive in that it--working together with the Law of God--exposes our sin and shows us that our only hope is in the message of the crucified and risen Christ. While we acknowledge that we are exactly like the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well, the prodigal son, Zacchaeus and the thief on the cross, we need not turn from telling others about the nature of sin and of the eternal danger that they continue to face in if they will not turn from it to the Savior who stands ready to forgive and cleanse His people by His grace. It is the most loving thing that we can do for our neighbors and fellow image bearers.  

In 1524 Desiderius Erasmus, who until then had proven reluctant to challenge Martin Luther publically, finally caved to pressure from Rome to employ his literary talent against the impudent German Reformer who had caused, and was still causing, the institutional church of his day such problems. Erasmus chose to attack Luther where he believed the Reformer to be most vulnerable; he chose, that is, to challenge Luther's assertion that sinful man was wholly unable to contribute anything to his own salvation, and for such required not only Christ's atoning work on his behalf, but also the Holy Spirit's work of enabling him to believe in Christ and so appropriate Christ and his benefits.

Erasmus's defense of human free will -- his defense, that is, of man's innate ability to cooperate with God in his own salvation -- employed a well-worn Pelagian argument. The humanist scholar argued that biblical commandments imply an ability on (sinful) man's part to actually fulfill said commandments. So, for instance, appealing to Gen. 30:19 ("I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live"), Erasmus commented: "What could be put more plainly? God shows what is good, [and] what is evil, shows the different rewards of life and death, [and] leaves man free to choose. It would be ridiculous to say, 'Choose,' if the power of turning one way or the other were not present, as though one should say to a man standing at a crossroad: 'You see these two roads, take which you like' ... when only one was open to him!"

To be sure, Erasmus's argument has a certain logic to it. One would hardly excuse me as a parent if I ordered my three year old daughter Geneva to change the oil in the family car and then punished her when she failed to fulfill the required task(s). Commandments to fulfill impossible tasks, and subsequent consequences for failure to deliver, do seem cruel. Surely, then, God would not order man to "choose life" if such a choice genuinely lay beyond man's ability.

Luther's response in his 1525 Bondage of the Will takes cognizance of how high Scripture actually sets the bar for man's moral conduct ("You must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect," Matt. 5.48) as well as rather clear biblical statements that reflect man's spiritual depravity and (hence) inability to clear that bar ("Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin," John 8.34). The Reformer's response also, however, employs a very careful explanation for why God apparently commands sinful man to do things that sinful man has no ability to do.

That explanation begins with recognition that one critical component of natural man's perverse disposition and enslavement to sin is natural man's deluded perception of his own freedom and, if not moral achievements, at least ability to produce such achievements should he put his mind and energies to the task. "Man," Luther notes, "is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive. [...] Accordingly, it is Satan's work to prevent men from recognizing their plight and to keep them presuming that they can do everything they are told."

In Luther's estimation man suffers from a spiritual version of Uncle Rico Syndrome. Uncle Rico, a character in the 2004 film Napoleon Dynamite, is a man utterly convinced of both his past and present abilities on the football field. In one memorable speech delivered in the film, Uncle Rico affirms his ability in earlier days to "throw a pigskin a quarter mile." After subsequently demonstrating his skills by hurling an overcooked steak at his bike-riding nephew Napoleon's head, Uncle Rico looks wistfully at the mountain range several miles distant and asks: "How much you wanna make a bet I can throw a football over them mountains?"

Rico is seriously deluded about his own abilities. But how might one best go about disabusing Rico of his delusion? One could, of course, reason with him about the actual distance of those mountains, the average distance that even professional quarterbacks can throw a ball, etc. A much quicker solution, however, would be to simply hand Rico a football and issue him a command: "Do it."

This, according to Luther, is essentially how God deals with natural man's delusion regarding his freedom and abilities in Scripture. Faced with sinful man's persuasion that he can, at any time he chooses, perform the works necessary to merit eternal life, God essentially tells man: "Do it." Luther explains: "Human nature is so blind that it does not know its own powers, or rather diseases, and so proud as to imagine that it knows and can do everything; and for this pride and blindness God has no readier remedy than the propounding of his law." God's command to "choose life," then, implies no ability to do so. "By this and similar expressions man is warned of his impotence, which in his ignorance and pride, without these divine warnings, he would neither acknowledge nor be aware of."

Thus Luther undermines Erasmus's claim that commandments are somehow cruel if issued to persons incapable of fulfilling them. A commandment to Geneva to change the oil in the car, for instance, assumes a different character when one knows my daughter, a three year old possessed of more than her share of self-confidence. Geneva's favorite words at present are "I can do it myself." I have more than once in the last several weeks invited Geneva to do exactly what she claims herself capable of purely in the interest of disabusing her of her inflated confidence and guiding her towards the humble art of asking for (daddy's) help. I've not, to be sure, asked her to change the oil in the car. But on the off chance she tells me tomorrow that she's capable of doing so, I may very well invite her to do so, simply to rein in her perspective on her own innate abilities.

Similarly, divine commandments that are not actually matched by (fallen) man's ability reflect no cruelty on God's part. They are, rather, instances of divine kindness. It would be cruel for God to leave man in his state of delusion regarding his own freedom and abilities. It is kindness to lead man experientially to a knowledge of his inability and (hence) dire state, and so ultimately to lead man to seek salvation not in himself but in the work of Christ on his behalf. In Luther's words: "The work of Moses or a lawgiver is ... to make man's plight plain to him by means of the law and thus to break and confound him by self-knowledge, so as to prepare him for grace and send him to Christ that he may be saved." We're all born with spiritual Uncle Rico syndrome, and to varying degrees we suffer from it until the day we die. One function of God's law is to (kindly) disabuse us of our confidence in our ability to throw moral footballs over metaphorical mountains, and so to lead us to place our confidence and hope wholly in him who not only could but did meet God's standard of perfection, and that in our stead.

Psalm 19 and human flourishing

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Human flourishing

"Human flourishing" is a cultural catchphrase that can be overheard in the hallways of corporate America and in the institutions of public and private education. In recent days, human flourishing has served as a warrant for doctrinal and moral-theological revision in the church as well. Due to its widespread usage across our culture, its susceptibility to multiple meanings, and its role in theological revision, some Christians have begun to disparage the language of human flourishing. I think this is the wrong tactic to take. 

The church has a stake in human flourishing. The challenge for the church is to define and promote human flourishing (which we might otherwise describe as human well-being, human happiness) in accordance with biblical teaching, to present and commend its alternative approach to human flourishing in the face of competing cultural visions, and to embody human flourishing in the presence of God amid a culture of death and destruction. Christian theology has a role to play in assisting the church to meet this challenge.

Christian theology has a lot to say about human flourishing. Following the instruction of Holy Scripture, Christian theology instructs us about human flourishing by instructing us about human nature and about human nature's relationship to law and gospel.

We may appreciate the true character of human flourishing by looking at Psalm 19.

Nature's flourishing

According to Psalm 19, nature flourishes when it fulfills its God-glorifying aim by following its God-given course. Nature's aim is to glorify God. "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork" (19.1). Nature glorifies God by running the course given to it by God. The "circuit" of the sun's rising and setting is the "course" that it runs (19.5-6). 

Psalm 19 portrays nature's flourishing by personifying nature as something capable of happiness and joy. The sun runs its course "with joy," "like a bridegroom leaving its chamber" and "like a strong man" running his race. Note well: Nature's flourishing is internal to its course and its aim. Happiness is not something that comes in addition to nature's fulfillment of its divine calling. Happiness comes within nature's fulfillment of its divine calling.

Wendell Berry's poem, "The Law That Marries All Things," eloquently captures this reality:

1.
The cloud is free only
to go with the wind.
The rain is free
only in falling.

The water is free only
in its gathering together,

in its downward courses,
in its rising into the air.

2.
In law is rest
if you love the law,
if you enter, singing, into it
as water in its descent.

3.
Or song is truest law,
and you must enter singing;
it has no other entrance.

It is the great chorus
of parts. The only outlawry
is in division.

4.
Whatever is singing
is found, awaiting the return
of whatever is lost.

5.
Meet us in the air
over the water,
sing the swallows.

Meet me, meet me,
the redbird sings,
here here here here.

The law and human flourishing

What is true of nature in general is true of human nature in particular. 

Because it reflects God's design for human nature, the law of God directs human nature to wholeness and happiness. 

The law promotes human wholeness (19.7-8):

The law revives the soul.

The law makes wise the mind.

The law rejoices the heart.

The law enlightens the eyes.

The law promotes human pleasure and happiness (19.10):

The law is more desirable than gold.

The law is sweeter than honey.

The law directs us to live according to our design, according to our nature. When we live according to our design, we are happy and whole. What is true of nature more broadly is true of human nature more specifically: Happiness and wholeness are internal to God's design for us.

C. S. Lewis illustrates the point well (HT Melissa Kruger):

God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on himself. He himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.

The law promotes human wholeness and human flourishing because it directs us to God, the "lovely source of true delight." The problem, of course, is that we are sinners, antinomians at heart. Sin thus thwarts the law's happiness-promoting ends. Sin is the sworn enemy of human flourishing. 

Furthermore, in humanity's sinful and distorted state, the law becomes our enemy as well. The law declares us guilty. The law consigns us to Satan's dominion. The law shuts our mouth and sentences us to death (Gen 3.8-24). In such a situation, the law cannot help us. The law cannot restore us to the path of happiness, the path that directs our lives to the glory of God.

The gospel and human flourishing

The psalmist harbors no Pollyannaish optimism about our fallen human nature before God's law. Instead he casts himself wholly upon the mercy of God. 

The law declares us guilty; the psalmist begs God: "Declare me innocent from hidden faults" (19.12). The law consigns us to Satan's dominion; the psalmist begs God: "Keep back your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!" (19.13). The law shuts our mouth and sentences us to death; the psalmist desires to praise the Lord in the land of the living: "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer" (19.14). 

In the gospel, God answers the psalmist's pleas for mercy. Through the mission of God's incarnate Son and the outpouring of God's Spirit, God's grace restores and perfects human nature. 

God's grace doesn't accept us "just as we are." To do so would be to consign us to a life of perpetual misery. While we were without strength before God's law, Christ died for us (Rom 5.6). When we were ungodly, God justified us freely, apart from our good works (Rom 4.4-5). But the God who justifies fallen human beings through the gospel also restores and perfects human nature through the gospel. The Lord, our rock and redeemer, not only declares us innocent of our faults. He also keeps us back from presumptuous sins and doesn't let them rule over us; he also opens our lips that our mouths may proclaim his praise. He glorifies himself by making us "fully alive" (Irenaeus).

Grace heals our misery and ministers happiness by instructing us how and empowering us to be human again. The gospel teaches us how to walk in God's law and how to live for God's glory through union with Jesus Christ. In Christ the old and miserable man is crucified and the new man--the flourishing man--is reborn by the renewing power of the Spirit of life. "God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8.3-4).

As the law is fulfilled in us--through the Son by the Spirit--human nature is put back on the path ("who walk...") of human flourishing to the glory of God.  

Something positive

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Jeremiah Burroughs, in the book Gospel Conversation, tells us that "the gospel of Christ in general is this":
It is the good tidings that God has revealed concerning Christ.... More largely it is this: As all mankind was lost in Adam and became the children of wrath, put under the sentence of death, God, though He left His fallen angels and has reserved them in the chains of eternal darkness, yet he has thought upon the children of men, he has provided a way of atonement to reconcile them to himself again. Namely, the second Person in trinity takes man's nature upon him, and becomes the head of a second covenant, standing charged with man's sin, and to answer for it by suffering what the law and divine justice required, and for making satisfaction, and keeping the law perfectly, which satisfaction and righteousness he tenders up to the Father as a sweet savour of rest for the souls that are given to him. And now, this mediation of Christ is, by the appointment of the Father, preached to the children of men, of whatever nation or rank, freely offering this unto sinners for atonement for them, requiring them to believe in him, and upon believing promising not only a discharge of all their former sins, but that they shall not enter into condemnation, that none of their sins or unworthiness shall ever hinder the peace of God with them, but that they shall through Him be received into the number of sons, that they shall have the image of God again to be renewed unto them, and that they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation, that the souls and bodies shall be raised to the height of glory that such creatures are capable of, that they shall live for ever enjoying the presence of God and Christ, in the fullness of all good.

Not quite Charlie Hebdo

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It is not particularly surprising but it is disappointing. Furthermore, it is dangerous. It is in some respects the typical kneejerk reaction to current events (by which I mean events over the last few months, even years, rather than merely weeks), and the typical danger that you can never be entirely sure in which direction the knee will jerk and the foot will strike. It is the continued assault on freedom in the name of freedom.

In the last week or so school inspectors in the UK gave an unseemly grilling to primary school pupils at Grindon Hall Christian School, where the impression was clearly given (even if not intended) of a real hostility - in the name of promoting "British values" - to the school's distinctive Christian ethos.

Quite apart from the inappropriateness and intrusiveness of some of the questions asked by almost-complete strangers to young children (questions which, in any other context, might have been taken in an altogether distasteful way), it rather opened a window into the attitudes of some of those who are appointed guardians of freedom.

But time marches on, and new challenges are already arising. The government is now rapidly pushing forward legislation that will preserve our "British values" and combat anti-extremism. Among the consequences of this legislation would be the opportunity - even the requirement - for university authorities to vet the addresses and materials of visiting speakers. That is the context in which I first saw the warning given, but the consultation document is pushing it across the public sector at the very least, with a variety of services and spheres impacted. Effectively, a proactive and preventative demand for censorship would be imposed in a variety of key public settings and environments.

I am sure that the opportunities for those who believe that "British values" demand, or provide the opportunity to pursue, a sort of amorphous atheistic amorality will not be slow to use the weapon put in their hands. As so often, the latest two-edged Excalibur, offered as the key to defending freedom, may become the very means by which freedoms are curtailed.

Naturally, the government provides all manner of assurances about how such things are enforced. With regard to school inspections, for example, Department for Education guidance makes very clear that in advancing our ill-defined "British values" schools are not required to promote "other beliefs" or "alternative lifestyles." However, this seems to be precisely the point at which pressure was applied to the school in question not only corporately but individually and inappropriately with regard to particular students. We can expect that the same will happen with these new powers, should they come into law.

So, while our politicians line up with their pens and pencils aloft to trumpet their allegiance to free speech, they are simultaneously - and in the name of freedom - preparing to crack down on freedom of speech. It is, it seems, OK to be Charlie Hebdo (not personally, one understands, that would be a little dangerous, but it's fine for other people to be Charlie Hebdo), and be able to poke fun at the fundies of all stripes. That must be defended. But I suggest that it must be made clear that such swipes and skewerings are not the only expressions of freedom of speech.

Generally speaking, and despite media attempts to push us into the first of the following categories, true Christians are neither violent extremists (dogmatic conviction need not translate into militant physical aggression) nor extravagant satirists (willing and able to undermine and offend for the mere sake of it, and call it wit and art - never having read Charlie Hebdo, I cannot comment on whether or not or to what extent they fall into this category). The Christian's only real offense should be the offense of the cross, though the rugged edges and sharp points of that cross have a habit of puncturing pride and pomposity wherever it is found, and pride is of the essence of fallen man's sense of himself. The weapons of our spiritual warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. The armoury of God's kingdom bears little relation to those of the kingdoms of the world. However, those without spiritual discernment are quite prepared to lump true Christians in with the violent extremists and deny them any of the privileges of the extravagant satirists. Indeed, the very nature of our message indicates that the gospel will be among the first and most aggressively pursued targets of those who - in the name of freedom - wish to silence dissent.

Only a fool would deny the difficulty of ensuring genuine freedom of speech and expression while at the same time preserving a measure of social order and cultural decency. But the response to terrorism, even Islam's militarised religious supremacism, should not be to diminish all freedoms. That will not halt the terrorists, not least those driven by religionised hatred. In some respects, it will simply simplify their task.

But watch this space, for this is the brave new world. As mentioned in a previous post, to the humanist unbeliever who denies that he or she exists in their own tightly woven cocoon of a certain kind of 'faith', the Christian is just one of a range of dangerously nutty voices in the gallery of the fruitcakes. Indeed, the offense of the cross means that our gospel words will prove the pre-eminent spiritual red rag to the bulls of mere human reason and religion. But, if we are true to our convictions, we know that we echo the one voice of true reason, the single declaration of spiritual sanity, the alone hope of salvation, in an otherwise unstable and disordered world, wrecked by sin and riddled with its consequences. Unbelieving humanism is one among the range of rotten systematised alternatives to the truth as it is in Jesus. To whom else should we go? Christ has the words of eternal life.

We should expect that our freedom to make known the hope of the world will be deliberately (whether incrementally or more abruptly) assaulted and where possible eroded and removed by the very world that needs to hear it. The patients will assault the envoys of the only doctor with a cure for their condition. We must therefore ensure that our declarations and their accompanying actions are entirely consistent, that we bring with us everywhere the savour of Christ. As citizens of earthly kingdoms, we are entitled graciously yet firmly to assert our rights as citizens. But as citizens of heaven, we do not expect to find the warmest of welcomes in a hostile world. So let us brace ourselves against the storm, hold fast to the Christ who holds fast to us, speak the truth in love, call sinners to repent and believe, love our enemies, serve our Redeemer, and press on toward glory.

The flood waters having receded, and Noah and family having disembarked from the ark, it was back to business as usual on earth in a number of discernable ways.

Thus we see, firstly, the restitution of the creation ordinance of marriage (Gen. 9.1), and, at least by Calvin's reckoning, a rather remarkable population boom in the first few centuries of post-flood human history. Noah's family was directed to "recover the lawful use of marriage," and so to rest assured that "the care of producing offspring" remained "pleasing to [God]." Accordingly, they returned to the pattern of marrying and procreating that characterized their pre-flood days; indeed, they did so with notable success, producing "within one hundred and fifty years" an "astonishing increase" of offspring, which "doubtless" resulted in "unbounded joy" for Noah, for it spoke clearly of "divine favor towards him."

We see, secondly, a return to work. "Noah, ...though now an old man, returned to the culture of the fields, and to his former labors." The resumption of his farming career must have felt rather anti-climactic to Noah, given the nature of his recent adventures. But work (along with rest/worship) is part of the normal pattern which God established for man even before the fall (Gen. 2.15). Calvin concedes that Noah may have added 'viticulturist' to his job description for the first time following the flood ("it is... uncertain whether he had been a vine-dresser or not") but he is not willing, being after all a good Frenchman, to concede that viticulture as such was strictly a post-flood pursuit. "It does not appear to me probable that the fruit of the vine, which excels all others, should have remained neglected and unprofitable [before the flood]."

We see, thirdly, a return to eating and drinking, a return to the enjoyment of the fruits of human work. Calvin refuses to see the permission to eat animals in Gen. 9.3 as something unique to the post-flood setting: "God here does not bestow upon men more than he had previously given." Men were, in other words, "permitted" from the very first "to kill wild beasts" for the very specific purposes of making "garments and tents" and padding their diet with protein. However, no license was given, before or after the flood, for superfluous shedding of "the innocent blood of cattle." As already indicated, Calvin believes God's "most precious gift" of wine was likewise entrusted to men from the very beginning, and so merely re-entrusted to men following the flood. Both gifts of God -- food and drink -- are, of course, susceptible to "shameful abuse." Neither gift should be despised on that or any other grounds.

We see, finally, a return to man doing what (fallen) man does, and God responding as God does. We see, in other words, man sinning (and sometimes, by God's grace, repenting), and God responding to man's sin in judgment, mercy, and promise. The flood was, of course, no ultimate resolution of sin. God's own post-flood observation that "every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood" (Gen. 8.21) quickly proves concretely true in a series of incidents. Noah, first of all, engages in the "filthy and detestable crime [of] drunkenness" and prostrates himself "naked on the ground, so as to become a laughing-stock to all." Then Ham, who "must have been of a wicked, perverse, and crooked disposition, ... not only took pleasure in his father's shame, but wished to expose him to his brethren." Calvin supposes a deeper motive than simple scorn to Ham's mockery of his father: "It is probable that he thus perversely insulted his father, for the purpose of acquiring for himself the license of sinning with impunity. We see many such at this day, who most studiously pry into the faults of holy and pious men, in order that without shame they may precipitate themselves into all iniquity."

In the face of such (continuing) human sin, God remains God, and responds as God responds. Indeed, God responds to human sin even before man perpetuates any (recorded) concrete sinful acts after the flood. He responds with his covenant -- that is, his promise not to destroy the earth with flood-waters again, even though man's sin be great. God's word of promise serves, Calvin notes, as a "thousand bolts and bars" restraining the waters of his wrath, "lest they should break forth to destroy us." For man's greater confidence in God's mercy, God assigns a "new office" to "the celestial arch which had before existed naturally;" the rainbow henceforth serves as a "sign and pledge" of God's promise to restrain his own anger at human impiety.

In more immediate response to the instances of sin just noted, God responds in judgment and promise. Judgment is leveled against Canaan and the Canaanites, descendants of Ham, for Ham's actions. Calvin restrains us from overmuch speculation about why Canaan bears the brunt of cursing for Ham's sin. God is never, he notes, "angry with the innocent, because even they themselves are found in fault." Beyond that we must "remember that the judgments of God are not in vain called 'a great deep,' and that it would be a degrading thing for God, before whose tribunal we all must one day stand, to be subjected to our judgment." And so "let every one of us, conscious of his own infirmity, learn rather to ascribe praise to God's justice, than plunge, with insane audacity, into the profound abyss."

Of course, more remarkable than God's sentence of condemnation, whatever its own peculiarities, is God's promise -- directly in the face of man's sin -- of a hope and salvation far greater than that which Noah and his family had recently enjoyed. In this post-flood setting where God is obviously keen to re-establish so much of what pertained to the original creation, he is most eager to repeat the promise of the Seed of the Woman who would one day come to reverse the consequences of that sin which wreaked such havoc on the original creation (Gen. 3:15).

That Seed and his saving work bear proleptic fruit, of course, in the free pardon granted Noah for his drunken escapade (a pardon which can be deduced, Calvin argues, from Noah's faith and the prophetic role granted Noah immediately after his recovery in Gen. 9.25). The concrete repetition of the promise as such occurs in Gen. 9.26-27, where Shem and Japheth are blessed. The blessing of Shem anticipates the eventual blessing of Abraham, through whom the Seed would come, and in whom all nations would themselves be blessed (Gen. 12). The blessing of Japheth points, in Calvin's judgment, to the gathering of "the Gentiles and the Jews... together in one faith," the joining together of "scattered sheep to join his flock" in the singular "covenant of life." "It is truly no common support of our faith," Calvin observes, "that the calling of the Gentiles is not only decreed in the eternal counsel of God, but is openly declared by the mouth of the Patriarch; lest we should think it to have happened suddenly, or by chance, that the inheritance of eternal life was offered generally to all."

It was, then, truly business as usual after the flood, for both good and ill. Sinful man returned to his ways of marrying and making babies, eating and drinking, working and (for some) worshiping, and, of course, sinning. God remained God, and so returned to the business of pursuing sinners with his "paternal love," sustaining them by the word of his promise in the hope of eternal life with him.

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

Our Church Plant Welcome Video

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After 8 months of attempting to plant a church in Richmond, Virginia, by God's grace, we had our first service on October 26, 2014. Crown and Joy Presbyterian Church meets each Sunday at 2pm.

Here is our welcome video.

Gospel ripples

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In our efforts to make Christ known where God has put us, we have regular meetings to preach the gospel in a village outside our town. It is a hard place, not surprisingly given that it is full of hard hearts, many of which are cushioned by a false assurance derived from long-term empty religiosity. But I digress.

Last night, I took my son to hear the gospel being preached. We were two of the three in the congregation, the other being another man from the church which I serve. The brother leading the meeting spoke to us simply and earnestly of Christ as the resurrection and the life. No doubt he longed to be preaching to more, including many of those to whom we have gone in our efforts to declare the good news throughout this village. At present, I believe that there was at least one unsaved person in the room, and it was good and right that he preached to him, and I was grateful for it.

On our way home, my son and I stopped for the treat of giving my car a quick wash. It may not sound like much of a treat, but two males with a filthy car and a couple of pressure hoses makes for some fun. At the garage where we stopped was a man with a flat tyre and a wrecked wheel, a driver with a private hire firm, waiting for a recovery vehicle. Clearly bored rigid, our chatter drew him over and into our conversation. We spoke, I bought him a coffee, we spoke some more, and I had the opportunity briefly to explain to this man that Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life, leaving with him a copy of Mark's Gospel and a little more information. I simply passed on what I had learned that night, having been freshly prepared to do so.

My friend at the village meeting looked into the faces of those present and might have felt discouraged. He preached to us nonetheless. He did our souls good. And, he left our hearts warm and our heads full. He primed us to go and preach the same gospel to others.

Here are reasons why the saints need to go on hearing the gospel. It brings back to our hearts and minds the truths of our salvation, stirring us up to love and prompting us to serve. It emphasizes spiritual realities, the enduring facts of man's sin and God's grace, of heaven and hell and the sacrificial Lamb who stands between them. It reminds us of life and of death. It reinforces and freshly adorns our convictions. It prepares us to make Christ known.

Tomorrow, let those of us who preach remember to preach the gospel. We must always preach evangelically; we must also - regularly, often - preach evangelistically. The gospel note must be sounded every time. Not every sermon needs to be a Calvary sermon, but it must be a distinctively, richly, earnestly and practically Christian sermon. However, you may prepare to preach to the lost, and look out and see rows of faces - or perhaps only a few seats of faces - of faithful believers. There may be no-one there who you are confident needs the gospel as an unsaved person (though that should not be presumed). But preach it nonetheless, to stir up love and prompt service, to emphasize spiritual reality, to remind of life and death, to reinforce and adorn conviction, and to prime the heart and head.

And let those of us who believe and who hear the gospel again not wonder why we are back with the same truths. Let us not look up and down the rows and wonder why we are hearing this all over again. Whether or not you think that there is anyone present who 'needs' to hear the good news, you can sit and soak in it. Let it stir up love and prompt to serve, emphasize spiritual reality, remind you of life and death, and reinforce and adorn your convictions, and prime your head and heart. Let it do good to you, and then let it do good to others. Go home, and tell others what great things the Lord has done for you, and how he has had compassion on you. Go out, and tell others the good news of Jesus Christ that you have just heard. Go, and let the gospel ripples spread.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Moses to the unfolding of God's plan of salvation. Arguably, Moses is the most significant Old Testament figure because of his unique role as mediator of the old covenant. In this sense, Moses is the only parallel to Jesus Christ who is the mediator of a new and better covenant.

In his new book, From Bondage to Liberty: The Gospel According to Moses, Anthony Selvaggio focuses on the redemptive-historical aspects of Moses' life and ministry as manifested in the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Enter to win one of a few copies from our friends at P&R Publishing!

"Nowhere does the theme of redemption shine more brightly in the Old Testament than in Exodus. Anthony Selvaggio draws us into the story of Moses in a most personal way. In concise and stirring chapters, he shows us the beauties of the Lord Jesus and teaches us practical lessons about godliness."
--Joel R. Beeke, President, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids

"In this very practical book, Anthony Selvaggio brings to life Moses' role as forerunner of Jesus, our greater prophet, priest and king. You will find insights here that are simply expressed but which illuminate many a New Testament passage. I warmly recommend this work."
--Rev Dr Rowland S. Ward, Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia

"If you have wondered what Scriptures Jesus might have cited when he showed his disciples the things concerning himself 'beginning with Moses' (Luke 24:27), Anthony Selvaggio provides a significant part of the answer."
--Dennis E. Johnson, Professor of Practical Theology, Westminster Seminary California

"The book of Exodus is one of the most powerful presentations of Christ all of Scripture but because it comes to us in types and shadows it can seem remote. In this volume Anthony Selvaggio provides a welcome survey of and pathway into the Exodus that points us to Christ, the redemption he accomplished for us, and to his ongoing work in us."
--R. Scott Clark, DPhil, Professor of Church History and History Theology, Westminster Seminary California

Anthony T. Selvaggio (JD, The University of Buffalo School of Law; MDiv, Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary) has written for reformation21.org over the years. He currently serves as a visiting professor of Biblical Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is also Theologian in Residence at the Rochester Reformed Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York.

Also, the winners of Antinomiamism by Mark Jones are:
Daniel M, Clear Lake SD
Dan S, Alexandria VA
Chris M, Fairfield OH
Joel G, Wake Forest NC
Mark M, Manassas VA
Carolyn M, Winchester CA
Michael W, Ada MI
Mary Anne D, Vienna WV
Nathan T, Richland WA
George L, Beeville TX

Text Links -
For the drawing -
https://docs.google.com/a/alliancenet.org/forms/d/1rxg_z73o7WMJOKsl-YnsJdW7gMhaethkz9z-_V6lVmI/viewform

To order additional copies -
http://reformedresources.org/books/from-bondage-to-liberty-the-gospel-according-to-moses/

Anthony on reformation21.org -
http://www.reformation21.org/anthony-selvaggio/

Mark Jones' book -
http://reformedresources.org/books/antinomianism-reformed-theologys-unwelcomed-guest/

Mark Jones' on reformation21.org -
http://www.reformation21.org/mark-jones/
http://www.reformation21.org/blog/mark-jones/

Very Presbyterian problems

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If you have wandered around at all online you have probably seen one of those silly articles that purport to offer a string of very British problems, most of them variations on the joke about two British people marooned on a desert island, rescued ten years later, and found never to have spoken to one another because they had never been properly introduced. Mark's article on Presbyterian parenthood put me in mind of such things: problems that arise from the very nature of the beast. That, of course, is not to suggest that there are no tensions or questions in a Baptist approach to the same issue: as a Christian parent, how do I deal with my children?

Mark's historical survey introduces some of the debates that have characterised Presbyterian discussions. My angle on those would, of course, be different, as I am not working from precisely the same set of convictions. I also appreciate and face some similar difficulties. At the same time, I believe that a Baptist solution to the problems is more scripturally simple and straightforward, as well as avoiding any danger of making baptism a saving ordinance, and avoiding discussions about the difference between actual and federal holiness, and what seems to be the more-than-mere-tension of not knowing whether or not something is true but still judging it to be so. I suspect that Mark would endorse many of the elements of my parenting (and I would doubtless do the same with regard to his). I also know his esteem for particular Baptists (probably Particular Baptists), whatever he may think of yours truly (no need to respond, brother - we try to keep things civil here).

However, I thought that it might be helpful to offer some thoughts from a Baptist parent trying before God to raise his children in a way that becomes my convictions.

My children hear the gospel in the family and in the church. Although I do not presume them to be disciples, there is a sense in which I "teach them diligently" the ways of God, and "talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up" (Dt 6:7). I want them to learn to see the world through God's eyes, as it were, defined by divine assessments and directives, so that they may respond appropriately, as the Spirit works in their hearts. I teach them, therefore, from the book of general revelation, so that they may know that there is a Creator who made them and to whom they are accountable, and from the book of special revelation, so that they may know that there is a Saviour from whom they may receive salvation. I am deeply conscious of the particular privileges that they enjoy growing up in a home where Christ Jesus is known and loved and proclaimed, and I urge them to improve those privileges by trusting in and serving the Lord Christ.

I explain to them the context, realities, invitations and demands and promises, and consequences of God's salvation in Christ Jesus. I tell them that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Acts 2:21; Rom 10:13). I assure them that "the LORD is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth" (Ps 145:18 cf. Rom 10.12). I urge them to do what any sinner should do in order to be saved: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31), emphasizing that  "the Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2Pt 3:9). I do so, confident that all that the Father gives Christ will come to Christ, and the one who comes to Christ he will by no means cast out, for it is the will of the Father who sent the Son that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have everlasting life; and Christ will raise him up at the last day (Jn 6:37-40). I would - in essence - insist upon the same gospel for my children as I would for anyone else.

In similar fashion to John Bunyan, I want to point them to Christ out of a sense of their own need of a Saviour. In dealing with the more specific problem of whether or not we should teach children forms of prayer, Bunyan answers:
My judgment is, that men go the wrong way to teach their children to pray, in going about so soon to teach them any set company of words, as is the common use of poor creatures to do.

For to me it seems to be a better way for people betimes to tell their children what cursed creatures they are, and how they are under the wrath of God by reason of original and actual sin; also to tell them the nature of God's wrath, and the duration of the misery; which if they conscientiously do, they would sooner teach their children to pray than they do. The way that men learn to pray, it is by conviction for sin; and this is the way to make our sweet babes do so too. But the other way, namely, to be busy in teaching children forms of prayer, before they know any thing else, it is the next way to make them cursed hypocrites, and to puff them up with pride. Teach therefore your children to know their wretched state and condition; tell them of hell-fire and their sins, of damnation, and salvation; the way to escape the one, and to enjoy the other, if you know it yourselves, and this will make tears run down your sweet babes' eyes, and hearty groans flow from their hearts; and then also you may tell them to whom they should pray, and through whom they should pray: you may tell them also of God's promises, and his former grace extended to sinners, according to the word.

Ah! Poor sweet babes, the Lord open their eyes, and make them holy Christians. Saith David, "Come ye children, hearken unto me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord" (Psa 34:11). He doth not say, I will muzzle you up in a form of prayer; but "I will teach you the fear of the Lord"; which is, to see their sad states by nature, and to be instructed in the truth of the gospel, which doth through the Spirit beget prayer in every one that in truth learns it. And the more you teach them this, the more will their hearts run out to God in prayer. God never did account Paul a praying man, until he was a convinced and converted man; no more will it be with any else (Acts 9:11). (John Bunyan, A Discourse Touching Prayer, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2006), 635.)
When my children sin and ask for forgiveness from God, I assure them that the Lord delights to hear such prayers from the hearts of truly convinced sinners, and is ready to forgive those who come to him through Christ Jesus. I assure them that age is no bar to salvation, and that the Lord Christ welcomed people of all sorts and ages. If they have come to him in repentance and faith, then he will forgive them, and he will help them to live in accordance with it. I explain the difference that salvation makes, and what I would expect to see in the heart of a Christian boy or girl, a love for God, his word, his people, his holiness, that is in keeping with their circumstances and relative maturity. If and when I see those things developing in the heart and life of my child, I rejoice in hope. At the same time, I recognise that - because of the very nature of a child - there may be a measure of willingness to please Dad and Mum, and that they are in an environment in which they are largely defended against and protected from some particular outward pressures and temptations. And so I seek to train them and equip them, trusting that I will in due course see the measure of tried and tested spiritual understanding, maturity and development that gives me and them confidence that a true work of the Spirit has taken place. As and when that comes to an appropriate and demonstrable fruition - a credible profession of faith, which, for me, necessitates a measure of mental and emotional development and maturity - I hope to see them baptized (and, as every honest Greek scholar will inform you, which doubtless includes my erudite chum, Mark, that means immersion) as a testimony of their having been united to Christ by faith, identifying with him in his death and resurrection.

With regard to obedience, I emphasize that the commands of God are right and true, but that we need the grace and strength of the Spirit in order to obey. And so I do not hold back in making plain the things that God requires, urging them to understand that only in Christ are they able to obey from the heart in a way that is pleasing to God, and trusting that - if they see their own falling short of the glory of God - it will be a means of their casting themselves upon him for salvation. When they sin, I point out to them the dynamic of forgiveness that operates within the family, and trace out the parallels in God's readiness to forgive us.

I don't know whether or not my children can sing "Jesus loves me, this I know." I actually think it tends toward the twee, and tend not to teach them such stuff. Besides, I am not sure that they are ready for a disquisition on the kind of love with which the Lord may be said to love different people. I urge them to sing, and hope that the same sense of spiritual reality will impress itself upon them as they learn of God's glory and goodness. I urge them to consider whether or not the words that they sing are coming from their mouths or their hearts.

I want them to call upon the Lord as Saviour. I want them to pray in the light of God's gracious dealings with them as a benevolent Creator. I can honestly say that the most often expressed desire of my children in prayer is that the Lord would save them. I believe that the Lord answers that prayer from the hearts of even the youngest, and I prayerfully hope to see the fruit in due course that will prove that they were not simply parroting words, and that the Lord is indeed gracious to those who come to him.

I would be quite happy for my children to have a "boring" testimony - any variety of testimony, in fact, as long as it is a testimony of God's saving grace to a sinner. The dawning light of salvation may enter a soul suddenly, as when the curtains are suddenly thrown open on a summer morning, or more gradually, as when the curtains are left open and the gradually rising sun slowly floods the room with light. Either way, there is a passing from darkness to light. I would hope that my children will say, in essence, "One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see" (Jn 9:25). I have known children from Christian homes who have been converted with very little trauma of soul, and some who have wrestled in agony. Some have turned against all they have known and fought hard before being cut to the heart; others have felt the deepest pangs of conscience despite an outwardly benign life, feeling the sin of their hearts. Some have simply, under the Spirit's influence, accepted the truth of the Christ who saves. Others have fought long and hard before being subdued. I simply ask that the Lord would do all that is needful to make my children his. "Daddy, am I really forgiven?" "My son, my daughter, if the Lord has drawn you to Christ with faith and repentance to trust in him for the pardon of your sins and peace with God, you are indeed."

This all makes sense to me as a Baptist, and I can do it all with a clear conscience and an earnest hope. It makes far more sense to me, the lines being more clearly and scripturally drawn, in accordance with my understanding of the Word of God, than the resolutions that Mark proposes. I am sure that other Baptists will have slightly different approaches or nuances, but I imagine that a number of them will have essentially the same approach. I think it is plain that there are points of overlap in the answers that Mark and I have given, even measures of common understanding and expectation. I would anticipate that, and am delighted with it. However, there are also some very significant and substantial differences, and I hope that this stimulates some thought and discussion.

Holding the centre

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Having been away on holiday for a week (yes, delightful, thank you for asking), I return to find that things continue much as they were, except that Mark Jones has joined Team Reformation21, and Paul has allowed him to write a long post using long words and referring to past centuries without hammering him for it but rather wittering on about lunchtime lectures. I smell a Presbyterian stitch-up.

However, I am glad to see that Rick Phillips has drawn attention to the work being done by the Gospel Reformation Network, whose affirmations and denials I read with genuine interest. As Rick has highlighted and explained some of those statements, Mark has chipped back in with explanations and clarifications of his own language at certain points. Scriptures are being expounded and applied, history is being ransacked, and language is being sharpened to hone concepts that need sharply defined edges.

But why does such to-ing and fro-ing give joy? Because whenever debates like the one about the relationship between justification and sanctification, law and grace, and other related matters, have come up in the past, there is a fearful tendency that rapidly becomes apparent. Contention risks pushing men to extremes detached from the anchor of revelation: actions provoke reactions and counteractions that can all end up drifting and departing from the truth. It is quite clearly happening today. To be fair, in some instances it has been imputed, but in others it is stated fairly baldly. I remember my wry smile on reading in the introduction to one fairly well-known little book a statement by the authors that amounted to this, in almost as many words: "We used to be legalists, but we got better." In this instance, while acknowledging that they might have had some issues before, I would query the definition of legalism, and would certainly question whether the stance in which they ended up was any better, being simply different and equally dangerous. This is because, as I hope we would all affirm, the antidote to legalism is never a few drops of antinomianism, and the response to antinomianism is never a decent dose of legalism.

Our definitions and explanations, our actions, reactions, and counteractions, must not be forced upon us by circumstance or other external pressures, but forged of scriptural metal in the white heat of humble prayer, hammered fine by the tools of righteous exchange and measured against the standards of the history of orthodox Christianity. Any other substance or process will not serve us as we need.

We must hold the centre. We must not depart from the Word of God. We must allow the Scriptures to say all that they say, in the way that they say it, drawing out the truths that the Bible contains, and ensuring that each and all are maintained and declared in their proper place and proportion. So, for example, we must maintain the righteousness of Christ alone as the grounds of our justification, and faith as the God-imparted instrument by which that righteousness of Christ is obtained. We must maintain also that there is a real personal holiness which is to be ardently cultivated by us, the fruit of our union with Christ: "Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb 12:14). I tried to do some of this in a simple way in a recent book called Life in Christ (RHB/A.com/A.co.uk/WBS), for those who might want a plain and pastoral introduction to what it means obediently to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure (Phil 2:12-13).

We must understand this not as a matter of mere semantics or theoretical theology (no real theology is simply a theory). If you are a pastor, salvation and the assurance of it hang upon these things. The men and women to whom we preach need to know the right answers to the questions of how we can stand before the Lord of heaven and earth considered not just as blameless but as positively righteous, what will be our confidence in the day of judgement, what are the present evidences of our interest in Christ Jesus, and how we may live so as to enjoy the smile of our heavenly Father. We must be ready, like Robert Traill in his Justification Vindicated, to counsel those who ask, "What must I do to be saved?"
Why should not the right answer be given, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved'? Tell him what Christ is, what he has done and suffered to obtain eternal redemption for sinners, and that according to the will of God and his Father. Give him a plain downright narrative of the gospel salvation wrought out by the Son of God; tell him the history and mystery of the gospel plainly. It may be the Holy Ghost will work faith thereby, as he did in those firstfruits of the Gentiles in Acts 10.44. If he asks what warrant he has to believe on Jesus Christ, tell him that he has an utter indispensable necessity for it, for without believing on him he must perish eternally; that he has God's gracious offer of Christ and all his redemption, with a promise that, upon accepting the offer by faith, Christ and salvation with him are his: that he has God's express commandment (1Jn 3:23) to believe on Christ's name, and that he should make conscience of obeying it, as much as any command in the moral law. Tell him of Christ's ability and goodwill to save; that no man was every rejected by him who cast himself upon him; that desperate cases are the glorious triumphs of his art of saving. (27-28)
But we must also answer the question, "What does it look like to be saved?" And there we must answer, "gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy'" (1Pt 1:13-16).

We must pore again over those works like The Marrow of Modern Divinity or Andrew Fuller's Antinomianism Contrasted with the Religion Taught and Exemplified in the Holy Scriptures to sharpen our spiritual senses and stock our souls with truth to be proclaimed and defended, always with that Berean spirit which heeds the words of proven men highly esteemed and stills searches the Scriptures to see whether these things are so. We must let all our thinking and feeling be governed by the whole counsel of God, illuminated by the Spirit of Christ, and tested against the understanding of those men who have gone before us in the right way.

It is horrible, and will be again, to see men driven away from the truth by their professed zeal for the same. I am far from suggesting that this is true of Rick or Mark. Rather, their determination to phrase the truth accurately and carefully, accounting for all the bold emphases and subtle nuances of revelation is just what is needed. We must hold the centre, for the sake of our own souls and the souls of others.

Let me leave you with one of Ralph Erskine's Gospel Sonnets, which I read just the other day and which seemed to me to express something of the sweetness of a right understanding of some of these things:

When by the Law to grace I'm schooled,
Grace by the Law will have me ruled;
Hence, if I don't the Law obey,
I cannot keep the Gospel way.

When I the Gospel news believe,
Obedience to the Law I give;
And that both in its fed'ral dress,
And as a rule of holiness.

The Law is holy, just, and good,
All this the Gospel seals with Blood;
And clears the Royal Law's just dues
With dearly purchased revenues.

Here join the Law and Gospel hands,
What this me teaches, that commands;
What virtuous forms the Gospel please,
The same the Law doth authorize.

A rigid master was the Law,
Demanding bricks, denying straw;
But when the Gospel-tongue it sings,
It bids me fly, and gives me wings.

The rebel and the king

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(I first posted this about two years ago, but it seems germane, so I am going over the ground again.)

Consider the man born into a family of terrorists. The man's father had rebelled against the King of the kingdom in which he lived, and - having so rebelled - all his posterity were brought up to hate and fight the King who ruled in this kingdom. It is to this family that the man belongs. Having been falsely taught all his life that the sovereign is cruel, vindictive, proud and unjust, and hating him as a tyrant accordingly, he has racked up a long list of foul crimes and misdemeanours against the King, all of which bring him under sentence of death. This life of rebellion takes its toll on the terrorist, cut off as he is from all that makes life worth living in the kingdom. His misery and wretchedness increase day by day as he slowly loses his foolish fight. Finally, he receives an overture of peace from the King. The King knows of the rebel's appalling condition, and has had compassion on the man. Together with his son, the Prince, and his Lord Chancellor, the King has devised a way by means of which, without any detriment to the King's justice and glory, the rebel might be entirely forgiven, and - even more - brought into the King's royal family. He publishes this offer by means of his ambassadors. At first, the terrorist cannot believe that such an offer can be true. After all has heard and believed of this king and his character, after all he has done to merit death, can the alleged tyrant really be ready to forgive all his sins and actually adopt him as his own?  Then the Lord Chancellor himself comes to press upon him the reality of the king's free and gracious offer: the Prince himself will take the entire punishment that the law demands and which the rebel deserves. The rebel, finally persuaded, gratefully accepts his merciful terms and embraces all that is bound up in leaving his life of crime. The Lord Chancellor conducts him back to the King's palace, where he is inducted into the life of a true son of the King, dearly beloved of the sovereign, and heir to all that the Prince himself is entitled to receive. Overwhelmed, scarcely believing his mercies, he yet knows that to him now belongs all the freedom of the kingdom. However, it is worth noting that while his relationship to the King has altered radically in some respects, there are some underpinning realities which have not altered. The King has become his father, with all the blessings involved in his adoption. The weight of the law as an instrument of condemnation has ceased to hang over him. But has the father now ceased to be a King? By no means! And is the ex-rebel any less obliged to obedience to the law of the kingdom because he has been delivered from its condemnation? By no means! His obligations to obedience have been by no means reduced, but only heightened. He is all the more obliged - love and gratitude and position all oblige him - to embrace and obey the law of his King and his father. He has all the obligations that belong to him as one under the royal authority, as well as all the obligations that belong to him as an adopted son, overwhelmed by gratitude for the undeserved privileges bestowed upon him. It is the same law that was in place while he was a terrorist, the very same law as condemned him to death for treason. The law has not changed, and he now cheerfully obeys that law both as a subject under its royal authority and as a son in his father's household. The royal law is still in effect, is as potent and extensive as it ever was, except that now it is profoundly, readily, willingly embraced by one who has come to have that law truly impressed upon him as the continuing standard of life in the kingdom of his father, which his father the King, his natural son, the Prince, and the Lord Chancellor have all seen fit to honour in bringing him from the condemnation of death to life and to liberty.

I am that rebel. I have been condemned by God's law. And yet, by grace, I have been redeemed from my sins through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, atoning for my ungodliness, being called by the Father and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. God having justified me through faith, I have been set apart to him, called to a life of holiness, and adopted into his family. I am no longer condemned by the law, but the law still exposes sin in me. I am no longer condemned by the law, but the law still expresses my Father's will for what is right and holy and just. I am no longer condemned by the law, but that law no longer presses upon me from without, rather springs up from within, having been written on my heart. I am no longer condemned by the law, but have come to recognise it as good and just, and embrace it with a willingness and readiness to obey it in all its parts. It is that law that is now written not on tablets of stone, but on the fleshy tablet of my heart. It is as a son, as a redeemed man, that the law becomes my delight as well as my duty.
The greatest threat to the Gospel in our age is not unbelief. It is not relativism or open hostility to the "narrow" Christian tradition. It is not even the hypocrisy of the church, which holds up the white banner of faith for all to see and then spatters it with the mud of pretense. As inimical to the Christian faith as these may be, there is something far more destructive to the Gospel, something we rarely consider, because it is too close for us to notice. The greatest threat to the Gospel is treating it as mere information.

If contemporary culture were a royal ball, information would be the ageless and debonair host, striking every lord and lady with his pristine smile, all the while masquerading as truth. His tangible personality would blind the guests to the fact that his clothes were too big--they belong to someone six inches taller, with broader shoulders and a fuller chest. Distantly, all of his guests would know that truth is what called them together and demanded something of them. But they don't see truth so easily. They see information, because he makes constant rounds with a silver platter of Hors d'oeuvres. The real host of the ball requires seeking out.

Continue on Place for Truth

Text Link - http://info.alliancenet.org/placefortruth/the-greatest-threat-to-the-gospel

Donald Sterling's Racist Remarks?

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Much is being said about Donald Sterling's alleged racist remarks. From the landslide of articles written, Facebook and Twitter posts, the verdict seems clear. He made racist comments. While I would love to weigh in on the controversy, I cannot. I did not listen fully to his remarks, whether the shortened or extended versions. I must say, however, this is something we can expect from the world. Unbelievers divide themselves based on the color of one's skin. I would further suggest that they also intentionally segregate based on one's socio-economic status and cultural preferences.

Do Christians, however, do the same?

We are in the world but not of the world. We should not be identified as maintaining the same unfortunate patterns of segregation that the world harbors. In most churches, though, it seems that we have succumbed to the world's principles. Put differently, many of our churches are segregated for the same reasons the world divides themselves: ethnicity, cultural, and socio-economic status. To say otherwise would be foolish! Yes, the 11th hour is still the most segregated hour in America. I wish Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s statement was a lie!

Although I believe this is a sad commentary on the church today, there are reformed and Presbyterian churches that desire to do something about it. Without compromising scripture to garner diversity in the various aforementioned areas, these churches desire to accurately reflect the ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic reality in their communities. To name some:

New City Fellowship (Chattanooga, Fredericksburg, and St. Louis)
City of Hope
Soaring Oaks
Grace Mosaic
Living Faith Bible Fellowship
Christ Central
Redeemer (Jackson)

How did they get there? Whether an established congregation or a church plant, they had to ask, "How do we attract the people in our community that are underrepresented in our church?" It is an extremely simple question but one that requires self-examination, research about those in the community, prayer, uncomfortable conversations, and Bible reading.

When confronted with the previous question, some churches have had to realize they are unfriendly. It was their lack of warmth to visitors that caused those in the community to retreat no sooner than they entered the church building. When considering the aforementioned question, others have had to recognize their lack of evangelistic zeal in the community. Since many churches are largely commuter churches, there is no need to reach out to those in the community immediately surrounding the church building because the church building, many times, is nothing more than a place where people meet on Sunday or the pastor meets to conduct counseling and study the scriptures.

Many, I am sure, reading this post thus far would suggest that if those things are present in a congregation, it should be something the session or consistory and congregation immediately need to change. Who would claim that, according to the scriptures, local churches should be unfriendly? Who would suggest, according to the scriptures, the church should not be interested in seeing those in the community surrounding its meeting location come to saving faith? It is a third suggestion, however, with which local congregations have had to deal where many begin to push back--intentionality

With whom do you have close relationships? Since, in my experience, this saying is true: birds of a feather flock together, it is likely that most of your close relationships are with people who look like you (ethnicity) and act like you (culture) . Yes, you may interact with those unlike you in the work place, especially if you work outside the home, but I wonder if those same people are the ones who frequent your dinner table and take trips to the park with you.

You see, it is those close relationships with others where we sometimes feel most comfortable sharing the gospel and inviting people to church. And since those close relationships are often with people who look and act like us it is no wonder most of our reformed and Presbyterian churches are homogenous (whatever ethnicity, culture, or socio-economic status present). By the way, let me go on the record as saying this applies just as much to all black churches as it does any other ethnicity. I am an equal opportunity, "Let's look like the community in which we are planted" pastor. (I probably should add some caveats to those last two statements [e.g., historical realities to segregated churches], but you can make of it what you desire. I hope it is what I intended).

Intentionally building relationships with those who are unlike you will help the church, and you personally, in many ways. If, after building those relationships, you invite someone to your church who is either looking for a church or an unbeliever you desire to see saved, and they visit but do not return, you have a close enough relationship with the person to ask, "Why?" The answer to the question might surprise you.

It might not be the liturgy as some suppose. At our church plant, which is primarily composed of minorities presently, we will have a standard, perhaps some might even suggest, hyper-standard, reformed liturgy. We will have a call to worship, reading of the law, confession of sins while kneeling, various other prayers, singing, an Old and New Testament scripture reading, sermon, confession of faith, Lord's Prayer, Lord's Supper, covenant baptism (when necessary) and benediction weekly. No one, at least to my knowledge, who is committed to our church plant is allergic to this liturgy.

Contrary to popular belief, the reason many people of color or those who differ culturally and socio-economically do not remain at your church may not even have much to do with the music. Yes music helps, and if visitors hear their heart language in the music, it may make them feel more comfortable, but to place all of one's emphasis on the music regarding why visitors are not staying in your congregation is a bit shallow and speaks unfortunate realities about how you, personally, view other ethnic groups. 

At one time my family was a member at an Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The music they employed was a complete shock to me. I was accustomed to either so-called black praise music or contemporary music. To enter a church where people were singing mostly hymns and psalms was unearthing to my previous experiences. Nevertheless, people intentionally befriended my family even from the first day we visited. Although it took some getting used to, we remained at that church for some years.

This is not to say we should not consider altering our musical preferences, which are not biblical standards, to help those in the community feel more comfortable at our place of worship. Rather I am suggesting that it was the intentional relationship building that made it easier for my family to remain at that particular OPC.

I recognize the intentionality that occurred in our visit to that church and the intentionality I am espousing in this post are different. My family visited that church before anyone in that congregation had a relationship with us, but that was a fairly unique situation. Our gateway to that church was seminary. If you take that factor out of the equation, visiting an OPC was not on our radar. In fact, we did not know what an OPC was. This is all the more reason to be intentional in our relationship building.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not claiming that we need to establish relationships with those who are unlike us for relationship's sake. No! I confess and believe that the gospel transcends all ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic boundaries. The book of Acts proves that (cf. Acts 1:8; 13:1-3). The church at Philippi proves that! What I am saying is that we should build these relationships, as uncomfortable as it may be initially, for Christ's sake! Just as intentional as he was to claim a people who were unlike him, so, too, we should seek to do the same. No, we cannot save people. That is Jesus' service to humanity, but we can walk through our personal Samaria (John 4) and be intentional about building relationships with those who are culturally, ethnically, and financially unlike us. 

I believe the promises God gave to Abraham! "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations" (Genesis 17:4). In our diverse community in Richmond, Virginia, I desire to see that reality manifested every Sunday! Do you?

The neutrality of bigness

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Last Lord's day, despite the absence of a few, we had an encouragingly large congregation. By some standards, it was large. By others, pitifully small. By ours, with a visiting family of believers, and a number of visitors from the community, several for the first time, it was a joy.

Over the pond, the biennial Together for the Gospel jamboree has begun. A number of friends are present. The esteemed Derek Thomas is there, his Twitter feed and Facebook page proudly displaying his bright red T4G wristband. Mez McConnell is there, sporting his beanie and, if I remember rightly, threatening to give it away to some poor soul. Brian Croft is there, with his infectious enthusiasm and his Practical Shepherding booth. Tim Brister is there, with his increasingly vigorous beard and his Band of Bloggers. There are people that I know by reputation, some by passing contact of varying degrees of depth. And there are others. About eight thousand others.

What do we make of such figures? Compare it with the crowd that gathers at a major sporting event, and it is almost negligible. Compare it with the trickle of souls into some church buildings on the Lord's day, and it is massive. Perhaps for some, such numbers call forth suspicion, sneering, even sourness.

We should note that this is an unusual event, a rare event, not a church gathering. Few single churches could or should reach such a size. But the numbers themselves are not a problem. Would to God that we had eight thousand men and women and children gathering to hear and rejoice in the good news on a more regular basis! Even some of the prickly-Reformed are not above reminding us that theirs is the largest church in an area or the largest conference of its kind. Bigness is not a necessary sign of sell-out, smallness not a necessary mark of purity, any more than bigness is a necessary indicator of excellence or smallness a necessary indicator of faithlessness.

The issue here is not numbers, but motives, means and ends. Why do we gather in this way and with what desires and appetites? How is such a crowd gathered, and what is it cohering around? What is the purpose and outcome of such a gathering?

To be sure, out of such a great throng there will be those who disappoint. There might be some who are simply along for the ride. There may be some who like the glitz and glamour, and who are there simply to gawk and gawp at their heroes. Perhaps, under different, harder circumstances, there would be some who would turn away. But how many more, we hope, would ask, "To whom else should we go? Christ Jesus has the words of eternal life."

Suspicion? Yes, there are many compromisers in the world, but Christ has said that if he is lifted up, he will draw many to himself.

Sneering? I may not agree with all that is said and done, but God scorns the scornful, and gives grace to the humble.

Sourness? We may never gather or preach to such a crowd, but if Christ is preached, I will rejoice!

If this is a gathering of those who are together for the gospel, who have drawn together not just to hear some guru spout but to hear Christ proclaimed, who are united by the truth of a crucified Christ, and who want to know how to make him known, I want to assume the best. If this is taking place in groups of eight or eighteen here and there, it is a good thing, if we take to heart the things that we hear and believe and live accordingly. If it is taking place in a group of eight thousand, it is a good thing, if they go back to their churches with faith and life purer and better defined. Whether we are larger or smaller, let us search our hearts, consider our motives, means and ends, and ensure that truly it is the crucified and risen Christ in whom we glory, around whom we gather and for whom we go.
Henry van Dyke, an English literature professor at Princeton University in the 19th-20th centuries, wrote, "As long as habit and routine dictate the pattern of living, new dimensions of the soul will not emerge." We, therefore, prize spontaneity. Many things that come prepackaged are overly familiar and sometimes boring. It is common to place one's daily activities in the realm of "habit" and "routine."

Every morning you awake to the same tune--whining children, an alarm, whistling birds outside your window. You look in the mirror at the same face, use the same toothbrush, wear the same shoes for work, and drive the same car. You come home at the same time, unless traffic prohibits, to an empty house or perhaps your family. As your evening retires, you awake the next morning, provided the Lord wills, to do it all over again. Where is the freshness? Where is the novelty? With such a life, will "new dimensions of the soul...emerge?"

If you are not careful, the Christmas season could easily fall into nothing more than habit and routine. Every year after Thanksgiving, you begin preparing for Christmas. The brown, red, and orange decorations are buried in the boxes while the green, red, and gold colors emerge. The nativity scene--lest baby Jesus--is placed on a table in your house, and the reef is placed on the front door. The initial days of December afford you the right to purchase a Christmas tree. Your home is now newly revived with a scent of pine. Presents are placed under the tree as you await 12:01am on December 25th. All this is routine. It is a pattern that emerges year-after-year. Where is the freshness and novelty? They both come not necessarily from decorating your home or Christmas tree, though that can provide a sense of joy. The novelty, if I may put it this way, comes from 'what's in the box.' That's the excitement--new presents. That's the freshness--new toys. 

We may not consciously be thinking about this at the moment we open our gifts, but the gifts ultimately point to the Greatest Gift--the Lord Jesus Christ. This costly Gift is ours; we celebrate it every Sunday; we celebrate it during the Christmas season. This is Christmas Doctrine 101--what then does this have to do with the star on your Christmas tree? My observations, I believe, will neither take away nor add to the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Rather, it may provide an insight to the Christmas season that might, according to the late Professor van Dyke, add "new dimensions [to] the soul." 

First, let's consider the historical narrative leading to the birth of Christ. 

"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was" (Matt. 2:1-2, 9; ESV). 

Far from Matthew foreshadowing the first On Star navigation system, this star represented something so striking it is no wonder people want to take the Christ out of Christmas. However, in order to comprehend the meaning of this star, and correspondingly the star on top of your Christmas tree, one must take a trip down memory lane to Numbers 24.

There, the king of Moab was fearful that Israel was going to destroy his nation. He, therefore, called a seer, Balaam, to prophesy against Israel. In his final prophesy, he said,

"I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed. Israel is doing valiantly. And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of cities!" (Num. 24:17-19; ESV). 

Contrary to what the King of Moab desired, Balaam prophesied that the enemies of Israel would be destroyed. "Edom [would] be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, [would] be dispossessed." The star, along with the scepter, indicated destruction was near. The scepter represented sovereign rule, the duty of a king, and the star indicated destruction, the movement of a king.

It is fitting that Jesus, therefore, in Matthew's Gospel is portrayed as king (Matt. 1:1, 2:2, 4). He exercises dominion over all nations and peoples (Matt. 28:16-20). It was his duty, nevertheless, to do much more than rule. Jesus also came to destroy. More particularly, he came to destroy all his and your enemies (WSC 26).

The star in Matthew 2, mentioned also in Numbers 24, was a sign for the people that God was going to stretch out his right arm of power. He was going to retrieve what was ruined by sin and Satan. He was coming to destroy. As the wise men, therefore, were somehow led by the star, their final destination--the resting place of the star--indicated that they found the king, the one who exercised sovereign dominion over all the nations and peoples, the one who came to destroy his enemies. 

It must have been striking to be led to a child. How could a child rule and destroy the enemies of God and his people? Whatever their thoughts, Jesus did accomplish all that his Father purposed. Yes, while Jesus offered great hope for sinners, we must not forget that one part of his mission was to destroy the enemies of God. Colossians 2:15,

"He disarmed the rulers and authorities, and put the to open shame, by triumphing over them..."

Therefore, this is an exciting time of the year, one that, while it is filled with routine, provides opportunity for an invigorating taste of the past and the future. The Son of God clothed himself in human flesh to destroy his enemies. Then, it was largely spiritual (Col. 2:15). However, when he comes again, he will destroy people (Rev. 20:11-15).

Does the star atop your Christmas tree point you to destruction? Are you reminded that just as the wise men were led by a star to the Great Gift--one who would destroy his enemies--so, too, you are led by the star atop your Christmas tree at dusk to lesser gifts? As you look at that star, are you reminded that just as your savior came once to destroy, he is coming again? You, who are united to Christ, have a great hope, namely your savior who is coming to bury all your enemies, which includes sin and death, once for all. 

Do not be completely immersed in the idea of routine and habit this Christmas season. It is easy to be conditioned by pattern without experiencing joy. Routine is good; habit can be as well; the new dimensions of the soul, however, is what will come when all that the star atop your Christmas tree represents is fully realized and you see your savior face-to-face, for you will be like him.

Listen Up White America

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TMZ online (I did not post the link because some images may be inappropriate) recently published an article titled, "Chuck D: Listen Up White America...We Ain't Ni**as.'" Chuck D, if you are unfamiliar, is a rap artist who had his heyday in the 1980's. He was a part of a group called, Public Enemy. For some time, his music was extremely popular in certain communities. Now, however, depending on which online websites you visit, you hear his name every so often.

In TMZ's article, Chuck D was responding to Suge Knight's recent claims that we should banish the phrase, "African-American." Knight, a record label CEO (also once popularized for working with Tupac Shakur), believes that the term "African-American" is inaccurate. "I'm not from Africa," Knight expressed. While Chuck D agrees that the phrase "African-American" is not an ideal term, "ni**a" surely is not a good replacement, whether the word ends with "er" or "a."

As Christians, these types of conversations may appear foolish, but for many of us this type of dialogue is a reality. What should we call ourselves? Many employment applications call us "African-American." When you scroll down the list of choices, not many other ethnic groups are identified by a hyphen. 

As if that were not enough, some of us wonder what you call us? Let's not fool ourselves. The "you" in the aforementioned sentence is "whites." Although I have not conducted any statistical analysis, I do not believe it is a leap of faith to suggest that the majority of persons frequenting this blog are white. I do not mention that to be offensive but to state a potential reality.

I have been called a "ni**er." The unfortunate reality is that it was not by a man holding on to his confederate roots in Virginia but by a (white) peer who attends a reformed church. You might wonder if he was joking when he used the term. My response: does it matter? You can read more about what has been said to me and how I have been treated here.

This is not a guilt trip but an introduction to a 6-part series that I hope to write beginning in either January 2014 or February 2014. If the Lord tarries and grants me life, I want to open a conversation--one-way initially--that highlights some of the difficulties that I, as a...black?--face in Presbyterian and Reformed circles. I am not alone regarding my concerns. I have had numerous conversations with "black" Presbyterian pastors about the current state (or lack thereof) of ethnic and cultural diversity in Presbyterian and Reformed churches. These conversations normally expand to a host of other issues.

I hope that the coming series will be understood in the manner I think I am providing it, not one laden with guilt but one that exposes certain realities; one that will also provide some suggestions for change. I hope the response is not, "Oh, not again," but, "Yes, we need to hear about this and change things for the glory of God." 

May the Triune God receive all the glory as we delicately talk about these issues. 

A summary of the gospel

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Jeremiah Burroughs:
The gospel of Christ in general is this; It is the good tidings that God has revealed concerning Christ. More largely it is this: As all mankind was lost in Adam and became the children of wrath, put under the sentence of death, God, though He left His fallen angels and has reserved them in the chains of eternal darkness, yet He has thought upon the children of men and has provided a way of atonement to reconcile them to Himself again. Namely, the second Person in the Trinity takes man's nature upon Himself, and becomes the head of a second covenant, standing charged with sin. He answers for it by suffering what the law and divine justice required, and by making satisfaction for keeping the law perfectly, which satisfaction and righteousness he tenders up to the Father as a sweet savor of rest for the souls that are given to Him. And now this mediation of Christ is, by the appointment of the Father, preached to the children of men, of whatever nation or rank, freely offering this atonement unto sinners for atonement, requiring them to believe in Him and, upon believing promising not only a discharge of all their former sins, but that they shall not enter into condemnation, that none of their sins or unworthiness shall ever hinder the peace of God with them, but that they shall through Him be received into the number of those who shall have the image of God again to be renewed unto them, and that they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.

The free offer of the gospel

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Not long ago, I received a very generous offer. One of the current glitterati of the evangelical scene was going to be preaching, and I was invited to go along and hear him speak . . . in person . . . for free.

I must confess that, living as I do in the UK, I was not able to take up this very kind proposal, but I was certainly perturbed by it. I recognise that those who preach the gospel should live by the gospel, and that there is a responsibility for those who make such plans to take account of the fact that the labourer is worthy of his hire. I also recognise that many men and the organisations with which they are associated make a phenomenal amount of high-grade material available free of charge. I appreciate that many of these men do minister regularly in a congregation which they faithfully serve. I know that many of these prominent men have a desire to equip others to serve, and I am grateful for that investment. I would like to think that this was, in some measure, an aberration, and not the idea of the gentleman in question.

But has it really come to the point where a chance for us underprivileged to hear the Great Ones speak in the flesh without having to pay for it is worth advertising as some kind of bonus? Is there a tacit admission that usually you will need to fork out for this kind of privilege? Does this 'incarnational' ministry (you know, the one where they actually walk among us) now come with a price as standard? Are we so in thrall to men that the opportunity to see and hear one of our demagogues without having made our deposit first counts as an event?

The cult of celebrity and the elevation of the conference over the church seems to be taking ever deeper roots. While appreciating the dynamic of a gifted man with a reputation for insight and competence drawing others to hear him - "Come, see a man who told me all things that I ever did" (Jn 4.29) springs to mind - there is a danger in our case that the attraction becomes the vessel rather than the treasure. Indeed, the more the pot cracks, the greater the visibility and the more evident the splendour of that which resides within. The better encouragement ought to be to come and hear Christ preached rather than to come and hear this man who, by the way, preaches Christ. We are trying to play God's game by the world's rules. Besides, outside of our narrow little world with its shoddy little celebrities, these names mean nothing. It may be different in other places, but where I live advertising a meeting at which some evangelical guru is going to be speaking simply fails to float the boat of the man on the street. Inside we may be sweaty with applause and greasy with adoration, but outside they could not care less. We get a gang of fan-boys within and a careless crowd going about their business without. And even if we could somehow stir up interest in the man, do we not thereby begin to fall into the error of the Corinthians, in thrall to their superapostles?

In real life it requires the earnest labours of the unknown evangelists to press home the need of salvation in dependence on the Spirit to awaken an appetite to come and hear, not first and foremost a man, but a message of life and light and hope for those lost in darkness. Our call ought to be not so much, "Come and hear So-and-so preach Christ," but rather, "Come and hear Christ preached." That is the route to greater spiritual health. You might tell me, for example, that a man like Spurgeon could be lampooned as one of the great draws of the age, his name a surefire way to gather a crowd. Yes, but on those occasions when Spurgeon urged all the regular members of his congregation to stay away in order to give others an opportunity to hear the gospel, the Metropolitan Tabernacle filled up even more quickly than usual, and many were turned away for lack of space. I acknowledge that you cannot entirely separate the man from his message, but I suggest that this indicates not just the nature of the reputation but where the true power lay. Let it be known that the Great Ones of our day are preaching Christ to any who wish to hear, and how quickly will the building fill? We have a long way to go.

If we are going to put our top men on this gospel thing, could churches not more often give opportunities for them to exercise their gifts on the front line without us and others needing to pay to hear Christ proclaimed in person by the best - or, at least, most famous - we have? After all, don't we believe in the free offer of the gospel?

A Story That Ends Badly

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The popular description of the biblical gospel as "the story of Jesus" and the attendant call to "make God's story part of your story" now appears to have its own tailor-made Bible translation. The newly released The Voice encourages readers to "step into the story of Scripture" by adapting biblical narratives into screenplay or narrative formats. Just watch the account of Jesus' walking on water in Matthew 14 come alive as you read: "Another Disciple: 'A ghost? What will we do?'" (I can already feel myself being absorbed into the dramatic flow of holy Writ as Judas exits stage left).

This story-oriented edition of Scripture also updates traditional plot-disrupting phrases such as "Jesus Christ" and "the Word."  For example, the new opening line of John's Gospel reads, "Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking. The Voice was and is God" (cue the floor smoke!). Despite reassurances from the publisher that The Voice remains "painstakingly true to the original manuscripts," one can't help but wonder just whose manuscript they had in mind, and just who is stepping into whose story, since the whole thing appears to be a page one re-write.

On a more serious note, the "my story"/"God's story" way of speaking, even in Reformed circles, is, like so many modern trends, both old and new. In its contemporary form, it appears to have affinities with revived versions of the monastic practice of lectio divina (helpfully evaluated by Carl Trueman here) while also owing a debt to the postmodern theological approach espoused by Yale theologians Hans Frei and George Lindbeck (i.e., so-called postliberalism). In general, the postliberal school argues that the real meaning of Scripture, the meaning that ought to drive our view of "reality", does not lie in its revelation of history per se, but within its own narrative world, fallible and historically inaccurate though it may be. It is the linguistic world of Scripture that matters, they say, not whether it reflects "objective" reality. For all of their crisscrossing emphases and objectives (mystical communion vs. counter-cultural mission vs. "narratival" appeal), all of these approaches to the Bible, in one way or another, call us to forgo the traditions from which we allegedly derive our personal identities, and the project ourselves into the narrative of Scripture itself.

With apologies to the dramaturges out there, I can't help but think that this is an unhelpful way of speaking. To me, the language of story and self-projection obscures what must be made crystal clear--namely, that everyone already stands within the history of redemption simply by virtue of being God's creatures and image. Scripture tells us that, whether or not we realize it, we are those "on whom the end of the ages has come" (1 Cor 10:11) and so are even more responsible to repent and find forgiveness in Christ alone (Acts 17:31). Whether or not we believe it, the Word of God is still able to pierce to our hidden thoughts by the secret power of the Spirit (Heb 4:12) and disclose our deepest sins on the Day when we face the Judge now raised from the dead (2 Cor 5:10).

If this is all true, then it seems that the "story" of redemption is less something to be adopted as one's own "story" and more something I must acknowledge and believe, not only because it accurately reports true history, but because it discloses the divinely revealed meaning of history, the sovereignly created purpose of history, at all times and in all places. To describe repentance and faith as "God's story becoming my story," therefore, tends to present the gospel as a self-contained tradition that lies above and beyond me, but one which I may make my own if I like what I see. Such an approach frames the gospel more as an appealing context for one's personal "story" and less as that which exposes the irrationality of our denial of Christ as Lord of history and His prescribed plans for us in it.

The gospel is a story of sorts, of course, but I fear that appeals to the predilections of postmodernity, rather than Scripture itself, are leading some to refashion the gospel as a "narrative" into which we may insert our lives. The gospel of Christ crucified and raised is not just a compelling narrative, not just a story of meaning for one's life and world. It is the centerpiece of human existence and the consummate revelation of the God who defines all meaning whatsoever.

So, I submit we should keep telling the "old, old story." But let's be sure our congregations know that the Bible points beyond itself, beyond its own "story" (if we must), to the events of redemption in time and space, and to the consummation that will climax the facts of history and expose all rival fairy tales. Proclaiming the gospel this way may mean the difference between a people who see all things according to Scripture and those who see Scripture as a useful story that, for them, will turn out to be a tragedy.  

VanDoodewaard on Witsius

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Our friend Dr. William VanDoodewaard has posted this piece on Witsius on preaching law and gospel.