Thursday, June 28, 2012

Christian Joy Leads to Christian Agreement

Paul warned Titus to be wary of contentious brethren, saying, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11). It’s a hard hitting reminder that the proof is in the pudding when it comes to the Christian life. Faith without works is dead (James 2). We will recognize the unbeliever by their fruits. An unbeliever will not desire true forgiveness and reconciliation.

But what’s the corrective when two believers have disagreements? Paul himself had a sharp disagreement with Barnabas on whether Mark should join them on a missionary journey (Acts 15:39). Though we don’t know exactly how they reconciled, it says in Colossians 4 that Mark the cousin of Barnabas was now with Paul and had been a comfort to him (Colossians 4:10-11). So we know they did make amends.

In order to understand how two brothers in Christ are to be reconciled, then, we must turn to other parts of Scripture. I believe we find the answer in Philippians where Paul deals with another division between two believers when he says, “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord” (Philippians 4:2).

According to Paul, agreement in the Lord is based off of knowledge (or being of the same mind), for Paul tells the Philippians to “… complete [his] joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). He says in Philippians 1:9, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and discernment.”

So then the appropriate question is: What knowledge would this be?

Ultimately the knowledge for one-mindedness and agreement in the Lord comes from the gospel, “the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9). For Paul begins the letter by telling the Philippians that he makes his prayer for them with joy because they have been partners for (and in) the gospel from the beginning, and he believes they are partakers of grace with him (Philippians 1:3, 7).

Paul’s present circumstance of being in prison is a cause for rejoicing because the gospel has gone out more powerfully. Paul knows that God, who began a good work in Philippi, would bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

So the common denominator between Paul and the Philippians is the gospel promise, and the joy of living in light of the gospel (Philippians 1:10-11, 2:12-13, 3:14). True Christianity does not lie dormant in the head but is rather a true knowledge, affecting the core of one’s being.

This true knowledge of the gospel promise, worked in us by the Spirit, produces the Spirit’s fruit of a joyful Christian life. Joy saturates the epistle of Philippians. So it is no surprise that soon after entreating Euodia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord, Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). Three verses later Paul says, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Joy in the Lord leads to peace. Love to joy to peace to patience, as the list of spiritual fruits go. This is not simply peace in our consciences because of our righteousness in Christ which is ours by faith. This peace also manifests itself in real Christian agreement over difficulties and issues within the body of Christ between us and our Christian brothers, even if that means bearing in patience and kindness to one another, in love, for the sake of peace within the body. The more Christians think on what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and commendable (Philippians 4:8), the more the peripheral issues fall by the wayside; the more disagreements pale in comparison to God’s provision and love and constant supply of every need of ours “according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).

The peace and love of the body of Christ shows that we are children of God in a twisted and perverse generation among whom we shine as lights in the world, as we hold fast to the word of life (Philippians 2:15-16).

We should “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Christians must follow Christ’s example of humility and “Do all things without grumbling or questioning” (Philippians 2:14), for to grumble would be against the joy that the Spirit gives to us.

As we love and bear with one another, we show the world that Christ has truly worked in us.

In all of this we must remember Paul’s focus on the mind. To think on, to have knowledge, and to be one-minded. The vague, dull spirituality of our times, with its intense focus on “the voluntary and emotional sides of religion” and indifference towards the Bible is nothing remotely close to the Christian faith (which is expounded in the Scriptures themselves anyway!). We are to sober-minded, preparing our minds for action (1 Peter 1:13). We are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Romans 12:2). The doctrine of Christianity naturally leads us to doxology– to the praise of God. Christianity is a thinking religion. Without the knowledge, we have a religion built on nothing, and therefore no real peace. Without knowledge we have joy that is a fraudulent joy. Without knowledge, God simply turns out to be the god of our imagination. 

Author’s Note: There are worthy disagreements Christians are called to participate in. We are to hold to the teachings of the Scriptures, and be willing to take a stand and draw the line when the Bible speaks. When it is God’s truth in the balance, we are to fight for the doctrines of the faith. Those times call for godly wisdom and fear.  

Monday, June 25, 2012

Contentment and Joy in Every Circumstance

By all accounts, Paul should not have been as joyful as he was. Humanly speaking, Paul had all the excuses to be like those in our churches who show no signs of Christian joy.

Some people think they have it bad. But Paul had it worse. Five times he received lashes at the hand of the Jews. Three times he was beaten with rods. Three times he was shipwrecked. A night and day he was adrift at sea. He was in constant danger from rivers, robbers, the Jews, the Gentiles, the wilderness, the cities. He was often hungry and thirsty, cold and exposed to the elements. Paul was stoned!

It is shocking then, to hear these words from Paul:

Philippians 4:11-12
“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 

Really Paul? You can say that after all you’ve been through? We are prompted to ask: What was the secret Paul had learned?

The answer follows in verse 13:
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

This verse has been tortured today by athletic coaches who read devotionals before sports games, by those who want to climb Mount Everest, and for those who overcome great challenges like losing weight or running a marathon.

But Paul is talking about this verse in terms of “any and every circumstance.” Paul is talking about the nitty-gritty of daily life. Paul is talking in regards to the Christian life, not about winning a basketball game!

Paul was in prison when he wrote the epistle to the Philippians. How disheartening it must have been for a man who was the missionary to the Gentiles! But Paul did not look at his present circumstances in that way. Rather, he tells the Philippians that his suffering has produced bold evangelism, by both rivals of Paul and those who love Paul. Paul says in Philippians 1:18, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice…” He rejoices in his suffering and imprisonment because the gospel, the good news of Christ, was being preached boldly.

More important for Paul was the gospel than his earthly freedom or comfort.

Paul tells the Philippians in 1:18-19, “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance…” This deliverance Paul talks about was not necessarily physical deliverance from prison, for he says in verse 20 that “… [he] will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in [his] body, whether by life or by death.” 

Paul will rejoice in life or in death, because if he lived, he would have fruitful labor and would help the Philippians progress in “… joy and faith” (Philippians 1:25). If Paul died, being “…poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of [their] faith” (Philippians 2:17), he would be with Christ, which was far better (Philippians 1:24). In every way Paul could rejoice, because he had learned the secret of being content in life or in death.

The secret hidden for all ages has now been revealed openly and plainly in Jesus Christ. Our resting place is not in men, not in our strength, but in Christ who strengthens us. Christ is the author and finisher of our faith, and the anchor of our souls. Looking into eternity with Christ, knowing that nothing can separate us from his love, we can respond affirmatively to Paul and say that in every circumstance, we too, can be content.

Our sins have been forgiven. We now live in the joy and obedience of the Spirit with our imperishable, unfading inheritance kept in heaven for us.

Shall we not then rejoice in every circumstance?

Philippians 4:4
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Geerhardus Vos and the Practical Uses of Biblical Theology

Biblical Theology deals with the history of the Bible, of God’s revelation and redemption of mankind from beginning to end. It is different than Systematic Theology which deals with “logical construction” (16). Vos states, “Biblical theology draws a line of development. Systematic theology draws a circle” (16). While both disciplines have their benefits, Vos points out several practical uses of the study of Biblical Theology, and they are worth noting. The Bible was never meant to be read as an instruction manual for doctrine, but as an unfolding historical revelation of God’s redemption of his people. So what are the benefits to studying the Bible in the historical, Biblical-Theological sense? Some of the practical uses Vos highlights are as follows:

         1.      “[Biblical Theology] exhibits the organic growth of the truths of Special Revelation” (17). We can imagine Special Revelation as a seedling, sprouting and growing into further maturity until it is a full blown tree, “inherently rich and complex, because God is so himself” (8). “…through exhibiting the organic structure of revelation, Biblical Theology furnishes a special argument from design for the reality of Supernaturalism” (17). Christians aren’t deists. We believe that God has been actively involved in his creation from the beginning, and the organic nature of Special Revelation proves this.

         2.      “Biblical Theology imparts new life and freshness to the truth by showing it to us in its original historical setting. The Bible is not a dogmatic handbook but a historical book full of dramatic interest. Familiarity with the history of revelation will enable us to utilize all this dramatic interest” (17). Special Revelation is a drama unfolding before our eyes. When we see it as such, the truth we find in its unfolding scenes and acts becomes vastly exciting.

         3.      “Biblical Theology can counteract the anti-doctrinal tendency of the present time” (17). Vos goes on to say that in his day (and most definitely in ours!), religion had become mainly about the “voluntary and emotional sides of religion.” Biblical Theology, on the other hand, shows us “what great care God has taken to supply his people with a new world of ideas” (17). While the Bible is not a manual for doctrine, doctrine is found in the fabric of the drama. God desires that we believe what he has revealed about himself-and us-and redemption.

         4.      “Biblical Theology relieves to some extent the unfortunate situation that even the fundamental doctrines of the faith should seem to depend mainly on the testimony of isolated proof-texts” (17). This is an important point. For how can one defend important doctrines of the faith in the space of a paragraph? The doctrines we hold would be more weighty to others (and us!) if proven to be stitched into the Biblical narrative. “In the long run that system will hold the field which can be proven to have grown organically from the main stem of revelation, and to be interwoven with the very fibre of Biblical religion” (18).

         5.      Finally, “The highest practical usefulness of the study of Biblical Theology is one belonging to it altogether apart from its usefulness for the student. Like unto all theology it finds its supreme end in the glory of God” (18). The main telos of Biblical Theology is not in the intellectual prowess or expertise of the student, but the glory of God.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

What Happens When We Remember That God is Holy?

God is wholly other and completely outside of ourselves. He is “Most High” (Acts 7:48). In David Wells’ book The Courage to Be Protestant, he outlines what happens when we remember again how wholly transcendent God's holiness is.

God’s holiness has essential implications for Christian belief:
First, it means that there is a moral law. If God were not holy, this would not be the case, humans would not have a reflection of the law on their consciences, and we would not know the difference between good and bad, between right and wrong.

Second, God’s holiness means that there is sin. If God is holy, his holiness has a standard. Because the law is that standard, and we break it every day, we trespass against God’s holiness. Wells says, “Sin brings not only shame but also guilt when we understand it in relation to God’s holiness” (128).

Third, God’s holiness demands proper satisfaction. This means that because of God’s holiness, there is a cross. If we have trespassed against God’s holiness, that same holiness demands restitution. Christ’s death is meaningless unless we understand it in relation to God’s holiness. Wells says:

“Without the holiness of God, then, there is no cross. Without the cross there is no gospel. Without the gospel there is no Christianity” (129).

Fourth, God’s holiness means that there is a conquest. That is, God is dealing and will ultimately deal with all the evil in the world. The church should not shy away from God’s judgment, because in his judgment we have hope that all wrongs will be righted!

Fifth, God’s holiness means that there is an obligation for personal holiness on the part of the believer. Christ died to save us from the wrath of God, but he saved us unto something as well, namely, a life of good works.

Without the holiness of God, Christianity becomes an entirely different religion. A religion that is therapeutic, and deals with a God who is merely there to make us comfortable. Without the proper belief in the holiness of God there is no moral law, there isn’t any “culpability” for sin, the cross is rendered utterly meaningless, there would be no ultimate righting of wrongs, and no obligation for us to be anything other than selfish.

God is holy whether we believe it or not, but we are Christians only if we believe that God is holy!

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Supremacy of Scripture

We’ve all heard the remarks from our clued-up teen theologians: “I can’t wait for summer camp so I can get on fire for God.” “I love hiking; it’s just where I meet God the most.”

And we've heard stories like this one:

A friend of mine went to a conference at a Christian college in Southern California and told me about the shocking experience. The speaker at the meeting asked the audience, “How do we come to know God?” The answers generally revolved around knowing God through creation, and the love within relationships. It was shocking that no one mentioned knowing God through his Word!

We’ve all heard the questions asked by many of our churches. How can we keep our teens from leaving the church? How can we attract new visitors? Of course, in response to these questions we buy into our American consumerist culture, and so we sell our “products” through programs and relationships. After all, better to have a soft sense of unity than standing firm for the truth of the Word. No one likes discord, after all. 

And of course, rightly diving the Word of truth through the preached word could never be the solution.

Is it possible to “meet God on a mountain”? Well, I suppose in a certain sense. After all, Paul did say in Romans 1:20:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” 

It would be better, however, to say we can learn about God’s eternal power and divine nature from creation. But we can’t meet God on a relational level “in the wild.” God is not in the wilderness more than he is in the crowded city, the dank sewers, and the rat infested abandoned warehouse. General revelation, without the knowledge of the Bible, would leave us all in a condemned state before God. What would be known about God would, as general revelation implies, leave us with mere generalities about God's nature. And what would happen next according to Romans 1? We would worship the creature rather than the creator (Romans 1:25), because we are “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).

This is my point: Special revelation is how we meet (and know) God and who he is! It is how we come to see the omnipotent, wonderful, and glorious nature of our God revealed through historical time and space and most notably in his son Jesus Christ. It is how we see historical redemption unfold.

We must believe anew that the Word of God is our only rule of faith and life. And this is simply the Bible’s idea of itself:

2 Timothy 3:16
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."

Indeed, general revelation cannot make us equipped for every good work. It cannot correct us, reprove us, or teach us about God (other than vague generalities). The Scriptures alone are the sole rule of faith and practice for the Christian.

One may hear in response to this: “Paul was talking about the Old Testament in 2 Timothy 3:16. How do we know that the New Testament should be Scripture?”

In 2 Peter 3:16, the Apostle equates Paul’s words with Scripture when he says:
“There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”

Peter says that Paul’s words are Scripture.

Before Jesus ascended into heaven he gave the great commission to his disciples telling them:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 8:18-20).

The Apostles were commissioned to make disciples of all nations, and to teach them everything Jesus had commanded them. We have this teaching in the writings of the New Testament. Because all authority had been (and has been) given to Christ, the Apostles could then speak with his authority. Since we have their writings, the New Testament is authoritative Scripture indeed.

God does not speak in any other way than through his Word. Indeed, general revelation can teach us certain things about God, but God only speaks through his Word.

We don’t need a summer camp to get us “on fire for God.” We don’t need more programs, or contemporary music, or edgy sexual material to keep the youth involved and visitors coming. We don't need coffee machines.

Like Abraham striving to get an heir through Hagar; like Israel desiring an earthly king rather than Yahweh; like Israel complaining about the manna in the wilderness, even today we are just the same. We despise God’s means and try to come up with our own solutions.

We’ve proved ourselves to be stubborn learners. We have not learned that weakest means fulfill God’s will. We have not learned that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25). We don’t remember that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 27).

The Word has fallen on hard times. As solid, biblical preaching becomes rarer in our land, we see the prophecy of 2 Timothy 4:3-4 coming full force:

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

But in distinction to these men, Paul charges Timothy to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).

We don’t need a summer camp to get us “back on fire” for God. We need the word preached faithfully, in season and out of season. We don’t need contemporary slobbery musical mush to keep the teens in our churches (and trust the young when we say we don’t like it anyway!). We need the Word preached boldly. We need the word of truth rightly divided. We don’t need more programs to attract visitors. We need the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed forthrightly.

And do you know why? Because God has established his means of saving his elect. And his means of bringing his elect unto salvation is by the preaching of the Word:

Romans 10:11-17:
“For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in [Jesus] will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

2 Corinthians 4:2-6
“But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

How many in the modern evangelical church are using the cunning of American capitalism to tamper with God’s Word? Is there no relief for weary souls, guilty over sin, to come and listen to the unfettered gospel of Jesus Christ any longer? Indeed there is, in churches which renounce shameful, underhanded ways of bringing men to the gospel. In churches where men refuse to be “peddlers of God's word” (2 Cor. 2:17) but rather proclaim openly the Biblical message. In churches where ministers resolve to know nothing among their flocks except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).

Why does God use the message of the gospel to bring men to himself?

2 Corinthians 4:7
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”

God uses the message of the gospel so that the power and glory belong to him alone. God is glorified through the means he has chosen. He will have the glory. He has always had the glory.

Think of God luring the Egyptians into the Red Sea and crushing them under his mighty blow! Think of Gideon’s 300 men, who began as an army 32,000 strong (Judges 7). God gave the victory! God has the power! God gets the glory!

The prophets of old were told to speak God’s word to the people of Israel, whether the people listened or not. The prophets could speak nothing other than the Word of the Lord. The Word was in their hearts as a burning fire, and they could not keep their mouths closed from speaking it (Jeremiah 20:9).

And that is what the church desperately needs today! They need to return to the Word of God, for “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). The church needs ministers to preach God's Word in seasons when it is popular, and when it is unpopular, whether people will listen, or not.

In the end, the Word is the only thing that is going to keep the youth interested. Because it’s the only thing that saves. Christianity was never good at the world’s game. Let the gimmicks, the marketing, and the capitalism be kept out of the church. Let the Word of God, the gospel of Christ be first and center. Then many other problems would simply dissipate. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Jeremiah Burroughs: 5 Ways God Uses Fear to Bring Men to Himself

Jeremiah Burroughs
I’ve been reading a book called Gospel Fear. It has an assortment of sermons given by Jeremiah Burroughs, a Puritan who lived from 1599-1646. The sermons in this book have been such a blessing to my soul, and I thought I’d share something I found in the second sermon of the book titled, "What True Sanctified Trembling Is" taken from Isaiah 66:2.

Burroughs answers the objection that some people tremble at the Word of God and yet go into eternal damnation. If some tremble at God’s word and yet are lost for eternity, then what is it to tremble properly, or what is the kind of fear God uses for salvation? Burroughs says in response: “If you put but these four or five things together that I am now speaking of, you shall see a great deal of difference between the fear that comes to nothing and the fear that God brings to something at last” (28).There is indeed fear that God uses to bring men unto himself:

       1.      When the fear of God swells in the heart and overcomes all other fears. Burroughs says, “Now the soul that is thus brought to trembling, to apprehend the breach between God and it and the evil of sin as the Word reveals it to be the greatest evil of all…the Word reveals to it that it is a thing of infinite difficulty to make up peace with God” (29). Basically, when we understand the chasm between us and God so that we know we could never make peace with him and that becomes our greatest fear, that is a good and healthy fear.

             2.      When the soul “is possessed with great fear as it justifies God” (29). That is, when the soul admits that God is correct and just in his judgments over our sin. Burroughs states, “Though the Word speaks dreadful things against me, yet the Word of God is just, and God is righteous in his word… When the heart comes to this, it indeed comes to be in a hopeful condition” (29).

             3.      When the heart trembles not only at the wrath of God, but also at the departure and loss of communion with God. Burroughs says, “Many a carnal heart may tremble when it hears of the threats of hell and of eternal fire, but for the heart to tremble at the apprehension of God’s departing from it, and of its rejection from the holy and blessed God, oh, it’s a very good sign when the heart trembles at this” (30).

             4.      When “the heart so trembles at the word of God that nothing can quiet it; nothing can ever satisfy it but reconciliation with God” (30). Burroughs mentions those who fear God in time of sickness, but when health returns they forget the Word. The heart that fears God will never be quieted, however, unless it is finally reconciled to God, despite the circumstances of life.

             5.      Finally, when “this fear is that which does not drive the heart from God...nor fly in despair of God” (30). Rather, “it is a fear that brings the heart unto God, that drives it to God powerfully” (30). Many apostates and demons have a fear that drives them away from God. But a fear which drives men unto God is fear that is, naturally, good and right.

In closing, Burroughs' own words:
“Though I will not say that this very [fear] is saving grace, I will say that there is no example that can be shown in Scripture where this work has been but the Lord has gone further with the soul” (30-31).

Friday, June 15, 2012

Thoughts on the Endangered Evening Service

Worship is the single most important activity for the Christian. Church is where God meets us in a special way (through his chosen means) to bestow his grace through the Word preached and through the sacraments.

Nowhere in Scripture does it say we must worship twice on Sunday. But why, if the possibility avails itself, would we not want to?

We are pilgrims, strangers, and aliens on our way to the Promised Land, the new heavens and earth. Like the Israelites, however, we tend to care little about the things that are most important in the Christian life. Is it any wonder that as church has become more of a dull tradition in our modern context, the evening service has become about as popular as crocs are fashionable?

We are called to be salt and light in this world of darkness. To be the fragrance of death and life to a world that is perishing. We are the most “fragrant” when we are in public, corporate worship.

In church we receive a foretaste of the marriage feast of the lamb, of singing with groups of angels in festal gathering before the throne singing “Holy Holy Holy” to our God and King. It is not merely the elders who are calling us to worship. Rather, “This is God commanding that we appear” (R.C. Sproul Jr.). If our God is commanding us to appear, shall we miss the evening service because we are tired, or worse, simply don’t care? And what message does that send to the world, and more importantly to God? It speaks a message to the world that we are comfortable American citizens living our lives in ease and without much need of God's Word, the primary means of grace. Otherwise, we would make it a priority to be at the evening service.

If there was a great persecution tomorrow, like the one that happened after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8), I believe that the members of our churches would have renewed vigor in not neglecting to meet together “as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25). We should be continually encouraging each other more and more as we see the Day drawing near. It seems hypocritical to sing in the morning service, “We long to see your churches full” (Trinity Hymnal 469), and then miss the evening service. 

Excuses for missing generally revolve around being tired, or wanting to rest (after all it’s the day of rest, right?). I hope that we will not be tired when we see the Son of God coming again upon the clouds. I hope that we long more for spiritual rest than we do for physical rest. The Lord’s Day never had anything to do with taking a nap (though that isn't wrong to do), but rather in acts of charity and kindness, in visiting widows and orphans, and in resting in the one who gives us true rest! We rest most decisively in public worship as God feeds us with his Word and sacraments, and makes us wise for salvation.

You know what characterized King David’s life? He was a man after God’s own heart, and his life was one full of desiring to worship God in the assembly. Reading through the Psalms, we see that one of David’s foremost desires was to be in the House of God.

Psalm 84:2
My soul longs, yes, faints
    for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
    to the living God.

Psalm 26:8
O Lord, I love the habitation of your house
    and the place where your glory dwells.

Psalm 22:25
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
    my vows I will perform before those who fear him.

Psalm 27:4
One thing have I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
    and to inquire in his temple.

Jon D. Payne, in a recent article in Modern Reformation gives five reasons why we must continue the evening service:

  1. He says that the evening service bookends the Lord’s Day with worship. What a wonderful way to begin and end the day!

  1. He says that an evening service follows a biblical pattern of worship by quoting Psalm 92:1-2 which says, “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night”.

  1. He says the evening service is part of a Reformed heritage rich in biblical and systematic theology. If we give up this practice, it had better be for a good reason!

  1. He says the evening service is a divine and providential call to worship. There is a call from God by his Word, and a providential call by the elders. As under the authority of God's Word we should be at evening worship. As under the authority of the elders, we should respond in affirmative to their decision of an evening service, and so “be subject to the elders” (1 Peter 5:5).

  1. Finally, he adds that worshipping twice on Sunday is a double portion of the means of grace. Why would any Christian not want that?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Justification by Faith Alone

The doctrines that are the most fundamental and essential to the Christian faith will be the ones attacked the most. Among these doctrines, justification by faith alone is being molested on every side. What was once the gem of true freedom rediscovered in the Reformation has now become something of little value in the Christian world. Christians today would rather have “application” and “practical” knowledge that helps them with daily life. Apparently to many modern Christians, the gospel is no longer relevant.

Ask the average Christian what the gospel is and you will get multiple answers, many of which would not include any reference to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to pacify the wrath of God against our sin. Many would not talk about how God looks at us as perfect because through faith, we are covered by Christ’s righteousness. Say the word justification or propitiation in a conversation and you will receive quizzical looks.

In High School I spoke with an Eastern Orthodox priest who skeptically asked me, “Where in Scripture does it say that we are justified by faith alone?”

How I wish I had been more prepared with Bible in hand!

Romans 4:5
“And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”

Romans 4:13
“For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.

Galatians 2:15-16
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

Galatians 2:21
“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”

Galatians 3:2-3
“Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?  Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”

Ephesians 2:8-10
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Philippians 3:8-9
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…”

Despite these clear Biblical evidences, people generally have two problems with this doctrine. They say that the book of James teaches justification by faith and works, and they say that the doctrine of justification by faith alone leads to moral laxness on the part of the believer.

In my conversation with the Orthodox priest, he immediately brought up James, who seems to say something completely contrary to Paul:

James 3:21-24
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.  You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

One thing is for sure. If you believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, both Paul and James cannot be saying contradictory things, for that would make God a liar. And that is an impossibility (Hebrews 6:18).

Are we to side with Luther who believed that the epistle of James lacked apostolic authorship, and therefore had no place in the Canon?

R.C. Sproul, in his book Knowing Scripture, points out a key idea in hermeneutics, one that is surprisingly simple and solves the dilemma between these two passages. The dilemma can be solved when we realize that words have different meanings (a novel thought indeed!).

The word justify, Sproul points out, can mean different things in different contexts.

Sproul writes:
“The term justify may mean (1) to restore to a state of reconciliation with God those who stand under the judgment of his law or (2) to demonstrate or to vindicate” (83).

Sproul then quotes Luke 7:35 which says (Jesus' words), “Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.” Jesus obviously does not mean the first of Sproul’s definitions. He obviously means the second. 

Paul and James are both writing in separate contexts. Paul is writing to solve the question “Are we saved by the works of the law?”  And his answer is resolute: You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). Only through faith are we imputed with Christ’s righteousness!

James on the other hand is answering the question, “What kind of faith will save you?” James was dealing with those who were saying they had faith, when in reality their actions showed the opposite (James 2:15-16).

Again, Sproul’s words are helpful:
“[James] is saying that true faith brings forth works. A faith without works he calls a dead faith, a faith that is not genuine. The point is that people can say they have faith when in fact they have no faith. The claim to faith is vindicated or justified when it is manifested by the fruit of faith, namely, works. Abraham is justified or vindicated in our sight by his fruit. In a sense, Abraham’s claim to justification is justified by his works. The Reformers understood that when they stated the formula, “Justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone” (83-84).

We are regenerated unto faith by the Holy Spirit, and true faith is always followed by works of righteousness. True believers will walk in accord with “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). But we can never take good works out of order, as the two verses before Ephesians 2:10 say, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Because true faith naturally leads to good works, the doctrine of justification by faith alone does not lead to laxness in doing good on the part of the believer. Interestingly, Paul had to deal with the same question (Romans 6:1,15).

Apparently when we get the doctrine of justification right, people will respond with comments like “Well then I can just do as I please!” Because Paul dealt with these exact questions, isn’t it fair to assume that the Reformers delineated from Scripture the same view of justification by faith alone that Paul taught?

So in response to the question of carelessness in doing good works, or in sinning because there is no danger, I respond with the words of Paul:

Romans 6:1-14
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.  Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Luther said that justification was the article upon which the church would stand or fall. Let us not give up the words of Scripture! Let us always hold dear the free gift of our salvation by faith alone! And let’s live lives full of good works in thankfulness for that message!

Verses I excluded for sake of length: