Friday, December 28, 2012

(Real, Deep, Passionate, Honest, Truthful, Heartfelt) Communion With God

Upon reading the last page of John Piper’s book Contending for Our All: Defending Truth and Treasuring Christ in the Lives of Athanasius, John Owen, and J. Gresham Machen, I was amazed.

Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, was exiled five times for his belief in the hypostatic union of Christ. All five exiles occurred after the Council of Nicaea (325), which clearly stated that Jesus was “begotten, not made” and that he was “very God of very God.” Despite this, Athanasius fought contra mundum (against the world) of Arianism that was so vivacious during that time.

J. Gresham Machen was kicked out of the PCUSA and battled Liberalism (what he would also call Modernism) his entire life. Preachers of Machen’s day were saying that the old truths of the Bible needed to be interpreted in new ways. This included reinterpreting the Westminster Confessions, so that the liberals would affirm what the document said, but reinterpret the words to mean                                           something entirely different. 

John Owen, the great Puritan theologian, experienced severe trials in the midst of his life. He watched all of his eleven children die (ten in infancy) and the death of his wife. Nonetheless, he had a stunning writing career characterized by faithfulness to his God.

How could these three men go through what they did and still be passionate contenders for the truth?

The answer is perhaps simpler than we think. These men were weak and sinful, just like the Apostles. There was nothing inherent in these men that made them great. But God worked mightily in the minds and hearts of his servants by his Spirit to impress upon them the knowledge of God.

Theology is of imperative importance. It is through theology, through what we believe about God, through the doctrine that we hold, that we come to know our creator. We must begin to trust God for who he has revealed himself to be. John Owen said no less:

“When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth—when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us—when not the sense of the words only in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts—when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for—then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.”

It’s more than just the evidence of the truth. It’s what that truth means! It’s having more than just a theology in our heads that we know intellectually. It’s about having communion with God himself through what we intellectually know, so our whole being comprehends not just the construct meaning of a theological sentence, but the meaning of that sentence applied to our life. It’s not about sturdy, stalky, Reformed martyrdom, "because that’s just the way we’ve always believed." It’s about loving God because of or based on the doctrine we hold.

We can only know God truly by knowing something about him, about who he is as a Person. This is not to say that if we know theology we will actually know God, that is, in the depth of our being. Yes, there are those, as Owen insinuates, who only embrace God with the mind intellectually. And that is wrong and dangerous and unchristian. The true Christian longs for the joy which David talks about in Psalm 16:

 “Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;
                              my flesh also dwells secure.

This type of joy, for David, was based on the knowledge of the steadfast covenantal love of God. If there’s one thing obvious while reading the Psalms, it’s that David was totally amazed by the grace and mercy of God. He trusted God to forgive him, to preserve him, to deliver him. Why? Not because of some mystical experience, but rather because of knowledge grasped by the heart. God actually forgave him, preserved him, delivered him, and David came to know God personally through these things. 

In order to know God in the depth of our being we know him with and through the mind first, not through some emotion, some fleeting feeling of his presence. We know who God is through Scripture, through what he’s provided for us, and the beautiful inheritance which we have (Psalm 16:6). We know God with the mind first, and we never stop loving God with the mind after. The mind is a portion of who we are as “whole” entire beings.

There are people who do not love God with the mind. They prefer experiences of God not based on knowledge of the truth. Others (and perhaps these are the ones who desire the experience rather than the truth)  love God simply for what he can give them. J. Gresham Machen spoke of these people in his book What is Faith? saying,

“We are subject to many pressing needs, and we are too much inclined to value God, not for his own sake, but only because He can satisfy those needs” (72).

Machen goes on to say that we have the needs and desires of food, clothing, family, and work. Much of the time God is obliged to give us these things.

All these desires, Machen says,

“… are lofty desires. But there is one desire that is loftier still. It is the desire for God Himself. That desire, too often, we forget. We value God solely for the things that He can do; we make of Him a mere means to an ulterior end. And God refuses to be treated so; such a religion always fails in the hour of need. If we have regarded religion merely as a means of getting things – even lofty and unselfish things–then when the things that have been gotten are destroyed, our faith will fail. When loved ones are taken away, when disappointment comes and failure, when noble ambitions are set at naught, then we turn away from God; we have tried religion, we say, we have tried prayer, and it has failed. Of course it has failed! God is not content to be an instrument in our hand or a servant at our beck and call. He is not content to minister to the worldly needs of those who care not a bit for Him. The text in the eighth chapter of Romans does not mean that religion provides a certain formula for obtaining worldly–even the highest and most ennobling–and most unselfish of worldly benefits. “If God be for us, who can be against us?”–that does not mean that faith in God will bring us everything we desire. What it does mean is that if we possess God, then we can meet with equanimity the loss of all besides” (73-74).

Machen goes on to ask how we can attain communion with God. It is certainly not by pure feeling: 

“Many men, as has already been observed, are telling us that we should not seek to know Him at all; theology, we are told, is the death of religion. We do not know God, then–such seems to be the logical implication of this view–but simply feel Him” (74).

Machen goes on to talk about the religion of sheer "feeling":

“Whatever may be thought of such a religion, I cannot see that it possess any moral quality at all; pure feeling is non-moral, and so is religion that is not founded upon theology. What makes our love for a true friend, for example, such an ennobling thing is the recognition by our mind of the character of our friend. Human affection, so beautiful in its apparent simplicity, really depends upon a treasured host of observations of the actions of our friend. So it is also in the case of our relation to God. It is because we know certain things about Him, it is because we know that He is mighty and holy and loving, that our communion with Him obtains its peculiar quality. The devout man cannot be indifferent to doctrine, in the sense in which many modern preachers would have us be indifferent, any more then He can listen with equanimity to misrepresentations of an earthly friend. Our faith in God, despite all that is said, is indissolubly connected with what we think of Him. The devout man may indeed well do without a complete systematization of his knowledge–though if He be really devout He will desire just as complete a systematization as He can possibly obtain–but some knowledge He certainly must have” (75).

How can we come to know this God, Machen asks? We know God through nature, conscience and the Bible (76-77).

The Bible is the most important, as it tells us how we may come to know and see the Father on a personal level:

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9).

We see the Father through Jesus Christ the son. We come to love him, as previously loved by him. In Christ we see all the passion of God the Father to save his people from their sin. We see the justice of the Father as Jesus drank the cup of wrath reserved for his sheep. We see Jesus’ disciples desert him, but Jesus lovingly pull them back into the fold, preparing them for service, to tell all the world that the Old Testament scriptures were written about him (Luke 24:27).

From the fall, God had said that an heir would crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). The secret hidden for ages is now plainly revealed by the Scriptures Christians pick up and read every week (and hopefully every day). The Gentiles are fellow-heirs with Christ, brought near by the blood of the Lamb. Christ reigns supreme, bringing all things in subjection to himself. The sting of death is gone.

How did Athanasius, Machen, Owen, and the Apostles all contend so earnestly for the faith, despite intense hardship, suffering and trial? It was certainly not because they were great. It is because God was. God was their all, revealed in love through Christ, who was their treasure. They were struck deeply by the Holy Spirit through the things they knew. The drama of the Bible revealed the theology of the Bible. They had real, deep, passionate, honest, truthful, heartfelt communion with God in the doctrine they held to so firmly. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

A (short) Pauline Theology of the Gospel

This is a short paper I wrote for my Pauline Literature class. Hope it helps clarify some things about the gospel. This is not meant to be an intensive paper on all the times Paul uses the word gospel, but rather a broad summary of its usage in the Pauline corpus:


           “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). The gospel was the reason behind everything Paul did. He writes in Romans 1:1 that he was “set apart for the gospel of God.” Paul knew that the gospel was “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Why? “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). The gospel reveals the righteousness of God.

            In the current state of Evangelicalism and in broader academic circles the term “gospel” has come to mean several things. Some take it to mean justification (or mostly justification), that is, the legal status of “not guilty” declared over a Christian who believes in Christ and is consequently given the imputed righteousness of Christ. Others, especially those who sympathize with the New Perspectives on Paul (NPP) tend to mean the lordship of Christ when they speak of the gospel. Others say that the gospel encapsulates all the benefits which we receive through union with Christ. In light of possible confusions of the term, then, it is necessary to go back to the biblical text and examine what Paul had in mind when he spoke of the gospel.

            The gospel promise existed in the Old Testament. As Paul says in Galatians 3:8, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So the gospel has to do with God justifying Gentiles by faith, and also with blessing that would come from Abraham. How this would all come about had been a secret hidden in the ages in God, but now revealed plainly in the present time to Paul and the Apostles. As Ephesians 3:6 says, “This [secret] is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Paul goes on to say in the same chapter that he has been given the task to preach the “unsearchable riches of Christ” to the Gentiles and to bring to light “for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages” (Ephesians 3:8-9). Simplifying what is being said, the gospel is what God has done (accomplished) in Christ for all who believe. The gospel is what Christ has accomplished and obtained for his elect!

            The unsearchable riches of Christ are just that, unsearchable. But it is Paul’s firm desire that the Ephesian Christians would “know what is the hope to which he [had] called [them], what [were] the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18). Paul wants Christians to know what God has done for them! Therefore Paul goes on in the same passage to mention the power that God worked in Christ in raising him from the dead, and in seating him at his own right hand (Ephesians 1:19-20). So the gospel has to do with Christ’s earthly mission, to fulfill all righteousness and set captives free, to rise from the dead and conquer death, and to be seated at God’s right hand. Already the narrow definition of the NPP is too simplistic. For further proof, one could read 1 Cor. 15, where Paul reminds the Corinthians of the gospel that he preached to them. He says “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time” (1 Cor. 15:3-6). The lordship of Christ does not even come up in this passage. This is not to say that Christ’s lordship is not an important piece of the gospel, or that the gospel is only Christ’s death and resurrection, but certainly Paul would have been more explicit to point out the lordship of Christ if Paul had a NPP perspective. The gospel is extensively more than Christ’s lordship. It is the whole story of redemption and all the unsearchable riches of Christ won for the elect!

            This story of redemption includes predestination, adoption, and the forgiveness of sins. Paul says in Ephesians 1:5, “[God] predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ…” Paul uses the language of adoption in Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:5. Romans 8:29-30 spells out the golden chain of salvation, the things gained for Christians by Christ when it says, “ For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” One can see then, that the narrow definition of the gospel as justification by faith alone does not do justice to the term gospel, though justification is a hugely important aspect of all that Christians receive through faith in Christ. A legal status change is another aspect of the believer’s union with Christ.

            The gospel also contains the promise of a future inheritance. Paul speaks of the “the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel…” (Colossians 1:5). This eschatological hope is already here (as Christians are said to be in the heavenlies in Ephesians 2:6) and still to come in complete fulfillment.

            The gospel is an announcement. An announcement of something that has been accomplished by God through Christ, and applied to Christian hearts by the Holy Spirit. At times, it seems the gospel is used narrowly by Paul to highlight certain aspects of the entire message of the gospel, and at other times to encapsulate everything in the arena of salvation. What does Paul mean by the gospel? He means the whole life, death, resurrection, ascension and kingly reign of Christ. He means all things accomplished for those who believe which includes justification, adoption, glorification, and all the unsearchable riches of Christ for those who trust in him, which includes the sealing power of the Holy Spirit that guarantees our inheritance now. This was the secret formed from before time began: that the Gentiles would be fellow heirs with Christ, and gain all things needed for salvation through Christ’s accomplished work.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Where Was God? Why Mike Huckabee is Wrong

Everyone wants an easy answer to explain the mass murder in Connecticut. How do we rationalize the brutal murder of more than 25 people? In response, some Christians are giving a truly harmful and dangerous answer in the form of this video from Mike Huckabee on Fox News.

Huckabee says in the video that Neil Cavuto asked him this question: Where was God in this calamity? In response Huckabee says, “For 50 years we’ve systematically attempted to have God removed from our schools, our public activities, but then in the moment of calamity we wonder where he was… It’s the fact that people sue a city so we aren’t confronted with a manger scene… We carefully and intentionally stop saying things are sinful… We’ve escorted him right out of our culture…and then we express our surprise that a culture without him, actually reflects what it’s become.”

In 1927, a man bombed an elementary school which killed 38 elementary school children. It is known as the “Bath School Disaster”. Now I’m no math whiz, but I know that 1927 has not been in the past fifty years.

Beyond that, however, Huckabee’s reasoning is dangerous because it insinuates that if American culture simply "brought God back" (like he was ever really gone?), if we emphasized Judeo Christian values and morals, if we went back to the 1950s, this thing wouldn't have happened. If we obey God’s commands on the basic whole, of course blessing will follow!

There’s a reason the prosperity "gospel" so easily masquerades itself as the true gospel in this country and abroad. Because nothing truly terrible comes upon the righteous, right? Because our lives are just peachy when we obey his commands, right? Just let go and let God. “When we walk with the Lord, in the light of his Word, what a glory he sheds on our way” right? Because that worked so well for Paul!

A culture which emphasizes God and morals doesn't stop people from acting in an immoral way. The problem is the evil human heart.

Huckabee’s comments grow out of the pernicious idea that America is God’s nation, that our forefathers were all Christians, or at least godly men, and throughout the past half century, out of the blue, people just decided that God's values and Christianity really just weren’t their forte anymore.

The law is written on the heart of all mankind (Romans 2:15), making it bountifully obvious that people know it's wrong to murder. And get this, they know it's wrong to kill, even without the express commands of the Decalogue in courthouses! People don't need faith in Christ to be moral people. 

Even so, we easily forget the story of Job. Job was a really, really great guy by human standards. Just read Job 29. And guess what? Though he was righteous in God’s sight, and lived his life in a godly manner, everything but his life was taken from him. His children were killed, his riches lost, boils covered his body, and his own wife told him to curse God and die.

Is this really what we signed up for? Scraping boils off our bodies? Is this really what the Christian life is? Our children dying? Woe upon woe, suffering upon suffering? The servant is not greater than his master!

America is not God’s nation. No earthly country can be. The  true Church is God’s nation. As Peter says, the Church is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light…” (1 Peter 2:9). I'll say it again: America is not the Church! America is an earthly nation!

Until Christians make it to heaven, calamities will befall us. Our spouses and children may die (they may even be murdered) by evil actions, and we will be tempted to curse God. But we were not there when God created the world. We don’t know all the ins and outs of his plan.

The baby boys under the age of two were killed in Bethlehem after Jesus was born. Herod gave the order. The soldiers carried it out. God permitted it. 

Here’s what I do know. Those families do not need to hear that the reason their children are now dead is because our country as a whole has given the proverbial finger to God. They were murdered because humans are evil, and this one human being was completely given over to his deeply entrenched sin. God took away his restraining grace, and we saw the fruits of it last week. We got a taste of human nature at its worst. There but for the grace of God go I!

Why would God allow it?

I don’t know. I’m not God. I don’t know the intricacies of his divine plan. I know that he did allow it. And I do know this: “…in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). He worked through Jospeh to provide food to a whole world ravaged by famine. He worked through the death of his own son to give us forgiveness of sins and life!

I know this: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35-27).

The families in Connecticut need to hear the gospel. They need to hear that Jesus came to save sinners, that he came to defeat death, and he is bringing us to the new heavens and the new earth where there will be no sorrow, weeping, or gnashing of teeth. God understands what it is like to have a child brutally murdered. We killed his Son, who lived a perfect life. But in the death of Christ, we have forgiveness of sins and everlasting joy, an inheritance “which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith…” (1 Peter 1:4). 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

5 Benefits of Growing Up in a Traditional Reformed Church

Some people love traditional Reformed churches. Some people despise them. Some people are indifferent. I’m in the first group. Though this is not a comprehensive list, here are five important reasons why I love the traditional Reformed church:

      1.      The Gospel: I have heard constant, God glorifying, Christ exalting, gospel preaching in nearly every traditional Reformed church I have set foot in. I learned (and learn) about my sin, my whoredom, my lack of faith, my hardness of heart. But I learn also of Christ’s perfection, Christ’s union with me, Christ’s pursuit, God's mercy, God’s grace. I’ve been overwhelmed in two ways in the Reformed Church: One with how terrible and deplorable and disgusting I am to God, but also how much God loves me in Christ despite myself, and says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” In traditional Reformed churches, I’ve learned to rest on Christ.

      2.      Expositional Preaching Through Books: In nearly every traditional Reformed church I’ve been in, the Pastor never gets on a hobby horse topic. Presented is not ten ways to a better marriage. There aren’t five steps to using your money well. There is application, but it’s in its proper place. In Reformed Churches I have received the whole counsel of God, working through the nitty-gritty passages that no seeker-sensitive Church would dare to touch.

      3.      Catechesis: From the time I was a young child, I was answering questions that told me about who God was. “Q. Why did God Make you? A. For his own glory.” I had the knowledge implanted in me, and it was worked (slowly) into the heart by the Holy Spirit. I have been privileged to go through the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt,  and Louis Berkhof’s Summary of Christian Doctrine in catechism classes. My Elders and Pastor cared enough to teach me these things. They cared enough to answer questions. They cared enough to teach me what they believed were faithful summaries of Scripture. They knew that for something to drop into the heart, that is, to be known with the entire being, it must come through the mind. I love God today because of who he is, and because of what he has done. Both of these things I have grasped with the mind. The Spirit applied them to know why it mattered.

      4.      Seriousness of Worship: There is a certain seriousness in coming to worship in traditional Reformed churches. Worshiping with the sense of reverence and awe, in the splendor of holiness. This has nothing to do with the holy hardware hanging up on the church walls, pictures, crosses, the beauty of the building etc. This has to do with God’s character. The splendor of his love. The sheer awesome wrath with which he judges the wicked, and the glory of the gospel through which he loves those whom he has foreknown. In worship God himself stoops down to impart his Word to us. Through a close proximity with God, because of the dialogue that happens between God and his people, I learned that God isn't like any god you tamper with. He’s not a cosmic bellboy. He’s the God of the universe, and I am a worm. Though I sin heinously, yet he loves me still.

      5.      Hospitality: Throughout my college years, so many Reformed people have opened their homes to me. I think perhaps the greatest condemnation from other Christians about certain Reformed churches is that they should act instead of signing a check. In my experience, however, Reformed people have shown kindness, hospitality, and patience. They have shown that their faith is not dead. They have shown that good works accompany a true faith. How wonderful to be in a denomination (I am a member in the United Reformed Church) which takes the command of hospitality seriously. In my estimations, in traditional Reformed churches I have been invited over to people’s homes (or gone to fellowship lunches) more than 30 times through my college experience. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Zacharias Ursinus and Law/Gospel Distinctions

In Zacharias Ursinus' Commentary on the Heidelberg  Catechism, he explains law/gospel distinctions. I find this immensely helpful in light of a presentation I gave in a class of mine against a New Perspective on Paul article by Michael Cranford which can be found here.

This is the section taken from Ursinus, from pages 104-105 of his commentary:

III. In What Does the Gospel Differ From the Law?

      "The gospel and the law agree in this, that they are both from God, and that there is something revealed in each concerning the nature, will, and works of God. There is, however, a very great difference between them:

     1.      In the revelation which they contain; or, as it respects the manner in which the revelation peculiar to each is made known. The law was engraven upon the heart of man in his creation, and is therefore known to all naturally although no other revelation were given. “The Gentiles have the work of the law written on their heart.” (Romans 2:15.) The gospel is not known naturally, but is divinely revealed to the Church alone through Christ, the Mediator. For no creature could have seen or hoped for that mitigation of the law concerning satisfaction for our sins through another, if the Son of God had not revealed it. “No man knoweth the Father, but the Son, and he to whom the son will reveal him.” “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee.” “The Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” (Matt. 11:27; 16:17.)

2.      In the kind of doctrine, or subject peculiar to each. The law teaches us what we ought to be, and what God requires of us, but it does not give us the ability to perform it, nor does it point out the way by which we may avoid what is forbidden. But the gospel teaches us in what manner we may be made such as the law requires: for it offers unto us the promise of that grace, by having the righteousness of Christ imputed to us through faith, and that in such a way as if it were properly ours, teaching us that we are just before God, through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The law says, “Pay what thou owest.” “Do this and live.” (Matt. 18:28. Luke 10:28.) The gospel says, “Only believe.” (Mark 5:36.)

3.      In the promises. The law promises life to those who are righteous in themselves, or on the condition of righteousness, and perfect obedience.”He that doeth them, shall live in them.” “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Lev. 18:5. Matt. 19:17.) The gospel, on the other hand, promises life to those who are justified by faith in Christ, or on the condition of the righteousness of Christ, applied unto us by faith. The law and the gospel are, however, not opposed to each other in these respects: for although the law requires us to keep the commandments if we would enter into life, yet it does not exclude us from life if another perform these things for us. It does indeed propose a way of satisfaction, which is through ourselves, but it does not forbid the other, as has been shown.  

4.      They differ in their effects. The law, without the gospel, is the letter which killeth, and is the ministration of death: “For by the law is the knowledge of sin.” “The law worketh wrath; and the letter killeth.” (Rom. 3:20; 4:15. 2 Cor. 3:6.) The outward preaching, and simple knowledge of what ought to be done, is known through the letter: for it declares our duty, and that righteousness which God requires; and, whilst it neither gives us the ability to perform, nor points out the way through which it may be attained, it finds fault with, and condemns our righteousness. But the gospel is the ministration of life, and of the Spirit, that is, it has the operations of Spirit united with it, and quickens those that are dead in sin, because it is through the gospel that the Holy Spirit works faith and life in the elect. “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation,” &c. (Rom. 1:16.)"