Monday, May 31, 2010

The Heavenly Vision of Faith

Or, The Connection between Faith and Works

What is faith?  A definition is given in the following excerpt from the famous 11th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews:

Hebrews 11:1-2  Now faith is the substance [or, assurance] of things hoped for, the evidence [or, conviction] of things not seen.  For by it the elders obtained a good testimony.
This famous passage speaks of faith as an assured conviction that the future fulfillment of the as yet unseen promises of God will certainly come to pass.

This chapter includes the great litany of the faith of the ancient saints and all their exploits and sufferings which they endured for the sake of these promises.

  • By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain...
  • By faith Enoch was taken away...
  • By faith Noah ... prepared an ark...
  • By faith Abraham obeyed ... and he went out..., and he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
  • They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword.
In the context of this chapter, it's clear that these exploits and works of daring perseverance and endurance were a product of true faith, a living thing and gift of God in our souls, a vision of the city of God that makes us able to stand for the gospel in mighty exploits and sufferings.  This living faith is not a work, nor is it a mere lifeless assent to truth, which flees from us in sins and tribulations.  It is soul-rest in the certainty of God's promise of the heavenly city, which we enter through the work of our faithful high-priest and mediator, Jesus Christ.

See end of the story told in this Epistle about the Israelite apostasy in the wilderness:

Hebrews 3:18-19  And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey?  So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.
The problem with them was not that they did not add works to their faith.  The problem was that the ones who apostatized had no real faith at all.  Of course, at one point, they said that they did.  But testing proved the claim false.

So, how do we prove ourselves to be faithful, like those ancient worthies who have gone before?  By trust in God's promise, in spite of the temptations and distractions of sin, even in the face of death.  This faith is not a work, but a soul-rest in God's saving power.  This conviction of truth moves us to stand for the gospel.  Sanctification is a direct consequence of confidence in the saving and delivering promise of God.

And, by the way, it's best to describe this true and living faith in Scriptural terms.  It's just "faith."  The so-called "faith" of those who profess faith but then fall away from the Lord's call, is a complicated and devious pseudo-faith, so evil that it can't be unraveled, discerned, understood or explained by the mind of man.  Those who hold it are self-deceived.

Real faith is just simple, not complicated -- like the faith of a child.  You rest in it.  God's promise is certain.  Christ's work is done.

Rest all your weight and destiny on the Rock Christ.

He is holding on to you!  And, nothing can pluck you from his hand.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Sight of Faith

The man born blind was sent by Jesus to the pool of Siloam to be healed (John 9). Later, after the man was rejected by the Jewish leadership council, Jesus found him, in order to reveal himself to him more clearly.  Here is the conversation:

John 9:35-39  Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when He had found him, He said to him, "Do you believe in the Son of God?" He answered and said, "Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?"  And Jesus said to him, "You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you."  Then he said, "Lord, I believe!" And he worshiped Him. 
Note the four words I have taken the liberty to underline.  The blind man had already "seen" Jesus before he saw him in the flesh.  He "saw" spiritually, though blind physically.  This story is just not fundamentally about physical healing.  The physical healing is a gift of grace, and an intimation of the integrity of the resurrection body that is given to the man who "saw" while blind.  But, the real "theology" is about spiritual perception.

And Jesus said, "For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind." Then some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these words, and said to Him, "Are we blind also?"  Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, 'We see.' Therefore your sin remains. 
I reverently suggest that what Jesus means is this:  His coming into the world is to execute a judgment, in order that those who [recognize that they] do not see [spiritually] may see, and that those who [assert that they do see, but they do not] may be made blind.  That is, the spiritually dead and sinners are recovered to life by repentance and faith in Christ himself, but the unrepentant and those spiritually blind to Christ are further enslaved in their blindness by his own testimony, and as a result are condemned.

There is a lifestyle here.  This passage speaks not only of that great transition from death to life which is connected with conversion to Christ, but also with the way we go on in this life.  Being brought low before Christ by our tribulations brings self-abasement, repentance, faith, dependence on Christ, love, joy, peace, patience, the vision of heaven seen by faith, and power by the Spirit.  To the sight of the flesh, what appears to be the way up to spiritual greatness is the way to hell.  But, to the sight given by the Spirit, the way to heaven is the way down, to Christ in his sufferings in the world, to Christ in his manner of life in this world, and soon, to Christ as he is in his resurrection and glory.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Losing and Regaining the Song

The attacks of Satan that cause me to lose my song are very subtle, and often are only slowly recognized, as it dawns that I've been "conned" and deluded into this by him, through my own weakness and lust.

Therefore, emerging into the light again brings new repentance, new meekness, new faith in God through Christ, and new power of service for him. 

The Scripture says:

Luke 22:31-32   And the Lord said, "Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren."
Peter was hoodwinked into denying the Lord, and his sin was exposed by the rooster and the glance of the Lord.  He wept -- I'm sure not only for what he'd done, but for how he didn't have the guts to reverse course where he stood.  But, he was recovered to his senses.  Empowered by the Spirit, he converted 3000 men on the day of Pentecost.

Yes, we are stunned by the attacks of Satan -- but the Lord turns it for good.

We should sing a new song!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A New Song

At those times when we are spiritually "down," it's good to be encouraged by the gift of a new song from the Lord.

Psalm 33
Rev 14:1-3

The circumstances of life, the mysteries, the tribulations, the unknowns, and the covert, destructive impulses of the flesh and attacks of the devil suck joy out of us, but the song of God brings it back!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Jesus Kingship -- Over this world, but not Of it

Jesus before Pilate (John 18:33-37)

Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to Him, "Are You the King of the Jews?" 
Jesus answered him, "Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning Me?" 
Pilate answered, "Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You to me. What have You done?" 
Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here." 
Pilate therefore said to Him, "Are You a king then?"
Jesus answered, "You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice."
In this passage Jesus sets the tone for the nature of today's manifestation of his Kingdom, which he then carries out on the cross!  He has previously revealed the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven to his disciples (while hiding this revelation from the spiritually non-discerning by means of parables), and he has shown that this new and glorious form of his Kingdom, not previously revealed, and oriented to the gospel, is a form of the Kingdom which paradoxically appears weak in the eyes of the world or to the carnally minded, while it is yet strong with spiritual power to demolish all strongholds against Christ.

It is well-known that the Jews expected the Messiah to expel the Romans when he came.  They understood the victory-motif in the prophets, and expected that the Great Prophet prophesied by Moses would carry this out.  Their assumptions were clearly that the politico-economic realm would simply be ruled according to the same laws (physical, moral and political) as it always had been, but that the law would be enforced by the political and military power of the Messiah.  This is why something like the Beatitudes would be so unintelligible, or even repugnant to them -- or why a Suffering Servant could not be King.  The fact that Jesus seemed to show no promise along the lines of temporal deliverance was one carnal reason for his rejection by the Pharisees, Zealots, and similar persons.

The use of the term "mysteries of the Kingdom" means that there were as yet unrevealed aspects of the promised Kingdom that were not known in the Old Covenant Scriptures.  Part of Jesus preaching ministry was to prepare his disciples, and ultimately his church, to understand these previously unrevealed aspects of the Messianic Kingdom, so that we can see the new glory in it, not be disappointed in our tribulations (which are our glory), have hope, and know what to expect and how to behave, as we wait for the manifestation of Christ at his Coming. 

Christ is the King.  He doesn't look like a King to the world, but he rules it.  We shall judge angels -- but we look like slaves to the world.  The gospel is powerful and converts the world, but appears foolish to the world.  God doesn't have a special love for worldly elites, or worldly manifestations of power, or man-made philosophy, or mighty man-pleasing rhetoric.  These are the weak things in his eyes.

It is the weak ones in the eyes of the world who are actually the strong.  Those who give up their lives for Christ keep the world running and receive the eternal rewards.  Luther thought that the sun rose because the Christians prayed.  Everything is upside down compared to the world's view, and we must see this.  The servant life, as slaves of Christ, is the powerful and effective life.  The quiet life, working with our own hands, is the foundation of culture.  The foolishness of the gospel is what converts the culture, in spite of its opposition.

This is very serious.  "Kingdom work" is God's work.  How he rules and increases the spread and power of the gospel is a mystery, but he does.  We do our little parts, tending and watering the Divine Project, as we live a quiet life of mutual love, and offer Christ to a lost world.  All our might that could be worldly, all our money that could be great, all our personal powers and education that could be impressive in the world, all our worldly status, all our personal gifts, must be put to use in this way.  All our ways of promoting the knowledge of Christ must partake of the lowliness exemplified in the life of Christ, because these means are the means empowered by God for victory!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

How to Speak the Gospel

I suspect that part of our difficulty in speaking the gospel to our friends, and to the man in the street, is caused by making it too complicated.  This post presents a "simpler" option for your consideration.

Consider Paul's gospel:

Read 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.  

Paul is delivering something which he received and is passing on.  He did not construct his own gospel presentation.

The essential elements of the presentation are these:

1)  Christ died for our sins,
           in accordance with the Old Testament Scriptures.
2)  He was buried.
3)  He rose again the third day,
           in accordance with the Old Testament Scriptures.
4)  He was seen alive by a great many witnesses.

The space given to the witnesses of the resurrection shows how important this is.  The witnesses were many, and the list seems to be carefully given in chronological order:  He was seen by Cephas (Peter), then by the twelve (apostles), then by over 500 brethren at once, most of whom are still alive (you can go and ask them about it), then by James, then by all the apostles (again), then last of all by me (Paul).

The more time one has to tell the story, and the more patience potential listeners have to listen to it, the more Biblical and theological content can be put in, but what Paul gives here as the gospel is basic.

The Holy Spirit is the engine of conversion, and this simple rendition is the story he uses to create faith.  It really doesn't matter if someone who hears this has ever been in church.  The facts of Jesus' divine nature (Son of God), his death for our sins, his burial, and his resurrection are key.

See 2 Corinthians 5:18-23 for a partial gospel rendition which speaks more of the exchange of sin and righteousness between believers and Jesus Christ.  I only say it's partial because it is speaking in a church context and does not mention the resurrection.  That is simply understood.  The word of the resurrection, however, is absolutely key in any witness to outsiders.

See Acts 17:22-35 for an example of witnessing to intellectuals.  There is more "theism" taught there, that is, the doctrine of God, taught from the standpoint of natural revelation, followed by the doctrine of man, again reasoning on the basis of common grace, but Paul's presentation ends up in the story of special grace:  the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

An amateur theologian wrestles with theology

Some may be familiar with the "Romans Road," or other witnessing method based on a deeper exposition of the doctrines of law and gospel, penal substitution and justification by faith.  I don't suggest by not giving that as an example, that it's not the right thing to use.  What I do suggest is that our witnessing methodology needs to be sure to present the experience of the actual, living, physical Christ, in his death, burial, and resurrection.  It's not proper to let that fall too much into the background, if we try to speak the gospel (especially to outsiders) by talking more deeply about covenants, law and gospel, total depravity, penal substitution and justification by faith than we do about the biography of Christ.  Christ falls into the background even as certain intellectual content of the faith moves to the foreground.

There is inexhaustible intellectual content to our faith -- Christ is the fountain of all wisdom -- and we want this wisdom.  But, there is a theological problem that can occur with theology.  Our faith has intellectual content, but it is not fundamentally an intellectual system.  Our relationship to Christ is "organic," by the Spirit.  We live because he died for us and lives again, not because of the depth of our understanding.  We live because of what he did, not because of our explanations of what he did, however correct.  Our simple faith in the simplicity of the gospel message will lead to deeper understanding, but not the other way around.

This affects how the gospel of Christ is preached, spoken, described, or announced.  It is about Christ, and what he did, when he "died for our sins and rose again."  This keeps the gospel simple enough to say to our friends and neighbors -- perhaps in a single sentence!

Down to Glory (Psalm 3)

Every misbehavior of David's older sons has to wring from David's heart a confession of his own sin.  This is most likely why, when Absalom was killed, that David mourned so greatly and so pitiably.  If he, David, had died for his sin with Bathsheba, then perhaps his sons would not have died under the curse of evil and violence that God laid upon his family after that sin.  But, in the midst of the evil, and the reminder of his own sin seen in it, David cries out to God and paradoxically is saved and vindicated!

Psalm 3:  A Psalm of David when he fled from Absalom his son. 
LORD, how they have increased who trouble me! Many are they who rise up against me.  Many are they who say of me, "There is no help for him in God."
But you, O LORD, are a shield for me, my glory and the one who lifts up my head.  I cried to the LORD with my voice, and He heard me from His holy hill.
I lay down and slept; I awoke, for the LORD sustained me.  I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around. 
Arise, O LORD; Save me, O my God! For You have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone; You have broken the teeth of the ungodly.  Salvation belongs to the LORD. Your blessing is upon Your people.
The last thing we should do with this psalm is to imagine David, sitting calmly in his theological complacency, so full of "faith" that his heart is untouched with pain or passion.

One can be sure that he feels the threat and hears the voices that testify to him that his case is hopeless, that his house is fallen, and that by his own fault.  In fact, he feels the threat of doom so strongly that he cries out to God.  He cries in faith, to be sure.  But he cries.  And, the cry is heard!  However far away that holy hill is (behind him in Jerusalem, now dominated by Absalom) or even that hill of heaven of which Jerusalem is only the footstool, his puny voice was heard, because he cried to the God of his salvation -- the God of promise who promised him the house and family that would lead to Messiah -- in spite of all present appearances.

David is shielded; he is comforted.  He sleeps well, because the comfort of his God has come to him.  Now he fears nothing.  He calls upon his God for deliverance, and expects it!  In fact, even as he flees, vindication is certain.  It has already come in the language of the psalm.  And, in the end, it will appear!

There is a curious consequence of the blessing and the curse that have fallen upon David's family.  It is this.  Both the promise and the curse falling upon David's family due to his sin eventually falls upon the Greater Son of David.  The promised Son, the "final member" of the holy and eternal line of Kings, dies too -- and for sin!  The promise of life, and the curse of death, meet in this Man.  Both the promise and the doom reach their complete fulfillment.  But, death is swallowed up in victory!  By omnipotence evil is made to serve the good!  There is total deliverance in glory!

So it is for us sinners to who trust in the Lord. David's experience is so often the "look and feel" of our own calling.  But, take heart!  No matter how black it looks, never stop serving the Lord!  Beyond the suffering, the despair and what seems to be personal failure is vindication for the believer and glory in the Lord!  Wait for it!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Gospel of Abraham

In Genesis 12, it is recorded that God called Abram out of Ur, promising to make him into a great nation.  God said to him, "In you shall all the families of the earth be blessed."  Paul, in Galatians 3, implies strongly that Abraham was believing at this point.  

In Genesis 15, it is explicitly recorded that the Messianic Promise of the Seed was made to Abram, which he believed.  His continuing and increasing faith was put to his account as if it were righteousness -- not because of the merit of believing, but because of the power and authority of the one believed.

The curious thing about all this is that Abram is not believing an offer of the promise, but believing a promise.  An "offer" is contingent on fulfillment of the condition (faith).  But, Abram is believing a promise which is not said to be contingent.  In effect, Abraham believed the promise of his own election!  Humanly speaking, of course, his receiving the gift of salvation is contingent on his faith, as it is for all of us.  But, this instance in the history of Abraham shows that God can speak the gospel (from the standpoint of his election to salvation) apart from any contingency.  God said to Abraham (the father of the faithful) that he would be saved through his Seed.  It was a statement of "free grace" (no conditions).  Abraham believed it.  It was put to his account as righteousness.

Since we are not privy to the name list of God's elect, our methods of gospel preaching must somewhat differ.  However, the "free grace" method of preaching the gospel is demonstrated in Scripture in a manner that may be used by us:

2 Corinthians 5:18-21 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
The work of reconciling the world to God has been finished "in Christ." There is no contingency whether or not this work is finished, or whether the provision of salvation has been completed.

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. 
The pleading of God is that men be reconciled in their own hearts to him.  They should drop their enmity, because he has already dropped his, in Christ.  He is not saying that he will drop his enmity, if you will drop yours (first).  He is saying that he has dropped all his enmity, in Christ, and therefore you may drop your enmity against him and have your sins canceled now!  All contingency about the provision of salvation is done away, and it need only be received.

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Christ has taken our sin, that we might receive his righteousness.

Just believe it!

Friday, May 14, 2010

How Scripture Regulates Worship

It seems to me that a good deal of our inherited practice of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) is based on patternistic observations in the New Testament.  There are a lot of patterns that can be discerned in connection with worship practices, and a good deal of difference of opinion, and sometimes schism, can originate over varying conceptions of the relative importance of different aspects of the patterns seen.

I would suggest is that it's better to look at the theological reasons for any patterns.  The theology behind a pattern is the cause of the visible practice.  If we would stop looking at the "outside" of liturgical behavior observed in the Scriptures, and start looking at the "inside" -- the reasons for things being done the way they are -- we would tend to make more valid progress.

Example:  Musical Instruments

In the Temple they used musical instruments.  In the Apocalyse they are seen using musical instruments.  In the earthly teaching of Christ and his apostles, and in the historical records of Acts and the Epistles, no instruments are seen.  There were no (known) instruments in the synagogue.  Does this mean there should be no instruments used in the worship of the church on earth?

The patternistic response to outward forms is to say that there should be no instruments.  The response that makes sense, however, is to say that God has ordained the existence of musical instruments, and they are permitted in worship.  It is our job as mature sons to use them wisely.

The same logic can be used for church choirs, for creating "new songs" (instead of singing only psalms), and for using a patterned worship with lots of sung and verbal interactions, etc.

Sometimes, in the RPW discussion, it is asserted that the Temple worship was precisely specified to the smallest detail, and so we should take the same approach to the New Testament worship.  However, a real study of actual material (such as from Edersheim, The Temple - Its Ministry and Services), will show that the Mosaic institutes prescribed certain portions of the Temple liturgy in precise detail, but that a very considerable part of it had to be instituted by well-instructed elders and priests.  There's just not enough Mosaic instruction to prescribe every aspect of the liturgy of the Tabernacle or the Temple in real life.

And, too, what did the Temple priests do when they made a mistake?  It's easily verified that there is little in the inspired Scripture to cover all kinds of liturgical mistakes in detail.  Recovering the integrity of broken ceremonies was necessary, and also had to be instituted by authority (see the Mishnah for samples).

Concerning liturgical rigidity, the Lord himself was prone to allow such things as celebrating the Passover in the wrong month, or letting unclean people eat the Passover, or letting the show-bread be eaten by non-priests -- for good reasons at the time.  I'm sure there are other instances of this.  Therefore, the idea that we deal with a God who is absolutely so rigid in his liturgical requirements as to strike people down for merely formal or patternistic discrepancies is just not in accord with his character.  There is almost always a discernable moral component of sin in such cases.  It is true that there are a very few instances of the Lord appearing to be rigid -- but he is mostly not.  A close inspection of the lapses and irregularies in Tabernacle and Temple worship throughout the Old Testament shows considerable misbehavior that little is said about by the Lord.  He's infinitely more concerned about their idolatry than he is their formal worship.

This is no excuse to cavalierly disobey him in the liturgy of that worship that he specifies for us in the Scripture, but let us honor him for who he really is, and obey him for the right reasons.  Especially in the New Covenant, we are freed from the servility that was intentionally inculcated by the Law in this respect.  We should have the maturity to make mature use of the Scripture in discerning what worship must be.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Regulative Principle of Worship (Edited)

The writing has been revised to speak more accurately and clearly.

It's in accord with so-called "Reformed" fundamental theological principles to emphasize continuity in the purposes and accomplishments of our redeeming God from Eden to the New Jerusalem, but not such that we are blind to the transcendent glory of the New Covenant.  We study to rightly teach the real center of the Scriptural doctrine of covenantal continuity and covenantal distinction.

On this basis it is clearly the case that our professed "Regulative Principle of Worship" (RPW) needs re-thinking.  This is because our tradition of the RPW unduly discounts the worship principles of the Old Testament when formulating the worship principles of the New.  That is, there is too much covenantal discontinuity.

In Reformation time, the thought in Lutheranism was to very conservatively reform the inherited catholicism, especially after the fruits of radicalism were seen.  The thought in "reformed" areas, on the other hand, was to almost entirely "reboot" the church on Scriptural principles, which, in liturgical detail, mainly meant New Testament principles of worship.

The downside of the "reformed" approach is that there isn't a lot of data in the New Testament which can thoroughly and cogently define what the whole, integrated New Testament order of worship should look like, in the very practical sense.  We just have pieces of it.  The implementation of the RPW on this ground tends to be accomplished by looking for things that are essential elements (such as Paul's recitation of the history of the institution of the Lord's Supper in 1 Cor 11), and making use of hints and remarks in the Scripture text about various ongoing practices in the churches.  However, these may often not be explained in enough detail to enable us to understand how to formulate a whole worship service.  Clearly, the church had a form of worship, but it is hard to tell what it was in detail from the New Testament only.

We can say for sure, however, that Jewish worship informed church worship.  And, Jewish worship which was imitated by the church wasn't limited to the synagogue, as some try to teach.  The New Testament is full of "temple language" when referring to the church, and it is therefore clear that the New Testament "synagogues of God" partook of both the practice of the synagogue and the practice of the Temple.

It has to be the case, then, that the reformation of New Testament worship must take into account the moral law inherited in the worship principles which are found in both Testaments!  The church's worship is connected with the sacrifice our Lord made as high priest in the Temple of Heaven, to which we ascend each Lord's day!

The original conception of the RPW was, I suppose, a good experiment.  But, a thorough inspection of that early history shows that in the most idealistic sense, the experiment was a failure (see Horton Davies, Worship of the English Puritans, for a sympathetic but revealing disclosure of this).  Surely, some of the reasons for this failure were due to the reaction against incorporating historic principles of worship (from the Temple) into the worship of the New Covenant.

Nowadays, most talk about the RPW among Reformed folks (or the "Church of Christ," which also has a stake in this) has hardened into a tradition -- a tradition which differs a good deal from church to church, in those churches which profess to abide by it.  Therefore, it has been, and is, an excuse for personal and corporate schism, and is so even today with some of my own friends.

This RPW tradition has historically served to drive out much art and beauty, often instruments and choirs, sometimes hymns, almost always cyclic feasts centered on the life of Christ, and much verbal congregational participation in the worship of God.  Until the liturgical revolution of the 20th century (which didn't happen in "evangelical" churches), the RPW tradition often served to make the protestant church into primarily a lecture hall.  Much of the breezy mod worship seen today, and perhaps much of pentecostalism, too, could be a reaction against this error, but they have not found the way to go.

What we need to discern in Scripture is the true RPW -- not just an aesthetic jump to ancient forms.  We need a thinking reformation of worship, which incorporates beauty and corporate response as a reflection of God and his Glory -- based on the whole Scripture.


It is said that the last Mass in Zurich was very well attended.

After that, the activity at church meetings seems not to have been described by ordinary citizens as "worship."  It was described as "listening to sermons."  They certainly needed the sermons for their basic instruction, because Scripture teaching had been absent from the church so long.  We need the sermons, too.  But we ought to get back to a holistic conception of worship!

It's been 50 years since this goy was last invited to worship in the (conservative) synagogue (kippa and all).  And, of course, the "modern" synagogue is certainly not the ancient synagogue, but it used a prayer book, appeared to be extremely ritualistic to that low-church protestant, a good deal of everything was sung, and almost all the words were, I think, in Hebrew.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Commercial Theory of the Atonement and "Limited Atonement"

The so-called Commercial Theory of the Atonement is based on calculation:  Christ died for the elect, which are a number of discrete persons, each with a list of sins.  If God had decided to add another person to the count of the elect, then Christ would have had to die "more," since there would have been more persons (or sins) to die for.  The idea behind this is that the moral deficit caused by sinners can be counted, and that the atoning death of Christ distinctly makes up for that deficit, count for count, or head for head.

This is not right.

God himself, in his word, has no trouble making the application of the sacrifice of Christ elastic enough to cover his expressed purposes in every scriptural context, whether it is the redemption of his people (the elect; 1 Cor 15:3), or the redemption of the whole world (2 Cor 5:18).  

It's clear from this that Christ's death is of such infinite value that describing its value in terms of counting up men's sins is absurd.  The infinite value of the death could redeem one -- or all.

It's also clear that the death is advertised with a good will from God to all who hear the gospel, as if it were offered directly and honestly to them (2 Cor 5:20).  Christ wept over the Jerusalem that rejected him (Luke 19:41).  Therefore, his death is plainly portrayed in the preaching of the gospel as offered to, and applicable to, all who hear the gospel.

Christ's death is also described in scripture as made for the benefit of his people, every one of whom he forcefully and irrevocably delivers from death and the devil, and from all the wrath of God, in order to bring all of them perfect into his fellowship (John 17, entire chapter).


When people speak of "limited atonement," we need to keep all this in mind.  The best explanation of "limited atonement," is that the atonement, among all its purposes, is definitely and primarily directed to the salvation of the elect.  The atonement is otherwise unlimited in its intrinsic value, supporting a well-meant offer from God toward anyone who hears the gospel.  This is actually the doctrine of the Reformed Confessions, and is Charles Hodge's version of orthodox "4.5" point Calvinism in the Princetonian sense.

See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, p. 544-562; that is, Part III, Chapter VIII, "For Whom Did Christ Die?", for a discussion of all this from almost every imaginable angle, including amazing pronouncements, such as, "every non-elect person who believes will be saved," and "every elect (and mentally adult) person who does not believe will be lost."

Objective Justification

We're not commonly exposed to the doctrine of "objective justification."  An example of this way of preaching the gospel is found in 2 Cor 5:18-21:

18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation,  19 that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. 
This refers to the accomplished and finished reconciliation of the world to God through the finished work of Christ on the cross.  God is judicially reconciled with the world.  God is not potentially reconciled, but is actually reconciled. There is all encouragement that God receives us for Christ's sake, and there is nothing left for anyone to do but to receive this.  There is no "work" left to be done by man.  The objective, finished justification is received by faith.

The gospel is then preached not as if God were imperiously demanding our submission, but rather that he is pleading for men to rest in the finished work of his son:

20 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.  21 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

On the basis of Paul's teaching here, one can teach that the reconciliation of the world is accomplished, and not tentatively, but finally.  The word of the gospel is the word of the finished reconciliation.  God is not angry with sinners any more, but sinners are angry with God.  Hearing that God is no longer angry, they should be reconciled to God and accept the objective justification that Jesus Christ has earned for them.  They should believe the gospel.  Faith is not a work.  The truth is simply received. 


It is not as if God were content with persons in their natural state, regardless of whether or not they believe.  He is not.  But, he is reconciled with all men in the preaching of the gospel.  There is nothing one can do to ingratiate oneself with God or to earn the application of the merits of Christ.  Just believe the truth.

Nor does this doctrine of objective justification imply that God in Christ is frustrated by those who never receive his atonement.  The death of Christ does not go for nought, but fully reconciles those whom he has predestined to glory.


There are many theological mysteries which cannot be answered, but this passage shows how the gospel is preached.  God is already reconciled to sinners in the gospel.  Sinners need to hear that Christ's work is finished, and that God is no longer angry, in Christ.  They should freely receive it!

One should also carefully inspect the context of this passage in Chapter 5 and 6 of the epistle.  It's not only about calling outsiders into the faith, but is also, even mainly, about calling people to rest in Christ who are in the church and who already profess his Lordship!  The context is dealing with unbelief!  It's not only the outsiders and "sinners" who need to hear this gospel and effectively rest on the rock Christ.  It is us.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Corporate Separation

We're all familiar -- or think we are -- with the concept of individual, spiritual "separation" from the world.  We think of it as holding to the Christian worldview, to the Gospel, and to practicing Christian ethics -- individually.  Even when we think of the believers as a group, we continue to think of our group as composed of individuals practicing the views, teaching, and ethics just mentioned.  However, if we move on to viewing the church, the Body of Christ, in more corporate terms, as we should, then we have to ask what the look and feel of this corporate "separation" really is.  Does it appear to be a sub-culture within the general culture?  Are we ready for it to look this way?

Now some bodies of believers are strong on corporate separation.  Some of us from those backgrounds may be quite familiar with the look and feel of such environments.  In fact, the overthrow of that kind, type, or degree of "separation" may have been important for us, since that old "separation" really could have been overly restrictive, legalistic, or introverted, performing little outreach to the unbelieving world, and also was likely not aware of improvements in doctrine and devotion that could be learned from other Christian environments.  "Separation" can definitely go wrong.

But, I suggest that however much we seek to jump out of those kinds of environments, the need for Scriptural separation will always come back, simply because the corporate nature of Christianity requires it.  The wheat and the tares remain visibly distinct throughout this age.

The question in my own mind really is this:  Will losing our corporate, and to a degree "separate," Christian culture result in frittering away our patrimony?  Is losing our corporate culture (rather than our doctrinal profession) the first step in group apostasy?  I mean by this, not necessarily individual apostasy, but the disintegration of our corporate being and testimony.

Preserving cultural "separation" from the world can preserve a Christian profession, whether it's dead or alive.  We know this can happen and therefore we may object to attaching significance to "separation," because we don't want our sub-culture to preserve something dead, or to restrict legitimate Christian freedom.  But, I strongly suggest, even the best Christian sub-cultures that are alive require separation, too!

Once this is seen, it's also not hard to realize that maintaining a corporate testimony that by nature must in some manner be "separate," may, at certain times and in certain points, set certain limits on our liberty.  This is a delicate subject requiring great discrimination, but is clearly a subject addressed in Scripture.  See Paul's discussions about eating meat dedicated to idols (Rom 14-15).  This teaching, as to its inner principles, applies to more than just food and drink, and must even apply as much to our external testimony to the world as it does to our inward behavior in the church.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


If we take a look at the important Scripture texts about creation, we must turn not only to Genesis 1-3, or Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, but also to Hebrews 11.

Hebrews 11:3   By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.
The theological context of this verse defines "faith" this way: 

Hebrews 11:1  Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
The act of creation therefore cannot be seen (even by science) and is an object of faith to Christians.  And, we believe that what is seen (the created order) was not made of what is seen, but was created by the word of God.

It's true that some professedly Christian writers have tried to wax eloquent about how the Bible can be supposedly harmonized with the "teachings of science" concerning evolutionary origins.  But, the leading verse in this post makes it clear that creation is an object of faith.  This means believing that direct creation by the word of God of all that is seen did really happen in space and time, and that it is not just subjectively "real to me" in my mythological belief system.  It also means that our faith is in a creation which is an act of God, by the pronunciation of his word by himself, and entirely transcending the bounds of science, with all its mechanisms, laws, and myths of origin or destiny.  Real creationism is not a story that merely describes providential operations of God upon matter, confluent with natural law. 

The apologetic for creationism taken from natural science still has its place.  After all, Darwin knew that he had to find the "missing links," which, by the way, are still missing.  (That's why there's hoopla in the press when a supposed "missing link" is discovered, and no hoopla when it's discredited.)

However, the Christian apologetic for creationism using natural science is no substitute for faith in God's word, and what he says is the case concerning his creation.  The supposedly scientific story of origins based on naturalistic principles will always be a myth, and always changing, too.  That story never happened, because what actually happened cannot be penetrated by the principles of science.  But, the story of the Bible will never change, and will always be true.

Inward Ministry and Outward Ministry (revised)

For me it is a fruitful effort at this time to ponder the inward ministry and the outward ministry of the church.  New insights arise.

For starters, let us amuse ourselves by following the analogy of the natures of Christ, and think of the inward and outward ministries of the church this way:  The two ministries differ in their natures, but cannot be separated.

In other words we can neither be ministry "eutychians" (eliminating the distinction in ministry between the church and the world), nor ministry "nestorians" (overly distinguishing the ministries within the church and to the world).  We can neither conflate the inward and outward ministries to be the same (like "liberals"), nor put such distance between them that one is not vitally connected to the other (like "separatists").  We must maintain our "separation" from the world, without being "separatists."

Jesus presented an apologetic for this:

John 13:34-35   34 "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  35 "By this all [Gk. everyone] will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
One way to look at this passage, framing it with our hypothetical paradigm, would be to say that the inward ministry of the church must exist, separate from the world, but also must be witnessed by the world, and that this witness is the effective apologetic that Jesus has come and that the church is carrying out his will.

Turning this into propositions, we might say:

1)  There is to be an inward ministry of love and meekness, from the heart, exercised within the body of Christ the church.  The church cannot maintain her internal integrity and solidarity without this mutual ministry.

2)  This internal ministry, which is visible to the world, will be the church's prime external testimony.  The church cannot achieve her external witness without this internal ministry.  There can be no effective, evangelical or culture-changing external ministry without this internal ministry of love.

3)  External ministry by itself may provide help to the world, but it will neither be evangelical nor truly culture-changing, without the visible testimony of the internal ministry of the church.

4)  This internal ministry is separate from the ministry to the world.

5)  This inward ministry of love and meekness within the body is, and must be, visible to the world.  It isn't "walled off" from the world.  The church must neither hide nor boast about this internal ministry.

6)  This display of love in meekness, witnessed by the world, is a powerful evangelical testimony to Christ's power in the church.

7)  This is not only an evangelical testimony to the gospel, but is also culture changing, because "everyone" comes to know the testimony of the church, and that Christian motivations and ethics succeed!  Special grace will affect common grace.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Calvinism and Freedom

It ought to strike anti-"Calvinists" hard, that historically the greatest proponents of republican freedom (and responsible free enterprise and commerce) are precisely the ones who have entertained the greatest emphasis on the Sovereignty of God, understood from a Scriptural standpoint.  This doctrine is the most powerful engine of freedom that the world has ever seen (or ever will see).

Those who complain about the alleged "islamic" tendency of this doctrine, and its opposition to "freedom," need to take heed and compare the ideals and fruits of the Christian and the Islamic cultures, and recognize that ideals of freedom and progress have been brought to pass (imperfectly) only under Augustinian and Calvinistic principles.

It's obvious on this ground that the doctrines of the Sovereignty of God in Calvinism and in Islam, having such differing effects, are entirely at odds with one another.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Central Tenet of Calvinism

Both pro- and anti-Calvinists nowadays seem to agree that the Sovereignty of God is perhaps the central thread of what it means to be a "Calvinist."

I'm not sure that Calvin would say it that way.

As were all Augustinian and Paulinist followers of the doctrine of Christ, Calvin was a definite believer in the sovereignty of God in predestination to glory or damnation.  But it is my strong opinion, based on reading the Institutes, that Calvin would much prefer to give preeminence to the Goodness of God.

This helps deflect the claims of Remonstrants, "Arminians" and others that Calvinism is "Islamic."  ("Islam" refers to "submission.")  The accusation of an "Islamic" tendency is tied up with that quality of religion resulting from a God-view primarily calling for submission (regardless of my doom), to that quality of religion resulting from a God-view primarily calling for gratitude for his Goodness.

The Gospel and Cultural Transformation

A magazine article on this subject ends with the statement:

"In both testaments, believers extend God's kingdom both to spiritual and earthly realms.  We are to teach the gospel of Christ to all nations so that people may be transformed spiritually, but this spiritual renewal is for the sake of extending the lordship of Christ to every facet of culture around the world."
I'm sorry to say it, but this has the cart before the horse.

It is true that the impact of Christ on culture is the consequence of the transformation brought about by the gospel.  But, the gospel, and spiritual conversion by the gospel, is the truly great thing.  Souls by this are brought into the family of God, the new, redeemed race, and this way they experience the life of Christ in fellowship with each other and with the Holy Trinity.  The impact on culture is a wonderful consequence.  But, we dare not make the cultural impact the higher purpose, and the gospel merely an instrument to that end.

Putting cultural impact as the purpose (the "telos") is a lower vision.

Church Life in Philippians (The Gospel and Love)

Paul writes (underlines and [square brackets] mine):

I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ; just as it is right for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart, inasmuch as both in my chains and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers with me of grace.  For God is my witness, how greatly I long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ.  And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.     Philippians 1:3-11

There is a lot here.  I've only highlighted certain important things (not all).  There is material here about perseverance, which Paul speaks extensively about in later chapters of the epistle.  There is also reference to our learning to approve the things that are excellent -- also spoken of later at length.

Here, though, I discern a supreme emphasis on sharing together, and with the apostle, in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.  And, right along with this commitment is a love relationship, like the love of Christ, which exists among the Philippians themselves, along with Paul.

The coupling of these two things is significant.  The gospel is founded in the love of Christ, and those who experience that love, practice that love among their fellow church-members.  And, connected with this love relationship is the defense and confirmation of the gospel, by the whole church.

This combination of the doctrinal and felt gospel is most highly praised by Paul, and should serve as a model for the church.