Thursday, July 20, 2017

For Weak and Weary Pilgrims


One of my favorite Christian books is Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. I first read an abridged version when I was young, and I was enthralled by Christian's journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. It was an exciting adventure complete with hair-raising escapes and evil villains. But it wasn't until I was an adult that I began to appreciate how much Bunyan drew from the Scriptures as he laid out the believer's journey from the moment of conversion to the final destination of heaven.

I was naturally drawn to the main characters of Christian, Faithful who dies a martyr's death in Vanity Fair, and Hopeful who became Christian's new companion. These are heroic figures who persevere through affliction until they cross the river and are welcomed by the King of the city. But lately I've been encouraged by several of the minor pilgrims in Part II: Mr. Ready-to-Halt, Mr. Feeble-Mind, Mr. Despondency, and his daughter Much-Afraid. Yes, their names don't sound brave at all, but I can relate to these characters in more ways than one.

It's easy to get the idea that "good" Christians experience nothing but victory after victory with nary a temptation or struggle until they cross the finish line in a blaze of glory. But I wonder if the race looks less like a sprint and more like a marathon where the runners are exhausted with just enough strength to drag themselves across the finish line or are carried over by their comrades. It's in these moments of weakness that we realize how much we need the family of the faith to be arms of support when it's hard to take the next step. Whether we are the givers or receivers of this help, we aren't meant to go it alone, and Bunyan gives a moving example of this.

After being rescued by Mr. Great-Heart, Mr. Feeble-Mind confesses that he is a burden to himself and to the rest. However, Mr. Great-Heart responds in this way:
But, brother, said. Mr. Great-heart, I have it in commission to “comfort the feeble-minded,” and to “support the weak” (1 Thess. 5:14). You must needs go along with us; we will wait for you; we will lend you our help (Rom. 14:1); we will deny ourselves of some things, both opinionative and practical, for your sake (1 Cor. 8), we will not enter into doubtful disputations before you; we will be made all things to you, rather than you shall be left behind  (1 Cor. 9:22).1

What is also beautiful is that these weak and weary saints are still pilgrims who finish the race, only leaving their infirmities when they take the last stretch across the river. They are welcomed by the King just as much as Mr. Great-Heart and Mr. Valiant. Why is that?
When Jesus Christ counts up His Jewels at the last day He will take to Himself the little pearls as well as the great ones. If a diamond be never so small yet it is precious because it is a diamond. So will faith, be it never so little, if it be true faith, Christ will never lose even the smallest jewel of His crown. Little-faith is always sure of heaven, because the name of Little-faith is in the book of eternal life. Life-faith was chosen of God before the foundation of the world. Little-faith was bought with the blood of Christ; ay, and he cost as much as Great-faith.2

Regardless of whether we feel strong or weak, the former does not add to our salvation, and the latter does not disqualify us. We are saved in the same way - by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2 (NASB)

1. The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan, Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, pp. 229-230.
2. Mr. Ready-to-Halt and His Companions, Charles Spurgeon.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Difficult Passages Series: Judges 19 and The Gospel

Identity & the Gospel in Judges 19
Difficult Passages for Women Series



Whenever speakers or expositors read the passage in Judges 19:1-30, they invariably take great care to caution their listeners about the horrific events contained therein. Such is the depth of the concubine’s suffering, degradation, and circumstances of depravity. At the end of the chapter, even the author declares:
All who saw it said, “Nothing like this has ever happened or been seen from the day when the sons of Israel came up from the land of Egypt to this day. Consider it, take counsel and speak up!” (Judges 19:30, New American Standard Bible).

Placing the Judges 19 account within the larger context of the book of Judges brings out the doctrine of the depravity of man and the wretched state of the culture in those days, whereby everyone did what was right in his or her own eyes, because there was no king to rule (Judges 17:6, 19-1, 21-25). 


The story of the Judges 19 woman begins with a magnifying glass on her own sinful condition (v. 2), but quickly turns to the sinfulness of those around her and the culture at large. By the end of Judges 19, the concubine's story graphically depicts the reality that in a culture, given over to autonomous self-gratification, the death wages of sin typically pour out on its weakest members.

With that backdrop, I also hope that women will come to see how the truth of the Gospel of Christ can speak into even the dark, hopeless state of the Judges 19 woman. We can and should bring the Gospel message to bear even in these utterly hard passages.


Covenantal Nature of Identity.

First, let’s consider the covenantal nature of our identity. Contrary to covenant, none of the characters in Judges 19 account are named. Each of the participants is essentially an anonymous entity, likely intended to convey meaning on several levels. For instance, the Levite, the stranger, the father, and the concubine are representatives, like the literary “everyman,” who in this case ties us back to the point at the time of the Judges, when everyone was doing what they saw as right in their own eyes. The collective identity of Israel was indistinguishable from the depraved, Gentile surrounding culture. In those days, Israel's depravity had become as bad -- or worse -- than that of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1-29)

In this way, the concubine represents the people of Israel as a whole, individually enslaved by sin, and collectively abandoned to wickedness by the very leaders (represented by the father and the Levite) who were responsible for their well-being. But other layers of meaning concerning the anonymity of the concubine apply here as well. For instance, concubines who were barren or who did not provide a male heir to their masters were not named in the Hebrew Scriptures. A concubine derived her identity in the covenant community from fulfilling the particular role of heir-bearing. Otherwise, she would typically not be remembered by name within the historical covenant narratives.

Individual Nature of Identity.

Similarly, today, women associated with the dehumanizing acts of sexual abuse, or perhaps enslaved to sexual sin, suffer greatly with identity struggles, due to inherent objectification in society, along with perhaps finding themselves defined by past sexual relations. The shame they bear, both spiritually and culturally, often causes women to become silent, hidden, or even go underground. They, like the Judges 19 concubine, become anonymous entities whose lives matter little to their depraved masters, or the culture around them.


But…. these deep issues of identity as women in societies where illicit sexual circumstances anonymize and silence its victims are redeemable by our Lord Jesus, who is our true King.

True Identity.

Yes, even in a land where people are selfishly and murderously doing only what they want to do, Jesus really is the true and better Israel. He steps up as King, taking the place of the priest — and the concubine. He became the true Everyman, for those who believe on him.

He is the perfect Husband who protects his bride. He doesn’t treat her as a concubine, but rather as his cherished possession. Jesus, unlike the Levite, doesn't give his bride over to the enemy to have his way with her and abuse her. Instead, our King, Jesus, leaves his Father's house to reverse the curse. He comes to his Bride and offers his own body to go out in the bride’s stead — to be torn apart for the twelve tribes of Israel.

Instead of allowing her to be given over, without hope or any possibility for rescue and to forever have her name forgotten, Jesus gave himself up on the Cross for her. Now, her name is written on his hands (Isaiah 49:16) and she is his eternally. His body, battered and bloodied, serves as a reminder to the Church, that we are his people, and that he is our true King, Redeemer, and Husband.
 Jesus's broken body calls us to assemble together in unity and piece because of his blood sacrifice, much like the oxen Saul cut to pieces to call the Israelites together for war (1 Samuel 11:7).

Remembering and Reminding.

Likewise he sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a corporate reminder of the reality of Christ’s rescue. We, too, need to individually remind one another of this Gospel truth. The prophet Hosea in chapter 9 and 10 looks back to the days of the Judges in order to warn Ephraim that they are behaving as those in Gibeah (Judges 19:15) by going after false gods and idols (Hosea 9:9). They had forgetten who they are; Whose they are; to Whom they belong. They were forgetting their husband, over and over and over.

Do we remind each other that we are his bride and that he has redeemed us as the prophet Hosea was called to redeem his bride, Gomer? That at one time we were not a people (Hosea 1:10), but we too were delivered out of bondage and slavery (Exodus 20:2) -- out of the kingdom of death and darkness (Col. 1:13) -- by the One who took our place and has called us by name? 


We are all prone to wander and forget our True King and Redeemer. Our savior Jesus, who has written our names on his hands, has rescued us from the kingdom darkness described in Judges 19 and elsewhere, and has called us, as His cherished bride, unto himself. He calls us to seek refuge in his Father's house; unlike the Levite and the father in Judges 19, our Lord will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).


To be continued...

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Letting Go and Letting God

My children are all grown now, and there are many joys that come with this. There have been wonderful sons and daughters-in-law added to the family, and grandchildren, too. I am reaping welcome rewards for the many years I spent rearing my children.

But I will also admit that this is the hardest stage of parenting for me. Rebellious teenagers were still ultimately under my control. But now? I can give advice when asked, but I really don’t have a say in how my adult children lead their lives. I no longer have control over them.

My sons and daughters are, for the most part, sensible and hard-working. There is much to be proud of, and no good reason for me to be anxious, but I am. Each one of my children was my responsibility for eighteen years, and it is hard to let go. It is difficult to see them making decisions I wouldn’t make, taking risks I wouldn’t take, doing things I wouldn’t do. And I still want to protect them. Truth be told, I still want to control them.

My youngest son, who is in his twenties, likes to camp in the wilderness—the kind of wilderness with no cell coverage—alone with his dog. His truck is old, and although it’s been trustworthy so far, let’s be honest: An old vehicle can break down any time. And then there are bears. The bears in the north have been behaving badly this year. Logically, I know that if my son’s truck broke down, he’d be able to hike out. And despite a few publicized bear incidents, it is still unlikely that one will bother him. Yet every time he goes camping, I am anxious until he returns safely.

I have a friend who tells me he was a risk-loving, wild teenager. He once asked his father how he survived his son's daring teenaged years.

“On my knees,” his father answered. “On my knees.”

I’m learning this lesson, too. Persistent pleas to our faithful God are as crucial to parents of grown or nearly-grown sons and daughters as they are to parents of babies and toddlers. Our children leave our care, but they never leave his. They may be beyond our control, but they are never beyond his.

Our good and faithful God is always with us, and he is always with our children, too. He hears our pleas when we can’t voice them to our kids. He can be trusted when our sons and daughters can’t.

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God . . . casting your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” — and your adult children, too (1 Peter 5:6-7).

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Expendable


I recently finished J.I. Packer's excellent book Re-discovering Holiness. It was convicting. There were many occasions when I was forced to point a finger at myself. One such moment was while reading the chapter "Growing Strong: The Empowered Christian Life."

Packer discusses things we should be doing as we seek to manifest God's power in our own lives. One of those things is meeting the needs of others. He says: "It is right to be a channel of divine power into other people's lives at their point of need." Who doesn't like to feel needed? As he often does, however, he cautions the reader. All good principles can be abused.

We are to find our personal worth in God's redeeming love, not in the feeling of being needed. While we should meet the needs of those around us, deriving our sense of worth from being needed is not wise. Serving others to make ourselves feel good is not love, either.

Packer says:
If I am using my neighbours to bolster my sense of self-worth, I am using them, which is something different from loving them.
How do I react to the truth that God doesn't really need me? Do I believe it? Do I doubt that God can achieve his purposes without me? Do I meet the needs of someone from a heart of gratitude and and love, or am I seeking validation?

Packer then goes on to present a scenario that I found very convicting:
Imagine, now, a devoted and gifted Christian woman, whose ministry has been precious to her, finding that for quite a long period the Lord sidelines her so that her potential is not being used. What is going on? Is this spiritual failure? It is probably not spiritual failure at all, but a lesson in Christ's school of holiness. The Lord is reminding her that her life does not depend on finding that people need her. The prime source of her joy must always be the knowledge of God's love for her -- the knowledge that though he did not need her, he has chosen to love her freely and gloriously so that she may have the eternal joy of fellowship with him.*
How am I at being unnoticed? Being sidelined? About two years ago, my local church lost a sister in Christ who was serving the Lord faithfully. She had been doing so for many years, and the impact she'd had was noticeable. She was sidelined by illness. She was no longer able to do what she had done formerly, and ultimately, she succumbed to the illness. Fortunately, she was a woman who did not find her worth in being needed, but rather in who she was in Christ. How would I react if suddenly I was sidelined from serving? Do I secretly think that a particular ministry or task cannot be done without me? Do I really see that we are all expendable?

We serve the Lord because he allows us to. He works through us despite our weakness and despite our sin. He redeemed us despite what we deserve. He chose us in him before the foundation of the world because of his gracious love, not because he needed to. He works in us based on his love, not because he cannot do without us.

When my kids lived at home, they needed me, and I took joy in nurturing them. Now that the kids are older, they don't need me, but when they come home, I like to do things for them as if they do need me. But if I am looking for validation in being needed by my children -- or anyone else for that matter -- I'm looking in the wrong place. Far better to serve because of what God has done for me than for what I think I can do for him.

* I suspect these words could possibly generate cries of "Why is he picking on women?! Why doesn't he use a negative example of men?" I don't know, and I'm not going to make any assumptions.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Begun in grace and perfected in glory

The coming of Christ has been on my mind of late. Part of it is because my pastor has just finished preaching a series on Revelation. The other part is the lingering sorrow that has been weighing on my heart. I am not a melancholy person by nature, but I can't seem to shake this undercurrent of sadness. Don't get me wrong, there are many moments of joy and laughter. There are many times of encouragement in God's Word and with his people, but there is lament mixed with praise.

What is going on? Am I getting inundated with too much news? Has the optimism of youth been replaced with the pessimism of middle-age? Am I feeling helpless in the face of so much suffering that is not just out there but close to home? Christ's second coming is looking better and better, and yet his return isn't meant to be just an escape hatch from this broken and sin-cursed world.

In my weariness, I turned to the passage that everyone knows and loves - Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. (Matt. 11:28 NASB) Too often I would pluck this verse out of its context. This time I read the whole chapter. I had never noticed Jesus' declaration that the Father had given all things to him right before his call for the weary to come to him. What is the connection between the two? Well, here is what Matthew Henry has to say:

All things are delivered unto me of my Father. Christ, as God, is equal in power and glory with the Father; but as Mediator he receives his power and glory from the Father; has all judgment committed to him. He is authorized to settle a new covenant between God and man, and to offer peace and happiness to the apostate world, upon such terms as he should think fit: he was sanctified and sealed to be the sole Plenipotentiary, to concert and establish this great affair. In order to this, he has all power both in heaven and in earth, ch. 28:18 ); power over all flesh (Jn. 17:2); authority to execute judgment, Jn. 5:22Jn. 5:27 . This encourages us to come to Christ, that he is commissioned to receive us, and to give us what we come for, and has all things delivered to him for that purpose, by him who is Lord of all. All powers, all treasures are in his hand....
Note, It is the duty and interest of weary and heavy laden sinners to come to Jesus Christ. Renouncing all those things which stand in opposition to him, or in competition with him, we must accept of him, as our Physician and Advocate, and give up ourselves to his conduct and government; freely willing to be saved by him, in his own way, and upon his own terms. Come and cast that burden upon him, under which thou art heavy laden. This is the gospel call, The Spirit saith, Come; and the bride saith, Come; let him that is athirst come; Whoever will, let him come. [3.] The blessing promised to those that do come: I will give you rest. Christ is our Noah, whose name signifies rest, for this same shall give us rest. Gen. 5:29 Gen. 8:9 . Truly rest is good (Gen. 49:15 ), especially to those that labour and are heavy laden, Eccl. 5:12 . Note, Jesus Christ will give assured rest to those weary souls, that by a lively faith come to him for it; rest from the terror of sin, in a well-grounded peace of conscience; rest from the power of sin, in a regular order of the soul, and its due government of itself; a rest in God, and a complacency of soul, in his love. Ps. 11:6Ps. 11:7. This is that rest which remains for the people of God (Heb. 4:9 ), begun in grace, and perfected in glory.

I so appreciate what this brother has written. I can still long for Christ's return, but I don't have to wait until then to find rest. This Jesus who calls us to come to him isn't a small, weak savior. All authority has been given to him to fulfill the plan of redemption, and his resurrection testifies to that success. After his ascension, Jesus did not leave us to fend for ourselves like a deist deity who is not actively involved with creation. Rather, the fact that you and I are saved and that people continue to hear the gospel unhindered is proof that God is at work in the affairs of men. He carries the government on his shoulders. I just don't have the eyes to see it sometimes. And it is from a position of present omnipotence that he offers a rest that is better than earthly safety and security. He has given us freedom from condemnation, peace of conscience, and a love that casts out all fear. Do I always remember this? No, but thank God it does not depend on me but on him. Totally unearned and undeserved on my part. Freely given on his part. It's no wonder Matthew Henry writes, "This is that rest which remains for the people of God, begun in grace, and perfected in glory." Yes, and amen!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Three Faces of Redemptive Friendships


     Anyone who has ever had a two-faced friend will probably wonder how on earth redemptive friendships could have three faces? These three metaphorical faces of redemption have little to do with our physiognomy or the physical presentation of visages. Rather, what I’m suggesting is that in our approach toward cultivating redemptive friendships we ought to consider three different perspectives or orientations: 1) toward God, 2) toward self, and then 3) toward others.

      Our first priority to God leads us, as children of the Living God, upward, with open face toward the Lord and His purposes. Dr. John Frame called this upward face the “normative” perspective. He wrote in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God that the Bible provides the lens through which we see and ought to evaluate who we are, the world around us, and the truth claims to which we hold.

     Thus, by knowing the Bible, we come to better see the character and holiness of God, to understand ourselves, and to interpret our context. In turn, the epistemological cycle enables us to know the Scriptures and God better. As John Knox once stated in an address to the statesmen in his time, “The Scriptures of God are my only foundation and substance in all matters of weight and importance.” Furthermore, Paul wrote to Timothy, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:15-16, ESV). All things begin and end with the Scriptures, our firm foundation in our relationships with others, both inside and outside of the Church. 

     The first face of redemptive friendships turns us heavenward. 

     Next, with the second face or perspective, we ought to examine ourselves and our standing before our Holy God, cultivating an accurate inward awareness. The inward face represents our existential or experiential perspective, by which we come to understand our lives in light of the normative foundation. Experience bolstered by life in the church, under the preaching and sacraments, play a vital role in developing right knowledge of oneself and encouragement to learn and grow upward and outward.

     In terms of the experiential perspective, Frame wrote that every person brings their dispositions, temperaments, biases, presuppositions, and life experience into the act of knowing and experiencing God and each other. In fact, Frame stated, objective knowledge in and of itself is not sufficient, as that would presuppose a denial of our creature hood and thus a denial of the power of God’s Word for us. Therefore, we must know ourselves rightly.

     As John Calvin emphasized the importance of acknowledging our own sinfulness and our inclination toward idols, he taught that our hearts resemble idol factories because we are so prone toward seeking our own autonomy. He further reminds us that faith and repentance are not merely the beginning, but the whole of our Christian lives. It's no mistake that Jesus exhorts us his followers to remove the log from our own eye first before attempting to help our neighbors remove their speck (Matthew 7:1-5).

     Since we have been made in the image of God, the existential face should reflect knowledge of God's glory as it increases through our sanctification. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18, NASB). Hence, the second face calls us to cultivate a life of knowledge of self, characterized by a life of believing and penitence, in light of the holiness and love of God (the upward face). In so doing, the Holy Spirit enables us then to effectively consider the outward face.

     Our third face, or outward orientation, represents the situational perspective. This third stance refers to our interactions with external facts, things, objects, and people, in light of the normative and experiential – knowing God and knowing ourselves. It includes acknowledging and understanding history, science, civil law, and other tangible information, along with our own contexts and relationships. Viewing people and things from a situational perspective involves understanding how we express the normative (Truth of God’s Word) in everyday life.  Without a robust understanding of and compassion for our context and the world, our attempts to apply Scripture in our interactions risk failure -- or reversion to a futile status: a resounding gong, an echo chamber, or the reiteration of confirmation bias.

     So, how might this work out in specific situations? First, consider the normative command of Scripture -- the timeless, unchanging moral principle from God's Word. Next, all the normative, moral principle to transform our hearts as we assess our own lives in light of God's character. How does heart knowledge of this principle affect my standing with God, my sin, and my relationship with others? Where do I need to repent or possibly become more self-aware? "But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him"  (James 1:5, NASB).

     Finally, we apply this wisdom to our relationships inside and outside of the church, as a result of our upward reorientation toward the Lord (love of God) and our inward application in our own lives. Include contextual or situational clues such as legal, medical, cultural, and community (local church) practices that impact our decisions, actions, and consequences. Go before God and seek His wisdom. Then, we effectively live outward toward love of neighbor. We are enabled to step out in faith toward neighbor, enacting the great commission, extending hospitality and kindness, and expressing the love of Christ in our spheres of influence.

     In this way, we reflect back to God, His glory and the knowledge of Him in acts of worship. Rather than basing our friendships on worldly wisdom or empty promises as the two-faced friend might, we cultivate redemptive friendships, based on a lasting foundation, with eternal implications.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Our favorite books of the Bible

Rebecca:

My favorite book of the Bible is Hebrews. It was while studying Hebrews that I began to get a handle on the true relationship between the old and new covenants, something that had previously confused me. The writer of Hebrews put it all together: The old covenant was ineffectual. It didn’t work—not because the covenant was bad, but because the covenant people were. Israel did not fulfill their requirements under the old covenant, so Yahweh promised a new one. And with the blood of Jesus the promise of a new covenant has been fulfilled. The new covenant offers a better hope through a better covenant with better promises and a better sacrifice. And it offers actual forgiveness of sin—forgiveness that is complete and final.

I also love Hebrew’s highlight on the “heavenly city” (or country) reminding us that our ultimate hope is not in this world, but in the world to come. Longing for and living for the heavenly city is what kept the saints before us faithful, and it's what will keep us faithful through all the trials of our lives, too.


Persis:

My favorite book of the Bible is Psalms. This book was a tremendous source of comfort during a very hard trial. I lost count of how many times I read it because when I would reach Psalm 150, I would go right back to the beginning. The psalmists put into words what I was not able to verbalize at the time. This gave me a way to pour out my heart to the Lord. I love how the psalms span the range of human experience and emotion, from spiritual "highs" and celebration to mourning and lament. I love the honesty of the words as the psalmist is wondering if God will ever be gracious again, but in these verses, I am constantly pointed back to who God is and His character. Truly a balm to a weary and tired soul.


Kim:

My favourite book of the Bible is I John. In five short chapters, there is much about who Jesus is, who we are, and what God has done for us. The book focuses a lot on the person of Christ, that he was not only human, but that he was one with the Father. We must know the Son in order to know the Father (5:11). The book also teaches us one of the most important things about what Christ did, that he was a propitiation (2:2; 4:10), that he turned away God's wrath. The book also contains the comforting verse, 1:9, where we are told that when we sin, God will forgive us our sins. We learn about love not only for God but for one another.

Another thing I like about the book is John's warm writing style. He writes in a pastoral, caring manner, as a father to his children. One of my favourite parts of I John is the use of the image of light/darkness. I always notice light in my surroundings, and when I take photos, I notice shades of light. The picture of walking in the light is a beautiful one, which I love. It is a short book, but full of rich teaching.


Deb:
Currently, my favorite book of the Bible is Ephesians. I love Ephesians, because it depicts both the doctrine and practical teaching needed for maturing Christians. The richness of theology in the first chapters establishes the foundations of Christian belief, which in turn fortifies growth in Christ and enables us to live with purpose and calling.

The book of Ephesians is intensely personal and at the same time highly corporate in nature. Beginning in the first chapter, Paul declares who we are as Children of God and followers of Christ, as well as the truth of who God is - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then, with a view to the body of Christ, we learn about the two amazing mysteries of the Gospel. First, Paul tells us how God reconciled two peoples into one-body unity, through Jesus’s atoning sacrifice. Then, he describes the profound mystery of the Church as the Bride of Christ. After giving instructions for our relationships in the body and in our families, Paul follows closely with the famous spiritual warfare passages for standing firm in the midst of our daily struggle against powers of darkness. Come to think of it, I need more Ephesians.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Rhythm of the Christian Life


Right now, as I write this, I am sitting in a big rocker on the front porch enjoying the morning sunshine. One of my sons is in the driveway tinkering with his car, and another is in the vegetable garden, nailing together the box for a raised garden bed. I can hear the next-door neighbor, too, using some kind of power tool outside in his yard. The winters are long here—from October through April—so no one wants to waste a moment of the warmer temps and brighter skies. There will be a few Sundays over the summer when there will be no Sunday School at my church because too many teachers and too many children are gone. Yukon families love their summer weekend camping trips! I’m not saying these frequent church absences are good—they're not—but they are what they are. This it the rhythm of Yukon life: eight months stuck indoors, and then four months of freedom in the glorious landscape that surrounds us.

What is the rhythm of your life? Five workdays and then the weekend? Nine or ten months of school and then summer vacation? Or maybe every day is different and it seems like there is no rhythm at all. Still, there are probably patterns to your life, even if you don’t feel them—patterns of work, play, and rest, of wake time and sleep. 

And looking beyond—or deeper—than your daily physical life, do you see a rhythm to your spiritual life? Sinclair Ferguson says “the rhythm of the Christian’s life is always determined by the principle that when the revelation of God in His glory is grasped by faith, the response is to return all glory to God.” [1]  Theology should always result in doxology; the study of God should always lead to praise. 

When our lives and our days are busy, we tend to focus on getting tasks done. We have schedules and to-do lists, and we center everything around them. Is it any wonder, then, that when we think about how to apply the truths we learn about God, our first thoughts are practical ones: “What should I do? How can I serve? What duties should I add to my to-do list?”

This not how it ought to be. This is not—or shouldn't be—the rhythm of the Christian life. Sure, what we do is important, but our first response to knowledge of God and his ways should not be more action, but more praise. Truth, then worship, and then—maybe—action. Maybe, because sometimes an adoring heart is enough.

But always, hearts that sing go before hands that do. Right before his plea for believers to live transformed lives in service to God, the apostle Paul wrote a song of praise:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
           “For who has known the mind of the Lord,
                       or who has been his counselor?”
           “Or who has given a gift to him
                       that he might be repaid?”
          For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)

Paul urges his readers to pour out their lives in obedience to God because they have seen the glory of God through his work of salvation. They have just read of his "unsearchable judgments" and inscrutable ways." Surely their hearts, like Paul's, are already bursting with praise! “To him be glory forever” is the reason for “I appeal to you . . . to present your bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 11:33-12:2).” Keeping the rhythm, Paul puts a song of praise before the call to service.

What is the rhythm of your Christian life? Are you regularly learning about God? Do you see his acts in creation, providence, and salvation, and glimpse his goodness? And when you do, are you taking time to praise him in return? Are you stopping to rejoice in his goodness? Not because it’s the next thing on your list of things to do, but because it’s what comes naturally. (Or perhaps, since we're talking about spiritual things, we should say it's what comes supernaturally.) Are you grasping God in his glory by faith and then returning all glory to him? Is this the rhythm of your life?



[1] Beeke, Joel R., Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Orlando, Florida: Reformation Trust Publishing 2008), 388.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

What is Inductive Bible Study?


My introduction to inductive Bible study occurred in 1996, and came through Precept Ministries. I took the training offered, and taught Precept studies for a few years with a friend, and I also attended many. But Precept did not "invent" inductive Bible study, and you don't have to use Precept materials to practice inductive study methods.


Discovery


Inductive study involves looking at the data -- in this case, the Bible -- and drawing conclusions after careful examination. In their book Inductive Bible Study, Andreas Köstenberger and Alan Fuhr say, "induction is discovery." That certainly applies to Bible study, because we do more than simply gain information; we discover God's truth. Inductive study moves from the particular to the general and derives meaning only after piecing together the evidence. It does not begin with a conclusion, but moves toward one.

We work through this discovery process using the steps of observation, interpretation, and application. Observation is more than a cursory reading; it means reading over and over again, paying attention to context, setting, people, words, and phrases. Done well, it should be the longest step in the process. Following observation, we interpret. The practice of interpretation is also called hermeneutics, and it has its own set of principles which one must follow. Only after we observe thoroughly and interpret carefully do we move to application; or as my hermeneutics professor preferred to say, implication.


Focus on the Text


The benefit of inductive study is that it really focuses on the text. We all bring presuppositions and pre-understandings to the text, and inductive study will help us read the text as it is, not as we presume it to be. Köstenberger and Fuhr say, "induction by its very nature demands that we remain open to wherever the evidence may lead." For some, a systematized method of Bible study may not seem Spirit led. Why can't we open up the Bible and simply let the Spirit speak? The two are not mutually exclusive. It is a false dichotomy to say that methodology and the Spirit cannot co-exist. The Spirit works with our intellect as we study.


Worth the Work


When looking at Bible study material for yourself, I would suggest looking for a study which focuses on inductive methods. Look for a study that has you immersed in the text. Look for a study that has you reading in context, not just picking isolated verses, and has you looking to discover meaning. Keri Folmar's Bible studies are specifically inductive, and in the introductions to them, she provides an overview of the process. Another benefit of the inductive method is that as you practice these skills, you will be able to apply them to any book of the Bible, and there may be a day when you can put together your own studies. Inductive study is work; hard work. But it is an effort that has an impact on our entire Christian life, including our devotional life. As as my hermeneutics prof likes to say, every time we crack open the Bible, we come face to face with God.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Comfort in Revelation

There was a time when the book of Revelation was my least favorite book of the Bible. I thought its main message was to foretell all the horrible things that would happen before Jesus comes back, and those horrors would be my fate unless I achieved a certain level of spirituality whereby God would deem me mature enough to escape them. Cold comfort, indeed! At least, Revelation was at the end of the Bible so I could avoid reading it as long as possible. But what a terrible state to be in. I had no assurance as to my salvation. God and His gospel seemed weak and ineffectual, and I was afraid to read part of the Bible. But I couldn't be more wrong.

The gospel isn't the power of God to just get me in the door and then the rest is up to me. What Christ has accomplished covers the beginning, middle, and end of my Christian life. I am not living in a dualistic Star-Wars-like universe where good and evil battle one another on a level playing field. Who in his right mind would contend with the Almighty? God has no rivals. And what if Revelation is less about decoding the events of the 21st century but a word of comfort and consolation for Christians down through the ages?

Providentially my pastor has been preaching through Revelation, and I have grown to love this book because I need it just as much as my brothers and sisters in the 1st century. I need something greater than earthly security when I hear of the lives lost in the bombing in Manchester and gas attacks in Syria. I need hope when I read of the injustices that mankind has inflicted on fellow image bearers throughout history and even today. I need the promise of the life to come when loved ones suffer in body and mind. And I need to be reminded of these truths:

~ There will be trials and persecution, but Christ is seated on the throne even now. He has won and is worthy to bring God's plan of redemption to completion. (Rev. 5:5-14)

~ We have all had our share in the thread of suffering that began in Genesis 3, but it ends in Revelation. Sin and evil will be no more. "and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away." (Rev. 21:4 NASB) 

~ God's purpose in redeeming people from every tribe, nation, and tongue will be fulfilled to the praise of His glory. And not only that, the good work He began in us will be accomplished. The Bride of the Lamb will be fit for her Heavenly Bridegroom (Rev. 7:9-17; Phil. 1:6; Rev. 21:1-2)

~ Fellowship with God was severed, and Adam and Eve were barred forever from Eden. But we will be united with Him forever with no shadow of sin, never to be parted again. And we will see His face. (Rev. 21:3, 22:4)

This is quite different from how I had previously viewed the book of Revelation. A source of fear has now become comfort and consolation indeed. May it take root in my heart. 

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. 


Sources:

Revelation sermon series, J. Ryan Davidson, Grace Baptist Chapel.

The Gospel in Revelation, The Goldsworthy Trilogy, Graeme Goldsworthy, Paternoster Press, 2011, originally printed 1981.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

When It All Started

What is the root of the story of Christianity? Why is there a story of the Christian faith in the first place, especially one that unfolds over two thousand years—so far?

In 2000 Years of Christ’s Power: The Age of the Early Church Fathers, Dr. N. R. Needham answers these questions by pointing to one historical event: the resurrection of Jesus. Here’s how he explains the significance of the resurrection in creating the Church and starting the story of Christianity:
The original followers of Jesus were all Jews, and they had no intention of being anything other than faithful and pious Jews. They continued to worship in the Jerusalem temple, to obey the law of Moses, and to have a negative attitude towards Gentiles. The living heart of their faith was not so much the death as the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus was executed, despair had engulfed his followers: they seemed to have a dead leader and a lost cause. Is was Jesus’s resurrection from the dead that transformed these broken and despairing people into the fiery apostles and martyrs of a new faith — a faith which, within three centuries, and despite vigorous persecution, would conquer the whole Roman Empire. In the thought and preaching of the early Church, the resurrection was seen as God’s mighty vindication of all Jesus’s claims: He really was the long-promised Messiah of Israel, the Son of God, the Saviour of sinners, the source of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to all wo obeyed Him (see for example, Acts 2:33-6, 4:10-12, 13:30-39, 17:30-32, and Romans 1:3-4). So whichever period of Church history we are studying, it is always worth pausing and reminding ourselves of this: the entire history of the Christian Church is rooted in one central reality — the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. If Jesus of Nazareth had not risen, there would be no Church history. 1
The resurrection changed everything.

You probably already know that if you are a believer, the resurrection changed you. You were made alive together with Christ and a new sort of life — a resurrection life grounded in your union with Christ’s resurrection life — began within you (Ephesians 2:4-6). Because you are united with the resurrected Christ, you are new creation. You have begun your life in the realm of the resurrection and sin no longer has dominion over you. For you, right now, the old things have passed away and the new things have come (2 Corinthians 5:14-17). And you look forward with certainty to full resurrection life after you die. You will one day be raised with an incorruptible body to live forever with the resurrected Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:20-23; 42-49).

But the resurrection of Jesus also started the Christian faith, spurred its growth, and fueled its spread. If Jesus had not risen, Christianity would not exist. There would be no story of Christianity to trace through the ages.

Yes, the resurrection of Jesus changed everything. It changed you, and every other believer. And it changed the history of the world, too.

[1] 2000 Years of Christ’s Power: The Age of the Early Church Fathers, pages 44-45.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Pivotal Doctrines

This week the subject of our group post is doctrine; specifically, which doctrines have been pivotal in our lives in Christ. Feel free to use the comments section to share your own experiences.

Kim:

About seventeen years ago, I reached a place in my faith where I began to ask questions. To make a long story short, I was becoming a little disenchanted with evangelicalism. I was homeschooling at the time, and my own intellectual curiosity stirred questions in my mind. After reading Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, I began asking more questions.

I had been baptized as a Catholic, although the only real instruction I had was when my parents made me attend mass as a teen because I was planning to become a Mormon. In my desire to know truth, I thought to myself, "Am I wrong to just dismiss Catholicism?" I had come to see that evangelicalism often misrepresents Catholicism, and I wondered if I had got it wrong. I started searching. At the same time, I knew that my own attitude lacked grace and I wanted to understand more about that. Looking at a Ligonier catalogue, I ended up buying R.C. Sproul's What is Reformed Theology (at that time, it was called Grace Unknown). It was there that I was introduced to the Reformed doctrine of justification, and specifically, its relationship to sanctification.

In my study of Catholicism, I had learned that justification is progressive. One can be more or less justified, and there is a heavy emphasis on works, especially the sacraments. I was a little uneasy about this, because it just didn't seem right to me, although I could not explain exactly why. Once I began reading about justification through Sproul's book, and through more extensive searching in Scripture, it became clearer to me: justification is a positional reality, although it has wide-reaching implications. We stand before God being right in his sight through the blood of Christ. It is sanctification which is progressive, as we become more and more conformed to Christ. Roman Catholicism merges the two rather than viewing them as separate occurrences.

If we have a wrong understanding of justification, we will struggle. We will attempt to do good so that we may "feel" more justified. There is no deeper level of justification; we either stand before God justified or we don't. Sanctification, however, is a different matter. We are sanctified over our entire lifetime. And it is something done by the Holy Spirit, although we must yield to the will of the Spirit ourselves. This reality that there is nothing I can "do" to be more justified has been very helpful, and understanding the gradual process of sanctification has helped me, I hope, be more gracious about the whole process.

Of course, I'm still learning about sanctification, and even this past semester in my Systematic Theology class, I realized that there is much to learn about the balance between these two doctrines. I will always be thankful that I was directed to Sproul's book, because it answered a crucial question in my life, even if I'm still learning.


Persis:

I grew up in a Christian home. I believe God saved me as child, but for decades I didn't understand what I believed or why I believed it. Because of this lack, I thought the gospel was baby stuff to get me in the door. Then the rest was up to me. This was terrifying when I began to realize how weak I was in myself. I had a dread of denying Christ if I faced persecution, but I also feared His coming because I thought I would only be received by God if I achieved a certain level of spirituality. Needless to say, I didn't have much assurance.

I had begun attending a Reformed Baptist Church 9 years ago and slowly began to understand that the gospel was much more than the truncated version I used to believe. I also began listening to lectures on theology, one of which was R.C. Sproul's series -  What is Reformed Theology?. I loaded the talks on my IPod and listened to them while raking leaves in the fall of 2010 when the heavens parted, as it were, and the doctrine of imputation clicked. Sproul asked, why was it necessary for Jesus to come to earth as an infant? Why didn't He just show up as a man, die on the cross, and then go back to glory? What was the point? If Jesus only died for our sins and exited this world, our sin debt would be paid but we would still lack a perfect righteousness that was required by God. We needed both - atonement for sin and a perfect record before God. And praise God, Christ has done both. He took the record of our sins and bore their just punishment on our behalf on the cross. But that's not all. He lived a perfect, righteous, and holy life, and His record is credited or imputed to us. God can now declare us righteous in His sight because both requirements have been fulfilled. As Sproul said,
"In the final analysis, the only way that any person is ever justified before God is by works.  We are saved by works, and we are saved by works alone.  Don't touch that dial..."
What?!
"[W]hen I say that we are justified by works and by works alone, what do I mean by it? I mean that the grounds of my justification and the grounds of your justification are the perfect works of Jesus Christ. We're saved by works but they are not our own. That's why we say we're saved by faith, and we're saved by grace, because the works that save us aren't our works, they're Somebody else's works."
This is such a comfort to me because I still sin as a believer. I sometimes doubt whether God fully accepts me. But I don't need to despair because I don't look to myself or my record. I can point to the perfect work of Jesus Christ in His death and life and rest in what He has done. As Dr. Tom Ascol writes, "If justification is the heart of the gospel, then imputation is the heart of justification." And it is beautiful.


Rebecca:

When God created the first human beings, he made them in his image—or, to put it another way, he created them to represent him in his creation. He gave them a mandate to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:26-28).

These truths from the creation story stands behind the doctrine of vocation—the teaching that all human work, unless it is immoral, is a calling from God. Understanding the doctrine of vocation has transformed my thinking about the work I do, and the work others do, too. This doctrine not a first order one, I suppose, but it has influenced both my thought and my practice significantly over the past few years.

According to the doctrine of vocation, all human tasks have meaning and dignity, even the mundane ones, because when we work, we represent God. He stands hidden behind every job we do and accomplishes his providential care for his creation through us. Or, as Martin Luther put it, our tasks are “masks of God.”

For example, this past weekend I dog sat for my daughter and her husband. I took care of their dog and my own, feeding, watering, and walking them both. These are small, seemingly unimportant chores, but the doctrine of vocation teaches me that they are significant to God. I was representing him by protecting and providing for two of his creatures.

As I vacuumed the floors this morning, I also wore a “mask of God.” He maintained my home—a place where dogs, grandchildren, and others thrive—through my work. And the mail carrier who just delivered the parcel with a few boxes of noodles and a jar of pea butter imaged God by providing food for me. What's more, as my son tilled my garden this afternoon, he was representing God by preparing the soil to grow food to sustain my family and me.

The doctrine of vocation helps me do my work—the work God calls me to do, both big jobs and small ones—joyfully, and reminds me to thank God for the work he gives me—and everyone else—to do.

Deb:

The Lord saved me later in life through a fairly radical conversion out of the kingdom of darkness and death. Such stark and dramatic changes wrought by the Lord in my life provided the fertile soil on which the doctrines of grace, God's sovereignty, and regeneration of the Holy Spirit took hold quickly. I can remember how learning the basics of Reformed Theology made more sense in those early years than anything I'd heard before. Yet, it took a bit longer before I'd hear about what might be the most pivotal doctrine in forming my life as a Christian: The Doctrine of Adoption.

Adoption expounds upon grace and explains how an unworthy sinner such as myself, could not only be bestowed with grace upon grace (John 1:16), but also granted full admission to the family of God (John 1:12). Having been adopted by well-meaning natural parents, I never felt that I fit in or fully belonged to my parent's legacy, my sibling's inheritance, or the genealogy of extended family. Therefore, I take the wondrous and beautiful privilege of being called a full-fledged, beloved child of God (Ephesians 5:1) to heart. As believers, we are true members of God's eternal family (Titus 3:7) and co-heirs in Christ to the glorious inheritance that He has already bought and keeps for us in heaven, to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:7-12).

Nick Batzig does a great job conveying the personal significance adoption by our Heavenly Father. He describes justification as how "we're taken to God's law court as guilty criminals and dismissed as pardoned and righteous." Furthermore, in adoption, Batzig explains, "We are taken from the law court to the living room." In other words: from an enemy and child of wrath to a beloved child of promise. "In love He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of His glorious grace" (Ephesians 1:5-6).

Perhaps I struggle more than most Christians with slipping into feeling and thinking like an orphan,  an alien, or the outcast. And perhaps we all struggle with this mindset. The doctrine of adoption is the truth that moves us out of the bondage of fear and performance, and sets our minds on the Father's love and care for us. "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” By the Spirit, we have the assurance and promise that no matter what trial or suffering we endure in this life, God has promised his unfailing love to His children.  "For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

What a glorious picture of the Lord's unfailing, loving Fatherly care!