What is it to have a god?

October 30, 2014 in Faith, Justification, Quotations, Reformation, Ten Commandments, Worship

In honor of Reformation Week, here is a great quotation from Martin Luther’s Large Catechism:

The First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” That is, you shall regard me alone as your God. What does this mean, and how is it to be understood? What is it to have a god? What is God?

Answer: A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the truth and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.

The Danger of Self-Righteousness

August 3, 2014 in Bible - NT - Colossians, Cross of Christ, Faith, Justification, Meditations, Sanctification
Colossians 2:6-8
6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, 7 rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving. Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.
It is common for those who have a passion for good works to degenerate into self-righteousness. The Pharisees, the Galatians, the Judaizers, and, at moments, even Peter and Barnabas fell into this trap. After all, nothing makes more sense to our carnal reason than to say that if we have achieved righteousness, then we must have earned it solely by our own merit and hard work.
It is to combat this notion that Paul exhorts us to walk in Christ, to conduct our lives, according to the same principle that united us with Christ in the first place. And what was that principle? Faith. Faith united us with Christ, was the appointed means by which God credited to our account the righteousness of Christ, was the gift that enabled us to emerge from darkness into the light of life.
So let us be absolutely clear what this means. Faith brings nothing of its own to the transaction; we did not receive Christ because we were wiser than our neighbor; we did not receive Christ because we were more intelligent than our neighbor; we did not receive Christ because of anything in us. For by nature we are all children of wrath, deserving of destruction, committed to waste and profligacy. What then does faith do? Looking to self and despairing of any self-deliverance, faith looks to Christ and rests upon Him for deliverance – save me O Lord, for I am helpless and needy; have mercy on me, for I am a sinner worthy of death.
And so Paul urges us to pursue our growth in holiness with this same mentality. Look not to your own worth, not to your own deserving, not to your own wisdom, but instead to the grace of God, the mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who frees us from our self-absorption and enables us to pursue righteousness to the glory of God. God will not honor those who strive to achieve righteousness in their own strength. He looks to the one who is humble and who relies on His grace in Christ.

And so, reminded that God’s grace is the source of our strength and righteousness; that that which distinguishes us from our neighbor is not our commitment, not our determination, not anything of ours, but rather the completely free grace of God, let us confess that we often fall into the sin of self-righteousness.

Unconditional Covenants?

July 28, 2014 in Covenantal Living, Faith, Federal Vision, Justification, Quotations, Sanctification

“…all covenants require obedient faith. This is a not a condition of one covenant or another; it is essential to all human dealings with God, simply by virtue of who God is. It is a requirement of what I have called the universal covenant. Individual covenants require specific forms of obedience, but obedience itself, springing from faith, is simply a requirement of all relations between God and human beings. This requirement is implicit in the very distinction between Creator and creature….

“This emphasis on faithful obedience does not compromise grace at all. For we can never begin to earn God’s forgiveness of our sins through good works, and the blessings that God promises to Abraham are far beyond what any human being could accomplish….

“So like all the other covenants, the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional in the sense that in it God declares that he will certainly accomplish his own purpose, the blessing of the nations through Abraham. But it is conditional in that those who would receive that blessing must trust and obey. As sovereign controller, God is the God of grace. As sovereign authority, he demands obedience of his covenant partners.”

John Frame, Systematic Theology, pp. 70-71.

Concerns with the Covenant of Works

June 9, 2014 in Bible - OT - Genesis, Covenantal Living, Creation, Faith, Federal Vision, Law and Gospel, Quotations, Sanctification

     “The disadvantage of the phrase covenant of works is that it has led to a controversy over the nature of the covenant agreement between God and Adam. Two problems especially have entered the discussion: (1) The terminology is reminiscent of a commercial exchange. This suggests that eternal life is a kind of commodity, and that if Adam pays the price, “perfect obedience,” “works,” or “merit,” God will turn that commodity over to Adam and his posterity. (2) The works are Adam’s works, not God’s, so one gets the impression that Adam is left entirely on his own. These two contentions are used to maintain a clear contrast between works and grace.
     “Certainly the focus of the Edenic covenant is on what Adam does rather than on God’s action as the ground of Adam’s blessing or curse. And certainly whatever blessing Adam received would have been appropriate to his obedience: he would have deserved the blessing. But it would be wrong to claim as in issue 2 above that had Adam successfully resisted temptation, God would have had nothing to do with it. It was God who created Adam and all his surroundings. God made him in his image and made him his vassal king over the earth. God gave him abundant food and drink, a wife, and above all fellowship with himself. And indeed Adam’s decision was foreordained by God, as we will see. As for issue 1, Adam did not earn any of these things by his works. These were gifts of God’s unmerited favor. So if Adam had passed his test successfully, he would not have boasted as if he had done it all on his own. he would have praised God for his unmerited favor. The term covenant of works, therefore, may mislead us by suggesting that Adam possessed an autonomy that no other creature has ever possessed. Best to regard this covenant, like the others, as a sovereign blessing of God, calling Adam and Eve to respond in obedient faith.
     “There is, however, nothing wrong with what the Westminster Standards actually say about the covenant of works. So we say nothing wrong when we use the phrase as did the Westminster divines. But when we choose extrabiblical language to describe biblical truths, we should take into account the impressions that this language would be likely to make on contemporary readers. And indeed there are some problems of possible misunderstandings and misuses of this language, such as issues 1 and 2 above. I do not, therefore, object to the phrase covenant of works as long as the use of that phrase is kept within the limits of the Westminster definitions, but I prefer to refer to the covenant under discussion as the Edenic covenant.” John Frame, Systematic Theology, p. 65.

A Letter on Infant Baptism

September 13, 2011 in Baptism, Faith, Sacraments

I’ve received numerous questions about infant baptism of late – here is one (inadequate!) response I wrote.

Dear ________,

Great question! Below I’ve appended an account of infant baptism that I sent to another fellow who asked about it. It summarizes why I changed my position from believer baptism to infant baptism.

A brief biographical background: I grew up United Methodist – but was merely a nominal believer. God grabbed hold of me in college and I joined a non-denominational church. I became convinced that infant baptism was unbiblical and led to presumption – assuming one was saved when one actually wasn’t. I maintained this position throughout college and seminary despite attending a school that officially taught infant baptism. It was less than 10 years ago that I finally “took the plunge” as it were and became convinced that infant baptism was not only acceptable but biblical.

Infant baptism is no “guarantee” of personal salvation any more than adult baptism is. Baptism is a covenant rite that identifies us as the people of God. The question is – are only adults counted among the people of God or are the children of believers likewise included in that number? I gradually became convinced that the children of believers are included in that number. So why the change? A couple books were helpful. Doug Wilson’s book To a Thousand Generations was helpful to me as I worked through these issues. Also helpful was John Murray’s Christian Baptism. Most helpful was my own reading and study of the Word of God. It took an immense amount of time for me to work through this issue – some find it easier. But for me it was very challenging. I was a convinced Baptist.

There are a number of links in the chain that led me to conclude that infant baptism is biblical:

1. Notice the way in which God introduces Himself to Moses. “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.” (Ex 34:6-7). The meaning of mercy for thousands is clarified later in Moses’ words to our fathers, “Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments; and He repay those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them.” (Dt 7:9-10) God introduces Himself here as a God who deals with generations of men – not simply with fathers but with their children and children’s children. And note that since this is the character of God, we have to ask, “Does God change?” And the Scriptural answer is no – God is the same today that He was then. He is still a God who delights to bless generation upon generation of those who love Him.

 

2. Given that this is the character of God, it is no surprise, therefore, that every covenant God makes with His people involves not only them but their children with them. In the covenant with Noah both Noah and his family are rescued from destruction. In the covenant with Abraham, God commands Abraham to bring up his children in the fear of the Lord so that they will serve Him and love Him. God establishes His covenant with Abraham for the express purpose of blessing “all the families of the earth” in him – so he must be one who blesses his own family (see Gen 18:17-19). In God’s covenant with Israel under Moses, on the night of Passover, God does not simply pass over the adults but the children of His people. He rescues entire households – and indeed gives a very clear definition of a household in His words to Moses about the Passover. A household includes the parents, children, and slaves – hired servants are excluded as are visitors to the house (cf. Ex 12:24, 43ff). If foreigners wanted to partake of the Passover then they had to be converted, joined to the people of God by circumcision. Finally, in God’s covenant with David, He makes promises not only to David but also to his children (2 Sam 7:12-16).

 

3. Consequently, God lays claim to the children of believers. They are His children (cf. Ez 16:20,21; 23:37).

 

4. Is this true in the New Covenant, the Covenant with Christ? A number of things indicate that the New Covenant includes not only believers but their children:

a. The prophecies of the OT speaking of the New Covenant anticipate God’s blessings flowing not only to believers but to their children (e.g., Is 59:21; Ez 37:24-28).

b. When Jesus ministers, He gives explicit attention to the children of His disciples. His ministry is not simply to the adults in Israel but to the children; according to Luke, to the infants (cf. Lk 18:15-17). Jesus insists that infants are integral members of His kingdom, there to teach the rest of God’s people important lessons.

c. When Peter preaches the first sermon at Pentecost he insists that the promise is “for you, and for your children, and for those who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself” (Acts 2:39).

d. When the disciples baptize folks in the book of Acts, the baptisms frequently describe entire households being baptized. While no infants are explicitly mentioned, the definition of household offered in Exodus 12 continued to be operative in Jewish society and was identical in the broader Roman society. Infants and children, had they been in the household, would have been included (cf. Acts 10:2; 16:31-34; 1 Cor 1:16).

e. The fact that this is the definition of household which the apostles themselves held is revealed in Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Colossians. To whom does he address his exhortations? To husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves – in other words, to households.

f. Further, God continues to hold out promises to the children of believers. In Eph 6:1ff Paul takes an OT promise and applies it to the children of believers. Further, in 1 Cor 7:14 Paul distinguishes the children of believers from the children of unbelievers as “holy” – that is, set apart, members of the covenant community. God lays claim on our children – they are His children and every Christian parent will answer for the manner in which he shepherded them.

5. It would appear, therefore, that the children of believers are members of the New Covenant – received by God into the Church and numbered among His people. They are given precious promises and held accountable to the terms of the covenant they have entered. The terms of the covenant are the obligations to believe in the Lord, to love Him, to cherish His commandments, etc. Hence, as I raise my children I speak to them as believers, call them to believe in the Lord, to serve Him, to delight in Him, to love His law, to cherish His ways. But I never treat them as though they are “out there” – I don’t give them the option to “not believe” any more than I would give them the option to take drugs. I consistently call them to faith, I bring them up in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph 6:4), the very thing that my father Abraham was commanded to do with his children thousands of years ago.

 

6. This means that merely being baptized is no substitute for faith; rather, baptism is a call to faith, a summons to belief and obedience. All those who are baptized into Christ Jesus are called to love Him and serve Him. In the same way that there were circumcised Israelites who were nevertheless “uncircumcised’ (Rom 2:28-29), so there are baptized Christians who are nevertheless “unbaptized” (e.g., Acts 8:13, 20-23). Unless baptism is joined with faith, it is a curse upon the one baptized rather than a blessing for it brings greater responsibility (Mk 16:16; Lk 12:47-48).

 

7. Baptism is a covenant rite – it brings us into a binding relationship with God, it makes us members of the New Covenant. However, from the Reformed view – which we think is biblical – being a member of the covenant is not synonymous with being “saved.” One can be a member of the covenant community and fail to lay hold of the promises that God holds out to His people (Heb 6:1ff). Hence, we must constantly call not only our children but one another to faith – “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God, but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb 3:12-14). Notice that Hebrews calls these folks “brethren” – they are members of the covenant community – and yet warns them lest they depart from Christ. Why is this? Because we can never know the heart condition of others; so we constantly remind one another to trust in the Lord and to cling to Him.

 

This is probably a bit more than you asked for – but thought it might be helpful. If you have any other questions feel free to ask.

Blessings,

Mother’s Day 2011

May 10, 2011 in Bible - OT - Psalms, Ecclesiology, Faith, Meditations

Psalm 113:4-6,9 (NKJV)
The Lord is high above all nations, His glory above the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, Who dwells on high, Who humbles Himself to behold The things that are in the heavens and in the earth? … He grants the barren woman a home, Like a joyful mother of children. Praise the Lord!

Sarai was barren. For nearly eighty years she had longed for a child, longed to cuddle and nurse and play. But now her hope was gone; she no longer dreamed. But God heard her. He sent his angel to announce that she would give birth to a son. And though Sarai first laughed in scorn, reasoning that this man in her tent didn’t know the first thing about barren wombs, Sarah later laughed in joy, understanding that the wisdom of God is foolishness to men.

Leah was unloved. Passed off as her more attractive younger sister she saw in her husband’s eye the torch of pity and resentment that broke her heart and made her weep. And when her sister was likewise married to her husband, her personal grief only increased. But God heard her. He opened her womb and gave her many children – and though her hope that her husband would love her was never fully realized, God loved her and raised up her son Judah to be the father of our Savior.

Tamar was shamed and scorned. Married to two men who had both been scoundrels, she was now being deceived by the father of those scoundrels, Judah. Though he had promised to give her his third son as husband, Judah’s promise was empty. He had decided, as most scoundrels do, that Tamar was the problem not his sons. So Tamar cried out to God and God heard her. He granted her success as she laid plans to entrap the worthless man Judah; and when she had conceived and Judah was prepared to destroy her, God delivered her from his hands, changing the scoundrel Judah into the man Judah. And Tamar’s son Perez became the ancestor of our Lord Jesus.

Manoah’s wife was barren. Her lifeless womb had given them no children and her grief was great. But God heard her. He sent his angel to announce that she would give birth to a son who would deliver Israel from her enemies – and she, unlike Sarai, believed and told her husband. And so Manaoh went in to his wife and she conceived and she bore a son whom they called Samson.

Elizabeth was old and barren yet full of faith and good works. She and her husband Zacharias served the Lord, loving him, cherishing his laws, delighting in his ways – all the while longing for a child. God heard her. He gave her a son in her old age and made him the last and greatest of all the prophets of the Judaic Age.

Mary was a righteous young woman, pregnant by God’s own power and facing the prospect of a betrothed who was determined to divorce her. She cried out to God and God heard her. He visited Joseph in a dream and Joseph remained with her becoming the human father of our Lord.

The Syro-Phoenician woman was desperate. Her daughter was deathly ill and no physicians could help. Then she received news that the Jewish prophet Jesus was in her town. She frantically searched for him and, humiliation of humiliation, begged him to heal her daughter. But he rejected her plea. And so she cried out to him, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the scraps from under the master’s table.” And God heard her. He healed her daughter and sent his new daughter home.

Clotilde was anxious. Her first child had died shortly after his baptism and now her second child, also baptized and only a few weeks old, was ill. Her unbelieving husband mocked and scorned – this is what comes of following this new religion of yours! Clotilde cried out to God and God heard her. He rescued the child from death and used Clotilde’s faith to turn her husband Clovis, King of the Franks, to Christ.

Brothers and sisters, the love of mothers has prompted God to move and to act from the earliest days of biblical history to today. So mothers – love your children and pray for them. God will hear you. Others – love your mothers and give thanks to God for them. Reminded that we have taken our mothers for granted, let us kneel and seek God’s forgiveness.

Fear an Instrument in God’s Hands

December 12, 2010 in Bible - OT - Deuteronomy, Confession, Faith, Meditations

Deuteronomy 11:25 (NKJV)
25 No man shall be able to stand against you; the Lord your God will put the dread of you and the fear of you upon all the land where you tread, just as He has said to you.

The book of Deuteronomy has a lot to say about fear – fear of God, fear of men, fear of enemies, and even, as we see in our text today, fear of God’s people. God promises Israel as they are on the cusp of entering the promised land – trust in me, believe in Me, serve Me, fear Me, and I will cause your enemies to fear you and to fall before you.

We witness the fulfillment of this promise in the words of Rahab to the spies that Joshua sent to Jericho. Rahab informed the men that the terror of them had fallen upon the city and that the inhabitants were fainthearted because of them. We see God using fear to bless His people again in the book of Judges. Gideon, for example, sneaks into the enemy camp at night and there hears two soldiers speaking in fear of the way God had raised up Gideon as a deliverer. When we as God’s people fear Him, He grants success to our labors by causing dread to fall upon our enemies.

However, fear is not only an instrument that God uses to bless His people, it is also an instrument he uses to judge us. For if we fail to fear Him, fail to honor Him, to serve Him, to glorify Him, then He causes us to grow fearful of our enemies.

‘And as for those of you who are left, I will send faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies; the sound of a shaken leaf shall cause them to flee; they shall flee as though fleeing from a sword, and they shall fall when no one pursues. They shall stumble over one another, as it were before a sword, when no one pursues; and you shall have no power to stand before your enemies. (Lev 26:36-37)

What we see, therefore, is that fear is a tool God uses – He is the one who instills the dread of others. Sometimes He uses it to bless His people – making others fear them to the advance of the Kingdom of God. Sometimes, however, God uses fear to judge His people – making them fearful of others that they might be purified and learn to fear Him once again. Both types of fear come from the hand of God – one in blessing, the other in judgment.

So here’s the question: which are we experiencing? By and large, the people of God in America are afraid and our enemies are not. Unrighteousness is on the increase. The attacks on God’s rule are more and more strident. Why? Because the Living God, the One who rules and governs the affairs of men, is chastising His Church for her unfaithfulness. The problem, in other words, is not out there but in here. We haven’t feared God as we ought, we haven’t served the Lord as we ought, and so He has delivered us over to our fears. There is sin in the camp and so God is judging His people so that we will remember to fear Him, to honor Him, to serve Him.

So what is the solution? Confession, repentance, and faith. We must confess our fear, turn from our sins, and put our trust in the Lord, standing firm against our enemies knowing that the Lord is on our side and so we need not be afraid. So let us begin this morning by confessing our sins to the Lord together.

Don’t Trust Your Strength

February 22, 2010 in Bible - NT - Colossians, Faith, Meditations

6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, 7 rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving. Colossians 2:6-7

No sin is more common among those who have a passion for righteousness and purity than to imagine that these things are to be achieved by human striving rather than divine grace. The Pharisees fell into the trap, the Galatians fell into the trap, the Judaizers fell into the trap, Peter fell into the trap, and, according to our text today, the Colossians were in danger of falling into the trap. After all, nothing makes more sense than to say that if we want to pursue the righteousness of God, then we must earn it; we must strive for it; we must achieve it.

For the last several weeks we have been considering the strength that God has placed in young men, the particular gifts that He has given them. Our text today in Colossians reminds all of us, young men included, that native strength is not the key to victory over the evil one – the key is faith, trust in the promises of God.

Paul exhorts us to walk in Christ, to conduct our lives, according to the same principle that united us with Christ in the first place. And what was that principle? Faith. Faith united us with Christ, was the appointed means by which God credited to our account the righteousness of Christ, was the gift that enabled us to emerge from the shadow of darkness into the light of life.

So let us be absolutely clear that we understand what this means. Young men, do not trust in your strength – trust in the goodness of God who has given you strength. What do you have that you have not received? And if you have received it, why do you boast?

Paul urges us to pursue our growth in grace by looking not to our own worth, not to our own deserving, not to our own wisdom, but looking instead to the grace of God, the mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who has given us all things. And precisely because He has given us all things, we should be the most grateful people on earth, we should be “abounding with thanksgiving.”

And so, reminded that God’s grace is the source of our strength and wisdom; that that which distinguishes us from our neighbor is not our commitment, not our determination, not anything of ours, but rather the completely free grace of God, let us kneel and confess that we often fall into the sin of imagining that it is by our own strength that we serve the Lord and not by the strength which He has supplied.

Tobacco Czars

November 17, 2009 in Bible - OT - Deuteronomy, Faith, Meditations

Deuteronomy 11:26-28 (NKJV)
26 “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse: 27 the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you today; 28 and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you today, to go after other gods which you have not known.

You’ll pardon me if, for a time, I take a break from our series on the lessons taught by different members of the Christian community. For some reason the decision by a few major universities to ban tobacco products on their campuses has made its way to national news this past week. The University of Montana – of all places! – has become the latest in a series of schools to propose such a policy, to become effective this spring semester. The student body leaders and many of their professors are rejoicing with euphoric glee – ah, we’re finally ridding the earth of that nasty tobacco.

What we as God’s people need to see is the way in which the passing of such policies represents a concession on the part of these schools to an anti-Christian worldview. After all, let us conduct a thought experiment. Imagine that instead of outlawing tobacco products, the university instead passed policies banning sexual fornication or sodomy. Can’t you just hear the hew and cry already? How dare you infringe on my personal liberty? How can you be so judgmental? You’re just a fascist neo-Nazi!

But note, if you will, the incredible inconsistency. Where’s the cry for our poor smokers out there? For the tobacco farmers who are being viciously persecuted and financially ruined? You see the issue is not whether we as a culture will have certain things that are taboo – this is inevitable. The question is rather which worldview will define that which is taboo. Which god or gods will we listen to as a culture? To whose voice will we give heed?

And it is this very challenge that God placed in front of the people of Israel as they were preparing to enter the Promised Land. He set before them quite clearly the blessing and the curse. If you listen to Me, God said, and to My voice, loving Me, serving Me, observing My commandments then you will be blessed. If, however, you follow after other gods, listen to their voice, give heed to them and to their standards, then you will be cursed.

Our calling as the people of God is to cling to God’s standards, to cherish His law, to praise what He would praise and to condemn what He would condemn. And the banning of all tobacco products because they’re “bad for you” is not something He would praise. “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men.” Rather smoke a pack a day than once steal from your neighbor. Rather chew and spit in the spittoon than once fornicate with your neighbor.

Reminded of our abandonment of God’s standards in favor of our own, let us kneel and confess our sins to Him.