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Archive for November, 2012


It has been a few months since I’ve gotten into one of those discussions about the intent and extent of the atonement. But in Sunday School we are studying Revelation this year. We are currently in Revelation 5. Part of it reads like this:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

NOT this:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your bloodyou ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

If Jesus had died for everyone, we would expect the latter there. We’d expect to see that Jesus purchased every tribe and people and nation instead of just people from every tribe and language and people and nation. There is a universal aspect in that there is someone from every group of people imaginable. But it is not universal in that it does not include everyone indiscriminately.

So, instead of finding any form of universal intent we find a passage that supports the Reformed idea of particular or limited atonement. Those for whom Christ died receive the benefits of that death. Purchased by Christ they are a kingdom of priests and reign on earth with Him.

I need to remember this the next time I interact with an advocate of unlimited atonement.

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I have a growing number of books on humility. I have already read Mahaney’s Humility: True Greatness, Mack’s Humility: the forgotten virtue, and Henry’s The Quest for Meekness and Quietness of Spirit. But like books on love, I feel compelled to have more books on the subject. That is probably a reflection of my weakness and sin- I struggle with pride and loving others well. They pretty much go together. Humility is no small thing, according to Jonathan Edwards.

In Charity and Its Fruits he usually points to pride as the root cause of the sin we commit that is contrary to love. Love, he says, promotes humility which moves us to love others well.

“Humility disposes men to be of a yielding spirit to others, ready, for the sake of peace, and to gratify others, to comply in many things with their inclinations, and to yield to their judgments wherein they are not inconsistent with truth and holiness. A truly humble man is inflexible in nothing but the cause of his Lord and Master, which is the cause of truth and virtue.”

So, the latest book I’ve read on humility is William Farley’s Gospel-Powered Humility. His book is different from Mack and Mahaney’s books. He notices our society’s aversion to humility. He notices the lack of humility producing messages in our churches. His conviction is that the gospel produces humility in those who hear in faith.

“When we assume the gospel and pursue its fruits, the fruits eventually displace the gospel and all that remains is ‘moralism.'”

I agree with him. We have no hope for humility apart from the gospel. He is essentially seeking to correct an imbalance in contemporary preaching which tends to avoid the ugly truth about our sinfulness and God’s judgment. These, he says, should be part of what humbles us.

“Humility is the fertilizer that nourishes our soul and makes us fruitful.”

Since it is a counter-balance it does seem to err on the opposite end. Keep in mind I’ll be preaching on Colossians 1:21-23 this Sunday which points to our utterly sinful condition which necessitated Christ’s atonement. I’m not saying we don’t preach the hard and ugly truths (though I would say that God’s justice is beautiful to a redeemed and sanctified mind). Farley focuses on those hard truths with chapters on the wrath of God, the final judgment and the sinfulness of sin. His chapter on the history of preaching also focuses on how these hard truths helped break up the hard soil of the heart so gospel seed could grow.

“Here is the great paradox: the proud man thinks he is humble, but the humble man thinks he is proud.”

I wanted to read more chapters like his chapter on faith alone. I wanted to see how the positive aspects of the gospel also humble us. That’s because I believe they do. So, what Farley presents us is not wrong. I’d just say it was a bit incomplete.

“Jesus received the humbling that our constant and unremitting self-exaltation merits.”

He does include chapters on the fear of man and the power of a humble leader. Those help round out the book, showing some of the practical results of pride and humility.

“God designed salvation to deeply humble me, to crush my pride, and to transfer my grounds for positive self-image from self to God.”

Farley is highly dependent upon the Puritans (not a bad thing). His theology is solid. I just found it hard reading at times because of the emphasis on wrath, judgement and our sinfulness. Let me explain.

While not yet a pastor, I heard a sermon on Romans 3. The pastor was seeking to “reform” the church and was making his way through Romans. I had high anticipations as he’d lay out total, or radical, depravity to the people. It was about 1/3 our sinfulness and it seemed to me like he rushed to the good news too quickly. The people needed to wrestle with the reality of the bad news. He seemed to move too quickly.

“Sin shrouds our thoughts in mental darkness, rendering true belief in God humanly impossible.”

It can sound like Farley is wanting us to move too slowly. I admit that is completely subjective. But when I see the 4 main chapters and 3 of them are on the “bad news” …. Like I said, I wish there was a greater focus on how the doctrine of sanctification, in addition to justification, continues to humble us.

But Farley is right- too often this part of the gospel is greatly neglected today. Many “pastors” on TV completely ignore this. It is the result of the fear of man, liberalism, bad theology and a host of other reasons (though Farley argues that liberal theology is the result of the fear of man). Most people don’t need more self-esteem. They need a good dose of gospel humility. As I tell my kids & congregation:

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 1 Peter 5

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In preparing for my sermon on Sunday I re-read Jonathan Edwards’ discourse “Men are Naturally God’s Enemy”. Nestled in there was the following:

“All the sin that men commit, is what they do in the service of their idols: there is no one act of sin, but what is an act of service to some false god. And therefore wherein soever God opposes sin in them, his is opposite to their worship of idols: on which account they are his enemies. God opposes them in their service of their idols.”

Idols are our functional saviors, what we use to supplement (or replace) the living and true God. We use them to “save” us from the realities of life in a fallen world. They offer pleasure, distraction, hope and other benefits. Not that they can deliver. But we rely on them, and their false promises, anyway.

As Tim Keller notes, these idols are often good things. We aren’t talking about little statues we bow down to each morning. But they function as gods in our lives. They have our allegiance. We rest our sense of security on them. This we do because, as John Calvin noted, our hearts are factories of idols. Not that we create idols, but turn good things into idols. The problem is not “out there”, but “in here”.

As I lay in bed, wishing I was asleep, I was struck by the fact that our most common idols are found in the first few chapters of Genesis. Sure, there are modern ones like fancy sports cars (or luxury sedans or…), all things Apple, and other inventions. Or science, many bow down there accepting whatever science says (this week) without recognizing that scientists are finite, sinners with (often ungodly) presuppositions instead of purely objective thinkers and observers. But most of our idols have been there from the beginning. As a result, they go unnoticed by most people.

In one of the books I’ve read (it’s been a few years and my aging mind can’t remember which one and I don’t have the free time to chase it down), the author tells of a person from India coming to the States. Now, when people from the States go to India they are struck by the sheer number of little idols, statues to gods, that are seemingly everywhere. Yet, this person arrived on our shores aghast at all of our idols! It is always easier to see other people’s idols. Just like it is easier to see their splinter while not noticing the log in your eye.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “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 (ESV)

We see here a number of idols, or functional saviors, that enslave people. I guess I could start with religion. I’m not talking faith in the God of the Bible, but that tendency toward ritual and legalism that provide us with a false sense of assurance. But I won’t.

Marriage is a frequent idol for people. They think it a refuge from loneliness, economic insecurity and hopelessness. Many single people think life would be tolerable if only they were married. Many married people live in fear of their marriage ending and don’t take the necessary steps to make that relationship healthier and godly. They so need the approval of their spouse they never say ‘no’ and live in misery because they fear a greater misery.

Connected to marriage by God, but disconnected by humanity, is sex. We live in a society of sex addicts, or idolators. Sex offers them, they think, enough pleasure to overcome the pain and boredom of life that they become enslaved. They think it offers intimacy, but forsake its intended intimacy through objectification of various kinds. It often destroys the relationships we so desperately want.

Also connect to marriage by God, and increasingly disconnected by people, is children. Many seek love from (rather than giving love to) children. They seek immortality through their children. They seek to fulfill their own failed goals through their children. Many people place intolerable burdens on their children, destroying them as a result.

We also find control. We are to subdue and rule creation- under God’s authority. But we try to play God and make everything bend to our authority. We crave control, fearing we are not sufficient to meet the challenges of unexpected events or circumstances. It destroys relationships like acid (then we wonder why the person left even as we try to manipulate them back into the relationship).

We also make a god of creation. Our idol factory hearts twist stewardship of creation into environmentalism so that the environment and/or animals become more important than people made in God’s image. People begin to sacrifice real and potential relationships on the altar of being green. They look to their pets to fill the black hole in their hearts that crave unconditional love. We should care for the environment and animals, including pets, but many give them ultimate status in their universe.

Work is another functional savior for people. (For others the avoidance of work is their idol). They seek to be utterly independent, secure and safe thru their work. It provides an ultimate meaning for them that only God is intended to have. They turn the image of God in on itself. God works, and calls us to work. It is the ordinary means of providing our needs. But in God’s providence, at times we endure hardship that we might be humble and experience grace and compassion so we will be ready to extend grace and compassion.

“A true hope looks forward to the obtaining of happiness in no other way but the way of the gospel, which is by a holy Savior, and in a way of cleaving to and following him.” Jonathan Edwards in Charity and Its Fruits

All of these things, as God gave them to us, is good! But we ceaselessly give them more importance than intended. We use them in the place of God to provide us with satisfaction, security, pleasure and even salvation. All that we have turned into functional saviors can only be returned to their rightful place as we seek all our significance, meaning, security and satisfaction from Christ. This only happens as we see the the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ as Creator and Redeemer. As Jonathan Edwards argues, only when we see Christ as sufficient to bestow all the happiness we need, will we forsake other means to secure earthly happiness.

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