Archive for January, 2021

Each month our congregation has a memory verse. Or text in this case. Each month I’ll try to blog about that passage. This will help us to understand the text and why I chose the text for us to meditate upon for a month.

But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Mark 10

This is spoken in the midst of a discussion on divorce. Jesus wants to bring the discussion back to the framework or design of marriage as an institution God created for our well-being. Our culture may treat marriage as social construct to be shaped like a putty nose based on our changing desires. The scribes had similarly shaped divorce to suit their own dark desires. Well some of them.

For the Christian, what matters is God’s design as revealed here. Jesus quotes from Genesis 1 and 2 in a way that affirms them. For Jesus creation, and the creation mandate, matters. Our practice of marriage is to be shaped by God’s design. We will have to grapple with sin which will include the temptation to divorce without just cause, or committing sin(s) that break the marriage covenant.

The first part is found in Genesis 1. Humanity was made “male and female”. They complement one another. If you only have one sex there is no sex and therefore no procreation. Well, who cares? The creation mandate was to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it and rule it. Adam couldn’t do that alone. He needed a helpmate, not just a friend. God took from Adam a rib and gave him back a wife. She was like him in contrast to the animals. But she wasn’t identical to him so she could complement him. Equal and yet different, something our society has forgotten.

I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode when Jerry falls for a woman just like him. He thinks he’s finally found his soul mate. Then it dawns on him: “She’s just like me. I hate me!” And it was over. She has to be different, and not just biologically.

Our culture doesn’t agree. Jesus affirms God’s design for marriage as heterosexual. This is essential for fulfilling the purposes of marriage which are far deeper than our romantic desires.

The man, Moses says, leaves and cleaves. He leaves his former way of life. His primary human relationships must change. He leaves to cleave. They become one flesh, bound up together in a mysterious way.

No photo description available.

But there is another mystery here. Paul says that this speaks to Christ and the Church, His bride (Eph. 5).

Leaving and cleaving is a picture of the Christian life. We leave our initial covenant head, Adam. We leave our master, Satan. We leave our sinful practices.

We cleave to a new covenant head, Christ. We cleave to our new master, Christ. We cleave to obedience and the fruit of the Spirit.

We leave, for instance, our covetous and idolatrous love of money and cleave to Christ who loved us and gave Himself for us. We leave our adultery, whether in the heart or in the body, to cleave to Christ the Faithful One. We leave our anger and hatred for our spouse and cleave to Christ who gives us pardoning and purifying love to share with our similarly angry spouse.

Consider your marriage. Does it reflect God’s design and purposes or have you begun to settle for some cheap imitation? If you are considering divorce, are you running from the very lessons about forgiveness, kindness and long-suffering God wants you to learn?

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I was reading Animal Farm while donating plasma but a medical deferral due to a test meant I wasn’t donating for a few weeks. Time to blog was sparse but it is time to return to Animal Farm: A Fairy Tale.

The egalitarianism of Animalism meant that differences between the animals were not generally recognized. They did not work according to their abilities but rather according to the needs of the community. Egalitarianism does this frequently. Equality does not mean people are identical. It means they have equal rights, not equal abilities or gifting.

Animal Farm

The only animals that didn’t get stuck in the egalitarian stew were the pigs. Their reasoning was that someone had to supervise and due to their superior intelligence (so much for egalitarianism) they were the ones most suited for it. You see here that oppressors always find a reason to pull the strings.

Chapter 5

Mollie the horse is not really liking the “new farm order” and Animalism. She longs for the old days when she just had to do her job, not everyone else’s too. She found reasons to take extra-long breaks. Finally Clover confronts her because she noticed Mollie gazing longingly at the Foxwood Farm. As she denies it Clover notes that the man was stroking her nose. Clover decided to inspect Mollie’s stall and found a lump of sugar and some ribbons for her mane. She missed the perks of having an owner care for her. This did not bode well.

Three days later Mollie would disappear. She defected to the “enemy”, missing the old way of life too much.

The animals tried a form of democracy. Policy was made by the majority, or supposed to anyway. But the differences of opinion between Napoleon and Snowball dominated everything. In the meetings Snowball was more persuasive but Napoleon was better at garnering support in between meetings. The sheep, bleating out “Four legs good, two legs bad”, seemed to shut down discussion. Snowball was studying how to improve the farm using tools and and plans. Napoleon had something else in mind entirely.

Napoleon seemed content to undermine Snowball’s plans, seemingly biding his time. Their biggest battle was over the windmill. Snowball wanted to put one on the highest point of the farm land and use it to generate power for electric tools. Finally Napoleon came out against the windmill. He argued they needed to increase food production first. Stubborn old Benjamin refused to believe that food production would increase or that the windmill would save them work. The animals were divided.

One Sunday it was time for the big vote. While Snowball was speaking a loud ruckus was heard outside the barn. Dogs were barking, growling and yelping. The pups that Napoleon had taken for himself were no longer pups but nearly full-grown and came right for Snowball, chasing him out of the barn and indeed off the farm.

The dogs wagged their tails in response to Napoleon much like how the dogs in the old days wagged theirs for Mr. Jones. Napoleon called a temporary end to the Sunday meetings. They were a big waste of time (now that he’d assumed control). The aptly named Squealer let the animals know the new deal and how they should all appreciate the extra labor Napoleon had to do now that Snowball had run off.

Immediately Squealer began to downplay Snowball’s role in the battle. He wasn’t so heroic as we first thought, Squealer began to say. The other animals never quite knew how to respond to Squealer’s arguments. Boxer often said “Napoleon is always right” and “I’ll work harder”. This set the mood for most of the animals: trust Napoleon and work harder. They were unable to think for themselves and put their blind faith into Napoleon.

Three weeks later Napoleon announced that the windmill was to be built. It was, after all, his idea in the first place. Squealer let the others know that Snowball’s plan had been stolen from Napoleon.

We begin to see the process of gaslighting. The animals’ memories are consistently challenged. While they correctly remember what had happened, Squealer works hard to let them know they are actually wrong. A different narrative of events is brought forth and soon the actual narrative of events becomes lost.

This is one of the main ways that the pigs maintain control of the other animals. They act as if their version is what everyone has always known and fool them into going along. They stop thinking for themselves and just do what they are told. All good is attributed to Napoleon, and everything wrong begins to be blamed on Snowball.

Chapter 6

“All that year the animals worked like slaves” is how the chapter begins. Once slaves of Mr. Jones they are now slaves of Napoleon even if they can’t see it. The animals worked 60-hour weeks but never seemed to get ahead. Part of that was because of the windmill but they were also less productive in general. The work on the windmill was voluntary and yet those who didn’t work on it had their rations cut. Two fields had not been sown and the others were not as productive. A hard winter was in the offing.

While there was plenty of limestone for the windmill, breaking it up into suitable pieces was difficult work. The windmill was going slower than anticipated. Boxer continued to push harder and harder despite the warnings of Clover regarding his health.

As shortages began to appear, Napoleon declared that they would now trade with neighboring farms. This was a complete turnaround from earlier policy. This is similar to the early independence of the USSR that conveniently changed when they experienced numerous shortages. Trading with those horrible capitalists was acceptable for the right reasons.

In this case the trade was for supplies to complete the windmill. This was now the essential task for their long term survival. The Soviets had a number of technological improvement projects represented by the windmill. The hens would sacrifice more eggs to trade, but this meant the next generation of hens wouldn’t be as big. They were robbing Peter to pay Paul. Time to cue the sheep and for Squealer to begin working the crowd to persuade them this was the best plan. Farmer Whymper showed up each week for eggs while Napoleon was said to be in negotiations with Pilkington and Frederick.

Suddenly the pigs moved into the farmhouse despite the earlier prohibition. Squealer began to inform them that their memories were not accurate. There had been no such prohibition and the pigs just needed a little more room. Boxer continued his mantra but Clover tried to read the Commandments, enlisting the help of Muriel.

The commandment that Clover remembered as ” No animal shall sleep in a bed” now had “with sheets” at the end. As long as the pigs didn’t use sheets, apparently it was okay. We see that power continues to change the rules to fit its needs and desires. It doesn’t announce it as a change but often makes it seem as if it has always been that way. You are crazy or prone to conspiracies because we won’t accept what Napoleon or Squealer tells you. History is rewritten and it is those who notice who are considered troublemakers.

Hay and corn were sold for supplies to make the windmill as well. There didn’t seem to be much left for the animals. They had less than they did when Mr. Jones ran the place, even though they worked harder.

This is what happens. The people are pushed harder and harder, receiving less and less while the elites enjoy more and more off the blood, sweat and tears of the people. Yet, this is considered better than capitalism. No longer are the evil capitalists getting rich off you, the Party is.

After a big storm they discovered the windmill was in ruins. But it was not the storm, it was Snowball. The traitor was now also saboteur. He was turned into Napoleon’s scapegoat, responsible for all that ailed Animal Farm.

That very morning the work would resume.

Failure is always someone else’s fault, someone outside of the community. It is never the fault of leadership. Bad decisions are never owned. This is not particular to totalitarian regimes, for we can see it on our 2-party democratic republic. For one party the current leader is “our glorious leader” and for the other they are “the devil himself”. The opposing party is to be blamed. For a regime, it is an exiled leader or the leader of another nation that is the Great Satan. Governments control people in this way. Beware of those who never admit they are wrong, especially those with great power.

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I enjoy reading the series by Crossway about various theologians on the Christian life. The theologians and pastors had different emphases often in keeping with their life. When I studied psychological theory I discovered that many theorists’ issues were laid out in their theory. They were struggling with their problem. The emphasis of some theologians is similar. Luther, racked by guilt, emphasized justification. His doctrine was not wrong, but had he not wrestled with guilt and a righteous God the light likely would have never gone on. What we believe can be a function of the questions we ask.

The latest volume I read is Augustine on the Christian Life: Transformed by the Power of God by Gerald Bray. This was not quite the book I was expecting it to be. I’m not even sure he answered the question of the series in a way that shapes how we live the Christian life. It seems more about the power of the Christian life with very little on our Gospel imperatives or implications.

Augustine on the Christian Life: Transformed by the Power of God (Theologians on the Christian Life)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I read it. I learned quite a bit more about Augustine and his time. Much of it was timely and provided me with illustrations for sermons later in the week. It helps me as a Christian and a pastor.

This volume is one of the shortest in the series at just over 200 pages. There are only 5 chapters so they are rather long. This makes it harder for the busy person to read. I generally like to read a chapter at a time but I needed to read portions instead. The chapters tend to focus on the roles Augustine played rather than his theological constructs of emphases in life like devotional disciplines. This lends the volume a more academic feel to it than the others in this series. At times Bray zigs and zags between topics. He’ll speak of the fall of Rome, for instance, and then return to the City of God later. As I’ve summarized what he said, at times I’ve rearranged content, or rather how I discuss it.

Augustine is one of those guys you hear about all the time. Many of the Reformers were highly dependent on him. Both sides in many a controversy claim him. He was THE theologian in the west until Aquinas. It is amazing that we have so many manuscripts of his books, and that he wrote so many that are still read to this day. He likely never would have imagined his impact on the western world while he preached and wrote in North Africa.

The Life and Times of Augustine

The book, like the others in the series, orients you to his life and times. He was born and raised in North Africa (in what is now known as Algeria) and returned there after some time in Rome and Milan leading up to his conversion. Augustine the teacher of rhetoric struggled. He was not a much sought after teacher in Italy. But I get ahead of myself.

He father was a Roman official. He was familiar with the Roman way of life. His father was a pagan until he was on his deathbed. His understanding and practice of marriage was very Roman. Wives were for status (dowries) and heirs. Sexual pleasure was often sought from others. While Monica loved him and lived a life of Christian piety before him, Patricius cheated often (and she forgave much). In the minds of many back then, adultery was committed by husbands against their wives, but only against men. Outside the Church, men were free to engage in sexual activity with any woman who wasn’t married, or a married woman from a lower status. Wives generally had to tolerate it.

Augustine was not baptized until his conversion in his 30’s. After leaving Thagaste to study in Carthage Augustine took a concubine. This was normal for a man in his day. He was faithful to her, and had a son with her. But she was not “marriage material” for the son of a Roman official. For 9 years he adhered to Manicheeism, a dualistic religion. He then discovered neo-Platonism which provided him a bridge toward Christianity.

He would leave Rome for Milan, where the Emperor lived at the time. The local bishop, Ambrose was a gifted speaker so Augustine began to attend to listen to him. He took catechism classes to better understand Christianity. He famously converted in a garden after he heard children sing “take up and read” and he opened to Romans 13:13-14.

13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

His mother was relieved to learn of his conversion. His “unsuitable” concubine was put away and a marriage suitable for a man of his status was arranged. She was 10 to his 30. The marriage could not take place until she was 12, and in the interim Augustine broke it off and embarked on a life of celibacy. He seems to have rejected the Roman corruption of marriage more than the biblical model of marriage. His past also seemed to be haunting him.

Upon moving to Hippo, he was impressed into the service of the church as a new bishop. He would serve there until his death the day before Hippo itself fell to the Vandals. He would preach nearly daily, and as a man without a family had time to write about the issues of his day: Manicheeism, Donatism (a sect limited to N. Africa), Pelagian views and the Trinity. His Confessions was unique as a long meditation on his early life and conversion.

Augustine was not a gifted linguist which lead to criticism from contemporaries like Jerome. He was “bound” to the Latin translations of the Scriptures and the writings of Eastern theologians. In the Eastern church he was therefore minimized for many centuries. The Latin translations often had scribal errors which are evident when he quotes them. Some misinterpret this as Augustine bringing paganism into the Scriptures, not realizing the limitations of the man and availability of translations. Yet, as Bray notes, Augustine’s doctrine and understanding of the unity of Scripture resulted in him coming to the right conclusions despite the errors in translation. There should be great comfort in this for the ordinary pastor. You don’t need to master the original languages or have a perfect Bible translation before you. You must master the Scriptures and have a sound theology so that you will continually teach and preach in a way consistent with the Scriptures instead of being bound by a particular text/translation.

It should be noted that Augustine, bound to translations, believed the Apocrypha were inspired since they were in the Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament. Jerome, a Hebrew scholar, rejected them since they were not in the copies of the Old Testament in Hebrew. In this the Western Church sided with Augustine. During the Reformation, many of the Protestants preferred Jerome’s reasoning on the canon.

Augustine the Believer in Christ

Bray moves into Augustine the believer, looking at his conversion, devotional life, values, and lifestyle in more in depth. Augustine believed he was found by God rather than finding God. He came to understand his great sinfulness including the rejection of his instruction in the faith as a child. He began to see how thoroughly sin warps our hearts and therefore actions. He lived at a time when the church was still sorting some doctrines out, including baptism. His views often represent the tensions between the different contemporary views. He did view baptism as removing sins, but also that people needed to be engaged, believing, to receive salvation. Baptism itself didn’t save, there needs to be faith and repentance as well. As a result, Augustine focused more on the time of conversion than the moment of baptism.

“You give us delight in praising you, because you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

His conversion and subsequent discussion of it led to the end of a valuable friendship. This person wanted nothing of his new faith. This led Augustine to think more of love, and rest in the unchanging, steadfast love of God.

Bray delves into Augustine’s attempts to resolve the dualism of good and evil found in the teachings of Manicheeism. This process is important for his conversion. Yet it was the call of God in that text of Romans that resulted in his conversion, not the solution to the philosophical problem. By this I mean resolving the problem of dualism didn’t make him a Christian just like believing in Creation didn’t make me a Christian. Those were important in the process, but through the Scripture he heard the call of God to faith in Christ which alone makes one a Christian. In this same time frame, Augustine began to accept the Scriptures as the Word of God.

In terms of his devotional life, we discover that he loved corporate singing which had been introduced to the western church while he was in Milan. He recognized the temptation to be moved more by the singing than the words sung. He viewed devotion as withdrawal from the world. The cult of martyrdom in N. Africa began to be replaced with acseticism and then monasticism as Christianity was legalized throughout the Empire. In this we see his view that Christianity was an experience to be lived, not simply ideas to be analyzed.

Augustine and Luther both focused on faith. They were asking different questions, and so did their contemporaries. It is impossible to know what Augustine would have thought about “justification by faith alone but not a faith that is alone.” Bray rightly notes it is folly to try and sort out if Augustine would have been a Protestant. Faith was intellectual belief, but faith brought one into union with Christ. He did make much of our union with the person of Christ. It is in this discussion that we find shades of the Mandalorian.

“This is the way. Walk in humility so that you may come to eternity. Christ as God is the country to which we are going; Christ as man is the way by which we get there.”

Augustine focused on the sacrifice of Christ which saves. Pelagius seemed to focus on the sacrifice as one to be imitated. This key difference, according to Bray, drove the disagreement between them. Augustine inherited a tradition, in the best sense, that saw Adam as having fallen in that the image was corrupted. Grace restores the image. Pelagians viewed grace as completing, not restoring, nature. For Augustine it wasn’t simply a return to Eden but to something better. It isn’t about self-improvement. There is a newness of life that arises from the waters of baptism (Rom. 6). It is not in imitating Christ that we saved, as Pelagius seemed to teach, but in being united to Christ in his death and resurrection that we are saved.

Augustine the Teacher

Early in his life, Augustine rejected the Bible. He compared its prose to that of Cicero and found it beneath him. He later admits that the real problem was his pride; a pride which rejected the Scriptures and believed almost any myth the world had to offer.

Ambrose believed, and taught, that as made in God’s image we had the capacity for reasoning and for knowing God. Ambrose also moved beyond the superficial meaning of the text. Augustine, like many of his day, believed that the truth was often hidden. He welcomed Ambrose’s more allegorical approach to the Scriptures. Many believed that the Bible was objectively true but that there were also spiritual lessons to be learned hidden in the text. What Bray describes sounds more like what we call typology than allegory since there was a truthfulness of the text. They were real events and an original meaning not simply fanciful ideas disconnected from reality. People generally weren’t focused on history and historicity. Yet we find the call of gospel effecting in transforming sinners into saints. The truths of Scripture were communicated and could be understood on different levels of meaning.

“The whole Old Testament Scripture, for those who really want to understand it, has been handed down with a four-fold sense- historical, aetiological, analogical, and allegorical … According to the aetiological sense, we are shown that there no conflict between the Old and New Testaments. According to the allegorical sense, we are taught that not everything in Scripture is to be taken literally, but must be understood figuratively.”

While philosophy played an important role in Augustine’s shift from paganism to Christianity, he would come to believe it tries to explain things that go beyond our competence and ability. Scripture, on the other hand, was a mirror of the soul to teach us the way of salvation. It was about everyday life and love rather than delving deeply into metaphysics. It assumes God, reveals what we can know about God and what He requires of us. Bray notes that Augustine loved the Psalms and used them to express his own devotion to God. The Psalmists’ relationship to God struck a chord with him. He saw them as all about Christ, and that He was the key to understanding them.

Augustine affirmed the miracles of the Scriptures as proof of the gospel’s truth. He rightfully noted that if they still continued in such number people would be seeking them more than the message they authenticated. This was true in the days of Jesus and the Apostles.

Augustine had no desire to scholarship like Jerome. He didn’t concern himself with textual problems. In some ways he was like a brilliant Fundamentalist. The Creeds were coming into prominence during his lifetime but did not really shape his thinking or practice. There were no systematic theologies as we know them until nearly a thousand years later with Peter Lombard’s The Sentences which were based on the broad writing of Augustine. Bray notes that Augustine found the obscure passages were placed there by God to test us and make us think and pray for understanding.

“Christ meets and refreshes me everywhere in those books.”

He had a Christ-centered understanding of the Scriptures long before it was popular. What struck Augustine about the Gospels was the humanity of Christ. He hungered, was tired. On the road to Christianity he struggled with WHY the Son of God would become man. Finally Paul & John got through to him that Jesus came into the world to save on account of His love. The necessity of the incarnation for atonement changed everything for Augustine. The cross became both the way of salvation and the Christian life. Christ saves us through His cross, and we imitate Him in self-denial because we’ve been saved. United to Christ in His death which destroyed the body of sin, it is possible for us to put our flesh to death.

In this discussion Bray brings us to Arius and Augustine’s foundational work on the Trinity. The image of God in man, for Augustine, was more about the three-ness of God than the oneness of his being. It points to the relational nature of God since “God is love.” It is because God is relational that He made us relational and can have a relationship with us. His meditations on the resulted in De Trinitate.

“The trinity of the mind is not the image of God just because it remembers, understands, and loves itself, but because it is also able to remember, understand, and love the one by whom it was made. It is when it does this that it becomes wise.”

This understanding of the Trinity rooted in “God is love” transforms much of our theology. When I read Delighting in the Trinity Reeves grounded mission in God’s love. This was an emphasis I found missing as I was reading The Mission of God by Christopher Wright (admittedly I didn’t finish it but as a foundational matter it should have shown up early).

Bray then brings us into Augustine’s view of predestination. As sinful people, God must choose if any are to be saved. This was not a major focus on his teaching though. As the Westminster Confession advises, it should be taught carefully. Augustine provided similar advice. The earlier church focuses on divine foreknowledge. In his writings against Pelagianism he worked through more of the implications of predestination. Man, as sinner, will not choose salvation because man as sinner hates God. Man must be born again to believe. Sadly, Augustine didn’t believe that God gave the grace of perseverance to all whom He gave the gifts of regeneration, faith, hope and love. But we should not, he thought, focus on who is or isn’t elect but rather preach the word to all.

Augustine the Pastor

Augustine spent 34 years as the bishop of Hippo, a port city on the coast of North Africa. As bishop his role in that age was not administrative but focused on the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. He was more like the lead pastor of the church in Hippo, not over a large geographic area. There were smaller churches or chapels scattered in town and the metro region. He would have delegated pastoral responsibilities to elders.

He never attended an ecumenical council. Invited to the Council of Ephesus he passed away for it was held. One of the most influential theologians, if not the most influential, never traveled farther than Carthage during his years of ministry.

North Africa, the site of many persecutions in the time of the early church, was vulnerable to the cult of martyrs. Their honor of martyrs could be taken to excess. This meant that those who fled persecution or compromised to avoid it were viewed as cowards. The Donatist movement arose in N. Africa as many churches refused to welcome them back after the persecution was over. Both the cult of martyrs and Donatism were issues of pastoral concern for Augustine. The former was within the church, and the latter was a schismatic sect that rejected the authority of the rest of the church. They were not differently doctrinally, this was ultimately about their inability to forgive their weaker brothers and sisters. Hippo was strongly Donatist when Augustine arrived and that conflict marked about half of his ministry.

Augustine used Cyprian’s formulation to counter their claims. They cut themselves off from the Church (they were not found outside N. Africa) and therefore could not have salvation no matter how pure their doctrine. He made much of the fact that the Church is the Body of Christ. They weren’t simply another denomination or congregation (church) but claiming to be the Church to the exclusion of other Christians throughout the world. This spirit has not died, sadly. The Boston Church of Christ held this position though lately they’ve been open to the possibility of there being other Christians somewhere. The Russian Orthodox Church has also expressed this sentiment.

When Rome fell to the Vandals in 410 many of the wealthy who escaped showed up in Hippo. The fall of Rome presented the pastoral concern of dealing with growing opposition to Christianity for making Rome weak. This resulted in The City of God tracing the history of religion and developing a 2 kingdoms doctrine to understand history. There was also the pastoral concern faced by many when rich and influential people show up on your doorstep.

He did not believe that Rome had been singled out for special condemnation because of its sins, and before long he was doing his best to put a positive spin on what had occurred.” Gerald Bray

Augustine was criticized for not being patriotic because he did not “identify the cause of Rome with the will of God.” Rome was not the City of God. Empires had come and gone, and would continue to do so. As we struggle with the relationship between Church and State in America we also need to remember that America isn’t the City of God. Its interests aren’t the same as the Kingdom. Yet, just as Augustine struggled to imagine a world without Rome as its political center, we struggle to conceive of a world without America as a world power and sender of missionaries.

In the course of human history on earth, the two cities are intertwined and cannot be separated from one another. Members of both live and sometimes die for the honor of their country or family, and it may be impossible for observers to know the real motivations of each.” Gerald Bray speaking about The City of God

One of Augustine’s tasks was to move people from cultural Christianity (really the first generation of it) to authentic faith. There were many who remained catechumens indefinitely. Many delayed baptism to wash away their sins just prior to death. But this was a risky proposition in those days. Augustine would remind them that union with Christ through baptism would provide them with strength necessary to live and serve faithfully. Those who simply wanted to keep sinning as long as they could found his rightful rebuke.

Augustine placed great emphasis on the Lord’s Prayer. This was a model for our prayers. He seemed to think prayer was “natural” to the Christian. Perhaps it came easier to him than to many of us. Prayer is opposed by the world, the flesh and the devil precisely because it is a means of grace. Communal or congregational prayer does not seem to have been an important part of worship services in his time.

Preaching was an important part of worship in his day. While there were services daily, very few attended except on Sunday. Feast days were also well attended. Acoustics were not great so noise in the congregation could drown out his voice. His sermons would last as long as he think he needed to cover the material. The people would generally stand to hear the sermon and this could sometimes take over an hour (a sermon on Psalm 73 lasted over two hours). There are times when he stopped a sermon in the middle to continue it the next day. Most sermons were about 40-60 minutes. He did not read off a manuscript but wanted to engage the audience. He viewed his role as feeding the people Christ in his sermons.

Sermon texts were not to be treated in isolation. Every text had a context that included the rest of Scripture. While examining a tree, one should not lose sight of the rest of the forest as Bray puts it. Preaching requires exegesis of a text and the use of systematic (and biblical) theology lest one verse be removed from that context and be used to teach error. Augustine used many word plays that get lost in translation.

In his time, sexual immorality was prevalent even among those who listened to him. The mores of Rome were still very different from the standards of the Scriptures. When addressing sexual sins he often got push back and excuses. Bray includes this “justification” from such a person:

“My woman is no prostitute, she is my concubine. Holy bishop, you have called my concubine a prostitute! Do you really think that I would resort to a prostitute? I would never do that, nor would I touch a woman who belongs to someone else. The woman whom I keep is my own maid. Can I not do what I want in my own household?”

Sexual immorality and divorce were common in Roman society, and Augustine often chastised people for their laxity. He called them to repentance and to receive forgiveness for such sins. He understood this was counter cultural. Roman society viewed domination of many as a sign of manhood and great status. He called the men to use their strength to remain faithful to their wives. He called wives to be less tolerant of their husbands’ infidelity. This means teaching that both spouses had conjugal rights and the spouse was the only one who should satisfy their rights. Yes, wives had such rights too (1 Cor. 7) and should exercise those rights rather than tolerate mistresses and prostitutes.

Augustine’s honesty about failings did not end with Confessions and the sins committed prior to conversion. He noted the temptations he experienced as bishop, particularly to pride. This is important if we are to actually point to Christ instead of ourselves. Our sin must be on the table rather than coming across as merely theoretical sinners.

Augustine Today

The final chapter assesses reputation and legacy. His contemporaries can compare to his reputation and impact upon the Church. This is no slight upon them. In the providence of God we have so much more of Augustine’s work than theirs. One of the strengths of his books and sermons is the self-revelation. You can get a good sense of the man.

There were big changes are the fall of the empire ended antiquity with its centers of philosophy and theology. What remained of his work, particularly The City of God, would become a main source of knowledge about the world before Augustine. His books were copied by scribes and read by scholars for over a thousand years before the invention of the printing press. Many important theologians plundered Augustine though too often for their own purposes irrespective of the context of a particular statement. As a result, both sides of an argument may bring him up in defense of their view. Particularly when the debate is between Rome and the Protestants.

In the East he remains largely unknown. He is viewed as something of an outsider since he didn’t really interact with the Greek fathers. This doesn’t mean he was ignorant of them. The language barrier often made it difficult for him to understand how or why they used the terminology they did at times. They were far more ignorant of him until De Trinitate was finally translated to Greek in 1282. At that time there were questions of reuniting East and West.

Augustine faced different questions than the subsequent generations of churchmen and theologians. We try to fit him into our holes to support our agendas. This issue continues in discussing his legacy and our tendency to canonize or demonize those from other eras.

“Had we been his contemporaries, we would have been influenced by the same things that shaped him and would have behaved in ways much like his than like ours now. Everyone is a child of his age and background, and it is unfair to judge someone so unlike ourselves in these respects by the criteria that we would apply to ourselves and to our contemporaries. … What we can never know is whether we would have felt that way at the time.”

It is too easy to judge them based on our standards, which include our own blindspots. We talk about being on the right or wrong side of history based on our own sliver of history instead of the unchanging Word of God. It is notable that Augustine’s most famous writings were connected with his present: circumstances and controversies. He wasn’t generally butting into earlier ones and judging people by the standards he held at the time. Yet, this is what we so often do. We struggle to see life through another’s eyes.

This book helped me to see more of his life through his eyes. Some of his decisions which didn’t make sense to me before make more sense now though I might not agree with them. I’m trying to see them through his eyes and not merely my own. That is a significant contribution even if the book didn’t necessarily help me understand how he viewed “the Christian life” apart from the fact that God transforms us.

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God’s answer to Adam’s sin and death was the covenant of grace and it’s mediator. Those are the next two subjects that Bavinck addresses in The Wonderful Works of God. In this he follows the Westminster Confession instead of the Belgic Confession.

The Wonderful Works of God by Hermann Bavinck Cover Image. Westminster Seminary Press.

Sin brings with it the problem of justice. God is just and man has sinned. God and man are at war and for his rebellion man deserves to die.

Humanity also has a longing for justice because we are made in the image of God. Bavinck argues that despite numerous advances, civilization can’t scratch our itch. Religion, formal and informal, is there as well. Redemption is a theme in all civilizations. Where they differ is the nature of the evil involved and the method of redemption offered to people. Fallen people misrepresent God, seeks Him wrongly but seemingly seeks Him. In this Bavinck communicates the centrality of religion and a world view shaped by religion.

In biblical religion it is always God who seeks man. In the beginning He beat the bushes looking for Adam and Eve who are hiding due to guilt and shame. In Christianity God becomes man to seek and save the lost. Bavinck brings us back to God’s unbreakable, immutable and almighty will and decrees. He mentions three matters of concern: election, the plan of redemption or counsel of redemption, the working and application of redemption. The basis of election is never those elect but rather the grace of God. The plan of redemption is not just who is redeemed but the Mediator who redeems them. The Spirit brings us into fellowship with the Father through the Son. We see Bavinck referring to elements of the economic Trinity this way:

“As Mediator He is subordinate to the Father and obedient to Him. He has a command and a work to fulfill which the Father has assigned to Him. And as the reward for His finished work He received His own glory, the salvation of His people, and the highest might in heaven and on earth.”

This plan of redemption, by which the elect are saved, contains the who and the how. Election itself does not save people, but God ordains the means of their salvation too.

“We are convinced of this comfort of election even more when we remember that the counsel of God is a work of His mind not merely, but also of His will, is not a thought merely which belongs to the realm of eternity but also an almighty power which realizes itself in time.”

Bavinck begins with what he calls the “mother promise” but which others call the proto-evangelion in Genesis 3:14-15. This he calls “the announcement and institution of the covenant of grace.” This promise of the seed of the woman who crushes the head of the serpent is the essence of the covenant of grace. God breaks, he says, the covenantal relationship between Satan and man forged in Adam’s rebellion by putting enmity there which culminated in the Seed. Man’s role is to trust that God will work. “Promise and faith are the content of the covenant of grace which is now set up for man.” These basic principles govern all the administrations of the covenant of grace.

The covenant of grace reverse the covenant of works given to Adam. Here’s how he puts it:

“The order is reversed. Before the fall the rule was: through works to eternal life. Now, after the fall, in the covenant of grace, the eternal life comes first, and out of that life the good works follow as fruits of faith. … Then the working days preceded the Sabbath; now the Sabbath begins the week and hallows all its days.”

Many struggle with election, unknowingly destroying the covenant of grace in the process. Bavinck reasons thusly:

“When the covenant of grace is separated from election, it ceases to be a covenant of grace and becomes again a covenant of works. Election implies that God grants man freely and out of grace the salvation which man has forfeited and which he can never again achieve in his own strength. … Man must then satisfy some condition in order to inherit eternal life. In this, grace and works stand at opposite poles from each other and are mutually exclusive.”

Election, he argues, is not the sum of election but it is the “first and principle part.” In the counsel of redemption the members of Trinity agree to the plan and each fulfills their task for the salvation of the elect.

Bavinck speaks of the unity of the covenant in terms of its essence. But as God reveals more there are differences in form and administration. “The one, great, all-inclusive promise of the covenant of grace is: I will be thy God, and the God of thy people.” This is the great thread thru the center of all the administrations of the covenant. He then explains this in a brief summary of biblical history.

Adam, as head of the covenant of works, has plunged us all into sin and death. Christ comes as Adam the Second, a new covenant head, to fulfill all Adam didn’t but also to satisfy the demands of the law for humanity. In discussing this Bavinck covers some important ground.

“The promise never concerns a single believer alone, but in him his house or family also. God does not actualize His covenant of grace by picking a few people out of humanity at random, and by gathering these together into some sort of assemblage alongside of the world. Rather He bears His covenant into mankind, makes it part and parcel of the world, and sees to it that in the world it is preserved from evil. As the Redeemer or Re-Creator, God follows the line which He drew as Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler of all things. Grace is something other and higher than nature, but it nevertheless joins up with nature, does not destroy it but restores it rather. Grace is not a legacy which is transferred by natural birth, but it does flow on in the river-bed which had been dug out in the natural relationships of the human race.”

Here we see the “you and your seed” principle expressed throughout Reformed and Covenantal Theology. God often works through multiple generations. This doesn’t mean people are saved by bloodlines or that all children of believers are saved. But it does mean that God often works through family. Often, not occasionally. We also see that grace does not destroy nature but rather restores it. Grace makes us fully human, not superhuman.

“The Gospel is sheer good tidings, not demand but promise, not duty but gift.”

His work on the covenant reflects the work of Witsius. We can’t fairly compare it to any recent works since the archeology on which the work of Kline and others hadn’t happened yet. It is perhaps not as detailed as some may like; for instance the elements of a covenant. But he gets the main things that reflect the work of Witsius and the Westminster divines: one covenant, various administrations. The goal of that covenant is that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” The promise of the land is subservient to that greater promise of salvation, much to the consternation of some of our Baptist brothers.

And with this Bavinck begins to address the Mediator of the covenant of grace.

The covenant of grace and the decree of election are made in eternity but play out in time. Here he identifies three main issues: the Mediator who accomplishes salvation, the Spirit who applies salvation and the people to whom salvation is applied according to the eternal decree of election. In this chapter he deals with the first.

“Christianity stands in a very different relationship to the person of Christ than the other religions do to the persons who founded them.” Jesus is not an innovator or first confessor of an idea. He is the King and yet the One who was sent to save His people. His is the work that saves. He doesn’t simply point the way to Christianity, but instead He is the way (John 14:6) as well as the truth and the life.

Bavinck discusses Jesus’ self-awareness. He knew, and declared, Himself to be the only Begotten Son, beloved of the Father whom He obeyed as Mediator for our salvation. This self-awareness is unfolded in the witness of the Apostles. He redeems the creation which was made through Him.

History was the preparation of the world for the coming of Messiah to Israel. The Angel of the Covenant was a revelation of God to the people of Israel. The Angel lead them into the way of grace. Bavinck asserts the way of salvation as the same for Old Testament and New Testament saints. The Spirit of Christ was active in the prophets to reveal the His person and work to Israel. They promoted Messianic expectations and therefore expectations for the future kingdom. As part of the covenant of grace, disloyalty and unfaithfulenss of God’s people cannot invalidate God’s faithfulness. “When, therefore, the people do not walk in the way of the covenant, God can for a while abandon it, subject it to chastisement, judgment, or captivity, but He cannot violate His covenant.” He applies the sanctions of the covenant, as seen in Deuteronomy, but then restores His people as is also seen in Deuteronomy. The means by which He ultimately does this is the Mediator, the Messiah.

As our God, He places us in the Kingdom of His Son which is full of peace, joy and righteousness through the Holy Spirit. While these promises are expanded in the prophets, they are found in basic from in the Mosaic covenant, which is what the prophets applied to the circumstances of God’s people.

Bavinck spends time developing the promises initially fulfilled in David but which await the final and greatest son of David to come. He draws on biblical history and the Psalms to develop some of these ideas. On the one hand this is the kingdom of David ruled by the son of David, but on another it is the kingdom of God ruled by the Son of God. These are joined in the One who according to the flesh descended from David but was also declared to the the Son of God by the Spirit (Romans 1).

In Isaiah in particular we see how the merely human sons of David continue to lead the kingdom astray and eventually bring it to ruin in 586 BC. God strips them of all earthly hope that He might provide a better hope. There is plenty of applied biblical theology in this section reminding us that biblical and systematic theology best complement one another.

While Bavinck will later focus on the two natures of Christ, he does cover the reality that “(H)e is a human being in the full, true sense , having a body, a soul and a spirit, a human mind, a human will, the human feelings of joy and sadness, wrath and mercy, and the human needs of rest and relaxation, food and drink …”. The people who met Jesus did not doubt His humanity. They thought Him merely human, not less than or other than human. This stands in contrast to numerous heretics later who denied the humanity of Jesus in a variety of ways. We cannot separate the historical Jesus and the Christ of the church as many have tried in the last 100 or so years. Bavinck goes on to defend the Apostles from charges of bearing false witness by creating a Jesus of their imagination.

Jesus is not a member of the kingdom but the Lord of the kingdom. He’s the heir of the vineyard as Son. He’s the sinless One who was falsely charged by His enemies. We are not sure how Jesus achieved His self-awareness but there is no indication that others talked Him into it. Rather, people were consistently talking Him out of it. He continually corrected the misshapen Messianic expectations of the disciples. He was to meet the Father’s expectations, not theirs.

In many ways Bavinck doesn’t finish his discussion of the Mediator of the covenant. He’ll develop the person and work of the Mediatior in the next few chapters. We’ll have to be content here to know that He is the only Mediator between God and man, the God-man Jesus Christ.

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This is a letter I sent to our congregation in light of some discussion we had at our Session (elders) meeting last night.

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
    when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
    running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
    running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
    which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
    life forevermore. Psalm 133

This Psalm was part of my devotional reading this morning. Unity is a great blessing: good and pleasant indeed. There are two pictures of this given: refreshing oil and life-giving dew that feeds the headwaters at the base of Hermon.

The Session longs for the church to dwell in unity. Last night we discussed the latest of events from the last 9 months that creates disagreement among us.

Disagreement is to be expected in matters not directly addressed in the Word of God. Discussion about matters of disagreement can be help us understand one another better. Discussion isn’t always helpful, and the helpfulness is determined by the manner in which it is carried out.

Let’s be honest for a moment. We will not all agree on a number of issues that have been hot topics in the last year or so. Among these areas of disagreement will be:

  • The effectiveness of masks or other Covid safety protocols.
  • The powers and limits of the government to take particular actions in a health emergency.
  • Whether or not to get the vaccine.
  • Whether or not violence or rioting are justified in a given set of circumstances.
  • Whether or not all the votes cast were legal and the election was fair and secure.

Unity does not require uniformity of opinion on these things. Unity is about standing together in the midst of disagreements not central to the gospel. Uniformity requires agreement as a condition for fellowship. Unity offers fellowship despite disagreement upon such matters. There are hills to die on, and these don’t seem to be hills to die on within a church.

This, as I noted, doesn’t rule out discussion. We can care about these things and dialogue about them. As I’ve repeatedly said, the way in which discussion is carried out in public (social media for instance) does matter. The fruit of the Spirit can be on display in disagreement. Indeed, they must. We shouldn’t squash disagreement or dissent. We also shouldn’t permit sin in the way we carry out discourse.

The pain and fear we experience personally can come to the surface in how we discuss such things. Or not discuss them. We are different people. Some process these experiences through social media as they “think out loud”. Other process internally, alone and where no one sees nor helps. We look at these issues differently based on our experiences, our generational outlook, our social and ethnic background. We bring different data and experiences to the questions and will arrive at different answers. We can help one another understand why we see it the way we see it. We can seek to understand others. We can seek to provide a fuller picture to others or seek to get a fuller picture ourselves. These are better than shutting up and shutting down.

What isn’t helpful is requiring everyone else to think and act like you without biblical warrant.

Here are a few thoughts to hopefully help and they are rooted in Paul’s discussion of things of indifference in Romans 14.

  • Your view is just that: your point of view. It isn’t gospel truth to be accepted and obeyed by all.
  • You have control over your beliefs and actions.
  • You don’t (and shouldn’t) have control over the beliefs and actions of others.
  • Therefore, make the best decisions for you (and your family) based on your point of view & your circumstances.
  • Recognize that your choices will have consequences: positive & negative, intended & unintended.
  • Allow others to make the best decisions for themselves based on their point of view & their circumstances.
  • Therefore don’t judge those who act differently. This means maintaining fellowship.
  • Recognize your weaknesses and act on them. Use snooze buttons, perhaps even unfriend/unfollow people if their online discussions hinder your “in person” fellowship, or get off social media if it stresses you out too much. (And don’t judge others who act differently.)

Let’s look at the bigger picture briefly. For that we look at Paul’s instruction to Timothy for the churches under his care.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 1 Timothy 2

Pray, and pray often, for your brothers and sisters and church leaders as we navigate all kinds of cultural change and challenges. Pray, and pray often, for those in authority who literally have the livelihoods and health of others in their hands. Paul’s goal was that we’d be able to lead “peaceful and quiet lives” rather than be engulfed in conflict and distress. That those lives would be “godly and dignified” rather than sinful and depraved.

Ultimately we need to trust God with all of these issues. This means trusting that He is working good out of all these things for those who love Him. You don’t have to understand these things on this side of heaven. That really is what faith is about: trusting in His character and promises when life is hard and makes no sense to our feeble minds. He’s got this, even when we disagree about things. Therefore love God, and love one another.

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Perhaps everyone was distracted by the bad in 2020, but I haven’t noticed many “best books” lists this turn of the year. Maybe all “those” folks unfriended me as another part of the ugliness that was 2020.

I did, however, read some good and great books in 2020. I probably didn’t read as many as I normally do or as many as some others have read. I wasn’t stuck at home and tired of binging on Netflix. Since I’m often alone in the office anyway, I just kept going since we did live stream for the time we couldn’t meet for corporate worship. I was busy.

My Favorite Book of 2020: Gentle and Lowly

One book stands out, and I gave quite a few copies of that book away. That is Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. The timing of this release was fortuitous for many since so many suffered, and stay-at-home orders resulted in many sins rising to the surface. This is about Christ’s heart for us who struggle (meaning we are repentant rather than hard-nosed sinners). It is basically gospel-centered therapy. It is a book that hearts discouraged or dismayed by hard times, sin & misery, need to hear.

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers - Ortlund, Dane C. - 9781433566134

A Small Book About a Big Problem: Meditations on Anger, Patience and Peace by Edward Welch was another timely read. The chapters were very short, examining an aspect of our hearts with regard to anger, patience and peace. He kept driving the reader to Jesus. This was like the EMT showing up to help each day.

Maturity by Sinclair Ferguson. Anything I read by Ferguson will end up on my “end of the year” lists. He is, by far, my favorite living author of things theological and ministerial. He writes with a pastor’s heart so my heart as well as my mind are engaged. This is an updated and expanded version of his very first book. One of the highlights was his discussion of Owen on temptation and sin. As a friend as proverbially said: he puts the cookies on the counter (not in the cupboard), so people can reach them.

Untangling Emotions by J. Alasdair Groves and Winston T. Smith was a helpful book on emotions. We need to thinking more clearly about emotions and these men help us do that. In particular, their section on anger was helpful. This is not simply a psychology book but one for pastors to read so they can be more helpful in ministry.

The Whole Armor of God by Iain Dugiud is a short book on spiritual warfare which works through Ephesians 6. I’m adapting this into a Sunday School lesson for the spring. He centers on Jesus, our Champion, and not just us. This is a great little read on an important subject. One premise is that all of Ephesians is about spiritual warfare, and therefore all our lives are about spiritual warfare.

The Creaking on the Stairs by Mez McConnell sort of defies categories. It alternates biographical chapters with theological chapters unpacking abuse of various kinds and building the foundation of the gospel message. The biographical sections are often hard to read. Yet we see how God delivers people from the deepest pits of sin and misery. This is an important book to read.

2020’s Best Ministry Reads

Family Discipleship: Leading Your Home Through Time, Moments and Milestone by Matt Chandler and Adam Griffin was a very practical read on the subject of discipleship. Essentially there are the regular rhythms of discipleship- what we do regularly- the providential moments of discipleship as we deal with particular issues and problems, and celebrations of milestones that provide opportunities for discipleship. In includes material at the end of chapters for parents to work this out for a plan. It is very helpful and I gave copies of this away to our families at church. This is also something for churches to keep in mind: discipleship in those 3 aspects of time.

Making Kingdom Disciples by Charles Dunahoo. Yes, this has been around for awhile but I hadn’t read it. I like the kingdom focus, particularly as our congregation works thru The Vine Project to establish a culture of discipleship. There was plenty to chew on that I’m still chewing on.

Boundaries for Leaders by Henry Cloud. I read this coming out of a difficult stretch of leadership. I was taking too much of the blame for something (I think) and some people were putting too much of the blame. Cloud applies his boundaries material to leadership, as the title suggests. There was plenty of material to mull over and try to apply to be a healthier leader and organization.

2020’s Best Biographical Reads

J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life by Leland Ryken was a very good and encouraging biography about one of the most important authors, theologians and churchmen of the 20th century. He was all of those, not simply one or two. Yes, he had flaws. Yes, I disagreed with some of his choices. But there is no denying his incredible impact on the best of evangelicalism in England, Canada and the U.S., as well on me personally. As I noted in my review, at times it was repetitive but it was a great read nonetheless.

A Life of Gospel Peace: The Biography of Jeremiah Burroughs by Phillip Simpson is about one of my favorite Puritans. Burroughs was very influential through his sermons, writings, work as a churchman in the Westminster Assembly and his example. This was an excellent biography of Burroughs.

2020’s Best Non-Christian Read

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. This was nearly my best read of 2020. I want to read more of Haidt’s work. He has plenty of evolutionary under-pinnings but he explains his moral philosophy in terms people can understand. He’s generally fair and avoids partisanship even though you know his political leanings. Insightful and meaningful.

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