Archive for April, 2021

We live in a time of great social consciousness and social unrest. There are many viewpoints on how to address the various injustices that have been identified. This discussion has created a great degree of conflict in many churches.

I began to read Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice by Thaddeus J. Williams. The book has a preface by John M. Perkins. This was a selling point for me since I didn’t know who Thaddeus Williams is. I was looking for a balanced book, not one that was critical of social justice itself. I was looking for one that had a biblical perspective on justice (which is social), but also examined the ideas behind or underneath descriptions and prescriptions. John Perkins is a civil rights leader and a committed Christian.

Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask about Social Justice - Williams, Thaddeus J - 9780310119487

Perkins’ forward begins with his credentials: born on a Mississippi cotton plantation in 1930. His mother died of malnutricion just 7 months after he was born. His older brother was murdered by a town marshal when John was 17. As an activist, he was nearly beaten to death and tortured.

God changed his heart. Jesus saved him from hate, and other sins. “He saved me from what could have easily become a life of hatred and resentment.” It is from this place that he offers four admonishments to the next generation of those who pursue justice. He offers this to the current generation that is seeking justice.

Dr. John Perkins – Embrace Multiethnic Church Conference
John Perkins

First, start with God!” God is just, and calls us to “act justly”. As just, He defines justice and the means to pursue justice. He does want justice to roll down. As we look out at this world and see the enormity of injustices we should see that it is far beyond us. “The problem of injustice is a God-sized problem. If we don’t start with him first, whatever we’re seeking, it ain’t justice.”

Sadly, many social justice warriors don’t even have God on their radar. If they do, they think He’s part of the problem. Many Christians who are concerned about social justice are being influenced by those who don’t share our worldview. They misdiagnose the problem, and resort to sub-biblical means and goals.

Williams illustrates this in the first chapter of his book. For instance:

“(White supremacy) makes race, not God, supreme. It worships and serves created things rather than the Creator. Racism, therefore, is not merely horizontally unjust, depriving other creatures what they are due; it is also vertically unjust, failing to give the Creator his due by making race an ultimate object of devotion. Why is racism so evil? If we leave God out of our answer to that question, we will fail to grasp the true diabolical depths of racism and find ourselves boxing ghosts of the real problem.Thaddeus Williams

Second, be one in Christ!” He has a great burden for the unity of the Church. We are united in Christ regardless of our race, economic class and other things that tend to divide people. There is one Lord, one God and Father of us all, one Spirit and one baptism. “That oneness is how the world will know who Jesus is. If we give a foothold to any kind of tribalism that could tear down that unity, then we aren’t bringing God’s justice.”

Many in the church are currently letting tribalism rip us apart. We seemed more concerned about support of groups not the Church nor groups connected to it. Some are disconnecting their quest for justice from their faith. They are pursuing justice by the flesh, not the Spirit. The problem isn’t simply a disconnect from faith, but also, in some cases, love. Yelling at people is not “speaking the truth in love” which is our calling, even in the face of injustice (see Romans 12).

Third, preach the gospel!” Social justice isn’t the gospel. The pursuit of justice is a fruit of the gospel. Redeemed by Christ we walk in the good works that God has prepared for us beforehand (Eph. 2:10ff). We can’t leave the gospel behind because we are seeking to change hearts not just actions, and only the gospel changes hearts. The good news is that Christ has redeemed people from every tribe, nation, tongue and language.

We have to approach the pursuit of justice like the gospel is true. As a result, “(w)e’ve got to stop playing the race game. Christ alone can break down barriers of prejudice and hate we all struggle with.” The gospel enables reconciliation through repentance, not blaming and accusing. We need to stop picking at wounds and get busy repenting and forgiving.

“If we replace the gospel with this or that man-made political agenda, then we ain’t doing biblical justice.”

Fourth and finally, teach truth!” Truth is a necessary requirement for justice. You can’t build justice on lies, half-truths and fables. We can’t assume that media narratives are true. Too often they have been discovered to be myopic. Our feelings are not the arbiter of truth. Polls aren’t either. “God’s Word is the standard of truth.” We need to examine truth claims by Scripture.

“If we’re trying harder to align with the rising opinions of our day than with the Bible, then we ain’t doing real justice.”

These are important things for us to consider as we think about pursuing justice in our world. These admonitions are reflected in Williams’ book (so far anyway). Even if you don’t read this book, these are some good words to keep in mind to provide a motive for justice, and evaluating means of justice.

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I have a confession to make. I am one of the increasing number of people who struggles with perfectionism. It isn’t new to me, but studies indicate that the percentage of people who are perfectionists is increasing. This and more is found in The Dangerous Downsides of Perfectionism.

What Is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism isn’t simply trying to do your best. Perfectionism isn’t simply having high standards. Perfectionists often are hard workers, diligent and exhibit desirable attributes. Perfectionism is tied to the voice you hear in your head when you fail, or don’t meant your expectations for yourself.

“Working hard, being committed, diligent, and so on – these are all desirable features. But for a perfectionist, those are really a symptom, or a side product, of what perfectionism is. Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards. …Perfectionism isn’t a behavior. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.” Andrew Hill

Perfectionists are not understanding with themselves (and sometimes others as well). The internal dialogue with one’s self can be brutal in the face of unmet demands: “Idiot!” The unseen tongue lashes out with a brutal verbal assault.

When I was in Cub Scouts I signed a project (macaroni art) “To mom from your dumb son.” Something must have happened at school which I’ve forgotten. It wasn’t about the quality of my macaroni masterpiece. I felt dumb. Not that I did or said something dumb, but was dumb. I don’t think anyone else has ever called me that. The voice doesn’t match reality, but it shapes your perception of reality. That voice bounces around for days sometimes.

The Toll of Perfectionism

In the article they address the toll that perfectionism takes on a person.

“Perfectionism, after all, is an ultimately self-defeating way to move through the world. It is built on an excruciating irony: making, and admitting, mistakes is a necessary part of growing and learning and being human. It also makes you better at your career and relationships and life in general. By avoiding mistakes at any cost, a perfectionist can make it harder to reach their own lofty goals.

“But the drawback of perfectionism isn’t just that it holds you back from being your most successful, productive self. Perfectionistic tendencies have been linked to a laundry list of clinical issues: depression and anxiety (even in children), self-harm, social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, binge eating, anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, hoarding, dyspepsia, chronic headaches, and, most damning of all, even early mortality and suicide.”

It seriously affects one’s mental health which often affects one’s performance which begins as downward spiral. Since no one is an island, there is a ripple effect which damages relationships (especially if you hold others to similar exacting standards).

“Faced with failure, “perfectionists tend to respond more harshly in terms of emotions. They experience more guilt, more shame,” says Hill. They also experience more anger. … They give up more easily. They have quite avoidant coping tendencies when things can’t be perfect.”

Too often the symptoms are treated rather than the real problem: the warped sense and expectations of self, and sometimes others. This means the person remains in their perfectionism which may manifest itself in other ways.

Being the parent of another perfectionist is tough. I see my child exhibiting some similar patterns. The voice in their head is similar to the one in mine. I don’t recall procrastinating as much with regard to homework, but maybe my perspective is wrong.

My issue isn’t avoiding mistakes so much as a tendency to have trouble moving forward when I fail. It isn’t just sermons that aren’t as awesome as they could have been. It’s the social faux paux that I can’t let go. It’s the personal conflict that eats me up. It’s the wondering when someone will discover I’m so seriously flawed.

Before seminary I enjoyed playing guitar with a group of musicians in a fellowship. I was still learning and my mistakes didn’t stand out at all. When I went to seminary I was asked to play guitar for a retreat. I’m still not sure how this happened since I’d never led singing and I’m a horrible singer. It went horribly, at least from my perspective. It was nearly a decade until I played in a group again. I never mentioned that I played to the church planter I interned under. When I was a solo pastor I started to play because I knew the piano would cover my mistakes.

When I struggle with insomnia, it is often the internal dialogue running rampant. I’ll turn the situation over in my mind a million different ways. I’ll try to figure out what went wrong. Or I’ll be trying to figure out what could go wrong so it doesn’t.

I am usually my own worst critic. One of my counseling professors once told me “Be kind to yourself.” Apparently even though he was an adjunct professor flying in for class he saw this in me. The counselor I’ve been seeing asked at our last session, “Are you hard on yourself?” I should have laughed. I think I am getting better because I’m aware of the situation but it is such a part of me that change seems so hard.

Oh, I have my blind spots like everyone else. Some criticism will take me by surprise. It is what follows that is revealing. I can spend days mulling it over, listening to that condemning voice in my head. My wrath is generally worse than theirs.

So much about church growth is outside of the pastor’s control. Yet, it gets personalized. I have failed, and this opens me up to depression, shame and anger.

If the only one calling you an idiot is you, you’re a perfectionist.

Perfectionism in the Pastorate

As the rates in the general population grow, so will the rates of perfectionists among pastors. The pastorate can be a hard place to be a perfectionist. We prepare all week to fulfill an upfront role which many feel can make or break a congregation. Corporate worship is the center of congregational life and all eyes are on you. There are visitors present and they may only give you one shot.

You can easily feel like you are swimming with the sharks, or the gators. How is that to feed anxiety, depression and shame? Every word can be subject to re-examination afterward. Yes, it is helpful to see where things have gone wrong in a service, and make changes to reduce problems. But this is not a team of people sitting around a table having a conversation. This is the inner law firm prosecuting its case against you.

Live and Let Die (1973)
Live and Let Die

It is hard not to think that all mistakes will be laid at your feet. You are the person up there, and responsible. You are the one who manages the people who do everything else, or at least the people who manage the people. You can quickly begin to think that it all reflects on you and every mistake becomes an indictment of you. You’re in even more trouble if there are a few people who share that sentiment.

Our personal interactions are also a mine field, if we let them be. When someone leaves the church we often wonder if it was something we said or how we said it. This is amplified by the fact that most people either don’t really know why they are leaving or aren’t fully honest. These are seeds of self-recrimination that can grow.

Years ago there was a family in which mother and daughter played piano, but not at church. Both played very well. But not at church. I was told the daughter didn’t want to play due to anxiety. My off-hand comment was “like her mother?”. True it was. Wise and thoughtful? No. Was that part of the reason they, who had so warmly welcomed me when I got there, left shortly thereafter? I don’t know. But that will result in some sleepless nights. That will result in lots of self-recrimination that no one sees.

In this sense it is like domestic abuse. Often no one sees or knows. This is a problem that remains largely hidden because it is in your head.

The Path of Repentance

We are to make no provision for the flesh because we’ve put on Christ (Rom. 13:14). There are things we can do that reduce opportunities to fall into the pit of perfectionism. Refusing to do your job isn’t the answer, obviously.

Constructing the Life-Sucking Machine in The Princess Bride | The Current |  The Criterion Collection
The Princess Bride

One way is how you structure time. Many pastors take Mondays off. I take Fridays off. The reason is that I couldn’t think of a worse way to spend my day off than to ruminate over my sermon. On Fridays I can think about ways to improve it, but Monday would simply be self-criticism, thinking about what I should have done and said. It is bad enough that I spend part of Sunday night criticizing my sermon.

That’s what happens. In seminary we had to watch ourselves on video. I hated it. I still don’t want to listen to my sermons. I have; very rarely. Every mistake is a big deal to me. I don’t need the additional discouragement of an internal pig pile.

The doctrine of justification is important in trying to unravel perfectionism. There was a Perfect One whose perfect obedience is substituted for my failures and mistakes. Our experience of it isn’t always rational. The perfectionist, pastor or not, needs to preach the gospel to themselves regularly. Our acceptance before God is founded on Christ’s performance, not our own. Since it is God who justifies us, none can condemn us. Even ourselves.

“Yes, but my heart condemns me still.” The Apostle John understood this reality in our lives.

20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 1 John 3

The inner man may condemn but we have to remind ourselves that it is ultimately God’s verdict, not our own, that matters. He does know of every little failure and yet chooses to see us as perfect in Christ. As our sense identity increasingly conforms to the theological reality of our identity in Christ (sanctification of the mind) we are able to relax because our identity isn’t on the line every moment. We progressively think more in line with the realities of justification.

Mistakes are made in worship services. Words are misspelled, misspoke and forgotten. Technology fails. You can just plain have a no-good, terrible, horrible day. Remembering that your anger won’t accomplish the righteousness of God helps. Lashing out or blaming others won’t help. And those visitors really won’t come back. You need to learn to laugh at yourself and the imperfections of the worship service. If the church really is family, we don’t have to be “on”. We can lighten up.

Recently there was a difference between my copy of the Order of Worship and what was put up on the screen. There was an obvious problem. How to handle that? You look like an idiot. But it isn’t like I made stuff up on the fly. I did joke about it. There was no seething because someone made me look stupid in front of these people. No banishment to the gulog.

This should be seen as progress. But there is still progress to be made.

Here I am, looking for the perfect ending to this blog post. This is the second version of this post. The first was horrible. It was a complete mess. I’m tempted to tinker, obsess to find just the right ending that wraps all this up. But like life, I will leave this with tension, uncertainty. The end is yet to be seen for it lies years down the road.

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If you ask any pastor about the biggest problems they face, they will likely talk about church membership. Individualism and consumerism have eroded a high view church membership. People take vows, but many seem to not take those vows seriously- or at least act like they do. Pastors have heard some very strange reasons for changing churches.

Just as there are legitimate reasons to get divorced, there are legitimate reasons to change churches. Usually they are connected to the church breaking its promises to you. People seem to change membership far too frequently which means they aren’t taking membership seriously.

Some churches don’t take membership seriously either. They have no process or status of membership. No vows. This means, in my mind, there is not ability to exercise church discipline beyond rebuke.

This is what makes Devoted to God’s Church by Sinclair Ferguson such an important book. This is a companion book to his earlier release Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification. Devotion to God should include devotion to God’s people gathered into the Church. The subtitle for this book is Core Values for Christian Fellowship. These are the values that shape a community and hold it together. There are hallmarks that Ferguson will identify that “should be stamped on all of our churches” regardless of time and place. He seeks to move beyond cultural expressions to biblical norms.

Devoted to God's Church: Core Values for Christian Fellowship - Ferguson, Sinclair B - 9781848719767

Family Life or What Is a Church?

This is the appropriate starting place. We need to know what a church really is so we can discard the fakes and choose the real deal. You can’t belong to Christ without belonging to a church (at least not for long). I say this as a man who left a great church to attend seminary and floundered for years trying to find another great church. Part of my struggle was cultural, and some was theological. I struggled more than I should have during seminary because I was not part of a church family. It is not simply an organization, but a family.

Families are organized, but families aren’t just about “doing your job”. While there is a division of labor in a family, what binds a family together is love, not the achievement of some goal. Yes, this family is on a mission (the Great Commission)but one in keeping with any family: growing in number and maturity as people are nourished.

If Christ is the center of our life then the church should be the center of our Christian life. Too often it is treated as an add-on, rather than one of the hubs around which our corporate lives revolve.

“Our life in the church lends its atmosphere to our social life; it energizes us in our vocational life to be salt and light in the world; and it is the basic dimension of, not merely an optional add-on to, our family life.”

For people who are single, like I was in seminary, the church IS family or should be. As a single adult who was the only Christian in my family, I benefited greatly from time with families in the church. The Church will be our forever family. The earthly family is temporary (though quite important). The earthly or nuclear family needs the church family for its own growth and health. You and your spouse were never meant to raise your kids alone. You need help, and the church promises to help during the baptism ceremony for a child (or dedication for my baptistic friends).

Ferguson pushes us to ask “How do we fold our lives into the life of the church?” instead of the question we usually ask, “How is church life to be fitted into my plans?”. When we love our families we wouldn’t think of missing family dinner except for something important, but some people miss family time aka church services on Sunday for all kinds of reasons. They don’t shape their week around Sunday but fit Sunday into their plans, maybe.

Blue Bloods' Star Bridget Moynahan on the Reagan Family Dinner Scene
In Blue Bloods Sunday dinner binds the 3 generations of family together thru thick and thin.

“Family is what the church is.”

Different parts of the extended family of the church will have different traits. They will have different ways of singing, praying and preaching. How they go about ministry and priorities will be a little different. Just as how my family does things isn’t the way yours does, my congregation won’t do things exactly the same way yours does.

Because Ferguson has such a high view of the church he sets the bar high: “in our local church we need to feel that there is no other church family to which we would rather belong- even if our congregation is far from perfect.” That’s why I struggled to find a church home in Orlando, I’d left such a good, though imperfect, one but couldn’t find a similar congregation that “felt like home”. In my Christian infancy God granted me a sense of being home the first Sunday I’d attended that church in NH.

What Is Your Story? or Are You a Christian?

Ferguson begins this chapter with some allegorical couples being interviewed for church membership by the elders. People may want to join a church for a variety of reasons, but membership is for Christians (believers and their children). Each of us should have a story that communicates the Story. Ours may be boring but faith in Christ is its center.

Ferguson focuses on Saul whom we more commonly call Paul. His was a dramatic story of how Jesus stopped him in his tracks on the way to persecute His followers. We see the story told by Luke in Acts, and we get Paul’s perspective in some of his letters. The accounts all focus on moving from unbelief to belief in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior.

His story helps us to understand and communicate our story. In Philippians 3 Paul describes himself by nature or who he was by birth and experience, outside of Christ. Paul then discovers the truth about himself, the fact that his righteousness was full of holes. Here Ferguson tells of how he heard the story of a businessman who discovered that the best worker in the typing pool (a thing of the past) was a Christian. That businessman was struck by this and that led to him becoming a Christian, and his story helped Ferguson become a Christian. I thank God for that woman!

Paul then shares what he discovered by grace. He discovered who Jesus was. He discovered the benefits of the gospel. He discovered there was life in the Son and only in the Son.

You have a story. Does your story find its resolution in Christ? If so church membership is for you.

Follow My Leader or Being a Disciple

Christians are disciples or apprentices of Christ. We submit our minds to Him, and walk in His footsteps. Jesus is to be imitated. It is not all our work, for God conforms us to the likeness of His Son (Rom. 8:28).

Church membership is a declaration that we are disciples of Christ. Discipleship is not just for the elite members. Unlike Costco there are no levels of membership in a church. All are baptized and taught to obey everything Jesus has commanded (Mt. 28).

The pattern of life together may differ, but the goal should be the same: following Jesus. The church is a cross-bearing community. It is a group of consecrated (devoted) people with settle priorities formed by Jesus’ teaching. This is rooted in the reality that Jesus bore our sins upon the cross because He loved us and gave Himself for us (Gal. 2:20). He died for us that we should no longer live for ourselves but for Him who loved us and died for us (2 Cor. 5). The church life, and membership, must reflect these realities.

Many churches have closed because they didn’t reflect these realities. They became no more than social clubs and people seek the clubs with the best amenities.

“We have domesticated the whole thing into a religion, a series of personal accomplishments or disciplines, an insipid moral code- something far removed from the sense the Creed conveys of the greatness of God and his mighty in-breaking into history and then into our individual lives.”

A Glorious Addiction or What Is a Member?

Ferguson brings us to Acts 2:42-47 to see the devotion of the early Christians. Their life was centered on the church as they met every day in the temple. They devoted themselves to 1. the apostles’ teaching, 2. fellowship with one another, 3. the breaking of bread, and 4. prayer. They joined together and grew together by commitment to teaching, fellowship and prayer. These are to be the fundamental commitments. People seem to focus on other things in picking a church (music, programs, buildings, etc.). Ferguson notes that little kids can often be more enamored by the gift wrap (or the box!) than the gift.

They saw church life as central to their life. It was not some spectacular program but “ordinary” means of grace. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds, by being loved and loving, and by prayer. If you want to see your life changed, these are the things to be committed to.

We tend to neglect fellowship and prayer. Many come in as late as they can and leave as soon as they can. Devotion to fellowship frees us from our self-centeredness. As we meet the needs of others we are freed of our greed. Ferguson references a study that indicated that “most American Christians are remarkably ungenerous.” They claim that 20% of professing Christians do not give to their church. This is evidence of a consumer mentality and not being devoted to the fellowship. We are addicted to self and money.

Have You Ever Arrived at Church? or Worship

He asks the odd question if you’ve arrived at church. The focus on this chapter is a commitment to worship rather than seeking the external quality of music and liturgy. Ferguson wants us to focus on God and his presence rather than the style, volume and rhythm of the songs. This is not intended to be a denial of the Regulative Principle but recognizing not all who read this book will agree with it, or even know what it is. His goal is not simply to teach a pattern of worship.

He brings us to Isaiah 6 where Isaiah’s life was transformed by encountering God. He knew about God’s glory, sovereignty, holiness and mercy from Torah. But then he experienced them first hand as God brought him into the heavenly temple.

True worship isn’t about warm fuzzies but can feel like you are about to come undone. You realize you are not in control of your life and that you are completely at the mercy of God.

“Sin’s most sinister work is in the way it weaves itself so insidiously into our strengths and abilities.”

Isaiah is deconstructed (woe is me, I am undone) and reconstructed (the angel touches his filthy lips with the coal) in that worship. We are intended to be dealt with similarly in worship. God transforms us as we gaze upon His beauty, mercy, love and grace. We respond with a desire to serve out of grateful love.

“What is more, the whole Christian life involves an ever repeated cycle of discovering fresh layers of sin to be dealt with and fresh supplies of forgiveness and cleansing.”

This means that the confession of sin (and words of absolution), and gospel-centered preaching are vital elements of worship that transforms sinners the way God intended. Worship is not a concert and a pep talk. It is gathering as God’s family to meet with the heavenly Father and experiencing His life-changing grace through faith and repentance.

Are You Hearing Me? or The Bible

The church lives under the authority of God as expressed in the Scriptures. Pulpit ministry can make or break a church. The Word of God, living and active, penetrates people, exposing their hearts and redirecting their hopes.

The Scriptures speak to us about salvation through God’s great promises and the sacrifices. Here Ferguson makes a minor faux paux: “The promises and the sacrifices were parallel lines of revelation that would eventually meet in the person and work of the Lord Jesus.” I know and agree with what he’s getting at, but any geometry student will tell you parallel lines don’t meet. They both terminate or find their fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.

He brings Timothy and his conversion before us. Timothy learned the Scriptures from his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois. He learned of the promises and sacrifices. Then he met Paul who led him to see Jesus fulfilled them both. And so salvation came to Timothy.

Scripture has this authority and power because it is breathed out by God. It is God speaking to us- telling us a great Story about creation, fall, redemption and consummation through a number of smaller connected stories. Made in His image we are able to understand the words He speaks, regenerated by the Spirit we are able to believe those words which the Spirit also illuminates.

He remains in 2 Timothy 3 to communicate the usefulness of this Word spoken by God to us. It is useful to teach us, admonish us, correct us and train us to be fruitful. Devoted to Christ and His people includes being committed to His Word to His people.

“The word deconstructs us. It does so, not to destroy us, but to clear the ground to deal with everything that distorts our lives and draws them away from the Lord and his blessing.”

“Correction” is a word used for setting broken bones. The loudest cry I’ve heard is when I worked in an ER and they reset a compound fracture. Being set right is often painful, and we need one another as this painful process works for our good.

As we compare the preaching we hear to 2 Timothy 3:16-17, we may find that the sermons (or SS & Bible studies) are failing to fulfill the purpose of Scripture. There may be no balance or elements may be completely absent. For example, some churches only come under withering rebuke while others never hear admonishment.

Much of this material is expanded in Ferguson’s book From the Mouth of God.

From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading and Applying the Bible Ferguson, Sinclair B. cover image
The subtitle says it all.

Does It Help to Know Some Latin? or Christian Baptism

Ferguson shares as story he’s told in other contexts that culminates in the words Baptizatus sum. This mean “I am a baptized man.” Luther would say this to himself when experiencing affliction and temptation. He reminded himself that he belonged to Jesus. The significance of baptism doesn’t end with the rite but marks us for life.

“The question is: Whatever view of baptism I hold- what impact has it had and what difference has it made in my daily life? … We may make too much of the ‘moment’ of baptism and too little of its long-term significance for the rest of our lives.”

He also notes that we can “make too little of its importance and too much of disagreements about it.” The debate should not matter as much as the fact that you have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ to newness of life. Instead we can focus on who should be baptized (not an unimportant question), how much water is needed and how many times it must be applied. In his letters Paul focused on the theological significance of this sign and seal of the covenant.

Church members are baptized people. The name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit has been placed on them. This is a call to live as disciples, meaning our whole life is related to God and His grace given to us.

Baptized people are also cleansed people. We are regenerated and united to Christ. Baptism doesn’t accomplish this but is the sign and seal of God’s promise to do this. It is accomplished by the Spirit like circumcision of the heart.

In this context Ferguson summarizes his argument in another book for infant baptism from Colossians 2 (though here he doesn’t press that issue). The circumcision that “mattered” for Jesus, or that Paul is focused on, is not the one he received in his flesh on the 8th day. It is when Jesus was cut off on the cross. This is the same as his real baptism or trial by ordeal.

“Thus, the meaning of circumcision, the circumcision of every male seed of Abraham- and especially Jesus’ own circumcision- and the meaning of every baptism- and especially of Jesus’ own baptism- point in the same direction and to the same event: the death of Christ for our sins and his resurrection for our justification and new life. Circumcision pointed forwards while baptism points backwards to Jesus Christ.”

Ferguson does press the issue that baptism isn’t about my faith but rather the good news to which Abraham’s faith responded (see Romans 4). Baptism isn’t pointing to me but to Jesus and all he’s done to rescue sinners. It is a sermon calling for faith and repentance.

He has an appendix on “improving our baptism” which is a phrase from the Westminster Larger Catechism #167.

The Christians Native Air or Prayer

This is a return to something Ferguson began to address in explaining Acts 2. Church members should be devoted to prayer. He begins this discussion of prayer with Psalm 109:4b. “… but I give myself to prayer.” This is in response to accusations of others. Churches and Christians should give themselves to prayer as well. Prayer expresses our inmost thoughts and feelings. Prayer expresses our dependence on God.

Perhaps that is why we avoid prayer; we hate admitting we aren’t self-sufficient. Only those brought to the end of their rope pray. They are the people who see how great, powerful and loving God really is.

In this chapter there is a sentence that doesn’t make sense to me. I think there is an editorial error, perhaps after a sentence was re-worked. Or maybe I’ve been hit on the head and I can’t put this together correctly.

“Our wise forefathers in the faith used to say that our greatest need is not to feel we have any need, and not realizing that Jesus’ words are true that ‘apart from we you can do nothing’ (John 15:5)- not even pray.”

Perhaps that is our greatest problem. Or our greatest need is to feel we have any …. oh, well, you get it.

Ferguson writes of prayer as a way of life and draws upon Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God. This will cause some (not me) to look at him sideways. He admits the book has flaws but that the premise gripped him. Lawrence prayed as he worked. Too often we think we need to get away into some private, quiet space. But if God is with us all the time we can pray to Him all the time. It is much like Gaston’s never-ending conversation with God in Ladyhawke. Someone in my household prays while washing the floors though they might not have read Lawrence. It is redeeming the time.

To pray is also work and requires discipline (another reason so many of us struggle with prayer). He tells the story of one man who prayed incessantly for the children he taught in Sunday School, long after they were in his class. Due to a wellness check the police found him on his knees. He had died while praying for others.

From there Ferguson spends some time interacting with the Lord’s Prayer as a good place to start. I thought he’d cover the need to pray for the church and pastor more thoroughly. He does affirm that corporate prayer is important to the life of the church, not just the prayer of individuals. We help one another to prayer as we gather together. Sadly, it is often hard to get Christians to gather just for prayer. I’ve seen prayer meetings that were really Bible studies. I’ve tried so many ways to foster corporate prayer and they all sputter out.

“We have not yet come to an end of ourselves to see or feel the deep-seated need we have of God, and to see that prayer expresses our weakness not our strength. It is hardly surprising then that we do not gather together as a church to cry to God for his help.

The View from the Foot or Christian Service

Church membership includes service to one another, not simply being served by others. We often see the need but expect someone else to meet it. He expresses this by a story of a wedding in which a friend reminds him that he could help rather than wait for someone else. The “someone” is often us.

He then brings us to Jesus washing the feet of His disciples after no one else took initiative to meet that need. This was in preparation for the greater service He would perform of giving His life as a ransom for many. He puts this in parallel with Philippians 2. Jesus served out of a clear sense of His true identity, not because He didn’t know who He was. Jesus had no sense of entitlement. We are to have the same mind set that He did.

In a family, everyone serves unless prohibited by age or infirmity. It is about love for the people you serve, and the God in whose name you serve. Our faith is expressed by love manifested in self-denial.

“If you are not planning to serve in the life of a congregation, you should not be planning to join it!”

There are plenty of places to serve in a church. People who “can’t find” a place to serve are generally not asking. There are people who’d love to get a few things off their plate. Often people are looking for recognition and status, and therefore a visible place of service. They aren’t willing to do what needs to be done, but focused on what they want to do. Often this is teaching. When gifts are not combined with humility, the person often becomes destructive to the community.

Is There Anything Special for Supper? or Communion

Communion is an important part of church life. Members have access to the Table. The church, and its members, should be devoted to the Table.

To discuss communion, Ferguson brings us to 1 Corinthians 10-11. Jesus comes to commune, have fellowship with His people in communion. Though we eat bread and drink wine, these signs point to our participation in the body and blood of Christ. He shows us the height and depth, length and width of His love for us.

Communion points to our reconciliation with God through Christ. It also calls for our reconciliation with one another through Christ. One of the ways we can eat and drink in an unworthy manner is refusing to reconcile with someone.

Communion proclaims the death of Christ until He returns. It is an enacted sermon. Jesus drank the cup of wrath so we can drink the cup of blessing. We receive a benediction as a result of His experience of malediction.

Communion also consecrates us. In the early church there was often intense pressure to compromise. Guilds and other groups would pressure people to participate in their “toasts” to gods of the guilds. One cannot drink to the gods and the cup of Christ as well. Christ calls us to flee the gods of the nations.

This was an additional way people could drink in an unworthy manner. But we also see the serious moral issues in Corinth. To treat the table as just a symbol, and deny the presence of Christ is to make a big mistake. To not repent is another big mistake, and some of them “fell asleep” as a result.

Our fellowship with Christ and one another is strengthened as we gather for the family meal.

Home and Away or Christian Witness and World Missions

One of the purposes of the Church is to bear witness to Christ, including to send out believers to other locations to bear witness where there is little to no witness. We are all witnesses, but we have in mind here the corporate witness to Christ undertaken by the church in which all members share in a variety of ways.

In the gospels and Acts we see Jesus on trial by the world. Those who believe bear witness to His true identity and His work for our salvation. It was true then and is true now.

Ferguson offers some critique to many modern manuals for evangelism which, in our individualistic society, focus on personal evangelism. They offer tips on beginning gospel conversations. This runs contrary to what we find in Peter’s letters, particularly the first. His letter sees people as asking us for the hope we have based on the very counter-culturally manner of life found in us as people, families and especially the church. It is the onlooker who begins the gospel conversation.

Let me say that I know people who have a gift for evangelism. They can start gospel conversations with anyone, anywhere. They are evangelists, missionaries wherever they find themselves. This is not to undermine what Ferguson says but to recognize that he is speaking to congregations filled with ordinary people who sometimes feel an undo pressure to initiate such conversations.

For most of us, we should be trained to share our faith to respond to questions in response to how we live. This assumes, of course, that we are being salt and light. We bear witness, in 1 Peter 1, by how we suffer. We bear witness, in 1 Peter 3, by the character of our lives including believing wives to unbelieving husbands.

“Our friendships and marriages, our homes and families are something of a puzzle to them. … The hidden agenda that shapes our lives as Christians is loving, honoring, enjoying, and serving Jesus Christ. But the non-Christian knows nothing of that.”

We see in 1 Peter 2 that our lives perplex people. We live as sojourners and exiles according to Peter. The motive of our lives, the character of our lives are different because we are citizens of heaven. When we live according to the priorities of the kingdom bear witness to Christ and His kingdom.

We provide answers to their questions in our words. We explain our hope in a broken and hopeless world. We provide answers in our lives, our actions. We treat people differently.

“This cannot be emphasized too strongly. How much damage has been done by people whose lives contradicted their Christian profession; how much blessing has been brought by Christians whose lives have shone with gospel beauty!”

The gospel imperatives are given to us in the second person plural. It is a community activity supported by each person according to their gifts: hospitality, service, mercy and more. He provides an example of this in Christianity Explored. This subject of witness in a post-Christian world is more thoroughly explored through 1 Peter by Elliott Clark in Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land.

Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in our Own Land cover image

The local congregation is also committed to world evangelism. This began in the Garden with the creation mandate. It continues today in the Great Commission. Through the children of Abraham, the families of the world will be blessed. Jesus is with the Church as they engage in this commission locally and everywhere else. Being devoted to Christ’s church means being devoted to the growth of the church through missions and evangelism.

Concluding Thoughts

As we think about the church we must keep in mind that:

We are not a social club but rather a family devoted to enjoying deep fellowship with one another.

We are not a service club like Rotary but rather a family that is devoted to helping others in need.

We are not a self-sufficient family but one that is devoted to calling upon the Father in prayer.

We are not a voluntary organization but devoted to one another because Christ has joined us together.

We are not a philosophical club but devoted to the teaching of the apostles about Christ.

We are not a political action corporation but devoted to bearing witness to Christ as the Savior of the world.

Ferguson’s book is not exhaustive. There are topics that have been overlooked. For instance, he doesn’t discuss the important role of church discipline. You cannot say everything or the book may be too big and intimidating. Tough choices are made.

But what he does cover he does well. This is a book deeply rooted in Scripture. He provides many good illustrations to help us understand his points. As usual, Ferguson writes in a manner that lay people can understand and appreciate. This is a help to communicate the value of church life and commitment.

Hopefully he will release a video series that could be used in church groups like he has The Whole Christ.

It is unfortunate that the publisher didn’t include a subject or Scripture index to assist in the usefulness of the book.

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In The Wonderful Works of God, Bavinck tackles the realities of redemption applied. Having discussed justification he now moves on to sanctification. The first is the restoration of our relationship with God. The latter is the restoration of His image in us in true holiness. The first deals with the guilt of sin. The second deals with the pollution of sin. Justified by Christ’s imputed righteousness, we then have righteousness imparted so we become personally righteous as well as positionally righteous.

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

Bavinck, after that little introduction which distinguishes the two, discusses the word “holy”. It is commonly understood to refer to something that is set apart for special use. Created things, like people, are not holy in themselves but become so through the deliberate action of God. God, frequently called the Holy One, alone is holy in Himself. It is not a particular attribute but refers to “His divine greatness, sublimity, majesty, and unapproachableness.” This holiness manifests itself in all His relationships as He sets apart people, places, times and items.

Sanctified in Christ

“… we have no weakness but He knows of it, and no temptation but He can help us.”

Bavinck grounds our holiness or sanctification in the new covenant in which He circumcises our hearts, gives us the Spirit and causes us to walk in His ways. This new covenant is cut in the cutting off (circumcision) of Christ in His baptism on the cross. As the God-man He was personally holy and achieved holiness for us. Bavinck returns to Christ’s humiliation for us. As Mediator He learned obedience from the things He suffered. By perfecting Himself He is able to perfect us for whom He died.

Faith receives Christ as our sanctification just as it receives Him as our justification (1 Cor. 1). Christ works in us what He has worked for us until we fully share in eternal life and blessing. Bavinck returns to the active and passive obedience of Christ for us. Initial sanctification is positional, but progressive sanctification infuses us with holiness. Like Calvin, Bavinck uses “regeneration” to refer to both being born again and our sanctification or renovation. Much of this section has to be read that way or you will misunderstand him. Like Calvin’s “double grace” formulation, he argues justification and regeneration/sanctification can not be separated but must be distinguished. We receive both in Christ.

“For Christ is not to be divided and His benefits are inseparable from His person.”

Sanctified through the Spirit in the Church

God sanctifies us. He does this through the Spirit and in the church. Here is a healthy reminder that our sanctification takes place in community, the community of created by the Spirit. We are being made a living temple.

While sanctification is a work of God, we are not passive. As Paul says to the Philippians, God works in us so we will and work. Like Paul describes ministry to the Colossians, we work in His mighty power.

In sanctification our nature is restored, not removed. With our heart of stone replaced we begin to walk in God’s ways. Through His power we bear good fruit in keeping with salvation. Such obedience gains us no merit. We are to be grateful, not boastful, for both our justification and our sanctification.

“This Christ gives Himself to us through the Holy Spirit, and joins Himself with us so intimately as does the vine with the branches, as the head with the body, as the husband with the wife…”

We are to trust Him. We are sanctified by faith, not grit and guts. The Spirit works thru faith. He sees sanctification as “a continuous activity and exercise of faith.” We are not sanctified by the law but unto the law, meaning that the law remains a rule of life. The law contains no power to sanctify us. The law and its threatened curse do not motivate us. Gospel promises motivate us; promises received by faith.

Herman Bavinck - Wikipedia

Sanctified thru Faith

Bavinck continues to discuss the importance of faith in the next section. The work the Father requires of us is to believe. The gospel calls us to faith. He explains how it works. “… true, unfeigned faith breaks off our false self-confidence, knocks our pride off its pedestal, and makes an end of all self-righteousness.” The natural man, who rejects faith, vacillates between legalism and license, pride and despair. Faith alone ends this. Faith produces good works rather than being produced by them. In this sense faith is both receptive and active. The gospel, in this way, restores and establishes the law to its proper place.

This faith works through love, but which we are bound both to Christ and one another. Growth in love is evidence of sanctification. Love is the fulfillment of the law. Rome added “advices” (I’ve not seen this term used before. I’m not sure if it is reflective of Dutch theology or Bavinck himself) to the law, viewing Jesus as the new and greater law-giver. These advices gradually produced the distinction between the religious and the laity. The moral law was for all, and the advices were followed by the religious orders. These advices included chastity, poverty, and abstaining from a variety of things.

The Reformers rejected this distinction. Holding to depravity they recognized that we cannot obey the law perfectly. Sin taints all we do. We can’t, in other words, achieve the advices just as we cannot achieve the law. We distinguish between law and duty. The law is the same for all, but “duty is the particular way in which the general moral law must be applied by each individual in accordance with his nature and circumstances.” The law addresses us as creatures with a will. The 10th commandment exposes the root of sin in us. The natural man resists the law’s righteous demands.

Progressive Sanctification

As new creations we enjoy a new life which like all created life grows. It is, as Bavinck says, bound to the law of development. People grow at different rates and but through relatively predictable stages. John Newton wrote about this process using the illustration of the corn. Those that feed spiritually on Christ will grow healthily and normally. They will regularly receive grace through the means of grace Christ has provided.

This doesn’t mean it will be peaceful and quiet. Just as children struggle and then prevail with any number of challenges, so does the Christian. It is a struggle with enemies without and within. The natural man struggles as well, but it is a rational struggle, not a spiritual struggle. The reason and conscience struggle against the will and desire. This battle is only against some sins, usually external and those offensive to others.

The struggle of the Christian is between flesh and Spirit (or spirit), the old man in Adam and the new man in Christ. The battle is against a variety of sins including those that are internal with a focus on them being offense to God. The battle is deeper. Looking at the nature of one’s struggle may be a clue for assurance of salvation.

Progressive sanctification rejects the idea that we can achieve perfection in this life. We cannot subdue every sinful deed and inclination. In an ironic twist, some of those who most loudly argue for our continuing corruption can often speak as through we can be free from certain sinful inclinations. There seems to be a selective perfectionism at work regarding particular sins with which others struggle. The glorious titles given to us point to our position in Christ, not our personal perfection and glory.

God forebears with us as we struggle with sin. He does this because the blood of Christ covers the sin of His people. It is the guarantee of our full and complete salvation. Oh that we might be able to bear with one another in our struggles with sin.

Bavinck notes another irony- that those adhering to perfectionism often hold to the possibility of apostasy. How can one have a second blessing of perfection and then fall away?

Grace Received

Bavinck then addresses how God infuses the righteousness into us (for those uncomfortable with “infuse” see the WLC regarding sanctification). He begins with God’s admonishments to a holy walk. Ferguson points us to “gospel grammar” mentioned to many before: indicative-imperative or gospel facts => gospel commands. The Word is the main means of sanctification. We receive grace as we read, study, meditate and listen to the Word preached in faith. Prayer is another means of grace vital to sanctification. Our prayer is guided by the Word, as are our singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. One question: where are the sacraments? This is a glaring omission for this chapter.

The necessity of faith frees us from a mechanical view of sanctification.

We have put on Christ, and continue to put Him on. We have crucified our passions and continue to put them to death by the Spirit.

“He grants abundant grace not that we should instantly or suddenly be holy and continue to rest in this holiness, but that we should persevere in the struggle and remain standing.”

Preservation in Grace

Saints have but a small beginning in holiness. We are still inclined toward sin and stumble in many ways. We are tempted in numerous ways, and can sin big.

We live in a world in which man’s assessment does not match God’s. What the world sees as insignificant God views as great. The sins the world considers most awful may be judged differently by Him. He also includes the circumstances and conditions in which sins are committed.

Thankfully it is God’s assessment that matters, and if He has justified who can condemn? Christ remains active on our behalf. He preserves us from the Evil One. Though we stumble we need not fear that the grace of God has been exhausted but rest in His eternal covenant.

If Christ did not preserve us there could be no assurance of salvation. One would live in constant fear of apostasy. Saints would live in misery, haunted by the accusations of the enemy.

Bavinck returns to the nature of faith. The Reformers had very different views of faith, justification and assurance than Rome. For Rome, faith was assenting to the teaching of the Church; justification was the acceptance of one who was personally righteous due to the infusion of grace through the seven sacraments. Assurance is a heresy.

Among the Lutherans and Remonstrance assurance was only relevant to the present experience of the saint. It was not to be taken as assurance of final or complete salvation, preservation. Among the Reformed assurance is about the present and the future due to the covenant of grace and the completed work of Christ. He refers to the Canons of Dort:

“The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election, not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing within themselves with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God- such as- a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.”

Assurance is something that is a fruit of faith. It arises from the new man in Christ. Doubt, on the other hand, arises from the old man in Adam. Faith is from the Spirit, and doubt from the flesh. The Spirit testifies to and operates in us through the means of faith. He does not operate outside of the faith, and faith. There is no salvation apart from the Church, or (ordinarily) faith.

This survey of sanctification is similar to other chapters. Bavinck has a tendency to double back around, or circle back, to subjects. He lacks a linear feel to his arguments as a result. This makes for longer arguments. He also interacts with divergent views, particularly but not limited to Rome. This is a chapter that could have been a bit more practical. He could have described what this heady stuff looks like in someone’s life. These weaknesses don’t render this useless or less than helpful. He does provide a sound theological orientation to our understanding of sanctification.

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As the civil rights movement was growing in America, C. Herbert Oliver wrote No Flesh Shall Glory: How the Bible Destroys the Foundations of Racism. With the recent increase in racial tension, P&R decided to re-publish his book and added the transcript of his lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary called “The Church and Social Change”.

No Flesh Shall Glory: How the Bible Destroys the Foundations of Racism - Oliver, C Herbert - 9781629959016

The Author

C. Herbert Oliver was born and raised in Birmingham, AL subject to the Jim Crow laws. He attended Wheaton College and then Westminster Theological Seminary. While writing this book Oliver was the pastor of Bethel Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Ludlow-Smyrna and Houlton, ME. In 1959, the year the book was originally published he moved back to Birmingham to work in the civil rights movement. In the mid-60’s he moved to Brooklyn, NY to pastor Westminster Bethany United Presbyterian Church (now PC USA) and was on the school board. He was a man whose faith was active in seeking justice for himself and others.

This is a timely re-release as we struggle not only with racism but anti-racism. I think this volume speaks to both, powerfully. His was a time of segregation with interracial marriage being a controversial issue. We are on the verge of a new period of segregation, by choice not law, as many African-Americans are weary to the issues that come from living in the majority culture. Many are leaving out loud. Just as being black was denigrated, now many criticize and blame ‘whiteness’. I think this book speaks to these issues.


Oliver speaks about freedom of thought in his introduction. Such freedom of thought was at work in breaking the bonds of racial tyranny. Racial tyranny was founded on lies which were part of the established thinking of the time. He notes that Luther and Calvin were freeing people from religious tyranny. True freedom is one that affirms divine revelation. Those who reject God’s Word are bound by sin and ignorant of their bondage to worldly thinking.

He addresses his use of the word “race” in the book. At times he uses it in the common usage. The concept of race is one he will challenge. He seeks to destroy the ground that racism stands upon.

“As a Christian my deepest sympathies lie with the claims of God and His Kingdom, which Kingdom will ever prevail over all opposition, Jew or Gentile, black or white.”

The Unity of the Human Race

Oliver begins with Genesis 1 and the declaration that God created man in the image of God. This is one of the “great foundational truths of revealed religion.” God has filled the world with great variety, and that includes people who are made in His image. He quietly appeals to both special and general revelation in this early section.

In creation we see the unity of humanity. We don’t see different groups of people created but they all come from Adam and Eve. In Scripture all people groups trace their roots back to Noah and ultimately to Adam. To separate people groups is anti-Christian, meaning working against the purposes of God in creation and redemption.

We see it in redemption in that Jesus has purchased people from every people group to enter His kingdom (Rev. 5). People from every people group and background will be in the one Kingdom, united together forever.

At the time he wrote this book “racial solidarity” was used to justify separation. Some use it today to refer to solidarity between races against racism. He uses it to speak of solidarity of a “race” as opposed to the other races. He’ll touch on this problem later in the book.

Racial solidarity is the cohesion of a group around a few physical characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features. It seems that color ranks highest in importance, though Darwin truly called it the most fleeting of all characteristics.”

He speak of the racists’ goal to promote their race to the dominant position in a society. This is why he or she fears “intermarriage” since it breaks racial solidarity. When Christians advocate or acquiesce to racial solidarity they fall short of biblical Christianity. He argues that “the notion of racial solidarity itself must go.” The solidarity of one group tends to create an equal and opposite reaction for solidarity in other racial groups. Two systems of ethics emerge: one for the majority and one for the excluded group(s). Christians should be quick to see the problem of this, but sadly don’t always. He argues that “a convinced mind can be changed, but a convinced conscience is almost unmovable.”

“The fury of mobs in Algeria or Hong Kong is not directed against Europeans because they are white, but because as whites they have engaged in extending their solidaric relationship and dominance to the hurt of peoples excluded from that relationship.”

The ban on interracial marriage was the last fortress of racial supremacy. From Oliver’s perspective, no doctrine has been as successful in separating humanity into racial groups as evolution. Note the title page of The Origin of Species with the subtitle “the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. Evolution does not view all men as equal, but some as more developed than others. It divided people into the civilized and the savages. He concludes “as evolution has failed to discover the true dignity of all mankind, it has failed to discover the true dignity of any part of mankind.”

We are all united in Adam, having a common ancestor. Because we are united in Adam as our covenant head, we share in a sinful condition. We are united in being under the curse of God unless we have been ordain to eternal life through the work of Christ.

The Bible and Color

Oliver notes that in western Christendom, civilization is assumed to arise from Caucasians and Christianity is part of civilization. Adam is assumed to be white which makes it easier to enslave non-whites based on a misunderstand of the curse upon Ham.

Because African civilizations tended not to write histories, some wrongly assumed there were not African (black) civilizations. “People make history. The historian remakes it. And he remakes it according to the presuppositions under which he labors.”

I certainly understand the reality of remaking history. This is done to maintain power. Reading 1984 in middle school left an indelible mark upon me. But I’m foreign to the presuppositions of white supremacists. I’ve never really thought of the race of people in the Bible mattering. Or should I say skin color. I think of them as middle eastern- not white. I haven’t tried to recreate them in my image. But, sadly, many do.

Oliver mentions the attempt by the Book of Mormon to connect black skin with God’s curse. But it isn’t just the Mormons who did this since they were a product of their 19th century culture which struggled with race prior to the Civil War.

Biblically, the curse on Ham resulted in the destruction of the Canaanites in the conquest. Oliver is not trying to make the Bible a black man’s book, but is trying to free us from the assumption it is a white man’s book which is a lie fostered by white racists and black reactionaries.

Oliver argues that the Israelites were very dark skinned or black. Historical accounts indicate early Egyptians were black prior to being conquered and the resulting intermarriage with Europeans. Joseph was indistinguishable from the Egyptians according to his brothers. He didn’t stick out like a sore thumb due to the color of his skin. Moses was also thought to be an Egyptian by the Midianite shepherds, and not just because of his clothing.

Oliver addresses Song of Songs 1:5 as the KJV translates the text as “I am black but comely”. Other translations are similar. He argues this since the LXX uses “kai” (and) to translate the Hebrew conjunction which is ambiguous (either “and” or “but”). The issue I have with this is verse 6. She connects her darkness to working in the vineyards, not race. This issue here seems to be class, not race. She’s a working girl and the Lover is not.

This doesn’t negate his overarching point from extra-biblical sources like The Greatest Story Ever Told that European Christians have been servants or defenders of Western imperialism in the past. The Bible does not confirm the prejudices of racism unless greatly distorted. Christians should flee to the Bible so their minds are renewed and set free from the worldly conceptions of racism and racial superiority.

The Significance of Shem, Ham, and Japheth

I found this the weakest link in this book. At times it was confusing. The point does remain that many read racist attitudes and doctrine into the Bible. They assume their prejudices are explicit in the Scriptures. He looks at a number of commentaries to show how they do this. They include Keil and Delitzsch, George Bush, Murphy, Pink and many more. They extend the curse on Canaan to all the Hamites.

He does provide a few commentators who don’t do this. The (J.C.?) Ryle Cambridge Bible Series and Leopold (a Lutheran) are two examples of those who reject the extension of the curse to all of Ham and therefore a justification of chattel slavery.

“Only the Christian faith has the framework for universal harmony among peoples. Let the Christian rise to the occasion today and make practical the great doctrines of the Bible, which truths can transcend the narrow bounds of race.”

The Biblical History of Shem, Ham, and Japheth

Many commentators, like Matthew Henry, exclude Ham from all heavenly blessings contrary to the message of the prophets and Revelation. God chose to bless all the nations through Shem and his descendant via Abraham: Jesus. Gentiles is a term used not only for Japhethites but also Hamites. It is also used for the descendants of Shem other than Abraham’s line. The Bible does not mention the color of Japheth’s skin and to conclude he and his descendants were white is unwarranted.

Racism, Oliver argues, is not an ancient concept but a modern one. Because Egypt was a great empire many historians classify them as white. But Oliver warns that God will bring down to the dust all those nations that don’t worship Him regardless of the color of their skin.

Any marriage lines drawn between the three sons of Noah’s descendants had to do with faith, not skin color. Those who worshiped YHWH were not to marry those who did not.

As we think about God judging wicked nations, we should see that He frustrates false hopes including those rooted in racial solidarity. Oliver saw the discord in America as God frustrating those corrupt hopes.

“Policies of separateness can succeed only as the segregated group is kept in ignorance and economic weakness. And is it Christian to impose ignorance and poverty on anyone?”

He sees segregation opposed to love of neighbor and a denial of God’s creation of all humanity in His image.

Does this mean we should cancel those in the past who held some racist views? Should we tear down statues of Lee and Lincoln, for instance?

I don’t think he’d want us to do that. He recognized the presence of racism in them and their actions. But he also recognized better notions as well, actions inconsistent with the racist ideas they expressed at times.

“Among such systems, however, there are those who rise above their narrow and perverted surroundings and make unforgettable footprints in the sands of time. We cannot forget a General Lee who did not scruple to kneel with his black brother to receive the communion of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot forget the humble Lincoln, ever looking forward on the lowly penny to a better day in human relations. Though these men were not completely free of the racism of their day, they rise so high above the masses of their time as to deserve perpetual and warm memory.”

Christian Ethics and Segregation

He begins with a brief discussion of ethics. Idealistic Ethics focuses on self-realization whether as individuals or a nation. The Ethics of Evolution focuses on what contributes to the survival of the species. This, he believes, is the ethics that justifies segregation.

Christian Ethics are differentiated from these, and all other, ethical systems. Commitment to Christ shapes one’s ethics and provides the deepest and most lasting joy. Apart from faith this is no Christian Ethics.

“Man’s chief end is neither pleasure, nor self-realization, nor survival; it is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

The natural man, on the other hand, aspires to wealth, culture, prestige and power. These aspirations are often pursued in light of racial superiority. We want them for ourselves and our race. Oliver brings in Abraham who had wealth and was given a great name. His hope however was in God, not these things.

The ethical standard for us is the Law of God. The Pharisees, Oliver notes, thought they kept the law while in fact they externalized it, and often substituted the tradition of the elders for Law.

Why in the world is he talking about this? Precisely for the fact that the Bible does not command people to be segregated by race. This principle is contrary to Christianity, severing bonds created by God. That segregation is not supported by God’s law does not keep one from choosing one’s own friends. That is true for everyone: black, Asian, Native American etc. You may choose your friends based on race due to freedom of association, but you can’t legalize such discrimination (but shouldn’t as a Christian). You also reject the blessing God has for His people. Oliver says that “a complete system of segregation can hardly prevail in a land where Christian teachings are accepted.” I want to know what he meant by that. Where truly understood, I agree. Many Christian teachings were accepted in the segregated South (as well as northern cities after the migration).

He addresses the reality of institutional racism. “Institutions have their source in ideas, and ideas have always been slow to change, and more so institutions.” Where the idea of racism is common, institutions will be shaped by it. While individuals may change rapidly, institutions do not. While people in America may be generally less racist, the institutions in America may still have left over influences from racism.

He brings into the discussion the “problem of stability and progress.” They are interdependent. The Constitution is “a system of government that is both stable and progressive.” It is stable because the document is hard to change, but it can be changed when most states agree to change it. The 3/5ths Compromise, for instance, is no longer in effect. The right to vote has been extended to all people groups who are citizens. Our government has adapted to the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society.

Into this he brings the Jubilee in the Old Testament. It broke the cycle of debt and periodically reset the society. Oliver advocates for some similar system in Christian nations. Jubilee “worked” (we actually have no record of it being celebrated) because land was inherited. It was not simply about debt forgiveness, and the release of slaves, but a return of the family land. Sojourners could rent land, buy a home in a walled city, but not own land for farming. I’m not sure how an industrial economy could operate in this way.

He shifts into the problem of identifying the segregated group. These laws become arbitrary and contradictory. “But if one drop of ‘Negro’ blood makes a white person a Negro, then by all laws of logic, one drop of ‘white’ blood would made a Negro white.” Negro was a social concept, not a biological one (Gunnar Myrdal).

The psychological constitution of sinners regularly requires that there be someone to look down upon. Whom that is will differ in various cultures. Here in the West blacks are commonly looked down upon. That is not universal. In the past, Koreans, valuing ethnic purity, looked down on all non-Koreans and the Amerasian children born during and after the Korean War which initiated the international adoption movement. In many Chinese action films we can often see the Japanese occupiers denigrating the Chinese. When we recognize that we are sinners, we can more easily reject disdain for others of different races.

Oliver returns to Jefferson and Lincoln. Both saw a time when there was no slavery, but thought it impossible for the two groups to live in the same government as equals. “May the good that Jefferson and Lincoln have spoken live long. May the evil of their statements above lie interred in their bones.” Oliver also looks at the Dred Scott decision and how the Constitution never defined a citizen. We must remember that there were free Blacks before and after the signing of the Constitution. They therefore should have been included in the “free persons” that comprised the citizenry. The Dred Scott decision gave states the right to confer citizenship on a person, but no other state had to honor that citizenship. A mess indeed. Thankfully the decision was overturned.


Oliver begins with Amos 3:3- “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?”. This is to introduce his criticism of segregation. He wants there to be harmony, which depends upon agreement. They must blend together like a great duet. In order to have agreement there must first be understanding. In order to have understanding you must have time together and communication, or association. Segregating people leads to misunderstanding, lack of agreement and disharmony.

Association ==> Understanding ==> Agreement ==> Harmony between Groups

Christians, wanting racial harmony, cannot oppose association. When the love of God dwells in our hearts, we will, according to John, love our brothers. Segregation is rooted in a lack of love. That lack of love means there is distrust, fear and any provocation (real or perceived) results in conflict. It is a toxic relationship.

Some argue for physical separation through legal means such as the Jim Crow laws. Oliver addresses mental segregation, those who hide “behind a mental wall of segregation” which can be more sturdy than the physical wall. What he is addressing is now called “kinism”, keeping with your own kind or kin. There is no interest in experiencing other cultures for this is seen as dilution of your race. Stay with your own kind, they say, especially in marriage.

“Good human relations are impossible where free and voluntary association is denied by legal enactments, but just as difficult when discountenanced and punished by social ostracism.”

He argues that differences should be studied, understood. Racism divides so this can’t happen. Recognition of the unity of humanity enables those differences to be understood. In this context, he returns to the problem of evolution which “establishes permanent differences between so-called inferior and superior races”.

Evolutionistic racism overemphasizes similarity in the animal and plant kingdoms, and overemphasizes dissimilarity in the human sphere.”

He rejects racial dominance as a goal. He rejects blending as a goal. Integration for Oliver means that racial ideas are disturbed and rejected. He says many things that challenge the current anti-racist movement which makes “whiteness” the great sin. For instance:

“To replace a white racist ideology with a black racist ideology is not the road to good human relations. What we need is not another race ideology, but freedom for all racism.”

With the societal opposition to association, he argued that it has only been through agitation and pressure that change has come. I don’t read this in the same way as I read “Burn it down” as contemporary leaders say. Protests are not the same as riots. Speaking out is not the same as beating people and burning buildings.

Human Marriage

In addition to freedom of association, Oliver sees freedom of human marriage as important in moving toward understanding and harmony. Segregationists opposed marriage between blacks and whites. They still do. Racial superiority strives for racial purity. Human harmony strives for the freedom for two people to be married to the person of the opposite sex they want to marry. That freedom should not reside with only one sex, nor only one color.

Racial Solidarity <== Racial Preservation <== Racial Superiority

There are considerations of religion, culture and common interests. Those are obstacles in some cases, but not all. Some of the objections are that it is unnatural, children will suffer, it destroys the majority white race and that we must respect the feelings of those who are offended. Oliver refutes each of these in turn. He doesn’t provide complex answers because these are not complex objections.

“Prejudice of any kind is self-destructive. It destroys those who sustain and nourish it, like the dog that conceals a thousand fleas under his hair.”

He also provides a warning to the Christian who holds to segregation or superiority.

“We are not as close to God as we think when our religion becomes warm toward those of our own color, and progressively cool as the color difference increases.”

Appendix: The Church and Social Change

This appendix is a lecture at Westminster Seminary. He is addressing the stance of various groups in the church regarding the civil rights movement of the ’50’s and ’60’s. Too bad we can’t bring him into the present to address the current civil rights movement.

“The church may institute change or resist change; it may be carried along by it, or it may strengthen the good elements of change; it may seek self-preservation by an act of withdrawal from society, or it may lose its unique identity by conforming to social patterns which defy basis biblical concepts. Whatever choice she makes, one fact is certain- there is no real refuge from society, not even in lonely withdrawal, for there is no happiness there.”

This is just as pertinent now! We should not resist change, but neither should we be unthinkingly carried along by it. We should seek change consistent with Scripture, not worldly change. Too often in the past we’ve resisted worldly change AND biblical change. Or we’ve fully embraced worldly change.

This is true not only true of the question of race but also the sexual revolution. We tend to polarize rather than weigh, assess and act with wisdom, love, and prudence.

Oliver looks to past philosophical and political thought. He brings up Aristotle who viewed slavery as vital to the economy of his day. He thought the citizens should be able to live lives of leisure and the slaves should provide that opportunity for them. This sounds so much like communism to me. The Party thrives and the people labor. Aristotle thought some people were born to be slaves. He, Epictetus, and Aristides portray a grotesque society as well-ordered.

For the Church, we believe the Son became a slave to redeem us from slavery to sin. Slaves could know the love and salvation of God. Masters had to reckon themselves slaves of God. Those the world disregarded and disparaged “found a glorious home in God.” We recognize the sinful tendency among humans to strive for earthly supremacy of some sort. We see it “in doctrines of national, racial, and economic superiority.”

He then shifts to the degrading nature of Medieval class distinctions. Serfs were little better than slaves to the nobility. Labor was seen as beneath the elites. It took a Reformation to change how work and station were viewed. Class distinctions were rejected.

“Calvinism emphasized its dignity. Over against the contemporary view of the divine right of kings, Calvinism place the king under divine law and laid out his limitations. Over against the contemporary doctrine of the inherent inequality of men, Calvinism emphasized the inherent equality of all men before God. Thus was the church, by being the church, the instrument of social change.”

Oliver sees the Reformation very differently than many modern scholars. He sees positive social change resulting from the theological reformation. This doesn’t mean that the church continued to live up being the church. The Aristotelian ideal rose again with the rise of race-based slavery. Much of the church in America bears shame for endorsing, supporting or ignoring the realities of slavery.

He returns to Calvin and the doctrine of the lesser magistrate to protect people from tyrannical abuses. Calvin doesn’t recommend civil disobedience to remove tyranny. However, viewed from the perspective of religious authorities Calvin was viewed as an agitator, a seditious rebel who sought to subvert society. This is the lot of all who question the status quo

The church should be where there is association, understanding in increasing measure, agreement and harmony. We should be showing the world the way produced by the gospel which places us all on level ground. Applying our convictions in the voting booth would provide the larger societal change necessary. The church should be leading the way in example, and Christians shaping government.

Oliver shares a story from his life of being hungry while sitting in his car. He was a U.S. citizen with sufficient money to buy food. He was law-abiding, tax-paying and a pastor. Yet, he was unable to address his hunger despite smelling the aroma of tasty food in the air. As a black man, he was not permitted to enter those establishments and buy food.

Thankfully this is not the case today, but let’s not think the work is completed. There is more to do.

“We must not forget that the American Revolution did not destroy England. It only released the energies of a great people and enabled them to try the wings of nationhood.”

Oliver didn’t want to see America destroyed. He wants to see all its citizens released to expend their energies in the pursuit of liberty. Too many seem to want America to just burn, as though their version will be sin free. He warns against extremism, which is often born of finding one’s identity in race instead of in Christ. He wanted to see America come into full possession of its ideals rather than condemn the whole nation.

My Final Thoughts

This is an important book in many ways. I don’t agree with every jot and tittle but J. Herbert Oliver is generally spot on. He shows “how the Bible destroys the foundations of racism.” We need to hear this. I believe the gospel is the only message that enables us to move beyond the racial superiority that plagues just about every nation on earth. Worldly ideologies replace one form of superiority with another. White supremacy or sovereignty is replace by black supremacy or sovereignty. This merely perpetuates the problem. The gospel produces love, a consideration of the interests of others and self-denial. It produces forgiveness that breaks the cycle of reprisals and provocations.

This short book could have delved deeper into that, but it is a short book. It is a book that gets us moving in the right direction.

I find it odd that so many white Christians are so ignorant of black history. I did not grow up with “enlightened” parents. I did love stories which meant I watched movies, many of which touched on racial themes and some of them focused on historical events. I used to watch Sidney Pottier movies like In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (dealing with interracial romantic relationships. I watched movies like Mississippi Burning, Rosewood and more on the effects of racism.

My concern is that many who are just discovering this historical reality get swept up in unbiblical movements and agendas. This is a book that can point out the folly of departing from the Scriptures in looking for solutions to this problem.

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