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I’ve been reading the new Essentials Edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion since this summer. This is not an edited version, but a new translation of the 1541 edition of the Institutes. I am enjoying it very much. As I’ve been reading, I’ve thought at times, I should blog about this. Unfortunately, for much of the fall I was editing my own book so there wasn’t much time to blog on it. I have a bit more time these days, so I thought I would go back. My desire is to encourage others to read this volume.

It begins with a chapter on the Knowledge of God. This should be no surprise to anyone familiar with The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This volume is not broken up into 4 books like the one edited by McNeill. The material is, at times, covered in a different order. Additionally, this edition is not as exhaustive as future editions would be.

The first paragraph is familiar:

“The whole sum of our wisdom- wisdom, that is, which deserves to be called true and assured- broadly consists of two parts, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.”

As made in the image of God, we cannot truly know ourselves without knowing God. As we know God, we discover that “he is the fount of all truth, wisdom, goodness, righteousness, judgment, mercy, power and holiness.” The purpose of this knowledge is that we would worship and honor him.

The purpose of knowing ourselves is “to show us our weakness, misery, vanity and vileness, to fill us with despair, distrust and hatred of ourselves, and then to kindle in us the desire to seek God, for in him in found all that is good and of which we ourselves are empty and deprived.” In other words, we see our depravity and the marring of his image that we might seek like in him. It sounds harsh, but it is similar to Paul’s discussion of the purpose of the law prior to conversion, to reveal our sin and drive us to Jesus.

This is why it is wisdom; this knowledge is to be acted upon, not simply studied abstractly. Knowledge of self is intended to encourage us to seek after God, and leads us to find him. Calvin then notes that “no one ever attains clear knowledge of self unless he has first gazed upon the face of the Lord, and then turns back to look upon himself.” This is similar to Isaiah 6, when the prophet saw God in his glory and then finally saw himself as he really was.

Calvin notes that an awareness of God is common to all people. We all have some “understanding of his majesty.” Calvin is quite dependent on Romans 1 as he thinks through all of this. He is not a speculative theologian, but one who seeks to understand what has been revealed to us in Scripture, and its implications. Romans 1 instructs us that people turned from the true God to idols, “exchanging the truth for the lie ” (Rom. 1). In rejecting the truth, we have become perverted by self-will. Instead of seeking all good in God, we have settled for the lie of the Serpent in the Garden and seek it in and by ourselves: for our glory, not his. Instead of seeking to submit to him, people resist and rebel against him. As Paul says in Ephesians and Colossians, people are at enmity with God. We fall prey to superstition and servile fear. People flee from him, as a guilty Adam and Eve fled from the sound of God approaching them.  This servile fear is “not enough to stop them from resting easy easy in their sin, indulging themselves and preferring to give fleshly excess free rein, rather than bringing it under the Holy Spirit’s control.” In other words, pride drives us to think we deserve better, and know better than God what is good for us. Fear leads us to believe that God does not have our best interests at heart and therefore his law is oppressive.

As we discover in the Psalms, he is good and wants good things for us, including trusting him to guard, guide, protect and provide for us. He wants us to trust him to redeem and rescue us.

Calvin briefly discusses the “Book of Nature” or creation which reveals his invisible qualities. If we study nature, and we should, we will discover much that testifies to his wisdom. We also see that he is revealed in his works of providence. We see that foolishness has consequences. (see Psalm 19 for instance)

But, as Romans 1 makes clear our thinking has become dark and futile. We don’t see what we should see, even though it is clear. The problem isn’t the Book of Nature (natural revelation) but how we understand and interpret it. We are without excuse. Instead of believing, we “so obscure God’s daily works, or else minimize and thus dismiss them” so that “he is deprived and robbed of the praise and thanks we owe him.”

We are dependent on God’s special revelation (Scripture) as a result (the second stanza of Psalm 19). We needed a book because we are prone to forget and are easily led into error. To know God we are utterly dependent upon the Scriptures (and the Spirit’s illumination).

Here Calvin reminds us that Scripture’s authority comes from God, as his word. It is not determined by the church (contra Rome). He briefly develops the ideas of the Spirit’s inner witness, it’s wisdom and truth and history of the truth which confirm the authority of Scripture.

“It is therefore not the role of the Holy Spirit, such as he is promised to us, to dream up fresh and original revelations, or to fashion a new kind of teaching, which alienates us from the gospel message which we have received. His role is rather to seal and confirm in our hearts the teaching provided for us in the gospel.”

The chapter ends with a slightly different form of “triple knowledge” than that expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism: “God’s mercy, one which the salvation of us all depends; his judgment, which he daily visits on the wicked, and which awaits them with even greater vigor, to their eternal shame; and his righteousness, by which his faithful people are generously preserved.”

“However, since God does not allow us to behold him directly and up close, except in the face of Christ who is visible only to the eye of faith, what remains to be said concerning the knowledge of God is better left until we come to speak of the understanding of faith.”

 

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I recently picked up a book in an attempt to understand one of my children better so I can parent better. It is a book on the concept of the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). I heard about the book from a congregant who thought I was a HSP. As I read some of the book this morning, thinking both of my child and my self, I found both confusion and clarity.

My Presuppositions: We are all broken, though in different places and to different degrees. As a result of Adam’s sin, we are not only sinners but we are also affected physically and emotionally. We are a mess, and while Jesus doesn’t keep us as messy we don’t always understand the mess. Is that messy? Some aspects of our brokenness are there from the beginning of our lives. They are genetic. The author mentions this with regard to HSPs. She sees them as “naturally occurring” on the spectrum of sensitivity. There are some, I gather she’d say, who look like HSPs but aren’t: they’ve been traumatized by something. Their increased sensitivity would not be innate, but picked up from their environment or circumstances. Some of our brokenness comes at the hands of others after birth: parents, friends, strangers. It is hard for us, much of the time, to tell which it is.

The Problem of Pop Psychology: Often times symptoms overlap. A condition is describe in such terms that too many people see themselves there. If you read too many books, you can think you’ve got everything. Or just the wrong thing.

Years ago I read Driven to Distraction on the recommendation of a friend who struggled with ADD and saw a similar struggle in me. Don’t confuse ADD with ADHD. I never saw myself as hyperactive, but I struggle to remain focused. I am easily distracted and have a hard time in environments like airplanes for anything much longer than an hour. I get restless leg syndrome, I can’t read anything more engaging than a novel and end up fairly miserable.

But do I have ADD? I can check enough boxes in the self-test to say ‘yes.’ But not only are we a mess, but a mysterious mess. Our symptoms could be explained by other things. For instance, the author of the book on HSPs distinguishes it from ADD (this was helpful!). They differ, apparently on where the blood flows more in their brains.

“Children with ADD probably have very active go-for-it systems and relatively inactive pause-to-check systems. … But ADD is a disorder because it indicates a general lack of adequate ‘executive functions,’ such as decision making, focusing, and reflecting on outcomes. HSCs are usually good at all of this, at least when they are in a calm, familiar environment. For whatever reason (the cause is not known), children with ADD find it difficult to learn to prioritize, to return their attention to what they are doing once they have glanced outside or know the teacher is not talking to them personally. … another reason HSCs can be misdiagnosed as having ADD is because, if the distractions are numerous or prolonged, or they are emotionally upset and thus overstimulated already from within, they may very well become overwhelmed by outer distractions and behave as if agitated or ‘spacey.'” Elaine Aron (The Highly Sensitive Child)

I can prioritize, reflect on outcomes and have a pause-to-check system. I am not a big risk taker. I am thoughtful. But I may be easily overwhelmed by data or sensory input. I can study to music and TV, but not to talking. Or apparently with an internet connection at hand. I may be distracted, but for different reasons.

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Ah, life’s rich pageant!

We are now past the “demolition” phase and into the “reconstruction” phase in our renovation. No longer will I be preaching with a huge plastic sheet behind me. There should be no more unexpected surprises because they discovered something wrong with the building when they did x, y or z. We have a pretty good handle on the costs now.

Those tricksy costs. When we started this back in the fall, we gave “swags” of about $250k. We did not ask for approval yet. We needed harder numbers. The reality is that those harder numbers, while harder to swallow, were not really hard numbers. Fortunately we haven’t doubled the original estimate but between the unexpected repairs (like the 300 foot trench for the sewer line) and the unexpected costs imposed by the county (usually connected with environmental stuff) the total has gone up over 50%.

You begin to second guess yourself. Did we make the right decision? Did we decide too soon? Are we like the guy in the parable who didn’t count the cost and now we’ll have a half completed project? No. While I think the Enemy would like to keep me up at night thinking we goofed, or were disobedient, I don’t think we were.

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I’m reading a book on sermons by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on John 4 in preparation for my sermons on that chapter coming up. The book is only 750ish pages. I have plenty of work ahead of me. But some of the sermons are well worth it, like one entitled Spiritual Dullness and Evasive Tactics preached in October, 1966. Think about that for a moment, 1966. Amazing to me how much of what he says fits our contemporary situation.

He begins with noting the essence of Christianity: “we have within us a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” The Christian life is a spiritual life under the power and direction of the Spirit. This great salvation “is to enable us to live in the world and to look forward to the glory that is to come.” This positive beginning shifts as the Dr. begins to lay the smack down. He gets quickly to exposing the sins of his time in England that mirror those of ours here in America.

“We face national prejudices, class prejudices, race prejudices, and so on. There is almost no end to them. What harm they have done in the life of the individual Christian, and what harm they have done in the life of the church throughout the centuries- the things we cling to so tenaciously simply because we have been born like that!”

He was addressing the Jewish-Samaritan prejudice. Later in the sermon he brings us to the problems of Apartheid and the Civil Rights struggle in the U.S. The people in England were denouncing the white South Africans and Americans. He admits, obviously, the sinfulness of racism, but takes this as evasiveness. The woman at the well used this prejudice to evade Jesus, and the Dr.’s contemporaries were using those prejudices in other nations to evade the truth about themselves.

“You see, in denouncing somebody else, you are shielding yourself. While you are denouncing these people or friends in America or somewhere else over this racial problem, you are full of self-righteous indignation. That is very clever, but you are just evading the problem of your own life, the running sore of your soul.”

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Earlier in his book Love into Light, Peter Hubbard talked about change. There he talked about unrealistic expectations for change. Change is an internal thing.

Discussion of change for a homosexual (as well as for any sexually immoral person, like addicts) eventually gets to the issues of celibacy and marriage. How you understand yourself if important to this discussion. If you view yourself as the world labels you (“homosexual”, “pervert” “misfit” or “dirty”) you will live out that reality. If you view yourself as God views you if you are in Christ (beloved, holy, son) you will begin to live out of this new reality. No, not perfectly. It is a progress. But God’s labels for those in Christ provide something of the goal.

He notes that we struggle with this notion of an “assigned” life or label. Deep down most of us suspect that God doesn’t have our best in mind. Deep down we think that we know the path to a fulfilling life better than God does. We forget that this is what got us in the deep hole we were in in the first place.

Additionally, Matthew Vines, he notes, talks about how homosexuals often feel left out as their friends marry and have kids. This is not something particular to homosexuals. I didn’t get married until I was 36, and a father until 39. I saw so many friends get married and have kids. I felt left out, forgotten and as if it would never happen to me. That’s the funny thing about sin, it deceives us into thinking we are the only one who feels this way. We don’t realize that others who don’t share our reasons also feel the same kinds of things. Marrying late wasn’t really MY choice. I wanted to get married, but experienced that frustrating reality that the people I wanted to marry didn’t want to marry me. And the people who wanted to marry me were not ones I wanted to marry.

I, like many in my state, wondered “what if God is calling me to be single, forever?” It seemed a fate worse than death at times. I wasn’t struggling with SSA. This is a human problem, not merely a SSA problem. My wife and I have many older friends who have never been married.

There are a number of people in the Bible who were never married or were widowed and remained single and alone with no outlet for their sexual desire. Jesus is pretty prominent there. As fully (hu)man, He would have experienced sexual desire. He would have found particular people attractive. But he never acted upon such desire. He mission trumped all those internal feelings and desires, such that His food was to do the will of His Father.

We also see Paul (probably widowed since he was a Pharisee of Pharisees). Paul was a sinner, like the rest of us. Paul lived in a culture with few if any sexual boundaries. There was temptation without and within. Surely there was loneliness and frustration. As the head of her household, Lydia was single or widowed as well. As that head of household, there would have been slaves or servants she could use to satisfy her sexual desires, as was common. But every indication is that she lived a faithful, obedient life that flowed out of her faith and love for Christ.

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Do you struggle with preoccupation with yourself? Do you find yourself caring too much about what others think about you? or what you think about you?

Perhaps this is the booklet for you. Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is adapted from a sermon of his on 1 Corinthians 3. As a result, this is a relatively short treatment of a particular question. As such it can’t say everything there is to say about the subjects with which it deals. Someone I know raised some questions about this booklet, and I hope to address them briefly toward the end. I will also make a short application for pastors (something Keller does elsewhere).

He introduces the passage with the stark difference between traditional and modern thought about people’s problems. Traditionally, pride (hubris) has been identified as one of our problems that creates other problems. Criminals think more of themselves than others, for instance, and this justifies their crimes. Something odd happened in the Western world in the not too distant past. The prevailing notion, still prevalent in education, is that people actually suffer from low self-esteem. If only they would have a better view of themselves they wouldn’t be criminals, poor etc. We now, statistically, have students who are progressively worse but feel better and better about themselves despite failure. Thankfully, this view regarding self-esteem is finally being challenged academically.

The passage Keller is handling is addressing the divisions that have been plaguing the church of Corinth. The factions have allied themselves to particular teacher. The factions are filled with pride and boastful of their relationship or adherence to their favorite teacher (Paul, Peter, Apollos etc.). I know, we would never do anything like that. This leads us into contemplating the ego.

The natural state of the ego, Keller argues, is that it is inflated. Paul does not use hubris, but a word he uses often in the letters to the Corinthians and in Colossians 2. It isn’t used elsewhere in Scripture. It does have that idea of over-inflated or bloated. This means that the human ego is empty (just filled with hot air), painful (stretched too far), busy (looking to fill that emptiness) and fragile (not this is not a special award). He draws on (surprise!) C.S. Lewis, Soren Kierkegaard and Madonna.

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One of the free books I got at General Assembly was R.C. Sproul’s The Truth of the Cross. When I was a young Christian I discovered R.C. and his books and tapes (that’s how long ago it was) were an important part of my growth as a Christian. But I have not read much of his stuff in the last 15 years or so. So much to read, so little time.

“If anything has been lost from our culture, it is the idea that human beings are privately, personally, individually, ultimately, inexorably accountable to God for their lives.”

But I decided to read this one. I’d been wanting to read it, and now I owned it. This little book is typical R.C. Sproul, which is a good thing. A very good thing. My former professor has a knack for making theology easy to understand. Many of the recent books that have come out to defend the various attacks on the atonement have been excellent, but for the more theologically advanced audience. The reason R.C. was so instrumental to the resurgence of Reformed Theology is his ability to “put the cookies on the counter”. He’s accessible for all kinds of people.

“He is the One Who stands there, backing up our indebtedness, taking on Himself the requirement of what must be paid.”

As usual, R.C. brings the past into the present. We find Anselm, Augustine, Calvin, Luther and many more. That is another thing that makes his books great- introducing you to the great minds of the past.

He discusses the necessity of the atonement, the justice of God, the various aspects of the atonement (surety, ransom, redemption, freedom etc.), the place of the covenant and explaining particular, or limited, atonement. All this in his winsome, accessible style. But he is also clear about where the lines need to be drawn.

“If you take away the substitutionary atonement, you empty the cross of its meaning and drain all the significance out of the passion of our Lord Himself. If you do that, you take away Christianity itself.”

It is well worth reading for anyone who wants to better understand what Jesus was doing on the cross and why. And that should include every Christian.

Thank you to Ligonier Ministries for making this available to those of us at General Assembly. At least, I thought it was for free.

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