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Posts Tagged ‘grace’


If our wills are in bondage to our desires, which are corrupt, if there any hope for us?

This is the question we resume with from Calvin’s Institutes, the Essentials Edition. There is no hope in ourselves. Our hope has to be with God. The remedy is grace.

“Thus the Lord begins his work in us, inspiring in our hearts a love, desire and eagerness for what is good and righteous- or, more properly, inclining, training and directing our hearts to righteousness; he completes his work by giving us strength to persevere.”

This is not the same as a general removal of our depravity that leaves us in a state of neutrality that we find in some forms of Arminianism. This is the fulfillment of the promise of the new covenant (Ez. 36:26-27). This must precede faith, or we wouldn’t believe. The “human will must be wholly remade and renewed.” He aligns himself with Augustine that ‘grace precedes every good work.’ Grace is not a response to our will, but our will works in response to grace.

Calvin shifts back to Scripture, noting Jer. 32:39-40; Ez. 11:19; 1 Kings 8:58. These all address the stubbornness of our hearts, and the grace that overcomes that stubbornness. In other words, this is no ‘philosophical’ matter but one of life & death; salvation. This is not an Old Testament idea, but we see Paul also teaching this. We see this in Phil. 2:13 and 1 Cor. 12:6; 15:10. Jesus affirms this in passages like John 6:45.

“We must indeed teach that God’s kindness is open to all, without exception, who seek it. But because no one begins to seek it until he is inspired from heaven, nothing here should be allowed to diminish God’s grace in any way.”

He goes back to Augustine. “In yet another place he states that grace does not destroy the will, but changes it from bad to good, and that once it has been made good it receives help. By this he means only that God does not push man by outward force, unfeeling, as if he were a stone, but that he is impelled in such a way that he willingly obeys.” And again, “the human will does not obtain grace through its own freedom, but that it obtains freedom through God’s grace.”

Calvin shifts to the problem of continuing sin in the believer. Calvin, following Paul (Peter, John, James …), notes that our deliverance “is never so complete that no part of us remains under sin’s yoke”. Regeneration does not end conflict in our hearts, but initiates it (Rom. 7 & Gal. 5). There is a new principle moving us toward love and righteousness, and a retention of the natural inclination toward apathy and unrighteousness.

“This produces a conflict which sorely tries the believer throughout his life, because he is raised high by the Spirit but brought low by the flesh. In the Spirit he yearns fervently for immorality; in the flesh he turns aside into the path of death. In the Spirit he purposes to live uprightly; in the flesh he is goaded to do evil. In the Spirit he is led to God; in the flesh he is beaten back. In the Spirit he despises the world; in the flesh he longs for worldly pleasures.”

Our heart and will become a battle ground. The regenerate person mourns their sin, which pains him or her. They affirm and delight in God’s law as we see in Psalm 119.

Even in his day, there were people claiming a form of Christian perfectionism. Some of the Anabaptists advocated this position. They think that regeneration is complete, and we have no more fleshly appetites.

He returns to the idea of man as sinner in bondage to Satan. He mentions Augustine’s analogy (also utilized by Luther in Bondage of the Will)of the will as a horse subject to the rider’s control. Calvin finds it sufficient in the  absence of a better analogy. “What is meant is that the will, being deceived by the devil’s tricks, must of necessity submit to his good pleasure, although it does so without compulsion.”

He then discusses the doctrine of concurrence with reference to the story of Job. In concurrence, more than one person wills the same action but for different reasons or goals. God, Satan and the Chaldeans all willed the theft of Job’s herds, but for very different reasons. We see this as well in the story of Joseph. God’s intention was very different from his brothers’ even though both willed Joseph’s servitude in Egypt.

“Accordingly, it is not improper to attribute the same deed to God, the devil and man. But the disparity in both intention and means ensures that God’s righteousness always appears blameless, while the wickedness of the devil and of man is revealed in all its shame.”

The bottom line for Calvin is fidelity to Scripture, for the Scriptures reveal the sovereignty of God over events big and small. He brings up a number of passages to illustrate his point. Satan, much like Assyria and Babylon in the prophets, is His agent to unwittingly accomplish His purpose. They serve His righteous purposes, even as they pursue their unrighteous purposes. Calvin notes God’s sovereignty over the “mundane acts of life.” He held to a meticulous providence, as God brings about “whatever he knows is needful, but also to bend men’s wills toward that same end.”

Calvin then addresses a series of common objections. First, necessary sin is no longer sin. While they “necessarily” have to do it, since God ordained it, it is still voluntarily chosen by them. He does not force them to sin, but they want to commit that particular sin at that particular time. Second, reward and punishment no longer apply. God is so kind that he rewards the graces which he bestows on people. The voluntary nature of sin makes punishment just. Third, good and bad are no longer distinguishable. If this were so, it would be so for God who does good “by necessity” or in keeping with his immutable nature. Fourth, exhortation and reproof become superfluous. They are, rather, the means God uses to help shape our choices. He not only ordains what will happen, but how and why.

“God is active in us in two way: within, by his Spirit, and without, by his word. With his Spirit enlightening the mind and training the heart to love righteousness and innocence, he makes man a new creature by regeneration. Through his word he moves and encourages man to desire and to look for this renewal.”

Calvin then notes a variety of Scriptural evidences including, the law and its commands, the command to repent, God’s promises & reproofs, his punishments and more. In many ways Calvin rightfully goes back to Philippians 2:13- For God works in us to will and work according to His righteous purpose. We are to believe that we are dependent upon God, but also that being gracious and powerful he consistently works in us to accomplish his purposes, which are good. This is an important doctrine which humbles us, and grants us confidence.

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In his chapter on Local Knowledge in The Imperfect Pastor, Zack Eswine uses the unusual phrase “the gospel waltz”. He is talking about theological culture of your congregation before they got there. This could be when you arrive to a new congregation, but it is also seen when a new person shows up. I found his concept helpful, even if the phrase didn’t quite connect.

The waltz speaks of “three movements in gospel life:

  • confessing our mess (sinning and being sinned against),

  • receiving Christ’s love (turning to Jesus as forgiven and dearly loved children),

  • walking his paths (conforming our lives to obediently following Jesus).

Eswine notes that individuals, and congregations, can miss steps. As a result their whole theological perspective is warped. One of the results is that they avoid talk about the movement they have not embraced. He notes that congregations have various two-step emphases. Conflict revolves around the third. This helps shape the pastor’s teaching and personal ministry.

  • Some are trying to confess and walk without receiving. These folks work hard. They frown on grace, joy and rest. When you talk of grace, they get concerned about you.

  • Some are trying to receive and walk without confessing. These folks stay strong. They frown on appearing needy for forgiveness or imperfect. So when you talk about humility, sharing burdens, feeling emotions, and not trying to keep up appearances, they get concerned about you.

  • Some are trying to confess and receive without walking. These folks want to relax. They frown on obedience. When you talk about the change in direction that Jesus’ grace makes upon our actions and way of life, they get concerned about you.

Their concerns are well worth noting. This gives direction to pastoral ministry. It may not necessarily make it easier. Note the sanctification debate in Reformed circles a few years ago. The “grace guys” were leaving out the 3rd movement (in my opinion). They were reacting against those who left out the first movement. Leaving out either of these three movements leaves your Christian, or gospel, life unbalanced, distorted and less fruitful than it should be.

It is important to note that you, as a pastor or layperson, have a default. There is one you tend to neglect.

mushroom cloudI have found that congregations are generally concerned if the pastor confesses his mess. There are sins a pastor can confess publicly, like impatience. Generally people don’t want to know that their pastor struggles with the same kinds of sins they do: lust, greed, profound self-centeredness etc. Sin stays underground. There it can fester until it eventually explodes in a huge mess.

The other night a member and I were commiserating that as a congregation we weren’t very vulnerable. This is not just about sin, but also burdens. I find that people have been struggling with horrible things but not reached out for help. I have to help us put all these things together: confess, receive and walk. The gospel is our only hope in this. We need to see the goodwill of God toward sinners so we confess; the sufficiency of Christ so we receive His fullness; and the power of the new life the gospel produces so we can walk in a manner pleasing to Him (though imperfectly).

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I have really appreciated The Gospel According to the Old Testament series. Since I’m preparing to teach on Hosea, it was time to read the volume on Hosea: Love Divine and Unfailing by Michael Barrett.

Based on the previous volumes I had high expectations. Perhaps too high. Perhaps unfairly. But this volume didn’t meet my expectations.

This is a good an helpful book. It was expecting, or hoping for, a great book.

Why I was disappointed may be explained by his comments in the conclusion:

If you picked up this book expecting an expositional commentary, you have been disappointed. … My concern was to put in focus the big picture that will ultimately help us understand the details and grasp the significance of Hosea’s message.

I was hoping for a volume that tracked with the flow of Hosea, particularly since I’m teaching it in that way. I did not expect a commentary since this is not a commentary series. But I wanted it to work through the book. Barrett handled it from a more thematic approach. He said many helpful things, but it was not as “user friendly” for the teacher.

In the first part he focuses on “just the facts” of Hosea. This begins with Hosea as a Messianic Man. Hosea is a shortened form of Joshua (or vice versa) and means “salvation.” Joshua is the Hebrew name translated into Greek as Jesus. Hosea was anointed as a prophet which is a “messianic occupation.” Barrett spends some time explaining the role of the prophet in the life of Israel. He also puts him in his time and place: the northern kingdom during the reign of Jeroboam II.

The second chapter expands on the historical context of Hosea. It was a time of declining power and prosperity. Assyria was gaining strength and was a looming threat that is addressed in the book.

In the third chapter, His Creed, the focus is on Deuteronomy’s influence on what we read. The prophets viewed their circumstances through the covenant and declared the appropriate blessings and curses according to the covenant. Hosea makes no sense if you aren’t familiar with Deuteronomy. Barrett spends some time explaining how the Mosaic covenant points to, anticipates and explains the ministry of Christ.

The second part of the book focuses on his life, particularly his marriage. His marriage to a wayward wife named Gomer was a living sermon intended to reflect God’s marriage to Israel. It is viewed as an analogy. There are points of correspondence, but not complete identity. Barrett points in particular to the exclusivity of relationship. This means that apostasy, or syncretism, is like adultery: Gomer’s adultery in particular.

Christianity parallels the ANE process of marriage. The Father gave a people to the Son to be His Bride. The Son has paid the bride price with His blood. The Spirit establishes the covenant union between the Son and the Church (invisible).

Then Barrett goes into Hosea’s marriage. Hosea was not the only prophets who undertook prophetic or symbolic actions. Some of them were strange, like Isaiah walking around naked and barefoot (Is. 20) to symbolize the coming exile. You have Ezekiel laying on his side all day, cooking over dung, to symbolize the siege upon Jerusalem. In this case Hosea’s whole life became symbolic or prophetic. His marriage and kids pointed Israel (and Judah) to deeper realities.

Sin and rebellion will be met with covenant curses. The northern kingdom hRedemptionad strayed, stepped out on their covenant lord, with other gods and nations. The consequences were coming. But God’s purpose was not to ultimate destroy His people but to bring them back. The third section, The Sermon, lays this all out.

Too often people think of the Mosaic Covenant as grace-less. They are wrong and Barrett explores that gracious element for us. He helps us to understand the role of law in the covenant, not for gaining life but how God’s redeemed people are to live to bring Him glory. He then moves into the (re)new(ed) covenant and some of the ways it is “new and improved” rather than completely new. He also brings in the horrible price to be paid for their rebellion. But rebellion, and misery, is not the final word.

Therefore, as disgusting as Gomer may appear, every Christian must admit the Gomer that is his or her own heart.

Barrett ends with the way home. He talks about the gospel more exhaustively in this chapter. He speaks of repentance. Hosea’s message was not given to take away all their hope but to call Ephraim back from the abyss.

Barrett consistently points out the gospel connections and message to be found in Hosea. There are some exegetical questions that are not discussed sufficiently, particularly the use of “Adam” (8:1). He does have a helpful appendix discussing Matthew’s use of “out of Egypt I called my son”.

While not a book that met my admittedly high expectations, it was a good and helpful book to read as I prepare to teach Hosea. If you are planning on preaching through it, or teaching on it, I would recommend reading this book.

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“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Some people don’t need to enter anywhere to abandon hope. Some people can’t seem to abandon hope no matter how bad the circumstances.

I was listening to an interview with a former career Navy Seal. Part of the unspoken agenda of “Hell Week” is to bring the candidates to the point of despair, the point of giving up or thinking they are going to die. For him it was the pool. When you face death and lose your fear of death you build a wise soldier (not a reckless soldier). This builds the attitude of hope, so to speak, the idea that any problem or situation can be solved when we work together. Even if it means you or your team mate may die in the process.

There is something there to help us understand what is should mean to be a Christian. We have faced death & condemnation and been delivered by Christ. We should no longer fear death and live in hope thru the living Christ who has overcome the world.

But … just as not everyone is wired to be a Seal, not every Christian is wired to, or called to be, a martyr.

Augustine hits on this. Sort of.

In Homily 33 on the Gospel of John he said this:

“The Lord is gentle, the Lord is longsuffering, the Lord is tender-hearted; but the Lord is also just, the Lord is also true. You are being granted time for correction; you, though, love putting it off more than putting it right.”

We all tend to fixate on one or two attributes of God, the ones that fit our general temperment. This puts us at risk. Augustine posits this in the fact that God is more than the attributes we fixate on. He is longsuffering AND just; tender-hearted AND just. The true God shocks us at times. He’s not what we want Him to be. He isn’t less, but more than we want Him to be (to steal a Kellerism).  When God revealed Himself to Moses (Ex. 33-34) He revealed both His abundant mercy and His persistent justice.

“Because God is tender-hearted, God is good, God is gentle. These people are endangered by hope.”

Those fixated on God’s gentleness are often endangered by hope. They forget God’s justice and holiness and think they have forever and a day to repent.

“Endangered by despair, however, are those who have fallen into grave sins, thinking that they can no longer be forgiven, even if they repent, and see themselves as certainly destined for damnation. They thus say to themselves,’We are already going to be damned; why not do whatever we want?'”

They are fixated on the justice and holiness of God and do not see His mercy, goodness, compassion and patience. They veer into despair when they sin as if they have exhausted God’s mercy.

“Despair kills these, the others are killed by hope. The mind, the spirit, fluctuates between hope and despair. Be on the watch lest hope kill you and, while pinning your hopes on mercy, you come under judgment; be on the watch as well lest despair kill you, and, while assuming you cannot be forgiven for the grave sins you have committed, you refuse to repent and run into the judgment of Wisdom, who say, I too will laugh at you ruin (Prov. 1:26).”

While we must embrace hope, we should beware of of any hope that says I don’t need to repent. At times we must despair, but beware of any despair that says “there is no grace left for me.”

Each of us have a tendency toward hope or despair. This is not absolute. Hopeful people can experience despair and despairing people can experience hope. But you will have a tendency toward one that poses a danger to you as you face your sin. As a result you will have to spend more time meditating on the opposite attributes of God. Those who despair need to consciously fixate on God’s mercy and patience. Those who “indulge” in excessive hope (one that puts off repentance presuming on mercy) need to fixate on God’s justice (not to the exclusion of mercy).

Perhaps this is part of the current debate over law and gospel with regard to sanctification in Reformed circles. Perhaps some are fixating on mercy. Perhaps others, fixated on justice, emphasize the role of the Law. Some are abounding in hope, and others while not despairing, warn against a superficial view of grace that forgets God’s justice as also revealed in the Gospel.  Just a thought.

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The final view of sanctification addressed in Christian Spirituality is that of the contemplatives. The Church has a long history with contemplatives, or mystics, that transcends geography and denominations. Some well-known names were contemplatives: Bernard of Clairvoux, St. John of the Cross, Teresa Avila, Thomas Merton and more. In my younger days as a Christian I read Brother Lawrence and The Great Cloud of Unknowing. How does E. Glenn Hinson describe contemplative Christianity?

Contemplatives try to balance the inner and outer life. They usually assert that being will result in doing (which is a far more biblical idea than doing will result in being). They do spend most of their time addressing the inner life: being. Its focus is on communicating, communing and contemplating with God internally. Like Wesleyian sanctification the focus is on one’s love for God. Instead of gaining this thru a second blessing, one pursues it, so to speak, through a series of activities that leads one thru the stages of increasing communion with God. I’m trying to do this justice on its own terms.

“Contemplation has to do with this loving attentiveness to God.”

In contemplation there is an assumption that God is immanent in the created order. He is inescapably near to us. There is no disputing this, the question is “how is He near?”.

In Hinson’s description, there is a “naturalness” to this pursuit of the Divine Lover. He does not clarify and it can sound awfully Pelagian to many ears. Since contemplatives typically eschew theological distinctions, lots of things are vague enough to be misunderstood. Or properly understood.

At the very best, it is typically Arminian. God is a gentleman who never knocks our door down but respects the freedom He gave us. There is a resistibleness to this “grace.” Let me clarify: in Reformed Theology God does not violate the will of the creature, but in regeneration changes the character/nature of the creature so the person’s will is changed. We cannot thwart God’s purposes and plan. In most contemplative theology we, not God, are in the driver’s seat.

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In the book blurbs C.J. Mahaney (please don’t make DeYoung guilty by association based on what you think or suspect Mahaney has done) notes:

“I’m sure this will be the best book on the Heidelberg Catechism I’ve ever read. I know it will be the first.”

Sadly I think this would apply to most American Christians. Most have probably never even heard of the Heidelberg Catechism (HC), much less a book on it. While my own denomination holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith, we hold the HC in high esteem as an expression of Reformed Theology. Each has their strengths. One of the strengths of the HC is its pastoral tone (the Westminster is more theological in tone, thought it does express some pastoral concerns) and it’s structure. It is not structured like a systematic theology but is structured largely around the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. It uses these three as guides to instruct us in basic theology and Christian living. It was designed for children but is suitable for adults. The questions are broken into 52 sections so the whole catechism is covered in the span of a year.

“We need the gospel to remind us that we are still practicing sinners whose only hope for both eternal life and today’s blessings from God are ‘Jesus’ blood and righteousness.'” Jerry Bridges in the Foreward

The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism was taken from Kevin DeYoung’s weekly articles in the church newsletter. This is an introduction to the HC so the chapters are not long or exhaustive. Don’t mistake that for shallow or superficial. DeYoung usually does a good job of identifying the main points he must stress in a given week. He is not overly technical, so less theologically-oriented or experienced Christians can understand and benefit from what he has to say about the HC.

DeYoung properly notes that the structure of the HC is important (as does Bridges in the Foreward: guilt => grace => gratitude). He brings this up when talking about the Law. The purpose of the Law for Christians is to show us the way of gratitude, how we please God and what it looks like to become like Christ. As Israel receive the Law AFTER being redeemed from Egypt, we must remember that as Christians we have already been redeemed and do not seek to redeem ourselves by our obedience. This is not just an Old Testament idea, but as Bridges notes it is also the pattern of Romans (and Paul’s other general letters).

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I’ve begun reading Unplanned, the autobiography of Abby Johnson. Abby used to be the director of a Planned Parenthood office. That she ended up in this position is understandable on one hand, and on the other hand it makes no sense. There was a disconnect between what she believed and what she did.

“I’d been part of a small community and a close and loving conservative family. Growing up, I’d attended church weekly, loved God, and cared deeply about my friends and community. I’d been taught that sexual intimacy was for marriage, and I had embraced that as a value. But my behavior hadn’t followed my values, and I knew it. … I simply avoiding thinking about these issues, about whether they were right or wrong. And somehow, any tensions between what I had been raised to believe and value and what I actually did, I managed to keep hidden in a box buried deep within me. A box I had so far managed to never open, never examine.”

She is not alone in this, but she is one of the few  people realizes she was doing this. After the damage was done. It actually took her longer to live contrary to her values than it took some of us. I remember talking with a friend’s mother about my values. I hadn’t even gotten to college yet and I’d lived contrary to most of them and the rest were soon to follow. I wasn’t a Christian yet, but I had some values. But my actions showed otherwise. My true values were the love of self above all.

We all have areas of disconnect that operate under our radar at times. Often this is because we don’t think through our values: why we believe this and think we should do that. It is when the contrary desire arises that we begin to disconnect beliefs from actions.

Abby, according to her story, started slowly. After starting college she was a party girl until her grades suffered. Then in community college while rehabilitating her grades she met a guy. Sexual desire was too great, and they were engaged so ….

All of this made her vulnerable to the greater disconnect of first volunteering at and them working for Planned Parenthood. She was unable to see through the wrong application of good desires (to help women in trouble). The process that led her there is a very common process. We see it among many church-raised kids who go off to college. We see it among adults at work.

How do we deal with the disconnect? This is one reason, among many, that we spend time in the Word of God. There we receive the values we should have. We can’t stop there, we have to think and ask ourselves: Do I live this way or do I make the choice to live contrary to this? When we see particular disconnects we need to confess it and ask God for forgiveness through Christ. He is willing to grant pardoning grace to all who come through Christ. We also need to ask for grace to change, to begin living consistently with God’s good will and purposes for us. We cannot change in our own power, but need His power. Purifying grace will come as we change, usually incrementally.

We all deal with the disconnect? Will you continue to go with the flow or will you begin to investigate your own disconnect?

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