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Posts Tagged ‘Missions’


Another vacation means reading another volume in the “Theologians on the Christian Life” series of books. So far I’ve read the volumes on Newton, Luther, Bavink and Edwards. I enjoy these books tremendously as they interact not just with their theology but also their practice.

This summer I chose Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever written by Michael Horton. I had some hesitancy about this volume. I haven’t read any Horton in years having grown weary of polemical theology, and not finding his expressions of two-kingdom theology all that helpful. I always seemed to be left saying “And?” when he talked about it.

This book was a pleasant surprise. It was a little more weighted toward theology than some of the others, but that theology was a necessary background to understanding how Calvin viewed life in Christ. There was a good progression of thought throughout the book. There were no exceedingly long chapters. There were plenty of quotes from Calvin and others who have produced volumes on his life and thought to make Horton’s points. I found it to be an edifying and encouraging volume in this series.

As he notes, Calvin’s was a very different time. The Reformation had been spreading throughout Europe and nation-states were gaining some measure of independence from the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Emperor. Like today there were many political and religious refugees in Europe, and many of them made their way to Geneva. In the religious reforms they were still in the process of sorting out how to implement what they believed. Calvin was one of the people working to bring the Protestants together as some differences seemed to be driving them apart.

Church was a central part of life with daily services part of many people’s routine or rhythm of life. It was a less distracted time, even if sin still found its way to manifest itself abundantly. As a result of this, some of how Calvin viewed the Christian life is anachronistic, or at least seems to be to us with personal devices, long commutes, mass media and more. Christian living, while personal, was far more public than we see today.

As one of the great figures in the Reformation we tend to think he was a parochial as we can be. There was no “Reformed tradition” or heritage for Calvin to draw upon. He drew upon the larger tradition of the Church, eastern and western. He was influenced, not only by Augustine, but also by Chrysostom, Cyprian, Irenaeus, and Bernard of Clairvoux among others. He interacted with Luther and Melanchthon to find common ground. He was not impressed with Zwingli. He spent time during his exile with Bucer and found that a great benefit. He influenced many of the next generation of leaders, like John Knox. Calvin was not an innovator but a man who lived as part of a theological community that exceeded his geography and time.

Horton begins where the Institutes begins: the knowledge of God and self. We were made to be in relationship with God and to reflect or reveal His glory as His image. So, to know God is to know ourselves in greater measure even if we see what we are not. Calvin was no fan of speculative theology. We cannot know God in the abstract, but know Him in Christ who came in the flesh to exegete the Father. We know God through His works, and so we recognize the divine drama or great Story of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Glorification. All of Scripture reveals this larger Story. We see some differences between how the Reformers and Roman Catholicism viewed general revelation and common grace. He saw our depravity going deeper so that no one was neutral when examining our world and/or doing theology. The pursuit of truth is distorted by our depravity. General revelation is not simply a “dimmer light but a different light than special revelation” because it does not speak of redemption.

Like Luther, Calvin was a theologian of the cross rather than a theologian of glory. God is known through Christ, and Him crucified. We do not seek to climb “ladders of speculation, merit and mystical experience” to gain union with God. Rather we are united to Christ crucified and resurrected for us to gain knowledge of God.

In this great drama there are actors and a plot. Here Horton explains that for Calvin the solas of the Reformation were a fabic, not independent statements. Similar to TULIP which was formulated long after Calvin’s death, they stand or fall together. Scripture is our final authority because it is God speaking to us about the Son through the inspiration and illumination of the Spirit. The great actor is the Triune God, not merely dogma but “the heart of reality in which we live and move and have our being.” The Incarnation of the Son reminds us that matter is good, not evil. That there is nothing inherently sinful about humanity itself despite its weakness and limitations. Our sinfulness is tied to being “in Adam” not simply being human. So Calvin did not hold to a Spirit-matter dualism as did medieval Rome and early Anabaptists. Rather, God made matter and uses it to His good purposes. One application of this is that the Spirit works thru the Word, contrary to the views of the Anabaptists and other fanatics.

The other actors in this are people, and so Horton moves quickly through Calvin’s anthropology. He is always contrasting this with the views of Rome expressed through the medieval church. This brings us to providence and grace as God works to redeem fallen humanity. Horton contrasts providence with the Stoic notion of fatalism. We see a God at work to redeem us, not a people who seek to redeem themselves. We see people who are lifted up by a Redeemer, not who lift themselves up by their bootstraps. We see people who are sought (and found) by God though they hide in the bushes, not people who seek after a God who hides. When we grasp both providence and grace, our circumstances are not punishment from a Judge but instruction from a Father who seeks to mold and shape us.

“Properly speaking, God is not angry with his elect, whose diseases he cures by afflictions as it were by medicines.”

From here, Horton proceeds to Christ the Mediator who came to us and for us. He uses a phrase that will be used often within the book, here with reference to His two natures: “distinction without separation”. This is a difficult formula to maintain but it was the heart of the Chalcedonian formula which made its way through Calvin’s theology. This formula, and how it is understood, was a key in the disagreements about the Lord’s Table that separated the Protestants. Horton’s comments on this are quite helpful.

As the Mediator, Jesus does not merely provide assistance to us but saves us to the uttermost. Yet, we live in the gap between inauguration and consummation, the already and not yet tension is at the heart of Calvin’s spirituality. Our salvation is received in union with Christ. We don’t receive His benefits so much as Christ Himself. He brings all those benefits with Him. They are distinct but without separation because we don’t have a divided Christ. Horton distinguishes these benefits in another chapter. They include effectual calling, justification, sanctification, and adoption. He always distinguishes the Protestant view from the Roman view, particularly as expressed in the Council of Trent.

With this heavier theology out of the way, Horton moves into life in the Body of Christ. Our Christian living is not a private thing, but one that is lived in the context of the Christian community. This is important for our individualistic society to hear so we can be freed from the shackles of a privatized faith. For Calvin it was corporate worship (Word, sacrament & prayer) that fed our personal worship (Word & prayer), and not the other way around. Corporate worship is where we learn how to read the Word and pray. We apply that in our personal and family worship. Community has precedence over individual. This is a radical statement today. Yet at we look at love and the fruit of the Spirit we see they all require others. The Trinity is an eternal community or fellowship of love. We have been made in God’s image to be a community or fellowship of love, not simply a periodic gathering of saved individuals.

This plays out in seeking grace in public worship, not medieval spirituality. We do not ascend to God, but Christ descended to us. We do not seek seclusion like the monks and nuns, but live in Christ in the midst of the world. Horton speaks of Calvin’s views of the preached Word, baptism, confession of sin (a good thing in worship!) and the Lord’s Table.

“The only way to serve God well is to serve our fellow believers. Since our good deeds cannot reach God anyway, he gives us instead other believers unto whom we can do good deeds. The one who wants to love God can do so by loving the believers.”

Horton continues with worship, discussing visual representations and music. These are some of Calvin’s more controversial views regarding worship today. While I want to keep the images of Christ out of our worship, I don’t want to keep the instruments out. I don’t see how they are part of the shadows and ceremonies. I see instruments in the heavenly visions of Revelation. If they are symbolic, what do they symbolize (it notes the singing, so….)? Music seems circumstantial to me. We don’t have any “authorized” tunes. So we waste our time, energy and breath arguing over such things. I’m sure God is more concerned with whether I strummed my guitar for him or myself, or if you listened to the instruments for his glory or simply your pleasure, than whether or not the corporate worship used instruments or not. But I digress.

Horton then brings us to Calvin’s view of prayer as the chief exercise of faith. Horton notes “true worship consists not in outward rights but in casting ourselves on the Father’s gracious care in Christ and by his Spirit.” He interacts with God’s providence and prayer so that prayer is one of the instrumental means of God’s providence. For Calvin prayer was “to the Father, in the Son and by the Spirit.” Our union with Christ also means that we do not pray alone but that Christ is praying not just for us, but with us. Our prayers are an echo of His prayers for us, we are following His lead because of the work of the Spirit in us resulting from our union.

You can’t talk exhaustively about Christian living without touching upon the Law of God. Horton brings in Calvin’s views in the tenth chapter. Like Luther, Calvin utilized a law and gospel distinction. “Calvin also appropriated Melanchton’s threefold use of the law.” The Law drives us to Jesus as He is presented to us in the Gospel. As justified people, the law shows us the pattern of holiness the Son wants to create in us by the Spirit. Law and gospel are distinct but not separate. Christians hear the law as the words of a Father, not a Judge; wisdom and guidance, not condemnation; and cry out to the same Father to help them walk in this way that pleases Him. Horton then summarizes Calvin’s view of these “house rules” expressed in the Ten Commandments.

Horton then addresses this new society, the church, as a theater of God’s fatherly care. Christian living includes finding a faithful church and making disciples. In church we are fed and guided by pastors and elders. We receive God’s hospitality from the deacons. Horton explains Calvin’s view of elements and circumstances regarding worship and how legalism turns circumstances into binding elements. License turns elements into circumstances. “Thus, the Reformer could see even among elements a ranking order, prizing unity over polity. Here we see a man of principle, to be sure, but among the principles was love. While wanting to obey everything that Christ commanded, he realized that not everything was equally clear or equally important.” And so my comments on music.

“Even when the church lies in ruins, we still love the heap of ruins.”

This new society exists, just as our original parents did, for a mission. For the creation mandate to be fulfilled, the Great Commission must be fulfilled. The church exists to make Christ as He is presented to us in the Gospel known, and to teach people to obey Him. The circumstances of the day meant that the Roman Catholic nations controlled the seas. But Geneva sent missionaries throughout Europe, many of whom died in France. The church brings Christ to the world.

We not only live in the church, but we live in the world. Here Horton explores Calvin’s view of the relationship of church and state, and Calvin’s understanding of the two kingdoms. There is discussion of moral law and its reflection in natural law. Christians don’t retreat from the world, nor do they think they can save the world (or creation) through “social justice”. This doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t seek justice within our spheres of influence, but we have realistic expectations, goals and agendas. It also makes no sense to focus on race relations in society unless we are addressing them in the church. We don’t focus on sins in one kingdom while ignoring them in God’s kingdom. (My thoughts there)

We offer our gifts and abilities to the world, and the church, in terms of our vocation. The sacred-secular distinction has minimized the value of a layperson’s work in the world. Work that helps others survive or flourish is valuable work, not merely legitimate work. Jobs have value not simply as opportunities for evangelism, but for loving others by providing goods that enrich life. This is a big part of Christian living.

Lastly Horton ends with contemplation of glorification. We are not escaping the material world, but longing for freedom from sin; ours and others against us. We live in the not yet with regard to sin. This is intended to shape our lives in the already.

Horton lays before us a very thorough look at Calvin’s understanding of the Christian life. We exist for God, and to enjoy God. This means we live before the face of God at home, at work and at church. We live before the face of God and experience His grace because of Christ our Mediator in whom we experience all God’s blessings. Christian living is not about trying to attain God’s grace, but receiving it so we can glorify & enjoy Him. This was a great addition to the series.

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For the World: Essays in Honor of Richard L. Pratt Jr. is reflective of Richard’s life and ministry in many ways. First, the subject matter is diverse: Biblical and Theological Studies, Ministry & Missions, Ministry Training & Theological Education. These are the diverse areas of Richard’s work and ministry. Second, the authors compiled by Holcomb and Lucke are also diverse in ways that reflect Richard’s ministry. There are seminary professors and academicians, missionaries, and a counselor. There is also ethnic and gender diversity as well. There are people I know and studied with, and those I’ve never heard of before.

I don’t know the circumstances and commitments of other people but I was disappointed to not see chapters by R.C. Sproul and Chuck DeGroat among others. This reflects the fact that I wish this was longer. For instance this book is 184 pages but the book in John Frame’s honor is over 1,000 pages. Somewhere in between would have been an improvement on an already good book. But let’s focus on what is there.

The book begins with a chapter surveying Richard’s life. I will use Richard because that is what he wanted us to call him. He is one of the two people I’ve allowed to call me “Stevie”. Richard was definitely the most popular professor on campus. As a result, I tended to talk with other professors more often. I am thankful for those relationships. Still, while reading this chapter (shortly after reading a biography of Dr. Nicole) I was struck by the great men that I have been privileged to know: Dr. Nicole, Richard, R.C. and Saul Cruz. In retrospect I wish I had pursued them more. I’m not sure why but surely my own insecurity and shame issues: why would THEY want to invest in me? These men, and others you have never heard of, have been used by God to invest in me. For this I am thankful.

The diversity of the subject matter is both a blessing and a curse. There were some subjects with which I was unfamiliar (and many other readers may be) and therefore I didn’t quite have the pegs to hang the info on yet (hey, just like the first year of seminary). It is very good to learn new things, but some people may similarly feel lost at times. Other chapters were great reminders of the things Richard taught us (particularly Monica Taffinder’s chapter) and delved into the why’s and how’s of his method (Scott Redd’s chater). Other chapters expressed an extension of Richard’s sometimes radical ideas with regard to theological education (Michael Briggs, John Frame and Gregory Perry) with which I generally agree with Richard.

The chapters that I found most helpful were the aforementioned chapters by Monica and Scott Redd, as well as those by Reggie Kidd, Justin Holcomb, David Correa and Simon Vibert. Overall the book touches on a variety of topics helpful for those in ministry and missions: prayer, hermeneutics, counseling etc. This is not just a helpful addition if you were one of his students, but particularly if you weren’t.

One (unintended?) consequence for me was regret that I didn’t take ITS (Introduction to Theological Studies) which was instituted in my middler year so I could take other electives. This may be rectified, so to speak, as I plan on watching some of the Third Millennium materials.

 

 

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The other day a congregant asked me a question about tongues since someone was encouraging them to “use their gifts.” Today I was turning to Augustine’s Homilies on the Gospel of John for my sermon. I neglected to read it last week and decided to play catch up instead of skipping over it since it was a great text.

37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. John 7

In the course of Homily 32, Augustine moves in a direction I did not anticipate: tongues. He went there because he clarified that the Spirit was given at Pentecost. The point was should we expect a similar experience as they had. This is a question that continues 1,600+ years later.

Just because nowadays those who are being baptized in Christ and who believe in Christ do not speak in the languages of all nations, is it to be assumed that they have not received the Holy Spirit? No such lack of faith should tempt our heart. We are certain that everyone receives him; but whatever size vessel of faith you bring to the fountain is filled up.

First, let us note that “speaking in tongues” was not common in Augustine’s day. He understood the languages which they spoke to be human languages the speaker did not know. These were not “heavenly languages” as some seem to teach. Speaking in tongues, he says, is not the or a sign that someone has received the Holy Spirit.

Early Pentecostals, believing that the tongues in Acts 2 were earthly languages, believed they would receive this gift while on the mission field. It didn’t happen. Now Pentecostals and Charismatics typically believe they speak in a heavenly language taking Paul’s hypothetical in 1 Corinthians 13 as reality.

“Well, since then he is received nowadays too,” somebody may say, “why is no one speaking in the languages of all nations?” Because now the Church speaks in the languages of all peoples. Previously the Church was to be found in one people, when it was speaking in the languages of all. By speaking with the languages of all it was signifying what was going to happen, that by growing among peoples, it would speak everyone’s language.

His argument was that only one people at the time, Israel, had the Gospel. The Church was comprised on one nation, Israel. The Gospel was about to go to the nations, and they could come into the Church (grafted in and joining, not replacing!). At that time the Church needed the gift of tongues, Augustine is arguing, to speak to the nations represented in the crowd there. With the Gospel and therefore the Church spreading to the known world in Augustine’s time, it now spoke all those languages. God no longer needed to give the gift of tongues.

The Church spread throughout the nations is speaking with all tongues; the Church is the body of Christ, you are a member in this body; so then, since you are a member in his body, which is speaking with all tongues, confidently believe that you are speaking with all languages.

Since you are united to the body, he argues, you therefore speak in all languages.

There is much to like about his overall argument. But it is not perfect.

The main weakness is that there are many unreached groups that we have since learned about. No one in the Church speaks their language. One would think that the gift would be “revived” in order to reach these groups. Many a linguistic missionary wishes it was that easy. But we have not seen this happen. We cannot anticipate how Augustine would answer this development after his death. It is an interesting view held by one of the great theologians and during the early centuries of the Church.

Other books of interest on this matter would include Gaffin’s Perspectives on Pentecost and Stott’s Baptism and Fullness. On my shelf is a copy of Anthony Hoekema’s What About Speaking in Tongues? that I’ve been meaning to get to for years. Maybe soon.

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I have great appreciation for The Swans are Not Silent series by John Piper. Each volume includes 3 character sketches of significant figures in church history. Each  volume has a particular focus that determines the material Piper included and excluded from the volume. They were originally presented at Bethlehem’s Pastors’ Conference. So they are meant to be encouraging as well as convicting.

The 5th volume, which I finally made time to read, is focused on a passage from Colossians 1. It is appropriately called Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ: the Cost of Bringing the Gospel to the Nations… .

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.

I was preaching on this passage and decided it would be a good move to read it. In the introduction, he asserts that Paul’s point is not merely that we suffer on account of the gospel, but for the benefit of the proclamation of the gospel. The introduction has some good material to help you think through this passage.

“One of the most sobering discoveries of my life is that God spreads the life-giving news about Jesus Christ by means of suffering and martyrdom.”

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My ‘relationship’ with John Newton was a slowly developing affair. I’m sure you’ve had friendships like that. You meet a person, don’t think much of them at the time. Slowly you begin to see more of them. You see your common interests, and their strengths, previously hidden, come to light. Your appreciation grows.

That is my relationship with Newton. Ah, he wrote a few hymns, that’s nice. Over the years people shared some of his letters. I got to know a little bit more of his life. I read Piper’s short account of his life and bought The Letters of John Newton and Wise Counsel. Over time he has become one of my heroes in the faith. His importance to the church and the world is matched by few.

John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace attempts to let us in on the ‘secret’ that is the life of John Newton. The book is easy to read, with short chapters that fit into busy schedules.  Aitken does not hide from us the sinfulness and brokenness of the young Newton. He was the son of a captain whose mother died when he was young. Her gospel influence gone, he often lived with relatives while his father was at sea. He would follow in his father’s footsteps, but soon earned a reputation as being a despicable human being. He was a piece of work, as they say. Some of the words used to describe him would be blasphemer, fornicator, obstinate rabble rouser, dabbler in black arts and more.

“For the fourth time on four successive ships, Newton managed to alienate his captain.”

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I first read Desiring God in the late 1980’s after hearing about it from someone I knew. I was a young Christian at the time. Like Knowing God, it would be one of the books to lay the foundation for my life as a Christian.  But not all books hold up over time. So I am reviewing the revised edition from the perspective of an older Christian who has read this book a few times. Does it hold up? Why should I bother with a revised edition? Those are the questions I come to the book with.

Does it hold up? Classic books stand the test of time. There are books that are very popular when they are released, but 10 or 20 years later people won’t point to them as significant long term. This is a book people still talk about. This book is chock-full of good theology. Piper not only defends his assertions regarding Christian Hedonism, but he lays out lots of good theology. In other words, his theological distinctive (you can actually see similar teaching in Calvin, Burroughs, Owen and other Reformed pastors, not just Edwards) does not exist in a vacuum.  Piper has to work through the sovereignty of God, the character of God and the nature of salvation. I think I used more ink in my new copy than in my old one.

People often misunderstand his position based on the name. But the point is that a Christian Hedonist seeks their pleasure in God, one of the many things were are commanded to do in Scripture. Piper shows how Scripture not only teaches but feeds Christian Hedonism. He unpacks the doctrine to see how it plays out in marriage, money, missions and more. One subject that is missing would be work (perhaps in the 30th anniversary edition). This is a very practical theology book, but one that is rooted in theology.

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The attempts of missions organizations like Wycliffe to translate the Bible into languages in predominantly Muslim cultures has hit a snag recently.  The Insider Movement was an issue at some General Assemblies this past year.  The issue is about the interface of translation and cultural context.  For Muslims the concept of God the Son is quite troubling and offensive.  When we say that they are importing an meaning that is quite different from what we intend.  They think of it in a most crass sense, as if God the Father was Apollo cavorting with women.

There is a way in which these concerns seem valid on the surface.  If care about success more than faithfulness.  They are not mutually exclusive.  We should want the gospel to prosper, but not at the expense of faithfulness to the message.  This tension plays out in ministry philosophy (I hate using those 2 words together), church growth and more.  Translation principles is not the only place this plays out.

As ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor. 5), we are to faithfully relate the message He has given us to proclaim.  He is far wiser than us, so we should not presume to radically alter the message He has given us in the name of contextualization.  Contextualization is intended to assist meaning, not obscure it.

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