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Posts Tagged ‘providence’


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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The subtitle to Bavinck on the Christian Life is Following Jesus in Faithful Service. In part 1 John Bolt laid the foundations of creation, law and union with Christ. In part 2 he framed it with imitation of Christ and worldview. In the third and final section of this book, The Practice of Christian Discipleship, Bolt gets to the areas where we follow Jesus in light of a Christian worldview.

For lack of a better term, I’ll use spheres. They could be called vocations, the places were are called. As Christians Bavinck stresses that our faith is not simply lived out in prayer closets and on Sunday mornings. We are to follow Jesus in our marriage, family, work, culture, education and civil service (politics).

In the historical context, Bavinck was often dealing with “the revolution.” It was a time of incredible instability in Europe. The impact of Rousseau and Marx were shaking the foundations of Europe. There were challenges and changes looming  in nearly every arena, sphere or vocation. As a result he was not writing in an Edenic setting or ivory tower. He was not only a theologian and churchman, but also a statesman. In many ways it is a situation that reflects our contemporary situation. Faith does not retreat from cultural challenges, but seeks to imitate Jesus by serving in the midst of such changes. But it always seeks to follow Jesus, not simply embracing change or preserving human tradition. For instance, women’s suffrage was a good thing, a good change reflecting their equal status as made in God’s image in civil society.

As Bavinck wrestled with these changes he doesn’t simply analyze the proposed solution, he brings them back to the real problem. For instance, “inequality” was looked at as the great cultural sin (sounds familiar, right?). He brings us to God’s providence to recognize that inequality is not intrinsically wrong. For instance, God has not distributed resources equally. Some geographic locations are rich in natural resources, and others lack. God has placed each of us in a particular place, to a particular family (with its own resources, or lack thereof).

But this is not the only, final word on inequality. We have to see it in light of the creation mandate as well. We are not to sit fatalistically with our lot in life. If we believe we are called to “subdue and rule” we will seek to maximize the resources and opportunities that do exist. (Either Bavinck or Bolt does not spell this out as clearly as I would have liked.)

Bavinck also brings inequality to sin. Some are motivated by self-love rather than love for God and neighbor. Therefore they oppress, exploit and steal. Some are lazy and refuse to maximize anything at their disposal but live for the present, not the future. There is no eschatalogical pull for them, no deferred gratification for something far greater.

Therefore, the pull toward socialism or the massive re-distribution of wealth doesn’t fix the problem. It fails to address sin (note the gross inequalities in every Communist country we’ve seen). Rather, ways must be found to eliminate oppression, exploitation, theft, laziness and entitlement not “inequality”. Inequality isn’t the problem.

Bolt applies Bavinck’s creational norm to the question of sexuality as well. Marriage is meant to be a reflection of the trinity- unity in diversity. One of the creational realities that must remain in marriage is procreation, unless providentially hindered. In other words, many of our supreme court justices, as well as citizens, don’t really understand the meaning of marriage. The gospel “restores” nature rather than overthrowing nature. It is sin which seeks to corrupt, destroy and overthrow nature.

Because our fundamental problem is sin, Bavinck focused not on social solutions to our problems, but brought us back to the gospel first (not only). People need to be restored to fellowship with God before they can see the real problems in society and apply God’s law to create an increasingly just society (as defined by God’s law which reflects His character). As a result, we must humbly accept the fact that there will be no perfectly just society until the return of Jesus because sin remains. Again, this does not mean fatalism but realistic expectations. It does mean we seek to address the real issues, not just the symptoms.

Bolt ends the book with Bavinck’s only printed sermon “The World Conquering Power of Faith”. This sermon ties a number of these things together. We cannot fix the world with the world’s means precisely because they are part of the world which is in rebellion against God. By faith we are able to “conquer” the world, but only because our faith is in the One who has overcome the world and is currently at work to make His enemies His footstool.

As a result, the Christian life of following Jesus in faithful service often looks foolish to the world. It often feels foolish. It seems so powerless, and the needs presented by the world seem so great: oppression, slavery (sexual & economic), mental illness, terrorism and violence, government corruption, sexual abuse, domestic violence …

People must be united to Christ by faith, seeking to walk in light of the law (justice) and the creation mandate (subdue & rule). This is how Bavinck views the Christian life.

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Fury, the newest war movie to hit the theaters, is an excellent film in many ways reminiscent of Spielberg’s classic Saving Private Ryan. There are many points of contact between the movie, and some major points of departure as well.

The time frame for Fury is a few months before VE Day. The U.S. forces have pushed into Germany and Germany has resorted to extreme methods like drafting women and children into the battle. This affects the plot, but does not drive the plot like D-Day does SPR. The plot of SPR has to do with saving the last remaining son of a widow in the aftermath of D-Day. Here we see a few instances of the cruelty and desperation of the SS, and the response of the main characters to the SS. In one scene, an SS officer is not allowed to surrender with the rest of the German “troops” (including teenaged girls).

Points of Contact:

Both movies focus on one unit. In SPR is is a Ranger unit sent to find Private Ryan. Here it is a tank crew. They don’t receive their mission until at least the mid-point of the movie.

Both units have a highly competent yet mysterious leader: Capt. Miller and Sgt. “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt in his best movie in years). Yes, every crew member has a nickname. In SPR they keep guessing what his vocation in pre-war life was. Here there is no such game but they all wonder why he knows German. Late in the movie the mystery deepens when they discover his familiarity with Scripture.

While both leaders are highly effective, they are also secretly damaged. Miller’s hand would increasingly shake during downtime. In a rare moment of self-disclosure he admits “every time I kill someone I feel farther from home.” In the opening sequence, Fury is the only tank to have survived a battle in which they lost the assistant driver. Back in the camp, Collier finds an isolated spot for a “moment”. He hates the war and what it does to him but there is no escape.

Enter the newbie. In both cases it is a man who was not prepared for combat. In SPR he is Corporal Upham, a translator since they will be going behind the current lines to retrieve Ryan who was a paratrooper. Here it is a typist named Norman. He is not prepared for life in a tank or for combat. Much of the movie is about his struggle with the realities of war with which the other crew members are all too familiar. In his first two encounters there is failure that costs the lives of others. His sense of right and wrong have him ill-equipped for combat. But, as “Bible” Swan guesses, Norman is a “Mainliner” or liberal, nominal Christian.

In both movies the action scenes strive for authenticity. This means they are intense and graphic. They accurately convey the horror of war, and deepen your appreciation for the men who endured these circumstances.

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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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The deal is the deal.

Sometimes.

Because sometimes the deal changes.

My parents were supposed to visit us in NY for a few days. My father has some things he wanted to talk about. But when your mother has Alzheimer’s things can change. She wasn’t up for a long ride to New York, and she really wasn’t sure who she was going to visit.

My father called an audible, which was okay. I’m not really sure how to handle this development with my kids. I’m not sure how they will respond if they realize my mother has no idea who they are.

So I agreed to travel to them and spend a night at a friend’s house. My plan was to leave around 7 am. Man plans, and God laughs. No, nothing dramatic. I just wanted to do a few things before I left. I packed light, except for books.  I needed my caffeine fix so I made tea. I needed a travel much to keep it in so I borrowed one from my in-laws. By the time I wrote down the routes I wanted it was nearly 8 am. I was off. I could still make it to NH around lunchtime.

Just before I reached the end of Route 8, about 10 minutes away, I realized I forgot the book I was going to give to my father. I’d picked up an extra copy of Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. I’m not sure he’d read it, but you never know what the Spirit might do. I knew that I should have taken it out the night before. Well, heading back wouldn’t cost too much head back and I really didn’t want to mail it. So I turned around. When I left, for real, it was 8:30. I didn’t see a cup holder, so I had to pull over to secure the travel mug because things were sliding around. Things just weren’t starting off well.

The radio in the Subee ( the nickname for  the Subaru) doesn’t have an aux jack, so I had to settle for the few stations. These were not good options. Mostly they were NPR. I learned quite a bit about Albany’s politics, including the stat that since 2000 10% of the state legislators have left due to corruption of one kind or another. I actually made pretty good time into Vermont. At times I got stuck behind the scenic drivers, the ones who drive 10-15 miles below the speed limit for unknown reasons. I recently read the Heidelberg Catechism on providence (actually I’m reading Kevin DeYoung’s book on it). I was neither patient, not thankful. I have a ways to go yet in this thing called sanctification.

When I finally took a sip of my tea, I made a shocking discovery. Teaffee! The coffee taste from the mug overpowered the taste of my tea. Not good, not good at all I say.

I had to change the station a few times to another NPR station, usually, as I made my way across Vermont. I often stop at a restaurant near the Quechee gorge. This time I was a little early for lunch when I arrived in Quechee. I tried to call my father to see if they had lunch plans but I had no service. That is another common problem alone Route 4 in Vermont. Shortly after getting on 89 I called my father and talked to him. We would be getting together for lunch. No more than 2 minutes after hanging up with him the highway became a parking lot. I had just passed an exit and was drawing near to a turn around. I quickly used my map app (thankfully I actually had service) and discovered a road that ran parallel to the highway to get me to the next exit. I turned around and got off the highway at the exit.

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You can’t visit my blog very often without realizing that I am a Boston Red Sox fan. A rabid Red Sox fan who grew up watching the “close but no cigar” in 1975, the horrible collapse of ’78 culminating in Bucky Bleepin’ Dent’s home run that broke the hearts of millions of us in New England. I watched all those heartbreaks and more. And I wept with rare joy when they defeated Leviathan, I mean the Yankees, in the improbable comeback in ’04 and then the Cards to win the World Series.

But I am also a baseball fan. When I lived in central Florida I watched the Rays. I would cheer for them unless they played the Red Sox. But having gone to games in the Trop, I find many Rays fans to be …. really obnoxious. And this before Joe Madden’s “smartest guy in baseball” act that has really worn thin. He is a very good manager but so stinkin’ condescending. Living in AZ now, I cheer for the D’Backs except for the rare occasions they play the Red Sox. I like the D’Backs (and Goldy) a whole lot more than the Rays.

I will confess that I actually cheered for the Yankees to win the first year of their run with Jeter & company. It was about friendship, plain and simple. I’ve read books on Yankees stars: Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle. So, I’m not a complete homer.

There is no denying Mariano Rivera’s place in baseball. He was the best closer in baseball for nearly 20 years. He was a one pitch wonder who still got guys out. He was nearly automatic in his prime. Additionally, for me, Mariano is a professing Christian who is using some of what baseball has afforded him to talk about Jesus. My curiosity arose and I wanted to read his autobiography, The Closer (written with Wayne Coffey).

Part of what is interesting is that they left some of Mariano’s imperfect English in the book. As he notes, in the book he didn’t know word one of English when he boarded the flight to Miami as a young man. He credits Tim Cooper for teaching him English on those long rides on the bus in the minors. The book, therefore, feels authentic with talk about eating iguanas and other things. There is a sense of humor to the book because Mariano doesn’t take himself to seriously. His humility shows throughout the book. There was one place where I was a bit surprised, when he mentioned Whitey Bulger. He may keep up on current affairs, but I thought only people in Boston really cared or thought about Bulger.

This book is mostly about baseball. He does devote a few chapters to life before baseball. He is the son of a Panamanian fisherman who was out to sea 6 days a week. It was not an easy life for his family and Mariano seemed destined for a similar life. After dropping out of school he was working on his father’s boat to save money to go to mechanic’s school. He wasn’t a 16 year-old free agent signing who lived in a baseball camp. At this stage in his life he barely played baseball because he was only on dry land one day a week.

Then the improbable happened. A bad pump with a full load of fish meant the boat sank. He now had some time to play baseball. He was an outfielder. One day the starter struggled and the manager inextricably pointed to Riveria in the outfield. He hadn’t pitched in years. He was confused but jogged in and threw strikes allowing his team to get back into the game and win. Destiny isn’t really the issue. Providence is: God working out His purposes and plans in creation. All of these improbable things need to happen for Mariano to go from guy on a fishing boat to signing a contract with the Yankees. Two teammates, wanting the $200 if he was signed, recommend him to a scout who’d previously seen Riveria as an outfielder to no avail. His control, since he still didn’t throw in the 90’s, encouraged the Yankees to take a chance on the skinny fisherman’s kid.

Riveria sees God’s hand at work in his life. This is one theme that runs through the book. There are also plenty of lessons about baseball and the choices that change a life forever. He provides the cautionary tale of Brien Taylor who was a #1 draft pick on his first minor league team. He admired Taylor’s smooth delivery and amazing results. He looked like he was going to deliver. But one night in the off season he came to his brother’s aid in a fight. His injured shoulder needed surgery and he was never the same. The player with tons of talent and expectations was out of baseball and eventually in prison but the guy no one expected to matter would become the greatest closer in history.

At times he shares this thoughts on guys like Jeter, Cano and Alex. You can see his fondness for Jeter (which is well deserved on the field) and frustration with Cano and Rodriguez. Both of them have amazing amounts of talent. But, in Rivera’s opinion, Cano isn’t driven like Jeter to harness it all. He makes the controversial statement that if he had one game to win he’d want Dustin Pedroia as his second baseman. Pedrioa, like Jeter, is driven and engaged on every play. Alex, well, as he says a few times Alex just makes life harder on himself with decisions that don’t make sense.

When he talks about his faith, a few pages at a time, I’m not sure how the ordinary fan will feel. It doesn’t put me off, and it seems to fit what he’s talking about, but I’m in the same boat as him. He doesn’t get bogged down in the distinctive beliefs of his particular church, but sticks to the common beliefs of Christians. That shifts in the epilogue a bit as he talks about the church that he and his wife, Clara who was his high school sweetheart, founded. But I don’t turn to athletes for theology or exegesis, and neither should you.

So you see a portrait of a man who is humble and loves His God. You see a man who enjoyed a life he never envisioned who did not get greedy but shares from the abundance with others. It is not a book to discover dirt but to learn something about his life and circumstances as well as his perspective. He has some life lessons drawn out from those things. It was a good read, particularly when you think of all the different players mentioned. One fact he related is interesting in light of the rash of Tommy John surgeries was that in the 5th game of a series against Seattle, David Cone threw 147 pitches. Not close to Tiant’s 225 in the ’75 World Series, but still amazing in light of the strict pitch counts which would soon enter baseball.

[I received a complimentary copy of this book for the purposes of review.]

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The time was ripe for Rosaria Butterfield’s recent book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: an English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. The time is ripe because everyone seems to be talking about homosexuality and same sex marriage. The church, or at least some of it, is struggling to be faithful to both the call to mission and a biblical morality. Some parts of the church focus on only one and lose sight of the other.

“I often wonder: God, why pick me? I didn’t ask to be a Christian convert. I didn’t ‘seek the Lord.’ Instead, I ran like the wind when I suspected someone would start peddling the gospel to me.”

While the subtitle focuses on Rosaria’s work as an English Professor, the first chapter makes clear that as an English professor she was a gay activist and lesbian who taught Queer Theory. Hers is an interesting story in many regards. It seems difficult to try and squeeze the first 36 years of a life into a chapter, albeit a long one, but that is what she does.

She was not looking to become a Christian. She felt no spiritual need. She was actually out to get Christianity or at least the Religious Right as part of her need to publish for her job. As she began to read the Bible things slowly changed. Just as important was a new friendship with one of those conservative Christians who happened to be the pastor of a local church.  It is an engaging journey as she is confronted with the truth of Christianity.

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