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Posts Tagged ‘union with Christ’


Tim Keller says “This is the best book for laypeople on this subject.” This book is Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God by Rankin Wilbourne. I think he is right.

Union with Christ is one of the more neglected doctrines in the contemporary church. This neglect has been addressed with a few releases in the past few years like the books by J. Todd Billings and Robert Letham. These tend toward the more academic or pastoral in nature. Wilbourne’s book is written for the lay person and is easy to understand, though the topic can still stretch our minds. He provides a number of good illustrations to help us understand this rather nebulous concept. Or perhaps enchanted, for in his introduction he relates this to our disenchanted (materialistic) culture, and to understand union we need our imaginations again.

“Coming to see your union with Christ is like finally putting on a pair of desperately needed glasses- Wow!”

He begins with reality of a gap between what the Bible says and our experience of that reality. We can often feel exhausted by our efforts and discouraged by a lack of “progress”. The gap is real and must be acknowledged. But God’s answer to all this is union with Christ.

“First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore … he had to become ours and to dwell within us.” John Calvin

Calvin, particularly his Institutes of the Christian Religion, is very present in this volume. United to Christ we have all the blessings of God (Eph. 1). Christ also dwells in us by the Spirit so we are empowered by Him to enjoy these many blessings. While this was understood by many in history (he quotes from Edwards and Goodwin, for instance) such talk is like a foreign language to many/most western Christians.

“If it ‘s true that nothing is more central or basic than union with Christ, and this book aims to show that it is, then it is fair to ask this: Why is union with Christ neither central nor basic to so many of us? Why, rather, is union with Christ, if it is talked about at all, reduced to some vague or optional aspect of Christian living…”

The only way we partake of the gospel promises is …. union with Christ. When we neglect this, the work of Christ for us is separated from the person of Christ in us and the gap between beliefs and experience begins to increasingly widen.

He moves on to what it actually is. One aspect of union is imputation: what happened to Him happened to us; what He earned we receive; and what we earned He paid the price for. Paul frequently uses the term “in Christ” to talk about how we live before God. Christ represents us so His death is our death to guilt & sin (Rom. 6; Gal. 2:20). His resurrection is our newness of life (Rom. 6; Eph. 2; Gal. 2:20). His obedience becomes our obedience. We have even been seated with Him at the Father’s right hand (Eph. 2).

“Faith is how union with Christ becomes operative and powerful in your life. Faith is a God-given gift that allows you to take hold of God’s having taken hold of you. … Your life, your story, becomes enfolded by another story- Another’s story.”

As Paul says in Colossians our life is hidden with Christ in God. United to Christ, Calvin says, we receive the double grace of justification and sanctification. Though distinct they are a package deal given simultaneously. We partake of His redemption because we are united to Christ, covenantally and spiritually. We enjoy our salvation as He works in us to transform us. Our faith is not simply in Christ’s work for us, but also that Christ continues to work in us and through us. He became like us to make us like Him so we look to Him to accomplish these things that are so beyond our doing.

Union with Christ also holds together some of the tensions that tend to tear God’s people apart. For instance, he mentions extravagant grace and radical discipleship. We see them both in Calvin’s double grace, but our tendency is to separate them. Apart from discipleship extravagant grace lapses into Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. Apart from extravagant grace discipleship degenerates into legalism. This conflict that has periodically emerged in the church is resolved in union with Christ. These two songs, as he terms them, meet in harmony in Christ. They cannot be separated because Christ cannot be separated (Ferguson makes the same argument in The Whole Christ). Wilbourne then explains and applies the “double grace”.

“Because we are relentless in trying to justify our lives, because we will use anything, even our virtue, to keep God at a distance, we can’t hear this song of grace too loudly or too often. … That hit home because that’s exactly what I had been doing- using grace as an excuse not to follow Jesus. … Undiluted grace and uncompromising obedience meet in the person of Jesus. He is always full of both.”

Rankin then spends a chapter showing us where all this is in the Scripture, a chapter on where it pops up in Church History (Augustine, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Bernard of Clairvaux, Luther, Owen and Lewis) and then what happened that we have fallen to this low estate. As mentioned, there is the disenchanted or materialistic worldview, the increase in self-centeredness (due to the eclipse of the gospel), our poor pneumatology, sound-bite culture, and pragmatism.

“Paul is saying union with Christ not only gives you a new identity; it gives you a new mindset, a new grid through which to filter everything that happens to you. For it’s not so much what happens that defines you, as how you interpret what happens to you.”

From there he delves into the problems union with Christ solves. We have a new identity, new destiny, new purpose and new hope. So many of the stories we love focus on people seeking to discover their identity. We think we have to establish our identity so we are insecure and exhausted. Many famous musicians (interviews with Madonna and John Mayer come to mind) feel the need to re-establish themselves, prove themselves. In Christ, we receive an identity we neither win or can lose. We don’t have to prove ourselves. This identity also shapes how we live, providing appropriate boundaries for us. We have a new destination too- not simply to decompose in the ground or simply cease to exist. Our destiny is to be what Adam and Eve once were, the image of God. Jesus, in His humanity, the perfect image of God restores God’s distorted image of us. We don’t lose our sense of self (just as in a healthy marriage we are one flesh but don’t lose your sense of self). You become more fully you with the unique gifts and experiences but without the sin and weakness.

“The purpose of the gospel [is] to make us sooner or later like God; indeed it is, so to speak, a kind of deification.” John Calvin

“Because love was central in the life of Christ, love is at the heart of the image of God. Your win is learning how to love. And your greatest losses are your failures to love.”

We are here for holiness, which for many of us, as he notes, is like broccoli. Good for us but …. (personally I like broccoli). Holiness is good, beautiful and attractive. It is something we only pursue properly in union with Christ (see Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification).  We are positionally holy due to our union with Christ, and dwelling in us He works to make us personally holy. These two tensions are brought together in harmony in Christ. The more holy we become the more we enjoy communion with God, in part because we now find His holiness more attractive and a greater source of joy.

“God wants us to grow in holiness, not as some sort of test or punishment, not even just as preparation for the future, but because he wants us to enjoy life with him more. The more we grow in holiness, the more we can enjoy his presence. He wants us not simply to press on but to soar. He wants holiness for us, for our joy.”

Our hope is life in the presence of God where Jesus currently is. This is unattainable for us apart from our union with Christ. He is there now, seated and interceding for us (Heb. 7:25). This means that our continuing sin does not separate us from God. We don’t have to look to our circumstances to gauge if God is pleased with us, we look to Jesus and know He is. Union with Christ holds the facts that God with for us and with us together.

“John Calvin said, ‘Let us therefore labor more to feel Christ living in us.’ John Owen added, ‘Labor, therefore, to fill your hearts with the cross of Christ.’ And Jonathan Edwards exhorted, ‘We should labor to be continually growing in divine love.'”

Wilbourne then moves into our daily life as people united to Christ. He begins with abiding. He brings up the illustration of sailing. Sailing depends on the wind, but you still need skills to get where you want to go in the power of the wind. This is communion with Christ, the subjective or experiential aspect of our union with Christ. We cannot be more or less united to Christ. But our sense of communion with Christ grows or diminishes. Faith always precedes our sense of communion for faith lays ahold of Christ. He warns us of our tendency to drift (pride, complacency etc.). If we are not manning the sail and the tiller we will not go where we long to go. He moves into the means of abiding, or the means of grace. Our sense of communion is tied to prayer, meditation on Scripture, and worship including the sacraments (signs of our union). This does not mean all will be exciting. There will be doldrums, just like in sailing. There will be times when all seems stagnant, and no progress is made.

“Jesus lived a perfect life and terrible things still happened to him. Jesus was the only one who ever trusted and obeyed God perfectly, yet he nevertheless was made to walk the way of suffering unto death…”

We are united to the Christ who suffered. As a result we should expect to suffer (Rom. 8; Phil. 1 & 3; 1 Peter 2-4). Because He suffered, He is able to comfort us in our suffering. He also provided an example for us in suffering, to continue to do good and entrust ourselves to our Creator. Will our suffering drive us from God, or deeper into God?

He then moves into the fact that each of us is united not only to Christ individually but also to one another. In Christ we are the people of God. Here, in a footnote, he surmises, that the tension revealed by the New Perspective of Paul finds reconciliation. In Christ we are justified by the imputation of His righteousness AND we are part of the community of God; soteriology and ecclesiology are united in Christ. Another tension that tends to tear the church apart is also reconciled in Christ: we declare and demonstrate the love of God to the nations. Many conservatives so fear the social gospel that they deny the social aspects of the gospel (and throw accusations at any who do). This is because Jesus not just declared God’s love but demonstrated it (see 1 John 3-4) and calls us to do the same (see also 1 Peter 2).

I found this to be a very encouraging book. He had a number of helpful ways to explain our union and its implications. I heartily recommend it to pastors, elders and ordinary people who want to grow in grace. He makes a difficult subject understandable, interesting and practical.

 

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In moving thru 1 Corinthians we’ve affirmed the reality of covenant relationships, and therefore covenant heads. This reality needs to be reflected in our worship. Paul addresses this when women pray and prophesy.

We went back to this in terms of prayer and prophecy. Does this refer to women covering their heads when the pastor prays, or the congregation recites a prayer; or is the issue (as most Knight and others thought) a wife or woman praying extemporaneously? The question of ancient liturgies like St. James’ and St. Mark’s emerged. They had many prayers recited. While closer in time to the worship of the early church than ours, it might look more like their worship. Maybe.

Since it is connected to prophesying, the issue seems to be when a woman stands out among the congregation and therefore wearing a symbol of their submission to their covenant head or the created order. Those ancient liturgies didn’t offer room for these practices. The worship in Corinth seems to be different than that reflected in ancient liturgies, and our own worship today.

The question arose about prayer meetings. When women pray (pray aloud, differentiated from everyone else) she should continue to honor the created order and her covenant head.

Here in the U.S. the wearing of head coverings was throughout the whole service. That might be easier than putting it on and taking it off, but doesn’t seem to be required by the text. This practice seems to have declined with the rise of evangelical feminism and liberal theology.

Personally, I still lean toward these coverings being applications of the principle of honoring your covenant head. I struggle with trying to merely mimic what we think the practice was. This could be a remnant of my own cultural captivity. I don’t know. But I don’t want to major on a minor (this is only found once and seems far less significant as a result).

Now we move along in 1 Corinthians.

ESV NASB NIV
For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. 10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.

Barnett believes Paul brings them back to the marriage of Adam and Eve here to establish the created order. At the very least vv. 12 is about Adam and Eve based on context.  It is odd that Paul doesn’t use their names which would have made this easier for them and use to understand exactly what is going in here.

Some questions quickly come to mind.

  1. Why does the ESV use “wife” instead of “woman” in verse 10? Why no consistency in usage based on the context?
  2. Why do most translations add phrases (see the words in italics in the NASB)? Clarity matters, yes.  Adding “a symbol of” can change the meaning as we’ll see below.
  3. How do the angels fit in?

vv. 7

For a man/husband ought not to cover (infinitive) the head, for he is the image and glory of God but the woman/wife is the glory of man

This includes some incomplete parallelism. She’s also in the image of God (Gen. 1). But Paul wouldn’t deny this. What is he getting at? This is still in the context of honoring and dishonoring your covenant head. Or better, the created order. Earlier Paul said Christ was the head of man. But in the created order we see Adam was created for God’s glory. We also see that Eve was created for Adam’s glory. The concept of “helpmate corresponding to him” matters. Men bring glory or dishonor to God by their actions. Women not only bring glory or dishonor to God but also their husbands by their actions. We see a glimpse of this in Proverbs 31 where her husband and children rise up and call the valiant woman blessed in the city gate.

“… for it is a great honor that God has appointed her to the man as the partner of his life, and a helper to him, and has made her subject to him as the body is to the head.” John Calvin

“She is related to man as his glory, a relationship that somehow appears to be jeopardized by her present actions.” Gordon Fee

“She is his ‘glory’ since she fulfills him at his deepest wellsprings of companionship, sexual fellowship and shared procreation.” Paul Barnett

vv. 8-9

For a man/husband is not out of a woman, but woman out of man, and man was not created through the woman, but woman through the man

Paul is obviously addressing creation here! The submission of a wife to a husband is rooted in creation, not the fall. The fall makes it a contentious and often abusive matter so headship is marked by sin and misery. The problem is the people involved, not the fact of headship. Eve was created ‘out of’ Adam, from his rib (Gen. 2). She was created for Adam, so he could fulfill God’s mandate. He could not fulfill God’s mandate alone.

“Man by himself is not complete; he is alone, without a companion or helper suitable to him.” Gordon Fee

vv. 10

Therefore the woman/wife ought to have authority upon/on/over her head on account of the angels/messengers.

This is one of the more difficult sentences that we come across. As we noted above, “symbol” is typically added.

“It is possible, however, that the major translations have erred by inserting the words ‘a sign/symbol of.’ It is more in keeping with the Greek original to translate the verse ‘the woman ought to have authority over her head,’ meaning that women ought to exercise authority over their physical heads. This understanding indicates that Paul wanted women to act responsibly and on their own in the matter of head coverings. This more literal reading is confirmed by the next statement, ‘However, woman is not independent of man’. This clause appears to qualify an assertion of the women’s authority encouraged in 11:10.” Richard Pratt

As a result, it can be taken more literally as taking authority over her physical head, or being responsible. The idea is she should take responsibility for her actions, not that the husband should “make” her do this. This would be similar to Ephesians 5. The husband is not told to make his wife submit. He is told to love her like Christ loves the Church.

“But finally we must beg ignorance. Paul seems to be affirming the ‘freedom’ of women over their own heads; but what that means in this context remains a mystery.” Gordon Fee

Calvin seems to affirm that the token of her submission is at best unclear. He may also seem to be noting some level of contextualization for that token. This makes me feel better about not being certain what exactly the wives of Corinth were expected to do, and therefore what my wife might be expected to do.

“… for he means a token by which she declares herself to be under the power of her husband; and it is a covering, whether it be a robe, or a veil, or any other kind of covering.” John Calvin

Unfortunately Calvin does affirm a form of partriarchy in his comments on this passage. Sometimes I disagree with Calvin, and this is one of them. I reject that notion that women are subject to men. In the Bible I see the command to be in submission direct to wives toward their husbands, not men. That is a very important distinction. For instance, as an American I submit to the government of the United States including our President. I don’t care what Castro and Cuba say. I obey their laws while I may travel there since I don’t want to dishonor God and end up on a Cuban prison. But I don’t submit to all governments at all times.

“It is however a mistake (to limit this to wives), for Paul looks beyond this- to God’s eternal law, which has made the female sex subject to the authority of men. On this account all women are born, that they may acknowledge themselves inferior in consequences of the superiority of the male sex.” John Calvin

Angels can refer to supernatural beings or human messengers. In 1 Peter 2:9, for instance, the word commonly translated “proclaim” is a verbal form of angel.  Pratt for instance thinks this might refer to earthly visitors from other churches. These messengers, like those who bore this letter, could be scandalized by the women’s behavior. This could break the peace of the churches. Our they could wrong import the wrong practice of Corinth back to their home church or other churches and corrupt them.

Calvin notes that priests are called “angels” in Mal. 2:7. He thinks pastors were not referred to in this way, but this may be what is happening in Revelation 2-3. The angels of the churches could refer to their pastors, not angelic beings.

Another option  is presented by Fee: that this reflects the argument of the “liberated” women in Corinth who think they are now like the angels and need no such sign. This brings us back to the over-realized eschatology but doesn’t quite fit the grammar. He also notes it may also include the idea that they already speak in the tongues of angels. That reference in 1 Cor. 13 is probably rhetorical. The tongues in Corinth would be the same as the tongues in Acts 2- known languages understood by others.

“The apostles do not argue just for some authority in marriage, but explicitly and particularly for man’s authority and headship over woman and woman’s submission to man.” George Knight

vv. 11-12

however neither is (the) woman/wife apart/separate from (the) man/husband, nor is (the) man/husband apart/separate from (the) woman/wife in the Lord. For as the woman/wife (is) out of/from the man/husband, so also the man/husband through the woman/wife and all things out of/from God.

In union with Christ, spouses are not independent or separated from one another. Independent is probably not the best sense of the word. In the marriage union we are ‘one flesh’. We can wrongly act independently of our spouse, as if we aren’t married but this seems to go deeper.

Redemption does not undo creation. Redemption does not undo the marriage union until glorification. Yet men cannot preserve themselves (as a race) apart from women. We should not throw off the various yokes God has placed on us. We should also affirm our interdependence in the state of marriage. We may have different roles, but we very much need the role fulfilled by the spouse. This is not suspended while you are in public worship. You remain married, and need to continue honoring that marriage, your spouse and God’s order while in worship.

independent (cwris) adv. Separate, apart, without any, besides

 

“To be sure, a woman is that glory of a man, being created from him and for him, and therefore bearing the make of his authority on her.” Paul Barnett

“Husbands must not think that their headship implies independence from or superiority over their wives. Their dependence on their wives qualified their roles as heads. … To be sure, husbands have a headship role, but this role does not eliminate the need for wives to cultivate their own relationships with Christ.” Richard Pratt

Take Aways:

  • We can’t reject the possibility that feminism has infected/influenced many conservative churches in this matter. Perhaps the lack of coverings in our churches comes from this.
  • There may be worship practices that make a woman stand out. If she does, her goal should be to honor God and her head rather than herself.
  • Married women who serve in the church are not independent of their husbands but should continue to honor them in how they serve. This means involving him in decisions rather than willfully making decisions since they may affect family life in unintended or unanticipated ways.

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I am loving the fact that Sinclair Ferguson is “retired”. He has been more active in writing, and those books have been excellent so far. Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification is no exception. He previously submitted a chapter on the subject to Christian Spirituality in which a number of authors of different persuasions interacted on the subject of sanctification.

Like The Whole Christ, Devoted to God seems to be the fruit of a lifetime of fruitful ministry. You sense that he has thought long and hard about the Scriptures with regard to this subject. It is not superficial or breezy in its approach. In each chapter, Ferguson focuses on one text of Scripture. Those passages are: 1 Peter 1; Romans 12:1-2; Galatians 2:20; Romans 6:1-14; Galatians 5:16-17; Colossians 3:1-17; Romans 8:13; Matthew 5:17-20; Hebrews 12:1-14; and Romans 8:29. The principles are derived from the texts that Sinclair uses. This is not a “proof-texting” approach, but a very exegetical approach.

His approach focuses on sanctification as devotion. God is devoted to making us devoted to Him and His glory through our union with Christ by the Holy Spirit. This is realistic in its approach, as he notes “Instead of being wholly yielded to Christ we discover instead that a stubborn and sinful resistance movement retains a foothold in our lives.” (pp. 5)

Beginning with 1 Peter, he focuses on our identity in Christ in the face of affliction. We have graciously received a new identity which requires a new life. He notes the distinctions between justification and sanctification, but also notes that both are necessary for salvation tying these in to our union with Christ and the reality of regeneration. In our union we receive what Calvin calls the “double grace” of justification and sanctification. Regeneration which is necessary for justification (we won’t believe until God regenerates us) is also the beginning of our sanctification.

Another focus he begins in the first chapter is the trinitarian nature of our sanctification. The Father foreknew us and chose us, the Spirit sets us apart and we are purified by the Son. Your sanctification, if you are a Christian, is the desire and purpose of the Father, Son and Spirit. In 1 Peter we see that they use, among other things, trials to accomplish this great purpose.

In other chapters he reminds us that the commands (imperatives) flow from the gospel (indicatives). It is all of grace, being produced by the gospel. He reminds us, particularly in Romans 12 that our sanctification “takes place in and through the body.” We are not gnostics. We are a body/soul unity and sanctification includes both the inward devotion and the physical devotion. Sin and sins affect our bodies (weakness, addictions which are spiritual and bio-chemical, disease etc.) and so sanctification does as well. Just as sin affects our minds, so does sanctification.

Ferguson covers plenty of ground in this volume, and he covers it well. Some of these are difficult texts with difficult concepts, especially Romans 6, and he is very helpful in understanding them better as well as applying them to the subject at hand. As I preach through 1 Peter I find himself looking back to the material here on that letter. I anticipate returning to this book whenever I preach on any of these texts. I anticipate pointing others to this book and walking with others through this book for years to come.

Sinclair Ferguson has again written on the best and most helpful books I’ve read. His retirement has been very, very good to me. If you read his books, you will discover it was very good for you too.

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In my personal Bible reading I’m currently in Jeremiah. Though it is not a happy book, joy breaks through. But mostly it is “Jerusalem is going to fall to Babylon, and the people will go into exile.” There is a stubborn refusal to listen to Jeremiah (and therefore God) as he reminds them of the covenant curses from Deuteronomy that they deserve because they have forsaken the Lord their God.

Today I read chapters 37 and 38. Jeremiah is still standing though yet another Davidic King has fallen due to disobedience. Now it is Zedekiah, the uncle of the previous king Jehoiakim. The person-specific curse for Jehoiakim was that he would die at the hands of Babylon, and there would never be a son of his on the throne. Zedekiah is on the throne precisely because the word of the Lord through Jeremiah came to pass. Let that one sink in.

You might think this would prepare Zedekiah’s heart to listen to Jeremiah. You would be wrong.

Zedekiah the son of Josiah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon made king in the land of Judah, reigned instead of Coniah the son of Jehoiakim. But neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the Lord that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet. Jeremiah 37

But Zedekiah does not completely ignore Jeremiah. In the next paragraph we read:

King Zedekiah sent Jehucal the son of Shelemiah, and Zephaniah the priest, the son of Maaseiah, to Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “Please pray for us to the Lord our God.” Now Jeremiah was still going in and out among the people, for he had not yet been put in prison.

The King won’t listen, which means he refuses to repent. He doesn’t want to change direction, to change how he views this, to return to the Lord with all his heart. His circumstances are that Babylon has been laying siege to Jerusalem and the population is hiding there while the food runs out. Jeremiah says that repentance means surrendering to Babylon so the people will live. There is the promise, based on Deuteronomy 30, that God will restore them to the land and give them a heart for him (also expressed in the promise of the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 and 32). He’s having none of it. He is steadfast in his sin. Soon he would put Jeremiah in prison.

But he wants prayer. Egypt has given them a temporary reprieve. He wants it to be a permanent one. But Babylon is going to defeat Egypt and return to the siege of Jerusalem which will result in Jerusalem’s walls being breached, the city burned, many of the people dying and the rest being carted off to Babylon (except the poorest of the poor, and Jeremiah).

How like us that Zedekiah is. We sow sin and reap the whirlwind. Our lives can be in a complete mess because of our lousy choices, our refusal to listen to God in the first place. In those circumstances God still speaks to us through the Word, “Return to me!” But we often refuse. Yet we ask people to pray for us. We ask for prayer about our circumstances. Our circumstances, not us. We want our circumstances to change, but we don’t want to change no matter how messed up we are.

In other words: we want to live at ease in our sin.

We are Zedekiah apart from the merciful intervention of God who gives us a heart for Him. We are Zedekiah apart from the merciful working of the Holy Spirit to give us a longing to change, to become different people, ones who are godly. We are Zedekiah apart from the merciful union with Christ who does restore His image in us.

What do you want to see changed today? While your circumstances matter, they matter because it is through them that God works for the good of those who love Him, which is making them like His Son. Pray for your circumstances to change. But also pray for God to change YOU in light of your circumstances. We need to change, and only He can change us, so pray.

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I’ve been working on a Sunday School curriculum on the Westminster Standards. Among the resources I’m using are commentaries of the Westminster Confession by A.A. Hodge and Robert Shaw. The main resource was Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith by R.C. Sproul.

It is a layman’s guide. It is less technical than Hodge and Shaw. Paradoxically it is much longer than those commentaries. Sproul’s guide is 3 volumes. At times it was repetitive, particularly when he would launch into the elements of faith: content, assent and trust. On one hand I understand since faith plays a big role in the Confession showing up in many of the chapters. It begs to be understood. On the other hand, there is a chapter entitled “On Saving Faith” which addresses this topic. I’m not sure why he didn’t hold off on the discussion of faith until then. It doesn’t bother me, but when I consider those who would greatly benefit from studying the Confession, this may make it more difficult. Many laypeople are busy and don’t have time to read. And some really don’t like to read. A three volume set, while enticing to me, can look daunting to many.

As someone who has read most of his books, this is typical R.C. Sproul. He is gifted in making difficult subjects understandable for average people. It can be easy, in this case, to be overwhelmed with the Confession’s archaic language. But he breaks it down well. There are plenty of illustrations to help people understand.

It is not just for laypeople. I benefited from reading the book as well. There were somethings I hadn’t thought through before.

As a guide to the Westminster Confession, this set is essentially a systematic theology as it moves from the doctrine of Scripture and God to salvation and eventually to the Christian life (including the state, family and the church). It shows the progression of thought in all of this and shows the interconnectedness of these doctrines. This reflects the intention of the Westminster Divines.

While Sproul handles the Confession, the Catechisms are in appendices. This is a good thing in that they have a slightly different emphasis. The Short Catechism begins with the famous notion that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This is how I theologically orient the study. All of this is intended to help us glorify and enjoy God. The Larger Catechism has more of an emphasis on union with Christ. While Sproul does mention this topic, it could use more development (just like it could use development in the Confession).

So, caveats accepted this is a worthwhile set to add to a pastor’s library, a church library and officer training. It will also be of great interest to Christians old and young with an interest in theology.

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Visual Theology by Tim Challies and Josh Byers is an attempt to present basic doctrine for the purpose of growth in godliness using not only the written word but also diagrams so people can see the connections that Challies and Byers want them to see.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive systematic theology. It is meant to help you “see and understand the truth about God”. They avoid academic issues but focus on the issues and doctrines that promote godliness.

I purchased the book for two reasons. These reasons direct my review of the book. The first was an interest in materials for discipleship, particularly of men. Many of the men I work with are very busy (and often have tons of books already in their queue). So the prospect of a relatively short book that has diagrams is appealing.

I also wanted access to the diagrams, or at least some of them, for SS lessons since I often use Power Point. Some of the diagrams are quite helpful. I found some of them to be “over-stimulating” or too busy. Some just didn’t connect with me. Overall the diagrams are a help to the book.

I don’t envy Challies & Byers, or their editor. I’m sure there were difficult questions about what doctrines to discuss, and which ones to leave out.  In the introduction they lay out the purpose and methodology. They offer the material in four sections: Grow Close to Christ, Understand the Work of Christ, Become Like Christ, and Live for Christ. Under the first they cover the Gospel, Identity and Relationship. The second covers the Drama, or Story of the Bible, and Doctrine. The third covers sanctification: putting off the old life and putting on the new life. The last section hits Vocation, Relationships and Stewardship.

What isn’t here is any meaningful discussion of doctrines like the incarnation and theories of the atonement, which I think would be considered central to “the work of Christ”. But there are topics often missing in discussions of discipleship,  like vocation and stewardship. This meant there were times I was frustrated, and times when I was grateful they addressed something. It is not meant to be a theology book so much as a book about how to grow which includes some theology. So, in a sense, the book’s title doesn’t really help you understand what the book is about.

Much of what is written is good, if perhaps too brief. Challies is part of the neo-Calvinist movement. He’s Calvinistic in his soteriology (doctrine of salvation), but baptistic in his understanding of ecclesiology and sacraments. I suspect he is also in the New Covenant Theology camp based on some recommended books, and from his blog. As a result, at times there were ideas I thought were incomplete, lacking or just too baptistic.  In terms of the latter, on the first page of chapter 1 in discussing our need for regular reminders of the gospel we see this:

“The reason we celebrate the Lord’s Supper is to remind ourselves of what Christ has done and what he has promised to do.”

That is certain one of the reasons, but not the only reason (which is implied by the definite article). It communicates a memorial view of the sacrament that I find less than fully biblical. It is not less than that, but thankfully so much more. I found a similar sentiment later in the book as though “take and eat” and “take and drink” are unimportant. We need Christ like we need bread and wine. In his section on “ordinances” (pp. 25-26) this plays out in a focus on us, and then Christ in the sacraments. Historically, Reformed Theology has pointed to Christ and then us in the sacraments. The objective is the grounding the subjective elements. Instead They focused on the subjective elements first. The real issue in the sacraments is union with Christ, not the pledge of a good conscience. God’s work produces any work on my part, even in the sacraments. The section ends saying “In the celebration, Christ is present, you are present, and your shared relationship grows.” In the margin I wrote, “So, what does that mean?” It is a profound but largely unexplained statement.

In an otherwise very good chapter on identity, they discuss justification. They don’t do it justice: “You have been declared innocent.” Not less than that, but more. We have been declared righteous!! Innocent people still need positive righteousness. Merely innocent people aren’t accepted by God, righteous people are. I don’t think I’m nitpicking. This is something young Christians need to know precisely because it is intended to shape their life in the face of God. I am always and only acceptable because of Christ and His righteousness imputed to me. It is humbling and yet provides confidence. It frees me from my own paltry attempts at self-righteousness.

One disconcerting note was a relative absence of the Holy Spirit and His work, particularly in sanctification. This shows up in the chapter on the Bible, and the chapters on putting off and putting on. Their thesis on page 53 is “The Bible makes you godly.” To explain they say “To be godly is to be God-like in your character. The Bible enables you to live according to God’s standards and to reflect his character.” I wrote two things in the margin: “What does this mean?” and “Necessary but insufficient for sanctification.” The Holy Spirit makes us godly, and He uses the Bible to do it. The power (what I’d mean by “enables”) is the Spirit. He is the engine car to the Bible as tracks. This is fodder for the “radical grace” guys. Clarity matters, and sometimes the quest to be succinct means important distinctions are left out, distinctions that can create other big problems down the road.

Nothing downright heretical here. Just some troubling imprecision that would lead me to not accept these answers on an ordination exam. If given to a younger Christian, I would strongly suggest they read it with a more mature Christian who can fill in some of the gaps.

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I left off my discussion of the law and Calvin on the verge of talking about the uses of the law in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Essentials Edition.

The first function of the law is to convince us of sin. The law comes to us as sinners, and reveals us as sinners. Fundamentally, it reveals the righteousness of God but then necessarily exposes our own unrighteousness. We tend to be blind to our sin. We easily recognize other people’s sin, particularly when we are hurt by other people. But sin has corrupted our hearts, and the law of God written there. As a result we struggle to accurately discern right from wrong. As sinners, we also struggle to see ourselves as we really are. So God gave us the law to address this great need in us.

“For man, who is otherwise blinded and drunk with self-love, must be compelled to recognize and confess both his weakness and impurity.”

We are used to our evil desires. Sin also seeks to deceive us, posing as righteousness through our fear and pride. The law sheds light on the situation, helping us to see through the lies we’ve believed. It reveals that we really are guilty and should feel guilty.

God is not trying to make us miserable, for misery’s sake. “For we know that he never tires of doing good to us, and always heaps blessing upon blessing.” So this knowledge of self thru the law is really for our good, should we repent and believe. The misery is meant to promote our repentance when we see the mercy of God in the gospel. “His purpose, then, is that men, renouncing all belief in their own strength, should acknowledge that it is only his hand that sustains them…”.

Ultimately, of course, we are blessed only in (union with) Christ. “In Christ, however, his face shines upon us full of grace and sweetness, despite the fact that we are poor, unworthy sinners.” Exposed as weak & sinful, we are also driven to Jesus to gain life and contentment. This doesn’t happen without the law.

The second function is to restrain sin. Some people live in fear of punishment. You know, they slow down when they see a police car. The law, which includes sanctions, discourages sin in most people. This is not the same as obedience, since it is driven by slavish fear of punishment, not by faith and gratitude with an eye toward the glory of God. Shame and fear make society more peaceable, but they are not what God’s is aiming for, which is conformance to Christ who obeyed the Father out of love (for Him and us).

As a pastor and parent, there are times I am glad that some sin is restrained in the lives of my congregation and children. I’d rather the congregation, family and individuals involved not have to suffer the consequences of sin. I’m okay with someone avoiding sexual sin out of fear of pregnancy, STDs etc. For awhile. I would like to move them to faith, hope and love as motives for obedience. All things in due time.

The third, and controversial, use of the law is to encourage obedience in Christians. The power of obedience is the Holy Spirit, not the law. The law provides direction: this is what pleases God. The law provides promises to encourage. Sadly, when this is discussed, people opposed to the 3rd use of the law hear us saying that law has power to enable obedience. Reformed teachers don’t say this, but point to the Spirit. Here’s Calvin, “believers whose hearts are already ruled and quickened by God’s Spirit.” It is the Spirit who, in fulfillment of the New Covenant promise, writes the law on our hearts. Further, “led by the Holy Spirit they are moved by the wish to obey” which is also promised in the New Covenant. While we see law and grace as opposing principles with regard to justification, they are not with regard to sanctification. They work together! The law provides direction to grace. Grace provides desire and power to fulfill the law. Meditating on the law (think Psalm 119) is used by the Spirit to stir us toward obedience, “to persevere in obedience and to turn away from his faults.”

We are still burdened with the flesh, which resists obedience. So each of us needs the law to “be a constant goad to him, to stop him growing sleepy or dull.”

Calvin then begins to defend his position. Some people, and theological systems, “rashly reject Moses and would have us ignore the law.” He asserts that we are not bound by random rules and principles, if we want to be holy, but the permanent and unchanging moral law which is a reflection of God’s righteous character. Paul asserts as much in 2 Timothy 3. The OT, which was the Scriptures he was referring to, is useful  to admonish, rebuke, correct and train the righteous man for good works.

“In urging upon us the perfection to which it calls us, it shows us the goal at which we should aim our lives. Provided we persevere in that aim, that is enough. Our whole life is like a race; when we reach its end the Lord will bless us by letting us reach the goal we presently pursue, even though we are still a long way off.”

Calvin argues that the curse of the law, not the law itself, was abrogated by Christ. The Christian is no longer, or should no longer, be fearful of God because Christ has borne the curse for us. We have been adopted as sons, and have the Spirit of sonship not the spirit of slaves. Justified, we are at peace with God and our subsequent sins do not destroy that peace purchased by Christ if we are truly united to Christ. Jesus changes our relationship to the law.

Part of the law, or a type of law, has been abrogated. The ceremonial law has not only fulfilled, but our attempts to keep it are a winding back of redemption. Our redemption’s goal is to make us like Jesus in character, which is reflected in the law. The ceremonial law addresses guilt and pollution, the very things Jesus removed through His propitiation on the cross. To still obey that part of the law (offering sacrifices) is to say that the work of Jesus did not deal with our guilt and pollution. Those Mosaic sacrifices did not really remove their guilt and pollution, but were provisional in nature until the Son came to actually remove our guilt and pollution, and to prepare God’s people for that time.

“Such observances obscured his glory once the gospel had been revealed.”

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