Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Abandoning Christ

Author and speaker Frank Viola posted this on his blog:
If you ceased from being a Christian today…HOW [sic] would your life begin to be different?…[T]his is a penetrating and searching question that every believer should ask themselves.
I cannot begin to tell you how many ways that question is  invalid.  A biblical answer could certainly be given: unrepentant (Hebrews 6:6), worse off than when believing (2 Peter 2:20-21), etc., but why would any believer ask himself that question?  One respondent, Chuck, asked that very thing to which Viola responded:
Chuck, for one thing, the question shows each of us what we have laid down for the Lord Jesus Christ (harkening [sic] back to His words on “losing your life for my sake.”)  And it’s also somewhat of a reflective internal “checking one’s vital signs” on one’s transformation, which isn’t a bad thing to do from time to time.
I cannot speak for Chuck, but it only makes matters worse.  My impression has always been that believers forget what lies behind and reach forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus.  But maybe that is just my wishful thinking.

Asking If Sola Scriptura Is an Oxymoron

Doug Chaplin has written a blog entry entitled "Is 'the Bible alone' an oxymoron?"  His thesis is that since the diverse, individual books of scripture were developed in a specific community context, they cannot rightfully be considered a single flow of thought and purpose apart from a "church" context.  As I was reading it and the comments, the idea struck me that Chaplin had asked the correct question but for the wrong reason.

The Westminster Confession defines Sola Scriptura this way:
The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men (Chapter 1, paragraph 6).
This assumes that God has revealed himself to mankind in a recognizable way, and we understand that to be through the accumulated writings of the apostles and prophets which are acknowledged to have been given at various times and ways over the course of centuries.

Note especially the phrase "by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture."  The divines are to be commended for adding this vital piece, because it acknowledges the formation of a body of orthodox doctrine that Tertullian referred to as "the rule of faith" (regula fidei) which he described as
that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen “in diverse manners” by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh.  This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.
Prescription Against Heretics, cap. XIII
So to refine the WCF, I would have added that there was and is that faith once for all delivered to the saints and carried forward by godly men as they entrusted the Word of God to faithful men being able to teach others.  This was accomplished by taking what had already been revealed by God and adding to it the new revelation, whenever it came, then asking:
  • How does the new instruction fit with the old?
  • What, if anything, has changed from the old?
  • What does the new tell about the old?
  • How do we practice the new instruction?
We then come to a more full theology of a matter and live based on that.  This process stops when special revelation stops.  On a macro level, this is different from what Roman Catholics do by continuing to create canon law ex cathedra.  Protestants do not work at creating something new, but continually re-check their doctrine and practice according to the body of apostolic teaching and make necessary adjustments—semper reformanda.  This can be applied on a micro level, we faithfully pass on from one generation to the next what the apostles gave us and make adjustments where needed, not as individuals but in a multitude of counselors.

Going back to the original question then, is Sola Scriptura an oxymoron?  No, if one assumes the WCF understanding of that phrase in its limited definition; yes, if we think that one can pick up a Bible and formulate a fully-orbed, correct understanding of the doctrines contained therein without help from those older in the faith.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Same Old Same Old

In my circle of acquaintance, a question of personal welfare will often get the response, "You know: same old same old," thereby offering acknowledgment of the inquiry that the same things are happening in the same way.  His or her mundane existence has garnered no outstanding attention or activity, and life goes on as before—consistently forward.  Consistency is comforting.  People react in anticipated ways, both individually and corporately.  The daily commute is the same route, time, and distance.  Just get behind the wheel and drive.  If something goes amiss, tension and stress well up within.  We seek resolution.  Pity the poor coffeemaker that does not perform as expected during my morning routine.

So how does this work on the spiritual level?
The writer of Hebrews wanted to encourage his readers by asking them to stop and look at their spiritual history.  Beginning in chapter 11, the author lays the groundwork for his final appeal of encouragement.  Scripture is replete with examples of those who at some crucial point (or points) in life responded in faith, as demonstrated by obedience, to the revelation of the living God.  They acted on what they were told.  These people now act as witnesses, so that we now may finish the life of faith well.  There is temptation from weariness that can manifest itself in many ways, but the kingdom of God is not shaken because it is established in the finished work of Christ.  Remember all those people who have preceded you from the distant OT saints to the more recent elders.  Examine the ends of their lives and imitate what got them there.  Why?
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)
In other words, the same God who had revealed himself to the fathers through the prophets with certain statements and promises concerning himself is the same God that will continue to carry us by the same statements and promises.  And just as those in the past had believed on those firm promises, we too are empowered to carry on under the same promises to the same future reward that past generations worked toward.  The same Scriptures which pointed to Christ continue to undergird the believer presently.  The immutable God set immutable promises established in himself that were manifested in the immutable Son of God and sealed by the immutable Holy Spirit.
Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.  (Hebrews 13:15-16)

Postmodernism and Ecclesiastes

My home church, Maranatha Bible Church, is studying world religions in the adult Sunday School.  This past Sunday, I taught the lesson on Unitarian Universalism, basically telling what it is, giving the historical roots, and explaining the beliefs.†  I enjoyed looking at the historical underpinnings yet more so the beliefs since they are quintessentially postmodern—question reality; discover your own existence.  From past experience postmodernism is a large force in modern culture, even affecting evangelicalism.

Part of my research was to find how best to reach those with this mindset with the gospel.  One that surprised me came from a D.Min. dissertation entitled Chasing the Wind: Ecclesiastes as a Resource for Postmodern Proclamation (Brent Isbell, 2002).  The average, pew-warming believer will not read Ecclesiastes in its entirety.  If someone should get to the end, that same person will generally come away from the experience dazed, confused, and even sullen.  This describes how I once reacted.  No more.  I figured that if all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable that the message and purpose must be elusive rather than nonexistent.  I now count it as one of my favorite books in the Bible, and here it is being touted as a tool for reaching the postmodern mind.  The author's premise is that any of the Wisdom Literature is profitable for the task since wisdom does the following according from Walter Brueggemann's In Man We Trust:
  • Emphasizes life in the real world
  • Affirms the authority of human experience
  • Holds humans responsible for their future
  • Believes in an orderly cosmos
  • Celebrates the human creature
I am not inclined to follow Brueggemann headlong in this.  He is, after all, a postmodernist himself.  But my own interaction with Ecclesiastes caused me to at least consider the usefulness.

A bit more research revealed the following from the New Bible Commentary:
There are three features of Ecclesiastes that are worth mentioning: (i) It makes use of a division of reality into two realms, the heavenly and the earthly, referring to what is ‘under the sun’ or ‘under heaven’ and what is ‘on earth’, e.g. ‘God is in heaven and you are on earth’ (5:2). (ii) It distinguishes between observation and faith. The Teacher says ‘I have seen under the sun … ’ (1:14) but goes on to say ‘but I came to realize … ’ (2:14). When he uses the verb ‘see’ he points to life’s hardships. When he calls to joy it is not in connection with seeing but it is what he believes about God despite what he sees. (iii) It brings us to face the grimness of life and yet constantly urges us to faith and joy.

What then is the purpose and abiding message of Ecclesiastes?

It is a reply to the unrelieved pessimism of much ancient thought. Yet at the same time it does not envisage a superficial ‘faith’ which does not take adequate account of the fallenness of the world. It is thus both an evangelistic tract, calling secular people to face the implications of their secularism, and a call to realism, summoning faithful Israelites to take seriously the ‘futility’, the ‘enigma’ of life in this world. It forbids both secularism (living as though the existence of God has no practical usefulness for life in this world) and unrealistic optimism (expecting faith to cancel out life as it really is). Negatively, it warns us that ‘faith’ is always a contrast to ‘sight’ and does not provide us with a short cut fully to understand the ways of God. Positively, it calls us to a life of faith and joy. Summarizing Ecclesiastes, J. S. Wright (Ecclesiastes, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5 [Zondervan, 1992]) used to say ‘God holds the key to all unknown—but he will not give it to you. Since you do not have the key you must trust Him to open the doors’.  (Michael Eaton, New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, D. A. Carson et al, ed.).
It appears this book is useful in evangelism after all.  Secretly hoping this would be the case, it means either I am on to something or have fallen into a hermeneutical trap of my own design.  Hopefully, the former is true.  The discerning people reading this will set me straight if this is too far afield.

Since any one postmodernist is different from the next, there would need to be some discernment of where to begin with sharing God's word.  My plan might be to begin here, then move to the gospel of John to help the person see how the apostle writes with the idea of proving that Jesus is who he claimed to be—Son of God and worthy to be believed, not simply as an add-on to a pantheon of beliefs (prevalent in postmodernism) but as a unique person with exclusive claims and demands.

Notes and PowerPoint slides are available.  The material is more introductory than comprehensive.  Much could have been added.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Let the Sins of the Past Go; Act Like Free Men

On Sunday, Feb. 7, I read an opinion piece carried in our local paper that really bothered me.  The writer did not understand that there are things that transcend the color of one's skin.  I responded to both the writer and the local editor (who published it on Feb. 13).  Here is what I wrote:
Let the sins of the past go; act like free men
Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. asked (Feb. 7 column) why black men would “fight for ideals that exclude them,” citing the treatment received because of skin color.  The answer is as self-evident as the truths for which these soldiers are fighting: freedom.

This struggle, though birthed in a desire to overcome enslavement, transcends the pettiness of class and ethnic distinctions to demonstrate the right of equality based on performance.  Yes, these soldiers suffered indignities at the hands of those they swore to defend.  Shame on those who caused it.

The question for today should be obvious: What now?  We should not remain mired in the putrefying sins of the past with the hope of politicizing and fighting them once again.  That does no good.  Stop the class warfare fomenting bitterness for a bygone day.  Cease striving for entitlements as some kind of reparation.  Rather, pursue what can be gained as a republic with citizens of varied ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds.  Act like free men.
My point should be clear: we do not need to live in the past.  Experience shows that those who dredge up these things are attempting to make a case via an emotional ploy with the intent of weakening the will enough to relent on a position.  Rationalization ensues and a conclusion forms based on faulty reasoning.  The underlying premise is that someone or some group is unable to overcome circumstances and therefore must be given a privileged status to make life for the victim easier whether or not deserved.

The said truth is that Christians do this to themselves quite often.  Many times I have been in the company of a believer bemoaning bad habits and lack of spirituality while at the same time running directly into danger at every possible convenience, then wonder later why victory cannot be gained.  Excuse me?

One benefit of the Christian life is that we have victory over sin there for the taking.  Paul told the believers in Rome "that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness." (6:17-18)  Unless I have a seriously deficient translation, that looks rather certain.  We are to leave this former life behind us and move forward, not revisiting our past manner of life, but moving on the freedom and power that we have in Christ.  Paul says as much in a letter to the Galatians when he writes, "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." (5:1)

I will not deny the reality of temptation and testing.  Paul does so as well in Romans 7.  He admits that sin still works in him, but he does not dwell in his circumstance or the inadequacy of a weak flesh.  Instead he rests on the completed work of Christ and sums up his thoughts this way:
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (7:24-25)
Fellow believers, it is time to do as I said in the opinion letter.  Understand your true citizenship.  Live accordingly.  Act like free men.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What Gives You Gas?

Carbonated beverages and certain other foods tend to cause a reaction when consumed.  The gastronomic gases build up and seek release: ergo, the belch.  This process is entirely natural.  Origen, in his commentary on John, picked up on this in a different way:
Nor must we leave unnoticed a passage...frequently quoted by many writers as if they understood it: "My heart hath belched forth a good word, I speak my works to the King."...That "belched forth" is not, perhaps, without significance; a hundred other terms might have been employed; "My heart has produced a good word," it might have been said, or "My heart has spoken a good word."...Filled with the Spirit and unable to contain himself, [the prophet] brings forth a word about his prophecy concerning Christ: "My heart hath belched forth a good word, I speak my works to the King, my pen is the tongue of a ready writer. Excellent in beauty is He beyond the sons of men." Then to the Christ Himself: "Grace is poured out on Thy lips" (Book I, cap. 42).
My translation uses the word overflows in the verse carrying the idea of boiling over.  Something has been percolating and is wanting to burst forth.  I like the concept of belching here.  Think on it this way: if we have been feeding on and drinking in something, it will come out, sometimes in embarrassing ways.  Take in the pure, nourishing Word of God and something wonderful will burst forth.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Christ as Paraclete, Propitiation, and Power of God

But none of the names we have mentioned expresses [Christ's] representation of us with the Father, as he pleads for human nature, and makes atonement for it; the paraclete, and the propitiation, and the atonement.  He has the name paraclete in the epistle of John: If any man sin, we have a paraclete with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  And he is said in the same epistle to be the atonement for our sins.  Similarly, in the epistle to the Romans, he is called a propitiation: Whom God set forth to be a propitiation through faith.  Of this proportion there was a type in the inmost part of the temple, the Holy of Holies, namely, the golden mercy-seat placed upon the two cherubim.  But how could he ever be the Paraclete, and the atonement, and the propitiation without the power of God, which makes an end of our weakness, flows over the souls of believers, and is administered by Jesus, who indeed is prior to it and himself the power of God, who enables a man to say: I can do all things through Jesus Christ who strengthens me.

Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book I, cap. 38

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What Does Our Music Teach?

1 Chronicles 25:1-8
David and the chiefs of the service also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals. The list of those who did the work and of their duties was:
   Of the sons of Asaph: Zaccur, Joseph, Nethaniah, and Asharelah, sons of Asaph,
       under the direction of Asaph, who prophesied under the direction of the king.
   Of Jeduthun, the sons of Jeduthun: Gedaliah, Zeri, Jeshaiah, Shimei, Hashabiah,
       and Mattithiah, six, under the direction of their father Jeduthun,
       who prophesied with the lyre in thanksgiving and praise to the Lord.
   Of Heman, the sons of Heman: Bukkiah, Mattaniah, Uzziel, Shebuel and Jerimoth,
       Hananiah, Hanani, Eliathah, Giddalti, and Romamti-ezer, Joshbekashah, Mallothi,
       Hothir, Mahazioth. All these were the sons of Heman the king's seer, according to
       the promise of God to exalt him, for God had given Heman fourteen sons and
       three daughters. They were all under the direction of their father in the music in the
       house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God.
Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the order of the king. The number of them along with their brothers, who were trained in singing to the Lord, all who were skillful, was 288. And they cast lots for their duties, small and great, teacher and pupil alike.

The above section of holy writ can be easily skimmed for the facts concerning how the musicians were divided into groups for the temple service and missing an important element in their duties. Notice that these three groups were not simply three praise bands singing with the idea of creating a worshipful atmosphere or feeling in the temple. No, these musicians had a higher calling: they were prophets.

The duty of a prophet was (and is) to utter whatever the Lord wanted said. It dealt with the current state of affairs, looked forward to something future, or sometimes both in the same proclamation. How does that fit here? King David rightly understood that a primary use of music is teaching. The temple musicians were given the task of properly teaching God's word through song, probably through use of psalms and also other songs available but not canonized. Whatever the source, we can assume that every song had correct doctrine. By learning songs with incorrect doctrine, the people of Israel would have a skewed understanding of God and the scriptures and how to properly approach either in daily life. The doctrine was as important, if not more so, than the experience of worship.

This is no different in the New Testament. Paul understands the importance of music and desires that Christians should
[Address] one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart (Ephesians 5:19)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)
Contemporary Christian praise and worship music takes a different view. Many adjectives are used to describe artists, albums, and songs. In print one can read the words "Spirit-driven," "vertical," "fresh," "new," "personal," "soul-searching," "worshipful," and other such descriptors. Admittedly, the bulk of these are written to market the product and to pique interest in the consumer, but take another look at those words. If these words are an honest appraisal of the content, the only goal of this music is to make people feel good. I have nothing against the aesthetics of music. When listening to or singing out a song, I enjoy how a songwriter and composer meld their crafts into a single work of art that touches the emotions. My complaint here is that music purportedly designed to praise and worship has as its goal the glory of the experience rather than the glory of God.

May I suggest that churches make an honest appraisal of what they are teaching through their music and place a priority on sound doctrine.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Bold I Approach Th'eternal Throne

The last verse of Charles Wesley's hymn seemed fitting as a title for this entry. During the past week, as I was reading in both Romans (for Bible study) and Hebrews (personal devotions) the following passages struck me as somewhat connected.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
Romans 8:1-2

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Hebrews 10:19-22

What is the connection? Both writers are comparing what was true under the Law with what is true now with the Gospel. Consider for a moment the problem of sin in Romans. Paul makes his case in the preceding chapters that we are free from the law of sin that was awakened by the Mosaic Law. Now, instead of being in bondage as a slave of sin, we can walk in newness of life. The Law could never deal with sin once for all. It was weak being the epitome of limited atonement—one atoning sacrifice for one sin. That was all, no carry-over. But in Christ, we are able to live as free men and able to put to death the deeds of the flesh that war in us.

And what of the other passage? There the writer has reminded us that the way to God had been barred by a veil or curtain. We could only get so close and entry to the innermost area was only available by one person once per year, and then with the blood of the sacrifice. Christ has made that sacrifice for us. His blood is the sacrifice that atones for all time. As priests we have entrance to the most holy place where God dwells, and we are welcome. No longer are we common but are sanctified for his use by the washing, not as the Levitical priests, but through regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.

Christians stand in a wonderful place—free from condemnation and complete access to the God of heaven. Do not miss out on these wonderful gifts by presenting your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life. (Romans 6:13)