Sunday, April 29, 2012

Reconciled Representatives

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.  Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.  We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

[Paul] indicated God's unspeakable lovingkindness, saying he was not reconciled to us, although he it was who was insulted by the Fall.  Rather, he reconciled us to himself, not employing a human being as mediator, but making the only-begotten Son a mediator of peace.… The God of all it was who by means of Christ achieved reconciliation with men.  Now what is the manner of this reconciliation?  He granted the forgiveness of sins and commissioned us as ministers of peace.

Since he claimed to have been appointed minister of reconciliation, he was obliged to set out the ambassadorship….  Now, what is the message he brings as ambassador?  We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  The words are sufficient to make even the most unfeeling be ashamed.  He said first that with the execution of Christ he not only did not bear resentment but sent us as ambassadors to win all people over, respect his long-suffering, be ashamed at the murder of Christ, and be reconciled to the Creator, God, and Lord.

He goes on to add to the above the dishonor of the passion.  Though free of sin, he underwent the death of sinners in order to undo man's sin; and bearing the name that we have, he gave us the name of what he himself is—that is, he lavished us with the riches of righteousness.

Theodoret of Cyrus, "The Second Letter to the Corinthians" on 2 Corinthians 5:18-21

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Recognizing Your Ministry

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?  For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.

[Paul] called the ministry of the Law a ministry of death since the Law punished the transgressors.  So if from a source of punishment, death and letters carved on stone, he is saying the person mediating them was invested with glory of countenance such that it was impossible for the viewers to bear the brightness coming from it, how much more those ministering to the divine Spirit will enjoy greater glory.  By ministry of the Spirit, note, he referred to those ministering to the Spirit, as likewise ministry of death those ministering to the Law, namely Moses.  He makes a comparison between Moses and the heralds of grace, and shows him bringing inscribed tablets and them supplying the grace of the all-holy Spirit—the Law punishing and grace giving life; the glory coming to him lasting for a short time and theirs continuing forever; in one case Moses alone sharing in the glory and in this case not the apostles alone but also all those who have come to faith through them.… The Law condemned the sinners, whereas grace accepts them and justifies them through faith: it leads them to divine baptism and grants them forgiveness.  So if the one ministering to the former shared in glory, much more those serving the latter will enjoy it to a greater extent.

Theodoret of Cyrus, "The Second Letter to the Corinthians" on 2 Corinthians 3:7-9

Friday, April 27, 2012

Wearing the Right Fragrance

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.  For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.

In every way, nonetheless, we sing the praises of God, who in his wise conduct of our affairs leads us hither and yon, making us obvious to everyone, and through us offering the knowledge of godliness.  By fragrance of knowledge he referred to the knowledge in this life, teaching two things at the same time: this is an insignificant part of perfect knowledge; and while the latter now eludes us it will at the appropriate be made manifest, after the manner of incense, which in many cases when mixed with fire in a bedroom spreads its fragrance even outside.  Those who catch it, while not seeing it, enjoy its sweet smell.

We offer everyone the sweet fragrance of Christ, but not all given a share in it enjoy salvation.  To those with bad eyes the light is treacherous and unkind, but it is not the sun that causes the harm.  It is also said that vultures shun the fragrance of perfume, yet perfume is still sweet-smelling, even if vultures give it a wide berth.  Likewise, too, the saving message brings about salvation for those who believe, but inflicts ruin on the unbelieving.

Theodoret of Cyrus, "The Second Letter to the Corinthians" on 2 Corinthians 2:14-16

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Culturally Aware or Failing Miserably?

A recent Christianity Today article raised an issue within the church.  Here are the lead paragraphs.
Two weeks ago, younger evangelical leaders gathered in Washington D.C. to reflect about the shape Christianity should take in the world. Q, the conference hosted by Gabe Lyons, is one of the more interesting spots in the evangelical landscape.  Self-conscious in its cultural (which is to say, not political) orientation, conference attendees are an interesting cross-section of the evangelical world.  Some might be emergent, others might be Reformed, but no one talks much about all that.  It's concern about social issues, rather than distinctive theological ones, that attendees seem to gather around.

In a breathtaking moment of unity, however, conference attendees affirmed that churches should advocate for contraceptives for the single people in their midst.  After a panel discussion on the best ways to reduce abortions in the church (tacit answer: contraception), an instant poll put the question to attendees: "Do you believe churches should advocate contraception for their single twentysomethings?"  The question is ambiguously worded (Advocate how?  From the pulpit?  Which twentysomethings?  All of them?).  But even so, 70 percent of respondents understood enough to say "yes."
The result of this instant poll is disturbing but reflects how greatly the world has infected the church.  How is it that so many attendees had no qualms of affirming contraceptives for singles?  Did they not realize the overriding concern is the whole area of personal holiness, or had they accepted the lie that "regardless of what young people are taught, they will do it anyway?"

Who do we blame for this attitude?  Whoever is not teaching that there are consequences for sinful behavior.  Whoever is not teaching that your sin is so heinous that Christ died on the cross to atone for it.  Whoever is not teaching that there is a Savior to whom we can go and confess sin having the promise of forgiveness.  Did I miss anyone?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Three Stages of Error

When error is admitted into the Church, it will be found that the stages of its progress are always three.  It begins by asking toleration.  Its friends say to the majority: You need not be afraid of us; we are few, and weak; only let us alone; we shall not disturb the faith of the others.  The Church has her standards of doctrine; of course we shall never interfere with them; we only ask for ourselves to be spared interference with our private opinions.  Indulged in this for a time, error goes on to assert equal rights.  Truth and error are two balancing forces.  The Church shall do nothing which looks like deciding between  them; that would be partiality.  It is bigotry to assert any superior right for the truth.  We are to agree to differ, and any favoring of the truth, because it is truth, is partisanship.  What the friends of truth and error hold in common is fundamental.  Anything on which they differ is ipso facto non-essential.  Anybody who makes account of such a thing is a disturber of the peace of the church.  Truth and error are two coördinate powers, and the great secret of church-statesmanship is to preserve the balance between them.  From this point error soon goes on to its natural end, which is to assert supremacy.  Truth started with tolerating; it comes to be merely tolerated, and then only for a time.  Error claims a preference for its judgments on all disputed points.  It puts men into positions, not as at first in spite of their departure from the Church’s faith, but in consequence of it.  Their recommendation is that they repudiate the faith, and position is given them to teach others to repudiate it, and to make them skillful in combating it.

Charles P. Krauth, The Conservative Reformation, 1923

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Displaying Due Honor to Our Creator and Savior

Glorify God in your body and in your spirit, these belonging to God

God is creator of our souls and bodies; he not only made them but also freed them from the devil's lordship.  It behooves us, therefore, to praise him both through the body and through the soul, doing and saying what prompts the tongues of everyone to benediction.… Mindful of the exhortation, let us present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, and sanctify our soul with the remembrance of his manifold kindnesses, so that in the present life we may truly be styled temples of God and enjoy the promised blessings, thanks to the grace and lovingkindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father and the all-holy Spirit belong glory and majesty, now and forever, for ages and ages.  Amen.

Theodoret of Cyrus, "The First Letter to the Corinthians" on 1 Corinthians 6:20

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Getting into Shark-Infatuated Waters

Yes, the title is skewed—and intentionally so.  You see, there are many times when I wonder if well-meaning Christians really understand what they are saying.  Many times a sentence or phrase designed as a word to honor God will come out as a malapropism.  Consider the following sentence I overheard recently.
The greatest sacrifice is a contrite and broken spirit.
The Christian who shared this did so with honorable intent, trying to convey what King David understood in his prayer of repentance (Ps 51:17) and what YHWH told through Isaiah concerning himself (Is 57:15; 66:2).  The issue, then, is not the act of sacrifice nor the spiritual attitude of repentance but the superlative "greatest."

In normal English parlance, something is greatest when it exceeds all others in some measurable capacity.  That being the case, one might expect this descriptor to be assigned for a sacrifice like Solomon gave at the dedication of the temple (1 Ki 8:62-64) or to the widow who gave two copper coins (Mark 12:41-44).  Both gave comparatively abundant amounts out of their received blessings as they were able.

A contrite and broken spirit does not have this value.  That is akin to bragging about illustrious feats of humility.  We need to understand there is nothing to give, however great its worth.  No sacrifice, regardless of size or type, is sufficient to make amends for the guilt incurred.  All the repentant person can do is confess the sin and plead for mercy against whom the transgression has been committed, God himself, who has provided the necessary sacrifice for us—Jesus, who is fully God to meet the need and fully man to bear our sin and guilt.

What is great in Jesus' sacrifice is that it is sufficient for all.  We can do nothing to make up the lack for nothing is lacking.  His work on the cross deals with my sin and that daily I can return to the font of forgiveness according to the riches of God's grace.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Hearing "The Voice" (Just Not the Savior's)

There is a new Bible paraphrase entitled The Voice.  I had read that this work was produced but not anything concerning its content.  As I listened to an interview of Dr. Andrew Steinmann, my eyes were opened.  I have read large portions of paraphrases over the years, such as The Living Bible, Good News for Modern Man, and The Message and am fully aware of the liberties taken to make the Bible "relevant."  This work seeks a new low in content as it is entering blatant gnostic waters, which Dr Steinmann pointed out using the following text from John 1:9-18 as an example:

        9The true Light, who shines upon the heart of everyone, was coming into the cosmos.
        10He entered our world, a world He made; yet the world did not recognize Him.  11Even though He came to His own people, they refused to listen and receive Him.  12But for all who did receive and trust in Him, He gave them the right to be reborn as children of God; 13He bestowed this birthright not by human power or initiative but by God’s will.
        14The Voice took on flesh and became human and chose to live alongside us.  We have seen Him, enveloped in undeniable splendor—the one true Son of the Father—evidenced in the perfect balance of grace and truth.  15John the Baptist testified about Him and shouted, “This is the one I’ve been telling you is coming. He is much greater than I am because He existed long before me.”  16Through this man we all receive gifts of grace beyond our imagination.  17You see, Moses gave us rules to live by, but Jesus the Anointed offered us gifts of grace and truth.  18God, unseen until now, is revealed in the Voice, God’s only Son, straight from the Father’s heart.

If you suddenly feel the need to take appropriate measures to rid yourself of that rancid taste in your mouth, I understand.  While there are some narrative portions that are helped by the phraseology, the doctrinal and theological points are muddled: the living and abiding word of God is effectively neutered.  Here is a comparison of Titus 3:1-11 as a further example.

The VoiceESV
1And remind them of this: respect the rulers and the courts. Obey them. Be ready to do what is good and honorable. 2Don’t tear down another person with your words. Instead, keep the peace, and be considerate. Be truly humble toward everyone 3because there was a time when we, too, were foolish, rebellious, and deceived—we were slaves to sensual cravings and pleasures; and we spent our lives being spiteful, envious, hated by many, and hating one another. 4But then something happened: God our Savior and His overpowering love and kindness for humankind entered our world; 5He came to save us. It’s not that we earned it by doing good works or righteous deeds; He came because He is merciful. He brought us out of our old ways of living to a new beginning through the washing of regeneration; and He made us completely new through the Holy Spirit, 6who was poured out in abundance through Jesus the Anointed, our Savior. 7All of this happened so that through His grace we would be accepted into God’s covenant family and appointed to be His heirs, full of the hope that comes from knowing you have eternal life. 8This is a faithful statement of what we believe. 1Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.  3For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.  4But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.  8The saying is trustworthy,
Concerning this, I want you to put it out there boldly so that those who believe in God will be constant in doing the right things, which will benefit all of us. 9Listen, don’t get trapped in brainless debates; avoid competition over family trees or pedigrees; stay away from fights and disagreements over the law. They are a waste of your time. 10If a person is causing divisions in the community, warn him once; and if necessary, warn him twice. After that, avoid him completely 11because by then you are sure that you are dealing with a corrupt, sinful person. He is determined to condemn himself. And I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.  These things are excellent and profitable for people.  9But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.  10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

I checked the list of translators, and there are several excellent conservative scholars.  Then I checked the list of Writing/Creative Team and immediately saw a problem.  While the use of effective wordsmiths is not in itself a bad thing, clarity and accuracy are to be paramount.  This writing team has many individuals who are notable for obfuscating the plain text of scripture to their own ends.  I can only think that the eventual point of consensus must have been where everyone was least offended by the plain, clear truth.

Thankfully, I paid no money to inspect this train wreck.  Please do not waste yours by securing a copy.

Thomas Nelson Bibles should be ashamed of this project.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Do Not Cast Off Mooring Lines of Church History

A church without patristics becomes a sect. – Herman Sasse

Some in our day … have the impression that the Reformation was about discontinuity with the previous tradition of the church.  The story goes something like this: the Reformers rejected the corruption of the church and its superstitious practices, which can be traced to the emergence of Christendom in the fourth century during the reign of Emperor Constantine.  During this dark period of history, church and state were confused, and philosophical assumptions foreign to the Scriptures were embraced.  Given this historical reality, good evangelicals need not trouble themselves with a study of the early and medieval church—after all, that's Roman Catholicism—but need only to read their Bibles.  The Bible is their creed; they have no need for anything else.  The murky and obscure period—considerable as it may have been and encompassing, among other things, the great creeds of the Christian faith—need not be studied, since it involved only the distortion of the gospel and the so-called hellenization of the Christian faith.… For those indebted to the theological arguments and conclusions of the Reformers, this view of history … must be wholeheartedly rejected.  Indeed, when we look at the writings of the Reformers, we find them assuming that they stand in continuity with the broader tradition of the church.

Carl L. Beckwith, Evangelicals and Nicene Faith, p. 66

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Answering Heresy

Tertullian and Irenaeus both wrote against the teachings promulgated by the heretic Marcion.  Mark Gignilliat describes Ireanaeus' response as a lesson for us:

Irenaeus describes Marcion's editorial exegesis as "the most daring blasphemy against Him who is proclaimed as God by the law and prophets."  Marcion again according to Irenaeus, "mutilates the gospel."  He "dares to mutilate the Scriptures."  He is an instrument of Satan, and because he is so, "I purpose specially to refute him."  How is it that Irenaeus will seek to refute Marcion?  On the basis of Marcion's own claims and Irenaeus' own exegesis of Scripture.  Despite [Adolph] Harnack's overreaching claim that the early church's theological discourse fell prey to alien forms of Greek metaphysical categories and, in turn, destroyed the purity of the apostolic age, one observes that these ante-Nicene fathers' struggle for trinitarian grammar takes place in the context of the exegesis of Scripture (and by Scripture, I mean primarily the Old Testament).  To put the matter simply, theology for the early church (and for us too!) is exegesis.

Mark S. Gignilliat, Evangelicals and Nicene Faith, p. 21

Friday, April 13, 2012

Hold Fast to Scripture Faithfully Delivered

Newly devised human traditions that claim to be divine revelation but disavow the apostolic witness must be gently and charitably resisted. * They must not be confused with the divinely revealed good news received from the apostles.  "See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ" (Col 22:8; see also 1 Tim 1:4).  Jesus rebuked the Pharisees because they neglected the commandment of God "in order to maintain the tradition of men" (Mark 7:8; Tertullian, Praescr. 7).  The godly transmission of the memory of Jesus Christ must be maintained accurately and faithfully, since it is the living memory of God's own coming to humanity (John Chrysostom, Comm. Gal. 1.6).

Thomas C. Oden, Evangelicals and Nicene Faith, p. 10

*  Dr. Oden is being quite gracious in his approach.  There are times when a right sharp rebuke is necessary (Tit 1:11, 13).

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Baptizing and Teaching—Disciplemaking Calls for Both

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (Matthew 28:19-20)

This is one of the most familiar passages in the Bible with but one imperative—make disciples.  Yet in spite of this overt simplicity there seems to be the greatest difficulty in following the command.  Where does the difficulty lie?

The issue cannot be lack of authorization.  According to Jesus' own words above, all authority is his.  He then says go therefore (or possibly better translated therefore in your going) which acts as rhetorical device to say that the the authority vested in him is now being conferred on his followers.

The issue cannot be lack of clarity.  A sentence diagram shows the following:
Image from Issues, Etc. Journal, Fall 2011
Notice that there are two parts to the mandate:

        1) Baptizing in the name of the triune God
        2) Teaching all that Jesus has commanded

First, baptism is inextricably connected with salvation in relation to repentance and forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Pet 3:21), belief (Acts 8:12), reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17; 10:44-48), and identification with Christ (Acts 10:48; 19:5; Rom 6:3-4; 1 Cor 1:13; Gal 3:27).  Teaching without baptism, then, serves only to make informed heathens, not Christians.  Without the baptismal waters, there can be no objective connection with Jesus our Lord.  Am I saying that someone who believes without baptism cannot be saved?  No.  I am making the case that those who state they believe and have an opportunity to be baptized in some manner but do not take it are likely not believers.

Second, there must be an active educational relationship to impart knowledge beginning with the rudiments of the gospel.  Maturity in Christ attained by the constant intake of God's word.  It works in us to make us competent and thoroughly equipped (2 Tim 3:16-17).  Baptism without teaching does no more than provide some identification with an ideal that is to be experienced with the intended aspiration of a lofty or laudable personal, subjective goal, thereby becoming self-fulfilled or self-condemned, depending on one's conscience.  Again, this person is not a Christian.  Am I saying this person is not a Christian if he understands and believes the gospel?  No.  I am saying that the gospel forms the very base of all that comes later.  If that person does not desire and/or strive to learn more, he is likely not a believer.

Up to this point, my complaint has been with the person on the receiving end, however there must be those who are actively baptizing and teaching.  For the person rightfully recognized to baptize to not do so is tantamount to unbelief.  Likewise, every person has opportunity to teach what God has so freely given in the revelation of himself and the fullness of redemption in Christ.  The incumbency on each Christian is to teach another of the manifold grace of God.  Am I saying the person not teaching another is not a Christian?  No.  I am saying that any baptized person who is able to communicate God's word and will not pass along its truth to another is at the very least lazy and probably not a believer.

With a clear command and pattern for action, why is it that so many American church groups minimize, if not abandon, what the early church held to be the only baptismal formula?  What was once embraced as required for full rights of fellowship and worship in the local assembly has been replaced with "Come and join the experience."  The Church Growth philosophy has been found to be too thin a model to form spiritual growth.  Some who promulgate this model have insisted it is the correct direction needing but a tweak here and there.  Others in the same camp have turned to the postmodern mantra of subjective individualism: in any gatherings of believers, do what helps you feel and live better.  Let's just get together to meet felt needs and show how to have better morals.  And each of the above meet weekly without addressing the underlying problem of sin and the work of a Savior for that sin.  Where will these man-made paths end?  "Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity."  (Ec 1:2)

Some have already understood that the aforementioned paths have no true content and are searching for the pure milk and solid food in the sound teaching of scripture.  They are desiring to be disciples in the biblical sense.  How are they discovered?  Ask them.  I regularly do so in my own assembly concerning a person's spiritual intake.  Some do not realize their lack of growth and are satisfied with spiritual bonbons that do nothing but give false comfort.  Those that are concerned appreciate the inquiry and regularly reveal that they want another to help along the way.  Because there are not enough men and women taking on the mantle of teacher to these, they struggle in starts and fits before finding solid footing, often by leaving their church for another.
 With the need so great and the fields being white unto harvest, * let us plead for the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers.  For those laborers working on their own tasks rather than being engaged in what the Lord instructed, "cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded," (Jas 4:8) and make disciples the way Jesus instructed.

*  Notice I use this in relation to disciple-making and not evangelism only.  The distinction is important.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Is the New Testament Reliable?

Nicene Creed Profitable for Summing Up the Faith

From Thomas C. Oden's essay, "The Faith Once Delivered" –

Teachers as varied as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Luther have held that the Nicene Creed is the best of the condensed statements of Christian faith and the most reliable way to learn the heart of faith.  In professing the form of the creed received in Jerusalem, Cyril explains that the believer is helped to keep close to the center of the faith once delivered by the apostles,
which has been built up strongly out of the Scriptures.  For since all cannot read the Scriptures, some being hindered from the knowledge of them by lack of learning, and others because they lack leisure to study, in order that the soul should not be starved in ignorance, the church has condensed the whole teaching of the Faith in a few lines.  This summary I wish you both to commit to memory when I recite it, and to rehearse it with all diligence among yourselves, not writing it out on paper, but engraving it by the memory upon your heart, taking care while you rehearse it that no catechumen may happen to overhear the things which have been delivered to you.  I wish you also to keep this as a provision through the whole course of your life, and beside this to receive no alternative teaching, even if we ourselves should change and contradict our present teaching.  (Catechetical Letters 5.12)
Evangelicals and Nicene Faith: Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness, p. 8-9

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Contentedness Is a Gift of God

"I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live" [Ec 3:12].  These words recapitulate everything we have already said.  If the right use of what had been divinely created in time defines the good for human life, it is the one joy born from good works which endures among other beautiful things.  Observance of the commandments now imparts joy to our good works through hope; then the enjoyment of good things enlivens those persons worthy to receive their eternal hope.  As the Lord says to those who have done good, "Come, blessed, inherit the kingdom prepared for you" [Mt 25:34].  As food and drink sustain the body, so the soul must look to the good, a true gift of God on which we have fixed our eyes.  For such is the meaning of "It is God's gift to man that every one should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil" [Ec 3:13].  Just as human nature obtains physical strength through eating and drinking, so the person who looks to the good (for the true good is He who is good alone) has the gift of God in all his labor.  This is nothing other than to always have our eyes fixed on the good which is in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power forever and ever.  Amen.

Gregory of Nyssa, Eighth Homily on Ecclesiastes

Monday, April 9, 2012

10K Milestone

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I have topped 10,000 pageviews since first posting four years ago this month.


OK, that's enough partying for one day.

Well-Dressed Christians

If we properly understand the enemy's solid mass, we would see that it is time to make war.  No one would be courageous against the enemy's battle array without the Apostle's armor [Eph 6:14].  Indeed, everyone is familiar with that divine armor, an inflexible phalanx against our adversaries' weapons.  The Apostle divides the virtues into various kinds and fashions the proper armor from each one.  By faith he entwines righteousness and fortifies the breastplate with heavy armor to protect the soldier.  One piece of armor cannot be disjointed from another because the entire suit provides safety.  Neither can faith save without works of righteousness nor does righteousness provide salvation unless yoked to faith.  For this reason the armor about the heart is entwined with faith and righteousness for the soldier's protection; we understand the heart as this breastplate.  A valiant man arms his head with hope, signifying a sublime hope for the good soldier like a helmet crest held on high.  The shield covering the weapon is faith which arrows cannot penetrate; without a doubt, the arrows cast by our enemy are various assaults of the passions.  The defensive arms fortifying us against the brave enemy's right hand is the Holy Spirit who strikes fear into the adversary yet saves the person who puts him on.  The Gospel's entire teaching secures our feet, leaving no part of the body bare and susceptible to blows.

Gregory of Nyssa, Eighth Homily on Ecclesiastes

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Take Heed Lest You Fall

The enemy examines your strength for seeing whether you are strong and ready or weak and lax.  If his sight does not make you sink nor slacken your resolution and if you shake him off by remaining free from passion, you immediately frighten the spy by acting like a phalanx of arms bristling with spears, I mean your thoughts prepared to confront the informant.  If this sight weakens sense perception and an image enters the mind through our eyes, then the mind or commander of our inner resources will be subdued since he not only lacked fortitude or was youthful, but was lazy and dissolute.  As a result, many traitors from the crowd, that is, our thoughts, will be summoned to assist the spy.  These traitors are the ones of whom the Lord says, "A man's foes shall be of his own household" [Mt 10:36].  He refers to the utterances of his heart which can defile him [Mt 15:18] as we clearly learn from the Gospel.  These words clarify our enemy's devices who sets an ambush to fall unexpectedly upon the travelers of the road of this life.  Those who assume the pretext of friendship and goodwill in order to persuasively debase a person and destroy him by lying at the roadside, extol pleasure and are first to lead the way to the theater.  They cloak evil with benevolence and imitate friends, calling themselves brothers and friends to utter destruction.  Of them it is written "Every man will surely supplant, and every friend will walk craftily" [Jer 9:4].

Gregory of Nyssa, Eighth Homily on Ecclesiastes

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Time to Love, and a Time to Hate

When learning that [God's] nature is lovable, we tenderly embrace it and remain firm in our judgment about that which is beautiful and the consuming love directed to persons whom the great David admonished, "Oh sons of men, how long will your hearts be heavy?  Will you love vanity and seek falsehood" [Ps 4:2]?  We must love one thing alone, that which the law of the Decalogue speaks, "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, and mind" [Dt 6:5].  There is one object deserving of our hatred, the inventor of evil, the enemy our lives of whom the Law says, "You shall hate your enemy."  The love of God strengthens the person who loves, whereas a disposition towards evil brings destruction upon anyone who loves it.  Thus prophecy says "I will love you, Lord, my strength.  The Lord is my firm support, my refuge and my deliverer" [Ps 18:1-2].  On the other hand we read "He who loves iniquity hates his own soul.  [God] shall rain down snares upon sinners" [Ps 11:5-6].  Therefore the time to love God is one's whole life, and the time to be alienated from evil is also one's entire life.  Even a person who distances himself from loving God ever so slightly does not resemble him because he is separated from love.  The person outside God is necessarily outside the light because God is light [1 Jn 1.5]; he is not in the light, incorruptibility, and every good thought and deed belonging to God because the person not sharing these attributes partakes of their opposites and enters darkness, corruption, utter ruin, and death.

 Gregory of Nyssa, Eighth Homily on Ecclesiastes

Friday, April 6, 2012

You Are What You Eat: True Food and True Drink

A sweet fragrance becomes part of a person's mouth while nothing else can be worse than the bad odor of garlic.  Since every filth of sin is foul-smelling, the virtue of Christ on the other hand is a pleasant odor [2 Cor 2:15], for a loving disposition unites a person with the object of his love.  We become what we love, either a good or foul odor of Christ.  The person who loves beauty will become beautiful once he has been transformed by the good he received.  The ever-existing [God] desires to give himself to us as food in order to transform us into what he is.  "My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed" [Jn 6:55].  Thus the person who loves this flesh is not sensual, and he who is well disposed to this blood will be cleansed from physical blood.  The Word's flesh and the blood of the person in this flesh do not constitute one grace only; rather, it is sweet for whomever tastes it, yearned for by whomever desires it and lusted after by whoever loves it.

Gregory of Nyssa, Eighth Homily on Ecclesiastes

What Wondrous Love Is This!

Yes, he really loved in this way.  He died for me.  He died for you.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Time to Keep Silence

When reason confronts that which transcends reason, it is time to be silent and marvel at his unutterable power which cannot be explained since it is hidden in one's consciousness.  It knows that the great prophets speak of God's works, not of God himself.  "Who can tell of the Lord's power?" [Ps 106:2]; "I will tell of all your works," [Ps 9:1] and "Generation after generation will praise your deeds" [Ps 145:4].  These words explain what our human voice can utter, but silence becomes the norm with regard to him who utterly transcends any conception.  We therefore say that "the glorious majesty of his holiness" [Ps 145:5] has no end.  Oh, how marvelous!  What reverence the text shows when contemplating the divine nature when it cannot comprehend such a transcendent wonder!  The text did not say that the divine essence is boundless and claimed to be so audacious as to comprehend it; rather, it marvels at God's glorious majesty.  Once again the text is unable to see the glory of God's essence but is struck dumb before the glory of his holiness.  Therefore God's nature is far removed from our curious inquiries, and even the loftiest of manifestations cannot admire it.  The text does not admire his sanctity nor the glory of his holiness but stresses only the glorious majesty of his holiness.  We cannot grasp the object of admiration, and so the psalm says that "the glorious majesty of his holiness" has no end.

Gregory of Nyssa, Seventh Homily on Ecclesiastes

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Four Stages of Church Growth Disease

Bryan Wolfmueller posted on Facebook:
The Four Stages of Church Growth Disease
Stage 1:    I’m uncomfortable with all the changes happening around my church, but I guess it’s okay,
after all, it’s for the ‘lost’ and the ‘youth’ and the ‘mission.’
Stage 2:  I’m disappointed that I’m not being fed at my church, but I also feel guilty for this, after all,
you go to church to serve, not to be served, right?
Stage 3:  I’m looking for a more authentic community of Jesus-followers.
Stage 4:  I’m an atheist.
This is a bit contrived but reflects more of the truth than we care to admit.

God-Honoring Building Projects

A person who attends to himself truly adorns his own dwelling so that when God abides there, he has various kinds of material which contribute to this building.  I know that gold shines in such works when unearthed by insights from scripture and that purified silver represents divine eloquence whose splendor shines forth through the truth.  The splendor of the various stones adorning this temple's walls and pavement are the virtues, a true image of the beauty adorning this house.  Let self-control lay down the pavement since it does not allow the building's inhabitant to be troubled by the dust of earthly mindedness.  Let the hope for heaven adorn the roof.  The soul's eye does not gaze upon images fashioned by chisels; rather, it will see the archetypal beauty adorned with something of greater value than gold and silver.

If we must describe the masonry, then let incorruptibility and impassibility mold the house which justice and freedom will adorn.  Let humility and patience shine in another part of the house along with piety befitting God.  Let love, the noble craftsman, fashion all these virtues in a marvelous way.  If you desire baths in your house for cleansing the stains of your soul, you can use that bath which the great David delighted in each night [Psalm 6].  Let the columns supporting the soul's courtyard not be of marble or porphyry but stability in every good which is far more precious.  This house forbids statues and pictures which are deceptive imitations of truth because it already has an abundance of images of the truth.  If you desire a place in which to walk about, you have the commandments.  Wisdom says, "I walk in the ways of righteousness and am conversant with the paths of judgment" [Prov 8:20].  How lovely it is when such [adornments] arouse the soul to carefully examine the commandments, to be trained in them, and make us return to the place from which we started!

Gregory of Nyssa, Third Homily on Ecclesiastes

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Three Cheers for Dogmatism

Bill Muehlenberg has written a good piece entitled "Three Cheers for Dogmatism," extolling the virtue of dogma and sound doctrine in Christianity.  After sharing scripture on the need to pronounce absolute truth, he summarizes them this.
These and other passages make it quite clear: dogmatism is a good thing.  We all should be dogmatic.  That is, all believers should firmly and resolutely hold to sound dogma, and not allow ourselves to be tossed about by every wind of doctrine.
He then goes on to give quotes from John Stott and G. K. Chesterton to make his point.

As one who is not afraid to correct someone or something leading away from the biblical faith, I applaud those who follow through with Paul's instruction and admonition as given in the post or take up what Jude wrote in his epistle to "contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints." (Jude 1:3)  In the face of so many promoting meaningless relevance, vacuous conversations, and nebulous unity, let us instead take comfort and strength in Paul's admonition:
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.  (1 Cor 15:58)

Confession Is Good for Worship

During the time of the divided kingdom, the northern tribes as Israel under Jeroboam II had prospered economically, largely by taking advantage of the poor and downtrodden. During this time sacrifices continued in a syncretist form by combining elements of Baal, Asherah, and Molech with Jewish elements—all before golden calves erected years prior by Jeroboam I.  The people were zealous in their sacrifices and worship thinking that their economic and cultural boon was the result of God's blessing.  They determined that their work and worship as the larger half of God's elect, covenant people must have been in accord with his desires. After all, had they not grown in wealth and might and expanded their borders?

Then along came Amos, a farmer from the northern boundary of Judah to give the straight story including what God thought of their worship:
I hate, I despise your feasts,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
        I will not accept them;
    and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
        I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    to the melody of your harps I will not listen.  (Amos 5:21-23)
Notice that they gave three prescribed Levitical sacrifices.  The burnt offering was a freewill offering given wholly to the Lord and atoned for sin in a general way and was an appeal for God's acceptance.  The grain offering was also freewill and allowed for some variety by the person bringing the offering.  Also, this was shared between the Lord and the priests.  Lastly, the peace offering was unique in that the Lord, the priests, and the person bringing the sacrifice all shared as a symbol of fellowship.

All these are apparently good, but there is a striking lack: missing are the sin and guilt offerings.  While the burnt offering was given with an understanding that there is some sin within our nature, the sin and guilt offerings address specific transgressions before God and man that needed an act of reconciliation and possible recompense.  The Israelites did not recognize the sinful acts they were perpetrating against one another and God: the required satisfaction was not given.  The people were not ignorant of the Lord's desire.  He had shared through Moses, David, prophets, and Amos himself what was desired above sacrifice:
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  (Amos 5:24)
They simply did not know how far they had fallen and refused to accept the rebuke.  What worked in Israel's and later Judah's corporate life came about because they fell away from their God for their own ways: what had been clearly revealed in absolute terms was later minimized, distorted, or abandoned for a man-made plan or system.  A powerful person or group turned the hearts of the people to what they considered a better way.  Rather than return to the Lord when he sought them (Amos 5:4-7, 14-15 and later in Hosea 14:1-9), they continued in their ways.

What Is That to Me?
All this above was stimulated by a men's Bible study I lead.  This past Friday, as we were discussing this chapter, one of the men made a comment that maybe we Christians should be more serious in confessing sin before coming into worship.  This is a great idea.  Christ even gives specific instruction to this end (Matt 5:21-26).  Sadly, this falls by the wayside.  The sins and transgressions against God or neighbor are not confessed, and there is no room for repentance.  This can happen from ignorance of scripture, though usually there is a deliberate move out of pride, arrogance, lust, or some other sin that takes root.

We tend to treat Sunday morning meetings like a therapy session.  There is an unspoken expectation that every person coming in the door is doing moderately well in life; all settle in to a service with rousing and/or joyful singing followed by an invigorating sermon; and there is an expectation that everyone has been sufficiently moved or stimulated godward.  The only acknowledgement there may be a possibility that something might be less than perfect in anyone's life is just prior to the Lord's Supper when we are reminded to examine ourselves and participate accordingly.  That is far too late.  There needs to be a procedure or mechanism to deal with this beforehand.

Confessional Lutherans make use of a corporate confession and absolution early in the service.  People come acknowledging that their sin nature remains with the daily struggle.  Though no specific sin may be known, there is the appeal to be cleansed from unrighteousness knowing the sure promise in Christ that he will be cleansed.  I can see the benefit of this as it is typified in the burnt offering mentioned above.  There would certainly be a danger of becoming rote or victim to lackadaisical hearts.  It can happen in the Christian just as certainly as the ancient Israelite.

And then there is the need to set things right in specific matters.  The Law dictated certain sacrifices be given for unintentional sins.  Where the sin was intentional or the sacrifice might be refused, that person was cut off from his people.  Again, we see the Lord Jesus teaching this (Matt 18:15-20), and the expectation after the Ascension was for the church to continue dealing with the unrepentant with a view to ultimate restoration (1 Cor 5:1-5).

Whatever the solution for the church today, the constant reminder of the sinfulness of sin still working in our members should be reminding us Christians of the promise to "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" (Heb 10:22) and that our Lord will "save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Heb 7:25).