Sunday, January 31, 2016

Of Whom Shall I be Afraid?

Continuing my posts of patristic texts coinciding with the Psalm series on Sunday.

The Lᴏʀᴅ is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lᴏʀᴅ is the stronghold of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me
    to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
    it is they who stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me,
    my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
    yet I will be confident.  (Ps 27:1-3)

And Christians have nothing to fear, even if demons should not be well-disposed to them.  For they are protected by the Supreme God, who is well pleased with their piety, and who sets His divine angels to watch over those who are worthy of such guardianship, so that they can suffer nothing from demons.  He who by his piety possesses the favor of the Most High, who has accepted the guidance of Jesus, the “Angel of the great counsel,” being well contented with the favor of God through Christ Jesus, may say with confidence that he has nothing to suffer from the whole host of demons.  “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? … Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear.”

Origen, Against Celsus, VIII.27

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I'm So Excited!

No, the title is not a reference to the 1982 song released by The Pointer Sisters, though I do remember when it hit the airwaves.  Instead, I would like to investigate the entire notion of getting excited for Christ being visibly exhibited both in worship and a fully committed life.  In 2010 David Platt introduced this idea with Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream which challenged Christians to eschew American values and rediscover the commitment of biblical discipleship.  In 2011 Kyle Idleman followed suit with his book Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus, wherein he compared a nonparticipant (fan) in sports or music with a participant (follower), encouraging the reader to be the latter.  While I appreciate both men’s desire to get Christians to reorient themselves and demonstrate faith by their works, they inadvertently put emphasis on the wrong thing.

Idleman, for an example, got his terms backwards.  The fully committed person, the one “all in,” is the fan.  What do I mean by that?  The word fan is short for fanatic.  Merriam-Webster (M-W) defines this: marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion, coming from the Latin fanaticus (inspired by a deity, frenzied).  In modern parlance, this person is in a spiritual and mental state more akin to demon possession than devotion, resembling the conduct of one confronted by Jesus:
He lived among the tombs.  And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces.  No one had the strength to subdue him.  Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and bruising himself with stones.  (Mk 5:3-5)
More appropriate might be a word used in the M-W definition above—enthusiasm—defined as:
  • 1 a : belief in special revelations of the Holy Spirit
  •     b : religious fanaticism
  • 2 a : strong excitement of feeling : ardor
  •     b : something inspiring zeal or fervor
These are divided between categories of religious and worldly, however, definition 1a is the sole New Testament use leaving the others to the realm of emotions.  It is within this latter sphere that most people use the word or its derivatives.  Looking at the history of the word, we see that “enthuse” comes from the Greek entheos (ἐνθεος: in god, or god within).  Simply put, an enthused person is one being driven by god-induced passions.  Most Christians I know will read this and think, “That’s right.  A believer needs to be passionate for the Lord.”  Actually, the reverse is true.

The ancient Greek understanding does not border on fanaticism as described above, but the degree of devotion towards a god or goddess drove followers to act out in irrational ways.  A biblical example of this type of behavior can be found in the Old Testament, wherein Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel.  Notice their behavior:
And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!”  But there was no voice, and no one answered.  And they limped around the altar that they had made.… And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them.  And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice.  No one answered; no one paid attention.  (1 Ki 17:26-29)
Driven by their fervor, the prophets performed all manner of invocation to get Baal’s attention to no avail.  While this is not a response from Greek idol worshipers, the passion exhibited is very similar to that employed in Athenian (and Roman) temples centuries later.

To be sure, there is a danger in giving undue consideration to etymological history over current usage, however background knowledge helps us understand that the enthused person is driven more by emotions than cognition.  For the Christian, this is particularly dangerous, since the resounding theme coming from most sectors of the Western church is the need for increased fervor by whatever means possible.  The two books mentioned at the beginning are examples of attempts to foment righteous fervor in the body of Christ.

Let me state that I am not opposed to passion and fervor.  A quick review of godly individuals in Scripture will attest to their zeal for the Lord’s things.  My complaint is with the means being used to stir up hearts.  Over and again, preachers and conference teachers will do their best to guilt believers into doing more for Christ out of duty: get with the program and help reach the world, or some part of it, for Christ; get to work in some ministry; do more for Christ’s kingdom.  While these imperatives are true, they will not sustain me.  In the end, I believe the attempts to stir the rank and file are closer in their rhetoric to a political campaign than to disciple-making.  We do not want to be caught up in the excesses.

Living in Iowa during the campaign season, I am bombarded early and often with slogans ad nauseum about how this candidate or that is a better leader, is more Christian in conduct, is attuned with Midwestern values, etc.  The advertisers make their appeal to a “typical Iowan” (whatever that may be) hoping to motivate voters to actively support their candidate and get involved, all of which sounds eerily like a typical preacher any given Sunday:
The culture is rotting around you.  You need to get to work.  Get out, and make a difference.  If you give you all, you’ll be taken care of.
The difference between Jesus and a political candidate, though, is infinite.  I don’t know about you, but I am not in any shape to “make a difference for Jesus” simply because I have nothing to give.  The Lord was (and is) God incarnate.  He willing went to the cross and died for my sin and the sin of the world, then rose from the dead and ascended into heaven until He returns.

How does passion get ignited?  How does zeal grow?  How do we get excited for Christ?  The answer is in the faithful teaching of God’s promises in Christ Jesus.  I have heard more than one message decrying doctrine as a lifeless edifice that must be removed for God to move, but the truth is that doctrine is what motivates people to share the good news of Jesus.  The faithful communication of the Lord’s precepts, commandments, statutes, and promises are those things in which the psalmists continually ask the congregation to rejoice.

Do you want those under your tutelage or within your sphere of influence to be motivated for the work of the kingdom?  Do not resort to behavior modification, brow-beating, or dangling carrots.  Give what they need—the full, undiluted Gospel.  Give the fullness of Christ and Him crucified.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Make Me Whole for Your Mercy's Sake

Our pastor is teaching through some of the Psalms, so I thought it might be helpful to post some patristic reflections about the texts being used.

My help is righteous, coming from God who saves the upright in heart.  (Ps 7:10 LXX)

The offices of medicine are twofold, on the curing infirmity, the other the preserving health. According to the first it was said in the preceding Psalm, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak;” [Ps 6:2] according to the second it is said in this Psalm, “If there be iniquity in my hands, if I have repaid them that recompense me evil, may I therefore fall by my enemies empty.”  For there the weak prays that he may be delivered, here one already whole that he may not change for the worse.  According to the one it is there said, “Make me whole for Your mercy’s sake;” according to this other it is here said, “Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness.” … According to the former it is said, “Make me whole, O Lord, according to Thy mercy:” according to the latter it is said, “My righteous help is from the Lord, who makes whole the upright in heart.”  Both the one and the other makes men whole; but the former removes them from sickness into health, the latter preserves them in this health.  Therefore there the help is merciful, because the sinner has no desert, who as yet longs to be justified, “believing on Him who justifies the ungodly;” but here the help is righteous, because it is given to one already righteous.  Let the sinner then who said, “I am weak,” say in the first place, “Make me whole, O Lord, for Your mercy’s sake;” and here let the righteous man, who said, “If I have repaid them that recompense me evil,” say, “My righteous help is from the Lord, who makes whole the upright in heart.”  For if he sets forth the medicine, by which we may be healed when weak, how much more that by which we may be kept in health.  For if “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, how much more being now justified shall we be kept whole from wrath through Him.” [Ro 8:35, 38-39]

Augustine of Hippo

Monday, January 25, 2016

Lord, Judge Me

Our pastor is teaching through some of the Psalms, so I thought it might be helpful to post some patristic reflections about the texts being used.

The Lᴏʀᴅ judges the peoples;
    judge me, O Lᴏʀᴅ, according to my righteousness
    and according to the integrity that is in me.  (Ps 7:8)

“Recognize my worthiness of a share in your help, clearly aware that it is most fair that I should beg the assistance of your defense.  After all, though I personally did nothing wrong to anyone, I am oppressed by others’ wrongdoing.”

Now the fact that he says my righteousness, whether speaking in his own person or in someone else’s, suggests that he is right to demand God’s help against his enemies, having been harmed by them.  Nowhere does he make reference to his own righteousness in such a way as to appear to attribute it to the zeal of his own life.  It teaches us as well that at the time we are placed in a hostile situation we can attract the attention of the divine hearing and regard if when suffering from others’ wrongdoing we still serve the cause of justice.  Hence, he goes on in the same vein And according to my innocence over me.  By innocence it is not simplicity he is referring to, but not doing any wrong.  So his meaning is: Just as I am not badly disposed to them, and yet am ill-treated by them, so judge me as someone wronged without cause and suffering unjustly.

Theodore of Mopsuestia

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Seek Not Your Own Glory

Our pastor is teaching through some of the Psalms, so I thought it might be helpful to post some patristic reflections about the texts being used.

O Lᴏʀᴅ my God, if I have done this,
    if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my friend with evil
    or plundered my enemy without cause,
let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it,
    and let him trample my life to the ground
    and lay my glory in the dust.  (Ps 7:3-5)

The pursuit of human glory, we maintain, is forbidden not only by the teaching of Jesus, but also by the Old Testament.  Accordingly we find one of the prophets, when imprecating upon himself certain punishments for the commission of certain sins, includes among the punishments this one of earthly glory.  He says, “O Lord my God, if I have done this; if there be iniquity in my hands; if I have rewarded evil unto him that was at peace with me; (yes, rather, I have delivered him that without cause is my enemy;) let the enemy persecute my soul, and take it; even let him tread down my life upon the earth, and set my glory up on high.” [Origen’s wording]  And these precepts of our Lord,
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.… Look at the birds of the air (or behold the ravens): they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?… And why are you anxious about clothing?  Consider the lilies of the field;” [Mt 6:25-28]
—these precepts, and those which follow, are not inconsistent with the promised blessings of the law, which teaches that the just “shall eat their bread to the full;” [Le 26:5] nor with that saying of Solomon, “The righteous has enough to satisfy his appetite, but the belly of the wicked suffers want.” [Pr 13:25]  For we must consider the food promised in the law as the food of the soul, which is to satisfy not both parts of man’s nature, but the soul only.  And the words of the Gospel, although probably containing a deeper meaning, may yet be taken in their more simple and obvious sense, as teaching us not to be disturbed with anxieties about our food and clothing, but, while living in plainness, and desiring only what is needful, to put our trust in the providence of God.

Origen, Against Celsus VII.24

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Whose Reflection Do You See?

Consider the following question: When the congregants of your church gather at the appointed time for worship on a Sunday morning, who or what is reflected?  The answer will vary and include, but not be limited to, such admirable attributes as love, acceptance, truth, and mercy.  The format will vary along a spectrum of formality from highly structured to chaotic with art and accouterments displayed or eschewed in a manner consistent with a particular style.  All this occurs in the name of reaching unbelievers or “unchurched” with the gospel in whatever way that is envisioned.  I wonder, though, if the truth is not more accurately represented by a well-known line from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale:

Queen:  Looking-glass, Looking-glass, on the wall,
Who in this land is the fairest of all?

Mirror:  Thou, O Queen, art the fairest of all.

In other words, are we are simply telling ourselves what we want to believe in order to rationalize or legitimize our self-made plans, notions, or traditions?

Jonathan Aigner raises a warning flag in his examination of the trend towards multiple worship styles by noting nine points that run counter to the work of the local assembly:
  • • It divides otherwise healthy congregations.
  • • It often segregates along demographic lines.
  • • It establishes a false “old vs. new” dichotomy in congregational song.
  • • It teaches different theologies.
  • • It equates music with worship.
  • • It assumes that historic elements of Christian worship are optional.
  • • It reduces corporate worship to an activity of individualistic self-expression instead of a gathering of covenant people.
  • • It creates a self-centered atmosphere.
  • • It bows at the altar of American consumerism.
While Aigner’s post is aimed at the large church attempting to have multiple styles over their worship services, these points apply to groups moving towards or engaged in what Mike Livingstone coined as “worshiptainment.”  In other words, we feel that we need to entertain in order to get people into the worship service.  He posits three points that strike at the heart of the issue:
  • • Who or what is the spotlight really on?
  • • What message are we communicating?
  • • How are lives changed?
These are important questions for every local assembly to consider.  At the root is what I consider to be the prime question: Should not worship reflect God’s glory?  YHWH establishes his rightful place in relation to his people in the commandments given to Moses:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.… You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Ex 20:2-7)
Honor, glory, and adoration were requisite responses of first importance so that, at the end of the wilderness wandering, Moses gave instruction governing all personal and corporate life.  Torah was to be considered as if physically attached to the body governing all personal and corporate life (De 6:5-9).  This included very definite, explicit instructions for proper worship (Ex 25:9, 40; De 12:13-14) that carried serious, even capital, punishment when neglected (Le 10:1-2; 2 Sa 6:6-7) or rationalized for seemingly good reasons (1 Sa 15:15-19).

With the passing of the Old Covenant, the move has been to increasingly explore new and trendy practices with the idea that there is freedom to explore possibilities.  However, when we take up personal tastes and assumptions of worship practice, we are left with an incoherent and chaotic pattern that serves no one, as the below graphically shows.

HT: Rich Futrell

Alec Satin points out the trend of God’s people to replace reverent worship with irreverent.  He demonstrates through the simple act of applause that churches are following the massive shift away from reverence in society at large.  Those things once held sacred by cultural understanding are now deconstructed and employed in common ways to stimulate base desires or in crude ways to shock sensibilities.  As the envelope continues to be pushed, the limits of credulity are extended until they are paper thin or vanish altogether move from questionable forms and culturally-attuned doctrinal statements to aberrant forms and teaching—the chief goal of the protagonist, Satan.  By placing the sensibilities of the world or ourselves above the Lord’s, we disgrace His name as Martin Luther put forth:
From this every one can readily infer when and in how many ways God’s name is misused, although it is impossible to enumerate all its misuses.… But, the greatest abuse occurs in spiritual matters, which pertain to the conscience, when false preachers rise up and offer their lying vanities as God’s Word.  Behold, all this is dressing one’s self up with God’s name, or making a pretty show, or claiming to be right, whether it happens in gross, worldly business or in sublime, subtle matters of faith and doctrine.
Large Catechism, I.53-55

A scoffer may ask, “Has any local assembly really gone off the rails into that much confusion? That seems far-fetched.”  Some are mentioned in Scripture with Corinth the chief among them.  Matters were so bad that the apostle Paul had to deal with multiple internal issues, not least of which was their meeting practice (1 Co 11:17-14:40).  Clement would later send a non-canonical letter to this same body of Christians because they had inappropriately dismissed their elders—a grievous situation causing the need for an envoy to correct the matter.  Beyond that example are seven churches in Asia Minor from the book of Revelation.  Compare the warning given to the church of Laodicea (Re 3:14-22) with the canons from the Synod of Laodicea, and note that the sinful attitude highlighted by the Lord through John ran rampant 350 years later.  Today, little to no Christian testimony exists because they did not repent of those things that Jesus had warned them to correct.

How do we correct course?

Luther offers a beginning in the subsequent point of his catechism:
Here, then, let us learn and take to heart the great importance of this commandment, that with all diligence we may guard against and dread every misuse of the holy name, as the greatest sin that can be outwardly committed.  For to lie and deceive is in itself a great sin, but is greatly aggravated when we attempt to justify it, and seek to confirm it by invoking the name of God and using it as a cloak for shame, so that from a single lie a double lie, nay, manifold lies, result.
Large Catechism, I.56

In order to guard against the misuse of God’s holy name in worship, we must examine the instructions He gave for worship.  Multiple chapters of the Pentateuch are given over to the exact construction of the structure, utensils, sacrifices, and timing of worship.  This function in the life of the elect is of paramount importance.  Proper worship must be in accord with Divine revelation.  One may object that the constrictions were removed when Jesus died on the cross: after all, He fulfilled all these things to which Mosaic Covenant pointed.  While the system was completely removed as far as a specific building, location, and system, the resulting expectation is greater.  Much as Jesus instructed the crowds in the Sermon on the Mount, we no longer operate according to the letter of the Law, but according to Divine intent.

Throughout the Acts and epistles, we get glimpses of imperfect worship offered by imperfect Christians and instruction to offer it more properly.  The tendency has been to assume these imperfections were meant to show that diversity in worship practice is either allowed or expected.  This places a wrong focus on the actions of forgiven sinners to instruct our concept of worship while placing less emphasis on the corrective instruction.  The first epistle to Corinth gives a case in point.  Near the end of his teaching on church order, Paul states:
What then, brothers?  When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.  (1 Co 14:26a)
First, the apostle is describing the current condition.  The meetings described in chapters 11-14 have been bedlam while prophets, teachers, and tongues-speakers ply their skills.  Some have used this passage to suggest the gifts are to be used in whatever way is desired and as the Spirit moves.  Paul intends to correct the problem of chaos.
Let all things be done for building up.  (1 Co 14:26b)
But all things should be done decently and in order.  (1 Co 14:40)
Rather than continuing on the path they had begun, order needed to be restored that believers might edify one another, not themselves.

What should our worship look like?

While I have stated or implied that we cannot be lackadaisical or haphazard, neither must we be rigid, however there are definite New Testament patterns by returning to the book of Revelation.  There we find a pattern and characteristics to be emulated.
  • Ordered – Each group of worshipers understands their place and function within their position as intended.
  • Reverential – The worshipers bow in reverence, casting what they have been freely given at the feet of the Giver of all good things, yet there are those represented who are welcome to bring their petitions before the Lord.
  • Focused – The Lord Jesus Christ is ever the focus of worship.  None of the songs proclaim what the worshiper intends to do; nor do they speak of Him as their lover, confidant, BFF, or other earthly relationship.  They refer to Him as Lord over all having won salvation and is worthy to receive honor and execute judgment.
  • Dialogical – Throughout the book we see a pattern of revelation or action from Jesus followed by a response from the heavenly host.  This not simply a remembrance of what happened in prior times, but a continual interaction between the Lord and His saints.
  • Edifying – The saints slain for their testimony were clothed with white robes and the comforting promise that though others would die, there would be an end.
I could probably bring out other elements, but these should suffice.  The question to ask one another is: Are we as a local assembly worshiping aright, or have we given way to the whims of culture or personal taste?  We would do well to periodically evaluate what constitutes worship within our assemblies, compare that to Scripture, and make any adjustments to reflect the Lord’s glory and not our own.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Serve with Fear, Rejoice with Trembling

Our pastor is teaching through some of the Psalms, so I thought it might be helpful to post some patristic reflections about the texts being used.

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; 
    be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
    and rejoice with trembling.  (Ps 2:10-11)

At this point the usefulness of exhortation is applied, and all are summoned to make their approach in haste to believe the Lord.  Now the address is of necessity made to kings, since they were the ones who had more difficulty in believing in Christ and even raised no small problems for others prepared to believe, while setting the frightening prospect of persecution against the approach of faith.  Hence the thrust of that exhortation logically brought pressure to bear on them.… He wishes the service to which he calls them to be not obligatory but voluntary; and on account of his saying, Serve the Lord with fear, he added Rejoice in him with trembling in case he should think that he was requiring that unseemly dread that is characteristic of one’s desperate plight.  By the first clause, where he required devoted service, he wishes to bring out the dignity of the one to be served, because the higher the personage to be obeyed, the greater devotion one brings to his service, whereas in the following clause he brought out by one word rejoicing the subjection of a soul that is not sad, but joyful, and a subjection that would be the cause not of grief but of salvation to those who serve.  When we obey the commands of such a master, you see, we serve the interests of our life and are filled with the benefit of a clearer conscience.

Theodore of Mopsuestia

Monday, January 18, 2016

Delighting in the Law of the Lord

Our pastor is teaching through some of the Psalms, so I thought it might be helpful to post some patristic reflections about the texts being used.

Blessed is the man
    who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lᴏʀᴅ,

    and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
    planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
    and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.  (Ps 1:1-3)

There are therefore two things that contribute to a person’s attaining blessedness: correct views on doctrine, for the purpose of having a dutiful and upright attitude toward God, and a disciplined moral upbringing, for living in an honorable and sound manner.  Neither suffices for perfection without the other, each being supplemented or accompanied by the other.  Faith takes pride of place among them, just as in the body the head is given greater esteem than the other members.  Still, for a person’s perfection, relationship with the other members and conjunction of the limbs are also required.  Likewise, for the full development of life, both of these things must come together—namely faith and life.

Theodore of Mopsuestia

The epithet “blessed,” therefore, constitutes the fruit of perfection as far as virtue is concerned.  You see, every practice in life looks towards the goal: athletics looks towards olive wreaths, martial arts towards victories and spoils, medicine certainly towards good health and cure of disease, commerce towards amassing wealth and abundance of riches.  The practice of virtue has as its fruit and goal the blessedness from God. … Since flight from evil, however, is not sufficient for perfection of virtue, “Turn aside from evil,” he says, “and do good,” [Ps 37:27] and blessed Isaiah says, “Put an end to your wrongdoing, learn to do good.” [Is 1:16-17]  Quite appropriately blessed David added, But his delight is in the law of the Lᴏʀᴅ, and on his law he meditates day and night.  What is required is not merely to abhor the above-mentioned but also to give one’s attention to the divine law night and day, to choose what the divine law dictates, and to guide one’s life according to its direction.  This, after all, is what the God of all enjoined through Moses in the words “The words of this law will be at all times in your mouth, and you will ponder them seated or rising, in bed or on the road traveling; you shall hang them from your hand, and they shall be fixed before your eyes.”  [Dt 6:6-8]

Theodoret of Cyrus

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Chosen People by Chad Thornhill – Book Review

A. Chadwick Thornhill.  The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

As I was perusing new releases from IVP Academic, the subject matter of this book piqued my interest, and the description promising a “careful and provocative study” enticed me to secure a copy.

Thornhill’s purpose is to mine the non-canonical materials of Second Temple Judaism for some clarification of what those writers meant when referring to a person or group as “chosen.”  The documents used fall into three categories: Dead Sea Scrolls, The Apocrypha, and pseudepigraphal works (Jubilees, Psalms of Solomon, etc.).  The typical Christian will wonder why any time should be devoted to reading, much less studying, these texts.  Not only are these worthwhile to understand the religious nature of Israel in the first century, but Christians, through the first fifteen centuries, held The Apocrypha in high regard and considered it useful reading.  With this in mind, we understand the importance of grasping the Second Temple mindset while reading and studying the New Testament.

Thornhill clearly identifies in the aforementioned texts the breadth of Second Temple understanding concerning God’s election.  The opening chapters seek to answer important questions:
  • God Chose Whom? Election and the Individual
  • Who Are the People of God?
  • Who’s In and Who’s Out? Election and “Conditions”
  • How Big a Tent?
  • Whose Turn Is It? Election and Responsibility
The author does a good job of laying out who was considered to be elect and in what way election was both corporate and individual.  The conclusions he reaches from this study help us understand how the rabbis and other spiritual leaders of this era viewed their place as God’s chosen people, the inclusion of Gentile proselytes, and the conditions for remaining within the covenant.  It also gives insight into the tenuous political relationship with the Roman empire as an occupied territory.  As Thornhill suggests, the disparate spiritual forces within Israel resulted in the heterogeneous interpretations of Judaism’s fine points, but the aggregate goal lay in a unity around their Scriptures and heritage.

After mining the documents, determining their relevancy, and producing appropriate conclusions, Thornhill attempts to demonstrate how Paul’s teaching on election is to be understood in light of these texts.  As a Pharisee, the apostle would have been schooled by Gamaliel in the ethos of the Second Temple, and upon conversion would have carried over into his missionary work and epistles.  In this regard, the author walks the path of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) blazed by E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright.  NPP promotes that people demonstrate their belief in Jesus (and previously YHWH) by works performed in faith.  In other words, if you do the works specified under the covenant, you show yourself to be within the covenant as a child of God, but if you do not, then your failure puts you outside the covenant.  This line of reasoning raises questions.

What is the purpose of good works?
While the concept of works performance may appeal to Christians as a correct understanding of such passages as Matthew 25:31-46 and James 2:14-26, works do not drive our position within covenant life.  Rather works demonstrate that one who has faith will do the good deeds as a natural outworking the new nature, not as evidence or maintenance of the new nature.  This can be shown via examples from the Scriptures.

Consider first two individuals from the time of the Judges: Jephthah (Judges 11-12) and Samson (Judges 13-16).  Both of these men lived within the governing parameters of the Mosaic covenant, yet both were clearly not performing works in accord with that covenant.  Were they in or out?  Clearly, they were in since they both operated as Judges through divine enabling and are given passing mention as performing their recorded deeds by faith in Hebrews 11—a contradiction to the tenets of NPP.

The second example comes from PaulTwo churches receiving epistles from the apostle performed works clearly outside of that proscribed by the New Covenant in Christ.  The church at Corinth had begun relishing in the newfound freedom that was theirs in Christ to the point of licentious living and worship.  The church of Galatia had done just the opposite by trying to add works to the grace and freedom given in Christ.  Both were acting in opposition to the covenant they entered, yet Paul refers to them as brethren, demonstrating their position within the covenant community, rebuking and admonishing so to turn them toward a proper life in Christ.  They were covenant-trusting believers who needed correction.  Again, if NPP is correct, Paul would have been incorrect to consider these members as within Christ’s body and should not have treated them as such.

Are the Second Temple documents relevant to Paul’s teaching?
As mentioned above, the body of literature developing at this time demonstrates the social, political, and religious views of the nation.  This background helps greatly in understanding the interaction between Jesus and the religious authorities (Pharisees, Sadducees, etc.) as He corrected their improper handling of the Law given through Moses.  The documents produced would an incorrect view of God and Israel as to purpose in being and ongoing mission.  As a Pharisee, Paul would have been well-versed in the nuances of Judaic instruction, yet we see with the Damascus road incident, a complete shift in perspective.  The apostle later explicitly states that all he had gained through his heritage, instruction, and training in Judaism were worthless in comparison to knowing Christ (Philippians 3:4-9).  With this attitude driving him, we would not expect the teaching on the place of works that he received as a Pharisee to be passed to the churches he planted as they would be counterproductive to the gospel.

These serious questions must be considered while following the author’s attempts to make links to the Pauline doctrine of election, especially in his chapter on Romans 8:26-11:36.  While he makes helpful comments concerning both the individual and corporate aspects of election in this section of Scripture, we are left with the notion that the Christian is an integral, if not primary, agent in covenantal election.  To be sure, there is an aspect of the faith/faithfulness distinction made in the book that helps us see the link between belief and the life lived, but we cannot conclude that the lack of works places us outside the covenant.  More correctly, the person demonstrating these outward indicators does so from some measure of disbelief.  Depending on your doctrinal understanding, the lack of trust in the covenant-making God places or shows one outside the covenant (see Hebrews 6:4-8; 10:26-31).  Whichever the case, the conclusion is clear: there is no longer an active faith, therefore no faithfulness in attitude or action—not the converse.

I commend Thornhill for his investigative work and excellent treatment of the source documents in presenting his thesis.  His careful work serves the Christian community with further understanding of the Second Temple documents and what that brings to the New Testament, however the conclusions that these documents are needful to comprehend Paul’s teaching on election should be dismissed.  One can gain much useful knowledge from this work, however discernment must be exercised as to its application.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free of charge.  I was not required to write a positive review, and the opinions are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Men, It's Your Responsibility

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  (Deut 6:6-7)

On Monday, I shared a link on Facebook to a post at Brothers of John the Steadfast entitled “Real Men Catechize their Children” reaffirming the responsibility of fathers to teach their children the truths they have learned from God’s Word.  Thinking on the subject later, I was reminded of what Martin Luther wrote in his preface to the Small Catechism:
The deplorable, miserable condition which I discovered lately when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare this Catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form.  Mercy!  Dear God, what manifold misery I beheld!  The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach [so much so, that one is ashamed to speak of it].  Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians, have been baptized and receive the holy Sacraments.  Yet they cannot even recite either the Lord’s Prayer, or the Creed, or the Ten Commandments.  They live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs.  Now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all liberty like experts.

O bishops!  What answer will you ever give to Christ for having so shamefully neglected the people and never for a moment discharged your office?  May all misfortune run from you!  I do not wish at this place to invoke evil on your heads.  You command the Sacrament in one form and insist on your human laws, and yet at the same time you do not care in the least whether the people know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, or any part of the Word of God.  Woe, woe, unto you forever!
Small Catechism, Preface.1-3

This is a sorry state of affairs but quite common today.  Too many fathers are guilty of dereliction of duty concerning their families.  Somewhere along the way, we determined that religious or spiritual matters are too feminine for a man’s man.  Let mom do it.  If you ask me, the fathers are scared.  They are rightly fear handling holy things, and because there is no good body of instruction or pattern of discipleship, they feel unqualified.  They did not learn how from either their fathers or their pastors.  Luther rails against both for neglecting responsibilities and not teaching others what Christ has commanded.

Parachurch ministries have popped up to help fill the gap.  The Navigators and Verge Network both have discipleship materials and training, but what they offer for a fee should be readily available in the local assembly for no charge because it is common practice, handed from one person or generation to the next.  Think about this: publishing companies were not around when Israel wandered in the wilderness.  The people needed to learn and remember the Law and be reminded regularly through instruction from the priests.  This instruction the parents passed to their families.  I do not fault the parachurch organizations for their work: the blame belongs at the local level.

Scripture is divinely powerful and effectual.  It changed you.  It changes you.  The good work begun in you will be brought to completion at the day of Christ (Phil 1:6).  Pastors, preach and teach the Word rightly.  Fathers (and by extension mothers), teach your children.  Men and women, teach younger men and women.  In other words, follow Paul’s instruction to Titus and Timothy:
But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.  Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness.  Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine.  They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.  Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled.  (Titus 2:1-6)

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.  (2 Tim 2:1-2)
Nothing has been revoked, rescinded, or invalidated.  Teach the abundance of God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

God Is with Us

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

    “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
        and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us).  (Mt 1:22-23)

In a tone worthy of the wonder, with all his might he has uttered his voice, saying, “Now all this was done.”  For when he saw the sea and the abyss of the love of God towards man, and that actually come to pass which never had been looked for, and nature’s laws broken, and reconciliations made, Him who is above all come down to him that is lower than all, and “the middle walls of partition broken,” and the impediments removed, and many more things than these done besides; in one word he has put before us the miracle, saying, “Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord.”  Which same thing Paul also everywhere labors to prove.

And the angel proceeds to refer Joseph to Isaiah.  In order that even if he should, when awakened, forget his own words, as newly spoken, he might by being reminded of those of the prophet, with which he had been nourished up continually, retain likewise the substance of what he had said. … For this reason the angel, to make what he said easy to be received, brings in Isaiah.  And neither here does he stop, but connects the discourse with God.  For he does not call the saying Isaiah’s, but that of the God of all things.  For this reason he said not, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of Isaiah,” but “which was spoken of the Lord.”  For the mouth indeed was Isaiah’s, but the oracle was given from above.

What then does this oracle say? “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.”  How was it then, one may say, that His name was not called Immanuel, but Jesus Christ?  Because he said not, “thou shalt call,” but “they shall call,” that is, the multitude, and the issue of events.  For here he puts the event as a name: and this is customary in Scripture, to substitute the events that take place for names.  Therefore, to say, “they shall call” Him “Immanuel,” means nothing else than that they shall see God among men.

John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew V.2-3