Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Judgment and Loss

For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder, I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are. (1 Co 3:9–17)

Everything I have heard or read on this passage until now looked at this passage as directly applicable to the individual. In other words, every bit of what you or I do in the Kingdom of God will be judged by fire, so we better be doing the best job we can with the best tools and materials we have in order to continue to build God’s house.  If not, we will lose the reward we could have had because the cheap attempts will be burned up. This tactic is familiar in many Christian circles. The idea is to goad the believer into trying harder to be a better Christian through non-stop evangelism and good works. The effects may last anywhere from nightfall to sometime the next day, but eventually, failure is certain. True, the Christian is able to perform these tasks, however, inevitably such browbeating leaves the believer with a nagging uncertainty that enough has been accomplished because the prescribed application is wrong.

Context, Context, Context
Let me ask this question: what is the context of chapter 3? What has been the thrust of the apostle Paul’s opening remarks? There is division in the church (1 Co 1:11). And how does he respond?
  • I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. (1 Co 1:14)
  • And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. (1 Co 2:1–2)
  • And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. (1 Co 3:1)
  • Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Co 4:1)
  • For this reason, I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Co 4:17)
Read the first four chapters, and the common theme becomes clear. Paul is addressing those who are building Christ’s church with apostolic or apostolic-designate authority. Within the immediate context of chapter three, then, the building is being accomplished by one ordained to the task, not the average Christian in Corinth. The master builder is being judged according to how he conducts himself in the duties of his office. The faithful worker uses the precious, enduring materials of Scripture rightly divided as well as sacraments rightly administered, while the unfaithful build with the common and temporary measures brought in for pragmatic or promotional reasons.

What about Me?
Is there a personal application for this section of Paul’s epistle? Yes, but it is secondary in nature. The common (or lay) believer does not have the burden of responsibility that comes with an ecclesial office, but there is a responsibility to walk in a manner that reflects the gospel as Paul mentions in his epistle to Ephesus:
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience,… [but now] we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:1–2, 10)

I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph 4:1–3)
Because we have been brought from darkness to light, from death to life, we conduct ourselves to one another’s good that all may be lifted up. We show ourselves to unbelievers in a manner that they might see our good works and want an answer for the hope within us.

What of the Judgment?
What do we say of the final judgment for believers? What will that be like? Again we draw from Paul as he wrote in his second epistle to Corinth:
Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. (2 Co 5:9–10)
We will each receive what he or she has done in the body but not in a way that should instill fear or regret if we hold fast. The author of Psalm 99 exhorts all the people to praise the Lord together. We are reminded that Moses, Aaron, and Samuel all called on His name and were heard, yet they were fallible men able to commit grievous sins. Of what does the psalmist remind us?
O Lord our God, You listened to them;
O God, You were very merciful to them,
while avenging all their ways of living. (Ps 99:8 LXX)
God dealt with the sin in a merciful, yet just, manner. There was nothing for these saints of old to fear after death. Neither should we be concerned. Did these men lose a reward? Yes, in a temporal way, but they still rested on His promise to receive the faithful. If we worry that not enough has been done, perhaps our emphasis is in the wrong place. Each believer is called to be a good steward in his or her vocation or station in life. Do what has been given you to do, not be worried about what you cannot do.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Are You Losing It?

For years I (and many others) have noted that churchgoers no longer consider the lyrics they are singing. This comedy sketch from Cedarville Comedy is obtuse, but it demonstrates the current focus to lose oneself in the worship experience.

One might retort that this is too ridiculous to be believed. To that, I would ask the same to consider the enterprising musicians who manufactured a song (found here) intentionally taking the tag lines and popular styles of leading worship bands to construct a parody song that sounds as good (or better) than the actual groups being parodied.

If your Sunday morning resembles the above, you may need to reconsider if that church is worshiping in spirit and in truth. Better to remember the words of John Chrysostom who warned:
Since this sort of pleasure is natural to our soul, and lest the demons introduce licentious songs and upset everything, God erected the barrier of the psalms, so that they should be a matter of both pleasure and profit. For from strange songs, harm and destruction enter in along with many a dread thing, since what is wanton and contrary to the law in these songs settles in the various parts of the soul, rendering it weak and soft. But from the spiritual psalms can come considerable pleasure, much that is useful, much that is holy, and the foundation of all philosophy, as these texts cleanse the soul and the Holy Spirit flies swiftly to the soul who sings such songs. (On Psalm XLI)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has become His counselor?”
“Or who has first given to Him
And it shall be repaid to him?”
For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen. (Ro 11:33–36)

Whence this outburst of feeling? Surely from the recollection of the Scriptures, which he had been previously turning over, as well as from his contemplation of the mysteries which he had been setting forth above, in relation to the faith of Christ coming from the law.… The truth is, the Creator’s resources and riches, which once had been hidden, were now disclosed. For so had He promised: “I will give to them treasures which have been hidden, and which men have not seen will I open to them.” [Is 45:3] Hence, then, came the exclamation, “O the depth of the riches and the wisdom of God!” For His treasures were now opening out. This is the purport of what Isaiah said, and of (the apostle’s own) subsequent quotation of the self-same passage, of the prophet: “Who has known the mind of the Lord? or who has been His counselor? Who has first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed to him again?”

Tertullian, Against Marcion V.14

God knew from the beginning what man’s behavior and works would be like, in that the human race could not be saved only by the severity of his justice nor could it reach perfection only by his mercy. So at a particular time he decreed what should be preached, whereas before that time he allowed each person to decide for himself, because righteousness was recognized under the guidance of nature. And because the authority of natural righteousness was weakened by the habit of sin, the law was given so that the human race would be held back by the fear engendered by the revealed law. But because they did not restrain themselves and were counted guilty under the law, mercy was proclaimed, which would save those who took refuge in it but would blind those who rejected it for a time. During that time this mercy would invite the Gentiles, who earlier on had not wanted to follow the law given to Moses, to share in the promise, so that the Jews might become jealous of their salvation and because of that jealousy turn again to the source of the root, which is the Savior. This is “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God,” who by his many-sided providence has won both Jews and Gentiles to eternal life.

Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The World Hated Me First

If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. But you are not of the world, since I chose you out of the world, and so the world hates you. (John 15:18–19)

Last month  I wrote a post on the conflict of postmodern thought with natural law. As I have thought more about the subject in light of current events (Alt-Right vs. Antifa, tearing down monuments, college students demanding the cancellation of invited speakers or the removal of faculty, etc.) While the outbreaks do not appear to be the voice of a national majority, the groups are finding a local or regional voice, specific to their situations. While these outbreaks are localized, they are united in mindset—take every measure to promote, establish, and maintain the groups beliefs. Rejecting any modicum of civility, they manifest them themselves in competing factions of pagan tribalism. Intent on promoting their respective goals, the groups create syncretistic bonds long enough to win the engagement and continue tribal pursuits, often times turning on former allies.

While the politicians and media attempt to dissect the rancor from a worldly perspective, we who follow the Bible understand the issue: they have wholeheartedly rejected our God and His Christ. Mind you, the outrage against our Lord is not some mild indifference, rather the rancor is manifest in wholesale attacks on Christians by making inroads in legislation, then using the judicial system to force the outliers into conformity. It is here that we might ask the same questions put forth by Arnobius of Sicca (ad c. 255–330) in his work Against the Pagans (II.1–2):
If you think it no dishonor to answer when asked a question, explain to us and say what is the cause, what the reason, that you pursue Christ with so bitter hostility? or what offenses you remember which He did, that at the mention of His name you are roused to bursts of mad and savage fury?
In other words, what did Jesus ever do to you to cause such a response? Arnobius offered some possible objections:
  • Did He ever, in claiming for Himself power as king, fill the whole world with bands of the fiercest soldiers?
  • Did He destroy nations at peace, putting an end to some, and compelling others to submit to His yoke and serve Him?
  • Did He ever, excited by grasping avarice, claim as His own by right all that wealth to have abundance of which men strive eagerly?
  • Did He ever, transported with lustful passions, break down by force the barriers of purity, or stealthily lie in wait for other men’s wives?
  • Did He ever, puffed up with haughty arrogance, inflict at random injuries and insults, without any distinction of persons?
What was the great wickedness that Christ had foisted on the world? He extended “the light of life to all” and showed to them “things concerning salvation, that He prepared for you a path to heaven, and the immortality for which you long.” The horror of it all, that Christ should freely offer Himself as the way to the Father. But the issue was the exclusivity of His claim.

The Roman empire had built within it a polytheistic worship system that the citizenry felt needed to be maintained. In like manner, postmodernism asserts that any norm is acceptable if the society, culture, or tribe in which one identifies accepts that norm as its own for a common good. With a multiplicity of worship practices, the empire needed to ensure the diversity of gods and worship practices. In similar fashion, the U.S. is being required to maintain the same level of diversity to accommodate the new tribalism. The exclusivity of the cross is offensive to those wishing to honor the gods sexual perversion, abortion, racism, etc.

Arnobius went on to ask if Christ should be denounced because He was the rightful One to whom homage was given:
Is He then denounced as the destroyer of religion and promoter of impiety, who brought true religion into the world, who opened the gates of piety to men blind and verily living in impiety, and pointed out to whom they should bow themselves? Or is there any truer religion—one more serviceable, powerful, and right—than to have learned to know the supreme God, to know how to pray to God Supreme, who alone is the source and fountain of all good, the creator, founder, and framer of all that endures, by whom all things on earth and all in heaven are quickened, and filled with the stir of life, and without whom there would assuredly be nothing to bear any name, and have any substance?
The short answer was: of course not. Who else would be worthy since He made known the way to the one, true God? And yet there is the problem. The world does not know, nor wants to know, the One who laid down His life that they might live, because it means they were wrong. What seemed to be the normal course of things was actually the way of death and destruction, but through the Lord Jesus, there is life.

The world will continue to hate Christ and His church because we are a constant reminder that there is One who convicts of sin, righteous, and judgment; and there is coming a day when all will be judged, both good and bad. Let us hold fast in the face of a culture desiring to quell the message of the cross.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Apse mosaic, Santa Prudenziana, Rome, c. 415

Thus says the Lord: “Keep justice, and do righteousness; for My salvation is about to come, and My mercy shall be revealed.… And I will give it to the strangers that attach themselves to the Lord, to serve Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be to Him servants and handmaids; and as for all that keep My Sabbaths, from profaning them, and that take hold of My covenant, I will bring them to My holy mountain, and gladden them in My house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations,” says the Lord that gathers the dispersed of Israel; “for I will gather to him a congregation.” (Is 56:1, 6–8)

Heresies and schisms spring from the source of evils, and, therefore, whoever comes to unity returns from vice to nature; for just as it is natural for many to become one, so is it a vice to avoid the sweetness of brotherly love. Let us, then, with our whole hearts lifted up in joy that Christ has restored His friendship in a single Church the people who had perished from love of strife. In this Church, the harmony of love will again receive them. Of this Church, the prophet foretold, saying: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” And again, he said: “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it; many people shall come and say: ‘Come let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob.’” [Is 2:2–3] Now the mountain is Christ, and the house of the God of Jacob is His one Church, toward which the concourse of nations and assembly of peoples is moving by this pronouncement.

Leander of Seville, Sermon on the Triumph of the Church

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Are You a Heretic?

American Christians have a mixed relationship with creeds ranging from “Creeds are on equal standing with Scripture” to “No creed but Scripture.” Regardless of where one stands on this spectrum, there is an acknowledgment that creeds formed in the early centuries of the church are important. As heresy entered, statements were formed that documented what the Church believed, taught, and confessed. Because they correctly summarized Scripture, they are now considered standards upon which modern belief is built and, therefore, useful for study. However, too often the average Christian, whether pastor or layman, believes this knowledge is suitable only as an historical curio or point of academic discussion, but not useful for common life and practice. As a result, both pedagogue and pupil can mistakenly cling to heresy. To demonstrate the propensity to error, we will look at the Niceno-Constantinopolitan (or Nicene) Creed. Drafted at the First Council of Nicea (325) and later amended at the First Council of Constantinople (381), this creed has three major parts, coïnciding with the three Persons of the Trinity.
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only‐begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.
As a centuries old statement of faith, this creed has stood the test of time. In my circles of Christian fellowship, someone would read through this and say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I believe,” without another thought. Probably you would as well. In fact, I would say that every person and organization identifying as an evangelical would affirm this creed while in actuality they do not believe it completely.

At this point you are probably reviewing the creed to see if something jumps out where you might be off base. God, the Father, created all things? Check. Jesus is of same essence as the Father? Check. Born of the Virgin Mary? Check. You get the picture—all well and good. Now move down to the third section.  Same essence glory as the Father and Son. Check. Source of Church unity through all ages. Check. Baptism remits sin. Wait. Baptism remits sin? Yes, the Nicene Creed affirms that baptism remits or cancels sin.

Conspiracy theorists will want to opine that the church was in such disarray that the council representatives did not know what they were doing, or possibly Rome had already corrupted the fourth-century church into accepting what every good Christian knows to be unbiblical doctrine. Church history tells us differently as demonstrated by two examples preceding the councils by 200 years.
Epistle of Barnabas XI
Let us further inquire whether the Lord took any care to foreshadow the water [of baptism] and the cross. Concerning the water, indeed, it is written, in reference to the Israelites, that they should not receive that baptism which leads to the remission of sins, but should procure another for themselves.… This means, that we indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in Jesus in our spirit.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho XIV
By reason, therefore, of this laver of repentance and knowledge of God, which has been ordained on account of the transgression of God’s people, as Isaiah cries, we have believed, and testify that that very baptism which he announced is alone able to purify those who have repented; and this is the water of life. But the cisterns which you have dug for yourselves are broken and profitless to you. For what is the use of that baptism which cleanses the flesh and body alone? Baptize the soul from wrath and from covetousness, from envy, and from hatred; and, lo! the body is pure.
Should some assert that these are merely examples of doctrine gone awry, they will be faced with some insurmountable obstacles:
  1. The above quotes were written within 50–100 years of the martyrdoms of both Peter and Paul. Had these post-apostolic writings been aberrations, others would have arisen to correct them. We have no such correction.
  2. Scripture teaches that baptism saves us, being the physical instrument bringing us from death to new life through faith (Rom 6:3–6; Col 2:11–14).
Not until the sixteenth century was the place of baptism questioned. Why do we now insist that it must be no more than an outward symbol of an inward reality? While the symbolism is valid, such bare adherence strips the Word of God of its power and authority. A picture may paint a thousand words, but it has no eternal consequence.

So, the Original Question Remains
Are you a heretic? Perhaps the word heretic is too strong for someone who does not see baptism for what it is. Fine. I can soften the question: are you heterodox? Still too harsh? Let me ask this: are you simply ignorant of the facts? Whichever is accurate, you are left with a decision. Do you stand with theologians and teachers, whether popular or obscure, whose erudite scholarship is deemed of greater import than the “uninformed” patristic writers; or do you hold fast to the apostles and prophets who handed this doctrine to faithful confessors who likewise taught other faithful men and so on.

I say it is better to believe on Him Who is able to deliver what He has promised in the manner He promised.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Baptism Is an Act of God

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Eph 4:4–6)

The rite of baptism, when it finally occurs, is not a mere seal set on the initiate as a sign of the successful performance of a series of penitential acts for purification, as Basil summarized the baptism of Moses, nor is it an external washing for forgiveness of sins as with John the Baptist, but it is rather a divine act involving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.*

John the Baptist, than whom there is no greater among them that are born of woman [cf. Matt. 11:11], likewise bears witness in the words: He must increase, but I must decrease [John 3:30]; and again: I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance, but he baptizes you in the Holy Spirit and fire [Matt. 3:11], and so in many other places. The Holy Spirit is as far superior to water as he who baptizes in the Holy Spirit obviously is to him who baptizes in water. And this is true also of the baptism itself. [Basil, Concerning Baptism 1.2.4]

Baptism is an act of God the Holy Spirit in the believer.

Timothy P. McConnell, Illumination in Basil of Caesarea’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

* McConnell is trying to harmonize the biblical divine work being accomplished at baptism with personal belief displayed through Basil’s requirement of catechism and moral transformation prior to baptism.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (Ro 10:9–10)

There is need of both, of faith true and firm, and of confession made with confidence so that the heart may be adorned with the certitude of faith, and the tongue made resplendent by fearless proclamation of the truth.

Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on Romans

Paul in Berea
 How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written:
“How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace,
    Who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Ro 10:14–15)
It is necessary first to believe, then to call. But it is impossible to believe if one does not have the benefit of the teaching, and this could not happen with no preachers, and ordination in turn is responsible for them. After citing these points in this manner by way of Jews’ defense, he uses them to add to the accusation against them; the last one, that relating to the sending of the preachers, he put first to show that it was forecast from the beginning. It was, in fact, logical to give it pride of place ahead of the others: the first need is for the preachers to be ordained,then the preaching, then the listening to the preachers, and at that point the coming of faith. Accordingly, he adduces the prophecy of Isaiah…; the Lord, remember, bade the apostles say on entering a house, “Peace be to this house” [Lk 10:5]: they indicated the divine reconciliation, and brought the good news of the enjoyment of good things.

Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on Romans

Friday, August 4, 2017

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

You that thirst, go to the water,
    and all that have no money, go and buy;
and eat and drink wine and milk
    without money or price.
Why do you value at the price of money,
    and give your labor for that which will not satisfy?
Hearken to Me, and you shall eat of all that is good,
    and your soul shall feast itself on good things.
Listen with your ears, and follow My ways;
    obey Me, and your soul shall live in prosperity;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
    the sure mercies of David.
Behold, I have made him a testimony among the Gentiles,
    a prince and commander to the Gentiles.
Nations which know you not shall call upon you,
    and peoples which are not acquainted with you shall flee to you for refuge,
for the sake of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel;
    for He has glorified you. (Is 55:1-5)

How can they purchase, yet receive gifts without paying? Well, because we accept the payment in faith from Christ, and we pay for none of these things with short-term or perishable goods. For it says, “I said to my Lord, ‘You are my Lord since you have no need of goods from me’”* By way of gifts and honor to Christ we offer to Christ the confession of faith in Him. So without money and payment comes this drink and bountiful gift of spiritual charisms. For what could we offer and what price could we pay for such a drink? For those drinking the living water are those enriched with grace through the Holy Spirit through participation in Him and purchasing this through faith, since they are sharers of the wine and suet, that is, of the holy body and the blood of Christ.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Isaiah

* Psalm 16:2