Sunday, July 31, 2011

Is There a Message from God in Our Immigration Crisis?

"The sojourner who is among you shall rise higher and higher above you, and you shall come down lower and lower. He shall lend to you, and you shall not lend to him. He shall be the head, and you shall be the tail."
- Deuteronomy 28:43-44

I have written before about the treatment of sojourners, popularly referred to as "illegal aliens," in our country. I consider it a mark of shame. But I am also thinking there is more to it.

Among the curses enumerated in Deuteronomy for unfaithfulness is the one above. God warns that he will economically downgrade His covenant people, and lift up the unbelieving immigrants among them. Have we not seen this? I see a lot of Hispanic workers in the store where I work. As a result of their work ethic, not only are they able to support themselves here, but they also send money home to their families. And after that, they have enough left over for a lot of beer! I know that I don't have enough left after the bills to spend so much on frivolous pleasures like that. And I know a lot of Americans who have become unable to keep up with their basic expenses.

In my earlier post, I protested the treatment of the sojourner in our society. The Bible speaks strongly against this. Exodus 22:21, "You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt." And Exodus 23:9, "You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt." Look also at Leviticus 19:33 and Ezekiel 22:29.

Our society has been retreating from its covenanted commitments for quite a while now. It looks to me as if God has chosen the particular curse that will strike most at our pride. Where we had looked to the Hispanic immigrants to provide cheap migrant labor or domestic service, "wetbacks" some people call them, instead God has blessed them to strike at our neglect of Him. What sorrow we should feel!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Thank God for the Wonder of Election!

"Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother

Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
I Corinthians 1:1-3

I was inspired to write this by the sermon at church this morning.

After leaving Athens, Paul went to Corinth, to establish a church there. This journey is described in Acts 18. This journey could not have been made gladly, because Corinth of that time had a reputation for immorality. Prostitution was endemic, including cult prostitution by both men and women. The name of the city actually became a by-word, "to corinthianize", meaning "to be devoted to sexual excess."

However, Paul came with a promise from God (Acts 18:10): "I have many in this city who are my people." Paul had the comfort of God's election, knowing that God had chosen from eternity past, particular individuals in Corinth to know Him through the ministry of Paul. I suspect that this would be a great comfort to all Reformed ministers, knowing that human sight may look on their ministries as hopeless, but God's purposes of grace guarantee them eternal success.

And what was the fruit of Paul's ministry? I Corinthians 6:9-11 demonstrates the triumph of the Gospel. "Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." The very people whose morality was the butt of jokes in a society known for bathhouses and orgies are now made new creatures in Christ!

I think this demonstrates a number of things. First, it shows the lie to the Arminian accusation that Calvinism kills the evangelistic spirit. Here it is actually the encouragement to Paul's evangelistic effort. Second, it exposes how small our view of grace is. As our pastor asked us today, who do we prefer for evangelism and church planting? Middle-class, upright people (which is not to say that I don't believe such people need the Gospel). Who would we least expect to reach? The very people that Paul announces were former prostitutes! Our hands are too clean and our Gospel is too small!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Luke 22:24-27, Does Christ Forbid Bishops, a Class of Clergy that Rules over the Rest?

"A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, 'The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.'"

Referring to Titus 1:5-9, I have said before that the Bible knows no office of "bishop," except as a synonym for "elder." In particular, I believe that the office of monarchical bishop as it exists in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal Churches is opposed to Scripture, and, in fact, rebellion against the only Head of the Church. Such an office sets one clergyman in rule over his fellows. And, of course, the office of the Pope sets one man over even his fellow bishops.

I believe that the Westminster Confession of Faith (XXV:6) is correct in saying, "There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God." The passage above is a key support for this doctrine. If Christ forbids an apostle from ruling over the others, requiring them instead mutually to serve one another, how can any lesser person claim such authority for himself? I won't even go into what these verses say about the supposed supremacy of Peter!

Christ, as Head of the Church, has given her a government of elders, whether primarily ruling or primarily teaching. And these elders hold no rule over any other elder (except in the sense of mutual subjection). The Pope and all the popelets in the world have set themselves up in rebellion against their Head. How can such rebels feed the flock from illegitimate places of power? Yet this is the fundamental calling of their office (I Peter 5:2)!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

John Bunyan on Prayer

The Puritan John Bunyan is best known as the writer of "Pilgrim's Progress." But the rest of his ministry has been forgotten. For example, I didn't know until I started putting this post together, that he had spent twelve years in prison for his faith. He also wrote other spiritual works. The one that is relevant here was "I Will Pray with the Spirit" (available online here).

Bunyan was a sincerely spiritual man. I found the following quote in "Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer," edited by Joel Beeke and Brian Najapfour. I find so much that the Puritans said to be deeply convicting. I frequently ask God to give me the faith, faithfulness, and passion that they had.

Bunyan said, "Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God hath promised, or according to the word, for the good of the Church, with submission, in faith, to the will of God." Notice the things that he includes in his definition of prayer: the attitude of the heart, the intimate devotion to the Trinity, and the scripture-based expectations. In fact, the Puritans were known for their advocacy of praying the Bible back to God, with the expectation that He would always be pleased to hear His own Word. That implies an intimate knowledge of the Bible. Can any of us read this without feeling ashamed of our cold and impotent prayers?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Is a Universal Gospel Inconsistent with a Particular Atonement?

"For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe." - I Timothy 4:10

I've written on this topic before, but it has been on my mind again today.

There are several verses in Scripture which declare that the Gospel is universal, i.e., worldwide, without restriction of time or ethnicity, "no respecter of persons" (e.g., Acts 10:34). The verse above is one. John 3:16 is well-known. I John 2:2 is another. These verses are often thrown up in the face of Calvinists, as if our critics think that we have never seen them before.

The doctrine at controversy is the extent of the atonement. Most Christians hold to a universal atonement, that is, that Christ on the cross died in an equal sense for every person without discrimination. Calvinists, such as myself, hold to a particular, or definite, atonement, i.e., for a specific class of named individuals, known only to God. We would say that the doctrine of universal atonement suffers from two fatal flaws: first, that it is thereby a hypothetical atonement only, not a certain one, or second, that there are and will be people in Hell for whom Christ died. I am appalled by either option and sickened that so many Christians are agreeable to such blasphemies.

Let me list a couple of places in Scripture that I understand to teach a particular atonement.

"At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around Him and said to Him, 'How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.' Jesus answered them, 'I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name bear witness about Me, but you do not believe because you are not part of My flock. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.'" -John 10: 22-30

"When Jesus had spoken these words, He lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, 'Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son that the Son may glorify You, since You have given Him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom You have given Him. I have manifested Your name to the people whom You gave Me out of the world. Yours they were, and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they know that everything that You have given Me is from You. For I have given them the words that You gave Me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from You; and they have believed that You sent Me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom You have given me, for they are Yours. Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, may be with Me where I am, to see My glory that You have given Me because You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know You, I know You, and these know that You have sent Me. I made known to them Your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which You have loved Me may be in them, and I in them.'" -John 17:1-2, 6-9, 24-26

Is there a conflict here? I would certainly deny so. It seems rather clear to me. Jesus received a known (to Him) class of named individuals to redeem on the cross. That part is clear from the passages from John just above. But it is equally and gloriously true that He is the Savior of the world! How so? Because the latter is taken in general, while the former is taken individually. Jesus is the Savior of every believing man, woman, and child anywhere in the world, of any ethnic background, from Adam to the end of the world. Every person who is saved is saved in Him (such as Romans 10:9-13). Furthermore, no one who is saved is or can be saved by any person or means other than Him (such as Acts 4:12 and II Thessalonians 2:12).

The Gospel is universal because it is the message of salvation to every time, place, and people (Mark 16:15). And because the atonement is definite and particular, every individual can know that His atonement is sufficient to satisfy the justice of God, and restore a right relationship between the Father and the repentant sinner. The universal Gospel is the warrant for every hearer to believe. The atonement is what satisfies both God and sinner that all his sins are forgiven (Isaiah 53:6).

No one can know in an a priori sense that he is one of the elect, for whom Christ died. This is only an a posteriori knowledge, arising from having believed. In fact, we are forbidden to meddle in the secret decrees of God (Deuteronomy 29:29). But no knowledge of election is required to take hold of that universal Gospel, and thus to be saved in Christ Jesus!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Prosperity of the Gospel in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards is probably the most famous theologian ever produced by the United States. Even though he died about twenty years before our independence, his preaching has been credited with beginning the great revival which inspired the colonials to resist British tyranny. I seek here to focus attention on Edwards' eschatological view, now called postmillennialism. It is seen especially plainly in his most famous sermon, "An Humble Attempt to Promote Prayer for Revival." Since Edwards' view is explained better than I can do in the article linked above, I will not attempt to do so. I wish here merely to list the Scriptures that Edwards believed taught the successful spread of the Gospel in this age.

In Genesis: 12:3, 18:18, 22:18, 26:4, and 28:14

In the Psalms: 2:6-8 (cf Hebrews 1:2 and 2:8), 22:27, 65:5, 65:8, 67:7, 72:11, 72:17, 98:3, 113:3

In Isaiah: 2:2, 11:9, 54:1-2, 54:5, 60:12

In Jeremiah: 3:17, 10:11, 10:15

Malachi 1:11

Romans 11:12 and 25

In "Taking Hold of God," Editor Joel Beeke comments, "In typical Puritan fashion, Edwards urged believers to turn these promises into prayers, calling upon the Lord to extend the kingdom of His Son. Christ's victorious position at God's right hand should move us to pray to God to establish Christ's royal dominion ('the rod of thy strength') in the very midst of His enemies (Psalm 110)."

Further information on the Puritan view of last things and its impact on missions can be found in "The Puritan Hope"," by Iain Murray. Other books on postmillenialism can be found here.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Matthew Henry on Prayer

Matthew Henry is best known for his Bible commentary. However, among his lesser-known works was "A Method for Prayer." He developed this list of characteristics for powerful, effectual, and soul-satisfying prayer (as adapted in "Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer," edited by Joel Beeke and Brian Najapfour).

1. Address the infinitely great and glorious Being
a. with holy awe and reverence
b. distinguishing Him from false gods
2. Reverently adore God as transcendently bright and blessed
a. the self-existent, self-sufficient, infinite Spirit
b. His existence indisputable
c. His nature beyond our comprehension
d. His perfection matchless
e. infinitely above us and all others

In particular, adore the Lord as
1. eternal, immutable
2. present in all places
3. perfect in His knowledge of all
4. unsearchable in wisdom
5. sovereign, owner, and Lord of all
6. irresistible in power
7. unspotted in purity and righteousness
8. always just in His government
9. always true, inexhaustibly good
10. infinitely greater than our best praises

3. Give God the praise of His glory in heaven
4. Give Him glory as our creator, protector, benefactor, and ruler
5. Give honor to the three distinct Persons of the Godhead
6. Acknowledge our dependence on Him and obligation to our creator
7. Declare God to be our covenant God who owns us
8. Acknowledge the inestimable favor of being invited to draw near to Him
9. Express our unworthiness to draw near to God
10. Profess our desire for Him as our happiness
11. Profess our hope and trust in His all-sufficiency
12. Ask God graciously to accept us and our poor prayers
13. Pray for the assistance of the Holy Spirit in our prayers
14. Make the glory of God as the highest goal of our prayers
15. Profess our reliance on the Lord Jesus Christ alone

I don't imagine that Henry foresaw us going through all of these elements each time we pray. That would turn prayer into a chore, a matter of checking off a to-do list, rather than conversing with our Father in Heaven. However, as we think to cover them all over time, I would expect that our awareness of the grandeur of God would be magnified and our dependence on Him deepened. Those would seem to be worthy things!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Zechariah and Biblical Repentance

"The Lord was very angry with your fathers. Therefore say to them, Thus declares the Lord of hosts: Return to Me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? But My words and My statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers? So they repented and said, 'As the Lord of hosts purposed to deal with us for our ways and deeds, so has He dealt with us.'"
- Zechariah 1:2-6

The Prophet Zechariah shared the ministry with the Prophet Haggai in the period immediately following the return of the Jews to the land of Israel after their exile in Babylon. In a curious aside, archeologists may recently have found his tomb!

As I have noted before, repentance is a prominent theme among the writings of the Jewish prophets. When I consider the claim of classical dispensationalists that the Gospel isn't found in the Old Testament, I often wonder whether they are reading the same Bible that I am. But I digress...

Matthew Henry paraphrases verse 2, "Turn you to me in a way of faith and repentance, duty and obedience, and I will turn to you in a way of favour and mercy, peace and reconciliation." I think Henry brings out the essence of repentance: it isn't merely a sorrowing over one's sins, though that is part of it, but rather a change of course, a turning away from one's old path to a new path in fellowship with God. The Westminster Confession of Faith, in the chapter on Repentance unto Life, states it wonderfully (XV:2): "By it a sinner, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God, and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments."

Zechariah illustrates where Judas failed to repent. The story is told in Matthew 27:3-10. In verse 3, we see that Judas "changed his mind." But what does he then do? Plead for the forgiveness of God and the disciples? No, as verse 5 tells us, he committed suicide. In other words, Judas certainly sorrowed over his sin, but he didn't depart from it to walk in a new way. That is what distinguishes his sorrow from repentance.

Returning to Zechariah, we see that God has punished the forefathers of the prophet's audience, and this remnant acknowledges the justice of God's judgment (verse 6), a step that Judas failed to take. Then in verse 12, a new character appears, the Angel of the Lord, who pleads, "O Lord of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?" Along with most orthodox readers, I consider this Angel to be the preincarnate Second Person of the Trinity, because He is frequently addressed alternatively as the Lord Himself. Here, He intercedes on behalf of Jerusalem, acting in His role as Mediator. This is another essential difference between sorrow and repentance: true repentance relies on the intercession of Jesus Christ, the Mediator. Repentance doesn't restore or create holiness; rather, it serves as a step in applying the imputed righteousness of Christ, which alone restores our standing before God the Father.

Then in verses 16-17, Jehovah responds to this intercession: "Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it, declares the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. Cry out again, Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.’"

Here are the steps that Zechariah shows for true repentance: sorrow for sins, a new path of obedience (not that this can be done infallibly, since the person is still a sinner), dependence on the intercession and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, and a restored relationship with God. Leaving out any step necessarily overthrows the reality of the others.