Saturday, January 28, 2017

The History of the Christian First-Day Sabbath

The Seventh-Day Adventists claim that Christians celebrated the same seventh-day Sabbath as the Jews, until forced to change by Emperor Constantine (why is always Constantine? the anti-trinitarians blame him, too). While I have addressed the biblical refutation of that claim before (such as here), this time I want to address the historical evidence.

One of the earliest Church Fathers was Ignatius of Antioch, the first bishop of that city, who was a disciple of the Apostle John, and testifies to the practices of the church in the immediate post-Apostolic period. In his Epistle to the Magnesians 9:1, he says, ""If, then, those who had lived according to ancient practices came to the newness of hope, no longer keeping the [Jewish]  Sabbath, but living in accordance with the Lord's Day, on which our life also rose through Him and His death (which some deny), the mystery through which we came to believe, and because of which we patiently endure, in order that we may be found to be disciples of Jesus Christ, our only teacher." He is describing the historical practice of what Paul advises in Colossians 2:16: "So don't let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths." Notice the list of things that Paul lists, all of which were elements of the Jewish ceremonial law, and, therefore, abrogated as completed in the cross work of Christ. That is, Paul is not dismissing the Sabbath, per se. Who would he be to dismiss one of the Ten Commandments? Rather, he is disputing against the Jewish ceremony of Sabbath.

Ignatius describes the carrying out of that exhortation, with the replacement of the seventh-day Jewish Sabbath, with the Christian Sabbath, the first day of the week, because it was the Lord's day, the day of His resurrection and the completion of our redemption! Thus, the Christian Sabbath became the practice of the Christian Church, as described by Acts 20:7 and I Corinthians 16:2, almost three hundred years before the time of Constantine.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Baptism of Jesus as a Sign of His Priestly Office

I want to compare two events, one in the Old Testament, the other in the New Testament.

The first is the process of consecration of the Levitical priests. "You shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and wash them with water" (Exodus 29:4). "Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and shall wash them with water" (Exodus 40:12). "All those who were listed of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron and the chiefs of Israel listed, by their clans and their fathers’ houses, from thirty years old up to fifty years old, everyone who could come to do the service of ministry and the service of bearing burdens in the tent of meeting, those listed were 8,580" (Numbers 4:46-48, but compare also verses Num. 4:3, 23, and 29). The two things that I want to emphasize in these passages in that their ministries began at age thirty, and were marked by washings in water (see Hebrews 9:10).

The other is the account of the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:9-11, compare John 1:31-34): "In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when He came up out of the water, immediately He saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.'" We know that this happened when He was thirty years old from Luke 3:23: "Jesus, when He began his ministry, was about thirty years of age."

Thus we see how Jesus fulfilled the provisions for the Levitical priesthood, though He Himself was not a Levite (Hebrews 7:13). Rather, His priesthood is described as "in the order of Melchizedek" (Psalm 110:4, Hebrews 5:6, 5:10, 6:20, and especially 7:17). 

As Christians, we receive many benefits from His priestly office, something which the Westminster divines found essential to their system of doctrine. In answer 44, the Westminster Larger Catechism tells us, "Christ executes the office of a priest, in His once offering Himself a sacrifice without spot to God, to be a reconciliation for the sins of His people; and in making continual intercession for them." And in describing that intercession, answer 55 tells us, "Christ makes intercession, by His appearing in our nature continually before the Father in heaven, in the merit of His obedience and sacrifice on earth, declaring His will to have it applied to all believers; Answering all accusations against them, and procuring for them quiet of conscience, notwithstanding daily failings, access with boldness to the throne of grace, and acceptance of their persons and services." We rarely hear this doctrine preached today, but how comforting it should be to us, His people.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

What Is the Reality of the Eucharist?

Both the Church of Rome and the Lutherans hold that Christ is physically present in the elements of communion, i. e., in the bread and wine. That's why, they say, that an unbeliever receiving those elements is "eating and drinking judgment to himself" (I Corinthians 11:29). If the elements remain mere bread and wine, how can there be consequences for eating and drinking unworthily, they ask.

While we Reformed deny that Christ is physically present in the elements, we gladly hold that He is spiritually present to those who receive in faith. Thus, eating and drinking judgment is not the result of having bits of Jesus in the stomach of His enemy, but is rather because that unbeliever is receiving the Gospel in visible form. He is seeing the broken body and the spilled blood of Jesus, but despising them, increasing his judgment for unbelief.

The Catholics claim that the Reformed teaching creates a false dichotomy in the eucharist, with Christ present in some portions, but not in others. However, one of their own saints, Augustine, refutes that accusation: "If thou receivest it carnally, still it ceases not to be spiritual, though it is not so to thee." The eucharist remains the means of grace that Christ intended it to be, even if an unbeliever fails to receive that grace because of that unbelief (compare Matthew 13:58).

We find these truths summarized well in the Westminster Confession of Faith XXIX:7-8: "Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this sacrament, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses. Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament, yet they receive not the thing signified thereby; but by their unworthy coming thereunto are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with him, so are they unworthy of the Lord's table, and can not, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto." 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Trinity in One verse: John 15:26

I am constantly bewildered by the hermeneutic of Arians, Sabellians, and Macedonians. They strain through the most bizarre contortions to avoid the assertions of Scripture regarding the Godhead, to keep their particular doctrines, their raison-d'etre.

Consider this verse (John 15:26): "When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me."

What do we see here? We see three distinct entities, the Helper/Spirit, Jesus, and the Father. The Spirit will come to bear witness about the Son. Thus, He is a Person, not an impersonal force, as the Arians and Macedonians claim. Also, He proceeds from the Father and is sent by the Son, distinct actions by discrete Persons, contrary to the assertion of the Sabellians that all three names refer to the same Person. 

I certainly grant that this one verse doesn't address every element of the Trinity. However, it does address and refute some of the specific assertions of the anti-Trinitarians.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Effectual Calling: God Entices the Elect

In Scripture, we see all sorts of experiences of salvation. Usually, there was a process, God's working in the person over a period of time, a process called "effectual calling." That was my own experience, going to churches and reading the Bible for about two years before I experienced the opening of my eyes. On the other hand, we also see the Apostle Paul, who was converted in a flash, completely unexpectedly. John the Baptist was regenerated in the womb, so he cannot be said to have had any preparation either.

However, conversion is usually a process, not an immediate enlightenment by the Holy Spirit. The Westminster Confession of Faith X:1 describes it well: "All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ: enlightening their minds, spiritually and savingly, to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good; and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace."

It is the Holy Spirit's working through the Scriptures which is the key to true conversion.

In Scripture (Psalm 119:105, 130), we read, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. The unfolding of Your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple." As is their wont, the Psalm presents the truth in simple, pithy language. The Bible, the word of God, is used by the Holy Spirit to change the heart of the unbeliever, to recognize his own unworthiness and the wrath of God, and to perceive the singular beauty and worthiness of Jesus, that he may be stirred to cling to Him alone for mercy and new life.

Evangelism today has been turned into a battle of facts, with books such as "Evidence that Demands a Verdict." Such books are good for boosting the assurance of Christians and for leaving unbelievers without excuse. However, it is not the way that God promises to bless unto salvation. What is His promise? "So shall My word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:11). He doesn't promise to prosper our good logic or our collection of facts. Rather, He promises to bless His word, to make it, by the power of the Holy Spirit, effectual in the conversion of sinners. Not to all sinners, because that, too, is not His promise. Rather, effectual to the sinners for whom He sent it: "Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to Me; hear, that your soul may live" (Isaiah 55:1-3).

In the elect, God creates a hunger, a famine of meaning and hope in the present life, and then, through His word, reveals Himself effectually as the one and only answer to that hunger. Just as there is satisfaction nowhere except in Him, there can be no regeneration in any means outside of His word.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

People Don't Believe Because They Are Pre-Determined Vessels of Wrath

In John, chapter 12, Jesus is preaching to a group of Pharisees (verse 19). In contrast to a group of God-fearing Gentiles (verse 20), however, these Pharisees rejected Him. His response is described in verses 37-41: " Though He had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in Him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 'Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?' Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, 'He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.' Isaiah said these things because he saw His glory and spoke of Him" (John 12:37-41).  

How does the passage describe the Pharisees? As unbelieving. However, why were they unbelieving? Because they "could not." Could not? Not would not? That is a stunning choice of words. And John continues that description: "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts." No doubt there was a judicial element to this, i. e., that the Pharisees had refused to believe, so God punishes them with even greater hardness. However, John explicitly states the God's decree is the source of their rigid unbelief.

This is a shocking thought to our egalitarian American ears. It's not fair! Not fair? Really? The Apostle Paul described that exact question from a hypothetical opponent (Romans 9:19): "You will say to me then, 'Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?" But what answer does he give? Does Paul back down to such a progressive view? Does he attempt to defend God's fairness? Not at all. Rather, he answers, not with a justification of God's sovereignty, but rather with a refusal to concede that it needs any such justification (Romans 9:20-22): "But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, Why have you made me like this?' Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show His wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?" That is, as our Creator, does God not have an absolute right to use us for His own glory and purpose? Of course! Specifically, He has such a right to use some as a demonstration of His holy wrath. There is no concession to egalitarianism here. It is, rather, an unequivocal assertion of the absolute and irresistible sovereignty of God. 

Daniel 4:35: "All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and He does according to His will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to Him, 'What have You done?'"

Monday, January 9, 2017

Predestination as the Basis of Assurance in Prayer

Daniel in the Lion's Den
In the story of Daniel, there is a striking account of a special visitation (Daniel 9:20-23): "While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my plea before the Lord my God for the holy hill of my God, while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the first, came to me in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice. He made me understand, speaking with me and saying, 'O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision.'"

This is the Angel Gabriel, the same person who would later announce the coming birth of Jesus (Luke 1:19, 26). He is sometimes called an archangel, but that is just a tradition. That word isn't applied to him in Scripture.

There is no problem for anyone in the idea that an angel would be sent in response to a prayer. In fact, it happens again in the very next chapter of Daniel. However, it is too easy to pass over the fact that this is not what happens in this story.

Rather, Gabriel was sent "at the beginning of [Daniel's] pleas," not after them. When Daniel started to pray, God acted by sending Gabriel. Not reacted. Now we have a problem for the Arminian. How could God have responded before Daniel even prayed what he desired?

This is made even more-explicit by another Prophet (Isaiah 65:24): "Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear." That is, in the earlier Prophet, Jehovah promised exactly what we see taking place in Daniel. But the Arminian cannot explain God's promise, because he believes that men act according to free will. God cannot do something that is contingent on the will of a creature.

However, this experience is completely consistent with Calvinism. The Reformed believer understands that it is God who is sovereign, not the will of man. Therefore, when we pray, we are not informing God of something of which He is not aware, or on which He has not already determined to act. Rather, as in all things, the prayer and His response to it are both according to the predestined purposes of God.

"Why pray if God has already decided what to do?" the Arminian asks. Rather, "Why pray if God does not determine all things?" is the Calvinist's answer. How can a believer have any assurance in prayer if he imagines that God does not know, and is unprepared to address, his need of the moment? That wasn't Daniel's confidence. Rather, our confidence is in that promise from Isaiah, that God knows our needs before we do, and has determined to act before we can even think to ask Him. That is security!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Saint Ignatius on Church Government

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, 35-108AD

The Church of Rome, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and the Anglicans like to cite the Church Fathers in support of their government by monarchical bishops. While I have dealt with the biblical statements regarding bishops elsewhere (use the "church government" tag below), here I want to address one of those Fathers.

Saint Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch in the early Second Century, up until his martyrdom in Rome, during the reign of Trajan (between 98 and 117AD). Earlier in his life, he was a disciple of the Apostle John. I want to emphasize that his discipleship did not make him infallible. it does, however, give his opinions significance.

I want especially to focus on his Epistle to the Trallians 2:2 and 3:1: "It is essential, therefore, to act in no way without the bishop, just as you are doing. Rather submit even to the presbytery as to the apostles of Jesus Christ...  Everyone must show the deacons respect. They represent Jesus Christ, just as the bishop has the role of the Father, and the presbyters are like God's council and an apostolic band. You cannot have a church without these."

In both words, we see him referring to the "bishop" (Greek, "episkopos") . This is where the supporters of a monarchical episcopate like to focus. However, he didn't stop there. He also tells the Trallian Christians to submit to the presbytery, i. e., the council of elders (Greek, "presbuteros"). And then he includes the deacons (Greek, "diakonos"). Especially significant is his last sentence: "You cannot have a church without these."

We learn several things from this. First, when he says "bishop," he has no concept of a man in extravagant robes, ruling over all of the churches of a region. Rather, he is using it to refer to the person we now call a pastor. That's why the New Jerusalem Bible, a Catholic translation, translates episkopos as "chief elder," not as "bishop." Second, a bishop is not to rule in the church alone, but rather with a body of elders. And then the deacons are, not a class of lesser clergy, but rather a separate order of God-ordained officers. And third, and most-importantly, he says that there cannot be a church without all three orders of officers.

What does that say about the validity of the orders of clergy in the Catholic and other prelatic churches? The words of Ignatius, that they claim for their own, are actually against them, and in favor, instead, of the presbyterian form of church government.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Creed of Chalcedon Against Rome's Doctrine of Transubstantiation

The Church of Rome professes commitment to the creeds of the historical church. In fact, she elevates them to sacred tradition, a status not given to them by Protestants. Those are the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene (or Niceno-Constantinopolitcan) Creed, and the Creed (or Definition) of Chalcedon. This status is important: Rome gives the creeds the status of Scripture, and claims them as standards of her theology.

My assertion is that they fall short of that profession.

Part of the doctrine of Chalcedon (and I consider it to be biblically correct) is that Christ exited - and shall forever continue to exist - in His two natures, fully God and fully human: "the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man." So far, we have no problem. However, the Creed continues: "to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved."

It is here that the problem arises. I agree with this sentence. Rome professes it, as well. However, Rome also professes the doctrine of communicatio idiomatum, or, in English, the "communication of attributes" of one nature to the other. This is also the doctrine of the Lutherans. It is the basis of the assertion of both that, therefore, the humanity of Christ is ubiquitous, that is, everywhere, because it receives that attribute from His divine nature. They apply this understanding in their respective doctrines of transubstantiation and consusbstantiation, that is, that the flesh and blood of Christ are, or are in, the elements of the Eucharist literally.

In contrast, the Reformed have always denied the iniquity of the humanity of Christ, and thus have held that a literal, corporeal presence of Christ in the elements is a violation of the Creed, for the straightforward reason that to give the human nature of Christ a divine characteristic is to make it thereby not human. That is, to assert transubstantiation or consubstantiation, traditional as it may be, is a denial of the creedal basis claimed by all three groups.

The Reformed do not by this reasoning make the Eucharist a mere ritual, nothing more than a memorial, as Baptists, for example, do. Rather, we believe in the Real Presence. the difference is that we believe that the body of Christ remains a human body, confined to a specific place, i. e., in heaven (Acts 1:11, Hebrews 1:3). However, we are connected to His humanity, not by its acting inhumanly, but rather by the Holy Spirit, who, as God, does have the divine attribute of ubiquity. We thus preserve the true humanity of Jesus.