Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On the Holy Spirit

Basil the Great’s (c. 330-379) treatise On the Holy Spirit is an excellent defense of the full deity of the Holy Spirit written at a time when the issue was being hotly debated within the Church. It demonstrates Basil’s devotion to Scripture, ability to reason, and passion for truth. Throughout he upholds the absolute necessity of believing in the divinity of the Spirit, and hence in the Trinity, in order to secure one’s salvation. Apart from a belief in the Triune God, man is lost. “I testify to every man who is confessing Christ and denying God, that Christ will profit him nothing; to every man that calls upon God but rejects the Son, that his faith is vain; to every man that sets aside the Spirit, that his faith in the Father and the Son will be useless, for he cannot even hold it without the presence of the Spirit. For he who does not believe the Spirit does not believe in the Son, and he who has not believed in the Son does not believe in the Father” (17f.).

Basil wrote this treatise to one Amphilochius, a brother who was desirous of understanding more of the Spirit. In a series of commendations to Amphilochius for his pursuit of truth, Basil makes some wonderful comments about this pursuit. He notes:
“And this in you yet further moves my admiration, that you do not, according to the manners of the most part of the men of our time, propose your questions by way of mere test, but with the honest desire to arrive at the actual truth” (2).

“The beginning of teaching is speech, and syllables and words are parts of speech. It follows then that to investigate syllables is not to shoot wide of the mark, nor, because the questions raised are what might seem to some insignificant, are they on that account to be held unworthy of heed. Truth is always a quarry hard to hunt, and therefore we must look everywhere for its tracks. The acquisition of true religion is just like that of crafts; both grow bit by bit; apprentices must despise nothing. If a man despise the first elements as small and insignificant, he will never reach the perfection of wisdom” (2).
Later he comments:

“But we will not slacken in our defence of the truth. We will not cowardly abandon the cause. The Lord has delivered to us as necessary and saving doctrine that the Holy Spirit is to be ranked with the Father. Our opponents think differently, and see fit to divide and rend asunder, and relegate Him to the nature of a ministering spirit. Is it not then indisputable that they make their own blasphemy more authoritative than the law prescribed by the Lord?” (17)

Basil’s note in the second quote is somewhat of a defense for the first section of his work wherein he grapples with his opponents on the meaning of the prepositional phrases “of whom,” “through whom,” and “by whom.” It seems that the Arians and Pneumatachoi made use of these phrases to deny the deity of the Holy Spirit. They claimed that all things were made “by” the Father (Creator), “through” the Son (subordinate agent), “of” or “in” the Spirit (material out of which all made or place in which all occurs). The Spirit hence was impersonal and non-divine. The exact purpose of these distinctions somewhat escapes me. Basil himself seems to bounce back and forth in his representation of his opponents. Elsewhere he claims the opponents use “of whom” to indicate the Creator.

Basil attacks this whole bit of sophistry by a series of arguments. First, he demonstrates that the various prepositions are not so carefully distinguished in Scripture. The prepositions are used interchangeably and, hence, if his opponents desire to argue against the deity of the Spirit using these distinctions they must also argue against the deity of the Son and even the Father (reductio ad absurdum). Second, he clearly argues that the prepositions “of” and “in” do not necessarily indicate material or time--in fact they are used in a variety of ways. “In a word, the diligent reader will perceive that ‘of whom’ is used in diverse manners” (6).

A couple notes on Basil’s work. First, he makes extensive use of reductio ad absurdum. Routinely he takes his opponents’ position and takes it to its logical outcome. The following is an example:

“For if they will not grant that the three expressions ‘of him’ and ‘through him’ and 'to him’ are spoken of the Lord, they cannot but be applied to God the Father. Then without question their rule will fall through, for we find not only ‘of whom,’ but also ‘through whom’ applied to the Father. And if this latter phrase indicates nothing derogatory, why in the world should it be confined, as though conveying the sense of inferiority, to the Son? If it always and everywhere implies ministry, let them tell us to what superior the God of glory and Father of the Christ is subordinate” (6).

In another passage he comments regarding the deity of Christ, reducing Arianism to absurdity by demonstrating that if Christ has not eternally possessed all knowledge then he will be eternally progressing in knowledge. In this he seems to presage Process Theology and Mormonism, which took the creation of the Son to its logical conclusion.

“Hence, if you have sense to abide by what logically follows, you will find the Son being eternally taught, nor yet ever able to reach the end of perfection, insasmuch as the wisdom of the Father is infinite, and the end of the infinite is beyond apprehension. It results that whoever refuses to grant that the Son has all things from the beginning will never grant that He will reach perfection” (14).

Other examples of this type of argumentation abound (e.g., pp. 5, 20, 30).

Second, Basil relies heavily on the declaration of the Nicene Council regarding the deity of Christ. He uses the same lines of reasoning to confirm the deity of the Spirit that had been used to defend the deity of the Son. If we accept the deity of the Son, we must accept the deity of the Spirit.

After concluding his discussion of the prepositional phrases used by his opponents, Basil proceeds to set forth some of the positive reasons to adopt the deity of the Spirit. The two main foci of his defense are (1) the baptismal formula and (2) the doxology. In the baptismal formula, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are conjoined in such a way that the separate them is impossible (pp. 16ff). There follows an extended discussion of the Spirit’s relation to baptism and some discussion of baptism itself.

So, first he argues for the deity of the Spirit from the baptismal formula. Some of his comments on baptism are worth noting. He ties our "regeneration" with baptism when he comments, “And in what way are we saved? Plainly because we were regenerate through the grace given in our baptism. How else could we be?” (17) Elsewhere he exhorts the baptized, “and them I charge to preserve the faith secure until the day of Christ, and to keep the Spirit undivided from the Father and the Son, preserving, both in the confession of faith and in the doxology, the doctrine taught them at their baptism” (17).

According to Basil those who deny the deity of the Spirit are to be regarded as covenant-breakers. They have violated their baptismal covenant which was inaugurated in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “And to him who denies the Spirit, what title do you wish me to apply? Must it not be [a transgressor], inasmuch as he has broken his covenant with God? . . . I testify to every man who is confessing Christ and denying God, that Christ will profit him nothing; to every man that calls upon God but rejects the Son, that his faith is vain; to every man that sets aside the Spirit, that his faith in the Father and the Son will be useless, for he cannot even hold it without the presence of the Spirit. For he who does not believe the Spirit does not believe in the Son, and he who has not believed in the Son does not believe in the Father” (17f.).

Basil links our Trinitarian faith with our Trinitarian baptism:

“If then in baptism the separation of the Spirit from the Father and the Son is perilous to the baptizer, and of no advantage to the baptized, how can the rending asunder of the Spirit from Father and from Son be safe for us? Faith and baptism are two kindred and inseparable ways of salvation: faith is perfected through baptism, baptism is established through faith, and both are completed by the same names. For as we believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, so are we also baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost: first comes the confession, introducing us to salvation, and baptism follows, setting the seal upon our assent” (18).

While insisting that baptism and salvation are closely tied together, he nevertheless insists that baptism is not absolutely necessary. The work of the Spirit can be distinguished from baptism; yet he argues that the two should never be separated. Hence, those who die as martyrs prior to their actual baptism have been “baptized” by their own blood. The Spirit has obviously worked in their hearts and this work can be distinguished from baptism.

Having discussed the relationship of the Spirit and baptism, Basil goes on to treat more particularly of our faith in the Spirit. He discusses a number of biblical texts and their bearing on our doctrine of the Spirit. He begins by arguing that because (1) the Spirit gives gifts to the Church and (2) “sins against the Holy Spirit and against God are the same,” we should confess the Spirit to be divine. He proceeds to distinguish the Spirit from the created order and from the angelic world. He discusses the role of each person of the Trinity in creation:

“The Father, who creates by His sole will, could not stand in any need of the Son, but nevertheless He wills through the Son; nor could the Son, who works according to the likeness of the Father, need cooperation, but the Son too wills to make perfect through the Spirit. . . . You are therefore to perceive three, the Lord who gives the order, the Word who creates, and the Spirit who confirms” (24).

He argues that the Spirit is the one who gives life and empowerment to all things, including angels, Christ and the Church. “All the glorious and unspeakable harmony of the highest heavens both in the service of God, and in the mutual concord of the celestial powers, can therefore only be preserved by the direction of the Spirit” (24). “Whether you wish to examine ancient evidence . . . or on the other hand things done in the dispensation of the coming of our Lord in the flesh;--all is through the Spirit. . . . every operation was wrought with the cooperation of the Spirit” (25). “For there is not even one single gift which reaches creation without the Holy Ghost; . . .” (35).

He concludes by returning to a discussion of various prepositional phrases and their bearing on the matter. He argues that “with” is the best preposition to use since it conveys both the sense of the Spirit’s functional subordination to the Father and yet his essential equality with the Father and the Son. “For to say that the Son is with the Father is to exhibit at once the distinction of the hypostases, and the inseparability of the fellowship. . . . Thus while the word ‘with’ upsets the error of Sabellius as no other word can, it routs also sinners who err in the very opposite direction; those, I mean, who separate the Son from the Father and the Sprit from the Son, by intervals of time” (37). “The preposition ‘in’ states the truth [of the Spirit’s divinity] rather relatively to ourselves; while ‘with’ proclaims the fellowship of the Spirit with God wherefore we use both words, by the one expressing the dignity of the Spirit; by the other announcing the grace that is with us” (43).

Proofs of Deity:
i. Distributes gifts to the Church (1 Cor 12, 14)
ii. Sins against the Holy Spirit and against God equated (Acts 5)
iii. Empowers our confession of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 12:3)
iv. Stands in closest possible relation to God, as soul of man to man (1 Cor 2:10f)*
*He calls this the greatest proof
v. Spoken of in conjunction with Father and the Son in baptism & doxology (Mt 28)
vi. Called the Spirit “of God” and “of Christ” (2 Cor 1:12; Ro 8:9)
vii. Called the Lord in numerous passages (1 Thes 3:12f; 2 Cor 3:17; 1 Cor 3:16; 2 Tim 3:16)
viii. He has attributes that are only appropriately ascribed to God (See pp. 34f)

“Moreover the surpassing excellence of the nature of the Spirit is to be learned not only from His having the same title as the Father and the Son, and sharing in their operations, but also from His being, like the Father and the Son, unapproachable in thought” (34).

Trinitarian confession:

“There is one God and Father, one Only-begotten, and one Holy Ghost. We proclaim each of the hypostases singly; and, when count we must, we do not let an ignorant arithmetic carry us away to the idea of a plurality of Gods” (28).

Spirit to be glorified together with the Father and the Son (Quotes Ecclesiasticus):

“Exalt Him as much as you can, for even yet will He far exceed; and when you exalt Him put forth all your strength, and be not weary, for you can never go far enough” (44, Ecclus 43:30)

Basil discusses at some length the works of the Spirit (pp. 30, 31). He then offers a helpful definition of Arianism.

“The Son, according to them, is not together with the Father, but after the Father. . . . They further assert that the Spirit is not to be ranked along with the Father and the Son, but under the Son and the Father; not coordinated, but subordinated; not connumerated, but subnumerated. . . . What is our answer to this? We say, Blessed are the ears that have not heard you and the hearts that have been kept from the wounds of your words” (8).

Basil places considerable weight upon oral tradition. He is critical of his opponents for demanding “written proof, and reject[ing] as worthless the unwritten tradition of the Fathers” (16). According to the notes in the text, Gregory Nazianzus is supposed to have said, “They find a cloak for their impiety in their affection for Scripture.” The notes remark that “the Arians at Nicaea objected to the homoousion as unscriptural.” (17) This section at least seems to illustrate the danger of “Scriptural” reasoning when divested of some sense of tradition--a sound board on which to test one’s interpretation. Whether to accord “unwritten” tradition the place Basil does seems untenable at this time given the corruption which has filled the church. However, his words surely could speak to us about the importance of valuing tradition.

He remarks later: “For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals. . . . [Do not many things] come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? . . . In the same manner the Apostles and Fathers who laid down laws for the Church from the beginning thus guarded the awful dignity of the mysteries in secrecy and silence, for what is bruited abroad at random among the common folk is no mystery at all. This is the reason for our tradition of unwritten precepts and practices, that the knowledge of our dogmas may not become neglected and contemned by the multitude through familiarity” (41,42). See further comments on pp. 44,45,

Basil's comments on the Mosaic law are worth considering. He clearly understands types (pp. 19f).

“For He spares our weakness, and in the depth of the riches of His wisdom, and the inscrutable judgments of His intelligence, used this gentle treatment, fitted for our needs, gradually accustoming us to see first the shadows of objects, and to look at the sun in water, to save us from dashing against the spectacle of pure unadulterated light, and being blinded. Just so the Law, having a shadow of things to come, and the typical teaching of the prophets, which is a dark utterance of the truth, have been devised as means to train the eyes of the heart, in that hence the transition to the wisdom hidden in mystery will be made easy. Enough so far concerning types; . . .” (21).

His realist, rather than covenantal, view of baptism affects his understanding of the state of OT saints. Because dying to sin and rising with Christ occurs in baptism OT could not have participated in these blessings and hence did not participate in many of the blessings we now enjoy. “Those men did not die with Christ; wherefore they were not raised with Him. They did not ‘bear the image of the heavenly;’ they did not ‘bear about in the body the dying of Jesus;’ they did not ‘put off the old man;’ . . .” (20).

Monday, May 18, 2009

Children in the Covenant

In preparation for my sermon on Mark 10:13-16 and Jesus’ blessing of the children, I read Lewis Bevens Schenck’s book The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant: An Historical Study of the Significance of Infant Baptism in the Presbyterian Church. P&R Publishing did us the inestimable service of reprinting this in 2003 and Frank James, one of my instructors at RTS Orlando during my tenure there, wrote the Introduction.

Throughout the book the contention of Schenck is that the questions of the lawful mode and recipients of baptism have sidetracked us from considering a much more important matter. Namely, what does baptism mean, what is its significance? Particularly when infants are baptized, what is the significance of that baptism?

Schenck’s book, as the title suggests, surveys Reformed opinion on this very question. Its purpose is not to build a biblical case for infant baptism but to consider theological reflection on its significance within the Presbyterian tradition. He begins with Calvin and ends with the confusion that predominated in Presbyterian circles following the rise of revivalism in America. His survey is trenchant and thought provoking, showing the remarkable uniformity among the early Reformed thinkers on the matter as well as the large scale abandonment of that teaching in 19th century Presbyterianism.

Schenck argues forcefully in the first chapter that the predominant opinion among Reformed thinkers, beginning with Calvin and proceeding through the Westminster Assembly, was that infant baptism was applied to children as members of the Kingdom of God. The children of believers were to be reckoned presumptively regenerate based on the promise of God to be God not only to believers but also to their children. Consequently, the children of believers are to be reckoned as believers themselves; not out of any infallible knowledge of their actual status, but based on the promise of God in the Scriptures. As Calvin remarks, “It follows, that the children of believers are not baptized, that they may thereby then become the children of God, as if they had been before aliens to the Church; but, on the contrary, they are received into the Church by this solemn sign, since they already belonged to the body of Christ by virtue of the promise.” (Institutes IV.25) The children of believers belong to God and therefore are to be brought into the visible church via baptism.

As I remarked in my sermon this past Lord’s Day, Calvin’s contention correlates precisely with the words of our Lord Jesus as He welcomes the children into His presence and blesses them. When the parents (most likely) come bringing these little children (all of whom or at least some of whom were nursing infants – Lk 18:15) and the disciples rebuke them for bothering our Lord, Jesus is indignant, angered at the behavior of the disciples. He delivers a dual imperative to the disciples, insisting that he desires little children not simply tolerated or permitted to come to Him but ushered unto Him. He then explain why – “for of such is the Kingdom of God.” Jesus does not commend the action of those bringing the children – “Don’t forbid them because every righteous parent should be bringing his children to me” – rather, He comments on the status of the children themselves. Jesus insists that these children should be brought to Him because they are part of the Kingdom; not that they one day shall be part of it but that they already are. These parents were right to bring their children to Jesus not in the hope that their children would one day belong to Him but because they already belonged to Him.

Given that our children belong to God, what is the purpose of Christian nurture, Christian education, training, discipline, etc? The purpose is to train God’s children to be ever more faithful disciples of Christ, to love and cherish Him all the more, to serve Him faithfully and truly. God freely, graciously has brought these children into His Kingdom by giving them to believing parents. So when we speak to our children, how ought we to speak to them? Ought we to speak to them as though they are over there, unconverted, unbelieving, separate from Christ, non-Christians? No! This is precisely what our Lord forbids. We are to speak to them as believers, exhort them as believers, treat them as members of Christ, as inheritors of the Kingdom of God. Why? Because God in His grace and mercy has promised to be their God and has testified to it in His Word. They are not over there; they are in here.

Schenck substantiates that this approach to children was the predominant position of the Presbyterian tradition leading up to the Great Awakening in America. As a result of the Great Awakening, however, this conviction was undermined. In the place of Christian nurture and education as the normal pattern of discipleship came the camp meeting, the conversion experience. The Great Awakening insisted that the only legitimate sign of an interest in Christ was a measurable conversion experience. Conversion included first a period of conviction and then an abiding “sense” of relief in Christ. Schenck’s explains:
It was unfortunate that the Great Awakening made an emotional experience, involving terror, misery, and depression, the only approach to God. A conscious conversion from enmity to friendship with God was looked upon as the only way of entrance into the kingdom. Sometimes it came suddenly, sometimes it was a prolonged and painful process. But it was believed to be a clearly discernible emotional upheaval, necessarily ‘distinct to the consciousness of its subject and apparent to those around.’ Preceding the experience of God’s love and peace, it was believed necessary to have an awful sense of one’s lost and terrifying position. Since these were not the experiences of infancy and early childhood, it was taken for granted children must, or in all ordinary cases would, grow up unconverted.
Schenck’s critique of the Great Awakening is subtle and powerful, exposing its deleterious effects upon the training of Christian children.

He continues this critique in the next chapter in which he highlights how the Great Awakening made inroads into Southern Presbyterianism and undermined the consensus within Presbyterianism over the significance of infant baptism. Thornwell and Dabney, two of the greatest Southern Presbyterian theologians, insisted that children are not baptized because they belong to Christ but only because they reside in a privileged position of instruction. Baptism in the case of an infant, therefore, did not signify his regeneration, which was assumed not to have occurred yet, but only the spiritual blessings that one day he would receive, provided that he believed. “Children in the covenant then were classified with the offenders and ‘enemies of God.’ They were to be regarded as presumptively unregenerated.” (96)

The consequence of this position was the recommendation by certain men to revise the Book of Discipline in order to remove baptized children from the possibility of church discipline unless they had made a personal profession of faith. Schenck’s analysis of this suggestion is compelling. He utilizes the voice of the Princeton Theologians to critique the novelty of these positions. Taking up such central concepts of original sin, sanctification, the covenant, and the church, Schenck demonstrates the departure of many Presbyterians from the historic position of the church and the Scriptures.

His comments on the conditionality of God’s covenant with His people are excellent. “Man earned nothing by meeting the demands of the covenant. All the requirements of the covenant were covered by the promises of God; that is, God promised to give man all that he required of Him. The covenant of grace, as its name infers, was a covenant of the unmerited love and favor of God.” (121) Consequently, if “in Israel many entered into an outward relation with Israel, who did not enjoy the inward covenantal relation, this only showed that the true conditions of the covenant relationship had not been met.” (123) In other words, external membership among the people of God in the Old Testament was not real membership and could by no means classified as faithfulness. Likewise today.

He closes his book by contrasting in a number of significant ways the Reformed principle of training children with the revivalistic principle. “The principle of the Reformed faith, that the child brought up under Christian influence should never know a time when love to God was not an active principle in its life, was displaced by an assumption that even the offspring of the godly were born enemies of God and must await the crisis of conversion.” (153) His discussion of the centrality of the Christian nurture and training of covenant children is trenchant as is His insistence that apart from the power of the Holy Spirit all these efforts are for naught. In this his critique of Horace Bushnell’s notions of covenantal nurture is edifying.

The largest inadequacy of Schenck’s book is his treatment of Calvin’s rejection of paedo-communion. He takes up the issue in only one paragraph and fails to interact sufficiently with Calvin’s inconsistency. As Paul Jewett substantiates in his critique of infant baptism, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, paedobaptism and paedocommunion go together. If infants truly are presumptively regenerate, members of the household of God, members of the Kingdom of God, then why would we withhold from them the sacrament of the Supper? Why would God refuse to feed those whom He numbers among His people? Schenck does not address this matter at all – though given the scope of his study that is excusable.

On the whole, Schenck’s book is a valuable resource for understanding the deleterious effects of the Great Awakening on the nurture of covenantal children. In many ways, Schenck’s book is a helpful corrective to Iain Murray’s otherwise excellent book Revival and Revivalism. It seems to me that Murray is himself an advocate of the “conversion pattern” as the normal method of God’s dealings with his people. Schenck demonstrates it inadequacy and encourages us to love and train our children in faith and hope.

Talking to Ourselves

Psalm 42:9-11 (NKJV)
9 I will say to God my Rock, “Why have You forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” 10 As with a breaking of my bones, My enemies reproach me, While they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” 11 Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; For I shall yet praise Him, The help of my countenance and my God.

We all have heard the school house adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” While the mantra may have helped us from time to time deal with some rather vicious words from our classmates, you no doubt have discovered over the course of your life that the adage just doesn’t hold up. As much as we might like to imagine that the attacks of others upon our personal character or our actions do not hurt, they in fact do. Indeed, they can cause us to question seriously our identity and can even lead to periods of depression and the temptation to despair.

It is this very temptation that the Psalmist records in our psalm today. He was being attacked by his enemies: told that his hopes and plans were merely wishful dreams; told that God did not really exist; told that he was simply deluded. And all this speech caused the Psalmist to begin doubting and despairing. “Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps it’s all just a dream.” And in the wake of doubt came depression.

In our modern day and age we face the same types of temptations that the Psalmist faced in his own. We face criticism at work and at home and we find ourselves weighed down under the reproaches of others. We too face periods of depression.

What’s a man or woman to do in such a circumstance? Our culture declares that we need to head to the local psychiatrist and seek our solution in a pill. While there are organic causes leading to certain types of depression, run of the mill depression is caused by our inability to deal with the trials we face in light of God’s Word. In the psalm before us today, the psalmist models what to do when we find our soul in the grips of depression and we are tempted to despair.

First, bring your complaint to God. The psalmist declares, “I will say to God my Rock, ‘Why have You forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?’” Don’t go first to the pastor, don’t go first to the counselor, go first to God and bring your troubles to Him. He hears. He listens. He acts. And those who wait for Him will mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not grow faint. While it may be necessary to seek additional outside help and encouragement, our first response must always be to go to our Redeemer and Savior.

Second, the psalmist not only trains us to bring our complaints first to God, he also trains us what to do with our thoughts of despair. Martin Lloyd-Jones in his wonderful book Spiritual Depression explains that when we are depressed we are greatly tempted to listen to ourselves. “Things are never going to get better. No one cares. God doesn’t care. Your enemies are right.” Instead, however, of listening to himself, Lloyd-Jones notes that the psalmist talks to himself. “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; For I shall yet praise Him, The help of my countenance and my God.” And so when you are downcast don’t listen to the Phantom of the Opera and the whispers of your own mind, talk instead – speak to yourself the promises of God and the precious treasures of our faith. Throw yourself upon Him and His mercy. His promises are more sure than our feelings. His character is more solid than the cloud of despair which seems so real at the moment.

But too often we do not model the psalmist. Rather than bringing our requests to God first and talking to ourselves; we listen to the imaginations of our own heart and fall into greater despair. And so let us kneel before our Savior and confess our sin, receiving the grace which He promises to us in Christ.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tertullian on Marriage

As a fitting end to my sermon series on marriage, came across this quotation from Tertullian. It is from a letter he wrote to his own wife. Tertullian was an early church father who wrote in the late 2nd and early 3rd century.

“Where are we to find language adequate to express the happiness of that marriage which the church cements, the oblation confirms, the benediction signs and seals, the angels celebrate and the Father holds as approved? For all around the earth young people do not rightly and lawfully wed without their parents’ consent. What kind of yoke is that of two believers who share one hope, one desire, one discipline, one service? They enjoy kinship in spirit and in flesh. They are mutual servants with no discrepancy of interests. Truly they are ‘two in one flesh.’ Where the flesh is one, the spirit is one as well. Together they pray, together bow down, together perform their fasts, mutually teaching, mutually entreating, mutually upholding. In the church of God they hold an equal place. They stand equally at the banquet of God, equally in crises, equally facing persecutions, and equally in refreshments. Neither hides anything from the other. Neither neglects the other. Neither is troublesome to the other.”

From the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament: Mark, p. 135.

Mothers in History

Psalm 113:4-6,9 (NKJV)
4 The Lord is high above all nations, His glory above the heavens. 5 Who is like the Lord our God, Who dwells on high, 6 Who humbles Himself to behold The things that are in the heavens and in the earth? … 9 He grants the barren woman a home, Like a joyful mother of children. Praise the Lord!

Hagar and her son Ishmael were cast out of Abraham’s tent, forced into the wilderness. Wandering in the wilderness with no more water in her waterskin, Hagar placed Ishmael under a shrub to die and herself fell on the ground and cried out to God. God heard her. He appeared to her, showed her a stream of water, and promised that he would be a protector for the boy, raise him up, and make him a great nation.

Hannah was childless and grieving. Meanwhile her husband’s other wife had many children and was mocking her. She knelt, she wept, she cried out to God – and was accused of drunkenness by the priest. Nevertheless, God heard her. She gave birth to Samuel and presented him to the Lord as a prophet in Israel.

Naomi grieved for the loss of her husband and her sons. She called herself Mara, Bitterness, and groaned for her children. Nevertheless, she found comfort in the presence of Ruth. And when Ruth found the fields of Boaz, it was Naomi who cried out to God and encouraged Ruth to seek out Boaz’s protection. God heard her. Boaz married Ruth and prepared the way for the coming of Messiah.

A widow of one of the prophets of Israel, who had been a righteous man, was facing destitution, anticipating the day her sons would be sold into slavery. She cried out to God and petitioned his servant Elisha to help her. God heard her. Elisha multiplied her oil, she paid her creditors and she and her sons lived on the rest.

The Shunammite woman was full of faith but empty of children. Her husband was old and they had no child. She had given up crying out to God – but God heard her and gave her a son by the word of Elisha. But then her son died. In faith she cried out to God and sought out Elisha His prophet. God heard her. Elisha raised her son from the dead and gave him new life.

Mary was a righteous young woman, pregnant by God’s own power and facing the prospect of a betrothed who was determined to divorce her. She cried out to God and God heard her. He visited Joseph in a dream and Joseph remained with her becoming the human father of our Lord.

The widow of Nain was grieved, shattered, broken by the death of her only son. The funeral procession moved through the town toward the graveyard. She wept, no longer crying for help, crying in sorrow. God heard her. He came to the procession, raised the boy, and gave him back to his mother.

Monica was grieved for her son. He was profligate like his father, determined to scorn the God she served. But she cried out to God. God heard her. He broke through the darkness of her son’s blindness and Augustine became one of the greatest thinkers the Church would ever know.

Brothers and sisters, the love of mothers has prompted God to move and to act from the earliest days of biblical history to today. So mothers – love your children and pray for them. God will hear you. Others – love your mothers and give thanks to God for them. Reminded that we have taken our mothers for granted, let us kneel and seek God’s forgiveness.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Marriage & Trinitiarian Life

On Sunday delivered a message on marriage and Trinitarian life. It is available here. Since it contained a diagram that I can't get on the sermon site, decided to put it here. In answering the question how does Trinitarian life relate to marriage, Paul makes a connection for us in 1 Corinthians 11, where he is addressing the issue of a covering of authority for the women in Corinth. In verses 3 and 7 Paul makes two independent but related assertions, assertions which unfold for us how we as husbands and wives can appropriate Jesus' prayer for Trinitarian fellowship John 17:20-23.
1 Corinthians 11:3,7 (NKJV)
3 But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God…7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.
I have endeavored to visualize the point that Paul is making in these verses with the diagram below. In verse 3, Paul outlines various lines of submission and authority that exist in the world (this is not an exhaustive list - Paul is merely trying to outline why it is fitting for a woman to have a covering). The “head” – the authority – over every man is Christ, over the woman is a man, and over Christ is the Father. In v. 7, Paul then explains why it would be inappropriate for a man to wear a symbol of authority on his head. Why? Because he is the image and glory of the Father: in his calling as head of his home, he images the authority of the Father. But for a woman, a symbol of authority is fitting. Why? Because she is the image and glory of her man: in her submission to her husband, she images the submission of the man to the authority of Christ.
Hopefully the diagram will help as we ask some questions of the text. First, how can a man learn what his headship, his authority is to look like? He can look at two things – he can look at the way in which Christ treats him as a disciple. But he can also look at the way in which the Father relates to the Son – he can observe the Father’s role in the Godhead and grow to be a faithful head.

Second, how can a woman learn what her submission, her subjection is to look like? She can look at two things – she can look at the way in which her husband responds to the authority of Christ over him - note the burden this places upon husbands to be modeling submission. But she can also look at the way in which the Son relates to the Father and honors Him – she can observe the Son’s role in the Godhead and grow to be a faithful subject.

Notice also that the man is in a unique position. The man is not only the image and glory of the Father in his capacity as head, he is also the image and glory of Christ in his capacity as subject. What does this mean? It means, as we said above, that the man too needs to learn to submit. And where can he learn this lesson? He can learn by observing the way in which the Son submits to the Father and the way in which his wife submits to him.

On a human level, therefore, the mutuality among the persons of the Godhead is a lesson for both men and women. Men don’t look just to the Father, but also to the Son. And, we might add, women don’t look just to the Son, but to the Father. For, in certain circumstances, as for example within the home with children, the woman is an authority and so needs to know what the exercise of that authority looks like. This is why, incidentally, Paul begins his exhortations to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 with the general admonition, “be submitting to one another in the fear of God” (5:21). God is our Father, he is our Lord, He is our authority, and so as disciples of Christ husbands and wives should be mutually learning from one another the meaning of their separate roles.

Necessary Holiness

“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” Hebrews 12:14

Back when I was in college a nefarious idea was spreading itself through Christian circles. The idea was that one could receive Jesus as their personal savior while refusing to submit to His Lordship; that one could be delivered from eternal destruction and yet have no evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in his life.

The text today belies such a notion and informs us in no uncertain terms that the pursuit of holiness is not optional. We are to pursue holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.

Notice first that we are to pursue it. “To pursue” means to strive to do something with an intense effort to a goal, to press forward, to follow in haste. In other contexts this same word is used to describe persecution – to hound someone so that they cannot escape your clutches. And so, Hebrews tells us, this is to be our approach to holiness. We are to hunt it down, seek it out, press forward.

But what is the goal? What is it we are hunting down? What is this holiness? Holiness is dedication to the Lord and, hence, to moral purity. In other places, it is called sanctification, the state of being set apart. In this sense, holiness means to be separated to the Lord’s service. And so the temple in the OT was called holy – a sanctuary, a place set apart for the worship of God. So what is our goal? To be living sacrifices, set apart for the worship of the Lord.

Hebrews tells us we are to pursue this sanctification. We are to hunt it down. Bring out the blood hounds and find it. And he appends a warning to his admonition to prod us in the posterior lest we become complacent – without this holiness, we won’t see the Lord.

So, how are we doing? Are we hungering and thirsting for righteousness? Are we seeking first the kingdom of God? Are we selling everything to buy the pearl of great price? Are we scouring the house to find the coin?

None of us, of course, are adequate for such things. And this is why we stand in such need of the Spirit of grace who creates within us this very holiness, who cultivates within us the desire to pursue.

And so, as we come into the presence of our Lord this day, let us confess that we have not pursued sanctification as we ought and let us kneel and call upon His mercy to receive us and forgive us for the sake of Christ.

The Discipline of the Lord

“Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:11

Discipline should be a lively topic in families. Fathers and mothers ought always to be reminding their children of the reasons for chastening. And as we explain these things, the text before us today should frequently be on our lips. “Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

Notice that the author of Hebrews tells us two things about discipline that we can pass on to our children but which we should also be passing on to ourselves. For first and foremost this passage concerns the way in which God trains us; only by analogy does it discuss the discipline of a father with his children. What then do we learn about discipline?

First, we learn that discipline is painful. No discipline seems enjoyable at the time it is administered. Its intention is to be painful. And so, you children out there, when your parents get out the rod or when your parents impose some consequence upon your sinful behavior – don’t expect the consequence to be enjoyable. Hebrews tells us – its intention is quite the opposite. It is intended to be painful. For it is the pain that trains us and fashions us – the pain that teaches us to avoid that pattern of behavior in the future.

Most of us parents are adept at delivering this lesson to our children. But how often do we deliver this message to ourselves? Brothers and sisters, the discipline of the Lord does not seem pleasant at the time. When the Lord puts us through some trial or when the Lord disciplines us for violating His commandments, why is it that we expect things should be jolly? He is sharpening us; disciplining us; chastening us. We expect our children to know what those things mean; so why do we have such a hard time letting it soak in to our own consciousness? No discipline is enjoyable at the moment.

But this is not the only thing we learn about discipline. While discipline is painful, it is not intended to end in pain. The ultimate goal of the Lord’s discipline, as should be the goal of parental discipline, is the cultivation of the peaceful fruit of righteousness in our lives. Our Lord promises to use discipline to make us more lovely people. He is training us. That which He purposes to create within us by means of trials and chastisement is righteousness.

But note that this righteouness is not an automatic biproduct of discipline. If we are to see the fruit of righteousness in our lives then we must, in the words of our text, be trained by the discipline. In other words, we must take the discipline to heart and learn from it. We must not harden ourselves to the discpline; must not complain that we have been treated ill; must not kick against the goads. Rather we must bow the knee before our Lord and learn the lesson.

And so, children, how are you responding to the discipline of the Lord through your parents? Are you bowing the knee? Are you acknowledging the authorities that God has placed over you and submitting yourself to them? Does discipline produce in you the peaceful fruit of righteousness? Or is it instead producing resentment, bitterness, gloom, or depression? And what of us adults? How are we responding to the discipline of the Lord? Does discipline produce in us the peaceful fruit of righteousness? Or does it instead produce resentment, bitterness, complaining, grumbling, depression?

As we come into our Father’s presence this morning let us kneel and confess that we have not received His discipline as we ought.

Receiving the Word

22 And I appeal to you, brethren, bear with the word of exhortation, for I have written to you in few words. (Hebrews 13:22)

In the parable of the sower, our Lord Jesus offers a picture of the variety of responses which one can give to the Word of God. In the text before us today from Hebrews, the author urges us to be like the rich soil which yields its increase thirty, sixty and a hundred fold.

Whenever the Word of God is preached and applied, we have the opportunity to respond to it rightly or wrongly. If we respond rightly, then we will, in the words of our text, “bear with the word of exhortation.” When the word of exhortation comes our way we will receive it, consider it, and respond to it in a way that testifies to the world – “This is the word of God. This is the word of my master. He has commanded and I am obeying. Why? Because this is life itself.” As we respond to the word of exhortation in this way we will bear abundant fruit – thirty, sixty, a hundred fold. The word of God will utterly transform us.

Yet how often do we respond to the word of exhortation not with faith but with unbelief. Rather than “bearing with” the word of exhortation, we harden our hearts and refuse to listen. “Today,” the author of Hebrews says elsewhere, “if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts as your fathers did at Meribah.” What are some ways that we can identify that we are being hard of heart and are refusing to listen to God?

Consider the other soils that Jesus described. Some soil was so hard that the seed did not even penetrate the ground but was instead taken away by the birds. Does this picture describe you? When you find your sins being poked and prodded, do you soften under the pounding of God’s word? Or do you instead close your ears? Do you rail against the commands of God? Or perhaps more subtly, do you start critiquing the speaker instead? “I can’t believe he is speaking this way – as though he is immune from sin himself.” “He thinks I didn’t notice the way he spoke to his son before worship.” As long as we point the finger away from our own sins and refuse to bow the knee before our heavenly Father, we are hardening our hearts. And so some, rather than bearing with the word, repudiate it and replace it with their own opinions.

But some soil is not quite so hardened; some soil is very fruitful, for a time. The plant springs up quickly giving quite a show of health and vibrancy – but when the sun arises it quickly withers and returns to dust. The initial joy and enthusiasm is replaced with disinterest as the novelty of the faith fades. Listening to the Word of God becomes hum-drum. And so, rather than bear with the Word of exhortation, we can scarcely even bear it – just waiting to get out of church and to head to the beach.

Still other soil produces fruit and yet as the seed grows it becomes choked and entangled by weeds; the cares and concerns of the world choke it out. This soil recognizes that the Word is important theoretically but it’s just not relevant. It has very little to contribute to the every day realities of life. Indeed, Sunday morning worship and Lord’s Day rest are actually hindrances to the realities of living and supporting a family. How am I going to fix that problem at work anyhow? Perhaps I can get Fred to cover Mary’s spot and then I’ll be able to get all that work done. Soon we are inattentive to the preaching of the Word – for, after all, we reason, there are many things of much greater importance than the Word. And so, rather than bearing with the Word of exhortation, we become inattentive.

The Word of exhortation comes to you this morning: how are you responding? Have you hardened your heart? Have you repudiated the word? Are you disinterested? Are you inattentive? Then give heed and let us kneel together and confess our sin to the Lord.

The Son of God with Power

Romans 1:1-4
1 Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God 2 which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, 3 concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, 4 and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.

Today is Easter – the most significant of the various holy days in the Church calendar. More pivotal than Christmas, more central than Pentecost, more crucial than Epiphany – Easter celebrates the single most world transforming event in all human history. Because of the resurrection, we have the Gospel. Because of the resurrection, we have cathedrals. Because of the resurrection, we have computers. All because of the resurrection.

It is this world transformation that Paul points out to us in the introduction to his letter to the Romans. After assuring us that Christ’s advent was proclaimed beforehand by the prophets and that he came as was foretold a son of David, Paul goes on to declare that Jesus was declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection of the dead. What does he mean by this turn of phrase?

While many have supposed that Paul is here outlining the two natures of Christ – according to his human nature he was of the seed of David but he was also the Son of God – the text does not support this notion. For how could Jesus’ status as the eternal Son of God undergo a transformation as a result of the resurrection? He has and ever will be the only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. This is not what Paul is addressing.

What is Paul saying then? He is telling us about the transformation that has occurred in the ministry of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as a result of the resurrection. He was born of the seed of David – had indeed the natural right to rule as King. But simply having the natural right to rule does not establish that one does in fact rule. Bonnie Prince Charlie may have had a rightful claim to the throne of England; but a mere claim means little if one does not actually have the throne. And it is this that Paul addresses with the next phrase. Not only was Jesus born to be King – not only did he have a legitimate claim to the throne – by the resurrection from the dead He was declared to be the Son of God, the King of Israel, with power – that is, the resurrection was Jesus’ coronation as King. God, as Peter says elsewhere, made Him to be both Lord and Christ by the resurrection from the dead.

What is the significance of Easter then? On this day we celebrate the coronation of our King. Nearly two thousand years ago he was crowned King of the Universe, the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords. And in His coronation psalm the lesson of His Kingship is driven home:
10 Now therefore, be wise, O kings; Be instructed, you judges of the earth. 11 Serve the LORD with fear, And rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, And you perish in the way, When His wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all those who put their trust in Him.
Let us kneel therefore and acknowledge our rightful King, asking His forgiveness for our sins against Him.

The King Enters Jerusalem

Zechariah 9:9-10
9 “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim And the horse from Jerusalem; The battle bow shall be cut off. He shall speak peace to the nations; His dominion shall be ‘from sea to sea, And from the River to the ends of the earth.’

How often have we heard it stated in the modern church that Jesus came as Savior in His first advent but He shall come as King at His second. If you, like me, once embraced this kind of thinking or, perhaps, still do, then you may have a hard time getting your mind around the text from Zechariah and the celebration of Palm Sunday. For today is Palm Sunday, the day the Church historically has celebrated the Triumphal Entry of the Lord Jesus Christ into the city of Jerusalem – the very thing Zechariah in his prophecy anticipated. But the question is – in what sense was this entry a triumph since He didn’t really enter as a King?

But such a question reveals how distorted our concept of kingship has become and how we have allowed the world to define true kingship rather than allowing our Lord Jesus to define it. For Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his entry into Jerusalem to suffer and to die for His people, His entry into Jerusalem to serve is the preeminent definition of what it means to be a king. What does it mean to be a king? It means to be humble and lowly, to be a servant, to give your life for the benefit of your people.

And it was precisely this type of King that our Lord Jesus was and is. He came to give his life a ransom for many. He came not to be served but to serve. He came as the prototype for all the kings of the earth – this is what it is to be a ruler.

To our fallen nature this type of kingship seems utterly foreign and ultimately useless. Such kingship, we imagine to ourselves, is utterly ineffective. No king who comes to serve rather than to be served will be respected and honored; no king who acts in this way will really be successful – will really accomplish things. Rather it is those like Alexander who push and prod and grapple for their own glory that are ultimately great and who accomplish great deeds.

But the text before us today gives the lie to such thinking. For immediately after proclaiming the humility and lowliness of the coming King – the one riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey – it declares that this very One will destroy warfare from the earth and will establish universal peace under His rule. How effective shall Christ’s Kingship be? His dominion shall be ‘from sea to sea, And from the River to the ends of the earth.’

So what of you leaders out there – what type of kingship have you been exercising? Whether you are a husband, a father, a mother, an employer, a foreman, a manager – what type of kingship have you displayed? Have you demanded, cajoled, manipulated, and wormed your way to the top? Or have you served and given and made yourself the least of all the servants of God? For the first shall be last and the last shall be first.Reminded that we have been unrighteous kings and queens, let us kneel and let us confess our sin to our Sovereign Lord.

Hezekiah's Folly

“So Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the Lord which you have spoken is good!’ For he said, ‘Will there not be peace and truth at least in my days?’” Isaiah 39:8

Hezekiah is appropriately remembered as one of the great heroes of the Old Testament era. Last week we mentioned that Sennacherib, the King of Assyria, surrounded Jerusalem with his armies and attempted to destroy the city. In this emergency, Hezekiah entrusted himself to the Lord and the Lord delivered Jerusalem in his mercy. But like all biblical heroes other than our Lord Jesus Christ, Hezekiah had his noticeable faults; and these faults became more pronounced with age.

The text before us today illustrates one of these faults. Hezekiah had just committed a severe sin by kowtowing to the envoys who arrived in Jerusalem from Babylon. Rather than once again placing his trust in the Lord and treating the envoys with appropriate discretion, Hezekiah placed his trust in his riches and gave the envoys a royal tour of the entire palace – including the treasury. For his folly, God announced through Isaiah the prophet, the same Isaiah who wrote the book by that name, that due to his folly the kingdom of Judah would fall into the hands of Babylon.
“Hear the word of the Lord,” Isaiah declared, “‘Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house, and what your fathers have accumulated until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left,’ says the LORD. ‘And they shall take away some of your sons who will descend from you, whom you will beget; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’”
What type of response should we expect from a godly man who received such a pronouncement of doom from the voice of the Lord? Would we not expect contrition, repentance, sorrow, confession of guilt? Even unrighteous Ahab, the husband of Jezebel, knew the importance of contrition when hearing a rebuke from the Lord. When told that he would witness the destruction of his own family, Ahab humbled himself and went about in mourning. As a result, God mitigated the punishment, delaying it until after the close of Ahab’s life.

But how does Hezekiah respond? “Hey – that’s good news. Your words, Isaiah, imply that these things are not going to happen while I’m alive, so what does it matter?” Hezekiah response indicates how self-centered his attitude was. Rather than repenting in sackcloth and ashes, and perhaps averting the judgment of God on his posterity, Hezekiah rejoices that he doesn’t have to worry about it personally.

How often our culture thinks and acts and we ourselves think and act in this same self-centered fashion. The current national debt is approximately nine trillion dollars – and yet our representatives are passing additional “stimulus” packages to tax us into prosperity, money going through their hands faster than water. In addition to the skyrocketing national debt, average household debt has reached unprecedented proportions. But our self-centeredness is reflected in more than our pocket books. It is reflected in our attitudes as well. How often do we consider the way in which our actions today will impact the next generation – especially the next generation of our own family? Adultery and covenantal unfaithfulness are rampant, the educational failure is acute, understanding of God’s covenant blessings and curses is all but lost. And yet we comfort ourselves, reasoning, “Will there not be peace and truth at least in our days?”

As we come into the presence of our Lord today, let us not act like Hezekiah. Let us bow before him and confess that we have often failed to consider the way in which our actions will have ramifications for the next generation. Let us kneel together and ask him to forgive our transgression and grant us godly repentance.