Thursday, February 19, 2015

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

What is your only comfort in life and in death? Have you considered the answer to this question? Life is of course full of many comforts. I like my home, my car, my hot showers and plenteous food. I rest in the embrace of my wife, the laughter of my kids, and the affection of my parents. All these are comforts in life - but they are not comforts that carry over with us into death. They are comforts that leave when the blackness of death envelops us. So what is your only comfort in life and in death?
Many think, vainly, that death itself is a comfort, a land of forgetfulness. But death is no comfort to the one who is not reconciled to God. Death brings no release from suffering for the one who hates or is indifferent to God; it brings only an instantaneous and blinding confrontation with perfect holiness and justice and love - a confrontation that will condemn any man or woman not forgiven through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Death is not a comfort; it is an enemy.

What is your only comfort in life and in death? If you know anything of the Reformed tradition, you perhaps know that this is the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism was written around AD 1563 for the instruction of German Reformed believers, especially children, in the basics of the faith. Its answer to this question is one of my favorites.

Question #1: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto him.

Now that, brothers and sisters, is comfort for life and death. I am not my own but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has given Himself for me and, what's more, so rules over all things that nothing happens in my life that is not for my ultimate good, for my salvation. And this "all things" includes the false accusations of my enemies (Is 50:7-9), the wounds of my friends (Gen 50:20), the failings of my physical and mental health (Ps 73:25-26), etc. All things come to me from my loving Father in heaven who has designed and crafted each event just for me - including the time of my death (Rom 8:28; Rev 1:17-18). Thanks be to God for such comfort.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Blood of the Martyrs

This was a moving tribute to the Christians who were recently martyred in Egypt. "The blood of the martyrs is seed." Tertullian

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Repent and Believe

1 Corinthians 6:9–11 (NKJV)
9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.

It seems that the Church today is in a crisis. We want to proclaim God’s holiness and the unchanging moral standards that proceed from him; simultaneously we know that we all stand in need of God’s forgiveness and that God transforms even the vilest offenders into glorious saints. So which do we preach? Do we preach God’s forgiveness for even the worst? Or do we preach God’s righteous standards for all?

The Bible’s answer is yes; we preach both. We preach that sinners both inside and outside the Church must repent and believe – must turn from sin and turn to Christ. The glorious good news of God’s salvation through Jesus does not stop with forgiveness; it includes righteousness and holiness by the Spirit. The same God who grants us free forgiveness through the shed blood of His Son Jesus also grants His Spirit to all those who believe on Jesus. And His Spirit empowers us for holiness and righteousness.

Repentance and faith aren’t like peanut butter and jelly – yummy together but enjoyable separately. Rather they are like sodium and chloride – remove one or the other and you no longer have table salt but poison.

So how do we preach the Gospel? Just like Paul we preach that men must repent and believe – turn from your idols, turn from your sexual sin, turn from your thievery, turn from your drunkenness and believe that Jesus is the One through whom you can receive God’s forgiveness. The man, woman, or child who wants to hold on to his sin does not truly want Christ. When a French Officer strode up to the British Admiral Nelson to congratulate him on his victory, Nelson stopped him. “First, give me your sword.” And Jesus says to you, “Take up your cross and follow Me!” “Die to your selfishness, your sin, your unrighteousness, and follow me!”

So Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians and to us remains: Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Pursue Christ; and pursuing Christ means shunning sin, turning from it day after day; confessing when we fall and seeking grace to live new lives by the power of the Spirit. Each day we must repent and believe anew – today if you hear his voice harden not your hearts. So this morning let us lay aside the sin that so easily ensnares us and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our Faith. And as we confess our sin, let us kneel before our Lord in token of submission.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Questions on Eschatology

My daughter has written a thesis on eschatology for her persuasive speech this year. In the midst of her research she had a number of questions - here are a few and my answers.

1. When looking at the 1000 years in Revelation 20, it isn't literal so is it "prophetic" or something else?
The 1000 years is symbolic of a very extensive number. The factor 1000 has already been used in Scripture and in Revelation in this way. For example, Scripture notes that God owns the cattle on a 1000 hills. This doesn't mean that he doesn't own the cattle on the 1001 hill but that he owns all of them. Similarly, Revelation identifies 12x1000 from each tribe of Israel who are saved by God as a remnant within unbelieving Israel. This is again symbolic of a perfect number from each tribe - not that there were exactly 12000 from each tribe. (Rev 7:4ff).

2. Can you explain Revelation 20 about what it means by Satan being chained and being sealed away for awhile?
Yep, would you like me to? :) Assuming yes - this refers to the current age. Notice that the chaining of Satan is in a particular regard. He is chained that "he not deceive the nations any longer." In other words, the time of Satan's control of the nations (the old covenant era) has come to an end. Jesus has broken the power of Satan, the nations are now His, and He is in the process of bringing them into submission to His rule through the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments. Jesus clearly teaches this in Mark 3 when he is accused of casting out demons by the ruler of the demons. Jesus says, "How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end." Note that Jesus essentially says - your accusation is absurd! But then he goes on to explain what he is doing: "No one can enter a strong man's house [Satan's house] and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. And then he will plunder his house." During his ministry Jesus was in the process of binding Satan so that he might plunder Satan's house - the nations of the earth. So that's what Jesus is doing now. He conquered Satan throughout His ministry (Lk 10:17-19) but definitively at the cross (Col 2:15). So Satan is now "bound." Remember the image in Pilgrim's Progress of the two lions on either side of Christian's path? So long as he kept to the path they could not harm him - for they were chained.

3. Does the 1000 years in revelation 20:4-6 mean that he reigns among us today?
Absolutely - Jesus reigns today. He is the Lord of all (Mt 28:18-20; Acts 2:29-36 especially 36; Rev 1:4-5; 11:15-19; 17:12-14;  19:11-16). When Satan is called the "lord of this world" it does not mean he is the lord of the earth but the lord of those forces that wage war against Jesus and His lawful rule. God is the King; Jesus is King; Satan is not.

4. Can you explain again what the iron and clay feet represent in Daniel 2? And what verses 41-44 mean?
The kingdom of iron and iron/clay is one kingdom - Rome. The mixture of iron and clay in the feet represents the inherent instability of Rome but also of all the kingdoms built on human power and might. These kingdoms are doomed to fail. So notice v. 41 - "Whereas you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter's clay and partly of iron, the kingdom shall be divided..." Which kingdom? The kingdom that Daniel has just mentioned - he connects the legs of iron with the mixed feet. They are one kingdom. This is confirmed by Daniel's later vision in chapter 7 - again there are four pagan kingdoms replaced by the kingdom of the Son of Man. There is no "extra" kingdom in there. Lion - Babylon; Bear - Persia; Leopard - Macedon; Monster - Rome; Son of Man - Jesus! The animal kingdoms are replaced by the human kingdom. Praise God!

5. What is the mountain/God's kingdom in Daniel, referring to? The kingdom of God in the Church or the heavenly kingdom or none of those?
The rock cut out without hands is the kingdom of God (2:44), the rule of God established through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was at hand (Mk 1:15) - he came announcing that the time to fulfill Daniel's prophecy had arrived. The kingdom is not identical with the church. The kingdom of God is the rule of God through His Messiah Jesus. The kingdom, therefore, is more extensive than the Church. Because Jesus rules, because He has established His kingdom, there is a people of God on earth - the Church. The Church is one of the manifestations of Christ's rule but not to be equated with His rule. After all, there are other evidences of Christ's rule - the spread of peace, the establishment of civil justice, the protection of the poor and needy, liberty, etc. Christ's kingdom is more extensive than the church.

6. What do Revelation 20:7-10 mean?
They imply that near the end of Christ's triumphant rule there will be a brief rebellion by Satan and his hosts which will be overcome by Christ's return in glory.
You might listen to my sermon here for a description of Revelation 20. You can download the pdf notes for the sermon there as well.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

What is our only hope?

This last week our catechism questions centered on the universal sinfulness of humanity. As David declares, "God looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God. Every one of them has turned aside; they have together become corrupt; there is none who does good, no, not one" (Ps 53:2-3). David's assessment is sobering, is it not? But his assessment agrees with that of Paul - by nature we are children of wrath (Eph 2:3). So is there no hope?
Well no - at least there is no hope from the human level. If salvation depends upon us as human beings, then we are lost. There is no way that we can be acceptable in the sight of God - for we have sinned against God and, what's more,we want to sin against God. There are none who understand or seek God.

So what then? What is our only hope? Our only hope is if God Himself should come and rescue us. And this God promised to do: "I looked, but there was no one to help, and I wondered that there was no one to uphold; therefore My own arm brought salvation for Me; and My own fury, it sustained Me" (Is 63:5). This, my friends, is the message of the Gospel: what we could not do because of our sinful nature, God did in sending His own Son to rescue and redeem us. Praise to the Lord!

And what our catechism question this week reminds us is this: this action was the fulfillment of God's plan in all eternity. God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world; love us while we were yet sinners; saved us apart from any merit on our own part - for we had and have none. So all glory goes to God alone.

Q. 20. Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?
A. God, having out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Are you listening?

Luke 8:18 (NKJV)
18 Therefore take heed how you hear. For whoever has, to him more will be given; and whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken from him.”

Did you bring your ears with you to worship today? I know, of course, that unless you have a physical abnormality, you did of course show up with those two floppy things on the side of your head. But did you bring your ears with you to worship today?

Jesus consistently ends his parables with these words: He who has ears to hear, let him hear. One of the things that characterizes us as human beings – characterizes our interactions with one another and even with God – is that we can “hear” and yet “not hear.” We hear the words of our spouse; we hear the criticism of our employer; we hear the corrections of our parents; we hear the very words of God – but when that crucial question comes our way, “Are you listening to me?” we often have to confess, “No, I’m not.”

In our passage today, Jesus warns us to take heed how we hear, how we listen to His Word. If we hear the right way, increased blessings will come our way; if we hear the wrong way, even what we seem to have will be taken away. Hence, it is not enough simply to walk our ears into the sanctuary; we must take heed how we hear.

So how are you listening? How have you been listening? Are you taking heed how you hear? Are you coming to worship week by week expecting to hear the very voice of God? Expecting God to correct you? To comfort you? To challenge you? To sanctify you? Do you petition God to help you understand more of Him, more of His word, more of His world?

Or are you coming to worship just because? Just because your parents make you? Just because that’s what good people do? Just because it’s beneficial for your kids? Do you find yourself bored, disinterested, expecting only to hear the voice of a man and not the very words of God? “And when will that guy stop preaching,” you say to yourself, “so that I can start talking to my friends? So that I can get home and rest? So that I can listen to my music, watch my movie, play my game?” Therefore take heed how you hear. For whoever has, to him more will be given; and whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken from him.

Reminded of our need to bring our ears with us to worship and that we often leave them behind, let us confess our sin to the Lord and petition Him to pour out His Spirit upon us, that He might give us ears to hear. And, since we are confessing our sins, as you are able, let us kneel in humility before our Lord.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Original and Actual Sin

This week one of the questions we recite from the Westminster Shorter Catechism concerns our sinfulness:

Q. 18. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.

The catechism reminds us that our fundamental problem as human beings is not what we do (actual sins) but what we are (original sin). Our problem is that our nature is corrupt. And it is from this corruption of nature, a corruption which all human beings share, that our actual transgressions proceed.

And this, I believe, is one of the reasons that God has always dealt not just with believers but with their children - commanding our fathers to circumcise male infants and (I would argue as a good Presbyterian) commanding us to baptize our male and female infants. Even those precious, cuddly, warm and snuggly infants have a corrupt nature. Hence, apart from the grace of God, they too will perish in their sins. But thanks be to God! He shows mercy to our children and our children's children to a thousand generations.

This also reminds us why we are wholly dependent upon God for our salvation from first to last. Paul reminds us that "those who are in the flesh cannot please God." It is not simply that we "do not" please God but that we "cannot please God" - we lack the ability and the desire. Left to ourselves we will consistently choose to worship idols, to abandon the Living God, and to spurn His good law. So we depend on God to draw us to Himself (Jn 6:44), to enlighten our minds (Mt 11:25ff), and to free us from the shackles of our sin (Jn 8:34-36). When He does so, our only fitting response is one of praise and thanksgiving!

This week we study the Call of Abram - God in His grace and mercy reached out to Abram when he was in Ur of the Chaldees and called him to faith. This was wholly of grace - even as our call to faith is wholly of grace. So let us join our voices with Abram's in giving thanks to God.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Law and Gospel

"It makes sense to say that we should not confuse God's demands with his promises. Nevertheless, the kind of sharp distinction that Luther proposed [between Law and Gospel] is not biblical. for one thing, biblical proclamations of gospel include commands, particularly commands to repent and believe (Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38). And God gave his law to the children of Israel in a context of gospel: he had delivered them out of Egypt; therefore, they should keep his law (Ex. 20:2-17). The law is a gift of God's grace (Ps 119:29)....

We are not saved by keeping the law, but we are always obligated to keep the law, and once we are saved and raised from death to life, we desire to keep the law out of love for God and for Jesus. The law not only is a terrifying set of commands to drive us to Christ, but also is the gentle voice of the Lord, showing his people that the best blessings of this life come from following his will."

John Frame, Systematic Theology, pp. 96-97.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Shouldn't We All Just Get Along?

A couple weeks ago, the Coeur d'Alene Press ran an article I wrote in response to the "Add the words" campaign being pushed by the LGBT group. It generated a bit of controversy and I wanted to follow up on a few comments that were made. I have submitted this response to the editor of the paper but he decided not to print it.

It seems my recent My Turn piece has caused a bit of turmoil in some circles. How dare I condemn the LGBT community? How dare I create the acronym PIGLET to criticize their behavior? That’s so judgmental! Shouldn’t we all just get along? Shouldn’t we just be tolerant? So in the interests of genuine peace, permit me to respond.

Don’t I think we should all just be tolerant? Well, frankly, no. But then again neither do you. The person who asks the question doesn’t really mean it. No one wants absolute tolerance. We want limits; we demand limits. Which of you will say, when your home is burglarized, “Well, that’s OK. We’ve got to be tolerant and big hearted”? No – we don’t want such behavior tolerated. We want it prohibited. Why? Because we know that if we tolerate such behavior we’ll get more of it.

There’s an old adage – “You get more of what you subsidize and less of what you penalize.” Any teacher knows this. Start the school year as the permissive teacher and what happens come November? Pandemonium; frustration; chaos. In 1969 the state of California, that great bastion of societal wisdom, led the way in legislating no-fault divorce. “We’ve got to be tolerant.” And the result? Divorce has skyrocketed. So begin publicly tolerating perverse behavior and what’s going to happen? Well I think you can do the math.

Regarding the issue of tolerance there are two questions to ask; and both are deeply religious questions – sorry, but I’m a pastor, and it’s my duty to point out such things. Just because certain people want to deny that the Creator exists doesn’t mean that He doesn’t; anymore than my dislike of chicken means that chickens aren’t real.

So what are our two questions? First, what are the limits of tolerance? What types of things should be publicly tolerated and what should be prohibited? Some suggest that we should tolerate anything as long as it doesn’t harm others. But in the area of human behavior, how can we know what actually causes harm? Scientists can’t even agree which foods we ought to eat! Left to ourselves we simply cannot identify the proper limits of tolerance. The only One who truly knows what causes harm is the One who has created us, who knows how we’re intended to operate. And His moral law, revealed in the Bible, is the instruction manual and has been the framework within which our laws and rights have historically been applied. As President John Adams remarked, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” God’s moral law sets the limits of tolerance.

Second, how should we define tolerance? Many are confused here. I think that what many mean by “tolerance” is simply compassion. And I have profound compassion for those who are caught in degrading sexual sins – both heterosexual and homosexual. I trust you do to. I have counseled numerous men enslaved to pornography and, thanks be to God, some have been freed from its shackles. But let us be clear – they are shackles. And how compassionate is it to tolerate behavior that will enslave yet more people? Does the father of the drug-addict say, “It’s okay son; let me help you with that needle”? Is that compassion? Should that father really tolerate his son’s behavior? Or should he not, in true compassion, urge his son to change?

So let us indeed be compassionate as a people – let us publicly condemn all sexual perversion, let us rid it from our homes and object to it in our communities, while helping those ensnared by sexual sin to recognize what it truly means to be a man or a woman created in the very image and likeness of God.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

False Prophets, Priests, and People

Jeremiah 5:30–31 (NKJV)
30 “An astonishing and horrible thing Has been committed in the land: 31 The prophets prophesy falsely, And the priests rule by their own power; And My people love to have it so. But what will you do in the end?

One of the reasons that it is critical for us to draw correct lines of parallel between the Old and New Testaments is that it equips us to understand the course of church history and our own moment in the story of redemption. In the history of the Church there are times of great blessing and growth – as in the days of King David and King Solomon – there are also times of judgment and shrinkage – as in the days of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah lived at a low point in Judah’s history. During his lifetime the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar besieged and destroyed Jerusalem including the temple. Jeremiah’s words today help illumine why God’s judgment was falling upon Judah: prophet, priest, and people had exchanged God’s Word for their own words; they had hardened themselves to the truth and embraced lies. Listen to Jeremiah: The prophets prophesy falsely – they speak not the words of God, not truth, but their own words, falsehood; the priests rule by their own power – not by God’s power but their own; and my people love to have it so – this is the sober finale, the people delighted in the deception practiced by prophet and priest. Leaders and people alike exchanged the truth of God for a lie. Consequently, God was judging Jerusalem.

We live in a day not unlike that of Jeremiah. Many of our prophets and priests – pastors and pastorettes in historically Christian churches – proclaim falsehoods and lies in the Name of God. They say that there are many ways to God; they say that Jesus was just a great man; they say that male and female are interchangeable; they say that God’s forgiveness makes holiness unnecessary; they say that homosexuality is acceptable to God; they say that we mustn’t judge unrighteousness or lawlessness. The prophets prophesy falsely, the priests rule by their own power, and my people love to have it so.

God’s assessment of this sin is found at the beginning of our text: An astonishing and horrible thing has been committed in the land. Here we receive God’s twofold assessment of Judah’s sin. First, it is “astonishing” - hard to believe. After all, what can be more astonishing than to place one’s confidence in man rather than in God? God is eternal and unchangeable; His Word is sure and fixed, a solid and everlasting foundation. And man’s word? Fickle, unreliable, biased; subject to constant revision and change; influenced by the latte he had at breakfast and the paycheck coming next week. So it is astonishing to exchange God’s truth for man’s opinions.

But not only is it astonishing, it is also “horrible” – devastating in its results. In the end, what will all these lies profit? God sees infallibly the outcome of this sin: Jerusalem will be in ruins; many of the Israelites will die; and then they will stand before God to answer for their sin. Their exchange of the truth of God for a lie is not only astonishing but also horrible.

So here’s the challenge Jeremiah gives you: whose voice do you want to hear? Don’t be surprised that there are many voices, even among priest and prophets, articulating opinions contrary to God’s Word. This has happened before among our people. So don’t be surprised; but do be warned: God is calling you, in the midst of these unfaithful voices, to hear and obey His voice. Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as our fathers did. Determine to understand and submit to God’s Word, God’s wisdom. Have no problem texts; bow before the Lord and seek His grace and mercy to understand and to apply His Word aright.

Reminded of our sinful propensity as God’s people to reject God’s Word and replace it with our own; reminded that many in our day have done this very thing; let us confess our individual and corporate sin to the Lord and petition Him to have mercy upon us; and since we are confessing our sins, let us kneel in humility before our Lord.