Archive for November, 2009

Westminster Shorter Catechism #2

#2 – What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?  The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

What is the final authority – in life, in church, in family, in work, in education, in entertainment, etc., etc.?  How do we set, direct, and change course in life?  Is there a final standard?  Is there a universal standard?

We ask all of these questions and a million similar ones, everyday.  The standard by which we define various aspects of life (e.g. morality, beauty, value, love, justice, language) cannot simply be left up to each individual to decide for himself, for we may arrive at different conclusions, rendering the conclusions pointless.  If defining justice is up to you and me (and everyone else) individually and equally then on what grounds can we interact in any meaningful way?  There simply must be a standard to which everything refers.  There must be an absolute, or life is unlivable.

Throughout history, men have sought to define this standard in different ways.  Some seek to define the standard through something that is common to every individual.  Some attempt to isolate a principle common to a community.  Others look for some standard outside of mankind.

Defining the standard in terms of something that is common to individuals, such as pleasure, fails because there is not a common understanding of pleasure.  One person’s pleasure may be another’s misery.  Seeking a broader principle common to a community, such as the common good, fails in the same way.  Not every member of the community may have the same idea of the common good, and one community’s common good may be another’s destruction.  Defining the standard in terms of something outside of us, such as the Word of God, offers hope for progress.

The Protestant Reformation raised these questions in regards to the church.  Are the clergy the final authority?  Is tradition the final authority?  Is the Bible the final authority?  We would do good to ask these same questions of authority again.  Do ministers hold the authority?  Do denominations hold the authority?  Do popular preachers hold the authority?  Does Christian culture hold the authority?

The Westminster Divines, the guys who wrote the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, were answering these questions when they penned the second question of the Shorter Catechism.  The Word of God is the standard.  Whether we are debating doctrine, studying ethics, or discussing life in light of the Gospel, we must be bound by the Word of God.

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John 1.15-18

When John writes, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1.17, ESV), he is setting up a contrast between the law, which came through Moses, and the gospel, which came through Christ.  However, it is not as stark a contrast as some assume.

In verse 16 John writes, “And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1.16, ESV).  The idea of grace upon grace is that one grace as replaced another grace.  Therefore, while there is a contrast between the Mosaic Law and the Grace of Christ, there is also some amount of continuity for both are considered gracious.

When we consider the broader teaching of Scripture on the relation of Christ’s work to the Mosaic Law we see the same presentation of both continuity and contrast.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus stated that he came to fulfill the law not to abolish it (Matthew 5-7).  Paul says that the Mosaic Covenant does not undo the Abrahamic Covenant; rather, the Law serves as a tutor to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3.15-29).  The author of Hebrews says that Jesus is a better Mediator of a better covenant (Hebrews 9, 12).  In all of this we see both contrast and continuity.

The continuity that exists between these two covenants stems from the fact that both the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant are administrations of the same Covenant of Grace.  The contrast that exists between these two covenants stems from the fact that they are in fact different administrations of the Covenant of Grace.  The Westminster Confession of Faith deals with this very issue stating,

This covenant [of grace] was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old Testament.

Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations (WCF VII.4-5, italics mine).

Let us not return to the types and shadows of the law when we have the reality, who is Christ, revealed to us full of grace and truth.  Rest in the greater grace of the one who fulfilled the law and died in the place of his people that we may be redeemed.

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A New Book Worth Reading – If It Ever Gets Written

Tim Challies has come up with what he calls “the ultimate idea for the ultimate Christian novel.”  I think he’s on to something.  Undoubtedly, the publisher would be backordered, but I am not sure that is good thing.  Why do these topics fascinate us so much?  Check out his book idea here.

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How Should Christians Relate to Culture?

How should Christians relate to culture?  There is no shortage of thought on this issue.  You can find “Christian” books that list bands that you should not listen to and “Christian” books that help develop strategies for blending in to the culture.  We can boil down all the different answers that folks have offered to this question to three positions:  we join it, we engage it, or we avoid it.

Let us begin by defining terms.  What do we mean by culture?  Culture often refers simply to what is popular in the realm of movies, music, and books among a given community.  This is a very narrow but common definition of culture.  More broadly, we can define culture as the general trends and tendencies of a given community that affect the daily life of that community.  Such an understanding would not only deal with the sphere of entertainment, but also education, philosophy, science, economics, business, politics, etc.  It seems that when many Christians ask how we relate to culture, they are primarily concerned with entertainment because the influences of entertainment are obvious.  However, if we are truly concerned with godliness in every sphere of life and not merely apparent piety, we do ourselves a great disservice by insufficiently thinking through how we relate to culture in the broader sense.  Additionally, we miss a lot by unnecessarily demonizing certain aspects of culture.  To avoid all of this, let us take culture in the broader sense.

What do we mean by join, engage, and avoid culture?  Let us take “join culture” to mean involving ourselves in culture without practicing discernment or purposing to contribute.  Let us take “engage culture” to mean involving ourselves in culture by practicing discernment, and purposing to contribute.  Let us take “avoid culture” to mean uninvolving ourselves in culture without practicing discernment or purposing to contribute.  These definitions draw sharp lines for the sake of discussion; no one fits into any one of these categories perfectly (and no one thinks they fit into the first or last).

Scripture frequently distinguishes between being in the world and being of the world.  “In the world” when set in relation to “of the world” means living and ministering on Earth.  In this linguistic relationship “of the world” means being defined by the world’s standards, trends, and agendas.  In his high priestly prayer (John 17), Jesus prays,

15I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.  16They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  18As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world (John 17.15-18, ESV).

Paul makes the same point when he writes,

9I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—  10not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.  11But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one (1 Corinthians 5.9-11, ESV).

The clear teaching of Scripture is that being in the world is as acceptable as it is necessary for life and ministry; however, being of the world is unacceptable.  Jesus and Paul set up a need for Christians to go into the world, even among the sexually immoral, idolaters, and drunkards in order that we may proclaim the gospel to those who have need.  Such is the reality of serving a God who came in the flesh to save sinners and not the righteous (Luke 5.29-32).  However, Paul gives strong warnings to have nothing to do with those who claim the name of Christ and are of the world.  Understanding the in/of distinction in Scripture is vital to answering the question, “How should Christians relate to the world?”

Unless we limit our definition of culture to something very narrow, the only way to truly avoid culture is to die.  It is impossible avoid culture.  Even if we attempt to set up some kind of religious ghetto (think M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village for an extreme example) we are fooling ourselves to think that we can completely escape a culture that we are necessarily part of.  At best, we may be able to isolate some aspect, such as certain genres of music or movies with a certain rating that we avoid.  We would do better by far to engage the whole culture than to avoid certain parts based on a self-inflicted, one-size-fits-all rule without giving serious thought to other parts of culture.

Christ has sent us into the world; therefore, it is sin to retreat from the world.  Too often, we fail to recognize that our role in the world is not simply to survive for a while.  We are the light of the world, the salt of the earth, ambassadors for Christ, a city on a hill, sent into the world, planters and water-ers of the seeds of the gospel, commissioned evangelists, created in Christ Jesus for good works, and saints being equipped for the work of ministry (assuming those with oversight are doing their job).  To avoid culture or some aspect of it, as a way of life is to deny the reality of the Christian life as one of gospel love for and service to a lost and dying world.  Having seen that it is both impossible and sinful to avoid culture (remember how we defined this), we can say that Christians should not relate to culture by avoiding it.

When we join culture we are necessarily, even if inadvertently, of the world.  We cannot enter into the world sans discernment and fight or even recognize the shaping influence that culture has on us.  If we do not purpose to contribute to culture, we can only be passive participants in culture and not a voice in the conversation.  Passive, vacuous participation in culture leads to being affected, and ultimately defined, by culture.  If we are not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, then we must not simply join culture.

How should the Christian relate to culture?  We must engage culture.  Relating to culture in such a way requires that God’s Word shape our thought processes, passions, and actions.  The full teaching of Scripture must shed light on our lives, our culture, and how the two intersect.  The discernment with which we evaluate culture is the application of biblical wisdom.  Such thoughtfulness will cause us to excuse ourselves from some activities and include ourselves in others.  Our purposeful contribution is our life lived and words spoken in light of the gospel.  As we approach life and all that makes up our life, we must approach it from a thoroughly biblical, Christ-centered, gospel-transformed perspective.  How should Christians relate to culture?  God has called us to engage it.

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Westminster Shorter Catechism #1

#1 Q.  What is the chief end of man?
A.  Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

The simplicity of this question and answer is deceptive.  There is both a great humility and a great comfort that comes with the answer.

On the one hand, all the desires of our flesh are cast to the side and replaced with the glory of God.  All of our worldly aspirations in our religious, familial, professional, and recreational stations are replaced with God’s glory.  All of our idols of success, happiness, and reputation are revealed for what they are.  The standard for all things is given, allowing a clear perspective with which we can define life, sin, and redemption.

On the other hand, we are told of the highest joy.  Our despair, insecurity, and fear are set on contrast to the only true source of hope, security, and peace.  Our longing for something more and better than we find in this broken world is validated.

B.B. Warfield, a Princeton Seminary theology professor from the late 19th century writes, “No Catechism begins on a higher plane than the ‘Shorter Catechism.’  Its opening question, ‘What is the chief end of man?’ with its answer, ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever’ … sets the learner at once in his right relation to God.  Withdrawing his eyes from himself, even from his own salvation, as the chief object of concern, it fixes them on God and His glory, and bids him seek his highest blessedness in Him.”*

The depth of the first question of the Shorter Catechism is further highlighted when we recognize that this simple answer speaks to one of the great philosophical questions of all time, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  Our existence is for God’s glory.  All of creation exists for God’s glory.  God created that he may be glorified through his creation.

We were created for the noble purpose of glorifying God, and we were created to revel in the joy of living Coram Deo, before the face of God.  David’s song in 1 Chronicles 16 announces the same glorious vision for life that the Westminster Divines summarized in their first question.

1Chr. 16:8Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name;
make known his deeds among the peoples!
9Sing to him; sing praises to him;
tell of all his wondrous works!
10Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice!
11Seek the LORD and his strength;
seek his presence continually!
12Remember the wondrous works that he has done,
his miracles and the judgments he uttered,
13O offspring of Israel his servant,
sons of Jacob, his chosen ones!

1Chr. 16:14He is the LORD our God;
his judgments are in all the earth.
15Remember his covenant forever,
the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations,
16the covenant that he made with Abraham,
his sworn promise to Isaac,
17which he confirmed as a statute to Jacob,
as an everlasting covenant to Israel,
18saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan,
as your portion for an inheritance.”

1Chr. 16:19When you were few in number,
and of little account, and  sojourners in it,
20wandering from nation to nation,
from one kingdom to another people,
21he allowed no one to oppress them;
he rebuked kings on their account,
22saying, “Touch not my anointed ones,
do my prophets no harm!”

1Chr. 16:23Sing to the LORD, all the earth!
Tell of his salvation from day to day.
24Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!
25For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised,
and he is to be held in awe above all gods.
26For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
but the LORD made the heavens.
27Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and joy are in his place.

1Chr. 16:28Ascribe to the LORD, O clans of the peoples,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength!
29Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
bring an offering and come before him!
Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness;
30tremble before him, all the earth;
yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.
31Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice,
and let them say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!”
32Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it!
33Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.
34Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!

1Chr. 16:35Say also:
“Save us, O God of our salvation,
and gather and deliver us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name,
and glory in your praise.
36Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting!”
Then all the people said, “Amen!” and praised the LORD.

May God grant us the grace through his Son, Jesus Christ, to set our hearts on his glory and be satisfied.

*B.B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. VI, (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book, 2003), 379.

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John 1.14 – The Word Became Flesh

John tells us three things about the “Word” in John 1.14: he became flesh, dwelt among us, and we saw his glory.

To understand the true significance of “The Word became flesh,” we must remember, “the Word was God.”  God became a man!  This is what theologians call the incarnation, and we can hardly overstate its significance.

On the one hand, if Jesus, the Word, is not God, then he is not holy.  If Jesus is not holy, then his death is deserved and therefore powerless to save sinners.  If Jesus’ death is powerless to save sinners, then we have no hope in Christ.  In short, if Jesus is not God, then his work holds no sway with God.

On the other hand, if Jesus did not become flesh, then he cannot stand in our place.  The Old Testament sacrifices of bulls and goats were not able to redeem people.  An amoral creature cannot die in the place of an immoral creature in order to satisfy a moral God.  In short, if Jesus did not become flesh, then his work holds no sway with God.

Paul makes this point in Romans 8.1-4,

1There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.  By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

We often focus on the fact that Jesus can identify with us in our weakness because he became flesh and was tempted.  While the idea that Jesus can identify with us in our weakness is true (see Hebrews 4.14-15), there is more to the incarnation than the therapeutic application to which we often turn.  We do not need mere therapy; we need to be regenerated.  We are dead in sin, held under bondage to the law of sin and death, and we need to be freed.  We need one like us, yet without sin, to fulfill the law for us, die in our place, and rise victoriously.  The Word became flesh to do precisely that.  Apart from the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, there is no salvation.

Rejoice!  The Word became flesh!

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Some Guy Named Thad

Friday night I went to a house concert here in Conway.  Thad Cockrell played two short sets for a small group of about 50 folks.  For what its worth, I was impressed.

I am no music critic, so I can’t say anything about the technical merit of the performance – although I am sure that it passed muster with the trained ears that were there.  What I can say is that Thad expresses something about life through his music that we often miss.  He expresses that we live out all of life before God.

In the liner notes for his newest record, “To Be Loved,” Thad writes,

These are songs I needed to hear, songs I believe and songs that I’m glad I get to sing.  If you and I were to sit down and have a conversation, over the course of an hour, this record would encapsulate most of the subjects discussed.  God, beauty, redemption and my need of it, love, the lover written upon one’s soul, open spaces, winning and losing and El Caminos.  I hope this comes across.  A dialogue between you and I.

Of course any self-respecting artist would say something similar about any record they produce, such is art.  However, many records end up sounding less like a dialogue and more like the artist saying, “I want to talk to you for three to four minutes about God.  Now I want to talk to you for three to four minutes about what I think is pretty.  Now I want to talk to you for three to four minutes about redemption, etc., etc.”

Without coming right out and singing, “The sacred secular distinction is bunk,” Thad manages to obliterate it.  Whether it is beauty, love, or El Caminos, he deals with the topic as if God matters.  At the end of the show, and now after each time I listen to the record, I was left remembering that Jesus matters far beyond Sunday, sin messes things up, and God gives us glimpses of himself throughout life.  And this isn’t even a “Christian” album.

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Westminster Shorter Catechism Introduction

The constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America is made up of the Book of Church Order, and the Westminster Confession of Faith – together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.  These documents serve to guide the church in her task and provide some amount of uniformity of doctrine from congregation to congregation within the denomination.

Some may ask, “Why on earth is the Bible not part of the church’s constitution?”  The constitution of the PCA sits under the authority of Scripture, not on par with Scripture.  Whereas the Bible cannot be amended by due process, if some part of our constitution is found to be out of accord with Scripture the constitution can rightly be changed.

Since these documents serve such an important role in our church, it seemed good to take a look at what they have to say.  So, over the course of probably a fairly long time, we will study these documents together.  Once a week I will post a brief article pertaining to the doctrinal standards of the church.  We will begin with the Shorter Catechism.

Let me make a brief disclaimer.  In no way will these articles be exhaustive treatments of the very thorough work of the Westminster Assembly.  B.B. Warfield filled 21 pages discussing the first question of the Shorter Catechism, and more could be said.  My goal is to simply introduce the work and let it begin to challenge our thinking.

The Westminster Assembly worked on the Standards from 1643 to 1647.  Their goal was to bring the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, and reformed churches on the continent into doctrinal conformity with each other.  While they did not meet their ultimate goal, the Assembly did produce several documents that have proved beneficial to reformed churches around the world.

One of the documents the Assembly produced was the Shorter Catechism.  The introductory statement to the Westminster Shorter Catechism states,

The General Assembly having seriously considered the Shorter Catechism agreed upon by the Assembly of Divines sitting at Westminster, with assistance of Commissioners from this Kirk; do find, upon due examination thereof, that the said Catechism is agreeable to the word of God, and in nothing contrary to the received doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of this Kirk:  And therefore approve the said Shorter Catechism, as a part of the intended uniformity, to be a Directory for catechizing such as are of weaker capacity.

In other words, the Shorter Catechism is approved as a faithful summary of what the Scriptures teach and is helpful for teaching those who are not that sharp.  Interestingly enough, memorizing this document that is useful for those of “weaker capacity” was required for me to graduate FROM SEMINARY.  Humbling?  Yes!  And a good reason to join with the Bereans of Acts 17 to search the Scriptures and examine the Scripture daily “to see if the things [are] so.”

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Adoption – Security, Identity, Hope

John 6.12-13 says, “But those who received him, he gave the right to become children of God, to those who believed in his name.”  One part of salvation is adoption.  We become children of God – heirs with Christ of the most high as Paul says.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches that adoption is one of the benefits of effectual calling, that work of the Holy Spirit convicting us of our sin, convincing us our need for and the sufficiency of Christ, and renewing our will so that we can respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ in faith and repentance.

If we are in Christ, God has adopted us as his children, and just like with physical adoption, spiritual adoption brings security, identity, and hope for a future.  In physical adoption, who the parents are define the security, identity, and hope.  The same is true with spiritual adoption.  When we call God Father we are saying all of my security, all of my identity, all of my hope is wrapped in who you are and what you have done for me through Jesus Christ.

Security is important as we grow in the faith, see more and more of our sin, and fall flat on our face because we are not perfect.  We need to know that if we are in Christ then God is our forever God.  He is not a capricious foster God who will have us transferred if we act up.  When Christ sat down at the right hand of his Father, he did so because his work was finished.  Our King has won the battle, and we need only to follow him into victory.

Identity is more than just a name; who we are defines how we are.  As we grow in the faith and learn more and more, to die unto sin and live unto righteousness and as our life becomes less and less defined by the world, we need to know that our identity is not wrapped up in this life, but in who are God is and in whom Christ is.  We need to know where our identity is because that will increasingly define how we live.  When a child is adopted, he takes on the customs, traditions, and rules of his adopted family because he is part of that family, not in order to be part of that family.  Likewise, when God redeems us and calls us as his child, we take on the customs, traditions, and rules of his family, which is built on grace, because we are part of the family, not to be part of the family.

Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2 that before we were in Christ we had no hope and were without God in the world.  Being without God and being hopeless go hand in hand.  However, in Christ we have a hope.  Indeed, Jesus Christ is our hope.  In addition, as we fight through the despair that so often comes from living in a fallen world we need to know that our hope and future are certain.  The Christian’s hope can never fail.

We have a Father in heaven.  May we live as children of the most high God.

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A Biblical View of Sex

The bottom line is that there has been more media created about sex than probably anything else in history.  Some of this is wonderful, God-glorifying media, but the majority of media on sex only serves to lead us into temptation and sin.  The sad reality is that there has been a lot produced by the church on the topic of sex that has unduly bound the consciences of believers with a prudish fear of sex or that has encouraged (mostly men) to take freedoms and make demands in sex that result in sexually violating their wives and sinning against God.

Tim Challies recently wrote a series of articles on sex.  While Challies’ articles are targeted at young men, they are excellent and well worth your time regardless of age or gender.  The titles of the articles are given below. Click on the article titles to access the articles.

Sexual Detox I:  Pornifying the Marriage Bed

Sexual Detox II: Breaking Free

Sexual Detox III: A Theology of Sex

Sexual Detox IV: Detoxification

Sexual Detox V: Freedom

Sexual Detox: Recommended Resources

Again, these articles are very helpful in understanding the biblical view of sex and fighting sexual sin.  However, the benefit of these articles goes beyond the issue of sex as much of what Challies says about fighting sexual sin applies to fighting any sin.

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