Archive for January, 2010

Worship the Right God Rightly (Horton, Chapter 3)

Let me begin by apologizing for not posting this yesterday.  For some reason, I sat at my desk yesterday thinking that it was Wednesday.  Perhaps I drank too much coffee, perhaps not enough.  Either way I am a day late, and I apologize.

In chapter three, “Worshipping the Correct God Correctly,” Michael Horton deals with the second commandment.  The second commandment has been at the center of much debate throughout the history of the church.  Horton does a great job of pointing out that the application of the second commandment goes far beyond the iconoclastic controversies of the 8th and 16th centuries.

Commenting on the focus of the reformers he wrote, “The glory of God, not the lowest common denominator of popular fancy, drove every new adventure” (Horton, 73).  The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the chief end man?” and answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  This principle applies in worship as well.

When theologians discuss what is appropriate in corporate worship the Regulative Principle of Worship often comes up.  Depending on the circle you are in some will understand the Regulative Principle to mean that we can do in worship anything not forbidden and others will understand it to mean that we can only do in worship those things that are commanded.  As you read Horton’s chapter on the second commandment and evaluate his arguments in light of Scripture, what are your thoughts?

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One Spirit, One Christ, One Message

In the opening thoughts of his first epistle (1 Peter 1.3-12), Peter outlines the reality of life in light of the gospel.  A brief summary of these first few verses, and in fact the whole letter, would be as follows:  The normal Christian life is a life of exile and longing with your eyes fixed on Christ in whom you have been born again to a living hope.  The last few verses (vv10-12) of this opening section ground the Christian’s hope in Jesus Christ, not only as a first century AD reality, but also as the fulfillment of the promises of grace heralded by the Old Testament prophets.

Peter writes, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.  It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1.10-12, ESV).

Consider three points from this passage.  First, there is one Spirit at work in Old and New Testament times.  The Spirit of Christ was at work revealing to the prophets what they were to preach and write.  The Holy Spirit was at work in those evangelists who preached the good news to Peter’s readers.  We understand the Spirit of Christ and the Holy Spirit to be synonymous when we consider that Peter referred to the agent of the Old Testament revelation as the Holy Spirit in 2 Peter 1.16-21

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.  And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1.16-21, ESV).

Second, one Messiah was prophesied in the Old Testament and revealed in the New Testament.  The Spirit of Christ was at work indicating to the prophets the sufferings and glories of the Christ.  We know from the gospels and epistles of the New Testament that it was the Christ, the fulfillment of the Old Testament, who was the subject of the evangelists preaching.  Consider Colossians 1.24-28.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.  To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.  Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ (Colossians 1.24-28, ESV).

Third, because there is one and the same Spirit at work in the prophets and evangelists and because the subject of their proclamations is one and the same Christ then it becomes clear that there is one message of redemption from the Old Testament to the New Testament.  Of course, what is revealed in the Old Testament is in shadow form and what is revealed in the New Testament is in Technicolor, but the Old and New Testaments are no less one story of God working out the redemption of his people in history.

When we see that there is in fact one Spirit, one Christ, and one Message consistent throughout the Old and New Testaments we begin to understand the depth of the claim that our God is a God of steadfast love and covenant faithfulness.  The covenant keeping God of the Old Testament to whom the Israelites turned for comfort in their time of exile is the same covenant keeping God to whom we turn as we struggle between two worlds.  Our God is faithful!  When the world fails us, which it will, we can know that our God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

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Blogging Books – The Law of Perfect Freedom (Chapter 2)

In chapter two, “No Other gods,” of The Law of Perfect Freedom, Michael Horton unpacks the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20.3, ESV).  As is typical Horton comes with some hard-hitting words and forces us to the cross.  His thoughts on what we call an idol are very helpful.

We have all heard sermons on the “modern-day” idols of money, sex, work, and family, and certainly, these can be idols that we must tear down.  However, Dr. Horton deals with a set of idols that are far more nuanced and probably far more prevalent in the church.  He begins by pointing out the problem with so many different formulations of God within “evangelicalism.”  To talk about gods that have different attributes is to talk about two different gods.  When we fall into the very subtle trap of thinking God exists for us or that we, through some religious practice such as faith or prayer, can obligate God to ourselves, then we have turned from the God of the Bible to worship another god with the same vocabulary.  Horton rights, “We slip into paganism by thinking that somehow what we do for God will create an obligation on His part” (Horton, 40).

Following a helpful discussion on what idolatry is, Horton asks, “What are our idols?”  His answers to this question are great:  faith, experience, love, self, and happiness.  Horton argues, when we put our faith in any of these things, we are serving an idol.  “Americans believe there is a power in faith, a magic in believing, and this is every bit as ‘primitive’ as the Egyptian, Roman, and medieval superstitions we have described.  The act of faith is what really counts; the object of faith is peripheral” (Horton, 51).

Finally, Horton deals with the pitfalls of universalism and pluralism as they pertain to the first commandment.  His discussion on prayer in school, nativity scenes on the capital lawn, and other social displays of Christianity alongside what are perceived as equally valid religious expressions is helpful.  He writes, “It is, after all, in the best interest of the gospel that Christ’s birth is not celebrated alongside other religious festivals, that prayers are not offered in such a way as to give the impression that Christ is unnecessary as the only mediator” (Horton, 66).

Michael Horton’s treatment of the first commandment is certainly provocative.  I was left asking myself three questions.  In what ways do I act as if I have somehow obligated God to my service?  Am I utterly satisfied with God as revealed in Scripture?  What is the object of my faith, really?

What are your thoughts?

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Westminster Shorter Catechism #5

The fifth question of the Shorter Catechism is pretty much the definition of self-explanatory.  “Are there more Gods than one?  There is one only, the living and true God.”  However, there is a boatload of implications involved in accepting this answer.  We will deal with two.

First, we can’t all be right.  If there is in fact only one true God, then only one of us can be right about whom that God is.  Atheism is denied on account of the fact that we affirm that there is at least one God.  Every polytheistic (many gods) religion is denied on account of the fact that we affirm that there is only one God.  Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all affirm the existence of only one God; however, since all three define God in fundamentally different terms, only one of the three great monotheistic (one god) religions can be correct.

Second, when we affirm that the God that exists is the living and true God, we affirm that he is not an inanimate object that is worshipped in a temple somewhere.  He is not a god made out of wood or stone or fashioned by the hands of men.  Rather, he is living and is the source of life, in both creation and redemption.  Paul used these exact words, living and true, to set God over against idols in 1 Thessalonians 1.

In a culture that has given itself to pluralism and religious tolerance, these two implications are significant.  If we believe there is only one God and he is the living and true God, the God of the Bible and no other, then it becomes increasingly difficult to love people who reject this God without proclaiming the truth in love.  The right response is not to stop loving those who reject the living and true God, but to love them with the truth.  Do we really love ourselves and our social comfort so much more than other people that we are willing to tolerate them going to hell?  May it never be!

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Sermon Notes – 1 Peter 1.6-9

The Bible is abundantly clear that Christians will face trials of various kinds.  Jesus tells his disciples to expect persecution (Matthew 10).  Paul writes about learning to rejoice in suffering because we are sharing in and filling up the suffering of Jesus (Colossians 1).  James tells us to count it all joy when we face trials (James 1).  Peter tells us not to be surprised by suffering (1 Peter 4).  One of the descriptions of the New Heaven and New Earth is that these former things, death, sickness, sorrow, etc., will pass away (Revelation 21).  Anyone that tells you the Christian life is a life of ease and continued earthly blessing that is void of suffering is a charlatan.  We simply cannot present the Christians life as one of earthly bliss and blessing while remaining faithful to Scripture.

The reality of suffering for the Christian begs the question, “Why do trials come?”  To be clear this is not the popular and accusatory why-do-bad-things-happen-to-good-people rephrasing of the problem of evil.  The question we are concerned with is this, “Do trials serve a particular role in the life of Christians?”

Answers to the questions surrounding suffering in the Christian life are far from consistent.  Some, denying the sovereignty of God attempt to the disengage God from trials and suffering by setting up various “wills” of God or by blatantly limiting God’s activity in the world thereby making our suffering vain.  Others recognize that God can have purpose in suffering but limit that purpose to this life saying we suffer in order to be prepared for a better life on earth.  Scripture however presents a different picture of the reason for suffering.

Scripture repeatedly holds up the Christians preparation for heaven as the goal of suffering and trials.  Suffering may function as discipline.  Trials may serve to drive us to rest in God.  Through trials and suffering, we may fill up the sufferings of Christ.  However, the underlying theme is being prepared for glory.  Peter writes,

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Though you have not seen him, you love him.  Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1.6-9, ESV).

Peter’s broad point is that we rejoice in the hope, inheritance, and future that are secured by Christ and in which God keeps us by his power through faith.  We rejoice in this even when we face the trials of life because we are being prepared for glory where we will give worship that is utterly unhindered by sin to Jesus Christ.  When we suffer as Christians, one reason to rejoice is we are being prepared through our suffering to meet Christ.

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Blogging Books – The Law of Perfect Freedom (Chapter 1)

Dr. Michael Horton consistently proclaims the gospel in a loud, clear voice.  His book, The Law of Perfect Freedom, is no different.  In chapter 1, “Doing the Right Thing,” Horton deals with two issues that struck me as exceptionally helpful in an evangelical culture that is often confused about our God.

First, Dr. Horton tackled the million-dollar question.  “How can I know God’s will?”  Horton writes, “If God really is in charge, there is no ‘perfect will’ we step in or out of, depending on how good we are at reading tea leaves or discerning ‘signs’ of God’s leading…  What this does for those burdened with anxiety over knowing God’s will is amazing.  It places our search for God’s will, not in the subjective hunches we often attribute to the Holy Spirit, but in the revealed will of God” (p18).  As odd as it seems, limiting how we find God’s will in this way provides great freedom.  Why is this the case?

Second, Horton addresses the question of why God gave the Law in this chapter as well.  When we misunderstand why God gave the Law we quickly make categorical mistakes in our theology that leads to massive problems in our understanding of the gospel and the Christian life.  Horton writes, “The law tells us what we ought to do, and this leads us to despair of meeting God’s standard.  Then the gospel tells us what God has done for us already in Christ, meeting the standard as our substitute and taking our punishment on Himself so that we could be regarded as righteous” (p21).  Later he writes, “From Genesis to Revelation, every figure, every story, every image, every lesson is the wrapping in which we find God’s gift, Jesus Christ” (p27).  Paul says as much in Galatians 3.15-29, as does Jesus in Luke 24.44ff.  How does this understanding of the Law (and all of Scripture for that matter) differ from the popular understanding of Scripture as a collection of rules and character studies for us to emulate?

A right understanding of the law is the necessary basis to a right understanding of the gospel.  I hope that as we read this book we come to a better understanding of both.

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1 Peter 1.3-5

What is the reason for the hope that you have?  Is your hope based on the promises of politicians?  Is your hope based on your performance at work?  Is your hope based on your spouse?  Is your hope based on giving your kids a shot at a better life than you’ve had?  Is your hope based on the next generation of leaders?  Is your hope based on your financial situation?  Is your hope based on the human spirit?  Is your hope based on education?  Is your hope based on religious activity?  What is the reason for the hope that you have?

The problem with a hope that is based in this world is that it will fail you.  I know, that sounds horribly pessimistic, but lets be honest.  Politicians make promises when running and pander when the race is over.  Jobs end.  Spouses disappoint.  Kids turn out remarkably like us.  The next generation of leaders has never quite measured up to our goals for them.  Markets crash.  The human spirit is crushed daily and has yet to conquer death.  Once you graduate, very few people care.  Works of either the Mosaic Law or some weaker version we write will justify no one.  So, what is the reason for the hope that you have?

Is despair all there is?  By all means, no!

1 Peter 1.3-5 states, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”  Those who are followers of Christ, who are united to Christ by faith, though we be strangers in a strange land, elect exiles, God the Father has caused us to be born again to a living hope.  The living hope that we have is based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Because Christ is the victor, we will be victorious.  Because death could not hold Christ, death will not hold us.  Because Christ rose from the dead, there is more than despair.  Because Christ rose from the dead, there is hope.

Paul wrote in Romans 5.1-5, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him, we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”  Could it be that Paul calls us to rejoice in our sufferings because our worldly sufferings drive us to Christ who is the surety of our hope?  What is the reason for the hope that you have?  Christ rose from the dead!

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Westminster Shorter Catechism #4

“Does god exist?” is one of the great questions of philosophy.  We could fill libraries with the books and articles in which philosophers and theologians have tried to answer this question.  Part of the reason this question is so difficult, many would say impossible, to answer satisfactorily is that we approach the question with a whole heap of different ideas about god.

What we understand god to be is vital to being able to answer the question, “Does god exist?”  When we hear this question asked, our response should be, “Which god?”  If we are talking about the common-denominator-god-of-all-theistic-religions, then the answer is, “No, that god does not exist.  He is a mere human construct.”  In fact, if we are talking about any god other than the true and living God revealed in the pages of the Bible and in creation, then I agree with the atheists.  God defined in any way other than in the Bible does not exist.

We often run into problems trying to offer any positive explanation of the Christian God.  Last week we saw, in WSC #3, that a central function of Scripture is to teach what we are to believe concerning God.  However, if we were asked, “Who do you say that god is?” the most many of us could say is, “You know, the God of the Bible.”  If we are going to take a stand saying, “Yes, God does exist!” then we need to be clear in our thinking and speaking about what the God we say exists is like.  The fourth question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism proves helpful on this very point.  It asks, “What is God?
” and answers, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”  This is a good starting point, but it is far from the whole story.

WSC #4 lays out several deep truths that we need to study; I want to focus our attention on three.  First, God is a Spirit (see John 4.24).  In the Westminster Confession, the explanation, “without body, parts, or passions” (WCF 2.1) is added to the statement that God is a Spirit.  However, what does it mean to say, “God is a Spirit.”  Robert Reymond writes, “…when we say that God is ‘spirit,’ we are only using theological shorthand for saying that God is personal and noncorporeal (without a body)…”  (Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith).

Second, God is different from us.  The attributes of God that are given in WSC #4, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, highlight that God is different than you and I.  Theologians have referred to these as the incommunicable attributes of God; that is to say, they “have no analogies in the creature” (Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine).  Recognizing that God is different than we are in a fundamental way is important when we talk about God, for the philosophical gods that we often speculate over are merely trumped up humans.

Third, God is not utterly different from us.  That is to say, God is not so different from us that he is necessarily and completely uninvolved with us.  The second set of attributes given in WSC #4, being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth, are what theologians have called the communicable attributes of God.  “The communicable attributes of God are those to which the attributes of man bear some analogy” (Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine).  However, it is only an analogy.  If you read the question closely, you will see that God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable IN HIS being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

WSC #4 lays a good foundation for our thinking about God.  It begins to teach us what we are to believe concerning God.  When we talk about, think about, sing about, pray to, and rest in God, let us make sure it is the true and living God who is actually there.

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When Soldiers Go to War

On Saturday, January 2 a company of National Guard soldiers left Jonesboro, AR on their way to Afghanistan.  The soldiers are scheduled to spend one year in Afghanistan on what is being called a “road-clearing” mission.

It is no secret that the wars taking place in the Middle East since 9-11 have spawned visceral debates throughout the nation and around the world.  Republicans and Democrats have both taken credit and placed blame over the last few years.  People have debated just war theories.  Conspiracy theorists have had a heyday trying to link together all the different political, social, and economic ties.  Setting aside all of our deep rooted political convictions, how do we as Christians respond to the harsh reality that husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and friends left home on Saturday, and most likely some will not come home alive?

First, we trust God.  The Bible teaches us that God is in control of even the most mundane details of life.  Paul tells us in Ephesians 1.11 that God works all things according to the counsel of his will.  ALL things – even military deployment.  Not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from the heavenly Father (Matthew 10.26-33).  In seminary a friend training for the chaplaincy posed the following question to people that could not understand his willingness to leave his family and risk life and limb to shepherd soldiers in the battle field.  “Do you think that by going back in I run the risk of dying even a day before God intended?”  The apostle Paul said, “To live is Christ, to die is gain (Philippians 1.21).  We must learn to trust God with our lives and the lives of those we love.  God created all things to serve his purpose, and he will receive the glory he intends from all things, in the precise way he intends to, whether in life or in death.

Second, we pray.  We pray that God’s will would be done.  We pray that the wars would end.  We pray that Christ would return.  We pray for the soldiers.  We pray that they would honor God in all that they have been called to do in their vocation.  We pray that God would work his will in the lives of the soldiers and in the lives of those whom they left at home.  We pray that God would give comfort.  We pray that those soldiers who are followers of Christ would let the light of the gospel shine brightly.  We pray for the soldier’s protection.  We pray for the reuniting of families.  We pray for the chaplains that will be ministering to the soldiers.  We pray that they would make the gospel clear.  We pray for those who were left at home.  We pray that God would comfort them.  We pray that God would protect families while they are separated.  We pray that children, wives, and husbands would be reunited to their daddies, mommies, and spouses.  We pray that they would learn to trust God even more.  We pray that they would find their hope in Jesus Christ.

Third, we rest in Christ and teach others to do the same.  War is a product of the fall of man into sin.  Jesus Christ has freed his people from the law of sin and death by dying for the sins of his people.  For those who are in Christ we have before us, the New Heavens and New Earth.  The description of the New Heavens and New Earth in Revelation 21 shows the fullness of the victory of Christ.  John writes, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21.1-4).

Whether we agree or disagree with the war, trusting God, praying, and resting in Christ should be common among all believers.

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1 Peter 1.1-2

Peter wrote his first epistle, (1 Peter) to encourage a people who were facing life as strangers in a strange land.  Most likely, the emperor had forced the recipients of this letter to move from their homes in order to populate new areas of expansion of the Roman Empire.  As these Christians settled into life in Asia Minor, the area where all the regions that Peter lists are found, they would have found themselves at odds with the culture largely based on their religious practices and convictions.  As they faced the reality of being ostracized for their religious convictions Peter wrote to them to stand strong in the faith.

In the opening verses, we see the basis on which Peter encourages these people.  Calling both elect and exiles, Peter reminds them of the surety of their election.  You have been called according to the foreknowledge of God by the sanctification of the Spirit for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ.  Peter’s point is this, because of who your God is and what your God has done for you, you have every reason to press on with a great hope.

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