Monday, February 27, 2012

Why the Christian needs the Old Testament 

The modern Christian often approaches his Christianity as a set of premises to accept or reject.  Christianity does certainly contain many premises.  But Christianity is also fundamentally about a story, and when all we know about that story is what Jesus did, we’re coming in about three-quarters of the way through.  The whole story begins with creation, goes through the lives of Noah, the patriarchs, Moses, Israel and David.  The story does not end until eternity, when the promised fellowship is finally fully restored.  Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is certainly the pinnacle and most crucial part of the story.  But we need the Old Testament to truly see the whole scope of God’s redemptive plan, the story that unfolds through all of human history.  We need the Old Testament to see ourselves properly within the sweep of that whole tale.  The story of redemptive history is so big and grand that we all come into it somewhere in the middle; no new believer has the perspective to start at the beginning and see the whole thing all at once.  So we have to start somewhere, and the ministry of Jesus is a very good place to start, the place where most Christians have always started.  But to deepen and broaden our understanding of the story of salvation, we need the Old Testament.  The book of Ezekiel captures a big piece of the story, a summary of God’s dealings with Israel and how that chapter of the story ends, and a new one begins.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Nature vs. Grace, or Sin vs. Grace? 

I recently returned from my second trip to the Philippines.  I was reading a good deal about the Two Kingdoms Theology from David VanDrunen and Michael Horton before and during the trip, and also discussing this theology with many of the people I was traveling with.  It’s a hot topic right now in the Reformed world and the trip to the Philippines gave me a wonderful opportunity to see the debate in a new light.

The Philippines is a beautiful country full of beautiful people.  It is also a country plagued with many difficult challenges.  Their traffic is a constant source of stress and inefficiency- as an illustration of the magnitude of this problem, a 120-mile bus trip took us about six hours, mostly because of the slow traffic and bad roads.  This was not an isolated experience.  They also have serious problems with corruption in their government and often severe pollution in their water and air.  Although there is a great deal of wealth in the country, there is also a very large proportion of the country living in extreme poverty.  I saw large slum settlement everywhere I went- what appeared to be many thousands of families living in shacks crowded very close together.  Finding a job can be very difficult especially for anyone over the age of about 40 or so.

 I thought a great deal about the condition of the Philippines and other poor countries while I was there and since.  I believe that it comes down to issues of worldview.  The typical Filipino outlook on the world is that they need to be rescued from their fate by some hero- the rich, the government, or foreigners.  This worldview essentially reflects a dichotomy in their minds between nature and grace.  Nature is the world as it actually is, and their need is to be rescued from that state of nature by some higher power.  That this should be their worldview is unsurprising, and not meant as any insult to the Filipinos, since this is in fact the default worldview of everyone.  We view our environment or our natural state as the problem and look to God, or the gods, or supermen in society to rescue us from this state.  This is the natural worldview of the pagan religions which view the cosmos as an essentially malevolent, or at least harsh and indifferent, environment, and where by the proper sacrifices and ceremonies we might induce the gods to protect us from this harsh environment.  The pagans as a rule huddled in their forests and were terrified of what was in the dark, offering sacrifices to appease the gods whenever they so much as built a house or dammed a river in order to survive.

The Philippines is about 85% Roman Catholic.  The Roman Catholic religion essentially sees the same dichotomy, between nature and grace.  God’s grace, delivered to us through saints, through the church, through the sacraments, delivers us from a state of brute nature.  Roman Catholics essentially see nature as the problem.  The way God created us is insufficient; it is necessary to add His special grace to our essential nature in order for us to transcend our nature and live in a state of bliss.  This is why Roman Catholicism does not fundamentally change the worldviews of nations into which it spreads; looking at Latin America or a country like the Philippines, Roman Catholicism simply exists as a thin veneer over the culture already there.  They change some of the names, but they do not change the fundamental outlook on life.

Of the remaining 15%, a large proportion is Pentecostal.  Pentecostalism essentially sees the same worldview, a worldview where salvation is achieved by escaping nature through the grace of God.  The major difference between Pentecostalism and Roman Catholicism is really a pretty small one; they just see the form that grace takes differently.  They see it in ecstatic experiences and transcendent supernatural gifts, tongues, healings and prophecies.  They look for salvation in being transported out of God’s creation into a heavenly transcendent state.  Once again, the underlying worldview remains intact, and nothing really changes.

The Reformation sees salvation in fundamentally different terms, fundamentally Biblical terms.  The real dichotomy is not nature versus grace; it is sin versus grace.  When God created human beings, He said that it was “very good.”  The problem is not nature; the problem is sin.  Adam rebelled against God and plunged the race into a state of sin, a state of alienation from God.  The true dichotomy then is not between nature and grace, but between sin and grace.  The grace of God does not free us from the bonds of nature, it frees us from the bonds of sin.  The effect of this is to bring us back into harmony and fellowship with God, and also to bring us back into harmony with nature- our own nature and the nature of the creation in which we live.

Countries which were strongly affected first by Christianity and then by the Reformation saw a number of profound transformations.  In particular the way they view labor changed.  This is what we describe as “the Protestant work ethic.”  The basis of this ethic is the idea that man was created to take dominion of the creation through his labor, and that this is not a burdensome or unpleasant chore.  It is a joyful task that Adam was given, to emulate God’s own creative work in Adam’s limited and creaturely way, to bring continuing order and improvement to the creation which God had made.  The problem with labor is sin.  When God curse Adam, He said that Adam would now till the ground by the sweat of his brow and that creation would rebel against man by bringing forth thorns and thistles.  Man would now be out of harmony with the natural creation and with his fellow man, reflecting his alienation from God through rebellion.  The problem therefore is sin.  The problem is not the nature that God created; the problem is man’s rebellion against God which resulted in man being out of fellowship and harmony with that nature.

Jesus proved that by taking on the human nature in its entirety and in that human nature obeying God perfectly.  He demonstrated that God did not make a mistake when He made His creation, or when He made man.  He was the faithful servant, and in being the faithful servant, He redeemed the very concept of humanity.  He suffered to pay the price for our sin, and He obeyed perfectly to satisfy God’s expectations of humanity.  By faith in Him we are reunited to Him and all of the benefits which He earned are now ours to enjoy.

At this point we must avoid the mistake of thinking that the effect of Christ’s work was to restore us to Adam’s mandate.  Adam’s mandate was completed by Christ.  He was the faithful servant and accomplished all that God demands of humanity.  We are not freed from our sin in order to now be able to earn our salvation; our salvation is entirely complete in Christ.  But neither does this mean that Adam’s mandate is irrelevant; Adam’s mandate simply describes what it means to be a human being, to be in dominion over the creation which God has made.

One of the benefits of Christ’s work is that we are brought back into fellowship with nature.  Out of this Protestant mindset came an explosion of scientific understanding, political freedom and economic development.  People no longer looked to kings or emperors or popes to save them; they looked to the salvation of Jesus Christ, which gave them the ability to get back into fellowship with the creation and with their fellow man.  They realized that creation is not supposed to be a big scary unknowable thing; it was created by God, for man, to be understood and carefully husbanded by man.  So they began to set out to understand it.  They set out to learn how to steward it more faithfully.  The renaissance, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the information age- all of these things came out of this fundamental change in the way people viewed creation, and it was the Protestant understanding of the world that brought all of this on.  Catholic piety taught that the holiest men withdrew from the world, withdrew from labor, and went to monasteries and hermitages to contemplate spiritual realities [edit: or, insofar as they engaged the world, did so only through "religious" activities such as evangelism and charity].  Protestant piety taught that the man of God would be active in the world in every field, would work at trades, raise families, be active in government, all as different ways of becoming what God had intended for him to be and which Christ had enabled and empowered him to become.

This is not of course to claim that all of those involved in this process were Protestants.  Many of them were not even Christians.  But they benefited from the Biblical worldview which Protestants taught.  The western world today continues to benefit from the left-over capital of this worldview even as this worldview is largely lost.  And as the worldview is lost, we see these societies decaying and losing the solid basis for the prosperity that once was gained through work.

Which brings me back to the Philippines.  It is my impression that people in the Philippines mostly do not view work as the way to prosperity.  They believe that the world is a malevolent place.  Work is done merely to get by.  But in order to truly become wealthy, it is necessary to have the right connections, to know the right people.  Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism do nothing at all to change this worldview.  The worldview will change only through Biblical Christianity.  That Christianity will show them that as each one of them is united to Christ by faith, their understanding of their own nature and their relationship to the creation and to their fellow man will change, so that they recognize that they are to take dominion over the creation, insofar as they are able.  As they do this, more and more of the society will learn to live in relative harmony with nature and with one another, and the result will be that they will begin to experience just a small taste of the blessings that God has for us in heaven when all of the effects of sin are fully blotted out.  This has been the source of all of the prosperity of the west; not natural resources, or superior genes, or accidents of history, or exploitation of others.  The prosperity of the west is the result of a Christian worldview, and is therefore replicable anywhere else in the world.

This also means that the prosperity of the west is something that can be lost, and will be lost, unless we recover this worldview ourselves.

Next I want to look at the implications of these truths for the Two Kingdoms theology as it is now being taught by Horton, VanDrunen and the rest at Westminster Seminary in Escondido.  Update:  Part 2 posted.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

One Father 

"One God and Father of all who is above all and through all and in you all." (Ephesians 4:6)  If there is one Father then the true church is essentially the same wherever it is located.  We do not need demographic studies or marketing analyses to tell us how to worship or what kind of church to build.  We need only to come to know our Father who is the same whether we are Filipino or American, urban or rural, boomer or millennial.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Is the Sabbath Day of continuing force to the New Testament Believer? 

The 4th commandment is in a way unique among the 10.  It is unique in at least this way, that there is nowhere near the level of controversy about the proper interpretation of any of the commandments as there is over this one.

The Sabbatarian argument is that though all of the calendar observances of the Jews are no longer binding on the Christian, that which is contained in the Ten Commandments itself continues to be binding.  They argue that the Sabbath was ordained not at Sinai but in the Garden of Eden.  It is a creation ordinance and is therefore binding in perpetuity.  Jesus’ statements about the Sabbath were never intended to attack the continuing observance of the Sabbath but rather the illegitimate and extrabiblical interpretations and additions of the Pharisees.  Paul’s statements regarding observance of days were not directed at the one-in-seven Sabbath itself but rather at the observance of the Jewish calendar of feast days.  By the example of the Apostles, we see that the day of worship was changed in the New Testament to the first day instead of the seventh, in honor of the Lord’s resurrection (and therefore it is called the Lord’s Day), but otherwise the Christian day of worship is in all respects the Sabbath which the Lord commanded here.  Further, all of the other Ten Commandments are essentially the same in their observance, both outward and inward, from the Old Testament to the New, and therefore the Fourth should be as well.

The counter-argument is this:
First, there is no record or evidence of the observance of the Sabbath before Exodus 16, when the Jews were in the desert.  It appears very much that God instituted the Sabbath at that time, and then expanded on it at Sinai.  Genesis 2:3 simply indicates that God did bless the seventh day and rested that day, but says nothing about when this was applied to people for their observance.  Remember that Genesis was written by Moses after the actual institution of the Sabbath Day in Exodus 16.  Likewise, the 4th Commandment simply says that the institution of the seventh day rest was done because of God’s rest on the seventh day.  It doesn’t say when God instituted that 7th day rest.

Further, God states clearly that the Sabbath Day rest was a sign (Exodus 31:13).  None of the other commandments are said to be signs.  A sign is a tangible thing which points to some spiritual truth.  The prohibition against murder or adultery or blasphemy are not signs of anything.  They are reflections of God’s own moral nature.  Nonetheless the Sabbath is said to be a sign to Israel from God.  In particular, in Ezekiel 20 this point is made, as well as clearly distinguishing between God’s Sabbaths and His statutes and judgments, which refers to moral law.  What is the Sabbath a sign of?  That it is God that sanctifies us.  The Sabbath principle is beautifully illustrated, that we can rest from our human attempts to make ourselves righteous or blessed, to trust in God and obey His word.

Jesus’ statements in the gospel regarding the Sabbath certainly are primarily aimed at exposing the false interpretations of the Pharisees.  However, there is more to them than just that.  See Matthew 12.  There, after being accused of violating the Sabbath, Jesus refers to the occasion when David, on the run from Saul and starving, came into the tabernacle and was given the showbread to eat, which only priests were allowed to eat.  He then quotes from the Psalmist, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”  Both of these statements are intended to show that some things are ceremonial and some things are more important than ceremonies.  But what relevance would that have to the context of Matthew 12, unless Jesus was making the point that Sabbath observance was a ceremonial matter, and not to be elevated above more fundamental moral concerns like mercy?

Paul’s statements are clear as well.  In Romans 14, referring to disputes among brethren, he mentions “observance of days” generally.  They are not to be matters of disputes between brethren.  He does not limit his statements, merely referring to “days” in general and the religious observance of them.  In Colossians 2:16, he says that the believer should not allow his liberty to be stolen and his reward cheated away from him, by being required to observe “festivals or new moons or sabbaths”.  The word there for Sabbath is the same construction used everywhere in the New Testament for the one day in seven observance.  In Galatians 4:10 his language is even stronger, saying that their observance of days make him fear for their salvation, since they make it a condition of true Christianity.

We have no early record of the Sabbath being observed by Christians.  We know in fact that they were flexible about the days that they gathered together for worship, sometimes in the morning and sometimes at night, sometimes on the seventh day and sometimes on the first.  This was necessary since they were often under persecution and also many of the early believers were slaves and lacked the freedom to worship whenever they desired.  The Emperor Constantine in the 4th century declared the first day of the week a day of rest and this was the first uniform observance of a first-day worship.

John Calvin was opposed to any religious observance of days.  He supported a one-day-in-seven day of rest, for good order and so that servants and others who lacked freedom would be guaranteed the opportunity to go to church.  He also recognized the principle that people needed to rest from their labors, and unless that rest was forced, many would not have the opportunity to take it.  But he rejected the idea that any day should be viewed as religiously different than any other day, calling it “crass and carnal sabbatarian superstition.” (See Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 8, sec. 28-34)

Do we believe then that the 4th commandment has been abrogated?  Not at all.  The continuing truth of the 4th Commandment is that the Christian is to trust God for his salvation, resting from his works, and being careful to take time out of our schedules to gather together with the saints for worship and study, and to make time for private worship as well.  But it is my position that the 4th Commandment’s requirement of a religious observance of a 24-hour period of rest was ceremonial and symbolic in nature, and has been abrogated in the New Covenant.

The 4th commandment is explicitly part of the 10 Commandments, the covenant that God made with the nation of Israel on Sinai.  That covenant was a covenant of works, a republication of the covenant God made with Adam.  It was given as part of God's plan of redemption, but in a negative way- it functioned to show them the impossibility of ever finding God's blessings through their own efforts.  It was given to make sin exceedingly sinful.  The Covenant at Sinai was also given in its particular form to the nation of Israel in order to "shut them up", to keep them under guard and separate from the other nations until Christ came.  These unique functions of the Sinaitic Covenant all expired when Christ came.  God's moral principles never expire.  But the signs and shadows that point to Christ do expire when Christ came, and the Sabbath observance is just such a shadow.  It is part of what Paul calls the "bondwoman" in Galatians 4, before telling us to cast out the bondwoman and her son.  Christ is our eternal Sabbath.  He has achieved all of God's blessings for us and guaranteed them for us forever.  Those blessings can no more be earned by Sabbath keeping than they can by any other ceremonial observance.  The New Testament believer therefore begins to enter into the eternal Sabbath now, resting in Christ not one day in seven, but every day of the week.

False prophecies 

(Book excerpt)

False Prophecies
In Ezekiel 13, Jehovah addresses the false prophets of Israel directly, through the prophet.

The first kind of prophet mentioned here is the one who masquerades as a traditional prophet of Jehovah, but who invents his messages order to please his audience.  Such prophets do not tackle the difficult or unpleasant topics (13:5), but instead behave as “jackals in the ruins,” that is, they look to disaster as an opportunity to enrich themselves.  These prophets have benefited a great deal by soothing the anxieties of the people, telling them what they want to hear.  But in doing so, they actually increase the misery of the people, by encouraging them not to repent.

A great curse comes on those who claim to proclaim the word of God in order to enrich themselves.  This angers God greatly.  Those who do this always distort that word and appeal to man’s sinful desires, since these tactics will always be more profitable than telling people the uncomfortable truth about sin and repentance.  God uses the example of a city that is under siege, when  the wall is breached and the enemy starts to come into the gap.  This is the point at which the best and bravest of the city must rush to the gap to defend the city and heal the breach.  Once they have repulsed the enemy, they can  rebuild the wall with a temporary barrier.  The prophets of Israel were supposed to warn Israel of danger, and that is just what men like Ezekiel and Jeremiah were doing, at great cost to themselves. These false prophets, however, were simply keeping themselves safe by telling people what they wanted to hear instead of the truth.

Ezekiel extends the analogy with the discussion of “untempered mortar” or possibly “whitewash.”  The idea here is a wall that is built to look good superficially, but isn’t really solid.  The word of the false prophets is like that untempered mortar that people think is a solid wall, and trust, but when the time of trial comes that wall collapses and ruins them.

Those who claim to teach God’s word are asking people to trust them with some of the most important issues in life.  A teacher is claiming to have true information about what kind of behavior and belief pleases God and what kind of choices will lead to life or death.  One who teaches those truths had better be very sure that he actually teaches the word of God.  Otherwise God’s wrath will undoubtedly be upon him for misleading people and profiting from the disaster that follows.  Imagine how angry you would be if you paid a man a great deal of money to build a house for you, but after it was built and the man paid, you discovered that his work was shoddy and only looked good, and the house started to fall apart the first time the wind blew.  Your money was wasted and your life very nearly lost as a result.  Yet people entrust the far more important matters of the truth of God’s word to liars and charlatans all the time.  The damage will not be as immediately evident as the damage done by a deceitful builder, but will in the end be far worse.

The result, God says, is that these evil prophets will be utterly excluded from God’s people (verse 9).  They have deluded the people into thinking they have peace when they do not.  God will expose these prophets’ falsehood by destroying their shoddy work so that all can see what frauds they are.  The Babylonians will destroy the temple just as the true prophets have foretold, and one result of this will be that everyone will know the false prophets are liars and charlatans.

(This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book on the book of Ezekiel.  You can preorder a copy of the book on my Kickstarter page.  By backing this project for $10 or more, you will receive a signed copy of the book when it is published in a month or so.)

Friday, February 03, 2012

I've launched a Kickstarter project for my new book- The Lord is There: Studies in the Book of Ezekiel.  The book is written; I just need to have final editing and layout work done.  Please take a look and consider supporting the project if this is something that interests you.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Faith and Works 

The difference between law and gospel is not the difference between works and faith.  Works and faith are present in both law and gospel; the difference is the order.

Adam was created into a blessed state.  He was in fellowship with God and had all of creation under him.  He was never in a state of neutrality with God.  God never called on him to earn favor with God; he had it already. What he was called to do was to obey God's word in order to maintain that blessed state.  This is the covenant of creation, or the covenant of works- not that Adam was called to earn something with God from a state of neutrality, but to maintain that blessed state into which he was created by his own efforts.  In order to do that, he had to believe what God said.  It was when Adam and Eve called into question the truthfulness of God's word, when they even entertained the possibility that the devil raised, "Hath God really said?" that the fall happened.  So faith and works were both necessary under the covenant of creation; Adam had to believe God's word and then work in order to maintain the blessings God had given him.  This Adam failed to do, of course, rebelling against God's word and plunging himself into ruin.

Israel had the same covenant made with them at Sinai.  God had shown them great grace, had saved them from Egypt, made them a nation and blessed them with His laws and testimonies.  Now He called them to believe His word and obey His laws in order to maintain that blessed state, represented by the promised land.  The law says, "He that does them shall live in them."  The difference with Israel was their state; now that the race was plunged into sin, it was impossible that they should succeed.  While Adam had the ability to obey God, Israel did not.  The purpose of God's covenant with Israel was therefore different.  It was to make "sin exceedingly sinful", in other words, to show them their hopelessness and their need for a savior.  It also had the purpose of separating them from other nations and keeping them together as the special people of God, so that the witness of God's dealings with His people would be preserved until that savior came.

In other words, the law in Israel had the purpose of pointing them to another promise, the promise God made to Adam and Eve after the fall, and repeated to Abraham- the promise of a godly seed that would undo the damage that Satan had done, symbolically crushing the serpent's head.  This was the covenant of grace. The promise of the covenant of grace was that God would bestow the blessed state on His people and that it would not be dependent on their actions to maintain that state; rather, Christ would maintain that state for them.  Faith is the link that God works in us to lay hold of that blessed state earned for us by Christ, and good works are the working out of that blessed state in our lives, the beginning of the delivery of all of God's benefits to us.  The righteousness of the law is that "He that does them shall live in them", but the righteousness of the gospel is, "the just shall live by faith."

So we must avoid the mistaken false dichotomy that the difference between the law and the gospel is the difference between works and faith.  Works and faith are present in both.  Law and gospel are two different covenants, two different ways that the end state is achieved.  Under the law, the blessings God gives us are maintained by our own efforts, and ever since the fall all such efforts are doomed.  But Christ fulfilled the law perfectly and earned all those blessings for Himself forever, and under the gospel, the covenant of grace, infallibly delivers those benefits, faith in God's word and a life of righteous good works, to all those chosen by the Father.

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