By Faith Alone

Scripture Reading

Acts 15:1-35

Sermon

Recently we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It is good to remember history and learn from the mistakes, as well as rejoice in the good things that the Lord has done. But it is also good to remember what Solomon wrote:

10 Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For you do not inquire wisely concerning this. (Eccl. 7:10)

As for me, I confess that I get a little weary at the scholars pontificating about ancient disputes, wrangling over words and living in a world of books and dust and centuries past, while the rest of us live in a world of real hurt and real pain and real sins.

But as I look at the time of the reformation and compare it to our time, I also see a lot of similarities, and our need to recover the gospel is as great as it ever was.

Today, as in the sixteenth century, theology has become the area of the experts, who look in contempt at laymen trying to get involved. Those who have not gone to the right seminaries and read the right books are dismissed and told that they have no right to question people far more educated than they are.

In the sixteenth century, the common people didn’t know how to read and didn’t have Bibles in their homes. Today, we know how to read and have Bibles readily available, but the common people generally don’t crack one open. If they do regular reading, they are at a loss as to how to read and interpret the scripture. The experts have trained them to be dependent upon the teat of the learned. And the people have learned their lessons well. They figure that the experts will tell them what they need to know.

In the sixteenth century, there was an infallible pope, who got rich on the backs of the ignorant. The flimflammery of Tetzel and the selling of indulgences is well-known by students of Reformation history. The medieval church peddled salvation in exchange for money, which prompted Martin Luther to pen his ninety-five theses and post them on the door of the church. Today, there are thousands of “infallible” popes, who are also peddling salvation in exchange for money. If you question one of the learned ones, you will soon pay the price through isolation, ridicule, name-calling, and banishment from the circle of the important ones. Money and power of strong incentives to keep the common people ignorant of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And, just like in the sixteenth century, The true gospel is Jesus Christ is shrouded by a miasma of qualifications, modifiers and conditions. The purity is lost. The beauty is shrouded with impenetrable language. The people of God are left as sheep without a shepherd, wondering if they are truly good enough to inherit the kingdom of God.

To strip away all of the Latin phrases, and the disputes of the wise of this world, the question is put simply – just like this: When God sees me, what does he see?

I tend to view myself as a good person, lovable, kind, generous. Does God see the same thing? I’ve done my best to obey. Sometimes I make mistakes, but will this change how God sees me? If God sees me as a sinner, can I change that? What should I do when I fall short?

Ultimately, it comes down to this. The day will come when I will die. I will meet God. What happens then? Will I be accepted by God? Will I be cast into hell forever? When I die, it will be too late to answer that question. So how can I be sure that I have the right answer BEFORE I die? Can I be sure?

This is the most important question you can ever ask. The Heidelberg Catechism puts it like this: How are you righteous before God?

To those who are outside of the covenant (what the first century would call a Gentile, a stranger to the covenant promises) the answer is “Just do the best you can and hope for the best.” And many different religions sprang up, trying to answer how to manipulate the gods to get a better afterlife. It is our natural religion. It is the religion of Cain, of Esau, and of Ishmael.

But to those who knew the covenant (the promise that was made to Abraham) they knew that there was a resurrection from the dead, and that the heirs of the promise to Abraham would inherit the new earth.

Today, we call this “heaven”, although it is a little misleading. We know that when the resurrection from the dead happens, all creation will be renewed, including this earth – and we will inherit it. But we also know that nothing unclean, wicked, sinful, will inherit.

So the question remains: When the time comes and we are laid in the dust, how do we know that we will inherit the promise made to Abraham? When the kingdom of God comes in its fulness, will we be a part of it?

How are we righteous before God?

The Jews (that is, the Pharisees at the time of Christ) answered this question with circumcision. Those who are circumcised inherit. Those who keep the law of Moses will inherit the kingdom of God.

At the time of Martin Luther, the Roman church answered: you can’t know for sure, but if you go to confession, do the penance, receive baptism, take mass, and submit to the pope, you can shave off years in purgatory and hope for the best.

But the Bible gives a far different answer. The answer is so contrary to everything that we believe about ourselves and about God that we cannot even see it unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.

How are you righteous before God?

60. How art thou righteous before God?

Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart (Heidelberg Catechism).

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, which will set you free from the bondage of sin and misery.

But the devil never lets go of his power easily. He is continually at work. The devil is always in the background saying in your ear, “yes, but….”

That is just too easy. You mean you don’t have to do anything? That means that you can just live how you want and it won’t even matter on the judgment day? That can’t be right? I know that you are saved by grace through faith, but you still have to obey God in order to make it into heaven. Otherwise, someone could just live how they want to and say, “I believe” and think they are saved!

I am 50 something years old. This means, in the circles that I have been in in my life, that I have been to fifty something reformation celebrations and conferences. I have heard every angle of Sola Fide (faith alone) my whole life. I have heard from my youth the story of Martin Luther writing in the margins of his Gutenberg Bible “sola” – by Rom. 1:17 (the just shall live by faith).

And I have seen, more and more, as the years have gone by, these same circles adding the “Yes, but…”

You still have to obey, right?

You preach on justification by grace through faith, and you will get the whispered “Amen” and the pious nod, and the muttered, “And obedience, of course….”

We even turned it into a hymn:

“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

In the first decade of the 21st century, my father fought the battle when it was called “Federal vision”; you are saved by grace and covenant faithfulness. He said we would have to fight it again, and he was right. The devil always adds the “yes, but…” to the finished work of Jesus Christ.

The “yes, but…” always takes the same form. You are saved by grace alone, but you won’t inherit the kingdom of God unless you add obedience to that faith. Whatever you put in the space of obedience – more love, more submission, more devotions, more, more, more – whatever you add, it doesn’t matter. You are adding something to the completed work of Christ. And when you go there, you have denied the gospel and you have denied Christ.

And this is what the book of Galatians is all about.

On this 500th year after Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the church, I thought it would be good for us to remind ourselves of how we are righteous before God. Where is peace to be found? How can I become a better person? How can I put to death the sinful nature that I still see in my life? How can I become more and more like Jesus?

And this is the book of Galatians. Today, I would like to give an overview, so we can see the argument from start to finish, and then I will go back and take it section by section. But I hate things out of context. So I will continually remind you of the context.

On Paul’s first missionary journey, he went to the Roman Province of Galatia and founded many churches. They had heard the gospel gladly and believed.

Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, there were many thousands of converts, and the other apostles were busy there. Some of those converts were Pharisees.

The Pharisees misunderstood the sign of circumcision. It was so heavily engrained in the Jews that circumcision was necessary for salvation that they could not fathom it any other way. In Jerusalem, it wasn’t a problem, because everyone was circumcised. But then Paul returns from his journey to Antioch and tells of the marvelous conversions among the Gentiles.

And they weren’t circumcised! It is somewhat hard for us to imagine how shocking this must have been to the converted Pharisees in Jerusalem. They had heard the promises in the Old Testament – how God would bring the gentiles to the light. But the idea of circumcision had been engrained so deeply into them for 2,000 years, that they just assumed that this meant that Gentiles would also be circumcised and keep the calendars, feast days, and rituals of the Jews.

So as Paul is in Antioch, some of these Pharisees came down to the church there and started insisting that every new Gentile convert become circumcised, or they couldn’t be saved. They also pretended to be sent by the apostles in Jerusalem. In this pretense, they said that Paul wasn’t sent by any apostles, so he was less authoritative than they were. We are sent by the apostles. He wasn’t. Listen to us, not to him.

Paul the Apostle, saw that this was actually far deeper than it appeared on the surface. It would have been easy to cave and to avoid all sorts of strife. But he knew what was at stake:

If circumcision was necessary for salvation, then Jesus is not a savior. He didn’t actually save anyone. He just made salvation possible – if you add a ritual or a work or something to it. But if Jesus truly saves us from our sins, then we are actually and truly saved. And if we are truly saved, nothing else needs to be added.

If it is necessary to be circumcised, then Christ died for nothing. And in the place of circumcision, you can add any work you like, the theology is the same. If it is necessary for you to do ANYTHING to inherit eternal life, then Jesus died for nothing. We could have just saved ourselves if we had had the right motivation.

If circumcision was necessary, then Christianity was just another sect of Judaism, and just another religion that teaches another way to do something to gain God’s favor.

This is what was at stake. The church at Antioch understood the issues and, together with the church in Jerusalem, they called a council to be held in Jerusalem to examine the issue. We read about this in Acts 15.

Paul returns with the decree. We aren’t laying any burdens on you. You also are led by the Spirit. You also are righteous before God. You have all that you need.

The four stipulations that they add are out of concern for harmony in the church. They are not four works that you must add to the completed work of Christ, as Paul will explain in Galatians. Rather, they are simply instructions for how Jewish and Gentile converts should live together in harmony. They had never done that in thousands of years.

So Paul returns with that decree. But the Pharisees still added their “yes, but…” to the council’s decree. They continued up to Galatia. They continued to slander Paul, saying that he wasn’t sent by any apostle and he had the gospel wrong. To the gospel of Jesus Christ, they substituted their false gospel – that it was necessary for new converts to be circumcised in order to be saved.

When Paul heard that the churches of Galatia were starting to be troubled and believe what they were hearing, he wrote this epistle. His purpose was to explain the decision of the Jerusalem council, warning the sheep about the denial of the gospel that was taking place and teaching Christians of every age how to answer this question: “When I stand before God, will I be judged a sinner or will I be judged righteous”? How can I know for sure?

When you answer that question right, everything else flows from there.

Salvation by grace alone through faith alone doesn’t ever do away with the law of God. It establishes the law. In fact, it is the only way to actually begin to keep the law, as Paul will argue in chapters 5 and 6.

First, God is not interested in man-made rules. So we can immediately throw away all relics, saints, kissing hands and toes, masses, purity balls, and the other rituals – whatever they are.

But what about God’s law, summarized in the Ten Commandments. Doesn’t God require that we keep them? Then how can you say that salvation is by grace through faith alone?

When you understand the nature of God’s law, the question becomes more clear. God is not interested in outward obedience, for God sees the heart. A command can be obeyed out of fear or out of desire for reward, but God wants hearts that love him. How can you love God with all of your heart if there is even one part of you that believes that God is just waiting for you to mess up so he can throw you into hell forever? If you are not righteous before God, then love is impossible, for you cannot see God except as a terrifying judge. This is a God to flee from, not a God to love.

But the gospel is a changed heart, not a check-list.

15 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. (Gal. 6:15)

Paul begins by defending his call against the lies of the usurpers. He isn’t just making up a man-made religion; but is bringing the very words of God as an apostle of Jesus Christ. It is true that he wasn’t sent by the apostles. He didn’t even confer with them. He was commissioned directly by Christ.

His point is this: You have the gospel directly from God through my mouth. If anyone tells you otherwise, I don’t care who they are, let them be anathema. This whole “appeal to authority” is useless!

In fact, even Peter got it wrong. He was visiting Antioch and when these Pharisees arrived he chickened out. He even left the table of the Gentiles to eat with the Jews!

Paul says, in effect, “I didn’t care that this was Peter. I rebuked him, because he was wrong.”

Since the time of the reformation, there have been many who have said “yes, but…” to salvation by faith alone. They can find many quotes in many sources: Puritans, Dutch reformed, Presbyterians. Since 1517 There have been many who have succumbed to the temptation to revert to our natural religion and add the “Yeah, but…” to the finished work of Christ. Just like the Judaizers troubling Galatia, they quote authorities, seeking to drown out the opposition with contempt and verbiage, seeking to silence opposition through intimidation. You don’t know what you are talking about. Just keep quiet and let the experts deal with this.

And Paul responds with this:

8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. (Gal. 1:8)

After he establishes that the gospel is from God and not up for debate, he expresses his shock that they so quickly denied Christ. He explains what he means in chapters 3 and 4.

They want to add circumcision and make it necessary for salvation. So he breaks that down. Did they forget what the promise to Abraham actually was and who qualified for it? The law requires this:

3 Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who may stand in His holy place?

4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, Nor sworn deceitfully.

5 He shall receive blessing from the LORD, And righteousness from the God of his salvation.

(Ps. 24:3-5)

Pure means pure; No admixture of sin. A little bit of poison is still deadly, even if the water it is mixed in is pure. A little leaven leavens everything. A little sin ruins every chance of standing before God. Only those pure in all of their thoughts and clean in all of their actions can stand before God. So, you who think you can add to Christ, think of the last work that you did. Can it really stand before God? Just that one work? If you said “Yes” then you can add lying and pride to that work. Now where are you?

This is why the promise was given to Abraham’s seed. Not seeds. Seed. There was only one who qualified, and the only way for you to qualify is if you are found in him. And you are united to him only by the Holy Spirit.

And how do you receive the Spirit, by keeping the law, or by faith?

The first option (keeping the law, doing things, earning rewards) Paul calls “the flesh”. It is our natural religion, which we inherited from Adam. If I do good things, or at least better things than Abel, God will be forced to let me back in to Eden. This is the flesh. The second, righteousness of another received by faith, is called the “spirit”.

The flesh is what we bring out of our own treasury. It is our will-power, our choices, our decisions, our law-keeping, our own purity. It’s what we inherited from Adam.

The spirit is what we received by our new birth. It is our complete reliance on the finished and perfect work of Christ for all that is necessary for our salvation.

And Paul says this:

3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? (Gal. 3:3)

And there is the theme of the book. The idea that you must add obedience to the completed work of Christ is called the flesh, and you won’t ever get what you think you will get from the flesh.

You think you will get purity and righteousness and something that you can offer to God. Instead you will get uncleanness of every kind:

19 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, 21 envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal. 5:19-21)

And every church that teaches that we must add to Christ’s work, no matter what it is they say must be added, is full of oppression, adultery, fornication, witchcraft, hatred, etc. God said that is exactly what it will bring, and we have seen it for 2000 years.

Tetzel, the peddler of forgiveness of sins in Luther’s day, was also a grand inquisitor of Poland. He tortured, raped, slaughtered, raged against the weak and helpless in his lusts for power.

And so also today. We have come so far from the gospel, that the churches are full of all sorts of wickedness – just as Paul said.

What do we want instead? We as Christians want to please God. And here is a promise for all who hunger after righteousness.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. (Gal. 5:22-23)

Fruit is not something that is added to make the tree good. Fruit grows naturally from a healthy tree. And the health of the tree only comes from union with Christ by faith. You can’t hold to Christ and to your own righteousness at the same time. You can’t ever get there by seeking to add to the finished work of Christ. You can only get there by confessing how far away you are, and asking again for the gift of the Spirit, rejoicing that all of your sins are truly forgiven and that you are an heir of eternal life, because Christ died for you and you have already been crucified with him.

The more we understand that, the more we will see the fruit of the spirit in our lives. Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control.

And when those are perfected, the law is kept naturally, as birds fly and fish swim. This will be our state in heaven. There won’t be laws on stone, because they will be written completely on the heart.

So the gospel isn’t at all contrary to the law of God. Those who say so are the least in the kingdom of heaven. The law is actually established by the law. This is what Jesus meant when he said

Unless your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

In all of their striving to make sure the law was kept, they instead kept none of it. They were murderers and liars who tithed mint and anise and cumin.

Is that actually what God desires? How can we be so foolish?

So Paul concludes with this:

14 But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. (Gal. 6:14-15)

This is what circumcision actually pointed to. Everything unclean must be cut off. But this is what the Holy Spirit is doing now, in the lives of all who come to him empty handed. God isn’t interested in what ritual these old, cursed, bodies went through. All of this fades into dust. We are dying men among dying men, and need to stop pretending otherwise.

Salvation is Christ alone. By faith alone. By grace alone. There is nothing more to be added, nothing more to be done. When we have that right, that is the beginning of new life, a new creature, for we have eternal life and it has begun already.

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Filed under Faith, Gospel, Work

We Are Never Saved by Our Good Works…Period.

Guest post, by Christopher Campbell

 

There are some today who say that our good works play a part in our “final justification” before God when Christ returns. But the Heidelberg Catechism expressly denies this teaching. Heidelberg Catechism Question 62 asks, “But why cannot our good works be the whole or part of our righteousness before God?” and answers in this […]

We Are Never Saved by Our Good Works…Period.

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Filed under Faith, Gospel, Uncategorized

Wretched, Miserable, Poor, Blind, Naked

15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot.

16 ‘So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.

17 ‘Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked,

18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich, and white garments, that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see.

19 ‘Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; be zealous therefore, and repent.

(Rev. 3:15-19)

We have a rich heritage. On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther challenged the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins. This courageous act sparked the Protestant Reformation. Soon, John Calvin followed by publishing his great work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Reformed Churches were formed. Creeds, catechisms and confessions were written.

Today we have the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt, and the little book that has such a cherished place in our hearts: the Heidelberg Catechism.

A rich heritage is a tremendous blessing. But a rich heritage does not leave us immune to the attacks of Satan. It does not leave us immune from the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. There is a great danger that is lurking for churches with a rich heritage.

To warn each of us away from this danger, Jesus speaks to the church of the Laodiceans. They also had a rich heritage. They were founded by the apostles. It is likely that Paul himself preached there. They had embraced God’s word and embraced Christ. They were part of a rich circle of churches that were the bulwark of Christianity in the area now known as Turkey.

They were also very wealthy in material things. God had greatly prospered the city, including the church within the city. Laodicea was a tremendously influential and wealthy Roman city.

But now something is very wrong. Jesus himself addresses them. There is something so wrong here that Jesus says that he is about to vomit them up.

He uses a metaphor to explain to them what their problem is. He calls them “lukewarm”. Perhaps He is referring to the mineral waters that were piped in from nearby hot springs. Perhaps he is speaking of the drinking water piped in from the nearby fresh water springs. By the time Laodicea got these waters, they were lukewarm and disgusting.

Hot water is good. Cold water is good. Tepid water is disgusting – especially tepid mineral waters. It is good for nothing but to be spat up. It makes the stomach sick.

It is tempting to simply exegete the word “lukewarm” and to ignore the rest of the text. Many sermons on this text do just that. A sermon on this text generally involves telling the congregation that they need to be hot for Jesus. Either be passionate about God or an outright unbeliever, but tepid Christianity is sickening.

They are right to a certain extent. But the text itself does not define what “hot” is, or what “cold” is. “Hot” and “cold” are simply used to contrast with “lukewarm”. Lukewarm water is neither therapeutically hot, nor is it refreshingly cool. It is simply sickening. Since the text is silent on the meaning of cold and hot, it would do no good to speculate. It is not actually necessary to know what hot and cold are in order to understand the message of the Lord, for the text does tell us clearly what is meant by “lukewarm”.

The reason, Jesus says, that Laodicea is “lukewarm” is because they say, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.”

The problem is this. The Laodiceans have lied to themselves. They said that they were rich and didn’t need anything, when the reality was far different. They weren’t rich. They were “wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.”

Jesus is probably referring to a recent event as an illustration of the problem. In 60 AD, Laodicea had suffered a tremendous earthquake. The Empire had offered assistance, but the town refused. They said, “We have need of nothing. We are rich”.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. We should try not to be a burden to others. It is a good thing to labor so that we have enough to give to those who have need (Eph. 4:28).

But here was the problem: this attitude crept into the church. They began to think of themselves as rich, in need of nothing. They were all “good Christians”. The preaching of the gospel that the preacher does is good – but it is good for those “others”. “We, of course, are rich. The sinners need to hear it. A sinner is a poor unfortunate that really needs Christ – not like us, of course. We are rich.”

A rich heritage is a blessing. But too often it turns into pride. We begin to think that we are somehow a little holier, a little wiser and a little better that those “others” out there. Soon we begin to sound like the Pharisee in the front of the church, looking boldly into heaven and saying, “I thank God I am not like other men”.

Soon, like the Laodiceans, we begin to believe what every child of Adam believes deep in his heart: I am rich, and have need of nothing. “I’ve accepted Jesus into my heart. I learned the catechism when I was a kid. I was baptized. I am in church every Sunday. I really don’t need anything. I am rich.”

But this is a lie. And Jesus is about to vomit them out of his mouth.

For the reality is that the Laodiceans were not rich. They were wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked – just as all of us are.

Learning the catechism is a good thing. Learning theology from the wise pastors who have gone before is a good thing. Being reformed is a good thing. But these are only good things if they constantly remind us that we are NOT rich, but in continual, desperate need of a savior. We have never gone a moment – even AFTER we became Christians – when we have not deserved God’s eternal wrath against sin. And our misery is such that we are blinded to our own sins – even now!

This is why God put us all in churches – because we need to be constantly reminded that we are not really the cat’s meow. We are not “all that”. We are not the pinnacles of virtue and wisdom that we like to think we are. God is not “lucky” that we came to church today and put our tithes in the offering plate. We are really wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.

This is why we learned the catechism when we were young. This is why the catechism has been so beloved for so long. It continually reminds us how great our sin and misery is, and how great our saviour is. The more we know, the more we offer our lives as living sacrifices of thanksgiving to God.

But at no time in our lives, from the cradle to the grave, can we ever say, “We are rich, and have need of nothing.” We know this in our own consciences. Our consciences still daily accuse us that we have “grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and are still prone always to all evil.”

We confess this with our mouths. But do we confess this in our innermost being? Whether we are new Christians or have been Christians our whole lives, do we still say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”? Or is our attitude, “I am rich, and have need of nothing.”

We can argue with Solomon’s wisdom on the total depravity of man, and astutely apply the doctrine to politicians, celebrities, musicians, pastors and everyone in the pew next to us – but refuse to apply it to ourselves. Too often we act as if everyone else is wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked and we ourselves are rich, and have need of nothing.

This is why God so strictly enjoined the Ten Commandments upon us. Not so that we can pat ourselves on the back for our good efforts, but so we may always learn more and more of our sinful nature and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness of Christ.

Which is exactly what Jesus tells the Laodiceans to do (verse 18): “Buy from me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments that you may be clothed…and anoint your eyes with eye-salve that you may see.”

As long as we stubbornly refuse to confess our poverty, we will never know the riches that are found only in Christ. As long as we continue to take pride in the fig leaves that we have sewn together in the vain attempt to cover our shame, we will never know the white garments that come only from Christ. As long as we clamp our eyes shut while shouting “We see!”, we remain blind and have no part in the tremendous freedom that comes from open eyes.

And this is not a good place to be. Jesus says he will vomit you up. But Jesus is patient, and he pleads with us. It is not enough to simply admit that you are a sinner and then expect the world to deal with it. Rather, Jesus tells us that if we really are poor, naked, and blind then we are to DO something about it. “Buy from me,” he says.

But how do you buy gold and raiment and eye-salve when you are as poor as the Bible says you are?

Isaiah answers this question for us:

“Ho! Everyone who thirsts, Come to the waters; And you who have no money, Come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk Without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend money for what is not bread, And your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, And let your soul delight itself in abundance” (Isa. 55:1-2).

Our fallen nature uses all of the wealth that we think we have to purchase those things that we think will quench our thirst. But the only thing that can cover our nakedness, quench our thirst, and make us rich is offered to us for free.

We seek to alleviate powerlessness and loneliness through adultery and fornication, because we refuse to see that Jesus was forsaken by all so that we might never be alone.

We covet and steal because we have forgotten that Jesus gave up the riches of heaven so that we may become richer than we can even imagine.

We fight and cause division and strife in order to gain recognition, acceptance and significance, because we forget that he was outcast as a criminal, made himself of no reputation, and crucified among thieves so that we might be “accepted in the beloved”.

We are anxious and full of worry about the future because we forget that he rose from the dead and is even now sitting at the right hand of God, ruling over all things for the good of the church.

We have not, because we ask not. We ask not because we think we are rich, and in need of nothing.

This disease is prevalent: none of us is immune. It is deadly: we cannot believe that we have need of nothing and have any part in Christ. It is deceptive: we don’t even know how pervasive it is in our own souls.

But Jesus will never allow any of his sheep to perish. Therefore he says, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.”

Since the disease is common to every child of Adam, the cure is applied to every member of Christ: it is through much tribulation that we enter the kingdom of heaven. It is through tribulation and trials that we learn by the grace of God just how miserable, wretched, poor, blind and naked we really are. It is when those trials that we cannot solve come upon us that we understand how utterly lacking in wisdom we really are. It is only when the armies of Sennacherib surround us that we realize our helplessness and danger. Only when we are brought face to face with giants do we fall on our faces and cry out, “Lord, save us!”

But we are also stubborn. Our tendency is to refuse the yoke and kick against the pricks. So Jesus says, “Repent”. In other words, stop thinking the way that you normally think and remember the promises of God. In hard times, our tendency is to complain, doubting God’s goodness. We struggle letting our idols go. We still think that we can fix this if only we were smarter, wiser, or better people. It is precisely this that Jesus commands us to repent from. For the bread that we seek is free. The clothing that we need is free. The wisdom that we so desperately long for is free.

God brings us face to face with giants that are so formidable that we have no weapons that are any match against them. We have no armies coming over the hills to back us up. We have no strategy that will overcome. Retreat is impossible. Advance is suicide. We stand on the mountain with Barak and a host of farmers with sticks, while the valley below is full of chariots of iron, undefeatable soldiers and horses without number. What can be done? Why does God bring us to that point?

He brings us to that point because he loves us. He calls us to quit thinking that we are smart enough, strong enough and rich enough to overcome anything. As long as we say that we are rich and in need of nothing, we will never know the strength of Jesus Christ, our king.

Jesus uses a figure of speech to plead with us (verse 20). This passage does not speak of the universal call of the gospel. He is not saying to “invite Jesus into your hearts”. That sentiment is meaningless and foreign to the text. He is speaking to the ones whom he loves (verse 19) that would rather dine alone on the empty waste of their own wisdom and strength than admit their nakedness and fall before their king. He is speaking to those in the churches with rich heritages who are too wise, too righteous and too astute to need a savior.

He is not unwilling to save. He is standing at the door and knocking. He is pleading with the church to stop spending their money on that which isn’t bread, and open the door.

The Reformed Churches have a rich heritage. But something happened. The seminaries began to turn out pastors who were too wise to need a resurrected saviour. They were too righteous to need a crucified Lord. They were too strong to need an ascended Christ. These pastors inflicted the churches. They denied the resurrection, the incarnation, and eventually denied that Jesus ever existed at all. Soon the sound of knocking became the sound of retching, and Jesus vomited them up, just as He promised. The landscape of Europe and the United States became littered with useless, vain, empty churches that once proudly proclaimed their rich heritage. The dead fly of human wisdom and strength caused the ointment to stink, and Jesus removed the candlestick.

But for all who open the door, who remember their poverty and wretchedness, Jesus makes a tremendous promise. He will come in and dine with them.

Only when we are in fellowship with Christ can we soar with eagles’ wings. And we can only be in fellowship with Christ if we never forget that we ourselves are wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked. But when we come to Christ again in our poverty and need, we find that we do not dine alone. Indeed, he prepares a table for us even in the presence of our enemies, and causes us to rest safely in green pastures.

When we are in fellowship with Christ, we are truly flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones. His death was our death. The law has no more hold on us, for we have been crucified with him. His resurrection is our resurrection. We are no longer in bondage to the curse for we have been raised again to new life. And his triumph is our triumph. Where the head goes, the body goes. So he says, “To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev. 3:21).

This is our rich heritage. Victory is not in our wisdom, nor our strength, nor the ingenuity of our fig-leaves, but only in the mercy of Christ. It isn’t in “accepting Jesus into your heart”, whatever that means. It isn’t in masses, submission to the pope or confession to a priest. It isn’t in the rituals of the church, nor is it in military strength.

Victory only lies in falling down again before our Lord and crying out, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

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Happy Juneteenth.

Happy Juneteenth, everyone. In case you need a little history, you can check this out here.

I am writing this post, not to add any more division and misunderstanding. God knows we have had enough of that. Nor am I writing to point fingers at anyone. I am simply seeking to understand and seeking to be understood. So this might be a bit of my own history here. I know more about the hidden recesses of my own heart than the hearts of others anyway, and I am still searching.

All of my life I have heard of the confederate “heroes”. You know the ones. Stonewall Jackson. Robert E Lee. Jefferson Davis.

I have heard of the southern heroes of Presbyterian orthodoxy as well, men like R.L. Dabney, J.H. Thornwell and others.

And I know now of the controversy surrounding these men. With all of their achievements, there was one huge glaring error – the support of the horrible institution of slavery.

To critique these men in some circles is to incur the wrath of the orthodox. One simply needs to spend a moment on Twitter to see it. Now it seems more relevant than ever, when the movement is so strong to remove the statues of Lee and Jackson from southern cities.

There was a time in my life when I also would have said, “Yes, slavery was wrong and it needed to be abolished. But it was only a very small aspect of who these men were. Certainly we can honor their achievements and their character while disagreeing with their stand on slavery.”

Yes. I used to think that way too. And then I listened.

It occurred to me that my saying this exposed a very ugly part of my own heart. The only way I could say this is if black lives didn’t REALLY matter to me. In theory, they would have mattered. I would say, “Of course, black lives matter. ALL lives matter.” But in practice, things were different.

It pains me to say this. Repentant sin still has the power to shame.

But let me explain. To say that Robert E. Lee or Thomas Jefferson or George Whitefield were true heroes except for their views on slavery is the same as saying that black lives really DON’T matter. There are certain viewpoints that color everything about a man.

One recent tweet from a very famous, conservative Christian leader and apologist exposes what I am saying. He said, “Slavery was a very small part of who Robert E Lee was.”

Which you can only say if slavery doesn’t really matter. And you can only say that slavery doesn’t matter if black lives don’t matter.

Please think it through. Would it be tolerated in any other setting?

“Marquis de Sade was a fine citizen except for his habit of torturing young women.”

“Bill Cosby was a great man, with strong family values except for that little peccadillo of drugging and raping women.”

“Larry Flint was a great champion of freedom. Violent Pornography was only a trivial part of who he was.”

“Dennis Rader was a fine Christian man, who taught Sunday School and was a leader in his community. Binding, torturing, and killing was only a trivial part of his character.”

I think you are getting my point. When we say that Robert E Lee or R.L. Dabney were great Christian influencers, and that slavery was only a small part of who they were as men – here is what is heard: Black lives are trivial and don’t really matter.

If you want to know why there are so many who are insisting that black lives matter, there it is.

Here is how slavery operated. Read a history. Men, women and children were sold on auction blocks, inspected like cattle. Families were torn apart, children were sold apart from their mothers, husbands and wives separated for the profit of landowners. Men, women and children could be raped, beaten, tortured. And they were, frequently. They did not count as humans. It was a crime to teach them how to read. They were not allowed in white churches. It was illegal to put them in “white” clothes. A white man seen in the company of a black man was considered an accomplice to an escape in Virginia. Laws were passed that made it impossible for slaves to be freed.

Whole presbyteries owned slaves and rented them to land-owners who worked them into the ground until they were dead. And the churches used the proceeds to pay for their pastors so that they could continue to preach the gospel over the bodies of the slaves.

The first gun control laws in Virginia ordered all white men to come to church armed to prevent any blacks from trying to seek asylum.

And so when we say, “Robert E Lee was a good man, except for his support of slavery” we are counting all of that history as trivial. And the only way that we can do that is if black lives don’t really matter.

PS – I guess I also need to say this. Apparently there is a movement and an organization called “Black Lives Matter”. I know nothing about them. This post isn’t about them.

It is about real lives and real people. Your daughters matter, which is why we don’t have statues of Marquis de Sade in our public squares. Your children’s lives matter, which is why we don’t put up statues of Dennis Rader. And black lives also matter. The first two aren’t disputed, but tend to be well-agreed-upon.

But as long as people keep considering slavery to be a trivial issue, or “good for the African”, or, “A product of its time”, then we will also need to continue to insist that black lives do indeed matter.

It is time to do justice to the millions that died, trampled into the dust by white slave owners, pulled from their homes by white slavers, and sold like cattle to plantation owners. A good first step would be to acknowledge that the “defense of slavery” is not a trivial thing. It overshadows everything else about a person.

A pedophile might otherwise be a good person. A murderer might not be murdering 99% of the time. A bank robber doesn’t rob every bank. A man beating you up might be a kind and loving husband the rest of the time. A cheating wife might not cheat 6 days of the week.

But they are defined by the one thing – pedophile. Murderer. Robber. Brawler. Abuser. Adulterer.

Or a slave owner. One who used the body of another against his or her will for their own profit. And then tried to justify it from the scripture.

Quit honoring these men. We can do better, and we should.

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Filed under Race, slavery

A Prayer for True Peace

It was suggested that my Pastoral Prayer from May 31st be published. Sometimes. when we don’t know what to pray, having a prayer written down gives us a guide.

From Pentecost Sunday, May 31st, at First Reformed Church.

Our God, our father, our king, our judge

You are the one who sits in heaven reigning over all things. Lord Jesus, Your kingdom is forever and ever. In your kingdom, justice is perfect. In your kingdom, there is no respect of persons.

And we know that we were created to long for that perfect justice. As image bearers, our hearts and our souls cry out for the day when justice will run down like water as the prophet has foretold.

As we wait for that day, Father, fill us with your peace. May our anger be expressed in a way consistent with your nature, as our Lord Jesus did.

Restrain the lawless and the murderer and the reviler and the brawler. And father, may your kingdom come. May we always submit ourselves more and more to you. Govern us by your word and spirit, cast out wickedness in high places, restrain lawlessness, give justice to the oppressed, comfort to the bereaved, peace to the restless.

And on this day of Pentecost, more than ever, we long for the filling of your Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit, conform our hearts to the image of Jesus Christ.

As we long for the appearing of our Lord Jesus, teach us to crucify our old nature. We know, dearest Lord, that we must cast off the old man and his deeds – and put on the new man. Forgive us. Search our hearts as the Psalmist teaches us to pray.

Search our hearts to uncover the ugliness there. Like a wise surgeon uncovering the cancer, so uncover our cancer so that we might be healed. Bring light into our darkness. Bring healing to our deadly wound. For the wound is deadly. There is no balm of healing, except for that provided by our Lord and King.

And we long for his coming – when he will come and cast all his and our enemies into everlasting fire, and take us with all his precious people into eternal glory, where justice, truth and mercy reign.

We are so used to justifying ourselves and condemning others. Teach us, instead, to judge with righteous judgment, where there is no respect of persons, no partiality, no bribery, no coverups – that we might be good children of our Father in heaven, who does good to all men, with whom there is no partiality nor respect of persons.

Fill us with your spirit that we might walk in the light. Fill our lives with love and joy and peace. And let righteousness reign. Against these things there is no law.

Father we mourn for our communities, for our cities, for the brokenness of the world. Hatred and injustice are contrary to our creation and quickly become intolerable. Give us wisdom and humility as we seek the way forward. Tear down the walls of hatred and injustice and brutality and lawlessness and let righteousness and peace reign, without oppression, without entitlement, in humility and love. Give our leaders a spirit of justice and wisdom, for rioting and war are never good and cannot bring the righteousness of God.

May the gospel flourish. May the true gospel of our Lord Jesus be proclaimed, believed, embraced. Tear down false prophets, tear down those who feed themselves rather than the sheep. Tear down those who seek to profit off the backs of those who are hurting.

May your word of peace flow down like water, cleansing our hearts from all evil.

Change us, and we will be changed. Convert us, and we will be converted. Give courage to the fearful. Strength to the weary. Faith to the doubting.

And give us peace. Not a false peace of smiles covering a heart screaming in fear and pain; but true peace. Where there is true cleansing, true righteousness and justice, peace between you and us, us and them, us and creation – for we are your people, and you are our God.

We long for that day where the lion and the lamb lie down together, and the asp and the child play together. We long for that day when there is no hurt and no pain and no injustice and no brutality in all your holy mountain.

May that day break forth in this age, Father. Show us glimpses of that kingdom in our own hearts and in our lives. Give us peace. Restrain wickedness, wherever it appears. Cast down the evildoer, whoever they are. In our lives and in our deeds, may all that we do cry out that the Lord God Omnipotent reigns.

Guide my lips today. Bless the reading and preaching of your word. Soften our hearts, fill us with your Spirit. Forgive sins. Heal the brokenhearted. Relieve the fatherless and widow. And may our lives be filled with the fruit of your Spirit.

And let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, Our Strength, and Our Redeemer.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen.

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Look at the culture

I worked in the Food and Beverage industry for many  years, so that background has become a part of me.

Suppose a family becomes ill with a foodborne illness. Some of you might remember the e-coli epidemic that spread for a while. When people started dying, the authorities tried to find out why. The honorable restaurant owners looked at their own training and procedures to try to determine what it was that was making the conditions favorable to the growth of this deadly bacteria.

It wasn’t the conditions themselves that caused illness and death. It was the e-coli. But there was something about certain restaurants that caused deadly bacteria to thrive. Are the temperatures too warm or not hot enough? Are there appropriate hand-washing techniques in place? Is the staff thoroughly trained on  food safety issues.

The goal of any successful food and beverage establishment is to create conditions that are hostile to the growth of deadly bacteria.

Many years ago, I noticed trends in conservative churches. There were way, way too many instances of abuse of women, degradation of women, despising of women and even criminal activity against women and deadly or potentially deadly assaults.

This trend was accompanied by a trend of child sexual assault by men in authority – pastors, youth leaders, Sunday School teachers. I know that, for the reasons mentioned further down, many will at this point say, “You are exaggerating! You are attacking Christ’s body!!” So suffice it for now for me to mention Anna Salter’s landmark work on Predators where she thoroughly documents everything that I just said.

One thing that Salter mentions is that predators against children find churches to be the easiest targets. As soon as they get out of prison, they lay out their plans to find a church with children, groom the leadership, and do as they please.

They make the plans. They carry them out. And the results are well documented.

So after seeing these disturbing trends, and being a pastor charged with the care of the sheep that God has placed in my care, I asked myself a very important question. “What is it in our churches that makes the conditions so favorable to predators, abusers, revilers, adulterers, and tyrants?”

At that point, I began to examine the interpretations of scripture that make the hunting grounds so favorable to wolves. And asked, “Is this really what scripture says?”

Does scripture really say that a woman must endure abuse “for a season” until she can get her elders involved?

Does it say that she must get the permission of the elders before she can get a divorce?

Does the scripture say that the steps of Matthew 18 must be followed before a parent is allowed to report a crime against her child to the authorities?

Does the scripture teach that a woman is at least partially to blame for her rape, no matter the circumstances, for “putting herself in that situation”?

Does 1 Corinthians 6 really say that it is sinful to report criminal activity to the police?

Does the scripture actually say that a man has the absolute right to command his wife to any degrading, insufferable thing that crosses his fancy and she must obey (as long as it isn’t ‘sinful’)? Does submission mean that she must scrub the kitchen on her hands and knees wearing only her underwear, using only her toothbrush, if that is what catches the man’s fancy at the moment (I have actually heard this used).

And I started to see that the e-coli of tyranny and abuse is actually finding the perfect environment to flourish in our churches – especially those trained in nouthetic counseling. We should, instead, do everything in our power to make the culture of the church as inhospitable to abusers and predators as we possible can.

The resistance to that idea is immediate, brutal, unrelenting and harsh. I have found that the unrelenting persecution against those who seek to purify the culture of the church is far, far greater than anything I have experienced from “the world”. People despise change, and the really, really despise losing their power over other people.

It is nothing new. There were many attempts to reform the morals of the church in the middle ages, but those few who dared to question the system that allowed immorality to flourish met with a quick, fiery, painful end.

It wasn’t until the Reformation that the problem was revealed. Immorality was not an anomaly to the Roman system. It was bred throughout every part of it. It was woven into the fabric of the system itself, until there was no hope for it at all. Money, power, control and the status quo are the perfect environment for all manner of evil to flourish.

While I was thinking about this, I watched a white police officer dispassionately kneel on the neck of a black man. He did not lose his temper. He was not frightened for his life. He knew that he was being filmed. And he knew that he was killing the man slowly and painfully, in public, and he didn’t care.

And I ask myself, “What is it about the culture of our systems of power that cause this kind of wickedness to flourish?”

“Well, we don’t know the whole story…” as if something can make a slow, public execution morally acceptable.

“It was one wicked man, not the system…” and yet it happens so frequently that he did not feel the need to hide his actions, cover his actions or make excuses. He wasn’t afraid or timid. He coolly, calmly, and without any emotion whatsoever slowly executed a black man because he knew he could and get away with it.

I hope he doesn’t, and I hope that there will be earthly justice done for George Floyd.

But even more than that, I hope that those in law enforcement and in churches and in positions of authority throughout the country ask themselves, “Why did he think that this was acceptable behavior?”

Was it a secret to his locker room buddies that he had within himself the ability to do such a thing?

Or did they hear his racist rants, and say nothing. How many other violent incidents were covered up, buried, exonerated, or just ‘put in his file”.

If we are going to put the power of life and death in the hands of a few men and women, should we not all hold them to the highest standards?

I love the church of Jesus Christ, and I love my profession. For that reason, I do everything I can to purge out the leaven that causes abusers and predators to flourish.

So please do not think that this is an attack against LEOs. It is a plea. If there are good and honorable men and women in this profession, which I wholeheartedly believe, perhaps now is the time to take a long look at the culture that continually allows this sort of thing to take place.

You will not ever be able to root out all evil. But you could at least make the environment intolerable enough so that it doesn’t flourish and never breaks out again into open murder. The way to stop e-coli is to create a hostile environment to it.

The way to stop predators in the church is to create a hostile environment to them. This is called “Church discipline” and is the mark of the true church.

The way to stop murderers, tyrants and racists in law enforcement is to create a hostile working condition to them.

When murder takes place openly, without fear, without passion, in a calm environment, over a period of 8 minutes, something is desperately wrong.

If you stand up in your own departments and your own agencies and say, “Not here. Not today. Not ever again” perhaps you can make a difference. I’ll stand with you. There is always room for more. In the words of Arlo Guthrie, maybe it could be a movement.

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Filed under Abuse, assault, Race

Recovering with Aimee Byrd

In the past week, I read – among other books – two in particular that stuck with me. I generally tend to have several books going at one time.

The first book was Aimee Byrd’s remarkable book, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

The second was Us Against You by my favorite novelist, Fredrik Backman. It is a novel about two rival towns within a few miles of one another; two hockey teams; two rivalries – us and you. It is a story of hate and enemies and how quickly hate burns into murder and destruction. It is an account of a politician who thrives on that hate, and keeping it stirred up. Hate is easy, inborn, natural. It is easily confused for righteousness and zeal. Beartown hockey against their archrivals: Hed hockey. Us against you.

The story begins with the star of Beartown Hockey raping the daughter of the General Manager of Beartown Hockey. And the hate begins.

Backman writes,

A boy, the star of the hockey team, rapes a girl. And we lost our way. A community is the sum of its choices, and when two of our children said different things, we believed him. Because that was easier, because if the girl is lying our lives could carry on as usual. When we found out the truth, we fell apart, taking the town with us. It’s easy to say that we should have done everything differently, but perhaps you wouldn’t have acted differently, either. If you’d been afraid, if you’d been forced to pick a side, if you’d known what you had to sacrifice. Perhaps you wouldn’t be as brave as you think. Perhaps you’re not as different from us as you hope. (page 2)

It is a hard read. Brilliant writing.

In one scene, Backman describes a hockey game between the two towns. The towns have hated each other as long as anyone can remember. The ice rink has a standing area and it is filled with the loudest fans of the rival team. As the game begins, the fans of the opposing team in the standing area search for the names that will bring the most pain, the most rage, the most degradation and start shouting those names. It makes one cringe to read it.

But then, something happens. One girl in the standing area gets up and goes to the seating area. Another one follows. Then another and another. Until, pretty soon, there are only a handful of haters left in the standing area. It turns out that those ugly, shouting, hateful people were not nearly as numerous as everyone thought. There were only a handful of them. But they knew what to shout to cause the most pain. And they were loud.

This calms everything down for the evening, and the two teams play hockey.

Aimee Byrd is not outside the Reformed Tradition. She is under the authority of the church. She subscribes to the Reformed creeds and confessions, and has never written anything contrary to her confession of faith. She is more orthodox that those who founded the Counsel of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. She is not a ‘feminist’. She is a sister in Christ, loved by the Lord Jesus and a member of his body, the church.

But she asks some very valid questions in her book. Do women have more to offer the church than what is generally assumed by the modern conservative church? Do women have the right and the duty to study theology? Do women have the right to sit at the feet of Jesus as disciples and learn from him?

And she writes and gently critiques from within the boundaries of Reformed Theology and the ecumenical creeds. She is direct, but gentle. Insightful and kind.

And the men lost their minds. Without even reading the book, shouts of “heresy”! “Disturber of the peace of the church!” “Feminist!” “Egalitarian!”

Shouting from the stands is easy. It is the cowards way. It avoids actually confronting our hate and our fear and having a rational discussion. Perhaps the men are afraid that the women will get uppity. Perhaps they are afraid that their wives will refuse to make them a sandwich and the might have to get off the couch and do it themselves. Perhaps they are afraid of love.

Because if you learn to love, you have to listen. To listen, means you have to quit shouting and admit that there might be something you are wrong about. To love one another means that you have to put the other ahead of yourself. To love, you have to respect and honor even those who might be different than you.

And that is very, very difficult to do.

It is far, far easier to tell a woman to make you a sandwich than it is to love her. But when we do that, how much have we lost of our own humanity?

I think what it comes down to is fear. In Beartown Hockey, Backman describes that fear behind the hate so perfectly. We fear losing who we are. What will we lose if we admit the truth?

Having been born and raised in conservative Reformed churches, I think I know something of that fear. If you let your guard down for one second, liberals get into the church. Next thing you know, you lose everything. The church goes apostate all because someone let their guard down. I think we are afraid of divorce, afraid of having to wash dishes and learn how to cook, afraid we might have to re-evaluate what we have been taught about men and women. If we let our guard down even for a second, the women take over. We can’t have that. Beartown has to win, otherwise, who are we? Constant vigilance takes the place of love and that means that shouting from the stands takes the place of honest engagement. We can’t be seen consorting with FEMINISTS!

But rather than thinking through the questions that Byrd raises, we are afraid of the answer. Most of those who reviewed the book didn’t even read it. They just shouted what their neighbors shouted. Hate is easy. Listening is harder.

I wasn’t a young man in seminary, at least not in years. But I was obnoxious. I thought I knew everything. It is easy to criticize everything outside of what we think is right, it is easy to pick apart and find fault. But we never grow that way. We never learn. We never put off the old man and put on the new. I wish I had listened more than I did.

Our traditions are deeply engrained. We have a very clear understanding of who the right thinking people are. Us against you.

And our debating too often turns into shouting from the stands.

I for one, am leaving those stands. I’m not a part of that. You won’t hear my voice shouting names and insults. I am going to sit in the stands and think some things through. I would invite you to join me.

Maybe we can all recover from the voices of the loud ones and learn a thing or two from our sisters.

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Entitlement and Pharaoh

I’ve been studying through Exodus. I can’t tell you how many times I have read the account of the plagues.

But there is a recurring theme that is so common that we miss it. I know that this might sound strange, but I think you know what I mean. Something that is repeated so often that we miss how utterly astounding it is, like a shaft of sunlight bursting through the overhanging branches.

The message that Moses gave to Pharaoh was this:

Thus says the Lord, “Let my people go.”

After the 8th plague,when Egypt was almost completely destroyed, Pharaoh said,

Exodus 10:24
Then Pharaoh called to Moses and said, “Go, serve the LORD; only let your flocks and your herds be kept back. Let your little ones also go with you.”

When you pause for a moment, you realize something astounding. The Hebrews were God’s people. But Pharaoh had a deep-seated belief that they were HIS people. He believed that he was entitled to force them to work, dispose of them how he willed, and do with them what he pleased. He was Pharaoh. They were slaves.

It was a mindset that was so deeply engrained in him that it was unquestioned – a presupposition, to use Van Til’s phrase. “Presupposed entitlement”, if you will.

Presupposed entitlement is the assumption, partly inborn, partly acquired through culture, that one is entitled to exert power over another, simply by virtue of their ontology.

Pharaoh was Pharaoh. Of course he was entitled to do whatever he wanted to with the Hebrews. They were Hebrews.

This thinking is common with all fallen men and women. And it is so deeply engrained that we think it before we can even think. For this reason, it is very simple to gather a following, instill them with a sense of superiority over a group of people, and foster that presupposed entitlement. Whole cultures are consumed by it.

Just this past week, two white men were arrested. Three months ago, they got their guns, and got into their truck and followed a black man down the street. The black man was jogging. They demanded that he tell them what he is doing in their neighborhood. He, being afraid, lashed out and ended up getting shot.

There were no prosecutions until the video went viral. The men claimed that they thought he was responsible for a string of burglaries. It was assumed by EVERYONE in law and order that these two men had the right to do what they did. I do not wish to try the case, but I do want to look at some of the rhetoric surrounding the release of the video.

“He was told clearly to stop. He didn’t listen to instructions. He should has stopped and done what he was told to do.”

“It was self-defense”

The two white men were not police officers. They were not authorized in any way to command anyone to do anything. And right there is a perfect example of presupposed entitlement.

We are white. He is black. Of course we have the right to stop and question him.

This morning, a white man stopped a black delivery driver and demanded that he explain what he is doing in the neighborhood.

I have often marveled at the similarities between the arguments of patriarchalists and the arguments of slavery apologists . The similarity is right here: “We, as men, have the God-given right, by our creation, to order women around  – oops, I mean “lead”. We have God-given ontological superiority (woops, I mean “role of authority) and women have the God –given ontological role to submit.”

Substitute “white” for male, and “black” for female and you have the exact argument of the slavery apologists of the nineteenth century.

Perhaps this is why patriarchalist like Doug Wilson also defend chattel slavery as good for the black man…the heart of the issue is the same: White men have ontological entitlement to own and sell black slaves by virtue of their ontological superiority. Males have ontological entitlement over women for the same reason.

 

I have gotten pushback in certain circles for criticizing the “Bible belt culture” – accused of attacking the church.

I was not attacking the church. But I was indeed criticizing the “Bible Belt Culture”. The sort of entitlement that fills one’s head – where they believe that they have the unquestioned right to command a black man, or command a woman as they see fit – does not come overnight. It is engrained by the culture that one is in.

It is true that this entitlement is inborn, because we are all born of Adam. But what I am really talking about is this: only in an entitled culture could two white men use these excuses to escape prosecution for months.

“They thought he was a burglar. They told him to stop. He didn’t stop as he was commanded to.”

Presuppositional entitlement. “I will allow them to go, but they must leave their little ones at home.”

I have the right to command people as I see fit.

This has nothing to do with Christianity.

25 And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called`benefactors.’
26 “But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves.
27 “For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves. (Luke 22:25-27 NKJ)

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Abuse and Conspiracy Theories

Once again, I am being bullied into “taking a stance” on conspiracy theories. I wish it would stop.

There are certain advocates of abuse victims that write about satanic ritual abuse, conspiracies to molest children, satanic rituals in high places, and so on. I don’t pay a lot of attention, so I don’t know if I know all of the details. I don’t have an opinion as to what they should do or what they should write.

But I have publicly separated from certain groups over it, so I thought I would explain again – as it tends to crop up again. This is just me. I have no intention of dictating what anyone else should do. This is my own conviction.

So here are a few points on my conviction.

  1. I have no doubt whatsoever that great evil exists in high places. I have no doubt that there is indeed ritual satanic abuse, pedophile abuse, conspiracies to cover up and deny the most horrific acts that mankind can commit. That is called “Total depravity” and I have always confessed it and believe it.
  2. I also believe that those with great power in the church and in the state commit great wickedness. It has always been that way.
  3. That being said, I also know that Satan thrives on fear, superstition, unrest, and suspicion. Scripture warns us against that as well. If he can sidetrack us with rumors of symbols, rituals, secret handshakes, hidden messages, then he can convince us that God is not powerful and good, and that Satan is truly in charge of this world.
  4. Satan also thrives on gossip and slander.
  5. Christ has defeated the enemy through his death and resurrection. It is the proclamation of the gospel that casts out all demonic activity, no matter what form it takes (Luke 10; Rev. 12)

So with these points in mind, here is my commitment:

I will not spread around any reports of Satanic ritual abuse, hidden messages, names of “Satan worshipers”, secret pictures, handshakes, conspiracies, rituals, or such like.

I also will have nothing to do with the propagation of such things.

It is NOT because I do not believe that they exist. It is because I believe that darkness thrives on fear, superstition and unrest, and I will not give that to them.

My calling as a preacher of the gospel is to proclaim deliverance and peace through the blood of Christ, not become a sounding board of the restless, superstitious and fearful.

Furthermore, if I spread around the reports that Pastor so and so is involved in ritual abuse, or President so and so eats children in his satanic rituals – these things MAY INDEED BE TRUE! – but if I pass them along I will only accomplish giving more power and more authority to the devil than he actually has. If these things are NOT true, however, I am guilty of great sin in the eyes of God.

I ask myself, when it comes to the latest conspiracy theory – is it true? (almost always I cannot know for certain.) If it is, is it edifying? (almost always, it is simply providing fodder for the gawking crowds). Will it accomplish any good? (Almost certainly not.)

So why would I involve myself in matters beyond me – matters of darkness and great wickedness? The only thing that will defeat such things is the proclamation of the gospel, which is what I do anyway – on a daily basis.

It is one thing to write strongly about heresy or error, refuting someone’s own words. I do that frequently, and will continue to expose satanic doctrines and bad theology. But it is quite another to accuse someone second or third hand of horrible crimes based upon the word of someone you have never met. I have no knowledge of those crimes firsthand, and am quite aware of Total Depravity in bearing false witness, and the thrill of a really juicy story, and will have no part of it. The few times that I have shared on social media someone else’s story I have almost always regretted it.

I do not need to be a crusader against every evil simply because someone demands that I do so. Some abysses I have no interest in exploring, and would suggest that you all do the same.

If someone in my acquaintance or in my congregation suffers from severe satanic abuse, I would believe them. I would tell them the gospel. I would comfort them with Christ and his death and resurrection, and the promise of the second coming and judgment. I will never, ever underestimate the power in the blood of Christ, or his authority as the King of kings, and Lord of lords.

If it were possible, I would support them reporting crimes to the proper authorities.

But I would NEVER encourage or support their taking their accusations to social media to titillate and tickle the ears of the mob. There are already too many sons of Sceva out there. We don’t need more.

14 Also there were seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, who did so.
15 And the evil spirit answered and said, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?”
16 Then the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, overpowered them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.
17 This became known both to all Jews and Greeks dwelling in Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.
18 And many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds. (Acts 19:14-18 NKJ)

Do you see how the powers of darkness were overcome? Magnifying the Lord Jesus, confessing sins, believing the gospel.

8 Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy– meditate on these things. (Phil. 4:8 NKJ)

There is tremendous power in the blood of Christ. I will not get sidetracked by “satanic symbols”, rituals, cults, rings, filth of every kind and other stories designed to titillate the readers. I had enough of that in the 70s with the whole “backmasking” thing. No more. Nothing good comes of it. There is already too much unrest in the world.

This is not a flight from reality. It is the exaltation of the light over the forces of darkness. The gospel alone drives out the darkness, and that is my calling.

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Thoughts on “Recovering from …”

Some books I skim. They’re pretty good. Other books, the really good ones, cause you to put it down for a while and think.

This is the best recommendation I can give for “Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood”, by Aimee Byrd. Of course, many are already so fixated on male and female roles that they won’t actually read the book, and this will be a huge mistake. Before you critique, digest it. Roll the ideas around the mind. Like a good wine, slurp it, slosh it around the tongue and think about it.

That way, if you do wish to critique, at least you will sound intelligent while you do so and not just a ranting puppet of the establishment.

So, that being said, there is one thing unique about the book. I don’t know what I feel about it. There are several repeating metaphors – one is explained in the introduction. If you don’t read the introduction, you won’t understand most of her references to yellow wallpaper, peeling it back, and other references to a rather obscure 19th century novel. It is a great metaphor and illustrates what she is saying quite effectively.

Another metaphor is found on page 133. As a pastor, I learned many years ago about the perils of using your children as examples, especially if you have not given them the previous veto right. So my first thought, when reading it, was “Oh, I really hope Solanna knew she was going to be in her mom’s book!!”

But that thought quickly passed. I am sure (!) that permission was granted and veto privileges allowed. That story is central to the metaphor of that chapter. Her point is a good one and the illustration holds up.

The reason that I am not sure about my feelings on it, is that it makes it rather difficult to pull out quotable material. There is so much that I would like to quote and to discuss, but in the middle there is an odd reference to wall paper or pizza or taking it out of the oven – which is illustrative and apt – but doesn’t translate into a quotable book.

But that is a quibble. There is so much that I would like to discuss about the book!

Back to my thought at the beginning, before I got sidetracked by wallpaper or pizza (you see how difficult it is??). There is a section (among many) that caused me to put the book down and follow the rabbit trail of my own experiences. Here’s a quote:

Disciples of Christ are initiated into a covenant family. We are baptized within the covenant community of our church, and this marks the church’s responsibility to teach us – not some – but all Christ commanded. It also marks our responsibility to learn as disciples (p162)

She is exactly right, and I love her chapter on discipleship and what it is. Reformed and Presbyterian churches have emphasized the teaching ministry of the church since their inception. Calvin preached 5 times on Sunday and throughout the week to hungry parishioners, according to some historians.

Christ teaches it clearly in the Great Commission:

19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,

20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20)

Byrd is on point and it really got me thinking in this excellent chapter. First of all, about pizza – and secondly, about the nature of the teaching ministry of the church.

There are pockets of people in my extended community who have bought the teaching of the extreme patriarchal teachers. These teachings almost always come with heavy doses of theonomy, reconstructionism, dominionism, and separationism. One aspect of what they believe is that Sunday school classes for kids and membership classes for kids are unbiblical, since God gave that responsibility to the fathers. It is extremely attractive to controlling and abusive men, to have no accountability – even in the church.

In our congregation, our tradition is to do what is called “confirmation”, where I as the pastor spend several years with pre-teen and teenage baptized children and teach them catechism, bible history, theology proper, and just talk about everything on their minds.

These patriarchal types have argued with me about that frequently. There is a movement called “Family Integrated Worship” that teaches that the father is the covenant head, and therefore responsible to teach, to open and close the Lord’s Table, and lead worship. Effectively, it bypasses the church in favor of the family. One man hesitated when I mentioned catechism class, and finally reluctantly agreed, but only if he could participate. It didn’t last long.

One of the most dangerous things about it is that it sounds almost right – until you peel away the wallpaper. It is true that the father and mother have the responsibility to teach their children (Deut. 6) and to bring them to worship, fulfilling their baptismal vows.

But Byrd’s point is an excellent one. According to the great commission, the responsibility to disciple and teach is given to the church. Parents receive that authority as members of the church and are to carry out their duties to their children as members of Christ, not as tiny little popes. But the Great Commission was given to the church, not the heads of families.

The same is true of the sacraments and the ministry of the word. The apostles were NOT chosen because of their status as heads of families. In fact, their marital status and amount of children they had is not mentioned at all. The last genealogy in scripture ends with Christ, which speaks volumes.

Ideally, the pastor, elders and parents all work together. The church making disciples of Christ and teaching them everything that Christ teaches us; the parents bringing them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

The goal of the discipling of the church is that we all grow together, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:13)

In the context, God has given the church its officers (pastor – teachers being one) and has given them their commission. Teach. Teach and teach some more. Make disciples of Christ.

To a certain extent, God has given this ministry to the whole Church. As members of Christ, we are all “prophets” and called to rightly confess his name. But the commission to make disciples is given to the church.

This is a forgotten doctrine that needs to be recovered today.

And, of course, the church is not to teach whatever comes into their heads. They are to make disciples of Christ, not disciples of men. We use a catechism that goes back 500 years and has been used by churches all over the world.

We don’t create new doctrine, we teach the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” – but that is another blog.

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