Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Message: Our God Hides


Exodus 19: 21-24

 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out against them.” And Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.’” And the Lord said to him, “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest he break out against them.”
 Exodus 33: 17-23

And the Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

Matthew 2: 7-11
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

The Heidelburg Disputation, Theses 20

He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross. The manifest and visible things of God are placed in opposition to the invisible, namely, his human nature, weakness, foolishness.  

In a positive sense, God hides himself for our benefit.  If we were to see him in his full glory "who dwells in unapproachable light", we would suffer the fate that God warned Moses and the Israelites of before Mt. Sinai.  God is holiness personified, and so no unclean thing can exist in his Presence without being burnt up as chaff. Hence God prescribed certain limits around the Tabernacle (where God met with Moses) in the Israelites' camp.  Outside of the Aaronic priesthood, no one was allowed to "come near to the vessels of the sanctuary or to the altar lest they, and you, die." (Numbers 18: 3) As God warned Aaron, "any outsider who comes near shall be put to death." (Numbers 18:7)
So between God and the Israelites, there was a veil that remained in place emblefied by the Most Holy Place where only the High Priest could go and stand before the mercy seat to offer sacrifices for the sins of Israel.  

In the Incarnation of Jesus Christ,  the veil between God and man was torn apart.  Hiding his deity in human flesh, Jesus made himself approachable for the sake of many unclean sinners in Israel who came to him to receive healing, mercy and forgiveness.  Not even  Gentiles were barred.  At his birth, the Magi from the east came before him to offer gifts and to worship him, signifying a shift in the nature of the priesthood that pointed ahead to the creation of Christ's church at Pentecost.  To the weak Christ made himself weak, that "he might gain the weak" (1 Corinthians 9:22), emptying himself of his glory, and being "found in human form" (Phillippians 2:8), where he could dwell with men and make the mystery of the gospel "hidden for ages and generations", and God the Father known to us (Colossians 1:26): 

John 1: 18
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.

John 14: 7- 11

 "If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.

Two thousand years removed from encountering Jesus in human form, we still meet with him today physically in bread and wine each Sunday.  Coming down from heaven, as with the Incarnation, "the bread of God" still dwells in the presence of sinners today and gives life to us, touching unclean lips with his body and blood that alone is the way of our salvation.  

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.



Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ambrose On The Incarnation


from Ambrose's "Exposition of the Christian Faith", Book III, Chapters VIII and IX,
Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 2, Volume 10 (ed. Phillip Schaff):

 This beginning did Isaiah see, and therefore he says: “A Child is born, a Son is given to us,” as also did the Magi, and therefore worshipped they, when they saw the little One in the stable, and said: “A Child is born,” and, when they saw the star, declared, “A Son is given to us.” On the one hand, a gift from earth—on the other, a gift from heaven—and both are One Person, perfect in respect of each, without any changeableness in the Godhead, as without any taking away from the fulness of the Manhood. One Person did the Magi adore, to one and the same they offered their gifts, to show that He Who was seen in the stall was the very Lord of heaven.
Mark how the two verbs differ in their import: “A Child is born, a Son is given.” Though born of the Father, yet is He not born, but given to us, forasmuch as the Son is not for our sakes, but we for the Son’s. For indeed He was not born to us, being born before us, and the maker of all things created: nor is He now brought to life for the first time, Who was always, and was in the beginning; on the other hand, that which before-time was not is born to us. Again we find it thus recorded, how that the angel, when he spoke to the shepherds, said that He had been born: “Who is this day born to us a Saviour, Who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David.” To us, then, was born that which was not before—that is, a child of the Virgin, a body from Mary—for this was made after man had been created, whereas [the Godhead] was before us...

 Even as the Child, then, is born not unto all, but unto the faithful: so the Son is given to the faithful and not to the unbelieving. He is given to us, not to the Photinians; for they affirm that the Son of God was not given unto us, but was born and first began to exist amongst us. To us is He given, not to the Sabellians, who will not hear of a Son being given, maintaining that Father and Son are one and the same. Unto us is He given, not unto the Arians, in whose judgment the Son was not given for salvation, but sent over subject and inferior, to whom, moreover, He is no “Counsellor,” inasmuch as they hold that He knows nought of the future, no Son, since they believe not in His eternity, though of the Word of God it is written: “That which was in the beginning;” and again: “In the beginning was the Word.” To return to the passage we set before us to discuss. “In the beginning,” saith the Scripture, “before He made the earth, before He made the deeps, before He brought forth the springs of water, before all the hills He begat Me...

 Perchance you will ask how I came to cite, as referring to the Incarnation of Christ, the place, “The Lord created Me,” seeing that the creation of the universe took place before the Incarnation of Christ? But consider that the use of holy Scripture is to speak of things to come as though already past, and to make intimation of the union of two natures, Godhead and Manhood, in Christ, lest any should deny either His Godhead or His Manhood.  In Isaiah, for example, you may read: “A Child is born unto us, and a Son is given unto us;” so here also [in the Proverbs] the prophet sets forth first the creation of the flesh, and joined thereto the declaration of the Godhead, that you might know that Christ is not two, but One, being both begotten of the Father before the worlds, and in the last times created of the Virgin. And thus the meaning is: I, Who am begotten before the worlds, am He Who was created of mortal woman, created for a set purpose.
Again, immediately before the declaration, “The Lord created Me,” He says, “I will tell of the things which are from eternity,” and before saying, “He begat,” He premised, “In the beginning, before He made the earth, before all hills.” In its extent, the preposition “before” reaches back into the past without end or limit, and so “Before Abraham was, I am,” clearly need not mean “after Adam,” just as “before the Morning Star”need not mean “after the angels.” But when He said “before,” He intended, not that He was included in any one’s existence, but that all things are included in His, for thus it is the custom of Holy Writ to show the eternity of God. Finally, in another passage you may read: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made, Thou art from everlasting to everlasting.” Before all created things, then, is the Son begotten; within all and for the good of all is He made; begotten of the Father, above the Law, brought forth of Mary, under the Law

Saturday, December 7, 2013

What We've Learned Lately About Evangelical Ecclesiology

Matthew 23: 1-4

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 

Mark 10: 42-45

 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Acts 19: 23-29

 About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”
When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul's companions in travel.

In the last few weeks we have witnessed another scandal upsetting the apple cart in mainstream evangelicalism.  Without commenting on that directly, I thought I would highlight what this latest incident reveals about the kind of ecclesiology in vogue among modern evangelicals and their celebrity pastors:

1.  It is virulently anti-democratic.  When the power structure of a church is in the hands of a few, and the congregation's role is limited to adopting the pastor's jargon and vision and following blindly, dictators are easily bred.  This is more likely in churches where the congregation's call to act as Berean-like watchmen is diminished or outright challenged by bully pulpits with a "do as you're told" attitude, which discourages and silences any healthy criticism meant for the good of the body.  In these environments the role of the celebrity pastor is indistinguishable from the rulers and authorities in the secular world who lord authority over the people, and therefore cease to fulfill Jesus' command: "whoever would be first among you must be slave of all".  

2.  Silence.  Whereas Paul and Jesus taught the church to practice discipline on the basis of two or three witnesses, today there is a pervading air of silence when a celebrity pastor falls from grace or is questioned about his impropriety.    Where congregations are effectively silenced or threatened with censure, you would expect the wider church to speak up for their sake.  But aside from independent bloggers, radio apologists, and pastors at odds with the evangelical subculture, evangelical parachurch organisations that seem to function as an accountability group for pastors instead become enablers for further transgressions.  When the money and prestige that a celebrity pastor brings might be at stake, its easier for parachurch groups to remain silent and even to call for boycotts on anyone who would dare to criticise.  Rather than protecting the congregations of wayward pastors, these groups are ultimately self-serving, looking out for their "old boys network" (built on the cult of personality) when it comes under attack.  The behaviour of Christian leaders in this respect is no different from the Ephesians who rioted when the apostle Paul threatened their livelihood based on the manufacture of shrines of the goddess Artemis.  When an idol is challenged, even one in the shape of a celebrity pastor, Christians can and do respond with anger at the thought of their idol being toppled and brought into disrepute, especially if worldly gain is on the line.

3.  Lack of accountability.  With congregations at the mercy of the celebrity pastor leadership model, what accountability is there?  With the rise of the unbiblical practice of vision casting, pastors tie elders and the congregation into a covenantal arrangement where all agree to follow the pastor's supposed 'vision from God', or otherwise "get thrown under the bus".  Unfortunately in this arrangement elders become little more than 'yes men' who exist much like everyone else to bow down at the pulpit.  Since most churches in this seeker-sensitive/purpose-driven mould follow the Baptist model of autonomy, it leaves Christians without a wider hierarchy for them to appeal to in cases of false doctrine and pastoral malpractice.  Silenced within by controlling pastors and unquestioning elders, and silence without with no Bishops or synodical authority to call to for help, Christians often feel forced out to the detriment of their faith and spiritual well-being.

4.  Higher standards.  In both letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul stresses the ethical standards required of pastors and elders to Timothy.  One of these standards is that "an overseer must be above reproach".  Is this true of celebrity pastors today?  The recent cases of Mark Driscoll's alleged plagiarism, Stephen Furtick's financial spending, and Ed Young's "sexcapades" on the roof of his church building prove that the higher standards Scripture commands of pastors doesn't somehow apply to them.  Again because they are protected by powerful forces within and without that rely on their book sales, conference appearances, charisma, etc.  And also due to the pastor's own spiritual pridefulness and blindness to their own sin and need for repentance.  This spiritual blindness can lead to hypocritical messages issued from the pulpit when they speak out on issues in which its revealed that they haven't followed their own advice.  Similarly Jesus warned the crowds of the Pharisees' hypocrisy: "they preach, but do not practice".  When pastors fall into hypocrisy because of lower ethical standards set for them, church ministry suffers and the spread of the Gospel is undermined, as the outside world looks on with cynical eyes.

What is our response to these errors, betrayals, and outright idolatry within the body of Christ?  It would be easy as Lutherans to shrug off much of what we witness as evangelical hi-jinx, however Paul does warn us to not imagine ourselves beyond temptation.  We should watch ourselves putting any pastor on a pedestal, and likewise we should keep a watchful eye for Lutheran pastors building a foundation on their personality and who think themselves beyond reproach and correction.  For such leaders, the Scriptures carry this warning for those betraying the cause of Christ:

1 Corinthians 3: 10-15
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Second Advent: Jesus isn't just for Christmas

 Isaiah 55: 6 “Seek the Lord while he may be found;
    call upon him while he is near"

Matthew 22: 11-14

 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Matthew 25: 1-13

 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

The Christian festival of Christmas is the one time of year when Jesus is paid lip service in our culture.  We hear future pop stars sing of him in "The X-Factor" final, countless Christmas albums are released, and many schools invite parents to come and watch their children dress up as Mary, Joseph, wise men, shepherds and angels in their Nativity plays.  And in parish churches doors are open to unbelievers for various carol services and midnight mass, so that they may too hear the good news of the coming King, born in weakness two thousand years ago for the salvation of the world.  While all these things are good, in so far, as they exalt the name of the true Jesus, God of God, Light of Light, and the gospel of salvation by grace through faith,  the Scripture carries several warnings to unbelieving visitors.  That this Jesus, born in a manger, will return in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his dominion will have no end.

Those found in unbelief at the return of the King of the universe will be cast 
into the lake of fire prepared for Satan and his angels, while his elect will be 
glorified as all the promises of our eternal salvation will finally by consummated 
by the great Shepherd of the sheep.  So as we offer the good news of Jesus' 
first advent this Christmas, led us leave our unbelieving audience in no doubt 
that Jesus is coming again, and preach to them the necessity of faith and 
repentance unto salvation.  

To non-Christians I would warn, "there is no flirting with Jesus.  
You can't make him a small part in your Christmas festivities and then 
ignore him the rest of the year".  The incarnation of Jesus Christ demands the 
same response given by the shepherds and angels; and God-willing we believe 
the Spirit will grant faith and repentance to all who hear God's Word and receive 
it with gladness.  But for those who turn down the invitation year after year, 
who persist in flagrant unbelief despite how many times they've sung "Silent 
Night", there is only a "fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire" that 
will consume the unrepentant (Hebrews 10:27).

So the message for our unbelieving culture is clear: "seek the Lord while he may be found" this Christmas",  Do not spurn the implanted Word of God that has the power to save your souls (James 1:21), and thus be found without the imputed righteousness of Christ that comes by faith at the time of his second parousia (coming).  And hence forth be cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  For now the door is open.  The message of the free forgiveness of sins for Jesus' sake is available to everyone for God desires "all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth"  (1 Timothy 2:4).  So this Christmas if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts against God's promise to save as the Israelites did and died in the wilderness.  Be under no illusion that the "narrow door" to God's kingdom will one day swing shut when Jesus comes in glory with his holy angels.  For on that "day of the Lord" the wise and foolish virgins will hear one of two statements from Jesus, words of eternal welcome or eternal separation: "I never knew you" or "Come, you who are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you" (Matthew 25: 34). This Christmas, will you be wise and cloth yourself with Christ, or will you continue in foolishness unto utter devastation, found without the oil of faith that alone (apart from works) can save you.  Whatever your response, the reality of history's ultimate destination remains:  Jesus is coming.

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!  

Check out the first part of this joint Advent blog event at:

One Sheep Ponders - The First Advent: The First Shepherd

Monday, November 25, 2013

My Thoughts Following The "Strange Fire" Conference

strange fire

These days I'm an extremely soft charismatic.  Hence the decision to remove the 'charismatic Lutheran' label from the blog earlier this year, coupled with my dissatisfaction with Vineyard and New Frontiers churches and the unscriptural definition and practices of the spiritual gifts for which I had tremendous doubts.  At the end of my time at Church of Christ the King (CCK) in Brighton, I was burnt out, partly due to depression following a relationship break-up, and partly because the attraction with charismatic worship had worn out.  I was tired of the shallow and superficial worship, despite the occasional use of hymns, and being manipulating into having an emotional response.  For the last couple of months at CCK, all I wanted to do was sit and pray.  And I started to express some cynicism at the expressions of worship around me.  I saw them as false masks covering over the sorrow and disappointment underneath, and I couldn't go along with that kind of inauthenticity.  During that time, a Lutheran friend on Facebook, also suggested that I try not to force myself into feeling anything which gave me a great sense of freedom in that I didn't have to stand up, raise my hands, etc, if I didn't think the Holy Spirit was behind it.  I certainly didn't want to be bossed around by 'worship leaders' into having an experience.  And since becoming Lutheran in 2010 the idea that experiences or the sign gifts were the foundation of my Christian life had long since evaporated.  I couldn't find any certainty that God was actually speaking there - but when Word and Sacrament became the focus there was certainty and objectivity and I didn't have to wonder "is this God?"

While I still believe the gifts haven't ceased, I think how they are used today in charismatic settings is opposed to the apostolic practice, to the extent that men rather than Jesus are being glorified and exalted.  So listening to the "Strange Fire" conference lectures, while I don't share the strict cessationist view, I agree that their diagnosis of the problem with the modern charismatic movement is spot on.  Once you start looking for God outside of his Word, false mysticism results to the point where the Christian life becomes a search for the next big thing, lurching from one experience/conference/'revival' to another.  With the gift of prophecy, the problem is amplified when the focus becomes the supposed 'office of Prophet' in the church who can speak words over your life.  During my time at Brighton Vineyard, I saw such figures as synonymous with palm readers who Christians would approach to get their 'word of knowledge' from God for that week.  There were plenty of times when Christians said 'I think God is saying...' to me, and while I think they meant well, I always found their words to be so vague, general, and non-specific that I started to question why God would choose to speak to us in such an uncertain way, when I could just open my Bible and be sure God was speaking.  I also started to question the discernment of charismatic pastors and elders.  If these Christians were so prophetically gifted, why were they going to Lakeland to receive anointing from Todd Bentley, selling Bill Johnson's books in the church bookstore, and exalting the names of seeker-sensitive pastors like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels despite their Scripture-twisting?  And I saw the strain of pragmatism entering the charismatic movement: whatever lures the most people that's what works, even if churches start to rely on evangelistic methods outside of Scripture.  Hence the rabid focus on signs and wonders and life transformation, apart from the gospel, which takes up much of the preaching in charismatic circles with a few minutes at the end for a short evangelistic presentation and the sinner's prayer.  In churches that go down the charismatic road, the gospel is minimized and pushed to the sidelines for whatever will grow a church quicker and more efficiently.  This practice is to the detriment of new Christians, who are fed on a meagre diet of experiences, programs, false signs and wonders, and small group 'conversations' without any spiritual direction from the pastor who are too busy being the Kings in their charismatic kingdom to care for the sheep, much less to learn their names.  The charismatic movement is much more engaged with reaching out to the surrounding culture, and getting the world's attention and praise, than living under the cross and dying to self.  Its a theology of glory, pure and simple, that emphasises the gifts over the Giver, and turns charismatic Christians into super-spiritual giants.  Hence the charge of the 'frozen chosen' aimed at liturgical worshippers which is a symptom of spiritual pride, since charismatics are supposedly being more in tune with the Spirit than the rest of us 'second-class Christians'.  Because after all, "where the excitement is, the Holy Spirit is always in operation".  Frankly I don't buy it.  And despite our major doctrinal differences with MacArthur and his ilk, I'm grateful to the pastors and teachers who spoke at the "Strange Fire" conference who aren't buying it either.  Let's stop being "open but cautious" as Phil Johnson suggested, and bring real correction to a movement that no longer polices itself, despite the new Calvinist voices within it who are often just as guilty of following the next fad, the next charismatic 'revival' until it blows up in their faces.  And then its rinse and repeat, with the charismatic movement luring more Christians on its mystic road to hell. 


Friday, November 1, 2013

Exorcising The Law For Halloween

Halloween is one of those days where fellow Christians unleash 
a stampede of 'do's' and 'do nots' on the body of Christ.  "Do not
watch scary movies.  Do not dress up as a zombie", and on it goes.
But like Second Temple Judaism this practice builds a comfortable
cushion between us and God's Law, what God actually commanded
on the stone tablets given to Moses and by extension in His Word
handed down to us by the Old Testament prophets and New Testament
apostles.  That word spoken by God in the midst of fire and thunder raging
from Mt. Sinai struck down the Israelites with fear and reverence for
His presence.  But some prefer to avoid Mt. Sinai, choosing the
safer road back to Egypt.  In its goal to self-justify, the old Adam likes 
to make the law doable, to soften (or dare I say exorcise) the hammer blow God's Law perpetrates on the human heart wracked by sin and spiritual death. 

To earn brownie points with God, some Christians substitute one 
tick box for another much more desirable so they can look down 
on their 'unholy' neighbours, wagging the finger at the Halloween 
festivities, whilst standing proud on their shallow self-righteousness.  
The way of the Pharisee avoids the theology of the cross and is busy 
making towers of Babel to reach to God, including new laws which God never commanded but which sound much more holy to our ears trained to listen 
to the elemental and ascetic ways of false religion.  Much of the taboos surrounding Halloween fall into this practice, and have the unfortunate 
effect of missing God's inexhaustible grace in Christ Jesus.  

Sidestepping the intended effect of God's Law, to exorcise self-righteousness and drive us to the cross, Christians create their own religious system still under the blessings and curses of the law. "If I do this, God will bless me.  If I do that, God will break my legs." Such thoughts run contrary to what many churches will hear and celebrate on Reformation Day, that our Father in Heaven is pleased with us, not due to our works, but because of Christ's alien righteousness given to us as a free gift covering a multitude of sins, and stirring us to live freely in heartfelt obedience to our Lord. Not following man-made laws which would submit us again to a yoke of slavery but living according to what God actually has said in the power of the Holy Spirit who alone can mould and change our sin-infected hearts.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Place of Reason in Luther's Theology

 "Reason... can only say, "Bread is bread, and water is water.  How can bread be Christ's body or water be a bath for souls?" Reason cannot and will not stay in the Word and surrender to it...Reason sees that the Word defies all understanding, that it is against every sense, feeling and experience.  So reason falls away from the Word of God or denies it completely or, if it cannot avoid it, turns and twists that Word with comments until it finally agrees with reason.  But then faith has no more place.  Faith has to give way and concede the victory to reason".

"Faith certainly has this struggle with reason in Abraham.  But faith conquered in him, butchered and sacrificed that bitterest and most pestilential enemy of God.  Likewise all the pious, stepping with Abraham into the darkness of faith, put reason to death, and say, "Reason, you are a fool.  You do not know the things of God.  So do not get in my way, but be quiet.  Do not judge, but hear the Word of God and believe".

"According to reason, we want to be masters over our Lord God and teach him what fits and does not fit.  And if it does not fit, then friend, hrow the doctrine out!  So, for example, it makes no sense to sprinkle children with the water of baptism.  Throw the doctrine out! In this way we will construct a right faith.  According to reason we are as intelligent in these matters as a cow.  And if intelligence counted for anything, I could probably construct a religion better than you.  But here, we are not in a tavern.  We are in a Christian church, where we must believe, not what reason thinks is right or what pleases me or you, but what the Scriptures tell us".

Monday, April 29, 2013

My Post Mortem On 'The Great Sanctification Debate'


Romans 12: 17-18

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

In retrospect, the "Great Sanctification Debate" was anything but great.  Touted as some great schism among confessional Lutherans, it really amounted to two sides saying the same thing, and a case of theological nitpicking over terms; and depending on which term you held to ("progressive sanctification", "new obedience", etc)  you were either a pietist, Calvinist, an antinomian; or at worst, a 'follower of Gerhard Forde'.  After listening and reading to Pr.  Fisk, Cooper and others, I saw no signs of pietism, or antinomianism from either camp except a small minority.  What I did see was two sides talking past each other, and misrepresenting the other's position to the point of parody.  For the record, I agreed with everything Pr. Jonathan Fisk and Jordan Cooper had to offer in this debate, and I'm glad they were able to sort out their differences privately.  As for the rest of us involved in the scuffles,  this debate over sanctification does prove one thing, "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak"; and that growth in the Christian life is oftentimes painfully slow.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Are Children Born Innocent?

Deuteronomy 20: 16-18

But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.

Psalm 51: 5   

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
    and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Romans 3: 9-19

For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,  as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands;
    no one seeks for God. 
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”  
“Their throat is an open grave;
    they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
   “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery, 
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.

The subject of children's salvation is an emotionally charged one.  In a conversation with a female American evangelical on the topic of infant baptism,  I was told that babies do not need to repent, that they are completely innocent; and from her response the presumption then was that babies are born saved.  This kind of evangelical response mirrors the Pelagian view that humanity is basically good and morally unaffected by the Fall, thereby denying the imputation of Adam's sin, and original sin that drastically affects our ability to believe God and earn eternal salvation. However, the Biblical reality is that we live in a fallen world, subject to corruption, in which we all fall under the headship of Adam as "children of wrath".  And by 'all', the Bible means children as well as adults, for 'all' under the law and therefore open to its condemnation.  Like it or not, children are under the righteous judgment of God, and are in need of salvation in Christ Jesus alone.  

The text from Deuteronomy makes this clear.  Both Moses and Joshua were commanded by God to "devote to destruction" everything that lived in the cities of the Canaanites, so that Israel would remain pure and free from all "their abominable practices that they have done for their gods" (Deuteronomy 20:18).  This mandate included children, not to exact ethnic cleansing or genocide on the Canaanite peoples, but to exact God's judgment for "the iniquity of the Amorites" (Genesis 15:16) which God allowed to persist until the right time came for His wrath to enact justice.  Israel's conquest of Canaan was not a tribal war, but an instrument of God's justice against the sinners in those nations.  

It's only because of God's mercy that not everyone has been subjected to the fate that the Canaanites suffered.  But rest assured, there will come a day when "every mouth will be stopped" when Christ returns in judgment to condemn all those who have "sinned under the Law" (Romans 2:12).  Until that day, children need to receive the salvation that comes only by the gospel, to heal them from their sinful condition, and to wash away the original sin in which human beings are conceived.  Thus the need for infant Baptism by which children are united to Christ, trusting in the power of God to grant them faith and repentance through the water and the Word.  

The evangelical fallacy is that somehow only children are unable to believe, because they haven't reached some mythic 'age of accountability'.  However this inability belongs to everyone who are not born from above by God, and are spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins.  Denying baptism to children therefore denies the power of God in salvation. Since this sacrament is his work by which he graciously gives us new life through the waters of baptism, and his steadfast word that seals us with His triune name.  It also denies the command given by Christ in the Great Commission to "make disciples of all nations", "baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit".  Because of Christ's command, we can be sure that baptising children doesn't just get them wet, but carries the promises to bring near all those who are far off:

Acts 2: 38-39

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”


Friday, April 5, 2013

Ezekiel's Temple


Ezekiel 40: 1-4

In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth of the month, in the fourteenth year after the fall of the city—on that very day the hand of the Lord was on me and he took me there. In visions of God he took me to the land of Israel and set me on a very high mountain, on whose south side were some buildings that looked like a city. He took me there, and I saw a man whose appearance was like bronze; he was standing in the gateway with a linen cord and a measuring rod in his hand. The man said to me, “Son of man, look carefully and listen closely and pay attention to everything I am going to show you, for that is why you have been brought here. Tell the people of Israel everything you see.”

In dispensational eschatology, the rebuilding of a future Temple is intimately entwined with the millennial age "marked by a return to Old Testament temple worship and animal sacrifices to commemorate the redemptive work of Christ" (Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillenialism, p. 26).  During this age Christ will return to focus his redemptive plan on national Israel, culminating in Christ's Davidic kingship being manifested on earth, and the covenant promises made to Abraham being fulfilled for the sake of national Israel.  Or so the dispensational story goes.

Leaving aside for the moment, that Christ stated his kingdom was not of this world, there is another way to dispel the dispensational myth using the later chapters of Ezekiel.  Let's look at Ezekiel 44: 9:  "This is what the Sovereign Lord says: No foreigner uncircumcised in heart and flesh is to enter my sanctuary, not even the foreigners who live among the Israelites."  The key phrase, here, is "uncircumcised in heart".  By comparison, how do the New Testament apostles describe those "circumcised in heart"? Paul writes in Romans 2:28 and 29:

A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.

and in Philippians 3:3:

For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh. 

and again, in Colossians 2:11-13:

In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ.

From these verses, we can surmise that the apostles describe those "circumcised in heart" as those who have been born again from above by the Holy Spirit, and baptised into Christ by faith through the grace of God.   To be circumcised in the flesh does not gain you membership in God's covenantal family; it's only through Christ and faith in his finished work by which you have access to the Father.  Therefore, in the context of Ezekiel 44:9, only those who are made alive in Christ have entrance into God's sanctuary; to merely bear the physical marks of circumcision does not make you a descendant of Abraham, but as Paul points out "it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring" (Romans 9: 8).  As Abraham's offering, all the covenantal promises in the Old Testament are therefore given to the church for our encouragement and edification.  These promises include Ezekiel's temple, which points beyond the physical temple of Jerusalem destroyed in AD 70 as a sign of God's judgment, and to the heavenly city of Revelation 21 and 22.  To demonstrate this, let's compare these two passages of Scripture:

Ezekiel 47: 1-12

The man brought me back to the entrance to the temple, and I saw water coming out from under the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east). The water was coming down from under the south side of the temple, south of the altar. He then brought me out through the north gate and led me around the outside to the outer gate facing east, and the water was trickling from the south side.

As the man went eastward with a measuring line in his hand, he measured off a thousand cubits and then led me through water that was ankle-deep. He measured off another thousand cubits and led me through water that was knee-deep. He measured off another thousand and led me through water that was up to the waist. He measured off another thousand, but now it was a river that I could not cross, because the water had risen and was deep enough to swim in—a river that no one could cross. He asked me, “Son of man, do you see this?”
Then he led me back to the bank of the river. When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river. He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea. But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.”

Revelation 22: 1-5

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

In both passages, the unifying theme is 'the water of life' that brings life and healing to God's people.  However, in Revelation, the scope of Ezekiel's temple is enlarged to include all the nations, tribes, and tongues grafted into Christ.  Ezekiel's physical temple has been superseded by the "new heaven and new earth" where God promises to dwell among his people whose names are "written in the Lamb's book of life" (Revelation 21:27).  An eternal and spiritual kingdom where 'nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful';  a kingdom thereby evoking the exclusiveness of God's sanctuary described by Ezekiel 44:9.  And reminding us again that only those whose robes are washed in the blood of the Lamb "have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city" where God will be their light for ever and ever (Revelation 22: 14). 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Tale Of Two Gardens

 Genesis 3: 1-24

 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
    cursed are you above all livestock
    and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
    and dust you shall eat
    all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.”

To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”

And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
    and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”

The man called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.

Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

Luke 24: 1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.

In the first Garden, Adam's sin put man at enmity with God, and subjected the whole of creation to 'its bondage to corruption' (Romans 8:21).  Adam's dominion over the 'birds of the air' and 'the beasts of the earth' tainted by the Fall, which produced death and not life, as subsequent generations grew old and died coming under Adam's federal headship.   Named as 'children of wrath', we were born once to die twice, first from natural death, secondly from God's eternal judgment ('the second death') poured out on those 'in Adam'.  

However, in the second Garden, where Christ's tomb was located, Christ was raised by the power of the Holy Spirit for our justification that brought us peace with God.  When by grace through faith, we were placed under the care and Lordship of Christ, death lost its power over us.  Born from above in our baptism, we were gifted with a new name that removed the inheritance of Adam, and seated us in heavenly places where all 'sorrow and sighing shall flee away' (Isaiah 51:11).  This new name is "the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven" that identifies us as Christ's children who are promised an eternal inheritance 'imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you' (1 Peter 1:4).  Named 'in Christ', we were born twice to die only once, and then to live forever and ever in the midst of the glory of God.  In the name of Christ.  Amen.