Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thanksgiving in Romans 1:18-32

The holiday known in America as Thanksgiving is in my opinion one of the most significant opportunities we have each year for getting ourselves right with God and for showing others the way.

In Romans 1 starting at verse 18, the apostle Paul explains that we are not naturally right with with God; in fact, we are facing his wrath because "... although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened." (Romans 1:21, NIV) He then goes on to describe the downward spiral that results from this alienation from God.

I wondered what it would look like to express these ideas in the positive, that is, to show what would result if we were to properly thank and glorify God. With that in mind, here is my "positive paraphrase" of Romans 1:18-32:

"The blessing of God is being poured out upon all the righteous who exalt the truth by their obedience.

Because they truly know God they Glorify Him and give thanks to Him, their thinking becomes meaningful and their hearts filled with light. As a result of humbling themselves, they became wise, scorning dead and powerless idols and instead embracing and trusting in the immortal God.

Therefore, God increasingly filled them with desires for that which is noble and good, allowing them to experience pure and satisfying intimacy. They embraced the truth of God and rightly honored and served the Creator—who is forever praised.

As a result, God filled them even more with a hunger for righteousness. Men and women alike experienced such deep satisfaction from holy relationships that they became passionate for true spiritual intimacy, inviting Christ into all their relationships, and thereby receiving great blessing, honor and reward for their integrity.

On top of all this, because they so valued knowledge of God, he transformed their thinking so they could please God with their actions. They were then filled with every kind of goodness, decency, satisfaction and wholesomeness, overflowing with contentment, peacefulness, mercy and kindness. They are trustworthy— encouragers, God-lovers, teachable, modest, humble—always looking for new ways to do good. They even obey their parents! They are full of wisdom, faithfulness compassion and grace. Because they know God’s righteous character and his reward of eternal life for those who seek him, they not only strive to live righteously, they passionately encourage and applaud those who join with them in holy conduct.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Finally learning what are true signs of Holy Affections. Well, almost.

Having arrived at Part III of The Religious Affections, I was anxious to hear Edward’s thoughts on what are indeed true evidences of God’s work in a person’s life.

Section I dealt with definitions and establishing his premises, Section II was filled with descriptions of things which may, but may not be, signs of God at work, so after 119 pages of Edwards’ weighty prose, the title of Section III “Showing What Are Distinguishing Signs Of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections” had me fully primed to learn what these certain signs were. Alas, after another 35 pages, such was not to be. (Now I know 35 pages doesn’t sound like much, but it took me less time to get through 1000 plus pages of Atlas Shrugged.)

Now this is not to say that this portion wasn’t helpful, it’s just not what I was expecting. Edwards begins this section by observing that while principles of discernment are found in the scripture, no absolutely certain techniques exist for distinguishing false characteristics of saving grace from true ones. He points out how difficult it is for an individual to be certain of God’s true working in his own life, and concludes that an outside observer has even less expectation for making a determination about that person’s spiritual state.

He then goes on to note, however, that the Bible does present a category for describing the state of person who is a true saint. These persons, he observes, are always described by the term spiritual, while those who are not are described by the terms natural, carnal or unspiritual. (I had to remember he’s citing King James language.) As evidence, he references numerous scriptures, such as 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 and Romans 7:14-8:13.

I have to confess I never would have noticed this classification in scripture, but now aware of it, I realize how wonderfully helpful it is to describe the differences between the person who is being sanctified and someone who isn’t.

Edwards goes on to make the conclusion that the effects of God’s working arise from the constitution of completely different nature, not simply the improvement or modification of the natural state. Thus, whenever evidences exist of a true work of grace, they are divine in origin, and do not arise from ordinary causes. He then uses this observation as a springboard to examine more of what are not sure evidences of “gracious affections.” For example, he points out that everyone apprehends ideas in the mind. This is an ordinary function of human experience. Thus, just because an idea suddenly appears in the mind, though it may even have a basis in Bible truth, it is no sign of a true work of God. Because Satan can create pictures or ideas that appear in the mind, there is no assurance that merely because an idea suddenly arises in a person’s thinking it therefore has its origin in God. Here’s how Edwards puts it:
"And there is not only nothing in the nature of external ideas or imaginations of outward appearances, from whence we can infer that they are above the power of the devil; but it is certain also that the devil can excite, and often hath excited, such ideas."
He then cites as illustration Satan’s ability to create impressions even in the mind of Jesus, as when he showed him “all the kingdoms of the world, with glory of them, when those kingdoms were not really in sight.”

He carries this basic idea further, noting that even Bible promises can be projected into the mind without guarantee that they have their origin from God. The practical upshot of all this? I’ll let Edwards speak directly:
"Many have been the mischiefs that have arisen from that false and delusive notion of the witness of the Spirit, that it is a kind of inward voice, suggestion, or declaration from God to man that he is beloved of Him, and pardoned, elected, or the like, sometimes with and sometimes without a text of Scripture; and many have been the false and vain (though very high) affections that have arisen from hence. And it is to be feared that multitudes of souls have been eternally undone by it."

Sober words indeed.

Religious Affections Entry #1
Religious Affections Entry #2
Religious Affections Entry #3
Religious Affections Entry #4

Monday, October 15, 2007

Edward's Religious Affections Entry 4: A Venti-sized catalog of what may or may not be God at work.

Jonathan Edwards is nothing if not meticulous. Wrestling to define what true religious affections are, he first covers an enormous range of possibilities as to what may or may not be evidence of a genuine working of God in a person's life. He points out that the following may or may not be indications of true religious affections: voluminous display of physical and emotional phenomena; the fervor with which feelings are expressed; that such displays are accompanied by quoting of scripture; that they are accompanied by expressions of love; that they are varied in their presentation; that joy results; that religious experiences occur in a certain order; that religious experiences don’t occur in a certain order; zealous religious behavior; attention to religious duty; expression of praise; confidence; and finally, affecting testimonies.

Any of the above, he asserts, may accompany true religious affections, or they may not. In other words they are none of them determinative. I found this section tough going, because in each instance, as these markers were dismissed as being possibly, but not certainly indicative of a real work of God in a person’s life, I felt as if I was gaining no ground toward the understanding of what a true work of grace would look like. Looking back, however, I realize there is great practical benefit in knowing that these various manifestations are not conclusive evidence of God at work, but remain possible indicators. As a pastor working at helping people toward maturity in their Christian faith, I frequently find it necessary to first ascertain if the person I am dealing with is in fact a Christian in the first place. Though I don’t think it possible to make a certain determination, it is helpful to have a plausible assumption in order to fashion a place at which to begin. This is where Edward’s parsing should prove helpful. This section of The Religious Affections provides a matrix by which an initial evaluation of an individual’s spiritual standing can be formed. Though I may not achieve certainty in my assessment, getting within the ballpark is a step in the right direction toward becoming truly helpful.

Upon further reflection, I also realize Edward's observations have value as a checklist for the condition of my own heart. Am I considering some of the above mentioned behaviors as evidence for my own standing in Christ? As Edward's might say, these affections are no certain signs of having within me the nature of true religion.

Religious Affections Entry #1
Religious Affections Entry #2
Religious Affections Entry #3

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Cleaning one another's feet

This morning I was listening to a popular Bible teacher on the radio, and he used the story of Jesus washing the disciple’s feet in John 13 as an illustration for a message on Christian service. Now I’ve heard this passage taught that way many times, and I have no desire to disparage the particular teacher I was listening to (lest someone Google the date and topic and somehow figure out who I’m talking about.) However, I wonder if we’re missing a very particular point Jesus was making in this passage. Was Jesus simply teaching his disciples the necessity of serving one another—which is certainly true—or was he teaching them a very specific act of service using the washing of feet as a metaphor?

To me, it’s almost certain his purpose was not merely teaching his disciples to clean each other’s feet. Throughout John’s gospel, when Jesus does a physical act, such as give sight to the blind, or raise someone from the dead, his material acts represent spiritual truths. Sight to the blind, for example, represents spiritual illumination (John 9:41) and raising the dead (John 11) represents Jesus’ power to give eternal life. So what does washing the feet represent?

I think the major clue is when Peter asks that Jesus go ahead and wash his head and hands as well, Jesus replies, "A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you." (John 13:10, NASB) When Jesus says, “you are clean” is he referring to bodily hygiene? No, I think he’s referring to their spiritual state. Looking at it this way makes sense then of the comparison between Judas (“not every one of you”) and the others. Surely Judas wasn’t unique because he hadn’t bathed.

If he’s equating physical cleaning with spiritual cleansing, then what are we to make of washing the feet versus washing the entire body? I believe he’s teaching the need for his followers to cleanse the everyday spiritual dirt—sin, that is—which regularly occurs in the life of the disciple. Our “whole body is clean” in the sense that Jesus performed the sacrifice that once and for all makes our scarlet sins white as snow. But as 1 John 1:8 tells us, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So then, even though we have been entirely cleansed, each day we pick up spiritual grime that needs removal.

I was helped to see this because this very morning in my daily Bible reading I came to this passage: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1) I believe what Paul is teaching here is exactly what Jesus is illustrating by exhorting his disciples to wash each other’s feet.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Led by the Spirit

Thanks to Smart Christian, I was led to this exceptional post by Eric Jones who wields a vivid metaphor to describe how to be led by the Spirit. Not only does Eric have a site name that generates a little covetousness on my part, but he possesses insights and writing skills I can only pray for. Check him out.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Jonathan Edwards and Benny Hinn

Never thought you’d see those two names paired did you?

In The Religious Affections, Edwards anticipates by 250 years those like Hinn who emphasize display of physical phenomena as evidence of God’s working. Edwards reasons that such displays may or may not indicate a genuine work of God.

On the side of such things possibly indicating the presence of true grace, Edwards notes, “Some are ready to condemn all high affections: if persons appear to have their religious affections raised to an extraordinary pitch, they are prejudiced against them, and determine that they are delusions without further inquiry. But if it be, as has been proved, that true religion lies very much in religious affections, then it follows that, if there be a great deal of true religion, there will be great religious affections; if true religion in the hearts of men be raised to a great height, divine and holy affections will be raised to a great height.”* He then cites numerous passages from scripture that describe what he calls the “high exercises of affection”: “Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law.” (Psalm 119:136); “My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the LORD: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.” (Psalm 84:2); and, “When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself…” (Habbakuk 3:16)

He goes on to write, “Nor, on the other hand, do I know of any rule any have to determine that gracious and holy affections, when raised as high as any natural affections, and having equally strong and vigorous exercises, cannot have a great affect on the body.”** He even goes so far as to say he knows of no reason “why a being affected with a view of God’s glory should not cause the body to faint (!), as well as being affected with a view of Solomon’s glory.” *** (The exclamation point is mine. I’m wondering now, do those who experience being “slain in the spirit” appeal to Edwards for validation? (Bet you didn’t know that Hinn names Edwards and Whitfield as role models.)

On the other hand, Edwards argues that “great effects on the body certainly are no sure evidences that affections are spiritual; for we see that such effects oftentimes arise from great affections about temporal things, and when religion is no way concerned in them.” † He writes, “I cannot think God would commonly make use of things which are very alien from spiritual affections, and are shrewd marks of the hand of Satan, and smell strong of the bottomless pit, as beautiful figures to represent the high degree of holy affections.”†† And I appreciate this observation: “False affections, if they are equally strong, are much more forward to declare themselves than true: because it is the nature of false religion to affect show and observation, as it was with the Pharisees.”†††

So how can we discern when a public display is a work of God or not? I guess I’ll have to read on, because to this point, Edwards hasn’t yet tipped his hand as to what he will describe in part III of the book as “Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections”. In the meantime, I’ll have to draw my own conclusions about some of the things that happen at Benny Hinn events.

Note: To illustrate what I’m talking about, I was going to post the video clip, “Benny Hinn: Let the Bodies Hit the Floor”, but discovered this notice on YouTube: “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Pastor Benny Hinn and the World Healing Church d/b/a Benny Hinn Ministries.”

*Pg. 54, The Religious Affections; The Banner of Truth Trust,2004.
**Ibid. Pg. 60
*** Ibid. Pg. 60
† Ibid. Pg. 59
†† Ibid. Pg. 62
††† Ibid. Pg. 64

Monday, September 10, 2007

Blog Slacking

I know I've done a sorry job of maintaining this blog, but my intention is still to post my progress through Jonathan Edwards' The Religious Affections. It's been slow going not only due to the challenge of digesting Edward's weighty content and style, but in large part as a result of exceptional demands on my time from both pastoring and things personal.

Returning from hearing John Piper speak in Asheville in late July, I found myself immersed in Vacation Bible School, getting to know five families who have begun attending our church, planning two significant events, and moving out of and back into my house for the purpose of having our floors refinished. Oh, and this on top of my "normal" pastoral responsibilities.

Also, soon after returning home, I discovered that a staffer from Piper's ministry, Desiring God, had also taken notes for posting. Not only are the conference notes available online, you can listen as well. I don't at all regret the effort to capture the notes, but it did take the steam out of my desire to post them for the benefit of others. Perhaps I'll modify my goal to instead post some reflections on what was most significant for me. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and read or listen yourself.

Monday, July 30, 2007

John Piper at the Billy Graham Training Center

No living author has been as instrumental in my personal Christian growth as has John Piper. Some years ago, a friend passed on a copy of Let the Nations Be Glad, and my whole understanding of worship and missions was transformed. Prior to that book, I had no theology for either—I simply believed in doing them because the Bible said so. That slim volume explained to me the Biblical “why” of both worship and missions and their relationship to each other, and my faith life hasn’t been the same since. Thinking there might be more where those insights came from, several years ago I went to hear Piper speak at the Jonathan Edwards Institute Summer Conference and was exposed to Edward’s thinking on God’s “ultimate ends.” Again, my thinking about the Bible was deepened and transformed. Since then, I have made it a point to listen regularly to what Dr. Piper has to say on matters of faith and practice. I seldom read or listen to him that I don’t learn some new principle or gain some new insight.

This past weekend was no exception. My wife and I traveled with some wonderful friends down to The Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove in Asheville, NC, to hear Piper speak on Romans 12 and 13 under the title, The Mercies of God and the Transformed Christian Mind.

What follows are my notes of Session 1, and the Lord willing, I hope to post sessions two through five as well.

Dr. Piper began the session by noting that the majority of conferees are in their 50’s and 60’s. With that in mind, he called attention to Psalm 71 which he said has meant a lot to him for some time now. In vs. 17-18, it says, “O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all who come.”

He noted that at this stage in life, he has seen much of God’s power and grace, and he wants to finish like the Psalm, proclaiming God’s deeds. He expressed his desire that this time together to be surprising for those late in life’s journey for their remaining days. Some think these days might be the same and they won’t. He related that his mother was killed while on a trip to Israel, and his Father wounded. Everything changed for his father. The last years of his life were spent with a global ministry, ROGMA. He never knew such a thing would be. If you have a year left, it may be totally different than you think it may be.

We have before us Romans 12 and 13; preached 350 pages on these chapters—30 sermons; must condense into 5 hours. You will probably think I gave up because tonight we’ll cover ½ verse. Tonight will not get beyond verse 1, but will read verse 2. If you get verses 1 and 2, the rest will fall into place, so we will be heavy on verses one and two.

The most important word in this passage is therefore; what follows is built on something. If we don’t recognize this, we can become first class legalists.

Paul is moving from something to something. As an illustration, our church voted after years of praying and planning, to purchase a property and build an additional campus; after this, therefore, in a short time they purchased the property and began to build. But the action was built on years of prior work, prayer and consensus building.

Another illustration: a missionary in Brazil, Linda, gathered the women together and gave testimony that from the time she was a little girl she wanted to be a missionary. She married a man who didn’t, and ended up divorced, and at age 50 went on to doing street ministry in Rio de Janeiro. She told the story to the group, and the next morning the group gathered and the pastor’s wife explained that her husband always wanted to be a missionary and she resisted; after hearing the story, she therefore made the decision to no longer resist. And she and her husband became missionaries.

Everything in Chapter 12 and 13 built upon something. Paul is moving from doctrine to practice, from theology to ethics. It may seem obvious that Christian living grows out of something, but it is especially important to recognize this today. Quoted from an article by Herbert Hoefer on Hinduism: "The proper name of “Hinduism” is “Sanatana Dharma” or ‘the eternal way of life.’ You can have whatever beliefs you like, but you are expected to live out 'dharma'.” Paul’s worldview is totally different than this—his appeal is based upon something having happened. Why this kind of world? Why does God do it this way? Why does Paul say the universe exists in order to display God? To display the way he is, his attributes. Psalm 150 declares: “Praise God for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness.” The therefore is not there by accident, we live because God has designed the world in such a way that we are to live a certain way.

A practical word to parents: I’ve got kids from 36-11. At 61 never thought I would still be parenting. This therefore means that when you want your children to act a certain way, you have to give them something first. So many parents want their children to “just do it”; however, if that becomes the dominant motif, appealing only to authority, that child will not become a Christian. Their obedience is not built on anything. In parenting we live, sing, Romans 1-11. Didn’t sing together as a family for years, but began to sing—one of the reasons is wanting her life to flow out of worship.

An example from life—we were reading in Luke 11, it says "fear not". Wants his little girl to grow up being a fearless woman. Three times the text says “do not be afraid.” So we pray that God will take the fear out of life. Because of the therefore principle, I search the text for the reasons to not be afraid and found three. First, they can only kill you. (This didn’t really satisfy his daughter, so he explained further about God making all things right—if you belong to Jesus, they’ve done their worse.) Next, God knows the number of hairs on your head, and third, you are worth more than birds. I want this child to know therefore you can be fearless, the why.

Back to Romans 12, the next phrase, “by the mercies of God” is Paul’s shorthand summary of what came before in the book. Amazed at his choice—he’s talked about justification, sanctification, sovereignty, and election, and Paul chooses “the mercies of God”. Why would he choose to sum up using this phrase?

Three reasons:
1) The purpose of life is to glorify God for his mercy. Chapter 15:8-9, the purpose of God in sending his son is that the nations would be amazed at his mercy. The Gentiles are to live in such a way that people can only conclude that God’s mercy is glorious.

2) Mercy in your life towards the undeserving is the best way to make God’s mercy look great. Treating people better than they deserve is the best way to show that God’s mercy is great. Running through Chapter 12, this is repeated over and over. This chapter is saturated with mercy. Mercy flowing out from us must be rooted in mercy coming to us. The overarching theme is, God treats us better than we deserve. A lifestyle of mercy is the way to show God’s great mercy.

3) God’s mercy to us is the key to us living this way. Romans 11:36: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.” From him we received mercy.

We talk about what God did so that Paul could say, therefore, live this way. It isn’t that Christ was simply an example of giving mercy—he was—saving us when we didn’t deserve. We need to see the importance of what he did.

Mercy implies two things: grace is treating people better than they deserve. Mercy is helping someone who is in pain. We need both—we are guilty and miserable. Romans 5:6: while we were still weak, Christ died for us. The mercy we need is in response to our weak and rebellious condition. Romans 3:9 describes the condition: under the power of sin. None righteous, no one seeks, no one does good. Down to v.19, “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.”

You will never meet anybody who is not accountable to God. You have never met anyone who had done enough good to deserve God’s goodness. If you don’t have a view of human depravity that includes nice people, you need to go to the Bible to see that depravity is ignoring God. Pharisees were squeaky clean and called vipers. If we don’t have a high view of sin, we won’t understand what Christ has done.

Romans 3:21, the best verse in the Bible perhaps, “But now the righteousness of God has been revealed.”

Romans 1:23 explains Romans 3:23, we’ve “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”

By his grace, mercy, through Christ, we received justification, redemption propitiation. Three words; linger there, the center of the gospel, the center of the demonstration of his mercy.

Propitiation: to take away wrath. Our biggest problem is not bad people but a wrathful God. Galatians 3:13—God has cursed us, we’re under a curse, God’s wrath. No amount of doing good will help. And God puts forward Christ to absorb his wrath. Through Christ’s flesh, God condemned my sin. What’s the sin Christ was condemned for? Not his, ours. The gospel breaks pride. There will now never be a day from now on when God is wrathful towards us. He may spank, but it is in love.

Redemption: the word means deliverance at the cost of a price. Paul twice (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14) tells us what redemption is—the forgiveness of sin, the canceling of sin, guilt removed the weight removed, lifted.

Justification: to justify is to declare that you have fulfilled everything required of you. God the judge, contemplates you the sinner, you fly to Jesus, the righteousness provider, you embrace him and make your appeal to the judge to look at him and not me, and he counts us righteous. Romans 4:5,6: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” God, because of our union with Christ, counts us righteous, as having fulfilled everything required. This is more than forgiveness.

How can this be? Look at Romans 5:19: “by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.” By virtue of Christ having accomplishing everything, when we put our faith, trust in him, what he has done becomes ours.

What’s the implication of justification, redemption, and propitiation? Faith is a reaching out to receive what Christ has done. When that happens, we are secure, Romans 8:28, everything is then working for your good. Those whom he calls, he justifies. All the called are justified. The call creates belief. God spoke, when you thought Christianity was boring, God called. Because of wrath removed, sins forgiven, righteousness provided, therefore, live this way.

When did God become totally for me? You might answer, “in eternity past,” because he chose me before the foundation of the world. But Ephesians 2 says we were objects of wrath. When we believed God, he was from that moment for us. The obedience to the imperatives in Romans 12 and 13 does not make him more for us. It is not to get God on our side, but rather because he is already for us.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Jonathan Edwards is on to something

Still in the infant stages of working my way through Jonathan Edward’s The Religious Affections, (click here for entry #1) I’m discovering matters of high relevance both to my role as pastor and as a simple follower of Christ. In 1746 Edwards was exploring a vexing issue of pressing importance for the church today—the tendency (which I find in my own heart) to have more passion, focus and energy directed toward making our way in this world than investment in matters concerning the Kingdom of Heaven. Here’s how Edwards put it:

"And yet how common is it among mankind, that their affections are much more exercised and engaged in other matters than in religion! In things which concern men’s worldly interests, their outward delights, their honour and reputation, and their natural relations, they have their desires eager, their appetites vehement, their love warm and affectionate, their zeal ardent; in these things their hearts are tender and sensible, easily moved, deeply impressed, much concerned, very sensibly affected, and greatly engaged; much depressed with grief at losses, and highly raised with joy at worldly successes and prosperity. But how insensible and unmoved are most men about the great things of another world. "

(Page 51-52; The Religious Affections; The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004.)

I’m only to page 53, but this line of thinking has already made the book worthwhile to have worked through. I’m hoping Edwards goes on to propose some remedy for this state of affairs. In the meantime, I’m finding it valuable to simply meditate on this question: Why are most of us less interested and excited about what Christ has done (and is doing) for us than we are concerning the things of this world, which at best, provide meaning and satisfaction for but a season?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Jonathan Edwards on the Religious Affections

While at the annual Jonathan Edwards Institute Summer Conference, I decided to purchase and tackle one of Edward's most well-known and influential works, The Religious Affections. As everyone I'm aware of who has read Edwards will attest, his writing is at once challenging and rewarding. To put a little pressure on myself to understand and retain what I'm reading, I thought from time to time I'd post segments that jumped out to me. Here's the first of what I hope will become a series:

"The things of religion are so great, that there can be no suitableness in the exercises of our hearts to their nature and importance unless they be lively and powerful. In nothing is vigour in the actings of our inclinations so requisite as in religion; and in nothing is lukewarmness so odious."
(Page 28; The Religious Affections; The Banner of Truth Trust,2004.)

If you haven't already discovered it, Jonathan Edwards Online, sponsored by Yale University, is a treasure trove of access to Edwards' writings. And while I'm at it, thanks to Byron and Beth Borger for every year running such a great bookstore at the JEI conference and providing such helpful information and guidance for their customers.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

D. A. Carson at the final plenary session of the Jonathan Edwards Institute Summer Conference

This was my favorite session of the entire conference for two reasons: 1) Dr. Carson's explanation of a possible reason for God communicating to us by means of the genre we call apocalyptic was as helpful as anything I've heard on the subject and 2) his portrayal of God's majesty and the corresponding excellency of Christ was both instructive and moving. My notes don't do it justice.

The Lamb from the Throne
Dr. Carson began by asking why the Bible features apocalyptic literature, and answered with an illustration: imagine, he said, a modern person going to a remote tribe with a pre-iron age culture and trying to explain electricity. Since they have no concept of the physical objects used to either produce or utilize electricity, it would be advantageous to describe it by means of comparison with everyday objects and concepts with which they are familiar. For example, one might compare our power lines to their jungle vines, or our light bulbs to the sun. In other words, due to their lack of physical reference points, it would be necessary to use analogical, symbolic description. In a similar fashion, God may have thought it best to describe heavenly realities (for which no one has concrete reference points) by means of representations and comparison to objects which the recipients of the apocalyptic texts were familiar.

For the text, he read all of Chapters 4 and 5 of the Revelation.

John writes after his inaugural vision of Chapter 1, that a voice of the exalted Christ speaks to him and is shown what must take place. He is given an experience of the centrality and indescribable majesty of the Almighty. This demonstrates to the persecuted and oppressed, that God is above all and in control. But how do you describe a God purer than driven snow, more beautiful than any gem, more powerful than any storm?

John sees the divine throne enhanced by divine beings, elders. Two views on the elders: 1) rulers in an exalted state; 2) angelic beings. (Carson holds the latter.) In any case, the point is their function is to praise God and enhance the throne. In an earthly example, were we somehow able to visit the president we would be met by intermediaries. In the case of the 24 elders, these transcendent heavenly attendants point to God's position and authority.

Four quick takes on the holy separateness of God’s throne:
• Jewels, with their splendor and sparkle representing royalty.

• Lightning and thunder—Carson illustrates with a poetic description of an approaching thunderstorm from his time as youth growing up in the plains of Canada. The power and magnitude of a storm depicts an aspect of God’s rule.

• Seven spirits—a perfection of power and ability to observe.

• Sea of glass—glass from their time period not clear like ours, but rather colored and sparkling; also, for the Israelite, the sea is not a peaceful place but chaotic, even dangerous. So the sea of glass for them would be heaving, colored, awe inspiring.

The holiness of the place is represented by four living creatures, the highest order of beings, reminiscent of the beings in Ezekiel's vision. They are described using mixed metaphors that don’t make sense if you were to try to draw them. The lion, royal; the bullock, strength; the human, intelligence; the eagle, speed or compassion. These never stop praising. They quote Isaiah 6:3, Holy, holy, holy, said to be worthy because of creation.

In Chapter 5, we have a scene of a scroll with writing on two sides. Two reasons for doing so 1) if you’re cheap or 2)to maintain unity and demonstrate fullness. The first obviously does not apply to the God previously described, so the second must be the explanation. The number of seals an indication of importance of the author and purpose. In the symbolism of the day, the slitting of the seals represented the initiating of the action contained in the scroll.

Who then has the attributes to approach this exalted throne and perform this task?

In 5:4 John weeps for no one can be found to open the scroll, because the judgments and purposes contained will not be enacted. Justice not granted, hope not realized, sins not forgiven.

Then in v. 5, one of the divine beings reminds him of the promise of Isaiah 11, there is one who is able. Another mixed metaphor, lion and lamb together, not to be seen apart. Sevens mean perfections (horns, of kingdom authority).

The worthy one comes from the midst of the throne. The harp is not like ours, rather an instrument of joy. New song because of the uniqueness of the occasion.

Someone has said the best commentary on this passage is the hymn, Crown Him With Many Crowns, which he quotes at length.

This is an astonishingly broad atonement—every people nation tribe and tongue. Thousands upon ten thousands give a perfection of praise.

Unthinkable: if Christ had not died, we wouldn’t be here. All of God’s purposes would fall to the ground. When we speak of the sufficiency of Christ, we are saying that he and he only is able to open the scrolls because of his sacrifice and resurrection, and the whole universe rises in praise.

In our modern world, our deities must be tame. But not so this Christ. From the throne the lion roars.

Monday, July 09, 2007

When times are tough

Phil Johnson over at Pyromaniacs has an exceptional post today on discerning God's purposes in the midst of difficulty. Just read it—anything I say will just detract from it.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

D. A. Carson at the Jonathan Edwards Institute Summer Conference

For the past six years my wife, Carol, and I have journeyed to Annapolis, MD, for the annual Jonathan Edwards Institute Summer Conference. This year’s theme was “The Sufficiency of Christ”, and the plenary speakers were D. A. Carson, Richard Pratt and Scott Haffeman.

This is my first attempt at “live blogging”. Given that the conference began on Wednesday, July 4, and it is now Sunday, July 8, the first thing to be noticed is my sorry use of the term “live”. I’ve heard of “dead blogging” but what to call this? Substantially Delayed Live Blogging? (Attempting this has given me the greatest respect for Tim Challies, Timmy Brister, and the afore-mentioned Pyro’s, who have pulled off true conference live-blogging with excellence.)

Anyway, here are my notes of D. A. Carson’s remarks at the opening plenary session. Warning: please do not give Dr. Carson grief for what may in all probability be a mis-typing or mis-hearing or omission on my part!

"A Living Branch in a Cursed Land"

Dr. Carson began by reading the entire sixth chapter of Isaiah, the one that begins, “In the year that King Uzziah died…”

He noted that when we come to the end of ourselves, we begin to think with eternity in view. Things become less or more important when things like cancer or tragedy strike. Isaiah experiences something similar. In Israel, things were beginning to look pretty bleak. (See Isaiah 2:6; 3:1; and 5:8-11.)

Assyria, a terrible enemy was pressing in. There was moral decay with one pillar, King Uzziah; but then he died in shame. It was in this context that Isaiah wrote, “Then I saw the Lord.”

It is helpful to break chapter into three parts: A Holy God, An Humble Servant, and A Hard Message.

A Holy God
In the heavenly vision, the “train of his robe” is simply the hem of God's garment, and it fills the temple. In Exodus 33:18-23, we note that no one is able to see God’s face and live; he is surrounded by heavenly beings, Seraphs, who despite their lofty status, still cannot look on God’s face.

What does that mean? Some have argued the heart of Holiness is separated. But none cry, “separate, separate, separate”. Some think moral--but none cry “moral, moral, moral”. Holy is synonymous for God—he himself, and him making things around him holy also. Holiness is communicable. The word extends further out to include the domain of the sacred. The word Holy has a rising boundary of concentric circles, with the use of the word depending on context.

We are terribly aware of the marring caused by sin—easy to see its ravages. Yet we’re surrounded by beauty, nature, birds for example. Ever looked at the tail of a woodpecker? (Describes several remarkable features of said tail.) We need to look at nature and think consciously in order to glimpse God’s holiness. The tragedy of naturalism is not giving credit where it belongs. We are wise to sing Immortal, Invisible, Almighty God.

An Humbled Servant
Isaiah experiences not existential angst, but, moral angst—we are ruined. When we glimpse the holiness of God we see our participation in the culture. The standards of holiness are so strong, ours are bound to the world.

Uzziah died, then Isaiah sees the true king. We are fallible, fallen—hopeless compared to his infallibility.

Sense of awe lacking today. Biblical illiteracy rampant—his students often unaware of basic doctrines—and so are not impressed when theological truths are expressed. Instant umbrage is taken, however, whenever he gets anywhere near sin.

Back to the heavenly vision, here also is God’s grace. God acts in response not to a plea, but to bless and redeem. An angel is sent with coals from the main altar, where the lamb is killed on the Day of Atonement. These sacrifices produce coals which take away Isaiah’s sins—he is cleansed. The only way you can be in contact with God is through these sacrifices, quoting Isaiah 33:14:
“The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: ‘Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?’”

God does not challenge Isaiah directly—he asks, “who can I send?” Isaiah volunteers, an humble abashed, seeking request. The heart of genuine call is humility. As soon as we think we’re offering a deal, not much grace is involved.

Carson at this point describes the work of a campus ministry he's involved with that prepares papers on Christian themes which are cast for 22 year-olds who are bright, but Biblically ignorant. They brought in 6 workers with theological degrees and got their input on which topics to address. One young woman who spent lot of time in one-on-one Bible studies at an Ivy League school described three things that drive these students:

• Pressure from parents to never get less than an A
• From parents and culture as well, the advice to be yourself, but reserve a little time for altruism. (Already in conflict with item one)
• From peers, the advice to be hot. (How you dress, establish relationships, involves competition.)

Thus, these students were expected to be Bright, Altruistic and Hot. Now when these students become Christians, they are still influenced by these values. So instead of doing things out of gratitude, they begin working to get God’s approval, practicing a self-righteous idealism where you can never do enough.
"The Gospel doesn’t say “do, do, do”; but rather we respond in joyful gratitude to grace."
Isaiah's call comes late in the book, after time in ministry and comes in the context of difficult times.

A Hard Message
God says, tell this people, "Keep on hearing, but do not understand." Isaiah 6:9-10.

This reminds of 2 Thessalonians; should remind us of John 8, because he speaks the truth they do not believe.
"This is precisely the problem of basing ministry upon observing the culture."
It is by preaching the word that men and women come to faith, but there are times when the declaration offends. The only alternative is to speak the truth.

How long (Isaiah 6:11) will this take? 30, 40 years? (Carson relates how his father planted churches in French Canada, which after 40 years grew from 30 to 500. When he set out did not take an attitude of expecting only a set time.) God warns that the word must be preached until things are ruined, the land forsaken—not until repentance—until a tenth remains which is itself laid waste.

At the end, the only whisper of hope in the chapter:
“And though a tenth remain in it, will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” Isaiah 6:13
The holy seed is a stump--a promise to be fulfilled 700 years later.

Two pastoral, theological implications:

1. God ordained quality of preaching:
We are told not to expect reformation and revival. Examples Japan and Korea. In Japan only 1% Christian; Korea quite Christianized. Were the Japan missionaries less sanctified? Successful preachers cannot be measured by converts. Some are called to preach in hard times.

What about our time? Could tell stories of blessing, but in Europe, due to the low birth rate, the population will be halved in two generations. Muslims however are immigrating with a growing birth rate. Many more Muslims are worshiping than Christians. Not Muslim-phobic—we have the Great Commission. But in light of Israel’s destruction, it is not impossible for Europe to be laid waste and another place, say China, raised up.

God uses the foolishness of what is preached to save, thus the centrality of the declaration of God’s word. Just as God has disclosed himself by his word when it is revealed, God re-reveals himself afresh. As the word is re-disclosed, God is re-revealed.

Another reason why God’s word is declared: if doing is the standard then instruction is required. However, due to the grace of what God has done, then announcement is called for.

Tolerance used to mean allowing different viewpoints; now, however, it means to insist that no one is wrong, therefore the Gospel offends.

2. The God-ordained Finality of Jesus
This promise of a branch makes sense only in the context of the whole Bible’s storyline. Until the storyline is in place, it can be difficult to explain why Jesus is the only way to salvation. The king sends his own son as the means by which he brings all things into submission, and remove sins. Jesus is the only one who can do all that.

Concluding Hymn: Immortal Invisible Almighty God

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

New Creation

I used to call this blog "Manifest Uncertainty" because its purpose was to explore the meaning of Biblical passages about which I was less than certain. Discovering it much harder to get feedback than I anticipated, I gave up on the concept and became a gleaner from others. Additional impetus for the name and format change, came from the realization that wearing uncertainty on your sleeve communicates lack of confidence in what you're, well, confident about--such as faith in Christ's work being the basis for my sure hope of salvation.

So there.