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Recent Articles, Theology

What a cross-continent trek taught one pioneer about Sunday rest

My town of Lynden, Washington has a mother, Phoebe Judson, who founded our city, arriving here in 1871. She promoted Sunday closure. Here’s why. In May, 1853, Phoebe and her husband Holden joined a covered wagon train near Kansas City hoping to reach Washington Territory by mid-October, a distance of more than 2,000 miles over the rough Oregon Trail. Like all wagon trains, they elected a captain. His word was the law. Well, they chose Rev. Gustavus Hines, only to be surprised one Saturday night when he announced the train would never travel on Sundays. Phoebe was shocked. They had half a continent to cross, at oxen pace (15-20 miles per day on a good trail), with at least four mountain passes and innumerable river crossings ahead of them. She sat in her wagon and just fumed. One family deserted the train and joined another. On their first Sunday, while they stood still, one train after another passed them by. But, being the daughter of a minister herself, Phoebe felt they had no choice but to honor their captain’s scruples. They started out again on Monday, bright and early, only to reach their first river cross on Tuesday evening. A long line of wagons stretched out ahead of them, waiting for the single “ferry” to carry them across. They waited 3 days. On Saturday they resumed the journey, only to be told they would still rest the whole next day. Phoebe was livid. This made absolutely no sense to her. Still, the minister’s daughter obeyed. Then, a few weeks later she began to see scores of dead oxen, mules and horses along the trail. They had been driven so relentlessly, they had collapse and died. She grudgingly admitted that perhaps the animals needed a day of rest. A few weeks later, she ruefully admitted that maybe the men needed it too, since they walked most of the time. Then she slowly began to notice that as they worshipped, ate, rested and even played together on Sundays, it had a remarkably salutary effect upon people’s spirits. There was less grumbling, more cooperation. She even noticed that they seemed to make better time the other six days. Finally, what totally sold her on the value of the Sabbath happened one Sunday evening: the family that had deserted them came limping into their campsite, humbly asking to rejoin them. She had assumed they were at least a week ahead; in fact, they had fallen behind. Their own wagon train had broken down! Of course they welcomed them back. And so it happened that they reached their destination in plenty of time, as friends, and out of the 50 head of cattle with which they began, only two were lost.

This an excerpt from a Pastor Ken Koeman's longer article on the 4th Commandment which you can read here: Practicing the Sabbath. This first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue.

Science - Environment, Theology

Catastrophic global warming? A brief biblical case for skepticism

The media tells us that the question is settled, there is a 97% consensus, and that anyone who has questions is a “denier,” likened to those who are either so foolish, or malicious, as to deny the reality of the Holocaust. But there are reasons to question. And while climate science might be beyond most of us, God has given us another means – a far more reliable means – of discerning truth, via His Word. Gender: the Bible shows the way Sometimes it doesn’t take much Bible study to be able to discern truth from error, and that’s certainly true in today’s gender debate. Young children are being surgically mutilated and hormonally sterilized and yet the government, doctors, psychologists, and media are applauding. While it might not be at 97% yet, the consensus is growing such that fines are being issued, teachers fired, students expelled, and Twitter mobs set loose on any who disagree. Despite the pressure, few Christians are being fooled, though that might be due as much to the newness of the debate as it is that Evangelicals are turning to their Bibles for guidance. But if they do open His Word it won’t take a believer long to figure out God’s position. In Genesis 1:27 we learn it is God, not Man, who determines our gender: “So God created Man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Population: following the Bible would have saved tens of millions The overpopulation crisis has a longer history to it and, consequently, many more Christians have bought into it. Since the 1950s we’ve been hearing that sometime soon the world’s population will outstrip the planet’s resources. In his 1969 book The Population Bomb Paul Ehrlich warned: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” You would think that by now it would be easy to see that these overpopulation fears were mistaken. As economist Arthur Brooks has noted, what’s happened is the very opposite of Ehrlich’s dire prediction: “From the 1970s until today the percentage of people living at starvation’s door has decreased by 80%. Two billion people have been pulled out of starvation-level poverty.” Yet the overpopulation hysteria has never gone away. And the damage it has done has been on par with that of a Hitler or Stalin – tens of millions have been killed. Under threat of this crisis China implemented their infamous one-child policy, with its fines and forced abortions for couples who tried for two. And the deaths weren’t limited to China; overpopulation fears were used to justify the push for legalized abortion in countries around the world. Murdering your own children wasn’t cold and selfish anymore; now it was a woman doing her part to save the planet. Christians opposed abortion, of course, but some believers started questioning whether overpopulation concerns might be correct. Maybe God’s call to “be fruitful and multiply” and fill the earth (Gen. 1:28) was just a temporary directive that we’ve fulfilled and should now treat as being over and done with. But it takes only a little more digging to find out that’s not what God thinks. Overpopulation proponents saw children as more mouths to find – they saw them as a problem – but God speaks repeatedly of children as a blessing (Ps. 113:9, 127:3-5, Prov. 17:6, Matt. 18:10, John 16:21). And opportunities present themselves when we see children as God sees them. When we understand they are a blessing, then we realize that not only do children come with a mouth that needs filling, but they also have hands that can produce even more than their mouth consumes. And they have a brain to invent and problem solve. When we see children this way – as a blessing and not a curse – then we'll realize there’s a real practical benefit in having lots of them: as we’ve been told, many hands make light work, and two heads are also better than one! That’s why it shouldn’t have surprised Christians when in the 1950s and 60s a group of inventive sorts, led by American Norman Borlaug, helped develop much higher-yielding strains of cereal crops. This “Green Revolution” turned wheat-importing countries into wheat exporting countries by more than doubling yields. And while there are no prophecies in the Bible specifically mentioning Norman Borlaug, Christians could have seen him coming, and in a sense some did. Those who continued having large families, despite the dire predictions, could do so confident that any problems caused by the innumerable nature of their progeny would be solved by something like the Green Revolution happening. Today, decades later, we can look back and see that a country like China, that ignored what God says about children, is facing a different sort of demographic crisis. A young Chinese couple will have two sets of parents and four sets of grandparents to look after and support, but have no siblings or cousins to help them. As soon as 2030 China will see their population start to decline, with not nearly enough working age citizens to provide for their aging population. It’s not all that different in the Western world where, even without government coercion, our families have been shrinking and women are averaging far less than two children each. We aren’t as near the crisis point as China, but by aborting a quarter of the next generation, we’ve created our own coming demographic crisis. Catastrophic global warming: a biblical case for skepticism The population and gender debates remind us that the Bible is more reliable than any-sized consensus no matter how big. They also teach us that the world can get things not just completely wrong, but monstrously so, leading to the deaths of tens of millions. That’s why when it comes to global warming, where we’re being told once again that the fate of the planet is at stake, we want any and all guidance we can get from God’s Word. Cornelius Van Til once noted: “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or by implication.” The Bible does speak to global warming, but not directly. This isn’t like the gender debate, which runs smack up against Genesis 1:27 (“male and female He created them”) or the overpopulation crisis, which directly opposes the very next verse (“be fruitful and multiply”). When it comes to global warming the Bible isn’t as direct. But there are lots of implications. Time and space only allow me to present a half dozen texts. I’m not pretending that any one of them makes the definitive case for skepticism. But I do think that together they start pointing us decidedly in that direction. "You will know them by their fruits" – Matt. 7:15-20 In Matthew 7 Jesus tells us that we can tell a good tree from a bad one by the fruit on it. His concern wasn’t with trees though, but with telling false prophets from good ones. When it comes to global warming the science is beyond most of us, but we can evaluate the people. So let’s return to this 97% consensus we’ve heard so much about. This statistic is used to argue that there is no question but that the planet is headed to catastrophic climate change. But is this a reliable number, or is it like the greatly exaggerated 10% figure commonly given for the homosexual population? The figure has a few different origins, but one of the more commonly cited is a paper by John Cook and his colleagues reviewing 11,944 published peer-reviewed papers from climate scientists. Did 97% of those papers’ authors agree with the statement “humans are causing global warming”? That’s what we would expect. But instead of 10,000+ papers with that position, there were 3,894, or approximately 33%. So how did the 97% figure come out of that then? Well, it turns out only approximately 34% of the papers took a position one way or the other, with just 1% disagreeing or uncertain, and 33% agreeing. Thus, of the 34% who took a position, 97% agreed that humans are causing global warming. Is it honest to ignore the two thirds who didn’t state a position, and say there is a 97% consensus and no room for a debate? How this statistic has been used reminds me of a trick from another debate – equivocation about the definition of “evolution.” In his book, The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins notes that when poachers shoot elephants with long tusks, the next generation is liable to have shorter tusks. Okay, but creationists also believe species can undergo changes over time. We’re the folks arguing that the array of cats we see today are all modified versions of a single cat kind brought on the ark. Dawkins has presented “minor changes over time” – a definition of evolution so broad that it enfolds even creationists into the evolution camp – as if it were proof of the from-goo-to-you sort of evolution that is actually under dispute. Similarly, the 97% consensus is being presented as if all those counted hold that the warming is catastrophic, humans are the primary cause, and there is a need for immediate, drastic, global action. But the agreement was only that “humans are causing global warming.” And that’s a statement so broad as to enfold even many of the so-called “deniers.” So on a statement we can verify – whether there really is a 97% consensus on catastrophic global warming – we find “bad fruit.” There are many other facts and claims we can’t evaluate, but doesn’t this tell us something about the “tree”? “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” – Proverbs 18:17 God says that to find the truth good questions are helpful. That’s not going on here, where questioners are likened to Holocaust deniers. But here’s a few questions worth considering: Aren’t there bigger priorities than global warming, like the millions who will starve to death this year, or the billions who lack basic access to clean water and sanitation? If fossil fuels are harmful, and solar and wind problematic, why aren’t we turning to nuclear? How will the world’s poor be impacted by a move away from fossil fuels toward more expensive alternatives? Are we again (as we did in response to overpopulation fears) seeking to save the planet by harming those who live on it? Samuel’s warning against kings – 1 Samuel 8:10-22 President Obama’s chief of staff famously said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” and if you want to understand what he meant, looking no further than Justin Trudeau’s proposed ban on single-use plastics. This past year a video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up deep inside his nose went viral, alerting the tens of millions of viewers to the growing problem of plastics in our oceans. The movement to ban plastic straws has taken off since then. But will Trudeau’s single-use plastics ban save turtles? No, because our straws don’t end up in the ocean. Of the mass of plastic in the ocean it’s been estimated the US is responsible for one percent, and it’d be reasonable to conclude that Canada is responsible for far less. So how, then, does all the plastic end up in the ocean? It turns out that the vast majority of it comes from poorer countries that don’t have proper trash disposal. They simply dump their waste into the ocean and into their rivers. Trudeau’s ban will do nothing to help the turtles…but it will expand the government’s reach. The proposed solutions for climate change all involve expanding the government too, giving it a larger role in directing all things energy-related. So, how is 1 Samuel 8 relevant? Here we find Samuel warning against an expansion of government – get a king and he’ll start intruding into all areas of your lives. If there is a biblical case to be made for limited, small government (and there is) then Christians have a reason to question crises that seem to necessitate an ever-expanding role for the State. “…and it was very good.” – Gen. 1:31 While we no longer live in the perfect world Adam and Eve started with, we have only to wriggle our toes, or watch a ladybug crawl across the back of our hand to recognize that God’s brilliant design is still evident and at work all around us. We are on a blue and white marble, spinning at just the right angle, and orbiting at just the right distance from the sun, for it to rain and snow in season. We have a moon just the right size, and circling at just the right distance for us to study our own sun, and to bring the tides that sweep our beaches each day. And our planet is graced with a molten iron core that generates the very magnetic field we need to protect us from the solar winds, which would otherwise strip away the ozone layer that protects us from ultraviolet radiation. It is wheels within wheels within wheels, and while we can do damage to it, when we appreciate how brilliantly our world is designed we aren’t surprised there is a robustness to it. Meanwhile, the unbeliever thinks our world is the result of one lucky circumstance after another – a tower of teacups, all balanced perfectly, but accidentally. If the world did come about by mere happenstance, then what an unbelievable run of happenstance we’ve had, and isn’t there every reason to fear change? Sure, the teacup tower is balanced now, but if we mess with it, how long can we count on our luck to hold? “He who oppresses the poor taunts his Maker” – Prov. 14:31 At first glance, this text might not seem to provide much direction in this debate. After all, couldn’t a Christian who holds to catastrophic man-caused global warming cite it in support of their position too? Yes they could. If climate change is real, then the oppression it would bring on the poor would be a reason to fight it. Yet this text does provide a very specific sort of direction. It lays out limits on what sort of global warming plans Christians should view as acceptable: any plan to save the planet that does so by hurting the poor is not biblical. That means increasing energy costs has to be out. Millions are starving already and raising energy prices will only increase those numbers. “Be fruitful and multiply” – Gen. 1:28 Children come with an inevitable “carbon footprint” which is why some global warming proponents echo the same sentiments as the overpopulationists before them. “Save the earth; don’t give birth” is catchy, but if that was the only possible way we could lower carbon emissions then Christians could, on that basis, conclude there was no need to worry about CO2. Because God tells us children are a blessing, not a curse. Of course there may be other ways to lower carbon emissions. But the more we hear people portraying children as a problem, the more we should recognize there is an element in the global warming movement intent on attacking God’s Truth, rather than taking on any real problem. Conclusion Other passages could be mentioned like Genesis 8:22, Romans 1:25 and Psalm 102:25-26 but this is good for a start. And that’s what this is: a start. My hope here is to encourage an exploration of what Scripture says that’s relevant to the issue of catastrophic global warming.  The Bible isn’t silent on this topic; we need to look at global warming biblically. This article first appeared in the July/August 2019 issue under the title "Global warming crisis? A brief biblical case for skepticism."...


10 Christian answers to life's deepest questions

There’s no end of mysteries to explore in this weird, wacky, and wonderful universe. How is it that light can be both a particle and a wave? How is it possible that the complexity of a single cell surpasses that of the largest city? And how come there’s no synonym for thesaurus? Among life’s many questions there’s a small collection that garners special attention – they are the deepest and most unfathomable of them all. Or, at least to secular sorts. It turns out that God has given clear and ready answers to any who have the ears to hear. Q. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? A. The chicken. How can you have one without first having the other? But when we understand that God created everything in just six days then we can conclude that, just as He created Adam full grown, He probably started chickens off with their adult versions too. Q. If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound? A. Yes. Is sound the vibrations in the air, or do those vibrations only become sound when they are heard? Before you answer, consider how there are other vibrations in the air – too low or too high for us to hear – that we consequently don’t regard as sound. However, the problem here is that the premise of the question is wrong: Christians know there is always Somebody around. Q. How did life begin? A. With a word. Evolution has no explanation for the origin of life since evolution's two mechanisms – natural selection, and random mutation – require an already living, already replicating organism to exist before they can act on it. Just as there is no possibility of selecting until there’s a pool of candidates to select from, there can be no mutation until there’s an original to mutate from. While secular sorts have no answer to give, Christians can read all about life’s origins in Genesis 1 and 2. Q. Is my glass half empty or half full? A. Half full. Nothing we have in life is deserved so if we’re given a glass that’s got water right up to the midway point we should view that gratefully, happy for the gift given. Q. If you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby, should you do it? A. No. Abortion advocates have presented a real-life version of this, arguing that legalized abortion lead to a drop in crime because unwanted babies, if they weren't aborted, would presumably grow up in unloving environments that predispose them to crime. So, the argument goes, there is a benefit to killing them early on. But killing people before they become criminals is itself a crime (Ex. 20:13), not "crime prevention." The crime-fighting God does allow includes: hugs, spankings, parents, family, mentors, church, police, restitution, and the death penalty. So a better question might be, if you could go back in time and mentor Hitler, should you do it? Of course, that's more work than pulling a trigger. Q. If God can do anything, can He make a rock too heavy for Him to lift? A. No. God can’t do everything. Specifically, He can’t do anything contrary to His own character. That’s why He can’t ignore sin – His character won't allow it. And that's why, to offer us mercy, Jesus had to come to Earth to take our sins on Himself – God could only offer mercy in a way that still satisfied His need for justice. It would also be contrary to His character, as a God of order, to make rocks too heavy for Him to lift...or to make square circles, or any number of other nonsensical things. Q. Is there life after death? A. Yes! Unbelieving sorts will speculate about there being something after life, but Christians don’t have to. That Jesus died and rose again is the assurance of our own resurrection. He’s beaten death! Q. What is the purpose of life? A. To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Money, fame, power, status, and even family bring only temporary joys. What Man was created for was an eternal relationship with our infinite God. **** Christians have our own "unanswerable questions" and, well, it turns out some of them have pretty ready answers too. Who did Cain marry? A. His sister (or possibly his niece). While we aren’t supposed to marry relatives now, that prohibition came 2,000 years after Cain's time (Leviticus 18:6). So why could he marry a close relation and we can't? The explanation probably comes down to genetics. We all have genetic defects - damaged information in our DNA - but so long as we marry someone unrelated, the effects of those errors won’t generally be seen in our children, as the most serious effects of the error are likely to be countered by the corresponding and error-free section in our spouse’s genes. But close relatives may share the exact same defects, and were they to marry, their children would be more likely to have genetic diseases. This didn't apply to Adam and Eve, because they started off with perfect genes, and when their children married, they still didn’t have many errors to pass on. It was only after a couple thousand years that genetic errors would have so accumulated that close relatives had to be barred from marrying. Did Adam have a belly button? A. No. Belly buttons are scars from our umbilical cord connection to our mothers, and since neither Adam or Eve was born, neither of them would have had this scar....


Infant Baptism and the unity of Scripture

Is infant baptism simply a Reformed peculiarity that ought to be jettisoned in the name of Biblical faithfulness and unity with fellow Christians? What are the grounds for infant baptism?! ***** Among the readership of this magazine, it’s standard fare that parents will have their infants baptized. However, around us are countless Christians who don’t think the Bible teaches infant baptism. Then when our younger and not so young members meet these other Christians, and end up talking about baptism, questions arise about whether the Lord actually wants the newborns of the congregation baptized. It might be pointed out that there is no text in the New Testament commanding the baptism of children. In fact, the New Testament does not even have examples of children actually being baptized! So our questions become bigger: is infant baptism simply a denominational peculiarity that ought to be jettisoned in the name of Biblical faithfulness and unity with fellow Christians? And if not, what are the grounds for infant baptism? Key question #1: Is there one Bible or two? It is true that the New Testament nowhere contains a text explicitly commanding the baptism of children. That there are no instances of children being baptized is debatable, but let’s set that aside for the moment. The key question that needs to be asked now is, why would we even expect the New Testament to have such a command? Funny comment, you say? Well, foundational to the whole discussion on infant baptism is whether the New Testament is the “real” Bible, a book to be read on its own, or is the New Testament to be read in the light of the Old Testament, with both testaments together making up the “real” Bible? In other words, is there continuity between the Old Testament and New, or discontinuity? Many Christian will, regularly, contrast the New Testament with the Old. The God of the Old Testament is said to be stern and demanding, while the God of the New Testament is loving and merciful. The God of the Old Testament insists on law, while the God of the New Testament gives His Son for our sins. In the Old Testament, He had a covenant rooted in blood, one made even with children, but in the New Testament, his promises are for those who believe in Him – something little children do not do. Another result of the contrast between Old and New is that markedly more sermons are preached in North America today from New Testament texts than from the Old Testament…even though the Old Testament numbers twice as many pages as the New Testament. Though the Old Testament remains in the Bibles circulating in our society, it’s the New Testament that ends up dog-eared and marked. And since the New Testament does not explicitly speak of infant baptism, this long-held practice of the church falls into disrepute. Is it indeed true, though, that the message of the Old Testament is somehow different from that of the New Testament? No. Consider the following passages:  Jesus says to the Jews: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about Me” (John 5:39). In this passage the phrase “the Scriptures” can only be a reference to the Old Testament since the New Testament was not yet written in the days of Jesus’ earthly sojourn. The topic of the Old Testament Scriptures, says Jesus, is none other than Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus’ teaching was not different from the teaching of the Old Testament, but was the instruction of the Old Testament made plain. After His resurrection from the dead, Jesus joined the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. In response to their disappointment at Jesus’ crucifixion and their confusion about the empty tomb, “He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself” (Luke 24:25-27). Jesus’ reference to “Moses and all the Prophets” is obviously the Old Testament Scriptures. According to Him, the message of the Old Testament is none other than that “the Christ had to suffer these things” – and the disciples should have known that. He went on to make plain to these disciples just how the Old Testament spoke of Jesus Christ. It does not go too far to insist that Jesus’ opening of the Old Testament to these two disciples trickled down to all the apostles and so colored the way the disciples later used the Old Testament in the sermons mentioned in the book of Acts and in the letters they wrote to the churches. So Peter in his Pentecost sermon quotes Psalm 16, where David said: “My body also will live in hope, because You will not abandon me to the grave….” Then Peter adds this explanation: “Seeing what was ahead, spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was not abandoned to the grave, nor did His body see decay” (Acts 2:26,27,31). Peter realized: the subject of the Old Testament is the same as the subject of the New Testament; both speak of Jesus Christ. (See also Acts 8:32-35.) The apostle to the Hebrews tells his readers that: “Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance – now that He has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant” (Heb. 9:15). The apostle’s closing words in this quote are intriguing. The “sins committed under the first covenant” are the sins of the Old Testament dispensation, sins committed while the sacrificial system of the Mosaic Law was in effect. Yet how could those sins be forgiven? The apostle insists that it is Christ’s death that sets the Old Testament people free from their sins! How that’s so? That’s so because the sacrifices of the Mosaic Law foreshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. The blood of goats and calves did not by itself wash away Israel’s sins, but that blood directed the Old Testament sinner to focus on the coming sacrifice of the Lamb of God on Calvary. The point is this: the essential message of the Old Testament is identical to the essential message of the New Testament. Holy God has a relation with sinners in both the Old Testament dispensation as well as in the New Testament dispensation. This relation is possible in the Old as well as in the New Testament only because of the blood of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament looks forward to the Christ who will come (and by His coming sacrifice believing sinners were reconciled to God), while the New Testament looks back on the Christ who has come (and by His completed sacrifice believing sinners are reconciled to God). There is an essential continuity between these two Testaments on the subject of how God relates to sinners. Abraham and Moses and David and the rest of the Old Testament saints were Christians as much as Paul and Augustine and Calvin and the rest of the New Testament saints were and are Christians. Not new, so much as renewed Perhaps you will counter that the New Testament is surely called “new” for a reason. Did Jeremiah not prophesy of a “new covenant”? Indeed, he did. “‘The time is coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Judah…” (Jer. 31:31). As a result we read repeatedly in the “New” Testament of a “new covenant” (1 Cor. 11:25; Heb. 9:15). But the word “new” is not to be contrasted with “old” in the sense we use it to say our “new” car is a totally new machine from our “old” one. The same word that’s translated in Jeremiah 31 as “new” appears in Psalm 104:30 to describe springtime: “When You send your Spirit, …You renew the face of the earth.” The same word appears also in 2 Chronicles 24:4 to describe Joash’s plan “to restore the temple of the LORD.” Because of Israel’s hardness of heart in their service to God, the Lord promised through Jeremiah to make a “new covenant.” Yet this is not one that is essentially different from the covenant God made with their fathers when He took them out of Egypt, but one that reaches deeper into His people’s heart. For this time “I will put My law in their minds, and write in on their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jer. 31:33). Note those closing words: this covenant is described with the same words as God used for His relation with Abraham and with Moses so long ago (Gen. 17:7; Ex. 20:2). It’s the same covenant – “I will be their God” – yet “new” in that it’s renewed, refreshed, deepened. Just one people I will, for just a moment longer, belabor this unity between the Old Testament and the New Testament because it is a most vital point. Writing to Christians of Rome, Paul claims that Abraham “is the father of all who believe” (Rom. 4:11) and the context makes clear that the word “all” refers to both the Jew (of the Old Testament) as well as the Gentile (of the New Testament dispensation). Paul adds, “Therefore, the promise comes by faith so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all” (Rom. 4:16). We need to understand his point here. The Christians of Rome had no Jewish blood in them and so were not children of Abraham by birth. Yet Paul insists that this foundational figure of the Old Testament was “the father of us all,” Jews and Romans alike. That is: Old Testament believers and New Testament believers have one father, Abraham. How are we to understand this? The apostle wants us to think of a tree. Because so many Jews rejected Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, God (says Paul) broke those fruitless branches off the tree of Abraham. But since God wanted His tree to bear fruit, He in mercy grafted new branches – Gentiles – into this same tree. These Gentiles then are as much children of Abraham as were their believing brethren of the Old Testament (see Rom. 11:17-24). There is, then, one tree-of-faith spanning both testaments, a single tree rooted in Abraham, sustained by faith in Jesus Christ, and bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit. This is why Paul can elsewhere say that “there is one body and one Spirit …, one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:4-6). The faith of the Old Testament is not different from the faith of the New Testament, no more than the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament. There is a profound and essential unity (and hence continuity) between Old Testament and New. Key question #2: Short of an explicit command, why would we presume children would now be excluded? But how does this touch upon infant baptism? Like this: given the continuity between the Old Testament and the New, one must expect God’s pattern of dealing with sinners in the New Testament to be same as His pattern of dealing with them was in the Old Testament… unless God explicitly tells us of a change. In relation to the sign of the covenant (circumcision in the Old Testament) He has in fact plainly told us of a change for the New Testament dispensation. But there is no explicit instruction in the New Testament indicating that His inclusion of children in the covenant in the Old Testament is replaced by a different pattern in the New Testament. That is why I asked at the start whether we need an explicit command to baptize infants before we can adopt the practice. Insisting on such a command presumes that the New Testament is not built on the foundation of the Old Testament. It presumes that in the New Testament dispensation God’s covenant with sinners as it operated in the Old Testament was torn up and an entirely new manner of relating with sinners was developed for the New Testament dispensation. Yet that premise turns out to be false; on the subject of how God deals with sinners there is between Old Testament and New not discontinuity but essential continuity. Key question #3: How did God treat the children in the Old Covenant? Now let’s consider what place children had in the Old Testament and what that says about children in the New. Noah's family Today’s western society looks at persons primarily as individuals, and only secondarily as members of families. The Old Testament picture is different. In the days of Noah, God determined to destroy all mankind, but left one exception: “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8). Yet once the ark was complete, the Lord instructed not just the single righteous individual Noah to “go into the ark,” but his “whole family” was to join him (Gen. 7:1). The phrase “your whole family” included Noah’s wife, his three sons, and their wives (7:13). Please note: because of the righteousness of the one man, God had mercy on his entire family. That pattern jumps into its own in God’s covenant with Abraham. God told him, “I will establish My covenant as an everlasting covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Gen. 17:7). God’s attention was not directed to the individual, but to the family represented in the person of Abraham. As a result, “on that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him” (Gen. 17:23). “Every male in his household” included “the 318 trained men born in his household” with whom Abraham pursued the four kings who had captured his nephew Lot (Gen. 14). That these 318 were also circumcised was, the text says, “as God told him” – and the point is that with His covenant with Abraham God’s goodness touched all those whom He entrusted into Abraham’s care. The point is that God does not work with isolated individuals, but works in families. Israel At Mt Sinai the Lord God renewed His covenant with Israel with these words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). Yet what was the makeup of the people congregated at the foot of the mountain? Was the content of God’s word here valid only for the adults? Obviously not, for in this same conversation the Lord addressed specifically the children also; He told them in the fifth commandment to “honor your father and your mother” (vs 12). Here is the same point: God deals with His people in families! When the Lord repeated His covenant with Israel one final time before they crossed the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, He spoke these telling words, “Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do. All of you are standing today in the presence of the LORD your God – your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the aliens living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the LORD your God, a covenant the LORD is making with you this day and sealing with an oath, to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the LORD our God but also with those who are not here today” (Deut. 29:9-15). Notice that the children and the wives, and even the aliens in the camp, are included in the crowd of those with whom the Lord made His covenant. More, that covenant is made not only with those who were present “but also with those who are not here today.” That last phrase is not a reference to the mothers or children who stayed behind in the tent, for they were already included in the earlier reference to “your children and your wives.” That phrase is rather a reference to the children yet unborn, those of coming generations (see Acts 2:39). God relates to His people not as lone individuals but as families in untold generations. So, it is no surprise to hear the prophets speak about future generations. Isaiah quotes the Lord as saying: “My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever” (Is. 59:21). Ezekiel shares the perspective: “They will live in the land I gave to My servant Jacob, the land where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever” (Eze. 37:25). Key question #4: How does God treat children in the New Testament? Jesus’ response to His disciples is then predictable. When His disciples sought to hinder mothers’ efforts to bring their children to Him, Jesus was “indignant” – literally “livid” – and told His disciples, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14). What made Him so indignant? He was upset with His disciples because the Lord God had sent His Son into the world to “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21), and “His people” includes – according to Old Testament pattern – the children of the covenant. The little ones whom the mothers were bringing to Jesus were not little Romans or little Moabites, but little Israelites, covenant children all. That’s the reason why Jesus “took the children in His arms, put His hands on them and blessed them” (Mark 10:16). If His Father’s reach in the Old Testament included the children in Israel, the Son’s reach was not allowed to be any less. ...for you and for your children... Peter’s words on the day of Pentecost are consistent with the picture that arises from the Old Testament. It was manifestly the adults of Jerusalem that demanded the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and also the adults that recognized their guilt and asked the disciples what they had to do. Peter’s answer is instructive: “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” (Acts 2:38). But notice how Peter formulates his incentive to their repenting: for “the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (vs 39). What did the Jews understand by the word “promise”? Steeped as they were in Old Testament thinking, the reference to “the promise” that was for them and their children was plainly the content of God’s covenant with Israel: I will be your God. Notice that Peter does not limit the covenantal promise to the generation standing before him, nor to that generation plus their children at home, but he includes generations still unborn. The generation standing before him needs to repent on grounds that God has made His covenant with them, and needs to repent also on grounds that God has made His covenant with their children after them (including the unborn) – and so those children need God-fearing parents to teach them the Lord’s way. Here again is nothing of the individualism so rife in our modern western society, but instead a deep awareness that God relates to His people in the generations. Infant baptisms in the New Testament? If, then, the New Testament shows that children belong to God just as much as they did in the Old Testament – and there they were circumcised – and if there’s an essential unity and continuity between the Old Testament and the New, we would expect to find in the New Testament instances of infants being baptized just as Ishmael and Isaac were circumcised. Is such evidence available? We’re told it’s not. But consider the following: At the end of his visit with Cornelius, Peter asked, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized…?” Since there were no objections “he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:47-48). Who exactly made up the crowd that was baptized? The crowd is described in verse 24 as Cornelius himself and “his relatives and close friends.” Does this include children? At a minimum it certainly does not exclude children. In response to hearing the apostle’s preaching, Lydia came to faith. The Holy Spirit records the event as follows: “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home” (Acts 16:14-15). Notice the formulation: the Lord tells us of one believer and of multiple baptisms, all of them within her household. It’s the identical pattern as we discovered with Abraham. Were children baptized with Lydia? The text certainly does not exclude children. On the contrary, we may safely say that if Lydia had children in her household, they too were baptized. After the earthquake that shook the Philippian jail, the rattled jailer fell trembling before Paul and Silas to ask his desperate question: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Their answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household” (Acts 16:30-31). Notice how the faith of the one man touches his whole household. As a result, “he and all his family were baptized” (Acts 16:33). In our translation the passage adds that “he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God – he and his whole family” (vs. 34). But the Greek isn’t so explicit about “his whole family” having believed. The Greek very much places the onus on the jailer alone, and (as in vs. 31) the family benefits from his repentance. Were children baptized with the jailer? The passage allows for only one conclusion: if he had children, they most certainly were baptized too. We recognize in all these passages the Old Testament pattern of God dealing not with individuals but with families – and His approach to the family is determined by the spirituality of the family’s head. As a result, we certainly cannot insist that the New Testament knows nothing of infant baptism. This becomes all the clearer when we recognize that the terms rendered in the above passages as “household” or “family” appear elsewhere in Scripture with obvious inclusion of little children. Jacob laments that if the Canaanites attack “I and my household will be destroyed” (Gen. 34:30) – and he’s surely not suggesting that the enemy will spare the little ones in his tents, be they his own (grand)children or the offspring of his servants. Moses reminded Israel that the Lord “sent miraculous signs and wonders… upon Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household” (Deut. 6:22), and we understand well that the infants of Egypt were as discomfited by the plagues of frogs and lice and darkness as the older of the population. See further Gen. 7:1; 12:17; 18:19; 36:6; 50:7f; Ex. 1:1; Josh. 24:15 and so many more. The term “household” in Scripture certainly includes children. Finally, if the point is still raised that the New Testament only explicitly mentions adults being baptized, let the reader recall that the apostles were missionaries engaged in mission work. Even today infant baptism on a mission field is relatively uncommon on the simple ground that mission work is directed at adults. And when under God’s blessing the adults come to faith, the household is baptized. Conclusion The conclusion, then, is evident: though there is no explicit mention of an infant being baptized, the New Testament – in line with God’s Old Testament revelation – both knows and requires the baptism of little children. Rev. Clarence Bouwman is the Minister Emeritus for the Smithville Canadian Reformed Church....


The Father’s gift: His people are of inestimable value

While all gifts are special, there are some we absolutely treasure. This greater attachment might be due to the occasion, the thoughtfulness, or the giver of the gift. I remember receiving a digital keyboard from my parents for one of my birthdays, and it wasn’t a cheap little thing. I had demonstrated an affinity for playing music on the home organ or piano, and they wanted to encourage me with this special gift. I still have it and my children use it to this day. A precious gift There is, of course, no better gift-giver than our heavenly Father, and when we think about our heavenly Father’s best gift, we think of Christ who was God’s gift to us. There is no bigger gift! However, in this article, I want to explore another precious gift the Father has given, this one to his Son. And that gift is you! When we consider the Father’s great love for us, we need to pause a moment. Why does God love us? I am inclined to say, “because Christ died for us,” but isn’t that backward? Consider John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son.” God’s love for us is what caused Him to send his Son. Or consider Romans 8:5: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Because He loves us, He sent Christ to die for us. Christ’s suffering, Christ’s death is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us. We are very precious in the sight of our Father. We are a great treasure to Him. But He will not let us remain miserable and stained by sin – He loves us too much for that! That is why He sent his Son. When He was on earth, the Lord Jesus understood his mission and purpose. The Father had a people whom He loved from before the foundation of the earth, but they had become wretched sinners. In order for these beloved people of the Father to be declared holy, righteous, and acceptable in his sight, the Father needed them to be washed. And this was accomplished through the blood of Christ. From Father to Son But the Father gifted his treasured possession to his Son. Let’s consider John 6. In this chapter, Christ has fed approximately 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. It was a miracle. He then teaches those who followed Him across the sea, that He was the greater bread from heaven. Using metaphor and analogy, the people would not understand what Christ was saying when He told them that they had to eat of his flesh, etc. Now, consider what He says in verse 37: “All that the Father gives me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me I will never cast out.” Jesus makes it clear that He receives those whom the Father gives to Him. He says it again in verse 39: “And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” Christ understands his purpose. What He is doing on earth has everlasting consequences – even the resurrection of the dead! Let’s also consider John 17: 1-2, the opening words of Christ’s high priestly prayer: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given Him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given Him.“ Christ has come to earth as God’s gift to his beloved, and to receive the Father’s gift of those very same people. Christ came to save, redeem, and receive specific persons: the ones whom the Father loved and gave to his Son. John 17:9-10 reads: “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.” Both Gift and Gift-receiver And finally in John 17:24: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” Christ delights in being the gift of the Father and receiving us as gift from the Father. All true believers need to consider the significance of this truth. The Father loves us so much that He sent his Son, to humble Himself, taking on the form of man and suffering on the cross. And the Son does this because He loves his Father, and He loves us! He died for us, while we were still sinners, while we were still unclean and unworthy. It is only by his death that we have been made worthy, made alive to live in that loving fellowship with God! Christ is not the only gift of the Father. Yes, Christ is the greatest gift, together with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but you and I also are gifts from the Father; gifts sent from the Father to his Son. That’s how precious you are! It is my hope that we truly understand how precious we are in the sight of our Triune God. For the Spirit loves us too, and causes us to love God rightly. In Romans 15:30 we read, “I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit…” More of the working of the Spirit could be written, but my point here has been to focus on the precious place we have in the relationship between the Father and the Son. If we struggle with a sense of worthlessness, or a sense of insignificance, we must call to mind that in the sight of God we are precious and of inestimable value. If that weren’t the case, why would the Father have sent his Son? Indeed, our value is not rooted in who we are, but in Whose we are! That makes all the difference! I hope we can be encouraged by this great truth that the Father loved us so much that He sent his Son to suffer and die for us, and He shared his very treasured possession (you) with his Son. Let’s live a life excelling in thanksgiving! Dr. Chris deBoer is host of the Focal Point podcast....

Church history, Theology

Why and how the Nicene Creed came to be

The word “orthodoxy” comes from the Greek orthos which means right, true, or straight, and doxa which is praise, or opinion. Therefore, orthodoxy is having the right opinion on a specific topic, usually religious. In the early church, orthodoxy had to be discovered and established by means of study, debate, and decisions. While the early church was quite unanimous in the use of baptism in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there was some significant disagreement about the nature of the interrelationship between, and nature of, each person of the Trinity. For example, Sabellianism taught that there was not three distinct persons in the Trinity, but that God simply manifested himself differently for different purposes: God was Father at Creation, Son at Redemption, and Spirit in Sanctification. Attending to Arius The impetus for articulating the Nicene Creed, however, was not in response to Sabellianism, although it certainly addresses this belief, but in response to Arianism. Arius taught that Jesus was the first created being, created from nothing, and inferior to God. As Bruce Shelley puts it in his, Church History in Plain Language: “He was a lesser being or half-God, not the eternal and changeless Creator. He was a created Being – the first created Being and the greatest, but nevertheless himself created.” Arius was an elder in Alexandria, and the bishop of that city was Alexander, whom Arius falsely accused of Sabellianism. However, Arius and his followers were eventually deposed and excommunicated by a Council held in Alexandria, and including 100 bishops from Egypt and Libya. But his deposition did not keep Arius from hosting religious assemblies and sharing his views. Even some well-positioned bishops empathized or agreed with his position. As time progressed, “Alexander vs. Arius” became a dividing point between bishops, between provinces, and started to cause increased division in the church. The emperor at this time was Constantine. He noticed that the debate on the nature of Christ was dividing the Church and might even be a threat to the empire. In a startling shift from the severe persecution by Diocletian the previous emperor, Constantine invited bishops and elders from all across the empire, at his expense, to come to Nicea, in order to reach a consensus on this important issue. There were between 1500-2000 attendants at this council. In his History of the Christian Church, Philip Schaff explains that the members of the council were divided into three camps. The smallest camp was made up of members who believed in the deity of Christ from eternity (i.e., Alexander, Athanasius, etc.). The second group was made up of those who agreed that Christ was created and of a lesser substance then the Father (i.e., Arius, etc.). The third group, the vast majority, leaned towards the orthodox position, but were undiscerning and did not seem to care for doctrinal debates or scholastic discussions. They could have been prepared to accept a compromised position. Arius’ camp proposed the first summary of their position; their creed was quickly dismissed and the debate must have been convincing. Sixteen of the eighteen original proponents of the Arian creed abandoned the cause. No room for compromise Eusebius, a church historian at that time, presented an alternative creed, originally approved by Emperor Constantine. It was similar to the completed Nicene Creed, but missing the claim that Christ was of the same substance as the Father. It acknowledged, in general terms, the divine nature of Christ, but was not explicit in articulating the co-equality and co-eternality of Christ with the Father. The Arian camp was prepared to adopt the creed as presented by Eusebius which caused the camp of Alexander and Athanasius to be quite suspicious. They wanted a creed that Arians would reject entirely. There was no room for compromise. They continued to insist on the inclusion of the phrase “of one substance” which Arians rejected as Sabellianism – that the Trinity is three modes of the one God, not three persons. However, as the debate continued, Constantine noticed that Eusebius’ creed would not pass, and so he gave his consent to insert and include “of one substance” in the creed. The version of the Nicene Creed, adopted by the Council and signed by most of the members at the Council read thus:  “We believe in on God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only begotten; that is of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from then he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. “And in the Holy Ghost. “But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’ – they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” (Philip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 1) This is the first instance in the Christian Church that office-bearers signed such a document. It expresses agreement with, and also submission to, the content of this creed. Eusebius, the one who had presented the creed without “of one substance” was prepared to sign this creed without the last paragraph, the condemnation of Arius teaching, and for this he was deposed and banished until he later conceded to sign the creed in its entirety. In the end, only two bishops, together with Arius, refused to sign and were banished. This is also the first time that there was a civil consequence applied because of church issues. The separation of church and state was eroding quickly. Round 2 We might think the story ends here and the debate on the nature of Christ and his relationship to the Father is finished. We’d be sorely mistaken. Some of those who had signed this did so because of the Emperor’s approval of it. As such, it didn’t take long for some of them came to the defence of Arius. Eusebius the historian (who presented the compromised creed) starting to throw all of his influence against those who supported the phrase “of one substance.” Even Constantine was convinced at some point of the idea that Christ was created “of a like substance” to the Father (not the same), but eventually came back from that. However, Arius was no longer banished and he was expecting to take up his place as elder as he had previously, but by this time Athanasius was the bishop and refused to reappoint him to the office. However, two Arian councils were held that condemned Athanasius, and even the Emperor banished the bishop for being a disturber of the peace. Arius was formally acquitted by a council in Jerusalem (A.D. 335) and was to be received as a full member by the church at Constantinople. Schaff goes on to explain, “But on the evening before the intended procession from the imperial palace to the church of the Apostles, he suddenly died (A.D. 336), at the age of over eighty years, of an attack like cholera, while attending to a call of nature. This death was regarded by many as a divine judgment; by others, it was attributed to poisoning by enemies; by others, to the excessive joy of Arius in his triumph.” Athanasius had to wait until the death of Constantine (337) to be recalled from his banishment (338) by Constantine II. A few months later, he convened a Council in Alexandria to reaffirm the Nicene Creed, but his victory was short lived. The changing emperors, the constant divide between the Eastern and Western portions of the empire with regards to church doctrine, and the opposing Councils hosted by various bishops did nothing to bring peace or unity. At one point, Constantius, a son of Constantine, held three successive synods that supported a moderate Arianism (i.e., “of like substance”) and forced the decrees of these councils on the entire Church, East and West, and then deposed and banished bishops. At then, as Schaff highlights, he even brought in the troops: “ drove Athanasius from the cathedral of Alexandria during divine service with five thousand armed soldiers and supplied his place with an uneducated and avaricious Arian.” For a number of decades, through various emperors, the fight for orthodoxy seemed grim. At some point, even in the city of Constantinople, there was only one congregation, pastored by Gregory Nanzianen, that remained faithful to the Nicene Creed. Many bishops had been banished, recalled, banished again, etc., depending on the emperor’s perspective. During a short period of a revival of paganism, under the rule of Julian that Apostate, both parties were invited to exist side by side as he wanted the Church to keep fighting among itself in order to destroy itself. Finally, in 381, Theodosius the Great, who was educated in the Nicene faith, called the second ecumenical council at Constantinople in May. Only bishops from the East came to this Council, it seems, as the Roman (Latin) church was quite agreed with the orthodox position. This Council did not create a new creed, but they rearticulated the Nicene Creed, as we have it today, for the most part. Schaff explains that, by July, the emperor “enacted a law that all churches should be given up to bishops who believed in the equal divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost… the public worship of heretics was forbidden.” Conclusion Orthodoxy had to be discovered and defended. Today, almost anyone who identifies as a Christian confesses the truth of the Trinity as expressed in the Nicene Creed (Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are significant exemptions). I sometimes wonder if we truly appreciate the battles that were fought in order to maintain truth and to keep a right understanding of scripture. This, of course, is the most significant outcome of the battle for and around the Nicene Creed. However, two other major points that were mentioned briefly should be reconsidered for a moment. First, the importance of adding one’s signature to the Creed at the first Council: office-bearers today also sign a form of subscription when they enter upon their respective offices. We do this, in part, to protect orthodoxy, and the orthodoxy of our churches, as it were. We express agreement with the Ecumenical and Reformed Creeds, and should we have any concerns with any part of them, we agree not to address them in public, and to submit to the decisions of our local consistory or classis. Doing otherwise would lead to being suspended from the office. This sounds similar to what happened at the Council of Nicea. The second important point is the role of the government in these affairs. Once Constantine championed Christianity, the emperors that followed thereafter had a significant role on the formation, deformation, and reformation of the Church. Under Constantine’s rule, the Church enjoyed an unprecedented sense of prestige, protection, and power but with the change of an emperor, things quickly changed. However, the truth of God’s Word does not change with changing circumstances. That’s important to keep in mind, as today again, the Church’s circumstances have changed dramatically from even fifty years ago. In the West the Church is no longer held in any sort of regard, but is considered a fringe organization, especially when it persists in defending orthodoxy. Many churches have reacted to the changing of society by changing what they consider to be orthodox. May faithful churches today continue to strive in remaining faithful to the entirety of God’s Word, to his honor, and all the more so when persecution, tribulations, and trials come our way. Culture does not define or set the parameters of the truth of God’s Word, but God’s truth should define what is acceptable and good to cultivate. Dr. Chris deBoer is the Executive Director of Reformed Perspective Foundation....

Church history, Theology

How and why the Apostles’ Creed came to be

The Apostles’ Creed, as we possess it today, was not the first formally adopted or crafted creed. That honor belongs to the Nicene Creed. However, versions or parts of the Apostles’ Creed, serving as a baptismal confession, can be traced back to Irenaeus of Lyons (180), Tertullian of Carthage (200), Cyprian of Carthage (250), and Rufinus of Aquilega (390) among others. The creed of Marcellus of Aneyra from 340 reads: I believe in God the Father Almighty. And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord; Who was born of the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary; Was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried; The third day he rose from the dead; He ascended into heaven; and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost; The Holy Church; The forgiveness of sins; The resurrection of the body. Despite the various articulations of the rule or standard of faith, there was a lot of unity on the core tenets of Christianity. Eventually, these various forms were merged into the Apostles’ Creed. However, it took longer still for it to be universally adopted. In his History of the Christian Church (Vol. 1), Philip Schaff suggests that: “if we regard, then, the present text of the Apostles’ Creed as a complete whole, we can hardly trace it beyond the sixth, and certainly not beyond the close of the fifth century, and its triumph over all the other forms in the Latin Church was not completed till the eighth century, or about the time when the bishops of Rome strenuously endeavored to conform the liturgies of the Western church to the Roman order.” The Apostles’ Creed has as its foundation Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:16: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” and the baptismal instruction in Matthew 28:19: “… baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” While the Apostles’ Creed is sometimes divided into “twelve articles of the Christian faith” it would be fair to suggest that there are three main divisions: God the Father and our creation God the Son and our redemption God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 8). A hedge against 3 heresies The Apostles’ Creed was articulated, not only as a baptismal confession, but also as a defense of orthodox Christianity. In the early church, Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism were threats to the unity and purity of the church. Gnosticism In his book, A History of Christianity (2 Volumes), historian Ken Latourette explains that: “ regarded pure spirit as good, but thought of that spirit as having become imprisoned in corrupt matter. Salvation was the freeing of spirit from matter.” They also had a view of God that is quite convoluted. Latourette notes that, in general, Gnostics “held that there exists a first Principle, the all-Father, unknowable, who is love and who alone can generate other beings” and since love demands companionship, the all-Father brought forth other beings into existence who collaborated to create this world. “The present world was ascribed to a subordinate being, the Demiurge, who was identified with the God of the Old Testament.” Marcionism Marcion, influenced by, but distinct from Gnostics, believed that the God of the Old Testament and of the Jews was an evil God. As Latourette his views this way: “’Good men,’ he held, were those who yielded obedience to the law of the Demiurge, but they, too, were the creation of that evil God.” He believed that there was a second God, one of love who, seeing the suffering of men in this evil world, sought to rescue them. His love was one of true grace because he owed these creatures nothing because they were not his, but belonged to the evil God. This God of Love revealed himself as Christ and could not have been born of flesh, born as a creature of the Demiurge, but only seemed to have a body; he only appeared as a man. Montanism Montanism was quite distinct from Gnosticism and Marcionism. While Gnosticism spoke about secret knowledge, Montanism suggested a new era of revelation. Montanus, sometime between 156 A.D. and 172 A.D., encouraged greater separation of the church from the culture of the age. While this could have been solid instruction, it was accompanied by his belief that he and his two prophetesses were speaking in tongues and prophesying in the name of the Spirit, focusing on the early and imminent return of Christ. Bruce Shelley, in his book, Church History in Plain Language, notes: “Montanus’ doctrine of the new age of the Spirit suggested that the Old Testament was past, and that the Christian period centering in Jesus has ended. The prophet claimed the right to push Christ and the apostolic message into the background. The fresh music of the Spirit could override important notes of the Christian gospel; Christ was no longer central. In the name of the Spirit, Montanus denied that God’s decisive and normative revelation had occurred in Jesus Christ.” After error, clarity These three early heresies helped the church to shape the growing articulation of orthodoxy. It also drove the church to work on discovering which bible books should be canonical. For example, the Montanists wanted nothing to do with the Old Testament, had very little good to say about New Testament books written for Jews (e.g., Matthew, Hebrews), and really focused on Paul’s more substantial letters. Montanus’ canon would have been significantly smaller than what we have presently, to be sure. When the church formulated and adopted the Apostles’ Creed, they confessed, contrary to the Gnostics and the Marcionites that God, the Father almighty, is the same God who created all things, both physical and spiritual. They also confessed that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. In this, they again made it clear that there is nothing inherently evil in material things. They also make it clear that there is no division between God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost – they are not working at odds with each other. While the unity and diversity of the one God in Three Persons is implied in this creed, it is not explicitly expressed. Schaff explains that the creed was: “explained to catechumens at the last stage of their preparation, professed by them at their baptism, often repeated, with the Lord’s Prayer, for private devotion, and afterwards introduced into public service.” As a means to make a profession of faith before baptism, Schaff also explains that some early versions of the creed were interrogative, that is, the three main sections were formed as questions. For example, “do you believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth?” The response: “I believe” or in Latin, “Credo.” The Creed today The Apostles’ Creed remains an integral part of many Reformed catechisms as well. Working through the Apostles Creed today remains valuable for growing in knowledge and understanding of God’s holy Word. The confession that God is the Father Almighty speaks to His sovereign power, providence, and covenantal love. The creed’s commentary on Christ speaks to His nature as God and man, His victory over death and the grave, His ascension, His return, and His coming judgment. The creed speaks about the work of the Holy Spirit as He is at work in the Church, the Bride of Christ: those who live as a communion of saints whose sins are forgiven, who will be raised on the last day, and are promised eternal life! The Church has been richly blessed by the formulation and the preservation of the Apostles Creed. Perhaps it makes sense to recite it daily during family devotions, or when you get up in the morning. Keeping this creed in our hearts and at the forefront of our minds may assist in equipping us for remembering that every day serves as an opportunity for serving the Lord! In the episode below of his Focal Point podcast, Dr. deBoer discusses some points about the most controversial phrase of the creed, ”He descended into hell.”  ...

Church history, Theology

When they thought the Apostles had written their creed…

It is interesting to note that there has long been a belief that the Apostles’ Creed was written by the apostles of Christ on or around Pentecost with each making a specific contribution. That’s why it has also been known as the 12 Articles of the Christian Faith. While there is little evidence that the Apostles had any such role, in his Divine Tragedy, Longfellow includes an epilogue outlining each apostle’s traditional contribution to the creed. We include it here, just for interest’s sake. Peter: I believe in God the Father Almighty; John: Maker of Heaven and Earth; James: And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord; Andrew: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; Philip: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; Thomas: And the third day he rose again from the dead; Bartholomew: He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; Matthew: From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. James, the son of Alpheus: I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Catholic Church Simon : The communion of Saints; the forgiveness of sins; Jude: The resurrection of the body; Matthias: And the Life Everlasting....

Humor, Theology

What is humor?

What is humor? It seems a simple question, with a very obvious answer: humor is whatever makes us laugh or smile. But then what of all the cruel pranks and the sacrilegious gags that make so many laugh? Even the crudest of comedians can get big laughs. The fact is, we laugh at a lot of things that just aren’t funny. So we aren’t interested in simply what makes us laugh. Instead we’re going to explore genuine humor, the sort of humor that gets laughs but can be shared without shame – we’re going to explore Christian humor. DEFINITION OF HUMOR Humor is a term used in English since the early eighteenth century to denote a type of writing or speech whose purpose it is to evoke some kind of laughter. So laughter is a key element. But we want to go deeper – we want to go beyond the knock knock joke. Instead of being something merely light or superficial, the best humor depends upon profundity. "A humorous rejoinder, " said Kierkegaard, "must always contain something profound." For example here’s a joke about a person getting their just deserts (as described in Galatians 6:7-8):  While doing his daily rounds a prison chaplain stopped in on a prisoner who had been assigned the task of making pillowcases for the entire 5,000 inmate prison. “Good morning,” said the chaplain, “Sewing, eh?’ “No, Chaplain, “ replied the prisoner with a grim smile. “Reaping.” Elton Trueblood observed that humor takes intelligence: "It is not possible to have genuine humor or true wit without an extremely sound mind, which is always a mind capable to high seriousness and a sense of the tragic." THE NEED FOR HUMOR Sometimes humor is dismissed as being trivial but genuine humor is an important and effective tool in many settings. Properly used, it can allow us to see our lives in more realistic proportions, restrain an explosion of anger, and deliver us from pessimism and despair, and do so much more. For example, it can be a wonderful educational tool and a means to restoring order in a classroom with a smile. It can even be a way to ensure better parent/teacher relations as a wise Grade 1 teacher was said to have done by sending the following note home on the first day of school: "If you promise not to believe everything your child says happens at school, I'll promise not to believe everything he says happens at home.” Humor is a necessity within the church as well. When we lose our sense of proportion and humor, controversies in the church become battlefields. We look for "heretics" in each corner and even tend to look under our bed before we dare to go to sleep. We can be so busy with controversies we can no longer hear the footsteps of our approaching Lord, whose coming is at hand. And how sad it is to see people spend time and energy to paint their position in bright colors and put others in worse light than warranted. We may not build bomb-free shelters where criticism cannot enter. Humor should not be overlooked in evangelism either. It is easy to visit people who are with you, but it is hard when they are filled with bitterness against the Lord and His church. With tact and humor we can make contact with people who are filled with criticism against church members, and especially ministers. Real humor blossoms only where God's Word has taken root. "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones," says Solomon (Prov. 17:23). So a Christian remembers that he is always in the presence of God, and his speech is the gift of the Creator. As Augustine put it: "Speech is not simply our possession; it is God's gift to us. To recognize and acknowledge this gift in truthful words is to offer grateful praise to the One from whom it comes." LAUGH AT YOURSELF All of us ought to be ready to laugh at ourselves because all of us are a little funny in our foibles, conceits and pretensions. What is funny about us is precisely that we take ourselves too seriously. The ability to laugh at oneself shows we understand some of our imperfections. A Christian who understands he is living his life under the judging eye of God does not boast about his moral achievements. He understands that is pride and folly. One of the qualifications of a missionary is a sense of humor - while learning a new language and new customs it is easy to make embarrassing blunders. When we were serving in the Philippines, I made my share, and a good laugh at myself helped me survive. But there is another side to laughing at oneself. If we keep laughing when we have done something wrong, if we cannot recognize the real evil of sin, laughter turns into folly. If we continue to laugh after having recognized the depth of evil we have committed, our laughter becomes the instrument of irresponsibility. DISTORTED HUMOR It is easy indeed for humor to be distorted. A.D. Dennison, a Christian cardiologist, says in his 1970s bestseller Shock it to me Doctor that he recalls one man who sped up to a drugstore and asked the druggist if he had anything for hiccups. The druggist, without a word, hit the man between the eyes and knocked him to the floor. The man slowly got up and graciously asked again, "Sir, do you have anything for hiccups?" The druggist replied, "You don't have them any more do you?" The man responded, "No, I never did, but my wife out in the car does." This may be a clever joke, but it’s is devoid of compassion and respect for others. Is this Christian humor? A type of humor often used during war is called "gallows humor." Soldiers are known on occasion to engage in hysterical laughter when nerves are tense before the battle. They speak flippantly of the possible dire fate which might befall this or that man of their company. "Sergeant," a soldier is reported to have said before a battle, "don't let this little fellow go into battle before me. He isn't big enough to stop the bullet meant for me." The "joke" was received with uproarious laughter by the assembled comrades. But when the "little fellow" died in battle the next day, everyone felt ashamed of the joke. At any rate, it was quite inadequate to deal with the depth and breadth of the problem of death. But as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr points out: "If we persist in laughter when dealing with the final problems of human existence, when we turn life into a comedy, we also reduce it to meaningless. That is why laughter, when pressed to solve the ultimate issue, turns into a vehicle of bitterness rather than joy." HUMOR IN THE BIBLE If we are going to investigate true humor, then we must not overlook the Bible. The Bible deals with very serious subjects – heaven, hell, sin and salvation - but that should not cause us to overlook its literary beauty, and the humor in the Bible. There are critics who regard the Bible as deficient in the sense of humor and they can point to the fact there is little laughter in the Bible. But the Bible is filled with humor. Humor in the Bible appears especially when idolatry is mocked. One powerful example occurs when Isaiah pokes fun at a man who carves an idol from wood. In chapter 44:15-17 he describes in some detail the absurd process: "It is a man's fuel for burning, some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares a meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.’ From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, 'Save me; you are my god.'" GOD LAUGHS The only instance in which laughter is attributed to God occurs in Psalm 2:4, which says, "The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.” This is not a happy image – God is pictured laughing at man and having him in derision because of the vanity of his imagination and pretensions. God mocks kings who plan to divide the world amongst each other, while God says to the Messiah, " I will make the nations as your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession" (vs. 8). But the humor in the Bible is not limited to that of derisive laughter. Throughout Scripture God reveals a real sense of humor. When the human race wanted to build a city with a tower that reaches the heavens so that they could make a name for themselves, "the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building (Gen. 11:5). God acts as if the tower of Babel is so small that He can't see it from heaven – He had to come down to see it. And when Israel is threatened by the Philistines, God uses a most unlikely means to save His people so that the Messiah could come in the fullness of time. What does He do? God writes history with a small stone from a brook. Young David with a small stone smites Goliath and Israel was rescued. JESUS AND LAUGHTER The Heidelberg Catechism confesses that the eternal Son of God took to himself, “a truly human nature so that he might become David's true descendant, in all things like us his brothers except for sin” (Q&A 35). So when we speak about Jesus and humor, we are not disrespectful, We accept His incarnation as real. He was seen as the carpenter's son. Christ's characteristic humor depends, for the most part, upon a combination of ideas rather than upon a combination of words. But it is very important to understand that the purpose of Christ's humor is to clarify and increase understanding rather than to hurt. When Jesus teaches His disciples about being light bearers in this dark world, he uses sly humor about where to put light. The message is about the necessity of witness, but the failure to be a witness is rendered laughable when Jesus asks, "Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushes, or under a bed, and not on a stand?" (Mark 4:21). Since the lamp mentioned has an open flame, and since the bed is a mattress, it is easy to see that in this situation the light would be suffocated or the mattress would be burned. The appeal here is to the patently absurd. The sensitive laugh; they get the point. When Christ said not to cast pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6), He was again employing the patently absurd to make His point. Christ tells us that we are not to waste precious words or time or effort on those who chronically resist the Gospel. We must remember, of course, that the joke about casting what is precious before the pigs was even more preposterous for a Jewish audience than it is for us. The rejection of pork was deep-seated in their consciousness. Christ's major weapon against the Pharisaic attack was laughter, and He used it fully. The point at which they were most vulnerable was their manifest self-righteousness. There is no one more ridiculous than the sinner who claims to be perfect. Jesus asked the Pharisees, who accused Jesus of casting demons in the name of Beelzebub, "If I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out?" (Matt. 12:27). Jesus pokes fun at the critics, since everyone who listens will realize that the subtle question has no possible answer. Christ's question really means, "By what demonic agency do you perform your miracles?" It is easy to see that the humorous question is a far more effective rejoinder than a serious argument about demons. The severest critics of Christ could not stand ridicule, for seriousness was their central strength. CONCLUSION What then is the secret of true humor? The answer is found in the Gospel. It is to know that you are a forgiven a sinner, to have no illusions about the self, and no inclination to appear morally better than you are, either in the sight of man or of God. Our release from bondage of sin gives joy. This joy expresses itself in an exuberance of which laughter is not the only one, but certainly one, expression. Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years....

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews, Theology

Two on worship...and the prevention of worship wars

With the restrictions on church attendance easing, many people are saying: “Can't wait for Sunday." Did you know that there is also a book with that name by Michael Walters? The back cover has a large heading which says: "A Silver Bullet for the Worship Wars." After reading Dr. Wes Bredenhof's book on worship, Aiming to Please, I dove into this one book with its intriguing title. There is some overlap between it and Aiming to Please, in chapters on liturgy, music, and sacraments. However, there are also new topics in Walter's Can't wait for Sunday. For example, Walters comments on the acoustics of the sanctuary. While many (of our) church buildings are optimized for the speaking voice, Walters points out that the sanctuary has multiple functions, including a space for singing and music. Therefore, the room should be acoustically designed for both speaking and singing. Bredenhof and Walters both look at pulpits, which Walters sees as being replaced by a “lectern” in modern churches. He comments: "The presence of a pulpit communicates that it is the Word of God, not the communicator, that is most significant in preaching." He continues, noting that modern communicators often prefer to have no barrier between themselves and their audience. Yet, pastors would do well to let their congregations know why they use "the sacred desk." While Bredenhof comes from a singing tradition with a select number of songs that the congregation knows well, Walters comes from a different practice where the songs are in abundance. The result: "Hymn singing can be a stretch for many worshipers these days." Having many songs for the congregation to sing means there may be too many to be familiar with them. His advice is: "It is better to know ten or twelve hymns well than thirty perfunctorily.” Perhaps something to keep in mind while the Canadian Reformed churches are considering adding more songs. Worship often changes, and Worship Wars start because of a lack of knowledge and understanding. It is essential to know why we do what we do. Both of these books would be an aid to any who want to learn. Frank Ezinga blogs at


HERETIC? Let’s not throw bombastic terms around glibly

I was once labeled a heretic. In fact, I’m sure it’s happened more than once. And no, it wasn’t Roman Catholics or Muslims saying this – although they would/should certainly classify me as such. This was other Reformed believers. The occasion was a blog post where I shared Richard Sibbes’ answer to the question of whether saints in heaven are aware of our trials and miseries (he said they aren’t). Some didn’t agree with that and I was therefore labeled a “heretic.” There are at least two related issues involved here. First, there’s a popular notion amongst some Reformed believers that every theological error is a heresy. This notion equates error with heresy, as if they are complete synonyms. Second, there’s another notion (found with some) that treats all theological errors as if they were of the same weight. Every theological error then becomes a matter of heaven or hell. In such thinking, to administer the Lord’s Supper differently is virtually in the same category as denying the Trinity. It might not ever be said that crassly, but when you look at what’s said and done, it often seems to come down to that. Heresies put salvation in jeopardy To really understand what’s involved here we need to turn to church history. Today’s misuse of the terms “heresy” and “heretic” are often caused by a lack of understanding of how these terms have been used historically. In the centuries after the apostles, debates raged about certain doctrinal points. In these debates, certain teachings were ultimately considered to be heretical. By “heretical,” the Church understood that holding to such doctrines put one’s salvation in jeopardy. In fact, there were certain teachings where, if one held them consistently and unrepentantly to death, one would not be saved. The word “heresy” was reserved for these teachings that struck at the heart of the Christian faith, attacking fundamental doctrines. One of the most obvious examples is the doctrine of the Trinity. Denying the doctrine of the Trinity (in various ways) is regarded as heretical. The Athanasian Creed lays out the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and then says in article 28, “So he who desires to be saved should think thus of the Trinity.” If in any way you deny that God is three persons in one being, you’re a heretic. Another example has to do with Christ and his two natures. Says the Athanasian Creed: “It is necessary, however, to eternal salvation that he should also believe in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now the right faith is that we should confess and believe that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is equally both God and man.” If you deny that Christ is both true God and true man, you’re a heretic. When we say that, it should be clear that we’re making a statement about the seriousness of this error, namely that this is an error for which someone can be damned. A heresy is a deadly error. The biblical basis of making such strong statements is found in places like 1 John 2:22-23: “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” Another classic example of a heresy is Pelagianism. Pelagius and his followers denied original sin and taught a synergistic view of salvation: since humans are not dead in sin, they can cooperate with God in salvation. The Council of Carthage in 417-418 condemned Pelagianism as a heresy and declared that those who held to it were anathema – “anathema” means “eternally condemned and outside of salvation.” The Council could confidently assert that because of what Scripture itself says in passages like Galatians 1:8: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let me him be accursed.” In Greek, Paul used the word anathema. The Church has always regarded Pelagianism as another gospel, and therefore an accursed heresy. Reformed confessions use heresy with restraint Our Reformed confessions are rather careful in what they label as heresy. Canons of Dort 3/4 article 10 reaffirms that Pelagianism is a heresy. Belgic Confession article 9 mentions several “false Christians and heretics”: Marcion, Mani, Praxeas, Sabellius, Paul of Samosata, and Arius. These were in deadly error with regard to the Trinity. Certain Anabaptists are also described as holding to heresy in Belgic Confession article 18. Though they’re not mentioned by name, the Confession is referring to Menno Simons and Melchior Hoffmann. They taught that Christ doesn’t have a real human nature from Mary but that, in his incarnation, he took his human nature from heaven. This is a heresy because it runs into serious trouble with the two natures of Christ, and specifically whether his human nature is a true human nature. 2 serious errors that aren’t heresy Let me now mention two prevalent errors that aren’t heresies. Theistic evolution isn’t a heresy. It’s a serious error which may lead to heresy, but as such, it’s not a heresy. I’ve never referred to it as such and I’ve cautioned others against describing it as such. Women in ecclesiastical office is a serious error conflicting with Scripture. It emerges from a way of interpreting the Scriptures which could lead to far more serious doctrinal trouble. However, you shouldn’t say it’s a heresy. That wouldn’t fit with the way this term has been understood and used in church history and in our confessions. Too loaded a term for smaller disputes Not every theological error is a heresy. Certainly, someone’s disagreement with you on a particular doctrinal point doesn’t allow you to loosely throw the term “heretic” around. The words “heresy, heretic, heretical” should be reserved for only the most serious doctrinal errors, the ones where the Church clearly confesses from the Scriptures that these views are salvation-jeopardizing. By that, we also recognize that not all errors are of the same seriousness. We definitely want to strive for doctrinal precision and accuracy, but we also have to realize that not all points of doctrine carry the same weight and therefore we can, even in confessional Reformed churches, have some room for disagreement. If that’s true with regard to doctrine, it’s even truer with respect to practice. True Christians eager to follow what the Bible teaches reach different conclusions on such things as vaccinations or the lockdowns of the last year. When you see a fellow believer with different convictions about living as a Christian, be careful before you bombastically toss around that label, “Heretic!” It’s a loaded term never to be used glibly....


Infant baptism vs. believers-only baptism: What’s the main difference?

The fundamental difference between the two positions is revealed in how one answers this question: Is baptism primarily God’s action or is it a human response? The Bible tells us that we are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1). Consequently, it is God who makes us alive in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4). Even our faith, which is our response to God’s great work of salvation, is of divine origin. Faith itself is gift of God (Eph. 2:8). Infant baptism testifies to the grace of God in salvation: God is the one who initiates, acts and saves. Believers-only baptism testifies to our response of faith to God’s saving work in ourselves. On this view, baptism is a sign and seal of my public profession of faith in Christ Jesus. An overlooked argument There are plenty of helpful resources on infant baptism, and most of them rightly link baptism to circumcision. In Genesis 17, God promises to be “God to you and to your offspring forever (Gen. 17:7). There is great comfort in knowing that God binds himself by covenant to infants even before they can respond to him by faith. Truly, we love him because he first loved us. Often overlooked, however, in the discussion on infant baptism are Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5. Although these verses do not provide a comprehensive understanding of infant baptism, they provide another important line of thought. Put simply: Paul assumes that New Testament baptism is the fulfillment of Mosaic baptism. Paul writes: "For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness." (1 Cor. 10:1–5) Four observations There are many golden truths that need to be mined from these few verses but consider the following four simple observations, which help us understand the meaning of infant baptism. 1. The Church is the new Israel First, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul applies lessons from Israel’s history to the church. Paul can do this only because he sees the church as the fulfillment of Israel: the church is the new Israel (Gal. 6:16). More specifically, Paul sees Mosaic baptism as having relevance for the Christian church. This explains why Paul can tell the Corinthians that this event – Israel’s baptism in the Red Sea – is an example for them (1 Cor. 10:6). The Old Testament is not a random collection of stories in which God interacts with a people that have no connection to us. No! For Paul, the Old Testament is part of our story. The story of Israel is the history of the church. These are our parents - these are our “fathers” (1 Cor. 10:1) – and since God does not change, he continues to relate to us in the same way he related to Israel: by means of the covenant. 2. In this case all means all Second, Paul notes that all of Israel was baptized, ate the same spiritual food, and drank the same spiritual drink. In this case, “all” means “all.” The elderly, the infants and everyone in between were baptized. Whatever else we can say about this passage, it is clear that infants were baptized when they crossed the Red Sea, as they escaped from Egypt. And if infants were baptized, numbered among God’s people, and partook of Christ in the Old Testament, it only makes sense that they would enjoy the same privileges and blessings today. 3. The Red Sea was the work of God Third, Israel’s baptism was pre-eminently the work of God. It was God who led our fathers by pillar of cloud. It was God who opened wide the Red Sea and provided the dry ground. It is true that the adults had to respond to God’s work by faith – they had to walk on the dry ground. And it is also true that the infants who could not walk, but were carried by their parents, were beneficiaries of this baptism. They were delivered from Egypt along with their parents. 4. Baptism is not a guarantee Fourth, baptism does not guarantee salvation. Paul says that God was not pleased with most of Israel, and they were overthrown in the wilderness. Who were these people? They were the adults who rebelled against God and the leadership of Moses. They wandered in the wilderness for 40 years until they died off and their baptized children were old enough to enter the Promised Land. God was indeed the God to these children despite the apostasy of their parents, and their baptism reminded them of God’s faithfulness toward them. Conclusion There is much more than can be said about this passage. However, these brief observations are sufficient to lead us to the following modest conclusion: The Apostle Paul retells the story of Israel’s baptism in the Red Sea because he believed that they participated in an event that corresponds to the sacrament of Christian baptism.1 Endnote 1 Meredith G. Kline, By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and Baptism(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 67. Rev. Garry Vanderveen blogs at Show, Don’t Tell where a version of this first appeared. It is reprinted here with permission....

Politics, Theology

Haggai and the call to rebuild the temple: a case study in Church/State relations

Canadians find themselves beginning 2021 under varying levels of lockdown. Across our country churches are wrestling with how to respond. The Bible seems to contain few practical examples of believers facing something comparable to our current scenario. However, over the Christmas break, I stumbled across an article about the story of Haggai and its connection to the book of Ezra. The story struck me as having particular relevance, or at least uncanny parallels, for the church in Canada today. I offer this reflection not to recommend a particular way forward for churches in Canada as it relates to restrictions on corporate worship, but to at least help some Christians better understand the decisions of some church leaders who have made the decision to continue worshipping corporately despite (near) total prohibitions in their province. In the May 2020 edition of The Messenger (a denominational magazine of the Free Reformed Churches), the late Pastor Gerald Hamstra published a meditation about the rebuilding of the temple in the post-exile period. Though the books are spaced far from each other in the Old Testament canon, the events of Haggai and parts of Ezra occur simultaneously. Many of us are familiar with the narrative of Haggai, where the prophet calls on the people of Israel to rebuild the temple: "This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’” "Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: 'Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?' "Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: 'Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.'" – Haggai 1:2-6 It appears, on first reading, that the people of Israel were selfishly caring only for themselves and their own houses and ignoring the worship of the Lord without a thought for the temple in ruins. However, that is not the whole picture. In the book of Ezra, we find the rest of the story. Why had the rebuilding of the temple ceased? King Cyrus had issued a decree permitting the Jews to return from Babylon to Jerusalem and charging them to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:2-5). But the Jews, soon after their return, faced many challenges and obstructions from those living in the region and even from the local civil magistrates (Ezra 4:1-5). Eventually, these opponents, with malicious lies, convince a subsequent king, King Artaxerxes, to stop the building of the temple entirely. Having been persuaded by the reports of the local magistrates in Judea, the king concludes that the temple-building efforts are a threat to the security of his kingdom and decrees that the temple work must cease. "As soon as the copy of the letter of King Artaxerxes was read to Rehum and Shimshai the secretary and their associates, they went immediately to the Jews in Jerusalem and compelled them by force to stop. Thus, the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia." – Ezra 4:23-24 For some sixteen years, the temple lay in ruins because of the king’s edict. Over the course of those years, the crops began to fail and the people were struggling. They were not flourishing following their return from Babylonian exile. Pastor Hamstra, reflecting on this story, explains: “ interest in the temple and the worship of God was waning. They erroneously viewed the encountered opposition as a divine indication that the work on the temple should be discontinued.” (emphasis mine) It is worth noting that the order from King Artaxerxes for the Jews to cease building the temple was not a form of direct persecution. The king was not operating with anti-Semitic animus or anti-religious prejudice. He had been convinced by his officials that there was a threat to the safety and security of his realm. So, he ordered the project to cease. Questions of safety and security are under the proper authority (or “sphere”) of the king. So, the Jews submitted to the civil government, ceasing work on the temple. But in this case, the people of God had mistakenly viewed the challenges to building the temple and the intervention of the local authorities as an indication from God that the temple work must stop. God sends Haggai to call the people to repent, to return to building the temple, and to observe the corporate worship of the Lord in the way He prescribed. Haggai makes it clear that the worship of God is to be held in the highest regard, and that King Artaxerxes had been wrong to stop the building of the temple for the worship of God. In the face of opposition, the people begin to rebuild God’s people respond in faith to the call of the prophet. They recognize the punishment for their disobedience, and the suffering they were enduring because of it. Just a few weeks after Haggai delivers his message and encouragement from the Lord, the Jews restart the temple building project. In Ezra 5 we read that the local magistrates came to the building site to see why the people had begun building again in apparent defiance of the king’s orders: "At that time Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and their associates went to them and asked, “Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and to finish it?” They also asked, “What are the names of those who are constructing this building?” But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received." – Ezra 5:3-5 Though the local rulers questioned them, the Jews continue to rebuild the temple. The call from Haggai was to obey God, regardless of what the earthly king or the local magistrates declared or forbade. They obey God unquestioningly. Interestingly, as the Jews resume their work, the local governor Tattenai sends another report to the Persian king, King Darius, about how the Jews were rebuilding the temple contrary to the decree of the previous king, Artaxerxes. In that report, Tattenai lists the Jews’ legal defense: that King Cyrus had decreed that they should build the temple (Ezra 5:6-15). King Darius orders a search of the archives and confirms the truth of the matter. He orders the local governors and their associates to “keep away” and to “let the work on this house of God alone” (Ezra 6:6, 7). The Jews are vindicated! Are there any lessons here for today? The parallels to today are striking. In this Old Testament story, we see conflicting government decrees, human opposition to corporate worship, the disdain of the people of God by some levels of civil government, and hasty orders by rulers motivated by fear for safety. We also see commands from God and confusion on the part of His people as to the right way forward. We also see God giving direction, and redirection, patient with His people while unwavering in His call to worship. We see His mighty hand turning the hearts of leaders for His glory and the good of His people. Some lessons in this story for the people of God today include how God’s people can appeal to, and be vindicated by, the higher laws and decrees of civil governments. Perhaps appealing to the original decree of Cyrus (where he first granted permission to the Jews to build the temple), is comparable to church leaders appealing to a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. Perhaps the Jews’ refusal to abide by the second decree of Artaxerxes while their appeal makes its way to the court of Darius is comparable to the path chosen by some church leaders to resume corporately worshipping God while challenging the legality or constitutionality of overly broad public health orders through the court system. Though I don’t think this story is prescriptive of the way forward for churches in Canada today, the story of the rebuilding of the temple does provide some insight for the 21st-century church to ponder in light of significant restrictions by the civil government on corporate worship. Even if you don’t agree with the decisions made by some churches to continue worshipping, that decision should at least be understandable in light of the Ezra and Haggai story. One thing we can remain confident in is that God rules over the nation of Canada today, just as He has over the nations and empires of the past. He is faithful to those who put their trust in Him. It is our daily duty to pray, work and worship to the glory of His name! "Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit." – Jeremiah 17:7-8 This article first appeared on the ARPA Canada blog here. Colin Postma is the Federal Issues Manager for ARPA Canada...

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