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News, Theology

More birds than believers in church

This past Sunday I had the privilege of leading worship in my home congregation just outside of Hamilton, Ontario. I arrived about ten minutes before the service began. Everyone was already in church … all three of them! One elder, one brother taking care of sound and video, and one sister playing the piano. No more fellow believers joined us in the church building, although with a congregation of some 450 members, many were joining us from their homes via a livestream connection. Alas, we have been living with this reality for about ten Sundays in a row here in Ontario. It is much the same in many other – but not all – places. To curb the spread of COVID-19, governments around the world have restricted large public gatherings. In Ontario (at the time of writing), no more than five are permitted to gather publicly. That is why there were only four of us in church. But what about the birds? As I entered the building, one brother cheerfully quipped, “You have competition this morning. The birds are back.” You see, at present our congregation worships in a gymnasium. Resourceful feathered creatures somehow discovered a little gap somewhere up there in the roof. Are you also thinking of Psalm 84 in the Book of Praise?

The sparrow finds a home to rest The swallow builds herself a nest

By the volume of sound coming from that avian choir in the rafters, I would hazard an uneducated guess that there were more birds than believers in church this past Sunday. In Article 27 of the Belgic Confession, we affirm that the church is “a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers.” When more birds than believers have assembled in a church building on Sunday, we have reason to grieve. Caught between commands? At least three divine commandments intersect in this circumstance. 4th Commandment As part of the fourth commandment, we confess that we must “diligently attend the church of God to hear God’s Word, to use the sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian offerings to the poor” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 38). So long as you have a good Internet connection and your local congregation has livestreaming equipment, you can still see the preacher and hear the preaching quite well. Similarly, the minister can still lead us in public prayer, and by sending an e-transfer we can still give Christian alms. All of this is not nothing. But so much is missing as well. In places where the restrictions are more severe, it is well nigh impossible to administer the sacraments. We sing psalms and hymns in our homes, but it does not even come close to the uplifting experience of singing together with hundreds of fellow believers in a building that is acoustically alive. In short, did we “attend the church of God”? Well, sort of but not really. Psalm 122 rings in our ears and weighs down our hearts: “I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord,” not stay in our own houses. 5th Commandment At the same time, in the fifth commandment, the Lord requires us to respect and obey our governing officials. Consider the words of Romans 13:1-2

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities…. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

Those words are both blunt and inspired. This command still applies when governing authorities are unjust or unwise. The apostle Peter wrote, “Be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust” (1 Pet 2:18). But there is a limit to this, as well, for the same apostle said to the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29). Do we have to break the fifth commandment and contravene the restrictions on public gatherings in order to keep the fourth commandment and assemble in church to worship God? 6th Commandment Answering that question is already complex, but now add the sixth commandment. This command not only prohibits murder but also calls us to “protect from harm as much as we can” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 40). What now? If we fulfill the fourth commandment and attend the church of God, do we (potentially) break the sixth commandment by putting fellow believers, and by extension others with whom they may have contact, in harm’s way? We feel caught between the commands. Our consciences are hung up on the horns of a three-way dilemma. What is a sincere Christian to do? Some historical perspective As the Preacher teaches us, nothing is new under the sun (Eccl 1:10). Serious pandemics have afflicted the world before. For the sake of public health, governments have shut down church buildings before. For example, between 1576 and 1578, during the plague of Milan, fifteen percent of that city’s population died. At the peak of the infection curve, the city closed all “non-essential shops” and put into effect a “general quarantine,” which also meant that public worship services were not permitted.1 Sound familiar? The archbishop, a certain Carlo Borromeo, co-operated with local officials and organized the publication of booklets containing penitential Bible passages, prayers, and songs. These were then distributed, free of charge, to the citizens. At set times, when the church bell rang, everyone was to come to the doors and windows of their homes. Together the city recited prayers and sang songs. The cobbled streets of Milan, rather than the marbled nave of its cathedral, resounded with congregational singing. Can you imagine? Similarly, in the fall of 1918 the so-called Spanish flu ravaged Philadelphia. On October 3, the city officials closed all schools. On October 4, they closed all saloons, theaters, and churches as well. For the balance of the month, everyone lived through a complete lockdown, other than doing what was necessary to feed their families and care for the sick, the dying, and the dead. By the end of the month, though, the infection rate subsided and things opened up again. As a sure sign of a different era, “the first step in removing the ban allowed churches and synagogues to open,” although, at least in the case of the churches, “…without Sunday school.”2 History is interesting and instructive. We are certainly not the first generation to live through times like these. Still, history is not authoritative. The question remains: in the sight of our God, what are sincere Christians to do? Do not subdivide the commands Difficult circumstances can either push us apart or pull us together. Let us earnestly pray that it would be the latter. It is hard, though, to keep our minds simultaneously focussed on all the commands involved. One believer quickly zeroes in on the fourth commandment: God calls us to assemble for worship, therefore, we must assemble for worship. The heart of the next child of God, though, is gripped by the truth of the fifth commandment. God warns that if we resist the authorities he has put in place, we will incur judgment. Surely we need to take that seriously, don’t we? Then, yet another brother or sister in the Lord feels the burden of the sixth commandment, being concerned that he or she might seriously endanger someone else’s health. Asymptomatic transmission is a reality, after all. Different people emphasize different commands, and if they do it too aggressively, they may inadvertently push us apart from each other. We will need to have patience with each other and be mindful of each other’s consciences. Beyond that, though, be assured that there is no three-way dilemma in the Word of our God. Just as surely as Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35), it cannot be sub-divided either. The whole law is fulfilled in one key word: love (Matt. 22:37-40; Gal. 5:14; Lord’s Day 2). Intertwined love for God and our neighbour will provide the unifying departure point for us all. Walk forward in love “I love the Lord” (Ps 116) and “I love your saints” (Ps 16) are the twin-engines of holy desire that propel us out of bed, into our cars, and on toward our church buildings twice a Sunday. Right? But that plush recliner in my family room is more comfortable than the oak pew in church, isn’t it? And an extra hour of sleep on Sunday morning is rather nice, too, isn’t it? The Lord can, and will, use the COVID-19 pandemic to refine our love-filled loyalty to him and burn away all dross of custom, superstition, or hypocrisy in our obedience of the fourth commandment. If our souls are yearning to be back in the courts of our God with our fellow believers (Ps 63), then our God is fulfilling his promise to take evil and turn it to our benefit. Next, holding the fourth and sixth commandments together is already familiar territory for us. I long to attend the church of God, but if I’m seriously sick with an infectious disease I’ll have to stay home or take other significant precautions so that I don’t harm others. In such a case I am not breaking the fourth commandment in order to keep the sixth. Why not? Because in God’s law love for him and love for the neighbour do not compete; instead, they complement. For example, in the OT when some of his own people had serious diseases, God himself quarantined them “outside the camp,” thereby also keeping them away from public worship (Lev. 13, 14). To be sure, these laws were more than a public health matter. They also involved other, deeper, spiritual lessons. But as a loving Father, our God also ensured that public worship gatherings would not become seedbeds for the spread of serious sickness. Under certain circumstances, then, loving both God and our neighbour means we may need to stay away from public worship. These biblical principles also apply as we deal with COVID-19. On the one hand, excessive fear of viruses should not stop us from assembling for worship. The Holy Spirit teaches us that the wise man will not be immobilized by unwarranted fear of lions on the road or, by extension, of viruses in the pews (Prov. 26:13). On the other hand, love for the neighbour and for our heavenly Father who upholds our neighbour’s health will compel us to exercise all due caution. In short, love and wisdom pave a path that holds the fourth and sixth commandments in harmony. Fulfilling the fifth commandment in these present circumstances is more challenging but not impossible. In the final words of his Institutes, John Calvin reminds us that government officials may well have to correct some of their fellow officials when they act unjustly or unwisely (Institutes 4.20.31). Faced with the double affliction of both plague and persecution, Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor, also recommended working through the “lower magistrates” in order to redirect “higher magistrates,” who may fail to uphold what is right and wise in the eyes of God. This approach fits well with Romans 13. In verses 1–2, we read how the Lord instituted “governing authorities,” not authority. The plural noun is significant. Not one single person in authority embodies all the wisdom required to rule, especially in challenging circumstances like COVID-19. If some governing officials are acting unwisely or unfairly toward the church, even if their intentions are noble, then believers can work with and through other officials in order to promote the necessary corrective re-balancing. In this way, we honour all the authorities in their God-given calling and in doing so, honour God himself. Again, love for the neighbour and love for God cohere rather than conflict. Thankfully, in some areas, we even have members of our Reformed congregation serving as government officials in town councils, provincial, and federal parliaments. Without denying the value of other efforts and initiatives, let us earnestly support and spur on these fellow believers, as well as any other elected representatives who will lend a sympathetic ear. The goal will be that, under the Lord’s blessing, as soon as it is safe to increase the size of public gatherings, the church will be the first in line to benefit, not the last. This approach also holds together the fourth and fifth and sixth commandments. May our God swiftly bring the day when the believers again far outnumber the birds in church. And may our chorus of congregational praise soon drown out their beautiful little chirps with a mighty sound that shakes the ground (Psalm 150, Book of Praise)! Endnotes 1) Chiu, Remi. “Singing on the Street and in the Home in Times of Pestilence: Lessons from the 1576–78 Plague of Milan,” in Domestic Devotions in Early Modern Italy, ed. Corry, Maya (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 28. 2) Stetler, Christina M. “The 1918 Spanish Influenza: Three Months of Horror in Philadelphia.” Pennsylvania History 84, no. 4 (2017): 477.

 Dr. Jason Van Vliet is Principal and Professor of Dogmatics at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Ontario. This article first appeared in Clarion and is reprinted here with permission.

 

Marriage, Theology

Angry? I'm not the type....right?

"Angry? No, not me.  I’m not an angry sort of person.”  Actually, I suspect very few of us think we are.  So allow me to share a story. Bob had been gone for some days, and couldn’t wait to see his wife again.  On the ride home from the airport, he could already hear her enthusiastic hello, relish her eagerness to hear all about his experiences, and taste the tea and favorite bit of baking she’d prepared for him. He hopped out of the car, dashed up the front steps, pushed open the door and hollered eagerly, “Lauren, I’m home!” Silence. He walked down the hall, looked around the corner, and there she was, ticking away on her laptop.  Enthusiastically: “Hi, Lauren!  I’m back!”  Response: a mild, “Oh, hi, Bob” and her fingers kept tapping the keys…. Response You’re Bob.  How should Bob respond to this bucket of ice?  How would you? Bob could blow his stack and let Lauren know in no uncertain terms that this is no way to welcome your husband home. Bob could remain very calm, and admonish her that the Lord is not pleased with her coolness to his return.  (And, for the record, I’d argue there’s ample justification in the Bible that she ought indeed to welcome her husband with much greater enthusiasm.) Bob could turn his back, disappear into his man cave, and bury his head (and his pain) in his project.  “Be like that, then!  See if I care….” When a good buddy phones to welcome him back, he could let on that he feels badly hurt by his wife’s coldness. He could even suggest that his buddy try to get his wife to have a chat with Lauren and make clear that her behavior just isn’t acceptable. Losing it, righteous instruction, sulking, slander, manipulation: which response is acceptable?  For that matter: is there a common denominator under all five? Disclosure I didn’t make the above story up.  I actually heard it at a conference hosted by the Christian Counseling Center. Robert Jones came up to Ontario from the Carolinas to talk about anger, and somewhere in his presentation he told this story. We were asked to consider where the problem was in relation to Bob. Was he justified in giving Lauren a piece of his mind?  Was he right to tell her what the Bible says about how she ought to welcome her husband? Was he justified in retreating within himself? Or in sharing his hurt with another, let alone gently manipulating another to set Lauren straight? The thing is, of course, that each of us can relate quite well to every aspect of Bob’s response.  That’s because anger is much at home in the heart of every sinner. Really? I’ll admit that when I entered the doors of the conference building, I tended to define the term "anger" as a burst of outrage, be it slamming the door, pounding the table, shouting, and the like.  But our speaker made clear it that this was far too limited an understanding. The rage and the slamming and the pounding and the shouting are, in fact, expressions of an irritation rooted deep within the heart. That irritation is awakened by events (or words) that strike you as unfair or wrong or insensitive, etc. You can give expression to that irritation in various ways, be it blowing your stack or retreating within yourself, or slandering the perceived wrongdoer to your friend, or manipulating a third party to influence the wrongdoer, etc, and etc. Anger is, biblically speaking, not first of all an action but is, instead, an attitude of the heart.  Some bump in the road, some irritation, will cause the anger inside to express itself in some particular action...including Bob’s various responses as outlined above. All are expressions of inner anger. And since inner anger is wrong, all these expressions of anger are wrong. When Jesus Christ was angry I was surprised to learn that the gospels record three incidents – yes, only three! – when Jesus became angry. That’s when Jesus healed the man with the shriveled arm (Mark 3:1-6), when He received the little children (Mark 10:13-16), and when He overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple (John 2:13-17). We might expect Him, instead, to become angry when they sought to stone Him, or when they associated Him with Beelzebub, or when they ridiculed Him. We’d expect Him to be angry when He was arrested, mocked, spit upon, and crucified. But there’s nothing of the sort in His reactions. The Scriptures tell us that He went like a lamb to the slaughter. As to the instances when He did become angry, in each instance God’s name was blasphemed through the hardness of human hearts, and that’s what triggered anger on Jesus’ part.  His anger, then, was in tune with God’s holiness and in step with God’s own anger against sin.  Never did the man Jesus become angry in response to feeling slighted or being sinned against.  That’s highly instructive, given that the child of God is meant to imitate Christ Jesus (cf Ephesians 5:1). Bob's anger So where’s the wrong in Bob’s situation? Could Bob rightly point a finger at his wife and insist the wrong lay fully and only with her?  Could he plead that his response was a justifiable and righteous response to her failure? Our speaker asked us to consider Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Here is the driving thought behind Jesus’ conduct in life, and this is to be the driving thought in the lives of all His people.  The application for Bob? He let his thoughts on his way home be self-centered, and so he expected his wife to be there for him.  Since she didn’t satisfy his expectation, he became angry, and that anger received expression in, well, any of the options listed above. Had Bob, on the other hand, approached home seeking not to be served but to serve his wife, he would have been in the right frame of mind to reach out to her and perhaps support her in some burden unknown to him. Such a mindset would reflect the Lord Jesus Christ. Back to Christ But, we protest, we can’t always give! Our speaker did an excellent job of drawing out that we, in fact, have all we need in Jesus Christ.  He mentioned 2 Peter 1: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (vs 3), and asked us to contemplate the force of the word "all."  In Christ we actually have all things that we require for this life! We say: but I need that kiss, that show of affection, that attention, that promotion, that….  And when we don’t get it we get annoyed, exasperated, frustrated, irritated – all expressions of anger….  In our anger is an implicit criticism of God; He’s not truly giving us what we need. Paul responded differently.  He wrote his letter to the Philippians while he was imprisoned (perhaps in Rome). But from his cell he wrote: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (4:11). “In whatever situation”??  Yes, he says yes.  “I know how to be brought low and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (vs 12). What is the secret??  “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (vs 13). So he tells the Philippians: “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (vs 19).  Note the word “every need.” Irritated at a slight? Upset at a knockback? Peeved because you didn’t get what you thought you should? Livid at a demotion? Anger will never do, because Jesus Christ gives me all I really need. The question is: do I believe that? Or do I, in fact, believe that I actually need people’s approval, because... well because the Lord, you know, actually disappoints…. Entitlement?? One little tangent before I sum it up….  The thought is alive and well in North American culture that we’re entitled to happiness, satisfaction, accolades, etc – and actually entitled to our own definition of happiness. Because North Americans are not getting what we think we deserve, we end up with more and more frustrated and angry people across our continent. But that has enormous – and very devastating – social consequences. Behind marriage failure is the anger (or irritation, or frustration, or mention whatever parallel word you would) that results from not getting what we think our spouse should give us. But the Christian may not think in terms of entitlement. If anyone had an entitlement, it was the Lord Jesus Christ. But He did not cling to His divine glory, nor insist on what was His. He gave it all away, to redeem the undeserving. That’s the Christian’s example. As Jesus Christ did not come to be served but to serve, so the Christian does not think in terms of being served, but thinks in terms of how he can serve the other. That fight against selfishness will put a huge dent in the anger that stays too close to our hearts. And our culture needs guidance and encouragement in that fight. That’s the task (in part) of the Christian. I’m grateful for the work done by Christian Counseling Center. It’s good to be reminded that anger (be it quiet or loud) is actually an ungodly response to what the Lord puts on our path. With the exception of “righteous anger” – where one is angry because God has been blasphemed – anger is in fact sin, and so it needs repentance and then resistance. That will be ongoing work for us all. Robert Jones’ book on the topic, entitled "Uprooting Anger," published by P & R Publishing, is available in Christian bookstores or from Amazon. Rev. Clarence Bouwman is a pastor in the Smithville Canadian Reformed Church....

News, Theology

Calvinism in the time of coronavirus

When I was about nine or ten, at the height of worldwide panic about AIDS, I stumbled across a newspaper article that outlined the symptoms of the dreaded disease. I can still recall reading, to my horror, that one of the telltale signs was “thick, white matting on the tongue.” You see, I had a few small but obvious patches of white matter on my tongue. And my ten-year-old self became utterly convinced: I had AIDS. The fact that I was in the world’s lowest-risk category didn’t matter, nor did the fact that I was asthmatic and regularly took large doses of medication that left white deposits on my tongue. For at least a week, I was convinced that my end had come. In my early 20s, it was a brain tumor. After all, I had a few really bad headaches on the way to university one week; what else could it be?! As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become slightly more sanguine, but I’m still highly susceptible to fear setting in. Honestly, I feel like I’m tempting fate (even though I totally don’t believe in “tempting fate”) by even writing this piece. I am a card-carrying hypochondriac. So you can imagine how the last few weeks have made me feel. I’ve had to dig in and battle hard to not give in to the paralyzing fear of the coronavirus that’s been sweeping the globe. How have I fought this battle? I’ve armed my household with facts, vitamins, soap, and statistics (but no, not with extra toilet paper as yet – I live in New Zealand, not Australia). I’ve chewed off my wife’s ear about how the media is blowing it out of proportion, mostly preaching to myself in the process. But underneath all those strategies, I’ve fallen back on one simple, underlying reality: God is completely sovereign. I’ve always found it slightly surprising that Christians find the notion that God is completely sovereign (sometimes called “Calvinism,” after theologian John Calvin) to be so controversial or complex. Maybe it’s the way Calvinism was initially taught to me when I was a young Christian. It was totally plausible, and just seemed the obvious, inevitable conclusion that anyone should reach from studying the Scriptures: God is completely in charge of everything, and nothing takes him by surprise. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not belittling anyone who finds it hard to grapple with the many thorny issues that this topic raises. Far from it. A high view of God’s sovereignty doesn’t numb the pain of real-life or provide cheap, easy answers. We should all sympathize with the Psalmists who bring their laments to God and cry out, “How Long, O Lord?” But the basic concept itself has (thanks be to God) always just seemed obvious to me. Can I really conceive of the God who spoke the universe into existence now sitting fretfully on the edge of his throne, desperately hoping that everything will pan out? Can I picture the God who raised Jesus from the dead muttering, “That wasn’t supposed to happen! Oh well, I guess I’ll try again tomorrow”? But more than that, I’ve also struggled to understand why some people see this as an obscure, irrelevant question – a topic for the “ivory tower – rather than as a real-life game-changer. As I was once told, there is nothing as practical as good theology. The sovereignty of God has been an enormous comfort to me again and again and again in my life. So while we may be tempted to think that the panic-inducing Covid-19 is no time to get all theological, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s moments like these where we need the deep realities about God to sustain us. If, like me, you’re even slightly given to extra nervousness at a time like this, it might be worth stepping back and planting your flag on some simple yet marvelous truths about our great, sovereign God. Remember, there is no such thing as "luck" – even moments that seem totally random are controlled by God (Proverbs 16:33). Remember, not even a tiny, insignificant sparrow falls to the ground without God’s say-so – and you are worth more than many sparrows (Matt 10:29-31). Remember, God shapes the decisions and the fate of the world’s most powerful people (Proverbs 21:1). Remember, whether or not your plans for tomorrow come to fruition depends far more on God than on you (James 4:13-15). Remember, God can do all things (that’s a lot of things) and no purpose of his can be thwarted (Job 42:2). Remember, God works all things (which, again, really is a lot of things) according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11). Remember, God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask him to do and all we think He can do (Ephesians 3:20). Next time you get sick, remember that God never faints or grows weary, not even for a second (Isaiah 40:28). Remember, God never sleeps or slumbers; He never takes a day off (Psalm 121:3-4). Remember, even the very faith that you place in Jesus is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9), and God is in charge of the fruitful spread of the gospel (Mark 4:14-25). Remember, God forms the light and creates the darkness; He makes well-being and He creates calamity (Isaiah 45:7). And even if some things – including coronavirus – remain a mystery to us, we can trust that He’s using his sovereign power for our ultimate good. For He didn’t even withhold his own Son from us; we shouldn’t doubt that He’ll also give us the other good things we need. (Romans 5:6-8; Romans 8:32) Remember, the days God formed for you were written in his book before you lived even one of them (Psalm 139:16). When the whole world is in a panic, when people are inexplicably hoarding in a desperate attempt to calm their fears, when our neighbors fear that the sky is falling, it’s easy to join them and give in to anxiety. But it’s unnecessary. And it’s wrong. One of the best ways for Christians to love one another, love our neighbors and honor the Lord during this time is simply to “be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:8-9) That promise was to Joshua, but we have even more reason than Joshua to be sure that those words apply to us. We have the gospel of Jesus. We have a Savior who has promised to be with us, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). We have a loving God who is not far away, but who is near to all who call on him, and who is mighty to save. Knowing all this, we are invited to entrust ourselves to God: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7) Trust the sovereign Lord of the ages who is working out his plans and purposes for the world, and for you, moment by moment, even (especially) when things are scary or unknown. Tell your children that God can be trusted more than hand-sanitizer. Boldly bear witness to a frightened world – a world that’s having the deceptive veil of safety and security pulled back before its very eyes – that there is a genuine, lasting source of security and peace. Take your stand on the Bible’s great truths about our sovereign God, now and forever. And try not to touch your face. This article first appeared at GeoffRobson.com and it is reprinted here with permission....

Religion - Roman Catholic, Theology

What must Ben Shapiro do to be saved?

Does a person need to put their faith in Jesus to be saved? That was the underlying question conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro put to Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron in episode 31 of his Sunday Special. Ben Shapiro pulls no punches when he asks, What’s the Catholic view on who gets into Heaven and who doesn’t? I feel like I lead a pretty good life—a very religiously based life—in which I try to keep, not just the Ten Commandments, but a solid 603 other commandments, as well. And I spend an awful lot of my time promulgating what I would consider to be Judeo-Christian virtues, particularly in Western societies. So, what’s the Catholic view of me? Am I basically screwed here? Same question, different responses In asking this, Shapiro is asking the same question as the rich young ruler—albeit in a less elegant way. It’s the most important question a person can ask: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Like the rich young Jewish ruler from the first century, Shapiro qualifies his question with a list of good deeds. Both young Jewish men boast of their religiosity and their sincerity to keep the Law. Although their questions are similar, the answers they each receive are different. In Jesus’ response, He shows the rich ruler that he—like all of us—falls short of God’s perfect standard (Mark 10:21). In fact, he has not even kept the greatest commandment to love God above everything else, including his wealth. Jesus’ point is clear: You can’t enter God’s kingdom by working. Paul makes the same point in his letter to the Romans. He says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Paul adds, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:23–25a). In His short encounter with the rich ruler, Jesus illustrates how not to inherit eternal life. But, in an encounter with another Jewish ruler, He explains how to inherit eternal life. Speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Here’s what we learn from Jesus’ interactions with these two Jewish leaders. First, good works won’t work. Second, eternal life is received by faith—believing in Jesus. Contrast Jesus’ response to Bishop Barron’s: No. The Catholic view—go back to the Second Vatican Council says it very clearly. Christ is the privileged route to salvation. God so loved the world He gave His only Son that we might find eternal life, so that’s the privileged route. However, Vatican II clearly teaches that someone outside the explicit Christian faith can be saved. Now, they’re saved through the grace of Christ indirectly received, so the grace is coming from Christ. But it might be received according to your conscience. So if you’re following your conscience sincerely—or, in your case, you’re following the commandments of the Law sincerely—yeah, you can be saved. Now, that doesn’t conduce to a complete relativism. We still would say the privileged route—the route that God has offered to humanity—is the route of His Son. But, no, you can be saved. Even, Vatican II says, an atheist of good will can be saved. The belief that someone can by saved today without explicit faith in Christ is called inclusivism. Barron does a good job laying out the inclusivist position—a position taught by the Roman Catholic Church. Unfortunately, Bishop Barron doesn’t give any biblical support for the view. Why I am not an inclusivist There are a number of reasons why I am not an inclusivist. One of the most compelling arguments against inclusivism is found in the account of Cornelius. In Acts 10 and 11, Luke records what Cornelius is like. At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. (Acts 10:1–2) Cornelius seems to have a lot going for him. But he’s got a problem: He’s never heard the gospel. Knowing how Cornelius has responded to the light he’s been given, God gives him more light. He sends him a vision. In the vision, an angel tells Cornelius to send for a man named Peter. And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.” (Acts 11:13–14) Notice the text says that Cornelius isn’t saved at this point. He has to hear “the message” by which he can be saved. God-fearing? Yes. Devout and sincere? True. Generous and religious? Absolutely. Even Peter is impressed by Cornelius’s spiritual accolades. Now notice what Peter doesn’t do. He doesn’t reassure Cornelius that he has been saved “by grace indirectly received”—as Barron put it. He isn’t saved by “sincerely following his conscience.” He doesn’t speak of two routes to God: a “privileged route” received by faith in Christ and another route where faith in Christ isn’t required. No, the text says Cornelius needed to hear a message “by which he will be saved.” What was that message? We are not left guessing. Peter tells us, And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:42–43) Even with all of his spiritual nobility and religious sincerity, Cornelius was still lost and in need of salvation. If inclusivism were true, Peter would not have needed to make a trip to Cornelius. But Peter had to make the trip because—as Paul says—“How will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14–15). How can people call on Jesus if they have not believed in Jesus? The answer is, they can’t. How are people going to believe in Jesus if they have never heard of Jesus? The answer is, they can’t. How are they going to hear the good news if no one tells them the good news? The answer is, they won’t. Paul’s line of thinking is clear and straightforward. If no one is sent to these people, then there will be no one to preach the good news. If no one preaches to these people, then they will not hear the good news. If these people do not hear the good news, then they cannot believe. And if they do not believe, then they cannot be saved. One way to be saved In sum, Paul tells us that the people need to hear and believe the gospel in order to be saved. There is no other means of salvation. By the way, this is consistent with Peter’s testimony. He says, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Notice he doesn’t merely say that there is no other savior. He says there is no other name. His name—Jesus’ identity—seems necessary. That’s why Peter tells Cornelius, “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). The story of Cornelius should be an encouragement to us because it shows the lengths to which God will go to make sure people seeking after God will hear the gospel so that they can be saved. God had given Cornelius some light—through creation and conscience—but this was not enough light to save him. Since Cornelius responded positively to the light he was given, God gave him more light—specifically, the gospel. Inclusivism is a bad idea Ideas have consequences. And bad ideas have victims. Inclusivism is a bad idea because it gives people—like Shapiro—false hope that they can have eternal life without coming to Jesus on His terms. Those who refuse to come to Jesus will not receive life (John 5:40). Jesus explicitly states, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). Bishop Barron is wrong. Shapiro cannot be saved by “following the commandments of the Law sincerely.” Paul addresses this very thing in his letter to the Galatians. He says, Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16). Shapiro’s good works will never be enough. Only those who put their trust in Christ will receive eternal life. The answer to Shapiro’s question isn’t hard. In fact, the apostle Paul answers the question “What must I do to be saved?” in a single sentence. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). This article is reprinted with permission from Tim Barnett and Stand to Reason (str.org) where it first appeared here. The Ben Shapiro picture has been adapted from one copyright © by Gage Skidmore and is used here under a Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license....

Science - Creation/Evolution, Theology

The cost of an old earth: Is it worth it?

Until recently, most Christians believed that the Bible teaches us that the earth was only a few thousand years ago. This contradicts mainstream science, which holds that the earth is billions of years old. Consequently, many Christians, have modified their reading of the Bible accordingly. At first sight, this may seem rather harmless. The age of the earth hardly seems to be a doctrine essential to the Bible's main message of salvation. Yet, much more is at stake than first meets the eye. Accepting mainstream science on the age of the earth entails that we accept the reliability of its dating methods, with all the underlying presumptions. It entails also that we should likewise accept other results of mainstream science that are based on similar assumptions. Let’s see what this implies. The order of creation  We note first that mainstream science challenges not only the timescale of the Genesis creation account but also its order. Genesis 1 says: Day 1 – Water, earthly elements, then light Day 2 – Firmament, then oceans, atmosphere Day 3 – Dry land, then land vegetation, fruit trees, grass Day 4 – Sun, moon, stars Day 5 – Marine life, then birds Day 6 – Land animals, then humans Mainstream science says: 14 billion years ago – light/light elements, then stars/galaxies, then heavy elements/water 4.58 billion years ago – Sun 4.54 billion years ago – earth 550 million years ago (mya) – first fish 440 mya – first primitive plants 360 mya – first land animals – reptiles 245 mya – first mammals 210 mya – first birds 140 mya – first flowering plants 70 mya – first grasses, fruit trees 2 mya – first tool-making humanoids Note that the two orders differ at many places. For example, Genesis has fruit trees first, then birds, and then land animals; mainstream science has exactly the reverse. Genesis has the earth before the Sun and stars; mainstream science has stars and Sun before the earth, etc. Since it does not help to simply recast the creation days as long periods of time, most commentators trying to accommodate mainstream science now advocate that Genesis 1 has to be taken as a purely literary structure, with no real historical information – other than stating that God created the entire universe. The effect of the Fall A second consequence concerns the Fall of Adam. Calvin (and Kuyper) believed that predation, death, disease, thorns, earthquakes all arose as a result of the Fall. Viewed in terms of the traditional reading of Genesis, the fossil record reflects events that all happened after the Fall. Acceptance of an old earth, on the other hand, entails that the fossils we observe mostly reflect life before the Fall. Predation, pain, suffering, disease, earthquakes and the like, must then have existed already before the Fall. The fossil record, thus viewed, implies that the Fall did not have any observable effects on the earth or on non-human life. It follows that proponents of an old earth must minimize the physical consequences of Adam's fall. Traditionally, all animal suffering is seen as a result of human sin. But now it must be seen as part of the initial “very good” creation. Further, if the current world is not a world that has fallen from a better initial state, how can there be a universal restoration (cf Romans 8:19-23; Col. 1:16-20)? There are other difficulties. For example, how could Adam name all the animals if by then more than 99% had already become extinct? Human history Consider further the implications for human history. According to Genesis, Adam and Eve were created directly by God (Gen. 2) about 4000 BC (Gen. 5 & 11). They were the parents of all humans (Gen. 3:20). The Bible describes Adam as a gardener, his son Abel as a shepherd, and his son Cain as a farmer who founded a city (Gen. 4). Tents, musical instruments and bronze and iron tools were all invented by the offspring of Cain (Gen. 4), who were later all destroyed by the Flood (Gen. 6-9), which destroyed all humans except for Noah and his family (cf. 2 Pet. 2:5). Within a few generations after the Flood there is a confusion of language and people spread out to populate the earth (Gen. 11). Mainstream science, on the other hand, gives the following outline of human history: 2 million years BC – homo erectus, anatomically very similar to modern man 200,000 BC – oldest anatomically human Homo sapiens fossils (Ethiopia) 40-50,000 BC – oldest artistic and religious artifacts 40,000 BC – first aborigines in Australia (and continuously there ever since). 9000 BC – first villages 7500 BC – first plant cultivation, domesticated cattle and sheep (neolithic era) 5000 BC – first bronze tools 3000 BC – first written records 1600 BC – first iron tools The Biblical account is clearly at odds with the mainstream interpretation of the archaeological and fossil evidence. For example, if Australian aborigines have indeed lived separately from the rest of the world for 40,000 years then the Flood, if anthropologically universal, must have occurred more than 40,000 years ago. But Genesis places the cultivation of plants and cattle, metal-working, cities, etc., before the Flood. Mainstream science places these events after 10,000 BC. Hence, according to mainstream science, Noah’s flood could not have occurred before 10,000 BC. Consequently, an old earth position forces us to demote the Genesis flood to a local flood that did not affect all humans. Likewise, the tower of Babel incident (Gen.11) must now be localized to just a portion of mankind. Consider also the origin of man. Since Adam’s sons were farmers, mainstream science sets the date of Adam no earlier than 10,000 BC. This entails that the Australian aborigines are not descendants of Adam. Thus Adam and Eve are not the ancestors of all humans living today. This undermines the doctrine of original sin, which the confessions say was propagated in a hereditary manner from Adam to all his posterity (Belgic Confession 15-16; Canons of Dordt 34:2-3). This, in turn, undermines the view of Christ’s atonement as a penal substitution where Christ, as a representative descendent of Adam, pays for the sins of Adam’s race. Many of those who accept an evolutionary view of man have thus re-interpreted the work of Jesus as merely an example of love. Further, given the close similarity between human fossils of 10,000 and 2 million years ago, it becomes difficult to avoid concluding that Adam and Eve had human-like ancestors dating back a few million years. But that entails that Adam and Eve were not created directly by God, contrary to Gen. 2, and that human suffering and death occurred long before Adam’s fall, contrary to Rom. 5:12. Conclusions To sum up, embracing mainstream science regarding its assertion of an old earth entails the following consequences: Both the timescale and order of the creation account of Genesis 1 are wrong. The Flood of Gen. 6-8 must have been local, not affecting all humans. The Babel account of Gen. 11 must have been local, not affecting all humans. Adam’s fall – and the subsequent curse on the earth – did not significantly affect the earth, plants, animals, or the human body. Adam, living about 10,000 BC, could not have been the ancestor of all humans living today. Hence the doctrines of original sin and the atonement must be revised Adam had human ancestors Hence human physical suffering and death occurred before the Fall and are not a penalty for sin. These, in turn, entail the following constraints on the Bible: 1-11 does not report reliable history. Hence the Bible cannot be taken at face value when describing historical events, in which case we cannot believe everything the Bible says (cf. Belgic Confession 5; Heidelberg CatechismQ/A 21). In sum, acceptance of an old earth has dire consequences for the rest of Gen. 1-11, for Biblical clarity, authority and inerrancy, and for the essentials of salvation. Worldviews come as package deals. One cannot simply mix and match. Logical consistency dictates that those who do not whole-heartedly base their worldview on the Bible will ultimately end up rejecting it. A better course of action would thus be to hold fast to the full authority of the Bible, to re-consider the presuppositions leading to an old earth, and to interpret the data in terms of scientific theories that are consistent with Biblical truths. This article first appeared in an Oct. 24, 2009 post on Dr. John Byl’s blog Bylogos.blogspot.com and is reprinted here with permission. Dr. John Byl is a Professor emeritus for Trinity Western University, and the author of "God and Cosmos: A Christian View of Time, Space, and the Universe" and "The Divine Challenge: On Matter, Mind, Math & Meaning.”...

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews, Theology

On the proper role of Government (and the footnoted Belgic Confession article 36)

A review of P.J. Hoedemaker’s Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper  ***** Anyone who has ever studied the Belgic Confession, even on a superficial level, is aware of an oddity in article 36. This is the only place in the Three Forms of Unity where we find a footnote in most versions of the Confession. Whether it is the United Reformed, Canadian Reformed, or Protestant Reformed Churches in North America, or the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, all have an additional footnote. Article 36 is titled “The Civil Government” or sometimes “Of Magistrates” and addresses what we confess about the role of the government. The relevant text in the body of the confession originally read: task of restraining and sustaining is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed, the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word. (Italics added) But the clauses that I've italicized above were moved from the body and relegated to footnote status a century ago, as is explained in the Canadian Reformed edition here: The following words were deleted here by the General Synod 1905 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland): all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed. I’ve been a pastor in both the Canadian Reformed Churches, and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, and to my knowledge, neither federation has ever made an official decision about the status of this footnote. Do we confess this or not? It is an odd ambiguity in our Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort). FOOTNOTE'S BACKGROUND That’s why it was with great interest that I began reading a small book, recently translated, on this very topic. Article 36…vindicated against Dr. Abraham Kuyper comes from the controversy which led to the words being deleted in 1905. It provides some of the historical background, illustrating that the deletion was not without its opponents. This book also provides an occasion to reflect on whether it may be time to revisit the matter in an official, ecclesiastical way. The author, Philippus Jacobus Hoedemaker (1839-1910), was a curious figure. While he grew up in a family with roots in the 1834 Secession (in which a number of congregations split from the Dutch national church) he himself became a minister in the Dutch national church. However, unlike so many others in the State church, Hoedemaker was a conservative, and confessionally Reformed. This book is a response to a series of articles written by Dutch theologian and journalist (and future Dutch prime minister) Abraham Kuyper in his newspaper The Herald in 1899-1900. In these articles, Kuyper argued against the original wording of article 36 – he did not agree with the civil government being called on to address idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of the antichrist. In 1896, Kuyper went a step further. Together with other notable theologians in his denomination (the Gereformeerde Kerkenor Reformed Churches), including Herman Bavinck, Kuyper put forward a gravamen against article 36. A “gravamen” is an official objection to a point of doctrine. These eight ministers alleged that article 36 did not conform to the Word of God and they asked the Synod of 1896 to make a judgment on the matter. The Synod decided to appoint a committee to study the matter, a committee which bizarrely included Bavinck and Kuyper (!). It was the work of this committee which would later result in Synod 1905 deleting the allegedly unbiblical words. GOING BACK TO THE ORIGINAL? Let me make a few comments about the translation. There are a few idiosyncrasies that readers should be aware of. When Hoedemaker refers to "Lord's Days" in the Heidelberg Catechism the translator literally renders them “Sundays” instead. And instead of the Secession of 1834 (Afscheiding), he uses the term “Separation.” Elsewhere he uses the term “Nonconformity,” and I believe he is translating the term "Doleantie." Aside from those sorts of minor things, the book reads quite well in English. In his book, Hoedemaker argues for the original form of article 36. Or, more accurately, he argues against Kuyper’s objections to the original form of article 36. He maintains that Kuyper was inconsistent. On the one hand, Kuyper wanted to honor King Jesus as the Lord of all of life. But on the other hand, Kuyper was arguing that King Jesus has no crown rights over the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of antichrist. Hoedemaker alleged that this inconsistency was owing to political expediency. Abraham Kuyper was getting into politics and article 36 was an embarrassment in trying to build bridges with Roman Catholic politicians. Early on Hoedemaker makes a point I find especially compelling. He alleges that the discovery of “the fatal defect” in article 36 is “not the result of the ongoing investigation of the Scripture; but exclusively causes which lie in the times, and in apostasy from the living God.” He states repeatedly that Kuyper and others were not arguing from exegesis, but from pragmatic considerations and false inferences. The pragmatic considerations had to do with Dutch politics. The false inferences were along the lines of the Confession requiring the civil magistrate to persecute unbelievers and false believers. Hoedemaker is especially persuasive in addressing that notion. CONCLUSION I should note that this book is not exclusively about Belgic Confession article 36 – it also serves as something of a polemic against the 1886 Doleantie (another church split). Hoedemaker writes, “The first step on the road to Reformation is the recovery of the normal relations of church and state.” But in wanting to undo the 1886 Doleantie, he’s arguing that all Reformed believers should have gone back to the national church despite its waywardness! So who should read this book? I would especially commend it to those with an interest in politics. When we have so little in our Three Forms of Unity about politics, what little there is should get our attention. Is it time to revisit the formulation of article 36? This is where I believe office bearers and especially ministers would do well to give this book a read too. Perhaps we need a proposal to a synod to clarify the status of the footnote and perhaps even to restore it. Note well: we are not talking about changing the Confession or adding something to the Confession that was never there to begin with. This is something completely different. In a 1979 article for Clarion, the Canadian Reformed Churches’ Dr. J. Faber argued for completely rewriting that part of article 36. That is a possibility. But if the footnote can be re-examined from a biblical standpoint, perhaps it would be as simple as cutting and pasting the text back into place. Dr. Bredenhof blogs at yinkahdinay.wordpress.com where a slightly longer version of this review is available here. He is the pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania....

Theology

Anger is not your friend

Anger: sometimes it just feels right. Anger is happy to assume its place as your advocate, your defense against unfair actions.  And we are all too happy to welcome it. It just feels right! When your spouse is insensitive, when the kids are selfish and squabble constantly, anger stands ready to come to your defense. When others are selfish, anger is there to encourage you. When your pride is wounded, anger offers its supposed “healing power”. But the reality is that when human anger is embraced, good things will not happen. But what about righteous anger? Paul says in Ephesians 4:26 that in your anger you should not sin. So, since it is possible to be angry and not sin, it easy to welcome anger like a friendly ally when others sin against you. But righteous anger results in God being honored, not you being justified. Ephesians 4:26 is not all that Paul has to say about anger. Read just a few more sentences down to verse 31 of chapter 4 and you see that Paul commands that you must get rid of all anger! Is Paul contradicting himself? No, he is not. Anger does have its place, but that place is not one of self-defense. When anger leads to justification for your sinful responses, it is never a good thing. Paul says that you must be clothed in kindness and compassion towards others. You must follow the example of Christ. Anger will be of no help here. This is why he says to get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger. Relational anger will keep you from showing the love of Christ to those whom you love. You must learn to ask this one question when anger offers you its assistance: “Am I showing the kindness and compassion of Christ or am I justifying my behavior?” Instead of engaging in anger, show the compassionate love of Christ when you think others fail you. Isn’t that what God does for you when you sin against him? If God treated you as your sins deserve, you would not survive another minute! Take another look at Ephesians 4:31-32. Anger is not your ally. It is a tool of the enemy to damage your relationships, causing you to feel alone and bitter. Listen carefully to Paul. Get rid of your anger! Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Jay Younts is the author of Everyday Talk: Talking freely and Naturally about God with Your Children and Everyday Talk about Sex & Marriage. He blogs at ShepherdPress.com, where this article (reprinted with permission) first appeared. ...

People we should know, Theology

Jonathan Edwards: The pastor who packed them in the pews while preaching the wrath of God

Much like today, during the early colonial years in America, preachers rarely spoke about the wrath of God – this did not seem the type of topic to draw in the masses. One man, however, thought very differently. He brought the message of God’s wrath and, in doing so, ignited a revival which spread throughout the colonies. Jonathan Edwards was born on October 5, 1703, in East Windsor, Connecticut and began preaching in 1722. Although hell and God’s wrath are unpleasant topics, Edwards became one of America’s best-known evangelists by preaching on just these topics. We can get an understanding of how God used him to spark a revival across the colonies by looking at three specific sermons Edwards delivered at different points throughout his ministry. Through these sermons he taught the reality of God’s wrath by: showing how it will destroy unrepentant sinners explaining that it is the power of God which can save them from this wrath warning that those who do not glorify God are deserving of destruction Edwards knew that the themes of wrath and hell needed to be taught to cause the hearts of those listening to be convicted about their sins and to realize the reality of eternal punishment. #1: When the wicked have filled up the measure of their sin… He began preaching on the subject in May 1735 when he delivered his sermons “When the wicked shall have filled up the measure of their sin, wrath will come upon them to the uttermost.” Edwards’ text was 1 Thessalonians 2:16, which reads, “To fill up their sins always; for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.” He immediately presented a picture of hell and never let go of that illustration throughout the sermon. He clarified that God enacts His wrath “very dreadfully in this world; but in hell wrath comes on them to the uttermost.” God executes his wrath on the sinners in this world to a smaller extent, either outwardly on the body or inwardly on a mental or emotional scale. However, “these things are only forerunners of their punishment, only slight foretastes of wrath.” When God’s full wrath comes upon them, it will come with no restraint and no moderation of degree, for “His heavy wrath will lie on them, without any thing to lighten the burden or to keep off, in any measure, the full weight of it from pressing the soul.” Perhaps the most powerful point Edwards made in this sermon is that once the day of judgment comes, the wicked are sealed in their punishment eternally. There is no longer any chance for repentance or forgiveness once death has come. This is a message that the content Christians in the pews needed to hear. Without knowing the reality and severity of hell, the sinner did not feel a need to repent. Edwards concluded by noting how dreadful the wrath will be, for it is given by the One who created the universe, shakes the earth, rebukes the sea, and shines His majesty over wicked men. The judgement of God is certainly coming, but it will not be known until it comes. Therefore, Edwards begged everyone listening to “haste and flee for their lives, to get into a safe condition, to get into Christ.” This sermon carefully presents the danger of those who are content with living in sin, and it presses the message of hell to convict them of their rebellion. The reaction to this sermon inspired many in New England to change their lives. However, much more was to come when, six years later, Edwards preached his most famous sermon. #2: Sinners in the hands of an angry God On July 8, 1741 Edwards delivered “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” in Enfield, Connecticut. He was not supposed to preach that night, and he had preached that same sermon before at his home church. He happened to have his manuscript with him, and after receiving the last-minute request to fill in for the pastor, he preached a message that had an amazing effect on many of the hearers, spurring on a revival. Jonathan Edwards was born on October 5, 1703, in East Windsor, Connecticut to his father Reverend Timothy Edwards and his mother Esther, the daughter of Reverend Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard would become a mentor to Jonathan. Edwards attended Collegiate School, later called Yale College, graduating in 1720. In 1722, he accepted a call to a Scotch Presbyterian church in New York. He then went to Bolton, Connecticut in 1723. In 1724, he became a teacher at Yale College, and finally succeeded his grandfather Reverend Stoddard at Northampton, Massachusetts in 1727. The text of this sermon was Deuteronomy 32:35, which says, “Their foot shall slide in due time.” Edwards opened his sermon by saying: “In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites, who lived under the means of grace…yet remained void of counsel.” He began by stating that all sinners are exposed to destruction, a destruction that is unexpected and brought about by the sinner himself. The only reason why this destruction has not yet come is because of the mere mercy of God, which He gives under no obligation but by grace. Edwards was keen on portraying the power of God by reminding his listeners that even the strongest man has no power over God, and not even the mightiest fortress can defend against Him. He emphasized the fact that sinners deserve to be cast into hell, saying that they are the objects of the anger and wrath of God. He painted a vivid picture by declaring: “the wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them.” Edwards revealed the reality of death and claimed that God is under “no obligation by any promise” to keep sinners out of hell. God is provoked by sin, and nothing can be done by sinners to appease that anger. Edwards was trying to “awake unconverted persons in the congregation… who find are kept out of hell, but do not see the hand of God in it.” Edwards ended his message by urging the congregation to consider the danger that they were in, that if they did not change their lives for Christ they were in danger of suffering an everlasting wrath, where “it would be dreadful to suffer…one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity.” The Christians of the early British colonies had forgotten that if God withdrew His hand from them, they would fall into the depths of hell. This is what it means to be in the hands of an angry God, that sinners are born again and made new creatures because the God of wrath and justice found pleasure in making the damned soul worthy of salvation. Edwards pushes the reality of God’s wrath and hell, a topic which was rarely preached. It is this topic which ignited a revival. The effect of this sermon was immediate and powerful. According to one listener, even before the sermon was done “there was great moaning and crying out – ‘What shall I do to be saved?’… amazing and astonishing power of God was seen.” Another eyewitness, Stephen Williams, wrote: “Mr. Edwards of Northampton…preached a most awakening sermon…‘Oh, I am going to Hell,’ ‘Oh, what shall I do for Christ,’ and so forth…went out through whole .” Edwards was able to vividly portray the wrath of God on sinners, causing those who heard him to know the true condition of their hearts. A revival swept through the towns. Hymns were sung, taverns were closed, and young people poured into churches. Congregants arrived at church hours before the service in order to get a seat in the sanctuary. It is estimated that 10 percent of New England was converted during this time. That is equal to 28 million people today. Clearly, Jonathan Edwards sparked a revival in Enfield. #3: Wicked men useful in their destruction only While that might have been Edwards’ most famous and impactful sermon, he continued to tell the people of New England about the reality of God’s wrath. In July 1744, he preached a sermon called “Wicked men useful in their destruction only,” and as the title suggests, his main point was that “if men bring forth no fruit to God, they are wholly useless, unless in their destruction.” His message was from Ezekiel 15:2-4, which asks what the worth of a dead vine is. The answer is that “it is cast into the fire for fuel; the fire devoureth both the ends of it, and the midst of it is burned” (Ezek. 15:4). Edwards expanded on this passage by comparing sinners to the vine, saying that the dead vine which is good for nothing deserves the same fate as a dead sinner: utter destruction. Edwards claimed that the only two ways in which a person is useful is either in acting or in being acted upon. A person is useful in acting when they display the “fruits of the Spirit” and use them for the love of God and neighbour. If, however, a man does not do this, then there is no purpose for him to exist. Yes, there are other uses for mankind, as man was made for one another to be friends and neighbours. However, these are inferior ends and are subordinate to the main purpose, which is to serve and glorify the Creator. Therefore, since a wicked man cannot glorify God, he is only useful passively by being destroyed. Edwards claimed that it goes against God’s justice to let wicked men “live always in a world which is so full of divine goodness…that this goodness should be spent upon them forever.” Even though the world is full of sin, so much of God’s undeserved blessings can be seen and enjoyed. The rest of creation is made subservient to mankind, which is wasted on men who bear no fruit for God. The only use that wicked men can be is in their destruction for God’s glory, by both having God’s majesty and justice acted upon them and by being an example to the righteous, giving them “a greater sense of their happiness and of God’s grace to them.” Edwards applied his point so that all may learn the justice and righteousness of God. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but no one blames a farmer who cuts off a tree which no longer bears fruit. Edwards is calling his congregation to consider all the good things God has bestowed on them, including having a soul which houses the Holy Spirit and by having hosts of angels working for them. All of creation works for man’s pleasure, so “how lamentable it is, then, after all these things he should be a useless creature.” The one who is useful will experience pleasure in this world, and the pleasures will be even more wondrous in the world to come. However, those who do not continue “to bring forth any fruit to the divine glory, hell will be the only place fit for … nature ceases to labour any more for sinners.” Again, Edwards is stressing the point that God’s wrath is real, and unrepentant sinners will suffer it. Conclusion Jonathan Edwards inspired many revivals through his preaching by talking about God’s wrath and hell, topics that were unpopular to the crowd and avoided by other preachers. Through this unpleasant topic, Edwards ignited a fire of repentance in the hearts of the people of New England. His sermons presented God’s wrath by showing how He will destroy unrepentant sinners utterly, how it is the power of God which can save them from His wrath, and how those who do not glorify God are only useful to be destroyed. Texts are quoted as Edwards translated them in his sermon manuscripts....

Adult biographies, Theology

A passage from "The Hiding Place" I can't manage to read out loud...

Corrie Ten Boom's autobiographical The Hiding Place is best known for its account of her war time experiences. But one of the many powerful sections in the book is about something that happened decades before, in the year 1919. Corrie's describes her Tante Jans as a Christian social activist, who helped the poor, and also wrote tracts and pamphlets decrying such evils as mutton sleeves and bicycle skirts. In other words, a busy, well-meaning, but generally humorless lady, who was trying to earn her way to heaven. When the doctor diagnoses her with diabetes it is quite a shock as there was no real treatment at that time. It meant that Tante Jans had very little time left, maybe a few years. Her response? "And from then on she threw herself more forcefully than ever into writing, speaking forming clubs and launching projects." But then one day her weekly blood test came back black. Black meant she not longer had years or months, but merely days, three weeks at most. The family learns this before Tante Jan, and as they consider how to tell her Corrie's father hopes that: "Perhaps she will take heart from all she has accomplished. She puts great store on accomplishment, Jans does, and who knows but she is right!" So upstairs to her room they all go. "Come in," she called to Father's knock, and added as she always did, "and close the door before I catch my death of drafts." She was sitting at her round mahogany table, working on yet another appeal... As she saw the number of people entering the room, she laid down her pen. She looked from one face to another, until she came to mine and gave a little gasp of comprehension. This was Friday morning, and I had not yet come up with the results of the test. “My dear sister-in-law,” Father began gently, “there is a joyous journey which each of God’s children sooner or later sets out on. And, Jans, some must go to their Father empty- handed, but you will run to Him with hands full!” “All your clubs…,” Tante Anna ventured. “Your writings…,” Mama added. “The funds you’ve raised…,” said Betsie. “Your talks…,” I began. But our well-meant words were useless. In front of us the proud face crumpled; Tante Jans put her hands over her eyes and began to cry. “Empty, empty!” she choked at last through her tears. “How can we bring anything to God? What does He care for our little tricks and trinkets?” And then as we listened in disbelief, she lowered her hands and with tears still coursing down her face whispered, “Dear Jesus, I thank You that we must come with empty hands. I thank You that You have done all – all – on the Cross, and that all we need in life or death is to be sure of this.”...

Theology

How are we to understand the Bible?

3 approaches to consider: foundationalism, postmodernism, and something in between ***** Some years ago I attended a three-day conference on the topic how to read the Bible. Actually, the conference organizers used a big name for the topic: hermeneutics. But they explained what they meant with the term: how does one correctly handle the Word of truth in today’s postmodern world? The conference included professors from three different seminaries. Half a dozen winged their way across the Atlantic, from the Theological University in Kampen. This university trains ministers for the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Two professors from Mid-America Reformed Seminary (MARS) in Dyer, Indiana – which contributes to the ministerial supply in the United Reformed Churches – braved wintery roads to add their contribution. The host was the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, whose faculty also did what they could to supply a clear answer to that vital question. Conference background I am a minister in the Canadian Reformed Churches, which has Dutch roots. Specifically, many of our parents or grandparents were once members of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. There is, then, a very strong historic and emotional bond between the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. The reason for the conference was the concerns, slowly growing in our churches, about developments we saw happening in these Dutch churches in general and in the Theological University in particular. Given the historic link between these two denominations, it was considered right before God to do a conference with these men in order to understand better what the Kampen men were thinking, and to remind each other of what the Lord Himself says on the subject. How does one read the Bible? There was some common ground. All agreed that the Bible comes from God Himself, so that what is written on its pages does not come from human imagination or study, but comes from the Mind of holy God Himself. So the Bible contains no mistakes; whatever it says is the Truth. Yet this Word of God is not given to us in some unclear divine language, but infinite God has been pleased to communicate in a fashion finite people can understand – somewhat like parents simplifying their language to get across to their toddler. As we read the Bible, then, the rules common for reading a newspaper article, a book, or even this article apply – i.e., you get the sense of a particular word or sentence from the paragraph or page in which it’s written, and when some word or sentence is confusing you interpret the harder stuff in the light of easier words or sentences elsewhere in the article. That’s the plain logic of reading we all use. So far the professors of Kampen and Hamilton and MARS were all agreed. Genesis 1 Differences arose, however, when it came to what you do with what a given text says. In the previous paragraph I made reference to a “toddler.” We all realize that the use of that word does not make this an article about how to raise toddlers. Genesis 1 uses the word “create.” Does that mean that that chapter of Scripture is about how the world got here? We’ve learned to say that yes, Genesis 1 certainly tells us about our origin. (And we have good reason for saying that, because that’s the message you come away with after a plain reading of the chapter; besides, that’s the way the 4th commandment reads Genesis 1, and it’s how Isaiah and Jeremiah and Jesus and Paul, etc, read Genesis 1.) But the Kampen professors told us not to be so fast in jumping to that conclusion. Genesis 1, they said, isn’t about how we got here, but it is instead instruction to Israel at Mt. Sinai about how mighty God is not the author of evil. Just like you cannot go to the Bible to learn how to raise toddlers (because that’s not what the Bible is about; you need to study pedagogy for that – the example is mine), so you cannot go to the Bible to find out how the world got here – because that’s not what Genesis 1 is about, and so it’s not a fair question we should ask Genesis 1 to answer. Or so they argued. 1 Timothy 2 A second example that illustrates how the Dutch professors were thinking comes from their treatment of 1 Timothy 2:12-13. These verses record Paul’s instruction: “12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve….” This passage was featured on the conference program because a report had recently surfaced within the Dutch churches arguing that it’s Biblical to ordain sisters of the congregation to the offices of minister, elder and deacon. 1 Timothy 2 would seem to say the opposite. So: how do you read 1 Timothy 2:12 to justify the conclusion that women may be ordained to the offices of the church? The Dutch brethren answered the question like this: when Paul wrote the prohibition of 1 Timothy 2, the culture Timothy lived in did not tolerate women in positions of leadership. If Paul in that situation had permitted women to teach in church or to have authority over men, he would have placed an unnecessary obstacle on the path of unbelievers to come to faith. Our western culture today, however, gives women a very inclusive role in public leadership. If we today, then, ban them from the offices of the church, we would place an obstacle in the path of modern people on their journey to faith in Jesus Christ. Had Paul written his letter to the church in Hamilton today, he would have written vs. 12 to say that women would be permitted to teach and to have authority over men. That conviction, of course, raises the question of what you do with the “for” with which vs. 13 begins. Doesn’t the word “for” mean that Paul is forming his instruction about the woman’s silence on how God created people in the beginning – Adam first, then Eve? Well, we were told, with vs. 13 Paul is indeed referring back to Genesis 1 & 2, but we need to be very careful in how we work with that because we’re reading our own understandings of Genesis 1 & 2 into Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2, and we may be incorrect in how we understand those chapters from Genesis. So vs. 13 doesn’t help us understand vs. 12. Or so they argued. Confused… I struggled to get my head around how brothers who claim to love the Lord and His Word could argue for such positions. A speech on the third day of the Conference, by one of the Dutch professors, helped to clarify things for me. The audience was told that the old way of reading the Bible might be called “foundationalism,” describing the notion that you read God’s commands and instructions (eg, any of the Ten Commandments), and transfer that instruction literally into today so that theft or adultery or dishonoring your parents is taboo. This manner of reading the Bible does not go down well with postmodern people, because it implies that there are absolutes that you have to obey. The alternative is to disregard the Bible altogether and adopt “relativism,” where there are no rules for right and wrong at all – and that’s obviously wrong. So, we were told, we need to find a third way between “foundationalism” and “relativism.” This third way would have us be familiar with the Scriptures, but instead of transferring a command of long ago straight into today’s context, we need to meditate on old time revelation and trust that as we do so the Lord will make clear what His answers are for today’s questions. If the cultural circumstances surrounding a command given long ago turns out to be very similar to cultural circumstances of today, we may parachute the command directly into today and insist it be obeyed. But if the circumstances differ, we may not simply impose God’s dated commands on obedience or on theft or on homosexuality into today. Instead, with an attitude of humility and courage we need to listen to what God is today saying – and then listen not just to the Bible but also to culture, research, science, etc. After prayerfully meditating on the Scripture-in-light-of-lessons-from-culture-and-research, we may well end up concluding that we need to accept that two men love both each other and Jesus Christ. That conclusion may differ from what we’ve traditionally thought the Lord wanted of us, but a right attitude before the Lord will let us be okay with conclusions we’ve not seen in Scripture before. Analysis This speech about the “third way” helped clarify for me why the Dutch professors could say what they did about Genesis 1 and 1 Timothy 2. They were seeking to listen to Scripture as well as to what our culture and science, etc, were saying, and then under the guidance of the Holy Spirit sought to come to the will of the Lord for today’s questions. To insist that Genesis 1 is God’s description about how we got here (creation by divine fiat) leads to conclusions that fly in the face of today’s science and/or evolutionary thinking – and so we must be asking the wrong questions about Genesis 1; it’s not about how we got here…. To insist that 1 Timothy 2 has something authoritative to say about the place of women is to place us on ground distinctly out of step with our society – and so we must be reading 1 Timothy 2 wrongly. As a result of deep meditation on Scripture plus input from culture etc, these men have concluded that God leads us to condoning women in office in our culture, accepting a very old age for the earth, and leaving room for homosexual relationships in obedient service to the Lord. This, it seems to me, is the enthronement of people’s collective preferences over the revealed Word of God. Our collective will, even when it is renewed and guided by the Holy Spirit, remains “inclined to all evil” (Lord’s Day 23, Q&A 60; cf Romans 7:15,18). There certainly are questions arising from today’s culture that do not have answers written in obvious command form in Scripture, and so we undoubtedly need to do some humble and prayerful research and thinking on those questions. But the Bible is distinctly clear (not only in Genesis 1) about where we come from, and distinctly clear too (not only in 1 Timothy 2) about the place of women, and distinctly clear also on homosexuality. To plead that we need different answers today than in previous cultures lest the Bible’s teachings hinder unbelievers from embracing the gospel is to ignore that Jeremiah and Micah and Jesus and Paul and James and every other prophet and apostle had to insist on things that were “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). One questioner from the audience hit the nail on the head: the Dutch brethren were adapting their method of reading the Bible to produce conclusions accommodated to our culture. Where does this leave us? There was a time when the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and their Theological University in Kampen were a source of much wisdom and encouragement in searching the Scriptures. Given that all the men from Kampen spoke more or less the same language at the Hermeneutics Conference, it is clear to me that those days are past. It was fitting that at the Conference we prayed together as brothers in the Lord, but it’s also clear that we now need to pray that the Lord have mercy on the Dutch sister churches – for this is how their (future) ministers are being taught to deal with Scripture. I was very grateful to note that the professors from the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (and MARS too, for that matter) all spoke uniformly in their rejection of Kampen’s way of reading the Bible. They insisted unequivocally that “the whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (Westminster Confession, I.6). Postmodernism does not pass us by. May the Lord give us grace to keep believing that His Word is authoritative, clear and true. A version of this article first appeared on the Smithville Canadian Reformed Church blog where Rev. Bouwman is a pastor of the Word....

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. Many of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections....

Adult non-fiction, Theology

Heaven: what can we know?

A summary review of Randy Alcorn's Heaven **** Christians don't seem to speak about Heaven as much as in the past. There is more interest in establishing the Kingdom of God on earth than in preparing for the afterlife. SLOPPY THINKING When Christians do think about Heaven, they seem disconnected from the Scriptures. According to popular thought, where Christians go when they die is the same place they will spend eternity. Even contemporary believers base their thinking on Heaven more on sloppy, syrupy, sentimental television programs than on any clear teaching of Scripture. There is a hint in our attitude toward Heaven that it will be "angelic," that we will end up playing harps on a misty cloud in the "heavens." We will be wearing long white robes, and talking pious talk forever and ever. Some even picture Heaven as a boring place. But these conventional caricatures of Heaven do a terrible disservice to God and adversely affect our relationship with Him. Heaven is not a sing-along in the sky, one great hymn after another, forever and ever. Hell will be deadly boring. Heaven is exciting! Everything good, enjoyable, refreshing, fascinating, and interesting is derived from God. When we have an infinity of newness to explore, we can never be bored. THINKING ABOUT HEAVEN 560 pages / 2004 So why think about Heaven? Because the Scriptures remind us to think on things above. Doing so gives us insight into the brevity of our time on Earth and the value of life eternal. The doctrine of Heaven then, should not be marginalized by the church. Rather, it should be preached, taught, studied and loved. In calling us to this end, theologian/novelist Randy Alcorn, prolific author, founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries, has made a beautifully written contribution with his book Heaven. Is Heaven a real place? It's as real as a morning cup of coffee. Ah, but will we drink coffee in Heaven? Alcorn asks, "Can you think of any persuasive reason why coffee trees and coffee drinking wouldn't be part of the resurrected Earth?" His answer? "No." Despite biblical references that this Heaven and Earth will pass away, Alcorn strongly argues – from Scripture, word studies, and historical theology – that the "destruction" of the current Heaven and Earth will be temporary and partial. He firmly believes in the literal fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecies about the Messiah's second coming and the New Earth because Isaiah's detailed prophecies regarding the Messiah's first coming were literally fulfilled. The ultimate fulfillment of hosts of Old Testament prophecies will be on the New Earth, where the people of God will "possess the land forever" (Isaiah 60:21). Alcorn states, therefore, that God never gave up on his original plan for human beings to dwell on Earth. In fact, the climax of history will be the creation of a New Heaven and a New Earth, a resurrected universe inhabited by resurrected people living with the resurrected Jesus. THE RESURRECTION The key to understanding the New Earth is the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are told that Jesus' resurrected body on Earth was physical, and that this same, physical Jesus ascended to Heaven, from which he will one day return to Earth (Acts 1:11). Alcorn states that the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of redemption – both for mankind and for the earth. Indeed, without Christ's resurrection and what it means – an eternal future for fully restored human beings dwelling on a fully restored Earth – there is no Christianity. Because we know that Christ's resurrected body is physical and that our resurrected bodies will be like his, there isn't a compelling reason to assume that other physical depictions of the New Earth must be figurative. Consequently, the predominant belief that the ultimate Heaven that God prepares for us will be unearthly could not be more unbiblical. Earth was made for people to live on, and people were made to live on Earth. Alcorn also believes that Christ's redemptive work extends resurrection to the far reaches of the universe. "The power of Christ's resurrection is enough not only to remake us, but also to remake every inch of the universe – mountains, rivers, plants, animals, stars, nebulae, quasars, and galaxies." THE INTERMEDIATE STATE Christians often think about Heaven as their final destination. However, this belief is not based on Scripture. Alcorn explains the difference between the present (or intermediate) Heaven, where Christians go when they die, and the ultimate, eternal Heaven, where God will dwell with his people on the New Earth. When we die in Christ we will not go to Heaven where we'll live forever. Instead, we'll go to an intermediate Heaven. In the intermediate Heaven, we'll wait for the time of Christ's return to Earth, our bodily resurrection, the final judgment, and the creation of the New Heaven and New Earth. The intermediate Heaven then is a temporary dwelling place, a stop along the way to our final destination: the New Earth. In the intermediate Heaven, being with God and seeing His face is its central joy and the source of all other joys. We will be fully conscious, rational, and aware of each other. We will know what is happening on Earth. We will be distinct individuals, live in anticipation of the future fulfillment of God's promises. We will be reunited with believing friends and family. We will be one big family. We will be aware of passing of time. But we will never be all that God has intended for us to be until body and spirit are again joined in the resurrection. CHRISTOPLATONISM Why do we find it so difficult to grasp that the intermediate Heaven is not our final destination? Alcorn rightly blames the influence of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Plato believed that material things, including the human body and the Earth, are evil, while immaterial things such as the soul and Heaven are good. He asserted that the spirit's highest destiny is to be forever free from the body. This view is called Platonism. The Christian church, highly influenced by Platonism, came to embrace the "spiritual" view that human spirits are better off without bodies and that Heaven is, therefore  a disembodied state. From a christoplatonic perspective, therefore, our souls merely occupy our bodies, like a hermit crab inhabits a seashell, and our souls could naturally – or even ideally – live in a disembodied state. Christoplatonism has had a devastating effect on our ability to understand what Scripture says about Heaven, particularly about the eternal Heaven, the New Earth. The Bible, however, contradicts Christoplatonism from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation. It says that God is the Creator of body and spirit; both were marred by sin, and both were redeemed by Christ. THE NEW HEAVEN AND EARTH  The New Heaven and Earth is a real, tangible place. The New Earth has dirt, water, rocks, trees, flowers, animals, people, rain, snow, wind and a variety of natural wonders. An Earth without these would not be Earth. Alcorn believes there will be animals from various nations. He believes these animals have souls, though not the same type as humans. Alcorn firmly believes that we will be eating and drinking in the New Earth. However, there won't be marriages. Alcorn notes that the institution of marriage will have fulfilled its purpose. The only marriage will be between Christ and His bride – and we'll be part of it. The city at the centre of the New Earth is called the New Jerusalem. The ground level of the city will be nearly two million miles. Alcorn suggest that we will walk on streets of real gold. The New Jerusalem will be a place of extravagant beauty and natural wonders. It will be a vast Eden, integrated with the best of human culture, under the reign of Christ. More wealth than has been accumulated in all human history will be spread freely across this immense city. We will also have our own homes. In this New Earth we will also enjoy periods of rest. Alcorn says that God prescribed rest for sinless Adam and Eve, and He prescribed it for those under the curse of sin. Hence, regular rest will be part of the life to come in the new universe. Alcorn argues that there will be a government on the New Earth. The need of government didn't come about as a result of sin. God governed the universe before Satan fell. Likewise, He created mankind as his image-bearers, with the capacity for ruling, and before Adam and Eve sinned, God specifically commanded them to rule the Earth. On the New Earth there will be no sin. Therefore, all ruling will be just and benevolent, devoid of abuse, corruption, or lust for power. As co-rulers with Christ, we'll share in the glory of the sovereign ruler himself. We will become the stewards, the managers of the world's wealth and accomplishments. Alcorn believes in the transformation of the entire universe. If the new creation is indeed a resurrected version of the old, then there will be a New Venus, after all. In the same way that the New Earth will be refashioned and still be a true Earth, with continuity to the old, the new cosmic heavens will likewise be the old renewed. It will provide unimaginable territories for us to explore and establish dominion over them to God's glory. And if Christ expands His rule by creating new worlds, whom will He send to govern them on his behalf? His redeemed people. Some may rule over towns, some cities, some planets, some solar systems or galaxies. Alcorn comments, "Sound far-fetched? Not if we understand Scripture and science." CULTURE Alcorn notes that Scripture is clear that in some form, at least, what's done on Earth to Christ's glory will survive. But he also argues that cultural products of once pagan nations will be brought in by its people "proclaiming the praise of the Lord" (Isaiah 60:6). Treasures that were once linked to idolatry and rebellion will be gathered into the city and put to God-glorifying use. Alcorn believes that Isaiah and Revelation indicate that these products of human culture will play an important role on the New Earth. But the idea of bringing into the New Heaven and Earth cultural products is also a much disputed idea. Will we still want these treasures when our whole environment will be different? He says that there will be technology, machinery, business and commerce. There will be music, dancing, storytelling, art, entertainment, drama, and books. We will design crafts, technology, and new modes of travel. We will not only work in the New Earth, we will keep on learning. Alcorn looks forward to reading nonfiction books that depict the character of God and the wonders of his universe. "I'm eager to read new biographies and fiction that tell powerful redemptive stories, moving our hearts to worship God." Interestingly, he also believes that the Bible will be in Heaven. "Presumably, we will read, study, contemplate, and discuss God's Word." But why would there be a Bible in Heaven? The Bible serves God's people in this world as a guide for their lives and to strengthen their faith. In Heaven there is no need for the Bible. We see then God face to face. We witness then the fulfillment of His promises. ETERNAL REWARDS  Alcorn argues that God will hand out different rewards and positions. He says that our works do not affect our salvation, but they do affect our rewards. The rewards hinge on specific acts of faithfulness on Earth that survive the believer's judgment and are brought into Heaven with us. Alcorn believes that the position of authority and the treasures we're granted in Heaven will perpetually remind us of our life on Earth, because what we do on Earth will earn us those rewards. IMAGINATION AND SPECULATION Alcorn asserts that God expects us to use our imagination in describing Heaven, even as we recognize its limitations and flaws. He states that because the Bible gives a clear picture of the resurrection and of earthly civilization in the eternal state, he is walking through a door of imagination that Scripture itself opens. He writes: "If God didn't want us to imagine what Heaven will be like, he wouldn't have told us as much about it as he has." But at times his imagination gets the best of him. He repeatedly uses the words "perhaps" and "speculation." For example, he claims that perhaps intermediate bodies in the intermediate Heaven – or at least a physical form of some sort – serve as bridges between our present bodies and our resurrected bodies. He suggests that our guardian angels or loved ones already in Heaven will be assigned to tutor us. We could also discuss ministry ideas with Luis Palau, Billy Graham, or Chuck Colson. He also argues that we will explore space. He suggests that to view the new heavens, we might travel to the far side of the moon and other places where stargazing is unhindered by light and atmospheric distortions. HEAVENLY MINDED. EARTHLY GOOD.  Thinking about Heaven should impact the way we live on Earth. Alcorn comments that understanding Heaven doesn't just tell us what to do, but why. It is incentive for righteous living to the glory of God. Anticipating our homecoming will motivate us to live spotless lives here and now. In other words, what God tells us about our future lives enables us to interpret our past and serve Him in our present life. EVALUATION Alcorn quotes frequently from the writings of many Reformed authors, including Francis Schaeffer, Al Wolters, Anthony Hoekema, Herman Ridderbos, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, Cornelis Venema, Paul Marshall and Richard Mouw. He is also greatly indebted to writings of C.S. Lewis and A.W. Tozer. His work clearly shows the impact these scholars made on him. But Alcorn also adds his own perspectives on the life to come. He writes: "I will try to make the case carefully and biblically. There is plenty in this book for everyone to disagree with." I have already stated a few of my disagreements, so let me now state a few more. Alcorn overly quotes from his own writings. His "works equal rewards" theology is questionable. I can't find any Biblical support for his suggestion that God might create new beings for us to rule over in the afterlife. The rich concept of Sabbath rest gets short thrift – rest is not something physical; it is spiritual. It is not negative, what we do or not do, but positive, something we have. This rest is a gift from God, something we enjoy in close association with Him. I suggest that Alcorn thinks about Heaven too much from an egocentric viewpoint – focusing in on what interests us the most. With all the discussions of what we may do in Heaven, we easily forget that Heaven is the place of habitation of the Triune God. I also have questions about the purpose of Alcorn's speculations. We must not say more than Scripture. God has not revealed to us what the new cosmos will be like. We don't know anything about extra territorial space travel. We easily forget that the apostle Paul says: "No eye has seen no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit" (1 Cor. 2:9,10). But my critical observations don't take away the appreciation I have for Alcorn's work. He gives new insights, and makes you think about the best that is yet to come for God's people. Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years. Many of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections. This article first appeared in the 2005 July/August issue....

Theology

Did Abraham really exist?

Evangelicals are debating the historicity of Adam, but they are too timid. It is time to reject fundamentalist distortions of the Abrahamic narrative just as decisively as we have abandoned literalistic readings of Genesis 1–3. Clinging to discredited biblical accounts of Abraham as if these events actually happened makes us look like Neanderthals, undermines the plausibility of our witness, and ultimately overturns the Gospel. To defend the Gospel and uphold the authority of the Bible, we need to reckon with the myth of Abraham. So starts a brilliant piece of satire by Dr. Peter Leithart, a minister of the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches. Here are some further excerpts: The historical evidence is overwhelming and need not be rehearsed here. It is sufficient to point the curious reader to Hans Georg Unglauber’s definitive study, popularly known as Die Suche nach dem historischen Abraham but originally published as Abraham: Historie oder Pferd-Geschichte? Unglauber shows that there is not a shred of independent evidence for the existence of Abraham, much less for any of the events recorded in Genesis. But our faith does not stand or fall on the uncertain deliverances of historical scholarship. Scripture is our rule. The biblical writers deployed the full arsenal of ancient literary conventions, and their texts are full of sly authorial signals that they are not supposed to be taken literally... The story of Abraham’s exodus (Gen. 12:10–20) is obviously modeled on Israel’s Egyptian sojourn and exodus (which most likely never happened either). By shaping this narrative to mimic later myths, the author indicates that the episode is not to be taken seriously as history. Genesis 12, like the exodus narrative, teaches that God delivers. It does not matter whether or not God has ever actually delivered anyone. The moral stands: God is our deliverer... After we dispose of Adam and Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are next. And why stop there? Like Genesis, the Gospels are ancient literature. The Evangelists were no more concerned about facts than the authors of the Pentateuch, and for those enlightened enough to see, the Gospels are replete with hints that they are mythic symbolizations of profound, enduring truth. Only when it is stripped of the mythology of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus will the Bible be firmly established as our inerrant rule of faith. We must die to our modern demand to know “what happened” and recognize that Scripture is infallible only when it is thoroughly de-historicized. Then we will arrive finally at the fullness of Christian faith, the Church of Christ Without Jesus. The full article, "The Abraham Myth", was published at First Things. Addressing Faulty Hermeneutics Dr. Leithart's parody is aimed at Biblical scholars, such as Dr. Peter Enns, who question much of the historicity of Gen.1-11. For example, Enns has argued: Paul, as a first-century Jew, bore witness to God’s act in Christ in the only way that he could have been expected to do so, through ancient idioms and categories known to him and his religious tradition for century upon century.  One can believe that Paul is correct theologically and historically about the problem of sin and death and the solution that God provides in Christ without also needing to believe that his assumptions about human origins are accurate.  The need for a savior does not require a historical Adam.... ....A proper view of inspiration will embrace the fact that God speaks by means of the cultural idiom of the authors – whether it be the author of Genesis in describing origins or how Paul would later come to understand Genesis.  Both reflect the setting and limitations of the cultural moment.  – The Evolution of Adam, p.143 Enns has in fact responded to Leithart, defending his approach. Interestingly, Enns doesn't rule out Leithart's argument that Enns' demythologization of Adam might equally well apply to Abraham: Even though the literary styles of Genesis 12 and chapters 1-11 are consistent with each other, thus suggesting one narrative, their content is quite different, which is why biblical scholars don’t call the Abraham story “myth” but something else – like legend or political propaganda. In other words, what holds for the Adam story may or may not hold for the Abraham story. Leithart, in his reply to Enns, stresses his main point: that the same sort of arguments that Enns and others use to dismiss the historicity of Adam can equally well be applied elsewhere in Scripture. Also, he notes that Enns often accepts as fact that which is merely archaeological conjecture or scholarly fad. Moreover, Enns is mistaken to think that we can give up Paul's belief in a historical Adam while retaining Paul’s doctrine of Adam. The Bible is not a collection of stories illustrating doctrine and morals. It’s a record of God’s actions in history for the redemption of the world. We cannot peel off the historical husk of the Bible and retain its nourishing didactic kernel. Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead? And why stop at Abraham? Richard Klaus has remarked on the close similarity between the argumentation used by Enns to argue against an historical Adam, and that of others to argue against the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ. Both maintain, for example, that the mythological worldview of ancient Israel has been invalidated by modern science, that we should not read the Bible in a naive literalist sense, that the Bible writers were just children of their time, that the Bible's theological truths don't demand historical veracity, etc. Consider, for example, an interview with retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong insists that Christianity doesn't need a supernatural miracle to be established: I don’t think the Resurrection has anything to do with physical resuscitation, I think it means the life of Jesus was raised back into the life of God, not into the life of this world, and that it was out of this that his presence — not his body — was manifested to certain witnesses. He thinks the Resurrection must be placed in its proper context to be correctly interpreted and understood: I tried to help people get out of that literalism... When people hear it, they grab on to it. They could not believe the superstitious stuff and they were brainwashed to believe that if they could not believe it literally they could not be a Christian. A Christian is one who accepts the reality of God without the requirement of a literal belief in miracles...What the Resurrection says is that Jesus breaks every human limit, including the limit of death, and by walking in his path you can catch a glimpse of that. And I think that’s a pretty good message. It's no message at all, according to Paul: "If Christ has not been raised then your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins" (1 Cor.15:17). Here, with Spong's denial of the Gospel, we reach the logical conclusion of Enns' demythologizing trajectory. Happily, Dr. Enns still affirms the physical resurrection of Christ. But on what basis? Not on the grounds of a simple, "because the Bible tells me so." This article is reprinted with permission from a 2016 post on Dr. John Byl's blog Bylogos. The picture is by Guido Reni with his “St. Joseph” standing in for Abraham....