A Thought Experiment: Assurance & Preaching

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Assurance is a tricky thing in the Christian life. There are numerous ways we can gain assurance. With regards to assurance, there are two things I try to prevent: a false believer from thinking he is a real one and a real believer from thinking he is a false one. This is not easy, as false believers are not easily convinced of their true state and true believers often have great doubts. However, preaching in such a way that Christ’s work and his commands are presented is the best way to guard against either error. Below I present two different types of preaching and what I think are the effects these types of preaching will have. It is simplistic and there are other things that could and should be added, but I think the main point will be clear. These thoughts were prompted as I preached through Ephesians 4:25-5:2 several years ago.   Continue reading

Stop Playing the Victim

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This is a repost. 

There are few characteristics as central to American culture today as that of being a victim. We automatically assume in most situations we have been victimized. There are real victims, of course. There are people who have hurt, maimed, harmed, reputations destroyed, families broken, children abused, etc. But what I am talking about is that American mindset of being perpetually offended. The students blame the teacher. The teacher blames the students. The parents blame the children. The children blame the parents. The conservatives blame the liberals. The liberals blame the conservatives. We lost the game because of the referees. We lost the election because it was rigged. Our grades our low because our school district doesn’t have enough money. We could pick any race, any economic category, any social status, any topic and we will find the same pattern. We are united in our belief that someone else is to blame.

For Christians, this is a devastating mindset because it causes us to excuse our sin. We look out at all the things that someone else has done to us, real or imagined, and then we say, “It is not our fault.” I was raised by bad parents so the command to honor my parents does not apply to me. My neighbor played loud rock music last night, so the command to love my neighbor does not apply to me. My seminary professor gave me a low grade therefore the command to give honor where honor is due is excised from the Scriptures. My wife was sharp with me last night therefore the command to be kind is cut out of the Bible. My husband does not love me well enough so I do not need to respect him. And on and on it goes. Even if the sin against us is real, it does not excuse our own sin. We can never place the blame for our sins upon someone else. But this is exactly what a victim mentality does. We ought to know better.

Stop shifting the weight of your sins onto the shoulders of your parents, children, teachers, government, spouse, pastor, congregation or whoever else you think is at fault. Stop blaming others for your sins. Stop evading responsibility. Realize that the blood is on your hands because you plunged the knife in. Then flee to Jesus, the sinless victim, who carried the weight of your sins. Only at the Cross can your sins be rolled away. Trying to place them on others will only end in bitterness and pain.

Is the Church Supposed to be a Persecuted Minority?

Different Person

The idea of Jesus as a persecuted minority and therefore the founder of a persecuted minority group, i.e. the Church, has become common currency in theological circles. The basic idea has been around in different forms for a long time in ideas such as the remnant, some Reformation era Anabaptists, and die-hard dispensationalists. But recently minority groups have used this idea to put themselves in the same category as Christ and to defend their particular cause.  We are told that if we care about the Gospel and follow in Christ’s footsteps then we will have compassion on and help minorities. Therefore I found this section of Andrew Fulford’s book, Jesus and Pacifism, helpful.  He is talking about the command in Matthew 16:24 to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. First he says,

Dr. Yoder [a pacifist] argued that this command was essentially a command to be a faithful minority community under persecution. [Fulford footnotes Yoder’s The Original Revolution and The Politics of Jesus]

Yoder does not mean what many current social justice warriors mean. But his perspective fits in nicely with SJW thinking. Yoder views the command through a political lens. Taking up your cross means you are willing to be associated with those on the edges and fringes of society,  those currently defined as weak, maligned, and persecuted. Fulford goes on to explain the command differently using Jesus’ own words and the context. He then says this:

In sum, this command requires nothing more of us than the Greatest Commandment does. To be commanded to serve God with everything one has, means being willing to obey him even to  the point of death…And this was not merely a teaching on this part; Jesus practiced what he preached. The cross was of course the means by the Lord himself would choose to lay down his life in order to obey his Father…When the Lord commands us to not just to pick up a cross, but to follow him while doing so, we can see what he means. He calls us to make the exact same choice he did: to accept death from the hands of God if providence gives us no choice between it and sin. It means, in essence, to be willing to give up everything and to endure anything rather than disobey God. His command goes to the very heart of the problem with the human condition. From the first sin, human beings have been choosing sin for the sake of some lesser good rather than obedience to their Creator. Jesus calls us to finally do what we were made to do, serve God above all things.

Fulford then discusses II Corinthians 4:5-18 and Paul’s description of his own sufferings. Here is the concluding paragraph.

Paul’s reflections on these themes are profound, and warrant many books dedicated to them entirely. But the important point for our purposes here is to note: for the apostle joining in the sufferings of Christ was not simply about being a persecuted minority in society. It was about enduring the effects of the curse; it was about accepting death in all its forms (literal and figurative) from the hand of God, and living in a certain hope that one day we will be redeemed from it, just as Christ has been. Refusing to take up the cross is not essentially about the minority’s temptation to take political and social power; refusing the cross is essentially repeating the sin of the Garden. Rejecting one’s cross is an action rooted in distrust of God’s goodness, leading to an attempt to minimize our pain and maximize our happiness by making moral compromises and breaking God’s commands.

Taking up our cross is not about whatever particular social justice cause we are currently pushing. It is not about a refusal to take up positions of power, as Anabaptists often interpret it. It is not even about our daily struggles with life in general. It is about belief in God and obedience to his commands no matter the cost. Most days that will look normal. On a few days it will be extraordinary.

One might argue that this is just one passage. There are other passages that make it clear Christians should care about minorities. Certainly there are passages to debate and discuss, but in the end we would probably end up at the same place. Minority status, however that is defined, is not a virtue in the Christian faith. Trust in God and obedience is.

Darkness and Hell at Christmas Time

carols

For some reason Christmas has become too angelic, all lights and glitter and shining cherubs on gaudy Christmas cards. There is some truth to this, of course. When Christ came as a child the true light shineth. But Christmas is also about demons and hell and darkness. It is about the darkness of eternal fire. It is about the terrors of death. It is about the dragons that live in our own hearts. There is nothing wrong with rejoicing in the light, but if we forget the darkness the light loses its potency.  It is easy at Christmas time to take the light for granted. To forget what Christ actually came to do.

It may come as a surprise that many of the Advent and Christmas songs we sing mention this darkness and hell. Here are a few lines from those songs to give some perspective on what Christ came to do.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel is one of the best carols to show who we were before Christ came. It views God’s people as in exile and  bondage to Satan and in need of rescue. Verses 3 and 4 bring this out.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

The fourth verse of the song Savior of the Nations, Come has these lines in it:

From the Father forth he came and returneth to the same
Captive leading death and hell, High the song of triumph swell.

The final verse of Good Christian Men Rejoice, says, “now ye need not fear the grave.”

Joy to the World, talks about Christ coming to make his blessings flow “far as the curse is found.” This includes redemption, but it also includes victory over all his enemies.

Let All Mortal  Flesh Keep Silence, says that Christ descends “from the realms of endless day, that the powers of hell may vanish.”

Lo, How a  Rose E’re Blooming, states that Christ “dispels with glorious splendor/the darkness everywhere.”

Of the Father’s Love Begotten says in verse 3:
He is found in human fashion death and sorrow here to know
That the race of Adam’s children doomed by law to endless woe
May not henceforth die and perish In the
dreadful gulf below evermore and evermore.

I am sure there are some I have missed. Numerous Christmas songs speak specifically of Christ’s victory over sin, which means his victory over death and Hell.

The Scriptures speak of this as well. In Matthew Jesus’ birth is not follow by peace on earth, but by Herod killing the children and Joseph fleeing with his family to Egypt. The battle begins at the Incarnation. Herod knew this. Unfortunately, we often do not.

In Luke we see the same themes of Christ’s Kingship and rule driving out those who oppress His people.

Mary states that when God sent Christ he:
Showed strength with his arm
Scattered the proud
Put down the mighty
Filled the hungry
But sent the rich away empty.

Zacharias says that Christ came so:
We should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us..
That we will be delivered from the hand of our enemies.

Christmas is not just about a child born in a manger. It is about a King who came to banish all the powers of darkness and Hell. When the angel came to Mary and the angels sung to the shepherds the end of our enemies was already at hand. Christ came to destroy all our enemies. So don’t forget darkness, Hell, Satan, Herod, death, and sin during this Christmas. Christ did not come to wear a halo and lay sweetly in a manger. He was King at his birth and came to conquer.

No Crying He Makes?

newborn baby crying

Christmas songs are wonderful and they are also fraught with danger. Christmas has become a sentimental time for many people including Christians where they toss aside what is true for what makes them feel good. One good example of this is the well know Christmas hymn, “Away in a Manger.”

In that carol there is this line in verse 2: “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Why would baby Jesus not cry? There are two possible reasons I could think of. First,  he was not fully human or was at the very least a different kind of human. Second, that crying is a sin.

Both of these are refuted by Scripture. Let’s take the second one first.  Is crying a sin? The Scriptures are clear that Christ did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). The Bible is also clear that Jesus wept (Luke 19:41, John 11:35). The logic here is airtight. Jesus cried. Jesus never sinned. Crying is not automatically a sin. Why would a baby cry? He needs food. He is dependent on his mother like all humans are. Until a child talk crying is the way a child says, “I am  hungry.”  Christ was fully human and therefore as a baby completely dependent upon those around him to feed him. If he need to eat or if something caused him pain he would have cried and in crying he would not have sinned.

The other option is that Jesus was some sort of super human that did not feel the same things we feel or did not experience the same things we do. Again this is refuted over and over again in Scripture. Hebrews 2:17-18 says,

Therefore, in all things He had to be made like his brethern that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest…

Hebrews 4:15 says,

We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathizee with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.

Philippians 2:1-11 teaches the same thing.

The Heidelberg Catechism says in question 35 that Christ “took upon him the very nature of man.” The Westminster Confession in Chapter VIII.II says that Christ took “upon him man’s nature with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin.” The Belgic Confession in Article 18 says,

The Son took the “form of a servant” and was made in the “likeness of man,” truly assuming a real human nature, with all its weaknesses, except for sin; being conceived in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, without male participation.  And he not only assumed human nature as far as the body is concerned but also a real human soul, in order that he might be a real human being.

The Definition of Chalcedon says,

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin.

The point is rooted in Scripture and explained by the church through the ages. Jesus was fully human. In other words, there is no reason to assume that Christ as a baby did not cry.

The goal of the carol is to present a peaceful scene like we see in all the paintings of Christ’s birth. But in doing so the carol takes away one of the more important aspects of Christ’s birth; its reality. Of course, we all believe it happened. But we think it happened differently than normal births. Christ’s birth becomes something mystic and other worldly. We imagine that the manger in Bethlehem was filled with glowing lights, halos, peace, and warm fuzzy feelings. The reality would have been quite different. There would have been blood, pain, and anguish. Mary sat under the curse of Eve like all women do (Genesis 3:16). While Christ’s conception was of the Holy Spirit, there is no reason to assume the birth was anything out of the ordinary. Did Mary scream? Certainly it is possible, even probable. She was giving birth to a child. Did baby Jesus cry? Well of course he did. He was a baby, a fully human baby just like we were.

Christ is the Central Content of the Sacraments

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I really enjoyed Pierre Marcel’s book The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism.  Even if you are already convinced of the paedo position it is worth your time. He does an excellent job of explaining what sacraments are, the covenant is, and how that impacts us, the church, and our children. One thing that stuck out to me was the emphasis he put on the Word.  He does not minimize the sacraments. It is clear they are powerful signs and seals of God’s covenant. But he is clear that the Word is the priority over the sacraments. I plan on putting up quite a few quotes from the book. Here is the first. The title of this section in the book is the same as the title of the blog post. All punctuation, spelling and italics are his.

To sum up, the internal matter of the sacrament, the inward grace which is signified and sealed, is Jesus Christ and His spiritual riches-the covenant of grace, justification by faith, remission of sins, faith and conversion, communion with Christ, etc. It is Christ, whole and entire, in all His fulness and with all his riches, according to His divine nature and His human nature, with His person and His work, in His state of humiliation and in His glorification. Christ and Christ alone is the “heavenly thing” signified in the sacrament -Christ who, with all his benefits and blessings, is the Mediator of the covenant of grace, the Head of the Church, the Yea and Amen of all God’s promises, the content of His Word and of His Testimony-Christ: Wisdom, Justification, Sanctification, and Redemption of believers, Prophet, Priest, and King, through whom alone God conveys all His grace, who remains the same yesterday and to-day and for ever. Jesus Christ, He who was, and who is, and who is coming, is the truth of the sacraments without whom they are nothing, just as He is the truth of the Word.

There is thus not a single benefit of grace which might be missing from the Word and communicated in a special and particular manner to believers through the sacraments. There is no special baptismal grace, nor a special eucharistic grace. The content of the Word and of the sacraments is exactly the same. Word and sacraments contain, present, and offer the same Mediator, Jesus Christ, the same covenant of grace, the same benefits, the same communion with God, the same redemption.

Marcel did not believe in paedo-communion, but I wanted to take this quote and apply it to that issue. I believe paedo-communion is Biblically defensible for various reasons.  Here is what I mean by paedo-communion: covenant children are welcome at the covenant meal.

I wanted to pull out two thoughts from this quote as it relates to paedo-communion.  First, there is nothing magical about the Lord’s Supper. In other words, the covenant child who is receiving the Word of God in worship and at home is receiving Christ. Taking the Lord’s Supper will strengthen that faith, strengthen his bond to the church, and confirm the Word. But taking the Lord’s Supper will not give him something he is not already getting. Christ comes to us first and foremost through the Word. If the Word is there then Jesus is there in His entirety. 

On the flip side, if we give our children the Word of God why shouldn’t we give them the Lord’s Supper? If I allow my child to participate in worship as one of God’s covenant children,  treat them as belonging to the covenant, quote to them the promises of the covenant, encourage them to believe those covenant promises, trust their heavenly Father and obey Him then why shouldn’t they have the covenant meal which presents to them the same promise the Word does: Jesus in his entirety?

Sacrificing Like Christ

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We must be careful when we are talking about being like Christ. There are ways we can and cannot be like Jesus. His work on the cross was unique. His death atoned. His sacrificed took away our sins. We also must guard against the temptation to view Christ as just a good example and nothing more. Yet we are supposed to look like our Lord in a secondary way.  Ephesians 5:1-2 say this: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” While our sacrifices do not atone we are supposed to show our love for others by sacrificing for them. Here are four ways we can know that we are learning to sacrifice like Christ. What do we sacrifice? It is rarely our lives. What we give up is time, money, energy, and often our own dreams and desires.

1. We are learning to sacrifice without resentment. Sacrifice with bitterness is not sacrificing like Christ.  This ties in closely with #2.  Often we are not sacrificing, but we are buying people with our good deeds. When we do something nice and there is no payoff we get bitter.

2. We are learning to sacrifice when there is nothing in it for us. If we have a “I do this for you, but you will do something for me” mentality we are not sacrificing like Christ. Too many of us function on debt/payment system. When we sacrifice for someone we are putting them in our debt and they now owe us. This is not like Christ. This is a great danger for parents who often give to their children in the hopes that the children will give back to them as well as spouses who sacrifice for each other, but often in hopes of repayment.

3. We are learning to sacrifice for those who do not deserve it.  Let’s state the obvious: Jesus gave for those did not deserve, you and me.  Go and do likewise. So often, before we decided to sacrifice for someone, we evaluate them and weigh them in the balance. Do they really deserve this? It is a great twisting of grace to only give to those who we think deserve it.

4. We are learning to sacrifice with joy.  A sacrifice that is sour is a sacrifice tainted with sin.  This does not mean we ignore the difficulty of sacrificing for others. (See Jesus in the garden.) But it means that we should be glad to lay down our money, time, energy, and dreams for those around us. It is better to give than receive.