Saturday, January 25, 2014

He Feels the One, He Feels the Other

But here is what I’m wondering. Is the only message we’ll hear and receive the word of justification and acceptance and affirmation? What if our Savior wants to get up in our faces about things in us that displease him? Will we dismiss that message as legalism? We can turn it into legalism. If we respond to the rebukes of Scripture as occasions for self-invented virtue, discounting the finished work of Christ on the cross, then it is legalism. But that is not what the Bible is saying. The Bible is alerting us to the heart of our Father, a heart that is wounded by our sins and follies, a heart that is pleased with our humility and obedience. He feels the one, he feels the other. This is part of the New Covenant message to God’s blood-bought people. Will we receive it?
I'm convinced Ray Ortlund hits the nail on the head of the greatest danger facing true, Reformed, modern evangelicalism with this word.  The reason it's dangerous is because it's so subtle.  Read the rest here.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Contrary Kingdom

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Ephesians 4:11-16
Contrary to the ideals of American heritage in which we focus on the individual, Paul begins by focusing on the community and on our corporate life together (4:1-16). Then, and only then, from 4:17 onwards, does he deal with day-to-day life as individuals. Even then, he is concerned largely with relationships. Individualism runs strong in Western culture and the American dream. We exalt the individual who can rise from circumstances of great deprivation or poverty and excel in sports, education, or acting, to become a national idol or even the president. There is, however, a strong emphasis in this text, as well as elsewhere in the Scriptures, on our belonging to a community and on our corporate role and responsibilities before considering our role as individuals.

--Stephen J. Wellum and Peter J. Gentry, Kingdom through Covenant

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Newness of the New Covenant

In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge. Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make pa new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah... And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
Jeremiah 31:29-31, 34
What verse 34 is contrast to verses 29-30, is that in the old covenant, people became members of the covenant community simply by being born into that community.  As they grew up, some became believers in Yahweh and others did not.  This resulted in a situation within the covenant community where some members could urge others members to know the Lord.  In the new covenant community, however, one does not become a member by physical birth but rather by new birth, which requires faith on the part of every person.  Thus only believers are members of the new community: all members are believers, and only believers are members.  Therefore in the new covenant community there will no longer be a situation where some members urge other members to know the Lord.  There will be no such thing as an unregenerate member of the new covenant community.  All are believers, all know the Lord, because all have experienced the forgiveness of sins.  What Jeremiah is teaching in 31:33-34 is identical to what Isaiah is teaching in Isaiah 54:13: "all our children shall be taught by the LORD, and great shall be the peace of your children" (ESV).  Everyone in the covenant community will experience reconciliation (peace) with God, and so everyone will have a living relationship with the Lord, and so the divine instruction for living will be written upon the heart.

--Stephen J. Wellum and Peter J. Gentry, Kingdom through Covenant

Monday, January 06, 2014

Avoid Both Ditches

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
James 5:13-15
Whenever we interpret Scripture and/or do theology, we must always be aware of the danger of the two ditches.  The task of interpreting Scripture and theologizing is like walking a narrow path with a ditch both on your right and on your left.  And neither ditch is safer than the other.  The end result of falling into either ditch--if you remain there--is death.  It's that serious.  Looking at the text above as an example, let's consider two ditches (in no particular order) we must avoid at all costs while doing the work of interpretation and application.

Ditch #1

The most conservative scholars assert that the text above has nothing to do with physical sickness and healing.  John MacArthur is perhaps the most well-known proponent of this position.  His essential argument is that when we look at the context in which the book of James was written, it was written to believers during a time when they were experiencing intense opposition and persecution for their faith.  And, over the course of time, such intense opposition has a way of wearing down a believer to the point where he/she becomes spiritually weak.  MacArthur shows that the words that have been translated as "sick" are often used elsewhere in Scripture to refer to spiritual sickness or weakness.  So what James is saying is that believers who become so worn down by persecution that they find themselves spiritually weak can look to the leaders of the church to pray for them so that their spiritual vitality might be restored.

I must be honest.  That's a very attractive interpretation to me.  And I have so much respect and admiration for MacArthur as a steward of Scripture.  But upon closer examination, I just can't figure out what to do--according to that interpretation--with the second half of verse 15: And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

If this text is primarily about those who are suffering because they are being sinned against at the hands of insolent persecutors, then why in the world is James suggesting that the people who are suffering are themselves the ones who might have committed sin?  That seems totally out of place based on the suggested context.

The existence of the second half of verse 15 seems to imply that the sickness of a Christian either could be related to his/her sin or it could have nothing to do with his/her sin.  We see an example of the former in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30.  We see an example of the latter in John 9:1-3.

This renders the entirely spiritual reading of the text above--at least from my perspective--very suspicious and unconvincing if we take the whole into account.

Ditch #2

Those who embrace prosperity theology will very easily camp out on the first half of verse 15: And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.

"See," they say, "the word of God tells us that when we pray in faith, those who are physically sick will be healed.  So, if you are physically sick and you aren't healed by prayer, you or those who are praying for you don't have enough faith.  You just need more faith."  And in the worst forms of this kind of theologizing, believers can very easily be manipulated by wolves in sheep's clothing to do whatever they're told as a way of proving the strength of their faith.

But we must understand the type of literature that the book of James belongs to.  James falls under the genre of wisdom literature, like the Proverbs.  And the words of wisdom literature aren't to be taken as truth without exception.  They're truths that often stand as a general rule as proven by observation of the world we live in, but aren't without exception, especially in the era of the new covenant where Jesus has inaugurated a seemingly upside-down kingdom.  For example, consider the following proverb:
The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.
Proverbs 10:3
But what are we to make of the apostle Paul who multiple times makes mention of hunger and thirst (1 Corinthians 4:11, 2 Corinthians 11:27, Romans 8:35, Philippians 4:12) as though they were frequent trials he faced?  Must Paul, therefore, be unrighteous if he's experiencing hunger?  Of course not!  The will of God isn't that simple.  It's deeply complex.

The existence of the first half of verse 15 seems to imply that God means for us to pray in faith for physical healing when believers are sick.  But prayers of the greatest faith oftentimes won't result in healing, for reasons that God might sometimes reveal (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)--and sometimes not.


So how do we understand the text above without falling into the ditch on either side?  There's no doubt the text is talking about the physical sickness of believers.  Sometimes that sickness is the result of sin, but sometimes it's not.  And we should pray in faith for God to heal the believer who is sick.  But we must do so always humbly submitting ourselves to the sovereign God of all wisdom who on this side of eternity sometimes chooses not to heal because He has greater purposes to accomplish by withholding healing than by granting it--whether He clearly reveals those purposes to us or not.

The ditches abound in Christianity.  Whether it's the sovereignty of God vs. the responsibility of man, the continuation of spiritual gifts vs. the cessation of spiritual gifts, the deity of Jesus vs. His humanity, justification vs. sanctification, God's desire for all people to be saved vs. His election of only some to salvation, the already of the kingdom of God vs. the not yet, each of these and many more debates throughout church history has revealed the practical consequences in daily life of focusing on one truth to the exclusion of another.  But, as J.I Packer says, "a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth."

Almost every step we take as we navigate the world of interpreting and applying Scripture, we're in danger of falling into a ditch on one side or the other.  May the Holy Spirit help us to see and avoid both ditches.

Note: I'm indebted to the work of Nathan Wells for much of the development of my thought behind this post.

Friday, January 03, 2014

The End for Which God Created the World

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Genesis 1:26-31
Given the normal meanings of "image" and "likeness" in the cultural and linguistic setting of the Old Testament and the ancient Near East, "likeness" specifies a relationship between God and humans such that man can be described as the son of God, and "image" describes a relationship between God and humans such that man can be described as a servant king. Although both terms specify the divine-human relationship, the first focuses on the human in relation to God (likeness) and the second focuses on the human in relation to the world (image). These would be understood to be relationships characterized by faithfulness and loyal love, obedience and trust--exactly the character of relationships specified by covenants after the Fall. In this sense the divine image entails a covenant relationship between God and humans on the one hand, and between humans and the world on the other.
--Stephen J. Wellum and Peter J. Gentry, Kingdom through Covenant
This paragraph is the most important commentary I have ever read concerning Genesis 1.  The implications, to me, are staggering for how we understand the rest of the Bible.

The idea that humans being created in the "image" of God is associated with human relationship to the world and after the "likeness" of God being associated with human relationship to God makes so much sense of the text, especially when Genesis 1 is compared with Genesis 5.  I can't remember the last time I had such a profound "aha!" moment meditating on Scripture.

In Genesis 1, the text states that humans are both created in God's image and after his likeness, but image has the preeminence based on word order (Genesis 1:26) as well as emphasis and repetition (Genesis 1:27).

In Genesis 5, the text states that Adam fathered a son both in his image and after his likeness, but this time likeness has the preeminence based on word order (Genesis 5:3) as well as emphasis (Genesis 5:1).

Why these different emphases?  In Genesis 1, image is the focus because the author wants to highlight human dominion over creation as the main theme of the end of the chapter.  In Genesis 5, likeness is the focus because the author wants to highlight the father/son relationship as the theme of chapter.

So, as I finished reading Genesis 1, I found myself asking this question: Why does God reveal that aspect of human identity as one who represents Him (image) prior to that aspect of human identity as one who is in relationship with Him (likeness)?

At this point, here's my best answer: Because the chief end of God in creation isn't so much to enter relationship with man as it is to manifest His majesty, power, and authority.  Thus when God sees that His creation is very good in verse 31, it's not so much because of man in and of himself as it is that God's majesty, power, and authority are now manifested in creation through man in a way that they hadn't been prior to that point in creation.

I feel humbled to the dust reflecting on the centrality of God and the relative insignificance of me.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

In All That He Does, He Prospers?

He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
Psalm 1:3
"In all that he does, he prospers."


Though prosperity doesn't mean exactly the same thing for every person, there isn't a human being alive who doesn't want to prosper in everything he does.

When we think about prospering in all that we do, it usually comes with a "right here, right now" kind of mentality.  For example, in the context of sales, the ideal way that someone would prosper in all that he does would be to make a sale every time he makes a pitch, starting with today.  This mentality has no room for struggle of any kind.

But when you take a step back and look at Psalm 1, the psalmist's idea of what it means to prosper in this context is entirely different from this "right here, right now" understanding of what it means to prosper.

Just looking at verse 3 by itself, the agricultural imagery in and of itself is diametrically opposed to a "right here, right now" understanding of what it means to prosper.  Crops don't bear fruit in every season.  They yield fruit in due season.

Verses 5-6 point us forward to the day of judgment, the day of reckoning when God Himself will dispense the ultimate consequences for those who chose not to walk in the narrow path.  And just like the wicked don't experience full judgment for their rebellion right here, right now (Psalm 92:6-7), the righteous don't experience the full reward of their trust in God right here, right now (Psalm 73:23-26, Habakkuk 3:17-19).

So when the psalmist tells us that the righteous prospers in all that he does, the very "right here, right now" mentality that we're so tempted toward when we hear that is the very thing that he's inviting us to reject--the mentality that presides in the counsel of the wicked, motivating them to do all that they do (Proverbs 1:11-14).

Rather, the psalmist is inviting us into a process.  Just like farming, it's a process that often appears pointless.  It's a process that often feels tedious.  It's a process that requires great patience.  But it's a process that is always effective when we persist in it even though much of its benefit is invisible to us.
...but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
Psalm 1:2
This is the process the Holy Spirit--through the psalmist--invites us to.  To delight in God's Word and to meditate on it day and night.  None of us will ever do this perfectly in this life, which is part of the reason we often don't feel like we're prospering in all that we do (Psalm 119:65).

But the more that God, by His grace, deepens our delight in His Word and our continual meditation on and application of it to our lives, the more the lens with which we view our lives is one in which everything we do right here, right now is an investment in our future hope.  Everything we experience right here, right now--especially the negative--"is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Corinthians 4:17).  And the more we believe this deep down in our bones, the more we identify with the end of verse 3: "In all that he does, he prospers."


Father, please grant us the grace to press forward in the process as we begin 2014.  And remind us when we lose sight this year not only that there are many days in a year but that, by Your grace, there are many years in a lifetime.  In Jesus' name, Amen.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

A Future Tense Application of the Gospel

One way to apply the gospel to our giving is to look at the cross and see how generous and sacrificial God was in giving Jesus up for us and to look long enough so that the Holy Spirit transforms us by what we see in that gift to make us more generous and sacrificial with our finances.

That's one way we can apply the gospel to our giving. Let's call that a past tense application of the gospel. We are looking back at the good news of what Jesus did 2,000 years ago to apply that to our giving.

I want to suggest another way we can apply the gospel to our giving. Let's call this a future tense application of the gospel. In this case, we're looking forward to the good news of what Jesus will one day do to apply that to our giving.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Matthew 6:19-21
One of the reasons it's challenging to give sacrificially and generously of our finances is because the more we give, the less treasure we have to store up for ourselves. And storing up treasure is something that we're all hard-wired to do in some way, shape, or form. The question isn't whether we store up treasure, the question is where do we store it?

But Jesus doesn't tell us not to store up treasure. He tells us to store it where it's going to last and bring us the most joy. He tells us to store up treasure where it's going to give us the most possible bang for our buck. And that's not by investing money anywhere here on earth. It's by investing money in heaven, which is what we do when we give generously and sacrificially to the work of the kingdom. But here's the catch: what we store in heaven we can't touch until the future. It's not simply a long-term investment; it's the longest-term possible investment.  There's no stock or 401k plan that can match this investment strategy!

You see, Jesus doesn't just motivate us to give by pointing us backward to what He did for us 2,000 years ago on the cross. He motivates us to give by pointing us forward to what He will do for us in the future. He's going to reward us in heaven (He talks about this idea of a future reward all over the Sermon on the Mount).

And the reason this is an application of the gospel is because:

1) God is going to be the One who rewards us. He's calling us to trust in what He will one day do, not in what we do.

2) The only reason any of us is going to be in heaven is because of what Jesus has already done by dying to atone for our sins on the cross 2,000 years ago.

So as we reflect on the why of giving, may we be a people who not only look back to the good news of what Jesus has done for us; but may our giving also be empowered by the good news of what Jesus will one day do for us because He's promised to. And He who promised is faithful.