Sunday, May 14, 2017

Adoption

I only ever did one adoption as an attorney, but I vividly remember preparing the parents before the hearing.  As they stood before the judge, I wanted them to get the right answer to one question, a question likely to throw them for a loop.  "Why do you want to adopt this child?"  In the heat of the moment, with a judge staring at you, any number of reasons can flood into the mind.  Which one is the right one?  Which answer is the judge looking for?  Often, people try to outthink the judge or give him the answer they think he is looking for.  As I prepared these parents, I asked them this question.  I cannot remember what they said.  I do remember the advice I was taught to give.  The answer every judge looks for.  You adopt out of love.

Adoption plays an important role in the biblical story of redemption.  From the first family, the Lord promises a split of people, as the seed of the woman would be at enmity with the serpent. (Genesis 3:15)  Abraham was set apart as the family of faith into whom many would be ingrafted.  Paul would speak of adoption as a part of the application of redemption in Galatians and Ephesians. "But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons." (Galatians 4:4-5)  God sent His Son into the world that we might become His sons through adoption.  In Ephesians, Paul writes, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: according as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved." (Ephesians 1:3-6)  We were chosen as His sons before the foundation of the world and adopted in the fullness of time.

Adoption denotes the changing of familial relationship.  Before adoption, we were part of one family and after part of another.  This means that before our conversion, we were part of the family of sin but God brought us into the family of God.  Part of our concept of identity, who we are has fundamentally changed in adoption.

This doctrine brings with it great joy.  Paul writes about adoption much in Romans 8.
"The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together." (Romans 8:16-17)
Paul describes adoption as that which makes us heirs of the riches that Christ possesses.  The glorified life promises great wealth and power, as great as that of the humanity of the Son.

Paul earlier spoke of adoption as that which encourages us to live different from the dead works of the world.
"Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh.  For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.  For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.  For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father."
(Romans 8:12-15)
Here, adoption is listed as the reason that we cannot live like we used to.

Reformed Christianity recently endured another controversy regarding the conflict between so-called "legalism" and "antinomianism."  This conflict did not initially appear in the present moment, but can trace its origin as far back as the early church.  Reformed theology added to the confusion as the discussion generally concerns the theological issues of justification and sanctification.  As it applies to our study, we will not address these two doctrines as separate studies, for their content appears elsewhere.  Justification appears in our discussion of the gospel.  Sanctification constitutes the totality of this series.  After all, the process of sanctification involves learning to live Christian in an unchristian world.

Returning to the battle regarding sanctification, the true issue is the confusion between justification, adoption, and sanctification.  These three doctrine form the core of our understanding of what benefits we receive from Christ our mediator.  To understand adoption, we must understand it in context of the other two.

To begin, we return to the Westminster standards, and specifically, the Shorter Catechism.  These simpler definitions will help us form the contextual picture.  According to the catechism, "Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone." (WSC 33)  Notice three elements we have already mentioned.  Justification is an act, a one time, never to be repeated, event.  It is forensic, having to do with the judgment of God regarding us, declaring us righteous.  It is based on imputation, Christ's righteousness imputed to us and our sin imputed to Him, by faith.

In contrast, the Catechism summarizes sanctification with the following definition.  "Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness."  In contrast to justification, which is an act, sanctification is a work, a process, something that takes time to improve.  Whereas justification is the act of God alone, sanctification is based on the activity of God but also involves the work of man.  Finally, justification is a declaration of righteousness, but sanctification is the practical working of righteousness.

In the battles that rage, many who assert the necessity of the law focus on the absolute distinction between justification and sanctification.  Those who focus on the subordinate role of the law discuss the interrelationship between justification and sanctification.  What I am afraid both sides forget is the significance adoption plays in the interstices between justification and sanctification.  I assert that without adoption the law tends towards legalism and without adoption grace tends toward antinomianism.

What then is this critical doctrine? We return to the Shorter Catechism.  "Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges, of the sons of God."  Notice that like justification, adoption is also a once for all act of God alone.  This act makes us part of God's family with all rights and privileges appertaining thereto.  In summary, we could say that justification is the judicial part of redemption, sanctification is the practical pare of redemption, and adoption is the relational part of redemption.  Justification is an act that judicially makes us righteous.  Sanctification is a process that makes us more righteous.  Adoption is an act that makes us one of the family of the righteous.

Here is where adoption plays such a critical role in the controversy regarding sanctification.  If one eliminates it, you lose the context of the law and the motivation of grace.  The law was given to the people of God, not as the way to obtain God's favor, not as the means of retaining God's favor, but as instructions for life to those who eternally have God's favor.  God will not eject His own from His family.  We obey the law not out of fear of abandonment, but for joy of our acceptance.  The law is no heinous imposition to spoil our fun.  It is no set of hoops to jump through for a peaceful life.  It is the household code, defining the rules of God's family.

Think of the law this way.  Humanity was created in holiness, which we lost in the fall.  In Christ, we have been redeemed from the fall.  We have been promised the restoration of that pre-fall life.  The law describes the new life we have.  The law describes who we are as Eden restored.  How can we ignore the law?  How can we not love the law, seen in this light?  The law is our dearest friend as it describes what we have in Christ.

Adoption reminds us that living in an unchristian world requires an element of separation.  This world is not our home.  That is to say, that we are not a part of the family of fallen humanity anymore.  We are strangers to them, as we should be.  We cannot think that the rules of the world will fit with the law of God.  We will ever struggle with the different.  We will ever face the temptation to revert to our old family ways.  Adoption reminds us that we are not of this world and must live different.

Adoption also motivates us to this new life.  We don't have to seek the approval of the world.  We no longer have to march to their tune lest they reject us.  We are rejected of the world, yet eternally accepted in Christ.  We long to live authentically Christian, authentically human because we are new in Him.

Adoption gives us the freedom to live for others because we no longer have to live for ourselves.  Living Christian in an unchristian world demands a lack of self-centeredness.  As we have already seen, we are called upon to love our neighbor in the way the God' has loved us.  We can do this because adoption reminds us that the relationship we have with God never changes.  We ever will be His children.  In this assurance, we can spend our lives for others.  We can love others secure that we are loved by God.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Covenants

One of my prized possessions is a boat, a wooden boat.  It's not a thing of impressive proportions.  In fact, it only runs thirty inches from stem to stern.  My great-grandfather gave it to my father who gave it to me.  My father painted it, but my great-grandfather built it from scratch.  The hull he made from walnut board glued together and meticulously shaped.  The deck he constructed from teak and designed it to run off batteries.  It could propel itself through water with a variable rudder that could be fixed in any direction you desired.  He wired it with two switches: one for the lights and one for the propeller.  It is my project to restore it to some semblance of its former glory.

My father told me the most startling thing about this small, hand-made vessel.  His grand-father had claimed that it could sail, without danger of capsizing in the actual ocean.  This claim, my father had to test, and so he took the boat into the ocean and tested it, and it remained afloat.  This tiny vessel in comparison with the mighty sea remained the master of the waves.

We often see much of that boat in our struggle to live Christian in an unchristian world.  The world's sea would see us capsize and yet, miraculously, we seem to stay afloat.  How is this possible?  How can we have confidence that we will remain upright when the entire world seems obsessed with our demise, when the waves of temptation would see us sink?

We come to the topic of covenants.  To some, this brings up images of sprinkled babies or broken promises.  Some Christians despise so-called covenant theology, knowing only its apparent superficial ramifications.  Nevertheless, you may not study the Bible properly without understanding the importance of covenants, for the Bible speaks of them regularly.  The church has legitimately traced the story of redemption through the covenants.

To begin with, we must define what a covenant is.  One theologian suggests the definition that it is an agreement between two or more persons. (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p.264)  Another has added that it is "a bond in blood sovereignly administered." (O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, p.4)  The Westminster Confession of Faith reads, "The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant." (WCF 7.1)  The covenant then is the means by which God willingly stoops down to man to enable man to have a blessed relationship with Him.  That relationship imposes requirements, of itself, not arbitrarily demanded of God.

We have already seen how a relationship with God requires personal, perfect and perpetual righteousness.  The first covenant then reveals that requirement.  "The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience." (WCF 7.2)  In Genesis chapter 2, God puts Adam in the garden and gives him the responsibility over the creation.  He gives him freedom to eat of any tree in the garden but one.  That one tested Adam's obedience, obedience being the qualification for continued relationship.  We call this covenant, the covenant of works, for relationship with God demanded every man's righteousness.

After the fall, another covenant was necessary.  Here, it could not be every man's work that enabled the relationship with God.  Rather, it was Jesus' work applied to us by grace.  Thus, we call this covenant the covenant of grace.  The confession also speaks of this covenant, "wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe." (WCF 7.3)

While these constructs are logical, they do not appear as plainly in the text of scripture.  Instead, in hindsight, looking back and viewing all through the lens of the New Testament, we see how this must be.  Paul will speak of the failure of the first Adam and the success of the second. (Romans 5)  Revelation paints heaven with Edenic colors.  Hebrews speaks of the superior covenant under Christ, fulfilling all the Old Testament expectations.

When you look at the covenants the Bible describes in New Testament light, you discover a progression in revelation.  The Old Testament begins with simple promises and brings more light to the work of God as the history of God's people progresses through time.  Any good teacher understands that learning takes time.  You cannot ask the student to proceed from the concept that 2+2=4 immediately to solving the quadratic equation.  The learning of subtraction, division, algebra, and geometry must intervene.  So also, we ought not expect covenants in Genesis to fully reveal the character of the covenant fully understood in Revelation.  Nevertheless, you can see the beginning of the process, the light of the gospel beginning to shine.

We begin with Genesis 3:15 "And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel."  We call this the first declaration of the gospel, as God promises to crush the head of the serpent bruising the heel of the seed of the woman.  This looks little like the cross, but in hindsight, we can clearly see its connection.

In tracing the covenants, God's promises to certain people stand out as major advances in the covenant idea.  The first is Adam as we have seen.  The second is Noah.  The world is wracked with evil and God cleanses it with the flood.  In that event, He saves His people through the ark.  After the flood, the Lord promises never to destroy the earth again with the flood of water.  Another deliverer will come to carry His people through the final judgment.

The next major character is Abraham.  The Lord calls Abraham out of Ur and leads him to Canaan, promising to give Abraham this land and a mighty nation.  This promise appears paradoxical.  Consider the promises.  The Lord promises the land of Canaan to Abraham and descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven or sand on the seashore.  How will all those people live in that one small part of the globe?  With this paradox, the Lord also states that in Abraham's seed, all the nations of the world would be blessed. (Gen. 22:18)  Paul will interpret this statement in his letter to the churches in Galatia. "Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ." (Gal.3:16)  So in Christ, the nations of the world are blessed and Abraham possesses descendants that Christianity cannot number.

The next major character in the covenant is Moses.  The covenant Moses made with Israel has so many beauties to it.  The covenant officially appears in Exodus 19, but its operation runs throughout the rest of the Pentateuch.  In it, we discover how God's people live.  Note that the construction of God's people appears in chapter 19, and the law begins in chapter 20.  The law never made people God's people.  God's people learn the law as recovering their lost selves, their rightful inheritance that sin took from them.

David appears next as the Lord promises to build David a royal dynasty. (II Samuel 7)  David intended to build the temple, but God thwarted his plan and would not let David build the Lord a house, but instead the Lord would build David a "house".  That is why the New Testament constantly refers to Jesus as the son of David, for He was the fulfillment of the promise that the kingdom would be established forever.

After David, the history of Israel takes a downward turn.  Israel fails into idolatry and sin.  This also, God intended, for these covenants only pointed forward to the one greater covenant of which these were only dispensations or administrations.  Israel's earthly kingdom had to fall to remind us that a greater kingdom, a greater land, a heavenly home lay before us.  The author of Hebrew reminds us of this truth in the so-called "hall of faith."

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.  For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.  And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.  But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.
Hebrews 11:13-16

In Jeremiah, the promise of the final covenant appears.

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.  And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. 
Jeremiah 31:31-34

This final covenant Jesus fulfilled and established.  In Him, God performed all the promises that the Old Testament records.  We now look forward for Jesus to return to complete our redemption.

Now we turn to where we began, the value of the covenants in living Christian in an unchristian world.  The author of Hebrews explains why the Lord should bind Himself to covenantal promises, but in order to understand his words, we must go back to Genesis, to Abraham.

And he said, Lord GOD, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it? And he said unto him, Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon. And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not. And when the fowls came down upon the carcases, Abram drove them away. And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him....  And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces.  In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram. 
Genesis 15:8-12,17-18a

Notice that this covenant was made for the sake of assuring Abraham of the truth of the promises that God had made.  The strange ritual here reflected the covenantal rituals of the nations around Abraham.  The Lord used this rite to give assurance to His chosen.  The ritual symbolized the consequences of breaking the covenant.  The corpses, threatened by buzzards, communicated that if one broke his promises, he would become like those corpses for the buzzards to consume.

Notice also significantly that Abraham never passes between the corpses.  In this ceremony, the superior party would make the inferior party pass through the pieces, threatening what the stronger would do to the weaker if they rebelled.  Here, God Himself in TWO figures pass through the pieces.  The Lord communicated to Abraham that He put His existence at stake regarding His promises.

Now to Hebrews:

And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end: that ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.  For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself, saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee.  And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise.  For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife.  Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast. 
Hebrews 6:13-19

The author of Hebrews encouraged his readers to remain steadfast in their obedience in the face of living in an unchristian world because of God's faithfulness to His promises.  These promises, confirmed by covenant provide the sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.

We need that anchor.  We need that assurance to stand steadfast in the face of the world's opposition.  We need the confidence that God cannot turn aside from saving us.  We need the assurance that God still operates to enable us to stand in the midst of trial.  We need the covenants to vividly show us what is at stake for God if He fail to fulfill His promises.  When we feel like the world is against us, when it seems like we are that little boat in the midst of a vast ocean, we need more than the promise of our ancestors.  We need the covenants.   We need the anchor of our soul.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Gospel

To this point, we have looked at attributes to emulate or principles that will be directly applicable to the circumstances of life.  Now, we take a step back to survey the scene and to ask ourselves an important question, "Why?"  Why do we want to live Christian in an unchristian world?  Certainly, in some respects we ought to have discussed this idea first instead of buried the middle of the second tier.  Addressing the task methodically often places important issues in odd places for building the structure of our minds often does not proceed from that which ought matter most to us, but from that which logically precedes.  We have built the structure from the model of the Westminster Confession of Faith.  We began with Scripture.  From Scripture, we developed the picture of God revealed therein.  We next developed the picture of man and his fall.  Now, we turn our attention to the redemption of man by God, the message we commonly call the gospel.

The gospel's importance will not appear in stark connections, but in its underlying the entirety of the Christianity.  You cannot live Christian at all without understanding the gospel.  But more than this, the gospel is the ultimate motivation to obey God.  Where every man before God ought to conform his life to the law, the unregenerate man cannot, for he does not want to.  Even those who seem to have a form of obedience do so not out of devotion to God, but from selfish fear or a selfish pursuit of favor.

The gospel also colors our understanding of all the doctrines of Christianity.  Without the gospel light shining through them, theology grows cold and horrid.  Take, for instance, the role of women in the church.  The Bible clearly indicates that the church requires male leadership.  Some have objected that this does not fit with our modern concepts of equality between the genders.  In an effort to circumvent the plain text, they invent a unique cultural context that allows them to suggest that the writers did not intend their teaching to be universal or applied outside the narrow context of the specific situation  they address.  Does this make the gospel shine?  No.  The church did poorly by emphasizing the necessity of male headship without demonstrating the gospel light in the doctrine.  For the message of the gospel is the glorious truth that God in Christ elected to save all kinds of people.  Even those who the world considers low and unimportant, God raises to be the trophies of His grace.  (I Corinthians 1:26-29)

So, does the gospel suppress the gifts of women?  Certainly not.  Rather, the gospel tells the beloved housewife and mother, that in the day of judgment, her reward may eclipse the greatest man.  For her worth is not measured by the world.  Her ministry is not gauged by office, but in her faithfulness to her calling.  We are all too often convinced that our ambitions God blesses. That what we want to do is what God calls us to do.  Yet God never calls us to what His word forbids.  It is in faithful obedience regardless of the estimation of the world that determines the acceptance of our service to God.

We have yet to discuss the substance of the gospel.  We have discussed the importance of the gospel, but not what it is.  Yet we know it too well, and not well enough.  The gospel begins before the world.  "God,... out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life." (WSC20) (Eph.1:3-5)  The doctrine of election also suffers from the church failing to present it in gospel light.  For we forget the truth we learned in the last lesson.  The fall plunged all mankind into death, spiritual death, and incapability to do any good toward our own salvation. (Eph. 2:1-7)  We could not save ourselves or move anywhere close to it.  We have not faith to believe.  Without God choosing to save, all mankind would be lost.

But how could God save sinful humans?  What mechanism could He conceive that would allow Him to retain His justice and yet in love forgive sin?  Theologians use the phrase, "consequent necessary atonement."  By this, they mean that God was not required to save any, but having chosen to do so, the redemptive plan revealed in scripture is the only mechanism which God's character would allow to save sinful man.  He purposed to send the second person of the trinity, the Son, incarnate, in human flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, to the cross, as a sacrifice for sin.  This role the Son willingly undertook, for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God who loves His chosen people.

In that work of redemption, something amazing happens.  For it is not a clean slate that God requires to have fellowship with Him.  He requires perfect obedience, holiness like His own.  This is no arbitrary demand, but a necessary qualification for the environment.  If one would live underwater, one must grow gills.  If one would live before holiness, one must put on holiness.  Since we have no holiness, no righteousness of our own, we need to get it from somewhere.  Rather, we have sin, and that must be taken from us.  Theologians use the phrase "double imputation" to describe the atonement.  The gospel teaches us on the cross, God imputed, accounted our sin to Jesus and judged them there.  Jesus fully satisfied divine justice on the cross for the sins of God's people.  But in our justification, God imputes, accounts the perfect obedience, the righteousness, the holiness of Jesus to us.  Thus, we are cleansed of our sin and wear the righteousness of Christ that enables us to fellowship with God.

The Bible uses the term justification to make a very significant point.  The work of Jesus is applied in a very precise way.  Humanity faces the judgment of God due to us for sin.  One day, every human must stand before God.  The fall makes this trial necessary as would any crime.  At some point, the criminal must face the judge.  On the last day, the world will be judged by God who will by no means clear the guilty.  Justification indicates that a part of that final trial has already occurred.  It means that God has already been conducted the trial of His people.  We never see it with human eyes, but it occurs nonetheless.  It happened in absentia.  The evidence of our guilt was presented.  The penalty exacted.  Our righteousness approved, and the verdict signed, "Not guilty."  On the last day, God's people will not be retried, but "openly acknowledged and acquitted." (WSC 38)  The verdict confirmed and read before the world.

This is the gospel.  We who are sinners, are made righteous.  We who deserve death, have been given life.  We who were headed to hell, now travel to heaven.  God loved us so much that He would sacrifice His own Son to save us so "that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." (Ro.3:26)

Allow me to give two glorious consequences that we ought to take from the gospel.  First, we ought learn to speak of doctrine in gospel terms.  The defection from doctrine has weakened the church and opened the door to many heresies.  The blame for the defection must be shared by those proponents of doctrine who failed to communicate it with gospel light.  I'm afraid that would include this author as well.  We often forget in our presentation of doctrine to shine the light of the gospel on what would otherwise be dead letters.

Allow me to present an example.  This series is written from the reformed perspective.  Although it is hoped that broader Christianity will benefit from it, the author's foundation must be admitted.  I hold to the reformed tradition because I judge it to be generally the most accurate system of doctrine reveals in the pages of the holy scriptures.  In this system, we often reflect on the so-called "five points of Calvinism."  I say "so-called" for although John Calvin would perhaps never quibbled about them, they were actually developed many years after his death.  Many Christians object to these five assertions because they see them as cold, robotic, and unloving.  If true, these accusations would be fatal.  Unfortunately, Calvin's detractors have cause for making these allegations for the proponents of the "five points" often present them with calculating exactness, pressing, not the gospel within, but cold exegesis.  While we may counter that people should bow to the text of the Bible, calculating exegesis fails to convince in the light of the Biblical theme of love.

Can we then see these "five points" in gospel light?  Certainly so.  We begin with total depravity, the complete inability of man to save himself of even to believe.  Little of gospel light is showing yet.  Man's death by sin reveals the ugly necessity of redemption.  Man is not sick with sin but death.  Man need not a mere physician, but a God who has life in himself. (John 5:26)  We have no control of our salvation, and that scares us.  We live our lives convinced that we can fix ourselves, and the Bible tells us, "No, you cannot."  How else will God's power shine?  If He does something to help?  No.  He does what we could never do.

Unconditional election results from God's unconditional love.  How awful the fatal argument that God looks down the corridor of time and chooses those who He knows will choose Him.  Is that love?  It certainly is not unconditional love.  No, God loved us when we were totally depraved.  He loved us when we were at our most unlovable.  Why did God' love us?  Because it pleased Him to do so.  Why did God choose to love me?  That is a question that eternity cannot answer for it has no answer.  If it did, God's love would not be unconditional.  We did nothing to deserve God's love and we can do nothing to lose it.  He chose to love us, and we can only quake in awe.

Limited atonement proves the love of God in the sacrifice of His Son for us.  If we believe that Jesus died in the place of sinful humanity, we are put to one of three options.  Either all humanity is saved, Jesus took the penalty of only the elect, or God has perpetrated some kind of injustice.  Limited atonement asserts the second for the first is plainly denied in scripture and the last is inconsistent with the revealed character of God.  If Jesus took the penalty for all people's sin and some people go to hell, then either God judges that person twice in hell, or Jesus suffered needlessly.  The gospel shows the love and justice of God in the atonement of God's chosen people.

Irresistible grace tells us that when we could not make ourselves believe, God gave us faith.  If depravity demands that God must sovereignly accomplish redemption, He must also sovereignly apply salvation to us.  How great is the gospel that we need not look at our faith for the assurance of our salvation, but at the work of Jesus?  We need not fear that we "did it wrong" in our salvation, for we did nothing.  God applied salvation to us.

He did it and we can never lose it.  The perseverance of the saint tells us that those who God saves, He does not lose.  the gospel reminds us that we didn't earn God's love and so can never lose His love.  We did not accomplish our salvation and so can never fail in it.  We did not apply salvation to ourselves and so can never unapply it.  The Spirit who applied redemption to our soul will never stop conforming us to the image of Christ.  That is what the loved of God want, to look more like Christ and even when we fail, we know that the Sprit will continue that work inexorably.

Every doctrine must shine with gospel light.  Every truth must be communicated with the zeal of gospel love.  Truth without love brings drudgery, weariness, and frustration.  Truth in love motivates us with a fire unquenchable fueled by the Holy Spirit.

This leads us to the final consequence and most apt for this study.  The gospel is the motivation extreme.  As we see the love of God manifested in the gospel, we cannot but be compelled to live in the riches that He provides.  Paul wrote, "For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again." (II Corinthians 5:14-15)

We will only want to live Christian in an unchristian world if we remember the gospel.  The love of God revealed in redemption fuels our devotion and desire to honor Him in our lives.  If we would accomplish what we have set out to do in this study, we must, we must understand its importance not in a cold and abstract manner, but flooded with the love revealed in the gospel.  This is who we are, who Christ has made us, and we will live it, no matter how the world may stand against us.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Fall

Sin.  Three letters.  The most avoided subject in the world.  Accuse someone of sin, and expect hostility.  The source of all problems.  The solution to none.  The most significant idea in anthropology.  The idea least picked as important.  A moral issue with global consequences.  So simple a child understands it.  So invasive the wise continue to fall to it.  Humanity hates the concept of sin, but loves to participate in it.

What is sin?  The Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches us that, "Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God." (WSC 14)  Sin is the violation of God's law.  Sin is doing, thinking, or intending evil.  In contradiction to the message of the world that man is basically good, the Bible reveals that man is a slave to sin, a slave to evil, not basically good, but inherently evil.

We cannot understand ourselves without understanding what brought us to our current condition.  Theologians call this event, the fall.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism states, "The sin whereby our first parents fell from the estate wherein they were created, was their eating the forbidden fruit." (WSC 15)  The story appears in Genesis 3.  It is well-known to us.  God placed Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.  In the middle of the garden stood the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  God commanded that they not eat of that tree on pain of death.  The vice-ruler of the creatures could not eat of one tree, while being welcome to eat from all others.  O. Palmer Robertson, brilliantly suggest the explanation to this curious situation.  Why did God place the tree there if man could not eat of it?  "One tree stands in the midst of the garden as symbolic reminder that man is not God." (Christ of the Covenants, p.83)

We know the rest of the story.  The serpent tempted Eve and she ate.  She gave to her husband, Adam, and he ate.  Milton's fantasy notwithstanding, Adam was so complicit with his wife's sin that he had no justification to blame her.  He was to blame.  Through that act, sin and death entered humanity.  Again, the Westminster Shorter Catechism reads, "The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery."

Spiritual Consequences

How has the fall affected mankind?  Let us work from the inside out.  The fall changed the spiritual state of mankind.  This appears in the first of the divine pronouncements following the confession of their sin. "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." (Genesis 3:15) We call this the proto-evangelium, the first announcement of the gospel, the promise that the seed of the woman, Jesus, would crush the head of the serpent, Satan.  However, closer inspection reveals that this pronouncement discloses a change in position of the woman and by extension the man.  Why did God need to promise to put enmity between the serpent and the woman?  Because it wasn't there before.  Adam and Eve, by their sin, had become allies of the serpent and enemies of God.  God promises to break the alliance between His people and the serpent.

This natural alliance is the state of all mankind at birth.  At birth, we are immediately allies of evil and enemies of good, servants of sin and strangers to grace, friends of Satan and hostile toward God.  That is the spiritual state that Paul will call being dead in sin. (Ephesians 2:1-5)  By this, Paul reveals that not only are we in that alliance, but can do nothing to change our position.  We cannot on our own change and become a friend of God.  We cannot break our alliance with Satan.  The pronouncement of God in Genesis 3:15 hints at this truth as God promises to do what man apparently cannot.  The Lord will put that enmity in His people for they cannot do it themselves.  The fall made us spiritually dead, allies of Satan, enemies of God, incapable of changing our position from birth.

Intellectual Consequences

The fall not only changed our spiritual state, but it also affected the rest of our nature.  We are mentally changed by sin.  The effects of sin on our mind appear in another pronouncement by God after the fall.  To the woman, God said, "thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee."  Much debate has arisen over the interpretation of this verse.  One generally agreed upon fact is that this reflects a change in the relationship and mindset between the spouses.  The thinking of humanity had changed in the fall, not only of the woman, but also of the man.

Humanity's capacity for thought has been corrupted by the fall.    God's pronouncement concerning the frustration of work also supports this concept. (Genesis 3:17-19)  Paul will speak of this as will to the church in Corinth. "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." (I Corinthians 2:14)  The Psalmist has much to say about folly resulting from sin. "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good." (Psalm 14:1)  Proverbs notes that wisdom begins by changing our spiritual state.  "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding." (Proverbs 9:10)

Sin corrupts our minds so that we struggle to obtain wisdom or knowledge.  The information we receive is tainted by sin.  We interpret revelation according to our own evil desires, persisting in our mind's preferences rather than allowing the truth to penetrate our defenses.  We prefer our personal conceptions to reality.  Instead of allowing God's revelation to change our minds, we use our minds to change revelation.

The most basic evidence of the effect of sin on our mental state, also called the noetic effect of the fall, appears in our sinful thoughts.  "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" (Isaiah 5:20)  We think in reverse.  We think sin is good and holiness is evil.  We think the rewards of sin are sweet and the rewards of obedience bitter.  Is it any wonder then that our actions reflect the evil that is in our minds?

The Bible summarizes the inward effects of sin with these words.  "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9)  The heart here does not limit itself to mere emotions.  In the Bible, the author uses "heart" to describe the core of a person.  Here, all the inward faculties are included: mind, will, and emotions.  We think the wrong things.  We want the wrong things.  We feel the wrong things.

Physical Consequences

Sin's effects do not stop with the inner man.  They flood out into the physical aspects of life.  Hear how God pronounces how sin will affect man's physicality. "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." (Genesis 3:19)  God also includes the woman in the effect of sin on her body. "Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children." (Genesis 3:16)

God warned Adam that eating of the tree meant death.  That physical death did not immediately occur, although the spiritual death did.  Instead, the process of death began, and all the physical aspects of death began to run their course.  Every misery of life comes from this fall and sin.  We may not trace every injury, disease, or sickness to a single sin committed, but the evils of life all arise from sin.

It is not mere illness and death that arise from sin, but the process of aging and weakness also demonstrate the effects of sin.  Man was not created to die.  Man was created to live forever, and but for his sin would have.  Mortality is a sin-caused condition of man.  The gradual decline of age is a result of the fall.  It was not so at creation.

Natural Consequences

Finally, the fall brought the effects of sin into the created order over which man ruled.  The reality of this is seen in the curse God pronounces after the fall.  "And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life." (Genesis 3:17)  Notice in this passage that the Lord never "curses" the man or woman.  He curses the serpent and the ground.  The ground is cursed because of man's sin.  The ground is frustrated in its fruitfulness.  This condition shows up in Paul's writing again.
For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.  For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. (Romans 8:19-22)
The violence and calamities of the planet are the fault of man.  We may question the conclusions behind the doomsday scenarios of modern science, but we cannot but admit that natural disasters must be laid at the feet of sinful man.

Living Christian in an unchristian world means understanding how sin has corrupted the entire world at a profound level.  Man is not merely weaken by sin, but corrupted, spiritually dead, mentally deficient, and physically broken.  Nature itself suffers the frustration sin imposes upon it.  The truth of man's depravity balances out perspective of man's good creation.  Goodness still appears, but ordinarily in ways still reeking of sin.  Living Christian in an unchristian world requires discerning the good from the evil.  Only by recognizing how pervasive the evil is, can we hope to carry out our duty with wisdom.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Image of God

Christianity struggles with the battle of extremes regarding the nature of man, whether it be basically good or evil.  The world conceives of man as basically good.  One writer expressed it the worldly perspective well.  "Yes, we have crippled eyes, but not a core of un-goodness. We are true and right, but often ignorant and stupid, acting out of the pain of our wrongheadedness, hurting ourselves, others, and even all creation. Blind, not depraved is our condition." (from Lies We Believe About God by Wm. Paul Young, collected from http://www.challies.com/book-reviews/what-does-the-shack-really-teach-read-lies-we-believe-about-god)  The world tells us that no matter how poorly people err in our thinking or behavior, we are, at heart, good and want to do good.  How such a naive concept still persists in this world boggles the mind.  If the world truly thinks this way, the modern American practice of demonization constitutes a direct contradiction to this idea.  Half of the nation think the other half seek to destroy the country, and the other half return the favor.  Each remains convinced that their political opponents are basically evil.

On the other hand, the church has proclaimed the total depravity of man.  The Bible teaches that man is basically evil.  We appreciate the disastrous effects of the fall.  We quote verses like, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9)  We proclaim that even the plowing of the wicked is sin. (Proverbs 21:4)  Man can do nothing to make himself right with God.

The extent of man's depravity, we will examine later.  Here, we want to inject a modicum of balance.  Man is not basically good, but man's depravity does not alone express the whole story.  The Bible teaches that man was created good.  He was made in the image of God.

The concept of creation in the image of God appears in the creation narrative in Genesis. "And 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 fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." (Genesis 1:26-27)  After God had created all other creatures, He chose to create man in His image.  He gave this unique creature dominion over all the creation that He had made.  Man was to be God's vice-governor over all the created order.

The nature of this image of God also appears in the most focused account in Genesis chapter 2. "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." (Genesis 2:7)  The creation story here shows the close connection between God and man.  We may never know the exact nature of the "breath of life" with which God endued man.  We do know that our soul comes from God.  We do know that some part of God is imaged in man.

Before proceeding on, we must address the worlds false conception of man's creation.  In former days, John Milton described the diabolical mindset in his epic poem, Paradise Lost.  In Book 5, Satan argues with the angel Abdiel the rightness of his rebellion against God.  Abdiel, the faithful angel, charges Satan with treachery against the one who created the angels.  Satan responds in these words, "[W]ho saw [w]hen this creation was? [R]ememberst thou [t]hy making, while the Maker gave thee being?  We know no time when we were not as now; [k]now none before us, self-begot, self-rais'd [b]y our own quick'ning power."  Satan questions the argument by suggesting that the angels were not created but self-originating.  None remembered their origin, so none could authoritatively claim that they were created.  If they were self-originated, they owed not duty to God.  To the devil, submission to the Lord based on His creation of the angels was a specious argument.

Milton's description of Satan cannot be held authentic.  Milton had no revelation of God to aid him in his poetry.  Instead, he took rebellious human thought and put it in the mouth of the devil.  One might note with irony that a man replaced the lie in the mouth of the one who whispered it into the ear of man.  As man believes this about himself, Milton puts it in the mouth of the one who likely persuaded man of its logic.

Man cannot be so mindless as to assert his own self-origination.  He cannot compete with the pride of the angels.  Rather, he places his origination at the hand of impersonal science, statistics, and chance.  These forces create no relationship that must be honored.  They impose no duty that must be fulfilled.  They function as good as self-origination in the conception of man.

What man and Satan recognized was that if created, the creation must submit to the creator.  If created, the creation can never hope to overthrow the creator.  If created, rebellion against the creator is futile and evil.  We can overthrow other created things, no matter how strong with enough manpower, time, and skill.  The gods fell and continue to fall to the ingenuity of man.  Rebellion against immoral tyranny does not contradict our notions of justice.  Rebellion against the creator defies logic and basic morality.

Instead, the Bible reminds us that we are created beings, made in the image of God, and so responsible to imitate His character.  We may not know much about the image of God, but we must conclude that it included the moral attributes of the Lord.  The duty before God is summarized in the statement given to Moses. "Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy." (Lev.19:2)  The Lord repeats this command in the law. (Lev. 11:44,45; 20:7,26; 21:8)  It also appears in the New Testament as well. (I Peter 1:16)  The moral attributes of God are part of that image imprinted in us.  These we are to imitate.  As we are made in the image of God, we are to imitate God.  The parts of us imprinted by God only work correctly when functioning like God.  The human does not work well when it attempts to operate opposed to the moral character of God.  To do so is like a man trying to hammer a nail with an iPhone.

Another part of the image of God granted to man, we may call communicative rationality.  As God gave man dominion over the creatures, we must assert some natural superiority to the physical creation.  The evolutionary myth concerning our origin robs mankind of its dignity over the creatures.  The Bible teaches that our dignity comes not from our prowess or conquest, but was given to us by God.  We exercise dominion, not because we conquered creation, but because it was made for us and subservient to us.

In order to rule, God provided us with two gifts, the ability to reason, and the ability to communicate.  As governors of creation under God, we are commanded to execute distinct judgment. This appears in the grant of authority to man from the Lord God.  "And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." (Genesis 2:15-17)  As man is granted governance of the garden of Eden and commanded to refrain from eating of a certain tree, we must conclude that man has a rationality distinct from the mind of God.  This rationality has duties and responsibilities attached to it.  Man cannot choose his own path without consequences, but is able to consider how best to fulfill his duty before God.

Man is also granted the ability to communicate.  The evidence appears first in the communication that the Lord speaks to man.  It also appears in the relationship between God and man appearing later.  In the fall narrative, the man and woman hear the voice of God moving in the cool of the day.  The presence of God in the garden suggests that there was ordinary conversation between God and his regent on earth.  Man was never an absolute ruler, but a vice-ruler under God.  Communication between man and God, man and man, man and woman, all appear within the first four chapters of the Bible.  As God spoke the worlds into existence, so man shares that ability of speech as part of the image of God.

As vice-regent of the creatures, God gave man with that rationality a measure of freedom.  Man's freedom cannot contradict God's sovereignty, anymore than his rule can exceed God's.  Man's dominion and freedom are derivative, they come from God.  Thus, they are subordinate to God.  Man's freedom can never thwart God's sovereign plan, purpose, or power.  Nevertheless, man is granted freedom.  This freedom, we will see, he used to his own end and own hurt.

Finally, we must note the declaration of God regarding man.  After the creation of man, we read, "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31a)  God created man good.  So the world is right, in a sense.  Man was created basically good, and if the Bible contained nothing but the first two chapters of Genesis, we could agree with the world.  But chapter 3 ruins the potential for conciliation.  Man was made good, but did not stay good.

When we think of the principles for living Christian in an unchristian world, we can identify several from the concept of man's creation in the image of God.  Unlike the world, we must understand the consequences of being created by God.  We must understand that the world thinks nothing of rebellion because they are uncreated.  They may think they can win against God because they were not made by Him.  We cannot afford such a naive thought.  As the moral attributes of God are imprinted on our nature as made in His image, so the human cannot operate properly in disobedience.  Not only is disobedience insane rebellion against the Lord, but it also constitutes a malfunction of the human creature.

Man in the image of God possesses the capacity to reason.  What he does with that capacity may not turn out well for reasons we will discuss later.  Nevertheless, the ability to reason exists because of the image of God.  Man also has the ability to communicate, a gift again that he often uses for evil instead of good.  God has given man a measure of freedom created in His image.  The world may take this freedom as an excuse for immorality, but the concept of freedom is in itself not evil.  Coercion of one man against another ought be avoided.

Man was created good.  Even in the face of the crippling damage done to that goodness, man still occasionally does something good.  In the wake of the fall, in the depths of man's depravity, God ordains for us to remember the goodness of His creation in glimpses of goodness.  Living Christian in an unchristian world means we cannot agree that man is basically good.  However, it also means we must understand that man was created good.  What happened next reminds us why we need this study at all.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Creation

My father had concerns that he was eager for his children to adopt.  One was an animosity against materialism. He saw a world where the acquisition of stuff rule people's lives and didn't want his children to fall victim to its sway.  In this effort, he never ceased reminding us not to put our affections on stuff because eventually, it would all burn.  This theory he adopted from a reading of II Peter 3.   These experiences started my process of thinking about the created order.

Having finished our examination of the character of God, we turn to discover a principle in His first work recorded in Scripture, creation.  We must begin by asserting the truth of the creation narrative in the first two chapters of Genesis.  Numerous theories have struggled with the relationship between the first and second chapter.  While holding to the traditional understanding, I have no interest in entering into those debates here.  Rather, we must understand that even in the church the doctrine of divine creation ex nihilo finds itself under attack.

Whatever theory you adopt about creation, Christianity proclaims that God created the world out of nothing and into nothing.  God did not use preexisting matter to make the world, nor did He create into something that pre-existed.  Where there was nothing, with nothing, God created the universe.

This type of theology has come under assault because of theories of science developed in conflict with scripture.  The theory of evolution and concepts of time estimation argue against scripture.  Sinful, human minds created theories to justify their rejection of God, even in their concepts about the origin of the universe.  The data they collect to justify their theories may seem daunting.  The Christian must decide whether he will accept as foundational truth the word of God or the word of man.

This debate brings to mind the seventeenth century battle over geocentrism and heliocentrism.  Many choose to blame the church for its reluctance to accept new theories of science, justifying their reluctance with scripture.  Traditional understandings should not be so easily swept aside for novelty.  Yet the church must acknowledge that the Bible does not speak primarily about science.  For every human theory, data can appear for its defense.  Even geocentrism had its proofs.  The rush to accept new theories of science has not proved beneficial to holiness.

If God created the world out of nothing and into nothing, what does this matter?  The western world has seen an influx in the past two centuries of the theology of the east.  As trade between east and west grew, the west grew in its knowledge about the religions of the east.  With this understanding came syncretism and adoption.  While not everything in eastern through appeared in the west, a number of ideas grew in unexamined adoption and popularity.  Chief amongst these were concepts of divine origin.

In our previous discussion about God, we learned about the world's desire for a deity without personality.  This desire originated from the west's acceptance of an eastern idea.  Some have called it eastern pantheistic monism.  "Eastern" means the idea's origin in the east.  "Pantheistic" means the universe is god.  "Monism" means all is one.  This principle appears in many of the religious concepts of the east.  It means that the universe is god and one.  All things are a unity, and that god is in all things.  You are the rock and the rock and you are god.

Christianity denies this concept.  God is not His creation.  God created out of nothing (ex nihilo).  This proves that nothing is greater or pre-existing to God.  God didn't need to use other stuff to create the universe.  The principle of creation ex nihilo demonstrates the superiority and sovereign power of God.

But God also created into nothing.  This means that the universe is not a part of God but something distinct, yet dependent upon God.  Without God, the universe would cease to exists, but the universe isn't God.  By this doctrine, Christianity denies pantheism, the idea that god is everything, and everything is god.

Christianity also denies panentheism.  In contrast to pantheism which says that the universe is god, panentheism asserts that god is in everything.  This also comes from certain easter religions.  It constitutes a variant within eastern pantheistic monism.  All are one, not due to all being god, but due to all having god within.  I am one with the rock because god is in both me and the rock.  While Christianity asserts the omnipresence of God, it denies the essential indwelling of God.  God is present, but not inside, or part of all things.  Again, God is not a part of His creation, though He is present everywhere within His creation.

The reason that the east maintained these concepts arose from their high opinion of nature.  The nature is good.  It is man that messes stuff up.  What man needs to do then is to reconnect with the oneness found in nature.  How they maintain this in the face of the diversity and war within nature is a discussion outside the bounds of this study.

Christianity understands the goodness of nature too, but in a different and more consistent way.  At this point, we must deal with some linguistic challenges.  In this series, we have used the term "the world" in a very negative way.  By "the world" we mean the actions and thoughts of sinful humanity so ubiquitous that they can be considered as global.  By this definition, we admit that "the world" involves the use of a stereotype.  Modern society rejects stereotypes because they brand members of a group that may think or act different from the stereotype.  This does not diminish the truth of the stereotype, but limits its descriptive power.  Not everyone within the group will act or think like it, but sufficiently enough of them will that the description of the group generally fits.  Racial and ethnic stereotype have the added detriment that they often hinder the proclamation of the gospel and ought not arise in the Christian's conversations.

"The world" is a stereotype that the Christian must use, since we find it in the Bible.  John writes, "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him." (I John 2:15)  Paul wrote, "And be not conformed to this world." (Romans 12:2)  "The world" often refers to an undifferentiated group of humans that act and think sinfully.  Jesus cautioned His disciples saying, "If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you." (John 15:18-19)  Nevertheless, Jesus will also limit the stereotype by using the same word to mean all the people groups of the globe. "I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness." (John 12:46)

For the purposes of this study, in order to avoid confusion, we will limit our use of the term of art, "the world" to the acts and thoughts of sinful humanity that appear ubiquitous, or to those same themes revealed in scripture.  In contrast, we will use "the created order" as a term of art to refer to a different use of the word "world."  By this, we mean the universe God created, including man.

This distinction is necessary, for although the world is corrupt and corrupting, the created order was good and maintains some of its goodness, though bearing the stains of sin.  The Bible requires us to make this distinction.  In the creation account in Genesis 1, God sees all that He has made and pronounces it very good.  Whatever the fall may have done to the created order, it originally was very good.  The story of redemption also affirms the goodness of the created order.  Paul describes the created order's current condition in chapter 8 of the letter to the church in Rome. "Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now." (Ro.8:21-22)  Paul describes the creation as groaning in anticipation of the completion of redemption.  The state of glory in Revelation depicts the created order as restored to its pre-fall glory and peace.

While materialism is evil, material is not.  The created order was made for man.  Genesis 1, whatever view you hold on the days of creation, describes God's preparatory steps to make the earth habitable for man.  Man needed light, air, land, sun, and animals.  God made paradise for man to inhabit and to enjoy.  The created order is good, given to us by God for us to enjoy.

This requires discernment.  We must separate the sinful corruption of the created order and our enjoyment of it, from our godly appreciation of the created order and our enjoyment of it.  Many of our human appetites for that which the created order offers are not evil.  Sin tempts us with faulty appetites, distorting how, how much, when, and where we enjoy those good things He created.  In short, much of what we see in the created order is not evil, what we do with it often is.

If we would live Christian in an unchristian world, we must learn this discernment.  Notice our use of the concept of the unchristian world.  We use the stereotype to acknowledge that the majority of the things around us constitute temptations to act and think like the world.  Living in the midst of that confusion is difficult.  We have to apply scripture to that which confronts us to determine how to resist the temptations of the world while enjoying the benefits of the created order.  We cannot simply revel in the world's sinful enjoyment.  Neither can we retreat into asceticism, denying the truth of God's good gifts.  The first calls God a miser.  The second rejects His gifts.  Instead, we must live Christian in the unchristian world.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Wisdom

One of my pastor friends repeatedly says, "God is a genius."  I react negatively to this characterization.  In my experience, we usually gauge genius by human standards.  To ascribe "genius" to God assaults His transcendence and brings Him down to a human level.  Man ought not judge the acts of God by human standards for they are superior in quantity and quality to any human analysis.

Nevertheless, I understand the awe that the works of God demand.  Isaiah wrote, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isa. 55:8-9)  Paul asked the church at Rome, "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!  For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?" (Ro.11:33-34)  The Bible records the works of God in such a way that prove His wisdom.

To begin a discussion of wisdom, we must first understand what wisdom is.  Most people think wisdom comes from intelligence.  They assume smart people are wise people.  This does not immediately follow.  Smart people can act foolishly.  Informed people can lack wisdom.  This separates information from wisdom.  Information means knowledge of facts.  Wisdom is a skill, knowledge of how to do a thing.  Wisdom has been defined as skill in living.  A better definition is skill in accomplishing one's objectives.  The more elegant the solution to those objectives, the higher the level of wisdom displayed.

When we consider the works of God, creation and providence (redemption), we see that characteristic of wisdom displayed.  The wonders of creation reveal the wisdom of God.  The might of God's work appears in the grandeur of creation.  The wisdom appears in the interconnectedness of creation.  The more natural laws that science discovers, the greater our appreciation grows for God's wisdom in creation.  From minerals to biology, plants to insects, animals and rivers, mountains and galaxies, atoms to quarks, and even dark matter, all these proclaim the infinite wisdom of God.  If we would applaud a watchmaker for his skill in making the intricate working of a complex machine, how much more ought we stand in awe at the skill evident in creation.  To call it "genius" simply fails to capture its immensity.

Turning to redemption, the skill with which God saved His people also proclaims His wisdom.  The Lord faced a knotty problem with the fall of man.  His love motivated Him to reunite with His rebellious creation.  On the other hand, His justice could not ignore the gravity of sin.  That cosmic rebellion required punishment, and God's justice could not merely overlook the crime.  How could God be wholly loving and wholly just?  How could God restore a relationship with His creation and yet deal with their sin justly?  Redemption shows us the answer, the only answer possible.  This answer reveals both God's infinite love and absolute justice.  God's love sent Jesus to the cross to take the penalty justice demanded due to man's sin.  Justice and love meet at the cross.

As we mentioned before, God requires His people to imitate His character.  As He is wise, so are we to be.  He made us in His image, therefore His character resides within us.  To be authentically human, we must endeavor to reflect that character.  God expects us to develop wisdom.

As with all the other attributes of God, we struggle to imitate them due to sin.  Sin has corrupted our understanding.  We don't know how to be wise.  We must learn wisdom.  This necessity appears in an imperative in scripture. "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding." (Prov.4:7)  The Christian must get wisdom.

Getting wisdom is not as easy as it might seem.  Going back to the difference between information and wisdom, educators know that different disciplines require different teaching methods.  Law school is different from medical school.  Both are different from college or high school, and none of these looks like seminary.  The content to be taught determines the method of teaching.

Informational content is taught most often by lecture.  Memorize and regurgitate is the cycle of informational teaching.  Wisdom is not merely informational.  Certainly, without information, wisdom cannot exist.  Having skill to accomplish objective requires information, but wisdom involves putting that information to good use.  For skill training, educators turn away from lecture to other means of teaching.  Law school uses the socratic method.  Medical school uses patient case studies.  Seminary uses a whole bunch of stuff, but at the essence of this training is practice.  Skill learning is most easily seen in music.  To learn to play the piano, you don't need to sit in endless lectures.  You need to put your fingers on keys and practice.  You still need a teacher.  You may still benefit from some informational teaching, but at the heart of learning to play piano is practice.

Wisdom is like playing the piano.  You need information.  You need understanding to apply wisdom, but the only way you will increase in skill is practice.

If this series is anything, it is a skill acquisition program.  The particulars we will look at are categories in which you will have to apply the information and procedures to develop answers to the situations that confront you in life.  It requires discernment.

Lest you think this process is too pedagogical for you and you want some more Bible, let me direct your attention to the book of Proverbs.  Most Christians understand that the Proverbs were written so that God's people could learn wisdom.  It's right there in the beginning verses. "The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel; to know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding; to receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity; to give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion." (Prov.1:1-4)

Now let us look at a couple of verses written to teach us wisdom. "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit." (Prov.26:4-5)  Notice that these verses are not taken out of context. (a thing rather hard to do in Proverbs)  They appear adjacent to one another, yet they tell us to do contradictory things.  Are we to answer a fool according to his folly or not?  Solomon doesn't tell us.  These verse teach us a number of lessons about wisdom and discernment.

Rules cannot replace wisdom

The path of wisdom challenges our thinking.  The answer is rarely easy.  A rule cannot replace wisdom.  Parents, consider what this means for how you train your children.  Don't mistake me.  Rules are necessary for children.  They provide boundaries and stability.  They circumscribe an acceptable pattern of conduct.  However, giving your children all the answers will not produce wisdom.

My father did this well, too well for some of us. (N.B. I credit my father with much of what he did well.  He wasn't perfect and I know some things he didn't do well.  However, I don't tell you what he did wrong.  What would be the point of that?)  When we were teenagers, he would often not tell us the answer to our questions, especially when we came to him for advice.  He would tell us the biblical principles and force us to make decisions, good and bad.  He wanted us to work it out for ourselves, to learn how to apply the Bible to life.  It would frustrate us at times when all we really wanted was an easy answer.  I'm thankful now that he showed us how difficult wisdom can be.

Wisdom requires understanding the situation

Returning to whether to answer a fool according to his folly, Proverbs also teaches us that wisdom is not a static solution.  Sometimes it is wise to answer a fool according to his folly, and sometimes it isn't.  Proverbs here requires of us discernment, the ability to analyze the probable outcome of our response.  If it would humble the fool, answer him according to his folly.  If it would entrap us in his worldview, don't answer him according to his folly.  The situation in which we find ourselves will determine the wise course of action.

Christianity rejects situational ethics, but not situational wisdom.  The proponents of situational ethics argue that morality is not a fixed concept but adjusts to the changes in life and situation.  This theory, Christianity denies vehemently.  As God is unchangeable, so is His character, law, and righteousness.  What is good never changes.  Wisdom did not overcome either justice or love, but found a way to satisfy both.

Take for example the Ninth Commandment.  the duty to tell the truth never changes.  How we tell the truth does.  Wisdom requires, not just that we tell the truth, but that we tell the truth well.  What good is the truth if we tell it in a way in which people cannot hear it?

Wisdom requires understanding yourself

Proverbs also shows us that wisdom directs different people in different ways.  What may be wise for one person may not be wise for another.  Returning to our text, one person may not be susceptible to being entrapped in the worldview of the fool, yet another may.  Paul will speak about the weak and strong Christian and the different ways in which they should relate to situations and to each other.  This requires discernment as well.  Wisdom require an accurate analysis of oneself.  If you don't understand your personality and susceptibilities, you may find yourself doing unwise things.  Mimicking someone else in order to walk wisely is dangerous.  That appears in Paul's warning about the strong Christian leading the weak Christian into sin.  We have to develop wisdom by our own practicing.

It is significant that the first nine chapters of Proverbs were written to convince the reader how important getting wisdom is.  Wisdom does not come easily.  You cannot establish it by rule.  You cannot copy someone else's work.  You have to learn to apply the scriptures to every event in life.  A computer programmer understands this challenge to a point.  In essence, all a computer program does is take input and respond.  We refer to unexpected responses as bugs.  Yet that unexpected response is the result of unexpected input.  Like a computer programmer, wisdom requires us to predict and prepare for all the possible events that might confront us.

Wisdom requires practice

Since we cannot predict perfectly, we learn from the bugs as we practice.  Practice weeds out errors.  We cannot expect that we will exercise wisdom perfectly.  We have to learn it, and it is a difficult thing to learn.  We will make mistakes, but just like practice, we try again to perfect our performance.  It is a lifetime's work, but the improvement reaps a harvest of benefits.

You are here because you want to know how to live Christian in an unchristian world.  You desire to learn how to live well, in a confusing society.  You want wisdom.  You want discernment.  You will not find easy answers.  I will not give you easily applied rules.  You will have to work to analyze people, situations, and even yourself.  Why do this work?  Because God calls you to do it.  Because you desire to honor Him by walking wisely.  Only by pursuing wisdom will you be able to live Christian in an unchristian world.