Monday, October 2, 2017

You have a locational calling

In this study, we have looked at vocation, the concept of calling, the gifting that God gives to His people to benefit His kingdom.  When we discussed this topic, we noted that while it comes first in the list of topics, it does so largely based on my preference rather than biblical or logical preference. Some begin with gifting and allow that to govern their decisions about location.  Others begin with location and choose their profession in order to stay in that chosen geographical region.  This represents one person's calling different from another's.

The biblical support for the calling of a person to a location appears in Genesis 12.  God calls Abram from Ur to go to the land of Canaan.  While the purpose for this calling had great ramifications for redemptive history, we ought to note how location remained central to the calling of God upon Abram's life.  This continues for Isaac and Jacob.  The mission activity in the New Testament also demonstrates that God often calls people not only to an occupation, but also a location.

While the hierarchy of decisions on these topic may differ, the criteria for making these decisions largely stay the same, adjusting only as ones decisions in one area affect decisions in another.  The first and most important question regarding geography involves the spiritual needs of the individual.  Does the location include a church that will meet the spiritual needs of the individual?  The question about which church to attend we discussed previously.  Now, we ask whether such a church exists in a certain location.  By asking this question we ought not take for granted that every location includes a church that would meet the biblical qualifications we discussed.  Ideally, the Christian should desire a church within his local community.  Failing this, many Christians travel many miles to attend a biblically based church.  This requires the formation of a separate community from their local environment.  The true church has always formed a community that has, in some ways, been separate from the rest of the world.  The ease of travel in modern society and the replacement of geographical community with virtual community has fostered the ability of remote churches to form spiritual communities of geographically diverse people.  There is much in technological advancement for which to give thanks.

Even so, the formation of these communities comes at a cost.  Beyond the cost of technology and travel, the bifurcated communities creates a psychological block to evangelism.  We see the local society distinct from the church and not the subject of ministry by the church.  It becomes difficult to invite people to church when we travel far distances to attend the church.  We can easily become divided from the church and careful attention must be paid by the officers and members of the church to foster fellowship within the church despite the distances.  Even with these challenges, the ability to attend a biblical church must take first priority in our decisions regarding location.

We must acknowledge that there are some places where the true church does not exist and where the distance to reach such a church is too long to make true fellowship practicable.  Some resort to home churches and compromise with deficient churches.  While this must remain a decision between the individual and God, the Bible strongly encourages us to see this as an indicator that God would have us move to a different location.  We are not called to independence, either in rule in home churches or in the absence of fellowship. (I Tim. 3; Heb.10:25)    Compromise in church selection, outside the ordinary allowances discussed previously, endangers our souls.  Church officers have an impact on the congregation, and their failure in their biblical duties places the souls of the people in danger. (Heb.13:17)

With the question of spiritual health out of the way, other biblical criteria may be considered.  To return to the intersection of location and vocation, depending on your particular calling, location may influence vocation and vice versa.  If location then does not govern vocation, than vocation will govern location.  In other words, if you have not chosen a vocation that will allow you to live in a particular area, then your vocation will largely determine where you will live.  Simply put, you will live where you can find employment.  This probably will not limit you to a single location, but it will eliminate some options.  Your duty to the kingdom of God demands that you continue to pursue your vocation.

These are fundamental concepts that most Christian take for granted, but the Bible includes other criteria that ought to influence this decision.  Scripture reminds us about the importance of family.  At its most basic, we must look at the directives Paul gives to Timothy.  The oft quoted verse on a person's duty to provide for his family appears in a broader context.
Honour widows that are widows indeed.  But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God.  Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day.  But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.  And these things give in charge, that they may be blameless.  But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.  (I Timothy 5:3-8)
Within the context, the verse requires sons to provide for their widowed mothers.  This principle means that the Bible expects children to care for their aging parents and not leave them to the care of the church.  This principle draws from the Fifth Commandment.  Honoring parents means being involved in the life of the family.  While this does not mean that children should live in the same city as their parents, it does mean that each member of the family ought to consider its duty to the rest to be a part of their lives.  No member of the family ought to abandon the family.

Jesus expects His disciples to reside in the world. (John 17:15)  Although He chose us out of the world (John 15:19), our evangelistic duty requires us to interact with our community. (Matthew 28:18-20)  The choice of community requires a bit of self-examination.  The location in which we were raised will influence our ability to interact with that community.  I grew up in the deep south, Mississippi.  As I have dealt with people from the northern states of the United States, I have seen how different we can think and react.  This difference can pose a real barrier to our interactions.  This does not mean that cross-cultural ministry cannot occur.  Indeed, missions requires such a ministry.  However, this is not the calling of many Christians.  In the first century, we read of the travels of Paul, but his experience was extraordinary.  It is part of the Bible to demonstrate the fulfillment of the promise of Jesus that the gospel would spread to the ends of the earth.  Most Christians never left their home, or formed new homes by flight from persecution.  While we read of those who engaged in cross-cultural ministry, they never anticipated it to be the norm, other than bridging the gap between Jew and Gentile, including all in their society to the community of faith, excluding none.  For this reason, unless otherwise called, finding a community into which you fit may be the wisest course for you to follow.

Good stewardship also requires that you find a location that you can afford.  It is biblical to remember that some places cost more than others.  If you would provide for yourself and your house, you ought to consider if your employment will permit you to live in the city or community of your choice.  While many make this a matter of common sense, and so it is, it also have spiritual implications.  God requires us to consider affordability as a matter of stewardship.

Now, in some situations, God calls us to walk by faith despite the economic realities.  Many heroes of the church obeyed God even when the economic of political situation looked dire.  They acted contrary to apparent common sense.  Nevertheless, they represent the exceptions rather than the rule.  There ought to be compelling counter-considerations to overcome the affordability factor.

Finally, we must comment on the question of safety.  In the modern era, we live in a society of free mobility.  We choose where we live.  We are not bound by geography.  We can leave a location that we deem to be unsafe for us or our family.  Are we justified in such a move?  Consider the requirements described in the Westminster Shorter Catechism's discussion on the Sixth Commandment.  "The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others." (WSC 68)  It is not illegitimate to take lawful actions to preserve our life and that of our family.  While we can never achieve perfect safety and must leave our ultimate security in the hand of the sovereign almighty God, we do have warrant for avoiding clearly dangerous locations.

Again, there are exceptions to the rule.  Missionaries willingly enter dangerous foreign places.  This is not illegitimate for it is part of their calling.  Some engaged in domestic cross-cultural ministry may also be so called.  Perhaps one called to a depressed area may see it as his duty to remain in mission to the changing demographics.

If you can't tell from these factors, they are guideline and not firm rules.  It takes discernment.  This will be our mantra for this entire study.  To live as Christian in an unchristian world, your will need to discern from these factors what God is calling you to do, where He is calling you to live.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Vocational Training

One of the difficult anomalies of the modern era is the rise of the concept of adolescence.  Prior to the modern era, cultures has little to no concept of a period between childhood and adulthood.  The individual transitioned immediately between the two.  With industrialization, the advantage of jobs requiring advanced training, and more opportunities to afford that training, the age at which someone was considered an adult increased.  We don't consider someone to be an adult until they are able to financially meet their obligations, to take care of themselves and their families.  Considering most people now go to college, this entry into adulthood may not occur until ones early to mid-twenties.  This can mean that one lingers in the uncertain state of adolescence for possibly a decade.

The cultural situation does not demand much from us in terms of Biblical application.  Practically speaking, prolonged adolescence has its own challenges whereas the immediate transition to adulthood had other challenges.  We ought to be aware that this arrested development that we see in the modern day has its roots in this prolonged adolescence.  Christian adolescence must wrestle with the need to take responsibility for their own actions, for their own finances, while still honoring their parents who often still subsidizes or completely pay their bills.

Within this tension, the Bible's injunctions regarding the duty of every adult to provide for themselves indicates a responsibility to prepare for that future vocation.  We have already address the choice of vocation, we now move to choices and behaviors in preparation for that vocation.

Every vocation requires training.  While the Lord gives us talents and abilities to use for His kingdom, none of us are born knowing how to work.  It is a learned skill.  Whether you are called to be a farmer or a brain surgeon, every work has its necessary training.  The farmer certainly does not need to go to medical school, but must learn the way of the farm and the tools of his trade.

This requires us to think outside the classroom.  Training for our vocation may not require classroom instruction.  Certainly certain basic fundamentals will be taught in a classroom environment.  Every vocation requires the ability to read, write, and calculate.  Even if someone could be trained to a work without these abilities, they benefit the worker in bettering his ability to pursue his vocation.  As a Christian ought to strive for excellence in his work to the glory of God, these minimum lessons are necessary.

The point we labor to make is that not every calling requires a person to attend college.  Skilled laborers may benefit from vocational training, but the kind of specialized education of college may be excessive.  I say this, because our society has made college a necessary part of life.  There is an uncritical assumption that one must go to college to obtain a well-paying job.  This assumption has so infected our society that demand for skilled manual labor has risen precipitously.  Students who dislike school and show talent for manual labor often struggle with a society that determines worth based on education.  The absence of a college degree does not indicate that a person lacks intelligence or knowledge.  The church should not perpetrate not perpetuate the hubris of culture.

For those whose calling requires further education, the Bible has something to say about the choice of educational providers.  We live in a glut of colleges and universities, fighting for a limited pool of applicants.  Even so, the costs of a four-year degree are substantial.  Student loans have provided a means to defer the payment of these costs.  However, the burden that student loans can place upon individuals has become a major concern in many industries.  The ABA reported that graduates from law school borrowed on average between $84,000 and $122,000. (  A law student basically graduates owing a house without the house.  This does not even count the cost of college.  USA Today reports that the average student debt coming out of college is around $30,000. (  So, a graduate of law school owes the equivalent of a new car and a house without the car and house.  Medical student generally owes more.  Even graduates from seminary headed to the pastorate often carry substantial debt limiting their options.

This debt burden has garnered attention in the present age.  The Bible speaks strongly about debt.  "The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender." (Proverbs 22:7)  "Be not thou one of them that strike hands, or of them that are sureties for debts." (Proverbs 22:26)  While debt is not in itself a sin, the Bible warns that we not become a slave to debt.  With this in mind, We ought to think carefully about our debt obligations.  We ought to plan and consider how our debt obligations will restrict our opportunities.

While the Christian's duty to pursue excellence in his work remains, that ought not require the assumption that one must attend the "best" college or university.  At the outset, the determination of "best" arises from criteria of the reviewer that may not reflect the individual's experience, nor may it well-train the student.  In law, many assume that so-called "ivy-league" schools were the best.  The last few decades, employers grew less sanguine about hiring these graduates due to the political rather than practical education the students received.  Instead, we need to allow the Bible to guide us into the "best" college for each person.

Some wisdom guidance here may be raised with little comment.  The options should have the degree program and be respected with regard to that degree program.  The campus and housing should be a safe environment.  A common sense factor, but one that becomes more and more important in the current rash of violence in and around educational institutions.  A visit to the institution should precede any decision and the student satisfied that the institution will meet their needs as well as provide an environment acceptable to the student and learning.

The Bible does remind us that education functions in aid of our service of Christ rather than in opposition to it.  For this reason, some have chosen Christian colleges.  There are many fine institutions that provide a distinctly Christian moral atmosphere for their faculty and students.  I have experienced a number of these firsthand and heard reports of others.  While the moral atmosphere has its advantages, it does not compensate for the worship and Christian fellowship the church provides.  Many look to a Christian college or college Bible studies to compensate for their lack of engagement in the local church.  They often excuse their lack of connection to the church with the perceived busyness of their lives.  They are not alone in this excuse, and the excuse does not excuse.  Engagement with the local church is necessary even for those in Christian colleges.

Further, many Christian colleges follow a legalistic methodology toward Christian behavior.  The slippery slope argument truly occurs.  It is not a hypothetical slope, but one history shows actually leads many to legalism.  The way this slope works comes from the combination of the Christian, Biblical morality of the institution and the necessity of practical living regulations.  In any collective group, some rules are necessary to preserve a peaceful society.  Everyone acknowledges that these rules are needed even if they are inconvenient.  Students willingly put themselves under these rules.  This ought not cause a problem.  Many of these rules are broken through inadvertence and forgetfulness, without malice or the desire to rebel.  Christian institutions that insist on absolute obedience, who equate the inadvertent infraction with direct rebellion, who crush any voice of dissent, use their power to enforce a legalistic mindset.  Non-biblical rules take the same place as the Ten Commandments.  The atmosphere becomes fraught with fear and suspicion.  This is not the case with all Christian colleges, but more common than may at first seem.  Choosing a Christian college then is not unwise, but cannot be elected uncritically.  

In addition, whatever college is chosen, the student must find and engage in the worship of God and fellowship with God's people within a church.  While this choice of church lasts for a limited time, it is nevertheless critical.  Do not let the name on the sign dictate your decision.  All Reformed churches are not good, nor all baptist churches problematic.  In addition, as part of the review process for a particular institution, the availability of an appropriate place of worship must be considered.  The lack of an acceptable church should disqualify the college or university.  The matter of spiritual growth and guidance during these years is critical.

Near the bottom of the list of factors to be considered is the question of location.  Most people think of this factor in relation to cost: in-state versus out-of-state tuition.  This factor does influence another part of life.  Research has shown that most people end up living and working within a few miles of their college or university.  While this statistic only points to trends rather than forming an invariable result, it does elevate the factor to one that requires thought.  There is an element of proximity to family that matters as well as proximity to community.  In a later place, we will discuss more fully the issue of location.  Suffice it to say here, that God not only calls us to a particular work, but also to a particular place.  It matters then where we go.

Finally, college campuses have become difficult places to live faithfully for Jesus Christ.  Absent a Christian college, the environment will generally trend to the secular, at times even exceeding the general community in its dalliance with depravity.  I remember hearing with horror some of the warnings given to students at state colleges and universities, warnings necessitated by the wicked things that sinful people perpetrated on one another.  While these may have been isolated incidents, their occurrence reflected the abandonment of morality that we see trending in our culture.

Not only are these campuses environmentally discouraging toward Christian morality, they also discourage Christian speech.  A person who supports Christian ideas will often find himself opposed to the thinking, not merely of his classmates, but also of the faculty.  This means that the student must enter this environment with a grim determination to stand for Jesus regardless of the opposition that exists.  How to do this will appear in another place concerning the manner in which Christians ought communicate.

Again, we have no interest in giving absolute answer to highly specialized questions.  The factors involved are so greatly individualized as we have noted they begin with individual calling.  Nevertheless, though not exhaustive, these guidestones provide sufficient direction to point the prospective student toward a wise method of considering the question.  A proper decision in this area will begin the journey of living Christian in an unchristian world.

N.B.  I think it important to note that a seemingly unfortunate decision in the choice of college, God often uses for good.  Providence works.  My choice of PCC may have had soul crushing effects, but God worked that experience to my good and His glory and set my feet upon the path that put me right were I belong.  Remember, we make these decisions based on limited knowledge, and may find ourselves in a position we consider troublesome.  This does not invalidate the wisdom of the decision nor hinder God from using it in our life.  College is preparatory, not determinative.  It is a means, not the end.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Education: Preparing for Your Calling

Thinking about education has been part of my life since I was a child.  In 1985, my family began our journey into homeschooling.  At that time, people in the church would criticize my parents for harming their children by taking them out of the public schools.  By 2005, I knew of churches that would criticize parents for harming their children by putting them in the public schools.  In less than 20 years, the church had done a complete reversal regarding the topic of education.  The debate still rages throughout the church, and I have no desire to add more heat to the discussion, but light.  I want us to consider the Biblical ground for education, the limits of education, the goal of education, and the cost of education.

The Bible speaks of the education of children early in its text.  As early as Exodus 12:26-27, Moses was telling Israel to teach their children the purpose of the Passover.  "And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service?  That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses."  This command instructs the parents to rehearse the history of Israel's exit from Egypt.  The Lord wants the people to teach their children the spiritual reality behind the flight from Egypt.  This principle then expands in Deuteronomy.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.  And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. (Deut. 6:4-7)
In this passage, it begins with the declaration of identity for the nation of Israel.  This is the famous "shemah", the "testimony".  It identifies the nation whose God is the Lord, Jehovah, Yahweh.  He alone is God of Israel.  This relationship with God forms the identity of the nation.  This is how the nation is to see themselves.

Following this identity truth comes a moral requirement that flows from that identity.  As the Lord alone is God of Israel, Israel must show unalienable fidelity and love toward the Lord.  If that moral requirement follows as part of the identity of the people, then the people must cherish this statement and its moral requirement as irreplaceable in their own hearts.  These words, these statements, these truths must persist within the consciousness of the people.

The people, then, have the responsibility to pass these vital truths on to their children.  Parents must teach the word of the Lord to their children.  Moses even outlines the method of teaching.  It is not a formal classroom environment.  It learning through immersion.  In language acquisition, learning a foreign language is facilitated by immersion into the language.  The student is placed in an environment where only the unknown language is spoken.  He must learn to speak it in order to survive in that environment.  This training technique follows from language acquisition of infants.  They learn their parents language in order to communicate their basic needs.  They learn to imitate the sounds and language of those around them.

Moses depicts spiritual education much like language immersion learning.  The parents are to create an environment where the word of God appears everywhere.  Moses requires that the parents purposely refer to the words of the Lord from sunup to sundown.  Every event of life must be approached with a scriptural purpose.  In order to instruct the child, the environment must be filled with scripture.

The Lord does not merely use one method of education.  Later in the same chapter another pedagogical process appears.
And when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments, which the Lord our God hath commanded you? Then thou shalt say unto thy son, We were Pharaoh’s bondmen in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand: and the Lord shewed signs and wonders, great and sore, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon all his household, before our eyes: and he brought us out from thence, that he might bring us in, to give us the land which he sware unto our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as it is at this day. And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the Lord our God, as he hath commanded us. (Deut. 6:20-25)
Here is more traditional lecture methodology.  In addition, this question and answer style gave rise to the church's use of catechesis, the use of catechisms.  Notice also that this process indicates the importance of theology.  It is not enough to know the history and rules of the community.  Children are to be taught why these things matter.  The rules and history do not appear in the abstract, but God reveals them to us to explain why theses things matter.  These things are not just revealed to show us what happened, but why they happened.  The science of theology takes the data of scripture and answer the question why and how.

Notice as well, the centrality of redemption in the teaching of the children.  The answer to the question begins with God's gracious salvation of His people.  We omit this part of the explanation to our children's peril.  In the New Testament, it is not rescue from Egypt that forms the heart of the parents' duty to teach their children.  It is the gospel message, the message of redemption from sin Jesus accomplished for us.  The gospel message requires theological and moral training.

From these verse, we see the biblical mandate for education, here, scriptural, moral, and theological education.  The parents are given the responsibility for overseeing this education and creating an environment conducive to this learning.  While the expended family, the church, and others may play a role in assisting the parents in this educational enterprise, the burden for providing this education still remains with the parents.  No other can replace them in this effort.

From this biblical educational standard, we can extend the duty to more general education as we understand it today.  I think one of the best logical extensions appears in one the more delightfully names laws passed in the colonial period of the United States.  Lesson 2 quoted from the “Old Deluder Satan” of 1647 in Massachusetts.  This law provided for public education so that children could read the Bible.  Basic educational tools enable people to read and understand God's word.  From this, we may suggest that part of the parent's spiritual educational duties toward their children include general education to enable their children to understand the Bible on their own, to train them so that they may train their own children.

This sets general education in a specific context for the believer.  In contrast to the values of the world, the Christian values education for different reasons.  The world sees education as valuable to create a tax base, to form income producing patriots, or income producing progressives.  The evaluation of education is often limited to competitive analysis.  Do our students outperform other students?  This is the general values of the world.  As Christians, we are not primarily concerned with professional, competitive, or cultural benefits to education.  These facets may play a role and will play a role in the process of general education, but the central, the first concern of general education is to train children how to understand God's Word.  To live Christian in an unchristian world, we can never lose sight of this fundamental purpose.

Now, at this point, you might expect some directives regarding the methodology of education.  Debates in the church have raged and passions inflamed in the controversy over the method of training children.  The options generally fall into three categories: public school, private school, and home school.  I have experienced all three.  All three have their advantages and disadvantages.  To exclude one as unacceptable to the Christian is rather myopic.  Instead, one must understand the costs and benefits to each in the decision-making process.  While probably familiar, it behooves the author to reiterate these factors in turn.

Public schools are usually the most inexpensive way to educate children in the United States.  They also are the most secular method of education.  Parents choosing this option must understand that they will face the necessity of counterbalancing the worldly mindset that their children will endure for most of their educational life.  This is not a impossible hurdle to surmount, but such a serious problem, that many Christian families have rightly abandoned this method for ones more conducive to scriptural immersion.  The cost of sparing ones child from the onslaught of secularism may be worth paying.  Parents ought to consider if they have disposable income whether they are not better discharging their duty by using those resources to put their children in a better educational environment.  Nevertheless, some families do not have that option, and charity must be exercised to grant them the rightness of faithfully discharging their duty to education their children by this method providing that they recognize the burden they take on to counterbalance the secular immersion.

Private schools, and here specifically Christian or church schools, have their own cost.  They carry a financial cost that normally exceeds any of the other two options.  In addition, one hidden cost is the loss of control over the day-to-day educational process.  This can lead to situation in which the parents have a perception of the school that does not coincide with the reality of that school.  Parents may think their child is being immersed in scripture when the child is really being immersed in secularism.  Some "Christian" schools were started for reasons that had nothing to do with Christianity.  Even when the curriculum may reflect the truth of the Bible, the child's fellow pupils may bring their secularism into the school with more effect than the teachers bring scripture.

During my education, I experienced three different private schools, only two of which I spent a year within.  The first would fit the requirements that I would consider good, even though upon its present quality I cannot comment.  The second seemed good on paper, but my experience reflected many of the negative attributes we have noted above.

Finally, good Christian and church schools are not ubiquitous.  They are often hard to find.  Parents looking at this option must weight the cost and carefully monitor their child's education.  They cannot simply assume that the school is fulfilling their educational responsibilities.

Homeschooling has exploded in Christian culture in the last few decades.  Having been on the cutting or even the bleeding edge of this movement, I have seen the practice rise in acceptability, convenience, and affordability.  Nevertheless, there are costs associated with homeschooling.  Though typically less expensive than private education, the parents pay a time cost since it usually requires more of their time than the other two options.  While curriculum companies have streamlined and simplified their products to aid the instructor, there still is a learning curve for the parent who would teach their children.  In addition, there are pedagogical realities outside the curriculum that require wisdom on the part of the parent.  Not every child learns the same way.  Not every child can learn in the same environment.  The instructor must observe the progress of the child and tailor the environment as best can be to enable the child to learn.

The choice between these three includes other factors that are not generally characteristic of one over the other, although generally public education will be the least acceptable in these areas.  Curriculum and activities play a role and making this decision.  As stated before, the central purpose of general education is to enable the student to understand God's word.  However, other topic will be studied as well.  Other secondary goals do coincide with this primary goal.  Parents should consider each child's aspirational and professional goals.  The curriculum should prepare the student for life outside of school.  Education includes learning how to deal with people.  Parents should consider the availability of extra-curricular activities for their children as part of their learning.

"Much heat and very little light" describes much of the literature on Christian education.  Parent become passionate about their children and the manner in which they choose to raise them.  Much of the discussion about schooling has been considered, rightly or uprightly, an attack upon the family.  The concept "this is right for my family and my children" has morphed into "this is the only way to educate Christians."  Every family is different.  Every child is different.  Location, economics, and ability play a critical role in making a right decision about education.  Nevertheless, we must always remember what is at the heart of the goal of education, to know the word of God.  Without this, we must abandon the task of living Christian in an unchristian world.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

You have a vocational calling

Every Christian has a calling.  This statement contradicts the traditional language of parts of historic Christianity.  In previous eras, Christians considered ministers of the Word to be the only profession that could claim that they were called to their profession by God.  We cannot deny the truth that ministers of the Word do have a calling from God for their office and ministry, but we also affirm that every occupation given to the Christian comes from God's calling as well.  We believe that God is sovereign over all things.  We believe that He has planned the end from the beginning for all things.  This means that that sovereign plan also encompasses all of our individual lives.  He has called us to a particular form of service for Him in His kingdom.  It matters what we do in life.  It matters what we do for a living.

As I arranged the topics for this study, I had to decide the logical order of the specific situations in this section of the third part of the study.  I informally called it, "The Christian's Life."  The topics included in this section included vocation (the present issue), location, education, and relationships.  Ordering this section logically became difficult for each topic involved the others.  You cannot look at them in isolation from one another.  Decisions in one area influence decisions in the others.  In choosing how to address them in some order, I admit to some bias.  I value vocation over the other factors.  That is part of my personality.  This priority is potentially unique to my personality.  Others might value location or relationships of higher rank, and that is acceptable.  We often understand calling in a myopic manner.  We isolate it to occupational considerations.  However, God's calling and design also extends to location and relationships as well.  Some sense God's calling them to a particular place.  Some sense God's calling them to a particular relationship.  Others considerations then serve that primary calling.  We ought not be dogmatic about the priority of calling to every personality and every life.  We do urge that the factors and biblical principles necessary to make these decisions be observed in each area of life.  However you order these issues, each decision should follow the dictates of God's Word.

As noted before, the concept of calling in terms of occupation follows the two principles of divine sovereignty and the kingdom of God.  By sovereignty, we recall that the Lord has ordained all things that come to pass.  He has something for each person in His kingdom to accomplish that matters in the plan of redemption.  That kingdom is not limited to the confines of the church.  It encompasses all creation being redeemed for His redeemed people.  Redemption extends as far as the curse is found, in the words of the familiar hymn. ("Joy to the World")  This purpose and goal for every life, we may properly call calling.  God's calling extends to all His people.  It calls them to a particular work in a particular place for a particular time with particular people.  Discovering that calling requires the careful application of God's word.

The Bible gives us four elements to consider when considering the issue of our vocation, the particular work God has for us to do.  Each one informs the rest and plays a role in making the decision.  We can list them a gifting, desire, provision, and training.  Again, there is no particular order or priority to these factors, but all most be considered together.

God has gifted us with talents to use for His kingdom.

The Bible tells us repeatedly that God has granted us gifts for profitable work in His kingdom.  We can think of the parable of the talents that Jesus tells. (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27)  While the use of money is the foreground, the parable encompasses all resources God gives His people that they are to use profitably.  This includes the abilities and gifts that He gives to each person.  In the spiritual realm, Paul will speak of gifts given to each person to be used for the church. (I Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11-16)  While focused on the building up of the church, the metaphor is equally extended to every part of life.  As God has given gifts to the church to be used and each part of the body is to use that gift, so He has given gifts to His people to be used in the larger kingdom work in all of life.

Finding that talent or gift is a matter of wisdom rather than Biblical directive.  We are not born knowing what gifts or talents God has given to us.  We must learn by experience what it is we have a gift for.  It behooves us to experiment, to try different activities to see if we possess a talent in that area.  Education and assessment by others plays a role in identifying gifts.  Additionally, we ought not merely assume that we have a singular gift.  God is not stingy with His benevolence toward His people.  He gives freely.  It is wise to discover all our gifts in order to discern well our vocational calling.

God gives us desires for work that will advance His kingdom.

In the rush to determine God's will for our lives, I fear we lose sight of one question that gets buried.  We often ignore it because we think it selfish to consider it.  Yet, it is Biblical for us to ask the question, "What do I want to do?"  Why do we think that God will call us to a vocation that will make us miserable?  It is true that our desires or feelings ought not be the sole determiner of our sense of calling.  Nevertheless, they cannot be eliminated from our consideration.

One of the Psalms seems appropriate here. "Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.  Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.  Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass." (Ps.37:3-5)  David begins with an oft-repeated proverb.  The trust in the Lord brings security and provision in the land.  When  delighting in the Lord rules your mind, He gives you what you want.  I once heard this verse interpreted that God gives you the desires of your heart.  This translation cannot really be justified by the grammar or vocabulary, but it does hint at the reality behind this promise.  As one delights in the Lord, His desires become our desires.  A sanctified desire can prove a helpful guide toward vocational calling.  Finally, committing that desire to God, leaving its fulfillment in His hands brings complete realization.

God expects us to work to provide for ourselves and others.

If you have a gift doing something that you like to do, you cannot jump to the conclusion that you have been called to that activity.  You must ask a practical question.  Can you provide for yourself and others by this work?  We have the clearest Biblical support for this exhortation. "For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat." (II Thessalonians 3:10)  Paul in this passage uses his own example among the church to defend his exhortation to the church to work productively.  Even with the charitable frame of mind that ought to be manifest within the household of faith, there remains a necessary effort for each person to attempt to provide for themselves.

In addition, each person should attempt to provide for their own family.  "But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." (I Tim. 5:8)  Paul delivers these hard words in instructions to his apprentice, Timothy.  In directing him regarding the church's duty to widows, he includes this exhortation that the family ought to care for their own mothers instead of leaving it to the province of the church.  This does not indicate that those incapable of such provision are guilty, but rather condemns those who do not, when able, undertake that duty, but rather abandon the duty, relying upon the charity of the church.  The Bible then teaches us that we are to plan to provide for both ourselves and our family.

Finally, the Bible extends our provision to others.  "Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth." (Eph. 4:28)  In this prohibition against theft, we find the object of work.  Our vocational calling is to enable us not only to provide for ourselves and our family, but also to give outside the family.  The first gift that comes to mind is that which we ought to give by joy, thankfulness, and love to the work of God's church.  God expects us to give to Him and His local ministry.  Beyond that, we have no biblical imperative, but a general rule of generosity.  We are called to be ready to give generously to those in need.  We need to understand that our vocational calling ought to enable us to provide for ourselves and others.

God provides training to do that work for His kingdom.

The Bible says a lot about training.  The primary example appears in the book of Proverbs.  We often look at the book in a spiritual sense, and so it is.  But the original purpose is supposed to be Solomon's orientation manual for new courtiers in his government.  It is the orientation manual for Israel's bureaucracy.  "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. 1:2-4)  Imagine if our nation used the book of Proverbs to train its governmental officials.  What kind of government, what kind of nation would we be?  Solomon wanted his officials trained in wisdom.  As we understand that Proverbs trains us in wisdom in all of life, we ought to also understand that this principle urges us to seek training in the calling to which God has called us.

I have chosen the word "training" carefully.  Do not confuse training with education.  You need to understand that not everyone is called to the same life.  God does not call all His people to go to college.  Not even gift requires formal education.  (We will discuss general education in a later lesson.)  However, most gifts require some form of training.  It doesn't matter if you are a farmer, a musician, an electrician, an HVAC technician, an auto mechanic, a pilot, a soldier, a doctor, a surgeon, a nurse, an attorney, President of the USA, or (perhaps the most important vocation) a mother.  Each calling requires training of some kind, but not all look alike.  If you cannot obtain the training you need to carry out that particular gift, that may be God's direction to pursue another gift.  That is why I remind you that most people don't simply have a single gift, but must choose between multiple gifts.

Simply put, God has a calling for you to do.  While not exhaustive, the root calculation for this calling ought to arise from the intersection of these four factors.  It is a work in which you are gifted that you like doing, can provide for yourself with, and have the ability in which to be trained.  This is how God has called to to work as Christian in an unchristian world.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Which Church?

In an astonishing sign of gospel reconciliation, in 2017 the Bible Presbyterian Church reestablished relations with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church from which it separated in 1938.  Nearly eighty years of hostility turned around and a bright future awaited both denominations.  Even in the midst of such a joyous moment, the taint of sin was not missing.  During an address, one member recounted how different the welcoming attitude of the OPC was to the BPC's reception by other reformed denominations.  This experience is the unfortunate norm rather than the rule.  Certainly, there are historic and theological reasons for division and difference, however, within a shared theological framework, charity and fellowship should reign.  How lamentable that organizations committed to bringing God's people together would include those who advance division without warrant.

This presents a question for those who would live Christian in an unchristian world.  The church is not unified and wears a great many names.  How ought a Christian consider the question of which church or denomination with which to associate?  This is a knotty question to address and one fraught with difficulties.  Nevertheless, it is a necessary one, for it determines the very heart of our souls.

To begin, we must define the sine qua non of the church, the necessary elements of a Christian church.  Throughout the life of the church this question has been debated.  During the reformation, theologians described three marks of the true church in contrast to the marks the Roman church advocated.  These follow from the one core value of the reformation, sola scriptura, one that we have already examined in this study.  With the primacy of the word of God, what the church does with the word of God marks it as the true church.  The marks of the true church then consist in the faithful preaching of the word, the faithful administration of the sacraments (sensible word), and the faithful exercise of discipline (administrative word).

From these marks, we observe that two of the primarily appear in corporate worship.  We must then assume that a corporate community is also necessary for the existence of the true church.  At its heart, the church is a worshipping community.  It is not a social club, a moral education society, or an entertainment venue.  The first question one ought to answer is this.  Is this were God's people gather to worship?  This question rests at the heart of the rest of the biblical criteria

The worship of this community must then be by the book.  We often try to separate the preaching portion of worship from the rest of worship, but this will not do.  The entire worship service preaches to us.  How one worships preaches a sermon on worship.  If one would hear that sermon, one must ask whether it is faithful to the Word of God.  The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way.  "[T]he acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture." (WCF 21.1)  This states the so-called regulative principle of worship, that we may only worship as God has expressly prescribed in Holy Scripture.  This does not answer all questions about the character and particulars on worship, but it does guide those decisions in a Biblical way.  One ought to ask of a prospective church, does the worship conform to the regulations of the Bible?

The next mark indicates the faithful administration of the sacraments.  The sacraments are the Word made sensible, that is, appreciable to our senses.  Many churches don't have problems with the correct observance of the Sacraments since the instructions for their use appear plainly in Scripture.  Baptism is to be administered with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:36; Matthew 28:19)  The Lord's Supper is to be administered through the bread and cup according to the instruction in I Corinthians 11:23-34.  Where many churches reveal a latent problem, their low estimation of the sacraments, is in their delinquency and irregularity in their observance.  Baptism, by its nature, is an irregular sacrament.  The Lord's Supper, on the other hand, must be scheduled.  While properly occasional, it does not have to be irregular.  The lack of regular observance says something about how important a church considers the sacrament.  If a church does not regularly observe the Lord's Supper, that church communicates to its membership that the sacrament is not a necessary part of their spiritual life.  This expresses a low view of the sacrament.  A church that has a low view of the sacraments often struggles with a low view of Scripture.  As the sacrament is the word of God made sensible, a low view of the sacrament suggests a low view of the word of God in all its forms.  One ought to ask of a prospective church, what is their view of the sacraments?  Do the regularly observe the Lord's Supper?

The final mark noted by the reformers involved the faithful exercise of church disciple.  The reformers took seriously the Scriptures teaching on the new life that believers have in Christ.  Failure to live this new life required action by the church.  This principle requires careful and biblical analysis.  Faithful exercise of discipline does not mean that the church regularly engages in public censures.  Excommunication should remain a rare occasion.  This extreme censure should only occur when all calls to repent have gone unheeded.  The object of discipline is first, the repentance of the sinner.  All are sinners and must live lives of repentance.  Lack of repentance brings ones profession of faith into doubt.  Only at this point ought excommunication be effected.  The church must be willing to engage in this act if repentance does not appear in the life of a sinner.

Discipline includes more than the official censures of the church.  Discipline begins in the preaching of the Word.  A church that fails to call people to repentance by showing them their sin through the preaching ministry is not engaged in the faithful exercise of church discipline.  The church must proclaim the reality and heinousness of sin, all sin that the Bible condemns.  We have no warrant to call sin what the Bible does not condemn, nor to ignore those things the Bible clearly condemns.  Both violate the duty to faithful church disciple.

Within Christianity we find churches who have abandoned discipline altogether.  Nothing is ever considered sin.  Sin is not discussed, nor are people warned of its danger.  This lack of teaching and warning shows that the church does not take the Bible's message seriously.  Whatever contextualizing argument might be advanced, the Scripture's warnings ought not be ignored in order to accommodate the modern, worldly opinion.

In this vein, we must also observe the truth of churches the wound their members.  In these recent years, the discussion of so-called "spiritual abuse" has increased.  While the language often gets applied too broadly, examples appear all too often of religious groups and churches that use religious authority and power to violate the consciences of those under their jurisdiction.  Even otherwise Biblical churches have fallen into these errors.  Nevertheless, we must be careful before condemning any church, minister, or elder.  Ministers and elders sin like any other human.  They can wound their flock, intentionally or unintentionally.  We must charitably analyze their work and practice.  Are they ready to repent and make things right when they overstep their duties?  Have they created an environment of fear or suspicion?  Does the congregation share their censorious (def., severely critical of others) attitude?  These factors will indicate whether there has been a breaking of the duty to the faithful exercise of disciple for severity.

In analyzing a church, I encourage you to consider whether you trust the leadership of the church.  In most churches, either by vow or expectation, the members promise to submit to church leadership.  If you do not trust that leadership, you should never make that promise.  Do you believe that the leadership of the church loves you and seeks your best?  Can you listen to their criticism knowing that they bring it to you not quickly, but with consideration and thought?  Can you trust the minister and elders with the care of your soul?

One final mark that the reformers did not consider is that of fellowship.  The concept of unity appears throughout Scripture.  The one body of Christ pictures the nature of the church.  To that end, we are commanded not to forsake the gathering of the church. (Heb.10:25)  This warning does not appear in a purely worship or preaching context, but appears as a practical application of the church's duty to encourage and edify one another.  Again, Paul in Philippians encourages the church to put deeds into their fellowship one with another. (Phil. 4)  This means that the fellowship of the church is necessary to its spiritual life.

Again, this mark needs proper biblical analysis.  Fellowship does not mean that you ought to find a church filled with people like you where no one ever disagrees.  No church is free from a difference of opinion or practice.  Paul's discussion of the strong and weak christians reflect the way we ought to deal with differences within the church. (I Cor. 8,9, Ro.14,15)  This means that love ought to rule our relationships within the church.  We respect our differences in love, knowing that we have one Lord and are part of one body.

Here again are the marks:  Bible teaching, Bible sacraments, Bible discipline, and Bible fellowship.  When we address these marks to denominations, we must exercise caution.  Some groups have so abandoned these principles, that though there may be some isolated examples of true churches within that group, the trajectory of the whole ought to warn us that the natural pressure will be toward that abandonment.  Other groups known to be faithful to these principles may include churches that contain serious failings in one or more of these marks.  While denominational reputation may be helpful, it is certainly not determinative.

While we use these marks to determine which church with which we wish to associate ourselves, we ought also to consider how we interact with the church to encourage these marks.  Are we preaching the word faithfully to ourselves and others?  Are we taking the sacraments seriously?  Are we disciplining ourselves, participating in discipline well, and encouraging others in their obedience?  Are we participating in church fellowship, and edifying one another?  If we would live Christian in an unchristian world, we must do so first in the church.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Lord's Day

As we begin looking at the particulars of how to live Christian in an unchristian world, we will begin with a rather easy question.  How ought the Christian observe the Lord's Day?   Much of this involves the clear teaching of Scripture in conflict with a society that would encourage us to ignore the significance of the Lord's Day.

As we consider this question, it gives us the opportunity to consider how this study teaches us to live Christian in an unchristian world.  We will not offer concrete answers to particular questions.  God made life too varied to compile a list of absolute laws for every circumstance.  Those laws He has ordained we find plainly in Scripture.  Most of life requires the use of discernment, taking the absolute teaching of Scripture and applying it to the very particular and individual question the beset us.  We discussed this truth in a previous lesson.

The relative ease of the question about the Lord's Day comes from the clear teaching of Scripture.  We don't have to search for an implication that might apply to the circumstance.  Rather, the Bible clearly tells us how we are to act on the Sabbath.  Within those regulations, modern life confronts us with particular questions how to sanctify the Lord's Day in light of our current situation.

Let us begin with the Biblical witness.  In any discussion of the Sabbath, we must begin with its origin in Genesis 2. "And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made." (2:2-3)  Care must be taken how one understands God's rest.  This day occurs after the work of creation.  The sixth day ended the work of creation so that the seventh day God rested or stopped doing the work of creation.  This distinction is necessary because we cannot attribute to God the complete cessation of effort.  Were that to be so, the universe had ceased to exist.  God continued His work of providence even as He rested from His creational work.  This informs our understanding that it is not all work that ought cease on the Sabbath, but the work God commands that we set aside.

The legal edict for the Sabbath appears in two chief places.  In the first giving of the Ten Commandments by God to His people, we read the following.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11)
Notice three thing in this command.  First, the command seems absolute.  We are to cease from all our work.  The rest of the teaching on the Sabbath clarifies that this refers to the normal labors man undertakes for his wealth and estate.  It does not mean we remain idol, but that we set aside our ordinary activity of the rest of the week to rest.

Second, notice that the command applies especially to heads of households.  As those who can direct others to work, they are to ensure that they enable those who they may oversee to observe the Sabbath.  The command requires God's people to, so far as it is in our power, to enable others to rest on the Sabbath.

Thirdly, notice the reason we are to observe the Sabbath.  The Lord takes us back to Genesis and His own resting after the creation of the world.  In this passage, the emphasis is on the people of God imitating their God, having accepted the foundation of the relationship, that the Lord would be their God, and they would be His people.  As His people, they ought to desire to imitate the Lord.

This reason changes when Moses reiterates the commandments in Deuteronomy. "And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day." (5:15)  This change ought not cause us to conclude an inconsistency within Scripture, but rather, as there were two copies of the law written on stone, so the Lord probably repeated the law to Moses and Israel.  In one the reason for the observing the Sabbath was imitating the Lord, in another, the reason includes the people's own experience.  The Sabbath, then not only gives us the opportunity to imitate the Lord, but also gives life space to remember our redemption.  We are to remember who we were before God intervened in our lives, rejoicing in His grace to us.

The importance of the Sabbath day appears also in Isaiah.  In a portion describing the Lord's restoration of His people, the Lord addresses the topic of Sabbath keeping.
If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. (Isaiah 58:13-14)
Here is the heart of the Sabbath.  The Lord has set aside a day for us to stop doing what our sinful hearts want to do, to stop doing that we ordinarily do, to do what the Lord wants to do.

I suggest we think of the Sabbath this way.  Many fathers I know have the practice of "special time" with their children.  One such father told the story of one child who was more interested in eating their treat than spending time with their father.  I think this speaks to us about the Sabbath.  The Lord has set aside a day to spend especially with His people.  This is not to say He is not present the rest of the week, but the Sabbath is His "special time" with His people.  Instead of enjoying the fellowship we ought to have with the Lord, we want to eat our dainties.  Instead of appreciating the time the Lord has designate to delight in Him, we seek to delight in anything else.  We despise the Lord's special time when we fail to observe the Sabbath.

This point appears in Jesus teaching about the Sabbath day.  The lord of the Sabbath, as Jesus styled Himself, stated, "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath." (Mark 2:27)  This statement countered the teaching of the Pharisees who had so labored the day with regulations to prevent work, that in spending the day keeping them, the people had forgotten the purpose of their special day with the Lord.  Instead of wasting time with dainties, they didn't even come out of their rooms for fear.  Jesus reminds us that the people need the Sabbath.  They need it to reconnect them with the source of their redemption.

As we come to the principle of the Lord's Day, we must first address the question of how the day of rest changed from the last day of the week to the first.  The first day is the day upon which Jesus rose from the dead.  We have examples of the church meeting on this day. (I Cor.16:1-2; Acts 20:7)  We also see this worship day called the Lord's Day. (Rev. 1:10)  We then rightly observe the Sabbath on Sunday, and rightly call it the Lord's Day.

From this we see that Christ has fundamentally changed the construction of time.  Remember the two reasons for the Sabbath.  The first still applies as we observe one day in seven for rest.  The second also applies in greater ways.  Before, it merely reminded Israel of the mighty redemption the Lord had accomplished for them in the Exodus from Egypt.  Now, it reminds us of the completed redemption that Jesus has accomplished for us, not from physical slavery, but from spiritual slavery, freedom not from the lash, but from sin.

The Westminster Confession of Faith fitly summarizes our duties toward God on the Sabbath.
This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (WCF 20.8)  
The requirement of preparation here comes from the account of the law to Israel regarding manna collection. (Exodus 16)  Each day, each person was to collect only enough for that day.  Any excess would rot.  On the sixth day, Israel was to collect and prepare twice as much in preparation for the Sabbath on which no manna would fall.

The term "worldly" here does not mean sinful, but having to do with our ordinary and common work and recreation.  The concept of worship here indicate the time we ought to spend with the Lord.  This day of all days is the day we spend time with our Savior.

Here is where many Christians turn delight into duty.  Instead of focusing their attention on what they get to do, the special day with God, they focus on what they cannot do.  This is what Isaiah warns of when he encourages Israel to turn away from their own pleasures and delighting in the Lord.

At this point, I'm sure you want me to answer the question, "Can I do X on the Lord's Day?"  I'm not going to answer that question.  This is our problem with the Lord's Day.  The world has so infiltrated our minds that we think of all the things the world offers for us to do on the Lord's Day.  We live in Vanity Fair.  Every day is the market day of the flesh.  But the Puritans famously called the Lord's Day the market day of the soul.  We need to understand the on the Lord's Day, it is our duty to turn away from Vanity Fair and to feed our souls.

Instead of answering those particular questions, I will give you a question that ought to help you answer those questions.  "Is X the way you want to spend your special time with the Lord?"  The God of the universe set aside one day to spend with you each week.  How will you spend your time with the Lord?  How will you spend your special time with Jesus?  These are the question we should be asking and answering of ourselves if we would live Christian in an unchristian world.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Hand of Providence

Nostalgia is a powerful force.  It can bend time to make us relive the past.  When I was a teenager, I attended a summer camp.  This part of my life often lingers in the dark recesses of my mind.  Even so, it only take one song to draw me back to the recreation center of the camp.  In that building, a stereo sat filling the room with one album by the artist Michael W. Smith, the album entitled, "I 2 Eye."  The first track of that album was the song titled "Hand of Providence."

The term "providence" has a unique history.  In the history of the United States, the founders of the nation often used "Providence" to refer to God Himself.  Denotatively, the word refers to the acts of God within His creation.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism splits the execution of the decrees of God into the works of creation and providence.  Thus, whatever is not the work of creation, that God does in conformity with His decrees (wherein He ordains whatever comes to pass), consists in His work of providence.  Thus, providence includes all the events that occur within the universe.

The Shorter Catechism further defines the works of providence. "God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions." (WSC 11)  This over-arching statement reminds us that providence is the practical application of divine sovereignty.  Sovereignty refers to the quality of God as ruler over all things.  It includes His ability to control all things as well.  By His sovereign decrees, He has declared all that will take place in His creation throughout time.  Nothing has occurred, is occurring, nor will occur but that which He has decreed from before time began.  This quality interfaces with God's eternal nature, so that being external to time (if we can use that phrase without spacial implications), He decrees all things that occur in time without subjecting Himself to time.  He is ruler over all time and space.

Providence, as the practical application of this truth, refers to God's direction of the course of events.  Whereas, we may posit a rather deistic view of God as the one who decrees and lets His decrees occur without His intervention, the Bible is filled with examples of the Lord's direct involvement with the events of history.  The very Bible itself demonstrates God's activity in the world as God speaks to and through the prophets and inspires the writing of scripture.

We must carefully understand how this providence works.  The Westminster confession explains that providence works in any number of ways. "Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the First Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently." (WCF 5.2)  As "First Cause,"  God decrees all things and the manner in which those things will occur, how His providence will effect these events.  They may occur by His direct intervention, but they also may follow natural orders of cause and effect.

The Confession uses the term of art, "second causes."  These operate in three ways: necessarily, freely, or contingently.  In the biblical references added to the confession, the necessary manner of second causes appears in the normal rotation and revolution of the earth. (Gen.8:22)  God has ordained this as a consequence of His promise to preserve the earth.

The free cause appears in Isaiah 10.  There, the Lord decrees that Assyria will work His judgment on Israel even though Assyria does not intend to do so, but rather simply seeks domination of many nations. (Isa.10:5-8)  Assyria does not see itself as an agent of the Lord.  The kingdom makes its decisions freely without consultation with the Lord's prophets.  Even so, they do what God intends and are used of Him to judge Israel.

Contingently, we see the decrees of God operating in the many examples of God "relenting".  (Exodus 32, II Kings 20)  In these examples God declares a future act.  Someone prays for God to do something else.  God grants the request.  The contingent decree is true.  It would have happened that way but for the human act, but the ultimate decree of God was for it to fall out as it did.

Finally, we must consider the next statement of the confession. "God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure." (WCF 5.3)  All these things can be altered.  The examples included regarding without means refer to people surviving without bread.  Above means refer to the birth of Isaac by Sarah.  Against means, we may remember the halting of the sun for Joshua (Joshua 10) and its return for Hezekiah. (II Kings 20)

N.B.  The confession also deals with the relationship between providence and sin, which goes beyond the goal of this study, but special attention should be paid to the wording of Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 5 paragraphs 4-6.

By these reminders of what the Bible says, we see that providence includes a wider scope than merely what we would consider supernatural events.  God does not merely interact with His creation through burning bushes, mountains on fire, still, small voices, and miracles.  God's providence may appear in a multitude of small ways that seem merely coincidental or natural.  That does not mean that we ought attribute meaning or guidance to every event.  Rather, we ought remember that God's care of His creation never ceases.

With that care, we ought also remember the final point of the Confession's teaching on providence. "As the providence of God doth, in general, reach to all creatures; so, after a most special manner, it taketh care of his church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof." (WCF 5.7)  God has a general concern for the welfare of all His created order.  Jesus speak God clothing the grass. (Matt. 6:30)  In His address to the twelve before sending them on their mission work, Jesus encourages them with these words. "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows."  Though the Father has a general care for all creation, Jesus reminds the disciples that the Father's care for them exceeds His care for the rest of His creation.

This particular providence for the people of God is seen throughout scripture.  The Confession refers to a few. (Amos 9:8-9; Isaiah 43:3-5,14)  Of particular note for us, we look to the concluding words of Romans 8.  As Paul concludes that great chapter on the benefits we have in Christ, He begins thinking about the particular blessings of the redeemed with these words. "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)  Providence works good for those the Lord has called to Himself.  God is for us, as Paul also writes. "What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:31-32)  As God is for His people, He will give them "all things."  This refers primarily to all things necessary for salvation, but secondarily, it includes all thing to bring about their good.  Paul goes on to remind the church that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  Thus, providence brings to God's people good out of God's love for them.

My father had an expression for this reality that he would regularly use with his children, "providence works."  I used to have a hard time understanding what he meant, but I eventually got it.  He meant that instead of overanalyzing or seeking for signs, we should take steps by faith using good reason understanding that providence guides us well and believe that God will bring good to us.  God directs us even when we cannot see nor understand why things happen to us.  This reminder proved a good corrective to the "finding God's will" self-help material that floats around Christendom.  Instead of worrying about the big questions, if an opportunity appears, we may assume that God put it there, absent conflicting data.  Instead of wondering, does God want me to do X?  If there is no sin in X, the question should be, has God given me the desire to do X?  Do I want to do X?  Satan (FT: and the flesh and the world) want to make us trust our unsanctified judgment to sin, but distrust our sanctified judgment to follow Christ.  This is not to say that we merely invert our natural feelings, but it does instruct us how to use our minds and desires.

The Lord has a work for us to do and will providentially guide us to and in that work.  We often get trapped in our own minds overanalyzing choices.  Then again, some don't think and boldly go where angels fear to tread.  God call us to understand providence in our decisions not despite our decisions or locking our decisions.  We ought not look for windows or open doors.  I am speaking out of my own experience, but God has graciously given me two vocations.  In each, I was doings what I enjoyed and what He had gifted me to do.  That providence guided me to where I am and continues to guide me.

Providence reminds us that life doesn't depend on our choices alone.  Yes, we make choices and some bad ones.  We must learn from those bad decisions for their consequences are God's lesson of good for us.  Learning from them is why God decreed them to be.  Even in the face of disastrous decisions, we have not ruined our lives.  We have not made ourselves irredeemable.  We have not left ourselves without value to God, His church, or His kingdom.  We still have gifts and a calling to fulfill.  It may not look like what it was before our disastrous choice, but God never casts aside members of His body.

We often think choices are disastrous because we end up in a position we never envisioned.  This reveals that our conception of our ministry or life must be held loosely.  God alone knows the course our life and ministry will take.  It can change suddenly even without our intervention.  I did not make any choice and my present ministry looks almost nothing like the one I had before.  God changed it for His glory.

How we interpret providence matters.  We must remember that providence may look rather ordinary.  We ought not expect spectacular signs.  We must use ordinary events and our minds and hearts, filtered through God's word, to make decisions.  As we habitually feed our minds and hearts with God's word, as we train our minds and hearts to think and feel biblically, we may rely upon our sanctified logic to follow providence, and thus live Christian in an unchristian world.