Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Legalism

From The Reformation Study Bible (p. 1544):
The New Testament views Christian obedience as the practice of "good works." Christians are to be "rich in good works" (1 Tim. 6:18; cf. Matt. 5:16; Eph. 2:10; 2 Tim. 3:17; Titus 2:7, 14; 3:8, 14). A good deed is one done according to the right standard, God's revealed will; from a right motive, love for God and others; and with a right purpose, the glory of God.
Legalism is a distortion of obedience that can never produce good works in this sense. It skews motive and purpose, seeing good deeds as ways to earn God's favor. It can be arrogant and contemptuous of those who do not labor in the same way. Finally, legalism's self-advancing purpose squeezes humble kindness and compassion out of the heart.
In the New Testament we meet different kinds of legalism. Legalists among the Pharisees thought that because they were descended from Abraham they were guaranteed approval by God, while paradoxically they formalized daily observance of the law, down to the minutest details, as the rule of life. In doing so they avoided what the law truly required. Judaizers were legalists who taught Christian believers that they must go on to become Jews by being circumcised and observing the religious calendar and ritual laws, and in this way gain favor with God. Jesus attacked the legalism of the Pharisees; Paul, the Judaizers.
The Pharisees that opposed Jesus thought of themselves as faithful keepers of the Mosaic law. Yet in emphasizing minor details they neglected what matters most (Matt. 23:23, 24). Their elaborate and misguided interpretations of the law denied its true spirit and aim (Matt. 15:3-9; 23:16-24). They substituted human tradition for God's authoritative law, binding consciences where God had left them free (Mark 2:16-3:6; 7:1-8). At heart they were hypocritical, seeking human approval for themselves and condemning others (Luke 20:45-47; Matt. 6:1-8; 23:2-7).
The Judaizers opposed by Paul added to the gospel requirements for salvation that obscured and denied the all-sufficiency of Christ (Gal. 3:1-3; 4:21; 5:2-6). The idea that there must be additional requirements to perfect the gospel was the root of their error. Paul opposed this idea no matter who advanced it (Col. 2:8-23), because it corrupted the way of salvation. Like Jesus, he would not tolerate those who brought new burdens to lay on the sheep.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Apologetics in a Secular Age

Trevin Wax has a helpful interview with James K.A. Smith about Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, a book which I have written about briefly here and here. A very useful point is that people's imaginations need to be captured, not just their intellects. Here Hal Bush reviews Smith's book How (Not) To Be Secular, and he also acknowledges the importance of the imagination.

However, one problem with rightly addressing the power of the imagination to change hearts is that sometimes the imagination is overemphasized to the exclusion of the intellect. At one point in the interview, Smith says,
In a secular age, Josh McDowell and William Lane Craig are not really going to pierce the imaginaries in which many people are ensconced. We would do better to give friends a copy of Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, or the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, or get them to watch the HBO documentary, God Is the Bigger Elvis.
Smith's comment, admittedly not in the context of his broader work, sounds as if rational apologetics are generally useless for people "ensconced in imaginaries." And while this may be true, it's possible for some people to read this statement as a broad dismissal of apologetics. This interpretation of Smith's comment is a misreading, but without an explanation, it's possible that some Christians might come away thinking that they shouldn't read apologetics, but they should read un-apologetics.

Somewhere Doug Wilson says that apologetics is primarily a defense, not exclusively an evangelism tactic. Wilson isn't the first one to point this out, but when he was discussing this issue, he mentioned Acts 18:24-28, in which Apollos was an encouragement and a help to believers because of his public debates with Jewish opponents.

Work by apologists is not to be dismissed, even if it's true that unbelievers today are not as likely to be converted because of rational argumentation. The work of apologists is extremely valuable to the communion of saints, who benefit from being reminded that their faith is not an irrational one.

Update: Smith says that "these issues are addressed in both Imagining the Kingdom and How (Not) To Be Secular." He adds that it's "good to remember that when an interview is regarding a book, one can assume that there's more in the book than in the interview." So read the book!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

WORLD update (November 2014)

Nov. 1
A test of true diversity: "A controversy over discrimination is coming to an institution near and dear to you," just as it has come to Gordon College. See here for more on the issue ("Religious colleges face a new threat over their sexual policies").

Poet perspective: "Christians and Shakespeare: Blame him or claim him?" Too bad to see that this is even a question. Marvin Olasky reviews Leland Ryken's book on Hamlet. Also in this section are books by John Frame (Selected Shorter Writings) and James Sire (Apologetics Beyond Reason and Echoes of a Voice).

Boys wrestling girls: Reminds me of this 2009 column.

Spotlight: Scroll down to read the Spotlight about Paul Gosselin's Flight from the Absolute: Cynical Observations on the Postmodern West.

Ad: "Reformation Network, the always-on streaming radio station, features biblical preaching and teaching, Scripture, news, audiobooks, music and more."

Nov. 15
Sent packing: "Some campus ministries adapt—and even grow—as they lose their homes."

Who is confined?: "Those who attack Christianity do so from an unenviable place."

Vikings: Olasky provides a one-paragraph review of a book on Vikings, and he says, "It's too bad that [the author] assumes Scandinavia's semi-embrace of Christianity came about through power politics rather than any changes of heart."

Notable books: Books reviewed include Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, Mike Cosper's The Stories We Tell, Dennis Jernigan's Sing Over Me, and Witt and Richards's The Hobbit Party.

The new photos: "Our inclination to cling to visuals of the past says much about our heart's condition."

Nothing but Him: "Resting in God's grace at Thanksgiving."

Nov. 29
International Day of the Bible: "The National Bible Association, YouVersion, BibleGateway.com, and the American Bible Society are promoting Nov. 24 as the first International Day of the Bible, in hopes of persuading people to devote a portion of their day to reading the Bible. The groups hope organizations will post Scripture online or have someone read it aloud at noon without commentary."

Happy Days of Despair: "What can keep good times from becoming banal and empty?"
Ingratitude is preliminary to going astray—see Romans 1:21. It's the wellspring of human depravity since the beginning of time, but our present-day ingratitude may have taken root during the 1950s, when we thanked ourselves for our new prosperity instead of God. Then wondered why worshipping that pale plaster idol felt so banal.
In his introduction to a new essay collection called The Seven Deadly Virtues, editor Jonathan Last quotes Cicero: "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all others." It is gratitude, Last goes on to say, "that allows us to appreciate what is good, what should be defended and cultivated."
If any particular noise defines our age, it is complaint—the thin, sour tone we use to describe social trends, genetically enhanced foods, movie remakes, and (above all) government. Given that there's plenty to complain about this Thanksgiving, there's at least as much to celebrate—not in a perfunctory "I'm grateful for" ceremony around the table, but in countless deliberate choices to look to God's fullness instead of our emptiness. Maybe we can just be happy.
Interpretive dance: "The BioLogos Foundation is making a major, well-funded push to change the way Christians read Genesis and think about Adam and Eve." According to Stephen Meyer, "BioLogos leaders are using 'an unsubstantiated and controversial claim to urge pastors and theologians to jettison a straightforward reading of Genesis about the human race arising from one man and one woman. They think "the science" requires such a reinterpretation, but apart from speculative models that make numerous question-begging assumptions, the science does no such thing.'"
Denis Alexander: Adam and Eve lived long after the first homo sapiens, and were "people whom God assigned as the founders of his new spiritual family on earth. The model therefore envisages Adam and Eve as the Homo divinus—the first human beings to truly know God and walk in fellowship with Him."
Stephen Meyer: Alexander's claim "is not based on evidence, but on a speculative field called theoretical population genetics, [which] assumes but does not establish that humans and lower primates share a common ancestor and that all gene differences between humans and other primates are the result of random mutations."
Taking a stand: "If it comes to breaking civil law, American Christians will have company."
Not long ago a sweet woman in my state of Pennsylvania was fired from a low-level college administrative job for speaking innocently of Jesus and sharing her thoughts on marriage in a conversation initiated by a colleague. I wrote about her case for the magazine, and the woman really believed that as a result of that public exposure she would receive justice and be reinstated in her place of employment. What the Christian world will have to come to terms with in the future is that it’s OK to take a stand for Christ, as long as you don’t think it will necessarily improve your life. The Western Christian world, I mean. The Middle Eastern fold already gets that.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Autonomy vs. Theonomy

From The Reformation Study Bible note "The Law of God" (p. 122):
Human beings were not created autonomous (that is, free to be a law to themselves) but theonomous—subject to the law of God. This was not a hardship, because God had created man in such a way that grateful obedience would bring him the highest happiness. Duty and delight would have coincided, as they did in Jesus (John 4:34; cf. Ps. 112:1; 119:14, 16, 47, 48, 97-113, 127, 128, 163-67). The fallen human heart hates God's law, both because it is a law and because it comes from God. Those who know Christ, however, find not only that they love the law and want to keep it, both to please God and out of gratitude for grace (Rom. 7:18-22; 12:1, 2), but also that the Holy Spirit leads them into a degree of obedience that was never theirs before (Rom. 7:6; 8:4-6; Heb. 10:16).
God's moral law is abundantly set forth in Scripture, in the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments), other statutes of Moses, sermons by the prophets, the teaching of Jesus, and the New Testament letters. The law reflects God's holy character and His purposes for created human beings. God commands the behavior that pleases Him and forbids what offends Him. Jesus summarizes the moral law in the two great commandments, to love God and to love your neighbor (Mat.. 22:37-40). He says that on these two depend all the Old Testament moral instructions. The moral teaching of Christ and His apostles is the old law deepened and reapplied to new circumstances—life in the kingdom of God, where the Savior reigns, and in the post-Pentecost era of the Spirit, when God's people are called to live sanctified lives in the midst of a hostile world (John 17:6-19).
Biblical law is of various sorts. Moral laws command the personal and community behavior that is always our duty. The political laws of the Old Testament applied principles of the moral law to Israel's national situation when Israel was a theocracy, God's people on earth. The Old Testament laws about ceremonial purity, diet, and sacrifice were temporary enactments for purposes of instruction. They were canceled by the New Testament because their symbolic meaning had been fulfilled [Matt. 15:20; Mark 7:15-19; Acts 10:9-16; Heb. 10:1-14; 13:9, 10].
The mingling of moral, judicial, and ritual law in the Mosaic books carried the message that life under God is to be seen and lived, not compartment ally, but as a many-sided unity, and also that God's authority as legislator gave equal force to the entire code. However, the laws were of different kinds, with different purposes. The political and ceremonial laws were of limited application, while it seems clear both from the immediate context and from the rest of His teaching that Jesus' affirmation of the unchanging universal force of God's law relates to the moral law as such (Matt. 5:17-19; cf. Luke 16:16, 17).
God requires the total obedience of each person to all the implications of His law. As the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 99, says, the law binds "the whole man . . . unto obedience forever"; "it is spiritual, and so reacheth the understanding, will, affections, and all other power s of the soul as well as the words, works, and gestures." In other words, desires as well as actions must be right; Jesus condemns the hypocrisy that tries to hide inner corruption with an outward show [Matt. 15:7, 8; 23:25-28]. Furthermore, the corollaries of the law are part of its content: "where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

How should we interpret the Sermon on the Mount?

Here is a note from The Reformation Study Bible at Matthew 5:1-7:29:
The Sermon on the Mount is the first of five great blocks of Jesus' teaching in Matthew (Introduction: Characteristics and Themes). It is the classic statement of the ethics of the kingdom of God. The early church favored a literal interpretation but fully applied the sermon only to special classes of Christians, especially monastics. Others, such as the Anabaptists, have attempted to apply it literally to every Christian. Still others have viewed it as legalistic, as a provisional, temporary code, or as a heightening of the law of Moses with the aim of inducing repentance (Luther). Finally, some have argued that the demands of the sermon are not to be understood literally, but that Jesus was concerned with inward disposition rather than outward conduct, or that the severity of the sermon is intended to compel a decision by the hearers either for or against God's demands on their lives.
We must recognize that the sermon is directed to the disciples and through them to the whole church today. The sermon addresses both inward movies and outward conduct [Matt. 5:21, 22, 27, 28]. These legitimate demands are so strict [Matt. 5:48] that no one can completely obey them, and we are therefore driven to the grace and mercy of God. In some cases Jesus uses obviously intentional exaggeration to illustrate the absolute requirements of God's law [Matt. 5:29, 30].

Friday, November 7, 2014

Does God want Christians to be spiritually mature?

The following excerpt is from John Piper's short book (about 50 pages) on the two wills of God, Does God Desire All to Be Saved?, available for free as a PDF here (p. 33):
The writer to the Hebrews says that he intends to leave elementary things behind and press on to maturity. But then he pauses and adds, "And this we will do if God permits" (Heb. 6:3). This is remarkable, since it is hard to imagine one even thinking that God might not permit such a thing unless one has a remarkably high view of the sovereign prerogatives of God.
John Frame, quoted in one of the links above, has said, "God does not intend to bring about everything he values [moral will], but he never fails to bring about what he intends [sovereign will]."

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Purpose of God: Predestination and Foreknowledge

From The Reformation Study Bible theological note in Malachi 1 (p. 1487):
"Predestination" is a word often used to signify God's foreordaining of all the events of world history—past, present, and future. This usage is quite appropriate. In Scripture and historic Protestant theology, however, "predestination" refers specifically to God's decision, made in eternity before the world existed, regarding the final destinies of individual persons. In general, the New Testament speaks of the predestination, or election, of particular sinners for salvation and eternal life (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:4, 5, 11), although Scripture also on occasion ascribes to God an advance decision about those who are finally not saved (Rom. 9:6-29; 1 Pet. 2:8; Jude 4). For this reason it is usual in Protestant theology to define predestination as including both God's decision to save some from sin (election) and the corresponding decision not to save other (reprobation).
It is sometimes asserted that God's choice of individuals for salvation is based on His foreknowledge that they would choose Christ as their Savior. Foreknowledge in this case means passive foresight by God of what individuals will do apart from His foreordaining their action. But there are weighty objections to the view that election is based on passive foresight.
"Foreknow" in Rom. 8:29; 11:2 (cf. 1 Pet. 1:2, 20) indicates not only an advance recognition, but also an advance choice by God of His people. It does not express the idea of a spectator's passive anticipation of what will happen spontaneously. God's "knowledge" of His people in Scripture implies a special relationship of loving choice (Gen. 18:19).
Since all are naturally dead in sin (cut off from the life of God and unresponsive to Him), no one who hears the gospel will ever come to repentance and faith without the inner renewal that only God can impart (Eph. 2:4-10). Jesus said, "No one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father" (John 6:65, cf. 6:44; 10:25-28). Sinners choose Christ because God chose them first, and moved them to their choice by graciously renewing their hearts.
Though all human acts are free in the sense of an immediate self-determination, such acts are also the outworking of God's eternal purpose and foreordination. We have difficulty understanding precisely how divine sovereignty are compatible, but Scripture everywhere assumes that they are so (Acts 2:23; 4:28 and notes).
Christians should thank God for their conversion, look to Him to keep them in His grace, and wait with confidence for His final triumph, according to His plan. See "Election and Reprobation" at Rom. 9:18 and "Effectual Calling and Conversion" at 2 Thess. 2:14.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Does "to hate" mean "to love less"?

It is sometimes explained that the word hate in the Bible actually means "love less." This definition is accurate, in some cases (see examples below). But this definition is not comprehensive. Sometimes hate includes severe judgment and cannot simply mean "love less."

The following is from The Reformation Study Bible note on Malachi 1:2-3:
"I have loved you," says the LORD.
"Yet you say, 'In what way have You loved us?'
Was not Esau Jacob's brother?"
Says the LORD,
"Yet Jacob I have loved;
But Esau I have hated,
And laid waste his mountains and his heritage
For the jackals of the wilderness."
Here is the note:
Although there is a usage of the verb "hate" which means "to love less" (Gen. 29:31 text note; Luke 14:26), the context immediately following suggests that here "hate" means active rejection, displeasure, and disfavor manifested in retributive justice. It is not merely that Esau (Edom) suffers the absence or lessening of blessing, but that he receives judgment. For this usage of "hate," see Ps. 5:5; Is. 61:8; Hos. 9:15; Amos 5:21; Mal. 2:16. See "Election and Reprobation" at Rom. 9:18.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Theme of Malachi

From The Reformation Study Bible (p. 1495, bolding mine):
Malachi spoke to a disillusioned, discouraged, and doubting people whose experience did not harmonize with their understanding of the glorious promises found in the earlier prophets. Their vision of the coming messianic age did not materialize. Instead they experienced poverty, drought, and economic adversity, and they became disillusioned with God and their faith. Malachi's words confront a people skeptical of the promises and therefore indifferent in their commitment to live in the light of those promises and to worship and serve the Lord with all their hearts. The book may serve as a catechism for times of doubt and disappointment, when the professing people of God are tempted to break faith with their covenant God. The prophet's ministry is to light the lamp of faith in a disheartened people by reminding them of God's electing love [Malachi 1:2] and to set forth the continuing obligations of the covenant to those who truly know God [Malachi 3:16-18].
Malachi is written in the style of several medieval disputations—an accusation, followed by cynical questioning, followed by a response—although this description is anachronistic.

For more on the power of the promise (including a really great perspective from the David and Goliath story), read this.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mock the darkness

First Desolate Friday, and then Easter Morn.