The only lasting way forward for race relations

In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a paper titled, "It is not enough to condemn black power." In it, he wrote that "the majority of Negroes want to share power to bring about a community in which neither power nor dignity will be colored black or white." His words were directed to a minority within the black community who used violence as a means of securing justice, which King roundly condemned. This clip of a young man using wisdom, reason, and love to seek peace and understanding, captures the spirit of King's noble aim. I was especially impressed with the unity in Christ which this young man placed above (not in denial of) differences of race. For what it's worth, I invite any of my brothers and sisters to pray with me, and I will pray for you, regardless of your color or culture.

The only lasting way forward is for individuals to be converted and transformed by their spiritual identity. There is "neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ" (Gal 3:28). United to Jesus, the Head of the Body, the white man must say of his black brother, “he is blood of my blood, my own flesh in Christ, created black for God's glory.” Likewise, the black Christian must say of his white brethren, “our eternal, fraternal union is defined by faith, not color.” The glory which shall be shared equally among races in the New Creation is revealed now in the equity of our love for one another. For that reason, I have more substantial commonality with persons of another race or even language, with whom I share the Spirit, than I would with an otherwise identical clone of myself if he were not converted.

How to Give with the Right Heart

Christian, do you struggle to give with the right heart, freely and cheerfully (2 Cor 9:7)? The way out of one's own tight fist is by dwelling on and receiving the doctrine of God's own bounty. It means more than affirming that "because God is generous, I ought to be." This mindset is purely of the law and powerless to affect change. Freedom to give joyfully comes through meditating upon and rejoicing in the good news that in Christ, God graciously directs his omnipotence toward all our needs. Providence is dispensed from the account of divine goodwill. For that reason, we can give cheerfully trusting the Father to provide enough for this life as well as an exceeding reward of grace in the world to come. Above all, we can lean on his promise to provide the Spirit of generosity to overcome our doubting, idolatrous tendencies.

For more on this subject listen to this sermon on Mal 3:6-12, "Will Man Rob God?"

It's legal, but is it right?

Answering those who would use aborted fetal tissue for good.

Recently, the Jewish comedian, Sarah Silverman, made a shockingly utilitarian argument for harvesting aborted fetal material for research and medicine:

This statement is, admittedly, an extreme example of how people mistakenly equate legality with good ethics. All the same, her words typify where many in our world stand. More importantly, they underscore the necessity of recovering a solid ethical foundation, if we are to preserve human rights in the 21st century. Before offering my own thoughts, I'll share the response of Ben Shapiro, which puts Silverman's ethics into perspective:

What Shapiro did not point out was that Germany also used victims for medical research. Brian Palmer of Slate noted that “concentration camp doctors conducted research on vaccines, antibiotics, fertility, transplantation, and eugenics.” Whether such experiments were useful or legal, it must be asked if they were they right?

Many activities are deemed legal, such as prostitution in Las Vegas, or marrying nine year-olds in the Middle East, which are ethically questionable or plainly opposed to sound moral principles. I recall feeling horrified to learn the Chinese government sanctions thousands of executions annually for no other crime than practicing unapproved religions. Their organs are sold to the medical community for "repurposing." Perhaps Silverman would object to the Chinese government for doing so, but she would not have a coherent reason why.

Meaningful ethics require that we ask more than, "is this legal," but, "is it right, and on what basis?" This is why cosmology matters. Two-hundred years ago, Western society shared a philosophical consensus about the universe. While not united on specifics of religion, the majority understood the world to be the creation of a personal God. As such, society acknowledged the existence of moral law that transcends human courts and popular approval. This belief gave lofty ethical purchase from which to judge the actions of individuals and governments. One nation could to say to another, "your actions are evil," with logical coherence and conviction.

The philosophical climate of the West has shifted decidedly to naturalism. As one writer put it, the "sacred canopy" has fallen, so that ethics are judged on a purely horizontal plane. The very idea that actions may be objectively good or evil is scorned as old fashioned. What matters now is whether they are legal or popularly approved. This shift places us on a social precipice. Simply put, human rights are only so secure as we are agreed on the source of them. If personal dignity and the right to life are privileges bestowed by the State, and not gifts from the Creator, then they may be withdrawn from those whom society no longer favors. 

God's own character and will defines what is acceptable for his image-bearers. This belief makes it possible to speak against cultural decay, secular evil, and widespread apostasy.

As a Christian, I believe in actual right and wrong that goes beyond collective opinion or power. There are objective distinctions between love and hate, good and evil, by which we can evaluate human behavior, regardless of legality. Such moral truths have universal meaning precisely because the come from a higher authority than human government or nature. Simply put, God's own character and will defines what is acceptable for his image-bearers. This belief makes it possible to speak against cultural decay, secular evil, and widespread apostasy. It also makes it imperative that I show due honor and love to those, like Silverman, with whom I strongly disagree.

Silverman is not a sophisticated ethicist, but a comedian. Even if she were, I would take her views on morality with more than a little salt. People who reject good and evil as objective realities, I have observed, never do so for purely philosophical reasons. They have an ulterior incentive—to protect their moral autonomy and justify pet sins. Like raccoons in a dumpster, moral relativists want to be left alone to feed on corruption, and hiss viciously at anyone who exposes their dark banquet as filth. 

Far from being defenders of freedom, as they paint themselves, I believe utilitarians are threatened by the concept of a single moral law which grants equality to all humans and calls everyone to account. Such a law would obligate Silverman to costly love and self-denial. For her to reject abortion, she would first have to accept sexual boundaries she publicly wants nothing to do with, even if the collateral damage is a dissected infant. From that compromised position, how can she judge fairly what is right and good?

Am I a Catholic now?

After my post on why I affirm infant baptism but not paedo communion, an old friend wrote:

So I am curious. ... are you Catholic now? If you are still Protestant, then you can't with authority say how communion should be done. Historically, certain Protestants disagree on this topic, thereby weakening their stance on it. Just saying. Would be interested in knowing what you think.

No, I am not Roman Catholic. I reject papal superiority, transubstantiation, purgatory, and other dogmas of late Western Christianity. I do identify, however, with broader Christian tradition such that I use the lowercase "c", as stated in the Apostles Creed: "I believe in a holy, catholic (universal) church." To be catholic in this sense is to affirm one essential church throughout all times and places, to whom belong the Spirit, the kingdom, and true faith.

As for speaking with authority, I realize Protestants are divided on many points (as are Rome's millions, though less obviously to outsiders). In no way do I endorse a “just me and my Bible” mentality. We need to stand on the work of Christians who came before us and take their theological efforts seriously. That is why I worship as a Confessionally Reformed Protestant and subscribe to the historic doctrinal summaries found in the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort. Each of these is about 500 years old, and builds on earlier creedal statements.

Does this mean I place faith in human tradition? No, not directly. To be Reformed means, among other things, that I regard Holy Scripture as the supreme authority over all faith and life. Doctrinal statements bear authority only insofar as they accurately reflect the teachings of Scripture. Likewise, I reject the claim that doctrinal questions cannot be resolved without a sole human arbiter (i.e., the Pope), as well as the patently wrong notion that tradition is infallible. Councils have erred, Popes have erred, but God preserves his life-giving Word in a way that is sufficiently clear on all essential matters (we call this "perspicuity"). Through due use of our created abilities, the Spirit enables believers to have reasonable certainty regarding core teachings of the faith.

To be Reformed means, among other things, that I regard Holy Scripture as the supreme authority over all faith and life.

Were this not the case, the Apostle Paul could not have instructed Titus to "muzzle the mouths" of those who are teaching false doctrines. Indeed, Paul does not tell Titus and Timothy to appeal to the tradition at Rome, which was not yet even a thing, but to the Scriptures themselves. Early Christian fathers had no inherent authority, but stood upon the foundation laid by the Apostles and prophets, namely the revelation given in the Word of God.

I will say this, I have more sympathy for thoughtful Roman Catholics than for shallow evangelicals. In both camps are those who take the word more or less seriously. In both camps are people trusting ultimately in their own merits, rather than in the sufficiency of Christ's imputed righteousness and the Holy Spirit's effectual grace. I am also persuaded that among both groups, Roman and evangelical, are people resting in the gospel by faith, believing God receives as righteous any sinner trusting his promise of mercy through Christ. In both camps are people in whom the Spirit is perfecting holiness for the age to come, despite their association with corrupt forms of worship and erring symbols of the faith.

PS: If you haven't read the Heidelberg Catechism, I highly recommend it.

 

Why not allow baptized infants to take communion?

I get this question often. I respect the concerns it arises from. Simply stated, the reason why Protestant Christians have traditionally withheld communion from baptized infants is that, unlike Passover, the Lord's Supper involves more than typology. It entails—wait for it—communion.  Let me explain.

The Old Testament Passover feast predates the incarnation of the Son. As such, its significance was principally typological, pointing to the Lamb of God yet to come. The Lord's Supper, by contrast, is a spiritual participation in the now-incarnate Lord Jesus. By means of the sacrament, we feed on Christ's true human body by faith, not merely anticipate it. For that reason, the Supper is appropriately apprehended only by those capable of self-assessment (“examine yourselves”), and its benefits are realized through conscious communion in faith. I would no more give the Supper to a covenant infant, than feed it to a comatose adult Christian. Neither may be expected to sensibly commune with Christ by faith while in that state. As I understand it, communion is an act of conscious participation in spiritual realities, and of covenant renewal through faith.

Baptism, on the other hand, is a rite of initiation into the visible administration of the covenant community. On its top-most level, it is not a picture of your personal conversion. Rather, it signifies Christ's death, burial, and resurrection on behalf of the church throughout time, and applied historically by the Spirit. The function of baptism for infants is to visibly unite them with the Christian community, and to direct their faith at whatever point in life God regenerates them. In this respect, baptism functions identically with circumcision. The cut foreskin was “a seal of the righteousness which Abraham had through faith,” yet it was given to his infant son, to lead Isaac to the source of true righteousness—faith in Messiah (Rom 4:11).

 

The Use of the Decalogue in Worship

Determining the frequency with which the Decalogue is to be sung/recited in morning worship.

For the Consistory of Phoenix United Reformed Church
2016 June 28

Scripture does not explicitly require ministers to read the Ten Commandments during worship services. Certain principles have nevertheless informed churches throughout history to include the Decalogue on a frequent, or even weekly basis. This practice remained prevalent among Protestants until the 19th century, when revivalism began displacing traditional liturgical forms and Dispensationalism diminished the Decalogue’s relevance for New Covenant believers. 

Today, Reformed churches largely continue to incorporate Biblical readings distinct from the sermon, for the purpose of stimulating confession and grateful obedience. The Ten Commandments commonly serve that end. Since the 1500’s, however, local Consistories have expressed freedom to vary texts used throughout the service. I will state my view from the outset: Biblical-liturgical principles allow for a variety of ways to honor the intent behind reciting the Decalogue, without binding the church to particular formulas. This conclusion is borne out by Scripture, as well as by the testimony of Reformed church history.

Biblical & Early Church Background

Rather than prescribing a specific order of service, the New Testament indicates certain elements which must be present in Christian worship. Among others, Scripture calls for corporate confession of sin, pastoral declarations of forgiveness, and instruction in godliness (Jas 5:16; Jn 20:23; 1 Tim 6:2-3). Because church officers bear ministerial authority, these elements are generally facilitated with reference to appropriate Biblical passages. In the case of those listed above, this entails passages which state imperatives of the Law and/or indicatives of the Gospel. The order in which such elements are joined, as well as the texts incorporated, is a matter of wisdom rather than rule.

The liturgical mold of the early church was the Jewish synagogue. Documents from that time show some Jewish communities required the Ten Commandments to be read weekly, while others restricted them to occasional use, fearing sectarianism might come from elevating one part of Scripture above the rest of God’s Word. [1] It is evident from Clement’s letter to the Corinthians (c. 96 AD) that Christian services involved a distinct time of confession and pardon, but Clement does not specify whether the Ten Commandments were employed). One of the earliest liturgical guidebooks, the Didache (c. 100 AD), states, 

In church, confess your transgressions, and do not go to prayer with an evil conscience” (IV, 14), and: “When you gather together each Lord’s Day, break bread and give thanks. But first confess your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure [that is, celebrating the Supper in faith, not as a legalistic or unrepentant work]. (XIV,1) [2]

Many of the second-century church Fathers, including Polycarp, Theophilus, and Irenaeus, systematically taught on the abiding importance of the Ten Commandments. [3] Still, there does not appear to have been a uniform practice of including the Decalogue in worship or catechesis for the first 1000 years of church history. According to Robert Bast, the Decalogue first began to feature prominently in Christian teaching in the 12th century, perhaps in response to the apparently degenerate state of the church. [4]

Early Reformed Principles and Practice

In 1503, Johann Ulrich Surgant of Basle (c. 1450–1503) published a pastoral handbook which John Calvin credited as influencing his own liturgical views. In it, Surgant recommended reading the Ten Commandments weekly. [5] While exiled in Strasbourg, Calvin studied under Martin Bucer (1491–1551). Bucer described his weekly service as follows:

When the congregation comes together on Sunday, the minister exhorts the people to confess their sins and to pray for pardon; and on behalf of the whole congregation he makes confession to God, prays for pardon, and pronounces absolution to the believers. Thereupon, the whole congregation sings a few short psalms or hymns. Then the minister says a short prayer, reads to the congregation a passage from the writings of the apostles, and, as briefly as possible, expounds the same. Then the congregation sings again, this time the Ten Commandments, or something else. [6]

Notably, Bucer shows relative indifference to which passage serves the Law-function, as he does likewise with texts used for pardon: “Sometimes [the minister] takes other Words which comfort us in the forgiveness of sins and in the ransom of Christ for our sins, such as St. John 3:16, or 3:35-6, or Acts 10:43, or John 2:1-2.”  Flexibility is apparent in Calvin’s approach as well, though he preferred greater regularity. Deddens observes that, while Calvin served in Strasbourg—where he enjoyed considerably more liturgical freedom than in Geneva—his service began as follows:

  • Invocation (Psa 121:2, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”)
  • Confession of sins
  • Words of pardon and comfort, with Scriptural absolution (i.e., 1 Tim 1:15-17) [8]
  • Ten Commandments

Calvin placed the Decalogue after confession and pardon to emphasize that full-orbed obedience is the covenantal response appropriate for Christians, and not the meritorious ground of our forgiveness. [9] Moreover, Calvin did not simply recite the Commandments; rather, the congregation sang a rhyming version he wrote for that purpose. Each command was followed by the phrase, “Lord, have mercy upon me.” [11] Moreover, he punctuated the first and second “tables” of the Law with a brief prayer. 

Upon returning to Geneva, Calvin was prevented from using his musical version in the service, but continued reciting the Ten Commandments each Lord’s Day morning. We see that his incorporation of the Decalogue was driven by certain principles (to guide our response to forgiveness) yet reflects considerable freedom (sung/spoken; dividing the tables, etc). Moreover, there is no indication he felt their absence would be sub-Christian. Calvin regarded the presence and placement of confession, absolution, and moral guidance prior to the sermon as more important than the texts chosen to incite them.

The Use of the Decalogue in the Netherlands and Canada

Following the Reformation, the use of Ten Commandments underwent several changes in the Netherlands. Petrus Dathenus’ liturgical guidebook (1562) reflects a growing trend to place the Decalogue before confession of sin, rather than after pardon as Calvin had done, arguably shifting its significance primarily to guilt rather than gratitude. [12] The first synod in the Netherlands, held in Dordrecht in 1574, removed confession of sins and absolution as necessary elements in worship, yet retained the sung-version of the Ten Commandments, suggesting a loss of understanding about the intended purpose. [13]

In 1923, the Synod of Utrecht was urged to reintroduce the confession and declaration of forgiveness into the formula of worship, but chose not to. Finally, Synod of Kampen 1975 revisited the issue and adopted much of Calvin’s liturgical formula. “The Synod of the Canadian Reformed Churches at Cloverdale 1983 followed the sister churches in the Netherlands by recommending to the churches this second order of liturgy.” [14]

CRC and URCNA Use of the Ten Commandments

The 1923 and 1930 Acts of the Christian Reformed Church include reading of the Law as part of weekly services. As well, the Christian Reformed Service Book (1981) includes responsive readings of the Law (not exclusively the Decalogue). The use of the Ten Commandments is less defined in the URCNA. The Church Order (6th Ed.) states that confession of sins is to be made each Lord’s Day, but does not specify which texts, if any, are to be used for this purpose. Furthermore, I searched the minutes of the previous eight synods (1996-2012) and found no references to either the Decalogue/Ten Commandments as a fixed element in the order of service.

Conclusion

The value of the Ten Commandments to elicit confession of sins and guide Christian obedience has lead many Reformed churches to incorporate sung or spoken versions into weekly liturgies. There is no indication from Scripture, however, that the Decalogue alone serves that purpose. Which texts are used is a matter of wisdom, not rule. Moreover, notable figures such Bucer and Calvin expressed flexibility in the frequency and position which the Decalogue had in worship. The most important factor, I believe, is to understand and communicate the principles behind inclusion of the Law in the service, lest it become a dead ritual. Its position prior the sermon is arguably more vital than which text is chosen to illustrate guilt and gratitude. Nonetheless, the Ten Commandments cover the full gamut of covenantal godliness in a way that few, if any, other texts do. Regular, if not weekly, recitation of the Ten Commandments solidifies a sense of the full-orbed obedience which God’s righteousness requires, that is imputed through faith in Christ alone, and is being realized by the Spirit who sanctifies us to keep not some, but all of the Law.

If you have additional knowledge or corrections, please notify me: email@michaelspotts.com

Copyright © Michael Spotts 2016, All Rights Reserved.


Footnotes

  1.  Mishnah Tamid 5:1. Some Rabbis, including the great Medieval scholar Maimonides, forbade Jews from standing during the reading of the Decalogue lest they seem to value the Ten Commandments above the other 603 laws. See Jonathan Sacks, “The Custom that Refused to Die,” Chabad.org.
  2.  This is also an example of the fact that early churches felt freedom to celebrate the Supper weekly, as well as less frequently, as consistories determined.

  3.  This is also an example of the fact that early churches felt freedom to celebrate the Supper weekly, as well as less frequently, as consistories determined. “Preparing man for this life, the Lord Himself did speak in His own person to all alike the words of the Decalogue; and therefore, in like manner, do they remain permanently with us, receiving by means of His advent in the flesh, extension and increase, but not abrogation” Irenaeus. Adversus haereses, Book IV, Chapter 16, Verse 4. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885.

  4.  “Nearly unnoticed in scholarship on the catechism is the fact that while catechesis itself had been on the agenda of the Church from the very beginning, the use of the Decalogue had not. For reasons not yet completely clear, before the late twelfth century the attitude of the Church toward the Commandments was ambiguous… Christians defined themselves as recipients of a New Covenant, sealed by the ultimate sacrifice (Jesus’ death) and guided by a new and better Law (the Sermon on the Mount) […] The general tenor of the solution may be seen in the writings of Irenaeus (d. 200), who claimed the superiority of Christian ethics to the Jewish Law, while affirming that the Decalogue itself had not been cancelled, but rather amplified and extended by Jesus… Catechetical texts from the Patristic era include the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, explanations of Baptism and the Eucharist, and a great deal of moral teaching drawn from various biblical and apocryphal sources, but the Decalogue was generally passed over.” Emphasis mine. Robert James Bast, Honor Your Fathers: Catechisms and the Emergence of a Patriarchal Ideology in Germany, 1400-1600 (Leiden ; New York: Brill Academic Publishers, 1997.) 32-33.

  5.  K. Deddens, “A missing link in Reformed liturgy.pdf,” 1. Clarion 37, nos. 15–19 (1998).

  6.  Emphasis mine. Deddens, “A missing link,” 1, 2.

  7.  Deddens, “A missing link,” 2.

  8.  The words of absolution which follow the Scriptural words of pardon are as follows: “Let each of you confess that he is really a sinner who has to humble himself before God. He must believe that the heavenly Father will be gracious to him in Jesus Christ. To all who have repentance and who seek Jesus Christ for their salvation, I pronounce forgiveness in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.” Deddens, “A missing link,” 3. 

  9.  Deddens, “A missing link,” 3.

  10.  The phrase, “Lord have mercy upon me” (kyrie eleison), has been used in worship since the first century, finding its origins in both the Old and New Testaments. “Calvin had a special reason for having the Kyrie-eleison sung by the congregation, namely, the repeated petition for help from the Lord in order that the congregation would practice the service of love in thankfulness.” Deddens, “A missing link,” 13. 

  11.  “In what way should our service begin but in acknowledging our own unworthiness? But this you will say is done in every prayer; for as often as we pray for pardon, we confess our sins. I admit it. But if you consider how great is our carelessness, or drowsiness, or sloth, you will grant me that it would be a salutary ordinance if the Christian people were exercised in humiliation by some formal method of confession… indeed, in all well-ordered churches, in observance of an useful custom, the minister, each Lord's day, frames a formula of confession in his own name and that of the people, in which he makes a common confession of iniquity, and supplicates pardon from the Lord. In short, by this key a door of prayer is opened privately for each, and publicly for all.” Emphasis mine. Calvin, Institutes, III:4:11.

  12.  Bert Polman, “A History of Worship in the Christian Reformed Church,” in The Psalter Hymnal Handbook, ed. Emily Brink and Bert Polman (Faith Alive Christian Resources, 1998) 111-12. 

  13.  “The ‘Law,’ for instance, appears as a floating element without any liturgical anchorage either in that which precedes or follows.” From “A History of Liturgy in the Christian Reformed Church” by John Vriend in Proceedings of a Conference on Liturgy and Music in Reformed Worship (Grand Rapids, Mich.: 1979), 9-10; In 1580, Van der Heyden formed a new liturgy in which pronouncements of law and grace were missing completely. “Some have said that the Synod of 1574, and especially the Synod of 1581 (both of them chaired by Gaspar van der Heyden) spoiled the beautiful start of Calvin's liturgy.” Deddens, “A missing link,” 11.

  14.  Deddens, “A missing link,” 11.

If "God is love" why is he wrathful?

When we read in passages such as Exodus 20:5, that God is “jealous,” we are to understand divine jealousy in a Trinitarian way. The Father yearns for the dignity of the Son and Spirit, such that he is angry at anything and anyone who slights them. The Son is likewise passionate for the honor of his Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit burns with zeal for the respect of the Father and Son. Love, at the most sublime level, is the ardent regard each divine person has for the members of the godhead.  As such, God's communal love necessarily involves antipathy for idolaters who defame the Trinity by their sinful substitution of creation for Creator. But it is the effulgence of divine love which also brings sinners back into communion in the life of the Trinity, through redeeming grace. 

Why didn't Jesus say, "Game Over" after his resurrection?

Among the five-hundred who witnessed Jesus after his resurrection, it is notable that Pilate and the Sanhedrin were apparently absent (1 Cor 15). You might expect Jesus to have gone straight from the tomb to the palace, yelling, "Game Over! Who was right, after all?" By withholding his glorious appearance from them, it seems that Jesus created room for thousands of years of tension between unbelief and faith, years filled with suffering. Why does he let the game go on, so to speak? 

The question of God's purpose in human suffering tends to arise from personal pain, as much or more than from intellectual or biblical difficulties. Having orthodox answers doesn't always prevent us from wrestling with unresolved feelings about the goodness of God's plan. The so-called "problem of pain" make us groan deeply, "why does God allow his people to suffer?" All the more when that pain settles on someone we love dearly.

As you read the Gospels, you will notice Christ purposely limited whom he revealed himself to after his resurrection. I believe Jesus' decision to veil his resurrection from the authorities was very much intended to foster a certain tension, as well as to serve as a form of judgment. "To everyone who has [faith] will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away" (Mt 25:29). Compare Jesus' motive for speaking in parables:

"Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given." (Matt 13:10-11)

Those who believed, Jesus took aside and gave further explanation. Those whom God determined to leave to their own wickedness were excluded from fuller interpretations of the Kingdom message. It is God's right to withhold revelation, including the presence of the risen Son.

Another passage worth considering in connection with Jesus' choice not to appear before the Pharisees is his warning about the Sign of Jonah:

“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here” (Mt 12:39-42)

For this warning to hold true, the Jews would have to have been generally persuaded of the truthfulness of Christ's resurrection. Nineveh could not condemn Jerusalem for rejecting the Sign (the resurrection) unless they had in fact been aware of it. Just as all million-plus Ninevites did not see the whale spit up Jonah, but were nonetheless aware of the prophet's ordeal, so it was not essential for every Jewish leader to have witnessed Christ's resurrection firsthand to be accountable for rejecting it. They had plenty of credible testimony from others, beside the Spirit bearing witness in their hearts of its truthfulness. 

Based on Mt 12:38-42, and Paul's testimony in Acts 26:26 ("these things did not happen in a corner”), it is apparent that many leaders did indeed know of the resurrection, even if direct experience of the glorified Christ was a privilege reserved for those who had trusted him before the crucifixion.

To conclude, Christ's self-veiling after the resurrection was part of God’s judgment against the religious and political leaders. He gave enough proof to make them culpable, but also "enough rope to hang themselves" with stubborn denial. Not seeing Christ firsthand, they could persist, even against their consciences, in persecuting God’s people for selfish gain.

It also set up the tension between faith and unbelief that persists until the second coming. As you endure this time of testing, recall Jesus words to his disciples, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (Jn 20:29).

I hope to address the question of suffering more later. For now, God bless you and keep you.

 

Truly Human Sanctification

Sanctification is not the process of becoming more angelic, or even more godly, in some abstract or spiritualized way. What it means to be renewed after the image of Christ, the Firstfruits of resurrected humanity, is only to become human as God originally intended. The ascended Son sends forth his Spirit to renew believers in his glorious human likeness. Sanctification, then, is not mimicry. Not mere imitation of Christ, as though Christian life is external to, and apart from Christ. Such “life” consists in aping rituals and righteous deeds, and is really animated death.

Nor is spirituality a progressive negation of humanity, as if our goal were to “doff this mortal coil” by rejecting corporeality and all its scandalous sensuality. The life working within believers is a resurrecting life. A life that preserves and fulfills humanity, rather than destroying it. At creation, God pronounced humanity “very good.” The Father looks upon his Son dressed in human nature, and again says, “I am well pleased.” In Christ, the divine re-affirms the human forever.

We experience sanctification, then, as participation in Christ's life. The same energies working in the truly human Jesus now vitalize us, so that we are able to commune with God and love our neighbors. Sap courses from the root to the stem. The resurrection life of the immortal Son is likewise communicated to every believing branch by the Spirit. What this means is that holiness is to be experienced humanly. Not ceasing to live as humans, but desisting from that which tends to death. The aim is human life flourishing under the aegis of the Triune presence. Glorification or “divinization”, as early Christians sometimes called it, is not exchanging the human for the divine, but the divine ushering humanity into fullest communion. A communion which, by virtue of its invincible vitality, realizes every relationship in perfect love.

The Meaning of "Christian"

The word "Christian" means much more than following Christ's teachings. Believers share his three-fold anointing as prophets, priests, and kings. Want to learn more? I just completed a three part sermon series, available below. May God bless you through this study.

Can Believers "Leave" Their Salvation?

I have appreciated much of Pastor Chuck's ministry. On this issue, however, I think he made serious errors. Pastor Chuck did not sufficiently recognize the difference between the outward, visible church (everybody who shows up on Sunday) and those who are in fact regenerated by the Holy Spirit (the smaller number of true believers). Struggling to make sense of those who depart from professions of faith, he began to think that saved people could become "unsaved" based on their (un)cooperation with the Spirit.

It is worth noting, this was the central point over which Protestants cut ties with the Roman Catholic Church in the 1500s, and Pastor Chuck stood with Rome on this issue. Scripture is emphatic, however, that God will always "finish the work he began in you, to the day of Christ Jesus," (Phil 1:6). Those who "leave the faith," as Pastor Chuck says, prove they were never in fact converted by the Spirit. "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us" (1 Jn 2:19). Those who are born again have received an "incorruptible seed" that cannot die. "For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God" (1 Pet 1:23).

This beautiful doctrine that salvation rests entirely upon the work of Christ applied by the Spirit, does not make true believers lazy about sanctification or comfortable with sin. How could it, for the same Spirit who grants new birth also imparts a new and living nature! One that loves holiness and thirsts for righteousness.

Moreover, God the Father "disciplines every son whom he loves" (Heb 12:6). Even when they stray, regenerate souls are brought back. In this sense, the Prodigal Son never "lost" or "left" his salvation. He may have forfeited the comforts of home for a time, but he was always hidden in his Father's heart. According to the election of mercy, it was only a matter of time before he was drawn home by cords of indelible love (2 Thes 2:13).

Do not misunderstand me, I do not question Pastor Chuck's faith in Christ. Yet it is worth warning others that this particular view of his tends to make people think of salvation as being decisively conditioned on something we must contribute to God's grace. It causes people to depend on their own inward resolve, something God cannot or will not give or create for them, instead of depending solely on the Father's grace for their entire future of faith and daily repentance.

In reality, regeneration and sanctification are not unlike the gracious transformation we trust God to complete at glorification. Just as our dying day will bring total freedom from inward corruption and unbelief through a sovereign act of transforming grace, so God is always at work in believers, renewing and freeing them from the old nature. This is not a denial of human responsibility. Rather, it speaks to our beautiful faith in God to free us daily from corruption for Christ's sake, so that we may obey in a spirit of gratitude and sonship.

Verses that warn against falling away, I take as means by which God stirs his children up to ask, "what am I really trusting in, and what evidence do I show of having the Spirit?" In this way, we never stop "making our calling and election sure." Each day we are called to self-consciously "set our hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you in the day of Christ Jesus" (1 Pet 1:10, 13). We continue to "work out our salvation," by constantly reaffirming that "it is God who works in you both to will and to do, according to his good pleasure" (Phil 2:13). It is truly encouraging to find all our hope in the Spirit of mercy, who is "able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy" (Jd 1:24).


POSTSCRIPT: When speaking about Christian perseverance, I have found it helpful to avoid framing the discussion in terms of “freedom of the will.” Rather, I focus on God's power to sanctify. Freedom of the will is somewhat of a misnomer, anyway. God cannot will himself to sin—does that mean he doesn't have “free will”? No, it means that his nature is totally free from corruption and the potential to deviate from holiness. We, however, deal with many corruptions and tendencies to doubt. Our fallen human nature inevitably influences our wills toward unbelief and sin. Thankfully, God is in the process of transforming our nature! That is our hope for endurance, not that we have strength from ourselves, but that "he who has called you is faithful, and will also do it" (1 Thes 5:24).