Monday, June 5, 2017

Chapter 20: Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience

The Westminster Confession of Faith in Plain Language

1. Christ’s work upon the cross frees believers from the punishment they deserve for breaking God’s Law. It delivers them from slavery to Satan and their own sinfulness and guarantees that no evil in this life can keep them from eternal life. Because of Christ, believers can endure physical harm, sickness, and even death with great hope. They know they will be resurrected to eternal life instead of eternal punishment.

Through Christ, believers can know God personally. They can obey him like they never could before, not because they have to, like slaves who are afraid of being punished, but because they want to, like children who love making their parents happy.

Old Testament believers had these same freedoms, but in the New Testament these freedoms are greater and clearer. New Testament believers no longer have to worship using the burdensome rules and regulations of the ceremonial law (like temple sacrifices, holy days, clothing requirements, strict dietary laws, etc.). Instead New Testament believers can go straight to God in prayer without having to “jump through hoops.” The Holy Spirit also operates in the lives of New Testament believers in more regular and personal ways compared to Old Testament believers.

2. Only God has the right to determine what is right or wrong. No one can require others to obey teachings or rules that go against the Bible, and no human being can add to what Christians are supposed to believe and how they should worship. Those who act as if their man-made rules and regulations come from God throw aside real spiritual freedom. Religious groups or institutions are not allowed to demand blind obedience without explanation or “no questions asked.” When they do, they destroy true spiritual freedom, and they refuse people their God-given responsibility to think for themselves under God’s rule.

3. Those who use the freedom purchased by Christ to justify public or private sin destroy the purpose of spiritual freedom. Our deliverance from bondage to sin and Satan makes us free to serve God and live right without being motivated by fear.

4. God has ordained human authorities and Christ has paid the price for our spiritual freedom so that people can support and protect one another, not tear down and control each other. It is wrong to use “spiritual freedom” to keep churches and states from doing what God created them to do. In some cases, church discipline or legal action can be used against people who try to stir up disorder in the church and society, especially when they ruin the testimony of the church, engage in obviously improper behavior, or when they go against what the Bible clearly teaches about beliefs, worship, and how Christians are supposed to live.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Four Essential Systematic Theologies for Your Library

If you are a church pastor, teacher, or a Christian who really enjoys reading theology, you probably own a systematic theology or two. Chances are you have some old Reformed volumes by the likes of Charles Hodge, Archibald Alexander Hodge, and Louis Berkhof.  I hope you do, because they are worth reading and referencing often.

But I would like to survey four relatively recent systematic theologies that have become the "standard works." If you want to "read theology" in a broad, thorough, current way, these are the go-to works.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 1998.

Coming on the scene in 1983, Erickson is the oldest of these four systematic theologies and has been a standard seminary text for about 35 years. It is well-respected, widely used, thorough, baptistic, somewhat Calvinistic (Amyraldian?), and very easy (and even fun!) to read. Erickson summarizes the breadth of theological options on any given point and then gives his own position on things. Because the work is older, it lacks interaction with some more recent theological developments, but it is still a great text for a quick survey of the theological options.

Frame, John. Systematic Theology. Phillipsburg NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013.

Frame's systematic theology is very reformed, as one would expect, but is also lopsided: much discussion of theology proper and epistemology, but (some would say) too short on Christology and Soteriology. Frame focuses on what he has been good at (and already written about extensively in other, more-full volumes).   He really likes his Tri-perspectivalism, which means (forgive the oversimplification) that he feels compelled to describe nearly everything from the same three complementary perspectives. Sometimes this lens seems artificially superimposed, unnecessary, and unhelpful. It is definitely unique. Frame's work is the most difficult to read of the four volumes listed here. Presbyterian.

Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. NY: Harper Collins, 2009.

Grudem's theology is the most traditional of the four volumes. It is also, as Michael Bird might say, the most "prooftexty."  For that reason, Bird appears to disdain it, as if Grudem has done something wrong.  But Grudem has done what systematic theologians have always done: Organize things in standard ways and show where in the Bible the ideas come from. It is probably the most encyclopedic and complete of these four. Definitely Calvinistic, but not Presbyterian, and not Baptist either, as far as I know.  If I remember right, he is a mild continuationist.

Bird's theology is the most fun to read of these four.  He is relatively conservative, Calvinistic, and Anglican (I think). But he has a refreshing European perspective that did not originate in American Fundamentalism, as all the others on this list did ('cept maybe Erickson). He provides a glimpse into how conservative theology can be done apart from American Fundamentalist Exceptionalism. That can be uncomfortable at times ("Should he really be referencing that author without greater qualification?").

Bird says he wants to do theology like everybody else has failed to do--from a uniquely Gospel-oriented framework. But apart from reorganizing stuff, and skipping a section on the Holy Spirit, I don't think he has really reformed theology as much as he thinks he has. He also says he hates prooftexting (and mercilessly criticizes Grudem for it).  But, like theology requires, he prooftexts anyway (He keeps using that word.  I do not think it means what he thinks it means).  Also, I think in a few decades this work will be more dated than the others, because he bizarrely includes pop-culture references, like he is not just trying to do theology in a new way, but in a cool way.  Still, this is my favorite of the four to read, but it would not be my first to reference.  That would probably be Grudem, followed by Erickson.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What Does "Fencing the Table" mean?

During Communion, Fencing the Table happens when the pastor explains Paul's warnings to examine oneself and discern the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 11).  The pastor explains who is invited to participate and who should only observe instead of participating.

Different preachers and denominations explain these warnings differently, but most evangelical churches provide at least some word of warning.   I remember preachers fencing the table strongly in the fundamentalist Baptist churches I grew up in. This is not just a Presbyterian thing.

I usually fence the table with three invitations based on 1 Corinthians 10 and 11:

  • You may participate if you are United with Christ. 
  • You may participate if you are United with the Body of Christ.
  • You may participate if you are Pursuing Unity within the Body of Christ. 
Here is a brief explanation of these three invitations.

United with Christ

The name Communion reflects two meanings:  First it means communion with Christ.  We get our word "communion" from the concept translated "participation" in this verse.  
1 Corinthians 10:16 - The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (ESV)
The meal portrays, celebrates, and even practices our fellowship with Jesus Christ himself. So only those who are United with Christ should participate. This means that the meal is only for born-again believers. If your life is characterized by sin in a way that causes you and the church to question whether or not you are born again, then you should not participate. 

United with the Body of Christ

This communion is also with one another in the visible Body of Christ, the Church.  Some pastors present this stipulation as "you must be a member of a Gospel-preaching, Bible-believing church." I often do that myself.  Membership is the main way modern churches practice being united with the body of Christ. But since not all churches have membership, and since some sincere believers may be temporarily out of official membership for good reason, I prefer to state this in looser terms. What this at least means is that one cannot disdain the visible body of Christ, and refuse to participate in the visible body of Christ, and be welcome to participate in what communion represents. We get this idea from the following verse:
1 Corinthians 10:17 - Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (ESV)

Pursuing Unity Within the Body of Christ

Lastly, communion with Christ and with the Body of Christ has very practical implications for what it means to participate in the body of Christ.  At the least it means that you cannot behave in ways that refuse to demonstrate the unity the church is supposed to have in Christ. We get this idea from the following verses in context:
1 Corinthians 11:17-19 - But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. [18] For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, [19] for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. (ESV)
Because of this controversial behavior, Paul gives very, very strong warnings:

1 Corinthians 11:27-30 - Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. [28] Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. [29] For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. [30] That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (ESV)

These invitations and warnings are the reasons communion is withheld from those who have not yet made a profession of faith. They explain why churches take control over who can participate and who cannot participate.  They also explains why restriction-from-communion and excommunication (out of communion) are steps in church-discipline (although aspects of this practice are left-over from the old parochial church eras).

If it is spiritually and physically dangerous to participate in an unworthy fashion, it makes sense for shepherds to guide and protect their parish.  Shepherds want to guide the flock into the benefits and blessings of communion and protect the parish from the dangers of communion.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Key to Contradictory and Confusing Statements about the Law in Romans

Romans contains at least two difficult types of statements about the Law:

Contradictory Statements

The first set of difficult statements appears to be contradictory. They affirm the importance of the Law on one hand, while appearing to deny the Law on the other. 

Here are two examples of statements that appear to affirm the Law: 
  • Romans 3:31 - Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (ESV) 
  • Romans 7:7,12 - What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! . . . 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (ESV)
Here are three examples of statements that appear to deny the Law: 
  • Romans 6:14 - For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (ESV)
  • Romans 7:6 - But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. (ESV)
  • Romans 10:4 - For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (ESV) 
Confusing Statements

The second set of difficult statements appears to say either a) Sin did not exist in the world before God gave the Law to Moses at Sinai, or b) Sin didn’t really count until God gave the law to Moses at Sinai.  Here are some examples: 
  • Romans 4:15 - For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. (ESV)
  • Romans 5:13-14 - For sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (ESV)
The Key to Clearing Up the Confusion 

To clear up these two sets of confusing statements, we need to follow a principle of interpretation that will always serve you well if you remember it: Always interpret less clear passages of Scripture in the light of more clear passages.

Thankfully, early in the epistle, Paul makes a very clear statement that illuminates the apparently contradictory and confusing statements above:
  • Romans 3:20 -- For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (ESV)
This verse says at least two things about the Law that are crucial to understanding contradictory and confusing statements: 
  1. No human being can ever measure up to what is spelled out in the "special revelation of what God wants us to be and do" (that is how I have been referring to the Law in my Sunday Sermon Series on Romans): By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.
  2. The Law reveals to us what we really are in stark contrast to what we are supposed to be: Through the law comes knowledge of sin
We can say the same thing another way:
God's Law reveals what we are supposed to be, what we really are, and our inability to get from what we are to what we are supposed to be on our own.
Can you figure out how this is the key to clearing up the contradictory and confusing statements above?  If you would like to know more, I explain in the video below.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Is the Wrath of God Unfair?

It takes about 10 minutes to read Romans 1-3 if you read quickly.  But it can take several months to preach through that same text.  At that slower preaching-pace, we spent a lot of time simmering in the unsavory sauce of the wrath of God. By the time we finished Romans 3:20, we were all ready for some brighter, sweeter flavors. That is not a bad thing; the wrath of God isn't pleasant.

But is God's wrath unfair?  How do you defend against those who don't like a God who is angry at what he calls sin?

As Paul says, "I speak as a man."  So I ask this question:

Have you ever heard of or observed an evil so great that it caused a screaming visceral reaction deep within you? It made you sick or angry?  You knew it was so evil, so wrong, that it would be wrong to let it go unaddressed?

Of course you have.  You may have even done something about it. You at least would if you could, right?  You could not imagine just letting something like that slide, as if it were not really a problem. You could not imagine just saying, "Meh, who cares," and just walking by.  Even if you could not do something about it, you would hope to high heaven that someone out there would do something about it.  You would scream in frustration if no one cared. You would march. You would fight for justice. You would try to get people to see things your way, to address the injustice that causes such deep, visceral anger within you.

Is there anything you believe in? Anything you would fight for? Of course there is.  You are not an awful person. Only a bad person would never care about justice. You believe some things so strongly that you are willing to go to war against those who disagree with you. You would shut them down if you could.

Your wrath against evil is just. It is fair. You want to see evil addressed and are willing to do something about it.


So now that we have established that "wrath against evil" is not unjust, we must face the question, "who or what sets the standard for what is evil?"  With what standard must all humanity comply? Surely you have not created the standard in and of yourself, have you?  You are not the standard. Neither is any other person like you.  The standard must exist outside you. Above you. Beyond you. It must be above and beyond all people.  It must be a standard with nothing above it or beside it.  It cannot be made up. It can never change. It can have no competition. And it must be right.  You can't have that screaming visceral reaction based on something that is imaginary, or changes with time, or has legitimate competition, or that you do not believe to be right in an "above-and-beyond-you-and-all-others" kind of way.

The standard must be absolute.

The standard must be personal.

It must be God.

And we would want God to be angry at evil and to address it finally and powerfully, because we know to do anything less than that would not be fair.

Unless there is no God. Nothing absolute. Nothing above and beyond. Nothing to be mad at.

What are you mad at anyway?

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

3 Ways God's Law Stops Mouths

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. (Romans 3:19 ESV)
Romans 1 and 2 has made clear that all the world is subject to God's wrath because of its sin; the Jews are in no way excluded from this.  Romans 3 addresses accusations against God's righteousness in this wrath, and then sums up its argument that "No one does righteousness; no not one."  By the end of this argument, all mouths have been stopped in the absolute sense (by that I mean that, while sinners may still run their mouths against God even at the judgment, nothing they say has any exonerating weight whatsoever; God has made his case absolutely).

In what ways have people's mouths been stopped?
  1. No more excuses. Those who wish to defend themselves against God's judgment (or any judgment for that matter) frequently resort to excuses that somehow shift the blame to some other person or some extenuating circumstance. 
  2. No more denials. Those who wish to defend themselves against God's judgment often either deny that they are what they are or that they are not what God wants them to be. They may deny that they are unrighteous or that the standard they are being judged by is righteous. 
  3. No more accusations.  Those who wish to defend themselves against God's judgment frequently resort to accusations against the accuser, as has been demonstrated in Romans 3:1-8--God is unjust to judge, or his righteous standard is actually evil. 
At the judgment none of these mouth-running tactics will have any weight before God. For those who recognize this now, and whose mouths are stopped now, and who bow humbly before God and his righteousness now . . .they are on the landing, preparing to step into salvation in Christ.  You cannot run your mouth in these ways and still have salvation in Christ.

How about you?  Do you habitually excuse your sin, deny your sinfulness, or accuse God or his standard of being wrong?

Listen to the whole sermon on Romans 3:9-20.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Religious Heart Problems

Trinity Presbyterian Church in New Martinsville WV is studying Romans in Sunday Worship. This post summarizes portions of the sermon from April 9, 2017. You can watch the entire sermon at the end of the post.

Here is an overview of Romans 2:
God shows no partiality. You (the first century Jew) think you are owed whatever it is that you think God had promised by virtue of the fact that you have the special sign (circumcision) and the special revelation (the Law). However, everyone will be judged by the exact same standard. And by that standard you are just as guilty as everyone else.
Here is the chapter summarized section by section: 
  • You (the first century Jew) are just as guilty as the people we were just talking about in Romans 1 (vv 1-5). 
  • God judges everyone by the same standard (vv 6-11). 
  • That standard is the Law (vv 12-16). 
  • Possessing the Law is about accountability not advantage (vv 17-24). 
  • Having the Law means nothing if your heart is not transformed (vv 25-29).
This chain of reasoning was directed at Jews (The "You" in Romans 2), as one part of a precise argument. The bottom line was that true religion is not merely external; true religion involves a transforming change within the soul. Salvation does not bring mere external conformity; it brings heart change. Like first century Jews, today's Christians need to examine whether their outward appearance of righteousness (~circumcision) and their privileged position of knowledge (~the Law) is providing a false sense of security. 

To aid this self-examination, here are some descriptions of the unchanged heart found in Romans 2:
  • A hypocritically judgmental heart. 1-2. 
  • A presumptuous heart. 4. 
  • A hard and impenitent heart. 5. 
  • A defensively secretive heart. 16. 
  • A condescending heart. 17-20. 
  • An ostentatious heart. 29. 

Listen to the sermon: