Monday, September 9, 2019

The Comfort of our Destiny -- An Application of Romans 8:26-30

[26] Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. [27] And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. [28] And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. [29] For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. [30] And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. ( Romans 8:26–30 ESV)

In this section, Paul’s statement that the “Spirit helps us” flows from the previous discussion about the condition of the fallen world and our “bodies” in that world. Here we must grant that “body” means more than merely the outward vessel, as though it were merely a container for a regenerated soul. The soul is regenerate, but the body is all those aspects of body and spirit that remain impacted by the fall and need to be transformed. “Body” as Paul uses it may therefore have as much to do with the mind and will as it does the actual material flesh, although the material flesh is definitely in view by virtue of the discussion concerning the final state of glory (which necessarily involves the resurrection of the material body).

“Our weakness” which receives the Spirit’s help, refers to the state of the not-yet-fully-and-finally-redeemed body (including material vessel and non-material mind and will) as we responds to the inevitability of suffering in a Fallen world. The weakened body groans under the weight of the effects of the Fall (in ways that might include our remaining propensities toward sin) despite our definitive regenerate condition.

The Spirit’s help is apparently in accord with God’s hidden will for us. By “hidden will,” I do not mean his will concerning our final state, for that has been declared outright--we will be glorified. But rather I reference the unrevealed means God will use to get us to that state. He who knows minds knows the mind of the Spirit and therefore “they” work in single accord. In this way, the Spirit’s intercession on our behalf advances the will of God toward our final conformity to Christ’s image (aka, “glorification” in this passage). “That Christ may be the firstborn among many brethren,” if it were marked for rhetorical emphasis would underscore the word “many” rather than “firstborn”--it is God’s will that the Firstborn (from the dead/in glory) should be joined by many additional brethren in the same state. So the Spirit intercedes in a way that accords with God’s will in order to guarantee that this will happen.

Again, I have said “hidden will” because the content of this intercession concerning our circumstances on our way toward this final state is unknown to us. We know this is unknowable because, first, we ourselves in our weakness cannot know how to pray according to God’s will (“we do not know what to pray for as we ought,” i.e., we do not know what will best progress us toward our destiny). Second, this intercession is described as containing “groanings which cannot be uttered,” which we should not take to mean that it is a contentless, emotional outcry. But rather “groanings” refers to the Spirit’s sympathetic understanding of our weakness, and “that cannot be uttered” refers to the inscrutable nature of their content. In other words, we are not privy to the content of this divine intercommunication, yet it is in perfect accord with God’s will, is specific to our suffering and weakness, and inexorably results in progress and advancement toward our destiny.

The point of Paul’s noting the inscrutability of the spirit’s help is to lay the foundation for what follows: No matter what happens in our lives as a result of the suffering that stems from the condition of our yet-to-be-glorified body in a fallen world, no matter how inscrutable it may be to our rationality, all that happens is guaranteed to be the result of the Spirit’s work to advance us toward our ultimate destiny of conformity to Christ’s likeness (“All things work together for good”). We may not be able to explain how or understand why something has occurred; the circumstances may leave us floundering in our weakness, struggling to deal, unable to see any good. Yet, we can be assured that “all things work together for good” for all those who are destined for glory. This is because God has decreed our destiny, according to his own eternal blueprint (his foreknowledge). The Spirit, knowing this destiny and what best serves this end, prays in a way that effects that destiny by means of all the parts of life in between, even when it involves suffering that prevents us from seeing how God will get us there.

Our comfort in this passage derives from knowing that our destiny is secure. Paul clearly lays out the ground of this assurance: First is the assertion that our destiny is determined, and nothing can prevent it. God knew beforehand exactly what he wanted to accomplish for every believer. His mind has drawn up the divine, eternal blueprint for our destinies (“foreknew,” foreknowledge). Second, God has sovereignly decreed to bring to pass all that is contained within that blueprint (“predestined,” predestination). He does all that pleases him. Third, he brings that decree to pass in time and space through effectual calling. Nothing can stand in the way of the Spirit’s work to regenerate predestined souls (“called”). Third, God has done all that is necessary within time and space to overcome the Fall--he justifies every predestined believer through the work of Christ, and in doing so, secures their destiny (Through the mechanism of the work of Christ, he declares them to be as righteous as Christ himself-- “justification”). Fourthly, the Father and Spirit work in perfect union to preserve and progress us in time and space (due to the Spirit’s intercession, “all things work together for good”) toward our eternal destiny (“glorified,” glorification; conformity to Christ’s image).

Yet another related element of comfort derives from knowing that the action of the Spirit on our behalf is sympathetic, personal, and concerned with every unique circumstance we face. The Spirit “groans” with us, showing he is fully aware of our weaknesses in the face of our suffering. The Spirit then intercedes according to the “will of God,” which means that he knows not only our destiny, but every perfect step in time and space that preserves and progresses us toward our destiny. The assurance that comes from knowing of and believing in this immediate and personal divine engagement is part and parcel of the comforting ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit to every believer.

Yet another element of comfort derives from our knowledge and faith that inscrutable suffering is not in any way an obstacle to God’s purposes for us. In fact, God superintends the circumstances of our suffering as a result of the Spirit’s intercession to accomplish his purposes for us. They are the tools of God’s will whether or not we understand how and why. We are personally unequipped to navigate this suffering to get us there on our own, due to our weakness in a fallen world. How God uses this suffering to bring about our destiny may remain inscrutable to us (“cannot be uttered”). Yet the circumstances of suffering are, as they are worked out in accord with God’s will, exactly that which advance us toward glory through God’s protection, preservation, and proactive administration of “all things.” We are not only preserved and protected through the circumstances, but the circumstances are the very things through which God works for the good that is our destiny. We may never be privy to the answers we seek concerning our own suffering in this world, but through knowledge of and faith in these revealed truths, we can have patience, hope, and eagerness for what certainly awaits.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Now Available in Print!

This past week saw the release of Presbyterianism in the West Virginia: A History, which promptly landed as the "#1 New Release in Presbyterian Christianity" on Amazon.com. 

The cover of the print version spotlights the front doors of the Old Stone Church of Lewisburg. Above the doors is an engraved stone, weather-worn from 200 years of exposure, that begs the viewer to give God the glory for what the early Presbyterians built so long ago. 

The cover of the Kindle version showcases the Ruffner Family Burial Ground in Malden, where the Kanawha Valley's most successful entrepreneurs and Presbyterians lie buried.

Here's the Amazon.com description:
Because of the first settlers' Scots-Irish heritage, Presbyterians could very well have predominated religion in West Virginia. They were the first to settle the territory, the first to evangelize, and the first to set up churches. But something happened over the decades. In spite of an auspicious start, Presbyterianism eventually took a back seat to other denominations. Presbyterianism in West Virginia: A History reviews Presbyterianism's origins, successes, and struggles, and then explains what today's Presbyterians should know if they hope to restore their pride of place in the Great State of West Virginia.

Check out what's inside:






Saturday, April 6, 2019

Toward a Christian View of Environmental Stewardship

Many environmentalists push green for green’s sake. One local non-profit group has created a commercial that presents the following text interspersed with alternating pictures of pristine and damaged mountains: “One million acres ravaged . . . 2000 miles of stream buried . . . 500 mountains destroyed . . . for cheap coal . . . one mountain can still be saved . . . with clean wind energy . . . help build a wind farm and save a mountain.” Perhaps their reasons are more complex than this, but the fact is that many appear to value green simply for green’s sake. Save an acre, stream, or mountain because they deserve to be saved for their own sake. Is this a valid reason for Christians to be green? I cannot speak for all, of course, but I can present my own formative thoughts concerning Christianity and environmentalism.

Green for green’s sake appears to be a belief of the Cult of the Created Thing. The Apostle Paul explains that because humankind rejected the worship of the One True Creator, they instead began to worship created things (Romans 1:18-25). For some people this has led to the worship of idols and images. For others it apparently means worship of the environment. Service to the creation becomes an end in itself, to the point of elevating it above the needs of humankind. This Cult of the Created Thing fails to understand the purpose of creation and mankind’s purpose within it.

God created the universe for his own glory. Nature glorifies God in many different ways apart from the activity of humankind within it. For instance, both its beauty and its balance speak praise to God even when humans do not.

Humankind was placed upon this earth as the chief God-glorifier. The creation account in Genesis tells us that God gave humans a mandate to rule over every living thing in the air, sea and on the ground. This mission was predicated upon humanity’s unique status as the sole image-bearer of God within the created order (Genesis 1:26-28). Men and women were charged with the task of reflecting God’s rule and authority within creation. Therefore, in obedience to the creation mandate, we have a mission to glorify God by using the resources of this planet in service to ourselves and others as we serve God.

When humankind fell from their original created state, the God-reflecting image was shattered. Now they reflect God in imperfect ways that are constantly stained by the effects of our depravity. We no longer possess the ability to do the job correctly. We often use the creation as an end for ourselves alone, or as an end in itself. Depravity has ruined our God-established relationship to creation.

The redemptive task of Christ in this world is to restore the created order—humankind to their original, unshattered, unstained image-bearing state and the creation to its original state of beauty and balance. How is the Christian to be involved in this redemptive task? 

Humans Were Created to Glorify God


First, we must recognize that the purpose of humanity trumps all other earthly purposes. We must glorify God, and we must obey the creation mandate in order to do that. That requires that we resume our post as rulers on this earth. All its resources are available to us as we seek to glorify God. Green for green’s sake is an indubitable violation of this principle. If environmentalists wish to set up the false dichotomy of either us or it, we must choose us every time, if we are to obey the creation mandate. 

Humans Are Stewards of God's Creation


However, this dichotomy is indeed a false one, hence the second point. As image-bearers, we are also stewards of the creation. We cannot abuse what God has set us over. Consider the analogy of earthly kings who once ruled their domains so harshly that people starved and died as they sought to provide for their rulers’ selfish desires and ambitions. North Korea's rulers come immediately to mind, but history books provide too many examples to number. The implication is that we must use the earth’s resources wisely. This requires restraint and respect for others and their need to use the environment, and for the needs of future generations as well. 

Depravity Runs through Everything Humanity Does


Thirdly and closely related to the last point, we cannot glorify God if we are motivated to serve our own interests alone. Due to the Fall, humanity often uses creation’s resources for illegitimate and abusive purposes. Is it possible that some mountaintop removal mining is done for the sole purpose of feeding greed and power? Those who drive the industry are quick to say that they provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of people. But let us all remember that throughout the history of mining the industry has often abused people for the sake of enriching and empowering a few. There is no shortage of brutal examples of this in West Virginia’s history. Has humanity changed so much over the last 100 years that we are no longer permitted to question the motives and practices of company owners? 

The Creation Itself Glorifies God


Fourthly, we must always be mindful of the original beauty and balance with which God imbued the creation. Even though the creation serves us, every last human being knows on some level that the creation also declares the glory of God quite apart from us. We have seen it with our own eyes and can only imagine the pleasure that God receives from the same vision. It does this through a myriad of means, not the least of which are clear-flowing streams and beautiful, windswept trees on steep mountainsides. In autumn our hills erupt into a colorful symphony of breathless praise orchestrated by God himself for his own glory and for our pleasure. When God created the earth, he stepped back and said with no equivocation, “it is good.” Thus, we should use the resources of this world, in ways that preserve the balance and beauty of what God has created as much as possible. The earth’s beauty and balance glorifies God and gives us knowledge of the Creator. 

Christ Leads the Chorus of All Creation


Lastly, a redemptive use of the environment can only be fully accomplished by applying the redemptive work of Christ to human hearts. Depravity more often than not causes the eventual abuse of the created order in one way or another. Some will rape the earth, others will deify it. Both manifest the need for the saving work of Jesus Christ. Only through the transforming power of Christ can humanity be restored to its original mission. Christ can overcome wrong motivations such as greed and pride. Christ can put mercy within the hearts of company men for their miners and mining communities. Christ can restore the rightful worship of the One True Creator among those who now worship the created thing. Christ can keep us mindful of the need to be stewards for the sake of future generations. Christ can help us join the chorus of creation as it sings praise to God.

By these principles I do not mean to imply that natural resource extraction like mountaintop removal is wrong "on the face of it." I firmly believe it is wrong to put the so-called “needs” of the environment above the needs of human beings. If mountaintop removal is the best way to glorify God as we seek to reflect his image and rule the earth, then by all means, let’s do it. On the other hand, due to depravity, humanity cannot be trusted to glorify God in the pursuit of its own interests without serious accountability. Let us never pretend that we are free from sin’s influence, regardless of our commitment to either the environment or to industry. Let us seek to glorify God both by fulfilling the creation mandate and preserving the song it sings in praise of the Creator.

Friday, April 5, 2019

What Evolutionists Fear Most

Throughout Western history, Biblical creationism was accepted by most people—until Darwin and the like propagated their theories. The rapid advance of evolutionary theory has now relegated creationism to the realms of faith and superstition. It must remain there, because if creationism were true, evolutionists would be forced to face their greatest fear.

Evolution is an intimidating theory. It dominates the world’s scientists who marshal swarms of weighty facts and powerful assertions in its support. It has filtered down into common knowledge by means of classroom instruction, books, documentaries, TV shows, and casual conversations. It is ubiquitous and unchallenged by all but those who believe in creation.

However, the massive heft of evolutionary theory depends upon one simple presupposition: the God-option must be excluded from the discussion at all costs. For evolution to be true, the God-option must be shoved off the table.

The God-option is excluded by a simple tactic—limit the discussion to the exclusive realm of science. Science has defined itself as distinct from religion. The God-option is inherently religious, so its proponents do not have a seat at the science table. Intelligent God-option arguments are irrelevant and will never change the course of the discussion, because the God-option does not belong in the discussion. As experts huddle themselves around the table to decide the origin of all things, they come to a consensus by tightening the huddle. No matter how loudly we object, we will be ignored. The God-option is not, under any circumstances, a legitimate option.

If the God-option is excluded, what can the evolutionists conclude? They must propose that life originated through natural processes. They have no choice. They have limited themselves by means of their own self-definition. They must therefore marshal their arguments as powerfully as their limitations allow. The full weight of their expertise, education, experience, and intellect is thrust behind the only conclusion they can possibly derive. 

As long as creationists fail to recognize this simple ploy, evolution will continue to intimidate and claim the faith of many who give in to its weight. Evolutionists will continue to assert their exclusive distinction between religion and science and by that means will appear to dominate the discussion. The illusion of domination will sustain them in spite of one nagging possibility: The Bible’s explanation of how everything began might indeed be true. If God created everything, science and religion cannot be separated. If God created everything, no fact of science is outside the scope of His domain. If He created everything, no fact of science truly proves evolution. Christian philosopher Cornelius Van Til said, “There are not because there cannot be other facts than God-interpreted facts.” God’s creation cannot undermine itself. He has not unwittingly proved Himself wrong by means of science. Instead, scientists have pushed God out of the picture and limited themselves to their wild imaginations. As a result, they have no choice but to desperately cling to their conclusions. If they do not, they must face what they fear most—the God who created all things.

A previous version of this was posted in 2009.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Virtual Tour of Lewisburg!

Join me on a virtual tour of the history of Presbyterianism in Lewisburg, West Virginia! I'm no professional videographer, and I was trying to recall things from memory in the midst of my excitement about seeing these things for the first time. So no doubt I got some details wrong. I haven't gone back to watch them, so I don't know for sure. I do know that I have a tendency to confuse Monroe and Mingo Counties, so if you hear me say Mingo, think Monroe.

Here I introduce the Old Stone Church, one of three "Cornerstone Churches" of Greenbrier Presbytery and the oldest church structure still in continuous use west of the Alleghenies.



Below we visit the Confederate Cemetery, where 95 soldiers were buried in a mass grave in 1865. The first video was from outside the cemetery. The second was after I discovered that I could get into the cemetery.



In the first video below I show where the location of Lewisburg Presbyterian Church first met in a log meeting house on what is now the Tuckwiller Farm. The current owners allowed the church to place an azimuth stone to mark the spot in the distance. If you like cows you'll like this video.  The second video shows the Rehoboth Methodist Church building which was built in the 1780's. Though not in use anymore, it shows what log meeting houses would have looked like back in the day.



Below is the Grigsby House, built prior to 1796 by the second pastor of the Old Stone Church. BTW, there is an "easter egg" of sorts in the video, based on something that Colin Reger said about one of the earlier videos. Can you find it?



Below is Frankford Cemetery, burial site of James Moore Brown and three of his children. Tragic story. Buy the Book.



Below is the Union Church in Monroe County. One of the three Cornerstone Churches of West Virginia Presbyterianism.



Below is the Spring Creek Church in Greenbrier County. One of the three Cornerstone Churches of West Virginia Presbyterianism.




Finally, below is a brief tour of the Old Stone Church Cemetery. It's almost like walking through a Boston cemetery. One gets a very similar sense of time and place.  



Thanks for joining me!  Keep your eyes open for my forthcoming book, Presbyterianism in West Virginia: A History. It will hopefully be out in May!