Friday, May 22, 2009

John Calvin - Man of the Millenium

I'm starting a new book--a gift from my mother-in-law who is in every way familiar with my Calvinist bent--that is a biography on the great reformer's life. John Calvin: Man of the Millennium is a biography by Dr. Phillip Vollmer designed, as the cover tells me, to be a "family read-along." However, as I read it, I'm rather glad I don't have my family at my feet listening along.

Already about 100 pages into the book, there is nothing disgraceful or deplorable about the book that I should denounce it. However, I haven't found much to praise either, except for Vollmer's fond adoration of Calvin and very apparent respect for the works of his life. In general, as most biographies are, I suppose, the book is valuable largely for one such as myself who is totally unstudied in Calvin's life, but don't look to it for a riveting read.

That's right! Shocked? As one who has developed a theology that even I must admit is distinctly Calvinist, taught it in the church, and argued vehemently for God's sovereignty on this very blog, I am markedly unfamiliar with Calvin himself. This fact, by the way, is why I commonly cause eyebrows to raise by saying, "well, I guess most would call me Calvinist, but I don't use that term." Not that I'm decidedly against it, just that I'm not always sure what is meant by the term in the mind of the one applying it to me and I suppose I should be sure that I know what is meant first, too.

I've already determined that one of my next reads will have to be Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. And, by now, you might ask yourself what in the world I have read. Well, Romans... a lot :-) Not to mention the 65 other canonical books that accompany it. In a previous post, The Layman's Library, you'll notice most of my study includes reference material, commentaries, and of course, audio learning from BiblicalTraining.org.

All in all, I look forward to enjoying the relaxed pace this weekend of reading my book and escaping work for three days. I do look forward to what I'll learn from it. However, I'm fully aware that as Monday winds down I'll be good and ready for an MP3 lecture on Old Testament Theology, or at least a heated theological debate.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rejoicing in God's Sovereignty

I was at breakfast this morning with my accountability partner, doing a quick Bible study and spending time in prayer as we usually do. This morning was not uncommon from many others. From the moment I woke, the pressures of being a business owner in this economy were weighing on my mind. I drove to meet Jeff, half thinking about the study we would be doing, but mostly thinking about how I would find the business to keep alive in the coming months.

I sat down with Jeff. We talked back and forth about how our weeks were going. We shared the trials that we were facing in business and the challenges that we have in finding new contracts. After the catch-up, we opened to our reading for the day. We've been reading through the history of Israel for about 2 years now, starting in 1 Samuel. Today, by what some might call coincidence, we happened to be on the last chapter of 1 Kings.

No self-respecting Calvinist can be unfamiliar with this text. It's an oft-cited text in the academic debate between God's permissive and His direct control over evil in the world. However, this morning it was not that facet of this account that stimulated me the most. As we read together through the story and discussed what God had to show us from the text, the lesson became obvious: God is in control no matter what. No matter what prophets (or business analysts) a person listens to, what evil motives shape their decision, or even how they disguise themselves in the world, God's purpose will stand.

Ahab did everything humanly possible to defy God's plan and decree that he should die. Dressed in commoner's clothes, Ahab was still killed by what the narrator calls a "random" flight of an arrow. But random as it may have been to the archer and to Ahab, God's plan was sovereign over all.

Where do I find joy in life when life seems stacked against me? Nowhere else but in the comfort that God is indeed working all things for the good of those whom He has called (Romans 8:28). Jeff and I laughed as we recalled the many times in our own respective businesses that we had struggled and strived to earn business by all conventional wisdom, only to have seemingly random chance bring us into contact with our next major client.

It was well after 8:00 when we parted ways for the morning and I headed off to the office. My mood was notably different than just an hour previous. Has God promised me wealth? No. Has He promised me a life without trials? Actually quite the opposite. But has He promised to meet my needs? Yes. I rejoice knowing that God is totally sovereign, and I cannot imagine having hope in His providence if He were anything less.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

The Undeniable Doctrine of Election

There exists in the church today a misconception that election represents a controversial topic. When this misconception is perpetuated, we do an injustice to students of the Word who seek to deepen their love of God. The doctrine of election is not controversial. The doctrine of election is rarely even debated. It is the doctrine of salvation, particularly the aspect of free will, that is the root of so much strife and that is often inappropriately linked to the doctrine of election causing so many people to shriek at it's mention. But with those misconceptions and debates aside, the doctrine of election should be the most unifying truth in all of Church doctrine.

Regardless of where one may fall in the free will debate, the doctrine of election is an undeniable fact found throughout scripture. The proof texts are too numerous to count, but among the more prominent are Deuteronomy 7, John 10, Ephesians 1, and 1 Peter 1. In fact, even popular memory verses that we teach our children to recite echo the truth of election: "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:10). Or, when we sing together, "I once was lost but now am found... T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear," we are proclaiming and extolling God for His election of those whom He foreknew.

So why do I say so strongly that to misrepresent the doctrine of election is an injustice to followers of Christ? Is it because I am just another radical and irrational Calvinist to be quickly dismissed and ignored. Not at all. Need I remind you that Arminius, too, believed in election, though his definition of foreknowledge differed from mine. For that matter (though I have no evidence) I would suggest Pelagius as well would not have denied the obvious Biblical teaching that we, the Church, are chosen of God.

No, it is an injustice to pass over, as many timid teachers do, the truth that God chose us because it is in His choosing of us that we are filled the most awe and wonder. Yes, it is wondrous that He would send His Son to die, but can we really view the cross as a cosmic roll of the dice? God, hoping that some might accept His gift, crucified His Son with blind hope in our acceptance? No. Be it born out of His foreknowledge of us or His foreknowledge of our faith, God chose us before we chose Him. And therein lies the wonder and mystery of the love of our God.
"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." -- Romans 5:8

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Christ the Mediator: the Westminster Confession of Faith

In my continued study of the Person and Work of Christ, I come to this—perhaps the most comprehensive and clear description of the Hypostatic Union:
"The Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof; yet without sin: being conceived by he power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man. " (Westminster Confession of Faith, VIII.II)

Where do I begin! Well, I suppose I'll begin by saying, "no, I'm not a Presbyterian." That said, I do respect the work of the learned men of England from 1646, but that should not implicate me in agreement with their every statement. Which ones with which I differ is a topic for another time.

Let's begin with the first clause. I have spent the past three weeks writing about Christ's deity and the implications of Christ's deity. However, in this first clause of the confession's statement about Christ and the hypostatic union, we see clearly the cost of taking on human nature: infirmities. Not merely servanthood, but a weakness not worth comparing with God's omnipotence. Not merely sickness, but mortality. He did not, however, take on the sinful nature that is the weakest part of us all. How?

Christ's link to Adam was broken. Being made of the substance of Mary, He was not conceived of Adam (Joseph). Whether you believe in seminal or federal original sin (or have no decided position), one thing is certain: sin is passed on via the male of our species, a necessary contributor to each new person... except for Christ.

Finally, at the heart of the Hypostatic Union, these two natures were joined "without conversion, composition, or confusion." Without conversion: neither nature was modified to fit the other. Without composition: the natures did not combine in such a way so as to compose a new nature. Without confusion: the two natures did not blend together, each taking attributes of the other. Jesus was both fully God and fully Man.

So, what does this mean for us? In short, it means that when we read that we were called to emulate Christ, we should first understand that we were called to emulate God. However, the truth does not end there. See, it was not until the New Testament, when God was revealed in the flesh as Christ, the Son, that He commanded His followers to imitate Himself. We aren't called to the impossible task of imitating the Almighty God the Father, but the prototypical man Jesus Christ. In imitating Jesus, we reflect God's glory on earth as He did. Jesus lived His life as a man—learning as we do, feeling as we do, and even tempted as we do—and yet was without sin, the exact representation of the Glory of God (Heb. 1:3). That is a model we can follow if we face life as Christ did—a student of the scriptures, devoted in prayer, and submitted to God's will.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

The Last Days - Warning Passages & Eternal Security

Today's post comes in response to a recent question on AskScripture.com where Anonymous writes (gross misspellings corrected):

"[I am] Trying to prepare a sermon for the body of our local church. I feel that [we're] living in what the Bible calls the last days before the coming of lord Jesus Christ. [I am] looking for some Biblical answers that show that many will fall from [their] faith in these days. To show them that this is a very bad thing to do, and [their] salvation is nothing to be playing around with.
Where do I begin. Let's start with basic hermeneutic principle: "I feel that..." followed by "I am looking for Biblical answers that show..." will always yield the answers you seek, but it may not be the answers that the Bible gives. Let me rephrase: if you enter into a study of Scripture with a foregone conclusion in mind and seek only to find the scriptural evidence to build your case, you will succeed in finding what you want to find, but that does not necessarily mean that you found truth.

However, we must all acknowledge that we do this to some degree. Covenant Theologians assume certain facts about Old Testament prophesy. Evangelicals de-emphasize the gospels and emphasize Paul. And Calvinists assume softer interpretations of the word "world" as well as the many warning passages, of which our anonymous inquisitor is expressly interested in.

Lucky for anonymous, I'm not a Calvinist... [clears throat] I'm just reformed [grin].

First, in regards to the present day being the last days. I'm not very certain about that. I do not claim to be an expert on eschatology, but there are several descriptions of the "last days" in scripture, even signs that they are near, and we haven't seen all of them come true. One of my friends and colleagues once commented that for at least 200 years, every generation has believed theirs to be the last. My wife's great grandfather recently passed away, yet right up until the day of his death he was so certain these were the last days that he swore that he would be taken in the rapture. Was the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD the abomination that causes desolation? It's not so cut-and-dry.

However, that wasn't really the basis of anonymous' question, and if he would like to preach a sermon with that assumption in mind, I would not fault him in the least. The more troubling assumption I see is that many will fall from their faith (that's nearly verbatim, but slightly skewed) and that this is an event that the presumably saved members of anonymous' congregation will do via "playing around" with their justified status before God.

Let's look at the text in question here, Matthew 24:9-25. In describing the events, Jesus toggles between specific you's and general many's. In verse 4, He warns His disciples specifically about deceptive prophets. But in verse 5, it is an ambiguous group that is misled by them. Again in verses 6 and 9, Jesus gives specific predictions of what will happen to "you," His followers. The warning of falling away in verse 10, then, is once again generic.

What does it mean that many will fall away, or as the NIV puts it "abandon the faith?" Just as Christ, the stumbling stone, caused many Jews to disbelieve, so will the turmoil and seemingly unjust cruelty cause many to abandon any hope in Yaweh, the god of Israel. But there is no evidence in the text that tells us these who fall away are the elect, having been justified through faith by Christ's blood, now abandoning their own salvation.

On the contrary, Jesus actually speaks some comfort to His followers. He declares that these deceiving prophets will try, "to deceive even the elect—if that were possible." Through my lens of interpretation I assume the unspoken truth here to be that it is indeed not possible. Jesus continues saying, "See, I have told you ahead of time," as though these warnings would be used to prevent His elect from being fooled.

So, anonymous, how would I preach this sermon if I were you? Do not use fear of damnation as a deterrent for sin. Instead, challenge the body of believers to "make your calling and election sure" (2 Peter 2:10). Sure to whom? To God? Certainly not. If you fear the certainty of your eternal security, prove it to yourself by living out the life that only the Spirit can enable. Then, you can face tribulation and even death in the last days with confidence in:
"an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time" (1 Peter 1:4-5; emphasis mine).

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Compatibilism & Libertarianism

First, a follow-up for last week. We ended our discussion with the debate over human free will. I want to round out that discussion with a little final commentary, then I'll move on to our preview for next week's lesson in 1 Peter.

Free will that is "compatible" with God's is described like this: Man will do that which he most desires. This means that—in theory—God's will is carried forth through Man's so-called "free" will in that He knows what we desire, what we would choose given various circumstances, and thereby guides human history with this infinite knowledge. This stands in contrast to the libertarian freedom most advocated by Arminians where man's will is not imposed on in any way by God's will—compatible or otherwise.

Now, I included one key phrase "in theory" in this final commentary that (hopefully) wraps up this discussion for our class... at least for now. What I want you to realize is that neither "compatibalism" nor "libertarian" appear anywhere in my concordance, and unless you have some radical new translation of the Bible, I venture to say it's nowhere in yours either. The only authoritative word that we have to go on is the Word itself (or Himself, I could go either way there). I encourage you—nay, implore you—to seek answers FIRST in scripture and make every effort neither to add to its teaching nor dismiss any of its truths despite the understandability and/or logic of what you find.

I don't ask that everyone agree with me, nor Calvin, but only this: that you base your beliefs solely in scripture. Everything else is merely "in theory."

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