Experientially Reformed

Focusing on the Reformed faith in practice

“Christian Jargon”

leave a comment »

Bible ExpositionMany Christians do not consider that they use jargon when speaking about Christian matters. When describing their faith, however, it is common to hear phrases and terms that are often quite different from those used by their non-Christian neighbors. As a result the neighbors are often left wondering what people need to be “saved” from, what is so bad about many normal activities (like going to movies, playing cards and living together before marriage). They wonder why the idea that Jesus “died for our sins” is cause for celebration and just what it means to be “under the blood.” Some misunderstandings come about because they are based on Bible concepts and some are unexplained theological terms and some because the neighbor does not know the context in which these ideas are used by Christians. It is a flaw in our method of communication.

That is especially true of preachers whose task it is, we would imagine, to explain the text and meaning of the Bible. Most preachers are aware of the need to clarify bible concepts and explain theological terms, but even the best sometimes forget to ensure that all members of the congregation are reminded occasionally of the meaning of those terms which are common in their own denomination. As an example, both “Reformed” and “Arminian” are theological terms describing incompatible systems of doctrine. They can also be used as adjectives for the adherents of those systems. This leads to the common assumption that if someone is described by one or other of these terms he, or she, believes all that may consistently be applied to those terms whereas few people actually do so. Clarifying which meaning is being used in a sermon can go some way to correcting this error.

Theological terms, Biblical phrases and even references to elements of Christian culture constitute a shorthand which is specific to Christians and which may, with some justification, be termed Christian jargon. The use of such jargon is not, of itself, incorrect or even unbiblical. Paul uses the term “saints,” for example to describe the Church as a collection of people who have been bound together by their relationship to Jesus, the Christ. Its root meaning “holy” is applied by him to those who are separated from the world (another one of those jargon terms) for service to one another and to Christ himself. In fact the behavior of some to whom he applies the term hardly fits the meaning “holy” as we find it spelled out in his letters to these “saints.” His use is beneficial in reminding the readers of what ought to characterize their behavior. Like all jargon it does contain, however, a danger to which we must be alert. Were we to use, for example, the behavior of the Corinthians as typical of what should mark the saints we would obtain a skewed concept of what the Church considers to be holiness. Context determines the meaning and use which the writer intends.

Jargon is, basically, a shorthand language usually beneficial to those who understand the context behind each term or phrase. As shorthand it is not intended to give an exhaustive explanation for each concept covered. With some exceptions, Christians have an agreed set of terms which explain the teachings and concepts which bind them together. For most this set of beliefs is at least defined in what has been called the Apostle’s Creed. This creed speaks of what nearly all Christians believe about God the Father, about the life of Jesus Christ and his kinship with the Father, about the Holy Spirit and several other important elements of Bible teaching. When, therefore we speak of Jesus as the Christ it is implied that we refer to the chosen and anointed of God who was born of the virgin, Mary; who suffered and was crucified under Pontius Pilate; who died, was buried and descended into Hell; who rose again on the third day and who will return one day to judge all people, both those then living and those who have already died but who will be resurrected to face that judgment. The phrase “Jesus Christ” is, in the strictest sense, jargon because it implies all the other (unspoken) elements just referred to above.

As every discipline has its own jargon to save time and thus increase efficiency, so also does the system that defines what Christians believe the Bible teaches. After about 2000 years of study by many wise and erudite teachers of the Church it would be strange if there were not some means of providing shortcuts to those things which form the heart and core of Church teaching. We call this Systematic Theology. The system has become necessary as an aid to dealing with the many and strange attempts that have been made to set aside Bible content on those subjects. The shortcut allows us to take an overview of both the content of Scripture and also assess the impact any proposed change of interpretation would make. It is this use of Christian jargon which is referred to as the “analogy of faith.” Confessionally this means that since the Bible is self-consistent, no passage in it is to be interpreted in such a way as to contradict the teaching of any other place in Scripture.

Jargon benefits its users when all understand its terms and phrases the same way. When that is no longer the case it becomes necessary to either recover the older meaning, modify the appropriate term or create a new one. The Bible records the fact that Christians were first given that name in Antioch because they were followers of Jesus whom they termed “the Christ.” It was the equivalent of calling those followers as “Christ’s ones.” Today many groups of people apply the term to themselves, some of which do not seem to agree with much that the others believe. It has become necessary to modify the term “Christian.” We find, therefore, there are (among others) Orthodox Christians, (Roman) Catholic Christians, Protestant Christians of which some are Lutheran, Episcopalian, Anglican, Presbyterian, Reformed and Baptist. Beneath all the differences, however, should be the unifying fact that the best of these groups are all followers of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion:

Jargon, in and of itself is neither a good nor a bad thing. The same may be said of the use of theological terms and specifically Christian language which is colored by Church culture. Since we live among people who do not share our culture or Christian specific-language it is necessary (if we wish to have them understand us) to recognize what is Christian jargon and either use plain language when explaining our views or only use the jargon after we have explained its meaning.

Advertisements

Written by kaitiaki

September 3, 2017 at 12:04 am

Responding to God’s Sovereignty

leave a comment »

In the last chapter of his book Job responds to God’s questions. What he has to say is recorded in the first six verses:

Then Job answered the LORD and said: ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’” (Job 42: 1-6)

In response to Job’s complaint God requested Job to instruct him about how the universe ought to be run, giving many specific examples. After that response Job acknowledges the complete sovereignty of his creator. “I know,” he says, “that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” We might consider this to be a grudging admission since it had to be wrung out Job by making him think about the reality of his own impotence. Though that may be the first impression the rest of the passage tends to show it was, however, genuine. For almost all of the descendants of Adam such an admission of God’s sovereignty is only reached by a similar path.

That is true especially today when the most commonly expressed sentiment is “I can do anything I set my mind to.” We are of the same opinions expressed by Frank Sinatra in the song “I did it my way.” Further, we are apt to sit in judgment on the providence of God with the opinion that, like Job, we could do a better job of ordering the way things work out. And, nearly always, being sure to include an increase of material blessing for ourselves. We might ask like a certain fiddler: whether it would ruin some vast eternal plan if we were wealthy, but we have usually already decided it would not.

It is only after seriously considering the actual questions God asks Job, and their implications, we can see why Job comes to the conclusion that God can do everything and no one and nothing can thwart those purposes. The conclusion is neither easy to admit, nor is it one our self-respect finds pleasant to live with. Yet, if we are to gain in wisdom, it is a conclusion which grows out a proper awareness of who we are considering. If there is any one who is worthy of being granted the title of God, should we not expect that he can do whatever he wishes and that his plans and decisions cannot be thwarted? Do we really imagine that anyone whose character and power were any less deserves the title of God? Strange as it may seem to some, it is only such a God that man can submit to and still retain his self-respect.

Admitting Ignorance

Following on the heels of such a declaration, Job’s next words can seem a little odd. He says, Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” From the broad context of the book our first thought could be that he is asking why God is hiding knowledge from him. In the face of Job’s pain and suffering God questioning him as he did could seem like rubbing salt into the wounds. Job cried out for relief from his situation and when God responds he does so by reminding Job of his powerlessness – his ignorance. It would not be inconceivable to view Job’s response as a further charge against God. Yet these are the very words God used when he first began to answer Job: “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’” (Job 38: 1-3) The question reveals a change in Job’s attitude towards God.

So, far from calling God unjust, Job now admits that God was right and that it was he, himself, that was foolish, speaking words without knowledge. The answer to his question is that it is Job, himself, who “hides counsel without knowledge.” This altered attitude is what takes place in our thinking by the renewing of the mind. It is appropriate, then, that the first part of Job’s response to God’s interaction with him is admitting his ignorance: “Therefore [since it is me that hides counsel, I admit] I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Before we can learn wisdom we must be prepared to admit how little we know. When faced by something that seems incomprehensible in Scripture we may have to admit we do not know how to explain it. Too often in attempting an explanation Scripture’s truth has been what suffers.

Job admits that God is sovereign over everything including all the calamities that had befallen him. He admits that all comes to pass according to the purpose of God. But, where before he was prepared to argue God was treating him unjustly, because he was not guilty of all that his friends accused him of doing now he is not. Now he admits that God knows what is best even though he (Job) still does not fully understand why this has happened. It is enough that God knows what is happening and why and Job is finally willing to rest in trust on that knowledge. He meets his ignorance with faith. He does not seek to understand what has not been revealed since God’s knowledge and plans are beyond his capacity to judge.

It is the same approach Paul urges upon us in dealing with the sovereignty of God in Romans 9. He argues that when God says, therefore, to Pharaoh: “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” and concludes; “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” (Romans 9: 17,18) Paul would have us be careful not to respond: “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” If we heed the lesson from Job we will remember that we are touching on deep things and things we cannot know.

We learn from Job and Paul what Moses was teaching the Children of Israel: The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law..” (Deuteronomy 29: 29) The purpose of our inquiries into the things of God should always be in order that we might be more thoroughly prepared for every good work. God always has a purpose for not revealing everything to us. Ignorance of that purpose should be met with faith that our creator knows best.

Paul put it this way:

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9: 20-24)

We may not understand all things, but those we do becomes the basis for trust in the God who speak to us. His plans may not be fully understood but his character is always such as will demonstrate the glory of both his justice and righteousness and also his grace and mercy towards undeserving sinners. When our ignorance leads to faith rather than unbelief we have at least one indication of being born again.

Recognition of Sin

Job, however, does not stop with admitting his ignorance and its implied (if not stated) acceptance of God’s dealings with him. He recalls something else God had said and responds by admitting his lack of appreciation for his sin. God had said, as he began his response to Job: Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.” (Job 38: 3) In remembering those questions, Job recalled the arrogance he had shown in daring to judge the Almighty God. The same pride which leads some to question God’s right to find fault with us “because,” they say, “no one has resisted God’s will.” led Job to effectively declare God was unjust in punishing him. Granted Job had not been guilty of doing what his friends accused him of but he admits he was still guilty of misjudging God.

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes,” he says. To hear of God by the ear is, clearly, a less accurate appreciation (a misjudgment) of his glory and majesty than that which he sees through the eye. To misjudge God is to malign his character and, as we remember, was the first thing the serpent attempted to get Eve to acknowledge in tempting her. Job gives the impression that his knowledge of God had been more hearsay – more of theory – than personal experience. This, however, was the man of whom God said, there was none so righteous in all the earth; he was the one who, though he suffered great losses, still did not sin or blame God. It was only as his friends came to counsel him that he became less temperate in his responses.

The friends argued that Job had to have sinned because the things that had happened to him only happened to sinners. Job argued the friends were wrong, he had not sinned and so God’s punishment for such sins was unjust. Faced with a similar situation where a set of false charges was laid against a faithful servant of God, Moses chose not to defend himself. And, as he did with Job, God showed how false were the charges by justifying his servant before those who brought the charges. Before that happened, however, Job had come to recognize that, faced with the true glory and majesty of God, he was an unworthy servant. Isaiah said that, having come into into the presence of God, he realized he was a man of unclean lips and lived among a people of unclean lips and he repented. Job’s response to God’s presence was the same – he repented in dust and ashes.

Such a response to the majesty and sovereignty of God is common among the saints of both the Old and New Testaments. It bears thinking about. Faith and repentance seem to be distinct but indissoluble. If recognizing the sovereignty of God leads to such a result, should we not spend more tie teaching this doctrine?
Read the rest of this entry »

Written by kaitiaki

July 9, 2017 at 6:48 pm

Grace and Works

leave a comment »

While much has been written about the relationship between the Grace of God and good works it takes Paul, writing in his First letter to the Corinthians to make it memorable. In Chapter 15 he speaks of the evidence for the fact of the resurrection and lists those to whom Christ revealed himself finishing with:

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”1

From this passage it is evident Paul considered his work for the Lord to be a result of the grace of God in making him an Apostle. The grace shown to him who was unworthy because he was, as it were, untimely born” and because he persecuted the Church. He also describes himself as the least of all the Apostles – the idea also conveyed by his claim to be unworthy.

Untimely Born

The other Apostles had spent three and a half years being taught by the Lord, Paul was not a part of that group. It is tempting to place him as one of the Pharisees who had heard Jesus, but as an opponent. We have no clear details of when Saul actually arrived in Jerusalem. He tells the Jews, in Acts 22, that he was born in Tarsus though he was “brought up” in Jerusalem so it is possible that he was studying “at the feet of Gamaliel” during that time. If so, the first inkling he would have had of Jesus’ teaching would have been the biased reports that came back from the Pharisees who did hear him. Certainly after the time of Stephen, he had been an implacable opponent of all that the Apostles stood for.

In spite of these disqualifying facts, the risen Jesus, the Christ, graciously appeared to Paul even as he had to the others. And, even more, he appointed Paul as an Apostle with a special task and trained him so he would be qualified to preach to the Gentiles. So when he, and the others, preached the resurrection the hearers were not listening to fables or hearsay – they spoke of that which they had as first-hand knowledge. The wonder of the grace the Lord Jesus had shown to him never left Paul. To take one who was an enemy of the Church and give him one of the most important roles – Apostle to the Gentiles! Truly this was wonderful! No wonder Paul says: “by the grace of God, I am what I am.”

Gratitude

The Lord Jesus’ graciousness contrasted with his unworthiness to be treated this way, drove Paul to strive mightily in sharing the gospel with the whole world. Those who have become aware of their rebellion against God and of his gracious dealings with them – even when they were rebels – commonly desire to work, and even suffer, to show God’s glory. The very worst that Paul could imagine was that the grace of God towards him would be in vain.

In terms of Jesus’ parable he was a servant entrusted with a very valuable treasure to care for until his Lord returned. Recognizing the level of trust and his own unworthiness, he set out to show his Lord’s trust was not misplaced. He would not be one who hid the treasure away until his Lord’s return so that it would be “safe.” No, Paul, and those like him, seek to add to the treasure so that it would enhance the reputation of their master. Grace does not lead to sloth in such men – it leads to obedience and zeal for the honor of God.

One of the charges the Roman Church laid at the door of the Reformers, a charge repeated by the Remonstrants and modern-day Arminians is that an emphasis on salvation by grace alone without regard to works makes men careless of their obligations to God. One might respond by pointing out that, though plausible in theory it never works out that way in practice. Someone who is truly born again is greatly affected by their understanding of the evil nature of sin and the wonder of the love of God towards them in spite of the presence of that evil within.

Seen clearly there can only be one result – an earnest desire to spend the rest of one’s life in service to God. The grace of God is, as in the case of Saul of Tarsus, never wasted on such people. Unmerited grace, properly understood, always leads to a great desire to honor and serve God.

Good Works

It is important to be clear of the way Paul assessed his service to God. We might easily imagine he was being boastful. “On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me,” he says. His evaluation of his work sounds that way. “I worked harder (or as the Greek has it ‘more abundantly)’ than any of them,” he says. And that does not seem to be diminished by his contrasting his unworthiness to be an Apostle with the work he accomplished. One might even find further support in the fact that he raises this matter while talking to the Corinthians about a completely unrelated subject – the resurrection of Christ.

This evaluation of Paul’s words would be, however, in error. Paul was writing to those who knew him, among whom he had labored for years. They knew he had worked with his own hands, as a tent maker, to support himself so they could have the gospel for free. They knew personally how he had labored among them and, since they had also experienced the work of other preachers (Apollos, and Peter at least), if anyone could refute his claim, they were the ones. Paul, in other words, was stating the plain truth about how he had worked.

Likewise it is an error to suppose that his claim to work harder than the rest of the Apostles is a boastful way to offset his unworthiness as one who persecuted the Church. It is true that he felt deeply that particular attitude and behavior. But, in the context the contrast is not the unworthiness of his past actions compared with the present ones. The contrast is his unworthiness to receive the grace of God compared with the result of that grace at work in his life. Paul actually describes his work in two ways, what he did from a human perspective and what that meant when all factors are taken into account. He took responsibility for his actions, “I worked harder than any of them” and traced it to God’s work in him “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

Finally, to assume he was being boastful because he raises this matter of his work on behalf of the Lord in the context of speaking about the resurrection does not take into account the fact that he is the one who first taught the Corinthians about the resurrection and that he has now to remind them of that fact. Whether it was him teaching or one of the rest, they all taught Christ rose from the dead. If you heard that message, he says, why is it that now some of you claim that there is no resurrection of the dead? To speak of the work he had done among them was necessary to remind them of his standing as an Apostle. They were, after all, the seal of his apostleship.

Seeking to benefit the Corinthians led Paul to set before them an appreciation of our standing before God as rebels who are forgiven by the grace of God and given a task in his kingdom. He reminds them that the gratitude we share for God’s grace towards us is a motive for our good works. Finally he tells them that our good works are things we actually do ourselves while at the same time acknowledging it is God’s work within us that is the well-spring for them. Using his own experience as the key illustration of these truths makes this definitely a memorable way to set out the relationship between grace and works.

 

1I Corinthians 15: 8-10 (ESV).

Written by kaitiaki

July 1, 2017 at 1:42 pm

Since they are Holy

leave a comment »

The reasons Paul gives for not leaving an unbelieving spouse.
“… if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her.  And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?” I Cor 7: 12-16
There are two situations envisaged in this section of his argument: 1. The unbeliever is prepared to remain with his or her believing spouse and 2. The unbeliever wants to leave.
The second situation can be disposed of very quickly – Paul says if he (or she) wishes to leave let them go a) we are not under bondage in such cases and b) we are called to peace. Rather than cause any further damage to the relationship, it is better to let the unbeliever go – for two reasons a) we are not to be unequally yoked to unbelievers so there is no need to insist on the bond of marriage in such cases (a biblical view of marriage is only binding on those who are believers because only they are bound to keep the precepts of God) and b) divorce is nearly always as traumatic for the unbeliever as the believer so the adage “where possible live at peace with all” gives an added reason for allowing the unbeliever his or her freedom.
The first raises some interesting arguments as reasons why the believer ought to stay in such a marriage. There are basically three: a) the unbeliever is sanctified by the believing spouse, b) the children are likewise sanctified by the believing parent and c) we do not know whether God will use such a relationship to save the unbelieving spouse.There is a basic argument here which is missed if we imagine (as some do) that sanctified must mean “made sinless by the vicarious sacrifice of Christ.” If that were the case Paul would be saying that the unbeliever is going to be saved because they are married to a believer – clearly a false statement.
The word “sanctified” in this context means to be “declared acceptable to God” in the same way as anyone who had become unclean would be declared holy by bringing the appropriate sacrifices (or undergoing the required ritual) to remove the taint of something that caused them to be unclean. The reason for this is because the word means the same throughout the passage and when applied to the children the contrast is not “holy” and “sinful” but “holy” and “unclean.” As such the formerly unclean person could now draw near to God to worship and be accepted as a member of the House of Israel in good standing.
This does not mean that any person who was so declared would of necessity gain the spiritual blessings of which the covenant speaks but they would gain at least the external blessings of being within the sound of the word of God and being taught the way of salvation. The implication of this passage is that such is the union between husband and wife that, without it being rejected by the unbelieving spouse, the belief of the one was set to the account of the other. The unbelieving spouse was accounted as a believer because he (or she) was willing to abide with the believer and, it is implied, to follow the principles set forth by God which governed that spouse’s actions.
A further implication is that there is unity between God’s treatment of the families of the Old Testament and his treatment of those of the New since not only the spouse but also the children are included in the family structure which now is viewed as his. In Exodus 12: 48-49, for example, where the head of a gentile household wished to partake of the Passover, it was not necessary for every member of the household to be believers for that to be allowed. If they were all circumcised then they were to counted (said God) as those Israelites who were born in the land.It was not a requirement for those Israelites to partook of the first Passover to be believers — we know this because the whole generation (except two) died in the wilderness. Foreigners were forbidden. However, if they were circumcised in the same way as the Israelites they were not to be considered foreigners any longer.
The family unit was viewed as a whole by God. While some individuals may not be children of promise, they were still to be considered as family and subject to the same blessings and curses of the covenant. That they were a part of the covenant people of God meant they shared the light of the Word of God in a world of darkness. It was God’s word guided the interactions within each family and among those who were considered the extended family — the tribe. This same concept of “family unity” was applied not just to the twelve tribes, individually, but to the children of Israel as a nation. It was never true that when God punished the sins of the people only the wicked were punished — the good often suffered as well because they are all a part of the same family. And when God blessed Israel, the wicked were blessed along with the righteous.
Lastly, Paul appeals to the love which ought to be true between the believer and his or her spouse. How do you know that, difficult though this situation is to maintain, if your spouse is willing to stay with you God cannot use this to save him (or her)? That was certainly true of Ruth, the Moabite. While there is a danger that empathy for one’s spouse may lead the believer astray it is equally possible, as Paul says in this passage, that the reverse may also be true. Clearly the family unit is important. In Paul’s mind, especially when an unbeliever is prepared to attempt to uphold the God-ordained unity of marriage, the whole family gains a blessing. Let us remember that both unbelieving spouse and children of such a marriage are not unclean but sanctified to the Lord.
These principles have significance far beyond just the relationship of a believer married to an unbeliever.

Written by kaitiaki

May 14, 2016 at 5:18 pm

Reviewing the Covenant of Works

with 2 comments

The extract below is a part of an opening chapter in what may become a book entitled “Covenant and Church” dealing with the implications of the Covenant for the modern Church. I welcome your comments.

Some of us today find it hard to imagine there was a time when written contracts were unnecessary. Yet as far as the early part of last century such was that case in many parts of the world. As the traveler leaves Geelong (in Victoria, Australia) there is a place where the road goes through a cutting and the hills on each side of the road are quite steep. Near the top of the hill there is a wide, level area near where the bypass road digresses, which has been cut into that siding. One day I had the opportunity to ask an old resident about that area, which seemed to me to have been the site of a long-vanished building. He said that, in olden times, the bullock teamsters used to unload their cargo in that place while they took a break on their journey to visit the town.

The loads of cargo might sit there unattended for days before the teamster returned to reload and head off on their journey to their destination and no one ever touched them nor was there ever anything stolen. That might sound a bit far-fetched to those of us who live in cities and towns today. It was not so long ago, however, when few locked their homes or thought to lock their vehicles when traveling. In those days honesty was important and it used to be said: “A man’s word is his bond.”

It is this which helps us understand why we may talk about a covenant existing in the Garden of Eden. There are none of the formal elements we have come to recognize as characteristic of covenants, basing our concept on formal legal contracts. That is even true when compared with those God made with, say, Abraham or Moses. In both the later examples we find a formal ceremony with vows taken by the people of God and the shedding of blood. Viewed from this perspective we can understand the reason for the covenant definition made by O Palmer Robertson. A covenant is, he says, “a bond in blood sovereignly administered.”1 Yet, as we shall see, there are some significant differences between the covenant made in Eden and all those following the fall. The chief of these is the fact that there was no shedding of blood in the making of the covenant in Eden.

Also unique to the covenant in the Garden is that God does not promise any blessings if Adam keeps the covenant – he only says what will happen if it is broken. It does not take very much thought to see why that is so. Adam was made in the image of God, he met with God every evening at the cool of the day. After he was given Eve, he had nothing more that he could desire or need because the world he lived in was perfect and provided all his heart could desire as long as he continued to love and obey God. He obeyed not out of obligation but from love. God’s fellowship was his because God condescended to make it so. All that we gain because of the sacrificial death of Christ was Adam’s (and Eve’s as well) before he fell.

It seems hard to believe that something so perfect could become the ground for such bitter debate as has occurred in the past few years. Yet such is nearly always the result when speculation creeps into the way we interpret Scripture. The fault is not necessarily in the speculations or deductions themselves it is that, by not recognizing that’s what they are, allowance cannot be made for an alternative interpretation. There has been debate about whether there was grace in Eden, some have been unhappy with the idea that God would determine such a terrible result (the fall of the whole human race) for the disobedience of one man. Such attacks are warranted only if the penal, substitutionary death of Christ is rejected.

Some would even consider it controversial to use the term “covenant” to describe the relationship between God and Adam in the Garden. The word covenant was never used. Adam was not required to swear that he would obey. God gave no promise of blessing if he kept the solitary command he was given and there is only the description of the result of breaking the command. All these considerations we are told make it improper to use the word covenant in regard to the events in the Garden of Eden.

Perhaps the first question for consideration, therefore, is whether there was actually a covenant at all in the Garden of Eden. The confession says that there was and that God always deals with man by covenant. If we are to test the reality of the confession’s statement, it must surely hold up here even as it does in other places in the Bible. Does the Bible, in fact, support the contention that “man could have no fruition of God as his blessing and reward unless by some voluntary condescension on God’s part” and was the means God used in that condescension to be described in terms “of a covenant?” This is where it is helpful to remember that in the past it was considered that a man’s word is his bond. There may be no formal contract or covenant but, if a man said “I will do such and so,” then he was bound to do it. The Bible recognizes such bonds pronouncing a blessing on he who swears and performs it even where it is to his own disadvantage.

It is manifestly clear that Adam owed God obedience as his creator. It is also clear that, having been given the role as God’s vice-regent over creation, that obligation of obedience was rather enhanced. We may even expect that there would be some expectation for Adam to report to God about the way he had fulfilled his work on God’s behalf. Among those of like mind such matters may be described as covenantal in spite of the fact that there is no formal expression of the obligation. The sole prohibition on Adam does not negate the myriad expectations laid upon the vice-regent of the Creator and accepted, by him, as welcome opportunities for spending time with God. Clearly the confession is right to point to Adam’s enjoyment of God as his blessing and reward. There was condescension on God’s part for the Creator could have made the world and left it to run itself as the deists have argued in the past.

Adam’s role as God’s representative in caring for and ruling over the creation led to that enjoyment. We too often fail to recognize the joy that people in love find in each other’s company as a reflection of the joy Adam had when he met with God “having heard the sound Of God in the Garden in the cool of the day.” It is surely significant that we find the expression of the joy of heaven couched in just such expressions of fellowship and enjoyment of each others’ company.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’”2

This joy in God’s presence Adam already had and would continue to have as long as he refrained from eating from the “tree in the midst of the Garden.” He did not have to act in any way different from the way he had been created to act. So we cannot in all fairness describe the relationship of Adam and God in the Garden of Eden in terms of a covenant where Adam earned the blessing of fellowship with God on the basis of his works. The terminology “Covenant of Works” as used in the confession implies a reward was, or could have been, earned which the Bible does not clearly describe. The parallel between Christ and Adam is to do with their covenant headship and the result of their deeds even though Hebrews does remind us that, in Christ’s case, he knew the shame he would endure and chose to do so for our sakes.

Created in God’s image, Adam enjoyed a relationship with God before the fall which we cannot imagine from our fallen perspective. But it is clear that, wonderful though it was, that relationship was not his because his actions in conformity with his holy nature placed an obligation upon God to respond in any particular way. God was not obliged to become his blessing and reward but condescended to do so.

It would also be wrong, however, to describe the relationship between Adam and God as one without obligations on Adam’s part as if that relationship did not imply the idea of a covenant. The command to refrain eating the fruit of one of the trees accepted by Adam as a guide for his behavior is, at heart, the essence of a covenant. Described in later covenants as “do this and you will live,” a covenant lays an attitude and behavior upon the recipient which we recognize.

When two honorable men agree over the purchase of a piece of land the land belongs to the purchaser from the time of the agreement, though the payment of the purchase price may be delayed. The seller is then not able in good conscience to treat it as his even if another comes along with a better offer. The agreement has the force of a covenant even if nothing is signed – the character of the people involved demands it to be treated so.

God made several promises to Abraham before ever he made the formal covenant with him. Each of them was binding because of the character of God. God’s word ought to have been sufficient. Adam may not have had a formal obligation to honor God as his Creator in the way he dealt with God’s creation but the obligation was as real as one because both he and God were holy. His obedience to God had the force of a covenant even without the formal ceremony. Surely we cannot argue against the existence of a covenant between God and Adam because the relationship was informally expressed when even today such informal relationships have the force of law.

Now should we argue against the use of the term Covenant of Works because of the implication that the works earned Adam a blessing he did not already possess. That there was a relationship between Adam’s continued good favor with God and his obedience to the command makes it clear that Adam’s actions had consequences. It was in this sense a covenant involving works in precisely the same way as the later covenant of grace. The works of that covenant are not required in order to gain the blessing of God as a reward, in fact, because of our fallen nature we are unable to merit anything but God wrath and condemnation. Any blessings we receive from the covenant of grace come alone from the unmerited good favor of God.

We cannot, however, have a good relationship with God without it affecting the way we live. God’s nature, when properly perceived, demands our love and obedience – responses we give without coercion because our nature has changed. The effect of the New Birth is that we have become spiritually alive even as Adam was before the fall. Our continued obedience is a demonstration of that spiritual life, even as Adam’s obedience demonstrated his.

1 “The Christ of the Covenants,” Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. p. 15

2 Revelation 21: 3, 4

Written by kaitiaki

January 3, 2016 at 3:29 pm

Creation?

leave a comment »

There has been a certain amount of hesitation in the past 100 years to oppose the prevailing scientific opinion on the question of origins. In spite of the clarity with which the Bible represents God as speaking and the creation came into being out of nothing, evolutionary determinism with its natural selection and genetic mutation theories has continued almost unopposed in institutions of Christian scholarship. There are a few exceptions and it is possible, today, to provide some scientific evidence which suggests accommodations to modern science are not necessary in biblical interpretation.

Since this was written I was given this link to a good presentation by Al Mohler. You will find it on YouTube here:

Written by kaitiaki

August 28, 2015 at 3:02 pm

Posted in Unsorted

Where is the Exercise Today?

leave a comment »

The Question:

I would like to raise a matter for discussion. In the Reformation Societies handout given away by members of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals there are a couple of articles about the practice known as “the Exercise.” For many this practice is a foreign concept. Yet the Alliance sees it as a method of encouraging pastors and laymen of all denominations to be better able to both handle and explain the Word of God. By comparing and discussing what the text of Scripture actually means, apart from denominational bias, “the Exercise” would seem, at least according to the handout materials, to be key in achieving that aim. Which raises a question of where1 can we find a Church in Northern Michigan where such a practice has become a regular part of the congregational life.

The reason this is important:

According to Dr Roy Blackwood,2 the exercise

… was a “most important” factor in Reformation history. John Calvin in his Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541) prescribed such a meeting every Friday evening. Knox required it for the English congregation in Geneva (1556). John Lasco (1550) required it in London. Calvin probably learned of it from Martin Bucer in Strasbourg. The French Book of Order called it the ‘Colloquy.’ For the Dutch it was an important part of their ‘Consistory.’”

Further on he describes John Knox’s reason for holding these meetings. Knox is quoted as saying its purpose was:

that the Church of God may have a trial of men’s knowledge, judgment, graces and utterances … And also such as somewhat have profited in God’s Word may from time to time grow to more full perfection to serve the Church as necessity shall require.”

Dr Blackwood includes enough information to see that for Knox this was the same kind of meeting that Paul called prophesying in I Cor. 14.

The Puritans, when they were being persecuted, had meetings, which they also called “prophesyings,” based on the same passage of Scripture. William M Hetherington describes them, and the reason for instituting them as follows:

“… as Dr Scambler, Bishop of Petersborough, was less intolerant than many of his order, the ministers within his diocese, particularly those of Northhampton, with his approbation, and that of the mayor of the town, formed an association for promoting the purity of worship and the maintenance of discipline. The regulations of this association were very temperate, involving no departure from the established modes of worship, nor any rigid disciplinary arrangements. And as they were aware of the extreme inability to preach instructively, which characterized very many of the clergy, they endeavoured also to provide a remedy for this evil. For this purpose they instituted what they called ‘prophesyings,’taking the designation from I Cor. xiv. 31, ‘ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all be comforted.’ In these prophesyings one presided, and a text previously selected by one of the ministers to whom it had been assigned. After his exposition, each in turn gave his view of the passage; and the whole exercise was summed up by the president or moderator for the day, who concluded by exhorting all to persevere in their sacred duties.3

Now, if the purpose of the Alliance is to bring about the same kind of revival of Christianity that was characteristic of the founding of the Protestant Church, then surely that which the Reformers saw as “important” ought to be granted at least the same value by those of us who are wanting to bring about the same end result. That this seems to be the purpose is clear from the Alliance-promoted formation of Reformation Societies to encourage those who see their task as expounding the Word of God. They want such preachers to know they are not alone in this great task. Granted God is the one who brings about Reformation but surely we cannot expect him to bless us when we neglect a means he has so signally blessed in the past.

The present need

Thesis One of the Cambridge Declaration, the founding document of the Alliance, declares that the signatories

… reaffirm the inerrant Scripture to be the sole source of written divine revelation, which alone can bind the conscience. The Bible alone teaches all that is necessary for our salvation from sin and is the standard by which all Christian behavior must be measured.

We deny [they added] that any creed, council or individual may bind a Christian’s conscience. That the Holy Spirit speaks independently of or contrary to what is set forth in the Bible, or that personal spiritual experience can ever be a vehicle of revelation.”4

If we accept the Declaration’s explanation of the reason for this thesis, failure to accept the sufficiency of Scripture,5 (spelled out in the article “Erosion of Authority”) then the great need for our day is men who are ready and able to rightly handle the Word of God. It is one thing to declare that the Bible contains all that is necessary for faith and life but, if we are not encouraging pastors to train the average member of the Church to use it properly, are we not perpetuating the problem? And, if the pastors are not sure they are doing exposition to the best of their ability where can they go to improve their skills?

The Church today is in desperate need of those who can both understand the Bible and explain its teaching. The Exercise was instituted by the Reformers to meet such a need so, again I ask, how many of those who are Church leaders have instituted the exercises as a regular part of congregational life (or how many are in the process of doing so)?

Dr Blackwood’s solution:

Having described the persecutions that took place in the “Killing Times” (1660-1690) in Scotland’s history, Dr Blackwood goes on to say:

… If the face of the Church is to continue reforming today, she must find the kind of Reformation Society meeting that the Apostle Paul was calling for in I Corinthians 14, where men who are not exegetes or historians or philosophers can meet in the presence of an accurate exposition of God’s Word to find God’s answers and plans for the current problems and opportunities of life. These will be meetings where men and women can come to ‘Conclusions’ which will be so closely related to convictions that they would be willing, if necessary, to die for them.”6

It seems clear from this extract that what Dr Blackwood refers to as the “conclusions” are the same as the summaries made by the president or the moderator for the day of the Puritan associations, mentioned by Hetherington (above).

Looking at the face of our society at present the thought of persecution for our beliefs does not sound anywhere nearly as remote as it may have seemed, even ten years ago. The increasing ignorance and divisiveness of the Church, the growing movement of people towards Islam, the increasing moves of a government to wipe out the remaining signs of Christian belief and the growing worldliness and apathy in the Church are all contributing to the likelihood.

Where, we might ask, will there be found those who can stand firm and call the nation back to the faith of the fathers? Dr Blackwood suggests the Exercise as a good place to start. He implies that those who are trained by its discipline will be well prepared for the (possible) difficult times ahead. The trouble is that it appears only Alliance members are even aware of the practice. Now, to be fair, this short article may be crying out about something which is already in progress – even Elijah could be wrong about the faithful in his time – it may be I am just not aware of the Churches in our area that are already doing what I am hoping can come to pass.

There is, however, one other element of the exercise which Dr Blackwood speaks of and which I have not seen any evidence to date – forgive me if the fault is I don’t yet know where to look. Having made it clear that the Exercise under Knox had come to be called the “Society” by the 1660s, the good Dr goes on to say:

These Reformation Societies organized themselves into a ‘Correspondence.’ Each society would study the same passage and then the societies in one Shire [about the equivalent of a large county] would collect their ‘Conclusions’ and send them to Loch Goin, John Howie’s home, and there they would be reviewed and synthesized or condensed to form ‘The Conclusions of the United Societies of Southwest Scotland.’ This Correspondence of United Societies held the Reformation Church together.”

A note from US History:

According to “America’s Providential History”7 a theologically aware history of the USA and published by the Providence Foundation, one of the key factors in bringing the country together to face the threat of the British tyranny, in the time of the Revolutionary War, was the correspondence that was carried on by the ministers of the Church who were concerned to help their parishioners understand the difficulties of the times. It may be a little far-fetched to imagine this correspondence was the same kind as that Dr Blackwood referred to above but, even if not, there is surely nothing from stopping us from following the same practice. If it was helpful to the Church in the 1660s surely we can gain at least some benefit from it today. After all, they did not have the benefit of the new communications systems we do today.

If nothing else sharing the conclusions of the Reformation Bible Study meetings will encourage those who are finding the concept exciting and who wish to know how this has benefited their fellow Christians. Then, also, there would be (with a little reworking) the possibility of using the materials for Bible Studies in Churches where the Society (or Exercise) has not yet taken root. Provided cheaply enough such studies could even lead some Churches who have no in-depth knowledge of Protestant history or theology to decide to use this material.

And, what better tool for evangelism than the findings of those who have labored to make the meaning and application of the Word of God plain! Surely there are many evangelism programs which would gain from access to such materials!

1There are infrequent Reformation Bible Study meetings (which are modeled on the Exercise) and the monthly pastors’ fellowship meetings, where a short exposition of Scripture has been common which allows for discussion of Bible interpretation by those who attend.

2Reformation Societies, published by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, p 14.

3Hetherington “History of the Westminster Assembly,” Mark H. Newman, 199 Broadway (New York, 1843) p. 41. from Stype’s “Life of Grindal” pp. 175,176.

4Cambridge Declaration, (1996), published by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, p 4.

5Evangelicals, are almost always prepared to stand for Bible inerrancy. The doctrine of Bible Sufficiency says the Bible is also the sole rule necessary for faith and practice. The Alliance believes many Evangelical Churches now compromise over this doctrine.

6Reformation Societies, p 16

7America’s Providential History by Mark A. Beliles and Stephen K. McDowell

Written by kaitiaki

February 27, 2015 at 6:05 pm