Monday, April 12, 2021

Would an Unbeliever Be Comfortable in Your Church?

1Corinthians 14:24–25
But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.

Boy does that sound uncomfortable!

Every church should be a church where unbelievers are loved. No church should be a church where unbelievers are comfortable. This is the least loving thing toward them. 

And, if unbelievers are comfortable in our churches, then believers too can be sure that they are being made comfortable with their own remaining unbelief.

Enriching Our Understanding of Baptism from Deuteronomy and Joshua

Deut 31:5–6
The LORD will give them over to you, that you may do to them according to every commandment which I have commanded you. Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the LORD your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.”

Matt 28:18–20
Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them.  When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

Josh 1:5–9
No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life; as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and of good courage, for to this people you shall divide as an inheritance the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

When we line these texts up together, we can see how Moses leaving Joshua behind is the background for the language of what has often been called the "Great Commission." Only now, instead of conquering all the nations, the mission is to make disciples of them. Just a few things to note as we compare the passages:

The strengthening and encouragement of baptism. "Some doubted," Matthew tells us. Surely, based upon the repeated commands to be strong and courageous, Joshua and the people must have been tempted to doubt. The evangelist tells us that Jesus responded to this doubting with Word and sacrament. 

The Word is His declaration that all authority in heaven and earth belongs to Him. And then He puts a sign of that authority, the seal of the covenant/kingdom, upon everyone whom He separates into His church from those nations: baptism. Our baptisms announce that Jesus, Who possesses all celestial and earthly authority, has claimed a special authority over us. 

The place of commandments in the Christian life. Many Christians are uneasy about the language of obedience and commandments. Some of that is good—we must renounce any idea that our obedience to commandments is worthy of any reward or praiseworthy to be proud of it. But if we are resistant to the idea that commandments are central to the Christian life, then we are resistant to Christ's own version of Christianity. 

Just as the path of enjoyment of the blessing unto which God had saved Israel was the path of obedience to God's commandments, so also as Jesus sends the apostles into the world to bring about the nations' enjoyment of the blessing unto which He has saved us, Jesus says "teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you." Recognizing Jesus as the Triune God of the Bible, and that all sound biblical commandments are His, is a core component of Christianity. 

And we see here that He attaches it to our baptism. Our baptism is designed to strengthen and encourage our faith in Him. But it also presses upon each of us Christ's rightful demand to complete, exhaustive obedience to Him.

The source of strength in the Christian life: God has given us Himself. In the Old Testament context, the LORD promised His own fellowship to attend Joshua and Israel upon their mission and in their obedience. Here, we see that Jesus Himself is Yahweh, Who is with us. The Spirit is His Spirit. Jesus is with us always not only by way of His divine nature, in which He fills all in all, but also in His Spirit's mediating unto us His presence and fellowship as the risen Redeemer, the God-Man. 

Thus by giving us this Triune Name (singular name, not plural!) by which to be baptized into the name of Jesus Christ, Jesus assures us that we who look to Him in faith have His constant accompaniment by His Spirit. The Father is with us in the Son, and the Son is with us in the Spirit. Here is the strength and comfort and joy of the Christian as he lives out a life of consecrated obedience: "and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."

Clinging to the LORD v.s. Following Your Heart

Deut 29:14a,19–20
I make this covenant with you [...] so it may not happen, when he hears the words of this curse, that he blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall have peace, even though I follow the dictates of my heart’—as though the drunkard could be included with the sober. “The LORD would not spare him; for then the anger of the LORD and His jealousy would burn against that man, and every curse that is written in this book would settle on him, and the LORD would blot out his name from under heaven.

Deut 29:29
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

Deut 30:6
And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.

Deut 30:19–20
I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the LORD your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.”

What a dangerous (and accursed!) thing it is to follow our hearts! (Deut 29:14a,19–20)

But we have a remedy. The LORD our God, Who works all things according to the counsel of His secret will, has given us His revealed will. (Deut 29:29)

He is the One Who can and will circumcise our hearts to love Him with all our heart, so that we will live. (Deut 30:6)

And He has given us "those things which are revealed" as the means by which we come "to love Him and obey His voice and cling to Him" instead of obeying and clinging to the dictates of our hearts. (Deut 30:19–20)

Cling to Him!

What We Need Is Christ!

In the evening sermon on April 11, we saw that Philippians 2:9–11 is drawing on Isaiah 45:21–25 to declare that Jesus is Yahweh—the Name that is above all other names—because He has saved us, and only the Lord can save.

That's basic, Christian doctrine. Only the Lord can save. Only the Lord can sanctify. And He does this by giving to us Himself.

But it is functionally denied by many in the churches. A discussion with someone who has rejected the biblical and Reformed prohibition against images of the Lord Jesus (cf. WLC 109) inevitably touches upon how we mightn't use them for worship, but how helpful they can be for instruction. As HC 98 rightly recognizes, that sort of reasoning is rubbish, precisely because it is God Who must choose how to teach His people.

The same is true when it comes to manmade additions to the public worship of God, the following of the church calendar, etc. It seems like otherwise Reformed people suddenly fall back upon how helpful or meaningful they find it. But that makes us the judges of what is helpful or what is meaningful. It's the same mistake that others make with the images.

Because I am desperate for God the Spirit to attend the ministry with His power, and convinced that we have nothing in or from ourselves that can glorify God or do good to His people, I'm unwilling to add anything that hasn't come from His Word. This means that sometimes people's love for those things of a merely human origin has led to a dissatisfaction with the ministry. So be it. It is only my flesh that wants them to find my ministry satisfying anyway; in the Spirit, my desire is that they would be satisfied with Christ in the ministry. 

And I know that we are complex beings, and that for those who genuinely love Christ, it is very easy to confuse ourselves about what it is that we are finding satisfying—especially because He has been merciful and gracious and met us often, even when we were doing things that were from us and not from Him. That of course doesn't justify what we are doing, and it becomes a judgment from God if He gives us over to thinking that our religious traditions are justified by how "helpful" we think they have been.

But there is one thing that has occasionally happened to show this most starkly. Someone will find that the Lord is meeting them in the means of grace. He will see that the Lord is meeting his family as well. He will see the effects that Christ is producing in him, and in his family, and in the congregation around him. So far so good. I'm not thinking, in this article, about those who go to church merely to feel spiritual things or do spiritual-feeling things. It's no use to reason with such an one from the glory of Christ or from our desperate need for Christ.

But even for someone who genuinely loves and needs Christ, but has been exposed to manmade traditions (from worship-set Christianity to Episcoterianism or anything in between) there will be some manmade thing that he just gets to missing so much in the worship. Or some manmade religious tradition. And eventually, he will reason that he can go elsewhere, still get the means by which Christ gives Himself to us, but also get those things that he has so intensely been missing. 

He doesn't see it, but when one begins to reason this way, God's providence is discovering to him that he doesn't feel Christ Himself to be enough. And at immediately this point of spiritual need, he is being tempted to remove himself to a church where utter dependence upon Christ is not entirely driving worship and ministry decisions. It's the opposite of what he needs.

It's like the man with his purported Jesus pictures. His feeling that they are helpful is itself an indicator that, to grow and mature himself out of such feelings, he needs the real help of the real Christ by the real Spirit, which we can only rightly seek by the means that He Himself has given.

Now, I've been discussing what we need because I hope to help those who feel pulled by what they feel is helpful or meaningful to them. But what we need is really only of secondary importance. The issue of ultimate importance is what glorifies God. What God says to do. Refusing to sin by adding to that. Refusing to add to that sin by reasoning that our additions are good. 

But when we weigh such questions, we discover that finding manmade religion helpful or meaningful is itself an indicator that what we need at that moment is not to indulge our inclinations but that help which is opposite our inclinations.

The reason that these two things intersect is because in God's marvelous grace, He has been pleased to glorify Himself by making Himself our Help. What a marvelous and generous and glorious God He is! And what fools we are who think that we can add to either His grace or His glory.

What men need, when they find manmade religion helpful, is this glorious God Himself, by only that religion in which He has chosen to be glorified by giving Himself.

"I Can Die Now" (Leaving Behind Christians Who Leave Behind Christians)

 It's easy, when even the most spiritual in the church often act or reason in surprisingly fleshly ways, to give in to unbelief and discouragement... have any been converted under my ministry? Been strengthened and gladdened? Grown? God forgive me for such thoughts. And even is the answer were "no," would that not be His business? Mine is to honor Him by caring for them in His way.

But I just popped into the house and found three of my progeny studying busily away. And I know from our interactions that a big part of why is that the Spirit of grace has been growing them in doing all as assigned by the Lord and for His glory. 

"I can die now."

That's a weird first thought to have when you see three of your children doing their homework. But if the ultimate thing in such a fleeting life is to honor the eternal God by obedience, surely the most lasting earthly work is to be used by Him to produce more such creatures. I'll be dead soon. 

Whatever temporal things I produce, or they produce, will eventually be burned up in the transition to the New Heavens and the New Earth. Physically burned up or metaphorically burned up doesn't ultimately matter does it? Even if metaphorical, the point of the metaphor is: consumed and eliminated.

But I will be forever. And they will be forever. And image-bearers will be left behind whom God will give birth or new birth or both through us. What do I really want out of life? God Himself. What legacy do I really want? To honor God by obeying Him, and to leave behind Christians who honor God by obeying Him and who leave behind such Christians. That's pretty much it.

I can die now.

Or as Solomon wrote after having "done it all" (including, remember, the building of the Temple!):
"Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all." (Eccl 12:13)

Friday, April 9, 2021

Some very good pastoral advice on the church's responses to the response to Covid-19

From the minutes of the 36th Council of the Reformed Churches of Brazil, March 22–26, 2021. They are a product of mission work by the Canadian Reformed Church. Article 75 is a response to one of their congregation's request for help in navigating government orders in connection with covid-19. May the Holy Spirit give to the undershepherds of His church wisdom and boldness to instruct and practice according to His Word.

ARTICLE 75. Request for advice and pastoral guidance on how a Christian's posture should be, as well as that of his church, in the face of the current pandemic moment of Covid-19. The internal commission, which was responsible for organizing a compilation of the advice given by the delegates, according to Article 34 of these Minutes, presents its work to the Council. The following delegates ask that it be recorded that they did not give any of this advice: Pr. Madson Marinho and Pb. Josemir Lopes. The advice given by the delegates of this Council to IPSEP IR questions is:

1. On the nature of the pandemic: we can say that we are facing an unprecedented real health crisis, or that we are experiencing the advance of an anti-Christian front, which wants to take advantage of the health crisis to stop the worship and worship of the true God? And what to do in the face of this?
● Some delegates responded that, although we are in a health crisis, we are not in the biggest one, as there have been much worse ones. Others said that there is no health crisis, as they believe that the virus does not have the power of lethality as disclosed. The real crisis is economic and not health related.
● Delegates generally believe that the virus has been used to curtail people's freedom, including freedom from public Sunday worship.
● In this circumstance, an attack of evil against the church of the Lord is visible, an anti-Christian force, which has used the present health crisis to prevent the worship of the church. This has revealed the great antithesis in the world: the forces of evil and the church.
● When the Church faces such persecutions, it clings to the gospel. With this, the church must continue to fear the Lord, trusting the Scripture, being simple as the dove and prudent as the serpent and announcing the gospel.
● The Church must live in the “old normal”, and always attesting to the information given to her.
● In the face of all this, the church must move forward trusting in the Lord.
2. On the restrictions on public worship: to what extent should we accept the State's determinations regarding its interference in Sunday public worship? Is it lawful to stop conducting public services in person and adopt the so-called “online services”? Would celebrating services in person under restrictive decrees break the fifth and sixth commandments?
● The church should only follow the State's instructions as far as it does not exceed the limits of its task established in the Word of God, and when it does not hurt the conscience in the Lord.
● Christ is the only head of the Church who knows what is good for her.
● The State cannot legislate about worship, as it does not have the authority to interfere in
Church issues.
● “Online” services are not services. Such “on-line” services are a breach of the 2nd commandment, since it is a form of worship different from the way God prescribed. Worship is a
irreplaceable gathering.
● Some delegates spoke about freedom of conscience to justify the absence of face-to-face meetings.
● In the Bible, the Church is never prevented from solemn meetings as a whole, but only the infected individual, such as OT lepers.
3. About mandatory vaccination: how should we proceed regarding the mandatory vaccination, since there are risks to the health of our siblings and ethical issues involved, such as the use of aborted fetus cell lines for testing? Should councils advise their members on this issue?
● The mandatory vaccine is an abuse, a violation of freedoms.
● Some vaccines against covid-19 can cause more harm than the disease.
● There is early treatment.
● We are being used as a “laboratory experiment”.
● The vaccines presented are not safe, as they have had adverse reactions and involve an ethical issue regarding the use of aborted fetus cell lines.
● Because of the danger that the vaccine can offer, taking it is a breach of the 6th commandment: “A light exposure to danger”
● Councils should warn their members of the danger of getting the vaccine and instruct them as to the ethical damage involved in this.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

A summary help for examining ourselves

One of our congregants writes: "What is examining yourself before the supper? All my life growing up it was an examination of your heart if you were in sin and a resolving to not sin again, repenting of that sin, and trusting Christ to forgive that sin. But I'm wondering if that's what examination truly is supposed to be."

When we were reforming our practice of taking the Lord's Supper at a former call, our Session had me preach an extensive series of sermons, and I preached at least two that I can remember on 1Corinthians 11:28. If I can find those sermons again, I will try to link them here. That text is as follows:

But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.

The verb for examining is borrowed from the court room and means both to present and to acknowledge evidence. But evidence of what? In the context (both the Scripture context of 1Corinthians 11 and the applicational context of taking the Supper) this means several specific things:

Evidence that we are able to eat and drink in (by) remembrance of the Lord Jesus (1Cor 11:24–25). This means that you are one who looks to Him in faith. One who knows Him to be the second Person of the Godhead Who became flesh for your sake. One who knows Him to have died for your sin, risen again, ascended, and is now sitting in the midst of the throne of glory (1Cor 11:26). You look to Him alone for your salvation, and you look to Him for all of your salvation.

Evidence that you are coming to feed upon Him Himself (1Cor 11:24). You are one who is needy of the life-giving, strengthening, energizing virtue that comes to you through Christ's body. That comes to you through the reality that He has taken on human flesh that you might be united to Him (Heb 2:14–18). That comes to you through the reality that you are united to Him in His death—the penalty against you has been cancelled, and who you were outside of Christ is dead and gone (Rom 6:3–7). That comes to you through the reality that you are united to Him in His resurrection—who you are now is a new creature altogether, and one who walks in newness of life by the power of His resurrection life (Rom 6:3–5, 9–11). Jesus is your life, and your life is for Jesus.

Evidence that you are coming to drink the cup of His covenant, the new covenant in His blood (1Cor 11:25). A covenant is a public thing with public acknowledgement and public obligations. You're a member of His church. In Christ, you are set apart from the world. In Christ, you are set apart unto God. In Christ, you are bound to Him and to His people. This binding you have acknowledged with your mouth, declaring your bond to Him and to His mystical body on earth, This bond you recognize by committing yourself publicly to all that He puts you under obligation to do by purchasing you with His blood. This bond you recognize by confidence that He will keep all of His promises to you, as He has testified that He will do by His blood. In Jesus, you are bound to His church, and in Jesus God has bound Himself to you.

Such evidence the Bible often describes in terms of fruit. Fruits in keeping with repentance (Matt 3:8). The fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–26)—especially of love to the brethren (1John 5:1–2). The peaceful fruit of righteousness (Heb 12:11–14, 1John 5:3). Fruit that comes only (and aboundingly) by abiding in Christ (John 15:1–8).

Every Lord's Day Eve, we would do well to turn to our crucified and risen Redeemer and look to Him again in all these ways and for all these things. You might do well to print this off as a help or use that excellent summary from our larger catechism (part of the guide to the Supper that is included in each week's worship booklet at Hopewell):

Q. 171. How are they that receive the sacrament of the Lord's supper to prepare themselves before they come unto it?
A. They that receive the sacrament of the Lord's supper are, before they come, to prepare themselves thereunto, by examining themselves of their being in Christ, of their sins and wants; of the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance; love to God and the brethren, charity to all men, forgiving those that have done them wrong; of their desires after Christ, and of their new obedience; and by renewing the exercise of these graces, by serious meditation, and fervent prayer.

Two points of counsel that I wish to emphasize about doing this.

First, the examination itself should renew our desire for more of the Spirit's work in our lives. Self-examination should be an exercise of renewing our commitment to repentance. Finding that these fruits are present in your life ought to cause you both to be thankful to Christ, Whose Spirit has given them to us, and to judge as too little whatever we have done for such a wonderful Savior as He is. 

If we wait until the table to renew our commitment, we will be playing catch-up and have the wrong focus at the table. When you come to the dinner table at home, you should not at that point start becoming hungry. You should come already hungry. The dinner table is the place to find the solution to that hunger and to relish and enjoy the supply that God has given in the food that is there. 

One of the reasons that the apostle tells us not to bring this kind of hunger to the Lord's Table (1Cor 11:34), is that we are to be not physically hungry but spiritually hungry when we come. When we obey the command to examine ourselves, the Holy Spirit uses it to foster the spiritual hunger with which we should be coming to relish and enjoy Christ Himself as the supply for our spiritual need.

Second, renewed commitment to repentance must drive us to Christ for renewed supply of that repentance. As we look for things like hunger for Christ, together with love of the brethren & neighbor and forgivingness toward them, and obedience to God's law as Christ's law, there is a great danger of thinking that the question is whether there is "enough" of one or more of these in you to qualify you for the table. "Is there enough?" is the wrong question. That idea is exactly the opposite of the gospel sufficiency of Christ and your utter neediness of Him. You will never have "enough" of any of these things. 

So, look for fruit with the expectation that however small and poor it is, yet it has been given by the love and almighty power of God the Holy Spirit applying Christ to you, and He is giving you this Supper as a means by which He continues and increases this work in you. But when we come with the question "is it there?" we will always see that it is not enough, and we will be reminded that Christ Who put it there is where we can get more.

So by this biblical way of "examining ourselves," we will be seeing our ongoing and great neediness of Christ. Self-examination is one way that Holy Spirit stirs up our hunger for the Lord Jesus, and then we bring this hunger to the Lord Jesus's own table where, by the Holy Spirit's work at the Table, He fills us up upon Himself.