Reformation Day

Today is Reformation Day, October 31 – the celebration of the event that is the source of all Protestant denominations.

Yet in 99% of North American churches, including the one I attend, few or no words will be spoken of this great event. Sermons will not focus on it. This is truly a travesty and a betrayal of all those saints and martyrs who went before us by the Grace of our Lord.

It betrays the sad state of the visible church today. Mores the pity…

Church Small Groups vs Biblical Gathering

The contemporary church (mostly irrespective of denomination) has seen a legitimate need to minister to individuals outside of the usual Sunday Service and Sunday School. This comes from a realization that a mass gathering does not often reflect the mentoring requirements for individual Christian growth and accountability. This is a valid realization. The Bible is clear that we are to study the scripture and be accountable in community, yet a large group generally stifles more intimate sharing and questioning.

In our time, however, this justification for mentoring and smaller group fellowship has often been combined with the theories and assumptions of both secular and New Age psychology surrounding personal growth, self esteem, group dynamics and the individual entitlement of man over the assembly. Not that these areas of study do not yield results for society, but they are frequently not based upon biblical principles and operate under very different assumptions about the status of man. They are at their root completely at odds with Biblical values.

Secular values are predominantly post-modern, with a relativistic value structure. They assume that all truth is relative either within society or individually, and that every individual is entitled to self-driven actualization. Most congregants operate unconsciously from a mindset which combines both these underlying values, with each given almost equal weight or the post-modern predominating.

This is completely at odds with the Biblical truth of divine sovereignty, absolute universal laws, and individual responsibility superseding individual entitlement.

Put more practically (and to use the biblical analogy of Isaiah 29:16 very loosely), society see the clay as entitled to a hearing and compliance from the potter, while the biblical truth of creation is precisely the opposite. The potter is completely independent and sovereign over the clay, owing it nothing whatsoever (Isaiah 64:8, Jeremiah 18:4).

Why does this matter? It matters because the view point that current small group ministry grows from determines whether it can fill the need that the formal church does not, that of the smaller integrated fellowship described in the early church.

So, we have something of a quandary. Does the present small group structure in most churches address the Biblical proscription modeled in the early church gatherings – one based on wholly biblical precepts?

Let me also close this post by pointing out that this discussion does not discount the many wonderful benefits of fellowship in current groups. The question is whether they address the biblical model and any regulative principle that is implies, since all biblical principles are by definition important.

Gathering in the Beloved

Let us start with a biblical prototype for believer interaction – “…be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;” Ephesians 5:18-19.

Notice that there is no indication at all that this is culturally or time period relative. That is, it is a time independent prototype.

Now, continuing, we also have method. As we gather – ” Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Colossians 3:16

And next, motivation to gather regularly – “…let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:24-25.

So proto-typically, we have believers gathering together regularly to study and speak of the Word and of the Lord, thankfully (and by implication humbly) rejoicing in Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

Further, the disciples documented in Scripture modeled this in their behaviour once they were on their own, after Pentecost – ” They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Acts 2:42

And again ” Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart,” Acts 2:46. It is also significant to note the “Day by day continuing”. This was not something occurring only periodically, be that weekly or monthly. It was a daily mode of living the believing life.

Putting this all together, what do we have and what happens when we follow this paradigm in our day? First we should take note that, although church is vitally important, this does not sound anything like a church service anywhere that I know of, which is interesting in itself.

A key here is that the focus and feeling is centered around a humble thankfulness in salvation, and the upon the Lord, through the primary means he specified, scripture. This may have taken several forms and expressions, but the focus was on Him and His Word.

It is also edifying to note what the focus was not on. It was not on ‘activities’ outside of praise, worship and directly associated fellowship. It was not on the work of the assembly in the community. Not that this work did not exist or was not important, but it played no apparent part in the assembling. It was external to it. For example, there was no focus on the men who were helping the widows. In fact, it appears from their appointment elsewhere that they were appointed so that their work would not be disruptive to the gathering in the Lord’s name.

The sole reason for the beloved to gather was to fellowship in rejoicing in the Lord and His work of creating His people. All the activities were an expression of that rejoicing. And this was a daily way of life, which would result in that mindset overshadowing all other activities.

One might say that in consideration of what the Lord has done, rejoicing in Him in a way that eclipses all else would seem only appropriate to believers. But here we see it modeled explicitly.

So, how about us in the 21st century? I don’t see that anything has changed. Yes, life has become cluttered with countless new distractions of the world, and that same world would have us believe that this clutter is of over-riding importance. Remember who the world represents and to whose ends this worldly emphasis contributes – none other than the Prince of the Air (Ephesians 2:2). Further, the Scriptures have not changed. There has not been any new revelation that changes these prototypes as given in the existing canon.

The result is that we are to follow suit in our focus. And having said that, I would atest that when we actually manage it, which as sinners is often sporadic at best, the experience is wonderful, humbling and convicting. It mirrors David in Psalm 139:6 “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it.” The humble thankfulness and joy of gathering with other believers to give thanks and rejoice in the Lord in Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs is just too wonderful for us to fully take in.

To be awestruck is the only appropriate response. T’would that it were our only way of life…

 

Beyond the Good-O-Meter

In the previous post containing the Good-O-Meter clip, I mentioned that the theology had some issues. What issues, you might ask?

Well, the meter implies in its evaluations that each of the lost individuals has some amount of good credited to them at judgment. It surges up to as much as the half way mark, then falls back to the level assigned by judgment – that of ‘bad’. Though this works well dramatically, it is very important to understand that this is not the case in reality. There is an implication that the ‘good’ parts of the individuals have some value before God. That is completely wrong.

Scripture is clear that all are tainted in every aspect, having no good at all unless they are regenerated in Christ. Works or virtues outside of Christ have no value whatsoever before God.

Isaiah 64:6 states it clearly “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment”

Even the finest virtues and character of the unregenerate are a ‘filthy garment’ before God. All of the virtues and any good that is done by the unregenerate is tainted by the imputed sin that is passed on to every one of Adam’s seed. Every superficially Godly or good dead is in fact an abomination to the Lord because it is done in a spirit of rebellion against Him and denial of Him. That makes every human being (past, present and future) that has not been saved unacceptable before a righteous and holy God. Scripture is again clear that nothing of them is counted as of any value.

So, in this clip, the meter should not move at all from initial ‘bad’ position except in the case of the regenerated.

That said, however, the most important point is made very clearly – salvation is through Christ Alone.

The Good-O-Meter…

The truth can be told in many forms. Though the theology of this is not perfect, it does make the essential point well – Christ Alone. (It is an old clip, so the resolution is poor)

Apples, Oranges or Bananas?

Let’s follow a previous post discussion of fruits of the Spirit in the context of assurance a bit farther…

Before someone accuses me of discounting the fruits of the Spirit, let me state that they are indeed important markers. After all, in Galatians 5:22-23 we have “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…”.

So these are significant results of salvation. Fruits grow as the final result in the plant and they appear differently for not only different plant species but occasionally even the same type of plant. Scripture does not indicate that they are the root or even a determining factor for salvation, initial or eternal. To push the plant analogy further, an apple tree that does not produce fruit at any particular point is still an apple tree. The fruit is not the determinate of the species.

If the fruits of the Spirit were in any way a determining factor, then we would have a salvation of works which would vest some of God’s sovereignty into our actions on our own behalf. For those not remembering, that reverts right back to Pelagian heresy of the 4th century. We won’t go there since this discussion assumes a correct Reformed theology.

We should also again stress that discernment of belief is in ones own heart before God, and the message of the Gospel must be believed at that level (the lack of which no doubt creates the tares among the wheat). We can not see into the heart of another and therefore can not determine their status before the Lord, nor would we be correct in doing so. As Scripture points out, only the Lord judges the heart. Our task is only to discern our own heart with the simple, straightforward message of the Gospel. That places us with the saved, or not.

So, the fruits of the Spirit are significant marks of salvation, which may be observed in the regenerate at differing times and in differing ways. They may also be observed in the reprobate. The only true assurance is from the belief in the heart of the Gospel message.

This has hug implications in the life of the believer. Those struggling with the flesh while truly believing on Jesus Christ in their hearts are not showing signs of being a reprobate. Their struggle is not the mark of the unsaved. Quite the opposite. The reprobate does not suffer angst over their sin. The angst suffered over our failures is a sign of election and cause to rejoice in the Lord (for clarification see the Canons of Dort). It is the sign that the law has fulfilled its sole function.

In conclusion, preaching the fruits of the Spirit as the marker of necessity for salvation, and assurance of such, is error, plain and simple. It does not reflect the message of Scripture and does harm to God’s people as they work through their salvation.

Assurance is drawn from ones true belief in the message of the Gospel, and that alone. And that message is about Christ, not fruit…

An Ecclesiastical Paradox

My church experiences over the years leads me to recall an interesting ecclesiastical puzzle that a friend brought up some time ago and that I have observed several times across congregations.

Case 1: The Pastor of a protestant church (I have no Catholic experience to offer) announces that he has been ‘called’ to a new church and will leave shortly.

Although people may be sad and regret the situation (or not in some cases), they do not question for a moment that the ‘call’ is devine. He is wished well and sent off into the sunset as an obedient servant.

Case 2: Same scenario except that this time a congregant member of a protestant church announces that he doesn’t fit at the church for one reason or another, and is moving to or looking for a new church.

In this case, the congregant is more often than not told that he or she has been placed in that congregation by the Lord for a reason and shouldn’t ‘run away’ from problems. His or her reason is assumed to be a man-centered one and certainly not devine in origination. If they do leave, the well wishes are often grudging as best, possibly judgemental and assumes that the congregant has the problem.

So, what is wrong with these pictures?

In many (I won’t go so far as to say most) instances, the pastor in Case 1 was less than happy with the current church or he wouldn’t have bothered with the new offer. The legitimacy of that unhappiness is not relevant to our discussion here. The new ‘call’ may legitimately be a better devine utilization of pastoral gifts. It may also be just a more comfortable fit for the person. In either case, no fault is attributed.

The situation in Case 2, however, present a problem. Why can a Pastor feel a calling to a new situation (even one that suits better) and it is okay, even a blessing for all, while the same move by a congregant is treated as man-centered and a problem in the congregant?

It just doesn’t wash, folks.

Is the Pastor intrinsically closer to the Lord? I don’t buy it as universal. Is the congregant intrinsically farther from the Lord? Again, makes no sense.

If the congregant should be working through whatever the issues are, then the pastor should be doing no less. If the pastor can hear a new and exciting call, then the congregant can do likewise and should have equal blessing. The congregant and Pastor should be regarded with unanimity.

Now, that doesn’t mean that there is not a clear time to go, or to stay. That is always between the believer and the Lord. The problem illuminated here is the use of man-centered values and reasons to treat two situation differently.

Just something to ponder…

Then equals now…

In Isaiah 29:13 we have
And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,”

And repeated in Matt 15:8-9
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'”

Remind you of today? Surely these are verses that could describe our times as well the times in which they were written – a people who purport to be of the Lord, yet honouring Him only in words and worldly activity. Or churches that are filled with worldly programs and concerns as first priority, rather than the fear of the Lord and the Gospel –  front and center.

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, (Acts 17:29-30)

Notice that there is no time limit on this statement going forward. It is from that time forward, to the end (the return of our Lord). Unlike the things of men, God is not at our beck and call, available when we decide to call Him.  Nor is He conceived in terms that would imply we somehow have input to His demands upon us. The Lord is separate (outside our reality) and sovereign, demanding repentance from every single person, irrespective of their feeling or expectations in the matter.

Even aside from the fact that He is the sole creator, owner and sustainer of all, He gives another more explicit reason that should speak to every person.

“because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31)

Christ will judge every person. Ultimate power is demonstrated in raising him from the dead, showing God’s absolute sovereignty. And since, as God, Jesus is completely righteous and holy, exactly the same as the character of the Father in all aspects, judgment can brook no compromise or excuse.

The only course of actions is clear. Repent and believe in Jesus Christ! What else can one say? The day of judgment looms for every human being, and failure to turn wholly to Jesus will bring the unthinkable to each one who does not. But then it will be too late.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Phil 1:2)

This grace and peace is, as expressed through the Biblical context, only available to those who belong to Jesus, the Lamb of God.

 

Fret not…but we do (Part 2)

The world is the creation and possession of the Lord. He and He alone sovereignly controls it in all things. As we often sing in hymn, “the battle belongs to the Lord”.

As a backdrop it is important to remember Ephesians 6:12 “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Our reality is a reflection of much larger struggles than might be apparent on the surface. And in those struggles while viewing the world, though we are always imperfect as men (or women), intent counts. Even our intent in differing to Him and turning from fretting is a significant form of praise and worship, which is our primary purpose as His creatures.

Our purpose is to praise and worship Him. Irrespective of the world around us, our task is to preach the Gospel and to follow His commandments.

What unbelievers do is between them and the Lord. They alone answer before Him. They are not ‘of us’ and we are not ‘of them’. If they have gone out from us (or never were with us), then they were never of us. (1 John 2:19)

When someone rejects the Lord, with all that implies, they and all that they are offends God, who is holy and righteous. They may have offended us, but having offended God they have much bigger problems! It is God’s mandate, not ours, to deal with it. If we have preached the Gospel in word and deed, and are not knowingly participating in their iniquities, then we are worshiping appropriately. Their worldly iniquities may be dealt with by the state, but that also is within the mandate granted by the Lord. One way or the other, their iniquities before Him will be dealt with by Him, in His time.

The second part of Prov 24:19 tells us not to envy them. Why? Envy can be even more insidiously than fretting. In the background, it aligns one with the object envied – in this case the sinner, his activities and their worldly fruits. It draws one into the world of flesh and away from spirit. That is the antithesis of our correct alignment with the Lord.  Recall that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Gal 5:17). You can not serve two masters.

We must always bear in mind the real fruits of the worldly activities of the unbeliever are always bring condemnation because, in their willful rejection of the Lord they always serve Satan. This in not always apparent in any surface success we might observe. Irrespective of appearances, we have no part in that since it is not worship acceptable to God.

Prov 23:17 similarly admonishes the believer not to align with the sinner. But then we are given the correct posture. We are to continue in the fear of the LORD all the day. And what is that fear of the Lord? It is completing our duty as His people.

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Eccl 12:13)

And how do we keep His commandments?

Apply your heart to instruction and your ear to words of knowledge. (Prov 23:12)

In other words, read and attend solely to the Word of God. Significantly, it does not say that we will always be successful. But again, intent counts.

And we are to do this all the day. That’s 24/7 folks.

We might even make the message clearer by somewhat boldly combining the verses to yield

Fret not yourself because of evildoers…but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day.

Along with the method we are given (keeping His commands from His Word), this presents the optimal stance for the believer striving for closeness with the Lord and holiness. Disregard the sinner and the sinful world in the sense of personal worry, and concentrate wholly on the things of the Lord.

We are, after all, not of this world. We are, to steal a phrase from the title of Robert Heinlein’s archetypal SciFi novel “Strangers in a Strange Land”.

 

Fret not… but we do (Part 1)

Fret(ting)an irritated state of mind; annoyance; vexation. An ongoing state that is corrosive and abrasive.

Fret not yourself because of evildoers, and be not envious of the wicked, (Prov 24:19)

Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the LORD all the day. (Prov 23:17)

Yet many believers that I know fret quite a bit about one thing or another. Let’s consider these two verses, with the help of the couple of others.

First, the grammar. These are not suggestions, as in “Try not to fret if you can help it..” or “It is understandable to fret but you should resist it…” etc., etc. Even though these are Proverbs and therefor somewhat general words of wisdom, these are nonetheless more that mere offhanded suggestions for optimal living. Let’s remember “which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Luke 12:25). The phrase “do not be anxious” appears numerous times in the New Testament, applying to the circumstances and concerns of life. Overall, Christians are admonished throughout the New Testament to worry for nothing because our sovereign Lord has it all in hand, always.

Now, Let us narrow to a particular kind of fretting that seems to be encouraged in our day. That is, fretting about the declining state of the world and the seemingly universal actions of ungodly people. Many believers seem to spend a great amount of time in fretting about these two topics.

In Prov 24:19 we are instructed to stop worrying about the second of these – the evil being perpetrated in the world by others. The wicked cited here are unbelievers, since they are evildoers (ie. sons of disobedience – Ephesians 2:2), outside the circle of the saved (or elect).

But if we are not to fret over them, what are we to do, if anything? “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God ” (Rom 12:19). Dealing with the wicked and their iniquity is the exclusive mandate of the Lord. Both judgment and vengeance are His alone, not ours. In fact, if we judge, we will be judged similarly (Matt 7:1), since we too are recalcitrant sinners all.

Bear in mind that this worry is different from discernment. We are not to judge, but we should be discerning and avoid willful association (aside from entering situations to preach the Gospel) with the sinful behaviours and their perpetrators. This require appropriate situational judgment and thought, which is separate from the judgment of the Lord.

This is also separate from the requirement for enforcement of law and order within society. That is separately mandated to the state by the Lord. As such, the that judgment is part of His mandate and within his sovereign plans.

Since we, having “Put on the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11), are instructed not to worry, it would seem rebellious to do so. God is absolutely sovereign in all things in the world. It is His concern and not ours. We are to live in faith, within the outworking of His sovereign plans. To make the worry ours is to claim a portion of His sovereignty in ourselves.

Yet, like Paul (Rom 7:15), we often do what we endeavor not to do! Thank heavens for Grace!

With all this in mind, if we are not to fret, what are we to do?

Irrespective of the world around us, our task is to preach the Gospel and to follow His commandments.

By the way, it never says easy…