Growing in Grace

One of the hardest lessons to learn about the Christian life is that the Christian life isn’t about me. This is a hard pill to swallow for ‘rugged individualists’ who think that the answer to all our own problems is to ‘pull ourselves up by our bootstraps’ and carry on. When we say the Christian life is not about me, we are saying that “I” am not the answer to my problems at any level of the Christian life. Justification? That’s is an act of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ. Adoption? That’s is an act of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ. Sanctification? That’s is the work of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ.

Image result for bible and prayerThe Christian faith, life, walk, or whatever else you want to call it is about Jesus. It is looking out of ourselves and to Him. It is focusing on Him and the work that He has done for sinners. He is the grounds and content of the Christian faith and life. The promises of the Christian faith are fulfilled and given to us in Christ at every level of the Christian’s existence. He is the focus and object of our faith (Colossians 3:1-4).

Why then do we so often think that our growth in grace (sanctification) comes from focusing on our own weaknesses? Let me illustrate. Let’s say that I have been convicted over a particular sin: impatience. The natural inclination of my heart is to turn inward and to focus on ways that I am impatient, and to say to myself, ‘I have to do better in this. I must not be so impatient with my coworkers/fellow drivers/cashier/children.’ What we do so often is then think on how impatient we are, and how sinful it is, and how we can remedy that.

Did you catch it?! I have made my sanctification about me, and how I can improve. Christianity is no self-help center!! The answer to your growth in grace is God’s appointed means of grace, not your ability to stop some outward actions. (Even lost men can stop outward actions that are deemed bad.) It takes a change of heart and growth in grace! (cf. Romans 12:1-2)

So, what is the primary way we grow in grace and die to sin? It is through focusing on Christ–(again) by His appointed means (Word, sacraments, and prayer, along with godly fellowship with other believers).  This is why the author of Hebrews tells us to lay aside sin and those things which easily entangle us, and to do so by fixing our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-3). It is not introspective navel gazing that will draw us close to Christ–it is through looking outward to the One who is the object and grounds of our faith. When I fall into sin, the remedy is not looking at me and/or the sin. It is by hating and repenting of it, and looking to the sinless One and by reflecting on His holiness in the way that I am unholy, and God uses this to make me more like Jesus.

Concerning Red Cups, Coffee Companies, and Pseudo-Christian Things

Dear broadly evangelical friends,

There is a video going around on Facebook of an outraged, Christian man who is proud that he has cleverly “outwitted Starbucks.” The premise of the video is that if you are a real Christian, you are offended that Starbucks doesn’t say, “Merry Christmas,” or have it written on their cups. The video opens with the man making some trite statements about being “open minded” and how Starbucks wants to take Christ & Christmas off their cups—more than that, their employees are *gasp* not allowed to say, “Merry Christmas.”

He then says that instead of boycotting Starbucks, he wants to start a movement of patrons who answer that their name is Merry Christmas. Clever. Wow! What a wonderful way to demonstrate that you are a Christian. Doing this obviously means that you love and serve Jesus more than others. Obviously. (Because lying in order to carry on a holiday that He did not command, is exactly what God wants.)

The trouble with such thinking is that it is wrong. Is saying, “Merry Christmas,” a test of love for Jesus? (Leaving aside the fact that the church’s only holy day is the Lord’s Day and that Christ never partook of any mass,) [I]s having “holiday cheer” and making sure that everyone holds to and celebrates your cultural traditions what Jesus called His church to be about?

Notice what the Westminster Confession of Faith says about good works (because, this man and those who will follow suit and join his campaign believe they are doing “gospel work” and are making an impact): Good works are only such as God has commanded in His holy Wordaand not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intentionb (WCF 16.1–emphasis added).[1]

So, no matter how, “Christian” this man or those who follow his lead may believe this act to be…it’s nothing more than trumped up, self-righteousness calling itself good works in the name of Jesus.

The fact is, if you are concerned about whether or not someone says, “Merry Christmas,” or if Starbucks has trees or those words written on their cups, you have already missed the point of the gospel and lost any “culture war”. As Dr. Sean Michael Lucas said in a Facebook thread concerning this, “Actually, I love their coffee. Been a gold card member since 2011. I don’t go to a coffee shop for the Gospel or morality. I go to a coffee shop for, um, coffee.”

So friends, please don’t buy into this pseudo-Christian bologna. Perhaps instead of being phony, tell the barista that you hope they have a nice day. Get to know their names. (Your local barista does not make company policy.) Frequent there, and eventually, you might get to do real gospel work–sharing who Jesus is and what He has done for sinners (sinners who have done far worse things than not say, “Merry Christmas”).

[1] The Scripture references are helpful here: a. Micah 6:8; Rom. 12:2; Heb. 13:21. b. Matt. 15:9; Is. 29:13; I Pet. 1:18; Rom. 10:2; John 16:2; I Sam. 15:21-23.

Why read James Bannerman’s The Church of Christ? by Jeff Kingswood

James Bannerman was a son of the manse, his father being minister of the Cargill, Church of Scotland, congregationBannerman in Perthshire. James Bannerman was ordained and installed as the minister of the Ormiston, Church of Scotland parish in 1833 and in 1843, the year of the Great Disruption, he left the Church of Scotland for the newly formed Free Church of Scotland. In 1849 he was appointed professor of apologetics and pastoral theology in the New College of Edinburgh and he continued there until he died in 1868.

The work for which he is perhaps best known is the The Church of Christ which has recently been republished by the Banner of Truth in one volume. The sub-heading of the work reveals much of what we can expect as we delve into its pages: A TREATISE ON THE NATURE, POWERS, ORDINANCES, DISCIPLINE, AND GOVERNMENT OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH.

To study The Church of Christ is no small undertaking but one that will reward the student with a grasp of the biblical nature of the Church of Jesus Christ and how that plays itself out in the World, in relation to the State, and with an understanding of what the Church’s powers are and are not. Confessional issues, public worship, sacraments, church discipline, the offices of the church, and Presbyterianism over and against prelacy or independency are all addressed in a thorough and biblical manner.

You may be relieved to know that Bannerman is not a practitioner of the purple prose school of writing to which so many 19th century authors belonged. He is clear and, if not concise, thorough. There are of course references to controversies current at the time of its writing but though we may be ignorant of the particulars we soon see that nothing much has changed over the years. We deal with the same issues and challenges that earlier generations have grappled with and learned from. We may thus be spared the same pitfalls.

Church of ChristReading Bannerman will not turn you into the next General Synod parliamentarian, for which you may be thankful. However, it will equip you to understand why, at times, Presbyterianism seems so glacial in its proceedings and how our polity is biblically structured to deal with man’s sinful tendencies to distort the church to our own ends. When we grasp the foundational principles for the Church then we are able to appreciate why the courts of the Church function as they do. For instance, reading Bannerman we will be enabled to see why a minister’s discipline belongs to the Presbytery and not the Synod, except by appeal.

This is not a glorified version of Robert’s Rules of Parliamentary Procedure. It is a work of theology that leads us through God’s plan and purpose for Christ’s Church and enables us to love the Bride of our Saviour more and more. I recommend it highly.

Overcoming Spiritual Dryness

Psalm 63

A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.

 O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly;
My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You,
In a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Thus I have seen You in the sanctuary,
To see Your power and Your glory.
Because Your lovingkindness is better than life,
My lips will praise You.
So I will bless You as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands in Your name.
My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness,
And my mouth offers praises with joyful lips.

When I remember You on my bed,
I meditate on You in the night watches,
For You have been my help,
And in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to You;
Your right hand upholds me.

 (Settle in for a long one.)

Not too long ago, a well-meaning visitor to our congregation said to me, “It must be nice to be pastor, and be able to study Word of God all day. I would love to be able to just sit and study like you do.  If I could do that, I would never struggle in my walk with the Lord.”  The truth of the matter is, that it had been a very busy week—-one of those weeks when it seemed that I didn’t even have time to catch my breath.  (Though I don’t remember the specifics, often one of those weeks will look like this: a death, a couple of visits with the family of the one who has passed, all of the phone calls with the family and the funeral home and those dear sweet women of the church who are eager to know how they can help and minister to the family, a funeral, a hospital visit, a presbytery committee meeting, and we have two babies under two.)  As you can see, a week of super spiritual time spent with sacred choral music and Gregorian chants filling the study, it was not.  (This not to say that being a pastor, and being able to study more than most, is not a great privilege.  It is, and I am very grateful for it.)

There is something to this visitor’s statement though, that resonates with us, isn’t there?  As they expressed in sentiment, every true Christian wants growth in grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.  Every true Christian longs to be near and to commune with their Lord.  Further, every true Christian does struggle with those spiritual “dry places” or deserts.  However, we often think that if we could simply “get away,” and not have to deal with the “busyness of life”  then *poof*, we’d have instant growth in grace and gifts and holiness  conferred upon us.  So, we Christians go to camps and conferences and buy some of the 44k + books on Christian living,  After the conference or camp or book, reality sets in and most of us find ourselves still having the same struggles and going through those same arid places.

We want growth, and we want it now.  We want it to come to us in some extraordinary way, some spectacular vision or dream or osmosis (like Neo in the movie the Matrix), and then *poof* greater knowledge of the Lord and His Word and great strides in and growth in holiness.  We want it instantaneously, and the trouble is that no one will “settle” for ordinary (not even pastors who know better). We want extraordinary, because if it is plain and boring and possibly involves more time and effort, it can’t really be spiritual can it? No one likes ordinary, because we don’t think ordinary “works.”  After all, if ordinary worked, why would we have camps and conferences and books?

TableSo, we overlook and don’t want to hear terms like the ordinary means of Grace.  But that is the very way God has promised to bless! He has not promised to bless camps and conferences, though He is free to use them.  But He has promised to bless the ordinary means of grace, and we must become people who love, and make use of those very ordinary means.  What are they?  They are none other than the Word, sacraments, and prayer.  Add to that the fellowship of the saints, and you have what sounds like the ordinary run-of-the-mill Christian life.

In Psalm 63 David is in an actual dry place, a desert.  (As the first part of verse one shows.)  He is likely in danger for his life.  Now, this could be any number of events in the life of David.  We are not sure which one it might be, but we know he is in exile of some sort.  And in this exile, his very real location of a physical desert, makes him aware of the spiritual desert in his soul.  As we enter into his experience (though not in an actual desert ourselves), we find that in David’s dry spiritual state, he does not ask for “extraordinary” things that might make him “super spiritual.” No, he asks only to see and be part of the very ordinary life of an Old Testament (OT) saint.  So that in this text, from David’s condition we learn, that the remedy for spiritual dryness is the very ordinary means that God has provided.

DAVID’S CONDITION

In verse one, we see that David is in the wilderness of Judah.  And while David is in that wilderness, it is making him think of barrenness of his own soul and its desperate need of Lord.  Though we may not enter in to actual desert under same conditions, we have likely been struck as David was with desperation.

Spiritually, David says he is at brink of collapse; He knows God, but feels far from him.  Which is why he says that he will “earnestly seek” the Lord, and that he “thirsts” and that he “yearns.”  David is in a desert.  He would definitely know of a deep and nearly unquenchable thirst.  He says he thirsts and yearns for God as a man, nearing the end, nearing collapse.  To do so in the wilderness is to die. So, what then is David’s condition? His very real condition of being in the desert physically, made him see his dryness spiritually.  Seeing that, he knows and calls for the very remedy his condition needs.  Which brings us to that remedy.

ITS REMEDY

David says, “Thus I have seen you in the sanctuary…”  What does he mean by this? And why does he look to the sanctuary?  Why is it that David doesn’t think that “getting away”– that the desert is most pristine of places to meet God?  After all, he could look at his situation as a “retreat.”  Why does he long to return to sanctuary? Because David knows that it is there that God has promised to meet with His people, in a special way.  It is there that He has promised to make His special presence known.

We’ve noted that it is often the case that when dryness comes to us, we often want to retreat, to get away from it all and “refresh.” Here, David is away from it all and says, “No. The place to be is in the house of God, among the people of God, making use of the means that God has given.”  It is not a not spiritual retreat or conference or various other places where God has promised to work, but in an ordinary way in the ordinary place of worship.

So, is David looking only to the sanctuary itself?  No, here sanctuary is “shorthand” for all of God’s saving purposes and acts among His people.  In the sanctuary, there is the preaching and teaching and sacraments (in OT it would be in the ordinary sacrifices, etc.).  So, what sort of power and glory would David have seen in the sanctuary? Had David seen God come down, and do some great acts and signs in tabernacle? Is that power & glory of which he speaks? No.  David didn’t see great displays,  but only very ordinary workings of the tabernacle.

To what would those very ordinary workings of the tabernacle have pointed?  For OT saints, the sanctuary pointed to the coming Messiah, and the saving work that He would do.  So then, in the sanctuary what David would have seen was his need of Jesus.  He would have seen that there must be sacrifice to atone for his sins, and he would have seen that the power & glory of God is that He Himself would provide that true and final sacrifice.  He would have heard of the promise of God to do so from the Word.  So then, that is the promise that David knew.  He was looking to that One to come, that One who would redeem men from their sins. David longed for the sanctuary because there, he would see the means that God had appointed for saints to draw near and be fed by faith.

So, what about us? Has God given us such things? How do we see the power and glory of God in the sanctuary today? In the same way David did.  Wee see it in the same things that David longed for.  What are they?  The very means which the Lord has provided—His Word, sacraments, and prayer.  This along with the fellowship of the saints is the very way in which God displays His saving power and glory among the congregation.  The sanctuary is where the congregation gathers in order to declare His praises and to call upon each other to remember His work and promises! It is not through “extraordinary” signs and wonders, but through ordinary preaching and “church happenings.”

Why are God’s ordinary means of grace important? Why has He promised to work in very ordinary things? Because allBible of His appointed means point to Jesus, and they all cause us to rest in & remember His promises.  The OT means (circumcision & Passover) pointed to that One who would deliver people from their greatest enemy which was not a nation (particularly Egypt), but the Egypt & wilderness of sin.

THE RESULT OF THE REMEDY

So, if God has promised to work through the ordinary means of grace, what do they provide?  When we put off trying to come to God in every way except the way that He has promised to bless, and we actually do make a “due use of the ordinary means,” we will be put in a continual remembrance of all that God has promised.  When this is the case, we like David, will be refreshed.  Notice, David begins to look to God’s promises, and not at those providences which had, in some sense, brought him to that wilderness.  He began to, as Thomas Willcox said, “Judge not Christ’s love by providences, but by His promises.”  In verses three and four, we  see that David remembers God’s covenant love and knows it is of His grace that all things are brought upon him.

Not only do the ordinary means of grace put us to remembrance of God’s promises, they bring us to satisfaction in His person.  That’s what verse five demonstrates.  It demonstrates that spiritual dryness comes from looking to anything and everything other than the means God has provided for our growth in grace and satisfaction in Jesus.

Further, verses six through eight show us that making use of the means of grace, the means which God has provided, produce within the saints a holy resting in His working in every circumstance of our life.

What about you? Are you dry? Are you in spiritual wilderness? You don’t need “extraordinary” or “signs & wonders.” You don’t need a “retreat” or conference or camp. You simply need to make a due use of the very ordinary means of grace, wherein God has promised to work, and to conform you into the image of His Son. Devote yourself to the Word–preached and read in the home.  Give yourself over to prayer—closet prayer and prayers offered up during the day.  Give yourself by faith to be fed on the sacraments.  Find yourself in the congregation of God’s people, and do not neglect gathering together with the saints.

 

 

To What End?

Christianity has an objective definition. There are certain beliefs that must be held in order for one to be, in any meaningful sense, called a Christian. One cannot simply say they are a Christian, and then “cherry pick” their desired doctrines and proclaim, “This is Christianity.” Christianity cannot simply be what someone “feels” it means to be a Christian. The beliefs that are necessary in order for someone to be called a Christian were set forth by Christ and then hammered out in the early centuries of the church. We take the ecumenical creeds to give us the broadest definition of what it means to be Christian.

Take for instance the first two articles of the Athanasian Creed, “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.” This is saying, that unless you believe this set of doctrines (as stated by the third article: “And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity”), that which is going to follow these two articles, you can in no wise call yourself a Christian. You can be a cultic offshoot of Christianity—but you are not Christian.

Fast forward through the medieval period and the Reformation to our day, and Presbyterians are known for being thorough in their theology. We like to be precise and to make sure that we have all our boxes checked—all our t’s crossed and i’s dotted. This is a good thing. Theological precision is often the difference between damnation and eternal life (see the Athanasian creed referenced above). As John Murray said, “At the point of divergence the difference between right and wrong, between truth and falsehood, is not a chasm but a razor’s edge.”[1] So then, this precision is a good thing, and knowing doctrine and lots of it is a good thing.

But to what end is our knowledge? To what end do we seek to learn what the Bible teaches and what theology (systematic and Biblical) grows out of that? Obviously we are to learn and to be precise as Christians—we are often given the reminders that we are not to add to or take away from God’s Word. And, our covenant Lord says in Deuteronomy 6:6-9, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”[2] And we are told to, “…grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (emphasis added).[3]

1 Cor 13 pic-001All our knowledge of the Scripture and theology—even in its minutia—is to be to one end. That is the end stated immediately before our passage in Deuteronomy: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And so eloquently by Paul: And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.[4]

All our knowledge of the Bible and of doctrine—such as that of our Standards is good, and is to be sought after and longed for. However, if we heap up that knowledge and it does not produce within us love for God—not just any love, but love that is with all our heart and soul and might; and love for our neighbor—not just any love, but love that even reaches out to our enemies (Cf. Luke 10:25-37)—then we are nothing. Our knowledge is nothing.

The greatest need in our world is not just Christians who can argue minute points of theology (though, that is certainly needed when facing heretics and those who twist Scripture), but those Christians who know the minute points of theology, and it drives them. It drives them to love the great Triune Lord of Scripture. It drives them to love the Father more and the Son more and the Holy Spirit more; so much so, that they are insatiable in their desire to know Him and more about Him. Further, the need is for Christians who know Scripture and theology who love God and the story of redemption, who will in winsome and fervent love take this beautiful story of redemption to their neighbors and coworkers and friends. They will be Christians who are known not simply for their keen doctrinal eye, but for their love. Not some ambiguous, ephemeral, ethereal love—but a genuine, Biblical love that always brings men toward the gospel.

 

________________________________________________________

[1] Murray, John. “The Sanctity of Truth.” The Highway. Accessed October 28, 2014. http://www.the-highway.com/truth_Murray.html.

[2] Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[3] 2 Peter 3:18

[4] Deuteronomy 6:4-5; 1 Corinthians 13:2

A new blog? Groan…

I can sense the inevitable eye rolls and hear the groans throughout the cybersphere…

You’re introducing a new blog? Why?

Well, for a number of reasons.  It is my belief that the men gathered under the umbrella of, “The Confessional ARP,” have something to say and worthwhile to contribute to the blogosphere.  Further, each man has varied experience and theological acumen, and so will address topics from differing angles and perspectives—all the while remaining under the confessional umbrella.

For whom is this blog intended?

Firstly, it is intended for those who have an interest in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP), since all the contributors are either pastors, elders, or members of the ARP.  Secondly, it is for those who have an interest in theology and any number of topics that will be discussed on this blog.

It is my prayer that this blog will be  a blessing to those who are in the ARP, and to the church at large.