Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Primer on Geerhardus Vos, Father of Reformed Biblical Theology

Nineteen ninety-nine marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Geerhardus Vos, widely acknowledged as the father of Reformed Biblical theology. A descendent of French Huguenots, Vos was born in the Netherlands on March 14, 1862. He immigrated to the United States in 1881, when his father accepted a call to a congregation of the Christian Reformed Church, and he enrolled in what is now Calvin College, in Grand Rapids. From there he continued his studies at Princeton Theological Seminary (1883-1885), and he eventually earned his Ph.D. from the University of Strassburg in 1888.

After teaching at Calvin for a few years, Vos went on to serve at Princeton Theological Seminary nearly forty years, where he taught many of the founding ministers of the OPC, such as Machen, Murray, Stonehouse, and Van Til. Yet Vos is not normally included in the chain of Old Princeton giants that preceded Machen and the OPC (a list generally restricted to Alexander, Hodge, and Warfield). Vos was "largely a forgotten man," according to one biographer. "Enrollment in his courses at [Princeton] often was sparse compared to those of other professors of a more 'popular' type, because of the weightiness of his lectures."

Another explanation for Vos's relative obscurity was his low ecclesiastical profile. Rarely did he step outside the classroom and into the courts of the church (though he fought Presbyterian attempts to revise the Westminster Confession). Nearing retirement when Machen founded Westminster in 1929, Vos, an opponent of Princeton's reorganization, did not leave Princeton for Westminster, nor did he ever join the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Instead, he retired to southern California in 1932, and he then moved to Grand Rapids in 1937, where he lived until his death in 1949. Moreover, Vos never wrote for the Westminster Theological Journal or the Presbyterian Guardian. While Machen and other founders of the OPC may never have fully understood Vos's reasons for remaining in the PCUSA, there seemed a greater willingness to forgive him than others who stayed in. (The Guardian provided partial absolution in its obituary for Vos, noting that "when he retired in 1932, he left a valuable part of his library to Westminster Seminary.") Undoubtedly Catharine Vos, the author of the popular Child's Story Bible, has been far more widely read by Orthodox Presbyterians than her husband.

Much like Cornelius Van Til, Vos was an acquired taste. Biblical theology and presuppositional apologetics were new subjects in the curriculum of Presbyterian seminaries. Like Van Til, English was not Vos's native language, and his books quickly went out of print before their rediscovery after his death. His most well known work, Biblical Theology, was edited by his son and published by Eerdmans in 1948, just before his death.

Just as Vos was never a member of the OPC, so many of his best contemporary interpreters lie outside the denomination. James T. Dennison edits Kerux, a journal dedicated to redemptive-historical preaching in the Vosian tradition. At Gordon-Conwell Seminary, G. K. Beale is applying Vos's insights in New Testament exegesis (see for example his latest commentary on Revelation).

Still, it can be fairly said that no non-OPCer this century has influenced the denomination as much as Geerhardus Vos. Orthodox Presbyterians often describe themselves as a hybrid between Old Princeton and Dutch Calvinism. More than anyone else, Vos's long career at Princeton forged links between American Presbyterianism and Dutch Calvinism that were to shape the character of the OPC. Latter day Vosians in the church include Meredith G. Kline and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

For Vos, "biblical theology" was short-hand for the study of the history of special revelation. So the starting point of his theology was acknowledgment of the progressive character of the revelation that accompanies God's redemptive activity. Vos likened this progress to the growth of a tree: "It is sometimes contended that the assumption of progress in revelation excludes its perfection at all stages. This would actually be so if the progress were non-organic. The organic progress is from seed-form to the attainment of full growth; yet we do not say that in the qualitative sense the seed is less perfect than the tree."

In historian Mark Noll's words, Vos was "attempting to roll back the assumption, prevailing since the late seventeenth century, that historical consciousness was the natural ally of naturalistic views of the Bible." For Vos, this historical progression culminated in the coming of Jesus Christ, whose work is revealed in the New Testament in terms of present inauguration and future consummation. G. K. Beale argues that while this interpretive approach is now standard (cf. Cullmann, Ridderbos, and Ladd), "Vos appears to be the first European or American scholar to espouse an ‘already and not yet eschatology'" to the theology of Paul. Yet the historical sensibilities in Vos's work has yet to gain full acceptance within the OPC, where suspicions persist that his approach may still concede too much to naturalism. Thus some contemporary exegesis of Scripture (for example, on creation), continues to miss its eschatological dimension.

Though originally a systematician, Vos's first love was biblical theology. Some of his followers suggest that Vosian biblical theology calls into question the very nature of dogmatics. Does Vos require a fundamental recasting of the categories of systematics? Can we even speak of a "system of doctrine" after Vos?

Those who would pit biblical theology against systematics have difficulty explaining Vos's long tenure at Princeton and especially his close friendship with Warfield. And Vos himself would hardly identify his insights as Copernican. He was deeply grounded in the Reformed dogmatic tradition. Far from jettisoning systematic theology, Vos was a staunch defender of Reformed confessional orthodoxy, and he used biblical theology to give fresh and creative defense of dogmatics, such as the doctrines of the covenant, soteriology, and the kingdom of God. The two disciplines were complementary, each transforming the biblical data in different ways. "Biblical theology draws a line of development," Vos wrote. "Systematic theology draws a circle." Following in the footsteps of Vos, Meredith G. Kline sees no hard and fast distinction between biblical theology and systematic theology: "biblical theology involves the systematization of the covenantal data under relatively broad historical epochs."

Vos's biblical-theological identification of the church as a pilgrim people has made the most indelible imprint on the OPC, even while it has provoked some of the OPC's strongest critics. American Christians are prone to judge the success of the church in terms of its influence in the world. For this reason, many have dismissed the OPC as "irrelevant" for its want of a social or cultural agenda. Seen from an eschatological perspective, however, it is more accurate to say that the OPC is committed to the "irrelevance" of the world to the church.

The OPC has been molded by Vos's reminder that, as part of the new eschatological order unveiled in the coming of Christ, the church locates its hope in a kingdom that is not of this world, a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Secured in a life that is hid in Christ in the heavenlies, the church longs for the return of her Lord. This eschatological location of the church as the kingdom inaugurated and awaiting consummation is the legacy of Vos. For that source of solid hope and comfort, the OPC abandoned aspirations for earthly glory. A half-century after Vos's death, political gospels and this-worldly agendas continue to tempt the church. Reformed orthodoxy needs to give a fresh hearing to Geerhardus Vos, perhaps now more than ever.

D.G. Hart & John Muether, Ordained Servant, Vol. 8, No. 3, July 1999.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

You Can't Have Both Johns

"The abandonment of liturgical forms for heartfelt experience, so characteristic of low-church Presbyterianism, is a significant departure from the genius of the Protestant Reformation, and thus puts Presbyterians in the awkward position of trying to accommodate John Calvin and John Wesley. What many contemporary Presbyterians seem to forget is that the Reformation was just that, a reformation, not a revival.

You can tell the difference between the two, according to the Belgic Confession, Article 29, by determining whether the church uses the correct forms—namely, is the Word being faithfully preached, are the Sacraments being faithfully administered, and is discipline being properly administered? The Belgic Confession, along with the rest of the Reformed creeds from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, has nothing to say about the typical way we spot a revival, that is, by a large number of new conversions and greater earnestness on the part of believers. So for Protestant Reformers, the issue was not whether a church was dead or alive.

The Evangelical concept of dead orthodoxy was virtually unknown prior to the revivals of the eighteenth century. For the Reformers, the issue was whether a church was false or true. For Luther, Calvin, and Cramner, the way to distinguish the true Church was by looking above all at the forms used in worship and the ways in which ordination took place. These were matters that were unambiguous—either a prayer, sermon, or service of ordination conformed to the teaching of Scripture or it did not (conceding that Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Reformed Christians read the Bible in different ways at times on these points).

But to tell whether a church or person was spiritually alive, revived, or dead was not so certain. And unfortunately, ever since the First Great Awakening, Presbyterians have been more attentive to the invisible work of the Spirit rather than the visible work of the Church, an alertness that is doomed to frustration because of the Spirit’s mysterious movements."

D.G. Hart, Rediscovering Mother Kirk

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

For Calvin, Worship Was No. 1

An axiom of John Calvin's theology was the importance and centrality of worship for vital and genuine Christian faith and practice. In fact, Calvin put worship ahead of salvation in his list of the two most important facets of biblical religion. The Christian religion maintains its truth, he wrote, by "a knowledge,  first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and  secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained."

Calvin also observed that the first table of the law—the first four commandments—all directly related to worship, thus making worship "the first foundation of righteousness."

The prominence of worship led to Calvin's articulation of his regulative principle, one of the hallmarks of the Reformed tradition. The regulative principle teaches that public worship is governed by God's revelation in his Holy Word; whatever elements comprise corporate worship must be directly commanded by God in Scripture. The fact that a congregation always has worshipped in a particular way or that a certain practice stems from sincere piety are insufficient justifications for such worship. According to Calvin, God not only "regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates" whatever does not conform to his revealed will. "The words of God are clear and distinct," Calvin wrote, "'Obedience is better than sacrifice.' 'In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men, . . . .' (1 Sam. 15:22; Matt. 15:9)."

Not only did the desire to obey God inform Calvin's conception of the regulative principle, but equally important was his understanding of human depravity. The principal effect of Adam's first transgression was to turn all people into idolaters. All individuals, Calvin believed, possess a seed of religion or a sense of God in their souls. But after the fall this religious sense no longer led to the true God but forced men and women to create gods of their own making, ones that conformed to their own selfishness and vanity. The temptation of idolatry required Christians to be ever vigilant in regulating their worship by the direct commands of God in Scripture. This temptation made Calvin especially suspicious of practices in worship that were said to be pleasing or attractive to members of the congregation. He said, the more a practice "delights human nature, the more it is to be suspected by believers."

D. G. Hart, Reforming Worship

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Primacy of Preaching

I had this well-meaning and sincere, though misguided, individual tell me one time that the "praise and worship" part of the service was the most important one since it was the part that ushered the people into God's presence. Of course, such a notion is more in keeping with revivalism's modus operandi of stroking man's fleshly appetite for excitement and immediate experience than it is grounded on biblical doctrine—and the only thing that it really ushers people into is an adrenaline rush!

This mentality acutely reflects the sad state of modern Evangelicalism in how it has completely missed the fact of the dialogical nature of the worship service: God speaks; we listen and respond in worship, humility, and gratitude, and are sanctified by the spoken Word. What you have in most Evangelical Sunday services is a pop-rock concert in the beginning, a self-help, pseudo-psychological talk in the middle, and an encore of the previous "music ministry" performance in the end. God's Word in Scripture, if ever used at all, come in sporadic bursts of verses here and there that are forced to concur with the speaker's agenda, thereby stripping the text of its intended meaning, stifling the work of the Spirit in His sacramental function of quickening the Word, and robbing the people of blessing.

It is the preacher's job and mandate to be a scholar of Scripture for God speaks to His people through the preached Word. This is the most important part of the worship service. Let no one delude you into thinking otherwise.

"God thinks preaching is much more important than most people do. For God, it is not just verbal 'filler' in a Sunday worship service. Neither is it the sharing of
one’s experiences designed to inspire and stimulate those of others. Nor is it a nicely organized talk, complete with PowerPoint slides, intending to inform people of '10 ways to become more spiritual.' (I never found a text in Scripture that contained 10 practical ways to do anything!) Rather, the words of the preacher are to echo the words of his text, and, when faithful to that text of Scripture, contain 'the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.' As Paul writes elsewhere:

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to
preach the gospel….For the message of the
cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of
God (1 Cor. 1:17-18).

You’ll need to contend with that whether or not you are called to preach. If you are, tremble! What you will declare with your lips is the redeeming energy of God Himself. If you are not called to preach, assigned instead to join God’s people as they hear faithful preaching and give it fleshly form in their obedience, take that task seriously too. God’s Word brings life or death. Remember the sobering words of the apostle, admonishing preacher and hearer alike:

For we are to God the aroma of Christ among
those who are being saved and those who are
perishing. To the one we are the smell of death;
to the other the fragrance of life. And who is
equal to such a task? (2 Cor. 2:15-16).

Who indeed?

Dr. John R. Sittema, 'Called to Preach', 15—16

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How John Piper Almost Quit

"O Lord, have mercy on me. I am so discouraged. I am so blank. I feel like there are opponents on every hand, even when I know that most of my people are for me. I am so blind to the future of the church. O Father, am I blind because it is not my future? Perhaps I shall not even live out the year, and you are sparing the church the added burden of a future I had made and could not complete? I do not doubt for a moment your goodness of power or omnipotence in my life or in the life of the church. I confess that the problem is mine. The weakness is in me. The blindness is in my eyes. The sin—O reveal to me my hidden faults!—is mine and mine the blame. Have mercy, Father. Have mercy on me. I must preach on Sunday, and I can scarcely lift my head."

John Piper, How I Almost Quit

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Family Likeness

"And I—in righteousness I will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness" (Psalm 17:15).

The Westminster Larger Catechism, in its first inquiry asks, "What is the chief and highest end of man?" The answer comes, "Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever."

The Psalm speaks of satisfaction, the Catechism of enjoyment. Both documents ground the subject's experience to an external object, that being God.

To see the likeness of God is man's ultimate experience. But to be able to be in this experience, man must be endowed with His likeness, for without the "family resemblance" man is to be rejected and destroyed.

The Gospel is the proclamation that God has made a way for man to be "part of the family" and thus behold His beauty. Those chosen by God to be His sons and daughters attain the family name solely through Christ. By His atoning death on the cross, the children are counted as justified in God's forensic sight; and by His perfect life and obedience, the same are clothed in His righteousness, thereby gaining the status of "children of God."

In the present age, the likeness of God in His chosen ones is imperfect at best. But the Holy Spirit is not slack in His work of sanctification, bringing every facet of the child of God to conformity with the family likeness. It is an eschatological certainty that the present "Frankenstein-ish" state of the children will give way to the full expression of the family likeness, when we will then be able to see God face to face, to enjoy Him and be satisfied—forever.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Holy Spirit Makes Men

I left a "seeker-sensitive" megachurch where it seems that men are chosen to the position of elder by virtue of clout, influence, charisma, and personality. Going by the kind of preaching and teaching these men put out, it is apparent that it was never a prerequisite that they be gifted in matters of doctrine—having the ability to teach and rule—and be advanced in sanctification. If they could put on a good "show", they were given the pulpit as the stage for their theatrics.

Now, I don't doubt or question the sincerity of these men in their desire to serve the Lord. However, it is a matter of biblical fact that not all men are gifted and chosen by the Spirit for the eldership, and Scripture has laid down strict and exclusive principles in the determination of those thus chosen. Needless to say, the "showbiz" factor is not one of them.

"The Holy Spirit makes men bishops. He makes bishops of those whom he first makes men. He makes men bishops by giving them gifts for teaching and rule. He makes men ready for this service by maturing them in their gifts and by the work of sanctification in their lives. Chronological age is not the primary rule; but we do need to beware of making bishops of men whom the Lord has not yet made elders in widsom, discernment, and spiritual graces. To ordain a novice is only to minister confusion to the flock of Christ."

Lawrence R.Eyres, 'The Elders of the Church', ch. 9, p. 51.

Friday, February 12, 2010

What Is "Natural Law"?

"Natural law is the moral revelation that God gives in creation itself. Romans 1:18-32 speaks of things that may be known of God from creation, including a great deal of moral knowledge. Romans 2:14-15 speaks of the law of God being written on people's hearts, such that even those without access to the law revealed in Scripture are held accountable to God through their consciences. Many prominent Christian theologians have identified natural law as the standard for civil law and government, including not only medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas but also reformers such as John Calvin. Thus, acknowledging the importance of natural law is neither unbiblical nor foreign to historic Christian theology.


When we as Christians come into contact with unbelievers, we eagerly proclaim Scripture's message of salvation to them, with hopes that they will submit to that message and believe in Christ. But even if they do not, we must still deal with them respectfully as fellow citizens with whom we share a common life in the public square. Is it possible to have genuine moral interaction with them on matters of political or social concern, even if they will not accept the authority of Scripture's teaching? Since we are called to live at peace with all people as far as possible (Rom. 12:18), this is undoubtedly an important question.

Here is one area in which natural law becomes a helpful resource. When appealing to natural law, believers need not feel that they are compromising their Christian convictions, for natural law is authoritative and true; it is part of God's own revelation, after all. Neither need Christians fear that they are appealing to a standard that is unknown or foreign to unbelievers; God has inscribed the natural law on the heart of every person (Rom. 2:14-15), and all people know the basic requirements of God's law, even if they suppress that knowledge (Rom. 1:19, 21, 32). Most every unbeliever, in fact, accepts the truth of at least some aspects of the natural law. True, they do not accept it for what it really is, the revelation of the living and triune God. But most people, when pressed, would admit that acts such as murder, stealing, and lying are immoral, and they themselves generally avoid such actions. Most people would also claim that law and government exist to protect people against those who would kill, rob, or defraud them.

The fact that most unbelievers, though refusing to worship the true God, still to some significant extent acknowledge and live by the truth of his law as it is known by nature is something for which Christians can be very grateful. Because of this, societies generally retain some degree of order and justice. And it provides Christians with the opportunity to engage unbelievers in genuine moral dialogue on issues of public policy. But how exactly does one make arguments from natural law and thus put it to use in the public square?"

David VanDrunen, Natural Law and Christians in the Public Square, Modern Reformation, March/April 2006.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Admirability of the Manifestations of Common Grace

"Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we condemn and reproach the Spirit Himself. What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how eminent they are.

But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts. Those men whom Scripture calls 'natural men' were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.

John Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.15.

It is the duty of the Christian to recognize, to appreciate, and to give God glory for the many manifestations of His common grace, even though these come through the efforts of the unregenerate. In any field of endeavor, excellence and achievement evince the favor of God, though that not necessarily being of the redemptive kind.

But while this is true, Scripture admonishes us towards the exercise of discernment. It is one thing to recognize the hand of the Spirit of God in cultural and worldly conquests, and another to be taken captive by the "hollow and deceptive" philosophies of this passing age. The redemptive revelation of God can never be found in the formulations of darkened minds, though modern Evangelicalism has seemingly gone out of its way to employ precisely these formulations in the way it presents its understanding of God and reality.

The truth which describes the bridging of the gap between God and man can be found in no other place than the special revelation of God in Scripture through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is this truth that the Holy Spirit utilizes to effect that radical transformation involving the refashioning of the human heart into the likeness of Christ. This is foolishness to the man steeped in the world's "wisdom", and yet it pleased the Lord to save His elect through the utter incomprehensibility of the proposition.

So let us, as Christians, become masters of the arts and sciences. Let us be the pundits of history, philosophy, and the languages, knowing full well that He is the same God we serve and worship who is the bestower of these good gifts to both the beloved and the damned.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sympathy for the "Devil"?

Frame's flawed and floundering formulation:

"I think it better to regard anyone as Reformed who is a member in good standing of a Reformed church. I realize there is some ambiguity here, for we must then ask, what is a really Reformed church? Different people will give different answers. But, as I said above, I don’t think that the definition has to be, or can be, absolutely precise. The concept, frankly, has 'fuzzy boundaries,' as some linguists and philosophers say.

We should also accept as Reformed people those who hold to generally Reformed convictions, but are members of non-Reformed churches. Again, the phrase 'generally Reformed' indicates that the concept is not precise.

Then, what is the Reformed faith? It is the consensus of Reformed believers. define the Reformed faith as a form of evangelicalism. First, let me say that my definition is a definition of the place of the Reformed faith in the American context. I apologize if in previous writings I have not made that clear. My definition would not be useful in a culture that had not experienced the evangelical movement or something like it. In the American context, Evangelicals are orthodox Protestant Christians, Christians who maintain belief in the supernatural work of God to save us from sin, including Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, atoning death, resurrection, and return. The Reformed also maintain these doctrines (with some slippage on both sides). Since they hold every doctrine that defines evangelicalism, they can be regarded as evangelicals. But of course they also believe some things that do not define evangelicalism, which makes them a distinct strand of the evangelical movement.

Reeks of postmodernism.

Good discussion of the review here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Gifts Make the Man

"Recently I heard a sermon in which the preacher spoke of ministers and others who were over-zealous that their particular gifts be recognized and given place in the church. The preacher said that there was no need to worry about that; if anyone has gifts, and uses his opportunities to exercise these gifts, in due time the church will recognize them. The man need not make a place for his gifts to be employed; rather, the gifts themselves will make a place for him!

How true is this! A correct attitude for all who serve our sovereign Lord is just this: What I am is really not very important. What is important is that whatever Christ has given me I will make available to him to use where and when and how he chooses. Then I will have all the satisfaction I need, and more honor than I can safely cope with. This is especially true for those whom Christ has gifted and given 'for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of the ministry, unto the edifying of the body of Christ'" (emphasis mine).

Lawrence R. Eyres, The Elders of the Church, ch. 2, p. 13.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Church Government and the Glory of Christ

"Presbyterian doctrine and presbyterian polity go hand-in-hand. The former depends more on the latter for its proper demonstration than many realize…The study of Church government, therefore, involves the study of how to exalt the Name of Christ…For the study of Church government is nothing less than the study of the ordinary ways and means by which Jesus Christ is now at work in this world glorifying Himself."

Jay Adams, Preface to Lawrence R. Eyres' 'The Elders of the Church'.

A Brief Reflection on WCF 5.5

"The most wise, righteous, and gracious God does oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends" (WCF 5.5).

Pietism and Wesleyan perfectionism would have you either feeling guilt-ridden all the time, or smug in self-righteous pride through a diminishing of what biblically counts for sin. They argue that sinless perfection is the norm of the Christian life and that something must be terribly wrong if sin is still being committed. In fact, given this scenario, if a Christian dies with at least a single "unconfessed" sin, that's it! It's hell for him, and make no qualms about it.

This view finds no warrant in Scripture and actually robs Christ of the glory due His Name for the utter perfection and sufficiency of His life and death. In fact, as the passage from the WCF above stipulates, sin is sometimes an agent of sanctification in God's wise, loving, and providential hands.

The new birth did not strip off the Adamic nature which every man possesses by virtue of being human. No, we as Christians, enabled by the Spirit, are still left to wrestle with the old man, to continually be putting it to death. But then, this process of mortification is not carried out pietistically as well, as if a set of rigorous "spiritual disciplines" is the key to victory. It is through the Gospel of Jesus Christ that the subjugation of sin is had, and the lingering presence of sin in our lives is cause for us to ever be humbling ourselves before a holy God, in submission to the Hope that He has set before us. We cannot reform ourselves by a gritting of our teeth in willful resolution—the radical depravity of man, the onslaught of the world, and the minions of Satan make that a certainty.

If we attend to the means of grace (Word and Sacrament), God's ordained vehicles of imparting the benefits of the Gospel to us, then we are truly conforming to the nature of Christ that has been wrought by the Spirit, desiring Him above all, and progressing steadily along the pilgrim path.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Evangelical/Gnostic Voyeurism

Martin Luther has said that every human being is intrinsically a mystic. The claim is indicative of the proverbial "vacuum" that every man longs to fill with God (or notions of God); and yet it is also "human" to want to "get into" this God through means other than that which He has prescribed in His Word. It is a desire to peer into, as Luther calls it, "the naked God."

This Gnostic voyeurism is very much apparent in the many mutations of modern Evangelicalism. From the hyper-faith, hyper-supernaturalism, and experientialism of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement, to the extrabiblical, pragmatic, pietistic, and individualist "innovations" of the church-growth, purpose-driven, megachurch movement (interestingly, the Emergent Church movement merely gave the megachurch movement a "cooler" face, with essentially the same brain behind the operations), Gnosticism is alive and well.

The dangerously false assumption behind all this is that God is a God who can be approached, as Air Supply would put it, "Just As I Am." Yet the biblical account teems with examples of God meting out swift and final judgment on those who failed to approach Him, sincere or otherwise, in the means that He has prescribed. In the OT, we have Nadab and Abihu, beloved sons of Aaron, incinerated, and Uzzah struck dead. Especially in the case of the latter, sincerity and a desire to serve God were not, and will never be, mitigating factors. In the NT, we have Ananias and Saphira, the couple of deceit, snuffed of life by the same transgression. Fervent affection and devotion matters nil if recognition of the "otherness" of God, which is the reality behind God's use of physical and temporal means to interface with man, is rejected.

The Gospel is that God, through His Son Jesus Christ, became flesh, to the consternation of the Gnostics. Just as no Israelite could approach God unmediated by either Moses or the priesthood, so is it that only though the mediation of the God-Man, Christ, can anyone come into the presence of God without suffering the same fate as those sincere enthusiasts who gave no thought to God's prescribed means but thought of Him as like unto themselves. But then, even in the appropriation of Christ's merits, Gnosticism and Evangelicalism walk hand-in-hand in seeking out a private, personal Jesus who is accessible through techniques, methods, and devices, rather than the historical, objective, and enfleshed Christ who takes the initiative to reveal Himself to those whom the Father has chosen. It is "me and my God-ness" uniting with God, not God in His holiness and transcendence condescending to elect, justify, sanctify and eventually glorify me, all because of what Christ has done that is external to myself.

There are a host of other instances wherein this voyeurism is obvious. Suffice it to say that the only remedy to this insidious malady is the recovery of the great truths of the Reformation.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Vocation and the Two Kingdoms

There is indeed a distinction between holy or sacred work and common or secular work. The Christian, in his person and in his being, is holy and sacred by virtue of his union with Christ, and yet it is not an affront to this fact if his vocation is labeled as that which is common or secular.

Common grace ennobles secular work for God has not abandoned the present world, and it is through this type of labor that He sustains it, just as His redeeming grace empowers the Church's sacred work through Word and Sacrament.

Let the Christian, in humble circumstances, take joy in his labors as he engages in them for the glory of God.

"The kingdom of God advances through Word and Sacrament in the power of the Holy Spirit, while the kingdoms of this world advance through the arts and sciences, technology, literature, education, agriculture, business, medicine, and so forth. When a Christian is called to cabinet-making, he or she is not engaged in 'kingdom work' or a sacred calling. But that is not to demean this trade, as it was in the case of medieval Rome and much of modern Evangelicalism. Rather, it is to liberate us from thinking that something has to be justified by its usefulness to redemption, as if creation is not sufficient as a sphere in and of itself. A calling to make cabinets is the same for Christian and non-Christian alike. Because the unbeliever is still created in God's image and is the beneficiary of God's common grace, he or she is given a vocation by God in this world. God did not abandon the world and creation in order to work with his elect people, but rather he patiently endures the world's rebellion during this interval, restraining wickedness, while he extends his kingdom of grace to the ends of the earth (2 Pet. 3:1-13). This creates space for this shared sphere of human activity which is neither sacred nor sinful, but common and eminently worthwhile.

So let's stop blurring distinctions on this matter. Oil painting does not a 'minister' make. It is not kingdom work (if it is the kingdom of God that is meant), but cultural work. The only reason we would find that distinction offensive to our secular callings is if we already assume that whatever is not somehow a part of the kingdom of Christ is unworthy of a believer's passionate attention and interest. We need to recover creation as a sphere of common grace activity. Christians need to be freed to embrace the world which God has created without being burdened with trying to justify everything in terms of its 'kingdom value.' It is enough to serve one's neighbor and society without having to figure out how it all contributes to the regime of 'redeeming culture.'

Dr. Michael S. Horton, 'How to Discover Your Calling'.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Doctrine, Doxology, and Deeds

"The first Reformation was about doctrine; the second one needs to be about behavior...We need a reformation not of creeds but deeds," thus said Rick Warren. At first glance, it appears noble. It seems like we are being called to a higher level of Christianity, one that the 16th and 17th century Reformation failed to facilitate. A cursory inspection, however, would reveal something not borne out of innovation, but rehash—a rehash of Enlightenment ideals and Pietism.

Needless to say, "deeds without creeds" does not work. The net effect of this diabolical view is that many end up disillusioned with the Christian life. How can they not be when the incessant inward curving that this thinking fosters turns up nothing worthy of hope? Hope is external to man and it is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now the gospel of Jesus Christ is doctrinal. It is bound up in covenant theology, in the economy of redemption, in the concepts of the atonement, justification, sanctification, and glorification, in the church and the sacraments—it is the very fabric of Scripture. These things need to be studied. They need to be studied now, tomorrow, the day after, up until the day of death or the Lord's second coming, for truth apprehended gives way to gratitude, and it is this that is the foundation of all God-pleasing "deeds."

"It is not insignificant that Paul moves from doctrine to application through doxology. As G. C. Berkouwer has said in summarizing the order of the Heidelberg Catechism, 'Grace is the essence of theology; gratitude is the essence of ethics.' There is a time to be a diligent student, to listen to the record of God's great accomplishment of our redemption and its logical inter-relationships. Yet in doxology we are caught up in it all. We put down our notepad and raise our eyes to heaven in joyful gratitude and wonder. Here is where the Spirit internalizes the message that we have heard and makes us to feel deeply that we are what the gospel announces: the ungodly who have been justified, the enemies now reconciled, the dead who have been made alive in Christ, the hopeless who now have a future. Doctrinal understanding, inflamed by wonder and praise, yields to 'our reasonable service.'...No longer being conformed to this world is not simply an act of the will. It is not the result of individual or collective effort, but the effect of sound doctrine that has been converted into thanksgiving. Apart from the renewing of the mind...we will become like the world in our thinking and therefore also in our practice."

Dr. Michael S. Horton, 'Creeds and Deeds (How Doctrine Leads to Doxological Living)', Modern Reformation, Nov/Dec 2006.

Related Posts with Thumbnails