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Know what you believe and why you believe it

Recovering Scripture – “How can I trust that the Bible is reliable?”

Michael Horton recently sat down and answered a few questions about Scripture: it’s reliability, interpretation, and application to our lives. We’ll be posting videos of his explanations through the end of the year. For more information on our Recovering Scripture campaign and for additional resources to help you “know and share what you believe and why you believe it,” please visit the homepage of our year end appeal.

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Recovering Scripture: The Church’s Only Hope

I recently gave a talk where I walked through the arguments for the sufficiency of Scripture. It was amazing to me how few of the people—in a conservative evangelical church—had never heard anything on the subject. This is a problem.

Roman Catholic apologists argue forcefully that the Bible is “the Church’s book.” Since the New Testament canon (as well as the Old) was “determined” by the church, it must be the case that the church is the mother of Scripture.

The Reformation countered that the church is the “creature of the Word” (creatura verbi). They knew, of course, that the church preceded the completed canon. After all, the church has existed from Adam and Eve (Gen 3:15) to the present. It is the Word that creates the church, regardless of time and place. Abraham knew less clearly what we know more fully, but the object of his faith was the same: his heir, Jesus Christ, in whom all the families of the earth would be blessed.

But now we have a canon. There is a qualitative difference between the ministry of the apostles and that of the ordinary pastors. Paul could appeal to the immediate revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal 1), while encouraging Timothy to take courage in the gift that was given to him “when the council of elders [presbytery] laid their hands” on him (1 Tim 4:14).

“Scripture alone” does not mean that the church has no authority. Rather, as the Reformers taught, there is a distinction between the extraordinary ministry of prophets and apostles (providing the canonical foundation of the faith) and the ordinary ministry of those pastor-teachers and elders today who lead Christ’s body. The church has a ministerial authority. That’s why we embrace the ecumenical creeds and Reformation confessions (Lutheran or Reformed) as faithful summaries of Scripture. However, the church’s authority is not magisterial. The church may get it wrong, but God’s Word remains. Scripture must have the last word in every controversy.

There is no “apostolic office,” whether of popes or Pentecostal prophets. Christ speaks to us every time we hear the Word of God preached (Rom 10:1-17) on the basis of the biblical canon that is now complete. Even in the days of the apostles, sectarian rivalry threatened the unity of the church. Therefore, Paul declared, “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6). If churches that were founded by the apostles were in danger of having their candlestick removed (Gal 3:1; 5:4; Rev 2:5), then what hubris is represented by popes who preached a gospel other than the one that was delivered by Christ through his apostles?

Lose the Scriptures and you lose the gospel.

But in our day, it’s Protestants—even evangelicals—who downplay the sufficiency of Scripture for doctrine and life. As in the medieval church, many today think that Scripture is unclear about various doctrines, practices, and forms of worship. It’s just not interesting enough. We have to add our speculations, experiences, and cultural perspectives.

We believe the Reformation recovered the central themes of Scripture that the church slowly had abandoned – as it tends to do in every generation. We all need to recover Scripture: in our devotional lives, as the source of our theology, in our churches, and as the living voice of God today. It is only “by Scripture alone” that we hear the odd announcement of a Father who “so loved the world who gave his only-begotten Son.” Compromise this “sola” and you end up surrendering “solo Christo” (by Christ alone), “sola fide” (through faith alone), and “soli Deo gloria” (to God alone be the glory).

I don’t say this often, because I think it’s often over-used. But with sola scriptura, everything is at stake. That’s why we’re offering a special MP3 CD entitled, “Recovering Scripture,” as our gift to you with your $100 donation to White Horse Inn before the end of the year. Let us recover Scripture together: in our devotional lives, as the source of our theology, in our churches, and as the living voice of God today. Click here to take advantage of this special offer and thank you for your support of White Horse Inn.

 

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Should We Keep Religion Out of Politics?

As we pull into the final stretch for mid-term elections, the media frequently asks, “Should Americans keep their religious views out of politics?”

You never know exactly what someone means by the question. And the people who answer quickly usually don’t either. So let me hazard a rough reply, based on what I think folks mean by the question.

Option One: Religious convictions are deeply personal and private; they shouldn’t shape a voter’s public policy perspectives.

This view, associated with John Rawls and Richard Rorty, assumes that religion is a “conversation stopper.” However, it is a naïve position because it assumes one’s most deeply-held convictions don’t have anything to do with how one thinks about life and the common good. It’s hardly a news alert that noted atheist Richard Dawkins thinks it’s immoral not to abort children with Downs Syndrome and that if we love our pets enough to put them down, we should be as “compassionate” to human beings. Everyone brings his or her worldview into the voting booth and Christians shouldn’t allow themselves to be bullied into thinking that they must not.

Christianity has all the more reason to claim our most basic allegiance. Christ is Lord, proved publicly in history by his resurrection from the dead. For those who embrace that truth, Christ’s lordship is not just true for me, but for everyone. Christ is the eternal Word by whom and for whom all things exist, and in the fullness of time he became human to save sinners from death and hell. From the beginning, his was a public and universal claim. Whether it is right or wrong, it’s not private. And it changes everything.

Consequently, it’s impossible for a Christian to separate his or her most deeply-held religious convictions from judgments about the common good.

Option Two: Public arguments have to persuade. The properly coercive arm of civil government shouldn’t give preference to one religion or church in public policy decisions.

Government creates laws, and enforcement agencies—like the police—make sure that they’re followed. “Christ is Lord” is not just a private claim, but also a public one. Positive law is grounded in natural law—the law of God known to the conscience of everyone as God’s image-bearer, even if the truth is suppressed in unrighteousness. Christians should make explicit their religious grounding for public policies, while offering arguments that prick the conscience of unbelievers to reconsider the nihilistic path to which their presuppositions lead.

However, politics is the realm of negotiation and compromise. Our clashing worldviews lead to clashing political policies, and often even those with the same worldview differ on how exactly to apply it to specific policies. Instead of focusing on all out “wins,” we should focus on making arguments that are at least good enough to persuade enough folks to mitigate the damage that their ungodly worldviews could and would accomplish if consistently worked out. It’s only Christ-honoring and neighbor-loving for us to make those convictions explicit—and more honest than most secularists.

And yet, we must never—ever—cross the line of trying to invoke the properly coercive powers of the state to sanction a particular theological argument or justification for a particular public policy. For Christians, that’s not ultimately because of the First Amendment, but because Christ’s kingdom advances by the sword of the Spirit—the Word of God—and not by the sword of state power. There are many arguments that I make for the public and universal truth of the Christian faith, but I would be conceding ultimate authority to Caesar and denying the gospel if I thought that good laws could create a good society and coercion could produce a godly society.

To conclude, a few suggestions for navigating the complexity:

  1. Don’t be bullied into separating your Christian convictions from your views of the common good. As a Christian, I affirm the value of human life on the basis of a host of theological convictions grounded in special revelation (Scripture). It’s only honest to share these deeper convictions with neighbors.
  1. Don’t assume that because something is true—objectively and universally—it should be legislated and enforced by state power.  It’s one thing to communicate my distinctively Christian rationale for a particular position. It’s another to expect my non-Christian neighbor to support a policy that can only be argued on that Christian basis.  To put it differently, a host of beliefs are engaged when I vote for a candidate or ballot measure.  But if it’s a matter of the public good, I should be able to defend what I think is a good policy on grounds that a non-Christian might find plausible.  No, none of us comes to general revelation neutrally.  But remember that we are all made in God’s image, including rebels, and that the Spirit restrains wickedness and promotes justice by his common grace.  When you offer good “general revelation” arguments, you’re not disengaging from the teachings of special revelation (Scripture).  The book of nature and the book of Scripture are in perfect harmony.
  1. Recognize that politics is the realm of give-and-take, as citizens with radically different convictions and even more radically different policy solutions try to reach compromises. If we can’t live with compromises, we can’t live in civil society. We’re not compromising our faith when we stop short of the full justification that we would offer for the value of life. Common grace is a restraint upon sin, not its elimination.
  1. Be courageous and Realize that even Christians can affirm diverse policy solutions on the basis of a shared worldview. Imagine Christians of different political leanings on other issues coming together with one voice to protect the life of the unborn and other vulnerable members of society. Rarely are policy decisions as cut-and-dried as abortion-on-demand or euthanasia. Scripture gives us the spectacles for viewing all areas of life, but not for determining every issue in life. That’s where Christian liberty comes into the picture. Otherwise, the church becomes a Republican or Democratic political action committee, a priestly auxiliary of MSNBC or Fox News.
  1. Pray. “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” (Eph 6:12).

Decisions made in Washington and the state houses are very important. The cosmic battle between the ascended Christ and the kingdoms of this age is discerned in many policy crises. It touches our own families and neighborhoods every day. However, it’s particularly where the church witnesses to Christ that Satan’s opposition is most keenly felt.

The ultimate locus of this battle is “in heavenly places,” where the ultimate weapons are God’s Word and Spirit. When Christians pray—and especially when they come together to pray and to receive Christ with all of his benefits in Word and sacrament, Christ’s kingdom spreads and Satan’s prisons are claimed for his redeeming reign. Christ has won the decisive victory, though Satan and his hosts continue their insurgent skirmishes.

So let’s not confuse the mid-term elections—or any civil contest—into the cosmic battle that can only be waged by Christ’s gracious advance through his wonderfully liberating means of grace.

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Second Annual Charleston Christmas Conference

2014 Christmas Conference Handout

Friends of the Inn and contributors to Modern Reformation magazine, Carl Trueman and Harry Reeder, will be speaking at the second annual Charleston Christmas Conference on Reformed Theology, December 5-7, 2014. Drs. Trueman and Reeder will join Dr. Jon Payne, the pastor of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston and the host of the conference, in taking up the theme of The Nativity and the Cross.

For more information and registration click here.

For Further Reading and Listening:

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My Ordinary “Target”

Next week my book, Ordinary, is being released. I’m grateful that there’s interest in the message that I tried to communicate in these few chapters.

Already, though, there are a lot of people speculating about my intended “target” in this book. A number of folks point out the similarity between my cover and David Platt’s Radical. In the interest of full disclosure, let me be clear: I’m not going after Radical.

For anyone who reads the first chapter, the target will become crystal-clear: I am the target. I’m terrified of boredom; I’m scared of being mediocre; I’m not eager to be “there” for others when I could be “making a difference.” I point out even in the opening paragraphs that what I have in mind is pervasive and that I’m actually in favor of a lot of things that defenders of “radical discipleship” have in mind: such as being committed to others to the point of stepping outside of our comfort zone.

It never occurred to me when I saw the picture of the cover that it was similar to Radical’s. Those who think I am going after the book admit that they haven’t read mine yet, but they suspect that Radical is the target. It’s not. In fact, the review of Ordinary in the current issue of Christianity Today observes, “Seeing the cover, I expected a few juicy remarks about megachurch pastors like Platt. My expectations were disappointed, which is a good thing.”

I do call into question “radical this-and-that,” but this is a long and broad theme in all of our circles, even my own Reformed and Presbyterian camp. It’s both the strength and weakness of evangelicalism. To whatever extent some things that I say have relevance to emphases in Radical or any other book, I hope it generates conversation rather than acrimony.

So, again, thanks for starting a conversation about what we should all see as a big issue. I hope you’ll join me in agreeing that the target is “we,” not “they,” and that it’s time for all of us to rediscover the extraordinary grace that God dispenses to us—and through us—in ordinary ways.

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The Case Against Radical Christianity

The current issue of Christianity Today includes a review Michael Horton’s new book Ordinary.

ordThe Case Against Radical Christianity:  Michael Horton’s message to restless believers:  Stay put, and build the church.

by Philip Cary

“Sometimes you can tell quite a bit about a book from its cover. On the outside, Michael Horton’s Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan) looks a lot like David Platt’s bestsellerRadical, and that’s no accident. Horton, editor of Modern Reformation magazine, a founding figure behind the White Horse Inn’s teaching ministry, and host of its radio show, aims to provide an alternative to trendy calls for radical living. He thinks such calls serve mainly to make ordinary Christians anxious about whether they’re really Christian enough, and pastors anxious about ensuring that their ministries are radically transformative.”  Full article at CT

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The Messianic Feast, Part 2

Continued from The Messianic Feast, Part 1

You may recall that as the people of Israel sojourned through the desert, they often failed to trust in God’s provision. They frequently grumbled, whined and complained about their situation as though God would fail to provide for the very people he just rescued. Ps 78 recounts this period, as this unbelieving generation forgot God’s wonderful works:

He divided the sea and let them pass through it…In the daytime he led them with a cloud, and all the night with a fiery light. He split rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep…Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?…[T]hey did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power…Yet the Lord commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven, and he rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven. Man ate of the bread of the angels; he sent them food in abundance…In spite of all this, they still sinned; despite his wonders, they did not believe…How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert! They tested God again and again and provoked the Holy One of Israel (Ps. 78: 13-15, 17-19, 21-25, 32, 40-41).

Did you notice the similarities between Adam and Eve in the garden, and the people of Israel in the wilderness? Both demanded the food they craved, rather than trusting and relying on God’s provisions. But in contrast to both these events in redemptive history, our Lord, when he was tempted in the wilderness said, “Man does not live by bread alone.” As a result of their disobedience, the unbelieving generation led by Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land, which flowed with milk and honey. And this becomes a kind of living parable for us all, indicating that we cannot enter the promised land by means of obedience to the law. We’re all members of a wicked and unfaithful generation, which means that the law of Moses cannot make us holy, but merely ends up showing us all our own sin, and the extent to which we have offended an infinitely holy God. In order to enter the land of rest, we must become members of a new generation, and we must be led by a greater Joshua. “Behold,” says Isaiah, in chapter 32 of his prophecy, “A king will reign in righteousness.” This messianic king, says the prophet, will provide “a shelter from the storm, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.”

Clearly, this text is echoing events that we find described throughout the writings of Moses. In fact, in Exodus 5:1 Moses says to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, Let my people go that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.” Notice that it does not say, “let my people go that they may begin a fast in my honor.” Again, the ultimate goal of redemption is feasting, not fasting. Listen to the words of Zechariah as he unpacks this theme in chapter 7:

The word of the LORD of hosts came to me:  “Say to all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?’…Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.’ But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear.  They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the LORD of hosts.  As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear…and the pleasant land was made desolate” (Zech. 7:4-5, 9-13).

God’s criticism of his people was that even their own spirituality had become self- centered. Because they were fasting for themselves, as Jesus taught, they had already received their reward. Like Pharaoh in the Exodus account, their hearts had become diamond-hard. But in later chapters of Zechariah’s prophecy God completely turns things upside down by saying that he will turn their fasting into feasting as the messianic day begins to dawn. Think about how these themes come up in the New Testament. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, it’s Pharisee who trusts in his own righteousness and pats himself on the back for fasting twice a week. But the tax collector, who knew he was spiritually bankrupt, ended up “going home justified.” Similarly, at the end of the parable of the prodigal son, it’s the elder brother, who is left standing outside in the vineyard, demanding his wages, while the younger brother, whose sins have been forgiven, is reunited with his father, and is wearing the best robe at a rich and wonderful feast.

The ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist can be contrasted along these lines as well. John’s ministry was one of preparation and fasting, whereas Jesus’ ministry was all about feasting. In Mt 11:16-19, Jesus says, “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’  The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”

In John chapter 7, Jesus arrives at the Jerusalem Temple in the middle of an eight-day feast, which the Jews call Sukkoth, or the feast of booths. And as we mentioned in a previous post, this very festival was designed to commemorate God’s provision for his people during the wilderness wandering. God provided not only the freedom from Egyptian bondage, miraculous rescue, and atonement for sin, but he also provided live-giving water from the rock, along with bread from heaven in order to provide for the people’s temporal needs. All this is being commemorated during this feast which took place at the end of the seventh month. In other words, it’s a kind of annual Sabbath rest which the people are called to participate and rest in. It was designed not merely to look back at god’s provision for his people throughout Israel’s past, but it was also designed to look forward to God’s future deliverance, to the great messianic feast yet to come.

So Jesus is teaching in the temple during the final days of this festival, and on the last day of this feast he calls out saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (Jn 7:37-38). According to Jewish scholar and convert to the Christian faith, Alfred Edersheim, during the feast of booths, “while the morning sacrifice was being prepared, a priest, accompanied by a joyous procession with music, went down to the Pool of Siloam, whence he drew water into a golden pitcher…and returned [through the] ‘Water- gate,’ which obtained its name from this ceremony.” The priest would then ascend altar and pour the water into two silver basins. On the last day of the feast, “after the priest had returned from Siloam with his golden pitcher, and for the last time poured its contents to the base of the altar, the people sang the Hallel,” which was a composed of a selection of verses from Psalms 113 through 118. This Jewish prayer began with the words, “Adonai, please save us! Adonai, please prosper us! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Again from Edershiem: “Just when the interest of the people had been raised to its highest pitch, that, from amidst the mass of worshippers who were waving towards the altar quite a forest of leafy branches as the last words of Psalm 118 were chanted—a voice was raised which resounded through the temple, startled the multitude, and carried fear and hatred to the hearts of their leaders. It was Jesus, who ‘stood and cried, saying, ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink.’”

Notice the response of the people. John writes that when the crowd “heard these words, some of them said, “This really is the Prophet.”  Others said, “This is the Christ” (Jn 7:40-41). In other words, what Jesus said was not merely received as general uplifting religious sentiment, but his words were particularly meaningful to this 1st century Jewish audience. When this crowd heard these words at this particular setting, many began to ask the question, is this the long awaited messiah? But of course, not everyone was convinced. According to John, some said, “But is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?  So there was a division among the people over him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, ‘Why did you not bring him?’” (Jn 7:42-45). You might have glossed over the word “officers” as I have over the past 30 years. But these particular men are actually the guards of the temple. In verse 46 these officers tell the Pharisees why they didn’t arrest Jesus saying, “No one ever spoke like this man!” The Pharisees then replied,  “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed” (Jn 7:47-48). Here the Jewish leaders, likely the rulers of the Jewish Sanhedrin, are at odds with the crowd, and even with the officers of the temple itself. Something Jesus said during this holy festival struck a deep and rich messianic chord. And if, when you read this text, those same chords are not resonating within you, then you’re likely reading this like a Gentile, and not like a first century Jew would have received these words.

The crowd at least understood what Jesus did and said, and this caused a great controversy as many began to question, “How can this be?” But notice that they weren’t questioning whether Jesus was able to provide secrets of a highly effective marriage. They weren’t arguing whether Jesus was a good moral instructor. They were debating whether he was the divine messiah promised throughout the Old Testament. This was the question that got to the heart of the matter. It’s the question that Jesus asked his own disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” The questions we bring to the Bible are often trivial questions and trivial pursuits. But this is the really important and fundamental issue that gets to the heart of the book, indeed, to the very heart of life itself.

In 1Cor 10 Paul writes, saying “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (2-4). Recounting the events of the Exodus, Paul explains that God was the provider and protector of his people. He had sheltered them from the desert heat under the cloud, and brought them safely through the Red Sea unharmed. He fed them with the bread of heaven and gave them water to drink from the rock in the wilderness. Again, all of this rich history is what Sukkoth was commemorating. But then Paul says, and “that rock was Christ.” When we read this as Gentiles, admittedly, it all gets a little strange and bewildering. But in light of all that Jesus said and did in John chapter 7, I believe that all this begins to make a little more sense. Jesus was the rock in the same way that he was the lamb of God. Sacrificial lambs merely pointed toward the the ultimate sacrifice yet to come, and in the same way, the temporal water in the wilderness pointed to the ultimate life-giving sustenance that Jesus would provide for his people.

David proclaimed this same message in Ps. 36 saying, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God!,” he wrote, “The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light” (7-9). Is it any wonder then that Jesus came proclaiming himself the light of the world, the bread of life, the fount of living water?  In Isaiah chapter 25 we are told of the great messianic feast to come. “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever” (6-8).  Later in his prophecy, Isaiah again invites us to this great feast at the end of the ages saying, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.  Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live” (Is. 55:1-3).  Think about how similar these passages are to the parable of the wedding feast, which Jesus relates in Mt 22. A king is celebrating a great feast in honor of his son, and sends his servants to invite everyone he can find on the highways, whether good and bad. Come, they were told, come to the wedding feast of the son of the great king, where you may eat your fill and drink well-aged wine, come and buy wine and milk without money or price.

Even now, Christ is inviting us to participate in this great feast at the end of the ages. Whether good or bad, rich or poor, we are invited to drink from the fountain of life, and to dine with him at the richest of all feasts, full of unimaginable splendor. It’s not offensive to come without any money, for this particular host is wealthy beyond all measure. The only offensive thing is to come offering to pay for your meal, as if we really could afford to be seated at this kind of table. Here we are invited to sit with princes and kings, to eat the finest food, and to drink the rarest of wines, all without cost. Yet thought it is free to us, it was not without cost to our host. For on one particular Friday, He paid the price of our admission. We drink the cup of blessing, of wine well refined, because he first drank the cup of God’s wrath on our behalf. In the last moments of his life, our savior cried out from the cross saying, “I thirst,” and he was given a sponge full of sour wine. “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished.”

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah my dear,! I cannot look upon thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marred them;
Let my shame Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

Love III, by George Herbert

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The Supernatural Means of Grace: A Building Block for Multi-Ethnic/Cross-Cultural Congregations

In Richmond, Virginia, imposing Confederate statues mark the streets of a wealthy section of the city. Stately churches from the early twentieth century still stand tall, replete with beautiful pews and a balcony for others. A trip to the James River reminds visitors that this body of water provided transportation to the largest port on the east coast for enslaved Africans between 1830-1860. Christianity Today reports, “The history [in Richmond] is as thick as the air on a summer evening.”

As much as we may want to diagnose our society with amnesia for this era of history, we cannot. While enslaved Africans are not walking the corridors of our plantations as they did just 150 years ago, the effects of slavery and segregation work much like the Doppler effect. As the source of the sound is more remote, the sound becomes more faint—but it is still heard. We, in this nation, still hear and feel the effects of our sinful past. It may not be as apparent in the workplace nor in the community in which you live, but it is still extremely realized in the church.

According to Dr. Michael Emerson, sociologist at Rice University, only 7% of churches in the United States are multi-racial. Despite the growing diversity in both urban and suburban settings, our churches remain largely segregated. There are both historical and present circumstances for this phenomenon, yet it appears the Bible presents a different image of the church (Gen. 17:4; Jer. 31:31-34; Matt. 28:16-20; Acts 13:1-2; Eph. 2:11-22; Rev. 5:9-10). What, then, can bring us to a biblical image, in our present circumstances, of the church?

While there are many answers to the previously mentioned question, one of the foundational issues is the supernatural means of grace. Why supernatural? The adjective that is normally associated with the phrase “means of grace” is ordinary. In the Reformed or reforming community, we believe the Lord uses ordinary means to conform us more and more into the image of the Son. The preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the Sacraments, and prayer are the means the Triune God uses to further strengthen us in Christ (WSC 88). These means are ordinary, but we sometimes forget that they are also supernatural. God is miraculously and invisibly fulfilling his purposes in the lives of his people (John 4:21-24; Matt. 28:19-20; Col. 1:21-23; 3:11; 1 Thess. 4:3). If we are going to see the kind of multi-ethnic and cross-cultural tapestry that reflects the purpose and work of God for his church, God must act supernaturally.

Mere human effort will not produce the biblical picture of the church for which many long (Rev. 5:9-10). Bible studies, conferences, and even articles may help inform us of the need to see our churches represent the demographics of our communities, but this information is often forgotten just days after we learn it. Furthermore, mere human effort is not lasting. We Christians find too many reasons to divide. How we educate our children, which type of Lord’s Day music we prefer, dating versus courting, political allegiance, and a host of other issues draw clear lines of division in God’s church. It is easier, therefore, as Cephalus said to Socrates, to remain with those who are similar (Book I of The Republic by Plato).

Despite our educational choices and the person for whom we vote, the supernatural means of grace put us all on the same playing field. “For all have sinned,” the apostle Paul wrote, “and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Regardless of the debates we have in relation to the meaning of all in other places in the Bible, Paul’s meaning here is clear. All are guilty in Adam and have correspondingly sinned against their creator. All, therefore, require the grace, mercy, forgiveness, and righteousness that are solely found in Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:6-11). The preaching of the holy Bible places these conscience-piercing facts before us. However, we are also comforted by the words of Scripture, as announced by the minister, that there is “therefore now no condemnation” in Christ (Rom. 8:1). Grace, mercy, forgiveness, and righteousness are not contained by our categories of ethnicity, cultural preferences, and tax brackets. The latter items segregate; the former unites.

The same is true of the Sacraments. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith 27.1, “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace… to represent Christ, and his benefits; and… to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world.” The separation that the Sacraments create is not within the church but between those inside the church and those outside. One might not expect that looking at the current landscape of Protestantism; nevertheless, the Confession is accurate. The Sacraments are intended to unite God’s people.

Prayer, which is another supernatural means of grace, also unifies. When you pray, you display your dependence upon the heavenly Father, you express humility by submitting to his commandments, and you demonstrate trust in God’s promise that when we pray according to his will he hears us and answers us (1 John 5:14-15).

Each of these supernatural means of grace are grounded in Jesus’ prayer in John 17, “The glory that you [Father] have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one.” The Lord prayed for a holy catholic church. Just prior to this petition, Jesus admitted that his prayer is even for those who have yet to believe. It was the Lord’s desire that all his people throughout the ages would be one as he is one with the Father.

The supernatural means of grace must be the bedrock of our churches, especially if we desire them to represent the demographics in our community. The latest church growth tactics will fail. Only the supernatural work of God can meet our common need for his mercy and grace—while not flattening our distinctions—and bring a people together from various ethnicities, cultures, educational backgrounds, and socio-economic standings.

Last February, therefore, I embarked on a journey to plant a cross-cultural, multi-ethnic church—in Richmond, Virginia—whose foundation is the supernatural means of grace. To date, we have been blessed with diversity ethnically, culturally, generationally, socio-economically, and politically. Although we know this road will be difficult, we also recognize our foundation—one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. These supernatural means draw us together at the foot of the cross, seeking mercy, forgiveness, and righteousness that is only found in Christ.

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Leon Brown is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. Crown and Joy Presbyterian Church will celebrate its first service on October 26, 2014. For more information, please contact the church at info@studythebiblewithus.com.

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The Messianic Feast, Part 1

In their most recent album, Songs of Innocence, U2 has included a song that evokes a number of biblical images. The song is titled “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” and the particular lines that I find interesting are as follows:

You dress in the colors of forgiveness
Your eyes as red as Christmas
Purple robes are folded on the kitchen chair.

I love this imagery. Forgiveness is presented as a kind of “coat of many colors,” and the recipient is like a starry-eyed child on Christmas morning who can hardly believe what he sees with his own eyes. But the most interesting line mentions “purple robes folded on the kitchen chair,” which hints at a great royal feast yet to come.  Not only have we been invited to this feast, but we’ve already been given the proper wardrobe in anticipation of it.

It’s interesting isn’t it that at both ends of the Scriptures we find the theme of feasting with God. Right at the gate, at the very beginning of the story, God invited man to eat from every tree in the garden but one. Man was designed to delight in his Father’s creation; he was a son, not a slave, and he was granted all the rights and privileges thereof. But there was one particular tree that God kept to himself saying, “You shall not eat of this tree.” It was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But the temptation was too great. Our first parents, thinking God was keeping something good from them, left the great garden banquet in the pursuit of their own happiness, thinking that it’s fruit would give them their best life now. Instead, of life, their rebellious choice brought death. Though they were clearly purpose-driven, they ended up entangled in a web of sin.

But, theme of feasting with God returns once again in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. Those who have slept in the dust of the earth come alive and stand before the judgment throne of God. Those who have sinned, yet trust in their own righteousness are condemned to eternal punishment, and those who are found in the book of life, are invited to the great marriage supper of the lamb. In other words, there is something about feasting that gets to the heart of who we are as human beings. And though we have all been estranged from God and lost the right to feast with him as fallen children of Adam, yet in Christ, though we are as strangers and aliens to the covenant of grace, have once again been invited to participate in the great feast that is being prepared for those who trust in God’s mercy and gift of righteousness.

Early in John chapter 7, Jesus begins to head toward Jerusalem during the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles), and in verse 14 we read, “About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and began teaching.” This is something that the Apostle John does frequently throughout his gospel. He informs his readers about important events during the ministry of Jesus, particularly those that occur during important feast days. The first of John’s great feast’s occurs at a wedding celebration during which Jesus turns water into wine (John 2), which was foreshadowing the great wedding banquet to come. The context of John 6 is the feast of Unleavened Bread, and it’s in this chapter that Jesus declares, “I am the bread of life.” In John chapter 9 Jesus heals a man born blind and tells him, “I am the light of the world.” Yet, just a little later in the narrative we are told that this took place at the time of the feast of Dedication. Regarding this feast, Josephus writes that after the time of Temple desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes around 164 BC,

Judah Maccabee celebrated the festival of rededication…for eight days, feasting upon very rich and splendid sacrifices as they honored God by hymns and psalms. They were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when after a long time of intermission, that they made it a law for their posterity that they should keep a festival on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate the festival called Lights.

Today we know of this eight day celebration by the name Hanukkah. Isn’t it interesting that just as Jesus declared that he was the bread of life during Passover, here Jesus declares that he is the light of the world at the time of the festival of lights. This unique correlation between the things Jesus says and does and the particular feast that was in progress is also found in John chapter 7. In verse 2 of this chapter, John indicates that the Feast of Booths was at hand. So what exactly is this feast? This is not an academic question for practicing Jews, for even up to the present day, many Jews throughout the world celebrate this week long festival, which they refer to as Sukkoth. In Lev 23 (vs 39-43) we read:

On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. …42 You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, 43 that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

In it’s essence, this is a year-end harvest festival, which is why the Feast of Booths is also referred to as the festival of ingathering. The creation of this annual festival ensured that each successive generation throughout the history of Israel, was able to reenact the exodus from Egypt and wilderness wandering experience. In fact, it was not merely a reenactment of, but more of a participation in that wilderness experience, as they were being called to trust in God’s provision.

This was one of the fundamental mistakes that the Pharisees had made. Rather than seeing themselves as wandering pilgrims on their way to Zion, they thought of themselves as those who had already arrived. They had put their trust in their own obedience to the law of Moses, yet this very law had been given to the people during their years of wandering through the desert. The law of Moses was not the ultimate destination, but was a list of regulations for the people as they were making their way toward the heavenly Jerusalem. This is essentially the argument that Paul makes in Galatians chapter 4, when he says that those who are actually in slavery are the ones who have placed their hope in the law which was given from Mt. Sinai in Arabia. This now corresponds, he says, to the present city of Jerusalem (vs. 24-25). Those who are free are children of the Jerusalem that is above, “she is our mother” (v. 26).

But as the children of Israel wandered through the desert, God provided for their needs, and this time of relying on God’s provision, is what the Feast of Booths was commemorating. In this way, each generation would know, accord to Lev 23:43 that “I (YHWH) made the people of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” In Ps. 27:5 we read, “For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent.” Similarly, we read in Is 4:6 “There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.” Now, as you begin to think about the meaning of texts such as these, you begin to see that the Feast of Booths not only looked backwards, but it also pointed forward, to the time of God’s ultimate provision, to his ultimate feast day. There will be a booth for shade, that shelters us from the heat and storm of God’s wrath on the last day, and we will be invited to rest from our labors and to feast with God, as his expense, forever and ever.

This post is continued here:  The Messianic Feast, Part 2

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John MacArthur on The Ordinary Church

Pastor John MacArthur’s recent sermon on Acts 2:42-47 takes up an issue near and dear to our own hearts: the ordinary Christian life and the ordinary church. You can find audio, video, and a transcript of the sermon here. We agree with him that the primary problem is American revivalism and the pervasive influence of Charles Finney.

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