Friday, March 24, 2017

The Vision (3.24.17): The Fly in the Ointment


Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on Ecclesiastes 10:1-15.

Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour; so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour (Ecclesiastes 10:1).

The opening line here is among the best known in this book in that it is the source for a popular idiom: “the fly in the ointment.”

The verse’s main point: A little folly sullies even the man who is wise and godly.

That reliable source Wikipedia says “the fly in the ointment” is “an idiomatic expression,” drawn from the KJV, “for a drawback, especially one that is not immediately apparent.” It adds that it refers to “a small defect that spoils something valuable or is a source of annoyance.”

The image is of a container of sweet smelling ointment, mixed by the druggist or apothecary. But the top is left open and some flies discover it, get stuck in the sticky ointment, die and begin to decay. And the ointment sends forth “a stinking savour.”

The image is of something small ruining the effect of the whole.

Think of a white suit with one ink stain, a sports car with one dent or scratch, a beautiful face with one scar.

Think of how the sight of a single fly landing on a mouth-watering dish on the table can spoil your appetite.

What is the spiritual point? There is a warning here to the godly man that he must be ever vigilant. If he wants to live a godly life today, he cannot rest on the laurels of the godly life he lived yesterday. He must be every striving to do what is right in God’s sight.

But perhaps there is also in this a reminder that he cannot really ever attain a spotless life, a fly-less ointment. Even the best of men are men at best. Consider the question posed in Psalm 130:3: “If thou, LORD, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who should stand?” He must look to the grace of God in Christ.


Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Five Books on Ministry


I enjoyed lunch and conversation this week with a new friend (a friend of friends), a student of theology, who was passing through the area. He asked me to suggest five books to read related to ministry and the call to the ministry. I thought this would be good fodder for a blog post, so here are five books I would suggest on these topics (in no particular order):

1.    Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (original 1830; Banner of Truth reprint, 1976).

I’ve been making liberal use of Bridges’ Ecclesiastes commentary in my current sermon series. This work on ministry is also a gem, filled with many a helpful insight and admonition, like this one: “Ours is the care of service—His is the care of success” (p. 76).

2.    Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (original 1875; Zondervan reprint, 1954).

This is the classic collection of Spurgeon’s addresses to students at his pastors’ college. Among the memorable must-read addresses: “The Minister’s Self-Watch,” “The Call to the Ministry,” “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” “The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear.”

3.    William Still, Dying to Live (Christian Focus, 1991).

Still wrote this brief memoir while in his 80s reflecting on 45 years as pastor of Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen, Scotland. I read this several years ago while going through a difficult time and found it to be very encouraging. See this post.

4.    Courtney Anderson, To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson (Zondervan, 1956).

This inspiring biography tells the compelling story of the patience, suffering, sacrifice, and eventual fruit in the ministry of the pioneer missionary to Burma. In a ministers’ conference in Malaysia in 2015 I met men from Myanmar (Burma) who still use the Bible Judson translated into their language.

5.    John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress [Part One] (original 1677; multiple reprints).


Before a man is a minister he is a “Christian” and a “Pilgrim” on the road to the celestial city.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Thoughts (3.21.17)


Image: Zach and Hannah at their rehearsal dinner, the Local Restaurant in Belmont (3.18.17).

I had the honor of conducting the wedding service for two young people from CRBC on Sunday afternoon. The sermon was taken from Ecclesiastes 4:9-12. At one point I noted that for Christians marriage is an act of discipleship. Your partner will likely shape your spiritual life more than any other human being, save Christ himself. A man lives 18 years in his parents’ household, but, very often many more with his wife.

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In his essay “Toil and Flame,” on Polish author and artist Jozef Czapski (in A Defense of Ardor), Adam Zagajewski observes: “A religious temperament doesn’t kill a sense of humor—just the opposite, it shapes, develops it” (p. 97).

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Zagajewski in “Against Poetry” from the same:

Contemporary mass culture, entertaining and at times harmless as it may be, is marked by its complete ignorance of the inner life. Not only can it not create this life; it drains it, corrodes it, undermines it. Science, caught up in other problems, likewise neglects it. Thus only a few artists, philosophers, and theologians are left to defend this fragile, besieged fortress (p. 138).

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I’m listening to George Eliot’s Middlemarch on LibirVox. From chapter 8: When Sir James says the pretentious Rev. Casaubon “has got no good red blood in his body,” Mrs. Cadwallader responds, “No, somebody put a drop under the magnifying glass and it was all semi-colons and parentheses.” On Dorothea’s poor decision to marry Rev. Casaubon, Sir James says a person ought to have “perfect liberty in misjudgment.”

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Baseball practice has begun. This is my thirteenth year at Cove Creek and third consecutive year coaching the Cove Creek Major League Pirates. Opening day is April 8. There is nothing for a Dad quite like coaching his sons in baseball.

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Christian Wiman in a 2014 “Socrates in the City” interview with Eric Metaxas on being a well-known poet: “Being a famous poet is like being famous in your family.” That made me think of the adage, recalling a series of concentric circles of ever decreasing size, that there’s being famous, being “Christian” famous, being “Reformed Christian” famous, and being “Reformed Baptist” famous. Being a famous Reformed Baptist would be like being famous in your family.

JTR

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Vision (3.17.17): One sinner destroyeth much good


Image: Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room (1978), Transparency in lightbox, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on Ecclesiastes 9:13-18.
Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good (Ecclesiastes 9:18).
In v. 18a, Solomon offers another summation (like that in v. 16a): “Wisdom is better than weapons of war.” This is a sentiment we have seen before in this book (cf. 7:12: “For wisdom is a defence…” and 7:19: “Wisdom strengtheth the wise…”). Godly wisdom is a better weapon to protect your life and your family than having a fire arm. It is a better weapon for a nation than nuclear arms.
David wrote:
Psalm 20:7 Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.
The passage ends with a challenging and contrasting statement. The pursuit of wisdom is a blessing to a man, but sin is corrosive. One sin will ruin a man. And one sinner can do much damage. That is expressed in v. 18b: “but one sinner destroyeth much good.”
We can think of this on the cosmic scale: Look at what the sin of Adam did to humanity. Compare:

Romans 5:12: Wherefore, as by one one sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:

1 Corinthians 15:21a: For since by man came death....

1 Corinthians 15:22a: For as in Adam all die....

And we can think of this on the lower, more ordinary scale.

One sinner can do damage to his fellow man. That migtht be the drunk driver who takes innocent life. The thief who steals. The murderer who kills. The liar who bears false witness.

In a family one sinner can destroy much good. A husband or wife can abandon covenant responsibilities in the name of personal "happiness" and innocent lives can be scarred and broken.

In a church one sinner can destroy much good. Sadly, I have seen one malcontent sometime be able to stir up dissent and disagreement where none existed. Consider:
Proverbs 16:28 A froward man soweth strife: and a whisperer separateth chief friends.
This can happen not only through gossip and talebearing but also in the spreading of doctrinal heresy. Compare:
Matthew 7:15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
Acts 20:28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. 29  For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.
Look at what the sin of Achan did to Israel of old (Joshua 7).
Look at the trouble which Diotrophes, who loved to have the “preeminence,” caused among the brethren to whom John wrote (3 John 1:9).
Truly one sinner can destroy much good.
Think of a room that has been fixed up. The walls painted. New carpet put down. Pictures hung. New furniture set in place. And allow one person bent on destruction to have five minutes in that space, and he can tear apart what others took hours to accomplish.
Solomon is exhorting here: Be a man who holds the weapon of wisdom and do not be a sinner bent on destroying much good.


Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

St. Luke Window at the University of Virginia Chapel



In my NT class lecture on Luke, I've come often to mention the "St. Luke" window at the University of Virginia chapel. I went by the other day and took a few pictures, at least one of which I might add to my Power Point presentation on Luke.


The chapel was not part of Jefferson's original non-sectarian plans for the Grounds (campus) but was added in 1890. It is used for various ecumenical services and is a popular wedding chapel for UVA students and alumni.


This closeup shows the dove at top right, perhaps a reference to the fact that Luke alone mentioned the Spirit descending in "bodily shape" as a dove at Jesus' baptism (Luke 3:22). The flowers on the outside with serrated leaves and red berries look like a holly. The flower on the inside with four cruciform petals looks like a dogwood. To the left of Luke is the winged ox, a traditional symbol for the third Gospel, and to the right the staff with two snakes, meant to be a medical symbol given Luke's traditional identity as "the beloved physician" (Col 4:14).


This close-up of the window dedication shows two more doves, as well as more holly and dogwoods. There is also what looks like some yellow dandelions to the left of Luke's feet and another yellow flower (lily?) on the right. The benefactor is Dr. John Staige Davis and his wife Volumnia Staples Davis, so the choice of Luke is fitting, and the dedication is to their parents. BTW, you have to love the name "Volumnia." Any expecting parents out there ought to consider this one for their daughter.

JTR


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Gordon Clark answers: If a drunk man shoots his family is it God's will?


I’m still preaching through the 1689 confession. In last Sunday afternoon’s message I focused on the statement which affirms God is working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory (chapter 2, “Of God and Of the Holy Trinity, paragraph one). Here are my notes from the meditation on the concept of God working out his will in “all things”:
Last week I read the essay by the Reformed philosopher Gordon H. Clark on “God and Evil” in his book Religion, Reason and Revelation (see this book note). In that essay Clark cites a liberal professor (Georgia Harkness) who was celebrating what she saw, in the early twentieth century, as the decline and demise of Calvinism:
But not many, even of the most rigorous of Calvinists would now say that if a man gets drunk and shoots his family it is the will of God that he should do so!
To which Clark replies:
I wish very frankly and pointedly to assert that if a man gets drunk and shoots his family, it was the will of God that he should do so. The Scriptures leave no room for doubt … that it was God’s plan for Herod, Pilate, and the Jews to crucify Christ. In Ephesians 1:11 Paul tells us that God works all things, not some things only, after the counsel of his own will. This is essential to the doctrine of creation. Before the world was made, God knew everything that was to happen; with this knowledge he willed that these things come to pass. Only if God has been willing , could this world or any world, in all its details, have been brought into existence (, p. 221).

JTR

Monday, March 13, 2017

Book Note: Religion, Reason, and Revelation


Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation (Nutley, N. J.: Craig Press, 1961): 241 pp.

This book is a collection of five chapters/essays from Reformed philosopher and theologian Gordon H. Clark.

Chapter one: Is Christianity a Religion? (pp. 1-27):

In this essay Clark examines modern attempts to define the term religion and to evaluate whether Christianity can be categorized as a religion. He looks at two main methods of defining religions: the psychological approach and the comparative approach.

First, the psychological approach sees religion as an emotional, non-rational experience. This results, Clark argues, in a definition “so broad and vague that it covers an unmanageable variety of experience” (p. 17). In this scheme, “The Hindu mystic, the apostle Paul, the dictator, and the miser are equally perfect examples of religion” (p. 17).

Second, the comparative approach classifies “religions” into various families in comparison to one another in the way botanists classify plants. One problem with this approach is that it cannot define elements common in all religions. Buddhism, for example, does not even suggest the concept of God.

Finally, Clark turns to examine Biblical Christianity. At the outset, he notes, “Surely, the images, medals, beads, and other paraphernalia of Romanism is not the same religion as iconoclastic Puritanism” (p. 23).

Clark defines Christianity as “Calvinism,” as articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith (pp. 23-24). He is unapologetic about starting from this conviction: “There is no hypocritical claim that the argument is without presupposition” (p. 24).

From this confessional perspective, the various religions, as idolatrous distortions, proliferate after the fall: “The religions of today therefore are descendants of the one original religion….” (p. 25). Christian conversion cannot be compared with supposed Hindu conversion. The Christian view of sin is not the same as in the various religions. Modern scholars of religions, “can neither appreciate or even understand the Christian doctrine of human depravity” (p. 27).

To summarize Clark’s conclusions: Christianity is not just one religions among many. It cannot even be compared to them. They are false. The only true religion is Biblical, confessional Christianity.

Chapter 2: Faith and Reason (pp. 28-110):

Clark presents four subheadings for approaching the relationship between reason and faith:

First: Reason and Faith: Roman Catholicism

Clark: “The cosmological argument for the existence of God, most fully developed by Thomas Aquinas, is a fallacy. It is not possible to begin with sensory experience and proceed by formal laws of logic to God’s existence as a conclusion” (p. 35).

When it comes to the cosmological argument, according to Clark, David Hume was right (in rejecting the cosmological argument) and Charles Hodge was wrong (in defending it)!

Second: Reason without Faith: Modern philosophy, from Descartes to Hegel.

Clark’s summation: “The rationalism of the seventeenth century, British empiricism, the critical philosophy of Kant, and now Hegelianism have all tried and have all failed to justify knowledge. Reason apart from revelation has come to grief. The only remaining possibility of escaping revelation now is to abandon reason. It is a bitter pill for man to swallow, but some men would rather wallow in abysmal ignorance than accept information by the grace of God” (p. 68).

Third: Faith without Reason: Irrationalism, mysticism, neo-orthodoxy.

Clark’s conclusion: “This type of philosophy is self-contradictory, self-destructive, and intellectually stultifying” (p. 87).

He thus proceeds: “Therefore I wish to suggest that we neither abandon reason nor use it unaided; but on pain of skepticism acknowledge a verbal propositional revelation of fixed truth from God. Only by accepting rationally comprehensible information on God’s authority can we hope to have a sound philosophy and a true religion” (p. 87).

Fourth: Reason and Faith: Confessional, Reformed Christianity

Clark begins by noting that, contrary to various rationalistic views, reason and faith “are not antithetical but harmonious,” but that this harmony is not of the “Thomistic variety” (p. 87). He adds that, contrary to irrational views, faith has “an intellectual content” (p. 87).

For historical background, Clark begins with fundamentalism, which, he says, “cannot be entirely condemned nor entirely commended” from a Westminster perspective (p. 88). “Fundamentalism’s firm attachment to a few doctrines saves it from the excesses of irrationalism, but at the same time the fundamentalists can hardly be said to embrace a wholehearted intellectualism” (pp. 88-89).

Clark rejects the attempt to drive a wedge between reason and faith:

“Thus the common modern contrast between the head and the heart is evidently unscriptural” (p. 94).

Regarding the assertion that faith is more than intellectual “assent,” Clark adds: “Just because one intellectual act, the understanding of what words mean, is less than faith, it does not follow that faith or belief is not intellectual” (p. 99).

And later: “Faith is something internal, mental, intellectual” (p. 100).

This leads Clark to assert, “that faith in God is impossible without a creed” (p. 101).

According to Clark, “the main current of Christianity has always been intellectualistic” and “there has always been recognition of the primacy of the intellect” (p. 103).

There is no conflict between reason and faith. “The futility of rationalism and the insanity of irrationalism are to be avoided” (p. 110).

Chapter Three: Inspiration and Language (pp. 111-150):

This chapter asks: Is language a “fit instrument for revelation”? Can divine revelation offer solutions to the problems of language? (p. 111).

Clark discusses the orthodox view of the inspiration of Scripture but distinguishes this from a mechanical “dictation” view (pp. 115 ff.). He confides, “it has been my experience that liberal theologians misunderstand, misrepresent, and even misquote the orthodox authors” (p. 117).

After surveying modern linguistic theories that challenge whether language can be a proper vehicle for revelation, Clark advocates “theistic linguistics,” which assumes “that God Omnipotent has created rational beings, beings who are not merely physical but who are essentially spiritual and intellectual, beings therefore who have the innate ability to think and speak” (p. 134).

This view stands, in particular, against logical positivism which says “that religion and metaphysics is nonsense,” making this philosophy “an enemy of all religion” (p. 146).

Clark concludes, “One cannot write a book or speak a sentence that means anything without using the law of contradiction. Logic is an innate necessity, not an arbitrary convention that may be discarded at will” (pp. 149-150).

Chapter Four: Revelation and Morality (pp. 151-193):

For the Christian, morality is “grounded on Biblical revelation” (p. 151).

Clark examines two humanistic attempts which reject revelation but try to find a logical ground for morality: Utilitarianism and Instrumentalism (Dewey). Unsurprisingly, he finds both wanting.

In contrast to these, Clark presents Christina ethics, based on the sense of the Bible as “determined by the Westminster Confession” (p. 183). The Bible presents God as “the moral governor and judge of the world” (p. 183).

Clark concludes; “Neither Utilitarianism, nor Kant, nor Dewey can anticipate God’s standard of rectitude” (p. 193).

Chapter Five: God and Evil (pp. 194-241):

The final chapter looks at the problem of evil, concluding that only “the system known as Calvinism and expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith offers a satisfactory and completely logical answer” (p. 194).

Clark rejects the “free will” defense to the problem of evil, concluding: “Certainly, if the Bible is the word of God, free will is false; for the Bible consistently denies free will” (p. 206).

The only satisfying answer come in Reformation theology, as expressed in the Westminster Confession, “the high water mark of Protestantism.” He adds, “Though some circumscribed souls may be astonished, this is what Christianity is” (p. 213).

Clark looks, in particular, at chapter 3 of the WCF “Of God’s Eternal Decree.” God has willed all things that come to pass. Does Calvinism introduce “self-contradiction into the will of God”? (p. 221).  God says, “Thou shalt not kill.” Still murders take place in the world. No, says Clark, we must distinguish between the preceptive and decretive will of God. “God’s decretive will, as contrasted with his percepts, causes every event” (p. 222). “If Arminians had a keener sense of logic –they would not be Arminians!” (p. 222).

Does Calvinism make men puppets? No, says Clark. Calvinism denies free will, not that men have wills. “Calvinism most assuredly holds that Judas acted voluntarily. He chose to betray Christ. He did so willingly” (p. 227). “A choice is still a deliberate volition even if it could not have been different” (p. 228).

Does this make God unjust? Clark answers: “But those who hold to the sovereignty of God determine what justice is by observing what God actually does. Whatever God does is just” (p. 233).

Is God the cause of sin? Clark responds:

Let is be unequivocally said that this view certainly makes God the cause of sin. God is the sole ultimate cause of everything. There is absolutely nothing independent of him. He alone is the eternal being. He alone is omnipotent. He alone is sovereign. Not only is Satan his creature, but every detail of history was eternally in his plan before the world began; and he willed that it should all come to pass…. (p. 238).

Does to say that God is the “cause of sin” mean he is also “the author of sin”? Clark draws on the WCF distinction between “first and secondary causation” (p. 239). God is the ultimate cause of everything, including sin, but he is not the “author” (immediate cause) of sin.

“God is neither responsible nor sinful, even though he is the ultimate cause of everything” (p. 239).

“As God cannot sin, so … God is not responsible for sin, even though he decrees it” (p. 240).

“The sinner therefore, and not God, is responsible; the sinner alone is the author of sin. Man has no free will, for salvation is purely of grace; and God is sovereign” (p. 241).


JTR