Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Seasonal Pastoral Reflections: On Reformers, Sabbath, and Solemn Days

Seasonal pastoral reflections:

I have a lingering concern over whether or not it is appropriate for Biblical Christians to observe "solemn days" and hold meetings for public worship outside the regular Lord’s Day observances. For example, can we worship on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, taking advantage of the cultural celebration of Christmas to preach the gospel [this is our current practice at JPBC]? What should we do with Easter? At least it falls on Sunday, and we should be preaching the gospel of the cross and resurrection every Lord’s Day. But what about a special Sunrise Service? Is this Biblically appropriate? Of course, there is also the basic ongoing issue of conscience as to how properly we should view and observe the Lord’s Day.

In his exposition of the Ten Commandments in the Institutes (see Book II, Chapter VIII; all quotes are from Ford Lewis Battles translation, vol. I), Calvin offers his own perspective on the fourth commandment (remembering the Sabbath Day to keep it holy). First, Calvin does not appear to hold to the strict "Christian Sabbath" view of the later Puritans as reflected both in the Westminster Confession and the London Baptist Confession.

For Calvin, Christ himself is "the true fulfillment of the Sabbath" (p. 397) and the Jewish Sabbath has been "abrogated." Given this fact, "Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days" (p. 397).

He admonishes those who "surpass the Jews three times over in crass and carnal Sabbatarian superstition" (p. 400).

The primary purpose for the establishment of the Lord’s Day, according to Calvin, was to provide order and peace for the church, allowing it a settled, stated time to hear the Word and partake of the Lord's Supper and an occasion for servants and workmen to rest from their labors.

What about church meetings on days other than the Lord’s Day? Calvin says this: "I shall not condemn churches that have other solemn days for their meetings, provided there be no superstition. This will be so if they have regard solely to the maintenance of discipline and good order" (p. 400).

Calvin’s views appear to be in harmony with those of Bullinger as reflected in The Second Helvetic Confession (1566; see Chapter XXIV Of Holidays, Fasts, and Choice of Meats; references are from John H. Leith, Ed., Creeds of the Christians Church). Regarding the Lord’s Day, the confession states:

"Yet herein we give no place unto Jewish observation of the day, or to any superstitions. For we do not account one day to be holier than another, nor think that mere rest is of itself acceptable to God. Besides, we do celebrate and keep the Lord’s Day, and not the Jewish Sabbath, and that with a free observation" (p. 180).

As regards "Festivals of Christ and the Saints," the confession notes:

"Moreover, if the churches do religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s Nativity, Circumcision, Passion, Resurrection, and of his Ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, according to Christian liberty, we do very well approve of it. But as for festival days, ordained for men and saints departed, we cannot allow them" (p. 180).

Bullinger, it seems, had no problem with a gospel church celebrating Christmas, Easter, or, even Pentecost, as long as it did not get hung up in superstition or focus on the "saints" rather than God.

Was Bullinger still clinging to Roman Catholic traditions? Is the fullest and most mature expression of the Reformation (Biblical) trajectory reflected in the Puritans or did they transgress into reductionism and spiritual minimalism?


A 600 Year Old Christmas Letter

Note: The following article was posted on the blog of Tom Ascol, Executive Director of the Founders Ministry (founders.org), in December 2006:
John Huss (Jan Hus) was a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation. He was a Czech university professor whose extensive writings earned him the ire of the Roman Catholic Church. He was excommunicated, condemned and executed for his teachings against the papacy and Roman Catholic errors. On July 6, 1415 he was burned at the stake while singing, "Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me." His ashes were scattered in the Rhine River.Two years before his death, Hus wrote the following Christmas letter to his church in Prague while he was under the ban from the Roman Church. Many of its expressions reflect the desires of my own heart for my family, church and friends.Have a blessed Christmas!


To the Praguers
25 December 1413
Dearly Beloved!

Albeit I am now separated from you so far that it perhaps is not fitting that I preach much to you; nevertheless, the love that I have for you urges me that I say at least a few brief words to your love.

Lo! dearly beloved; as it were an angel today said to the shepherds: "I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people." And suddenly a multitude of angels cried aloud, saying: "Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men."

Rejoice that today the infinitely Great is born a child, that there may be glory to God in the highest.

Rejoice, because today is born the Reconciler, in order to reconcile man with God and angel, that there may be glory to God in the highest.

Rejoice, because today One was born to cleanse sinners from their sin, to deliver them from the power of the Devil, and to save them from eternal perdition, and bring them into eternal joy, that there may be glory to God in the highest.

Rejoice with a great joy that today a King is born to us, to dispense the fullness of the heavenly kingdom; a Bishop, to grant eternal benediction; the Father of the future age, in order to keep us as His children with Himself forever.

A loving Brother is born to us, a wise Master, a safe Leader, a just Judge, in order that there may be glory to God in the highest.Rejoice, you wicked, because the God-priest was born, who grants to every penitent absolution from all sins, that there may be glory to God in the highest.

Rejoice, because today the bread of angels, namely, God, became food for men, to refresh the hungry with His glorious body, that they may have peace on earth.Rejoice, that the immortal God is born, so that mortal men may live in eternity.

Rejoice, because the rich Lord of the Universe lies in a manger as poor, that He may enrich us needy ones.Rejoice dearly beloved, that what the prophets prophesied is fulfilled, that there may be glory to God in the highest.

O, dearly beloved, should there be but little rejoicing over these things? Nay, a mighty joy! Because a Redeemer is born to us, to free us from all misery, a Saviour of sinners, a Ruler of all His faithful; there is born a Comforter of the sorrowful, and given us the Son of God, that there be to us great joy, to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will.

May the God born to us this day deign to grant us that good will, peace, along with joy! Amen.


Note: Evangel article 12/25/08.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sermon of the Week: Leonard Ravenhill Interview

Leonard Ravenhill (1907-1994) was an Evangelist and Revivalist who offers a striking critique of evangelical church life in this old "Chapel of the Air" interview. You can really hear Ravenhill's influence on people like Paul Washer. Ravenhill is interesting. Sometimes consistency is lacking. On one hand, he can recommend the reading of Gurnall's The Christian in Complete Armour and Charnock's The Existence and Attributes of God. On the other hand, he seems to approve of the Finney's revivalism.

Ravenhill is also known for his maxims. Here are a few culled from another website:

“A popular evangelist reaches your emotions. A true prophet reaches your conscience.”

“The last words of Jesus to the church (in Revelation) were ‘Repent!’”

“A true shepherd leads the way. He does not merely point the way.”

“You never have to advertise a fire. Everyone comes running when there’s a fire. Likewise, if your church is on fire, you will not have to advertise it. The community will already know it.”

“Your doctrine can be as straight as a gun barrel—and just as empty!”

“John the Baptist never performed any miracles. Yet, he was greater than any of the Old Testament prophets.”

“I doubt that more than two percent of professing Christians in the United States are truly born again.”

“Our God is a consuming fire. He consumes pride, lust, materialism, and other sin.”

“There are only two kinds of persons: those dead in sin and those dead to sin.”

[Concerning the darkness that has enveloped most of Christendom:] “When you’re sitting in a dark room, you can either sit and curse the darkness—or you can light a candle.”

“Children can tell you what Channel 7 says, but not what Matthew 7 says.”

“Some women will spend thirty minutes to an hour preparing for church externally (putting on special clothes and makeup, etc.). What would happen if we all spent the same amount of time preparing internally for church—with prayer and meditation?”

“Maturity comes from obedience, not necessarily from age.”

“What good does it do to speak in tongues on Sunday if you have been using your tongue during the week to curse and gossip?”

“Would we send our daughters off to have sex if it would benefit our country? Yet, we send our sons off to kill when we think it would benefit our country!”

“The only time you can really say that ‘Christ is all I need,’ is when Christ is all you have.”

“The Bible is either absolute, or it’s obsolete.”

“Why do we expect to be better treated in this world than Jesus was?”

“Today’s church wants to be raptured from responsibility.”

“Testimonies are wonderful. But, so often our lives don’t fit our testimonies.”

[Concerning one of the new “movements” in the church that was causing a stir among Christians:] “There’s also a stir when the circus comes to town.”

“My main ambition in life is to be on the Devil’s most wanted list.”

“You can’t develop character by reading books. You develop it from conflict.”

“When there’s something in the Bible that churches don’t like, they call it ‘legalism.’”

“We can’t serve God by proxy.”

“We must do what we can do for God, before He will give us the power to do what we can’t do.”

“There’s a difference between changing your opinion, and changing your lifestyle.”

“Our seminaries today are turning out dead men.”

“How can you pull down strongholds of Satan if you don’t even have the strength to turn off your TV?”

“Everyone recognizes that Stephen was Spirit-filled when he was performing wonders. Yet, he was just as Spirit-filled when he was being stoned to death.”

“If a Christian is not having tribulation in the world, there’s something wrong!”

[Concerning the fixation that today’s church has with numbers, with growth at any price:] “The church has paid a terrible price for statistics!”

“Any method of evangelism will work—if God is in it.” “Church unity comes from corporate humility.”

“You can have all of your doctrines right—yet still not have the presence of God.”

“Many pastors criticize me for taking the Gospel so seriously. But do they really think that on Judgment Day, Christ will chastise me, saying, ‘Leonard, you took Me too seriously’?”

“If Jesus had preached the same message that ministers preach today, He would never have been crucified.”

“You can know a lot about the atonement, and yet receive no benefit from it.”

“If the whole church goes off into deception, that will in no way excuse us for not following Christ.”


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Jewel

"My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand" (John 10:29 AV).

In a chapter on the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints in his book Living for God’s Glory (Reformation Trust, 2008), Joel Beeke writes, "God has never torn up a Christian’s birth certificate" (p. 126).

Beeke goes on to relate a remarkable dream that John Newton, the old sea captain and author of "Amazing Grace," once had:

In his dream, he was in Naples Harbor when a most glorious person came aboard the ship and gave Newton a beautiful jewel. Newton was thrilled. But soon another person came on deck and began to mock Newton, saying the jewel was no good and urging him to throw it away. Eventually Newton came to believe him and flung the jewel into the sea. Immediately, he was filled with horror. "Oh, what have I done?" he cried.

Soon the glorious person came to him again and asked about the jewel. With shame, Newton confessed that he had thrown it away. What would happen? Newton saw the glorious person go over the side of the ship and return with the jewel. As he came back on deck, Newton held out his hand for the jewel, but the glorious one refused, saying: "No. The jewel is yours; it always will be yours; but I will keep it for you." (p. 127).

In the end, what matters is not the hold that we perceive that we have on Christ but the hold that he has on us.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Note: Evangel article for 12/16/08.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Luther: Sin is in us like a beard

I'm reading through Joel Beeke's new book Living for God's Glory (Reformation Trust, 2008).

In his discussion of the doctrine of sin, Beeke quotes Martin Luther (who is frequently depicted with more than his fair share of stubble):

Original sin is in us like a beard. We are shaved today and look clean; tomorrow our beard has grown again, nor does it cease growing while we remain on earth. In like manner original sin cannot be extirpated from us; it springs up in us as long as we live" (p. 54).

What a great metaphor for Luther's contention that the Christian is simul iustus et peccator (at the same time just and a sinner).

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Exposition of Jude: Part 12 of 25

Left photo: A fragment of Jude known as Papyrus 78 dated to the 3rd or 4th century.
Note: This is a series of occasional verse by verse expositions of Jude. An archive of past commentaries may be found below under the label "Jude Exposition."

Jude 1:12 These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. They are clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots;

Jude seems to draw from an endless supply of metaphors to describe the dangers and destitution of the false teachers he is battling. In vv. 12-13 he provides five such metaphors. The first three of these come in v. 12. The false teachers are:

First, "spots in your love feasts." The Greek word for "spot" here is spilas. It might also be translated as "stain." Imagine how the spilling of food on a perfectly clean garment spoils its otherwise pristine appearance. The "love feasts" apparently refers to special meals that the early Christians celebrated alongside their observance of the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Paul accused some in Corinth of unseemly, selfish, and irreverent behavior at such meals (see especially 1 Corinthians 11:20-22). Jude rebukes the false teachers as being "without fear." That is, they do not fear God or consider how he views their actions. Jude says they only "serve themselves." The word for "serve" here is poimaino. It is usually translated as "to shepherd" or "to tend as a pastor." Thus, they are like the shepherds (leaders) of Israel whom Ezekiel accused of being concerned only with feeding themselves and not with care for the flock of God (see Ezekiel 34:2, 8, 10).

Second, "clouds without water." The false teachers are like clouds that block the sun but yield no rain. They prohibit one good and withhold another. This image is also one of instability. They are "carried about by winds." Paul urged the Ephesians not to be "carried away with every wind of doctrine" (Ephesians 4:14) even as James warned against the "double-minded man, unstable in all his ways" (James 1:11). These peddlers of deception have no fixed and stable doctrinal convictions. One day they teach one thing, the next something completely contradictory.

Third, "late autumn trees without fruit." The late autumn is the time for harvest. It is the time for Thanksgiving. But when the harvesters come to these trees they find no fruit. They are barren. Jesus taught that false prophets could be discerned by their fruit (see Matthew 7:15-20). The lack of fruit reveals a lack of life. It is not that these trees are merely dormant. They are "twice dead, pulled up by the roots." They will never produce fruit, because they have no life in them. So too are the false teachers. Unless they repent, they too will be "twice dead," as they experience physical death and after that "the second death" which is God’s judgement for their wickedness (cf. Revelation 20:14).

  • How might Jude’s strong denunciation of false teachers serve as a warning to true Christians?

  • How might one become a "spot" or embarrassing "stain" in the gatherings of the church?

  • Are you ever erratic in your convictions and practices, drifting like an aimless cloud from one position to another? If so, how might you gain stability?

  • What spiritual fruit are you producing that gives evidence that you have real life in Christ?


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Lottie Moon's Legacy

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15).

Each year Southern Baptist churches collect a mission offering during the Christmas season to support the cause of international missions. The tradition began when Albemarle County native Charlotte Diggs "Lottie" Moon, wrote a letter published in the December 1887 issue of the Foreign Missions Journal urging Baptist women in the South to observe a time for prayer and self-denial for missions the week before Christmas. In that famous letter, Moon wrote:

Need it be said why the week before Christmas is chosen? Is not the festive season, when families and friends exchange gifts in memory of The Gift laid on the altar of the world for redemption of the human race, the most appropriate time to consecrate a portion from abounding riches and scant poverty to send forth the good tidings of great joy into all the earth?

She later added:

I wonder how many of us really believe that it is more blessed to given than to receive. A woman who accepts the statement of our Lord Jesus Christ as a fact, and not as "impracticable idealism" will make giving a principle of her life. She will lay aside sacredly not less than one-tenth of her income or her earnings as the Lord’s money, which she would no more dare touch for personal use than she would steal. How many there are among our women, alas, who imagine that because "Jesus paid it all," they need pay nothing, forgetting that the prime object of their salvation was that they should follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ!

After Moon’s death, the annual missions offering was named the "Lottie Moon Christmas Offering" in her memory. We join again this year in supporting this annual offering to further cross-cultural missions among the nations.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Note: Evangel article on December 4, 2008.

Monday, December 01, 2008

I am but one...

Over Thanksgiving I read D. A. Carson's little biography of his father, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson (Crossway, 2008). Carson's father was a missionary church planter in Montreal, Canada who labored through difficult circumstances and saw little visible fruit. Near the end, Carson shares this quote from his Dad's journal that gives some clue to his father's perseverance:
When I was in Sunday School as a boy at Calvary Baptist Church, there was a saying hanging from one of the walls where everyone could see it:
"I am but one, but I am one;
I cannot do everything, but I can do something;
what I can do, I ought to do;
and what I ought to do, God helping me, I will do."
"She has done what she could" (see John 12:1-8; Mark 14:3-9) (p. 143).

Sermon of the Week: David Murray on "Reformation Worship"

We are seeing a resurgence of interest and passion for Calvinistic soteriology in contemporary evangelical life. These views have been popularized in the writings of men like John Piper and in conferences like "Together for the Gospel."
In his sermon "Reformation Worship," David Murray, professor at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, makes the point, however, that true end of the Reformation movement is not merely the embrace of Biblical soteriology but Biblical Worship.