Friday, February 28, 2014

John Owen on How Churches Support One Another In Prayer

 While expositing Ephesians 6:18-24 at the Lynchburg RB Mission last Sunday evening, I was reflecting on Paul's call to the Ephesians that prayer be offered for "for all saints" and for his own apostolic ministry: 

Ephesians 6:18 Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints; 19 And for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel,

I made mention of a quote from a section in John Owen’s The True Nature of a Gospel Church and Its Government in which he describes the comfort and fellowship which all churches and all Christian have through prayer.  I thought I had previously posted this but looks like I hadn’t.  Here is the Owen’s quotation taken from Gospel Church Government, my 2012 abridgement and simplification of Owen’s original work (emphasis added):

The fellowship of churches in faith consists much in the principal fruit of that faith, namely, prayer.  So, in Ephesians 2:18, it says, “For through Christ we have access by one Spirit unto the Father.”  Paul continues the emphasis on prayer in vv. 19-22.  Prayers in all churches have one object.  They are directed to God, even the Father, that is, God as Father.  They proceed from one and the same Spirit.  A Spirit of grace and supplication is given to them to make intercession for them.  All is continually offered to God by the same High Priest.  He adds to it the incense of his own intercession.  By him they have all access to the same throne of grace.  They have a blessed fellowship in prayer continually.  This fellowship is more evident in that the prayers of all are for all.  There is not a single particular church or a single member of any of them that does not have the prayer support of all the churches in the world and all the members of them every day.  Though this fellowship is invisible to the eyes of flesh, it is glorious to the eye of faith.  It is a part of the glory of Christ the mediator in heaven.  This fellowship in prayer gives to all churches a communion far more glorious than any outward rite or plan of men’s devising.  If there are any persons or churches who pray to anyone other than God the Father, or who rely on any mediator other than Christ alone, or who renounce the aid of the Holy Spirit, they cut themselves off from fellowship with the universal church (pp. 100-101).          


Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Vision (2.27.14): Avoiding False Persuasion

Note:  Here are the notes from the conclusion to last Sunday’s sermon on Galatians 5:7-12:

“This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you” (Galatians 5:8).

Did the Judaizers who infiltrated the Galatian churches really believe that circumcision would save you (cf. Acts 15:1)?  Didn’t they believe in Jesus? Didn’t they just want to be zealous in keeping God’s law as they understood it?  Yes, there might have been something good about their zeal for obedience, but on the whole it was wrong.  They mixed truth with error, and so made the whole of their belief structure wrong.  They thought they had it right, but they were wrong. All false religions and all false cults believe with great sincerity and most often with great fervor that they hold the truth.  But this does not mean they are right.

Under the influence of the Judaizers, the Galatians had adopted a false persuasion.  It did not come from God.

Now, as I noted last week, the problem in the modern church is no longer circumcision.  But we still do battle with works righteousness.  This may take many forms.  Our “circumcision” is anything we think we must add to the cross work of Christ to really be saved.

Conservative Christians are particularly prone to get into these types of traps.  How do we shake ourselves loose from false persuasions?

1.  We should practice discernment, making use of all the resources God has given to us.  These resources include first and foremost Scripture, along with meditation, prayer, and the church (especially her elders and teachers, including the written works of godly men of the past and confessions of faith).  Consider the words of the apostle John:

1 John 4:1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

2.  We should take time.  We should not make hasty decisions.  There are few decisions in life that cannot be helped by taking adequate time to make them.  There is a logical fallacy called “the fallacy of exigency” which says you’ve got to hurry up and make a decision because time is running out.  Politicians and lawyers use this fallacy to bring about decisions before folk have time to think through all the ramifications of their actions.  Consider, however, the wisdom of Solomon:

Ecclesiastes 5:2 Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.

3.  We should strive to be stable and consistent, rather than erratic and inconsistent.  We should not be like a Christian butterfly flittering and fluttering from one conviction or practice to another and never settling anywhere for long. We are not to be double minded, as James said:

James 1:8 A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.

As Paul puts it in Romans 14:5 when addressing disputable practices: “Let every man be persuaded in his own mind.”

Friends, let us avoid the pitfalls of false persuasions that the Galatians fell into.  Most importantly, let us look to Christ and to him alone for our salvation.
Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Vision (2.20.14): Stand fast in liberty

Note:  We returned to our Galatians series last Sunday, as I preached on Galatians 5:1-6.  Galatians has been called the “Magna Carta” of Christian liberty.  Here are some of my notes from the exposition of Galatians 5:1:

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).

Notice first that Paul is offering an exhortation to stand fast.  The Galatians have already proven that they were capable of slippage (cf. Gal 1:6:  “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ, unto another gospel”).  Now, he exhorts them to hold their ground.  He wants them to be spiritually rooted and grounded.  Grounded in what?  In liberty (eleutheria:  freedom).  We need to be careful here, because our democratic, egalitarian culture can cause us to misunderstand Paul’s sense. 

Paul was not speaking here about political liberty.

He was not talking about psychological or emotional liberty.

He was not talking about libertinism or spiritual anarchy—nobody can tell me what I ought to think or believe.

He was talking about the ultimate spiritual liberty that comes through the gospel of the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.  This is what he means when he speaks of this liberty “wherewith Christ has made us free.”  What is the emphasis upon?  It is upon the work of Christ.  He is the Liberator.

The language here is that of the slave-market (cf.  1 Corinthians 7:21:  “Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free [eleutheros], use it rather.”).  Christ has ransomed you who used to be slaves to sin and who were also slaves to the burden of works righteousness.

So, Paul exhorts the Galatians to stand fast in liberty, “and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage [douleia]” (v. 1).  Notice the continuation of the slavery metaphor.  You have been liberated.  Why would you go back to bondage?

There is a popular film based on the Solomon Northup book Twelve Years a Slave.  It is about a free black man who was illegally sold into slavery where he suffered for 12 years till he escaped and won again his freedom.  How would it be in the book or film if after gaining back his freedom this man had given up his liberty and returned to his suffering enslavement?  That would be nonsensical would it not?  But this is what Paul is saying that the Galatians had done by abandoning the gospel and going back to the beggarly “Christ plus” religion.  Paul is wanting to make them come to their senses.  To think clearly and soberly.  To stand fast in liberty.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Augustine's Table and Gossip

In Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo he notes that the great African bishop had the following poetic verses written on his table “warning against the common plague of gossip” (p. 200):

            Whoever thinks that he is able,

            To nibble at the life of absent friends,

            Must know that he’s unworthy of this table,

The original Latin version of the inscription is recorded in Caxton’s translation of The Golden Legend:

Quisquis amat dictis absentum rodere vitam,
Hanc mensam indignam noverit esse sibi.

Brown also shares an anecdote from an early biographer:  “….Once when some intimate friends of his, fellow bishops, were forgetful enough of his verses as to gossip, he upbraided them so sternly that he lost his temper, and said that either they should rub these verses off the table, or that he would get up and go to his room in the middle of the meal” (p. 200).


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Augustine on Sanctification

I've been reading Peter Brown's classic biography Augustine of Hippo (University of California Press, 1967) and was struck by his description of how Augustine's views on sanctification matured in the early years following his Christian conversion, including how his Platonism was tempered by his encounter with the Bible (especially Paul).  Brown offers this quotation from Augustine:
"Whoever thinks that in this mortal life a man may so disperse the mists of bodily and carnal imaginings as to possess the unclouded light of changeless truth, and to cleave to it with the unswerving constancy of a spirit wholly estranged from the common ways of life--he understands neither What he seeks, nor who he is who seeks it" (de cons. evang. IV, x, 20; as cited in Brown, p. 147).
This quote reminded me of the "Augustinian" views of Thomas Vincent rejecting "perfectionism" (see here).

Friday, February 14, 2014

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Vision (2.13.14): Three Purposes for the Parable of the Pounds (Luke 19:11-27)

Note:  Last Sunday I preached on the Parable of the Pounds (Minas) from Luke 19:11-27.  Here are my notes from the sermon’s conclusion in which I drew three applications or purposes for the parable:

“And as they heard these things, he added and spake a parable, because he was nigh to Jerusalem, and because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear” (Luke 19:11).

1.  Jesus clarifies for his disciples the timing and the nature of the kingdom that he is bringing about.

Timing:  Jesus was teaching that his kingdom would not come immediately.  Jesus still resists those who try to set up timetables and predictions of his coming.  As Jesus told his disciples, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power” (Acts 1:7).

As Peter said to the scoffers of his day, the Lord is not “slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Nature:  And he was teaching that his kingdom was not going to be built by seizing the crown from Caesar but by going to the cross.  He was teaching that the kingdom would be built heart by heart, life by life till the time when Christ comes in glory (cf. Luke 17:20).

2.  Jesus teaches us of the vital importance of being faithful and fruitful disciples in this age.

We are the douloi (servants) of this parable.  God has given equally to us the gift of salvation (even as he gave to each servant in the parable ten pounds).  He has given equal duties of being faithful and wise in the stewardship of our lives.

Some will be able to be highly fruitful and others less but still significantly so.  This parable is given to motivate us not to be like the unprofitable third servant of the parable.  We are not to presume ill of the character of God and be so paralyzed with fear or intimidation that we never “traffic” with the good deposit that has been given to us.

So, we can ask the basic questions:

How am I using my life for Christ?  My vocation?  My family?  My time?

I saw a news item the other day which noted more people read Facebook than read the Bible.  What has captured more of my interest?  Christ or the world?

This parable tells us that for believers there will be a time of reckoning.  Now, this is a parable, and so it should not be interpreted rigidly.  I think we are being motivated by warning.  The third servant does not have his salvation taken away, but he is called a “wicked servant” (v. 22).  He is not given the reward of greater responsibility.

There is an ongoing debate about “rewards” in heaven.  I am not sure what this parable contributes to that discussion. In this parable, men who were faithful with relatively small investments (the pound) and who give astounding returns (though still relatively modest in amount) are given responsibilities out of all proportion to their faithfulness.  They are given to rule over 10 or 5 cities!  Compare this with teaching elsewhere in the NT:

Luke 22:29 And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me; 30 That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

1 Corinthians 6:2 Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? 3 Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?

Will there be spiritual responsibilities given in the kingdom to believers based on their faithfulness and fruitfulness in stewardship here on earth?

And what of the opposite?  Will there be shame for saints who were not faithful and fruitful?   Jude speaks of those who are saved “with fear, pulling them out of the fire” (v. 23).

I do not know the answer to the question of “rewards.”  Personally, I do not know how there could possibly be degrees of joy in heaven or what more could be added to being with Christ.  I also do not think it is wise to wander into vain speculation on this topic.

What we are to get from this parable is simply the motivation to be a faithful servant who will hear the praise of his master and not a wicked servant who will hear the disappointment of his master when the kingdom comes.

3.  Jesus warns about the consequences that will result for those who reject his Lordship.

This is the most unpleasant part of this parable.  It is the description of the fate of those citizens (politai) who hate the king and who declare that they will not have this man to reign over them (v. 14).  The end for them when the king returns will be a quick and certain death (v. 27).

So will be the end for those who persist in their hatred and rejection of Christ.  Unlike the parable, however, it will not be merely a physical death but the second death, a spiritual death.

The Scottish preacher Robert Murray M’Cheyne said that when we preach on hell we should only do so through tears.  I think Jesus told this parable with watery eyes.  It is told not to revel in punishment but that it might be the means of awakening the spiritually dead.

Consider the words of the prophet Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 33:11 Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?

May the Lord find us to be faithful and fruitful servants.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

CRBC Scripture Memory Verses for 2014

At CRBC this year we are working together on a monthly Scripture Memory verse which we recite congregationally each Sunday morning before our worship service.  Here is the list of our monthly verses.
I have also compiled a list of 100 basic memory verses for individual study in 2014. 

Digital Edition of the Loeb Classical Library coming in late 2014

Fans of the iconic green (Greek) and red (Latin) covered bi-lingual volumes in the Loeb Classical Library from Harvard University Press will be interested to hear that there are plans to offer a digitized version of the complete collection by late 2014.  There were stirs a few years ago when the modern editors began issuing new editions which removed "the last bastion of Anglo-American restraint" and offered literal renderings of the "blue" and risqué original content (see here and here; warning:  mature content), as well as updating the epic King James-ian language of some editions.

As one of the executive editors says in the video below, the digital edition represents another "technological upgrade" in the transmission of the texts (oral to written; scroll to codex; manuscript to printed page).  Indeed, it is hard to prophesy what the brave new world of the digital revolution will mean for the preservation of printed texts (most importantly, for the transmission of the Bible; see my review of D. C. Parker's Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament here [pp. 81-84]).  Anyhow, the digital edition of the Loeb Classical Library will be quite a resource.  I wonder what it will cost, given that the complete collection of the printed edition can now be had for $10,140 (and that at a 25% discount, according to the 2013 catalogue!).

Thursday, February 06, 2014

The Vision (2.6.14): The Bible does not teach "perfectionism"

Note:  Last Sunday afternoon, I preached on Question # 65 in the Spurgeon Baptist Catechism series, “Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?”  Once again, I leaned heavily on the Puritan Thomas Vincent’s exposition of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  The catechism clearly rejects any notion of “Christian perfectionism,” all the while urging “evangelical” obedience to the commandments of God.  As Vincent puts it:  “The saints on earth do keep the commandments of God sincerely, but not perfectly.” The section below is drawn from Vincent’s proof that no mere man [the Lord Jesus was no mere man] has been ever been able to keep God’s commandments absolutely:

How do we prove that no saint ever attained perfection in this life?

1.  Because the best of saints, in this life, are renewed but in part, and have remainders of flesh and corruption, which do rebel and war against the Spirit and renewed part in them.  Consider:

Galatians 5:17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.

2.  Because the Scriptures tell us expressly that none are without sin; and that such are deceivers of themselves, and make God a liar, that affirms the contrary.  Consider:

Ecclesiastes 7:20 For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.

 James 3:2 For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.

1 John 1:8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

The point here is that the Bible does not teach what is called “perfectionism.”

3.  Because the Scriptures hath recorded the sins of the most holy persons that have ever lived.

Noah became drunk.

Abraham and Isaac dissimulated by saying that their wives were their sisters.

Lot committed incest.

Jacob deceived his father to take the blessing from his brother Esau.

Joseph swore by the life of Pharaoh (Gen 42:15).

Moses spoke unadvisedly (Psalm 106:33).

David committed adultery and murder.

Job and Jeremiah were impatient.

Peter three times denied and cursed Jesus.

Paul and Barnabas quarreled (Acts 15).

Vincent concludes:  “And if such persons as these, who were filled with the Holy Ghost, and had as great a measure of grace as any whom we read of, either in the Scriptures, or any history, were not perfect, without sin, we may safely conclude that no saints, in this life, have ever attained unto absolute perfection.”

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

When is a church a cult?

In the review article I did on the Go Stand Speak video and the street preaching movement in the last RBT, I made reference to one of the featured speakers in the video and controversy over The Church at Wells, Texas.  Texas Monthly magazine did an extended feature article in its February 2014 issue on this church, asking “When is a church a cult?”  A message board has also been set up with various locals, family members, and others weighing in (sometimes unhelpfully) on the situation.

It is a fascinating religio-sociological study.

The members of the Church of Wells are generally well educated young adults (the core leaders met at Baylor University) who come from middle class to upper middle class backgrounds, and who mostly grew up in mainstream evangelical churches.  This reminded me of Rodney Stark’s study of early Christianity in The Rise of Early Christianity and his observation that most new religious movements do not begin among the poor and under-educated but among the more privileged and well-educated.

The leaders became heavily involved in the street preaching movement and their theology has been influenced by soteriological Calvinism and their reading of Spurgeon and the Puritans, as well as revivalistic preachers like Leonard Ravenhill and Rolphe Barnard.  Where the group appears to have run into trouble is with its communal living and communal ownership of businesses, intense conflict with family and friends of members, isolation, and confrontations with local residents in the community.

 Theologically, the church’s practices appear to raise questions in the following areas:

·        It seems to stress the requirement of some kind of heightened spiritual experience to prove that one has been converted (salvation is not something given until diligently sought).  R. Scott Clark would call this QIRE (the quest for an illegitimate religious experience).  I have heard Paul Washer, who has had a significant influence on these young folk and others like them, for example, stress this sort of thing.

·        Related to its views on regeneration, it seems the church does not hold to the classical Reformed understanding of the perseverance of the saints.  Part of this comes as a reaction against easy-believism evangelism, false assurance, and “carnal Christianity,” typical of the mainstream evangelicalism in which they were raised and now vehemently attacked by the street preacher movement (e.g., the sermons of Paul Washer) by which they have been influenced.

·        Also related to the above, the church seems to stress a distinct view of sanctification that may tend toward perfectionism.  It has, at the least, led toward a self-righteous and judgmental demeanor.

·         It also seems to hold to a non-cessationist viewpoint with regard to spiritual gifts.  Members prayed for a newborn child who died to be “resurrected” (this is the term I’ve seen in the discussion; by this I’m sure they mean “resuscitated”) rather than seeking immediate medical help.  Other anecdotal accounts include references to claiming direct divine communication via internal premonitions and “signs.”

·        The church’s worship meetings are apparently closed to members (and their children) only.  How does this fit with 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 where the “unlearned” and “unbelievers” were included in the church’s meetings?

·        The rightful stress on obedience to Christ over obedience to all other human relationships, including that of families, must be weighed against the equally strong scriptural stream that stresses honor for parents and care for family members (cf. Matt 10:34-39; Exod 20:12; 1 Tim 5:8).  This weighing appears largely to be lacking.

·        The “elders” are three very young (though obviously very earnest and intelligent) men, all under age 30.  One wag labeled it “the church of the hot boys.”  It seems like things have spun out of control in their efforts to create an ideal Christian community.

·        It seems that all opposition has been interpreted as persecution.  I also find this to be typical of the street preaching mentality.  I recently read one “in your face” street preaching advocate refer to it as “riot evangelism.”  Whatever happened, however, to Paul’s admonition to believers to aspire to live quiet and uncontroversial lives (1 Thess 4:11)?   

I know these are sensitive issues, and I am not crazy about discussing a local church’s internal life, but the issues surrounding this church have now become public.  The charge of being a cult is, granted, hard to nail down and, if inaccurate, harmful and wrong.  I once had a man accuse my Reformed views on church eldership, the preservation of Scripture, and the abiding validity of the fourth commandment as being “cultic.”  Like most pastors, in the course of my ministry, I have sometimes been accused of being overbearing and controlling when I have had to confront or address difficult issues.  I am sure many would see any conservative church as being a cult.  Where, however, is the line between being a faithful and disciplined church and being a “cult”?

There are some things that conservative, Reformed churches can learn from Wells.  One, I think, is the value of holding a historic, Reformed confession, as a safeguard against novel beliefs and practices.  Another is the danger of “revivalistic” and experience-driven religion, as opposed to simple reliance on the ordinary means of grace.  A third is the importance of ecclesiological accountability.  How might much of this have been addressed if this church were connected to others that might have privately called a council to examine and confront errors and ill behavior on many sides?