November, 2014

Why We Feast

The Necessity of Feasting

For me Thanksgiving evokes memories of family togetherness, a bountiful spread of food, over-indulgence until one resembles a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, and napping to the Lions or Cowboys playing football. There is much in the way I have always celebrated Thanksgiving, though, which would appear identical with the sin of gluttony. If I had to bet, I would guess that many of you are silently nodding your heads with me. Now, at the risk of sounding like the college freshman who has come home from school for Thanksgiving after becoming all-knowing and all-wise through a semester of Philosophy 101 at university, may I raise a fair question for Christians? Is it right to feast so sumptuously and bountifully? Or is it bad stewardship, greedy, and gluttonous? I hope my question has not squelched all possibility of celebrating and feasting over the Thanksgiving holiday because I believe Scripture gives us good reason to celebrate with a bounteous feast.

I believe the answer to this question rests in an attitude of worship, the practice of hospitality, and the nature of fellowship.

A feast is necessary when it is accompanied with an attitude of worship toward the God who has so generously provided. Do we look at the plenty on our table with gratitude and thankfulness to God? Is our feast in celebration of God’s provision for us? “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor 4:7). “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps 24:1). There is nothing you have that did not come from God’s hand. Is your feast a celebration of the good and generous God who gave? If you feast with an attitude of worship, it is right to be as generous and extravagant as God has been with you.

A feast is necessary when it is accompanied with the practice of hospitality. We are called to be hospitable (Rom 12:13). This means that we practice the biblical commands to care for the widow, the fatherless, and the alien (Deut 10:18, 19; 24:19-22). If we give attention to the poor and disadvantaged we should have no reservations about feasting. Could you do more? Sure, you could always do more to serve the poor, the needy, and the disadvantaged, but we must temper this urge with the wisdom from the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, “Be not overly righteous…” (Eccl 7:16). The intention is that with the plenty God has entrusted to you, are you being generous in giving to those in need? If so, then celebrate God’s goodness of generous care by feasting.

A feast is necessary when it is accompanied with true fellowship. Think about all the times Jesus would share food with his disciples. It is no accident that the visual picture God has given us of Christ, his sacrifice for us, and our fellowship with him is a meal. We celebrate a feast each week when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the bread and the wine. This is a picture of the extravagant meal, the bounteous feast, and the over-whelming indulgence of God’s generous grace. Through Christ we are given a seat at the table of the King. This is same kindness David showed to Mephibosheth (2 Sam 9, this is a great story, go read it!) when he gave the grandson of his enemy a seat at the table. God’s grace is bigger than our need.

The grace we have in Christ is extravagant. It is a prodigal love; a love that is lavish and wasteful. The proverbs speaks of the greed of the grave. “Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied” (Prov 27:20), “The leech has two daughters; ‘Give’ and ‘Give,’ they cry. Three things are never satisfied; four never say, ‘Enough’: Sheol, the barren womb, the land never satisfied with water, and the fire never says, ‘Enough’” (Prov 30:15-16). It paints a picture of the bottomless pit of death. No feast would fill it. It is insatiably hungry like a Middle School boy in a growth spurt. But the generosity of God is demonstrated in that Jesus was in grave for three days just as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish (Matt 12:40). But what happened to Jonah? The great fish vomited him onto the beach. What happened to Jesus? The grave, which can never be satisfied or filled, was over-filled with the fullness of the Son of God and vomited him out (I apologize if I just ruined your appetite). Death was filled to the brim and overflowed with the lavishness, the immensity, the bigness of Christ. Death feasted on Christ until it was destroyed. And that feast which brought death to death brings life to us. And that gives us reason to celebrate with a feast! We have many reasons to be thankful, so we have many reasons for which to feast.

The Doctrine of Scripture – Revelation

The Doctrine of Scripture: Revelation

It was no accident that the Westminster Divines began the Confession of Faith with a chapter on Holy Scripture. This topic is crucial because it affects the whole trajectory of the Christian faith. If you miss the target in understanding the nature, attributes, and authority of God’s Word, then everything that follows will be progressively further and further off base. The doctrine of Scripture is the most pressing issue before the Church today. The three main branches of Christianity in the west are Roman Catholicism, Liberalism, and Evangelicalism. The primary difference between these branches can be traced back to their understanding of revelation, authority, and God’s Word.

Revelation is God’s gracious act of revealing himself to his creation. Apart from God’s revelation we would not know God. All religions have a key component of revelation. Religion is simply the structure of belief and behavior which is built upon that which is made known about the divine. And God’s revelation of himself is a gracious act. The Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck wrote, “No creature can see or understand God as he is and as he speaks in himself. Revelation therefore is always an act of grace; in it God condescends to meet his creature, a creature made in his image. All revelation is anthropomorphic, a kind of humanization of God.”[1]

We speak of revelation in two manners. The first is General Revelation. Religious belief desires a God close enough to interact with him. It is universal that man cries out to God in distress because man innately believes that God will reveal himself. In every religion there are holy places, holy times, and holy images. In all religions one finds that the gods in some way reveal their wills to humans. The Bible affirms this. God makes himself known through his creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Ps. 19:1-2). General Revelation ought to draw man to God, but it does not. The Reformer John Calvin comments, “Knowledge of this sort, then, ought to arouse us to the worship of God but also to awaken and encourage us to the hope of the future life.”[2]

General Revelation is insufficient. Calvin notes, “Nothing is more preposterous than to enjoy the very remarkable gifts that attest the divine nature with us, yet overlook the Author who gives them to us at our asking.”[3] But this is precisely what fallen man has done. “[Men] by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them…. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…and [they] exchanged glory of the immortal God for images…” (Rom 1:18-23). “The Word was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him” (John 1:10). General Revelation does not arouse fallen man to worship. In man’s fallen condition General Revelation only condemns. Man cannot survive on General Revelation.

This is why the other manner of revelation is necessary. The second manner of revelation is Special Revelation. There are several forms of Special Revelation. It may come through theophany; a perceptible divine presence. Or it may come through prophecy or inspiration; the Holy Spirit speaking his thoughts to and through human beings. Scripture is God’s Special Revelation because it is the word which was revealed recorded in written form. And this revelation is special (and not general) because it is given to its recipients specially by God and generally to all through nature.

This Special Revelation reveals more clearly General Revelation. John Calvin called the “word” (i.e. Special Revelation) a set of spectacles through which God and the world is clearly seen.[4] In short, the Word reveals the world. Scripture is not so much something to be interpreted as it is the interpretation of reality.

Special Revelation also reveals God’s plan of salvation. This plan is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is the goal of Scripture to reveal, magnify, and exalt Jesus Christ and through that to lead men to a saving knowledge of him. Herman Bavinck notes, “The purpose of Special Revelation is God’s own Trinitarian glory, his delight in himself. The goal is to re-create humanity after image of God, to establish the kingdom of God on earth, to redeem the world from the power of sin, and thus to glorify the name of the Lord in all his creatures.”[5] Calvin in his 1543 preface to the New Testament summarizes the intent of the Scriptures, “This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father.”[6]

God’s gracious act of revelation reveals God to us. Our deep need and desire to know God is satisfied through revelation. It is most clearly satisfied through Special Revelation. Special Revelation is given for us to have a knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation (WCF 1.1). Apart from God’s Word we cannot be saved.

 

 

[1]    Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Baker Academic, 2008), vol. 1, p. 310.

[2]    Jean Calvin, John T McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 1.5.10.

[3]    Ibid., 1.5.6.

[4]    Ibid., 1.6.1.

[5]    Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1.324.

[6]    Joseph Haroutunian, Calvin: Commentaries (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1958), 70.

The Doctrine of Scripture: General Revelation

The Doctrine of Scripture: General Revelation

It was no accident that the Westminster Divines (the theologians who wrote the Westminster Standards) began the Confession of Faith with a chapter on Holy Scripture. The topic is crucial because if you miss the target there, you have no hope of ever landing on any other topic. If you miss the nature, attributes, and authority of God’s Word then everything else will be off base. The third question of the Short Catechism asks, “What do the Scriptures principally teach?” and answers with, “The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.” Why is the doctrine of scripture so important, because in it we find out who God is and what our lives are all about. That’s a pretty big deal. The doctrine of Scripture is the most pressing issue before the Church today.

But aren’t there other ways beside Scripture where I can learn about God? Can’t one experience God in nature? Can we, like Eric Liddell from Chariots of Fire, “feel His pleasure when I run”? Don’t other religions contain at least some truth? The short answer is “yes,” but it must be qualified. All religions (even atheism) have as a key component the concept of revelation. Revelation is God’s gracious act of revealing himself to his creation. Religion is simply the structure of belief and behavior which is built upon what is known about the divine. So yes, God can be known in a limited sense through what he has created. Other religions, in that the accurately communicate what God has revealed to them in creation, can contain some truth. But “some” is a very key word here.

We speak of revelation in two manners. The first is General Revelation. It is universal that man cries out to God in distress because man innately believes that God will reveal himself. In every religion there are holy places, holy times, and holy images. In all religions one finds that the gods in some way reveal their wills to humans. The Bible affirms this. God makes himself known through creation. General Revelation is that revealing of God through creation in general. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Ps 19:1-2). General Revelation ought to draw man to God, but it does not. The Reformer John Calvin notes, “Knowledge of this sort, then, ought to arouse us to the worship of God but also awaken and encourage us to the hope of the future life.”1

General Revelation is insufficient. Calvin adds, “Nothing is more preposterous than to enjoy the very remarkable gifts that attest the divine nature with us, yet overlook the Author who gives them to us at our asking.”2 But this is precisely what fallen man has done. “[Men] by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be know about God is plain to them…. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…and [they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images…” (Rom 1:18-23). Though God had revealed himself through General Revelation, showing there is a God and His creation, man has suppressed that knowledge and replaced the Creator with the creation. “The Word was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him” (John 1:10). General Revelation does not arouse fallen man to worship the one true God. In man’s fallen condition, General Revelation only condemns. Man cannot survive on it.

This is why the Confession of Faith begins its discussion on the doctrine of Holy Scripture with this note on General Revelation: “Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation” (WCF 1.1).

The Church needs to have clarity on its doctrine of Scripture. It is key to our understanding who God is and what the Christian life is all about. If we fail at this point, we will lose our grip on orthodoxy and slip into heresy. It really is that big of a deal. For our growth in faith we need to understand why God gave us his Word. All of God’s revelation is a gracious act. Herman Bavinck writes, “No creature can see or understand God as he is and as he speaks in himself. Revelation therefore is always an act of grace; in it God condescends to meet his creature, a creature made in his image. All revelation is anthropomorphic, a kind of humanization of God.”3 God’s General Revelation was gracious, that we might know something of him. But it is insufficient to lead us to salvation. But God graciously met our need through the other manner of revelation, Special Revelation.

The Doctrine of Scripture: Special Revelation

The Doctrine of Scripture: Special Revelation

There is much that can be learned about God from General Revelation. As was mentioned last week, all revelation is a gracious act by God in which he condescends and meets his creatures. All our universities and academies excel in the study of General Revelation. From astronomy to molecular physics; it is all a study of what God has graciously revealed to us through his creation. And through this we can see God’s eternal power and divine nature (Rom 1:20), such that no one is without excuse for denying God as the Creator. But in our fallen condition, General Revelation only condemns. It is insufficient to bring man to a knowledge of salvation.

But God is yet more gracious to supply our need. Special Revelation is this other manner of revelation. Special Revelation is “that which God makes known about himself in redemption, preeminently through Jesus Christ, to his peculiar people.”[1] The concept of Special Revelation is broader than that of Scripture. Not all that was specially revealed is contained in Scripture. “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25, cf. 20:30). But all of Scripture is Special Revelation.

Why Scripture? Why did God choose to have his Word written down and for that to be what God has made known about himself in redemption to his peculiar people? Habakkuk 2:14 gives a picture of God’s great end for the world, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” This is a fulfillment of the picture of General Revelation we see in Psalm 19 and Romans 1 but with a deeper and salvific knowledge. This is the consummation of what was begun in creation. God created Adam and Eve as his image-bearers who would “be fruitful and multiply” and “fill the earth.” They would produce more image-bearers and take God’s glory to the ends of the earth. The fall spoiled this initial calling but God renewed it through Abraham, and the completion of this plan would come through the son of David. The word of God, declaring his glory, would go out to all the nations (Is 2:3). Scott Swain summarizes the resulting necessity of Scripture:

The need to put God’s word into writing arises from the unlimited scope of the triune God’s sovereign purpose to manifest his glory through space and time coupled with the mortal limitations of God’s authorized speech agents, his prophets and apostles.[2]

What Swain is saying is that the unlimited scope of the task and the limited lifespan of man necessitates that God’s Word be written down. And this is exactly what God does, first through Moses, then through the prophets, and later the apostles. The inscripturating of God’s Word provides a lasting testimony of God’s Word to the endless generations. What was begun in the Old Testament naturally continued into the New. The necessity for written letters and epistles from the apostles to the church only increased as the church continued to spread throughout the lands. “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4). God continued to communicate his covenantal promises through chosen men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. And their writings were seen on par with that of the Old Testament Scriptures (2 Pet 3:16). The church could have confidence in God’s everlasting covenantal promises because “it is written.”

This Special Revelation is crucial for us. It reveals to us the words, nature, promises, and purposes of the triune God. And the preeminent expression of this word is Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1-4). Herman Bavinck comments, “The purpose of Special Revelation is God’s own Trinitarian glory, his delight in himself. The goal is to re-create humanity after the image of God, to establish the kingdom of God on earth, to redeem the world from the power of sin, and thus to glorify the name of the Lord in all his creatures.”[3] And John Calvin summarizes the intent of the Scriptures, “This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and offered to us from God the Father.”[4]

God’s gracious act of revelation reveals himself to us. Our deep need and desire to know God is satisfied through his gracious revelation to us. Special Revelation is given for us to have a knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation (WCF1.1). The Scriptures are the living voice of God and apart from them we cannot have a saving knowledge of the God.

 

[1]    Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation, 1 edition (London ; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2011), 8.

[2]

[3]    Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Baker Academic, 2008), 1.324.

[4]    Joseph Haroutunian, Calvin: Commentaries (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1958), 70.

The Doctrine of Scripture: The Sufficiency of Scripture

The Doctrine of Scripture: The Sufficiency of Scripture

The current number one Christian bestseller is Sarah Young’s devotional Jesus Calling. It has sold over 5 millions copies. The devotional is a collection of the messages she purports to have received from Jesus. Young writes in the introduction, “I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible, but I yearned for more. Increasingly, I wanted to hear what God had to say to me personally on a given day” (Jesus Calling, xi). The devotional is, in her words, a recording of “whatever I believed He (i.e. Jesus) was saying” (ibid.).

What does Young’s “yearning for more” say about the Bible? And how does this understanding of revelation affect the role of Scripture in the life of the Christian? It seems that she is really asking the question, Does the Bible really or sufficiently address my personal issues? Do the Scriptures provide sufficient answers for my deepest problems/needs? For Young the answer is no. She obviously wants something more. It seems that she believes the Bible is fine but what is really great is when we experience God really speaking to me.

These questions revolve around the issue of the sufficiency of Scripture. Is the Bible sufficient for us or do we need/should we want something more? The apostle Peter in his second letter offers a great answer to the question of the sufficiency of Scripture:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 2 Peter 1:3, 4 (ESV)

As Peter opens his letter, what assurance does he give Christians in their daily lives? Peter assures us that we have been granted “all things which pertain to life and godliness.” Whatever is necessary to live a life honoring to God or to exhibit godliness has been provided to the Church. Do you yearn to experience intimacy with God? He has provided for that. Do you want to know what the Christian life entails? He has provided for that. Do you want to discern God’s will for your life? He has provided for that. Do you want to know what is right and what is wrong? He has provided for that. All things have been sufficiently provided. The answers to your personal issues and deepest needs have been sufficiently answered. All things which pertain to life and godliness have been granted to us.

But how? Peter says it is “through the knowledge of him.” He then explains that this knowledge of God is the same revelation by which God granted us his precious and great promises. As Peter continues this argument through the letter, he shows that he is speaking of the prophetic word from God as recorded in the Scriptures. It is, therefore, the Scriptures which reveal all things that pertain to life and godliness.

Peter then validates this view that the Scriptures alone are sufficient in verses 16-21. Neither the traditions of the church nor the personal experiences of men provide what the Scriptures alone provide. If anyone had the position to make an authoritative declaration about what true, it was Peter. The Roman Catholic church points to Peter as their foundation, claiming the church was built upon him. He was the fountainhead of tradition. But Peter points to something other than his own authority. And if anyone had an experience that validated the Christian life, it was Peter. Peter recounts in 2 Peter 1:16-18 his experience at the Transfiguration. Peter saw Jesus’ glory. He saw Moses and Elijah. He heard the voice of the Father. Who could yearn for more after an experience like that? But Peter points to something other than his own experience. To what does Peter point? He points to God’s Word. “We have something more sure, the prophetic word” (v. 19).

The Scriptures are the more sure word. The apostle Paul echoed Peter’s idea in 2 Timothy. Scripture makes the disciple “competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17). The Church Father Athanasius put it this way, “The sacred and divinely inspired Scriptures are sufficient for the exposition of the truth.” The Scriptures are God’s Word given to us that we might know God and his will for us (WSC 3). The sufficiency of Scripture lets us know that God has already provided all that we need. We do not need to look for something extra. And the Scriptures are relevant to all of life. We need not “yearn for something more” because anything more than Scripture is less than Scripture.

Sarah Young and much of the mystical stream of Christianity attempt to fill in something they find missing in Scripture. But Scripture lacks nothing. To Young’s credit, she states that her revelations of Jesus speaking must be consistent with the standard of Scripture. But the concept of Jesus speaking specially and personally to us apart from Scripture is itself inconsistent with Scripture. So, despite Sarah Young’s great intentions to deepen the spiritual lives of Christians, she does great harm in diminishing the actual role of Scripture in their lives.

The Doctrine of Scripture

The Doctrine of Scripture: Why the Doctrine of Scripture Again?

We just finished up about 8 weeks of Sunday School where we looked that Doctrine of Scripture. I am becoming more and more convinced that this is the preeminent issue of the church today. As I look at all the various debates and controversies in the church today, the common denominator always falls back to one’s view of Scripture. I’d like to share with you a little bit of anecdotal evidence to highlight why this such a pressing issue.

In the last decade the best selling “Christian” book has been Heaven is for Real. This is a book that details the “died and went to heaven but came back” experience of then 4-year old Colton Burpo. It has sold 8 millions copies and was recently turned into a major release motion picture. Many Christians have gushed about how wonderful this book is. They are comforted by this heart-warming story that gives hope in the face of the scary specter of death. What could possibly be the problem with this?

Did this child actually go to heaven, see Jesus, return to earth, and tell his dad all about it? Who am I to say he didn’t? It is his word against mine, and besides, so many people have found comfort in it. Shouldn’t we just be glad that so many people have heard about Jesus? Shouldn’t we just thank God for this amazing experience? These sentiments are all well-meaning, but misguided. The problem of this and the other heaven tourism books is that they paint a picture of heaven and eternity that is based on “experience” and not Scripture.

In the last several year, same-sex marriage has gone from being unthinkable to unstoppable. CEOs of large organizations are forced to resign for opposing same-sex marriage. Bakeries and photographers are sued and taken to court for not wanting to use their creative gifts in celebration of same-sex marriage. The labels “bigot” and “intolerant” are thrown around without even a remote sense of the irony in labeling someone intolerant for believing differently. The argument in favor of same-sex marriage basically comes down to some concept of love. What is this love? It is a pleasing experience. If it feels this good it must be right. Some evangelical Christians have come out in support of same-sex attraction and behavior. How do they justify this in light of Scripture’s clear prohibition on same-sex behavior? Perhaps God’s Word doesn’t really say what we think it does. Besides, God made people this way and if it feels good, so it must be good. Ultimately, it is based on experience and not Scripture.

Another piece of anecdotal evidence is the dismissal of Christians as “anti-science” or “anti-intellectual.” Perhaps this has happened to you:

You’re a Christian? But you don’t really believe in (choose one: Adam and Eve/Creation/the Flood/the parting of the Red Sea/the Virgin Birth/miracles/the Resurrection/Hell/anything supernatural)….do you? How can you believe in the Bible? Believing in the Bible because it says to believe in it is a circular argument. I only believe those things that science has proven to be true.

In the modern Western world, science is often claimed as the only credible epistemological base. But is it? Can we only know what is true by using the scientific method and empiricism? But isn’t the truthfulness of the scientific method and empiricism only determined through the scientific method and empiricism? Science is scientifically proven to be true! Isn’t that a circular argument? The difficulty is that all ultimate claims to authority are circular arguments. If there is something higher upon which to base a claim of authority, that higher authority is more ultimate than what is being advocated. In the modern Western world, what is frequently claimed as that which is good, true, and right is determined by the authority of science, academics, or pragmatism. But these claims to authority basically boil down to experience and reason.

So, even though we spent 8 weeks looking at these topics in Sunday School, I want to address many of those topics in this space over the next several weeks…because we must be clear on this. The mainline liberal churches lost the Gospel by basing truth on reason and experience instead of God’s Word. The broadly evangelical church is losing its grip on orthodoxy because it is far more enamored with reason and experience than the truth of God’s Word. For the benefit of the our church, I hope to lay out the basics of this crucial doctrine and the importance of it. My prayer is that we may be able to avoid the sin of the Israelites in the book of Judges who suffered God’s judgment because “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

Defining the Terms: Glorification

As a child I would go on Saturdays with my grandfather to work on my great-grandfather’s little plot of farmland. He grew corn, tomatoes, beans, and some melons. On those Saturday mornings I was eager to help farm the land…until, that is, I had to actually do some hard work. Unfortunately, the fruit of the land is only obtained through the sweat of one’s brow (Gen 3:19). I often had an adverse reaction to hard work.

Often when presented with the difficulties of life, I’ve wondered, “Why does it have to be so hard?” Perhaps you’ve felt the same way at some point. Why does life have to be so difficult? The awful reality of life is that we live in a broken world. Things are not the way they are supposed to be. But there is hope.

This is the story arc of the Bible. God created all things and declared that they were good. Then sin entered the picture and fouled the whole warp and woof of creation. But there is a promise of One to come; One who will redeem, restore, and recreate all which is broken. That One is Jesus Christ. He has come and defeated the penalty and power of sin. But we still live the presence of sin. Our bodies still break down and die. We still have broken relationships. The ground still requires toil to give up its produce. We are still looking for the way things ought to be. We are still looking for the consummation of the ages. Jesus will come again to consummate that which was begin at his Advent.

This consummation will be the final victory of Jesus Christ over sin. This is the promised picture that stands at the opposite end of Scripture from the curses in Genesis 3. In Revelation 21 we see a new heaven and a new earth. This is when there will be no more crying, no more pain, and no more death. All things will be made new. The Apostle Paul referenced this in 1 Corinthians 15 when he spoke about the death of death. All who are asleep in Christ will be raised in new and glorious bodies. This is the hope we have in Christ. This is what we mean when we talk about “glorification.”

Until Jesus returns to consummate this plan of redemption, we wait. Some, if not all, of us may even die before this day of consummation comes. Our bodies will be laid into the ground. But what happens then? While we still grapple with the presence of sin in this world, our bodies will be separated from our souls. Our souls will be made perfect in holiness and immediately pass into glory. But our bodies, being still united with Christ, will rest in the grave (WSC #37). Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. This earthly body will lie in the ground waiting for Christ’s return. But this is the great news of glorification. We will not remain disembodied spirits for eternity. That is not the hope of eternal life. One day our bodies will rise from the ground as Jesus did on that first Easter morning. And in that resurrection we will be in a body that will no longer taste the bitter pill of death, decay, or disease. Sin will be no more. This surely beats the popular notion of harps and angels’ wings and floating on clouds for all eternity. The new heavens and new earth will not look like a Precious Moments greeting card. We will be raised up in glory and we will be blessed with the full enjoyment of God forever.

Jesus will return to fulfill his promises and complete God’s eternal plan of salvation. The Kingdom of God will come to be on earth as it is in heaven. This is the glorious end toward which all of time is moving. Every nation, tribe and tongue will stand before the throne of the Lamb and worship. There will be no need for sun and moon because the light of Jesus Christ will be sufficient for all illumination. There will be fullness of life. This is the picture of shalom that is pointed to throughout the Scriptures.

But this is all still to come. Today, we wait for this moment. We long with eager anticipation for His coming. All of this is to come. We experience a taste of what the prophets of old experienced as they looked forward for the first advent. We are still looking forward. We know not the time or the day when Jesus will return. Until then we wait. But we wait with hope; even when death strikes at our door. We still grieve and mourn our losses. But we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13). We have hope that God is faithful to keep his promises. We have hope that all which is broken will be restored. We have hope of our future glorification.

This doctrine is meant to give us comfort in those moments when we struggle with the harsh realities of life. Relationships suffer from strife. The labor is hard and unproductive. Our bodies are wracked with aches and pains. When we are beaten down with the question of “Why?” We look forward knowing that because of Christ we have hope of our glorification.

Defining the Terms: Revelation

The term “Revelation” is a key term to our understanding of who God is and who we are. In fact, revelation is crucial to epistemology. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge or more simply; how we know what we know. Revelation is divided into two categories; General and Special.

General Revelation is that which has been revealed by God to all people. All of Scripture begins with this basic idea. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Before there was even time, there was God. And when there was nothing, there was God. All that is not God was created by God. Everything that can be known (i.e. all knowledge) has been revealed by God to people through the work of creation. Psalm 19 gives us a good picture of this, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Ps 19:1,2). From this General Revelation man has studied and discerned the shape and nature of the Universe. He has discovered the laws of nature and the order of life. He seeks to make new discoveries to understand all that is to be understood. All of our knowledge flows from our study of this General Revelation, that is, what God has revealed to all mankind. Going back to Genesis 1:1 we can see there are two main objects of study in General Revelation; God and creation.

General Revelation is wonderful and full of glorious mysteries which must be probed and explored. There is much to be discovered about the beauty, power, and nature of God through General Revelation. But General Revelation will not reveal to us what is necessary for life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3). That is only revealed to us through God’s Special Revelation. This revelation is special because it is not revealed to everybody and it contains the special message of salvation (Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord, 52). Special Revelation is the revealing of God and his creation through the Divine Voice. This Divine Voice is God’s direct nonverbal and verbal actions, the life and words of Jesus Christ, the words and actions of God’s chosen and inspired mouthpieces, and their written record of God’s Word. When God spoke directly to the people it was his special message to them. When Jesus performed miracles and taught the people it was God’s special message to them. When the prophets and apostles said, “Thus says the Lord…” it was God’s special message to the people. When God’s Word was recorded in written form (Scripture) and passed on to the Church it was (and is) God’s special message to the people. This final aspect of Special Revelation, the written record of God’s Word, is all that remains for the Church today. But it is also all that is necessary for us to know God and his special message of salvation through Jesus Christ (John 20:30-31).

Special Revelation is of utmost importance because apart from it we will never accurately understand General Revelation. And with a faulty view of General Revelation our knowledge of all things is suspect. General Revelation can teach us a lot about creation and our Creator. The modern university is place where people explore the myriad aspects of creation. Every discipline of study is an effort to know all that is knowable about a particular topic. But while creation is studied in depth, it is often done apart from the Creator. Man by his unrighteousness has suppressed the plain knowledge of God that has been revealed through General Revelation (cf. Rom. 1:18-23). The result is a knowledge that denies God and exchanges what can be known about him with a lie. God is replaced with an idol. Lusts are inflamed. And the creature is worshiped and served instead of the Creator (Rom 1:24-25).

Special Revelation is key to our understanding of all things. How we know what we know must be built upon a foundation of God’s Word. This is how we know what is true. And we know it is true because God’s Word says it is true. This reasoning is often criticized as being a circular argument. And it is. But arguments that seek to validate an ultimate principle of thought are always circular. If reason is ultimate, then one must appeal to reason to prove it. If experience is ultimate, then one must prove it by experience. If God’s Word is ultimate, then one must appeal to God’s Word. Only God’s Word, though, will not eventually dissolve into meaninglessness and despair (Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God 24-25). If reason, experience, or some other principle is ultimate, then knowledge will always be stymied by the limitations and incoherence of man’s fallen nature. In the trials and difficulties of life those principles will ring hollow and insufficient. This is why it is said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” In our moments of greatest vulnerability we are unable to maintain the suppression of what is true about God. We know what is ultimately true because it is apparent by what has been revealed to us. God’s Word acknowledges these limitations on man’s knowledge and provides both reason and clarity in understanding both God and his creation. If we truly want to know what is knowable then we will rely on God’s revelation.

Defining the Terms: Covenant

The word “Covenant” is used a lot in our church. It is the name of our church. We talk about the covenants in the Bible. We speak of God’s covenantal love for His People. But is this one of those words we use and don’t really know how to define? What is a covenant?

Theologian John Frame defines covenant as “a relation between the Lord and a people whom he has sovereignly consecrated to himself. He rules over them by the sanctions of His law and fulfills in and through them the purposes of his grace” (Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord, 115). The basic premise of the covenant is the promise, “I will be your God and you will be my people” (cf. Gen 12, 17; Ex 6:7; Lev 26:12; Jer 7:23; Eze 36:28; 2 Cor 6:16; Heb 8:10). God is committed to his people and in turn calls his people to trust and obey him.

This pattern of relationship was common in the ancient Near East (ANE, i.e. the provenance of the Old Testament). These treaties between rulers and subjects included some common components and a particular pattern:

  1. The name of greater king
  2. The historical prologue
  3. The law – a delineation of the relationship between ruler and the subjects
  4. Sanctions – Blessings for obedience and Curses for disobedience
  5. Future administration of the covenant.

The Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1-17) follow this pattern and are an example of the covenant into which God has entered with his people. God announces his name in v. 2a. Then he details his gracious history with the people in v. 2b. The law is mixed with the sanctions of blessing for obedience and curses for disobedience. In Exodus there is no section on the administration of the covenant, but there is in the retelling of the Law in Deuteronomy 31-34 (note: Deuteronomy literally means deuto – second nomos – law).

What do we learn from this literary structure and interaction with God? First, we see that God is a personal God. He is the “Lord our God.” We are his and he is ours. In light of this, the second lesson is that law follows grace. We don’t obey to earn a relationship with God. Rather, our relationship flows from God’s gracious initiation. Because of this grace we are compelled to obey. The commands and duty of covenant relationship are expressions of love and gratitude.

Where else, though, do we find covenants in Bible? The first one we see is the beginning. While never using the word “covenant” to describe the relationship between God and Adam, all the elements are present. There is a naming of the king, a historical prologue (Gen 1-2), a law with promises of blessings and curses. While Genesis does not call this a “covenant,” the prophet Hosea looked back to this relationship and used the term “covenant” (Hos 6:7). The Westminster Confession of Faith calls this the “Covenant of Works.” This covenant is important because it explains the state of all men today. Adam transgressed this covenant in his sin and as a result received the curse for disobedience. We, as the children of Adam, are also covenant breakers (Isa 24:5) and thus recipients of that curse (Rom 5:12).

If this were the end of our discussion of covenants it would spell Bad News for all. But this is not the end. There is a second covenant; the Covenant of Grace. We see many different expressions of this one covenant (e.g. Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and New). This covenant is also between God and his people but includes a Mediator, Jesus Christ. It is similar to the Covenant of Works, but is different in this respect: Where Adam failed to be faithful, Christ was completely faithful. Where Adam’s unrighteousness imputed sin and death to us, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us by faith. Where we are condemned by Adam’s (and our own) works, we are saved by Christ’s work. We actually have a works-based righteousness…only it isn’t from our works but by Christ’s! The consistent message of all the iterations of the Covenant of Grace is that we have a Mediator who fulfills all the requirements and bestows the blessings of the covenant onto us as his people.

So, when we use the word “covenant” we are referring to the relationship God has with his people. It is the promise of God to protect and care for his people as his own adopted children. It is the obligation of this people to obey God’s gracious laws. But in the word “covenant” we also acknowledge the reality that we have failed in this relationship. And yet God is gracious still in providing for us a covenant Mediator, Jesus Christ, who fulfills all the obligations on our behalf. As Frame notes, “Christ is the consistent message of all the covenants and, indeed, of the whole Bible” (Frame, 128).

Defining the Terms: Union with Christ

One of my friends was preaching through the book of Ephesians. He told his congregation that if they learned one thing about their study of that book it should be the phrase, “in Christ.” That phrase is one of the foundational aspects of our salvation – our union with Christ.

The doctrine of the our Union with Christ is not often emphasized, but is crucial to our understanding of the nature and benefits of redemption. What do we mean when we talk about Union with Christ? What are the benefits of our Union with Christ? Why does it matter?

In Christ we are chosen, have redemption, forgiveness, and an inheritance. In him we were sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:7-14). On account of God’s justifying grace alone through faith alone because of the atoning death of Christ alone we are united to Christ. The apostle Paul shows the unity of marriage between a man and woman as an analogy of this union. They are no longer their own individuals but they belong one to the other. As the wife is now known by the husband’s name, so we are known by Christ’s name. Their conjugal relations are a physical picture of their union. There is no separation between the two. As with marriage, there is no longer a separation between the believer and Christ. As long as there is a separation between the two all that Christ suffered and did for the salvation of the human race remains of no benefit (Calvin, Institutes, III.i.1). But with that chasm bridged by Christ through faith we are recipients of the blessings of the gospel.

The basic benefit of our Union with Christ is that through Christ we are brought into the blessing of the Trinitarian fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The joy and blessings which are eternally experienced between the members of the Godhead are opened to all believers. Jesus explains this to Philip by noting, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The Holy Spirit also is known because we are united to Christ. After Jesus explains the unity with Father through Christ, he explains how they send the Holy Spirit to indwell the believer (14:23). Union with Christ is the conduit through which we know and enjoy God. Jonathan Edwards comments on this joy found in the Trinity by saying, “God has appeared glorious to me, on account of the Trinity. It has made me have exalting thoughts of God, that he subsists in three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The sweetest joys and delights I have experienced, have not been those that have arisen from a hope of my own good estate; but in a direct view of the glorious things of the gospel” (Edwards, Personal Narrative).

This joy and blessing is meant to give us an understanding of the great privilege of union with him. Union with Christ means fruitfulness. The Gospel of John follows up Jesus’ instruction about our connection to the Triune God with a little horticulture. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:4-5). This simple illustration has a huge impact on our lives. No tragedy overwhelms the triune God. There is no sorrow too deep for God. There is no corner so lonely that God is not present. There is no crisis that is incomprehensible to God. There is no glory that outstrips his glory. No joy higher than his delights. In Christ we are recipients of all the blessings of being in the joyous presence of the fullness of God. And beside these subjective benefits of our Union with Christ, we also receive the objective benefits of justification, adoption, as well as some elements of our sanctification.

So why does this matter? In life we are prone to doubt our calling or salvation. We are prone to struggle with trials. In those times we feel as if God is distant. We long for a connection with him. We are tempted to find some quick fix to help us feel better. Maybe if we pray a special prayer. Read the right book. Have an extra long devotional. Try to help someone in need or share our faith. We are tempted to think these things will fix our malaise. What we need to do is remember our Union with Christ. We need to recall the joy and blessings that are already ours. Jesus in us as the Father is in Christ, that they may become perfectly one (17:23). We cannot get closer to Christ by doing the right things because we are already united to him by faith. This is the Good News that we cannot forget.