October, 2016

499 and Counting

Four hundred ninety-nine years ago, a monk with a mallet changed the course of the world. In 16th century Germany, a common practice in academic settings was to post a series of disputations or theses in a public location to spur intellectual debate. So, Martin Luther with mallet in hand nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the chapel at Wittenberg in order to start a discussion about the efficacy and power of indulgences in the church. They were written in Latin, the academic language. It seems unlikely that Luther was looking start a revolution against the church. In fact, few at the time thought this was the start of a massive movement of reformation. When a copy of the 95 Theses eventually made its way to Pope Leo X, he dismissed them as, “the ramblings of some drunk German monk.” But these 95 Theses tapped into something significant that resonated with the people. They were quickly translated into the vernacular, printed as a pamphlet, and distributed widely. This was a relatively recent phenomenon with the invention of the printing press. And just as we might be amazed at the speed at which an internet meme might go viral, Luther must have been struck by how his disputations went viral (though being not far removed from the bubonic plagues, perhaps going viral might be a bad illustration).

As this movement began to take off, the response from Rome was that the church had never changed and was “always the same.” The Reformers were, in the eyes of Rome, creating a host of doctrines and practices that were heretofore unknown to the church. Luther, however, was not seeking novelty or innovation in his theology. He saw himself as standing firmly in line with the theological teachings of the early Church Fathers. It was not Luther’s theology that was innovative, rather it was the financial, sacramental, and authoritarian structures that had arisen around the church which were innovative. As Burk Parson notes, “Luther did not divide the church – Rome divided the church by infusing the church with false doctrines of men. The Reformers didn’t leave Rome – Rome left them by leaving the truth, the gospel, and the church.” This is what was meant by the idea of a “Reformation.” The desire was not to create something new, but to re-form the existing church. In order to reform, it is necessary for there to be a pre-existing form. That form may be misshapen or de-formed, but there is, nonetheless, a form. Reading the works of the Reformers, this becomes obvious through their constant interaction with and copious quotes from the writings of the Church Fathers. They never sought to create a new church out of vacuum. They only sought to bring the church back to her original form.

The Reformation was a movement that did not want to upset the peace of the church but it saw the necessity for truth to be proclaimed in the church. Sometimes the proclamation of the truth requires that the peace be disturbed. But it should be noted that any peace built upon a falsehood is a false peace. This is what Luther meant when he declared, “Peace if possible, but truth at all costs.” The Reformer John Calvin, in his work “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” noted that everyone agreed there were “diseases both numerous and grievous” in the church. And this is why God raised up Luther to preserve the truth of our religion.

This truth was to be found in the Word of God. Luther’s 95 Theses and then his later leadership of the Reformation stemmed from a deep study of the Scriptures. For the Reformation, the Scriptures were to act as a paint thinner that stripped away layer upon layer of paint to reveal the beauty of the wood beneath. And these same Scriptures are to be foundational to our understanding of God, the Gospel, and the church.

The continuing value of the Reformation is in the phrase semper reformanda, always being reformed. This does not mean that the church is always changing to fit current cultural norms, but that she must always be conforming to the pattern of Scripture in her life and doctrine. The reverberations of Luther’s mallet have endured for 499 years by constantly looking to the Scriptures to reveal the hope of the Gospel in Jesus Christ. It will endure for another 500 if it continues to always be reformed. This must be done in the externals of religion, but more importantly in the internals. Robert Godfrey puts it well, “The part of religion that always needs reforming is the human heart.” May our hearts be reformed to the truth of God’s Word.

Covenant Christmas Concert

Covenant Christmas Concert, 2016

 

 

Industriousness

I have been reading through a bit of sociology that deals with the growing issue of the poor, white, lower-class in America. Due to my background in a lower middle-class family in Tennessee, the modern evangelical desire to “love the city,” and other factors, I have been intrigued with the growing divide in America between the rural poor and the urban elite. Sociologist Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart provides a statistical breakdown of the growing divide over the last five decades between a new upper-class and a new lower class. In Murray’s description of the new lower-class, he details four founding virtues that are vanishing: Marriage, Industriousness, Honesty, and Religiosity.

Murray does not write from a Christian perspective. He is a scientist who is simply evaluating the data as he sees it. The benefits he sees from these virtues seem to be purely pragmatic. But I believe there is a great deal that could (and should) be said about each of these virtues from a Biblical point of view. While I’m not sure any one of these virtues is “more important” than the others, the issue of Industriousness stood out to me as one that many men need to consider.

Murray begins to define “Industriousness” this way:

The founders talked about this virtue constantly, using the eighteenth century construction, industry. To them, industry signified a cluster of qualities that had motivated the Revolution in the first place – a desire not just to be free to speak one’s mind, to practice religion as one saw fit, and to be taxed only with representation, but the bone-deep American assumption that life is to be spent getting ahead through hard work, making a better life for oneself and one’s children.[1]

This virtue is the desire to “get things done.” My grandfather’s advice to me in the garden when I was slacking off with the hoe might summarize it well, “A little hard work never killed anyone, so get to work.”

What Murray chronicles through his research is that in the new lower-class there is a clear decline in this virtue. Since 1960 there are greater numbers of men who are claiming a physical disability that prevents them from working even though manual labor is more mechanized today and medical technology has made huge advances. There has also been an increase in the number of men not in the labor force since 1960. These are not men who cannot find work. These are men who are no longer looking for work. In addition to these trends there has been an increase in leisure time, primarily in television viewing – from 27.7 hours per week in 1985 to 36.7 hours in 2003-5.[2]

The Proverbs describe the one who eschews industriousness as the “sluggard.” “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth” (Prov 26:15). The sluggard is too lazy to even feed himself. But there is much more the Bible has to say about this virtue. More than laziness the fundamental issue in this problem is that of vocation. The agrarian Wendell Berry points to this in his essay What Are People For?,

The great question that hovers over this issue, one that we have dealt with mainly by indifference, is the question of what people are for. Is their greatest dignity in unemployment? Is the obsolescence of human beings now our social goal? One would conclude so from our attitude toward work, especially the manual work necessary to the long-term preservation of the land, and from our rush toward mechanization, automation, and computerization. In a country that puts an absolute premium on labor-saving measures, short workdays, and retirement, why should there be any surprise at permanence of unemployment and welfare dependency? Those are only different names for our national ambitions.[3]

The Westminster Shorter Catechism opens with the answer to this question. “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (WSC #1). How do we do that? By following God’s will for our lives. And an important part of that will is summed up in the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:28. We are to go out into the world and subdue and dominate it and recreate the chaos of the world into an order that reflects the image of God inherent in each of us. By this we glorify God and we enjoy the fruits of the labor he has given us. But all too often, we have accepted a lazy knock-off. Our fascination with entertainment, sports, and media robs us of the real joy of our vocation. Yes, rest is important. But our avocation cannot supplant our vocation. When men do this, they suffer. Their families suffer. Their community suffers. Sadly, the church is not immune to the decline of this virtue. All of us, and men in particular, need to look at the industriousness of their lives. If you are lacking in this virtue, then consider this your wake-up call and hear my grandfather’s words, “A little hard work never killed anyone.”

 

[1] Charles A Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, 2013, 135.

[2] Ibid., 185.

[3] Wendell Berry, What Are People for?: Essays, 2010, 125.

What Makes You Marvel?

The word marvel isn’t used much in regular, day-to-day speech. In my experience, most of the instances of this word are related to comic book characters on the tv or movie screen. But what does it mean to marvel at something? The word comes from a Middle English form of the Latin word mirabilia which means “wonderful things.” To marvel means to become filled with wonderment or to be amazed at something. What makes you marvel?

I have been privileged enough to see some marvelous sights. I’ve been in Red Square while the snow falls at night. I’ve seen the sunset over the peaks of the Alps. I’ve watched the sun rise on a mountain lake in the Rockies. I’ve heard a baby cry after his first breath. I’ve walked through a German Christmas Village while the aroma of sausage and roasted nuts filled the air. I’ve followed a sea turtle through a Caribbean coral reef. All of these have filled me with wonderment and caused me to be amazed. I have marveled at these things.

What makes these things marvelous? They are rare and uncommon to most people. I don’t often experience these wonders of nature. But, when I do, it causes a sense of wonderment to well up within me. This is a good and right reaction. God has created all these things and they are meant to declare his goodness and power. God looked at his creation and declared that it was very good (Gen 1:31). The heavens declare the glory of God (Ps 19:1). God’s invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made (Rom 1:20). Marveling at God’s creation is a good and right response. We can also marvel at God’s providence. When Stephen stood before the High Priest, he recalls that Moses “marveled at the sight” of the burning bush (Acts 7:31 NASB). To see an exhibition of God’s glory in creation or a manifestation of God’s glory, like the burning bush, is reason for us to marvel.

Calvin notes that God cannot marvel because wonderment arises out of what is new and unexpected. But he adds that Jesus could marvel because he had clothed himself with our flesh and with human affections.[1] The tension between Christ’s divine and human natures in the one person is worked out by theologians under the headings of the hypostatic union and the communcatio idiomata. If in his human nature, Jesus could marvel, what made Jesus marvel? The Gospel of Matthew records just such a situation:

When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith (Matt 8:5-10, see also Luke 7:1-9).

Jesus marveled at the centurion because of his faith. It was not because Jesus was unaware or surprised by the centurion’s faith, because Jesus was the one who had given the centurion his faith. Rather, Jesus marveled because this faith was so rare and uncommon. It was an excellent and beautiful faith. As we might marvel at some majestic vista, Jesus marveled at the presence of such beautiful and glorious faith. It is as if Jesus stepped back and just admired the work of God in the life of the centurion. Matthew Henry comments, “Christ spoke of it as wonderful, to teach us what to admire; not worldly pomp and decorations, but the beauty of holiness, and the ornaments which are in the sight of God of great price.”[2]

Seeing Jesus marvel at the faith of this Centurion teaches us to rightly admire and be amazed by the right things. It is not wrong to marvel at the beauty of creation, but it is more proper to marvel at God’s gift of faith in the believer. To see God change a heart of stone into a heart of flesh (Ezek 36:26) and to make the dead alive in Christ (Ezek 37, Eph 2:1-10) ought to make us marvel. Henry continues, “The wonders of grace should affect us more than the wonders of nature or providence, and spiritual attainments more than any achievements in this world”[3] We ought to marvel at the beauty of this world and handiwork that reflects God’s beauty. But we ought to marvel more at the beauty of God’s grace and handiwork of his grace to us in Christ.

[1] John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (vol. 1; Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 382.

[2] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1649.

[3] Ibid.

Your Child’s Bible

God has blessed the Church with the gift of His Word. So that we would know God and His will, it “pleased the Lord…to reveal himself, and to declare his will unto his church; and afterwards…to commit [it] unto writing; which makes the holy scriptures to be most necessary” (WCF 1.1). As Presbyterians we believe that this gift is not only for adults, but it is for the children as well. They are every bit as much members of Christ’s Church, so they are entitled to the blessings and gifts of God. It is normal that parents will pass on the truths of God’s Word to their children because these promises and privileges belong to them. One very practical way for parents to faithfully raise their children is to make sure that their kids have a Bible.

Recently I called a Christian publishing house and asked for sample copies of their children’s Bibles. It was a frustrating process. It wasn’t frustrating because the company was unaccommodating. They were very generous. Rather, it was frustrating because I found all the options for children’s Bible to be unsatisfactory. Perhaps you’ve searched for a children’s Bible and encountered a similar experience. Or perhaps you’ve avoided the process altogether because the sheer number of choices and options is overwhelming. I have yet to find the perfect children’s Bible, but here are some of the features to consider when selecting a children’s Bible.

Bible or Story Books – There are two different types of children’s Bible. Some books described as Bibles are not, in fact, Bibles. They are just story books. They take the stories of the Bible, re-write them in simple language and illustrate them with pictures. This is not a Bible. Don’t call it a Bible. It’s a story book. Story books are fine. There are some excellent ones that will instruct the parents as they read them to their kids. There are also some garbage ones that will literally make you dumber for opening them. Don’t settle for garbage. You should look for a story book that shows your child Jesus and not just a moral lesson. For example, can you distill the story down to a moral lesson of “do better or try harder” or does it begin to reveal the promises of Jesus through all the stories? If it doesn’t reveal Jesus, then it is subtly teaching your child a theology devoid of grace.

Text – Story books are fine, but if you want a Bible, then you need to get a full text Bible. It should be a Bible will all 66 books of the Bible. Don’t give your child just a New Testament. The Old Testament is just as important as the New Testament. I also avoid red-letter editions. The red-letter editions imply that words spoken audibly by Jesus are more significant than the other words of Scripture. But we believe that all the Bible is inspired and breathed out by God. If all the words are God’s words, then they all carry the same weight. Finally, when it comes to translation, I recommend using the translation from which your pastor preaches. There are some translations that advertise as being “easier to read.” They’re not. Your kids are smart. They’ll understand whatever translation you’ll take the time to explain to them. It will actually be more confusing if it is different from what you or your pastor are reading. Also, some children’s Bibles come with study notes. These are fine if they are from a reputable publisher. You certainly don’t want their study notes contradicting what they hear in family worship or in church. The best notes for kids stick to simple facts or “did you know…” trivia.

Images – At some point in time, publishers decided that children must have images in their Bibles. I believe this is more a marketing decision than a theological one. If you choose a children’s Bible with images, you need to consider what these images are communicating to your child. Because we often declare that the Bible is true, your child will implicitly believe that any image in the Bible is accurate. If they are cartoonish images, will they present the situations of the Bible as a fantasy or make-believe world? Do the images affirm the historicity of the text? Are the images overwhelmingly Anglo or European? Is it an accurate representation of what happened? These images will go a long way in subtly shaping what your child pictures when she thinks about the stories of the Bible. I avoid images of Jesus. Jesus had a real body and a real face. Can this image be accurate in portraying that real body? What if someone drew a picture of you, but the image was a different ethnicity, different hair color, different nose, different eyes, different shape of the face? You might object and say, “That doesn’t look anything like me.” But the person might reply, “Yeah, but when I think of you, I like to have this image in my mind.” That’s crazy. But when we make images of Jesus, we’re doing the same thing.

Construction – Consider the size of the Bible. It shouldn’t be too big. Finally, consider the binding and cover. You want a Bible that will last and is easy to use. Smyth Sewing is fairly common and durable binding that allows the Bible to open flat. And choose a cover that your child will like. Let him help pick it out.

As I said, I have yet to find the “perfect” children’s Bible. None of them hit exactly on all these marks. But whatever Bible you choose, encourage your child to use it. Read it to and with him. Encourage her to carry it to church and read along during the service. Use a pencil to underline favorite verses or important words. The best Bible for your child is the Bible that is used.

 

 

Children in Worship

The first letter each of my kids learned was the letter “T.” If you know me, you might understand why. Kim and I are graduates of the University of Tennessee and we are big Volunteer fans. We have shirts, hats, and trinkets with big orange “Power T”s on them. We put the sticker on our cars. We gather around the TV on football Saturdays to watch and cheer the Vols. Before any other letter, our kids know the letter “T.” I didn’t teach them. I don’t have to coerce them to watch the games with me. I never had to explain why we hate Alabama and Florida. It is an unconscious thing; they just know. They are Tennessee fans because that is what our family does. It is perfectly natural that they love it. Not every family supports the Vols. Not every family even has a favorite team. But every family unconsciously passes on its values and preferences to its children. A very similar thing happens in our worship, and it explains why I think children of all ages should be present during our Lord’s Day worship.

The Reformed faith has consistently viewed the church from two angles. There is the invisible church, which consists of all those of all time who are the elect of Christ. The full number of this people is known only by God. We also speak of the visible church. The visible consists of “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children” (WCF 25.2). We include our children in the number of the visible church because the promises and blessings of the covenant have always included the children. The promises to Abraham and to his children are repeated in every successive covenant throughout the Bible. So our children are rightfully members of our church.

If our children are members of the church, doesn’t it just make sense that they be present during the regular Lord’s Day worship? The clear assumption throughout the Scriptures is that children are part of the regular worship of the people of God. Deuteronomy 6 is paradigmatic for this. The previous chapter is a reiteration of the Ten Commandments (Dt. 5). These words of the Law were given because the people were God’s people. They were in a covenant relationship with God and these words provided the boundaries of life in that covenant. Then in chapter 6 Moses says, “Now this is the commandment – the statutes and the rules – that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the LORD your God, you and your son and your son’s son…” (Dt 6:1-2). The words that governed that relationship between God and his people were to be passed on from parent to child to the child’s child. How was that to be done? “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Dt 6:7-9). God’s Word was to be incorporated in all of life, both public and private. And it would find its fullest expression in the worship of the people of God; private worship, family worship, and corporate worship.

So, the question remains, “Why would we ever exclude our children from the regular worship of the people of God on the Lord’s Day?” Likely, the rationale boils down to theological and pragmatic reasons. Theologically, many Protestants have eschewed covenant theology because they read the New Testament without the context of the Old Testament. Read in this manner one could argue that only baptized individuals who make a credible profession of faith ought to be considered members of the church. The problem with this view, of course, is that it ignores 2/3 of your Bible. Pragmatically, children can be noisy, fidgety, and disruptive. Sometimes parents just want a moment of peace, and the worship service offers an hour or so of rest.

However, if we properly understand the makeup of the church and the nature of the covenant, the problems with the pragmatic reasons become apparent. If we remove kids from worship and instead provide for them a time to play or a “worship” service tailored to them, they are learning, even if unconsciously, that worship is regulated by their preferences and not by Scripture. Imagine their surprise as youth when the worship service doesn’t bend to their whims. No wonder many students abandon church in college or gravitate toward worship services that are tailored to their preferences. The concept of age specific worship services is foreign to the pages of the Bible.

Lastly, if we think about the opening illustration, our kids intuitively absorb whatever they are surrounded by. My two-year-old walks around the house singing the “Doxology.” Does he understand it? No. But he will. And the elements of our regular worship will become part of who he is. It will become part of his sense of normal and when they are missing, life will seem amiss. Our children are members of the covenant community, so it is perfectly natural that they love the things the people of the covenant love.