It ought, indeed, to be sufficient for us that the Lord declares himself to be our protector. But when we see ourselves beset by so many perils, so many injuries, so many kinds of enemies, such is our is our frailty and effeminacy, that we might at times be filled with alarm, or driven to despair, did not the Lord proclaim his gracious presence by some means in accordance with our feeble capacities.For this reason, he not only promises to take care of us, but assures us that he has numberless attendants, to whom he has committed the charge of our safety, - that whatever dangers may impend, so long as we are encircled by their protection and guardianship; we are placed beyond all hazard of evil.
John Calvin, 1509-1564, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter XIV, 11, (translated by Henry Beveridge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1973, Vol. 1, p. 149)
What influence do angels have in our lives? Is it important for us to know this?
There has been a recent discovery of a fragment of the gospel of Mark that has been dated about 90 AD. If this holds up to scrutiny, it will be the earliest extant manuscript of the New Testament. And it brings up certain questions regarding this gospel. Why is it so much like the other two gospels Matthew and Luke? Why is it so much shorter than they are, and why does it leave out what it leaves out? Yet it also appears to be the most vivid of the three, putting in little details, like the greenness of the grass.
People write differently in different times. Today it is considered vital to be original and different from other writers. Back then it was considered important to hand down the story the way you received it. The Roman histories of the period closely follow the older ones in telling the story. Now it must be noted that the gospels are not word-for-word copies. But there did develop a standard way to tell the story of Jesus. The writers of the first three gospels followed this pattern, adding and subtracting things as it suited their purposes.
Now some think Mark was the original and the other gospels followed it. The more vivid language is seen as supporting this. But the earliest records claim that Mark wrote his gospel from the reminiscences of Peter, which would by itself explain its greater vividness. Now a conclusion that has been drawn from this is that Mark wrote everything he knew and the other writers followed suit. But there are events in Mark not found in the other gospels (Mark 7:31-37; 8:22-26; 14:51,52). There are events in Mark found only in Matthew (Mark 7:1-8:21 except 7:31-37, Matthew 15:1-16:12; Mark 10:1-12, Matthew 19:1-12; Mark 11:11-24, Matthew 21:18-22) or only in Luke (Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37; Mark 9:38-50, Luke 9:49-40; Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4). It is not surprising, since Mark is shorter, that it includes less unique material than the other two . But the impression is that each gospel writer chose what he wanted to include.
Now Mark seems to have left out much of the generalized moral teaching, and it emphasizes Jesus' personal mission and the events connected with it. And this is a problem if you consider that Jesus originally was a great moral teacher and the miracles were added later. The impression we get from Mark's gospel is that he saw Jesus as the Son of God, a great miracle-worker who conquered death. This has the advantage of agreeing with the rest of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 15:1-20; Romans 10:4-11; Acts 2:22-24). Now we would expect such an individual to give us some general moral instruction. But Mark shows what was considered to be the heart of the Christian story. And whether or not it was the first gospel (a question on which I have no strong opinion one way or the other), it calls into question the whole great moral teacher concept.
One fear Christians commonly have is a fear of having our faith challenged. But this is a situation we need to face rather than run away from. Now I started out as an agnostic. I accepted Christianity because it made rational sense. I am convinced there are good arguments in its favor. I am not going to detail them here, but I have spent a good deal of the rest of this blog putting them forth.
I obviously cannot guarantee that a person who examines the evidence will reach my conclusions. But I believe an unexamined faith, afraid to face the issues, will lead to someone who lacks the confidence to face the world or do the things that God has called them to do. And such a faith is not likely to be able to stand up to real challenges when they come, and they generally will. Also, I question whether a faith that collapses when challenged was really a genuine faith. So I would encourage people to examine their faith, but I would admonish them to be sure to look at the arguments on both sides of the issue.
One of the great fears of modern Evangelicalism is of being too intellectual. As far as the strict sense of the word goes, this seems to be an example of Screwtape's advice (in C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters) of getting people running as fast as possible from the error they are least likely to commit. This problem has been a real one in church history. And one does see it crop up in the occasional seminary student or seminary professor. But I see very little danger of it taking over. However, there is a kind of inverted form of the problem that in my mind is a serious concern.
There is a danger of the basic truths of Christianity becoming mere facts we affirm rather than deeply held convictions that actually change our lives. This turns Christian doctrine into a mere flag we fly, showing our allegiance to a particular group. And we can often divide and fight over things we do not understand. The most strident defender of a position is often the person who understands it least. And we often end up fighting over the superficial differences and ignoring the substance of the issues. While it is not always true, I have found it is often the person who understands their position and is confident of why they hold it who can approach others with the kind of gentleness Scripture requires (2 Timothy 2:24-26; 1 Peter 3:15; Galatians 6:1). It is often the person who is just reciting a formula who will allow not the slightest deviation. For they do not understand the issues well enough to know what differences are significant. But both types of intellectualism have one thing in common: they see Christian truth as simply abstract facts, bits of information. However, Christian truth is meant to be something that is meditated on and integrated into life so it affects our behavior (1 Timothy 3:16,17; Colossians 3:16; Psalms 1:1,2). It is only as we gain a deep understanding of these truths that they can fully impact our lives.
This is one reason I have problems with the current divided state of the Christian church over every minor teaching (1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:18-23; 8:1-3). There are, I am convinced, basic truths of the Christian faith that we are required to stand up for (Jude 3; Galatians 1:8,9; 1 John 4:1-3). But by making a point of every minor issue (many of which may not have any deep significance), we make it hard for people to think things out, for fear of ending up with some variation from the party line. And we can end up with people who ape truths rather than understanding them. And therefore missing the real things the truths are about.
What if I add that God would have His people with their various peculiarities put their prayers together? I, as a Calvinist, remark that our Arminian friends prayer wonderfully. I can seldom perceive much difference between them and ourselves, but no doubt we view particular parts of the truth differently. Now these various constitutions of Christians affect in some degree their prayers, and when they are blended, they give a peculiar harmony of sweetness to the incense.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 1834-1892, The Power of Prayer in a Believers Life, (edited by Robert Hall, Emerald Books, 1993, p. 190)
Are we sometimes to quick to dismiss people of other doctrinal positions? Could we benefit from each others' perspectives?
"You need to finish your math assignment," said Ms. Carver to young Frankie.
"I can't do it," replied Frankie.
"Frankie, you know you can do anything if put your mind to it," she replied. "You need to go in and talk to Mr. Potts, the principal."
"Now what is this you are saying about not being able to do things?" said Mr. Potts. "You must know that is heresy. If you can just believe in yourself, you can do anything you want to do. You need to get over this low self-image of yours or we may have to expel you from this school"
Frankie sat sullenly.
"This is the new sleep teacher," said Mr. Potts, holding up something that looked like a box with wires coming out in every direction. "You put it on at night and it sends a message directly into your brain, teaching you to believe in yourself."
Frankie did not have much confidence in the machine, but he did not want to get expelled either, so he took it. That night he plugged it in and followed the complicated instructions to attach it to the top of his head. He then fell soundly asleep.
The next morning his mother had produced him a breakfast of bacon and eggs from the food generator. "I don't want that," Frankie growled. And he pushed the buttons on the generator to produce two cinnamon rolls. As he left the house he saw the hurt look on his mother's face. But he had to believe in himself, after all.
On the way to school he ran into Becky Smith. He had always wanted to ask her out, but been too shy. "You do want to go out with me," he said to her forcefully.
"Not if you're going to take that attitude," she replied.
"What's the problem with my attitude; I believe in myself. And you are going to go out with me."
"No, I'm not. Now go away."
"You're really not that good-looking after all," he said, walking by. "I'm sure I can do better."
Next Frankie ran into Joe, the school bully. He was rushing down the hall and walked past Frankie, nearly knocking him down. "Out of my way," Joe pronounced belligerently.
"You can't treat me like that," retorted Frankie. "I'm a valuable human being, just like you."
"Oh yeah?" responded Joe, turning with fists cocked.
Later, in the school's infirmary, the nurse was cleaning up his black eye and bloody nose. "I understand your wanting to stand up to Joe," remarked the nurse. "But you need to be more careful about it."
"I need to believe in myself," returned Frankie.
Later at lunch he saw Becky Smith talking in a friendly way to, of all people, Joe. Frankie scrambled stealthily up the hill behind them. He found a heavy metal trash barrel about two-thirds full. It had wheels for the garbage-bots to drag it away with. Frankie gave it a good push down the hill to where Joe and Becky were standing.
Mr. Potter scowled. "I do not know whether you care, but neither one of them were seriously injured," he snapped, looking at Frankie.
Frankie said nothing, but looked sullen.
Mr. Potter continued, "You have become a bully and a ruffian. If you do not stop this behavior, we will have to expel you."
"That's all right," responded Frankie. "I don't need your education anyway. I believe in myself."
While it is possible to be overly fascinated with them, it is important to remember the existence of Satan and his minions. This is because it reminds us who the real enemy is (Ephesians 6:10-13; 1 Peter 5:8; 2 Corinthians 2:11). Now we need to put this in perspective and realize that Christ is victorious (Colossians 2:15; 1 John 4:4; Revelation 20:10). But it is important to remember that we have a powerful enemy. That the things that get in the way of our serving God are not accidents. We therefore need to trust in God and in His power to overcome (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 127:1,2; Isaiah 40:31). But this also means we need to avoid seeing other people as the enemy. We are to love other people no matter what they do to us (Matthew 5:43-48; Romans 12:9-21; Galatians 6:10). In this, it helps if we can remember that those oppose us have been blinded by the real enemy (2 Corinthians 4:3,4; Hebrews 2:15; Ephesians 2:2). Therefore, we need to remember who the foe is and what he does, that we may avoid becoming too complacent and be on the alert without becoming paranoid.
Words tend to change their meaning or lose their their distinctiveness over time. This is simply part of the development of language. But it is tragic when it results in the loss of the concept involved. Particularly if the word is being changed to mean something contrary to its original meaning.
One such word is tolerance. Its original meaning, which was a good meaning, was people being able to live together peacefully without using force against each other, even though they disagreed. A good example of this was Catholicism and Protestantism. At the time of the Reformation there was a tendency for both sides to see their view as right and the other view as intolerable. But there were Protestants in Catholic countries and possessions and Catholics in Protestant countries and possessions. This was further complicated by the Church of England, which tried to walk the middle ground between the two. The result was a series of wars and persecutions, resulting, in the end, with both groups in most places deciding they needed to tolerate each other. They still disagreed, but they decided to carry out their disagreement on a peaceful basis. If anything, our current situation seems even more polarized in principle. The question comes whether we can find a way to tolerate each other or whether we will end up settling it by violence. I sometimes despair of whether tolerance is even possible, if we really can find a basis for living together on a peaceful basis. But if we are to even endeavor to do so, we need tolerance in its original meaning.
It is therefore a real problem that this word has been given a new meaning. It has been used to defend one opinion and to label all who do not hold it as intolerant. And those who hold this opinion use "tolerance" to speak of accepting people they believe to be on their side. But there is no great virtue in tolerating your allies. Often this refers to things that are inappropriate under the original meaning. It is an insult to speak of tolerating people of other races, as if there was something wrong with them we need to tolerate. It is tolerating the people who we disagree with which is the point. Now one can argue there is a point where another view is intolerable and no peaceful coexistence is possible. But if the whole idea of tolerance is distorted and lost, it makes it impossible even to clearly consider this as a possibility. And the new kind of tolerance can become totally intolerant, because the meaning of the word has been changed. I have come to fear that if there is any way that various factions of our society can reach a point of mutual toleration, it will have to be done the hard way. That only after things come to violence will they be forced to consider another solution. And this would indeed be tragic.
He dies, therefore, because He took on Himself death on our behalf, and He makes Himself an offering to the Father for our sakes. For we had sinned against Him, and it was meet that He should receive the ransom for us, and that we should thus be delivered from condemnation.
John of Damascus, 676-754 AD, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book III, Chapter XXVI i, (Translated by Rev. S. D. F. Salmond, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, Second Series, Vol. IX; p. 72).
How does the fact Christ died for our redemption affect us today? What difference should it make in our everyday lives?
Who then is Jesus Christ? He claimed to be God (John 14:7; 8:58; 10:30). He claimed to be the only way to God (John 14:6; 17:2; Matthew 11:27). He claimed to forgive sin (Matthew 9:2-8; Luke 7:48-50). He claimed to be the One who would return to judge the world (Matthew 7:21-25; 25:31-46; 26:64). He received worship (Matthew 9:18; 14:33; 15:25), which is not appropriate for anyone but God (Matthew 4:10; Acts 10:25,26; Revelation 22:8,9).
Based on this there are different conclusions we could draw. We could claim that He was a swindler, who was telling lies to fool people. We could claim that He was someone who was off His head and needed to be taken somewhere to be cared for. Or else, He was who He claimed to be, God who became man to save us from our sins. I have to ask whether the teachings of Jesus really fit with His being a con-artist or a madman. Also, Chuck Colson asks, based on his own Watergate experience, whether such a plot by Jesus and His disciples could really have been pulled off without someone blabbing or it being exposed. And it is difficult to see why people believed them or what they thought they would get out of it. All the information that is preserved about them says that most of them died for it.
But wait, maybe there is a way out this. Maybe Jesus never really said those things. Maybe this was a legend that grew up slowly over time. Maybe Jesus was merely a moral philosopher who was deified by His followers. There are serious problems with this idea. It maintains that in a relatively short period of time Jesus' followers totally changed the basic substance of His teachings, changing Him from a moral philosopher to a supernatural personage who conquered death. Confucius and Buddha were moral philosophers. Both were later in some cases deified by their followers. But it is very clear from reading their preserved sayings what they were originally. However, from the earliest sources Jesus is put forth as the Son of God who conquered death. This is not only true of the New Testament, but of the earliest extra-biblical records of Jesus' followers, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Irenaeus. Even the early pagan observers, such as Pliny the Younger and Lucian of Samosata, claimed that Christians worshiped Jesus in place of other gods. The fact is, the Jews had their rabbis and the Greeks had their moral philosophers; and if Jesus had been just another one of those, He would have vanished into obscurity. But within about thirty years of the original events Christians were dying in the name of Jesus. It is extremely dubious that people would die in the name of one more moral philosopher, much less a legend not yet fully developed. So I am left once more with the original choices: Lord, liar, or lunatic. It is from these we must choose.
One of the standard ideas of modern society is that we should just be ourselves. If we just quit putting on an act, we would all be happy. Now there is an overlap between this and Biblical teaching. We are admonished against living our lives to please other people (Galatians 1:10; Matthew 6:1-18; Proverbs 29:25). This is particularly true of pretending to have a righteousness we do not have (Matthew 23:23-28; Mark 12:38-40; 1 Timothy 5:24,25). But there is another side to this. Sometimes the idea of being ourselves can lead to following every impulse, no matter where it leads or who it hurts. The problem is, we are still sinners and there are things inside of us that should not be let out (Romans 7:14; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). We need to remember that we are sinners who must be saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Titus 3:5,6). Those who have put their faith in Christ can stand with confidence before God (Romans 8:33,34; 5:1,2; 1 John 4:17, 18), and we should be able to be open with each other and support each other in our struggles (James 5:13-16; Hebrews 12:12,13; Colossians 3:12-14). But we must also remember that we are not there yet, and everything within us should not be simply let out (Philippians 3:12-16; Galatians 5:17; 1 John 1:8-10). We need to be real without letting loose everything that dwells inside us.
God, in response to human sin, became a human being to redeem us. This accomplished certain things that could not be accomplished any other way.
It showed us what God is like (John 1:1-18; 14:9; Hebrews 1:3). It is easy for God to become an abstraction. He can become either an overly harsh abstraction or an overly indulgent abstraction. But in Jesus we see the character of God portrayed in ways we can understand. He reached out to the outcasts with a hand of help and forgiveness (Luke 7:36-50; 19:1-10; John 4:7-26). But he rebuked those who thought they had it all together (Matthew 23:1-12; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 12:16-21). He showed us what God is like.
Being God and man, He is the only mediator between us and God (1 Timothy 2:5; John 14:6; Acts 4:12). This is based on His being the One who saved us (Hebrews 2:12-16; Titus 3:5,6; Romans 3:23-26) by paying the whole price for our sin (1 Peter 2:19,20; Colossians 2:13,14; Romans 5:6-8). This was made possible because He is the Righteous One (1 Peter 1:18,19; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 8:3,4) who was offered in the place of sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). But also He is God, who being God, could pay the full price for sin (Hebrews 2:9-11; 10:4-18; 2 Timothy 1:9,10). How many people could even the highest archangel die for? But Christ, being God, could taste death for us all. Therefore, He can offer salvation as a free gift to those who put their faith in Him (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9).
As a result of this we respond in obedience out of love for Him (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Titus 2:11-14). We therefore have with Him a new kind of a relationship, in His being with us and transforming us (John 15:5; Matthew 28:20; 18:20). We are told that because of His becoming man, God understands us and meets us where we are (Hebrews 2:17,18; 4:14-16; 5:7-10). And based on that He intercedes for us (Romans 8:26,27; Hebrews 7:23-25; 1 John 2:1,2). Therefore, He becomes our example (Philippians 2:5-11; Ephesians 5:1,2; 2 Corinthians 8:9) and our goal (Romans 8:29,30; 1 Corinthians 3:18; 1 John 3:2). He shows us how we should live and what we will be like when we are fully transformed.
Therefore, God by becoming man revealed Himself to us and saved us, that we may imitate Him and ultimately become like Him. This is the story of our redemption from beginning to end. And it is rooted in the fact of God becoming man.
Sometimes the greatest appreciators of grace are those with a sinful background. Augustine of Hippo was one of the great defenders of grace. And he came from a background that would lead him to appreciate it. Though his mother was a Christian, he lived his early life pursuing the pleasures of the world. He got involved in pagan philosophy and culture, but his chief weakness, and the hardest one for him to bring under control, was for sexual indulgence. He went from pagan philosophy to Manicheanism (the belief there are two Gods, one good and one evil). Then he became a Christian as a result of the influence of Ambrose of Milan. He became a leader and teacher of the church in his day and in the ages after.
He opposed Pelagius, who was a strong advocate of the idea that we could do good works and earn God's favor with little or no help from God. He also made a clear contrast to his contemporary Jerome, who comes off as generally self-righteous and critical. While he did not go as far as Luther, his emphasis on human sinfulness and God's grace protected the church of his day from falling into a performance-oriented mentality. In defense of grace he affirmed that God predestined people to be saved, a teaching that I would affirm, but which was and remains controversial. (It is interesting that, perhaps out of respect for Augustine, this teaching was later attributed to Fulgentius, and ultimately to John Calvin.)
Augustine's great error was, as with many errors, the bad side of his strength. There was a group called the Donatists who had broken off from the regular church organization because they thought it had too easily forgiven those who had denied Christ during the persecutions. (It should be noted that the regular church was not totally lax on this, but made people go through a lengthy process before receiving them back.) Augustine accused the Donatists, with some justice, of lacking love and forgiveness for their fellow Christians. But in response to this he endorsed Cyprian's error of requiring the absolute necessity for maintaining unity with the existing church. This helped lay the foundation for the papacy. Later he became so frustrated that he used political force against the Donatists. It is interesting that he opposed the use of force earlier in his life, even against the Manicheans, who from a theological point of view were farther from Christianity than the Donatists. Sometimes the people who are closer to us in their position, who we feel should be on our side, are more exasperating than those who are more clearly different.
Augustine's legacy, like that of most of us, was mixed. But he was a man who from experience had come to appreciate grace. And in that we have a good example to follow, no matter what our background..
There seems to be no greater subject of contention in the Christian church than the sacraments or ordinances. Often the disputes center around issues that are not clearly addressed in Scripture. So what does Scripture about them? Circumcision is described as a sign and a seal of faith (Romans 4:11). Something that identifies the person as belonging to God and declares to others where they stand. The later sacraments serve the same purpose. The Lord's Supper is described as a remembrance, a declaration, and an anticipation (1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Luke 22:14-20; Mark 14:22-26). It reminds us of who we are in Christ, declares that to others around us, and anticipates His coming back for us. Therefore, the ordinances are a recognition and declaration of what God has done for us. This is based on the faith through which we are saved (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9).
But Scripture is opposed to relying simply on outer ritual to make us acceptable to God (Malachi 1:10; Matthew 6:1-18; John 4:23,24). Therefore, going through the motions of celebrating the sacraments apart from genuine faith accomplishes nothing. Even those who would deny that the sacraments are valid apart from faith can fall into the idea that, just because I am baptized and take the Eucharist, I must be right with God. On the opposite extreme, we can see the ordinances as simply one more duty we perform. Underlying this is an idea that physical things are unimportant and should not be taken too seriously. Both of these are based on an emphasis on the outer ceremony. I am convinced that the road between is established by a real appreciation of grace. Christian worship is not primarily focused on what we can do for God, but on what God has done for us (Romans 5:6-8; 1 John 4:9,10; Galatians 2:21). But we must avoid exalting the external to be the main thing or minimizing it into unimportance.
As for the details we fight over, none seem as important as the real substance of faith in Christ. We dispute over what the sacraments do to us, something Scripture never addresses. Much less does it deal with in what mode Christ is present in the communion. I do believe that Christ meets us and works in us whenever we come to Him. But in exactly what fashion seems to me to be speculation. I do not believe that the baptism of infants is taught anywhere in Scripture. But the main issue is that circumcision (which was commanded to be done on infants) was stated to be useless if not inwardly affirmed when the person became older (Romans 2:25-29; 9:6-8; Jeremiah 4:4). And we need to be careful of judging people based on things God has not explicitly commanded (Romans 14:10; James 4:11,12; 1 Corinthians 8:1-3). So we need to avoid focusing on the details of the ordinances and to look beyond them to the grace of God to which they point.
This I met thus: “Let not this exhortation move you, most excellent citizens, as if you had ever abandoned the Church of Christ. For I am persuaded of you that you hold in fresh remembrance what is said in the narrative of Matthew, that the foundation of the Church is that rock which gave his name to Peter the faithful confessor. No one lays other foundation than this, nor can do so. Nay, in every nation and place, every one who confesses the Lord Jesus with his tongue and believes in his heart that God raised him from the dead
shall be saved, whether he be among the Indians or the Scythians, and it is fixed beyond controversy that outside of that Church none is saved, within which we all believe ourselves to be the more firmly as we glory the more certainly in the hope of the glory of the sons of God.”
Huldrich Zwingli, 1482-1531, Letter to Erasmus Fabricius (Selected Works of Huldrich Zwingli, Samuel Macauley Jackson University of Pennsylvania, 1901, p.26)
How should we understand what the Christian church is? What practical impact does this have?