COVID-19, Christians, and Churches – Concise Sequel

GBC Group

While we accept the necessity of the present situation, there must be an inner mourning in genuine believers that their ability to gather for the covenant assembly of church worship is disrupted. There is something degenerate in a heart that welcomes this disruption from the regularity of church assembly. Every covenant member of a genuine church will make it a matter of prayer, and yearning, that soon society will get back to normal – and the church may assemble again.

 

The viral spread of COVID-19 can be minimized, and hopefully, contained, by avoiding mass gathering. Thus, the government has taken extreme measures of enhanced lockdown and community quarantine. This affects the assemblies of churches. Having taken the position that love of neighbor necessitates the suspension of large gatherings of churches, a qualification is necessary. This is a concise sequel to my previous blog.

Whatever may be put in place of the gathering of the church – live-streaming; etc. – it is not a substitute. It is a disruption of what the church, by nature, must be – a gathered church. Therefore, whatever is disabling this gathering of the church must be seen as a disruption – a necessary disruption, perhaps – but a disruption still.

We can see this in the language that is deliberately chosen for the church in the biblical languages. The word from Old Testament Hebrew that is translated in the Septuagint (LXX) as the Greek word ekklêsia is the Hebrew word qahal. The latter denotes assemblies gathered for various purposes; e.g. war (Gen 49:6; 1Sam 17:47; 2Chr 28:14). The most significant are those that refer to Israel when assembled to accept the covenant with Yahweh (Dt. 4:10; 9:10; 18:16; 23:2; 31:30); especially in the three annual feasts; and in the dedication of Solomon’s temple (1Ki 8:14, 22, 55). There is an OT word which has an even more strictly religious connotation, ‘edah (Ex 12:19; Lev 4:13; Num 8:9). But this is not the word that ekklesia takes over from. There is something in qahal that is not essential in ‘edah – that is the idea of assembly, especially for Israel, with a covenantal orientation.

Thus, the New Testament writers, following the LXX, use ekklêsia for the New Covenant community. The word itself is used in the Greek literature of the period for political gatherings (cf. Acts 19:39; cf. vs. 32, 41). The scholarly Dictionary of Paul and His Letters gives this essential element of ekklêsia:

 The term was applied only to an actual gathering of people, or to a group that gathers when viewed as a regularly constituted meeting. Although we often speak of a group of congregations collectively as ‘the church’ (i.e. of a denomination) it is doubtful whether Paul (or the rest of the NT) uses ekklesia in this collective way. Also, the notion of a unified provincial or national church appears to have been foreign to Paul’s thinking. An ekklesia was a meeting or an assembly. [ p. 124 ]

Let every church make arrangement so that the members will continue to have their feeding of the Word of God. But genuine preaching is live preaching in the assembly of God’s people. And genuine church worship is the corporate worship in the assembly of the people of God. Any other arrangement than an actual assembly of the church is still a disruption, not a substitution.

While we accept the necessity of the present situation, there must be an inner mourning in genuine believers that their ability to gather for the covenant assembly of church worship is disrupted. There is something degenerate in a heart that welcomes this disruption from the regularity of church assembly. Every covenant member of a genuine church will make it a matter of prayer, and yearning, that soon society will get back to normal – and the church may assemble again.

It is every believer’s delightful response: I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ (Psa 122:1).

COVID-19, Christians, and Churches

COVID-19

But another factor is pressing upon us. The issue is not just preservation of one’s life from persecution of one’s faith. The issue now is what Jesus calls the second of the greatest of commandments: Love your neighbor as yourself. Since the exponential growth of the viral infection is largely due to mass assembling, the believer must take responsibility that he does not contribute to this viral spread. And if one proven effective way to do that is to avoid mass gathering, then we must heed to the mandate of love: Love does no harm to a neighbor

 

In his The Briefing for Monday, March 16, 2020. Albert Mohler describes the current crisis so succinctly: “The entire world is learning a new vocabulary, a new set of habits, a new set of rules, and a new set of expectations — expectations about today, not to mention expectations about tomorrow. We are looking at all of the world as we know it being reshaped socially and morally, politically and economically, by a tiny invisible coronavirus, known as COVID-19.”[1]

According to a facts-list released by the World Health Organization, this began as a pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China and was first reported to the WHO country office on New Year’s Eve on December 31, 2019. In just one month, on January 30, 2020, it was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. On February 11, WHO announced a name for the new coronavirus disease: COVID-19. A month later, on March 11, WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic.

Today, nations of the world are in panic. One of the most affected is Italy. On March 15, the country reported 3,590 new cases in one day and 368 deaths in that same day of 24 hours. As of this writing (March 18), the Philippines has recorded 193 confirmed cases, 14 people have died from the disease. The government has put Metro Manila under Code Red Level 2, which later escalated as enhanced lockdown and community quarantine of the island of Luzon. This included a ban on mass gathering – including those of religious in nature. One official defined ‘mass gathering’ as exceeding more than 10 people.

Two questions are in every believer’s mind, in the immediate: What now of the assemblies of churches? A more fundamental question is: Why is this happening in, what we love to hail, “This is my Father’s world”?

Why is this happening?

We must begin with what builds the right foundation in addressing crisis such as this one. A rightly-taught Christian cannot even begin to answer this without invoking the sovereign control of God over all things. This includes the events, cycle, and movements of the natural processes. As Creator, God is the Originator of all things that exist. But the Word of God will not stop at nature’s origination. It reveals clearly the over-all control of God as He sustains nature – both in its most benevolent produce: such as, rains for the harvest (Acts 14:17); as well as, in its more malevolent side, such as, calamities and plagues. Faith is inadequate where God is not recognized on both sides of nature’s movements. The biblical faith’s confession is in God’s declaration: “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (Isa. 45:7 ESV)

As to why a universe created good by God should turn destructive, Christian theology’s answer is clear, even if unpalatable to many: Because original man, as mandated to be the ruler of God’s creation, sinned, he dragged with him the pristine goodness of nature. Creation now, Paul describes, “For the creation was subjected to futility… For we know that the whole creation has been groaning…” (Rom 8:20, 22). That groaning will sometimes take the form of calamities as gigantic cyclones. Or it can come in the form of a plague – as unseen in its microscopic dimension as a virus.

Put it in this way, the answer will come as dissatisfying for those looking for a definitive ‘this-and-that!’. There is no human answer to the ‘Why?’ of this crisis. The skeptic and the contemptuous of religion will take this as another ‘proof’ of Christianity as being a ‘pie-from-the-sky’ religion. It is nothing of the sort. When we say there is no human answer to the ‘Why,’ that is only because we do want to yield the answer to the wisdom of God. On rare occasions, the answer may be immediate. But more ordinarily, the answer takes a while – even generations. Or perhaps, the answer is yet for eternity. When eternity comes, so will be the final redemption – including that of creation (Rom 8:21).

But of this we can be certain. Even plagues, which we sometimes call outbreaks as though they are out-of-control events, are under the control of God. He has revealed this in the 10 plagues that He visited on the most powerful nation at one period – Egypt. Egypt at last was forced to yield to the will of God, but only reluctantly. In many instances, God’s Word declares God’s sovereign control of plagues. By acknowledging this, we also recognize that God alone is the ultimate Protector from plague’s ravages. “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.” (Ps. 91:3 ESV)

Because plagues are within God’s control, we can be certain that when a plague strikes, it is consistent with God’s justice, but always mindful of the fulfillment of His good purpose for His people and for His kingdom. It cannot be inconsistent with either. This is not to say that believers will be immune from the plague. Some may have already died from the present one, and more are bound to suffer. But the purpose of God is unmoved in fulfilling His design – until its judgment is accomplished, or the good of His kingdom-glory is secured. The Reformer John Calvin had his own share of plagues and commotions in the 16th century. His confidence in the sovereignty of God is worth emulating:

 In the same way, when the tumultuous aspect of human affairs unfits us for judging, we should still hold, that God, in the pure light of his justice and wisdom, keeps all these commotions in due subordination, and conducts them to their proper end`.[2]

 The response to this behooves us His creatures to be contrite in our smallness, yes, even our sinfulness. Plagues, such as this, must not be used to cast blame on specific individuals or people groups. That was the mistake of Job’s friends whom Job called ‘miserable comforters!’ (Job 16:2). But what it does is to expose man still in his helplessness, for all the advances of civilization, when plagues visit beyond all our power to immediately resolve. As Mohler puts in another of his The Briefing:

 The reality is that there is a deeply humbling experience taking place in the United States where even those who are believed to be the most powerful human beings on earth wielding the most powerful instruments of political, economic, and military power, they are unable to control a tiny little microscopic virus as it replicates and of course as it does so much damage amongst humanity as it does so. But we’re looking not only the fact that this is a humbling experience for those in political leadership. It’s humbling for all of humanity if we will only observe and understand what is going on here or you might put it another way, our failure adequately to understand at this point what is going on here. We’re all called upon in different spheres of life to make responsible decisions based upon the threat of this virus, but it’s not at all clear exactly what that means in every circumstance. [3]

Let us be in prayer for government and for those tasked to contain the spread of the virus, and especially for those who have the means and equipment to look for an antidote – a vaccine to stop this rampage, and return society to normal. Peace and normalcy are still friends of the gospel mission (1Tim 2:1-4).

Let us also make this a personal occasion for examination of our spiritual standing. For believers, it is a time for self-examination of their state of sanctification – including the issues of sin in their lives. In the Puritan divine John Owen’s sermon entitled, The Use and Advantage of Faith in a Time of Public Calamity, he urges believers:

If we live by faith in the approach of a calamitous season, this will put us upon the search and examination of our own hearts, what accession we have made to the sins that have procured these judgments. This is that which faith (where it is in any measure sincere) will assuredly put us upon.[4]

These are times to seek the mercy of God upon us, the people of the Philippines; and indeed, for the people of the world, all of humanity. It is also an opportunity for witness. We call on people to own the Psalmist’s invitation:

3 Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.

4 When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.

5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God (Ps. 146:3-5 ESV)

What of the Assemblies of Churches?

A prohibition has been imposed on mass gathering, with a given definition of it as exceeding 10 people in assembly. That disqualifies most of our churches in our regular Sunday assemblies. There are many whose knee-jerk reaction is to follow the suspension of assemblies, because Christians are supposed to follow government authorities. But there had been prohibitions of that nature in the past. One may cite the Conventicle Act in England in 1664 forbidding the assemblies of Dissenters and non-conformists (churches outside of the state Church of England) on threat of persecution. But many dissenting congregations continued to assemble – some in forests – in their courageous stand against legal sanction on their religious liberty. Clearly, mere government prohibition alone should not be enough reason for us to suspend assemblies.

Love of Neighbor

But another factor is pressing upon us. The issue is not just preservation of one’s life from persecution of one’s faith. The issue now is what Jesus calls the second of the greatest of commandments: Love your neighbor as yourself. Since the exponential growth of the viral infection is largely due to mass assembling, the believer must take responsibility that he does not contribute to this viral spread. And if one proven effective way to do that is to avoid mass gathering, then we must heed to the mandate of love: Love does no harm to a neighbor (Rom 13:10 NKJ).

The balance in the words of Martin Luther during a plague in his letter to John Hess is insightful for a man of his time:

I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.[5]

For the sake of the good of neighbor, then, which in this case involves the whole country, churches may consider suspending their large gatherings until this pestilence is past. How they may still carry on their services, there are now more means to answer that than were available in previous generations. But one should not flagellate his conscience because the church assembly is temporarily suspended. It cannot be shown to be disobedience to Hebrews 10:25 as this does not come to the level of forsaking the assembly. This is protecting the perpetuation of assembly for some safer times. Safer times mean the lifetime of the virus which is estimated to be 14 to 21 days – give or take. This temporary suspension of large assembly is a step of wisdom for the continuing of assembly more permanently.

Self-flagellation (what Filipinos call penitensiya) became a practice during the Black Death of the 14th century.[6] It was thought of as pacifying God that He may withdraw the plague seeing the faithful inflict self-pain. It was a blind superstition. It is no less a blind superstition today to insist on large assemblies and presume on God’s protection of His people.

Again, the simple but incisive words of Albert Mohler are to the point:

We have to understand as Christians that love of neighbor now makes demands upon us that we had not considered even a week ago, and that comes right down to the fact that we cannot meet when we otherwise would meet, we cannot go where we otherwise would go, and we have to take what just days ago would have been considered extreme if not irrational measures to try to prohibit, or at least to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus.[7]

May the Lord have mercy upon our churches; upon our country; and upon humanity.

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Ps. 46:10 ESV)

Christians may still sing William Cowper’s immortal hymn:

        Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

        But trust Him for His grace;

        Behind a frowning providence

        He hides a smiling face.

 

        His purposes will ripen fast,

        Unfolding every hour;

        The bud may have a bitter taste,

        But sweet will be the flower.

 

        Blind unbelief is sure to err

        And scan His work in vain;

        God is His own interpreter,

        And He will make it plain.

 

[1] https://albertmohler.com/2020/03/16/briefing-3-16-20 (cited with permission)

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I. 17. 1

[3] https://albertmohler.com/2020/03/11/briefing-3-11-20 (cited with permission)

[4] John Own, Work, Vol. IX (Banner of Truth): 497

[5] Luther’s Works Volume 43, “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague” written to Rev. Dr. John Hess… (Thanks is due to Christian Camacho of Grace Baptist Church of Los Baños for posting this on our Church Facebook)

[6] See Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Ballantine Books; 1978)

[7] https://albertmohler.com/2020/03/16/briefing-3-16-20 (cited with permission)

 

 

Future of Humans becoming gods vs. Past of God becoming Man

Hard cash of science vs. Historical certainty of Faith

Harari vs Lewis

Perhaps, for more people today who have lost the attraction of faith, the promise of hard cash is much more alluring. But I ask the men and women of faith to go back to the certain past of the God-Man in the Manger, the Teacher of Galilee, the Dying Figure of Calvary, and the Immortal from the Empty Tomb, to steady their faith. Do not be beholden to the promise of man-made immortality, much less, divinity backed by hard cash.

 

The notable historian, Yuval Noah Harari, in his celebrated book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, has proposed the tantalizing prospect of humanity being transformed into deity through science. Even now, there are active scientific efforts to extend longevity, even to the point of immortality. He noted,

In 2012 Kurzweil was appointed a director of engineering at Google, and a year later Google launched a sub-company called Calico whose stated mission is ‘to solve death.’ In 2009 Google appointed another immortality true-believer, Bill Maris, to preside over the Google Ventures investment fund. In a January 2015 interview, Maris said, ‘if you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500, the answer is yes.’ Maris backs up his brave words with a lot of hard cash.[1]

In a later chapter, Harari makes this bold pronouncement:

The humanist religion worships humanity, and expects humanity to play the part that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhism and Daoism. Whereas traditionally the great cosmic plan gave meaning to the life of humans, humanism reverses the roles and expects the experiences of humans to give meaning to the cosmos. According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe. This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world.[2]

This is a breath-taking vision of humans becoming gods to determine their own meaning in an existence that they have rendered meaningless with their death of god theology. This is an echo of Friedrich Nietzsche in his prospect of the emerging Superman in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra. His vision of the Superman was also preceded by his pronouncement that god-is-dead.

Against this vision, all prospective and visionary, is a reality of history that millions remember in this season – the becoming-man of the Almighty God. CS Lewis calls this the miracle of all miracles: The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this.[3]

 CS Lewis points out further the grandness of this miracle, and its human inexplicability ultimately:

It is easier to argue, on historical grounds, that the incarnation actually occurred than to show, on philosophical grounds, the probability of its occurrence. This historical difficulty of giving for the life, sayings and influence, of Jesus any explanation that is not harder than the Christian explanation, is very great. The discrepancy between the depth and sanity and (let me add) shrewdness of His moral teaching and the rampant megalomania which must lie behind his theological teaching unless he is indeed God, has never been satisfactorily got over.[4]

Perhaps, for more people today who have lost the attraction of faith, the promise of hard cash is much more alluring. But I ask the men and women of faith to go back to the certain past of the God-Man in the Manger, the Teacher of Galilee, the Dying Figure of Calvary, and the Immortal from the Empty Tomb, to steady their faith. Do not be beholden to the promise of man-made immortality, much less, divinity backed by hard cash.

What Jesus has done in history can reach out to every sinner.  Because out of this gift of God, in the language of John Piper, “grace towards sinners is the freest of all God’s acts.”[5]

Jesus, my God-Man, Lord and Savior, is my Eternal Life.

[1] Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Harper): 24

[2] Ibid, p. 223

[3] CS Lewis, Miracles; cited in A Year with CS Lewis: Daily Reading from His Classic Works (HarperOne): 391

[4] Op. cit.

[5] John Piper, Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God (Multnomah): 76

 

Joy to the World, Psalm 98, & Isaac Watts

“Joy to the world!: Yes! But also, “He rules the world with truth and grace!”

Joy to the world

If we profess to welcome the birth of Jesus in history, we do well to sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” But then, it will only be true to those who welcome Him with, “Let earth receive her King!” and “He rules the world with truth and grace!”

 

It was uplifting to read the third part of Albert Mohler’s The Briefing for Friday, December 20, 2019. He makes reference to “one of the most familiar of all the Christmas carols that turns out actually, to perhaps the puzzlement of many Christians, not to have been intended as a Christmas carol at all. I’m talking about the song by Isaac Watts that we call ‘Joy To The World.’ Watts led in the development of hymns in the English tradition, drawing many of his hymn texts directly from the Psalms. The song we know as ‘Joy To The World’ is actually based upon the 98th Psalm, which declares creation’s joy when the Lord comes to rule and to judge.” [1]

Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things!

His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.

The LORD has made known his salvation;

he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. (Psalm 98:1-2 ESV)

The NIV Faithflife Study Bible explains this Psalm:

In this Psalm of Yahweh’s kingship (or enthronement) the psalmist calls Israel to sing a new and joyful song to Yahweh because he has helped them. He then extends that call to all the people of the earth and eventually the earth itself (vs 4-6). The psalmist concludes by describing how all of creation joyfully anticipates the full establishment of Yahweh’s righteous reign.[2]

The call for a response of a new song extends to all of the nations, because ultimately, what God will do in saving act for His people Israel will also be the saving of the nations of the world.

Isaac Watts would have had enough insight to know that this will not be accomplished in the first coming of Christ as a baby in a manger. When this song first appeared in Watts’ hymnal in 1719, it was originally titled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” Its ultimate fulfilment is in the Second Coming of Christ. It is then that what happened on the Cross as atonement will finally reap its harvest. And the fruits will be drawn from “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10 ESV)

This is a Psalm of Messianic victory. Thus, it is a Psalm of mission to the world and its ultimate discipleship of all nations.

So, is “Joy to the World” a wrong Christmas song to sing? It is a right song of welcome to the Saviour who first came as a baby in a manger. For even in welcome of that event, the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Lk. 2:14 ESV). With the birth of the Messiah, the shalom (peace) of redemption began to make its presence among sinners on earth. But the formal redemption is yet on the cross and its victory achieved in the resurrection. Finally, its harvest is in the second coming of Christ. This is what Psalm 98 ultimately celebrates.

If we profess to welcome the birth of Jesus in history, we do well to sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” But then, it will only be true to those who welcome Him with, “Let earth receive her King!” and “He rules the world with truth and grace!”

That Isaac Watts was more focused on the Cross than on the manger, another of his hymns reveals:

I’m not ashamed to own my Lord,

Or to defend His cause;

Maintain the honour of His Word,

The glory of His cross.

[1] Albert Mohler, The Briefieng; December 20, 2019; https://albertmohler.com/2019/12/20/briefing-12-20-19

[2] NIV Faithlife Study Bible: (Zondervan) 923

Herod the Great and Jesus’ Birth

Jesus’ birth as intersection of the mighty powerful and the humbled Almighty

Herod the Great

The day has come in many places when speaking the Word of God will constitute a hate-crime against the new purveyors of morality. The threat is looming against religious liberty. People are threatened not to speak for Jesus and His claims, or a prosecution of Herodian proportion might just take place.

 

Of all the characters of the birth narrative of Jesus, none is more notorious than King Herod. The Herodian dynasty was begun by Antipater. He was appointed by Julius Caesar as procurator of Judea in 47 BC. His son Herod exceeded him in infamy. As the patriarch of the other Herod’s in the biblical narrative, the first Herod came to be known as Herod the Great. His greatness lies in his great building projects. But the Herods, being Edomites, and loyal to Rome, were never fully accepted by their Jewish subjects.

Herod’s place in the birth narrative of Jesus is to be that King who took the coming of Jesus as a rival kingly claim. That the coming Son of God has a kingly claim is true enough, and is thus announced in the counterpart birth narrative of Luke.

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end. (Lk. 1:32-33 NKJ)

Herod’s blunder was to misunderstand this as a challenge to his earthly kingdom and dynasty. He did not pull any restraint to make sure of the extermination of the rival king. It will become an icon of terror in biblical history – the infamous massacre of infants in Bethlehem and neighboring towns. A stark contrast is intended by this narrative that exposes the sinfulness of man and the kingdom mission of Jesus. There certainly was a guiding star that guided the magi to the place of Jesus – but it was no lantern ornamentation. Children had a significant role – but not to receive gifts, but to suffer martyrdom. The advent of Jesus was only a celebration insofar as the sin of the mighty is exposed, and the humbling down of the Son of God is duly acknowledged. The humiliation of the Son of God exposed the sinfulness of the mighty in the world.

 Humiliation in the last sentence is used in its theological sense of the becoming-low of the Son of God from His highest position. He became Man, and in thus becoming man, He shared the nature of man-the-sinner, and be a fit substitute for man’s sinful standing. This without Jesus sharing in human sin at all.

The Sin of the Mighty

Thus, the first Advent of Christ is a story of the heinous sin of the mighty on earth represented by Herod. He could not accept the implication of the coming of Jesus. As the prophecy was read to him, based on Micah 5:2, “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.” (Matt. 2:6 NKJ), he could only draw one conclusion – that this Jesus is out to seize his rule.

He first chose to deceive by pretending to worship the Child. When an angel exposed this subterfuge to the wise men, Herod shred off all scheme and instigated a cruel massacre.

It is easy to distance oneself from such cruelty of Herod. But the same principle lies in the scheme of professing to worship Jesus, while yet refusing His Lordship in one’s life. Is this not rampant in this season when everything is done on the pretext of the birth of Jesus? Every indulgence; ostentation; lavishness – all to celebrate the One born in a manger, and prosecuted by the powerful!

But Jesus is not interested in the celebration of His birth. His call is for men and women to bow down for the reason He was born – to become King of a kingdom that will never be destroyed. The best way to remember the birth of Jesus is to repent of sin, and to cast oneself under His supreme Lordship. This is conversion by faith and repentance.

The most powerful man in Judea who made himself famous by his built structures is remembered today with disdain. His sin was exposed. And the coming of Jesus today through the preaching of the Word still has the same effect of exposing sin. You have the choice of justifying it in Herod’s way. Or repent of it and be saved.

The Claim of the Almighty

The name of Jesus is still under persecution today. No longer by a procurator in Judea. The persecutor is no longer known as Herod the Great. But they are still among the great of this world. They belong to the powerful – in institutions of authority and wealth; in parties of power; among instigators of the sexual revolution that will impose the LGBTQ as the new normal. The noble tradition of believing in God who has a weight in social directions is in retreat against the onslaught of erotic liberty.

The day has come in many places when speaking the Word of God will constitute a hate-crime against the new purveyors of morality. The threat is looming against religious liberty. People are threatened not to speak for Jesus and His claims, or a prosecution of Herodian proportion might just take place.

But the claim of Jesus from the time of the Annunciation of the angel has not changed. He came to inaugurate a kingdom. That kingdom has been inaugurated when He rose from the dead; He sat on His throne beside the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:36; Heb 8:1). The Herodian dynasty is long gone. Even the Roman Empire. But Jesus is still King and someday, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!” (Rev. 11:15 NKJ).

Do not make this Christmas just a time of celebration – of eating, indulging, decorating, and exchanging gifts; or kris-kringle and Santa Claus.

Jesus came to claim a kingship that is now His. Herod did not succeed denying Him that kingship. Do not fail to bow down to the King of Kings – the Lord Jesus Christ!

Blessed Advent Reflection to all!

The Epidemic of Ritual Confession of Sin

Psa 130 3f

In ritual confession, the offender may demonstrate deep emotion, but it is often dictated by fear of the consequence of sin, rather than sorrow for the gravity of the offence. So different is the contrast of the Apostle Paul between two sorts of emotions. “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.” (2 Cor. 7:10-11 NKJ). The sorrow of genuine repentance is really a cluster of dispositions all conspiring to oppose sin and to renounce it for its evil and gravity, not merely its dreadful consequence.

 

 Sorry na! (‘I am sorry already!’). To which the expected reply is Ok lang! (‘It is fine!’). This is the common exchange that transpires among Filipinos, between the one at fault and the one wronged. An easy apology with commensurate ease of exoneration. If the fault were due to natural limitation – mistaken information; late appointment due to traffic; etc. – the clemency that follows is just about regular.

But it is a far different issue when we are dealing with moral faults – what we, Christians, still call sins. A sorry na and Ok lang exchange, when it comes to sins, is exposing a very serious epidemic in the impoverished spirituality that is the mark of this generation of Christians. This is the epidemic of ritual confession.

A ritual, in the concise definition of Merriam-Webster is “the prescribed order and words of a religious ceremony.” Further, a more extended meaning denotes, “any practice done or regularly repeated in a set precise manner so as to satisfy one’s sense of fitness and often felt to have a symbolic or quasi-symbolic significance.” One can easily see how this fits the practice that is performed of confession of sin among Christians. This is observable in two orientations of confessing sin.

Ritual Confession of Sin to God

A precious verse of the New Testament has become the basis of so much ritual confession by Christians. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn. 1:9 NKJ). The call to confess is sufficient for many sinning Christians just to invoke the cliché of confession, and then claim that forgiveness is theirs as a gift in glossy wrapping.

This is isolating 1John 1:9 from the richness of John’s appeal to his readers to be in a serious fight against sin. Every believer who will invoke the promise of forgiveness to the confessing sinner in 1John 1:9 must have come to grips with John’s description of a serious believer in 3:8, 9 “He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose, the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” (1 Jn. 3:8-9 NKJ). It is not teaching that believers no longer sin. It is saying that believers do not continue sinning without the break of repentance and renewal.

Unfortunately, many professed believers may be continuing sinning, and the only break they have is a ritual confession that is without genuine repentance that is followed by practical renewal. The Puritan John Owen has a most helpful treatise on this subject that expounds Psalm 130, focusing on those words, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared.” (Ps. 130:3-4 NKJ). He warns against the general assurance of forgiveness without having the contrition that is the prerequisite of it, and the fear of the Lord which is the fruit of it. He warns,

This notional apprehension of the pardon of sin begets no serious, thorough hatred and detestation of sin, nor is prevalent to a relinquishment of it; nay, it rather insinuates into the soul encouragements unto a continuance in it. It is the nature of it to lessen and extenuate sin, and to support the soul against its convictions… The doctrine of forgiveness is this grace of God, which may be thus abused. From hence do men who have only a general notion of it habitually draw secret encouragements to sin and folly.[1]

God is willing to forgive. But He can distinguish between contrite confession appealing only to the merits of Christ, and ritual confession that is satisfied with the motion and manner. We must confess our sin in the spirit of David’s own confession: “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart – These, O God, You will not despise.” (Ps. 51:16-17 NKJ). David knew the distinction between ritual confession of ceremonial burnt offering, and the acceptable confession of a broken and contrite heart.

Know that distinction yourself. The next time you confess your sin to God, examine if it is a broken one – or an empty ritual.

 

Ritual Confession of Sin to Neighbor

The greatest commandment of ‘Love God,’ is followed by ‘Love your neighbor’ as the second of the greatest commandments. This should apply to confession of sin when it comes to people Christians sin against. Sin must be confessed with brokenness to God. So with the neighbor, especially brethren in the faith. The greater the offence the deeper the contrition.

But if ritual confession is something that is epidemic among professing Christians in their approach to God, it is all the more so in confessing to brethren. After all, it is easier to resort to subterfuge and pretense with someone without divine omniscience. That is why it takes an uncompromising inner honesty for the person confessing. He must confess without minimizing, without forgetfulness, and without pretext.

We see shallow confession of sin in biblical characters such as Pharaoh (Exo 9:27); Saul (1Sam 26:21); and of course, Judas (Matt 27:4). They invoked the proper vocabulary – a reference to personal sin; they even demonstrated sorrow and shame – but they were still ritual confession.

In ritual confession, the offender may demonstrate deep emotion, but it is often dictated by fear of the consequence of sin, rather than sorrow for the gravity of the offence. So different is the contrast of the Apostle Paul between two sorts of emotions. “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.” (2 Cor. 7:10-11 NKJ). The sorrow of genuine repentance is really a cluster of dispositions all conspiring to oppose sin and to renounce it for its evil and gravity, not merely its dreadful consequence.

The stain that will not wash away[2]

There is a particular offence that is often covered over with ritual confession, but its effect is deep and lasting. This is the sin of sexual abuse. The figure pertains to one guilty of sexual misconduct and is drawn from Proverbs 6:33 “Wounds and dishonor he will get, And his reproach will not be wiped away.” (Prov. 6:33 NKJ). One who has committed this sin is often able to hide because the victim chooses to hide – in shame.

It does not help that some, with a sincere desire to help, end up charging the blame on the victim. We have often heard suggested: She is dressed so sexy, she must be asking to be raped! She is so at ease in the company of men, this is flirtation! Every woman fantasizes sexual assault. These are all myths – and among believers, a painful deception.

Thus, victims often have to grapple with self-blame. Why did I allow myself in that situation? It was supposed to be only innocent fellowship! Did I give any suggestion? But the blame is only on the abuser. He must have used an invitation to fellowship – coffee; chit-chat; movie; music; and so many more. But even before the invitation are the calculated moves that would ensure, the woman is in the snare of unavoidable intimacies and touches. And when it is done, it is made to appear that what happened is normal fellowship between Christian man and woman. The woman, often of very young age to understand fully, is left confused. She knows something went wrong but it all seems alright according to the man.

It is time that it is called for what it is – sex abuse of the cruel kind. And for professing Christians, thoroughly hypocritical. One day, the woman grows up and discovers what all the while she has been made to go through, and accountability time comes.

When confession is to be expressed, ritual confession is at its cruelest in this kind of offence. More than the consequence, it is the sense of gravity of the offence that matters. More than the fear of the abuser, it is the hurt on the victims that must be reckoned with. The healing of the victims matters more, without eliminating the restoration of the offender.

Going back to the stain that does not wash away, the text clearly attributes the stain to the one guilty of misconduct, not to the victim. He will carry the stigma.

By the grace of God, the victim can move on because God’s grace fixes what has been broken. By the same grace of God, the offender can also move on, but only after he has gone through the sorrow of true confession, of brokenness and repentance.

Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound (Rom 5:20). Grace will abound so much more when we reject the shallow peace of ritual confession.

[1] John Owen, Works: Temptation and Sin VI: 397

[2] This is a variation of the title of the book by John Armstrong, The Stain that Stays: The Church’s Response to Sexual Misconduct of its Leaders

Forgiven to Forgive

Christ came to forgive. How do I forgive?

Mat 6 12

Christians are as much weak as human nature in granting forgiveness.  But they have in them something that transcends human nature.  It follows from being a beneficiary of God’s gracious forgiveness in Christ.  Whatever the sins of others may be against us, we have sinned multiple times more against God – multiple times more in frequency, in gravity, and in apathy.  But when we come for Fatherly forgiveness, He forgives.

 

In this season, so it is professed, that Christendom remembers the becoming-man (incarnation) of the Son of God, the issue of forgiveness presses hard on my mind.  After all, according to the Scriptures, “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.  For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.” (Heb. 2:17-18 NKJ).

Two questions press upon my mind that should resonate in every serious believer.  The first: Should Christians continue to ask forgiveness from God for their sins?  And the second: How readily and radically should Christians forgive those who sin against them and ask for forgiveness?

Prior to answering the question, we must be sure we know what we mean by forgiveness.  The Greek word aphiêmi in its literal sense denotes ‘to leave a particular location’ or ‘to dismiss a crowd’ [ Louw-Nida Lexicon ].  But used in the legal sense, its cognate word aphesis pertains to the removal of incurred guilt and its consequent punishment.  The contrast is clear in Acts 13:38, 39, “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:38 ESV).  This is the forgiveness every believer receives upon faith in Christ.  What a glorious salvation blessing a believer possesses all because of Christ!  “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7 ESV).

First Question: Should believers still seek forgiveness from God for their sins?

Only extreme perfectionists will dare to claim that they no longer sin – worse than an error, it is smug delusion.  Even as an object of Christ’s salvation, Paul still thought of himself at the time of his writing, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – and I am the worst of them all” (1Tim 1:15 NLT).  There is in every humble believer a resonant note of the same confession.

I just came from a conference in a far-flung area.  It became obvious during the discussion time that the participants, mostly pastors and church leaders, sincerely believed that, while admitting the continuing sins of believers, Christians need no longer ask forgiveness for their sins.  One explained that all he would do is to express gratitude to the Lord that whatever sins he committed, they have already been forgiven in Christ – past, present, and future.  So there is no place for genuine repentance and contrition, just claiming the forgiveness already possessed.

At the root of this notion is a deeply twisted confusion between justification and sanctification.  They are claiming justification reality of God’s judicial forgiveness of all sins for the day-to-day issue of sanctification which must clear one’s fellowship with God as the Father.  Justification is about God as the Judge.  Sins – past, present, and future – have been settled in His judgment court.  But it is not that we ask forgiveness for our daily sins.  It is about a disturbed fellowship with the Father.  And we are seeking the forgiveness of God as our Father – not as our Judge.

The New Testament makes clear that there is continuing forgiveness that the believer should seek and may experience on a day-to-day basis.  That is why in the Lord’s Prayer, following the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread” is the petition, “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Mat 6:12).  There is the stern warning of John against self-deception, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” (1 Jn. 1:10 NKJ).  Deriving from this reality is the duty, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn. 1:9 NKJ).  That there is such an experience of post-conversion experience is unambiguous in the exhortation to the sick, “And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (Jas. 5:15 NKJ)

Beyond the error of this notion that believers need not ask for forgiveness, it deprives the believer of that posture that cultivates humility and the exuberance of joy in God’s gracious forgiveness.

We have all heard of the Reformer Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.  Perhaps, it is time we memorized the first thesis: Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying, “Repent ye, etc.” intended that the whole life of his believers on earth should be a daily repentance.

 

Second Question:  How readily and radically should Christians forgive?

The difficulty of this question is highlighted by CS Lewis: Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.[1]  His reflection on this is worth quoting at length:

Just when Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point.  I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do – I could do precious little – I am telling you what Christianity is.  I did not invent it.  And there, right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.’  There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms.  It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive, we shall not be forgiven.  There are no two ways about it.[2]

Christians are as much weak as human nature in granting forgiveness.  But they have in them something that transcends human nature.  It follows from being a beneficiary of God’s gracious forgiveness in Christ.  Whatever the sins of others may be against us, we have sinned multiple times more against God – multiple times more in frequency, in gravity, and in apathy.  But when we come for Fatherly forgiveness, He forgives.

Jesus gave a hard-to-swallow rule on forgiving brethren.  “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.  And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying,`I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” (Lk. 17:3-4 NKJ).  In the face of such requisite readiness to forgive, the apostles could only respond in entreaty, “Lord, increase our faith!”

I know how to be hurt, to be betrayed, how to nurse the pain that demands a satisfaction of double retaliation.  But then, I myself fall into sin… How terrible is this?  Just when I received a mercy-gift from the Lord, and I sinned!  Just when I had been spared, I used the sense of freedom to yet sin again?  Am I a hardened sinner?  The heart made tender by grace tells me I am not for I find myself crying to my Father for yet another forgiveness only on the basis of Christ.  He forgives me yet again.

Then comes my offender with a broken heart asking for my forgiveness.  Every fiber of my being cries, “Hang!”  Only to be reminded, Someone hanged on the Cross for me – and for him.  Moist with tears of compassion, I hear myself say willingly, “I forgive!”

 

[1] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3. 7

[2] ibid

Freedom of the Press

Press Freedom quote

It is the press that has the mandate of not only informing the people of events in society, but also to check official announcements and policies.  This it does by having competent people who check the facts and report on views other than that of government.  In the course of doing this, as human beings they make mistakes.  News can be faked by irresponsible journalists.  There are laws that the press may not violate in the name of freedom of expression.  Defamation law covers false statements made in writing that destroy the reputation of the innocent.

 But this is not a reason to muzzle the press.

 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte imposed a ban of coverage on Rappler News, a news social media sharply critical of the President.  More than ten cases were filed against Maria Ressa, Rappler’s chief editor and her staff – cases that many perceive are at the instigation of the president.  The President threatened to suspend the writ of habeas corpus to arrest his media critics.  The ban on Rappler has been in effect for fourteen months when its correspondents filed a petition to the Supreme Court seeking to end the ban.  The petition argues that the coverage ban violates constitutional guarantees of a free press, free speech, equal protection and due process.  This is now a significant press freedom test case.  Should Christians care?

Christians should very much care.  Intimately linked with freedom of the press is freedom of religion.  Because Christians care very much about the latter, they should care as much for freedom of the press.  The battle for freedom of religion was a long and bloody history.  The American Pilgrim Fathers crossed the Atlantic to escape persecution in England.  They founded New England in America.  America became the birthplace of the concept of separation of church and state.  It was the Baptists who had led in the advocacy, and had suffered most in the cause, of freedom of religion.  18th century Baptist theologian Andrew Fuller summarizes the Baptist position thus,

In former times liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment in matters of religion were denied both by ecclesiastics and politicians.  Of late they have been very generally admitted, and much has been said and written in their defense… The right of private judgment in matters of religion appears to be the right which every individual has to think and to avow his thoughts on those subjects, without being liable to any civil inconvenience on that account.[1]

Freedom of religion can only be sustained where there is freedom to express oneself.  This is where freedom of the press matters most.  It is the press that has the mandate of not only informing the people of events in society, but also to check official announcements and policies.  This it does by having competent people who check the facts and report on views other than those of government.  In the course of doing this, as human beings they make mistakes.  News can be faked by irresponsible journalists.  There are laws that the press may not violate in the name of freedom of expression.  Defamation law covers false statements made in writing that destroy the reputation of the innocent.

But this is not a reason to muzzle the press.  There is a 1964 landmark legal case in the US Supreme Court known as New York Times vs. Sullivan.  The New York Times published a report that ultimately was proved false.  L.B. Sullivan, the city official who was the aggrieved party, sued the newspaper and a local jury awarded him a big sum.  It was raised to the Supreme Court which reversed the local court.  It established that even false statements by the press should not be liable to prosecution, if the statement is made in good faith, and not out of malice.  Establishing malice made it almost unprosecutable.  But this right to make a false statement in good faith must be protected if the basic right of public discourse is to have the “breathing space” it needs to survive.[2]

This is similar to freedom of religion in that even those who teach false doctrines should have protected freedom to do so.  Even as Christians detest what is taught, we counter it with the truth of the Scriptures.  But to prosecute religious teachers because their teachings are deemed as damning will only come back later to the teachers of the truth.  False teachers will have their judgment from God.  But let society have freedom for all religious discourses.  That way, truth will have its converts.

I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:1-4)

Using the enormous power of the presidency to harass his critics in the press is demeaning of the President and of his office.  He does not have the principled stance of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, who said: Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.

These are trying times to endure a presidency that has lost decency.

[1] The Works of Andrew Fuller (First published in 1841; Banner of Truth edition, 2007): 829

[2] Michael Trachtman, The Supremes’ Greatest Hits: The 37 Supreme Court Cases That Most Directly Affect Your Life: 162-165

Providence – not Superstition – for 2019

Providence

Trust is believing that ultimately God’s purpose will prevail – even amidst the apparent triumph of evil and when good seems so overwhelmed.  God is working out His purpose.  Even when we are hard of seeing and hearing how it happens, it will have its victory.

 

It is that time of the year – the old one concluding, and a new one beginning – when superstitions and pseudo-sciences are at their peak of influence and following.  Polka dots and round fruits to represent wealth.  Preference for pasta to symbolize long life.  Feng Shui to manipulate good energies.  Zodiac and Chinese calendar-cycle to divine the secret charm of the coming year.  The options are numerous.  Each is an exercise in false hope.

A well-instructed Christian will not give credence to any of these superstitions.  It is not because the Christian’s alternative is fatalism.  A what-will-be-will-be attitude is not Christian at all.  Certainly, it is not according to the Word of God.  A Christian is as much concerned as anyone else for the new year’s prospect.  He has his expectations.  He hopes.  But he holds steadfastly to something more certain than superstitions.  It is called providence of God.

Concept of Providence

It is not a word that is commonly used in the English Bible.  In the KJV, it only occurs once (Acts 24:2), and there it only means the foresight of Felix’s leadership.  The one time it occurs in the NIV is closer to our sense, in Job 10:12, You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit. But while sparse in occurrence, the idea pervades biblical thought.  In systematic theology, providence is put under the category of the works of God – after His predestination and creation.  Where predestination is the plan of God from eternity past (also called decrees), providence is the execution of the plan in time and history.  In the simple assertion of Reformed theologian Hermann Bavinck, “according to Scripture and the church’s confession, providence is that act of God by which from moment to moment he preserves and governs all things.” [ Hermann Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 2: p. 596 ]

The pervasive “all things” in the coverage of providence is intended to spare nothing from God’s governing control.  All created things are in the two modes of either remaining in the same state, or changing into another state – in philosophical language, being or becoming.  Belief in providence holds that all states of being remain as they are by the preservation and provision of God.  As Nehemiah exalts God: You alone are the LORD; You have made heaven, The heaven of heavens, with all their host, The earth and everything on it, The seas and all that is in them, And You preserve them all (Neh 9:6).  Even the changes, the becoming, are directed by the purpose of God.  In contrast with the pagan deities, the prophet asserts, The LORD of hosts has sworn, saying, “Surely, as I have thought, so it shall come to pass, And as I have purposed, so it shall stand…”  For the LORD of hosts has purposed, And who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, And who will turn it back? (Isa 14:24, 27).

Theologian GC Berkouwer summarizes, “All things, having once proceeded from God’s creative hand, are still utterly dependent upon his omnipresent power… all things are indebted for their existence to the preserving act of God; let God cease to act and the universe will cease to exist.  This concept of sustenance opposes every claimant to absoluteness in this world – gods and idols, and any who would autonomously and sovereignly pretend to a self-sufficient existence.” [ G.C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God: p. 50 ]

The assertion of Scriptures is as emphatic when it pertains to God’s providence in the affairs of mankind – human actions and intentions.  This happens without any infringement of man’s moral accountability and responsibility.  When men do the evil, the culpability is theirs; but even the evil does not happen outside God’s providential purpose.  Sometimes, God restrains the evil (Gen 20:6); and at other times, He lets loose man’s own evil devices, So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices (Psa 81:12).  In this, humans remain ‘free agents’ in their actions.  Their will is not coerced contrary to their nature.  Providence must not be stretched to the denial of human freedom and moral responsibility.  In the language of the Confession, “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.” [ 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: IX. 1 ].

Use of Providence

How are we to use the concept of God’s providence in facing the prospect of 2019?

It is a corrective to the heavy emphasis on the miraculous and spectacular.  A dominant faction in Christian circles has inculcated the expectation that God’s acts of power are to be seen in the miraculous and supernatural.  Its effect is the impoverishment of faith – reducing it to a magical formula that is more pagan than Christian.  Many are blind to the wonder of providence that is often hidden in ordinary motions – human or natural.  The 19th century English preacher, CH Spurgeon, puts it eloquently:

Everything is in the Divine purpose, and has been ordered by Divine wisdom. All the events of your life – the greater, certainly; and the smaller, with equal certainty.  It is impossible to draw a line in Providence and say this is arranged by Providence and that is not. God’s Providence takes everything in its sweep- all that happens. Divine Providence determines not only the movement of a star, but the blowing of a grain of dust along the public road. God’s Providence knows nothing of things so little as to be beneath its notice, nothing of things so great as to be beyond its control. Nothing is too little or too great for God to rule and overrule. [ Spurgeon’s Sermons “The Hairs of Your Head Numbered” #2005. Mt.10:30 ]

It is an inspiration to the real challenge of faith – to trust in God.  In his book, Trusting God, author Jerry Bridges makes an impressive comparison between obeying God’s commands and trusting God in our circumstances.

Why is it easier to obey God than to trust Him?  Because obeying God makes sense to us… But the circumstances we often find ourselves in defy explanation.  When unexpected situations arise that appear unjust, irrational, or even dreadful, we feel confused and frustrated.  And before long we begin to doubt God’s concern for us and His control of our lives. [ Jerry Bridges, Trusting God: ch 1; from the back cover ]

Trust is believing that ultimately God’s purpose will prevail – even amidst the apparent triumph of evil and when good seems so overwhelmed.  God is working out His purpose.  Even when we are hard of seeing and hearing how it happens, it will have its victory.  As Stanley Grenz confidently assures,

Despite appearances to the contrary, the world historical process is going somewhere.  God is directing human affairs to the final revelation of his sovereignty and reordering of the universe in the new heaven and the new earth.  In his time, God will act decisively.  And even now he invites us to orient our lives around his ongoing program.  By means of allegiance to God revealed in Christ we can exchange the disorder of life for a new order marked by community or fellowship with God, others, and all creation. [ Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God: 123 ]

Believing in God’s providence, we can own the language of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563):

Q28:  What does it profit us to know that God created and by His providence upholds all things?  

A28:  That we may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for what is future have good confidence in our faithful God and Father, that no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.

What a comfort the providence of God truly is!  May it be the foundation of your hope in 2019.  A God-blessed New Year to all!

Born of a Virgin? Why?

Isa 7 14

The wonder is not how finite man is made into a divine; rather, it is the infinitely divine becoming genuinely human – new-born infant!

 

In what could be the earliest confessional statement of the Church outside of the New Testament, the Apostles’ Creed affirms of Jesus in its third line, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. This is a confession that goes back to the two birth narratives of the Gospels – Matthew 1:18 – 23 and Luke 1:26 – 38. All of orthodox Christendom affirms the virgin conception of Jesus. Why is this significant?

Roman Catholics use this as a basis for the exaltation of Mary in their hierarchy of saints. One must not dismiss this lightly. The recognition of Mary is pronounced in the Lukan narrative. The angel called her, from the well-known KJV translation, blessed among women! (Luke 1:28). Mary herself, conscious of the implication of her favor, said: behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed (1:48).

What must be rejected is the excess to which this Mary-exaltation in the Roman Church was carried. Dogmas developed that gave Mary a position contrary to her original status as a humble maid of Galilee. This includes Pope Pius IX’s declaration of Immaculate Conception as church dogma in 1854. This certainly is against Mary’s confession of God as my Saviour in the Magnificat (Luke 1:47) – owning her need of salvation as herself a sinner. She acknowledges herself as beneficiary of God’s mercy (1:50). One should also deny the tradition of perpetual virginity – to which even some reformers subscribed. It is expressive more of the medieval disdain for sexual union than a serious theological deduction. The time-reference of Matthew should be significant: Joseph took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son (Matthew 1:24, 25). Mary’s role as a dutiful wife would have normalized after the birth of Jesus.

So why was Jesus conceived of a virgin? Jesus’ was not the only miraculous birth. Even Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ birth was preceded by the account of the conception of Elizabeth leading to the birth of John the Baptist. But all other such miraculous births were of married women who could not be pregnant, or of mothers past their pregnancy age. Such was Sarah’s birth of Isaac. The case of Jesus was unique as the only case of conception by one who was a virgin. Was it necessary? For what?

Continuity and Discontinuity

As the Son of God was to become Man, his humanity must be continuous with the humanity that then existed. He cannot be like Adam, created from the dust, without human parentage. The becoming-Man of the Son of God was to be an act of sharing with flesh and blood (Heb 2:14). Thus, the conceiving by Mary gave him his human substance. The begetting was by the Holy Spirit, but all the conceiving was by Mary. Everything in the process of conception followed the natural human development. This is a marvel in itself. God became everything that humanity undergoes from embryonic to fetal development in the womb! He was, in every way of his human nature, born of a woman (Gal 4:4).

Ancient art has attempted a variety of ways to portray Jesus as super-human: the child with a halo on the manger! Even Martin Luther’s carol says, the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes! Why not? The wonder is not how finite man is made into a divine; rather, it is the infinitely divine becoming genuinely human – new-born infant!

While in every way human, this God-made-man is virgin-conceived, and thus, without a human father. As theologian, GC Berkouwer, puts it:

The human procreation of a human life is not the way of incarnation. At the end of such a way we shall not find Jesus Christ. In analogy with what Jesus says concerning Abraham, we might summarize the relationship with: before Joseph was, Christ is. This is no biological explanation nor does it eliminate the fatherhood, but it recognizes the uniqueness of this birth, which may also be described as a coming into the world. [1]

Lutheran theologian, Robert Duncan Culver, adds his own take:

The virgin birth provides a reasonable explanation for how a divine Being who is without beginning might take to himself a human nature without the procreation of a new person. [2]

In being born, Jesus is like any human being. In being born of a virgin, Jesus is not like any human being. He is continuous with humanity, but at the same time, is the Inaugurator of a new humanity.

Humanity without Corruption

The virgin conception of Jesus spares him of that corporate connection with Adam that grounds the imputation of sin. This seems to be the point of contrast in 1 Corinthians 15:47, The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. Both the first Adam and Jesus, as second Adam, are possessor of the divine Image of their respective humanity. In contrast with the first Adam’s humanity as earthly, Jesus’ is heavenly. The latter’s divine image is not just inherited from Adam, but all his own as a man from heaven. While it has nothing explicit to say of the virgin birth, it does corroborate the idea of a different origin of Jesus’ humanity. Says Gordon Fee,

Paul urges that since believers have borne the image of the man of earth, they should also now (because they will) bear the image of the man of heaven. The christological significance of this text is its certain emphasis in context on Christ’s humanity and thus on his being the second Adam, the one who has most truly borne the divine image in his human life. [3]

This significance of the virgin birth is underscored by Reformed theologian, John Murray,

The Son of God was sent in that very nature which in every other instance is sinful. The Son came by a mode that was supernatural, by a mode consonant with his supernatural person, and by a mode that guaranteed his sinlessness. But he came in a way that preserved fully his organic and genetic connection with us men who are all sinful flesh. He was made of the seed of David, of a seed that was sinful, and of a woman who was herself sinful and afflicted with the depravity incident to fallen humanity. He came into the closest relation to sinful humanity that it was possible for him to come without thereby becoming himself sinful. This is the incarnation that actually occurred. [4]

William GT Shedd affirms,

The doctrine of the sinlessness of Christ is, thus, necessarily connected with the doctrine of the miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit. The one stands or falls with the other. [5]

Test of Supernatural Presupposition

If for nothing else, belief in the virgin conception of Jesus tests the supernatural commitment of any theologian. J Gresham Machen spent his life and ministry contending against the Liberals of his day. He saw in the issue of the virgin birth a test case.

It is perfectly clear that the New Testament teaches the virgin birth of Christ; about that there can be no manner of doubt. There is no serious question as to the interpretation of the Bible at this point. Everyone admits the Bible represents Jesus as having been conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the virgin Mary. The only question is whether in making that representation the Bible is true or false. [6]

To return to Culver,

In a practical way, the virgin birth tests whether a theologian or a theology is approaching Christianity with wholly naturalistic assumptions or is open to the supernatural… This does not make the virgin birth central to the structure of Christian doctrine and the plan of salvation, but it is a useful test. [7]

Conclusion

Ultimately, the uniqueness of the birth of Jesus is grounded on the uniqueness of his saving mission. It is not the manger that has become the central symbol of the Christian faith – but the Cross. It is those who see the need of a Saviour from sin who will see the necessity of sinlessness as prerequisite to His saving work. It is those who see their need of salvation from sin who want the One born of a virgin. The Saviour of sinners must Himself be a Man – but not like any man.

Endnotes:

[1] GC Berkouwer, The Work of Christ: 122

[2] Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: 48

[3] Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study: 119

[4] John Murray, Collected Writings II: 133

[5] William GT Shedd, Dogmatic Theology: 639

[6] Gresham Machen, Virgin Birth: 382

[7]  Culver, 481