Pastor’s Musings

Lenten Resource: Respectable Sins by Jerry Bridges

During the Lenten season, it is common for Christians to speak of “giving something up.” And so we find some (usually) little thing in our lives, and decide to completely or partially forego it until Easter Sunday. Having done such things myself, I am no longer certain that such behaviors ever make much of an impact on the shape or trajectory of our spiritual lives. For example, have you ever given up some food item during the Lenten season, only to find yourself returning to old indulgences with gusto after it was all over? What good did the temporary abstinence do if it only led to renewed (or even increased) consumption when everything got back to normal?

I am not willing to say that such small behavior modifications are completely bad for us or that they are of no value in the pursuit of God. God wants us to submit all of our lives to him. If that means giving up chocolate for a season, then so be it. But we should never forget the words that Samuel speaks to the disobedient King Saul: “Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22 NAS).

King Saul had not been obedient to God. His sacrifice could not balance out his disobedience. In a similar manner, our little sacrifices (and all sacrifices are little next to the majesty and power of God) cannot make up for our disobedience. First, no sacrifice that we offer can ever atone for our sins. Only the blood of Jesus Christ can do that. Second, God wants to make us like Jesus through the power of His Spirit at work within us. Though it might be beneficial for me to use my cell phone less, such an action does not necessarily make me more like Jesus.

In this spirit, during the course of Lent, I will be summarizing chapters of Jerry Bridges’ Respectable Sins. Here Bridges challenges God’s people to be honest about the “little” sins that Christian people are willing to tolerate. We are not talking about the big, obvious spiritual blunders. In this book, the focus is on things like anger, gossip, and jealousy. Please use these summaries as a means of being open and honest before the Lord about those “respectable” areas of disobedience in our lives. And as you do so, never forget that Easter hope is on its way!

What has been your experience of “giving something up” for Lent? How has it had either positive or negative impact in your life? Are you giving something up this year? What do you hope to result from this behavior modification?

Building Biblical Community

A place built to house a community!

In previous posts, I have attempted to sketch out what it means to be a biblical Christian. It is a sad reality that not all who claim the name of Jesus follow Jesus in ways consistent with Holy Scripture. Evangelicals like myself immediately begin thinking of progressive denominations which seem to have traded a commitment to truth for acceptance within mainstream cultural movements. But before the heirs of Billy Graham get excited for a takedown of the “liberals”, I think we need to be honest about something. Our final discussion points to an area in which many evangelicals fail to be biblical. Not only are we called to discuss worldview and ethics. All of these other things are meant to be embodied within a living, thriving Christ-centered community.

Not only am I an evangelical churchman, but also a home-schooling dad who has spent time in the world of private Christian education. I have served in some parachurch contexts as well. And one thing that I have learned is that people who are after “the truth” are often people who will break relationships and burn bridges in order to get there. Families pull kids from schools, supporters turn from organizations, and churches split (and split again) all in the name of being correct on some issue or another. Now, of course, truth is crucial. Right and wrong are useful categories. Worldviews must be responsive to the way in which God has truly created the world. This church is a congregation which changed its own denominational identity. But you have to stop and ask yourself every now and then – “Am I really following the Lord if I am always leaving other Christians behind?” The sad reality is that many of us “conservative” types have destroyed community in the name of following God. And this, I suppose, is a violation of the third commandment.

It is a violation of the third commandment because the Lord values community. He has revealed himself and his ways to us through Scripture, and Scripture makes it clear that God is in the business of creating a people for himself. Yes, we matter to God personally. But we are created to be a part of a redeemed community – God’s ecclessia. The Bible is clear on this matter, and we could demonstrate the truth in a hundred ways. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s take texts from the beginning and from the end of the story.

When God called Moses to serve him by going to pharaoh and demanding the release of the people of Israel, the Lord showed Moses his “design” in liberating them – ” Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.  I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians'” (Exodus 6:6-7 ESV). So it is clear that the purpose was never to rescue a collection of individuals who then choose to associate together with one another according to preference and personality. Instead, the purpose was to rescue a people, a community bound together by covenant with God and with one another.

Then, jumping forward to the end, in Revelation 19 we are given a vision of the marriage supper of the Lamb – ” Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Rev. 19:7). Notice in this passage that there are one Lamb and one Bride. The church is the Bride of Christ. And the church is not to be divided. The church is one body (see 1 Cor. 12). If this is where we are headed – the marriage supper of the Lamb – then what kind of a people should we be on the journey there? If we are constantly leaving other Christians behind and destroying community, do we look like the kind of people who will be united together as one when “the end” comes? This is a serious question.

Of course, we must acknowledge that in our sin-scarred world in which we ourselves struggle with indwelling sin, divisions and misunderstandings and fractured relationships will remain. Our ultimate unity is not a creation of our own activity but a consequence of our union with Jesus. And if God has united us to Christ, the decisive unity has already been brought into being. So there is grace for all of our failures. The church will persist through all its divisions and divisiveness because Jesus said that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). The church, like the Christian person, is justified by faith not works.

In the light of the grace that God’s people have received, we are to move forward in creating the kind of community that God intends for us. And this surely must be a requirement for anyone who hopes to use the adjective biblical in any truly meaningful way.

Resources to consider:

Elmer Martens’s God’s Design uses the above mentioned text from Exodus to demonstrate God’s “design” in dealing with his people in the Old Testament.

Thom Rainer’s I Am a Church Member provides a simple blueprint for building biblical community.

2019 Stewardship Letter

The following letter is my note to the congregation for the 2019 stewardship drive. It also happens to be the basis for this Sunday’s sermon!

So let no one boast in me. For all things are yours, whether Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

1 Corinthians 3:21-22

We sometimes think, “Wouldn’t it be great to get back to being the New Testament church?” But anyone who studies the matter knows that the churches about which we read in the pages of Scripture were as riddled with problems as any congregation today. Take for example the church in Corinth. Sexual immorality. The rich abusing the poor. Divisions within the body. The flaunting of spiritual gifts. Disorderliness in worship. All of these issues were present in this cluster of congregations found in the city of Corinth. The good news is that our fellowship in being fallen which we share with this ancient group of Christians makes it possible for us to receive Paul’s words of admonishment and instruction in a relatively direct manner. We are still broken, so it is wise to listen in on how Paul ministered the gospel of grace to broken people.

One of the issues in Corinth was the formation of factions within the church. Each faction chose a different leader behind which to rally. For some it was Paul. Others chose Apollos. And still others Peter. There was even a group that said that they were of no one but Jesus (1 Cor. 1:12). This factionalism was contrary to what Paul taught in the concluding chapters of this letter – that each member of the church is a member of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12). But Paul approached the divisions from a slightly different perspective at the end of chapter three.

Paul recognized that the factions in Corinth were attempting to carve the church up into miniature little kingdoms, controlling resources and worship in small knots of like-minded people. But this was foolish to Paul’s way of thinking. The reason was expressed in 3:21-22 quoted above. Why fight over little bits and pieces of the church when every member of the church already possesses all things? The whole church and every member of the church already possesses everything – including all of its leaders and all of the spiritual blessings in Christ (see Eph. 1:3). In other words – if you have everything because you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God, why in the world would you ever need to fight over little pieces of the kingdom and create divisions? You have everything in Jesus, so why settle for less than what you already have?

Sisters and brothers, we are rich in Jesus Christ. We (and that includes you personally) have all of the blessings available in Jesus. You already have all of Jesus. So why do we persist in living with a perpetual sense of poverty, scrapping for little bits and pieces and trying to stash away parts of ourselves for a future that we cannot control? There is a better way. That way can be summed up in a simple expression – All of Jesus for All of Life. You have everything in Jesus, so you are safe to give everything to him. Every square inch of every area of your lives. 100% sold out for Jesus.

On this Stewardship Sunday, October 27th, I invite you to renew your commitments to Jesus and his people gathered together as First Presbyterian of Hillsdale. Part of this commitment will be financial pledges, but your commitment is never just financial. This month, recommit yourself to give your worship, time, skills, gifts, responsibilities, and everything else of which you can think to Jesus. Remember – you already have (right now!) everything in Jesus. So let us together live all of our lives – every square inch – for him.

Soli deo gloria!

Pastor Scott

Embracing Biblical Ethics, Pt. 2

The Babylonian stela featuring Hammurabi’s Code, one of the great legal/ethical documents of world history. From Wikimedia Commons.

In my last post, I described what biblical ethics is not. The purpose of today’s post is to suggest something of how we should positively think of biblical ethics. Ethics are of fundamental importance to our faith and to our society. Pragmatism and convenience have left a legacy of anemic moral reasoning throughout modern American life. One example will suffice. Most of us take it for granted that the cameras on our phones may be used freely to capture images of other people without considering if the person wants to be photographed. We don’t think of about the rightness or wrongness of the matter because the technology is readily available and there could be some use for the image or video. But is it really ethically correct to turn a person made in the image of God unto a meme for personal enjoyment? Does filming a person in distress prevent us from helping a person in distress? Such is the world in which we now live. But there must be a better way than pragmatism and convenience.

Biblical ethics are all about God. And the ethical training that must be part of our discipleship is God-centered training. Biblical ethics is composed of at least three key ideas – God’s character, God’s glory, and God’s wisdom. There is much more to be said on the subject, but this seems like a good starting point to me. Let us take these in turn.

Ethics in the character of God. Our ethical outlook must be shaped by the revelation of God’s character as found in Scripture. Our actual ethical choices must be applications of God’s character to the situations of life. In my last post, I mentioned the biblical law requiring a parapet be built around the roof of a house (Deuteronomy 22:8). Broadly speaking, this law teaches us that homeowners are responsible for the safety of their buildings. But we might also add the insight that people who are near the edge of a roof and behaving in ways that could lead to falling are people that are behaving foolishly (such as drunk persons).* Yet the Israelite homeowner was required to take action that actually mitigated the consequences of the foolish person’s behavior. Why go to all this trouble? Because the God of Israel cares about the well-being of his people and acts in ways that demonstrate his mercy. He is “the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6 NIV). He is the one who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). We should be like this God – “I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44).

Ethics for the glory of God. But not only are we to live our lives to reflect God’s character; we also live our lives to bring glory to God. In everything that we do, we must ask ourselves, “Am I glorifying the God who made all things and gave me new life through Jesus Christ?” As Paul writes, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). Our right ethical actions are intimately connected to the gratitude that we have to God for creating us and redeeming us. Bible teacher R. T. Kendall often refers to the doctrine of sanctification as “the doctrine of gratitude,” and I believe that there is much that is correct about this idea. The Heidelberg Catechism positions reflection on the Ten Commandments under the heading “Our Thankfulness” and Lord’s Day 32 informs us that one of the reasons that we must do good works is that “we may show ourselves thankful to God for his benefits, and he may be praised by us.” So, in any given situation, does our behavior give God glory and show him gratitude? What actions are less honoring to God and what actions are more honoring? How does what we do show how much we esteem God? If we commit small acts of theft, does it not say to God and to others that we are not satisfied with what God has provided for us?

Ethics according to the wisdom of God. Finally, biblical ethics are interested in living in ways consistent with God’s creation and the way God made human beings. If wisdom is defined as something like skillful living, then it is clear that ethics are closely related. We should not consider something ethically correct which is out of step with the way that God has made the world and other people. We do not murder because human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 9:6). To murder is to deface the image of God. It is true that the violation of this commandment is a violation of God’s character which fails to bring glory to God. It is also, however, a denial of the way that God has made people as image-bearers; therefore, it is a failure of wisdom, a refusal to function correctly within the parameters of God’s creation. Hence Christians should oppose abortion-on-demand because it seems that God has so created human reproduction that human life begins at conception and, therefore, the dignity due to the image-bearer belongs to the baby in the womb. This is wisdom, skillfully working within the parameters of God’s good creation. Just as we should not murder our neighbor, it is wise and ethically right to prohibit the murder of the vulnerable child in utero. We might conclude with the words of James, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13, emphasis added).

Of course, anyone familiar with biblical ethics is intensely interested in the actual imperatives of Scripture (openness to the Bible is a requirement for the use of the word biblical). In relation to my analysis, it might be said that any “ought” of Scripture is an application of God’s character, in which God shows us how to praise him in the daily choices of life, and in a manner consistent with the way he created the world. The Bible’s teachings on everything from marriage to business transactions can be understood in this light.

For more about biblical ethics, check out these resources.

Dan Doriani’s class on Christian Ethics, available through Covenant Seminary. *If my memory serves me correctly, the above mentioned insights on the parapet law came from this class. (Disclaimer – I took this class with Dr. Doriani, and none of my errors should be associated with his class!)

Evangelical Ethics by John Jefferson Davis (Takes a look at the perennial topics of ethical discussion such as euthanasia and sexual ethics)

Just Say Thanks! by R. T. Kendall (A very helpful book on gratitude)

Embracing Biblical Ethics, Pt. 1

How do we live as Christians? What does it mean to follow Jesus in the myriad situations of contemporary life? Think with me of all of the complex issues which face us on a daily basis – social media usage, persistent racism, abortion on demand, angry rhetoric, unrestrained consumerism, and so much more. In the youth group days of my early journey of faith, we would slap on bracelets bearing the letters WWJD (What would Jesus do?); but it seems that we now need more than shallow readings of the Gospels to chart a path through the predicaments. We need fully fleshed out biblical ethics.

In an earlier post, I made the suggestion that the adjective biblical implies four types of “openness” – to the Word, to the tradition, to the community, and to God’s creation. We rightly use this word when we have a posture of submission and attentiveness in these four areas of life. To be biblical is not to simply have the right set of beliefs about a given issue. Moreover, the description cannot be the sole possession of one group of Christians, as it is abundantly clear that many Christians of many denominations are trying to live in ways broadly consistent with this designation. It should not surprise us then that biblical ethics is not about simply knowing the rules or having a certain opinion about an important social issue. This needs to described in more detail.

Biblical ethics is not a list of rules. We live in one of the most legalistic cultures in the history of the world. When congressional bills are passed, they are often so complicated and so long as to be fundamentally inaccessible to the layperson. We have rules for every area of our lives. This is what we should and should not do at work. This is what we should or should not do when we are driving. These are the state laws that we must follow. Here are the local laws (seriously, the height of my grass?) that must be obeyed. On top of that, most of us are relentlessly interested in developing techniques and processes for how to accomplish our objectives. If you want to lose weight, you look for a diet-and-exercise system that works. If you want to manage your time better, you desire someone to give you a step-by-step plan to follow. We often add the final touch by telling people if they are violating our protocols, especially focusing on those people with whom we disagree online.

But the Bible does not give us a list of rules for Christian living. Though they can be printed in a similar format, the Ten Commandments can never be treated like the “pool rules” we find down at the community center. Take the first and last commandments for example. The first commandment tells God’s people: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 NIV). To not place others before God is not less than a rule, but it is certainly more. For the question of idolatry is not about external conformity alone. It invites us to ask serious questions about what we desire and what we love. Do we love anything else before we love God? And how about the last commandment – “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17)? Coveting is an inner condition. Coveting is something that we do in the heart. To not dive in the shallow section requires no character formation. Biblical commandments call on far more than external obedience.

Biblical ethics is not the “right” opinion on contemporary social issues. In this connection, it is important to emphasize that, though the Holy Spirit wields all parts of the Word to accomplish God’s purposes in our lives, the Scriptures were writen for cultures different than our own. This by no means suggests that the Bible has no relevance for our contemporary social issues. Such a suggestion is contrary to the Bible’s 0wn witness about itself (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It does, however, mean that the Bible does not address our social concerns in a direct manner, as if it was designed for that purpose. As God’s inspired Word, Holy Scripture speaks to people of all cultures without attaching itself permanently to any one culture and its concerns.

The Bible teaches us a range of things which have a bearing on much discussed social issues. We know that human beings are made in the image of God and should be treated accordingly (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; James 3:9-10). We know that God wants his people to care for the vulnerable (Exodus 22:21-24; James 1:27). We know that the Israelites were to build safety measures into their houses to prevent needless death (Deuteronomy 22:8). In Paul’s epistles, we see that governing authorities have been given by God the authority to uphold justice (Romans 13:3-4) and that we are to pray for those in authority so that all people might live dignified lives (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Now what do all of these things (and more!) have to do with gun control policies? The Bible certainly speaks to the issue, but we can’t simply flip open our Bible and find the answer in Numbers. The alternative is to observe that biblical ethics is mostly about the way in which we go about our ethical decision making and the priorities that we have as we do so. Of course, some answers are more biblical and God-glorifying than others. Good and evil, right and wrong, are still helpful designations. But it does take some intellectual and spiritual work to get there.

If biblical ethics is neither a rules list nor positions on social issues, what is it? I will take this up next time.

Building a Biblical Worldview

Since I was in third grade, I have worn glasses in order to correct a pernicisous case of near-sightedness. Without my glasses, my world becomes meaningless scribbles and moving blobs. With my glasses, blurry edges become sharp and dark blots become words. My glasses are the means by which I make visual sense of the world.

I became a follower of Jesus in my teenage years. From the earliest days of my discipleship, I heard pastors and leaders speaking of the need to develop a biblical worldview. Everything from public scandal to weak theology to the rise of secularism was attributed to the failure of Christians to develop a biblical view of life and the world. After many years of listening to the call to biblical worldview, I find myself both more confused about and more committed to the concept.

There is much to be confused about in the concept. In its most basic articulation, we might say that a worldview is the pair of glasses through which we make sense of the world. Things can get a little bit more fuzzy after that, and many questions abound. Is worldview primarily a thought-oriented enterprise or does it involve our emotional and pyschological shaping? Can worldviews be categorized in large, generalized categories (i.e. Marxism, secular humanism, Christianity, and other -isms) or are worldviews as unique as individuals (i.e. my way of seeing the world vs. your way of seeing the world)? Is it a list of propositions about the world or a metanarrative (a grand story) that we use to describe our experience of reality? What comes first – thoughts about the world or behaviors in the world? Many more questions can be generated, and the potential answers abound.

Yet for all of the confusion, I intuitively know that worldviews matter. We all interpret the world based on some notion of how things work. That notion or set of notions about how things work comes from our culture and upbringing and is both taught and reinforced by ritual and habit. There are big, generalized elements and personalized elements. For example, almost all Americans take for granted that food can be purchased in a store, without need to personally grow or kill what we eat. Beyond that, any given American might have had unique experiences of food in their childhood. The big picture concept (we buy what we eat) works with the personalized element (my mom made me clean my plate) to produce a way of thinking about food. I no longer conceive of worldviews as lists of propositions that are clearly held. The apologetics books of my younger days cheapened the concept by turning people into brains on sticks. Worldviews involve what we regularly do and the kind of emotional responses that we have to the world around us.

The Bible lays the groundwork for how we should think about worldviews. A biblical worldview is not primarily a list of things we think about the world but a way of living in the world that represents biblical priorities and grows out of the biblical story. In that regard, worldview is vitally connected to wisdom. Wisdom has been called the art of skillful living. To live skillfully, you have to have a grasp (not just cognitively) of how creation works and how people work and how God wants people to live in the world. This worldview-wisdom does not begin with lists of propositions but with the fear of the Lord – “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7 NIV). A biblical worldview is also about walking in the light in fellowship with God and his people – “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). And walking in God’s light changes how we see the world. As the Psalmist says, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9).

The metaphor of glasses is helpful when thinking of worldviews, but I wonder if it misses something important. After all, glasses can be put on or taken off. They are always external to us. But a biblical worldview isn’t something simply believed or disbelieved, put on or off. Instead, a biblical worldview is the way I live in the world. Maybe it is more like the muscle memory that makes it possible for me to hop on my bike and ride down the street.

When my glasses are on, I can even see the trees and houses around me as I ride.

For a good overview of the biblical story, see Michael Williams’s Far as the Curse is Found.

For a dip into the idea that worldview is more than propositions but also ritual and affection, see James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love.

Suffering for Jesus

Before I return to my series on living biblically, I would like to share a thought that has been running through my mind since the 39th General Assembly of the EPC. We were blessed to hear from missionary and former Turkish prisoner Andrew Brunson. And his message to the body was this: we need to prepare ourselves for coming persecution. He meant right here in the United States. He taught that persecution is coming because Jesus told us to expect it. You can see the video above. Seriously, stop reading this and watch it!

My basic thought is that one of the greatest tests of true Christian unity that we will ever experience will be whether we are willing to suffer with and for our brothers and sisters in Christ. In our congregations, will we suffer with and for sisters and brothers? Even the ones that we don’t always get along with?

And what about the wider church? Will mainline Christians suffer with and for evangelicals? Will evangelicals suffer with and for fundamentalists? Will Presbyterians suffer with and for Pentecostals? Will Protestants suffer with and for Catholics? Though I certainly don’t want to suffer, I can’t help but imagine that the surprising configurations of mutual consolation and encouragement born out of persecution could be one of the greatest testimonies to the vitality and beauty of the Christian faith that our nation has yet seen.