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February 11, 2008

Do you remember learning to do long division back when you were in grade school? It was probably fourth or fifth grade when we learned to do it. It was a long and laborious process and one that, even in my day, seemed irrelevant. After all, we all had calculators and we knew that they could do it quickly and easily. With the tapping of a few buttons we could get our solution and it would be correct every time. Kids today can probably make an even better argument that division is best handled by computers or calculators. I’ve little doubt that once most of them are out of school they never do long division again.

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a good step-by-step example of long division in operation (drawn from Wikipedia).

950 divided by 4:

1. The dividend and divisor are written in the long division tableau:

Now instead of dividing the whole dividend (950) by the divisor (4) we will simply divide each digit of the dividend by the divisor, one at a time, starting from the most significant (leftmost) digit:

2.The first number to be divided by the divisor (4) is the leftmost digit (9) of the dividend. Ignoring any remainder, we write the integer part of the result (2) above the division bar over the leftmost digit of the dividend.

Since we ignored the remainder, though, we have not accounted for the leftmost place entirely. That is to say: 4 × 2 is merely 8, and the relevant digit of the dividend was 9. Thus we subtract 8 from 9, yielding the remainder 1, to tell us how much of the leftmost place remains unaccounted for.

3. We “bring down” this unaccounted-for remainder from the leftmost place (1) then bring down the next digit of the dividend (5) and place it to the right of the remainder to create a new bottom number (15).

4. Next we repeat steps 2 and 3, using the newly created bottom number (15) as the active part of the dividend, dividing it by the divisor (4) and writing the results as before above and under the next digit of the dividend.

5. We repeat step 4 until there are no digits remaining in the dividend. The number written above the bar (237) is the quotient, and the result of the last subtraction is the remainder for the entire problem (2).

The answer to the above example is expressed as 237 with remainder 2. Alternatively, one can continue the above procedure to produce a decimal answer. We continue the process by adding a decimal and zeroes as necessary to the right of the dividend, treating each zero as another digit of the dividend. Thus the next step in such a calculation would give the following:

I’m sure you remember this kind of problem and solution. You probably remember hating having to go through all the bother. You probably remember, as I do, trying to get out of it. The argument my teachers made, and the argument I’m sure teachers continue to make today, is that doing the onerous task of long division not only teaches us how to do it on our own for those rare occasions that a computer or calculator or cell phone isn’t handy, but it also teaches how division works. By going through each step we see how it works—we learn not only the solution, but we also learn the process of solving it. It isn’t fun, but neither is it meant to be. It’s an educational process.

Since the release of my book I’ve done quite a few written and radio interviews and I’ve spoken to many people about the book face-to-face. A question that gets asked often is what I hope people will take from the book—what are one or two things that I really want people to learn. And this is where the parallel to long division comes in. If there is just one thing I want people to take away from the book it’s the categories of discernment. If Christians can read the book and begin to think in the black and white terms of discernment, I’ll be well pleased. Just knowing that discernment is an expectation for all of us is valuable knowledge and something many Christians really do not understand.

And second to that, I want people to realize that discernment is something we are responsible for as individuals. We cannot simply leave discernment to the experts. Rather, we each need to learn to discern and we each need to grow in the skill of discernment. Like using a calculator for division, we can rely on others to give us the bottom line. But like doing long division, it is far better to do the work ourselves and to ensure we understand how to discern. The theological equivalent of using a calculator may be just Googling what John Piper or John MacArthur says about a certain topic and taking that word as law. It may be asking a parent or pastor and accepting what they say without further thought. We are all prone to want to get to the final tally without going through the intervening steps.

But like the kid who cheats by using a calculator, we cheat ourselves if we do not do the difficult work of discernment. As we discern what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, we train ourselves to think as Christians and we train ourselves to really understand what discernment is. We make sure that we understand the difficult business of discernment—not only the end result but the process of getting there.

February 06, 2008

Some time ago a reader of this site, a new Calvinist, wrote to ask, “If a person is ‘a child of wrath’ from birth due to Adam’s sin and unable to choose God because of Adam’s sin, how is he responsible for his actions if he was born this way (and has no ability of his own to choose God)? … If Christ didn’t die for all men, yet all men were condemned for one sin (and by that sin, thereafter, unable to choose good), how is it just of God to condemn all men if they are ‘determined’ to be sinful by the action of Adam?”

This is one of those questions that could be answered in a few short lines, many sermons, or in a few great volumes. And it is probably best answered by someone far smarter than I am. But I will attempt it anyways, and hope to answer it satisfactorily, without going into laborious detail.

It is first important to understand that the Bible points us to a unity in the human race. Acts 17:26 tells us that “he [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.” Some of the older translations read “he made from one blood every nation of mankind.” Thus all of us are descendants of the one man and we have inherited his humanity and his attributes. The blood of Adam is in all of our veins. But Adam has passed down more than flesh and blood; he has also passed down sin.

John Piper writes, “The problem with the human race is not most deeply that everybody does various kinds of sins—those sins are real, they are huge and they are enough to condemn us. Paul is very concerned about them. But the deepest problem is that behind all our depravity and all our guilt and all our sinning, there is a deep mysterious connection with Adam whose sin became our sin and whose judgment became our judgment” (“Adam, Christ, and Justification: Part I”).

Let’s now try to come to an understanding of how Adam’s sin affected the human race. This is one of the topics Paul addresses in Romans 5, a chapter that deals primarily with justification by faith. We will begin with verses 12 - 14 of that chapter. “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” This is something of an awkward construct, for Paul begins a thought in verse 12, and does not conclude it until verse 18. Verses 13 through 17 are parenthetical, yet still crucial to the argument he is building.

We learn from these verses that sin came into the world through one man, and we know this to be Adam. We learn also that death entered the world through sin and that death spread to all men because all men sinned. The meaning of these last words has been in dispute throughout the history of the church. Somehow we need to reconcile the fact that when Adam sinned, every human being also sinned, even though they were not yet in existence. From the moment of Adam’s sin, God regarded the human race as sinful. This is the meaning of verses 13 and 14, for Paul tells us that even before the Law was given, men still died. Thus before God gave the Law to Moses, men were already counted guilty by God on the basis of their forefather’s sin. This is further reinforced in verses 18 and 19 which read “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

We see that Adam was more than the father of the human race, but was also the representative head of the human race—our federal head. God had determined this from before the time Adam sinned. Thus Adam’s actions directly affected us. Consider the metaphor of the President of a nation. When the President of the United States declared war on Japan on December 8, 1941, every citizen of the nation was also at war with Japan. Acting as the head of all those whom he represented, the President made a decision that affected each one of them. It is, of course, an imperfect analogy, but sheds some light on how one man can represent others. Adam made the decision to wage war against God, and this affected every aspect of his being. It also affected all those whom he represented.

Just as our physical bodies are descended from Adam, the same is true with our souls. A child is not given a perfect, sinless soul at the moment of conception, but rather inherits an already sinful soul from his parents and ultimately, from Adam. So when we read in Genesis that Adam “fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” we know that Adam’s likeness included a sinful body and a sinful soul. Just as Adam had sinned in the whole man, both body and soul, so Seth inherited that sinful body and soul.

There is a term here we ought to define. To impute is to “attribute or credit to” or, said otherwise, “attribute (responsibility or fault) to a cause or source.” Adam, acting as our representative, sinned on our behalf and his sin was then imputed to us—held on our account. Hodge writes, “Such was the relation, natural and federal, between him [Adam] and his posterity, that his act was putatively their act. That is, it was the judicial ground or reason why death passed on all men. In other words, they were regarded and treated as sinners on account of his sin.” Thus Adam’s sin is regarded as our own. When Adam sinned, we sinned and are justifiably considered condemned in God’s eyes because of this sin.

Naturally, there are objections to this view. I will outline two responses we can make against these objections:

First, anyone who protests that this is unfair has already committed a multitude of sins, proving his own sinfulness. He has sinned because he is a sinner. God does not place an innocent man under Adam’s sin against his will. It is his own sins that will form the primary basis for his condemnation. Romans 2:6 tells us that God “will render to each one according to his works.” Similarly, Colossians 3:25 says, “…the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.”

Second, if we deny that men can be declared guilty on the basis of one man’s sin, we will have difficulty accepting the parallel between Adam and Christ, who is called the Second Adam. “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” Adam stood as the representative head of the human race and sinned, but God sent His Son to stand as the second representative head and through Him provided salvation. We are counted guilty through Adam’s sin, but Christ, standing as the representative head of all who would believe in Him, obeyed God and now God counts us as righteous. To return to the word “impute,” we can now have Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, overcoming the sin of Adam.

Parenthetically, Wayne Grudem provides a third response, but seems to give it little credence. He suggests the view that any other human would also have sinned had he been in Adam’s place. However, the Bible does not explicitly state this and by Grudem’s own admission, “it does not seem to be a conclusive argument, for it assumes too much about what would or would not happen” (Systematic Theology, page 495).

So now we turn back to the original question of how it is that God can condemn all men on the basis of one man’s action. Or said otherwise, how can He hold our sins against us when we are so predisposed to sin that we are unable not to sin? As we have seen, Adam’s sin is our own as fully as it was his. This is just an unavoidable biblical reality. Yet this is not something we should regret or despise. Rather, we ought to embrace this, for if this is true, it is equally true that Christ stands as our representative and is able and willing to impute His righteousness to our account. There is nothing to be gained in objecting to the imputation of Adam’s guilt, but everything to be gained in accepting it. As G.I. Williamson says, “Explain it, or explain it not, as we may, it remains true. It is also a fact that there is no salvation for such sinners as we are, except by the word of Jesus Christ as the representative of His people” (The Shorter Catechism Volume 1). We cannot have one without the other.

February 04, 2008

I love language and the English language in particular. While I have always enjoyed using words and studying language, I found that my love of English was forged during the time I spent studying other languages, primarily those from which English is derived—Latin, Greek, and to some extent, French. I also studied linguistics and, of course, the English language itself. I came to love understanding how people use words to craft ideas. There is a good reason that people continue to study Shakespeare in high school despite increasingly antiquated language. Shakespeare was a master of the language, a master word crafter, and it benefits anyone to learn from his example. The same is true of Dickens or any other number of authors. What I learned is that words are important. Who would want to read a modern translation of Shakespeare? We would be left with nothing but a second-rate story. And an author’s words are important. That may come as no great surprise and may even seem obvious, but the translators of dynamic equivalent translations would have to disagree, at least somewhat, as their translation philosophy proves that they feel ideas are more important than words.

Whenever I take the time to read the Bible slowly and meditatively, and this is particularly true of reading the Old Testament, I am struck by the beauty of the language as it is translated in the English Standard Version, my translation of choice. While I do not know how to read Hebrew, I often hear people speak of the poetic nature of the language which leads even the prose to have poetic qualities. It seems to me that the ESV does an admirable job of capturing that. The same cannot be said of all Bible translations. I have come to love the little literary devices, the metaphors and phrases used by the ancient writers and find that they add so much to the reading of the text. Without a translation that accurately rendered these sayings we would lose so much of the flow and meaning of the text.

There is so much beauty in the prose of the Old Testament and I am thankful to have access to a translation (and to several translations, really) that accurately renders the metaphors and phrases used by the original authors. Let me provide you with a few examples. I am going to use the ESV as my standard essentially-literal translation. I do this not necessary to indicate that it is superior to the others within the category, but simply because it is the translation I use for my devotional and study work.

Let’s begin with 1 Kings 2:2 where King David gives his final wishes to his son Solomon. The ESV renders this “I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, and show yourself a man.” The other essentially literal translations agree with this translation as the NASB, KJV and NKJV are all very similar. There are two constructs here that I feel are essential to the text. “I am about to go the way of all the earth,” and “show yourself a man.” Let’s see how several other common translations render this particular verse:

  • “I am about to go the way of all the earth,” he said. “So be strong, show yourself a man.” (NIV)
  • “I am going where everyone on earth must someday go. Take courage and be a man.” (NLT)
  • “My son, I will soon die, as everyone must. But I want you to be strong and brave.” (CEV)
  • “I’m about to go the way of all the earth, but you—be strong; show what you’re made of!” (Message)

As we see, the NIV renders the verse in a way that is consistent with the original text. The NLT deviates a little bit, expanding the meaning of “the way of all the earth” to “where everyone on earth must someday go.” It also says, “be a man” rather than “show yourself a man.” The CEV further interprets the verse, removing any sort of literary device in both parts. The Message does a little better, maintaining the first half of the verse but removing the “show yourself a man.”

What is lost in the NLT and the CEV is the metaphor “the way of all the earth.” It is an important term, beautifully poetic, and surely one that is worth some time in meditation. There is a depth of meaning to that phrase that is clearly missing in words like “I will soon die, as everyone must.” Readers of the NLT and CEV have no access to this phrase and miss out on the wonderful opportunity to meditate upon it and learn from it.

Another example comes only one verse later. 1 Kings 2:3 continues David’s instruction to his son. David exhorts Solomon to follow God and “walk in His ways.” The ESV translates the verse as “…and keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his rules, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn.” Let’s see how other translations render “walking in his ways.”

  • …and observe what the LORD your God requires: Walk in his ways, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements, as written in the Law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go,” (NIV)
  • Observe the requirements of the LORD your God and follow all his ways. Keep each of the laws, commands, regulations, and stipulations written in the law of Moses so that you will be successful in all you do and wherever you go.” (NLT)
  • Do what the LORD your God commands and follow his teachings. Obey everything written in the Law of Moses. Then you will be a success, no matter what you do or where you go.” (CEV)
  • Do what GOD tells you. Walk in the paths he shows you: Follow the life-map absolutely, keep an eye out for the signposts, his course for life set out in the revelation to Moses; then you’ll get on well in whatever you do and wherever you go.” (Message)

The term “Walking in his ways” is a wonderful metaphor for living a life that honors God. We seek to emulate Him by following carefully in the footsteps of God. I am reminded of a song by the Smalltown Poets, “Call me Christian,” where they sing, “As a boy I’d put my steps / In my brother’s bigger tracks / To match his stride / And just like that I follow Jesus / Jesus is my guide.” That type of imagery is absent from the New Living Translation as well as the CEV. The Message is quite close and the NIV is, once again, accurate.

Moving along we come to 1 Kings 2:9. David asks Solomon to exact revenge against Shimei, a man who had cursed David. “Now therefore do not hold him guiltless, for you are a wise man. You will know what you ought to do to him, and you shall bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol.” The metaphorical phrase here is “bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol.” Again, this is a wonderfully descriptive phrase that has more meaning than simply “kill.” Yet several translations provide only this meaning.

  • But now, do not consider him innocent. You are a man of wisdom; you will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood.” (NIV)
  • But that oath does not make him innocent. You are a wise man, and you will know how to arrange a bloody death for him.” (NLT)
  • Now you must punish him. He’s an old man, but you’re wise enough to know that you must have him killed. (CEV)
  • But neither should you treat him as if nothing ever happened. You’re wise, you know how to handle these things. You’ll know what to do to make him pay before he dies.” (Message)

The NIV does a good job, only changing Sheol to grave. The NLT writes about a bloody death. This seems to miss the point for the verse is not primarily concerned with the mode of death, but with the reason for the death. The Message misses the mark altogether. Neither the NLT, the CEV or the Message see fit to render the word “grey” or “hoary” (as the King James renders it). Is that not a word God placed in the text? Is it not an important word? I do not understand why they would knowingly remove a word God saw fit to include.

One of the most beautiful and oft-repeated phrases in the Old Testament is found in 1 Kings 2:10. “Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David.” Several essentially literal translations render “slept” as “rested” but the meaning remains the same. The Bible Knowledge Commentary says of this verse, “The picturesque phrase rested with his fathers beautifully describes David’s death and suggests that his activity did not cease forever. Indeed, the bodies of all believers who die simply ‘rest’ until they are resurrected to live with God and serve Him eternally.” David entered a temporary rest as he, along with the rest of Creation, awaits the final consummation. Here is how other translations render that verse:

  • Then David rested with his fathers and was buried in the City of David.” (NIV)
  • Then David died and was buried in the City of David.” (NLT)
  • David was king of Israel forty years. He ruled seven years from Hebron and thirty-three years from Jerusalem. Then he died and was buried in Jerusalem.” (CEV - combines verses 10-11)
  • Then David joined his ancestors. He was buried in the City of David.” (Message)

The NIV remains consistent with the text. The NLT and CEV say simply that David died. The Message extends the verse by saying that David joined his ancestors, something that is a bit of a stretch but at least somewhat true to the meaning of the verse. The NLT and CEV do not allow their readers to see the beauty of “resting with his fathers.” Instead, David simply died. What a tragic loss! Readers of these translations will not see any hope beyond the grave. They will not know that David has gone to be with his fathers and that he is merely resting. Once more, are these not words that God deliberately placed in the text? Should readers not have access to them?

In 1 Kings 2:12 Solomon has assumed his father’s throne. In fact, according to an essentially literal translation, “Solomon sat on the throne of David his father, and his kingdom was firmly established.” While the meaning of the phrase “sat on the throne of David his father” is clear, meaning that Solomon succeeded his father as ruler, there is an interesting sense of continuity in the original words. Doing more than simply replacing his father, Solomon actually assumed his throne. This may seem a small distinction, but I feel it is important nevertheless. It is similar to verse 3 (above) where David exhorted Solomon to walk in God’s ways. Now Solomon is sitting on his father’s throne. Let’s see how other translations have rendered this verse:

  • So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David, and his rule was firmly established.” (NIV)
  • Solomon succeeded him as king, replacing his father, David, and he was firmly established on the throne.” (NLT)
  • His son Solomon became king and took control of David’s kingdom.” (CEV)
  • Solomon took over on the throne of his father David; he had a firm grip on the kingdom.” (Message)

Once more the translations are varied with the NIV being most literal and the CEV straying furthest from the text. The NLT, CEV and Message see fit to explain the verse while the NIV, along with the essentially literal translations, leave the words as they are. Through reading a literal translation we can picture Solomon ascending his father’s throne and taking over his responsibilities. This imagery is foreign to the dynamic equivalent translations.

Examples multiply as I read the Bible. I love these little literary constructs and love to think about them. They offer more than meets the eye and there is reward in doing the work of understanding them. I’ve also found that they provide wonderful “teachable moments” where I can ask my children what they might mean. They require thought and meditation.

I am grateful that I have access to such a solid translation of Scripture. While I do not know Hebrew, I still have access to an accurate translation of the author’s original words, complete with the phrases, words and metaphors that set one author apart from another. I have access to the full meaning, or as close as I can come without access to the original language, of what was written so long ago. I simply can’t understand how anyone would be satisfied with anything less.

February 02, 2008

Last Saturday I shared a prayer for the Lord’s Day Eve. Like that one, today’s prayer is also drawn from that collection of Puritan prayers The Valley of Vision. This prayer is meant for the Lord’s Day and is a perfect way to begin Sunday looking to the Lord of that day.

O Lord, My Lord,

This is thy day,
the heavenly ordinance of rest,
the open door of worship,
the record of Jesus’ resurrection,
the seal of the sabbath to come,
the day when saints militant and triumphant unite in endless song.

I bless thee for the throne of grace,
that here free favour reigns;
that open access to it is through the blood of Jesus;
that the veil is torn aside and I can enter
the holiest
and find thee ready to hear;
waiting to be gracious,
inviting me to pour out my needs,
encouraging my desires,
promising to give more than I ask or think.

But while I bless thee, shame and confusion are mine:
I remember my past misuse of sacred things,
my irreverent worship,
my base ingratitude,
my cold, dull praise.
Sprinkle all my past sabbaths with the cleansing blood of Jesus,
and may this day witness deep improvement in me.

Give me in rich abundance the blessings the Lord’s Day was designed to impart;
May my heart be fast bound against worldly thoughts or cares;
Flood my mind with peace beyond understanding;
may my meditations be sweet,
my acts of worship life, liberty, joy,
my drink the streams that flow from thy throne,
my food the precious Word,
my defence the shield of faith,
and may my heart be more knit to Jesus.

January 28, 2008

Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’”

The twenty-third chapter of Jeremiah falls near the halfway point of the book, in the midst of a section where the prophet is foretelling the end of the Davidic dynasty and the coming captivity of God’s people. In this particular chapter, Jeremiah pronounces judgments against the false prophets who had become a plague within the nation. While these words were spoken some 600 years before Christ and in a particular context, his words ring as true today as they did then. “They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you’” (16, 17).

How can these words fail to remind us of the false prophets who plague the church even in the twenty-first century? So many men and women today speak visions of their own minds, and teach what has so evidently not come from the mouth of the Lord. So many say that it shall be well with people who in reality are destined to suffer eternal torment for their hatred of God. They seek to show from Scripture that Christ will save those even who have never heard His Word, and who have never humbled themselves before the Lord. They say, “It shall be well with you” to those who sit in the pews but have never had their hearts of ice melted by the Lord. They speak lies and blasphemies, all the while pretending to the speak for the Lord.

The next verse, verse eighteen, teaches us how to choose good and noble teachers of the Word. If only we could master this simple piece of wisdom the church would be revitalized!

“For who among them has stood in the council of the Lord
to see and to hear his word,
or who has paid attention to his word and listened?”

What wisdom there is in this verse! It cuts to the heart of the difference between leaders who are godly and leaders who are only godly in pretense. A godly leader is one who has not only stood in the council of the Lord, and has thus seen and heard His Word, but one who has paid attention and listened. He has listened not just with his ears, but with his heart. Many of the most popular leaders can appear godly, for they can quote the Bible at will and can discuss Christian doctrine with the best of them. Yet what lacks is humility—true humility. True humility, the humility we learn about in the Bible and the humility God requires of us, is a submission to God and a submission to the Scriptures as He has given them to us. Leaders that honor God are those who are humble before God, not only hearing, but listening and applying. They are leaders who humble themselves before this book, knowing and believing that it is perfect and good and sufficient. They know that all they can offer is this book. No wisdom arising from their own minds can truly bring help to a needy soul. They know that all they can offer is what God provides.

Hear the Word of the Lord as he provides an indictment of the false prophets, who claimed to speak for Him, but in reality, spoke only their own folly (verses 21 and 22):

“I did not send the prophets,
yet they ran;
I did not speak to them,
yet they prophesied.
But if they had stood in my council,
then they would have proclaimed my words to my people,
and they would have turned them from their evil way,
and from the evil of their deeds.”

Here we see another mark of false teachers. The false prophets ran to prophecy with boldness and that was not characteristic of the difficulty and gravity that accompanied true prophecy. And as we saw in the previous verses, these false prophets had not listened to the Word of the Lord. Had they been attentive to the Lord, they would have proclaimed the Truth of God to the people, who would have turned from their evil ways. But instead the prophets tickled the peoples’ ears, telling them only what they wanted to hear. They told the people that God was not angry with them, and that it would go well with them. They told them this despite open rebellion against God.

Does this not sound suspiciously similar to the warning Paul gave Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:3-4? “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

The time is coming and has clearly now come. In fact, it seems that this has been the refuge of sinners since the dawn of time. When people are in rebellion against God, they gather for themselves teachers who will condone their sinful lifestyles instead of condemn them in the name of the Lord. We might think back to the false prophets and even to Aaron, the brother of Moses, who constructed the golden calf. We might think of so many teachers in our day who say little more than what the people in the pews demand to hear. This is not preaching that condemns ungodly lifestyles and pleads with men to turn from their selfish ways. Instead, it is preaching to the choir—preaching that may stir the mind or the emotions, but preaching that is devoid of the Spirit and His power to truly pierce the heart and the conscience. Even when in rebellion against God people wish to feel like they have heard from Him and they wish to know that He still loves and supports them. So in their rebellion they find rebellious teachers to condone rather than condemn.

Look now to verses 23-32. It is a natural temptation to pass over the words of Scripture and read only the commentary. Please do not do that. Read the Word of God.

Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart, who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal? Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the Lord, who steal my words from one another. Behold, I am against the prophets, declares the Lord, who use their tongues and declare, ‘declares the Lord.’ Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, declares the Lord, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all, declares the Lord.

The Word of the Lord is powerful. It is the most powerful tool in the Christian’s arsenal. The Lord, through the mouth of his prophet, compares it to fire that consumes and to a hammer that can smash great rocks into pieces. Later on in Scripture we see that the Word of the Lord can do more than break rocks; God’s Word can soften a hardened heart and breathe life into death. False teachers pretend to speak forth this all-powerful Word, yet they speak only their own dreams and the interpretations of their sinful hearts. God hates these words. He hates those who blaspheme His name saying “declares the Lord” or “This is the Word of the Lord” or “The Bible says” or “God says” when in reality they are declaring nothing more than their own depravity and their own hatred of their Maker. God is against these people for they do not profit His children. They lead them astray, they confuse them, and they make a mockery of God.

“Let him who has my word speak my word faithfully.” And here is the charge for those who would speak for the Lord. What an awesome responsibility it is to have the Word of God. We have it in a way that is unprecedented in history. What wouldn’t the men and women of the Bible give to have the complete revelation of God as we do today? Let those who study this word and who step into the pulpits of our churches speak that word faithfully. Let them declare only what the Lord declares and to do so boldly, powerfully, but always humbly.

In his book The Roman Catholic Controversy, James White recounts the first time he had the privilege of filling the pulpit at his church.

My pastor takes preaching seriously. He views it as a privilege and a high calling to stand before the people of God to open the Word of God. I well remember the first time I filled the pulpit in our congregation. When we met in the pastor’s office prior to the service he asked, “Are you scared?” “Yes, a bit,” I replied. “Good,” he said. “It is an awesome thing to preach the Word of God to God’s people.” Then, as we went into the service, he said to me, “Play the man, Mr. Ridley.”

The pastor’s words were a reference to the words Hugh Latimer spoke to Nicholas Ridley, bishop of London, as they went to the stake to be martyred under the reign of Queen Mary. Such is the gravity that ought to accompany the Word of God. Few in our day have such a sense of gravity. But oh, what a great thing it is to approach the task of speaking for the Lord with such an attitude of gravity and humble dependence.

Turn back to the first verse of this chapter. “’Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the Lord.” Surely the Lord will hold those in positions of teaching and authority doubly-responsible for being true to His Word. To the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day, and surely to the false teachers of our day, God says, “I am against [those] who use their tongues and declare, ‘declares the Lord.’ Behold I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, declares the Lord, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all, declares the Lord.”

And so I challenge you to choose your teachers with the utmost of care! Examine those who stand in the pulpit and those whose books you read. Choose to place yourself under the teaching of those who are humble before the Word of God and who treat it with gravity and respect. Give your attention to those who have stood in the council of the Lord to see and to hear His Word, and who have paid attention to the Word and listened—truly listened.

January 26, 2008

In the tradition I grew up in, Saturday was considered a prelude to Sunday. It was a day of preparation for the Lord’s Day to come. I recently read a biography of theologian John Murray and enjoyed reading about how he understood the day in the same way (which makes good sense since he was also Presbyterian). Saturday evenings, in particular, were to be set aside for Sunday preparation. It reminded me of my youth.

In reading The Valley of Vision I found this prayer and have made it mine today. I suspect Murray would do the same.

Another week has gone and I have been preserved
in my going out,
in my coming in.

Thine has been the vigilance that has turned threatened evils aside;
thine the supplies that have nourished me;
Thine the comforts that have indulged me;
Thine the relations and friends that have delighted me;
Thine the means of grace which have edified me;
Thine the Book, which, amidst all my enjoyments, has told me that this is not my rest,
that in all successes one thing alone is needful, to love my Saviour.
Nothing can equal the number of they mercies but my imperfections and sins.
These, O God, I will neither conceal nor palliate, but confess with a broken heart.

In what condition would secret reviews of my life leave me
were it not for the assurance that with thee there is plenteous redemption,
that thou art a forgiving God,
that thou mayest be feared!

While I hope for pardon through the blood of the cross,
I pray to be clothed with humility,
to be quickened in thy way,
to be more devoted to thee,
to keep the end of my life in view,
to be cured of the folly of delay and indecision,
to know how frail I am,
to number my days and apply my heart unto wisdom.

January 23, 2008

It is easy to grow discouraged at the state of the church. As a person who invests quite a lot of time and attention to studying the church, her health and what Jesus requires of her, I often find myself lamenting her state. Writers from all backgrounds and denominations have written about the church, and I have read many of these books and publications. The standard book begins with a few chapters outlining all the ways the church has failed with the rest of the book providing the solution. If only we did this or that or the other thing, we would make the church what she was intended to be. I haven’t read too many books that give the church a pat on the back and said “good job!” Maybe for good reason. Maybe not. When I wrote The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment I was deliberate in not doing that, in not giving a long list of all the ways the church has failed. In a sense I don’t need to as her failing are evident to anyone who seeks to look for them; but I also did not wish to spread a spirit of discouragement.

Here are just a couple of examples of people who have taken on the church in recent years. Rick Warren wrote the mega-seller The Purpose Driven Church wherein he proclaimed that the church had lost sight of her purpose and had to rediscover it. Millions of pastors bought and read this book and began what Warren refers to as the Second Reformation - a Reformation of purpose. A couple of years ago I counted six or seven books in the Christian bookstore heralding “the next Reformation,” yet all of them pointed towards a different basis for this Reformation. The men and women of the Emergent community continually write indictments of the church, showing how, in their view, she has failed in the modern world and is primed to be an even greater failure in the postmodern world. A person who is fully immersed in the Emergent church sent me an email once and wrote about “denominational distinctives that strive to keep us divided” as if churches are purposely focusing on the distinctives in order to drive wedges between them and other believers. There are any number of other authors that identify problems and tell us how to fix them. Many people are proud to be believers, yet are ashamed to be part of the church - the visible body of Christ. They portray the church as being purposeless, intellectual and ancient, knowingly and joyfully trapped in the past, snickering as we watch our neighbors fall into the abyss.

Yet the church is not a failure; the church—the remnant of those who are faithful, who compose only a fraction of the wider, visible church, remain true to Christ and continue to do God’s work in the world. Jesus Himself told us that the road to salvation is narrow and only a few enter, so we should not be surprised when there are far more who turn their backs than respond with joy. We mourn their loss but trust in God’s sovereignty in saving His people. This I can guarantee: 100% of God’s elect have been (or will be!) ministered to and changed by the Word of God. Every one of them has heard the preaching of a minister of the Word or has read a Bible lovingly and obediently translated which was delivered to someone who needed it most. Why do we dwell so often and sometimes exclusively on our failures and shortcomings? Does this honor God and glorify Him for the battles that have been won and the lives He has changed through us?

Despite these victories we too often see the church as a failure. I used to get a lot of emails from a friend who has a high view of his own sin. He tends to sign his emails as “your sinful, spiteful, hell-deserving sinner of a friend” or something like that. He never hides from his own sin, and I admire that. And while it is fully true that he is a sinner and no doubt feels spite and malice and does deserve hell, this is only half the story. In his view of his sin I think he often loses sight of the fact that in God’s eyes he is now a beautiful new creation, restored to the image of God. He has been bought with precious blood and adopted into the family of the king! I continually have to remind him that he is focusing on only half of the battle. His emphasis on his sin does not allow him to see the beauty of what he has become. And I think this is how the church often sees itself - it sees the bad and loses track of all the good things that the church has done through Christ.

The church, despite sin and failings and shortcomings and imperfections of all sorts is a glorious body and one that I know Christ is proud of. He has promised that the church will prevail and we can take refuge in that promise. If we were not such a sinful mess we would not need him at all! But because we are sinful and constantly go astray, we need Him to lead and guide us as we act as His representatives on earth. I know that there is so much more we could do, and must do. I know the church is not all that God wants it to be. Yet I am confident that it brings Him glory and makes Him proud. So if you are part of this body, allow yourself a moment of gratitude and awe for what God has done in and through His body; thank God that you can be part of something so awesome, so glorious, so godly. And then put your hand to the plow and continue the work He has entrusted to us.

January 21, 2008

Today marks the end of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment blog tour. This was meant to be only a two week tour, but events conspired to keep me from visiting SharperIron on the scheduled date. We decided we would add one date to the tour so I could make that stop.

The guys at SharperIron focused on the common belief that discernment is intuitive rather than something that requires dedicated thought and practice. How does Scripture tell us to view discernment as a step of rational thought guided by the Holy Spirit, rather than a supra-rational sixth sense? After that opening question, they asked several questions that furthered application. For example, If I use my knowledge of Scripture to judge some action as evil, and this discernment seems clear, how should I view my brother who does not make the same discernment? These were surprisingly difficult questions that I struggled with for quite some time.

Read my answers here.

I am grateful for all of the bloggers who chose to participate in this tour:

January 7Evangelical Outpost
January 8Tall Skinny Kiwi
January 9A-Team
January 10Adrian Warnock
January 11Gender Blog
January 14Jollyblogger
January 15Between Two Worlds
January 16TeamPyro
January 17Michael Spencer
January 18Church Matters
January 21SharperIron