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February 02, 2014

Today I am completing a series of articles on the seven ecumenical councils of the early church. These councils commenced with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and concluded with the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Between these two events were five more, each of which attempted to understand and establish a unified Christian theology.

In this series we have taken a brief look at each of the seven councils. For each one we have considered the setting and purpose, the major characters, the nature of the conflict, and then the results and lasting significance. We close the series today with the final council: the Second Council of Nicaea.

Setting & Purpose

The Second Council of Nicaea opened on September 24, 787, some 452 years after the first ecumenical council met in that same city. Between 258 and 335 bishops were present, presided over by Tarasius, who was Patriarch of Constantinople. The council had been convened by Empress Irene in order to discuss the use of icons, a practice which had been condemned by the Council of Hieria in 754.

Major Characters & Conflict

Constantine V (718 – 775) had led a campaign against icons that had begun with his father, Emperor Leo III. The campaign culminated in the Council of Hieria in 754. This council claimed to be ecumenical and succeeded in establishing iconoclasm (the rejection and destruction of religious icons) as the orthodox teaching of the church.

When Constantine V died, his son Leo IV took over the throne. He maintained his father’s iconoclasm, though he was less forceful against those who remained in favor of using them, perhaps because his wife, Irene, was an iconophile. When Leo IV died in 780, just five years after taking the throne, Irene succeeded him.

In 784 the outgoing patriarch of Constantinople, Paul IV, urged Irene to call a council to help mend some of the divisions between the Eastern and Western church and to examine the use of icons. She agreed, and soon after appointed a new patriarch of Constantinople, Tarasius, to help her. She also wrote to Pope Hadrian in Rome, asking him to prepare for a council. He agreed, and expressed his support for the use of icons based on his understand of Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers. Though he did not travel to Nicaea, he did send two representatives.

January 29, 2014

Of all the casualties the church has suffered in recent decades, I wonder if many will have longer-lasting consequences than the loss of the evening service. There was a time, not so long ago, when many or even most churches gathered in the morning and the evening. But today the evening service is increasingly relegated to the past.

At Grace Fellowship Church we hold on to the evening service and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It is a commitment, to be sure—a commitment for the pastors to plan a second service and to prepare a second sermon, and a commitment for the members to give the church not only the morning but also the evening. But these are small costs compared to the great benefits. Here are a few things I love about an evening service.

It Begins and Ends the Day With God

Perhaps the best part of having an evening service is that, just as the morning service allows you to begin the day worshiping God with his people, the evening services allows you to close the day worshiping God with his people. As a church we love to sing the song “We Are Listening” which proclaims, “Morning and evening we come / To delight in the words of our God.” And with an evening service, we are able to do exactly that: We begin the Lord’s Day in worship and close it in worship. That’s a beautiful thing.

It Sanctifies the Time Between

If beginning and ending the day in corporate worship is an obvious blessing of an evening service, a less obvious but still important benefit is that having these bookends around the day encourages the best uses of the Lord’s Day while discouraging the less significant uses. Knowing that you will have to leave the house before the football game ends does wonders to uproot any real desire to watch football (or, over time, to even care about football, as I have discovered!). Conversely, knowing that you have four or five hours between services helps you spot a perfect window for extending hospitality. There is no better or more convenient time to open your home, especially to those who drive from a distance, than between the morning and evening service.

It Provides Another Opportunity to Learn

I grew up in the Dutch Reformed tradition where the evening service was considered an integral part of any Christian’s duty. The morning service was set aside for verse-by-verse preaching through God’s Word while the evening service was set aside for advancing question-by-question through the catechisms and confessions. Even if your church will not use an evening service for teaching the catechism, it does offer an opportunity to teach something else, perhaps a second book of the Bible or a topical series. It also affords a natural context to integrate new or young teachers, to give them a place to grow in their ability to teach and preach.

January 27, 2014

I sometimes find myself grumbling a little bit about the state of publishing today, and especially the state of Christian publishing. Many of the big publishers have been gobbled up by corporations whose primary concern is not the glory of God but the health of the bottom line. Some of the medium-sized publishers seem to collect any and every rambling word of the popular pastors and personalities so they can slap those words on paper. Many of the smallest publishers are churning out books that simply do not deserve to be printed. New tools for self-publishing allow anyone with an idea to commit it to paper and distribute it as widely as they can. And that’s not all that is concerning or annoying. There are the thousands of truly awful, unbiblical books being published each year, and the fact that the bestseller lists are inevitably dominated by titles that are not only bad, but often downright dangerous.

And yet, when I stop and consider the state of Christian publishing, I can’t help but think that we are in a golden age. A strange age, to be sure, but a golden one nonetheless. Christians today are extraordinarily blessed by a vast number of excellent, Christ-centered, God-glorifying books.

I see evidence for this golden age in so many different ways.

I see it in Christian-owned and Christian-operated publishers who believe their mission is to publish books that are doctrinally-rich, biblically-sound, and skillfully-written. Many of these publishers have existed for decades and have maintained their mission and focus for generations. I am grateful for the work of P&R (serving us since 1930), Crossway (serving us since 1938), Christian Focus (serving us since the early 1970’s), and so many others.

I see it in the dedicated men and women who work for publishers formerly owned by Christians that have since been purchased by giant multinational corporations. While the corporations may be answerable to their shareholders, there are sincere people within these organizations are who committed to publishing excellent and God-glorifying books. In that vein I am grateful for so many dedicated Christians who labor behind-the-scenes at Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, Multnomah, and others.

I see this golden age in new and promising strategic partnerships between ministries and publishers, where publishers are joining with gospel-loving ministries to extend the reach of those ministries through the printed word. The Gospel Coalition is partnering with Crossway, 9Marks is partnering with B&H (and several others), while many other partnerships are only just taking shape; as they do that, they will bring us even more good books.

January 26, 2014

I am in the midst of a series of articles on the seven ecumenical councils of the early church. These councils commenced with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and concluded with the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Between these two events were five more, each of which attempted to understand and establish a unified Christian theology.

In this series we are taking a brief look at each of the seven councils. For each one we are considering the setting and purpose, the major characters, the nature of the conflict, and then the results and lasting significance. We continue today with the sixth council: the Third Council of Constantinople.

Setting & Purpose

The Third Council of Constantinople was convened by Emperor Constantine IV in an attempt to settle further differences between the Eastern and Western church in the way they understood the nature of Christ’s will and power. The council began on Nov 7, 680 in the Trullus, a great domed room in the imperial palace at Constantinople. Only 43 bishops were present, marking this as the smallest of the seven ecumenical councils.

Major Characters & Conflict

Constantine IV opened the council and presided over the first 11 of the 18 sessions (which would go on for 10 months). But unlike the councils before and after it, the Third Council of Constantinople did not have one or two men who dominated the proceedings.

The primary conflict in the council was regarding the two doctrines of monoenergism and monothelitism. Monoenergism arose not long after the Second Council of Constantinople as another attempt to reconcile the churches of the East and West. It was the belief that, though Christ may have had two distinct natures, there was but one energy operative in his person: the divine energy. Leo Davis describes the position like this: “Whatever was done by the Incarnate Word was done by Him as Creator and God, and that therefore all the things that were said of Him either as God or in a human way were the action of the divinity of the Word.”

January 23, 2014

In the fall of 1740, America was abuzz. Revival was sweeping the northern states and Christian fervor was at fever pitch. George Whitefield, the great English evangelist was traveling through the colonies, and his reputation as a powerful preacher and orator had preceded him so that great crowds swelled to hear him preach. Because most churches were closed to him, he chose to preach in the open air just as he had so many times in his native England. On October 16 he stood in the center of the Quaboag Plantation in West Brookfield, Massachusetts with a crowd of at least 500 standing about him and there he preached the gospel of Jesus Christ. As he preached, he stood upon a great rock, known today—appropriately—as Whitefield Rock. And this, Whitefield Rock, is the next of the twenty-five objects through which we are tracing the history of Christianity.

The Great Awakening was an unexpected revival that swept North America in the 1730s and 1740s, a sustained time in which God granted unusual response to the preaching of his Word. This awakening was closely related to similar revivals that occurred in Europe around the same time.

The Great Awakening is usually associated with two men who were to become close friends, but who did not meet one another until after the revival began: Jonathan Edwards, the preacher and theologian, and George Whitefield, the preacher and evangelist. However, the revival was carried along by many other sincere and unknown Christians. The first spark of revival glimmered forth in Edwards’ town of Northampton, Massachusetts. As Edwards preached to his church, he emphasized the importance of a vital, personal faith in Jesus Christ. People heard that word and were transformed. People heard that word and took it with them, believing it, sharing it. Collin Hansen writes, “During the First Great Awakening, God worked through men like Edwards and Whitefield to save thousands of sinners. Local awakenings connected through the itinerant ministry of Whitefield and writing of Edwards dramatically affected colonial America.”

George Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England. He attended Pembroke College, Oxford, where he met John and Charles Wesley and joined their “Holy Club.” However, it was only when he read Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man and became seriously ill that he was genuinely converted. He immediately became passionate about sharing the gospel with others and was soon ordained an Anglican clergyman.

Whitefield Rock

January 20, 2014

Accountability has gotten a bad rap. It is easy to see why, I guess. When it comes to battling against sin, and especially those stubborn, addictive sins, accountability relationships are sometimes held up as a cure-all, a near guarantee of success. Yet often they end up being a means of commiseration more than challenge, a time when Christians sit around feeling sorry for one another rather than full-on battling against sin.

Yet I believe the Bible promotes and even demands accountability relationships for Christians who want to battle hard against a dogged sin. Paul writes, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1-2). Accountability is a specific—and if done right, helpful—form of bearing one another’s burdens.

However, for accountability to be successful, it must be done well. In his book Finally Free, Heath Lambert includes some helpful principles about effective accountability. He writes in the context of battling against pornography, but the points he makes are equally applicable to any sin.

Here are seven principles for effective accountability; each is further explained by showing what effective accountability is and is not.

January 19, 2014

I am in the midst of a series of articles on the seven ecumenical councils of the early church. These councils commenced with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and concluded with the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Between these two events were five more, each of which attempted to understand and establish a unified Christian theology.

In this series we are taking a brief look at each of the seven councils. For each one we are considering the setting and purpose, the major characters, the nature of the conflict, and then the results and lasting significance. We continue today with the fifth council: the Second Council of Constantinople.

Setting & Purpose

Like the First Council of Constantinople, the Second Council of Constantinople was held in modern day Istanbul, Turkey. The council met from May 5 to June 2, 553 and was convened by Emperor Justinian I in an attempt to reconcile those who sided with the decisions of Chalcedon a hundred years prior and the Monophysites who had not.

Major Characters

Somewhere between 151 and 168 bishops attended the council, most of them from the eastern half of the church. Phillip Schaff says “Among those present were the Patriarchs, Eutychius of Constantinople, who presided, Apollinaris of Alexandria, Domninus of Antioch, three bishops as representatives of the Patriarch Eustochius of Jerusalem, and 145 other metropolitans and bishops, of whom many came also in the place of absent colleagues.” The two major players were Emperor Justinian I and Pope Vigilius while Eutychius, patriarch of Constantinople, presided.

The Proceedings

Justinian I was a pious emperor who, in the interest of preserving his empire, saw the necessity of preserving the integrity of the Christian faith. This demanded at least attempting to heal the schism that had resulted between the Monophysites and those who submitted to the decisions of Chalcedon a hundred years prior.

In an attempt to do this, Justinian issued an edict in 543 condemning three things: the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrusa’s writings against Cyril, and the letter of Ibas of Edessa to Maris the Persian. These were condemned because they were understood to support Nestorius and his view of Christ’s human and divine natures being distinct rather than united (see Council of Chalcedon).

January 17, 2014

It’s not a joke, you know. As we make our way through this life, we face some powerful enemies. In the second chapter of Ephesians, Paul describes the pre-Christian past of the people in this church. As he does that, he tells them that three powerful forces were arrayed against them: the world, the flesh, and the devil.

These people had a deep inclination toward evil that came from their inmost parts (“the passions of our flesh”), they faced a powerful opponent from outside themselves (“the prince of the power of the air”), and all the while their whole environment was opposed to them (“this world”). They were outside of fellowship with God and, therefore, were “children of wrath.”

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

For some time now, and especially since I read Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, I have been pondering the way these forces were, and in some ways still are, opposed to me. Though through faith in Jesus Christ I have been delivered from the dominion of these forces, I have not yet been fully and finally delivered from their influence. Each of them continues to oppose me, and at times—too many times—I succumb, choosing sin in place of holiness. No wonder then, that the Anglican Book of Common Prayer leads Christians in this prayer: “From all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil: Good Lord deliver us.”

I have a theory about these three influences and the way different Christians understand them. There are many theological tribes within Christianity and I believe that each of them has an imperfect balance in their understanding of the way these forces operate against us. Let me give just three examples. Each example is imperfect, of course, but I believe there is a thread of truth in each.

Fundamentalists tend to have a deep suspicion of the world—a world that is full of sin and adamantly opposed to God and his purposes. In my experience, Fundamentalists are quick to look to the world and to hold the world responsible for sin and the temptation to sin; hence, they battle hard against worldliness and look to worldly pleasures and entertainments with deep and lasting suspicion. If Fundamentalists are out of balance, it is toward the evil influence of the world and away from the influence of the flesh and the devil.

January 16, 2014

Olney Volume 2The Houghton Library at Harvard University holds a vast collection of important historical papers, letters and manuscripts. There are works there from Emily Dickinson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Keats, Louisa May Alcott and many other notable authors and poets. Deep within that library is a fragile old volume, worn, faded and crumbling. It is a handwritten manuscript labeled simply “Vol. 2.” Yet that otherwise unremarkable volume has great historical significance because it contains half of the portion of hymns that John Newton contributed to the final published version of Olney Hymns. It is the next of the twenty-five objects through which we are tracing the history of Christianity, for Olney Hymns directs us to the rise of the hymn as a distinctive component of Christian worship.

As Protestantism was established and grew, its leaders immediately saw that songs could serve an important role in teaching and popularizing sound doctrine. The history of English hymnody began in 1707 when Isaac Watts published his first book of hymns, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. From a young age Watts had been incensed that most of the English churches sang only Old Testament Psalms. Watts believed that Christians needed to also sing songs that were explicit about the cross and about the Savior who has now been made manifest in Jesus Christ. He set out to write this kind of hymn. At first he based his hymns on the Psalms, though with the references to Jesus explicitly drawn out. Later he would broaden his hymn-writing to subjects beyond the Psalms. By the end of his life, Watts had penned some 750 hymns, many of which are widely sung even today (e.g. “Joy to the World,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”).

Of the tens of thousands of hymn-writers who emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Charles Wesley was the most prolific. Over the course of his life and ministry Wesley wrote over 6,000 hymns, among which are the well-known “And Can It Be?,” O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”

Yet the greatest and most widely-known English hymn was penned not by Watts or Wesley, but by John Newton. Newton was born in Wapping, London, in 1725, and from a young age was utterly rebellious against both God and man. He was pressed into service with the Royal Navy and later transferred to a slave ship where he was involved in transporting slaves from Africa to the New World. In 1748 he experienced a radical and unexpected conversion and in 1764 was ordained as a priest in the Church of England, serving in Olney, Buckinghamshire. It was here that he met William Cowper, a troubled poet who would become a dear friend; together the two of them would pen a collection of hymns they would title Olney Hymns.

January 12, 2014

I am in the midst of a series of articles on the seven ecumenical councils of the early church. These councils commenced with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and concluded with the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Between these two events were five more, each of which attempted to understand and establish a unified Christian theology.

In this series we are taking a brief look at each of the seven councils. For each one we are considering the setting and purpose, the major characters, the nature of the conflict, and then the results and lasting significance. We continue today with the the fourth council, the Council of Chalcedon.

Setting & Purpose

In 449, a Second Council of Ephesus was convened because of the excommunication of a monk named Eutyches, who taught that Christ, after his incarnation, had only one nature. The council itself devolved into drama when those who supported Eutychus, led by Dioscorus and supported by the Roman Emperor Theodosius II, unilaterally and forcefully asserted their doctrine over against those who held the orthodox view that Christ has two natures—one fully human and one fully divine—which exist in hypostasis in one person. When news of the council reached Rome, Pope Leo immediately termed it Latrocinium (a “robber council”).

When Marcian, an orthodox Christian, became emperor, he wished to convene another council in order to resolve the turmoil that the Second Council of Ephesus had stirred up. That council met from October 8 to November 1, 451, in Chalcedon, now a district of modern-day Istanbul. It was held here rather than in Italy because of the pressing threat to the Roman Empire from Attila and his Huns.

Major Characters & Conflict

Of the 350 to 500 bishops present, two stand out as the major characters: Eutyches and Dioscorus. Eutyches was an aged and influential monk from Constantinople. Because of his unorthodox teachings about Christ he had already been condemned as a heretic in 448 by a local synod in Constantinople. Dioscorus became Bishop of Alexandria after Cyril died in 444. When Eutyches was initially excommunicated, Dioscorus came to his defense. Eventually he would preside over the Second Council of Ephesus where he strong-armed the assembly to restore Eutyches and depose those who had excommunicated him.

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