Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Apostles' Creed: God the Father Almighty

The Apostles’ Creed is a confession of faith. As such it not only speaks about the act of faith (i.e. “I believe”) but also its object. In what do Christians believe? Answer: God, but not just the concept of god. We believe in the one true and living God, the God who is and who has revealed himself generally in his works of creation and providence and specially in the the Holy Scriptures and the incarnation. As J.I. Packer notes on pp. 31-32 of Affirming the Apostles’ Creed, “Today’s idea is that the great divide is between those who say, ‘I believe in God’ in some sense and those who cannot say it in any sense. Atheism is seen as an enemy, paganism is not, and it is assumed that the difference between one faith and another is quite secondary. But in the Bible the great divide is between those who believe in the Christian God and those who serve idols—“gods,” that is, whose images, whether metal or mental, do not square with the self disclosure of the Creator. One wishes that some who recite ‘I believe in God’ in church each Sunday would see that what they actually mean is ‘I do not believe in God—not this God, anyhow!’”

A.W. Tozer famously said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” The Creed begins by identifying God as “the Father.” What is meant by this designation? According to Scripture God is Father in at least two ways. First, God is a Father in relation to his Son. He eternally begets his Son. The Son is eternally begotten of him. Thus we confess in WCF 2.3: “In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.” Though the Son and the Holy Spirit are also fully God, the Creed begins with the Father because he is first in order of origin in the trinitarian relations. This order of origin is not chronological. God did not become a Father when he begot his Son. There was no such when. He is always the Father who begets his Son. The Father begets; the Son is begotten. This is why the Apostles often refer to the Father as God in relation to the Son whom they typically designate as Lord (cf. John 3:16; 1 Cor. 12:6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Heb. 1:5; 1 Pet. 3:3; Jude 1). It is also why The Apostles’ Creed begins with God the Father.

But there is another sense in which God is designated Father. He is also, eternally, the heavenly Father of all his adopted children within the creation. Thus Jesus taught his disciples to pray, saying, “Our Father in heaven…” And the Apostle encourages the Romans, writing, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs-heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:14-17). We also confess in WCF 12.1: “All those that are justified, God vouchsafes, in and for his only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption, by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have his name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry, Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him, as by a father: yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption; and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.” To confess faith in God the Father is to confess that we belong to him as his beloved children. Our fundamental identities are not found in the various human relationships that bind us—whether earthly families, marriages, national citizenship, etc.—but in the heavenly family, marriage, and citizenship into which we have been adopted. To be an adopted child of God is to participate, albeit in a creaturely way, in the eternally blessed relationships of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our God is personal. He does not become personal when he creates. He is eternally personal in himself personally invested in the history of his creation. This personal investment is revealed to us by way of a covenant. Thus Caspar Oliveanus teaches on pp. 9-15 of his An Exposition of the Apostles' Creed that the Creed is at bottom a covenantal affirmation. Our God is not only over and apart from us. He is also for and with us.

The Creed continues by describing God the Father as “almighty.” Besides the fact that he is good, we confess that he is unlimitedly powerful. But this raises a question. Does the Creed’s attribution of almightiness to the Father mean that the Son and Spirit are less mighty? No. The power of the Father is an attribute of the deity he shares with the Son and the Spirit. Just as each person of the trinity is equally God, so each is equally almighty. But what does God’s almightiness entail?

I remember a moment in fourth grade when one of my teachers asked if anyone in the class could draw a two-dimensional shape with just two straight lines? Believing I could do anything, I raised my hand. She handed me the chalk. I walked to the board. After several failed attempts, I sat down. The lesson was clear. Some things are impossible by definition (i.e. a two-dimensional shape, by definition, cannot be drawn with only two straight lines). Does God’s unlimited power mean that he can draw a two-dimensional shape with two straight lines? No, that’s nonsensical. God’s almightiness does not mean he has the ability to be nonsensical. It also doesn’t mean he has the ability to act contrary to his own nature. God cannot sin, which is another way of saying he cannot cease to be God. God’s almightiness means that he is able to do whatever he pleases, as Ps. 115:3 says, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” And he is only pleased to do that which is consistent with his nature.

God’s almightiness is evident in his works of creation and providence. God spoke forth the creation from nothing by the word of his power. Moreover, as we confess in SC 11, “God's works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.” Both these works are the execution of God’s eternal decree, of which we confess in WCF 3.1: “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” Included in this decree is the predestination of some (i.e. the elect) to everlasting life and the foreordination of others to eternal destruction.

To confess that God is almighty is to confess that he controls all that comes to pass in such a way that it cannot be otherwise. His plan cannot be thwarted. But if that is true, what about evil? And what about human free will? While God’s almightiness is not limited by his creation in any way, he has created human beings with moral agency. That means we have the freedom to act according to our nature. Like him we are able to do whatever we please, but we are not able to please whatever we please. We are not able to get behind our nature to change it at any point. We are secondary agents with the power of secondary causation. God is therefore able to be in control of all we do without that control being active at every point. We only do what God has decreed we will do AND we always ultimately do what we please. Both are true. We alone are culpable for the evil we do, because we are the only active causal agents in it and we always intend evil by it. God’s agency in evil's occurence is permissive, and he has ordained it for good reasons, reasons that he has not fully disclosed to us. He is not the author of evil, but neither is evil something that is outside his power at any point.

But if God has the power to rid the world of evil, why doesn’t he? This is sometimes called the problem of evil. The argument goes as follows. (1) Evil exists in God’s creation. (2) An all-good God would eliminate evil if he could. (3) An all-powerful God could eliminate evil if he would. (4) Therefore, God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful. The problem with this problem is that it doesn’t simply make the elimination of evil an entailment of God’s goodness. We would agree with that. It makes the immediate elimination of evil an entailment of God’s goodness. We disagree with that. As Packer says on p. 48 of Affirming the Apostles’ Creed, “If God moves more slowly than we wish in clearing evil out of the world and introducing the new order, that, we may be sure, is in order to widen his gracious purpose and include in it more victims of the world’s evil than otherwise he could have done.” Further, he has already begun this good process within all his adopted children, and because he is almighty we can be assured that he will finish what he has begun. There is therefore much comfort in the doctrine of God’s almightiness. As Oliveanus writes on p. 41 of An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that I have a covenant with God almighty, who by His omnipotence both brings to pass whatever He wills in all the world and prevents, confuses, and drives back whatever He does not will or has not decreed, so that it is impossible for these things to happen.”

Christians believe in the one true and living God who has revealed himself as both an eternal Father to his only begotten Son and a temporal Father to his adopted children. He is personal, good, and powerful. Working out his holy and wise decree for his own glory and the good of his adopted children.

Review Questions

1. What is the significance of the designation “Father” being applied to God? In what two ways is he a Father?
2. What is the significance of the Creed’s description of God the Father as “almighty”? Why is this attribute ascribed to the Father? Are the Son and Spirit less mighty?
3. Does God’s almightiness mean that he can do anything? If not, in what does it mean?
4. How does God’s almightiness relate to human free will and the existence of evil?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Apostles' Creed: I Believe

The Creed does not open with the declaration, “I know,” “I feel,” or “I think.” It opens with the declaration, “I believe” (Pisteuo, Credo). This is significant. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Faith is the context in which we attain a saving knowledge of God (i.e. “that he exists and that he rewards”) and fellowship with God (i.e. “draw near to God”). We find this same idea expressed repeatedly in the Old Testament teaching that says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge/wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7; 2:5; 9:10; Psalm 111:10). The Hebrew word that is translated “fear” connotes the idea of faith. This faith is independent of seeing. 2 Corinthians 5:7 says, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” And 1 Peter 1:8b says, “Though you do not now see him, you believe in him.” So why is faith the context of a saving understanding of God?

Our lack of understanding is due to sin. Romans 1:21-22 says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” And Romans 3:11 quotes Psalm 14 to describe the estate of sin, saying, “No one understands; no one seeks for God.” One aspect of our salvation is having our understandings enlightened to a true knowledge of God. This is what Hebrews 11:6 means when it says, “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists.” But if faith only involves knowledge of God, then it is insufficient to save. James 2:19 is clear: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” While saving faith never involves less than a true knowledge of God, it always involves more.

Historically, saving faith has been defined by Protestants as having three essential aspects:

1.      Knowledge
2.      Assent
3.      Trust

The knowledge of faith includes all that God has revealed in his word for our salvation, namely the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what the Apostle has in mind when he says in Romans 10:14-15, 17, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’...So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Saving faith requires knowledge of the word of Christ. Thus WCF 14.1a says, “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word.” In order to believe in Jesus we must know about him. But if we only have knowledge, we haven’t yet believed. After all, the Apostle says in verse 16, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’”

Many people are aware of the basic teachings of Christianity but reject them as nothing more than cleverly constructed myths. Faith also involves assenting to the truthfulness of the Bible’s teaching as the word of God. The Apostle commends the Thessalonians for this in 1 Thessalonians 2:13. The text says, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.” WCF 14.2a says, “By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein.” But if we know the gospel and assent to its truthfulness we still have not believed unto salvation. After all, the demons assent to the truthfulness that God is one (cf. James 2:19).

Faith also includes personal trust. The illustration of a chair is sometimes used to make this point. I may know that a chair is in the room. I may assent to the truth that the chair would hold my weight if I were to sit upon it. But until I actually sit upon it, I have not put my personal trust in the chair. Putting this in terms of the gospel, I may know the Bible’s teaching about the gospel of Jesus Christ. I may even assent to the truthfulness of it. But until I trust that Jesus’ did his redemptive work for meon my behalf, I do not have a saving faith in him. John 1:12 says, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Therefore WCF 14.2b says, “The principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.”

This faith is given to us as a gift of God’s grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” It is never perfect in this life but needs to be nourished and strengthened by regular engagement with the means of grace. WCF 14.1 says, “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.” This faith also changes the way we live our lives. WCF 14.2a says, “By this faith, a Christian…acts differently upon that which each particular [Bible] passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come.” And this faith overcomes the world by persevering to the end. 1 John 5:4-5 says, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” WCF 14.3 says, “This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

What we believe—our creed—should be precious to us. To believe the material of The Apostles’ Creed is a supernatural work of God that transforms our lives and gives us final victory over the curse of sin and misery. It marks the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. It is the foundation of our love to God and neighbor. It is a basic philosophy of life, providing a stable foundation from which to answer the most important questions. The Apostles’ Creed gets to the heart of Christian identity. As the Declaration of Independence contains the basic principles of the United States, so the Creed contains the basic principles of the visible church, which is the kingdom of Christ on earth. To profess the Creed is to claim citizenship in the new creation. Good men and women, our brothers and sisters, gave their lives to remain faithful to the teaching of the Creed. Whenever we recite it we join our voices with them, carrying on the same mission under the same banner to the glory of King Jesus. 

Review Questions

1.      What is the significance of the Creed’s opening declaration “I believe”?
2.      What are the three essential aspects of saving faith?
3.      What must we know to be saved? How do we acquire that knowledge?
4.      What does it mean to assent to the truthfulness of Holy Scripture?
5.      What does it mean to personally trust in the gospel of Jesus?

The Apostles' Creed: Overview

The Textus Receptus (i.e. received text) of The Apostles’ Creed dates to 710-24 AD. It was adopted by Rome and became a common creed of the Western Church. It states:

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
And is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

What are the characteristics of this creed?

Trinitarian

The Apostles’ Creed has a trinitarian structure. It begins with a focus on the Father, continues with a focus on the Son, and ends with focus on the Holy Spirit. While there is no precise formulation concerning persons and substance as with The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, there is, nonetheless, an implicit recognition of the trinitarian nature of God. We see an ordering within the trinity, the Father is first, the Son is second, and the Spirit is third. The Father is the Father due to his eternal begetting of the Son, and he is our Father due to the Son's redemptive work for us. The Son is the Son due to his being eternally begotten from the Father. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit due to his eternal procession from the Father and the Son. These are their distinct personal properties (Larger Catechism, Q. 10). They are assumed here and made explicit later in church history. We also see particular operations ascribed to each person. The Father is the almighty creator. That’s not to say that the Son and Spirit are any less mighty or any less creator. It is simply to say that in the works of God ad extra (i.e. creation and providence), certain operations are attributed to the Father, certain operations to the Son, and certain operations to the Spirit. The Father creates and redeems through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is an intra-trinitarian order of operations that is fundamentally indivisible and thus, properly speaking, one operation of the divine will. Yet each person performs a different action in the execution of that will.

Historical

The Apostles’ Creed is also intensely historical. Christianity, at its most fundamental level, is not a set of abstract philosophical axioms. It is an account of concrete historical events. To be sure, these events have immense philosophical import, but they come first. The infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God has revealed himself through time and space. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Thus time and space began. In the course of time and in a particular place the Son was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. The incarnate Son suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. And he will come again to judge the living and the dead. These are all historical events.

Among these events the past is emphasized. The creed mostly covers what the triune God has already done for us. He created us. He provided all that was needed for our salvation. But we also see the present. The incarnate Son is presently seated at the right hand of the Father where he continually intercedes for us as our priest and rules over us as our king. Moreover, the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, presently indwells and sanctifies the church, binding its members together as one body, and applying to us the forgiveness of sins. We see the future as well. The Son will eventually return for the final judgment, and at that time the Holy Spirit will raise our bodies from the dead, thus fitting us for life everlasting. Whether looking to the past, the present, or the future, the creed teaches us the basics about what God is doing in and through history. It is quite literally his-story.

Redemptive

The Apostles’ Creed is redemptive. The history through which the triune God has been revealing himself is not chaotic but purposeful. It’s purpose is the good news of the accomplishment and application of our salvation. This should be the main focus of the church of Jesus Christ, which is why she is properly called evangelical.

The accomplishment of our salvation is the special work of the the Father’s only begotten Son, our Lord. It began with his incarnation, being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He was born to die, suffering under Pontius Pilate so that he would be crucified, die, and be buried. In this way he descended into Hell for us, suffering the full penalty we were owed for our sins. He was raised from dead for our justification, ascended into heaven, and sat at Father’s right hand to continually intercede for us and rule over us. On the last day he will come again for the final judgment, openly acquitting his saints and condemning his enemies.


The application of our salvation is the special work of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who sanctifies the church universal, making it holy. He is the one who binds us together as one communion. He is the one who seals to us the forgiveness of sins and fits us for his future resurrection work that we might live in glory forever.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Apostles' Creed: The Origin and Use of the Apostles' Creed

The Origin of the Creed

The Apostles’ Creed gets its name from its supposed authorship. Legend says that the Apostles composed it ten days after the ascension of Christ when the Holy Spirit was poured out from heaven. The Roman Catholic Church has even claimed to know which Apostle wrote each part of the creed. But while Apostolic authorship has been summarily disproven, the creed is still appropriately named since it faithfully communicates the inspired Apostolic teaching of the NT.

Various phrases found in the Apostles’ Creed can be traced back to the Roman Symbol which developed as early as the late second century. This symbol was preserved in three subsequent formulations (cf. John Leith, Creeds of the Churches, 3rd ed., 23-24):
  1. The Interrogatory Creed of Hippolytus (215 AD): Do you believe in God the Father all governing? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was begotten by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died and was buried and rose the third day living from the dead, and ascended into the heavens, and sat down on the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy church, and in the resurrection of the body?
  2. The Creed of Marcellus (340 AD): I believe in God, all governing. And in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son, our Lord, who was begotten of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried, who rose from the dead on the third day, ascending to the heavens and taking his seat at the Father’s right hand, whence he shall come to judge both living and dead. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, life everlasting.
  3. The Creed of Rufinus (404 AD): I believe in God the Father almighty, invisible and impassible. And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Holy Spirit from Mary the Virgin, crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried; he descended to hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended to heaven, where he sits at the Father’s right hand and from whence he will come to judge both living and dead. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of this flesh.
St. Augustine also preached a sermon on a North African variant of the symbol around 400 AD. Leith offers this reconstruction (Creeds of the Churches, 3rd ed., 25):
We believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of all things, ruler of the ages, immortal and invisible. We believe in Jesus Christ his Son, our Lord, born of the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, dead and buried, on the third day he rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father, thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead,. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, the life everlasting through the holy catholic church.
The Textus Receptus of the Creed

Leith writes, “The date and place of the origin of the present form of the Apostles’ Creed cannot be fixed with precision. There is considerable evidence for a date late in the sixth or seventh century somewhere in southwest France” (24). The Textus Receptus (i.e. received text) of the Apostles’ Creed dates to 710-24. It was adopted by Rome and became a common creed of the Western Church. It states:
I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
And is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
The Use of the Creed

Historically, the church has used the Apostles’ Creed as a catechetical guide and profession of faith for new converts. It serves as a brief summary of the Christian faith, which, combined with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed, defined Christian orthodoxy in the NT church up to the time of the Protestant Reformation. Since then that definition has also included the doctrines of sola Scriptura and sola fide. The Apostles’ Creed, therefore, helps us to recognize and avoid any inadequate or incomplete versions of Christianity that may arise today. It also reminds us that Christian identity is not simply a matter of subjective feelings. It is an objective reality based on the doctrines we profess to believe. Saving faith may involve more than knowing these doctrines but it never involves less. It may be true even while our knowledge is incomplete and inaccurate, but it cannot be true while we consciously reject the doctrines of the creed. Saving faith is not a matter of individual preference. It is to have one’s heart and voice joined with others in a common confession of faith about the triune God and his works. The Apostles’ Creed is useful to that end. It is a time-tested confession of faith suitable for the church’s life and liturgy. It is a towering monument and trustworthy guide to the Spirit’s work in his church over the last 2000 years.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Apostles' Creed: The Origin and Use of Creeds in the Church

What is a creed?

The word “creed” comes from the Latin word credo, which is the first word in the Apostles’ Creed. It means “I believe.” Sometimes called a rule or symbol, a creed is a confession of the content of one’s faith. Confessions of faith can be any length, long like The Westminster Confession of Faith or short like the creeds. A creed is a short confession of faith which can be more easily memorized and recited.

What is creedalism?

In what has become the gold standard compendium of the Christian creeds, John Leith writes, “Christianity has always been a ‘creedal’ religion in that it has always been theological. It was rooted in the theological tradition of ancient Israel, which was unified by its historical credos and declaratory affirmations of the faith. No pretheological era has been discovered in the New Testament or in the history of the Christian community. From the beginning Christianity has been theological, involving men in theological reflection and calling them to declarations of the faith.” (Creeds of the Churches, 1). While some contemporary Christian denominations may eschew creeds in principle, they are nonetheless creedal in the broadest sense of the term. The short quip, “No creed but Christ,” or “No creed but the Bible,” is itself a creed—although a bad one to be sure! The moment a minister opens his mouth to interpret and apply the teaching of Scripture, he is declaring and encouraging those who hear him to share his belief (i.e. his creed). Our choice is not therefore between creedalism and non-creedalism but between good creeds and bad creeds. To reject a robust and self-conscious creedalism is really to prefer one’s own private creed over the public creeds that have time-tested pedigrees in the church. In his excellent book The Creedal Imperative Carl Trueman writes, “Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions that are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique, and those who have private creeds and confessions that are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not, therefore, subject to testing by Scripture to see whether they are true” (15).

Oftentimes the use of creeds is rejected on the grounds that it undermines the Protestant tenet sola Scriptura (i.e. the Scriptures are our only infallible rule for faith and practice). But, ironically, the formal rejection of creedalism actually undermines that tenet. Sola Scriptura requires the creedal tradition of the church for its implementation. After all, the Scriptures teach that Christian faith and practice, including biblical interpretation, must be worked out in the context of Christian community.

Proper biblical interpretation cannot coexist with individualism. Christians need one another across the centuries as well as today, because the Holy Spirit didn’t begin his work of illumination in our time or with any single individual. Jaroslav Pelikan writes, “Christian doctrine is the business of the church. The history of doctrine is not to be equated with the history of theology or the history of Christian thought. If it is, the historian runs the danger of exaggerating the significance of the idiosyncratic thought of individual theologians at the expense of the common faith of the church. The private beliefs of theologians do belong to the history of doctrine, but not simply on their own terms. For one of the most decisive differences between a theologian and a philosopher is that the former understands himself as, in Origen’s classic phrase, ‘a man of the church,’ a spokesman for the Christian community” (The Christian Tradition, Vol. 1, 3). Creedalism recognizes and applies this truth by employing publicly received statements of faith from the past as authorities in the life of the church today.

No doubt, the Scriptures are the primary and only infallible authority for our theological reflection, answering the most basic question, viz. what has God revealed? But the creeds serve as secondary authorities, answering the less basic—but no less necessary—question about what we believe God’s revelation teaches. Every heretic has his proof text; therefore it is the second question that forms the line between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, between Christian doctrine and non-Christian doctrine.

What are some of these creeds? 

The Bible itself contains several creeds. The most ancient is the shema of Deut. 6:4. The text says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” This text was recited each time the priest presided over Israel’s public worship. It is what set Israel apart from the pagan nations around her. Israel believed in the one true and living God; the nations believed in many gods. We find similar formulations in the NT. Most NT scholars believe that Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 15:3-4 is a creedal formulation that was being used in the public worship of the church. The apostle writes, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” We see a similar kind of formulation in 1 Tim. 3:16. The text says, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” This is most likely an example of the “words of the faith,” “good doctrine,” and “the teaching” that Paul charges the young Timothy to guard and faithfully set before the church in 1 Tim. 4:6-16.
In the time after the Apostles the church continued to produce and use creeds. Just as Israel’s shema was taken up in an apologetic context to distinguish her from the nations (i.e. those without) and the sound doctrine about which Paul wrote Timothy was taken up in an apologetic context to distinguish true teachers from false teachers (i.e. those within), so we find the post-apostolic church doing the same. Pelikan writes, “When the the church confessed what it believed and taught, it did so in answer to attacks from within and from without the Christian movement” (11). Leith agrees, writing, “Generally speaking, creeds have not been written in the quiet periods of history but in those moments of historical intensity when the Church has been engaged by foes from without, or when its mission or life has been endangered from within” (2).

In the late third and early fourth centuries one of the most ancient creeds was formulated in defense of the full deity of Christ. A teaching called Arianism, named after the north African presbyter Arius (256-336 AD), had arisen within the church. The Arians taught that the Son was not eternal like the Father. He was the first and highest creation of the Father but not his equal. Arius summarized his teaching by saying of the Son, “there was when he was not.” In 318 AD the church called an ecumenical (i.e. universal) council to decide the matter. In 325 AD that council produced the Nicene Creed, defending the full deity of the Son against the Arian detractors. The creed was later revised and updated at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. In its final form it states:
We believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. 
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets; and we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
By the late fifth century several challenges had also arisen with respect to the nature of the Son’s incarnation. Some taught that Jesus was only divine (i.e. the docetists). Others taught he was only human (i.e. the adoptionists). Still others taught that his divine nature was complete but the human incomplete (i.e. the Apollynarians). Others taught that his divine and human natures combined to make a third nature that retained aspects of each but was neither fully (i.e. the Eutychians). Others taught that Jesus was both divine and human but never simultaneously (i.e. the Nestorians). An ecumenical council met at Chalcedon and in 451 AD and issued the creed known as the Definition of Chalcedon. It says:
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us. 
Along with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon, the Athanasian Creed and the Apostles’ Creed are typically considered the ecumenical creeds that established Christian orthodoxy in the early to medieval church (100-1500 AD).

How have creeds been used? 

In the early church creeds were used to train and identify recent converts. In his book “I Believe”: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed, Alistair McGrath notes that Jews who had already been trained in the Scriptures from birth were only required to recognize that Jesus was the promised Messiah before being baptized. This belief was formally professed through the simple creed: “Jesus is Lord” (Acts 2:36; Romans 10:9; 1 Cor. 8:6; 12:3; 2 Cor. 4:5; Php. 2:11; Col. 2:6). But for Gentiles who had no such Scriptural foundation more was needed. The church produced more substantial creeds for that purpose. Such catechetical training typically lasted three years. After that time converts were required to profess their faith before the assembly by reciting the creed on Easter Sunday. Afterward they were baptized and received the Eucharist for the first time (11-12).

Creeds have also been used in the church’s liturgy. Christians not only need to make public profession of their faith in the interest of becoming members of the church. They need to continue to make such professions as an aspect of their collective identity as the church. Therefore, an element of the church's public worship is its common confession of faith. As the Apostle writes, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6, emphasis added).

Beyond these two most basic uses, and because creeds are confessions of faith, we might apply to creeds some of the same uses Carl Trueman ascribes to confessions in his booklet Why Christians Need Confessions. Among them we should include: (1) Creeds delimit church power, (2) Creeds offer succinct summaries of the faith, (3) Creeds highlight that which is of importance, (4) Creeds relativize the present and connect us to the past, (5) Creeds represent the substance of our worship, and (6) Creeds fulfill a vital part of Paul’s plan for the post-apostolic church.

Apostles' Creed: Schedule

I recently taught a Sunday School series at Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church on the Apostles' Creed. I plan to post the lessons here over the next few weeks. The class schedule is as follows:
  1. The Origin and Use of Creeds in the Church 
  2. The Origin and Use of the Apostles’ Creed  
  3. Overview of the Apostles’ Creed 
  4. I Believe 
  5. God the Father Almighty 
  6. Maker of Heaven and Earth 
  7. Jesus Christ, His Only Begotten Son, Our Lord 
  8. Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, and Born of the Virgin Mary 
  9. Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, Died, Was Buried; He Descended into Hell 
  10. The Third Day He Rose Again from the Dead. 
  11. He Ascended into Heaven and Is Seated at the Right Hand of God the Father Almighty 
  12. From There He Will Come to Judge the Living and the Dead 
  13. The Holy Spirit 
  14. The Holy Catholic Church 
  15. The Communion of Saints 
  16. The Forgiveness of Sins 
  17. The Resurrection of the Body 
  18. The Life Everlasting 
Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
       Maker of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ,
       His only begotten Son, our Lord,
       who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
       and born of the virgin Mary.
       He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
       was crucified, died, and was buried;
       he descended into hell.
       The third day he rose again from the dead.
       He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
       From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
       the holy catholic Church,
       the communion of saints,
       the forgiveness of sins,
       the resurrection of the body,
       and the life everlasting. Amen.

Suggested Reading
  • Leith, John H., Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present, Westminster John Knox Press, 1982. (Advanced)
  • McGrath, Alister, “I Believe”: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed, InterVarsity Press, 1997. (Introductory) 
  • Miller, Samuel, The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions, Presbyterian Board of Education, 1839, Reprinted by A Press, 1991. (Advanced)
  • Olevianus, Caspar, An Exposition of the Apostles Creed, Reformation Heritage Books, Trans. Lyle D. Bierma, 2009. (Intermediate)
  • Packer, J.I., Affirming the Apostles’ Creed, Crossway, 2008. (Introductory)
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), The University of Chicago Press, 1971.(Advanced)
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, Yale University Press, 2003. (Advanced)
  • Trueman, Carl R., The Creedal Imperative, Crossway, 2012. (Intermediate)
  • Trueman, Carl R., Why Christians Need Confessions, The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2013. (Introductory)
  • Witsius, Herman, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, vols. 1 and 2, Reformation Heritage Books, reprinted 2010. (Advanced)

Monday, June 12, 2017

Do You Hate Me?

Thus far in our series Engaging the Homosexual Movement we have looked at arguments/objections from nature, morality and authority that might be raised in the interest of normalizing the practice of homosexuality. And we have offered Christian answers to each objection. Last time we began addressing another argument/objection that differs from the first three while simultaneously touching upon each. It is not so much an argument for the normalization of the practice of homosexuality as it is an objection against the God who condemns it. Given the truthfulness of the previous three answers, one might ask, “Does your God hate me?” In other words, does God hate those who approve of the practice of homosexuality? We concluded that the Bible’s answer to that question is complex. God hates those who approve of the practice of homosexuality, because their sin is a personal offense against his infinite greatness and goodness. But he also loves them in at least two senses. First, he loves them in a general providential sense. God provides for their temporal needs. As Jesus teaches in his sermon on the mount in Matt. 5:45, “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Second, he loves them in a salvific sense in that he freely offers life and salvation to them if they will repent and believe in Jesus Christ, and for all those he has foreordained to eternal life, he loves them by actually saving them from their sin.

A further objection might arise after delivering such an answer, viz. “Do you hate me?” In other words, if there is some sense in which your God hates those who approve the practice of homosexuality, does that mean there is some sense in which you hate me as well? As we will see, the answer to this question is also complex.

The Bible describes the church as hating the wicked (and vice versa!) on numerous occasions. Prov. 29:27 says, “An unjust man is an abomination to the righteous, but one whose way is straight is an abomination to the wicked.” Also, at least fourteen of the Psalms (5, 10, 17, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, 140) are imprecatory prayers in which the psalmist calls out to God for the destruction of the wicked. Ps. 58:6-8 says, “O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD! Let them vanish like water that runs away; when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted. Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.” We see the same relationship between the church and the world in the New testament as well. Rom. 12:9b says, “Abhor (i.e. hate) what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” And 1 Jn 2:15-17 says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” James 4:4 is similar. The text says, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” But perhaps the most shocking example of this teaching comes from Jesus’ own public ministry. In Luke 14:26-28 he teaches his disciples, saying, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” What does Jesus mean? He means that if we are to follow him we must learn to unreservedly love the things he loves and hate the things he hates regardless of our earthly relations. So there is a sense in which we are called to hate those who approve of the practice of sin. The Scriptures are crystal clear about this.

But if we stop there in our understanding of church-world relations, then we have stopped short. The church is also called to love the world! Jesus teaches in Matt. 5:43-48, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” And Rom. 12:14-21 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

So how is the church to simultaneously hate and love those who approve the practice of evil? We get an important clue in Rom. 12:19. The text says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Here we see how the expression of our hatred for those who approve of the practice of wickedness should differ from the expression of God’s hatred of the same. God has the right to exact vengeance. The church does not. Now, it’s important to recognize that at this stage in the Apostle’s argument in Romans he is speaking to the church as the church and the way it should relate to the world. He is not speaking to individual Christians in their various relations as citizens of the world. For example, when Paul says “Never avenge yourselves,” he is not teaching pacifism. Individual Christians most certainly have the right to punish evil doers in the world for the purpose of seeking reparations. But the church as the church does not. The church as the church never enacts discipline in order to exact reparations. The church enacts discipline in the interest of repentance and reconciliation. Church discipline is not punitive but restorative.

So how should the church’s hatred for the wicked be expressed? It should be expressed as disapproval, revulsion, and separation. Rather than approving the practice of sin, we should disapprove it. Rather than rejoicing in wrongdoing, we should grieve over it and be repulsed by it. Rather than joining ourselves with those who practice wrongdoing in order to fellowship with them as if nothing is wrong with their behavior, we should maintain a proper degree of separation. This is how our hatred should manifest itself. It should never manifest itself as vengeance.

But what about loving our enemies? How should the church simultaneously love those who approve of the practice of sin? Our love for the wicked should be expressed in the same way God’s love is expressed. Jesus bases his teaching about loving our enemies on the character of the Father in Matt. 5:45, saying, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” As we have seen, God loves the wicked in a general providential sense by providing for their needs. We should do the same. As Jesus says in Matt. 5:41-42, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” In other words, the command to love our neighbors is not limited by a religious litmus test. We should be ready and willing to show hospitality and mercy to our neighbors, providing for their basic needs as we are able, regardless of whether they approve of the practice of sin or not. Moreover, as we have seen, God loves the wicked in a salvific sense vis-à-vis the free offer of the gospel. We should participate in that love too by inviting those who practice sin to repent and believe in Jesus Christ and by standing ready to welcome any who would come to him.

In conclusion we might answer the question, “Do you hate me?” by saying, “Yes and no. I hate you in the sense that I disapprove of, am revulsed by, and must maintain an appropriate degree of separation from those who approve the practice of any sin, including homosexuality. But I love you in the sense that I am ready to show you hospitality and mercy as my neighbor and to invite you to receive the free gift of forgiveness, reconciliation, and eternal life through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.”

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Does Your God Hate Me?

Thus far in our series Engaging the Homosexual Movement we have looked at arguments/objections from nature, morality, and authority that might be raised in favor of the normalization of the practice of homosexuality. And we have offered Christian answers to each objection. In this lesson we will address another argument/objection that touches on each of the previous three. It is not so much an argument for the normalization of the practice of homosexuality as it is an argument against the God who condemns it. While the previous three arguments touch upon theology in general, this argument concerns theology proper. Given the truthfulness of the previous three answers, one might ask, “Does your God hate me?” After all, as we have already seen, homosexuality deserves the wrath and curse of God.

“God hates the sin and loves the sinner,” has become an axiom within broad evangelicalism. But is it true? Is it biblically defensible? Oftentimes those who hold this view do not realize that it is, at best, a second-class deduction based on the theory that God’s love is chiefly expressed in providing the possibility of salvation for each individual sinner, which is a tenet of classical Arminianism. In this view God hasn’t acted to actually save anyone. He has only acted to secure its possibility. Changing the possibility into an actuality is a function of the human will to determine its own destiny. This view of salvation only works if sin is depersonalized, i.e. separated from the sinner himself. Just as God hates the sin and loves the sinner, so also Christ died for a depersonalzed concept called sin but not for the actual persons who sin. So the question becomes: is the depersonalization of sin biblically defensible? (By the way, this is one of the strengths of the Calvinistic understanding of sin and grace. But if you go this direction, you must arrive at the doctrine of definite atonement because if Christ died to actually secure salvation and not all are saved, then he must have only died for some.)

The Bible never depersonalizes sin. It always describes it as a personal offense against a personal God. It is either our sin or my sin but never simply sin. We see this most clearly when we consider the definition of sin in 1 John 3:4. The text says, “Sin is lawlessness.” Thus we teach our children from SC Q. 14: “What is sin? Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” Sin is the violation of an agreement (i.e. a law) between two or more parties. In other words, it is covenantal and, therefore, personal by nature. There is no such thing as sin separated from the persons who commit it. So we read in Ps. 11:5, “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” And again in Rom. 9:13, the Apostle Paul, quoting Malachi, reminds us saying, “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” According to Scripture, God hates sinners because of their sin against him. And who are these sinners? They are those born by ordinary generation from the time of Adam's fall forward. Paul is crystal clear about this in Rom. 3:10-20. “None is righteous, no, not one,” he says. The Apostle John teaches the same in 1 John 1:8, saying, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

Therefore, we conclude that one answer to the question “Does your God hate me?” is “Yes. God hates all those who practice sin. As Paul says in 1 Cor. 6:9-10, ‘Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.' God’s wrath and curse justly fall upon such people. That includes everyone born in the world except Jesus. I deserve God’s wrath and curse because of my sin just as much as anyone else." But there is more to our answer than that. There is more to the Bible than the law and sin. There is also the gospel and grace.

“Does your God hate me?” is essentially a question about the love of God. We could rephrase it negatively, asking, “Does your God not love me?” The answer to this question is complex. The Bible speaks of the love of God in several ways. One way in which God loves is with respect to his general providence over all that he has created. We read about this kind of love in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus teaches that Christians should love their enemies. His reason? “For he (the Father) makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). In other words, God loves his enemies in a general providential sense, and, therefore, we should do the same. So in this sense God loves the one who approves the practice of homosexuality. God provides for his temporal needs despite his rebellion against him. This is what makes the continued practice of sin so heinous. The practice of sin is the rejection of the love that God expresses to the sinner each and every moment. As God loves his enemies, being patient with them, giving them ample opportunity to repent, they continually reject him by suppressing the truth he has clearly revealed to them (cf. Rom. 1:18ff). This expression of God’s love only condemn sinners. It cannot save.

What about God’s love in a salvific sense? Is there any sense in which God salvifically loves those who practice sin? There is. God expresses his love to all sinners by inviting them to believe the gospel and be saved. This is where the Reformed distinction between the general and effectual calls becomes so important. God only extends his effectual call to his elect. But he extends his general call to all people without discrimination. All those who hear the proclamation of the gospel and receive the invitation to believe it are in fact receiving an expression of God’s love to them in a salvific sense. The offer of salvation in Jesus Christ is freely given and freely taken by any who would believe. As John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Whoever hears that message is only a breath away from receiving eternal life in him (cf. Rom. 10:8). This is a genuine offer of salvation. Any who will believe will be saved. I can think of no better summary of this doctrine than WCF 15.1 and 4: “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ….As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.” LC Q. 32 also asks, "How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant?" And it answers in part: "The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provides and offers to sinners a mediator, and life and salvation by him."

So a further answer we might give to the question “Does your God hate me?” (after we have explained the condemnation of the law) is to say “God also loves you. He expresses his love to you by providing for all your temporal needs each day. Moreover, he is loving you right now by offering you life and salvation if you would only repent and believe in Jesus Christ. 1 Cor. 6:11 goes on to say, ‘And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.’ This offer of cleansing is a free gift. Will you receive it?”

Does God hate those who approve of the practice of homosexuality? Yes and no. He hates them because of their sin against him, which ironically is a rejection of the love he freely gives. It is a personal offense against his greatness and goodness. But he also loves them in the sense that he provides for their temporal needs. And, when the gospel is proclaimed in their presence, he loves them by inviting them to receive the free gift of life and salvation through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

Now there is another, deeper, sense in which the Bible speaks of the love of God. We touched on this earlier when we distinguished God's effectual and general calls. God’s love is also expressed in his unconditionally choosing to save some out of the estate of sin and misery. This is what the Apostle teaches in Rom. 9:13 when he writes, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” We cannot know whether God has loved anyone in this sense until he has made a credible profession of faith. Thus a WRONG answer to the question, “Does your God hate me?” would be to say: “No. God loves you and he has a wonderful plan for your life. He sent his Son to live and die for you to provide a way for you to be saved.” We search the Scriptures in vain to find a single instance of the Apostles or their associates sharing the gospel in this way—and for good reason! It presumes a knowledge of that which is unknowable at the time (cf. Deut. 29:29). It may be true that God has a wonderful plan for that person’s life. It may be true that he sent his Son to live and die for that person, but we cannot know either of these things until the person has made a credible profession of faith. All we can know prior to such a profession is that salvation is freely offered to them in Christ if they will believe, and that free offer is an expression of God’s love for them. If they respond by truly repenting and believing in Jesus, then we will know that God has loved them in the sense that he has unconditionally elected them to be saved by the work of his Son. If he hasn’t loved them in THAT way, then they will persist in their rejection of the gospel, refusing to repent and believe in Jesus.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged

Thus far in our series Engaging the Homosexual Movement we have looked at arguments/objections from nature and morality that are raised in favor of the normalization of the practice of homosexuality. The argument from nature might be phrased in terms of “This is just who I am” or, as we phrased it, “God made me this way.” We’ve learned that such an argument is fundamentally an appeal to the doctrine of creation, so we went back to Genesis 1 and 2 as well as other biblical texts and arrived at these answers:

  1. From the perspective of humanity’s creation as male and female: It’s not true that God made anyone homosexual. In God’s finished good creation there was no homosexuality. Therefore, it must be a result of humanity’s fall into the estate of sin and misery. It is an unnatural and sinful perversion of what God made, including you.
  2. From the perspective of the image of God and the one flesh union: It’s not true that God made anyone homosexual. The image of God in which humanity was created was expressed through the smaller husband and wife marriage community which was commanded to propagate a community of offspring. Homosexuality runs contrary to this expression. Therefore it must be part of the defacing of the image of God that occurred after the fall.
  3. From the perspective of God’s intended end for his creation: If homosexuality runs contrary to this end, then it cannot be true that God made anyone homosexual. By appealing to Eph. 5 and Rev. 19 we see that homosexuality denies this end in at least three ways: (1) It denies the headship of Christ over his church, both in the sense of his deity and his covenantal authority, (2) It denies the one-body union of Christ with his church, and (3) Because of (1) and (2) it denies Jesus’ ability to save sinners unto the renewal of the expression of the image of God in being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth. 

The argument from morality might be phrased in terms of “Jesus never condemned it!” Last time we developed this answer to that argument: “No. Jesus did condemn it when he appealed to Gen. 2 in order to define God’s design for marriage and sexuality and when he spoke favorably of God’s destruction of Sodom. Besides these texts from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we should also receive the rest of the Bible as God’s authoritative word. In numerous other places the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality as sin.”

In this lesson we’ll look at an objection from authority. This objection typically takes the form of Jesus’ teaching in his sermon on the mount. Matt. 7:1 and Luke 6:37 say in the KJV, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” This objection is essentially an appeal to authority. The basic idea is that no one has the right to judge anyone else’s behavior as good or bad. The reasons behind this objection vary. Some would say no one has the right to judge another because all people do bad things. This actually comes closest to what Jesus meant by “Judge not.” Others would say that no one has the right to judge another because such “religious” judgments are not based in fact but in personal, individual preferences. So what are we to make of such an objection?

We should begin with what Jesus actually meant by “Judge not.” Did he intend for this command to be taken in an absolute sense? In other words, did he mean to forbid all kinds of judging or a particular kind of judging? In John 7:24, Jesus teaches the crowd saying, “Judge not by appearances but judge with right judgment.” So in one passage he says, "Judge," and in another, "Judge not." What are we to make of this? If we believe that John’s gospel is just as authoritative as Matthew’s and Luke’s, we must conclude that Jesus’ command to “Judge not” cannot be meant in an absolute sense. Jesus must be forbidding a wrong kind of judgment. But what kind? Let’s look at Jesus’ teaching in context.

Luke 6:37-42: “‘Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.’ He also told them a parable: ‘Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,” when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye.”

Jesus is forbidding an ungracious judgmental attitude that would cause one to hypocritically "look down his nose" at others. He is rejecting any spirit that would exalt itself as morally superior to another based on one’s own supposed righteousness. This was the spirit imbibed by Jesus’ chief antagonists, the Pharisees. This is the unrighteous judgment he is forbidding. The Apostle Paul rightly judges this same kind of judgment in Rom. 2:1 which says, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” Later he even uses the same illustration of spiritual blindness that Jesus uses in his sermon on the mount, writing in vv. 17-24, “But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’”

If as Christians we ever hear the objection, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” we should first examine ourselves to make sure we are not approaching the subject in a self-righteous manner. To do so is to blaspheme God (i.e. the third commandment) by denying his law and gospel. It is a denial of the law in the sense that it requires one to exalt himself over the very law he purports to believe. If we are not judged and found guilty by the same law with which we judge, then we are not judging in a Christian manner. It is also a denial of the gospel. That person who judges in a self-righteous manner functionally rejects the need for the grace of God extended to him in Jesus Christ. Recently a popular politician was asked if he had ever asked God for forgiveness. He responded negatively, saying in effect that he had never done anything so bad that he felt he needed to be forgiven for it. That’s called self-righteousness. That’s what Jesus is forbidding in the sermon on the mount. Christian judgment must be filled with grace and rendered NOT for the purpose of condemnation but repentance and reconciliation with God. In other words, the only legitimate manner in which a Christian should ever pass such a judgment is gently with grace and love. And the only reason for passing such a judgment is to call a person to repentance and reconciliation with God.

So how should we respond to the person who objects to the Christian teaching that homosexuality is sinful by saying, “Judge not lest ye be judged”? We should say we agree with Jesus. Jesus did not mean to forbid all kinds of judging. He meant to forbid a particular kind of unrighteous judging, namely self-righteousness. We should explain that the same law by which we judge homosexuality as sinful condemns us as well. We are not the authority. God is the authority. His word is our only infallible rule for such judgments. And we should share the good news of forgiveness, the imputation of righteousness, and the transformation into a new creation through faith in Jesus Christ.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Jesus Never Condemned It!

Thus far in our series "Engaging the Homosexual Movement" we have looked at the argument from nature or identity. This argument might be phrased in terms of “This is just who I am” or, as we phrased it, “God made me this way.” We learned that such an argument is fundamentally an appeal to the doctrine of creation, so we went back to Genesis 1 and 2 as well as other biblical texts and arrived at these conclusions:
  1. From the perspective of humanity’s creation as male and female we might answer: It’s not true that God made anyone homosexual. In God’s finished good creation there was no homosexuality. Therefore, it must be a result of humanity’s fall into the estate of sin and misery. It is an unnatural and sinful perversion of what God made, including you.
  2. From the perspective of the image of God and the one flesh union we might answer: It’s not true that God made anyone homosexual. The image of God in which humanity was created was expressed through the smaller husband and wife marriage community which was commanded to propagate a community of offspring. Homosexuality runs contrary to this expression. Therefore it must be part of the defacing of the image of God that occurred after the fall.
  3. From the perspective of God’s intended end for his creation we might answer: If homosexuality runs contrary to this end, then it cannot be true that God made anyone homosexual. By appealing to Eph. 5 and Rev. 19 we see that homosexuality denies this end in at least three ways: (1) It denies the headship of Christ over his church, both in the sense of his deity and his covenantal authority, (2) It denies the one-body union of Christ with his church, and (3) Because of (1) and (2) it denies Jesus’ ability to save sinners unto the renewal of the expression of the image of God in being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth.
In this lesson we will look at another common objection raised in favor of the normalization of homosexuality. It is an argument from morality, which is typically phrased as “Jesus never condemned it.” First, we’ll look at what Jesus said about human sexuality. Second, we’ll evaluate the legitimacy of those who might attempt to pick and choose which texts of Scripture they will accept as authoritative. Third, we’ll look at what the Scriptures have to say about homosexuality.

First, what did Jesus say about homosexuality? Only one of Jesus’ teachings deals with marriage and sexuality directly. This teaching is found in Matt. 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12. It is occasioned by a question. The Pharisees, in order to test Jesus, ask him, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” In Matt. 19:4-6, he responds, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Mark 10:6-9 puts it like this: “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Jesus appeals to the creation account in Genesis. God instituted marriage in the beginning. It is a creation ordinance and the only proper context for human sexuality (i.e. an aspect of the one flesh union). And who are the proper subjects of such activity? Jesus is clear. “God made them male and female.” One man and one woman may be joined together in the bonds of marriage, not one man and another man or one woman and another woman or any other possible combination. The subjects of the God-ordained institution of marriage and sexuality are one man and one woman. It is understood that any other arrangement is contrary to God’s design and law and, therefore, sin.

Jesus addresses homosexuality in an indirect way on three other occasions. On each of these occasions he references God’s destruction of Sodom favorably. Now, as we saw in our first lesson, when we compare Gen. 19:5, Ezek. 16:49-50, and Lev. 18:22 we come away understanding that the particular sin associated with Sodom was homosexuality. (This is where we get the term “sodomy.”) In Matt. 10:14-15 Jesus instructs his Apostles before sending them out, saying, “And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” In Matt. 11:24 and Luke 10:12, Jesus pronounces woes upon cities that reject him, saying, “But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” In Luke 17:28-30 Jesus prophesies about his Second Coming, saying, “Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all—so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.” In all of these examples Jesus speaks favorably of God’s judgment against Sodom and compares it to the final judgment.

So, even if we limit our testimony to the words Jesus spoke at his First Coming we have ample evidence that he viewed homosexuality as sinful. But why limit ourselves in this way? Isn’t all Scripture, including the passages we’ve read from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, equally authoritative. Isn’t every word of the 66 books of the Old and New testaments the inspired word of God? Yes. Jesus himself clearly believed all 39 books of the OT were the inspired and authoritative word of God. And the same Spirit that inspired those texts inspired the Apostles and their associates to write the 27 books of the NT. When we look at all those texts we find many clear statements about the sin of homosexuality.

We’ve already mentioned the sin of Sodom as well as Lev. 18:22, which was part of Israel’s civil law under the Mosaic covenant. Besides these, the seventh commandment (Ex. 20; Deut. 5) assumes that the only righteous context for human sexuality is marriage between one man and one woman. And when we fast forward to the NT we find the same teaching in Rom. 1:26-27, which describes human depravity saying, “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” 1 Cor. 6:9 also says, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality.” And Jude 7 says, “Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” Finally, 1 Tim. 1:8-10a says, “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality.” The biblical evidence for the sinfulness of homosexuality is clear and undeniable. One might claim otherwise, but he cannot have the Bible as his authority and claim otherwise.

Therefore, our answer to the objection “Jesus never condemned it” is, “No. Jesus did condemn it when he appealed to Gen. 2 in order to define God’s design for marriage and sexuality and when he spoke favorably of God’s destruction of Sodom. Besides these texts from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we should also receive the rest of the Bible as God’s authoritative word. In numerous other places the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality as sin.”

Now it should be noted, as we'll see in the next few weeks, that this isn’t where our answer ultimately ends. There is hope for those who struggle with same-sex attraction in the gospel of Jesus Christ. As we’ve seen in 1 Cor. 6:9, God clearly condemns homosexuality, saying that those who practice it “will not inherit the kingdom of heaven.” However, in v. 11 he continues, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Thursday, January 12, 2017

God Made Me This Way! (Part 2)

Last time we considered this objection from the perspective of God’s original created design under two headings: (1) “Man’s Creation Male and Female” and (2) “The Image of God and the One Flesh Union.” Under the first heading we concluded that the Bible’s answer to the objection “God made me this way!” is to say, “No, that’s not true. In God’s finished good creation there was no homosexuality. Therefore, it must be a result of humanity’s fall into the estate of sin and misery. It is an unnatural and sinful perversion of what God made, including you.” Under the second we concluded that the Bible’s answer is to say, “No, that’s not true. The image of God in which humanity was created was expressed through the smaller husband and wife marriage community which was commanded to propagate an increasing community of offspring. Homosexuality runs contrary to this expression. Therefore it must be part of the perversion of the image of God that occurred in the fall.”
        
In this lesson, rather than thinking about the objection from the perspective of protology (i.e. doctrine of first things), we’ll think about it from the perspective of eschatology (i.e. doctrine of last things). In the eternal decree of God there is a parallel relationship between first things and last things. As Jonathan Edwards taught in his masterpiece The End for Which God Created the World, whatever God aims to achieve must be his highest reason for creating. In other words, the creation as originally designed (i.e. protology) must have God’s end goal (i.e. eschatology) embedded within it. Thus the claim "This is just who I am!" or "God made me this way!" is more than simply an appeal to God’s original design for his creation. It’s also an appeal to his goal for it.

As we saw last time, God created man male and female after his own image, and the two were united together as one flesh in a marriage covenant as husband and wife. These were their God-given identities. After the fall God determined to send a redeemer. “The seed of the woman” would come to “crush the head of the serpent" (Gen. 3:15). This redeemer would serve as a second Adam (Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15), undoing what the first Adam did and doing what he failed to do. But how would the elect receive these benefits? SC 30 asks, “How does the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ? A. The Spirit applies to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.” The redemption we have is in Christ. It is ours through faith-union with him. And what is the nature of this union? LC 66 asks, “What is that union which the elect have with Christ? A. The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God's grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband; which is done in their effectual calling.” Our union with Christ is described as that of a wife to her husband.

Just as God originally created a wife for the first Adam, so he is creating a wife for the second. We read about the connection between marriage and God’s work of redemption in Eph. 5:22-33, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”

We see two defining characteristics of marriage in this text: (1) The husband’s headship over his wife, and (2) The one flesh (or body) union between one man and one woman. These characteristics of the marriage relationship between husband and wife correspond to Christ’s relationship to his church. Just as Adam was the head of his wife, so Christ is the head of his church, and just as Adam and Eve were joined together in a covenant bond as one flesh, so Christ and his church are joined together in a covenant bond as one body. It is through this relationship of headship and union that sinners are saved.

As we think about this analogy in terms of the renewal of the image of God, we might also say, just as the image of God was expressed in the smaller marriage community of Adam and Eve propagating an increasing community of offspring, so it is being renewed through the marriage community of Christ and his church, which is propagating an increasing community of offspring by making disciples of all nations. Christ, in union with his church, is working to fulfill the original goal of being fruitful, multiplying, filling, subduing, and having dominion over the earth. We read about the consummation of this renewal in Rev. 19:6-9. The text says, “Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. 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; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the true words of God.’” This is the final sanctifying act that Christ performs for his bride.

We may, therefore, evaluate homosexuality by testing its conformity to the headship and union that characterizes Christ's redemptive relationship with and goal for his church. When we overlay this biblical paradigm with the homosexual paradigm what do we see?

First, we see that homosexuality cannot achieve the headship that a husband should have relative to his wife, since homosexual partners can only be relational equals. This fails to conform to the analogy Paul draws to Christ’s headship over his church. That headship has two senses. First, as the Son of God, Christ is our natural head by virtue of his deity. The homosexual paradigm, therefore, effectively denies Jesus’ deity, which is blasphemy. Second, as the incarnate Mediator, Christ is our covenantal head. The homosexual paradigm, therefore, effectively denies Jesus’ covenantal authority over us. Both denials, paradigmatically speaking, deprive him of his ability to save, specifically with respect to his power, thus undermining the gospel.

Second, we see that homosexuality cannot achieve the one flesh union of husband and wife. Try as they may homosexual partners can only be two distinct individuals. This has massive implications for love. The Apostle clearly bases the love a husband should have for his wife on the fact that she is his body. While homosexual partners may love one another as individuals, they can never share the kind of love that is associated with the one flesh union. This fails to conform to the analogy Paul draws to Christ’s love for his church. Being unable to achieve the one flesh union, the homosexual paradigm effectively denies the same union between Christ and his church and therefore the basis of his love for her, viz. himself (she is his body). This, again, paradigmatically speaking, deprives Jesus of his ability to save, specifically with respect to his willingness (or love), thus undermining the gospel. 
Because the homosexual paradigm effectively denies Christ’s headship over and union with his church, it denies Jesus’ ability to save sinners both in terms of his power and willingness (or love), respectively. And because Jesus’ salvation of sinners is unto the renewal of the expression of the image of God in being fruitful, multiplying, filling, subduing, and having dominion over the earth, homosexuality also effectively denies this goal.

So, in answer to the objection, "God made me this way!” the Christian may also appeal to God’s goal for what he made. If homosexuality effectively denies that goal, then it cannot be true that God made anyone homosexual. Homosexuality effectively denies God’s goal for his creation by: (1) denying the headship of Christ over his church, both naturally and covenantally, thus depriving him of his power to save, (2) denying the one body union of Christ with his church, thus depriving him of his willingness (or love) to save. In other words, homosexuality effectively denies Jesus’ ability to renew the expression of the image of God in being fruitful, multiplying, filling, subduing, and having dominion over the earth.