Gathering the Study the Gospel of Christ in the Gospel of Mark

On October 7, the core group (and, Lord willing, many visitors) will be gathering to begin our first study as the church plant to be known as Christ Community Church in Newton, MA. For info on why Mark’s Gospel, how you can pray, and other pertinent info, go here.

Fumbling and Trusting

As we have settled in Newton, MA, much of my posting will be originally assigned to the pastoral blog of the Christ Community Church website (still somewhat under construction).  I highly recommend your visitation.  In fact, this is your invitation.  For two other brothers much greater than I, Erik Schaefer and Joe Keune, will be blogging there as well on everything from pastoral ministry to biblical counseling to mission in Newton and to the nations.  However, my posts there, I’ll link here.  And I’ll continue to write here occasionally, while also linking up to other thoughts that I think will be tasteful food for your hearts and lives.

Go here to read Fumbling and Trusting, a brief synopsis of our discovered weakness in Christian mission and how this realization is the best place to be, for there God’s power is made perfect.

Please continue to pray for us, especially for our faith, holiness, love and unity in the Spirit.  Pray also for our first Bible study, beginning October 7.

Do As I Do: Pursuing An Imitation Worthy of Imitation

We ought not to be ignorant of imitation.  While we are not exactly in the image of God (lest we be God), we are in His image and are created to image Him forth to each other.  The Bible is not ashamed to call us, then, to imitate God.  While testifying to our sin and imperfection, the Holy Spirit nevertheless teaches us that (on account of the new birth) we can and must imitate Him.  So,

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph 5.1).

“But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Pet 1.15-16).

Somewhere someone once coined the phrase: “do as I say, not as I do,” and while we do not ascribe to such a frivolous idea, one wonders if we practice it.  We tell our children how they ought not to throw fits, and when they throw a fit, we throw a fit at them.  “Do as I say, not as I do.”

The illustration of children is intentional simply because children, made in the image of God, are born to imitate. They say what we say, how we say it.  They pick up our facial expressions and use them in timely ways.  And they often do as we do, for good and for ill.  The only disconnect is between what we say and what they do, but that is another post for another time.

The illustration of children is intentional, also, because it is the context in which both Paul and Peter and, most importantly, Jesus connects our imitation of God, our Father.  Again, Paul writes, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.”  Peter writes, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet 1.14-15).

And they get this from Jesus who told those who had falsely believed in Him, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God.  This is not what Abraham did.  You are doing what your father did.”  They replied, “We were not born of sexual immorality.  We have one Father — even God.”  And Jesus responds, “If God were your Father, you would love me (presumably because God the Father loves God the Son), for I came from God and I am here. . . . You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.  He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.  But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.  Which one of you convicts me of sin?  If I tell you the truth, why do you not believe me?

And then this: Whoever is of God hears the words of God.  The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (Jn 8.39-47).

What has Jesus said?  Every human being is born having not one but two fathers, a human father and the devil (for all are children of wrath by nature, like the rest of mankind, Eph 2.3).  And even as we imitate our human parents, so we imitate the devil.  His will is our will.  His desires are our desires.  What he does, we do, because we bear his nature, and this ultimately constitutes a rejection of God and Jesus Christ Whom He sent into the world to reveal Himself to sinners.  What we need is to be, as Jesus says, “of God.”  What does this entail?

All of this talk about children introduces the biblical doctrine of regeneration or the new birth.  If we are to imitate God, we must be born of God.  His nature must become ours.  Our will and desires must be created anew.  And this work of God was purchased by the death of Christ on the cross.  All the promises of God, the New Covenant DNA, was bought by Christ.  That includes the new birth, and with it hearts, wills, desires tattooed with that which is pleasing to our Father.  Not only have we received a new nature that loves our Father and what He loves, but Christ’s work on the cross removed all the legal requirements hindering our adoption by God.  We are by nature and by a just adoption, the children of God.  Christ is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters (Heb 2.11).

Now as Christ is the perfect Son of God, so He perfectly imitated and therefore revealed the Father in all He did and didn’t, said and didn’t say, thought and didn’t think, etc.  And as He is our older brother (Rom 8.29) and a perfect revelation of our Father, so as we behold Him and imitate Him, we see and imitate our Father.

And Paul teaches us that, by grace, this is quite possible.  “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11.1).  He says two things: it is possible to imitate Christ, for Paul, a man like us, did it; and insofar as we observe Christ in our brothers and sisters, they too are — wildly — worthy of imitation!  And this is not restricted to the apostle.  For he writes to the Philippian church, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (4.17).

So let’s summarize: God has made us imitating creatures.  Sin, however, brought the will, etc. under the bondage of sin and the father of all unbelieving people, namely, the devil.  Therefore, we imitate him.  We do as he does.  But God determined to have children and to redeem them for Himself by sending His Son into the world in order to save us.  A crucial aspect of our salvation is the new birth; another aspect adoption, and the end result is that believers are born of God and are the children of God.  We have new hearts, wills, desires, tastebuds, etc., and love what our Father loves.  Jesus is both the revelation of our Father to us and, as our older brother, as we behold Him we see that which is most worthy of imitation.  It is possible to imitate Christ, as was the case with Paul, and Paul believed that others besides himself did the same and were, thus, exemplary believers whom we are to imitate also.

But if the truth be told, not many desire to be exemplary and worth imitating.  Not many strive to imitate Christ.  Why not?  Call it laziness, carelessness, personal pessimism, hypocrisy, even perhaps a fraudulent faith, we simply don’t want to be exemplary in holiness because the cost appears to be too high and the reward, if it is on the radar, seems to be too small.  Moreover, we have failed to understand our station as God’s children and the nature of the new birth, and how these realities show themselves in a mature and splendid and exemplary holiness.

How do we right the ship?

1. If we have been reckless children, we run to our Father, in light of our Brother’s sacrifice, and repent of being exemplary in hypocrisy.  By His grace, we will no longer practice “do as I say, but not as I do.”  We will strive to match our words and our actions.

2. Doctrinally, we must allow the reality of the new birth to have its full course in our thinking.  We will no longer excuse ourselves from the Bible’s call to exemplary holiness and to the imitation of Christ by thinking heretically about Christ — that He was not a man like us therefore we cannot walk as He walked –, nor by thinking that the Holy Spirit simply can’t be serious in this cause because, doesn’t He know, we are only human.  Yes, we are human, but we are not humans enslaved to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  We are new creatures.  We ought to walk in newness of life.

3. We must count the cost of holiness and the infinitely greater cost of unholiness.  Imitating Christ in holiness will lead to imitating Christ in suffering (2 Tim 3.12).  A daily cross and the call to holiness are a packaged deal.  The cost is great.  But the cost of unholiness is far greater.  To be without it will be to miss out on seeing God (Heb 12.14).  No unholy thing will exist in heaven.

4. We must count the cost of holiness and the infinitely greater reward of holiness.  If a man would follow or imitate Christ, he must forfeit his life.  But such a forfeiture is of that base sort, a life lived for self and that life, even if it gains the whole world and a thousand years of happiness, is ultimately the damned life.  But a life lived in imitation of Christ, a life laid down for Christ and the gospel, gains not the whole world but the eternal world of love, not a thousand years of happiness but an eternity of ever-increasing joy in the presence of God.

5. We must simply grow up, brothers and sisters.  A “brother” of ours in Massachusetts has told us more than once as we plan to plant in Boston, “You have got to grow up!  You have got to mature!”  And he means in being like Christ in universal holiness.  The problem for many is that we love being children.  But we have not been saved to remain children but “to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4.16).  God has saved us to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8.29).  This is the good that God is working in every situation.  Every circumstance, trial, temptation, moment granted is an opportunity to grow up, to imitate Christ, to become like Him more and more.

6. We must stop settling for sin and pursue joy in God.  Holiness did not always produce a smile in the life of Christ.  Holiness necessitates war against sin and war does not produce many smiles.  The thought and reality of the end of war does.  For too long and sometimes still, my obedience was/is stale.  It lacked true joy.  There was no happiness in holiness.  There was no pleasure in holiness.  And this makes sin all the more enticing.  It is because we do not know the blessedness of holiness, to imitate God, to walk as Christ, to live by the Spirit, to commune with the Triune God, to evince our new nature, to manifest our new position, to magnify divine grace, to know His care, His joy, His delight, to testify to the whole gospel, to come to share in God’s holiness, to inherit the promise of seeing God and Christ face to face, etc.  Joy in holiness (communion with God, cf. 1 Jn 1.5-8) keeps us from settling for sin.

7. We must not fear being exemplary in holiness.  Many will turn up their noses, thinking you uptight, too heavenly minded, not fun enough.  Others will make fun, setting up fake twitter accounts in your name (all in good fun of course), and joke about how you are too holy for their presence and the like.  Still others will want to fight you, tempt you, and even kill you because of the Christ they see in you.  Do not fear.  Paul welcomed it all.  “Imitate me,” he said, “even as I imitate Christ.”  Are we of that stock?  Yes, of course.  Paul’s new birth carried no more power in it than yours or mine.  Will we look our brothers and sisters, our husbands and wives, our children and all others in the face and say, “Imitate me, even as I imitate Christ”, and then strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord?

Will we say not only “Do as I say,” but also, “Do as I do?”  Will we pursue an imitation of Christ worthy of imitation?

If we will, we will edify the church.  We will point the Bride to Christ.  We will shine like lights in the midst of a twisted and crooked generation.  We will show forth our God and Father.  We will testify to the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit.  We will experience joy, for the absence of sin is the presence of joy in God.  And perhaps our children won’t throw fits anymore either . . . perhaps?!

Debatable: Is Complementarianism Another Word for Patriarchy?, by Joe Carter

Is complementarianism another word for patriarchy? Egalitarians and many complementarians agree: It is indeed. But a recent debate attempts to determine whether this should be acknowledged as a timeless biblical norm or rejected as an outdated cultural standard.

The most “aha” moment for me:

In truth, “functionally egalitarian” marriages should more aptly be described as “dysfunctionally complementarian.” A husband who refuses his male headship role is not creating equality in the marriage but transferring the headship role to the wife. Hierarchy is not removed, only replaced by an unbiblical reversal of the creational norm.

For the full article, go here.

Calvin’s 5 Steps for Fashioning an Idol or Counterfeit God

A famous five points have been attributed to or at least are derivative of the teaching of John Calvin.  But, believe it or not, Calvin wrote about topics other than reformed soteriology.  In preparation for teaching on 1 John 5.18-21, and particularly verse 21, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols,” I read an excerpt from Calvin’s institutes on idolatry.  So for the sake of good teaching, I want to divulge to you the five steps to fashioning an idol or counterfeit god per John Calvin.

1. Man has a fallen nature and “is a perpetual factory of idols.”  Calvin gathers this in that it seems from the earliest moments after the Fall of man, humanity began to make idols.  So before Abraham’s birth, Terah and Nahor were worshipers of false gods (Josh 24.2).  Moreover, Jacob’s wife Rachel stole her father’s household idols (Gen 31.19).  Such, says Calvin, intimates that this was common to man.  He writes, “Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity.”  This sentence, though 500 years old or so, sounded quite fresh and culturally relevant to me.  See “12 Step Program” and “god of your own understanding” therapies.

2. So nature, the fallenness of the human heart is the root and fundamental cause.  From this, then, secondly — we conceive of an idol.  A fallen human nature is not mutually exclusive with worship.  The propensity towards worship does not cease to exist but exists in a polluted and ignorant direction.  So we conceive of a god to worship.  Calvin writes, “To these evils a new wickedness joins itself, that man tries to express in his work the sort of God he has inwardly conceived of.”  So — idol making factory with a polluted “creativity team.”

3. If you read the last quote carefully, you observed the third step: expression!  Again, “To these evils a new wickedness joins itself, that man tries to express in his work the sort of God he has inwardly conceived of.”  To this he adds, “Therefore the mind begets an idol; the hand gives it birth.”  What he writes next is helpful.  He illustrates by way of the Israelites once they have been redeemed out of Egypt.  Once Moses has been gone too long with God for their liking, they have Aaron make two golden calves for them.  “They knew, indeed, that this was God whose power they had experienced in very many miracles; but they did not trust that he was near them unless they could discern with their eyes a physical symbol of his countenance, which for them would be a testimony of the ruling God.”  Again, we are worshiping beings, but, on account of our corrupted natures, we are not content to believe or trust in a God that is invisible, a God so glorious, so — in a very real sense — incomprehensible and infinite, that He cannot be fathomed much less fashioned by the finite mind of man.  We believe what we can see, so we trust what we can create, what we can fathom, what we can rule (though, in truth, it rules us).  So — idol-making factory with polluted “creativity and development team.”  I have to say, what a burdening — I mean heart-renting burdening — corruption of the glory that we were created to enjoy in the one true and living God.

Insert — It is not as if God left Himself hidden, you know.  God has revealed Himself in the Bible and, climactically, in His Son, Jesus Christ.  In a book and in His Son, there God is seen.  He calls all peoples to believe in Him thus revealed.  This requires a new birth, a righting of the heart, a restoring of sight to the blind, and it is precisely this that God accomplishes for everyone who believes — we see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4.6).

4. To what we fashion as a god, we fasten the attributes of God.  He writes, “Just as soon as a visible form has been fashioned for God, his power is also bound to it.  Men are so stupid that they fasten God wherever they fashion him.”  This dollar bill, this same dead material, same stuff that I wipe my . . . well, you know where I’m going, this dollar bill is my god.  See, it will save me.  In it is all my joy, satisfaction, hope, fulfillment — and ruin, for it is no god at all.  The same paper that we worship we flush down the toilet.  Money is not bad.  It can be good.  And it is usually good things made ultimate things that become counterfeit gods.

5. To whatever we fasten the attributes of God, that we are bound to adore or worship as God.  Calvin again, “Men are so stupid that they fasten God wherever they fashion him; and hence they cannot but adore.  And there is no difference whether they simply worship an idol, or God in the idol.  It is always idolatry when divine honors are bestowed upon an idol, under whatever pretext this is done . . . whatever is conferred upon the idol is snatched away from (God).

Corruption, conception, expression, fasten, adore.  The five steps for fashioning an idol or counterfeit god.

If you missed it, here are six steps for “keeping yourselves from idols.”  May the Lord give us grace, practical and powerful, that we may with a whole heart delight ourselves in Him.

All quotes from: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, Book 1, ch. XII (12), pg. 108-09.

The Excellency of the Power Belongs to God

If you ask, whence hath the word preached this mighty power? The answer must be, neither from itself nor him that preaches it, but from the Spirit of God whose instrument it is, by whose blessing and concurrence with it, it produceth its blessed effects upon the hearts of men.

First, This efficacy and wonderful power is not from the word itself; take it in an abstract notion, separated from the Spirit, it can do nothing: it is called “the foolishness of preaching,” 1 Cor. i.21. Foolishness, not only because the world so accounts it, but because in itself it is a weak and unsuitable, and therefore a very improbable way to reconcile the world to God; that the stony heart of one man should be broken by the words of another man; that one poor sinful creature should be used to breathe spiritual life into another; this could never be if this sword were not managed by an omnipotent hand.

And besides, we know what works naturally, works necessarily; if this efficacy were inherent in the word, so that we should suppose it to work as other natural objects do, then it must needs convert all to whom it is at any time preached, except its effect were miraculously hindered, as the fire when it could not burn the three children; but alas, thousands hear it, that never feel the saving power of it, Isa. liii.1 and 2 Cor. iv. 3, 4.

Secondly, It derives not this efficacy from the instrument by which it is ministered: let their gifts and abilities be what they will, it is impossible that ever such effects should be produced from the strength of their natural or gracious abilities, 2 Cor. iv. 7. “We have this treasure (saith the apostle) in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.”

The treasure of the gospel-light is carried in earthen vessels, as Gideon and his men had their lamps in earthen pitchers, or in oyster-shells, for so the word also signifies; the oyster-shell is a base and worthless thing in itself; however, there lies the rich and precious pearl of so great value.  And why is this precious treasure lodged in such weak, worthless vessels? Surely it is upon no other design but to convince us of the truth I am here to prove, that the excellency of the power is of God, and not of us; as it follows in the next words.  To the same purpose speaks the same apostle, 1 Cor 3.7. “So then, neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.”

Not any thing! What can be more diminutively spoken of that gospel-preachers? But we must not understand these words in a simple and absolute, but in a comparative and relative sense; not as if they were not necessary and useful in their place, but that how necessary soever they be, and what excellent gifts soever God hath furnished them with; yet it is neither in their power nor choice to make the word they preach effectual to men; if it were, then the damnation of all that hear us must needs lie at our door; then also, many thousands would have been reconciled to God, which are yet in the state of enmity, but the effect of the gospel is not in our power.

Thirdly, But whatever efficacy it hath to reconcile men to God, it derives from the Spirit of God, whose co-operation and blessing (which is arbitrarily dispensed) gives it all the fruit it hath.

Ministers, saith one, are like trumpets which make no sound, if breath be not breathed into them. Or like Ezekiel’s wheels, which move not unless the Spirit move them; or Elisha’s servant, whose presence doth no good except Elisha’s spirit be there also. For want of the Spirit of God how many thousands of souls do find the ministry to be nothing to them? If it be something to the purpose to any soul, it is the Lord that makes it so. This Spirit is not limited by men’s gifts or parts; he concurs not only with their labours who have excellent gifts, but oftentimes blesses mean, despicable gifts with far greater success.

Suppose, saith Augustine, there be two conduits in a town, one very plain and homely, the other built of polished marble, and adorned with excellent images, as eagles, lions, angels; the water refreshes as its water, and not as it comes from such or such a conduit. It is the Spirit that gives the word all that virtue it hath: he is the Lord of all saving influences: he hath dominion over the word, over our souls, over the times and seasons of conversions; and if any poor creature attend the ministry without benefit, if he go away as he came, without fruit, surely we may say in this case, as Martha said to Christ, in reference to her brother Lazarus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died; so, Lord, if thou hadst been in this prayer, in this sermon, this poor soul had not gone dead and carnal from under it.

– John Flavel, The Method of Grace, 57-59, vol 2 of 6.

Regeneration

One of my favorite passages from Thomas Watson’s sermon “How We May Read the Scriptures With Most Spiritual Profit” is a quip on regeneration (the new birth, being born again), —

The word calls for regeneration; have you the signature . . . of the Holy Ghost [Spirit] upon you?  . . . Is there such a change wrought in you, as if another soul did live in the same body?

Thomas Watson, Puritan Sermons 1659-1689, 57-71, emphasis mine.