Archive for September, 2009

The Institutes (28)

Book 1 Chapter 14 Sections 20-22

… let us not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in this most beautiful theater. For… although it is not the chief evidence for faith, yet it is the first evidence in the order of nature, to be mindful that wherever we cast our eyes, all things they meet are works of God, and at the same time to ponder with pious meditation to what end God created them.

What did the first moment of existence look like? Was it an amalgamation of particles and matter that resulted a huge bang? Was their an intelligence behind that? Was it random? Will we never know? Or does something lie behind the beginning that too wonderful for us to imagine, as Richard Dawkins has theorized? Or is the most wonderful thing imaginable… God’s words splitting through the dark, creating light?

For Calvin, the thought of God as Creator is the most thankworthy thing in the universe. That God would choose to create men at all is the first in a long list of natural graces given to us. The only thing that supersedes this in time is God’s choice to save us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). So why, when Calvin has already gone through the nature of general revelation and creation, is he rehashing it? Here he’s not talking about the content of the revelation, but the spiritual benefits of meditating on and believing the doctrine of creation.

Calvin sees two chief steps in doing this: approaching the doctrine orthodoxically and orthopathically. In other words, thinking the right thoughts about these things, and then applying them to our own hearts.

The first part of the rule is exemplified when we reflect upon the greatness of the Artifacer who stationed, arranged, and fitted together the starry host of heaven in such wonderful order that nothing more beautiful in appearance can be imagined; who so set and fixed some in their stations that they cannot move; who granted to others a freer course, but so as not to wander outside their appointed course…

All of this is used to frame how much love is displayed in our salvation, which is the second step in this process. That God would start this grand master symphony with salvation already in mind and all the benefits thereof for us already in place… well, a picture doesn’t begin without a canvass. In this way God is good. God is good to make known His power and strength through creation, and his power and strength in our salvation.

… he willed to commend his providence and fatherly solicitude toward us in that, before he fashioned man, he prepared everything he foresaw would be useful and salutary for him. How great ingratitude would it be now to doubt whether this most gracious Father has us in his care, who we see was concerned for us even before we were born! How impious would it be to tremble for fear that his kindness might at any time fail us in our need, when we see that it was shown, with the greatest abundance of every good thing, when we were yet unborn!

Creation is intricately wrapped up in the story of redemption. God didn’t conceive creation apart from the fall and redemption. This realization, that creation would take place even though God foresaw the fall should bring us to worship Him all the more. Praise God!

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Special Revelation and Reason

Doug Wilson brings a good message on the importance of Scripture in Christianity. Well worth your time. Best stuff is his classroom analogy. This fits well with blogging through the Institutes… the Scriptures do not submit to the tests of reason. The Scriptures claim to reveal a reason above our own that demands our full conformity to the way God reasons.

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The Fading Fashion Trend in Liberalism

Rob Bell saw down for an interview recently. In it, he said he would embrace the term “evangelical” if it meant:

… a belief that we together can actually work for change in the world, caring for the environment, extending to the poor generosity and kindness, a hopeful outlook. That’s a beautiful sort of thing.

The emergent church is just a recasting of theological liberalism. That much has been clear for some time. Part of a new polemic for the 21st-century is confronting the next generation of liberal word-hijacking. This means making sure that the words that Scripture uses to define Christianity are not redefined to create a new religion.

J Gresham Machen saw this coming in Christianity and Liberalism, where he clearly recognized that the rise of liberal “Christianity” was in fact a false religion rather than any heresy arising from within Christianity:

The plain fact is that liberalism, whether it be true or false, is no mere “heresy”–no mere divergence at isolated points from Christian teaching. On the contrary it proceeds from a totally different root, and it constitutes, in essentials, a unitary system of its own. That does not mean that all liberals hold all parts of the system, or that Christians who have been affected by liberal teaching at one point have been affected at all points. There is sometimes a salutary lack of logic which prevents the whole of a man’s faith being destroyed when he has given up a part. But the true way in which to examine a spiritual movement is in its logical relations; logic is the great dynamic, and the logical implications of any way of thinking are sooner or later certain to be worked out. And taken as a whole, even as it actually exists today, naturalistic liberalism is a fairly unitary phenomenon; it is tending more and more to eliminate from itself illogical remnants of Christian belief.

It differs from Christianity in its view of God, of man, of the seat of authority and of the way of salvation. And it differs from Christianity not only in theology but in the whole of life. It is indeed sometimes said that there can be communion in feeling where communion in thinking is gone, a communion of the heart as distinguished from a communion of the head.

But with respect to the present controversy, such a distinction certainly does not apply. On the contrary, in reading the books and listening to the sermons of recent liberal teachers–so untroubled by the problem of sin, so devoid of all sympathy for guilty humanity, so prone to abuse and ridicule the things dearest to the heart of every Christian man–one can only confess that if liberalism is to return into the Christian communion there must be a change of heart fully as much as a change of mind. God grant that such a change of heart may come! But meanwhile the present situation must not be ignored but faced.

This is the battle cry of today… liberalism’s new garb must not ignored, but faced. Confronted. Denounced. Told that it cannot hide behind the next philosophical incarnation of individualism. Just in talking to people who are fond of Bell’s writings, there is a definite disconnect between their understanding of his teachings and the Bible. Which is why we don’t argue against it with our own reasonings… but the reasonableness of absolute truth that is found in the Word. It is ultimately our only resort in the encroaching night: the light that is the Word of God.

Michael Patton declared the death of the movement earlier this year. It’s already passing in many ways out of the public eye; it’s dubious that Rob Bell will ever be the next Billy Graham as a newspaper mused a few years back. Nevertheless, I want to be on guard for the next way that liberalism will reinvent itself in an attempt to subvert Biblical Christianity. Wonder what it’ll be next…

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A Different Kind of Witnessing

Watch John Piper essentially witness to the Religious Newswriters Association in Minneapolis on September 11th. This is at an informational seminar on the new Calvinists, but Piper also uses the opportunity to share the Gospel with the group. Well worth 15 minutes of your time.

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The Institutes (27)

Book 1 Chapter 14 Sections 13-19

God has created a vast multitude of supernatural beings whose ultimate purpose is to praise Him and “adorn His glory.” Angels point us back to God… this is their purpose. For us, they comfort and protect. For Him, they praise and glorify. But… what about the demons? What about Satan? In short, if God allows evil to exist, does that mean that He’s not all good? These and other questions Calvin takes on in his next section on angelology… in this case, the fallen angels. Satan is the enemy of God and Christ, and thus the enemy of the believer.

We have been forewarned that an enemy relentlessly threatens us, an enemy who is the very embodiment of rash boldness, of military prowess, of crafty wiles, of untiring zeal and haste, of every conceivable weapon and of skill in the science that we should not let ourselves be overwhelmed by carelessness or faintheartedness, but on the contrary, with courage rekindled stand our ground in combat. Since this military service ends only at death, let us urge ourselves to perseverance. Indeed, conscious of our weakness and ignorance, let us especially call upon God’s help, relying upon him alone in whatever we attempt, since it is he alone who can supply us with counsel and strength, courage and armor.

If there really is an evil force arrayed against we and our Master, then there are all kinds of practical applications to our daily lives. Calvin focuses on these:

… if we have God’s glory at heart, as we should have, we ought with all our strength to contend against him who is trying to extinguish it. If we are minded to affirm Christ’s Kingdom as we ought, we must wage irreconcilable war with him who is plotting its ruin.

And yet, I can’t help but think how absolutely insane it must be to try to stop God. This isn’t the realm of Hollywood playwrites and fantasy novels… the reality is, God’s Kingdom cannot be stopped. It is here, and it will finally be here. And Satan will have his place… he knows this. And he’s seen the hand of God throughout history.

So, although he totally resists God’s power, he is still under that power, and all his evil host. Can it only be by divine permission that the demonic hordes exist? Or is the explanation that God’s power is somehow limited? All of Scripture cries out no! God’s power is in no way limited, and so when Paul writes Colossians 1:16, he has in mind the knowledge that none of this evil came about apart from God. Concerning Christ, he writes:

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.

Thrones and dominions is used in Colossians 2:15 to refer to evil spiritual forces being disarmed and mocked at the Cross. Paul uses it in Colossians 1:16 the same way… even the angels that Christ knew would rebel were still created and subjected to him. Thus, Paul could write to the Roman church in Romans 16 that God would soon crush Satan under their feet. This is our encouragement as well.

So, the theological aspect of demonology shows that 1) God created everything perfect, 2) Satan fell of his own accord, 3) Satan and his forces are still subject to Yahweh and His Christ, and therefore 4) we have a victory over Satan because of the Cross, and have nothing to fear from him.

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Counter-Cultural Christ

John MacArthur wrote a few weeks back for the Washington Post’s On Faith series. A snippet:

The first word of his first sermon was “Repent!”–a theme that was no more welcome and no less strident-sounding than it is today. The first act of his public ministry touched off a small riot. He made a whip of cords and chased money-changers and animal merchants off the Temple grounds. That initiated a three-year-long conflict with society’s most distinguished religious leaders. They ultimately handed him over to Roman authorities for crucifixion while crowds of lay people cheered them on.

Jesus was pointedly, deliberately, and dogmatically counter-cultural in almost every way. No wonder the religious and academic aristocracy of his generation were so hostile to him.

A good read.

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The Institutes (26)

Book 1 Chapter 14 Sections 1-12

Calvin moves into Angelology, offering a somewhat  guarded examination of angels. Why guarded? Because, as Calvin readily admits, there’s not a lot of information on angels in Scripture. However,

… to prevent believers from deserting to the fabrications of the heathen, we must depict the true God more distinctly than they do. Since the notion of God as the mind of the universe (in the philosophers’ eyes, a most acceptable description) is ephemeral, it is important for us to know him more intimately, lest we always waver in doubt.

[J]ust as eyes, when dimmer with age or weakness or by some other defect, unless aided by spectacles, discern nothing distinctly; so, such is our feebleness, unless Scripture guides us in seeking God, we are immediately confused.

Calvin prefaces all of his remarks about angels with the above for one simple reason: for Calvin, understanding angels is understanding God. This is probably the primary thing about popular conceptions of angels, whether they be in Frank Peretti’s novels or the HBO series that’s named after them. Angels are not operating independently of God, much less existing apart from His knowledge and interest. Instead, they always come as messengers, pointing back to God. This is what is missing from all our conversations about angels. Their interactions with mankind always include God.

Beginning with the creation of angels, Calvin notes that they were all created perfect. It was because of sin that any of them fell. Christians are not dualists, thinking that Satan has equal power with God. His pithy statement comes in the middle of section three. “For the depravity and malice both of man and of the devil, or the sins that arise therefrom, do not spring from nature, but rather from the corruption of nature.” Nothing is naturally evil, in the sense that God didn’t create anything that way. Instead, it was only because of Satan’s fall and man’s fall that evil entered the world.

Calvin’s goal in all this is to head off at the pass any vain speculation. This is typical of his age, when theologians a hundred years later would not easily be stopped by the silence of Scripture. The coming Enlightenment would affect even theology… so depending on your perspective, Calvin’s insistence not to pursue some of these things further is either refreshing or frustrating. For me, I find it to be both. I think he can go farther with some things, and doesn’t with others. Here, though, he seems to be on solid ground.

He points out his objective before launching into the meat of his examination of angelic beings:

The theologian’s task is not to divert the ears with chatter, but to strengthen consciences by teaching things true, sure, and profitable.

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Calvin’s stresses the angel’s role as protector to the believer, and the messenger of and one who “renders conspicuous” God’s majesty. Still, it is we who benefit from them, not God. Angels, as our protector, are meant to

One thing, indeed, ought to be quite enough for us: that the Lord declares himself to be our protector. But when we see ourselves beset by so many perils, so many harmful things, so many kinds of enemies – such is our softness and frailty – we would sometimes be filled with trepidation or yield to despair if the Lord did not make us realize the presence of his grace according to our capacity. For this reason, he not only promises to take care of us, but tells us he has innumerable guardians whom he has bidden to look after our safety; that so long as we are hedged about by their defense and keeping, whatever perils may threaten, we have been placed beyond all chance of evil.

They are agents of grace, under God’s sovereign hand. Calvin may paint too rosy a picture here, as if God will not allow trial or evil to come into our lives. However, Calvin is so explicit on this point elsewhere so as to negate any objection here.

The thing that I’ve seen in American culture, and noted above, is the obsession with angels as good beings. “Touched By an Angel” is probably notable for this, that angels can operate independently of God. So much other speculation has been stirred up so as to make angels the subtle enemies of God, stealing away from Him His rightful glory and honor. Calvin speaks, as it were, into our own time:

How preposterous… it is for us to be led away from God by the angels, who have been established to testify that his help is all the closer to us!

God does not make them ministers of his power and goodness to share his glory with them… he does not promise us his help through their ministry in order that we should divide our trust between them and him.

Angels are extensions of His grace, add to His glory, and point back to His throne. Everything about them is entrenched in Yahweh and His Son, Christ, whom they serve and worship (Psalm 91:11-13, Hebrews 1:6).

In the next section, Calvin will explore what Scriptures have to say concerning fallen angels.

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