Saturday, December 15, 2018

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" - A Song Not Worth Defending

Apparently the current chapter of the "War on Christmas" is the feminist objection to the song, "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Overall, it seems that conservatives have joined others in embracing the cause of defending the song, jumping at the opportunity to offend liberals. Now, I am not a feminist, but I will argue that Christians, at least, should not waste their time defending this song. Here are a few thoughts I have had on this whole controversy:

1. The main reason I do not think this song is worth defending is that even if the song does not promote rape (the current controversy), the song at least promotes fornication and a loose attitude to sexual sin. It's just not a good song by Christian standards, and if conservatives claim to hold Christian values (and they do claim that), then it is not a good song by conservative standards either.

2. This is not a freedom of speech issue. The government is not telling radio stations to play or not play the song. People can object to the song as immoral and radio stations can respond to the objections of their listeners and stop playing the song. It might be good if they took a lot of other songs off the radio as well, but that is really a different point.

3. It is ironic that in this issue, most feminists have taken the role of puritans and many conservatives have taken the role of defending sexual autonomy. If one needed proof that conservatives can fall prey to the temptation of defining themselves merely by what was popular several decades ago, this would be a good example. Christians ought to promote a consistent view of the world, rather than merely defending whatever liberals attack.

4. There is a reason that the mutual consent of the characters in the song is debatable, with some arguing that there is no mutual consent in the song, while others arguing that there is mutual consent in a playfully flirtatious manner. Consent can be rather complicated unless you wait until you hear something like, “I __, take you __, to be my lawful husband...” before having sexual relations. This is not to say that there is not a difference between consensual fornication and rape (see Deuteronomy 22:23-27), but it is to say that God’s law gives us clarity in a world made topsy-turvy by sin.

5. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is not the only Christmas song you won’t hear on the radio. At least in my experience with our local radio station that plays Christmas music, I almost never hear a religious song or a song written before 1900. There is a huge treasure trove of wonderful Christmas and seasonal music that is overlooked today. If you want to defend a Christmas song, there are much better choices than “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Carols like God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen or Joy to the World. Or the more obscure, but also rich, carols like The Truth Sent From AboveSavior of the Nations, ComeRemember, O Thou Man, and Tomorrow is my Dancing Day.

And so I'll leave with Ralph Vaughn Williams's "Fantasia on Christmas Carols," a melody of three traditional English carols: 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Living as Citizens of Heaven

In my most recent sermon, I came to Philippians 1:27-30, which begins with the exhortation: "Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ..."

There is only one Greek word underlying the English translation “let your manner of life be,” which is πολιτεύεσθε. You see in the first part of the word “πολι” ("poli") its connection to the Greek word for city (πόλις), where we get the word “politics.” A more literal translation of πολιτεύεσθε would be “behave as citizens.” One would say in those days, “behave as citizens worthy of Rome.” Each nation has its manner of life which is in some way distinctive. And there is a duty to live in a way that gives honor to your country, rather than disgracing it by your actions. Paul uses this idea to exhort the Philippians saints to act in a way that befits their identity with the gospel and their allegiance to Jesus whom the gospel proclaims to be the Lord. Paul picks up this idea again in Philippians 3:20, where he says “our citizenship is in heaven.”

This analogy was especially appropriate for a letter to Christians in Philippi. Philippi was a Roman colony in what is now northern Greece (Acts 16:12). It contained a much larger proportion of Roman citizens than other cities. It was a place for Roman soldiers to retire. When Paul was in Philippi, the people identified as loyal Romans (Acts 16:21), and Paul privately called attention to his Roman citizenship (Acts 16:37), which embarrassed the Philippian authorities who had beaten him publicly without a orderly trial.

The Philippians knew what it meant for citizens to go to a foreign land as an colony, bringing their customs with them. They knew what it meant to live distinctly among the native people. They knew what it meant to have a lord who would protect and rule them from the capitol city. Paul uses this concept to communicate what it is to live as a Christian.

The point is not that “this world is not my home/I'm just a-passing through.” Rather it is about your identity, your king, and your way of life. Romans who lived at Philippi did not plan on returning to Rome. Rather, they were bringing Rome and its ways to Philippi. So as citizens of heaven, we take our pattern of living from heaven, our "capitol city" is heaven, we obey and trust in our King who is in heaven, we pray that His kingdom come and will be obeyed on earth just as it is in heaven. In the end, Jesus comes back to earth from heaven and raises up our bodies from the grave (Phil. 3:20), and the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to the new earth and God dwells with us here (Rev. 21:1-3). The church in this present age is a colony of heaven on earth.

Now the kingdom of heaven does not advance like Rome did. It does not conquer by the power of the sword, but by the power of the Spirit and Scripture. Its power does not come from man, but from heaven (John 18:33-38).

The kingdom of heaven also overlaps with the various cultures of this world. You do not loose your national identity when you become a Christian. And these two identities are not unrelated: your American identity now becomes reformed and qualified by your identity as a citizen of the gospel, just as your Christian identity can be expressed in uniquely American ways (for example, in American language).

But what Philippians 1:27 emphasizes is that our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven produces a unique manner of life, something that is shared by all the saints across the world, and that this manner of life is defined by the gospel. This manner of life is driven by different priorities, different motives, and a different basis. In some ways it will run contrary to the priorities and practices of the people around us. But this manner of life will be based on faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, on the example of Jesus Christ, and on the authority of Lord Jesus who gives us His commands in Scripture. In the next chapter (Phil. 2:1-11), Paul will expand on this point by exhorting the Philippian saints to reflect the love and humility of Jesus which was manifested so clearly in the gospel account. May the church seek closer conformity to its Lord and Savior so that it may live up to its distinct identity as "the light of the world...a city set on a hill" (Matt. 5:14-16), a colony of heaven built upon the gospel of Christ.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Prayer for Healing in James 5

This time of year tends to make us more vulnerable to sickness. Colds, fevers, flus, and worse take their toll on people and communities. Of course, sickness and disease afflict us all year round and can range from being mildly irritating to being fatal. God's word is not silent on such matters. It recognizes sickness and disease as one of the unnatural effects of the curse on humanity, rooted in our rebellion in Adam. It grieved Jesus to see sickness and death afflicting mankind. He taught that it is a way people serve Him and show themselves to His disciples when they serve His brothers and sisters who are sick (Matt. 25:31-46). The Apostle John highlights the value of physical health when he says "Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3 John 2). The Apostle Paul even gives brief health advice to sickly Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:23. Yet one of the key passages that addresses how Christians ought to address sickness is James 5:13-18. Here is the passage:
"[13] Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. [14] Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. [15] And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. [16] Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. [17] Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. [18] Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit." (James 5:13–18)
This can be a somewhat debated passage, which has perhaps led to its neglect. More could be said about this passage, but I want to make a few observations to help us apply it.

1. This is a serious and debilitating illness, though it does not need to be life-threatening.

What kind of sickness is in view? Ought one to call for the elders for every runny nose? The Greek word used here for "sick" is often used of serious illnesses that hinder a person. “The verb asthenein means to be weak, as in some limb (Ps. 108:29) or organ (Plato, Lysis 209E; Ps. 87:9)” (Johnson, 330). The word is used in John 5:3, and in that text, “blind, lame, and paralyzed” are given as examples of being "sick." This is not the occasional cold that will run its course in a few days. It would seem to be a rather debilitating illness from the fact that the sick person has to call for the elders to come to him, rather than going to them himself, and from the fact that the elders pray “over” him, the sick person being in bed. On the other hand, the word used does not require that this be a life-threatening illness. Rather, it is a debilitating illness, and probably one that is not short-term.

An additional aspect to be considered is the extent to which this illness is impacting the sick person spiritually. Sickness can be a rather isolating and depressing time. We will see in my fifth point that the physical and spiritual can be connected in various ways. If the physical sickness is not serious, but it results from or causes spiritual distress, this too would be a good reason to call for the elders.

2. The sick person is here responsible to initiate the process.

The commands in this passage can be veiled by the translation "let him…" This is probably better translated "he should" (Blomberg, 241). Praying and singing are not merely allowed in verse 13. They are what you should normally do in those circumstances. As a sickness gets more serious and debilitating, the sick person should call and the elders should pray. The elders are not prohibited from initiating the process, but the sick person is the one responsible to make the call in this passage.

3. The oil is symbolic, not medicinal (and is also not the main thing).

Perhaps the biggest question many people have with this passage regards the “anointing with oil.” Is this oil used medicinally or symbolically? And if it is being used symbolically, what is the intent of the ritual?

In surveying biblical references to anointing with oil, Luke 10:34 does refer to a medical use of oil. Mark 6:13 refers to anointing with oil in coordination with miraculous healing, though in an unspecified way. Oil is also used to consecrate or purify persons and things in Scripture (Gen. 28:18, 31:13, Ex. 28:41, 40:9-15, Lev. 8:10-13), including healed lepers (Lev. 14:1-32). While oil was used medicinally, the usual use for oil in the Bible is ritualistic in nature. “Thus, this evidence leads us to think that the elders were to anoint the sick person’s body to consecrate and purify it as an act of devoting it to God for God’s work of healing” (McKnight, 439). There is difficulty with the medical view. First, oil is not a cure-all – it only fits certain illnesses. In fact, in biblical and extra-biblical usage, oil was usually used for wounds or refreshment, rather than sickness (Varner, 540; Vlachos, 185). Second, it is not doctors who are to administer it (nor, incidentally, miracle workers with the gift of healing), but the elders of the church. Third, the verb used in Luke 10:34 is not “anointing” but “put on.” While oil is used medically, “anointing” is never used in the Bible to describe what is clearly medical healing.

The oil is also not the main focus. The main responsibility of the elders is to pray, and prayer receives most of the attention in this passage. Not only prayer, but faith in God which is expressed by prayer is central.

4. Healing is the expected outcome, but it is not immediate or certain in this life.

Verse 15 seems to have an impossible optimism about the healing effect of this prayer. We might find in our experience that not everyone who is prayed for in this manner is healed. There are at least three explanations that have been used: (1) the prayers must not have had faith, (2) being "saved" and "raised up" refers to spiritual salvation and future resurrection, or (3) this passage contains a general promise of effectiveness, but does not guarantee perfect health and never-ending life in this age.

Now the absence of faith or repentance can hinder prayers, but Scripture also emphasizes the effectiveness of even a little faith (Luke 17:6). This first explanation does not explain the times when elders offer prayer with faith and yet the sick person is not healed. And there will be such times, for we all die. Death is the last enemy, and it will not be permanently defeated until the resurrection. Assuming a lack of faith is not warranted, nor is it good pastoral practice. God's explanation in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 to Paul concerning his "thorn in the flesh" is applicable here. And yet, the second option, a purely spiritual explanation of the healing, is also unsatisfactory, since verse fifteen indicates that forgiveness is only potentially part of the situation ("if he has committed sins") and is something additional to the "saving" of the sick man.

It is best to receive the promise of verse 15 as a promise of general effectiveness, but with the caveat that we do not receive all that is promised in this life. This is not the only place in Scripture where God promises blessings in the context of this present life and yet leaves much to be fulfilled in the life to come (e.g. Heb. 11, Ps. 73). Verse 15 does not say when the healing will take place. Perhaps it will take time. Perhaps it will not happen until the resurrection. There will be a tension between promise and fulfillment until all is fulfilled in the new heavens and new earth. Christ healed on earth, and He can continue to heal miraculously today, yet death is the final foe only to be fully defeated on the last day (1 Cor. 15:26, Rev. 21:4).

But the main emphasis in this passage is that we are justified in our hope that God will hear the prayers of the elders and heal the sick person, even if this does not happen on the spot. This can happen through the work of doctors and medicine, which are not to be neglected by Christians, but God can work without them as well.

5. Sickness can be connected with sin; true confession is good for the body and soul.

The conditional clause in verse 15 ("And if he has committed sins...") not only introduces the fact that there may be sins that need to be addressed, but also alludes to the fact that unresolved sins can lead to illness. Verse 16 teaches us to confess our sins and pray for one another so that we may be healed. There is a great deal of biblical support for this idea: Deuteronomy 28:1-68, Ezekiel 18:1-29, Proverbs 3:25-28, 11:19, 13:13-23, and 1 Corinthians 11:29-30. Johnson (p. 333) also notes that this connection was commonly made in extra-biblical sources such as Ben Sira 1:12-13, 3:26-27, and rabbinic tradition. He also notes that there are biblical passages that nuance the connection: Job, Ecclesiastes, and John 9:1-3. Sin is not always the cause of sickness, and to assume that it is the cause can lay burdens on people when comfort is needed. And if sin is the cause, is it not necessarily a sign that the sick person's sin is notably worse than those who do not suffer (Luke 13:1-5). But the connection is possible, and physical curses like sickness should cause us to examine ourselves and to repent. And this confession, as well as the prayers, should be made with faith in the sacrifice of Jesus, believing that "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).

In this case of the sick person who calls for the elders, this confession would be made to the elders, since they are the ones praying on his behalf. Verse 16 seems to draw a general principle from this occasion, a principle of confession and prayer that goes beyond the elders to "one another." The elders are not the only ones to whom you can go to confess and seek prayer from. But neither is this a call to confess indiscriminately (it should be a mature or "righteous" person, 5:16, the elders ideally matching this description), nor it is a requirement to confess all your sins to another person. Confession is primarily made to God (Ps. 32, 51).

Conclusion

This passage helps equip us for a common earthly predicament, that of sickness. “Christ’s worshippers are not exempted from sickness, no more than any other affliction” (Manton, 450). Commenting on these verses, Calvin remarks that “such is the perverseness of men, that they cannot rejoice without forgetting God, and that when afflicted they are disheartened and driven to despair” (354-355). It is easy for us to simply think of medical solutions without also turning to our relationship with God to address our sickness.

This passage also equips us to act as a Christian community. Johnson points out that “Sickness then creates the opportunity for social alienation…It is not an accident, I think, that James here for the first time uses the term ekklesia [church], for it is the identity of the community as community that sickness threatens” (343). Sickness can be very lonely and isolating. In this midst of this suffering, our ears and prayers, particularly those of the elders, are especially needed.

Our care for the sick is a witness to the compassion of Christ for the suffering that was seen during His life on earth. A community that sings praises, that cares for the weak, that prays for one another, that repents and seeks forgiveness, is a great contrast to a world that exemplifies pride, distance from the weak, and self-righteousness. May the world see Christ among us as we seek to obey His commands in this passage.

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Bibliography

Blomberg, Craig L., Mariam J. Kamell. James. Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.

Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005 [1551].

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Letter of James. The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

Manton, Thomas. A Commentary on James. A Geneva Series Commentary. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1988 [1693]. 

McKnight, Scot. The Letter of James. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2011.

Varner, William. James. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014. 

Vlachos, Chris A. James. B&H Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Pub., 2013.

For more on the symbolism of oil in the ceremony for the healed leper in Leviticus 14, see the eighth paragraph in the entry "oil" in the Encyclopedia Judaica, available online here:
https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/oils

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Who Can Abide the Day of His Coming?


Handel's Messiah is a gospel masterpiece. It tells the biblical story of redemption in a way that is theological sound and musically rich. (Incidentally, a very good sermon series on the biblical texts used in the Messiah can be found here.) One of my favorite sections from it is in the video above. At first it quotes from Haggai 2:6-7, then it quotes Malachi 3:1b-3. Here is that passage with its surrounding context (in the more modern ESV translation):

"[17] You have wearied the LORD with your words. But you say, 'How have we wearied him?' By saying, 'Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.' Or by asking, 'Where is the God of justice?'
[1] 'Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. [2] But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. [3] He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. [4] Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
[5] Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.'"
(Malachi 2:17-3:5)

This passage prophesied the coming of John the Baptist, who is "my messenger" who will "prepare the way," and Jesus, who is the "God of justice," "the Lord whom you seek," and "the messenger of the covenant." Jesus notes this prophetic fulfillment in Matthew 11:1-10. 

In the day when Malachi prophesied, as in the day when Jesus came, there were those who thought they desired the coming of the Lord, but in fact were unprepared. Their complaints in Malachi 2:17 follow two chapters which rebuke the people for their half-hearted worship, their lack of the fear of God, the poor instruction coming from the priests, their compromise with idolatry, and their unfaithfulness to their spouses. The people try to justify themselves - "What use it is to do good? God seems to bless the wicked. Where is the God of justice?" It is God's fault, they imply.

But Malachi replies, "Oh, you think you want the God of justice? Well, He will come, but who among you will endure that day? He will restore His people, but He will sift out those who do not take Him seriously."

When Jesus came, His main calling was that of salvation and blessing. But His coming caught many people unprepared. Those who did not fear God were exposed by their rejection of His Son (John 3:17-21). There were some like Simeon who were eagerly and faithfully waiting for God's salvation, but as Simeon declared, "Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel" (Luke 2:34). For the shepherds and wise men, the birth of Jesus was a day of joy. But there others who might have professed to desire His coming, but rejected Him when He came - King Herod and the Pharisees. The coming of John the Baptist, and then Jesus Himself, separated the wheat from the chaff by their response to Jesus. As John the Baptist said,
"Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Luke 3:9, 16b-17). 
Those who rejected Jesus and persisted in their lawless ways would be judged by Jesus first by His teachings, and then in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (Matt. 23-24:35). Those who received Him with faith were blessed first by His teachings, and then in the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (John 7:39).
"He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:11–13).

So as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus, may we be careful to not repeat the mistake of Malachi's audience. As we rejoice in the coming of the Lord and delight in Him, may we remember who we are dealing with. He came to change things. For those who trust in Him, this means purification and forgiveness so that our service to God is pleasing to the Lord. Faith that is genuine will also result in the fear of God, good works, and repentance from sins such as those mentioned in Malachi 3:5. For those who use the name of the Lord but treat Him without obedience or faith, this means judgement. This is the kind of intervention that our fallen world needs. We need a Savior who changes us and changes our world, who fulfills the hopes of the believing and who witnesses against those who oppress and do evil. And may we remember that the Lord will come again to finish the work He began.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Directions for the Pursuit of Sexual Fidelity

"Deliver us from evil." So we pray, that we might escape temptation and avoid the destructive paths of evil. God graciously gives His people the desire and will to turn from evil, and He also instructs them how they might walk in the way that is good. As we have looked at how the book of Proverbs deals with sexual matters, we have considered two contrasting views of sexual intimacy (Sexual Autonomy vs. Sexual Fidelity) and their consequences (Motives to Sexual Fidelity). Now we turn to specific directions that Proverbs gives us so that we might be faithful to God’s intent for our bodies and reserve sexual intimacy to a context of covenant fidelity in marriage.

1. Embrace discipline, reproof, and wisdom. (Prov. 2:1-5, 16-19; 5:1-3, 12-13; 6:20-24; 7:1-5)

Sexual autonomy is folly. It is the result of neglecting wisdom. Autonomy says, "I can do it myself. I must shape my own destiny." But this pride leads to a fall. In chapters 2, 5, 6, and 7 of Proverbs, the young man is exhorted to pursue wisdom so that he will not fall into the crafty ways of the seductive woman (of course, this is also applicable for young women seeking to escape seductive men). If you want to arm yourself against sexual temptation, if you want to prepare for the conflict, then seek out wisdom. Seek maturity in general, as well as wisdom concerning this matter of sexual fidelity. Cherish discipline and correction so that you may stand in the day of battle. A solider goes through harsh discipline to prepare for the fight. Basic training is not pleasant. It is hard work. The solider gets challenged and corrected - but he learns what to do so that he will do it even under pressure. Likewise, study God’s word and be open to the correction and training of your parents and other wise mentors in your life. If instruction is not given to you, ask for it. It is for your own good. Do not end up like the young man who says “How I hated discipline, and my heart despised reproof! I did not listen to the voice of my teachers or incline my ear to my instructors. I am at the brink of utter ruin in the assembled congregation.”

2. Fear the LORD (Prov. 3:7, 5:21, 8:13, 9:10).

Proverbs 5:21 - "For a man's ways are before the eyes of the LORD, and he ponders all his paths." 

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). Treating God seriously, with reverence and awe, is fundamental to having a proper view of life. The Christian does not fear God in a way that causes him to hide from God or to wish Him gone. Rather, the Christian fears God in a way that causes him to gladly honor and serve God as one who intrinsically deserves this reverence. This fear of God makes us aware that He is the most significant factor in life. It reminds us that we are finite, vulnerable, and weak, while He is infinite in wisdom, righteousness, and strength. 

Proverbs 3:7 - "Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil."
Proverbs 8:13 - "The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil."

3. Control your desire; fight the battle where it begins, in the heart. (Prov. 6:25, 7:10)

Proverbs 6:25 - “Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes”

Do not lust after someone who is not yours. Do not linger wistfully on his or her beauty in your heart. Beware especially of immodest and seductive appearances and looks. Avoid being enslaved by what you see and hear. Do not be easily led, like a horse by a bridle, by the appearance or flirtations of a stranger. Guard your thoughts and mind. Cut off the sin before it blossoms. Be disciples of Christ who attack sin in the heart, rather than Pharisees who merely focus on external actions and regulations. Our desires are not natural - they cannot be trusted to lead us in the right way. Repent of sinful desires and turn from them as soon as you can. Why dwell on something that is forbidden? Why desire that which is folly? Why frustrate yourself with desires that cannot be fulfilled?

For those who are married, this is relatively straightforward - there is only one whose beauty you ought to desire. All others are off limits. For those who are not married and desire to be married, this can be more complicated - what is lust and what is legitimate attraction to a potential spouse? But still you must not desire what is immoral, and you must remember that you only get to choose one person - restrain your desire until you know who that person is, not by mere feelings, but by mutual commitment in engagement and marriage. While the Song of Songs portrays increasing sexual desire between two people as they approach marriage, it also warns against stirring up or awakening love before it is proper. Hold your sexual desire to what is fitting for the current stage of your relationship, remembering that the desire cannot be fulfilled until the covenant is ratified.

4. Keep your way far from temptation. (Prov. 5:8, 7:7-9)

Even though we fight the battle in the heart, this does not mean we don't also take some wise precautions to avoid temptation. Proverbs 7:7-9 notes that it is folly for the young man to go by the house of the loose woman as it is getting dark. As Proverbs 5:8 says, “Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house…”

This is especially true with people or things that intend to seduce you. You are not told to avoid all contact with the opposite sex or to go off and live in seclusion away from the world. But you are told to be wary of those who try to seduce you, to identify the temptation and avoid it. Avoid seductive people, seductive words, and seductive images.

With regard to the internet, this can require restrictions or accountability. With regard to relationships, some relationships may be safe, while others may require greater distance. Each person and family might have different boundaries and precautions. A wise person looks at his or her situation honestly and takes steps to avoid danger. Sometimes it may be difficult to evaluate your own situation, so receiving counsel may be wise.

5. Avoid being the temptation; encourage others in their pursuit of fidelity. (Prov. 7)

“The seventh commandment requireth the preservation of our own and our neighbor’s chastity, in heart, speech, and behavior.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 71)

Men and women, in your words, clothing, and gestures, let propriety, dignity, and humility be your guides. Avoid the ways of the Proverbs 7 woman: she is dressed to capture, she flatters, she is impudent and shocking, she is discontent with her family and home (Prov. 7:10-20). (And saying she is "dressed like a prostitute" does not mean, as some people argue, that she simply wore a veil - it is dark in Proverbs 7 and a veil is not required to hide her identity, and she does not seem too concerned about being seen either.) On the contrary, communicate your sexual fidelity by your words, clothing, and actions - keep private things private; do not shamefully expose your nakedness as our culture delights in doing. Today people think they have no responsibility to others. They believe that both propriety and shame are oppressive social constructs, that there ought to be no boundaries - you must dress however you want. Restraint in sexuality or even modest clothing is not just unnecessary, it is thought to be oppressive! But Christians ought to be different. Remembering the point about responsibility in my first post in this series, we should love our neighbor and dress and act with propriety and modesty.

6. If possible, get married and nourish a close union with your spouse. (5:15-20, 18:22)

Proverbs 18:22 - "He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD."

There is both human responsibility and divine sovereignty in this process. You must do the finding, but your spouse is still given by the LORD. Seek this blessing and pray for it. For various cultural reasons, it is harder now that it has been in times past.

Then make love to your spouse. Get carried away in her/his love (5:15-20).

“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?”

This is a duty, something you owe your spouse. It ought to be as the closing line in the 1938 Robin Hood, when Robin Hood was commanded to marry Maid Marian and says: “may I always obey your orders with equal pleasure!” Yet, this duty can be a struggle for the average married couple amid the busyness of life. It needs to be cultivated and made a priority. As Paul says, “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Cor. 7:5). A dedication to regular sexual intimacy, even when it is inconvenient or undesired, strengthens the relationship, guards against temptations, and encourages you to resolve issues with your spouse quickly.

Remember that unmarried people do not have this recourse - use what you have been given and do not take it for granted. And then remember to pray for, appreciate, and encourage those who are single and seeking to walk a righteous path. We are in this together as one body seeking to love our Father.

7. Speak back a counter-narrative to temptation. (Prov. 5-7)

In Proverbs 5-7 there are two competing narratives. To fight temptation you must refute its insidious narrative.

The immoral tempter says: there are no bad consequences to sin. I have taken care of that. Fun and pleasure will follow this choice. It is adventurous. I have your best interest in mind, for I have eagerly sought you.

But the wise person responds: there are bad consequences to sin. The “fun” will pale in comparison with the lasting destruction it will cause. It is foolishness, not adventure. You have left God out of this equation. And you do not have my best interest in mind.

Conclusion
Because God loves you and has blessed you, listen to His warnings by avoiding sexual immorality and embracing sexual fidelity. God has forgiven you who have believed in Christ and repented of your sins. He has brought you close to Him as His children, and He speaks as a loving Father. Do not hurt yourself by spurning His counsel and rejecting His boundaries. Trust Him, and submit your mind, your thoughts, and your body to Him, your Creator and Redeemer.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Motives to Sexual Fidelity

This is the second post in a series of three on sexual matters as they are covered in the book of Proverbs. Last time we examined two competing sexual ethics: Sexual Autonomy vs. Sexual Fidelity. This time, let us look at how Proverbs motivates its reader to pursue what is good. There are many ways the Bible motivates people to do things. One way is to appeal to duty: this is right, so do it. Another way is to appeal to gratitude: God did this for us, therefore do this for Him. Another way, a way that the book of Proverbs emphasizes, is that sin is foolish and righteousness is wise. In other words, Proverbs often appeals to consequences: avoid the way that leads to destruction and seek the way that leads to life. Here are some of the consequences it addresses as it seek to motivate the reader to avoid sexual autonomy and to pursue sexual fidelity.

Punishment or praise 

Proverbs 6:27–29, 34-35 - "Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor's wife; none who touches her will go unpunished…For jealousy makes a man furious, and he will not spare when he takes revenge. He will accept no compensation; he will refuse though you multiply gifts."

There were legal consequences for sexual immorality in biblical law. The adulteress’s husband in particular would be able to press charges and demand justice. The death penalty was the maximum penalty, and while it appears the husband could ask for something less than death, Proverbs warns to not expect much generosity from a jealous husband. Even today, without laws against adultery, jealous spouses will seek some kind of justice and there often are legal repercussions. Think of political leaders like Presidents Clinton and Trump, and our former governor here in Missouri, Greitens; people still get ensnared by this legally because of the deceit and treachery involved in sexual autonomy.

When Proverbs 5:14 portrays the young man caught in adultery saying “I am at the brink of utter ruin in the assembled congregation,” it refers to judicial punishment and how adultery put the young man on the brink of death. It also adds the fact of shame and public scandal. But the stakes get higher in verse 21 - "For a man's ways are before the eyes of the LORD, and he ponders all his paths."

God sees even deeds done in secret. He knows your thoughts and plans. He knows your imaginations and desires. He will judge the sexually immoral who do not repent. While He will forgive His children, they may feel His discipline and correction. When King David committed adultery, God forgave Him, yet God still disciplined David by taking away his unborn child and bringing rebellion, incest, and violence into David’s family for the rest of his life.

But with sexual fidelity, rather than punishment, you will receive its opposite, praise from man and God. "What is desired in a man is steadfast love, and a poor man is better than a liar" (Prov. 19:22). What people desire, and what God desires, is for men and women to be faithful to their own spouses. Faithfulness, principled restraint, and a respect for others are honorable characteristics. Even if some may ridicule you for a time, in time your position will be generally vindicated over time. Sexual fidelity does not get you in trouble, while sexual autonomy eventually will.

Loosing your wealth and work to strangers or keeping it for you and your family

Proverbs 5:9-11 - “…do not go near the door of her house, lest you give your honor to others, and your years to the merciless, lest strangers take their fill of your strength, and your labors go to the house of a foreigner, and at the end of your life you groan, when your flesh and body are consumed…”

Proverbs 6:26 - “…for a prostitute leaves a man with nothing but a loaf of bread…”

Sexual autonomy is a good way to ruin your finances and waste your labors. It is expensive. This is true whether we are talking about the resources necessary to carry on an immoral relationship or the cost of it once it is discovered (legal repercussions, bribes, etc.). Your work will go to a stranger, not your own house. And perhaps you invest your money and work in a relationship based merely on consent, and it works for the moment, yet that arrangement is precarious and falls apart as soon as the feelings or people change. Relationships based merely on feelings and lust do not build support networks and safety nets.

But with sexual fidelity, rather than loosing your wealth and work to another, you accumulate wealth, honor, strength, and freedom by avoiding this snare. You keep it for yourself and your family. A healthy marriage increases wealth. It yokes two people to work as one for a common good. It builds confidence, it enables the couple to think long-term, and it builds safety nets and extended support networks.

A seared conscience accustomed to treachery or habits of loyalty and friendship

Proverbs 30:20 - "This is the way of an adulteress: she eats and wipes her mouth and says, 'I have done no wrong.'"

Proverbs 23:27–28 - "For a prostitute is a deep pit; an adulteress is a narrow well. She lies in wait like a robber and increases the traitors among mankind."

Sexual autonomy tends to justify itself and deaden the conscience. The more you lust towards strangers or their images, the more it becomes a habit. And as it becomes "normal," you become less aware of your guilt and the ways it is shaping you. The deeper you go into the sin, the harder it is to get out. Sexual intimacy outside of marriage teaches you to be a traitor, either by breaking vows (if married) or at least by engaging in a life-uniting act without life-uniting intent (if single). It teaches you disloyalty, dishonesty, and selfishness.

But with sexual fidelity, rather than learning treachery, you learn loyalty and friendship. It teaches you to not take advantage of others, to respect boundaries, to be honest, and to be faithful. People can trust you. You spouse can trust you. Other men and women can trust you. This builds marriage and community.

Death or life

Proverbs 5:5 - "Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol"

Proverbs 5:23 - "He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray."

Proverbs 7:25–27 -"Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths, for many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng. Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death."

Sexual autonomy leads to death. It is destructive in this life. It can lead to physical death as events spiral downward. And most importantly, it is judged with eternal death by the justice of God. It is not an unforgivable sin - there is forgiveness in Christ for those who turn away from this sin and believe in Him for salvation. But unless this happens, the consequence of sexual autonomy is eternal condemnation from God. Even Christians are warned against the danger in this sin. In 1 Corinthians 10, it is noted that even though the Israelites were "baptized" and partook of "communion" in Old Testament terms, they were still judged for their idolatry and sexual immorality. "Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12b). It can be a step in the direction of apostasy (Heb. 12:16). And even if it does not go that far, I have already mentioned the example of David. Even a believer can suffer in discipline in this life for such sins.

But rather than leading to death and destruction, sexual fidelity is a path of life. While you cannot be saved or get pardoned by sexual fidelity (or any good work), it is an aspect of following Christ. It is one important way we "walk in the way of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous" (Prov. 2:20). Repentance, where we continue to progressively turn from evil and endeavor after good, is a necessary mark of the one who will receive eternal life (Heb. 12:14).

Practicing sexual fidelity also leads to life and flourishing in cultural ways. Rather than destroying marriage, sexual fidelity secures the well being of your own and other marriages. All the good marriage does for children, for society, for you, relies upon your sexual fidelity. Within marriage, sexual union is fittingly fruitful, uniting, pleasurable, and strengthening. It is a blessing in its intended place.

In summery, God desires His children to avoid the hard path of sin. He loves His children. So pay heed to His fatherly warnings and exhortations.

-------------------------------------

Continue this series here:
Directions for the Pursuit of Sexual Fidelity (Part 3)

Monday, November 26, 2018

Sexual Autonomy vs. Sexual Fidelity

The Bible's teachings on sexual matters are under particular pressure today. Not only are they attacked and ridiculed, but alternative approaches are subtly and not-so-subtly promoted throughout our culture. This culture tends to shape our ideas, sensibilities, and habits, and unless Christians purposefully understand what the Bible says about the issue, they will find themselves swept away with the current. This will be the first in a series of three posts on sexual matters as they are handled in the book of Proverbs. Here we will begin by looking at a general view of sexual intimacy.

Who is sovereign over your body?
The popular approach today is that of expressive individualism. This view can be summarized with the phrase: “my body, my choice.” It teaches you to do whatever feels right as long as it doesn’t coerce another person. It teaches you that anything is right if there is mutual consent between adults. You should do anything you want with your body. You ought not get into a situation that restricts you. You need to express your own choices and desires without any obligations or pressure from others. You are sovereign. We can call this sexual autonomy - you make up the law for yourself.

This view is not argued as much as it is taught and celebrated. In an age where God has little relevance, autonomy makes sense. It sounds better than some other person or tradition or government deciding what to do with your body. Yet, it is not without problems. The emphasis on freedom means that there is minimal obligation - your feelings are preeminent. There is no fidelity or reliability with this view since personal preferences change. Broken relationships, frustration, insecurity, single parents, and fatherless children are the results. Consent is not commitment, but commitment and reliability is necessary for trust, and trust is necessary for intimacy. This casual approach to sexuality also does not account for how it give you the habit of being self-centered in your approach to other people. This framework of personal sovereignty does not fit with how sexuality and relationships are intended to work.

Biblically, you are not sovereign over your body. Proverbs 5:21 reminds us that “a man's ways are before the eyes of the LORD, and he ponders all his paths.” God is the one who evaluates and judges your actions. You are not sovereign your body or soul. Only God is sovereign. He is the Creator of all. He designed humanity. For Christians, He has the additional right of redemption. He has purchased believers from sin and death and made them His temple. You are not your own. You were bought with a price. You must use your body as He intended and as He directs. You must not do whatever feels right. You must respect His boundaries - both because He is sovereign and because He places the boundaries in good places.

But don’t we have some authority over our body? In a sense, but let us ask it in a different way:

Who is responsible for your body?
Who is responsible? You or others? If that is the question, then yes, you are responsible. It is your body. You have a stewardship over it, and other people must respect that. You are responsible to care for your body, to defend it, to glorify God with it, to serve Him with it, to use it as He intended. You should not blame others for what you decide to do with your body. Proverbs 5-7 give strong exhortations to the young man to resist temptation - he is held to be responsible to make the wise choice.

Yet, others do have a responsibility to be helpful. Some Christians claim they have no responsibility to clothe themselves in a way that will help you not lust. They point out that you are responsible for your own thoughts and actions, and that you cannot blame them - which is true. But that does not mean that they have no responsibility to you. We all have a responsibility not only to govern our own bodies, but also to avoid leading others into sin and to encourage them to be holy (Prov. 12:26, 16:29, 27:5-6, 9). “The seventh commandment requireth the preservation of our own and our neighbor’s chastity, in heart, speech, and behavior” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 71).

To whom should you give your body?
In Proverbs 5-7 a contrast appears between “the wife of your youth” and the “strange” or “foreign” woman. What the ESV translates as the “adulteress” is literally a “foreign woman” and the “forbidden” woman is literally the “strange woman” (in the sense that she is a “stranger”). The ESV is correct to point out that the woman is not literally a foreign woman, but an adulteress or harlot. But the author is pointing out that this woman is foreign and a stranger to you. She does not belong to you and you do not belong to her. She stands in contrast with “the wife of your youth” (Prov. 5:18). In ancient Israel it was typical to marry young, and so the wife would then have literally been the wife of your youth. But regardless of whether you were married young or not, what is being emphasized is long-term commitment. She is not a passing acquaintance, she is not just your current crush, she is your wife - you will share a history together, you commit to remain steadfast through think and thin, you will become old friends. Proverbs 2:17 describes a spouse as the companion of your youth, God’s covenant being the bond between the two of you. Your body is precious - it is not meant for a stranger. We ought not to gamble our body, risking it to a stranger who may come and go. It is only meant to be given to your companion by covenant.

Sexual desire and intimacy is designed for a binding covenant relationship of companionship and love, namely, marriage. It is designed for a context of security and reliability founded not on merely feeling or preference, but on lifelong commitment through thick and thin to give yourselves to one another. It is in this context that the trust necessary for love and intimacy can flourish. Proverbs 31:10–11 says, “An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.” The husband and wife unite their fortunes and work together to lead their household in different ways for their common good. This is the ideal context for raising children. Sexual union is a sign and seal of this broader life-uniting union, celebrating it and strengthening it. To use sexual intimacy outside this context perverts it from its intended use.

So our ideal is not sexual autonomy, but rather sexual fidelity - remaining faithful to God’s intent for our bodies and reserving sexual intimacy to a context of covenant fidelity in marriage. Sexual union is meant to be an aspect of a larger and covenanted union of life.

-------------------------------

Continue this series here:
Motives to Sexual Fidelity (Part 2)
Directions for the Pursuit of Sexual Fidelity (Part 3)

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Audio from the 2018 Pilgrim Heritage Celebration

As Thanksgiving draws to a close, you can linger on it a little longer by listening to the talks from our church's Pilgrim Heritage Celebration, which are now available online.

You can find them at this link:
2018 Pilgrim Heritage Celebration

And here they are individually:
The Pilgrims in England and Holland by Pastor John Huffman (22 min.)
The Pilgrims' Voyage and First Winter by Pastor Peter Bringe (21 min.)
The Pilgrims' Summer and First Thanksgiving by Jeff Hamann (31 min.)

We finished the evening with a poem written by William Bradford. He had been with the Pilgrims from the beginning and served many years as the governor in Plymouth. He left behind this poem when he died in 1657, calling the next generation to renewal and repentance, a call that would be heeded at various points in the history of New England over the next hundred years. May we heed its call as well.

A Word to New England
by William Bradford
"Oh New England, thou canst not boast;
Thy former glory thou hast lost.
When Hooker, Winthrop, Cotton died,
And many precious ones beside,
Thy beauty then it did decay,
And still doth languish more away.
Love, truth, goodness, mercy and grace--
Wealth and the world have took their place.
Thy open sins none can them hide:
Fraud, drunkenness, whoredom and pride.
The great oppressors slay the poor,
But whimsy errors they kill more.
Yet some thou hast which mourn and weep,
And their garments unspotted keep;
Who seek God's honor to maintain,
That true religion may remain.
These do invite, and sweetly call,
Each to other, and say to all;
Repent, amend, and turn to God,
That we may prevent his sharp rod.
Yet time thou hast; improve it well,
That God's presence may with ye dwell."


Tuesday, November 20, 2018

"My God Doesn't Judge"

A large majority of Americans believe in God, but many Americans have unbiblical conceptions of God. One of these is sometimes expressed by the refrain, “my God doesn’t judge.”

This attitude is a rather modern one. People have always desired to be free of divine condemnation, but few, if any, cultures have believed that it is unworthy of God to condemn. It has usually been believed that a good God is a just God who will not let the wicked get away with their wickedness. And yet, in our modern pluralistic age, tolerance is not only expected of men, but also of God. Judging people is seen as a form of hatred, as a kind of evil.

But for the biblical alternative, consider Psalm 96:9-13.

"[9] Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness;
        tremble before him, all the earth!
[10] Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!
        Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;
  he will judge the peoples with equity.”
[11] Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
  let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
  [12] let the field exult, and everything in it!
     Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
  [13] before the LORD, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
  and the peoples in his faithfulness."

In this passage, the world desires God. It rejoices over His coming and worships Him. Why? Because God comes to judge the peoples. What is good about this? First, He judges with equity and righteousness (v. 10, 13). Rather than condemning people in tyrannical or oppressive ways, God is fair and morally good in His decisions. He judges all equally without partiality. In a world that is topsey-turvey and pervasively distorted by corruption, injustice, and evil, God’s justice is a breath of fresh air. Second, this judgement establishes the earth (v. 10). Without a judge, the world's foundations are shaken with unsolved crimes against its sovereign Lord. With God as judge, all wrongs will be put to right and His creation restored in order and cosmic harmony. The creation has been burdened with the disharmony of sin, but the enforcement of righteousness brings resolution to the dissonant chord of evil. Third, holiness is splendor and beauty, something that is attractive. Those who worship the holy God are exhorted to beautify themselves with holiness. True worship is a response to the beauty of His moral perfection and untarnished purity. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). True moral perfection is foreign to us, but if we even have a basic concept of what that means, then it should be clear that such a wonderful thing cannot make peace with wickedness.

Many say, "my God doesn't judge," but we reply, "a good God will judge justly."

Even our pluralistic culture will sometimes awake to the reality that just judgement and condemnation is a good and desirable thing. When college student Brock Turner was sentenced to a brief 6-month stay in prison (which turned into a 3-month stay) for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, our country was in an uproar. Not only was it a light sentence for a horrible crime, but it appeared that the judge was being swayed by Brock’s status as a star athlete at a prestigious university. People wanted justice, and the judge’s leniency seemed insensitive to the crime and uncaring towards the victim.

Again, many in our country have been outraged when judges have acquitted policemen who have shot black men for debatable reasons. These occasions have caused controversies, some defending the policemen and others accusing them, but the goal for both sides has been justice, not tolerance.

Why do we see it as a good and desirable thing for human judges to justly condemn the guilty while we hesitate to see God’s judgement in a similar light? Doubtless, this is because we are guilty. But the answer is not to deny that God can make moral judgements or to make tolerance the ultimate virtue. The answer is not to take justice away from God’s hands. We need a God who loves justice.

The answer, instead, is to cling to Christ, in whom justice and forgiveness meet. Jesus, since He is God, is morally perfect and completely opposed to wickedness. He condemned the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders. In the Sermon on the Mount, He portrayed Himself as the judge of the earth on the last day who will send away into judgement the workers of lawlessness whom He did not know (Matthew 7:21-23, cp. Matt. 25). That is the key, to be known by Him and saved by Him. We are guilty of crimes in God’s court, but as Romans 3:25 says, Christ has been put forward “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” In other words, He satisfied the demands of God's justice, so that God can be both just and the justifier of those sinners who believe in Christ (Romans 3:26). It is by the painful sacrifice of the cross that God continued to be the holy and just Judge we need and the forgiving Savior we need.

So, rather than dismissing judgment as unworthy of God, let us embrace the gift of Christ. This gift of forgiveness enables us to desire justice by taking away our fear of condemnation. Let us cling to the sacrifice of Christ. It enables us to rejoice over the coming judgment of the Lord and the restoration it will bring. Let us love righteousness as those who are no longer condemned by it.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Thanksgiving and Hope

"I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ...And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, 
to the glory and praise of God." 
(Philippians 1:3-6, 9-11)

Next Thursday we celebrate Thanksgiving Day. It is a time when we take special time to give thanks to God for His blessings to us, our families, and our country. It is easy in a fallen world to notice how much better things could be, to notice where things fall short. We notice our own failures and faults and notice the faults of others. Our attention is also fixed upon what could go wrong in the future. And these things have a place. It is proper to lament what is wrong with us and our world. It is proper to entreat God’s mercy for the future. But this is not all. Even in a fallen world, God has been very merciful, even to the unjust and wicked. His creation still shines with beauty and the earth still gives forth rich food. How much more has He been good to His saints?

In the passage above, one of Paul’s responses to the Philippians was thanksgiving. He thanked God for the Philippians and their faithful partnership in the gospel every time he prayed for them. Joyful thanksgiving for their labors in the past was the first thing out of Paul’s mouth. But then he moves from thanksgiving to hope, from the past to the future. Because God had given the Philippians such a love for the gospel, Paul is confident that God will continue to increase their love unto maturity in Christ. Their past spiritual blessings were not the product of fickle Fortune, but of a faithful God. Thankfulness to God leads to hope for the future. What God has done gives us confidence for what He will do. He will not abandon what He began. As Calvin observed from this passage, “undoubtedly this is the true manner of acknowledging God’s benefits — when we derive from them occasion of hoping well as to the future. For as they are tokens at once of his goodness, and of his fatherly benevolence towards us, what ingratitude were it to derive from this no confirmation of hope and good courage!”[1]

And so, this passage leads us from thanksgiving to hope. If God has begun a good work in you by His grace, you can more confidently aim for the goal of maturity in Christ, for God will not abandon what He has begun.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Why Celebrate the Pilgrims?


This Saturday, my church is hosting the Pilgrim Heritage Celebration. It will include a potluck dinner and a program featuring talks by Jeff Hamann, Pastor John Huffman, and myself. You can find more information about it here. But as we approach the event, the question might be asked: why celebrate our Pilgrim heritage? Why make such a big deal over some grim puritanical figures from four hundred years ago? Well, here are a few brief reasons. 

1. The Pilgrims had admirable principles and vision. The settlers of Plymouth, and their Puritan neighbors, have been prone to unfair stereotypes over the years. Men and women of principle in any generation are prone to be accused of being stern, uncompromising, and intolerant. But when you read accounts like Of Plymouth Plantation, you meet with a people who were often generous, forgiving, and long-suffering. They got along not only with the settlers who joined them from England like Myles Standish, but also eventually won the respect of the sailors on the Mayflower and the native peoples in the New World. When they took care of a sick sailor who had ridiculed and cursed them earlier in the voyage, the sailor noted "O! you, I now see, shew your love like Christians indeed one to another, but we let one another lye and dye like doggs." Yet, the Pilgrims were unlike modern Americans in many ways, and they should feel a bit foreign. They had a strong appreciation for God's providential guidance of history and a strong devotion to the supremacy of the Bible over all human authorities. They were willing to suffer for objecting to unbiblical ceremonies in worship and unbiblical government in the church. And while they learned the benefit of giving each family their own land to work, they were not individualists, but cared greatly for the well-being of their church, community, and future generations.

2. The Pilgrims were just and graciously evangelistic to the native peoples. And it was good that they were so, for they owed a great debt to the assistance of Squanto and the Wampanoags. The “first thanksgiving” itself was a celebration of both Pilgrims and Wampanoags for the good harvest that year. Several of the tribes were glad to make alliances with the Pilgrims because they had been weakened by illness and were threatened by the Narragansetts, who had not caught the illness. The Pilgrims made fair treaties with the tribes and treated them as equal civil powers, seeking trade and mutual benefit. They came to Massasoit's assistance when a lower chieftain, instigated by the Narragansetts, rebelled against him. The peace between them lasted until King Philip's War, fifty years later. I have covered some of the Pilgrims' "foreign relations" in their first year here and here. My talk last year, available here, focused on how the Pilgrims and Puritans did not neglect evangelism in their attempt to build a "city on a hill," but rather engaged in culturally-sensitive and biblically-grounded missions towards the native peoples in New England. 

3. The Pilgrims' story is full of God's providential blessing. The story of the Pilgrims gives us another reason to thank and praise God. The Pilgrims were brave, but their success was not due to their bravery, power, or knowledge. They were rather weak and vulnerable at times. But a combination of details beyond their control came together for their good, and they certainly knew who to credit for these blessings. From John Howland's miraculous rescue at sea, to the fact they had a large screw on board to secure the broken main beam, to their unintentional landing in New England where some of the land had become vacant due to a plague, to their connection with Squanto who had lived in England and was willing to help, the Pilgrims had many reasons to be grateful to God, their Savior and Protector. It is helpful for Christians today to realize that God was not only active in history in biblical times, but that He has continued to orchestrate history and advance His kingdom since then. 

4. The Pilgrims set a foundation for future generations. We are their heirs. On Thanksgiving Day we tend to celebrate two things: blessings in our own lives over the past year, as well as the blessings our nation has received in the past, particularly in the events surrounding the "first thanksgiving" in 1621. But these two things are, of course, connected. Prior generations in our country have built foundations of faith, freedom, and prosperity which we benefit from today. God's providential hand in guiding the events of the past not only benefitted the Pilgrims, Puritans, pioneers, and patriots in our country's history, but also those who have come after them, including us. The Pilgrims' vision of society has influenced American culture, with their desire for the liberty produced by biblical restraint on arbitrary authority, as well as a Protestant work ethic. Social life underwent a reformation through the efforts of the Pilgrims and Puritans, as David D. Hall has written in A Reforming People and his article "Peace, Love and Puritanism," available here, and as Daniel J. Ford has written in Liberty and Property and In the Name of God, Amen

So this Thanksgiving season, consider doing something to remember the Pilgrims and to celebrate our rich Pilgrim heritage. Whether you watch the Pilgrims episode of "This is America, Charlie Brown," read Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, come to our event on Saturday, or simply recount the story at the dining room table, it will be time well spent.


"Great are the works of the LORD,
studied by all who delight in them."
Psalm 111:2