Archive for May, 2012

The problem with studying theology is me – and you and everyone else. Joshua Harris puts it quite well in his book Dug Down Deep: Unearthing What I Believe and Why It Matters. 

There’s nothing more important than rightly knowing God and thinking true thoughts about him. But there’s also nothing I find more difficult. And that’s not for the reason you might assume.

You would think the hardest thing about studying the doctrine of God is that God is so immense it’s impossible for our limited minds to comprehend him. And in one sense this is true. Because God is infinite and we are limited, finite creatures, we can never have a complete knowledge of him. God is incomprehensible. He is great beyond all bounds. But while we can’t know God exhaustively, we can know him truly. This is only possible because God has revealed truths about himself. And while these deep truths and God’s greatness surpasses all human measurements, what God has revealed about himself in his Word is truth we can grasp.

What makes it difficult for us to see the truth about God, I think, isn’t his overwhelming immensity but our overwhelming self-centeredness.  Looking past ourselves is a lot harder to do than most of us realize. Many have never tried. In this way we’re a lot like the people walking past the windows of the coffee shop. Instead of looking through the window of God’s self-revelation and seeing him, we find it easier to admire our own reflection or to place him on the constraints of our own existence. We judge him by our standards of justice, fairness, power, and mercy. We even measure his greatness by our own ideals of greatness.

The ironic thing about these moments is that we often think we’re seeing God. We think we know something about what he is like. But we’re seeing mostly a reflection – a God who looks a lot like us. A God imagined in our own image.

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I love words. I love the way they sound (most of them, anyway), the way they look, and how they are combined with other words to communicate ideas from  ridiculous to sublime.

In that spirit, I introduce a semi-regular feature of this blog: The Word of the Moment. 

Today’s word is perspecuity. It means “being clear, and having the characteristic of clarity.” Yes, it’s interesting that a word such as “perspecuity” means “clear,” but it does.

Used in a sentence: The Reformers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries believed firmly in the perspecuity of Scripture.

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This morning I did not have the privilege of preaching, but it was my privilege to listen to a sermon delivered by a representative of The Gideons. It was excellent and encouraging, as usual. Here is a summary of the sermon in one sentence: God continues to fulfill the promise He made in Isaiah 55:10-11, that His Word will not return to Him void, but will accomplish the purpose He has set for it.

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In my daily perusal of a number of websites and blogs, I come across links – recommended by others – that look interesting. Some of those links I click on and most of them I don’t.

Yesterday I saw a link to an article I knew I could not, under any circumstances, click on. It was a collection of 50 of the “greatest” insults from authors to other authors. Why? Because I know myself. If I were to read that collection of put-downs, I would remember most of them – store them away on my mental hard drive – and use them at some point in the future. I might enjoy it, but the recipient(s) wouldn’t.

“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts,” the Bible says in Romans 13:14. Reading the post full of insults would “make provision” for my flesh – my fallen sinful nature. It would feed, encourage, and give aid and comfort to, my not-yet-eradicated sinful nature.

I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire, so I didn’t pick up the gas can.

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Today’s word from a Puritan – Jeremiah Burroughs:

There is nothing that befalls you but there is the hand of God in it. …When a certain passage of providence befalls me, that is one wheel, and it may be that if this wheel were stopped, a thousand other things might come to be stopped by this. …When God has ordered a thing for the present to be thus and thus, how do you              know how many things depend upon this thing? God may have some work to do twenty years hence that depends on this passage of providence that falls out this day or this week.

In other words, we don’t know what may be coming in the future – tomorrow, next month, or thirty years down the road – but we do know that God is preparing us for it, whatever it may be.

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We Need Doctrine!

Joshua Harris writes the following about doctrine with the help of J. Gresham Machen:

It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that since theological beliefs shouldn’t be our goal, we don’t need them at all. But this isn’t true in knowing Jesus any more than it’s true in  other relationships. For example, I have a nine-year-old daughter named Emma, whom I love very much. It is absolutely true that information and facts about my daughter can never take the place of actually loving her. But this doesn’t mean I should avoid knowing about her.  An important part of caring for and cultivating a relationship with my little girl involves my willingness to learn her character and personality, her likes and dislikes. Details about her – the color of her hair, the music she enjoys, her gifts, fears, and dreams – are all important to me because she is important to me. These truths about her could be empty data, but because they describe a living person whom I love, they enrich and grow my love for her. Facts can never take her place, but I can’t know her without them.

Doctrine can never take the place of Jesus himself, but we can’t know him and relate to him in the right way without doctrine. This is because doctrine tells us not only what God has done but also what his actions mean to us. A theologian named  J. Gresham Machen, who wrote in the early part of the twentieth century, helped me better understand all this. His explanation of Christian doctrine helped me see how it connects to the living person of Jesus. In one of his books, Machen explains that while Christians in the early church wanted to know what Jesus taught, they were primarily concerned with what Jesus had done. ‘The world was to be redeemed,’ Machen writes, ‘through the proclamation of an event.’

Of course the event he’s referring to is Jesus’s death by crucifixion and his resurrection from the dead. The first Christians knew they had to tell people about this event. But simply telling them wasn’t enough. They also had to tell them what the event meant. And this, Machen explains, is doctrine. Doctrine is the setting forth of what Jesus has done along with the meaning of the event for us.

‘These two elements are always combined in the Christian message,’ Machen continues. ‘The narration of the facts is history; the narration of the facts with the meaning of the facts is doctrine.  Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried – that is history. He loved me and gave Himself for me  – that is doctrine.’

Doctrine is the meaning of the story God is writing in the world. It’s the explanation of what he’s done and why he’s done it and why it matters to you and me.”

(Joshua Harris, Dug Down Deep: Understanding What I Believe and Why It Matters, pp. 30-31)

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I had the privilege this morning of preaching on Genesis 9:1-29. Here is a summary of my sermon in one sentence: As the world experienced a new beginning, God gave commands to be obeyed, a covenant to be remembered, and a reminder of the sinfulness of mankind.

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Mike Leake makes an excellent analogy about how we look at the world using baseball and baseball cards – the front or the back. It takes to a point – of both the truth and the beauty of the gospel. You can read it here.

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I walked into the coffee shop with my book bag over my shoulder, ready to settle down for a couple of hours of sermon preparation. I ordered, and received, my usual – a medium sugar-free hazelnut iced latte. Even though that combination is one of life’s pleasures, I don’t yet know if it’s an argument for the existence of God. I took my latte and book bag and set up at an empty table near the front of the shop. If you’re not a coffee shop regular, you may not know that empty tables are prime real estate.

Almost as quickly as I got started studying the passage I would preach on the following Sunday, I noticed the table near the back of the shop. If that particular table is open when I’m there, I’ll use it. But this time it wasn’t open – it was occupied. What began to develop in my mind was very interesting and someone unexpected: “I’d really like that table. That table is better than this one. It’s the exact same table and chair, but the location is so much better. I really hope the couple sitting at that table leaves – and soon (I only have so much time to spend here, you know). I’d really like to have that table.” And on it went for a good fifteen minutes or so. Never mind that the table at which I was seated and my study materials were spread out was performing its designed function beautifully, I wanted something else.

What was my problem? What was I dealing with? Covetousness, plain and simple. I wasn’t content with what I had been given by God. The tenth commandment, in Exodus 20:17 begins by saying, “You shall not covet.” To covet (which is a word not often heard these days) is to have a craving or passionate desire for something (or, we must say, someone) that you don’t have. Covetousness is a serious sin which can lead to a number of other sins.

The opposite of coveting is contentment. In Philippians 4:11, the apostle Paul wrote, “Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.” In other words, he was satisfied with whatever God gave him. In the very next verse (12), he says, “I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.” What was the secret? Contentment – the opposite of covetousness.

My time in the coffee shop reminded me – again – that my fallen, sinful nature has not yet been conquered, and that by the grace of God I have much work to do, especially in recognizing these sinful attitudes as soon as they come up.

By the way, the latte was excellent as usual, and the other table never opened up.

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I had the privilege this morning of preaching on Genesis 8:1-22. Here is a summary of my sermon in one sentence: God remembered Noah by delivering him and his family from the flood – which reminds us that He does not forget us, either (He’s inscribed us on His hand according to Isaiah 45:16).

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