Thursday, January 31, 2008

What I've Been Reading

Continuing my thoughts from a couple posts ago on reading in Canada and what that means for evangelism and teaching within the church, I thought I would periodically post books I have recently read. I haven't done it this time, but in future, I may include a capsule review. For now, I'll just post the covers. So, here goes:

Gulliver's Travels
Jonathan Swift

The Histories
Herodotus (trans. David Grene)
440 BC (trans. 1987)

Love Rules

Parallels and Paradoxes
Edward Said & Daniel Barenboim

How Shall We Worship?
Marva Dawn

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ten - Contentment

The subprime mortgage crisis in the United States has triggered a lot of uncertainty in the markets and elsewhere and has prompted reactions from the Federal Reserve and other government institutions. As someone who works in the banking sector (specifically in the lending area) the crisis is of professional interest, but it is the spiritual lessons that are most valuable.

There have been many theories offered about the economic root of the crisis and what can be done to solve it, but I have yet to read in any newspaper that the main root of the problem is greed, or, to use the language of the decalogue: covetousness.

It was covetousness that led some people to borrow money for homes they couldn’t afford, but wanted, and it was covetousness that led banks to loan money to people who had little chance of paying it back. Credit is a useful tool that helps society function, and it is not wrong to have aspirations, but when desire overcomes prudence and we begin to make foolish choices to gain what we want, we have crossed over to covetousness. As with so many of the things that trouble us, the problem lies in the heart.

Of course, now that we are in the crisis, many are wondering what will become of them and their assets (hence the paniced selling and accompanying stock market drops), yet it seems that in many cases, this panic is just compounding one sin (covetousness) with another (fear). They both have, at their root, a lack of trust in God.

The positive implication of the tenth commandment is that we should be content with God’s provision. God has given us all we need and it is important to strive to be content with that and accept God’s wisdom in what He chooses to give and what He chooses to withhold. "Do not worry then, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear for clothing?' "For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things." - Matthew 6:31,32

If we can remember that promise, then, we can say with the apostle Paul, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. 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. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” – Phil 4:11-13.

Next time, I'll talk about how we try to encourage an attitude of peaceful contentment in our children.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Four - Delightful Sundays

A portion of my reading today:

"If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot
From doing your own pleasure on My holy day,
And call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable,
And honor it, desisting from your own ways,
From seeking your own pleasure
And speaking your own word,
Then you will take delight in the LORD,
And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
And I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

Isaiah 58:13, 14 (emphasis mine)

Isaiah 58 follows the great sequence of chapters detailing the redemption of God's people by the suffering servant (Jesus) and begins a description of what the restoration of His people will be like. This chapter specifically speaks of the need for, and pleasant consequences of, obedience to God.

The phrase that really caught my attention this time through was "call the sabbath a delight". That is exactly what we have tried to do at the Marsh household for the past few years. Some Christians try to ignore Sunday, but for those who observe it, it is easy to view Sunday as a burden, (E.g. "I have to go to church", "I can’t mow the lawn", etc.). However, I don’t want my family to "observe" Sunday, I want us to celebrate it! My wife and I have tried to arrange our day so that Sunday is the best day of the week for our family, the day we look forward to the most. For example, our afternoons involve the best meal of the week, with fine china and fancy drinks, naps for everyone, short walks in the neighbourhood, afternoon tea with special snacks and lapsang souchong tea.

I have heard a theory that it was after the Babylonian captivity that the Sabbath became burdensome and oppressive. The theory goes that the Babylonians had many special or ‘holy’ days that they observed, but the purpose of the days was not to celebrate their blessings or commemorate some great event, but to avoid bad luck. I suppose it would be similar to the superstitions some people have about breaking mirrors or spilling salt. The Israelites absorbed these bad attitudes, syncretized them into Sabbath, and were burdened by the day until Jesus came reminded them that the Sabbath was given as a gift, not a curse.

It is true that there are many things we refrain from doing on Sundays, not as a punishment or burden, but as a declaration on our faith and trust in God. For example:

I do not go to work on Sundays, even when it would be financially beneficial to do so, because I want to declare that God is the source of my families material provision, not my employer or career.

We do not shop on Sundays, even when it might save money, because we want to declare that our satisfaction is in the Lord and what He has already graciously provided, not in what we can gather by our own skill. He has already provided all we need.
We do not go to sporting events or other entertainment venues on Sundays, not because we do not value relaxation and leisure, but we want to declare that our source of delight and joy is not in the temporal excitement of sports or the beauty of the arts, but in the Lord God.

For our family, we want to delight in what God has given, and so we plan for Sundays by spending the days before preparing for it with cleaning, baking, and planning, so that we can spend the day itself in thanksgiving and praise to God. Sundays are our day to declare that God is the source, centre and circumference of our every need. As Isaiah says, we delight in the day, so we can delight in our God.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Five – Worthy of Imitation

I have been reading through Ephesians, and was especially struck by the first verses of chapter 5: Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, . The idea of imitating God is not new and reflecting God’s character is something all Christians should aspire to, but what I noticed while reading this time, was the comparison to children.

The implication of the passage is that children naturally imitate their parents, and therefore, as God is our father, so too should we imitate Him. It put me in mind of my own children, and the fact they imitate me in many ways: my mannerisms, my turns of phrase, and my values. It is sobering to think that my children are absorbing all this and more just by living with me and observing how I live my life. I was challenged by this passage to seek to live a life that is worthy of imitation, to be the kind of man that I want my boys to become, the kind of man I want my daughter to seek as a husband.

My God help me to walk in love and reflect His character. May He help me be a man who is honorable so that my children will find the fifth commandment, to honour their father and mother, the easiest of the ten to obey.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Reading and Teaching in Canada

You don’t have to look far to find articles and essays lamenting the decline of reading in our day. However, things are not as bad in Canada as they might be in other parts of the world. According to the Statistics Canada study, "Reading and Buying Books for Pleasure", only 13% of Canadians have not read a book in the past twelve months. Men and women read about the same amount, but their choice of reading material varies. Women tend to be readers of fiction and literature reading, while men focus on history, science and how-to books.

Reviewing this report made me think about how we share information about the truths of Christianity with our culture (and how I instruct my children in those truths). One thing the study seems to suggest is that, as a group, women value narrative, and infer meaning from it, while men respond to didactic, logical information.

Biblical Theology is an approach to studying God’s revelation that recognizes the progressive nature of God’s self-revelation in the Bible and emphasizes the broader historical context in which different sections of the Bible occur. Biblical theology, in other words, takes the Bible on it’s own terms, and makes sense of any passage in light of how it fits in to the meta-narrative of God’s plan of redemption.

Systematic Theology, on the other hand, takes a more topical, or thematic, approach. Typically beginning with God and seeing what the entire Bible says about Him, systematic theology moves on to other topics and creates an entire philosophical or theological framework in which to understand the Biblical revelation.

So, in light of the Statistics Canada report, I wonder if men are more attuned to systematic theology and women are more inclined to Biblical theology? If that’s so, I pray our approach to teaching and preaching in our churches and in our homes reflects the different inclinations of men and women in Canada, so that "we may present everyone complete in Christ" (Col. 1:28)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Law and Gospel: Part 10 : The Relevance of the Moral Laws of God in the 21st Century

Over the last couple of posts, we have looked at the three different types of Law found in the Old Testament and I made the point that, while some aspects of specific Old Testament commands are not applicable to contemporary Christians, that God’s moral law (summarized in the ten commandments and the great commandments of Christ) is eternal, unchanging, and written upon the heart of mankind.

That all may be so, but in what way do the law and gospel relate to current Christian living? My answer, and the answer we give our children, is that the ten commandments provide a rule for living, or, put another way, they give specific instruction regarding how a Gospel people should live. In other words, they serve the same function in the 21st Century as they did at Sinai: they answer the question, "How should God’s people live?".

We believe and confess that salvation is sola fide, by faith alone, but it is not a faith that is alone. James 2:11 and even Jesus’ summary words of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:24-27) preclude the possibility of a true believer making an empty confession. Our works still matter, not that they affect our standing before God, nor that by them we accrue favour, but because they demonstrate our faith.

But, how can we know if our works are rightly honouring to God and "worthy of the calling wherewith we were called"? Even living in light of the Gospel, is there not a rule of living given by God? Or, should each man be led independantly by the Holy Spirit into right living? There are those who claim that, because of the leading of the Holy Spirit, there are no standards of conduct for Christians, save the standard of "yielding to the Spirit. While not denying the work of the Spirit in each Christian’s life, I believe that this view only gives have the Biblical truth.

We believe that God has graciously revealed His mind on these matters. God has given specific commands, even to His New Testament people. Think of the specific commands of Christ. Think of the beginning of John’s ministry ("Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!"). Think of the fuller understanding of the ten commandments laid out by Christ in Matthew 5-7. None of these statements make sense if there is not a transcendant, objective and revealed standard of conduct and life for the people of God. The idea of obedience is meaningless if there are no commands to which we should be obedient. The idea of repenting makes no sense if there is no rule of conduct that we have failed to keep.

I’ll conclude by saying, both "law" and "gospel" make demands, both offer promises and both are bathed in the grace of God. In many ways, the distinction between law and gospel is a false one: Law without a gospel is hopeless and condemning, a gospel without law is rudderless. The essential issue is how we respond to the demands and promises of God’s Word. May our gracious God help us live obediently to the praise of His glorious name.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Law and Gospel: Part 9: Reconciling the 'Contradictions'

As we saw in part 7, there are many apparent contradictions in the New Testament regarding Law and Gospel we have dealt with some of those by examining the different types of laws in the Old Testament, but we still need to deal with the different New Testament passages, specifically as they relate to the moral law of God.

The book of Galatians can be a great help to us in sorting through this subject. We read that righteousness could only be imputed by the law if it was kept completely, with no failure on any point (Galatians 3:10; 5:3; James 2:11). This is a demonstrably false hope, because none can keep the law of God fully (especially the moral law; which is the point of Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler – Mark 10:17-30).

What then, was the point of the law? There have traditionally been three views of the purpose of the law, but the one we will discuss is that the law identifies what sin is. "because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin." – Romans 3:20. Not only so, but the law shows us most emphatically that we can not be good enough for God on our own, that we are in desperate need of a Saviour.

This, in fact, is exactly what God did for us through Christ. "For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." – Romans 8:3,4.

So, what we see is that the Law is not expired, it is still in force, but has been fulfilled for us in the sinless mediator between God and Man, Jesus Christ. He was made a propitiation for our sins and His righteousness has been imputed to us (Romans 4:25) and in this way, our righteousness can exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees (Mat 5:20).

This brief overview has not done justice to all the issues, or even all the verses, relating to this issue, but hopefully has provided some clarification. Next time, we will consider exactly what relationship a 21st Century Christian has with the Law.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Law and Gospel: Part 8 : The Three Types of Law

In attempting to reconcile the passages we looked at last time, it will be helpful to think of how then Old Testament law has traditionally been divided.

Civil laws – These are laws that governed the running of the nation of Israel during the time it was a theocracy. An example would be Deuteronomy 25:4 which gives direction to not muzzle an Ox while it is threshing. I think of these laws as analogous to the local lawn watering by-law and similar rules in our day. They were intended to be in effect only for a specific time and place. When Israel ceased to be a nation, these laws were no longer applicable. They do, however, reflect the character of God in the underlying principles of justice and mercy that they exhibit (I Corinthians 9:8-10).

Ceremonial laws – These are laws that dealt primarily with how God’s people should interact with Him and worship Him. Violations of them were dealt with harshly, and they all pointed towards Christ and were all fulfilled in Him (Colossians 2:14-17; Ephesians 2:14-16; Hebrews 10:1-18 )[1]. Thus, these too are abolished in the sense that they were but a shadow, a promise, of things which have now become a present reality in Christ.

Moral Laws – These are laws pertaining to the immutable morality of God. The Bible teaches that all are under obligation to obey these laws (Romans 1:18-20; 2:14-15) and that they are a reflection of God’s character (James 2:8-12) Further, it’s clear that far from abolishing them, Jesus clarified and strengthened them (Matthew 5:17-19). In fact, Jesus not only reiterates the ten commandments throughout the New Testament, but he usually raises the standard of obedience above what was commonly being practiced at the time. One example: "You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court;” (Matthew 5:21,22b).

In summary, civil and ceremonial laws are no longer in effect, but the moral law of God as expressed in the Ten Commandments and summarized in the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34) has been written on the hearts of all mankind and will never pass away. I'll try to be clear here: I do not believe the Ten Commandments are binding on believers in the way they had been understood in the Old Covenant, but that they are useful as a reflection of the moral law of God that was perfected in Christ.

Next time, we’ll continue to discuss how to reconcile the different verses on the law we read in the New Testament.

[1] I have not reproduced the scripture passages here, because they are lengthy, but encourage you to follow the links and read the entire passage.