Isaac Watts: What is the Gospel?

21 Sep

“To sum up the several parts of it in as few words as I can; the gospel of Christ is a gracious constitution of God, for the recovery of sinful man, by sending his own Son, in the flesh, to obey his law, which man had broken, to make a proper atonement for sin by his death, and to procure the favour of God, and eternal happiness, for all that believe and repent, and receive this offered salvation, together with a promise of the Holy Spirit, to work this faith and repentance in the hearts of men, to renew their sinful natures unto holiness, to form them fit for this happiness on earth, and to bring them to the full possession of it in heaven.”

Isaac Watts, Orthodoxy and Charity United

Action and Reflection: Not Mutually Exclusive

16 Sep

“In modern times, things have been different: we take for granted that there must be an absolute divide between vital Christian experience on the one hand and careful doctrinal theology on the other. To us, action and reflection seem mutually exclusive, especially when it comes to the Christian faith. The last thing we would expect to find is gospel and theology flowing from the same passionate commitment. But in the long sweep of Christian history, that is how it has usually been, from the church fathers and the scholastics through the Reformers and Puritans. All of them recognized that simple, saving faith could and should be elaborated into the Trinitarianism of Nicaea and the incarnational theology of Chalcedon. It took the crafty liberal theologians of the nineteenth century to popularize the argument that central Christian doctrines were, in Adolf Harnack’s words, ‘a work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the gospel’ and a betrayal of the simplicity of Jesus’ message. At that time, conservative theologians disagreed. One of the great ironies of modern theological history is that the heirs of those conservatives who opposed high liberalism have become the chief bearers of the Harnackian bias against doctrine. Whenever we assume that the best way to embrace the simple gospel is to eschew the difficulties of doctrine, Evangelicals are unconsciously adopting the position of their historic opponents and standing in contradiction to their own best interests. In doing so, they take themselves out of the very stream of power that made their movement possible in the first place: the gospel stream of doctrine and devotion that flows from the church fathers to the first fundamentalists…Fidelity to the gospel requires us to recognize doctrinal content, and those who would preach the gospel must make use of the tools of theology.”

Fred Sanders, Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective

The Chariot in Which God Rides

15 Sep

“The universe is the chariot in which God rides, and makes progress towards the last end of all things on the wheels of his providence; and the place of his chariot in which God has his seat, is the highest heavens. The pavement of the chariot, above which God’s throne is, is the firmament or the sky. …God [thus] governs the whole world for the good of his church; the wheels of the chariot of the universe move for them; and the progress that God makes therein in his throne above the firmament, the pavement of this chariot, is for them; and every event in the universe is in subserviency to their help and benefit.”

Jonathan Edwards

The Benevolent Empire versus The Social Gospel

10 Sep

I have often heard people speak of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as a time when many within the Protestant church in the United States began to get distracted from its primary mission by a focus on social causes. 

If you are familiar with this discussion, you know that I am referring to the “social gospel” and its consequences. 

So say, if you are beginning to get interested in orphan work or working with those who are financially poor or in crisis situations, you will find that people will often say something like, be careful, because when people began to get interested in those kinds of things in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, they ended up losing the gospel. 

Now, there’s no question in my mind, the social gospel ended up being no gospel at all. 

It’s not a positive term. 

If you are serious about the mission of the church, the glory of God, and the making of disciples, you definitely don’t want to be described as someone who is into the social gospel. What’s more, if you want to really love people, you don’t want to be described as someone who is into the social gospel.

Because spiritual problems are people’s biggest problems. 

And as Jonathan Edwards once said, “Spiritual judgments are the greatest calamity that can befall a people.”

Therefore, obviously, it’s right to be wary of Christians losing their focus on the gospel and we do want to be careful that nothing distracts the church as an institution from her primary and most urgent mission.

I get that.

And really, as anyone gets interested in anything, it is helpful for others to warn them, as you do this, don’t lose sight of what is most vital and most urgent. Further, it’s especially important for us to be concerned that the church as an institution doesn’t lose its focus, because the church as an institution has been formed for a very special and unique purpose that she only can fulfill and Satan obviously in his war against God and His people wants to do anything he can to distract the church from that mission.

But still, with all that said, as we seek to keep the gospel primary as individuals and to guard the church’s unique purpose, it’s also probably important we help each other be accurate in how we speak as we do so. And I just don’t think it is accurate to speak as if it was only in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that Christians began to get seriously interested in these kinds of issues.

Now, I need to speak carefully, because obviously I don’t think most people would believe that it was.

Still, I have heard people imply that this period of history is somehow proof that when people in the church get interested in these kinds of issues, they lose sight of the gospel.

And, historically that’s simply not true.

There were those who called themselves Christians who did lose sight of the gospel during this time and certainly there were places that called themselves churches that were distracted in the middle of all this, I will assume and grant that, but I just can’t assume or grant that it was because of this new and intense focus on mercy ministries that did it. Whatever happened with the church as an institution and the social gospel during this time, I don’t think it was a new interest among individual Christians in ministering to people who were in crisis or addressing these problems that caused it. 

In fact, if you just go a hundred years before, you will see this is clearly not the case.

Believers in the early 1800’s were so well known for voluntarily joining together to address various issues, that one of the descriptions for the American church at this time, is “The Benevolent Empire.” They established something like five hundred colleges before the Civil War, were a major force in the abolition movement, began temperance societies and we could go on and on. 

And while I would guess historians could trace all kinds of different factors which influenced this benevolent movement, one of the factors, had to be the Great Awakening. As people were truly born again, they became more and more concerned about the needs of their neighbors. In other words, we might say, if people look to the early 1900’s and say that a focus on social problems can lead to an abandoning the gospel, one might just as well look to the early 1800’s and say that a focus on the gospel will often lead to a greater concern. 

Now obviously, it is important to think through how that concern should be shown as believers and it is important to think through what actually is motivating that concern and it’s important to think through what is the church as an institution’s specific role is, if any, in addressing these issues. I think we should guard that and be vigilant about that because it is complicated, there are dangers, the church as an institution’s role is too important, and you know, there are also plenty of selfish reasons to be concerned about these kinds of issues as well, but as we do all that thinking and talking and discussing, we should be careful that we don’t start speaking as if anyone who was seriously concerned about these kinds of issues is necessarily losing sight of the gospel, especially if we are using history as our proof, because the fact is, historically, it’s just as easy to make the opposite case.  

While some might look at people who are becoming more concerned and more involved in these kinds of problems as evidence that the church is losing sight of theology, it might actually be because the church is interested in theology that people are becoming more concerned and more involved instead. On the other hand, while some might look at a church that as an institution is intensely focused on teaching deep theology as proof they are not concerned about these kinds of activities, the reality may be, the opposite. Instead it may be they recognize if their members are going to effectively engage in these kind of ministries, they desperately need the church to be and remain a place where they are taught deep, biblical theology and are discipled to love others the way God loved them. 

Perfection without Limits

9 Sep

Imagine perfection without limits. 

It’s difficult, isn’t it? But think about Someone who is right in absolutely every way. The longer you are with Him, the more you see how right He is. The more you watch Him act, the more you see how perfect every choice He makes is. Every desire, every thought, every action, every plan, in every which way, He is morally pure. He never fails to fully hate what is wrong. He never fails to completely love what is right. 

This is at least partially what we mean when we say we serve an infinitely holy God. 

And it is a beautiful picture, I think. Many would say they long to serve a God like this.  They might not even believe in God, but this is the kind of God they would say they want to believe in. They would say that, that is, until, they think about the way in which an infinitely holy God would react to evil. 

Because this is where it gets a little frightening.

You see, you can’t have it both ways. A God who is infinitely perfect will be infinitely enraged at sin. If he’s not infinitely enraged at sin, then He’s not infinitely perfect.  I mean, I am no philosopher, but if God’s moral purity has no limits, then it seems obvious, His response to evil will be both perfect and without end.  

We are not infinitely perfect, but we don’t regard as holy, someone who has learned to minimize obvious evils.

When someone defends the holocaust, we don’t say, umm, you really have progressed in maturity. No, obviously not. That failure to feel and to be enraged against what is evil is not something to be respected. The opposite.

We are not infinitely holy, but even we get upset and know it is right to be upset about obvious evils. Unfortunately, it’s pretty common, after a time, for us grow used to evil. What once enraged us, if we live with it long enough, becomes normal.

That’s not something positive.  

We don’t look at families where the wife is so used to her husband’s abusive behavior that she defends it and say, that’s really something good. No, something has gone wrong when we become inured to evil. 

We can rejoice, because God’s not like that.  He never gets used to evil. He hates it completely. And He hates it forever. 

An infinitely holy God is infinitely enraged against sin.  

That of course should cause those whose sins haven’t been covered to fear, and it should cause those whose sins have been covered to love. Think for a moment about the kind of punishment an infinite God would arrange who was infinitely enraged against sin.  

This is the punishment Jesus took in our place. 

“For our sake, he made him to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

It can be difficult for us to imagine someone whose perfection has no limits. It’s dazzlingly beautiful, and it’s truly frightening, but it’s important because, the God we serve, is infinitely perfect like this.  His infinitely holiness is not a dream. It’s real.  And thinking about God’s infinite holiness and wrath is important for us because it shines a spotlight that enables us to better see His limitless love!

All that is in my power…

5 Sep

Many people know the name of Jonathan Edwards.  Some are familiar with his work among the Stockbridge Indians. Not as many have heard of John Sergeant.  John Sergeant was the missionary to Stockbridge before him.

In her book Stockbridge, Past and Present, Electa Jones writes,

“Mr. JOHN SERGEANT, a native of Newark, New Jersey, was at the time a Tutor in Yale College. He had been heard to say that he would prefer the life of a missionary among the Indians to any other ; and this being reported to the Committee, they made application to him in September. He replied that, with the consent of the Rector and Trustees, he would agree to spend one half of the year with the Indians until he should have carried his pupils through their course of studies, and after that, if his labors proved successful, he would take up his residence with them for life. The answer was accepted, and, Oct. 8, he left New Haven for his new field of labor. 

Mr. Sergeant had long prayed for such an opening, and the state of his mind when his prayers were answered, proved their sincerity. In his diary he says :

“I was sensible I must not only lose a great many agreeable amusements of life, especially in leaving my business at College, which was the most agreeable to me that could be, but also expose myself to many fatigues or hardships, and know not to what dangers ; yet I was so far from being unwilling, that I was rather desirous to improve what abilities I had in such an undertaking. Indeed I should be ashamed to own myself a Christian, or even a man, and yet utterly refuse doing what lay in my power to cultivate humanity, and to promote the salvation of souls.”

On Being Used

4 Sep

I was a little discouraged this past Sunday.

It sounds silly to write it down now, but the external cause of my discouragement, (do you like that, the external cause, I know, it doesn’t really flow when I write it like that, but I think it is more true than if I say the reason, because I doubt that it was really the reason, I am sure the reason had more to do with what was going on in my heart, but I am talking instead about the circumstances in which what was going on in my heart was revealed) the external cause was the fact that we really had a low turn out at church on Sunday.

The week before had been so full, I thought this is really taking off and then this Sunday, wham, it felt like hardly anyone was there.

And the thing was, I had prepared all week, and I had been thinking about the message, and praying, and I really was excited about being able to share it, and then, you know, you look out there and you are like, wait a second, there should be more people here to hear this, and so I went home a bit discouraged. That’s the truth. I was more encouraged in the evening as one of the members of our church asked me to come to a memorial and share the gospel with some of his friends and family, and that was wonderful, but still on Monday I woke up in a bit of a funk.

Now there may be some good in this, at least, there may be some zeal, some desire to be used, I would think that’s not such a problem, but that’s not really my concern right now, my concern more has to do with the fact, that we probably all have times in our lives, where we look at what’s happening, and we look to God, and we think it might make more sense if it goes a little bit differently.

And, it’s not so godly at that moment, because the real problem we are struggling with is the fact that God is sovereign and we are not. Because the fact is, God’s sovereignty means that He has the complete and absolute right to do whatever He wants with whatever He has made.

And that’s me.

I am a tool in God’s hand. That’s it. And if God wants to pick up the tool and use it, awesome; but if God chooses to use this tool a little differently than I might want, then what an idiot if I as the tool, argue back with Him.

Can you imagine a depressed shovel? Maybe, as it sits there in the shed?

The thing is, God’s sovereignty not only causes me to relax, knowing that He is the one who is in charge, it also honestly gives me hope, because He is the one in charge.

Because sometimes when you are in situations where not everything is going as quickly as you might like, you look at yourself and you look at the situation and you think, oh my goodness, this is too hard for someone like me and that’s fine to think to a certain extent, because it is true, but still, if that’s all you look at, you can grow discouraged and want to give up.

God needs someone better, someone more significant for this job.

Oh really?

God has needs?

I don’t think so. While certainly the task may be too hard for someone like you, it’s definitely not even close to being a challenge to the One who created the Universe. There’s absolutely nothing about my situation or yours that causes God to scratch His head.

And because He is powerful and sovereign like that, I need to be careful to avoid presumption, where I argue back with Him about how He should be doing things, and because He is sovereign and gracious as well, I should be careful to avoid too much discouragement, because He has stooped down, even though He doesn’t have to, but because He wants to use His sovereign power for my good and His glory.

Even when! not as many people show up at church as I might like.

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