A Brief and Critical Sacrament

The baptism of John was a sacrament of the Old Covenant introduced near the end of its administration.  John’s baptism was a call for national repentance instituted to prepare Israel for the advent of her Messiah; to “…give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77).  Soon afterward the Old Covenant came to fruition through the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and His divine establishment of the New Covenant.  The baptism of Jesus is a sacrament of the New Covenant to be administered until His return.  In contrast to the Old yet foreshadowed by transitional events during the life of Christ, His baptism reaches beyond an exclusive priesthood and national lineage to all within the church regardless of tribe, language, people, and nation.

The final verses of Malachi’s oracle promise the advent of Elijah as a precursor to “…the great and awesome day of the LORD…” (Mal. 4:5).  Jesus explained to His disciples that John the Baptist was the Elijah to come (Matt 11:14).  Earlier in Malachi – as an apparent echo of Isaiah 40:3 – it is said that this messenger’s ministry was designed to prepare the way of the LORD (Mal. 3:1) “…lest He come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal. 4:6).  Among those born of woman there was none greater than John (Matt. 11:11) and he entered the drama of Israel’s history to break a prophetic silence spanning hundreds of years.  Dressed and dining as an impoverished prophet, he cried, “Repent,” and baptized the Jewish masses in preparation for the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God.

A major feature of John’s ministry was a baptism for all of Israel – applying to everyone what had previously been limited to a ritual for Levitical service and the cleansing of lepers (Ex. 29; Lev. 8, 14).  Indeed, never had Israel been required to undergo a collective baptism as a component of the Old Covenant system of worship.  The broad application of this sacrament to all those within the Jewish nation would have been quite shocking, yet this new application of religious washing was confirmed by Jesus Himself (a non-Levite) as He submitted to the command “…to fulfil all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).  As the Old Covenant was reaching its purpose and fulfilment all were called to be cleansed, and in obedience nearly all of Israel came to John and were baptized.

Once John introduced this final Old Testament sacrament – which also rightly marks the beginning of Jesus Christ’s ministry by declaration of the Father’s pleasure in His Son and the descent of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:16, 17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21, 22) – we begin to see “He who comes from heaven…” overtaking “…he who belongs to the earth” (John 3:31).  As Christ increases and John decreases (John 3:30) the application of the Jesus’s baptism overtakes John’s, for Jesus was “…making and baptizing more disciples than John” (John 4:1b).  Indeed, within a few decades of its institution the baptism of John was subsumed by the baptism of Christ as the Old Covenant was “…becoming obsolete and growing old…ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13).

The drama of differing baptismal sacraments is portrayed in an interaction between Paul and some disciples at Ephesus.  Luke writes, “And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ 3 And he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ 4 And Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.’ 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:1-5).  In this brief interaction we see that the baptism of John stood as a brief and critical sacrament of the Old Covenant signifying prepatory repentance, whereas the baptism of Jesus serves as an ongoing sign of union with Christ.

Beyond marking the end of the Old Covenant, the baptism of John also acts as the transitional episode par excellence among several events which occurred during the ministry of Christ.  Some examples of these events are the interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:7-42), His teaching concerning what truly defiles a person (Mark 7:14-23), the cleansing of the temple (Matt. 21:12-16; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45, 46), and the tearing of the curtain (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45).  Each of these events – including the baptism of John – provided momentum to a change in Covenant as the old ways established at Sinai began to give way to the new ways introduced by Christ and accomplished through His ministry.  In the first we witness Jesus evangelizing a non-Jewish serial adulteress – about which she and the disciples are naturally shocked but from which flows a harvest of righteousness (John 4:39-42) – indicating that the era of Gentile inclusion was beginning (see Isa. 11:10; 52:15; cf. Rom. 15).  In the second event Jesus abrogates Jewish dietary laws established through Moses – laws that were intended to teach that God distinguishes between the spiritually clean and unclean but welcomes any who will come in repentance.  In the third He (a non-Levite) enters the temple and cleanses it of robbers, exclaiming that, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56:7).  And in the fourth God provides a visual indication that the way to intimate fellowship with Him is now open to all who would seek Him, without the intermediaries of earthly priesthood and repeated sacrifice, culminating in the destruction of the earthly temple a few decades later.

The baptism of John portrays the broad outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all those fearing the Lord instead of prophet and king alone.  The Lord promised this through Joel when he wrote, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (2:28, 29).  Furthermore, since Gentiles were among those who received John’s baptism – during the early ministry of Apollos, for example (Acts 18:24-26) – his sacrament anticipated an anointed priesthood in which “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28).

As mentioned previously, Jesus said that there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet He went on to say, “…the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matt. 11:11b).  In what way would others be greater than John?  The Prophets and the Law prophesied until John (Matt. 11:13) and for him was the blessed role of preparing the way of the Lord.  Prior to John were many prophets and kings who longed to see and hear what the followers of Jesus witnessed (Matt. 13:17; Luke 10:24).  Like aged Simeon to whom God revealed would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:26), John the Baptist witnessed He about Whom he prophesied and – straddling the boundary of the Covenants – applied to Him the last of the Old Covenant sacraments.  From that time on the Lord baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire, as pictured in His visible sign.  What greatness can compare with being among those to whom is preached the good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven (I Pet. 1:12)?  Is anything greater than being set apart as a home for God’s Holy Spirit (John 14:15-17, 23; I Cor. 3:16; 6:19), and together being built up as a spiritual tabernacle for the true and living God (I Pet. 2:4)?  Throughout the duration of His New Covenant God is depositing priceless treasure in jars of clay and placing each in His refining fire (Mal. 3:2) in preparation for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (II Cor. 4:17).

Soteriological Recapitulation – Personal Recapitulation of Redemptive History

“The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever” (John 8:35).

What does soteriological recapitulation mean, and how can this idea be helpful to the church? The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate several benefits the people of the New Covenant/Testament church can derive from this analogy. Some definitions and groundwork are necessary at the outset: ‘Soteriological’ refers to salvation as affected by Jesus Christ; ‘recapitulation’ refers to the restating, or in this context, the retracing of something. As a unit, the phrase refers to the retracing of the steps involved in salvation. But what steps are being retraced and by whom?

The idea is that one being saved through the various redemptive stages, e.g. foreknowledge, calling, justification, sanctification, etc. is walking steps being taken by the church at large from its early years, through its coming of age during the first advent of Christ, and on to full maturity at the end of time.  In summary:  throughout the maturing process the Christian retraces the church’s development from childhood to adulthood.  The church under law (from Sinai to the rending of the temple curtain) is pictured as a child under guardians, and is analogous to the person subjected to the Law’s pedagogical mastery, being “held captive” and “imprisoned” as a child under guardians (Gal. 3:23); the church released from the “law for righteousness” (Rom. 10:4) is pictured as an adult and is analogous to the person blessed with the paracletic indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit, beholding the glory of the Lord (II Cor. 3:18), and set free to walk in freedom and in the good works which God has prepared (Eph. 2:10).

Paul writes this to the Galatian church:  3:23“Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian…4:1I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, 2but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. 3In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son… 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons…7So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (ESV).

Paul identifies two periods of time:  “before faith came” and “now that faith has come,” and establishes the transition point as the advent of Christ.  Also, he identifies a parallel between a child (who does not differ from a slave) and the church under the law; and a parallel between an adult and the church “no longer under a guardian.”  One may ask, “Since Paul says, ‘before faith came,’ does he mean that faith was not operative prior to Christ’s first advent?”  By no means!  The law did not restrain those under the Old Covenant/Testament from faith, but rather restrained them so that they would not wander from the fold of faith.  In another place Paul wrote of Abraham that “his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness’” (Rom. 4:22).  Indeed, faith has been the operative mechanism of salvation throughout human history.  So, what does “before faith came” mean?  Paul’s intent appears to be an illustration of the stark distinction between the life of faith for a follower of God during the childhood of the church – living under the control of the law (likened to a child under guardians) and enslaved to the elementary principles of the world (Gal. 4:9; Col. 2:20); and the life of faith for a follower of God experienced in the adulthood of the church, enjoying the nurturing influence of the Holy Spirit (likened to one who has come of age) – a stark distinction indeed!

So then, how can this idea of soteriological recapitulation be helpful to the church?  If we consider the history of the church as a template for the way in which God works in the life of a person throughout the process of salvation, then several benefits can be realized.

First, the preaching and teaching of ministers may more readily highlight the benefits and obligations of consecration, by which is meant the set-apart condition experienced by those who comprise the people of God; man, woman and child.  This place of benefit, blessing, obligation and curse was experienced during the times of Noah, Abraham, and throughout Israel’s history; it is now experienced by the church of the New Covenant/Testament.  Therefore, ministers may more readily highlight the many benefits enjoyed by the people of the church of God, which are summed up succinctly by Paul when he writes, “…to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4, ESV), while also highlighting to those in their care the weighty obligation of being named a member of God’s people.  Those under the Law not only benefited from the rule of God, but when one was found unrepentant he or she “…died without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Heb. 10:28).  The author of Hebrews goes on to demonstrate the greater guilt and punishment upon the unrepentant under the New Covenant/Testament when he writes, “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace” (vs. 29)?  As Jesus says, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48b, ESV).

Second, from this perspective we may be able to more fully grasp how unnatural it is for one who claims to be in Christ to remain in a state of infancy; or said positively:  how natural is the expectation that with conversion comes growth and maturity.  As the author of Hebrews candidly states, 5:12“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food, 13for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (ESV).  Indeed, the maturing process of the church is a latent exhortation to each member that he or she engage in pursuing, and encourage others in the pursuit of, personal growth and maturity through all the means of grace that God has provided.

Third, this analogy can remind us to avoid impatience – both with our self and others – during the process of spiritual maturation.  By viewing the history of the church, we can see that God is consistently and patiently working out his perfect plan and promises to faithfully complete His work in each believer.  Those newly converted are in need of milk and would choke on solid food.  A new Christian may have sensitivities of conscience which those of greater maturity do not.  As Paul reminds us in Romans nine, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (vs. 3, ESV).  In addition, this perspective can comfort the believer beset with sorrow over sin by avoiding the false hope of immediate maturity and/or absolute perfection.

Fourth, with this analogy in view, elders may more freely warn those in their care to avoid the broad faithlessness and formalism of the Old Covenant/Testament church.  As the author of Hebrews writes, “For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened” (Heb. 4:2).  Those of the Old Covenant/Testament experienced first-hand the power and presence of God through the deliverance from Egypt, passage through the Red Sea, the encounter at Mount Sinai, and safety and sustenance in the desert; yet most failed to place their faith in God.  By application, although we are nourished by the spiritual food and drink of Christ as those who passed through the Red Sea (I Cor. 10:5), although we have been marked with the sign of regeneration (now being baptism instead of circumcision), and although we receive the blessings which accrue to the people of God (Rom. 9:4, 5; Heb. 6:4, 5), let us not be found to have “…an evil, unbelieving heart, leading [one] to fall away from the living God.” (Heb. 3:12).  This recapitulation analogy underlines how critical it is that no one rely upon religious experiences, covenant signs, family history, participation in the sacraments, etc., as the grounds for reconciliation with God and security in that relationship.  What matters is a new creation (Gal. 6:11-16) by God’s Holy Spirit, manifesting itself in love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24).  Indeed, one purpose for the communication of Israel’s history is “…as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (I Cor. 10:6.)

Fifth and finally, this recapitulation analogy can act as a preventative measure to avoid the error of carrying forms of the Old Covenant/Testament into the New – what Paul often calls ‘elementary principles’ (e.g. Col. 2:8, 20).  When the New Covenant/Testament church perpetuates Old forms which do not belong – or creates strange elements from scratch, which carry their own collection of problems – the result can be to perpetuate a lack of both ecclesiastical and personal maturity resulting from the New Covenant/Testament church behaving as if it is still under guardians and managers instead of free to live as a faithful adult.  To continue with shadows such as priests, sacrifices, holy objects and spaces, musical instruments, etc. destroys their typical meaning and short-circuits the lessons they were intended to teach.  To continue with shadows obscures the freedom and access Christians enjoy in the New Covenant/Testament economy (Heb. 12:18-24; Gal. 4:21-31).  It distracts our minds from the now-present realities which cast these shadows and obstructs our view of Christ behind forms no longer necessary or allowed.

Therefore, although the phrase – soteriological recapitulation – is complex, the idea can have great value to the church.  It can remind each of us to pursue holiness and lay aside anything that hinders and entangles (Heb. 12:1).  It can remind all of us to stir one another up to love and good works (10:24) while being patient with each other through this life-long journey of growth.  For those who preach and teach it can embolden them to declare the Law and the Gospel in all their terror and beauty.  And finally, it can remind us to avoid any forms and accoutrements of worship that would be destructive to the Gospel and are no longer necessary under the freedom, simplicity, and beauty of the New Covenant.

Which Clouds?

In what is commonly called the Olivet Discourse – as recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 – Jesus answers questions asked Him by His disciples; questions which were triggered by His prophecy that the temple was to be so completely destroyed “that there will not be left…one stone upon another…” (Matt. 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6).

The majority content of His discourse describes intense tribulation including wars, famine, earthquakes, persecution, apostasy, genocide, antichrists, and universal upheaval.  (Following this description Jesus referred to the budding of a fig tree pointing to the advent of summer as a parable which parallel is the unfolding of the events preceding the advent of a new era.)  The latter portion of His discourse includes two statements which form an apparent paradox.  First, He said, “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30; cf. Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27), and second, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all of these things take place” (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32).

The relationship between, “…they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven,” and “…this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (vs. 34) causes great difficulty to serious readers of Scripture.  Because the ‘clouds of heaven’ is commonly understood as the clouds we see in the sky, and ‘the Son of Man coming’ as the second advent of Jesus Christ, attempts are often made to understand and explain ‘this generation’ in ways other than its common meaning.  To understand ‘clouds of heaven’ as those we see overhead appears natural in light of Luke’s account of our Lord’s ascension:  “…He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight.  And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus, Who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way…’” (Acts 1:9b-11).  If this is the case, then it leaves us asking whether the new era pictured in the budding fig tree will be ushered in by the second advent of Christ, or if it has been inaugurated by another great event!  The key to understanding the two passages mentioned above may be found not in seeking a new meaning for ‘this generation,’ but rather by revisiting the meaning of ‘the clouds of heaven.’

Later in his gospel Matthew records a conversation between Jesus and Caiaphas, the high priest, wherein Jesus answered Caiaphas’s question concerning His identity:  Jesus said, “But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (26:64).  This phrase is very similar to that spoken by Jesus to His disciples.  In response, Caiaphas tore his robes and accused Jesus of blasphemy.  Why did Caiaphas respond this way?  It is unlikely he thought Jesus was referring to a return to earth at the end of time.  In Daniel chapter seven, the prophet wrote, “As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took His seat…and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man…and to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples…should serve Him…” (vss. 9a, 13a, 14a).  The accusation of blasphemy declared by the chief priests and scribes was in response to Jesus identifying Himself as that Son of Man to Whom Daniel refers, Who was presented to the Father “with the clouds of heaven.”  The parallel passage in Luke 22 reports that Jesus responded to the chief priests and scribes by saying, “But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (vs. 69), apparently drawing upon the prophecy of King David in Psalm 110:1, “[Yahweh] says to my Lord:  ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool.’”

If the ascension and enthronement of Christ is the event properly associated with His ‘coming on the clouds’ – as was the understanding of the Jewish religious leaders, then many implications follow.  Firstly, the work of Jesus during His first advent is highlighted as the pivotal event in history; centered upon the fruition of the Old Covenant and establishment of the New in its many glorious facets; including Messiah, “…[bearing] our griefs” (Isa. 53:4), “…[forgiving our] iniquity” (Jer. 31:34), and “…[putting] an end to sacrifice” (Dan. 9:27).  Secondly, the nearly 2,000 years since the ascension of Jesus Christ have been His reign as King over all, not a time of waiting for His kingdom in the future; therefore the throwing down of satan (Luke 10:18) so that he can no longer deceive the nations, the commission of His people to “…make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), and the going-forth of the four horseman (Rev. 6:1-8) as a force of testing and judgment, occur at the command of heaven’s new King; to whom the Father said, “Ask of Me, and I will make the nations Your heritage, and the ends of earth Your possession” (Ps. 2:8).  Thirdly, the return of the Christ – an event to which Jesus Himself describes as parabolic to a thief or master entering the house at an unknown time (Matt. 24:36ff; Mark 13:32ff) – is the event to which Paul refers when he wrote, “Then comes the end, when [Jesus] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet” (I Cor. 15:24, 25).

While tempting Jesus satan suggested that He turn stone into bread, cast Himself from the temple, and bow in worship to receive the kingdoms of the world (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12, 13; Luke 4:1-13).  The irony of satan’s temptation comes into focus from this perspective, for within a few decades of that offer, Jesus was given the kingdoms of the world as His possession – ruling them with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:9), and the dragon was cast down to earth in defeat (Rev. 12:7-9).  In His very resistance to the bait of satan our Lord procured the very rule which that ancient serpent offered but had no authority to give.

Therefore, if the clouds to which Jesus referred are the clouds of heaven with which He was presented to the Father and His ascension marked the beginning of His reign, then indeed the generation to whom He spoke did not pass away until those things took place, the tribulation to which Jesus referred accompanied that universal transition from Old Covenant to New, the great dragon, who is called the devil and satan – the deceiver of the whole world – has been thrown down (Luke 10:18; Rev. 12:9), and this is the sanctified age of Messianic rule during which people “from every nation and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9), who have been “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49), “have come to mount Zion and to the city of the living God” (Heb. 12:22).

Made in God’s Image, Understanding Human Activity in God’s World

Part 11 of 11

This is the final post.  As I said two posts ago, I hope that this series has been a benefit to you.  More importantly, I hope that it has been glorifying to God.  In my final statement last post, I identified three activities in which we must be involved as a church:  study of God’s word – including hearing His word preached, outreach to the needy, and prayer for those both within and outside of our church.  This is not an exhaustive list, but it does capture three foundational activities which must be part of our daily lives.  To bring this series to a close, let us look at these three.

So the first:  study of God’s word.  Make it a daily practice to study the Bible.  In it we find life, while reading it we commune with God, and knowledge of His Word gives understanding (Psalm 119:130).  There must exist in us a passion for the knowledge of God’s word; a passion that is typified by King David.  Hear David express his love for God’s word in Psalm chapter 119:  “Princes persecute me without cause, but my heart stands in awe of your words.  I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil.  I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law.  Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules.  Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.  I hope for your salvation, O LORD, and I do your commandments.  My soul keeps your testimonies; I love them exceedingly.  I keep your precepts and testimonies, for all my ways are before you” (Psalm 119:161-168).  David’s heart stands in awe of God’s words.  He rejoices in them as in great riches.  He loves them exceedingly.  And He praises God throughout the day for giving His righteous rules.  Is this how you respond to God’s word?  Do you have a desire to know Scripture which exceeds your desire for riches?  Indeed heaven and earth shall pass away but His word shall never pass away (Matthew 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33).

Where does this love for God’s word, and this passion to know it, come from?  It is brought about in us by God’s Holy Spirit as we participate in the means of grace – reading, memorizing and considering Holy Scripture being one.  As is the case at many times in human experience, we must not wait for a desire or love to grow before we engage in an activity to which we are called.  Instead, we pursue that to which we have been called and find a love growing for it.  Further, as we devote ourselves to the knowledge of God’s word, He shall change us and bring about growth.

One such area of growth shall be personal holiness:  for the child of God, study of His word will cause godliness to grow.  It is the promise of Scripture that as we keep our way according to His word, our way will be kept pure (Psalm 119:9) and we cannot keep our way according to God’s word unless we know it.  Not only are we to pursue holiness based upon a call to do so – to lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us (Hebrews 12:1), but also the overflow of our pursuit of holiness will be a blessing to our family, our church, our community, and our culture.  Concerning outreach, let it not be godless humanitarians reaching out to the needy, but let it be the Lord’s people:  we who understand the underlying reality of spiritual need – that those outside of His church are without hope and without God.  Their principle need is not self-esteem counseling, it is to be brought near to God by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:12, 13).

Another area of growth as we study God’s word is that we shall be equipped with wisdom for daily life:  the pure, peaceable, gentle, and reasonable wisdom from above (James 3:17).  There is a great need for wisdom as we help the needy and the afflicted, so let us “…conduct [ourselves] with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity” (Colossians 4:5).  How shall we be equipped to do this?  As we devote ourselves to the means of grace – specifically the study of Scripture.  This wisdom will also grow out of experience as make outreach a habit of our church.

The second of these foundational activities is outreach.  And since the previous two posts concentrated on this subject, I will make but a few comments here.  We have already established that the Scripture call exists that we care for the needy and the afflicted.  We looked, in post one, at a section of Scripture from Matthew chapter 25 concerning the judgment of the sheep and the goats.  Let us return there once more and consider the verses previous, containing the parable of the talents.

“For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.  To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.  He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more.  So also he who had the two talents made two talents more.  But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.  Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.  And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’  And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’  He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed and gather where I scattered no seed?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.  So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.  For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matthew 25:14-30).

From this parable we can learn the following truths:

  1. The idea of a man leaving on a journey communicates the fact that Jesus would not at the time of his soon arrival in Jerusalem take possession of His rightful throne and rule over the earth.  As Luke says:  “…[Jesus] proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately” (Luke 19:11b).  As we now know, and as the disciples we soon to learn, Christ will be absent for a time between his advents.  As John Calvin says:  “For, though he sits at the right hand of the Father, and holds the government of heaven and earth, and though, from the time that he ascended to heaven, all power was given to him (Matthew 28:18) that every knee might bow before him (Philippians 2:10), yet as he has not yet subdued his enemies – has not yet appeared as Judge of the world, or revealed his majesty – it is not without propriety that he is said to be absent from his people, till he return again, clothed with his new sovereignty.”
  2. The money given to the servants represents physical and spiritual gifts which God has given to us as He sees fit.  We are to invest these gifts to the furtherance of God’s kingdom in this world.  We are not to take that which he has given to us, whether it be our time, our abilities, or our resources and “bury them in the ground” or, as Luke says:  “keep them laid away in a handkerchief” (Luke 19:20b).  This is a call for a change of mind.  We are here today – we are given life each day – to labor for our Master while He is absent.  Knowing that He will one day return, in the revelation of His glory, and shall establish His kingdom forever.  “No longer will there [then] be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servantswill worship him.  They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:3-5).
  3. We shall one day give and account for what we have done with what God has given to us.  As John Calvin further says:  “When it is said that the master of the house, after his return, called the servants to account; as this ought to impart courage to the good, when they understand that they do not lose their pains, so the indolent and careless, on the other hand, ought to be struck with no small terror.  Let us therefore learn to call ourselves daily to account, before the Lord come and make a reckoning with us.”

The third foundational activity which must be part of our daily lives is prayer.  But before we discuss specific statements concerning prayer in Scripture, let me make this auxiliary comment in answer to a question you may have:  The is a mechanical way of understanding prayer which explains how our prayers can play a part in bringing about events – how our prayers are secondary causes, whether that be the salvation of someone, the healing of one afflicted with illness, or the maturing of a Christian.  I refer to it as a mechanical understanding because it is just that:  the explanation is that God not only predestines the ends – the results – but that He also predestines the means to bring it about – the secondary cause.  Why do I call it mechanical?  The word may imply that I am dissatisfied with the explanation, which is not true – the explanation is scriptural.  I use the word mechanical because we must be cautious when we explain this truth concerning prayer, or any truth concerning the character and activities of God.  The context of prayer is primarily that of relationship:  finite creatures bearing God’s image communing with God Himself.  We certainly come to prayer because we have been commanded to.  Yet we also come to prayer to involve ourselves in the opportunity of speaking to God; the one who created and preserves all things, even we ourselves as we speak to Him in prayer.

So concerning prayer, it must be such a part of our daily lives that we satisfy the Scripture command of I Thessalonians 5:17 – to pray without ceasing.  The content of our prayers will include:  praise of the Father, requests for daily provisions, for forgiveness for sins, and for daily help.  Our daily prayers should include prayer for the sanctification of the saved and salvation for the lost.  Concerning sanctification of the saved, let us pray as Paul did:  “…that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Ephesians 1:17-20a).  Concerning praying for the salvation of the lost, let us pray as Paul commanded those at the church at Colossae to pray:  “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.  At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison – that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:2-4).

Concerning the continuous nature or persistence of our prayers, consider the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18:  “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.  He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.  And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, “Give me justice against my adversary.”  For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.”’  And the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unrighteous judge says.  And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?  I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth’” (Luke 18:1-8)?

From this parable we receive a command for persistence, and from this parable we also receive a command to pray in expectation for response:  that “…whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23b).  As Christ says in Matthew 21:  “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen.  And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:21, 22).  Also consider the promise for response given in Matthew chapter seven:  “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.  Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:7-11)!

Our prayers are to be made on behalf of friend and foe.  As Christ says in Matthew five:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:43-45).

Finally, let us make our requests know to God not to be noticed by men as the hypocrites do – who want to be seen by others.  Nor let us pray as the non-believer does:  with empty phrases, thinking that they will be heard for their many words (Matthew 6:5-7).  Instead, let us make our requests know to God in private; with sincerity of heart.  And let us know that even when we do not know how to pray, “…the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

What will be the effect upon our culture when the people of God take seriously to what God has called us, and take seriously what God has promised to do with faith no larger than a mustard seed?  The impact will be immense.  We are called to obey the Gospel of God and to preach it to every creature.  We are called to the fatherless and the widow – to the needy and the afflicted in this world.  In our body of the Church let us be faithful with the resources God has given us.

Made in God’s Image, Understanding Human Activity in God’s World

Part 10 of 11

Last post we spent some time examining some verses which include commands or imperatives concerning caring for the needy.  Verses such as Deuteronomy 15:11, which says:  “For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’”

Related to this, there are two main subjects to cover in this post:  First, we shall look at how secondary causes – or human agency – relate to and bring about God’s promises to act on behalf of the needy; and second, we shall examine some of the roadblocks or barriers which can prevent us from action.

So firstly, let us consider the promises of God to act on behalf of the needy and afflicted.  When we speak of the promises of God to act please remember what we have talked about concerning the real effect of secondary causes.  When we read that God “…raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap…” (Psalm 113:7) we should see in this statement an imperative to us as His body – that we must raise the poor from the dust and the needy from the ash heap.  We can see a similar relationship between God’s promises to save a people for himself and His promise to call a people who were not His, with the activities of preachers such as Peter and missionaries such as Paul.  God promised to save and to call aliens (viz. non-Jews) into the family of His people and He does it through the activities of people who were called to this task.  “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10) provides an imperative to preach the Gospel for “…how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard(Romans 10:14)?  So in the same way, hear the imperative when God promises to be “…a defense for the helpless, a defense for the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat; for the breath of the ruthless is like a rain storm against a wall.” (Isaiah 25:4)   He shall do this most often through His body, the church.

Some further promises of action include:

God acts on behalf of the needy:

  1. I Samuel 2:8:  “…He lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with nobles…”
  2. Job 5:15,16:  “But He saves from the sword of their mouth, and the poor from the hand of the mighty.  So the helpless has hope, and unrighteousness must shut its mouth.”
  3. Psalm 12:5:  “’…because of the groaning of the needy, now I will arise,’ says the LORD…”
  4. Psalm 35:10:  “…LORD, who is like You, Who delivers the afflicted from him who is too strong for him, and the afflicted and the needy from him who robs him?”
  5. Psalm 68:9, 10:  “You shed abroad a plentiful rain, O God; You confirmed Your inheritance when it was parched.  Your creatures settled in it; You provided in Your goodness for the poor, O God.”
  6. Psalm 69:33:  “For the LORD hears the needy…”
  7. Psalm 107:41:  “But He sets the needy securely on high away from affliction…”
  8. Psalm 109:31:  “For He stands at the right hand of the needy, to save him from those who judge his soul.”
  9. Psalm 113:7:  “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap…”
  10. Isaiah 25:4:  “For You have been a defense for the helpless, a defense for the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat; for the breath of the ruthless is like a rain storm against a wall.”
  11. Jeremiah 20:13:  “Sing to the LORD, praise the LORD!  For He has delivered the soul of the needy one from the hand of evildoers.”

Promises for the needy:

  1. Psalm 9:18:  “For the needy will not always be forgotten…”
  2. Psalm 72:12-14:  “For he will deliver the needy when he cries for help, the afflicted also, and him who has no helper.  He will have compassion on the poor and needy, and the lives of the needy he will save.  He will rescue their life from oppression and violence, and their blood will be precious in his sight…”
  3. Psalm 132:15:  “I will abundantly bless her provision; I will satisfy her needy with bread.”
  4. Psalm 140:12:  “I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted and justice for the poor.”
  5. Isaiah 14:30:  “Those who are most helpless will eat, and the needy will lie down in security…”
  6. Isaiah 25:4:  “For You have been a defense for the helpless, a defense for the needy in his distress…”
  7. Isaiah 26:5,6:  “For He has brought low those who dwell on high, the unassailable city; He lays it low, He lays it low to the ground, He casts it to the dust.  The foot will trample it, the feet of the afflicted, the steps of the helpless.”
  8. Isaiah 29:19:  “The afflicted also will increase their gladness in the LORD, and the needy of mankind will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.”
  9. Isaiah 41:17:  “The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst; I, the LORD, will answer them Myself, as the God of Israel I will not forsake them.”

So again:  when we hear these promises of God to act on behalf of the needy, let us hear the imperative in them.  Now some of you may say:  “But what about miracles?”  We certainly affirm that God acts in direct miracle for the needy and the afflicted as He did for the widow living at Zarephath when Elijah told her to “‘Bring [him] a morsel of bread in [her] hand.’  [In response] she said, ‘As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.’  And Elijah said to her, ‘Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son.  For thus says the LORD the God of Israel, “The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth.”’  And she went and did as Elijah said. And she and he and her household ate for many days.  The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah” (I Kings 17:11b-16).

So although we affirm that God acts by direct miracle from time to time as the needy and afflicted are cared for, we also affirm that the majority of the activities of God as He cares for the needy and the afflicted are done through the agency of His people.  Which leads me to the second subject for this morning which is:  what are some of the roadblocks or barriers which can prevent us from action?

Barriers exist which deter us from our duty to care for the needy.  The first one to consider is the resistance to give care to the needy and/or the afflicted because of negative past experience.  When we care for the needy, it will not always go the way that we expect.  From our perspective, there are times when we have cared for the needy, that it did not go well at all.  There are two things we can affirm in response to this.  First, since we are unable to see the whole picture, what we see as “didn’t go well” may in fact be used by God to bring about good results.  Second, we are called to care for the needy without the qualification of previous experiences (without ignoring the learning and skill that proceeds from previous experiences).  Proverbs 31:9 does not say:  “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy…unless some of them kick sand in your face.”  It simply says to defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.  Therefore, even if we suffer according to the will of God, let us entrust our souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right (I Peter 4:19).

A second barrier is the thought that some of the needy ones don’t deserve care because they are needy and/or afflicted because of their own bad decisions.  Please notice that when the Bible calls us to the needy, it does not make reaching out contingent upon the reason why a person is in need.  We are called to care for the needy and the afflicted, and no less to those who we would categorize as being in their situation because of their own bad decisions.  We are not called to those in prison only when they have been imprisoned unjustly – we are simply called to those in prison.  We are not to distinguish between who is worthy and who is not worthy to receive care.  At the same time, we must be aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart and remain wise in how we extend care.  In short, we must not withhold care on the basis of the needy being a sinner.  Instead, we are called to practice wisdom in giving care so that our activities will result in the benefit of the needy one instead of enabling he or her bad behavior.  As the Proverbs say:  “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21, 22)

A third barrier is our own sins of omission – the inherent weakness of humanity exposed in not doing what we know to do – in other words:  own weakness and tendency toward sin.  Let us not be hearers of the word only, who deceive ourselves, but doers of the word (James 1:22), bearing much fruit, and so proving to be His disciples (John15:8).  Let us not be guilty attending church gatherings, and tithing, and singing Psalms, and hearing the Word preached, while neglecting the weightier provisions of the law:  justice and mercy and faithfulness; for these are the things you should do without neglecting the others (Matthew 23:23).  Let us often cry out to the Lord:  “Search me, O God, and know my heart!  Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23,24)!

A fourth barrier is the existence of structural evil and a lack of structural good.  What I mean by this can be most readily seen in the contemporary system of state-sponsored care.  Their motto seems to be:  give them food, but no Gospel.  These structures are entrenched in society and for many, engrained in our minds as the way to help the needy and the afflicted.  Unfortunately, our modern welfare system does not in many cases help the needy out of their state of affliction, but instead sinks them deeper into it.  So how do we change the organizational structures of our society from those which promote evil to those which promote good?  First, what we do not do:  we do not seek to break down the structures which currently exist through legislation.  In doing so we would create a vacuum where some structure previously existed.  What do we do?  We structure our personal ministry and the ministry of our church based upon the imperatives of Scripture.  As we do so, we will begin to take back some the ground lost to the kingdom of this world.  We will, through caring for the needy, decrease the need for government programs intended to care for them.  Instead of fighting against what currently exists, we will replace the structural evil with structural good and do so to the extent that the programs which were intended to help the needy without God and without the gospel will decrease because of a reduction in demand or fade away for lack of participants.  If this sounds impossible, consider two things.  The first is this:  kingdom matters always have the appearance of the “lost cause.”  We hear them and say, “That sounds great, but it won’t work.  We are a small church, how could we take on so much?”  We must remember whom we serve, and His commands and promises to us and to the needy.  The second thing I want you to know is that it does work.

Here is a short story about a man named Thomas Chalmers who accomplished what I am describing:  In Glasgow, Scotland Thomas Chalmers made one of his greatest contributions to the life of his own time by his experiments in parochial organization.  His parish contained about 11,000 people, and of these about one-third (about 3,700) were unconnected with any church.  He diagnosed this evil as being due to several shortages: personal influence; spiritual oversight; and the lack in the number of parochial organizations, which had not kept pace in the city – as they had done in rural parishes, with the growing population.  He declared that twenty new churches, with parishes, should be erected in Glasgow, and he set to work to revivify, remodel and extend the old parochial economy of Scotland.

The town council consented to build one new church, attaching to it a parish of 10,000 people, mostly weavers, laborers and factory workers, and this church was offered to Dr. Chalmers that he might have a fair opportunity of testing his system.  In September 1819 he became minister of the church and parish of St John, where of 2,000 families more than 800 had no connection with any Christian church.  He first addressed himself to providing schools for the children.  Two school-houses with four teachers were established, where 700 children were taught at the moderate fees of 20 to 30 cents per quarter (which would be $2.50 to $3.60 per quarter today).  Between 40 and 50 local Sabbath schools were opened, where more than 1,000 children were taught the elements of secular and religious education.  The parish was divided into 25 districts embracing from 60 to 100 families, over each of which an elder and a deacon were placed, the former taking oversight of their spiritual, the latter of their physical needs.

Chalmers was the mainspring of the whole system, not merely superintending the visitation, but personally visiting all the families, and holding evening meetings, when he addressed those whom he had visited.  This parochial machinery enabled him to make a singularly successful experiment in dealing with the problem of poverty.  The English method of compulsory assessment (taxation to help the needy) was rapidly spreading.  Chalmers believed that compulsory assessment actually swelled the evil it was intended to mitigate, and that relief should instead be raised and administered by voluntary means. His critics replied that this was impossible in large cities. When he undertook the management of the parish of St John’s, the poor of the parish cost the city $2,600 per annum (about $31,300 today), and in four years, by the adoption of his method, the pauper expenditure was reduced to $534 per annum (about $6,450 today). The investigation of all new applications for relief was committed to the deacon of the district, and every effort was made to enable the poor to help themselves. When once the system was in operation it was found that a deacon, by spending an hour a week among the families committed to his charge, could keep himself acquainted with their character and condition.

Amazing, profound and deeply instructive to our current situation!

Among the ideas communicated by this account, I want to highlight two.  Firstly, as I said before, we do not seek to legislatively destroy the structures which exist, but function outside of the principles of Scripture.  Instead, as the account depicted, we act in accord with the principles of Scripture and in time bring about a shift in the way a society understands the true functions of God’s visible church.  Secondly, as is depicted by this account, we must have in place deaconal structures which create opportunities for care to be extended by the members of our church to the needy and the afflicted.  If these structures do not exist, then the care we extend will usually be passive and occasional instead of consistently deliberate and organized.

A fifth barrier to extending care to the needy and afflicted is impatience.  The results of caring for the needy and afflicted will often be long-term.  It will be easy to lose heart if for no other reason that our cultural standard of results now!  The work of God through His church is on a time table much longer than any one person’s life.  So, therefore, the individualistic focus of modern life makes it difficult for us to view ourselves as part of something bigger, and greater, and more long-term than ourselves and our lives.  To cause a shift in the structures of a society as I have described above will probably take two or three generations.  Are you willing to embark on such a great journey?  Not only are we members of Christ’s body, we are part of a very long history of the story of the redemption of a people.  The length of which is, in part, due to the patience of God, who does not want any to perish but for all to come to repentance.  We do not primarily reach out to the needy and afflicted to get results.  We do so because we have been called to it, knowing that God has promised to do His good work.

The barriers identified so far can fit into the categories of the world and the flesh.  The sixth and final category of obstruction to extending care to the needy and the afflicted is the Devil.  Satan works to disturb the ministry of the church to the needy.  And besides the loss of preaching a biblical understanding of the gospel, what greater loss could the church suffer than the loss of our understanding of the call to minister to the needy?  The church must be actively:  gathering for worship, studying God’s word, reaching out to the needy and afflicted, and praying for those both within and outside of the church.

Made in God’s Image, Understanding Human Activity in God’s World

Part 9 of 11

I have used the term ‘needy’ many, many times during the previous eight posts.  I have talked about God’s disposition toward the needy, and the call upon us to care for them.  I have explored with you the ontology and attributes of God and His holy acts.  And we have looked at the real effect of second causes as God continuously brings about His providential will.  We have just three posts left.  As we finish up with these, I will come to the point of application:  where we apply the principles we have learned in practical ways concerning caring for the needy.  In the following three , we shall look at four subjects:  the imperatives given by Scripture concerning care for the needy, promises of deliverance as God acts on the behalf of the needy, how the wicked treat the needy, and finally, how the godly treat the needy.  Let us consider the first:  the imperatives given by Scripture concerning care for the needy.  But before we do this it will be helpful to answer a question basic to this issue:  who and where are the needy?

Who are the needy?  Or, said another way:  what conditions are present in a person’s life to put them in the group of the needy?  Throughout the Scriptures at least twelve categories of need are spoken of; these are:  the fatherless, the widow, the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the broken hearted, the imprisoned, the naked – or those subject to physical exposure, the sick, the oppressed, the alien, and the weak.  Some verses refer to the needy as destitute, which can be understood as not possessing something desired, such as food or clothing.  Other verses refer to the needy as afflicted, which can be understood as possessing something not desired, such as oppression or alienation. 

Where are the needy?  There are needy ones within and without the visible church, and we are called to care for both.  For example, concerning those within the church, when we read of the judgment of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, Jesus refers to the needy ones as “…one of these brothers of Mine” (Matthew 25:40b) when he commends the righteous for caring for the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick and imprisoned.  Further, when James critiques the so-called faith of the one who sees another in want “…without giving them the things needed for the body…”, he refers to the needy one as “…a brother or sister…” (James 2:15, 16).  We are certainly called to care for the needy brother or sister among us.  As John says in first John chapter three, “…if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him” (I John 3:17)?

Concerning caring for those outside the visible church, the most overt example is the parable of the good Samaritan found in the Gospel according to Luke.  “And behold, a lawyer stood up to put [Jesus] to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’  He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’  And [the lawyer] answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’  And [Jesus] said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.’  But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’  Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.  He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.  And the next day he took out two denariiand gave them to the innkeeper, saying, “Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.”  Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?’  He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise’” (Luke 10:25-37).

So this parable is given as an answer to the question, who is my neighbor? which was asked of Jesus by the lawyer.  The conversation started when this lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus responded by asking the lawyer, “What is written in the law?  How do you read it?”  And the lawyer correctly answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  So once the lawyer goes on to ask, “who is my neighbor,” Jesus responds by telling this parable of the good Samaritan.  Please notice the response of the three men.  The priest and the Levite see the injured man – the afflicted man – and avoid him.  However, the Samaritan, when he sees him, is moved with compassion.  When you see someone in need, are you moved with compassion?  If you are not, ask the Lord to help you.  Ask Him to help you show mercy to the poor as He has shown mercy to you:  one who was bankrupt spiritually and has received God’s mercy.  Our response to the needy must be compassionate.  Further, the Samaritan goes to him, and cares for him.  He takes care of his wounds, puts him on his own donkey and takes him to an inn.  Finally, he returns the next day and gives money to the innkeeper to provide for the care of the injured man; stating that “…whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.”  So also we must act on behalf of the needy and alleviate their condition of distress.  And this will oftentimes include the use of the resources God has given to us.

So who are we called to love?  Who is our neighbor?  Whom shall we help when they are in need?  We find from this parable that our neighbor is anyone with whom we come in contact.  We are called to love all those with whom we come in contact and this includes helping the needy among them, whether “Jew or Gentile,” whether they are within or outside of our church.

Now there have been times while preparing for these posts, and as I have thought about it through the days, that I wondered how I could convince you that we are called to help the needy.  Thinking that I must prove that the call exists through some complex set of logical syllogisms based upon a few hints from Scripture.  However, I realized that this is not the case.  The Scriptures are filled with calls to help the needy; it is an obvious theme of God’s word.  It is no more difficult to show from Holy Scripture that we are called to help the needy than it is to show that we shall have no other gods before the Holy One of Israel, or that we shall not commit adultery.  Please consider what the Scriptures command concerning treatment of the needy.  With each set of verses, consider what imperative is being given to you as members of the body of Christ.  Also, consider whether those within or outside the visible church are being identified.

Exodus 23:6:  “You shall not pervert the justice due to your needy brother in his dispute.” What is the imperative?  Do not pervert justice.  And the recipient?  Our brother.

Exodus 23:11:  “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat…” Leviticus 19:10:  “Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger.” Leviticus 23:22:  “When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien.” What do you see as the imperative in these three verses?  Leave some of the yield of your crop in the field.  How could this be applied to us, most of whom do not have fields or crops?  For us it means that we set aside some of our resources for the needy.  And who is the recipient in these verses?  The poor of your people, the needy and the alien (or stranger).

Deuteronomy 15:11:  “For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’” The imperative and the recipient?  Freely open your hand to your needy and poor bother.

Deuteronomy 24:14:  “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens…” The imperative:  do not oppress the poor or needy servant; the recipient:  countryman or alien

Proverbs 31:9:  “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” The Imperative and recipient?  Defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.

Matthew 6:2:  “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.  So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men; truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.  But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” What imperative is given by Jesus?  When you give to the poor do not do it to be noticed by others, but do it in private.  And please notice Jesus says “when” you give to the poor, not “if” you give to the poor.  And the recipient?  The poor.

Luke 12:32-34:  “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.  Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” What imperative is given by Jesus?  That we sell our possessions and give to the needy.  Does he mean that we must sell all of our possessions?  I don’t think so.  What Jesus is instructing us here is that we must not store up treasure for ourselves here on earth but in heaven.  We need not have more than we need, for one day we will, with Christ, inherit all things.  Concerning having more than we need, most of us fit into that category.  Let us be diligent to order our lives by the standards of Scripture and not the norms of our culture.  And the recipients of this charity?  The needy.  Consider Acts 4:34:  “For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales.”

In some of the verses we read the recipients are the poor and the needy within the nation of Israel, which can be understood as within the boundaries of the visible church.  In others, the recipients are those outside of the boundaries of the church.  In both cases we are acting as God’s agents for the alleviation of the effects of sin in this fallen world.  When we care for the needy among us, we not only show charity to our brothers and sisters, but we testify to the world, as they see the care we extend, about the great love of God.  When we reach outside the boundaries of the visible church and care for the needs of the stranger, we act as the hands of God to them.  This reaching out also testifies to the alien and the stranger about the great love of God.  This reaching out will provide many opportunities for Gospel preaching. 

So why do we not actively reach out to the needy?  There are probably many reasons.  Among them is that reaching out to the needy is not part of the current culture of the church in this country.  There have been times in history when proactive care for the needy has characterized the churches of a region.  Let us not be conformed to our culture where the norms of the culture do not reflect what Holy Scripture teaches us concerning what God’s church should be about.  We must not let the activities of para-church organizations or the obtrusive involvement of state and federal governments excuse us from the overt command of Scripture to love our brother, our neighbor, our enemy and the alien among us.  Another reason among those which lead us to not reach out to the needy is our own weakness and tendency toward sin.  Let us not be hearers of the word only, who deceive ourselves, but doers of the word (James 1:22), bearing much fruit, and so proving to be His disciples (John15:8).  Let us not be guilty attending church gatherings, and tithing, and singing Psalms, and hearing the Word preached, while neglecting the weightier provisions of the law:  justice and mercy and faithfulness; for these are the things you should do without neglecting the others (Matthew 23:23).  So what am I saying?  I am calling us to repentance.  It is for our benefit and growth that we often be called to repentance.  That we cry out to the Lord:  “Search me, O God, and know my heart!  Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23,24)

Made in God’s Image, Understanding Human Activity in God’s World

Part 8 of 11

Before introducing any new material, I think it will be helpful to review what we have covered so far and highlight some of the topics.  In the following posts I will be narrowing down in subject and placing more emphasis upon our call to care for the needy and the afflicted.

I hope that the title, Made in God’s Image:  Building a Biblical Framework for Human Activity, is taking on a greater meaning to you.  Also I hope that I am approaching the goal of this class, which is to motivate Christians to take an active role as parts of the body of Christ, and specifically, to motivate Christians to consistently and proactively reach out to those in need.

In the first post we discussed three main topics:  God’s disposition toward the needy, God’s disposition toward us concerning how we deal with – or don’t deal with – the needy, and what the exercise of pure religion includes.  I asked:  What is God’s disposition toward the needy?  A collection of verses from the Psalms tells us that:  God will place the needy and afflicted in the safety for which they long (Psalm 12:5).  He will deliver them from the one too strong, and from the one who robs him (Psalm 35:10).  He will hear them (Psalm 69:33).  God will defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor (Psalm 72:4).  “For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper.  He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.  From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight” (Psalm 72:12-14).

I asked during the first post:  What is God’s disposition toward us concerning how we deal with – or don’t deal with – the needy?  Two verses from Proverbs sum up the answer well:  Proverbs 19:17 says:  “One who is gracious to a poor man lends to the Lord, and the Lord will repay him for his good deed.”  And Proverbs 21:13 says:  “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered.”  So for the man who is gracious to the needy:  blessing.  For the man who neglects the needy:  the terrifying curse of being ignored by God Himself.  And you can see the close association of these proverbs with the account of the judgment of the sheep and the goats in Matthew chapter 25, verses 31-46.

So God will hear, and defend, and deliver the needy; and He will do it through the activities of His people.  We can see throughout Scripture the call to care for the needy and the afflicted.  We read of God being pleased with those who reach out to the afflicted.  Conversely, some of the most aggressive words and acts of judgment are related in part to the neglect of the needy.  For example, we read in Ezekiel 16 that one of the root causes for the detestable actions of those living in the city of Sodom which eventually led to the destruction of the city was that they had “…excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49b).

Also during post one, we looked at some verses from the book of James.  Among those verses we read was James 1:27 which says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”  Pure religion is active religion:  it is the putting off of the old man – the shunning of evil desires which bring corruption, and the putting on of the new, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).  From these words of James we are not given a list of all aspects of our Christian religion, but a product of true religion:  the result of the multiple disciplines present in our pursuit of godliness.  Can the type of faith that does not bring about works of righteousness save you?  Surly not.  The type of faith that saves is the same type of faith that brings about godliness – it must, for saving faith has God as its founder and perfecter (Hebrews 12:2).  “Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass” (I Thessalonians 5:24).

Remember the words of John Murray:  “To divorce faith and assurance of faith from faithfulness to our covenant responsibilities is to be guilty of an abstraction which does not exist in God’s arrangements.  And faith exercised in such abstraction is not the faith of God’s elect but the presumption that will at the end receive the rebuke of disillusionment:  ‘I tell you, I do not know where you are from; Depart from Me, all you evildoers’ (Luke 13:27).”

During the second post, I tackled the sovereignty of God, responsibility of man paradox.  The paradox was illustrated by looking at two verses from Scripture.  The first was from the book of Joshua and it includes a call to choose whom you will serve:  God or idols.  The second was from the Gospel of John where Christ states that we did not choose Him but that He chose us.  I included this subject in the material of that post with a chief purpose in mind:  that we always begin and end with Scripture, even when the subject at hand does not make complete sense to us.  We are finite creatures with limited minds and limited abilities of observation.  We begin and end with the positive inscripturated revelation of God.  We do not begin with philosophy or speculations or theories or dreams or the mutterings of some supposed wise man.  We do not begin with what we see or are predisposed to think.  We do not accept man’s theories concerning God or the world or ourselves – and there are so many out there for the choosing – without evaluating them in the light of God’s Word.  We begin with Holy Scripture and form our understanding of all things based upon what God has revealed to us.  We begin with Scripture when we consider the heavens and the earth; where they came from and where they are going.  We begin with Scripture when we consider ourselves and we certainly begin with Scripture when we consider God and his attributes.  Remember this:  Not only is the circular boundary of human knowledge set by God, but the revealed things – those things inside that circular boundary – are revealed by Him; they are perceived by creatures bearing His image, and they are apprehended in accord with His will.  “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10).

During post three I continued to speak about the Sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.  What we have been given in Scripture allows us to sketch, at best, the relationship of these two realities.  There are points of clarity revealed to us that we can state with certainty, but we cannot paint the whole picture of reality.  We know that God is sovereign; that He is free to act as He chooses and that all events come about in accord with His will.  We also know that each individual person will be held accountable for his or her actions.  In other words, we also have a freedom to act.  However, our freedom is limited and can be likened to having just enough rope to hang ourselves.  Man is free to act, but due to our depravity, we act in sin.  It is only through submission to the will of God – and that only through the replacement of our heart of stone with one of flesh, and the renewal of our mind – that we are able to use the will God gave us for His glory.  Remember the words of Paul in Romans chapter 12:  “I appeal to you therefore, brothers,by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1, 2).

So we affirm the sovereignty of God in opposition to the tenants of Arminianism, and in opposition to a large portion of modern thought, which posits a freedom for man which Scripture does not.  We affirm the responsibility of man, in opposition to fatalism, which fails to affirm the image-bearing nature of mankind concerning the endowment of a will, and ultimately makes God to be the author of sin and evil.  As I sated in post two concerning the proclamation of the gospel:  The fact that there is truly human responsibility gives meaning to the call for repentance.  The fact that God is sovereign allows us to rely upon Him as we proclaim the gospel:  knowing that as we plant and cultivate and water, it is God who brings about the growth (I Corinthians 3:6-8).

In the fourth post I introduced and discussed an equation equating right belief with a godly life.  We critiqued this equation, stating that to reduce the equation to this point is to make an error.  And this error is at least partially based upon the idea that we are neutral and – much like a computer – will behave according to the program entered.  We are not neutral.  We require not only the right information:  that which comes to us through the Scriptures, and the illumination of the Holy Spirit to understand it – but we are also destitute of mind and will, and in desperate need of God’s regenerating and sustaining power.  Among the most right-believing beings in existence are the demons:  They believe there is one God and shudder in fear (James 2:19).  So, as we noted in posts four and five, to the left side of the equation must be added redemption – the redemption accomplished by God through the activity of His Son, and applied by the Holy Spirit to those whom God has called, admonishment, exhortation, prayer, reminder, and correction.  Consider the words of the apostle Peter in I Peter chapter two, “May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.  His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us tohis own glory and excellence,by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.  For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue,and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.  For if these qualitiesare yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.  Therefore, brothers,be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.  For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have.  I think it right, as long as I am in this body,to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me.  And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things” (I Peter 2:2-15).

To be reminded continually of what God has done in His merciful acts of redemption, and to often be called to set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts, is critical to our growth as Christians.  Equally critical is that our knowledge of God, the world, and ourselves be based upon His word:  for it is not good to have zeal without knowledge (Proverbs 19:2a).

During posts five and six we examined the nature of God:  the execution of His decrees through creation and providence, the decretive, preceptive and dispositional aspects of his will, and the preserving and governing aspects of his providence.  As I wrote in post six:  Concerning creation, we will often think primarily of the creation of the universe including this world in which we live.  But God also continues to create.  Remember the words from Psalm 104 verse 30:  “When you send forth your Spirit,they are created…”  God created the heavenly beings, He created the world and all that dwells upon it, and He continues to send forth His Spirit to bring about life. 

As I also stated in post six, God continually preserves and sustains all that He has made.  In Nehemiah chapter nine God’s acts are spoken of in this way, “You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you” (Nehemiah 9:6).  We hear similar words in Paul’s letter to the Colossians speaking of Jesus Christ.  “For byhim all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” Colossians (1:15-17).

I also affirmed again the sovereign governance of God over all that He has created.  God exercises His government or rule over nature – for Christ says that God, “…makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45), over the animal world – for the Psalmist says, “The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God” (Psalm 104:21), over nations – for God “…rules in His might forever [and His] eyes keep watch on the nations” (Psalm 66:7), and over individuals – for God “…does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth” (Daniel 4:35).

Finally, in the seventh post, we began to consider the place for and impact of second causes as they work to bring about God’s will.  We had previously learned that the Scriptures speak of God’s will in its different aspects.  Firstly, there is God’s decretive will, which, like an umbrella, covers over all that has and will come to pass, from and through all eternity.  Second, there is God’s preceptive will, which refers to what God has revealed to us in the form of precepts.  He has shown us what is good and has told us what He requires of us:  that we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with Him (Micah 6:8).  Thirdly, there is God’s dispositional will.  As I stated in post five, God’s will of disposition is more descriptive of God’s character than His activity.  Peter says in verse nine of second Peter chapter three:  “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (II Peter 3:9).  It is God’s disposition that none should perish; and He takes no delight in the destruction of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11).  Consider the words of Jeremiah 9:24, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.’”

So when the agents of God act as secondary causes – and I am speaking here specifically of God’s special image-bearing creation:  His people – they always bring about God’s decretive will, they may or may not be in agreement with God’s precepts, and they may or may not be pleasing to Him.  We affirm that secondary causes are real causes and not mere puppetry.  God has chosen to use the activities of His people and the activities of all people to bring about His will.  Based upon our understanding of God, we cannot think that He does so because of a need for help, any more than we could think that God created male and female in His image because He was lonely and in need of companionship.  God, in His infinite wisdom and grace, has been pleased to involve us in the bringing about of His plans and purposes.  He works through our hands as we reach out to those in need; he works through our mouths as we proclaim the Gospel of God, and speak words of comfort and healing to the brokenhearted; he works through our prayers as we cry out to Him for help, and mercy, and forgiveness.  As we make our requests known to Him on behalf of others – that the unsaved would be made alive and that the children of God would grow in grace, and as we request that His perfect will be done here as it is in Heaven.

Made in God’s Image, Understanding Human Activity in God’s World

Part 7 of 11

It is not congruent with God’s will of disposition that one beast feed upon another, or that a beast falls upon a man resulting in his injury or death.  It did not fit within God’s dispositional will that a stingray take the life of The Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin.  When the beasts of the animal kingdom behave as they do, as they carry out God’s decretive will, we do not think of them as breaking God’s precepts when they do terrible things to one another and to man, for animals are not made in the image of God.  They are following their strongest inclinations as part of fallen creation under the curse of corruption.  And we know that “…the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:19-22).  We have a glimpse into the future hope of God’s creation in the descriptions of Isaiah when he says, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (Isaiah 11:6, 7).  The creation will one day be recreated and then righteousness will reign on the earth.

When we speak about God’s preceptive will, we are not addressing God’s will with respect to the creation or the animal world, but we are speaking of God’s special revelation of His precepts to God’s special creation in His people – those to whom was given the very image of God Himself:  mankind, male and female.

The realm of precept-keeping human agency is a realm of glory and blessing.  The ultimate example of precept-keeping human agency is Jesus Christ himself.  Touching His human nature, Jesus obeyed the precepts of God every moment of His life.  From His childhood days of obeying His father’s and mother’s instruction to the times of His suffering, as He fulfilled the eternal plan of His father in heaven through the buying back of those given Him by the father; those under the tyranny of sin and under the rule of Satan.  Through the obedience of Jesus the penalty for disobedience – the wrath of God toward godlessness – was paid.  Christ is the propitiation for our sins.  “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

The realm of precept-breaking human agency is a realm of sin, shame and curse.  A primary example of precept-breaking human agency is Judas Iscariot – a devil (John 6:70) who, after eating bread with Jesus as a close friend, raised up his heel against him (Psalm 41:9).  And although through the agency of Judas and other wicked men, the Lord of Glory was scourged and crucified by the eternal plan of God (Acts 2:23), Judas is still considered as to have been better off had he never been born (Matthew 26:24).

The line of history is populated by those who did as God has commanded and by those who did not.  When we gaze back along the line of history through the text of Holy Scripture, we see both.  We see righteous Able bringing the best of his goods to the Lord (Genesis 4:4; Hebrews 11:4) and we see wicked Cain slaying his brother in anger (Genesis 4:5-8).  We see Elijah, the one who was taken to heaven in a chariot (II Kings 2:11) – one who slayed 450 prophets of Baal (I Kings 18), and we see the stoning of Zechariah by the hands of the wicked priests in the court of the house of the Lord (II Chronicles 24:20,21) upon confronting them with their idolatry.

Therefore, whether we consider Jesus or Judas, Able or Cain, Elijah or the idolatrous priests of Jerusalem, we know that they are all fulfilling the decretive will of God and they are carrying out what God has foreordained since before the creation of the world.  Yet at the same time, in each case God’s precepts are either obeyed or broken, and as a result blessing or curse is visited upon them.  In judgment it is not only taken into account what men have been able to do – which surly comes about because it is part of God’s decretive will – but what man has intended to do.  God does not only consider what we have done but also the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts.  Judas was able to deliver his Lord over because of the plan of God, yet the intent of Judas was to deceive and betray; thereupon is the guilt fixed.  Please consider the words of John Calvin and Augustine on the same subject:  “’Who does not tremble at these judgments, where God works even in evil men’s hearts whatever he wills, yet renders to them according to their deserts?’  And surly in Judas’ betrayal it will be no more right, because God Himself both willed that His Son be delivered up and delivered Him up to death, to ascribe the guilt of the crime to God than to transfer the credit for redemption to Judas.  Therefore [Augustine] correctly points out elsewhere that in this examination God does not inquire into what men have been able to do, or what they have done, but what they have willed to do, so that purpose and will may be taken into account” (Institutes, I.XVIII.4).

What was God’s intent in delivering up His son?  “[Jesus our Lord] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).  The intent of God in delivering up His Son was to save His people from their sins.(Matthew 1:21).

What was Judas’ intent in delivering up his master?  The intent of Judas was evil, for he certainly had another god before the God of Israel:  the god of self-interest.  In delivering up his Lord he at least broke the first commandment:  “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3).

At times during the study of the material I am presenting to you, I have wondered:  If God’s will is determitive with respect to all things, how does another will function beneath or inside of God’s plan?  Part of the answer can be found in the relationship of the members of the godhead as they relate to one another.  Question nine of the Larger Catechism asks:  “How many persons are there in the Godhead?” and answers, “There be three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one true, eternal God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory; although distinguished by their personal properties” (1 John 5:7, Matt. 3:16–17, Matt. 28:19, 2 Cor. 13:14, John 10:30).  When the catechism mentions personal properties, it is addressing how the members of the godhead relate to one another.  Question number ten reads:  “What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead?” and answers, “It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, (Heb. 1:5–6, 8) and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, (John 1:14, 18) and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity” (John 15:26, Gal. 4:6).

Therefore we can hear in some of the statements of Jesus how His will related to His Father’s.  In John 6:38 Jesus says:  “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”  Also in Luke 22:42 Jesus prays:  “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.”  The perfect life of Christ was lived in submission to His Father’s will and His love for the Father was shown as He did exactly what His Father commanded (John 14:31).   In the same way the Holy Spirit is said to “…not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak” (John 16:13); and that “…He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that [Christ has said]” (John 14:26).  The perfect relationship of the members of the godhead is typified by submission to the will of the Father.

In the same way, precept-keeping human agency is typified by submission to the will of God.  Please consider some verses from Matthew chapter six; here Jesus answers the request of the disciples to teach them how to pray.  “Pray then like this:  ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread,and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’” (Matthew 6:9-13).  Among the requests made is that the Lord’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  This is a request that the precepts of God be obeyed here as they are in the heavenly places where Christ sits at the right hand of the Father (Mark 16:19, Hebrews 1:3; 10:12; 12:2).  We also find in this prayer the request for daily bread, which highlights the sovereignty of God over all things, including giving us our daily food.

A final category I will touch on concerning God’s use of precept-keeping human agency is the preaching of the gospel and the teaching of His word to children.  First – concerning the preaching of the gospel, please consider Romans chapter ten.  “For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’  For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.  For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’  But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent?  As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’  But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:11-17).

The logical progression moves from:  sending the preacher to preaching the gospel to hearing the Word to believing in Christ, resulting in salvation.  God has chosen to work though the preaching of His gospel, through human agency, to bring people to Himself.  And we cannot think, based upon what Scripture teaches us about God, that He does so because of a need for help, any more than we should think that God created male and female in His image because He was lonely.  God has chosen to work through human agency to bring about the proclamation of His Gospel.  Indeed, the fate of one man’s soul is dependent upon another’s voice.  And while saying this we affirm that while we plant and water as we preach, the Lord makes the seed of faith sprout and grow (I Corinthians 3:5-9).

Second – concerning the teaching of His word to our children, please consider Deuteronomy chapter six.  “Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the LORD your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long.  Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.  Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you – with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant – and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  It is the LORD your God you shall fear” (Deuteronomy 6:1-13a).

Here is highlighted the critical importance of diligently teaching children about the Lord:  who He is and what He has done.  This teaching will occur at all times:  when we are in our houses, when we lie down, when we get up, and when we travel; not only do they hear our words but our children are watching us and learning how they shall live.  We must give them an identity based upon who they are as part of God’s visible church, all the time praying that God will make them His.  This training in righteousness flows from the righteous lives of the parents.  Indeed, “the righteous [one] who walks in his integrity – blessed are his children after him” (Proverbs 20:7)!  And finally a promise:  “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

So through the agency of the preacher, God saves souls, and through the agency of parents, God trains up His little ones to praise Him.  What a blessing that God has chosen to work in this way:  that He involves us in the unfolding of His will.  Please consider the words of Psalm 119 in closing:  “You are my portion, O LORD; I have said that I would keep Your words.  I entreated Your favor with my whole heart; be merciful to me according to Your word.  I thought about my ways, and turned my feet to Your testimonies.  I made haste, and did not delay to keep Your commandments.  The cords of the wicked have bound me, but I have not forgotten Your law.  At midnight I will rise to give thanks to You, because of Your righteous judgments.  I am a companion of all who fear You, and of those who keep Your precepts.  The earth, O LORD, is full of Your mercy; teach me Your statutes” (Psalm 119:54-67).

Made in God’s Image, Understanding Human Activity in God’s World

Part 6 of 11

I know that some of the concepts I bring up during these posts are difficult to understand.  And it is good for me to be reminded, that while I have been digesting these ideas for weeks and months, you may just be coming into contact with them.  Some of the things we talked about last post are difficult to tackle…so we will tackle them again.  I know you were hoping for that…

Shown below, in chart form, those same categories I introduced last week:  decretive, preceptive and dispositional – relating to God’s will – and conservatio, concursus, and gubernatio – relating to God’s providence.  I have placed conservatio and concursus under the heading of preservation and have placed a question mark next to concursus – I will explain the purpose of those changes in a little while.  It is important that you understand what is meant by God’s decretive will – which I have placed at the top of the chart (we can use the terms “decrees” and “decretive will” interchangeably); His acts of creation and providence – which are two subcategories of His decretive will, His providential activities of preserving and governing His creation, and the subcategories of His will:  His preceptive will, and His will of disposition.

As I thought about the way I explained the three categories of God’s providence:  conservatio, concursus and gubernatio, it could have been misunderstood that I was implying, for example, that conservatio had to do with God’s agreeing with the existence of an item, in that order – implying that the item existed first and then God agreed with its existence, and that is certainly backwards.  A better way to define conservatio is this:  a thing will continue to exist as long as its existence is in agreement with God’s providential will.  Further, a better definition of concursus is that a thing will continue to have the power to effect change – the potential to be a secondary cause – as long as it is in agreement with God’s providential will.  And finally, a better definition of gubernatio is that a thing will actually effect a change – to be a secondary cause – as long as that change is in agreement with God’s providential will.  I used the example of dynamite last week to explain these three.  So again, God’s providential conservatio allows the ingredients of dynamite to remain in existence, His providential concursus allows dynamite to have a power to effect change, and His providential gubernatio allows the power of the dynamite to move a boulder.

As pointed out before, I have grouped conservatio and concursus under the heading of preservation.  In Nehemiah chapter nine God’s acts are spoken of in this way:  “You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you” (Nehemiah 9:6).  We hear similar words in Paul’s letter to the Colossians speaking of Jesus Christ.  “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16, 17).  God truly sustains all things by his mighty right hand.

Why did I put a question mark next to concursus?  Because the concept of concursus is a theory concerning the mode in which God interfaces with the powers He has given to created things.  The theory of concursus, which was developed during the 16th century, is an attempt to explain how secondary causes, brought about by created things, which have been given a latent power by God, interact with God as the primary of first cause.  In other words, it is an attempt to explain what Charles Hodge calls “the inexplicable.”  As Charles Hodge also says:  “The fact is clearly revealed that God’s agency is always and everywhere exercised in the preservation of his creatures, but the mode in which His efficiency [power to act] is exerted, further than that it is consistent with the nature of the creatures themselves and with the holiness and goodness of God, is unrevealed and inscrutable.  It is best, therefore, to rest satisfied with the simple statement that preservation is that omnipotent energy of God by which all created things, animate and inanimate, are upheld in existence, with all the properties and powers with which He has endowed them.”

Concerning God’s gubernatio – His governing of all things – we can affirm that God exercises His government or rule over nature – for Christ says that God “…makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45b), over the animal world – for the Psalmist says:  “The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God” (Psalm 104:21), over nations – for God “…rules in His might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations” (Psalm 66:7), and over individuals – for God “…does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth” (Daniel 4:35).  Job affirms the awesome power of God as God works in all He has created; consider these words:  “Behold, God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable.  For he draws up the drops of water; they distill his mist in rain, which the skies pour down and drop on mankind abundantly.  Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds, the thunderings of his pavilion?  Behold, he scatters his lightning about him and covers the roots of the sea.  For by these he judges peoples; he gives food in abundance.  He covers his hands with the lightning and commands it to strike the mark.  Its crashing declares his presence;the cattle also declare that he rises” (Job 36:26-33).  And Hannah, the mother of Samuel, affirms, in her prayer to the Lord, upon being given a son after many years of barrenness, that “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.  The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts.  He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.  For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world” (I Samuel 2:6-8).  The logic of Hannah’s prayer is that the Lord kills and brings to life – He exercises his providence – because He has set the world on it pillars – because He has created.

I also want to return to the categories of God’s will and add some further definition for clarification.  As I said last post, God’s decrees, or decretive will includes creation and providence.  The Westminster Larger Catechism answers question 12: “What are the decrees of God?” this way:  “God’s decrees are the wise, free, and holy acts of the counsel of his will, (Eph. 1:11, Rom. 11:33, Rom. 9:14–15,18) whereby, from all eternity, he hath, for his own glory, unchangeably foreordained whatsoever comes to pass in time, (Eph. 1:4,11, Rom. 9:22–23, Ps. 33:11) especially concerning angels and men” (Question 12).

As I stated in the last post, God’s decretive will is carried out in His acts of creation and providence – which is addressed in question 14 of the Westminster Larger Catechism.  Concerning creation, we will often think primarily of the creation of the universe including this world in which we live.  But God also continues to create in the gifts of newborn children.  Remember the words from Psalm 104 verse 30:  “When you send forth your Spirit,they are created…”  God created the heavenly beings, He created the world and all that dwells upon it, and He continues to send forth His Spirit to bring about life.

I also stated last post that the majority of God’s decretive will is secret and that the portion of His will which we can know is that portion called prophecy.  Well, that is true, but there is one other, a little thing called history!  History is an unfolding of God’s will, and all that has come to pass has done so because of His providence.  As we look back upon history, we are seeing the revelation of God’s will, which was, except for those events prophesied, hidden beforehand.

For example, the coming of the Messiah and the effective power of His redemptive work, and the opening up of the gospel to the Gentiles, were told of centuries before but are referred to as mysteries.  The “…good news of a great joy…” (Luke 2:6) that Emmanuel was coming was prophesied before Christ’s birth, told of in the Gospels, and explained in the Epistles.  The prophet Micah speaks of Bethlehem being the birthplace of Israel’s king:  “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.  His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity” (Micah 5:2).  Isaiah speaks of a coming ruler who will reign forever on the throne of David:  “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder.  And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this” (Isaiah 9:6, 7).

Concerning the idea of revealed mystery, consider the words of Paul in Romans chapter 16:  “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:25, 26).  We know that the promise of the coming Messiah had been prophesied as far back as the statement of Genesis chapter three when God said to Satan concerning the Messiah:  “…he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15).  However, many of the statements of the Old Testament were not fully understood until the arrival of Jesus.  His statements recorded for us in the Gospels and the statements of the writers of the other books of the New Testament explain what was beforehand shrouded in mystery; those portions of God’s decretive will which were revealed through prophecy, but not fully understood.

Consider the words of Ephesians chapter one:  “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:7-10).

Also consider the words of Colossians chapter one:  “…I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.  To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:25-27).  So we can see that portions of God’s providential will are revealed through prophecy and the unfolding of history.

An important truth that I want you to take from this teaching is that all the events of history, and all the events of the future, are under God’s control.  Nothing has come to pass, nor will come to pass, which is outside of His providence.  If we entertain the possibility of an event occurring outside of God’s control then we have compromised what Holy Scripture teaches us about Him.  Either God is sovereign over all that He has created or He is not, and if He is not sovereign over all things, then He is not God.

With all of this being said, can anything or anyone disobey God’s will?  If we are speaking of God’s decretive will, the answer is no.  Indeed with respect to God’s decrees, there is really no question of obedience or disobedience.  God has foreordained all that comes to pass.  If we are speaking of God’s preceptive will, then the answer is yes, and the act of disobedience is called sin.  We can disobey His precepts, but we cannot act outside of His decrees.  As we address the subject of God’s preceptive will next week, we shall discuss precept-keeping and precept-breaking human agency.

Made in God’s Image, Understanding Human Activity in God’s World

Part 5 of 11

In the previous post I mentioned the equation equating right belief with godly life.  We critiqued this equation, stating that to reduce the equation to this point is to make an error.  Among the most right-believing persons existing are the demons:  They believe there is one God and shudder in fear (James 2:19).  So, to the left side of the equation must be added some additional factors.  Primary to all factors is redemption:  the redemption accomplished by God through the activity of His Son, and applied by the Holy Spirit to those whom God has called.  Other factors such as admonishment, exhortation, prayer, reminder, and correction play a vital role in our sanctification.  In the first post, and in part four, I used the time for admonishment, exhortation, reminder and correction.  To hear what God requires of us is critical to our growth as Christians.  Right belief is equally critical:  it is not good to have zeal without knowledge (Proverbs 19:2a).  So for the next few posts we are going to focus in on right-belief type information as we continue to build a biblical framework for human activity.

During part three, I mentioned the apparent Sovereignty of God / Responsibility of Man paradox.  Under each category were collected some verses which addressed those subjects as well as some verses that I referred to as plural:  they addressed both categories.  I warned of the error of libertarianism, which is the loss of a proper understanding of God’s sovereign control of all things and a misunderstanding of the freedom of the human will.  This error is labeled libertarianism because it posits a liberty for man that does not exist; a suggested liberty that man can operate outside of the providential will of God; a liberty that makes man sovereign and God the dependent one who must react to the events of history.  I also warned of misunderstanding the nature of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility by removing from man the culpability for sin and, in turn, making God responsible for evil.  This error I labeled as necessatarianism – meaning that all events simply flow from the necessity of being part of God’s will.  This error degrades the nature of the covenant relationship which exists between God and man and ignores that man is, by creation, an image-bearer of God.  Also, necessatarianism discredits the effect of secondary causes, which is in direct contradiction with Holy Scripture.  “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28b) being the primary example of God’s call for, and validation of, secondary causes.

It will be helpful for us to spend some time discussing the nature of God; or, more accurately stated:  that portion of the nature of God that He has revealed to us.  Primary to this discussion is the statement of Deuteronomy 6:4:  “Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”  So we begin with monotheism:  there is only one God.  The character of God, or more simply stated:  “What is God?” is detailed well by question seven of the Westminster Larger Catechism:   “God is a Spirit, (John 4:24) in and of Himself infinite in being, (Exod. 3:14, Job 11:7–9) glory, (Acts 7:2) blessedness, (1 Tim. 6:15) and perfection; (Matt. 5:48) all-sufficient, (Gen. 17:1) eternal, (Ps. 90:2) unchangeable, (Mal. 3:6, James 1:17) incomprehensible, (1 Kings 8:27) every where present, (Ps. 139:1–13) almighty, (Rev. 4:8) knowing all things, (Heb. 4:13, Ps. 147:5) most wise, (Rom. 16:27) most holy, (Isa. 6:3, Rev. 15:4) most just, (Deut. 32:4) most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth (Exod. 34:6).

This God, who possesses these attributes, has revealed Himself to exist in three Persons:  the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The question and answer format of the Heidelberg Catechism states:  “Since there is but one Divine Being, (Deut 6:4) why do you speak of three persons:  Father, Son and Holy Ghost?”  It answers:  “Because God has so revealed Himself in His word, (Isa 61:1, Ps 110:1, Matt 3:16,17; 28:19, I John 5:7, II Cor 13:13) that these three distinct persons are the one, true eternal God.”  The difficulty we have with the structure of the God-head is that we have nothing in the realm of created things with which to relate it in order to comprehend it.  We as humans think in an analogous fashion:  when we come upon a new concept, we comprehend it by relating it to something we already know.  For example, when I tell my son that where I work we heat metal until it becomes a liquid and then we pour it into molds, he can relate it to how an ice cube melts when he holds it in his hands, or how the liquid in a Popsicle mold becomes solid in the freezer.

There have been attempts to relate the structure of the God-head to something in the material word, but each falls short of explaining the true nature of it.  For example, an apple is used.  It is said that a whole apple can be thought of as God.  Then the apple is sliced into three pieces.  Each of the pieces is identified with one of the persons of the God-head.  The problem with this object lesson is that each part of the apple is one-third of the whole while each person of the God-head is fully God, not a portion of the divine essence.  “…The divine essence is not divided among [the persons of the God-head] so that each person possesses a third part of it.”  Another attempt is made at explaining the structure of the God-head by using water as an analogy.  It is stated that as water is truly water, whether ice, liquid or steam, it can take on those different forms of existence.  The error of this analogy is commonly referred to as modalism:  God revealing Himself in different modes of existence throughout history as He deems necessary.  Modalism denies the eternal existence of all three persons of the God-head simultaneously.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each eternal in personality, “…they assume objective relations with one another, and they address and love one another.”

This God, whose ontology – or nature and essence – is Trinitarian, is transcendent unto His creation, and thus we deny pantheism, yet is immanent to His creation, thus we deny deism.  Pantheism, literally “all-god”, is the belief that the universe is god and no distinction is made between God and His creation.  A pantheist will usually deny or explain away the existence of evil since no room is left for it if all is god.  A deist believes that God created all things but did not continue to involve Himself in His creation; the god of deism is often referred to as the divine watchmaker:  he made it, wound it up, and ended his involvement.  A deist would deny the inspiration and, therefore, authority of Holy Scripture.  As I said before:  we affirm God’s transcendence and we affirm His immanence.

Relating to God’s transcendence and immanence, we affirm this relationship of God to His creation in the acts of creation and providence.  As Hebrews 11:3 states:  “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”  “By faith we understand”:  it is only through a direct action of God that we have faith and understanding – this highlights His immanence.  “…The universe was created by him”:  a real world was created by God, Who upholds it by His power – this highlights His transcendence.  The Westminster Larger Catechism refers to God’s works of creation and providence as the execution of His decrees.  The question and answer format reads:  “How doth God execute his decrees?  God executes his decrees in the works of creation and providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will (Eph. 1:11)” (Question 14).

It will be helpful for us, as our quest continues for a biblical understanding of the effect of secondary causes, to examine the providence of God.  Primary to the facets of providence is God’s act of sustaining His creation.  By an act of His will, God created from nothing all that has been made.  Also by an act of His will, God sustains or upholds His creation, which would not exist for one moment unless His continues His providential, sustaining power.  This act of providence is referred to as conservatio (in Latin), which means conservation or preserving.  An additional facet of providence is referred to as concursus (again in Latin), from which we get the English word concur.  Concursus has to do not with the sustaining of an object but with its power to work.  I have the power to lift this pen because God concurs, or agrees, that I will be able to.  A third facet of providence is gubernatio, which means direction or government, which He exercises over all created things.  For example, the conservatio of God’s providence allows the ingredients of dynamite to remain in existence, the concursus of God’s providence allows dynamite to have a power, and the gubernatio of God’s providence allows the explosion of dynamite to move boulders.  The Larger Catechism states the acts of God’s providence this way:  “What are God’ s works of providence?  God’ s works of providence are his most holy, (Ps. 145:17) wise, (Ps. 104:24, Isa. 28:29) and powerful preserving (Heb. 1:3) and governing (Ps. 103:19) all His creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, (Matt. 10:29–31, Gen. 45:7) to His own glory (Rom. 11:36, Isa. 63:14)” (Question 18).  So, in summary, we have God’s activities of creation, conservation, agreement and government of all that exists.

Superimposed upon these activities, Scripture identifies three categories which help us understand how God interacts with His creation.  These categories are:  God’s decretive will – referring to His decrees, His preceptive will – referring to His precepts, and His will of disposition; we will look at each of these in turn.

The first category, God’s decretive will, as was stated before, includes His works of creation and providence.  His decretive will includes that which is secret – the majority thereof, and that which is revealed.  The portion of God’s decretive will which is revealed before the event occurs is referred to as prophecy.  Included in God’s decretive will is His freedom to act.  As Daniel 4:35 says:  “…All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’”

The second category, God’s preceptive will, identifies that which He has revealed to us in the form of precepts:  that which He has commanded as an authoritative rule of action.  The primary example, which almost immediately comes to mind, is the Ten Commandments.  We find throughout God’s word statements detailing His preceptive will:  the Ten Commandments, as I said, the revelation of the depth of God’s commands as Jesus illuminates them in the Gospels, and the summary of the commandments of God given by Paul in his letter to the Galatians.  We find in Deuteronomy 29:29 an identification of these two categories, decretive and preceptive:  “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

The third category, God’s will of disposition, is more descriptive of God’s character than His activity.  For example, in second Peter chapter three Peter is warning the Church of scoffers who ask, “Where is the promise of His coming?”  They scoff because of the time passing between Christ’s first and second advent and they interpret the great span of time as an indication that He is not coming at all.  Peter follows this with a warning that God will come in judgment and the world will be destroyed once again; this time with fire instead of with water.  Peter then says in verse nine:  “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”  It is God’s disposition that none should perish; and He takes no delight in the destruction of the wicked (Ezekial 33:11).  Consider the words of Jeremiah 9:24:  “Thus says the LORD: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.’”

When God moves based upon His will of disposition, we can see that it is also part of His decrees.  Consider the words of Micah chapter seven:  “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance?  He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.  He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities under foot.  You will cast all oursins into the depths of the sea.  You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.”