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Once Lost, Now Found: How Reformed Theology Assures Us - Rev. Daniel Hyde

we are still living in an age of Christ-less Christianity. That’s the diagnosis. I believe the reformed catholic Christianity of the Protestant Reformation and post-Reformation is the cure.

But all too often we as Reformed believers come off as total freaks when people visit our churches for the first time. A visitor walks in for the first time and hears something like this: “Hi, I’m Danny, welcome to OURC. Are you supra or infra?” Or, “So are you credo or paedo?” Maybe, “Pre-, post-, or pesimistic amillennial? We here are optimistic amil.” Too often we let our most rabid new members into greeting ministry too early. Instead, the “cage phase” Calvinists who are so excited about being Reformed need to be put in a cage for a year until they’ve been tamed. In this age of Christ-less Christianity we want to be welcoming to unbelievers, disenfranchised evangelicals, burned-out liberals, and everyone on the outside looking in an understandable, hospitable way. And we want them to come to know the assurance that Reformed Christianity brings.

It was the late-sixteenth-and early-seventeenth-century Catholic theologian, Robert Bellarmine, who said that assurance of salvation was the principal heresy of Protestantism. In the decades and centuries surrounding the Reformation this was the great question. What assurance could creatures have of their Creator revealing himself? What assurance could the pious Catholic have that he would not spend eternity in the flames of hell? And the list goes on.

We do not live in a time where everyone lives under Christendom, and hence everyone is searching for assurance within that system. We are living in a great time, though. The Reformed faith is on the march once again. People in our society are not coming to us seeking answers and assurance in the same way as in the sixteenth century. Instead, they are seeking assurance whether anything can be trusted and believed in.

You see, although we live in what we can call a post-everything culture where it seems people are unsure about everything, in reality, people evidence their deep-down need for belonging, for community, for assurance. Let me give an example of this. Russell R. Reno, a theologian at Creighton University, wrote a while back about the phenomenon of tattoos. That which was once a symbol of rebellion is now a symbol of belonging to something larger than oneself in our culture.

So what can we give people? The full-orbed message of the Reformation. And I am writing as one who—as the great hymn says—“I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

The
Assurance of Our
History

First, Reformed Christianity offers the assurance of our history. Everything today is about what have you done for me lately, the brief sound byte, the tyranny of the news cycle when the next big thing takes center stage only to eclipse what once had all our attention. We are by nature “chronologically arrogant,” as the great C. S. Lewis once said. When the Israelites languished under their disobedience and impending judgment of God, Jeremiah called upon them to seek the ancient paths. As Reformed churches we can confidently say to searching people, we have deep roots historically. We can call upon family, friends, and neighbors to unite themselves to something bigger than them and us.

The
Assurance of Our
Theology

Second, Reformed Christianity offers the assurance of our theology. Before next Sunday, stop and think about everyone who walks through the doors of where your congregation meets for worship, especially those who may be there for the first time. There are so many people coming with so many experiences. No doubt there will be someone who shares a similar story with you. For me, I was lost. I was baptized as a Roman Catholic, taken to Sunday school at Calvary Chapel, I remember going to Easter and Christmas Mass throughout my childhood and teenage years, and all through that I sought assurance that God loved me. I was converted in a Foursquare Church and then went off to college to play basketball. The church next to campus was an Assemblies of God church. After seeing the same people go forward to the altar calls to get saved or to rededicate themselves to the Lord week after week after week, I thought, “There has got to be more to the Christian faith than this.” There will be people who, like me, turned to investigating religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, agnosticism, and every -ism under the sun.

What brought me assurance? The gospel. I came to realize that no amount of works a la the Roman Catholic system, no amount of intellectual investigation of religion, and no amount of seeking emotional assurance via my Pentecostal church could bring the assurance I sought. That was, until one day I was introduced to the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 70, “What is justification?” The answer is, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.”

The
Assurance of Our Liturgy

Third, Reformed Christianity offers the assurance of our liturgy, that is, our way of worshipping the triune God. As you know, Rome likes to say, “We’ve had the Mass for two thousand years.” Well, in Reformed churches we can say confidently, “We’ve had the Psalms for three thousand years, like the entire people of God.”

I remember walking in a Reformed church for the first time. I’ve never told Mike Horton this, but it was Christ Reformed, which was then meeting in Placentia. I felt like I had walked into heaven. Remember I had seen the smells and bells of Rome and the signs and wonders of Pentecostalism. It wasn’t until I sat in a service saturated in the Word like a Reformed church, with reverent worship, that I found what I had been looking for. I had no idea how to hold a hymnal, how to read a note, when to stand, when to sit. But it was amazing.

The
Assurance of Our
Piety

Fourth, Reformed Christianity offers the assurance of our piety. Have you gone to your local Christian bookstore lately or received a catalog in the mail from the large publishers? What’s in them? Mostly Christian living, right? But it’s what some have called law-light. You know, how to be a better you, finding your purpose in life, Christian dieting, women’s issues, men’s issues, teen issues, how to get over your issues with having issues.

The Reformed Christian faith is not merely a bunch of doctrine. It’s not merely head knowledge. As my friend and mentor, Joel Beeke, describes our faith, it is a religion of head, heart, and hands. Our life is described so wonderfully by the two opening questions of the two great Reformed catechisms. The Heidelberg Catechism opens, “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” We belong to the Lord; we are his bondservants. The Westminster Shorter Catechism opens, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” We exist as clay, molded for the maker’s pleasure.

People walk into our churches beat down, ashamed, defeated. We get to say to them that God makes the dead alive, the blind to see, the enemy his friend. And now that you belong to him, live with joy and gratitude to the glory and praise of your maker and redeemer.

As you conclude reading this article and we go our separate ways, I pray you will be equipped to be used of God to communicate the truth of that great hymn to all unbelievers, pilgrims, and outcasts who walk through your church’s doors: “I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind, but now I see.”

 

Rev. Daniel Hyde
is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad, CA.

 

Marks of a Healthy Reformed Church - Rev. Michael J. Schout

Over the past couple of years, the leaders at the church where I serve have been developing a vision statement. Perhaps that surprises you? Isn’t that the sort of thing larger churches with multi staffs busy themselves with? Don’t we have more important things to do, namely, ministry of the Word and sacraments?

Crafting a vision statement isn’t one of the marks of the church, nor does it make a church healthy. But in my opinion, the process has forced us to ask some questions we might not otherwise ask. Such as, why do we do what we do? Is there anything we do that we shouldn’t be doing? What aren’t we doing that we should? And what can we do better?

Self-evaluation is a normal part of any successful business. Yet, sometimes we can go years and even decades in the church without really looking in the mirror. This is not to advocate a church as business model but simply to point out that it’s easy to feel healthy when we might not necessarily be healthy. Like the guy who goes in for his annual physical only to discover he has a tumor.

Taking inventory can be hard. I don’t like to find weaknesses, and it means extra work. Who wants more council meetings when we’re already busy enough? Besides, isn’t being conservative and confessional a whole lot better than the vast majority of other churches in America? Why spend time looking at areas to improve when it takes so much time and energy just to maintain what we’ve already got?

In the next several installments of articles, I hope to develop a vision statement for all of our churches according to Scripture. Obviously, each congregation will need to personalize it for themselves. No two churches are exactly alike. We all have a unique set of strengths and weaknesses, and our contexts vary depending a host of factors.

But is there, broadly speaking, certain marks that make a church healthy? How is health measured? What is true for all churches, and what is particular to some? And perhaps even more fundamentally, does the Bible even address the idea of a healthy church?

In this article I want to introduce you to our vision statement to get your wheels turning. Perhaps your church already has one or is in the process of developing one. Or maybe this is totally foreign to you. It could very well be that you think this is a giant waste of time.

But hear me out. I think you’ll be the better for it. Even if you come away thankful for what you do and find little or nothing to change, at least you will have put in the necessary work to take inventory of your church to make sure that what you are doing is based on the Word of God for the glory of God.

The vision statement of the church I serve reads as follows: Grace United Reformed Church seeks to be a gospel-shaped community of biblically grounded, confessionally Reformed worshippers, disciples, and witnesses of Jesus Christ.

We’ve developed four major coordinates: worship, fellowship, discipleship, and outreach. The modifier for all of these things is the gospel. The foundation is the Word of God. And we stand and speak within a confessional history.

Worship is the chief end for which we’ve been created. It is the core of what we do as Christians and serves as the high point of our pilgrim experience.

We’ve been called in the gospel to the fellowship of the church. We’re united not on the basis of race, politics, or interests, but the Word of God and the blood of Christ.

As we grow in our walk with the Lord, we need continual discipleship and renewal. The goal is not stagnation but forward movement.

And we’ve been commissioned to spread the good news to those around us. Instead of huddling up, we need to venture out. The gospel is something we receive and give away.

We must not be driven by pragmatism. Yet neither can we turn a blind eye to our culture and context. Rather, we must be faithful to the Scriptures, centered upon the gospel, while finding ways to communicate our message to a dying world in ways that are always truthful but also thoughtful.

In my own context, many of our young people have left membership in a confessionally Reformed church, choosing bigger and broader evangelical churches. And while we can criticize all the things that are wrong with those churches, perhaps we’d be wise to ask: Is there anything wrong with ours?

Why are our young people leaving? Is it as simple as, “Well, they are Millennials, after all”? Or is there something we’re not doing to attract them? Could it be that we’ve left them with insufficient answers to the questions they’ve always had but never dared to ask? Is it possible that they’re bored with our churches because we’re bored with our churches? Or that we’re stuck in maintenance mode, just trying to stay clear of liberalism, and we’ve focused only on what we’re not instead of who we’re called to be?

I don’t have all the answers. I’m not even sure I’m asking the right questions. But in the articles that follow, I want to explore this further. I want to let the Great Physician diagnose the condition of our churches by seeing what the Bible says are the marks of a healthy church.

What is the goal of the church? Why do we meet Sunday after Sunday? What is our purpose? And how do we get there? It is to these and other questions we’ll explore next time.

More specifically, I want to examine why and how the gospel is to shape all that we do. If we don’t get this right, everything else will miss the mark.

So please join me in praying that God would show us both our true diagnosis and the remedy. It’s one thing to know you have a problem. It’s quite another to find an answer.

I believe the Word has answers, and I know that God promises to give grace to the humble.

May God be pleased to send his Spirit to bring both reformation and revival, for the health of our churches and the glory of Christ.

 

Rev. Michael J. Schout
is the pastor of Grace URC in Alto, MI.
He welcomes your feedback at mikeschout@gmail.com.

How Can I Understand Prophecy?

All of us think about the end times. When we reflect on what will happen, not only when we die, but also when this present age ends, some combination of ideas, images, hopes, and fears flood our minds. And this is good. God wants us to reflect on the last things, to cultivate an apocalyptic spirituality in which our vision for the future affects our walk before God’s face today.

For that to happen well our eschatology, our doctrine of the last things, needs to be drawn from Scripture and not reflect our prejudices or wishes. But when we study the last things, especially those things connected with the end of this present age and the beginning of the next, we have to engage prophecy, a genre of Scripture that presents a host of interpretive challenges. But we don’t need to read the prophets unarmed.

To understand the prophets we need to study them through the grid of a biblical hermeneutic. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. And even if we have never used the word we all have a hermeneutic. We all study the Bible with certain assumptions, following definite rules or at least impulses (even if we couldn’t articulate them). This is why two people can read the same passage and arrive at very different ideas, especially when studying prophecy. It is for lack of a biblically informed hermeneutic that some visions of the end are so complicated or wildly speculative that the author’s intent is completely corrupted.

To better understand the Bible’s portrayal of the end times it is critical to think through a number of issues that we have to face when interpreting prophecy.

The Bible Is a Story of Redemption

Neither the Old nor New Testament prophets spoke of the future merely to tell about a few spectacular events beforehand. Instead, they were instilling a piety by means of the story of God’s redemption in the past, present, and future.

Still, it is possible to lose sight of the big picture on account of scintillating or perplexing prophetic details. In fact, this happens all the time. In my in-laws’ home hangs a large framed mosaic puzzle. Each piece contains several tiny scenery photographs. You could study that framed puzzle with your nose a few inches away from the glass inspecting the individual photos. But when you step back from that mosaic you realize that the purpose of the individual images is to build a larger composition, in this case a map of the entire world.

Likewise, it is possible to study the end-times messages of the prophets simply for their ability to tell the future. But when you read their words as part of a grander mosaic, you realize that they are telling a story that is meant to inspire confidence in the meticulous, skillful, patient saving work of God. Prophecies that have been fulfilled and promises still to be realized bolster our confidence that God will continue to take “one from a city and two from a family” and build a holy kingdom called Zion made up of people from all nations (Jer. 3:14, 17).

God does record prophecy to “show His servants the things which must shortly take place” (Rev. 22:6; cf. Rev. 1:1). But these things must never be isolated from the grand story they are helping to tell. “Prophecy encourages us regarding the future, not by giving us the news headlines in advance, but by pointing to our victorious God, who has already won the decisive heavenly battle.”1

The Story Starts at the Beginning

When we think about the end times, we naturally think, “Revelation.” If we do consider the Old Testament we might include Daniel or other prophets. But long before the ministry of the apostle John or the later prophets, the Bible introduced themes that, perhaps unexpectedly, help inform our understanding of the end.

Think about how the concept of death seems to intrude on the otherwise serene beginning of God’s story. In the Bible’s second chapter, in the context of so much good (Gen. 1:31), God warned of the possibility of death (Gen. 2:17). In the third chapter animals died (Gen. 3:21).2 In the fourth chapter men began to die. In the book of beginnings we hear about a place where the dead go called Sheol (Gen. 37:35). God told Abraham that when he died he would go to his fathers in peace (Gen. 15:15); at death he was “gathered to his people” (Gen. 25:8). After just a few pages we begin to wonder what happens to dead people. Are they gone forever? How will God answer the cry of the blood of those unjustly taken from the land of the living (Gen. 4:10)? What is Sheol, whence was Abraham gathered, and will those resting in peace ever wake?

Or, consider the important end-times theme of the kingdom of God. The Old Testament tells us that God is a king (1 Sam. 12:12) who is establishing a vast kingdom. He began gathering kingdom citizens when he rescued Adam and Eve from the devil’s tricks. He has since been preserving a faithful seed from their posterity, also adding those from the other families of the nations–slowly at first, more rapidly after Pentecost. But one day, as Jesus taught us to pray, his kingdom will come (Matt. 6:10). He will return to earth, his people will reign with him, and he will exercise “the kingdom of his power in all the world.”3

Likewise, the Old Testament tells us that God will conquer death and build a kingdom of life through his Messiah (Deut. 18:15, 18, 19; Acts 3:17–26), who will bring about the Day of the Lord (Dan. 7:10, Joel 2:1, 11, 31), adjudicate a final judgment (Mal. 3:1–7), and raise to life every deceased person to either shame (Isa. 66:5–6) or glory (Job 19:25–27).

The message of the end is interwoven throughout the entire story, even its beginning. To understand the end we have to be students of the whole Bible.

The Prophets Were Masterful Storytellers

To understand the language of prophecy we need to wrestle humbly and diligently with several literary features of prophecy.

The Prophets Used Language and Forms Suitable to Their Time

The symbolic language of the prophets can be challenging. But rather than being a hurdle it can be a great gift. Symbolic language engages our interest and stirs our imagination. With richly figurative language Isaiah predicted that “there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isa. 11:1; English Standard Version). The symbolism powerfully calls to mind ideas of revival, vibrancy, organic fruitfulness. Likewise, the robust symbolism of Revelation draws us into the story and floods our minds with powerful images of Christ’s victory over evil. We should give thanks for apocalyptic symbolism and allow the context to determine when prophetic language should be taken literally.

Especially with prophecies that will be fulfilled in the far future, we should expect that the forms of the prophet’s ideas might “have undergone radical changes” though their “essential central idea will still be realized.”4 For example, when Ezekiel prophesied that a restored people would worship God on his holy hill, it is perfectly fitting for him to describe this end-times revival in terms of the construction of a temple (Ezek. 40–48). In doing so, he follows a form long established in the construction of the tabernacle after the people’s new birth from Egypt. But it is too simplistic to suspect that the form of Ezekiel’s prophecy would not change by the time of its fulfillment. “This historically and culturally conditioned form is completely overlooked when people in all seriousness propose that the prophets predict for our time a rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem and reinstitution of animal sacrifices and a final battle fought with horses and chariots and spears and swords.”5 God’s word is never broken (John 10:35), though the form of its fulfillment can change.

Despite their abstract language and impermanent forms, the prophets always communicated a central message. For example, in portraying a wolf and lion grazing with a lamb (Isa. 65:25), Isaiah does not draw our attention to new feeding patterns of carnivores in heaven but to the other-worldly peace that will characterize the heavenly age to come.

The Prophets Tell Stories in Layers

Students of prophecy often ask whether a prophet was speaking about an event that has been fulfilled already or one that has yet to be realized. Very often, the answer is yes. The prophets’ messages often featured multiple layers in which “the earlier fulfillment is itself prophetic of the later fulfillment.”6 Remember, the entire story finds its ultimate filling up only at the end. So Joel’s prediction that someday God’s Spirit would powerfully move his people to prophesy and thatthe earth, moon, and heavens would be violently disturbed (Joel 2:28–32) was realized at Pentecost (Acts 2), but not completely. Pentecost itself is a harbinger for the mighty stirring of the Spirit at “the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord” (Joel 2:31).

Likewise, in Jesus’ end-times speech in Mark 13, rather than insisting that the entire discourse was fulfilled by the Roman invasion of a.d. 70, or that it only points to the end of the age (or dissecting the passage into the parts that purportedly only speak to either event), “It might be simpler to take the whole as immediately, but partially . . . fulfilled in the Jewish War, but also to recognize that the events of that war point forward to the end of history.”7 Has Martin Luther King’s dream from 1963 been fulfilled “that one day . . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”? Yes, and no. Partly, but not perfectly. So it often is with biblical prophecy.

The Prophets Spoke to an Original Audience

The prophets were primarily preachers.8 As watchmen (Ezek. 3:17) and shepherds (Jer. 3:15) they urged God’s people to return to him so that he might heal their backslidings and deliver them from his judgments and give them rest in his good land. They were surgeons who dissected the hearts of God’s people to expose their disease and refer them to the Good Physician. “The prophets had, first of all, a message for their contemporaries. They were watchmen on the walls of Zion, to guide the destinies of the ancient people of God, and to guard against the dangers of apostasy.”9 For this reason, many prophecies are contingent on the actions of people. Through the prophets God says, “If you . . . then I . . .” (e.g., Jer. 15:19).

All Scripture, including prophecy, is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). God doesn’t give us prophecy so that we can build elaborate timelines or speculate on the precise manner in which God will keep his word. He speaks about our future so that we will live faithfully in the present. He speaks to the contemporary audience to develop in us a robust vision for the end.

The Story Is All About Jesus

If we are tempted to focus on the more mysterious, futuristic parts of biblical prophecy we should remember that at its core, the prophetic message was “always centered in the Kingdom of God, or the work of redemption through Christ.”10When Paul was on trial for preaching a message of repentance to the Gentiles he told his judge that “to this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great, saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come—that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead, and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22–23). Jesus himself said, “For assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matt. 13:17). Peter echoed Jesus when he said, “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you” (1 Pet. 1:10).

Twice, on their way to Jerusalem, Jesus told his disciples that he would be betrayed and suffer body-and-soul-rending grief before rising from the dead (Luke 9:21–22, 43–45). When they could not understand what he was saying Jesus marshaled the testimony of the prophets: “‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished’” (Luke 18:31). Still the disciples missed the prophets’ focus on God’s promise to secure the kingdom through his Suffering Servant.

If the entire prophetic ministry revolved around the future comings of Christ, why did almost no one—including the apostles—get it when he came? It can be rightly said that only a small percentage of Old Testament prophecies explicitly “describe the Messiah or even the new covenant era.”11 But when taken as a whole, and especially as they began to be fulfilled, and when the Holy Spirit was poured out, Christ began to shine through every prophecy (John 12:16; 13:7, 19; 16:12–13). After the outer prophetic layers had been peeled back Peter could preach, “But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled” (Acts 3:18). Significantly, when the New Testament speaks of the ministry of the prophets it almost uniformly is focused on how they foretold the person and work of the Messiah. When we read prophecy we need to understand that the message, while ostensibly about future events, is most essentially about God and his saving work through Christ.12 It is not coincidental that the book of Revelation begins with a heart-stopping vision of Jesus ministering among the churches (Rev. 1–4) and ends with his promise to come back soon (Rev. 22:7, 12–13, 16, 20).

The Story Concludes with a Revelation

When we study end times we tend to think about the book of Revelation. As we’ve seen, John’s Revelation is only one of the many places in Scripture that gives us a vision of the future. But it is a critically important prophetic book.

How Should We Study Revelation?

William Hendriksen has persuasively argued that John’s Revelation consists of seven sections that each span the entire time period from Christ’s first coming to his second coming. In other words, the book is not arranged in strictly successive chronological fashion as one might expect. And yet, as the book progresses, especially starting at Revelation 12, God increasingly reveals the deeper spiritual battles that the church faces in this present age. The book is like a movie that seven times returns to the opening scene and records the same story from a different angle, retelling the plot with increasing depth.13

What Does Revelation Teach Us?

Revelation itself prevents us from charting out a continuous history of successive events that will yet come to pass. John’s Apocalypse should not be read like a codebook that can be unlocked to tell the details of tomorrow’s news today. Instead, we should read it as God’s encouragement to a marginalized people that despite the dark forces of evil and our own flagrant weaknesses Christ will be ever among his people, leading them to victory against his enemies and ours. Through its masterful use of words and images, Revelation drives home this much needed exhortation: He who, by faith in the Son of God, overcomes the trials of this life will not be disappointed by his reward in the life to come.

God’s Word encourages us to study prophecy. We will sometimes puzzle over the prophets’ use of unfamiliar symbols. We will not always be able to determine beyond doubt which events have been fulfilled and which are awaiting fulfillment. We cannot possibly presume to know with precision how God will bring his promises to pass. But in prophecy we can see God as the supreme storyteller whose word “calls those things which do not exist as though they did” (Rom. 4:17) and who exists as comfortably in the future as he does in the present and the past. Through prophecy he says to us, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by our name; you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isa. 43:1–3).

Questions

What is your impression of the ministry of the prophets and the parts of the Bible that they wrote? Does their message tend to resonate with you or does it feel strangely inapplicable?

What is hermeneutics and why is it important?

Reflect on some of the most important points of the creation-fall-redemption-restoration scheme of the story of Scripture. What benefits are there in seeing Scripture as a story?

How do the following Old Testament passages, and others that might come to your mind, help to contribute to a biblical eschatology? Daniel 7:9–14; Joel 2:1–11; Job 19:25–27.

Note some examples of symbolism in Revelation 1:9–16. Is it necessary for these symbols to be understood literally in order for them to communicate powerfully? What impression do these symbols give of the glorified Christ?

Is there biblical evidence that the Old Testament prophetic message is all about Jesus? If so, why did his own disciples, and so many people today, not use their message to trust in Christ?

Are there ways in which John’s Revelation is susceptible to abuse?

What is the basic message of Revelation and how does the book develop that message?

How does the message of Revelation comfort you?

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1. Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton, Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 233 (italics in the original). Consider another illustration. Suppose, in order to run some errands, I decided to leave my young children home alone for a few hours. Before leaving I might say to them, “Dad will only be gone briefly. I have to pick up some things for our home from the post office, the grocery store, and the hardware store. If you work hard cleaning the house while I’m gone, I’ll be here before you know it to play the game you have been asking about.” My point in telling my children where I hoped to go was not so that they could argue about which store I would go to first, second, or third, or so that they could speculate on the sort of items I would buy at each store. I told them my plans to assure them that I left for their good and that I would return soon. I hoped to encourage them to work hard in my absence and to anticipate a good evening when I came back. With similar goals did God inspire the prophets with visions of the future.

2.  That God killed animals to provide skins for Adam and Eve is insufficient to prove that this was the first death. “Calvin and most reformed theologians were of the opinion that eating meat was permitted to humans even before the flood and the fall . . . The animal world had already been placed under human dominion in Genesis 1:28, an act that certainly includes, especially with respect to the fish of the sea, the right to kill and use animals. Immediately after the fall God himself made garments of animals skins (3:21).” Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 575.

3. Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 191.

4. Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1950), 151.

5. Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19881), 232.

6. McCartney and Clayton, Let the Reader Understand, 234.

7. Ibid., 235.

8. Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 228.

9. Berkhof, Principles, 149.

10. Ibid., 149.

11. Daniel M. Doriani, Getting the Message: A Plan for Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1996), 232.

12. Cf. Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 229.

13. William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998).

 

Rev. William Boekestein
is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

 

Reading the Bible

In an article in the Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail, one author described “the collapse of the liberal church” in Canada and its equivalent in America. The author spoke of the synod of the United Church of Canada, at which one of its main agenda items was a resolution calling for the boycott of products from Israeli settlements. She spoke of the recent Synod of The Episcopal Church, at which one of its main agenda items was allowing the transgendered to become priests. Her conclusion was that “people’s overall belief in God hasn’t declined. What’s declined is people’s participation in religion. With so little spiritual nourishment to offer, it’s no wonder the liberal churches have collapsed.”1

If we want to remain relevant as churches, the key is to continue reading, preaching, and believing the Word of God. The Word of God contains that nourishment which our souls need. As the ancient preacher, John Chrysostom, once said in a sermon, “If we must fight, they are a sword; if we hunger, they are meat; if we thirst, they are drink; if we have no dwelling-place, they are a house; if we be naked, they are a garment; if we be in darkness, they be light unto our going.”2

I want to conclude our series on what we believe about Scripture with a practical article on reading the Bible. In Deuteronomy 18 there is a law about the king of Israel. One requirement for a godly king was that he had and utilized the law of God. He was to obtain a copy of the law from the priests and then copy out by hand his own copy of the law. We read later in 2 Kings 11 that the seven-year-old king of Judah, Joash, was crowned by the high priest Jehoida, who “gave him the testimony” (2 Kings 11:12). Then he was to read the law even after he entered the busyness of his office. He was not to be hindered. He was not to come up with excuses. He was also to meditate upon it, learning the fear of God his whole life. Finally, he was to practice what he read. In the words of James, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22).

What does this story of the king have to do with us? It should strike us as how wonderful it is that in Christ we, too, are prophets, priests, and kings. We, too, are to read the Word of God to learn the wisdom of God.

A High Privilege

The first thing I want you to notice is that reading the Bible is a high privilege. As far as I know, besides the Levitical priests, we read of no other individual in all of the Old Testament being required to obtain a copy of the laws of God and to privately read them as Deuteronomy 18:18 describes. What a privilege the king had to obtain a copy of the law. And notice the privilege of copying out the law in his own handwriting. How his hand must have trembled in awe! How he must have been amazed to read God’s very word for himself! Gregory the Great, one of the great fathers of the church, once wrote a letter in which he said to his correspondent: “Learn the heart of God in the words of God.”3 In reading the words of God, we get a glimpse into God’s very heart for us his people. Not everyone had this high privilege then; but we do now.

When children start learning to read, they listen to their parents reading to them for several years; then they start sounding the letters themselves. Then they start to learn to sound out two- and three-letter words. Then they learn to read those words in a short sentence. And then after a while of doing that, they learn to understand what they are reading. What’s really amazing is that we get to do this with the Bible, God’s own Word. We all need to learn how to read our Bibles. Step by step like little children, we all need to come to the Lord in his Word and begin the process from learning letter sounds to understanding what we are reading.

A Habitual Practice

The second point to be learned here is that reading the Bible is to be a habitual practice. Notice what Deuteronomy 18:19 says: “And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life.” The king was to be the blessed man of Psalm 1, who shunned the ways of sinners for the ways of the Lord by meditating on the law of God day and night.

Reading the Bible needs to be a daily habit. As we engage in it, over the course of our lives as children of God, we more and more become a walking and talking Bible. In the words of Paul, we are to be like a living epistle.4 John Chrysostom said this in a sermon: “Hearken not hereto only here in the church, but also at home; let the husband with the wife, let the father with the child, talk together of these matters, and both to and fro let them both inquire and give their judgments; and with God they would begin this good custom.”5 When we read the Word all the days of our lives, we receive the blessing of God, as Revelation 1:3 describes: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud . . . blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written.”

How are we to read the Word? What should be going through our minds when we do so? The Westminster Larger Catechism gives us several ways in which we are to read the Word:

The holy Scriptures are to be read with an high and reverent esteem of them; with a firm persuasion that they are the very Word of God, and that he only can enable us to understand them; with desire to know, believe, and obey the will of God revealed in them; with diligence, and attention to the matter and scope of them; with meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer. (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 157)

Reverence. Thomas Watson said, “Think every line you read God is speaking to you.”6 And this thought should humble us to the core and cause us to be in awe at the fact that of the billions of people in the world, youI—have been given the Word!

Persuasiveness that only God can make his own words known to us. In the Psalms we read again and again lines like this: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Ps. 119:18).

Earnestness. It’s so easy for us Reformed believers to read the Word looking for doctrine. But don’t forget that it is the Word of God. The Word is the means that God has chosen to reveal himself to us. When you sit down to read it, then, you are coming not to an it but to a him.

Diligence. Children, think about those people you see on the beach with headphones on and who are waving on the ground back and forth a metal detector. When they first started every little sound made them think they found money, and they would bend down and dig it up. But over time they learned the distinct sounds of different kinds of trash, but also coins. Children, we need to learn how to read because then we can learn what it means.7

Personalness. It is not some abstract thing “out there.” We need to intently and intensely think about the Word more than we meditate on our fantasy football stats, the latest political polls, or our Christmas shopping list.

A Holy Purpose

Finally, reading the Word is a holy purpose. At the end of Deuteronomy 18:19 we learn the purpose of the king’s reading the Word: “that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up” (vv. 19–20). As we read the Word and meditate upon it, we experience the sanctifying power of the Word, which washes over us like water (Eph. 5:26).

Conclusion: Reading the Word as Spiritual Warfare

Let me conclude on that note and say that we are to read the Word as an act of spiritual warfare. It takes discipline and training. It takes honing our skills to use the Word. The greatest Reformed theologian who defended the Word of God against the claims of the Roman Church was an Englishman, William Whitaker. He describes the spiritual warfare we enter when we take up the Word in these words:

Our arms shall be the sacred scriptures, that sword and shield of the word, that tower of David, upon which a thousand bucklers hang, and all the armour of the mighty, the sling and the pebbles of the brook wherewith David stretched upon the ground that gigantic and haughty Philistine.8

I want you to be confident that you hold the very Word of God in your hands. And no church, pope, scholar, group of people, or the devil himself can change that fact.

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1. Margaret Wente, “The Collapse of the Liberal Church,” The Globe and Mail (July 28, 2012), http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/the-collapse-of-the-liberal-church/article4443228/.

2. Cited in John Jewel, “A Treatise of the Holy Scriptures,” Works, 4:1177.

3. “Letter to Theodorus,” 4:31.

4. Watson, Puritan Sermons, 2:68.

5. John homily 3.

6. Watson, Puritan Sermons, 2:60. Watson also said that the Word is the Holy Spirit’s “love letter.” Puritan Sermons, 2:64.

7. As Watson again said, “If one go over the scripture cursorily there is little good to be got by it; but if he be serious in reading of it, it is the ‘savour of life.’” Puritan Sermons, 2:61.

8. Whitaker, Disputations on Holy Scripture, trans. and ed. William Fitzgerald (1849; repr., Orlando, FL: Soli Deo Gloria, 2005), 19.

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Rev. Daniel Hyde 
is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad, CA. 

 

Interview with Rev. Daniel Hyde

Help us get to know you better by telling us about your pathway to ministry.

Beginning when I was eleven years old, all I wanted to do was play basketball. Even after my conversion at age seventeen, I was driven by a passion to earn a scholarship, then play professionally somewhere. I played on an AAU team after my junior year that traveled and played against many future and even current NBA players (who are about ready to retire at their age!). Then I played in Europe and on several all-star teams and eventually went off to college. I was a young Christian, but I idolized basketball.

But the Lord was at work in my heart, and after being introduced to Reformation theology, I began to have more and more of a desire to serve the Lord and people more than myself and my career aspirations. After my junior year in college and ten straight years of basketball, I walked into the athletic department and into my coach’s office and gave up my basketball scholarship because I had some desire to go to grad school/seminary and do something else with my life. But when I enrolled at Westminster California, it was as an MA student, as I thought I was going to move on to a PhD and then teach or be some kind of campus pastor at a Christian college.

The Lord wasn’t done with me, though, and I had the crazy feeling that I could be of more use in being a pastor to people like me, who grew up and lived in a SoCal beach community but had never heard of the Reformation. So I changed my major to MDiv, delivered only a couple of sermons and knew I had to figure out if I could preach the Word.

I took a summer assignment at the Doon URC. That convinced me I was on the right path, so I began planning a church plant while finishing seminary, and here I am, seventeen years later, still loving ministry in SoCal.

Being in a very transient area but also near Westminster, tell us about your experiences with team ministry.

Over the years the Lord has blessed me with the opportunity to serve alongside many elders and deacons as well as associate pastors and pastoral interns. The ministry here is always fluid, so the makeup of our leadership changes regularly. One of the constants, though, is working together with and mentoring men who are following their own path to the ministry. As of now, I’ve had thirteen pastoral interns come through Westminster Seminary California and Oceanside United Reformed Church and who have gone on to do great things for the Lord.

Clearly you enjoy writing, having written sixteen books in seventeen years of ministry. Do you have other hobbies or interests?

My hobbies and interests are all intertwined with my four kids: coaching youth basketball, which is also a way to publicly display my faith in Jesus Christ; riding the waves of the Pacific Ocean; and reading classic stories to my kids (right now we’re in The Mutiny on the Bounty).

Why did you decide to write your first book, Jesus Loves the Little Children?

As someone who came into a Reformed church, I knew that this doctrine would be one of the harder things for people I sought to bring in to grasp for themselves. And since I had two influential professors (Robert Strimple and Meredith Kline) whose explanations of infant baptism sealed the deal for me, I thought I could popularize those arguments for newcomers to our faith. It’s still being read and being used to draw many people into Reformed churches not only here but also in Latin America, Turkey, and Russia, as it’s been translated into their languages.

How in your opinion can this book best be used?

We have it out for free on a book rack and give away dozens of copies a year. I then follow-up and regularly meet with people new to our Reformed doctrine to read through it and discuss it one on one.


Compiled by the Editor

Basic Eschatology: Why Should I Study the End Times?

The Anglican poet John Donne (1572–1631) was once ravished with a fever that he feared might kill him. From his sickbed he could hear the sounds of a funeral. In fact, his home was close enough to the church that he could hear the psalm sung by the congregation; as best he could, he joined in the singing. But the funeral bells affected him most. Later he wrote, “I hear this dead brother of ours, who is now carried out to his burial, to speak to me, and to preach my funeral sermon in the voice of these bells. In him, O God, thou hast accomplished to me even the request of [the rich man] to Abraham; thou hast sent one from the dead to speak unto me.” Confronted by thoughts of his own mortality, Donne prayed to God that he if his fever were fatal, he would die “drowned . . . in the blood of thy Son; and if I live longer, yet I may now die the death of the righteous, die to sin; which death is a resurrection to a new life.”1

Donne illustrates the benefit of reflecting on the end of life as we know it. Thinking about our end can help us to live well—and die well. Especially in our day, with low infant mortality rates, long lifespans, and a medical model that typically removes dying people from society, we need to seize—and sometimes create—opportunities to focus on our end. And if we understand human death as a sign that even “the heavens will pass away” and the whole world will be laid bare, “all these things will be dissolved” (2 Pet. 3:10–11), then we also need to give thought to the end of everything.

We need eschatology. With God’s help that snooty, foreign-sounding word can introduce to us a world of comfort, for this age and the age to come.

Eschatology, or the study of the last things, is a fancy word for something everybody already does. All of us think about the end. Count on it: At some point in your life you are going to agonize over what will happen to you after you breathe your last. When you go to a funeral—of any religious or nonreligious person—you will hear somebody’s eschatology, their concept of what happens after death. We are all eschatalogians. But that doesn’t mean that we always engage the end times well. In at least three ways we could go wrong in this theological discipline.

First, we are tempted to engage in speculative eschatology. When end-times study is not rooted in Scripture it becomes vain dreaming, the dogmatization of our wishes. In a time of unfathomable suffering and pain Job asked his mostly-well-meaning friends, “How then will you comfort me with empty nothings? There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood” (Job 21:34, English Standard Version). When it comes to matters of eternal life and death we need more than “empty nothings.” We need more than traditional religious rituals. We need loftier goals than living decent lives. Vague wishes of a better life after death are of no use. Speculative eschatology is a sign of biblical illiteracy and spiritual immaturity. When it comes to the end times we need to put childish ways behind us and listen to what God says.

Second, we need to avoid argumentative eschatology. For some of us the very topic of the end times is off-putting because it can be such a contentious issue. Some of us have felt our Christianity questioned by those who have a different concept of the end. But surely, God does not peel back the curtains of future history, giving us a glimpse into the staggering profundity of death and judgment, or the glorious return of the King of heaven so that we can contend with other Christians over how things will work out. It is surely possible—and necessary—to distinguish between two conflicting end-times views without needlessly bantering about the perceived superiority of one’s own view.

Third, we must avoid avoiding eschatology. It sounds pious to say, “I don’t think much about the last things. I know God is in control. I’ll leave it up to him.” Is eschatology necessary? Isn’t enough to trust that God will work everything out in the end? Should we not approach this topic with the attitude of David, who said, “Neither do I concern myself with great matters, nor with things too profound for me” (Ps. 131:2)? In reality, Scripture teaches us to develop what some have called an “apocalyptic spirituality”2 in which we so deeply sense the dawning of the age to come that we begin to realize its wonder in this present age. The apostle Peter captures in a single phrase Scripture’s unified application of eschatology. In light of God’s plan to dissolve and purify the cosmos, “What manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness” (2 Pet. 3:11)? Peter, Jesus (Mark 13:35–37), and Paul (1 Thess. 5:6) call God’s people to respond to the coming of the end with watchful sobriety. The same emphasis is found in Hebrews 10:25. Seeing “the Day approaching” ought to strengthen our hope, devote us to worship, and galvanize us in our expressions of love and good works. If Christ is returning, and if his judgment will be eternal, and if hell is as terrible as heaven is delectable, then knowing the end times is eminently practical. Those who lose sight of the end can become careless in their conduct and arrogant in their rejection of God (cf. 2 Pet. 3:1–7). By contrast, a biblical eschatology provides a rationale for ethics that goes deeper than pragmatic concerns. With God’s help eschatology can chill our blood at the thought of sin and judgment and warm our hearts with God’s gracious work of redemption.

God invites us to meditate on the future not to speculate or altercate but to better share his perspective on this life and the life to come. And this is how we should study the topic. The way Scripture and our confessions teach eschatology is much more like gazing upon a dazzling sunset than analyzing and describing the chemical properties of the sun.3 We need more than a skeletal, technical, clinical understanding of the end times. We need to sense so deeply the dawning of the age to come that it radically affects our outlook on all of life.

So, how can a believing understanding of eschatology promote “holy conduct and godliness”? Here are ten answers; not to prove the validity of the study of the end times but to help us begin to praise God for the beauty of his promise to be with his people till the end (Deut. 31:6).

1. Eschatology Personalizes and Universalizes End-Times Reflection

The study of the last things is usually divided into two parts. The Bible teaches that the history of this age will one day come to an end (1 Pet. 4:7). Moreover, this present age will not quietly spin itself out of existence; it will end in an epic crisis and the start of a new age (2 Pet. 3:10–11). When we think about this crisis—the return of Christ, the last judgment, the realization of the kingdom, and the population of heaven and hell—we are studying general eschatology. General eschatology draws us into thinking more than simply about “what happens to me when I die.”

But before the coming of these great crises, most people will have experienced the end of this age through death. When we consider death, the continued existence of the soul, and the intermediate state into which the dead enter, we are engaged in individual eschatology. This discipline can help this-present-age-focused people meditate on their personal eternity.

2. Eschatology Elucidates Christian Theology

Eschatology is not an isolated doctrine. The last things can be studied as a doctrinal unit, one of the six heads of sacred theology. But the doctrine is also “a lens through which we come to understand the whole system of Christian faith and practice.”4 Studying the last things is like getting to the end of a novel; now the entire story begins to make sense. Abraham Kuyper noted that every other division of theology “left some question unanswered, to which eschatology should supply the answer.”5 For the doctrine of God, eschatology shows the completion of his work and providence. For the doctrine of man, it punctuates both the natural end of sin and God’s work of restoration. For the doctrine of Christ, it exposits the full meaning of Jesus’ words from the cross: It is finished (John 19:30). For the doctrine of salvation, it reveals how the Spirit will finally help bring about the deliverance that he has been sent to guarantee (1 Cor. 1:13–14). And for the doctrine of the church, it previews the glorious end of God’s people who are presently embroiled in spiritual conflict. The doctrine of the end times is not a segregated article of faith but the consummation of the Bible’s teaching on everything.

3. Eschatology Interprets Redemptive History

If we think of world history as a four-act drama—creation, fall, redemption, and restoration—we see how eschatology helps us understand each act.6 First, the end times help us understand the full trajectory of creation. In the early chapters of Genesis, we learn that God is not only infinitely creative but also deeply relational. The garden is a picture of God’s desire to dwell with his people in the beauty of a flawless friendship. But from the vantage point of Eden, it is not abundantly clear where God’s world is heading. Eschatology shows us how God leads his people from a garden to a city that is built around a beautiful and safe relationship with him.

Second, concerning the fall, everyone can sense the brokenness of this present age. Our conflicts and tears, bodily deterioration, and the certainty of death make us groan (2 Cor. 5:1–3). But our groaning is not just to escape our terrors or the aches and pains of our body. We groan to be “further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up in life” (2 Cor. 5:4). Eschatology helps shape our groaning according God’s promise of a better life (2 Cor. 5:1–4).

Third, in this present age, God is carrying on a work of redemption. Christ has come into our world offering peace and pardon. He has offered his blessed body to satisfy the demands of the law’s curse (Gal. 3:10). He invites us to believe in him and share in the benefits of his saving work. He has been raised from the dead to assure us that death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54). Eschatology helps us to rejoice in God’s already-present gift of salvation while reserving abundant hope for the life to come.

Fourth, one day God will restore his fallen people. Lest we become too comfortable or despondent in this present age, Scripture confronts us with “the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). Lest we dismiss this world as insignificant, Scripture insists that the coming full restoration will reflect a measure of continuity with this present age.

4. Eschatology Pinpoints Believers’ Current Place in History

We daily experience the tension of living between two worlds or ages. The New Testament regularly speaks of two successive ages or systems, “this age”7 (cf. Matt. 12:32; Rom. 12:2) or “the present age” (Gal. 1:4; 1 Tim. 6:17), and “that age” (Luke 20:35) or “the age to come” (Matt. 12:32; Eph. 1:21). “Believers live in the ‘last days,’ upon them ‘the ends of the ages are come,’ but ‘the last day,’ ‘the consummation of the age,’ still lies in the future . . . the contrast between these ages is (especially with Paul) that between the evil and transitory, and the perfect and abiding.”8 Understanding our place on God’s redemptive timeline delivers us from false expectations of a utopian age divorced from Christ’s second coming. It also helps banish nagging fears that “all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet. 3:4). We live in a time of labor though we anticipate an eternal rest.

5. Eschatology Reinforces a Biblical View of Ecology

If this physical world is just a sinking ship, waiting to be burned up with fire, with no correspondence to the life to come, then believers seem to have few compelling reasons to care for the environment.9 But if not only humans but also every square inch of God’s creation informs us of God’s pattern for the new heavens and the new earth, then we can be encouraged to care for the earth as if it were as special to us as it is to God.

6. Eschatology Offers Hope in Suffering

For the believer, reflecting on heaven provides an eternal context for our pain. This is what Paul has in mind when he says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present age are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). Jesus makes the same point with an illustration, “A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you” (John 16:21–22). The joy of restoration enables believes to face trials with unearthly contentment (cf. Heb. 12:2). Astoundingly, the Bible teaches that the joy that we look forward to in glory begins to impinge our hearts even now. In the Gospels, and especially in John, “the realities of the future life are so vividly and intensely felt to be existent in heaven and from there operative in the believer’s life, that the distinction between what is now and what will be hereafter enjoyed becomes less sharp.”10

7. Eschatology Moderates the Power of Politics

Every election cycle tempts us to either embrace the incoming leaders as messianic manifestations of God’s salvation or cower before the new regime as a sure sign of the end of the world as we know it. Your current leader is neither your savior nor one of the riders of the apocalypse; neither was the previous leader; neither will be the succeeding leader. Daniel’s glimpse into the future contrasts the indestructible kingdom of the coming savior Jesus (Dan. 7:14) with the hosts of rulers whose kingdoms are now buried under ash and dust. Eschatology does not discourage us from political action. But it does keep our eyes fixed on the one whose kingdom will know no end (Luke 1:33).

8. Eschatology Urges Personal and Vocational Excellence

One of the main purposes of both of Paul’s canonical letters to Thessalonica was to correct the believers’ faulty eschatology. Part of their error seems to have been a penchant for laziness since, they reasoned, “Jesus is coming back, of what account is my work?” Paul invokes the returning Christ to urge these believers to “work in quietness and eat [your] own bread” (2 Thess. 3:12). Matthew Henry commented on Jacob’s skill at the selective breeding of sheep in Genesis 30, “It becomes a man to be master of his trade, whatever it is, and to be not only industrious, but ingenious in it, and to be versed in all its lawful arts and mysteries.” The truth of this statement is magnified by the ongoing work of God in salvation and the consummation of his work promised in the doctrine of the last things.

Peter says that when Christ returns we will be “found by him” (2 Pet. 3:14). Each of us will be doing something when we are found by God. No child of God wants to be found sinning either through laziness or any other vice. And we don’t know when Christ will return (2 Pet. 3:10). So, since we will all appear before Christ and his judgment seat “we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him” (2 Cor. 5:9).

9. Eschatology Invigorates Missions and Evangelism

When Revelation shows us the redeemed in glory we have to realize that they were saved through the witness of believers in this present age (Rev. 20:4). God is patient in sending Christ because he is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). When we share God’s heart we will take up the Great Commission with new vigor. “The Church can be rightly understood only in an eschatological perspective . . . The meaning of this ‘overlap of the ages’ in which we live, the time between the coming of Christ and his coming again, is that it is a time given for the witness of the apostolic Church to the ends of the earth . . . The implication of a true eschatological perspective will be missionary obedience, and the eschatology which does not issue in such obedience is a false eschatology.”11

10. Eschatology Grounds Us in Christ

The Old Testament emphasis on the end times is largely centered on the history of Israel. The big question is, “What is the destiny of God’s people?” But the later prophets’ increased focus on the individual, masterfully prepares the way for the coming of Christ who at the same time, fulfills the calling of Israel to “do justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8) and opens by his blood a new and living way for individuals to enter into a restored life with God (Heb. 10:19–22). The last days began with the first coming of Christ. At the coming of Christ, as never before, was the contrast so stark between this present age, and the age to come; between this world and the next. To think eschatologically is to think Christologically.

One final caution. We need to exercise biblical reserve when we study the end times. The Bible hasn’t said nearly enough to satisfy the curiosity of the inquisitive. But Scripture has said enough about the end times to encourage us to study it. And when studied and believed, the doctrines of the last things can inspire us with the joy, patience, and holiness of the one whose return we eagerly await.

Questions

1. What is your interest level in the end times? What about the topic piques your interest?

2. Are there reasons that might incline you to not be interested in studying the end times?

3. What thoughts from this chapter have deepened your desire to better understand eschatology?

4. How do the following verses show God’s will for us to develop an “apocalyptic spirituality,” a spirituality that is shaped by a right reflection on the end times: 2 Corinthians 5:9–11, 1 Thessalonians 5:1–6, Hebrews 10:23–25, 2 Peter 3:8–9, 2 Peter 3:8–14?

5. In a few sentences, articulate some of the possible end-times assumptions of a person who is not steeped in the doctrine of Scripture.

6. Reflect on a time when the promise of a deadline and subsequent judgment moved you to action. Was it a term paper, a final exam, tax day? How do these kinds of illustrations fall short of describing believers’ anticipation of the last day?

7. When you think about the end of all things, do you tend to think more about how the end affects you in individual terms (death, glorification) or about the cosmic implications of the end of this present age?

8. How do individual and general eschatology balance each other?

 

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1. John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel (New York: Random House, 1999; Anne Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1959), 100–101.

2. See, for example, Bernard McGinn, ed., Apocalyptic Spirituality: Treatises and Letters of Lactantius, Adso of Montier-en-Der, Joachim of Fiore, the Franciscan Spiritualists, Savonarola, The Classics of Western Spirituality: A Library of the Great Spiritual Masters (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1979).

3. See especially The Belgic Confession, Article 37.

4. Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 906.

5. Quoted in Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 665.

6. See Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 95–103.

7. In many instances (e.g., Matt 13:22; Rom 12:2) the Greek aion is translated “world” but denotes less a place than an age or era and its spirit.

8. Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 26, 28.

9. Cf. Francis Shaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1970).

10. Vos, Redemptive History, 28. Cf. Belgic Confession, Article 37.

11. Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (New York: Friendship Press, 1954), 153–54.

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Rev. William Boekestein 
is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

Failure in Paradise: The Covenant of Works - 3

One thing that everyone knows for sure is that something is terribly wrong with the world; things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. The world is a messy place. There are wars, crime, shattered families, sickness, suffering, and death. Why is everything broken? And why do we naturally hope for something better? A human being cannot live without hope. Where does that sense of hope come from?

The answers to these questions are found in the biblical doctrine of the covenant of works. The covenant of works is the original state in which God created the first man, Adam. We can define the covenant of works as God’s commitment to give Adam and all those whom he represented glorified life for his obedience or the curse of suffering and death for his disobedience. The sad story is that Adam rebelled against God in this covenant, falling short of obtaining glorified life. And the whole human race fell with him. In Adam, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We were meant to live for far more than a brief life in a broken world. We were meant to live in glorified life with God, enjoying communion and fellowship with him forever. The hope of that glory was never realized. Instead, we live under the curse of death with frustrated and misguided hopes. We live with the expectancy of God’s judgment, unless someone rescues us. These are the results of Adam’s failure in paradise, the consequences of a broken covenant of works.

Yet, it is precisely because of the doctrine of the covenant of works that we can appreciate all of God’s promises in the covenant of grace. The covenant of works announces what God requires of us, namely, perfect obedience to his law. The covenant of grace, by contrast, proclaims how God fulfilled that requirement through the finished work of his Son, Jesus Christ. The covenant of works tells us that unless we are righteous by God’s standard, we will be punished for our sins. The covenant of grace tells us that God provides the righteousness of Christ through faith alone. Without hearing and understanding the bad news, we won’t appreciate the good news.

Although the concept of a covenant of works can be found in theologians as early as Augustine (354–430), it was developed more fully in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Reformed writers as they sought to teach and defend the biblical doctrines of original sin and justification by faith alone. They called the covenant of works by various names. Some called it the covenant of life, emphasizing the covenant’s goal of glorified, eternal life contingent upon Adam’s obedience. Others labeled it the covenant of creation because God made it with Adam when he created him. Still others have referred to it as the covenant of nature because of its connection to natural law, which fallen man suppresses in unrighteousness. The name “covenant of works,” however, highlights the means whereby Adam could merit eternal life. These varying names reflect different aspects of the same covenant. The point of all of them is the same, namely, to show how the law and the gospel stand upon a covenantal foundation.

For example, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583), the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, described the law of God as an expression of the covenant God made with Adam in the garden. In Question 10 of his Larger Catechism, he asks, “What does the divine law teach?” The answer is,

It teaches the kind of covenant that God established with mankind in creation, how he managed in keeping it, and what God requires of him after establishing a new covenant of grace with him—that is, what kind of person God created, for what purpose, into what state he has fallen, and how he ought to conduct his life after being reconciled to God.

Apart from the mediation of Jesus Christ, the law condemns sinners under the condition of a pre-fall covenant of works, a “covenant that God established with mankind in creation.” Mankind was subsumed under Adam’s federal headship in this covenant and subsequently fell with Adam into guilt and condemnation. Ursinus sharply contrasted the covenants of works and grace, equating the former (which he called the natural covenant) with the law, and the latter with the gospel:

Q. 36. What is the difference between the law and the gospel?

A. The law contains the natural covenant, established by God with humanity in creation, that is, it is known by humanity by nature, it requires our perfect obedience to God, and it promises eternal life to those who keep it and threatens eternal punishment to those who do not. The gospel, however, contains the covenant of grace, that is, although it exists, it is not known at all by nature; it shows us the fulfillment in Christ of the righteousness that the law requires and the restoration in us of that righteousness by Christ’s Spirit; and it promises eternal life freely because of Christ to those who believe in him.

The covenant of works (the law) requires perfect obedience to God and promises eternal life to those who keep it. The covenant of grace (the gospel) proclaims Christ’s fulfillment of the law and promises eternal life to all who receive Christ by faith alone.

By the 1640s, the doctrine of the covenant of works was codified in the confessional standards produced by the Westminster Assembly. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, for example, defines this covenant as follows: “When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon pain of death” (Q&A 12). Likewise, the Westminster Confession of Faith asserts, “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (7.2).

What Does the Bible Teach?

Let’s consider briefly a few passages. (For a fuller treatment of biblical texts that teach the covenant of works, see Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.)

Genesis 2–3. That the word covenant does not appear in the first three chapters of Genesis should not cause us any concern. The absence of the word does not mean that the covenant itself is absent. Have you ever considered the fact that the word sin does not appear in the first three chapters of Genesis? Yet, surely we would all agree that sin is very much present in the story of Adam’s fall. The Bible often describes objects or topics without using explicit terms or names. The matter is clear from the context of the story.

As the scene unfolds, Adam, the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge are front and center in the narrative. God gives Adam work to do. He is put in the garden of Eden to work it and guard it (Gen. 2:15). He is to be faithful in these responsibilities. Next, the Lord tells Adam: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (2:16–17). The Hebrew word for knowledge can also mean “choosing.” We could translate it as the “tree of choosing good and evil.”1 Clearly, this prohibition is a test. It raises the questions: Will Adam obey or disobey? Will he choose good or evil?

The prominence of the tree of knowledge sheds light on the tree of life. If the tree of knowledge is a tree of testing, carrying with it the penalty of death, the tree of life symbolizes God’s reward to Adam for his obedience. One tree leads to death, the other to life. The latter pointed to a quality of life greater than what Adam originally possessed in the garden. Although God created Adam good, in true righteousness and holiness, he intended something even greater for his people: glorified life in which sin and death was no longer a possibility. In order to reach that goal, however, Adam would need to be confirmed in his obedience to God’s covenant. Until he was confirmed, the possibility of failure and death hung over Adam’s head.

The plot thickens as the serpent enters the scene. He knows that if Adam is confirmed in his obedience to the covenant in which God placed him, he and all mankind will enter in to glorified life, thus reflecting God’s glory more fully. The serpent sought to derail God’s plan to bring his image bearers to glory by getting Adam to break the conditions of the covenant (obedience) and causing God to enact the sanctions of the covenant (death). Of course, the serpent didn’t know that long before creation God had already planned to send a second Adam, one who would obey God perfectly, pass the test that Adam failed, and earn for his people the reward of glorified life.

Hosea 6:7. The prophet Hosea refers to God’s original covenant of works with Adam as he laments Israel’s disobedience to the Lord: “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” Like Adam, Israel failed to obey God’s law. Israel’s constant faithlessness to keep the Mosaic covenant was similar to Adam’s transgression against God in the covenant of works. And like Adam, Israel suffered the curses of the covenant they broke. Just as Adam was expelled from the holy garden, so Israel was expelled from the holy land. Hosea’s interpretation of Genesis 2–3 reveals that Adam was in a covenant of works with God. 2

Romans 5:12–19 and 1 Corinthians 15:21–22. In both of these passages, the apostle Paul compares Adam and Christ as two federal heads or representatives: the first Adam represented the whole human race, while Christ represented the elect. In both cases, the performance of the federal head would have consequences for those whom they represented. Paul says that the disobedience of the first Adam resulted in condemnation and death for the whole human race, but the obedience of Christ resulted in justification and life for all those who put their trust in Christ. In other words, the means whereby the curse and the hope of eternal life came into the world are the same: the works of the federal head determined the outcome. This parallel between Adam and Christ is so important for Paul that he even calls Christ “the last Adam” in 1 Corinthians 15:45. In one sense, the Bible’s whole message is about these two Adams: the sin, guilt, and condemnation we inherited from the first Adam, and the forgiveness, righteousness, and eternal life we receive from the last Adam. Paul’s exegesis of Genesis 2–3 in Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21–22 reveals the biblical doctrine of the covenant of works.

Why Is This Doctrine Important for the Christian Life?

First, as mentioned above, the doctrine of the covenant of works helps us understand why the world is filled with suffering, violence, and death. The fallen condition of human beings, which we call “original sin,” is the direct (and catastrophic) consequence of Adam’s disobedience in the covenant of works. Because he refused to obey God in this covenant, the sanctions of guilt, corruption, and death were imputed to the human race. We live in a broken world because there is a broken covenant of works. This is important to remember, for we are prone to look for superficial solutions to the deep problem of sin.

Second, the covenant of works reveals that heaven must be earned, highlighting the active obedience of Christ and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The price of glorified life, according to the justice of God, is perfect obedience to his law. After the fall, this did not change. One must be righteous in order to be accepted by God and merit eternal life. The demands of God’s justice must be satisfied. This, of course, is precisely what Jesus did. As we saw in our treatment of the covenant of redemption earlier in this series, Christ is the one who earned heaven for us through his active and passive obedience. When he said, “It is finished” upon the cross, he was speaking of the work his Father gave him to do. He completed that work, earning justification and eternal life for us through his obedience. The covenant of works, therefore, draws our attention to the finished work of Christ, which brings us into a completely different covenant, a covenant of grace.

Ursinus put it this way in his Larger Catechism:

Q.135. Why is it necessary that the satisfaction and righteousness of Christ be imputed to us in order for us to be righteous before God?

A. Because God, who is immutably righteous and true, wants to receive us into the covenant of grace in such a way that he does not go against the covenant established in creation, that is, that he neither treat us as righteous nor give us eternal life unless his law has been perfectly satisfied, either by ourselves or, since that cannot happen, by someone in our place.

What God demands, Christ provides. Although we receive this through faith alone as a gift, it cost Christ everything. In this way, the covenant of works undergirds and supports the gospel message and the doctrine of justification. Conversely, to deny or redefine the covenant of works with Adam inevitably denies or redefines the active obedience of Christ imputed to the believer.

Finally, the doctrine of the covenant of works helps us to see the goal for which God made us and why we are creatures who hope. We were made for glorified life with God, symbolized in the tree of life. Have you ever wondered why the tree of life reappears at the end of the Bible, in Revelation 22? There John describes his vision of the new earth, resurrected in glory. He describes it as a place of communion with God, a place free from all evil and suffering, and a place of consummate joy. We will finally be free from all sin, sadness, and suffering. Worry, fear, and frustration will forever be things of the past. We will enjoy God’s good creation perfectly, and we will be constantly filled with wonder and contentment in him. Christ himself will be there. We “will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4), and we “will see his face” (Rev. 22:4). We will worship him, love him, and always be near him. This is the goal for which we were made, and where our gaze should be fixed throughout our earthly pilgrimage. It is our true home, and we belong there, for Christ has prevailed where Adam failed.

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1. See Geerhardus Vos’s discussion of this in his Biblical Theology (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 30–32.

2. For an excellent treatment of Hosea 6:7, see See Byron G. Curtis, “Hosea 6:7 and Covenant-Breaking like/at Adam,” in The Law Is Not of Faith, ed. Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko, and David VanDrunen (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), 170–209.

 

Rev. Michael G. Brown
is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA. He is the editor and contributing author of Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons. and co-author of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.

Grace Before Time: The Covenant of Redemption - 2

We begin our survey of covenant theology with a consideration of that covenant from which all other biblical covenants flow: the covenant of redemption. The covenant of redemption is essentially God’s blueprint for our salvation. Just as a house begins with a plan of meticulous engineering and technical design, so also did our redemption originate on the drafting table of God. Before the creation of the world, a plan was already in place to send the Son as the second Adam to remedy the disastrous results of the first Adam’s failure to fulfill the covenant of works in the garden of Eden and bring humankind to glory. The covenant of redemption was not a plan B to fix the mess Adam made, but the original blueprint for the work of Christ and the plan of redemption.

The covenant of redemption is the first of three overarching covenants in redemptive history, namely, the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. There are, of course, more covenants in Scripture, such as the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and so on. As we will learn in the subsequent articles in this series, however, these are subsets of the three overarching covenants. The first overarching covenant is the covenant of redemption. Sometimes referred to by its Latin title, pactum salutis, the covenant of redemption is the origin and firm foundation of the covenant of grace. Without it, there would be no election, no incarnation of the Son, no cross, no resurrection, and no promise of heaven. In short, there would be no salvation of sinners.

The covenant of redemption is unique for at least two other reasons. First, it was made between the persons of the Trinity, and not, as in most biblical covenants, between God and humans. The covenant of redemption is a pact between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit with the purpose of redeeming God’s elect. The Father gave to the Son those whom he chose to save and required him to accomplish their salvation though his obedient life and atoning death as the second Adam. He also promised the Son a reward on the completion of his work. The Son accepted the Father’s gift, agreed to the conditions of this covenant, and submitted himself to the Father’s will. The Holy Spirit promised to apply the benefits earned by the Son to the elect and unite them with the Son forever. Thus, we say the covenant of redemption is an intratrinitarian covenant between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Second, the covenant of redemption is unique because it was established before time. All other biblical covenants were made in time and history. The covenant of redemption, however, was made in eternity, before the foundation of the world and all things temporal. Thus, we say that it is a pretemporal covenant.

Therefore, behind all of God’s covenanting with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, and his elect stands the covenant of redemption. Planned from eternity by the members of the Godhead, the covenant of redemption is the basis and driving purpose of all redemptive history. We can define the covenant of redemption as the covenant established in eternity between the Father, who gives the Son to be the Redeemer of the elect and requires of him the conditions for their redemption; and the Son, who voluntarily agrees to fulfill these conditions; and the Spirit, who voluntarily applies the work of the Son to the elect.1

What Does the Bible Teach?

We should not be alarmed that the Bible never mentions the phrase “covenant of redemption.” The Bible teaches many key doctrines without ever using the same terminology that theologians have coined for those doctrines. For example, Scripture teaches the doctrine of the roman Trinity, yet never uses the word Trinity. Nevertheless, we can still use the word Trinity to refer more easily to the teaching of Scripture that God is one in essence yet three in person. The doctrine of the covenant of redemption is no different. Although the exact phrase does not appear in the Bible, the doctrine itself does. This becomes evident as the drama of redemptive history unfolds. God’s promise to send a Savior, first verbalized in Genesis 3:15, is progressively revealed in the Old Testament until it comes to fulfillment in the person and work of Christ. In the bright light of the New Testament, we see clearly that the relationship between the Father and the Son is covenantal in nature, involving a promised reward to the Son for his obedience to prescribed conditions.

We now turn to a few of the many passages in Scripture that teach this doctrine.

Psalm 40:6–8. This psalm reveals a covenantal relationship of obedience and reward between the Father and the Son, especially as it is interpreted by the book of Hebrews. David begins by describing how God rescued him from a slimy pit (40:1–2). He gives praise to God for his salvation and declares that the one who trusts in the Lord is blessed (40:3–5). Then, in verses 6–8, he makes an intriguing statement about the proper relationship between the Lord and the person who trusts in the Lord. “In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted . . . Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.’” It is not the sacrifices of animals in which God delights, but obedience to his commands.

Although David wrote this psalm, the writer to the Hebrews explicitly identifies the speaker in verses 6–8 as Christ. In Hebrews 10:5–10, after explaining how the sacrifices of the Mosaic covenant were inadequate to provide salvation, the writer says that Christ came into the world to do the Father’s will. Psalm 40:6–8 is essentially Christ’s loyal words to the Father as he submitted himself to the conditions of the covenant of redemption. The writer then makes the point that “by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10). Because Christ fulfilled the will of the Father through his active obedience, he has saved us and reconciled us to the Father. He satisfied the conditions of the covenant of redemption and, consequently, earned the promised reward.

Psalm 110. In this psalm, which is frequently quoted in the New Testament, the psalmist foretells of Christ’s exaltation and kingship. He describes the Messiah as receiving the reward for his active obedience; he sits at the right hand of the Father (110:1) and rules in the midst of his enemies (110:2). Yet the psalmist also describes the Father’s oath to the Son, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek’” (v. 4). As I noted in the first article of this series, the taking of oaths is an important aspect of covenant making throughout Scripture. The Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, for example, were both sealed with oaths. The same is true of the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son. Psalm 110:4 highlights the oath-bound character of this covenant. The Father seals the covenant with his oath and designates the Son as the mediating priest for the elect.

Again the book of Hebrews teaches this more clearly. In Hebrews 7, the writer compares Christ with Melchizedek in order to persuade his Hebrew-Christian audience of Christ’s rightful claim to the office of high priest, even though he descended from the tribe of Judah and not from the priestly tribe of Levi. Knowing that his readers were tempted to abandon the faith and return to Judaism, he makes the argument that if perfection could come through the Levitical priesthood, there would be no reason for a greater high priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, as foretold in Psalm 110. Applying Psalm 110:4 to Christ, he says, “For it is witnessed of him, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek’” (Heb. 7:17). He then highlights the fact that this appointment to the office of priest was with an oath: “And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: ‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever”’” (Heb. 7:20–21).

But when did this event occur? Scripture reveals no particular point in Christ’s earthly ministry in which the Father made this oath to the Son. Nor is there anywhere in the Old Testament where such an oath was made. We might note that in Hebrews 7:28 the writer makes reference to the fact that Psalm 110:4 was written long after the Mosaic law was given at Sinai and that this “word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.” Yet the word of the oath was revealed in the days of David the psalm writer, not the oath itself. The Father made this oath to the Son when he gave him his priestly assignment in the covenant of redemption.

Isaiah 53. This well-known prophecy about the suffering Servant also teaches us about the covenant of redemption by telling us that the relationship between the Father and the Son concerning the redemption of sinners is covenantal in nature; it has a relationship of obedience and reward. This is revealed even in his title, “my servant” (Isa. 52:13; 53:11), which is classic covenant terminology. (For example, in Isaiah 42:1–9, the Servant is explicitly called “a covenant for the people.” See also Isaiah 49:1–8.) Isaiah 53 not only foretells of the humiliation and anguish Christ experienced in his life and death but also of how his obedience to the will of the Father is the cause and basis of our redemption. After describing how Christ would be “crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5) under the weight of God’s wrath as our sin was imputed to him (Isa. 53:6), Isaiah says in verse 10, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him,” and “the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” In other words, the suffering of Christ was according to the Father’s will and, through Christ’s obedience to the Father’s will, his will was accomplished. This was not a haphazard or random idea; rather, this was a predetermined plan between the Father and the Son which resulted in the salvation of the elect. As Isaiah says in verse 11, it was through Christ’s obedience that he made “many to be accounted righteous.” His active obedience to the Father achieved the justification of his people.

The New Testament makes clear that this was a mutual agreement between the Father and the Son. Paul tells us in Philippians 2 that Christ “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:6–8). The Son was not forced into this plan of redemption. He did not go unwillingly to the cross. Rather, the Father gave him work to do, and he, in turn, submitted himself to the Father’s will and obeyed it perfectly.

That this was a reward for Christ’s obedience is explicit in Isaiah 53:12: “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong.” Because Christ accomplished the work the Father gave him to do, he earned the reward of a conqueror and the right to the spoils of war. The use of the word therefore indicates that Christ’s obedience (previously described in Isa. 53:1–11) has the consequence of a reward. Paul reflects this also in Philippians 2, where he goes on to say, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:9–11). Christ’s reward for his obedience was the justification of his people and the exaltation of his name, all of which is to the glory of the Father.

Thus, Isaiah 53, in the light of the New Testament, teaches us that our redemption is the result of Christ fulfilling the conditions and receiving the reward prescribed in a pact between him and the Father.

Romans  5:12–19. In this passage, Paul teaches us explicit analogy between Adam and Christ, showing that both of these individuals were federal representatives of other people. Whereas Adam’s disobedience in the covenant of works resulted in the condemnation of those whom he represented (that is, the whole human race), Christ’s obedience in the covenant of redemption resulted in the justification of those whom he represented (that is, the elect). Again, we are confronted with scriptural teaching of the obedience-reward relationship between the Father and Son. The Son obeyed the Father so that “the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19; cf. 1 Cor. 15:21–22).

Why Is This Doctrine Important for the Christian Life?

At first glance, we might be tempted to think of this doctrine as rather abstract and impractical, as if it has value only in the seminary classroom or the speculative conversations of professional theologians. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth.

First, the covenant of redemption teaches us about the love of God. The doctrine of the covenant of redemption reveals to us that there exists between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit perfect love and harmony. Their promises and commitments to each other demonstrate their love for each other. The Father’s love for the Son is expressed in his reward of a people whom the Son will rule as King. The Son’s love for the Father is expressed in his submission to the Father’s will, even at the highest personal cost. The Spirit’s love for the Father and the Son is expressed in his work to bring this plan to completion. And the Father and Son’s love for the Spirit is expressed in pouring him out on the church as their special gift from heaven. No member of the Trinity acts apart from the other two members.

Yet the doctrine of the covenant of redemption also teaches us that God is eternally moved to communicate to others this love that he experiences within himself. As Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949) put it, “Just as the blessedness of God exists in the free relationship of the three persons of the adorable Being, so man shall also find his blessedness in the covenantal relationship with his God.”2 God has decided to share his love with his elect. In his sovereign will, he chose to make us the objects of the eternal, mutual love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We did nothing to move him to this love, for he loved us while we were still sinners and his enemies (Rom. 5:8–10). Rather, he acted first by setting his love on us before the foundation of the world in this great covenant involving each person of the Godhead. In the covenant of redemption, we see that our salvation is trinitarian from beginning to end, carefully planned in eternity past and executed in human history. What amazing love is demonstrated by the fact that Christ came on a specific mission to fulfill his covenant obligations and obtain redemption for us!

Second, the covenant of redemption provides us with comfort and assurance. Knowing that our salvation was planned out by the triune God before the foundation of the world gives us unspeakable comfort. If you are a Christian, it is because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit covenanted together in eternity to save you. You are not a Christian because you are better, smarter, or possess a softer heart than other people. You are a Christian because the Father chose you in the Son, the Son fulfilled the conditions for your salvation, and the Spirit applied to you the redemptive benefits of the Son’s work. When you are tempted to doubt your salvation, remember that Christ said, “It is finished,” and that the Father is satisfied with the work of his Son. Your salvation remains secure, not because of anything you do, but because Christ finished the work the Father gave him to accomplish and satisfied God’s justice. Consequently, the Father has highly exalted him. The obedience-reward pattern in the covenant of redemption causes us to look to Christ rather than ourselves for assurance of our salvation. It highlights the obedience of our legal representative and the merit he earned for us in our place. What comfort this brings us as those who are often find ourselves troubled in conscience by the weakness of our faith and our failures in the Christian life!

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1. Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored (Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, 2012), 25. The material in this article is found in expanded form in that resource.

2. Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 245.

 

Rev. Michael G. Brown
is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA. He is the editor and contributing author of Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons. and co-author of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.

The Duty of Discipleship: Edifying the Church Intergenerationally

Christian discipleship is deceptively simple. When spiritually mature people convey their piety to others, discipleship is taking place. The good news is that discipleship doesn’t require scientific studies, tactical gurus, or expensive materials. But here is the bad news: if either ingredient is lacking—spiritual maturity or the communication of spiritual disciplines—discipleship cannot take place. In either case, God’s plan for the extension of his kingdom is neglected and the church suffers.

Assessing the Situation

The evidence suggests that increasingly adults are unable to fulfill the first criterion for discipleship. They are getting older but they are not maturing. A recent study by the Barna group indicates “that personal spiritual development is a secondary consideration for millions of [American Christians].” George Barna comments that “Americans focus on what they consider to be most important; faith maturity is not one of them.”1 The fact is, you cannot give what you do not have.

In addition, those who are maturing are not always discipling the young. According to another study, while ninety percent of Americans believe it is their duty to teach religious values to their children, “a majority of parents do not spend any time during a typical week discussing religious matters with them.”2 “The research discovered that tens of millions of parents are satisfied by simply enrolling their children in church programs”3

The combination of immature adults and disconnected youth results in a “perfect storm” that wreaks havoc in the church in several ways. First, a breakdown in discipleship perpetuates the increasing generation gap in the church, which flies in the face of God’s plan to build up his church intergenerationally. Second, failure in discipleship wastes valuable Christian energy. The church is made up of millions of energetic, bright young people who, instead of being useful in God’s kingdom will, without discipleship, struggle to learn on their own what should have been passed on to them. Attempting to learn by trial and error, they will endure needless pain of failure. It should go without saying that mature adults should not sit back and watch their children make the same mistakes they did. Finally, a disintegration of cross-generational discipleship affirms the anti-Christian message that the old are useless. According to the Bible nothing could be further from the truth.

Discipleship through Modeling

One of the best places to see God’s vision for true discipleship in the church is Titus 2, where God sets forth three important components. Mature saints are to be a pattern or example of good works. Paul wrote to Titus: “In all things, [show] yourself to be a pattern of good works” (2:7). The Greek word that Paul uses for pattern is the basis for our English word type. If you have seen the type hammer of a typewriter slam against the ribbon and paper, you understand Paul’s concept. Each hammer holds an individual type that is able to make copies of itself. Paul is saying to mature Christians, “You are the type of good works; make a good impression on those around you.” Since we are always making copies of ourselves, the question is, “How can we do this to the glory of God?

Be Transparent in Modeling

We will never fool our children into thinking that we are sinless. How then are we to be a good example? The answer is the gospel. We need to model to our young people our need for Jesus. Too often I give my children the impression that they are the sinners, not I. Sadly, such hypocrisy communicates to our children that they simply need to get more sophisticated in their sin and not get found out. If you are in Christ, then you know you need Jesus just as much as your children do. Be transparent in this.

Be Explicit in Modeling

Mature believers should also avoid being overly discreet in their exercise of godliness. Sometimes it is necessary to humbly provide those you are mentoring with commentary on your good works. Think about those do-it-yourself shows where the host models the skills of a carpenter or landscaper. He doesn’t just show what to do. He tells what he’s doing. In discipleship a good rule of thumb is show and tell. A father who is conscious of the duty of discipleship might explain to his son, “Daddy spoke in anger to Mommy tonight. I had to ask her to forgive me, and she did.”

Being explicit in our modeling also means explaining why we do what we do. The television carpenter does not just expect that his audience will pick up the rationale behind what he is doing. Likewise, the apostle Paul did not merely model bodily discipline before the Corinthians. He was explicit about his modeling: “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). Teaching by example requires interpretation.

Discipleship through Teaching

Mature Christians are also to be teachers (Titus 2:3). Teachers have two essential attributes: the possession of personal experience and the ability to communicate experience. There is a huge difference between a teller and a teacher. To teach is to inform, that is, to “form in” another person real experience that is known in the deepest sense of the word.

This formational character of teaching is demonstrated in Titus 2 when Paul writes that the older women are to teach the younger. Older women are able to enter into the lives of younger women in a way that a pastor could not possibly (or appropriately) do. From this we glean three important insights.

Teaching Is an Intimate Process

You cannot enter into and make an impact on the experience of a young person by staying at arm’s length or interacting with him superficially. This is why it is so important to keep the communication lines open and to press them continually deeper.

Teaching Is a Varied Process

The wise mother knows she cannot teach a girl to be a woman simply by lecturing. She knows the importance of affecting her life in as many ways as possible. So she engages in dialogue, relates stories of similar experiences, and explores possibilities. She asks questions, listens carefully, and offers advice. She lovingly embraces, sheds a sympathetic tear, and tenderly administers discipline.

Teaching Is Connected to Life

When we think about teaching we may think classroom. While classrooms may play a role in teaching, they tend to be artificial settings. By contrast, the Bible would have us teach our mentees when life is happening (Deut. 6). This is why formal education can at best only be part of the discipleship process. Since doctrine is life, religious teaching must be practical. We should cringe when we hear adults telling children, “You may not appreciate this now, but you will some day.” If they can not appreciate it now then it is probably not being taught well, and perhaps the teacher doesn’t even believe it is important. Jesus, the great teacher, entered into the lives of his students (in ways that we never will). In him wisdom took on flesh and blood and became practical. He was able to communicate real experience because he taught his disciples as life happened.

Discipleship through Training

The spiritually mature also need to train those with less experience (Titus 2:4 NIV). There are two prerequisites every true trainer possesses: personal ability and the wherewithal to equip others for a task. Mentors not only communicate experience but they also cultivate capacities. They not only inform; they also help the young to perform.

This implies working alongside of the one you are training. An on-the-job-training trainer doesn’t merely follow his trainees around, telling them what to do. He works alongside of them. And, as in biblical discipleship, the trainer avoids two extremes. One is over-involvement—simply doing the work for the trainee. The other is under-involvement—just giving orders.

Mentors must give skill-appropriate responsibilities, allowing the mentees to do the things the mentors could do better. Mentors must be certain that their “help” is actually helpful (neither enabling nor abandoning). Mentors must be quick to encourage, and gentle in rebuke.

Our Lord Jesus was the best mentor this world has ever known. His goal, accomplished through his atoning sacrifice, was to make his disciples something like himself. As we thoughtfully direct our less-experienced friends to Christ, we have every reason to expect good things. The call to discipleship is simple (though not easy). It is also serious. Remember this: Every young person you know is looking for a role model. What’s more, he or she will find one.

 

1. From “Americans Not Concerned about Their Spiritual Condition,” accessed on June 27, 2012, http://bit.ly/QjEQXS

2. From “Parents Accept Responsibility for Their Child’s Spiritual Development but Struggle with Effectiveness,” accessed on June 27, 2012, http://bit.ly/LCgpXo.

3. From “Spiritual Progress Hard to Find
in 2003,” accessed on June 27, 2012,
http://bit.ly/LCmjb1

 

Rev. William Boekestein
was the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA (URCNA) when he wote this article for The Outlook, July August 2012. He is the author of Life Lessons from a Calloused Christian: A Practical Study of Jonah

Rev. Boekestein is currently the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

The Log of Hyper-Calvinism

Introduction

One of my favorite promises in Scripture is “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” What a remarkable invitation! What my heart needs, and what all our churches need, is more of God’s grace. Daily grace. Sanctifying grace. Renewing grace.

And that grace is ours for the taking, like a wrapped gift under the Christmas tree with our name on it, if we would humble ourselves. It couldn’t get any easier, right?

But not so fast.

Why? Because it’s so hard to be humble.

I know I need grace, and God promises to give me grace if I would humble myself, yet I claw and fight against the very grace I want and need because I’m so proud and self-sufficient that I don’t think I really need it. “Wretched man that I am!” (Rom. 7:24).

We all, to one degree or another, have a problem with pride. Jesus called it a log issue. While we major in other people’s specks, we’re blind to the log protruding from our own eye.

This is what happens when we are so busy pointing out everybody else’s failures: our need for grace evaporates, God’s love no longer amazes, and we find identity in what we’re not instead of whose we are. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11) subtly becomes our rally cry and the posture of our heart.

But if we are too get the grace that we so desperately need, the grace that fuels and sustains and empowers us to a life of Christ-exalting worship, service, and witness, then it’s paramount that we take a good and hard look into the mirror of our own self-righteousness.

To that end, this series has been my attempt to identify some of our corporate logs; that is, the chief sins, weaknesses, and shortcomings of conservative Reformed churches that we are either ignorant about or unwilling to admit.

So far I have diagnosed the following six: legalism, familiarism, conservatism, elitism, tribalism, and retreatism. We come, lastly, to the seventh –ism, known as hyper-Calvinism.

Hyper-Calvinism: Its Diagnosis

Before I attempt to define what hyper-Calvinism is, it may be helpful to know what it’s not.

Hyper-Calvinism is not what we call people who are really passionate about being Reformed. Those are what we called “cage phase” people in seminary: new to the Reformed faith from a wilderness of theological and ecclesiastical confusion, often fundamentalism or Arminianism. The kind of folks whose newfound purpose was not only to show why they’re right, but also why everyone else is wrong.

Yet that is not what we mean by hyper-Calvinism.

While not all hyper-Calvinists agree on every matter, there is a thread that connects these adherents as a theological movement, and it is this common thread that I want to focus my attention on in the remainder of this article.

Much more could be written and has been written about the beliefs of hyper-Calvinism, but for the sake of this article and for this series, my concern is with its tragic tendency to sever the urgency for gospel preaching and evangelism all in the name of Divine sovereignty.

To quote Josh Buice, “When understood properly, hyper-Calvinism is a technical term for an extreme and unbiblical view that rejects any need for Christians to engage in missions and evangelism. Simply put, Hyper-Calvinists forbid the preaching of the gospel and the offer of salvation to the non-elect. Such people believe that God has chosen people in Christ in eternity past and will bring about His results without the help of His people.”

To illustrate using a historical example, an exchange took place in the nineteenth century between a young missionary by the name of William Carey, and that of an older minister and hyper-Calvinist, Mr. Ryland. When Carey stood up to discuss “the duty of Christians to attempt to spread the gospel among the heathen nations,” Mr. Ryland responded by loudly exclaiming, “Sit down, young man! When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine.”

In the mind of the hyper-Calvinist, Divine sovereignty swallows human responsibility. In other words, evangelism becomes pointless because God will save his elect no matter what.

But there is more, and it’s deeper than perhaps we realize. This isn’t just an issue that affects the church’s commission, but it gets to the heart of who God is. In this view, we may not, in fact we cannot, preach the gospel as an invitation to the sinner to come to Christ.

In other words, we cannot tell a person, “God loves you, and he demonstrated his love for you by sending his Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for your sins. If you trust in him today, your sins will be forgiven and you will be justified.” Why? Because God loves only the elect, and here’s the logic: if the person to whom you are speaking is not elect, then God doesn’t really love him. To suggest that God does love him is possibly to make God a liar.

But as Michael Horton shows in “Reformed Theology vs. Hyper-Calvinism,” “Here once again we are faced with mystery—and the two guardrails that keep us from careening off the cliff of speculation. God loves the world and calls everyone in the world to Christ outwardly through the Gospel, and yet God loves the elect with a saving purpose and calls them by His Spirit inwardly through the same Gospel (John 6:63–64; 10:3–5, 11, 14–18, 25–30; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:28–30; 2 Tim. 1:9).”

In other words, historic and confessional Reformed theology protects us from the error of hyper-Calvinism by affirming both God’s sovereignty and particular redemption on the one hand and the free offer of the gospel to everyone on the other.

Hyper-Calvinism: Its Symptoms

What are some of the symptoms of hyper-Calvinism? How, where, and when does it show up in our churches?

The first and most prominent is when our churches fail to preach the gospel as an urgent call to everybody who believes. This happens when we assume the gospel, or when we assume that nobody in our churches needs the gospel since they’re already elect (which points to another problem: thinking that only unbelievers need the gospel, but that’s for another article).

A related symptom is when our gospel preaching is constantly footnoted with an explanation of election. This happens, for example, when the preacher calls for belief in Christ yet then feels compelled to begin a five-minute diatribe on how nobody can come to God unless the Spirit draws them.

To be sure, that is true. Wonderfully and beautifully and graciously true! “You did not choose me, but I chose you” said Jesus (John 15:16). Yet Christ also said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Period. No qualifications, no doctrine of election footnote. A true, sincere, earnest invitation to come find rest in him.

Can we say that to people? Jesus did! When is the last time our sermons included a personal, passionate plea to come to Christ, without any excursus on election? Just straight up, come to Jesus now while it’s the day of salvation?

As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:20–21, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might bemuse the righteousness of God.”

Another symptom of hyper-Calvinism is the absence of evangelism and outreach. Could it be that one of the reasons we as Reformed churches struggle to evangelize our neighbors and communities is because deep down inside we’ve bought the narrative that says God will save his people without us, so why even try? In fact, why get in the way?

Yet, as Geoff Thomas writes, “When Calvinism ceases to be evangelistic it is a cerebral, chilling, and unattractive religious system.”

Historically, the Reformed faith has produced some of the most ardent and zealous missionaries the world has ever known. As J. I. Packer taught in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, it is precisely because God is sovereign that we have the confidence to be the ambassadors we’re called to be. Conversions don’t depend on us, our charisma, or how well we package the presentation. We preach Christ; God opens blind eyes. But we do preach Christ.

Hyper-Calvinism: Its Treatment

It shouldn’t be any surprise to you that I’m going to conclude this series as I have all the others, by argument that the best treatment for the disease of hyper-Calvinism is the gospel itself. Nothing more and nothing less than the pure, sweet, biblical announcement of the perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ for sinners.

God is sovereign. He chooses his people. We believe in unconditional election, irresistible grace, and particular redemption. But we also must affirm that we are called to preach this gospel to anyone and everyone, indiscriminately.

We don’t know who the elect are, so we are commanded to tell them all. And we can really say, sincerely and truly, “Christ died for your sins; believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved!”

The well-being of our churches depends on it. Our testimony depends on it. What this world needs is not a system of doctrine that cuts the heart out of the gospel we preach, but a message that offers the whole Christ to the whole person.

Praise God that he 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” (2 Pet. 3:9).

May our conservative Reformed churches show the world that to be Reformed is to preach the good news of Christ for sinners. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:16–17).

Rev. Michael J. Schout
is the pastor of Grace URC in Alto, MI.
He welcomes your feedback at mikeschout@gmail.com.


Current Issue: July August 2017
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