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“I Am the Light of the World”: A Meditation on John 8:12–20

This is the second devotional on the “I am” series of statements of Christ found in John’s Gospel. Read John 8:12–20 prayerfully and then keep your Bibles open.

The statement of our Savior focuses upon light. Light extinguishes darkness. As we come to our passage, we are reminded that by nature humans are in darkness. One way to describe the fall is that man fell from light. The world was plunged into darkness. (R. C. Sproul has written an excellent children’s book dealing with this theme called The Lightlings. Read it to your children.) The darkness of the human heart is what Jesus addresses in John 8:12–20. As you read this devotional article, ask yourselves what it means that Jesus is the light of the world and what our calling is in reflecting that light to those around us.

A Divine Claim

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” This statement was profound, prophetic, fulfilling, angering or comforting, and divine. To help us wrap our minds around this, we must understand what is taking place. The Feast of Tabernacles or Booths is about to come to an end. This was one of three national feasts the Jews celebrated. In John 7:37, it refers to the last and greatest day of the feast. What happened on the last day of the feast and the others was that in the temple the two golden menorahs were lit, the candelabra with seven lamps or candles. The court of the women would be lit, the city would be illuminated, and from the surrounding hills the temple could be seen lit up. Once the candles are blown out, then darkness hangs over the city. It is in this context that Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

In the previous article, the significance of the use of the term “I am” by Christ was mentioned. In Greek, the two simple words ego eimi mean “I am.” Not only is this a reference to the divine and God’s revelation of the covenant name at the burning bush, but also, more specific to our text, is the fact that it was God who would be a light to the nations. There is a double reference to God as the light: He is light to the elect Jews and to the nations.

As we turn for a moment to the Old Testament, we can see that Jesus’ statement is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Psalm 104:1–2 says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, You are very great: You are clothed with honor and majesty, Who cover Yourself with light as with a garment, Who stretch out the heavens like a curtain.” God covers Himself in light. We must understand this to be the fact that God is adorned as light, Himself giving light its source. God is the light, and now Jesus is claiming to be the light.

Isaiah of all the prophets develops the messianic theme of light. Isaiah 9:2 says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.” That beautiful verse corresponds to John’s prologue, where we read, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:4–9; for further reading, see Isa. 42:6–7a [John 9]; Isa. 49:6 [cf. Mal. 4:2]). When Jesus says that He is the light of the world, He is claiming to be the Messiah, the suffering servant of Isaiah, the one who would build His church by bringing light also to the Gentiles.

There is another Old Testament connection taking place in the earlier context of John. This connection is with the wilderness. The greatest miracles and blessings of the wilderness wandering culminate in Jesus Christ. In John 3, Jesus connects His death on the cross for the salvation of sinners with the serpent on a pole in the wilderness. As we get closer to John 8:12–20, we remember that previously Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” He referred to Himself in John 6:58 as that bread which is greater than manna. In John 7:37–38, Jesus connects Himself to the water in the wilderness. But, unlike temporary water from the rock, Jesus will give streams of living water by way of the Holy Spirit. Now, Jesus calls Himself the light of the world. What was Israel’s light in the wilderness? Exodus 13:21–22 says, “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night from before the people.” It was that pillar of cloud and fire that gave light and clarity to the Israelites and darkness and confusion to the Egyptians (Exod. 14). Now Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Following the light is what Israel was to do on their way to the Promised Land. Do you see the redemptive theme? We also are to follow the light as we make our journey to the Promised Land. Now it should be getting clearer why the Pharisees were so angry at Jesus.

He not only calls Himself the “I am” a second time, but also He connects His person and work to God’s great work of redemption in history. As a light to the world, He expands the church outside of the walls of Israel. He is the light of the world. The bright candles in the temple which illuminate all around the temple are blown out. Jesus is the light that will pierce the darkness. His teaching here is directed at the hypocritical Pharisees, as we will see in a moment. In John 9:5 Jesus repeats this statement. This happens as He heals a man who was born blind. His whole life the man saw nothing but complete darkness, and Jesus miraculously restored the sight he never had. As this man’s retinas are filled with light, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” Jesus’ statement comes to the spiritually blind Pharisees and to the man born blind, who because he was healed by Jesus will be excommunicated from the temple.

To put it in other words, Jesus is saying, “I am the light of the world” to the religious elite and to the religiously lost. What He is saying to the Pharisees and to us if we are not on guard is if we are not following Jesus, if we are not looking to the light, if we are not walking in the light, if we seek light from elsewhere, we are like the Pharisees. As Paul tells the Corinthians, to do many amazing things without love is nothing. So too, to live an outwardly religious life without the inward renewal of the spirit is nothing. To surrender our time, money, energy, even prayer to the Lord without the surrendering of our hearts, what profit is it?

This is what Jesus means by following Him. It means to believe in Him and to trust Him. The famous book by Charles Sheldon, In His Steps, written nearly a century ago, gets at this. What if in every decision you made in life, you asked, “What would Jesus do in this situation?” Now, there are some problems with the question, partly because Jesus would never get Himself into compromising situations as we often do, but the main thrust is the same. The result of believing or of following Jesus is that the deeds of darkness or of the flesh are taken off and the fruit of the Spirit is put on (Gal. 5). The tree must be good before the fruit can be good.

Remember that when outsiders come to worship. Don’t expect outward piety if there is not yet inward renewal. To expect people from the outside to act like Christians or talk like Christians before they have followed the light is a contradiction. It doesn’t make sense, and even worse, it might encourage a negative form of Pharisaism.

What Jesus is saying to those still in darkness is that there is a light that had come into the world. He will provide the only solution to those things which flourish in darkness: sin, brokenness, frustration, spiritual depression, loneliness. What Jesus provided the man born blind is the same thing He gives to those who follow Him: He gives them eyes to see. So, when sin or temptation arises, they can see it; when brokenness abounds, they can see through it and sail those waters. Following the light doesn’t mean that everything in the rest of your life will be easy. The man born blind was insulted by the Pharisees and then excommunicated. “‘Since the world began it has been unheard of that anyone opened the eyes of one who was born blind. If this Man were not from God, He could do nothing.’ They answered and said to him, ‘You were completely born in sins, and are you teaching us?’ And they cast him out” (John 9:32–34). They threw out the man born blind because they hated the one who healed him. In John 9:35–38, how did the man respond? In faith. He didn’t cry because the religious elite had barred him from their legalistic blindness; rather, he worshipped Jesus.

A Necessary Response

There is always a response to the proclamation of the good news. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” Jesus claimed to be God. The same is true with the preaching of the Word. “The flower fades, the grass withers, but the Word of the Lord stands forever.” Jesus is that Word, which John said has come into the world: “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (John 1:11–12). “His own” is a reference to the Jews. How did they respond?

They raised all kinds of weak counterarguments (John 8:12–20). First, they claimed that Jesus cannot say those things because He wasn’t permitted to testify for Himself, so then Jesus’ testimony is not valid. This could be true if it was not for the fact that Jesus was the omnipotent, omniscient, sinless one. He says that His Father can testify for Him.

Second, they object about His father as a witness. In verse 19, they ask, “Where is Your Father?” Jesus reply was spot on: “You do not know Me or my Father.” They were spiritually blind: the Light had come to shine in the world and they did not recognize it. The law and the prophets testified to it, and the Psalms and the Wisdom literature testified to it. The suffering servant of Isaiah had come as a light into the world, and the very thing that Isaiah said would take place is about to take place. God will lay on Him the transgression of us all.

The third objection was to the fact that where He was going they could not go. They thought He was going to commit suicide (John 8:22). Jesus said He is not of this world, but they are; they are from below. He is not about to commit suicide; they are about to commit homicide. They are about to crucify an innocent man, though verse 20 reminds us that His time hadn’t yet come.

But they will commit homicide. They will seek to put out, to snuff out the light of the world, but they cannot. For this light is not a light from men. He is not the light of the candelabra which burns for a week and then everything goes out and all is dark again. No, this is the light sent from God. This is the one who said, “Whoever follows me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life.”

The man who was born blind and was healed humbled himself and worshipped Jesus. He believed that indeed Jesus was the Son of Man, the light sent from God. The religious leaders, hardened and angry, sought to destroy Jesus. They said He was a liar and an imposter. Who do you say He is?

Are you following the light? Is Jesus your light among the darkness of this world? A couple of years ago I went camping, and there was a trail, a shortcut through the woods to the bathroom. I went with my wife, and we took one flashlight. The trail narrowed, and she went ahead with the flashlight and I followed right behind her. But something happened. I tripped and fell over a tree root. The problem was that the light wasn’t bright enough, and I had not followed closely enough. Spiritually, sometimes we fall as we walk through the woods of life, don’t we? We stumble in sin and discontent. When we do, repent, but also ask yourself, are you walking close to the light, or have you slowly fallen back a bit? When you think about your life and your relationship with the Lord, isn’t it true that when you are most often in prayer and in devotion, in Bible study and Bible reading and worship attendance, that things seem to go better? The fact is that things might not be going much differently; however, if we are walking close to the light of God’s Word, our path is illuminated. We are reminded that we depend upon the Lord for guidance.

When the storms clouds come upon us, we are sheltered by God. In the darkness of a broken relationship, or a struggle with addiction, or a difficult child, or a difficult parent, it is Jesus who sheds light upon our path. Follow Him! He said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Follow Him, live in Him, trust in Him, and be comforted in the truth that you belong to Him. The light has come into the world, and it is Jesus. Hallelujah, what a Savior!

 

Rev. Steve Swets
is the pastor of Rehoboth United Reformed Church in Hamilton, ON.  

The “In Christ” Relationship Dr. Harry Arnold

When I was a first-year student at Calvin Theological Seminary one of the required courses was New Testament Introduction. In that course, taught by Dr. William Hendriksen, we were introduced to the Book of Ephesians. One of the first things that Dr. Hendriksen said was that the “in Christ” relationship was central in Paul’s epistles. He also stated that Dr. C. R. Erdman of Princeton regarded the “in Christ” relationship as the most important phrase in the epistle. In Dr. Erdman’s own comments on the phrase (Eph. 1:1), he writes:

Furthermore, the phrase “in Christ Jesus,” is to be understood as usually employed by Paul. It denotes a vital union and fellowship with Christ. Possibly it is the most significant and characteristic of all phrases used by the apostle. He conceives the whole Christian life as being lived “in Christ.” So here the spiritual constancy and fidelity of these readers is regarded as due to their relationship to their Lord. They not only believe in him and are faithful to him, but they are in him. He is the very sphere of their existence; he forms the sum and substance of their being. For them “to live is Christ.” (Commentary of Paul to the Ephesians [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1931], 24–25)

A little study of the use of this phrase in Scripture will indicate that these professors were correct in their assessment of its importance. It is quite evident from Ephesians 1:3 that every spiritual blessing has its origin “in the heavenly realms.” And that, of course, is where the ascended Christ lives and from which He reigns. Therefore, believers receive every spiritual blessing from Him. As Dr. Hendriksen notes in his commentary on Ephesians 1:1, “Those addressed are ‘in Christ Jesus.’ That is, they are what they are by virtue of union with him” (Ephesians, New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967], 70). Furthermore, he adds: “Had it not been for their connection with Christ, a connection infinitely close, these people would not now be saints and believers. Moreover, their present life of faith has its center in him. For them ‘to live is Christ’ (Phil. 1:21). They now love him because he first loved them” (ibid., 71).

In complete agreement with the assessment of both of these New Testament scholars, Dr. J. R. W. Stott has written:

The commonest description in the Scriptures of a follower of Jesus is that he or she is a person ‘in Christ.’ The expressions ‘in Christ,’ ‘in the Lord,’ and ‘in him’ occur 164 times in the letters of Paul alone, and are indispensable to an understanding of the New Testament. To be ‘in Christ’ does not mean to be inside Christ, as tools are in a box or our clothes in a closet, but to be organically united to Christ, as a limb in the body or a branch in a tree. It is this personal relationship with Christ that is the distinctive mark of his authentic followers. (“In Christ”: The Meaning and Implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, address, 1983, published in Knowing and Doing: A Teaching Quarterly for Discipleship of Heart and Mind, C. S. Lewis Institute, http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/In_Christ_FullArticle)

The abundant use of this phrase by the apostle Paul indicates how central it was to his thinking. Consequently, when Paul writes that believers are “blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3), we must realize that this is a comprehensive statement. It, therefore, implies that every aspect of our salvation is connected to Christ. Let’s consider for a moment some important aspects of our salvation which are involved.

First, to be “in Christ” involves God’s work of election. He has chosen these believers to be in Christ. From eternity God determined that they would hear the gospel and should believe in Jesus Christ unto salvation. The very foundation and certainty of their salvation is rooted and grounded in God’s electing grace. As Paul reminds the Ephesian believers: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God—not of works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). Their salvation is secure because the “good shepherd laid down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Moreover, they were “predestined to be adopted as his [God’s] sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5). In the words of an old song we can gratefully sing:

’Twas sovereign mercy called me And taught my opening mind;

The world had else enthralled me, To heavenly glories blind.

My heart owns none before Thee, For Thy rich grace I thirst;

This knowing, if I love Thee, Thou must have loved me first.

Josiah Conder, 1836
(Cent. Ps. Hymnal, 385:2)

Another benefit of being “in Christ” is referred to as “redemption through his blood” (Eph. 1:7). That is, the atoning blood that was required to cover sins was given by Christ Jesus. Scripture informs us that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). Jesus came into the world to save sinners; therefore, He shed His blood for forgiveness of our sins, “so that he was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people” (Heb. 9:28). Thus, when one is in Christ “we have our redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph. 1:7–8).

Furthermore, because believers are “in Christ” they are sealed with the Holy Spirit, “who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance unto the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:14). Thus, in vital relationship with Christ, Paul could write to the Philippian believers, “to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). By the Holy Spirit’s working in them, believers can say with the apostle Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20–21).

Moreover, since believers are united to Christ as members of a body to the head, they also become members of each other by virtue of their union with Christ. Thus, the whole idea of the unity of the church as one body is related to the connection to Christ. And believers being “in Christ” bring joy to others as they live in Him. Besides, while “to live is Christ,” they also have hope for the eternal future because when they die they are going to be “present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). Besides, since Christ is “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20), believers who are in Christ also die in the hope that they “will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22) at the resurrection of the dead in the Last Day.

No wonder then that the phrase “in Christ” may be considered perhaps the most significant in the New Testament. In short, to be in Christ is the status of all believers in Him. If one is not in Christ, he or she is among the rest of the multitude of the human race who “remain under the wrath of God” (John 3:36). Therefore, we can say that unbelievers are not in Christ and consequently lack the comfort of union with Christ in the present life. They also lack any hope of a resurrection to life in the Last Day. These blessings are reserved for God’s chosen ones who profess to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

There are some who would question whether the Scripture teaches that only believers are “in Christ” since the apostle Paul writes to Timothy about having “our hope in the living God who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10). Surely, however, the apostle cannot be teaching in this text that all are saved. He definitely makes a distinction between those of whom God is “the Savior of all men” and those of whom God is the Savior of “especially those who believe.” The simplest and plainest way to understand what Paul is saying here is to acknowledge that there is a sense in which God is the Savior of all. As Jesus taught: “Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35–36). God by His providential care and benevolence is the Savior, or Deliverer, Benefactor of all people, believers and unbelievers alike. The apostle Paul makes a similar affirmation regarding the activity of Christ when he writes: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). That is all true in a general sense regarding all people. However, in the spiritual, redemptive sense, God is the Savior “especially of those who believe.” Those who believe are the ones who are in Christ. They are the ones whom God “in love predestined to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Eph. 1:5). Thus, believers in Christ are the objects of God’s electing grace, redemption, and forgiveness of sins, and of the Holy Spirit’s seal of their inheritance. Believers alone are the ones of whom it can be said “to live is Christ” and who, therefore, live with confidence of an eternal future in His presence.

This not to say, though, that among the unsaved there may not be some who claim to be “in Christ” without it actually being so. After all, many throughout the centuries have made profession of being the Lord’s people but in the judgment are rejected. As Jesus Himself teaches us: “Many will say to me on that day [of judgment], ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evil doers’” (Matt. 7:22).

The apostle of our Lord also foresaw the appearance of such false professors and even contended against them. The apostle John, for example, wrote of those who once professed faith in Christ but then forsook His body, the church. In his first epistle he indicates that such apostasy is indicative of the presence of antichrists. Of such people he writes: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (1 John 2:19). In a similar way, there are many nominal Christians today who profess to believe in Jesus but want nothing to do with His church. This dichotomy between professing Christ and ignoring His church surely will be exposed in the Last Day when the Lord says, “I never knew you.” One cannot love Jesus and reject His body, yet still have a well-founded hope for the future! Rather, we believe with the Belgic Confession, regarding the obligation of church members, that all people are obliged to join and unite with it, “keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline, by bending their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and by serving to build up one another, according to the gifts God has given them as members of each other in the same body” (Article 28, par. 2).

It is obvious, therefore, that if one is “in Christ” he will profess Jesus as Savior and Lord not only, but also unite with the Lord’s body, the church. To be in relation to Christ is to experience union with His body as well. That the church will have to contend continually with false professors is evident from the apostle Paul’s warning to Timothy: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times, some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). We must understand here that those who “will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits” are those who once professed to believe in Christ and gathered in worship with His church. In other words, they were presumed to be in Christ. But in forsaking the faith, they reveal their true identity as being outside of Christ. Truly, their judgment will be severe!

Inasmuch as being “in Christ” is the source of one’s salvation and of every spiritual blessing, we must ask the question: How then does a person get to be united to Christ?

The Scripture is very clear in teaching that the union between Christ and a believer is consummated by faith. We know, of course, that the elect are “in Christ” from eternity, and their salvation is, therefore, secure. However, from the temporal and experiential point of view, the following is also true, as Dr. Charles Hodge states it:

They [believers in Christ] are “by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:3). They remain in this state of condemnation until they believe. Their union is consummated by faith. To be in Christ, and to believe in Christ, are, therefore, convertible forms of expression. They mean substantially the same thing and, therefore, the same effects are attributed to faith as are attributed to union with Christ. (Systematic Theology, 3:104)

Hearing the gospel and responding to it in penitence and faith is so essential to one’s salvation that the Reformed churches confess the saving power of the gospel in these words: “What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law can do, God accomplishes by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the Word or the ministry of reconciliation. This is the gospel about the Messiah, through which it has pleased God to save believers, in both the Old and New Testament” (Canons of Dordt, III–IV, Art. 6).

The church must take seriously, therefore, the command of the Lord to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18). This is so because the gospel is the means of calling “sinners to repentance and faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). Only sinners who respond to the gospel in penitence and faith can experience being “in Christ.” Where such response to the gospel occurs we can be sure that the Holy Spirit has been active and has wrought regeneration and saving faith in the believer. Thus, God alone receives the credit, praise, and glory even when one comes to believe unto salvation. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). As believers are those who are in Christ, our relationship to Him is like a branch in a vine, as Jesus Himself declared to His apostles: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

We conclude, finally, that since the source of all spiritual blessing is “in Christ” which we experience by faith, we should be motivated to seek to know Christ better. Our heart’s desire should be to be fruit-bearing branches in the vine, Christ Jesus, which will attest to our vital union with Christ Himself. Then we should be able to say with the apostle Paul that we want “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10–11). Those who are in Christ will gratefully sing forever the words of John Newton’s hymn:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.

 

Dr. Harry Arnold
is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church and lives in Portage, MI.
He is a member of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

 

Breathed Out by God

!n 1957, E. J. Young, a professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, wrote, “To say that Christianity is now at cross-roads is to engage in the trite and the commonplace.”1 If that was true then with Protestant liberalism, it is true now with so-called postmodernism’s infection in the church—which is just liberalism all over again.

It seems every generation needs to have their own battle for the Bible against enemies outside as well as inside the church. The doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is one of those basic truths about the Word of God we need to understand and fight for (Jude 3). Second Timothy 3:16 is one of the basic texts where this teaching is found.

What Inspiration Is Not

Sometimes it’s helpful in learning something to learn what it is not first. So let me briefly explain what inspiration is not.

When we say the Scriptures are “inspired” we are not saying this merely because they move us religiously, spiritually, or emotionally. For example, the inspiration of Scripture does not mean the same thing as when we say we felt inspired after reading a poem or hearing a speech. This has sometimes been called the “dynamic view” of inspiration. What these people mean is that the Holy Spirit affected only the writers and not their writings. Therefore inspiration is understood to be a literary or religious inspiration.

When we say the Scriptures are inspired we are not saying that they become the Word of God as we encounter them. This is the neo-orthodox view of Karl Barth and his followers, the Barthians. For example, they say that in the “crisis” of encountering the Word of God, it comes alive and affects us in a certain way. This places inspiration, again, in us, and not in the words themselves.

Finally, when we say the Scriptures are inspired we are not saying that they contain the Word of God like corn in a husk. Some say that the Scriptures are inspired in their theological and ethical teaching but cannot be trusted on issues of historicity, archaeology, and chronology. For example, there is a novel view today that says we believe Genesis 1–2 teaches that God created everything. Of course we would agree with this. The problem is that this is all some say the Scriptures teach. They say the rest we leave to science. Therefore, “Adam” was a product of evolutionary process since we all know evolution is fact. But the Scriptures never say to us, “Don’t listen to this part”; instead, it speaks with authority in all its parts and assumes that all its parts come from God.

What Inspiration Is

In contrast, we receive, believe, preach, read, and seek to live in obedience to the Word of God because its words are the very words of God to us. Why do we say this? In the words of the apostle, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). The Scriptures are “of God,” as the King James Version translates the phrase. The word Paul uses is theopneustos, which is literally “breathed out by God.”

The idea that Paul is communicating is that the Scriptures come directly from God. The imagery comes from the Old Testament:

The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deut. 8:1–3)

The commandments of God are described as coming forth out of the mouth of the Lord, that is, they are His very words. Psalm 33:6 also says this. The idea is that just as God breathed and the heavens and earth were created, so when God breathed out His word He was engaging in creative activity.

This means that we believe in a verbal inspiration, that is, the very words themselves are given by God. As Jesus says in Matthew 5, even the jots (the Hebrew letter yod) and the tittles (the serif part of a letter), are inspired. In Matthew 22:43–45 and in Galatians 3:16 entire arguments are based on the tense of a verb and the number of a word. This also means that we believe in a plenary inspiration, that is, that the entire words are the very words of God.

I mentioned before that this is why our forefathers called Scripture ipsissima verba Dei, “the very words of God.” And our Protestant forefathers said precisely what the holy catholic church has always said in saying this. For example, one of the earliest Christian apologists, that is, defenders of the faith, was Justin Martyr, who said, “When you hear the utterances of the prophets spoken as it were personally, you must not suppose that they are spoken by the inspired themselves, but by the Divine Word who moves them.”2 One of the great trinitarian theologians of the ancient church, Gregory of Nyssa, said, “All things the Divine Scripture says are utterances of the Holy Spirit.”3 Finally, in his Confessions, Augustine wrote like he was having a dialogue with God, in which God says to him, “O man, to be sure I say what My Scripture says.”4

Where Paul Learned It

We receive, believe, preach, read, and seek to live in obedience to the Word of God because its words are the very words of God to us. This is what Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16. Let me further explain where Paul learned it.

First, Paul learned this from the Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord over and over again affirms the Old Testament as the very words of God (e.g., Matt. 5:17; 26:53–56; Luke 18:3ff., 22:37; 24:25ff.; 24:44ff.; John 5:39; 13:18; 15:25; 17:12). This is why He says in John 10:35 that the Scripture cannot be broken. This is why He says in Luke 16:17 that it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for a single stroke of one letter in the law to pass away. And as Lord of the church, Jesus approved the coming New Testament writings since He chose as His apostles those who knew Him during His entire ministry, those who witnessed His resurrection, and those whom He promised to send His Spirit upon to lead into all truth (John 14:26; 16:12–14).

Second, Paul “learned” this from his fellow apostles. For example, Paul calls the Gospel of Luke “Scripture” (1 Tim. 6:18). Peter puts Paul’s writings on the same level as the Old Testament in 2 Peter 3:15–16. Luke, in the Book of Acts, says the apostles spoke in the Spirit (Acts 2:4; 4:8; 6:10). The Book of Hebrews speaks of the Old Testament as the words of the Spirit (Heb. 3:7) and then tells us we need to pay attention to what we have heard from Christ, the apostles, and in his letter (Heb. 2:1–4).

Third, Paul learned this from his fellow countrymen, as a trained rabbi. This is why both Romans 3:2 and Acts 7:38 describe the Jews as keepers of the “oracles of God.”

Fourth, Paul learned this from the Old Testament itself. The prophets’ own witness is key here. They were conscious of bringing the word of the Lord: “Thus says the Lord” is used hundreds of times (e.g., Jer. 36:27).

Conclusion: So What?

Let me conclude by asking, So what? Why does this matter? In other words, what happens when we lose this doctrine of inspiration? In God Has Spoken, J. I. Packer offered five reasons why this is important in terms of what we lose if we reject the Bible’s own doctrine of inspiration.5

First, if we lose the doctrine of inspiration preaching is undermined. If Scripture is not breathed out as we have seen it, then a preacher becomes something other than a proclaimer and herald of the words of God. He becomes an entertainer, a stand-up comic, or a therapist. He proclaims his own words, not the words of God.

Second, if we lose the doctrine of inspiration teaching is undermined. If Scripture is not breathed out as we have seen it, then what are we to teach our children around the dinner table? Why get together for a women’s Bible study if the Bible is not the Word of God in everything it says? In the end, we will be led to ask Pilate’s sad question, “What is truth?”

Third, if we lose the doctrine of inspiration faith is weakened. If Scripture is not breathed out as we have seen it, then there is nothing sure to cling to by faith in the struggles and temptations of life. How can I know God’s comfort if I don’t know if He’s spoken and what He’s spoken?

Fourth, if we lose the doctrine of inspiration Bible reading is discouraged. If Scripture is not breathed out as we have seen it, then why read it? Put your Bible reading plans away. Stop waking up early to read it. Why waste your breath in reading it to your children? It is no different than Aesop’s Fables.

Fifth, if we lose the doctrine of inspiration Christ is hidden from view. If Scripture is not breathed out as we have seen it, then Jesus is not publicly placarded before His people, He is not the sum and substance of the various books, and He becomes a mere example to follow.

But we receive, believe, preach, read, and seek to live in obedience to the Word of God because its words are the very words of God to us.

1. E. J. Young, Thy Word Is Truth (1957; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1997), 13.

2. First Apology, 36.

3. Against Eunomius, 7.1.

4. Confessions, 13:29.

5. Packer, God Has Spoken, 28–30.

 

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

 

Our “Famine of the Word”

Recently I had lunch with several friends. One of my colleagues had visited several days earlier with the pastor of a large evangelical church in an area where many Christian Reformed Churches are located.

The pastor mentioned that many Christian Reformed people were attending his church and that not a small number of them were joining. As we ate lunch that day we asked the question, “Why?” The suggestion was made that perhaps some of these people were hungry to hear the gospel: the church about which we were speaking is neither Reformed in its theology nor is it Pentecostal. It is known for its clear, forceful presentation of the gospel and the demands of the gospel upon daily life. Some members of the Christian Reformed Church seem to be finding there what they are not finding in their own churches.

As I have been reflecting upon our conversation I recalled a visitor in our own church several weeks ago who has been a leader in his own church, which is one of the larger congregations in our denomination and which is now without a pastor. As we chatted together following the service he said to me, “I can count on one hand the number of visiting pastors who have preached the gospel since we have been vacant.” And he was greatly burdened. I recall those occasions when our own family has sat under the preaching of Christian Reformed pastors who neglected to include in their sermons a call to repentance and to faith in Jesus Christ.

It is indeed very well possible that there are members of the Christian Reformed Church who are hungry for the gospel and who are looking elsewhere for what they cannot find in their own churches. As the authority of the Bible is increasingly coming under attack in our denomination and as some lose confidence in the power of the Word preached to attract sinners, we find some preachers becoming more and more enamored with innovations and novelties. This often takes place at the expense of the proclamation of the Word which alone can fulfill the need of the seeking sinner.

Recently while waiting in an airline terminal for a flight I met a pastor who had completed ten years of service in the Netherlands. He made the observation that where the gospel is proclaimed the churches in the Netherlands are well attended. This, he said, is in contrast to the poor attendance at the churches where the Word is no longer being preached. Do we note a similar situation in the United States and Canada?

Preachers and parishioners, what is being preached from your pulpit? Is it the word of man which leaves the hearers hungry and searching?

Or is it the gospel which is God’s power unto salvation to all who believe and which alone satisfies the deepest and greatest need of man’s soul?

Rev. Arthur Besteman
was pastor of the Beverly Christian Reformed Church in Wyoming, MI in 1988. He retired in 1999.

 

VBS . . . Why Do We Do It?

God calls us to teach the little (and not so little) children, we all know that. But does VBS really make a difference? Is it worth all the work, stress, and hassle? We learn the theme a year in advance, pray and plan for months, ask for volunteers (some end up less voluntary than others), gather what amounts to several recycling bins of “fun craft” items. Later we’ll bake dozens of cookies and pass out flyers. The list goes on and on.

Most of the children who come have some kind of Christian background—how many will hear of the love of Christ only at VBS? It does matter! Jesus would have died on the cross even if it was only my sins He was suffering for. The least we can do is hold VBS, praying that God will touch the heart of a child through VBS and the seeds of salvation will be planted in their lives there.

Our theme for the year was “Your mission, should you choose to accept it.” I had been excited about this theme since I first heard it. Last year I had taught a class that had twenty-nine to thirty-three little, squirming bodies, and I have the same class again this year. I knew they would love the theme—especially since the class was almost three-quarters boys. Monday morning I came overflowing with enthusiasm—until we began the opening session in the sanctuary. There was a new boy in my class who didn’t want to cooperate; he proclaimed everything was “stupid”: the songs were “stupid,” the skit was “stupid,” the other boys and girls were “stupid.” It wasn’t twenty minutes into the first day and already I was thinking, “Your mission will self-destruct in 5, 4, 3, 2 . . .” Where did all my excitement go? How could I lose the focus of my calling so quickly? “Please, God, give me insight, patience, encouragement,” I prayed.

Our next stop was the fellowship hall for cookies. A young boy who came to our VBS last year, whom I know to be unchurched except for the week(s) he spends at VBS, came up to me and energetically said, “If I could travel in time I would go to ‘Odd and Even.’” Now, because my youngest is twenty and I’m not up on what the kids are into today, I asked if that was a TV show or movie. “No, you know—when they lived in the garden and there wasn’t any weeds . . .” Now I get it: “You mean the garden of Eden?” I asked. “YEAH,” he said, “and if I had a time machine, I would go back there and say, ‘Dooooon’t do it!!’” He not only heard what was taught last year, but he remembered it! And that, my friends, is why we do VBS.

Oh, yes, by the end of the week my “challenging” boy was saving a seat next to him for me. I do find VBS to be fun, challenging, and rewarding. I look forward to it every year. I ask you to pray about how God may want to use you next summer. If you can’t be there physically during the week, you can still help prepare for VBS, and you can always be a prayer warrior, which is every bit as important.

 

Mrs. Shellie Terpstra
a member at Bethany URC, Wyoming, MI, has been involved with VBS for several years. She is the business manager for Reformed Fellowship.

“I Am the Bread of Life”: A Devotional on John 6:35

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

—John 6:35

Our focus in this series will be on the seven “I Am” statements taken from the Gospel of John. In each of the statements, we learn about the person and work of Christ as it is emphasized in a metaphor. He calls Himself the “Bread of Life,” the “Light of the World,” “Gate for the Sheep,” “Good Shepherd,” “Resurrection and the Life,” “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and the “True Vine.” Upon first hearing this, we might think those are vivid pictures to show us that Jesus is nice or kind, but there is something far deeper going on. Jesus is calling Himself the eternal God. Jesus is identifying Himself with the voice that came out of the burning bush when Moses was in the wilderness (Exod. 3). When God told Moses to go to Pharaoh, Moses asked God to tell him who he should tell Pharaoh is sending him. God’s response is to give His name as “Yahweh,” which is translated “I AM.” This becomes the covenant identification of God, as the Creator who has redeemed for Himself a chosen people. This is why when Jesus calls Himself the “I Am,” the Jews become angry. In John 6:41 they begin to grumble among themselves.

Statements like this ultimately will anger the Jews so much that they eventually cry out “crucify Him.” Jesus was accused of blasphemy, which would have been true if He was not the God-Man. Over these seven devotionals, I invite you to put yourself in the mind of a Jew two thousand years ago and seek to understand what Jesus meant. He is identifying Himself in a beautiful way. The Jews asked, “Who is this man?” Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” What we must answer is a similar question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” This is a personal, subjective question which has eternal consequences. As you read ask yourself, “Is Jesus your bread of life?” If so, then ask yourself, “Why does that matter in my life?”

Being Hungry

Let’s focus on John 6:35, although we could easily focus on verses 25–59. The point is that Jesus is identifying Himself as the bread of life. The first question we must answer is what is bread? Simple, we know what that is. If we go out to eat at a restaurant and order a nice steak, when they bring out our salad as a first course, they might also bring out a basket with bread in it. That is just preparation for the main course.

In the ancient world, bread played a far more prominent role in sustaining life. Bread and water were what you would have primarily lived on. If you could find a little piece of meat or fish or some dates to eat with your bread and some wine, then you were eating well. What for us is a nice little appetizer, for the Jews was the main part of their diet. Bread made the eater go from hungry to full.

Those who followed Jesus were hungry. In the context, in the beginning of John 6, Jesus just fed the five thousand. Now, they find Jesus on the other side of the lake. Jesus knows their motives. In John 6:26–27, “Jesus answered them and said, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.’” Jesus calls them out. They are following him to get a free meal. What Jesus will point out is that their true need is not some more loaves and fish; it is to believe on the one the Father sent, to feed on Christ.

Another important point about the context deals with Jesus and manna. Every good Jewish boy or girl knows about Moses leading the people in the wilderness: when there was no food, God provided manna. The Jews now tell Jesus (wrongly) that Moses provided manna; what is He going to provide? What will be His sign? Jesus corrects them and says that it wasn’t Moses but the Father, the I AM, who provided true bread. When the people heard this, they then asked for that bread. In John 6:35, “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.’” Further, in John 6:40, Jesus says, “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”

The people were hungry! They ate and they ate, but they were not satisfied. Their experience is the experience of the world today. They eat and eat, but they are never satisfied. They are like the crew of the Black Pearl with Captain Barbossa in The Pirates of the Caribbean. Part of the curse of the crew of the Black Pearl is that no matter how much they eat, they cannot be satisfied. They cannot taste, they cannot enjoy, they cannot be filled. The bread turns to ashes in their mouth. This is the plight of all who are sons and daughters of Adam. This is the description of the world. They eat, but they will not be satisfied; they seek happiness, but they will not find it. For a time they might be relatively content, but it will be fading. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord.”

Even the manna in the wilderness left the people unsatisfied because so many of them ate without faith. They grumbled: “Manna again?” But it was that manna which pointed ahead to Jesus Christ. Jesus was the water that came out of the rock in the wilderness, and now Jesus says that He is the bread of life: if they eat that bread, they will never be hungry, and if they believe, they will never be thirsty. The people responded rightly in John 6:34, “Sir, from now on give us this bread.”

Being Fed

How would one go about receiving the benefits of this bread of life? Well, they must eat it. John 6:51 says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” This saying divided the Jews. Obviously, cannibalism was forbidden. But Jesus wasn’t talking about cannibalism, was He? No, He wasn’t. He was talking about eating His flesh. This is a graphic and vivid picture of believing. Some of the early Christians were accused of cannibalism when unbelievers heard about the Lord’s Supper, eating Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood. What they didn’t realize was that what was eaten and drunk was done so by the mouth of faith.

So, to go back to the earlier question, how are the benefits received? By faith. Looking again at John 6:35, there are two important words used in that verse to describe faith. One is coming to Christ; the other is believing in Christ. These are active words describing faith. Our catechism makes clear that there are three main parts of faith: knowing, agreeing, and trusting. You can know a truth, such as God created the world; you can agree with it or assent to it by saying yes, that happened; but then there is a trust in the object, namely, in God. It is that third one that Jesus emphasizes throughout this chapter.

To be sure, they must know that Jesus is the I Am, but then they and we must trust that this is the case. What this involves is a complete and utter surrender unto God. God’s ways become our ways, God’s love becomes our love, God’s mission becomes our mission, God’s people become our people, so to speak. Without that last part of faith, however, the whole point is missed. Wasn’t this the problem with the Pharisees? They knew it all. They were the best catechism students. If there was a theological question, they would have been quick to give the answer, but the problem was that they didn’t believe in their hearts. Their heads and their hearts were separated.

As we think a bit deeper about this, we notice John 6:44, for instance: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.” Now it sounds like it is up to God. This is true. God knows those who are His; every person the Father has given to the Son will indeed eventually come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. But this does not make us passive. Even babies eating baby food know to open their mouths when the spoon comes close to their mouths; so too we, babes in Christ, must come to the Savior and believe in Him. Christ accomplished salvation, the Holy Spirit applies salvation, but He does so through the means of an active, living, and true faith.

Those who eat of the bread of life by coming and believing in Jesus will never go hungry, and they will never be thirsty. We will see in a moment how this is in terms of being full, but for now, the implication is that God is continuing to feed us. God provides continual nourishment in the preaching of the Word. There is nourishment to be found in the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life, such as reading the Bible, prayer, doing good, fasting, service, encouragement. But the primary food comes through the preaching of the Word. The preaching of the Word is not an appetizer. It is the meal itself. When preaching is faithfully done, the hearer is confronted with the risen and reigning Lord Jesus Christ.

In the preaching Jesus invites you to feed upon Him. Isaiah prophesied such in Isaiah 55:1–2, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” Will you come to the waters? By nature, we have no money, we have nothing to bring, like the crowds coming to hear Jesus and being hungry but having no food. “Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.” Don’t neglect the opportunity to come and feast upon Him twice every Lord’s Day. However, don’t just come; come ready to be fed. May we confess with Bernard of Clairvoux, who nearly a thousand years ago wrote:

Jesus, Thou Joy of loving hearts,

Thou Fount of life, Thou Light
of men,

From fullest bliss that earth imparts,

We turn unfilled to Thee again.

We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread,

And long to feast upon Thee still;

We drink of Thee, the Fountain-head,

And thirst our souls from Thee
to fill!

We come to the Savior to feast upon Him who said, “I Am the Bread of Life.”

Being Full

When humble sinners call upon Christ in faith, then they are filled. Jesus preached to the people, showing that God performed a miracle and gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness, but they ate it and died. The bread of life is of such a nature that one who eats of it will never die but will live. Looking at John 6:48–51, we see the cross in view, specifically in verse 51: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” Jesus is the one who would take our sin upon Himself and give His flesh for our life. We see this in verse 56 as well: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.”

What this means is that those who eat of the Bread of Life will live because He lives. Two senses are given: in verse 56 is a picture of remaining united, and then in verse 57 is a picture of Jesus being the source of life. Similar to a root and branches, so is the bread of life and those who partake of the bread of life. What happens is that they are filled; they live life forevermore. Though they may die, yet they will live. No one else can say that but one who has died to self and now lives unto Jesus Christ. Our life is hidden in Jesus Christ.

Is this true of your life? Have you found your life in Christ? Have you found a peace which surpasses all understanding? Have you found that rare jewel of Christian contentment? Do you possess that pearl of great price? If not, then turn in repentance and give up your self-trust, self-reliance, and rebellion against God. Come to the one who said, “I Am the Bread of Life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

After Jesus preached this startling sermon about Himself, the Jews grumbled. The uninspired title of the next section is “Many Disciples Desert Jesus.” The Jews wanted to be fed; they wanted some more bread and fish, maybe a glass of wine. They loved the things of this world.

The Jews listening to Jesus wanted physical blessings. They didn’t care about spiritual blessings. Similarly, North Americans want more and more. Jesus said in John 6:27, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Dear friend, what are you working for? What are you living for? Give it over to the Lord.

There are many things in this life which promise nourishment. They are like a bag of candy bars in the hands of a child. The belly may become full, but the child will not be nourished. Even though children love the taste of a candy bar, they will long for meat and potatoes, that which nourishes. The world has many things that promise happiness, but there is only one source of true joy, and that comes from feeding on the Bread of Life. May it be our prayer that the Lord continues to feed us on Jesus. Let us pray that He feeds us until we want to no more, and that will take place, both now and in the life to come.

 

Rev. Steve Swets
is the pastor of Rehoboth United Reformed Church in Hamilton, ON.

Archaeology: Friend or Foe of Biblical History?

Even before Indiana Jones wooed a generation of young people into pursuing careers in ancient history, archaeology was grabbing the world’s attention. The drama-laden story of Lord Carnarvon’s several-week journey to join Charles Carter in descending the steps of the newly discovered tomb of King Tut is nearly one hundred years old. In the 1800s, the quote attributed to Heinrich Schliemann, excavator of the ancient site of Troy, “I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon,” excited people’s imaginations: look what archaeology can do!

In reality, archaeology is—with some exceptions, of course—a bit less dramatic. For the most part, gone are the days when archaeologists excavated at a particular ruin with the primary aim of shedding light on biblical people, events, and places. Most excavations are funded by secular universities, so the objectives and goals usually reflect the diverse aims of a university curriculum. Indeed, archaeology in places like Israel and Jordan is treated as a subset of anthropology, and a dig site will employ a number of different specialists (e.g., seismologists, botanists, geologists, zoologists) and technologies (e.g., magnetometers, ground-permeating radar, satellite photography, carbon-14 dating).1 Their motivation is to understand broader patterns of human civilization in the history of that region or site.

Why Is Archaeology Important for Christians?

Though archaeologists are now interested in a wider range of information, this does not mean that it is unrelated to the Bible. Indeed, the relationship between archaeology and the Bible is one that will not (and must not) go away. Since the Christian faith is a historical one, Christians ought to be interested in archaeology. It is, after all, a key tool in the historian’s handbag. In spite of pious-sounding claims that “archaeology cannot prove or disprove faith,” archaeology is indeed relevant (albeit not always decisive) if one holds the faith to be truly objective and not just a subjective inner feeling.2

Though archaeology is of great value for understanding the historical setting of God’s Word, there are misconceptions about what archaeology can and cannot do. Skeptics, for example, often cite archaeological finds as disproving Scripture, claiming that they pose insurmountable challenges to the faith. They place a high degree of confidence on the ability of archaeology to determine “what really happened” and will not accept the historicity of the Bible unless it is corroborated by archaeological finds. (And sometimes not even then!) Ironically, some conservative Christians unwittingly agree with the skeptics and feel that unless the claims of the Bible are illustrated by archaeology, those claims are somehow less certain or deserving of our trust.

How then should Christians assess the finds of archaeology? How can study of archaeology be most beneficial to the Christian faith? It is to these questions that we now turn.

Scripture Is Self-Attesting

Before we even begin to relate archaeology to the historicity of Scripture, we must state an important presupposition up front: Christians believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God because it is trustworthy in and of itself. That is to say, the Bible is what theologians call a self-attesting “first principle” for Christians; it is not something that requires authentication from an outside source (whether the church, science, history, or archaeology). The Belgic Confession articulates it this way: “We believe without a doubt all things contained in [the Scriptures]—not so much because the church receives and approves them as such but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they prove themselves to be from God” (art. 5; cf. Westminster Confession, art. 1.5; Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 4).

Of course it sounds circular to say we believe the Bible to be the authoritative Word of God because the Bible claims to be the authoritative Word of God. And yet a degree of circularity is inevitable, even for non-Christians. Herman Bavinck explained: “[I]n every scientific discipline, hence also in theology, first principles are certain of themselves. The truth of a fundamental principle (principium) cannot be proved; it can only be recognized. ‘A first principle is believed on its own account, not on account of something else. Fundamental principles cannot have a first principle, neither ought they to be sought.’”3 If Scripture needs something else to stand as an authenticator, that other thing must be a self-attesting fundamental principle. Thus there is no escaping the fact that something is presupposed by every human being—believer or non-believer alike—to be a self-authenticating first principle against which all other beliefs and ideas must conform.

So in sum, when an archaeological find is touted as proving the Bible to be historically unreliable, we must remember that the person saying this has a different first principle, one that person has, incidentally, adopted by faith. And how did they come to adopt that first principle? This is where a presuppositional apologetic method provides a strong response.4 Christians confess that the Bible cannot be disproven since it is itself the only thing we have for proving or disproving anything. And while we do accept it by faith, we also have what other purported first principles do not: the attestation of the Holy Spirit. Though it may not be immediately clear howa given archaeological find harmonizes with God’s Word, our assumption is that it does. Even when the answer escapes us, this does not mean that no answer exists.

Archaeology Is Not Self-Interpreting

It is often claimed that artifacts are more reliable than texts (especially the biblical text) since artifacts are unprejudiced and unbiased. Critical historian Lester Grabbe states it this way: “[A]rchaeological data actually existed in real life—the artifacts are realia. . . . Texts, on the other hand, are products of the imagination. The content of a text always contains human invention, and it is always possible that a text is entirely fantasy.” Thus Grabbe concludes: “Preference [in reconstructing Israel’s past] should be given to primary sources, that is, those contemporary or nearly contemporary with the events being described. . . . This means archaeology and inscriptions” (emphasis added).5 But is this really the case? True, a pot, wall, figurine, or seal impression was touched by an ancient person, but it does not follow that an artifact is thereby more reliable than a narrative. In fact, in order to explain that artifact, one must have some narrative, some story that can give an account of the item in question. But where does this story come from? Here is where critics begin to stumble.

In their magisterial volume A Biblical History of Israel, Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III examine the claims of critical archaeologists and historians. Unlike the critics, Provan et al. refuse to dismiss the claims of the biblical texts due to their supposedly unreliable nature (i.e., the Bible’s belief in the miraculous) or their supposedly ideologically loaded content (i.e., the Bible says that God’s sovereign will governs the events of history, not evolution and chance). They note that both the Bible and archaeological finds present testimony about the past, and that responsible historians will take into account all available testimony when telling the story of Israel’s past. To disregard the Bible as an historical source is irresponsible even by critical standards.

Provan et al. go on to note that critical historians are often inconsistent in their use of archaeology. They cite the work of Keith Whitelam, who believes that archaeological finds are unbiased and reliable and the Bible is not. But when archaeological finds are clearly in harmony with the Bible, he pivots and claims that these finds have simply been misinterpreted. Thus while claiming that archaeology takes priority over the biblical texts, he regularly reinterprets archaeological data to match his belief that the Bible is wrong. Provan et al. conclude with an appropriate level of sarcasm: “Whitelam cannot have it both ways. Either archaeological data do or do not give us the kind of relatively objective picture of the Palestinian past that can be held up beside our ideologically compromised biblical texts to ‘show’ that the ancient Israel of the Bible and its scholars is an imagined entity.”6 Indeed, while critics accuse the Bible of being “ideologically loaded,” Provan et al. respond with the jarring reality: “In fact, all archaeologists tell us stories about that past that are just as ideologically loaded as any other historical narratives and are certainly not simply a neutral recounting of the facts.”7

And so in sum, whenever news flashes across one’s Twitter or Facebook feed about a new archaeological discovery that has disproved the Bible, one must remember this important fact: archaeological finds do not interpret themselves. Thus we should ask: What would make the critical historian come to this conclusion? What storyline is the historian holding to? Why did he choose to embrace that storyline instead of the Bible’s? Are there other ways of explaining the significance of this find? What we must not do is assume that the critical historian or archaeologist is working from a legitimate starting point and then try to answer him on that playing field.

The Role of Archaeology in Biblical Study

Detailing the ways in which archaeology supports the historicity of the Bible and explaining the finds that seemto contradict the Bible would take more space than this article will allow. In future issues of The Outlook, I hope to introduce readers to some different archaeological finds that are relevant to the Bible’s narrative in order to help Christians gain confidence in the historical reliability of God’s Word. For now, I will conclude this article by describing four ways, adapted from James Hoffmeier, in which archaeology can assist Bible reading.8

1. Providing a Context. Archaeology can help to illustrate the context of a given passage. The finds of archaeology help us to place the biblical stories into a concrete time and place. Hoffmeier says that ancient texts and artifacts “serve as a kind of time machine that moves us back to the world of the Bible.” Objects found in Scripture (gates, pots, houses, walls) are not always the same as what we have today. Archaeology helps us to better picture the objects used in the Bible’s stories.

2. Complementing the Text. The finds of archaeology often give insights into the past that the Bible does not cover. The Bible, after all, is selective in what it chooses to recount, not only in terms of particular historical events, but even in terms of details in a recorded event. Archaeology helps us learn about things that were assumed by the biblical writers even when they did not state them explicitly.

3. Responding to Challenges. Hoffmeier writes: “[E]rroneous theories and interpretations of biblical passages have been offered by critics of the Bible over the centuries. Archaeology offers the best way of dealing objectively with such problems.” As an example, older scholars viewed the conquest of Canaan under Joshua as a blitzkrieg, scorched-earth campaign that would have left charred remains at nearly every major city in Canaan. When critics claimed that destruction layers were lacking at these sites, scholars gave a more careful reading of Scripture and noted that in fact the older scholars had been reading into the text. A close reading of Joshua indicates that only three cities were burned: Jericho (Josh. 6:24), Ai (Josh. 8:28), and Hazor (Josh. 11:11–14). What is more, Scripture explicitly says that most of the cities were left standing so that Israel could more easily settle into them without costly and time-consuming rebuilding: “I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant” (Josh. 24:13). Moses had prepared them for this very thing (Deut. 6:10–11). Thus archaeological discoveries gave an opportunity to restudy the biblical text and come to a more accurate understanding of God’s Word.

4. Confirming the Text. There are many instances when archaeology uncovers objects that cannot be easily explained apart from the history presented in Scripture. When this happens, we can see that the events of the Bible are also attested by external sources, exactly what we would expect for a Bible that claims to recount actual history. Of course critical scholars tend to disagree with this; they are often hesitant to agree that archaeology confirms the historicity of the biblical text. But as we noted above, this is not due to archaeological finds themselves; rather it is due to the non-biblical presuppositions and narratives embraced by critics as being authoritative by faith. Cornelius Van Til wrote that apart from Scripture, scientific and archaeological evidence cannot be adequately explained: “This is not . . . to disparage the usefulness of arguments for the corroboration of the Scripture that come from archaeology. It is only to say that such corroboration is not of independent power. . . . The facts of nature and history corroborate the Bible when it is made clear that they fit into no frame but that which Scripture offers.”9

Conclusion

And so as we conclude this introduction, let us keep in mind the true value of archaeology and not be shaken by the claims of unbelieving criticism. There are times when archaeological finds pose significant conundrums. And some of these conundrums will never be solved satisfactorily before Christ’s return. That does not mean, however, that Christians cannot offer alternative explanatory theories, provided we do so provisionally and with humility.10 Nevertheless, let us remember that even when critical historians interpret archaeological finds as the Bible’s foe, archaeology really is a friend of biblical history.

 

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1. See John D. Currid, Doing Archaeology in the Land of the Bible: A Basic Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 17; Eric H. Cline, Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 132. (Note: Cline’s book is useful but is written from a critical perspective.)

2. For an indispensable though more technical recent work refuting the claim that the Bible can be true without being historical, see James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magery, Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).

3. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1: Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 458. Cf. Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2d ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 79–82.

4. Two highly recommend books about defending the Christian faith presuppositionally are Richard L. Pratt, Every Thought Captive: A Study Manual for Defense of Christian Truth (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1979); Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. Robert R. Booth (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 1996).

5. Lester L. Grabbe, Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (New York: T&T Clark), 10, 35.

6. Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel, 2d ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015), 8.

7. Provan et al., Biblical History of Israel, 85.

8. These four items are adapted from James K. Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2008), 31.

9. Cornelius Van Til, introduction to The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, by B. B. Warfield, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia: P&R, 1948), 37. Contrary to what is often claimed, Van Til recognized the value of evidences in apologetics. He called this “historical apologetics.”

10. For an encyclopedic resource of such believing theories, see Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

 

Rev. R. Andrew Compton
is Assistant Professor of Old Testament Studies at Mid-America Seminary in Dyer, IN.

 

Control Your Tongue

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. (James 1:26)

In a previous article, I sought to show what it means to be “slow to speak” according to God’s Word. Guarding our speech, though, requires that we learn how to control the use of our tongues for God’s glory. In the following paragraphs, I will first offer three biblical reasons why we must control our tongues, followed by three practical suggestions regarding how we may do so.

Three Reasons Why We Must Control Our Tongues

1. If we do not control our tongues, we deceive ourselves.

Since the book of James was written specifically to Christians, it is worth noting that the word anyone at the start of James 1:26 does not exclude faithful, growing Christians. On the contrary, it suggests that every person who professes to follow Christ should receive and heed the warning which follows. However, James is specifically describing a person who has convinced himself that he is religious—someone who is not genuinely submitted to Christ but who outwardly performs most or all of the expected activities of the Christian life.

This sort of person is likely to be active in attending church, generous in giving, quick to volunteer to serve others, and involved in evangelism, missions, choir, or virtually any other aspect of a church’s ministry. Someone fitting this description could conceivably be a deacon, an elder, a Bible teacher, a missionary, or even, in some cases, a pastor. Yet, to a person who is externally religious, James warns, “You may believe yourself to be a religious person, but if you do not bridle your tongue, you deceive your heart!”

As you may know, a bridle is a device that fits on a horse’s head for the purpose of controlling and guiding the horse. The bridle enables riders to steer horses away from danger and toward the proper path. In this verse, James is using the term bridle as a verb, to strongly emphasize the need for every Christian to guide, guard, and restrain our speech. In fact, James warns readers that if we don’t do this, we are deceiving ourselves concerning our relationship with Christ.

So, if there is a local church member who is active in the life of the church but who consistently slanders, backbites, and spreads gossip about others, then it’s likely, according to James, that this person has deceived himself into thinking that he belongs to Christ when he does not. People in this situation need to stop flattering themselves and believing themselves to be better than they are, and instead examine their hearts sincerely before the Lord.

By the way, we always need to be extremely cautious of people who try to spread gossip to us, because the same person who is willing to gossip to us will also surely be willing to gossip about us. One of the implications of this verse is that we probably shouldn’t even entertain a person who is known to behave this way.

It can be tricky, though, when the people who behave this way profess to be fellow Christians, because they will often share idle gossip about others disguised as prayer requests—sometimes even verbally attacking someone and then asking us to pray for them to change in some significant way. When this happens, we need to learn to say to the gossipers, “Thank you for your concern, but that’s not the kind of information that I need to hear about from you.”

We should also recognize that this sin can be demonstrated in a variety of ways. It can be practiced by children who knowingly tell lies to their parents or to others, or by parents who regularly use abusive words when they discipline their children. Parents—we must always be careful to use words which will help and not hurt our children! The “anyone” in this passage may also refer to a wife or a husband who uses hateful words to respond to marital conflict. No marriage is perfect, but when there are problems and disagreements, we must be intentional about handling them in God-honoring ways.

James is reminding us, though, that while it’s always good to do Christ-honoring things such as attending church regularly and actively serving others, such practices tell us little about what’s truly in a person’s heart. A person’s speech, more than outward practices, can serve as a more accurate barometer of what’s happening in a person’s heart and of where that person stands in his relationship with God.

So, what should we learn from this? Here, James is calling us to examine ourselves sincerely. If people believe themselves to be righteous in Christ but do not bridle their tongue by speaking in ways that honor God, they deceive themselves and need to examine earnestly their own heart, ultimately acknowledging this sinful behavior that they practice and repenting of it before the Lord. The people who are currently in this situation are not being told by God that they are truly His, but rather they deceive themselves into believing that they do, though their assumptions about their own spiritual well-being are false. Search your hearts, my friends!

Paul writes in Galatians 6:3–4, “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work.” God expects us to test, or examine, our own behavior to see if it matches the behavior of a true child of God. In a similar way, Ephesians 5:4 exhorts us, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking [among you].” If we belong to Christ, both our words and our actions must be notably different from those who remain outside of Christ.

To be more precise, James warns that the person who fails to bridle his tongue “deceives his heart”—as in, his own heart, even more so than the hearts of others. It’s bad enough to deceive people and to cause others to be hurt by our speech, but this verse reminds us that by doing this, we are causing the greatest harm to ourselves, as we consistently offend God with our speech while pretending He’s pleased with us.

People who claim to belong to Christ but use their words to harm others prove themselves to be liars, cheaters, and hypocrites. They hear God’s Word being taught, and are likely familiar with the ninth commandment, which commands that “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 21:16). Yet, they still use their words to destroy the lives of others.

We should acknowledge that all of us have been guilty of sinning in this way at times. We have used our tongues to praise God on Sunday, but then used the same tongues to curse others at other times. We have been worshipers on Sunday and then gossipers on Monday. However, God wants us to examine ourselves on this matter, to ask sincerely whether we have sinned with our speech, and to commit, by His grace, to change for the better.

2. If we do not control our tongue, we damage our religion, which is biblical Christianity.

When people fail to bridle their tongues and are deceived about their own devotion to Christ, James teaches, “this person’s religion is worthless.” By failing to guard our speech, we can permanently destroy our public witness for Christ. The people who hear our sinful speech will either believe that we don’t belong to God or else they’ll wrongfully accuse God of being responsible for our sinfulness. God-honoring speech reflects the “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” (James 1:27), which God calls us to live out, but an unbridled tongue can publicly defile that very religion.

Lost sinners will certainly not be drawn nearer to Christ by our unholy speech but are more likely to be pushed further away from Him. Almost as tragic is the shame which we can bring upon our churches, as people who hear our conversations are left believing that we genuinely represent the churches we attend and then judge them for our sinful behavior.

Consider how easily ungodly speech can cause damage in the work environment. When an employee frequently curses, lies, argues, tells vulgar jokes, or speaks harshly to others, it’s common for the other employees to question his character. If it becomes known that the ungodly employee claims to be a Christian and attends a particular church, ­­­­­what will the other employees be left to believe about God and about the church that he attends? Many non-believers have been discouraged from following Christ because of situations like this, reasoning “If that’s what Christianity looks like, I want nothing to do with it!”

Even the name of Jesus can be damaged (in an earthly sense) by our sinful behavior, because when we claim to be Christians, we carry His name with us wherever we go. People who know us, and who know that we profess to be Christians, will hear our ungodly talk and believe that our speech must be typical of those who belong to Christ. Worse yet, they might even presume to blame Jesus for our ungodly speech and actions, believing our behavior to be a result of His teaching and authority in our lives. How can we possibly bring such shame upon our blessed Savior’s name?

Why is it that the sin of an uncontrolled tongue is singled out here as the one which could render a person’s religion “worthless”? James, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, highlights this sin because the Bible takes this kind of sin very seriously! It is a really big deal in Scripture, because, again, our speech is an indicator of our spirituality. What you say is reflection of what you think and what you feel. That’s why, in Matthew 12:34, Jesus says, “How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

I remember talking to a lady who was born in the Netherlands but has lived in the United States for many years. She was a bit disappointed that whenever she speaks in English she still has a Dutch accent. I said to her, “Please don’t be disappointed with your accent, because it’s an indicator of your identity.” I asked, “Are you not proud of your Dutch heritage?” She replied, “You’re right. I should be proud of my heritage.”

When I speak in English, which is not my first language, people hear my accent and recognize that I’m not originally from the United States. As Christians, we have become citizens of heaven. Now, whenever we speak, people around us should be able to hear our “heavenly accent.” Do they? Are we ever asked, “Where are you really from?” Do we speak in a way that reflects our Lord and our true eternal home?

In Colossians 4:5–6, the apostle Paul admonishes us, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” God expects us to bring this area of our lives under submission to Him—looking to Jesus Christ as the ultimate example of how we should speak and trusting in the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and lives increasingly into the likeness of Christ.

3. If we do not control our tongues, we destroy ourselves.

If we willfully and deliberately let our tongues go unguarded, it’s like riding a horse with no bridle or driving a car with no steering wheel. In either case, we’re sure to cause great harm to ourselves, as well as to others. Failing to bridle our tongues, though, is just as dangerous.

A number of Bible passages affirm this point, including the following:

The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off. (Prov. 10:31)

Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin. (Prov. 13:3)

Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit. (1 Pet. 3:10)

Someone once said, “Gossip not only hurts others, it can also boomerang and hurt the one who starts it.”1 If you are a gossiper, do not think that you won’t be hurt by what you do, for by not controlling your tongue, you are destroying both yourself and your family.

Three Biblical Exhortations

So, what should we do in response to the warnings given in James 1:26? Here are three biblical exhortations which we should be especially careful to heed.

1. Get down on your knees and pray to God.

In this passage of Scripture, James isn’t only addressing other people; he’s speaking to you­­­­­ and to me, as well. We should all be deeply convicted by this passage of Scripture, because all of us have failed in this area at times. We are guilty before God of sinning with our speech, and we should want to do all that we can to avoid sinning in this way again.

So, with that in mind, we should readily confess our sinful use of the tongue to God, not denying it, making excuses for it, or attempting to justify it in any way. Instead, we should be honest with God about the ways that we’ve failed Him and caused others to be hurt, and earnestly seek His forgiveness, asking the Spirit of God to help us guard our speech in the days to come.

We should pray with King David in Psalm 141:3: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” In a similar manner, we can sing the lyrics of one of the great hymns:

Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.

Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.

Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.

2. Guard your tongue.

Of course, we must become increasingly intentional about doing precisely what this biblical text warns us to do—guarding our tongues. However, we must also remember that we can’t do this in our own strength, but only with God’s help will we be able to succeed in this challenging but crucial task.

Some additional Bible verses which can serve as helpful reminders to us include the following:

I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle. (Ps. 39:1)

Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. (Ps. 34:13)

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Eph. 4:29)

These verses, and others like them which remind us to guard our speech, should become increasingly familiar to us. Even a beloved children’s song can help remind us to guard our words in a way that honors the Lord:

O, be careful little mouth what
you say;

O, be careful little mouth what
you say;

There’s a Father up above

And He’s looking down in love;

So, be careful little mouth what you say.

Some people have even found the following acronym for THINK to be a helpful tool in this journey:

T—Is it true?

H—Is it helpful?

I—Is it inspiring?

N—Is it necessary?

K—Is it kind?

In any case, we should always strive to use our tongues for God’s glory and for the edification of his church, and ask the Holy Spirit to assist us with this task.

3. Go to Jesus Christ.

As in every other area of our lives, we are to keep looking to Jesus as our ultimate example and working to imitate the way He lived during His earthly life. First Peter 2:21–23 serves as a strong reminder in this regard: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

So, again, we must determine to make guarding our speech a high priority in our lives, since by doing so we will demonstrate our genuine faithfulness to God and our true concern for the well-being of others as well as ourselves. God shows us, through the Spirit-inspired writings of James, that an unbridled tongue is a serious sin which should not be practiced by the people of God. Let’s respond appropriately by receiving this instruction from God’s Word and speaking only words of love and grace through which Christ will be glorified.

Study Questions

1. What does unguarded or sinful speech reveal about the true condition of our hearts?

2. How is Christ’s reputation in the world affected by the words and actions of His followers?

3. How can sinful speech lead to our own destruction?

4. What does it mean to seek to have a “heavenly accent”?

5. According to James, what causes, and what results from, “worthless religion”?

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1. Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997), 176. 

 

Rev. Brian G. Najapfour
is the pastor of Dutton Reformed Church, Caledonia, MI, and author of The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming John Bunyan’s Spirituality (2012) and  Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of and Devotion to Prayer (2013). He and his wife, Sarah, have two children, Anna and James. He blogs at biblicalspiritualitypress.org.

Why Your Church Needs a New Psalter Hymnal

What do you think of the OPC and URCNA’s proposed Psalter Hymnal? As the URCNA synod faces the final vote on a nearly twenty-year-long project, across our federation it seems as though the jury is still out. Many ministers, musicians, and members are optimistic that a new book will bring new life to singing in the URCNA. Equally forceful are the opinions of others who fear that the project will wreak havoc on the musical heritage of our churches. How can the debate move forward?

I’d like to provide five reasons why I believe the new Psalter Hymnal should receive a favorable vote. Readers may be skeptical of my perspective as a young lay member of the URCNA. They may be even more skeptical when I admit that there are things about the new Psalter Hymnal I don’t like. Nevertheless, I hope the following arguments will adequately explain my position.

It Will Help Our Federation Establish Its Identity

In order to explain this point I need to back up—behind the Psalter Hymnal, behind the Reformed tradition, behind even Christianity—to the fundamental nature of singing.

Music, in general, is an art. But singing is more than art; it is also speech. Do you ever stop to marvel that the human voice can produce both music and words simultaneously—and in such a way as to be understood? Good singing appeals to the ear, communicates rational ideas, and stirs our deepest emotions. As such it is a powerful means of persuasion.

There is another dimension too. Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45 ESV). The words that issue from our mouths, both spoken and sung, reveal who we are and what we value. Do we sing often or rarely? Willingly or hesitantly? Joyfully or indifferently? Do we sing pure words or foul ones? The answers to these questions provide observers—believers and unbelievers alike—with clues about the orientation of our hearts.

Here is a third observation: Our Sunday singing proclaims our identity as God’s redeemed people. This gains expression as we sing together to glorify God and build up one another. We gather freely and joyfully in His name, eager to praise Him, confess our sins, offer thanksgiving, and present our requests. For the Christian, singing should be a natural, even irrepressible activity. A redeemed soul is a singing soul.

Finally, it is worth noting that congregational singing bears substantial similarities to prayer, Scripture reading, and even preaching, particularly when we sing psalms or other Bible passages. Not only does singing fill its own divinely ordained role in Christian worship, it reinforces other elements of the service as well.

Congregational singing is a rhetorical tool, a window into the human heart, a response to redemption, and a means of glorifying God and edifying the saints. As such it should be an integral part of what defines us as Christians and, more specifically, as the URCNA. The tradition of combining the Psalter Hymnal with the denominational doctrinal standards and liturgy was based on more than practicality. Rather, it testified that what we sing is part and parcel with who we are and what we believe.

It Will Correct Several Problems with the Current Blue Psalter Hymnal

Having grown up with the “old blue,” I make this claim reluctantly. Nevertheless, I can identify at least three significant deficiencies in our de facto songbook.

The psalter section is incomplete. The 1959/1976 blue Psalter Hymnal published by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and generally used in the URCNA inherited a tradition of psalm singing that preferred “lite” hymn-like versions of the psalms to denser, more literal renditions. In most cases this merely meant the verses of a psalm were slightly telescoped and sanitized of particularly vehement expressions (see Ps. 88; 137). A more glaring example is the book’s only setting of Psalm 9 (#14), which omits verses 3–8 and 15–20 of the Scripture text, yet adds a refrain strangely reminiscent of a Fanny Crosby hymn. Can this really be called psalm singing?

The hymnal section is inadequate. Granted, the “old blue” includes a decent number of songs, both common and hard to find, that have endeared themselves to multiple generations and are still sung frequently today. But hymns many would call standards, like “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” and “How Great Thou Art,” are conspicuously absent. As to the hymns it does contain, how useful are songs like “Majestic Sweetness Sits Enthroned” and “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”? Given the limited hymn repertoire of the blue Psalter Hymnal, it should be no surprise that so many United Reformed congregations have purchased or compiled supplemental songbooks.

The language is inaccessible. Let me be clear: I am firmly opposed to altering the original wording of hymns, which is an insult to the poetic efforts of centuries of hymn writers. But when considering psalm settings, I believe it is appropriate to ask whether the lyrics clearly communicate the content of the passage being versified. When the text under consideration is “Ride out in full regalia, and richest panoply” (#82), I believe this is not only a fair question but a necessary one. If our churches have adopted contemporary English translations of the Bible for reading, why are we so reluctant to apply the same principle to singing?

Space does not permit me to demonstrate that the proposed Psalter Hymnal adequately addresses these problems. Nevertheless, I trust that anyone who thoroughly examines the psalm and hymn sections online (available at psalterhymnal.org) will be satisfied with what they find.

It Will Help Our Young Churches

Right now, musical practices across the URCNA are a hodge-podge. Most churches that emerged from the CRC in the 1990s and 2000s sing from the 1959/1976 edition of the Psalter Hymnal, as mentioned above. A few of these have held onto the gray 1987 edition, despite its dubious reputation (even in the CRC). Meanwhile, congregations that join the URCNA from other backgrounds often keep their own particular hymnals.

What are our church plants to do in this situation? Should they save up for the steep cost of purchasing new blue books for their congregations (which means paying for the shortcomings mentioned above)? Do they pursue the ever-shortening supply of used copies in circulation, many of which should have been laid to rest forty years ago (and smell like it, too)? Or do they resort to photocopying psalms and hymns directly into each week’s bulletin, making it impossible for members to familiarize themselves with the songbook they sing from?

Having no Psalter Hymnal of our own is a liability to our whole federation, but the URCNA’s start-up congregations suffer the most. In addition to their frequent geographical isolation from the rest of the federation, these young churches find themselves isolated with respect to their worship as well. I suspect that many of these congregations would willingly save up and sacrifice toward the cost of a new songbook if they knew it would serve them for many years to come and unite them with the rest of the federation.

It Will Put the Motto semper reformanda into Action

I despise the motto semper reformanda (“always reforming”) when it is twisted to justify socially motivated agendas and attacks on the inerrancy of Scripture. In the sense in which it was originally coined, however, semper reformanda means a calling back to God’s Word, along with a return to a biblical model for life, faith, and worship. It means progress, but progress in the direction of Christlikeness.

The new Psalter Hymnal exemplifies this kind of reforming progress. It is no wholesale desertion of the old in favor of the new; the Songbook Committees have made that clear by including such an array of “classic” hymns, many with unaltered language. Nor does it manifest the gender neutralization and politically correct obsessiveness of today’s liberal hymnals. But it is a step forward from the blue book, one that recognizes the full scope of the psalms, incorporates a broad range of Christian hymnody, and takes the role of congregational singing in worship seriously. The process of adapting to a new songbook will be a long and difficult one, for me as much as anyone. But it is a process that will prove whether or not we really mean it when we claim to be “always reforming.”

It Will Proclaim Our Unity as the Body of Christ

One of the most frequent objections to a new Psalter Hymnal is that it will rob older church members of the songs of their youth. It will hinder their worship (so the argument goes) by forcing them to learn different words and music in their old age. I can sympathize with this argument, and with the saints and pillars of the church who raise it. But I would respectfully pose this question: Why do you say the blue Psalter Hymnal is better? Is it because of a conviction embedded in your mind and heart that its psalm settings are more faithful to Scripture and its hymns are a superior expression of praise to God? Or might it be that you love it for its significance to you, for the emotions and memories it conjures up in your own mind?

Hear me out: If the answer is the latter, we will have already lost every battle about church music we could face. If the issue boils down to personal preference, we will have no grounds to argue for or against anything that might go into a new songbook, from J. S. Bach to Chris Tomlin to Lecrae. Church will be nothing more than a group of individuals who happen to like the same things, and if a denominational songbook exists at all, it will exist because (by some miracle) an entire denomination of individuals happen to like the same songs. But why bother? Indeed, why not ditch the hymnal idea and let the pastor pick which songs to print in the bulletin?

“Have it your way” may be the (former) motto of Burger King and the rest of our culture, but it is not—and must not be—the motto of the church. More and more the culture rejects the idea of a common sphere that requires the sacrifice of personal preference. In so doing it creates a world where common causes are impossible.

In direct defiance to this worldview, the church exists as a community of believers united in Christ—believers who deny themselves and look to the interests of others for the sake of the kingdom of Jesus. A Psalter Hymnal is tangible proof that we love each other enough to come to a common agreement about what music glorifies God most and serves the church best, even at the cost of our personal favorites. That is how I can say that I wholeheartedly support this project whether or not I like every song it contains.

What concerns me most, then, is not what I think of the new songbook. It is this: If the United Reformed Churches in North America cannot agree on a Psalter Hymnal, in what sense of the word are we united?

 

Mr. Michael Kearney  
is a member of the West Sayville URC on Long Island, NY, and studies communication and music at
Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. He welcomes your thoughts at mrkearney@optonline.net

 

 

Are Roman Catholic Baptisms Valid?

Introduction

A few years ago a young woman named Sarah wanted to become a member of the congregation I pastored. She grew up in a Roman Catholic family. We sat down together with a couple of others and studied the Heidelberg Catechism as part of a new members’ class. When we got to the section dealing with the sacraments, she asked if she would have to be baptized again to become a member of a United Reformed Church. After further inquiry, I told her no, she did not have to be rebaptized. But why that conclusion? The question we must answer as we think about this subject is this: Is a Roman Catholic baptism a true, Christian baptism? The answer is yes.

A Definition

What constitutes a Christian baptism? In summarizing the Scriptures, Article 34 of the Belgic Confession of Faith mentions three things which must be present: the recipient is to be baptized with “pure water,” “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” and by a minister (WCF XXVIII; WLC Q&A 165–67; HC Q&A 71). Theologically, the three elements which make up baptism involve its matter (must be water), form (using the trinitarian formula), and design (it is a sacrament which signifies and seals and is done by a minister of Christ). That all seems simple enough, but there is a problem.

The Problem

There have been some objections to the validity of Roman Catholic baptisms. In the middle of the nineteenth century, American Presbyterians were having this discussion. The prominent figures were J. H. Thornwell (d. 1862) and Charles Hodge (d. 1878). Thornwell, and those who sided with him, argued against the validity of Roman Catholic baptism. Hodge, and those who walked in his theological footsteps, argued the opposing side. Though a number of arguments were offered by Thornwell (including the impurity of the water used by Roman Catholics, and other wrong views they had of the sacrament), the main hinge of the argument was centered on the question of whether a priest is a minister of Christ. After all, if the Roman Catholic Church is a synagogue of Satan, how can its ministers be true ministers of Christ? The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) in Chapter 28.2 says, “The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water . . . by a minister of the gospel, lawfully called thereunto.”

In more recent history, the Presbyterian Church in America wrote a study report on the subject. The majority sided with Thornwell, and the minority sided with Hodge. Historically, the Reformed have accepted Roman Catholic baptisms. What we must ask at this point is, “Should we continue to accept their baptisms?”

An Answer

Yes, we should continue our practice of accepting Roman Catholic baptisms. This is not in any way an endorsement of their unbiblical views of baptism. For example, they believe baptism is necessary for salvation, that it has an efficacy unto salvation, that holy water must be used, and so on. The reason we should accept their baptisms is because the three necessary elements to a proper baptism are present: the matter, the form, and the design.

As to the matter, water is used. It might be water blessed by the pope and sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church, but it is water. It is not oil, wine, sawdust, or ash; it is water. The matter is correct.

As to the form, the trinitarian formula is used. In Matthew 28, Jesus sent out the disciples to go and make disciples. Part of that work of disciple making was to baptize them into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Roman Catholic Church uses the same formula in its baptisms as Reformed churches use.

As to the design, the Roman Catholic Church does view baptism as a sacrament. They also view it, in a similar way, as a sign and seal applying the benefits of salvation. Their view of the efficacy of baptism (that grace is automatically given, and the recipient is placed into a state of grace because of the baptism) is the real issue. Closely connected with this is the person administering the sacrament. Does baptism depend upon the merit of the one performing it?

Those who followed Thornwell argued that a Catholic priest is not a lawfully called minister of God. Hodge argued that priests are true ministers. It is the hierarchical structure, and ultimately the papacy, that shows the Roman Catholic Church to be a synagogue of Satan, Hodge argued. However, locally, the priest is called by a particular community of those professing faith in Christ. What this means is that a Catholic priest performing a baptism is different from your older brother baptizing you in a bathtub when you were children. Something official is taking place.

John Calvin deals with this question in chapter 15 of the third book of the Institutes. There is a reason why Calvin was not rebaptized after the Reformation took place, and the reason is our defense as well today. In baptism, it is the Lord who places His seal upon the baptism, regardless in that sense whose hand performs it.

Calvin gives the illustration of reformation under King Josiah and King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18; 22; 23). Though wicked hands performed the circumcision of thousands, these faithful kings did not call for a second circumcision. The same is true for us. Whether it is a priest or a female pastor performing the baptism, the beauty of the sacrament is in the person speaking. That person is God.

The nature of the sacrament itself keeps us from seeking to rebaptize those who become Reformed after having come from the Roman Catholic Church. In baptism, it is God who makes a promise to the child. The promise given in the sacraments is “to forgive our sins and give us eternal life by grace alone because of Christ’s one sacrifice finished on the cross” (HC A 66). That promise is the same whether someone was baptized by the pope or by your pastor. Baptism is a covenantal claim of a child to be identified with God and to be a member of His church and people.

Conclusion

The acceptance of Roman Catholic baptisms has been less of a debate for those from the Three Forms of Unity tradition than it has for the Presbyterian (WCF) tradition. Nevertheless, it is important to know where we stand on the issue because it ought to be our prayer that we will be faced with this scenario very often. When Sarah, the young woman who was baptized Roman Catholic, became a member of our congregation, she made profession of faith. She was not rebaptized, and the reason why is because she had already received a water baptism, in the name of the Trinity and performed by a priest. The promise of God was given to her in her baptism, and when she confessed her love for the Lord, that promise was publicly realized by the congregation. As a congregation, we rejoiced with her and praised God for His gracious sacramental promise, which was given to her and to us all in our baptisms.

For Further Reading

http://www.hornes.org/theologia/charles-hodge/do-rc-clergy-count-as-gospel-ministers.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2:1303–23 [3.xv]. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. 2 vols. Library of Christian Classics. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960.

http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/2–078.html.

https://archive.org/stream/churchandpolity00hodguoft#page/214/mode/2up.

 

Rev. Steve Swets
is the pastor of Rehoboth United Reformed Church in Hamilton, ON.

 

 

Current Issue: July August 2016
Volume 66 Issue 4

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