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The Log of Familiarism

Introduction

Pastor and author Kevin De Young has compared the danger of familiarity within worship to watching a flight attendant give the pre-flight instructions. You know the routine: how to properly buckle your seatbelt and what to do in the slim chance that something goes terribly wrong in flight.

I clearly remember the first time I flew. When the attendant started doing her pre-flight routine, I was all ears. Of course, it helped that these were the days before iPhones and earbuds. If I wanted to listen to music, it meant taking out the portable CD player and remembering to take headphones that didn’t fit neatly into my pocket.

Regardless, I listened to her every word as if my life depended on it (because it might). In case the plane goes down, take the oxygen mask and secure it over my own mouth before helping someone else. Got it. No problem, I thought. Except that I knew, deep down inside, that if the plane really were to take a nose dive, I was quite certain it wouldn’t matter whether I helped myself first or not.

That was many years ago. Now, whenever I fly, my electronic device is up and running long before the flight attendant gets around to her routine. And unless I’m sitting in one of the first few rows, I flat-out ignore her.

Why? Because of familiarity. I’ve heard it all before.

Identifying the Log

It’s not that different when it comes to church. Most of you who are reading this article have been there, done that. Sunday morning and Sunday evening. Week in, week out. Month after month, year after year, decade after decade.

But could it be that we’re so familiar with attending church and gathering for worship that we tune it out, like I tend to do with the flight attendant?

One of the beautiful things about Reformed worship is the biblical liturgy. There is a reason we do what we do. Yet there is where the danger lies. Its predictable nature makes it easy to check out.

For example, how often don’t we let the call to worship go in one ear and out the other? Trust me, I see it every week. God is kindly and graciously gathering us into His holy presence by His Word as His covenant people, yet all we can think about is where the lady in front of us got her coat, or what a rotten morning we had just to get to church, or how we’re going to get anything out of the service sitting in front of that family.

Or take the greeting. How often are we left unfazed that the creator of the universe meets with us sinners in a stance of mercy, peace, and grace? Ho-hum. On to the next.

And we’ve all been there when it comes to singing. The same words that may have led us to tears years ago now leave us unmoved. All we can think about is how slowly the pianist is playing or how loudly the organist is pounding.

We are so familiar with Exodus 20 that we could literally say it in our sleep. We know the pastor’s cadence. We could mimic his every pause and intonation. We check our watch. Then he says something about Jesus, reads a Bible verse that is supposed to be assuring, and we’re on to the prayer.

And we Reformed pastors love to pray long prayers! We’re all encouraged to listen, but it’s hard not to daydream. Occasionally we’re jolted when we hear our name mentioned, but usually we’re hearing words without listening.

We haven’t even got to the sermon yet. But if we’re being totally honest, even a great sermon sometimes leaves us uninspired. In part, because we think we’ve heard it all before. Or at least most of it.

Element by element, with each new passing week, we drift away (some of you literally) into our little semi-comatose kingdoms of self. While God is speaking directly to us, all we hear is white noise. Like Charlie Brown, blah-blah-blah.

 

Getting to the Root

We have to honestly assess ourselves. Why are we often numb to that which is familiar? Is it a case of been there, done that, heard it all before?

Speaking as a pastor, some of the blame rests squarely on us. If we rush through the elements of worship without challenging people as to why we do what we do, no wonder they have a tendency to be distracted. If our preaching lacks passion, how can we expect our people to be passionate?

Part of the reason I’ve given up listening to the flight attendants is that the vast majority of them go through their routine with about as much passion as a stump. I can understand how this happens. Maybe at first they were young and optimistic. “I’m going to be different. I’m going to be funny. Whatever happens, they can’t blame me for not trying!”

But then reality sets in. People aren’t looking. Some are even sleeping. No one seems to care. After a while, you lose the passion. Is it even worth trying? What’s the point? So the flight attendant does what she does because she has to. And some pastors are there. All duty, no delight. If he’s not amazed, why would I be?

But there is a deeper problem that affects both speaker and listener alike, and it is this: we are bored with God.

Bored with God? How is that even possible? God is a lot of things, but boring isn’t one of them!

But it’s true. Think of your reaction to seeing new Christians show up at your church. They’re excited, on fire, full of questions. Their enthusiasm exposes the darkness of our boredom. Or worse yet, we quietly congregate and criticize their newfound joy as either emotionalism or naive.

Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36–50 was like that. He invited Jesus to his house (because he thought he was pretty important). Everybody who was anybody was there. And then she walked in.

A notorious sinner (probably a prostitute). How embarrassing. She obviously wasn’t invited, but then it got even worse. She started making a scene. Talk about inappropriate! She was weeping and pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. And oh, how she carried on!

Yet her love for Jesus contrasted sharply with Simon’s lackluster pride. “Whoever is forgiven much, loves much. And whoever is forgiven little, loves little.” The point was clear.

Could it be that we in the Reformed community love God and others poorly because we aren’t all that amazed (at least anymore) that God has sent Jesus to forgive us?

And so the grace that used to amaze us bores us now. We still sing the song. We still talk the talk. But deep down in the recesses of our hearts, we’ve lost our sense of wonder, our sense of awe, our sense of surprise in the gospel of grace.

I wonder if that’s what happened to the older generation mentioned in Judges 2. We’re told these sober words: “And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judg. 2:10).

Kids, these days. Will they ever grow up? But wait. The question that begs to be answered is this: How did the younger generation suddenly not know the Lord or the work that He had performed? Were they not listening?

Or could it be that their parents lost the wonder of the exodus, just like some of us have lost the wonder of the cross?

How the Gospel Addresses Familiarism

Familiarity is not the problem. We are. The answer is not to abandon the same old story and catechisms and liturgies and traditions and forms but to see that the doctrine, to use a line from the English playwright Dorothy Sayers, is the drama.

The gospel story that runs through the pages of the Bible is the most exciting, exhilarating, passion-producing story ever written. The problem is not God. He is amazing. His story of redemption is stunning. No, the problem is us.

Not only do we tend to take familiar things for granted, but also our hearts are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love.

It hardly ever happens overnight. We usually don’t wake up one day and decide that we’re now unfazed by Jesus.

It’s more like the proverbial frog in the kettle. Slowly, over time, the temperature rises, and we don’t realize that we’re being lulled to sleep.

What’s the answer? How do we keep ourselves amazed? Not by turning to a different story or to different methods or to different means. The solution is found in being amazed again and again by the same old story—of Jesus and His love.

To be touched by the flames of the gospel, we have to get close to the blazing center. We must go to the cross daily. We must expect and long for preaching that brings Christ to us and us to Him. We must let the gospel be good news to these sinners’ ears.

And we must tell the next generation. Not merely out of duty, as if this is part of our job description. But out of the glorious duty of delight!

Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,

and his greatness is unsearchable!

One generation shall commend your works to another,

and shall declare your mighty acts.

On the glorious splendor of your majesty,

and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.

They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,

and I will declare your greatness.

They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness

and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

The Lord is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 

—Ps. 145: 3–8

Man of sorrows! what a name

For the Son of God, who came

Ruined sinners to reclaim

Hallelujah! What a Savior!

 

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

 
Happy Anniversary, Reformed Fellowship and The Outlook

If you are reading The Outlook, this new year, 2016, is an important year in which to remember our Lord’s faithfulness and His blessings. On February 21, 2016, Reformed Fellowship and The Outlook will celebrate their sixty-fifth anniversary.

For many years Calvin Theological Seminary had been publishing a weekly magazine called The Outlook. As 1950 approached, a number of Christian Reformed ministers and laymen became concerned about some things that began appearing in that publication. It was then decided to form an organization that would publish an alternative magazine devoted to upholding and defending the Reformed faith. This would be an avenue to counter those things being published in The Outlook at that time that were contrary to the Scriptures and the Reformed confessions.

On February 21, 1951, by-laws were adopted for a new organization called Reformed Fellowship, Inc. The following is taken from the Reformed Fellowship Articles of Incorporation:

These Articles of Incorporation are signed and acknowledged by the incorporators for the purpose of forming a nonprofit corporation under the provisions of Act 327 of the Public Acts of the State of Michigan for the year 1931, as amended, known as the Michigan General Corporation Act, as follows:

Article I. The name of this corporation is Reformed Fellowship, Inc.

Article II. The purpose or purposes of this corporation are as follows: to study the Reformed faith and to develop its implications as it relates to all of human life and activity; to disseminate and defend the Reformed faith in opposition to all errors, heresies and trends of thought hostile to the development of a full-orbed and fully committed Christian life; to encourage and promote respect for the Reformed tradition by all lawful means; to publish Reformed periodicals and literature.

The men who signed that document were Herman Baker, Rev. Arnold Brink, Dr. P. Y. DeJong, Dr. John De Vries, Rev. Leonard Greenway, Rev. Edward Heerema, Marvin Muller, Rev. John Piersma, Dr. John Van Bruggen, Rev. Fred Van Houten, Rev. Henry Van Til, and Rev. Henry Venema.

Reformed Fellowship then began publication of a magazine called Torch and Trumpet. The verse chosen for the magazine was Judges 7:20: “And the three companies blew the trumpets . . . and held THE TORCHES in their left hands, and THE TRUMPETS in their right hands . . . and they cried, The sword of Jehovah and of Gideon.’”

In early 2000, the name of Torch and Trumpet was changed to The Outlook. The verse was changed to Jude 3: “Exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”

In keeping with the stated purpose of Reformed Fellowship, to publish Reformed periodicals and literature, the publication of Bible study materials and books by Reformed authors was also eventually begun.

Over the years Reformed Fellowship struggled, and the minutes indicate times when even dissolution of the organization was considered. In December 2001, the minutes show that Outlook subscriptions were declining and RF was twenty-one thousand dollars behind. But at that very time a very sizable estate gift was received. That is how God continually blessed the efforts of this small organization in defending the faith in the midst of a declining appreciation and understanding of the precious truths that the forefathers so vigorously defended and preserved.

Reading through the organization’s minutes shows that many of the concerns and discussions presently facing the Reformed Fellowship board are much the same as those throughout the years. God is good, and He blesses. He has blessed the small efforts of Reformed Fellowship for sixty-five years. We give Him the praise for this milestone.

We live in a time that the proclamation and defense of the Reformed faith is needed as much as ever. May God continue to bless Reformed Fellowship to vigorously do so even as our forefathers did under God’s blessings for sixty-five years.

Mr. Myron Rau     
is the chairman of the board of Reformed Fellowship.

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This meditation was originally published in Torch and Trumpet, April-May 1951.

 
Shelter and Security Meditation of Psalm 91

A Psalm of the Sheltered Life

Multitudes today are shelter-conscious! Shelter from the A-bomb! Shelter from the H-bomb! William Faulkner, on his way to Stockholm last December to receive the Nobel Prize, paused in New York City long enough to remark to press reporters: “Man has only one question in mind: When will I be blown up?” Professor Henry D. Smith of Princeton University advocates underground cities and industries as the only means of survival. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation has been petitioned for a million-dollar loan to develop a twenty-six-mile-long cave in the Missouri Ozarks into “an underground ‘Noah’s Ark’” safe from A-bomb and H-bomb attacks. The cave would hide several thousand people “whose survival would be essential to future civilization.”

It is significant that the farther men get away from God, the more they feel compelled to go downward to preserve their lives.

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He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say of the Lord, he is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.

Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pesilence.

He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.

Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;

Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.

Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.

Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation;

There shall no evil befall thee neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.

For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.

They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.

Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.

He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honor him.

With long life will I satisfy him, and show him my salvation.

—King James Version

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A Psalm of Security

It is the sense of insecurity that is driving people into all kinds of excesses today. They have no peace of mind. Shortly before his death, Joshua Liebman, author of the popular, fast-selling book, Peace of Mind, was reported in one of our weekly magazines to have said to an interviewer, “The one thing I do not have is peace of mind.” Peter Edson, a respected Washington correspondent, declared recently, “Washington today is like a lost man at midnight in the dark of the moon, standing at the bottom of a deep pit, blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back, looking for something that isn’t there. That ‘something’ is, of course, peace.”

Helpless before our own defence we stand,

Turned by our strength into a cowering land.

For he whose weapon is the cosmic flame

Needs cosmic wisdom to direct the aim,

Or falls, self-smitten by his own blind hand.

Three voices speak in this psalm: the voice of the witness for God, the voice of the brother in peril, and the voice of God Himself.

The Witness for God

A sympathizing friend of the brother in peril speaks: “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”

Where is this secret place of the Most High? Within the veil, of course, whither Christ leads us from the cross, through the grave, to the right hand of God the Father Almighty. There by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving we may make our requests known unto God. And the peace of God which passeth all understanding guards our hearts and thoughts in Christ Jesus.

Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh, let us draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith. For we are no more servants merely, not knowing what our Master doeth, but we are friends of the Son,and as friendswe know the secrets of the Father. Is it not written, “The secret of Jehovah is with them that fear him; and he will show them his covenant”?
(Ps. 25:14).

Your life is hid with Christ in God. Here is a home of full confidence, a dwelling where warm affection prevails. Here we acquaint ourselves with God and are at peace. It is a house with a great name: the Most High, the Almighty under whose protecting shadow the redeemed abide. Yea, the Lord Himself is round about us, as the mountains are round about Jerusalem. Here is real security. Thou art safe because God is true. His truth is a shield and buckler. It protects against the entrance of those doubts, those misgivings and fears which, like flying arrows, may assail you. Men may be false, but Cod is true. The heathen may rage, and the people may imagine a vain thing; still God is true. Thou art safe because He in whom thou trustest has all the elements of nature and all the angels of heaven as His agents and messengers, to do His pleasure in behalf of all who abide under His shadow. He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.

The Brother in Peril

He says very little. But the little he says is much. It is very comprehensive: “I will say of Jehovah, he is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”

How promptly he replies to his sympathizing friend! In the sacred record it appears almost as an interruption of the testimony of his friend. This is faith in ready and deep response. A weary, war-worn believer quickly appropriates what only faith can appropriate: “I will say of Jehovah, he is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”

To say this is to say much. To say this is to confirm the gracious work of the indwelling Spirit. Not everyone says this. Not everyone can say this. For this is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. The heart that speaks thus is not the heart that we have by nature. By nature we seek a defense againstGod. We seek a shelter fromthe true God. Indeed, there are forms of godliness that we put between ourselves and the Lord. When the Lord comes to reckon with us, we entrench ourselves in self-justification, self-righteousness. Nothing is more natural to sinners than the disposition to evade the living God who is offended by their sin.

If it is otherwise with us now, the explanation lies not with ourselves but with that very God from whom we seek to hide. His monarchical grace sweeps away our imaginary innocence. His Spirit punctures the sham of our imagined goodness and integrity. His sovereign invasion of our corrupt and barricaded hearts beats down every element of defiance. The Lord of Hosts by His Spirit and Word assails the bulwarks of sin, and the smitten sinner cries in penitence, humility, and gratitude, “Jehovah my righteousness! Jehovah my strength! My God, in whom I trust.”

It is the language not of faith only, but of love. Jehovah becomes more than an advantage, a convenience, an expedient. He is not merely prized as a shelter. In Himself He becomes precious to us. He is our portion, our all in all. He is my God, in whom I trust.

The Voice of God

Now God speaks. He always has the last word because He always is the First Word. “Because he has set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name. He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble: I will deliver him, and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him, and show him my salvation.”

His heart is mine, says Jehovah. He has set his love upon me. No, it is not a name for himself that the believer covets. He knows Jehovah’s name, and that name he will glorify. Such love itself the product of divine love; it will never be misplaced. It will never be ignored. Jehovah will honor them that honor him. “I will set him on high because he hath known my name.”

The heart that is set upon the Lord cannot be silent when the object of that love is near. “He shall call upon me.” It cannot but be so! Nor can it be otherwise than that the divine Lover will answer. “And I will answer him.” God sends forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts that we may always cry, Abba, Father. And when we cry, He answers.

He answers, but not always by removing the trouble. Not always by removing the terror by night or the arrow that flieth by day. The pestilence that walketh in darkness may remain. The destruction that wasteth at noonday may not be taken away.

But He does reply. He replies by being with us in trouble.

And even in trouble He can satisfy. So marvelous is His transfiguration of the dark day that we do not fail to see His goodness. And seeing His goodness, we find fullness of life. Seeing His goodness, though we fall in the flower of youth or in the prime of manhood, we fall, still testifying that with long life the Lord has satisfied us. Even the youth of tender years, once he has known the Name, falling in death while spring is still green, dies as old as the aged Simeon who said, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

 

At the time this article was written...

Dr. Leonard Greenway     
was a teacher of Bible and spiritual counselor at Grand Rapids Christian High School. Dr. Greenway was an ordained minister, holding an associate pastorship in the Burton Heights Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI. He has written Basic Questions on the Bible and Basic Questions on Christian Behavior and was a regular contributor to The Banner, the Christian Reformed denominational weekly.

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A good many people seem to think that every generation lives in a sort of intellectual watertight compartment, without much chance of converse with other generations. Every generation has its own thought-forms and cannot by any chance use the thought-forms of any other generation. Do you know what I think of this notion? I think it comes very near being nonsense. If it were true, then books produced in past generations ought to be pure gibberish to us.

—J. Gresham Machen, The Christian Faith in the Modern World, 91.

 
 
Finding God’s Word in Our Time

Shrimp, crab, lobster, clams, mussels, all these are an abomination before the Lord, just as gays are an abomination. Why stop at protesting gay marriage? Bring all of God’s law unto the heathens and the sodomites. We call upon all Christians to join the crusade against Long John Silver’s and Red Lobster. Yea, even Popeye’s shall be cleansed. The name of Bubba shall be anathema. We must stop the unbelievers from destroying the sanctity of our restaurants.

This is how the website godhatesshrimp.com tries to mock Christians for their belief that homosexuality is still a sin in the eyes of the Lord. If you’ve listened at all to the debate raging across North America, you’ve heard people on opposite sides claim to be followers of Jesus Christ and claim the Bible for their position either for or against homosexuality. There is mass confusion in our time, in the visible church, over whether God actually has spoken and if so, where has He spoken.

The Word of God as a topic of doctrine is fundamental to what we as Reformed Christians think about God (theology) and how we live a godly life. The Belgic Confession of Faith (1561) opens with an article about God (art. 1) and then six articles with how we know him in his revealed Word (arts. 2–7), summarized in this line: “We believe that those Holy Scriptures [of the Old and New Testaments] fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein” (art. 7). To this we say, “Amen!” But because this is such a given in our churches, we can take it for granted. We say the Bible is the Word of God, but do we know why? Then we hear the challenges to biblical faith every day from neighbors and in the media. Are we going to muster as soldiers in the army of the Lord to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) or lay down our arms before the pressure of the world?

It was only a few years ago that a fellow pastor in a nearby URC congregation renounced his vows to uphold Reformed doctrine and joined the Eastern Orthodox Church. Then a year later, a student I knew at a local Reformed seminary converted to Roman Catholicism. Even more well known was that a popular PCA pastor whom I knew and whose blog was popular with many of my parishioners announced that he no longer believed the Protestant doctrine of Scripture but believed the claims made by the Roman Church. At this moment our classis has a study committee dealing with the claims of the Eastern Orthodox Church because several local congregations are losing young members.

These and other events and pressures should stir our passions to proclaim “the sum of your word is truth” (Ps. 119:160) and to defend that truth. As for me, I have sworn a solemn oath “diligently to teach and faithfully to defend” the doctrine contained in our confessional documents whether in preaching, teaching, or writing. I also have sworn that I “not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine . . . but that [I am] disposed to refute and contradict these and to exert [myself] in keeping the Church free from such errors” (Form of Subscription). Although you may not have taken that oath, I trust that you will stand with me and say that while the grass will wither and the flower will fade “the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8).

And so I plan to write to you a series of articles on our doctrine of Scripture. At the heart of why I will be writing is that too many of God’s people do not always have such assurance and confidence that their Bibles are the very words of God—what our forefathers called ipsissima verba. Because the sin nature we inherited from Adam is like a dead body that still clings onto us (Rom. 7:24), the doctrinal truths we affirm with our heads do not necessarily translate into the experiential reality of our hearts. Because of this I believe Scripture evidences that every generation of God’s people needs to appropriate for itself its truth as foundational and fundamental for saving faith. As our Heidelberg Catechism says, “true faith” includes “a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is true” (Q&A 21). If we do not recommit ourselves to the Scriptures, I believe Scripture teaches that we will see a rapid shift from this generation into another “that did not know the Lord” (Judg. 2:10).

The Need to Find God’s Word

There is an urgent need to find the authentic Word of God in our time. While statistics can be misleading if they are abstracted from the moment they are calculated, they do give a glimpse of reality at that moment. Back in 2000 one survey revealed that 75 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “God helps those who help themselves.” Then in 2005 another survey revealed that 11 percent of “born-again” Christians said they did not believe the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings. These statistics go hand in hand with the sad anecdotal reality that many of us have that Americans as well as professing Christians are turning from the Word of God to alternate spiritualities, different religions, to themselves, or to no religion at all for their version of the truth. This evidences that we are in the same kind of famine the Lord once sent upon Israel: “not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). And sadly, we read that in those days “they shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it” (Amos 8:12). This describes the apostate church as it blindly wanders from the sentimentality of Protestant liberalism, to the so-called authoritative and immovable word of Rome or Orthodoxy, to the relativistic Emerging Church, to the skeptical Bart Ehrman, to the happy Joel Osteen, and the list goes on. There is a lot of searching but no finding.

People are asking in their own way, “Where can I find God’s Word?” We need to proclaim that God “makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word”
(Belgic Confession, art. 2), 

that is, in the inspired, infallible, and canonical Scriptures of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and twenty-seven of the New Testament. This where the authentic Word of God to humanity is found. We need to proclaim this confidently. How firm will you be when co-workers tell you that they read the latest Dan Brown novel or saw the latest television program during Christmas or Easter season that said the manuscripts of the Bible contradict? How will you answer when you hear the assertion that the early church used power politics to decide what books were Scripture while leaving out other viable books?

The need of our time is no different from that of times gone by. In his second epistle to young pastor Timothy, Paul gives several characteristics of the “last days” (2 Tim. 3:1), that is, in the days since our Lord’s ministry on earth in his incarnation (Heb. 1:1–2), crucifixion (Heb. 9:26), and effusion of His Spirit (Acts 2:1–4, 17).

The first characteristic of the last days is that the church exists in an age of apostasy from the true faith. Paul says “people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3–4).

The second characteristic of the last days is that the church exists in an age of ungodliness: “people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:2–5).

Now, stop and ask yourself this question: What is so different about Paul’s day and ours? The answer is absolutely nothing. I’m not arguing for “the good ol’ days” of the 1950s or 1550s. The church has always struggled with the struggle we are facing in finding the Word of God in our time. It is imperative that we to find God’s words so that we can speak them to the world. His words are like a beacon in the darkness of falsehood and like a light that exposes the darkness of our sinful hearts. And when we find the Word, we find an anchor for our souls in the midst of the turbulent storms of false theology and false piety that beat against our faith.

The Place to Find

Where can we find the true Word of God? The place to find it is in what we call the canon of Scripture. A canon was an ancient way of describing what we call a ruler. Our ancient forefathers adapted this word for describing the Word of God, saying that we have in the Old and New Testaments the ruler, the true measure of authentic faith in God and genuine life before His face. Later in 2 Timothy 3, Paul speaks of Timothy’s upbringing in the faith of the Old Testament (2 Tim. 3:14, 16). Yet Paul’s statement that “all Scripture is breathed out by God” extends to the writings of the New Testament as well. For example, Peter equates Paul’s letters with the words of our Lord (2 Pet. 3:16). And our Lord’s words through His apostles have come to an end with the Revelation of John (Rev. 22:18).

The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are canonical because they are inspired, literally, “God breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). As Peter says, that breath of God carried along the writers of Scripture like a sailboat upon the water (2 Pet. 1:20–21). These Scriptures are also sufficient. They are what we need to be “complete” and “equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17).

“But how can I know this? There are so many religious books out there, after all.” The Westminster Larger Catechism (Q&A 4) gives us several basic reasons by which we know the Scriptures we have are the very Word of God.

First, they have the qualities of majesty and purity, as we would expect from the mouth of God. One reading of the Bible next to the Apocrypha, the Book of Mormon, or the Qu’ran will evidence this.

Second, all the different parts of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, in all the different genres of narrative, laws, poetry, prophecy, and letters, written over a vast expanse of sixteen hundred years, on different continents, in different languages have a consent in these various parts as well as a unity of purpose: “to give all glory to God.”

Third, they give light to the spiritually blind and are powerful to convert spiritually dead sinners. And afterwards, they are able to comfort and build up converted believers in their salvation.

Fourth, and most importantly, the same Holy Spirit who breathed them out (2 Tim. 3:16) also bears witness by and with them in our hearts that they are true (cf. Rom. 8:23–27). As God, the Holy Spirit alone is able fully to persuade us that these books are the very Word of God.

Conclusion

We live in that famine of the Word of God which the ancient prophet Amos spoke of (Amos 8:11–12). What are we to do as those made alive by the Spirit to know His Word? We need to reengage in the practice of finding the Word; and when we find it, continually mine it for its riches by meditating on it (Ps. 1:1–2; Col. 3:16), continually seek to conform our lives to it (Ps. 119:1–8), and continually express our utter thankfulness for it (Ps. 119:62; 164). And when we appropriate the Word for ourselves in this way, we will be equipped to contend for the Word (Jude 3), by preserving it as well as proclaiming it. May God help us to do so for our souls’ sake, for the sake of our children, and for the sake of our churches.

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

 
“First the Blade, Then the Ear”

This past summer I worked at a once-common job that is becoming uncommonly foreign to twenty-first-century Americans: farming. I soon found myself pushed beyond the little previous experience I had in the field (pun intended), and realized that dedicated farmers need to possess not just certain skills but a certain view of life. As I learned the various tasks of farming, from planting to transplanting to watering to weeding to harvesting, I gained a greater appreciation for the significance of the Bible’s numerous agricultural metaphors. Here are five simple truths about farming with profound implications for the Christian life.

Farming Is a Post-Fall Vocation

Stand under a hot sun for a day attacking weeds or wrestling with irrigation hoses, and you will gain new insight into God’s words to Adam: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground” (Gen. 3:19, ESV). As a middle-class American, I have the luxury of being a few steps removed from this reality. For me, farming was one of a great array of choices for work, something to provide money to help defray the cost of living. My day’s labor in the field was not the direct source of my next meal. For the majority of the world, however, it is a day-to-day reality that if you do not grow food, you will die. And sometimes you will die trying to grow food.

While farming is a post-Fall vocation, it’s not a result of the Fall. Before Adam and Eve’s sin, we read that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). We were created to work. The Bible’s pictures of lush gardens and bountiful harvests reinforce that working the ground can be a healthy and rewarding calling. But the effects of the Fall are visible in our work. Everywhere we look, thorns and thistles cause fatigue and frustration (Gen. 3:18). The only difference with farming is that the thorns and thistles are often literal.

To give just one example, my job included inspecting the tomato crop weekly for symptoms of late blight. For the past seven years, this fungal disease has been the bane of Long Island gardeners and farmers. Generating spores from rotten, moldy blotches on tomatoes and potatoes, late blight can spread quickly enough to ruin a crop in a just a few weeks. Other than a few preventative measures of varying effectiveness, there is no cure—other than to uproot and destroy any plant that shows any sign of the disease.

Whether or not you work outdoors, signs of the curse are abundant. In such a distorted world, it is easy to respond to these signs with an indifferent shrug or the comment, “That’s just the way things are.” Christians must rebel against this mindset. To grow complacent with the effects of sin on us and the creation is to downplay the salvation and restoration that Christ brings. Rather, in our vocations and daily living we must cry out for the complete redemption and renewal that Jesus will bring when He comes again. In the familiar words of the apostle Paul, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22–23).

Weeds Grow Exponentially Quicker Than Crops

Pull them, mow them, smother them, spray them—weeds are incredibly difficult to get rid of. If a tomato plant grows an inch in a week, weeds can grow a foot. Left unchecked, weeds can smother a row of seedlings in a matter of days. In one of His most familiar parables Jesus uses the metaphor of weeds to warn against worldliness: “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matt. 13:22). Jesus pictures the distractions of the world as deadly weeds that draw our energy away from pursuing the things of God.

Those who have followed Christ for any amount of time know that it is a daily struggle. Neglect the cultivation of your soul or the means of grace for even a few days, and you will find your spiritual walk suffering as a result. Like a fallow field or an unmulched row, your life will soon grow green with the weeds of worry and distraction. If we wish to be like Jesus, we must count the cost (Luke 14:25–33) and be willing to strive against sin even to the point of death (Heb. 12:1–4).

One of the most effective ways to fight weeds is to plant a “cover crop,” a thick planting of some benign vegetable that helps prevent sun and water from ever reaching weed seeds. This, too, is a helpful illustration for the Christian life. If we root out sin but put nothing else in its place, our fate will be like that of the man who swept his house clean but left it empty (Luke 11:24–26). Rather, we are to fill our lives with the fruit of the Spirit.

Watering Takes Time

We had a dry summer. The days are long gone when “a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground” (Gen. 2:6). Post-Fall, crops need human intervention in order to receive enough water, often at great cost. Even the relatively small farm where I worked possessed miles of aluminum pipe and hundreds of sprinkler heads. I have no idea how many gallons of water the ground had to soak up in a single day just for the vegetables to survive.

At least field irrigation is mostly automated once you open the valves and start the diesel pump. Over in the greenhouse, the process of watering was much more laborious. For the first few weeks of my job I would often spend several hours with hose in hand, carefully watering several thousand tiny seedlings. There were entire days when all I did was water.

The time and effort involved in watering shed new light for me on Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 3:6: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Ministering in the church, like watering, is no quick fix. It requires regular, continuous, committed involvement, and immediate results are seldom evident. Immense patience is required in order to be a pastor, elder, or church planter. The same applies to all Christians who seek to build relationships with unsaved family or friends. Like physical soil, the ground of the human heart needs to be cultivated and watered often, and for a long time, before a harvest can be reaped.

“For Dust You Are, and to Dust You Shall Return”

One of my daily chores was to put out the compost. While the concept of composting seems healthy and nutritious, dealing with rotten vegetables, fresh manure, and fish emulsion is anything but attractive. It’s a messy, smelly job. Compost is just one part of the death and decay present throughout the process of farming, from killed-off crops to groundhogs the dogs caught. Every day I, too, am drawing nearer to the time when my body will die and decompose, eventually becoming indistinguishable from the dirt around it.

Yet it never ceases to amaze me that compost, the product of death and decay, is a source of valuable nutrition for new plants in the fields it is spread on. God’s providence in using the rotting of old plants to provide nourishment for new ones is a powerful picture of how He brings life out of death.

Similarly, in order for a seed to fall to the earth and germinate, its parent plant must first wither and die. Jesus used this fact of farming to illustrate the benefits we receive from His death: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus’ death brings us eternal life and the “fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Heb. 13:15). This is vividly illustrated for us in the Lord’s Supper, in which Christ “nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 28, Q&A 75). In the death and resurrection of His beloved Son, as well as in the various afflictions and trials each of us continues to face, God proves that He works all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

God Gives the Growth

Farming is a humbling experience. Despite the patience, endurance, and hard work that go into the process, at the end of the day farmers are not in control. They can prepare for a drought and then have a hailstorm destroy a field. They can prepare for a tomato hornworm infestation and instead face the ravages of late blight. Their harvests can run the gamut from bountiful to nonexistent.

Sometimes the opposite is true, too. Sometimes the crops that have suffered the most neglect and abuse produce the best—the strawberries that had been forgotten, the tomatoes that grew from seeds in the compost pile. In good and bad circumstances alike, God takes the credit. Without His providential care nothing would grow at all.

As Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” (Mark 4:26–28). The kingdom of heaven is built not by mere human effort but by the care of a gracious God who finishes the good work He begins. In the midst of a post-Fall world, overgrown with weeds, parched for water, and painfully aware of death’s presence, believers look forward with certainty to the vision of the river of living water and the tree of life whose leaves bring healing to the nations (Rev. 22:1–5). Christians who diligently cultivate their walk with Christ will “still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him” (Ps. 92:14–15).

Let heaven and earth be glad; waves of the ocean,
Forest and field, exultation express;
For God is coming, the Judge of the nations,
Coming to judge in His righteousness.

—Psalm 96, Psalter Hymnal 187

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.

 
The Song of Mary

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoiced in God my Savior.
Luke 1:46–47

As the lights of the Christmas season begin to fill the countryside, we do well to remember the promises that God has given to us. The first is the promise of life, and the second is the promise of love. Both of these promises are reflected in the Song of Mary.

Christmas is a delightfully exciting time! What fun it is to put up the tree. In our house we have three trees. We decorate the house, we shop for gifts, we anticipate opening gifts, and there is always lots of candy and cookies around at Christmastime.

As exciting as all of this may be, the time leading up to the first Christmas was so much more exciting for Mary than it is for us. An angel had visited her. She had received a message from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She was going to have a Son, even God’s own Child. The God who had given His promise of life. The God who had given His promise of love was about to reveal to the world His greatest promise of life. He was about to give His greatest display of love!

The song that Mary sings is a song filled with faith and joy. It is a song for each one of us as we reflect upon the promises of God. Mary’s song marks a transition from Old Testament way of praising God to New Testament way of praising God.
In the Old Testament God was praised for His promises. The people eagerly anticipated the fulfillment of those promises. In the New Testament the people still praised God for His promises, but beginning with Mary, God is praised for the fulfillment of those promises.

A Song of Joy
Mary’s song is a song of joy and gratitude. It speaks of God’s goodness and God’s greatness. It is a personal confession of His love, His mercy, and His grace. Just think of what God has announced to Mary through His angel. The birth of the child who would be called Jesus was the hope of redemption being fulfilled. Nothing like that had ever happened before. Oh, there had been plenty of times when God’s people were saved from their enemies. There had been prophets before, but all those events and prophets foretold of this day. This day when a Savior, when “God with us,” would come into the world! And Mary was chosen to be the one through whom this prophecy of life and love is fulfilled.

Why Mary? Mary recognized that it was not because of who she was or what she had done. It was God’s condescending love that chose Mary. Mary recognized herself as the subject of great mercy from the Holy One. The same Holy One who showed mercy to Noah during the flood. The same Holy One who came to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The same Holy One who led Israel into the Promised Land.
And why Jesus? Why would God send His Son? Why should God send His Son into this sinful world? Because of His promise of life and His promise of love. Because the love of God has no limit. His love knows no measure. The love of God is like a river that empties itself but never runs dry. What else could Mary do but sing a song of praise to Jehovah, the God of promises fulfilled (vv. 46–49)?

A Song of Deliverance
In addition, the song of Mary is a song of deliverance. God had promised salvation in word and in deed. The last few centuries had been woefully discouraging for Israel. The voice of prophecy was no longer being heard. The hated Romans had subjected the country to an oppressive tyranny. Where was the hope of Israel? How long would the Lord tolerate this chastisement of His people?
At last, the messenger of God comes to Mary and tells her that God has not forgotten His promise. One named Jesus is coming. And the messenger says (v. 22), “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord will give Him the throne of His father, David, and His kingdom will never end.”
What can Mary do but sing her song of joy (vv. 50–53)?

A Song of Faithfulness
And finally, Mary’s song is a song of God’s covenant faithfulness. One thing had always been a comfort to Israel: the promises of God. His promise of life and His promise of love. Many times in the Old Testament those promises had been expressed and expounded upon. Many times those promises were all Israel had to hope upon. That God would be faithful. That God would remember His people.
Ultimately these promises were all wrapped up in the swaddling clothes of the manger, in the Messiah, in Jesus Christ. Every word of prophecy, every sacrifice Israel made, every experience of deliverance pointed in His direction. They all pointed to Jesus Christ. In the incarnation, God was sending real help to His people. It was His crowning act of mercy and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Adam and Eve, and to Noah, and to Abraham and to his seed. He is the hope and consolation of all who look to the Lord.
And so, having been addressed by the God of her fathers, having been thrilled by the confirmation of that promise by Elizabeth, what can Mary do but sing this song of joy (vv. 54–55): “My soul praises the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”?

A Song for Us
Rest assured that this song is not just for Mary. It is not just for the Old Testament Israel. It is for you and me, as well. Just as the messenger came to Mary with his message of joy, with his message of deliverance, and with his message of God’s faithfulness, so the message comes to you today through the Word of God. The message is this: God has not forgotten His promise of life and His promise of love.

The promise of life and the promise of love isn’t just about a little boy born in a manger. No, there’s so much more going on here! Mary, though she was unworthy to receive such an honor, gave birth to the Son of God. But think of the lowly state God found us in! He found us in the depth of our error. He found us in the height of our folly. He found us in the width of wrong within our hearts. And yet, God mercifully looks upon us in His love.

Certainly Mary was unworthy to give life to the Son of God. But how much more unworthy are we to have Him die upon the cross for us because of our sin? What a great love God has shown to us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us! It is with a great salvation that God has delivered us through Jesus Christ. It is a salvation that is truly so much greater than the one Mary expected. Mary thought her son would somehow deliver Israel from national oppression. But Jesus came to deliver His own from our spiritual oppression. He came to deliver us from Satan. He came to deliver us from sin. He came to give us new life, everlasting life. A promise of life fulfilled in a way no Old Testament prophet could have dreamed possible. A promise of love fulfilled in a way Mary could not have dreamed possible.

What should our response be to God the Father for the love He has shown to us in Jesus Christ? We should have great gladness in our hearts, even as Mary did when she sang her song. We should rejoice in God our Savior, welcoming Him into our hearts, trusting in Him for our salvation, believing that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Every time you drive through town to see the Christmas lights, remember the promise of God’s love given to us through Jesus Christ. Remember also the assurance of new life given to all who trust in the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made on our behalf. May the red lights remind us of our sin and how they have been washed whiter than snow. Let the green lights focus you upon the promised Savior and the new life that is ours in Christ Jesus. Use the blue as a reminder that we, like the wise men, should worship the One whom the Father has sent to save us. And let the purple lights remind us to live all our lives in service to Jesus Christ.
We have seen a great light. Let us no longer walk in darkness.

Rev. Wybren Oord
is a member of the Trinity Reformed Church in Lethbridge, Alberta. He serves as pulpit supply for the Grace Reformed Church in the same city.

A Multitude of Counselors: Benefits of Reading Books About the Bible

It seems everyone has an opinion to publish these days, and with the advent of social media, everyone has a venue for getting it in print. In the past, only material that had made the editorial cut would be circulated more broadly in books or magazines. Blogs and Facebook, however, enable anyone to write anything and have it read throughout the world. Though e-publishing is booming in our day, most of this writing lacks peer review to ensure quality. Ecclesiastes seems to echo our own exhaustion from all the chatter: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Eccles. 12:12).

The abundance of bad reading material can tempt us to despair. We must not, however, forget the value of making and reading books. Though weary of the so-called wisdom of the world, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes did not abandon all studying and all reading: “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.” Craig Bartholomew explains that wise words “prod us into wise action and, like nails firmly embedded, provide us with a place that holds us.”1

In this article, we will consider the great value of reading the words of the wise that are found in good biblical and theological books.

The Importance of Reading
Although there have been some exceptions in history, most people recognize the value of reading. The Greek philosopher Plato felt that reading hindered true knowledge. Oral learning, memorization, and recitation were for him the key to wisdom. While there is a legitimate distinction to be made between listening (a more passive learning) and reading (a more active learning), Plato regrettably widened that into an unwarranted divide.2

The advantages of learning through reading are widely recognized. There is, however, a most important reason for Christians to develop their reading abilities, one that goes beyond pragmatics and pedagogy. The very medium of God’s Word (i.e., words written on paper) has huge ramifications for Christian learning. Brian Lee explains: “The Bible exists because our God speaks, and because he not only speaks, he also writes.” In light of this fact, “God’s revelation demands the literacy of his people.”3 Our social-media-saturated culture has had a profound effect on our ability to give sustained attention to God’s own voice. And because God’s voice comes to us in a lengthy written form—a slowly unfolding narrative—Christians do well to cultivate their reading skills.

The Importance of Reading Secondary Literature
Before we detail some particular benefits of reading, we must distinguish two different kinds of written sources: primary literature and secondary literature. Primary literature is original, unfiltered writing, whereas secondary literature is based upon primary texts. As an example, in Heroes of the City of Man, Peter Leithart analyzes and interprets ancient stories like The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer.4 Leithart’s book is secondary literature, and the original stories by Homer are the primary texts. Secondary literature analyzes and interprets the contents of a primary text. Throughout church history, Christians not only have read the Bible (primary literature) but also have written and read books about the Bible (secondary literature) in order to aid their understanding of the Bible. The magazine you are currently holding, The Outlook, is itself an example of secondary literature.

It is interesting that at the end of 2 Timothy, the apostle Paul asked for two different kinds of reading materials: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). Paul’s request for books (Greek: biblia) seems to mean biblical scrolls (primary literature), and his reference to parchments (Greek: membranas) seems a likely reference to other Christian writings (secondary literature).5

In his famous Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon made clear that every minister has in his possession a deep well from which to draw: the Bible. He wrote, “In the Bible we have a perfect library, and he who studies it thoroughly will be a better scholar than if he had devoured the Alexandrian Library entire.”6 Yet Spurgeon also recognized that it was a great hindrance to suffer from “slender apparatus” (i.e., lack of secondary literature). He devoted several pages of suggestions to ministers for how to gain access to more books written about God’s Word because of the great value of reading secondary literature: “Up to the highest measure of their ability, [churches] should furnish their minister not only with the food that is needful to sustain the life of his body, but with mental nourishment, so that his soul may not be starved. A good library should be looked upon as an indispensible part of church furniture.”7
This in no way downplays the superiority and indispensability of the Bible, but it does illustrate the special value of secondary literature. If Spurgeon saw the great importance of books for pastors, those who have been rigorously trained in seminary, books would seem to be at least as beneficial—if not more so—to those who have not had formal training in biblical and theological studies.8

The Benefits of Reading Secondary Literature
There are many good reasons to regularly read books and articles about theology and biblical studies. Here are a few of note:

1 Reading secondary literature makes us better readers of the Bible itself. Any opportunity we take to improve our reading skills makes us better readers of Scripture. Tony Reinke ably notes the connection between the two: “Honestly, I think we read our Bibles poorly because we read all of our nonfiction books poorly. To better read our Bibles, or any nonfiction book, we must work to improve our reading skills. Sharpening our reading skills will improve how we read and how we benefit from all our nonfiction books—including the most important Book of them all.”9 There are, of course, great benefits to reading fiction books in addition to nonfiction or secondary literature. The interview with Glenda Mathes in this issue of The Outlook wonderfully describes how. But whether it is fiction or nonfiction, when we read literature other than the Bible, we improve a number of skills that make us better readers of the Bible.

2 Reading secondary literature helps us cultivate love for God. Jesus answered the Pharisee-lawyer’s question about the greatest commandment in the law by stating: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:27). This is a far cry from the overly emotive, sappy, sentimental view of love embraced widely in our culture. Jesus shows that the mind must be active in our love for God.10 Donald Whitney explains the connection between love of God and learning: “What God wants most from you is your love. And one of the ways He wants you [to] show love and obedience to Him is by Godly learning. God is glorified when we use the mind He made to learn of Him, His ways, His Word, and His World.”11 Secondary literature gives us insight into God’s Word that helps to fuel our love for God.

3 Reading secondary literature helps us to learn Scripture in community. The Christian faith is not an individualistic affair. God has called together a church, a gathering of people from every tribe and tongue to worship and glorify Him corporately (Rev. 7:9–10). What is more, this community engages in mutual, “one another” care (cf. 1 Cor. 12:25; 1 Thess. 5:11; Gal. 5:13; Col. 3:13) and instruction of one another. Paul tells the Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col. 3:16). And the Thessalonians: “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).
Gene Veith notes that the corporate character of the church has a direct bearing on the corporate study of God’s Word: “[T]he act of reading God’s Word . . . takes place not merely as part of one’s private devotions but also in the church. Here God’s Word is read together by his people; it is studied, and it is preached.”12 The Old Testament sages stressed the importance of an “abundance of counselors” (Prov. 11:14; 24:6), and in subsequent history, the most common way Christians have learned the Word of God is through the teaching of others. The Westminster Shorter Catechism highlights this corporate context: “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (WSC Q.89; cf. WLC Q.155) The teaching of others includes sermons, Sunday school classes, conferences, and radio broadcasts, but as Jerry Bridges notes, “it also includes the reading of Christian books.”13 Even when two or three are unavailable to gather in Christ’s name, secondary literature still allows Christians to learn God’s Word with others. This leads us to our next point.

4 Reading secondary literature helps us learn from skilled teachers who are otherwise inaccessible. Because Christ’s church consists of people who are temporally and spatially removed from us, many of its finest teachers are inaccessible to us. Secondary literature, however, enables us to read Scripture in community even with them.
Teachers who are no longer living come to life, as it were, through their books. Joel Beeke explains that godly conversation “ought not to exclude the reading of godly treatises of former ages which promote holiness. Luther said that some of his best friends were dead ones.” Beeke concludes, “Let [the] divines of former ages become your spiritual mentors and friends.”14 I will never have the opportunity to sit under the preaching and teaching of John Calvin, Athanasius, Herman Bavinck, Chrysostom, or John Owen, to name only a few. Yet through their writings, I have indeed been taught by these men.
Some teachers live too far away from us or are people with whom we cannot develop a personal acquaintance. In former times, we would be unable to benefit from their tutelage. But through books and articles, many people, regardless of distance or familiarity, are able to spend time learning from them. As an example: my use of numerous citations and endnotes in this article is an effort to model this very thing. I have met only three of the teachers I have cited below, and of those three, the closest one lives more than eighteen hundred miles away! Nevertheless, I have been able to spend hours with them through their writings.

5 Reading secondary literature helps us to learn from specialized teachers. Though as Christians indwelt by the Holy Spirit there is a sense in which we have no need for any man to teach us (1 John 2:27), this does not minimize the importance and value of reading in community, a point we have considered already. After all, Christ’s body, the church, consists of many different members with many different gifts (1 Cor. 12:1–31). When it comes to the study of God’s Word, different people possess gifts and skill sets not possessed by others. Some are experts in Greek. Others are knowledgeable in church history. Some Christians are skillful apologists and debaters while others have devoted their time to studying systematic theology or Hebrew. Reading the writings of others allows us to learn from those with unique expertise and specialization. When we have questions, we do not need to start from scratch and become masters of an entirely new area. Instead, secondary literature helps us to find answers from experts who have trod this path already.

6 Reading secondary literature helps us to learn about issues we might otherwise overlook. Because we naturally gravitate toward topics that interest us, reading secondary literature helps us to become informed about important matters that we might not otherwise consider. Thomas Murphy, a nineteenth-century Presbyterian pastor, urged ministers to devote considerable time and energy to perusing the periodical literature (i.e., magazines, journals, and newspapers) of the day.15 Why? Murphy explains: “There are grave questions of the times which it will not do for [pastors] to be ignorant of, or to understand only in a vague manner. . . . [T]here are living issues which the pulpit must take up; there are present wants that it must meet; there are current thoughts in religious and other periodicals which should stimulate the heart and mind of every preacher.”16 And yet it is not ministers only who must understand the ideas and issues of the present day. The apostle Peter urged all in his Christian audience: “[I]n your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).

Suggestions for Becoming Better Readers
Reading books and articles about the Bible and theology is of great benefit to us. And yet many of us feel far too busy to read. What can we do to improve our own reading practices and encourage a culture of reading in our churches and our families? Here are a few suggestions:

1 Make time to read. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we always make time to do what we like. If we work hard to cultivate a love of reading, we will find that every day contains some time to read secondary literature. If you start with easier books and start by reading during times ordinarily spent watching television or “vegging,” you will have an easier time making reading a habit.

2 Read good books. Ask your pastor to recommend some classic Christian books or books that will dovetail with his preaching and teaching. Good reading material will more easily cultivate a love of reading and a hunger for more.

3 Read Christian periodicals. The Outlook, Christian Renewal, Modern Reformation, World Magazine—these kinds of secondary sources will give you an array of shorter readings on a wide range of topics.

4 Go public with your reading. Always keep a book on hand for your train ride, lunch break, or wait at the DMV. Talk with people about things you are reading and solicit their feedback. To encourage reading in others, consider purchasing books and periodical subscriptions for them as gifts. Make sure to follow up and ask them about what they are reading.

Though it will eventually become very enjoyable, developing new reading habits will likely take some effort. Tony Reinke explains: “When we set out to read important books, we can expect opposition from our hearts. Reading is a discipline, and all disciplines require self-discipline, and self-discipline is the one thing our sinful flesh will resist.”17 Yet remember the great gift that we have in reading. God has made us His own through the work of Jesus Christ and has given us His Word to draw us unto Himself and teach us about His plan of redemption. The more we read God’s Word, the more we know God. The better we understand God’s Word, the better we know God. And this knowledge is not just cerebral; it is a most marvelous and delightful experience. J. I. Packer sums it up well: “Well might God say through Jeremiah, ‘Let him that glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me’—for knowing God is a relationship calculated to thrill a person’s heart.”18

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1. Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 366.
2. For more on the Greek approach of Plato and others, see David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 95–99.
3. Brian Lee, “Is Reformation Christianity Just for Eggheads,” Modern Reformation 21, no. 5 (September/October 2012): 18.
4. Peter J. Leithart, Heroes of the City of Man: A Christian Guide to Select Ancient Literature (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999).
5. See Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 129. See too E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 57.
6. Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students: A Selection from Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, First Series (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1890), 289.
7. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 282.
8. For an example of how some of the brightest theological minds of our own day have followed Spurgeon’s lead, see You Must Read: Books That Have Shaped Our Lives (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2015).
9. Tony Reinke, Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 118.
10. For problems with the modern use of the word feelings, see David Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003), 211–23, a chapter entitled “What Do You Feel?”
11. Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1991), 226.
12. Gene Edward Veith, Why God Gave Us a Book (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011), 40.
13. Jerry Bridges, Growing Your Faith: How to Mature in Christ (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004), 65–66.
14. Joel R. Beeke, Overcoming the World: Grace to Win the Daily Battle (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 92–93.
15. Thomas Murphy, Pastoral Theology: The Pastor in the Various Duties of His Office (1877; repr., Willow Street: Old Paths Publications, 1996), 147.
16. Murphy, Pastoral Theology, 147–48.
17. Reinke, Lit!, 131.
18. J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 20th anniversary ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 36.

Rev. R. Andrew Compton  
is the associate pastor at Christ Reformed Church (URCNA), Anaheim, CA, where he has served since 2008. He holds an MDiv from Westminster Seminary California and an MA in Old Testament from the University of California, Los Angeles.

 

Fiction’s Delight and Truth

How do you view fiction? Simply as mindless amusement? A waste of time better spent studying Scripture or reading edifying nonfiction? Or do you appreciate excellent fiction for the ways it generates delight and proclaims truth?
The biblical Preacher “sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth” (Eccles. 12:10, ESV). Through the ages, literature’s twofold purpose has been viewed as delight and truth.

Readers and writers may revel in novels with beautiful language and complex characters, which engage and entertain far more than shallow or poorly written books. Fiction can be a legitimate leisure pursuit, particularly when novels reflect the Truth.

Delight
Fiction entertains. After a busy day, many people love to sink into an easy chair and pick up a novel. Imaginative stories refresh weary minds and spirits. God established a creation pattern of work followed by rest, and his image-bearers may delight in his good gifts of literature and leisure.

Leland Ryken writes, “A person with a Christian worldview has a reason to value enjoyment and the enlightened use of leisure time in ways that the human race at large does not. Christians are the last people in the world who should feel guilty about the enjoyment of literature” (The Christian Imagination, p. 149).

As Bible believers and image-bearers, Christians should be discerning readers who enjoy fiction’s many pleasures: expanding personal horizons, promoting authentic empathy, continuing civilization’s conversation, and revealing biblical truth.
Bible Believers

Christians should primarily read God’s Word. And the more carefully we read Scripture, the more we see our freedom to read imaginative stories.

In Word Pictures: Knowing God Through Story and Imagination, Brian Godawa writes: “Roughly 30 percent of the Bible is rational propositional truth and laws, while 70 percent of the Bible is story, vision, symbol and narrative—that is, image” (p. 53).
The Bible extensively uses creative devices to convey truth. Prophets told imaginary narratives, including Nathan’s story convicting David of his sin (2 Sam. 12). Jesus taught truth through fiction: A man scatters seed or buys a pearl or discovers buried treasure. A father loves the libertine as well as the legalistic son. A sheep wanders off, and a coin rolls out of sight. “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it” (Mark 4:33, ESV).

Godawa writes, “As we enter into the stories and see ourselves in them, we see truth in a way that mere logical or doctrinal discourse simply cannot evoke” (Word Pictures, p. 70).

Christians should study God’s Word and read secondary literature (see Andrew Compton’s compelling arguments in this issue) as well as other fine works of nonfiction. But Scripture shows that we may also embrace quality fiction.

Image-Bearers
Created in God’s image, people have intrinsic dignity and creativity. They can read, speak, reason, love, and worship. They imagine and make, crafting quilts or sculptures, cakes or paintings, blog posts or fiction.

When we exercise creativity, we dimly reflect the Creator. In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers draws analogies between the Trinity and the threefold nature of human creativity. About reading, she writes: “For the reader . . . the book itself is presented as a threefold being. First: The Book as Thought—the Idea of the book existing in the writer’s mind. . . . Secondly: the Book as Written—the Energy or Word incarnate, the express image of the Idea. . . . Thirdly: the Book as Read—the Power of its effect upon and in the responsive mind” (pp. 113–15).

The author images the Creator in crafting a fictional work, but the reader reflects God’s triune nature in assimilating a book’s idea, energy, and power. Both writing and reading implement imagination and creativity.
God created a marvelous cosmos, teeming with amazing features and incredible creatures. He crowned creation with us as his image-bearers. Why shy from artistic expressions of creativity?

Discerning Readers
A discerning reader views every novel through a robust Christian worldview that includes biblical knowledge and artistic appreciation.
Like the Bereans, discerning readers compare what they read with what Scripture teaches. This doesn’t mean constantly and consciously assessing every sentence. But biblical knowledge must govern the thought process in determining whether or not a book is good. Does it portray humanity as essentially good or essentially sinful and in need of redemption? How does it reflect God’s truth or the devil’s lies?

A discerning reader may read dark fiction depicting the biblical reality of broken people living in a fallen world. Genuinely realistic fiction, however, must be pierced by glimmers of redemption’s light. (Pornographic or gratuitously violent material should be avoided, despite possible claims of redeeming value.)

The discerning person does not read only safe or banal fiction that never causes uncomfortable feelings or engages the brain. Such novels fail to acknowledge life’s pain or beauty. Reading only novels that generate warm, fuzzy feelings is like eating only cotton candy.
Christians may read a range of styles, according to personal limits and taste, as long as we determine fiction’s value on biblical principles. But there’s more to being discerning than simply knowing sound doctrine. God’s artistry shines in His Word and His world, and we should learn to recognize and appreciate artistic expression.

Scripture repeatedly shows God’s love for beauty and excellence. Artisans skillfully wrought valuable textiles into priestly garments, glinting with gold and colorful gems, which God designed “for glory and for beauty” (Exod. 28:40, ESV, emphasis added).

God’s creation testifies to His love for splendor and intricacy. From the glowing red of a lunar eclipse to the elaborate mechanism of a tiny cell, we see how much our Creator enjoys astounding beauty and complex design.
Well-written fiction demonstrates artistic and literary excellence. In an engaging narrative, believable characters progress through conflict to resolution. Vivid imagery and figurative language add beauty and meaning while propelling the plot.
Discerning Christians read through the dual lens of biblical truth and literary excellence.

Excellent Fiction
Some Christians advocate realism that embraces disturbing images and words. Others promote work that is overtly evangelistic but aesthetically poor. Still others believe art should be judged by aesthetic standards within biblical parameters. Fiction can be realistic without being vulgar, evangelistic without being didactic, and beautiful without being esoteric.

Bret Lott explains fiction differences this way to his college students:
I tell them that literary fiction is fiction that examines the character of the people involved in the story, and that popular fiction is driven by plot. Whereas popular fiction, I tell them, is meant primarily as a means of escape, one way or another, from this present life, a kind of book equivalent of comfort food, literary fiction confronts us with who we are and makes us look deeply at the human condition. (Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, on Being a Christian, p. 14)

Excellent fiction goes beyond page-turning action and predictable plots to a skillfully constructed narrative about complex characters. As it engages the mind and emotions with beautiful language and meaningful story, the reader enjoys multiple pleasures.

Expanded Horizons
Through fiction, our self-contained existences transcend geographic, ethnic, and time barriers. We experience the underbelly of Victorian London with Pip, whose Great Expectations end up inverting his perspective as much as a convict on a desolate marsh once inverted his small body. We travel by spaceship to Perelandra with Ransom, who slogs through an interminable fight with evil. Though settings and struggles of characters may be far removed from personal experience, we share common fears and hopes.
Why explore fictional places and feelings? C. S. Lewis answers in An Experiment in Criticism:


What then is the good of—what is even the defence for—occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist . . . ? The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. . . . We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as our own. (p. 137)

Reading literary fiction expands our horizons and enriches our lives. We discover shared emotions that touch our heartstrings, reverberating humanity’s common chords.

Authentic Empathy
Christians should be known for their compassion. Sadly, we are often judgmental, insular, and unloving. Excellent fiction cracks our self-absorbed shells and pours empathy into our souls. Fictional struggles of realistic characters cultivate more understanding for real people.

Julianne Chiaet described a study supporting this in an online Scientific American article entitled “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.” Subjects who read literary fiction displayed an increased ability “to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions” over those who read genre or popular fiction.

With Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, we grow in our understanding of black victims and social outcasts. Through reading Island of the World by Michael O’Brien, we share Josip’s trauma—due to horrific destruction of his Balkan village and dehumanizing torture in a Communist concentration camp—and rejoice in his redemption and healing through faith.

Reading about unfamiliar struggles increases our compassion for others. It may even help us better understand the sin within ourselves.
Civilization’s Conversation
When we read fiction, particularly classics, we participate in civilization’s ongoing conversation. In The Two Towers, Sam Gamgee speaks about the “the old songs and tales . . . that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind” (p. 321). Classic stories multiply experiential knowledge and share timeless meaning.

No individual can conceive or encounter everything in one lifetime, but through fiction we learn from many lives. Gene Edward Veith Jr. writes, “When ideas and experiences can be written down, they are, in effect, stored permanently. People are no longer bound by their own limited insights and experiences, but they can draw on those of other people as well. Instead of continually starting over again, people can build upon what others have discovered and have written down” (Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, p. 19).

Christians can benefit from classics that distill the accumulated wisdom and beauty of the ages in an accessible form.

Biblical Truth
Truth in fiction reflects God’s truth. Postmodernists and literary deconstructionists deny this axiom, but it reflects a Christian worldview espoused by theologians through the centuries.

Augustine urged every “true Christian” to “understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master” (On Christian Doctrine, II.18). John Calvin wrote: “All truth is from God” (Commentary on Titus 1:12). Herman Bavinck proclaimed God as “truth in its absolute fullness . . . the original truth, the source of all truth, the truth in all truth” (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p. 209).
The Canterbury Tales, told by fictitious pilgrims of dubious character, convict readers of their own hypocrisy. Macbeth depicts the power of evil warring within a heart. Rev. John Ames, dying in his hometown of Gilead, awakens our souls to life’s piercing beauty.
Fiction—classic or contemporary—advocates the author’s view of what is true. Christians must consider the “truth” being communicated in light of the One who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).

When reading fiction, we should aim for an appropriate balance. We need neither reject it as a waste of time nor immerse ourselves in poorly written work.

Leland Ryken writes, “Christians should neither undervalue nor overvalue literature. Literature is not exempt from artistic, moral, and intellectual criticism. Yet its gifts to the human race are immeasurable: artistic enrichment, pleasurable pastime, self-understanding, clarification of human experience, and, in its highest reaches, the expression of truth and beauty that can become worship of God” (The Christian Imagination, p. 32).

Christians may embrace the delight and truth of excellent fiction. While we enjoy its beauty and other pleasures, we participate in an ongoing conversation that increases our understanding of ourselves and others. We may even discover that fiction brings us closer to God.

Glenda Faye Mathes writes across genres for all generations. Her fiction and nonfiction convey timeless truths about literary excellence. She and her husband, David, live on a wooded acreage in Iowa and teach catechism to fourth-grade students at Covenant Reformed Church (URC) in Pella. She regularly blogs at her website: glendafayemathes.com

Growing Healthy Children: An Alternative to Provocative Parenting

Mr. and Mrs. Jones walked into the counselor’s room with smug looks on their faces. They almost let the door slam in the face of their early-teenage son Sam and his younger sister Emma. As the family sat down, the parents locked eyes on their kids as if to say, “We all know you’re why we’re here. Go on and tell the counselor how you are.”

And in truth, the kids had been misbehaving at school. Their church family, too, knew things were not well. Less obvious was the unhappy home the Joneses were cultivating. Mr. Jones, a successful business man, expected everyone else in the family to live up to his unreasonable standards. Mrs. Jones, frustrated and overwhelmed by her husband’s heavy work schedule, had made a habit of yelling at their kids and highlighting their failures.

The Joneses had forgotten Colossians 3:21, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”

It is tempting to blame children for our family problems. But Scripture does not allow us to do this. Children bear the responsibility to obey their parents. But God commands parents to raise their children with godly nurture, being careful not to frustrate them. Inestimable damage is done by parents who provoke their children and cause them to become discouraged.

Grasping the Issue

Who Is God Addressing?

While specifically addressing fathers, God is speaking to both parents. The word translated “fathers” is elsewhere used to mean “parents” (Heb. 11:23). Additionally, fathers are spoken to as covenant heads of the families. Fathers are to see that neither parent provokes the children. Fathers cannot stand idly by if their children are being provoked by their mothers.

What Does It Mean to Provoke?

The word used in Colossians 3:21 means to agitate, often to anger. Matthew Henry explains that parents provoke their children by treating them with rigor and severity, by holding the reigns too tightly and thereby raising their passions, discouraging them in their duty.

Years ago I was invited to participate in a long and strenuous horse ride. Due to fear and inexperience I held the reigns so tightly that the bit began to agitate the horse’s mouth. Before long the horse grew restless and threatened to throw me. I was provoking him to anger by holding the reigns too tightly. He was willing to be directed. But I was undermining his willingness by my heavy hand.

In Ephesians 6:4 Paul contrasts two approaches to parenting. On the one hand, parents can provoke their children to wrath. On the other, parents can bring up the children in the training and admonition of the Lord. Failing to patiently and constructively train our children in the things of God, we often substitute more fleshly methods of parenting which provoke our children’s anger.

What Is Discouragement?

The word literally means to lose energy or passion. Discouraged children lose hope, stop trying, and give up. When children say, “I don’t care” or “It doesn’t matter,” they are often conveying discouragement. It is tempting to dismiss a dispirited child’s behavior as being teenager-ish or childish. But parents must resist assuming that their child’s indifference is normal. In fact, there are hosts of young people who are passionate about life and enthusiastic in godliness. But sometimes this passion is squelched by parental provocation.

Forsaking Dangers

Mishandling the Rod of Discipline

Surely the rod can be used too little: “He who spares his rod hates his child” (Prov. 13:24). Children need to be taught that sin hurts. If they don’t, they may lose interest in pursuing godliness because they don’t see the danger of sin.

But the rod can also be used too much. The Apocrypha says, “He who loves his son will whip him often . . . bow down his neck in his youth, and beat his sides while he is young” (Ecclus. 30:1, 12). This is not Christian discipline. Sometimes a wise rebuke is better than the rod (Prov. 17:10). This is particularly so as a child moves past the early years of childhood. Matthew Henry urges parents to exercise authority not “with rigor and severity, but with kindness and gentleness.” If your children can forget that you love them, either during or immediately following discipline, you might be doing it wrong.

Maintaining a Disorderly Home

God is a God of order (1 Cor. 14:33). He has created us in his image to promote order and thrive in the context of order. A disorderly home can discourage children. A perpetually messy or especially an unsanitary home can help produce poorly adjusted children. A lack of regularly scheduled meal times and bed times can frustrate children’s God-given desire for order.

Holding Inappropriate Expectations

Some parents expect almost nothing from their kids. In such settings, children can lose energy or passion because they are never helped to “reach forward to those things which are ahead” (Phil. 3:13). In other homes too much is expected.Experience teaches that unreasonable expectations are the ideal breeding ground for discouragement.If your children regularly fail to measure up to your standards, you might be expecting too much.

Building a Joyless Home

In some homes children are not treated with the dignity that God requires. Some parents rarely congratulate or encourage their children, focusing instead on their faults. Parents must never forget that their children are people created in God’s image. Children of believers are even included in God’s covenant (1 Cor. 7:14).

Failing to Speak as “One Flesh”

Too often, dad and mom are not operating by the same rules when it comes to interacting with their kids. One parent might be more lenient. The other might be more demanding. But such “accidental doublespeak” is dangerously confusing to our children. In irreconcilable disagreements the wife must graciously acquiesce to her husband’s leadership (Col. 3:18).

There are many more potential causes for childhood discouragement. Like good physicians, parents should evaluate the spiritual health of their children and, where applicable, diagnose the source of their children’s discouragement. Sometimes the answer will be found by looking in the mirror.

Pursuing Goals

Make Jesus Central to Your Family Life

In some “Christian” families Christ is simply not central. Too often we emphasize our own righteousness or the righteousness we expect from our children. How is this ethic different from that in a non-Christian home? We sing, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Do we apply those words in our homes?

Christ-centered parenting also means explaining to our children how they can come to Christ. Too often we tell our children to respect us, to obey us, and to grow up. But we don’t help them bring their troubles to, and find healing in, Jesus. Christ said that his yoke is easy; his burden light. He will give rest for our weary souls (Matt. 11:29–30). We need to lead our children to rest in Christ. God forbid that we would make things more difficult for our children than Jesus would.

Make Grace Shine in Your Family

Is the most powerful principle in your home grace or law? The law merely tells us what God’s will is and that we must obey it. It is grace alone that teaches us how to please God.

William Hendriksen explains that “fathers should create an atmosphere which will make obedience an easy and natural matter, namely, the atmosphere of love and confidence.” Our emphasis should be on the positive.

Imagine that on the first day of a new job your trainer gave you only negative instructions. “Don’t ever be late to work, interrupt the boss during his meetings, use the phone for personal calls . . .” You would eventually wonder, “What AM I supposed to be doing? How do I do my job?” We often lead children to the same exasperation.

Gracious parenting especially applies to correction. Be sure that your children know that you love them as they are, not as you would like them to be. As a good rule of thumb, ask yourself, “What kind of correction is most helpful for me?”

Model Repentance Before Your Kids

Many children are rarely shown what it looks like to seek forgiveness from others for their sins. We tell them to do it, but we don’t show them how. We tell them to “apologize like you mean it.” But we don’t demonstrate what heartfelt sorrow for sin looks like. One way to model repentance is to seek our children’s forgiveness, especially if our provocation has driven them away.

Listen to the Advice of Others

Effective parents seek counsel from their pastors and elders, their own parents, and even their own kids. They also take advantage of good books on parenting. Two great helps on spiritual parenting are Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp and Parenting by God’s Promises by Joel Beeke.

Our children are a sacred trust. Our task is not so much to rule over them as to lovingly, graciously train them to fear God. If you have ever worked with concrete you know that you have only a few hours to work it into the proper shape before it becomes immovable. So it is with children. We have just a few years to help shape the spiritual impulses that will guide them through the rest of their lives. We must do all we can to avoid misshaping our children by provoking them to discouragement.

This article previously appeared at
http://www.ligonier.org/blog/5-dangers-avoid-parenting/ and is reprinted with permission.

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

2015 RYS Convention

Reformed Youth Services (RYS) might well be regarded as one of best things going for the United Reformed Churches in North America. RYS membership of nearly one hundred churches also includes churches from the Christian Reformed Church, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church of America, Reformed Church in the US, and some independent Reformed congregations. RYS is governed by a board made up of eight men from among its member churches, under the supervision of the elders of Cornerstone URC in Jenison, Michigan, and chaired by one of its elders. RYS sponsors regional retreats for high-school-aged youth and regional Logos conferences for post-high youth.

The highlight that high-school-aged youth from among the member churches look forward to every year is the annual RYS Convention. The 2015 convention drew approximately 720 high-school-aged youth, youth leaders, convention speakers, and staff to Asbury University in Wilmont, Kentucky, on July 13–17. The theme of the week was “Amazing Love,” based on Romans 8:37–39: “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”In five main sessions, all were challenged to comprehend, as much as is humanly possible, the eternal, boundless, and revealed love of God in Christ through His Spirit.

RYS Director Ed DeGraaf, who has held that position since before the first convention, assessed that this was perhaps the best convention ever. Ed said, “A gracious servant-minded committee set the tone at convention from day one as we enjoyed a wonderful week of spiritual blessings and fellowship.” Ed also observed, “Rev. Mike Schout and Rev. Bob VanManen complimented each other well as the main speakers.” The university campus was ideal, leaving minimal walking to get to workshops; the dorms were nice; and the food was good and plentiful. Everyone especially enjoyed the air conditioning.

Convention speakers and workshop leaders are always chosen from among the pastors of the member churches. The workshop leaders for this convention were Rev. Quentin Falkena on “iLead”; Rev. Greg Lubbers on “Amazing Grace”; Rev. Brad Nymeyer on “Loving God’s Will”; Rev. Bill Boekestein on “Money Matters”; Rev. Paul Murphy on “Guard Your Heart”; Rev. Chip Byrd on “Gigabytes for God”; Rev. Chad Steenwyk on “Love My Neighbor”; Rev. Stephen Wetmore on “Content, Not So Much?”; Rev. Jon Bushnell on “Do You Believe This Stuff?”; and Rev. Andrew Knott on “Wonderfully Made.” There was a mandatory workshop entitled “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” One was designed for the guys led by Rev. Jason Tuinstra, and one for the girls led by Rev. Tuinstra’s wife, Jody. Everyone had opportunity to attend four out of the ten workshops offered.

Each main session was begun with singing, which was beautiful with more than seven hundred voices in a near-capacity auditorium. The song leader was Julie Bussis, along with Rip Pratt and Brent Cooper, who have been long-time convention song leaders. Thursday evening featured a talent show where various voluntary participants performed. A choir made up of conventioneers practiced throughout the week and performed at that time as well. Also at that time a new RYS logo was publicly unveiled for the first time.

RYS conventions always feature a day-away event. On Wednesday, about five hundred people chose to go to Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay, while two hundred took advantage of spending the day at the Creation Museum. On Thursday afternoon a time was set aside when all the speakers and workshop leaders were seated together up front to answer questions which were submitted by the students in writing.

The days were jam-packed, beginning before 7:00 a.m. with SON-rise groups for devotions after breakfast, and ending late at night with SON-set groups for closing devotions and a time to share thoughts about the presentations of that day. Ample time was also provided for games and fellowship. Friends from previous conventions were reunited, and new friends were made. It is a great opportunity to bring together covenant youth from churches of like mind from all around North America. Some come from more isolated areas where there are no like-minded Reformed churches nearby and such opportunities are rare.

It takes many adults to run a youth ministry. At one time during the convention, everyone over the age of fifty was asked to rise. It was estimated that there were at least sixty people on their feet. Youth leaders (sponsors) enjoy and benefit from the spiritual blessings and the fellowship during a convention as much as do the youth. Besides the dozen ministers who serve as speakers and workshop leaders, a number of other pastors often come as sponsors and enjoy the fellowship with each other throughout the week.

My wife and I had the opportunity to attend the 2015 convention for the first time. I am happy to report to the parents and the consistories that as I observed your youth throughout the week, I was extremely proud of all in attendance. It gave a glimpse of the future of the church, and it looks good. These young people were well-behaved, orderly, polite, considerate, attentive, and asked great questions. The convention committee and the board were happy that there were no disciplinary actions required throughout that entire week with so many youth gathered together. We give praise to our God for the many blessings and the safety experienced during this special week.

At the close of the convention it was announced that the 2016 convention is to be held at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri, on July 25–29. The 2005 convention was held there, and the campus has since been updated. Next year, 2016, will also be the twentieth anniversary of RYS.

Each year letters are sent out to all member church councils asking for nominations to the RYS board. Councils are encouraged to submit names of mature Christian men able to serve. Men so inclined are encouraged to inform their council that they would like to be considered. This is a great opportunity to be a part of this great ministry to our youth. The lives of countless covenant youth have been changed throughout the years through the RYS programs and particularly the annual convention. It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of this their special week.

Mr. Myron Rau
is a board member of RYS and is the chairman of the board of Reformed Fellowship. He is a member of the Covenant United Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI.


Current Issue: July/August 2019
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