Reformation fundamentals

Around the Reformed blogosphere, Reformation Day is being celebrated. I will add my two-cents worth here by trying to describe in brief fashion the distinctives of the Reformation.

The first distinctive of the Reformation is is emphasis on the glory of God. This is one of the five solas. However, in many ways, this is the architectonic one. Everything resolves ultimately to the glory of God alone.

Of course, the rest of the solas are vital. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone, revealed to us in Scripture alone. Justification by faith alone is the material principle of the Reformation, while Scripture alone was the foundational principle. The former doctrine was rediscovered, not discovered, and was directed against the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching, which was primarily semi-Pelagian. The principle of Scripture alone was directed against the Roman Catholic elevation of the Pope and tradition to the level of Scripture. Nothing has the same authority in our lives that Scripture has. This does not mean that we ignore what the church has said. But we must always subordinate what people say to what God says.

The Five Points of Calvinism is not definitive for the entire Reformation, but it is definitive of the Reformed branch of the Reformation. These were the decisions reached by the Canons of Dort in response to Arminian teaching about an absolute free will.

Another distinctive of the Reformation is a rediscovery of the Covenant. Covenant theology is the best way of describing God’s relationship to His people. The Covenant is not the relationship itself. Rather, it is the documentation of the relationship. It is what is down on paper.

The Authority of Jesus

Matthew 7:28-29

For centuries people believed that Aristotle was right when he said that the heavier an object, the faster it would fall to earth. Aristotle was regarded as the greatest thinker of all time, and surely he would not be wrong. Anyone, of course, could have taken two objects, one heavy and one light, and dropped them from a great height to see whether or not the heavier object landed first. But no one did until nearly 2,000 years after Aristotle’s death. In 1589 Galileo summoned learned professors to the base of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Then he went to the top and pushed off a ten- pound and a one-pound weight. Both landed at the same instant. The power of belief was so strong, however, that the professors denied their eyesight. They continued to say Aristotle was right. People can think that the old authorities are right, and they will continue to believe them, even if they are astounded by the results of some new authority. The same is true of Jesus’ listeners. The text says that they were astounded at Jesus’ teaching. But the text does not say that they believed Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus had just finished preaching the Sermon on the Mount. Most people agree that it was the best sermon that has ever been preached, or that ever will be preached. And that is probably true. I know of no sermon more powerful, more searching, more convicting, or more helpful to the Christian than this sermon. However, it was a sermon that did not even convince its first listeners. Amazing, isn’t it? Here we have Jesus delivering this sermon, talking about the law, about righteousness and blessedness, about marriage, oaths, hatred, divorce, prayer, fasting, alms-giving, worry, false prophets, false professors, and many other things. He covered an enormous amount of ground. But what was His main point? All sermons ought to have one main point which they are trying to get across. Jesus’ point was that this was what the kingdom of God was all about. It says in 4:17 that Jesus started to preach, saying “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus’ message was one of repentance because of the kingdom of God which Jesus was Himself bringing to earth. This is the message that Jesus brought.

And when Jesus preached this message, He taught with authority. This is what surprised the people who were listening. Actually, the word is even stronger than that. The authority of Jesus left them dumbfounded. They were astounded. Why? Because he was not like their scribes. Well, then, what were their scribes like? The Jews were very keen on quoting other people for their authority. If you read almost anything Jewish in the scholarly world, you will get something like this: “Rabbi Akiba said this, Rabbi Gamaliel said this, Rabbi Ibn Ezra said this, while Rabbi so-and-so said this.” This can go on for pages and pages. Only after they have sorted out all their sources will they ever say something like, “Now, what I think is this.” Jesus doesn’t do any of that. Instead of that, He purposely quotes the rabbis only to immediately and authoritatively disagree with them. For instance, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus set Himself up as a separate authority from all the rabbis and all the extra-biblical Jewish writings that had accumulated over the time period between the two testaments.

In fact, Jesus even went so far as to say, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you that you should not resist the evil person. If he strikes you on the right cheek, then offer to him the left cheek also.” In this case, Jesus was even quoting the OT law, and setting Himself up as an authority equal to the OT! That also astounded the people. It is important to note at this part of our sermon the verb tense of this verb “astounded.” It is imperfect. A good translation would be, “The were becoming more and more flabbergasted.” What that means is that the people were becoming more and more astounded all the way through the Sermon on the Mount. It wasn’t just the end of the sermon that had them flabbergasted, it was the whole thing.

But again, as we noted at the beginning, the people didn’t believe. You can have the very best preacher that the universe has ever seen, but if the Holy Spirit doesn’t move the people, then the people will not come to Christ. This is well illustrated by the following story: Amy Carter brought an assignment home one Friday night while her father was still President. Stumped by a question on the Industrial Revolution, Amy sought help from her mother. Rosalynn was also fogged by the question and, in turn, asked an aide to seek clarification from the Labor Department. A “rush” was placed on the request since the assignment was due Monday. Thinking the question was a serious request from the President himself, a Labor Department official immediately cranked up the government computer and kept a full team of technicians and programmers working overtime all weekend…at a reported cost of several hundred thousand dollars. The massive computer printout was finally delivered by truck to the White House on Sunday afternoon and Amy showed up in class with the official answer the following day. But her history teacher was not impressed. When Amy’s paper was returned, it was marked with a big red “C.” All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again! It didn’t matter that all the best government officials were on the case, the teacher was not convinced. Does this not point out to us the power of the Holy Spirit, and the utter inability of mankind to come to faith on their own? We call mankind to come to faith, and yet they cannot do it on their own. The Holy Spirit must work, or nothing happens.

Has the Holy Spirit worked in your life to believe in the authority of Jesus? And not just to believe in the authority of Jesus, but also to believe in Jesus Himself, and to believe His words. It is all very well to say that we have believed Christ. But such statements mean nothing without the fruit. We have seen that over and over again in the Sermon on the Mount. Not everyone who says to Jesus “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of His Father, who is in heaven.

Do Jesus’ words have authority in your life? Do they determine your decisions? Do you really follow Jesus’ teachings? Do you concern yourself first with the kingdom of God more than everything else? Do you keep yourself salty and filled with light? Do you recognize that Jesus came to the fulfill the law, and not to abolish it? Does your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, because it is Christ’s righteousness that you possess? Do you avoid not only murder, but also hate? Do you avoid not only adultery, but also lust? Do you avoid not only divorce, but everything that leads to divorce? Do you keep your word? Do you turn the other cheek? Do you love your enemy? Do you pray privately, fast privately, give to the church privately? Is your treasure in heaven, and not on earth? Do you serve your heavenly master, and not money? Do you trust that God will provide for you? Do you avoid judging other people? Do you ask, seek, and knock on God’s door for holiness? Have you entered the narrow gate? Are you exercising your discernment so as to avoid being duped by false prophets? Do you avoid hypocrisy? Do you build your house on the Rock of Jesus’ teaching? There, that is a summary of the Sermon on the Mount: will you listen AND obey? These are not my words but God’s words to us. They apply to every one of us. No one is exempt from being required to follow Jesus and His words. Most of all, do you recognize and bow down to the authority of Jesus? You will bow down sooner or later, since every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth when Christ comes back to judge the living and the dead. Bow down to Him and worship Jesus. Worship God the Father, worship God the Holy Spirit. For that is what Jesus has told us to do.

To Egypt

Genesis 46

Oftentimes, it is true in the Christian life that someone asks you to do something, and you know it is the right thing to do, only you just don’t want to do it. In the early years of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln became so angered at the inactivity of Union commander George McClellan that the president wrote his commanding general this one-sentence letter: “If you don’t want to use the army, I should like to borrow it for a while. Respectfully, A. Lincoln.” Indeed, as in the case of McClellan, it is often the case that the place where we are required to go is into a place of danger. The danger might not be physical danger; it might be social danger. And yet, God requires us to go when called. That is the situation of Jacob, when he receives the summons to go to Egypt. Egypt is not a safe place for the patriarchs.

You will remember from last time that Jacob had been convinced that his son Joseph was still alive. There were the wagons and gifts from Egypt. And Israel said, “It is enough; Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die.” However, he surely had some reservations about leaving the Promised Land. Surely that would have been quite hard to do. Here he was, owning some land in the Promised Land, and feeling the comfortable effects of the fulfillment of God’s promise. And now, God wants him to go down to Egypt, to a place of discomfort (spiritually speaking). That is why God spoke to him in visions of the night. Notice that God has to get Jacob’s attention by mentioning his name twice. Another reason God said his name twice was to let Jacob know that it really was God speaking to him. What did God say? He said that Jacob did not need to fear going down into Egypt. Notice that this is quite different from Jacob’s father Isaac and his father Abraham. For them, God had told them not to go down to Egypt. They were not to seek an “Egyptian solution” to their problems, though some of them did it anyway. But now, it is different. Now, God wants them to go down to Egypt.

Why? Why would God send His people down into a land which would later become for them a land symbolic of sin and death? There are several reasons: firstly, so that God would bring them back again, to His own glory. This is something that He says explicitly in verse 4. Secondly, God wants to grow His people into a great nation. But He wants to do that in such a way that the people themselves cannot take credit for the increase. It is God who gives the growth. The third reason is to confirm Jacob in his faith. Going down to Egypt would reunite Jacob with his son Joseph. Then Jacob would see the goodness of the hand of the Lord, however difficult it had been for him before. God promised him that Joseph would close his eyes when he died. This was an important thing for the favorite son to do in those days. Jacob could be reassured that God was going to do all that He promised.

God was repeating His covenant promises to Jacob. He had given them to Abraham and to Isaac. And now he was giving them to Jacob. In effect, God was saying, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

This convinces Jacob. He leaves Beersheba with all his sons, his wives, his grandchildren, his livestock, everything. Moses then goes on to tell us just how many went down to Egypt with Jacob. Normally, we would think that this was a large number of people. However, it was not. Think of it. It had been a very long time since Abraham had originally received the promise from God that he would be a mighty nation. It was well about two hundred years before Jacob here goes down to Egypt. And seventy people is all! That’s everyone. There are people alive today in their 80’s or 90’s who have more descendants alive within 80 years of their birth than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had in 200 years. In two hundred years, if each son had had a normal number of sons for that time period (which is about 5 or 6), there would have been around a thousand people. But God wanted us to know that His people grow despite all opposition. Even if the church is small, starts small, remains small for a long time, God can still grow that church into a very effective body of Christ.

There are times when a church started out much larger, and has grown smaller, such as our churches have done. This does not mean that God has abandoned us. This does not mean that we as a church will necessarily die out. As God says in Zechariah, “Do not despise the day of small things.” God can use very small things to bring about great changes. We need to be looking for those changes.

Moses gives us the names of all the people who went down to Egypt with Jacob. Again, it looks like a lot of people, but it really is not a lot of people. Compare this with the number of people who left Egypt: approximately 600,000! They increased from 70 to 600,000 in four hundred years. The growth belongs to God, and to God alone be the glory.

After Moses tells us about these 70 people going down to Egypt, he tells us what happened when they got there. Joseph was so excited to meet his father after all these years, that he hitched up his own chariot, not waiting for his father to come to him, and went down to Goshen, and met him there. When Israel met Joseph, then he felt that his life was complete. He would still live another 17 years after this joyful reunion, but he felt that his life was complete. His eyes had seen the salvation of Israel. Another Israelite was to say almost exactly the same thing that Jacob here said. Simeon in Luke 2 meets with the baby Jesus. He knows that he has met the Savior of Israel. These are his words: Luke 2:29-32: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” After thinking that salvation was gone for his people, Jacob finally realized that God had been working all along. That is what Simeon realized also. Are there situations in your life when salvation and God seem to be far away? When will you be able to say what Jacob has said? When will you be prepared to leave this life in peace? Someone has said that no Christian knows how to live well unless he knows how to die well. That is very true. Have you given your life to Jesus? Have you said, “Now my old man may die, because I have seen the salvation of the church?” Put off the old man and put on the new man, as Paul would say.

But how does that happen in everyday life? Well, God must put on the new man for you in new birth. In the course of the Christian life, God then works in you to continually grow in the faith. We don’t ever stop growing just because our salvation is hidden sometimes from our eyes. God gives us those times precisely so that we can grow. Undoubtedly, Jacob grew greatly during the time when he thought that Joseph was dead. So maybe you think that God has left and gone off to some other place. You think that God is dead. Some people have said that in history, you know. God sends us into this Egypt of a world, though, that He might make us grow to full-fledged Christians, able to discern right from wrong, able to witness to the faith of Jesus Christ, able to show Christ’s love, able to love one another. You won’t put on the new man by hating your brother or sister in Christ. Are you growing in your love for the Scriptures? Are you excited about Bible studies? Are you becoming less selfish when you think about the church? Do you put your own personal interests above the interests of the church? Do you settle down comfortably in your circle of friends, not bothering to reach out to anyone else? These are the questions which are diagnostic of our status in Christ. Let us pay close attention to what we have learned.

Romans 12:1-2

I just received the latest edition of Modern Reformation in the mail. They have been going through Romans for this year. By the way, every one who calls themselves Reformed ought to subscribe to this magazine. This issue deals with Romans 12-16. I was reminded of a terrific sermon I heard on Romans 12:1-2 by Eric Alexander. It was during the Philadelphia Conference on Reformation Theology. I am going to summarize what he said there.

First the text: Παρακαλῶ οὖν ὑμᾶς, ἀδελφοί, διὰ τῶν οἰκτιρμῶν τοῦ θεοῦ, παραστῆσαι τὰ σώματα ὑμῶν θυσίαν ζῶσαν ἁγίαν εὐάρεστον τῷ θεῷ, τὴν λογικὴν λατρείαν ὑμῶν: καὶ μὴ συσχηματίζεσθε τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ, ἀλλὰ μεταμορφοῦσθε τῇ ἀνακαινώσει τοῦ νοός, εἰς τὸ δοκιμάζειν ὑμᾶς τί τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ, τὸ ἀγαθὸν καὶ εὐάρεστον καὶ τέλειον.

And now, the interpretation. The οὖν is quite possible the most important “therefore” in all of Scripture, since its import encompasses the entirety of Romans 1-11. Paul summarizes the previous chapter with this phrase: “the mercies of God.” That is shorthand for all the spiritual blessings that he has been describing for the previous 11 chapters.

We don’t have to offer our bodies as a dead sacrifice, since Christ has already done that. So we offer ourselves as living sacrifices. This is λογικὴν. To this day, I cannot see why some translations have translated this as “spiritual.” It has much more to do with thoughtfulness (BDAG), or logicality. It is only logical, Paul says, to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, given what Jesus has done for us.

Then follows a couple of Greek verbs that are important to parse correctly. First off is συσχηματίζεσθε. This is a present middle/passive imperative, 2 person plural. I think the force is passive. It is well translated in the Phillips translation: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.” He uses 6 words to translate one Greek word, but that is fairly common. And it is a splendid rendition. The only thing I would change is that I think τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ means “this present age” rather than “this world.” It is a designation of time, not space. Paul is always contrasting the old age and the new age. This is especially evident in Romans 7:14ff, where the old “I” and the new “I” are duking it out. The next verb is μεταμορφοῦσθε, from which we get our word “metamorphosis.” This is a present passive imperative, 2 person plural. Note especially the force of the passive imperative. It is a command to us to have God transform us (it is a divine passive: God is doing the metamorphizing). The implications can hardly be over-estimated for our lives. Grammar here is necessary for God’s people to know. To have our minds transformed is the work of God, not of ourselves. This passage also implies that if we think the way this age does, then our minds are blinded. There is either an unrenewed mind or a renewed mind. Nothing in-between. Which are we?

John 1:1

John 1:1 is a passage completely misinterpreted by the New World Translation (the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation), and by many other translations mentioned by Steve, which are not mainline translations, but are the work of individual anti-church Arians. Here is the Greek: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν λόγος, καὶ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν λόγος. The New World translation says this: “In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” Plainly, the New World translation says something quite different from most translations with which we are familiar. This translations seems to suggest that the Word (which we learn later is Jesus) is less than God. He is merely one of a pantheon of gods. This raises its own problems. But to kabosh this rendering, it is necessary to go into some Greek grammar. The phrase in question occurs after the second comma in the above Greek. Notice that “theos” (second word of the phrase) comes before ἦν, which is the verb meaning “was.” “Theos” (“God) is functioning as a predicate nominative. Stretch back to your grammar days and remember that a predicate nominative is the last word in the sentence “I am a pastor.” The subject is “I,” and the predicate nominative is “pastor.” In Greek, the predicate nominative can sometimes come before the verb, as it does here. When that happens, the word “the” does not occur with the predicate nominative. However, the noun should still be read as having the word “the” with it. This is the difference between “the God” (or just simply “God”) and “a god.” The New World Translation has twisted Greek grammar in order fit their preconceived notions about the non-deity of Christ. When you have two nouns connected by any form of the word “to be,” the definite article (“the”) tells you which noun is the subject, since word order doesn’t count in Greek. In other words, just because a noun doesn’t have “the” with it doesn’t mean that it should be interpreted as not having “the” with it, if that is clear. Clear as mud?

Some Recent New Books

I have recently acquired some just-published commentaries. Leithart on Kings, Williamson on Isaiah 1-5, Davids on 2 Peter-Jude, Lincoln on John, and Klein on 1 Chronicles.

Leithart disappoints me the most, though I have not read the work itself. Bibliographically, it is strangely lacking. He shows no knowledge of Cogan/Tadmor in the Anchor Bible, Devries in WBC, Montgomery/Gehman in ICC, Fritz in CC, Long in FOTL, House in NAC, Seow in NIB, Ellsworth in Welwyn, and does not even quote Gray (OTL) once, though he is listed in the bibliography. These are some of the regular standards in the literature. Now, if there were a massive number of commentaries available on Kings (such as is available on Romans or John), this might be excusable. One cannot read everything. However, Kings is notoriously lacking in solid exegetical material. One needs to make use of everything that is available. He listed some of the weaknesses of the commentary on pp. 13-14, but neglected to mention the bibliographical weaknesses. I still hope to derive profit from this work, but that is a lot of holes. I was also hoping for something a bit lengthier. 304 pages, including the indices, is not a very long commentary, when one considers that he is taking in both 1 and 2 Kings.

Bibliographically better is Davids on 2 Peter/Jude. Much better. He seems to have read everything of importance. Unfortunately, he comes down agnostic on the issue of the authorship of 2 Peter. He gives too much to Bauckham when he says that Bauckham’s position on authorship (that it is a pseudonymous author) is fully compatible with orthodoxy on Scripture. The letter claims to be from Peter. It’s one thing if the writing is anonymous (like Hebrews is, technically). It is quite something else when the letter claims authorship for itself. The early church made a habit of rejecting letters that were not from whom the letter purported to be from. So, the early church was not ignorant of forgeries. The liberals have never been able to answer this problem. I’m sure that Davids’s commentary is excellent is most other ways. It is quite long (348 pages, including indices) for just two short epistles. There will be much meat there, I’m sure.

Williamson on Isaiah looks to be a very interesting, meaty commentary. He produced an excellent commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah in the WBC, and has now produced this one in the ICC.

Lincoln on John also looks to be helpful. It is a much longer commentary than most of the commentaries in that series tend to be (584 pages, including indices). Plus, he is not nearly as liberal as Bultmann or Brown. He seems to have read everything of importance, as well (not easy, when commenting on John!).

Klein is quite an expert on Chronicles and that history, though he is a bit liberal. Nevertheless, this looks to be a full treatment in the venerable Hermeneia tradition.  

The Trinity in Ephesians 1

For Robert Letham, Ephesians gets a lot of attention (he has an entire excursus on the Trinity in Ephesians).

I merely wish to point out the Trinity as we find it in Ephesians 1:3-14, specifically

The passage can be divided into three parts, one for each of the Trinity. Textually, the divides occur after vs. 6a and after vs. 12. The dividing mark is the phrase “to the praise of his glorious grace” (εἰς ἔπαινον δόξης τῆς χάριτος αὐτοῦ). This marks the end of each section (vv. 4-6a, 6b-12, 13-14). Notice that all the benefits that we have come “in Christ Jesus,” or some such variant.

The point, though, is to see just how thoroughly Trinitarian Paul is at this juncture. The blessings that we have all come from the Trinity. Ephesians 1 ought to prove just how practical this doctrine of the Trinity is: all the saving benefits that come our way come to us by way of the Trinity. From the Father we receive every spiritual blessing (ἐν πάσῃ εὐλογίᾳ πνευματικῇ), predestination not only to salvation, but also to holiness and blamelessness (ἐξελέξατο…προορίσας), and adoption (υἱοθεσίαν).

From the Son, we have received redemption (ἀπολύτρωσιν), forgiveness (τὴν ἄφεσιν τῶν παραπτωμάτων), revelation (γνωρίσας ἡμῖν τὸ μυστήριον τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ), and an inheritance (εἰς οἰκονομίαν).

From the Holy Spirit, we have received the seal of the promised Holy Spirit (πιστεύσαντες ἐσφραγίσθητε τῷ πνεύματι τῆς ἐπαγγελίας τῷ  ἁγίῳ), the guarantee of our inheritance. This is a “holy conspiracy” for our salvation. Let anyone who thinks the doctrine of the Trinity irrelevant, arid, scholarly, or impractical beware: he is spitting on the Scripture.

Critique of Poythress’s new book on science

Here is a very interesting critique of Vern Poythress’s new book on science.

On Perseverance and Revelation 22:19

Great post on perseverance and Revelation 22:19 over here.

From Reformation to Codification: Not so Great a Leap

Many people will compare Luther to Pieper, or another great Lutheran systematizer a little closer to the Reformation, and say, “See, the Reformers were only interested in the message. The generation that came after was only interested in systematizing those truths.” Thus, they either accuse the Reformers themselves of being disorganized, or they accuse the succeeding generation of being heartless.

Muller avoids these extremes on pp. 49ff. First, he notes that one could compare Melancthon with successors, and find out that the Reformers could be just as systematic as the next generation. Melancthon’s Loci Communes was published only four years after the Ninety-Five Theses.

Hence, “a simple kerygma to dogma model or existential event to domestication-of-the-event pattern of doctrinal development cannot be applied to the historical development of Protestant orthodoxy” (51). This is important to remember, since the period after the Reformation is so maligned by modern scholars and lay-people.

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