Continuity and Discontinuity, continued (!)

Muller continues his discussion with this key statement on page 46: “No small part of the task of describing properly the work of Protestant orthodoxy belongs to the discussion of its relationship to the Reformation. In its simplest form, this relationship is one of broad doctrinal continuity together with methodological discontinuity. Of course, the relationship is considerably more complex than this basic statement: methodological changes bring about changes in doctrinal statement if only because careful systematization of an idea tends to remove elements of tension and paradox resident in the initial, unsystematic formulation.”

This statement plainly proves that Muller’s position is firmly against the “Calvin versus the Calvinists” school of thought (he says this explicitly many times elsewhere). As noted in the last post, it was historical changes that were responsible for the changes in wording and method. This does not indicate a change in substance of doctrine.

Ask, Seek, and Knock

Matthew 7:7-11

Corrie Ten Boom wrote in her book The Hiding Place, about the goodness of God: “Often I have heard people say, ‘How good God is! We prayed that it would not rain for our church picnic, and look at the lovely weather!’ Yes, God is good when He sends good weather. But God was also good when He allowed my sister, Betsie, to starve to death before my eyes in a German concentration camp. I remember one occasion when I was very discouraged there. Everything around us was dark, and there was darkness in my heart. I remember telling Betsie that I thought God had forgotten us. ‘No, Corrie,’ said Betsie, ‘He has not forgotten us. Remember His Word: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him.”’” Corrie concludes, “There is an ocean of God’s love available–there is plenty for everyone. May God grant you never to doubt that victorious love–whatever the circumstances.” Contrast this way of looking at our God with the way that the ancient Greeks looked at their gods: Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, fell in love with Tithonus, a mortal youth, so the Greek story ran. Zeus, the king of the gods, offered her any gift that she might choose for her mortal husband. Aurora very naturally chose that Tithonus might live forever; but she had forgotten to ask that Tithonus might remain forever young; and Tithonus grew older and older and older, and could never die, and the gift became a curse. Which kind of god do we believe in, the God of Betsie and Corrie Ten Boom, or the gods of the Greeks? A capricious, venomous, spiteful sort of God? Or a God who looks out for our very best interests?

In our passage tonight, we look at Jesus’ command here to pray to God. For that is what asking, seeking, and knocking mean: prayer. Plainly it is God whom we are to ask and seek; and it is at God’s door at which we must knock. That much is plain. But why does Jesus tell us to do this? He has just finished giving us some very tricky and difficult instructions about not judging people, and yet being discerning. Our first thought would be this: how in the world am I going to be sufficient to fulfill this command? Jesus answer us: by prayer and asking God, we will be sufficient, because God’s grace is sufficient. James 4:2 tells us that we do not have, because we do not ask. The irony is that we carry around heavy bundles of wishes that never become askings. We talk to ourselves about our problems in the form of much thought, worry, and sleeplessness; we might talk about our problem with those close to us, too, but even we Christians are strangely reluctant to talk about our problems with the Father. Here Jesus opens the doors of faith as widely as they will ever be opened again and promises a fruitful audience with the Father-for the simple asking. “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer.” Let’s examine the passage closely.

First of all, we see a promise given to us. That promise is that of answered prayer. Now, the verbs “ask, seek, and knock” are in the present tense. That means that we are to keep on asking, keep on seeking, and keep on knocking. The promise is that such asking, seeking, and knocking will be answered. This promise is enormous. But it is not unlimited. After all, if we were to ask for God to give us something that was harmful, God would not be a good God if He gave it to us. Well, then, what are we to ask for that we are sure that God will give us? Jesus has already told us in 6:33: Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. As we saw in our sermon on that passage, the verse means seek only God’s kingdom and His righteousness. And then God will give you, not all that you want, but all that you need, in order to seek that kingdom. We must keep our wants and our needs separate. It is really astonishing how many wants decide to turn themselves into needs. We just have to have a cell-phone, or another car, or another piece of equipment, or we just won’t survive. What do we need? We could get by on one set of clothes for quite a while. We could survive on very little food. We could survive in a tent. Are not those things what we need? The fact that we have so much more is really quite amazing.

But this promise is not infinite. This passage occurs in a context. Ask what? Ask for the kingdom. Ask for spiritual benefits, for spiritual gifts. These are the things that we need spiritually. We pray that God will give us those physical things we need: our daily bread.

So then we ask the question: what kind of God do we have? James Boice illustrates the dilemma that many face by this illustration: “If a child wants to ask his father for something, the child will pattern his request on what he knows of his father’s temperament. If the father is ill-tempered and stingy, the child will ask for a little only, carefully, and at a well-chosen moment. If the father is good-natured and generous, the child will present his need openly and with freedom. God is gracious and generous.” Maybe our view of God as our Father has been warped out of proper shape by our own fathers, who were stingy and ill-tempered. We must believe that God is not like that, but is rather like the father we always dreamed we could have, who looks out for us, and always gives us good things.

Christ gives us a very simple illustration of what He means. Earthly fathers, if they are any good at all, have the best interests of their children at heart. They don’t give their children harmful things, but good things. For instance, a child asks for a loaf of bread. This was what people usually ate in those days. Notice that the child is not asking for the very tastiest gourmet food, but only for a loaf of bread to eat. The father, if he is any kind of a good father at all, is not going to give the child a stone. Now, we have to realize something about this analogy. People in those days cooked bread in small round loaves. They didn’t look like our loaves. As a matter of fact, they looked a lot like stones. So the point here is that a good father doesn’t deceive his son by giving him something that looks like a good thing, but really isn’t. God is much more likely to give us something that looks like a stone, but is, in fact, bread. The second example works in a similar way, though there is an added dimension to it. The serpent of which Jesus is speaking here is probably the eel. Eels, in fact, looked a great deal like fish, but were unclean animals that could not be eaten in those days. Some eels were poisonous, in fact. So an earthly father is not going to give his child an eel, which the child cannot eat, instead of a fish, which was the other staple in the diet in those days. In the same way, God is never going to give us poison for our souls. He will only give us grace. Again, it might look like an eel, but it is actually a fish. Here is the point, though. We are not always able to tell the difference between a stone and a loaf of bread, or between a fish and an eel. God alone is able sometimes to tell the difference. Do we trust God to know what He is doing when He answers our prayer? Do we trust God to know the difference between stones and bread? Jesus surely knew the difference when Satan tempted Him to turn stones into bread. But bad things cannot turn into good things. They are either one or the other.

In verse 11, we see a remarkable statement by Jesus. Jesus says “you, who are evil.” Jesus does not say “we, who are evil.” Plainly, Jesus is telling us that we are all sinful, and that He is not. This is an important thing to remember. Just as we do not want to measure God against the sinfulness of our parents, so also we should trust God, who is perfectly good, and trust Jesus, His Son. You see, when Jesus asked God to deliver Him from the cross, God the Father said No. But was the cross a bad thing or a good thing? In a way, it was the very worst thing that had ever happened in the history of the world. The Son of God Himself was crucified! And yet, it was also the best thing that ever happened in the history of the world, since salvation has come from it. God answered Jesus’ prayer with a No at the cross, but a Yes at the resurrection. God knew exactly what to give to His Son: the name that is above every name. In that exaltation, we can participate.

As we have said several times during our study of the Lord’s Prayer, God can answer with a no. That is answered prayer. God always answers. But we do not always know what is good for us. So we must always subject our will to the will of God. We must always say “Thy will be done.”

But then, will God answer prayer? Here is a story that gives a firm answer: In his book Sit, Walk, Stand, Watchman Nee describes a preaching mission to an island off the South China coast. There were seven in the ministering group, including a sixteen-year-old new convert whom he calls Brother Wu. The island was fairly large, containing about 6,000 homes. Nee had a contact there, an old schoolmate of his who was headmaster of the village school, but he refused to house the group when he discovered they had come to preach the Gospel. Finally, they found lodging with a Chinese herbalist, who became their first convert. Preaching seemed quite fruitless on the island, and Nee discovered it was because of the dedication of the people there to an idol they called Ta-wang. They were convinced of his power because on the day of his festival and parade each year the weather was always near perfect. “When is the procession this year?” young Wu asked a group that had gathered to hear them preach. “It is fixed for January 11th at 8 in the morning,” was the reply. “Then,” said the new convert, “I promise you that it will certainly rain on the 11th.” At that there was an outburst of cries from the crowd: “That is enough! We don’t want to hear any more preaching. If there is rain on the 11th, then your God is God!” Watchman Nee had been elsewhere in the village when this confrontation had taken place. Upon being informed about it, he saw that the situation was serious and called the group to prayer. On the morning of the 11th, there was not a cloud in the sky, but during grace for breakfast, sprinkles began to fall and these were followed by heavy rain. Worshipers of the idol Ta-wang were so upset that they placed it in a sedan chair and carried it outdoors, hoping this would stop the rain. Then the rain increased. After only a short distance, the carriers of the idol stumbled and fell, dropping the idol and fracturing its jaw and left arm. A number of young people turned to Christ as a result of the rain coming in answer to prayer, but the elders of the village made divination and said that the wrong day had been chosen. The proper day of the procession, they said, should have been the 14th. When Nee and his friends heard this, they again went to prayer, asking for rain on the 14th and for clear days for preaching until then. That afternoon the sky cleared and on the good days that followed there were thirty converts. Of the crucial test day, Nee says: The 14th broke, another perfect day, and we had good meetings. As the evening approached we met again at the appointed hour. We quietly brought the matter to the Lord’s remembrance. Not a minute later, His answer came with torrential rain and floods as before. The power of the idol over the islanders was broken; the enemy was defeated. Believing prayer had brought a great victory. Conversions followed. And the impact upon the servants of God who had witnessed His power would continue to enrich their Christian service from that time on.

Will you not have because you ask, rather than never have, because you don’t ask? Ask, seek, and knock.