Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, Part 2

Posted by R. Fowler White

In part 1 of our series of posts reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, we covered his introductory survey and the two subsequent chapters on the absence of a NT command to baptize infants and on the analogy between circumcision and baptism. In this post—part 2—we’ll cover chs. 3-6, in which Johnson begins to present, in deliberately crafted increments, his exposé of the fundamental flaw of paedobaptist covenant theology. The four chapters of our present focus are devoted respectively to the continuity between the old and new covenants and to the nature of the old covenant.

Chapters 3-4 set the course for chs. 5-6 (and, in fact, the rest of part one of Johnson’s book). So, in chs. 3-4, we find Johnson intent on showing that the legitimacy of infant baptism hangs especially on the continuity between the old and new covenants: that is, it hangs on the belief that the covenants and the communities formed under those covenants remain essentially the same. Johnson identifies the principles that governed membership under the old covenant as 1) racial distinction, 2) national affiliation, 3) racial perpetuity, and 4) the federal headship of parents—all signified by circumcision. Throughout his discussion, however, Johnson emphasizes that something even more fundamental than those principles is at work: the old covenant did not secure (guarantee) a saving relationship with God to anyone participating under its terms (p. 63; cf. pp. 63-64). In that emphasis we get our most explicit clue into what Johnson believes is the trait that distinguishes the old covenant from a covenant of grace (i.e., that differentiates it from an administration of the covenant of grace). Any covenant that does not guarantee salvation for all its members is no covenant of grace. With that trait in mind, Johnson goes on in chs. 5-6 to offer observations to support his conclusion that the old covenant was a covenant of [based on] works and not of grace. In ch. 5 he lays out four such points: the old covenant 1) made its promised blessings contingent on Israel’s obedience; 2) threatened Israel with curses for their disobedience; 3) was breakable and broken by Israel; and 4) is described in Scripture with terms that identify it as a covenant of works (e.g., law, commandments, ministry of death). To close out his argument in ch. 5, Johnson anticipates the objection that, if the old covenant made its promises contingent on Israel’s obedience, then their identity as God’s elect people must also have been contingent on their obedience. Johnson answers the objection by urging that election applies only to a remnant within the nation, and the ground of the remnant’s election was according to grace. Capping off his contention that the old covenant was a covenant of works and not grace, Johnson devotes ch. 6 to a consideration of Gal 4.21-31. In that passage he finds what he calls a ‘singular refutation’ of the paedobaptist claim that the old and new covenants were each covenants of grace (i.e., were essentially the same covenant). No, says Johnson, in Gal 4 Paul denies the continuity between the old and new covenants and thus denies the continuity of the communities formed under them.

What can we say about Johnson’s arguments in chs. 3-6? First, with regard to chs. 3-4, Johnson’s point that covenant continuity is foundational for infant baptism is certainly relevant. Even so, Johnson’s agenda is driven fundamentally by the fact that the old covenant did not secure salvation for all its participants and so is no covenant of grace. In response, we have to observe that no covenant before the new covenant (as Johnson defines it) guaranteed salvation for all its participants, and no covenant community before the new covenant was coextensive with the elect in Christ. Hence, on Johnson’s terms, no covenant before the new covenant qualified as a covenant of grace. Observations such as these highlight a key question for us to answer: when, if ever, are we to reduce divine covenant to an administration of election in Christ and guarantees of salvation? More specifically, are we to identify the new covenant (i.e., the new covenant administration of the covenant of grace) with God’s eternal purpose in Christ (i.e., the covenant of redemption), or are we to distinguish the two? Once more: are we to identify the new covenant community with the elect in Christ or to distinguish the two? Briefly, in my view, the argument of Heb 7.20-22, 28; 8.6 is decisively in favor of distinguishing the two. Since the new covenant has been enacted on the oath-promises of the Father to the Son—since the oath is the basis of the new covenant, we must distinguish the one from the other. In addition, we must also distinguish the people given to the Son by oath (Ps 110.3; Isa 53.10; John 6.37, 39) from the community formed under the new covenant. Thus, the new covenant is not reducible to an administration of salvation to the elect; the new covenant is also an administration of judgment to the reprobate. In other words, Christ, as Lord of the new covenant church, is both its Savior and its Judge. We’ll have occasion to come back to this topic, but for now it looks to me that in all preconsummate historical covenants (i.e., administrations of the covenant of grace), covenant is broader than individual election according to grace.

Second, respecting chs. 5-6, Johnson’s attempt to support his conclusion that the old covenant was a covenant of works and not of grace fails to convince. It does so because he omits from consideration the role of God’s designated sureties of grace in the election of both the nation and the remnant under the old covenant. To God’s designation of sureties, even those born under the old covenant, Scripture gives careful attention, as when God gave certain of His servants as sureties in the promises, prophecies, ordinances, and other types (“shadows”) of the old covenant, especially those related to the messianic-mediatorial offices. This is not to say that the pre-Christ designees were sufficient and efficacious to prevent the nation’s loss of election and temporal blessing for its disobedience, much less to secure the nation’s election to eternal blessing with their exemplary obedience. To the contrary, their failings made the nation’s election revocable. The remnant’s election to eternal blessing was a different matter, however. It was irrevocable because of the perfections of the Surety to come. In fact, God’s designation of sureties under the old covenant was sufficient and efficacious, through the work of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the remnant in faith in the promised Surety. Thus, Johnson is mistaken not to recognize that by setting forth the promised Surety in shadow and type, the old covenant was a covenant of grace. This is not to deny that the old covenant spoke of conditions, curses, and covenant-breakers. Nor is it to deny the discontinuity between the old and new covenants. It is to say that the folly of the Galatian churches (Gal 3.1) was to consider the works of the law apart from God’s promises of a Surety. In doing so they would have to regard their own works as adequate to qualify them (or their children) as true heirs of Abraham, as adequate to secure their justification and eternal salvation. In doing so members of the Galatian churches would fail to listen to the law, would break its conditions, and would subject themselves to God’s curse, all because they had severed themselves from the Surety God had promised.

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Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw

Posted by R. Fowler White

In this post and (God willing) a series of posts to follow, I plan to work through the chapters of Jeffrey D. Johnson’s book, The Fatal Flaw of the Theology Behind Infant Baptism (Free Grace Press, 2010). Yes, it’s been out a while, so perhaps you’ve seen it mentioned here and there. The initial reasons for my interest in the book are that I was once a convinced credobaptist myself (even publishing on the topic!) and that Johnson’s book has been applauded by some noteworthy (self-identified) “sovereign grace Baptist” leaders, such as Tom Nettles and Richard Belcher, Sr. The more significant reason that I picked up the book, however, is that it is part of a relatively recent flurry of activity among Baptists who have been reexamining covenant theology (e.g., Tom Wells, Fred Zaspel, Gary Long), and Johnson states that his own position on covenant theology is very similar to that of Meredith Kline, Michael Horton, and Kim Riddlebarger (p. 22 n. 70). All these factors provoke my interest in Johnson’s critique of paedobaptist covenant theology.

Johnson divides his book into two major parts, the first of 16 chapters on “The Fatal Flaw” behind paedobaptist theology and the second of 8 chapters on what he calls “Covenantal Dichotomism” and in which he discusses the relationships between Abraham, Moses, and Christ. For the purpose of interaction, I don’t expect to review each of these 24 chapters in detail, but to focus on what Johnson tells us is the primary thrust of his book, namely, “a direct and pointed attack on the covenantal framework in which paedobaptism is rooted” (p. 21). Even with that emphasis, “the purpose of this work is not so much to convert the die-hard paedobaptist as much as to help prevent credobaptists from changing their position” (p. 20). In addition, the book is not offered merely to deliver negative commentary (ibid.). For Johnson “there are many sturdy stones, which must be left alone” (ibid.) in paedobaptist covenant theology. Not least among those stones is the progressive unfolding of God’s eternal plan of redemption in each of His covenants throughout history. Given Johnson’s purpose and primary thrust, I’ll leave aside the helpful introduction in which he surveys the history of infant baptism and various paedobaptist interpretations of its rationale and settles on engaging presbyterians who’ve adopted the Westminster Confession. I’ll use this opening post to look at his first two chapters (pp. 25-48), where he takes on the absence of a NT command to baptize infants and the analogy between circumcision and baptism.

Zeroing in on the paedobaptist appeal to OT inferences to fill in where no NT command exists, Johnson argues that those inferences leave too many uncertainties to justify infant baptism. He insists that, if OT inferences are really to make up for a missing NT command, then some related issues should also be considered: 1) that, besides baptism, no duty of the local NT church comes from the OT; 2) that baptized children are excluded from the Lord’s Supper even though circumcised children were included in the Passover meal; 3) that the NT church experienced much confusion on almost everything related to the old covenant; 4) that the NT church experienced major controversy over circumcision in particular; and 5) that NT Gentile converts, largely ignorant of circumcision’s meaning, doubtless needed instruction on baptism and its participants. With these uncertainties as backdrop, Johnson moves on to take up the circumcision-baptism relationship itself, intent on showing that the two ordinances are only analogous and not identical. Contending that “the NT must set the limits of the analogy” (p. 45; see also p. 47), he concludes that they are similar, not in that both involve children, but only in that both signify circumcision of the heart (regeneration). Citing Jer 31.34, he goes on to urge that, “unlike the old covenant, the new covenant leaves no room for unbelieving participants” (ibid.). All told, then, Johnson maintains that neither OT inferences nor the circumcision-baptism relationship can be authoritative for determining the nature of baptism or its participants (p. 47).

The absence of a NT command to baptize infants – What shall we say about Johnson’s claim that OT inferences leave too many uncertainties to warrant infant baptism? In my view, the uncertainties that Johnson highlights do little to discourage the paedobaptist appeal to the OT to locate the warrant for infant baptism. For example, when he argues that, besides baptism, no requirement for the local NT church comes from the OT, Johnson asks us to presuppose that the administrative principles of the NT church originated without any connection whatsoever to OT Israel. Leaving aside the question of baptism, this is a bridge too far: we cannot simply concede that the administrative principles of the NT church generally or the basis of its membership specifically are disconnected from OT Israel. After all, we know that God is administering one household in redemptive history, not two (Heb 3.1-6). Going on, Johnson observes that, unlike circumcised children, baptized children are excluded from the covenant meal. We acknowledge, of course, that paedobaptists differ on this point, though we cannot pursue it here. Suffice it to say, then, that back of Johnson’s objection is the debatable assumption that the function and basis of the OT ordinances differ from those of the NT. Further, Johnson points out that almost everything related to the old covenant, including circumcision, created confusion or controversy in the NT church that was eventually dominated by largely uninformed Gentile converts. The difficulties of the transition from the old covenant to the new notwithstanding, Johnson offers no evidence that there was ever confusion or controversy in the NT church about the membership status or baptism of children. In sum, Johnson’s collection of uncertainties does not touch the fundamental concern of the paedobaptist argument from the OT. More pointedly, if the administrative principles of the NT church, including the basis of its membership, originated without any connection to OT Israel as Johnson argues, there would have been an obvious and profound need for and expectation of an exposition not unlike the one we find in the Epistle to the Hebrews to make this change emphatically clear. Instead we find that the principles and practices of the NT church are stated in language that imitates the language in which the principles and practices of OT Israel were stated.

The circumcision-baptism relationship – Moving on to Johnson’s take on the circumcision-baptism relationship, we can agree with him that the relationship is one of analogy and not identity. There are clear differences between the two (thus the denial of identity), but both rites testify to the same realities (thus the affirmation of analogy): death to sin and new life to God (otherwise known as circumcision of the heart). In fact, because both rites speak as one, we can understand better why circumcision became obsolete and baptism superseded it. The transition came to pass because Christ’s death-and-resurrection was both a circumcision (Col 2.11) and a baptism (Mark 10.38; Luke 12.50). Whether we say that Christ was circumcised or baptized in His death and resurrection, God’s witness to us is that the death He died He died to sin, and the life He lives He lives to God (Rom 6.10). In that light, it makes sense that the circumcision of Christ made circumcision obsolete as a covenant sign, while the baptism of Christ established baptism as the covenant sign that continued to testify of the realities formerly signified by circumcision.

Meanwhile, however, the differences between the two and the change from the one to the other do nothing to revoke the membership status of children in God’s covenant. How can we be so sure? Because the NT narrates the administration of baptism by the apostles in language that imitates the narration of the administration of circumcision and baptism in the OT. In particular, the apostolic company is said to have baptized households (Acts 11.14; 16.15, 31-34; 1 Cor 1.2), just as God is said to have baptized the household of Noah in the flood (1 Pet 3.20-22; Gen 7.1) and the households of “our (circumcised!) fathers” in the cloud and the sea (1 Cor 10.1). Strikingly, in the baptism into Moses, the baptized are even said to have been those who “feared the Lord and believed in Him and His servant Moses” (Exod 14.29-31). Paedobaptists might ask, then, shall we dispute that those OT baptisms included both parents and their children? Can we imagine Joshua saying anything other than, “as for me and my house, we were baptized into Moses”? If baptism into Moses was administered thus to our circumcised ancestors, it at least strains credulity to maintain that the apostles administered baptism into Christ differently to those who are the descendants of those baptized into Moses. To press the point still further, paedobaptists might ask, would not the Jews at Corinth (Acts 18.1-8), who were among those addressed in 1 Cor 10.1, have justifiably inferred that just as parents and children were baptized into Moses, so also parents and children were to be baptized into Christ? Consider here especially what Crispus, the ruler of Corinth’s synagogue, and his household (Acts 18.8) would have been thinking. Insofar, then, as we observe the parallel language in the narration of the baptisms of Noah’s household, Israel’s households, and the church’s households, there is warrant sufficient for paedobaptists to urge that the apostles’ practice of baptism into Christ took place on the same principle as did OT baptism and circumcision: “you and your household.” All this to say, then, that we can agree with Johnson that the relationship of circumcision and baptism is one of analogy, but we cannot agree that the analogy makes infant baptism less than clear. To the contrary, the administration of baptism in the NT imitates the administration of circumcision and baptism in the OT. To be sure, other questions and passages remain to be considered.

Having and Eating Your Cake

I started reading Godfrey’s historical, systematic, and pastoral treatment of the Canons of Dort today. It is a treasure, and I highly recommend it to all. I came across this reminder of how the Remonstrants responded to the calling of the Synod:


The Arminians objected sharply to the calling of the synod, insisting that it would be unfair, indeed a kangaroo court. They stated that a synod composed of their theological opponents could not fairly or objectively judge the theological issues in dispute. The Calvinist majority in the church responded that since they were simply upholding the standing doctrine of the church against the Arminian innovations, they were abundantly able to judge rightly (21-22).

This reminded me of the FV objections to the makeup of the PCA committee on the FV. But the objection is completely disingenuous. It is an attempt to have one’s cake and eat it, too. Both the Arminians and the FV advocates hold that they are simply teaching what Scripture and the confessions of the church teach. But if that is the case, then why did they label those of a different opinion “opponents”? They can’t be opponents if everyone is teaching the same Scripture and the same confessions.

The FV advocates, in particular, then tended to claim that it was a different paradigm, and that critics needed to get inside the paradigm in order to understand it. Well, if that is true, then it couldn’t be the paradigm of the Westminster Standards or 3FU, could it?

The point is simple: either the paradigm is the same, in which case no opposition exists (and therefore the innovators should have no objection to being judged by their peers), or the paradigm is different in which case the innovators have already proven the critics’ case that the new paradigm is non-confessional. The Remonstrants and the FV advocates both tried to have their cake and eat it as well. It was therefore a highly disingenuous move.

Introducing a New Baggins!

It is with great pleasure that I announce the addition of a new Baggins to our team, Dr. R. Fowler White. He has been a long-time reader and commenter, doing the latter with grace and careful thought. Dr. White has been involved with Ligonier Ministries for several years, contributing to Table Talk, and teaching at Ligonier’s Bible Academy. Welcome!

Changing One’s Mind

Bart Ehrman wrote a thoughtful piece recently on how and why some people change their minds and others do not. I would like to interact with this and hopefully show some alternatives that he appears not to have considered. Firstly, I will trace the flow of his argument, and then afterwards interact with it.

Ehrman starts out by relating his own story. He was a fresh-faced evangelical at age 20. Looking back on his then career path from a vastly more wise and mature vantage point, he now describes his previous mindset as “extremely weird.” Don’t miss the statement, “and to outsiders looks more than a little bizarre.” The desire for respect from the world plays a large part in his post. More on that later.

Ehrman describes two events in recent history that made him think of his earlier history. First, his conversation/debate with Peter Williams (an inerrantist), and a FB post from a former friend lambasting him for being an enemy of the truth. One presumes that Ehrman is trying to be funny with the crack about basketball. One would also presume that Ehrman does not seriously believe that his former friend is lambasting him because of basketball.

These two events prompted Ehrman to think about the question: why is it that some people change their minds about what they were taught when they were young, whereas other people hold on to their beliefs tenaciously? He puts himself firmly in the former category, and regrets the animosity he feels from his former friends. Again, the issue of respect from people comes into play.

The next few paragraphs are where the judgment starts to show. He finds it incredible that scholars should hold on to the views they held before (presumably meaning conservative views). If they do hold on to those views, the only reason they do is that they never did deepen their understanding of the issues and nuance their opinions.

On being accused of being an enemy of the truth, Ehrman believes his entire career has been one of seeking the truth, while those whose views remain what they were have not been seeking after the truth. The “nutshell” paragraph then follows:

I’ll try to put it in the most direct terms here: how is it at all plausible, or humanly possible, that someone can question, explore, look into, consider the beliefs they were taught as a young child (in the home, in church, in … whatever context) and after 40 years of thinking about it decide that everything they were taught is absolutely right? The views *they* were taught, out of the sixty trillion possible views out there, are absolutely right? The problem with these particular views (of evangelical Christianity) is that if they are indeed right, everyone else in the known universe is wrong and going to be tormented forever because of it.

Then follows a qualification: “I know most Christians don’t think this: I’m just talking about this particular type of Christian. And they don’t seem to see how strange it is that they are right because they agree with what they were taught as young children.”

He ends his reflections with what he believes is a sort of reductio ad absurdam: “I realize these are very old questions. When we were evangelicals we puzzled over the question of how God could punish people for eternity for not “accepting Christ” when they had never even heard of him. Unfortunately, we concluded that we weren’t sure how he would do that, but we were pretty sure he would. Most of the human race, of course, thinks the very idea is ludicrous.” Again the respect of people, for the third time.

Thus the flow of the post. Now for the interaction. The first thing I would say in response is that Ehrman seems to me to be committing one large fallacy of the poisoned well argument: “Your views are wrong because of where they came from (namely, parents).” If one’s main worldview issues arose out of what they were taught as youngsters, then they can’t possibly be correct, if Ehrman is right. But if Ehrman is right, then our parents were also wrong when they told us, “Don’t cross the street without looking both ways;” “Don’t go with strangers;” “Be polite and say ‘thank you’ and ‘please'”; and many other things we learned when we were young. Were many of those things simplistic in order to line up with our need for simple and sometimes simplistic understandings? Of course. However, the point I wish to make here is simple: just because our parents said it doesn’t make it wrong, any more than interaction with scholarship makes a particular viewpoint correct. After all, aren’t older, seasoned scholars our “intellectual” parents of sorts? Why should we reject or believe anything simply on the basis of what some scholar says? Ehrman doesn’t do this. He rejects lots of viewpoints that scholars propound.

Secondly, what if he teaches his views to his children in the future. What is to prevent them from saying the same thing about what they were taught by Ehrman later in life? Thus, Ehrman lops off the branch on which he himself is sitting. One suspects that the real problem here is that Ehrman found out that the people of the world do not approve of what he learned in childhood. Therefore he is seeking to distance himself as much as possible from it in order to be respectable. Yet, what about the reverse possibility? I know of many scholars who grew up in households completely antithetical to Christianity, atheistic households, in fact. Yet God’s grace changed them, and they became Christians and became devoted to furthering the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ehrman doesn’t address this possibility, probably because there isn’t any way he can account for it on his paradigm. The distinct impression given by Ehrman’s post is that the only way anyone could possibly believe those benighted conservative viewpoints is if they have their head in the sand, with regard to scholarship. Since he has admitted to not wanting to run in those conservative circles anymore, he can be forgiven for getting the wrong end of the stick entirely on this one. Since he doesn’t run in those circles, he doesn’t know or acknowledge the many conservative biblical scholars that go out of their way to read viewpoints that differ from their own (and not just for the purposes of debate!). The seminary professors I know and love, and have learned so much from, ALWAYS assign liberal scholars to read alongside the conservative ones. In actuality, it is the liberal scholars who move in confined circles. They almost never quote or read conservatives. No doubt they will respond that this is because there are so few conservative scholars. This would be a good example of the fallacy of ad populum. Truth is not achieved by counting noses, something Ehrman doesn’t seem to have learned yet. Let God be true, though every man be a liar.

Thirdly, he seems to leave out or discount the possibility that a conservative scholar could have grown up believing what his parents told him, grown up to achieve greater nuance and clarity regarding those views, deliberately test them by comparing them to as many worldviews out there as possible, and still believe that the basic points of worldview he grew up with are correct. In fact, I know many such scholars. If you read any of his commenters, they tend to be even less generous than Ehrman on this point. They commit the poisoned well argument with a vengeance!

Lastly, I will argue that the real reason conservative evangelical scholars hold on their viewpoints is that they believe it is what the Bible teaches. Ehrman disagrees, and thinks he has pre-empted this argument by stating that it was really just what we were taught when we were young. I answered this in the “secondly” paragraph above. Ehrman clearly buys into the postmodern viewpoint that the multiplicity of viewpoints negates the truth of any conservative viewpoint. He says, “The views *they* were taught, out of the sixty trillion possible views out there, are absolutely right?” In ascribing arrogance to conservatives for holding on to viewpoints they were taught, he is engaging in arrogance himself, since he clearly believes that his pluralistic viewpoint is THE correct approach to the multiplicity of views. What gives him the right to say that? And what gives him the right to say that the only viewpoint that is automatically wrong, out of the 60 trillion viewpoints out there, is the conservative one, simply because he doesn’t like where he learned it from, and thinks that people are naive for believing what their parents tell them? Does he not know that most Muslims learn their Islam from their parents? Would he dare to say the same about Muslim beliefs, simply because the vast majority of Muslims believe what they were told by their parents? Muslims (especially those in the Middle East!) are every bit as exclusivistic as conservative Christians when it comes to believing in only one worldview. Somehow, I don’t think he would say that Muslims are wrong simply because it is what they grew up with, probably because he fears what other people in the world think about him, and he wouldn’t want to offend Muslims. I think Muslims are wrong in what they think, but not because it is what they grew up with and were taught. It is because the life they attempt to build on top of their beliefs does not match their beliefs. But to prove that would go far afield from this post.

As to his last point, very few people I know believe that God will punish people for rejecting Christ if they have not heard of Jesus Christ. However, not having heard of Jesus Christ is hardly an excuse that gets one out of condemnation. No one has an excuse, according to Paul in Romans 1. The invisible attributes of God have been clearly seen in creation. If people do not give glory to God, then it is for that they will be judged. Ehrman might possibly object and say, “But you can’t believe in a God who would send anyone to Hell just because they were unlucky enough not to have heard about Jesus Christ.” This objection presumes that God owes everyone a chance at salvation. God owes nothing to anyone on earth. This fact should not, of course, make us complacent about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected for the salvation of sinners. Our love of neighbors should impel us to tell them about Jesus precisely so that they won’t be condemned, but be saved. Nevertheless, God owes nothing to any created being.

Loving Our Country

Each Wednesday morning I send out to our congregation a revival prayer letter. A small group of our members use this every Thursday morning, and others privately, to pray for revival in our church, and in our community.

This morning’s Wednesday’s-4-Revival prayer letter addresses the topic of our nation and the church. While there is not any profound insights in this letter, it does (I hope) offer a biblically ordered and coordinated way of praying for our churches and communities, to the end that both the Kingdom of Christ is advanced, and our nation is blessed.

Given our focus today, I thought I might share it a bit more widely.
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Wednesdays for Revival #64
July 4, 2018
Reed DePace

Loving Our Country

A Weekly Prayer Devotional Seeking God to Pour Out His Spirit in Revival on Us.*


Historically Amazing

 

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photo: jeff hamilton, unsplash

As a fan of history (double undergrad degree in American History and geo-political science), I appreciate how blessed America has been in her short time on earth. She is rightly to be considered among the top ten world-spanning empires in history. This is not just in terms of her power. Yes, in comparison to other nations in her own time, America is the most powerful militarily, economically, and even to some extent, socially. Even today, in the midst of signs of her decline, and the rise of enemies (both old and new), America is the single largest exporter of cultural influence, the ‘currency’ which is a key component of an empire.

Yes, she has her problems. There is (once again) a terribly large and growing gap between her richest and her poorest. As well, real expressions of injustice continue to plague her. Yet, even in these areas of negative assessment, America stands head and shoulders above the rest of the world. America’s poor are at least equal to, and in most cases, more materially blessed than a majority of the poor in the rest of the world. There are even many countries where their middle classes enjoy less material comforts than America’s poor enjoy.

When it comes to justice, yes, any injustice is a stench in God’s nostrils. Yet there is far less injustice in America than in just about any other country in the world. And even where there is injustice, the American system provides a better chance of rectifying and restoring justice than do the vast majority of the rest of the nations that currently fill the earth. What’s more, the level of personal freedom in America, the degree to which the individual can go where they want, when they want, to do what they want, without being questioned, is still among the greatest ever seen.

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photo: frank mckenna, unsplash

Compared to the rest of the Top Ten Empires, America has seen greater prosperity, greater freedom, and greater justice, for a greater percentage of her citizens than all the other world-dominating empires, and by a large margin. If God could tell the Israelites going into captivity under the tyrannical Babylonian Empire that would rape, pillage, and destroy their beloved homeland to:

… work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” Jer 29:7

How much more do we citizens of the Kingdom of God have greater reason to praise God and seek his blessing on the nation of our earthly citizenship?

Dangerously Ill

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photo: andrew ruiz, unsplash

In spite of her great blessings, it is true that America is in some ways dangerously ill. Given the state of our social discourse, it is almost impossible for me to give examples. For each example I give, some will think they’re hearing me agreeing with them on their list of “America’s Worst Problems.” Still others will take offense, thinking I’ve dissed their list of what they think is wrong with America. The truth of the matter is I just have an opinion, more or less  informed than yours, depending on the topic at hand. But that we can’t even begin to civilly discuss such things possibly demonstrates just how ill America is.

Jesus knew their thoughts and replied, “Any kingdom divided against itself is doomed. A town or family splintered by feuding will fall apart.” Mt 12:25

History shows that any nation in which democracy is the driving political principle is in danger of self-destruction when the majority will not allow for any social (i.e., public) disagreement with their opinions. That is, a democracy is always in danger of dissolving into a mobocracy, the rule of the mob (e.g., think: the French Revolution). While America was founded as a modified expression of democracy (i.e., the will of the majority filtered through and diluted by representative government), our government has more and more moved toward unfiltered, pure democracy. Worse, in our social discourse, our public discussion, and debate of our differences, the mob already rules. Just stand up and offer an opinion that the majority disagrees with. Overnight social hatred will form into an opposition in which its kindest and gentlest will utterly silence you. Worse, and increasingly more commonly than we care to admit, social opposition from the majority-mob threatens to remove your enjoyment of any dream for material comfort in this world, let alone the American Dream.

No nation in this world can achieve a state of perfection in which even a majority of her citizens experience the best of life all the time. In other words, Utopia is a fantasy that may sell books, but it is never going to be a blueprint for a viable nation. That America has come closer than most in achieving the utopian pipe dream is also a danger. It leads us into a dangerous pride in which we think we just need to try a little harder to get our point across to our opponent. We end up just arguing more angrily and then dividing further. And truly raw, no restraints mob rule creeps closer and closer to taking over our dreams for a better America.

Glorious Hope

So, is there any hope for America? Even though she will follow all the other secular empires and succumb to the King of Kings, is there any hope that America might find more grace and mercy from God? Yes. For within her midst is  a source of salt and light that God promises to use to bless her:

You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. You are the light of the world– like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. Mt 5:13-15

james-bloedel-677485-unsplash

photo: james bloedel, unsplash

In every nation and in every generation the Church (those who through Spirit-born living faith are united to Christ) is the hope of real blessing to that nation. Today this hope in the Church in America is still real. No, I’m not ignoring that America is increasingly treating real Christlike Christianity as the one enemy to be completely eradicated from her land. God is still sovereign though. And Jesus is still the victorious King of Kings and Lord of Lords who sits on the throne over all nations. This means that the Church in America can still be the blessing our nation is so desperately looking for in all the wrong places.

So, what do we do? We follow Jeremiah’s advice to the Jews who went into captivity in Babylon. We pray for God to bless America with the only blessing that will make any real lasting difference. We pray, in other words, for God to send a revival across our land. We work for the peace and prosperity of America. This is not the earthly peace and the material prosperity that will disappear when Jesus destroys the nations that follow the great enemy empire described in Revelation 18. Instead we work for the advancement of the gospel. We give ourselves to our own worship and discipleship under the Spirit’s enabling. And then we go back to our communities and tell them that Jesus has something better, and more satisfying, than even the American Dream.

Let your conversation be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you will have the right response for everyone. Col 4:6

Prayer Advice

Dear Lord, forgive our nation for her many rebellions against you. Forgive your people in America where they have cared more for their lives in this world than your glories. Heal your church. Restore hope in America that Jesus is the only answer needed. Restore to us the years the locusts have eaten. Pour out Your Spirit in revival on us. To Your glory, together with Your Father and Your Spirit, we ask, Amen.

——————-

* This weekly prayer devotional focuses our attention on some aspect of our need for the Holy Spirit to bring revival to our church. Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you (Ps 85:6)?  For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams (Isa 44:3-4).  Pick a 15 to 30-minute time-block in your schedule over the next week and use this devotional to focus your prayers. As you can, consider fasting from a meal and using that time to pray for revival in our church.

Reed DePace

Male and Female Souls?

Posted by Paige (Yes, I’m still around sometimes!)

Here is a set of crowdsourcing theological research questions for my scholarly minded brethren:

Are you familiar with the teaching that men and women have gendered souls? That is, the idea that the differences between us (and perhaps the roles we are to play) are so essential that they are located originally in our souls as well as in our biology?

Can anyone give me the historical pedigree of this idea? What religions or sects have emphasized this teaching since ancient times? (Googling it brought up kabbalist and New Age spiritism, but I’d like to go deeper than blog posts if anyone knows of a decent resource.)

How have Christians historically interacted with this teaching? How does it comport with generally orthodox Christian teaching on the imago Dei, gender, and gender roles? What Christian thinkers, if any, have engaged or taught this idea?

Finally, how do you personally react to the idea that men and women have distinctly gendered souls as well as bodies? Do you think this is compatible with an orthodox anthropology? Would you teach this to your congregation? What would be your biblical supports?

I have encountered this idea in Christian teaching only recently, so I am not familiar with how it fits into the historical context of biblical and Reformed thought. I’m presently doubtful that it does, and I wanted to see if I could locate the idea in the history of theology and other religions in order to understand it better. 

Thanks abundantly in advance for your thoughts and any resources you can point me toward.

Thankful for Stumbling

[This is a copy of the weekly revival prayer devotional I send out to our congregation. Thought I’d share this week’s, as I have a little extra time waiting for the family to get back from shopping for turkey and trimmings. Nothing special, but maybe it will encourage. Reed DePace]

What Am I Thankful For?

I’m old enough now that a lot of my natural curmudgeon-ness has worn off. At Christmas, my family no longer worries if I’ll decide to reprise my award-winning role as Scrooge. At my birthday It is rare to hear a “harrumph.” But at Thanksgiving, I still struggle with one of the table traditions in our family, “Let’s everyone go around the table and share one thing we are thankful for.”

Now, it is not that I am not thankful. But it is kind of awkward for everyone else when you share, “I’m thankful I’m not as big a jerk as I used to be.” Some sitting there think I’m making a joke. Some (the quiet ones) know I’m not.

The Stone of Stumbling

So, with that bit of uncomfortable transparency to start our devotional this morning, let me share with you one thing I am thankful for. We’re visiting family this week, and so I am writing this in less than ideal circumstances for a person who does his best thinking and writing sitting in a dark corner with jazz lightly playing in the background. I’ve been a bit distracted, worrying a tad, “What am I going to write for this morning’s devotional?

I’d like to share with you something from my personal worship that just now grabbed my faith. I’m reviewing passages on election for an upcoming sermon series. This morning I completed Romans 9, looking at verses 30-33. There Paul explains why he was discussing election in the previous verses: to explain why most of the Jews who professed faith in God still rejected Jesus. He became for them the Stone of Stumbling.

But the people of Israel, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded. Why not? Because they were trying to get right with God by keeping the law instead of by trusting in him. They stumbled over the great rock in their path. God warned them of this in the Scriptures when he said, “I am placing a stone in Jerusalem that makes people stumble, a rock that makes them fall. But anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.” Romans 9:31-33

This is scary. All those folks raised in the heart of the Church with all the right blessings: adoption as God’s own family, the ministry of glory and joy, the covenant of grace, the law to teach them their need of Christ, worship based on faith and repentance, and the promises of the fullness of salvation (Rom 9:4-5). Yet when Jesus came along, they stumbled over him. They heard him speak truth about their sin, their need for salvation, and him as their Savior, and they rejected him!

Yes, I know, they were not among the elect. Yet, as I read this passage this morning, I found myself thinking about how many Christians, folks like you and me, maybe me and you, still stumble over Jesus. If it is all by grace, not of our efforts (Rom 9:30), them why do we still live by” do this or else”, and “don’t do that or else”? We’re still stumbling.

Or for others of us, we may not stumble at this point. But, ignoring that IF the Spirit really has saved us, then we WILL find ourselves increasingly loving and longing for Jesus and for what he loves and longs for, we stumble in a different way. Instead of rejoicing and learning to dance with Jesus, far too many of us professing faith in Christ are still having fun dancing to the world’s tunes, living the world’s life. Professing “we’re saved!,” we can’t even find the strength of faith to even be faithful in worshiping him, the primary place where Jesus gives dance lessons!

The Blessed Stumbling

This passage caused a blessed stumbling in me this morning. I worry too much for those who aren’t taking Jesus seriously. Yeah, I worry for some of those to whom I am witnessing. But the ones I fret over are those who’ve professed “Amen, Jesus my Lord,” and yet often do not even struggle with the fact that they don’t show much fruit of the new life that Christ says proves they are his disciples (Jh 15:8). I get worried enough that my “gotta fix this” mentality goes into overdrive.

This is what I’m thankful for this season of Thanksgiving. This has been rolling around in the back of my soul for a while, yet I’ve never really focused on it. Yeah, I’ve acknowledged it is wrong (repentance) and asked God to change me (faith), but I never really sat down and examined just how dangerous and offensive is this sin.

So today I am thankful that God kept his promises once again to work in me, to bring me just a little closer to the Christlikeness that is full maturity (Eph 4:13). Today I am thankful that he showed me how, in worrying for those who aren’t dancing with Jesus, I stumbled on him like those Jews Paul was talking about. All the promises and power Present for me, and yet I still run back to self-reliance. How thankful I am not just that he will keep his promises, but that right now, Jesus IS keeping this promise.

I don’t see the end of my self-reliance yet. But I do see it better than ever before. And I am enabled to recognize even sooner when I’m beginning to trip over Jesus instead of just resting on him. And I find right now, and will throughout my tomorrows, that I can dance with with more intention and sincerity, that is praying with more faith and repentance, and rely on Jesus, alone. This is something to truly be thankful for.

How about you? Do you find yourself still dancing to the world’s tunes? Be careful, you might stumble over Jesus one too many times, and never dance again. Are trying to do the Christian thing, but dancing solo? Ask that you might trip over Jesus now and learn to only dance with him. No more solos! The great news, what we can all be thankful for, is that stumbling over Jesus does not have to be fatal. Indeed, he often causes us to trip that we might not slip out of his hands (Jas 1:3-5).

And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to dance with him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness. (Col 2:6-7, NLT, slightly paraphrased)

Prayer Advice

Dear Lord, thank you for causing us to stumble over your Son Jesus. Thinking we’re ready for dancing with the stars, we fail to see how much we’re lurching toward destruction. Forgive us for where we’re still self-reliant, trying to solo on the dance floor. Forgive us for where we are chanting Jesus’ name, but still dancing to the world’s tune.

Stop us from being those who try to obey you through self-effort (solo dancers). Stop us from being those who don’t obey you (world dancers). Turn us into children who dance holding on to their Father’s hands. Make us into people who line dance with the Spirit. Let us dance for your glory and joy, held tightly in our Bridegroom’ arms.

Restore to us the years the locusts have eaten. Pour out Your Spirit in revival on us. For Your glory, together with Your Father and Your Spirit, we ask, Amen.”

 

reed depace

A Father’s Day Reflection

by reed depace

Possibly the best defense for fathers is the Fatherhood of God over His children in Christ. God didn’t create fatherhood as an accident, and then think to himself, “Hey, what a great picture of me!” No, the fatherhood of God to all who submit to him in Christ has been from eternity past; God’s status as father is an essential characteristic of his being.

Thus, fatherhood shares a sanctified status. That is, it is set apart for God’s own holy usage. That so many men refuse to rejoice in their calling to reflect God’s glory in this role is yet another slap of rebellion in his face.

How grateful I am for Jesus then. In him I find forgiveness and cleansing for all the times I refused to act toward my children in a manner that reflects God’s glory. In Jesus I find that his life of perfect obedience to our Father grants me growing obedience, expressed in all areas of life, and especially toward my children.

To them, on the eve of the day when our culture “honors” fathers while ignoring the One to whom all fathers point, let me say to my children (and their mom) how sad and grateful I am. I am sad at all the mean, unkind, selfish, and downright evil things I’ve done to you. I am grateful for both Jesus’ forgiveness and yours. Let not my failures dissuade you of your Heavenly Father’s perfection. Instead, let that sense that your dad is wrong, often, lead you to consider the perfection of God’s fatherly love for you.

I know I haven’t “failed” you, as in utterly. But I know I’ve given you more to forgive than to thank me for. Praise God our Father, He is nevertheless perfect. With you, I rely on him, alone.

“You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Luke 11:11-13

I love you. Happy Father’s Day.

by reed depace, te,
the church at chantilly
(historic first pres gumptown)
http://www.firspresschantilly.com

Overture 2 – A Quick Word

by reed depace

This may be too late for the debate, but since I can’t be at the PCA GA this year, I thought I’d post here in hopes that some at GA might pick it up. Consider it if you think it is valuable.

Overture 2 would give constitutional authority to chapter 59, On the Solemnization of Marriage, of our BCO. That is, it would require all office holders (TE’s, RE’s) to live by the practices outlined in this chapter.

The primary reason for opposing this overture appears to be a well-meaning desire to not confuse and clutter our doctrinal standards with unneeded repetition. Since the other constitutional standards, in this case WCF 24.1, fully affirms that marriage is solely for man and woman, there is no need to add BCO 59 to our constitutional requirements.

While I sympathize with the motive here, I think this misses a critical observation. The Westminster Standards cover our required beliefs, our doctrine, our orthodoxy. BCO covers our required doing, our practices, our orthopraxy. While the former clearly affirm hetero-marriage alone, the latter merely recommends it.

This is a hole big enough for even a first year law school graduate to drive a truck through. I can just hear the cross-examination in the trial, “Let me make sure I understand this right Rev. PCA pastor. You require your officers to BELIEVE that same-sex marriage is a no-no. But you only recommend they don’t PRACTICE it?! Other chapters in your BCO are required, but NOT this one on marriage?! How serious is your opposition to same-sex marriage? Certainly it is not an essential in your faith.”

Less legally tenuous inconsistency than this has been used to affirm the most egregious abominations in our civil courts. Time for us to listen to Jesus’ command to be innocent as doves and wise as serpents. Matthew 10:16

Overture 2 should be approved simply because it makes our practice convictions consistent with our doctrine convictions. I pray even that it would be unanimous.

by reed depace, te
The Church at Chantilly, PCA
Historic First Pres MGM, AL

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