Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Calvin on the Lives and Faith of the Patriarchs

I'd like to share an excerpt from Calvin's Institutes that I was reading this morning which is so eminently encouraging and fitting for our meditation on New Years Eve. As I was reading it this morning I was greatly struck by the hard and difficult lives the patriarchs lived, despite the fact that they were recipients of God's promises, true believers, chosen and beloved by God. God promised them blessings and was truly with them throughout their whole lives, but by all appearances the presence of God in their lives didn't seem to yield many blessings--in fact, they experienced many of life's hardships. Yet, as the book of Hebrews shows, these men looked toward the future and believed in God's faithfulness toward them... even beyond the grave! Their lives are amazing testaments of faith. And we can say that their faith in the future, and our faith in the future (that is, their hope and our hope) is what made them, and makes us, bravely and resolutely face and triumph over all the trials endured in this life: "for the joy set before" us, and "through Him who loved us". We can know that trials are in no way a sign that God has forsaken us. It is ours, like theirs, to believe in God to the very end, that He is the God who will raise the dead, and then at last "many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 8:11)

Happy New Year, dear friends!


"Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, and the other patriarchs, having been united to God by this illumination of the word, I say there cannot be the least doubt that entrance was given them into the immortal kingdom of God. They had that solid participation in God which cannot exist without the blessing of everlasting life.

If the point still seems somewhat involved, let us pass to the form of the covenant, which will not only satisfy calm thinkers, but sufficiently establish the ignorance of gainsayers. The covenant which God always made with his servants was this, “I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people,” (Lev. 26:12). These words, even as the prophets are wont to expound them, comprehend life and salvation, and the whole sum of blessedness. For David repeatedly declares, and with good reason, “Happy is that people whose God is the Lord.” “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord; and the people whom he has chosen for his own inheritance,” (Psalm 144:15; 33:12); and this not merely in respect of earthly happiness, but because he rescues from death, constantly preserves, and, with eternal mercy, visits those whom he has adopted for his people. As is said in other prophets, “Art not thou from everlasting, O Lord my God, mine Holy One? we shall not die.” “The Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us” “Happy art thou, O Israel: who is like unto thee, O people saved by the Lord?” (Hab. 1:12; Isaiah 33:22; Deut. 33:29). But not to labour superfluously, the prophets are constantly reminding us that no good thing and, consequently, no assurance of salvation, is wanting, provided the Lord is our God. And justly. For if his face, the moment it hath shone upon us, is a perfect pledge of salvation, how can he manifest himself to any one as his God, without opening to him the treasures of salvation? The terms on which God makes himself ours is to dwell in the midst of us, as he declared by Moses (Lev. 26:11). But such presence cannot be enjoyed without life being, at the same time, possessed along with it. And though nothing more had been expressed, they had a sufficiently clear promise of spiritual life in these words, “I am your God,” (Exod. 6:7). For he declared that he would be a God not to their bodies only, but specially to their souls. Souls, however, if not united to God by righteousness, remain estranged from him in death. On the other hand, that union, wherever it exists, will bring perpetual salvation with it.

To this we may add, that he not only declared he was, but also promised that he would be, their God. By this their hope was extended beyond present good, and stretched forward into eternity. Moreover, that this observance of the future had the effect, appears from the many passages in which the faithful console themselves not only in their present evils, but also for the future, by calling to mind that God was never to desert them. Moreover, in regard to the second part of the promise—viz. the blessing of God, its extending beyond the limits of the present life was still more clearly confirmed by the words, I will be the God of your seed after you (Gen. 17:7). If he was to manifest his favour to the dead by doing good to their posterity, much less would he deny his favour to themselves. God is not like men, who transfer their love to the children of their friends, because the opportunity of bestowing kind offices as they wished upon themselves is interrupted by death. But God, whose kindness is not impeded by death, does not deprive the dead of the benefit of his mercy, which, on their account, he continues to a thousand generations. God, therefore, was pleased to give a striking proof of the abundance and greatness of his goodness which they were to enjoy after death, when he described it as overflowing to all their posterity (Exod. 20:6). The truth of this promise was sealed, and in a manner completed, when, long after the death of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he called himself their God (Exod. 20:6). And why? Was not the name absurd if they had perished? It would have been just the same as if he had said, I am the God of men who exist not. Accordingly, the Evangelists relate that, by this very argument, our Saviour refuted the Sadducees (Mt. 22:23; Luke 20:32), who were, therefore, unable to deny that the resurrection of the dead was attested by Moses, inasmuch as he had taught them that all the saints are in his hand (Deut. 33:3). Whence it is easy to infer that death is not the extinction of those who are taken under the tutelage, guardianship, and protection of him who is the disposer of life and death.

Let us now see (and on this the controversy principally turns) whether or not believers themselves were so instructed by the Lord, as to feel that they had elsewhere a better life, and to aspire to it while disregarding the present. First, the mode of life which heaven had imposed upon them made it a constant exercise, by which they were reminded, that if in this world only they had hope, they were of all men the most miserable. Adam, most unhappy even in the mere remembrance of his lost felicity, with difficulty supplies his wants by anxious labours; and that the divine curse might not be restricted to bodily labour, his only remaining solace becomes a source of the deepest grief: Of two sons, the one is torn from him by the parricidal hand of his brother; while the other, who survives, causes detestation and horror by his very look. Abel, cruelly murdered in the very flower of his days, is an example of the calamity which had come upon man. While the whole world are securely living in luxury, Noah, with much fatigue, spends a great part of his life in building an ark. He escapes death, but by greater troubles than a hundred deaths could have given. Besides his ten months’ residence in the ark, as in a kind of sepulchre, nothing could have been more unpleasant than to have remained so long pent up among the filth of beasts. After escaping these difficulties he falls into a new cause of sorrow. He sees himself mocked by his own son, and is forced, with his own mouth, to curse one whom, by the great kindness of God, he had received safe from the deluge.

Abraham alone ought to be to us equal to tens of thousands if we consider his faith, which is set before us as the best model of believing, to whose race also we must be held to belong in order that we may be the children of God.231 What could be more absurd than that Abraham should be the father of all the faithful, and not even occupy the meanest corner among them? He cannot be denied a place in the list; nay, he cannot be denied one of the most honourable places in it, without the destruction of the whole Church. Now, as regards his experience in life, the moment he is called by the command of God, he is torn away from friends, parents, and country, objects in which the chief happiness of life is deemed to consist, as if it had been the fixed purpose of the Lord to deprive him of all the sources of enjoyment. No sooner does he enter the land in which he was ordered to dwell, than he is driven from it by famine. In the country to which he retires to obtain relief, he is obliged, for his personal safety, to expose his wife to prostitution. This must have been more bitter than many deaths. After returning to the land of his habitation, he is again expelled by famine. What is the happiness of inhabiting a land where you must so often suffer from hunger, nay, perish from famine, unless you flee from it? Then, again, with Abimelech, he is reduced to the same necessity of saving his head by the loss of his wife (Gen. 12:12). While he wanders up and down uncertain for many years, he is compelled, by the constant quarrelling of servants to part with his nephew, who was to him as a son. This departure must doubtless have cost him a pang something like the cutting off of a limb. Shortly after, he learns that his nephew is carried off captive by the enemy. Wherever he goes, he meets with savage-hearted neighbours, who will not even allow him to drink of the wells which he has dug with great labour. For he would not have purchased the use from the king of Gerar if he had not been previously prohibited. After he had reached the verge of life, he sees himself childless (the bitterest and most unpleasant feeling to old age), until, beyond expectation, Ishmael is born; and yet he pays dearly for his birth in the reproaches of Sarah, as if he was the cause of domestic disturbance by encouraging the contumacy of a female slave. At length Isaac is born, but in return, the first-born Ishmael is displaced, and almost hostilely driven forth and abandoned. Isaac remains alone, and the good man, now worn out with age, has his heart upon him, when shortly after he is ordered to offer him up in sacrifice. What can the human mind conceive more dreadful than for the father to be the murderer of his son? Had he been carried off by disease, who would not have thought the old man much to be pitied in having a son given to him in mockery, and in having his grief for being childless doubled to him? Had he been slain by some stranger, this would, indeed, have been much worse than natural death. But all these calamities are little compared with the murder of him by his father’s hand. Thus, in fine, during the whole course of his life, he was harassed and tossed in such a way, that any one desirous to give a picture of a calamitous life could not find one more appropriate. Let it not be said that he was not so very distressed, because he at length escaped from all these tempests. He is not said to lead a happy life who, after infinite difficulties during a long period, at last laboriously works out his escape, but he who calmly enjoys present blessings without any alloy of suffering.

Isaac is less afflicted, but he enjoys very few of the sweets of life. He also meets with those vexations which do not permit a man to be happy on the earth. Famine drives him from the land of Canaan; his wife is torn from his bosom; his neighbours are ever and anon annoying and vexing him in all kinds of ways, so that he is even obliged to fight for water. At home, he suffers great annoyance from his daughters-in-law; he is stung by the dissension of his sons, and has no other cure for this great evil than to send the son whom he had blessed into exile (Gen. 26:27); Jacob, again, is nothing but a striking example of the greatest wretchedness. His boyhood is passed most uncomfortably at home amidst the threats and alarms of his elder brother, and to these he is at length forced to give way (Gen. 27:28); A fugitive from his parents and his native soil, in addition to the hardships of exile, the treatment he receives from his uncle Laban is in no respect milder and more humane (Gen. 29). As if it had been little to spend seven years of hard and rigorous servitude, he is cheated in the matter of a wife. For the sake of another wife, he must undergo a new servitude, during which, as he himself complains, the heat of the sun scorches him by day, while in frost and cold he spends the sleepless night (Gen. 31:40, 41). For twenty years he spends this bitter life, and daily suffers new injuries from his father-in-law. Nor is he quiet at home, which he sees disturbed and almost broken up by the hatreds, quarrels, and jealousies of his wives. When he is ordered to return to his native land, he is obliged to take his departure in a manner resembling an ignominious flight. Even then he is unable to escape the injustice of his father-in-law, but in the midst of his journey is assailed by him with contumely and reproach (Gen. 31:20.232 ) By and bye a much greater difficulty befalls him (Gen. 32, 33). For as he approaches his brother, he has as many forms of death in prospect as a cruel foe could invent. Hence, while waiting for his arrival, he is distracted and excruciated by direful terrors; and when he comes into his sight, he falls at his feet like one half dead, until he perceives him to be more placable than he had ventured to hope. Moreover, when he first enters the land, he is bereaved of Rachel his only beloved wife. Afterwards he hears that the son whom she had borne him, and whom he loved more than all his other children, is devoured by a wild beast (Gen. 37:33). How deep the sorrow caused by his death he himself evinces, when, after long tears, he obstinately refuses to be comforted, declaring that he will go down to the grave to his son mourning. In the meantime, what vexation, anxiety, and grief, must he have received from the carrying off and dishonour of his daughter, and the cruel revenge of his sons, which not only brought him into bad odour with all the inhabitants of the country, but exposed him to the greatest danger of extermination? (Gen. 34) Then follows the horrid wickedness of Reuben his first-born, wickedness than which none could be committed more grievous (Gen. 36:22). The dishonour of a wife being one of the greatest of calamities, what must be said when the atrocity is perpetrated by a son? Some time after, the family is again polluted with incest (Gen. 38:18). All these disgraces might have crushed a mind otherwise the most firm and unbroken by misfortune. Towards the end of his life, when he seeks relief for himself and his family from famine, he is struck by the announcement of a new misfortune, that one of his sons is detained in prison, and that to recover him he must entrust to others his dearly beloved Benjamin (Gen. 42, 43). Who can think that in such a series of misfortunes, one moment was given him in which he could breathe secure? Accordingly, his own best witness, he declares to Pharaoh, “Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been,” (Gen. 47:9). In declaring that he had spent his life in constant wretchedness, he denies that he had experienced the prosperity which had been promised him by the Lord. Jacob, therefore, either formed a malignant and ungrateful estimate of the Lord’s favour, or he truly declared that he had lived miserable on the earth. If so, it follows that his hope could not have been fixed on earthly objects.

If these holy Patriarchs expected a happy life from the hand of God (and it is indubitable that they did), they viewed and contemplated a different happiness from that of a terrestrial life. This is admirably shown by an Apostle, “By faith he [Abraham] sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he has prepared for them a city,” (Heb. 11:9, 10, 13–16). They had been duller than blocks in so pertinaciously pursuing promises, no hope of which appeared upon the earth, if they had not expected their completion elsewhere. The thing which the Apostle specially urges, and not without reason, is, that they called this world a pilgrimage, as Moses also relates (Gen. 47:9). If they were pilgrims and strangers in the land of Canaan, where is the promise of the Lord which appointed them heirs of it? It is clear, therefore, that the promise of possession which they had received looked farther. Hence, they did not acquire a foot breadth in the land of Canaan, except for sepulture; thus testifying that they hoped not to receive the benefit of the promise till after death. And this is the reason why Jacob set so much value on being buried there, that he took Joseph bound by oath to see it done; and why Joseph wished that his bones should some ages later, long after they had mouldered into dust, be carried thither (Gen. 47:29, 30; 50:25).

In short, it is manifest, that in the whole course of their lives, they had an eye to future blessedness. Why should Jacob have aspired so earnestly to primogeniture, and intrigued for it at so much risk, if it was to bring him only exile and destitution, and no good at all, unless he looked to some higher blessing? And that this was his feeling, he declared in one of the last sentences he uttered, “I have waited for thy salvation, O God,” (Gen. 49:18). What salvation could he have waited for, when he felt himself breathing his last, if he did not see in death the beginning of a new life? And why talk of saints and the children of God, when even one, who otherwise strove to resist the truth, was not devoid of some similar impression? For what did Balaam mean when he said, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his,” (Num. 23:10), unless he felt convinced of what David afterward declares, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints?” (Ps. 116:15; 34:12). If death were the goal and ultimate limit, no distinction could be observed between the righteous and the wicked. The true distinction is the different lot which awaits them after death."

--John Calvin

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Charles Spurgeon - The Seven Crowns of Jesus' Dying Love

This is an absolute gem from Spurgeon. I read this several years ago but it has never left me, and I am glad to finally promote it here on my blog. Read and be edified, dear friends.



I hope I shall have your interested attention while I show that above that highest act of human love there is a something in Christ’s death for love’s sake still more elevated. Men’s dying for their friends—this is superlative—but Christ’s dying for us is as much above man’s superlative as that could be above mere commonplace. Let me show you this in seven points. The first is this—Jesus is immortal, therefore the special character of His death.

Damon is willing to die for Pythias. The classic story shows that each of the two friends was anxious to die for the other. But suppose Damon dies for Pythias, he is only antedating what must occur, for Damon must die one day and if he lays down his life for his friend, say ten years before he otherwise would have done so, still he only loses that ten years’ life—he must die sooner or later. Or if Pythias dies and Damon escapes, it may be that only by a fear weeks one of them has anticipated the departure, for they must both die eventually. When a man lays down his life for his friend, he does not lay down what he could keep altogether. He could only have kept it for a while. Even if he had lived as long as mortals can, till gray hairs are on their head, he must, at last, have yielded to the arrows of Death.

A substitutionary death for love’s sake in ordinary cases would be but a slightly premature payment of that debt of Nature which must be paid by all. But such is not the case with Jesus. Jesus needed not die at all! There was no ground or reason why He should die apart from His laying down His life in the place of His friends. Up there in Glory was the Christ of God forever with the Father, eternal and everlasting. No age passed over His brow. We may say of Him, “Your locks are bushy and black as the raven, You have the dew of Your youth.” He came to earth and assumed our Nature that He might be capable of death, yet remember, though capable of death, His body need not have died. As it was it never saw corruption, because there was not in it the element of sin which necessitated death and decay.

Our Lord Jesus, and none but He, could stand at the brink of the grave and say, “No man takes My life from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it again.” We poor mortal men have only power to die, but Christ had power to live! Crown Him, then! Set a new crown upon His beloved head! Let other lovers who have died for their friends be crowned with silver, but for Jesus, bring forth the golden diadem and set it upon the head of the Immortal who never needed to have died, and yet became a mortal, yielding Himself to death’s pangs without necessity, except the necessity of His mighty love!

Note, next, that in the cases of persons who have yielded up their lives for others they may have entertained and probably did entertain the prospect that the supreme penalty would not have been enacted from them. They hoped that they might yet escape. Damon stood before Dionysius, the tyrant, willing to be slain instead of Pythias. But you will remember that the tyrant was so struck with the devotion of the two friends that he did not put either of them to death and so the proffered substitute escaped. There is an old story of a pious miner who was in the pit with an ungodly man at work. They had lighted the fuse and were about to blast a piece of rock with the powder, and it was necessary that they should both leave the mine before the powder exploded.

They both got into the bucket, but the hand above which was to wind them up was not strong enough to draw the two together, and the pious miner, leaping from the bucket, said to his friend, “You are an unconverted man, and if you die your soul will be lost. Get up in the bucket as quickly as you can! As for me, I commit my soul into the hands of God, and if I die I am saved.” This lover of his neighbor’s soul was spared, for he was found in perfect safety arched over by the fragments which had been blown from the rock—he escaped. But remember well that such a thing could not occur in the case of our dear Redeemer. He knew that if He was to give a ransom for our souls He had no loophole for escape. He must surely die. It was either He die, or His people must—there was no other alternative. If we were to escape from the pit through Him, He must perish in the pit Himself. There was no hope for Him. There was no way by which the cup could pass from Him.

Men have bravely risked their lives for their friends. Perhaps had they been certain that the risk would have ended in death they would have hesitated. Jesus was certain that our salvation involved death to Him—the cup must be drained to the bottom—He must endure the mortal agony and in all the extreme sufferings of death He must not be spared one jot or tittle. Yet deliberately, for our sakes, He espoused Death that He might espouse us. I say again, bring forth another diadem! Put a second crown upon that once thorn-crowned head! All hail, Immanuel! Monarch of Misery, and Lord of Love! Was ever love like Yours? Lift up His praises, all you sons of song! Exalt Him, all you heavenly ones! Yes, set His throne higher than the stars! And let Him be extolled above the angels, because with full intent He bowed His head to Death. He knew that it behooved Him to suffer, it behooved that He should be made a Sacrifice for sin, and yet for the joy that was set before Him, He endured the Cross, despising the shame.

Note a third grand excellency in the crowning deed of Jesus’ love, namely, that He could have had no motive in that death but one of pure, unmingled love and pity. You remember when the Russian nobleman was crossing the steppes of that vast country in the snow, the wolves followed the sledge in greedy packs, eager to devour the travelers. The horses were lashed to their utmost speed, but needed not the lash, for they fled for their lives from their howling pursuers. Whatever could stay the eager wolves for a time was thrown to them in vain. A horse was loosed—they pursued it, tore it to pieces, and still followed, like grim Death.

At last a devoted servant, who had long lived with his master’s family, said, “There remains but one hope for you. I will throw myself to the wolves and then you will have time to escape.” There was great love in this, but doubtless it was mingled with a habit of obedience, a sense of reverence to the head of the household, and probably emotions of gratitude for many obligations which had been received through a long course of years. I do not depreciate the sacrifice, far from it. Would that there were more of such a noble spirit among the sons of men! But still, you can see a wide difference between that noble sacrifice and the nobler deed of Jesus laying down His life for those who never obliged Him, never served Him—who were infinitely His inferiors and who could have no claims upon His gratitude.

If I had seen the nobleman surrender himself to the wolves to save his servant, and if that servant had in former days tried to be an assassin and had sought his life—and yet the master had given himself up for the undeserving menial—I could see some parallel. But as the case stands, there is a wide distinction. Jesus had no motive in His heart but that He loved us, loved us with all the greatness of His glorious Nature—loved us, and therefore for love, pure love, and love alone—He gave Himself up to bleed and die—

“With all His sufferings full in view
And woes to us unknown,
Forth to the task His spirit flew,
‘Twas love that urged Him on.”

Put the third crown upon His glorious head! Oh angels, bring forth the immortal coronet which has been stored up for ages for Him alone, and let it glitter upon that ever-blessed brow!

Fourthly, remember, as I have already begun to hint, that in our Savior’s case it was not precisely, though it was, in a sense, death for His friends. Greater love has no man than this towards his friends that he lay down his life for them. Read the text so, and it expresses a great truth—but greater love a man may have than to lay down his life for his friends, namely—if he dies for his enemies! And here is the greatness of Jesus’ love, that though He called us “friends,” the friendship was all on His side at the first. He called us friends, but our hearts called Him enemy, for we were opposed to Him. We loved not in return for His love. “We hid, as it were, our faces from Him, He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.” Oh the enmity of the human heart to Jesus! There is nothing like it! Of all enmities that have ever come from the Pit that is bottomless, the enmity of the heart to the Christ of God is the strangest and most bitter of all!

And yet for men polluted and depraved, for men hardened till their hearts are like the nether millstone, for men who could not return and could not reciprocate the love He felt, Jesus Christ gave Himself to die! “Scarcely for a righteous man one will die, yet perhaps for a good (benevolent) man one could even dare to die, but God commends His love to us in that while we were yet sinners in due time Christ died for the ungodly.”—

“O love of unexampled kind!
That leaves all thought so far behind;
Where length, and breadth, and depth, and height,
Are lost to my astonished sight.”

Bring forth the royal diadem again, I say, and crown our loving Lord, the Lord of Love, for as He is King of kings everywhere else, so is He King of kings in the region of affection!

I shall not, I hope, weary you when I now observe that there was another glorious point about Christ’s dying for us for we had, ourselves, been the cause of the difficulty which required a death. There were two brothers on board a raft once, upon which they had escaped from a foundering ship. There was not enough food, and it was proposed to reduce the number that some, at least, might be able to live. So many must die. They cast lots for life and death. One of the brothers was drawn and was doomed to be thrown into the sea. His brother interposed and said, “You have a wife and children at home. I am single and therefore can be better spared. I will die instead of you.” “No,” said his brother, “not so. Why should you? The lot has fallen upon me.” And they struggled with each other in mutual arguments of love, till at last the substitute was thrown into the sea.

Now, there was no ground of difference between those too brothers whatever. They were friends and more than friends. They had not caused the difficulty which required the sacrifice of one of them. They could not blame one another for forcing upon them the dreadful alternative. But in our case there would never have been a need for anyone to die if we had not been the offenders, the willful offenders. And who was the offended one? Whose injured honor required the death? I speak not untruthfully if I say it was the Christ that died who was, Himself, the offended One. Against God the sin had been committed, against the majesty of the Divine Ruler! And in order to wipe the stain away from Divine Justice it was imperative that the penalty should be exacted and the sinful one should die. So He who was offended took the place of the offender and died, that the debt due to His own Justice might be paid. It is the case of the judge bearing the penalty which he feels compelled to pronounce upon the culprit!

Like the old classic story of the father who, on the judgment bench, condemns his son to lose his eyes for an act of adultery, and then puts out one of his own eyes to save an eye for his son—the judge himself bore a portion of the penalty. In our case, He who vindicated the honor of His own Law, and bore all the penalty, was the Christ who loved those who had offended His Sovereignty and grieved His holiness! I say again—but where are the lips that shall say it aright?—Bring forth, bring forth a new diadem of more than imperial splendor, to crown the Redeemer’s blessed head anew, and let all the harps of Heaven pour forth the richest music in praise of His supreme love!

Note, again, that there have been men who died for others, but they have never borne the sins of others. They were willing to take the punishment, but not the guilt. Those cases which I have already mentioned did not involve character. Pythias has offended Dionysius, Damon is ready to die for him, but Damon does not bear the offense given by Pythias. A brother is thrown into the sea for a brother, but there is no fault in the case. The servant dies for his master in Russia, but the servant’s character rises—it is in no degree associated with any fault of the master—and the master is, indeed, faultless in the case. But here, before Christ must die, it must be written, “He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many.” “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” “He made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” “He was made a curse for us, as it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangs on a tree.”

Now, far be it from our hearts to say that Christ was ever less than perfectly holy and spotless, and yet there had to be established a connection between Him and sinners by the way of substitution, which must have been hard for His perfect Nature to endure. For Him to be hung up between two felons. For Him to be accused of blasphemy. For Him to be numbered with transgressors. For Him to suffer, the Just for the unjust, bearing His Father’s wrath as if He had been guilty—this is amazing and surpasses all thought! Bring forth the brightest crowns and put them on His head, while we pass on to weave a seventh chaplet for that adorable brow! For remember, once more, the death of Christ was a proof of superlative love, because in His case He was denied all the helps and alleviations which in other cases make death to be less than death.

I marvel not that a saint can die joyously. Well may his brow be placid and his eyes bright, for he sees his heavenly Father gazing down upon him and Glory awaiting him! Well may his spirit be rapt in joy, even while the death-sweat is on his face, for the angels have come to meet him and he sees the far-off land, and the gates of pearl growing nearer every hour! But ah, to die upon a Cross without a pitying eye upon you, surrounded by a scoffing multitude—and to die there appealing to God, who turns away His face! To die with this as your requiem, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me!” To startle the midnight darkness with an, “Eli, Eli, lama Sabachthani” of awful anguish such as never had been heard before—this is terrible!

The triumph of Love in the death of Jesus rises clear above all other heroic acts of self-sacrifice! Even as we have seen the lone peak of the monarch of mountains rise out from all adjoining alps and pierce the clouds to hold familiar converse with the stars, so does this love of Christ soar far above anything else in human history, or that can be conceived by the heart of man! His death was more terrible, His passing away more grievous by far. Greater love has no man than this, that He lay down such a life in such a fashion, and for such enemies so utterly unworthy! Oh, I will not say, Crown Him—what are crowns to Him? Blessed Lamb of God, our hearts love You! We fall at Your feet in adoring reverence, and magnify You in the silence of our souls.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Origin of the Book of Mormon

This is a letter to a friend who asked for my thoughts on the origin of the Book of Mormon.

M---, thank you for the question. Like old times! I wish that we could discuss this face to face my dear friend. I appreciate your openness.

I totally agree with you that the Book of Mormon appears to be a work of "evil genius". That is, we acknowledge the book is false--even, I believe, insidious--but we also acknowledge that it is quite impressive. I do think that a lot of the Book of Mormon shows signs of a sophomoric mind; also that a lot of it is also a literary bore, but there are some interesting points of sophistication. My personal thoughts on the Book of Mormon are that it is the product of a combination of Joseph Smith's natural genius as well as demonic inspiration. By demonic inspiration I don't mean the devil was whispering in his ear dictating to him what to write, but that the devil found a usable tool in Smith (who was, I think, talented, ambitious, and religiously self-willed) in whom he could sow the ideas of Mormonism (2 Tim. 3:13). These ideas are in many ways sophisticated, as they originate from the Deceiver, and play upon man's natural humanistic wisdom and naive sense of religion, as well as counterfeiting Christ and twisting Biblical principles. It all turns out looking very plausible to those ignorant of the truth. While I think Smith was a liar, I think he probably came to believe his own doctrine, and became convinced that he was doing the world good, thus confirming to himself that he was indeed a real prophet, however strangely formed.

So I see the Book of Mormon as written by the talented Smith, but based on demonic ideas; a mix of the human and the supernatural; the ideas being largely demonic, the expression being Smith. This isn't exactly the inverse of divine inspiration, however, because I believe that with the Scriptures God took more of a minute providential concern in the sacred writings than Satan did with the Book of Mormon. This divine oversight is more obvious with the OT prophets, but is true also with the NT authors in a different way. I think Satan may have thumped his brow a few times during the production of the Book of Mormon. I don't believe God did so with the Scriptures. Those are my thoughts. I'd love to hear what you think.

With love,

Monday, December 01, 2014

What's a Christian to Do with Christmas?

This is the transcript of a sermon I preached two years ago on Christians celebrating Christmas. If you'd like to listen to the audio, you can find it here!


What’s a Christian to Do with Christmas?

Reading: Luke 2:8-20

This morning’s sermon is entitled: “What’s a Christian to Do with Christmas?” In it, I would like to address three questions: first, what’s a Christian to think about holidays? Second, should Christians even celebrate Christmas? Third, how should Christians celebrate Christmas?

Socrates once said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” By saying this he drew attention to one of the fundamental differences between human beings and animals: human beings have the sacred ability to think about and reflect upon themselves and their world, enabling them to consider and discover the meaning of life. Socrates understood that a human life that is lived without ever asking the important questions of life – Why am I here? Where am I going? What is my purpose? – is a life that is lived no different than the animals, and is therefore a tragic waste of humanity. To this agrees the haunting words of the Psalmist: “Man that is in honor, and understands not, is like the beasts that perish.” (Ps. 49:20)

I recently read a quote from Doug Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, that modifies Socrates’ saying and strikes a similar chord: “The unexamined holiday is not worth celebrating.” I’d like to pick up on this thought this morning. Just as living a human life without examining its meaning is a tragic waste of humanity, so celebrating a holiday without examining its meaning is a tragic waste of holiday. To participate in a holiday is to participate in something intensely human. Human beings are the only creatures who celebrate holidays. Have you ever seen a monkey celebrating a birthday, or a family of dolphins gathered together to celebrate Thanksgiving? Could you imagine an ant hill putting on a party in commemoration of its initial founding? No! People, not animals, do these things, because people, not animals, reflect upon life and life’s sacred meaning. The very word “holiday” contains a clue: holidays are “holy” days that we set aside from all the others in order to remember and celebrate the sanctities of life. There is meaning in the birth of a child. There is meaning in the food we eat and the family and friends we share it with. There is meaning in the founding of a city. Humans, unlike animals, recognize it. Holidays are part of the supreme privilege of being human. In a world without God there is nothing holy and there is no meaning, but holidays remain stark evidences that we live in a world inextricably connected to God. And since we human beings are what we are because we are made in the image of God, it shouldn’t surprise us that when we turn to the Bible we immediately discover that God is the author of holidays.

In the opening pages of the book of Genesis God created the world’s first holiday, the Sabbath, by setting apart and blessing the seventh day to be a day of rest in remembrance of God’s rest after finishing creation. The very first instruction God gave to the nation of Israel upon their leaving Egypt was to celebrate the Passover festival year by year so that they may remember their bitter bondage in Egypt, and God’s miraculous redemption from that bondage in fulfillment of His covenant. The Law of Moses contained a combination of nine holidays, holy-weeks, and holy-years: New Year, New Moon, Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles, the weekly Sabbath, the Sabbath year, and the Year of Jubilee. Clearly God is into holidays! Each one of these holidays points to something that God has done, God is doing, or that God is going to do. God wants His people to be people of history, people of remembrance, people of meaning. God wants us to be fully in tune with our world, to see ourselves in the flow of what He is doing in history, not floating adrift aimlessly in a world of meaningless monotony. God gave us holidays to help us understand our world, and our place in it.

Therefore God did not want Israel to celebrate His holidays mindlessly. In fact, He hated that. An unexamined holiday actually turns into something odious to God and even harmful to man, diverting attention from truth to empty tradition – empty tradition that can obscure truth and make it void. God’s instructions regarding holidays are repeated and emphatic: teach your children why we do them. “And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service? That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when He smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.” (Ex. 12:26-27) Such verses could be quoted by the dozen. It is the parent’s responsibility to teach their children the meaning of the holidays. They are to help their family understand what God has done in history, what God is doing, and what God will do, and how it relates to them, so that they may know their place in the God’s world.

Nor are holidays to be mere commemorations; mere history lessons, as one would find in a school textbook: two-dimensional, removed and distant. They are meant to do much more than that. Holidays bring the events remembered into the present, for us to see them, taste them, feel them and touch them – in a sense, to replay them, like an instant-replay at a sporting event. Instant-replays are not repetitions of what happened: Michael Jordan isn’t actually slamming the ball into the net all over again, yet we are seeing it again, bringing it out of mere memories into our senses and re-living the action. Holidays are like that, except that you are not just a passive observer, but a participant. Nothing is actually repeated, yet you are re-living the drama through sights, smells, tastes and sounds. What is being remembered has come to you in a form that you can participate in, rather than just read about. This is why we say, “What are you going to do this holiday? What do you usually do?” For Remembrance Day in Canada, we wear poppies on our lapels in honor of the soldiers have died to give us the country we have today. For Thanksgiving, people prepare enormous, delicious meals and invite family and friends over to partake in the feast. For Birthdays, we make birthday cakes and put the correct amount of candles on the top corresponding to the age of the birthday boy or girl, and give gifts. We are not just remembering with our minds, nor reading a fact in a book. We are setting aside a time to do something, to celebrate or mourn, to remember whatever it is we are remembering through activity and form. That is a holiday.

This helps us understand that the past is not something unrelated to us (to be remembered begrudgingly like some fact on history test) but is something that we are involved in – that has everything to do with us – something that is with us forever. The past is always with us; we just need to recognize it. When the Israelites celebrated the Passover many years after the actually Exodus event, they never said, “God delivered them from Egypt”, but “God delivered us from Egypt.” The parents would teach their children: “We were slaves in Egypt four hundred years, and God brought us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut. 6:21) God instructed them to speak like this. He wanted them to be involved and engaged. God wants us to be involved and engaged. He wants us to remember what He has done and how it pertains to us. He doesn’t want us to go through the motions mindlessly, but to participate with understanding. This is God’s desire for holidays.

Consider how it is when we celebrate Communion. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins is brought before us, not only in words, but in tangible form. His sacrifice is not repeated, for He died to put away sins once for all time. It is remembrance, but it is something we do in remembrance. We are participating in an active instant-replay, a re-living of the past, and we are exhorted to do so again and again, reminding us constantly that the past is always present with us. When we take Communion we remember in sacred form that Jesus died for our sins, and that His death so long ago is relevant and efficient for our sins today. As we eat the bread and drink the wine we are reminded of the reality of Christ’s finished work on the cross, and the necessity of us partaking of it by faith alone. Jesus Himself instituted this holy supper, not because it saves us, but because it is a helpful tool in remembering and understanding the sacrifice of Him who does save us. “Do this in remembrance of Me.” (Luke 22:19)

So what about Christmas? What’s a Christian to do with Christmas?

One of the first questions we need to ask is whether Christmas is even a holiday we Christians should celebrate? What is the basis for it? Isn’t it actually a pagan holiday?

The answer to the last question is: no, Christmas is not a pagan holiday. The Christmas holiday was instituted by the Church nearly 1700 years ago, during the 4th century – the century that witnessed the overturning of paganism in the Roman Empire by Christianity. Once the Christian Church gained its freedom to worship without harassment it officially instituted the Christmas holiday in order for Christians to set that day aside to remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

But why December 25? Was Jesus even born on that day? And isn’t that the date of the pagan Winter Solstice?

The fact is, there is simply no way of knowing the precise date of Jesus’ birth, because the Bible doesn’t give us enough information to perfectly identify it. So the Church just had to choose a date. It was in keeping with the overthrow of paganism by Christianity that the Church chose December 25, which is indeed the date of the Winter Solstice. There is nothing at all pagan about the Winter Solstice. Solstice simply means “sun-stand” in Latin, and it signifies the time of year when the sun is farthest away from the equator. There is a Summer Solstice (when the sun is the farthest north of the equator) and a Winter Solstice (when the Sun is farthest south of the equator). On these days the sun stops receding away from the equator on its ecliptic course, and turns back again. These days mark the darkest days of the year. For this reason, the pagans would hold celebrations on these days, celebrating the symbolic re-birth of the sun. To the pagans, the Solstice was the sun’s birthday! The Christians, in choosing a day to celebrate the birth of Christ, fittingly chose December 25, displacing the pagan celebration of the birth of the sun with the Christian celebration of the birth of the Son. In the words of Church historian Albert Henry Newman, “There was thought to be a peculiar appropriateness in identifying the birthday of the Sun of Righteousness with that of the physical sun.” So far from being a pagan-ridden holiday, Christmas is actually a pagan-ridding holiday. Christians should therefore celebrate Christmas with a sense of triumph!

We are today, however, seeing Christmas rapidly become pagan once again. This is the effect of celebrating the holiday unexamined. What is now most prominent is no longer the advent of Jesus, nor even the advent of the sun, but Santa Claus, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, and Frosty the snowman. Does it get any more arbitrary than that? I know that these things are cute and innocent, and I have no objection to them intrinsically; but when the cute and the innocent begin to displace and eclipse the important and substantial, we have a problem. If you would like to see the epitome of insubstantiality, go watch a Hollywood Christmas movie this year. You will hear all about “the Spirit of Christmas” and the magic of being nice to each other, without any trace of or reference to God, Christ, the sun, or any real meaning at all. Friends, if Christmas has become like this in your home, where Rudolph’s night navigation is the only thing that goes down in history, you might as well not celebrate Christmas at all. You don’t need a holiday to be nice to your neighbor and kids. If there’s nothing more to it than that, then please do us all a favor and stop celebrating Christmas. The unexamined holiday is not worth celebrating. Actually, it’s obnoxious to both God and His image bearers.

Of course, nobody has to celebrate Christmas at all. It’s not written down in God’s Law, and you won’t be sent to hell for it if you don’t. So why celebrate Christmas then? It is my hope that you will see that celebrating Christmas is one of those good things worthy to be done heartily by all Christians.

In the first place, it is permissible to celebrate Christmas. God has given men great freedom in making holidays besides His own. We see man-made holidays throughout the Bible: birthdays are celebrated, Purim is instituted, the Lord’s Day is observed. All of these were instituted by men, and there is nothing inherently wrong when men do things (actually, one might say inherently good). God nowhere criticizes men for making holidays to celebrate the significant things of life. God creates holidays, therefore it must be good to create holidays (provided they are meaningful and helpful). Holiday-making is in our DNA, so to speak, since we are created in the image of God. If you have a problem with the human, non-Scriptural origin of Christmas, perhaps you should not celebrate your birthday.

In the second place, it is fitting to celebrate Christmas. There never has been, nor ever will be, another birthday for God Almighty. The Almighty God clothed Himself in flesh and was born into our world through a virgin. There are few things more remarkable than that! The Incarnation stands aloft in its sublimity. We celebrate men’s birthdays… why should we not celebrate God’s? We institute holidays for significant and meaningful happenings… is there not a more significant and meaningful happening than this? I would think that if you don’t celebrate Christmas you are rather numb. The words of the prodigal’s father are fitting here: “It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad.” (Luke 15:32)

In the third place, it is healthy to celebrate Christmas. It is good for mankind to remember and celebrate the birth of the Savior. One of the main reasons why we humans make holidays is because we recognize their exceedingly precious value in helping people remember. What if the United States never celebrated Independence Day, or your family never celebrated your birthday? There would be a great danger to forget them, and/or to not make much of them. But by holidays we are continuously confronted and reminded of those things which we need to remember. You may not even have noticed, but year after year you are ever faced with those events in history that your society deems important; and it works, because you will remember them. Thus holidays are powerful tools to help us, and God Himself knew this. This is why He gave Israel holidays, and why Jesus gave the Church the Lord’s Supper.

In the fourth and last place, it is a blessing to celebrate Christmas. Through Christmas we are blessed with the joy and peace that celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ brings. The Christmas event is full of love and hope which has ever enriched those corners of the world that have recalled it. It is not a mystery why people feel closer to each other at Christmas time: the message of Christmas is “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men”; it is a proclamation of just how deeply God loves this dark and sinful world. Sadly, this spirit of Christmas is already fading away from our society as the message of Christmas is being replaced by Santa; but it need not among Christians. All who have truly celebrated Christmas have been so blessed, and would want others to enjoy the same. Christmas is therefore not something to be despised, but embraced, and reveled in to the fullest. Just like the shepherds in the first century, the news of the advent of the Messiah is one of unspeakable joy, wonder and motivation. They couldn’t keep silent about it! And neither will we when we catch a glimpse of the glory that they saw. Yes, it is a blessing to celebrate Christmas! It is treasure-trove of love, joy, peace and evangelistic motivation. Is it any wonder that our Christmas hymns are so full of glory and power?

Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled
Joyful all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic hosts proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem!

Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, Born this happy morning
Jesus, to Thee be all glory given
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing
O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

Shepherds, why this Jubilee? Why your joyous strains prolong?
Say what may the tidings be, which inspire your heavenly song?
Gloria In Excelsis Deo!

Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere!

Lastly, I would like to examine the question: how should Christians celebrate Christmas? How do we keep our celebration free from being mindless and pagan? How do we participate in, get involved in, and identify with, this piece of God’s history? I hope to make this section thoroughly practical.

First, do not go through the Christmas season without formally including the Christmas story. I emphasize formally. Parties, food, fun Christmas movies, decorating and gift giving… all of these are wonderful things and should be encouraged at Christmas time, but these alone are insufficient to celebrate Christmas. It is absolutely essential that parents teach their children why all of these things are being done at this time of year, so that children (and parents) don’t end up mindlessly celebrating Christmas. With all Biblical holidays, God wanted the children of Israel to observe them with understanding, and to teach their children their meanings. So it must be with Christmas. And it is not only the children who need the teaching and reminding, but the parents as well. We are all prone to just do things mindlessly because “that’s just what we are supposed to do”. We can break out of this temptation by formally setting aside a time to attend to the Christmas story. By formally, I mean the deliberate dedication of time given to the meaning of Christmas. Seeing a picture of the nativity on a wall, or listening to a song on the radio about Jesus’ birth while you’re driving to the store is not formal. Those things may serve to keep the meaning of Christmas in the background throughout your holiday, but God wants Christ to be in the forefront. I would urge families to orient their holiday around a formal telling of the story. Let everything else – the food, the parties, the gifts – be the decorative frame around the central picture of Christ.

In the home I grew up in, my father would read us the Christmas story from the Bible on Christmas Eve night, and then as a family we would discuss it and have a time of prayer thanking God for giving His Son to us. Sometimes we would also sing some carols. But we would always finish that time by lighting an “angel chime”: the heat from the candles would turn two metal angels who would chime against two bells. This reminded us of the light coming into the world, and the angels proclaiming His birth. Once this formal time was over, we’d eat goodies and watch “A Christmas Carol”. For me, growing up, this was the heart of Christmas, and to this day it is still my favorite part of the holiday. We would eat lots of good food, watch fun movies, go to parties, and give gifts to each other on Christmas Day, but that Christmas Eve night was the centerpiece of Christmas for us. It helped keep everything else in perspective.

It doesn’t have to be reading the story like we did: it could be watching a movie on the Christmas story, going to a church service, singing carols thoughtfully... but it should be a formal tradition that serves as the indispensible centerpiece of your holiday. Attention given to the meaning of Christmas should not be random but fixed. It should not be second-place but priority. Christ is the reason why we are celebrating Christmas, and we are celebrating it for the purpose of remembering Him.

Second, party with gusto! This is the logical conclusion of making Christ – the meaning of Christmas – the focus of Christmas. One might think that if you make the meaning of Christmas your focus, and not the parties and the food, then you won’t have as much fun. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you get yourself involved and engaged in the work of God in history, seeing how it relates to you rather than just acknowledging the story with a nod as if it were some irrelevant answer on a school quiz, then you will actually have a reason to celebrate – and celebrate big! Consider that God sent His only begotten Son into the world so that you can live through Him... Consider the depths of the love of Christ in desiring to be born in a cold and stinking stable, so that He might come and rescue you from your sins! Consider that this babe was born for the sole purpose that you might have eternal life! If people need a reason to have joy, then there is no greater reason than this. Christians hold exclusive rights to partying the hardest! Christians, above all people, can rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory, since life has such glorious meaning for them.

What does this look like? Enjoy your food! Party hard and have fun with your friends and family! Sing gustily! Laugh heartily! Soak it all up. “It is not godliness to not enjoy a piece of fudge or a glass of eggnog.” (Doug Wilson) Christmas isn’t about penance, but the gospel. Some people think it is always more pious to eat a scrap of bread and drink water, and to save your money for the poor (like the disciples and the broken alabaster box). No! There’s a time for everything, and sometimes it is not more pious to drink water than to drink wine. This is a time of glad tidings of great joy for all people! Let the message of Christ permeate and influence all that you do, so that you do them well! Let your neighbors see the joy that you have at Christmas time: a joy that has no comparison because it’s not based upon any temporal thing, but rather infuses and gives color to all things. Therefore to properly celebrate Christmas, you should party with gusto!

Third, the Christmas season should be celebrated in peace. Once again, this is only possible when you make the message of Christmas the main thing. How easy it is to lose your peace when running around with what seems like your head cut off! The busyness and pressures of the holiday can easily take your mind off of Christ, and make you irritable and nasty to be around. Relationship problems can flare up, and you seldom “sleep in heavenly peace.” But when you remember what Christmas is really all about, you’ll realize that it’s about God making peace where there formerly was no peace. “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” Peacemaking and reconciliation is the essence of Christmas – indeed, they are the essence of all things Christian. Through Jesus Christ we have peace with God, for He came into the world for this express purpose: to deal with our sin problem completely at the cross. By His one sacrifice our unrighteousness is changed to righteousness and we stand blamelessly before Him, in the full radiance of His unceasing pleasure, not because of any good works that we did to merit it, but because of His amazing grace. The enmity between you and God disappears in the blood of Christ, and no longer needs to be a worry! It is replaced with matchless delight! What glorious rest this is! This is the peace of Christmas that Jesus brings. And He brings peace between man and man also, because a true glance at this peace likewise dissolves any animosity between you and your fellow human being. Why should you be angry with him when God has not been angry with you? Why should you be angry with him whom God is not angry with? It is only through the blood of Christ that we can live our lives in peace with God and with man.

So let your holiday be marked by peace. Don’t bicker, strive and yell. Engage the truth, and let the truth engage you. When you do this, the peace which Christ brought will create the appropriate atmosphere in your home befitting a Christmas celebration.

Fourth and lastly, celebrate Christmas by giving. Of course, that seems obvious, since Christmas is all about giving gifts, right? Yet often we can give gifts out of obligation, duty or habit rather than out of love. But Christmas is all about love, and Christmas is all about a gift: the greatest gift ever given to man. The gift of Jesus Christ.

This is once again a matter of letting the truth engage you, and being actively involved in the story. God loved you. God gave to you. And that same wonderful reality is true for your spouse, your children, your parents, your neighbors. To truly celebrate Christmas is to have a heart filled with generous love to others. So what does this look like? Give thoughtful gifts. Don’t be stingy. Lavish one another with good things, as a way of expressing love to each other. Remember the saying of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

And above all, we may give the gift of the good news to those who have never yet heard it. Just as the shepherds went abroad, telling the news of the Messiah’s birth, so we too can be energized and motivated anew at Christmas time to share the gospel with those around us. Christmas would not be Christmas if we the Church did not carry on sharing the glad tidings with the lost and perishing. For that is what Christmas is really all about: the light of the world coming into our darkness to save. Go tell it on the mountain!

In summary, how’s a Christian to celebrate Christmas? Have a formal and fixed time focusing on the meaning of Christmas; party with gusto; be at peace with God and man; and share God’s love with others through gifts and the gospel. Where these elements are found, there is found a successful Christmas holiday. Dear brothers and sisters, have a Merry Christmas!