Thursday, May 25, 2017

Comfort in Revelation

There was a time when the book of Revelation was my least favorite book of the Bible. I thought its main message was to foretell all the horrible things that would happen before Jesus comes back, and those horrors would be my fate unless I achieved a certain level of spirituality whereby God would deem me mature enough to escape them. Cold comfort, indeed! At least, Revelation was at the end of the Bible so I could avoid reading it as long as possible. But what a terrible state to be in. I had no assurance as to my salvation. God and His gospel seemed weak and ineffectual, and I was afraid to read part of the Bible. But I couldn't be more wrong.

The gospel isn't the power of God to just get me in the door and then the rest is up to me. What Christ has accomplished covers the beginning, middle, and end of my Christian life. I am not living in a dualistic Star-Wars-like universe where good and evil battle one another on a level playing field. Who in his right mind would contend with the Almighty? God has no rivals. And what if Revelation is less about decoding the events of the 21st century but a word of comfort and consolation for Christians down through the ages?

Providentially my pastor has been preaching through Revelation, and I have grown to love this book because I need it just as much as my brothers and sisters in the 1st century. I need something greater than earthly security when I hear of the lives lost in the bombing in Manchester and gas attacks in Syria. I need hope when I read of the injustices that mankind has inflicted on fellow image bearers throughout history and even today. I need the promise of the life to come when loved ones suffer in body and mind. And I need to be reminded of these truths:

~ There will be trials and persecution, but Christ is seated on the throne even now. He has won and is worthy to bring God's plan of redemption to completion. (Rev. 5:5-14)

~ We have all had our share in the thread of suffering that began in Genesis 3, but it ends in Revelation. Sin and evil will be no more. "and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away." (Rev. 21:4 NASB) 

~ God's purpose in redeeming people from every tribe, nation, and tongue will be fulfilled to the praise of His glory. And not only that, the good work He began in us will be accomplished. The Bride of the Lamb will be fit for her Heavenly Bridegroom (Rev. 7:9-17; Phil. 1:6; Rev. 21:1-2)

~ Fellowship with God was severed, and Adam and Eve were barred forever from Eden. But we will be united with Him forever with no shadow of sin, never to be parted again. And we will see His face. (Rev. 21:3, 22:4)

This is quite different from how I had previously viewed the book of Revelation. A source of fear has now become comfort and consolation indeed. May it take root in my heart. 

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. 


Sources:

Revelation sermon series, J. Ryan Davidson, Grace Baptist Chapel.

The Gospel in Revelation, The Goldsworthy Trilogy, Graeme Goldsworthy, Paternoster Press, 2011, originally printed 1981.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

When It All Started

What is the root of the story of Christianity? Why is there a story of the Christian faith in the first place, especially one that unfolds over two thousand years—so far?

In 2000 Years of Christ’s Power: The Age of the Early Church Fathers, Dr. N. R. Needham answers these questions by pointing to one historical event: the resurrection of Jesus. Here’s how he explains the significance of the resurrection in creating the Church and starting the story of Christianity:
The original followers of Jesus were all Jews, and they had no intention of being anything other than faithful and pious Jews. They continued to worship in the Jerusalem temple, to obey the law of Moses, and to have a negative attitude towards Gentiles. The living heart of their faith was not so much the death as the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus was executed, despair had engulfed his followers: they seemed to have a dead leader and a lost cause. Is was Jesus’s resurrection from the dead that transformed these broken and despairing people into the fiery apostles and martyrs of a new faith — a faith which, within three centuries, and despite vigorous persecution, would conquer the whole Roman Empire. In the thought and preaching of the early Church, the resurrection was seen as God’s mighty vindication of all Jesus’s claims: He really was the long-promised Messiah of Israel, the Son of God, the Saviour of sinners, the source of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to all wo obeyed Him (see for example, Acts 2:33-6, 4:10-12, 13:30-39, 17:30-32, and Romans 1:3-4). So whichever period of Church history we are studying, it is always worth pausing and reminding ourselves of this: the entire history of the Christian Church is rooted in one central reality — the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. If Jesus of Nazareth had not risen, there would be no Church history. 1
The resurrection changed everything.

You probably already know that if you are a believer, the resurrection changed you. You were made alive together with Christ and a new sort of life — a resurrection life grounded in your union with Christ’s resurrection life — began within you (Ephesians 2:4-6). Because you are united with the resurrected Christ, you are new creation. You have begun your life in the realm of the resurrection and sin no longer has dominion over you. For you, right now, the old things have passed away and the new things have come (2 Corinthians 5:14-17). And you look forward with certainty to full resurrection life after you die. You will one day be raised with an incorruptible body to live forever with the resurrected Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:20-23; 42-49).

But the resurrection of Jesus also started the Christian faith, spurred its growth, and fueled its spread. If Jesus had not risen, Christianity would not exist. There would be no story of Christianity to trace through the ages.

Yes, the resurrection of Jesus changed everything. It changed you, and every other believer. And it changed the history of the world, too.

[1] 2000 Years of Christ’s Power: The Age of the Early Church Fathers, pages 44-45.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Pivotal Doctrines

This week the subject of our group post is doctrine; specifically, which doctrines have been pivotal in our lives in Christ. Feel free to use the comments section to share your own experiences.

Kim:

About seventeen years ago, I reached a place in my faith where I began to ask questions. To make a long story short, I was becoming a little disenchanted with evangelicalism. I was homeschooling at the time, and my own intellectual curiosity stirred questions in my mind. After reading Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, I began asking more questions.

I had been baptized as a Catholic, although the only real instruction I had was when my parents made me attend mass as a teen because I was planning to become a Mormon. In my desire to know truth, I thought to myself, "Am I wrong to just dismiss Catholicism?" I had come to see that evangelicalism often misrepresents Catholicism, and I wondered if I had got it wrong. I started searching. At the same time, I knew that my own attitude lacked grace and I wanted to understand more about that. Looking at a Ligonier catalogue, I ended up buying R.C. Sproul's What is Reformed Theology (at that time, it was called Grace Unknown). It was there that I was introduced to the Reformed doctrine of justification, and specifically, its relationship to sanctification.

In my study of Catholicism, I had learned that justification is progressive. One can be more or less justified, and there is a heavy emphasis on works, especially the sacraments. I was a little uneasy about this, because it just didn't seem right to me, although I could not explain exactly why. Once I began reading about justification through Sproul's book, and through more extensive searching in Scripture, it became clearer to me: justification is a positional reality, although it has wide-reaching implications. We stand before God being right in his sight through the blood of Christ. It is sanctification which is progressive, as we become more and more conformed to Christ. Roman Catholicism merges the two rather than viewing them as separate occurrences.

If we have a wrong understanding of justification, we will struggle. We will attempt to do good so that we may "feel" more justified. There is no deeper level of justification; we either stand before God justified or we don't. Sanctification, however, is a different matter. We are sanctified over our entire lifetime. And it is something done by the Holy Spirit, although we must yield to the will of the Spirit ourselves. This reality that there is nothing I can "do" to be more justified has been very helpful, and understanding the gradual process of sanctification has helped me, I hope, be more gracious about the whole process.

Of course, I'm still learning about sanctification, and even this past semester in my Systematic Theology class, I realized that there is much to learn about the balance between these two doctrines. I will always be thankful that I was directed to Sproul's book, because it answered a crucial question in my life, even if I'm still learning.


Persis:

I grew up in a Christian home. I believe God saved me as child, but for decades I didn't understand what I believed or why I believed it. Because of this lack, I thought the gospel was baby stuff to get me in the door. Then the rest was up to me. This was terrifying when I began to realize how weak I was in myself. I had a dread of denying Christ if I faced persecution, but I also feared His coming because I thought I would only be received by God if I achieved a certain level of spirituality. Needless to say, I didn't have much assurance.

I had begun attending a Reformed Baptist Church 9 years ago and slowly began to understand that the gospel was much more than the truncated version I used to believe. I also began listening to lectures on theology, one of which was R.C. Sproul's series -  What is Reformed Theology?. I loaded the talks on my IPod and listened to them while raking leaves in the fall of 2010 when the heavens parted, as it were, and the doctrine of imputation clicked. Sproul asked, why was it necessary for Jesus to come to earth as an infant? Why didn't He just show up as a man, die on the cross, and then go back to glory? What was the point? If Jesus only died for our sins and exited this world, our sin debt would be paid but we would still lack a perfect righteousness that was required by God. We needed both - atonement for sin and a perfect record before God. And praise God, Christ has done both. He took the record of our sins and bore their just punishment on our behalf on the cross. But that's not all. He lived a perfect, righteous, and holy life, and His record is credited or imputed to us. God can now declare us righteous in His sight because both requirements have been fulfilled. As Sproul said,
"In the final analysis, the only way that any person is ever justified before God is by works.  We are saved by works, and we are saved by works alone.  Don't touch that dial..."
What?!
"[W]hen I say that we are justified by works and by works alone, what do I mean by it? I mean that the grounds of my justification and the grounds of your justification are the perfect works of Jesus Christ. We're saved by works but they are not our own. That's why we say we're saved by faith, and we're saved by grace, because the works that save us aren't our works, they're Somebody else's works."
This is such a comfort to me because I still sin as a believer. I sometimes doubt whether God fully accepts me. But I don't need to despair because I don't look to myself or my record. I can point to the perfect work of Jesus Christ in His death and life and rest in what He has done. As Dr. Tom Ascol writes, "If justification is the heart of the gospel, then imputation is the heart of justification." And it is beautiful.


Rebecca:

When God created the first human beings, he made them in his image—or, to put it another way, he created them to represent him in his creation. He gave them a mandate to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:26-28).

These truths from the creation story stands behind the doctrine of vocation—the teaching that all human work, unless it is immoral, is a calling from God. Understanding the doctrine of vocation has transformed my thinking about the work I do, and the work others do, too. This doctrine not a first order one, I suppose, but it has influenced both my thought and my practice significantly over the past few years.

According to the doctrine of vocation, all human tasks have meaning and dignity, even the mundane ones, because when we work, we represent God. He stands hidden behind every job we do and accomplishes his providential care for his creation through us. Or, as Martin Luther put it, our tasks are “masks of God.”

For example, this past weekend I dog sat for my daughter and her husband. I took care of their dog and my own, feeding, watering, and walking them both. These are small, seemingly unimportant chores, but the doctrine of vocation teaches me that they are significant to God. I was representing him by protecting and providing for two of his creatures.

As I vacuumed the floors this morning, I also wore a “mask of God.” He maintained my home—a place where dogs, grandchildren, and others thrive—through my work. And the mail carrier who just delivered the parcel with a few boxes of noodles and a jar of pea butter imaged God by providing food for me. What's more, as my son tilled my garden this afternoon, he was representing God by preparing the soil to grow food to sustain my family and me.

The doctrine of vocation helps me do my work—the work God calls me to do, both big jobs and small ones—joyfully, and reminds me to thank God for the work he gives me—and everyone else—to do.

Deb:

The Lord saved me later in life through a fairly radical conversion out of the kingdom of darkness and death. Such stark and dramatic changes wrought by the Lord in my life provided the fertile soil on which the doctrines of grace, God's sovereignty, and regeneration of the Holy Spirit took hold quickly. I can remember how learning the basics of Reformed Theology made more sense in those early years than anything I'd heard before. Yet, it took a bit longer before I'd hear about what might be the most pivotal doctrine in forming my life as a Christian: The Doctrine of Adoption.

Adoption expounds upon grace and explains how an unworthy sinner such as myself, could not only be bestowed with grace upon grace (John 1:16), but also granted full admission to the family of God (John 1:12). Having been adopted by well-meaning natural parents, I never felt that I fit in or fully belonged to my parent's legacy, my sibling's inheritance, or the genealogy of extended family. Therefore, I take the wondrous and beautiful privilege of being called a full-fledged, beloved child of God (Ephesians 5:1) to heart. As believers, we are true members of God's eternal family (Titus 3:7) and co-heirs in Christ to the glorious inheritance that He has already bought and keeps for us in heaven, to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:7-12).

Nick Batzig does a great job conveying the personal significance adoption by our Heavenly Father. He describes justification as how "we're taken to God's law court as guilty criminals and dismissed as pardoned and righteous." Furthermore, in adoption, Batzig explains, "We are taken from the law court to the living room." In other words: from an enemy and child of wrath to a beloved child of promise. "In love He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of His glorious grace" (Ephesians 1:5-6).

Perhaps I struggle more than most Christians with slipping into feeling and thinking like an orphan,  an alien, or the outcast. And perhaps we all struggle with this mindset. The doctrine of adoption is the truth that moves us out of the bondage of fear and performance, and sets our minds on the Father's love and care for us. "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” By the Spirit, we have the assurance and promise that no matter what trial or suffering we endure in this life, God has promised his unfailing love to His children.  "For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

What a glorious picture of the Lord's unfailing, loving Fatherly care!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Seeking the Good Portion

Sometimes, theology and doctrine can be intimidating, but Keri Folmar has written a book that will surely engage women, yet does not skimp on solid teaching. You know for sure you're getting into something good when the author includes a Select Bibliography. I love books like that; something to get you started and keep you going.
I have used Keri's Bible study materials before, so I was very excited when I was offered a copy of her new book The Good Portion: The Doctrine of Scripture for Every Woman. Keri loves the Scriptures, so I knew this was going to be good. I was not disappointed. The book, as the title suggests, introduces the reader to the doctrine of Scripture. Why do I need to know the doctrine of Scripture? Why can't I just open my Bible and read? This book will answer those questions.
We need to know what we are reading if we are going to benefit from the Bible, and there are ways to read the Bible which will help us to do just that. And Keri does not forget the most important aspect: the Bible is God's word to us. It is a personal word. She never lets us forget that this Bible is for us. This is how we know God.
She opens the books with an introduction to the Bible's importance, and then explains the nature of Scripture. She discusses its inspiration, its authority, its clarity, its necessity, and its sufficiency. I really appreciated her discussion of studying the Bible as a literary work. She talks about the genres of Scripture: historical narrative, prophecy, biblical poetry, letters, and apocalyptic literature. That was one of the most significant lessons I learned a number of years ago. Focusing on the literary genres makes us see the text for what it is rather than what we would like it to be. Further to that, she encourages us not to go into Bible study without checking our presuppositions. When we focus on the text, we are moving in the right direction.
Throughout each chapter, Keri discusses the theoretical aspect of the issue, but she never lets the reader forget the personal aspect of study. She continues to bring the matter back to a personal level so that we can see that the theoretical has practical value. Understanding the doctrine of Scripture is not for academics or pastors alone; it is for women who want to know God more deeply. Also throughout the book are reminders that emotional reactions to Scripture must be secondary to its meaning, and for women, that is especially important, because there are large numbers of books which want us to pay more attention to feeling than truth. We cannot grow in Christ unless we are willing to filter our emotions through Scripture, not the other way around.
Above all, Keri reminds us that we need Scripture. It is part of our sanctification. I love what she says:
We set our minds on the Spirit by thinking about the truths of God, and we put to death our flesh with the sword of the Spirit, 'which is the word of God' (Eph. 6:17). With the Word of God we nourish the roots of our hearts and grow the sweet fruit of the Spirit. Without God's Word those roots will shrivel and die . . . 
Better knowledge of Scripture leads to better knowledge of God's will and a greater desire to live it out. Greater desire to live it out leads to more dedication to the Scripture. And so on.
That last quotation makes me thinks of a spiral. Not a circle; the circle stays in one place, but a spiral keeps on going. 
I plan on investing in a few copies of this book to give to interested women. Each chapter ends with discussion questions, and this book would be great to discuss with other women. With the suggestions in the bibliography, a group of women could find much to feed their growing study skills. This book was a joy to read, and it spurred me on to study more. I hope there will be other books in the series. The beginning of being equipped as women is the Scriptures, and we are fortunate to have many good resources to help us in this pursuit. There really is no excuse for not partaking of this good portion.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review and a giveaway: Is the Bible Good for Women?

Is the Bible Good for Women?: Seeking Clarity and Confidence Through a Jesus-Centered Understanding of Scripture by Wendy Alsup, Multnomah, 2017, 212 pages.

When we think of the Bible and women, what verses come to mind? Titus 2, Proverbs 31, or the book of Ruth? How about the Apostle Paul's teachings on marriage in Ephesians and Colossians? While we may gravitate towards these passages, there are much harder ones to deal with. What do we make of the laws concerning uncleanness? How should we respond to the injustice towards women in the rapes of Dinah and Tamar and the atrocity in the closing chapters of Judges? These accounts are disturbing and difficult to understand, and yet they are in the Bible. This may lead some to ask, "Is the Bible Good for Women?" While most of us know the answer, a simplistic "Yes" is not enough. This is why I recommend Wendy Alsup's new book, Is the Bible Good for Women?.

Before delving into specific passages, Wendy lays some basic groundwork. First we need to know if the Bible is good in general before we can trust that it is good for women. But in order to know if it is good, we need to know what it is trying to tell us. Too often we may think of it as "separate file folders of stories" with nice moral lessons. But from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is one story of God's plan of redemption that was culminated in the coming of Jesus. This can be seen in the theme of the "scarlet thread" in the Old Testament. (pp. 17-30)

Then what does the Bible say about women? For that we are taken back to Genesis 1 and 2 where God created man and woman in His image. The word ezer or help is used for woman, but this is not in a derogatory or menial sense. God uses this word to describe Himself as a strong help to His people. Thus He is our example and the One we reflect in our lives and labor for the Kingdom. Yet we can't escape what happened in Genesis 3. We were alienated from God because of sin. The harmony that existed between man and woman was ruptured as well, and we feel the effects today. There are different interpretations of the meaning of Genesis 3:16, but I think we can agree that redemption in Christ is the key to restoring our relationship with God and between one another
We have something that bridges the gap between the godly longings of our hearts in Eden and our fallen reality. It is the gospel, the good news of this access we have to God through Christ... the bridge that makes a way for us to return to Eden, live in light of God's commission to man and woman, and once again be "imitators of God." (pg. 71)

Once this foundation is laid, Wendy tackles the law, some of the touchier instructions from Paul and Peter, and stories in the Old Testament that we may want to avoid. But what if we looked at them from a different vantage point where they are seen in the light of the gospel and the fact that Jesus has fulfilled the law on our behalf?
Can God's perfect love really cast out my fears when I examine Scriptural teachings (see 1 John 4:18)? Security in Him and confidence in His perfect love for me has empowered me to reengage instructions, laws, and commandments in Scripture that my fundamentalist upbringing misused against me. Clothed in Christ's righteousness, I don't feel threatened by reading Scripture's instructions at face value anymore. (pg. 131)

The book ends with the question, Is God good for women? There many places in the world where women are still marginalized. Some may even accuse Christianity of adding to the oppression. But it is in the pages of Scripture where we find that we are made in God's image. We learn that Jesus died to redeem us so we can become who we were created to be. So is the Bible good for women?
Our Father in Heaven values women. He revealed His goodness, care, and noble plans for women through His revelation of Himself to us in the Bible. The Bible is good for women, and it is good for men. It sets us out on an important, eternal journey and calls us to walk together in community. Like Him. (pg. 199)

I give a hearty recommendation to Is the Bible Good for Women? I believe it answers that question from the Bible in light of the gospel. As far as specific takeaways, there are several things that stand out. Throughout the book, Wendy emphasizes that Scripture is the best interpreter of itself as applied by the Holy Spirit. This is a hermeneutical principle that is vital for every student of the Word. I also appreciate her sensitivity in approaching some very difficult passages. We may not realize it, but there are women in the church who have suffered from trauma and abuse. Rather than taking a "just believe the Bible and get over it" attitude, this book can be an excellent tool in showing that the Scriptures reveal the One who takes away shame, restores, and renews. Lastly, Is the Bible Good for Women? was a pleasure to read. Wendy's writing is very clear and the logical progression of the book was easy to follow.

Wendy has graciously offered to give away a copy of her book! Please use the form below to enter your contact information. The giveaway ends on Sunday April 30.

(The giveaway has ended.)

I received a copy of this book from Multnomah. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."