Chesterton’s Tribute to Mothers

G. K. Chesterton can create a whole world in a paragraph.  In this excerpt from his 1910 book What’s Wrong with the World, this great mind gave us his vision of a mother at home.  It is not a common vision in our young century.  But perhaps his hundred-year-old words will help us see some things we can do to get this world on track.  Here is what he saw, and wrote.

To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes and books; to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.

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NO EXPERTS IN THE GOSPEL

(Revised version of a sermon preached on November 2, 2014.)

Four-hundred and ninety-nine years ago this Saturday, Martin Luther nailed his disputation on the castle door in Wittenburg.  What was it all about?  It was about the plain truth that just as saints still struggle with sin, the Church still struggles to rightly preach and practice the gospel.  Luther’s efforts to restore the gospel to the Roman Catholic Church arose when he saw the Church’s failure to rightly preach and practice the gospel.

It is important to remember that Luther had first-hand experience with the Church’s confusion over the gospel. He had tried to practice what the church preached about forgiveness of sin, and found no peace with God.  After his discovery of salvation by grace through faith, he confronted the Church with its failure to rightly preach and practice the gospel.

Here’s how that came about.  Albert of Brandenburg, was a son of one of the noble families in Germany and an elector of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He also served in the Church as bishop of Magdeburg.  In those days the pope would raise money for his enterprises by charging fees to noblemen who wanted a church office.  Albert was offered a chance to be bishop of Mainz, and he wanted that office.  So he negotiated with Pope Leo X who settled with him on the price of 10,000 ducats.  Albert had to borrow the money for this fee and related expenses.  Pope Leo agreed to a plan to help Albert pay this debt through the sale of indulgences in Albert’s territory.  For 8 years.  Half of the proceeds would go to Albert to pay off his debt, and the other half to Pope Leo to help finance his work on the basilica of St Peter’s.

Albert was Luther’s own bishop.  Luther probably didn’t know the details of the arrangement, but probably knew that half the indulgence income would go to Albert.  It wasn’t just the financial aspect that troubled Luther. Indulgences were originally imposed to spur the penitent to be truly contrite.  But the Church redefined them as payment for temporal penalties, and a means of acquiring merit.  This led to the popular idea that they were good works that removed punishment for sin, even without true contrition.  This is what scandalized Luther.  Luther saw that these falsehoods would give the people false hope of salvation for themselves and their loved ones.  This would lead to spiritual complacency and worse, damnation.

He wrote this:

Those who believe that, through letters of pardon, they are made sure of their own salvation, will be eternally damned along with their teachers. (Theses 32)

A false gospel had arisen!  We should wonder: how could the Church of Jesus Christ get so confused about the nature of the gospel?  How could the Church of Jesus Christ be so disordered in its practice of the gospel?

Luther understood at least part of the reason.  He wrote a disputation on his concerns, asking for scholarly dialogue.  We call it “The 95 Theses.”  On the eve of All Saints’ Day, 1517, he posted his disputation on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg.  He also sent a copy to Albert, his bishop, with a letter pleading that Albert correct these abuses.

Luther realized how the church had reached this condition: church leaders were sinning even as they preached and practiced the gospel.  Listen to what he wrote in theses 62, 63 and 64:

62: The true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.

63: This treasure, however, is deservedly most hateful, because it makes the first to be last.

64: While the treasure of indulgences is deservedly most acceptable, because it makes the last to be first.

Luther saw that the Church is tempted to gratify the flesh even as it preaches and practices the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He was doing something similar to what the apostle Paul did for the churches of Galatia: he was clarifying the gospel…and teaching them how to preach it and practice it.

The gospel deals with overwhelming realities: a holy God…sin…grace…forgiveness. We do not readily understand or even accept these realities. We find them uncomfortable.  And…the Devil always aims his barbs at us: trying to deflect our understanding and practice of the gospel. When we are preaching and practicing the gospel, it is not as if we are automatically put into some sin-free zone.  We ourselves will face numerous temptations, temptations that arise from our own flesh.  Paul, in Galatians, identifies some of the temptations we must watch for.

Temptations to Misrepresent the Gospel  (Galatians 2:11-14)

Peter was the first apostle to really understand the fact that the gospel of Christ was for Gentiles, as well as Jews, bringing Gentiles into the Church.  He had a depth understanding of the gospel, but he hadn’t worked out its implications in all of his life…and when the brethren from James came from Jerusalem…he wouldn’t eat with them.  He knew the truth, but in a difficult situation, he failed to practice it.  He was still growing.  He needed a brother like Paul to rebuke his compromise of the gospel.

Church leaders can misunderstand the implications of the gospel.  When new circumstances arise, we can become disoriented and fumble the ball.  Satan attacks the heart of the Church: the gospel. He attacks God’s Word; that is his standard operating procedure.

Temptation to Harshness  (Galatians 6:1)

There is another temptation we must always be aware of: temptation to treat sinners harshly. Suppose someone admits a sin to us out of great sorrow for that sin, and they are mindful of the seriousness of their offense to God and mindful of its effects on his people.  We aren’t to respond with some rebuke designed to run them through a the wringer of conviction.  The Holy Spirit’s work of convincing them of their sin has already begun.  Our part is to gently lead them on the way of full repentance, and to strengthen them in their walk with Christ.

Sometimes we want a person to know just how bad their sin is, and how much it has hurt us.  They need to know these things at some point, to some degree.  But when a bro or sis is already aware of the basic reality of their sin…it may be later before they can confront more fully its how bad it is, and its impact on others.  We must not jump the gun here.

In fact, we need to be careful of trying to show someone how bad their sin is.  God himself never makes any sinner know just how bad their sin is.  There have been moments when great men were given a deep sense of their sin and the sins of others.  Remember Isaiah.  It leads people to despair…but God quickly intervenes.

Let us be careful.  A sinner needs to have some real sense of their sin: its violation of God’s law, its profanation of his name, its destructive effects on family and the church, and its destructive effects on the sinner himself.

But when the Holy Spirit has begun this work of conviction in earnest, our job is to step in gently & be used by the Spirit to continue the process of spiritual renewal.  We are called to gently guide repentant sinners as they go forward with their lives.  They need all the prayers and support we can give as they go on to face what is ahead of them.

There is something else we must watch for:

The Temptation to Pride   (Galatians 6:3-5)

At the root, this involves putting oneself in another category from the sinner.   “I…wouldn’t have done that!”  This is pride, because it is comparing oneself with the other, claiming to be above such a sin.  This is very dangerous.  It shows a lack of awareness of our own frailty.  There is no understanding of the sinner’s plight, of their frailty, of their obvious need for help.  There is no gospel…only law!

We are tempted to pride in another way.  We can be proud of our Reformation heritage, glad we understand salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, to the glory of God alone!  We feel confident dealing with sin.  We understand the gospel, and we understand how to apply the gospel.  This is dangerous thinking!

We may have a wonderful doctrinal framework for the gospel.  But that doesn’t mean that we have a solid, deep understanding of all of those realities.  A Christian might think that since he’s got Matthew 18 memorized, he knows all he needs to deal with an offending brother.  Foolishness! It’s one thing to know the procedure that Jesus gives; but to use Matthew 18 well takes a lot of prayer, other biblical knowledge, wisdom, and a deep love of God and love for the sinner. The gospel is the power of God at work.  Following a Matthew 18 method is not enough.

We never become experts at the gospel.  Jesus Christ is the expert.  We are His servants.  We will spend our whole lives learning the depths of God’s holiness, our sin, its various effects on us, our loved ones and the world.  Our focus must always be on the gospel as the power of God: it is his sovereign, gracious working by the HS that is key, not our knowledge or maturity.  Let us be humble before every, single matter of sin and forgiveness.  Because without the power of the HS at work, our best thoughts and actions are nothing, and accomplish nothing!

The amazing thing is that by grace, the Holy Spirit does work, even through our shallow grasp of these things.  When we acknowledge our limitations and trust in God’s grace and power alone, He works and we grow in grace.  And people are renewed!

Christ teaches us the deep things of the gospel as we learn to speak and practice the gospel together. He teaches us more and more about the holiness of God, the appalling wickedness of sin, listening to a sinner and loving them, the intricacies of the human heart,  and the powerful and wonderful grace of God.

But Christ doesn’t just teach us with words; he teaches us by his actions.  And He gives us bread and wine, to remind us that we will never be experts at dealing with our sin.  He alone is the expert.  Only He can help us love a brother or sister who has sinned.

He knows the evil of our sins more than we will ever know.  And He died and lives to teach us to how to speak and practice the gospel ~ with each other, and with the sinners who are all around us.

About the Prohibition of God’s Gifts

Today is the 80th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition.  Of course, the Temperance Movement in the 19th century led to Prohibition in the 20th.   Here is a little-known story of some Christian men who got on the temperance bandwagon, and whose influence, sad to say, is still with us.

It was the Reverend Eliphalet Nott (1773—1866), a Presbyterian minister, who helped the temperance cause by providing what can only be described as a tortured interpretation of the Bible.  He held that Scripture refers to two kinds of wine: fermented and unfermented.  This was great encouragement to Dr. Thomas Welch, of Vineland, New Jersey, who was communion steward at Vineland Methodist Church.  Welch, a devoted Temperance man, was determined to develop a communion beverage that, in his mind, would be worthy of the Lord’s table.  He found the answer in pasteurization and became, as far as we know, the first man to apply that process to grape juice.  His son, Dr. Charles E. Welch, turned the resulting unfermented beverage into a commercial success.  The rest is history, both sacred and profane.

One odd twist to this story is that Vineland was part of a development that was to be devoted to cultivating grapes, but then had an ordinance forbidding the sale of alcoholic beverages.  Apparently Dr. Welch was not the only person under the influence of the Temperance Movement. 

Now, I take seriously the thoughts of departed saints.  But when Christian brothers expostulate on a matter of Christian living, and miss the boat, I have reason to respond and clarify if I can.  While these good men were no doubt hard pressed to guide their fellow believers during a period of real social change, and while the abuse of alcohol in their day was something they could not ignore, I do insist that the answer was not to accept the realities of the culture and embrace teetotalism.  At the most, that should have been a temporary expedient.  The real answer would have been to embrace a biblical approach to wine, raise their children in a household culture of moderation, and then go on to change the culture at large.

God has always instructed his people to drink wine as part of their worship.  He gave wine as a gift of his creation, gladdening the heart of man.  Our Lord Jesus Christ turned water into wine at a wedding feast, and it was the best wine in the house.  Certainly, the experiences of Noah and Lot should teach us caution in our enjoyment of wine, and the plain warning of the apostle Paul (“be not drunk with wine”) should be obeyed to the letter.  But the way to combat drunkenness is not to avoid wine, but to put it at the center of worship.  As the Holy Spirit enables us to put to death that which is earthly in us, we are able to thank God for the fruit of the vine, fermented as God intended. 

I do not suggest that this is easy.  It is a work of the Lord Jesus Christ in his Church.  But all of God’s good gifts can be abused.  Our job before the Lord is not to hide them in a closet so no one can play with them; our job is to be taught by him to use them rightly and to his glory.

With that in mind, I hope the whimsical spirit of G. K. Chesterton’s poem will be a step in that direction. 

WINE AND WATER                                                                                                               by G. K. Chesterton

OLD Noah he had an ostrich farm and fowls on the largest scale,
He ate his egg with a ladle in an egg-cup big as a pail,
And the soup he took was Elephant Soup and the fish he took was Whale,
But they all were small to the cellar he took when he set out to sail,
And Noah he often said to his wife when he sat down to dine,
“I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.”

The cataract of the cliff of heaven fell blinding off the brink
As if it would wash the stars away as suds go down a sink,
The seven heavens came roaring down for the throats of hell to drink,
And Noah he cocked his eye and said, “It looks like rain, I think,
The water has drowned the Matterhorn as deep as a Mendip mine,
But I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.”

But Noah he sinned, and we have sinned; on tipsy feet we trod,
Till a great big black teetotaler was sent to us for a rod,
And you can’t get wine at a P.S.A., or chapel, or Eisteddfod,
For the Curse of Water has come again because of the wrath of God,
And water is on the Bishop’s board and the Higher Thinker’s shrine,
But I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.

______________________________________________________

Information on Rev. Eliphalet Nott, the Drs. Welch and their involvement in the temperance movement is found in Thomas Pinney’s fine book,  A History of Wine in America  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

 

Raising Children Is at the Heart of God’s Plan

From the beginning, raising children has been central to the LORD’s call to mankind.  When the LORD issued the cultural mandate to Adam and Eve, raising children was at its heart.

 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 1:28)

The LORD commanded our first parents to be fruitful and multiply in order to fill the earth and subdue it.  In other words, they were to beget children who would join them in the cultural mandate.  Certainly this meant not just having a bunch of babies and leaving them to find their own way in the world, but raising LORD-given children with a view to sending them forth in the earth to accomplish the LORD’s command.  Adam and Eve would have understood that instructing their children in this mandate was a necessary part of their task of “being fruitful.”  Surely this instruction would have included repeating and explaining the LORD’s words to their children, as well as involving them in the actual dominion that Adam and Eve were already exercising.  This reflection is based not only on common sense application of the mandate but on Adam’s own example of previously telling Eve about the LORD’s particular warning about eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  (See Genesis 2)

Of course, this project got off track by Adam and Eve’s defiance of the LORD’s word.  The whole cultural mandate has been a train wreck ever since.

It should not be surprising that when the LORD begins his renewal of man, he puts raising children at the heart of this work.  Notice his words to Abraham.

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.   (Genesis 12:2)

And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.”  Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”  (Genesis 15:5)

I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings will come from you.  And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.   (Genesis 17:6-7)

In his covenant with Abraham, which is foundational to all of the LORD’s saving work in Christ, he promised to give Abraham children who would be in the covenant and receive the gracious promises of that covenant.  Abraham’s faithfulness was to include acknowledging this gift of children and raising them to know and embrace the LORD’s covenantal purposes of redemption.  (See Genesis 17:9-14)

That brings us to Christ’s Great Commission to his apostles, a commission that is fulfilling God’s covenant with Abraham.  We will consider its implications for children of believing parents.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.    (Matthew 28:19-20a)

Where are children in this passage?  Well, one has to keep in mind the covenantal context of Scripture as a whole.  That means remembering the LORD’s cultural mandate to Adam and Even, which involved their offspring.  And it means remembering the place of children in the epochal covenant with Abraham.  This mandate renews creation, spreading Christ’s lordship over the earth which has been blighted when the cultural mandate got sidetracked by sin.  And this new mandate in Christ fulfills the Abrahamic covenant’s promises to renew the nations.  Given the place of children in all of this previous divine activity, we should be looking around for the place of children in this new epoch of God’s dealing with man.   In other words, since children were originally given for God’s worldwide purpose of establishing a godly dominion over the earth; and since the children of believers are a given by God to participate in his covenant purposes;  we begin to understand that children are always at the heart of the LORD’s unfolding purposes in this world.  As we read through the Bible our heavenly Father teaches us to expect that our children are included in the discipleship command.  In the Great Commission he calls us to baptize our children and then teach them to observe all that Christ has commanded.  This fits the creational and covenantal patterns that the LORD our God has already established.

So, the task of raising children is and always has been at the heart of the LORD’s plan for man.  We should lift up this work as central to the gospel, as central to work of parenting, and as central to the restoration of all things in Christ.

This does not mean that the Church only grows through procreation.  Going into all the world means discipling every tribe and tongue on the planet.  But it also means that discipling our own children is at the heart of this mission.  And it means that if we don’t do that, we can’t accomplish the rest of the Great Commission.  For we need to prepare the next generation to keep spreading the word over all the earth.  Do you hear the echo of Genesis 1:28?

ALL HALLOWS’ EVE, 1517

Dr. Martin Luther

Today is All Hallow’s Eve, or the Eve of All Saints’ Day. Though this day is popularly called “Halloween”, there’s a better way to remember this day.  On that day in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  The story is worth telling, so here’s a brief version.

Albert of Brandenburg, was a son of one of the noble families in Germany and an elector of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He also was serving the Church as bishop of Magdeburg and bishop of Halberstadt.  These positions afforded him income from the citizens.  He was offered a third bishopric, that of Mainz, in an irregular arrangement with Pope Leo X.  In those days the pope would raise money for his enterprises by charging fees to noblemen who wanted a church office.  Albert wanted to be bishop of Mainz in order to extend the power of his family over additional territory in Germany.  He negotiated with Pope Leo who settled with him on the price of 10,000 ducats (about $400,000).  Since the citizens of Mainz were already poor from paying for previous bishops, Albert had to borrow the money for this fee and related expenses.  Pope Leo agreed to an eight-year plan to help Albert pay this debt through the sale of indulgences in Albert’s territory.  Half of the proceeds would go to Albert to pay off his debt, and the other half to Pope Leo (in addition to the original 10,000 ducats!) to help finance his work on the basilica of St Peter’s.  Through these indulgences the poor citizens of Mainz ended up paying for Albert, after all.

Albert was Luther’s own bishop.  Luther probably didn’t know the details of the arrangement, but likely knew that half the indulgence income would go to Albert.  It wasn’t just the financial aspect that troubled Luther.  Indulgences were originally imposed to spur the penitent to be truly contrite.  But the Church had redefined them to be payment that secured release from temporal penalties, and a means of drawing off the merit of the saints.  This led to the popular idea that buying them removed not just temporal penalties but eternal punishment for sin, even without true contrition.  Though Luther already had concerns about indulgences before 1517, what led to his public complaint was this sale by Albert.  Luther’s own parishioners were returning to Wittenberg with their indulgences.  They had been promised the full and perfect forgiveness of all their sins, restoring them to their baptismal innocence.  Furthermore, they were promised relief from all punishments in purgatory, even for sins committed against God .  These indulgences could be purchased for dead relatives, and Tetzel, the indulgence preacher, played on the emotions of those who thought they had relatives in purgatory.

Luther was scandalized.  He saw that these falsehoods were giving his people false hope of salvation for themselves and their loved ones.  This would lead to spiritual complacency and worse, damnation.   He wrote this:

 Those who believe that, through letters of pardon, they are made sure of their own salvation, will be   eternally damned along with their teachers.    (Thesis No. 32)

A false gospel had arisen.  The Lord used Luther to stand against it and engage all Christendom in an open debate on the true gospel.

We should wonder: how could the Church of Jesus Christ get so confused about the nature of the gospel?  How could the Church of Jesus Christ be so disordered in its practice of the gospel?

Luther understood at least part of the reason.  He wrote a disputation on his concerns, asking for scholarly dialogue.  We call it “The 95 Theses.”  On the eve of All Saints’ Day, 1517, he posted his disputation on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  He also sent a copy to Albert, his bishop, with a letter pleading that Albert correct these abuses.

Luther realized how the church had reached this state: church leaders were sinning even as they preached and practiced of the gospel.  Listen to what he wrote in theses 62, 63 and 64:

62: The true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.

63: This treasure, however, is deservedly most hateful, because it makes the first to be last.

64: While the treasure of indulgences is deservedly most acceptable, because it makes the last to be first.

Those have to be read carefully.  Luther understood that churchmen were gratifying the flesh even as they preached and practiced the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He was doing something similar to what the apostle Paul did for the churches of Galatia: he was clarifying the gospel and teaching church leaders how to preach it and practice it.

When we are preaching or practicing the gospel, it is not as if we are automatically put into some sin-free zone.  The gospel deals with overwhelming realities: a holy God…sin…grace…forgiveness.  We do not readily accept or even understand these realities.  We find them uncomfortable.  And the Devil always aims his barbs at us: trying to deflect our understanding and practice of the gospel.  We face numerous temptations, temptations that arise from our own flesh.

Elders might think that since they have Matthew 18 memorized, they know all they need to use the gospel with an offending brother.  Foolishness!  It’s one thing to know the procedure that Jesus gives; but it takes a lot of prayer, other biblical knowledge, wisdom and deep love of God and love for the sinner for elders to begin to use Matthew 18 well.  The gospel is the power of God at work.  It is not simply a matter of our following certain methods.  We never become experts at gospel reconciliation.  Jesus is the expert; and we are his servants.

We will spend our whole lives learning the depths of God’s holiness, our sin, its various effects on us, our loved ones and the world.  Our focus must always be on the gospel as the power of God: it is his sovereign, gracious working by the Holy Spirit that is key, not our maturity.  We would do well to heed Luther’s very first thesis:

 1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ in saying: “Repent ye,” etc., intended that the whole life of believers should be penitence.

Luther teaches us to be humble before every, single matter of sin and forgiveness.  Because without the power of the Holy Spirit at work, our best thoughts and actions are nothing, and accomplish nothing.

The amazing thing is that by grace, the Holy Spirit does work, even through our shallow grasp of these things.  When we acknowledge our limitations and trust in God’s power alone, He works and we grow in grace.  Christ teaches us the deep things of the gospel as we work together.  He teaches us more and more…

about the holiness of God,

about the appalling wickedness of sin,

about listening to a sinner and loving them,

about the intricacies of the human heart,

about the powerful and wonderful grace of God.

Infants and the Sign of the Covenant

One of the elements of a biblical view of the covenant is the fact that infant children of believers are in the covenant and therefore baptized.  While there is a lot of biblical teaching undergirding this practice, I would like to address one question that is sometimes raised about infant baptism.  If the New Testament calls people to repent before they are baptized, why baptize infants who cannot repent?  This question is actually more involved than it seems.  But let’s consider the question’s assumption that the sign of the covenant should only given after faith and repentance.  Since Abraham is our arch example of faith (Romans 4:1-25; Galatians 3:5-29), his experience is instructive.  After being on the road of faith and repentance, the Lord revealed his promises more fully and Abraham believed.  The Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).  Then after the Lord gave him further promises, Abraham expressed his faith by circumcising himself and the males of his household; infant sons were included (See Genesis 17:12).  In other words, Abraham believed God’s promise and then expressed his faith by receiving the sign of the covenant and giving it to his sons.  If he had refused to circumcise his infant sons, he would have demonstrated unbelief and set them up to be covenant breakers (Genesis 17:14)

There is a foundational pattern here.  In both the Old and New Testaments, adults members of the covenant are called to believe God’s promises.  One way they express their belief is by giving their children the sign of the covenant.  Of course, they must back this up with faithful nurture of their children, but I jump ahead.  The main point is that the Bible commands godly parents to give their infants the sign of the covenant before they personally express faith and repentance.

Of course, I have assumed several things that I haven’t proven here.  I do plan to bring the rest out on the table and explain myself.  For now I leave you with this pattern: Abraham believed God, received the sign of the covenant and gave it to his infant sons.  Adults who come to believe the gospel of Christ receive the sign of the covenant and then give it to their infant children.  

O God of Earth and Altar

G. K. Chesterton’s stunning hymn, O God of Earth and Altar, expresses the same concern of this website: to see the hand of the Lord at work in all of American society.  I’ve included it here for my readers’ consideration.

O God of Earth and Altar

                  by G.K. Chesterton

O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.

Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.

Discovering the Covenant in Scripture

I am convinced that the doctrine of the covenant is the backbone of God’s dealing with His people.  My take on this doctrine is called “Reformed” and some are suspicious of a Reformed version of this doctrine.  Perhaps it seems like going beyond Scripture’s actual teaching, taking a minor theme found in a few texts and extrapolating it into a grand scheme.  The result is like building a skyscraper with a foundation that will only support a humble cottage.  Sooner or later it’s got to come crashing down, so let’s not go near it.  But my conviction is that the doctrine of the covenant is actually just such a skyscraper, and that its foundation is sunk deep and wide in the bedrock of God’s Word.

However, I must explain that I am not about simply giving a “Reformed” understanding of this doctrine.  I want to give the best reading of Scripture that I can, one that pays careful attention to the text, that does not ignore any text, one that often shakes up my current understanding and pushes me to a clearer grasp of what the Spirit is saying to the Church.  I have identified with the Reformed tradition because it helps me clarify what Scripture says and insists that I stay faithful to Scripture as the only infallible standard for truth and life.

First, some general thoughts on covenants.  Covenants are mentioned in the first book of the Bible, defining epochal moments in the LORD’s dealing with man.  They are the foundation of God’s dealings with Israel and define the nature of His dealings with all nations in Christ.  That is why covenants and their dynamic are found throughout the pages of Scripture.  Indeed, the gospel is a fulfillment of the LORD’s promises to Abraham.  In order to demonstrate these claims, I have to start where the LORD did: the beginning.

In Genesis 6 through 9 we read about a covenant the LORD made with Noah and all flesh, one that continues today.  There were several elements to it:

The LORD’s sovereign establishment of the covenant. (8:21; 9:1; 9:8-12, 17)

The covenant representative: Noah (9:1, etc.)

The subjects of the covenant: all flesh = man, all living creatures. (9:11, 12)

The nature of the covenant: perpetual. (8:22; 9:11-12, 16)

Promises made by the LORD to the subjects of the covenant:

to remember his covenant; (9:15-16)

to never to cut off all flesh by a flood. (9:11, 15)

[ Perhaps we may include the following:

       to provide seedtime and harvest perpetually; (8:22)

       to bless the offspring of Noah with fruitfulness(9:1,7);

       freedom to eat animals as well as plants. (9:3) ]

Obligations for man:

to not eat blood; (9:4)

capital punishment for men who murder other men. (9:5-6)

A sign of his covenant: the rainbow. (9:12-17)

These elements are identified simply as an attempt to understand the nature of this covenant.  Others may sort the details a little differently.  However, I think this analysis covers the basics.

Surely the LORD expected Noah and his descendants to consider this covenant in the light of what the LORD had done in the flood, and then identify what the LORD promised and then what he expected of them.  Some such analysis would have emerged in their minds, especially in the light of their knowledge of later covenants.

The next mention of a covenant is in conjunction with the LORD’s dealings with Abram.  First the LORD called Abram to go to the land He would show (Genesis 12:1-3), promising to make make his name great, to make his descendants into a great nation and to ultimately bless “all the families of the earth.”  Some time later the LORD made a covenant with Abram, promising that his descendants would be numerous like the stars and would be given the land of Canaan.  “Abram believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness,” an epochal moment in God’s dealings with all mankind.  The LORD pledged His faithfulness to this covenant as Abram sacrificed a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon.  Passing through them in a theophany (a visible manifestation of God’s presence), the LORD pledged that if He failed in his promises, He would be unmade like these animals.  Of course, it was impossible for God to be unfaithful; nevertheless, He gave Abram a visible sign of His commitment to keep His covenant.

The LORD elaborated on His covenant with Abraham and his offspring at a later time (Genesis 17:1-14).  Since I want to deal with this stage of the covenant in a following post, I’ll just note here that the LORD promised to make Abram the father of many nations, changing his name to “Abraham” which means “father of a multitude.”  This development is very important for the gospel.  The gospel is the fulfilling of the LORD’s promises to Abraham.  Indeed, only those who have faith like Abraham’s will be his true children, and then inherit the blessings promised to Abraham’s offspring.  Even those who are physical descendants of Abraham have no hope of salvation unless they become his true children by faith in the promises.

So much more could be said, but for now I’ll offer some final observations.  The prophets promised that one day the LORD would establish a new covenant with his people (Example: Jeremiah 31:31ff;   ).  The New Testament writings make it clear that this new covenant is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Luke’s Gospel opens with multiple references to Old Covenant promises.   Furthermore, we celebrate our place in the new covenant by the Lord’s Supper where we are told: “This cup is the new covenant in Christ’s blood.”  That this central act of Christian worship is centered in the covenant is itself enough to lead us to examine all of the New Testament and look for what place the covenant has in the gospel of the kingdom of God.

Lord willing, I will continue next with a closer look at Genesis 17.  That passage is very helpful for understanding what was involved in the LORD’s covenant with Israel and how the New Covenant in Christ works out today.

Covenant Children

In my reading through Ezekiel I have come across a couple of interesting references to children. Now children are mentioned in Ezekiel frequently and in several contexts. The particular passages I have in mind address the idolatry of the nation of Judah and how it involved their children. Pay particular attention to the underlined words:

“And you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. Were your whorings so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering by fire to them?” Ezekiel 16:20-21

“With their idols they have committed adultery, and they have even offered up to them for food the children whom they had borne to me.” Ezekiel 23:37c-d

The LORD claims the children of the nation of Judah as his own. They had been borne to him and were his. In order to understand the LORD’s ownership of these children, we must realize the covenantal nature of this language. As offspring of Abraham, the nation of Judah was the LORD’s covenant people. In establishing his covenant with Abraham and his seed, the LORD said to Abraham:

“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” Genesis 17:7

Abraham and all subsequent generations of Israelites were to show that they believed God to be their God and the God of their offspring by circumcising their male children. Faithful follow-through involved trusting in the LORD and following his ways, and teaching their children to trust the LORD and follow his ways. What was so abominable in Ezekiel’s day is that these descendants of Abraham were not acknowledging the LORD to be their God or the God of their children. That being the case, they offered their children to the gods at hand. These children who already had a God, the LORD God of Israel, were being sacrificed, offered in worship to idols.

Parents must realize that if they don’t acknowledge the true and living God to be their God and the God of their children, they will offer up themselves and their children to the false gods of our culture. There is no escaping this.

But if we are in the New Covenant established in Christ, there is really good news. Our heavenly Father claims our children as his own! Though he has given them to us, from conception they belong to him. They have a God…our God. We recognize this by baptizing them, this being the New Covenant sacrament instituted by Christ as a replacement of circumcision. This means that as we nurture them in the faith, our heavenly Father is involved from day one. He is at work through his Word and by the Spirit to bless our little ones as they grow in faith and faithfulness.

“For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:39)

The Importance of Making Distinctions

Have you ever wondered why the LORD gave his people so many detailed statutes about sacrifices, food, marriage, agriculture, warfare, financial transactions and the rest?  Developing a holy nation in the midst of unholy nations meant making some very basic distinctions about holiness and then carrying them out through all of life.  If God’s people failed to distinguish the LORD as holy and his Law as clean, they would call other gods as holy and their laws as clean (see Ezekiel 20:25).  This idolatry would spread, like leaven, through every aspect of their culture.  On the other hand, making these distinctions would demonstrate the holiness of God in the life of his people, bring great blessing to them and glorifying his name before a watching world of idolaters.

This came to my attention in my reading through the book of Ezekiel.  I have been following the prophet’s stunning descriptions of both the glory of the LORD and the inglorious behavior of his people.  Rather than worship the LORD, Judah worshipped the gods of the nations.  She turned from her faithful covenant head and “played the whore” (16:15) with false gods.  As the words of twenty chapters take hold of your heart, you begin to understand something of the LORD’s fiery wrath that was kindled against Judah.  You come to realize that the LORD is serious about his people worshipping him and serving him in every dimension of their lives.  You get a taste of what they were missing by not serving him.

The root of Judah’s spiritual adultery was their failure to set the LORD apart as holy.  It was a matter of failing to distinguish the holy from the common, the clean from the unclean.  Ezekiel records the LORD’s words in this matter:

“Her priests have done violence to my law and have profaned my holy things.  They have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them.”  (22:26)

Failing to distinguish between the holy and the common meant that the priests did not lead the people toward proper reverence for the LORD in their behavior.  This spiritual confusion led to social injustice: the princes ruled like wolves tearing their prey, the prophets divined lies and the people oppressed the poor.  (22:27-29)

But God is gracious and has given us a perfect and holy priest, Jesus Christ.  He was faithful to the Law, properly distinguishing holy and unholy, clean and unclean.  As a result, his ministry has not led to injustice but righteousness.  He has given himself as the perfect sacrifice, fulfilling the Law, and sanctifying his people by his blood.  (Hebrews 10:12, 29)  We who were once sinners and unholy have been made his saints.  His gracious act has made a distinction in us: we are his holy people.  Furthermore, he has given us the Holy Spirit and is teaching us to distinguish between the holy and common: we learn to put to death that which is unclean and put on Christ, or that which is clean.  His primary teaching tool is his law, pure and clean, “making wise the simple.”  (Psalm 19:7)  This law is the moral law and certain principles in the judicial law, the rest having been abrogated in Christ’s work.  But this is another subject and will have a wait for later blogs.