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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Notorious Reasonableness

It is all too easy in this life to gain a reputation for something that is not a positive thing.  Some are notorious hotheads.  Some are notoriously stingy.  Others are known for their shady dealings or gossip.
And some people are notoriously disagreeable.  They insist on their own way.  They refuse to prefer others even in simple things.  It seems that there were at least pockets of this kind of disagreeableness among the saints at Philippi.  Scattered throughout Paul’s letter to them, there are hints that the believers there were having a hard time getting along, and the source of this conflict was habitual self-seeking.
For example, read the first few verses of Philippians 2:
 1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
My paraphrase of vv1-2 would be, “if you guys are really Christians, it would bring me great joy for you all to get along.”  In vv3-4, he tells them exactly what he means.  He wants them to prefer one another and stop seeking their own way.  And then he gives the supreme example of the kind of humility to which he is calling them by describing Christ humbling Himself to take the form of a man and die for our sins. 
There are other signs in Philippians that there was discord among the saints.  Later in ch2, he writes: Do all things without grumbling or questioning.  Apparently, when people in the Philippian church didn’t get their way, they were in the habit of making noise about it, complaining and challenging one another. 
Still later in ch2, Paul commends Timothy to the Philippians, saying that Timothy is unlike all his other companions, who “all seek their own interests, not those of Christ.”  So even when Paul is not directly addressing the self-seeking of the Philippians, he is commending those who are not self-seeking.  It appears that Paul has this issue on the forefront of his mind.  And it is interesting that he juxtaposes self-seeking with Christ-seeking.  His comments about those who are self-seeking demonstrate that it is impossible to advocate for self and Christ at the same time. 
Toward the end of the letter, Paul refers to one specific pair of antagonists: 2 I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3 Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women…(Phil 4:2-3a).  There are at least two striking things about this passage.  First, the rivalry between Euodia and Syntyche was so serious that it not only needed to be addressed with specificity, but the church also needed to be called into action in the matter.  Second, the feud was so well known, that Paul didn’t have to say a word about the nature of the disagreement – everyone was already aware of the situation.  You could say that these women were notoriously disagreeable. 
All of this leads to a remarkable exhortation in 4:5a: Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.  It’s so easy to gain a reputation for something bad, but it takes time and consistency to gain a reputation for something good.  And here Paul has called the church to be notoriously reasonable.  Can you imagine preferring others to the extent that you acquire a reputation for it?  That’s some serious reasonableness!
Take a second to think about your own life.  Are you notoriously reasonable?  Or are there areas in which you are seeking your own way at the expense of others?  What are they?  If we are insisting on our own way, Philippians would tell us that we are not seeking the interests of Christ and that we should strive to be reasonable.
But how do we get there?  I think we can identify some clues in the letter that would lead us to conclude that the key is to find our joy and satisfaction in Christ.  I already noted above that Paul juxtaposed self-seeking with Christ-seeking (2:21).  Clearly self-seeking is what we are to put off, but in its place we should put on seeking the interests of Christ.  Serving Him.  Desiring Him.  Working to achieve His agenda and sacrificing our own. 
Another clue is in the first chapter where Paul describes his imprisonment for the sake of the gospel.  He notes that there are those on the outside who are seeking to share the gospel in such a way as to antagonize him.  His response?  Hallelujah!  “Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (1:12-18).  Paul was so intent upon seeking the interests of Christ that it bothered him none to be targeted by others.  Most of us would not have felt the same way.  But Paul provided a living example of what it means to be Christ-seeking instead of self-seeking.
There are other clues.  The next section in ch1 reveals that Paul would prefer to leave this world and go home to be with the Lord, but that he is willing to continue on this earth for “your progress and joy in the faith…” (1:19-26).  He was putting off his own interests and seeking the interests of Christ by serving others.
In ch2, where he explicitly calls the Philippians to seek the interests of others, he implies that in doing so they will be following the example of Christ, which results in His being glorified.  Again, self-seeking is replaced with Christ-seeking.
In ch3, Paul details his impeccable credentials as a Jew, credentials which he formerly used to seek his own interests and which he could still use if he so chose.  But he chose another way: Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (3:8).  What was gain to him he considered rubbish compared to Christ.  It was because of his satisfaction in Christ that Paul was able to say, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (4:10-13).
But the primary reason we can know that the key to being reasonable is to find our joy and satisfaction in Christ is the immediate context of the command to be reasonable.  The exhortation to notorious reasonableness is bracketed by comments regarding the joy and closeness of the Lord:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand… (Phil 4:4-5).
If we strive to derive our joy and satisfaction in Christ, we are freed from self-seeking and are able to prefer others with fervor.  As long as He is near, we always have what we want most and are able to joyfully sacrifice lesser things. 
Are you notoriously reasonable?  If not, seek to find your joy and satisfaction in Him.  In time, your reasonableness with be known to everyone.  
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Lingering Question from Matthew 13:1-17

In the message from Matthew 13:1-17 on Sunday, we looked at the dual purposes for which Jesus taught in parables.  Parables were designed to deliver the secrets of the kingdom of heaven to believers and to conceal them from unbelievers.  We noted that in concealing the truth from unbelievers, God gives them what they want.  Conversely, in revealing the truth to believers, God gives them what they want.  But I noted a question that still lingered in my mind: why do believers want the truth of the kingdom, but unbelievers don’t? 
Those of us who are “enthusiastically reformed” tend to run to such questions.  We can even be bothered by texts like the one we studied on Sunday because it teaches that the concealing of the truth is a response to unbelief.  We are uncomfortable saying that unbelievers don’t understand the truth because they don’t believe.  We reformed folks would rather say, “no, they don’t believe because the truth hasn't been revealed to them.”  And that is true – unbelievers don’t believe because their eyes have not been opened to the truth.  We should all affirm that as biblical truth.  But that is not the point that Matthew 13:10-17 makes. 
We all have our favorite topics, hobby horses, and soapboxes.  I once heard of a preacher who would conclude every sermon, no matter the text or topic, with, “And now, a few words on baptism…”  My tendency is to do that with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, but I don’t ever want to be guilty of forcing every text into my systematic theology, or forcing my systematic theology into every text.  The main point of the sermon should be taken from the main point of the text.  That’s why on Sunday I shied away from answering that lingering question about why believers want the truth. 
But now that the sermon has been preached, let’s scratch the itch.  Why do believers want the truth and unbelievers do not?  The short answer is that some have been enabled to believe and to desire the truth and some have not.  The default condition of man is deadness in sin; rebellion against God; allegiance to the devil, the world, and the flesh; and complete self-deception (Rom 1:18-23, 28-32; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph2:1-3).  Man is unable to take the first step toward God or to please Him in any way (Rom 8:4-8).  It is God who must act upon the human heart to give repentance and faith so that the sinner might believe and be saved (Acts 5:31, 11:18; Eph 2:4-10; 2 Tim 2:24-26).  He acts in this way according to His own gracious choice (John1:12-13, 6:44, 6:65; Rom 8:28-30, 9:15-18; Eph 1:3-6). 
So the ultimate reason that some desire truth and that others do not is that God has graciously acted upon some and not on others.  This fits well with what we studied in Matthew 11:25-30 a couple of months ago.  God has graciously revealed the truth to some and justly concealed it from others.
Our passage on Sunday, Matthew 13:1-17, taught that those who have embraced the initial revelation of Christ (by God’s sovereign grace) are given additional revelation in the form of knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven; those who rejected that initial revelation (according to their own sinful nature) are denied any further revelation.  In other words, believers receive the temporal blessing of further revelation, while unbelievers receive the temporal judgment of an inability to comprehend any truth.  Matthew’s emphasis was not on God’s sovereignty over the believing or the unbelieving, but rather on the responsibility of man to believe and obey the truth.
Interestingly, Mark’s version of this story emphasizes God’s sovereignty rather than man’s responsibility.  Look at Mark 4:10-12:
10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that "they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven."
Compare this with what we saw in Matthew 13:13: This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.
Mark teaches that Jesus taught in parables so that the people would not obey the gospel; Matthew teaches that Jesus taught in parables because the people did not obey the gospel.  Which is right?  They both are.  They are simply emphasizing different angles of the same event.  Mark emphasizes God’s sovereignty while Matthew emphasizes man’s volition.  The Jews’ rejection of Christ was due both to the sovereign rule of God and to their own desire to disobey. 
Should it trouble us that Mark and Matthew do not emphasize the same thing or that they do not tell the story from the same angle?  Certainly not.  This is why it is a blessing to have four Gospels instead of just one.  Each Gospel writer wrote to a unique audience for a unique purpose to make a unique point.  We are beneficiaries of each.  When studying one, we should focus on its intent and message, allowing its unique context to inform our understanding and convey the Spirit-inspired point.  
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Justification by Works in James 2:14-26

There was one passage that we did not have sufficient time to look at closely in our sermon series on Matthew 12:33-37.  James 2:14-26 is a crucial text to consult when working out our theology regarding the relationship between faith and works.  What we have already discovered in the sermon series will help us to make sense of a passage that is a conundrum to many. 
First, let’s recall the main ideas of those sermons.  The Bible teaches both that justification is by faith and that good works will be necessary on judgment day in order to be justified.  Both of these ideas are found all over the New Testament and in the writings of each of the New Testament authors.  In other words, the Bible teaches that justification is both by faith and by works.  How is this not a contradiction?  We are justified by faith in one sense and we are justified by works in a different sense.  The basis of our justification is the imputed righteousness of Christ that comes through faith alone.  Good works are the necessary outward evidence of God’s salvific work in the life of a believer. 
To use Jesus’ analogy from Matthew 12:33-37, good works are to faith what fruit is to a tree.  Fruit is evidence of the condition of the tree.  Good trees bear good fruit; rotten trees bear rotten fruit.  So reliable is this relationship that no one cuts open a tree to discover its condition.  The tree’s fruit tells the whole story.  Likewise, those who have faith in Christ produce good works; those who do not have faith in Christ do not produce good works.  So reliable is this correlation that Jesus says we will be judged according to our words (works) on the day of judgment.  Is it the works themselves that save us?  No, the works are the necessary outward evidence of inward saving faith.  If we grasp these ideas, James 2:14-26 will make perfect sense to us. 
Now let’s cut the passage in half and deal with it a section at a time:
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-- and shudder!
There are a couple of key things to notice.  First, we should notice what the issue is.  James asks in v14, can that faith save him?  The issue at hand is what kind of faith saves.  He demonstrates that there are two kinds of faith – faith that does not have works and faith that does have works.  Which saves?  The faith that has works.  James describes the faith that does not have works as “dead,” that is, it does not save.  In vv15-16, he portrays this kind of faith as useless. 
Second, we should notice that James tells us explicitly what the role of works is.  In v18, he anticipates the objection that faith and works can be separated – “someone will say, ‘you have faith and I have works.’”  But James shows that they cannot be separated, for works are what demonstrate saving faith – “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”  Works are the identifying mark of saving faith.  To believe without bearing fruit makes one no better off than the demons (v19). 
20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"-- and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Beginning in v20, James offers to give biblical proof that faith without works is not saving faith. A knowledge of how these events are recorded in Genesis is crucial.  In v21, he writes that Abraham was justified by works when he offered up Isaac on the altar.  This event is recorded in Genesis 22.  In v23, James writes that this act fulfilled the Scripture that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”  This declaration of Abraham’s righteousness is recorded in Genesis 15.  In other words, Abraham was declared righteous, or justified, before the offering of Isaac.  What this means is that Genesis teaches that Abraham was justified by faith (in the event recorded in Gen 15), and James teaches that Abraham was justified by works (in the event recorded in Gen 22). 
Contradiction?  Only if we assume that both indicate justification in the same sense.  But James has already told us what sense he intends – works are evidence of saving faith (“I will show you my faith by my works”), evidence that is necessary for justification.  He offers another clue that this is his intention in v23 in the words, “and the Scripture was fulfilled…” Abraham’s works in Genesis 22 were the fulfillment or completion or demonstration of the internal change that took place in Genesis 15.  That Abraham is described in Scripture as being justified both at the point of belief and at the point of bearing good works is analogous to the already-not-yet character of justification that we discovered in the sermon series (justification is presented in the NT as both a present possession and a future event – Rom 5:1; Matt 12:37).
You see, James is using “justified” in the same sense Jesus did in Matthew 12:37 when He said, “By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.”  Outward fruit is what demonstrates the reality of inward faith.  That evidence will be necessary in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Those who have saving faith will inevitably possess that evidence.  Faith that saves is faith that produces works. 
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Fruit & False Positives

There are a couple of things related to Sunday’s message that I’d like to cover on the blog.  The first was suggested to me by a dear brother after the service.  “What about false positives?”  I knew immediately what he meant.  We’ve spent several Sundays now looking at the biblical truth that good works will be required on the day of judgment as evidence of God’s salvific work in our lives.  But what about people who do good works but who are not regenerate?  If good works provide the visible evidence of internal change, what are we to believe about those who do good things but are unbelievers?
We all most likely know at least one individual whom we would describe as a “good person” who is not a believer.  I’ve heard Mormons referred to many times as “good, moral people,” but they are not regenerate believers.  Will their good works look like ours on the day of judgment?  This question is based on the wrong assumption that unbelievers are capable of doing true good works.  
Remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:34?  “How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”  A person’s words and works are drawn from the well of his heart (Mark 7:21-22).  He can only speak and act out of that which fills him.  The unbeliever is dead in trespasses and sins, following after the devil, the world, and the flesh, enslaved by various passions, utterly incapable of obeying or pleasing God (Eph 2:1-3; Rom 8:6-8).  In other words, the well from which the unbeliever’s words and works are drawn is filled with sinfulness.  Whatever they do or say that seems to be virtuous, “good fruit” is not.  And there are several reasons for this.
First, their actions are not produced by the Holy Spirit.  We noted on Sunday that our good works are actually the work of the Holy Spirit in us.  That’s the whole reason why works will be used as evidence of salvation on judgment day.  Obedience is described in the Bible as fruit of the Spirit, being led by the Spirit, walking in the Spirit, sowing to the Spirit, living by the Spirit, etc. (Gal 5:16, 18, 22, 25, 6:8; Rom8:13-14).  It is the Spirit who empowers us for obedience.  Unbelievers do not have the Spirit.  They are incapable, therefore, of producing the fruit of the Spirit.
Second, their actions are not born of faith.  In Romans 14:23, Paul teaches that whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.  The entire chapter of Hebrews 11 demonstrates that obedience flows from faith.  Over and over we are told of Old Testament figures who “by faith” obeyed God.  Genuine good works are born of faith, which is why the writer of Hebrews asserts, “without faith it is impossible to please him…” (Heb 11:6).  If a person does not have faith, he cannot have good works.  Unbelievers, by definition, do not have faith.
Third, their actions are not a result of union with Christ.  In John 15, Jesus teaches that it is only through union with him that a person is able to produce good fruit: “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).  Unbelievers do not enjoy union with Christ, therefore, they cannot bear true fruit.
Fourth, their actions are not done for the glory of God.  Unbelievers have traded the glory of God for idolatry and self-worship (Rom 1:23).  Everything they do, including supposed acts of virtue, is for the glory of self.  They are “haters of God” (Rom 1:30).  I once heard Dr. Bruce Ware say, “An unsaved person can sin by mugging an old lady or by helping her across the street.  Whatever is done for any reason other than the glory of God is sin.  Anything that is not from faith is sin.”  
“Good” unbelieving people will have absolutely no good works to show on the last day.  What may appear to be good works in the lives of unbelievers now will not appear as good works before the judgment seat of Christ.  Nor will those acts be simply neutral.  Rather, those acts will be sins for which the unbeliever will be justly condemned.  So, there will be no such thing as a false positive on the day of judgment.
Does this lead to pride in the believer?  It shouldn’t.  Our salvation is all of grace.  That we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, that we have faith, that we are unified with Christ, that live for the glory of God, and therefore that we produce visible fruit is all a result of God’s sovereign grace. 
3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)
Next time, we’ll take a look at what James meant by his statement, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Watch Your Mouth, Part 2

Dealing with sins of speech requires dealing with the problem at the heart level.  Behind our critical speech is a critical heart.  Behind our complaining is an unthankful heart.  So we cannot just seek to create new habits in our speech; our hearts need to change.  In our last post we looked briefly at the first two steps of dealing with heart issues.  First, we need to pray for God’s help.  Second, we need to grow in our worship of Christ.  (If you missed the last post, you can find it here.)
Third, we need to apply the biblical model for change taught in Ephesians 4:22-24, which requires putting off the old self, being renewed in the spirit of our minds, and putting on the new self.  This means that we need to recognize how the old self is being manifested, what we are thinking and wanting in moments of temptation, when those moments of temptation tend to strike, and what are the godly alternatives that need to replace those things.
A good way to gather this information is to keep a journal for a week or two.  Every time we give in to the temptation to use ungodly speech, we should write down the circumstances surrounding the temptation, what we were thinking, what we were wanting, what we did in response to the temptation, and when it all happened.  After keeping this journal diligently for a while, we can go back and analyze the information.  We may find patterns behind the sinful speech.  Perhaps temptation always comes when we are with certain people or in a certain situation.  Perhaps temptation tends to come first thing in the morning or at the end of the day.  It could be that though there are different manifestations of sinful speech coming out, there is a common thought or desire behind them. 
Once the information has been analyzed, we can go to the Word and find out what the Bible teaches about that sin and the opposite godly virtue.  Bible Gateway is a great online resource for doing topical searches.  It’s a good idea to write down the truths that we find along with the corresponding Bible references.  It will be helpful to commit some of these passages to memory.
Now we’ve got all that information written down. What do we do with it?  The specific manifestations we’ve written down tell us the specific actions we need to put off.  If that specific action is complaining, the godly action that we can seek to put in its place is the expression of thankfulness.  So when we are tempted to complain, we stop and pray a prayer of thanksgiving instead or we express thankfulness to those around us.  
The thoughts we’ve recorded in our journal tell us what thoughts need to be replaced, or “put off”.  Maybe the common thing we are thinking when we are tempted to complain is, “this really stinks.  Why does nothing ever work out for me!”  We need to construct a biblical thought to replace it, like: “God is using all things, including this inconvenience, to conform me to the image of Christ.”  That new thought needs to be written down and memorized.
The desires we’ve recorded tell us what we’re worshiping that needs to be replaced with worship of Christ.  If we want convenience or smooth circumstances so much that we will sin to get it or sin if we don’t get it, it’s an idol.  We need to recognize it as such and determine that in moments of temptation we will focus on worshiping and pleasing Christ alone.  This particular part of the plan relies heavily on our having preached the gospel to ourselves as a habit of life.
The times of temptation we’ve recorded tell us the specific times when we need to prepare ourselves for temptation, so that we can take a few minutes beforehand to go over all this information…the sin that we are avoiding and the godly behavior we want to exhibit in its place…the thoughts we are going to resist and the godly thoughts we will strive to think instead…the idol behind the temptation and the excellencies of pleasing Christ that we will focus on instead.  We need to review the relevant Scriptures that we have gathered, pray for God’s assistance in the moment of temptation, acknowledging before God we can’t do this in our own power.  Only His grace and strength will enable us to obey as we trust in Him.  We need to commit to the Lord that we will strive to be faithful. 
We should go through that material every time we are about to go into a situation where we know temptation will be waiting for us.  And one crucial part of preparation is having started the day rehearsing the gospel, pondering all the glorious truths of what God has done in Christ on our behalf for His glory.  Remember that looking intently at the gospel is what fuels the fire of our devotion to the Lord, giving us the very desire to obey.

Seems like a lot of work, doesn’t it?  The apostles were not reluctant to teach that sanctification requires great effort.  That’s why Peter writes in 2 Peter 1:5 make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue.  That’s why Paul commanded Timothy in 1Tim 4:7, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.  In v10 of that chapter, he says to toil and strive.  That’s why Paul writes in Philippians 2:12 to work out your own salvation as God works in you. 
We do this trusting in the Lord’s strength, not our own, and focusing on the gospel, but we do have to do something.  Isn’t that the spirit of James 1:19-27Be doers of the law, not hearers who deceive themselves.  Look at the perfect law of liberty and persevere.  May the Lord grant us victory as we go to war with ungodly speech.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Watch Your Mouth

On Sunday, we saw that our hearts are the wells from which our words are drawn.  The things that we speak come from that which fills our hearts.  In the case of the Pharisees, they spoke blasphemous words because they had blasphemous hearts.  Many of us tend to minimize the significance of the words we speak, but the Lord taught us in Matt 12:33-37 that our words are the surest indicators of the condition of our hearts.
Think about what your speech says about your heart.  If your speech is characterized by criticism, what does it say about your heart?  You have a critical heart.  If my speech is characterized by complaining or murmuring or grumbling, what does that say about my heart?  I have a heart of ingratitude.  What if your speech is characterized by boasting?  What about the subtler form of boasting – talking about yourself all the time?  What does that say about your heart?  Your heart is filled with pride. 
Asking ourselves questions about our own speech can be a helpful diagnostic tool, but as with any other habitual sin, sinful speech can become so routine that we do not even notice it in ourselves.  For that reason, it is wise to ask someone who is close to you help you see if you have a habit of ungodly speech.  Invite them to be honest with you.  Do I have a tendency toward critical speech?  Do I have a tendency toward complaining or gossip or boasting?
But what do we do about it if we find that our hearts are filled with these things?  Our inclination will be to just deal with how it is manifested in our speech.  If we are given to critical speech, we try to stop saying critical things.  If we are given to complaining and grumbling, we try to stop that and start expressing thanks.  If we are given to boastful speech, we stop talking about ourselves and talk about other things instead. 
But does that really fix the problem?  No, because the problem is the heart.  We can’t make an apple tree into an orange tree by cutting off all the apples and stapling oranges on instead.  Eventually, the apples are going to grow back.  The same is true of our speech.  If we try to merely deal with the outward manifestation, we will not see lasting change.  Our hearts need to be transformed. 
Fundamentally, that happens when we are regenerated.  We are given a new heart, but we are not completely sanctified, that is, we are not completely like Christ in our character and conduct.  Yet in that act of regeneration we are given the tools necessary to be sanctified.  We are given the Holy Spirit.  We are given the desire to change.  We are given the ability to understand and use God’s Word. 
Once we have been regenerated, how do we appropriate those God-given tools to become like Christ?  How do we kill pride?  How do we kill ingratitude?  How do we kill a critical disposition?  First, we need to pray.  We need to pray for the Lord’s help, for a desire to obey and change, and for the ability to obey and change.  We need to do that because we must recognize that in ourselves we cannot do it.  Our sanctification is empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Daily prayers of dependence upon the Spirit are necessary in our fight against sin.
Second, we need to be growing in our worship of Christ.  Any heart problem is a worship problem – there is something that I am desiring so much that I am willing to sin to get it.  A key to overcoming sinful desires is to grow in our desire for the Savior.  The epistles motivate us to walk in obedience by first teaching us the gospel – what God has done in Christ to save us from sin.  It follows that in our fight against sin we should keep this gospel before us daily.  This could include feeding our minds with gospel-rich passages of Scripture, listening to gospel-rich music, or reading gospel-rich books.  (Click here for some specific recommended resources.)
Next time, we’ll continue with other steps in the process of dealing with sinful speech and the heart problems that cause it.  In the mean time: (1) ask a friend to help you evaluate your speech; (2) pray for the Lord’s power to help you deal with any issues you find; and (3) begin meditating on Christ’s work in the gospel that freed you from sin’s penalty.  
 Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Commitment to Serve

In recent posts we began to look at several commitments related to the call to “walk in a manner worthy.”  We are called to a commitment to love one another (Eph4:1-6).  We are called to a commitment to be equipped (Eph 4:7-8, 11-12).  Now, we’ll turn to look at the last of these commitments – the commitment to serve, which is found in Eph 4:11-16:
 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,
 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,
 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
God gave those with teaching gifts to the church to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  Some of us are prone to view the teaching of the church as primarily useful for gaining knowledge.  Certainly, it is important to have sound theology.  Sound theology prevents us from being led astray.  It prepares us to speak the truth in love.  It equips us to serve.  It’s a tool that helps us grow so that we can help others grow.
But what if my sound theology is just knowledge for knowledge’s sake?  Paul writes in 1 Cor 13:2, If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.   This means that if I have knowledge alone, I am of no benefit to the body.
In 1 Cor 8:1, we read that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  What does that mean?  Knowledge that is alone, that is, knowledge that is devoid of committed love, is only good for developing one thing: pride.  And what does pride do?  It takes all of our preferences and differences and makes them the most important thing.  It is the catalyst for division.  Knowledge that is alone is dangerous to the body. 
But knowledge that is informed by love builds up.  Love is what puts our knowledge and equipping to use for the body.  Love understands that God gave equippers as gifts to the church for the purpose of service not for the purpose of knowledge.  And that is why it is essential for us as we are gaining knowledge and being equipped to make sure we are putting it to use in the loving service of the body.  When all our time is focused on gaining knowledge and we don’t have time or don’t make time for service, for relationships, we become a danger to the body, not a benefit to the body. 
There’s an important phrase in Eph 4:16 – “when each part is working properly.”  The body builds itself up in love when each part is working properly.  When everyone is equipped and serving, the body does what God has designed it to do.  But what happens when each part isn’t working properly?  Simple.  The body doesn’t build itself up in love.  It’s all the body can do to just hobble along.  The parts that aren’t working properly place an extra burden and strain on those that are and it leads to a seriously unhealthy situation. If the church is going to be the church, walking in a manner worthy of the call, each member of the body must be working properly, must be serving the rest of the body. 
God has place heavy responsibilities on the members of the body of Christ.  Those responsibilities are played out on the level of the local church.  And while it is not easy to walk in a manner worthy of the call, the Spirit in all of us gives us the power to meet the commitments to which we have been called.  The Spirit enables us to work diligently for unity, to forgive, to be patient, to consider others more important than ourselves, to sacrifice our own preferences, to respect other people’s convictions, to dedicate ourselves to being equipped for service, and to pursue the work of ministry in and among the body.  When we do that in the power of the Holy Spirit, God is glorified in the church.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Commitment to Be Equipped

Last time we began to look at the first of three commitments related to the call to “walk in a manner worthy.”  We are called to a commitment to love one another (Eph4:1-6).  The second commitment is a commitment to be equipped and we find this call in Eph 4:7-8, 11-12:
7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. 8 Therefore it says, "When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men." …11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…
Here Paul teaches that Christ has given all believers spiritual gifts with which to serve the body.  Some of these gifts are mentioned in v11 – apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd/teachers.  (There does not seem to be any one exhaustive list of gifts in the NT, but other partial lists can be found in Rom 12:6-8, 1 Cor 12:7-10, 1Cor 12:28, and 1 Pet 4:10-11.)  Each of the gifts in v11 could be considered teaching gifts.  While the content of the teaching is not explicitly given here, we can find it in other passages.  For example, Paul gave Timothy very clear instructions regarding what to teach the church:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.  I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Tim 3:16-4:2)
The Word of God is the content of instruction for the church.  It is Scripture that equips us “for every good work.”  So God has tasked those with teaching gifts to use the Word to equip the church for the work of ministry.
So, Eph 4:7-12 teaches that everyone has been gifted for service in the church AND that everyone needs biblical teaching in order to effectively use those gifts.  In other words, a primary reason for the teaching of the Word is to equip us to serve others.  It is others-focused, rather than self-focused. 
Many of us love to be taught.  We love the Word and we love to hear it preached.  But do we recognize the ultimate purpose for biblical teaching?  It is not merely so that we will gain knowledge – knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a dangerous thing (1 Cor 8:1).  Teaching is also not only that we would grow spiritually individually.  Rather, it is intended to prepare us to serve one another for the growth of the corporate body.
Do you regard biblical teaching this way?  I can speak for myself that most of the time I do not think that way.  Typically, when I sit under biblical teaching, my mindset is to glean something for the benefit of my own sanctification.  Certainly, it is a good thing to want to grow spiritually, but this passage would encourage me to take that thinking one step further – “What can I glean from this teaching that will help me to grow spiritually so that I can more effectively serve the body of Christ?
Through the work of Christ, God created the church to be a self-edifying body, where each individual part serves to contribute to the growth and wellbeing of the whole.  This is the reality that Paul refers to as “the calling with which you have been called” (Eph 4:1).  To walk in a manner worthy of this call requires me to be committed to being equipped to serve the body of Christ.  May the Lord grant us to consider this every time we sit under biblical teaching.  What is God trying to teach us that we might be a blessing to one another?
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Commitment to Love One Another

In our Wednesday night study of ecclesiology we are looking at the issue of church membership. Our discussion last night was so beneficial that it seemed like a good idea to reproduce part of it here.
While there are no passages that instruct us to officially join a church, there are responsibilities given to us in the New Testament that do necessitate a commitment to a particular body of people. 
In Ephesian 4:1, Paul exhorts us “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…”  The preceding context indicates that what Paul has in mind is our calling to live as one regenerate body united in Christ.  What follows in ch4 is an explanation of what it looks like to walk in a manner worthy of this call.  There are three commitments that are wrapped up in walking in a manner worthy.  The first is a commitment to love.  Eph 4:1-6:
1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-- 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
These verses speak of loving commitment to one another in keeping with the unity that Christ forged when He reconciled us to God.  Think carefully about those first few words in v2: with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.  Why are those words necessary?  What do they imply?  They imply that we don’t always get along.  We have different preferences, convictions, and tastes.  We sin against one another and offend one another. 
All of us could probably testify that those differences and offenses have been present at every church we’ve ever gone to.  That seems to be the one constant.  We have differences with people no matter where we go.  That’s why Paul writes this. 
Every church everywhere is a collection of people with different preferences and convictions, who rub each other the wrong way and sin against one another.  And we have a sinful tendency when those differences arise to latch onto those differences and make them a serious issue.  We allow them to become lines in the sand that separate us into constituencies within the church. 
Sometimes, we allow those differences to provoke us to one of two negative reactions.  Metaphorically speaking, we resort to either fight or flight.  We may decide a preference or conviction is something worth fighting for.  And we convince ourselves that we are in the right, not realizing that all we have done is taken our own preferences and convictions and elevated them to the level of essential doctrine for everyone else. 
Or we resort to flight.  “This place is never going to see eye to eye with me on this.  Maybe I don’t belong here.  Maybe I should go somewhere where people have the same preferences and convictions.” 
Sometimes it’s not preferences and convictions, but rather someone has sinned against us or offended us in some way.  We can sinfully resort to those same to negative responses.  We can fight and make a war out of it, or we just retreat from the relationship until the other party learns to appreciate us and treat us with respect.  
It is to that tendency that Paul writes these words, I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you’ve been called.  When it happens that “you hurt me” or “they’ve offended us” or “we disagree with that,” and we’re tempted to either fight or fly the coop, that’s when this exhortation finds its fullest meaning and most crucial application.  That is when we must walk in a manner worthy, walk in committed love for one another.
Our culture seems to have no concept of commitment.  I’m committed to you…unless things get difficult.  That’s the opposite of commitment.  Commitment is undetectable when everything is going well.  Commitment proves itself to be commitment when things are not going well, when someone has offended you, when someone has insulted one of your convictions or disagreed with one of your preferences.  Walking in a manner worthy is a commitment to love one another no matter how we offend one another or annoy one another.
God spilt the blood of His Son to unite us in one body in reconciliation to the Father, and it should take a whole lot more than personal differences to pry us apart.  The gospel constrains us to love one another, with humility and gentleness and patience.  “I will bear with you in love.”  That is commitment.  The unity of the body and the picture of reconciliation that it shows is more important than our preferences and convictions and offenses. 
Unregenerate people can remain committed to one another when there’s no friction.  But it takes gospel power in the life of a person born again to be committed when there is friction, and that’s precisely why God is glorified when we do it.  He is glorified when a body of selfish, crazy people are able to love one another in spite of each other.  Only God can do that.
That we are called to humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and love assumes two things: 1) We are not going to agree on everything.  And (2), we are expected to be committed to one another anyway.  And we must keep at the forefront of our minds, when those differences, annoyances, and offenses begin to really bother us, that this is an opportunity to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel. 
Whatever things there are that make us different, we can’t allow them to separate us.  Why?  We have the most important things in common.  v6: One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  We’re united by the gospel.  And that gospel places a heavy responsibility on us, the commitment to love one another.
I mentioned that there are three commitment shown in this passage.  We’ll look at the other two next time.
 Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Inconsistencies of Paedobaptism

Last Sunday, we took a close look at the covenantal argument for paedobaptism.  Lord willing, this Sunday we will spend our time seeing how well that argument corresponds with Scripture.  My intent is to finish up the baptism series then.  In order to do so, there are a few more things I would like to address here on the blog.
Whenever we hold a view that is not supported by Scripture, it will be the case that inconsistencies crop up in our theology and practice.  This is definitely true with the theology and practice of paedobaptism.  Please consider with me four inconsistencies within paedobaptism.
The first inconsistency is one that I pointed out last week on this blog.  I won’t reproduce the whole things here – you can go back and read it if you missed it.  The short version is that paedobaptists tend to inconsistently apply Acts 2:39 (“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”).  They appeal to this verse to support the idea that the children of believers are members of the New Covenant and should be afforded the sign of baptism.  Yet, they do not equally apply the phrase “and to all who are far off.”  To be consistent, they would have to consider “all who are far off” to be members of the New Covenant as well and give them the sign of baptism.  However, they do not do this and in that way they are inconsistent.
A second inconsistency is that paedobaptists do not baptize entire households.  They use the “householdbaptisms” in Acts to support the practice of baptizing the infants of believing adults, assuming that “household” signifies everyone in the home regardless of their response to the gospel.  Yet, paedobaptists do not baptize “households” – that is, they do not baptize adult children, spouses, or other members of the household upon the conversion of the head of the household.  Three rebuttals are often given by paedobaptists to this objection.  First, they claim that the other adults in the household most likely heard the gospel and believed.  However, this line of reasoning makes the paedobaptist guilty of the error that they ascribe to others, namely, reading details into the household baptism texts that are not there.  Second, they respond that forced household baptisms would be considered unacceptable in our culture.  But when is it ever appropriate to disregard a command of Scripture because of cultural considerations?  Never (Acts 5:29).  Third, they respond that this is one of the discontinuities between the Old and New Covenants.  But this works against their whole argument for including children in the covenant (“God created the church in the days of Abraham and put children into it.  He has nowhere put them out.  So they must remain in.”)  For just as God put children into the covenant, He put all of Abraham’s family in, including grown adults.  If He has nowhere put them out, they also must remain in the covenant.  In the end, the responses to this inconsistency work against the argument for infant baptism, not for it.
A third inconsistency is that paedobaptists require faith of the parents of baptized children.  In other words, a child can only be baptized if one parent has made a credible profession of faith.  What is wrong with this?  They baptize on different grounds than were required for circumcision.  The circumcision of a child in the old covenant was never conditioned upon the faith of the parent.  Rather, “He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised” (Gen 17:12-13).  For any male, whether physically descended from Abraham or merely living among the Israelites, circumcision was required.  No male was allowed not to be circumcised, regardless of whether or not he or his parents had faith.  To baptize only those whose parents make a credible profession of faith is inconsistent with the strict continuity inherent in the paedobaptistic position.
A fourth inconsistency is that paedobaptists do not allow their children to partake of the Lord’s Supper.  Paedobaptists lean heavily upon the idea that baptism has replaced circumcision in the new covenant.  But what is even clearer in the New Testament is that the Lord’s Supper has replaced the Passover as the covenant meal.  Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper while He was sharing the Passover with His disciples (Matt 26:17-30).  Under the Old Covenant, all the members of the household were invited to partake of the covenant meal. Regarding this the Lord commanded, Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers' houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb (Exo 12:3-4). And later He reiterated, All the congregation of Israel shall keep it (Exo 12:47).
To respond to this objection, paedobaptists appeal to 1 Cor 11:28-29: Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.  They argue that these verses require that a person be able to engage in self-examination in order to partake of the Supper, which would preclude the participation of small children.  However, they do not interpret baptism passages in the same manner.  That is, when confronted with Scriptures that indicate the necessity of repentance and faith before baptism, they say such Scriptures only apply to adults.  In other words, they use one principle to interpret passages on baptism and an opposite principle to interpret passages on the Lord’s Supper.  There is a hopeless inconsistency there.
It is not my intention to beat up on my paedobaptist brothers and sisters.  They are champions of the gospel and faithful servants of the Lord.  But there is a lesson for us to learn here.  None of us are immune to blind spots in our theology.  One of the telltale signs that we have erred is that we will find inconsistencies and contradictions appearing in our theology and practices.  When we do find them, we should return to Scripture, reevaluate our positions in light of it, and conform our beliefs and practices to God’s Word.  No one does this perfectly, but by God’s grace may we strive for that ideal.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Acts 2:39 and Infant Baptism

As we have been studying the issue of baptism together on Sunday mornings, we’ve read one passage each of the last two weeks that is sometimes used as a support for paedobaptism (infant baptism).  It is Acts 2:37-39.  Peter has just preached his Pentecost sermon and the people want to know how they should respond:
37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?"
38 And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  
39 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." (Act 2:37-39)
The critical words are in v39 – “for the promise is for you and for your children.”  As I mentioned last week (and will explain in greater detail this week), paedobaptists lean heavily on the connection between the covenants to support the practice of baptizing infants.  They hold that just as circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, baptism is the sign of the New Covenant.  Since infants were circumcised under the Abrahamic covenant, they should also be baptized under the New Covenant.  Believers and their children were members of the Abrahamic covenant and the same should be true of the New Covenant.  Acts 2:39 is seen as an indication that this is what God intends for us to understand.  The New Covenant is for believers and their children. 
John Murray, a systematic theology professor at Westminster Theological Seminary until 1966, wrote, “The argument, reduced to its simplest terms, is that the seals of the covenant pertain to those to whom the covenant itself pertains. But that the covenant pertains to infants is clear from…Acts 2:39.  From God’s ordinance his grace extends from parents to children.”[1]  Thus, paedobaptists understand the text to indicate a special promise to the children of believers, which ensures that they are part of the covenant community and different from the children of unbelievers.
Whether or not it is legitimate to make such a tight connection between the Abrahamic covenant and the New Covenant is something we will address in the next couple of Sundays.  For now, let’s concern ourselves with whether or not it is appropriate to use Acts 2:39 in this way.  The main problem with this interpretation of Acts 2:39 is that it seems to remove one phrase from consideration.  That is, it seems to interpret the verse as if the verse reads, “For the promise is for you and for your children, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”  But the verse actually reads, “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.”
First of all, what is the promise? V38 tells us, “Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  The explicit promise is the reception of the Holy Spirit for those who repent.  To whom is this promise made?  The promise is made to “you”, “your children,” and “all who are far off.”  “You” refers to the Jews listening to Peter’s sermon, and “your children” refers to the Jews’ offspring.  “All who are far off” seems to be a reference to the Gentiles (cf. Eph 2:11-13).  So the promise is made to all the Jews and the Gentiles.  In other words, the promise is for everyone, which Peter then qualifies by saying, “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”  
The three phrases (“you,” “your children,” and “all who are far off”) are parallel and must be taken together.  According to Acts 2:39, the promise is equally applied to the three.  We cannot say that there is something special about the first and second group (“you” and “your children”) that is not true about the third group (“all who are far off”).  So if this verse is a warrant for considering one group to be members of the covenant, it is a warrant for considering all three groups to be members of the covenant.  If it is a warrant for baptizing one group, it is a warrant for baptizing all three.
The final phrase of the verse (“everyone to whom the Lord our God calls to himself”) must be considered in order to determine the implications for the argument for infant baptism.  The word “calls” can be interpreted in two different ways, neither of which are a help to the paedobaptist.  If “calls” refers to the outward, general call of the gospel, then the promise is for all who hear the gospel.  In this case, paedobaptists must explain why they do not baptize all people who hear the gospel, regardless of their response to the gospel.  In other words, this promise does nothing to distinguish the children of believers from anyone else who hears the gospel.  If they baptize their children and not everyone else who hears the gospel, they are selectively applying the verse.
On the other hand, if “calls” refers to God’s irresistible grace, then the promise is for the elect only.  In this case, in order for paedobaptists to use this verse to support the baptism of infants, they must be willing to presume the election of their children, a presumption without Biblical support.  No, if the promise is for the elect only, then only those who give a credible profession of faith should be baptized, which is precisely what happened in the following verses, for it was only “those who received his word” who were baptized (Acts 2:41). 
It is an inappropriate use of Acts 2:39 to employ it in defense of infant baptism.  In order to be consistent, either paedobaptists need to support the baptism of all who hear the gospel or they need to admit that they presume the election of their children.  But paedobaptists do neither of these things, which points to the inconsistency of the position. 
What is the appropriate way to understand Acts 2:39?  All who repent, whether Jew or Gentile, will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  But what about baptism?  Only those who receive the gospel, who actually repent, should baptized (Acts 2:41).
Posted by Greg Birdwell

[1]John Murray, “Covenant Theology,” in Collected Writings of John Murray (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1982), 4:239-40.