Yesterday I read a bumper sticker and it reminded me how much and why I dislike brevity in attempts to state the truth. It not just my aversion to some, like “Jesus is my co-pilot”, which completely mangle the point of the gospel. In general I find that brief statements are rarely able to convey truth effectively because they lack the context that gives them their weight and significance. So often they end up coming across like tag-lines which might seem cool and might be memorable, but are devoid of their real substance and power.
I realize of course, that in saying that I am indicting myself. If you browse through this blog you’ll see a great number of quotations which are brief. And in fact some of the quotations I’ve posted have been misunderstood and have occasionally been a source of contention. To be fair to myself, I mostly post quotations that express ideas that are a part of on-going “conversations” that I’m involved in, so my attraction to them is that they capture aspects of ideas that I’ve been exploring in depth. So in the first place I post such quotations because they are meaningful to me. I am aware (and admittedly moreso since dealing with disagreements and misunderstandings) that some of the things I post are not clear or meaningful to some of the people who may come across them, but I post them anyway because frankly, this blog is for me as much as it is for anyone else. I save things here that I will need for the future. Plus, controversy isn’t all bad. Sometimes it generates useful questions and gets people thinking.
My dislike for this sort of brevity extends to how we use the Bible. There are very common quotations which exemplify the inevitable sterility, like Jesus’ statement in John 8:32 - “and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That verse is entirely meaningless when quoted without an understanding of the context in which it is said, yet it is widely loved even by many who don’t love Jesus. This morning I came across another “bumper sticker verse” - not that I’ve ever seen in on a bumper sticker but it’s a very well known and often quoted verse - Lamentations 3:22-23:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
In reading the whole of Lamentations those words take on a completely different meaning than the one that I tend to keep in my head when I sing them or think of them. Lamentations is a heavy book, even if you’re not using your imagination. The poetry doesn’t conceal the pain and suffering in the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah and it’s not trying to. Sandwiched by descriptions of people being carried off into captivity (1:18), starving children and dead bodies in the streets (2:19, 21), women eating their children (4:10) and being raped (5:11), are these verses which declare the faithfulness of God. How lightly we sing them and think of them! And how that is facilitated by the brief quotations we have become accustomed to, and the fact that we forget or don’t even know the context in which they were said!
The writer of Lamentations knew that Israel was suffering this way because God was pouring out his just punishment on them for their sins (1:18, 2:17). Yet still he cries out to God and expects mercy for those who look to God (3:25-26, 31-32). He has confidence in the nature of God and the promises of God. He calls his people to repentance (3:41-42).
There’s a lot to learn from Lamentations. It has a lot to teach us about the “problem of evil”. This morning God started to use it to expose how fickle my faith can be. Will clear and eloquent statements about God’s faithfulness come out of me when I’m going through great suffering by God’s hand? Our does my faith speak it’s loudest in fair weather?
We will feel the weight of the faith we’ve been called more clearly and more consistently if we read the Bible in larger chunks rather than small bites. We see ourselves more clearly and see how casual our faith can be. Let’s not just rejoice in sound bites. Let’s dig into truth.
Certain ideas are deeply unpopular these days, but that does not make them dispensable.
I haven’t written much about Calvinism so far. You see, in my church I’m not sure there is a label which carries with it so much baggage and ignites so much controversy as Calvinism or Reformed theology. So I’ve been avoiding the name. I’m about to stop.
I had hoped that in avoiding the name I could have limited the misunderstandings while I pushed for discussion on substantial issues like the nature of God’s grace, the nature of man, the sovereignty of God, etc, but that didn’t happen, and perhaps the plan backfired a bit. Maybe a couple people thought that because I was quieter about these things that my convictions had weakened or that I was less willing to be called by such a name. Let the record be set straight - I am a Calvinist.
There are many who like to say that they are not “this” or “that”, or say that the only label they accept is “Christian”, but to say that one is “Christian” or “Bible-believing” these days doesn’t at all describe what you actually believe about Jesus or the Bible, so while I respect their earnestness I think they miss the point of labels. Calling oneself a Christian might make one feel “purer” in one’s adherence to and belief in God’s word, or might make one feel a holy separation from “factions”, but it doesn’t help communication with anyone else around. And I think that within the proper context, labels can do just that. Jonathan Edwards is helpful in this matter (which has made me suspect we’d waste less time arguing if we spent more time reading old books).
Edwards in “The Freedom of the Will” speaks of “… the disposition there is in mankind … to improve the benefit of language, in the proper use and design of names, given to things which they have often occasion to speak of, or signify their minds about; which is to enable them to express their ideas with ease and expedition, without being incumbered with an obscure and difficult circumlocution.”
In other words a name like Calvinist can help you to say a lot about who you are or what you think without the need to explain everything all the time - and believe me, in our community having names for some of these things would save a lot of time. One caveat - it will work if people understand what the name signifies. That works best when people allow you to explain to them what the name signifies.
So I want to make it clear that Calvinism or Reformed theology is in my view, the best synthesis of the Bible’s teachings concerning God’s sovereignty in the universe generally, and in salvation specifically (and of course the nature of man’s dilemma in sin). I am a Calvinist because of what I see in the Bible. And I’m glad for this blog as an opportunity to be able to define, express and present what I have seen without dialogue while I’m in mid-sentence. I value dialogue but it’s extremely tedious and difficult where there are great historical barriers to thoughtful listening and careful consideration.
There are many whom I love and respect who disagree with my perspective and some vehemently so. I’m convinced though that almost all of them misunderstand my perspective. It shows itself in the fears they harbour and the comments they make - about both Calvinism and Calvin himself. Edwards pointed out that some in his day seemed “… to suppose and suggest, that the persons marked out by these names, received those doctrines which they entertain, out of regard to and reliance on those men after whom they are named ; as though they made them their rule ; in the same manner as the followers of CHRIST are called Christians, after his name, whom they regard and depend upon, as their great Head and Rule.” When I read that I was amazed because I regularly have to clarify and defend myself because of such supposition. Not much has changed in a couple hundred years.
So, now that I’ve declared my hand you may see the name come up here and there mixed in between posts about music or work or family. It’s a part of who I am too and after all I did set out to be transparent.
I recommend this one especially for those of you doing the corporate fast, since one of our goals is to grow in diligence in the study of God’s word. Piper lays out an important connection between prayer and studying the word.
But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Matthew 4:4 (ESV)
It’s fascinating that in repelling Satan’s temptations, Jesus quotes this verse from Deuteronomy 8:3. When I read it in Deuteronomy I didn’t see any connection with fasting. The idea of humbling is a clue but I didn’t see it. But Jesus making or illuminating or creating this connection is tremendously helpful. It helps me to recognize that one of the good reasons to fast - to abstain from what comforts me and from what I think I need more than anything (so of course this applies in a great sense to food and in a lesser, but still important sense, to dozens of other things that we fill our lives with) - is to focus on what really sustains me - every word the comes from the mouth of God.
So in a very practical sense what I’ve learned is that while fasting I should seeking to spend significant time reading the Bible and praying that God would “open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things from [his] Law” (Ps 119:18). As God does this I see him, I see the world, and I see myself in the light of truth. I start to see what’s really good and what really should be celebrated. I start to see what’s really evil and what’s really a problem. I start to see what really should be chased and what really should be shunned.
And I’ve bought into the importance of allowing the Word of God to shape my prayer life. I don’t remember being taught to approach it that way when I was younger - maybe it was said but it certainly didn’t stick for me if it was. As a result I grew up with a notion of prayer being a separate and distinct thing from spending time reading or studying the Bible and I had no sense of the connection between the two. Since I’ve been taught to approach things this way I’ve seen how my petitions can be shaped more and more by God’s priorities rather than mostly by my felt needs. Unfortunately but quite naturally, the things I am most concerned about, even when it comes to things related to the kingdom of God are different from the things God is most concerned about - until I am changed and shaped by the revelation in the Bible. How many of us would pray “Hallowed be your name” if Jesus hadn’t taught us to?
So that’s how I’m learning to put the three together. I think if we fast and pray without a focus on the word of God there’s a danger of getting trapped in ourselves and our personal needs and the needs of our community, and it can be quite myopic. I know I’ve done it. And the implication, if we fast and pray without prioritizing time in the Bible, is that we think we already know what God wants us to seek him for, how he wants us to do it, and how the time should be shaped. The word of God constantly brings us into God’s perspective - which is timeless, global and personal - and can save us from that particular pitfall.
In the last several months God has challenged me about my relationship with the Bible, and challenged the hypocrisy of my loving certain types of discussions about him and the Bible but not loving to spend time actually reading the Bible. So he’s led me on a journey and he’s working on me. I’ll blog about that journey more in the days to come but here are a couple of realizations that I’ve been having along the way -
- Bible reading must become for me both a priority and a pleasure. When it becomes a priority I will organize my life so that I’ve set aside time to spend in God’s word. When it becomes a pleasure I will gladly pick it up when I have a few moments to spare. If I try to make it a priority without it being a pleasure it will be a chore. Critically, if any of this is going to happen, God is going to have to change my heart. I can’t simply decide to love God’s word. I can decide to be determined but I can’t decide to be delighted.
- Reading the Bible is about learning eternal, global truths, not about finding short-term, local direction. It’s not that God can’t or doesn’t give direction for specific situations sometimes when we spend time in his word, but when that happens it’s a bonus rather than the point. God is revealing himself in his word and teaching us truths that will outlast creation itself (Matt 5:18). It’s extremely parochial to treat such a book as a “thought for the day” or something akin to a horoscope. My most pressing need every single day I draw breath is not to feel good, encouraged or assured, but to be taught by, and grow in relationship with the One who made me for his glory. God promises us wisdom if we ask him for it (James 1:5), but he gives us his word so that the world he made can know him and have faith in him through Jesus. That’s infinitely more important that what I should say to my difficult client (and he’s got that covered anyway).
I wanted to blog a bit about the implications of one of the verses I posted a couple days ago. Here’s the verse - “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” - Deuteronomy 29:29 (ESV)
A couple of things emerge here:
- There are things which are secret. God hasn’t told them to us and doesn’t plan to - at least not right now. They can’t be found out. They’re not floating out there to be discovered by intense intellectual or spiritual activity. They are his.
- God has revealed some things which were secret - hence their being revealed. They are for us (i.e. God’s people). They have been given to us and they belong to us. One of God’s stated purposes in giving revelation is so “that we may do all the words of this law.” Revelation is meant to lead to obedience. Revelation makes obedience possible.
- Therefore we do not need the things that have not been revealed right now. I heard people teach all kinds of fanciful ideas based on little or nothing that is Biblical and present them as some sort of high-powered truth to “take you to the next level”. Reject such things. We don’t need to speculate and we certainly shouldn’t build doctrine or practice on speculation. God has revealed all we need to please him in Jesus (2 Peter 1:3-5).
- Further, if these things needed to be revealed, the implication is that they are not common knowledge among human beings. Every man knows some things about God even those some deny it and all surpress the truth about God (Rom 1:18-20), but the Bible brings us into truth that we can’t know otherwise. It brings us to Christ - the power and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:13; John 1:18). Our impetus for holding up the Bible and saying to the world “You need to know about this!” is the fact that the Bible is the only record of that revelation. They can’t believe if they don’t hear (Rom 10:14-15; Acts 17:30).
Even though this is said in a specific context (the renewal of the convenant in Moab) it should be seen as statement about the whole Bible. The Bible represents the total authoritative scope of God’s revelation (Heb 1:1-2).
We shouldn’t assume that the things which have been revealed are simple or easy to understand. Some of them require intense spiritual and intellectual pursuit (2 Pet 3:15b-16; 2 Tim 2:7)
So all Biblical truth is meant to play its role in leading us to and equipping us for obedience. It does not simply to inform us of what God wants. The word of God conforms us. We are shaped by it supernaturally.
What this means is that we can’t afford to ignore any ideas in the Bible, even if they seem divisive or very confusing. They have been revealed so that we can obey God. So truths like election and predestination and the sovereignty of God (which the mere mention of provokes strong reactions in my church) have been revealed to us to aid us in becoming like Christ (who was perfectly obedient to the Father) Their role in generating obedience may not be clear, but we dismiss such doctrines at our own peril. We would be foolish people to cast aside truths that God has given us for “life and godliness”.
So therefore there’s a burden on the people of God to seek to maintain a healthy curiousity about “the things that are revealed” while humbly resisting the temptation to focus our attention on “the secret things”. How will we know the difference between the two? With prayerful reading of scripture. If it’s there then it has been revealed - at least to some extent. And our seeing those things, seeing them with God-given open eyes (Ps 119:18; 2 Cor 3:18) will play it’s role in our growing in obedience and worship (which is quite closely related to obedience).
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
Deut 29:29 (ESV)
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.
Psalm 130:3-4 (ESV)
And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after.
God - Numbers 15:39 (ESV)