Thinking through Christian Liberty

Making a Difference: LibertyMaking a Difference: Liberty by Rex Rogers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Written in 2000 and addressing current issues, this small booklet is a bit dated, but makes an important point. Christians need to give one another liberty to differ on matters not addressed by the Bible.

It’s a crucial and biblical distinction. To judge one outside God’s will when God has not done so, just because we are more used to something, is a serious sin. The secular version of this in woke and cancel culture thrives today on the toxic feeling of self-righteousness.

The author makes the simple point well, but omits two crucial nuances:
1. Some ethical and cultural practices are fine or not, depending on the circumstances, as Paul explained in 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14. Eating meat sacrificed to an idol isn’t flatly fine, no matter what. It depends if one with a tender conscience is with you. Some practices, while we are free to do them or not, still need some thought to discern God’s will.

2. Many issues are in between the author’s 2 categories of a) a clear “Thou shalt not” from God in the Bible, and b) a morally neutral preference. I might even say on most ethical questions we face, the best question isn’t “Does the Bible speak to this?” but “HOW does the Bible speak to this?” since it addresses almost everything in some way. (Even current issues that we are convinced are new and foreign to the Bible, like transgenderism, are addressed in principles such as stewardship of the body and how He made us male and female.) To put it another way, much of life is in, not the follow-the-rule area, but in the wisdom area: “what is the wiser thing to do here? Option x would be fine and good, but option y is better, and option z is better yet.” For example, the author puts music worship style in the morally neutral preference category, but I think some music is more edifying than other kinds, especially in worship. Some worship music is atrocious, other types are okay to sing, but there is better stuff out there.

This gets complicated, and Christians are notorious, the author points out, for casting stones at each other when they disagree over mere preferences. It gets trickier when I point out that the music you sing might stand some improvement, or not be the wisest or most edifying choice. Can one make that judgment without sinning? I KNOW the one criticized usually feels judged and sinned against. Yet, I haven’t said they are sinning, though I am asserting they are being less wise than they could be.

I just don’t want to see important discussion of issues squelched by someone playing the Christian Liberty trump card. We are to use our liberty in Christ to pursue truth, goodness and beauty for the Lord. That means having our preferences challenged by someone who disagrees, and may have a better way to walk the walk of faith.

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Love Came Down

Love Came Down at Christmas: Daily Readings for AdventLove Came Down at Christmas: Daily Readings for Advent by Sinclair B. Ferguson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sinclair Ferguson is the most stable and edifying author I know in the reformed world today. So many others try to provoke for attention, but Ferguson writes without the glitz and sensationalism. If you stick with him through some of his Scottish and older generation eccentricities, he is rich food for the soul.

There are 24 short chapters (about 6 pages each), one for each day of December leading up to Christmas. It’s an advent devotional, but trust me, you don’t need to wait for next December to read this.

The 13th chapter on love not rejoicing in evil was especially good. What we rejoice in says a lot about who we are. Convicting stuff.

Ferguson uses examples and illustrations very well, in both frequency and aptness.

I highly recommend this book to anyone, as an exploration of the idea of biblical love, and as an application commentary on 1 Corinthians 13.

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Entering and staying in the covenant of grace

I had a cordial conversation with a PCA pastor about Federal Vision theology recently.  Those are quite rare, so I enjoyed it.  We disagreed and didn't have much time, so came away with our same views, but one piece of the discussion was really enlightening for me.

My new friend asked a really helpful question:

Does entry into covenant with God, and continuance in that same covenant, have the same basis, the same requirements?

1.      The typical Baptist says yes, by the individual's profession of faith for both.  This seemed appalling to him, that a believer could be baptized and take communion for the first time on the same day.

2.      The typical Reformed (PCA, OPC, etc.) says no (profession of faith is needed to commune, but not to be baptized.  More accurately, a profession of faith of the parent(s) is needed to be baptized, while a profession of faith of the individual is needed to commune).

3.      I've come to believe as our denomination, the CREC, would answer this question: yes, entry into the covenant, and continuing in the covenant, have the same basis, the same requirements, AT FIRST, by membership in a believing household for both.  BUT, continuance in the covenant assumes their faith will become their own, and if it doesn’t, it will show in lack of interest in the things of the Lord, church attendance, lifestyle, etc. which must be disciplined by church leaders to avoid nominalism running rampant in the church.

      In other words, the practice of profession of faith as a requirement for coming to the Lord's Table, is not required to properly administer discipline in the local church.  It is not appalling, but glorious, to welcome a child to baptism, and then to communion on the same Sunday.  Because baptism is the biblical sign of entrance into Christ, while the practice of professing faith functionally makes that profession the REAL entrance instead of baptism.  The real crux for option #2 is your decision, your profession.  In this way, the typical Reformed is more baptistic (putting all the weight on our choice) than they care to admit.

      That's as far as our discussion went.  Here are two more thoughts.

      I'll fully admit that when a very young infant is brought for baptism, it's a bad idea medically to give them the same piece of bread an adult would take.  But this does not confirm position #2!  It only shows that growth is needed within the covenant, while we are in Christ.

      It's ironic to me that the 2nd option often accuses the 3rd of asserting that we stay in the covenant by our works, not by God's grace.  This is a false slander, for one thing.  For another, it could as legitimately be said that option 2 makes it a matter of works to come to the table: to be able to articulate adequately in words their profession before enjoying the full benefits of the covenant in communion.  Note I say "as legitimately."  I don't wish to slander option 2 - I think their position is that we profess our faith only by God's grace.  But why can't they see that we emphasize our faithfulness to remain in the covenant also as occurring only by God's grace?


Kuyper's Sphere Sovereignty and Totalitarian America

Robert Godfrey gives a good summary of Abraham Kuyper’s life in a recent talk I listened to.

Right at the end for five minutes, he describes the idea of sphere sovereignty and puts it in Kuyper’s historical setting, which I hadn’t heard done before.

Kuyper was a generation or so after Napoleon.  The “anti-Revolution” political party that Kuyper started reacted against the totalitarianism of the French revolution.  That monstrosity asserted that the state was the ultimate rule for society.  Kuyper said, no, the ultimate rule for society does not reside in any one human form of government, but is divided among several: family, church, and state.  The division helps keep each one honest when all are prone to over-reach selfishly.

We see this play out today.

Family over-reach arrives in ultra-conservative patriarchy, where father over-rules church elders, and keeps the state away with his guns in his bunker.  Or it arrives in the soft evangelical way, where family schedule simply shrugs at church and civic obligations.  “Go to a Christmas church service?  That time is for FAMILY.”

Church over-reach arrives in heavy-handed institutions like popes or bishops, or Presbyterian sessions overly keen on wielding their authority.  They deliver statements like edicts from on high regarding what an individual MUST do in a specific situation, to avoid disciplinary action, and to truly please God by submitting to His earthly authorities.

State over-reach arrives in the West with soft promises to help do things that the state was never meant to do: subsidize home loans, extend student loans, force us to get insurance for various things we don’t always want, help us eat healthier, and take away our second amendment rights to keep and bear arms.  (Ask Virginians about that last one these days.)  In developing countries, state over-reach arrives when the state “protects” Christian minorities from itself by forbidding assembly and jailing its pastors (China), or allowing marauders to attack them, so they move elsewhere (Nigeria).

As you can see from these examples, getting sphere sovereignty wrong has dire consequences.  We would do well to study the idea in Scripture, and advocate for biblical justice in these areas.


Homosexuality, Reparative Therapy, and the Bible

Robert Gagnon spoke at a recent Evangelical Theological Society meeting.
I got the recording – it was the first time I’ve heard him speak and I was delighted.
A theology professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Gagnon’s expertise is what the Bible says about homosexuality.

This talk gets specifically into reparative therapy, which has become the whipping boy of this LGBT issue for all sides.  Outlawed in a majority of states, it is now rejected by a majority of conservative, evangelical, Bible-believing Christians as well.  Gagnon does a great job distinguishing real reparative therapy from the strawman bogeyman set up for us.

Is the main goal to make same-sex oriented people into those with hetero desires?  No.
Is the assumption that such therapy will automatically bring about an easy reversal?  No.
Is the person who experiences same-sex attraction automatically guilty of sin?  No.
Are the homosexually oriented the way they are because of flawed relationships with their parent of the same sex?  Not necessarily.
Is the cause entirely nurture, and not nature at all?  Not necessarily.

Gagnon talks a lot of sense, here.  It’s commonly assumed that the Bible’s take on homosexuality is basically, “Ew.  Icky.  Go away.”  Wrong.  1 Corinthians 6:9-11 proves it.

To take each of the above points in turn:

Is the main goal to make same-sex oriented people into those with hetero desires?
It would be ideal for the same-sex attracted to become hetero, but if this does not happen, one can remain a faithful Christian while denying continuing homosexual temptations and desires.

Is the assumption that such therapy will automatically bring about an easy reversal?
Reparative therapy does not assume an easy and automatic change, but it does hold out hope for a change out of the homosexual lifestyle.  Even describing it this way gives such hope.  If one can move from a conservative Christian family member lifestyle into a homosexual lifestyle, it stands to reason one can move out of a homosexual lifestyle into another lifestyle. See 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 again.

Is the person who experiences same-sex attraction automatically guilty of sin?
Reparative therapy’s main goal isn’t to get the patient to never feel those icky same-sex attraction feelings again, but to learn to renounce them biblically.  There is a volitional element to this issue seldom taken account of adequately.  Just as a man can experience the temptation to lust after a woman, but reject it and stay faithful, so the same-sex attracted can reject their temptation faithfully, while still experiencing the attraction.  This may be the most controversial of Gagnon’s points, but I think I agree.  That attraction is part of a fallen world – not how things are supposed to be.  And many things are that way, but not morally culpable: autism, hurricanes, etc.  This is a far cry from celebrating the diversity of just having a different lifestyle, of course.  But it is also far from the visceral, “Ew, gross.”  Everyone is messed up with desires they need to renounce.  In one sense, we should “normalize” homosexuality by saying it’s “just another sin,” as long as we maintain the abhorrent cosmic treason of every kind of sin.  As Rosaria Butterfield likes to ask other church goers, “What are YOU giving up to be here in church today?”  She’s giving up homosexual desire.  What are you repenting of?

Are the homosexually oriented the way they are because of flawed relationships with their parent of the same sex?
The homosexual may be how they are due to messed up relationships with parents, but not necessarily.  It’s something for the therapist to check into, but reparative therapy is not synonymous with pat answers and a pat on the head.

Is the cause entirely nurture, and not nature at all?
The world just doesn’t like the assumption that homosexuality is a disorder for which treatment by a therapist may help.  This was assumed to be true until very recently, even in the professional psychology manuals and journals.  But now it must be vigorously rejected, even in state law, so extensively is the sexual revolution progressing.

Gagnon does an excellent job talking Biblical sense, between the Victorian squeamishness that the world loves to reject, and the common celebration of perversity out there today.  The church embraces this squeamishness to its isolation from the rising generations.  The young go along with celebrating this "lifestyle" to the contradiction of God's Word.


O Pioneers!

O Pioneers! (Great Plains Trilogy, #1)O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was my first Willa Cather read. (I’m on a jag lately to read genres and authors I haven’t read much of before.)

The writing was good, describing the land and basic human problems of survival and legacy. I’m amazed at how often in stories that aren’t meaning to be Christian at all, the blessing of God upon Abraham to give him descendants and land keeps recurring. So it was here. The main problems are 1) Who will steward the land? and 2) Will we find love and an enduring legacy in the next generation?

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The Winter King

The Winter KingThe Winter King by Christine Cohen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quite good.

There aren’t many youth books that tackle the topic of oppressive pagan gods, and girls who hate them. Cohen does a laudable job making this compelling, though it drags in the middle a bit. She does better depicting the problems of surviving through the winter, and of vulnerable people exploited by men in positions of power, than the problem of worshiping a false god. I think it’s tricky to convey a sense of false worship being normal for people who have known it all their lives, and at the same time convey the jarring awfulness of it. Plot suffered a bit in the attempt.

Until the end. The last hundred pages or so, the pace picks up and it’s a page turner. It ends showing the great importance of reformation and witness. The book shows the awful consequences of a false worldview, and of wicked men in high places.

A great read for your 10-15 year old.

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Reading My Bible in 2020

Presenting a custom-made Bible reading plan!

I started with the idea that different Bible books need to be read differently:

- Some prophets should be read chronologically with the Kings.
- Some proverbs should be read slowly; some with the history of Solomon.
- The Old and New Testaments should generally be read chronologically, but reading the New Testament each day is important (instead of waiting until the OT is done).
- Most Psalms can't be tied to a specific historical Scripture.
- A Psalm a day helps develop a steady prayer life.

This led to these features:
- through the whole Bible in one year
- Psalms or Proverbs are read every day, and gotten through in the year
- Most Proverbs are read just a few verses per day.

Whatever plan you use, if any, immerse yourself in God's Word daily this year.



When Character Was King

When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald ReaganWhen Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan by Peggy Noonan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Noonan is a great writer. She captures the spirit of the man and his motives very well.

She often takes on a sentimental tone, with lots of inside jokes and obscure people. (Noonan is an insider herself, so has a penchant for name dropping, and letting us know she is in the know, it seems.) You have to let some of this go over your head, and just grab what you can.

The book is light on policy – what was Reagan actually trying to do? It’s in there now and then, mostly indirectly, but the author seeks to depict the man more personally. (Reading Noonan lately, I wonder if she has drifted away from his agenda and policy goals.)

If you appreciate Reagan, this book is worth your time.

3 stars

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What Did You Expect?

What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of MarriageWhat Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage by Paul David Tripp

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paul Tripp puts out a lot of books, and they are all good.

He holds up a mirror to normal people’s lives and how sin is messing us up.
He targets the heart – our desires are off base and need recalibrating.
He uses Scripture well to offer real solutions that aren’t simple or cliché.

Here he addresses the marriage that has moved past the honeymoon stage into some significant problems, possibly even wondering if it is over. This can be a huge opportunity to grow spiritually, more so than the honeymoon phase.

Tripp can be wordy, but that can help slow you down and really consider, which is hard for us to do these days.
He also focuses almost solely on the heart, making it quite individualistic in application. Seldom does he mention the church or mentoring couples as substantively helpful. This is the biggest oversight in his writing. But what he does – apply to the heart – he does well.

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Knowing Christ

Knowing ChristKnowing Christ by Mark   Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read three of Mark Jones’ books now, and have yet to be disappointed.
Here he brings his extensive knowledge of the puritans to bear on a devotional treatment of Christ’s attributes. Each chapter is about 8 pages, for easy reading in one sitting. Solidly orthodox, Jones covers His birth, death, resurrection, offices, etc. as expected. But he isn’t afraid to give a little creative touch, too, with chapters on Christ’s emotions, His growth, and His reading.

One recurring and helpful theme is that Jesus had faith in His Father, and practiced that faith in normal ways as we are called to do: reading Scripture, praying, obeying His parents, etc. Christian authors today tend to focus on how Jesus is uniquely different from us, to preserve that divine uniqueness. But Scripture also calls Him our example, and we follow in His steps. How can we if He only did things none of us can do (healing, dying for the sins of others, etc.)?

Another theme is that the Psalms are written ABOUT Jesus. Not just in a prophetic, predicting the Messiah to come kind of way, but all the time – in His suffering, bearing the sin of His people, ruling as King, etc.

Full of insight and encyclopedic referencing of Scripture, Knowing Christ exalts Christ highly, as Scripture does, explaining how in fresh ways. This is an important read for anyone seeking to know Jesus more.

4 stars!

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Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way Comes (Green Town, #2)Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Best known for his Martian Chronicles or Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury is an excellent writer – pretty easy to read, yet stretching vocabulary and compelling prose at times.

“The stuff of nightmare is their plain bread. They butter it with pain. They set their clocks by deathwatch beetles, and thrive the centuries. They were the men with the leather-ribbon whips who sweated up the Pyramids seasoning it with other people's salt and other people's cracked hearts.”

He evokes the looming sense of dread quite well, that something wicked this way is coming. He depicts friendship between the two boys beautifully.

Bradbury’s worldview is sad. Pathetic. The basic message seems to be that we make too much of death and evil, and give it its power by our own fears. If we would just smile, sing and dance, evil would vanish in a puff of smoke, and death would be undone. This is literally what happens at the end. It’s a ridiculous counterfeit savior from death, evil and hell.

1 star for content; 3 for writing skill. 2 stars over all.

Good reading for high school boys who can spot inadequate secular solutions to real spiritual problems.

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Overton Window // Federal Vision // Is Christmas Pagan?

I haven't read Doug Wilson much recently, but the last section of this post is excellent.
He explains there why he blogs like he does.  He believes evangelicals have placed too high a priority on being winsome and gaining (or maintaining) influence with normal people.

I'm partially convinced, but also think it depends greatly who you're talking to.  Not everyone responds well to being shocked and provoked into considering the truth.  But Wilson's right that the way things are going, simply stating biblical truth - as blandly, calmly or winsomely as possible - is itself shocking and unacceptable now.

Speaking of Wilson, this was an extremely clarifying conversation on Federal Vision between James White and Doug Wilson.  I was a bit taken aback on one point.  A couple years ago Doug said he no longer wanted to be considered a Federal Vision guy, but here (I assume this video is more recent) he gives his older line that he sees himself as a light version of Federal Vision.
[Update: Doug says he was describing his past view there - he does not call himself FV at all anymore.]

Finally, Jeff Meyers has a series of essays answering questions of whether Christmas is a syncretistic compromise with our culture.


The Boar's Head Festival

Image result for boar's head festival pictures

I'd heard of this custom, but again, didn't know much about it.

Recently I got to attend the whole show, with dozens of cast, a large choir and orchestra, in a packed and beautiful chapel.

The first half acts out a medieval feast, with good King Wenceslas as host, while the choir sings Christmas carols.

Here's the cool part: the name comes from the centerpiece of the feast, and the core meaning of Christmas.  In England, the main hostile creature is not a serpent or a lion, but a boar in the forest.  Bringing in his head on a platter signifies the defeat of evil, the serpent's head crushed.  Time to feast!

"The mightiest Hunter of them all
We honor in this festal hall...
He hunted down through earth and hell
The swart boar death until it fell.
This mighty deed for us was done.
Therefore we sing in unison"

The second half acts out the nativity story, and at the end the revelers from the first half all return and bow down to baby Jesus.  The climax comes on the last verse of Let All Mortal Flesh, as good King Wenceslas approaches and bows to the Christ Child.  Concluding with O Come All Ye Faithful invites the audience to take part in worshiping our God.

I noticed an important subtle action at the end.  All the cast who were looking at baby Jesus and singing praise to Him, at one point looked up beyond Him, giving thanks to God the Father for giving this gift.  This is a much needed and bracing cure for the sentimentalism that can infect our holidays, where we only look at the nativity scene for how nice it looks.  No, this was God's gift to us, and we should look from the gift (the scene and baby Jesus) to the Giver.


Fum, Fum, Fum

So we sang this one caroling yesterday afternoon.  I'd heard it a time or two, but didn't know much about it.  I thought it was pronounced with a short u (rhymes with bum), but it's from Spain (Catalonia) originally.

Fum appears to refer to smoke, like from a chimney (think winter cottage scene).  For a familiar related word, think of no smoking signs in Spanish - no FUMar. 

Or it might mean "strum," or to sound like a strum. 

Either way, the song is 200-300 years old.