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Reading, Pondering, and Cherishing Scripture

I still remember the first time I read this sentence by J. I. Packer: “God’s purpose in revelation is to make friends with us.”[1] I marveled at the thought that the God of the universe wanted to be friends with me. Could it be true?

I now know that through the means of Holy Scripture God shares his life, light, and love with us. He communicates in order to commune with us. He reveals his character in order to elicit our trust. He announces the saving gospel of his Son to sweep us up into his reign of grace and fit us for the new heavens and earth: “The seals are broken, the stone rolled away from the door of the tomb, and that greatest of all mysteries brought to light—that Christ, God’s Son became man, that God is Three and One, that Christ suffered for us, and will reign forever.”[2]

Three exhortations follow:

We should read the Bible. The community of the redeemed should be a community of readers. But not any kind of reading will do. According to the classical Christian tradition, reading well requires learning a set of dispositions—studiousness, attentiveness, humility, modesty, docility, and patience. These virtues reinforce the truth that we receive God’s Word and sit under it as servants. We do not stand over it as interpretive Lords, nor do we sit beside it as God’s equals.[3] God is “absolute giver”; we are “absolute receivers.”[4]

Since God reveals himself not only to inform our minds but transform our lives, let’s prayerfully cultivate these virtues as God’s people, so that we might profit from our time sitting before his feet.

We should meditate on the Bible. I’ve noted in sermons that the Hebrew word for “meditate” means to “mutter, to speak in a low voice, to talk to oneself.”[5] Picture in your mind’s eye someone who whispers the truths of God’s Word under his or her breath throughout the day. Or picture a dog salivating over and chewing on his bone. That’s what we’re to do with God’s Word.

The best way for me to meditate on Scripture is to force myself to answer questions like the following:

Am I living in light of this? What difference does this make? Am I taking this seriously? If I believed and held to this, how would that change things? What does this teach me about God and his character? About human nature, character, and behavior? About church, or life in the people of God? What does this mean for my relationship with God? To myself? To this or that person or group? To this or that behavior or habit? To my friends, to the culture? Be concrete—is there something you must stop doing because of it? Is there something you should start doing? Why might God be showing this to you today? What is going on now in your life to which this would be relevant?[6]

We all prefer the secure confines of predictability and the armor of false peace, but the Bible urge us to open ourselves up to our Savior and taste the freedom of enslavement to Christ.

We should cherish the Bible. That God in his kindness shares a portion of his knowledge with creatures summons us to wonder, astonishment, trust, and gratitude.

I can do no better than conclude with Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), who shows us that God reveals himself to us in Scripture . . .

. . . to the end of re-creating the whole person after God’s image and likeness and thus to transform that person into a mirror of God’s attributes and perfections. Hence the object of revelation cannot only be to teach human beings, to illuminate their intellects (rationalism), or to prompt them to practice virtue (moralism), or to arouse religious sensations (mysticism). God’s aim in special revelation is both much deeper and reaches much farther. It is none other than to redeem human beings in their totality of body and soul with all their capacities and powers.[7]

And so we pray:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen (Thomas Cranmer’s Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent).

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[1] J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1990), 50, italics in original.

[2] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1957), 71.

[3] Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation (New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 76.

[4] Charles P. Arand, “Luther on the Creed,” Lutheran Quarterly 20 (2006): 1–25.

[5] Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms: Volume 1, NIVAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 96.

[6] Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 148, 154, 158–159.

[7] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 346, emphasis mine.

Four Quotes for Your Friday

Enjoy!

“[B]y framing the abortion dispute as essentially a clash of raw interests between strangers—a person and a nonperson—Justice Blackmun [1908–1999] embraces the narrative of expressive individualism: a universe of lonely atomized wills each seeking their own self-invented destinies, encountering other wills as transactional collaborators or adversaries to be overcome. For Blackmun, the interests of the fetus do not even rise to the interests of a person, but rather a sub-personal being whose interests must necessarily give way when they conflict with those of a bona fide person. This clash of interests bears little relation to the reality of human procreation and pregnancy, in which the dramatis personae include a woman and her biological offspring literally joined in body, one inside the other, utterly dependent on the other, with lives integrated and intertwined to a degree like no other human relationship. They are, biologically speaking, mother and child. They are not homeowner and burglar, host and parasite, or violinist and unwilling conjoined kidney donor. This is not a dispute over private property. Moreover, there is no ‘unplugging’ to undo this relationship—modern methods of abortion involve the direct killing and removal of the fetus through highly invasive and violent means. Blackmun’s narrative of conflict is simplistic, foreign, and forgetful of the body.” – O. Carter Snead, What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020), 140.

“Those who are idle in the pursuit of righteousness count theological terminology as secondary” – Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, trans. David Anderson (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), 1. 2, p. 16.

Webster offers a theology of patience: “But patience is a divine effect because it is a divine property: God is the source of patience because he is patient in himself. Divine patience allows creatures time to enact their lives; in the face of creaturely rejection, it does not terminate the creature but continues to grant to the creature further opportunities and possibilities. This divine patience is not suffering but long-suffering, longanimity: not passive waiting upon creaturely purpose but the enduring exercise of government. . . . Its exemplary force is known supremely in the life of Christ in which it is embodied and commended. Cyprian, for example, looks at the entire course of the incarnation from heavenly descent through passion to exaltation as divine-human illustration and pattern of the excellence of patience. ‘[H]e maintained the patience of his Father in the constancy of his endurance’; and so, ‘let us walk by the example of Christ” – John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Vol. 2, Virtue and Intellect (New York: T&T Clark, 2018), 179.

“There are fruits in God’s garden as well as in man’s which never ripen till they are bruised.” – Charles Spurgeon, “Beloved and Yet Afflicted.”

Four Quotes for Your Friday

Read, ponder, pray, enjoy!

“[W]hen was the last time you took a risk to obey Christ? When was the last time you diminished your future–socially, financially, professionally–for his sake? When was the last time your life looked obviously different from the life of someone who does not trust Jesus at all? If you never surprise an unbelieving friend by your sacrifices for Christ, it is probably because what you are living for is the same earthly payoff he is living for. But if you trust the Lord entirely, you will also trust him exhaustively, across the whole of life” – Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., Proverbs: Wisdom That Works, Preach the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 65. 

Yes! And amen to the following quote! – “Despite all of our fables and legends about the dangers therein [concerning pride] . . . we grow accustomed to thinking of self-exaltation, at least to some manageable degree, as a ‘normal’ part of leadership and drive. . . . Often even in Christian ministry the same tendencies are present and covered over in a pretense of humility. Self-promotion and egotism are rewarded because the more a Christian crows about his superior prayer life or his cutting-edge research or his ability to grow churches or movements, the more an audience tends to believe it. Genuine Christian humility often seems mousy or nonassertive by contrast. Sometimes the complaint ‘he lacks ambition’ can simply be translated as ‘he doesn’t worship himself, and he doesn’t expect us to either.’ When so many leaders are proud, it becomes very difficult for the Spirit-convicted psyche to discern, ‘Am I prideful, or am I leader?’” – Russell D. Moore, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 144.

“Closely allied with the tendency to see what you want in the complex patterns of objective reality is the tendency to be furious about whatever you imagine they reveal. Whether it involves the regulatory capital requirements for equity derivative trading platforms, the estimated reproduction rate of a respiratory virus, or the rate at which carbon molecules are being absorbed into the atmosphere, the default position of talk-show hosts and Twitterati with upward of 50,000 followers can be summed up as: ‘I don’t understand what’s going on, but I know it vindicates everything I’ve ever said, and I’m absolutely outraged about it’” – Gerard Baker, “In Our Hyperpartisan World, Everything’s an Inkblot,” Wall Street Journal (February 2, 2021): A17.

Herman Bavinck on the love of God: “[T]his love is not the essence of God in the sense that it is the center and core of God’s being and the other attributes are its modes, for all the attributes are equally God’s being. In him there is no higher or lower, no greater and smaller. Still, love is most certainly identical with his being. It is independent, eternal, and unchangeable, like God himself. It has its origin in him and also—by way of creatures, returns to him” – Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 216. 

Four Quotes for Your Friday

Even though I am on vacation, I wanted to share four more quotes with you. Praise God for the gift of good books and articles:

“The pro-Nicene theology that emerged in the fourth century as the consensus doctrine of God in the Christian church was not a result of the imposition of Greek metaphysical ideas onto the Bible, as if Aristotle was preferred over Moses, Isaiah, and Paul. Rather, on the crucial issue of divine transcendence, Aristotle was corrected on the basis of Moses, Isaiah, and Paul. . . . Moltmann’s project is built on a faulty foundation because he simplistically equates the use of Aristotelian concepts with the uncritical use of such concepts, as when he writes smugly, ‘Aristotle’s God cannot love’ (Crucified God, 222), as if no one from Athanasius to Aquinas had noticed the fact” – Craig A. Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 210, 210n11. 

“It is tempting to say that what you do with this time that you have is your own business. Briefly stated, however, the Christian position is that there’s no such thing as your own business”- Frederick Buechner, “X,” in Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner, ed. George Conner (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 203. 

“To pray in Christ’s name, is to pray with confidence in Christ’s merit” – Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (1692; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2020), 33.

“One of the grand myths of modernity has been that the operations of reason are a sphere from which God’s presence can be banished, where the mind is, as it were, safe from divine intrusion. To that myth, Christian theology is a standing rebuke. As holy reason at work, Christian theology can never escape from the sober realization that we talk in the terrifying presence of the God from whom we cannot flee (Ps. 139. 7). In Christian theology, the matter of our discourse is not someone absent, someone whom we have managed to exclude from our own intellectual self-presence and about whom we can talk away safely and undisturbed. We speak in God’s presence. When we begin to talk theologically about the holiness of God, we soon discover that the tables have been reversed; it is no longer we who summon God before our minds to make him a matter for clever discourse, but the opposite: the holy God shows himself and summons us before him to give account of our thinking. That summons—and not any constellation of cultural, intellectual or political conditions—is the determinative context of holy reason” – John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 15.

An Addendum to My Sermon “Religion, Politics, and Money”: What I Take into Consideration Before I Vote

Back on April 18th I preached a sermon on Matthew 22:15–22 titled “Religion, Politics, and Money.” In this post, I’d like to rehearse some of the points I made, and then share with you what I take into consideration before I vote.

First, let’s review three of the five points of application I made.

The government is a God-ordained institution. After creating people in his image, God said “let them have dominion” (Gen. 1:26), and “fill the earth and subdue it” (v. 28). These words highlight a key biblical truth: “God not only reigns over people; he also reigns through people.”[1] Consequently, human government—even if it is not explicitly Christian—is good. Order is better than anarchy. Because government is a God-ordained institution, and because God reigns over people and through people, we have certain obligations to the government:

  • We obey the law (Rom. 13:1–7).
  • We pay taxes (Matt. 22:21).
  • We pray for those in authority (1 Tim. 2:1–2).
  • We honor our leaders (1 Pet. 2:13–17).

Nevertheless, I also stated that we cannot give our unqualified support to the government. I appealed to Acts 4 and 5 for biblical support. When the governing authorities forbid Peter and John from preaching in Christ’s name, they respond: “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29). Hence, the main point I sought to bring out in my message was that while we have certain responsibilities to the government, our undivided allegiance belongs to God alone. Our duty to Caesar is not ultimate; obedience to God is.

I also said that Christians may need to modify their political views because of their commitment to Christ. I appealed to Simon the Zealot as my biblical example because the Zealots refused to pay taxes to the Roman government. But in Matthew 22:21, Jesus says, in effect, “Pay your taxes.” Conclusion? Simon the Zealot needed to modify his political views. While I realize there may not be an exact parallel between the Zealots and contemporary Christians, I used this example to exhort our congregation to bring every thought, every ideology, and every policy captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

This exhortation provokes a question I did not address in my sermon: Should Christians only support those in government who advance biblical values?

To answer this question, I consulted with other pastors and theologians to broaden my perspective and sharpen my thinking. Here’s what I’ve concluded:

First, Christians may choose to abstain from voting altogether. Although I think Christians should participate in elections, I do not believe it is a biblical requirement. As far as I and the other pastors and theologians I brainstormed with can tell, Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:15–22 mean that we need to pay taxes, but do not demand that we vote. That said, Christians who participate in the political process must remember that no candidate will advance our values perfectly.

As one who chooses to participate in elections, here’s what informs how I vote:

My theology of creation and the created order inform how I vote. To see my thought process, my theology of creation and the created order lead me to affirm the following theses and their entailments:

Thesis 1: Humans are created and dependent beings who inhabit a world with a built-in structure to it spoken into existence by a wise and good Creator. Three entailments follow: 1) As creatures, human beings receive reality; 2) we receive the created order as a gift; 3) we must bring our lives into conformity with the created order. Human beings do not give nature its shape.

Thesis 2: The doctrine of creation—as well as Christ’s incarnation[2] and resurrection[3]—leads Christians to affirm the fundamental goodness of creation and embodied life. Entailment: We should embrace rather than extinguish life.

Thesis 3: The doctrine of creation implies that our God-given genders of male and female are gifts to be received. Entailment: The terms male and female are not social constructs but rooted in God’s design (Gen. 1:26–28).

Thesis 4: According to Scripture, human beings are created and dependent (Gen. 1–2), but also fallen (Gen. 3). Entailment: Human beings seek to exercise their reason autonomously and aim to unshackle themselves from their creatureliness.

Thesis 4 brings us to our current cultural moment. We no longer see ourselves as bound by “natural law.” Rather, we believe that we give nature its order. Legal scholar O. Carter Snead rightly notes that contemporary American public policy regards human beings as “atomized individual wills” inhabiting bodies.[4] As a result, politicians advance policies that militate against human flourishing and harm people.[5] Hence: I cannot in good conscience support political candidates who work to put these kinds of policies in place.

Together with the point above, my theology of marriage informs how I vote. To keep this brief: Marriage is neither a human invention, nor a social convention, but a creation ordinance established by God as a heterosexual, monogamous, permanent relationship (Gen. 2:24). The man and woman leave their family of origin, unite together in marriage, and form a new family. Accordingly, the state does not have the right to redefine marriage because the state is not the author of marriage. It is crucial for Christians to see that marriage is not “an intimate personal relationship” with sex.[6] It is not merely a strong emotional connection between two (or more) people. I believe Christians should support and defend a strong marriage culture. Hence: I cannot in good conscience support political candidates who work to undermine traditional marriage.

Given my comments, some readers may be thinking, “Joe, based upon what you have written, it’s clear that you think Christians should only support Republican candidates?”

My response is: Not necessarily. I know there are Democrats who agree with what I wrote above and therefore oppose the leftward lurch of their party. But as things currently stand, the Democratic party is largely beholden to several ideologies* that I believe conflict with the Christian worldview in significant ways and that threaten to imperil the rights of Christians to live out the implications of their worldview. Here I am thinking of the LGBTQ+ revolution, critical theory (and its offshoots), intersectionality, and identity politics. They also tend to treat the Supreme Court as another policy-making body.[7]

At this point others may be muttering under their breath: I, too, affirm the doctrine of creation and support traditional marriage, but I also value immigration, gun control, and an equitable tax system (to name only a few).

So, here’s my conclusion: Choosing to participate in the political process requires Christian wisdom, which means prayerfully deciding which cultural, moral, and policy issues to prioritize.

As for me, I prioritize what I wrote above.

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*For the sake of clarity, I am using the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of “ideology”: “Ideal or abstract speculation; in a depreciatory sense, unpractical or visionary theorizing or speculation” (2nd ed. [1989]), s. v. “ideology.”

[1] Jeremy R. Treat, The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 55.

[2] The medieval theologian Anselm (1093–1109) memorably stated that human nature was exalted in the incarnation. See his Cur Deus Homo, in Anselm: Basic Writings, trans. and ed. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007), 1. 8 (253).

[3] James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 154, says the resurrection of Christ is an affirmation of creation.

[4] O. Carter Snead, What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020), 5, 8, 65–105. In contemporary public life, “Persons are identified with and defined by the exercise of their will—their capacity for choosing in accordance with their wants and desires. Thus, this conception of personhood decisively privileges cognition as the indispensable criterion for membership in this category of beings. In this way, it appears to be dualistic, distinguishing the mind from the body. The mind and will define the person, whereas the body is treated as a contingent instrument for pursuing the projects that emerge from cognition and choice” (69–70). For more on this point see Robert P. George’s essay, “Gnostic Liberalism” here.

[5] As an example, see Abigail Shrier, “Male Inmates in Women’s Prisons,” Wall Street Journal (June 1, 2021): A17.

[6] Katherine Shaw Spaht, “The Current Crisis in Marriage Law, Its Origins, and Its Impact,” in The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, & Morals, eds. Robert P. George & Jean Bethke Elshtain (Dallas: Spence, 2006), 239.

[7] As the late Antonin Scalia wrote, “A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.” See his “Dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges,” in American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition, ed. Andrew J. Bacevich (New York: The Library of America, 2020), 306. Interested readers should also consult Scalia’s essay, “Mullahs of the West: Judges as Moral Arbiters,” which you can find here: scalia.indd (rpo.gov.pl)