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Archive for May 2020

Love in the time of Chinese flu

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Now is a good time for the church to remember our call to unity. But we’ve all seen unity used as a cover to downgrade truth, righteousness, and genuine love. So it is equally a good time to be cautious about how that unity is urged and achieved.

As a practical example, I can show love for my brother Tom by standing six feet away from him and being charitable and gracious towards his reasons for wanting to exercise caution. But is there any situation whatsoever where my brotherly love for Tom restrains me from hugging Joe?

This article by Brett McCracken is typical of some of the poorly framed calls to unity nowadays. Ironically, you could say that Brett is insufficiently nuanced, or perhaps that his indecisive nuance is insufficiently masculine or fatherly.

Brett makes a simple but common category mistake: the man of weak conscience and the anxious man are not necessarily the same. As Friedman stresses, and as any good parent knows, our goal for the anxious is not to keep them from falling into sin, but to provide them enough firmness and exposure to mature. To be clear: I do not mean to imply that everyone taking precautions is anxious, nor do I mean to imply that that the best medicine is always to confront someone’s anxiety head-on.

However, anxiety is sin. And that leads us to another of Brett’s mistakes, which is to leave out almost entirely the category of the prophetic. He does want us to be faithful to the gospel, but there are many other points at which truth, righteousness, and beauty call for taking a loyal stand. Such a stand may appear to some to lack the humility and patience that Brett stresses. Brett himself makes the mistake of opposing confidence and humility; contrast this with Paul who exhorts us to be convinced about disputable matters, and we all remember Chesterton’s cutting insight on the true meaning of humility. And of course Brett himself is confident; we expect no less of someone writing to urge the church how to behave. Prophets know that their message can and must be grounded on a better sort of humility and patience and love. Every good parent knows that firmness is compatible with these things, and even Brett is exercising a kind of mollified firmness toward the prophet; the problem is that he is equating agreeable unity with true unity and thereby pointing his firmness in the wrong direction. It is easy to take a stand on yesterday’s issues, and for peace, but difficult and unpopular to take a stand on today’s issues.

Today’s issues are no small matter because they hinge on a number of points that do call for our loyalty: the priority of God’s call to worship in the heavenly assembly; truth; a biblical approach to quarantine, including a biblical value for livelihood and work; a biblical understanding of spheres of authority and their requirements and limits; and a wise, fatherly, and firm response to the truly infectious sin of anxiety. Surprisingly, these points all in fact involve a love for our neighbor, a placing “the interests of others above the self” as Brett rightly appeals but too narrowly applies. In addition to the more popular truths of humility and patience, the church has the solemn responsibility to proclaim these truths as well. With our childlike faith, we ought always to be in the vanguard of the children who expose the emperor’s lack of clothing.

We will surely be worshipping together in ten years’ time and with even closer bonds of unity in Jesus our king. Holding that anticipation over all is a good way to frame the great patience and love we exercise today even in our firmness. We are loyal to truth, righteousness, beauty, and to one another.

Written by Scott Moonen

May 16, 2020 at 10:24 am


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Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:18b–21 ESV)

The Bible does not assume that you need to be healthy, or even alive, to be happy and to glorify God. . . Death is a temporary trouble. (Michael Stalker)

Written by Scott Moonen

May 10, 2020 at 1:54 pm

Worship is warfare (5)

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National defense:

“Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest. You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the LORD God, the God of Israel. For I will cast out nations before you and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land, when you go up to appear before the LORD your God three times in the year. (Exodus 34:21–24 ESV)

See also: Worship is warfare (4), etc.

Written by Scott Moonen

May 10, 2020 at 1:40 pm

A child forever

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When I think of the small passions of men of our day, the softness of their mores, the extent of their enlightenment, the purity of their religion, the mildness of their morality, their laborious and steady habits, the restraint that almost all preserve in vice as in virtue, I do not fear that in their chiefs they will find tyrants, but rather schoolmasters.

I think therefore that the kind of oppression with which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing that has preceded it in the world; our contemporaries would not find its image in their memories. I myself seek in vain an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I form of it for myself and that contains it; the old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable. The thing is new, therefore I must try to define it, since I cannot name it.

I want to imagine with what new features despotism could be produced in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.

Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industries, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?

So it is that every day it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will in a smaller space and little by little steals the very use of free will from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all these things: it has disposed them to tolerate them and often even to regard them as a benefit.

Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, volume 2, book 4, chapter 6

HT: Brad Hodges

Written by Scott Moonen

May 8, 2020 at 2:06 pm

Posted in Quotations

No longer under a guardian

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Applying God’s commands requires wisdom.

Consider Romans 13. How shall we subject ourselves to governing authorities (Romans 13) when they reject or neglect God, when they have become a terror or nuisance, not to bad conduct, but to good conduct?

If there is ever an outright conflict, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), but not all cases are so simple. Sometimes different authorities are in conflict: the statute says one thing but the magistrate says another. In these cases we may make appeals; or one magistrate may empower us to disobey another, such as bringing a case before a judge. In many cases we simply submit to unjust authority (Matthew 17:24–27, 22:15–22), trusting for final vindication from “him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2).

But God has also set out for us a pattern of righteous deception in the face of unjust rule. By their deception, the Hebrew midwives saved lives (Exodus 1). Moses was concealed in a basket (Exodus 2) and so was Paul (Acts 9). Abraham and Isaac both used righteous deception to protect the mother of the seed from the Egyptians and Philistines (Genesis 12, 20, 26). Luther held (and I agree) that Jacob and Rachel righteously deceived Isaac and Esau. Gideon hid wheat from the tax man (Judges 6); and Saul, Jonathan, and David did not have their firearm permits in order (1 Samuel 13, 21). David hid from and deceived Saul (foreshadowing Jesus’s messianic secret); and he hid from and conspired to deceive his son Absalom.

Much of how we think about this could be prudential: counting the cost of what is likely to be discovered, punished, and how (Ecclesiastes 9: “a living dog is better than a dead lion”), but also and especially considering what will bring the greatest advantage to the church and kingdom. Peter escaped jail when he had the opportunity in Acts 12, but Paul and Silas remained in jail in Acts 16. Our greatest heroes are men who valued God’s kingdom over their own lives. Paul knowingly exchanged his life for the sake of the kingdom with his submissive appeal to Caesar. The case of Daniel 6 and the decree of Darius is an equally notable sacrificial act of disobedience. Daniel could have easily modified his regular worship to avoid discovery, and without sinning, but he did not do so at all; in fact the text gives us the impression of haste on Daniel’s part to disobey the decree. God blessed his faithful disobedience, using it as a great occasion of public witness.

Romans 14 requires wisdom as well. Now, I take it for granted that believers may not despise one another and must walk with love and complete patience (2 Tim 4, 1 Thess 5) toward one another, whether we are strong or weak. What I want to consider is this: who is the weak man, and how might we cause him to stumble?

Setting aside for a moment the question of the weak man, we see that bearing with one another is a complex question: there are cases where Paul advises us not to eat (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8, 10), and cases where he requires us to eat (1 Corinthians 11, Galatians 2). There are cases where he will not circumcise someone (Galatians 2) and cases where he will (Acts 16). Clearly the right principle here is not to simply go with the flow. Paul wants us to “please our neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Romans 15:2), but this does not mean that we please every whim arbitrarily, because he immediately reminds us that it might result in our suffering reproach (v. 3).

Looking carefully at Romans 14, we see that our actions might be a “stumbling block or a hindrance” (v. 13), which might “grieve” our brother (v. 15). The actual stumbling occurs “by what he eats” (v. 20), that is, the weak brother. This process is more clear in 1 Corinthians 8, where weak brothers “eat food as really offered to an idol” (v. 7), and are “encouraged [by our example] to eat food offered to idols” (v. 10). So what Paul has in mind in these passages is that we should not partake of a Christian freedom where a new believer might be tempted to follow our example and be led back into sin or idolatry. The words for stumbling and offense both seem to have this fairly narrow meaning (compare 1 Peter 2:8; this passage is interesting because it highlights that there is a kind of strong–willed stumbling and offense that cannot be avoided).

This stumbling is a much more narrow case than the way we often casually speak of the “weaker brother,” but of course it is not the only case where God wants us to relinquish our freedom. Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians 9 to exhort us to “endure anything” for the sake of the gospel, and in 1 Corinthians 10 to not allow our Christian freedom to lead either a weak believer or unbeliever to stumble into sin. But remembering that Paul behaved differently in different circumstances, we recognize that wisdom is still required for us to understand a situation and discern what words and actions will bring about our brother’s and neighbor’s good, and will build him up. Today the case of the young believer tempted back into idolatry is somewhat rare in our circles. We can think of several additional cases that may require varying responses:

1. There may be a brother who rejects our own behavior in a disputable matter, but is not tempted to follow us in it. This brother’s conscience is actually strong; he is not the weak brother of Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, so there is no need for either strong brother to voluntarily suspend their freedoms. Of course, neither may we be obnoxious; Paul’s exhortations to be fully convinced, but not to judge or despise, remain applicable. If either brother despises or rejects the other, he is liable to be walking out of step with the gospel as in 1 Corinthians 11 and Galatians 2. It is one thing to be personally scrupulous; it is quite another to be scrupulous on behalf of your brother.

2. There may be a brother who is actually injured or inconvenienced by our freedom. This is not a case of the weaker brother, but it is obvious that love may call us to joyfully “endure anything,” whether we alter the food we serve, the fragrance we wear, do a deep vacuuming before extending hospitality, etc.

3. We live in an anxious time, and there are sometimes cases where a brother has an unfounded fear of our freedom. Perhaps he fears that our freedom will reflect poorly on him, or that it will injure him or another. Although this brother may be beset with anxiety, he is not weak or grieved in the Romans 14 sense of being tempted to abandon the faith. It is better to think of him as immature. This clarifies what will be for his good, especially if we have some degree of spiritual authority in his life. The sin of anxiety is a fire: the more you accommodate it, the more you inadvertently fuel it. The parent whose only tool is to avoid his child’s fears and anxieties will have a child forever. Comparing Daniel 1, although there are a number of interpretations of why Daniel refuses the king’s food, it is clear that the chief of staff feared for his life and also that Daniel had great faith that this fear was unfounded. Although there was no clear command from God for his dietary practice, Daniel worked, urgently but patiently, to contradict the fear rather than cater to it.

Of course, this simple taxonomy does not exhaust the many factors we must consider: we ought to have a healthy sense of proportion; it may make a difference whether we are considering to give something up versus add something new; it may make a difference whether our neighbor is a believer or an unbeliever; things may be complicated (or clarified) if we are in authority or, as in Daniel’s case, under authority. In all cases, love and patience and humility must be guiding us.

May God grant us wisdom!

Written by Scott Moonen

May 7, 2020 at 10:21 pm

Posted in Essays

Semper reformanda

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Understand that the glory of God and the good of others are ever the twin purposes of moral action, and that the merely good or permissible must never be allowed to obstruct the quest for the best.

ESV Study Bible, “Biblical Ethics: An Overview”

Written by Scott Moonen

May 5, 2020 at 6:34 pm

Posted in Christ is Lord, Worship


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But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22–24 ESV)

The church is not analogous to a movie theater or sporting event. The church is analogous to the general assembly. Where the general assembly can meet to conduct business, the church must also be meeting to conduct business with her king. The life of the world depends upon this.

Written by Scott Moonen

May 3, 2020 at 1:49 pm

A week’s answer, or none

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‘Hullo, Sam!’ Said Rosie. ‘Where’ve you been? They said you were dead; but I’ve been expecting you since the Spring. You haven’t hurried, have you?’

‘Perhaps not,’ said Sam abashed. ‘But I’m hurrying now. We’re setting about the ruffians, and I’ve got to get back to Mr. Frodo. But I thought I’d have a look and see how Mrs. Cotton was keeping, and you, Rosie.’

‘We’re keeping nicely, thank you,’ said Mrs. Cotton. ‘Or should be, if it weren’t for these thieving ruffians.’

‘Well, be off with you!’ said Rosie. ‘If you’ve been looking after Mr. Frodo all this while, what d’you want to leave him for, as soon as things look dangerous?’

This was too much for Sam. It needed a week’s answer, or none. He turned away and mounted his pony. But as he started off, Rosie ran down the steps.

‘I think you look fine, Sam,’ she said. ‘Go on now! But take care of yourself, and come straight back as soon as you have settled the ruffians!’

Tolkien, “The Scouring of the Shire,” The Return of the King

Written by Scott Moonen

May 2, 2020 at 6:38 pm

Posted in Quotations