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Judgment

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Preterism is interesting to me not only in how it makes sense of prophecy and history, but also in how it shapes our applying that prophecy to ourselves.

There is no question that there will be a future worldwide judgment (1 Corinthians 15). But a flat view of future worldwide judgment as the focus of prophecy (bypassing the extended comings of Jesus in the 1st century AD) leads us to a flattened application. It leads us to stress the world’s and even the Christian’s deserving of judgment (“none is righteous, no, not one;” “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment”), and stress the magnitude of God’s undeserved mercy to escape this judgment. This is a right and true perspective. But if we recognize that very much prophecy also focuses on the faithlessness and failure and judgment of Israel, then there are deeper qualities to this story that spring to life.

Preterism helps us to reckon with the fact that the Christian is truly righteous, that judgment for God’s people is only in the past. At the same time, it also helps us to reckon with the fact that the church will be judged more strictly and severely (1 Peter 4:17), not only at the end of time but also throughout history.

Neither David (Psalm 14:1-3) nor Paul (Romans 3:10-11) is making a universal statement about the absence of righteousness. David is speaking of the enemies of God’s people (the righteous actually show up immediately afterwards in Psalm 14:4ff!). Paul is speaking of God’s people rusted through: turned unrighteous with only a fake veneer of pretended righteousness, yet with a righteous remnant actually remaining in the newly established church. Isaiah (64:6) is speaking in a similar context; he does not assume the impossibility of righteousness, but rather recognizes that Israel’s former and now pretended righteousness really had become degenerate and polluted; they had presumed upon God’s grace and mercy.

So we see first of all that it is really possible to be righteous (Psalm 14:5), by the obedience of faith that brings justification. There is no future judgment for the Christian, only an evaluation as sons and daughters. Yet we also see that God holds his people to strict account; it is really possible to presume upon God’s mercy (Romans 2:4), and our justification requires our faith to be living and obedient (James 1-2). And this serves as a particular warning to the church to remain faithful, for while there is now a greater outpouring of the Spirit to ensure the life of the church (Jeremiah 31; Hebrews 8, 10; etc.), we have concrete historical reminders of the apostasy and presumption and judgment of God’s people throughout the Bible and culminating in AD 70. Churches and movements and denominations can fall even while Jesus strengthens and grows the greater church worldwide. Consider the greatness of the falls of the church in Rome in spite of Paul’s own personal warning to them:

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. (Romans 11:17-22 ESV)

And recall that Babylon in Revelation is not a symbol of the world, but a symbol of Jerusalem’s good worship gone bad.

Preterism does not at all prevent us from applying prophecy and the reality of God’s judgment to the end of time and history. It simply helps us not to fast forward to that day without pausing to reflect on God’s judgments within time and history (especially the great twin reckonings of AD 30 and AD 70), and how God’s people experience these judgments. Jesus is both the one who truly and perfectly justifies (Romans 3:26), and also the one who walks among the lampstands (Revelation 1:13).

Written by Scott Moonen

January 7, 2018 at 4:01 pm

A god too great for the sky

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This weekend our small group enjoyed our second annual caroling in downtown Fuquay.

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Merry Christmas!

Written by Scott Moonen

December 24, 2017 at 9:31 pm

Courtroom

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It is common to think of the Christian’s future—either when we die or when we are resurrected—as commencing with a solemn and fearful judgment before God’s throne, a moment when we stand in the dock before God. For example, we may sing of Satan’s recurring accusation and God’s judgment, reminding ourselves that Jesus is “my only hope, my only plea.” It is commonly thought that we will have to verbalize this plea some future day when we stand before God’s throne as a sort of ticket to entry. This is not without good reason: confession and repentance and faith is indeed the attitude with which we as Christians, as so many Mephibosheths and Esthers, must approach God at all times. And it is not without scriptural justification: consider the great white throne judgment of Revelation 20, or Satan’s heavenly accusations of the righteous Job. We must give an account to God (Hebrews 4:13).

There is a kind of fear of God we are to have at all times (Deuteronomy 6:13, etc.), and there is a kind of judgment-evaluation that all men will experience (e.g., Psalm 96), and which will come as a surprise to some (Matthew 7:21-23). But it is worth considering God’s own situation and attitude as his people approach him, especially since Jesus has been raised for our justification and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. This will help us to better understand the kind of fear we are to have and the kind of judgment we are to expect.

The first thing we must recognize is that the Western courtroom, where we stand in the dock and where there is judge and witness and accuser and advocate, does not fit the heavenly model. God is a judge, to be sure, but he is a judge by virtue of his being king. A kingly courtroom is a place not only for passing judgment, but also for receiving audience, receiving honor and tribute, hearing petition, giving instruction and reward and commission, and feasting. We see this confirmed in the arrangement of the tabernacle, the arrangement of the temple, the types of Christ such as David and Solomon and Ahasuerus, and in the churchly-heavenly models of approaching God (Hebrews, Revelation) that are given to us in the new creation. So the mental picture that we have of a contemporary Western courtroom does not adequately represent the setting and atmosphere that we will experience with God.

More importantly, as we approach God in his heavenly court, we must remember that the Christian has already been justified by faith in Jesus (Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16, etc.). Not only that, but our justification-adoption has been publicly announced by God through his church by our baptism, which symbolically identifies us with Jesus (Romans 6, Colossians 2:12-13, Titus 3:4-7) so that we very clearly share in the Father’s baptismal declaration over him that he is “well pleased” with us (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22). There is no need for us to be re-justified before God in this sense.

We must also remember that the Christian’s accuser has already been cast down from the heavenly court (Revelation 12:10-12). There is quite simply no accusation lodged against us in the heavenly court, nor can there be for those who have been justified (Romans 8:31-39) and adopted as sons. Taken together, this completely changes the tone of our appearances before God. It is true that those who are only masquerading as sons will be readily discovered and dealt with in their meeting with God. False sons experience a judgment unto wrath. But it is not true that the Christian’s meeting with God begins with the tone of what is essentially yet another paternity test to verify we are still sons. We stand tall as true sons, returned from a mission, to be evaluated and then praised or even chided and disciplined, yet with the actual purpose not of being evaluated but of being received in fellowship. Even in discipline God is, in the best sense, for us and not against us. God is inseparably both judge and Father, but there is much more the Father than the judge as we enter the heavenly court. “There’s my son; isn’t he a fine son?” (Matthew 3:17, Job 1, etc.) Note well: we have this standing only in Jesus. But, praise God, we really and truly have it!

We see a clear picture of this in how the prodigal son returns to the prodigal father (Luke 15). The son does rightly to walk in humility, confessing and repenting. But how glorious the father’s response: both sonship and repentance play into the exuberant reception, but far more the sonship. Repentance is simply one of the things that sons do; you could say that it is in one sense a kind of test or proof of sonship, but it is not at all a kind of admission exam to the feasting table.

This is important for us to keep in mind not only as we look ahead to our death and resurrection, but also day in and day out. To petition God in prayer at any time is to come before his throne. We do this “in Jesus’s name,” and we may come bold and confident (Hebrews 4:16) to a Father who is eager to see us and to hear our requests. In an even more heightened sense, the Lord’s day corporate worship of the church is an audience with king Jesus, where we stand and sit before him at his throne and at his table. Here it is quite proper to begin with confession of our sin. And our confession and repentance must never become perfunctory. But neither must it be a terror, and we need not imagine it to be a terror to keep it from being perfunctory.

Our confession on entrance into Jesus’s presence follows his own invitation to assemble before him, and we may be confident from his invitation, disposition, and promises that he receives us in the spirit of a king holding feast far more than a king sitting in judgment over criminal cases. Our confession and repentance are a way of keeping a short account with our Father and King, a sort of washing our hands before we join him at the table. It is to his glory that we stand tall wearing his robes of righteousness rather than sackcloth and ashes as we gather around him (Matthew 22:11-13, Proverbs 14:28), and in fact we are commanded to stand before him with joyful hearts and faces rather than grieving over our sin (Nehemiah 8:9-12). The prodigal son changed clothes as he sat to feast with his father. And that feast is telling of the father’s heart; our weekly invitation from and feast with Jesus is another proof that he is already favorably disposed toward us.

We must also consider that our own role in God’s heavenly court is not to serve as the subject of the court’s deliberation, but to participate as junior judicial members of the court. We are seated with Jesus (Ephesians 2:6). We will participate in judging the world (1 Corinthians 6:2), and will even judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3). The new creation brings about what we might call the prophethood of all believers (Acts 2:17), which places us in God’s heavenly council (Amos 3:7). Just as Abraham, Moses, Habakkuk, Amos, and other prophets pleaded with God in council to shape his plans, the church may now participate in God’s evaluations and judgments.

All this—our settled adoption and our participation in God’s judgments—means that, amazingly, we may freely call upon God to judge us: not on the basis of any kind of perfection or righteousness or deserving in ourselves, but because we have already been judged and found to be sons. The sons are free (Matthew 17:26), both in the heavenly court and in the world at large, except as God calls us to special missions of sacrifice and deprivation for the sake of our growth and for the sake of his kingdom.

Another way to put this is to say that the evaluations and judgments and justifications that we have yet to experience—each time we meet for worship or on the last day—have nothing to do with the kind of justification whereby we receive righteousness from Jesus and have perfect standing before God. That is finished, in the past, a permanent change of status. Instead, what we experience in part each week, and will one day experience in full, is a judgment, a declaration, even a species of justification, that publicly vindicates us rather than changing our status. We are not waiting to hear whether God will accept us; that is sure. We are waiting for all the world to see that we were right to trust in Jesus and his promises, that it was not, after all, a fool’s errand, but that through our patience and faith and suffering we have inherited the world.

It is true that some will be surprised at God’s evaluation on the last day (Matthew 7:21-23). But the Christian need not fear this, and must instead look forward to being publicly vindicated before the world for trusting in Jesus. The great white throne judgment is from one perspective a kind of judgment. But much more it is the cotillion ball at which the débutante church is set apart to be admired by all as she joins the society of the king and prince.

Christian, it is true that you need not fear God’s judgment because of your union with Jesus. But more than that, you do not even have in your future to stand in the dock in a kind of judicial courtroom, again because of Jesus. All such courtrooms exist only for those who reject the king, and the only courts you have to look forward to are audiences and meals with the king. Be sure that you continue to approach with humility and repentance, but be equally sure that you approach with faith and confidence in your rightful place at God’s table.

Written by Scott Moonen

July 4, 2016 at 2:55 pm

Childermas

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Today marks Childermas, the remembrance of Herod the Great’s massacre of the male babies of Bethlehem:

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. (Matthew 2:16)

This was not the first massacre of Hebrew boys; Herod hearkens back to the Pharaoh of the Exodus:

Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” (Exodus 1:15-16)

And as we have previously considered, Matthew’s linking this to Hosea 11:1 is a subtle accusation that Herod has in fact become Pharaoh, and Israel has become Egypt.

Both Herod and Pharaoh were serpents trying to cut off the promised seed of Genesis 3:15. Blood shed unjustly calls for a blood avenger, and in each case God brought a redeemer (Moses, Jesus) through this shadow of death, and through that redeemer brought about the end of the tyrant who had sought a blood sacrifice for himself (through the ruin of Egypt, and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70). While Jesus himself is the sacrifice that gives us life, it is interesting to consider that there were babies who were a kind of sacrifice that gave Jesus life. It is reassuring that God is not blind to the wrath of tyrants. He hears spilled blood crying from the ground, and he hears the patient prayers of his church for deliverance from the tyrant, and he answers: Pharaoh and the Herods were brought low.

Herod and Pharaoh were right to fear the coming seed, who “visit[s] the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Numbers 14:18). Jesus truly reigns here and now, and not just over the time to come. It is deeply reassuring to know that no suffering, no cry for help, is unseen or unheard by him, nor does it go to waste. Rightly does the church proclaim to kings and rulers:

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
    be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve Yahweh with fear,
    and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
    lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:10-12)

This of course has application for the church today experiencing various kinds of tyranny and persecution around the world, a world that has murdered more than a billion babies over the past generation. In spite of all this, because of all this, Jesus is coming. Make ready by taking refuge in him.

Written by Scott Moonen

December 28, 2015 at 5:47 am

Invest

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The first principle of investing is to put all your eggs in one basket.

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'” (Mark 12:29-30)

Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

And of course, Psalm 2:

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree:
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Written by Scott Moonen

April 10, 2014 at 6:28 am

Posted in Christ is Lord

In the regeneration

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My pastor turned up this great quote from Herman Bavinck:

In short, the counsel of God and the cosmic history that corresponds to it must not be pictured exclusively—as infra- and supralapsarianism did—as a single straight line describing relations only of before and after, cause and effect, means and end; instead, it should also be viewed as a systemic whole in which things occur side by side in coordinate relations and cooperate in the furthering of what always was, is, and will be the deepest ground of all existence: the glorification of God. Just as in any organism all the parts are interconnected and reciprocally determine each other, so the world as a whole is a masterpiece of divine art, in which all the parts are organically interconnected. And of that world, in all its dimensions, the counsel of God is the eternal design. (Reformed Dogmatics, II:392)

This is a great perspective on how God relates to time and history. God is the painter to our painting, the composer and conductor to our symphony.

I want to consider how this perspective relates to the doctrine of regeneration. We generally speak of the regeneration of the Christian almost as though God reaches down and flips an invisible switch inside of us from death to life. For example, Wayne Grudem writes:

We may define regeneration as follows: Regeneration is a secret act of God in which he imparts new spiritual life to us. . . . Because regeneration is a work of God within us in which he gives us new life it is right to conclude that it is an instantaneous event. (Systematic Theology, 699-701)

This may be true as far as it goes, but it does not fully account for the way that God works with his creation and with us. Consider the example of Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion-regeneration:

Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!

“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this. I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!”

He was so fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions, that his broken voice would scarcely answer to his call. He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears. (Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

In one sense, it is quite correct to say that something changed inside of Scrooge from death to life. But this is not the whole picture: it does not account for Dickens and his own steady resolve to make a new man out of Scrooge. In the same way, our understanding of regeneration should take into account how God works with his creation and how he imparts life to us. For our physical life we are dependent on God to sustain us at every moment; certainly we are equally dependent on God at every moment for our spiritual life. It is thus more proper to speak of regeneration as a settled determination on God’s part to continually fill us with life through his Spirit.

This perspective helps us in several ways. It reminds us that God is the source of regeneration, so that we are always looking to him rather than making a futile search into whether something invisible has happened inside ourselves. It reminds us that regeneration is an ongoing process. So, just as we cannot rely on past repentance and faith but must walk in new repentance and faith each day, neither can we rely on past regeneration. We must look to and ask for more help from the Spirit each day. Rather than asking “am I regenerate,” we ask “will God give his Spirit to those who ask him?” Yes (Luke 11:13), he will!

Another way to think of this is in terms of what we might call the tenses of salvation. There is a sense in which we can say we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. Likewise, we have been given new life, we are being progressively given more abundant life, and we will finally be fully given life.

Calvin speaks of regeneration as occurring progressively. In the Institutes, he refers to it as something “which [God] begins in us” (Method and Arrangement III). It will be “complete” at “the final resurrection,” (M&A III) which he refers to as “the day of regeneration or resurrection of the body” (M&A IV). Calvin identifies regeneration with the ongoing procession of the Spirit to us, saying that “we have nothing of the Spirit except through regeneration” (II.3.1). Interestingly, he identifies regeneration and mortification as two halves of repentance, to the point that he says “by repentance I understand regeneration” (III.3.9). He later speaks of the “commencement and progress of regeneration” (III.11).

This definition of regeneration also underscores that it is a change in our status and position before God at least as much as it is an internal change in our persons. We are grafted into a tree (Romans 11), into a vine (John 15); we are planted by streams of water (Psalm 1). This links it closely with other great changes in status like justification and adoption. Adoption in particular is how we come to receive the Spirit (Romans 8:15). In regeneration we enter into God’s new creation, which is to say that we are reconciled to God and made a part of his kingdom (2 Corinthians 5:17ff) — again, a change in status.

Scripture uses the term regeneration to refer to a change in our status. In Matthew 19:28, Jesus refers to his kingdom and new creation itself as the regeneration. In Titus 3:5, our baptism is called the “washing of regeneration.” In The Priesthood of the Plebs, Peter Leithart demonstrated that baptism is a symbolic form of priestly investiture, hearkening back in all its imagery to passages like Leviticus 8:15. In terms of Titus, this means we can speak of baptism not only as our investiture into priesthood and sonship, but also our entry into the new-creation kingdom that is God’s church, our enrollment into an inheritance (Titus 3:7).

On the one hand, this serves as a warning to us that we are not meant to coast on yesterday’s experiences and accomplishments. But it also serves to remind us that God is near to us, and has a settled determination to provide all that is needed to complete his work (Philippians 4:19, 1:6).

Written by Scott Moonen

March 3, 2014 at 7:10 pm

Anxiety

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Jesus is Lord, and Jesus is not anxious.

Last year I read Edwin Friedman’s book, A Failure of Nerve. It is full of fascinating insights; sometime I hope to find time to write more about it. But as my pastors begin a series on anxiety, one particular insight jumps out at me.

Friedman talks about how anxiety in leaders is the fountainhead of individual and organizational breakdown and paralysis. He challenges leaders to see the importance of non-anxious leadership. This is not simply to say that effective leaders should be anxiety absorbers, taking it all into themselves and hanging on to it; rather, good and effective leaders are themselves free of anxiety.

Friedman makes a good case for his claims about the outcomes of chronically anxious leadership. Although I would want to temper and supplement some of what he has to say, I think his insight has great value for husbands, fathers, mothers, pastors, managers, team leaders, and more.

But let’s take things up a level. Christians are part of a kingdom and family.

Jesus is Lord, and Jesus is not anxious.

Think about that for awhile and let it sink in. If Friedman is right, this should calm and empower us profoundly.

See also: Free to carry more.

Written by Scott Moonen

January 26, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Posted in Christ is Lord