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Posts Tagged ‘faith

Faith acquisition

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John 3:1-15 reveals that there is an inescapable spiritual component to our children’s growing in faith. But this passage also insists that we can rarely peel back the layers to see what is happening, even in our own lives, much less our children’s. So it should not be surprising to find that the way God brings about spiritual life and growth, in us and our children, actually rides along the very natural and seemingly mundane tracks of hearing, seeing, tasting, doing. Consider:

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. — Deut. 6:6-7

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. — Prov. 22:6

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! — Psalm 34:8

What is striking about these and other passages is that they speak of our children’s acquiring faith in God and learning to live in his household no differently than we would speak of how they acquire language, or how they come to know and love and trust us as their parents. This is because faith is a language: faith understands and speaks of ourselves and the entire world as being related to God in particular ways. Jesus, in whom all things hold together, is more real and immediate a part of his world than anything in it. So while we cannot see him, his constant activity can be seen everywhere to someone who speaks the right language. To anyone else, it is mere gibberish.

Therefore it is not vain repetition to teach our children to say “Jesus is my king and savior,” “God has forgiven my sins,” or “Jesus will always keep me;” any more than it is vain repetition to teach them to say “Daddy,” “this is a chair,” “that is blue,” or “Mr. S. is our mayor.” This is how they learn about both Jesus and the world that he has given to us. And, just as we talk in terms of stages of learning language (“he’s learned his primary and secondary colors,” or “he knows where his pancreas is”) rather than absolutes (“he’s learned English!”), we should speak in terms of stages of learning faith (“she’s really starting to bubble over with gratitude”) rather than absolutes (“she’s converted!”). Faith and language are things to be increasingly exercised rather than inert states of being.

So we teach our children simply to say “Jesus is …” and “Jesus does …” because that is the language of faith. After all, when we speak of Jesus’s world, we simply say “what color is that?” or “what letter is that?;” we do not say “do you believe that color is blue?” or “do you believe that letter is ‘K’?” Because of this, we can confuse our children (and ourselves) if we speak in indirect terms like “do you believe in Jesus as your savior?” rather than simply saying “Who is your savior?” By speaking a more indirect language than faith speaks, we make faith out to be something magical, and make it seem like getting that magic right is just as important as simply knowing and trusting Jesus. And without meaning to do so, this makes Jesus to be something less real than blueness and chairs and letters. But he is far more real than those. The best learning is by doing, and so the best learning to believe in Jesus is actually believing in Jesus — not believing in the supposed power of belief.

Finally, we do not worry that language will become a mindless habit for our children. Neither should we worry that all this Christian talking and living will become a mindless habit. There are some ways in which we expect a mature language and faith to become self-conscious, but it is the essence of language and of childlike faith to be unselfconscious, a simple confidence. The real danger is that this habit and language of faith will be uncultivated and cease to be a habit altogether! We do not want to banish habits — what we want is to cultivate all those delightful habits that a persevering life is simply full of.

See also:

Written by Scott Moonen

May 6, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Covenant and Adoption

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J. I. Packer’s book Knowing God is best known for its chapter on adoption, “Sons of God.” The chapter is outstanding, both as a stirring picture of what a wonderful gift adoption is, but also in how he links our adoption to all of the blessings, privileges and responsibilities we have in Christ. Nothing else is quite as precious or as energizing as our adoption. On p. 201 Packer quotes an article he had written earlier:

You sum up the whole of New Testament teaching in a single phrase, if you speak of it as a revelation of the Fatherhood of the holy Creator. In the same way, you sum up the whole of New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s holy Father. If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. “Father” is the Christian name for God.

Peter Lillback, in his book The Binding of God, assembles a picture of John Calvin’s understanding of God’s covenants with man. Throughout the book what I am most struck by is how often Calvin links covenant theology with the doctrine of adoption in order to either make careful and helpful distinctions, or else to illustrate how God’s covenanting with us ought to be a real engine for responsive affections and actions on our part. Probably half of my dog-ears are for adoption-related passages.

So, we see Calvin summarizing the covenant as an adoption (pp. 137-138):

For if God only demanded his due, we should still be required to cling to him and to confine ourselves to his commandments. Moreover, when it pleases him by his infinite goodness to enter into a common treaty, and when he mutually binds himself to us without having to do so, when he enumerates that treaty article by article, when he chooses to be our father and Savior, when he receives us as his flock and his inheritance, let us abide under his protection, filled with its eternal life for us. When all of these things are done, is it proper that our hearts become mollified even if they were at one time stone? When creatures see that the living God humbles himself to that extent, that he wills to enter into covenant that he might say: “Let us consider our situation. It is true that there is an infinite distance between you and me and that I should be able to command of you whatever seems good to me without having anything in common with you, for you are not worthy to approach me and have any dealings with whoever can command of you what he wills, with no further declarations to you except: ‘That is what I will and conceive.’ But behold, I set aside my right. I come here to present myself to you as your guide and savior. I want to govern you. You are like my little family. And if you are satisfied with my Word, I will be your King. Furthermore, do not think that the covenant which I made with your fathers was intended to take anything from you. For I have no need, nor am I indigent in anything. And what could you do for me anyway? But I procure your well-being and your salvation. Therefore on my part, I am prepared to enter into covenant, article by article, and to pledge myself to you.”

And again Calvin summarizes even the old covenant as a gracious act of adoption (p. 140):

The Psalmist addresses himself by name to his own countrymen, whom, as has been stated, God had bound to himself by a special adoption. It was a bond of union still more sacred, that by the mere good pleasure of God they were preferred to all other nations. . . . He expressly states both these truths, first, that before they were born children of Abraham, they were already heirs of the covenant, because they derived their origin from the holy fathers; and, secondly, that the fathers themselves had not acquired this prerogative by their own merit or worth, but had been freely chosen; for this is the reason why Jacob is called God’s chosen.

Lillback moves on to explore several facets of God’s covenants in Calvin’s understanding. We have already seen above that, perhaps unlike Packer, Calvin considers adoption to be a blessing common to both the old and new covenants. First, Lillback explores Calvin’s complex understanding of mutuality and conditionality. Calvin carefully balances an understanding of God’s sovereign working in our salvation with how we as God’s creatures see, understand, receive and respond to his working in time and history. Adoption is a perfect picture of this because it is an undeserved gift that God undertook wholly on his own initiative, but which makes us God’s children and wholly obligates us to him. Lillback quotes Calvin on p. 172:

[Hosea] says that they had acted perfidiously with God, for they had violated his covenant. We must bear in mind what I have said before of the mutual faith which God stipulates with us, when he binds himself to us. God then covenants with us on this condition, that he will be our Father and Husband; but he requires from us such obedience as a son ought to render to his father; he requires from us that chastity which a wife owes to her husband. The Prophet now charges the people with unfaithfulness, because they had despised the true God, and prostituted themselves to idols.

On p. 192 we see how Calvin both distinguishes and weaves together faith and works. The language of sonship and union with Christ serves as a subtle backdrop, underscoring that obedience does not somehow perversely purchase our freedom from slavery and adoption into God’s love (as if it were possible!), but that pleasing our Father is nevertheless a wonderful combination of duty and delight:

When, therefore, we say that the faithful are esteemed just even in their deeds, this is not stated as a cause of their salvation, and we must diligently notice that the cause of salvation is excluded from this doctrine; for, when we discuss the cause, we must look nowhere else but to the mercy of God, and there we must stop. But although works tend in no way to the cause of justification, yet, when the elect sons of God were justified freely by faith, at the same time their works are esteemed righteous by the same gratuitous liberality. Thus it still remains true, that faith without works justifies, although this needs prudence and a sound interpretation; for this proposition, that faith without works justifies is true and yet false, according to the different senses which it bears. The proposition, that faith without works justifies by itself, is false, because faith without works is void. But if the clause “without works” is joined with the word “justifies,” the proposition will be true, since faith cannot justify when it is without works, because it is dead, and a mere fiction. He who is born of God is just, as John says. (I John V. 18) Thus faith can be no more separated from works than the sun from his heat: yet faith justifies without works, because works form no reason for our justification; but faith alone reconciles us to God, and causes him to love us, not in ourselves, but in his only-begotten Son.

Thus good works are not only possible but acceptable to God because, in Lillback’s words, “in the covenant, God ceases to be a strict judge and becomes a father” (p. 196). Quoting Calvin on the same page:

Moreover, we do not deny that for believers uprightness, albeit partial and imperfect, is a step toward immortality. But what is its source except that the Lord does not examine for merits the works of those whom he has received into the covenant of grace but embraces them with fatherly affection?

But this is the peculiar blessing of the new covenant, that the Law is written on men’s hearts, and engraven on their inward parts; whilst that severe requirement is relaxed so that the vices under which believers still labour are no obstacle to their partial and imperfect obedience being pleasant to God.

It is therefore necessary, even when we strive our utmost to serve God, to confess that without his forgiveness whatever we bring deserves rejection rather than his favour. Hence the Prophet says, that when God is reconciled to us, there is no reason to fear that he will reject us, because we are not perfect; for though our works be sprinkled with many spots, they will be acceptable to him, and though we labour under many defects, we shall yet be approved by him. How so? Because he will spare us; for a father is indulgent to his children, and though he may see a blemish in the body of his son, he will not yet cast him out of his house; nay, though he may have a son lame, or squint-eyed, or singular for any other defect, he will yet pity him, and will not cease to love him: so also is the case with respect to God, who, when he adopts us as his children, will forgive our sins. And as a father is pleased with every small attention when he sees his son submissive, and does not require from him what he requires from a servant; so God acts; he repudiates not our obedience, however defective it may be.

This wonderful result is because of our union with Christ the firstborn Son. Quoting Calvin on p. 209:

Yet notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in him, not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.

Nevertheless, there are those who apostatize or break covenant. Calvin depicts this too using familial language: those who break covenant are rebellious children who are disowned, ones who “degenerate from legitimate children to bastards” (Calvin, p. 217). Yet as God’s children we have great assurance of our perseverance, and encouragement to persevere, because our Father who dwells in our midst has pledged himself to us (Calvin, pp. 270-271):

But the inspired writer, calling to remembrance the promises by which God had declared that he would make the Church the object of his special care, and particularly that remarkable article of the covenant, “I will dwell in the midst of you” (Exodus xxv. 8), and, trusting to that sacred and indissoluble bond, has no hesitation in representing all the godly languishing, though they were in a state of suffering and wretchedness, as partakers of this celestial glory in which God dwells. . . . What advantage would we derive from this eternity and immutability of God’s being, unless we had in our hearts the knowledge of him, which, produced by his gracious covenant, begets in us the confidence arising from a mutual relationship between him and us? The meaning then is, “We are like withered grass, we are decaying every moment, we are not far from death, yea rather, we are, as it were, already dwelling in the grave; but since thou, O God! hast made a covenant with us, by which thou hast promised to protect and defend thine own people, and hast brought thyself into a gracious relation to us, giving us the fullest assurance that thou wilt always dwell in the midst of us, instead of desponding, we must be of good courage; and although we may see only ground for despair if we depend upon ourselves, we ought nevertheless to lift up our minds to the heavenly throne, from which thou wilt at length stretch forth thy hand to help us.” . . . . As God continues unchangeably the same — “without variableness or shadow of turning” — nothing can hinder him from aiding us; and this he will do, because we have his word, by which he has laid himself under obligation to us, and because he has deposited with us his own memorial, which contains in it a sacred and indissoluble bond of fellowship.

In seeking to secure our perseverance, God uses both fatherly enticings and fatherly threatenings and discipline. Yet in the end, “the Christian’s life of covenant-keeping, although imperfect before God, is nevertheless a life of encouragement since God is pleased with His adopted children’s faithful efforts” (Lillback, p. 275).

There are some areas of covenant life where Lillback does not quote Calvin in reference to adoption, but where there is a clear link to adoption. One such area is that of “covenant prayer.” The nature of our prayer to God is precisely that of a child appealing to a loving father (Luke 11:1-13).

This is also the case for the sacraments, the covenant signs. Baptism is a pronouncement by God through his church of our adoption and justification. Consider that our baptism is a key beginning of our union with Christ (Romans 6) and Christ’s own baptism was a pronouncement of sonship and acceptance (Matthew 3). (Baptism is of course not the cause of our adoption and justification any more than a minister’s pronouncement of “man and wife” is the cause of a couple’s union.) Similarly, the covenant meal is a family meal. God provides food for us, his children, and we eat before him. This is true of both the Lord’s Supper and also Old Testament meals that priests and often worshippers enjoyed before God after offering sacrifice.

There are, of course, plenty of other ways we can think about God’s covenanting. Adoption showcases the work of God the Father, but we could equally explore the work of Christ or of the Spirit in our salvation. Or we could consider how our children relate to God, explore Calvin’s letter-Spirit distinction over against a Lutheran law-gospel distinction, or consider the many ways in which the old and new covenants are similar yet different.

An advantage of looking at adoption specifically is that it stands up well as a proxy for the kind of questions we want to ask about covenant and sacraments. In particular, it helps us to remember that God’s covenants are not merely legal, but also affective, personal and social. What does it mean to be in covenant with God through Christ and his Spirit? More than anything else, it means to be adopted, named and kept as his own child.

Written by Scott Moonen

February 27, 2010 at 2:40 pm

A gospel catechism

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Our church practices credobaptism, and I’ve assembled this catechism to help ready my children for a pastoral interview. We’re also learning the apostle’s creed, below. Some influences are my pastors Phil Sasser and Daniel Baker, and also Chris Schlect and the Westminster-based catechism for young children. I’d be grateful for suggested improvements.

Catechism

Sin

What is your sin?
Disobeying God’s word (1 John 3:4)
What is the penalty for your sin?
Death (Romans 6:23)

Gospel

What is the gospel?
Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and was raised from the dead; just as God promised. (1 Cor 15)

Father

Why does God love you?
He made me His child.
How do you know that God loves you?
He gave his son Jesus for me.

Jesus

Who is Jesus?
He is God’s son, my maker, savior and king. He is my life and my treasure.
How is Jesus your Savior?
Jesus died in my place, so I am forgiven and adopted.
Where is Jesus now?
He rose from the dead and sits at our Father’s right hand.
How is Jesus your King?
He leads, provides, cares for and protects me.

Holy Spirit

Who is the Holy Spirit?
He is my helper.
How does he help you?
He gives me life, peace, comfort, and strength to become more like Jesus.

Response

What is faith?
Resting on Jesus for my salvation (Psalm 62:5-8)
Why do you love God?
He is great and good, and he loves me.
What is repentance?
To be sorry for my sin, to hate it as God does, and to keep turning from it
Why do you obey God?
Because I love him

Church, now and then

Who are God’s people?
They make up his church.
What does his church do?
We display God’s greatness and beauty, and serve and care for one another.
What will become of God’s people?
God will keep us to the end.
What happens at the end?
Jesus will restore his creation and live with his people.

Baptism

What is baptism?
Baptism is God’s marking out a person as his own.
What does your baptism signify?
I am cleansed from my sin by Jesus’s blood, and united to him in his death and resurrection.
Why do you want to be baptized?
Because I belong to Jesus

Apostles’ creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

Written by Scott Moonen

October 14, 2009 at 6:05 am

Ends and beginnings and faith

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 Peter Leithart writes about faith:

Ruth begins with death – the death of the land in famine, the death of exile, the death of Elimelech, the death of Naomi’s sons, the death of Naomi’s future. Naomi goes out full, and comes back empty. Ruth 1 is a perfect tragic story, a story of endings and emptyings.

But it is chapter 1, and the author wants us to realize that this series of deaths is not an end. The end of chapter 1 is a beginning, as Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem “at the beginning of the barley harvest” (v. 22). The author makes his point with a touch so light as to be nearly imperceptible, but the import of that “beginning” is as weighty as anything in Scripture.

“In the beginning” and “once upon a time” make rational sense as the beginning of a story. But recognizing a beginning on the other side of an end is an act of faith.

Mark Dever makes a similar point in his treatment of Ruth. To human eyes, all is despair at the beginning of this book. But the writer of Ruth gives us a glimpse of what a sovereign and good God is planning and working behind the scenes. You can listen to Dever preach on the whole book of Ruth, and also on Ruth chapter 1 specifically.

See also William Cowper’s hymn, God Moves in a Mysterious Way.

Written by Scott Moonen

February 7, 2008 at 10:01 am

Hospitality

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Peter Leithart writes of hospitality:

Feasting and care for the poor have been polarized in contemporary culture. If you’re a “conservative,” you’re in favor of free trade, consumption without guilt, festivity without concern for those who can’t join you, who probably deserve their poverty anyway. If you’re a “liberal,” you renounce festivity because other people are hungry and how dare you eat when someone else isn’t.

The Biblical prophets combine a promise of festivity with severe denunciation of greed, luxury, and oppression. But they combine the two seamlessly by emphasizing hospitality. The promise is a feast like the feasts of the Pentateuch, where the widow, stranger, and Levite are not forgotten but included as welcome guests.

Against both “conservative” indifference and liberal asceticism, the Bible presents the ideal of the hospitable society.

Better

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“God has better plans for you than an easy life and victories to follow victories.” — Daniel Baker

Douglas Wilson takes on the new atheism

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In recent months, Doug Wilson has wielded his pen against the new atheism in several ways:

Wilson makes two apologetic moves that you should watch closely. First, he consistently and very deftly pieces apart the atheist’s small little world and shows it to have no foundation, and therefore no meaning, and therefore no force or life or joy. This is well-played presuppositional apologetics. Second, and more importantly, in his personal interaction with Hitchens it is clear that Wilson does not see apologetics as an end in itself. Rather, he repeatedly uses apologetics as a means of disarming his opponent so that he can preach the gospel. It is vital that our practice of apologetics always points to Christ.