Equip: The Promises of God

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Equip: The Promises of God

It was a reading assignment in my 8th grade year and I wasn’t interested in completing it.  My lack of interest was not result of being a poor student, as my sufficient report card showed.  Rather my disinterest stemmed from a theological objection.

My grandfather Howard had died the year before, after a long hard battle with lung cancer.  I watched as this faithful man of God suffered in a way that no one should.  Even in his last days in the hospital his faith never wavered, using the visitations of friends and family far and near as an opportunity to share the Gospel.

So here I was in my Christian School English class given a book titled, The Prayer of Jabez.  If you are not familiar, the prayer of Jabez is found in 1 Chronicles 4:10. It states;

“Jabez called upon the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!” And God granted what he asked.”  

From this prayer, Author and Bible teacher Bruce Wilkerson penned the best-selling book I was assigned to read.  As a Church attending, Christian School Educated, 14 year old from a broken home, whose father was a fallen minister, coming off the most difficult loss to grieve in his life, you could forgive me for being a little jaded in my reading of The Prayer of Jabez.  Within the first 7 pages I knew the claims of the book were eisegetic and formulaic. I couldn’t believe what I was reading when the claim was made,”"I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers."(p. 7, emphasis added)  He goes on, "This petition has radically changed what I expect from God and what I experience every day by his power" (p. 7) In all fairness to the author, The Prayer of Jabez, was not simply another health, wealth, and prosperity book.  As you read you are encouraged to pray the prayer in order to gain ministry opportunities and see God do the miraculous.  But when read with any honest measure, taking this prayer and making it a ritualistic genie to rub creates a false sense of who God is to us.  

The reality is that life is full of highs and lows, victories and struggles, miseries and joys.  If you approach God with a formula of unlocking his blessings by praying a magic prayer, you’re going to be left disappointed in Him, as well as, yourself.  At a certain point praying the prayer of Jabez or anything like it becomes similar to a Scientist’s approach to faith and life with the Scientific method.  Generally speaking, the scientific method is summed up in these 4 steps with its application in parentheses:

  • Ask a Question. (How can I be blessed by God?)

  • Do Background Research. (Ignore the majority of Biblical examples of God’s servants who suffered and narrow in on a couple who “prayed correctly”)

  • Construct a Hypothesis.( If I pray the “Jabez Prayer”  I will be healed or successful in my endeavors)

  • Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment. (Pray the Jabez Prayer over and over and wait for results)

  • Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion. (Result A: I succeeded or was healed, so continue praying the prayer.  Or Result B:  You failed or continue to suffer so maybe add another variable, like never speaking negative things, to the formula and repeat the steps)

After watching my grandfather struggle through chemo, radiation, and the ensuing sickness, I saw a man whose faith in the promises of God was for something much more than healing that never came.  If living the right way would have brought healing he had it covered.  He was a man of integrity and service. But in spite of these qualities  he carried no sense that God owed him anything.  Nor was there anything missing in his approach to God.  It’s impossible to know his private thoughts, and I’m sure he had his moments of immense anger toward God, but his witness to all the world was that the promises of God that sustained him were futuristic. When I use the word ‘futuristic’ I don’t mean a delayed gratification.  No, the futuristic hope in God’s promises were such that he presently was changed by, in spite of circumstances.  

The futuristic promises of God are such that sustain us in the here and now.  As believers we partake in the already life giving power of the gospel, but the not yet glorification and joy of the presence of our eternal King.  Just because there will be no more tears, does not mean we don’t currently mourn, but we do not mourn as others do, we mourn with the knowledge of the promises of God to have the final word.  Hebrews 10:34b-39 put it like this:

“and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. 35Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. 37For,

“Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; 38but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” 39But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”

In the time since my grandfather’s passing I have seen God do some amazing things.  My nephew was miraculously healed of a blood clot from a botched surgery to remove cancer. I have seen friend with broken limbs made whole again. God has continually blessed me with provisions beyond what I could ask. I am not advocating to believe only in the future hope of the resurrection, but to trust the sovereign will of God in all our circumstances.

Hebrews goes on to say it perfectly:

“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”

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Equip: "Let There Be Science!" - A Book Review

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Equip: "Let There Be Science!" - A Book Review

I have a friend who, in group discussions, frequently begins her sentences with the phrase, “The Bible says.” This is most conspicuous when our discussions touch on matters wherein mainstream science has something to say. These perfect mise-en-scènes are little treats for me. Imagine throwing a giant rock into a smoothly flowing stream. That stream is forever changed. I enjoy watching the reactions of the atheists, agnostics and, especially, the Christians who make up our group. Because we are close-knit friends first and confabulators second, there are the gentle eye rolls from the atheists and agnostics. Gentle because we are loving friends. I always expect those. They are so subtle that I don’t think my friend has ever noticed them. If she has, she hasn’t let it be known. The more intriguing expressions are from the Christians. I’m sure there is a word to describe their expressions, but I don’t know it. There is a tincture of embarrassment, but not quite fully abashed. More like embarrassed plus “thank you for saying something I wanted to say but I didn’t have the courage to say it” plus “I’m not sure I would have said it even if I had the courage to because I don’t know if I agree with your interpretation of that passage of the Bible.”  It’s complicated. I know. I’m one of the Christians. I’m also a lifelong mainstream scientist.

If you relate to what I have written above, whether or not you are a Christian, I’d recommend the book “Let There Be Science: Why God Loves Science, and Science Needs God.” The authors, David Hutchings and Tom McLeish, do a wonderful job describing the relationship between science and the Bible such that the reader walks away armed with the knowledge to have intelligent and congenial conversations that touch on topics wherein both the Bible and science have something to say. If you are a Christian and have ever felt that Christendom may be unfairly stereotyped as backward or flat-earthed or even un-intellectual, you should definitely read this book. If you are a non-Christian and have stereotyped Christians with those epithets, you too should read the book.

You will find much enjoyment in the way Hutchings and McLeish present a brief history of science in the context of biblical passages. Presenting history next to the Bible in a way that is entertaining to read is not an easy task, but the authors succeed. Their writing style brings to mind that of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”...very conversational, very approachable, and chalk full of stories worth knowing that you can retell later at parties or entertain folks who think science is boring. I highly recommend the book, especially since Hutchins and McLeish make a good case for the notion that “scientists are God-approved workers.”

David Hutchings is a high school physics teacher in York, England, and Tom McLeish is a professor of physics at Durham University and chairs the Education Committee for the Royal Society of London. Let There Be Science: Why God loves science, and science needs God (Lion Books: January 2017), 206 pages. Available through Amazon (http://a.co/6mlfziz).

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Equip: John Calvin: The Reformer as Prophet

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Equip: John Calvin: The Reformer as Prophet

John Calvin stands at the forefront of the second generation of reformers. Twenty-six years younger than Luther, he consolidated factions within the reform movement and systematized their main insights into a coherent blueprint for church renewal. His legacy is so massive that it obscures one simple question. How did Calvin become a Reformer? It is an intriguing question given the fact that Calvin was a private, shy man (he refers to himself as having "a disposition somewhat unpolished and bashful" 1). Calvin is no Luther with his “Here I Stand” after deep struggles with a guilty conscience as a monk. Calvin comes to us as an unordained, self-taught common man of the church. Yet his influence can be traced throughout the world, especially in the English speaking countries of Scotland, England and the United States. In a brief biographical sketch in a Letter to Sadoleto, Calvin compared his reforming activities to biblical prophets:

I had before my eyes the examples of thy prophets, who I saw had a similar contest with the priests and prophets of their day, although these were undoubtedly the rulers of the Church among the Israelite people.…Confirmed by their example, I too persisted. 2

Somehow his conversion changed him from an observer to a leader in the Reformation. I will argue that Calvin repented from a life of complacency and privilege and was called to a prophetic ministry of Reformation within the church under a new impulse derived from his discovery that God’s desire for His own glory was the only reason for creation and redemption. His conversion and calling occurred simultaneously as a result of an intense engagement with the Bible, was nurtured in his life as a reformer and left its imprint on his theology. From Calvin’s life, we want to learn how the gift of prophecy can be exercised in the church today.

Calvin’s Conversion

In 1523 at age 14, Calvin arrived in Paris to begin theological training at the University of Paris. That same week, the Augustinian monk Jean Vallière was condemned to be burned alive at the stake in Paris for holding Lutheran ideas. Public executions of men serving the church must have impressed upon this young student the peril surrounding his career. Calvin was an elite paying student supported by a stipend from his hometown church in Noyon, near Normandy, France. No one knows what theological training Calvin received, but it wasn’t much. Mostly inadequate theological faculty held positions at the University of Paris. They took one-and-one-half years to render judgment on the Leipzig debate between Luther and Eck over indulgences in 1519, and then only after Luther was excommunicated by the Pope in 1520. Theological faculty at Paris resorted to the old tricks of the Inquisition, including torture, book burning, and death rather than dialog with early Lutheran reformers. During the four years of Calvin’s schooling at the University of Paris, the church burned an additional half-dozen monks affiliated with Luther. The mostly defensive stance of French theology at this time was shown when theologian Noël Beda (1470-1537) attacked even Christian humanists like Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) and Jacques Lefèvre (1455-1536)-both graduates from the University of Paris and leaders of the European Renaissance. Historians can only guess about Calvin’s spiritual condition at this formative time in his life. Calvin established lifelong friends Nicholas Cop (1501-1540) and Pierre Robert Olivétan (1506-1538) at school, who played important roles in Calvin’s conversion at later dates.

Calvin’s theological education was terminated as a licentiate in the arts by his father in 1527. A confrontation between his father and priests at Noyon over a piece of property prompted his father to recommend a career in law for his son to assure family fortunes. Calvin complied and began a study of law at the University of Orléans in 1528. Looking back at his life at age 48, Calvin wrote as follows about his early life:

God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor. I was quite surprised to find that before a year had elapsed, all who had any desire after purer doctrine were continually coming to me to learn, although I myself was as yet but a mere novice and tyro. 3

Since Calvin does not specify the date of his "sudden conversion," his biographers are left to speculate about circumstances which brought it about. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s earliest biographer, links this “sudden conversion” to unspecified conversations with friends as a student at Orléans. Beza’s conjecture tells us nothing about the circumstances of Calvin’s conversion, other than conveniently explaining the fact that Calvin would very soon be drawn into religious controversies on the side of Reformers and forced to flee Paris in 1533. Alexander Ganoczy, a Catholic historian, has definitively demonstrated Calvin was in fact strongly inclined to Christian humanism as a law student and did not become an evangelical until expulsion to Basel two years after he fled from Paris. 4 Christian humanism was the safest bet under Francis 1, the Renaissance King of France. Christian humanists were offended by the authoritarianism and corruption of the papacy, but they remained loyal to the church and emphasized a Christianity focused on the humanity of Christ and practicing the presence of God. To show that Calvin was a Christian humanist and not an evangelical as a student, Ganoczy cites Calvin's first short publication defending his law professor, de l’Estoile, who persecuted Lutherans as a member of the French Provincial Court. Calvin spent two years studying under the Italian jurist Andreas Alciati at the University of Bourges, a humanist who taught law from the historical background in antiquity. Calvin returned to Paris after his father’s death in 1531 to take law exams. To make his mark as a lawyer, Calvin self-published his first book, a commentary _On Clemency_by the Stoic philosopher Seneca. It was a financial disaster, but it shows Calvin’s debt to Stoic philosophy. Seneca’s appeal for clemency under Nero was a subtle comment on repressive French religious persecutions. Religious persecution did recede somewhat in the next year due to pressures in the Royal Family of Francis 1, leading to the appointment of moderate reformers in the Arts College of the University of Paris, including Calvin’s old friend Nicholas Cop. As Rector of the University, Cop was responsible for the Commencement address on November 1, 1533. Cop delivered a sermon on the eight beatitudes, which defended the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith in terms such as these on suffering for righteousness:

Heretics, seducers, imposters, slanderers: these are the names the world and wicked men are accustomed to giving to those who honestly and sincerely seek to plant the Gospel in the hearts of the faithful and consider themselves obedient to God. 5

Cop was immediately accused of Lutheran beliefs by the Theological Faculty and forced to flee to Strasbourg. Calvin was implicated in these charges for no other reason than his friendship with Cop. Calvin was now a fugitive from justice, although he had done nothing more than befriend moderate reformers.

Fugitive life may have left time for Calvin to explore Luther’s writings at the house of his patron, Louis du Tillet. Calvin was not yet a convert to the Evangelical faith, but he was sympathetic to it. He first had to break ties with his former life. The first step in this break was work on a manuscript eventually published under the title Psychopannychia(written as a fugitive in 1534 but published in 1536). News of Anabaptist preaching in Paris reached Calvin in 1534. Anabaptism was a true sectarian movement, unlike Lutheran reform. Anabaptism, which means re-baptism, affirmed adult baptism as an act of obedience rather than a sacrament of the church. Adult baptism required formation of a new sect no longer adherent to the established church. Many other features of this sect made them repugnant to both Reformers and Catholics. Luther encouraged suppression of Peasant Revolts in 1525-7, and Zwingli expelled or killed Anabaptists in Zurich. Catholic apologists linked popular revolt with the Reformation because they had emphasized individual conscience as the guide to faith and criticized church abuses. Calvin wrote _Psychopannychia_to defend Reformers from charges of Anabaptism. Calvin attacked a very obscure Anabaptist belief in soul sleep, a mystical teaching that the soul fell into an unconscious state in the interim between death and the resurrection of the body. Calvin’s defense of traditional teaching about a conscious, face-to-face encounter with the risen Lord after death shows us two things about his spiritual journey at this time. Whereas his earlier book _On Clemency_explored philosophical arguments to promote progressive reforms, Calvin now drew from extensive scriptural quotations. Moreover, Calvin realized he could no longer sit on the sidelines as a disinterested observer. No moderate Christian humanists joined Calvin in his defense of the Reformation from charges of Anabaptist sectarianism. Calvin’s repudiation of popular revolt was courageous but not the same as affirming Reformation faith. Calvin did not assert Reformation distinctives like justification by faith, avoidance of the Mass, denunciations of the papacy in Psychopannychia, but he was headed in that direction. The second step in his break with the past was the surrender of ecclesiastical benefits. Records of this event show Calvin was back in Noyon in May 1534. Whether it was the church or Calvin who decided to end these payments is not clear, but religious motives were at work in either case. Now Calvin was not only a fugitive, he was destitute.

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Calvin fled to Basel in 1535 with his friend du Tillet to avoid persecution. Basel, a German language city in Switzerland, gave the French-speaking Calvin a reprieve from turmoil and unlimited time to pursue his religious quest. From Basel, we have the first verifiable indication of Calvin’s spiritual conversion to Evangelical faith. It appeared in Prefaces to a new French translation of the Bible. Olivétan, Calvin’s college friend, and family relation, had spent the years after grad school translating the Bible from original Hebrew and Greek texts. Olivétan was a Waldensian lay preacher who brought the Christian message to rural churches in their own language. Since translations of the Bible in the vernacular were uncommon (and illegal), Calvin provided a summary of the Bible to orient new readers to its themes. "The light shown forth in the darkness" motto on the cover is a reflection of Calvin’s own encounter with the Bible, which he addressed to those “faithful unto death.” He begins with a polemical explanation for the absence of a royal imprimatur. God’s Word needs no human commendation, he argued. The Preface shows Calvin identified completely with the Reformation cause insofar as he blamed the Pope and his prelates for suppression of the Bible. Ganoczy writes about the Preface, “One has the impression that Calvin used no other source than the Bible itself and—let us willingly add—the responses that his readings of the Scriptures inspired in his own heart” 6

Since the Preface is essentially the first outline of his Institutes, it is worth summarizing what Calvin found in the Bible. 7 Most noteworthy is the dialectical structure of his thought. The dialectical structure exists on two levels. The first level is a personal interchange with the glory of God on one side and self-centered human beings on the other. Between God and humans, the following tension exists right from the start of Calvin’s account:

God the Creator, the most perfect and excellent Maker of all things, who had already shown himself more than admirable in their creation, made man as his masterpiece, to surpass all other creatures. Man is endowed with a singular excellence, for God formed him in his own image and likeness, in such manner that the light of his glory shone brightly in him.

But the wretched man, wanting to be somebody in himself, began incontinently to forget and misunderstand from whence the good came to him, and in outrageous ingratitude attempted to exalt himself in pride against his Maker and the Author of all these benefits.

Neuser notes the striking way in which these two adjacent paragraphs differ from simple summaries of the creation account in Genesis 1 and the re-telling of that story by Paul in Romans 1:22. Calvin's paraphrase refers to ‘man’ rather than Adam and omits the Serpent’s temptation of Eve. Calvin makes the historic fall into a continuous inclination of the human condition because Calvin is that man. The once-promising lawyer–now a vagrant–is the man who was "confounded in his pride to constrain him to learn what he not voluntarily wanted to hear, namely that he was by himself nothing but vanity, and would never have been anything else except with the assistance of the Lord of strength." A second duality controls Calvin’s paraphrase of the Bible. God’s revelation to Gentiles through nature and to Jews through the Law of Moses contrast with the revelation of God’s glory through Jesus Christ. Both Gentile and Jew betrayed the glory of God for their own desires, according to Calvin, so it was necessary to have a Mediator, who would intercede between God and man, as well as fulfill the Law. This Mediator declared a new “Testament, by which Jesus Christ has made us his heirs in the Kingdom of God his Father, and declares to us his will (like a testator to his heirs) that it be put into execution.” Neuser again alerts us to a surprising emphasis in Calvin. The word “Testament” came from Luther’s pamphlet _The Babylonian Captivity of the Church_in which he demonstrated that the Mass was like an unalterable will and not a sacrifice. 8 From this Calvin concluded,

There is but one way to life and salvation, and that is faith and certainty in the promises of God which cannot be had without the gospel; for by hearing it and knowing it living faith is provided, together with sure hope, and perfect love for God and a lively love toward our neighbor.

The Preface discloses the character of Calvin’s conversion to Evangelical faith. It was "sudden" in the theological sense of repentance and reconciliation to the glory of God through the promise of the Gospel alone without the need for church absolution.

Within that same ten-month period in Basel, Calvin produced the first edition of the _Institutes of the Christian Religion,_which was published in 1536. The _Institutesreflect the same structure found in the Preface,_which remained essentially unchanged through five more editions. To the _Institutes_Calvin appended a letter to Francis 1, King of France. He at first confessed his hesitation to address the King of France, but then he advised Francis as follows:

It will then be for you, most serene King, not to close your ears or your mind to such just defense, especially when a very great question is at stake: how God’s glory may be kept safe on earth, how God’s truth may retain its place of honor, how Christ’s Kingdom may be kept in good repair among us. Worthy indeed is the matter of your hearing, worthy of your cognizance, worthy or your royal throne! Indeed, this consideration makes a true king: to recognize himself a minister of God in governing his kingdom. Now, that king who is ruling over his realm does not serve God’s glory exercises not kingly rule but brigandage. 9

Power in the service of God’s glory was Calvin’s main motivation for his bold address. The glory of God distinguished between true and false church for Calvin, as well as true and false government. For example, against the charge from Rome that the Reformation produced no miracles, Calvin asserted, "[I]t is the characteristic of sound doctrine, given by Christ, that it tends to promote, not the glory of men, but the glory of God." Calvin had no controversy with the church, understood in biblical terms. The true church is not the visible church but the invisible church with Christ as its head, and its power on earth is the Gospel. Therefore wherever there is “the pure preaching of God’s word and the legitimate administration of the sacraments,” there is the true church. A false church claimed all power and glory for the visible church, according to Calvin. Calvin’s Christ-centered concern for the church shows that his conversion was more than a private encounter with the Christ. Calvin’s conversion was also a call to serve the church. Calvin was twenty-seven, had boldly advised the King of France to lighten up on Lutheran Reformers, but he was not yet a man of the church.

Calvin’s actual call to church service was no "accident." A brief respite in church persecution provided refugees a return to Paris if they renounced evangelical faith after six months. Calvin took advantage of this policy to settle his father’s estate and remove his siblings to the safety at the frontier in Strasbourg. It is indicative of the political and religious instability in Geneva that warfare between the Catholic Duchy of Savoy and Bernese Protestants forced Calvin to detour through Geneva. William Farel (1489-1565) and Pierre Viret (1511-1574) had been active at church reformation in Geneva since 1532. For Farel, Calvin was the right man at the right time. Farel convinced Calvin God had called him to Geneva, where Calvin spent the next two years. 10 We need to look more closely at two details from this period to round out our understanding of Calvin’s conversion. First, Calvin refused ordination by ecclesiastical authorities. 11

Secondly, out of zeal to reform the church, Calvin and Farel acted without accountability to bring rapid changes in the Church. Calvin wrote a Confession of Faith which all citizens and inhabitants of Geneva were required to uphold by oath. Naturally, his zeal for the immediate and total conversion of the city to evangelical faith gained him new enemies among the population. At the same time, a pastor from the neighboring city of Lausanne challenged Calvin’s Confession on spurious claims that it was anti-Trinitarian. Calvin treated this challenge by rashly refusing to publicly endorse ancient creeds, insisting his own Confession was sufficiently trinitarian. Extreme volatility in the political situation clashed with Calvin’s zeal, and he was expelled from Geneva along with Farel. Calvin’s call to ministry appeared to be over. He retreated to his study full of self-doubts. He confided to his friend du Tillet: “Above all, I fear taking on the responsibilities that have been given me, considering the great perplexity I had at the time that I was involved with them. For I once felt the call of God…, now, on the contrary, I am afraid to try God in taking up again such a burden which I realize I cannot carry.” 12 It took an exceptional conflict to bring Calvin back to Geneva.

The conflict was a Reformation debate carried on by letter between Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto (1477-1547) and Calvin. Sadoleto took advantage of Calvin’s absence to persuade Genevans back into the Roman Catholic fold. His "Letter to the Genevans" provoked an indignant reply from Calvin. Calvin’s indignation arose from Sadoleto’s implication that Calvin and Farel undertook their reforming activities to attain prestige and money otherwise denied to them. “Such is always the course of those who seek new honors and new powers for themselves, by assailing the authority of the church,” wrote Sadoleto. Whereas these seditious men aimed for worldly power, he, along with all others “have put their faith and hope in Christ … for this one reason, viz., that they may obtain salvation for themselves and for their souls.” Salvation is therefore proportional to self-regard. “For in proportion to the love each man bears to himself is his salvation dear to him.” Indeed, this salvation is obtained “by faith alone in God and in Jesus Christ,” but Sadoleto’s definition of faith showed he understood neither faith nor justification. By faith, Sadoleto meant an inner orientation towards God formed by love so that faith becomes “the true habit of divine justice.” The formative power of love meant something different to Sadoleto than an outward expression or end result. The formative power of God’s love is the efficient cause of faith. Love is infused by God who is love through the sacraments “so that in this very faith love is essentially comprehended as the chief and primary cause of our salvation.” Faith is little more than unity with the Roman Church in which the fullness of the Holy Spirit dwells. “You see dearest brethren,” wrote Sadoleto, “what it really is to be a Christian, since our faith toward God, and all the glory of God, both His with us, and ours with Him, consists solely in this unity.” 13

The glory of God at the end of Sadoleto’s summary of Christian faith comes at the beginning of Calvin’s. “It is not very sound theology to confine a man’s thoughts so much to himself, and not to set before him, as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God,” asserted Calvin. For his glory alone, God offered gratuitous justification. Faith for Calvin was active trust in the promises of God apart from any human effort. Works of love were not the cause but the outcome of faith. “The end of gratuitous election, so also of gratuitous justification is, that we may lead pure and unpolluted lives before God.” Here we have the heart of Calvin’s conversion. His deliverance from a life of self-serving was at the same time a call to serve the church. Calvin could recover his self-confidence before God because his conversion was also his calling. “For though I am at the present relieved of the charge of the Church of Geneva, that circumstance ought not prevent me from embracing it with paternal affection—God, when He gave it to me in charge, having bound me to be faithful to it forever.” 14 Within a few months, he was called back to Geneva where he reformed the church along notably pastoral and collegial lines.


Calvin’s Theology
Three points from Calvin’s prophetic calling left their imprint on his theology:

  • The Glory of God Alone. We have seen how prominent the glory of God was in Calvin’s conversion. God’s desire for his own glory is for Calvin the only reason for creation and reconciliation. Fallen human nature inevitably turns the glory of God into human self-glorification. The work of Jesus Christ in reconciliation is entirely from God so that humans cannot take glory for themselves. God’s glory is more than a reason for reconciliation. God’s glory is the goal of creation. By reconciling humankind for his glory, humans can desire God’s glory alone. Our purpose here is not to define divine glory, but to point out its pivotal point in Calvin’s thought. Calvin was different from Luther, who was propelled by a concern with God’s righteousness. The role of God’s glory at the beginning of Calvin’s thought can perhaps be illustrated by comparing it to the way glory is expressed on cornerstones at Catholic institutions which bear the inscription AMDG (ad majorem Dei gloriam, "to the greater glory of God") Greater invites comparison to lesser, and so it implies ascendant striving for glory. The glory of God alone meant for Calvin a descent from God to human beings which produces a humble receptivity called faith. The glory of God alone is at the same time a call to orient life to the love God above all else. We have seen how Calvin’s prophetic zeal for God’s glory sustained him through setbacks and disappointments.

  • Christ Alone. Jesus Christ is above all the Mediator of God’s glory. We have seen how the Christocentrism of Calvin’s theology is evident in the reformation of the Lord’s supper. Jesus Christ’s new testament in his death and resurrection was the full expression of God’s glory. Repeated sacrifices in the Mass compromised the centrality of Jesus Christ and transferred the glory of God to the glory of human institutions. It is important to locate the full expression of God’s glory with the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus, for it is on the Cross that God was glorified even more than in the Incarnation.

  • Word Alone. We have seen how Calvin was converted to evangelical faith through an intense engagement with the Bible over little less than a year at his refuge in Basel. In his shattered state he was brought face to face with the glory of God expressed in the sacrificial work of Christ as the central message of the whole Bible. His conversion was a three-sided encounter between the glory of God revealed in the Word of God, his own shattered desires for human glory and the Holy Spirit who ended all resistance against placing all hope and trust in the promises of the Word of God. His conversion through the Word of God differed from Roman Catholic penance with its four steps of contrition, confession, satisfaction, and absolution which involved a three-way relationship between God, a penitent and the Church in whom the Holy Spirit dwelt (in Catholic theology). The Bible-centered shape of his conversion gave direction to his entire career. He published commentaries on 48 of the 66 books in the Bible. His Institutes were always viewed as an introduction to reading the Bible. The Bible’s authority in Calvin’s theology was not a result of a belief in biblical inspiration, but the result of a belief Christ was the Word of God.

The "alone" in all the above does not mean “only,” exclusive of human involvement. Calvin’s exposition of divine glory included the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to humans, his teaching on the Lord’s Supper included real sacramental presence among human beings, and his preaching of the Word always presupposed the Holy Spirit’s work in the gift of faith and new birth in human hearts. The importance of the word ‘alone’ is connected with the doctrine of justification. Justification and Salvation are often confused. Justification is the gate into the path of salvation. Salvation is past, present and future of God’s ultimate authority over all creation. Love is the outcome of the Holy Spirit’s sanctification of Christian faith. Glorification is the future reward for a sanctified life. Justification, sanctification and glorification combined constitute salvation. Justification as the gateway into salvation is decisively and exclusively God’s work.

Calvin viewed himself as a prophet. Our sketch of Calvin’s conversion shows us a prophet is converted by a direct call of God to work within the church to bring it back to biblical foundations under the influence of new illumination from God’s Word. In the case of Calvin, it was a new insight to the way God’s desire for his own glory manifested itself prior to and distinct from the fading glories of this world. It was, therefore, a call to desire God’s glory in all things. For Calvin, this meant working as a unordained layperson in the Genevan Church. It meant sustaining blows as a result of his own overzealous actions and the intransigence or unfaithfulness of the church, yet going back to try again. Calvin’s example raises this question for us today. Who are the prophets in our church? How will God raise up prophets for a new generation? Calvin prophesied in a Christian culture. What does it mean to be a prophet in post-Christian America? We know that God will never fall silent because His Word is with us. Where His Word is, prophets will arise.


- Bruce McCallum, Equip, October 25, 2017





Endnotes

  1. John Calvin, Preface to Commentary on the Psalms(Christian Classics Ethereal Library) accessed 2017 at https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom08.html, p 25.
  2. John C. Olin ed., A Reformation Debate: Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply(New York: Harper and Row, 1966), pp. 85-6
  3. John Calvin, _Preface to Commentary on the Psalms,_p 25.
  4. Alexandre Ganoczy, The Young Calvin, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987) pp 64-6.
  5. Ibid. p. 82
  6. Ibid, p. 96
  7. A more thorough summary appears in W.H. Neuser, "The first outline of Calvin’s theology – the preface to the New Testament in the Olivétan Bible of 1535," Koers: Bulletin for Christian Scholarship 66(1 & 2) 2001:1-39. This work is cited in this paragraph unless otherwise noted.
  8. "Let this then stand as a first and infallible proposition—the mass or Sacrament of the Altar is Christ’s testament, which He left behind Him at His death to be distributed among his believers. For that is the meaning of His words: ‘This cup is the new testament in my blood.’…A testament, as everyone knows, is a promise made by one about to die, by which he designates his bequest and appoints his heirs. A testament, therefore, involves first, the death of the testator, and second, the promise of an inheritance, and the naming of an heir. Thus Paul discusses at length the nature of a testament in Rom. 4, Gal. 3 and 4, and Heb. 9. We see the same thing clearly also in these words of Christ. Christ testifies concerning his death when he says: ‘This is my body, which is given, this is my blood, which is poured out’ (Luke 22:19-20). He names and designates the bequest when he says ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matt. 26.28). But he appoints the heirs when he says, ‘For you (Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11.24) and for many' (Matt. 26.28; Mark 14:24), that is for those who accept and believe the promise of the testator. For here it is faith that makes men heirs…" (Martin Luther, Three Treatises[Fortress Press, 1966] pp. 154-5.
  9. John Calvin, "Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France," in _Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion,_John T. Mcneill, ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), vol 1, pp 11-12. Elsewhere here.
  10. Farel overcame Calvin’s resistance with hellfire. "He proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquillity of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent." (Calvin, Introduction to Psalms, p 27).
  11. "Toward the end of the year 1536 the government of Geneva appointed him pastor of the city. We learn nothing of an ordination by the laying on of hands or the like." Dankbaar, _Calvin, sein Weg un sein Werk,_p. 49. Cited in Ganoczy, op cit., p.337, n 29.
  12. Letter of July 10, 1538, cited in Ganoczy, op cit., p. 122.
  13. John C. Olin ed., A Reformation Debate: Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply(New York: Harper and Row, 1966), passim pp. 29-48.
  14. Ibid, pp 49-94.

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Equip: Reformation - Jan Hus

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Equip: Reformation - Jan Hus

The Reformation was fueled by a series of leaders who were motivated, not by selfish ambition, but by the pursuit of Godly principle. Each of these men faced catastrophic personal consequences; loss of prestige and position, excommunication, torture and even death by horrific means. They responded with an uncompromised commitment to principles born of the Spirit and of God’s word. It is astonishing to realize how the words of Luther at the Diet of Worms could be equally attributed to the dozens of Reformers who were also used by God to purify and strengthen the church for centuries to come:

I stand (convinced) by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God's word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me.

Their incredible commitment provided to us the gift of the Church we cherish today. 

Jan Hus

Jan Hus

The subject of last week’s blog post was the Morning Star of the Reformation, John Wycliffe. He was so called because his principled positions, his writings and intellectual argumentation in opposition to the Roman church and in favor of Sola Scriptura inspired many of the Reformers who were to follow. One of those influenced was, Jan Hus.  Although Hus, who’s last name is Czech for goose, was only 12 years old and lived in Bohemia when Wycliffe died, his writings would have a profound impact on his life. 

He was born into a poor family but Hus’ easy intellect provided all he needed to attend and graduate from Prague University where he eventually received his Master’s degree and became a professor. Through his studies he discovered the writings of Wycliffe and they changed his view of the church and clergy. 

As with Wycliffe before him, he was repulsed by the greed and wealth of the church and this led him to question its authority. From his pulpit at the influential Bethlehem Chapel in Prague he railed against leadership that looked less like the images of Christ painted on the walls of his church and more like the princes of this earth. This did not sit well with those whose power and comfort his teachings were threatening. 

Because he challenged the teachings of the church, eventually they put him on trial. When he was given the opportunity recant under threat of death by fire he responded by appealing to Christ himself and said; 

"O God and Lord, now the Council condemns even thine own act and thine own law as heresy, since thou thyself didst lay thy cause before thy Father as the just judge, as an example for us, whenever we are sorely oppressed. There I lay my cause.” 

This only increased the cries of heretic and he was sentenced to be burned at the stake. Under heavy guard was led to his execution. The executioners undressed Hus and tied his hands behind his back with ropes, and his neck with a chain to a stake around which wood and straw had been piled up so that it covered, him to the neck. Still at the last moment the imperial marshal, in the presence of the Count Palatine, asked him to save his life by a recantation, but Hus declined with the words "God is my witness that I have never taught that of which I have been accused by false witnesses. In the truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached I will die today with gladness."

Thereupon the fire was kindled. With uplifted voice Hus sang, "Christ, thou Son of the living God, have mercy upon me." And before he succumbed to the smoke and flame with his last breath he prophesied that although now they would “cook this goose”, "there will come a swan in a hundred years that you will not reach."

100 years later enters Martin Luther, whose family crest contained a swan. 

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Equip: Reformation - John Wycliffe

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Equip: Reformation - John Wycliffe

The more I have studied for Mercy Hill’s “5 Solas” series on the Reformation, the more convinced I am of the importance of it. This is because large portions of our church history, both dark and bright, have been forgotten; swallowed up by the passing of time. To quote Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, “Things that should not have been forgotten, were lost.” As we begin this blog series we will be looking first at John Wycliffe. Wycliffe is known as “The Morningstar of the Reformation” and was one of the first to call for sweeping change within the 14th century church.

 

The church of Wycliffe’s day had drastically and tragically veered off course from the pure faith and ministry of the apostles. This infection began to corrupt every level of the Roman Catholic Church,  the popes claimed earthly power and authority over all of the nations of Europe. They abused their position by appointing friends, relatives and generous donors to places of power within the European nations (specifically England, the home of Wycliffe). The taxes imposed by the church eventually grew to be 5 times the amount that the English were paying to their own ruling king. Because of this, the appointed religious leaders lived in luxury and comfort both within their English estates and often their foreign homes. This resulted in large amounts of money from within England being siphoned off and, at times, even freely given to the enemies of England in order to finance war upon the kingdom itself! The poor were getting poorer, and Rome and her friends were getting richer.

At the lower levels of the church, the local clergy within England were also corrupt. Monks and friars were perpetrating terrible acts such as the Inquisition and the kidnapping of children from schools in order to fill their ranks. Sadly, many of these practices went unchallenged by the people of England because they were not able to read Scripture, and were too afraid to challenge the sins of the church. Unfortunately, these are just some of the problems within the church during the 14th century.

John Wycliffe, a respected philosopher and English priest with a love for the Bible, could not stand by and allow these things to continue unchallenged. He fought against the belief that the Pope had earthly control over the English government both with Scripture and political arguments. His bold stance gained him many friends within the English government that wanted to end the parasitic involvement of corrupt foreigners. Not content with just opposing church leadership, Wycliffe repeatedly denounced the friars and monks involved in violence, kidnappings and other atrocities. Because of this, the corrupted leaders of the church often tried to convict Wycliffe on charges of undermining the authority of the Pope. But his powerful political friends protected him. He continued to be protected until the charge of heresy was brought against him, and his political allies no longer wanted to risk the punishment of the church (condemnation and excommunication). Wycliffe was never truly convicted, but essentially exiled to the village of Lutterworth. Here he took on a new challenge: translating the whole of the Bible from Latin copies into the common English language. This would allow others to read Scripture for themselves and not depend upon corrupt church leadership that manipulated the text and ignored the Bible for material gain. Wycliffe’s ministry would continue on until he was 64 years old when he died of a stroke in 1384.

John Wycliffe’s efforts in fighting corruption in the church has rippling effects far beyond his lifetime. As the “Morningstar of the Reformation” he was an inspiration and building block for the reformers who followed him. His bold task of translating the Bible into the common tongue brought hope and freedom to those who had never read the Bible. This task has been repeated over and over. Now millions of people have been able to read the good news of Jesus Christ in their own language, and many have come to faith in Christ. The Bible you hold in your hands, whether paper or phone screen, was made possible through the initiative of Wycliffe and other Reformers. In our modern time, one organization taking the lead in the world today is named the “Wycliffe Bible Translators”.

As for me, I am indebted to the brave and faithful work of John Wycliffe. When I open my Bible in my comfortable office or some coffee shop, I do not think about the sacrifices that made that happen. Studying the story of Wycliffe has reminded me of the dark times in our history.  Times when Christians were not able to read the Bible for themselves. As a matter of fact, we still live in a world where that is a reality for some of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Please keep them in your prayers and, when you can (or are led by the Holy Spirit), contribute to the work of those who are trying to get the written Word of God into the hands of Christians throughout the world. Words written in their own language as John Wycliffe did 630 years ago.

 

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Equip: Community - Make a friend. Be a friend.

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Equip: Community - Make a friend. Be a friend.


Where did you meet your 3 closest adult friends? Are they childhood or college friends? Relatives? Neighbors? A quick google search of “how to make friends as an adult” will reveal countless articles about the importance of adult friendships, the difficulty in making them, and ideas of where one might find this elusive unicorn.

Growing up, I avoided the concept of “women’s ministry” like the plague. I associated women’s  ministry with all things mauve, ugly crafts and a whole lot of feminine drama for which I had neither the time nor inclination. When I was asked to lead a Women’s Bible Study in the early days of Mercy Hill Church, I admit, I did it somewhat begrudgingly. We started with some women’s Bible study books, and I tried to keep it low key on the “homework” front because I knew for myself, that if I was a part of a group and I hadn’t done my homework, I would just skip and stay home rather than face the shame of being unprepared. Eventually we transitioned to a much more laid back system of working through a book of the aBible verse by verse with no required outside reading. Not that there isn’t great value in systematic Bible study, but my heart’s desire was to provide a place where women could belong. Where they could meet and make friends, get involved in each others’ lives and support one another through prayer and through practical acts of service.

Over the years, I’ve been amazed at the level of transparency and vulnerability practiced by the women who attend in sharing their struggles and deepest prayer needs and the respect, care and discretion that is given in return. I think the greatest strength of the Women’s Community Group is in the area of prayer. I often joke that we are really a prayer group that also does some Bible study. The first place I turn for prayer (after contacting my parents) is to the Women’s Community Group. I know that whether I share a request in person or via the Facebook group, that my sisters will faithfully lift me up in prayer. It is so comforting to know that I’m not alone in this journey and that is why I continue to work in women’s ministry. My hope and prayer for every woman at Mercy Hill Church is that they would not walk this journey alone. Life is hard, the journey is long, we need friends to come alongside, to lift us in prayer, to encourage us when encouragement is needed, to correct when correction is needed and most of all, to just be there.

Where do you find adult friends? One of the best places is in church. However, real, significant relationships are not likely to happen on Sunday mornings as we breeze in and out. Relationships are formed through time and consistency, through discussion and sharing, in honesty and even vulnerability. It’s scary to walk into a group you’re not already a part of, I get it, I’m not a huge fan of it myself, but without risk, there is no reward. I encourage you, if you’re not a part of a community group, join one. Go more than once. Go regularly. Invest your time. Share your life. Make a friend and be a friend.

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Equip: What Would You Have Done?: Christian Community in the Vietnam Era

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Equip: What Would You Have Done?: Christian Community in the Vietnam Era

What Would You Have Done? ‘The Vietnam War’ Documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have produced a searing evocation of the decade of the ‘60s with their documentary on ‘The Vietnam War.’  Twenty-first century cultural and political turmoil since 9/11 have been accompanied by economic stagnation, moral disintegration and a rapid decline in church attendance. But these trends are much less traumatic than the crises that befell families, communities, churches and the nation in a single decade between 1961 and 1971.  Since this is the decade in which I came of age, the documentary raises a serious question.  How was my Christian faith shaped by this era?  I want to ask this question for the readers of this blog to reflect on their own faith.  What would you have done?  

‘The Vietnam War’ juxtaposes the confidence and cohesion of American culture at the beginning of the 60s with the violence and division at the end of the decade.  Just a few of the highlights:

  • Kennedy’s inaugural promise “To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny,” was followed by the insertion of “advisors” who fought alongside the Vietnamese Army against the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong). The government of South Vietnam was so corrupt that the administration approved a secret coup against their president Diem.
     
  • After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson, without consulting the South Vietnamese or the American public, sent in the Marines based on a controversial, minor skirmish in the Tonkin Gulf. One episode in the series shows the marines disembarking from their landing craft near Da Nang in full armor only to be greeted by beautiful, young Vietnamese women dressed in white.  Eventually the Army joined the Marines, while the American government covered up the change in strategy.  Private records show that the administration had already concluded the odds of success in Vietnam were 1-in-3, yet they continued to add troops and bomb cities in North Vietnam.  
     
  • In 1968 17,000 American soldiers died in one year alone, and another 12,000 died next year.  Vietnamese deaths, of course, were far greater.  Meanwhile a universal draft swept all males over 18 into the armed services unless they were enrolled as students with good grades in a 4-year undergraduate school.  This unusual exemption shifted the burden of war to the poor.
     
  • An antiwar movement escalated into violent confrontation between students and police at the Democratic Convention in 1968.  
     
  • Racial conflicts starting with non-violent demonstrations in the South had engulfed large metropolitan areas in violence by 1967.
     
  • Leaders in both these movements were assassinated three months apart—Martin Luther King on April 4 and Robert Kennedy on June 5, 1968.  

Would you would you have done under these circumstances?  I had three options as a college student:  1) sign up with the armed services and go to ‘Nam; 2) apply for conscientious objector status or evade the draft by fleeing to Canada; or 3) resist the draft and face the consequences.  My first choice was to resist the draft.  American policy seemed to have misled us into fighting a war against communism which was actually a war for national independence from colonial rule. However, at student demonstrations in Washington in 1969 organized by Students for a Democratic Society, it became obvious to me that anti-war demonstrations were led by anti-American anarchists. I realized war was not the problem.  I was the problem. The same sin that made politician lie and anarchists die was in my heart. I therefore chose the first option as I neared graduation.  Nixon abolished the draft before I was called up. In between, another option showed itself.

fish article.png

 The fourth option was to experiment with new forms of Christian community.  In 1970 I helped start a men’s Christian residence on the campus of Ohio State named the Fish House and published a student newspaper called, ’The Fish.’  We had no idea what we were doing other than to confront the culture with a different option for a meaningful life.  That was the same year four antiwar demonstrators were shot at Kent State, and Ohio State shut down the university. Our Christian evangelistic activities on campus found a welcomed response. The small beginning at the Fish House has since grown into the Xenos Christian Fellowship (xenos.org).  Many other experiments in Christian community started at that time. Chris Peterson, an elder at our church, was also involved in new experiments with Christian counter-cultural communities.

The way we answered the question of what is required by circumstances may not be the answer necessary for today.  However, conditions seem to be right again for new experiments in Christian community.  Rod Dreher, whose book, "The Benedictine Option," I reviewed in part, makes five suggestions:

  • rediscover the past
  • recover liturgical worship
  • practice asceticism
  • center our lives on the church community
  • and tighten church discipline

His suggestions are based loosely on the Rule of St. Benedict governing the religious communities founded by St. Benedict (480-543).  Dreher gives the following reasons for his adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict. We need the past to endure shifting currents of belief in the present. Next month we will explore the lives of four Protestant Reformers in our Equip classes.  When we use liturgy, we are teaching the church that our faith is old and authentic. Simon Chan, a theologian in the Assemblies of God, has written Liturgical Theology: The Church as a Worshipping Community to encourage the use of liturgy.   Asceticism comes from the world of athletic training.  Practices like fasting, prayer, study and almsgiving employ the body in spiritual practice.  Too often, we forget the body is also part of worship. Paul instructed us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice…” as true worship. Focus on church community is the topic of our present month in Equip classes, so I don’t need to repeat those lessons.  Church discipline is the hardest step to implement.  Coming under spiritual authority seems like the last reason for going to church.  It is not that scary if we agree that spiritual authority is authority under God’s Word.  Coming under spiritual authority is the only reasons for church membership.  

‘The Vietnam War’ series is a convenient way to start recovering the past and building for the present by asking ourselves today what we would have done back then.

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Equip: Why Do We Need Community?

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Equip: Why Do We Need Community?

The concept of community has been something that society has wrestled with for centuries. From the Egyptians, to the Romans, and to the Americans. There are even whole studies in which people give the majority of their lives to understand this idea community. If community is so important, what does that mean in the life of a believer?

It seems that although we crave strong connections with other people, there is a distinct lack of meaningful relationships. Individuals have tried to create these connections, but it seems that the opposite is happening. Two examples would be Facebook and Twitter. These companies were established to connect people. Facebook has a section called “Friends” and Twitter has a section called “Followers”. What is sad about these titles in these mediums is that they give a false impression that you have a lot of relationships and have a strong community. People get validation from the “Likes” on the Facebook post or “Retweets” on their Twitter post. The ironic part is that even though we have this way to connect with so many people all around the world; people feel even more alone than ever before.

The main problem with our society is that we have found our identity in relationships or feeling like a part of a group(s) of people. Individuals may find their identity in the political party they ascribe to. As long as they are a part of a party that they agree with, they feel at home with those people of like mind. Others find their identity with their race. Some people say that they feel more at home or comfortable when they are with a certain race. Some people find their identity in their music selection, to the point where they dress according to the “style” of that genre, specific musical instruments they play, and music they will “only” listen to in the car.  More examples of groups people find identity in are gamers, car people, motorcyclists, jocks, cheerleaders, PC/MAC, tea/coffee, etc. Sadly it’s even in the church. Some people look down on others, because they are not part of their denomination, theology, methodology, etc. When those groups eventually fail us we feel like we have been slapped in the face.

Am I saying that being in community and liking a certain type of group is necessarily bad? No, but we have totally lost the center of what community and relationship should be. I think community is essential for human beings. For this reason solitary confinement is a form of punishment. If we have completely lost the center of community, then what is the center and what does that mean for us?

I think to rightly understand this question we have to do as John Calvin says in Chapter 1 Section 1 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. “ …no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts toward the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; no, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone”. In simple terms, we have to look to how God is to truly understand ourselves.

We know that God is a triune God. That the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God. This is an amazing mystery. This triune God has always had perfect community since before time began. All three of them have been of one mind with no discourse among them. The Father sends the Son, the Son willingly comes and dies, the Son sends the Spirit, the Spirit gladly point to the Son, and the Son happily brings us to the Father. Now this triune God decided to create a group of creatures unlike anything else that he had created. In Genesis 1: 26 God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” Part of that likeness and image is that we are made to be in community by our very nature, because God in His very nature is communal and relational. This is why humans have missed the central understanding of community. The very nature of community stems from God himself. Community makes no sense outside of God. This is why even in lower creation there is community. Birds fly with other birds, penguins are always in big groups, and even ants have colonies. This is even more in human nature, because our being in community is a direct image of the triune Gods’ relationship with himself.

Jesus makes this very clear when he answers a man that comes to him asking what the greatest commandment is. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22: 37-40 ESV. Jesus starts with the understanding that we look to God first and the he is our ultimate. If we rely on him and submit to Him completely we will have a natural follow up; which is to love others as ourselves. Jesus knows that human nature is directly connected to God himself who made us. Jesus does not let these two truths be separated.

The idea of community is brought to light in the relationship of the church. One of my favorite verses is Ephesians 1: 5 where the Holy Spirit through Paul tells the church that we were adopted. This means that we were once not children of God, but through the work of Jesus Christ we are adopted into the family of God. This is a central understanding for us as a church. We are FAMILY! The God of the universe brought us into a family that will be eternally united through Jesus Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. This family is similar to many of our families with many dysfunctions and issues, but like your family will stick together because you are family. The greater miracle of the church is that unlike your family which may get so dysfunctional that even blood doesn’t matter; this church is united and related on the infinite, powerful, holy blood of Jesus Christ. Our sins were not only paid for on the cross, but also our being brought into a family was bought at the cross. The nails that stuck our savior to a tree were also the nails that built the foundations of the church.

 

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Equip Book Review: "The Benedict Option, A Strategy for Christians in a Post Christian Nation"

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Equip Book Review: "The Benedict Option, A Strategy for Christians in a Post Christian Nation"

Christianity in Culture or Christian Culture?

A review of Rod Dreher, "The Benedictine Option" by Bruce McCallum

In times of political and personal turmoil, religious communities can provide a sense of membership in a caring community with a meaningful mission. Rod Dreher, editor for the American Conservative magazine and author of several books, has written "The Benedictine Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation" (New York : Sentinel, 2017, page references to Kindle Edition) to document models of communities with a sustainable Christian culture.  The New Your Times called it, “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade” (David Brooks, review of the Benedictine Option, March 14, 2017).  The title calls to mind monks in cloistered mountaintops like Luke Skywalker after the Jedi revolt.  But it is not a call to retreat from culture.  It is a call to rebuild Christian culture from within through practices drawn from the Benedictine tradition to save our own souls. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (KJV)”

His premise is that religious conservatives have lost the culture wars in America. The crusher for Dreher was Obergefell, the June 26, 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage throughout the United States.  Since then, “Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists. The culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives (p. 3).” Dreher has written this book to alert Christians to the fact that they face a choice between religious persecution or compromise with surrounding culture.  His book is worth reading to explore the survival strategies religious communities have employed to prosper as a minority groups, whether as monasteries, Jewish ghettos or counter-cultural Christian churches, schools or businesses.

Dreher’s prophetic judgment on the status of conservative Christians raises the question of where to draw the line between healthy and compromised communities.  To be sure, he laments the slimmed-down version of Christianity studied by sociologists like Christian Smith, who documented a ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ in the generation of Christians coming into adulthood for whom God is a cosmic therapist who helps good people become happy with themselves and nice to others. These views represent a departure from the pattern of belief in traditional Christianity centered on repentance from sin, faith in the representative death and resurrection of Jesus and a life of service to the glory of God.  However, by the time sociologists detect widespread trends, they are second nature. Dreher argues that the only way to return to healthy communities with active engagement in the life of Jesus is through a changed lifestyle.

Sexuality is the lifestyle area most in need of formation. Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is “the linchpin of Christian cultural order (p. 198),” asserts Dreher citing Philip Rieff.  “Gay marriage and gender ideology signify the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because they deny Christian anthropology at its core and shatter the authority of the Bible (p. 203).” Since Dreher places sexual practice at the center of Christian culture, a few summary comments on his views of human sexuality are necessary.  Dreher argues that Christian anthropology regards men and women created in their gender specificity toward specific ends, and those ends are procreation and enculturation.  Marriage is part of the cosmic order meant to channel the generative powers of nature into cultural and social good.  Sex is something to be discovered through the practice of chastity and fidelity and not something to be used to express personal desires.  “Everything in this debate…turns on how we answer the question: Is the natural world and its limits a given, or are we free to do with it whatever we desire (p. 201)?” Of course, Dreher asserts nature is favorably inclined to human prosperity as shown by God’s incarnation in a human body.  Bodily incarnation validates human community and institutions like marriage that sustain it. Gay marriage challenges this view at the very core by equating sexuality with the struggle for human rights.  If gay sex is a natural, then gay marriage should be enshrined in law as a human right. Any viewpoint-religious or otherwise-that limits sexuality to heterosexual sex is a violation of basic human rights. No accommodation between these views of human nature is possible, according to Dreher, so the solution is to strengthen the practice of Christian marriage in families and in communities with the understanding that Christian marriage is a minority view in modern culture, with all that entails.

I agree with Dreher that sex is central to Christian and non-Christian culture, along with money, power and religion.  Deviations in sexual practice introduce all manner of disruption to social order.  Dreher’s contention that Christian sexual practice was the primary change factor in the original confrontation between Christianity and  Greek and Roman pagan culture finds support from an important study of romance and sexuality in Rome and early Christianity by Kyle Harper, "From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity." (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).  Dreher’s recommendations for enriching sexual practices through the discipline of chastity(no fortification), stronger families, and parish sodalities are helpful. Where I disagree with Dreher is his limitation of sexuality to anthropology and the natural embeddedness of male and female gender specificity.  Two creation accounts in Genesis separate sex and sexuality.  The second creation account in Genesis 2:23-25 characterizes sexuality as an expression of personal identity.  Adam’s cry of recognition, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…” is very much an expression of identity, although it is an identity between man and woman who constitute one flesh with different sexual desires.  Paul’s exhortation to husbands in Ephesus to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” places marriage in the context of soteriology, not anthropology.  Paul’s insight extrapolates from Christ’s teaching on divorce, which revealed the hidden identity in human sexuality, namely God unites men and women in one flesh (Matthew 19:6).  For Paul, this mystery is grounded in membership in the resurrected body of Christ.  Paul’s vision here is soteriological and eschatological, a horizon in which marriage will ultimately be replaced with the eternal presence of God.  Indeed, since the Kingdom of God is already inaugurated, marriage is optional for Jesus and Paul.  Jesus and Paul (and Benedictines) practiced celibacy because the strong erotic drive towards sexual fulfillment can be elevated to the sublime love of God—the source of resurrected, eternal life. For Paul, a single man with deep jewish ethnic roots, the elevation of eros can be experienced in marriage and singleness through the ultimate satisfaction of these desires in the realm of soteriology and eschatology.

The generative power of sex is embedded by the first creation account in the cultural sphere as a moral duty to rule over nature.  The Hebrew words for male and female in Genesis 1:27 (zākār, nᵉqēbâ) signify non-cognate, gender specific human beings, each bearing the image of God.  While gender is common to all sexual reproduction, it is only with male and female human beings that gender is ascribed as a unique creation of God.  Sexual reproduction has a cultural function insofar as the divine mandate directs human beings to reproduce and rule over nature. It’s not simply being male or female; it’s how one behaves as male or female.  Recent research in human biology has shown that gender has a cultural dimension (William R. Rice, Urban Friberg and Sergey Gavrilets, “Sexually antagonistic epigenetic marks that canalize sexually dimorphic development,” Molecular Ecology [2016], 25: 1812-22). Gonadal sex is fixed at conception, but secondary male/female traits are molded during fetal growth by exposure to the enzyme testosterone.  Epigenetic factors modify sensitivity to testosterone such that secondary traits like body hair and sexual attraction can be differentially expressed in early childhood and puberty.  Epigenetic traits are usually erased at conception, but sometimes male traits can imprint on female embryos and female traits on males.  Although precise epigenetic markers have not yet been found, this model could explain gonad-trait discordances like body hair and same sex attraction. No “gay gene” exists.  But same sex attraction or gender dissatisfaction can be manifested within the basic sex differences between male and female human beings.  The question is what can be done to resolve discordances between sex and sexuality to achieve cultural good?  Medical culture offers surgery, hormone therapy and gay marriage. Christian culture offers spiritual healing to all men and women with abused or discordant human sexuality, while lifelong, heterosexual bonding is the norm for reproduction.  Christian culture does so to increase human flourishing, not to deny human aspirations.  

It may be that we are in a period of hyper pluralism where surrounding culture is no longer merely indifferent but outright hostile, as Dreher envisions.  Christians have spent too much energy trying to change American culture and not enough building up Christian culture. The results are fun youth groups and awesome worship experiences but very little understanding of the foundations of Christian life. It may also be true that it is too late to correct this imbalance with better messaging.  The path to renewal is through practice.  The area of practice most in need of formation is sexuality, according to Dreher.  Parents and church leaders need to confront sexual abuse, childhood exposure to pornography, teenage sexuality, and marital breakdown with fearless honesty.  More needs to be done to support and encourage chaste, single lifestyles.  Christians must prioritize social interaction with other Christians to give and receive spiritual encouragement at a personal level where sexuality is experienced. Cultural formation is not an accidental product of Christian conversion.  Adherence to a biblical Christian sexual ethic must be enforced through example, pastoral leadership and church discipline.  We can be thankful for people like Dreher who have recovered links to examples from Christian tradition in the past and present. Those who want prescriptive help solving problems with sexuality will have to look elsewhere than Dreher.  Some may wish Dreher spent more energy on Christian approaches to money, power or religious reformation.  My remarks have been directed at his explanation of Christian sexual ethics. I believe we can do more to recover traditional Christian teaching on sex and sexuality within a modern culture that seeks companionship in marriage and knows more about human biology than our ancestors.  We need to celebrate what G.K. Chesterton calls ‘the romance of orthodoxy.’ Christianity has enriched marriage and health in every culture where it is practiced.  Dreher believes we live in an age where no choice is left to us but to practice Christian culture first and not Christianity in American culture.  We can do no less if we want to save our own souls.

After this blog was prepared, I became aware of the Nashville Statement on human sexuality signed by Evangelical leaders. Their leadership is a hopeful sign that Evangelicals will not accommodate to the new transgender cultural agenda.

"The Benedict Option" is a recommended reading for Equip’s September focus on the Theology of Community.  The book can be purchased here.


Equip is the adult education ministry of Mercy Hill Church.  Equip takes place every Wednesday night at 6PM.  Equip informs the body of Christ about the Nature of God through Classes and writings such as this one, in order to transform who we are by this knowledge of Him.

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Equip: From Cessationism to Continuationism

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Equip: From Cessationism to Continuationism

I grew up in a cessationist church.  Cessationism is the belief that the miraculous sign gifts of the Spirit ceased within the first 100 years of the church. The opposing viewpoint is continuationism which is the theological belief that the sign gifts of the Holy Spirit have continued to the present day. The church I grew up in was full of gracious people and the gospel was preached.  I assumed most good churches believed in cessationism.  I heard horror stories of ridiculous preachers doing comical sign gift routines with their churches that we attributed not to the Spirit but to Satan.  I was taught that in 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 when this passage says that prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will pass away when “the perfect comes” which my teachers saw as the completion of the scriptures.  

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Equip: The tension of Pentecostal Theology and Sola Scriptura    

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Equip: The tension of Pentecostal Theology and Sola Scriptura    

Within the last century there has been an increase amongst professing Christians of experiencing the “sign gifts” attributed to the Holy Spirit.  In conjunction with these experiences many questions have arisen concerning the nature of revelation.  For many, the personal edification that takes place by speaking in tongues is a cherished gift.  For others, the edification of a group of believers that takes place in the interpretation of the tongue is an unmistakable sign of God’s present care for his body.  Yet for some who cite Sola Scriptura, a belief or practice in either of these gifts is a rejection of the sufficiency and relevance of Scripture.  It can be difficult for sincere Christians as they feel torn between a practice of specific gifts and fidelity to the Word of God.

What if there is another way? What if our understanding of the purpose of the gifts of the Spirit doesn’t betray our understanding of Sola Scriptura? What if the Spirit working in an individual’s body works similarly in the corporate body of Christ?

First, we must define Sola Scriptura.  We look to the historical definition cited in 1646, drawn up by Westminster Assembly as part of the Westminster Standards to be a confession of the Church of England, it became and remains the standard of doctrine for many in the Reformed traditions.  It states, “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”

If we disregard context of this writing it would be easy to see the application to Pentecostal practice today.  This application is made by leading voices in evangelicalism today.  After all, is prophecy and the interpretation of tongues a work contributed to the Spirit?  And is God not revealing information to his people through these means?

If the focus of Sola Scriptura is simply the last line “nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men”, it is easy to understand why the sign gifts would be rejected in our modern context.  But if we take into account the time at which it was developed and the statement as a whole, we will see that it has nothing to do with what Pentecostals consider a working of the Spirit.

If the Solas are the fruit of the Reformation era, and Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were the seed, then the abuses of Papal authority proved to be fertile ground for their development.  While not yet completely opposed to the doctrine of indulgences at the time he developed his theses, Luther was beginning to see the direct contradiction to the gospel that theologies attributed to papal authority presented.  As Justin Holcomb notes,

“Luther’s Ninety-five Theses hit a nerve in the depths of the authority structure of the medieval church. Luther was calling the pope and those in power to repent—on no authority but the convictions he’d gained from Scripture—and urged the leaders of the indulgences movement to direct their gaze to Christ, the only one able to pay the penalty due for sin.”

It is my opinion that the Reformation was a response to 3 issues within the Roman Catholic Church at that time.  Those issues were: An abuse of power, A necessitating denial of Scriptural authority to maintain that power, and the false gospel they produced.

If we are to apply Sola Scriptura against the use of tongues and interpretation we must ask three questions.  They are:

  1. Do we believe that those practicing tongues and interpretation in a corporate setting are establishing themselves as the supreme authority above scripture and the church?
  2. Do we believe that those practicing tongues and interpretation in a corporate setting are equating the edification with new revelation that it should be considered on par with cannon?  If your answer is yes, do you believe that 1st century believers did the same?  If so, where are the manuscripts of their services to be added to canon?
  3. Do we believe that those practicing tongues and interpretation in a corporate setting are establishing a false doctrine and diminishing Christ?

It is my belief that Pentecostals would answer a resounding “No” to the questions posed.  I am sure there are examples of abuses in Pentecostal gatherings that can be pointed to that would allow us to answer yes to these questions.  However, within most pentecostal denominations this is not the case.  In my opinion as the Spirit instructs, convicts and comforts individuals in their daily circumstances, he also does so for his corporate body.  Individually and corporately the Spirit edifies His people.  Whatever is interpreted is measured against scripture for its validation.  Scripture is always the ultimate authority that all our experience is subjected to.

Pentecostal experience and 16th century Papal authority are not connected.  To apply Sola Scriptura against those practicing the gifts in a corporate setting is a category error.  We should take joy in the whole counsel of God.  We should also take joy in the edification the Spirit brings to his people.  Just as two friends do not need to be reconciled; Sola Scriptura and corporate edification by the Spirit do not need reconciliation, but celebration.

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Why Italy?

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Why Italy?

Each year as we prepare for, or as the team is serving, I am asked about our trip to Italy. It is usually a question of “Why Italy?” out of a sense of curiosity. But, admittedly, some of the questions are much more pointed. Some ask why we would send people and resources to a European “Christian” country when we could have a much greater “impact” elsewhere.
 
While one is out of curiosity and one is more direct, they both provide the opportunity to dive deeper into our understanding of Christian missions. It allows us to dig deeper and have a clear understanding of where God is needed, how He has chosen to save the world, and how modern mission trips fit in.
 
Where is God Needed?
 
In our effort to send missionaries to the ends of the earth, in some ways we as American Christians unfortunately fall victim to our own efforts. In order to raise support, missionaries need to motivate people to give, and to do so they share their ministry as a compelling need. And what is more compelling than the picture of the hurt, poor and lost of this world. Think of the picture of the African child in tattered clothes looking up to the camera with sad eyes. It compels us, but it also very subtly deceives us. It deceives us into the notion that their need is “greater” than that of our neighbor next door, or a citizen of a European country. All three contexts share the same truth: there are people in each who don’t have the restoration and redemption of the Gospel in their life. 
 
This is reminds us of Jesus when he said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV) We are called to all places at all times. And this includes Italy, a nation where Catholicism has become cultural and has minimal impact on a personal level. While 80% of Italians claim to be Christian, only 3% report actively participating in their faith.
 
How Will He Save?

So if God is needed in all places and at all times, how should we reach out? Unfortunately, this is where we once again fall victim to our own efforts. Since most mission trips involve a significant financial commitment, we have approached our trips as wanting to “maximize impact” and making sure the trip is “worthwhile”. We think in terms of return on investment.
 
But let me be clear. God’s salvation plan has not included one-week trips until the last 50 years. For the first 1,900 or so years God’s plan was focused on planting Gospel-centered faith communities among the lost of the world. His salvation plan was first the saving grace provided through His Son, and then proclaiming this good news through local churches animated through the transforming and restoring work of His Holy Spirit.
 
The hope of the world is first and foremost God’s saving work, and second, His bride the Church. When God poured out his Spirit He did so to a local community of believers who were committed to each other and to the Gospel, and through them the good news went out.
 
As a reflection of this, everything we do in missions at Mercy Hill Church for missions is centered around the local church wherever we serve. Whether we serve in Italy, Rwanda, Mexico or locally, we partner with and edify the local church in those communities.
 
So, How Do Mission Trips Fit In?
 
“If the hope of the world is the local church, then why go at all,” you may ask. But this question is still flowing out the view that a mission trip is about what we can accomplish or achieve. The proper question should be what will we allow God to accomplish on this trip?

And if His plan of salvation is our guide, then we know what is most important to Him is relationships. It is our relationship to Him, our relationships with each other, our relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, and our relationships with the hurting, lost, and broken of this world. Just as Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40 ESV)
 
Because of this, our mission trips at Mercy Hill Church center on building relationships in all these areas. We design and create space on our trips for this to happen. There is individual time for people to reflect and walk with God. There is time in cafes in Italy, on the terrace at Solace Ministries in Rwanda, and time on our other trips. There is time ministering with our brothers and sisters in Christ in the local context so we can encourage them and they can edify and teach us. And there is time to be involved in reaching out in ministry. If this involves some construction work or a tangible project, cool, but that will just be secondary to our main focus on building relationships.
 
With all of this in focus now, I hope that you can see that our question of “Why Italy” can now change to the statement “Of Course Italy.” Of course Rwanda, and Mexico, and Royal Family Kids, and India, and the Middle East, and Milwaukee, and beyond.

May we be a church that at all times and in all ways is reaching out to all places. And as our church family is reaching out to our brothers and sisters in Padova, may we be lifting them up in prayer this week and beyond.


MH Missions Trips

Find out more about Mercy Hill missions trips at mercyhill.org/missionstrips

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Equip: Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: In Step with the Spirit

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Equip: Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: In Step with the Spirit

Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: In Step with the Spirit

Last year as the Italy mission trip approached, I tried picking up enough Italian to get by. I downloaded an app and absorbed as much as I could. I aced level after level on the app and soon was ranked as 25% or so fluent in Italian. I thought I had it in the bag, and was ready for the trip.

Then I arrived, and tried to order my first coffee at a cafe.

The expression on the waiter’s face was one of polite confusion. It seemingly didn’t even register with him as Italian, and that it must have been some other foreign language. Embarrased, I switched to English and made my order. While I knew the mechanics and vocabulary of Italian, my lack of experience and immersion led to my ultimate failure when it came to living it out.

If I am honest with myself, I have made the same mistake in regards to the Holy Spirit, and the lesson is simple: intellectual knowledge is no substitute for experience.

As Phil mentioned in his blog a few weeks ago, the role of the Spirit is to guide, control, lead, guide, advocate, convict, teach, comfort, encourage, counsel, give peace and help to pray. But simply knowing these roles on an intellectual level will leave our experience of God lacking.

In the New Testament, both the narrative surrounding experiences with the Holy Spirit and the prescriptive passages about the Holy Spirit use language that is very relational in nature. One passage that highlights this is Galatians 5. In verse 16 we are told, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” followed later by verse 25 which says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” Unfortunately, this passage is one that is glossed over by us as Christians, and we mistakenly view it as simply flowery description of a theological concept. In fact, most of us skip over this language and latch on to the list of don’ts (verse 19-21) and do’s (verse 22).

This is where our experience of Christianity must move beyond merely an intellectual exercise. Only through daily walking with God, allowing Him to move and speak to us in all the ways outlined in Scripture, will we truly experience the freedom that is inherent in the Gospel. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But here’s the scary thing: we can accomplish much that has the appearance Christianity in our own ability.

That is why our doctrine of the Holy Spirit cannot exclude the need for the real experience of the Holy Spirit. In fact, I suggest that the most important piece of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is that He is to be experienced and not merely understood. We are called to walk in the Spirit.

So what does this look like? How can we walk with God?

Again, I think our modern Christian expression can become pragmatic too quickly. We tell each other to “spend time in the Word”, “pray at all times”, “attend x, y, or z church event” and many other straightforward action steps. While these are valuable disciplines and steps to take, we will never be able to capture the Holy Spirit through our own effort or ritual. He moves and speaks as He wishes.

And that is the first step to walking with the Spirit. Are we truly willing to walk where He guides and leads, or are we trying to craft our faith in our own image? Are we willing to dive into our own hearts, pains, and hang-ups and let Him speak into them? Are we willing to let him nudge us out of our comfort zone and into the lives of others? Are we willing to let Him guide us beyond our own expectations into the depth and life He has for us? Will we truly walk with Him?

It sounds like a simple question, but a brief survey of the book of Acts tells us that when the church walks with the Spirit, we are not only released into the fullness of a Gospel community, but also exposed to persecution, pain and suffering. When the Spirit leads, it is not to a place of complacency or comfort, but one to where we see God redeem and restore the hurting and lost around us.

But this collective experience must start at the individual level. We must resist the urge to live life in our own effort, of our own design, and be willing to stop and repeatedly check whether we are walking with, speaking with, communing with the Spirit. I encourage you each to pause in the next week and lay that question before the Spirit: “Am I walking with you, or am I walking at a pace of my own design?”

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Equip: The Anatomy of Groaning

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Equip: The Anatomy of Groaning

Do you find yourself groaning as a Christian?  You don’t groan alone.  The Holy Spirit groans with you, according to Romans 8:26: .  

"In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express."

What makes the Holy Spirit groan? Is he disappointed with us? Are inarticulate groans sighs of self-pity and despair? Do inarticulate groans refer to the experience of speaking in tongues?  

In our exploration of the anatomy of groaning in Romans 8, we want show that the Holy Spirit groans as he gives birth within us to a new identity in Christ that wills to do what God wants.

 

Who is the Spirit?

Romans 8 contains more references to the Spirit than any other chapter in the Bible, yet not once is the name “Holy Spirit” used.  Instead of a proper name, we have descriptions: Spirit of life (v 2), Spirit of God (v 9), Spirit of Christ (v 9), Spirit of Him who raised Jesus (v 11), Spirit of Sonship (v 15) or simply “the Spirit.” God the Son has a proper name. He is Christ Jesus (v 1).  God the Father is “Abba, Father” (v 15).  But nowhere do we hear of the Holy Spirit in Romans 8.

Good theological reasons stand behind this ambiguity. The Spirit’s groaning is not inarticulate. “He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with the will of God” (v 27).  Paul tells us two things.  First, the Holy Spirit is a person with a mind whose groans are intelligible to the Father.  Secondly, the Holy Spirit’s groaning is intelligible because it is congruent with God’s will.  The Holy Spirit accords with the will of God because the Holy Spirit is the will of God. The Holy Spirit is the going forth of God in the power of his love.  Going forth in power assumes a source and a goal.  God the Father is the source, and Jesus Christ is the goal.  The Holy Spirit is neither source nor goal but that which unites both. As the will uniting Father and Son as well as the power of God in us, the Holy Spirit acquires many names depending on the function He plays: counselor, comforter, enlightener, etc. These functions and more are summarized by the name “Holy Spirit” as defined in the Apostle’s Creed: We believe in the Holy Spirit.

 

God’s Spirit and Our spirits

If the Holy Spirit is God’s will going forth in the power of his love, how does God’s Holy Spirit relate to our spirit? “The Spirit,” Paul tells us, “bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children” (v 16). How do we know through our experience we are God’s children?

We know we are God’s children, Paul tells us, whenever we put to death the lingering enmity towards God that constitutes our old way of life.  The transition from verse 13 to verse 14 captures the relationship between our spirit and the Holy Spirit.  Paul starts this section reminding us we have an obligation (v 12).  The obligation we have grows out of the previous section in which we are told our old self is dead because of sin, and our spirits are alive because of righteousness.  We have a new self.  It is Christ in us (v 10).  Christ in us complements verse 1 where we are in Christ.  Christ in us is a new identity based on his perfect sacrifice for our sins and his perfect obedience imputed to us (v 4).  Verse thirteen contrasts those who live according to their old identity to those who “by the spirit put to death the deeds of the body.” The spirit in verse thirteen refers to our spirits as the means of mortification.  This is shown by the causal link to verse 14:  “Because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”  The Holy Spirit cannot be both cause and agent of resistance to sin.  We have an obligation to mortify sin as the Spirit of the Lord empowers us to do so.  Our active resistance to sin is the sign we experience as the work of the Holy Spirt in us showing us that we are God’s children.  

How do we mortify sin?  John Owen (1616-1683) wrote a book that is vital for us today entitled, Mortification of Sin in Believers.  In short, Owen advises us to name it, repent of it, starve it and oppose it by trusting in Christ’s perfect obedience in us.  Oppose lust with Christ’s joy, resist anger with Christ’s peace, and defeat pride with Christ’s humility.  Christ’s perfections are preferred over our old hatred of God by the power of God’s love manifested in us through the Holy Spirit.  

 

The Groaning of the Holy Spirit

The work of the Holy Spirit in us is called vivification.  To vivify means to animate or give life.  Paul compares the groaning of the whole creation to childbirth in verse 22.  Think of a newborn. After the trauma of childbirth, a newborn is held aloft and spanked on the buttocks to cause it to scream.  A scream inflates the lungs, filling them for the first time with the breath of life.  To the newborn a scream is shocking, but to everyone else it is a welcome sign of life.  To us, the Holy Spirit’s cry is a wordless shock at the overwhelming power of God’s love over our unloving, faithless hearts (which can be expressed by the gift of tongues, the outpouring of our hearts to God).  To God, it is the welcome sign of his love at work in us to want what God wills.  Vivification is the other side of mortification.  As we put to death our old self, the Holy Spirit brings to life our new self hidden in Christ. 

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 Equip: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit - Temples

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Equip: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit - Temples

We are spirit beings, and as spirit beings the only thing that can contain our spirit is our bodies (our flesh), without our living bodies we cannot physically exist in this world. Just like an astronaut cannot live in space without their space suit which provides them with air to breathe etc.., we cannot live here without our own suit, our bodies. But let's go deeper, what if I say that our body is more than a suit, it is also temple?

Let’s look at the dictionary definition of the the word temple.

Temple:
A building devoted to the worship, or regarded as the dwelling place, of a god or gods or other objects of religious reverence.

You see, as believers and followers of Christ; the Bible tells us (see verse below) that our body is the temple for the gift that God has given us, The Holy Spirit.

“Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, 20 for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.” 1 Corinthians 6:19 -  (NLT)

So, if the Holy Spirit does not reside in your temple, or as I would phrase it, “Is not sitting on the throne of your heart and mind”, then who is? Know this, the temple is never vacant. There is always someone sitting on the throne of your heart and mind!  It’s either you or the Holy Spirit dwelling in the temple!

If it is you and your sinful nature occupying your temple, then you will fail at being a follower of Christ.  The human heart is the most deceitful of all things (Jer 17:9), we may think our way of doings things seem right but if you are dwelling as the god of your temple in place of the Holy Spirit, our lives will lead to death and destruction (Prov 14:12).  Yet, many christians say “I’m good Holy Spirit, I will be sitting on the throne of my temple, I’ll call you when I really need you!”

But Christ knew better, he knew that while his followers were still on earth, that they would not be able to willingly serve and obey God, let alone do the will of our heavenly father by our own mere willpower. He knew that his people needed supernatural help. He also knew that being holy wasn’t just a matter of following rules, for his priority was based on a intimate relationship with our heavenly father through his son Jesus Christ.  

As a result, God made it possible for us to follow and obey God by making sure that the Holy Spirit rightfully resides in the throne of our temple as he leads us to Christ, and unlike our sinful nature, when the Holy Spirit is leading us he never goes against Scripture! The Holy Spirit entered our temple when we decided to give our life to Christ.

We need to continually ask the Holy Spirit to lead us, to guide us, and to help us do the things God wants us to do, and when we continue spiritually growing as Christians, our desire should be to allow the Spirit to take control over more and more areas of our lives. Why on earth would anyone want to try to be a believer and follower of Jesus Christ without having the Holy Spirit on the throne of their temple? Quite simple, because we still want to be the God of our own temple (our body and life) and rule from the throne of our own hearts.

Below are some action words from scripture that describe what the Holy Spirit desires to do when you give him the throne of your temple.

Controls:
"But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you." Romans 8:9

Guides:
"O I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves." Galatians 5:16

Leads:
"He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth." John 14:17

Directs:
"But when you are directed by the Spirit, you are not under obligation to the law of Moses." Galatians 5:18

Advocates:
"But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you." John 14:26

Convicts:
"And when he comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment." John 16:8

Teaches:
“He will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you." John 14:26b

Helps:
"And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness." Romans 8:26a

Comforts, Encourages and Counsels:
"But when the Father sends the Advocate (Or Comforter, or Encourager, or Counselor) as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit." John 14:26a

Gives you peace:
“I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart." John 14:27 -

Helps you pray:
"And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words." Romans 8:26

If your temple and the throne of your heart isn’t for the Holy Spirit to dwell in, then you are your own God (yes, I just said that), and it’s no wonder that you might be struggling as a Christian. Our God was caring and loving enough to provide us with the Holy Spirit, why wouldn’t you want to him to dwell in you?

 

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Equip: Parenting in Proverbs

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Equip: Parenting in Proverbs

In our midweek Christian family night, we just completed a two-week study of parenting in the Book of Proverbs. Two proverbs often come up in discussions of parenting.  “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV), is one. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him,” (from which we get the English proverb, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”) is another. Both are found in Proverbs 22, verses 6 and 15, respectively.  Together these two proverbs form a tightly bound parenting model, but we need some context to use them profitably.  

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Stories of Mercy: Sean Gilles

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Stories of Mercy: Sean Gilles

We are excited to bring you the first of many Stories of Mercy.  Sean Gilles story includes his recovery of cancer and a testimony of the church coming around him to support and love him in one of the most trying times of his life.  

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Being the Church in Janesville - Six Months and Counting

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Being the Church in Janesville - Six Months and Counting

I would ask Mercy Hill as a whole to continue to pray that God continues his work in the Rock County location. It has been a privilege to see Jesus grow His church in these ways and others. Please pray that God would continue to provide the finances that we need to expand our children’s ministry area and materials for outreach. Pray that God would continue to grow His church through a healthy mix of unbelievers, Christians, the hurting, the healthy, and leaders. And pray that he grants us wisdom in ministering to the city, and new ways to authentically engage our city, proclaiming the Gospel in relationship and actions.

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Fervent Prayer: Church Planting

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Fervent Prayer: Church Planting

"And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles."  Acts 2:42-43 ESV

From the birth of the Church in Acts, we see what the new gathered Body of Christ focused on: God’s Word (apostles’ teaching), community (fellowship and breaking of bread), and prayer (communing with God).  Thus, from the very beginning of Mercy Hill, these verses have been close to our hearts and has helped define and shape our mission of being the Church.  Keeping our focus on the simplicity of the Gospel, as taught in Scripture, and proclaiming that Good News both from the pulpit and through personal relationship, is a big part of what I think makes Mercy Hill Church the amazing community that it is.  And it seems that God is stirring the hearts of others all over southeastern Wisconsin who desire to see churches planted that are committed to the beauty and simplicity of the Gospel.  God has been building His Church with people ready to be His Church, and because of this, we are excited for what God is doing through the church planting efforts here at Mercy Hill.  

Today, let’s focus our prayers on the area of church planting:

  • Pray that God would continue to build His Church here and abroad
  • Pray for our current church planting efforts/connections:
  • Mercy Hill Rock County, Janesville (Josh and Angie Dostal)
  • Imago Dei, West Milwaukee (Pete and Kristy Ziolkowski)
  • Nuovo Vita, Salerno (Justin and Abbey Valiquette)
  • Pray that God would provide to expand His Church:
  • Leadership, resources and finances
  • Pray that we would continue to train and equip leaders for church planting
  • Pray that God would continue to make His mission clear to our churches
  • Pray that God would clearly direct our Elders in future church planting efforts

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Fervent Prayer: Financial Commitment and Provision

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Fervent Prayer: Financial Commitment and Provision

"Hopefully throughout your time at Mercy Hill, you’ve sensed and heard that why we give matters more than what we give. We emphasize this every Sunday during worship. And through the example in Luke 21, the Bible gives us many reasons to be generous. Today I’d like to highlight one of those reasons; to care for others..."

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