Category Archives: Sunday
In a discussion at the Puritan Board regarding propositions written by Mark VanDerMolen in a comment thread on this blog, a number of people wondered how it can be true that the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) were given at Mt. Sinai uniquely for God’s covenant people, and yet the moral substance of those commandments remain binding on all human beings in all times and places. As one person wrote, this seems like “doublespeak … [I]s the moral law expressed in 10 commandments binding on all men or not?”
In practice I don’t think most people have any trouble distinguishing between the Ten Commandments as given and the moral substance of those commandments as timeless. After all, the commandments specifically address the covenant people of God (I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt), make promises unique to the covenant people of God (that you may live long in the land the LORD your God has given you), and provide reasons unique to the covenant people of God (for the LORD brought you out of a land of slavery). Such covenant language could not have been transferred to ancient Egyptians or Canaanites any more than it can be transferred to contemporary Tibetan Buddhists or even to American Evangelicals.
Why not? Because the Ten Commandments are the centerpiece of a specific legal document, a covenant often referred to by theologians as the Mosaic Covenant and described in the New Testament simply as “the Law.” Neither Jews nor Christians have ever received them simply as a timeless statement of ethical principles, which is why Jews do not view the sabbath law as binding on Gentiles, and why Christians do not hold to the seventh day sabbath. If Christians literally believed that the Decalogue was given to all people in all places as a timeless statement of moral law, we would all be Seventh Day Adventists, seeking the reward for our obedience to our parents by relocating to the land of Israel.
Some Christians do that, of course, but not most of us.
Most of us follow the lead of Christian theologians going back to the middle ages and distinguish between the moral substance of the Law – which we equate with the principle of love, or with natural law – and the covenantally contextual elements of that Law, usually described as the judicial and ceremonial law, which no longer bind us. In addition, we follow the logic of the theologian John Calvin, who distinguished between the rigor and contractual legal force of the law, which no longer binds Christians, and the truth or teaching of the law, which is always profitable for moral instruction.
In taking this approach to the Ten Commandments we follow the Apostle Paul in Romans. Paul argued that Christians are no longer under the Law, having been freed from it and bound to Christ just as a woman whose husband has died is free to marry a new husband. At the same time, he called Christians to love one another, declaring that by doing so they fulfill the moral substance of all the commandments.
Why is this confusing to some Protestants today? It is confusing in part because despite these clear covenantal and theological distinctions, the theologians of the Reformation generally described the moral law as being summarized in the Ten Commandments. Both Luther, Calvin and their followers gave the Ten Commandments a prominent place in their catechisms, which became the core teaching tool (after regular preaching) instilling doctrine into their followers. Eventually various catechisms and confessions presented the Ten Commandments simply as the summary of the moral law. For instance, in response to the question, “What is God’s law?”, the Heidelberg Catechism recites the Ten Commandments. Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith declares that the moral law is “summarily comprehended” in the Ten Commandments.
Have these documents abandoned the distinction between the Ten Commandments as a contextual covenantal document and the timeless moral law, thus leading to contemporary confusion? In my view they are less than clear on the point, but a careful consideration of each indicates that while the distinction is not clearly stated and articulated, it is nevertheless assumed. This is most obvious for the Heidelberg Catechism, which follows Calvin and the Second Helvetic Confession in interpreting the Fourth Commandment (the sabbath law) in terms of an eternal sabbath that calls Christians to spiritual rest and worship, rather than as a call to seventh day sabbath observance, as the Decalogue is actually written. But even the Westminster Confession, which does present the sabbath day principle as binding on Christians, explains that for Christians the day has been changed from the seventh day of the week to the first. Even here, it is clear, it is the moral substance of the commandments that is viewed as binding on all people, not the Decalogue itself as given to Israel.
One might wonder why this question even matters, outside perhaps of debates about the sabbath law. Everyone involved in the discussion agrees that the moral law as presented in the Ten Commandments is binding on all people and all places, and (as far as I can tell) everyone agrees that the elements of the law that were covenantally specific to Israel are not. Nevertheless, given the consternation of some Reformed Christians regarding those who try to explain why this is the case, the point clearly needs clarification. I hope this post has helped to provide just that.
A thoughtful piece by William Evans posted on the Aquila Report got me thinking today. The post is entitled, “Why I am (sort of) a Sabbatarian.” It is worth reading. Evans is a Presbyterian, and his frame of reference is the Westminster Confession. Mine is quite different, and reading Evans’s piece helped me to appreciate what I regard as one of the great strengths of the Reformed tradition in which I was reared.
I grew up in a “Dutch” Reformed community. What that meant was that virtually all of the people in my church and school were of Dutch background, just about everyone in the church over 55 had come from the Netherlands, and all the people that I knew who were Dutch were Christians. My interaction with neighbors who were not Dutch taught me that people who are not Dutch were probably not Christians, and at best they might be nominally Catholic.
My father, the pastor of our local Christian Reformed (later United Reformed) Church, raised us with an excellent balance of warm piety, Kuyperian vision, and Reformed theology, always reminding us to examine whatever we do, no matter how traditional, from the perspective of Scripture. He worked hard – I think – to communicate to us the freedom and beauty of the Christian life, framing all rules and practices in those terms.
Like most of my Reformed friends, my family refrained from unnecessary work on the Lord’s Day. That was the day on which as kids we could do whatever we wanted – outside of the times we had to be in church – but we did not have to do our homework. We would regularly get to have friends over, or go out to play soccer with a group of friends and neighbors at the local park.
We did not spend much time debating what should or should not be done on the Lord’s Day. Although I heard the Ten Commandments read in church every single Sunday as the rule for my life, the Heidelberg Catechism that taught me how to interpret those commandments carefully avoided the sort of focus on rules and prohibitions for which I knew the Pharisees were famous. For those of you unaware of its content, this is what the Heidelberg Catechism says about God’s will for Christians in the Fourth Commandment:
First, that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained, and that, especially on the festive day of rest, I regularly attend the assembly of God’s people to learn what God’s Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor.
Second, that every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin already in this life the eternal Sabbath.
Note that not a single imperative is given regarding an obligation to rest, or regarding a prohibition of work. The whole emphasis is on the worship of God and the care for others appropriate to the “festive day of rest,” as well as to other days. The only reference to the Sabbath is to the eternal Sabbath rest into which believers have entered through Jesus (Isaiah 66:23; Hebrews 4:9-11).
My first meaningful contact with Presbyterians came when I arrived at Covenant College fresh out of high school. And what I discovered there baffled me. Hardly any of these people went to church more than once on a Sunday and the vast majority of them regularly spent their afternoons and evenings doing homework. No one seemed to think any of this was particularly irregular. And yet as I constantly noticed, the college I was attending and the churches from which these people came regularly talked about the beauty and authority of the Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechisms.
I was all the more surprised when a Presbyterian pastor told me that one of his concerns about the “Dutch” Reformed churches from which I came was their lack of teaching about the Sabbath. As he pointed out, the Westminster Confession carefully equated the first day of the week with the Old Testament Sabbath day in a way that the Heidelberg Catechism does not, and it requires not only rest from work, but rest from recreation as well.
And yet the Presbyterians that I knew simply ignored their confession, and the “Dutch” Reformed people I knew regularly spent the first day of the week in worship and rest. It was enough to make one wonder, Was there a connection? Does requiring Sabbath observance as a law actually make people less likely to devote one day in seven to worship and rest, whereas an emphasis on using the traditional “festive day of rest” as an opportunity for worship and fellowship makes them view such rest and worship as a blessed opportunity?
This connection became all the clearer in my mind when I discovered John Calvin’s writings on the Fourth Commandment, which I will not review here, and the very clear statement of the most widely accepted 16th Century Reformed Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession. There I read:
The Lord’s Day. Hence we see that in the ancient churches there were not only certain set hours in the week appointed for meetings, but that also the Lord’s Day itself, ever since the apostles’ time, was set aside for them and for a holy rest, a practice now rightly preserved by our Churches for the sake of worship and love.
Superstition. In this connection we do not yield to the Jewish observance and to superstitions. For we do not believe that one day is any holier than another, or think that rest in itself is acceptable to God. Moreover, we celebrate the Lord’s Day and not the Sabbath as a free observance.
It was at this point that I began to appreciate my own upbringing, as well as for the first time to see the power and significance of the exhortations of the Apostle Paul regarding Sabbaths and other special days. On the one hand, as Paul says in Colossians 2:16-17, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” On the other hand, as he writes in Romans 14:5-6, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord.”
This seems like a solid approach to me, and as best as I can tell, it is the most effective in motivating Christians freely to devote the first day of the week, which the church has set aside for worship and rest, to just those ends. I refuse to judge another person for his or her mode of observing the day, and for my part I continue joyfully and appreciatively to use it for worship and rest as I always have.
In a post a few days ago I noted Richard Hays’s suggestion that the two most important norms for the church in the mind of the Apostle Paul were the example of Jesus and the unity and welfare of the church. Hays notes that when Paul calls Christians to live out the implications of the gospel in Romans 12 he calls them, collectively, to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice – referring to a sacrifice in the singular.
The call upon Christians is not simply individually to serve the Lord, but to make sure that they serve Christ together. There can be no obedience that is divisive, no faithfulness to Christ in the context of separation and division between Christians. Unity is a norm just as important as is obedience to the truth or to the other particular commandments of Scripture. Where Christians refuse to reconcile with one another they demonstrate that they do not believe the gospel. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20).
The church’s witness to the gospel therefore requires first and foremost – before anything else short of the proclamation of the gospel itself – the practice of those virtues that testify to our love for and unity with one another. We should be willing to give up any personal practice or opinion that undermines this unity, short of fidelity to the gospel itself, refraining from judging one another in those areas in which God has given us freedom. Instead, we should devote ourselves to “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:12-13).
If Christians put on love above all else it will bind them together in perfect harmony (Col 3:14). And in this way the peace of Christ will rule in our hearts, testifying that we are one body (Col 3:15).
This is not optional. Unity is not an ideal that we aspire to once we have perfected our obedience to God. The unity of the church is part of that obedience. It is part of our salvation. It should be front and center in our collective mind as we seek to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus.
There has been a lot of discussion this week – on this blog and elsewhere – about women’s modesty, about what is appropriate for women to wear and what is not appropriate for women to wear. One thing is quite clear. Jesus warns Christian men against looking at a woman with lustful intent, and he tells them to do whatever it takes to ensure that their eyes and their hands are not causing them to sin. At the same time, he reminds his followers that sexual immorality and covetousness come from the heart, and they cannot be put to death even by destroying every external stimulus in our lives. We could gouge out our eyes and cut off our limbs and we would still be lust-driven creatures.
Unless, of course, we are transformed by the power of God according to the image of Christ. In Colossians 3 Paul gives us a sense of how it is that we can “put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” By holding fast to Christ we “put off the old self with its practices” and we “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”
What does this mean in daily life? It means devoting ourselves to Christ by holding fast to him and to his word in worship. It means loving one another as Christ loved us, so putting the welfare of others before our own selfish desires. In short, it means devoting ourselves to practices that enable us to “put on then … compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
This should be our focus. What we wear is important, but it is only important insofar as it reflects our hearts and our desire to love one another as Christ loved us. If we put do indeed hold fast to Christ, ensuring that whatever we do “in word or deed” is in love for one another, we begin to learn what it means to please God. If this is our mindset, we can be quite confident that modesty and purity of heart will certainly follow.
In Romans 6:14 Paul makes one of the most counter-intuitive arguments in Scripture. He tells the members of the church in the imperial city of Rome, which included many Jews, that the reason why they were to stop living in injustice and lust was because they were no longer under the law, but under grace. A few paragraphs later, in Romans 7, he explains his reasoning.
Or do you not know, brothers – for I am speaking to those who know the law – that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh our sinful passions, aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.
To be sure, we can still learn about what it means to walk in the Spirit and to live under grace by reading and studying “the old written code.” In fact, we should even be inspired by it. But as John Calvin said, it has no legal authority over us because we have already been declared to be in legal conformity to it as a result of the work of Jesus. Trying to serve God under the old written code is like pretending that Jesus never came, and it will always fail. But praise God that by his Spirit we now walk in love, fulfilling the law even as we are no longer bound by it.
In Colossians 3:1-3 the Apostle Paul writes,
If then you have been raised with Christ seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Christians often talk about how we should set our minds on heaven rather than on earth, but frequently you get the sense that they are thinking more like Neo-Platonists than like Christians. It is as if material things, indeed, even life itself, are irrelevant to the kingdom. To set our minds on things above, they seem to think, is to focus on ethereal things like piety, worship, and a beatific vision of God.
That is not what Paul is talking about at all. The contrast Paul is drawing is not between what is immaterial and what is material. Rather, the contrast he is drawing is between the concrete, physical future, which exists in Jesus’ body, and the physical yet fragile present, which is passing away. The reason why we are to set our minds on Jesus is because nothing has any genuine existence apart from him (Col 1:15-20). He has reconciled all things, and whatever is not found in him will be destroyed. Those who set their minds on things on earth think they are being realistic but in reality they are dwelling on a mirage, or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put it, an abstraction. Paul is focused on the hope that the future of all things, including life itself, is tied up with Christ. We fix our minds on him in the hope that he will one day appear, transforming the entire cosmos.
What all of this means is that to set our minds on Christ is not to be uncaring or unconcerned about human beings, or about justice, mercy, or peace. Indeed, these form the essence of the kingdom itself. Rather, to be focused on Christ is to be able to see through the lies and the illusions that lead us to think that salvation from injustice, conflict, misery, and death can be found in things that are passing away. We testify to the gospel by embracing the virtues of Christ, demonstrating that we know in whom is our future and in whom is our salvation.
As Paul puts it,
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body… And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:12-15, 17)
To set our minds on Christ, or on things above, rather than things on earth, is not to retreat into a monastery or into exercises of piety at the expense of the real people and circumstances around us. On the contrary, it is to concentrate on bearing witness to our future in Christ by being compassionate, humble, forgiving, and loving. It is to do everything as Christians, even in our secular vocations, as Paul goes on to show in the following verses. To be sure, our hope and salvation are not tied up these vocations, or with secular institutions and possessions (1 Corinthians 7). We cannot turn these things into the kingdom of God. But when we love one another in Christ, treating people in light of their hope in him, rather than in light of what perishes, we do the best thing we can do in this life. And that is to give people genuine hope. It is to give people a future.
This morning I am back at Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, MI again, preaching in the morning on Romans 6:1-11 and in the evening on Psalm 32. One of the advantages in preaching in many different churches is that you can preach some of the most impressive passages in Scripture multiple times. Romans 6 is one such passage. It is a tight argument about the unbreakable connection between union with Christ in baptism and a life that is lived eternally unto God, already in this life.
When Christians talk about the gospel or about salvation they are often thinking of the forgiveness of sins, or about attaining to heaven or the resurrection from the dead. What we appreciate less often is the degree to which the gospel works life in us even now, in this age. Far too many times I have heard Christians, including pastors and elders, explain unchecked evil in the church as just the way the church is in this life. No, those two brothers have not reconciled. No, we will not seek to call that woman back to her life in Christ. Yes, we will just have to divide, to go our separate ways, that is the way life is in this world. Sometimes we just have to sin, knowing that grace will abound. Sometimes Matthew 18 is just not practical.
In Romans 6 this is just the spirit that Paul is concerned about. “Why not sin that grace may abound?” His answer is that those who think about the church in this way have no understanding of their salvation whatsoever. Over and over he declares that believers have died to this life and to sin and been united to Christ in their baptism. Over and over he insists that this means we must begin to walk in new life in this life. We may never use our sinful nature as an excuse for injustice, greed, bitterness, or division in the church because we are to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ.
There is a fear among some Christians that emphasizing the power of the gospel to change our lives is a form of legalism. Oddly enough, Paul assumes that it is the opponents to this sanctification who are the true legalists. As he concludes, after all, “we are not under law but under grace.”
The bond of unity, love, peace, and reconciliation that the Spirit creates among believers is an essential part of the life that God gives us. As the New Testament declares over and over, those who claim faith but have no works, or no love, are liars. He who refuses to reconcile with his brother in the church has no reconciliation with God. She who refuses to forgive her enemy has no forgiveness from God. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
It is tragic that so often as Christians we act as if we still consider ourselves dead in sin and alive to this world. The Gospel liberates us from this futility. Jesus promises us that in the church he is making us into that people and into those individuals whose lives together consist in love, and justice, and peace, whose God is the Lord, even now. That is an awesome promise.
Today I am preaching at Walker United Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan. My evening sermon will be on Mark 5:1-20, the well-known passage about the man possessed by a legion of demons. As Mark tells the story, Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee and is immediately accosted by this violent outlaw, the demons pleading with him not to torment them “before it is time.” What an absurd image, if anyone was watching. The government of the community has not been able to contain or control this man, and yet a rugged band of fishermen and tax collectors led by a carpenter brings him to his knees.
The story gets weirder. Jesus agrees to the demands of the demons, both not to torment them, and to send them into a heard of pigs. The result is not so pleasant from the perspective of Jesus’ ministry. When the demons drive the massive herd off a cliff and into a lake the inhabitants of the region beg Jesus to leave. And yet again, Jesus agrees to the demands of those who want nothing to do with him. He prepares to leave. He’s not yet going to force his kingdom in all its power on those who oppose him – whether human beings or demons.
Jesus finally achieves some success when the man he has liberated from the demons asks him if he can join his band of disciples and follow him. At least one person understands what is important, right? And yet for all his agreeableness with those who utterly oppose him, now Jesus seems somewhat less generous. No, you can’t come with me. Go, tell your neighbors what God has done for you.
The story is a powerful metaphor for the Christian life in this age. God seems to give the wicked their way in virtually every respect, and yet he tells us to be patient and willing to suffer. For his part, he seems to leave us to the mercy of the world. Why does it have to be this way?
Part of the point of the story, I think, is to give us a little perspective. Had Jesus come in victory and triumph right away, he would have condemned the man with the demons as well as all the inhabitants of the region. There would have been no salvation for anyone. Instead, we are told, when Jesus returned to that region some time later, large crowds of people came to hear him preach and be healed by him. The witness of the man Jesus had healed had made a difference. The gospel of the kingdom did its work.
Why can’t we be with Jesus right now? There are still many, many people who need to hear the gospel and turn to Christ in faith. There are still many, many people without hope in the world. For those of us who already believe, it might be discouraging to have to wait still longer for the kingdom to come in all its fullness. But when you love the world as God loves it, you think about these things a little bit differently. We’re still here because of love for people who need it. We should demonstrate that in everything that we do.
I’ll be posting a little bit less content over the next couple weeks as a result of traveling and vacationing. However, I do hope to continue to put up regular posts.
This evening I am preaching on Psalm 139 at Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan. Psalm 139 is one of the most comforting passages in all of Scripture.
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.
Like all people, Christians like to put on a good face when things aren’t going well. There is something about suffering and discouragement that shames us, especially in this land of the American dream. But sometimes we come through a week that has simply not gone well. Sometimes we do or say something that we are utterly ashamed of. Sometimes people take advantage of us in the worst way. For whatever reason, life falls apart.
At these times life can seem quite dark. The psalmist captures that emotion when he says that even the light around him has become dark. Yet if our life can devolve into darkness even under the best of circumstances, for God it is the opposite. “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day.”
David certainly wasn’t thinking of Jesus when he wrote these words, but that doesn’t change the fact that when the Son of God came in the flesh as the light of the world he provided the greatest evidence of God’s love in the midst of darkness the world has ever known. David marvels that God has crafted him with care in his mother’s womb, but Jesus tells us that he is like a shepherd who calls his sheep by name. Nothing and no one can pluck us out of the Father’s hand.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me … in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.
Best of all, in Christ we can lay hold of David’s prayer knowing that it will be answered.
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!
Praise God for the Gospel of Christ.