Monday, June 25, 2007

An Object Lesson in Human Merit and Arrogance

Early yesterday morning, I was conducting final preparations for facilitating an adult Sunday school lesson leading a college-aged group through Piper's Don't Waste your Life. I was substituting for the regular teacher that day, who was off at General Assembly. In the particular lesson I was facilitating yesterday, Piper focused on Philippians 3.7-8, which is a segment out of one of my favorite passages in Scripture. So yesterday morning before the class, I put something together that I thought was pretty cool. I discovered, however, that while my analysis of the passage may have been educational, my own attitudes were quite an object lesson. Stay tuned.

In order to get a better appreciation for Php 3.7-8, one really has to look at the larger context which arguably starts at v4 and goes through v9. Here, we find an incredible statement by Paul in building a doctrine of human merit based on his own experience. For the class, I attempted to show the flow of the passage visually. In verses 4-6, Paul is giving us his resume and qualifications for boasting in the flesh. Paul is describing his pre-conversion state here, and there is a clear intensification of his credentials in these 3 verses. Paul was circumcised on the 8th day, but that's not all. He is among the people of Israel, but that's not all. He is from the tribe of Benjamin, but that's not all. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews, but that's not all. In regards to the law, he was a Pharisee, but it gets even better than that. By the time we get to v6, Paul proclaims that in regards to legalistic righteousness, he was faultless. This is the pinnacle of human merit; it doesn't get any better than this. Paul is presenting his case to his audience that if anyone has a right to boast in the flesh, it is him. If that's the game we're playing, everyone else is playing minor league ball.

But then something incredible happens. Beginning in v7, Paul takes this unparalleled resume of human righteousness and systematically treats it with greater and greater contempt. In his post-conversion understanding that begins in v7, he tells us that he now considers all of the stuff of vv4-6 as loss for the sake of Christ. But that's not all. In v8, he tells that he considers everything as loss compared to knowing Christ. And then he tells us that he's not just treating his once magnificent credentials as loss, he actually considers them to be sewage (most modern translations translate the Greek word skubala as 'rubbish' or 'garbage', but that is a VERY sanitized translation. In Paul's day, skubala was often used to describe excrement. This is one of those cases where the King James actually gets it right in translating skubala as 'dung'.). You can just feel the amplification of abhorrence in the flow of Paul's thought. Finally in v9, Paul makes his ultimate point in this passage - it's not about his righteousness, it's about Christ's righteousness, and thank God this is so.

The way I presented this visually to the class was to draw a mountain, with vv4-6 showing the uphill progression of pre-conversion human merit on the left side of the mountain, and then vv7-9s downward progression of post-conversion human merit on the right side of the mountain.

When I had finished drawing this out in my prep work before the class, I looked at it and thought, "Ya know, this is pretty good stuff." I hadn't copied this out of any commentary; it was something I came up with totally on my own. I was feeling pretty good about myself.

And then it hit me. Here I was, in the basement of my house two hours before the class, boasting in myself and in my efforts in analyzing the very passage that condemns boasting in myself and in my efforts! Immediately, Calvin's words about this passage became front and center - where pride and arrogance are, there, we can be assured, Christ is not known.

Philippians 3 teaches us many things. One thing it teaches us is that boasting in human merit and ability comes with the extremely likely danger that we will puff ourselves up, become prideful, and be known by our arrogance. I am living proof that Reformed folks are just as susceptible to this as anyone. What makes us unique as Reformed people is that we are doctrinally unapologetic in confessing without caveat that if it's all ultimately about human merit, there is no one who stands a chance of being right with God. It is utter folly to think otherwise, unless someone really thinks their resume of human merit is far superior to Paul's in Philippians 3, in which case, they've just demonstrated their own arrogance rather than any righteousness.

Our daily challenge as Reformed folks is to live out our own theology with care, and to be constantly aware of how our sinful tendencies pervert our own walk. As I learned yesterday, it's not enough to understand the Scriptures and be able to communicate its truths well. We have to be on guard for how we ourselves are often first in line to fail our own litmus tests. This requires a degree of honesty and self-examination that few are willing to engage in. But it's what we're called to, and we'll be better off for it, even if it means going in front of a classroom full of people as I did yesterday, and holding myself up as an object lesson for how not to be.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Man In The Mirror

The Reformation's gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone has been betrayed and wed to Roman Catholic works and rituals by Lutherans, Calvinists, and others who practice infant baptism for salvation and boast of the "real presence" of Christ in the bread and wine of remembrance.

So says Dave Hunt in his June 2007 newsletter.

I must say that I find the above accusation to be very ironic in view of the fact that Dave Hunt agrees with Rome over and against the Reformers on the issue that Martin Luther himself called "the hinge upon which the whole turned". The hinge that Luther is refering to of course is the bondage of man's will. So right off the bat, we see that Hunt is making a hypocritical claim at best.

And yet, what of the claim itself? Have Calvinists indeed betrayed the reformational principles of sola gratia and sola fide by wedding their views of infant baptism to Rome's? According to Hunt, we have. But is this actually the case? Not in the least. See folks, what ol' Dave fails to mention here is that many Calvinsts such as John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and James White are Baptists who do not practice infant baptism at all. Furthermore, those Calvinsts who do practice infant baptism do not believe that regeneration occurs during the baptismal ceremony. It is simply a dedication that is meant to express the child's entrance into the visible church. Yet, these distinctions are not so much as even alluded to by Hunt thus giving his readers the impression that Calvinists in general believe in some form of baptismal regeneration.

So if many Calvinists do not even practice infant baptism, and those who do practice it do not believe in baptismal regeneration, what then of Hunt's claim? I submit that it is nothing more than the usual rank misrepresntation that we are used to seeing from the pen of Dave Hunt. Thus, if Hunt wants to point a finger at someone for betraying the Reformation, he need only look for the nearest mirror.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Blast From The Past

I just recently found this comment which was posted to this blog way back in October. For whatever reason, I didn't get the usual email notification for newly posted comments which is why I'm just now responding.

Bryan Brammer said:

I must say that for this debate on Calvinism it is oging to be interesting. If James White is representing the Calvinistic side of things, then you are in trouble.

What Bryan is referring to here is the now defunct planned debate between James White and Tom Ascol versus Ergun and Emir Caner. Apparantly, Bryan thinks that James White would have been unable to provide an adequate case for Calvinism. Speaking for myself however, I firmly believe that James would have wiped the floor with both Caner brothers with or without Tom Ascol's help. I also believe that the Caners themselves believed the same thing which is why they made it so difficult to set up the debate to begin with and is also the reason why the Caners (along with their moderator) torpedoed the debate in the end.

I have read his books and the reasoning and Biblical application is so false I wonder what Bible he is reading.

Of course, Bryan doesn't provide us with James' supposed false reasoning and application so there is no reason to accept his pronouncements on James White's work.

Second, It is unfair to mention that just because someone is not a Calvinist does not automatically make him an Arminian. Take about jumping the gun.

But I did not state, nor is it my opinion that all non-Calvinists are Arminians. However, Jerry Falwell's soteriology was more in line with Arminianism than anything else thus, Falwell can be referred to as an Arminian in light of soteriological considerations. Also, consider the words of Arminian scholar Jack Cottrell:

Arminianism as such, in its broadest sense, is simply non-Augustinianism or non-Calvinism. It has many variations, "from the evangelical views of Arminius himself to left-wing liberalism." What holds them all together is the rejection of the Augustinian concept of true total depravity (bondage of the will), and a belief in significant free will, at least in relation to the ability to accept or reject the gospel offer of salvation. Perspectives On Election Five Views, pg. 70

So much for the charge that I was being unfair to Falwell.

The entire theme of the Bible is Christ's redemptive work for mankind not particular individuals. Take that context and apply the verses.

What Bryan is basically saying here is that I should adopt the Arminian presupposition of general atonement and undiscriminate love and interpret the text of scripture thru that grid. But why should I (or anyone for that matter) do any such thing? To adopt someone else's presuppositions is to abandon your own. Is Bryan himself willing to do this? Is he for instance willing to presuppose God's limited but actual atonement and discriminating love for mankind and thereby interpret holy writ accordingly? If not, why not?

If a calvinist were to live consistenly with his philosophy then there would be no need for witnessing. (since we can niether add or take away from God those he has taken by our works)

But a Calvinist does in fact live consistently with his doctrines whenever he witnesses to the lost seeing as how God has ordained the ends along with the means to those ends. In other words, evangelism is God's ordained means by which He brings His people unto Himself. Bryan's statement about consistency is based either on a misunderstanding of the Reformed view or an intentional misrepresentation.

How can those that believe in this system of thought (which is unbibilical) ever be assured of their own salvation. You may have security but no assurrance for you will not know if you are truly elect until you are judged at the end of your life.

Given libertarian free-will, how can Bryan ever have assurance of his salvation? If libertarianism is true, then Bryan can choose at anytime before his death to reject Christ and be lost forever no matter how strong his inclination to saving faith is. Indeed, how can anyone ever have assurance when they could just wake up one day and decide that they want nothing else to do with Christ?

What a futile system to put your faith in. All Calvinists (as well as srtong Arminians) need to get off their intellectual soap boxes and see the hurting needs of the people. Love the sinner as Christ did, not the mind.

I know of no Calvinist who professes love for the mind. Rather, we profess our love for truth. And it is this love for truth that we thereby show our love to the sinner. The system that has no love for truth is the system that has no love for the sinner.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Calvin on Hospitality

I have presented an 11 week course outline proposal to my local church regarding the radical nature of Christian hospitality. I don't yet know whether the Discipleship Committee will approve the course (though the early indications seem positive), but in the course of my research, I have discovered that Calvin had quite a bit to say about hospitality, much of which is very relevant to us today. A sampling of Calvin's thoughts:

"No duty can be more pleasing or acceptable to God" than hospitality to religious refugees. Such a practice is a "sacred" form of hospitality. Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, Vol. 1, 484.

Calvin laments the deterioration of authentic Christian hospitality even in his day:

[Hospitality] has nearly ceased to be properly observed among men; for the ancient hospitality celebrated in histories, is unknown to us, and inns now supply the place of accommodation for strangers. Commentaries on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 340.

Calvin saw hospitality within a solidly moral and theological prism:

Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him. Say, "He is a stranger"; but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that he forbids you to despise your own flesh (Is. 58.7). Say, "He is contemptible and worthless"; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image. Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to himself. Say that he does not deserve even the least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions. Institutes, 3.7.6

[God] has impressed his image in us and has given us a common nature, which should incite us to providing one for the other. The man who wishes to exempt himself from providing for his neighbors should deface himself and declare that he no longer wishes to be a man, for as long as we are human creatures we must contemplate as in a mirror our face in those who are poor, despised, exhausted, who groan under their burdens...If there come some Moor or barbarian, since he is a man, he brings a mirror in which we are able to contemplate that he is our neighbor. Corpus Reformatorum: Joannis Calvini Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia, vol. 51, col. 105

Regarding the poor person, Calvin said that in viewing such a man,

we should think "now I have been in that condition and certainly wanted to be helped; indeed it seemed to me that people ought to have pitied me in order to help me"; But what [is the the usual case]? When we are comfortable, it is not a matter of our remembering our human poverty, rather we imagine that we are exempt from that and that we are no longer part of the common class. And that is the reason why we forget, and no longer have any compassion for our neighbors or for all that they endure. Calvin's Sermons on the 10 Commandments, 127.

Calvin is clearly developing a doctrine of hospitality not only from the Scriptures, but from the theology of shared human experience and the Imago Dei. In particular, Calvin is quite distinct from other theologians in emphasizing social disconnections in his appeals for hospitality, believing that great harm comes to humanity from the absence of relationships. As in our day, social crises of suffering, isolation, loneliness and hopelessness were prominent in Calvin's day as well. By advancing Christian hospitality as a major remedy to these maladies, Calvin was well ahead of his time in establishing a broad basis for mutual human respect and care that provide a strong precursor foundation for modern recognition of human rights.

But Calvin goes on. In answering the perennial question 'Who is my neighbor?', Calvin says:

Christ has shown us in the parable of the Samaritan that the term 'neighbor' includes even the most remote person (Luke 10.36), [and therefore] we are not expected to limit the precept of love to those in close relationships. Institutes, 2.8.54

Getting to the heart of the matter, Calvin offers this penetrating and challenging statement:

Let us beware that we seek not cover for our stinginess under the shadow of prudence. Sermons from Job, 202

Calvin offers this statement in a discussion about appropriate levels of scrutiny and inquiry regarding our generosity to strangers. While Calvin was concerned about hospitable people being taken advantage of, he insisted that inquiry should never be "too exacting". Instead, inquiry should be conducted with a "humane heart, inclined to pity and compassion."

In all of the above quotes, we get a glimpse of Calvin the theologian, and especially Calvin the pastor. The image of Calvin as a stodgy, cold-blooded, harsh theologian is a caricature that is terribly uninformed and unresearched. Calvin offers a very relevant word to us today regarding the moral and theological dimensions of hospitality, and urges us to reclaim our own heritage radically and comprehensively.