Thursday, May 28, 2020

Every Woman Needs the Whole Bible

Every Woman Needs the Whole Bible

In an age obsessed with the concepts and tools of self-help, Christian women reject the assumption that our Bible is just another tool. The Bible is anything but a self-help tool.

In one way, this mistake is understandable. The Bible is undoubtedly our help. And we certainly have to pick it up. We have to open it and read it. So, there is a self involved, and there is help involved. When we merge these realities, however, we might assume the Bible is only something we use to boost ourselves up in times of need. That thought is subtly prevalent, and sadly destructive.

To read the word of God is not to “work on ourselves.” There is help, but it is not the help we offer ourselves. It is the help of a holy God who is accomplishing his purposes in us.

My uncle is fond of saying that many Christians approach the word of God as if it is a cat they are dissecting. They want to label all the parts, standing over the word, analyzing and classifying it based on the comfort they think they need. In reality, we are the cat. The word is the knife that cuts — even between thoughts and intentions, soul and spirit, joint and marrow (Hebrews 4:12). The word of God is not a dead thing lying on the table, waiting for us and our insights to put it to use how we think we need to. It is living; it is active. It is far beyond our power to control.

Avoiding the Hard Parts

There’s a way to acknowledge God’s word, even grabbing little pieces of it for inspiration or encouragement, and yet not submit to its authority and power.

You can be careful to stay out of the dangerous bits, avoiding anything that confronts your assumptions. You might be afraid of the gnarly Old Testament stories. You might refuse to let the Bible’s clear teaching on men and women come near you. You might skip over an imprecatory psalm, or avoid the toughness of Jesus in certain passages. You might spend all your time reading the insights of people who feel safe, those you know have no intention of actually letting the knife of the word get near your heart. Or maybe you only look up a specific comfort for a specific time.

Many Bible apps and Bible studies lead us down this kind of special safety guided tour. “Look with me to the left and notice this pink rose that will comfort your anxiety.” “Let’s take this verse out of context and substitute your name in so we can see that God loves you exactly as you are.” “Please close your eyes with me for the thousands of years of sacrificing bulls and goats to atone for our sin.” “Oh don’t mind Achan and his family being swallowed up by the earth for disobedience.” In summary, refuse to look at anything that requires the death of your ideas of personal grandeur.

Defanging Scripture

The sinful heart of man loves to try to get the word of God into a place where we are not so threatened by it. Because, goodness knows, it is a threat! It threatens the old man in all of us. And the biggest threat it offers is to open our eyes to reality.

We want the Bible to serve us in a very limited capacity. Something that could fit into the glove box of our lives and encourage us when we feel we need encouragement. The word of God certainly does encourage us. But it undoes us first. It destroys and remakes us (Hosea 6:1). It doesn’t maul us to leave us as a carcass on the table of our quiet time, but it calls us back to life through dying to ourselves. Like the words of the prophet Ezekiel, the word puts flesh on our bones (Ezekiel 37:4–6). It breathes life into us. The Bible calls us to the purposes of God, equips us for those purposes, and then sends us out to do them.

Reading the Bible in its entirety is not for the gurus of self-help. And it is not only for the scholars with all their exegetical, theological, and historical lenses (and the safety equipment many of them accumulated in seminary). Reading the whole word of God is for ordinary people, for church members and teenagers. It is for the uneducated. It is for the exhausted, the faint of heart, the troubled, the fearful. Reading the whole word is for every human.

No More Defenses

The saddest part about our attempts to relegate Bible reading to a self-help tool or self-development effort is that we speak of the word of God as though it were a skin cream or energy bar. A little something we pull out to improve ourselves, and that we sometimes privately share with others to help them along. An insider tip. A little item we have at our disposal and like to apply as needed, in moderation, with caution. We will do anything to keep it small and controllable. We share encouraging verses with one another as though we were sharing coupons. “Here’s a little something you might enjoy if you need it.”

What might the world look like, though, if Christian women everywhere laid down all their defenses, took off all of their protective gear, and laid themselves open to the power of the word?

from Desiring God
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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Majesty of God Mastered Him: John Calvin (1509–1564)

The Majesty of God Mastered Him

In 1538, the Italian Cardinal Sadolet wrote to the leaders of Geneva trying to win them back to the Roman Catholic Church after they had turned to the Reformed teachings. John Calvin’s response to Sadolet uncovers the root of Calvin’s quarrel with Rome that would determine his whole life.

Here’s what Calvin wrote to the cardinal: “[Your] zeal for heavenly life [is] a zeal which keeps a man entirely devoted to himself, and does not, even by one expression, arouse him to sanctify the name of God” (John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, 89). The issue for Calvin was not, first, the well-known sticking points of the Reformation: justification, priestly abuses, transubstantiation, prayers to saints, and papal authority. All those would come in for discussion. But beneath all of them, the fundamental issue for Calvin, from the beginning to the end of his life, was the issue of the centrality and supremacy and majesty of the glory of God.

Calvin goes on and says to Sadolet that what he should do — and what Calvin aims to do with all his life — is “set before [man], as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God” (Selections, 89). This would be a fitting banner over all of John Calvin’s life and work — zeal to illustrate the glory of God. The essential meaning of Calvin’s life and preaching is that he recovered and embodied a passion for the absolute reality and majesty of God.

Captive to Glory

What happened to John Calvin to make him a man so mastered by the majesty of God? And what kind of ministry did this produce in his life?

He was born July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France, when Martin Luther was 25 years old and had just begun to teach the Bible in Wittenberg. When he was 14, his father sent him to study theology at the University of Paris, which at that time was untouched by the Reformation and steeped in Medieval theology. But five years later (when Calvin was 19), his father ran afoul of the church and told his son to leave theology and study law, which he did for the next three years at Orleans and Bourges.

His father died in May of 1531, when Calvin was 21. Calvin felt free then to turn from law to his first love, which had become the classics. He published his first book, a commentary on Seneca, in 1532, at the age of 23. But sometime during these years he was coming into contact with the message and the spirit of the Reformation, and by 1533 something dramatic had happened in his life.

Calvin recounts, seven years later, how his conversion came about. He describes how he had been struggling to live out the Catholic faith with zeal when

I at length perceived, as if light had broken in upon me, in what a sty of error I had wallowed, and how much pollution and impurity I had thereby contracted. Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen . . . as in duty bound, [I] made it my first business to betake myself to thy way [O God], condemning my past life, not without groans and tears.

God, by a sudden conversion, subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame. . . . Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with [an] intense desire to make progress. (Selections, 26)

What was the foundation of Calvin’s faith that yielded a life devoted utterly to displaying the glory and majesty of God? The answer seems to be that Calvin suddenly, as he says, saw and tasted in Scripture the majesty of God. And in that moment, both God and the word of God were so powerfully and unquestionably authenticated to his soul that he became the loving servant of God and his word the rest of his life. Henceforth he would be a man utterly devoted to displaying the majesty of God by the exposition of the word of God.

Compelled to Geneva

What form would that ministry take? Calvin knew what he wanted. He wanted the enjoyment of literary ease so he could promote the Reformed faith as a literary scholar. That is what he thought he was cut out for by nature. But God had radically different plans.

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In 1536, Calvin left France, taking his brother Antoine and sister Marie with him. He intended to go to Strasbourg and devote himself to a life of peaceful literary production. But one night, as Calvin stayed in Geneva, William Farel, the fiery leader of the Reformation in that city, found out he was there and sought him out. It was a meeting that changed the course of history, not just for Geneva, but for the world. Calvin tells us what happened in his preface to his commentary on Psalms:

Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, 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. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken. (Selections, 28)

The course of his life was irrevocably changed. Not just geographically, but vocationally. Never again would Calvin work in what he called the “tranquillity of . . . studies.” From now on, every page of the 48 volumes of books and tracts and sermons and commentaries and letters that he wrote would be hammered out on the anvil of pastoral responsibility.

Unrelenting Exposition

Once in Geneva, what kind of ministry did his commitment to the majesty of God produce? Part of the answer is that it produced a ministry of incredible steadfastness — a ministry, to use Calvin’s own description of faithful ministers of the word, of “invincible constancy” (Sermons from Job, 245). But that is only half the answer. The constancy had a focus: the unrelenting exposition of the word of God.

Calvin had seen the majesty of God in the Scriptures. This persuaded him that the Scriptures were the very word of God. He said, “We owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it has proceeded from Him alone, and has nothing of man mixed with it” (John Calvin: A Collection of Distinguished Essays, 162). His own experience had taught him that “the highest proof of Scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.4). These truths led to an inevitable conclusion for Calvin. Since the Scriptures are the very voice of God, and since they are therefore self-authenticating in revealing the majesty of God, and since the majesty and glory of God are the reason for all existence, it follows that Calvin’s life would be marked by “invincible constancy” in the exposition of Scripture.

He wrote tracts, he wrote the great Institutes, he wrote commentaries (on all the New Testament books except Revelation, plus the Pentateuch, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Joshua), he gave biblical lectures (many of which were published as virtual commentaries), and he preached ten sermons every two weeks. But all of it was exposition of Scripture. In his last will and testament, he said, “I have endeavored, both in my sermons and also in my writings and commentaries, to preach the Word purely and chastely, and faithfully to interpret His sacred Scriptures” (Selections, 35).

This was the ministry unleashed by seeing the majesty of God in Scripture. The Scriptures were absolutely central because they were absolutely the word of God and had as their self-authenticating theme the majesty and glory of God. But out of all these labors of exposition, preaching was supreme.

God’s Voice in Every Verse

Calvin’s preaching was of one kind from beginning to end: he preached steadily through book after book of the Bible. He never wavered from this approach to preaching for almost 25 years of ministry in St. Peter’s church of Geneva — with the exception of a few high festivals and special occasions. “On Sunday he took always the New Testament, except for a few Psalms on Sunday afternoons. During the week . . . it was always the Old Testament.”

To give you some idea of the scope of Calvin’s pulpit, he began his series on the book of Acts on August 25, 1549, and ended it in March 1554. After Acts he went on to the Epistles to the Thessalonians (46 sermons), Corinthians (186 sermons), the Pastoral Epistles (86 sermons), Galatians (43 sermons), Ephesians (48 sermons) — until May 1558. Then there is a gap when he was ill. In the spring of 1559, he began the Harmony of the Gospels and was not finished when he died in May 1564. On the weekdays during that season he preached 159 sermons on Job, 200 on Deuteronomy, 353 on Isaiah, 123 on Genesis, and so on.

One of the clearest illustrations that this was a self-conscious choice on Calvin’s part was the fact that on Easter Day, 1538, after preaching, he left the pulpit of St. Peter’s, banished by the City Council. He returned in September 1541, over three years later, and picked up the exposition in the next verse.

Divine Majesty of the Word

Why this remarkable commitment to the centrality of sequential expository preaching? Three reasons are just as valid today as they were in the sixteenth century.

First, Calvin believed that the word of God was a lamp that had been taken away from the churches. He said in his own personal testimony, “Thy word, which ought to have shone on all thy people like a lamp, was taken away, or at least suppressed as to us.” Calvin reckoned that the continuous exposition of books of the Bible was the best way to overcome the “fearful abandonment of [God’s] Word” (Selections, 115).

Second, biographer T.H.L. Parker says that Calvin had a horror of those who preached their own ideas in the pulpit. He said, “When we enter the pulpit, it is not so that we may bring our own dreams and fancies with us” (Portrait of Calvin, 83). He believed that by expounding the Scriptures as a whole, he would be forced to deal with all that God wanted to say, not just what he might want to say.

Third, he believed with all his heart that the word of God was indeed the word of God, and that all of it was inspired and profitable and radiant with the light of the glory of God. In Sermon number 61 on Deuteronomy, he challenged pastors of his day and ours:

Let the pastors boldly dare all things by the word of God. . . . Let them constrain all the power, glory, and excellence of the world to give place to and to obey the divine majesty of this word. Let them enjoin everyone by it, from the highest to the lowest. Let them edify the body of Christ. Let them devastate Satan’s reign. Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious. Let them bind and loose thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the word of God. (Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians, xii)

The key phrase here is “the divine majesty of this word.” This was always the root issue for Calvin. How might he best show forth for all of Geneva and all of Europe and all of history the majesty of God? He answered with a life of continuous expository preaching.

This is why preaching remains a central event in the life of the church five hundred years after Calvin. If God is the great, absolute, sovereign, mysterious, all-glorious God of majesty whom Calvin saw in Scripture, there will always be preaching, because the more this God is known and the more this God is central, the more we will feel that he must not just be analyzed and explained — he must be acclaimed and heralded and magnified with expository exultation.

from Desiring God
via DG

What Are God’s Purposes in a Recession?

God has thousands of purposes in all that he does — including recessions. What does Scripture tell us about God’s designs in our financial uncertainty?

Listen Now

from Desiring God
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