Law, Gospel, and a Good Hymn

What makes a good hymn?

We’d like it to be skilfully crafted. And it must be set to a fitting tune – preferably one we can sing.

But I suggest that the primary requirement of a good hymn is that it should clearly articulate biblical truth.

We remember what we sing.

A poor hymn can confuse us, lead us astray. A good hymn strengthens our knowledge of the Christian Faith.

What is that faith?

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Cain and Abel, Law and Gospel

This is the third post in a series responding to a sermon given by a local Purpose Driven pastor. The first examined the astonishing claim that ‘Faith is giving when I don’t have it’. The second corrected a gross misinterpretation of Hebrews 11:4 that taught works righteousness and justification by tithing.

With the understanding gained from the previous two posts, we now turn to the Genesis 4 account of Cain and Abel. We shall see so clearly there the contrast between faith and works.

First though, here is a longer extract from the Purpose Driven sermon we have been examining, showing the wider context of the errors previously refuted:

The fourth attribute of faith is this: faith is giving when I don’t have it.

Now you’re discovering why the pastors are so uptight.

‘Now by faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith, he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings.’

Both offerings were acceptable. They were the first fruits of the land for Cain. And the first fruits of the flock for Abel. They were good offerings. But what made them acceptable to God was the way in which they were given: one man giving out of a sense of duty; one man giving out of a sense of the love that he had for his God.

[Anecdote about a boy with his hand stuck in a vase because he will not let go of the coin within.]

You see, all too often that is our attitude as well. We cling to the riches of the world. I’m sure that many of you tithe to the church. And that’s great. But when faith is exercised, our attitude shifts from being like the attitude of Cain, who gave out of a sense of duty – give 10%, it’s your tithe, forget it. We want to see faith giving, like Abel, that is generous, that is of the heart, because we want to invest in what God is doing. We want to be like the widow who gave when she had nothing. And sometimes when we hold the riches of the world in our hands, we are just like the little boy [of the previous anecdote]. We’re trapped. But when we let go, we can experience true freedom.

From time-to-time, you probably hear Jonathan [the lead pastor] – most of the time you’ll probably hear Jonathan – harping on about tithing. And that’s a good thing. So he should.

But Abel offered the first fruits. He gave the best of what he had to God. And it was credited to him as righteousness. You see, tithing is not about impressing your friends. It’s not about satisfying some form of guilt. Tithing is about giving the best of what you have to a God who sees that as righteous. As credible.

We can encourage faith giving. Let’s not even call it tithing. Let’s give from our faith. That is what generosity really is.

It is a wonderful thing for Christians to give willingly. ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Cor. 9:7). ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35). But Christians are under no duty to tithe, let alone to give what they do not have. True Christian giving is voluntary, arising from a pure Gospel motivation: we love much because we have been loved so greatly. Yet there was no Gospel in this sermon. Nothing at all about Christ and His loving work for us.

My intent, though, is not to focus on the burdensome exhortations to giving evidenced here and sadly predominating throughout the last third of the sermon. (The seeker-sensitive mute the Law and veil the Gospel for fear of giving offence, yet they are nevertheless proud to solicit money through the most guileful of means. Those who cite the widow who gave all she had would do well also to recall Jesus’ immediately preceding words concerning those who devour widows’ houses.)

Rather, the purpose of this post is to see what we can learn from the account of Cain and Abel’s offerings. Is it true that Cain gave ‘out of a sense of duty’, whereas Abel ‘out of a sense of the love that he had for his God’? Is giving-out-of-duty versus giving-out-of-love really the distinction taught by Genesis 4?

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Christ, Our Exceedingly Great Reward

This is the second post in a series responding to a sermon by a local Purpose Driven pastor. The first part, Justified by Faith, Apart from Works, may be of interest to readers for establishing context.

It is not, I think, entirely unreasonable to be alarmed by a sermon that teaches justification by tithing, no matter how affable the preacher:

But Abel offered the first fruits. He gave the best of what he had to God. And it was credited to him as righteousness. You see, tithing is not about impressing your friends. It’s not about satisfying some form of guilt. Tithing is about giving the best of what you have to a God who sees that as righteous.

The primary claim in this allusion to Hebrews 11:4 is that Abel’s offering of his best to God was credited to him as righteousness. In other words, this is an assertion that Abel was justified (that is, declared righteous) by his works.

My previous post, Justified by Faith, Apart from Works, demonstrated the biblical impossibility of such an interpretation, and emphasized the necessity of distinguishing between faith and works. I plan for my next post to look more closely at the Genesis 4 account of Cain and Abel. First though, we must understand Hebrews 11:4:

By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.

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Justified by Faith, Apart from Works

I recently listened to a train wreck of a sermon by a local Purpose Driven pastor. In his 44 minutes on the subject of faith, he achieved the remarkable feat of avoiding any mention of the proper object of Christian faith: Christ, and His life, death and resurrection for sinners.

The pastor defined faith by a number of its purported attributes. The fourth was this:

Faith is giving when I don’t have it.

Let’s leave aside the aspect of ‘giving when I don’t have it’, problematic though that is. There is a more fundamental error lurking in this statement.

Notice that the pastor does not say that faith results in my ‘giving when I don’t have it’. Neither does he state that ‘the kind of faith that justifies produces a desire to give’. Rather, he asserts that faith is giving. This is to confuse faith with the fruit of faith, namely the works that faith produces.

Though it might at first seem as if I am splitting hairs, maintaining the distinction between faith and works – especially with respect to justification – is foundational to a proper understanding of biblical Christianity (cf. the epistles to the Romans, Galatians, etc.). This distinction was a lynchpin of the Reformation. Against the Reformers’ emphasis on justification by grace alone (unmerited favour) through faith alone (apart from works), Rome erroneously insisted that justification is ‘not by faith alone, which some incorrectly teach, but faith that works through love’ (see the Pontifical Confutation of the Augsburg Confession).

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Some preliminary musings on sanctification

In this post: Introduction; What is sanctification? The essential difference between justification and sanctification; The relation of justification to sanctification; Whose work is sanctification?; Through what means does God work sanctification in us?; Parting thoughts

In response to my post of Dr. Rosenbladt’s refreshing presentation, The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church, both Charisse and Jason weighed-in on the topic of sanctification. I greatly appreciate thoughtful comments like theirs, and I read them all with care and interest. I respond here with some initial thoughts.

I have been observing some of the wider debate on sanctification that has recently been occurring.

I say ‘debate’, but some of what I have been seeing has been, regrettably, outright and uncharitable hostility towards those of us who would argue that sanctification is God’s work in the life of the believer, rooted in the Gospel, and causing us to produce fruit. Careless (and certainly, as far as I can see, unwarranted) accusations of antinomianism have been thrown around by some, though there have been many other, more honourable, voices also engaged in the discussion. I wish all were as measured in their comments as are Jason and Charisse.

I have been forcing myself to read some blog posts that I find intensely frustrating, as I want to be sure that I am properly grasping the nuances of the opposition’s position and understand their arguments. I am inclined to suspect that much of the heat is the result of various misunderstandings of what other people are actually intending to say, and perhaps a fair degree of people talking past each other by using identical terminology to mean different things. Which is not to say that there are not also important differences of substance at play here – there most certainly are.

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Why do so many Christians love C.S. Lewis?

C. Michael Patton of Credo House Ministries makes a thought-provoking case for why so many Christians appreciate C.S. Lewis – despite his decidedly questionable theology – but nevertheless castigate Rob Bell for superficially similar failings.

Patton makes a good argument: that Lewis set out to defend orthodoxy and the person and work of Jesus Christ, whereas Bell seems to delight in challenging them. And, no doubt, this provides a substantive part of the answer to Patton’s question. Much of what Lewis writes is helpful, and the broad appeal of his apologetic work undeniable. But I am not sure that Patton has quite explained the entirety of Lewis’ attraction.

Now, I am far from an expert on Lewis. I read the Narnia series as a child, along with The Screwtape Letters, and then some of his other works in my early twenties. Much more recently, I read and enjoyed his fictional Cosmic Trilogy. I very much appreciated Lewis’ essay, On the Reading of Old Books, which he wrote as the introduction to a translation of Athanasius’ work On the Incarnation. Everyone should read that essay. Nevertheless, there is very much of Lewis’ work that I have (yet) to assimilate, though his general theological perspective is apparent in what I have read.

Lewis was certainly not orthodox in a great deal of his theology, as Patton observes. Even in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for example, it is decidedly odd that Aslan pays a ransom to the Snow Queen. Lewis’ view of Scripture was rather lower than many of us would think proper. He believed in a form of purgatory. And he had inclusivist tendencies – the belief that a person could ‘belong to Christ without knowing it’ (Mere Christianity). Lewis’ views on evolution, though – particularly in later life – are perhaps not as straightforward as Patton seems to suggest.

Why, then, given his questionable-at-points doctrine, is Lewis as popular as he his among those who would – notionally, at least – subscribe to sounder doctrine?

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How not to share the Gospel at Christmas

’Tis the season of Christmas. And that means a leaflet through our door, advertising various local church services.

What a wonderful opportunity to share Law and Gospel! What a perfect occasion to explain the significance of the birth of Christ!

First, the leaflet would say something of the Bad News: that we all have broken the commands given to us by our Creator God – that we have all failed to love Him and one another as we ought. That we have thereby rightfully earned the fierce wrath of a terrifyingly holy, pure and just God. And that we shall all surely one day stand before His throne of judgment, with no hope of reprieve from the eternal fires of hell – no hope, that is, if we are trusting in our own works, experiences or knowledge for our right standing before God.

And then, the glorious Good News: that the holy and just creator God is also a God of love. That He so loved the world that He gave even His only begotten Son – sending Him into the world in human flesh. That this God-Man was in all points tempted as we are, but lived a blameless life, perfectly obedient and pleasing to God. That this Son of God then died in the place of sinners like us, pouring out His blood and bearing in Himself the punishment of all who trust in Him, thereby appeasing the wrath of God toward them. That whoever is trusting in this Christ is declared righteous on His account, and therefore has no need to fear the coming day of judgment. That these shall not perish on that day, but instead live forever!

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Thinking about orthodoxy: defining terms and asking questions

In this post: Introduction; Naming of Parts: Orthodoxy, Heresy, Aberrancy, Orthopraxy and heteropraxy, Monergism vs. synergism, Christian brother or sister; Orthodoxy is narrow; Questions of orthodoxy: On monergism, On the doctrine of hell, On the dangers of mysticism; Final thoughts

Having previously laid the foundations for a correct understanding of Christian discernment, I turn now to the question of orthodoxy.

Over the course of several recent episodes of his Fighting for the Faith programme, Chris Rosebrough has fiercely defended his friend, Dan Kimball. Chris has not merely declared Dan to be ‘a brother in Christ’, and not a heretic, but has repeatedly asserted that Dan ‘preaches, teaches, and confesses, historic orthodoxy’. This has been the source of no minor controversy.

In this article, I first define several terms that are necessary for us to enter meaningfully into the debate, and I endeavour to give them a Biblical basis. I then give voice to several questions that have occurred to me (and I know also to others) as I have heard the debate rage, and particularly as I heard Chris interview Dan.

In asking these questions, I am not so much concerned with Dan Kimball per se, but with the implications that the answers have for how we are to understand what it means to be orthodox. Simply, then, I embrace an opportunity to think aloud about orthodoxy.

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What is the activity we call ‘discernment’ really all about?

What is discernment?

Even as I mention that word, a multitude of Bible passages leaps into our minds: Ezekiel the watchman (Ezek. 3; 33); Jesus warning of the ‘false christs and false prophets’ that will arise (Matt. 24); the Jews at Berea who ‘searched the Scriptures daily’ to find out whether Paul was teaching them the truth (Acts 17); Paul telling the Thessalonians to ‘test all things; hold fast what is good’ (1 Thess. 5) and instructing Titus to ‘reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition’ (Titus 3); Peter warning about false teachers ‘who will secretly bring in destructive heresies’ (2 Peter 2). And many, many more – all helpful to us in various ways.

Paul tells the Philippians that he prays this for them:

…that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9–11)

The immediate context there gives us a very good idea of what Paul means by ‘discernment’. Notice that he couples discernment with knowledge. The two are clearly related in some way.

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The Purpose Driven Life’s 164 steps to sanctification

I’ve been reading a Lutheran Critique: Rick Warren’s The Purpose Drive Life (PDF, or see an HTML version), following Chris Rosebrough’s glowing recommendation. It really is an incisive review, even if I have yet to be persuaded from Scripture of the Lutheran view of infant Baptism that it espouses at one point. But it would be churlish to fault a Lutheran minister for proclaiming Lutheran doctrine.

The author, Steven R. J. Parks, contrasts the Biblical view of sanctification with that presented by the Purpose Driven Life. He writes:

Thus, man cooperates in his sanctification, but only insofar as he is involved in it. God begins, continues, and completes His work in the redeemed. We do not take the initiative, nor are we even equal partners in the endeavor. Instead, our cooperation is passive, inasmuch as “it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).