Christ-Centered Reading, Christ-Centered Preaching

af01593c53f88178744bca6874953266This makes us feel that, in order to come to this, we shall need to feel Jesus present with us whenever we read the word. Mark that fifth verse, which I would now bring before you as part of my text which I have hitherto left out. “Have ye not read in the law, how on the Sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple.” Ay, they thought much about the letter of the Word, but they did not know that he was there who is the Sabbath’s Master—man’s Lord and the Sabbath’s Lord, and Lord of everything. oh, when you have got hold of a creed, or of an ordinance, or anything that is outward in the letter, pray the Lord to make you feel that there is something greater than the printed book, and something better than the mere shell of the creed. There is one person greater than they all, and to him we should cry that he may be ever with us. o living Christ, make this a living word to me. Thy word is life, but not without the Holy Spirit. I may know this book of thine from beginning to end, and repeat it all from Genesis to Revelation, and yet it may be a dead book, and I may be a dead soul.  But, Lord, be present here; then will I look up from the book to the Lord; from the precept to him who fulfilled it; from the law to him who honoured it; from the threatening to him who has borne it for me, and from the promise to him in whom it is “Yea and amen.” Ah, then we shall read the book so differently. He is here with me in this chamber of mine: I must not trifle. He leans over me, he puts his finger along the lines, I can see his pierced hand: I will read it as in his presence. I will read it, knowing that he is the substance of it,—that he is the proof of this book as well as the writer of it; the sum of this Scripture as well as the author of it. That is the way for true students to become wise! You will get at the soul of Scripture when you can keep Jesus with you while you are reading. Did you never hear a sermon as to which you felt that if Jesus had come into that pulpit while the man was making his oration, he would have said, “Go down, go down; what business have you here? I sent you to preach about me, and you preach about a dozen other things. Go home and learn of me, and then come and talk.” That sermon which does not lead to Christ, or of which Jesus Christ is not the top and the bottom, is a sort of sermon that will make the devils in hell to laugh, but might make the angel of God to weep, if they were capable of such emotion. You remember the story I told you of the Welshman who heard a young man preach a very fine sermon—a grand sermon, a highfaluting, spread-eagle sermon; and when he had done, he asked the Welshman what he thought of it. The man replied that he did not think anything of it. “And why not?” “Because there was no Jesus Christ in it.” “Well,” said he, “but my text did not seem to run that way.” “Never mind,” said the Welshman, “your sermon ought to run that way.” “I do not see that, however,” said the young man. “No,” said the other, “you do not see how to preach yet. This is the way to preach. From every little village in England—it does not matter where it is—there is sure to be a road to London. Though there may not be a road to certain other places, there is certain to be a road to London. Now, from every text in the Bible there is a road to Jesus Christ, and the way to preach is just to say, ‘How can I get from this text to Jesus Christ?’ and then go preaching all the way along it.” “Well, but,” said the young man, “suppose I find a text that has not got a road to Jesus Christ.” “I have preached for forty years,” said the old man, “and I have never found such a Scripture, but if I ever do find one I will go over hedge and ditch but what I will get to him, for I will never finish without bringing in my Master.” Perhaps you will think that I have gone a little over hedge and ditch to-night, but I am persuaded that I have not for the sixth verse comes in here, and brings our Lord in most sweetly, setting him in the very forefront of you Bible readers, so that you must not think of reading without feeling that he is there who is Lord and Master of everything that you are reading, and who shall make these things precious to you if you realize him in them. If you do not find Jesus in the Scriptures they will be of small service to you, for what did our Lord himself say? “Ye search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life, but ye will not come unto me that ye might have life”; and therefore your searching comes to nothing; you find no life, and remain dead in your sins. May it not be so with us?

—C.H. Spurgeon, “How to Read the Bible“, The Sermons of Charles Spurgeon vol. 1 loc. 3587

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The Essential Trinity

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Previously: God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity

What is the most important doctrine of the Christian faith?

Many Protestants, I suspect, would say justification by faith alone. Certainly that was major in the Reformation. Others might say God’s love, forgiveness, or something like that. I could understand others asserting the doctrines of grace as the (5) most important.

I believe that the most important doctrine of the Christian faith is the Trinity as it set the foundations for all other important doctrines… Lose the Trinity, and all is lost.

Now, some questions for you.

What place does the Trinity have in your Christian experience? Is it prominent, or in the background? In your understanding of your faith, how important is it? Is it an essential, or more of an appendix? Could you do without it? How often do you meditate on the doctrine of the Trinity?

In your church, what kind of attention does the Trinity get? Is it emphasized in the preaching and discipleship of the church? Is it a focus of the songs you sing? Is the Trinity clear in the prayers of the church?

How much study have you dedicated to it? How well can you articulate it? Are you familiar with the ecumenical formulation of the Trinity throughout church history? What books or resources have you used to better understand the Trinity? Can you defend this doctrine, to those who don’t believe it? Is the Trinity essential in apologetics?

And finally, is the Trinity a make-it-or-break-it belief? Can someone deny the Trinity, and be a true Christian?

Of all the doctrines of the Christian faith honored in name and neglected in practice by evangelicals, the Trinity probably has no rival. Ask any evangelical if he believes in the Trinity, and you will almost certainly receive a strongly affirmative answer. Ask what difference the doctrine makes, and you might well be greeted by embarrassing silence.

—Carl R. Trueman, “Trinitarianism 101: Evangelical Confusion and Problems

There’s nothing more fundamental than the doctrine of God. Make no mistake: it is no “generic” idea of God. It is the full, complete self-revelation of God given in the Scriptures. The one living and true God. And God is Triune. Understand, there’s not some idea of God that lies “behind” the doctrine of the Trinity. God is Trinity. The Scriptures reveal one true God, and that God is three distinct persons, co-equal and co-eternal. God cannot be reduced down to anything less than the Trinity. There is no general monotheism, and then Trinitarian Christianity (consequently, what does that mean for apologetics?). The Bible presents the Trinity, not a vague monotheism. Christianity by definition is Trinitarian. As G. T. Shedd said,

It is the foundation of theology. Christianity, in the last analysis, is Trinitarianism.

When we present Christianity to people, we are not arguing for some general idea of God and then trying to get them to the Trinity, afterward. Rather, we present God in the fullness of his revelation to us: the Triune God. There simply is no other God but the God who is Trinity.

Without an understanding of God as Triume, you don’t have a Christian understanding of God. You just don’t. Period.

—K. Scott Oliphint

Naturally then, you can see how fundamental this doctrine is to the Christian faith. If the Triune God is the source of “what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (the Trinity itself being one of those beliefs), then the Trinity is not an appendix. Take it away, and everything is ruined. You would no longer be believing the real God, and you would no longer be serving the real God.

It is baffling how so many professing Christians could understand so little of this essential tenant. I’m speaking from experience, here. Don’t think I’m pretending to have always understood the importance of the Trinity. No doubt those raised in a church that responsibly catechized them began with the Trinity (as our Standards do) and grew up into fuller understanding. Me? Most of my life has been lived with insufficient appreciation of this doctrine. I distinctly remember asking myself what difference the Trinity makes to Christianity. Why does it matter? Is it just some eccentric feature that makes Christianity different from every other theistic religion? Must be. That was me, forever.

Until, as providence would have it, it was pointed out to me how the Trinity controls and impacts every other doctrine. That was Michael Horton, via Pilgrim Theology. My mind was sufficiently blown, and my understanding of Christianity changed forever. I remember my exact location when it happened. That’s how profound an illumination it was.

There is nothing more basic! This should be among the first things taught to those within the church. Notice the location of the doctrine of God in the Westminster Standards. It’s chapter 2 of the Confession of Faith, the Trinity in section 3. Where is it in the instructional documents? In the Shorter Catechism, questions 4-5, the Trinity in 6; in the Larger Catechism questions 6-8, the Trinity in 9-11.

And yet, how often is such theology put off, sometimes indefinitely, in the instruction of Christians? Assuming of course, there is any instruction. If our Standards are any witness, clearly the doctrine of the Triune God belongs right up front, in the beginning. It provides the foundation for everything that follows! Look for the persons of the Trinity throughout the rest of the doctrines. It’s no problem that there is no chapter on the Holy Spirit in the original version of the Confession. He’s simply woven all over the place throughout the Confession!

Our theology is Trinitarian theology, simply because the Scriptures are Trinitarian.

The doctrine of the Trinity — God as one in essence and three in person — shapes and structures Christian faith and practice in every way, distinguishing it from all world religions.

—Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology loc. 1615

If you are going to start right, you start with the Trinity.

I was talking with a new believer just the other night. Even he understood that the doctrine of the Trinity is the most fundamental doctrine, and if you get the Trinity wrong you get everything else wrong.

Look at the subtitle to James White’s book, The Forgotten Trinity: Recovering the Heart of Christian Belief (it’s a great book, by the way). White calls the Trinity the heart of Christian belief. And indeed it is.

the Trinity is the highest revelation God has made of himself to His people. It is the capstone, the summit, the brightest star in the firmament of divine truths.

—James White, The Forgotten Trinity pg. 14

Redemption

To demonstrate the fundamental nature of the Trinity to the Christian faith, let’s look at God’s plan of redemption.

Notice the Trinity here:

As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

Westminster Confession of Faith 3.6

The Father elects. Jesus himself said this. Who gave Jesus his sheep? God the Father. Christ said he would lose non that the Father had given him. We see a distinction of persons, here. The Father has not only chosen the people, and the ultimate destiny, but also the means. The means and the ends are foreordained.

How are the elect redeemed? By Christ, God the Son, the 2nd Person of the Trinity. The 2nd Person of the Trinity is one who became man, taking unto himself human nature, to live, suffer, and die for the elect. His work is what reconciles sinners to the Father. And (though not mentioned above) the Son of God continues to intercede for us before the Father, even now.

Finally, the elect are regenerated, called to faith in Jesus Christ by the 3rd Person of the Trinity: God the Holy Spirit. In due time, the Holy Spirit applies the redemptive work of Christ to the individual, who was chosen by the Father since eternity past.

The Father sends the Son to become incarnate, and live and die for the sins of the elect, to reconcile them to the Father. Jesus Christ reveals the Father, and testifies that it is good for him to depart so that a 3rd Divine Person, the Holy Spirit, can come. Christ dies and resurrects, ascends to the right hand of the Father. Then the Father and Son send the Holy Spirit upon the church. The Holy Spirit applies Christ’s work to those the Father has chosen, those for whom Christ died. And the Holy Spirit continually sanctifies believers, and in the end will raise up our bodies. Jesus Christ continually intercedes for us, and in the last day will return bodily to earth.

The plan of redemption is clearly Trinitarian. Now, let’s remove the Trinity, for the sake of argument, and see what happens. Can the plan of salvation remain intact if God is only one person, instead of three?

Who then does the electing? A unipersonal god. He would then naturally give these sheep. But wait, who is he giving them to? Uh oh. We’ve run out of persons. The Son cannot be given anything by the Father, if they are in fact the same person. That doesn’t work.

Who sends the Son? Either the Father or the Son is no longer part of the plan. The Son can be in no way “sent,” he can in no way be doing his Father’s work. It’s just him. All alone. Who is the Father rewarding and exalting? Himself? Ridiculous.

How can Christ’s work be reconciliation, if the Father and the Son are not distinct persons? Is Jesus merely reconciling people to himself? How can Christ be a mediator, a go-between, if he’s not actually between two parties? If the Son is identified with the Father, then he’s not a Mediator, anymore. There should be someone between him and the elect, then! Christ can’t be the only way to the Father if there is no distinction between them. How can Christ intercede for us, if there’s not a distinct person that he intercedes to? It’s just us and a unipersonal god, with no mediator or intercessor in between.

How can the Holy Spirit be “sent” if there is only one person in the Godhead? Same problem. How can the Holy Spirit be said to intercede for us? Same problem. Why did the Son of God have to ascend to heaven, if he is identical with the Holy Spirit? That’s a bit strange. The unipersonal god was already around. How could it be true that Jesus needed to truly leave so that another helper could come? That would not be true, if they were in fact the same person. The Spirit effectually calls the elect to put their faith in who? Not himself, but a distinct person: Christ. Oh, and how can the elect be “adopted” without the Father and Son being distinct, also? Being united to Christ, made co-heirs with him, and being therefore adopted sons of God. But if there’s just one person, all of that is out.

Needless to say, redemption collapses apart from the Trinity. Who’s doing the sending, or being sent? Who’s doing the electing, the dying, and the applying? Who exactly are we reconciled to, and why do we need a mediator? All of these things are left hanging, if God is not three persons.

Christianity stands or falls with the doctrine of the Trinity. The Bible represents the plan of salvation as a compact or covenant among the persons of the Trinity. Where the doctrine of the Trinity is abandoned, the whole Bible teaching about the plan of salvation must go with it.

—J.G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary loc. 540

That is probably the clear case example to show that the Trinity is the most important doctrine of the Christian faith. Without the Trinity, the plan of redemption given in Scripture doesn’t make sense. Lose the Trinity, and you lose salvation.

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God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity

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Are you Trinitarian? What does that even mean?

If you are a Christian, you are Trinitarian. At least implicitly. The God we worship is Trinity. Therefore, the doctrine of the Trinity is central to the Christian faith.

So, a more precise question would be, are you consciously Trinitarian?

Functionally non-Trinitarian

I’ve heard James White say it more than once: most evangelicals are practically modalists. Modalism is the belief that God is one person (not three) and manifests himself in three modes or ways. At one time being the Father, at another manifesting as the Son, and at other times the Holy Spirit. But always the same person. So instead of Trinitarian, unitarian.

Perhaps you are not convinced?

Well then, ask several believers to define the Trinity. In my experience, incorrect definitions or explanations abound. If you yourself happen to be acquainted with church history, you might recognize even some heretical ideas of God being answered to you. Are any analogies (water, egg, etc.) used to explain the Trinity? Then that is already a misrepresentation of God.

Where, consciously, are they actually trinitarian in what they believe? What prominence does the Trinity have in their thinking, living, church, or teaching?

And what about worship? What is distinctly Trinitarian about Christian worship? If you were to ask several church attendees to explain how the Trinity impacts worship, could they? If there’s a deficient understanding of the Trinity, then obviously there will be a deficient response. What about our prayers? As we pray, are the persons of the Trinity confused with one another? What about in our singing? Are the persons of the Trinity distinct in their persons and works? Think of all the “Christian” songs put out today addressed simply to “You.” They are so general a unitarian could sing them. Who are we singing to?

We worship God in spirit and truth, Jesus said. Our worship must be true to who God is. Is that true of typical evangelical worship, today?

What difference does the Trinity make? If it was taken away, would their theology still be intact?

Warning

Let me say this, right up front. And I won’t repeat this. I’m going to say this because I foresee in the near future someone disagreeing with something, then defending themselves by saying we “can’t fully understand God.” So I’m saying here, yes. God is incomprehensible. And guess what? Finite human beings actually cannot comprehend anything. We are creatures, and understand as creatures. Only the Creator can comprehend, because he knows as the Creator can only know.

Now, it does not follow that we cannot know anything truly, as a consequence. That’s wrong. God has spoken. Therefore, while we can’t understand the Trinity (or anything) fully, we can know truly. True knowledge does not require total knowledge, thank you very much! God has given clear and true revelation of himself to us in the Word of God, and that’s where our doctrine of the Trinity comes from. We believe it because God has said it, and we have written it down in the historic, orthodox formulation of the Trinity (which I believe is the very limit of our understanding on the matter).

Yes, God is beyond us and our limited understanding. What we will be studying is the revelation he has provided us. It is what we are able to know and what we do know, truly. The self-revelation of the Triune God.

Finally, it’s important to note that you will not even begin to accept this if you are not a Christian. Meaning, God the Holy Spirit has given you a new heart to believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, thereby reconciling you to the Father; and illumining your mind to understand what he has revealed of himself in the Scriptures. If that has not taken place, you will not believe.

Trinity?

First things first: definition. What is the Trinity? The word itself is not from Scripture, which is not a problem. It is a term for a doctrine that Scripture does teach, namely the Tri-personality of the one Divine Being. In God there is diversity and unity. Three in One. Hence, “Trinity.” The word is not in the Bible, but the concept is. Naturally, any criticism must be at the concept level, not at the word level. Now, what is this doctrine?

The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) chapter 2, “Of God, and of the Holy Trinity” section 3 says:

In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost:(o) the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father;(p) the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.(q)

(o) Matt 3:16-17; Matt 28:19; 2 Cor 13:14; Eph 2:18 (p) John 1:14,18; Heb 1:2-3; Col 1:15 (q) John 15:26; Gal 4:6

Notice all three persons are of one substance. They all possess the divine nature, power and eternity. So, it must be understood that all of the divine attributes listed in sections 1 and 2 of WCF ch. 2 apply to all three persons. And that includes God being a spirit, without bodily parts.

The Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) helps fill out our definition of the Trinity:

Q. 9. How many persons are there in the Godhead?

A. There be three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost;(n) and these three are one true, eternal God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory; although distinguished by their personal properties.(o)

(n) Matt 3:16-17; Matt 28:19; 2 Cor 13:14 (o) John 1:1; Gen 1:1-3; John 17:5; John 10:30; Ps 45:6; Heb 1:8-9; Acts 5:3-4; Rom 9:5; Col 2:9

Q. 10. What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead?

A. It is proper to the Father to beget the Son,(p) and to the Son to be begotten of the Father,(q) and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity.(r)

(p) Heb 1:5-6,8 (q) John 1:14,18 (r) John 15:26; Gal 4:6

The Shorter Catechism (WSC) concisely says the same thing, in a way very easy to memorize:

Q. 6. How many persons are there in the Godhead?

A. There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost;(u) and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.(w)

(u) Matt 3:16-17; Matt 28:19; 2 Cor 13:14; 1 Pet 1:2 (w) Ps 45:6; John 1:1; John 17:5; Acts 5:3-4; Rom 9:5; Col 2:9; Jude 24-25

Has the Christian church always believed this? Yes, in fact. All Christians, everywhere, have always believed in the Trinity. This is evidenced from the early church in the ecumenical creeds, mere affirmations of what Scripture contains. If you read them, notice the continuity with the Westminster Standards. It’s the same doctrine since the time of the Apostles. And do take a moment to appreciate the conciseness of the Westminster Standards in their presentation of the historic, orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

In general, the doctrine of the Trinity may be stated thus: In the Godhead, three distinct persons, who are the same in substance and equal in power and glory, subsist in a single indivisible essence.

—Francis Beattie, The Presbyterian Standards loc. 766

Keep in mind three things:

1 Divine essence.

There is one God. Christianity is monotheistic. One God, not three. One Being, three persons. This divine essence is indivisible. God is not made up of parts.

3 Distinct Persons.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are distinct from each other. Meaning, they are not manifestations or modes, or masks, of a unipersonal God (unitarian). It is not one divine person acting in three ways, but actually three distinct persons. We do not “confound” or confuse the persons. This much is clear from the fact that they each display the qualities of personality. The Scriptures ascribe individuality, intelligence, communication, and agency to each of them, distinctly. We will especially look at this when considering the 3rd Person of the Trinity, God the Holy Spirit.

The Persons also have their property that distinguishes them from each other, as you can see (above) in WCF 2.3 and WLC 10. The property of the Father is fatherhood, begetting the Son eternally. There was never a time when he was not the Father. Likewise the Son, sonship or begotten eternally. There was never a time when he was not the Son of the Father. The Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son.

To clearly spell out the distinction of persons: The Father is not the Son, nor the Holy Spirit. The Son is not the Father, nor the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Father, nor the Son.

Equal in power and glory.

Each of the three divine Persons is fully God, of one substance, eternity, power, and glory. They are not of similar substance, but the same. There is no inferiority or subordination. Also, the three distinct persons are not parts of the divine essence. We do not divide the substance. The trinity is not 3 thirds. Each divine Person is 100% God, not 1/3. They are co-equal and co-eternal. The Son is not less than the Father. The Son did not have a beginning (he is begotten, not created). The Holy Spirit is equal to the Father. Since they are co-eternal, then obviously their personal properties (fatherhood, sonship, procession) have nothing to do with time.

Our Progression

We have begun with defining the Trinity. Next, we’ll look at why the Trinity is the most important teaching. Then, we’ll go about examining the Scriptural evidence for it. We will see that the Scriptures show that the Son and the Holy Spirit are God, equal with the Father.

This was originally a 4 part sub-series of congregational Sunday school lessons. This series of blog posts is an adaptation in the sense that they are written out, whereas the Sunday school lessons were merely teaching outlines. Someone requested the lessons, so now I need to make them readable.

This is also an adaptation in the sense that I have added a bit more content. Thirty minutes on Sunday morning before service can only hold so much. The advantage of a blog post is there’s no time limit. The essence remains the same, there’s just more room for additional support.

Finally, whereas I was working from the Shorter Catechism in the lessons, here we’ll draw from the rest of the Standards and other creeds, as well as other works.

 

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David, Uriah, and Murder

David isn’t a murderer. It would be unfair to call him one. He’s not guilty of murder, simply because David didn’t kill Uriah. It was the Ammonites who actually struck down Uriah. Guilt is at the level of the one who actually, physically commits the murder, the one who holds the instruments of death. David didn’t personally bring about the death of Uriah.

The murderers in this scenario are the Ammonites. They held the weapons that killed Uriah. That’s where guilt should say. The Ammonites are the principal. The Ammonites were the ones who brought about the death of Uriah, not David. Guilt is at the level of the person performing the killing.

Have you heard that line of argument before? Certainly not applied to the case of David and Uriah.

What does Scripture conclude about David? Let’s look at the divine commentary on this situation.

Divine Verdict

It didn’t matter that David didn’t personally kill Uriah. It didn’t matter that David himself didn’t hold the instruments of death. God said he was guilty. Because David arranged it, he made it happen.

God, through Nathan the prophet, said to David:

Why then have you despised the command of the Lord by doing what I consider evil? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife as your own wife—you murdered him with the Ammonite’s sword.

—2 Samuel 12:9

You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, God said.

“But, Lord…”

David is guilty. David is responsible for Uriah losing his life. David brought about the death of Uriah. The distance, someone else actually committing the act that killing Uriah, did not clear David of guilt.

Notice that God did not ignore that factor, the other party involved, either. Rather, God addressed that relationship. David used someone else to do the deed. They were just a weapon of David: “you murdered him with the Ammonite’s sword.”

It did not matter that David wasn’t physically present when the crime was committed.

We certainly know this. If a person commands someone else to commit murder, then the one giving the order is guilty of murder. It’s simple.

Abortion

In the same way, the mother who has an abortion is guilty. The mother is a murderer.

Many, many “pro-life” people feel that only the abortionist is guilty of murder, not the mother. She didn’t do it personally, with her own hands. She didn’t hold the killing instruments. So goes the appeal.

Remember: neither did David. And unlike David, the mother is actually present for the crime.

The other party with the weapon in hand did not clear David of guilt. Not just the abortionist, but the one who hired (ordered, arranged) for the abortionist to kill the child is guilty of murder.

She has murdered her own child with the “sword” of the abortionist.

Confession

Did David protest, as so many “pro-life” people do? “Not guilty!” No. The truth cut to the heart. David gave the correct response.

David acknowledged his sin.

David responded to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Then Nathan replied to David, “The Lord has taken away your sin; you will not die.

—2 Samuel 12:13-14

David confessed. He repented. And God forgave him. The Lord took away his sin.

So must women who have had an abortion. They too can be forgiven. But only through repentance.

But for “pro-life” people who don’t believe abortive mothers are guilty before the Lord, they cannot call them to repentance. Because, if mothers who had a doctor kill their child are not guilty of that murder, then what are they being called to repent of? Not planning to commit murder (premeditation), or actually committing it. Any call to repentance would seem really out of the blue. “Ask forgiveness for things unrelated to why you’re here at an abortion clinic.”

So, all those mothers who have been forgiven in Jesus Christ, they should be told that they didn’t need forgiveness. Their guilt was just “guilt feelings.” Any who come under conviction for their abortion (because she will) should be told not to feel guilty. I am curious how that sits on their conscience.

I will never forget the time I witnessed a woman stand up in the congregation and confess that she had an abortion. As I recall, she was not a Christian at the time when she had it. Later, she was troubled by her conscience, she carried a burden. She was guilty. And that guilt was real, before the Lord. She knew she had something to repent of, something that required the blood of Jesus Christ. And by God’s grace her sin was taken away, through faith in Jesus Christ.

Would any from that particular “pro-life” crowd like to correct that woman, or any others who have experienced that forgiveness?

Am I arguing from experience? Not at all. I’m merely recounting an experience that aligns with what the infallible, authoritative word of God already teaches. It’s what we would expect to be our experience, given that Scripture is true. Which it is.

Indeed, this same experience has been recorded in Scripture for us, by the one who was guilty of murder, even though someone else held the instruments of death:

When I kept silent, my bones became brittle
from my groaning all day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was drained
as in the summer’s heat.Selah
Then I acknowledged my sin to You
and did not conceal my iniquity.
I said,
“I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and You took away the guilt of my sin.Selah

Psalm 32:3-5

That’s David after the death of Uriah. Even though, as many “pro-life” people argue today, he’s not guilty of murder.

What does Scripture say must be done?

Save me from the guilt of bloodshed, God,
the God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing of Your righteousness.

Psalm 51:14

See that? Calling it what it is. Bloodshed. David called it what God called it. Murder. What guilt did David carry, even though he wasn’t there, even though he did not personally hold the instrument of death? The “guilt of bloodshed.”

This is what God himself calls for: repentance of murder, asking God to save them from the guilt of bloodshed.

Otherwise, they are unforgiven. And they will never be able to say with David, after writing about his guilt in this matter and breaking his silence,

How joyful is the one
whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered!
How joyful is the man
the Lord does not charge with sin
and in whose spirit is no deceit!

—Psalm 32:1-2

Forgiveness can only be found in Jesus Christ. When the hand of the Lord is heavy upon you, do as David did, and confess your sin, asking to be saved from the guilt of bloodshed, because of Jesus Christ. Christ took the penalty that you deserve. Only in him is sin taken away.

But that can’t happen if you’re convinced you’re free and clear already. Or if people are convincing you that only the abortionist is guilty.

 

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Redemptive Nature of Scripture

But it is easy to forget this purpose of the Bible. In Jesus’ day, many of the Pharisees had lost sight of the historical and redemptive nature of the Bible, treating it primarily as a source of laws. They missed the fact that its primary intent was to point to God’s past and future redemption. Consequently, their interpretation of the Bible tended to bypass its historical character, and instead became a strange kind of casebook, used to solve the sticky problems of applying God’s law to their contemporary situation.

The result was that, by isolating the law of God from the covenantal relationship to God, the law became an enslaver that worked against God’s redemptive purpose. This is why Paul can say that he upholds the law (Rom. 3:31), even though he calls it a slavemaster and says that circumcision no longer matters (Gal. 6:15). Paul is not “vacillating in his theological attitude toward the law,” but reading the OT according to its redemptive purpose and historical character. The law’s true function can only be carried out as subsidiary to God’s redemption of his people and establishment of a relationship with them. This happens, Paul says, by faith, that is, by acceptance of the relationship as accomplished by God and by submission to his terms for that relationship, not by doing “works of the law.”

—McCartney, Dan; Clayton, Charles (2014-09-07). Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible, (Kindle Locations 945-957). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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Is the Bible just a Rulebook?

What does the Bible mainly teach? I asked this question to a bunch of students. Most of the answers were variations of God’s commands, God’s laws, rules, what God wants us to do.

Was I surprised by these answers? Not in the slightest.

Think about typical preaching. Is it not mostly about what we need to do? Do this. Do that. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Law. Commands. Rules.

So no wonder most people believe the Bible to be a rulebook more than anything else. It’s how it’s taught and preached. It’s how we read it. The overwhelming emphasis is on us and what we need to do.

That’s why this picture, which recently passed through my newsfeed, is so great:

Bible Typically Presented vs How it Presents itself

Priceless. “Jonah: How to Be obedient. Jesus: How to Be Extra Obedient.” I died the first time I read that. Isn’t that how we think? That’s definitely how it’s taught in church. Think of all the Old Testament sermons you’ve heard on those characters. And don’t get me started on kid’s Sunday school lessons.

All of that on top of the fact that we are already self-righteous and works oriented. We think we can perform well enough. We think that all we need to do is try harder.

There’s a catechism question that relates to this.

Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 3:

What do the scriptures principally teach?

Answer: The scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

Note the order: what we are to believe concerning God and then what duty God requires of us.

We need to know who God is. We need to know what to believe, first. And God has revealed himself in his word.

…the Bible is a book about God, and that our highest aim in reading the Bible is not to learn what we should do, but who God is and what God has done.

—Peter Adam, Hearing God’s Words, pg. 30

Currently, there’s a cultural trend that elevates action over belief. How you live is more important. It’s not what you believe that’s important, but how you live. I’m reminded of that quite humanist sentiment, “It’s not what you believe/say that makes you a good person, but what you do.” Setting the question of being a “good person” aside, the emphasis is clearly on actions over words and ideals. But why do you do, what you do? Naturally, because of what you believe.

Frankly, how we approach this matter is based on our worldview. If we think what we believe doesn’t matter, or is of less importance, we just might have an impersonal view of the universe. If there’s no God, then there’s no one holding you accountable for what’s inside your head. The only accountability comes from people around you, and thus actions are the only right/wrong things. The ethic is “as long as you don’t harm anyone.” And no one can hold you responsible for what you think (but that’s rapidly changing). That’s impersonalistic. There’s nobody beyond us, so what you believe can’t be a moral issue.

But God is there, and so we are accountable for what we believe, not just what we do. We are responsible to God for what we believe. If we truly believe the picture of the universe that God has revealed, we will recognize that what we believe is a moral issue, and that belief leads to action.

And since Christians live in the world with that unbiblical thinking floating around, it’s inevitable that we will be affected by it. Once again, how we read the Bible and think about it’s teaching will be influenced by this action over belief presupposition. We tend to think of the Bible as focusing on what we need to do.

However, since Scripture is the authority, and should determine our worldview, lets see what God says:

Anyone who does not remain in Christ’s teaching but goes beyond it, does not have God. The one who remains in that teaching, this one has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your home, and don’t say, “Welcome,” to him; for the one who says, “Welcome,” to him shares in his evil works.

—2 John 9-11

Clearly, what we believe (and say, consequently) is of upmost importance. The Bible goes so far to say that if you do not have the teaching, you don’t have any of it. You don’t have God. In fact, for someone who does not believe rightly, their works are evil.

As God has revealed it, if what you believe is wrong, then what you do is wrong also.

The fact of the matter is, nobody can live a right life while having a wrong faith.

 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit.

—Matthew 7:18

That’s why we have what to believe about God first, before what we should do. Life follows belief. If God is there, yet you do not believe what he’s said concerning himself, then it doesn’t matter how moral or how much “good” you do. It’s not making you right with him.

It is not a choice between Christianity as a doctrine and Christianity as a life. True Christianity is never one without the other. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and: doctrine and life. Like the good tree and it’s fruit. Let us not fall into the liberal error of Christianity as a lifestyle, apart from right belief.

To look at the Bible as a rulebook is wrong. That’s not the whole of what it is. Yes, the Bible does teach what duty God requires of us. But the Bible is also revelation of God. The duty, what we must do, is based on who he is. God has revealed himself to us in his word, first and foremost. It’s not about us, it’s about him. Therefore, we must believe rightly in order to live rightly. Obedience to God’s commands, our duty, makes no sense if we don’t believe what God has said concerning himself.

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Preach the Text, Preach Christ

I was reading a short treatise by J.C. Ryle, and couldn’t help but go off on two minor points.

Just Say What the Text Says

Beware . . . of taking up what I call “fanciful subjects” and “spiritualizing texts”—and then dragging out of them meanings which the Holy Spirit never intended to put into them. There is no subject needful for the soul’s health which is not to be found plainly taught and set forth in Scripture. This being the case, I think a preacher should never take a text and extract from it, as a dentist would a tooth from the jaw, something which, however true in itself, is not the plain literal meaning of the inspired words. The sermon may seem very glittering and ingenious, and his people may go away saying, “What a clever person we have got!” But if, on examination, they can neither find the sermon in the text, nor the text in the sermon, their minds are perplexed, and they begin to think the Bible is a deep book which cannot be understood. If you want to attain simplicity, beware of spiritualizing texts.

—J.C. Ryle, “Simplicity in Preaching”, in 109 Sermons and Tracts Kindle loc. 17141

I’ve been hearing too much spiritualizing and metaphorizing of biblical texts, lately. This is quite unfortunate because the Reformed tradition is strong in preaching the word properly.

The point of expository preaching is to say what God says, right there in that place in the Bible. What the human author meant, and the divine Author meant. Not for wonderful biblical truths that can be found elsewhere. If that is what you really want to preach, then go there. It’s okay, really.

The point about the effect on the people is huge. Preaching gives an impression about the Bible and how it is read. Pulling a message out of thin air (instead of the text) is not helpful for the listener on the street who needs to read his Bible. If he’s looking at the text wondering, “Wow, where did he get that?” then how can we expect him to pick the Book up on his own and read it? He’s already been taught by example that what the text plainly says isn’t really what it means, and that he doesn’t have the formula to extract the message. No wonder there is a gross illiteracy in the congregation (hardly anyone brings their Bible, anymore). Perhaps a lack of sound and plain treatment of the text is factor.

Preaching is Useless without the Gospel

J.C. Ryle makes the profound and (tragically) necessary point that simplicity in preaching does no good if you don’t fully and plainly preach the Gospel:

If ‘Christ crucified’ has not His rightful place in your sermons, and ‘sin’ is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they ought to believe, and be, and do—your preaching is of no use!

—J.C. Ryle, “Simplicity in Preaching”, in 109 Sermons and Tracts Kindle loc. 17325

Since when do monologues without the Gospel get a pass as sermons? Since when are Christless talks about Scripture tolerated?

I’ll tell you, I don’t need your personal stories. I need that one story. We need the message about Christ. Not only for regeneration but for sanctification, we need the Gospel. We need to receive Christ himself in the hearing of God’s word. I don’t need a motivational speech that has no power to move us to action. If Christ has not been proclaimed as Savior (not merely as our example), then no one has been ministered to. You have not preached, as far as I’m concerned. It may have been a nice talk, some entertaining stories, a motivational speech, or whatever. But there has been no renewal. Nobody was changed by it.

I appreciate the words of C.H. Spurgeon: “If a man can preach one sermon without mentioning Christ’s name in it, it ought to be his last” (read more juicy quotes).

Indeed, preacher, be of the same spirit as the Apostle Paul who said,

For if I preach the gospel, I have no reason to boast, because an obligation is placed on me. And woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!

—1 Corinthians 9:16

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