It Was a ‘God Thing’ (Really?)

Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology For Pilgrims on The Way (This is a repost from February, 2012)
I’m sure many of you have heard the phrase, “It was a God-thing” or something similar.  What evangelicals usually mean by this phrase is that God was somehow directly or immediately at work through some instance in their life.  For example, someone will say that they really needed to hear a certain song on Christian radio on the drive to work – and since it played, “it was a God-thing” (despite the fact that the radio station plays this song 437 times each day).  One problem with this is the subjectiveness of it all.  Why wouldn’t it be a “God-thing” to keep the radio off and pray?  Or why wouldn’t it be a “God-thing” to carpool to work to save gas money?  Couldn’t it be a “God-thing” to think about your schedule for the day?  Or, might it be a “God-thing” to walk or bike to work for much-needed exercise?  The subjective list goes on.

A section of Mike Horton’s The Christian Faith uncovers another error behind this way of thinking. Paradoxically, many evangelicals who talk about everything being a “God-thing” are Arminian when it comes to salvation, regeneration, and faith.  It’s a “God-thing” to hear a Third Day song on the way to work, but choosing Christ and letting him into your heart or making him Lord of your life – that’s a “man-thing.”  Oddly, many evangelicals use monergistic language for things like songs on the radio at the right time but synergistic language for regeneration.  Horton says it well as he discusses God’s sovereignty in providence and secondary causes (causa secundae).

“Ironically, many today who would not affirm a classic Christian notion of divine sovereignty in salvation nevertheless often speak as if God does all things in their daily lives directly, without any instrumental means or ‘secondary causes.’  If one attributes a remarkable recovery from an illness to the skill of the physicians, well-meaning Christians are sometimes inclined to reply, ‘Yes, but God was the one who healed her.’  In more extreme cases, some believers even excuse their laziness and lack of wisdom or preparation by appealing to God’s sovereignty.  ‘Just pray about it'; ‘If God wants it to happen, it will happen.'”

“To be sure, the truth of God’s providence is meant to assure believers that ultimately our times our in God’s hands, but God does not fulfill all of his purposes directly.  In fact, it is his ordinary course to employ means, whether human beings or weather patterns, social upheavals, animal migrations, various vocations, and a host of other factors over which he has ultimate control.  We are comforted by the truth that God works all things – even adversity – into his plan for our salvation.  God provides, but we are commanded to pray for our daily bread and to labor in our callings.”

This quote is found on page 361 of The Christian Faith.

shane lems

To Humbly Bow Before God’s Secrets

Here’s an excellent section (para. VIII) from the French Confession of Faith (1559).  There are, of course, parallels with the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism in this paragraph – but more importantly, it is a great summary of Scripture’s teaching on God’s providence and sovereignty.

“We believe that he not only created all things, but that he governs and directs them, disposing and ordaining by his sovereign will all that happens in the world; not that he is the author of evil, or that the guilt of it can be imputed to him, as his will is the sovereign and infallible rule of all right and justice; but he hath wonderful means of so making use of devils and sinners that he can turn to good the evil which they do, and of which they are guilty. And thus, confessing that the providence of God orders all things, we humbly bow before the secrets which are hidden to us, without questioning what is above our understanding; but rather making use of what is revealed to us in Holy Scripture for our peace and safety, inasmuch as God, who has all things in subjection to him, watches over us with a Father’s care, so that not a hair of our heads shall fall without his will. And yet he restrains the devils and all our enemies, so that they can not harm us without his leave [permission].

Found on page 115 of Thy Word is Still Truth.

shane lems

The Scribe as a Commendable “Ministerial Model” in the Gospel of Matthew

Because of the word pair “scribes and Pharisees,” as well as the numerous examples of the scribes as being opposed to Jesus’ teaching, Derek Tidball’s claim (in Ministry By the Book [IVP Academic, 2008]) that “Matthew sets before us the wise scribe as a model of ministry” (pg. 36) sounds fairly jarring. And yet in his study of how scribes (γραμματεύς) are portrayed in Matthew, he gives some very interesting things to ponder:

The Synoptic Gospels paint an almost wholly negative picture of the scribes, although Matthew tries to relieve it somewhat. His more sympathetic presentation of them involves a playing down of some of the negative comments found in Mark, the mention of one as at least a potential follower of Jesus (8:19), and the recognition that they did ‘sit in Moses’ seat’ (23:2). Even so, they are presented as in constant conflict with Jesus and a key component of the alliance of hostility against him. They are essentially ‘blind guides’ who fail to understand the truth (15:1-14), to whom revelation had not been given (11:25) and who could not teach with any persuasive authority (7:28-29). Their pattern of living was anything but commendable and Jesus could only warn his disciples against them (23:1-39).

The fact that there were so many poor representatives of the teachers of the law around did not render the mode inherently unusable and Matthew seeks to rehabilitate it for the Christian church.

(pg. 26; bold emphasis added)

Tidball makes this interesting suggestion in light of two unprecedented uses of the word γραμματεύς in Matthew 23:34 and 13:52. He explains:

In a saying unique to Matthew, Jesus says to the crowds who have suffered from the blind guides of Israel, ‘Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages (sophoi) and teachers (grammateis)’ (23:34). Earlier Jesus, using the same word grammateus, had referred to the teachers of the law who had been instructed about the Kingdom of Heaven (13:52). These are very rare references in that they put a positive spin on the word grammateus, and commend the role as one of benefit to his disciples in contrast to the fairly negative use of the word, which is common throughout the Synoptic Gospels. They strike one as so unusual that they demand further exploration.

(pg. 25; bold emphasis added)

In light of the general task of the scribe in the Old Testament as one who records and/or teaches the Word of God (e.g., Baruch & Ezra), it is easy to see value in viewing Jesus’ call to his disciples as in part, a call to be “scribes of the new age,” that is to say, truly wise interpreters and teachers of God’s Word. Indeed, as Tidball suggests, “…Matthew himself exercises his ministry as a model of a wise scribe” (pg. 33).

In his Anchor Bible Dictionary article, “Scribes,” Anthony Saldarini makes a similar observation:

For Matthew both the scribes and Pharisees had many interests in common and were the learned groups par excellence in Judaism. The scribes were connected both with village life and the leaders in Jerusalem and were part of the middle leadership of Judaism. Matthew approves of scribes because he recognizes the scribal role in the new Christian community (13:52; 23:34). His quarrel is not with the role of scribes as learned guides of the community and guardians of the tradition, but with the Jewish scribes’ opposition to Jesus.

(ABD vol. 5, pg. 1015).

I think Tidball is right – the “wise scribe” is indeed a good metaphor for ministry and his explication of that idea in Ministry by the Book is insightful. This book has a very interesting approach and very fascinating content!

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

8 Points: A Critique of Dispensational Premillennialism

Bible and the Future Anthony Hoekema (d. 1988) wrote a helpful critique of dispensational premillennialism in his excellent book, The Bible and the FutureBecause I think they are helpful, I’m going to summarize and edit them below.  I strongly recommend reading the entire 20 page chapter for the full discussion – along with exegesis and detailed explanation.

1) Dispensationalism fails to do full justice to the basic unity of biblical revelation.  …One great difficulty with the dispensational system…is that in it the differences between the various periods of redemptive history seem to outweigh the basic unity of that history.  …When one does not do full justice to the unity of God’s redemptive dealings with mankind, and when one makes hard and fast distinctions between the various dispensations, the danger exists that one will fail to recognize the cumulative and permanent advances which mark God’s dealings with his people in New Testament times.  …The principle of discontinuity between one dispensation and another overrules and virtually nullifies the principle of progressive revelation.

2) The teaching that God has a separate purpose for Israel and the church is in error.  …As a matter of fact, the New Testament itself often interprets expressions relating to Israel in such a way as to apply them to the New Testament church, which includes both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Gal. 3:28-29; 6:15-16, Eph. 2:11-22, Heb. 12:22, 1 Peter 2:9, etc.).  …To suggest that God has in mind a separate future for Israel in distinction to the Gentiles is like putting the scaffolding back up after the building has been finished; it is like turning the clock of history back to Old Testament times.

3) The Old Testament does not teach that there will be a future millennial kingdom.  When one looks at the chapter and section headings of the New Schofield Bible, one finds that many sections of the Old Testament are interpreted as describing the millennium.  However, the Old Testament says nothing about such a millennial reign.  Passages commonly interpreted as describing the millennium actually describe the new earth which is the culmination of God’s redemptive work.

4) The Bible does not teach a millennial restoration of the Jews to their land.  …To understand these prophecies (about returning to the land) only in terms of a literal fulfillment for Israel in Palestine during the thousand years is to revert back to Jewish nationalism and to fail to see God’s purpose for all his redeemed people.  To understand these prophecies, however, as pointing to the new earth and its glorified inhabitants drawn from all tribes, peoples, and tongues ties in these prophecies with the ongoing sweep of New Testament revelation, and makes them richly meaningful to all believers today.

5) Dispensational teaching about the postponement of the kingdom is not supported by Scripture.  This teaching must be challenged on at least three points: 1) it is not correct to give the impression that all the Jews of Jesus’ day rejected the kingdom he offered them, 2) the kingdom which Christ offered to the Jews of his day did not involve his ascending an earthly throne, as dispensationalists contend, and 3) if the majority of the Jews had accepted Jesus and his kingdom, how would Christ have gotten to the cross?

6) Dispensational teaching about the parenthesis church is not supported by Scripture.  It is not true that the Old Testament never predicts the church.  The Old Testament clearly states that the Gentiles will share the blessings of the Jews (Gen. 12:3, 22:28, Ps. 22:27, etc.).  The idea of a ‘parenthesis church’ implies a kind of dichotomy in God’s redemptive work, as if he has a separate purpose with Jews and Gentiles.  The church was not an afterthought on God’s part, but is the fruit of his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ (Eph. 3:8-11).

7) There is no biblical basis for the expectation that people will still be brought to salvation after Christ returns.  Dispensationalism teaches that a remnant of Israel and a multitude of Gentiles will come to salvation during the seven-year tribulation.  There are clear indications in Scripture, however, that the church (including both Jewish and Gentile believers) will be complete when Christ comes again (1 Cor. 15:23, 1 Thes. 3:12-13, Matt. 24:31, etc.).

8) The millennium of the dispensationalists is not the millennium described in Revelation 20:4-6.  Revelation 20:4-6 says nothing about believers who have not died but are still alive when Christ returns (as was argued above).  Dispensationalists teach that the millennial age will concern unresurrected people, people who are still living in their natural bodies.  But about such people this passage (Rev. 20:4-6) does not breathe a word!  Further, Revelation 20:4-6 does not say a word about the Jews, the nation of Israel, the land of Palestine, or Jerusalem.

Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, chapter 15.

shane lems

The “Trivial” Old Testament?

An Old Testament Theology: A Canonical and Thematic Approach Do we really need to read and study as well as preach and teach from the Old Testament?  Can’t we just stick with the Gospels and Paul’s letters? To answer these questions briefly, it would be unbiblical and unchristian to avoid and ignore the Old Testament.  I appreciate Bruce Waltke’s words on this topic:

“The Old Testament contains much that seems trivial to the modern Christian.  That is because we fail to understand the functions of these texts.  Aside from teaching us about God, sin, and the need for redemption, a significant portion of the Old Testament recounts the history of the people of God.  These are the narratives that constitute the memories of the Christian community.  These memories inform our identity as Christians.  Thus, Abraham is our spiritual father.  His story becomes part of our past.  The exodus, the monarchy of Israel and Judah, and the exile cease to be ancient tales of a distant people, but the triumphs and tragedies of our own history.  Moreover, its ceremonial laws, such as abstaining from ‘unclean’ foods are ‘visual aids’ to instruct God’s people of all ages to be pure.”

“…In this fashion the stories of the Old Testament communicate at a level beyond cognitive propositions.  They challenge us to identify with Abraham as our father, to share his faith that rejoices to see the day of Jesus Christ, and to look forward to a heavenly city whose builder and maker is God.  They engender a transformed self-perception and an altered worldview.  This is one of the most powerful functions of the Old Testament; unfortunately, it is also one of the least understood among the community of faith” (p. 14).

Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).

shane lems

Moses and Israel, Genealogy and Geography

Dominion and Dynasty: A Study in Old Testament Theology (New Studies in Biblical Theology) I’ve been thoroughly impressed with Stephen Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible.  If I have time later on I’ll give it a fuller review here.  For now, I do want to note that it is an excellent OT biblical-theological resource.  To give our readers a snapshot, here is an insightful paragraph on Dempster’s comparison of Moses to Israel as found in the Exodus story.

“…The narrative focus [in Exodus] narrows from a stress on births (Israelite seed in general) and persecution, to a particular birth (Israelite seed in particular) – Moses, who narrowly escapes disaster by being placed in an ark in the River Nile (Exod. 2:1-10).  Moses’ salvation from the water echoes backwards and forwards in the text; backwards to the salvation of humanity from the judgment of the flood by Noah (Gen. 6-8), and forwards  to the Israelites’ future escape from the waters of the Reed Sea (Exod. 14).”

“Significantly, as Fox (1997: 253) shows, the figure of of Moses, this child born as a type of savior figure, not only saves Israel but embodies Israel at times.  His rescue from the water prefigures the nation’s salvation from the water; his escape after the death of an Egyptian (Exod. 2:11-15) is a prelude to the Israelites’ flight after the death of many Egyptians (Exod. 12:29-39); his experience of being in the desert for forty years (Exod. 12:29-39) foreshadows the same for Israel (Num. 14:33); his divine encounter before the burning bush (Exod. 3) anticipates Israel before the fire at Sinai (Exod. 19-24).  As was the case with Joseph, another significant Israelite, this member of the tribe of Levi gives greater significance to the understanding of divine dominion in the world” (p. 94).

Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty (Nottingham: Apollos/InterVarsity Press, 2003).

shane lems

Dabney on Preaching: Voice and Manuscripts

Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures of Preaching Should a pastor preach from a manuscript?  Should he use a special pulpit voice and tone that is different from his regular voice and tone?  R. L. Dabney said (emphatically), No and No!  I realize these two topics are debatable, somewhat subjective, and possibly even contextual, but I do have to say I agree with Dabney (even though I might not be quite as emphatic as he was!).

“Reading a manuscript to the people can never, with any justice, be termed preaching.  …How can he whose eyes are fixed upon the paper before him, who performs the mechanical task of reciting the very words inscribed on it, have the inflections, the emphasis, the look, the gesture, the flexibility, the fire, of oratorical action.  Mere reading, then, should be sternly banished from the pulpit, except in those rare cases in which the didactic (teaching) purpose supersedes the rhetorical, and exact verbal accuracy is more essential than eloquence” (p. 328).

What about the preaching voice and tone?  Should a preacher speak like a different person when he’s behind the pulpit?

“Nothing has caused more embarrassment to young speakers than the unfortunate notion that public speaking must be generically different from talking.  …Now one experiences no difficulty in stating or narrating, after his own customary way, what he thoroughly comprehends.  Why should rhetorical discourses be less easy, except as the embarrassment of publicity agitates the powers at the outset?  It is because of the perverse idea which is adopted, that when one speaks he must needs employ a contracted phraseology, a different structure for his sentences, an opposite turn of expression, to all which he is unaccustomed. …The facile (easy), direct, unpretending structure of sentences which we employ in our conversation is the proper one for the oration (sermon)” (p. 283-4).

For Dabney’s entire discussion, find the above mentioned page numbers in Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures on Preaching by R. L. Dabney.

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, WI