“The Lord Laughed at Me” (Augustine)

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.1: The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work When Augustine, the great African theologian of the early church, first became a leader in the church, he was not prepared.  Using the imagery of a ship’s crew, Augustine said he was appointed to “the second place at the helm” although he “knew not how to handle an oar.”  He said that at the time he thought he knew how to lead in the church, and he had even rebuked the faults of many “sailors” before he learned the nature of their work by experience.  He had criticized other pastors before he became one himself!

Once he started his duties he quickly realized his criticism of other pastors was unfounded and that he himself was ill prepared to be a leader.  He said it was a rebuke of God when he realized his own inadequacy – and it led him to a sorrow that even his friends could not console.  It’s not like Augustine had no idea about the difficulties of the ministry.  He knew of them:

…My experience has made me realize these things [difficulties] much more both in degree and in measure than I had done in merely thinking of them: not that I have now seen any new waves or storms of which I had not previous knowledge by observation, or report, or reading, or meditation; but because I had not known my own skill or strength for avoiding or encountering them, and had estimated it to be of some value instead of none. The Lord, however, laughed at me, and was pleased to show me by actual experience what I am.

Augustine even said that his inadequacy was a source of personal grief:

Moreover, it is true that I did not at any earlier period know how great was my unfitness for the arduous work which now disquiets and crushes my spirit. 

In other words, Augustine thought he could handle the difficulties of the ministry, but quickly realized that his own strength and skill were of no value.  By experience he learned that he wasn’t as strong and skillful as he thought: it was as if God was laughing at Augustine for thinking he could do something on his own that he clearly could not do on his own.  This makes me think of a three-year-old boy taking the shovel from his dad and proclaiming that he can clear the six inches of snow off the driveway by himself.  The dad would chuckle, hand him the shovel, and let him try!

How did Augustine deal with his inadequacy and grief?  He looked to God for mercy and turned to Scripture and to God in prayer:

But if He has done this not in judgment, but in mercy, as I confidently hope even now, when I have learned my infirmity, my duty is to study with diligence all the remedies which the Scriptures contain for such a case as mine, and to make it my business by prayer and reading to secure that my soul be endued with the health and vigour necessary for labours so responsible.

Later in this letter that I’ve been quoting from Augustine asks Bishop Valerius if he could take a sort of study leave or sabbatical to pray and study the Word.  This, he said, would better enable him to face the difficulties of the ministry and make him a better leader.  This letter of Augustine to Valerius is a good one for pastors or future pastors to read and note: even Augustine struggled mightily as a pastor!  He was humbled for thinking he could do it by his own strength and skill.  And he learned from the difficult experience to turn to God in prayer for help and his Word for strength.

You can find this entire letter in the first volume of the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers’ set – letter 21.4 (Schaff, Philip, ed. The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work. Vol. 1. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church, OPC
Hammond, WI

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Excluding Our Righteousness (Buchanan)

James Buchanan Collection (2 vols.) When it comes to justification, the terms “the righteousness of God” and “his righteousness” are very important (Rom 3:21-22, 2 Cor 5:21, etc.).  These phrases have to do with the fact that an ungodly sinner is not justified by his own righteousness, but by the righteousness of Another that is given by grace alone and received by faith alone.  James Buchanan explained this well (I’ve divided the paragraphs to make it easier to read):

…This righteousness is called ‘the righteousness of One,’ and ‘the obedience of One’—expressions which serve at once to connect it with the work of Christ, and to exclude from it the personal obedience of the many who are justified.

It is called ‘the free gift unto justification of life,’ and ‘the gift of righteousness,’ to show that it is bestowed gratuitously by divine grace, and not acquired by our own obedience.

It is called ‘the righteousness which is of faith,’ or ‘the righteousness which is by faith,’ both to distinguish it from faith itself, and also to contrast it with another righteousness which is not received by faith, but ‘sought for as it were by the works of the law.’

It is called ‘the righteousness of God without the law,’ to intimate that, while it was ‘witnessed by the law and the prophets,’ and while, as ‘a righteousness,’ it must have some relation to the unchangeable rule of rectitude, it was above and beyond what the law could provide, since it depends, not on personal, but on vicarious obedience.

And it is called the righteousness ‘which God imputes without works,’ to show that it is ‘reckoned of grace,’ and not ‘of debt,’—that ‘God justifies the ungodly’2 by placing this righteousness to their account,—and that He makes it theirs, because it was wrought out for them by Him, ‘who was delivered for their offences, and rose again for their Justification.’

All these expressions relate to one and the same righteousness—the only righteousness which God has revealed for the justification of sinners — they are all applicable to the vicarious righteousness of Christ — and they serve, by their very diversity, to exhibit it in all its various aspects and relations, and to exclude every other righteousness from the ground of our pardon and acceptance, since there is no other to which all these terms can possibly be applied.

In the next section, Buchanan moves on to prove this related point:

This righteousness —being the merit of a work, and not a mere quality of character —may become ours by being imputed to us, but cannot be communicated by being infused; and must ever continue to belong primarily and, in one important respect, exclusively to Him by whom alone that work was accomplished.

James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification: An Outline of Its History in the Church and of Its Exposition from Scripture. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1867), 319–320.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Critical Calvinists and Pride (Hughes, Bridges)

Preaching the Word: Sermon on the Mount—The Message of the Kingdom  One thing I’ve noticed over the years is the fact that some Calvinists are also very critical of others.  I know that some people in general are critical by nature, but to me it seems worse when someone who holds to the doctrines of grace is always super critical about others.  Maybe you’ve seen it: these people are always pointing out the flaws in someone’s theology, they’re quick to find fault in someone’s beliefs, they generally don’t give others the benefit of the doubt, and you won’t hear this type of person speak loving or kind words to those with whom they disagree.  To be honest, I sometimes struggle with a critical spirit, so I’m not claiming the higher moral ground here!  My point is that a critical spirit is not a Christian attitude or mentality.  And further, the more we understand the truths of the doctrines of grace, the more our critical spirit should decrease and decline.  Why?  Because the doctrines of grace kill pride and produce humility.

I appreciate how Kent Hughes describes this as he comments on Matthew 7:1-5:

A critical spirit, a judgmental, condemning spirit, is endemic to the human situation. The media, our social relationships, our schooling, and our work situations are immersed in it. And though we often joke about it, experiencing it is most unpleasant. Few things are more exhausting and debilitating than harsh, unloving criticism.

Even sadder, the church of Jesus Christ is itself full of those who make a habit of criticism and condemnation. Some seem to think their critical spirit is a spiritual gift. But the Lord does not agree. In the opening verses of Matthew 7 (the final chapter of the Sermon on the Mount), our Lord sets the record straight in no uncertain terms. He tells us how we should relate to our brothers and sisters in this matter of judgmentalism, especially in respect to the fact that we will all undergo a final judgment.

…When a critic discovers faults in another, he feels a malignant satisfaction and always sees the worst possible motives in the other’s actions. The critical spirit is like the carrion fly that buzzes with a sickening hum of satisfaction over sores, preferring corruption to health.

…We see critical spirits all around us—in our media, in our schools, in our social relationships. But it should not be a part of the church. May God purge it from our lives and from our churches. We would each do well to ask ourselves, who have I been critical of this week? Has my focus on their faults blinded me to my own? Then we need to ask God to help us see ourselves as we are. (R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 227–228.)

Jerry Bridges also wrote well on this when he discussed sins like pride, bitterness, envy, and an unforgiving spirit:

One of the most difficult defilements of spirit to deal with is the critical spirit. A critical spirit has its root in pride. Because of the “plank” of pride in our own eye we are not capable of dealing with the “speck” of need in someone else. We are often like the Pharisee who, completely unconscious of his own need, prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). We are quick to see—and to speak of—the faults of others, but slow to see our own needs. How sweetly we relish the opportunity to speak critically of someone else—even when we are unsure of our facts. We forget that “a man who stirs up dissension among brothers” by criticizing one to another is one of the “six things which the Lord hates” (Proverbs 6:16–19).

All of these attitudes—envy, jealousy, bitterness, an unforgiving and retaliatory spirit, and a critical and gossiping spirit—defile us and keep us from being holy before God. They are just as evil as immorality, drunkenness, and debauchery. Therefore, we must work diligently at rooting out these sinful attitudes from our minds. Often we are not even aware our attitudes are sinful. We cloak these defiling thoughts under the guise of justice and righteous indignation. But we need to pray daily for humility and honesty to see these sinful attitudes for what they really are, and then for grace and discipline to root them out of our minds and replace them with thoughts pleasing to God.  Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1978), 122.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Identity Politics (Anderson)

 Here’s a helpful book about what it means to find your identity in Christ: Identity Theft edited by Melissa Kruger.  It is specifically aimed at women, but I’ve found it helpful as a resource for my sermons on image and identity.  There are ten chapters on biblical topics that have to do with the Christian’s identity, including freedom in Christ, being a child of God, being redeemed, reflecting God’s image, and so forth.

The second chapter, written by Hannah Anderson, is a short explanation of what it means to find identity in being image bearers – made in the image of God.  At one point Anderson talks about today’s “identity politics.”  This is a phrase used to describe a person’s tendency to find identity in social categories:

This term is not limited to government or policy debates but speaks more broadly to how we center our sense of self on one particular attribute of our identity and then define everything else by it.

To be fair, categories themselves are not wrong.  We use the categories of occupation, relationships, family, and biography to communicate how we spend our days and the work we have been called to on this earth.  The problem comes when we ask these categories to do more than they can do – when we ask them to hold all that we are. After all, if we try to stuff complicated, diverse, fully formed living beings into small, inanimate categories, we shouldn’t be surprised when they feel tight and cramped and begin to suffocate us.

Worse still, when we define ourselves with limited categories, any shift in those categories can destabilize our sense of self. What happens to us when life doesn’t play out in the way we expected – when a marriage ends or never happens in the first place? What happens to us when we’re laid off or fail in the marketplace? What happens to us when motherhood doesn’t come easily?

If we invested our sense of self in something small, temporal, and unstable, we will become small, temporal, and unstable people. When they collapse or come to a natural end (as even good things do), we enter a crisis of identity. For without them, how will we know our sense of purpose, calling, and direction? Life will become meaningless and empty.

Anderson goes on to explain the stability of one’s identity when found in the Lord:

The truth about our core identity is so much richer, more glorious, and more soul satisfying than any category or role we could conceive for ourselves.  God…calls us to find ourselves in something more than earthly categories. He calls us to find our identity in Him.  (Being made in the image of God [Gen. 1:27] means that) our deepest sense of self must be found in God. Not in categories, not in roles, not in successes or failure. In him.  …Because by making us in his image, God did more than simply confirm value on our lives; he also instilled in us a deep sense of purpose and calling.  As image bearers of God, we too are called to show forth the glory, power, and might our king. Our deepest sense of purpose and identity is so bound up in this calling that everything about our lives – from the work we do, to the people we love, to the place we live – all somehow connect back to him.

Hannah Anderson, “Reflection: Made in God’s Image” in Identity Theft, edited by Melissa Kruger.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Spirit, the Church, and Mission (Horton)

 I always appreciate Michael Horton’s balanced approach to biblical doctrine and theology.  Here’s one example of how Horton strikes a biblical balance concerning the topics of church, mission, and the work of the Holy Spirit. Note how he explains that we cannot separate the institutional church from work of the Holy Spirit in missions:

For many Christians today, even those in more liturgical traditions, the notion that the Spirit is at work visibly wherever the Word is faithfully preached and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution is no longer intuitive.  For many, it seems, the only way of redeeming the term ‘church’ is to identify it exclusively with the invisible church, that is, the spiritual fellowship of all God’s elect in all times and places rather than the visible and concrete institution that in its various manifestations it somehow thought to be endowed with real authority from Christ and genuine power from the Spirit.  The Spirit is associated with mission, often in some tension (if not outright contrast) with the church’s ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline.

But this is a glaring misapprehension of the economic operations of the Trinity in general and the incarnation in particular.  The Father sent the Son, and the Spirit clothed the Son in our nature; the Father and the Son sent the Spirit into our hearts, regenerating and uniting us to Christ the living vine.  The Spirit’s work is consistently associated with that which is public and tangible in history, as we have seen. Furthermore, the Spirit equips the church to be an official and creaturely embassy of Christ’s reign and sends us out on his mission to bring the liberating word of the King to the ends of the earth.  The sending of the church therefore belongs to the same economy as a Father sending of the Son as well as the sending of the Spirit by the Father and the Son.

Consequently, to divide Spirit-filled mission from the institutional church is to misunderstand at a fundamental level who the Spirit is, how he works ordinarily, and what we are called to do and be in the world today.  I fear that we are creeping toward a Gnosticism that views the visible church as the prison house of the invisible church.

Michael Horton, Rediscovering the Holy Spirit, p. 300-301.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Whole Curse Spent on Him (Bunyan)

Justification by an Imputed Righteousness One of the wonderful and comforting truths of the Christian faith is the fact that a sinner is justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  This truth is full of hope, peace, joy, happiness, and assurance.  One aspect of justification is what Scripture teaches about Christ suffering the curse of law-breaking in the place of his people (Gal. 3:13).  John Bunyan gave an excellent explanation of how Christ suffered the curse in our stead and completely freed us from it by doing so:

As we are said to suffer with him, so we are said to die, to be dead with him; with him, that is, by the dying of his body. ‘Now, if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him’ (Rom 6:8). Wherefore he saith in other places, ‘Brethren, ye are become dead to the law by the body of Christ’; for indeed we died then to it by him. To the law that is, the law now has nothing to do with us; for that it has already executed its curse to the full upon us by its slaying of the body of Christ; for the body of Christ was our flesh: upon it also was laid our sin.

The law, too, spent that curse that was due to us upon him, when it condemned, killed, and cast him into the grave. Wherefore, it having thus spent its whole curse upon him as standing in our stead, we are exempted from its curse for ever; we are become dead to it by that body (Rom 7:4). It has done with us as to justifying righteousness. Nor need we fear its damning threats any more; for by the death of this body we are freed from it, and are for ever now coupled to a living Christ.

 John Bunyan, Justification by an Imputed Righteousness, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2006), 304.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Which Jesus Do You Worship? (Machen)

 Many people will say something positive about Jesus.  I’ve heard someone who didn’t profess to be a Christian tell me he thought Jesus was a good guy.  I also had a Mormon get upset with me because I told him the Mormon religion and the Christian faith are worlds apart.  He got in my face and passionately told me loved Jesus in his heart.  I was wondering “which Jesus?”  J. Gresham Machen wrote well about this in chapter two of The Person of JesusHis argument was that the Christ who walked among us long ago, Jesus of Nazareth, is who Scripture says he is: God-in-the-flesh, truly man and truly God.  Here’s Machen:

“…It is not a sin to worship Jesus.  On the contrary, it is the highest and noblest privilege and duty ever given to man.  It is not a sin to worship the real Jesus.  It is not a sin to worship the Jesus who is God and man.  But it is a sin to manufacture a Jesus who was man only and not God, and then after you have manufactured that purely human Jesus to bow down and worship him.”

J. Gresham Machen, The Person of Jesus, p.24.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002