Thick Monastery Walls (Kuyper)

 Sometimes Christians think retreating from the world will benefit their spiritual life.  They believe that withdrawing from the world will help them get closer to God.  This is most obviously seen in the monastic movement that dates back to the early church.  There are several biblical reasons why the monastic impulse is not a good one: withdrawing from the world makes it difficult for a Christian to be salt and light, withdrawing from the world also makes it difficult for a Christian to love his neighbor (including his enemy!), and it is the opposite of being evangelistic and missionary-minded.  Abraham Kuyper also noted well that wherever we go, we take our sinful hearts:

The world ruthlessly crosses our efforts [to draw near to God]…. Though it was not right, and never can be, we understand what went on in the heart of those who sought escape from the world, in cell or hermitage, for the sake of unbroken fellowship with God. It might have been efficacious, if in withdrawing from the world they had been able to leave the world behind. But we carry it in our heart. Wherever we go it goes with us. There are no monastic walls so thick, or places in forests so distant, but Satan has means to reach them. To shut oneself out from the world moreover, for the sake of a closer walk with God, is to seek on earth what can only be our portion in heaven. We may escape many things in doing it. The eye may no more see much vanity. But existence becomes abnormal. Life becomes narrow. Human nature is reduced to small dimensions. There is no imperative task on hand, no calling in life, no exertion of all one’s powers. Conflict is avoided. Victory tarries….

Kuyper, A. (1918). To Be Near unto God (pp. 3–4). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans-Sevensma Co.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015


[Not] Prying into the Secrets of Providence (Flavel)

 One basic but difficult truth in the Christian faith is this: we can’t always interpret or understand providence.  We sometimes have no idea why certain things happened when they did; we don’t know why they happened how they did.  This fact stretches and tests our faith.  Why did my kids get terribly ill but no one else’s did?  Why did God allow my parents to get into a car accident and sustain life-threatening injuries?  How come there are people getting laid off at work, and am I next?  Sometimes we just can’t understand, interpret, or read God’s sovereign providence.  John Flavel (d.1691) gave wise counsel that the child of God should not pry into his Father’s providence:

Do not pry too curiously into the secrets of Providence, nor allow your shallow reason arrogantly to judge and censure its designs.

There are hard texts in the works as well as in the Word of God. It becomes us modestly and humbly to show reverence, but not to dogmatize too boldly and positively upon them. A man may easily get a strain by over-reaching. ‘When I thought to know this,’ said Asaph, ‘it was too painful for me’ (Psalm 73:16). ‘I thought to know this’ – there was the arrogant attempt of reason, there he pried into the arcana of Providence – ‘but it was too wonderful for me,’ it was ‘useless labour,’ as Calvin expounds it. He pried so far into that puzzling mystery of the afflictions of the righteous and prosperity of the wicked, till it begat envy towards them and despondency in himself (Psalm 73:3, 13), and this was all he got by summoning Providence to the bar of reason. Holy Job was guilty of this evil, and frankly ashamed of it (Job 42:3).

I know there is nothing in the Word or in the works of God that is repugnant to sound reason, but there are some things in both which are opposite to carnal reason, as well as above right reason; and therefore our reason never shows itself more unreasonable than in summoning those things to its bar which transcend its sphere and capacity. Many are the mischiefs which ensue upon this practice.

Indeed.  The secret things belong to the Lord, but the things he revealed belong to us and to our children (Deut. 29:29).  And, as has been said before, even though the child of God cannot always trace the ways of his Father, he can always trust him!

The above quote is found on page 141 of The Mystery of Providence.

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

God Blessing Bible Translations (White)

 I’ve mentioned James White’s helpful book on the King James only controversy here before.  I was recently thinking about Bible translations so I picked up this book again and found a helpful section on how God blesses translations of the Bible.  Thankfully in our day, we have many good translations and we don’t have to be “married” to one since all have some strengths and weaknesses.  Here’s how White put it when responding to a question that implied since the KJV has been blessed more than other translations we should use it alone:

God has indeed blessed the KJV, for which we can all be very thankful.  And I do not doubt for a second that he will continue to bless those who read it and obey it.  But God blessed the Septuagint too.  And the Vulgate.  And translations in dozens of different languages.  God has blessed the NASB, and the NIV, and many others.  God blesses those who seek his will and follow it.  Those who find his will in the NIV are just as blessed as those who find it in the KJV.  Limiting God’s blessing to a particular translation is historically untenable and spiritually dangerous.

Well said! I’m thankful for the KJV, but I’m likewise thankful for the NASB, the NLT, the [H]CSB, the NIV, the ESV, the Geneva Bible, and so forth.  I’m also thankful for the men and women who spent so much time and work to get good translations published.  I’ve been blessed by reading the NLT, by studying the NASB, by consulting the Geneva Bible, and by memorizing parts of the NIV.  I consider it a major blessing to have these helpful translations available!

The above quote is found on page 302 of The King James Only Controversy by James White.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Naming our Struggles (Murray)

 Quite often we as Christians know the various sins against which we struggle.  We might be strong in some areas, but are weak in others.  For example, a person might not have a violent or quick temper, but he does struggle with discontentment and envy.  A Christian might have real and genuine loves for others, but she has a hard time being a good steward of her money.  The list goes on.  Usually as we mature in the faith, we start to see our strengths and weaknesses.  The Lord, through Scripture, helps us see our failures so we can repent of them and ask for grace to “put off” what is sinful and “put on” what is good.  However, sometimes we can’t always name our weaknesses, we don’t know what to call them, or they haven’t been pointed out to us yet.  In Refresh, the authors list some of the main areas of stumbling for women – though I’d add these are areas of stumbling for men as well:

Idolatry.  We make idols of beauty, fashion, career, husband, or children – especially their success in school and sports.

Materialism.  Our pursuit of money or bigger and better homes often results in working more hours or jobs than we can handle and also nourishes the womb of discontent that gnaws away at our minds and hearts.

Debt.  One of the greatest causes of stress is living beyond our means.  Maybe we don’t spend 50 percent more than we can afford, but 10 percent, year on year, grows our debt and our anxiety levels.

Comparison.  Pinterest, Facebook, and mommy blogs can lead us to compare ourselves unfavorably with others who seem better looking, better homemakers, better organizers, and better everything.

Indiscipline.  Although it’s hard to be disciplined and organized, it’s more stressful to be the opposite, which so easily occurs as we use technology.  How many hours are wasted on the internet, resulting not only in guilt over wasted time but a pileup of other duties that now have to be rushed.

Identity.  We define who we are by our successes, our failures, or some part of our past, instead of who we are in Christ.

Media diet.  Just as what we put in our mouths affects our emotions, thoughts, and hearts so what we put in our ears and eyes has emotional, intellectual, and spiritual consequences.  Many live as if Philippians 5:8 said, ‘Whatever things are false, whatever things are sordid, whatever things are wrong, whatever things are filthy, whatever things are ugly, whatever things are terrible, if there is any vice, if there is anything worthy of criticism, meditate on these things.’

Perfectionism.  We strive for flawless family, house, meals, and appearance.

Failure.  We fail at school, or at a job, or at homemaking, or in witnessing, or we fail to meet our own or others’ expectations.

Later in this helpful book the authors talk more about dealing with these dangers and sins in light of God’s grace and his word.  It’s good to know our sins and weaknesses so we can, by God’s grace, fight them.  We don’t want to wallow in weakness, we want to press on obediently in the strength of the Lord!

NOTE: I edited the list for length; you can find it in its entirety on pages 46-48 of Refresh by David and Shona Murray.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Grace, Gentiles, and the OT (Davis)

 God’s plan of salvation always included both Jews and Gentiles.  Including the Gentiles as recipients of grace was not God’s plan B, but part of his original plan.  This is clearly seen already in the Old Testament.  Dale Ralph Davis has a helpful commentary on 1 Kings 17:8-12 that talks about God’s grace shown to a foreigner.  Specifically, this is the story where Elijah goes to the widow in Zarephath during the famine brought on by Ahab’s idolatry.

Let us look more closely at this widow. What really fascinates us is her mailing address: ‘Rise, go to Zarephath which belongs to Sidon’ (v. 9). Zarephath stood about eight miles south of Sidon and thirteen miles north of Tyre (and about 80 miles north of Samaria), in the domain of Jezebel’s daddy Ethbaal (16:31). So Elijah is headed for Baalsville in Gentileland. Here one of Baal’s subjects will trust in Yahweh’s word (vv. 14, 15) and will find that Yahweh daily sustains her (v. 16), though Baal had left her in the pit of hopelessness and on the verge of death (v. 12). Yahweh will press her into his service for the benefit of his prophet and yet in the process give her far more than he demands of her. Here is a gentile widow awash in the wideness of God’s mercy; here is grace that moves beyond the boundaries of the covenant people and embraces one of Baal’s most hopeless pawns. We know her address but not her name, and yet this nameless widow joins the likes of Melchizedek (Gen. 14), Jethro (Exod. 18), Rahab (Josh. 2, 6), Ruth, Naaman (2 Kings 5), and Ebedmelech (Jer. 38) as one of those standing within the circle of Yahweh’s grace long before the glad day when Peter preached Jesus in Cornelius’ house and the Holy Spirit fell upon all the riff-raff (Acts 10–11). What happens in the street and house in Zarephath in 1 Kings 17 is but a foregleam of that day when God would grant ‘even to the gentiles repentance that leads to life’ (Acts 11:18).

 Davis, D. R. (2002). 1 Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (pp. 211–212). Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications.

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

The “Unspeakable Consolation” of Providence

One of the great things about the Christian faith is the deep comfort it brings to the weary heart – specifically I’m thinking of God’s sovereign providence.  Scripture abounds with teaching that our Triune God is in complete control of all things for the good of his people (e.g. Lk 21:18, Rom. 8:28, 1 Cor. 15:27, 2 Cor. 9:8, etc). Here are a few comforting quotes on providence from some Reformation confessions and teachers:

 “This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father.” Belgic Confession of Faith XIII.

 “As the providence of God doth, in general, reach to all creatures; so after a special manner it taketh care of his church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof.”  Westminster Confession of Faith 5.7.

 “Knowledge of this doctrine…is the beginning of true happiness.”  Caspar Olevian in A Firm Foundation.

 “Our faith does not look to those means which God uses [in providence], nor does it depend on them, but rather to God who alone can relieve all our necessities, either with or without means as it appears good to him.”  William Ames in The Marrow of Theology.

 “God by his providence preserves his church in the midst of enemies; a spark kept alive in the ocean, or a flock of sheep among wolves.”  Thomas Watson in A Body of Divinity.

“It is above all by faith in Christ that believers are enabled – in spite of all the riddles that perplex them – to cling to the conviction that the God who rules the world is the same loving and compassionate Father who in Christ forgave them all their sins, accepted them as his children, and will bequeath to them eternal salvation. … Although the riddles are not resolved, faith in God’s fatherly hand always again arises from the depths and even enables us to boast in afflictions.”  Herman Bavinck in Reformed Dogmatics II.

 “Now to understand in a spiritual way the universality of providence in every particular happening from morning to night every day, that there is nothing that befalls you but there is a hand of God in it – this is from God, and is a great help to contentment.”  Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.

 “From this contemplation of God’s providence, there ought to arise in the hearts of believers an earnest desire of patience and humility in adversity by the example of Christ, of Joseph, of Job, that in all things which happen somewhat harshly to us we may acquiesce without a murmur in the will and providence of God.”  Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, I.

(This is a re-post from August, 2010).

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

Am I A Christian? Doubts and Grace (Brooks)

 One normal but difficult part of the Christian life is when doubts arise and a person wonders whether he or she is truly a Christian.  When Christians struggle with sin, lack strong feelings for the things of God, or find it difficult to pray and read Scripture, doubts creep up.  “Am I really a Christian?”  There are many good biblical themes to discuss at this point, but one of them I’d like to bring up for now is a wise word from Thomas Brooks about God’s work of grace in the hearts of his people.  Brooks’ argument in the following selection basically goes like this: “If a person has even the smallest work of grace in his or her heart, he or she is most definitely a Christian.”  Here’s how Brooks put it (I edited it slightly to make it easier to read):

Consider that the least degree of grace—if it is true grace—is sufficient to salvation; for the promises of life and glory, of forgiveness and salvation, of everlasting happiness and blessedness, are not made to high degrees of grace—but to the reality and truth of grace in the heart.  The promises are not made to faith in a person’s triumph—but to faith in God’s truth. Therefore the sense and evidence of the least grace, yes, of the least degree of the least grace, may afford some measure of assurance. Grace is the fruit of the Spirit, Gal. 5:22. And the tree is known by his fruit, Mat. 12:33; Mark 16:16; John 3:16, 36; Mat. 5:1; John 6:40.

I do not say that weak grace will afford a strong assurance, or a full assurance, for strong assurance rather arises from strength of grace than from truth of grace in the heart—but I do say, weak grace may give some assurance.  An eminent minister, who was a famous instrument of converting many to God, was accustomed to say, that for his own part, he had no other evidence in himself of being in the state of grace, than that he was sensible of his spiritual deadness!  Oh, that all weak Christians would seriously lay this to heart, for it may serve to relieve them against many fears, doubts, discouragements, and jealousies, which do much disturb the peace and comfort of their precious souls.

Though the least measures of grace cannot satisfy a sincere Christian—yet they ought to quiet his conscience, and cheer his heart, and confirm his judgment of his saving interest in Christ. The least measure of grace is like a diamond, very little in bulk—but of high price and mighty value.  Therefore we are to improve it for our comfort and encouragement. A goldsmith makes reckoning of the least filings of gold, and so should we of the least measures of grace in our hearts. A man may read the king’s image upon a silver penny, as well as upon a larger piece of coin. The least grain of grace bears the image of God upon it; and why then should it not evidence the goodness and happiness of a Christian’s estate? Slight not the lowest evidences of grace!

Again, and in other words, just like a tiny faith is true and saving faith, so a “small” work of grace in the heart is true grace, and proof that a person is a Christian.

You can find the above section in its entirety here: Thomas Brooks, A Cabinet of Jewels, chapter I.VI.  It’s also found in volume three of Brooks’ Works (p. 259-60).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015