He Will Not Send You To Purgatory (Ryken)

Philip Ryken’s When You Pray is a very helpful resource for studying the Lord’s Prayer and for learning more about prayer and praying.  When I recently studied the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our debts...”), I found the following paragraphs helpful:

“As soon as we start trying to figure out how to pay God what we owe for our sins, we realize how much trouble we are really in.  Obviously, we cannot pay off our debts by ourselves.  How could we ever make up for all the sins we have committed?  Yet this is precisely the error most religions make, including false versions of Christianity.  They all operate on the basis that human beings can do something to make things right with God.  Their reasoning goes something like this: ‘Lord, I know I keep messing up, but I’m trying really, really hard to be good.  In case you haven’t noticed, I have a list here of some of the good things I’ve done – charitable work, and that sort of thing.  Yes, I know my list isn’t as long as it could be, but why don’t we just call it even?’  This kind of approach is based on the principle of works righteousness, the idea that doing good works can make someone good enough for God.”

“The truth is, however, that forgiveness is not something we can work for, it is only something we can ask for.  Even if we worked for all eternity, laboring in the very pit of hell, we could never work off the debt we owe to God.  What could we ever pay to God?  Jesus posed the question this way: ‘What can a man give in exchange for his soul?’ (Mt. 16:26b NIV).  The answer, of course, is nothing.  Our souls are the most valuable thing we have.  When, because of our sin and guilt, we owe God our very souls, there is nothing left for us to pay.”

Later Ryken notes that “we owe God far more than we or anyone else could ever pay.”  So what can we do about our massive debt to God?  The only thing we can do is beg God for forgiveness: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner! (Lk. 18:13).

“This is precisely what we do in the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer.  We ask our Father to forgive us our debts.  With these words we declare our moral bankruptcy, freely admitting that we owe God more than everything we have.  Then we do the only thing we can, which is to ask him to forgive us outright.  Because he is our loving Father, God does what we ask.  ‘He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities… As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him (Ps. 103:10, 13 NIV).  God the Father offers forgiveness as a free gift of his grace.  When you go to him, weighed down with the debt of all your guilt and sin, he will not sit down with you to work out a payment plan.  He will not scheme to charge you more interest.  He will not send you to Purgatory or anywhere else to work off your debts.  On the contrary, God is a loving Father who offers forgiveness full and free.”

Philip Graham Ryken, When You Pray (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2000), p. 125-6.

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

Advertisements

“Abba” is not “Daddy”

It isn’t quite right to say that the Aramaic “abba” means “daddy.”  In other words, to call the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “daddy” at the outset of our prayers is a bit too casual and irreverent.  Philip Ryken explains.

“To call God ‘Abba, Father’ is to speak to him with reverence as well as confidence.  Abba does not mean ‘Daddy.’  To prove this point, the Oxford linguist James Barr wrote an article for the Journal of Theological Studies called ‘Abba isn’t “Daddy”.’  What Barr discovered was that abba was not merely a word used by young children.  It was also the word that Jewish children used for their parents after they were fully grown.  Abba was a mature, yet affectionate way for adults to speak to their fathers.”

“The New Testament is careful not to be too casual in the way it addresses God.  The Aramaic word abba appears three times in the New Testament (Mark 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).  In each case it is followed immediately by the Greek word pater.  Pater is not the Greek word for ‘Daddy.’  The Greek language has a word for ‘Daddy’ – the word pappas – but that is not the word the New Testament uses to translate abba.  Instead, in order to make sure that our intimacy with God does not become an excuse for immaturity, it says, ‘abba, pater.”

“The best way to translate abba is “Dear Father,” or even “Dearest Father.”  That phrase captures both the warm confidence and the deep reverence that we have for our Father in heaven.  It expresses our intimacy with God, while preserving his dignity.  When we pray, therefore, we are to say, ‘Our dear Father in heaven.’”

Philip Ryken, When You Pray, p. 57-8.

shane lems

Short Prayers, Good Prayers

 Ever since I was a younger Christian I’ve heard many godly men exhort me to spend long periods in prayer.  Some recommended waking up early to pray (from 5-6 AM), others recommended taking a day off each month to pray.  I’ve also read many accounts of great Christians who have spent hours upon hours in prayer – which has no doubt benefited Christ’s church.  I have to confess: though I do pray fervent prayers quite often, I find it very difficult to spend hours in uninterrupted prayer.  But I don’t despair for reasons that follow.

As wonderful and beneficial as longer prayers are, I think we have to be careful when it comes to this topic.  We’ve always got to remember not to judge prayers based on how long they are.  The essence of true prayer is a believing heart calling upon the Father through Christ by the Holy Spirit (see Heidelberg Catechism LD 45).  In fact, Jesus told us not to heap up empty phrases when we pray, thinking that we will be heard for our many words (Matt. 6:7).  And the pattern for prayer that he gave us is pretty short (Matt. 6:9-13).  I appreciate how Philip Ryken discussed this in When You Pray.

“Knowing God as Father means…you can keep prayer simple.  When children need something from their fathers, they do not hire a lawyer, draft a formal petition, or get down on their knees, they just ask.  That is why Christian prayers are straightforward.  The prayers of pagans tend to be overly complicated, but when Christians pray, they pray to their Father.”

“As a general rule, the prayers of God’s children are short and sweet.  Martin Luther (1483-1546) once said, ‘Our prayer must have few words, but be great and profound in content and meaning…Few words and richness of meaning is Christian; many words and lack of meaning is pagan.’  Indeed, one of the striking things about most biblical prayers is their brevity.  It is hard to find a prayer anywhere in the Bible that when read aloud would be more than five minutes long.”

“Some Christians measure spirituality by the amount of time a person prays.  True, there is plenty of teaching in Scripture about being devoted to the life of prayer.  Jesus himself spent a great deal of time in prayer, and the apostle Paul tells us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV).  However, the effectiveness of our prayers does not depend on the length of our prayers.”

Ryken goes on to discuss Elijah’s short, fervent prayer in contrast to the long-winded prayers of Baal’s prophets (1 Ki. 18).  Elijah’s prayer was brief and simple.  Or consider Isaiah’s prayer in which he confessed his sin (Is. 6:5).  Think about the publican’s prayer: God be merciful to me, a sinner (Luke 18:13).  Thomas’ confession-prayer also comes to mind: My Lord and my God! (John 20:28).  Ecclesiastes even says, Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few (Ecc. 5:2 NIV).

God’s people all have different personalities and temperaments.  Some can pray for hours on end with great fervency.  Others pray short fervent prayers throughout the day.  The point is that we pray often, from the heart, to our Father in heaven.  The saint that prays for hours is not more spiritual than the saint that prays frequent, brief, heart-felt prayers.  My own prayer life has grown since I’ve come to understand what Ryken means in this closing paragraph.  You may want to read it a few times if you’ve struggled in this area.

“God does not need any lengthy explanations.  If you find that your prayer life is too weak, is it possibly that you are trying to make things too complicated?  Our prayers must be fervent, of course, and they ought to be frequent, but they do not need to be fancy” (p. 30-31).

Philip Ryken, When You Pray.

shane lems

Raising Paine in the Church

 In this great book on the fellowship or communion of the saints, Philip Ryken explains one major hindrance to solid fellowship.

“Another obstacle to the communion of the saints is the pride of individualism.  This is especially a problem in the American church.  When the French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) visited the United States in the 1830s he observed that Americans ‘owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man, they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands… [This attitude] throws [the American] back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.'”

“The pride of individualism has infected the American church.  Thomas Jefferson liked to observe, ‘I am a sect myself.’  Thomas Paine said, ‘My mind is my church.’  Now many Americans are raising Paine in the contemporary church.  They doubt the necessity of active involvement in a living church.  They rely on Christian radio, worship at home with a televangelist, or treat churches like leased automobiles, trading the old one in for a new one every five years” (p. 11).

Ryken is right.  Hard core individualism is a huge barrier to true Christian fellowship.  And this is one major reason why Ryken wrote and edited this book, The Communion of SaintsHere’s how he said it himself on page 13: “The purpose of this book is to help us rediscover the lost communion of the saints.”   I do believe the book is a great help towards that end.  There’s even a study guide at the end which makes this a perfect resource for a Bible study or book group.  These are the kind of “churchly” books we need to be reading and studying!  You won’t find any trendy jargon like “enacted community,” or “Jesus the partier,”  but you will find a solid, biblical, and practical discussion of what the church is, says, and does in her pilgrimage.

Here’s the info: Philip Ryken (ed.) The Communion of the Saints (Philipsburg: P&R, 2001).

shane lems

Church Membership – Really?

 Many people today have all sorts of memberships.  From monthly Netflix plans to smart phone contracts to fitness clubs to political movements, not many people hesitate to sign the dotted line that binds them to certain membership obligations.  However, when it comes to being a public, professing member of a local church, quite a few people hesitate and even snicker: “What if I don’t want to join?!”  To make a long post short, I strongly believe church membership of some sort is a biblical thing.  I like what Marion Clark has to say about this in chapter four of The Communion of Saints

“If the church is established by God, ruled by Christ, and governed by the Word of his Spirit, then how can anyone refuse to join it?  For Christians so to refuse is to fail to meet one of their fundamental obligations as followers of Christ.”

“Christians who resist the idea of formal membership sometimes question whether the Bible says that they officially have to join the church.  However, it is clear from the New Testament that the first Christians believed in church membership and kept careful track of their members.  Already at Pentecost, new converts were described as ‘being added to their number’ (Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14).  The appointment of the first deacons was in response to the danger that some members who were on the rolls of the Jerusalem church were being overlooked (Acts 6:1-7).  Timothy’s church at Ephesus maintained a list of the widows under its care (1 Tim. 5:9), which is not surprising, given that the apostle Paul had addressed them as ‘members of God’s household’ (Eph. 2:19).  When there was a case of grievous sin at Corinth, Paul instructed the church to ‘put out of [their] fellowship the man who did this’ (1 Cor. 5:2).  He assumed that the elders could distinguish between those who were inside and those who were outside the church, a differentiation that requires fellowship on some sort of formal basis.  Similarly the apostle John was able to discriminate between those who ‘belonged to us’ and ‘did not really belong to us’ (1 John 2:19).”

He concludes,

“It only makes sense: if elders must ‘give an account’ (Heb. 13:17), they must know for whom they are accountable.  To put this another way, shepherds must know who their sheep are.”

There is biblical support for some sort of membership in a local church.  What really makes this hard today is when churches themselves no longer worry about membership.  People end up coming and going from church without anyone really knowing who’s who – there’s no accountability and it’s impossible to do solid shepherding in these types of situations.  So I’m an advocate of church membership and the church I serve takes it seriously.  I’d even suggest that if your church has been neglecting this aspect of its fellowship, contact your elders and/or pastor(s) and discuss this topic with them.

Of course, I recommend reading this chapter (four) of The Communion of Saints for futher stody.  The entire book is also worth reading; it is a biblical and Reformed discussion of what it means to say the phrase in the Creed: “I believe…in the communion of the saints.”

shane lems