A Frowning Providence – Why?

There are times in the Christian’s life when God’s providence is not pleasant. What I mean by this is sometimes God in his sovereignty allows hard trials to befall his people. The 30-year-old Christian man gets the diagnosis that he has lymphoma. A Christian mother has to go through the painful and heart-breaking experience of a miscarriage. A Christian wife is abused by her wicked husband. A teenager comes to faith in Christ and his family disowns him. The list goes on. Sometimes God’s providence is dark. He moves in a mysterious way and it happens that the dark clouds of providence hang heavy over our heads.

Why do these things happen to God’s people? Why? We don’t have all the answers. God doesn’t always tell us “why.” To be sure, there are some places in Scripture that do tell us “why.” That’s the subject of a book I suppose. For now, I want to point out a helpful sentence in the Westminster Confession that talks about this:

As the providence of God does, in general, reach to all creatures; so after a most special manner, it takes care of his Church and disposes all things to the good thereof. (WCF 5.VII)

 Here’s how A. A. Hodge commented on this phrase in the Westminster Confession:

These Sections [of the Confession] teach also that there is a relation of subordination subsisting between these several systems of providence as means to ends in the wider system which comprehends them all. …The providential government of God over mankind in general is subordinate as a means to an end to his gracious providence toward his Church, whereby he gathers it out of every people and nation, and makes all things work together for good to those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28), and of course for the highest development and glory of the whole body.

 Archibald Alexander Hodge, A Commentary on the Confession of Faith: With Questions for Theological Students and Bible Classes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1869), 143.

We might not always have the answers for why God allows his people to face tough providences. But we can trust him when we face difficult times in life because we know that he’s in total control. And we know he is sovereignly working all things for our good, the good of his church. William Cowper’s hymn, “Light Shining Out of Darkness” is applicable here:

God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill;
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ev’ry hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

This hymn is found in William Cowper, The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper, ed. H. S. Milford (London; Edinburgh; Glasgow; New York; Toronto: Henry Frowde, 1905), 455.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Baptism: Is Immersion Necessary? (Shaw)

The Reformed Faith: Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith

Reformed churches do not insist on baptism by immersion. Instead, in Reformed churches various modes of baptism with water are acceptable. The Westminster Confession of Faith says that “[the] dipping of the person is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person” (XXVIII.3). What’s the biblical background for this view? Robert Shaw (d. 1863) wrote a helpful summary in his exposition of the Westminster Confession:

This is a subject which has occasioned much controversy among Christians, and the dispute is still carried on with unabated zeal. A large and respectable body of Christians strenuously contend that baptism can only be valid when performed by immersion, or by dipping the whole body under water. Our Confession does not deny that baptism may be lawfully performed by immersion; but maintains that it is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water on the person.

No conclusion can be drawn from the word baptize, or from the original term; for it has been most satisfactorily proved that it signifies to wash with water in any way. Several instances of the administration of baptism are recorded in the New Testament; and in some of these cases it is not credible that baptism was performed by immersion. When three thousand were baptized in one day, it cannot be conceived that the apostles were capable of dipping all this multitude in so short a space of time. When whole families were baptized in their own houses, it cannot be thought that, on every occasion, a sufficient quantity of water could be found for immersion. Besides, the application of the spiritual benefit signified by baptism is in Scripture frequently expressed by sprinkling and pouring out (Is. 44:3; Ezek. 36:25; Heb. 10:22; 12:24; Tit. 3:5, 6).

It may be added, that baptism by immersion cannot, in some cases, be dispensed with convenience or decorum; nor in some countries, and at certain seasons, without endangering the health of the body. This affords, at least, a strong presumption against the absolute necessity of dipping the person into the water; and from all these considerations we must conclude that it is sufficient and most expedient to administer baptism by sprinkling or pouring water on the person.

Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, p. 364-5.

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

Our Children, God’s Children

In Reformed theology, children of believers are part of God’s covenant community and are regarded as such.  We do, of course, teach our kids about the mighty acts of God, the redemption that is found only in Christ, and the need for personal repentance, faith, and godliness.  But we don’t consider our children lost pagans who need missional parenting.  I appreciate how Chad Van Dixhoorn explains this Reformed teaching:

The church consists of ‘professors.’  It also consists ‘of their children’ [WCF 25.2].  Being part of a Christian household, whether a household with one Christian parent or two, is a great privilege.  God sets apart both the children and even the spouse of someone who is closely tied to him.  They do not automatically become Christians by virtue of this relationship.  The Apostle Paul, when he mentions this topic in passing, straightforwardly calls an unbelieving spouse of a Christian an unbeliever.  Nonetheless, Paul says they are ‘sanctified’ and ‘holy’ compared to other unbelieving spouses, or other children without a Christian parent (1 Cor. 7:14) whether they like it or not.  Perhaps a useful analogy is found in Romans 11:16, where Scripture says that ‘if the dough…is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.’

The reason for the inclusion of the children in the church finds its roots in the Old Testament, and it is a truth which God himself expressed passionately in the face of denial: children of professing Christians are God’s before they are ours.  In a dark chapter of Israel’s history people took their sons and daughters and offered them as burned offerings to pagan gods.  This was an outrage by any account, but the Lord describes it as an intense personal offense: the children which they considered theirs were ‘born for me’; they were ‘my children’ (Ezek. 16:20, 21).

God takes ownership of covenant children.  At the beginning of biblical revelation God promised to direct the future of Adam and Eve’s ‘seed’ or descendants (Gen. 3:15).  It is for that reason that he placed his covenantal ownership sign on all those who were under the instruction and authority of godly householders, especially their children (Gen. 17:7).  It is for that reason, as the church was initiated into a new age at Pentecost, that Peter not only stressed that the promise of the gospel was for all those ‘who are far off’ (meaning, the Gentiles), but also for ‘your children’ (meaning, our children! Acts 2:39).

Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, p. 339-40.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Of Lawful Vows

The Christian's Reasonable Service, 4 VolumesVows are probably not on the radar of many Christians today.  Perhaps there isn’t a specific reason why we don’t think much about vows, or perhaps we’ve heard of crazy or unbiblical vows which has made us shy away from them altogether.  However, there are proper vows that Christians can voluntarily make to God.  Scripture has more than a few examples (e.g. Deut. 6:13, Ps. 50:14, 119:106; Eccl. 5:4-6, etc.).  So what is a biblical vow to God?

W. a Brakel defined a vow like this:

“[It] is a commitment toward God.  It is a voluntary commitment either to perform a good deed or to refrain from something, either as an expression of gratitude or to promote our spiritual well-being.”

Similarly, the Westminster Confession of Faith says a vow is only to be made to God voluntarily out of faith and Christian duty, to show God thanks for mercy, for petitioning God, for binding ourselves to Christian duties, or other reasons, as long as as they help us in these areas (WCF 22.6; cf. Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 101-102).

Here are some things to think about concerning proper vows (the following is a summary of Brakel and the WCF’s discussion of vows):

1) A vow must pertain to lawful matters.  Christians cannot make vows that go against Scripture’s teachings or laws.  We cannot vow to do anything forbidden in God’s Word, and we must not vow anything that would hinder our Christian duty.  For example, we shouldn’t make a vow to avoid all unbelievers, since Scripture tells us to love and help our neighbors and even our enemies.  Positively speaking, it is proper to make vows that help us serve God and neighbor better.

2) A vow must be prudent.  That is, when we vow, we must be acquainted with the situation and circumstances.  A rash or sinful vow is made without knowing the circumstances and situations (Prov. 20:25).  Ignorant vows are not lawful vows.  For example, one shouldn’t make a vow to God that he will go to such and such a place to evangelize before he learns about that place.  Therefore, vows are to be made with religious care; we must be very careful when making vows (Ecc. 5:4-5).

3) A vow must be within the realm of what we are capable of doing.  It would be a reckless vow if someone promised to God that he would never sin again.  We must not make vows that we don’t have the ability to keep.  We must not make perpetual vows about neutral things (such as singleness, exact tithing amounts, abstaining from something, etc.) since we do not know what can transpire over time.  We should, by God’s grace, be able to keep the vow we are making, and it should be performed with faithfulness.

4) When we make a vow, we must not act as if we were making a business deal with God, such as, ‘If you will give me this, then I will give you this.’  Rather, it must be made as an expression of gratitude towards God (Ps. 50:14).

In the Presbyterian/Reformed (and other) traditions, God’s people make vows when professing faith publicly, becoming members of a local church, and serving in office (deacon, elder, or pastor).  These types of vows, done properly, are conducive to the glory of God and the good of his people.  A proper vow might also include promising to God that one is going to raise his children with prayer, in the church’s fellowship, and knowledge of the Word.  Another proper vow might be to promise devotion to a certain Bible study, promise to abstain from Sunday sports for the upcoming season since they hurt the Christian’s faith in the past, or to vow renewed commitment to one’s spouse during a serious illness.  The list of proper vows goes on.

Basically, in a word, proper vows are those that are in harmony with Scripture, carefully and thoughtfully made, able to be kept with God’s help, and not used as a bargaining chip with God.  “If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of this mouth (Num. 30:2 NASB).

The above quotes and summarize of Brakel’s discussion of vows can be found in The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol 4, ch. 80.

shane lems

Behind a Dark Providence

The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms One big question that often comes up in the Christian life is, “Why is God letting this happen to me?”  Similarly, we ask what point trials, temptations, and tribulations have in our lives; it seems like they crush and hurt us, and when we’re in the middle of them, we struggle to stay afloat in the faith.  We surely need a biblical anchor during trials!

The Westminster Confession talks about this under the topic of God’s sovereign providence.  In 5.5 it says,

“The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave, for a season, his own children to manifold [various] temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts….”

Why?  Why would a gracious God let his children go through this?  Here are a few reason the Confession gives (edited slightly):

1) …to chastise them for their former sins,
2) or to discover unto [reveal to] them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled (2 Chr. 32:25-26, 31; Deut 8:2-3, 5; Lk 22:31-32)
3) and to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself,
4) and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin,
5) and for sundry [various] other just and holy ends (Ps. 73:1-28, Ps. 77:1-12, Mk 14:66-72, 1 Cor. 12:7-9).

It is a great comfort to know that God, in his loving and sovereign providence, uses trials and temptations ultimately for our good.  Knowing God is sovereign in his providence towards us means, as the Heidelberg Catechism says,

“We can be patient when things go against us (Ps. 39:10), thankful when things go well (1 Thes. 5:18), and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from his love (Rom. 8:35-39).  All creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved (Prov. 21:21, Acts 17:24-28)” (Q/A 28).

shane lems
hammond wi