Factions

Psalm 133 says how good it is for brothers and sisters to live in unity. And we know we desire such unity in our churches. However, we don’t often experience it. What’s wrong? Why can’t we all get along? The apostle Paul addressed such a situation in the early church at Corinth:

…In the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 1 Corinthians 11:18-19 English Standard Version (ESV)

There must be factions? What is Paul saying here? John Calvin dissects these verses:

When ye come together in the Church, I hear there are divisions …It is…a reproof of a general kind — that they were not of one accord as [is fitting for] Christians, but everyone was so much taken up with [their] own interests, that [they were] not prepared to accommodate [themselves] to others.

Hence arose that abuse, as to which we shall see in a little — hence sprung ambition and pride, so that everyone exalted [themselves] and despised others — hence sprung carelessness as to edification — hence sprung profanation of the gifts of God.

Sounds unfortunately familiar. Calvin points out that Paul realizes not all are involved but the complaint isn’t groundless:

{Paul] says that he partly believes it, that they might not think that he charged them all with this heinous crime, and might accordingly complain, that they were groundlessly accused. In the meantime, however, he intimates that this had been brought to him not by mere vague rumor, but by credible information, such as he could not altogether discredit.

Calvin then defines heresies and schisms:

For there must be also heresies …Heresy…consists in disagreement as to doctrine, and schism, on the contrary, in alienation of affection, as when anyone withdrew from the Church from envy, or from dislike of the pastors, or from ill nature.

It is true, that the Church cannot but be torn asunder by false doctrine, and thus heresy is the root and origin of schism, and it is also true that envy or pride is the mother of almost all heresies, but at the same time it is of advantage to distinguish in this way between these two terms…

Calvin consoles those who do not participate in these divisions:

“So far, says he, should we be from being troubled, or cast down, when we do not see complete unity in the Church, but on the contrary some threatenings of separation from want of proper agreement, that even if sects should start up, we ought to remain firm and constant.

For in this way hypocrites are detected — in this way, on the other hand, the sincerity of believers is tried. For as this gives occasion for discovering the fickleness of those who were not rooted in the Lord’s Word, and the wickedness of those who had [feigned] the appearance of good men, so the good afford a more signal manifestation of their constancy and sincerity.”

Finally, Calvin says something shocking: disunity is providential. How can that be? He says:

But observe what Paul says — there must be, for he [suggests] by this expression, that this state of matters does not happen by chance, but by the sure providence of God, because he has it in view to try his people, as gold in the furnace, and if it is agreeable to the mind of God, it is, consequently, expedient…We know, also, that the Lord, by his admirable wisdom, turns Satan’s deadly machinations so as to promote the salvation of believers.

Hence comes that design of which he speaks — that the good may shine forth more conspicuously; for we ought not to ascribe this advantage to heresies, which, being evil, can produce nothing but what is evil, but to God, who, by his infinite goodness, changes the nature of things, so that those things are salutary to the elect, which Satan had contrived for their ruin.

So God uses the works of Satan and his followers for our good, to refine us and to prove our salvation. As a result of this, we ought to remain firm and constant obeying God’s word in the face of disunity.

Denomination Blues” (Washington Phillips) by The 77’s Unplugged (Michael Roe & David Leonhardt), YouTube, Alternative Rendition, lyrics, history

Whose Strength?

Some days, we might wonder, “How can any of us continue this way?” The children, our spouses, the relatives or neighbors, our work schedules, these contentious elections, worries about terrorism here and war overseas; the list is endless. Perhaps your trials have dragged on over weeks, months, or even years. Can anyone bear up under such persistent pressure? Where is there strength to carry on one more day? The song writer, Asaph, penned these words:

My flesh and my heart may fail,

    but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Psalm 73:26 English Standard Version (ESV)

John Calvin summarizes the import of the entire song this way:

[The Psalmist]:

…Extolls the righteousness and goodness of God.

…Confesses that when he saw:

the wicked abounding in wealth, …scornfully mocking God, and cruelly harassing the righteous…

and the children of God […, who] practice uprightness, …weighed down by troubles and calamities, …were pining away…

while God, …did not interfere to remedy [this injustice.]

[This disparity] almost [caused] him to cast off all…religion and [his] fear of God.

[But, the Psalmist] reproves his own folly in rashly…pronouncing judgment, merely [based on] the present state of things…

…He concludes that, provided we leave the providence of God to take its own course, …in the end, …the righteous are not defrauded of their reward, and that, on the other, the wicked do not escape the hand of the Judge.

It is in this context that Asaph declares his own powerlessness to face what seems unjust: the wicked prosper, the godly suffer, and God doesn’t seem to care. Asaph also acknowledges his dependence on God for any ability to stand under this weight. As Calvin explains:

…There is here a contrast between the failing which [the Psalmist] felt in himself and the strength with which he was divinely supplied; as if he had said,

“Separated from God I am nothing, and all that I attempt to do ends in nothing; but when I come to Him, I find an abundant supply of strength.”

It is…necessary for us to consider what we are without God; …We will seek nothing from God but what we are conscious of [lacking] in ourselves. Indeed, all men confess this, [but the majority] think that all which is necessary is that God should aid our [weaknesses], or [give us assistance] when we have not the means…ourselves. [However, the Psalmist’s] confession…is far [stronger] than this when he lays, so to speak, his own nothingness before God.

He, therefore, …adds, that God is his portion…[denoting] the condition or lot with which every man is contented. …The reason why God is represented as a portion is, because He alone is abundantly sufficient for us, and because in Him the perfection of our happiness consists.

Whence it follows, that we are chargeable with ingratitude, if we turn away our minds from Him and fix them on any other object, as has been stated in Psalm 16:4, where David explains more clearly the import of the metaphor.

None of this means that we will escape from trouble in the here and now. We will go through it, and yet we have hope if we do well.

***

The Apostle Paul lived in the truth Asaph wrote about. When commending his service for God to the Church, he said:

Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God. 2 Corinthians 3:5 (ESV)

We can see that Paul’s witness stands to this day. Since our sufficiency comes from Him, will you give up your own methods? Will I? We must rely on the Lord Jesus Christ’s strength alone in these perilous times.

Michael Roe – I Could Laugh (feat. Chris Taylor) – bd’s house 2014, Lyrics

Fear No Man

Many of us have feared someone. Bullies, from school, work, next door, or the national stage, come to mind. In an effort to blend in or hide, we change what we say, what we think, and what we do. Perhaps, if you are a Christian, you betray your witness of Him. Not everyone who inspires fear is a mere bully, though. Some are sociopaths. These can turn your world upside down or worse.

The collected proverbs of scripture are not just fortune cookie prescriptions for our amusement, but hard truths leading to life. Concerning bullies and sociopaths, it says:

The fear of man lays a snare,

    but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.

Proverbs 29:25 English Standard Version (ESV)

That seems unlikely. How does belief in a Deity provide safety from what may become for us trials that lead to certain death? For that answer, let us look to the source of wisdom, the Lord Jesus Christ:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28 (ESV)

And again:

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Luke 12:4-5 (ESV)

Calvin’s analysis of these passages and their contexts is enlightening:

…Our Lord’s discourse consists of two parts. First, in order to instruct us to bear with composure the loss of the bodily life, he bids us contemplate both eternal life and eternal death, and then arrives gradually at this [second] point, that the protection of our life is in the hand of God.

…Now the proud imaginations of wicked men, as if the life of the godly were placed at their disposal, is utterly unfounded: for God keeps them within limits, and restrains, whenever it pleases him, the cruelty and violence of their attacks. And yet they are said to have power to kill by his permission, for he often permits them to indulge their cruel rage.

…These words of Christ ought therefore to be explained in this manner: “Acknowledge that you have received immortal souls, which are subject to the disposal of God alone, and do not come into the power of men.” The consequence will be, that no terrors or alarms which men may employ will shake your faith. “For how comes it that the dread of men prevails in the struggle, but because the body is preferred to the soul, and immortality is less valued than a perishing life?”

The calculus we fear to face is that this life is not meant for pleasures but for testing. When all is said and done, death overtakes us all. Bullies and sociopaths can take no more from us than this earthly existence. If our lives are hidden with Christ, then we will appear with Him. Even now He walks with us. Fear Him.

The Seventy SevensYou Don’t Scare MeAll Fall Down (1984), Lyrics

Live Blues Version (1990)

Not Your Own

We often hear that faith must be personal. “My faith,” they say. People might tell us they’ve persevered through trials due to their faith. Were it to have failed, they would’ve been lost. But they had enough. At least that’s what they say. I don’t know about you, but I get the impression that they think this faith is their own, as if they produced it. As if it were due to strength of character or moral upbringing.

On the contrary, though we must hold faith individually:

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. Romans 4:5 English Standard Version (ESV)

It is not our faith, it is a gift of God so that we might not boast about ourselves.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:8-10 (ESV)

John Calvin comments on this verse:

For by grace are you saved. …God declares, that he owes us nothing; so that salvation is not a reward or recompense, but unmixed grace. The next question is, in what way do men receive that salvation which is offered to them by the hand of God? The answer is, by faith; and hence he concludes that nothing connected with it is our own…

Not of works. …Many persons restrict the word ‘gift’ to faith alone. But Paul is only repeating in other words the former sentiment. His meaning is, not that faith [only] is the gift of God, but that salvation [entirely] is given to us by God…

For we are his work. …The apostle affirms that we are God’s work, and that everything good in us is his creation; by which he means that the whole man is formed by his hand to be good. It is not the mere power of choosing aright, or some indescribable kind of preparation, or even assistance, but the right will itself, which is his workmanship; otherwise Paul’s argument would have no force.

Created to good works. …[Paul] says, that, before we were born, the good works were prepared by God; meaning, that in our own strength we are not able to lead a holy life, but only so far as we are formed and adapted by the hand of God. Now, if the grace of God came before our performances, all ground of boasting has been taken away…

To reiterate, faith is not a result of human will:

For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy Romans 9:15-16 (ESV)

To this, Calvin comments:

It is not then of him who wills, etc. …That none of you may think that they who are elected are elected because they are deserving, or because they had in any way procured for themselves the favor of God, or, in short, because they had in them a particle of worthiness by which God might be moved, take simply this view of the matter, that it is neither by our will nor efforts…that we are counted among the elect, but that it wholly depends on the divine goodness, which of itself chooses those who neither will, nor strive, nor even think of such a thing… [Emphasis mine]

Therefore faith is not subjective. It is not of ourselves so that we may not boast. Just like the scriptures, faith is not a matter of one’s own opinion.

***

Now, if we accept that faith is not of ourselves, we who profess faith must also realize that we, ourselves, are not our own, either.

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (ESV)

77s – The 77’s – Bottom Line,   Uploaded to YouTube on Apr 6, 2008, posted by Neamberthal, Lyrics