No Shadow of Turning

Shadows are where things hidden lay or where those who wish to hide lurk. These are not characteristics of the Living God:

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change [or, turning.] Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. James 1:16-18 English Standard Version (ESV)

John Calvin sheds light on our passage:

Do not err. This is an argument from what is opposite; for as God is the author of all good, it is absurd to suppose him to be the author of evil. To do good is what properly belongs to him, and [is] according to his nature; and from him all good things come to us.

…James, leaving to God his right and office of punishing, only removes blame from him. This passage teaches us, that we ought to be so affected by God’s innumerable blessings, which we daily receive from his hand, as to think of nothing but of his glory; and that we should abhor whatever comes to our mind, or is suggested by others, which is not compatible with his praise.

God is called the Father of lights, as possessing all excellency and the highest dignity. And when [James] immediately adds, that there is in him no shadow of turning, he continues the metaphor; so that we may not measure the brightness of God by the irradiation of the sun which appears to us.

Indeed, God’s glory is unlike that of the sun. The sun’s light causes a sundial’s shadow to process around a dial by which we may tell time. His radiance is unchanging; as it were, without shadow. Calvin goes on:

Of his own will. He now brings forward a special proof of the goodness of God which he had mentioned, even that he has regenerated us unto eternal life. This [is an] invaluable benefit [that] every one of the faithful feels in himself. [Therefore,] the goodness of God, when known by experience, ought to remove from [the regenerated] all contrary opinion respecting him.

…This passage teaches us, that as our election before the foundation of the world was [unmerited], so we are illuminated by the grace of God alone as to the knowledge of the truth, so that our calling corresponds with our election. The Scripture shows that we have been gratuitously adopted by God before we were born.

But James expresses here something more, that we obtain the right of adoption, because God…also calls us gratuitously (Ephesians 1:4, 5.) Farther, we…learn, that it is the [unique] office of God…to regenerate us [spiritually…]

That the same thing [(i.e., spiritual regeneration)] is sometimes ascribed to the ministers of the gospel, means [nothing] other…than this, that God acts through them; and it happens indeed through them, but he nevertheless alone does the work.

The word begotten means that we become new men, so that we put off our former nature when we are effectually called by God. He adds how God begets us, even by the word of truth, so that we may know that we cannot enter the kingdom of God by any other door.

And, finally, he says:

That we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. The word τινὰ, “some,” has the meaning of likeness, as though he had said, that we are in a manner firstfruits. But this ought not to be restricted to a few of the faithful; but it belongs to all in common.

For as Man excels among all creatures, so the Lord elects some from the whole mass and separates them as a holy offering, to himself. It is no common nobility into which God extols his own children. Then justly are they said to be excellent as firstfruits, when God’s image is renewed in them.

Let us, then, adore the Father of Lights, whose glory we proclaim, whose goodness we acknowledge, and whose unmerited favor we stand amazed and are grateful.

NASA | A View From The Other Side, YouTube, NASA Goddard, Published February 4, 2015

On the Surface – Part II

Earlier this year, when discussing the topic of envy, we considered the brothers, Cain and Abel. Let’s see what else we can learn from both their lives and Abel’s death:

And Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering. Genesis 4:4 English Standard Version (ESV)

John Calvin analyzes this situation:

And the Lord had respect unto Abel, etc. …Notice the order Moses [observes]; for he does not simply state that the worship which Abel had paid was pleasing to God, but he begins with the person of the offeror; by which he signifies, that God will regard no works with favor except those the doer of which is already previously accepted and approved by him.

And no wonder; for man sees things which are apparent, but God looks into the heart, (1 Samuel 16:7) therefore, he estimates works no otherwise than as they proceed from the fountain of the heart.

Whence also it [follows], that he not only rejects but abhors the sacrifices of the wicked, however splendid they may appear in the eyes of men. For if he, who is polluted in his soul, by his mere touch contaminates, with his own impurities, things otherwise pure and clean, how can that but be impure which proceeds from himself?

…Now seeing that in another place, the Spirit testifies, by the mouth of Peter, that ‘hearts are purified by faith,’ (Acts 15:9) and seeing that the purity of the holy patriarchs was of the very same kind, the apostle does not in vain infer, that the offering of Abel was, by faith, more excellent than that of Cain.

Calvin then draws two conclusions with consequences. The first conclusion and consequence are:

Therefore, in the first place, we must hold, that all works done before faith, whatever splendor of righteousness may appear in them, were nothing but mere sins, being defiled from their roots, and were offensive to the Lord, whom nothing can please without inward purity of heart.

I wish they who imagine that men, by their own motion of freewill, are rendered [fit] to receive the grace of God, would reflect on this. Certainly, no controversy would then remain on the question, whether God justifies men gratuitously, and that by faith? For this must be received as a settled point, that, in the judgment of God, no respect is had to works until man is received into [his] favor.

And the second conclusion is harder still:

…Since the whole human race is hateful to God, there is no other way of reconciliation to divine favor than through faith. Moreover, since faith is a gratuitous gift of God, and a special illumination of the Spirit, then it is easy to infer, that we are [enabled to life] by his mere grace, just as if he had raised us from the dead.

In which sense also Peter says, that it is God who purifies the hearts by faith. For there would be no agreement of the fact with the statement, unless God had so formed faith in the hearts of men that it might be truly deemed his gift…

Calvin’s observations remind us of the apostle Paul’s words in his letter to the Ephesian church:

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)

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice and through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. Receive from the Lord Jesus Christ a new heart. May He renew a right spirit within you.

Andrew MurrayFaith – Abel – The Sacrifice Of Faith – The Holiest of All (99 of 130), Christian Praise and Worship in Songs, Sermons, and Audio Books

Thanksgiving – 2015

Last Year, we posted “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving Day“.

This year we quote from President James Madison’s 1815 Thanksgiving proclamation:

No people ought to feel greater obligations to celebrate the goodness of the Great Disposer of Events and of the Destiny of Nations than the people of the United States.

His kind providence originally conducted them to one of the best portions of the dwelling place allotted for the great family of the human race. He protected and cherished them under all the difficulties and trials to which they were exposed in their early days.

Under His fostering care their habits, their sentiments, and their pursuits prepared them for a transition in due time to a state of independence and self-government. In the arduous struggle by which it was attained they were distinguished by multiplied tokens of His benign interposition…

And to the same Divine Author of Every Good and Perfect Gift we are indebted for all those privileges and advantages, religious as well as civil, which are so richly enjoyed in this favored land.

An early example of God’s kind providence for what has become the United States is the Patuxet native named Tisquantum, or Squanto. Eric Metaxas relates the miracle of Squanto’s life. The following is a Reader’s Digest version of Metaxas’s story:

Around 1608 an English crew captured a number of Patuxet warriors and sold them into slavery in Spain. One young man, Squanto, was bought by Catholic friars, who treated him well and freed him. Around 1612, Squanto stayed with John Slany in London and learned English customs and language. In 1618, Squanto returned home aboard a ship in return for his services as an interpreter.

After his 10 year journey, Squanto found that the Patuxets had perished from smallpox brought by European ships. Although he was spared from death through his kidnapping, he was not consoled. He tried living with an adjacent tribe but eventually lived alone in the woods.

In November of 1620, the Mayflower passengers, unable to reach Virginia, settled at Plymouth, the area where Squanto had grown up. They had come in search of religious freedom, hoping to found a colony based on Christian principles.

However, half of them died during the terrible winter. They must have wondered how the God they trusted and followed could lead them to these grim circumstances. They considered returning to Europe.

In the spring of 1621, Squanto walked out of the woods to greet them. He spoke perfect English, having lived in London more recently than did the settlers. He knew everything about how to survive in Plymouth; not only how to plant corn and squash, but how to find fish, lobsters, eels, and much else.

The Pilgrims adopted Squanto as their own and he lived with them. He helped broker a peace with the local tribes that lasted 50 years, a staggering accomplishment considering the troubles settlers would face later.

So the question is: Can all of this have been sheer happenstance, as most versions of the story would have us believe? The Pilgrims did not think so. To them, Squanto was a living answer to their tearful prayers, an outrageous miracle of God. Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford declared in his journal that Squanto “became a special instrument sent of God” who didn’t leave them “till he died [in 1622].”

Perhaps our reflection on this historical truth can dispel our current distrust of the direction in which we see our country headed.

Prayer – Why Should We Pray If He Is All-knowing?

John Calvin addressed the issue posed by the title in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He says it’s absurd to dissuade people from praying because God always knows our needs without us informing Him. To the contrary, Calvin cites Psalm 145:18:

The Lord is near to all who call on him,

    to all who call on him in truth. (ESV)

as the very reason that we should ask for His aid.

Calvin also shoots down the claim that it is unnecessary to ask for things He is ready and willing to provide. He cites Ps. 34:15:

The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous

    and his ears toward their cry. (ESV)

to assert that God bestows His gifts liberally in answer to the prayers of His children so as to prove His love toward them.

However, Calvin doesn’t discount our laziness and outright presumption at times:

…Although it is true that while we are listless or insensible to our wretchedness, he wakes and watches for use and sometimes even assists us unasked; it is very much for our interest to be constantly supplicating him:

First, that our heart may always be inflamed with a serious and ardent desire of seeking, loving and serving him, while we accustom ourselves to have recourse to him as a sacred anchor in every necessity;

Secondly, that no desires, no longing whatever, of which we are ashamed to make him the witness, may enter our minds, while we learn to place all our wishes in his sight, and thus pour out our heart before him; and,

Lastly, that we may be prepared to receive all his benefits with true gratitude and thanksgiving, while our prayers remind us that they proceed from his hand.

Calvin observes that we more earnestly desire continued answers once we’ve recognized He has answered our previous prayers. We identify His continual, active providence as His tangible demonstration of His promises to us through our experiences of answered prayer.

And so Calvin concludes that both of the following are true: Ps. 121:4

Behold, he who keeps Israel

    will neither slumber nor sleep. (ESV)

And yet whenever He sees us insensible, or, may it not be, unbelieving, he withdraws as if he had forgotten us.

Stoning of Steven

The Lapidation of Saint Stephen, 1625, Rembrandt (1606–1669), in the public domain in the US

Gift Economy — Review and Commentary by Bernhardt Writer

Michael Horton’s Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World is summarized by the two section headings that divide the book: ‘radical and restless’ and ‘ordinary and content.’ The first section concerns evangelicalism and its contractual foundation. The second, reformed tradition and its covenantal grounding.

Two points stood out to me. First, how God gives gifts to His people who, in turn, give them to those inside and outside the faith through good works. Horton submits that our common labors such as: employee, employer, wife, mother, father, husband, etc. are part of the means by which to share with others God’s gifts to us. Horton calls this God’s covenantal ‘gift economy.’

He says that giving gifts back to God in ‘our service to Him’ is giving them in a direction He did not intend. These gifts are to be given to our neighbors for His glory.

The second point is that elders of the local church should, in their spiritual oversight responsibility, meet with members often to listen to, instruct, and, if necessary, correct them. The word that caught my attention was often. How much more attentive, representative, and corrective they could be if they did this in all the churches.

I also noted that Horton didn’t outline any specific program of evangelism. He emphasized the image of a garden where one plants, another waters, but God gives the growth. If we are giving God’s gifts to us to our neighbors then opportunities to share the gospel, in sincere friendship, will open for us.

Christmas Gifts

Christmas Gifts, 25 December 2003, Kelvin Kay, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences?

Eugene Wigner, theoretical physicist and mathematician, famously addressed the effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences in a lecture delivered at NYU on May 11, 1959. The Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) recently held their spring 2015 essay contest on the same topic.

According to Wikipedia, there are three main responses to Wigner’s lecture:

Richard Hamming, applied mathematician and a founder of computer science, extended Wigner’s arguments. But finally, he considered them unsatisfactory. They were:

  1. Humans see what they look for.
  2. Humans create and select the mathematics that fit a situation.
  3. Mathematics addresses only part of the human experience.
  4. Evolution has primed humans to think mathematically.

Max Tegmark, physicist and Scientific Director of FQXi, suggests Our external physical reality is a mathematical structure, which posits we are living in Platonic reality.

Ivor Grattan-Guinness, historian of mathematics and logic, found mathematics’ effectiveness explainable in terms of analogy, generalization, and metaphor.

The same Wikipedia article offers quotes from famous scientists on the subject. Many more responses can be found on the FQXi site. They are complicated and some are bewildering.

In all these musings, no one even contemplates the possibility that humans can describe the world mathematically because both mathematics and the world were created by the man, Christ Jesus. The Apostle Paul declares:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. Romans 1:19-20 English Standard Version (ESV)

This truth holds for Astronomy through Zoology and all the sciences that derive from them. Yet no one considers Him:

For thus says the Lord,

who created the heavens

    (he is God!),

who formed the earth and made it

    (he established it;

he did not create it empty,

    he formed it to be inhabited!):

“I am the Lord, and there is no other.”

Isaiah 45:18 (ESV)

Take into account, however, that these scientists have been given gifts by virtue of bearing God’s image as His creations. They’re just like any of us. Ask the Lord that these men’s and women’s eyes be opened and that they’d be saved.

Lightning

Lightning, NOAA, in the Public Domain

Judgment and Condemnation

I was speaking with someone at church a few weeks back and we both wondered what 2 Corinthians 5:10 meant:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. 2 Corinthians 5:10 English Standard Version (ESV)

Are believers judged? Rather than guess, I offered to look into it. Here’s what I found Calvin had to say:

We must be manifested. Though this is common to all, yet all without distinction do not raise their views in such a way as to consider every moment, that they must appear before the judgment-seat of Christ…For then the books, which are now shut, will be opened (Daniel 7:10).

That every one may give account. As the passage relates to the recompensing of deeds, we must notice briefly, that, as evil deeds are punished by God, so also good deeds are rewarded, but for a different reason; for evil deeds are requited with the punishment that they deserve, but God in rewarding good deeds does not look to merit or worthiness.

For no work is so full and complete in all its parts as to be deservedly well-pleasing to him, and farther, there is no one whose works are in themselves well-pleasing to God, unless he render satisfaction to the whole law. Now no one is found to be thus perfect. Hence the only resource is in his accepting us through unmerited goodness, and justifying us, by not imputing to us our sins.

After he has received us into favor, he receives our works also by a gracious acceptance. It is on this that the reward hinges. There is, therefore, no inconsistency in saying, that he rewards good works, provided we understand that mankind, nevertheless, obtain eternal life gratuitously…

So, here, I think we have half the explanation. All humankind is judged for the good and bad that they’ve done in this life. Any good we can do is only good insofar as God does not count our sins against us. This is only possible through faith in Christ’s saving work on the cross. And that, too, is freely given by Him alone to those who do not merit it.

But what of the condemnation due for the bad that we do? The scriptures say:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. John 5:24 (ESV)

Calvin says about this verse:

He that heareth my word. Here is described the way and manner of honoring God, that no one may think that it consists solely in any outward performance, or in frivolous ceremonies. …But here Christ demands from us no other honor than to obey his Gospel…

Hath eternal life. By these words he likewise commends the fruit of obedience, that we may be more willing to render it…

And shall not come into condemnation. There is here an implied contrast between the guilt to which we are all naturally liable, and the unconditional acquittal which we obtain through Christ; for if all were not liable to condemnation, what purpose would it serve to free from it those who believe in Christ?

The meaning therefore is, that we are beyond the danger of death, because we are acquitted through the grace of Christ; and, therefore, though Christ sanctifies and regenerates us, by his Spirit, to newness of life, yet here he specially mentions the unconditional forgiveness of sins, in which alone the happiness of men consists. For then does a man begin to live when he has God reconciled to him; and how would God love us, if he did not pardon our sins?

…Though life be only begun in us, Christ declares that believers are so certain of obtaining it, that they ought not to fear death; and we need not wonder at this, since they are united to him who is the inexhaustible fountain of life.

But what shall we do with such confidence? I suggest, with Calvin, that we cast off fear and live a life worthy of our gracious God’s gift.

The Last Judgment, Martin, 1853

The Last Judgment, 1853, John Martin (1789-1854), Tate Britain, Public Domain in US

Earn Your Place In Heaven?

Recently, two prominent personalities implied one could earn one’s way to heaven. I’ll let them say it in their own words. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is quoted as saying:

“I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to Heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed,” he told the New York Times, citing his work on gun control, obesity, and anti-smoking laws. “I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in Heaven. It’s not even close.”

On April 15, 2014, in a Back of Book Segment: Life After Death with guest Pastor Robert Jeffers, Bill O’Reilly opined:

“I’ve always felt there is a battle between good and evil and if there is a heaven you have to earn your way in through your actions on Earth.”

Pastor Jeffers corrected the statement by quoting from the book of James.

And, of course, for those who are old enough to remember or are well–schooled in the classics, there’s Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven:

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

These things they say make me wonder…

But then I remember that He saved us, not because of good works we have done, but according to His own mercy.

I recall that entrance to heaven depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

Finally, I know that we were ransomed from our futile ways, not with perishable silver or gold, but with Christ’s precious blood.

And, lest we think these assurances are merely cherry picked scriptures, He states, through His prophet, in a single passage excerpted here:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins…

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—

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.

The dead are incapable of earning anything. Only by His mercy does He raise us to life that we might repent of our pride and circumspectly follow Him. And only His way leads to life eternal.

Heaven’s Peak by Greg Willis

Heaven’s Peak by Greg Willis (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)