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Saturday, January 27, 2018

Hope for the old and gray (Spurgeon on Psalm 71:18-20)

In my personal prayer times (especially when I'm not sure what to say), I often sing a series of songs that I made up to express various needs and requests to the Lord. They were intended to be just between me and him, though I did record some of them as a goodbye present for the members of Faith Presbyterian Church of Sonoma in 2005. One of them includes these lyrics...

At your mercy oh Lord, I'm at your mercy oh Lord
Nothing in my hands I bring, only to the cross I cling
At your mercy oh Lord, I'm at your mercy oh Lord
Amazing grace how can it be, to save a wretch like me

I was lost, but I was found
Lord, you turned my world around and upside down
I was blind, but now I see
And I'm dependent on the life you make in me

Those words (especially about mercy and dependence) have become more meaningful to me as I've grown older and the gray hairs, aches and pains, and miserable failures have accumulated in numbers too high too count. So Psalm 71:18-20 was especially encouraging to me when I read it recently, along with Spurgeon’s comments on it…

18 Now also when I am old and greyheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shown thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come.  19 Thy righteousness also, O God, is very high, who hast done great things: O God, who is like unto thee!  20 Thou, which hast shown me great and sore troubles, shalt quicken me again, and shalt bring me up again from the depths of the earth.

Spurgeon says this about the passage, in his Treasury of David:

Verse 18. Now also when I am old and grey headed, O God, forsake me not. There is something touching in the sight of hair whitened with the snows of many a winter: the old and faithful soldier receives consideration from his king, the venerable servant is beloved by his master. When our infirmities multiply, we may, with confidence, expect enlarged privileges in the world of grace, to make up for our narrowing range in the field of nature. Nothing shall make God forsake those who have not forsaken him. Our fear is lest he should do so; but his promise kisses that fear into silence. Until I have shown thy strength unto this generation. He desired to continue his testimony and complete it; he had respect to the young men and little children about him, and knowing the vast importance of training them in the fear of God, he longed to make them all acquainted with the power of God to support his people, that they also might be led to walk by faith. He had leaned on the almighty arm, and could speak experimentally of its all sufficiency, and longed to do so ere life came to a close. And thy power to every one that is to come. He would leave a record for unborn ages to read. He thought the Lord’s power to be so worthy of praise, that he would make the ages ring with it till time should be no more. For this cause believers live, and they should take care to labour zealously for the accomplishment of this their most proper and necessary work. Blessed are they who begin in youth to proclaim the name of the Lord, and cease not until their last hour brings their last word for their divine Master.

Verse 20. Thou, which hast shown me great and sore troubles, shall quicken me again. Here is faith’s inference from the infinite greatness of the Lord. He has been strong to smite; he will be also strong to save. He has shown me many heavy and severe trials, and he will also show me many and precious mercies. He has almost killed me, he will speedily revive me; and though I have been almost dead and buried, he will give me a resurrection, and bring me up again from the depths of the earth. However low the Lord may permit us to sink, he will fix a limit to the descent, and in due time will bring us up again. Even when we are laid low in the tomb, the mercy is that we can go no lower, but shall retrace our steps and mount to better lands; and all this, because the Lord is ever mighty to save. A little God would fail us, but not Jehovah the Omnipotent. It is safe to lean on him, since he bears up the pillars both of heaven and earth.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

Do not trust in princes (Charles Spurgeon on Psalm 146)

Now that I've finished blogging through the book of Galatians and Martin Luther's commentary on it, I've returned in my personal time with the Lord to the Psalms and Charles Spurgeon's wonderful commentary called The Treasury of David. I say "returned" because in 2016 I was reading them every day during an intense time of repentance before the Lord and restoration with him. I want to see them again now through new eyes, remembering how the Holy Spirit ministered to me and applying them again to my heart. And I'd like to share some of them here with you...

As I read Psalm 146 and Spurgeon’s comments on it, I was thinking about how prone we are to look to people in authority to fix things for us, or become depressed because they are more a part of the problem than the solution. One prayer I have in this bizarre political world that exists right now, for example, is that Christians will realize just how futile it is for us to place our hope in getting the right candidates into office or the right laws into effect.  And I pray that God will use the sins and failures of leaders, including my own, to cause us all to put more and more of our faith in God, and less and less in human beings…

3 Do not trust in princes,
In mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.
4 His spirit departs, he returns to the earth;
In that very day his thoughts perish.
5 How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
Whose hope is in the Lord his God,
6 Who made heaven and earth,
The sea and all that is in them;
Who keeps faith forever.

Here are some great Spurgeon quotes on that passage:

Verse 3. “Do not trust in princes.” If David be the author this warning comes from a prince. In any case it comes from the Spirit of the living God. Men are always far too apt to depend upon the great ones of earth, and forget the Great One above; and this habit is the fruitful source of disappointment. Princes are only men, and men with greater needs than others; why, then, should we look to them for aid? They are in greater danger, are burdened with greater cares, and are more likely to be misled than other men; therefore, it is folly to select them for our confidence. Probably no order of men have been so false to their promises and treaties as men of royal blood. So live as to deserve their trust, but do not burden them with your trust. “In mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.” Though you should select one son of man out of the many, and should imagine that he differs from the rest and may be safely depended on, you will be mistaken. There is none to be trusted, no, not one. Adam fell; therefore lean not on his sons. Man is a helpless creature without God; therefore, look not for help in that direction. All men are like the few men who are made into princes, they are more in appearance than in reality, more in promising than in performing, more apt to help themselves than to help others. How many have turned away heartsick from men on whom they once relied!

Verse 6. [Put your hope in the Lord…] “Who made heaven, and earth, the sea and all that is in them.” Wisely may we trust our Creator: justly may we expect to be happy in so doing. He who made heaven can make a heaven for us, and make us fit for heaven. He who made the earth can preserve us while we are on earth, and help us to make good use of it while we sojourn upon it. He who made the sea and all its mysteries can steer us across the pathless deeps of a troubled life, and make it a way for his redeemed to pass over. This God who still makes the world by keeping it in existence is assuredly able to keep us to his eternal kingdom and glory. The making of the worlds is the standing proof of the power and wisdom of that great God in whom we trust. It is our joy that he not only made heaven, but the sea; not only things which are bright and blessed, but things which are deep and dark. Concerning all our circumstances, we may say the Lord is there. In storms and hurricanes the Lord reigneth as truly as in that great calm which rules the firmament above.

From Spurgeon, Charles H.. The Treasury of David: Charles Spurgeon Commentary on Psalms. Kindle Edition.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

We read a Muslim book in our family worship!

One of our greatest blessings as a family in the last six months has been hosting international students from countries all over the world, including Japan, Russia, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. It has been such a privilege for us to get to know them, and to talk about our faith with them.

For Christmas my new friend Aziz, a Saudi studying at a local university, gave me a book by a Muslim Imam that is a favorite of his father's, a gift that I appreciated very much and have enjoyed reading. In our family worship after dinner one night, I shared an excerpt from the book and then a passage from the Bible, and we compared and contrasted the two.  I thought you might like to hear about it, and repeat our little experiment in discernment...

In his book Don't Be Sad, Dr. Aid al-Quarni writes this:

By brooding over the past and its tragedies, one exhibits a form of insanity - a kind of sickness that destroys one's resolve to live for the present moment. Those who have a firm purpose have filed away and forgotten occurrences of the past, which will never again see light, since they occupy such a dark place in the recesses of the Mind. Episodes of the past are finished with; sadness cannot retrieve them, melancholy cannot make things right, and depression will never bring the past back to life....

Do not live in the nightmares of former times or under the shade of what you have missed. Save yourself from the ghostly apparition of the past. Do you think you can return the sun to its place of rising, the baby to its mother's womb, the milk to the other, or the tears to the eye? By constantly dwelling on the past and it's happenings, you place yourself in a very frightful and tragic state of mind....

The person who lives in the past is like someone who tries to saw sawdust. 

There is much truth in those words, and I especially like the last saying. The Imam's teaching is an example of what we call in Christian theology "common grace" (and possibly "natural revelation," depending on our understanding of that term), because what he says about the past makes a lot of sense, and it also fits with the wisdom revealed in the Christian Scriptures. One particular passage, which we read together that night in our family worship, says something very similar, but also differs from the Imam's teaching in a couple important ways. See if you can pick out the similarities and differences as you read the apostle Paul's words Philippians 3:12-15...

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.

The part in bold print, of course, is very similar to what the Imam was saying, so his words ring true to us who believe that the Bible is the ultimate authority by which all human wisdom should be judged. But the biggest difference between the two excerpts, which also should be fairly obvious, is that in the biblical passage, the idea of "forgetting the past" is sandwiched between two statements about Jesus Christ being the reason why we can and should put the past behind us. This is a microcosm of the similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity that I've discovered in becoming friends with Aziz (and in my studies about the two religions): our morality and values are similar in many ways, but in Islam Jesus is viewed as merely a prophet (rather than the Son of God) who did not really die on the cross, while Christianity affirms the opposite about him on both counts.  To us Jesus is the "reason for the season"--not just at Christmas, but in everything we believe and do.

It was also interesting to note that in the preceding verses of Philippians 3, what Paul was "forgetting" from the past were not only bad things he had done, or even bad things that happened to him, but also the good things he had done when practicing his religion. He wanted to put those "good works" behind him because they could actually prevent him from having a saving relationship with Jesus, if he was trusting in them to make him right with God. So he says in verses 9-11,

I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

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Thursday, January 4, 2018

It's a conspiracy! (Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians 6:11-18)

This is my last post (!) in an almost year-long series going through the book of Galatians and Martin Luther's classic commentary on the book. Along the way I have tried to always communicate the basic truths of the passages I read about, and also add a little "spice" by talking about something especially provocative or practical to our lives. So it is fitting that for this last post in the series, I have some summary quotes by Luther that capture the essence of the last passage in Galatians, and then after that I will launch into some interesting conspiracy theories...

But first things first.  The apostle Paul closes out this powerful letter with these words in Galatians 6:11-18:  "See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen."

As any good writer does, Paul uses his conclusion to reiterate the main theme of his work, which in this case is justification by faith alone. He has been especially concerned that the Galatians not fall prey to the false teaching of the Judaizers, who said that circumcision was necessary for salvation. The crescendo of Paul's conclusion is therefore verse 15: "For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation." About that verse, Martin Luther writes,

Reason fails to understand this, "for the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God." (I Cor. 2:14.) It therefore seeks righteousness in externals. However, we learn from the Word of God that there is nothing under the sun that can make us righteous before God and a new creature except Christ Jesus. A new creature is one in whom the image of God has been renewed. Such a creature cannot be brought into life by good works, but by Christ alone. Good works may improve the outward appearance, but they cannot produce a new creature. A new creature is the work of the Holy Ghost, who imbues our hearts with faith, love, and other Christian virtues, grants us the strength to subdue the flesh and to reject the righteousness of the world.

The camaraderie, shared passions, and common sympathies between Paul and Luther, which we have seen throughout this series of posts, is evident in their last words as well. Paul concludes in verse 18, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen." And Luther concludes his commentary with the similar sentiments...

This is the Apostle's farewell. He ends his Epistle as he began it by wishing the Galatians the grace of God. We can hear him say: "I have presented Christ to you, I have pleaded with you, I have reproved you, I have overlooked nothing that I thought might be of benefit to you. All I can do now is to pray that our Lord Jesus Christ would bless my Epistle and grant you the guidance of the Holy Ghost." The Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior, who gave me the strength and the grace to explain this Epistle and granted you the grace to hear it, preserve and strengthen us in faith unto the day of our redemption. To Him, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be glory, world without end. Amen.

So where did the "conspiracy theories" come in, you might ask? Well, I'm glad you did, so I can close my own series of writings with something I found interesting (if not very relevant, in the end)...

I noticed as I read through Luther's commentary that there was a glaring omission...he did not say anything about the end of Galatians 6:16 and the controversial phrase about "the Israel of God." Most pre-modern and Covenantal theologians understand this as a reference to the Church of Christ, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, and a not-so-subtle way for Paul to reiterate his general theme of inclusion and his specific teaching in chapter 3, where he said that the Gentiles were also "children of Abraham" through their faith.  Dispensationalists and Christian Zionists, on the other hand, take the phrase as a reference to ethnic Jews, because to allow that it may apply to the Church would contradict their foundational belief in the separation of the "two peoples of God" (Israel and the Church).

If you'd like to read an extensive exegetical discussion of the verse (and see what I think about it, as well as some opposing comments), click here. But the first conspiracy theory arose in my mind when I thought about why Luther's Galatians commentary did not even mention that part of the verse, when he seemed to comment on every other portion along the way. And I mused, "Hmm, maybe Luther thought it was supporting a pro-Jewish perspective, and he really was anti-semitic, so he just ignored it. Or worse, maybe he wanted to take it out of the Bible altogether, like the book of James." So I was thinking that maybe Luther himself was conspiring against this part of Scripture.

But then I did some research and found out that in the complete, unabridged version of Luther's commentary (which the Kindle one I've been reading is not), he does comment on "the Israel of God" and takes the traditional Covenantal view. Here's what he says:

When Paul adds "and upon the Israel of God," he touches the false apostles and the Jews who gloried and bragged that they were the people of God, that they had the law and the promises. So it is as if Paul said: They are the Israel of God, those with faithful Abraham who believe in the promises of God offered in Christ, whether they be Jews or Gentiles, and not they which are the begotten of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob after the flesh. But this entire matter was handled before in the third chapter.

So it wasn't Luther who left that phrase out of his commentary, it was whoever edited it for my Kindle version! And that led me to a new conspiracy theory... Maybe it was a Dispensationalist or Christian Zionist who did the abridgment!  Or someone that was afraid of offending Jews...

Just kidding! I actually intended to parody anti-semitism there, in case you were wondering, and not to parrot it. We need to be careful on the one hand not to elevate ethnic Jews above non-Jews in any way, but we also need to make sure we don't view them in a negative light either. (Those are Paul's main two points in Romans 10:18-11:24, by the way.)

Thank you for joining me on my trek through Galatians and Luther's commentary... I'm looking forward to moving on to many new and interesting topics in the days to come!

Happy New Year!

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