Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

Tag: Doctrine (page 1 of 7)

Some Reflections on My Brief Foray into Reactionary Writing

Two weeks ago today, I was frustrated. The Christian twitter / facebook / blog world was in an uproar over a controversial conference that seemed to be all-consuming to many. I let it get to me too.

So on that particular day, I gave in to my frustration, and I posted a controversial blog post. Whether or not it was right, it was emotionally charged and reactionary. And a couple of my friends reminded me that that’s not who I am, so I deleted the post.

Since then I’ve been thinking a little bit about that little ‘foray’ into reactionary / controversy-stirring kind of blogging. Here are some of my thoughts as I’ve reflected.

1. Things rarely need to be said so fast

I rarely say anything best when I think of it quickly. As I said some time ago, one of the temptations to sin in a social media world is instant publication for instant gratification and instant vindication rather than long-term and wide-ranging edification. I gave in to that by speaking quickly.
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Faith, Justification, Gratitude, and Action

In his excellent teaching on the meaning of faith, J.I. Packer tackles the age-old question of how justification by faith alone results in anything other than spiritual sloth and antinomianism. He writes the following:

ji-packerFaith abandons hope in man’s own accomplishments, leaves all works behind, and comes to Christ alone and empty-handed, to cast itself on mercy. Such is the faith that saves.

But does this mean that saving faith throws a halo over idleness, and that the gospel of justification by faith only is really hostile to moral endeavour? Indeed not. ‘Faith is a lively thing,’ wrote Luther, ‘mighty in working, valiant and strong, ever doing, ever fruitful; so that it is impossible that he who is endued therewith should not work always good works without ceasing … for such is his nature.’

What saves is faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone; it is always ‘working through love (Gal. 5:6), becoming a moral dynamic of unparalleled power in the believer’s life. The proof that a man’s faith is real is precisely this — that it makes him work. How does it do this? By making him feel the constraint of Christ’s love for him, and the greatness of the debt of gratitude which he owes to his God. As we said once before, Christian doctrine is grace, and Christian conduct is gratitude. The believer does not do what he does as a means to being justified, but there are no limits to what he will do for his Lord out of gratitude for the justification that he has received.

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A Confession That Connects

A Good Pattern to Follow

When we planted Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills there was very little that we wanted to do differently from what we had seen. You might have been able to tell from the name that we chose (we were planted by another Grace Fellowship Church), but we firmly believed — and still believe — that the pattern that had been established for us was a good one.

That church prioritizes the word, exalts Christ, depends on God in prayer, worships him with authentic and theologically rich singing, and lives out some genuine New Testament fellowship. She is led by godly elders and served well by deacons that look an awful lot like Jesus in their Christ-like serving. All the essentials are there, so there really was very little to change when we planted.

That being said, we didn’t simply want to copy & paste, or go with a church-in-a-box mentality either, so we carefully investigated just about everything so that from top-to-bottom we were making sure that we weren’t just assuming essentials.

We wanted to act out of conviction, not convention.

Taking a Different Turn

One place where we decided to head in a different direction was in our Statement of Faith. While we believed (and still believe!) everything in the Statement of Faith from our planting church, we wanted something a little more. Our desire was twofold for our Statement of Faith:

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The Objective-Subjective Spirit

 

One of the many joys of pastoring is seeing Christians grow in their love for one another and in their unity of fellowship, despite various church backgrounds. What becomes apparent when Christians from different backgrounds get together is that depending on what kind of a church experience you come from, you may have a radically different understanding of the Holy Spirit and his work than some of your friends and fellow church-members.

Objective or Subjective Work?

Some of us tend to conceive of his ministry as more objective: his work is done to us. He regenerates, he gives faith, he seals, he protects until the end. That is glorious!

But for others of us, there is a tendency to conceive of the Spirit’s ministry in more subjective categories: his work is done in us. We feel his assurance, we’re equipped with gifts, we are prompted by his leading. And that is glorious too!

The reality is that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is dynamic. He is the Spirit of truth who opens our eyes and affects our hearts. He is the one who gives us life and sustains it. He brings our salvation and completes it. He is intimately involved in us because of what he has done to us.
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Newsflash: The New Testament is Shorter

Call me Captain Obvious if you like, but the New Testament is shorter than the Old Testament. I was thinking about this the other day and it occurred to me that in some sense the length of the two covenant documents speaks to the relationship between the covenants themselves and what is required of the people who are part of those covenants.

Simply asking the question, ‘Why is the New Testament shorter?’ helps us to see the nature of the covenants in contrast. For example, here are at least two parts of the answer that I would give you to that question:

1. There are no genealogies in the New Testament

One of the things that makes the Old Testament longer is the accumulation of stories of family lines. So, for example, the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 is vital because it records God’s preservation of the line of Judah. The Old Testament is filled with both genealogies and narratives that preserve bloodlines.

The New Testament, on the other hand, has no genealogies (except for that of Jesus, which is the climax of the Old Testament). There are no stories of fathers and children, no stories of family lines being preserved.

This makes the New Testament shorter. It also illustrates one of the fundamental differences between the covenants. The older covenant was passed on from generation to generation through bloodlines and families (Gen 15.3-5), while the newer is passed on through gospel proclamation and faith (2 Tim 2.2). Therefore, the New Testament simply has the book of Acts which records how the gospel was proclaimed and believed. That’s all there is for narrative. There is no ongoing record of families which must be saved because God’s people will now be made up of ‘all nations’ as they become disciplines… adopted children.

2. There is no case law in the New Testament

A second reason why the Old Testament is longer is because Moses and many prophets after him are forced to belabour the teaching of the Law in any and every imaginable context (and even some rather unimaginable ones!). Every time I read through the Old Testament I’m amazed at some of the case law and think to myself, ‘Really? Someone did that? And they needed to set a precedent law against it?’

In the New Testament, however, there is a distinct lack of laws (note: I didn’t say distinct lack of Law). You would think that as the New Covenant was being received and applied across cultural boundaries and geographical regions and religious backgrounds there would be a lot more Acts 15-type-moments. But in reality, there aren’t, simply because the New Covenant isn’t about setting case law. That’s not the nature of this covenant.

For example, when the Corinthians ask Paul about whether or not they are free to eat meat sacrificed to idols, he does not deliver case law that is binding on all Christians. Rather, he holds up the ideal of freedom and then allows it to be swallowed up by the law of love so that individual Christians simply cannot answer the ethical question without coming face to face with the question, ‘What is love and am I willing to be governed by it?’ (see 1 Corinthians 8-10). He does the same thing again when it comes to the exercise of spiritual gifts (see 1 Corinthians 12-14). Love is the law that governs all of Christian behaviour in the New Testament (John 13.34-35).

And so it is written…

When you’ve only got one law that trumps in any and every situation, and you don’t have to record genealogies and family histories spanning thousands of years, you can write a much shorter covenant document. Which is precisely what we have.

How Do You Feel About Predestination?

Abraham & Isaac

The doctrine of God’s electing individuals to salvation, apart from any good in them (either actual or foreseen) is known as unconditional election (o predestination). It is exemplified in Isaac’s twin sons: ‘…when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”‘ (Romans 9.10-13).

Predestination is a doctrine that is often at the centre of controversy. And too often the controversy could be quelled, if not quenched, by a calm tongue and a gentle answer (Prov 15.1). But too much of the time those who believe the most strongly in predestination are (rightly or wrongly) associated with pride and arrogance and preachiness, rather than humility, gentleness, and love.

But that should never be.

That’s just one of the reasons why I loved reading this in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of faith the other day:

The doctrine of the high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election; so shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God, and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel. (1 Thessalonians 1:4, 5; 2 Peter 1:10; Ephesians 1:6; Romans 11:33; Romans 11:5, 6, 20; Luke 10:20)

That’s a big mouthful, but basically it’s saying that this isn’t a doctrine to be wielded like an ax, to wound our enemies, but should be applied carefully, like a balm to give courage to wounded souls, and like a call to worship for those who embrace it and are humbled by God’s grace. For those who know the doctrines of grace and love them, this should be the very thing which calls forth our humility and our worship like nothing else. It should never be a source of pride and it is not a doctrine to be handled flippantly.

So how do you feel about predestination? Does it make you condemn those who don’t understand it? Or does it make you marvel at God’s mercy?

On Every Page, Behind Every Line

The Big Question

Regardless of what age or part of the world you live in, one of the most central questions of the Christian faith is this: ‘Who is Jesus? Is he really God? Does the New Testament really teach that?’ While every orthodox believer quickly and heartily affirms that Jesus is in fact divine, many believers struggle with how exactly to prove that to friends & neighbours.

An ancient manuscript

While the New Testament does at times simply refer to Jesus as God (see the list here), frankly, it can be hard sometimes for many Christians to find passages that express as clearly and succinctly as we would like that Jesus is God. That’s in large part because the writers of the New Testament simply were not writing a systematic theology. They were writing to real people with real life problems and real church problems. So what we find is that more often than not the New Testament authors are addressing life’s issues in such a way that presumes the deity of Christ, without necessarily spelling it out for us.

The Basic Truth

So it’s kind of like me writing to you about how to play hockey. I may write about learning to shoot, pass, block shots, throw body checks, win faceoffs, and maybe even skate, but all the while I might not explicitly state that ice is actually frozen water. It’s understood. It’s the basis of all that we’re doing. You can’t play hockey without ice (at least not real hockey), and you can’t live as a Christian without knowing that Jesus is God.

All that being said, on every page, behind every line, this majestic truth stands: Jesus is the promised incarnation of God, the Son of God, the one who reigns. He himself is to be worshiped and served as God, because he is God. And that truth is everywhere, upholding and undergirding everything.

Here’s one little example from the passage we studied last week at GFC (1 Pet 5.1-4). In that passage, Peter admonishes elders to ‘shepherd the flock of God that is among you’ in a way that honours and pleases God, since all will be called to account. In particular, those who shepherd in this way will ‘receive the unfading crown of glory’ at the end of all things. Why? Because they have represented the true Shepherd, the ‘chief Shepherd,’ Jesus Christ.

You can read that quickly and move on, or you can stop and ponder what it means that Peter has just called Jesus the ‘chief Shepherd’ when he thought about the ‘flock of God.’ Those images are loaded with meaning from the Old Testament.

The Necessary Background

Psalm 78.52 says that, in the Exodus, ‘[God] led out his people like sheep and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.’ As you follow the Bible’s storyline it’s not long before you get to passages like Jeremiah 23-25 and Ezekiel 9 which speak words of condemnation on those who were supposed to be shepherds of God’s people (cf. Zech 10.3). Because they failed, the flock was scattered in exile. When the prophets speak of a return from exile, notice the language that is used:

I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob; I will gather the remnant of Israel; I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture, a noisy multitude of men. (Micah 2.12)

Like the first Exodus, this return from exile will be an expression of God’s deliverance, bringing his people, like a flock, to himself. But here’s what’s so significant: It is always Yahweh himself who will come as Shepherd. It is clear that when this great Shepherd comes to gather God’s people, it will be none other than God himself who brings the deliverance.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labour has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. (Micah 5.2-4)

Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:9-11)

“Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’ (Jer 31.10)

As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. … And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord GOD.” (Ezek 34.12; 31)

So behind Peter’s simple statement that the ‘chief Shepherd’ is Jesus lies a whole theology of the deity of Jesus, the Promised Divine Shepherd, the one who brings the deliverance of God’s people in the true Exodus. It’s on every page, in every line, behind every thought. Jesus is God.

Our Big Problem

But perhaps, in light of this example (and so many others like it), the reason why we don’t see the deity of Christ in the New Testament as clearly as we ought is not because we do not know our New Testament, but because we do not know the Old Testament like we ought. So here’s a suggestion: If you want to get to know Jesus better and see him more clearly, as the New Testament authors saw him, maybe you need to read your Old Testament more.

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