Ichabod?

No, the title is not referring to Ichabod Crane, he of headless horseman fame.  Rather, it refers to what Scripture says in 1 Samuel 4.  After the ark was captured, the wife of Phinehas (son of Eli) gave birth and died shortly afterwards.  As she was expiring, she named the baby “Ichabod” — the name means “the glory has departed.”  Today I’m wondering whether the glory has departed from the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.

According to the website Werken aan Eenheid, the church of Utrecht North/West (a.k.a. Opstandingskerk) is going to ordain female elders and deacons next month.  The church made a decision to do this in September 2015 already (you can find it here), but they have waited until now to implement this decision.  Apparently, they are going forward with it.  Other GKVs have already or will shortly ordain women deacons.

What can one say that hasn’t already been said?  This clearly contradicts biblical teaching in such passages as 1 Timothy 3.  It contradicts article 30 of the Belgic Confession.  It slaps in the face sister churches like the CanRC, FRCA, and RCUS.  It endangers the position of the RCN in the the ICRC.  In so many ways and on so many levels, this decision and its implementation leaves one wondering:  is this the Ichabod moment for our Dutch sister churches?  Has the glory departed from the RCN?  Are they in the final stages of giving up the right to be acknowledged as a federation of true and faithful churches of Jesus Christ?

 


Australia at One Year

map-of-australia

On Wednesday it will be one year since we migrated to Australia.  It’s been a crazy year with a lot of changes for our family.  There have been a lot of adjustments to make and it hasn’t always been easy.  Even though Australia and Canada both speak English (at least in theory), and even though both are Commonwealth nations with roots in the British Isles, they have quite different cultures.

Let’s start with the language.  First, there’s the accent.  The Australian accent varies person to person, but also region to region.  Generally speaking, the Tasmanian version is not too difficult to understand.  Yet I still find myself preferring not to talk to people on the phone simply because it gets frustrating always asking them to repeat themselves.  Honestly, sometimes I just guess at what they’re saying!

But moving here has reminded me that I have an accent too.  Upon hearing me for the first time, most Aussies figure I must be an American.  Because there’s a lot of anti-American sentiment, I often try to drop hints that I’m a Canadian.  The other day I had a new experience.  Visiting one of my parishioners in the hospital, I had a nurse ask me if I was Irish.  I replied, “No, definitely not.  I’m a Canadian.”  And then she repeated back to me what I just said with an Irish accent.  It didn’t sound anything like me — at least I didn’t think so!

Then there is the different vocabulary.  They use different words here for things.  While preaching, I’ve sometimes said something like, “It has to be Christ alone.  Period.”  Well, I soon discovered that “period” here is just something a woman experiences.  So now I say, “Full stop.”  I also reckon that I say words like “keen” heaps more.  And once or twice I’ve been crook, whereas I used to get sick.  Australia is different to Canada.

There are other differences.  On paper, a lot of the traffic laws are similar.  You do have to get used to driving on the left-side, but if you just follow the car in front of you, that’s usually not too hard.  It’s parking that can still be challenging — the different perspective can make hard it to judge the distance from your left wheel to the curb or the lines on the parking space.  One traffic law that is different from most of Canada is that you can’t make a turn on a red light.  That’s actually a good protection for people just learning to drive here.

Both Canada and Australia have traffic laws that give the right of way to pedestrians.  However, here you soon learn that’s just a paper fiction.  If you think vehicles are going to slow down and let you walk in front of them, whether in a parking lot (car park) or anywhere else, you’ll soon find yourself in a full body cast.

What about the food?  I’ve definitely learned to appreciate what’s available here.  There is at least one unique Tasmanian food that I’ve tried:  mutton birds.  They’re very rich and flavourful.  But other foods are quintessentially Australian:  pies (meat), TimTams, cheesy Vegemite scrolls, hedgehog slices, lamingtons, snags (sausages) on white bread.  The fish and chips is hard to beat — and, here in Tasmania, scallops are also very popular and tasty.  Tasmanian oysters are the best in the world.  Another cool thing about Australia is the different ethnic foods you can find here.  There’s a lot of Malaysian/Indonesian/Singaporean.  Turkish stuff is pretty popular too:  kebabs (similar to Donairs/shawarma) and Turkish bread.  But if I’m ever feeling the slightest bit homesick for some Canadian chow, we do have a local food truck that sells poutine.

Canadians love to talk about the weather.  Australians do as well.  But you will notice that they experience the weather quite differently.  This place supposedly had winter from June to September.  What was that like?  The average daytime high was about 14 degrees Celsius.  At night, a few times it went down to zero or just below, producing early morning frost.  We didn’t have any snow here, but there was some in the nearby mountains.  For a Canadian recently transplanted, this was just like a cool spring day in Alberta.  If it’s 14 degrees in the middle of winter, we’re quite happy!  But Tasmanian Aussies experience that differently.  They wistfully look forward to the days when the daytime highs get up to 18 degrees again.  In other words, it takes far less of a temperature shift to change their perspective on the weather.

While this isn’t a cultural difference, I do appreciate the variety of wildlife here in Tasmania.  I find it endlessly interesting.  Just in our neighbourhood, we have a great selection of small marsupials:  wallabies, pademelons (small kangaroo-like critters), and potoroos (even smaller kangaroo-like critters).  What about snakes?  In one year, I have seen one snake and that’s with a lot of walking through the bush.  In the trees, we see parrots, cockatoos, galahs, corellas, kookaburras, and the odd wood duck.  Then there’s the fishing.  Tasmania has some of the world’s best trout fishing — pristine streams and lakes with rainbow and brown trout.  After a hiatus of a few years, I’ve taken up fly fishing again.

There’s far more that could be said.  I haven’t said anything about footy (Australian rules football) or about Australian attitudes towards work and leisure.  What about deadlines and schedules?  Australian interest in politics?  Aussie music could be another post all in itself.  However, I’ll knock off here for now.  Suffice it to say that Australia is different, but (most of the time) I don’t find that a bad thing.  It’s just interesting!  Speaking just for myself, I’ve only really had one bout of homesickness.  It lasted about a week and it was about 3-4 months in.   Do I miss Canada now?  There are some things I miss (and especially family and friends), but for the most part I’m seriously okay with being here.  God has brought us here for a reason and I’m glad to be able to serve him here and enjoy the experience of living in a different culture.  I’m content.


New Teaching Tool Added

I’ve just added a resource entitled “A Basic Christian Vocabulary.”  I use this with my pre-confession students to ensure that they’re adequately familiar with the important terms of the Christian faith.  I should say that it has been revised and adapted from the work of someone else.  However, I don’t know who, so I can’t give the appropriate credit.  If someone out there knows, I will leave the comments open on this post.  It was originally published as “Appendix II” in a book, if that helps.


Passivity

Bad theology has bad consequences for living.  One particular area that some Reformed people struggle with is regeneration.   Some Reformed believers, especially in the Canadian Reformed and Free Reformed Churches of Australia, have been led to think of regeneration (or being born again) in only one way.  They have been led to believe that you need to be born again every day.  Regeneration is something that takes place over and over again in the life of a Christian.  Rather than an event that takes place once, they view it as an ongoing daily process.

I have addressed this confusion in an earlier blog post.  I pointed out that the confusion mostly arises from overlapping language in our confessions.  Nevertheless, Scripture and the Reformed confessions are clear that there is an initial regeneration of the Holy Spirit.  This is what Jesus was describing to Nicodemus in John 3.  This is what Peter was writing about in 1 Peter 1:  “since you have been born again…”  This is what the Canons of Dort are speaking about in chapter III/IV.  In these places, regeneration (being born again) is a one-time event where the Holy Spirit miraculously takes a heart of stone and turns it into a heart of flesh.

The problem comes when that initial regeneration is confused with sanctification.  Lord’s Day 33 speaks about the “true repentance or conversion of man” and describes it in terms of “the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.”  That is about sanctification, the process whereby a Christian grows in holiness.  You can see that it’s a process from the words:  dying and coming to life.  The important point is that Lord’s Day 33 is speaking about something distinct from John 3:3, 1 Peter 1:23, and Canons of Dort III/IV.

If these things are not kept distinct, one runs into serious theological fog on human responsibility and activity.  Let me explain.  When it comes to regeneration, there is a Subject and an object.  There is One who acts and one who is acted upon.  There is One who is active and one who is passive.  The Holy Spirit is the One responsible for bringing a dead sinner to spiritual life.  The dead sinner does exactly nothing.  He or she is completely passive in regeneration.  You don’t cause your new spiritual birth anymore than you caused your physical birth.  You were born, you didn’t birth yourself.  Similarly, in regeneration, the Holy Spirit does it all and we do nothing.  As dead sinners, that is all we can do.

Regeneration always has an effect upon the object.  The dead sinner comes to life.  The unbeliever becomes a believer.  He or she takes hold of Jesus Christ through faith, also worked in the heart by the Holy Spirit.  Having taken hold of Christ by faith, there is justification.  A believer is declared righteous by God.  The person so declared no longer relates to God as their Judge, but as their Father.  They are in his family as beloved children and nothing and no one can change that.  Your justification and adoption are not renewed every day in some type of process.  If God has once declared you righteous and his child, then you are forever righteous and his child.  Through Christ, we are secure.

This is the context where we consider the process of sanctification.  If we look at it in terms of Lord’s Day 32, it’s clear that sanctification is first of all Christ’s work in us.  He renews us by his Holy Spirit.  However, even there, we are involved.  We are the ones who “show ourselves thankful to God for his benefits.”  This becomes clearer in Lord’s Day 33.  The dying of the old nature is something that we do:  “It is to grieve with heartfelt sorrow” — who does the grieving?  “…And more and more to hate it and flee from it” — who does the hating and fleeing?  Obviously, this is referring to the activity of a Christian.  The coming to life of the new nature is also something that we do:  “It is a heartfelt joy in Christ” — who has this joy?  “…And a love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works” — who does the loving, delighting, and living?  This is speaking about how a Christian is active in their sanctification.  There’s zero passivity here.

Are you beginning to see the problem if we merge together initial regeneration and sanctification?  In the first, human beings are completely passive.  In the second, human beings are involved and active on a daily basis.  God is still at work, but we work with him, in his power and by his grace.  When these things get muddled what happens more often than not is that people believe themselves to be passive in terms of their sanctification.  This leads to fatalism.  People say to themselves, “When God wants to change me, he’ll do it.  I have to wait for him to do it.  My holiness is not up to me.  I’ll just sit back and wait for him to do his thing.”  This is the type of thinking that people can fall into when they hear that being born again is something that has to happen every day.  If being born again is the same thing as what’s described in Lord’s Day 33, and if being born again is something that is done to you apart from your involvement, then your sanctification must necessarily be something in which you are completely passive.  That is really bad theological reasoning!  It gives people excuses to continue in sinful habits and patterns of life.

We need to be clear about this, because it does have an impact on how we live.  Theology has consequences.  This is the reality:  if you have taken hold of Jesus Christ by true faith, you can be sure that you have been born again (to use the words of 1 Peter 1:23).  Having been born again, the Holy Spirit lives in you and he empowers you each day to pursue holiness.  Since the Holy Spirit has given you a heart of flesh, your will, which was dead, has been made alive.  Moved and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, your will is “able to produce the fruit of good works” (Canons III/IV, art. 11).  By God’s grace, we have gone from utter passivity to fervent activity.  True, it comes in fits and starts, it’s still stained with sin and plagued with inconsistency, but yet there is no denying that something has changed with a Christian.  In Christ, we are a new creation.  Thus, when it comes to our sanctification, we also must put to death all notions of passivity.


Serial Expository Preaching

When I was growing up, if our minister announced that he was going to have a series of sermons on a book of the Bible, we knew what to expect.  No matter the length of the book, this meant a series of 6-8 sermons.  It meant that, in each of those sermons, the minister would take one or two verses as his “text” and then work from that.  Those verses (the “text”) would generally be the thematic launching pad for dealing with other material in the context.  Each sermon would not only deal with the text, but also circle around the text in some way.

In my seminary training, this same approach was encouraged.  Our preaching professor suggested we preach with series of sermons on books.  We were taught to keep the series short (6-8 sermons) because people’s attention spans are limited.  We were also taught to isolate one or two verses as our “text” and then develop the sermon out of that.  If I’m not mistaken, this method was called the “analytic-synthetic” approach to sermon prep and delivery.  To be honest, I just called it plain confusing.  Sermons delivered with this method can suffer in terms of structure, making them difficult for listeners to follow.  I also found it difficult to prepare sermons in this way.  To me, it seemed unnatural, awkward, forced.

When I first started preaching (as a missionary), I largely followed my training.  However, since I was preaching to people who had not been accustomed to our CanRC preaching idiosyncrasies, I soon found that these methods were not effectively communicating God’s Word.  I wanted to be clear, not confusing.  Having done some reading and having heard others preach, I decided to try a more systematic and common-sense method of preaching.  I would take a passage of Scripture and in my sermon work through that passage from beginning to end.  No, it’s not a lecture.  You explain the text, but also throughout apply the text, and above all, demonstrate how that text points us to Christ.

As I finished up my missionary service and began serving a regular congregation, I began thinking more about what it means to preach in a series.  Is it necessarily true that a series on a book must be limited to 6-8 sermons?  I put the question out there on Facebook to gauge the sentiments of congregants and others.  I was encouraged to hear that people didn’t feel that this limitation was necessary.  So I said, “What if I were to preach straight through the Gospel of Mark, verse by verse?”  The consensus was: “Go for it.”  So I did.  I began preaching right through Mark, starting in 2007.  Mid-way through that series, I received a call to Hamilton and, after catching them up, I continued with the series there.  After over 70 sermons, I finished Mark in 2012.  Did anyone ever complain about that series being too long?  Never, at least not to my face or to my consistories.  In fact, quite to the contrary, people seemed to appreciate it.  I’m sold on “serial expository preaching” — preaching that goes through the whole book, verse by verse, beginning to end.

Over nearly 16 years of ordained ministry, I’ve now preached completely through several books:  Ruth, Jonah, Haggai, Mark, and Colossians.  Some of these are obviously shorter and took less time.  Colossians was 18 sermons, preached over about a year and a half.  Earlier this year I started on the Gospel According to John.  This will be another epic series.  This past Sunday, I preached my 13th sermon and that was on John 3:9-15.

To clarify, when I preach straight through a book that doesn’t mean that I’m going to do it every single Sunday, Sunday after Sunday.  I do take breaks and do some other things along the way.  Sometimes I will insert a smaller series on a shorter book — I’ve also done a couple of thematic series looking what different Scripture passages say about certain issues or challenges.  During the summer months, I often ask congregation members for suggestions on texts that they’d like to hear sermons on.  Besides those occasions, we also have Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Christmas, public professions of faith, ordinations, etc.  So it’s not like a congregation is going to only get a steady diet of one book every Sunday morning.

What are some of the advantages to serial expository preaching?  For a busy preacher, it means that you become proficient (and efficient) in working with one particular book.  For example, there’s the area of canonics when doing exegesis.  Canonics involves familiarizing yourself with the human author of the book, the circumstances in which the book was written, the original audience, the structure of the book, the book’s theme(s), etc.  After preaching through the first five or six passages, a preacher is going to have the canonics down cold.  While you might briefly review it when looking at a new text, it will not take up much of your time.

On another level, following this approach means that you don’t have to spend any time searching for your next passage.  Text choice is already decided upon, saving time.  Moreover, you can purchase commentaries and other resources accordingly.  If you know that you’re going to be spending the next couple of years in John, you can purchase a few good commentaries on John and you’ll have what you need on hand.

In terms of advantages for the congregation, they are exposed to the full-range of God’s revelation in a particular book.  They are not subjected to the minister’s whims in choosing a text, but they will get to hear everything from that book.  That will include difficult or challenging passages that a minister might otherwise want to bypass — for example, in preaching through Mark, I was forced to deal with the thorny question of divorce and remarriage.  This approach also models how to study and read the Bible.  When we read the Bible, we read it in the obvious way, straight through.  Why shouldn’t preaching do the same?  That brings me to another advantage:  clarity for the listener.  When a listener has their Bible open and they’re following an expository sermon, they will know where the minister is at in the text.  They can say, “Oh, we’re at verse 12.  He’s explaining and applying verse 12.”  It then also becomes clearer that the minister is not sharing his own thoughts or opinions, but preaching the Word of God.  Serial expository preaching is more transparent preaching.

There are some limitations to this approach.  One is the acknowledgement that not every book of the Bible is the same.  For example, the Psalms cannot be treated the same way as Mark or John.  While I think there is some structure to the Psalter in its canonical form, it’s not as developed or obvious as in a narrative book.  Moreover, the Psalter is not even really a book — it’s more of a collection.  Proverbs is another example of a collection.  I can’t see myself ever preaching serially, verse-by-verse, through Proverbs.  I have preached on a number of individual Proverbs, but I don’t believe this book lends itself to the method I’ve been describing.

When it comes to the epistles, there are passages where the logical progression follows the numerical order of the verses and you can proceed verse-by-verse.  But sometimes the thought process in the passage requires the preacher to take a different approach.  For instance, in some passages there is a clear structure known as a chiasm.  You can’t work straight verse-by-verse through that.  It’s not meant to be treated that way.  There obviously has to be some flexibility.

Am I saying that serial expository preaching is the only and best way to preach?  No, not at all.  I’m comfortable with it and I’ve benefited from it.  From the feedback, I’ve received over the years, it sounds like congregations do work with it and have been blessed by it.  Really, all I can do is commend it for your consideration.