Category Archives: Christian living

Battle to Live Free

Brooks Hatlen was an old man by the time he finally got out.  Back in his youth, around 1905, he committed some serious crimes and ended up in Shawshank State Prison.  There he spent almost the rest of his life.  He became the prison librarian and settled into life on the inside.  But finally, in 1953, Brooks Hatlen was paroled.  He got out, he was placed in a half-way house, and took up a job at a local grocery store.  However, this was a vastly different world and Brooks Hatlen wasn’t prepared for it at all.  He didn’t know how to cope.  He contemplated killing the grocery store manager just so he could be sent back to prison.  Instead, he decided to hang himself.

Now that’s a fictional story from the gritty, realistic prison film The Shawshank Redemption.  Yet the story is not farfetched.  It’s a well-known phenomenon.  Prisoners who spend long stretches of their life in prison often become institutionalized.  They have become so accustomed to life in prison that, if they finally get out, they just can’t cope.  They know how to survive in prison, but not on the outside.  They don’t know anything about everyday things like paying bills or making meals.  Sometimes they re-offend just so that they can go back to what they know and what they’re comfortable with.  It’s sometimes called the jail-house mentality.

The Bible is clear that man in the unregenerate state is enslaved to sin.  Slavery is like a form of imprisonment.  In fact, while Romans 6:17 speaks about slavery to sin, Romans 7:23 describes it as being held captive.  Apart from Christ, we are in prison.  We are not free — we can’t not sin.  But Romans 6 gives us the glorious message that Christ frees the prisoners.  According to verse 6, we have been crucified with Christ and therefore are no longer enslaved to sin.  Through Christ, we are free!  Sin no longer has dominion over us, because we are under grace.

That’s the way things are in principle.  In the sight of God, everyone who believes in Christ has had their sin crucified with him.  Sin is gone, it’s dead and out of the way.  Moreover, this makes a difference for the believer living on this earth.  Before Christ, we can’t not sin.  After Christ, we can not sin.  Our wills are made alive by the Holy Spirit, and we can choose not to sin.  However, we don’t do this consistently and we will never do it perfectly while we live in this world, but the possibility of saying no to sin is there for Christians.

The problem is that we often have what could be called a jail-house mentality.  Those who have been imprisoned by sin find it difficult to live free from sin.  Like prison, sin can become familiar and comfortable.  Prison is an awful place, and so is sin, but you get to know your way around it.  You can grow to like it, despite its downsides.  Even as Christians we can feel drawn back to sin, just like institutionalized ex-cons feel drawn back to prison.  Every day we have a struggle to live free.  Every day we have to struggle to get it out of our minds that sin is better than Christ.  This battle has a name:  repentance.  Repentance means to have a change of mind.  We have to change our mind about sin and being imprisoned to it.

Being a Christian therefore involves a daily battle.  It’s been said that we have peace with God through Christ, but this is a peace that starts a war.  The war is with our enemies, the devil, the world, and most of all with our own flesh.  We have a peace that starts a war, and every day that war needs to be fought.  It’s a fight to be free from the enslavement and imprisonment of sin.  It’s a fight to live like people who are free in Christ, to be who we really are in him.  That fight starts on the inside with heart, mind, and will.  It begins with our thoughts, attitudes, and emotions.   But it carries through into the concrete ways we live each day.  All of this is hard.  We can’t pretend otherwise.  But we need to keep that in perspective.  We need to compare that with sin, what it promises and what it delivers.  Sin by its very nature is deceptive.  Sin looks easy and fun. It promises good times.  But in the end it bites you hard and destroys you.  Already in this life, it will mess you up and the people around you.  Afterwards it will leave you imprisoned forever under God’s wrath.  You don’t want that, do you?  So instead, turn from sin every day.  Learn to hate it and flee it.  Bring it to the throne of grace and have your sin washed away through Christ.  Learn then to love God and to express your love through following his will, for his glory.  Dear readers, “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim. 6:12).  Battle to live free.


Position Statements on Reformed Churches and Sexual Abuse

I wish I knew less about sexual abuse.  In my personal and pastoral life, I have learned far too much about the horrific reality of what some human beings will do to others for the sake of their own pleasure.  However, the knowledge God has providentially placed in my life has motivated me to advocate for the abused.  I have developed the following position statements with the purpose of creating awareness and provoking discussion in our Reformed communities.   Please note:  I do not claim that these statements are exhaustive, nor that they are necessarily the best and final way to frame the issues at hand.  If others wish to improve upon them, they are certainly welcome to do so.

Let me first say a few words about definitions.  In general, abuse is inappropriate conduct towards another person.  It can be a single event or a pattern of behaviour.  In particular, sexual abuse is “the sexual exploitation of a person or any sexual intimacy forced on a person (either physical or non-physical).  Child sexual abuse can include taking advantage of a child who is not capable of understanding sexual acts or resisting coercion such as threats or offers of gifts. Sexual abuse includes harassment by means of verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature, brought on by an individual and aimed at a particular person or group of people with the aim of obtaining sexual favours.”  These definitions come from the Child Abuse Policy of the Free Reformed Church of Launceston.

When I write below about “Reformed churches,” I am referring to the churches with which I am most familiar:  the Canadian Reformed Churches and Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  This is not to say that other Reformed churches are not affected, nor is it to say that all individual CanRC and FRC congregations are affected equally.  I am simply commenting from the perspective of someone acquainted with these church federations.

POSITION STATEMENTS

  1. Reformed churches must unequivocally and publically condemn all forms of abuse

While we should always welcome truly repentant sinners, our churches must never give the impression of being a safe harbour for abusers.  Instead, we should reflect the compassionate heart of our God for those who are downtrodden and afflicted (Psalm 34:18).  Further, we should aim to create a safe and healing environment in our churches for those who have experienced abuse.  Finally, we ought to be churches where justice and righteousness are upheld, where victims are not further victimized and perpetrators are properly held accountable for their sins.  All this starts with clearly condemning abuse, when appropriate, in our sermons, articles, etc.

  1. Sexual abuse has occurred in our churches

While I am unaware of any official statistical data, certainly anecdotal evidence indicates many instances of sexual abuse.  Whether these instances are out of proportion to the broader population is unknown (yet certainly worthy of a responsible scientific study).  However, with sadness we ought to humbly admit that it has happened in the past.  One might hope that it would no longer be happening, but because churches are made up not only of sinful human beings, but also a mixture of believers and unbelievers (Belgic Confession art. 29), realistically we should expect continuing occurrences.  Nevertheless, we ought to do everything we can to eradicate this great evil from the church of Christ.

  1. There is often a link between sexual abuse and unhealthy spirituality

Abuse victims often struggle in their relationship with God.  Because they have had horrible evil inflicted upon them (often when quite young), they may question God’s goodness, love, and providence.  If they were abused by a father or other authority figure, they may have difficulty relating to God as a loving Father.  They may also have difficulty understanding and appropriating biblical teaching about sexuality, family, and marriage authority structures.  The spiritual consequences of abuse can be far-reaching and add to the guilt carried by abusers.

  1. There is often a link between sexual abuse and mental health issues

Sexual abuse is a form of trauma.  It is an atrocity that may overwhelm the one who has experienced it.  Any type of trauma can have mental health implications.  Depression, anxiety, self-harm, multiple personality disorders, addictions, and other effects can result from sexual abuse, particularly if it is not addressed. These mental health issues can then also present challenges to a sexual abuse survivor’s spiritual health.

  1. There is a link between pornography and sexual abuse towards children and spouses

In general, pornography objectifies others as a means to sexual gratification.  In itself this predisposes an individual who uses pornography towards abuse.  This effect is exacerbated by the way pornography use often sinks to increasingly depraved levels.  The wide-spread availability of violent and abusive pornography is proven to increase the prevalence of sexual abuse.  Consequently, Reformed churches must be vocal about the dangers of pornography, as well as supplying resources for members to escape slavery to this sin.

  1. When preaching and teaching the Fifth Commandment, Reformed churches must also address the abuse of authority

Anecdotal evidence relates that abusers will sometimes invoke the Fifth Commandment (“Honour your father and your mother”) in order to justify and continue their abuse.  Reformed churches regularly preach on the Fifth Commandment (with Lord’s Day 39 of the Heidelberg Catechism) and should take the opportunity to emphasize that this law does not condone abusive behaviour.  We should make it clear that all abuse is contrary to God’s will and abusers who appeal to God’s law to justify themselves are doubly condemned.

  1. Reformed churches ought to develop abuse policies to address past abuse and prevent future abuse

When things are put in writing, it indicates that we take them seriously.  A matter as weighty as sexual abuse ought not to be dealt with haphazardly.  While not every circumstance can be envisioned ahead of time, some general guidelines for church leaders and members can go a long way to dealing effectively with recent abuse in the church.  Moreover, policies to prevent future abuse ought also to be in place as a matter of due diligence in protecting the sheep and lambs of God’s flock.

  1. Any local church which facilitates abuse by covering it up or refusing to report it puts into question its status as a true church of Jesus Christ

One of the marks of a true church is the faithful exercise of church discipline.  If a local church allows abuse to continue by covering it up rather than dealing with it as the gross sin that it is, that church is dramatically falling short on this mark.  If the office bearers of a church refuse to report abuse to the proper authorities, they likewise show a significant failure to deal with sin appropriately.  A true church will take serious sins seriously and deal with them accordingly, both through the keys of the kingdom of heaven and by cooperation with the civil authorities where appropriate.

  1. There is hope for survivors and perpetrators in the gospel of Jesus Christ

For those who have experienced abuse, the wounds can heal.  They can heal as the balm of the gospel is applied and we learn to understand better the unfathomable grace of God towards us and others.  Perpetrators of past abuse can also find help and healing at the cross.  If they truly repent from their sins, if they are humble and honest, if they look to Jesus Christ alone as their righteousness, they can receive forgiveness from a gracious God and meaningful change in their lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.  However, that in no way diminishes the personal, criminal, or ecclesiastical consequences of this sin.


Essential Latin for Reformed Christians: “Coram Deo”

I don’t remember the exact book, talk, or sermon anymore, but I’m quite sure I first heard the expression “coram Deo” from R.C. Sproul.   It means “before the face of God.”  It’s an expression I don’t hear too often, but the idea should certainly be well-established in the hearts and minds of all believers.

There is a constant temptation for us to compartmentalize our lives.  We have what we do on Sundays — that’s the religious part of our lives.  But that has nothing to do with what we do on Friday nights.  It has nothing to do with what we watch on Netflix on Tuesday.  In this way of thinking, our work, too, is a separate compartment.  In the workplace, there’s nothing that distinguishes us.  For example, when others stand around complaining about the boss, we join right in.  Like everybody else, we hate our job and it’s just a means to a (week-)end.

The biblical concept of “coram Deo” addresses this temptation.  It reminds us that all of life is to be lived “before the face of God.”  We certainly come before the face of God in our public worship on Sundays.  And at the end of our public worship, we often hear the Aaronic benediction from Numbers 6:24-26.  In the ESV, it concludes with:  “…the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.  The NIV has “…the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.”  The idea of “coram Deo” is there.  As we depart our meeting with God, he blesses us with the promise that we will continue to walk before his face as we go into another week.

That tells us that “coram Deo” is an objective reality.  Whether you acknowledge it is another thing.  But it is objectively true that all of life is indeed lived before the face of God.  Our thoughts, words, and deeds are always open to him — “no creature is hidden from his sight” (Heb. 4:13).  You might try to compartmentalize in your own mind, but there’s no compartmentalizing in God’s perspective on things.

Acknowledging “coram Deo,” however, is a good thing.  When we have experienced God’s sovereign grace in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit leads us to see this from the Word of God.  Consider Psalm 89:15-16, “Blessed are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of your face, who exult in your name all the day…”  Our Lord Jesus walked “coram Deo” in his earthly sojourn.  There was no compartmentalizing in his life.  For it he was blessed, and we along with him.  Saved by him, we look to him as our example and desire to live in union with him.  As disciples, we want to emulate our Master.  He always walked self-consciously before the face of God — let us do likewise.

As we do, there is blessing for us too.  Human life was not designed to be lived in compartments.  Adam and Eve were created to live “coram Deo” and so were we.  As James says, a double-minded person is unstable in every way (James 1:8), so how much more unstable would a person be who has multiple minds or compartments?  On the flip side:  stability, blessing, human flourishing — that’s the outcome of acknowledging God in all our ways, consistently living “coram Deo.”


Can a Christian Eat Black Pudding?

To my mind, black pudding is one of the few great contributions the Brits have made to global cuisine.  For the uninitiated, we’re not talking about pudding in the sense of a gelatinous dessert.  Instead, black pudding is a sausage, a blood sausage to be more precise.  It’s made with pork blood, fat, and some type of cereal, usually oats.

Some find the idea of black pudding repulsive, but there are also Christians who argue it is unlawful for believers to eat and enjoy it.  I had a seminary professor who held this view.  He believed Christians are permitted to enjoy neither rare steak nor black pudding.  Your steak must be well-done and your pudding white (yes, there is such a thing as white pudding and it has no blood).

Part of the rationale for this view is God’s command to Noah in Genesis 9:4, “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.”  The question is whether this was meant to be a binding restriction for all time or whether this was a restriction owing to the circumstances of that age.  Most interpreters tend to the latter view.  For example, John Calvin writes in his commentary, “Yet we must remember, that this restriction was part of the old law.”  In other words, this restriction presaged the Mosaic dietary laws concerning the consumption of blood (Leviticus 17:10-12).  Since Christ declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19), these sorts of laws are no longer relevant to us in the same way.

The other part of the rationale at first glance seems stronger.  In Acts 15, the apostles met together in Jerusalem to resolve some issues vexing the Church.  The issues had to do with the relationship between Christian Jews and Gentiles and observance of the Mosaic laws.  After some debate, James made a proposal which found acceptance with all the apostles and elders.  The adopted written judgment read as follows:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements:  that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.  If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.  Farewell.  (Acts 15:28-29)

My seminary professor believed this sealed the deal.  Surely these are binding stipulations for the Church of Jesus Christ in all ages and places.  Ergo, no black pudding, no rare steak.

But let’s think about this further.  Not all the stipulations in Acts 15 are of the same nature.  What was said about sexual immorality is obviously a matter of God’s abiding moral law — this is the seventh commandment.  However, the three other matters are regulated as a matter of not giving offense to other believers.

In an essay entitled “From Dissension to Joy: Resources from Acts 15:1-35 for Global Presbyterianism” (in China’s Reforming Churches, ed. Bruce Baugus), Guy Prentiss Waters discusses the question of how we can “categorically assign normativity” to Scriptural examples or precepts.  He notes James Bannerman’s insight that things are binding so long as we are in similar circumstances.  The true test is in the question:  “Am I in ‘like circumstances’ as the original audience?” (p.225).  So, when it comes to the stipulation to abstain from blood, we conclude that we are not bound: “The reason is because the circumstances that occasioned the church’s exercise of the power of order in Jerusalem no longer exist today” (p. 238).  In other words, we’re not faced with a significant Jewish population in the Church who would take offense at the eating of blood.  John Calvin commented in a similar vein:

Wherefore, what Tertullian relates, that in his time it was unlawful among Christians to taste the blood of cattle, savours of superstition.  For the apostles, in commanding the Gentiles to observe this rite, for a short time, did not intend to inject a scruple into their consciences, but only to prevent the liberty which was otherwise sacred, from proving an occasion of offence to the ignorant and the weak.  (Commentary on Genesis 9:4)

Thus, I conclude that Acts 15:28-29 does not make it unlawful for Christians today to consume blood.

If you’re not convinced, I have some good news:  even if you can’t/won’t eat black pudding, you can still enjoy your steak rare.  Those red fluids coming out of a rare steak aren’t blood, but myoglobin.  Myoglobin is a protein found in muscles — it turns red when it comes into contact with oxygen.  So even if you believe Acts 15:28-29 to be binding on Christians today, go ahead and order that steak rare or medium rare.  You’re not eating blood.

If you are convinced, then I have even better news:  a great (but simple) recipe to enjoy black pudding.  This is my favourite way to have it for breakfast, a Saturday morning treat!

FRIED BP AND WAFFLES

Serves two.  The recipe is easy to adjust for more.

Prep time:  less than 10 minutes.

Ingredients:

One small black pudding (in Australia usually available from Coles’ deli section)

Two Belgian waffles

Two eggs

Butter

Maple syrup

Instructions:

  1. Cut the black pudding into long, thin (1 cm) slices at an angle
  2. Put the waffles in the toaster
  3. Fry the black pudding till crispy on the outside (in a med-high fry pan, about 2 minutes each side)
  4. At the same time, fry the two eggs to your liking.
  5. By this time the waffles should be toasted, butter them to your liking and then add some maple syrup.  I like to add just enough to fill all the little pockets.
  6. To complete, put a fried egg on each waffle, and then slices of fried black pudding on top.  Enjoy!

New Dutch Article

Missionair en gereformeerd — tien stellingen (translated by R. Sollie-Sleijster for Een in Waarheid)