Category Archives: Christian living

You are a Disciple!

How we think of ourselves matters for how we live our lives.  For many of us, if asked our religion, we’d readily identify ourselves as Christians.  But we live in a world where that answer can sometimes mean nothing more than I was baptized in a church and I used to go to church at Christmas and Easter.  Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean you have a true faith in Jesus Christ and walk in his ways.

Interestingly, the word “Christian” is only used three times in the New Testament.  However, there’s another term used to describe a believer in Jesus Christ.  This term is used nearly three hundred times in Scripture:  “disciple.”  A disciple of Jesus Christ is a student, but far more than just in the intellectual sense.  A disciple in the biblical sense not only imbibes information from his teacher, but aims to follow his life.  Our Lord said it in Luke 6:40, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.”  A disciple is like an apprentice.  Believers are disciples.

Yet it seems like Reformed people seldom if ever think of themselves as disciples.  They rarely refer to themselves as disciples.  Why is that?

Why Not “Disciples”?

The notion of Christians as disciples of Christ isn’t prominent in our Reformed confessions.  In its discussion of providence in article 13, the Belgic Confession refers to us as “pupils of Christ, who have only to learn those things which he teaches us in his Word, without transgressing these limits.”  The original 1561 French had “disciples de Christ.”  However, here discipleship is used mainly in the sense of taking data into our mind.  Something similar can be said for Lord’s Day 12 of the Heidelberg Catechism where Christ is described as “our chief Prophet and Teacher.”  He is our Teacher in the sense that he has “fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption.”

It might seem as if Reformed theology is allergic to this biblical idea.  Yet if you go to the Reformers, they don’t have a problem with it.  For example, in his commentaries on the gospels, John Calvin acknowledges that Christians are disciples of Christ.  He works with the idea – if you take the New Testament seriously, it’s impossible not to.  So, it’s not as if there is an objection in principle in historic Reformed theology.  It’s simply the case that, more often than not, they used the word “believer” or “Christian” instead.

It could be that the term “disciple” has received more attention because of the modern mission movement.  I’m thinking here especially of the importance of the Great Commission of Matt. 28:18-20 and its key imperative to “make disciples of all nations.”  In Reformation times, the Great Commission was recognized by some (like Martin Bucer) as being an abiding call for the church to do mission.  However, it wasn’t until the late 1700s that it rose to prominence.  In more recent times, it’s become common to hear missionaries speak of discipleship as a focal aspect of their work.  Missionaries taught many new Christians to think of themselves as disciples – not just at the beginning of their Christian walk, but throughout.

The Benefits of “Disciples”

Regardless of the history, the Bible describes true Christians as disciples of Jesus Christ.  It’d be beneficial for us to think of ourselves as such and to identify ourselves as such.  I’ll explain why.

Thinking of yourself as a disciple is beneficial because it reminds you that there’s a goal in your sanctification:  to be Christ-like.  No, you can’t be him like in every respect, yet there are certainly ways you can and should (cf. 1 Cor. 11:11).  For example, you want to be humble and follow his model of servanthood (John 13:15).

It’s beneficial to identify ourselves to others as disciples of Christ because the word “Christian” is increasingly losing its true significance.  People often claim to be Christians while disregarding huge swathes of what Christ teaches in the Bible.  Identifying yourself as a “disciple of Christ” indicates that you aim to follow him and what he teaches – you want to be like him.  You aim to abide in his Word  (John 8:31).

Two Clarifications

Let me end with a couple of clarifications.

First, it’s important to distinguish between the practice of discipleship (while not necessarily using the term) and consciously self-identifying as a disciple of Christ.  Reformed churches, if they’re faithful, are actually good at discipleship.  For example, catechism instruction for the youth of the church is a fantastic discipleship program, even if it’s not spoken of in those terms.  My focus above is on how we identify ourselves and how we regard ourselves.  Do we ever consciously think in terms of being disciples of our Lord Jesus?

Second, the idea of being a disciple of Christ doesn’t exhaust the Bible’s teaching on who we are as redeemed people.  The Bible’s teaching on our identity is multi-faceted.  For example, another important aspect of our identity, often overlooked and underemphasized, is our union with Christ.  This certainly isn’t to say that we should abandon the word “Christian” either.  If we understand it properly for ourselves and clarify it for others, there’s no reason to abandon it.   What I’m simply suggesting is that we give more prominence to discipleship than we have in the past – just remember that if you’ve got true faith in Jesus Christ, you are his disciple!


Why Should We Study Scripture Together?

It’s too easy to take for granted the blessings God has heaped on us.  Let’s stop for a moment and think about several of them.  We still have the blessing to freely worship.  Not only on Sunday, but during the week too we’re free to gather together for fellowship and study.  We have the blessing of God’s Word in our own language.  Unlike so many believers in the history of the New Testament church, we have the Bible in a language we can understand – and these Bibles are cheap and readily available.  Finally, we have the blessing of literacy.  The fact that you’re reading this puts you at a far greater advantage than many believers in the history of the church.  What incredible riches our God has lavished on us!

Do We Have a Heart For Searching Out God’s Word?

Yet it does seem that many church members take these things for granted.  In every church I’ve served, there is always the mass problem of Bible study.  Every consistory discussed it.  It’s the problem of encouraging individual believers to study the Bible for themselves.  It’s also the problem of encouraging believers to study the Bible together.  I’d venture to guess that, on average, probably 25% of the communicant members in the churches I’ve served regularly studied Scripture together.  Actually, 25% is on the generous side.

What can consistories do about it?  Here’s the problem:  office bearers can badger members into Bible study groups for a time.  But if their heart is not in it, typically they won’t persevere.  The heart is the issue – and how do you change someone’s heart?  You can’t.  The Holy Spirit does that.  He does it, however, through us.  He says in 1 Thess. 5:14, “And we urge you brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”  We’re to do these things with the Word of God in our hand.

In this article, I want to lay out the Bible’s answer for why believers should study Scripture together.  There are two audiences I want to address.  The first is the office bearer who wants to encourage Bible study in his congregation.  The second is the believer who may be lagging in conviction about the value of this practice.

Psalm 119 as a Prayer for the Way We Want to Be

So, why study the Bible together?  When our thoughts turn to Scripture and our attitude towards it, Psalm 119 is a frequent destination.  This Psalm extols the Scriptures in exuberant terms.  It also speaks of the believers’ emotions/affections about the Bible.  For example, nine times the Psalmist speaks of his delight in God’s Word.  Seven times he testifies of his love for the Scriptures.  He witnesses to the joy that comes from the divine writings.  It’s important to read all these things with our eyes on Jesus.  He is the fulfilment of all these holy emotions – he exhibited them with an unparalleled depth and consistency.  Moreover, Christ did that in the place of us who often sag in our feelings about God’s Word.  His love and joy in the Word are credited to us by God.  When we see Psalm 119 that way, it puts it in a new light for us.  It speaks of our Saviour’s obedient life for us, but also his sanctifying power in us.  We look at Psalm 119 as a prayer for the way we want to be.  In our new nature, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we want to be like Christ.  We want to reflect our union with him – we want to love the Scriptures like he does!

When we do, we won’t have to be coaxed into Bible study.  It’s something we will love to do because, being united to Christ, we love God and we love his Word.  Personal Bible study will come from the heart, and so will group Bible study.  Then the rest of what I’m going to write will sound perfectly persuasive.

Getting to Know Our God

The chief attraction of Bible study together is a better view of the glory of God.  The Scriptures are all about revealing to us the glory of the Triune God, particularly in the gospel. I’m talking about his beauty, his splendour, his magnificence, his awesomeness.  Scripture reveals God to us in all his transcendent excellence.

When you study by yourself, you will see it.  But when you study with others, you will see more and see further than you will by yourself.  One person can only see so much.  One person can have blind spots.  But when several Christians gather together around God’s Word, they’ll find more to be amazed at about our God.  He will receive more praise and honour.  That’s what we want, isn’t it?

Encouraging One Another

However, there is not only a vertical aspect here.  It turns out that what brings more glory to God is also for our benefit.  When we gather together with fellow believers around God’s Word, there’s encouragement to be found.  We support one another.  We pray together.  We enjoy fellowship.  When it’s going as it should, Bible study can feel like Psalm 133:1, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”

We could also think of what Scripture says in Ephesians 4.  There God speaks about how Christ has given the gift of office bearers to the church.  He says their work is to “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”  They do that work with the Scriptures.  Bible study together will likewise build up the body of Christ and with exactly the same blessings described in Ephesians 4:13.  Bible study together will lead to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of Christ.  It will enable us to grow together in maturity.  It will help pull us into the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

Two Objections

Some church members have keenly developed reasons for not going to Bible study.  They could go (they have the health and the time), but they refuse to.  Let me briefly address two reasons I’ve heard over the years.

One objection is that it’s all the same:  “The same people talk and they always say the same thing.  It makes for a boring hour or two.  So it’s just not worth the time or effort.”  I’m familiar with this one because I used it as a young man.  I remember saying this at a friend’s house and his mom reamed me out.  She said, “If you don’t like the way it is, then it’s up to you to make it different.  You lead by example.  You’ll only get out of it what you put into it.”  She was exactly right.

Another reason comes from a darker place:  “Everyone at these Bible studies is so dull.  They don’t have a good basic understanding of the Bible.  It’s just frustrating listening to them ramble on in their ignorance.  Their lack of knowledge about the Bible is exasperating.” The essential problem here is pride.  One’s pride leads to impatience with other believers.  Bible study presents an opportunity to share our insights with one another.  One may have to pray for growth in holiness to do that humbly and judiciously, but rather than flee from that challenge, we should embrace it.  Moreover, we need to be open to the possibility that there is something to learn from other believers – perhaps we don’t have the exceptional level of knowledge we thought we had (cf. Phil. 2:3).

Conclusion

The Bible has famously been compared to a love letter from God.  Of course, love letters are mostly a thing of the past, but the idea is still current.  If you were to receive a love letter, you would treasure it and read it carefully several times.  The Bible is God’s love letter to his people.  Why would any recipient not want to read and study that letter as often as possible, both on your own and with other believers?  If you’re part of a Bible study, stay consistent with it.  If you’re not part of a Bible study, go and find one in your local church.  With your meaningful contribution, God will be praised and you’ll be blessed.

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This article was originally published in Reformed Perspective magazine.


Ten Ways to Help Your Children Love and Stay with the Church

If you’re in a faithful gospel-preaching church and you have children, wouldn’t you want your children to love that church and stay with it?  I’ve come up with a list of ways to help Christian parents help their children do that.

 I should say at the outset that I share these first of all because, if your church is faithful, the gospel is at stake.  It’s vitally important for our children to stay in a church where the gospel of Christ is proclaimed in Word and sacrament.  Children get discipled for Christ in such a church.  We can never take this for granted.  Second, I’m writing this to remind myself of how important it is to disciple my own children.  I should also say that there’s never any guarantee your children will remain with the church, or that they’ll be responsive to the gospel promises.  You can do everything right, but the Holy Spirit must regenerate the heart, also the hearts of our children.  It’s all grace.  But, from a human perspective, if you do one, some or all of these ten things, you certainly improve the odds your children will stay and love their gospel-focussed church. 

Be positive about the church and your relationship to it. Make sure your children hear and see your positive attitude.  Remember to pray regularly for the church and for the pastors, elders, and deacons.

Regularly attend worship services.  Communicate to your children that you need the ministry of the Word and sacraments and they need it too.  There’s always room for growth.  God’s call to worship applies to your family just as it does to everyone else.

Be committed to your local church. Have your children involved as much as possible in the activities of your local church.

Make church attendance mandatory for everyone in your home. If they don’t feel like going to church, they should be going anyway (unless they’re sick, of course). There are some things we might not feel like doing (like going to the dentist), but they’re good for us and our parents forced us to because they loved us.  Love your children the same way.

Similarly, make catechism attendance mandatory.  If they don’t feel like going, again you have to insist.  Support the efforts of your pastor to catechize your children.  Check to make sure they’re memorizing the catechism, check to see if they’re doing their homework, and make sure they’re prepared for class.

Sing at home what you sing in the church’s public worship. Communicate to your children that you actually appreciate the Psalms and hymns of the church.  You want them to embrace these songs and value them.  Teach your children the meaning of what they sing.

As much as possible, live close enough to the church so that you can be meaningfully involved in the life of the church.  If you live further out, look for and take opportunities to move closer.

Teach your children about the importance of giving your first fruits to the Lord. Speak to your children about financial contributions to the church.  Be sure to set them an example by faithfully giving yourself.  Be a cheerful giver!

Send them to the Christian school the other children from the congregation attend. This will help them to develop connections and friendships with peers in the church community.

Give helpful guidance with regards to their friends and potential marriage partners. Encourage them to have believing friends and to find marriage partners who love the Lord, but also love his church.

In short, do everything you can to communicate that the church isn’t some human organization or a club where you can come and go as you please.  Make it clear that the church is your spiritual mother (Gal. 4:26), the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23), the bride for which Christ died and which he loves (Eph. 5:25), and the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15).


Book Review: Broken Pieces

Broken Pieces and the God Who Mends Them: Schizophrenia Through a Mother’s Eyes, Simonetta Carr.  Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2019.  Softcover, 359 pages.

Though it deals with a gut-wrenching topic, I could not put this book down.  I bought it on a Saturday afternoon and had it finished by Tuesday morning.  It’s compelling reading about a family’s struggle with mental illness.  Simonetta Carr’s son Jonathan developed schizophrenia and it turned their world upside down.

The book consists of two parts.  The first is the story of Jonathan and the Carr family.  You won’t be able to read it without tears.  The second part is about coming to terms with mental illnesses like schizophrenia.  How can affected families find the support and help they need?  The author answers questions related to medication and other treatments, including Christian counselling.  She discusses self-medication through tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana.  What about when a spouse is the one with mental illness?  She offers solid theological reflection on suffering in the Christian life and how to cope with it.

There are at least four things that bring me to highly recommend Broken Pieces.

First, there’s the forthright honesty in describing the struggle Carr’s family faced with Jonathan’s illness.  The author made herself vulnerable in doing this, but the benefit is that readers unfamiliar with such experiences get a clear picture of what it’s really like.  That helps to create empathy for those suffering with mental illness in their family.  Those who are familiar with these issues receive affirmation that they’re not struggling by themselves – there are others out there who have gone through similar challenges.

Next, I really appreciate Carr’s emphasis on the church and the ordinary means of grace (i.e. preaching and the sacraments).  Her family belongs to a United Reformed Church in the San Diego area, and this church figures prominently throughout Jonathan’s story.  In the second part of the book, Carr stresses how important it is to be part of a solid, gospel-preaching church.

Third, Broken Pieces both illustrates how husbands and wives often deal with the mental illness of a child in different ways.  Yet there’s not only description, there are also suggestions on how to manage those differences and even capitalize on them.

Finally, this book has great potential to improve the understanding of the treatment of mental health issues like schizophrenia.  I’m thinking especially of our Reformed churches.  There is often much ignorance among us about the seriousness of these ailments.  In some instances, the focus is entirely on the medical side of things.  With others, the illness is (mis)treated as strictly a spiritual problem.  Carr contends for a more balanced approach taking everything into consideration.

I recommend Broken Pieces to one and all, but let me especially recommend it to two audiences in particular. First, to all families dealing with mental health issues.  It doesn’t have to be schizophrenia.  If you’re dealing with whatever mental illness, I’m sure you’ll find this a useful read.  Second, to all office bearers.  Office bearers particularly need to understand the complexities of mental illness so that in our shepherding we don’t hurt, but help.  Carr’s book will get you in the right frame of mind to show the love and patience of Christ to those suffering with their mental health.


Christian, Don’t Suppress Your Identity!

I once heard a radio program about call center workers in India.  North American companies often contract out their call center work to cheap labour in India.  However, many North Americans get annoyed and agitated when they call that number and then hear someone who’s obviously from India.  So many call center workers suppress their Indian identity as part of their work.  They take extensive training to get rid of their Indian accent, they adopt American accents, take a Western name, adopt a Western diet and so on.  So when you call that number, Jim who sounds like he’s from Boston might really be Raj from Mumbai.

As Christians, we have a distinct identity in Christ.  Believers are united to him and that means that our identity is bound up in him.  Who we are is totally related to who he is.  What we’re like and what we’re becoming is entirely related to what he is like.  You can’t separate a Christian’s identity from Jesus Christ.

Yet that’s exactly what we’re so often tempted to do, isn’t it?  We’re tempted to divide our life up into little air-tight compartments.  This compartment is what I do for entertainment and it has nothing to do with this compartment that has everything related to being a Christian.  This compartment is for me at work and it has nothing to do with the “religious” compartment.  This compartment is for me on the Internet and it has nothing to do with the “faith” compartment.  The world insists that this is the way you should live.  If you have religious convictions, you must keep them in that air-tight compartment and don’t ever let them out.  It makes things uncomfortable for people around you if you do.  Our own sinful nature tempts us to do that too – after all, it’s much easier to take the compartmentalized approach to life.  The people at work are never going to give you a hard time if you just talk and act like one of them.  That’s what we mean by suppressing your identity in Jesus Christ, hiding the fact that you are united to him.

Scripture speaks to that temptation in several places.  For example in Colossians 3, Paul points out that believers who are united to the ascended Christ should let that fact always be evident.  Christians cannot ever suppress their identity, they can’t be hiding who they really are in Jesus.   If they have a new nature in him, it should be obvious in things like “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12).  Our identity in Christ should be seen as we bear with one another and forgive one another (Col. 3:13).  Overarching it all, our identity in Christ should be evident in our love, “which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14).  Finally, that identity is lived out by doing “everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).

Fellow Christians, we have to be who we are in the risen Lord Jesus.  No more identity suppression.