Top Ten Posts of 2017

The past year was notable for the decision of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN) to open all the offices to women — and then the aftermath, especially at the International Conference of Reformed Churches.  I blogged several times about this and, not surprisingly, half of the top ten posts of the past year were related to this topic.

Here are the past year’s top ten on Yinkahdinay:

  1.  Stage Fright — dancing at Redeemer PCA in New York and the history of the stage in church architecture
  2. RCN Suspended from ICRC
  3. Calvin: Ministers Ought Not to Steal — how ministers can break the Eighth Commandment
  4. OPC Proposal at ICRC — the OPC led the way in the suspension of the RCN
  5. The ESV Study Bible vs. the Reformation Study Bible:  A Comparison
  6. How the Mighty Have Fallen — reflection on the RCN’s decision regarding women in office
  7. Pastoral Q & A:  Labour Unions — can a Christian join a union?
  8. A Missiological Reflection on the RCN and Women in Office
  9. The Reformation and Psalm-Singing — the most popular post commemorating the 5ooth birthday of the Reformation
  10. RCN in ICRC: Should They Stay or Should They Go?

New Dutch Resources

I’ve just added two new articles in Dutch, translated by R. Sollie-Sleijster and originally published on the website Een in waarheid:

Reformatie en Psalmen zingen  — (English original here — The Reformation and Psalm-singing)

“Buiten de kerk geen heil” — (English original here — Outside the church no salvation)


Christ’s School of Contentment

The following is a talk given to the ladies of the Free Reformed Church of Melville on October 20, 2017.

I was recently speaking with a former missionary to Brazil.  A couple of years after starting work there, he had a small congregation made up mostly of women and children.  There were only a couple of men.  One of them was an older man.  The missionary told me about visiting this man in a favela in this Brazilian city.  His house was just a small shack, maybe 3 meters by 3 meters – at the most.  Dirt floor and you could look up through the rafters and see the tin roof.  The missionary arrived just after the man had his dinner of beans and manioc flour.  He was sitting on one side of a couch, the missionary on the other side – a hole in the couch between them.  The Brazilian man was dressed only in shorts – no shirt, no socks.  He leaned back into his seat, patted his tummy, looked at the missionary and said with a smile, “Now John, this is the life.”  Though he had so little compared to us, he was thankful for what he had — his attitude was sheer contentment.

That poor Brazilian could do that as a disciple of our Lord Jesus.  All Christians are to think of themselves as disciples.  For whatever reason, this is not an idea that you hear much about in our churches.  I find that strange.  It’s strange because being a disciple is a core part of the identity of a Christian according to the New Testament.  We seem to hardly ever talk about it.  But we’re going to look at it in this talk.

So, let’s first be clear about what a disciple is.  Simply, a disciple is a student.  In New Testament times, religious teachers were known to gather disciples.  John the Baptist had disciples who followed him.  Before becoming a Christian, Saul of Tarsus was a disciple of the great rabbi Gamaliel.  But a disciple was not just a student like we think of students today.  A disciple spent almost all of his time with his master.  A disciple not only listened to the teaching of his master, but also carefully watched his example.  You see, a disciple was not just interested in learning information from his master — he wanted to be like his master.  So the disciples of Jesus in the New Testament hung on his words, but also observed his life.  For Christians today, we’re disciples.  We learn from our Master’s teaching in the Bible, but we also study his example, and we strive to walk in his ways, we want to be like him.

Every true Christian is a disciple.  That means we’re to be under the instruction of our Lord Jesus, in his school.  One of the most important classes in this school has to do with contentment.  Our Master wants to teach his disciples all about Christian contentment.  That’s how we’re going to be approaching our topic – learning about it as disciples of Jesus.  There are four questions we’re going to explore:

  1. What is Christian contentment?
  2. Why is it so hard for disciples to learn it?
  3. Why is it still worth pursuing for disciples of Jesus?
  4. How do disciples of Jesus pursue it?

What is Christian contentment?

There was once a gospel preacher in England.  It was a difficult time for gospel preachers because the King and his government were hostile to the true Christian faith.  This was in the late 1630s.  One day this preacher had a conversation with a colleague about the powers of the King.  The preacher thought it was just a private conversation with a friend and he expressed his view that the powers of the King were not absolute.  His so-called friend soon afterwards betrayed him and reported him to the King’s officials.  The preacher was soon going to be arrested.  Other faithful preachers had recently been sentenced to life in prison, given heavy fines, and even had their ears sliced off.  The preacher saw the writing on the wall and decided to flee England.  He sailed across the English Channel to Rotterdam and became the pastor of an English-speaking church there for a couple of years.

This preacher was a Puritan by the name of Jeremiah Burroughs.  Because of his desire to be faithful to God’s Word, he experienced hardship and persecution.  Some years later, with these experiences behind him, Jeremiah Burroughs wrote a remarkable book entitled, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.  It’s still in print today as part of the Puritan Paperbacks series published by Banner of Truth Trust.  There are precious few books today on the subject of contentment, and among those few, I doubt any would stand up to Burroughs in terms of biblical faithfulness and comprehensiveness.  Moreover, Burroughs didn’t write about contentment in an abstract or theoretical way – he wrote about it from the perspective of someone who had learned it experientially, the hard way.

I can’t think of a better definition of contentment than the one that Jeremiah Burroughs gives early on in The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.  From his study of the Bible on this, Burroughs says that contentment is “that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.”

There are a couple of things to note in that definition.

First of all, contentment is a “frame of spirit.”  This is about your inner life.  Contentment is about what’s going on in your heart.  It’ll having a bearing on what goes on in your mind, what comes out of your mouth, what your hands find to do, where your feet take you.  But in its bare essence, contentment rests in your heart, in your inner being.

Second, contentment involves looking at God and considering him in a certain way.  It’s considering him in terms of what the Bible teaches about him.  Specifically, we think of God as wise and fatherly.  He knows what is best and he always does what is best for his children.  He also rules over “every condition.”  Everything that happens is under his control.  So not only is he wise and loving, he’s also sovereign.  We contemplate these things about who our God is, what he’s like, and we say, “This is my God and I trust him.  I can be at peace with whatever he gives because I know what he’s like.”  That’s contentment.

When we try to define and understand Christian contentment, it’s also helpful to think in terms of its opposite.  What is the opposite of contentment?  Obviously, that would be discontentment.  Discontentment would be a frame of spirit too, something going on in your inner life, in your heart.  It would be a bitter and angry frame of spirit.  It too would involve looking at God and considering him in a certain way.  It could be just ignoring or being indifferent towards him.  Or discontentment might look at God as less than wise.  He does not know what is best for me.  He does not do what is best for me.  He does not act as a loving Father towards me.  Instead, he’s cruel.  Perhaps a discontented person would even go so far as to deny God’s sovereign rule over all things.  If God were really in control, and if he really loved me, he would give me what I want.

It’s good to name the sins involved here.  It’s good to think about the commandments being broken with discontentment and being kept with contentment.  There are particularly two and they’re tightly connected.  It’s the First and the Tenth.

The First Commandment tells us that not only are we to worship the one true God alone, but we’re also to trust in him alone and “submit to him with all humility and patience.” (HC QA 94).  The First Commandment teaches us to look to God in a certain way.  We’re to have that inward frame of contentment knowing who he is and how he manages all things.  Discontentment is a sin against the First Commandment because it fails to look at God in the right way.  Discontentment fails to have the right frame of heart about who he is and how he does things.

It’s often been pointed out that the First and Tenth Commandments are linked.  They both address the desires of our heart.  Who do we worship and how are our desires framed as a result?  The Tenth Commandment teaches us to be content with what God has given.  Discontentment is a sin against the Tenth Commandment because it involves wrong desires for things that God in his fatherly wisdom hasn’t given.

The link between these two is most explicit in Colossians 3:5.  The Holy Spirit says in Colossians 3:5 that covetousness is idolatry.  It’s idolatry because it’s a matter of wrong priorities, but it’s also idolatry because it fails to reckon with the true revelation of who God is and how he relates to us as his children.

Confronted with those facts, I think we all realize we fall short.  I’ve not always been content, and I’m sure you can say the same.  When that happens, we have to call what it is:  it’s sin.  It’s evil and rebellion against God.  But know also this:  your discontentment is a sin for which Christ shed his blood on the cross.  The gospel promises that through Christ all your past, present, and future discontentment is wiped away in the sight of God.  Through Jesus and his cross, your discontentment is forgiven in full.

But the gospel is even better than that.  The gospel tells us not only of a Saviour who paid for our discontent, but also of a Saviour who lived the contented life.  In Luke 24, Christ told his disciples that the Old Testament pointed to him.  He told them that the book of Psalms was about him.  So when we read, say Psalm 131, we have to keep that interpretive key in mind.  Psalm 131 says, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.”  That’s contentment.  But we have to remember that it’s Christ’s song.  He tells us first of all about his contentment, his perfect “sweet, inward, gracious frame of spirit.”  The First Commandment found its perfect fulfilment in Jesus, and so did the Tenth.  Now this is gospel, this is good news, because when we place our trust in him, his obedience is credited to us.  God looks at us as his children and through Christ’s work, he sees us not only as forgiven, but as 100% positively righteous all the time.  He sees us like the Saviour in Psalm 131.  God says, “There’s my child with that sweet, inward, gracious frame of spirit.  That’s beautiful.  She’s content.”

But God doesn’t want to leave it at that.  The Bible also teaches us to be who we are.  If have this righteousness before God through Christ, it’s meant to transform our lives in the here and now.  We look to our Saviour and hear him calling us to follow him, to be his disciples.  We hear him call us to a life of thankful, loving obedience in response to the gospel of grace.  Our Master says in John 14:15, “If you love, you will keep my commandments.”  That holds true for the First and Tenth Commandments; it holds true when it comes to contentment.  As disciples of Christ, we’re called by our Teacher to pursue contentment in our lives.

In Philippians 4:11, we discover that contentment is something to be learned: “…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”  It needs to be learned.  It is not something that comes naturally to us.  It’s something that has to be taught to us as Christian disciples.

Why is contentment so hard for Christian disciples to learn? 

And it’s a hard thing for Christian disciples to learn.  Let’s spend a couple of moments reflecting on why it’s so hard for us.  I can think of at least five reasons.  There are probably more, but these five are significant.

The first is adversity.  When you experience hard things, it’s challenging to be content.  Whether it’s a marriage that isn’t all you hoped it would be, difficulties in raising children, or disappointments and conflicts in other relationships, contentment can be difficult to attain.  Throw in challenges with mental health, depression, anxiety, and so on, and the challenge rises significantly.  All these forms of adversity make it hard for Christian disciples to learn contentment – note that I didn’t say impossible, but “hard.”

Another reason is that we obviously live in a hugely prosperous culture.  We live in a time where the relentless pursuit for more is a given.  Materialism is rampant all around us.  Advertising reminds us of all the things we don’t have, but should be wanting.  In fact, wants become needs.  You don’t just want a new iPhone X, you need it.  How would you possibly live without it?  The culture of materialistic consumerism depends on discontentment to feed it.  We’re not unaffected by this as disciples of Christ, especially if we allow these subtle messages to take root in our hearts.

We not only live in a prosperous Australian culture, we also live in a very prosperous Free Reformed church culture.  It was once said of the pilgrims who first came to America that they came to do good, but they ended up doing well.  The same might be said of the Dutch immigrants who came here in the post-war period.  They’ve done quite well.  There’s a lot of money floating around.  But rather than breeding contentment, it often has the opposite effect.  How much wealth is enough?  The answer is typically:  a little more.  We have our subtle rationalizations to justify this – we have to be good stewards, and so on.  There is a reason why Christ said that it is more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  There is a reason why he spoke of the deceitfulness of riches in the Parable of the Sower.

If the first two were not big enough challenges, then there’s also what we face whenever we walk into a vanilla Christian bookstore.  Look at the shelf with the best-sellers.  You’ll see names like Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar and Joyce Meyer, just to name a few.  There’s no warning on these books alerting you to the fact that these authors are false teachers and gospel-deniers.  Authors promoting what is known as the prosperity gospel are writing best-selling books and people from our churches can sometimes be duped too.  The prosperity gospel tells you that God wants you to be rich.  You should want to be rich.  You should not be happy until you get that blessing God wants you to have:  name your desire, and claim it.  Scripture warns repeatedly that the love of money is a soul-killer.  Yet these people write and preach as gospel the very thing that will kill your soul!  It’s deplorable.  Especially for Christian women, you need to be aware of someone like Joyce Meyer.  She’s not a faithful teacher of Scripture.  Her gospel is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Steer clear.

But the last thing that makes contentment hard for Christian disciples is our own hearts.  Martin Luther once said, “I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals.  I have within me the great pope, Self.”  Even as Christians, we have the remnants of a sinful nature.  Sin hides in the cracks and crevasses of our hearts.  It calls us back to a life of thorough rebellion against God.  Whenever we’re discontented, we might want to put the blame on all these outside sources.  But in reality, it’s our own hearts that ultimately lead us astray.  We’re the problem.  It’s hard to be contented when you’ve still got sinful inclinations in your heart.

Why is contentment worth pursuing?

Facing those challenges, why is it still worth it for disciples of Jesus to pursue contentment?  Again, I can think of five reasons.

The main reason it’s worth it is because Scripture teaches us to.  First Timothy 6:6 reminds us that “…godliness with contentment is great gain.”  God sets contentment in front of us as something he wills for our lives.  He sets discontentment in front of us as a sinful and wicked thing.  Since he’s our Father, we as Christian disciples are going to take that seriously.  Since he’s our good God, we realize that his will for us is good and worth pursuing.

Closely related to that, contentment “is great gain.”  Just intuitively, we recognize that contentment is a good thing to have.  Discontentment is toxic and it feels that way too.  When you’re discontented, filled with bitterness that you don’t have what you want, it feels rotten.  This negativity eats away at you and produces nothing good in your life.  All sin is like that.  It’s self-destructive.  Contentment, on the other hand, is good for us.

It’s also good for those around us.  When we have that “sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit,” that’s going to bear fruit in our relationships with others.  The inner calm that we have with God’s ordering of things is going to make us more patient in dealing with the people around us.

It’s also a witness to those around us.  Think of our children.  If we’re dealing with some harsh adversity and our children see us handle it with contentment, that’s a witness to them of what God has been doing in our lives with the gospel.  But if God brings some trial and it makes us bitter and angry, that sends the signal that the gospel doesn’t change anything.  The gospel doesn’t have power to change us, so why would it have the power to change anyone else?  The powerful witness of a contented heart makes it worthwhile for Christian disciples to pursue contentment.

The last reason it’s worth pursuing brings us back to God.  When we are the most contented in him, it brings him the most glory.  When his people trust in his goodness and can calmly say, “I know who my Father is and I know his love and I know he’ll always do right.  God is enough.” — that’s hugely God-glorifying.  It lifts him up and shows that he is worthy of our praise and adoration.  God created us for this.  The cross of Christ redeemed us for this.  The Holy Spirit made us disciples for this.  Contentment is worth pursuing because it fulfils the purposes of God for us, especially the purpose of bringing the praise to him with our lives.

So why is contentment worth pursuing?  Scripture teaches us to as part of God’s good will, contentment is good for us, it’s good for our relationships, it’s good for our witness, and it brings glory to God.

Contentment:  how?

Now we come to the big question:  how do we pursue it?

The first thing to realize is that it is attainable.  Even if it’s not perfect or consistent, disciples of Christ can find a measure of contentment in this life.  They can do this no matter what the circumstances they’re facing.  So there’s no need to be fatalistic about this.  Look at Philippians 4 again.  You have to remember Paul’s situation as he writes this.  He’s in prison.  His freedom is restricted.  His future is uncertain.  Yet he says, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.  In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”  He’s saying, I can be content in adversity and I can be content in prosperity.  I have contentment and it doesn’t depend on my circumstances.  My point is that it’s possible.  If it was possible for Paul, it’s possible for us.  Don’t be fatalistic about this, thinking that contentment is impossible or beyond your reach.  It’s not.

Next, we need to realize that we are weak and incapable of working this up from within ourselves.  Someone once said that apart from the power of the Holy Spirit, we are like anorexic weightlifters.  We’re helpless, powerless.  That’s why Paul writes what he does in verse 13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  That’s the key right there.

Now that verse is sometimes misunderstood.  In my late teens, I was just a wee bit negative and cynical about all kinds of things.  Someone gave me a book to read.  It was called The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale.  In many ways, Norman Vincent Peale is the spiritual father of people like Joel Osteen.  Peale’s message was that if you just learn to think positive thoughts, then good things will invariably come to you.  It’s like a machine – plug in good thoughts, and out come the good things you want.  At one point, Peale quotes this verse from Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  He recommends repeating this verse to yourself many times through the course of a day.  It’s the power of positive thinking – you can do anything you want because God is with you.  The problem is that he misinterprets and misapplies it.  There’s a saying that “a text without context is a pretext.”  This is a classic example of that.

Paul was just writing about contentment in all circumstances.  So when he says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” it doesn’t mean that through God’s strength he can literally do anything.  It doesn’t mean that through God’s strength he can drain the ocean.  It doesn’t mean that through God’s strength he can walk to the moon.  In this context, it specifically means that contentment is possible in all circumstances through the strength of the Lord.

That means contentment comes first of all from resting and trusting in Christ alone.  It means recognizing that when we have Christ, we have what is the best and most valuable treasure in the world.  He is the pearl of great price.  Having a relationship with him is priceless.  What I’m talking about here is not a once-off thing.  It’s a continual, conscientious entrusting of ourselves to him.  As we look constantly to him in faith, we are united to him and our union with him grows stronger.  We start more and more to look like our Master, the one to whom we’re united.

Through Christ, we have adoption into God’s family.  To pursue contentment, we need to see and embrace the reality that God is our Father, and we are his beloved children.  He has not only a heart of love for us, but also a hand of power.  Our Father is in control of all our circumstances and he’s a good Father, kind and merciful.  Ever doubt that?  Look to the cross.  The Father gave up what was most valuable to him — he gave up his Son to suffering and death so that we would be his children.  The cross assures us of God’s wonderful love.

We also have Christ’s Spirit living in us.  We’re not left to flail through life on our own.  Christ kept his promise and has not left us as orphans.  He has come to us with his Spirit.  His Spirit fills us and he will give us the strength to find contentment in all circumstances.  For this we need to pray constantly.  If contentment is a struggle for you, recognize that you need the Holy Spirit’s help to put to death your discontentment.  You need the Holy Spirit’s help to foster contentment in your heart.  Since you need the help, ask for it!

When faced with the challenge of contentment in the face of prosperity, Jeremiah Burroughs reminds us of something valuable:  true Christian contentment does not come from addition, but from subtraction.  What he means is that you’ll never find contentment from adding more stuff to your life.  Contentment doesn’t come from more money, more toys, more of anything.  Contentment comes with subtraction.  It comes with subtracting from our evil desires for more.  It actually comes with the Spirit-empowered killing of our evil desires.  Those evil desires have to be killed or they will kill us.  Burroughs is right:  true Christian contentment does not come from addition, but from subtraction.

When faced with the challenge of contentment in the face of adversity, it’s time for meditation on Bible passages like Psalm 73.  Asaph struggled with discontent.  He looked around him and saw the wicked prospering, while he was a God-fearing man who was experiencing adversity.  It seemed upside down to him.  By the way, I once accidentally preached in a prosperity gospel church in Mexico.  I didn’t know it was a prosperity gospel church when I accepted the invitation.  Anyway, as providence would have it, I brought along my sermon on Psalm 73 and preached that, you know about the wicked prospering and the righteous suffering.  The pastor of that church was pretty awkward afterwards!  In Psalm 73, Asaph struggles with contentment in his situation.  It all changes for him when he goes to the temple.  He sees the blood and death associated with the sacrifices and he’s reminded that the wages of sin is death.  There is ultimate justice for the wicked.  They might get all the good stuff here, but it’s not going to help them at all in the end.  For Asaph he gets to the point at the end of the psalm when he says, “God is enough.  I could lose my life, but God will receive me to glory.  God is enough.  There is nothing on earth that I desire more than him.”  He realizes that adversity is just a passing thing.  In the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians, it’s a light and momentary affliction.  If you’ve got Christ, if you’ve got a relationship with God through him, all the afflictions and trials of this life are comparably nothing.  “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  Christian disciples can find and do find contentment, even in hardships.

Let me finish by sharing with you another example of this.  In my first congregation, there was an elderly widow.  This woman had experienced an incredibly hard life.  She and her husband had immigrated to Canada in the 1950s.  They had a rough go of it.  They spent most of their time living in poverty or close to it.  In the 1970s, her husband died at a relatively young age.  When I first met her, she was in her 90s.  She was in a nursing home, bed-ridden.  She didn’t have the health or strength to get out of bed anymore.  She spent every day in bed.  She’d been a widow for over thirty years.  She was in her 90s and all her friends had died.  Some of her children had predeceased her as well.  Yet Aaltje was surprisingly contented.  When I would visit with her she would say to me, “I’m so thankful.  God has been so good to me in my life.  I look forward to going home, but I’m happy right now too.”  As a pastor, sometimes you go on visits and you know that it’s going to be all give on your part.  Whenever I would visit Aaltje, I would be the one getting the most encouragement.  This elderly disciple of Christ was the best example I’ve ever encountered of that “sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit” that Burroughs wrote about.  When I get old, I want to be like Aaltje, because she showed what a contented disciple of Christ looks like.  She’d been through Christ’s school of contentment and she graduated with honours.  Today she’s with the Lord, forever contented in him.  Fellow disciples, as we live here on our pilgrimage, let’s continue to follow our Master and learn from him.  Some glorious day, we too will be with him, forever contented.


God’s Jealousy

The following is a talk given to the morning assembly of the Cornerstone Christian School in Lynden, Washington on December 13, 2017.

When we think of jealousy we often think of it as being a bad thing.  Your parents might tell you it’s not good to be jealous of someone else’s stuff or their looks or whatever else.  When we use the word “jealous” in that way, what we’re really talking about is envy.  Envy is a sin.  It’s coveting, sin against the Tenth Commandment.  You want what someone else has.  In that sense “jealousy” is not good.

But there is another type of jealousy we can say is good.  There is a kind of jealousy where we would even say it’s wrong if it’s not there when it needs to be.  You can see it best in the relationship between a husband and a wife.  A husband should be jealous for the love of his wife, and a wife should be jealous for the love of her husband.  That’s normal.

Shai Linne has a song where he vividly describes this jealousy.  It’s on his album The Attributes of God.  The song is called “the Jealous One” (listen here) and the first part of the song goes like this:

Ok, let’s begin- let your mind roam
Our scene takes place inside of a home
The husband has just walked up the staircase
He glares into space with despair on his face
His soul is on fire, inside there’s a war
That can’t be denied, He stands outside the door
On the other side, His bride and her lover
Oblivious to the fact their lie has been discovered
So as they embrace and try to make haste
They have no idea what’s about to take place
Gun in hand, he longs to understand
What would lead his wife into the arms of another man?
He thinks back to the day they made their vows
Before God, before the minister and the crowds
Exchange of the rings, the joy of the reception
Now a tainted memory destroyed by deception
He had been faithful to her
Now the fire of his desire got him ready to do something hateful to her
He never thought his wife would be just a faker
And that her lust would make her a covenant breaker
The promise of fidelity they made was glorious
But now his jealousy has made him furious
And they can’t see the danger
No screams or pleas they make could ever ease the pain or appease his anger
He kicks open the door- they jump out of the bed
“Don’t move!” is all he said, gun pointed at his head
The screams of his wife as she clutches the covers close
Her lover spoke to plead for his life
The husband says to the guy- “Look me in my eye
My face will be the last thing you see before you die”
The husband cried inside- his love was bona fide
Trouble for the bride- double homicide

You see, what kind of husband would just be okay with that situation?  What kind of husband would just look the other way while his wife is unfaithful to him?  He would be a bad husband if he were not jealous for the exclusive love of his wife.  Jealousy in the marriage relationship is a good thing, isn’t it?  By the way, Shai Linne is not saying it’s okay for jealous husbands to kill their wives, and neither am I.  He’s simply saying that in our world, jealousy produces these strong emotions that sometimes make people act violently.  That’s what happens in human relationships.

In the Bible, God says that he has a relationship with us.  He compares the relationship with his people to a marriage.  God is the husband and his people are his bride.  This is found in a few places in Scripture, but the place where it’s described most is in the book of Hosea.  At the time Hosea was written, God’s people were being wicked and sinful.  They were worshipping idols.  God says this was unfaithfulness to him.  They were in a covenant relationship, a relationship which is like a marriage.  In that relationship they were only supposed to love him and be committed only to him.  But God says in Hosea that they were like a wife who commits adultery.  And God doesn’t look the other way.  He sees this and it arouses his jealousy.  He becomes righteously angry at their spiritual adultery and he expresses his jealous anger.  In chapter 1 of Hosea he says that he will have no mercy on his people.  He says they are no longer his people and he is no longer their God.  And there will be consequences.  It’s all very intense.

Let’s try to think a little more deeply about this.  First, what exactly is God’s jealousy?  We could say that it is God’s intense zeal to protect the exclusiveness of the relationship with his people.  It is God’s passionate desire to have all the love and commitment of his covenant people.  Furthermore, it leads to God’s wrath against his people when they are unfaithful to him.

There is far more we can say about it.  If you look in article 1 of the Belgic Confession, you find a list of God’s attributes.  It’s a good biblical list, but it is not a complete list.  God’s jealousy is not directly mentioned there.  The Westminster Confession of Faith is another Reformed confession, used by our Presbyterian sister churches.  The Westminster Confession has an article mentioning God’s attributes as well.  It’s a fuller list than you find in the Belgic Confession.  But there too, we don’t find any explicit mention of God’s jealousy.

This is because God’s jealousy is usually connected with another attribute of God.  Some connect it to his righteousness and holiness.  They say because God is righteous and holy, he must be jealous for the love of his people.  There is truth to that – in Joshua 24:19, Joshua says to Israel, “You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God.  He is a jealous God…”  You find the same thing in the Second Commandment.  We hear it every Sunday:  you shall not worship idols, “for I the LORD your God am a jealous God.”  His holiness means that he must be jealous for the exclusive love of Israel.  If they don’t love him exclusively, they will face his holy judgment and wrath.  He will visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation” of those who hate him.  That’s righteous, holy wrath.

However, in view of what we read in Hosea and elsewhere, we can also see God’s jealousy as connected to his love.  If a husband didn’t love his wife, there would be no jealousy if she were unfaithful.  Similarly, if God didn’t love his people, there would be no jealousy if they were unfaithful.  God’s love is therefore at the root of his jealousy.

One of the key things to remember about God’s jealousy is that it has a background against sin.  To say it more correctly, it has a background against the possibility of sin.  A husband is jealous for the love of his wife, because we live in a broken world where we know unfaithfulness happens.  He doesn’t want his wife to be unfaithful to him.  But in a perfect world where nobody was ever unfaithful, jealousy wouldn’t need to exist.  It’s the same with God.  He is jealous for the love his people, because there is a fallen world where unfaithfulness happens.  God doesn’t want his people to be unfaithful to him.  Therefore, because it is a broken and fallen world, God expresses his jealous love in his Word.

Whenever we sin against God, we are being unfaithful to him.  Whenever we break one of his commandments and do our will instead of his, we are committing spiritual adultery.  We are God’s people, but we are not acting like his people.  Instead, we’re acting like we belong to someone else.  The Bible says that our sin is covenant-breaking – it violates the relationship with God and provokes his jealousy.

This is why we need Jesus.  As I mentioned, God’s jealousy exists within the context of his relationship with his people.  We have a special word for that relationship:  the covenant.  God has his covenant with us, with believers and their children.  This is a relationship between a holy God and a sinful people.  The distance between these two could not be greater.  But there is someone who has bridged that distance.  That someone is the Mediator of the covenant, Jesus Christ.  He goes between a sinful people and a holy God and he makes the relationship work.  He does that in two particular ways.

One is that Jesus took the jealous wrath of God on himself before and during his time on the cross.  Though he had never done anything to deserve it, he took our place.  Jesus took our hell in body and soul.  He took the punishment against all our unfaithfulness.  If we are trusting in Christ, then God promises that all our unfaithfulness and spiritual adultery is forgiven.  We are restored to a healthy relationship with him.  The breach has been healed.

With his blood shed on the cross, Christ wipes our slates clean.  There’s not a trace of unfaithfulness left on our account with God.  That’s good news!   But the good news gets even better.  Our Saviour doesn’t just leave our slates clean.  He fills them up with his own righteousness.  He was consistently faithful to God.  He never worshipped idols.  Jesus never provoked his Father to jealousy.  He was always 100% committed to God, loved him perfectly, obeyed him flawlessly.  The Belgic Confession echoes the Bible when it says that “his obedience is ours when we believe in him.”  When we are joined to Christ through faith, God looks at us and he sees Christ and his faithfulness, his love, his commitment.  He sees us as he sees his own Son.

The forgiveness offered on the cross plus the obedience offered during Christ’s life makes the covenant of grace work between us and God.  Even though we are still sinful and imperfect, we can still have this beautiful relationship with a holy God.  It’s all through Christ, through Christ alone.

This is the gospel, this is the good news that warms our hearts in love for God.  When we see Christ in his glory living and dying for us, then we’re in the right place to begin hating all our unfaithfulness.  We’re in the right place to see it as something to be suffocated.  We have to kill it.

Because we’ve been rescued by Christ and saved by God’s love, we don’t want to provoke him to jealousy anymore.  How do we avoid doing that?  First of all, we have to recognize that when the Bible speaks about God’s jealousy oftentimes it’s in the context of idols.  Exodus 34:14 says, “For you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”  Idols are not just Baal, Ashtaroth and all those false gods of the Old Testament.  Idols are anything we turn to the in place of God.  John Calvin once said that we are idol factories.  We crank them out.  We create them out of everything and anything.  Idols are anything we turn to in the place of God for joy, satisfaction, or purpose.  Sports can be an idol.  So can money, music, sexual pleasure, work, and just about anything.  We need to see our idols and see them for what they are.  Jeremiah 2:13 says that they are broken cisterns that can’t hold water.  They can’t sustain life.  Idols are never going to bless you – instead, they’re only going to destroy you.  Part of the way they do that is by wrecking your relationship with God.  Once you see that reality, you will see that there is a superior joy, a superior satisfaction, and the highest purpose in God, in loving God and living in his ways.  Listen to what his Word says about the reality of idols.  Don’t listen to the world and its fantasies about idols.  The world tells us lies about our idols.  The Bible tells us the truth, and it’s that truth that will set us free.  It’s that truth that will help us to steer clear of provoking our God to jealousy with our idols.

I don’t think we reflect very often on God’s jealousy.  That’s too bad, because this is something included in the Bible to make us see the real nature of God’s relationship with us.  When we sin against God with our idols, it’s like a spouse cheating.  The spouse cheated upon takes it personally.  The spouse cheated upon feels hurt and angry.  God’s jealousy tells us that God takes it personally when we’re unfaithful to him.  What kind of God would he be if he weren’t like that?  What would it say about his love if he weren’t jealous for our love?   Seeing this reality of what our God is like and what our relationship to him is like is meant to draw us closer to him, meant to motivate us to care about being faithful to him.  May he help us with his Holy Spirit to do that.

Quotable Church History: “Here I stand…”

This is the fourth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

Martin Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms in April of 1521 is one of the most dramatic (and dramatized) events in Reformation church history.  Summoned to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor, Luther was supposed to repudiate his writings and terminate the Reformation movement once and for all.  At his first appearance, Luther fearfully hesitated.  He was granted a day’s reprieve.  On April 18, he appeared with a fresh measure of boldness.  He owned his writings and allowed that in some of them perhaps he had written too rashly.  But in other books and pamphlets, he had spoken of faith and piety in such a manner that even his critics had to grant there was some value.  Still in other writings, he had critiqued the abuses and apostasy of the Roman Church.  If he would recant these, he said, he would “add strength to tyranny.”  He insisted that unless he was convinced by Scripture or by plain reason, he would not back down, his conscience being held captive to the Word of God.

It’s the conclusion of Luther’s address to the Diet of Worms that bears some extra attention.  In most portrayals, literary, cinematic and otherwise, we hear Luther saying something like this:  “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.  God help me.  Amen.”  But did Luther really say this?

The official transcript of the Diet of Worms would suggest that he did not.  This is how the record reads:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason — for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves — I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound.  God help me.  Amen.

Notice how the ending is quite different from the commonly accepted version.  There is no “Here I stand.”  Where did the extra words come from?

They appeared in the version Luther’s supporters published shortly thereafter in Wittenberg.  This was the version that became embedded in the popular mind.  As Lyndal Roper comments in her biography Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, the words “certainly encapsulated the spirit of his appearance” (p.183).  But did Luther actually say it?  We have no way of knowing for sure.  Perhaps eyewitnesses brought this aspect of the account back to Wittenberg, or perhaps Luther himself reported what he said.  As for the discrepancy with the official record, Roland Bainton suggests this explanation:  “The words, though not recorded on the spot, may nevertheless be genuine, because the listeners at the moment may have been too moved to write” (Here I Stand, p.185).  But it could also be that the official record is correct and Luther’s supporters (intentionally or not) embellished his words.

Whether or not Luther said these exact words, it is eminently biblical to take this sort of uncompromising stance when the gospel is at stake.  Luther was motivated by a desire to bring the church back to the Scriptures, back to the Christ of the Scriptures.  He saw how things had gone off track and how things needed to be reformed.  The church had to get back to the gospel — there was no other way.  Luther’s position was Pauline.  Paul wrote of those who would preach another gospel.  Even if it would be angel from heaven, he said that such a one should be accursed (Gal. 1:6-9).  In Luther’s mind, the Roman Church had been corrupted by the preaching of another gospel.  How could he, at the Diet of Worms, then compromise and recant?  Would he not then share in Rome’s accursedness?  He had no choice but to stand firm.

Luther is a legendary figure in church history and, as with all legendary figures, there are legends surrounding him — some with less truth than others.  One thing is certain, however:  God worked through him to recover the gospel in a dark era.  God gave him the boldness to stand fast on the cardinal truths of Scripture and for this all Protestants ought to be eternally grateful.