Book Review: How to Defend the Faith

How to Defend the Faith: A Presuppositional Approach, Riley Fraas.  Thaddeus Publications, 2018.  Softcover, 133 pages, $8.99 USD.

I first became interested in apologetics as a university student some 25 years ago.  Back then, we didn’t have a lot of books written about the theory or practice of Reformed apologetics.  I should qualify that:  we didn’t have a lot of books by others besides Cornelius VanTil (who was a prolific writer in the field).  Since then, we have seen a good number of volumes by other authors such as Greg Bahnsen, Scott Oliphint, and John Frame.  However, most of these books lean more towards the theoretical.  There’s still little in print showing how to put it into practice.

In this little guide, Riley Fraas does give a bare-bones summary of the ideas behind Reformed (or presuppositional) apologetics.  However, readers interested in going deeper will have to go elsewhere.  According to the author, “The intent is that this handbook will be a useful resource for the Christian layperson to have at his fingertips, to answer almost every kind of objection effectively:  a segue to the gospel” (131).  How to Defend the Faith demonstrates the principles of Reformed apologetics through a series of imagined dialogues based on the author’s real-life experiences.

Fraas spends most of his time on the objections of atheism.  He teaches readers how to reply to the atheist who says, “I believe that the important thing is to be a good person and empathize with fellow human beings.  As long as you do that, no god is needed” (46).  Or the atheist who says, “Show me evidence for any god” (62).  Most Christians will be tempted to immediately start laying out various evidences, allowing the atheist to be the judge of the evidence.  Fraas shows a better way — but to find out that better way, you’ll have to read the book for yourself!

One of the helpful features of this book is the attention given to various false religions.  Not much work has been done in showing how Reformed apologetics responds to the claims of Judaism or Islam, the so-called Abrahamic faiths.  Fraas fills in that gap.   He also addresses Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

When it comes to Islam, Fraas notes that one of Islam’s weak points is its theoretical affirmation that both the Old Testament and New Testament are valid, while at the same contradicting these writings.  The classic example is Islam’s insistence that God has no son.  Fraas argues that this internal inconsistency makes Islam rationally indefensible.  He is correct on that, but more should be said.  What he doesn’t say is that Muslims also claim that Jews and Christians have corrupted the writings of the Bible, and thus the current text of the OT and NT are unreliable.  This is what any Christian will face if he challenges a Muslim on this internal inconsistency in Islam.  In reply to that, Christians must challenge Muslims to prove their claim.  Where is the proof that Jews and Christians have corrupted these writings so that they’re unreliable?

This is a handy little book, especially for those who have already had some basic exposure to Reformed apologetics and are convinced of its elemental premises.  It gives the reader a good idea of how to biblically defend the faith and then also point our unbelieving conversation partners to the gospel.  It’s not just an enjoyable read from front to back; it’ll also be a great reference to keep coming back to when engaged in giving a reason for the hope that is in us.


Theistic Evolution and the Creation of “Human Beings”

Creation Without Compromise

Back in late 2009, some ministerial colleagues and I were discussing with concern the apparently growing influence of evolutionary thinking in the Canadian Reformed Churches.  What could we do about it?  Five of us decided to collaborate on an article, “Ten Reasons Why Evolution is Dangerous and Evil.”  Authored by Walter Geurts, George van Popta, John van Popta, Jim Witteveen and yours truly, this was published in the January 1, 2010 issue of ClarionYou find it online here.

At the beginning of March 2010, an 11-part series of responses began to be published on the Reformed Academic blog.  It’s not my intent to interact with those responses as such.  Rather, I want to point out one particular point of response.  It relates to something I’ve read more recently.

One of the “ten reasons” was that “Evolution must regard Genesis 2:8 as mythical.”  Rev. John van Popta argued…

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Two Relationship Cripplers

As a pastor one of my chief goals is to see the believers entrusted to my care grow in having a vital relationship with God.  I want to see the people in my church mature in a relationship of fellowship with him.  Growing up in the church or being discipled in the church, there are habits we can pick up that can stand in the way of this growth.  Today I want to look at two “relationship cripplers.”  Both of these have to do with one of the chief ways in which our relationship with God comes to expression on a daily basis:  prayer.  Every healthy relationship includes communication, and prayer is the biblically-ordained means by which we communicate in our relationship with God.

The language we use in prayer reflects how we think about our relationship with God and, to some degree, how that relationship functions.  Specifically, I’m thinking about how we address God in our prayers.  The words we use to address anyone in any relationship often reflect how that relationship works.  For example, husbands and wives often use terms of endearment and this reflects their love for one another.  Now, when it comes to God and how we address him, there are two possible “relationship cripplers.”  There are more, but let’s focus on these two.

Never “Father”

Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer as a model.  While there are other many other prayers in Scripture we can learn from, the Christian church has always given pride of place to the prayer which Christ himself taught us.  In that prayer, our Lord taught us to address God like this:  “Our Father in heaven…”  So Jesus taught us that we can pray to God as “our Father.”  Believers are adopted children of God and so they have the inestimable privilege of addressing God as their Father.

Yet when you listen to many Reformed believers pray, they don’t take advantage of this privilege!  Instead, they often default to the more Old Testament way of speaking to God as “Lord.”  Now, there is certainly nothing unbiblical or sinful about addressing God as “Lord.”  Yet Christ taught us “our Father,” and why?  Because he wanted us, when we pray, to remind ourselves that our relationship with God is familial:  he is our Father, we are his children.  When we never use the language taught to us by Jesus, we run the risk of crippling (at least in our experience) the reality of our relationship with God.

“Lord” emphasizes God’s transcendence, his highly exalted majesty.  “Lord” has the tendency to focus on God’s holiness and his distance from sinners.

“Father” emphasizes God’s immanence, his gracious presence and nearness.  “Father” has the tendency to focus on God’s compassion and his love for sinners.

With good reason, then, Jesus taught us to pray “our Father.”  When we do that, we also express something of God’s transcendence (a father is always greater than his children), but when we combine it with “in heaven,” then that emphasis is also explicitly present.  In that you can see the brilliant wisdom of the Lord’s Prayer.  So, think of God as your Father, and use the privilege of addressing him as such.  It will enrich your relationship with him.

Only “Father”

The first crippler is a matter of emphasis; our second is an outright erroneous interpretation of Scripture.  Again, it has to do with the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father in heaven.”  There have been some who have argued that when Jesus said to pray “Our Father,” he was teaching us to pray only to the first person of the Trinity.  So, on this interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, Christians are not supposed to pray to Christ or to the Holy Spirit.  We are only to pray to God the Father.  Ironically, often the same people who hold this view are the ones who chronically pray “Lord,” instead of “Father.”

I have discussed this at length before.  Let me just summarize three of the strongest counter-arguments:

  1.  In the original context in which the Lord’s Prayer was taught, Jesus was speaking to Jews who had, at best, a shadowy understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.  No original audience member would have concluded that Jesus was speaking about the first person of the Trinity.  Instead, he was using language from the Old Testament that had been used to speak of Yahweh (the one God) as Father (Deut. 32:6, Ex. 4:22-23, Is. 63:16, etc.).
  2. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we see several examples of prayer to our Lord Jesus Christ with no indication this is unlawful (Acts 7:59, 2 Cor. 12:8, etc.).
  3. In Ephesians 5, the relationship between Christ and his church is said to be like a marriage relationship.  A relationship in which one party is forbidden to communicate with the other is absurd.

Further, it’s clear in church history that such an interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer is a quirky outlier.

When we use the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father in heaven,” we are addressing the one Triune God as our heavenly Father — “Yahweh,” if you will.  But this in no way precludes the freedom and privilege Scripture gives us to also speak to the individual persons of the Trinity.  If we have a real relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then we ought to be communicating with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  If we don’t, we run the risk of crippling our relationship by reducing one or more of the persons of the Trinity to an abstract theological concept.  Ask yourself:  why do so many believers refer to the Holy Spirit as “it,” rather than “he”?

There are moments in Christian devotion when it is appropriate to pray to Jesus in particular.  For example, if your personal devotions take you through the gospels where you see the person and work of Christ explicitly on display, it makes good sense to pray to him and praise him for how you see him revealed there.  It makes sense to vocalize your love for Jesus and your praise to him.

There are moments when it’s also appropriate to pray to the Holy Spirit.  He is the one who dwells in us and who gives us the strength to hate sin and fight sin.  We ought to plead with him to do his work, to sanctify us, and to help us grow in becoming more like Christ.

A robust Trinitarian spirituality is crippled when we erroneously believe that the line of communication is only open to one person of the Trinity.  This is not biblical and this is not helpful.

So, dear reader, do make use of the privileges Scripture gives us in regard to our relationship with God.  When it comes to prayer, you have the privilege of addressing the one Triune God as your Father.  You also have the privilege and freedom to address each individual person of the Trinity.  When you understand and use both of these privileges, you’ll find that your relationship with God will grow stronger and more meaningful.


Schaeffer: Inerrancy is a Watershed Issue

“Several years ago the respected evangelical leader Francis Schaeffer used the example of a watershed in the Swiss Alps to illustrate what happens when some Christians begin to abandon the complete truthfulness of the Bible in places where it speaks to matters of history and science.  When spring comes, two bits of snow that are only an inch apart in the high mountains of Switzerland will melt on two sides of a ridge in the rock, and the drop of water from one side of the watershed will eventually flow into the Rhine River and then into the cold waters of the North Sea, while the drop of water on the other side of the watershed will eventually flow into the Rhone River and finally into the Mediterranean Sea.  In the same way, Christians who seem so close together on many issues, if they differ on the watershed issue of biblical inerrancy, will in the next generation or two train up disciples who will be a thousand miles apart from each other on many of the most central matters taught in the Bible.”

~ Wayne Grudem, “Theistic Evolution Undermines Twelve Creation Events and Several Crucial Christian Doctrines,” in Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique (ed. by Moreland, Meyer, Shaw, Gauger, Grudem), p.822.


Angels and Mission

When it comes to angels, there are two extremes.  One is to treat angels like little gods.  Roman Catholicism does this by encouraging prayers to angels.  Another extreme is to neglect angels altogether.  Neither extreme is biblical.

Historically, the Reformed churches have neither ignored the angels nor given them excessive attention.  If you look at the index of Calvin’s Institutes, two-thirds of a page are filled with references to angels.  This soundly reflects the emphasis found in the Scriptures.  Similarly, article 12 of the Belgic Confession has a paragraph devoted to the Scriptural teaching about the creation and purpose of angels.  However, I don’t think many people have considered how the biblical teaching on angels bears on how we think about the missionary task of the church.

Belgic Confession Article 12

Says our Confession, “He also created the angels good, to be his messengers and serve the elect.”  The angels were also part of God’s created work, though we do not know at what point they came into being.  Regardless, their purpose is clear:  they exist to serve God and his people.  Though they were created good, some of the angels have fallen – these we call the devils and evil spirits.   These hounds of hell “are so depraved that they are enemies of God and of all that is good.  With all their might, they lie in wait like murderers to ruin the Church and all its members and to destroy everything by their wicked devices.”  This means that when we consider our missionary task, there is a formidable array of opponents waiting to destroy everything we try to do.  But, on the other hand, the reverse is also true:  we have a redoubtable heavenly host allied with us as, by the power and grace of God, we break ground for his kingdom.  The good angels serve to build and establish the church.  They are there to facilitate our missionary task.

The missionary task was given to the church by our Lord Jesus in such passages as Matthew 28:18-20.  The Scriptures are clear that the angels must always be considered in connection with him.  They exist to serve the church and its task because they first exist to serve our Lord Jesus Christ.  In popular portrayals, angels tend to be individualistic.  They stand on their own.  However, in the Scriptures, angels are first the servants of God, sent out by Christ and therefore under his authority.   This is clear in a passage such as Mark 1:13 where, following the temptations of Satan, our Lord Jesus was served by the angels.

The Service of the Angels

This service of the angels is a feature of the ongoing spiritual battle with Satan and his minions.  In the Old Testament this is most vividly seen in Numbers 22-24.  Dr. J. DeJong describes quite accurately the scene:  “Particularly the first chapter describes the intensity of the struggle with Balaam first being commanded not to go, and then going, and finally a messenger is sent to meet him, an adversary.  We have here an adversary against the Adversary, an opponent opposing the opponent.”[1]  And, of course, in the New Testament we see this battle with Satan and his angels in the Revelation of Christ to John.  The whole Bible makes it clear that we live in a time of spiritual conflict.  One of the preeminent ways our Lord Jesus fights this conflict is through his angelic armies.  These armies continue to serve Christ as he daily gathers his church from the four corners of the earth.

These angels are therefore an integral part of the mission of the church.  Their involvement is not dispassionate.  Rather, the Scriptures make clear that they are emotionally involved with what is going on.  They share in the disappointments and the joys as lost sinners are brought to their master, King Jesus.   Luke 15:10 tells us that “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  When there is joy within the bride of Christ, there is also joy with his servants the angels.   But why?

It’s because, as Christ’s servants, the angels are also participating with the church in the gathering of lost sinners.  Here we can think of their supporting role in the book of Acts.  Angels appear in the very first chapter to comfort and encourage the apostles after the ascent of our Saviour.  In chapter 5, an angel appears to release the apostles from prison so that the intense growth of the church could continue unabated.  He encouraged the apostles to continue preaching to that end.  In chapter 8, an angel goes to Philip and sends him down the desert road to Gaza where he providentially meets the Ethiopian eunuch – thus the gospel begins its journey into Africa.   In chapter 12, Peter is released from prison again by an angel.   Then, in chapter 27, an angel appears to Paul and assures him he will provide a witness before Caesar.

What About Today?

Do the angels continue to form an integral part of the mission of the church?  Though their presence may not be visible to the same degree, we have no reason to believe the angels have withdrawn themselves from the church-gathering work of Christ in this present day.  They serve Jesus Christ and have not stopped doing so.  In fact, the Olivet discourse shows that they will have a role in the last days of this earth:  “And then he will send his angels, and gather together his elect from the four winds, from the furthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven.” (Mark 13:27).  In their facilitating and guiding the missionary task of the church today, they are preparing for the great last day of our Lord Jesus.

There is an interesting story that has circulated for many years in Reformed churches about a certain preacher in the Netherlands.  If I am correct, the story took place in the 1800s.  This preacher held an evangelistic service in a certain town and then made his way safely home through the dark streets.  A number of years later, a man came to him and told him that he’d become a Christian because of the preacher’s ministry.  He asked if he remembered that dark evening so many years ago.  He did.  He then asked who the other two men were who had been walking with him.  He and a friend were lying in wait to kill the preacher (who had irked them with his message and presence), but the other two had scared them away.  The preacher replied that he had been all alone that evening.  Suddenly, he realized that he had not been alone after all.

Whether or not that story is totally accurate, we can be sure the Scriptural teaching on angels means that missionaries are never alone.  Certainly, we have the Holy Spirit who dwells in us and guides us with the Word.  But we also have the angelic host who protect us.  In so doing, they serve Jesus as he gathers his church through us.  They not only protect, but in ways unknown, they also engage the enemy in offensive battle.  While we do not want to speculate, we do know that the angels are fighting the spiritual war in the spiritual realm – and their victory is assured.

The biblical teaching on angels gives insight and strength, not only to the missionary (and those who support him), but also to the mission congregation.  New believers can know that their struggles are the concern of their Lord Jesus and he will support them with his angels.  But the mission congregation can also find strength in this teaching when they gather for worship.  Sometimes, especially at the beginning, mission congregations can be small.  Such a congregation does not worship alone.  Our Lord Jesus is there with them (according to his promise in Matt.18:20), but we also learn from such passages as Hebrews 12:22 that his holy angels are present too.   In his Institutes (3.20.23), Calvin writes:  “God willed to appoint the angels to care for our salvation.  Consequently, they attend sacred assemblies, and the church is for them a theater in which they marvel at the varied and manifold wisdom of God [Eph.3:10].” An acute awareness of this fact can be an immense support for young believers who often feel the isolation and loneliness which true faith can bring.

The bottom line is that angelology (the doctrine concerning angels) is a matter of comfort for all of us, and also when it comes to our missionary task.  When faced with our spiritual struggles (not against flesh and blood), we can recall the experience of Elisha and his servant in 2 Kings 6:16-17.   They were surrounded by a heavenly army of angels, prepared to fight the Lord’s battle.  Angels continue to do battle today; they continue to serve our Lord Jesus.  A heavenly host is warring together with us.  We know that the power of God is on their side and ours and thus we can have both courage and optimism in our work of proclaiming the gospel to lost sinners.

In different ways, Jesus Christ continues to gather his church:  He sends his Spirit.  He sends men.  He also sends angels.  Thus, the glory belongs not to the angels, nor to us, but to our faithful Saviour, the Shepherd who gathers his sheep.

[1] “Angels and their Role in Pastoral Care,” by Dr. J. DeJong, in Koinonia 19.1 (Spring 2002), p.11.