Overcoming the Fear of Man

I know what it’s like to be blinded by the fear of what others might think of me. If you’ve got human DNA in your cells, I suspect you do too. It’s not a rare problem. We can easily be blinded or even paralyzed by according ourselves the ability to read another person’s mind and know the estimation they’ll form of us — and then let that control what we’ll say or do. This especially can happen when we’re in front of an opportunity to acknowledge Christ and his place in our lives. This can happen when there’s an opportunity for us to be known or seen as a Christian.

When I was 17 years old I had an English assignment due.  We were supposed to read a novel and write a report.  I’d left it to the last minute.  I looked through the list of books and saw George Orwell’s 1984.  I’d read that book in Grade 6, so I kind of knew the story-line.  But then I remembered that it’d been made into a movie.  I’d seen the movie on the shelf at my local video store.  So I thought:  I’ll just watch the movie, review the plot-line that way, and then write my report.  I can get it all done in two or three hours.  I went to the video store and bragged to the guy behind the counter about my plan.  He then asked me which school I went to.  I didn’t want to tell him that I went to a Christian school.  I was ashamed of that, so I told him I went to the local public school.  He said, “Oh, I went there too.  Who’s your English teacher?”  I lied again and made up some name.  He said, “Oh, I never heard of her before, is she new?”  I lied again and just tried my best to get out of there as quickly as I could.  I had the fear of man in me something strong.  I wanted to be seen as cool and edgy, even by this stranger.  I didn’t want to be seen as connected with a Christian school, or anything Christian.

The Bible describes this problem. Just think of the Gospel According to John. There are at least three instances where we see men and women frozen by the fear of man.

The most famous would be in John 3 when Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. True, the text doesn’t actually say that Nicodemus did this because he was afraid, but it’s a legitimate conclusion.

In John 9, the parents of the man born blind who’d been healed by Jesus, hesitated to say anything about Jesus. Why? “…Because they feared the Jews, for the Jews already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be the Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22). Excommunication hung over their heads. It petrified them and so they didn’t want to come anywhere near being seen as supporters of Jesus, even though he’d healed their son.

Finally, at the end of John 12 we’re told that many of the Jewish authorities believed in Jesus, but hid it. This is the reason: “….for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:42-43). Again, there was a fear of excommunication and social exclusion.

The Bible not only describes the problem, it also addresses it. The gospel tells us of a Saviour who was never blinded or paralyzed by the fear of man. He feared God, but not man. If you believe in Jesus Christ, his obedience is credited to you. The gospel tells us of a Saviour who also died on the cross for the scared witless, those whose sinful hearts give in to foolish fear. That’s a sin for which he paid the penalty too. Through Christ, there’s forgiveness for the fear of man.

Through Christ’s Spirit, there’s also a way to overcome the fear of man. We’re not doomed to be stuck in this rut of fear. Think of 2 Timothy 1:7, “…for God gave us not a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.” With his strength, the Holy Spirit makes believers bold — certainly we see that in the book of Acts. Peter, who not long before had himself been seized by the fear of man, now speaks boldly for the Lord. The Spirit has changed him and gifted him with this boldness. He can do the same for us.

So, if you’re struggling with the fear of man, what can you do? As an essential first step: pray for the Holy Spirit to overcome your fear. Pray for him to fill you and drive out your fear. Ask him to work in your heart so that you’re bold and fearless, especially when given opportunities to confess the name of Christ. Here’s what happens as we do that:

“When I called, you answered me; you made me bold and stouthearted.” (Psalm 138:3, NIV).


Traitors or Loyal Subjects?

Imagine for a moment a powerful yet wise and good king ruling over his vast kingdom.  Years ago, there was a rebellion in the kingdom.  Subjects of the king revolted against his rule.  They continued to live in his kingdom, but they refused to acknowledge his rightful authority.  When these rebels had children, they trained them to likewise reject the king.   Eventually, the king took action to address the rebellion.  Rather than immediately punish all his defiant subjects, he graciously offered them the gift of pardon and forgiveness, if only they would only return to acknowledge him as rightful king.  Some of the subjects did.  They turned from being traitors to being loyal subjects of the king. 

This is broadly analogous to the way things are in this world.  God is that good and wise king.  Human beings have rebelled against his rule, irrationally acted as traitors.  Yet in the gospel, God has offered pardon and forgiveness.  He calls for faith in Jesus Christ, a turn from sin, and a return to acknowledging his kingship.  By his grace, some do.  Many others, however, don’t.  They continue to traitorously rebel against the wise and good King.    

This analogy highlights a key feature of a biblical worldview:  there is no neutrality among human beings.  Humanity divides into two black and white categories.  There are traitors and there are loyal subjects of the King.

This contrast is found throughout the Bible.  For example, Jesus said in Matthew 12:30, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”  Loyal subjects are with Jesus Christ, on his side doing the work of gathering.  Traitors are against him, scattering as they go.  Similarly, in Matthew 25, Jesus speaks of the final judgment in terms of a separation between sheep and goats.  The sheep have been loyal subjects of the King, treating his brothers in a kind and compassionate way.  The goats have been traitors, acting selfishly in rebellion against the Lord.  There is, indeed, no neutrality among human beings.  Ever. 

This part of a biblical worldview has massive practical consequences.  Let me just briefly touch on two important areas.

Apologetics has to do with our defence and promotion of the Christian faith.  The biblical teaching about the impossibility of neutrality has to be taken into account.  The way we do that is by acknowledging what God says:  the unbeliever we’re speaking with is not neutral.  If he doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ and acknowledge God as king, he’s a rebel and a traitor in God’s kingdom.  You can’t pretend otherwise.  You can’t be silent about it.  Because you, as a Christian, are a loyal subject of the King you stand up for his crown rights.  Because you were previously a traitor yourself, but have experienced the pardon and forgiveness of this good King, you want the unbeliever to come to the same experience.  Therefore, in your apologetics, you have to speak about the reality of rebellion against the King.  You have to call the traitor to give up his treason.

For at least the past 200 years, Reformed believers have insisted that the Bible’s teaching on neutrality has a huge bearing on education.  Regardless of the type of school, the teachers are either traitors or loyal subjects of the King.  In their education, in the place of the parent (in loco parentis), they are going to train children to be either traitors or loyal subjects of the King.  This extends into educational philosophy as well.  A school is going to be guided by a philosophy that is either in rebellion against the King, or showing loyal submission to the King.  There is no neutrality in educational philosophy.  This is why, historically, we have argued for the necessity of Christian education.  Because there is no neutrality, we aim to have our children educated in a way that honours the King and seeks to create more loyal subjects for the King.

Every generation needs to be reminded of this biblical worldview cornerstone.  Why?  Because even as loyal subjects, even as Christians, we still have some of the rebel left in us.  That rebellious remnant tends to make us drift.  It tends to make us blur the lines and see neutrality where there is none.  When that happens and we don’t even see unbelief as an affront to the King anymore, we ourselves have been lured back to treason.  That would be tragic.


New/Old Reformed Apologetics Resources

As a 21 year old young man I was singularly blessed. My introduction to apologetics (the defense of the faith) was directly to Reformed apologetics. In God’s providence, no one told me to read Josh McDowell, William Lane Craig or even Lee Strobel. No, when I came to apologetics, I was brought directly to Cornelius Van Til. My first book on apologetics was Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith (Third Edition). I devoured it over the course of a couple weeks during my first summer off from university. It set my mind ablaze. I started telling everyone who’d listen about Reformed, presuppositional apologetics. You couldn’t shut me up about it.

How I was introduced to Van Til is a peculiar story. It involves a number of Canadian Reformed folks in northern Alberta who were enamoured with a movement known as Christian Reconstructionism. One of the planks of Christian Reconstruction is theonomy. One of the things theonomy teaches is that there is a continuing divine obligation for civil government today “to obey and enforce the relevant laws of the Old Testament, including the penal sanctions specified by the just Judge of all the earth” (Bahnsen, By This Standard, 4). As a young man, I was introduced to this notion and attempted to engage it critically.

However, another plank of Christian Reconstruction is the Reformed, presuppositional apologetics pioneered by Cornelius Van Til. I was reading theonomists and they often mentioned Van Til’s apologetic method. So, one day in mid-1994, I was visiting Reg Barrow at Still Waters Revival Books. SWRB at that time was not only the chief purveyor of Christian Reconstructionism in Canada, but also one of the best sources for Reformed books in general, certainly in Edmonton. At SWRB I spotted Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith. I recalled his name from the theonomists I’d been reading, but was also fresh out of my first year of university and licking my wounds from battles with secularists in academia. I needed this book.

After finishing The Defense of the Faith, I started reading anything else by Van Til I could get my hands on. I noticed that Van Til had students, some better than others. To my mind, there was no better student of Van Til’s apologetics than Greg Bahnsen, especially after I listened to his epic debate with Gordon Stein. I subscribed to Bahnsen’s “Penpoint” newsletters, sent via snail mail back in the day. One thing led to another and, after my B.A., I was even enrolled in the M.A. in Apologetics program at the Southern California Center for Christian Studies for a brief time. However, I didn’t get to study with Bahnsen himself — he died from complications during heart surgery in December 1995.

That was 25 years ago. Over this past quarter-century, Bahnsen’s work on apologetics has been available. Several books were published posthumously, including his magnificent Van Til’s Apologetic. Many of his articles on apologetics (and other subjects) have been freely available all along. But this past week, finally, after 25 years, all of Bahnsen’s recordings are being made freely available (previously only available for sale). This includes all his individual lectures and lecture series on apologetics.

At the moment, you can already download MP3s for free from Covenant Media Foundation here. Apparently, arrangements have been made with two other organizations to also host material from Greg Bahnsen, though the material isn’t yet available. One of those is the Bahnsen Project. The other is Apologia Studios (associated with Jeff Durbin/James White). My understanding is that these two organizations will remaster the audio recordings so they’re of a higher quality.

The other day I heard someone describe our day as a “golden age” for Reformed apologetics. Certainly the wealth of available resources is unparalleled. If you want to learn apologetics from a Reformed perspective, it’s all out there. You are without excuse if you ignore it.

A final disclaimer: Greg Bahnsen was a theonomist — in fact, he popularized the term with his Theonomy in Christian Ethics. By recommending him as a teacher of apologetics, I’m not endorsing every jot and tittle of his political ethics. Still, there’s just no denying the obvious: he was and remains one of the best teachers of Reformed apologetics. Van Til himself is heavy going for many people, but Bahnsen had a way to bring it home. Do yourself a favour and listen to one of his lecture series on apologetics. You won’t regret it!


Book Review: Fill the Earth

Fill the Earth: The Creation Mandate and the Church’s Call to Missions, Matthew Newkirk.  Eugene:  Pickwick Publications, 2020.  Softcover, 328 pages.

When it comes to what the Bible says about mission, where do your thoughts immediately go?  If you’re like most Christians, it’d probably be the Great Commission, especially the version found at the end of Matthew 28.  We’re accustomed to thinking almost entirely in terms of Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all nations.  However, the Bible’s teaching about mission reaches far beyond the Great Commission.  In fact, as Matthew Newkirk persuasively argues, it stretches back to Genesis and forward to Revelation.

Matt Newkirk has his ordination credentials in the Presbyterian Church in America.  He serves in Japan, teaching Old Testament at Christ Bible Seminary in Nagoya.  He received his seminary training at Reformed Theological Seminary and also holds a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Wheaton College.

Fill the Earth can aptly be described as an exercise in biblical theology.  By “biblical theology,” I don’t mean “orthodox theology” (although it is).  “Biblical theology” is a field of study often regarded as having been pioneered by Geerhardus Vos.  Vos described biblical theology as “that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.”  God’s revelation is embedded in history and involves a historical progression.  Biblical theology describes that, often by taking a topic or concept and tracing its development through the Scriptures.  In this case, it’s mission.    

There have been previous attempts to wed biblical theology and mission, Greg Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission being one of the most well-known.  Newkirk builds on the work of Beale and others.  He convincingly demonstrates that not only is mission bound up with the story line of the Bible, but it’s also intrinsic to the church founded in Genesis and which continues through and past the book of Revelation.

One of the notable features of this book is its detailed exegesis of numerous Scripture passages.  While he’s tracing out the big picture, Newkirk also has the exegete’s penchant for detail.  Some of the detail gets technical, but most readers without advanced theological training should still be able to follow his arguments.  Not unexpectedly, the level of detail also means that, at times, other students of Scripture are going to disagree.  For example, Newkirk argues that the book of Jonah is only missional “insofar as it exhorts Israel to repent from their hardened and disobedient posture towards God’s Word and respond to him faithfully” (141).  I can fully agree that it is missional in that regard, but I find it difficult to ignore the fact that Jonah is sent out by God to a foreign nation with a call to repentance.  There appears to be an incipient form of centrifugal mission here pointing ahead to what will unfold in the New Testament.  Aside from some of these debatable points of detail, I find Newkirk’s overall trajectory to be cogent, namely that Scripture teaches our mission to be “to fill the earth as God’s representatives and thereby demonstrate that his kingship extends over the entire earth” (18).

Most of Fill the Earth is taken up with making that case.  However, Newkirk concludes with a chapter explaining how his argument bears on the work of mission today.  Let me share some of the questions addressed (without giving away the answers):

  • Is mission merely a reactive response to the presence of sin in the world? 
  • Is non-expansionistic ministry legitimately classified as “missions”? 
  • Is missions fundamentally cross-cultural?
  • In light of what Scripture teaches, how should we evaluate the trend towards seeing the nations coming to us and therefore concluding that we need not send out missionaries to places without a sufficient indigenous gospel witness? 

The cumulative argument made in this book has a bearing on how each of those questions (and more) are answered.     

This book is thought-provoking – Newkirk helpfully challenged some of my previously held notions of what the Bible teaches about mission.  If you’ve done any reading in the field of missiology, you’ll know how difficult it is to find books which not only take the Bible seriously as the Word of God, but also go in for the deep dive.  But to advance the field of missiology in a God-honouring way, that’s exactly what we need, and that’s exactly what Matt Newkirk has provided


The Accompanist as Prophet? — Excerpt from Aiming to Please

Jan Zwart

The following is an excerpt from Aiming to Please, chapter 16.  Aiming to Please:  A Guide to Reformed Worship can be purchased from Amazon and many other online retailers around the world.

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The Accompanist as Prophet?

If we have accompaniment, the accompanist has an important role in our worship service.  As just intimated, poor accompaniment is worse than no accompaniment.  We want our accompanists to aim to please the LORD along with the entire congregation.  There has to be a pursuit of excellence in the craft of accompaniment.  When this is done, we should be thankful and encourage our accompanists.

Regrettably, in our tradition there has sometimes been inordinate language when it comes to accompanists, and especially organists.  Sometimes the organist has been described as a “prophet” and his playing as “prophesying from the organ bench.”  It seems that this rhetoric traces back to the famous Dutch organist Jan Zwart.  According to Deddens, Zwart spoke of “prophesying during the worship service, before and after the sermon, in a language the people can understand.”  Reformed theologian Klaas Schilder took over this language in describing Zwart posthumously:  “His life’s work was to prophesy from the organ bench, and when we say that we give true expression to what motivated this man.”  Deddens appreciated this rhetoric and took it over as well.

The major problem with this description of the accompanist is that it does not stand up to biblical scrutiny.  In the Bible, prophecy is almost always about words.  A prophet without words is unheard of.  There are instances where prophets performed prophetic acts, but these were exceptional, and even these acts never occurred in isolation from their words.  Both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, prophecy is verbal.  When Lord’s Day 12 of the Catechism says we are anointed to be prophets who confess the name of Christ, it is referring to a verbal activity.  During and after the Reformation, preaching was sometimes called “prophesying” – because it had to do with words.  The idea of a musical instrument being a means of prophecy is unheard of, biblically and historically.

While certainly appreciating the work of accompanists (more on that in a moment), let us also be modest about what they are doing.  If one wants to employ the language of the three-fold office of all believers to describe accompanists, then it would be better to refer to them in priestly terms.  With their accompaniment, they are offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving with the rest of the congregation.  That is something which can be done both with and without words.

Proper Honour for Accompanists

If an accompanist takes his or her work seriously, there can be quite a bit of preparation involved with each service.  Moreover, a serious accompanist might even be a professional musician with years of training.  A lot of time and money may have been invested in honing their musical craft.  This ought to be honoured and recognized.

That can be done in different ways, of course.  One way would be for the pastor regularly to pray for the accompanist(s) in his congregation.  Another would be for there to be occasional acknowledgement of the accompanist in the church bulletin or perhaps at a congregational meeting.  Still another way would be to ask the accompanist to help the congregation in understanding music in worship.  Accompanists have the musical understanding and skills that many of us do not, and asking them to share their insights also shows respect for them and their craft.  Let them teach us.

It is also appropriate to show our gratitude to our accompanists with an honorarium.  This recognizes the time, energy, and financial commitment they have made to pursue excellence in accompanying our singing.  Churches that do not offer an honorarium to their accompanists can sometimes struggle to find accompaniment, especially if there are other churches nearby which do offer honorariums.

Now someone might object and say, “A lot of us do volunteer work in the church and we don’t get paid for it.  So why should the accompanist get paid?”  There are two things to say in response.  First, the accompanist is not being “paid” for their labours.  He or she is not an employee of the church, at least not typically.  The accompanist is a volunteer, offering his or her services for the glory of God.  Second, unlike most other volunteer work in the church, the accompanist has spent a lot of his or her time, energy, and money on learning to play well.  Continuing to play well also requires investments, including the purchase of sheet music.  Accompaniment is different than the other volunteer work done in the church.  A modest honorarium recognizes this.