There’s No Such Thing as Balance (re-blog)

The following is an excerpt from a blog I wrote for goingtoseminary.com, which is a place for students to write about the seminary experience.

My job allows me to chat with distinguished seminary professors every week. During one such conversation, I asked the professor what advice he would give to a young student trying to balance school, work, ministry, and family—i.e., me. His response?

“There’s no such thing as balance.”

He went on to explain that if a student were to balance every demanding area of life, he could only give a modicum of attention to each. For example, when you’re at your day job, do you balance it with family and ministry? Would you, while at your desk, be bouncing your child on your knee and inviting church members over for a spiritual talk or Bible study? No, you’re working. While at work, you work.

Instead of balance, this professor commends single-minded focus and devotion to each thing in its time. There will be times when you must skip dinner with your family for the sake of work. Or perhaps, for the sake of a final paper, you’ll be unable to take your kid to the park. Devote yourself to the task at hand, prioritizing it above the others. That is the only way to accomplish anything with excellence.

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might . . .” (Eccles. 9:10).

***

Read the rest at goingtoseminary.com and share it with a seminary student you know!

What’s the Deal with Balaam?

faithfulness

Numbers 22–24, which tells the story of Balaam, is one of the more amusing and perplexing stories in the Old Testament. Amusing due to the occurrence of the talking donkey, and perplexing due to the confusing interactions between Balaam and God.

Check out Numbers 22–24. In this passage we meet a soothsayer or seer named Balaam, son of Beor at Pethor. Balaam is in northern Mesopatamia during the time of Moses. At this point in Numbers 22, the Israelites had built the tabernacle and been wandering around the desert for some time (complaining, mostly). A Moabite king named Balak sees that God is giving Israel victory after victory over their enemies, and so he sends for Balaam, trying to hire him to curse the Israelites (Num 22:2-6).

At first God speaks to Balaam and tells him not to accompany Balak’s messengers, nor to curse Israel. Balaam relays the message, and Balak essentially says “try again.” God again speaks to Balaam, and this time he permits him to accompany Balak’s messengers, but still not to curse Israel.

2So Balaam follows the men, and as he’s going on his merry way (on his donkey) he encounters the angel of the Lord, with sword drawn. Balaam doesn’t see the angel, but the donkey does, and swerves aside several times. Balaam thinks the donkey is simply being irritating, and beats it. Finally the Lord opens the mouth of the donkey, who then rebukes Balaam and mentions the angel in the road, ready to kill. Eventually the angel of the Lord gives his permission to continue on, but still with the stipulation of not cursing Israel. However, they head up to a mountain top and try several times to curse Israel. Earlier Balaam had stated that he can only speak what Yahweh allows, and this is proved true: each time he opens his mouth to curse Israel, he ends up speaking oracles of blessing on them. Whoops.

Now there are several reasons why this passage is perplexing. First, because other Scripture speaks very negatively about Balaam (2 Peter 2:15, Jude 11, Revelation 2:14), as though he actually had cursed Israel rather than blessing them. And second, because the angel of the Lord seemingly tries to kill Balaam for doing what Yahweh had already permitted.

But is answering those questions what is ultimately important about this passage in the book of Numbers? The prophet Micah doesn’t think so.

O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised,
and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the righteous acts of the LORD.

Micah 6:5, ESV

We all like sensational things. Who can resist a story about God correcting someone through a dumb ass? But that’s not the point of this story. The point of Numbers 22–24 is God’s faithfulness to save Israel. Balak says “curse them!” and God says “No, they are my people. I will turn the curse in your mouth to a blessing.” God’s faithfulness demonstrated in his righteous acts toward his people is on display beautifully—and colorfully, I might add—in the story of Balaam.

There are many other wonderful lessons to be learned from Numbers 22–24, and plenty of fodder for fruitful study. But don’t lose sight of the refrain: God is faithful.

Still No Light, and Why? An Excerpt from C.H. Spurgeon

spurgeon-260x195It is possible […] that you have been looking for salvation in the mere belief of a certain creed. You have thought that if you could discover pure orthodoxy, and could then consign your soul into its mould, you would be a saved man; and you have consequently believed unreservedly, as far as you have been able to do so, the set of truths which have been handed to you by the tradition of your ancestors. It may be that your creed is Calvanistic, it is possible that it is Arminian, it may be Protestant, it may be Romish, it may be truth, it may be a lie; but, believe me, solid peace with God is not to be found through the mere reception of any creed, however true or scriptural. Mere head-notion is not the road to heaven. “Ye must be born again” means a good deal more than you must believe certain dogmas. It is of the utmost possible importance, I grant you, that you should search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; but recollect how our Lord upbraided the Pharisees. He told them that they searched the Scriptures, but he added, “Ye will not come to me that ye might have life” (John 5:40). You stop short at the Scriptures, and therefore short of eternal life. The study of these, good as it is, cannot save you; you must press beyond this—you must come to the living, personal Christ, once crucified, but now living to plead at the right hand of God, or else your acceptance of the soundest creed cannot effect the salvation of your soul. You may be misled in some other manner; some other mistaken way of seeking peace may have beguiled you, and if so, I earnestly pray that you may see the mistake.

You must understand that there is only one door to salvation, and that is Christ; there is one way, and that is Christ; one truth, and that is Christ; one life, and that is Christ. Salvation lies in Jesus only; it does not lie in you, in your doings, or your feelings, or your knowings, or your resolutions. In him all life and light for the sons of men are stored up by the mercy of God the Father. This may be one reason why you have not found the light; because you have sought it in the wrong place.

C. H. Spurgeon, Advice for Seekers (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 9.

The Spirit-Filled Life in the Gospel of Luke

Luke chapter one is a remarkable passage. The Holy Spirit is the main character, moving and acting in incredible ways, and that after 400 years of silence from God! This got me thinking: what does the book of Luke teach us about the Spirit, and about those who are filled with him?

The Spirit is mentioned some 17 times in Luke’s Gospel. Here’s an over view of what we can learn about him:

gift

What the Holy Spirit does:

Teaches what to say

“…do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” Luke 12:11–12

Fills, comes upon

“And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. . .” Luke 1:41b, plus 1:15, 1:35, 1:67, 2:25, 3:22, and 4:1

Reveals

“And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” Luke 2:26

Anoints to proclaim

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18–19

What those filled with the Holy Spirit do:

Exclaim & proclaim

“And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” Luke 1:41–42, plus 4:18–19

Prophesy

“And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people,’” Luke 1:67–68

Rejoice

“In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” Luke 10:21

Wait on God

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” Luke 2:25

Always Being Reformed: Theology Coming to Life in the Life of the Church

To begin examining the Reformed church and its theology, we begin where many great Reformed confessions begin—the Word of God. Michael Allen notes that “[t]he Word of God has been a consistent concern for Reformed confessions… In fact, Reformed confessions and dogmatics led the way in formalizing the Reformational principle of sola Scriptura (‘Scripture alone’) by tending to the doctrine of God’s Word at their outset.”[1] What we believe about God flows out of what we read in Scripture, as he graciously and authoritatively reveals himself to us in the text. Therefore how we think about God—our theology—is informed by what we find in his Word. When we examine this revelatory text we find a God who has begun a marvelous work in his people, and who will guard that work, seeing it through to completion; a sovereign, trustworthy God, who works on and with his people to bring about his glory. It is this concept of sola Scriptura that has become, through the aid of confessions, a central tenet of Reformed churches.

That this understanding of Scripture and God is foundational to Reformed theology is evident in two of the great confessions to which Reformed churches have turned for centuries. The Westminster Confession, written in 1646, opens with a beautiful and sweeping statement on Scripture, followed by several chapters on the doctrine of God. Likewise, the Belgic Confession opens with three articles dedicated to who God is and how we are to understand his self-revelation. For both the Belgic and Westminster documents the entirety of their confessions are built on their doctrines of Scripture and God. Allen also points to the Ten Theses of Berne as another example of a foundational confession which begins “by attesting the singular authority of the speech of God.”[2]

The doctrine of God which unfolds in these confessions recognizes a God who decrees “all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory” (Westminster Confession of Faith, II.1) In these words God’s sovereignty and providence are displayed, and the seeds of the Reformational tenet soli Deo gloria—to God alone be the glory—are planted. The Belgic Confession confirms this idea of sovereignty in Article XIII when it states that God “rules and governs them according to His holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without His appointment” (Belgic Confession [BC], in Historic Creeds and Confessions, XIII) It further confirms soli Deo gloria in Article XIV: “[M]an is but a slave to sin, and can receive nothing, except it have been given him from heaven. For who may presume to boast that he of himself can do any good, since Christ says: No man can come to me, except the Father that sent me draw him?” (BC, in Historic Creeds and Confessions, XIV). If man is slave to sin and cannot even approach God lest he bid him “come,” then certainly all glory is due to him who initiates that salvific work. Thus it is that Reformed churches fervently claim along with King Nebuchadnezzar[3] that all glory belongs to God alone. From the whole of Scripture and such texts as Philippians 2:13 we see that whatever good comes to and through the church is God working in us, “both to will and work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13, ESV).

It is from this point, recognizing that God alone deserves the glory for all things, which Reformed theology arrives at ecclesia semper reformanda—the always being reformed church. C. K. Barrett explains this phrase in the context of 2 Corinthians 11:13: “[B]ecause the church is always exposed to corruption it must always give heed to the apostolic admonition.”[4] Barrett earlier employs the word “reformed” in its denotative meaning. The church is being torn down, and must be built back up. But who is to do the building? This reconstruction is not merely human inertia back to the Bible, nor toward morality. Neither is it theological innovation or “self-correcting.”[5] Barrett shows that, in this context, it is “reformed” through authoritative admonition from the appointed church leaders. Perhaps we might view Martin Luther as one such leader, who, in the spirit of semper reformanda, nailed 95 theses to a door. God, in his care for the church, had led Luther to see the sinfulness of indulgences and speak out, which was one of the small stones at the beginning of an avalanche. Praise be to God that he has cared to draw his church out of the deep darkness that then overwhelmed it! Post tenebras lux.

It should be noted that to translate semper reformanda as “always reforming,” as so often happens, would be a mistranslation. Michael Allen is helpful here: “Note the passivity there: it is always ‘being reformed’ by the life giving, sanctifying work of the triune God.”[6] The difference has massive implications. If the church is always reforming, then we are merely embarking on a journey of self-improvement. But if the church is always being reformed, then the church is the object upon which the Divine Agent acts. In his second epistle to Timothy, Paul encourages him with these words: “But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” (2 Ti 1:12b, ESV) This deposit of sound doctrine, though entrusted to man, will be kept and guarded by God. It is the triune God who sustains and feeds the faith of his church, and that is to be a comfort for us. In his apologetic volume For Calvinism, Michael Horton notes about that passage: “Of course, he [Paul] must remain faithful to his calling. Nevertheless, this sacred trust (God’s grace to save and keep sinners) was the basis for this sacred mission (God’s grace to save and keep the ministry of this gospel). It was not his confidence in his own powers of holding on to Christ and the gospel, but of the efficacy of God and his testimony to see the covenant through to the end.”[7] So as we cry ecclesia semper reformanda, it is a cry of thankfulness to God for the mighty and gracious work which he has done and will continue to do in his church, forming and reforming her as corruption eats away at her walls.

When looking down on church history from a birds-eye view, it can be easy to recognize God’s reforming work on his church. But in day-to-day practice, in the small parishes struggling and the mega-churches flourishing, how are we to recognize this? In my own church, I and the other Elders must continually ask ourselves and each other “what are the influences which shape our church?” This question plays out practically as we prepare sermons and ask “why this text for this church?” as well as when we plan out the coming months of ministry, deciding which endeavors to embark upon and which to table for another day. Local church ministry must be both reactive and proactive, and the aforementioned question of influence lends color to both our reactions and our plans. We ask this question out of a recognition that we are always being shaped—or formed—by something. Will it be the spiritual, passive aggressive Pacific Northwest culture which reforms our church into its likeness, or will it be the Word of God?

In his classic song Bird on a Wire, Leonard Cohen writes about the allure of our culture away from the ideal when he pens, “I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch / he said to me, ‘you must not ask for so much.’ / I saw a woman leaning in her darkened door / she said to me ‘hey, why not ask for more?’”[8] This woman calls to our church members with a tongue of honey, and yet we call out to them as the beggar in the song “you must not ask for so much!” How are we to win? Thanks be to God that he has promised to guard the deposit, to sustain his people to the end, sanctifying them and reshaping them! Just as he formed his church by his Word, so by his Word his people will be continually reformed. This truly is a comfort to me and my fellow pastors, who are charged with shepherding Christ’s flock, following our Lord’s example, leading them to green pastures. This is where theology comes to life in the life of the church.[9] We rely on Scripture alone as our ultimate rule of faith, thus learning of God’s sovereignty, providence, and ongoing care for his people. Through this we are encouraged to do the work before us, even as we recognize that it is God who works in us, both the willing and the working.

Do we say then that the always being reformed church is the Reformed church? Certainly not, for to say that would be to suggest that Reformed theology is the one true theology, and Reformed churches the one true church which is the recipient of God’s reforming work. However, the Reformed church is inextricably linked to the idea of the always being reformed church. If the foundation of the Reformed church is God’s character and work as revealed in his authoritative word, then one of the chief supporting pillars which holds up the structure is semper reformanda. This pillar is not the foundation itself, but is anchored to it, lending much-needed support to the church. Or, to flip the metaphor, the people of the church are the building blocks; belief in the always being reformed church recognizes God as the one placing and rearranging the blocks, to build a sound structure to survive the ages.

The fact that the church is always being reformed by God’s gracious care, through his Spirit, by his Word, is at the very heart of the Reformed church. We lean on the sovereignty of God over his creation, especially over his church, and we throw all our weight with reckless abandon on the promise of Scripture, that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6, ESV)

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Allen, R. Michael. Reformed Theology. London: T&T Clark, 2010.

Barrett, C. K. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Black’s New Testament Commentary.           London: Continuum, 1973.

Brannon, Rick. Historic Creeds and Confessions, electronic ed. Oak Harbor, WA: Lexham Press, 1997.

Cohen, Leonard. “Bird on a Wire,” in Songs from a Room. Nashville, TN: Columbia, 1968.

Horton, Michael Scott. For Calvinism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011.


[1] R. Michael Allen, Reformed Theology. (London: T & T Clark, 2010), 7.

[2] Allen, Reformed Theology, 7.

[3] Formational in my understanding of soli Deo gloria has been Nebuchadnezzar’s story in Daniel 4, Herod’s death in Acts 12, and the following juxtaposition of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra, in Acts 14.

[4] C. K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: Continuum, 1973), 273.

[5] Allen’s last paragraph on page 179 of Reformed Theology shed much light for me on the topic at hand, particularly as he states that God “continually kills and makes alive the reason of those who are in Christ Jesus.” This corresponds to Romans 12:2, where the church is transformed by the renewal of their minds—acted on the church by God. They are the recipients of God’s action, and are not transforming themselves.

[6] Allen, Reformed Theology, 179.

[7] Michael Horton, For Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 184.

[8] Leonard Cohen, “Bird on a Wire,” in Songs from a Room (Nashville: Columbia, 1968).

[9] Dr. Allen was helpful in Lecture 3 in “Intro to Reformed Theology” in understanding this concept. He says that the attributes and character of the triune God needs to have their full effect on all areas of Christian faith and practice. He reminds us that the Reformation was not a time when we thought new thoughts about God, but a time when we allowed thoughts about who God is to reshape the way we think about life and religion.