Blogging the Institutes–1.10.3–One, True God; All Others Excluded

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List.

One True God; All Others Excluded

Here’s a quick summary of “theology proper”–the teaching about God. First, the Bible rejects all “gods” as being false, except the one, true living God. In fact, religion is infected with the poison of false worship in every era. Now, it is true that the name of the one God was known in all parts of the world. Even those who worshipped many gods would often speak of one god as if they thought one god was sufficient. This phenomenon was actually noticed by Justin Martyr in his book On the Monarchy of God. He shows that the unity of God is engraven on the hearts of all people. Early church father, Tertullian, demonstrates the same things from common forms of speech.

But everyone without exception have rushed into, or allow themselves to be dragged into, false beliefs concerning God’s unity. Although believing in one God is “natural” to a certain extent, people no longer do and thus render themselves inexcusable. The truly wise easily discover the vague wanderings of their minds when they express a wish for some kind of deity to exist and thus offer up prayers to unkown gods. Although some unbelievers are more sophisticated in their belief system than others, they are still being duped by the devil. Even the philosophers who have elaborate systems of belief are still in rebellion against God.

It is for this reason that Habakkuk condemns all idols and orders all people to seek God in his holy temple so that the faithful may only acknowledge the one, true God who is revealed in His word (2:20).

Sexual Temptation while Sleeping (And How to Fight It)

Fighting for sexual purity is absolutely crucial, especially for young men. It is a difficult fight, but one every Christian is capable of winning through the power of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing more discouraging, however, than fighting for purity and thinking you’ve won that fight, only to be besieged by temptation randomly. One particular area of temptation can happen while sleeping. Mature Christians who are walking in habitual purity can face an onslaught of sexual temptation while unconscious in sleep.

Help for Christians walking in habitual purity but still besieged with sexual temptations, especially while they sleep, comes from an unlikely place…St. Augustine. What could an early church father from the third century actually teach us about the very real temptations we face? A lot, actually.

In his book, Confessions (Book X, section 59), Augustine speaks at length as to the problem of sexual temptation during sleep. Augustine first goes onto to explain God’s design for sexuality and then states the problem.

Quite certainly you [God] command me to refrain from concupiscence [strong desire/lust] of the flesh and concupiscence of the eyes and worldly pride. You command me to abstain from fornication, and recommended a course even better than the marital union you have sanctioned; and because you granted me the grace, this was the course I took even before I was ordained as a dispenser of your sacrament.

Yet in my memory, of which I have spoken at length, sexual images survive, because they were imprinted there by former habit. While I am awake they suggest themselves feebly enough, but in dreams with power to arouse me not only to pleasurable sensations but even to consent, to something closely akin to the act they represent. So strongly does the illusory image in my mind affect my body that these unreal figments influence me in sleep in a way that the reality could never do while I am awake.

According to Augustine, the Scriptures teach us to abstain from sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:8). Augustine goes on to that marriage is God’s idea and design but he did not pursue marriage after becoming a Christian because God’s grace sustained him. Although Augustine was walking in habitual sexual purity, he was still tempted sexually.

In his memory, Augustine says that images were, “imprinted there by former habit.” Because of his past actions, the sexual images are retained in his memory. Now, when Augustine is awake, he can easily fend off sexualized thoughts. He knows that they are wrong and turns from them. But when Augustine goes to sleep, however, something different happens.

These sexual images which have been stored in his memory “come alive” and arouse him in his sleep. So much so they seem to break down his defenses and could possibly cause him to masturbate–“[these sexual images cause] pleasurable sensations but even to consent, to something closely akin to the act they represent.” Augustine realizes that while sleeping these images can influence him in ways that they could never do when he was awake.

So what gives? Does Augustine somehow become a different person when sleeping? Does his reason which controls his actions go to sleep too? Here is his answer:

Surely this cannot mean that I am not myself while sleep, O Lord my God? Yet the moment of passing from wakefulness to sleep or back again certainly marks a great change in me. What becomes then of my reason, which enables me to resist these suggestions in waking hours, and remain unshaken if the actions themselves intrude upon my attention? Is reason shut down along with my eyelids? Is it lulled to sleep with the body’s senses? Surely not, for how can it happen that often we do resist even in dreams, remembering our commitment and standing firm in complete chastity, giving no consent to these seductions?

There is, notwithstanding, so wide a difference between the two states that even the opposite occurs we return to peace of conscience on awakening, for the very difference between sleep and waking is obvious enough to convince us that we did not really do the disgraceful thing, even though we are sorry that it was in some sense done in us.

Augustine stays himself while sleeping, of course. Yet going to sleep, does mark a great change in him. His reason doesn’t go to sleep either, because sometimes in his dreams he is able to remember God’s word and resists giving into the sexual temptation represented in his dream. Yet, there still is a big difference between being awake and sleeping. So even if we have sexual intercourse with someone in a dream, we realize upon waking that it wasn’t real. We do lament, however, that in a certain sense there was some sort of sexual actions taking place in us.

So what can we do with this? If we are in a “weakened” state due to being asleep, is there any hope for us? For Augustine it all comes down to God’s power and grace:

Is your hand not powerful enough to heal all my soul’s ills, all-powerful God, and by a still more generous grace to extinguish unruly stirrings even in my sleep? Yes, Lord, you will heap gift after gift upon me, that my soul may shake itself free from the sticky morass of concupiscence and follow me to you. As for those foul obscenities in my dreams, where bestial imaginations drives the flesh to the point of polluting itself, grant that this soul of mine, through your grace rebellious against itself no more, may not even consent to, still less commit them. You are the Almighty, able to do more than we ask or understand, and it is no great task for you to make provision that nothing of this kind shall arouse the least sensual pleasure–not even such slight titillation as may be easily restrained–in a person of chaste intention while he is asleep, and this even in the prime of life.

But now that I have declared what I still am in this area of my sinfulness, speaking to my good Lord and exulting with trepidation in what your gift has achieved in me, while deploring my unfinished state, my hope is that you will bring your merciful dealings in me to perfection, until I attain that utter peace which all that is within me and all my outward being will enjoy with you, when death shall be swallowed up in victory.

God is powerful enough to do anything–even to remove these sexual temptations while we are sleeping. God can also choose to be gracious toward us and exercise His power to remove these temptations. Yet, Augustine acknowledges that while God’s grace that given him growth (“exulting with trepidation in what your gift has achieved in me…”), he also acknowledge his remaining sinfulness and that he is still a “work in progress.” God has not chosen to fully remove these temptations from his life (“my hope is that you will bring your merciful dealings in me to perfection”).

Conclusion

So what can we do when tempted sexually while asleep? Following Augustine’s example here are a few things:

1. Admit you’ve been scarred
Augustine’s observation long-ago that sexual images have been imprinted in his memory has been confirmed by the neuroscience. This is Augustine that we’re talking about here. The most influential theologian in all of history. His writings have influenced the church for 2,000 years on the topics of free will/predestination, Bible interpretation, and church/state relations. Yet, Augustine admits that his mind has been messed up by his former sinful behavior. We should be able to admit that too. It is cause for lament. Our sinfulness in the past is causing us continue consequences and temptations in the present.

2. Recognize God’s sovereignty and grace
God could remove your sexual temptations if He wanted to. Sometimes in His unknowable sovereignty, He chooses not to relieve us of our temptations. But we must not doubt God’s goodness. The book of James asserts that, “God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone” (1:13). So if God chooses not to abolish our sexual temptations, He must have a good reason for not doing so. We may not be able to comprehend that reason this side of eternity, but it most certainly is there. And it is good.

3. Recognize that being asleep is different
Augustine acknowledges that sleep is a different state than being awake. Although you may feel bad about having sexualized dreams or being aroused while asleep, it is not necessarily a sin. These things are probably a result of your past choices, whether from viewing pornography, having illicit sex, masturbating, or a combination of all of them. It is occasion for lament (“O wretched man that I am!”), but not necessarily for heaping guilt upon yourself. We must remember the gospel: all of our sins have been paid for by the crucifixion of Jesus. God is still at work within us and will not cast us off because of our sins. We are “in Christ.” All of the goodness of Jesus rests upon us. God sees us clothed in the righteousness of Christ, not struggling with our sexualized dreams.

4. Pray
Augustine asks God to take away his sleeping sexual temptations. We must ask too. God, in His grace, may relieve us of these things. We must also pray for strength to fight these things even if the fight doesn’t always seem “fair” because we’re asleep. Fight on anyways.

Fatherhood for Older Father’s

Two weeks ago I preached on fatherhood from Ephesians 6:4. Unfortunately, due to a congregational medical emergency, I wasn’t able to conclude my message. Here is my conclusion:

Some of you in here may be thinking, “What can I do? My children are all grown up and out of the house! I’ve blown it with my kids!”

Parents who have adult children can express much regret after hearing about God’s calling to raise up their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). For some, they regret not being a Christian during the time when they were raising children. Having come to Christ later in life, they look back and see how their sin has alienated or hurt their children. For others, they regret that although they knew Christ, they did not take God’s Word seriously enough to seriously invest in their children spiritually.

Either way, you may find yourself in a position where your children are adults and out of the house, and seemingly far away from you–both physically and spiritually.

It’s not too late.

It’s not too late to begin repairing any damage that was done. And it’s not too late to begin influencing your adult children for Christ. But how?

It first comes with an acknowledgement that God is a God of restoration. God delights in taking our lost and ruined lives and restoring them. All of us are made in the image of God. But due to our sin, that image has been corrupted and effaced. Yet through Jesus we are “being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him” (Colossians 3:10). God loves restoring things. Especially the lives of His image-bearers. He can bring restoration to your relationships with your adult children. He will do it through the gospel of Jesus Christ. By seeing your own sin and “owning” your own sin, God will bring you to the point of crying out for forgiveness. The Bible tells us that forgiveness was purchased for us through the brutal crucifixion of our Lord and His glorious resurrection from the dead. In Christ, you can be forgiven of all things–even parenting mistakes.

Remembering your forgiveness in Christ, then, gives you the power to forgive and reconcile with others–even your own children.

It’s easy to allow objections to flood our minds, however: “But what’s the point, it’s been so long!” Years may have passed since you’ve even had a meaningful conversation with your child.

It’s not too late.

Think about this way: Imagine you’ve been estranged from your child for 50 years. 50 years! That’s a long time. Now on your deathbed, your child comes to you. Would it be pointless to reconcile? Does it make sense to say, “What’s the point now. I’m almost dead. It’s been too long.”? No way! Of course you would reconcile. And although for yourself it may be too late to really build upon your relationship (since you’re on your deathbed in this imaginary scenario)…think about all the good it would do for your child! Reconciling on your deathbed may actually change the course of his/her life! The focus isn’t so much upon what you could get out of it, but upon the good that it would do for your child.

So why not now?

You’re not a failure as a parent. God has brought you on this journey so far and He has brought you to this point. You can’t go back and re-do their childhood years. But you can make a fresh start today to reach out to your children.

With God’s help, it’s not too late.

Suburban Ministry–The Challenges of Reaching Men, Pt. 2

In a previous post, I looked at some of the challenges of reaching men in suburban culture. The two issues I raised were “pragmatic” issues: busyness and scheduling. They are practical realities which affect (afflict?) men in my Northeastern suburban context, about 45 minutes outside of NYC.

Today, I want to explore some further issues in reaching men, more “worldview” or theological issues.

Money
“You cannot serve both God and money,” Jesus said  (Matthew 6:24). Money dominates the landscape in NYC and the surrounding suburbs. Some of it is practical: you cannot get a good paying job unless you work in NYC. But some men are driven by money to work crazy long hours and make intense sacrifices.

Work
This is corollary to money but  a little bit different. While some men might be driven by greed, others are driven by the need to accomplish something great. This will lead them to sacrifice their marriages, and families, to build their careers. It may not even be the greatest paying job in the world, but the desire to achieve greatness at work pulls many men away from their families and the Christian faith.

Commuter Culture
Money and work put together creates a commuter culture where people will drive all over the place for work. Mothers will drive their pre-school age children 30 minutes to preschool. It’s insane. The 4 for 1 rule is always good to apply in Monmouth County. It takes 4 minutes to drive 1 mile!

Family
Surprisingly, family plays a huge role in many of the lives of people in Monmouth County. “That’s surprising?!?!” you might be thinking. It is to me, especially since you hear stories of and see the statistics of the family breakdown throughout our country. I think a few things mitigate the factors of family breakdown in Monmouth. The first is affluence. The studies show that wealthy people are still marrying and marrying at a higher rate than poor people. It’s true that the sexual revolution affects the poor much more than the rich. For example, if a daughter gets pregnant at 16 and decides to keep the baby, it may lock in that girl to a cycle of poverty if she comes from a poor area. If she was the daughter of a rich family, they could easily afford an abortion. Or they could bring around their daughter all of the necessary “supports” to keep her going on track for a “good” life: tutors, day care expenses, etc.

There is also a large Italian population with its emphasis on family. Tradition still holds a grip on families quite a bit. Although the theological content of Roman Catholicism seems to have been sucked out of many families, the cultural staying power of Catholicism is actually pretty impressive to see. Even nominal Catholicism still seems to bind families together in a surprising way by today’s secular standards/

Blogging the Institutes–1.10.2–God’s Attributes. Explained.

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List

God’s Attributes. Explained.

Certain Bible passages vividly describe God’s attributes. Moses provides us for a summary of God’s attributes in the passage when he wrote, “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation’” (Exodus 34:6-7). From this passage, we see a couple important things.

First, God’s eternity and self-existence is affirmed by the declaration of His magnificent name two times. Second, when Moses enumerates God’s attributes, God is described as He is in Himself, but who He is in relation to us. He does this so that our worship of God may be based upon true knowledge than empty visual speculation of idols. Furthermore, the attributes espoused in Exodus 34:6-7 are the same ones we see shining in the heavens and displayed on the earth–compassion, mercy, justice, judgment and truth. Power and energy are understood in the name Yahweh.

Similar descriptions are used by the prophets of God’s attributes. Moreover, I will only refer to Psalm 145 which presents a summary of God’s attributes and is so thorough just about every attribute is referenced. Even so, every attribute mentioned there can be observed in creation. The same God we observe in creation is the same God we see in His word.

In Jeremiah, where God proclaims the character that we must acknowledge, is the same character as given to us other places in His word and in creation. “Let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:24). Assuredly, the most important attributes for us to know are these three: lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness. Lovingkindness upholds our security and relationship with Him. Judgment will be exercised on the wicked and eternal condemnation awaits them too. Righteousness preserves the faithful. The prophets declares that when you understand these, then you are well on your way to glorifying God. Now, the prophet is not omitting God’s truth, power, holiness, or goodness. 

Think about this way: how could we know His lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness exist unless they were based upon His inviolable truth? How could we know that God will governs the world with justice and righteousness without presupposing His mighty power? Also, how could He show lovingkindness to us unless it flows from His goodness? In sum, if all of His ways are lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, then His holiness is thereby made known. Finally, the knowledge of God which is set forth before us in Scripture, is designed for the same purpose by which it shines in creation: That we would learn to worship God with integrity of heart and complete obedience, and also depend entirely upon His goodness.

Blogging the Institutes–1.10.1–In creation and word, God is the same

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List

In Creation and Word, God is the Same

God displays the knowledge of Himself even more clearly in His word than He does through created things. In His word, God presents Himself in exactly the same way as He does through the knowledge which comes through creation. A full discussion of God’s knowledge found in the Scriptures would be way too long to capture in one book like this. So what I’m going to do is give you a “snapshot” of the knowledge of God which can be found in Scripture. I will also lay out a method for studying the Scripture to come to know God. I am not going to explain at length God’s gracious dealing with Abraham yet. Because when God chose a pagan man to be bound in covenant with and even adopted evil sons into His family, it was an act of sheer grace and He was acting in the character of the Redeemer. Right now, we are merely considering the kind of knowledge which comes from creation and we’re not getting into studying Christ as the Mediator quite yet. Although I will have to quote passages from the New Testament soon, I do not want the reader to get sidetracked by other discussions.

It will be sufficient at this point to understand first how God rules over and runs the world that He created. In every part of the Bible, you can find many descriptions of God’s kindness and goodness. You will also find examples of God’s judgment, which demonstrates that He is the just punisher of the wicked, especially when they continue to do evil and do not heed His warnings.

Suburban Ministry–The Challenges of Reaching Men

The church has a manhood problem. Or most of the statistics say so. Whether or not the statistics are true, the Christian publishing industry has certainly churned out many books speaking to the issue (For example, see Why Men Hate Going to Church). I think I can say that the anecdotal evidence at LBC may point in the direction that men are harder to engage with. I wouldn’t say necessarily that women are more sensitive to spiritual things. All people are sinners and no one has the capacity to pursue Christ outside of the Holy Spirit’s work in their life.

I think a few obstacles stand in the few of really reaching men in the suburbs of New Jersey. These are things I have found:

1. Busyness: Men are busy. Extremely busy. They are building families and careers. They have projects at work, projects at home. They handle the finances, plan vacations, and pursue hobbies. They are busy. The predominant view of church, then, is that it is one more responsibility to juggle.

2. Schedule: Tied into the busyness is the issue of schedule. Many of the men in the church commute to New York City, at least an hour a day if not more. So most men will leave the house before 7am and return after 7pm! How do you reach those men who have such limited time during the week? How do you reach men who have such limited time with their wives and families? Complicating things is the fact that since their weekly workload is so heavy many other projects get pushed to the weekends. There are also family events. How do you call busy men to sacrifice for the church on a weekend, when they rarely have time for themselves?

These are just some of the questions that I have been grappling with in how to reach men in and through our local congregation.