Blogging the Institutes–1.11.3–Angels Ain’t Images

“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

Angels Ain’t Images

It’s true that the Lord sometimes would reveal Himself in certain signs so that He was said to be seen face-to-face. But all the signs He employed were in perfect accordance to true doctrine and at the same time gave some indication of His incomprehensible essence. For example, the cloud, smoke and flame were symbols of heavenly glory (Deuteronomy 4:11). Yet, these symbols curbed people’s mind from trying to penetrate into the mysteries of God’s essence. Even though Moses prayed to see God’s face, he wasn’t allow to because God’s glory is too great (Exodus 33:20). The Holy Spirit also appeared as a dove. The symbol of the dove, however, vanished instantly. Who can’t understand then that this symbol was a call for us to regard the Spirit as invisible and be content with His power and grace? It was not a call for us to worship an external form.

God sometimes would appear in the form of a man. But such appearances were an anticipation of the revelation of the God-Man, Jesus. Therefore, these appearances did not give the Jews any reason for creating a symbol of God in the form of a man. The mercy-seat was also a symbol of God’s invisible presence (Exodus 25:17, 18, 21). The mercy-seat was made in such a way that it points us to contemplate God’s invisible glory: the Cherubim with outstretched wings shaded it, and veil covered it, and its remote location in the Holy of Holies concealed it. Therefore, it is mere fantasy to try to defend the use of images by appealing to the Cherubim which adorn the ark of the covenant.

Because what did these figures means except that images are unfit to represent the mysteries of God? The Cherubim’s wings concealed a view of God not only from our eyes but from every human sense. Furthermore, the prophets add that the Seraphim covered their eyes from looking at the glory of God because it is too great to see. Even angels cannot look at it directly! Meanwhile, the minutes beams of glory which come angels are shield from our eyes. Moreover, everyone acknowledges that the Cherubim were made under the era of the Law; they are not for our new covenant time. That old age in which things of that era were adapted has passed away.

Surely, it is disgraceful that pagan writers should be more skillful interpreters than Roman Catholics. Juvenal ridicules the Jews for supposedly worshipping thin clouds and the earth. He did this perversely and blasphemously, but he still acknowledged that the Jews were worshipping no visible form of God. He speaks more accurately than the Roman Catholics who argue that the Jews used some real images for worship.

Let’s learn something here: The fact that the Jews occasionally were drawn away and tempted by idols shows us how prone our human nature is toward idolatry. Do not use the Jews as a scapegoat for your own idolatry and be lead away into death-like sleep.

Blogging the Institutes–1.11.2–Images Condemned in Moses and Isaiah

“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.

Images Condemned in Moses and Isaiah

Moses not only condemns the making of images but also includes the reason why. He writes, “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman” (Deuteronomy 4:15-16). God plainly speaks against making any kind of image so that we’re aware that making such images is rebellion against Him.

Now, the prophets also speaks against making images– most notably–Isaiah. Isaiah demonstrates how God’s majesty is defiled by such absurd and ugly images (Isaiah 40:18; 41:7, 29; 45:9; 46:5). It is vain to capture God who is spirit through tangible images; He who is invisible to visible idols; He who fills all space into a little bit of wood, metal or stone. Paul also reasons the same ways: “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill” (Acts 17:29). Therefore, it’s abundantly clear that any statues or pictures, which are said to represent God, are totally displeasing to the Lord and are insults to His majesty. 

Is it strange that the Holy Spirit thunders such responses from heaven when He compels blind and miserable idolaters to confess the same things while they live on the earth? Seneca’s complaint as recorded by St. Augustine is well known: “The sacred immortal and invisible gods–when they are dressed up human clothing and exhibited through images and pictures, when they have a mash-up of different bodies and some are ‘gender-neutral,’–they ‘gods’ would be considered monsters.” Thus, those who support the use of images resort to evasion. They pretend that the Jews were forbidden from using images on account of their susceptibility of having their worship devolve into superstition. But such an argument is nonsense because the Lord’s prohibition against images is founded upon His own eternal essence and the uniform predictability of nature.  Besides, when Paul refuted the error that God could have a bodily shape, he wasn’t talking to Jews but to Greeks in Athens.

In Defense of Youth Ministry

I never wanted to do youth ministry. I never had any experience doing youth ministry. Yet, I now find myself three years in with leading my church’s youth ministry.

While I was in seminary, much discussion centered on the need to “rethink” youth ministry. I got the sense that there was a lot of angst surrounding youth ministry. Even now, while doing youth ministry, I still feel a palatable sense of foreboding about youth ministry from many church leaders. For example, many youth pastors feel the burden of the high dropout-rate statistic which get cited frequently: almost 80% of our youth leave the church during college.  Timothy Paul Jones shows that this statistic is not true.

But despite having no basis in reality, the dropout-rate statistic has caused many youth pastors to rethink their model of youth ministry. In recent years there has been the rise of “family-integrated” ministry which does not have any ministries based on age. Youth, teens, and adults are all in the same studies together. Even if not going that far, many churches, including my own, have adopted such lingo as seeing parents as “the primary disciplemakers in their homes.”

Reinvigorating parents to see their vital role in the home is extremely important. But neither the importance of parents nor a faulty statistic should be enough to change the way we do youth ministry substantially.

Furthermore, caricatures of youth ministry do not help. I was surprised to see Peter Leithart commenting on youth ministry, since I figured he was writing some large theology book.  In reality, all he was doing was summarizing James K.A. Smith book, You Are What You LoveHere is Smith’s description of youth ministry in his book:

“We have turned youth ministry into an almost entirely expressivist affair, surmising that what will ‘keep’ young people in the church is a series of opportunities for them to sincerely exhibit their faith. Instead of embodied worship that is formative, we have settled for a dichotomy: an emotive experience as a prelude to the dispensation of information, thirty minutes of stirring music followed by a thirty-minute ‘message'” (145).

I gotta be honest: nothing that Smith describes in this paragraph applies to my (or most) youth groups. I find it odd that Smith would criticize the church for providing “opportunities for them to sincerely exhibit their faith” through youth group. Maybe I am misreading Smith at this point, but isn’t the whole “faith without works is dead” thing about sincerely exhibiting your faith? Sure, we don’t want to elicit a merely emotional reaction in our students. But don’t we want to provide some opportunities to put their faith into action?

The flow of our youth group is like this. We play an hour of games. Then we teach the Bible for 30 minutes, then we break up into smaller groups to discuss and apply the biblical passage for 30 minutes. We pray in our smaller groups. Then we eat snacks.

The “rap” against youth ministry typically seems to be two-fold. First, youth group is light on substance and heavy on fun. Second, youth group is about creating an emotional experience rather than having the students anchored in liturgy and substance.

Let’s answer these each in turn. It’s true that youth group could be seen as purely fun. But it’s also important to remember that students learn and bond through play. Early childhood education makes this case persuasively. Teenagers aren’t too different. Playing games and having fun creates a shared common experience, especially with adult leaders. Furthermore, males usually learn by sharing a common challenge or experience. It can be very difficult to have most teenage boys open up about their lives when sitting in small groups. But when coupling that small group time with games and fun, it is a powerful way to get to know them and connect on a deeper level.

It’s also important not to place too much emphasis on youth ministry. Youth Groups are one piece of a much larger pie. Don’t expect youth group to save your teenager. Don’t look to youth group to be the primary place where students learn biblical truth–the Sunday morning worship services should be that place. Don’t see Youth Group as exempting you from your biblical role as the primary disciplemaker.

Here’s why “traditional” youth ministry is still important and effective:

1. Students need Christian friends their age

You need people going through the same things you are who also believe the same things you do.  Even as adult Christians, we recognize the importance of deep friendships with people our own age. Why are students any different? Youth Group gives them a space to connect with their friends also in the context of learning Scripture.

2. Youth Group helps students bond to other Christian adults who aren’t their parents

Christian Smith, in his study called The National Study of Youth and Religion, found six factors which contributed to a student “staying Christian” through the transition to adulthood. One of the six factors was that the teen has many adults in a congregation to turn to for help and support (found in It’s Not Too Late by Dan Dupee). Let’s be honest: teenagers aren’t known for being super open with their parents. Even if you’re the world’s best parent, there still will be times when your kids clam up. They need other Christian adults to turn to. Youth leaders can help fill this gap.

So what is our Youth Group all about?

Two things: relationships and God’s Word. That’s it. We try to velcro students in deep friendship to each other and the leaders. We try to teach them the Bible and let them read it for themselves. That’s the hole that youth ministry fills. Your role as a parent indeed is to be the “primary disciplemaker” in your teenager’s life. Youth ministry cannot replace that. But Youth Group can do other things really well: foster friendships with other Christians and promote Bible study.



Blogging the Institutes–1.11.1–God Opposes Idols

“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 Opposes Idols

The Bible regularly speaks of God using common, everyday terms so that we can understand who God is, even with our limited intellects. Whenever the Bible wants to contrast the one, true God with idols, it will usually speak of particular, tangible idols that God is opposed to. Scripture still opposes ungodly philosophical systems and other sophisticated worldviews, but it usually doesn’t speak to such systems of thoughts because its goal is to show the foolishness of rejecting God. Scripture eliminates any possibility for there to be other so-called “gods” in the world. There is only one God, who is the only proper witness to Himself.

Idolatry has spread across the whole world. People constantly long for a visible representation of God so they often make idols of wood, stone, silver, gold, or any other kind of material. Therefore, we can draw this conclusion: If any visible form is said to represent God, then His glory has been corrupted by a lie! In the Law, after He claimed the glory of being God for Himself alone, God instructs the Israelites about what true worship looks like. Such regulations for true worship include instruction about images: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4). Using these words, God curbs any attempt on our part to represent Him through a visible image. He also briefly adds the kind of images which would be out of bounds. For example, we know that the Persians worshipped the sun. They imagined that each star in the sky was a “god.” For the Egyptians, every animal was a form of God. The Greeks prided themselves on worshipping God in human forms. But God makes no exceptions with images–as if some are better than others for representing Him. He rejects all images.

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”).


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.