John 16:25-33: He has Overcome the World

Below are my sunday school notes from today’s lesson on Christ’s Overcoming the World.  This passage is a sweet one, and the notes cover verses 25-33 of chapter 16 in John’s gospel.  I hope you enjoy them!

PJW

16:25 “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father.

Why is it that Jesus spoke in parables? Some say it was to help those around him better understand what he was trying to explain.  We commonly jump to that conclusion because its how we use figures of speech.  When we are trying to communicate a complex idea to our children, we often resort to more simple analogies to help them understand what we are saying.  The goal is so that no matter the age, they will understand what we are saying because we have adapted it to their way of understanding.

However, this was not necessarily the purpose of how Jesus spoke.  If his purpose had been to make things more understandable, then why just now is He promising to speak “plainly” to them about the Father?  The implication is that up until this time He has purposefully made it more difficult for them to understand.

D.A. Carson wisely explains that Jesus isn’t simply referring to one particularly hard saying, but to His entire discourse (and perhaps His ministry in general).

If the sayings of Jesus are life and a door unto truth, then the Holy Spirit who guides us into “all truth” is the key to that door. In this way Jesus magnifies the ministry of the Spirit in our lives, and the privilege of living in the New Covenant era.

As I quoted above from Hendricksen and Ridderbos, we need to remember that Jesus is ushering in a new era in human history and a new era in redemptive history as well, that is to say that God is about to inaugurate a new covenant with His chosen people.  That covenant will look entirely different than the old one. One of the primary ways it will look different is in the pouring out of His Spirit upon “all flesh” (Joel 2), resulting in our being able to clearly understand His word.

The promise of the Spirit leading us into all truth and helping us understand the truths of Jesus has been covered extensively in previous lessons.  But two key verses from earlier in the discourse may be enough to remind us of this truth:

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13)

The Judgment of Parables

There is also a secondary reason that, as a sort of reminder, we might consider for why Jesus’ sayings were so difficult to understand, and why He spoke in enigmatic statements during His ministry.  That reason has to do with the judgment/dividing power of His words.

Remember Jesus was always concluding parables by saying “those who have ears to hear, let them hear.”  Well there are many theories on this, but I believe that just as His righteousness light unto the world, a light that had a necessarily judging or dividing affect so also His teaching (think Matthew 10:34).  He was the light and the darkness necessarily was scattered from Him.  And we know from previous study why we who were in the dark run away – because our deeds were evil (see John 3:19-21).

So the teaching of Christ necessarily separated darkness from light. Though He did not come to judge the world (yet) in an ultimate sense, there is a sense in which His words heaped judgment on the consciences of men for their evil deeds were exposed by His teaching.

Therefore, I must agree with theologians Michael Horton and Kim Riddlebarger that the parables were spoken in judgment (White Horse Inn Podcast).  If these men and women had a heart for Christ, for the things of God, a heart that sought to understand His words humbly, then perhaps they would have been able to appropriate them to their lives.  But instead they rejected Jesus for His words – they hated Him without a cause.  Why?  Because His words, though veiled, pierced their hearts and convicted their consciences (Hebrews 4:12). You cannot be around the Light and not have your deeds exposed (Mark 4:22).

Think specifically of what we learned in John 12 as Jesus was teaching about the words of Isaiah (Isaiah 6).  This is an extended section, but is well worth examining again:

While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”

When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. 37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, 38 so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
39 Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,
40 “He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their heart,
lest they see with their eyes,
and understand with their heart, and turn,
and I would heal them.”

41 Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. 42 Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.

44 And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. 46 I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. 47 If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. 49 For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.” (John 12:36-50)

Consequently, the Holy Spirit functions in the same way since Christ has ascended – something we covered in the earlier part of the chapter.  The Spirit is not only to help Christians, but also to convict the world.  It is the Spirit’s light – the light of truth – that convicts the consciences of mankind.

Therefore, when Jesus says that he will now tell them “plainly” about the Father, He is indicating again that they are on the verge of a new era in redemptive history. The judgment that has fallen upon His chosen people for their unbelief will fall upon His shoulders and He will hear it away for them upon the cross at Calvary.  For those who will receive the Spirit of Truth soon after, the teachings of Christ here in the final discourse will become more clear and more precious (and powerful for their ministry) than they were at the time of first apprehending them.

16:26-28 In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27 for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.”

First, He loves them “because” they loved Jesus.  Love of Jesus is the prerequisite of obtaining love of the Father.  Yet, it was He who chose them and loved them first (He is the antecedent to their love, yet their reaction was obedience and love and that is what the Father is pleased with).

Secondly, how amazing is it that the Father loves us? It is an amazing statement here that Jesus says that it isn’t as though He alone loves them, but the Father also loves them – in fact it was His love that set off the mission of Christ in the first place (Ephesians 1:4-6).

For years one of my favorite verses in the Old Testament has been from Exodus 33.  Moses has been describes as having this intimate relationship with God, and to me it has always exuded the love that God had for His people – in particular Moses.

It says, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent” (Exodus 33:11).

In a similar way, Jesus, the greater fulfillment of the Mosaic mediator role, has provided a way for us to have a friendship with God.  Once we were enemies of God, but now we have been drawn close to Him, and here Jesus urges us to ask for things from Him.  He fills us with His Spirit, and gives us His word, and speaks to us through His word “as a man speaks to his friend.”

Will Jesus stop Praying for Us?

The way this verse is structured in the English translation of the Bible makes it confusing and even seems to say that when the Spirit comes we won’t need Jesus to intercede for us.  This is contrary the clear teaching in other portions of Scripture (Hendricksen agrees and cites Heb. 7:24, 25; 13:15).  Rather the meaning is that they will have reached a maturity level because of the Spirit’s work within them that they can now come before the Father themselves.  They (we) can actually approach the Holy One in His holy temple and offer prayers – this is only done, however, because of the atonement of Christ.  His righteousness is the only reason we are able to be made right with God, and His blood has been spilled to accomplish just that.

Quite a Trip…

Lastly, verse 28 summarizes His whole trip in travel terms: He came from heaven and came into the world, and now He’s leaving the world and going back to the Father. Later the next day He will say the same thing to Pontius Pilate.  Until this time Jesus had intimated that He was leaving, but now He plainly sums up that He is going to be leaving for a heavenly destination.

I love how William Hendricksen sees four movements in redemptive history here, and I think its worth quoting parts of his analysis:

First, “I cam out from the Father.” This refers to Christ’s perfect deity, his pre-existence, and his love-revealing departure from heaven in order to dwell on the sin-cursed earth..

Secondly, “I…am come into the world.” That describes Christ’s incarnation and his ministry among men.

Thirdly and fourthly, “Again I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.” Note the present tense of both verbs. The path of suffering, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension is, from one aspect, a departure from the world; from another point of view, it is a journey to the Father. On the basis of this voluntary obedience which Jesus is in the process of rendering, the Father (in the Spirit) exercises loving fellowship with those who are his own.

16:29-32 His disciples said, “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech! 30 Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God.” 31 Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? 32 Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.

There is more than a hint of a rebuke in the words of Jesus when He states, “do you now believe?”  R.C. Sproul says, “It’s almost as if He’s saying ‘Oh, now you believe? Where have you been the last three years?’”

His saying further illuminates their need for the Spirit and the reliance that all men have for God.  We are contingent beings, are we not?  We are creatures – we are not self-sufficient.  Our error comes when we stop thinking that we are contingent and instead assert ourselves as independent and self-sufficient.  When we do this, we make ourselves like God and fall into sin. This was the sin of Satan at the first, and it is the sin of many in our world today.

Calvin puts it this way, “The question put by Christ is therefore ironical; as if he had said, ‘Do you boast as if you were full of faith? But the trial is as hand, which will disclose your emptiness.’”

Side Note: I think that further evidence for Jesus speaking before about His coming again to them in the near future – that is, after the resurrection and not at the second coming – is given here again when Jesus states that “you will be scattered, each to his own home.” He is concerned primarily to reassure their hearts about events that are imminent.

What Christ is saying about the scattering of the disciples was also to fulfill a prophecy from Zechariah 13:7 which states:

“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who stands next to me,” declares the Lord of hosts.
 
“Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered; I will turn my hand against the little ones.”
 

That “sword” is the sword of the wrath of God that has been stored up and is going to come down on the head of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is going to take upon Himself all the wrath of God’s judgment that was meant for you and me.  Matthew Henry is right to cite Daniel 9:26a:

“And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself…”

Now the prophecy in Zechariah 13 is amazing to me for a few reasons:

First, notice how we humans are regarded – we (the disciples in this case) are called “the little ones” and “the sheep.” For all the confidence of the disciples they would later see this prophecy and no doubt feel once again humbled by who they are in comparison to who God is.

Second, here is the “Lord of hosts” (God) declaring from of old that He will strike the shepherd.  This shepherd is “the man who stands next to me.” This is Jesus Christ – the pre-incarnate Son (at the time of Zachariah, if we may speak so of time in relation to the being and existence of God without making a woefully inadequate statement). I can’t help but think of Isaiah 53:4,10 and the “crushing” of the Son, but also of the length to which He has purposefully gone to save us.  For as John would go on to write later:

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. (1 John 3:1)

Furthermore, when we pull back to the passage again and examine what Jesus is saying here, it is good to take note of the mercy of Christ. For not only does He say these things about their imminent cowardice as a warning (“the sheep will be scattered”), but reassures them (and speaks truth to Himself aloud) that though they will leave Him alone, yet the Father will be with Him!

There are two great truths here in the final verses of this chapter. The first is this truth that no matter where Christ went, no matter what happened, the Father was with Him.  And the same can be said to us today. This is the first truth – that no matter where we go, He is with us.

The second truth is enumerated in verse 33…

16:33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

The second truth (to continue my thought from verse 32) is that not only is Christ with us but there is a good reason for Him being with us – because He has overcome the world. The fact that He is with us wouldn’t be helpful if He was not also powerful! Not only is there a power here mentioned “overcome”, but also a legal fact.  Jesus is looking forward past the cross and saying that “I have overcome the world.”

I could be wrong, but I think there are two senses in which Jesus overcame the worldFirst, He lived a perfect life – there was no spot or blemish in Him and in this way (as we learned earlier) Satan wasn’t able to hold anything over His head:

I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, (John 14:30)

His perfect life was a life that “overcame” all sin and temptation.

But the second sense is a sense of looking forward to His work on the cross. Jesus is saying that by His death, burial, and resurrection He will triumph over the powers that rule this world. As Paul states:

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:15)

And so the battle has been won decisively at the cross. And the consequences of union with Christ as that we also have been victorious in Him. His victory is our victory, and His righteousness is our righteousness.

All of this is said in the context of Jesus staring down the barrel of “tribulation.”  Tribulation will mark the lives we lead in this world, but there is a joy, which we can look forward to because ultimately He has “overcome the world.”  Not just “will” overcome, but “has” overcome.

And because of His victory, His power resides in us through the indwelling of the Spirit.  John MacArthur rightly remarks, “After the resurrection and the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the disciples would be radically transformed from men of fear to men of courage.”

The same is true for us.  We who are Christians had once lived a life dominated, indeed ruled, by fear.  Now we live by faith in the Son of God and walk by that faith daily by the power of the Spirit.  I can’t help but think of what Jonathan Edwards said about this in the Religious Affections as he’s describing the nature of the Christian and his gracious affections/fruit of the Spirit as it relates to God’s power working within the Christian:

…that the inward principle from whence they flow is something divine, a communication of God, a participation of the divine nature, Christ living in the heart, the Holy Spirit dwelling there in union with the faculties of the soul, as an internal vital principle, exerting His own proper nature in the exercise of those faculties. This is sufficient to show us why true grace should have such activity, power and efficacy. No wonder that that which is divine is powerful and effectual; for it has omnipotence on its side. If God dwells in the heart, and is vitally united to it, He will show that He is a God, by the efficacy of His operation.

Perhaps the best parallel Biblical passage I can think of to explain this comes to us from Romans 8 where we learn that Christ’s victory guarantees that we will never be separate from Him:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39)

The reality of this triumph needs to be applied daily to our lives. Christ applied it to the minds and hearts of His disciples on the brink of what must have seemed to them to be complete and utter disaster.

Therefore, when we encounter trials that we think are “disasters” remember the purposes of Christ in you, and that He has overcome all of these things and has not deserted you.

Most Influential Books Part 3

This is part three (and final post) in a series on the most influential books I’ve read.  I’ve also listed some “runners up” at the end.  To be honest, there are so many good books that I read each year, that a list like this is necessarily subjective, and its always growing. Not that some books don’t have obvious merit for all people, but I also recognize that some may have had impacted me more than they will you. Not only that – but there’s a good chance that next week I could read something that blows me away and it won’t be on the list. Just this past week I read two books that were pretty darn good – Matt Chandler’s ‘Explicit Gospel’ and Michael Reeves ‘Delighting in the Trinity’. Nevertheless, I have to draw the line somewhere!

I hope you enjoy this third installment!

11. The Power of Positive Thinking – No one will accuse Norman Vincent Peale of being a theological genius, in fact much of his teaching undermines the basic Christian message that we are all sinner who need a Savior extra nos, but early in my theological awakening I didn’t seem to realize much of his incorrect teaching. So despite a deeply flawed message, God graciously used this book to help me learn two important things: 1. I need to be praying for others regularly and 2. The importance of Scripture memorization. This book literally pointed me back to the Bible’s importance for my physical and emotional well-being. I was suffering a great deal of anxiety and my doctor had prescribed anti-anxiety medication. My stomach was constantly in knots and I wasn’t sure how I was going to deal with the problem…medication seemed like the only option. But when I fervently began to memorize scripture and pray for others and bigger items besides just my own desires, I began to slowly be cured of my anxiety. I stopped taking medication. I was a free man. And its not a big mystery as to why – this wasn’t magic, it was simply allowing the Word of the Lord and the power of the Spirit to become my top priority and renew my mind. The Bible can do that like no other book.  In addition, praying for others got my mind off my own troubles and focused on loving others (even if I didn’t know them). This book helped point me in the right direction. Would I recommend it now?  No way – but its prescriptions, most certainly. In fact if you want to learn more about Peale’s false teaching you can read Tim Challies’ write up on his bio: http://www.challies.com/articles/the-false-teachers-norman-vincent-peale

12. The Loveliness of Christ – During some of my darkest, most stressed-filled days this book has been a balm of healing. I have quoted it, memorized portions of it, I’ve taken it to the hospital multiple times, and it’s been a great tool of perspective in the midst of suffering. It is a small book, but a powerful book. Samuel Rutherford is probably one of the most influential puritan writers of all time, and his influence on me has been significant. If you were to add any one book to your collection as a result of this blog post, this would be the one I’d start with. The book is comprised of probably 100 (small) pages of quotes which are simply excerpts from his letters to other believers. In another way, if you are a Christian, Rutherford’s caring love for others around him ought to be a model for you as you seek to live in a way that is caring and reflective of the Savior.

13. Kingdom Through Covenant – Perhaps no book to date has had such an outsized impact on the way I understand the way in which the Biblical story is put together and unfolds throughout history. It made me feel good to be a Baptist (truth be told), and assured me that I wasn’t giving up any intellectual ground on that score (perhaps an intramural joke there)! It also explained for me a lot of the flow of events in the Old Testament and how they culminate in Christ – especially O.T. promises. This was an important book in my deeper theological development, and for those who have been Christians for a while and have always wondered at the dispensational and covenant approaches (i.e. you are/were head-scratchers like me), then this will prove very fruitful ground for you. You’ll have to ignore all the Hebrew and Greek text that the authors slip in from time to time. They are the scholars in that field and they do that to show their work (like you did in long division in 8th grade). My best advice is to do your best to read around it and not let it bog you down…its well worth it!

14. The Lord of the Rings – Growing up I was somewhat of a stranger to Tolkein’s work. I was aware of The Hobbit (I had seen a play, and perhaps had it read to me by my mom), but had no idea there was more to the story. Finally, while I was in college, my brother Alex introduced me to the story when Peter Jackson’s silver screen rendition of The Fellowship of the Ring came out in the theaters. I went as a skeptic, and left as a man head over heals in love. Later, in the weeks and days leading up to my wedding, I read The Lord of the Rings almost nonstop. I carried it with me everywhere, and my bookmark was our wedding vows which I was endeavoring to memorize. I still read this book whenever I can, and appreciate its depth and literary value more with each passing year.

15. Henry Drummond – This is not a book, it is an author (is that cheating?). During the 2007/2008 Romney Presidential Campaign I lived on the short sayings of Drummond. He gave me hope that science and Christian intellectualism could co-exist, and helped add perspective to my busy life away from home when I was sad and often feeling lost. Drummond lived and wrote in the mid-nineteenth century and devoted a substantial amount of time to standing up to the popular new scientific theory of evolution. He had a sharp logical mind, and I think just about anything he wrote is really fascinating.
Runners up – books that have taught me at least one major concept that has stuck with me:

God’s Greater Glory – In this sequel to Bruce Ware’s ‘God’s Lesser Glory’, Dr. Ware explains God’s “meticulous sovereignty”, a concept that has really been important in my own studies over the past year or so.  His Biblical and logical arguments are beyond arguing with from what I can tell of all I’ve read thus far. If you’ve read Chosen by God, and don’t want to blow your brains out with a puritan reading (i.e. Freedom of the Will) on the topic of God’s sovereignty, then this is the next step in your educational endeavors.

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars – This is a recent purchase and read and makes the list for how much it makes me laugh. It is easily one of the most enjoyable and hilarious books I have ever read! What I love the most about it is its trueness to the story as well as to Shakespeare’s famous writing style (the entire book is written in iambic pentameter).  If you love star wars and literature, this is the perfect combination – but be warned, this book is not to be read in any location where laughing out loud might be frowned upon!

The Transforming Power of the Gospel – Jerry Bridges explains “dependent responsibility”, which is the concept that men and women are both responsible for their actions and obedience to God’s laws, while at the same time dependent upon God for help to obey.  The tension here is worked out beautifully, and helpfully.

Give them Grace – Elyse Fitzpatrick examines parenting using the gospel. It is probably the best parenting book I’ve ever read, and it is easily the most challenging. There aren’t a lot of “to-do’s” from here, but there is a significant philosophical boost and reexamination that will likely take place.  If you don’t yet understand how the gospel fits into everyday life, this is one you must read.

A Case for Amillenialism – Kim Riddlebarger opened my mind to eschatology and taught me to enjoy it and not be scared to study it. I don’t think he’s the best writer, it seems a little clunky at times.  But he is really helpful in this area, and I find myself going back to his book and his blog again and again for wisdom.

The Trinity – Bruce ware explains divine roles better than anyone I had ever read. Especially subordination in role and co-equality in ontology.  If you’ve never understood the Trinity, this book will be huge for you.

The Freedom of the Will – Edwards proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that God initiates salvation.  Extremely difficult read though, so don’t read this unless you’re ready to pop a few Advil along with it! In fact, I would recommend not reading this unless you are an advanced scholar whose already read some other puritan works (or even other works by Edwards). But if you are pretty advanced in your reading and understanding of doctrine, then make sure to put this on your bucket list.

Bonhoeffer – This almost made my original list. I read it at a time when I was going through much pain and angst and it helped distract me and keep my mind fresh. It was a very very good book and a very interesting biography.  It will not leave you satisfied though, I warn you there…but I think that is for the best (though I know some who disagree).

The Pleasures of God – Piper explained how it was the will and pleasure of the Father to crush the Son. This concept just blew me away.  He goes into many other “pleasures” of God in this series, and they are worth reading or listening (there is a sermon series) through.

Holiness – J.C. Ryle explained to me that in order to enjoy heaven later I need to pursue holiness now. That concept is meted out over some three or four hundred pages. It was a very impactful book and showed example after example of how men and women from the Bible lived their lives in pursuit of holiness all pointing forward to the One who lived a perfect life of holiness so that when we fail that goodness, that righteousness, is there for us and keeps us in right standing before God.

The 5000 Year Leap – I read this in 2009 (I think) and it was one of the first books to awaken me to how far off course our country has gotten. It’s a great foundational book for anyone trying to figure out for themselves “what’s really wrong with this country?”

The Children of Hurin – This is one of J.R.R. Tolkein’s posthumously published works and probably the greatest thriller/tragedy I’ve ever read hands down. It was published with the help of his son Christopher and if you get the right edition it will have sketches by Alan Lee, which are really good. Just a fantastic piece of fiction.

Knowing God – This classic work of J.I. Packer helped shape a lot of my thinking on the nature of the Christian life.  Perhaps chapter 19 (on adoption) was most influential because it stuck with me the best. You can hardly go wrong by reading this book multiple times until its truth seeps in and helps you better grasp your life’s purpose, and more of who and what God is all about.

Battling Unbelief – John Piper works out some important ideas here in a book that is basically a boiled down version of ‘Future Grace’ and the idea behind the book is that most of our anxiety and sinfulness (and many issues in our lives) derive from a Christian’s failure to have faith in God.  In other words, we don’t believe Him and don’t trust in His promises etc. It’s astonishing how many times Piper is able to get to the root of things in this small book. I’d recommend this one to anyone who wants to get to the root of the problems facing them each day.

The Story of Christianity Volume I – I read this 500 (or so) page history book last year as part of a seminary class on the history of the Christian church. It was so easy to read and so good that I picked up its sequel (volume II) for reading on my own. What I liked so much about this book was Justo Gonzalez’ ability to simplify complex political and religious issues, and help the reader traverse hundreds of years of history without missing the small things, yet without losing site of the bigger picture.  It’s easily the best volume on the church I’ve read thus far (at least for a beginner like me).

Holy, Holy, Holy: Proclaiming the Perfections of God – This book is a compilation of essays written about the holiness of God by noted scholars and theologians.  The essay by Sinclair Ferguson entitled ‘Hallowed be Your Name: The Holiness of the Father’ left a lasting impression on me and I refer back to it again and again.

Conclusion: One of the things that is inevitably left off a list like this are the dozens of commentaries and study aides I read each year as I teach through books of the Bible. Men like Carson, Calvin, Ridderbos, Vos, Stott, Augustine, Boice, MacArthur, Morris, Kostenberger, Frame, Schreiner, Grudem, Beale and others who didn’t get mentioned in my book list have been equally influential on my thinking and understanding of life, death, Scripture, and many other topics under the sun. There have also been men and women whose books I have read and have been helpful or enjoyable, but if I listed them all it would take way too long!

But what I have learned is that reading changes lives, it does this in the way that Bruce Ware describes the study of theology: first it changes your mind, then your heart, then the actions of your hands, which in turn affects your habitat.  But it starts in the minds and hearts of those who seek wisdom. You’ll notice that many of my books are theological or Biblically based, and that isn’t because I haven’t read a slew of Gresham or my fair share of Star Wars, and it isn’t because I haven’t read the classic works from Dickens and Dumas (becauseI have), but its because the books that have shaped me, influenced me, and changed me for the better have largely been books whose topic is heavenly, and whose aim is joy in life and after it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the postings – feel free to comment with any questions!

The Lost Art of The Catechism

Kim Riddlebarger has an excellent article on the lost art of catechism.  Catechism is something we’ve talked about in class, and something that many of us are employing to help our children understand and become familiar with the fundamentals of Biblical theology.  Kate found this article helpful and sent it to me, and though it is a fairly lengthy article, it’s well worth the read.  I would urge each parent to consider using a catechism in their home – it’s well worth the effort, and is a very useful tool.

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The Lost Art of Catechism  (original article here as well)

Growing up in American fundamentalism, as I did, the very word “catechism” brought to my mind images of the liberalism of mainline Protestant denominations, or some mysterious Roman Catholic ritual that could have no biblical support whatsoever. As a “Bible church” person, I was taught from my earliest youth that “catechism” was at best a worthless practice, if not downright dangerous to the soul. But if you were to have asked me just what exactly “catechism” was, I’m not sure that I could have given you an answer. Growing up with such misconceptions, I often viewed my friends who attended “catechism” classes as people who could not possibly be “born again” and therefore, in desperate need of evangelization. For unlike their misguided and dead church, our church had no creed but Christ, and we needed no such “man-made” guides to faith since we depended upon the Bible alone. Whatever “catechism” was, I wanted no part of it!

The burgeoning evangelical men’s movement, demonstrated by the huge amount of interest garnered by such groups as Promise Keepers, has raised a whole host of legitimate questions about the role of Christian men in society, the workplace and the home. This is certainly an important and indeed, a healthy trend. But I wonder if the answers to such questions are perhaps best found in the wisdom of earlier generations, rather than from among our own contemporaries. Many of these same questions have been asked before and the answers given to them by our predecessors and fathers in the faith were not only based upon a thorough knowledge of Scripture (which, Gallup and Barna remind us, is sadly lacking in our own age), but additionally, were forged through a kind of wisdom and life experience gained during an era in which Christians were less apt to simply react to the secular agenda and uncritically imitate its glitz, glamour and noise. Evangelical Protestants of previous generations, it seems, were often more careful about confusing the sacred and the secular than our own leaders, and they often dealt with such weighty issues theologically and historically. Inevitably, when we look to the theological wisdom of the previous generations regarding the role of men in society, the workplace and the home, we come back to the importance of the practice of catechism.

Catechism (from the Greek word catechesis) is simply instruction in the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. Instead of replacing or supplanting the role of the Bible in Christian education, catechism ideally serves as the basis for it. For the practice of catechism, as properly understood, is the Christian equivalent of looking at the box top of a jigsaw puzzle before one starts to put all of those hundreds of little pieces together. It is very important to look at the big picture and have it clearly in mind, so that we do not bog down in details, or get endlessly sidetracked by some unimportant or irrelevant issue. The theological categories given to us through catechism, help us to make sense out of the myriad of details found in the Scriptures themselves. Catechism serves as a guide to better understanding Scripture. That being noted however, we need to remind ourselves that Protestants have always argued that creeds, confessions and catechisms are authoritative only in so far as they faithfully reflect the teaching of Holy Scripture. This means that the use of catechisms, which correctly summarize biblical teaching, does not negate or remove the role of Holy Scripture. Instead, these same creeds, confessions and catechisms, as summary statements of what the Holy Scriptures themselves teach about a particular doctrine, should serve as a kind of springboard to more effective Bible study. When this is the case, these confessions, creeds and catechisms are invaluable tools to help us learn about the important themes and doctrines that are in Scripture.

     The practice of catechism also serves as an important safeguard against heresy and helps to mitigate some of the problems associated with the private interpretation of Scripture. How many times have you been forced to sit through a Bible study in which the goal was not to discover what the text actually says, but instead to discover what a particular verse means to each of the studies’ participants? When we remember that virtually every cult in America began with an open Bible and a charismatic leader who could ensure his or her followers that they alone have discovered what everyone else, especially the creeds, confessions and catechisms, have missed, we see perhaps the greatest value of catechism. These guides protect us from such errors and self-deluded teachers. As American evangelicals have moved away from the practice of catechism for subjective and experiential modes of meaning, it is no accident that biblical illiteracy has risen to embarrassing levels and that false doctrines have rushed in like a flood. These important safeguards of basic doctrine have been removed, and since Satan is, of course, the fathers of all lies, we are most helpless against him when the truth is not known.

    Protestant catechisms most often take the form of a series of questions and answers developed as summaries of biblical teaching. The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), for example, focuses upon the theme of the believer’s comfort by asking “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The Heidelberg Catechism is arranged around the three-fold distinction of guilt, grace and gratitude. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648), on the other hand, seeks to get right to the “big” question concerning the ultimate meaning of life, when it asks in question one, “What is the chief end of man?” Luther’s Larger Catechism (1529) begins by setting forth the meaning of the Ten Commandments, and Luther attempts to set clearly in the catechumen’s mind the proper relationship between Law and Gospel from the outset. Indeed, the primary purpose of all three of these catechisms is to instruct new Christians and our covenant children in the basics of the Christian faith. For in all of these great catechisms we are to learn about the content of the law and its relationship to the gospel, the Lord’s Prayer as a pattern for our fellowship with God, the Apostle’s Creed as a summation of Christian doctrine, and the sacraments as our means of spiritual nourishment. Thus these catechisms are all formulated to introduce catechumens to the basics of the Christian faith–things that all of us should know and believe.

The practice of catechism should ideally have a two-fold emphasis. The first of these emphases centers around the home. If Christian men are wondering about what their primary role should be as a father, in terms of their obligation to be priests of their own homes, I suggest that the practice of catechism occupy a major role. The Scriptures make it very clear that parents, especially fathers, are assigned the role of recounting to their children the mighty acts of God in redeeming his people (Exodus 13:8 ff). God commands us to teach his commandments “to your children and to their children after them” (Deuteronomy 4:9; cf. also Deuteronomy 6:6-9). In Joshua 8, we read that:

    Joshua read all the words of the law–the blessings and the curses–just as it was written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including women and children, and the aliens who lived among them (vv. 34-35).

The prophet Isaiah tells us that parents are to tell their children about God’s faithfulness (Isaiah 38:19). In the New Testament, we discover that the young pastor Timothy, had known the Holy Scriptures from infancy (2 Timothy 3:16). Paul recounted how important his own religious instruction had been to him, even before he became a believer (Acts 22:3). It is Paul who instructs fathers not to exasperate their children, but to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).

     Certainly it is important that every dad teach his children about the meaning of life. Yes, it is important to know who Larry, Moe and Curly are and every properly mannered child should know how to make various Stooge sounds and gestures despite their mother’s objections. It is also important for dads to teach their sons why an F-15 is superior to a Mig-25, and to even build a model of it together if possible. It is a must to know what a “draw play” is, and why if your child does not learn from your mistakes and grows up to be a Rams fan, they too must learn to live with perennial disappointment and heartbreak, a very difficult but valuable lesson. It is important to learn how to tie a ball into a mitt to make a good pocket, to run a lawn mower properly so as to not leave streaks in the grass and to position the firewood precisely so that you get a good hot and clean fire. But while all of this is important, it certainly pales in the light of eternity, when we realize that our children must also come to know the unspeakable love of Jesus Christ, who declared over the objections of his disciples, “let the children come unto me.” There is no doubt that the Scriptures themselves assign specifically to fathers the vital role of instructing their children in the Holy Scriptures and the great doctrines of the Christian faith. Let us never forget that our children come to Christ, many times, directly through instruction received in the home. But how can Mom or Dad best instruct their children in the faith? This can be done very effectively through regular Bible reading and catechism–practices that at one time were the distinguishing mark of a Christian home.

    The second emphasis of catechism centers on the role of the local church. Here the role of the pastor and elders, as well as the goal of the Sunday school program, should be to further and support those efforts at catechism ideally begun in the home. Parents should not assume that the church’s role is to supply the catechetical instruction that they as parents make little or no effort to provide at home. Too many times Christians labor under the false assumption that the church and its various youth programs will make up for a lack of instruction in the home. Just as you cannot expect your children to do well in school without the active involvement of the parents at home after school, so too, parents cannot expect their children to grow in faith as they should apart from concerted effort to provide regular catechism in the home. Sunday schools and youth programs are wonderful reinforcements to what the parents undertake in the home. But these can never replace the value of instructing one’s children in the basics of Christian faith. Certainly we are all too busy, and this seems so difficult to do. But even a little time spent in catechism pays great dividends, and a discerning parent can find plenty of object lessons with which to illustrate the truths of the catechism from virtually every family discussion, newscast, situation comedy, or feature film. One of the best by-products of parents taking an active role in catechizing their kids, is that they also catechize themselves in the process! In order to teach your kids and to be able to answer their questions, which are often more direct and difficult than those asked by many adults, you must learn the material for yourself. In order to teach, you have to learn!

There are surprising practical ramifications that result from the practice of catechism as well. Many people who hear the White Horse Inn and are suddenly intrigued by Reformation theology frequently inquire about the best way to learn Reformation theology for themselves. There is no doubt that getting one of the Reformation catechisms, and working your way through it, is a great place to start. Too many people assume that the place to start learning theology is through tackling technical theological writing, when in fact the creeds and catechisms of the Reformation were designed to instruct novices in the faith. Starting with the catechism and confessions is really a better way to go.

There are other practical results as well. When I first entered the ministry, I was quite surprised at how many times I heard from people how the catechism questions and answers they memorized in childhood kept coming to mind when temptation or doubt would assail them later in life. Many were able to recount how catechism in their youth kept them from joining cults, because they knew enough doctrine to know that you must believe in the Trinity to be a Christian, or how catechism kept them from marrying people from non-Christian religions, since they knew enough biblical teaching to tell the difference. Indeed, several who were on the verge of leaving the faith altogether simply could not escape what had become such an important part of their subconscious. The catechism questions and answers they had memorized many years before simply would not leave them when the going became difficult. It was a part of their life history that they could not escape no matter how hard they tried.

In conclusion, there is one story that wonderfully captures the importance of catechism, perhaps more than all others. The great Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield, in an article defending the worth of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, recounts a wonderful story that demonstrates what he describes as the “indelible mark of the Shorter Catechism.”

We have the following bit of experience from a general officer of the United States Army. He was in a great western city at a time of intense excitement and violent rioting. The streets were over-run daily by a dangerous crowd. One day he observed approaching him a man of singularly combined calmness and firmness of mien [bearing], whose very demeanor inspired confidence. So impressed was he with his bearing amid the surrounding uproar that when he had passed he turned to look back at him, only to find that the stranger had done the same. On observing his turning the stranger at once came back to him, and touching his chest with his forefinger, demanded without preface: “What is the chief end of man?” On receiving the countersign, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever”–“Ah!” said he, “I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!” “Why that is just what I was thinking of you,” was the rejoinder.1

Concludes Warfield, “It is worthwhile to be a Shorter Catechism boy. They grow up to be men. And better than that, they are exceedingly apt to grow to be men of God.”2 If we want our children to grow up to be men and women of God, one of the best possible ways for this to happen is to recover the practice of catechism!

     Recommended Catechisms: The Heidelberg Catechism, The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Luther’s Larger Catechism.