Two Kinds of Freedom

Jonathan Edwards writes in Freedom of the Will about moral ability and natural ability.

We are said to be naturally unable to do a thing, when we cannot do it if we will, because what is most commonly called nature does not allow of it, or because of some impeding defect or obstacle that is extrinsic to the Will; either in the Faculty of understanding, constitution of body, or external objects. Moral Inability consists not in any of these things; but either in the want of inclination; or the strength of a contrary inclination; or the want of sufficient motives in view, to induce and excite the act of the Will, or the strength of apparent motives to the contrary.

There is absolutely no way that I would ever leave my daughter on the side of the road and drive off.  Even if I wanted to be free from the responsibility, cost, and stress of raising her, it would be impossible for me to abandon her like that.  It is impossible, not because I lack the physical capacity to do so, or the mental capacity to carry out such an operation.  There is no armed guard standing watch over her, preventing me from carrying out such a thing.  There is no innate human characteristic that precludes me doing this; other people have done such things.  No, it is impossible because I lack any inclination or motive to do such a thing; or even if such an inclination or motive were to make its existence known, it would immediately, without any question, be entirely overpowered by my strong desire to keep her, protect her, and love her.

Fork in the roadIn the same way, fallen humans are morally incapable of submitting their life to God.  Adam’s sin was to put himself in the place of God; evaluating for himself what is good and what is evil.  Every human ever since has done the same thing.  Fallen man has no inclination whatsoever for giving up his assumed role of arbiter of right and wrong.  He retains control of his human faculties of thought, emotion, speech and action, and can direct these faculties according to his will.  He retains the ability to decide who he will obey, and he retains the ability to act in accordance with his decision.  But his dead spirit leaves him no motivation to exercise his will in submission to God; or even if he thought that submission to God might be a good idea, his desire for autonomy would immediately overrule such a notion.  His human nature retains the freedom to choose in accordance with his will.  However, his will is corrupt and lacks the moral freedom to choose God.


Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Throughout history, many churches have utilized liturgical services, where both the order and much of the content of a worship service is written out in full.  This hymn comes from one of these service orders, the Liturgy of Saint James, a liturgy for celebrating the Eucharist that originated with the church at Jerusalem, dating back to at least the 4th Century.  It is named for James, the brother of Christ, author of the New Testament Epistle bearing his name, and the first bishop of the Jerusalem church.  Some of the eastern churches still use this liturgy today.Saint James

The first part of this liturgical service was open to anyone, including those who might just be investigating Christianity, as well as those who had accepted the claims of Christianity but had not yet been baptized.  Like our own service, this first part included hymns, prayers, the reading of Scripture, and instruction from the Word.  However, as they prepared to partake of the Communion elements, the catechumens, or unbaptized, would be dismissed, and the choir would chant this hymn as the bread and the wine were brought in to be placed on the altar:

“Let all mortal flesh be silent, and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself.  For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed, and to be given for food to the faithful; and the bands of angels go before Him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces, and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

The first phrase echoes Habakkuk 2:20, which says, “the LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.”  It brings to mind Isaiah chapter 6, where Isaiah sees the Lord on his throne, surrounded by the seraphim, and Isaiah responds with fear and trembling.  Or, the last few chapters of Job, where God “answers” Job with questions that reveal God’s surpassing greatness and authority, and Job’s response is to “lay his hand on his mouth.”

So there is a somberness to these words that we sing, as we ponder our own sinfulness, our need for a Savior, and we rightfully tremble before the power and authority of our Creator.  However, silence before God is not only due to standing before Him with fear and trembling, but also because we have no need to fret or worry.  As the psalmist wrote in Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  If we are God’s children, we can have internal peace, and be calm and silent when we see God for who He is.  We also sing with rejoicing in our hearts, because we are celebrating the arrival of our glorious Savior.

Perhaps especially meaningful for the church at Jerusalem would have been the prophecy from Zechariah chapter 2, where verses 10-13 read, “‘Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD.  And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people.  And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you.  And the LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.’  Be silent, all flesh, before the LORD, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.

And so, we sing this classic hymn, not just imitating traditions of the past, but standing alongside the saints from throughout history, unified in our doctrine and our devotion.  Let us stand, and with a holy mixture of fear and joy, give homage to our Lord who came to redeem us and nourish us by giving us himself.

In Christ Alone

In Christ Alone…”  These three words are a fragment, implying that we need to finish the sentence.  In Christ alone ______________.

This hymn fills in that blank by answering the question of “where do we place our hope?”  The world suggests we place our hope in having lots of money.  Or, if that doesn’t work, the government will take care of us.  But ultimately, everyone will let us down, so we have to be prepared to pull ourselves up by our own boot straps, and look out for Number One, says the world.  We can’t count on someone else to save us after all, but we can save ourselves.  “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”  Well… we know that that’s not true.  We are broken and powerless, in need of a Savior, and we place our hope in Christ, and in no one else.cross

The hymn also answers the question of “what is the basis for that hope?” If Christ alone is the source of our hope, what is it that makes that hope secure?  And so, we sing about the work of Christ on the cross.  The death that He died on our behalf accomplished what only He could accomplish.  The wrath of God, which we justly faced because of our sin, was satisfied by Jesus.  No one else could secure our freedom.  Only His blood could purchase our redemption.  Only His resurrection could conquer the effects of sin and death, and grant us the same victory.  We place our hope in Christ, because only He can save us.  The things that we need can be found in Him alone.

Here is my favorite line in the hymn:  “From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.”  This sums it up:  “Jesus commands my destiny.”  For starters, what this says to me is that I don’t control my own destiny.  I may want to sometimes.  I may try to.  But my destiny is not up to me.  It would be futile to put my hope in myself, because I don’t have the power to determine my future.  I don’t have the power to determine my eternal worth.  My destiny is controlled by Christ alone.

Furthermore, not only does Jesus hold the reins to my destiny, but He really is in command.  My destiny is not a wild, out-of-control horse that Jesus is trying to rein in.  My destiny is not up in the air.  My destiny is certain, because the one who controls my destiny has all the power in heaven and earth, forever and ever.  Jesus commands my destiny.  What more could I want?  What more could I hope for?


The Reins of Authority

If you grant someone authority that they should not have, do not be surprised when they abuse that authority.

For example, the rightful place of authority in a family rests with the parents (especially the father).  If you join a commune and give another man the right to decide what is best for your family, do not be surprised when that man abuses your child or sleeps with your wife.  It is harder for the victims to defend themselves when they have already given over authority to the wrong person.  It is easier for the perpetrator to abuse his authority when he has already assumed authority that should not belong to him.  The lines have already been blurred.

gavelThe rightful place of authority in a local church rests in a plurality of elders who satisfy the requirements given in Scripture.  If a church gives all the authority to one man, do not be surprised when he misuses funds, engages in nepotism, and sleeps with someone he is supposed to be counseling.  If a church gives the authority to a board selected for their business acumen and popularity, do not be surprised when they bicker and divide the church into factions.  If a church hands over authority to the civil government, do not be surprised when the government says the church can no longer follow the mandates of Scripture.

In the public square, it is the role of government to punish wrongdoing.  Hand that authority over to the people, and you get lynch mobs and vigilantes.

Of course, this does not mean that those in places of improper authority will always abuse that authority.  Neither does it mean that those who are given authority properly will not succumb to sin and misuse their authority.  One does not cause the other, and there are other causes for the same effects.  It also does not mean that authority cannot sometimes be properly delegated to someone who would not normally wield that authority.  However, delegation of authority should be done carefully, with limited scope and well-defined boundaries.

Don’t Label Me, Bro!

Human beings are finite, limited creatures.  This is a good thing, because this is the way God created us.  Currently, humans are marred by sin, but even after God perfects and glorifies us, we will always be finite, limited human beings.  Yet some people chafe at being limited.  They want to be independent; free to be, think, and act completely on their own terms.  They don’t want anyone else defining who they are.  They don’t want to be confined by the limits of someone else’s definition.  They don’t want to be labeled.

Labels are limiting, because labels define something.  If one direction is labeled “North,” then walking in the opposite direction cannot be considered heading North.

Some people eschew labels because they don’t want to be defined as being an evangelical, a fundamentalist, a conservative, a liberal, a Calvinist, an Arminian, a charismatic, an egalitarian, or even a Christian in some cases. They assert their independence and autonomy by refusing to identify with a particular “camp.”  They might use “un-labels” like post-evangelical, post-conservative, and post-liberal to reinforce their independence.

Rather than doing away with labels, we would do better to embrace the clarity that a label can bring.  Labels aren’t perfect, because labels can only summarize; a single label can’t communicate the variety that may be encompassed within that label.  Labels can be misunderstood and misappropriated, so a label by itself is often inadequate, but a label can still serve to improve clarity.  When something is labeled, you know something about what it is and what it isn’t.

To allow yourself to be accurately labeled requires two things: understanding yourself and understanding the meaning of the label.  It is easier to avoid labels, but there is great benefit to the personal reflection and research that is required to determine which labels apply to you.  First you have to understand what a label means.  Am I a supralapsarian or an infralapsarian?  Before I can decide if I am one, the other, or neither, I first have to understand what they each mean.  Secondly, I have to decide what I believe.  Once I understand the meaning of a label, I am confronted with a decision; do I believe this or not?  This challenges me to think and clarify what I believe to be true.  It’s not enough to just say, “I believe in Jesus” or “I believe the Bible.”  If I’m serious about being a disciple of Jesus, I need to understand what things are true about Jesus and what things aren’t; I need to understand what teaching is consistent with the Word of God and what teaching isn’t.

As for me, I am a human, not an animal.
I am an adult, not a child.
I am male, not female.
I am a heterosexual, not a homosexual.
I am married, not single.
I am a monogamist, not a polygamist.
I am a monotheist, not a polytheist.
I am a Christian, not an atheist, deist, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, pagan, secular humanist, or adherent of any other religion.
I am a trinitarian, not a unitarian, modalist, Arian, etc.
I am a protestant, not a Roman Catholic.
I am an Evangelical, not a mainliner.
I am a conservative, not a progressive, liberal, or moderate.
I am a complementarian, not an egalitarian.
I am a credobaptist, not a paedobaptist.
I am a creationist, not an evolutionist.
I am an Augustinian, not a Pelegian (or semi-pelagian).
I am a Calvinist, not an Arminian.
I am a monergist, not a synergist.
I am a compatibilist, not a libertarian.
I am a Republican, not a Democrat.
I am a capitalist, not a socialist or communist.
I am an American, not a citizen of any other country.
I am an introvert, not an extrovert.
I am supportive, not dominant.
I am a thinker, not a feeler.
I am a realist, not an idealist.
I am an optimist, not a pessimist.
I am a Cardinal’s fan, not a Cub’s fan.

Some of these labels I hold to more strongly than others.  Some may even change over time.  There are labels I may drop, and labels I may pick up as I learn more about them.

What about you?  What labels help define your beliefs and the type of person you are?  What labels have you heard that you are unsure about whether they might fit you or not?

Misplaced Shame

The Church has at times been accused (and rightfully so) of shooting our wounded. The wounded being those who have stumbled or fallen in sin.  In those instances, we say to them, in effect, “We are so ashamed of you, that we cannot bear to be associated with you.  The presence of sin in your life brings shame upon us.  To spare our own shame, we need to put you down.”

 If perhaps our eyes have been opened to this wrongful tendency, we no longer take the mantle of shame upon ourselves, but we place it on them instead.  “We accept you and love you, and we will stand by you and help you through this.  But, boy, should you be ashamed of yourself!  Shame on you!”  As we stand in judgement over them, making sure they’re sufficiently contrite, we preach about a God who forgives them and accepts them exactly as they are, no matter what they’ve done.  It’s all very confusing for them, and they’re not likely to respond the way we had hoped, so after a while we put them out of their misery, shuffling them off to a farm in the country.

While these serious problems continue to plague the Church, it seems to me that it has become more prevalent these days to discard shame altogether.  “Hey, don’t worry about it,” we say.  “So you sinned; no big deal.  To be honest, we’re not even sure anymore if that’s actually even a sin.”  We’ve come a long way from the barbaric days when we’d kick someone out of the church for getting a DUI, or ship a pregnant teen off to a girl’s home.  There is no longer any shame associated with sin.  It’s practically a badge of our humanness.  Having an affair?  Go ahead and make it public knowledge; no one’s going to call you on it.  And if they do, they’re just being judgmental.  Have a bit too much to drink last night?  That’s okay, go ahead and upload those pictures to Facebook; it’d be hypocritical to act like it didn’t happen.  There is no shame in just being who you are; no reason to keep anything hidden from view.

Rather than placing shame on the community around the sinner, rather than heaping shame on the sinner themselves, and rather than throwing shame out the window, we should place the shame where it belongs: on the sin.  Sin is shameful.  We obviously should not sweep sin under the rug so we don’t have to look at it, but we shouldn’t drag it out into public view either.  Ephesians 5:12 says, “It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret.” (NLT)  Those ungodly deeds are shameful, and shining a spotlight on them is shameful also.  They should be acknowledged in the proper circles, and dealt with discretely.  Shame should be removed by dealing with the sin, but not ignoring the shame, increasing the shame, or pretending it isn’t there.

The Boundary of Community: White Picket Fence or Razor Wire?

One of the topics that I think about fairly regularly is the struggle to resist the constant allure of “greener grass.”  We live in a culture that is highly mobile, presented with myriad options, and, generally speaking, the affluence to pursue those different options.  While it’s true that what’s billed as contentment may actually be complacency, I think the greater danger is confusing restlessness with the pursuit of excellence.

With this in mind, I have great appreciation for a recent 9Marks blog post that highlights the writing of Wendell Berry as “portray[ing] the beauty of a bounded life, a death to the options of Elsewhere, the embrace of a concrete place and its people.”

The author of the post explains that true community is “more than the welcome and affirmation typically communicated by the word today. To belong to a community is to be at its disposal, to have given over all you have to be used for whatever your community needs. … It is a submission of yourself—your identity, your interests, your ambitions—to the needs of those to whom you’re bound.”

This self-sacrifice for the sake of the community is a good thing, a biblical thing, especially when the community in view is the local church.  However, this absolute submission for the benefit of the community is also at the very heart of the scandal surrounding the potential cover-up of sexual abuse within churches associated with Sovereign Grace Ministries.  Like other stories of high-control groups, the allegations are that members were expected to submit to the wishes of their leaders, ostensibly for the protection of their community.

There are those who would have you believe that calls for submission to a community, such as those expressed in the 9Marks blog above, are major red flags, indicators of abusive leaders who demand total obedience from their followers.  However, the lesson we should learn from SGM (whether the allegations are true or not), is not the avoidance of commitment to a community, but the importance of the community as a whole (not just the individuals who make up the community) laying down its self-protectiveness.  In the same way that unchecked personal ambition is incompatible with true community, a church body that is overly worried about protecting their image, their identity, their ministry, is incompatible with the true Church.