Teach Me To Pray!: Ask to be Kept from Doing Evil

We often pray the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer after sinning.  We should learn to pray the sixth petition before similarly sinning again, remembering, ye have not because ye ask not (James 4:2).

The essence of the sixth petition, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Matthew 6:13), is seen in how our Lord Himself prays in John 17:15 for us to be kept in the world but out of its evil (James 1:27 calls this real religion).  Following both our Lord’s Prayers, we too should ask to be kept from doing evil.[1]

First, recognize in your prayers that many evils are working against your doing good.

The Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 195 teaches that in this petition we are to be “acknowledging … that Satan, the world, and the flesh, are ready powerfully to draw us aside, and ensnare us,” because the Word of God is often choked by fruitless caring for the world’s deceitful riches and lusts (Mark 4:18-19).  Ask God to expose the Devil whispering wicked whimsies as he seeks to lap your blood (1 Chronicles 21:1; Matthew 13:19; 1 Peter 5:8-9). Thomas Watson warns, “Satan has gained much experience by being so long versed in the trade of tempting.”[2]  You are not so experienced in resisting him. So …

Second, realize in your prayers that you are working against yourself to do good.

While God allows Satan to knock, only we open the doors of our deceitful hearts to him (James 1:14).  Matthew Henry’s prayer for this petition begins, “Lord, a wicked inclination remains in us that is bent toward backsliding.”[3]  The Catechism says we must also be “acknowledging … that we, even after the pardon of our sins, by reason of our corruption, weakness, and want of watchfulness, are not only subject to be tempted, and forward to expose ourselves unto temptations, but also of ourselves unable and unwilling to resist them, to recover out of them, and to improve them.”  Paul laments our problem (Romans 7:19-24).  Even Peter wept bitterly for denying Christ after denying he would (Mt. 26:61-79).  Thus we are “worthy to be left under the power of them.”  Though we should be overcome by our sins, yet …

Third, rejoice in your prayers that God is working for you to do good so you learn and fall less.

The Catechism teaches us to “pray, that God would so overrule the world and all in it, subdue the flesh, and restrain Satan, order all things, bestow and bless all means of grace, and quicken us to watchfulness in the use of them, that we and all his people may by his providence be kept from being tempted to sin.” Yet it continues, “or, if tempted, [we should pray] that by his Spirit we may be powerfully supported and enabled to stand in the hour of temptation.”  Pray to pass God’s tests while also with the Catechism “acknowledging, that the most wise, righteous, and gracious God, for divers holy and just ends, may so order things, that we may be assaulted, foiled, and for a time led captive by temptations” (2 Chronicles 32:31).[4] Nonetheless …

Fourth, when you fall, be relieved as you pray that God is working for you to stand back up and do good.

The Catechism counsels us to pray without ceasing to cease with our sinning: “or when fallen, [pray to be] raised again and recovered out of it, and have a sanctified use and improvement thereof: that our sanctification and salvation may be perfected.”  So ask that we all be preserved wholly sanctified and that we do no evil (1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Corinthians 13:7), requesting that “Satan [be] trodden under our feet, and we fully freed from sin, temptation, and all evil, for ever.”  And be encouraged that Jesus prayed for Peter and us not to be undone (Luke 22:31-32; John 17:15).

Finally, let Luther guide you, “Say: ‘O dear Lord, Father and God, keep us fit and alert, eager and diligent in thy word and service, so that we do not become complacent, lazy, and slothful as though we had already achieved everything.  In that way the fearful devil cannot fall upon us, surprise us, and deprive us of thy precious word or stir up strife and factions among us and lead us into other sin and disgrace, both spiritually and physically.  Rather grant us wisdom and strength through thy spirit that we may valiantly resist him and gain the victory.  Amen.”[5]

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Evangelical Church of America in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  A widower, he is the adoring father of his four covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, and Isaac.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

[2] Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1972) , 261.

[3] Matthew Henry, A Way to Pray, ed. O. Palmer Robertson (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2010) , 303.

[4] For pastoral counsel on why God allows His own children to sin for a season and how He uses it in and for them, see the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 5, “Of Providence”, section 5.

Why Study Theology: The Blessed Truth of Being Theologically Organized

If all your paperwork rolled like a sea over your desk, you’d struggle to navigate and prepare your tax returns.  If you blanketed your computer’s desktop with all your digital files, you’d smother the writing of a departmental report.  So is any unorganized library a maze of confusion.

This is why our cabinets, computers, and shelves have filing systems.  And this is why we need systematic theology.

As an amateur photographer, I’ve learned that I need to group my digital picture files by subject and date so that later I don’t have to go scrolling for the big catch that essentially got away from me for lack of hard drive organization.  As well, online tutorials often advise reading the camera’s user manual.  True, the company designed and built the camera into a flow of working parts, yet it has grouped them by category in the manual to help the photographer make it work best.  While we wander down many paths of inquiry we capture and store our discoveries in topical cards of memory along the way; and when it comes time to share we generally access one card at a time.  

Our daughters collect shells and rocks while strolling the seashore and they organize and display them by similar types.  This is the way God has wired us to reflect His way of thinking, Who is a God of order (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40).  

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that in them is, in broad and specific categories during six literal and topical days of division.  He made organisms according to their kinds.  So Jesus ends the Bible with a retelling of The Revelation in seven related groups of sevens.

To assist us in reasoning and speaking theology we organize it.  We group the main emphases of God’s Word into patterned thoughts and references.  To make the most of the Scriptures for day-to-day use we systematize.  We index by topic.  We place the shells of justification in one bucket and lay the rocks of sanctification in another.  We remember where we found each along the way and talk about them together on the whole within our Father’s World.  

What we label “systematic theology” today was in earlier times called “common places”.  This we see even in Isaac Watts’ book, A Guide to Prayer, where he instructs us to “set down in writing all these parts of prayer into commonplaces, and all the observable passages that occur in reading the Holy Scripture or other authors.  Or such passages as we hear delivered in prayer that are very affecting to our souls should be written down and registered under those heads.  This would preserve in our memories the thoughts and expressions which have had a peculiar quickening influence upon us.”  He goes on to recommend books that have topically arranged prayers from the Bible for ease of reference and use: an “oldie but a goodie” by Bishop Wilkins and one “hot-off the press” by Matthew Henry as a contemporary to his own publication.[1]  I find using such books has better structured my prayerful thoughts and utterances both within my closet and behind the pulpit.

Our Westminster Confession of Faith is systematic theology. It groups the main emphases of Biblical teachings by category with Scripture proofs.  Reflecting its first chapter, John Murray writes, “Since there is in Scripture the consent of all the parts and the unity of the whole, there is what has been called the analogy of the faith or in other words, a system of truth.  Creedal statement can and should take account of this and formulate its creed accordingly.  This is the principle that governed the representative creeds of the 16th-century Reformation.”[2]

When people come to me with questions about what the Bible teaches they almost always ask about a subject, and I defer to referencing its superb handling in the Westminster Standards.  The response is always a smile that seems to say, “Eureka!”  How blessed we are with such a resource that answers the common questions about what the Bible mainly teaches regarding faith and life—orderly gathered together in a logical system for quick, practical, and good use.

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Evangelical Church of America in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  A widower, he is the adoring father of his four covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, and Isaac.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

[1] Isaac Watts, A Guide to Prayer (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2011) , 51. Italics, GVL.

[2] John Murray, “The Creedal Basis of Union in the Church,” in The Claims of Truth, vol. 1 of Collected Writings of John Murray (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976) , 284.

Paolo Sarpi – a View of Rome after Trent

Paolo Sarpi is not a familiar name in American discussions of the Protestant Reformation but was well known in 16th-century Europe. As was often the case, particularly in firmly Roman Catholic countries like Italy, placing a precise label on Sarpi’s theological beliefs is difficult and counter-productive. His life, however, offers an excellent vantage point for an overview of the Church of Rome after the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

Sarpi and the Venetian Interdict

            Born in Venice on August 14, 1552 Sarpi became an Augustinian monk at 13. His intellectual abilities were immediately evident. At age 15, he was already debating the powers of the pope and church councils. At 20, he was appointed court theologian by Duke Guglielmo Gonzaga of Mantua. After earning a doctorate at the University of Padua and a temporary position as Procurator General of his Augustinian order, he moved back to Venice, where he would have continued a quiet life of a scholar if a momentous controversy hadn’t shaken the city.

            In 1605, the Venetian authorities arrested two clergymen who had been accused of common crimes: Scipione Saraceno for abuse of his niece and Marcantonio Brandolin for homicide and damage of property. They were not sensational cases. Crimes committed by clergy were common and well documented. Most of the time, they were managed by the church, quietly and undercover.

            Most Italian rulers accepted this arrangement, which was not reciprocated (the church felt free to perform arrests in any Italian state, upon suspicion of heresy, with or without the rulers’ agreement). The Republic of Venice had been a lone dissenting voice. Consequently, it had become a place of refuge for Protestant sympathizers and a prolific center of publication of controversial books.

            To Pope Paul V, the arrest of Saraceno and Brandolin was the last straw in a long history of what the church considered Venetian interferences in its government. He threatened to excommunicate the whole city of Venice and its territories if the two clergymen were not delivered to church authorities.

            Paolo Sarpi, who was at that time the official theologian for the Republic of Venice, encouraged its ruler, Doge Leonardo Donà, to stand his ground. Equally determined, Paul V kept his word, forbidding the clergy to perform any religious service in the doge’s territories. His injunction fell on deaf ears, because the clergy sided with the state, except for the Jesuits, who had become the fiercest defenders of Rome. The conflict turned into an international matter, with England on the side of Venice and Spain and Austria on the side of the pope.

            Finally, a year later, the French authorities brought the two factions to a compromise: the two clergymen were delivered to France, who in turn delivered them to the church. It was a victory for Rome, while Venice formally stood by its convictions.

            Tensions continued. Sarpi, who had gained international acclaim as a defender of state rights, was excommunicated and became victim of two attempted murders. The first was discovered in time, but the second almost succeeded, and Sarpi was left for dead after fifteen stiletto thrusts. He finally recovered, while his would-be assassins found refuge in papal territories.

Sarpi’s Works

            In the meantime, Sarpi had been in close correspondence with Protestants all over Europe, leading many to hope that Venice could make a permanent break from Rome. The English ambassador, Sir Henry Wotton, was especially insistent in encouraging a move in that direction. Neither Sarpi nor the Venetian doge, however, were ready for such a drastic action.

            Sarpi continued to work in defense of the Venetian Republic and the rights of the state. He published, among other things, a history of the interdict and a reply by fellow clergyman Giovanni Marsilio to the accusations of one the pope’s best-versed theologians and fiercest opponents of Protestants: Cardinal Robert Bellarmine.

            Sarpi’s most famous work was his History of the Council of Trent, eight volumes written in the course of eight years and based on a great number of documents and interviews. In spite of Sarpi’s obvious opinion of the Council as ultimate imposition of the absolute power of the pope over the church, this work is a valuable historical record, revealing the background and motives behind some of the council’s decisions.

            History of the Council was Sarpi’s last major work. He kept, however, writing until his death in 1623.

Rome After Trent

            Sarpi’s life and works bring to light a reality which has been typically ignored. Most historical accounts lead us to believe that the Roman Catholic Church, initially overtaken by Protestant assaults, came to successfully reorganize and reform itself in the Council of Trent. The truth is somewhat different.

            A moral reformation of the church, pursued by both conscientious Roman Catholics and Protestants, was achieved only on paper, as the church’s defense of both the Venetian criminal clergy and Sarpi’s would-be assassins demonstrates. In a 2013 volume[1], authors Giovanni Romeo and Michele Mancini prove, on the basis of a wide selection of documents, what many Italians can readily attest from personal experience: after Trent, the Roman Catholic Church has continued to ignore, cover-up, and minimize serious crimes committed by tens of thousands of priests.

            Doctrinally speaking, conversant theologians such as Bellarmine were not representative of the majority of 17th-century Roman Catholic clergy. In a recent interview,[2] historian Gigliola Fragnito highlighted the poignant example of cardinal and jurist Giovanni Battista de Luca (1614-1683), who advised pope Innocent XI on the main qualities of a bishop. A knowledge of theological ethics and dogmas was, in his opinion, “absolutely useless.” What mattered was a knowledge of canon law, “in order to defend ecclesiastical jurisdiction.” The only bishops who had to be proficient in theology were those who lived in a region bordering a Protestant country.

            Sarpi believed that the Council of Trent sharpened, instead of pacifying, Europe’s theological battles. By declaring “anathema” anyone who held doctrines such as justification by faith alone, the council’s decrees drew a deeper divide between Roman Catholics and Protestants – a divide that will continue to exist as long as the same decrees are the foundation of the Church of Rome.

[1] Romeo, Giovanni and Mancini, Michele, Clero Criminale, Laterza, Italy, 2013

Why Study Theology

Theology on the Go starts the new year with an exciting announcement. Jonathan Master is pleased to introduce his new regular co-host Dr. James Dolezal. James is not only Jonathan’s friend but also a colleague at Cairn University where he teaches trinitarian theology, church history, and philosophy.

Sometimes, new beginnings call for a reflection on why we do the things we do, so James and Jonathan go back to basics and want to discuss why we should study theology. James uses Psalm 46 to help us think through how theology is a mixed discipline of theory and practice, and taking God at His word requires us to know who He is and our relation to Him. So, if you think that the study of theology is a leisure activity for people with a lot of time on their hands, our hosts want to dismiss such idea. Theology is for every child of God in whatever capacity they may find themselves, in times of peace, or times of trouble!

Enjoy this great episode!

We have a several copies of “What is Reformed Theology? ” by R. C. Sproul courtesy of Baker Books that we are giving away. Enter for your chance to win.

Teach Me To Pray!: Forgive Us Our Debts

In this series, we are examining how the Lord’s prayer shapes our prayer life. In this post, we want to apply the phrase “…Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors…” How does this statement in the Lord’s prayer shape our prayers?

First, we should pray regularly for the forgiveness of sins. The believer in the Lord Jesus Chris is eternally forgiven from the moment they place their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. When a Christian is justified before God they will saved from the future judging wrath of God (Rom. 5:9). Yet, we are still to approach God and regularly confess our sins since Christ is our advocate in heaven (1 John 1:9, 2:1).

When you pray, ask the Lord to forgive your sins. If we know of any sins, take them and confess what they are. Acknowledge their guilt against God. In humility, simply ask to be forgiven. As you do this, remember how the cross of Christ has paid for sin.

As you continue to pray, ask the Holy Spirit to search your heart and draw to your mind any unconfessed sin. There is no shame in asking the Holy Spirit to bring specific sins to our attention. Pray for your conscience to be pricked. Ask for your hearts to be illuminated. We ask the Holy Spirit to bring unknown sins to our attention so that we might have the joy of confessing them and the assurance that God forgives sins. The goal is not to be incapacitated with guilt, but to simply walk humbly with our God.

As you are praying, consider reading Scripture and reflect on God’s forgiveness of sin. You may find Psalm 32 or 51 particularly helpful for both confession and reminder of the preciousness of forgiveness.

Second, we must also be willing to forgive others in our life. In Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus tells the parable of a servant who was forgiven a great debt but was unwilling to forgive another of little debt. The point of the parable is that those who have God’s forgiveness are willing to forgive others. Our sin against a holy God is far greater than any way another person could wrong us. If I am unwilling to forgive and bitterly hold on to what I am owed when I was wronged, then how can I claim to know God’s forgiveness? Matthew 6:14-15 says “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

So, how do I forgive others in my prayers? Ask God if there is anyone you need to forgive. If, while praying, you think of anyone to whom you need to offer forgiveness go to them at your earliest opportunity. Do everything on your part to make restitution.

In your prayer, you may acknowledge to God that you forgive them—not as a statement of pride to God but as a way of humbly acknowledging to God what you are doing. You may need to ask for help to forgive them. It can be hard to get over the hurt and betrayal of being wronged. It is not always pettiness that makes these wounds deep. Part of the prayer involves asking God for strength and ability to forgive and be more Christ-like in our character.

Another thing we should ask for in our prayers is that God will forgive them. In this respect, consider how Stephen prayed in Acts 7:60 for those who were stoning them him, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Depending on the person’s own relationship with God they may or may not be eternally forgiven of the sin. However, we are doing our part to forgive the persons. We are not going to hold a grudge or prosecute the offense of the other person.

Finally, in your prayers, pray for a willing spirit to forgive others. There may be times when someone asks for forgiveness and we do not have a lot of advanced notice. We may be caught off guard by a person asking to be forgiven, and so I suggest we pray in advance that we would be generally gracious and forgiving in our demeanor. Along these lines, we might also pray that we not be easily offended but exemplify a spirit of grace in all our dealings.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary.  He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.

Sexual Identity: Saboteurs at the Door

The 17th century minister and Scotsman, Alexander Nisbet said, “the most dangerous heretics have many followers; every error they introduce turns out to be a friend to some lust in the heart of man.”

Case in point: Several years ago, a friend of mine discovered his pastor had committed adultery with a woman in their church. In this fiercely independent church, which had no ecclesial oversight except the three men who ran things, the pastor did not step down. Instead, he developed a very elaborate doctrine of discretion and gossip enforced by his devoted henchmen.

If anyone wished to talk about his adultery, they were shut down with chapter and verse from the Bible about gossip. The pastor convinced most in the church it was a sin to speak of the issue. He convinced my friend. 

Voilà! A new teaching is found that befriends a man’s lust to power and paycheck, not to mention his lust for illicit relations.

What was going on this situation? Probably a lot more than we can say or fully understand. One thing going on for sure, however, was an evil innovation in Christian teaching in order to avoid accountability for sin.

Sexual sins, of course, are not unforgivable sins (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Our Lord Jesus Christ has gathered into His kingdom by his blood many sinners who were soiled by such sins. They have been effectually called through the needle hole of repentance, forgiven, cleansed and transformed. In many cases, the Lord has blessed them with years of domestic peace and renewed fidelity.

Yet there are many more who never leave the wide way of destruction (Matt. 7:13). Tragically, often walking right there beside them, even leading them, are so-called ministers and teachers who assure them they can keep their sin and have salvation too.    

The apostle Peter warned of such “wide way” teachers. In Peter’s second letter, he said they would secretly sow their ideas, philosophies and new doctrines into the churches of Jesus Christ.

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they exploit you with false words. (2 Peter 2:1-3a)

Peter anticipates an age-long heretical infiltration in churches designed to satisfy man’s sensuality and greed. What is most striking about Peter’s prophecy is that what is normative in the world will find entrance into the church (2 Cor. 12:21). Why?

Why do such false teachers even bother with the church? Why not just go around the church and get right to the immorality they desire, uninhibited, undiluted and without delay?

The answer is simple enough for a child to understand yet shocking enough to cause us all to examine ourselves afresh: false teachers infiltrate the church because they want a theology that allows for a clinging to sin while also gaining salvation. In the church, they find a market for such theology.

Nothing satisfies the natural man more than a god who promises salvation while permitting all kinds of lawless behavior. A god of deliverance but not a god of judgment.

Remember the idolatry that occurred in the ancient church shortly after her deliverance from Egypt. While Moses met with God on Sinai the people fashioned a golden calf. They declared that the calf had brought them up out of the land Egypt (Ex. 32:4)! They re-assigned their deliverance to their idol! The text then says: “And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play” (Ex. 32:6).

Their new god not only provided deliverance but he had no sanctions against their lusts. It is the oldest conceit dating back to Cain: to have a Savior without a cross; to have a salvation without expiation of guilt and without propitiation of wrath; to be a pilgrim with no cross to bear, no self to deny, and no sin to mortify. So much is conveniently avoided. Yet tragically avoided is also the newness of life wrought by union with Christ to the everlasting enjoyment of God.

As the hurricane force winds of sexual confusion and sexual immorality blow hard upon us, let us not be ashamed to protect the church. There is a place to engage unbelievers outside the church. I am sure we will address this in coming weeks. However, there is always a place for truth in service to Christ’s washed and justified bride. Let us not be so eager to be outside among those traveling by on the wide way that we unwittingly leave the household of God exposed to deceivers at the back door.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

Teach Me to Pray!: Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

As an earlier post from Jeff Stivason made clear, this current installment of “Theology for Everyone” was inspired by Martin Luther’s fantastic little book on prayer entitled A Simple Way to Pray. In the spirit of truly offering theology to everyone, let me also recommend R.C. Sproul’s magnificent children’s book The Barber Who Wanted to Pray which focuses on the true story behind Luther’s book and even unpacks instructions from A Simple Way to Pray, but geared of course for children. I’ve read the book to my own kids countless times and have seen the fruit born out of its engaging story not only in their lives but also in my own!

With that let’s turn our attention to actually praying, or at least thinking through the practice of praying. Today we focus on Jesus’ words where he teaches us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread…” (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3).

I’m a firm believer in the practice of writing out my prayers. Not all the time, of course. But I’m often in the habit of filling up entire notebooks throughout each year with prayers. I enjoy the practice for two main reasons. First, it forces me to stay focused as I write out my thoughts; I’m far less likely to get distracted and allow my mind to veer off. Secondly, I can look back over my prayers from earlier in the year and really see the ways in which God has answered and worked according to what I’ve prayed. As John Flavel has so wisely counseled, it is the duty of every Christian to observe, remember and meditate upon God’s divine providence in their own lives.[1]

Why do I bring this up? Because I think writing out your prayers is an excellent way to do what we’re doing this week at Place For Truth, namely working through the Lord’s Prayer. When I look at that line in Matthew 6:11, my “simple way to pray” is to atomize each word or idea within it and thus use each word or thought as a stepping stone to jump off into my own prayers. So for instance:

Give us this day…

            “Lord, you are the Heavenly Provider, the Giver of all good gifts. ‘Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’ (James 1:17). I thank you Father for your goodness and love and the delight you have in giving and providing.”

Give us this day our daily bread…

            “Twice here we see the need for daily sustenance from your hand. We are reminded Lord that you are never slack in your giving; day after day you provide. Not only are your mercies renewed each day, but your giving never comes to an end! We praise you for that Father.”

            “And we are also reminded here that you give just enough for the day. Just as you provided just enough manna for your people wandering each day in the wilderness, so too you provide just enough for us as we sojourn here in this fallen world. ‘Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God’ (Proverbs 30:8-9).”

            “Help me too Lord to come to you daily, lifting up my needs to you in prayer! As you delight to give, give me a greater delight to ask and to find my help in you.”

Give us this day our daily bread…

            “Lord, I turn my heart and mind to the family you’ve given me, making supplications on their behalf. I ask that you not only provide for them daily, but be pleased to use me as the means by which they’re taken care of and provided for. Help me to work hard on their behalf, not only feeding them with bread from the sweat of my brow but feeding them daily with the Bread of Christ.”

            “I pray as well for my church, and all the needs within my own local congregation. Your sheep are in need of green pastures and living water. There are serious cares weighing down particular members. I pray for them Lord and ask that they would find daily nourishment in your care.”

            “I pray as well for our nation, and ask that over-abundance of bread and prosperity would no longer make us blind to your sovereign rule. If spiritual nourishment will only come through physical hunger, so be it Lord, but I do pray for this country to seek you over and above the comfort and prosperity we’ve sought for so long.”

Give us this day our daily bread

            “Indeed Lord, we do thank you for all the material needs you’ve met and provided for. These are good, good gifts from your good hand. May we not forget you in this time of blessing. But Father we do pray that we would ultimately be nourished in Christ who is our Bread from Heaven, the Bread of Life.”

            “Father, you “give the true bread that comes from heaven, for the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). Give me this day more of Jesus, O Father, so that in Him I may not hunger. Give me Christ so that I might not go after the delights and temptations of this world. Feed me with Him, O Lord, and be pleased, I pray, to give me more of Christ day after day until I see him face to face in that Last Day. In His name I pray, amen.”

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] John Flavel, The Mysteries of Providence (Banner of Truth, 2009), 113-116.

Sexual Identity: The Way We Were and Who We Are: Our Identity Crisis is Re-railed into Christ

Sexual Identity: The Way We Were and Who We Are: Our Identity Crisis is Re-railed into Christ

In her book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert,[1] Dr. Rosaria Butterfield compares her Christian conversion experience to “an alien abduction or a train wreck.” 

As she shares about her very public Christian “coming out” while a tenured university English professor specializing in “Queer Theory” (which she explains is a postmodern form of gay and lesbian studies) who also lived an open lesbian lifestyle while a leader in LGBT advocacy, it seems not so unnatural that her own reaction and that of her peers and students to her new profession would initially be heard as a foreign language or approached like the scene of an accident.  For, as with all of us sinners, if our salvation proves genuine and lasting it will ultimately be an abrupt and violent altering of our personal and collective identities by being derailed from self and cults and coupled into Christ and His Church.

Let us recognize in witnessing the Gospel to people who identify themselves within the LGBT community that a major part of our conversation should deal with one’s deep commitment to an identity, not only of his or her person, but also being part of a people.  We see its manifestation also in identity (or group) politics with a bullied loyalty never to betray a belonging by reversion.  Entertaining such peer pressure is actually an exhausting identity crisis that only can be relieved in conformity to Christ’s image.

Dr. Butterfield writes, ” … being a lesbian was a case of mistaken identity … Whatever God’s providence for me, it was his to lay out and mine to obey. No longer did I have to invent myself.”

Alan Shlemon and Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason ministries offer a fascinating article sharing empirical evidence that people who identify as homosexuals are not a product of their biology, but often rather their environment; in particular, their sexual identity is directed mostly by with whom they confusedly identified while growing up.[2]

It is the consideration of a change of identity while confronted with Biblical mandates that is most threatening and thus vehemently denied as biologically possible. To answer the “I can’t change who I am” argument by supposedly “Gay Christians”, Shlemon and Koukl point out that in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul says that some of the Corinthian Christians were homosexuals, thus presently they are no longer.  That is, they were not born that way; instead, being born again, they gave up a past lifestyle as no longer their individual nor group identification.

Dr. Butterfield writes, “Sexual sin must simply be killed … healing, to the sexual sinner, is death: nothing more and nothing less … Only Jesus himself can do that.”  She adds that “… people whose lives are riddled with unrestrained sin act like rebellious children.  Sin, when unrestrained, infantilizes a person.”  One’s mind is drawn to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:11: … when I became a man, I put away childish things.  With this in view, perhaps we could apply Paul’s words in Colossians 3:5-8 in the following way: we must stop letting our old children within us keep us wrapped around their snotty fingers. We don’t nurture the selfish toddlers within us. We kill them so that we can live healthy lives that grow out of adolescence and into Christian maturity—as Dr. Butterfield will witness, such is a more peaceful person amidst abundantly more joyful people.

Beloved, may Dr. Butterfield’s “train wreck” conversion describe your and my daily sanctification experience as we keep re-railing and riding with Jesus Christ. 

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Evangelical Church of America in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  A widower, he is the adoring father of his four covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, and Isaac.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

[1] Rosaria Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: an english professor’s journey into christian faith (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Crown & Covenant, 2012).  I would echo this review by Dr. and Rev. Carl Trueman in the forward of Dr. Butterfield’s book:  “I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I do not agree with everything she says; but I did learn from everything she wrote.  It deserves the widest possible readership.”

[2] Alan Shlemon and Greg Koukl, “Homosexuality: Nature or Nurture”, Enhanced Solid Ground, July/August 2013, 1-5, 7-9.

Sola Scriptura

On January 1 1519, Ulrich Zwingli became the pastor of the principal church of Zurich, Switzerland. When he preached through the New Testament from the Greek, the Reformation began in that city. Zwingli taught salvation by grace and justification by faith; he also compared what he saw in his church to what he read in Scripture. Four years later, church folk heard Zwingli say fasting during Lent had no biblical basis, and decided to force the issue by publicly eating sausage at the start of Lent. They were arrested and Zwingli defended them on the basis of Scripture in a public disputation before hundreds of Zurichers. Both sides had references books at hand. The Catholics had canon law, the law of the church, while Zwingli had the Greek, the Hebrew, a Latin translation, and nothing more.

     Luther was in a similar scene in a debate with Catholic theologian John Eck Leipzig in 1519. When Luther advanced his proposed reforms and his gospel, Eck replied that Luther took the position of Hus, whom the church had condemned as a heretic. That is, Catholic tradition and authority said Luther was wrong. Luther didn’t dispute Eck’s point. Rather, he replied in essence, “Show my error from Scripture, not from tradition.” He stood on Scripture alone, hence “Sola Scriptura.”

     The difference between Catholic and Protestant teaching is more subtle than people realize, for Catholics confess that Scripture is inspired, infallible, and authoritative. It is wise to remember, too, that the first Reformers were encouraged to study Scripture by scholarly Catholics: Staupitz told Luther to get his doctorate in biblical studies, Erasmus encouraged Zwingli’s studies, and Faber Staupulensis and Lorenzo Valla inspired others. The difference lies in our views of the sufficiency of Scripture.    

     The Catholic position is that Scripture is part of God’s revelation. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) said Scripture “is the true rule and a foundation of faith for Christians.” Notice “a foundation,” not the foundation. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) explained: “The controversy between the heretics [Protestants] and ourselves focuses here on two points: first, when we affirm that the Scripture do not contain the totality of necessary doctrine, for faith as for morals… Apart from the Word of God written, it is necessary to have his non-written Word, that is to say, divine and apostolic traditions.”

     So the RCC affirms prima scripture, the primacy of Scripture. Scripture is the primary source for theology, but not the final source. Tradition and church teaching effectively limit Scripture’s authority. If a matter is uncertain in Scripture, and tradition has an authoritative interpretation, then it has the final word.

     By contrast, the Westminster Confession (1:6) says “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for… salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”

     The Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1994, reaffirms the Catholic position from centuries past. It says: “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God… put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord.” The apostles transmitted the tradition “to the successors of the apostles so that… they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it by their preaching” (par. 81). Further, it says God’s word comes in two forms: Sacred Scripture and Holy Tradition. Thus the Church “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence” (par. 82).

     So Catholics advocate three authorities: Scripture, the teaching office of the church, and tradition. The Catholic Catechism says, “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone” (emphasis mine). The faithful should receive all their teaching “with docility” (par. 85, 95). Tradition, Scripture “and the Magisterium of the Church” work together for “the salvation of souls.”

     For the English Reformers, the authority of Scripture was so foundational that they mentioned it first in the Westminster Confession, then returned to it later. The Confession begins (1:1): “It pleased the Lord” to reveal his will to the church in Scripture. God did this “better to preserve and propagate his truth.” It then names the 66 books and explains that even the church’s reception of those authoritative books depends “wholly on God” (1:4-5).

     Later, the Westminster Confession explicitly subordinates itself to Scripture. Councils err and Scripture does not, therefore, if there is any tension between church documents and Scripture, the church is wrong (31:4):

All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both.

     Naturally, when Protestants say “Scripture alone” we don’t mean we need nothing whatsoever, beyond Scripture, to gain salvation. We need to know how to read – or at least listen. Translators must learn Greek and Hebrew through grammars and lexicons and ordinary people need some knowledge of the world, including concepts like “sin,” “father,” and “love.” Further, we normally entrust the interpretation of Scripture to people with training, people whom the church tests and approves – as Scripture itself says (1 Tim. 3:10, 2 Tim. 2:15). We don’t think the first thought that pops into the mind of a secular person, as he reads the Bible, has the same weight as the views of a seasoned leader. But we do believe Scripture can and does correct seasoned leaders.

     Let’s admit that we don’t always follow our own principles. We hear Protestants say, “Scripture isn’t clear on this, but our Confession says…” as if that settles matters. Catholics and Protestants agree that it is wise to consult the history of Christian thought and its great leaders, but while Catholics believe the tradition settles disputes, Protestants hold that history is helpful, but not final, for traditions can err. If we refuse to question the tradition, we functionally adopt the Catholic approach.  

     Protestants have work to do here. We quote Augustine, Luther, and Calvin as if that resolves arguments. At worst, we deny that we have human authorities, then quote C. S. Lewis or even Rob Bell. Protestants can treat our creeds and beloved authors as something like a magisterium. So let us live out what we profess. Let us respect our traditions and theologians but test them with Scripture. Let us read and study and meditate on Scripture so that we are ready to “test all things and hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:22).

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.

Sexual Identity: Doing What Comes Naturally

The surging waves of the sexual revolution continue to crash on the shores of our culture and threaten to wash the Christian church, supporting institutions, and believing individuals and their families out to sea. This is not really new. While scholars often point to the 50s and especially the 60s as the groundswell of the sexual revolution in the West, human rebellion against God’s revealed sexual ethic goes back to the garden when our first parents rebelled against God. I am not suggesting, like St. Augustine, that the first sin was sexual. But we need to recognize that sexual sin in all its various permutations, like all sin, goes back to the primal sin recorded in Genesis 3 and our inheritance of a sinful nature.

The fall has wreaked havoc on every aspect (nook and cranny, if you will) of our humanity. Of course, there are limits to the effects of the fall due to God’s common grace. Adam did not become not-Adam after the fall. He went from being holy and righteous Adam to being sinful Adam. The fall was, as Cornelius Van Til reminded us, ethical. That is, human nature was not destroyed in the fall. To put it another way, not even the image of God was destroyed. Human nature/the image was twisted, tarnished, defaced, and perverted. But it was not utterly destroyed. We could not be human otherwise. As Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9 attest, even though fallen and utterly corrupted by sin, we are still images of God. Historically humans have been understood as complex beings made up of bodies and souls. Our soul, heart or personality involves a nature, habits, and acts. The nature has remained intact in the fall. It is the habit or inclination and the acts that flow from our inclination or habit that are sinful. Adam (and Eve, of course) was created with a holy habit or inclination and it is this that was perverted in the fall and now is sinful rather than holy and righteous.

With the fall our whole personality has been plunged into sin and our hearts are dead in sin. As the prophet Jeremiah told us, our hearts are “desperately wicked” so that even we cannot know them rightly nor can we trust an unregenerate self-assessment of our hearts (Jer. 17:9). In Scripture, the heart is the seat of our personality, our soul. While in the West, we have typically thought of the heart as the seat of emotions, in the Bible the heart is the center of what one scholar has called our “dispositional complex.” Our heart involves the intellect, will, and emotions. These are all implicated in the fall and are being restored in progressive sanctification. The truth of the matter is that since the fall not one of us, in our natural state, and to greater or lesser degrees depending on our sanctification, can rely upon what feels natural to guide us or what we think seems normal.

If our inclinations or desires (or habits, to use the technical philosophical term) are infected with sin then what comes naturally to us whether with regard to our relationship to God, to one another, or to our environment, needs both the Word of God spoken to us from outside of us and we need the Holy Spirit working inside of us to make us receptive to the external Word and pliable to the divine commands which call for our obedience. The external Word informs us of the person and work of Jesus Christ who procured redemption for us in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and heavenly ministry for the saints. The Holy Spirit is his Spirit and he conforms us to Christ’s image (Rom. 8:29). Our inclinations and desires, perverted in the fall, are being renewed in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (as Paul notes in Eph. 4:24 and Col. 3:10).

All of this is to remind us that what feels natural or what we think is normal, based upon an unguided self-assessment is untrustworthy. I have had a lifelong struggle with weight and have had poor eating habits. If you were to ask me what feels natural or normal, it would be eating everything I want to my heart’s content. But God’s Word does not allow me this freedom to assess myself according to what I feel or think is right or normal. The same is true with regard to our sexual appetites. Sex is a good thing. It is God’s idea after all. But our sexuality has been infected with sin so that what may feel right or natural may not be what is right or natural as God intended.

Our heart’s desires need to be retooled or refashioned anew. This is what the new birth or regeneration provides. Our hearts of stone (Ezek. 36:26) are replaced by hearts of flesh and we have a new Spirit. That is, the Holy Spirit recreates us in the image of Jesus Christ the only perfect man to ever live. Our inclinations toward sexual sin and deviancy (whether as unregenerate or as regenerate works-in-progress) are not the standard of what is right and wrong. We may experience gender dysphoria. But with the exception of the rare cases of the hermaphrodite, God has determined our sex from before birth. Our sex/gender is not pliable, fluid, or malleable. If we think we are a man trapped inside a woman’s body or vice versa, or experience same-sex attraction, or fail to maintain heterosexual sexual purity in mind and body we are in rebellion against God and his will for us (Rom. 1:18-32).

Christians experience these problems as do unbelievers. In other words, becoming a Christian does not exempt one from having to wage war against the flesh. By flesh, in this instance, we mean sinfully inclined fleshly desires. Any inclination or desire that tends toward sin is sinful itself. Not just the outward acts that come at the end of the birthing of sin in our hearts, but the whole process is sinful (James 1:14-15). As Christians, the standard for assessing our inclinations and outward behavior is Scripture. And the Holy Spirit works over time molding and shaping the Christian into a Christ-like individual. As Paul notes in Romans 7, even Christians have sinful dispositions that need to be remolded and reshaped. This is what sanctification in all its various phases is all about. Over time as we daily mortify the flesh (put sin to death) and live to righteousness we progress in the Christian life.

Ought we to just do what comes naturally? That depends on whether we are united to Christ and his Spirit inhabits us so that we are endeavoring to please our heavenly Father. Because we have been born in sin, sin feels natural and seems right. Only when we enter in glory can we safely do what comes naturally. Then what comes naturally will be God-honoring and spiritually sound.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.