Common Grace: How God Blessed the Nations in the Age of Abraham

rainbowGod’s covenant with Noah is often described as the covenant of common grace, and rightly so. In the wake of God’s judgment on the earth, the heart of humanity remains unchanged (cp. Gen. 6:5 and 8:21), yet for God to bring redemption to the world, some measure of preservation must be granted. Therefore, with strong covenantal language—berith occurs 7 times (vv. 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17) in Genesis 9—God promises to uphold creation: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (8:22).

These promises to Noah envelope all creation and articulate God’s common grace—his universal beneficence towards a world filled with sin. In other words, common grace is common because it encompasses all humanity universally, not because it is mundane. Common grace is distinct from saving grace in that the former does not atone for sins or grant eternal life. Rather, it grants “grace” to the righteous and the unrighteous (cf. Matthew 5:45) and provides a historical context for saving grace to operate.

That being said, common grace is not equally apportioned. It is not like the periodic table, where every element possesses the same atomic weight. Rather, common grace is specific in that it often depends upon the saving grace given to God’s chosen people. In other words, just as common grace is promised through the Noahic covenant, so common grace continues to be mediated through other covenantal mediators. In Scripture, the first instance of this is Abraham.
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Preaching to the Late Modern Mind: Five Cultural Narratives to Know

preachingIn his book Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller addresses how Christianity confronts culture. Wisely he speaks of the way we must (1) affirm truth in culture, (2) confront idols in culture, and (3) show how truth in culture is derived from and only satisfied by the Christ who reigns supreme over all cultures. Thus, instead of just being for or against culture, Keller describes a “Yes, but no, but yes” approach for preaching Christ to culture.

Approaching culture in this nuanced way means understanding the modern world in which we live. In a chapter entitled “Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind,” he describes the difference between the pagan, pre-Christian world and the way in which Christianity brought dignity and personal value to the West. In other words, before Christianity emerged in the West, the pagan world with its philosophers conceived of the world as an impersonal universe. Belief in a tri-personal God, sovereignly directing history and seeking to redeem humanity changed all of that. And the bounty of the Western world, therefore, is a byproduct of Christianity’s influence.

In one place, Keller nicely summarizes five differences between the pre-Christian world with the Christian West. He then goes on to explain how secularism has taken Christian values to the extreme, making them idolatrous falsehoods. But in explaining how Christian values have gone rogue, he doesn’t include them in his compact table. On page 128, there is one column missing (that would help flesh out his argument on pp. 128–33).

So, I added the third column to the table below to help show the way in which the West has left Christianity behind and distorted many of the values it provided. By seeing in our culture post-Christian culture the traces of Christian thought, we can as Keller points out, begin to lead people back to the source of the values (e.g., science, individualism, personal choice) they embrace today. Indeed, if you value and enjoy science, justice, or personal choice today, it is worth noting where those cultural gifts derive. Keller’s chapter on preaching Christ to culture is an excellent place to begin thinking about that relationship.

Five Chief Narratives of Western Thought[1]

Before Christianity Emerged [in the West] After Christianity Came to the West After Christianity ‘Left’ the West
The body and material world are less important and real than the realm of ideas The body and material world are good. Improving them is important. Science is possible. Science is absolute. Materialism is absolute. Technology is sufficient to solve our problems.
History is cyclical, with no direction. History is making progress. Progress means history is unimportant. Everything novel is superior to the past.
Individuals are unimportant. Only the clan and tribe matter. All individuals are important, have dignity, and deserve our help and respect. Individuals are supremely important. Individualistic expression should never be questioned, even when detrimental to the group.
Human choices don’t matter; we are fated. Human choices matter and we are responsible for our actions. Choice is sancrosanct and must be guarded and guaranteed at all costs.
Emotions and feelings should not be explored, only overcome. Emotions and feelings are good and important. They should be understood and directed. Emotions and feelings are determinative. To feel authentic I must express my desires and never suppress them.

In sum, these “five axes,” which Keller adapts from Charles Taylor (The Secular Age), help diagnose some of the challenges in front of us. Together these five narratives can be classified as follows:

  • rationality (and an explanation of where the world came from and what we can know about it),
  • history (and the meaning of life),
  • society (and the relationship of individuals to groups),
  • morality (and who gets to determine right and wrong), and
  • identity (and where we get our sense of value and purpose).

To be sure, these realities do not drive our exegesis of the biblical text, but in communicating that text to others we must be aware of these ideas. Knowing these cultural baselines helps us affirm and deny the beliefs we find in individuals and in our surrounding culture. Preachers must be aware of these realities to wisely apply God’s Word.

Indeed, all Christians should have a growing awareness of cultural presuppositions. Why? So that we will not be ensnared by them, and so we can communicate the gospel by rightly affirming some cultural desires as finding their telos in Christ and by confronting others cultural idols as errant promises that ultimately lead to death (Prov. 14:12).

In short, Keller’s sections on preaching Christ in a post-Christian culture are worth considering. They challenge the faithful witness to love his neighbor(s) by knowing what his neighbor believes and loves. Therefore, while planting ourselves in God’s unchanging Word, we must also learn how to share Christ with others who embrace various aspects of the aforementioned narratives.

To that end, let us continue to give ourselves the Word and the world, so that we can take the good news of the former to meet the dire needs of the latter.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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[1] Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 128. First two columns are verbatim; the last column summaries Keller’s prose.

Seeing and Savoring the Drama of Scripture

pexels-photo-256560For the first few years of my Christian life Our Daily Bread served as a vital part of my personal devotions. Each month or two, I’d pick up the short devotional in the church foyer, and each day I’d read it with accompanying Scripture references. About the same time, I began memorizing Bible verses. Behind my desk today is an index box full of the Scriptures I sought to memorize from that period.

Scripture tells us that the way a man keeps his way pure is to hide the word of God in our heart (Psalm 119:9). Truly, the practice of Scripture memory and devotional reading is life-giving for the Christian. At the same time, such Bible memory and devotional nuggets can be lost on the Christian if they are not tied to the larger storyline of the Bible. Indeed, remembering the work of God in history is foundational for any abiding faith in Christ. And without it, we risk adding knowledge without heart change. 

Recalling the Story of the Bible

Throughout the Old Testament Israel rehearses its history. In Deuteronomy, Moses begins by recounting God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel (ch. 1–4). In Psalms 78, 104–106, and 136, the Psalter retells the events of redemptive history, so that future generations might trust God to work on their behalf. Likewise, the Prophets regularly pick up God’s work in Exodus in order to say: The God who split the Red Sea to save his people can do it again (see Isaiah 41:8–20; 43:1–21). Even Nehemiah, when leading the people of Israel to restore covenant with God, starts not with their profession or recommitment, but with Yahweh’s history of covenant faithfulness (9:6–34). And the same is true in the New Testament, as the sermons of Acts all follow the history of God’s work in Israel now culminating in Christ (see Acts 2, 3, 7, 13). Continue reading

John 3:16: A Word-by-Word Meditation

john316For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son,
that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Last night I preached at Bethel Baptist Church in North Vernon on who Jesus was, what Jesus did, and what it means to believe in him. (You can find the audio here). My text was John 3:16, actually John 3:14–16, and I sought to help those at Bethel’s revival service to understand how God is inviting them to come and be saved by faith in his Son.

John 3:16 is the gospel in miniature, a veritable gold mine for precious truth, and a passage that solidifies the believer’s faith with every word. Indeed, it seems that every single word contributes to the beauty of the verse. So, with that in mind, I want to run through the verse, word-by-word.

God

While there are many so-called ‘gods’ in the world (even if someone doesn’t call them what they are), there is only One, True, and Living God. He is the triune God who has existed eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The One who promised to turn back the curse through Abraham’s offspring, the holy God who gave Moses the law, the God who promised an eternal throne to a son of David, the God who inspired the prophets, and turned all of history to bring salvation to the world through the Incarnation of God the Son.

Specifically, in John 3:16 “God” refers to the Father, the One sent his Son to redeem the world. In this sense, he is not some angry deity in the sky who demands blood atonement; he is the loving Father who redeemed sinners by the voluntary death of the Son. This is the God of John 3:16. Continue reading

Seeing the Glory of God in Creation: Genesis 1 and Psalm 104

Psalm 104 is an elongated meditation on God’s creative glory. It is a hymn of praise, that seems to be intentionally paired with Psalm 103.  Both begin the same way: “Bless the Lord, oh my soul!”  They are both hymns of praise: Psalm 103 is praise for God the Savior-King; Psalm 104 praise for God the Creator-King.  And both make explicit use of God’s history with Israel, especially as it is recorded by Moses.  Psalm 103 quotes Exodus 34:6-7 as it recounts the glory of God in redemption; and Psalm 104, as we will see, structures its entire praise chorus based on the creation account of Genesis 1.  It is this creative glory that we will consider today and this week.

Genesis 1 

In Genesis 1, Moses recounts the creation of the world.  Using a literary structure that highlights the creative wisdom and beauty of God, Moses gives a poetic description of creation, that is historical and accurate, even though it does not measure up to the scientific standards of our day.  (For a discussion on the genre and the intention of Genesis 1, see G.K. Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy).

Moses describes how God in six days created the world ex nihilo. While not giving us exact information about all that was happened in creation; the testimony of Scripture is clear.  God alone is the maker of heaven and earth.  In the New Testament, Hebrews 11:3 describes creation like this, “”By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”  Likewise, Colossians says of Jesus the Divine Word, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created through him and for him” (1:16).

Thus, in the first three days God forms the world—YHWH created light and darkness (Day 1), he separated the waters above from the waters below (Day 2), and he divided the land and the sea (Day 3).  Then he fills it.  On Day 4, the son and the moon as placed in the sky to govern, respectively, the day and the night.  On Day 5, the sea and sky are filled with sea creatures and birds.  And finally,  on the pinnacle of creation, Day 6, land animals and men and women, made in God’s image, are created.

Psalm 104

In Psalm 104, the same emphasis on God’s creativity can be found.  But even more striking is the way that the Psalmist (David?) follows the six-days of creation to worship the king of glory.  In opposition to those who see Genesis 1 as a myth borrowed from another ancient Near Eastern culture, this Psalm seems to affirm the veracity of the event.  Or at least, it gives praise to God for his creation, without questioning in the slightest the truthfulness of Genesis 1.

But more than an apologetic confirmation, Psalm 104 is a hymn of praise, and it wonderfully recounts the six days of creation.

Day 1. Verses 1-2 describe the formation of light. Majestic is the description: Like the priest who robes himself with beauty and glory (Exod 28:2), God clothes himself with splendor and majesty.  The language is figurative, but I believe it is meant to awaken us to the reality that the beauty of the heavens tells us something about God.  His heavens declare his glory; the skies above proclaim his handiwork.  He cannot be seen by men, but in the kaleidoscope of light that resides in the sky, we are introduced to the kind of glorious light in which he dwells.

Day 2. Verses 2-4 depict the separation of the upper chambers from the lower chambers. Just like a cosmic temple, God has created heaven and earth to dwell with his image bearers.  The colors, patterns, shapes, and images in the tabernacle were meant to reproduce much of what is seen in nature.  They are not incidental.  The macrocosm of the universe is related to the microcosm of the tabernacle/temple/Christ/church.  What takes place in the microcosm has effects for the macrocosm.  For instance, when Christ (the tabernacle of God) was crucified, the heavens (the cosmic dwelling place of God) grew dark.  Likewise, the promise of universal restoration will not happen apart from the revelation of the sons of God (Rom 8).  There is much to ponder in this reality, that God dwells with us in his creation, but is not in anyway dependent on his creation. (Again, G.K. Beale is helpful, see his The Temple and the Church’s Mission).

Day 3.  In Genesis, this day included both the division of land and sea, and the planting of vegetation.  Psalm 104 develops both of these things in verses 5-18,; plus, it shows how their creation supports men and animals which come later in the Genesis narrative.  Verses 5-9 tell of the way God commanded the waters to flee, how he made dry land.  They recount the first act of the third day. Verses 10-13 are a bridge between the sections.  They explain how God split the earth with rivers, but how these formations function to serve the animals that are coming. Verses 14-18 is the second act of Day 3.  Here the land is sown with vegetation for man and beast. The world is a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, spices, herbs.

Day 4. Verses 19-23 describes the way God put the sun and moon in place to give order to our seasons and the days.  Just as man is positioned to govern the animals (cf Psalm 8), so the sun and moon govern the day and night, respectively.  Like the horn blast from our local factory, which tells all the inhabits of Seymour that it is 7am; 930am; or noon… the sun and moon are messengers to us.  When the sun arises: It is time to work. Verse 23, “Man goes out to his work… until evening.”  Even more, in Psalm 89:37, Ethan speaks of the moon as a perpetual witness to God’s covenant with David.  In other words, just like the moon which testifies to God’s unchanging reign over the universes; the throne of David will stand until the moon is no more (Ps 72:7).

Day 5. Embedded in verses 17, 24 are the description of the birds and sea creatures formed on Day 5.  With freedom and beauty, God has designed birds to glide on the wind, and for humpback whales to “play” in the deep.  Who says God is prudish!  His world is filled with wonder, mystery, beauty, energy, and productivity.  He waters to earth and satisfies its inhabitants.  If a sparrow does not die apart from his will; than neither will one of his own image-bearers perish apart from his will and decree.

Day 6 is the capstone and it is described throughout verses 14-24.  In verse 14, the land animals are supplied with food; man is likewise given ground to cultivate.  Verse 15 anticipates the gladness that comes from God’s creation given to man—oil for his face, bread for his stomach, wine for his for his heart.  Verse 23 gives us instruction for man’s relationship with the world—we are to work it, mine it, grow it, organize, develop it. Verse 24 is the culminating feature of all God’s creation!  Why has God made anything?  It is to display his manifold wisdom, power, benevolence, and perfection.  The king of all the earth has filled his planet with boundless life.  Each aspect tells us something about him.

Therefore, we ought to study the creation in order to better know and love our Maker and Savior, Jesus Christ.  God has made the world good, and even under the curse of sin, its beneficence is evident.  So good is it still, that people worship the creation instead of the Creator.  Yet, we are better to follow the words of Psalm 104, to bless the Lord for all that he has given to us in creation.  For indeed, “all things were created through him and for him.”

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Responsibly Submitting to God’s Sovereignty

I was not convinced of God’s “exhaustive, meticulous sovereignty” (to borrow Bruce Ware’s phrase) until September 11, 2001.  I had been wrestling with the matter all summer.  Conversations piled up.  Readings on God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility proliferated.  I had entered the summer as an ignorant open theist, had been confronted by a number of friends who argued from the whole counsel of Scripture for God’s unerring and unswerving sovereignty, and by the fall I was theoretically convinced of God’s perfect control of the world (cf Psalm 115:3; 135:6; Job 42:2; Isaiah 46:9-11; Daniel 4:34-35; Ephesians 1:10; Revelations 4:11).

But to turn theory into embrace took something more.  It took two terrorist planes slamming into New York’s Twin Towers to convince my heart of the matter that “God Reigns,” and that I am not in control of my life, any more than I can control the events in NYC.

Thinking back on that infamous day, I will never forget walking up the stairs into my dorm.  I had spent the morning glued to the television watching the horror unfold in New York.  Ascending the steps, I remember telling a friend, “Unless God is totally sovereign, I do not know how to make sense of that act of terror.”

I don’t know why in that moment, the Holy Spirit impressed upon my heart the conviction of God’s sovereignty, but I can mark it to that day, that God, in his sovereign grace, invaded my heart with a love for his divine control. I submitted to his sovereignty.

Such a reaction to the claims of God’s sovereignty are not uncommon.  Many Christians I have spoken to have articulated a similar journey–from arguing against God’s sovereignty to embracing it as one of their greatest comforts.

Marking his own journey towards sovereign submission, Jonathan Edwards writes:

From my childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty…. It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me. But I remember the time very well, when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God….

But never could I give an account, how, or by what means, I was thus convinced, not in the least imagining at the time, nor a long time after, that there was any extraordinary influence of God’s Spirit in it; but only that now I saw further, and my reason apprehended the justice and reasonableness of it. However, my mind rested in it; and it put an end to all those cavils and objections.

And there has been a wonderful alteration in my mind, in respect to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, from that day to this; so that I scarce ever have found so much as the rising of an objection against it, in the most absolute sense…. I have often since had not only a conviction but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so (Jonathan Edwards, “Personal Narrative,” in Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections, ed. C. H. Faust and T. H. Johnson [New York: Hill & Wang, 1962], 58–9; quoted in John Piper, Desiring God [Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2003], 38).

I suspect that anyone who arrives at delighting in God’s sovereignty, did not do so naturally.  It was aided by the Spirit of God and prompted his Word, a revelation that is filled with inescapable claims of God’s complete control.

Consider just a few: The Bible speaks of all creation existing under his and being sustained by his powerful word (Job 38-39; Psalm 135:5-7; Acts 17:27-28; Heb 1:1-2), kings and individuals are directed by God’s invisible but omnipotent hand (Prov 16:9; 21:1; Dan 4:34-35), nations, good and evil alike, accomplish his intended,though often unintelligible, purposes (Psalm 33:10-11; Isaiah 10:5ff; Habbakuk 2:1ff), and that every roll of the dice at the river boat bounces as God intends (Prov 16:33).  All things happen according to his will (Eph 1:11).  Even the world’s greatest evil–like September 11–is mysteriously governed by God (Isa 45:7; Lam 3:37-38), in a way preserves God’s absolute innocence and purity (James 1:13) and yet maintains that even the gravest tragedy will be turned for good (Rom 8:28; cf. consider the unlawful murder of Jesus, ordained by God before the foundation of the world, Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; 1 Peter 1:19-20).

Even with the testimony of Scripture mounting, embracing God’s sovereignty grates against our fallen condition.  Ingesting the fruit in the garden put within every human being a penchant from liberty apart from God.  Our innocent freedom was traded for bondage to sin (cf Romans 5, 8).  Consequently, our human nature revolts against the idea that we are not sovereign in our own lives.  We long to be God and to suppress the truth (Gen 3:1-6; Romans 1:18ff).

The irony about embracing God’s absolute sovereignty is that it does not make us robots, it makes us more human.  Men raging for their own sovereignty are less than human because they are denying the position God gave them as ‘created beings’ under his rule (cf Gen 1:26-28).  Why is this so hard to accept?  Because the effects of the fall still poisons our hearts and blinds our eyes.  The Bible renews our minds, mends our hearts, and opens our eyes to see the world not from our fallen human condition, but from God’s omniscient position.

Jonathan Edwards was exactly right: Embracing God’s sovereignty is not natural.  It is an act of submission, a denial of self, a willingness to give God back his crown.  Yet, in so doing, mankind is made most like its creator, submitting to his sovereign plan and purpose, one that is unstoppable in turning independent men and women into slaves of righteousness who find their greatest freedom in servile obedience to the King of Glory, the Lord of grace and truth.

May we humble ourselves and embrace God’s sovereignty.  Why?  Because that’s our human responsibility.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss