Author: Andy Schreiber

Prayer as the Chief Part of the Thankfulness that God Requires of Us (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 116)

heidcat2__03083.1480713175Why should we as Christians pray? Why is it necessary for us – why do we need to pray? No doubt there may be any number of good answers to that question. We pray because we are needy people (Psalm 70:5; Matthew 6:8). We pray because God gives good gifts to His children who pray (Matthew 7:11). We also pray because we are commanded to do so in the Word of God (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

The Heidelberg Catechism concludes with an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer (Q/A 116-129). And in introducing the Lord’s prayer, it teaches us that the primary reason (although certainly not the only reason) that believers need to pray is that it is the main way that we express our gratitude to God for our salvation in Jesus Christ:

Q.116. Why is prayer necessary for Christians?A. Because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us; and also, because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only, who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them.

Again, notice that the first reason for prayer given here in Q/A 116 is gratitude. That says a lot about both the motive for prayer as well as its very nature. This fits in well with the entire 3rd section of the catechism (Q/A 86-129), which is all primarily about how we are to show our gratitude to God for our salvation. (See Q/A 2.) Gratitude is to be our primary motive for obedience to God’s commandments (Q/A 86-115) and for prayer (Q/A 116-129).

It is no coincidence that giving thanks and prayer are linked together in Scripture. Here are just a handful of examples:

  • “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Philippians 1:3-5 ESV)
  • “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6 ESV)
  • “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 ESV)

And if you add to that the dozens of times that the Psalms speak of giving thanks to the LORD (e.g. Psalm 7:17; 9:1; 30:4; 33:2, etc.), the list gets even longer. After all, in a sense, many of the Psalms are both songs and prayers.

You can’t really give thanks without praying. (To give thanks to God is to pray!) And you probably won’t persevere very long in prayer if your heart is not filled with gratitude to God for all of the blessings that He has bestowed on You in Jesus Christ. No wonder the Heidelberg Catechism calls prayer “the chief [i.e. the most important] part of the thankfulness God requires of us” (Q/A 116).

In addition to that (and then only secondarily to giving thanks to God), the catechism goes on to teach us that we are also to pray “because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only, who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them.”

This is a direct connection to the previous question (Q/A 115), which says that the strict preaching of the ten commandments should more and more reveal our sinful nature to us, so that we seek forgiveness of sin and the righteousness in Christ alone (i.e. justification), as well as so that we might “constantly endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God” (i.e. sanctification & growth in grace).

This should be a much more common theme and request in our prayers than it tends to be. We should sincerely and continually ask God for His grace and His Holy Spirit, and give Him thanks for them, for without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).

How much different might our prayer lives be as believers in Christ if we were to view prayer not merely as a duty to be performed, nor even as a means to an end, but first and foremost as “the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us” – as the primary way that we express our gratitude to our Heavenly Father for His saving grace and kindness toward us in Christ!

The Heidelberg Catechism on the Strict Preaching of the Ten Commandments

heidcat2__03083.1480713175Preaching through the Ten Commandments does not seem to be nearly as common in Reformed churches today as it has been in years and generations past. Perhaps some mistakenly believe that to do so in some way implies or lends itself to a kind of legalism of sorts. To be sure, there are legalistic ways of preaching God’s law, but this should in no way prevent us from preaching and teaching the Ten Commandments in our churches in a godly and edifying way.

Q/A 115 marks the end of the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the Ten Commandments (which consists of Q/A 92-115), and it addresses this very topic, saying:

Q.115. Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?A. First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ; likewise, that we consistently endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we might become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us in the life to come.

This question logically builds upon the previous two (2) questions, where we are taught that the tenth commandment (“Thou shalt not covet” – Exodus 20:17) requires of us that we obey all of God’s commandments from the heart (Q/A 113), and reveals to us that in this life “even the holiest of men” cannot perfectly keep God’s commandments, but “have only a small beginning of this obedience” (Q/A 114).

Here in Q/A 115 the writer of the catechism anticipates a possible objection about the usefulness and necessity of the preaching of God’s commandments in the life of the Christian. If even the holiest of men in this life only have a “small beginning” of the obedience and holiness that is required of them, then what is the use of preaching and teaching the commandments so strictly? Not only that, but why should the catechism itself spend so much time on the subject (no less than 24 questions over a span of 11 Lord’s Days)?

Given the fact the the Heidelberg Catechism itself was intended to be used as, among other things, a preaching guide in the churches, and has been preached as such in Reformed churches all over the world for hundreds of years since it was first published, you might say that Q/A 115 at least in part serves an apologetic purpose of sorts, in that it defends or at least gives us the rationale behind including such a lengthy exposition of the ten commandments in the course of its instruction.

Interestingly, in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus (the principal author of the Heidelberg Catechism itself) goes into great detail answering the arguments or objections of “the Antinomians, Libertines, and other profane heretics of a similar cast, who affirm that the law is not to be taught in the church of Christ.” This almost certainly shows that he had their arguments in view when he composed Q/A 115.

Ursinus goes so far as to state and refute no less than 11 (!) common objections that such heretics made against the strict preaching and teaching of God’s law. Some of these very same arguments are raised in one form or another by modern antinomians of various kinds in our own day as well.

For example, he points out that some object to the strict preaching of God’s commandments on the basis that we are unable in this life to perfectly keep or obey them. Ursinus essentially answers this objection in his commentary by restating the answer to question #115. He also points out that “the law may, to a certain extent, be kept by the regenerate” (p.615). In other words, the fact that we cannot perfectly obey God’s law in this life does not mean that we cannot sincerely obey it at all.

Another common objection (both in Ursinus’s day as well as our own) is based upon a misunderstanding of Paul’s words in Romans 6:14, where he says that we as believers are “not under law but under grace.” Ursinus writes,

“This, however, is to misunderstand the words of the Apostle; for the expression, Not to be under the law, does not mean, that we are not to yield obedience to the law, but that we are freed from the curse and constraint of the law; . . . .” (p.617)

The Westminster Confession of Faith likewise states:

“The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” (19.5)

The gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ does not in any way “dissolve” or do away with our obligation to obey God’s law, but rather does “much strengthen this obligation.”

So why is it necessary that the commandments of God be so strictly preached? Q/A 115 offers us at least two reasons. “First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ.” In other words, a thorough familiarity with the law of God and the hearing of God’s commandments being “strictly preached” ought to help us to understand more and more just how sinful we still are in this life. And this is something that we will need to learn “all our lifetime.” As Paul says in Romans 3:20, “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (ESV)

This, of course, is not an end in and of itself, but rather serves the purpose of making us as believers to “become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ.” It should safeguard us from any delusions of perfectionism or self-righteousness, and cause us to more earnestly seek God’s mercy in forgiving our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). As Paul says in Philippians 3:8–9,

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— (ESV)

Not only that, but the strict preaching of the ten commandments is also for the purpose “likewise, that we consistently endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we might become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us in the life to come.”

In other words, it should lead us more and more to grasp our need for the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives, and to pray for His work in us, in order that we might be more conformed to the image of Christ and walk in newness of life according to the power of His resurrection (Philippians 3:10-11).

And so herein lies the pastoral wisdom of including within the catechism such a lengthy section dealing with the Ten Commandments, and why God’s commandments still ought to be strictly preached in our churches. These things are needful for every believer, for God uses the preaching of His commandments (as He does all of Scripture) as an instrument of our sanctification in Christ, by the working of His Holy Spirit within us.

“A Small Beginning” of Obedience (The Heidelberg Catechism on the 10th Commandment)

Heidelberg 2Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 113-115 deals with the 10th commandment (“You shall not covet” – Exodus 20:17). Here the catechism offers a number of important lessons that we should learn from this commandment.

Q.113. What does the tenth commandment require of us? A. That even the smallest inclination or thought contrary to any of God’s commandments never rise in our hearts; but that at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart, and delight in all righteousness.

The first lesson that the 10th commandment teaches us is a right understanding of the true aim and extent of the law of God – that it is spiritual in nature, and must be obeyed inwardly and from the heart, as well as outwardly in the body. As Thomas Watson puts it, “The laws of men take hold of actions, but the law of God goes further, it forbids not only actions, but desires.” (The Ten Commandments, p.181)

In Romans 7:7, Paul writes:

“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”” (ESV)

The law of God here reveals to us the true depth and extent of our sin, guilt, and depravity. Like the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-31), we might deceive ourselves into thinking that we have obeyed God’s law simply because we have not lived an outwardly scandalous life; but the 10th commandment pulls us up short and shows us how all of us have broken all of God’s commandments inwardly.

True obedience must be genuine and from the heart, or it is not really true obedience at all. As Q/A 113 tells us, the 10th commandment means that we must hate sin and love righteousness. That is a tall order. The standard is perfection.

What about believers in Christ? Are we able to perfectly obey God’s commandments after our conversion? No. Q/A 114 addresses this very question as follows:

Q.114. But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?A. No, but even the holiest of men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.

Not only before conversion (when we are dead in our trespasses and sins – Ephesians 2:1), but even after conversion as well (after we are born again by the Spirit of God and freed from slavery to sin – John 3:3; Romans 6:14), believers are unable to perfectly keep God’s commandments. Simply put, the Bible does not teach perfectionism.

In fact, as the Heidelberg so memorably puts it here, “even the holiest of men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience” (!). How humble ought even the godliest of Christians to be, knowing that they “have only a small beginning of this obedience” in this present life! Even the very holiest among us cannot claim to be even close to perfection in this life.

And yet we must make that our sincere goal. Q/A 114 makes this clear when it adds, “yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.” There is a big difference between a “small beginning” and no beginning at all. As Ursinus himself (the principle author of the catechism) states in his commentary on Q/A 114, “There is, however, a great difference between the regenerate and the unregenerate when they sin.”

We cannot use our inability to keep God’s commandments perfectly as an excuse for a lack of desire and effort to do so sincerely, however imperfectly. As Paul himself says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Philippians 3:12, ESV)

For the believer in Christ, God’s law is not to be viewed as a merit badge or a burden to bear. As John tells us, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3, ESV)

Our sanctification in this life is every bit as much a part of our salvation that is ours only by the grace of God in Christ as is our justification, adoption, and glorification. In fact, sanctification in this life and glory in the next are very closely-related. Thomas Watson puts it well:

Sanctification and glory differ only in degree: sanctification is glory in the seed, and glory is sanctification in the flower. Holiness is the quintessence of happiness.” (A Body of Divinity, p.242)

So sanctification, the ongoing work of God’s grace in our lives whereby we are “enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 35) is the beginnings of the glory that we will finally and fully enjoy in heaven one day.

When seen in that light, the effort expended on our part in dying to sin and living unto righteousness in this life can be seen not as a burden to bear, but as a blessing to enjoy, and a goal for which to pursue. It is but a foretaste of the perfect holiness and happiness that will be ours to enjoy forever in heaven with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Book Review: Living For God, by Mark Jones

The subtitle of Mark Jones’ latest book, Living for God, calls it “A Short Introduction to the Christian Faith.” I believe that there is a great need for a book such as this. There is no shortage of lengthy systematic theology volumes available, but finding one that is both concise and substantial is not so easy.

As a pastor, I am occasionally asked which books I would recommend to someone who is either new to the Christian faith or who is just beginning to read and study theology for the first time. I usually end up recommending a number of different books, such as Basic Christianity, by John Stott, Knowing God, by J.I. Packer, the Westminster Standards, among others. Frankly, I have not found a lot of books that cover all of the basics without either being far too simplistic on the one hand, or way too long and academic on the other. Not everyone is ready to sit down with a 500-or-so-page systematic theology text.

Let me just say that this little book (only 227 pages in length) just vaulted to the top of my list. It covers the essential truths of the Christian faith in a way that is both thorough and accessible.

It is divided up into 5 parts, which focus on what he calls the “five foundational pillars” of basic Christianity (p.16). They are the doctrine of the Trinity (part 1), the doctrine of Christ (part 2), the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (part 3), the doctrine of the church (part 4), and the doctrine of the last things (part 5).  In this way the book simply follows the outline or flow of thought of the Apostles’ Creed.

That being said, Jones thoughtfully demonstrates how each of these foundational Christian doctrines is to be applied to the Christian life. This is not just doctrine left in the abstract, but doctrine which is both well-explained and well-applied. In the Introduction, Jones explains:

“Our approach to the Christian life must be grounded in the conviction that sound doctrine and godly living go hand in hand, with the former providing the foundation for the latter.” (p.11-12)

He then goes on to cite the Puritan writer William Ames, who wrote, “Theology is the doctrine or teaching of living to God.” This sets the stage for everything that follows in the rest of the book. The Christian faith (what we believe) and the Christian life (how we are to live in light of what we believe) must always go together. They can be distinguished, but never separated.

And so, for example, the section of the book dealing with the doctrine of the Trinity is entitled, “The Trinity-Oriented Life,” and includes not only a chapter which briefly explains the Trinity, but also a chapter on “Communion with the Triune God.” Likewise the section on the person & work of Christ is entitled, “The Christ-Focused Life.” The other three sections of the book are similarly titled and outlined. This is doctrine for life.

One of my favorite things about Jones’ books (not just this one) is that he has a knack for presenting complex theological doctrines in a simple (not simplistic) and accessible way. Not only that, but he consistently draws from theological sources that span nearly all of church history, including everything from the Apostles’ Creed to the Westminster Standards; from Cyprian and Augustine to John Calvin; numerous Puritan writers, Charles Hodge, Herman Bavinck, and many others. And yet the book remains both accessible and readable.

This is easily my new favorite concise & readable theology text. The next time someone asks me which book I would recommend to someone who is either new to the Christian faith or who is beginning to read and study theology for the first time, this is the book that I will point them to – Living for God.

Whether you are relatively new to the Christian faith, or if you just want to grow in your understanding of the Christian faith and life, I would enthusiastically commend this book to you. I sincerely hope it enjoys a wide and enduring readership for decades to come.

You can order a copy for yourself here: Living for God

An Open Letter to the Honorable Gavin Newsom, Governor of CA

To The Honorable Gavin Newsom, Governor of CA:

I am writing to you regarding your recently unveiled plan to re-open CA. Thank you for the work that you are doing during this unprecedented situation. I do not envy your position as Governor of the great state of CA at this time, as not even the best among us are sufficient for these things.

That said, I have serious concerns with the way that your plan approaches churches and other places of worship. Your plan basically equates churches gathering for corporate worship with such things as hair & nail salons, gyms, and movie theaters. It does so implicitly by placing them on the same stage (phase #3) of re-opening.

That couldn’t be more wrong. Frankly, it seems rather insulting to people of faith. (I trust that this was in no way your intent.)

Granted, there are many professing Christians who practically treat the church and corporate worship as non-essential (i.e. those who have chosen, long before the current pandemic, not to attend public worship at all), and there are others who in some ways all but treat it as crassly as mere entertainment (i.e. something like a show to attend). But these are aberrations, and they represent neither the biblical view nor the practice of most sincere Christians.

The church being gathered together for public worship and prayer is the very definition of essential. Churches should be allowed to gather for worship (even if requiring us to follow the current safety guidelines) ASAP. The opening of our churches should be included in phase 1. That should be a leading priority.

To do otherwise is to trivialize (even if unintentionally) the church. Our people need to gather for worship. Worship is essentially not something that you just watch on a screen as a spectator (despite the ability to broadcast or live-stream services). Truth be told, the members of the church are themselves every bit as essential as the pastors or leaders up front.

In addition to this, apart from public worship we cannot administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These cannot be observed remotely or privately. In 1 Corinthians chapter 11 (where the Apostle writes on the subject of the Lord’s Supper at length), multiple times he says “When you come together” (v.19, 20, 33). The public gathering of the church is essential to these things.

I do not know your own personal beliefs or faith. I hope and pray that if you do not already know the Lord Jesus, that God would bring you to repentance and faith in Christ so that you too might know the peace of having your sins forgiven and the joy of eternal life by the grace of God. Either way I sincerely hope that you will understand how important the gathered church is to the life and well-being of sincere Christians. This is no minor issue, and it is worthy of your time & attention.

I will not bother to appeal to the first amendment here, although I believe that to be an important factor in all of this as well. Rather, I wish to appeal to you simply on the basis of a sincere desire for the common good of the citizens of our great state, of which God Himself has chosen to appoint you to the place of honor and authority as Governor. (See Romans 13:1.) Who knows but perhaps God has chosen you for such a time as this.

I am praying for you, and hope that you are well. May the Lord Jesus Christ, “the ruler of kings on earth” (Revelation 1:5), greatly bless you and your family, and give you great grace and mercy in all that you seek to do for the good of California.

Sincerely, Andy Schreiber (Pastor, Ramona Valley Presbyterian Church)

The Resurrection in Romans

easter-5019243_1280How important is the resurrection of Jesus Christ? In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 the Apostle Paul tells us that the resurrection of Christ (along with His death and burial) is “of first importance” (ESV).

The Apostles were first and foremost to be witnesses of the resurrection. Acts chapter one tells us that this was not only one of the main qualifications in order to be an apostle (i.e. to have been with Christ throughout His earthly ministry and to have been a witness of His resurrection); but it was also in another sense a summary of their calling – an apostle was called to be “a witness to his resurrection” (v.22) – that is, to bear witness to it!

Acts 4:2 tells us that the priests and the Sadducees had Peter and John arrested “because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.” It wasn’t just that they told people about the Lord Jesus Christ in general, but that they preached His resurrection, and the resurrection unto life of all who believe in Him for salvation. Acts 4:33 later tells us, “And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”

So in some way the message of the apostles could be summed up as their testimony to Christ’s resurrection. It was of primary importance in their teaching and preaching. Read through the epistles in the New Testament and you will find a vast multitude of references to Christ’s resurrection, both to the truth of it, as well as to it’s significance for all who believe in Him.

For example, if you read through the book of Romans with an eye toward Paul’s references to Christ’s resurrection, you may be surprised at how often he brings up that very subject. He does so practically throughout the entire epistle!

Paul all but begins his great epistle of the gospel with a reference to Christ’s resurrection. In Romans 1:1–4 he writes,

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,” (ESV)

First, he tells us that he was “a servant of Christ Jesus” (v.1). This obviously implies that Christ Jesus was alive. (One really can’t be a servant of someone who is dead and in the grave.) But then he adds that he was “set apart for the gospel of God” (v.1). And what is the gospel about? He says that it concerns “his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v.3-4, Italics added). So the gospel is about the risen Christ!

In Romans 4:25 Paul tells us that Christ was “raised for our justification.” Christ’s death on the cross atoned for our sins, and is the basis of our justification, but we are not justified by a dead Savior – He had to be raised from the dead in order for us to be justified in Him! As Herman Bavinck puts it, Christ’s resurrection is “the Amen of the Father upon the Finished of the Son” and “the public declaration of our acquittal.” (The Wonderful Works of God, p.351)

In Romans 5:10 he writes, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (ESV, Italics added) When Paul speaks there of our being “saved by his life,” it is clear that he has Christ’s resurrection in mind, and His ongoing life and ministry on our behalf. The writer of the book of Hebrews makes a similar statement when he writes, “Consequently, he [that is, Christ] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:25, ESV)

Then again in Romans 6:4 Paul adds that “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Here we see that it is not just our justification which is closely related to Christ’s glorious resurrection, but our new life and sanctification as well! Believers are raised with Christ in His resurrection to new life, so that we now “walk in newness of life.”

Paul goes on in a similar line of thought in the very next chapter, where he writes, “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” (Romans 7:4, ESV)

And then in Romans 8:11 Paul writes, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” Simply put, Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee of our own future resurrection for all who are in Christ. Or as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “the resurrection of Christ is the sure pledge of our own blessed resurrection” (Q/A 45).

But wait – there’s more! In Romans 8:33–34 he writes, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (ESV) The resurrection of Christ and His ongoing ministry of intercession on our behalf at the right hand of God, makes our salvation in Him all the more sure!

Lastly, Paul reminds us that true saving faith in Christ involves a sincere belief that He has been raised from the dead! In Romans 10:9–10, he writes, “[B]ecause, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (ESV, Italics added)

So the gospel, from beginning to end, has to do with, not just Christ’s death on the cross for our sins, but also with His glorious resurrection! Christ’s resurrection makes all the difference in the lives of believers. It is involved in our justification, sanctification, and future glorification! And it is a wellspring of comfort and assurance for believers, because it means that our Redeemer “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:25, ESV)

He is risen! He is risen indeed!

If My People Pray (Prayer in the Midst of Pandemic)

MedicineWe are living in a rather strange, unsettling time. This is the first time that most of us have ever experienced anything like what we have seen related to the Corona Virus (COVID-19) pandemic. It reminds me of the opening verses of the prophecy of Joel:

Hear this, you elders;
give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
or in the days of your fathers?
Tell your children of it,
and let your children tell their children,
and their children to another generation.” (Joel 1:2–3, ESV)

Likewise, has such a thing as this current pandemic happened in our days or in the days of our fathers? Not that I know of.

Hundreds of thousands of cases have been reported in the U.S., and, as of the writing of this post, over 16,000 deaths have been confirmed so far. And those numbers, sadly, will no doubt continue to rise for the foreseeable future.

Even for the vast majority of people who as of yet remain uninfected, this pandemic has impacted nearly every single aspect of our way of life. Countless businesses have been forced to close their doors, many permanently so. Millions of people have lost their jobs. The national economy has all but ground to a screeching halt.

Simple things that many of us used to take for granted, such as going out to eat, social gatherings, going to public places like parks, beaches, hiking trails, the movies, etc., have all been put on hold. In many places throughout the U.S., Christians can’t even gather together corporately for public worship on the Lord’s day!

What is the solution to these things? We are often tempted to put our faith in science, medicine, the state or federal government, and other such things to solve all of our problems. Don’t get me wrong – all of these things have their proper, God-given place. God often uses these very things to bring us relief from many worldly ills.

But we must not put our faith in these things, as if the arm of flesh were sufficient to save (Jeremiah 17:5-8). That is idolatry. They are not sufficient for these things. No one is. The best scientific models have proven to be inaccurate. Doctors and medical experts, as good and as well-intentioned as they may be, are neither omniscient nor infallible. And the various leaders in our state and federal governments are only human, after all. They are not all-knowing. They are not all-powerful. And so it is futile (if not worse) to expect them to be able to act as if they were. They too need our prayers, as Paul has written (1 Timothy 2:1-4). Perhaps if we stopped expecting them to solve everything for us, we would be more apt to pray for them instead of criticizing their every move (as if we would do any better).

Just as the cause of these things is not ultimately of an earthly origin (except for sin), even so the solution is not ultimately to be found in earthly or human means either.

Are you wondering what it is that you can do in the midst of all of the uncertainty and unrest during this pandemic? Do your best to stay safe, and to be there for others in need. But there is one more thing. And this may be the most needful thing of all.

2 Chronicles 7:13-14 gives us a right perspective on these kinds of things and the ultimate solution to them. There the Lord Himself says,

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (ESV)

This passage reminds us that calamities of many kinds are often (at least in part if not the whole) a chastisement or judgment from God for idolatry and wickedness.

At times does our God not still shut up the heavens so that it does not rain? Does He not likewise send locusts or other things to devour or otherwise destroy crops or livelihoods? Does He not even send pestilence or plague? None of those things are outside of the scope of God’s all-encompassing providence.

Ought we not to see this current pandemic as an act of God’s just judgment? Does not even our own land, which has enjoyed the manifold blessings of God’s grace and mercy in abundance throughout her history, have much wickedness of which we need to seek God’s face and repent?

These things that we might think of as merely being “natural disasters” are not only part of God’s all wise & powerful providence, but they are also at times intended as a chastisement or judgment for wickedness. The Scriptures are replete with examples of such things.

God often sends drought, famine, pestilence, war, and other such calamities in order to get our attention, and to turn us from our wicked ways.

And so we as God’s people must think and act like believers, and not like deists or atheists. These things did not come about randomly or by chance. And while we may not be able to infallibly interpret God’s works of providence, we should be sure that He does all things for a reason, even the sending forth of calamity (Isaiah 45:7).

2 Chronicles 7:13-14 is a call to prayer and repentance. And there God holds forth a promise of mercy (both forgiveness and healing) to the repentant.

And so if we would see the healing of our land, we must first humble ourselves before our God and pray. To humble ourselves means to acknowledge both our sin and guilt, as well as our need for His mercy. It also means acknowledging that His judgments are altogether righteous, holy, and just.

We must pray and seek the face of God. Prayer must not be our last resort in time of crisis or calamity. The Bible says that God’s house is to be “a house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7; Mark 11:17). If we who are called by God’s name do not pray and seek God’s face, who will? And if God’s hand of chastisement does not get us praying, what will?

If this pandemic gets us praying, it will have done us much good!

And, lastly, we must turn from our wicked ways. In other words, we must repent. If we humble ourselves, pray, and genuinely repent, then we may expect the mercy of God. Then God will, by His grace, “hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” And we will find that even the repentance itself is a gift of God’s grace, as only God can grant repentance, whether to an individual sinner, or even to a nation (2 Timothy 2:25).

But notice that what comes first when God hears our prayers for mercy is not the healing of the land, but rather the forgiveness of our sins. Then and only then come His healing mercies. As Matthew Henry puts it in his commentary on these verses, “Pardoning mercy makes way for healing mercy.”

We might be tempted to focus primarily on the healing of the land, and the removal of the chastisement and suffering itself, rather than our need for repentance and forgiveness.  It is surely right to be concerned for and pray for lives to be spared. We should continue to pray for those who have been directly affected by this deadly virus. And we should be thankful to God for His mercy that so far the death totals have been far lower than the initial models predicted. We should see that as an answer to prayer, and give God the thanks and glory for it!

I must admit that at times I have even found myself being more concerned with the inconveniences and disappointments related to this pandemic, such as the inability to visit with family and friends, the restrictions on public worship, and even missing baseball (!), than with the urgent need for repentance and revival in our land, even in the church. As much as we may long for things to “get back to normal,” we should long for revival in our land even more!

We must seek forgiveness for our sins, first and foremost, and not just healing. Our sin is the real disease; our miseries are only the symptoms and results of that disease.

We who know the Lord Jesus by faith must seek God’s face and pray for revival and repentance, so that God might show mercy to us and heal our land. That is the lesson and promise of 2 Chronicles 7:13-14.

May God in His great mercy bring such revival, that He might grant repentance and faith to many, and so forgive our sins and heal our land, to His glory alone.

“Look at the Birds of the Air”

Years ago while I was attending seminary, small groups of students would get together with one of our professors on a regular basis for prayer. We would often meet outside, since the weather was almost never an issue in Southern California.

On one such occasion we were struck by the sound of all the birds around us singing. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the birds seemed to be everywhere, and they were all singing their little hearts out. It was as if nature itself was putting on a little concert for us.

Our professor used it as an opportunity to give us an object lesson from the Scriptures. He reminded us of the words of our Lord Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:25–26, ESV)

He told us that whenever we saw the birds or heard them singing, we should call to mind Jesus’s words there in that passage. I may not remember half of what I heard in the classrooms in seminary, but that lesson stuck with me. It is one of the simplest, yet most memorable lessons that I learned in my entire time there.

The main point throughout that passage is that we are not to be anxious. And we are not to be anxious because our God will provide for our needs.

That is sometimes easier said than done, isn’t it? There are many things in this life that often tempt us to be anxious and worrisome about our daily needs. Even as I sit here writing this post, people all over the world are suffering through the effects of a global pandemic. And those effects are in no way limited to health-related concerns, as serious as those may be. Some of the worst, most widespread effects have been economic and even social in nature. Many businesses have been forced to close their doors, and many jobs have necessarily been lost as well. It is only natural to worry about making your ends meet when faced with this kind of trial.

If you are a Christian and find yourself faced with such a situation in your life, take a moment and do what Jesus says there in Matthew’s Gospel – “Look at the birds of the air” (v.26). Look at them, listen to their chirping and singing, and be reminded that “your heavenly Father feeds them.” And if He feeds them, He will certainly take care of you as well.  As Jesus goes on to say there, “Are you not of more value than they?” And as the hymn writer put it, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.”

When times are tough, let the birds all around outside be a constant reminder of the providential care of God. And let that knowledge keep you from anxiety, and keep you constantly in prayer to God with thanksgiving.

Calvin on the Great Blessing of the Knowledge of God’s Providence

Institutes CalvinThe doctrine of the providence of God has always proven to be a great source of peace and comfort to the believer in Christ. Sad to say, providence is a word that has largely fallen out of use among many in the church today. Worse yet, a right understanding and affirmation of the doctrine itself in some ways seems even more scarce.

What is providence? The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it this way:

“Q. 11. What are God’s works of providence?
A. God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”

God not only created all things from nothing in the beginning (Genesis chapter 1), but He also preserves or sustains all things as well. As Hebrews 1:3 puts it, Christ Himself “upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (ESV) But more than that, the Lord governs or rules over all things as well, including not just “all his creatures” (i.e. everything that God has made), but also “all their actions” as well.

In other words, God’s providence is all-encompassing.

And this truth should be of great comfort to every believer in Christ. John Calvin writes,

“[I]f the light of God’s providence shines in the believers’s heart, not only will he be free of the fear and anguish which afflicted him before, he will also be relieved of every doubt. For as we have a justified fear of fate, so we are rightly bold to entrust ourselves to God. We are thus wonderfully comforted to know that the Lord so holds all things in his power, rules by his will and controls by his wisdom, that nothing can occur except as he has ordained it; and moreover that he has taken us under his protection and has given his angels charge over us [Psalm 91:11], so that neither flood nor fire nor sword nor anything else can hurt us unless his will determines otherwise.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1541 Edition, p.511)

and also:

“Where does the believer get this assurance that can never be taken from him, except from the knowledge that, while the world seems completely topsy-turvy, God is actively guiding him, and from his hope that all God’s works will prove salutary to him?” (Ibid)

Our Lord Jesus Himself taught the truth of providence in order that His disciples might not fear. In Matthew 10:29–31 He says,

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (ESV)

“Fear not.” That is the lesson and the comfort of God’s providence to the believer. Providence means that trouble and affliction may indeed come, but God will make all things work together for our good, even for our salvation (Romans 8:28-29)!

Calvin goes on to say:

“I would say that the greatest misery which can befall a man is to know nothing of God’s providence, and conversely that it is an exceptional blessing for him to know it well.” (p.512)

May every believer in Christ make it their aim to know the “exceptional blessing” of knowing God’s providence well, that in time of trial or affliction he or she may say with the Psalmist:

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”” (Psalm 91:1–2, ESV)


The Heidelberg Catechism on the 5th Commandment (Honor Your Father and Your Mother)

DeYoung HeidelbergThe Heidelberg Catechism includes just one question regarding what is involved in obeying the 5th commandment, but it says a lot in just a brief space:

“Q.104. What does God require in the fifth commandment? A. That I show all honor, love, and fidelity, to my father and mother, and all in authority over me, and submit myself to their good instruction and correction, with due obedience; and also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.”

Notice that the basic gist of this commandment is that God requires of us that we show the proper honor, respect, submission, and obedience to the earthly authorities whom He has placed over us in His most wise and good providence.

That obviously starts with our parents, who are the first authority figures we normally encounter in our lives. In many ways it is in the home where we first learn (or fail to learn) respect for and submission to authority.

Clearly the Heidelberg rightly teaches that this honor, respect, and submission extend well beyond our earthly parents to all of the other earthly authority figures in our lives as well (i.e. “all in authority over me”). As Paul says in Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (ESV)

The sovereign wisdom and providence of God are to be kept in mind when dealing with those who are in authority over us. We are to remember that “there is no authority except from God,” and that includes those in authority whom we may not particularly agree with or appreciate. As Q/A 104 puts it, we are to submit to them “since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.”

That is why Paul goes on to say, “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:2, ESV)

Notice also that the catechism anticipates the most common objection to godly submission in every context, in that it tells us that we must “also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.” Perfect wisdom and decision making on the part of those who are over us in this life are not the prerequisites for our submission. Otherwise no one would ever be worthy of submission.

Even the very best earthly fathers are just doing the best that they can. (See Hebrews 12:.10.) And their imperfections in no way render our honoring and obeying them to be optional.

We are to bear with the weaknesses and infirmities of the authorities whom God has placed over us in His infinite wisdom. That includes parents, husbands, officers in the church, and civil authorities, among others. And the reason, as always, is that “it pleases God to govern us by their hand.”

Ask yourself this, how do you think and speak of the earthly authorities whom God has placed over you? Disagreeing with them, even criticizing them (depending on the way that it is done, of course) may even be necessary at times. But do you show them the respect and honor that is due to them for the sake of their God-given office?

As believers in Christ, we must submit to those whom God has been pleased to place over us, and we must do so in such a way that we “also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities,” and even pray for them (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

In his book on the Heidelberg Catechism entitled, The Good News We Almost Forgot, Kevin DeYoung writes,

“I doubt many of us regularly feel convicted by the Fifth Commandment, but we probably should. How are we really doing? Do we joyfully submit to parents, husbands, and the rule of law? Are we patient with pastors and senators and middle managers? Do we give glad respect to denominational executives, committee chairpersons, and department heads? Do we take care of our aging parents without grumbling and complaining? Do we ever consider their feelings and desires above our own when making plans for the holidays? Would we be happy if our young children treated us like we, now grown, treat our parents?” (p.187)

We may not give the 5th commandment much thought, but we should. And if we were to do so, no doubt most of us would find plenty of room for confession, repentance, and improvement. May God work in us what is pleasing in His sight, by His grace and Holy Spirit, to the glory of the name of Jesus Christ.