Thursday, December 22, 2011

Teaching Notes on the Importance of the Virgin Birth

Following are teaching notes from 2006 on the importance of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. I hope they will be helpful to the blog's readers as they prepare to celebrate Christmas this year.

Scripture Reading: We will be reading lot of Scripture this morning, but we will begin with these two foundational texts: Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-35. As we read, notice the emphasis both texts place on the fact that Mary was a virgin and that both Jesus' conception and birth were therefore the miraculous work of God alone.
NKJ Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. 19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. 20 But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 23 'Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,' [Isa. 7:14] which is translated, 'God with us.' 24 Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, 25 and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.

NKJ Luke 1:26-35 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” 29 But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. 30 Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. 33 And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”35 And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.”
Introduction: As we have already seen in our Scripture reading thus far, both the accounts of Matthew and Luke are very clear about the fact that Jesus was born of a virgin. Throughout the centuries the Church has always been sure to emphasize this fact as well, deeming it so important that it was included in its most cherished creeds. Consider, for example, the Apostles' Creed (3rd-4th centuries):
I believe in God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; the third day He rose from the dead; He ascended into heaven; and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic Church; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
Notice that this creed includes only those things which were deemed most essential to the Christian faith. It is a very selective creed, yet it includes an emphasis upon the historicity and reality of the virgin birth. It clearly sees this doctrine as one of crucial importance, then, doesn't it?

This doctrine has been deemed just as crucial by all Bible-believing Christians since that time, being included in virtually every orthodox creed or doctrinal summary, including our own. For example, in chapter 8, paragraph 2 of our own Confession of Faith we read:
The Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God, the brightness of the Father's glory, of one substance and equal with Him, who made the world, who upholds and governs all things He hath made, did when the fullness of time was come take unto Him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin, being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary.... (an amended version of the Baptist Confession of 1689)
We even include this doctrine in our Summary of the Doctrines of Grace Expressed in the Baptist Confession of 1689 (Paragraph 7):
We believe that God sent His Son into the world, conceived of the virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, unchangeably sinless, both God and man, born under the Law, to live a perfect life of righteousness, on behalf of His people.
But why is this doctrine deemed so crucial to us? And, more importantly, why is the fact of the virgin birth stressed so clearly in Scripture? Why was it important to God that Jesus be born of a virgin and that we know this with such certainty?

Well, neither Matthew's nor Luke's account comes right out and plainly says why this is so. There is no statement by either of them that Jesus was born of a virgin for any specific reason other than Matthew's assertion that it was in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy. However, I think that the Bible does nevertheless clearly indicate some answers to these questions, and these answers will be the focus of our study. I would like to briefly suggest to you four Scriptural reasons why it is important that Jesus was born of a virgin.

I. The virgin birth explains how Jesus is both fully God and fully Man.

Unlike Matthew and Luke, the Apostle John does not begin His Gospel with an account of the virgin birth and the events leading up to and surrounding it, but instead begins with a description of the incarnation of Christ.
NKJ John 1:1-3, 14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.... [And then later in the passage John says] 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
I would suggest to you that this is really not a different starting place at all, for the virgin birth is the way in which the incarnation of Christ came about. It is the way in which Jesus “became flesh and dwelt among us.” So, Matthew and Luke and John really begin at the same place … the incarnation of Christ. Remember the account of Luke that we read earlier:
NKJ Luke 1:34-35 Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” 35 And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.”
The son to be born of the virgin Mary was going to be more than just a man, He was going to be the divine Son of God as well. Throughout the Gospels this title was used by Jesus and rightly understood by the Jews to be a claim to deity. None of them questioned His humanity, and the virgin birth ensures that no one could rightly question His divinity either! John Piper stressed the importance of this issue in a sermon entitled Christ Conceived by the Holy Spirit:
Gabriel's answer to Mary's question, How? is very simply and delicately: the Holy Spirit. Beyond this, revelation does not go. How can a virgin have a child? How can the human child be the divine Son of God? Answer: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you . . . therefore the child to be born will be called the Son of God.” The word “therefore” in Luke 1:35 is tremendously important. It shows that the conception of Jesus in a virgin is owing to the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. And it shows that the divine sonship of Jesus depends on his virgin birth.
Many people will try to say that the conception of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary is not essential in the doctrine of the incarnation, since Jesus would have been the Son of God even if the virgin birth weren't true. The words of Gabriel do not agree. In answer to the question, How can a virgin conceive? he says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” Jesus can be called Son of God (v. 35), Son of the Most High (v. 32), precisely because he was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” It is an unfathomable mystery that all the fullness of deity should dwell bodily in Jesus (Colossians 2:9). It is fitting (indeed necessary, I think) that the entrance gate to this mystery of incarnation should be the virgin birth.
Application: So, Christmas is a celebration of the power of God and the wonder and mystery of the incarnation. It is a time in which we are to be humbled by our own inability to grasp His greatness.

The virgin birth reminds us of what God once said through the Prophet Isaiah, “'For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,' says the LORD. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts'” (55:8-9, NKJ). We must throw up our hands with David and cry out, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6, NKJ). What other response could be more appropriate as we prepare to celebrate Christmas?

II. The virgin birth explains how Jesus was without sin.

This is hinted at in the prophetic announcement of Jesus' birth by the angel Gabriel. Recall again Luke's account of his pronouncement to Mary:
NKJ Luke 1:35 And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.”
The ESV translates this verse a bit differently:
ESV Luke 1:35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy -- the Son of God.”
Whichever way it is translated, this statement by Gabriel informs us that, because he was born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was holy. That this holiness was more than just being set apart as one who was special to God, but that it included a moral holiness or perfection, is clear from the fact that He was also going to be the very Son of God, who could be nothing but morally perfect. It is also clear from what the rest of the Scriptures tell us about Christ. For example:
NKJ 2 Corinthians 5:21 For He made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Paul connects Jesus' sacrifice for our sins to His own sinlessness. In fact, the Scriptures teach that Jesus' sinlessness is why He can be the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
NKJ 1 Peter 1:18-19 ... knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.

NKJ 1 Peter 2:21-24 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: 22 'Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth' [Isa. 53:9]; 23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness -- by whose stripes you were healed.

NKJ Hebrews 10:4-12 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.5 Therefore, when He came into the world, He [Jesus] said: 'Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me. 6 In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You had no pleasure. 7 Then I said, “Behold, I have come -- in the volume of the book it is written of Me -- to do Your will, O God.”' 8 Previously saying, 'Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them' (which are offered according to the law), 9 then He said, 'Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.' He takes away the first that He may establish the second. 10 By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11 And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God....
Functioning as our great High Priest, Jesus sat down after He made His sacrifice because there was no need for any further sacrifice! His was the perfect sacrifice once for all!

Application: Christmas is a time to celebrate the fact that Jesus was born without sin, in order to live without sin, and then to die without sin for His people. This is how the angel's prophecy that “He will save His people from their sins” was fulfilled.

III. The virgin birth explains how Jesus became our sympathetic High Priest.

That Jesus remained without sin throughout His life does not mean, of course, that He was never tempted to sin, but rather that He was able to overcome every temptation. And this is one of the reasons that He had to become man and therefore that the virgin birth was necessary. He is not just our great High Priest in that He gave the final, perfect sacrifice for sins – Himself. He is also our High Priest because He can sympathize with our weakness and help us to overcome sin as He did.
NKJ Hebrews 2:14-18 Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. 16 For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. 17 Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.
NKJ Hebrews 4:14-16 Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Application: Christmas is a time to rejoice that God Himself has condescended to become one of us, and that He understands and sympathizes with our weakness. It is a time to celebrate the victory over sin and temptation that He provides for us. It is a time to celebrate a God who has drawn close to us so that we may boldly draw near to Him!

IV. The virgin birth is a miraculous sign from God that He has acted to save His people from their sins.

This is what Matthew tells us when he cites the prophecy concerning Jesus' birth:
NKJ Matthew 1:21-23 “And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
Here Matthew is citing part of Isaiah 7:14, but the whole verse reads, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”

Clearly Matthew sees Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of this promised sign that a virgin would conceive. Matthew also clearly sees the virgin birth as connected to the mystery of the incarnation, for he points out that the meaning of Immanuel is “God with us.” The miracle of the virgin birth is something that only God Himself could perform, and it is thus a reminder that salvation is the work of God on our behalf. It is thus by His grace that we are saved. It is not something we can do for ourselves. As Wayne Grudem aptly observes in his Systematic Theology:
[The virgin birth] shows that salvation ultimately must come from the Lord. Just as God had promised that the “seed” of the woman (Gen. 3:15) would ultimately destroy the serpent, so God brought it about by his own power, not through mere human effort. The virgin birth of Christ is an unmistakable reminder that salvation can never come through human effort, but must be the work of God himself. Our salvation only comes about through the supernatural work of God, and that was evident at the very beginning of Jesus’ life when “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). (p. 529)
Application: Christmas, then, is a celebration of the grace of God in providing Jesus as our Savior and accomplishing through Him all that is necessary to save us.

Conclusion: I hope we all have seen just how important the virgin birth is to our faith. Scripture is quite clear about how essential this historical fact is to our salvation. But, in order to further stress the importance of the doctrine of the virgin birth and to show you that I am far from alone is seeing how crucial the doctrine is in Scripture, I would like to conclude with quotes from two leading modern theologians:

First, Wayne Grudem is again helpful when he writes in his Systematic Theology:
It has been common, at least in previous generations, for those who do not accept the complete truthfulness of Scripture to deny the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ. But if our beliefs are to be governed by the statements of Scripture, then we will certainly not deny this teaching. Whether or not we could discern any aspects of doctrinal importance for this teaching, we should believe it first of all simply because Scripture affirms it. Certainly such a miracle is not too hard for the God who created the universe and everything in it—anyone who affirms that a virgin birth is “impossible” is just confessing his or her own unbelief in the God of the Bible. Yet in addition to the fact that Scripture teaches the virgin birth, we can see that it is doctrinally important, and if we are to understand the biblical teaching on the person of Christ correctly, it is important that we begin with an affirmation of this doctrine. (p. 532)
Second, Albert Mohler also drives home the importance of the doctrine of the virgin birth in a blog article entitled Must We Believe the Virgin Birth?:
Must one believe in the Virgin Birth to be a Christian? This is not a hard question to answer. It is conceivable that someone might come to Christ and trust Christ as Savior without yet learning that the Bible teaches that Jesus was born of a virgin. A new believer is not yet aware of the full structure of Christian truth. The real question is this: Can a Christian, once aware of the Bible's teaching, reject the Virgin Birth? The answer must be no.
May God grant us the grace to stand firm on this crucial doctrine when so many have been abandoning it.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Toward a Biblical Perspective on Depression: Romans 5:1-5

So far this series has considered seven case studies from Scripture, from which we have endeavored to draw lessons about some of the possible causes and cures for depression. Then we examined a couple of passages which speak directly to the issue of depression in order to see how the Bible says that we should face such a trial. Now let's turn our attention to some of the Bible's teaching that deals more generally with trials and tribulations, of which depression in all its forms would be a subset. For example, let's begin by examining some of Paul's teaching on trials in the Book of Romans:
NKJ Romans 5:1-5 “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; 4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
I was reminded by this passage that through Christ I can “rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (vs. 2), and I think by this Paul means that I can rejoice in the knowledge that God will manifest His glory through me and in my life. In fact, later in this same epistle Paul describes the ultimate triumph of God's work in us as our being glorified. For example:
NKJ  Romans 8:15-18 “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, 'Abba, Father.' 16 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs-- heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”

NKJ Romans 8:28-30 “28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30 Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”
All things, including tribulations and suffering, are a part of God's plan to glorify us, that is, to reveal His glory in us. Although this ultimately happens in the resurrection (as the context in Romans 8 makes clear), it is happening to some degree even now, which is what I believe Paul is saying in Romans 5. I think he is trying to tell us that, as we learn to go through trials in faith, we see God being glorified in us more and more, and this gives us a foretaste of the coming glory that will be revealed in us. When Paul tells us that “we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” in verse 3-4, the hope he is talking about is the “hope of the glory of God” he has mentioned in verse 2. So, the more we see God being glorified in and through us as we faithfully endure trials, the more we increase in the certainty that His promise of future glorification is, indeed, true.

There is a cycle revealed in Romans 5:1-5, one through which God has taken me many times before and with which I have become quite well acquainted. So perhaps an illustration of how the cycle has worked in my own life would help to explain what I mean more clearly. It comes from a time when I was just a kid, about twelve years old. I went with my family to a state park in southern Indiana that had a cave that went through a hillside and came out the other side. I think it was actually an abandoned attempt at building a railroad tunnel at one time. At any rate, the tunnel was just long enough that when you were in the middle of it you were in complete darkness and could see no light coming from either end. After having gone through the tunnel a couple of times with a flashlight, I decided – I vaguely remember a dare – to try to go through the tunnel with no light at all. Well, about half way through, as I was in the darkest part of the tunnel, feeling my way along, I remember being gripped by fear and worrying that maybe I would get lost somehow and no one would ever find me. And I thought about turning back. But what kept me going was that fact that I had been through the tunnel before, and I knew that if I just pressed on there would be a light ahead.

This is the same way with trials in my life. I have been through the tunnel before many times, and I know that, despite how dark things may be at any given time, there is always a light at the end! It is the “hope of the glory of God,” and it keeps me going, just as Paul said it would. Indeed, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel of every trial for the Christian, and it is the joy set before us as we see the glory of God more fully manifested in our own lives. May we ever seek this joy in Him! And may we accept the fact that it comes with suffering, even such suffering as depression. You see, even depression – however terrible it may be to endure – can be a lens through which we may see more clearly the glory of God being manifested in our lives, and this can bring us great reason for joy even in the midst of heartache.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Christmas Giveaway - The Fatal Flaw or Two Journey Books

This year the Reformed Baptist Blog would like to thank our readers by offering an opportunity to two of the blog's email subscribers to receive free books for Christmas this year. One of our readers will receive a free copy of Dr. Jeff Johnson's book The Fatal Flaw of the Theology Behind Infant Baptism, which I believe is the single best book on the subject from a Reformed Baptist perspective. It is also a good book for understanding Covenant Theology from a Reformed Baptist perspective.

Another of our readers will receive a free copy of two of Dr. Richard Belcher's Journey books. They will include the first two books in the series, A Journey in Grace and A Journey in Purity (see here for more information). If you already have the first two books, then we will allow the substitution of any two of the other books in the series. I suspect that once you have read a couple of the Journey books, you will want to read more of them and will recommend them to others as well. As a pastor, I have found that folks have really been helped by them and have found them enjoyable reading as well.

On December 12 I will draw from the addresses included in the email subscriber list from FeedBurner. So, if you want to have a chance to receive these books, then make sure you sign up as an email subscriber to the blog using the Subscribe in a reader link on the right panel of this page. And make sure you click the "Get Reformed Baptist Blog delivered by email" option. Current email subscribers are already in the running.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Answering Bart Ehrman

Ps 12:6-7, Isa 40:8, Matt 5:18 and Luke 16:17 directly or indirectly refer to God’s promise to protect and sustain the written revelation of God. Yet, Bart Ehrman has sold thousands of books (e.g., Forged, Misquoting Jesus and God’s Problem), and has gained the approval of National Geographic, the History Channel and the Discovery Channel by denying the faithful transmission of New Testament text. Ehrman not only claims that the Greek New Testament text has been corrupted, but that all the extant manuscripts are polluted to the point that it is impossible to reconstruct a trustworthy critical Greek text of the New Testament.

Ehrman is quick to point out that there are around 400,000 variants within the extant New Testament Greek manuscripts, and that there are no two manuscripts which perfectly agree with each other. Given that the autographs (the original documents) have been lost, and given the fact that there are no error free Greek manuscripts, it may appear that Ehrman is right. As we analyze the historical and textual evidence, are we to conclude that God has failed in fulfilling His promise to perverse His Word? Some seek to save God’s reputation by closing their eyes to the textual evidence and denying that there are any textual problems. Yet, we do not have to close our eyes to the textual evidence to believe in the supernatural preservation of God's Word. The evidence is on our side.

Ehrman stands in opposition to the consensus of the community of textual scholars and the overwhelming textual evidence. Yes, there are approximately 400,000 variant readings, and there are no two identical manuscripts, but no ancient piece of literature can boast of a more faithful transmission than the Scriptures. First, no other ancient book has more extant manuscripts than the New Testament—close to 6,000. Second, no other ancient work has extant manuscripts that are so close to the original autographs—P52 dates between 100-115 AD, and we have a host of papyri manuscripts that date back to the 3rd and 4th centuries. Third, of the 400,000 variants, 75 percent are spelling errors, which do not do any damage to the faithfulness of the Greek text. Fourth, another 24 percent of the variants are concerned with word order, but this too does not create much of a problem seeing that the subject of each sentence in the Greek is determined by word endings rather than by word placement. Fifth, that leaves only 1 percent (around 400) of variants that are of any importance, yet of those 400 variants, the majority are concerned with minor issues such as gospel harmonization. Sixth, only around 15 percent of the 1 percent of variants (about 50) is considered of any major significance, yet there is no doctrinal compromise in any of the variant readings. The virgin birth, the Trinity, the gospel and every other doctrine stands firm in the textual evidence.

Considering that there are 27 books and approximately 180,000 words in the New Testament, it is amazing that there are only 50 variants of any major concern. The evidence is amazing! The harmony between the manuscripts and textual families is amazing! Thus, it is my belief that only supernatural providence can account for such accurate and thorough preservation of the Scriptures.

Note: The above material is taken from an appendix to the forthcoming Behind the Bible: A Primer on Textual Criticism, to be published by Solid Ground Christian Books.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

e-Sword Has Been Updated to Version 10.0.5

e-Sword, what I recommend as the best free Bible study software program, has been updated to version 10.0.5. Here is the description of the update from the e-Sword website:

e-Sword version 10.0 changes from 9.9
The Journal Notes, Study Notes and Topic Notes editors have been completely redesigned! You can now insert pictures, create tables, format with columns, have headers and footers, even work in print layout! There are dozens of new and improved features in the editors for you to enjoy working with.

A new Reference Library feature is now built into the program. With it you can view all Topic Notes and the new Reference Books modules downloaded from the e-Sword web site, as well as those created by others. No longer are these mixed in the Topic Notes editor with your own personal notes.

A new feature is now built into the program. Working with the folks at, we have provided an easy way for you to listen to nearly a half million sermons on any passage of the Bible!

The Resources feature has been updated to allow the management of Topic Notes and Reference Books.
 If you haven't already tried e-Sword, I suggest you check it out.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veterans Day Salute to the Men Who Served Aboard the USS Caron

Today I just want to take a few minutes to thank my fellow veterans for their service. I pray that God will bless you and keep you, and for those of you who have not yet come to trust in Christ as your Lord and Savior, I pray that God will open your hearts to the Gospel soon. I pray that you might come to believe that Jesus died on the cross for sinners such as you and me, so that we might have forgiveness of sins and peace with God, and that He rose from the dead that we might have everlasting life. I also offer you my testimony as to how the Lord Jesus saved me and pray that He will open your eyes to the truth just as He did mine. Please feel free to contact me if you wish to know more.

I also want to take some time to offer a special salute to the many men who served aboard the U.S.S. Caron (DD 970, pictured left) during her relatively short history. I count it one of the privileges of my life not only to have served with so many fine sailors in the U.S. Navy, but especially to have served aboard the Caron during the Reagan administration and at the height of the Cold War. Here is a brief history of the Caron:
During Caron's more than 20 years of service, she was involved in nearly every conflict that the U.S. had been involved in since her commissioning. Caron was in Grenada, Gulf of Sidra, Beirut, Black Sea, CentAm SpecOps, Gulf War and Haiti. Caron was the first warship to fire Tomahawk missiles in two separate combat engagements when she fired twelve missiles on 17 January 1993, destroying a nuclear weapons development facility outside Baghdad.

1974: Laid Down.
1977: Commissioned.
1979: Black Sea Ops with USS McCandless FF-1084. Soviets stage a mock missile attack against Caron.
1983: Operation Urgent Fury. Caron fires 5" guns in combat.
1983-1984: Multi-National Peacekeeping Force Beirut, Lebanon. Caron fires guns in multiple engagements.
1985: Classified Operations in Central America (SpecOps)
1986: Operation Attain Document I, II, III, Operation El Dorado Canyon and Operation Prairie Fire against Libya.
1988: Black Sea Ops. Caron is rammed by Soviet Mikra II Class frigate.
1991: Operation Desert Storm. Fired Tomahawk missiles in engagement with Iraq.
1993: Fired tomahawk missiles in engagement with Iraq.
1993: Enforced UN sanctions against Haiti.
1996: Operation Southern Watch in Persian Gulf.
2001: Decommissioned.
2002: Sunk near Puerto Rico.
I served aboard the Caron from 1985-1987, during which time the Lord Jesus saved me and I met my wife, Kim, in Haifa, Israel. So, as you can imagine, the Caron holds special memories for me. In fact, when I heard the U.S. Navy had sunk her after demolitions testing in 2002, I am not ashamed to say that I actually cried.

The Caron was a very special ship for another reason, though, since she was a spy ship, a fact that meant she was often in dangerous situations, particularly during the Cold War era. In fact, the May 1988 edition of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists devoted an article to the Caron's role as a spy ship, with a particular focus on her Black Sea operations. Although I don't think the article is fair in its assessment of the Caron's operations in Soviet waters, the article does get the basic facts about her basic configuration, mission, and operations right, as when it states:
The Caron is a specially and uniquely appointed spyship; it is a modern day Pueblo. Its very configuration and mission deny it rights that might be accorded to other ships. Since its commissioning in October 1977, it has been loaded with signals intelligence sensors. It is the Navy's premier ship equipped with the "Classic Outboard" system, which performs over-the-horizon targeting and surveillance. It was the first ship to be equipped with digital computers directly linked to its sonar and other sensors.
Since 1980 the Caron has led 24 intelligence collection missions for the Atlantic Fleet. In 1980-81, the vessel was dispatched above the Arctic Circle and into the Baltic Sea to follow the Kiev aircraft carrier battle group and practice new over-the-horizon targeting and surveillance techniques against the Soviet Union. Besides its latest escapade [referring to the 1988 ramming of the Caron by a Soviet frigate in the Black Sea], the Caron has conducted three other Black Sea surveillance operations [during which I was aboard], including the incident in March 1986 in which it and the U.S.S. Yorktown came within six miles of the Soviet coast.
But the lion's share of the Caron's work has been in the Third World -- off the coast of Central America, in the eastern Mediterranean, and around Libya -- where the ship has conducted 16 separate intelligence missions since 1980. The Caron was the first ship to arrive on station in the Caribbean for operation "Urgent Fury," the 1983 invasion of Grenada. The Caron has spent more time off the coast of Nicaragua than any other U.S. Navy ship since Ronald Reagan took office. In 1981, the Caron was the first ship to track Libyan Fitter fighters reconnoitering U.S. Navy operations. In 1986 the Caron was the first to cross the "line of death" into the Gulf of Sidra before the bombing of Libya.
The article then goes on to give a (partial) timeline of the Caron's operations. To give you an idea of the some of the things the Caron was called upon to do, I offer their timeline for the year 1986, during which time I was aboard as part of the Combat Systems Division:
January 1: Caron begins four months of duty in various "Operations in the vicinity of Libya," including Gulf of Sidra operations January 7-February 1 and February 7-17.
March 10-17: Caron takes time out of Libya surveillance to conduct Black Sea operations with the U.S.S. Yorktown (CG-48), entering on March 10. On March 16 the ships come within six miles of the Crimean Peninsula near Sevastopol. There are three Black Sea deployments in 1986.
March 18: The Soviet Union delivers a note to the U.S. embassy in Moscow protesting the incursion of two U.S. Navy vessels into Soviet territorial waters. A White House spokesman says the vessels were testing the "right of innocent passage," and insists it was not meant to be "provocative or defiant" deployment.
March 22-29: Caron serves as flagship for Destroyer Squadron 20 which leads a three-ship surface-action group to be the first vessel to cross the "line of death" in the Gulf of Sidra.
April 16: Caron ends its operations in the vicinity of Libya.
Although the information that is publicly available is somewhat sketchy, it is clear the type of ship the Caron was and why the many men who served aboard her over the years are so proud to have done so. Especially during the Cold War, the men who served aboard the Caron truly were on the leading edge of America's military providing an invaluable service to their country. The ship's motto was "Vision, Victory, Valor," and her crew always sought to live up to these ideals.

Here are some photos to help you get a better picture of the Caron.

The photo above shows the Caron "haze gray and underway" in calm seas.

The photo above shows the Caron turning.

The photo above shows the Caron in the Panama Canal, a trip I sadly missed.

 The photo above shows a Soviet frigate coming in close to the Caron during Black Sea operations.

The photo above shows the Caron firing an anti-submarine rocket (ASROC) from the launcher mounted on the forecastle (that box-like launcher on the front end of the ship shown in several photos above). My job, as a part of the Anti-Submarine Warfare section of the Combat Systems Division, was to operate and maintain the ASROC launcher.

The photo above shows the Yosemite Sam one of my shipmates painted on the side of our ASROC launcher. 

The photo above shows the Caron in some rough seas.

 The photo above shows a lifering on the aft end of the ship while underway.

The photo above shows the Caron being used for explosives testing off the coast of Puerto Rico shortly before she was sunk on December 4, 2002.

The two photos above show the Caron in her final moments. What sad pictures!

The photo above shows one of my shipmates, Gary Harvey, who was one of the key men the Lord brought into my life to share the Gospel with me and to lead me to faith in Christ. What a happy picture!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Free Audio And Video Series From R.C. Sproul

Ligonier Ministries is offering many of R.C. Sproul's audio and video teaching series online for free here. The many series available for free include his classic Biblical and theological teaching on being chosen by God, the holiness of God, the providence of God, justification by faith alone, and the Trinity.

There are also many series available on apologetic issues. You will definitely want to check out these free resources from one of this country's greatest Reformed teachers.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Toward a Biblical Perspective on Depression: Psalm 119

In this post I would like to shift focus to another psalm. Psalm 119 has several stanzas in which the author describes a struggle with what we would call depression, but we will focus our attention on the Daleth stanza in verses 25-32:
NKJ  Psalm 119:25 “My soul clings [דָּבַק, dāḇaq] to the dust; revive me according to Your word.”
Here the Psalmist describes how low he feels with the graphic metaphor, “my soul clings to the dust.” It is similar to the metaphor I have sometimes heard and used, “I'm so low I feel I've been sucking the mud.” The NIV translates the idiom, “I am laid low in the dust.” However, it is also possible that we should understand the Psalmist as Charles Spurgeon suggests:
He means in part that he was full of sorrow; for mourners in the east cast dust on their heads, and sat in ashes, and the Psalmist felt as if these ensigns of woe were glued to him, and his very soul was made to cleave to them because of his powerlessness to rise above his grief …. Whatever was the cause of his complaint, it was no surface evil, but an affair of his inmost spirit; his soul cleaved to the dust; and it was not a casual and accidental falling into the dust, but a continuous and powerful tendency, or cleaving to the earth. But what a mercy that the good man could feel and deplore whatever there was of evil in the cleaving! The serpent's seed can find their meat in the dust, but never shall the seed of the woman be thus degraded. (Treasury of David, e-Sword)
The word translated revive is the piel of חָיָה (ḥāyāh), which means to “preserve, keep alive … [or] bring (back) to life” (Holladay #2491, BibleWorks). Thus the Psalmist feels as though he is dying and thus needs reviving, although we shall see in verse 28 that he appears actually to be extremely distressed or depressed.

Thankfully, however, he knows that the answer to his woes is to be found in seeking the Lord in prayer and in His Word. And he also knows he needs to abandon control of his own life to the Lord, as the next verses make clear.
NKJ  Psalm 119:26-27 “I have declared my ways [דֶּרֶךְ, derek, path], and You answered me; teach me Your statutes. 27 Make me understand the way [דֶּרֶךְ, derek, path] of Your precepts; so shall I meditate on Your wondrous works.”
When the Psalmist says that he has declared his ways, he seems to mean that he has confessed his own sinful ways to God (see also vs. 29). But as with all true confession and repentance, the Psalmist is not satisfied unless he learns to follow the right way. Thus he asks God to teach him and to give him understanding of His Word as he meditates on it. Perhaps the depression the man is experiencing is due to God's discipline for his sins, but whatever the reason, the answer is found in trusting the Lord to speak to him through His Word and thus to help him turn his life around.
NKJ  Psalm 119:28 “My soul melts [דָּלַף, dālap̱] from heaviness [תּוּגָה, tûg̱āh]; strengthen me according to Your word.”
Here is another vivid metaphor by which the Psalmist describes his depression. He refers to his weeping as though his soul is melting away with each teardrop. The Hebrew word, דָּלַף (dālap̱), literally means to drop or drip and can refer to a leak in the roof of a house (BDB #2150, BibleWorks). Have you ever felt – or could you imagine feeling – as though your very soul was leaking out of your body with every tear that falls? This is what the Psalmist felt like, and it is a description of a very heavy heart indeed! This is no doubt why the NKJV translates the first line as “My soul melts from heaviness” (italics mine). However, the Hebrew word is תּוּגָה (tûg̱āh), which would better be translated as grief. In fact, The Complete Word Study Dictionary by Spiros Zodhiates states of this word that:
It refers to the emotion and process of feeling a great loss and loneliness (Psa 119:28). A son who is a fool creates grief in his parents (Pro 10:1; 17:21. For the wicked, even the end of joy is grief (Pro 14:13). (e-Sword)
At any rate the NIV translation of the opening line as “My soul is weary with sorrow” is a poor one because it misses the metaphor of the soul as “melting away in the trickling down of tears” (Keil & Delitzsch, e-Sword).

But notice again that in the very next line the Psalmist asks God for help, and he specifically asks Him for help according to His Word. As Charles Spurgeon put it:
He had found out an ancient promise that the saints shall be strengthened, and here he pleads it. His hope in his state of depression lies not in himself, but in his God; if he may be strengthened from on high he will yet shake off his heaviness and rise to joy again. Observe how he pleads the promise of the word, and asks for nothing more than to be dealt with after the recorded manner of the Lord of mercy. (Treasury of David, e-Sword)
I hope all of us will also confidently trust in the Lord and His promises when we are so far down in the dumps! If we struggle to trust Him this way, then we need to ask all the more, “strengthen me according to Your word.”
NKJ  Psalm 119:29 “Remove from me the way [דֶּרֶךְ, derek, path] of lying, and grant me Your law graciously.”
Earlier the Psalmist had confessed his ways to the Lord (recall vs. 26). Here he gets more specific and confesses a struggle with lying. But once again he is not content just to ask the Lord to take lying away from him. He knows that in its place must come the Word of God, which is why he immediately adds, “and grant me Your law graciously.”

It is also possible that the Psalmist has in mind hypocrisy in general, which is the way the ESV seems to take the verse when it translates the opening line, “Put false ways far from me.” Either way, it is easy to see why he says what he says in the next verse.
NKJ  Psalm 119:30 “I have chosen the way [דֶּרֶךְ, derek, path] of truth [אֱמוּנָה, ’emûnāh, or faithfulness]; Your judgments I have laid before me.”
The Psalmist has not only chosen to put lying behind him with God's help, he has also chosen to live his life according to God's truth and to keep it before Him. This is what the metaphor of walking in a particular way means. It means that one has chosen to live in a particular way. In this case, it reflects the choice to live in the way of truth as found in God's Word. This recalls his earlier desire to understand and meditate on God's Word and on His works revealed therein (vs. 27).
NKJ  Psalm 119:31 “I cling [דָּבַק, dāḇaq] to Your testimonies; O LORD, do not put me to shame!”
Here the Psalmist uses the repetition of a key word to help reinforce his point about his commitment to God's Word. He began the psalm by saying, “My soul clings [דָּבַק, dāḇaq] to the dust,” and now he uses the same Hebrew word to declare, “I cling [דָּבַק, dāḇaq] to Your testimonies.”

Here some modern versions – in their desire to avoid repetitious language  – translate this word with different English words and actually miss a key emphasis of the author (see, e.g., the NIV and NASB). But in this instance, at least, the NKJV does better by translating the Hebrew word the same way in both places, enabling us to see how the author applies the remedy to the specific problem mentioned earlier. In this way the Psalmist shows us that the remedy for a soul that clings to the dust is to cling just as tightly to God's Word! How sad it is when we neglect God's Word in our times of sorrow and depression! The Psalmist no doubt felt the same temptation, which is why he resolves in this psalm not to neglect God's Word and constantly asks for God's help to understand it, to meditate on it, and to live faithfully according to it.

I think this is also why the Psalmist cries out, “O LORD, do not put me to shame!” He does not want to experience the shame that will come from abandoning God's way and God's Word in the midst of his depression. Apparently, the only thing worse for him than the terrible sorrow he is feeling would be to falter in his walk with God and in his witness for God.
NKJ  Psalm 119:32 “I will run the course [דֶּרֶךְ, derek, way or path] of Your commandments, for You shall enlarge [רָחַב , rāḥaḇ] my heart.”
Here again the Psalmist uses metaphorical language, this time to describe his resolve and his confidence that God will indeed answer his prayer and enable him to live as he should. In the first line he says not just that he will walk in the way or path of the God's commandments, but that he will run in them! But what does a person in ancient Israel need if he is going to run along the mountainous terrain? He needs a large or wide path! And this is what leads to the metaphor in the next line, where the NKJV has quite literally translated it, “for You shall enlarge my heart” (see also the ESV and NASB). The Complete Word Study Dictionary says of the Hebrew word that it is:
A verb indicating to enlarge, to extend; to open wide. It means to gain living space, territory (Gen 26:22); especially as the work of the Lord (Exo 34:24; Deu 12:20; 19:8). The psalmists praise God for enlarging them, giving them strength (2 Sam 22:37). It is used of giving a person space, relief in a time of danger (Psa 4:1). (e-Sword)
Here the Psalmist seems to have in mind the idea that God will enlarge his heart so that it will be big enough to take in all the teaching of His Word and so that it will increase in its ability to live in accordance with it. The point the Psalmist is making here is clear enough, namely that he will be very successful navigating the course of his life in accordance with God's Word because he knows God will help him by giving him the heart to do so. This, he believes, will be the best medicine for his depression, a life lived in increasing faithfulness to God. I hope we will learn the same lesson. I hope we will learn that, especially when we are depressed, our greatest need is to seek God in prayer and ask His mercy and help to depend upon His Word rather than allowing our our feelings or circumstances to distract us from it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sermons From Reformed Baptist Blog Pastors

For readers of the blog who may be interested, here are links to sites containing sermons from the various members of the blog. Although I am the founder of the blog, and its primary author up to now, I will post my link last, following an alphabetical order in presentation:

First, for sermons by Dr. Richard Belcher, I offer two links. For his Covenant Baptist Church sermons, see here. And for his sermons, see here.

Second, for sermons by Dr. Jeff Johnson, see the sermons page for Grace Bible Church here.

Third, for sermons by Kerry Miller, see the sermons page for Christ Bible Church here.

Fourth, for sermons by me – Keith Throop – see the page for Immanuel Baptist Church here.

I hope and pray that you will be edified as you listen to preaching from men committed to the principle of Sola Scriptura and to the Doctrines of Grace. Please feel free to contact any one of us with questions or comments.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Toward a Biblical Perspective on Depression: Psalm 42

Today I would like to offer the first of two posts dealing with passages in which the Bible speaks directly to the issue of depression in the life of a believer. There are a number of places in the Psalms in particular that deal directly with depression in one form or another, but I will focus my attention on just two of them. In this post I will discuss Psalm 42, and in the next post I will highlight a portion of Psalm 119.

Let's turn our attention now to Psalm 42, in which the Sons of Korah vividly describe a believer's battle with deep depression.
NKJ  Psalm 42:1-3 “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? 3 My tears have been my food day and night, while they continually say to me, 'Where is your God?'”
Here the Psalmist describes what would seem to be a continual discouragement or depression, for he speaks of crying day and night. But, as if that wasn't bad enough, while he struggles with depression there are people continually speaking discouraging words to him. They have seen how blue he is, and it has apparently led them to question where God is in his life. The situation seems to be one in which they are essentially saying, “If your God is so great, then why are you so sad?” After all, the Psalmist does thirst for God and seek Him, but he still finds no comfort. And as others see this struggle, they keep on tempting him to question God's love and care for him, for what else could they mean in such a situation when they say, “Where is your God?” Yet, despite these trying circumstances, he doesn't stop thirsting for God.
NKJ  Psalm 42:4 “When I remember these things, I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go with the multitude; I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.”
Here the Psalmist recalls his previous experience of joy in the Lord, when he used to join everyone else in the house of God “with the voice of joy and praise” as opposed to crying out in sorrow and discouragement through constant tears. He had even led the people in worship, which makes sense, because the psalm is attributed to the Sons of Korah, who were among those to whom King David had given this task (1 Chron. 6:31-38). But the important thing for us to notice here is that this individual is described as not taking part in corporate worship, although the authors don't say precisely why. Perhaps he was unable to be there due to circumstances beyond his control, although he still longed to go. Or perhaps he was like so many believers today who avoid being with God's people when they are depressed. Either way it is not a good thing, especially since, being apart from fellow believers, the Psalmist is only hearing discouraging words (“Where is your God?” vs. 3) rather than finding comfort and encouragement with God's people. No wonder the author of Hebrews later warned Christians not to avoid gathering together even when they are going through trying times (Heb. 10:32-34; 12:4). Indeed, he thinks that regular gathering for worship and mutual encouragement is even more necessary in such times:
NKJ  Hebrews 10:23-25 “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.”
At any rate, the Psalmist remembers a time when he felt close to God, and he longs for such a time again, as the next verse indicates:
NKJ  Psalm 42:5 “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance [פָּנֶה, pāneh, literally face, commonly occurring in the plural, i.e. פָּנִים, pāniym].” [Note: He repeats this self-talk in vs. 11, except for a significant change, which we will see examine below.]
Notice that, since the Psalmist is not with God's people in order to hear them speak words of encouragement, he preaches to himself! Martyn Lloyd-Jones helpfully expounds upon this same point in his classic book, Spiritual Depression, which is based primarily on this psalm:
Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says,: “Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.” (pp. 20-21)
Charles Spurgeon is also very good in applying this text in his classic commentary on the Psalms, The Treasury of David, which I recommend as great devotional reading. Listen to what he says:
As though he were two men, the Psalmist talks to himself. His faith reasons with his fears, his hope argues with his sorrows. These present troubles, are they to last for ever? The rejoicings of my foes, are they more than empty talk? My absence, from the solemn feasts, is that a perpetual exile? Why this deep depression, this faithless fainting, this chicken-hearted melancholy? As Trapp says, “David chideth David out of the dumps;” and herein he is an example for all desponding ones. To search out the cause of our sorrow is often the best surgery for grief. Self-ignorance is not bliss; in this case it is misery. The mist of ignorance magnifies the causes of our alarm; a clearer view will make monsters dwindle into trifles. (e-Sword)
I would only point out that, while it is true that the Psalmist questions himself as to why he is so downcast, the emphasis is not placed on the reasons or circumstances that have led to his depression so much as it is placed upon not allowing any circumstance or cause for discouragement to overwhelm him when he does, in fact, know God. In other words, the Psalmist seeks to lift himself out of the pit of depression by reminding himself that there really is reason to hope in God, despite what his feelings are telling him.

Notice also that this depressed individual resolves to once again praise the Lord, and he even begins to pray to God and to praise Him in the very next verse (and, of course, the whole Psalm is itself intended for public worship and praise as well). But here it is significant that he says that he will praise God for “the help of His countenance.” This language recalls the blessing the priests were to pronounce over the people as a promise from God:
NKJ  Numbers 6:23-27 “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying,'This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them: 24 “The LORD bless you and keep you; 25 the LORD make His face [פָּנֶה, pāneh] shine upon you, and be gracious to you; 26 the LORD lift up His countenance [פָּנֶה, pāneh, literally face] upon you, and give you peace.”' 27 So they shall put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them.”
It is noteworthy that the Sons of Korah place this same vocabulary in the mouth of the depressed person in this psalm. I think they intend to picture him as laying hold of these promises of God and preaching them to his own soul. And, even though he does not sense God's presence at the present time – indeed he feels far from God – he nevertheless places his hope in the fact that God will again “lift up His countenance” upon him. He thus places his trust in God and His Word rather than in his own circumstances or feelings, doesn't he? And here we find a key weapon in battling depression -- the Word of God! Indeed, this is the very reason why we are spending so much time searching the Word of God in this series of posts!
NKJ  Psalm 42:6 “O my God, my soul is cast down within me; therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan, and from the heights of Hermon, from the Hill Mizar.”
This verse appears to place this struggling saint in the far northern reaches of Israel, north of the Sea of Galilee, where Mount Hermon and the headwaters of the Jordan are located. This may also be why he spoke in verse 4 of remembering having previously gone “to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast,” because now he is said to be far from there. He could still experience fellowship and corporate worship with God's people, but it just isn't the same as when he was able to go to the sanctuary of the Lord in Jerusalem.

But notice also that is he talking to God again, telling Him about how his soul is “cast down” within him. No matter how far away he feels he is from God – or from feeling good – he still clings to his relationship with God. And he persists in prayer, another indispensable weapon for battling depression.
NKJ  Psalm 42:7 “Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and billows have gone over me.”
I think Thomas Constable has captured well the basic meaning of the metaphorical language in this verse:
The writer viewed his troubles like waves cascading down on him, as if he were standing under a waterfall. He compared the noise of the waves to his troubles that he personified calling to one another to come overwhelm him. (Online Bible Study Notes on the Psalms)
The metaphor that pictures troubles as an overwhelming flood or as the sea raging around a person is common in the Bible (see, e.g., Psa. 32:6; 46:2-3; 69:1-2) and is an apt description of the way depression seems to overwhelm us.
NKJ  Psalm 42:8-9 “The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me – a prayer to the God of my life. 9 I will say to God my Rock, 'Why have You forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?'”
Once again the Psalmist reminds himself that, despite his feelings, God really does love him, and he determines to persist in praise and prayer, singing to God and calling on Him. And he will continue to seek an answer from God.
NKJ  Psalm 42:10 “As with a breaking of my bones, my enemies reproach me, while they say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'”
Following the mention of the oppression from his enemies in verse 9, this poor saint speaks of the effect of their insults as being so painful they are like someone breaking his bones. He especially doesn't like it when they mockingly ask him, “Where is your God?” In fact, this is the second time he has brought it up, having already said in verse 3, “My tears have been my food day and night, while they continually say to me, 'Where is your God?'” So we get the impression that, on top of everything else, this person apparently feels as though he is being a very bad witness for the Lord. Many a modern believer who struggles with depression may feel the same way, as though he is being a bad witness for Christ because he struggles to hang on to the joy Christ has promised for His followers. It is understandable that a believer would feel this way, but it isn't necessarily true that he is being a bad witness at such times, at least not if he continues to trust in the Lord even through such a terrible trial. Indeed, isn't the believer pictured in this very psalm an example of how one may be a good witness for God even in the midst of depression?
NKJ  Psalm 42:11 “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; For I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.”
Notice the difference between the Psalmist's self-address earlier in verse 5 and here in verse 11:
In verse 5 he said, “I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance [פָּנֶה, pāneh].”

In verse 11 he says, “I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance [פָּנֶה, pāneh] and my God.”
Because he knows God will again lift up His countenance upon him, the Psalmist also knows that his own countenance will be better as well. When God's face again shines upon him, his own face will again shine toward others. Notice that the Psalmist also ends by referring to the Lord as “my God.” He will not turn away from God in his difficulties; he will continue to turn toward Him.

In seeking to further apply this psalm, it is worth observing that the Sons of Korah ask the all important “why” question about depression, and that this question leads them back to God. In fact, they have the main character of the psalm asking “why” at least six times (vs. 5 [2x], 9 [2x], 11 [2x]). And they have him asking himself the crucial question “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” at least twice ( vs. 5 and 11, if you don't take Psalm 43 as belonging with this one and add 43:5).

Ed Welch has written an insightful article entitled Words of Hope for Those Who Struggle With Depression, in which he speaks of the potential importance of asking this question. He warrants significant quotation:
As you think about the meaning of your feelings, you will notice that, rather than leading you to more and more despair, the path leads you to the triune God. More specifically, it will lead you to the question, Will you live for God or will you live for yourself and the things you worship? Sometimes it takes awhile to get to this most critical of questions, but it is always there. Usually, all you have to do is ask yourself the “why” questions of a three-year-old.

“I can’t go on.”
“Because I am so tired and I can’t take the pain any more.”
“Because I feel like I am alone.”
“Because … I don’t believe that God is with me.”
“Because … I don’t trust him. I trust in my interpretation that comes from my feelings.”

“Why” questions should lead you to God. You will get tired of the questions by the time you get to the second one, but keep them coming. At the end of your questions say to Him, “Jesus is my Lord, I confess my unbelief, and I trust You.”

Trust, confession of sin, and following Christ in obedience — sound familiar? These are the staples of the spiritual life. When you get under the surface, these are the things that are important for everyone. You will find that they work.

If these seem superficial, then you are numb to the secrets of the universe and you need to go back to listening. Don’t trust what your emotions are saying on this one. These may be simple, but they are not simplistic. They are the foundations for life itself. They are the primary ways we respond to God. (Journal of Biblical Counseling, Vol. 18, No. 2, Winter 2000, p. 44)
Yes, the ultimate answer for dealing with depression is to trust the Lord. It really is that simple … and that hard! That is why we cannot do it without the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. Thank God, then, that His Spirit really is present in each and every believer to give us the faith we need to face any and every trial, even the terrible trial of depression.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dr. Bob Gonzales on the Validity and Value of Confessions

To continue the theme begun by Jeff Johnson regarding the importance and necessity of confessions (here and here), I would like to bring to your attention some articles by Bob Gonzales at his new blog, It Is Written, where he has been writing a series of posts on the validity and value of confessions. There are three:

1) The Validity & Value of Confessions: Defining Terms

Bob reworks Philip Schaff’s definition of a creed and offers this modified definition:
A creed or a confession of faith is the church’s doctrinal standard in written form, identifying and expounding those doctrines of Scripture that are essential for salvation, as well as those doctrines of Scripture that are necessary for the spiritual well-being of the Christian and of the church.
Sounds good to me!

2) The Validity & Value of Confessions: Biblical Basis

After stressing the importance of our publicly confessing our faith, based upon such passages as Matt. 10:32-33 and Romans 10:9-10, Bob states:
How does this square with the claim that faith and religion are personal and private matters? Many people today, especially politicians, claim to have faith and religion; yet they studiously avoid any public affirmation of what that means. Contrary to this practice, the Bible calls God’s people to confess their faith unashamedly and publicly. This is precisely what we do by publishing and affirming a written confession of faith. We are proclaiming to the world and to one another both the reality and the substance of what we believe.
Bob establishes three points summarized by him thusly:
To summarize, a confession of faith is valid because (1) the Bible commands the public affirmation of our faith, (2) the Bible commends the interpretation and application of Scripture, and (3) the Bible contains seminal creeds and confessions of faith. Far from discouraging creeds, the Bible validates their composition and use.
These points are based firmly upon a Scriptural foundation and are clearly and succinctly argued.

3) The Validity & Value of Confessions: Objections Answered

In this post Bob responds to three common objections to the use of creeds or confessions: 1. "Confessions undermine the authority of Scripture." 2. "Confessions contradict the sufficiency of Scripture." 3. "Confessions intrude upon liberty of conscience."

After responding to each objection, Bob rightly concludes that "a public confession of biblical truth in the form of a creed need not in principle undermine the authority of God’s Word, contradict the sufficiency of Scripture, or infringe upon liberty of conscience."

I highly recommend reading this brief but thorough series, and I hope I have whet your appetite to do so. Together with what Jeff has written on our blog, I think you will be well prepared to defend the necessity of the appropriate use of confessions by the churches even in – or perhaps especially in – our pluralistic and relativistic age.

Update 05 October 2011

Bob has added another post in the series:

4) The Validity & Value of Confessions: Their Usefulness

In this post Bob offers three primary reasons for the usefulness of confessions: 1. "A Confession Provides a Standard for Intra- and Inter-Church Fellowship." 2. "A Confession Provides a Standard for Church Discipline and for Defending the Faith." 3. "A Confession Provides a Summary of Biblical Doctrine for Evangelism and Education."

Friday, September 16, 2011

Countering Anti-confessionalism – Part 2

Part 1, which dealt with the nature of mysticism and its introduction into Christianity, was posted last week here. This post concludes the two part series.

The Introduction of Existentialism into Christianity

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the Father of Modern Liberal Theology, sought to reconcile postmodernism (the ineffable nature of ultimate reality) with Christianity. Schleiermacher reasoned that if knowledge of ultimate reality (God) is locked behind a transcendental wall, then the Bible could not have had a divine or supernatural origin. Consequently, Schleiermacher denied the supernatural elements of the Scriptures. Once he removed the inspiration of Scripture, Schleiermacher did away with the miracles as well. According to Schleiermacher, because the Bible is uninspired, it is fallible. In the process, Schleiermacher became one of the major contributors of Higher Criticism, which flowed out of Germany in his day.

The Higher Criticism of Schleiermacher greatly influenced the Lutheran Church throughout Europe to such a degree that Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was outraged at the spiritual lifelessness of the Danish National Church. Danish citizens were Lutherans by birth, and thus they saw no need for a personal and subjective knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. But Kierkegaard knew that Christianity was to be more than just a name; it was to be a relationship. It was not the objective facts that were important, but the subjective reality. Objectively it may be impossible to prove Christianity, but, even if it could be proven, this would not establish a subjective relationship with the Lord. According to Kierkegaard, what was important was the new birth. People needed to experience Jesus Christ experientially. How would this existential experience come? By faith, he determined. According to Kierkegaard, faith transcends reason and sense perception and provides an existential experience for the believer. Kierkegaard adopted the confession of Tertullian, “credo quia absurdum” (I believe because it is absurd). In this creed, Kierkegaard meant that the gospel message is neither rational nor supported by empiricism, yet faith does not need a reason or proof to believe. Faith is its own proof. In fact, according to Kierkegaard, this is the very nature of faith – a leap into the darkness. Faith leaps the believer over the transcendental wall, which separates finite man from the true knowledge of God.

Karl Barth (1886-1968) also reacted against the liberal theology of Schleiermacher, but sadly accepted the claims of Higher Criticism in his Neo-Orthodoxy. Barth, along with Brunner, Bultmann and Tillich, sought to save Christianity from the theology of liberalism while accepting the foundation of liberalism – Higher Criticism. The solution, according to these German theologians, was found in the philosophical writings of Kierkegaard – existentialism. Existentialism allows spiritual truth to be ascertained independently of an infallible book.

According to Barth, God's revelation is His Word and His Word is not the Bible, but the person of Jesus Christ. To understand God's revelation is to understand the Lord Jesus. Without an experiential knowledge of Jesus, there is no real apprehension of the revelation of God.

What about the Bible? Emil Brunner (1889-1966) claimed that just as a record has all kinds of noises and static along with the sound of a voice, the Bible has all kinds of sounds (errors) along with the voice of God. That is, the Bible contains God's Word, but is not God's Word. The key is to listen to the voice of the Lord and not to the static.

Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) was even more consistent with his postmodern form of Christianity. He agreed with Barth and Brunner that the main concern in Christianity is faith in Christ, yet belief in the historical Jesus was optional. In his demythology Bultmann sought to remove the apparent myths from within pages of Scriptures. It is the spiritual truth behind the story that matters, not the historicity of the story. The story of the resurrection, for instance, is not a historical fact as much as it is a symbolic story capturing the new life and hope believers have in Christ.

If the Bible is a fallible book that contains the voice of the Lord, how is the reader able to discern the voice of the Lord from all the errors and myths? According to Paul Tillich (1886–1965), truth is ascertained through a dialectic hermeneutic (a three tier method of interpretation). Like Hegel’s dialectics of thesis, antithesis and then synthesis, Tillich claimed that spiritual truth is discovered through the Bible, culture and church history. Throughout church history, doctrine has been formed, shaped and reshaped by various cultural concerns and controversies, and as new cultural concerns and controversies arise, new conclusions will be drawn. And since history is not fixed, doctrine will always be fluid and changing.

The Emergent Church

Brian McLaren (1956-current), one of the more prominent leaders in the Emergent Church, has adopted this postmodern view of Biblical interpretation and has consequently brought postmodernism, existentialism and neo-orthodoxy to their natural conclusion – a Christianity with no absolutes that embraces all religious faiths, a type of pluralism.

McLaren argues in his book, A New Kind of Christian, that the problem with traditional Christianity is its antithetical view of truth – where truth is viewed as existing as a point on a horizontal line. This method of interpretation, McLaren claims, divides Christians (Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Arminians, etc…). For instance, Catholics argue that their interpretation is right on justification, while Protestants claim the same. According to McLaren, the problem with one side being right and the other side being wrong is that it is impossible for either side to have an infallible interpretation of Scripture. The reason both interpretations are fallible is that every interpretation is bound to the limitations of culture, history and language. Man can never rise above his own finiteness and limitations. According to McLaren, since no single interpretation (Catholic, Protestant, Calvinist, Arminian, etc…) is infallible, none can be authoritative. The only authoritative position is God’s position.

But, does not the Bible reveal God’s position? According to McLaren, not necessarily; but even if it did, finite man would still be unable to discern it. Absolute truth is stuck behind a transcendental wall that even those who read the Bible are unable to scale.

If authority always remains behind an impregnable wall, what use is the Bible? According to McLaren, the Bible was never meant to communicate absolute truth, but it does provide a reference point to help steer believers in the right direction. Rather than faith being like a building – having a single reference point or a single foundation, faith has multiple anchor points like a spider-web. The Bible (at least an interpretation of the Bible), church history, culture and spiritual experience all influence a person’s faith. Since there are multiple and even conflicting anchor points, truth will always remain relative.

Furthermore, according to McLaren, doctrinal absolutes are not even important. “I believe people are saved not by objective truth, but by Jesus. Their faith isn’t in their knowledge, but in God."[1] Relativism opens the doors to all types of religious beliefs, doors which McLaren is not afraid to open. In his book, A Generous Orthodoxy, McLaren asserts:
I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu or Jewish contexts … rather than resolving the paradox via pronouncements on the eternal destiny of people more convinced by or loyal to other religions than ours, we simply move on … To help Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and everyone else experience life to the full in the way of Jesus (while learning it better myself), I would gladly become one of them (whoever they are), to whatever degree I can, to embrace them, to join them, to enter into their world without judgment but with saving love as mine has been entered by the Lord.[2]
In An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, Barry Taylor confirms McLaren’s position: “We live in a post-Nietzschean world of faith and spirituality. Nietzsche’s declaration that God is dead still holds true, since interest in all things spiritual does not necessarily translate to a belief in a metaphysical God or the tenets and dogmas of a particular faith.”[3]

The Influence of Mysticism

The Emergent Church is nothing more than a form of mysticism and existentialism – an attempt to find meaning without absolutes. To think that the rest of Christianity has remained uninfluenced by postmodernism and existentialism is naïve. Churches across the globe have turned away from experience rooted in doctrine to experience rooted in mysticism. Sermons have shifted away from theology (how to know and love God) to motivational speeches (how to have your best life now). When theological terms are used, they remain vague and subject to diverse interpretations. Music has taken priority over preaching. The rich and doctrinal lyrics of the old hymns, which focused upon the work of Christ, have been replaced with a few superficial and repetitious words that focus upon the emotions of the worshiper. Contemporary worship has turned into individuals marinating in their own affections and love towards a vague God, rather than the church corporately praising the God of the Bible for His love as manifested in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The reason mysticism is so popular in churches is not necessarily because it offers meaning and hope in a postmodern climate of meaninglessness and despair, but because it is able to make unspiritual people feel spiritual. These mystical experiences are real for the worshiper and are easily created by the worship team. Dim the lights, get people excited by the beat and rhythm of the music, throw in a few religious terms, turn the focus to the emotions of the worshiper, and then presto – people feel spiritual. Another reason mysticism is effective is because man is religious by nature and has an innate desire to worship. Create the right atmosphere and then give Pagans an idol or give Americans a cool Jesus, and they will worship. To see this superficial worship, all you have to do is follow your unconverted friends to church and watch them raise their hands as they lose themselves in the “act of worship.” This is not to say that the true Christian in the same aisle is not worshiping the real Lord Jesus. But his neighbor’s false worship can be created simply by manipulating the atmosphere. Hold back theology and give people emotionalism, and people will enjoy a mystical experience that feels spiritual.

The Corrective to Mysticism

Of course, there are some parallels between mystical theology and biblical Christianity. A saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ includes more than a cognitive understanding of the biblical truth declarations (James 2:19). By faith, people experience a personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus (Eph 3:14-19). This saving knowledge brings about inexpressible love, joy and peace. In addition, this experiential knowledge of Christ Jesus comes only by spiritual illumination. Thus, a personal knowledge of the Lord is incommunicable – for it impossible to share our experiential knowledge of Christ Jesus with others.

With this said, biblical Christianity is not mysticism or even a form of mysticism. The fundamental difference is that saving faith and an experiential knowledge of Christ Jesus do not come from an existential experience that transcends cognitive and rational thought. There is no leap of faith into the darkness, but rather a leap of faith into the light of God’s Word. Saving faith comes only by hearing and hearing comes only by the articulated Word of God being clearly proclaimed (Rom 10:17). To know Christ initially, and to grow in the knowledge of the Lord, requires knowledge of the Scriptures (John 17:17). Doctrine, even deep doctrine, is vital to the Christian life (2 Th 2:13). Therefore, if the church really wants to help aid people in worship and spiritual growth, then they will place the focus upon God’s written Word.

The error of mysticism and existentialism is that they are founded upon the false presupposition that God is ineffable (unknowable). Yes, we are bound to our own finiteness, but this does not rule out the possibility of divine communication between God and man. First, man has been created in the image of God, which provides common ground between an infinite God and finite man. Because of this common ground, not only is man able to communicate with God, God is able to communicate with man. Second, God has communicated to man in natural and special revelation (Ps 19:1-6). Therefore, God is not unknowable.

Furthermore, divine revelation is universally understandable, leaving all without excuse (Rom 1:20). What about the noetic effects of the fall (the results of depravity upon the mind)? Does not Scripture say that the natural man is unable to discern spiritual truth (1 Cor 2:14)? Yes, fallen man has been alienated from the life of God and has no personal knowledge of Him. Consequently, due to the depravity of his heart, man will remain incapable and unwilling to place his faith and confidence in God. But this does not mean that fallen man cannot rationally understand the truth-claims of Scriptures. The Bible is neither irrational nor contrary to sense perception. In fact, the biblical worldview is the only worldview that makes sense of reality as perceived by the empirical senses. Further, it is the only worldview that is rationally consistent with itself. The problem with fallen man is not a lack of evidence or a lack of understanding of the truth, but a lack of appreciation and love for the truth. The light has come into the world, and the Bible says that man loved darkness rather than the light (John 3:19). The problem with man’s thinking lies in his lack of submission, not in a lack of proof. Man loves himself. Man loves his perceived notion of autonomy. Man loves his sin. Therefore, man would rather believe a lie or accept an inconsistent worldview, than to submit to a holy God (2 Th 2:10-11). Man is bound to his depraved heart. This unsubmissiveness is the problem, which is why the Lord said that even if a person were raised from the dead it would not convince a sinner to repent (Luke 16:31). The point is that divine revelation is effective in communicating truth to fallen man even if he does not accept it. Man’s knowledge of and rejection of the truth will be the very thing that condemns him in the Day of Judgment.

A Case for Confessions

The remedy for mysticism is not to eliminate emotions and experiences from the Christian faith. This would lead to dead orthodoxy indeed. Emotions are vital to the Christian faith, and there is no salvation without an experiential knowledge of Christ. The answer is to make sure that our experiences and emotions are rooted in biblical truth. This is because God has chosen to change the heart by the truth. Perhaps if there were ever a time when the church needed to stand strong upon the truth, especially the gospel, it is now. The church needs to know what she believes and be ready to confess and defend her faith before the world.

In conclusion, even though everything in the universe is in flux, God is constant, for the great I AM never changes. God is the ultimate reference point, and the absolute and unchanging God has broken through the transcendental wall that separates the infinite from the finite and has clearly spoken to us in His Word. Being made in the likeness of God, we are proper recipients of this communication. Yet because of the fall, we are also capable of misreading it as well. Because the Bible can be both understood and misunderstood, truth is not relative as McLaren supposes. Rather, truth and error are antithetical, and an interpretation of Scripture is either right or wrong. Either people understand the intended meaning of Scripture correctly or they don't.

Because truth is knowable and absolute, confessions of faith are all the more important. If it was impossible to understand the Bible, or if it was impossible to misunderstand, then no confession of faith would be needed. But, seeing that there are both correct and incorrect interpretations, it is essential to know what a church believes in order to compare their confession with the Word of God. Every church member or potential church member has the right to know how the church interprets the Scriptures. It is not sufficient, with all the false teaching floating around, for churches just to say they believe the “Bible” or simply “love Jesus.” That kind of generic confession says little. It is the truth which saves, and it is the truth which sanctifies. It is time for the local church to stop hiding behind vague generalities and undefined religious terms for the sake of unfounded mystical experiences, and it is time to start clearly stating what they believe.



[2] A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 260, 262, 264.

[3] Taylor, Barry, “Converting Christianity” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, edited by Doug Pagitt& Tony Jones (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 165.