INTRODUCTORY NOTE: Family fights are never nice things - and we are having one right now with one of our sister churches. That is sad. But the devil recognises no borders. He does his work in the Church as well as the world, indeed, perhaps especially in the Church and our homes and marriages. Only, may God give us grace to conduct it to our mutual upbuilding and His glory in the end. We have an argument with our brothers and sisters in Australia and it happens to be a very important one. It took up a lot of our time at Synod last year; it was not an easy time, not for our brothers from Australia who were present either. It is about how we understand God speaks to us today. When you think about it, although there are significant differences, this is at the bottom of our differences in the past with the Geremeerde Kerken in Nederland and now also with the Christian Reformed Churches in North America. There are many important issues facing the Church today but if there is one that rises in importance above all others, it is this one: what we think of the Bible and the whole way God speaks to us and leads us and teaches us.
I thought it might be useful to have a look at this question with a series of articles on Chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith; it speaks very little differently than the Belgic on this subject, only more comprehensively. So, to begin where the Confession begins, very generally: Is There Any Guidance in this Confusing World?
Paul Johnson concludes his interesting (and highly critical!)
history of England, The Offshore Islanders, with an Epilogue
in which he states, among other things (some useful, some nonsense)
that "it is the function of liberalism to redress the weakness
of nature by reason. This is what civilisation is about."
He is speaking of political liberalism, not theological liberalism,
although the underlying principle of both is exactly the same
- human reason. For all his intelligence and ability to marshal
the facts of centuries and analyse them (he is a historian whom
it is extremely worthwhile to read), at bottom the poor man is
as blind as Adam and Eve - and all the rest of us without God.
For it is reason that even so many unbelieving modern men and
women have come to see is not enough. Reason has only led us into
all the dead end streets of history in which we again find ourselves
and out of which we don't know the way. Is there no guidance from
someone who maybe knows more than us? God perhaps - whether out
there or within? Or a more ancient race from another planet who
can teach us somehow to avoid the mistakes we seem on the verge
of making - and destroying ourselves? As Christians we believe
there is a God out there and that He has spoken to us, and that
in two ways. First off,
1. GOD SPEAKS TO US THROUGH HIS WORLD
We sometimes sing
This is my Father's world: the birds their carols raise
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker's praise.
This is my Father's world: He shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass; He speaks to me everywhere.
That is a good reflection of Psalm 19:1-6 which tells us that the heavens speak and the skies proclaim that they are made by the God of all the earth, the God who spoke to Israel. In Romans 1 Paul tells us that God's eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen in all the created world so that men have no excuse for not knowing and worshipping Him. And mankind has often known God to some extent in this way, as Paul acknowledged to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17, "As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'"
But not only does God tell us about Himself through His created world in this way, much the same as an artist gives something of himself away in his workmanship, God has also given us a conscience on which He has stamped a sense of right and wrong, something all mankind has always had. Different cultures may have disagreed as to what exactly was right and wrong, but we have always had this sense of ought. There are some things that are right and that ought to be done; equally, there are some things that are wrong and ought not be done.
Many philosophers have recognised this and in doing so they demonstrate the truth of Paul when he says, "When the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them (Romans 2:14f.)."
The world of nature speaks to us. It tells us God has made it. It tells us also, when we are being observant, a great deal about how we ought to live in it. Paul says, "Does not nature itself teach us that a man ought not have long hair?" How long is long and how nature teaches us that, we'll leave for now, but somehow nature does teach us that. So also, homosexuality is said to be "against nature". In other words, if we would only read the human body(ies!), we would see that man and man, woman and woman, simply don't fit. They don't connect! Then there is an intriguing paragraph in Isaiah 28 in which the prophet says, "When a farmer ploughs for planting, does he plough continually? Does he keep on breaking up and harrowing the soil? When he has levelled the surface, does he not sow caraway and scatter cummin? Does he not plant wheat in its place, barley in its plot, and the spelt in its field? His God instructs him and teaches him the right way." So also when it comes to harvesting and threshing; "Grain must be ground to make bread; so one does not go on threshing it forever, ... All this also comes from the Lord Almighty."
When Adam first saw Eve, he saw that she came from him and perfectly complemented him, so he said, "A man shall leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife and they shall be one flesh."
Not only does the world of nature and conscience speak to us, the life of mankind and history do the same. The whole Old Testament understanding of prophecy is that history also is intended to teach us. In fact, what we call the historical books (the books of Samuel, Kings, etc) of the Old Testament the Jews call prophecy - preaching, we might say. We also as individuals are to learn from the lives of others. "Wisdom calls aloud outside; she raises her voice in the open squares; you simple ones, see what happens in life when people do stupid things; learn from their negative example (Proverbs 1:20, loosely paraphrased)."
In the natural world, through conscience, in history, and in everyday
life, God is speaking to us, instructing us about Himself and,
to a large extent, how we should live. But nature and history
can only teach us so much. So even before Adam and Eve sinned,
God spoke to them face to face, directly. This is the second way
in which God speaks to us.
2. GOD SPEAKS TO US IN WORDS
Without God saying a word, just from looking at this beautiful world, we ought to have known we should be thankful for all God's good gifts. We ought to have bowed down and worshipped Him (Romans 1). But God had more for us and this more we could never have known unless God had opened His mouth, as it were, and spoken in words. The animals, along with the inanimate creation, glorify and praise God, but He wanted that and more, thankfulness, to come from us consciously and voluntarily. God made man above the other creatures; He made us unable to live by bread alone. He made us to live also, and rely, on every word that comes from His mouth (Deuteronomy 8:3). Mankind was made for friendship with God and friendship requires communication. But God desires even more - He desires our love and love requires not only communication, but also loyalty. Do we not all want to know, "How much do you love me?" So in marriage, true love trusts one's spouse even in the face of possible contrary evidence. Love thinks no evil. For this reason, even before sin ever entered the world, to give us opportunity to show unquestioning loyalty, God gave a command for which He gave no reason; "don't eat the fruit of that one tree."
For all this, for fellowship and love, to provide the soil for loyalty to grow and blossom, God had to speak to us verbally. For this, speaking to us indirectly through nature was not enough. But unquestioning loyalty was what we did not show; we failed, we sinned and after sin the natural world has been disturbed, so it now has to give a mixed message. On the one hand, it speaks to us still of God's goodness by giving us rain from heaven and crops in their seasons and filling our hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14). On the other hand, it has also to speak to us of God's judgement. So that fruitfulness only comes by hard work, battling the elements and with thorns and thistles and everything else that goes wrong in the world.
But God has never forgotten why He spoke to us verbally in the first place. Adam and Eve might flee from Him, but God pursues. "Adam, where art thou?" He still desires to walk with man, as with Enoch; to have man as a friend, like Abraham; to have a man after his own heart, as was David. But of course, those men were those things only very imperfectly. It was only Christ who came and truly did God's will and in whose heart the law truly lived (Psalm 40). And we only truly walk with God, are God's friends, and have the law living in our hearts when we are in Christ.
So when sin entered the world, God carried on talking with us. Only now it was not as a lover to the beloved; it was as a jilted lover wooing his loved one back again, like Hosea his adulterous wife. Since the Fall, then, God continued to speak to mankind verbally, or at least 'specially' (including via dreams, visions and interpretations), in ways he never could just through the creation and history. But because of the Fall, He had to speak to us of the message of salvation. And all of this is what the Westminster Confession speaks about in its first Chapter;
Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare His will unto His Church. (Cf. the Belgic Confession, Art.2).
But there came a time when God had said all he had to say to us. There came a time when God had given us His complete message of salvation. Not that there is not a great deal more that God could still teach us - that, of course, is infinite. But there did come a time when He had told us all we need to know to be saved and to live to His honour and glory in this life. And that time came when He had also done all that needed to be done for us to be saved.
It is especially Hebrews that speaks about that. Moses is the
great OT saviour. If you like, he is the Messiah of the OT. He
was a prophet, priest and king (never crowned, but he certainly
ruled). The whole point of the book of Hebrews is to show that
Jesus is greater in every respect. He is the ultimate prophet,
priest and king. Thus Hebrews begins; "God, who at different
times and in different ways spoke to the fathers by the prophets,
has in these last days, spoken to us in His Son." There is
no other era of history to come. Time since Christ is the last
days and Jesus has brought the whole revelation of God for the
last days. But how would that revelation given by Jesus and His
apostles be preserved accurately for this whole age? We will look
at that next month.
Rev. J. Rogers (North Shore).
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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / email@example.com / revised December 96 / Copyright 1996