The Sacrifice of God

December 16, 2009

Yesterday we saw the great things faith can do when we considered how Abraham was able to trust God in the face of His command to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. His faith in God’s promises kept him calm and submissive throughout the test. But what in the world was God thinking in asking for a human sacrifice? Doesn’t He detest such things? Why did Abraham believe that God would ask such a thing of him?

One evangelical commentator asserts that this “command is in some ways repulsive and contrary to the nature of the one making the request.” He asks, “Why could God have not simply said, ‘Human sacrifice is repulsive to me?”

That got me thinking. Is human sacrifice repulsive to God? Is it contrary to His nature?

God set death as the penalty for sin. If you sin, even once, you lose your life. But God also appointed a way for the condemned to be delivered from death. He appointed sacrifices. It works this way. In a sacrifice one innocent creature exchanges its life so that one who is guilty and condemned can live. God appointed various animals to be used for this purpose. But Hebrews10:3-4 makes it clear that the life of an animal cannot atone for even one sin committed by a human being. “But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

If an animal’s life cannot be exchanged for a human being’s then how can the condemned be delivered? If there is to be atonement, an innocent PERSON must give his life in exchange for the condemned PERSON’S life. But that truth raises certain dilemmas. We need to find a person who is not himself condemned; a person innocent of ever breaking any of God’s laws. If we did find such a person AND he was willing to take our place, could he substitute himself for more than one person? One for one would be the standard of justice. What about everyone else?

In the end God did not ask Abraham to sacrifice his son. Isaac was neither sinlessly innocent nor sufficient to atone for anyone’s sin. But God showed His love for the world in giving His own Son as the sacrifice. Christ never disobeyed his Father and being God, as well as man, He is of such superlative worth that His death is a sufficient atonement for the sins of all His people.

Human sacrifice is not repulsive to God. It is the only way for God to satisfy His justice and yet show mercy. It is the perfect expression of His nature. If any of us hope to be delivered from condemnation in Hell, it will be because we offered Jesus Christ to God as our substitute. This is the sacrifice of God. Any other ‘sacrifice’ will be detested. Why, then, would anyone turn away from trusting in the Lord Jesus?

The Great Things Faith Can Do

December 15, 2009

God sometimes asks us to do things that are incredibly difficult. For years He asked Abraham to trust His promise that he would have a son by his wife, Sarah. Finally, when he was 100 years old, Isaac was born. Finally, Abraham had the promised heir, the one who would inherit all the promises that God had made to him. Then God tells Abraham to “take his son, his only son, the son whom he loved” and sacrifice him as a burnt offering at a place three days journey away.

Preachers and commentators expound upon the agonies that Abraham must have felt upon hearing God’s command. Each detail of the story is brought to bear to heighten his emotional turmoil. To slay your precious son as an offering to God, who could bear such a thing? Yet Abraham overcomes all his feelings and triumphs by faith. How remarkable!

As moving as such expositions are, they miss the most remarkable thing about this account. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the story to suggest that Abraham had such emotional turmoil. He does not protest God’s command. He gets up early the very next morning, makes suitable preparations for the trip and departs immediately. As soon as he sees the mountain he leaves his servants behind and heads to the place. He immediately builds the altar, arranges the wood, binds his son and lifts the knife to take his life. One modern commentator notes that “Abraham appears almost artificial in the subdued, matter-of-fact way that he moves from one step to the next.” Yet, he assures us that “it goes without saying that Abraham is utterly distraught at the prospect of losing his son, Isaac, in this way.”

What must be said is that Abraham is completely calm. He knows the One in whom he has believed and is persuaded that He is able to fulfill that which He has promised. He tells his servants that he and Isaac will return to them. He says this fully believing that Isaac will be slain and burned to ashes. Why? As Hebrews 11:18-19 tells us, he “concluded that God was able to raise him (Isaac) up, even from the dead.” Abraham’s faith reasoned its way to peace. God had promised that in Isaac his seed would be called. God has the right to ask anything He wants of us. God commands the death of Isaac. Therefore, God will have to raise him from the dead in order to keep His promises.

Faith believes God’s promises. It does not doubt when God’s commands or His providence seem to contradict them. Faith rests in God’s wisdom, power and faithfulness. When it does so, it can do great things. It can calm a father’s heart so that he does not feel “utterly distraught.” When we become upset over God’s ways it is because our faith is too small. Rather than complain, strive daily to put all your confidence in Him by rebuking your doubting heart and by meditating on God’s infinite wisdom, power and faithfulness. Then you will see what great things faith can do for you and, in so doing, will glorify your Heavenly Father.

If God were to speak about you what would He say? Would He commend or condemn you? What would He say is your chief and defining characteristic? Would it be that: ‘you have faith in Him’ or ‘you love Him’ or you serve Him’? Any of these would be wonderful things to have God say about us. In the Bible we find God commending people. Consider what He says of Job and of Abraham.

The Book of Job opens with Satan appearing before God and God commending Job to him. “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?” In Genesis 22 Abraham offers Isaac to the Lord as God had commanded him. In response Christ says to him “for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Here are two of the giants of the Bible. The thing that God commends in both of them is that they fear Him.

A century ago, if you were a serious and devout Christian you would have been called a God-fearing person. But today, we rarely hear people called ‘God-fearing.’ We are as likely as not to refer to believers as ‘born again Christians’ or ‘Spirit-filled.’ Changes in the way people speak frequently signals important shifts in how they think.

There has been a tremendous transition in the way Christians think and speak about their faith. In the 19th century you were considered a sincere Christian if your faith had a significant impact on your character and your conduct. To fear God meant to obey Him carefully and consistently. Without it you were not considered to have been truly converted. The 20th century has become much more experience oriented. Jimi Hendrix expressed it quintessentially for young Boomers when he sang, “Are you experienced? I am.” The emergence of the terms, ‘born again,’ and ‘Spirit-filled’ reflect this change. The terms refer to experiences, but not necessarily to the character produced by them. Many people claim to have ‘born again’ experiences which have no connection to Christianity. The term itself can mean nothing more than getting a fresh start. As used by Jesus it pointed to a radical change in character, but current usage does not require such a transformation. Likewise, to be ‘Spirit-filled’ is seen as gaining power to serve Christ more than power to obey Him.

The loss of the older way of speaking reflects the loss of a commitment in the contemporary church to an evangelistic method that aims at a fundamental transformation of the life. We need churches that are committed to preaching and worship that produces the fear of God in his beloved children.

Would God be able to say of you, as He did of Job, ‘Have you considered my servant, a blameless and upright man, one that fears God’ and of Abraham, ‘Now I know that you fear Me’? Does God know that you fear Him? Do you know what it is to fear Him? Caveat lector!

One thing you do not find in Puritan preaching is elaborate stories.   I think this arises from their conception of what a sermon was to do.  Many today teach that a sermon is to drive home a couple of points.  It is designed to make an impact on the hearer while he is listening.   Telling stories keeps people’s attention without overwhelming them with information.

Our Reformed Fathers, on the other hand, saw the sermon as a feast of instruction that would take time to digest.  Its impact would come as hearers remembered and meditated on the sermon during the rest of the Sabbath and throughout the week.  They had a lot to accomplish in an hour’s discourse.  They had to put their text in context; develop the doctrine; answer objections as needed and apply the truth to the consciences of various sorts of hearers they could anticipate might be present at each service.  Some would be strong Christians; others could be converted, but full of doubts or fears; others might be young in the faith and fairly ignorant and still others who were beset with temptations of one sort or another and needed encouragement and direction.  On the other hand, there could be those who professed the faith, but were in fact unconverted; some who were unconverted and did not profess to be anything else.  There were formalists and enthusiasts; the latter looking only on the externals of worship and the latter without any regard for doctrine or ecclesiological structure.  If not in each sermon, then at least in the scope of their ministries, each kind of person needed to be addressed and directed appropriately to Christ.

Their kind of preaching required that their hearers work hard at remembering what they heard.  Around the table after service, the family was taught to gather and ‘repeat’ the sermon.  The head of the household would question each one, adults and children, in order to reconstruct the sermon.  The outline with each point and its supporting Scriptures or illustrations was rehearsed so that everyone was sure to have gotten the message.

But even then the sermon would profit hearers little if the things remembered were not digested.  Meditation is the essential element in bringing the Word home to the heart and life.  Their favorite analogy for it was a cow chewing its cud, that is, having chewed on its food, a cow brings it back up to be chewed some more.  Thus, Puritan preachers counseled their hearers to bring the Word ‘back up’ to chew on it repeatedly so as to get all the benefit they could from it.

One could hardly overemphasize the importance ascribed to meditation for the work of the minister to be effective.  The goal was not simply better comprehension of the truth, nor even persuasion that it was the truth, but rather to apply the Word to one’s own heart and spiritual condition.  By meditation, one stoked the embers of the heart into a glowing flame.  Faith in and love for God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and turning from sin was the intended result of this exercise.   True religion reaches the heart, the affections, not just the mind.

We all know the problem of going to bed with a heart afire for God, only to wake in the morning having to scratch around to find what few embers are left.  Our Reformed fathers instructed their people in the art of meditation so that they could stir up their faith, hope and love in preparation for facing the world, the flesh and the devil.  Caveat lector!

You can find a transcript of my interview on “Feeding on Christ” here.

There are two ways to err in thought, word or deed.  You can go above and beyond what God requires or you can fall short of it.  From classical times the possibility of excess or defect has been an important part of moral philosophy/theology.  The Scriptures express this principle in Deuteronomy 5:32 – ““Therefore you shall be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.” (cf. Deut. 17:20; Joshua 1:7; 23:6)  It is the commendation of young King Josiah that “ he did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the ways of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.”  (II Chronicles 34:2)  Manton’s discussion of what it means to ‘walk undefiled in the way of God’s commandments’ is structured according to excess and defect.

First he counsels his hearers that they “not act short.”  People do so by establishing a different standard than God’s.  There are many “false rules.”

(1)  ‘Good intentions’ is a false rule.  M. uses an argument ad absurdum to prove the point.  Men persecuted the Church and opposed Christ’s Kingdom through good intentions.  John 16:2 – “They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.”  This is to make “a blind conscience” your guide.

(2)  The customs and example of others are a false rule.  M. cites Matthew 7:13 – “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it,” and comments, “The path to hell is most beaten; we are not always to follow the track; they are dead fish which swim down the stream:  we are not to be led away with custom and example, and do as others do.”

(3)  Our own desires and inclinations are not our rule.  M. writes very pointedly, “Oh, how miserable should we be if lust were our law…”   (cf. Jude 16)

(4)  The laws of men are not our rule.  “Men make laws as tailors do garments, to fit the crooked bodies of those they serve, to suit the whims of the people to be governed by these laws.”  He goes on to enunciate a fundamental difference between God’s moral law and the civil laws of nations:  “It is God’s prerogative to give a law to the conscience and the renewed motions of the heart.  Human laws are good to establish converse with man, but too short to establish communion with God.  Since the goal is blessedness, God’s rule must be followed.

Second he counsels his hearers that they ‘may not act over.’  He has in mind “superstitious and apocryphal holiness” which is not only contrary to true holiness, but is destructive of it.  “It is a temporary flesh-pleasing religion which consists in conforming to outward rites and ceremonies and external mortifications, such as is practiced by the Papists and formalists, ‘after the commandments and doctrines of men.’(Colossians 2:23)”   M. writes, “God will not thank them that give more than He requires.”

He concludes by writing, “Excess is monstrous, as well as defect.  Therefore still we must consult with the law and rule, that we may not come short or over.”  His discussion of these matters is very typical of Puritan teaching.  It is a pithy and memorable way to keep alert to the ways Satan seeks to undermine true godliness.  Caveat Lector!  JOB

The WPWD is extremely brief about the art of illustration.  “The illustrations, of what kind soever, ought to be full of light, and such as may convey the truth into the hearer’s heart with spiritual delight.”  Yet given the Puritan’s emphasis on making sermons memorable, it is an important subject.   When something is in the dark it is difficult to delight in it, but when it is brought into the light, then it’s beauty can be seen.  Illustrations are intended to enhance a believer’s perception of the beauty of God’s Word.  Hence the WPWD speaks of ‘conveying the truth into the hearer’s heart with spiritual delight.  The Puritans’ illustrations are rarely more than a sentence or two.  They are of several sorts:

(1)  They love to refer to the experiences of people in the Bible.  The experiences of the godly and ungodly become fodder for illustrating God’s Word.  Of course this required that their hearers know their Bible history well since the preachers did not devote any time in telling the story.  Manton, for instance, refers in one sermon to Balaam as a notable instance of natural conscience.   If you don’t know the story you will miss the point.  For people who lived in their Bibles, what could be more characteristic than that they derive many, if not most of their illustrations from the sacred book!

(2)  Surprisingly, they will refer to stories from classical authors, without drawing them out as a storyteller would.  Frequently they are quoted to illustrate the virtue to which a pagan could attain, which is then contrasted with what a Christian ought to accomplish.  It’s a form of the ‘if they could do this, how much more ought we to do that.’

(3)  Likewise they will utilize the early church fathers.  In speaking of how spiritual delight will help a Christian maintain consistency in his conduct, Manton cites Augustine, who said, “Lord, my chaste delights are your Holy Scriptures.”  In another place, he relates the how a Bishop of Iconium, by the name of Amphilocius, argued before the emperor, Theodosius the Great, against toleration for the Arians.

(4)  They will refer to current events, but often without explicit detail.  Many sermons were preached on fast or thanksgiving days to lament some current disaster or to celebrate some wonderful Providence.

(5)  Very frequently they will draw analogies between nature or human behavior and the truth under consideration.  Manton writes, “Pleasure is the great witch and sorceress that enchants with the love of the world, makes us unmindful of the country from which we came and to which we are going…” or “Painted fire needs no fuel; a dead formal profession is easily kept up…”  or again, “Dig in the mines of knowledge, search into the scripture, do not gather up a few scattered notions, but look into the bowels.  Silver does not lie on the surface of the earth, but deep in the bottom of it and will cost much labor and digging to gain.”

Such illustrations are liberally sprinkled throughout their sermons.  They cast a quick beam of light on a truth before the preacher moves on to his next point.  Later that Lord’s Day or during the week, their hearers could recall the truth illustrated and apply it to themselves.  Caveat Lector!  JOB

One of the central emphases in Manton’s preaching is the doctrine of sincerity.  It is the way the Puritans deal with the requirement of obedience as a way to blessing, especially in the Old Testament.  The first verse of Psalm 119 raises this issue:  “Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.”  M. brings out this concern by impersonating one of his hearers, “At first hearing of these words, a man might reply, ‘O, then none can be blessed if that is the qualification, for who can say, ‘My heart is clean?’ (Proverbs 20:9).” How do the Puritans deal with what we could call, ‘the legal tenor’ of the O.T.?

M. appeals to his understanding of covenant theology for an answer.  He acknowledges that if the requirement is taken ‘strictly’ there can be no blessedness for sinners:  “There is no escaping condemnation and the curse, if God should deal with us according to strict justice and require an absolute undefiledness.”  But Manton points out that Psalm 119:1 is not written as a restatement of the first covenant, that is, the Covenant of Works made with Adam.  Rather, verses like Psalm 119:1 must be understood according to the principles of the Covenant of Grace.  “This undefiledness is to be understood according to the tenor of the second covenant, which does not exclude the mercy of God and the justification of penitent sinners.”  He cites Psalm 130;3-4, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquity, who shall stand?  But there is mercy with thee.”  The Covenant of Grace, in both its O.T., as well as, N.T. administrations, enjoins obedience without forgetting mercy.  Therefore, God forgives the failings that mar our obedience.

What then does God require of Christians?  M. replies, “Well, then, this qualification must be understood, as I said, in the sense of the second covenant.  And what is that?  Sincerity of sanctification.  When a man carefully endeavors to keep his garments unspotted from the world, and to approve himself to God; when this is his constant exercise, ‘to avoid all offense both towards God and man, (Acts 24:16), and is cautious and watchful lest he should be defiled; when he is humbled more for his pollutions; when he is always purging his heart and endeavors, and that with success, to walk in the way of God, here is the undefiledness in a gospel sense.  Psalm 84:11 – ‘The Lord will be a sun and a shield…’ To whom?  ‘…to those that walk uprightly.’  This is possible enough; here is no ground of despair.  This is what will lead us to blessedness, when we are troubled for our failings, and there is a diligent exercise in the purification of our hearts.”

Here we have come to the heart of Puritan spirituality.  They saw the Scriptures teaching a doctrine of sincere obedience as the mark of a true Christian.  While we might easily agree that God requires of his children sincerity, not perfection, would we agree with M. in his definition of sincerity?  Would we agree with M’s confidence that this “is possible enough; here is no ground of despair?”  If so, are we committed to the diligence that is required to make such sincere obedience possible?  It is at this point that the Puritans have always been criticized both, in their own day and today.  They believed that, with proper instruction and application and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, God’s children would shine as lights in this world.  Should we accept anything less for ourselves or for our Savior?   Caveat lector!