Thursday, June 13, 2013

Why Creeds?

Next Sunday we begin an evening sermon series through the Heidelburg Catechism’s discussion of the Apostles Creed. We are praying that this evening series will be a great opportunity for our church to be built up in some of the core truths of the Christian faith, as well as provide a context for evangelism. With so many patently false ideas regarding Christianity floating in our culture, this study of the Creed gives us an easy structure from which we can present the basics of Christianity too many who may never have heard it. Please pray for this study, come yourselves, and invite friends and neighbors. 

However, as we move closer to the summer, I want to address a potential question that many Christians have, perhaps some in our church: Why are we basing a sermon series on a man-made document? Why not preach the Bible? After all, one of the hallmarks of reformation theology was “Scripture Alone.” Why do we need creeds and confession if we have the Bible?  These are important questions and deserve a good answer. 

Everyone has a Creed

The first point to make is that everyone has a creed. A creed (from Latin meaning “I believe”) is simply a concise summary of Biblical truth, and all of us summarize what we believe before we express it. Let me put it this way, if a neighbor asks you, “What do Christians believe?” what will you say? If you only say, “We believe the Bible,” then your neighbor will ask, “But what does the Bible teach?” Unless you are prepared to start reading verse by verse from the Bible beginning at Genesis 1:1 (probably not a good evangelistic strategy), your answer to this question will be a summary of your understanding of the Bible - A creed.  Everyone has a creed because everyone has a way of summarizing what they believe the Bible teaches. So the question is not, “Should we have Creeds?” But “Is the Creed I confess faithful to what Scripture actually teaches?”

The Importance of Creeds 

In the NCPC membership class, Pastor David lists several important purposes the creeds have served the Christian church from the very beginning:

  • Counteract Error

From the very beginning the church has been plagued by teachings contrary to the Scripture. Creeds became an import test for determining whether or not a teaching or group was consistent with the Scripture or not. Think about it this way. If the only requirement for membership in our church was that a person say “I believe the Bible,” would that be sufficient standard for membership? Absolutely not! Why not? Because people with fundamentally different beliefs about what the Bible actually teaches, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, could all affirm such a statement. Clear statements of belief such as Creeds are essential if the church is going to successfully pass on the orthodox faith to the next generation. Creeds also provide a clear standard against which any new truth can be judged.

  • To provide a basis for fellowship

This is the flip side of counteracting error. The Creeds/Confessions provide a concise summary of theological truths that the people of God can affirm together, and which binds them together. There can be no true fellowship that is not based on common truth.

  • As a tool for Christian Education

This is precisely what the Apostles Creed was used for beginning as early as the 2nd century, continuing to the present. Clear summary statements of biblical truth are invaluable tools for teaching children and new converts the content of the Christian faith. Many of our parents at North City use the Children’s Catechism with their young children precisely because it faithfully takes majestic Biblical truth and presents it in a form suitable for children.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Confession and Freedom

May I ask you a personal question?  Are you weighed down by guilt today?  Is there some specific sin hindering your relationship with God and you want nothing more than to be rid of it?  Perhaps you’ve had a long relationship with the Lord Jesus, but you are holding something that needs to be confessed.  There needs to be reconciliation between you and God, perhaps between you and a friend or a loved one as well.

I’d like to take a moment to meditate on the glorious freedom that comes to us when we confess our sin and come clean about how we’ve offended a holy God.  A classic example of such humble confession is found in Jonah 2 where we get to peer into someone’s prayer closet, that place where we get alone with Christ and pour our hearts out to Him.  In Jonah’s case it just happens to be in the belly of a fish in the heart of the sea! If God had not seen fit to put this into the canon of Scripture, I would almost think it inappropriate for us to read this, because it’s so personal. But God has put it here so that we can learn from the experience of Jonah – even from his own sin!   Listen to his words and be encouraged:

Jonah 2:1-4  Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish,  2 saying, "I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.  3 For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.  4 Then I said, 'I am driven away from your sight; Yet I shall look again upon your holy temple.

Jonah knows he is in the depths literally, in the sea, but also because of his sin he is far away from God.  That is what sin is like, even in the temporal experience of the believer.  It is not that the believer is cast away permanently.  No, Jonah even knows this in his hint of hope in verse four: “Yet I shall look again upon your holy temple.”  If you believe in Jesus, the experience of hindered fellowship with God is painful and dark, but God’s heavy hand upon you is never anger.  Rather it is the loving discipline of a Father who is calling you back to Him in humble repentance.  God will not let you go! 

Now look at Jonah’s clear words of repentance:

Jonah 2:7-9  7 When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.  8 Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.  9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!"

Jonah remembers the Lord!  It is not that he has forgotten Him altogether, but then again this is exactly what the irrationality of sin does to us:  we forget God!  His holiness, His mercy, His faithfulness and goodness are forgotten so we can engage in our sin.  But God graciously sent the trial of the fish into Jonah’s life to arrest his conscience and bring him back as a loving shepherd.  Is God perhaps pursuing you in some way too, not letting you go headlong into hard-heartedness?  In the end, Jonah recognizes that he has been guilty of idolatry (v. 8).  But now he turns back in thankful worship, (“But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you,” v.9) and obedience (“What I have vowed I will pay.” v.9).  The joyful conclusion, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” is a powerful sign that Jonah is again right with God.   

Now read the words of the 17th-18th century pastor Matthew Henry, who sums up the power of confession:

“It is very difficult to bring sinful man humbly to accept free mercy, with a full confession of his sins and self-condemnation. But the true and only way to peace of conscience, is, to confess our sins that they may be forgiven; to declare them that we may be justified. Although repentance and confession do not merit the pardon of transgression, they are needful to the real enjoyment of forgiving mercy. And what tongue can tell the happiness of that hour, when the soul, oppressed by sin, is enabled freely to pour forth its sorrows before God, and to take hold of His covenanted mercy in Christ Jesus! Those that would speed in prayer must seek the Lord, when, by His providence, He calls them to seek Him, and, by His Spirit, stirs them up to seek Him.  In a time of finding, when the heart is softened with grief, and burdened with guilt; when all human refuge fails; when no rest can be found to the troubled mind, then it is that God applies the healing balm by His Spirit.”                       

It doesn’t matter how far you think you’ve strayed; if God can hear the prayer of Jonah from the depths of the ocean in the belly of a fish, He can hear you now.  Jonah’s prayer of repentance shows us how far down the spiral of sin we can go, but never out of the reach of our Savior.  Jonah was given grace and freedom when he trusted God and repented of his sin; you can receive the same, whether you come for the first time, or you are a saint of many years.  Don’t delay!  Go to God in humble repentance and you will find freedom.

In His grace,
Pastor David

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Hope, Forgiveness and Knowing: Gospel Remedies for Pain, Fear and Anger

“I am afraid!” he said. “I am afraid that all that is in store is more pain, and I have experienced so much pain in my life. I just don’t think I can take it anymore.” He said with fear and anger in his voice. “I just don’t see how anyone, let alone God could love me. Not after what I have been through.” He felt the pain of being separated from humanity and God. He could not ignore it, and he was angry with God.

How do we connect someone like this with the larger story of God’s redemption? What overcomes pain, fear and anger? Hope, Forgiveness and Knowing. 

Pain and Hope

We have all heard the expression, “Hope springs eternal!” We hope that tomorrow will be better than today; that the pain will go away. The problem is the hope that we often look for is based in the temporal, physical nature of life.

We want God to bless us with riches, a good job, a family without problems and the list goes on. But when things don’t go our way we look at our circumstances and cry out, “God, where are you?”

In the face of this the apostle Paul says:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us… For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:18-27).

Paul’s instruction is two-fold; First, when you are experiencing pain and suffering look to the hope of the new creation, when all wrongs will be made right. Look to the time we will be remade. “But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (I John 3:2b) This hope is the eternal bedrock we stand upon in the storm.

Second, remember the Holy Spirit is with you. Hope comes with knowing that when we cannot utter a word, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” We are not alone!

Fear and Forgiveness

Often when we are in a difficult situation we feel separated and fear God. We listen to the lie that says, God is all-powerful and could stop my suffering but he chooses not to and is untrustworthy and to be feared. He is a tyrant.

There are typically two ways that people react to this. They run and rebel against God shaking their fists in hatred of him. Or they cower, living their lives constantly wondering if they are good enough to appease the angry giant.

For the believer Paul answers:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).

And again,

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?... For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:31–39)

Nothing can separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus because as Isaiah 49:16a says, “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…”

Anger and Knowing

Many times when we suffer our initial response is to lash out in anger, especially when we feel that our suffering is glossed over.

In response to this Paul tells us that God sent “his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh…” The prophet Isaiah said of Christ, “Just as there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his for marred beyond human likeness… He was despised and rejected by man, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering… Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities… He was oppressed and afflicted” (Isaiah 52-53; NIV). He entered our suffering.

The Puritan David Clarkson said this,
He knows all of our infirmities. None of them are so small that does not take notice. We may feel our afflictions are more than we can number, but he counts them exactly. He does not only know them notionally, but experimentally. He has himself been exercised with them. He knows their weight and how they smart, for he felt them. He knows by experience what it is to be in need to have nothing upon which to ride, and no where to lay his head. He knows what it is to be in pain, and to be despised, abused, reproached and hated. He knows the sorrows of life and the pangs of death by his own experience… He knows what it is to be deserted by his friends and to be forsaken of God. He became like us in all these things… He not only has suffered what others feel, but suffers with them in what they feel.[1]

He was tortured and killed to purchase us. He suffered physical and mental anguish so that we might know the peace that comes from forgiveness.

[1] David Clarkson, Works, 111:81–85