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............."Oh, the gallant fisher's life, It is the best of any 'Tis full of pleasure, void of strife, And 'tis beloved of many." ..........[Piscator's Song, "The Compleat Angler" by Izaak Walton] "The fishers also shall mourn,and all they that cast angle into the brooks shall lament, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish." [Isaiah XIX:8]

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Blessing from God

What follows is a revision and update of an article that appeared in the June-July 1985 issue of Priorities (Vol. 2 No. 5, pp. 1ff.), the newsletter of the then-existent Protestants for Life in Pittsburgh. The original occasion was the birth of the author’s and his wife’s fourth child in January 1985. Now there is more good news.

"Behold, children are a gift of the Lord;
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them;
They shall not be ashamed,
When they speak with their enemies in the gate" (Psalm 127:3-5).

Do we believe these words of Psalm 127? Do we really see children as a blessing from the Lord? Or have we been deceived by the spirit of this age which counts any form of responsibility, including the rearing of children, as part of the curse? After all, was not the apostle Paul culture-bound when he wrote, “But women shall be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint” (I Tim. 2:15)?

On January 18, 1985, we had a “blessed event” in our household in which we received our fourth child from the Lord. Rachel was (and still is to us) a special child in that she was born with spina bifida and, as we were to discover later, hypothyroidism. These two conditions resulted in serious leg deformities and renal complications, as well as an initial growth deficiency. Considering the severity of the problems, Rachel has done very well, for which we are very grateful. Enduring a multi-year process of surgery, leg-casting, medication, and rehabilitation, Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh became our homes away from home. Learning to walk with the assistance of braces and a child’s walker eventually gave way to splints and crutches and the continuing use of a wheel chair.

Prior to Rachel’s conception we had contemplated the thoughts of Psalm 127 quoted above. “Surely children are a gift.” And we casually pondered the prospects of having a fourth child, to make an even number, two boys and two girls. After all, we thought together, “Christians need not be ashamed of large families.” But no sooner had we discovered that a child was on the way, that we began to think, “Oh no, another mouth to feed, more diapers and just when we were about to get on with our lives. What would people think? What would they say? Perhaps these might be called “normal’ thoughts, but does this kind of thinking not express some doubt of God’s Word on the matter? Little did we know at the time how much further our faith would be tested.

Little by little, we got used to the idea of a new baby coming, and the pregnancy went quite routinely. Regular checkups made us think all seemed well—until the eighth month. At that point the doctors became concerned that perhaps the calculated due date was wrong for our child seemed unexpectedly small. A sonogram was ordered, which was not all routine in those days. The doctor’s comments stunned us when we were informed that there appeared to be a “deformity on the spine,” which might be only a cyst of no real consequence or perhaps it was an indication of spina bifida with the possibility of severe physical and mental handicaps.

Suddenly, all those “normal” doubts and fears, questioning God’s word on the matter, which we had experienced earlier, now burst forth with a passion. “Why would God allow this to happen!” Here we were, Bible-believing Christians who would never have an abortion, harboring angry thoughts toward one another and toward God.

In the days that followed her birth, we were astounded how much our contentment rested upon Rachel’s “quality of life” reports. We were quite anxious whether the initial thyroid deficiency would cause developmental problems for her. What would life look like, dealing with severe physical handicaps? The very things we ‘pro-lifers’ would reject as unacceptable, illegitimate reasons for justifying abortions (concerns about brain power, muscular control, appearance) were the things that caused our hopes to rise and fall. Suddenly, we were confronted with the challenge of the potential difficulties that lay ahead, and the arguments were not abstractions. Through it all, we came more and more to understand the Lord’s providential hand of discipline upon us. We were being called to love our child, and made more and more to understand that we needed God’s help to love as we ought to love. The Lord was making more and more clear that true godly love must not be a respecter of persons, but we must love another simply because that person is precious and created “in the image of God.” What was being exposed, however, in our culture and in our own hearts was that we tend to love only insofar as it does not interfere with our comfort, our freedom, or our autonomy to live as we want.

Not that we accept spina bifida and sin and death as normal—they are not. As the Scriptures teach, sickness and death are in the world because of sin’s entrance into the world. As such they ought to make us all the more to desire life and the restoration and perfections of heaven and of resurrection life in Christ. Meanwhile, in the world, we are being called to love one another and to bear with one another’s infirmities, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. We are reminded that Christ loved us, and gave Himself for us sinners when we were still weak and helpless, and He commands us to love others in the same way.

Several persons attempted to comfort us in those days after Rachel’s birth by suggesting to us that God gives special-needs children to special parents. We are convinced that that is not so. Instead, we are persuaded that such children are a gift of the Lord to us.

God is good. More than twenty-four years have now passed. Yesterday was a special day for my wife and me as our son-in-law called from Chattanooga to inform us that his wife, our Rachel, had given birth to their first child. As we think back we are amazed. Now we see that grandchildren, too, are a gift of the Lord, for which we give thanks. We invite you to rejoice with us.

R. Daniel Knox
Ambridge, PA
April 17, 2009

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Guide to Fishers of Men

I just caught on cable a few minutes of the Outdoor Channel program "Adventure Guides:Fishing Edition." The host is John Dietsch, the expert who taught Brad Pitt a bit of of fly fishing and then doubled for Pitt in the climactic fishing scene in "A River Runs Through It." Tonight's episode focused on fly fishing guides, who for a fee take their clients on the prime trout rivers of Colorado, teaching them to become fly fishers.

On this good Friday, I would rather speak of The Guide to Fishers of Men, Himself the Chief of Fishers, who said, "Come, follow Me; and I will make you fishers of men."

Is Jesus God? Are those who deny Christ's deity really Christians and should we fellowship with them in the church? Such questions were posed to me recently by an honest inquirer.

Here's my answer:

Your questions immediately bring to mind the book Christianity and Liberalism written by J. Gresham Machen in 1923.

As you may know, Machen was a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1915-1929 and at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia from 1929-1937. He witnessed firsthand the effects of liberalism and a lack of church discipline that impacted the Presbyterian Church in the USA in those days. One of the issues that particularly drew his attention was the fact that the PCUSA was sending out missionaries who did not affirm the essential tenets of the Christian faith, like the deity of Christ.

In Christianity and Liberalism, as the title itself suggests, Machen argued that Christianity and liberalism were in fact different religions. As you suggest, Christianity without the Christ who is the eternal Son of the Father, the great "I am" who existed before Abraham, the Word of God by whom and through whom all things were created and who became flesh in the fullness of time, is simply a contradiction in terms.

Machen’s stand against liberalism eventually led to a separation and to the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936. Machen and others refused to accommodate themselves to those who denied Christ. Machen himself was defrocked by the PCUSA for his refusal to support the liberal agenda, but his courage and willingness to suffer loss for the sake of Christ has been an encouragement to many others to stand faithfully for Christ. The OPC has understood her calling to “to go to (Jesus) outside the camp and bear the reproach He endured” (Hebrews 13:13).

True Christianity affirms Jesus as the King of kings, the Lord of lords, who was and is and ever more shall be and to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given. He the Lord's Anointed, the Prophet, Priest, and King to whom the whole of Scripture points. He is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. He has returned to the glory that He had with the Father before the world began. He powerfully and effectively loved the Church and gave Himself up for her that she might be saved and share in His glory. He has been raised in resurrection body to ascend to heaven at the right hand of the Father.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s official statement of faith, speaks to your question regarding the deity of Christ in chapter IX, “Of Christ the Mediator,” especially in sections 2 and 3 which read as follows:

2. The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man's nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.
3. The Lord Jesus, in his human nature thus united to the divine, was sanctified, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, above measure, having in him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; in whom it pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell; to the end that, being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace and truth, he might be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of a mediator, and surety. Which office he took not unto himself, but was thereunto called by his Father, who put all power and judgment into his hand, and gave him commandment to execute the same.

Remember the strong instruction and exhortation of the short epistle of II John, especially verses 7-11 which says,

"For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”

As the apostle Paul writes in II Corinthians 6: 14-15, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?” This passage speaks to church membership and to marriage. Believers should be equally yoked, believers joined to believers. The cup and the bread we share at the Lord’s Supper testify that we are holily joined to the God-man Jesus Christ and to one another in Him. The church, holy and catholic (that is, worldwide), is His body, and the church is to be composed of those who believe in Him and their children. Those children are to be brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

As Christians, then, in love, we call men, women, and children everywhere to repent of their sin and rebellion and to embrace Jesus Christ with us, as He is so freely offered to us in the gospel. He is named Jesus, which means “Jehovah (or Yahweh) saves.” “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Blessings to you in the name of the Resurrected Son of God,

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Spring Water Rites: A Question about Maundy Thursday

Springtime traditionally has marked the opening of trout season. After a winter of anticipation, men, women, boys and girls will be lining the banks of streams and lakes for the ritual of casting a line on "first day." That ritual has been repeated for decades as eager fishermen and fisherwomen hit the waters, scurrying to claim their spot. It is not uncommon for zealous anglers soon to have their lines tangled (I remember the time as a child I caught a boat that was passing too close to shore.). On the other hand, it takes a measure of self-control not to follow the multitude to the places where the stocking truck had only weeks earlier unloaded its hatchery-fed, legal-sized cargo. Some seek out the more more pristine and secluded reaches where stream-bred trout populate the waters, fishing the way it was meant to be.

Last time we did a brief piece entitled "Of the Waters of Infant Baptism. It was but a brief introduction to a topic that has been keenly debated over the centuries of the Christian Church. Rightly reading the Scriptures and rightly interpreting the waters, we argued, is of the essence.

This time we take up an inquiry about another water ritual. Some time ago a question was posed to me about a tradition in the Roman Catholic Church that has begun to make its way into Reformed terminology. What about Maundy Thursday? This particular inquirer was asking why Grace Church did not have a Maundy Thursday communion service like another church in our presbytery was having. My answer follows:

We believe that the Scriptures do not command such a service on that day. Maundy Thursday, as understood in Roman Catholic terms, is a mandated feast in the so-called Holy Week. It is associated with the Passover gathering of Jesus with His disciples presumably on the Thursday before His crucifixion. The word Maundy [“Origin: 1250–1300; ME maunde < OF mande < L mandātum command, mandate (from the opening phrase novum mandātum (Vulgate) of Jesus' words to the disciples after He had washed their feet)” (See Dictionary.com.)] has its origin in the Latin Vulgate. Rome has taken the “mandate” to mean that the church ought to hold a special foot washing and mass on ‘Maundy Thursday’.

As Protestants we understand Jesus is our Passover. He speaks of the Lord’s Supper being administered “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup.” Obviously, we administer the Supper typically on the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath, the first day of the week. As far as the foot washing, we have not understood that as a mandated ritual, but as the pattern of Christian service wherein we humble ourselves to serve one another as Christ served His disciples. That is the ‘mandate’, as we understand it.

Having said that, we recognize the Christian church as having the liberty to call for worship on other occasions besides the Lord’s Day. We state in our church Directory for the Public Worship of God the following: “Although it is fitting and proper that the members of Christ's church meet for worship on other occasions also, which are left to the discretion of the particular churches, it is the sacred duty and high privilege of God's people everywhere to convene for public worship on the Lord's Day. God has expressly enjoined them in his holy Word not to forsake the assembling of themselves together” (DPW I.6.).

In other words, it is certainly appropriate for churches to exercise their discretion to meet on a Thursday to worship and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper if they choose to do so. A concern, however, is that we not make a command out of something that was not meant to be such. We believe the keeping of the Lord’s Day and the administration of the Lord’s Supper are commands; Maundy Thursday is not.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Of the Waters of Infant Baptism

Let's begin by wading into the water, the water of infant baptism, in the hopes of catching 'little ones'. The water seems shallow enough, but many have slipped on slippery stones, even close to shore, and many 'little ones' have gotten away. Any successful trout fisherman will tell you, you must first learn to 'read the water' to learn the secrets that lie underneath the surface.

Yes, Roman Catholicism says that infants should be baptized in the church. And they believe that infants need to saved from sin and the power of the devil. But their misunderstanding of the sacraments makes salvation dependent upon the power in the sacraments themselves, failing to understand the sacraments as signs and seals of the covenant of grace. This is a crucial distinction and difference from the faith professed in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

In the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter XXVIII, paragraphs 1 and 4, we in the OPC affirm the following:

1. "Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church; but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life. Which sacrament is, by Christ's own appointment, to be continued in his church until the end of the world."

4. "Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized."

Further, in Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 95, we confess the following:

Q. 95. "To whom is baptism to be administered?"
A. "Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him; but the infants of such as are members of the visible church are to be baptized."

Underlying the importance of baptism in the Reformed churches like the OPC is the whole biblical understanding of the covenant. In the old covenant, the sign and seal of circumcision pointed to the covenant made with Abraham and his descendants the Jews. God promised to be their God and for them to be His people; He would be their shield and their great reward. All males were to be given the sign and seal of the covenant, namely circumcision. The descendants of Abraham and those received into his house were to be circumcised. In Romans 4:11, Paul describes circumcision as a sign and seal of a faith and salvation, which Abraham already had by God's grace. To be sure, not everyone circumcised in the covenant community (Israel) was saved, but only those who had true saving faith. Still the sign and seal were to be applied to the many, including the infants, before they evidenced any faith or not.

We confess (WCF XXV.II.) that the visible church, which is ... catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children. The new covenant includes both Jews and Gentiles. The new covenant like the old includes the believers and their children and also includes both privilege and responsibility.

Baptism marks a person as a member of the covenant community (the church). But baptism, like circumcision, does not save. It does, however, stand as a sign and seal of the covenant, pointing both the parents and the child to the promises and the warnings, the privileges and the responsibilities of being included in the covenant in the church.

We believe baptism sets us apart from the world. Scripture says that the children of a believing parent(s) are holy (I Cor. 7).

The baptism of our children says to them that they belong not to themselves but to God in Christ. Therefore, they are continually reminded and called by their baptism to covenant faithfulness. Woe to that child who does not improve upon his baptism, who does not repent and believe. Like a Bethsaida or Jerusalem to whom the ministry of Christ had come, only to be rejected, how great will be the woe to come upon the child who does not respond to God's covenant faithfulness and His testimony of compassion and love in Christ.

In a certain sense, infant baptism epitomizes covenant grace. Like the child who cannot understand, who cannot say yes or no, the baptism of an infant points to the wonderful truth that our sovereign God saves the weak, the helpless. Again, I say, God speaks to us through baptism; it is, as it were, a sermon in picture (sign) and an awesome confirmation that binds us to the covenant (seal).

We acknowledge that the covenant sign and seal set before us both God's covenant blessing and curse, both promise and warning. The child included among those receiving the covenant privileges of the ministry of word, sacrament, and discipline are more than doubly accountable. Not only are they created and included in the original covenant with Adam, but they are privileged to be accounted among the people of God. Thus, their baptism continually beckons them to obedience and faith.

Baptism no more saves our children than circumcision saved an Esau, for example. Nevertheless, the sign of the covenant testifies to us and to our children of the new covenant. Baptism is not so much what we say to God as it is God's testimony to us. It says to us that it is God alone who saves, God alone who washes and sanctifies. It is the washing of the Spirit from above, the washing that comes through the blood of Christ, that saves us.

This will have to do this evening for a first lesson in 'reading the water', an essential in 'man-fishing'.