Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Turning Away of the Simple

Will you turn away at my reproof?” (Pr. 1:23, ESV margin)
It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” (John Wooden)

The Book of Proverbs lends itself to an instructive daily reading program, due to having 31 chapters of accessible length. A big advantage to doing this is that, after repeating the course for a while, one begins to get a feeling for some of its important characters, ones whose names may cause us to misinterpret them at first.

One such character is “the simple”, and the motivation behind this post is a widespread tendency in the church to fail this fellow: He is in our congregations, and is in great peril, but not only do we often not “move heaven and earth” to rescue him, but we may even praise him for the very traits that endanger him!

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth - ...
.” (Pr. 1:1,4)

We are told at the outset of Proverbs that one of the purposes of the book is, “... to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth”. The association of “simplicity” with youth in this verse gives some of its flavor. Expositors and translators often search for other words than “simple”, because of our tendency to misinterpret it. I have heard “naive” used. But, in the end, I think that only frequent reading of Proverbs really gets the message home:

A “simple” person is wont to “turn away”, as the citation above from Pr. 1:23 indicates, when given advice. He doesn’t believe that life is as serious as his counselors tell him it is, or that things won’t just naturally work out as he wants them to do without all that much trouble. Alfred E. Newman’s mindset is his, “What Me Worry?” The John Wooden quote above also captures much of him - he already “knows it all”.

That this state of mind is often characteristic of the young is hardly a surprise. Most parents have experienced the rolling eyes, the muttered, “Yeah, yeah” (or worse, “Yadda, yadda”) and all the other signs that they’re really “not getting through”. Many have also seen the consequences, since this mindset is pregnant with trouble:

The simple believes everything,
but the prudent gives thought to his steps.
” (Pr. 14:15)
The prudent sees danger and hides himself,
but the simple go on and suffer for it
.” (Pr. 27:12)

However, while the young are prone to thinking this way, the trait is not limited to them. Most of us can think of people we know who have persisted into adulthood with it, and have continued, “believing everything” and “suffering for it”. And yet, while this happens, it happens without the lightness that accompanied it when they were young. Life has caught up with them, and they have, as Derek Kidner points out in his book on Proverbs, found that simplicity is an inherently unstable state:

The simple inherit folly,
but the prudent are crowned with wisdom.
” (Pr. 14:18)

In other words, a simple person is poised on something of a knife-edge: He can listen to the exhortations of his elders and turn to wisdom, or he can fall into folly - that is, become a fool.

With this, we come to another character in Proverbs that we may misinterpret, unless we take the trouble to get to know him. He comes in at least two manifestations there which are of interest here: One of them, “the fool proper” is violent and opinionated:

A fool’s lips walk into a fight,
and his mouth invites a beating.
” (Pr. 18:6)
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion.
” (Pr. 18:2)

A man like this rejected advice and counsel when he was young, consequences caught up with him, and his response has been anger: It hasn’t been his fault. “The system” was stacked against him:

When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin,
his heart rages against the LORD
.” (Pr. 19:3)

The other manifestation is the character in Proverbs called “the sluggard”. Our first inclination may be to think that this fellow is something like Beetle Baily, but that’s far from true, and we do better if we think of “the sluggard” as being someone we might call “depressed”. He has a thousand excuses for inactivity, and, indeed is paralyzed by it:

The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside!’
I shall be killed in the streets!
” (Pr. 22:13)
The sluggard buries his hand in the dish
and will not even bring it back to his mouth
.” (Pr. 19:24)

Like the “fool proper”, this type of fool would not listen while young, but his response, instead of “raging against the LORD” is a sort of befuddled whining against Him. He will spend his days, closeted uselessly somewhere, all the while wondering why things haven’t turned out better.

The sluggard does not plow in autumn;
he will seek at harvest and have nothing.
” (Pr. 20:4)

What should be clear to us as we consider these two manifestations of folly is that they are spiritually deadly: These characters are sinking (the sluggard) or charging (the fool) into perdition! And this is the risk that faces the simple as he confronts his choice early in life: Will he listen and seek wisdom, or will he “turn away”:

For the simple are killed by their turning away, ....” (Pr. 1:32)

But, as I asked at the beginning of this post, do we in the church really take the urgency of this situation seriously? Do we really see the simplicity of the young as Scripture sees it, a sinful and dangerous state? Do we respond as the Book of Proverbs does with frequent and frank exhortations to change?

Leave your simple ways, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.
” (Pr. 9:6)

Or do we instead, ape the fads and fashions of the young, and corrupt our teaching and worship in order to attract those caught up in “the youth culture” (including a lot of so-called adults, who should know better by now)?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

That I May Lead This People

Followers of this blog will recognize that my posts have been very sparse since taking command on 23 June. This is, of course, not mere coincidence. Leading a unit like the Honor Guard consumes not merely time, but also physical and emotional energy in large quantities.

Of course, it's not just this blog which has felt the impact, but also my family, friendships, and church relationships. On the other hand, I do sense that my relationship with God has been rekindled in its intensity, as my awareness of my need for His strength and wisdom has increased. The weight of responsibility, as well as running into the "vertical learning curve", has certainly been humbling in an important way.

Each day has had more than its share of exhilarations and frustrations ... there have been inspiring ceremonies to witness; punishments to decide and mete out; personal tragedies and crises to navigate; strategic direction to set; expectations from above, below and personal to manage; and 15-hour days to survive.

In all, Solomon's request--"Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people ..."--seems appropriate to this time. I am, however, grateful for the encouragement I have received along the way.

I received the following early last week from Pastor Allen--who together with his wife Miriam attended my ceremony--and have been waiting for the opportunity to post it:
As I write this letter, it is a week since your installation as the new commander of the Honor Guard. I am sure you are enjoying each day you serve and I hope it is a challenge that you will steadily rise to, to the expectation of the unit and to your own personal sense of accomplishment.
Miriam and I were duly impressed with the ceremony, the words of the outgoing commander and your words, especially the ones directed to me. I was glad I could attend and see you receive this great honor, and I know [Mrs. Jailer] and the children are very proud of you. You know we are, and I wish with all my heart [Presbyter] could have been there to witness this milestone in your life.*

Please inform the officer who was in charge of the Honor Guard (I am referring to the African-American, tall and with a strong voice of command) that he did an excellent job. So much was going on that I did not get a chance to thank him myself.

And I wish to tell you that I have been using the Airman's Bible for devotions. It is a fine translation. Years ago I used the Holman Study Bible and this was before seminary. The spine is broken and the pages are falling out and so it was a joy to get a new one.

Also that was a special thing you did when you presented me with the commander's medal. It is something I will always treasure.

You are doing a good work as a military servant to your country and a servant of Christ. May the Lord grant you strength and wisdom as you serve in these two roles along with that of husband and father.

God bless you.
Your father in the faith,
* (Note: Presbyter wanted to come but time and financial considerations constrained him--I advised him that when I finally relinquish command would be a better time to witness the ceremony.)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The First Use of the Law

Righteousness exalts a nation,
but sin is a reproach to any people
” (Pr. 14:34)

Three weeks ago, Jailer published a post on “The Political Church”. It received some comment, but I think more is in order, and so I’d like to take a different slant on the subject, using what theologians term “the uses of the law”. One treatment of this subject can be found Berkhof’s Systematic Theology in a section titled “The Threefold Use of the Law”, under “The Word as a Means of Grace”:

The first use Berkhof lists is the law’s “political” use: “The law serves the purpose of restraining sin and promoting righteousness. .... It serves the purpose of God’s common grace in the world at large.” This use is related to what Luther termed in the introductory “declaration” to his great Commentary on Galatians a “civil or political righteousness, [with] which Kings, princes of this world, magistrates and lawyers deal ....” This is the use which concerns us when we wrestle in the church with political activity. So we need to look more closely at it, but it’s helpful to first look at the other two uses of the law, since they cast light on the issues involved.

The second use Berkhof lists is the law’s use to “refute” any notion we may entertain of our own righteousness or ability to please God. The classic Scriptural text that captures this use is Romans 3:19,20: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” I have heard pastors characterize this use of the law as “driving us to Christ”. This characterization is related to what Luther termed in the declaration cited above, “the righteousness of faith [in which] we work nothing, we render nothing unto God, but we only receive, and suffer another to work in us, that is to say, God.” The law’s role in this “alien righteousness” (Luther’s term) is to convince us that we are utterly undone without it. So this use is part of the very central message of the church: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)

The compelling importance to the church of the second use of the law is illustrated by the fact that the “third use of the law” is actually controversial. This use of the law, often referred to simply as “the third use”, is called by Berkhof its “normative” use, and a good exposition of it can be found in Questions 90 and 91 of the Heidelberg Catechism. A summary I have heard of this use of the law is that it is a Christian’s "guide to the life of gratitude”. The law is our guide as to how to live in response to His grace to us.

So it may seem surprising that this use of the law would be controversial. But, if we think about it for a moment, the dangers here are very real. What to a grateful Christian, saved by grace and wanting to live in a way that pleases God in gratitude for that, is his guide, can easily be to another listener instructions on how to save himself by works. That is, the concern is that the third use may compromise the second, which is all-important. The tension involved here can be heard in the care Paul takes in Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” God has prepared good works for us to do, and surely His word is a lamp for our feet (Psalm 119:105), but be careful that it doesn’t become a matter of pride!

This matter was so troubling to the first Lutherans that the legitimacy of the “third use of the law” was hotly disputed among them and this dispute had to be addressed in the Formula of Concord. In that document, written in 1577 to settle various disputes in the protestant German churches, Articles IV, V, and VI are, entitled, respectively, “Of Good Works”, “Of the Law and the Gospel”, and “Of the Third Use of the Law”. From these titles, one can see the concern that the law not be used in any way that would undermine "the righteousness of faith". In these Articles, the document recognizes the legitimacy of the third use of the law, but also recognizes that it must be exercised very carefully.

Returning now to the “political use of the law”, and looking back at the controversy concerning the “third use of the law”, can it be surprising that, if the dangers of pride and works-righteousness are a concern when the church uses “thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) to instruct believers on how they themselves ought to live, there is even greater concern when we go beyond that and put our energies into using that precept to work for laws that constrain our unbelieving neighbors to live that way?

Do Christians have a proper concern with such laws? Phrased this way, the answer must surely be “Yes”, since 1 Timothy 2:1-6 makes that very clear. Paul urges in verses 1 & 2 “that ... prayers ... be made ... for kings and all who are in high positions, ....” and part of the reason given in verse 2 is “that we may live a peaceful and quiet life”, but the deeper reason for that is given in verses 3 & 4: “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

If we think in terms of the commandment quoted above, consider the social consequences we have seen already from it’s having been ignored in our culture for decades now. An opinion article about illegitimacy by Charles Murray in the Wall Street Journal in October, 1993 titled “The Coming White Underclass” made the situation seem pretty grim then, and things have only got worse in the meanwhile. An inference from his point then was that all the reasons for which we would have been reluctant to walk in certain neighborhoods, were about to become true of neighborhoods a whole lot closer to many of us. The consequences of raising children in broken homes (or homes that were never put together in the first place!) are well-documented: Society breaks down. It turns into "a jungle out there"!

The point here, if we come back to 1 Timothy 2, is that the work of the gospel is made much more difficult when it has to be carried out in neighborhoods with bullet-pocked walls, where people are afraid to walk the streets. We may argue that, “all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27), but, in the light of 1 Timothy 2:3,4, it’s clear that, while God can indeed save people out of those neighborhoods, He wants us at the very least to be earnest in prayer to the political end that neighborhoods more peaceful than that may be available to those whom He is saving.

But what happens to us, even restricting ourselves to prayer, if we devote so much of our energies to working against the destruction of the family, or the murder of the unborn, or against any one of a number of other abuses, that we lose sight of the fact that we never outgrow our need to “repent and believe in the gospel”? And we know from history, especially when we go beyond prayer, that this danger is very great: In his Pulitzer Prize-winning history “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848”, Daniel Walker Howe justifiably spends considerable time on the efforts of Northern Evangelicals to ameliorate different social ills of that era, the most acute of them being slavery. Many who worked for these things were devout believers, who never lost their grip on the Gospel of Grace. But many fell into the trap of believing that they could “bring in the millennium” by political transformation. That is, they fell into the trap of making the “political use” of the law their focus, rather than the use which “drives men to Christ”. Even worse, many had shipwrecked their faith altogether and were Unitarians. This was an issue for the church in this country almost 200 years ago, and it’s no less an issue today: How do we work for God’s common grace in our nation without losing sight of His special grace in our lives?