Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Body of Beliefs

For about a week now, I have been putting up chapters from the London Baptist Confession of 1689. Like the Westminster Confession, the Savoy Declaration, the Belgic Confession and the Augsburg Confession, it is an expression of what a particular group holds to be true. They are called confessions because if questioned about the nature of our faith, it is these truths that we will confess to believe. Some Christians today believe that documents such as the 1689 Baptist or the Westminster Confessions, by virtue of their being put together by a body of men, are regarded by their adherents as being a set of beliefs that we read into the Scriptures. Some believe that those who have a confession of faith hold to it, in spite of what the Bible may teach. The veiled charged is that we read at least some of these doctrines into the Word of God. 

While it would be folly to suggest that this has not been the case in the lives of many confessional Christians, such a view demonstrates a misunderstanding of what the confessions are. They are not a written statement of what we want the Bible to say. Rather, they are written statements of what we believe the Bible to actually teach, whether implicitly or explicitly. I do not call myself a Reformed Baptist because I read the London Baptist Confession and thought it sounded neat. I call myself a Reformed Baptist because I believe that the London Baptist Confession is a (fallible, human) expression of the truth contained in the Word of God. 

The beauty of confessions of faith is the honestly with which it lays out beliefs and doctrines held to by its adherents. To know what it means to be a Presbyterian, all one has to do is but look up the Westminster Confession for a summary of their beliefs. Similarly, the Augsburg Confession is a summary of Lutheran theology. If someone identifies himself as an "evangelical" or even a "Bible-believing" Christian, I must wrestle with the vague, unspecified terms and will fail to understand just what exactly it is you believe. Honestly, there are few Christians out there who would not call themselves "Bible believing." In some respects, it is arrogant to claim such a title, as it implies that anyone who does not use the same identification holds the words of men over the Word of God. 

Confessions of faith are also corporate in nature. They are designed to be expressions of the faith of a community of Christians. There is no subjective interpretation of the Word of God, which offers fewer opportunities to mishandle it. When we as a community express our beliefs, we can hold one another accountable to them, and edify one another through teaching, studying and meditating on them. 

Confessions of faith use to be the normal practice among Christians. Now, they are the exception. With the decline in use of confessions, we have also seen a decline in interest in the doctrines and teachings of the church. Today, we prefer the feel-good emotionalism of our (self) worship services and new "biblical" dieting practices in our Sunday schools. We wonder why so many young people abandon their faith in college when we do not instruct them in that faith. In this area, the more one has to hold on to, the less one stands to lose. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sin and the Believer

Tim Challies started "Reading the Classics Together" this Fall on his blog. He and his readers pick a book, read a chapter each week, and discuss it every Thursday. I decided to join in a few weeks ago when he decided to read John Owens' Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers. Owens is a dense writer and profound theologian. Every line of this 1656 book is it's own one-liner.

We are only four chapters into the book, but already Owen has laid very thorough groundwork for dealing with sin in the life of the Christian. Sanctification, the process of growing more and more Christ-like, is a hard body of disciplines to grow in. Becoming a student of God's Word, spending time in prayer, and ministering to the needs of others do not come naturally, and neither does mortifying sin. Owen uses Romans 8:13 as the basis for this work: For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. In addition to pointing out that mortification is commanded by the Scripture, Owen notes that it is the duty of all believers to daily put to death the deeds of the flesh, that it is not able to be done apart from the Spirit of God and that comfort and peace in life are often dependent on our mortifying our sins. In the chapter for this week, Owen describes what mortification is not.

Owen is realistic and does not believe it humanly possible to eliminate sin from your life. Only at death will you be free from the corrupting influence of "the old man." He understands, as the Apostle Paul did, that sin dogs us daily. This is a refreshing change in light of more modern authors who seem to think they can trust their impulses. As noted above, Owen also understands that mortification apart from the work of the Holy Spirit is impossible. Of myself, I cannot be rid of the sin in my life, or hope to put to death the desires that give birth to those sins.

Understanding our sinfulness is essential to a healthy Christian life and, indeed, the Gospel itself. If not because of my sin, why did Christ die? If I had some good in me, I might stand a chance at fulfilling the law, yet, as Paul notes, there is no good in me. Christ died for my sins so that I might love him and become more like him, through the power of the Spirit to the glory of the Father. We are entering into the Advent season where we celebrate the Incarnation: the coming of God who became flesh. Christ was tempted in every way that we are, and yet he never sinned. Christ is man, and thus by his perfect life, he fulfilled the Law, the very thing that condemns me to Hell. He is the only man who stands as righteous before the Father of his own merit. Christ is God, meaning that his death could cover the infinite offense against God that sin wrought. He is God, so that not even death and the grave could have any power over him.

We are a desperate, wicked people, deserving only of hell. Our best works are a vile stench to God, being tainted with sin. Only by casting ourselves on the mercy of God is there hope for deliverance from sin and death and any hope of life, peace and love.