Tag Archives: Puritans

The Gap between Head and Heart

 

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” Revelation 2:4

One of the well-known pitfalls of studying theology is the possibility of treating it as an end in itself, rather than as means to an end.  The goal of theology, the study of God, should be doxology, the worship of God.  When we treat theology as an end, simply the acquisition of doctrinal knowledge, theological pride becomes a very real danger.  Additionally, should theological pride be avoided (which is ever-present), another danger exists.  Doctrinal knowledge apart from Doxological practice is bound to deaden the heart’s affections toward God.

Because of the recent resurgence of interest in the Reformers, the doctrines of grace, etc., particularly among 20 and 30-somethings, the net for this trap has been cast far and wide.  While certainly any so-called denomination or group can easily fall prey to this, it seems most prevalent among those who hold claim to hold to reformed theology.  Once the Scriptures have been opened to illuminate the mind to the sovereignty of God over all things including, particularly or perhaps especially, the salvation of sinners, the flesh is easily tempted to revel in newfound knowledge that others have yet to learn.  Thus the trap for theological pride is set.

However, as we alluded to earlier, there is another trap, perhaps more deadly because it has less to do theological debates or waxing eloquently on this or that doctrine and everything to do with the affections of the heart towards God.

In his book, Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, John Owen comments specifically on this danger

“It is unimaginable how the subtile [sic] disquisitions and disputes of men about the nature, properties and counsels of God, have been corrupted, rendered sapless and useless, by vain curiosity, and striving for an artificial accuracy in the expression of men’s apprehensions.  When the wits and minds of men are engaged in such thoughts, ‘God is not in all their thoughts,’ even when all their thoughts are concerning him.  When once men are got into their metaphysical curiosities and logical niceties in their contemplations about God and his divine properties, they bid farewell, for the most part, unto all godly fear and reverence.”

When we divorce doxology from theology we engage in nothing more than an exercise of the flesh; it’s not only futile, but it’s sinful.  Studying theology is good, but it is good because it gives us a better understanding of the nature of God and His Son Jesus Christ, which ultimately leads us to worship of God.

Despite recent attempts to marginalize and discount their value, the Puritans were the quintessential pattern for how theology leads to doxology.  They were often described as fire and ice.  They had running through their veins the ice of doctrinal precision and steadfastness in the face of opposition along with the burning fire of affection for God that boiled in the bowels of their soul.

Below is further exhortation on the dangers particularly facing the young and reformed.  There, Paul Washer suggests a safeguard to avoiding them, namely the increase of prayer.

 

Keep Yourselves from Idols

 

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” 1 John 5:21

With these words the Apostle of love concludes his first epistle with an exhortation that the saints are to avoid idolatry of the heart.  While not his primary interest, throughout the letter John provides a series of tests for evidence of faith, namely through increasing knowledge of God, growth in holiness, and expression of love for others.  With this in mind, it becomes all the more interesting that he concludes his letter as a father toward his children with a statement of keeping oneself from idols.

In beginning our exposition of this verse, we may ask, what are idols?  Why are we to keep ourselves from them?  And how are we to keep ourselves from them?  The Old Testament often outlines the image into which the New Testament supplies the paint and it is true with regard to idols as well.  In the Old Testament we get a clear picture of what idolatry looks like.  For example, at the foot of Sinai, restless for the return of Moses, Aaron leads the people into fashioning a golden calf:

So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.’”

From this passage we gain insight into the nature of idolatry.  Though obviously it is a physical, tangible, visible idol toward which they offer worship, the issue is more a matter of the heart.  Additionally, we can see there is sometimes a level of syncretism within idolatry as well; worshipping a golden calf yet giving it the credit for deliverance from Egypt and proclaiming a feast to the Lord on behalf of the idol.  God demands not only external worship, but internal worship as well.

Nowadays, we are unlikely to see a golden calf perched on a hillside, though certainly in some cultures and religions idols and icons still maintain a very visible presence.  Nevertheless, though less obvious, idolatry runs rampant in the land.  Anything that the human heart elevates above the one true living God, by way of desire, time, attention, money, habits, etc. is idolatry.  While we may not have golden calves hidden away in our closets, we likely have golden calves hidden away in our hearts.  Puritan David Clarkson summarizes well,

“Idolatry is to give that honor and worship to ‘the creature’, which is due to the Creator alone. When this worship is communicated to other things, whatever they are, we thereby make them idols, and commit idolatry. Now this worship due to God alone, is not only given by the savage heathen to their stick and stones—and by papists to angels, saints and images—but also by carnal men to their lusts.”[1]

Pressing forward towards further identifying what may be termed an idol, Thomas Watson in his book The Godly Man’s Picture identifies the chief form of idolatry as the worship of self.  Surely this is becoming increasingly evident in our ever-changing world.  Interestingly, a passage from 1 Corinthians 6 places idolatry squarely between sins that are sexual in nature, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality” 1 Corinthians 6:9

Romans 1 provides additional support for this sexual form of idolatry that reaches its zenith in homosexual desires, “24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” Romans 1:24-27

If our identification of idols at this point is beginning to take shape far beyond simply the presence of a golden calf, then we may ask of the passage why it’s important to keep ourselves from them.

At its heart, this exhortation from the Apostle John is a restatement of the Second Commandment and is in fact a call to proper worship of God.  Here is the original command from God, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”  Exodus 20:4-6

In this passage, God gives a clear reason for His prohibition against idolatry, namely that He is a jealous God.  Giving worship to anything else, in essence robs God of the worship due His name and provokes His jealousy.

Through the message given by the Lord to the prophet Ezekiel, we may note how idolatry, even those of sticks and stones, becomes internalized, “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces….” Ezekiel 14:3

The Apostle John in his first epistle is keenly aware that idolatry of the heart will keep one from eternal life because it is a reflective pattern of an unregenerate heart.  Note additional commentary from elsewhere in the New Testament:

 “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” Ephesians 5:5

“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Colossians 3:5

In the two passages above we may glean that covetousness, i.e. unlawful desires of the heart, are labeled as idolatry.  So again we find that idolatry, this time from a different perspective, is a violation of God’s holy law, namely “Thou shall not covet” Ex 20:17

Why then are we to avoid idols? 1) It robs God of the glory and worship that is due His name. 2) It is a violation of God’s holy law 3) It hinders and inhibits man’s proper relationship with His Creator. 4) It elevates concern for self above concern for others.

Turning our attention to address how it is that we are to keep ourselves from idols, we may conclude with 4 summary statements.  1) Only a regenerate heart can truly avoid the plague of idolatry. 2) Be alert to all presence of idolatry in your heart 3) Renew your mind daily by the Word of God 4) Pray for God to reveal any unrecognized idols

For John to summarize his letter in this way, he is ultimately defining the chief obstacle for everything he outlined in the previous 5 chapters.  Idols stifle one’s knowledge of God.  Idols are contrary to growth in holiness.  Idols elevate self over love for others.  How can one be sure to pass the “tests” of 1 John?  Simple, “little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

 

[1] http://www.gracegems.org/SERMONS/Clarkson_soul_idolatry.htm

Discontentment and Temptation

 

One of the strategies for an effective battle against sin is to recognize how sin operates; first in general and then in particular within and around you. In military terms, this is akin to knowing your enemy. A particular highway through which sin will attempt to march its troops is the highway of discontentment. Perhaps there is no greater avenue for sin to enter the heart than through a person’s distorted desires, which have at their root, discontentment. The Apostle James writes, “but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” James 1:14-15 I’ve written elsewhere that my understanding of this passage is that desire conceives with temptation to give birth sin. I will argue here that the bedroom for that conception is discontentment.

In his masterful treatise on contentment, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, Jeremiah Burroughs builds the substance of his exposition on Philippians 4:11 which reads, “…for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”. While his book is commendable on many levels, there is one particular area that I would like to highlight, namely the relationship between contentment and temptation, particularly as it relates to avoiding sin.

After many excellent and noteworthy comments on describing contentment, its mystery and how Christ teaches contentment, Burroughs arrives at his discussion on “The Excellence of Contentment.” In this chapter, one particular quality of contentment caught my attention and went along way in expressing some thoughts concerning temptation and contentment that had been churning in my mind. Here he writes,

“Contentment delivers us from an abundance of temptations. Oh, the temptations that men of discontented spirits are subject to!”[1]

There is much to contemplate in this statement not the least of which is the avenue that discontentment paves into the heart, upon which temptation may freely travel.

A survey of biblical examples of sin would lead one to see that every instance of sin has as its root, discontentment. Adam and Eve were discontent with the position in the Garden that God had given them. They fell for the lie that Satan presented, showing the bait, yet hiding the hook, because they were discontent. David was discontent with all that God had blessed him with; prosperity, a kingdom, a wife, yet as he walked around on his rooftop discontentment joined with temptation and the rest is the sad history of a great king and man after God’s own heart. Solomon was discontent with just one wife. Israel was discontent with worshiping God alone and adopted the practices of the surrounding nations. Scripture is replete with examples and we cannot forget our own experiences.

Discontentment at its heart is idolatry. It resists the Lordship and Authority of Almighty God and seeks to set self on the throne in place of the King. Covetousness, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, stealing, material gain, pride, indulgence, power grabbing, etc. are all a product of discontentment with the provision and circumstances that God has sovereignly ordained.

Similarly, discontentment accuses God of withholding better gifts. Despite James 1:17 establishing the contrary, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights”, discontentment says that what God has provided is insufficient (see also John 3:27; Matthew 7:7-11). In a sense, discontentment makes us little gods, again idolatry, who think we know better and deserve better. It takes, demands more, is ungrateful, and is never satisfied. It is not hard to see the wickedness of discontentment and how it is a spring from which all streams of sin find their source.

The Apostle Paul says, ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain’ (1 Timothy 6:6). May that be the goal of our hearts. As one author has said, “All the wealth and prestige in the world with discontentment results in poverty of spirit. But contentment arising in our souls from living by grace –that is, from realizing we have not received what we actually deserve, but daily receive what we don’t deserve-brings great wealth of spirit, even if we are living in poverty and obscurity.”[2]

Christians, let us not be discontent and allow temptation an unguarded route into our hearts. Let us say with the Apostle Paul, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” Phil. 4:11. May we be content with our lot; with where the Lord has us at this particular moment, lest we provide an avenue for temptation leading to sin. Burroughs adds, “Temptations will no more prevail over a contented man, than a dart is thrown against a brazen wall.”[3] May our contentment be found in Christ. May our every desire be satisfied in Him. Satisfaction pursued in anything other than Christ will ultimately lead to discontentment, creating a pathway for temptation that leads to sin. “Contentment is more than focusing on what we have. It is focusing on the fact that all we do have, we have by the grace of God. We do not deserve anything we have, materially or spiritually. It is all by His grace.”[4]

 

 

[1] Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. Banner of Truth, pg 126

[2] Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace. NavPress, 1991, pg. 200

[3] Burroughs, 128.

[4] Bridges, 199.