Nil Nisi Verum

Images of Jesus

This is written by Mark Jones from the website reformation21.org
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The debate over whether pictures of Jesus are allowed, suitable, etc., usually revolves around the interpretation of the second commandment. I want to look at the debate from a slightly different angle, namely: the beatific vision.

There are only two ways that we are able to see Christ: either by faith or by sight. In this present age, we live by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). But the immediate object of our faith and of our sight is always the Lord Jesus. While Jesus desires that we should all see (by sight) his glory (Jn. 17:24), he also desires that we live by faith in this world (Jn. 20:29).

In this life we have no unmediated access to Jesus Christ, except through the Scriptures, which have to be believed by faith. They are the “face” of Jesus Christ. As we come to know and understand the Scriptures more and more – for they speak of him (Lk. 24:44) – we come to know Jesus more and more.

This knowledge is utterly transforming. Paul speaks about how Christians, “with unveiled face,” behold the glory of Christ and are as a result “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). As we are transformed in the inner man, our “transfiguration” (i.e., being conformed to the image of Christ) takes place by the power of Christ’s Spirit.

Those who wish to see Christ, face-to-face, in the life to come must in this world see him by faith. We believe what we do not (yet) see. But we must believe otherwise we shall never see. For, as John Owen solemnly wrote, “no man shall ever behold the glory of Christ by sight hereafter, who does not in some measure behold it by faith here in this world” (Works, 1:288).

Just as grace prepares us for glory, faith prepares us for sight.

The sight we shall have of Christ in heaven will be immediate. In other words, there shall be nothing between us and Christ, except the Spirit enlivening our bodies and souls in order to behold Christ’s glory. Our vision will also direct. Christ will, in his glory, appear before us; we will see him as he really is (1 Jn. 3:2).

Our sight of Christ will not merely be visible; nor will it be merely intellectual. Rather, it will be a sight that is both visible and intellectual. We shall behold him in his glory with an understanding of his person that is suitable to our own glorified state. This vision of Christ is, however, completely unsuitable for us who live on earth (see Lk. 9:30-33; Rev. 1:17; Acts 9). We could not endure such a sight in our present condition. Such a sight of the glorious one would be “too high, illustrious, and marvellous for us” who live on earth with indwelling sin (Owen, Works, 1:290)

If the glorified Lord appeared to his people on earth it would not be at all helpful to us, unless it were to immediately transform us into his same image. “For we are not able, by the power of any light or grace that we have received, or can receive, to bear the immediate appearance and representation [of Christ]” (Owen, Works, 1:380).

Just as we are transformed into Christ’s image in this life by faith, so we will be transformed into Christ’s image in the life to come by sight. As John makes clear: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2). John shows that we will be like Jesus because we shall see him. Therefore, the sight of Christ is transforming for God’s people, both by faith and by sight.

This is a hope that we are unable to fully grasp right now. The powerful sense of spiritual sight will enable God’s people to see a glory in Christ’s person “a thousand times above what here we can conceive” (Owen, Works, 1:379). This sight is what all of God’s people on earth do “breathe and pant after” (Owen, Works, 1:379).

Pictures of Jesus

Christ’s appearance seems to have changed quite dramatically at his resurrection (Lk. 24:31). The beatific vision calls into question the suitability of pictures of Christ. All of God’s people should desire to see the risen Christ. But, we must ask the question: Can we ever capture the glory of the exalted God-man in a picture? After all, his glory must necessarily transcend a picture because his personal glory – which cannot be severed from his glorified humanity – is both immaterial and transforming.

There is the added problem that if the picture represents Christ, as it purports to do, then why do we not worship the picture? The vision of Christ at the consummation will certainly cause us to fall down and worship him. If we do not worship the picture because it is not really Christ, then what is the point? Some might respond that Jesus was seen by his disciples and thousands of other people during his life. But we must remember that they actually saw, even if it was not with the eyes of faith, the true Christ, not a representation of him. Worshipping him in that context would have been entirely appropriate.

Owen seemed to think that a proper understanding of the beatific vision should keep God’s people from using pictures of Christ. He points out that Christ’s real glory cannot be captured in a picture, and thus diverts our thoughts from faith to a pretended sight. The Word of God alone stirs up our affections for the Christ represented to us. As Luther said, “the Bible is the cradle where Christ is laid.”

As a divine person, a representation of Christ is still a representation of God. And any representation of Christ that does not truly reflect the person of Christ is a false representation. Christ has a true human nature, but that human nature has always subsisted in union with the person of the Son. There is something natural for all of God’s children to desire to see his face in the person of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6); but we must be patient and wait for the true representation of Christ, which is infinitely better than anything our own minds can conjure up on earth. We do not yet live by sight, but by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal. 2:20).

I should add that age-appropriate children’s books with pictures of Jesus may have one major short-coming. Significantly and pastorally, these pictures deprive our children of the blessing of the “seeing” that belongs to the eyes of faith. Parents must not rob their children of this wonderful and joyful privilege (Jn. 20:29; 1 Pet 1:8). Fathers, mothers, and preachers must present him so that he may truly known (1 Jn. 1:3).

For Christians, the closest (and best) picture we have of Christ while pilgrims on earth are the elements of bread and wine given to us in the Lord’s Supper – elements that we view by sight, but are ultimately only any use to us if received by faith. The joy of communing with our risen Savior in the sacrament does not require pictures, but careful, joyful obedience.

– See more at: http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2015/01/pictures-of-christ-the-beatifi.php#sthash.I5Iw5e1h.dpuf

The Revelation of God in Scripture

Scripture tells us that God is a person who created, rules and sustains the world. That he is eternally independent yet personal. How are we to know him or learn about him? Some argue for a mystical experience apart from Scripture or worship with believers. The result is that they have depreciated the value of theology and are unaccountable to any set of morality or persons. Affection has replaced knowledge but this isn’t how we operate with each other. If we love one another we want to know about each other.

Scripture teaches us that we love God because he first loved us. We learned about God from his Word, and if we love God we will obey him. Therefore I argue that if we want to love God apart from knowing anything about him, then we don’t actually love God but a false god made in our image. Christians should not be indifferent to learning about God, especially since He has revealed himself to us in Scripture. This raises the question, “What has God told us about himself?” WSC gives a helpful and succinct answer

Q. 4. What is God?
A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.

Consider for a moment about the depth of this simply stated answer. God is infinite, while all other beings are finite. His infiniteness is beyond our imagination. You can consider the vastness of space perhaps but even space is created, God has nothing near to him nor far away. He is eternal, understood in reference to time. He has no beginning, nor end. To God, all things are equally present and thus he is without change. He is the same at one place as he is at another place.

This is a description of his being but also it attempts to describe his wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. We begin to understand his awesomeness, yet Scripture also tells us he is personal and not distant.

Yet even in his person, he is mysteriously majestic. In Scripture God reveals to us that he is Trinity. In Trinity God exists alone yet is personal because of his perfect relationship within the Godhead. God as three persons is a mystery revealed. While there are hints of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament, it is clearly revealed to us in the New.

Ordinarily, the New Testament tells about each person of the Trinity, then when put together we have the whole. But there are also places where it is explicitly stated. There is the Great Commission in:

Matt. 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Also, there is the well know benediction

2Cor. 13:14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Here “Lord” is understood as a designation of deity, It is the same Greek word used to translate the name “Jehovah” from Hebrew.

It should be noted, that the New Testament writers are never thinking they are writing something contradicting the teachings of the Old Testament that there is one God. They are just as opposed as the Old Testament to the thought of there being more than one God. Yet in the New Testament, there is the clear teaching that the Father is God, the Son is God and the Spirit is God, three persons in relation to each other. Not to be mistaken as one person with three personalities. Yes, it is a mystery, a great mystery that should make us thankful that God has condescended and allowed us to learn even this about his being.

Recommended Reading: Ch 1 The Person of Jesus

Why Do We Have Confessions?

Visitors who are new to our church often ask about being a Presbyterian Church, Reformed, Confessional, etc. One of the first things I say is that we are tied to a Reformed confession, specifically the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is reasonable to then discuss why we are tied to this confession and how we use it. I would like to focus this post on the purpose of being tied to a confession. What is the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF)? It can be generally stated that the WCF is the standard of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches around the world. Unfortunately, many churches have minimized its role and function so even some who have grown in Reformed and Presbyterian churches are not well acquainted with it or worse never even heard of it.

By name, the confession is a profession and confession of what we believe. We like to think of it as the codified understanding of the teachings of Scripture. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the history of the WCF (perhaps another post), but generally speaking, the writers of the WCF sought to articulate in more detail, the Christian faith in light of the historical creeds and confessions of the church. Originally, there were approximately 175 English and Scottish theologians and biblical scholars who gathered in Westminster Abbey, London. The WCF could be said to be their confession dating back to 17th century.

More generally the WCF belongs to a larger collection of confessions and creeds that belong to the church. Unfortunately, many Christians aren’t familiar with the historic creeds and so it contributes to an overall weakness in an understanding of both doctrine and worship. Creeds can be thought of as statements of beliefs from churches, communities, or larger bodies (ecumenical). Confessions and creeds are helpful because we need to clarify what we understand to be true and not-true.

Consider that Scriptures are a collection of diverse genres, numerous writers, over a period of thousands of years. Now that we have God’s Word they are left to be interpreted. When people interpret the text they bring their own presuppositions, influences, education, and biases into the process. This happens sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly. It isn’t too difficult to understand that interpretations that are based on a partial understanding, absorbed in culture, and in a particular context may have a certain flavor. Thus we must interpret Scripture and we use the help of the collective whole (present and historic) Church and not simply our own biased, limited, fragmented, opinions.

AA Hodge wrote a technical but helpful commentary (available on Kindle), entitled A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith and another work, A Short History of Creeds and Confessions where he says,

Men must interpret to the best of their ability each particular part of Scripture separately, and then combine all that the Scriptures teach upon every subject into a consistent whole, and then adjust their teachings upon different subjects in mutual consistency as parts of a harmonious system. Every student of the Bible must do this, and all make it obvious that they do it by the terms they use in their prayers and religious discourse, whether they admit or deny the propriety of human creeds and confessions. If they refuse the assistance afforded by the statements of doctrine slowly elaborated and defined by the Church, they must make out their own creed by their own unaided wisdom. The real question is not, as often pretended, between the word of God and the creed of man, but between the tried and proved faith of the collective body of God’s people, and the private judgment and the unassisted wisdom of the repudiator of creeds.

You can understand that the issue is not between creed and no creed, but between recognition of a tried and proven creed, derived from a corporate representative body of the church, and your own creed derived from your limitations. We can affirm the importance of confessions and creeds while also recognizing their limitations. Even though they have the wisdom of generations of godly men, they can never come close the wisdom and infallibility of Scripture which is from God. Thus it is important that we study and be taught from the Scriptures  as it is our privilege and duty as Christians. However, to suppose that we, individually, can put a comprehensive theology unaided is both arrogance and unsafe. Hodge again is helpful from his commentary

Creeds and confessions, as to form, bind those only who voluntarily profess them; and as to matter, they bind only so far as they affirm truly what the Bible teaches, and because the Bible does so teach.

Continuity Preserves the Gospel

The Covenant of Grace begins in its seminal form in Genesis 3:15 but is revealed more fully in the Abrahamic Covenant. Studying the Abrahamic Covenant continues to show its relevance and importance throughout Scripture because it touches on everything from worship, sacraments, election, atonement, and much more. The key aspect I want to focus on in this post is that the Abrahamic Covenant demonstrates continuity and the preservation of the Gospel throughout Scripture.

Living in the New Covenant we tend to focus on the New Testament but there is a greatly missed blessing in neglecting the Old Testament. What happens is the focus on the discontinuity or the fragmenting of Scripture, and some have even seen different gospels or worse, a different God in the Old Testament than in the New. When we recover a sense of the continuity, however, we will be enabled to interpret the redemptive story in a more coherent manner. Briefly touching on the sense of the New Covenant as preeminently spoken of in Jeremiah 31 we read that the New Covenant makes the Old Covenant obsolete. The question we ask is “What is that Old Covenant? Is it the covenant with Abraham, Moses, or David?” The text answers the question for us when it reads in Jer. 31:32 “ not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when  I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke,” The covenant that the New Covenant fulfills is not Abraham but Moses.

Then how are we to view to Abrahamic Covenant in light of the New Covenant? I have generally stated that the New Covenant is a new administration of the Abrahamic Covenant. The covenant with Moses was initiated by God and ended with Jesus when he initiated the New Covenant. So that the blessings and promises of the Abrahamic Covenant “He would be our God” would be secured in the faithfulness of Christ. It is the promise repeated to Isaac, Jacob and finally spoken of in the Revelation of John chapter 21:7. The eschatological goal is that God would have a glorified community in a new creation communing with Him for eternity.

It is the promise given to those who are children of Abraham which include the Christian. This is why Galatians says we who have faith are sons of Abraham (Gal 3:7) that if we are Christ’s then we are Abraham’s offspring, “heirs according to the promise”. Thus Christians can say they have Abraham as their father because Scripture says it.

This is significant also because it demonstrates that just as there has always been one God, and one people of God, there has also been one Gospel not many. When Paul speaks in Galatians that anyone who preaches a different Gospel is accused, (Gal 2:8) it wasn’t a new Gospel he was defending but the Gospel that was always known to them. So that he could say Jews know that a person is not justified by works but by faith in Jesus (Gal 2:16). Salvation by faith was not a novelty but the same Gospel preached through Scripture. So that before the New Testament was written salvation was sufficiently brought through the Law and Prophets. That is why Jesus is able to say in the account of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) that Moses and the Prophets were enough for someone to read and know the Gospel.

Hab. 2:4    “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,

but  the righteous shall live by his faith.

When You Get Nothing Out of Church

We are surrounded by the next big break through, the next trend, to current fad, “flavor of the week”. It’s the way the world operates. Constantly fighting for our attention because we become bored easily and whatever has our attention has our money. We also feel the pressures of social media, that tell us we need to show the world how much we have our life together. We tell the our friends and co-workers “We’re fun and exciting making a difference in the world!” Frankly, it’s all just tiring.

I have been reading through (little by little over the last few months) Mike Horton’s book “Ordinary” and have been reminded how much is sacrificed to go after the trend and excitement and avoid an ordinary everyday life. Horton puts it this way “The real problem is that our values are changing and the new ones are wearing us out.” It’s actually pretty interesting to think about it, when put this way. In pursuit of the excitement we pass over the opportunity to grow meaning where we are. To develop the relationships that are established and thus have any meaningful growth.

I was listening to a podcast this week and reminded that the trends and the big exciting draws are throughout the Church also. We want to come and experience something amazing, we want to be entertained. We’ve taken our expectations from culture, and imposed them on God’s Word and worship. The story needs to be moving and quick with action. Worship needs to be entertaining, with lights, drama, humor draped with the current hip tones. The idea of the ordinary means of grace, Word, Sacrament and Prayer, aren’t enough. We want more.

What happens after we hear the Gospel preached, partake from the Lord’s Table and are showered in his grace through prayer and singing? Sometimes you walk out feeling refreshed, encouraged, happy as you face the demands of the world. Sometimes you walk out tired, stressed, or anxious as you face the demands of the world. This first thinks, “I’m so glad I worshipped today” the second thinks, “I got nothing out of it”. Either scenario happens but the difference is our perspective.

The bottom line is that the Christian life isn’t like the life of the culture we live in. Jeremiah was a prophet for decades with no response from the people he ministered to. The apostles were all martyrs, save John who died in exile. And of course Jesus, who was despised and rejected by his own to the point of dying on the Cross where he was to endure the eternal displeasure of God on our behalf.

The Christian life is a wonderful life, but it is wonderful in the way God has said it is wonderful and not in the way the world has. What some may consider ordinary, plain, everyday, we call wonderful. The simple is beautiful and allows us to focus on the goal, our joy in Jesus. We have that modeled for us by Jesus, as the writer of Hebrews tells us

“looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:2 ESV)

We don’t need a trend to know God is working, we proclaim Jesus is alive!

What is Confirmation?

Confirmation as Universal Practice

It is helpful to think of Confirmation in the local practice, in light of the wider and historic practice of the Church. Starting with the question “Who has a right to/must take the Supper?” When the New Testament Church first began, a baptized person confessed Christ, was baptized and took the Supper. Their children would be baptized as infants and go through a period of catechism before communing. Both groups went through a rite which admitted them to the full benefits of church membership; the Lord’s Table.

This rite of Confirmation varied through the centuries but it always was in practice in one form or another. Some traditions made the rite less of a ceremony and others more of a ceremony, and some made it a sacrament. Nevertheless, Confirmation remained in various liturgies as a rite of initiation to the Lord’s Table.

What is Confirmation

The word Confirmation is used to describe the rite wherein a person is set apart for God and makes a profession/confession of faith before the congregation of their church. Confirmation generally takes place after a period of instruction by the Church. Opinions and practices differ on the years and location of instruction in relation to Baptism and Communion. Some place this period of instruction before baptism, and others after baptism. While others place it before and others after first communion. Practices are diverse in the particulars but the main acts are agreed upon (though not in this order) that a person confesses Christ, is baptized, and takes Communion.

A Reformed Perspective

How have the Reformed understood and practiced this historic rite? Two important considerations for theologians in the Reformed tradition were protecting the sacrament of Baptism and restoring the historic practice before the medieval corruptions. Calvin wished that, after a child had been sufficiently instructed in the catechism, the child would make public profession of one’s own faith. (4.19.13) This profession would be in the pure form of the ancient Church and not surrounded by ceremonial abuses of the medieval Church.

We must remember the significance of Baptism so that we do not attribute to Confirmation what belongs to Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ and made partakers with his death. It is where the judgment of God is signed and sealed for us in Christ and his Spirit is given to us. In Baptism Christian believers are saved not by works but by the washing of regeneration and God’s mercy (Tit 3:5). This is only a summary of how we should begin to understand Baptism. Yet this reality that Baptism (the visible Word) points to must be embraced by faith. When an infant is baptized the promise is ratified and our faith is strengthened in God’s promises. When the person can, they confess their faith and it is their means of accepting the promise already ratified in their baptism, not a means of grace in its own right. Therefore in the rite of Confirmation it is not proper to devalue or question the validity of our Baptism.

Staying consistent with the monergistic work of God in salvation, the Reformed said in Confirmation it is God who confirms the person. Through the Church God confirms his work in the believer. It is through the ordained officers of the church this work is confirmed

Bavinck says:

the rule of the covenant is that the church must nurture its youthful members, who were born as children of the covenant and incorporated as members by baptism, to where they can make an independent personal profession of faith and on that basis admit them to the Lord’s Supper. (4.585)

The rite of Confirmation, is the work of God through the Church. In it we see God’s faithfulness continue to the next generation. Where he continues to be God to us and our children as he promised.

What Happened to Confirmation?

I want to reflect for a few posts on Confirmation. It’s almost like you never hear of it happening or when someone mentions it, they usually are Roman Catholic or Lutheran. Did Presbyterians forget about this? What is it? Why did the Church have it? I hope to inspect these questions in a somewhat helpful way and before considering the rite of Confirmation it is helpful to back up and begin with defining the term Church.

What is the Church? It’s not the building, though we refer to the building that way. It’s not an institution though we refer to denominations that way. It is an organism, it is a communion. Jesus described the Church as a vine and Paul described it as a body. Both of these examples find their life in Jesus, who gives vitality to the Church. We are members of Christ, in election, his death, resurrection and now seated with him in heaven. Thus with Christ as the Head and the Church as the body, all baptized persons are members of his body.

The question is raised about our children. Are they excluded from this body? Aren’t they people like us finding joy and awe in the world they live in? Don’t they enjoy learning about God and how awesome he is? They marvel at the works of creation made by God. They gaze at the number of the stars, are mesmerized at how animals act and who eats what. They seem to be non-stop growing in the joy of the Lord in everything from playing in water to playing with musical instruments.

Adults engage in God’s world too. Sure it takes more to amuse us. We aren’t as easily brought into wonder and awe but it still happens. We also are moved when we are reminded of God’s forgiveness and love in Jesus. We spend hours and dollars to witness parts of God’s creation. We started a long time ago learning about God and seeing how his works proclaim his glory.

What does this have to do with Confirmation? Confirmation is the beginning of the road. Confirmation is not when they are brought into the body of Christ, Baptism did that. During Confirmation they have been set apart and recognize God’s Gospel call to them. They are on the journey of growing in the Lord. Confirmation is not the first time they confess Christ as Lord, and it will not be the last time. It is their profession of the faith they hold not a ratification of the faith.

We are the baptized, and because of that we are exhorted to seek the Lord’s Table. Abraham Kuyper wrote in his book “The Implications of Public Confession” that the relationship of Baptism to Communion was like that of a newborn. Born and immediately washed because it was born unclean. But the washing was not the goal because soon the babe is brought to the mother’s breast for nourishment. You cannot desire the sacrament of purification and neglect the sacrament of nourishment.

The admonishment by the Apostle to examine ourselves is given to the baptized. When the Session has deemed that a person is able to recognize their sin and their savior they are qualified to receive the “sacrament of nourishment.” Some may retort that a child should have a more mature confession of faith and perhaps be older. Two thoughts. First every person is different but the call on them is the same. Again Kuyper is helpful, “The number of years required for each individual to be qualified for his personal confession was determined by God at the time of that person’s creation… Through those years baptism sounds the plea: Seek the Lord’s holy supper.” (17)  Lastly, I can understand the desire to see the young ones “further down the road”. But perhaps there’s a reason we were exhorted by our Lord to have the faith of a child rather than an adult.