Me with my lovely wife, Kathy:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Superficial study?

Some of you get the local paper, here in Covington VA.  Some of you even read it.  I am a regular reader.  If you are, then you know there has been a lot of news and comment about the upcoming vote on consolidation.  A ministerial colleague wrote a letter to the editor, on Sept. 23, about truth-telling and fact-checking in regard to public discourse.
A good word of caution.
I'm not commenting on whether I agree or disagree with Rev. Caperton.
I would not have written a letter in reply to his letter to the editor if his comments had only been political.  However, as you will see in my letter, in getting to his main point, he made an unfortunate comment about the authorship of the New Testament.
I'm not sure if my letter will make it to the pages of the Virginian Review, and for those of you who don't get the paper, I post it here.

A letter to the editor, September 23, sounds an important warning.  Be sure of our facts, when entering into public discourse.  It is counsel that the writer should heed.  He states, ". . . a superficial study [of the New Testament] would indicate that we do not really know who was responsible for writing letters and books identified as by someone, for example, like Paul."  [sic] If he means there is not universal agreement among scholars, he is right.  To imply that confidently holding that the authors named in New Testament books were, indeed, the human authors of those books, indicates inadequate study, is simply incorrect.
A few examples will suffice to show the fallacy of this contention.  One might disagree with these scholars, but that they have done more than superficial study is beyond doubt.  
  • A. R. Fausset (of Jamison Fausset and Brown) The . . . evidence for Paul’s authorship [Galatians] is conclusive."  He references Irenaeus, Polycarp, and Jusin Martyr.
  • Everett F. Harrison, Senior Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary calls the Pauline authorship of 1 Thessalonians the "accepted view."  He likewise holds that Paul is the author of 2 Thessalonians.
  • Concerning 1 Corinthians 1:12, Clement of Rome wrote, "Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the Apostle."  (First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. c. 100 AD)
  • William Hendriksen, Th.D., Princeton Theological Seminary professor of New Testament literature at Calvin Theological Seminary, said “the attempt to disprove their [1&2 Timothy & Titus] Pauline authorship must be considered a failure.”
    “[T]he [early] church . . . with one accord named Paul as the author [of Ephesians] . . . There was no doubt or dissent. . . .There is no reason to depart from these traditional convictions.
  • Leon Morris, Principle, Ridley College, Melbourne, said about his commentary on John, that for a period of ten years it "has been constantly in my thoughts."  Well beyond superficial.  After 20 pages discussing pro and con as to John's authorship of the Gospel.  (John is not named as author in the book, but early tradition, including Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian, considered John to be the author.)  Morris concludes: "I accept the view that John the Apostle was the author."  
Similar statements can be found concerning the authorship of the other books of the New Testament.  There is no doubt that substantial evidence has been raised that would oppose the references I offer.  It is not my purpose here to argue the matter.  I do hope that I have made the point that some of us who claim with confidence to know the identity of most of the human authors of the New Testament are not guilty of holding those views because our study has not achieved the level of superficiality.
As to the other points in the 9/23 letter, I make no comment and none should be inferred.  
I thank the writer for his appeal for careful, truthful consideration of the consolidation decision.

Rev. Howard Merrell

Friday, September 16, 2011

Finding God's Will For My Life:

One of the most difficult matters to understand in regard to basic Christian living is, "How do I discern God's will?"
Intuitively, we know that decisions related to schooling, vocation, marriage, and finance have great impact on the course of our lives, so making right choices in these areas, and others, is incredibly important.  God desires that my life be lived in a way that is pleasing to Him, so He must care how I make these choices.  How do I know what He wants me to do?

Being sensitive to the Lord and desirous of living life in a way that is pleasing to Him is highly virtuous.  The Bible is clear that everything I do ought to demonstrate a life of surrender to God.  I am to be a "living sacrifice."  (Romans 12:1-2)  All that I do is to be done to His glory. (1 Corinthians 10:31) The reality of life is that even the smallest of decisions can have major impact on my life and others.  (See "Other Stuff #3, Three Little Things with Large Impact" )

The Bible gives solid guidance on a great many matters, but it doesn't speak to what school I should attend, job I should take, or woman I should marry, much less what car I should purchase--or even if I should purchase one, or whether I should take the expressway, or the back roads to work.  

I was raised on what Gary Friesen and J. Robin Maxson call the "Traditional Approach."  I was encouraged to seek the" perfect will of God."  My goal was to be "in the center of God's will."  As I considered the decisions above, I really did want to do God's will.   The problem, or one of the problems, was I was using a very imprecise means to attempt to arrive at a perfectly precise goal.  The counsel of other Godly people was supposed to help, but they often didn't agree, and observation indicated that they were frequently wrong.  Circumstances were offered as indicators.  Was the door opened or closed?  Yet my observation of the door-ajar-or-closed-fast system of guidance was not very encouraging.  Two well-motivated, seemingly Godly people would approach the same open door.  One would conclude it was opened by God and was a divine directive to proceed, while the other would conclude it was a temptation from Satan to distract from the real objective.  Likewise there was no unanimity on how hard one ought to push on a closed door before concluding God was directing one elsewhere.  The same uncertainty existed in regard to other "indicators of God's will,"  the desires of my heart, my abilities and inclinations, the need, the call, etc. etc.

The book Decision Making and the Will of God . . . , linked above, as well as a message by Cary Perdue, pretty well sealed the deal in my thinking that the approach I had been raised with didn't work.  You can read Friesen and Maxson's book, as well as find abundant material about it, so I won't comment on it.  Perdue, a pastor, educator, and first rate student of the Word, arrested the attention of those who heard him speak at a Bible college alumni event when he said something like this:  "You can be absolutely sure of the will of God for your life."   (speaking of the kind of decisions I have described)  Here Dr. Perdue inserted a pregnant pause.  "After the fact."  
I don't want to do an injustice to my colleague, but if I remember correctly what he went on to explain in the rest of the message is that we should be living  a life of practical faith.  I saved a copy of the handout that Dr. Perdue gave out that day.  On the last page of his notes he said:
Act in confidence.Check the discussion in James 1:5-8 about wisdom, faith and lack of double-mindedness.  Having followed the six previous steps [Be willing to do God's will.  Obey what God has already told you.  Pray about it. Study the Bible.  Get counsel.  Think.] make a decision being confident of God's guidance.  It will be a step of faith . . .  [Emphasis mine]
If Cary gives me permission, I'll scan and post his article.  It is no less relevant today than it was nineteen years ago.

My interest about the ongoing issue of the will of God was piqued anew by an article by Steve Cornell.  His thoughts are mainly expressed in a series of brief quotations from sound Biblical thinkers like Friesen, Maxson, J. I. Packer, D. A. Carson, and John MacArthur.

I forwarded the article to several colleagues.  
My son told me it was very timely.  He had just taught a group of potential missionaries on this subject.  He used the article as a follow-up.  

An associate told me, tongue in cheek, I think, that it was a good article.  "God told him so."
Another, David Owen, who works with college-aged folk--the group for whom these questions are most important--commented after expressing agreement with the gist of the article:
Most times the “voice in the head” is our own.  I am a little nervous however with going too far the other direction by completely dismissing the voice of the Spirit which we see operating in the Bible from beginning to end. The Spirit spoke and acted occasionally in scripture in some strange ways and there is nothing definitive in scripture that says that this has stopped. I would see it as being rare in Bible times and it would probably still be rare today. Of course the Spirit of God will always lead within the framework and boundaries of scripture. In 30+ years of ministry I would say that I have heard what I know is the voice of God leading me three times – and it was always within the boundaries of scripture.
Before Al Gore invented the internet, Cary expressed agreement via a mimeograph with Dave. 
 Does God ever reveal specific parts of His plan for our lives?  Yes, probably not very often, but occasionally.  Can we expect Him to.  Probably not if we expect Him to give us some special, direct revelation.  Should we ever seek such direction?  Yes, but we cannot demand it [and] we should not become indecisive it we have no clear direction from God.

For what they are worth I shared the following in response to Dave's thoughts.

I think you expressed the matter well.
The way I try to deal with it is to admit the subjectivity of this kind of "leadership" or "direction." Call it what it is.  "I have an inner impression that this is what I should do.  I think this is where the Lord is leading."--even more-so when it is what "we should do." That leaves the matter open for discussion and counsel.  When I begin with some variation of  "God told me" about the only rejoinder is, "No He didn't."  Not the stuff from which profitable conversations are built.  To paraphrase our former president from your home state, "Heed, but verify." Yes, God does lead through inner impressions.  I think generally in ways that I don't even recognize.  I end up where I am because included in God's sovereign oversight is His access to my mind.  When I consciously enter the conversation on that level I am liable to mess it up. I know you agree that it must be stated that any disagreement between the clear teaching of scripture and God's word, must be decided in favor of God's word.Inner voices, when they are valid, are not the only guidance mechanism God has given.  Already stated is the Bible.  The Body of Christ, and the gifted individuals in the church cannot be ignorred either.  I am wise to run inner impressions that I think are Divine by such resources.  In the day in which we live, I would consider those resources to include print and internet options--what I am doing right now.  (two guys on different sides of the world sharpening one another.)Any action I take whether guided by inner impression or not ought to be taken with faith in God's sovereignty.  It is too cold to call it a contract (at least it seems so to me) but there is nearly a contract in passages like Prov. 3:5-6, Psalm 37:4, & Rom. 12:1-2.  If we do ____, God will be out front preparing the way, give us the desires of our heart (context) & allow us to live in such a way that we will prove like an assayer the worth of His good and perfct will.  Or as Phillips put it, "so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good"God is so great that He is even soveriegn over my mind.  Talk about order out of chaos.  Keep in mind, however, that I still live in the "not yet."  I still need a lot of mental cosmetics."

Then today I read a follow-up post from Cornell, "Ten Principles for Godly Decisions."

Hopefully all of this will provide some profitable grist leading to confident, Godly living.

I welcome your comments.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Law, Grace, Harmony:

Sunday we start a consideration of the Book of Galatians, so I was vary glad to see a couple of online articles on the subject of law and grace come my way.

The first one
contains a summary of Luther's teachings on the matter.  Here are a couple of quotes:
"when Paul sums up the salvation-logic of the Law he quotes Leviticus 18.5b: “the one who does [the commandments] will live by them” (Gal 3.12). Here, there is a promise of life linked to the condition of doing the commandments and a corresponding threat: “cursed is everyone who does not abide in all the things written in the Book of the Law, to do them” (Gal 3.10 citing Deut 27.26). When this conditional word encounters the sinful human, the outcome is inevitable: “the whole world is guilty before God” (Rom 3.19)."

"In other words, once a person is liberated from the commonsense delusion that acting righteously makes us righteous before God, and in faith believes the counter-intuitive reality that being made righteous by God’s forgiving and resurrecting word precedes and produces righteous action, then the justified person is unlocked to love."

The second post was (I think) encouraged by the first one.
Both are worth reading, and rereading, which I intend to do.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Thank God for Little Things


That wisest of men, Solomon, often spoke of the power and importance of little things. He encouraged the lazy man to consider the ant (Prov. 6:6). He admired the little conies (Prov. 20:26) for their tenacity. He warned about the moment that could ruin a life (Prov. 7:22).

A recent biking accident has left me with a lot of time to think. I’ve spent a good bit of that time thinking about three little things. One involved a tiny amount of time, another a rather insignificant amount of space, and a third that in comparison to so much more that was going on just doesn’t seem so big, but it was, and is:

#1: If I had only looked over my shoulder before making that left hand turn into the path of a pickup truck that was passing me, none of this would have happened. A split second of neglect has affected me for the rest of my life.

#2: If the pickup truck had been six inches the right, I would be dead.

#3: We’ll wait on that one for a while.

Too many of us assume that life is made up of a sequence of big events: birth, graduation, marriage, having children of one’s own, death. To be sure these, and other events like them, are seismic happenings that leave the landscape of our lives changed, but the bulk of our life is not lived there. If we picture our life as a container filled with various sized rocks, from quite large down to grains of sand, we would find that the most volume is taken up with sand and pebbles--little stuff. I’m not saying we ought to ignore the boulders, but I fear too many of us live life in an attempt to jump from one big rock to the next. In the process of only living our life looking back to the last great happening, or ahead to the next big event, we fail to appreciate the cumulative power and weight of the little things in our lives. Furthermore, as my experience demonstrates, one never knows which little thing will swell up to instantly life-altering dimensions.

On the lovely fall day when I smashed my hip and collarbone on the side of a pickup truck, my heart, with the rest of my country was heavy. A few days before terrorists had attacked New York, and Washington DC, killing thousands of men, women, and children. Others had died in Pennsylvania, apparently able, at the last moment, to prevent the hijackers from crashing this plane into yet another public building, but unable to save their own lives.

When a little girl at my church heard about my wreck, her response was, “Didn’t he look?” No, I didn’t. I’ve been biking for years. I always look. Such a little thing, yet on this occasion, as the sound of the approaching truck was masked by the noise of a departing car, that failure to look was a near-deadly, certainly costly oversight.

In the time since the accident, I’ve thought numerous times of the perversity of me being laid up by such a small matter, when all around me events that will fill the pages of history were transpiring. I even felt guilty that my little-thing-inspired calamity would sidetrack others from praying about, and showing concern over the big one that was going on all around us. I’m coming more and more to realize as I contemplate the whole matter, that I just have to leave that with the Lord. He was not busy in conference with President Bush, when I was distracted just at the moment I needed to be paying attention. He was not wringing His hands over the whereabouts of terrorist leaders, when flesh met steel on that country road. He was there. He is here. I think “little” and “big” are concoctions of my mind, not His. He keeps a running total of the sparrow population. He knows the number of hairs on my head. He can tell you how many times I get up and lie down (For a while now, that number has been zero.). He is intimately acquainted with all my ways, not just the “big” ones.

Perhaps there is another way of putting it. It humbles me to even type the words. Anything that has to do with one of His children is a big thing.

One of the first questions most of us learn to ask is, “Why?”

So why did this happen? I mean, I was out there trying to get some exercise. Numerous health-care workers have commented on my “good veins,” no doubt the result of years of aerobic activity. But look where it has gotten me now. Lots of folk with cholesterol laden blood, and waistlines that done-lapped a long time ago are up and about and doing their thing, while I huffed and pumped and dieted, and now am stuck in a space about the size of a baby’s playpen. Why?

I pastor a great church. We had just entered what I think is the greatest time of potential growth in our history. Plans were in motion. Things were beginning to happen. It’s fun to get up and go to church at Covington Bible. I didn’t even want to go on vacation, though I was planning to visit some missionaries in a couple of months. Day after tomorrow will be the third Sunday I haven’t even been able to be at church. I figure there will be at least that many more before I get to roll or hobble in. My participation in the mission trip is cancelled. The disappointment compounds—the ticket is nontransferable and for me to use it later will cost a considerable amount of money. Why?

I could go on about the incredible inconvenience it is for my wife to have an invalid husband, about how all the kindness being directed toward me could be funneled in much more profitable directions, if only I hadn’t . . .

I find many reasons to ask, “Why?”

So, Why did this happen?

It happened because, in the words of the little girl, I didn’t look. I’m not being flip when I say that. God has so constructed His universe that the choices we make, the actions we take or neglect to take, the words we say, or withhold, have real consequences. Yet, in the light of Romans 8:28, from another perspective, I have to say that this bed represents God’s will for me. I can be sure that God watches over and cares about the little things. Often those little things bear such incredible consequences. Could God have prevented this accident? Not only do I answer, “Yes,” but I am inclined to believe that on other occasions God has sovreignly, providentially, guided me away from disaster. Not only was God in control in relation to my failure to look at its critical timing, He likewise gave the six inches that saved my life.

God has so made His universe that my actions and yours are truly significant—they matter—yet He is not wringing hands in worry over how it will all come out. If there is one little thing in this world over which God’s sovereignty does not extend, then He is not truly Lord. To follow the logic of the old poem, if God is not sovereign over the horseshoe nail, then He cannot be in control of the battle, the nation, or the world.

I figure on that Saturday afternoon I was about six inches from dying. I was making a left hand turn off of the blacktop onto a dirt road. I slowed to allow the car that was behind me pass, then I quickly stuck out my arm for a signal and started to turn. The little pickup’s noise, must have been covered up by the sound of the car that had just passed. When I signaled a turn he was probably already in the left lane passing me. He almost succeeded in his attempt to miss me. If he had gotten the truck six inches further left, I would have been badly scared, upset at myself for not looking, not much more. If he had failed to get as far to the left as he did, by just six inches, I’d almost certainly be dead.

I love the Lord, and I’m looking forward to heaven, but I’m glad to say that I’m still here. Call me carnal if you wish, but I have a wife to love, work to do, sons to watch continue in their growth, grandkids to love and spoil. I’m very glad for that six inches that spared my life. I enjoy my food. I’m incredibly impressed at the kindness of my wife and others. I guess you could say I’ve gained a new appreciation for little things.

Really, though, that day is no different than any other. God is not like the airbag in the steering wheel of an automobile—the only time it comes out is in time of real danger. Rather it is just that God’s care for me was clearly evident that day. Paul told the Athenians that “in [God] we live, and move, and exist.” (Acts 17:28) Jesus taught that our life is not maintained by the food we consume, but by the word of God. (Matt. 4:4) David pointed out that his times are in the Lord’s hand. (Psalm 31:15) Amid the twin-tower like destruction of ancient Jerusalem, Jeremiah saw that it was God’s mercy, God’s mercy renewed each day, that kept us all from being consumed.. (Lamentations 3:22-23) Indeed, Paul points out that not just we, but all the creation is held together by the power of God. (Colossians 1:17) Not only in the sense of my creation, but moment by moment, I am because God in His providence makes it so. It was not only that day that he gave space to live. He does so everyday.

In a morphine fog I was talking to my physician. He had in his hand the paper that would give him permission to operate on my bashed-up hip. There were all kinds of really discouraging “could happen”s on that sheet: You could develop a rupture at the site of the incision. It might not work, we might have to do a total hip replacement, etc., etc. I thought about a man I know who recently came to this point concerning a surgical procedure, and just said, “No.” I understood perfectly.

More than anything else on my Doctor’s list of horrors, a statement about a little nerve grabbed my attention. Sometimes the nerve that allows one to pick up his foot (pull your toes up) is damaged, and one has a “drop foot.” I was told if that happened I’d have to wear a brace. Somehow that one really got to me. Visions of special shoes and walking sticks and me walking “funny,” filled my mind. “I’m not sure I can bear that.” I thought. But it was clear, even in my less than alert state, that this was what I ought to do, so I signed.

“Mr. Merrell, I’m going to give you the drug to put you to sleep now. The next thing you know you’ll be in the post-op.” I nodded and for all practical purposes died.

I blinked my eyelids closed and opened them to an intensity of awareness that I had never known. It was as if a pure white strobe light was firing at a million times a second. One flash was the ceiling of the post-op, the next some image from my memory, then to a dream scene, back to post-op, more rapidly than I can possible explain. “Where am I?” “Am I dead?” “Is this heaven?”

“Pastor Merrell,”

I looked at the foot of my bed and saw Laura. She’s a nurse, a friend of my son. I don’t know what else she said, but her presence pulled me back to reality. My focus lowered to my left foot. My brain sent the signal and I watched the toe wag up and down.

Thank God for little things.