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Puritan Works: Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment

December 30, 2016 1 comment

jeremiahburroughsOver the Christmas weekend I finished reading another Puritan work, the last one for the year 2016 — a classic, recommended book on a topic I often struggle with:  contentment.  The complete book is available online here.

Starting from the key text of Philippians 4:11, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content,” Burroughs expands on what it means (and what it does not mean) to be content, and that it is something to be learned.  As usual with the Puritans, this work consists of a collection of sermons on the topic, with good thoughts for meditation, positive as well as negative (why not to grumble) considerations.  Much of the content references the particular hardships of the 17th century, with frequent mention of the recent plague (the plague of London), as well as the situation of discontent for people in poverty, or who once had more abundance in material benefit than they do now.  While the particular circumstances, the secondary causes of discontentment, are quite different in our age, the precepts and the heart issue are timeless, part of the fallen human condition in every age.  The lesson of contentment includes being thankful for what we have, being content with less than perhaps we once had, content with less than others have, and recognizing the perils and additional responsibilities of those who do have more in material goods.  Also, the lesson of God’s providence, that our will should be the same as God’s providential will and operative will.

Burroughs concludes by noting the tendency of that age, and thus he did not see the need to address the second part of the text, about learning to abound:

Now there is in the text another lesson, which is a hard lesson: ‘I have learned to abound.’ That does not so nearly concern us at this time, because the times are afflictive times, and there is now, more than ordinarily, an uncertainty in all things in the world. In such times as these are, there are few who have such an abundance that they need to be much taught in that lesson.

Topics addressed in this book include the difference between natural contentment and godly (gracious) contentment, noting that some people are naturally more at ease and contented than others, and the quality of difference between these types of contentment:

The one whose disposition is quiet, is not disquieted as others are, but neither does he show any activeness of spirit to sanctify the name of God in his affliction. … he whose contentment is of grace is not disquieted and keeps his heart quiet with regard to vexation and trouble, and at the same time is not dull or heavy but very active to sanctify God’s name in the affliction that he is experiencing. … the desire and care your soul has to sanctify God’s name in an affliction is what quietens the soul, and this is what others lack.

and

Those who are content in a natural way overcomes themselves when outward afflictions befall them and are content. They are just as content when they commit sin against God. When they have outward crosses or when God is dishonored, it is all one to them, whether they themselves are crossed or whether God is crossed. But a gracious heart that is contented with its own affliction, will rise up strongly when God is dishonored.”

As to motives for thankfulness, a good reminder of a most basic yet important point:

Set any affliction beside this mercy and see which would weigh heaviest; this is certainly greater than any affliction. That you have the day of grace and salvation, that you are not now in hell, this is a greater mercy. That you have the sound of the Gospel still in your ears, that you have the use of your reason: this is a greater mercy than your afflictions. That you have the use of your limbs, your senses, that you have the health of your bodies; health of body is a greater mercy than poverty is an affliction. … Therefore your mercies are more than your afflictions.

The lesson of contentment, though, is one of those things that is easier to read and study, but harder in actual practice – as I experienced even during the weeks of reading Burroughs’ book.  Just when I think I’ve learned contentment in the overall big picture, the major areas of life outside of my control, I stumbled and fell into discontent one afternoon over a very trivial matter; the Romans 7 struggle, hating self and weeping over sin – though not despairing.  Burroughs’ conclusion also recognizes the difficulty of fully learning the lesson of contentment:

I am afraid that you will be longer in learning it than I have been preaching of it; it is a harder thing to learn it than it is to preach or speak of it. … this lesson of Christian contentment may take more time to learn, and there are many who are learning it all the days of their lives and yet are not proficient.  But God forbid that it should be said of any of us concerning this lesson, as the Apostle says of widows, in Timothy, That they were ever learning and never came to the knowledge of the truth. Oh let us not be ever learning this lesson of contentment and yet not come to have skill in it. … Here is a necessary lesson for a Christian, that Paul said, he had learned in all estate therewith to be content.  Oh, do not be content with yourselves till you have learned this lesson of Christian contentment, and have obtained some better skill in it than before.

Sundry Laws: James White on Leviticus 19

December 26, 2016 1 comment

Continuing in James White’s Holiness Code series, the following three messages look at Leviticus 19:

Many misconceptions have abounded regarding this chapter.  Some have taken a superficial look at what seem to be miscellaneous or “sundry” laws, all thrown together, and treat this chapter as a justification for claiming that the Mosaic law was “all one law,” with no distinction between moral, civil and ceremonial aspects.  The general idea that the Mosaic law, and especially Leviticus 19, was “only for the Jews,” persists with many evangelicals, who have discarded this portion of God’s word as completely irrelevant to Christians today.

Then, especially ironic, are the unbelievers who quip that we should put aside all those antiquated, “iron age morality” ideas, and just love our neighbor as ourselves; they who object to the words against homosexuality, found in Leviticus 18 and 20, are completely unaware that the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is also found here – sandwiched in between those two chapters, here in Leviticus 19.  Leviticus 19 also answers the modern evangelical idea that in the Old Testament age everything with Israel was all about externals only, nothing about their heart motive (the erroneous NCT idea that Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” was something completely new and unknown before that point:  verse 17 says “you shall not hate your brother in your heart.”

White instead approaches Leviticus 19 from the perspective of Israel as the covenant people of God; how should the people of God live?  Similar to handling the book of Proverbs, we look at the context – which in this case is not necessarily the immediate verses around it, but the same idea expressed elsewhere in God’s word—in this case, similar passages in Deuteronomy.  The context includes also the actual practices of the pagans surrounding Israel, and also, especially, the moral precept behind the laws, which pertain to our relationship to our neighbor as well as or our relationship to God (such as verses 26-31, in reference to idolatry – the negative commands as well as the positive in verse 30).

What about verse 19, the laws forbidding the breeding of different kinds of cattle, the sowing of different kinds of seed, or garments of different materials?  Some of the laws were not in themselves moral, but had the purpose of keeping God’s people separate from the rest of the world.  These laws emphasized separateness, dedication and purity (not mixing, no division, in regards to your cattle, seed, and garments).  Another interesting feature, seen in these laws, is that to be in covenant relationship with God meant a disadvantage, in the world’s economy, compared to other people.  The laws regarding cattle, seed, and garments, brought a disadvantage compared to the worldings – as did laws in this chapter that curbed greed and provided for the poor (harvesting, gleaning the fields, verses 9-10) .  Unregenerate Israelites would chafe under the restrictions, but the true, regenerate believer in relationship with God (and such did exist in the Old Covenant era; mankind have always been saved by faith, some Israelites were regenerate believers) would be willing to accept these disadvantages, trusting that God will take care of us and He is first in our lives.

James White’s “The Holiness Code for Today” is a very interesting and edifying series, one that looks at texts generally ignored and not taught in sermons or Bible teaching.  Later lessons in this series look at Leviticus 20, chapters in Deuteronomy, and will address the issue of slavery in the Bible, noting the differences between Hebrew slavery, Roman slavery, and our own, much later history, American Slavery.

Challies’ 2017 Reading Challenge

December 20, 2016 2 comments

I became aware of the 2016 Challies “Reading Challenge” this summer, an interesting idea of planning a certain number of books to read in the next year, all from different categories or types of books.  Now, Challies has introduced the 2017 version, slightly modified but the same basic idea of reading a certain number of books.  Goodreads also has an active group with discussion and a place to keep your own reading list for the yearly challenge.

I probably read close to 13 books (or equivalent in sermon audio series) per year, but have always just picked out a book or two at a time, then later decide on another one to read.  So this approach is different for me, to plan out the reading for the coming year.  I’ve decided to follow the “Light Reader” plan of 13 books, though slightly modified – removing three of the “light reader” type of books, instead  substituting three from the second category (The Avid Reader).  For all of these I am including books I already have: either on my Kindle from previous purchases of free or near-free books, or ones that are available as free electronic books or free audio recordings (such as from SermonAudio.com or Librivox.org).  My busy schedule (including a very busy full time job) means my reading time is limited, and thus a good mix with several books in audio recording format is necessary–the audio books for commute and exercise time, plus the reading time as available, weekday evenings and weekends.

Here is my reading list for 2017:

The Light Reader

_ 1. A biography:  The Biography of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, by Andrew Bonar
_ 2. A classic novel:  Charlese Dickens, Hard Times (Librivox recording)
_ 3. A book about history: Edward the First, by T.F. Tout (Librivox recording)
_ 4. A book written by a Puritan (from the Avid reader list):  Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices– Thomas Brooks  (Sermon Audio available)
_ 5. A book about theology:  Divine Covenants, by A.W. Pink
_ 6. A book with at least 400 pages:  My ongoing reading of Charles Spurgeon Sermon Volumes
_ 7. A commentary on a book of the Bible (Avid reader list): Andrew Bonar’s Commentary on Leviticus
_ 8. A book about Christian living:  From the Grace Gems website, J.R. Miller’s “A Life of Character”
_ 9. A book more than 100 years old:  Many books would qualify for this one, but I added Charles Spurgeon’s All of Grace here
_ 10. A book about the Reformation (Avid reader list):  Merle D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, volume 1  (most of the first volume is also now recorded and available at Librivox).
_ 11. A book for children or teens:  The Hobbit (a great classic for re-read; I’ll reread the audio recording)
_ 12. A book of your choice:  Be Worshipful:  Glorifying God for Who He Is:  OT Commentary Psalms 1-89, by Warren Wiersbe.  This is currently on Kindle sale for 99 cents, one of several books in this series, the sale recently noted at Challies’ blog
_ 13. A book about a current issue:  Abortion: A Rational Look at an Emotional Issue, by R.C. Sproul  (A past free electronic book offer, not yet read and still on my Kindle)

Apologetics and the Law: James White’s “Holiness Code For Today”

December 14, 2016 1 comment

A few weeks ago a friend linked a great response of James White to the “West Wing” Bible Lesson, a sharp and witty response to an atheist’s ridicule of Christianity in reference to the Mosaic code. James White here responded to one of several such sarcastic remarks that originated several years ago in a letter from an atheist to Dr. Laura, this particular one: “My neighbor was working today (sabbath) so I murdered him. This is correct?”

Excerpted from the West Wing program that featured this same content:

“I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?”

“While thinking about that, can I ask another? My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it OK to call the police?”

… “Here’s one that’s really important, ‘cause we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point?

“Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side?

“Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?

From the comments at the James White note (above) I learned of a full series that James White did on this very issue, “The Holiness Code For Today,” begun in 2014 and recently completed (August 2016), preached at Phoenix Reformed Baptists for both Sunday morning and evening sessions. The full series of 38 lectures is available here.

I’m now about ¼ of the way through this series, in lesson 10 of a great series that approaches the “holiness code” (generally seen as Leviticus 17 through the end of the book) from an apologetics perspective, equipping Christians with serious, thoughtful responses to the secular unbelieving world.  The introductory lectures set the tone and the background, acknowledging our increasingly secular world and hostile unbelievers who mock by asking tough questions — and the truth, the right response to such challenges.  As White mentioned, googling “holiness code Leviticus” or “iron age morality” will indeed bring up some rather interesting anti-Christian web pages.  This portion of scripture especially deals with the evil and abomination of homosexuality, and this series responds to the common objections of those in our day who would try to deny or twist these texts into something that no longer applies to us in our age.

The introductory messages provide the overall setting and perspective regarding the holiness code and the real problem that unbelievers have.  As White well said in this lessonNo one will ever hear or honor the law of God, who hates the God of the law. No one will ever honor or hear or bow to the law of God, who hates the God of the law, and that’s the real issue.

Among the highlights: the importance of looking at the historical context, of Israel surrounded by pagan religions and practices, a nation in stark contrast to the standards of its neighbors; whereas our society today cannot fully appreciate this, from a time reference of a post-Christian culture, a society that has enjoyed the common grace benefits of the Judeo-Christian worldview – a society that is, sadly, quickly heading back to paganism.  Also, we must not look at these laws, the ones given to Israel in the Leviticus holiness code, from a pragmatic view, of trying to determine “why” He did so, “the real reason” for each particular law.  A common example of this is the modern “explanation” as to why the Israelites were forbidden to eat pork, trying to rationalize it due to supposed modern discoveries of science.  Instead, our starting point should be, that these laws were commanded by God; God forbid these things, and we may never discover the reason why.

In response to those who think that the Mosaic law in its entirety was “only for the Jews” and a part of “iron age morality” no longer applicable:

First, as noted in these chapters, the Canaanites were judged by God, were spewed out – the land itself said to vomit them out for their abominable practices.  They did not have the Mosaic law, nor any prophets sent to them, yet they were still held accountable and judged, based on the light they had; reference Romans 2.

Secondly, it is true that these sexual behaviors, including homosexuality, were a part of the religious rituals of the Canaanites.  That does not mean, though, that the underlying idea is in itself okay; people cannot reason that, because the Canaanites were doing such things in their religious practices, thus homosexuality in a different context is okay, in a “loving, monogamous (homosexual) relationship.”  Leviticus 18 simply states the abomination itself:  a man lying with another man.  Leviticus 18 says nothing that would restrict the meaning to only those religious ceremonies.

White also references the various scriptures and usages of the Hebrew word for abomination – pronounced as “Toe-ay-Vo” (I have no idea of the spelling in Hebrew letters).  The first occurrence is found in Genesis 43 (Hebrews were loathsome to the Egyptians), but the second and third are found in Leviticus 18 and 20.  Other uses throughout the Old Testament, including several places in Isaiah, include the abominable idolatry of the Israelites. Throughout, the meaning of the word is clear, of something detestable; none of us would want to be considered as such, before God.  The early church used the Greek Septuagint, and in the New Testament we find that Paul uses (in 1 Corinthians 6) the same Greek word for abomination, as what is found in the Septuagint in Leviticus 18.

All the above and so much more is available in just the first ten lessons of this series.  The upcoming lessons consider the distinctions of law (moral, civil and ceremonial) and deal with the specific content of Leviticus 18-21 as well as a few passages in Deuteronomy.  I find this series edifying, a topic that is especially helpful to study in our day and age, and I look forward to listening to the rest of the series.