How the Apostle John Guided the Church in Truth

By the time the New Testament church had grown partly from a likely influx of second-generation believers, the integrity of the gospel had begun to fade in some quarters, and heretical elements were seeping into the ranks

The early Apostles were deeply concerned. They had governing authority over the church as given by Jesus.

When the beloved Apostle John wrote his first of three letters he exercised that authority. He was keenly aware of deviations from the truth of the gospel and he adroitly addressed them and called for repentance.

His first epistle reflects these facts. He opens his letter with a beautiful tribute to the wonder of the incarnated Lord.

I regard this manner of his address as a key element in his style of governance. The first paragraph is often called a prologue but I refer to it here as an anchor point. It was a call to first look beyond the present troubling issues that clouded the church’s faith and begin with a time of reflection to worship the incarnate Lord.

Thus, John’s anchor point: The Lord is from the beginning. He is forever. He enters fully into humanity. It was a miraculous manner of entering. Though he is eternal, the Apostles actually saw him. They even touched him. Both his deity and his humanity were celebrated.

As you will see, the Apostle proclaimed the Incarnation at the outset of his address. This proclamation was for one purpose, he says: to identify the sin in their midst leading to repentance and in so doing to renew the joys that come with genuine faith — this was his first leadership step (1 John 1:1-4).

As a second aspect of his leadership John addresses his readers with warm terms of endearment: My dear children (2:1), dear friends (2:7), dear brothers (3:13), and so forth. He was not coming to them as the sheriff. He addressed them with deep affection. Fifteen times in his first letter he identifies believers affirmatively in this fashion.

One might think that such gentleness of address to a group of faltering believers would show the Apostle as soft, shallow, easy to resist.

Not so. In fact, the third aspect of his leadership was his clarity with the truth and his directness in stating issues of life and death. In fact, in this third aspect, John continues his communication with a candor that is solemn:

Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. (John 2:4-6)

He reveals his commitment to eternal truth as of issue above all else. In spite of his good will toward those who heard or read him, he was not there to bargain on truth itself.

What could he state more clearly than the following:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth (1 John 1:5-6).

This must be called loving candor.

This gem of a letter is filled with such measured but penetrating words. But there is one more element in the Apostle’s directness that must be factored into his address in large measure. This measure was likely effective in facing the perilous disorder in the church.

The Apostle repeatedly reminds them of their status in faith: they are “born again.” That is, they are regenerated; they have received the gift of the Spirit; they have inner experience enabled by new life. All of this is implicit in the term born again. By this reality they are bound to the Lord and to one another. This puts them under obligation. Seven times he refers to their new birth (2:29; 3:10; 3:19; 4:8: 5:1; 5:14; 5:18). That emphasis cannot be without purpose.

He writes, for example: … for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith (1 John 5:4). Because of their “regeneration,” their flirting with the manners and inducements of the fallen world had to be repented of and had to cease. He identifies those inducements one after another in his letter and reminds them they are born again. 

The church in every age is tempted to drift from purity of heart and life. Heresy so readily reveals its deviant ways. This epistle is given to Christ’s church in all generations to identify and to correct its wanderings.

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Photo credit: Paul VanDerWerf (via flickr.com)

A Brief Midwinter Break

It’s almost February, and, here in Brampton, Ontario, the weather may be aptly described in the words of King Lear, “Blow winds and crack your cheeks.” So it seems appropriate to take a midwinter break from blog writing — but just for a week.

I am very grateful to you for your ongoing interest in my blog.

— Donald N. Bastian

Re-post: A Love Story with Depth

In the 1730s there lived in England a man named Charles Wesley, brother to the better-known John Wesley, both of them founders of Methodism. They were ordained Anglican clergymen and ardent in observing the practices of the faith.

As an example of their serious intent to devote themselves completely to God, while studying at Oxford they and some of their companions vowed not to marry, and agreed if any of them should change their mind they would consult one another about their plans.

Years later, when Charles was approaching middle age, he began to have second thoughts about this resolution. By then, the Methodist movement had become large and he, the gifted hymn-writer, was busy traveling, preaching, and composing hymns to be sung.

At thirty-nine years of age he preached briefly in South Wales along the western coast of England. While there, a Methodist convert named Marmaduke Gwynne came to see him, and then took him to his estate — a large property named Garth, complete with a mansion, nine children, and 20 servants.

During six days of preaching in the area Charles found himself drawn back to Garth several times. Sarah Gwynne (Miss Sally) was the attraction. She was 21, he nearly 40.

After six days he crossed the waters to Ireland where there was a rapidly developing Methodist movement in the region of Dublin. He preached there for six months, sometimes several times a day. It was a tumultuous time: there were riots, Methodist homes were ransacked, and brutal murders were committed. Amidst it all, Charles was consoled and strengthened by letters from Sally.

The trip back to Garth in South Wales was rugged — first by ship, then by a coastal ferry. But the last leg of his journey was 120 miles on horseback in the face of a driving rain. When he arrived at Garth he was ill, but, nursed back to health, he was able to preach and administer communion.

Charles began to think about marriage, but two matters had to be attended to first. His foremost question: Had Sally personally experienced redeeming grace? This was the life-changing message at the heart of the Methodist renewal. That is, it was the Methodist restoration of the Gospel message of “new birth” or “the inner transformation” to new life in Christ. Charles evidently needed to know that Sally’s Gospel experience and understanding were more than piety and formalized devotion.

Both Charles and brother John would not compromise on this question. They themselves had been transformed from several years of a rigorous but unsatisfying faith by a powerful awakening of the Holy Spirit. Happily, in due time, Charles’ question about Sally’s faith was answered to his satisfaction.

The second matter was his ability to care for wife. Sally’s mother was favorable to Charles as a husband for Sally but asked what assurance he could give that an itinerant preacher without a settled income could support her. Charles consulted his publisher. He and his brother talked to a banker. The answer: royalties from his books would be more than enough to provide the 100 pounds a year that Mrs. Gwynne required. When brother John gave written assurance on behalf of brother Charles of adequate resources, Mrs. Gwynne approved.

A spiritual question and then a practical one had been thoroughly addressed. Then, on April 9, 1749, Charles and Sally were married at Garth. It was a day filled with sunshine and joy. Charles wrote that his brother John seemed the happiest of all those present.

Was it a great and durable love? In her mid-twenties Sally’s beauty was scarred horribly by life-threatening smallpox. This disfigurement in no way diminished Charles’s love for her. She went with him on his preaching circuit and the Methodist people loved her dearly. Years into the marriage his tender notes to her might begin, “My ever dearest Sally”.

Charles and Sally had eight children but only three survived childhood: two boys, Charles and Samuel, and one girl, Sarah (also called Sally). The two sons were musical child prodigies and both became well-known organists. Sally had the poetic gift of her father. Parents Charles and Sally were happily married 39 years until his death in 1788.

What do we glean from this story? A determined 120-mile ride through a pelting rain speaks of the enlivening and motivating effects of genuine love. Mrs. Gwynne’s insistence that Charles show evidence of adequate support for her daughter speaks of the parental responsibility of a mother’s heart, especially in a day when there was no significant social safety net. Charles’ tender notes addressed to Sally across decades of marriage speak of the durability of genuine love through all circumstances.

And Charles’ foremost question, above, bore witness that, above all, it was a living shared faith in Christ our Lord that bound their marriage together.

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New Blog Post Coming Soon

Greetings to all —

I had hoped to have a new blog post for this week but find myself tired from our trip back to Toronto. (Daughter Carolyn and her husband, Doug, graciously ferried Kathleen and me to Canada in their Honda Odyssey.) I am recovering well from the unexpected surgical procedure I received in Chicago … in fact, I’m feeling much better. That and a wonderful visit with members of my family living in the western suburbs of that city have served to buoy my spirits, and, as I hope to prove next week, my creativity.

In the meantime, here are some quotes from John Wesley that are well worth thinking about, whether you are a pastor or part of a pastoral support team:

I saw that giving even all my life to God (supposing it possible to do this and go no further) would profit me nothing unless I gave my heart, yea, all my heart, to Him.

I build on Christ, the rock of ages; on his sure mercies described in his word, and on his promises, all which I know are yea and amen.

Do We Need the Old Testament to Practice the Christian Faith?

This week I heard a sermon on YouTube from one of America’s most popular megachurch pastors. He contended that today’s church needs to “unhitch” from the Old Testament and live by the simpler ways of the New Testament. The Old Testament is too old, bloody, and complex for believers, he said.

One can appreciate the passion to bring the Gospel more simply to today’s public, but is completely disconnecting the Old Testament from church life the way to achieve the goal?

The sermon claimed that New Testament writers — Peter, James, Paul and others — had themselves disconnected from the Old Testament in the early days of the Christian church. He said they too wanted to make the faith simpler for those who sought after God.

But did Jesus not say the following? Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matthew 5:17,18).

Jesus came not to annul or even simplify the Old Testament but to embody its positive truths in living form. He came to save sinners, and the moral law as lodged in the Old Testament had a specific function in this saving ministry.

It was to awaken them to their sinful condition and bring them to the Savior. As Paul wrote to the Galatians: the law was like a strict guardian in charge of us until we went to the school of Christ and learned to be justified by faith in him (Galatians 3:24).

Contrary to the megachurch pastor’s sermon, New Testament writers did not  abandon Old Testament Scriptures. For example, Paul’s letter to the Romans spells out clearly the way to salvation by faith in Christ and is clear about the Old Testament’s function in that process.

He wrote: … I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law (Romans 7:7). The searchings of the law awaken us to our sin and our need for the Gospel.

It is true that the Old Testament is ancient and has content that can shock modern sensibilities. And many of its ceremonial rituals are no longer relevant. But the moral law revealed in these writings and contended for by the prophets is timeless.

Without the Old Testament what would we substitute for the hymn to creation in Genesis chapter 1? Or the story of God’s miraculous deliverance of his chosen people out of slavery in Egypt?

What would we substitute for the warnings and promises of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah? And how would we replace the treasures of the Psalms as aids to worship?

To abandon the Old Testament would also require major editing of the New Testament. Paul wrote to Timothy: All Scripture is God-breathed and is suitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16).

We dare not forget that the Old Testament was the only inspired text at hand when Paul said this. The New Testament had not yet been gathered as a sacred document. If we were we to decouple Old from New Testament, would we not be declaring that the Old Testament is no longer God-breathed?

Luke tells us that when Jesus was a 12-year-old boy, he lingered in the temple courts with the teachers of the law listening and asking questions. Onlookers were astonished at what he grasped and the questions he asked. What more powerful affirmation of that ancient text could we ask for?

With this memorable moment on record, we dare not unhitch law and prophets from their place in the whole sweep of both Testaments. God has given both to the historic church to direct us.

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Image info: Travis Wise (via flickr.com)

We Can Become Wise and Avoid Folly

Whereas the Gospel points us toward the life to come, the Proverbs instruct us about the life we are now living. These sayings were addressed especially to young men who stood on the threshold of adulthood because success in this life matters to God. The sayings have 3000 years of history on them so they are time-tested.

The issue of wisdom for God’s people is so important that his holy word contains five books that are called wisdom literature plus numerous references elsewhere to wisdom for life in both Testaments. Most popular among the five books is the Proverbs, many of them attributed to King Solomon.

The collection of proverbs was not unique to Israel. Surrounding nations had proverbs too. But the Hebrew proverbs are different in that they are grounded in “the fear of the Lord.” We regard the Old Testament as divinely inspired so these proverbs are sacred scriptures for the church of all ages.

As such, we do not view the wisdom of the proverbs as merely man-made; through human agency they are given to those who fear God. To fear God means more than to respect God in a general sense or to be terrified of God in a time of crisis. John W. Wevers writes that fearing God “is a technical term for those who live a godly life.” Wisdom calls us to embrace godly living.

The Book of Proverbs begins with an urgent seven-verse entreaty that ends with the summary statement: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).

How can such pointed insights as are found in the Proverbs be made to stick? Not by lectures or lengthy exhortations or even drama.

A proverb is instead a short and memorable sentence to tell us something important about living the wise and ordered life and avoiding folly. They express simple truths in simple words. For example, practice makes perfect.

Our English language is rich in proverbs. Some we know well: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Actions speak louder than words. Beggars can’t be choosers. Birds of a feather flock together; and on and on.

Solomon’s proverbs are a bit different in that they are written in the form of Hebrew poetry in which a thought is presented and then repeated in different words that agree, or add to, or state a contrast, completing the thought. For example: The prospect of the righteous is joy, / but the hope of the wicked comes to nothing (Proverbs 10:28).

Solomon’s first proverb after his introductory entreaty is: Listen my son to your father’s instruction / and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. He adds, They are a garland to grace your head / and a chain to adorn your neck (Proverbs 1:8,9). In other words, listening to parents, with respect, will add beauty to your life.

If Solomon were alive in our conflicted and even chaotic society, he might start by saying: Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12). Even to the present there is a connection between domestic order in society and civic stability.

Solomon’s second proverb begins, My son, if sinful men entice you do not give in to them (Proverbs 1:10). Few decisions have greater bearing on a young person’s future than the companions chosen in the early years. This advice is so important that it is followed by a brief essay telling what entreaties to be aware of and the consequences of ignoring them (Proverbs 1:11-19).

A teenager I befriended half a century ago wrote to me from the penitentiary a few months back. I had been a father figure to him when his own father abandoned his  large family. David explained that his bad end had originated from bad choices and wrong companions with whom he went astray after his time in the armed forces. To all of us, wisdom says: Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm (Proverbs 13:20).

And so the 31 chapters of Proverbs move from one counsel to the next always in the form of a proverb: The Lord detests dishonest scales, / but accurate weights find favor with him (Proverbs 11:1). Or, Laziness brings on deep sleep, / and the shiftless go hungry. (Proverbs 19:15) Or, Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid (Proverbs 12:1).

It is worth repeating that we treat these proverbs as God’s holy word. To the young of today living centuries after they were written, they continue to point the way to wisdom and to caution against folly. They say, Listen for I have trustworthy things to say; / I open my lips to speak what is right (Proverbs 8:6). To all of us they cry out: Seek wisdom and live.

Photo credit: Janes Gallerie (via flickr.com)

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Do I Have a Love That Can Suffer and Persevere?

Christ on the Mount of Olives by Josef Untersberger. Public Domain.

Love is often portrayed in our culture as an overwhelming fascination attended by a romantic glow. It’s largely rooted in the feelings.

Indeed, human love can activate such emotions, but genuine love can also be costly: A mother cares without complaint for a disabled child month after month to the point of exhaustion. That is noble, suffering love.

During Holy Week, we celebrate love, but in this case God’s love — a love for his fallen creatures of such imponderable magnitude that his Son, Jesus, was willing to suffer and die on our behalf.

God’s Son came to earth in human form for that very purpose. So while Jesus healed the afflicted, fed the hungry, and blessed the children, he came for more than to express compassion and comfort.

A deeper look into the Gospel accounts shows that the Incarnate Christ knew that his love would lead him into suffering. The willingness to suffer would be one way of showing love.

I became aware of this insight many years ago when Luke 9:51 seemed to stand out from the page. It says, As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.

Resolutely. That was the word that held my attention. Could it mean he didn’t want to go but knew he must do so to carry out a divine plan?

Back then I was also surprised by how early in Luke’s account the sentence appears. The Gospel according to Luke is divided into 24 chapters, but already in chapter nine Luke reported that Jesus knew what was ahead and that he anticipated suffering.

Jesus had not come merely to heal the afflicted, and teach the masses about his kingdom. He had come to suffer a death that would be for others.

He must have known that the religious rulers in Jerusalem would plot his death, the throngs for Passover would be easily turned against him, his own followers would flee, and Roman soldiers would be called upon to hang him on a cross to torture him in his dying. Yet he went forward resolutely.

Much happened as Jesus made that determined journey toward Jerusalem. It was after he fed the five thousand miraculously that Peter declared him “The Christ of God.” (Luke 9:18-20).

Jesus follows Peter’s confession with clear words to his disciples about what was ahead: The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Luke 9:22).

Could anything have been clearer? Still, his disciples failed to understand that for this great teacher and miracle worker love would mean suffering and that would require deep resolve.

During the same period of time he must have felt the need to bring the matter up to his disciples again because on another occasion he said: Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men (Luke 9:44).

There is a sobering and maturing word in all this. We too, as Christians, may fall into the trap of thinking of the love we profess only in brighter and more airy terms. It’s great to be a Christian!

And so it is. But Holy Week should remind us we are also called to be resolute in facing the tests, the adversities and the unexpected surprises of the journey. We are called to be true to our commitments even when our situation is adverse and undeserved.

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