All Widows Young and Old

I have always appreciated the Apostle Peter’s comment as he closes his Second Letter.

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. 2 Peter 3:15-16

Indeed, there are some things in Paul’s letters which are hard to understand.  One of these hard things is the instruction he gives to the Ephesian Church, via Timothy, regarding the long-term care of widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-16.

I always appreciate that my wife and children are very careful listeners to the preaching of the Word of God.  After preaching from this passage last night, on the ride home they shared with me that I had been very effective at creating opportunities for greater clarity on this passage.   So the following is an attempt to bring more clarity to some of the things which Paul says in this passage which are “hard to understand.”

The Enrollment

Paul twice uses the word, translated by the ESV, “enroll” in this passage, once, of those who are to be enrolled, and a second time when speaking of “younger widows” who are not to be enrolled.  Which begs the question, “what is the significance of this enrollment or list of widows?”

It is clear that the criteria for “enrollment” are different from those specified in 1 Timothy 5:3-8 which define the church’s responsibility to support “widows who are truly widows.”   So, to clarify this distinction, widows did not have to be enrolled in order to receive support from the church.   Enrollment is not analogous to being a “widow who is truly a widow.”  The criteria for enrollment are NOT a narrowing of the conditions of help for widows in need, young or old.  Rather, those who are “enrolled” are a subset of “widows who are truly widows.”  These are widows who, in the estimation of the elders, will require permanent support.  The witness of their lives, i.e. their “reputation for good works” demonstrates that they meet the criteria for support outlined in 1 Timothy 5:5-6.

The criteria that enrolled widows be at least 60 years old, spoke to the improbability that a widow’s need for continued support from the church would change.  According to J. N. D. Kelley, 60 was considered “in antiquity when one became an “old’ man or woman and a woman’s sexual passions might be deemed to have lost their dangers.”   It seems reasonable to conclude that this age requirement not a hard and fast rule for all times and places, but a culturally specific way to determine the likelihood of ongoing need.

One writer pointed out that 1 Timothy 5:3-8 focuses on the widow’s need while 5:9-16 focuses on the widow’s work.  This is a good observation as it seems that this enrollment carries with it more than the idea of mere support.  The reputation of these particular widows for faithful care of their own families and the household of God points to an expectation that with this support they will continue this ministry to the body of Christ.   Without this support they would be consumed with desperate attempts to survive in a world that showed little mercy to women without means.

Ministry in the body of Christ is organic and personal.  Our modern tendency is to institutionalize every avenue of ministry in to a program of the church, but this is not the picture that we see emerge in the pages of the New Testament.   These older widows have a track record of effective ministry within their own families, to other families in the church, and to widows and orphans (cf. Timothy 5:10, 16).  They are the “older women” Paul speaks of in Titus 2:3-5.  Consider how that passage mirrors this one.

Most probably these women were placed on the list, not only to ensure that they were not overlooked in the daily distributions of food (cf. Acts 6:1-2), but also because they assisted the elders and deacons in carrying out effective pastoral care to women within the congregation.  William Hendrikson notes in his commentary on this passage that “there is sufficient evidence to show that the early church had a body of widows with definite functions.  They were called intercessors or “keepers of the door.”  Their duties seem to be giving good counsel to younger women, praying and fasting, visiting the sick, preparing women for baptism, taken them to communion and giving guidance and direction to widows and orphans who were supported by the church.”

It would be a mistake to conclude as some have, that this enrollment was a form of employment, that the church was providing support in exchange for service.  The past tense forms of all the verbs describing the older widow’s good works speak of a settled habit of service.  Their support is not the motive to serve as they have, but rather their support empowers them to continue to serve as they have.   Consider how pastorally important this would be for grief care.  These women have experienced the grief of losing of a beloved husband and facing grave uncertainty.  To be bereaved of their ministry to others in the church would only compound their grief.  One of the key emphases of this passage is the empowerment of widows, both young and old, to serve Christ effectively according to their callings.  This is done through material support for older widows and through spiritual oversight and exhortation to marriage and family for younger widows.

The Younger Widows

One of the most difficult parts of this passage is Paul’s instructions regarding the younger widows.  At first glance, Paul seems overly harsh, like an old man who exalts the virtues of the old and despises the young.   A cursory reading might lead us to the following false conclusions that:

  • Paul does not want to support younger widows in need,
  • Paul views younger widows as lazy, self-serving and promiscuous
  • Paul views marriage, at the least, as a lesser expression of Christian life or, at the worst, as tantamount to apostasy and a denial of the faith.

But as wise mentor once said, “a text without a context is a pretext.”  The immediate and the larger context of Paul’s inspired writing in the New Testament clarifies these misconceptions considerably.

First, as noted above, refusal to enroll on the list of widows, did not mean that the church was unwilling to provide for “widows that are truly widows.”  Younger widows who had no means of support and who were not living self-serving, profligate lives received help from the church.  Paul is not commanding the church to ignore the plight of widows.  This would be utterly opposed to the character of God described in the Old Testament and the overwhelming concern Paul shows for the poor and oppressed throughout the New Testament.   What Paul is saying is not to enroll them as permanent and perpetual wards of the church since, being young, they may well desire to be remarried.

Paul does not despise remarriage, nor does he forbid it.   He holds a high view of marriage.  In his letter to the Ephesians, he uses marriage to illustrate Christ’s love for the church and instructs husbands in how to love their wives (cf. Ephesians 5:22ff).  Also, much of Paul’s teaching about life in the church is drawn from the imagery of family life.  Consider how frequently he refers to the church as the household of God.  And many of the exemplary qualities of the older widows he mentions are related to the care of husband and family.   Paul’s language here can hardly be understood as a condemnation of marriage as apostasy or second-rate Christianity.

But Paul does note that singleness affords an availability for Christian service that married life does not.  Timothy would have been very familiar with Paul’s words to the Corinthian Church in 1 Corinthians 7 addressing these same concerns.  Two passages are particularly significant.

To the unmarried and the widows, I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.  1 Corinthians 7:8-9

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. 1 Corinthians 7:32-35

Here we see Paul’s concerns regarding how marriage and family commitments affect our service in the church.  What husband or wife has not felt the tension between the needs of the church and the demands of family life?  While it is true that the care of our family has priority and that maintaining this priority is a key qualification for elders and deacons, this is a very real tension, nonetheless.  Every pastor has felt this keenly, as has his wife.  And how many young mothers have been made to feel guilty because of external or internal pressure that they need to be at church every-time the doors are open, despite knowing that this will spread them thin, compromise their care of husband and home, and exhaust their toddlers?

Did you notice Paul’s concern in the Corinthians passage?  It is not the effectiveness of church programs or ministries, but feelings of anxiety and the tension of divided loyalties in the lives of those who are contemplating marriage or who are already married.  Paul is not forbidding marriage or remarriage.  Far from it!  But he is acknowledging that marriage and family changes the contexts and the availability of our service to Christ.  This can create anxiety, guilt or exhaustion, leading some to walk away from the church wasted and weary.  How many people have left the church because they felt used up and burned out?   Paul’s concern is borne out of practical love for those who are single, not any disparaging of younger widows as unreliable apostates.

So moving back to Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 5:11-15, Paul seems to imply that while being enrolled on the list of widows is not a vow of perpetual singleness or employment as pastoral care assistants, there is an expectation that those on the list will continue the pattern of service that characterized their lives as wives and mothers, but with greater availability.   Though no requirement is placed on them, this expectation would certainly be felt.  For older women, they will likely remain undivided in this work.   But for younger women it is probable they will desire to marry.  Paul is concerned that this desire will then create the kind of anxiety described in 1 Corinthians 7:34-35.  On the one hand feeling guilt that remarriage would amount to abandonment of their calling or on the other hand refusing marriage out of a sense of obligation.  Obligation which might lead to bitterness toward the Lord, the church, and even those they serve.

Furthermore, note what 1 Timothy 5:15 says, “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.”   Paul does not want these young widows to be constrained by anxiety and refuse remarriage which is a very important avenue of full and fruitful Christian service, and trains them to do what the older widows have done.   But notice the last phrase, “to give the adversary no occasion for slander.”   Who is this adversary?  Satan is described as an adversary and he is referenced in the following phrase, but there are also “flesh and blood” adversaries who are animated by Satan to discredit and divide the church.  Those young widows who seemed initially to commit themselves to single-minded devotion to the care of others and then leave to find joy in husband and home, may be the subject of slanderous criticism from the church’s enemies and also provoke grumblers in the church.

The condemnation they incur is the condemnation of others as well as that of their own consciences.  Though they do not sin when their passions stir them to desire remarriage, it does create a crisis of expectation and commitment, which will no doubt provoke a faith crisis.  Notice that Paul speaks of “abandoning their former faith.”  The ancient language says “first faith.”   This brings to mind Christ’s word of condemnation to this very church of Ephesus in the Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation 2.

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” Revelation 2:4-5

In 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul speaks of professing believers who refuse to care for their needy relatives as “denying the faith.”  But that is not the language he uses here.  This is not apostasy, but the crisis of faith that arises when they abandon the life of singleness and service implicit in being enrolled by the church for marriage and family.  We must remember that the command here is given to the church, and in particular the leadership, to “refuse to enroll” the young widows so as not to place them in the situation of an internal crisis of faith and guilt or of external condemnation and accusation.  The church is not to make enrollment on the list of widows a condition for its help.  Likewise, the church must not lose sight of its larger responsibility to encourage them to be settled as wives and mothers.

But what about Paul’s characterization of young widows as idlers, gossips and busybodies?   It is important to note a key verb in verse 13 – “learn.”  Paul warns the church that perpetual provision for young widows poses a threat to their character.  Freed from any concerns for support and without ingrained habits of service, the church’s support, rather than empowering them for productive ministry, threatens to enable them in idleness.  Paul does not say that young widows are idle gossips and busybodies, but that the learn to be these things, precisely because the church has made them permanent wards, without clear accountability or direction.   Of course, this is not true for every young widow.  Some will remain in singleness and may need prolonged support from the church.  Paul is not forbidding this, per se, but setting forth practical principles so that the spiritual lives of young widows can be guarded from the well-meaning, but potentially destructive benevolence of the church.

There is perhaps a final concern here was well.   Paul’s polemic against the dangers of false teachers is pervasive in the Pastoral Epistles (see also Acts 20).  In 2 Timothy 3, he warns that in the last days (i.e. all the times from the Resurrection until the Return of Christ) there would be those “who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions.”   If the younger widows are added to the list and learn to be idlers, gossips, and busybodies then they are extremely vulnerable to every sensational speculation, myth, endless genealogy and false teaching.   Paul seems particularly concerned in 1 and 2 Timothy with the vulnerability of the Ephesian women to the influence of the false teachers.  If these young widows fall prey and spread heresy as they “go about from house to house,” the church will suffer irreparable harm and division.

Far from showing contempt or a lack of concern for the younger widows, Paul’s instructions display great insight into the tensions and temptations they will face as they move through the grief process.  He also shows tender concern for their character and growth in godliness.   His abiding concern in this passage is for these widows, young and old to recover a sense of purpose and meaning as they travel through the valley of the shadow of grief and loss.

Application

Paul says some things here that are hard to understand.  But God’s Word is meant to be applied.  So how do we apply this passage?

First, Paul’s overwhelming concern here is not to multiply centralized church ministries which must be administered, structured, funded and staffed.   He is instructing the church that in its support of widows through material provision and spiritual oversight, it is not only exercising benevolence, but empowering organic, personal, ministry.    In so doing, the Church also provides good pastoral care for those who are experiencing the grief of devastating personal loss by helping them restore a sense of purpose when life seems untethered and unstable.

Second, the Church’s call to provide temporary and perpetual material support for widows implies an ongoing and sacrificial commitment to personal giving on the part of the members.   Our household budgets reflect careful consideration of our own needs and wants, but what do they reveal about our ongoing commitment to the widow and the orphan?  The idea of “enrollment” here challenges the congregation to personal responsibility with both material resources as well as time.   Paul says elsewhere, “let no debt remain outstanding, except the debt of love you owe to one another.”  Our care for widows and orphans has no expiration date.

Finally, the instruction to refuse to enroll younger widows makes huge demands on pastors and elders to exercise substantive spiritual oversight and direction and not just “throw resources” at a need.  The easiest thing to do for someone in dire straits is to give them money.  But often this is the most destructive thing we can do.  We need look no further than the lives of past lottery winners or those enslaved in the labyrinth of government support to see this.   While giving a needy person money seems compassionate and easily discharges the pangs of our conscience and duty, pastors, elders and deacons are called to do the hard work of shepherding.

Throughout the Old Testament God is characterized not as a “provider for widows” but as a “defender of widows and a father to the fatherless.”  Let this give us a larger view of our tender love and care for those “widows who are truly widows,” both young and old.

Advertisements

A Tribute to Rev. Nale Falls

It is a custom at the meetings of the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church to read a tribute to all pastors who died since the last meeting of the Synod.   This year we lost the Rev. Nale Falls at the tender age of 100.   Several of my fellow pastors in the Synod asked if I had authored the tribute read by Vice Moderator Patrick Malphrus at the opening meeting.   As I did write it, I offer it below to those who might be interested.

The Life of Nale Falls

On Sunday, November 27, 2016, at the young age of 100 years old, the Reverend William Nale Falls of Little Rock, Arkansas entered peacefully into the presence of the Lord.

Nale was born in Pottsville, Arkansas on February 24, 1916, the son of Thomas Boston Falls and Sally (Evans) Falls. He spent his early years helping work the family’s farm, and loved to tell stories about growing up with his brother and three sisters in Pottsville. After graduating from Pottsville High School in 1933, he went on to Erskine College in South Carolina where he graduated in 1939 and then Erskine Theological Seminary in 1941. He received his master’s degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1959. In World War II, Nale served as chaplain in the Army from July 1944 to December 1945, which included a tour of duty in Germany.

As an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Nale served churches in Missouri, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Arkansas. He met his wife, Mable Finley Falls, at his first church, in Elsberry, Missouri, and they were married in 1942. Mable and Nale had four children: Phylis, Sarah, Nale Jr. and Katie.

Nale loved being a minister. He enjoyed ministering to all, whether it be at the church, at a hospital bedside or in members’ homes. He was proud to be the oldest living ARP minister.  Nale was a man who exhibited the joy of his salvation.   He loved to laugh and was rarely seen without a smile or his trademark bow tie.   Always quick with a joke, often at his own expense, or in reference to the peculiarity of his name, Nale used humor to connect with others.  While the arduous work of pastoral care often brings a particular weariness to a shepherd towards sheep, Nale truly loved to care for Christ’s sheep in the pulpit, in the living room and in the place of affliction.

Nale also loved to sing the songs of Zion.  He grew up in the tradition of exclusive psalmnody at the ARP Church in Pottsville, Arkansas.   He loved good hymnody, but his preference was always for the old Bible Songs.  He once wrote of returning home after spending a summer away from Pottsville.

“That first Lord’s Day I was home, I was late getting to Sabbath School.… One should be late for worship at least once to have the joy of hearing the singing of God’s praise as he approaches the House of Worship.  The metrical version of Psalm 122 says it perfectly.  “I was glad, I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go, let us go, go to the house of the Lord.”

Even in his hundredth year, when friends would visit Nale to share a psalm, a song and a word of prayer, he could remember all the verses to his favorite Bible Songs and add the deep and resonant harmonies of his clear and strong baritone voice.

Nale was also a man committed to the pastoral duty of encouraging others in ministry.  No doubt many ARP pastors and elders present here today have received a letter from Nale Falls, always handwritten and in large letters with a black sharpie.  Reminiscent of Paul’s comment in Galatians, “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand,” these pastoral letters were an amalgam of curious aphorisms, humorous anecdotes and solid encouragement for young ministers.

Nale was committed to preach the gospel in season and out.  Following a faithful and fruitful pastoral ministry, he continued to preach “unseasonably” even in his twilight years at the nursing home in Little Rock where he was a resident. If you visited with him there, it was clear that he preached the word out of season to his CNAs, nurses and anyone else who would listen.   Despite his confusion in these years, any visit with him would involve conversation about the work of the churches in Mississippi Valley Presbytery, recitation of portions of the catechism, the singing and reading of a Psalm and a time of prayer which always concluded with Nale pronouncing a benediction over his guest.  Anyone who visited to minister to Nale Falls, left receiving ministry themselves.

Nale lived a long life.  The Bible speaks of long life as a blessing for the one who spends it following Christ, but makes it clear to us that this life is not our home.  Our encouragement is to “seek a better country, that is the heavenly one” and to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”   This is the long life God calls us to live.   It is a life that begins with a new birth through faith in Christ Jesus.

None of us knows exactly when the Holy Spirit began to effectually call a young Nale Falls to follow Christ, but according to the records of the Pottsville ARP Church, he made a profession of faith on August 9, 1925 at the age of 9.   He served his Lord for 91 years on this earth.  What a great blessing for Nale to lay aside the mantle of oldest living ARP minister in the Church Militant to enter into the joy of His Master in the Church Triumphant.

 

The Lesser of Two Weevils

Woe to those who call evil good
    and good evil,
who put darkness for light
    and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
    and sweet for bitter!
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
    and shrewd in their own sight!   Isaiah 5:20-21

The recent election cycle renewed vigorous discussion regarding whether Christian ethics may employ “the lesser of two evils” when faced with apparently competing ethical demands in the moral law.  To hold such a view, however, accepts as a given that there are, in fact, truly competing moral demands.  Ethicists call these “conflicts of duty” or “tragic moral choices.”   We often simply refer to them as “the lesser of two evils.”

But is it valid to assume that such “conflicts of duty” actually exist in a truly biblical ethic?   Are there situations in which our only option is disobedience to some biblical command in order to obey the lesser or two evils?   Does our fallen condition create situations in which obedience to God’s revealed will is not even a possibility?

Many ethicists hold it as a given that such “conflicts of duty” exist and contend that there are times in which it is right to do what God has forbidden or right to fail to do what God has required?   Christian ethicists who hold this view attempt to mitigate the obvious concern over calling evil good, by noting that such necessary sins still require God’s forgiveness.

In his book, Medical Ethics: Principles, Persons and Problems, Dr. John Frame refutes this position on the following points.

  1. In Scripture it is never right to disobey a command of God and never sinful to do what is right.   [To do so] is ethically confused at a basic level.
  2. According to this view, the Scriptures, our fundamental ethical standard, would be contradictory; they would be telling us to do two incompatible things.
  3. Consider the christological implications of this view.  Did Jesus face “conflict of duties?”  If so, then He too was guilty of sin; He too ought to have asked God’s forgiveness…. But if Jesus did not face such conflicts, then how can we say with the author of Hebrews that he was tempted in every way, just as we are, yet was without sin (4:15)?   Either alternative is unacceptable, so the premise must be wrong.  There are no “tragic moral choices.”
  4. And 1 Corinthians 10:13 promises that Christians need never fall into sin, a promise that is incompatible with the view under discussion.

Given the belief that there are no “tragic moral choices” and no need to choose the “lesser of two evils,” our ethical task ought to be cut and dried, right?  Yet Frame notes Christians must often struggle longer than situational ethicists to find the consistent answer, biblically, to our ethical questions.  Frame notes several reasons this struggle is difficult.

“Sometimes we don’t understand Scripture adequately.  Sometimes we have an inadequate understanding of the situation to which Scripture is to be applied.  And sometimes our own spiritual immaturity obscures matters in our minds and hearts.”

Situational ethicists often accuse Christians of taking the easy way out by denying “conflicts of duty,” but the reality is that the unwillingness to call good evil and evil good or to put darkness for light and light for darkness makes Christian ethics far more challenging and indeed impossible without the illumining work of the Holy Spirit shining on the Word of God.

Songs of the Holy Spirit

I first met Dr. Hughes Oliphant Old when he knocked on the door of my room at the Erskine College guesthouse to invite me breakfast.  It was no luxurious affair to be sure. We broke our fast at the makeshift cafe inside Kennedy’s Exxon in the sleepy town of Due West, South Carolina.   I had signed up to take my first course in his fledgling, “Institute for Reformed Worship,” entitled “The Psalms as Christian Prayer.”

He seemed rather unremarkable standing in my doorway with his long Calvinesque beard and his frumpy broad brimmed hat.  But little did I know at that first meeting the impact that this giant of a man, scholar, pastor and teacher would have on my life and ministry.

When he would speak of the Psalms his eyes would twinkle and his whole demeanor would become animated.   He loved to refer to the Psalms as the “Songs of the Holy Spirit” and he encouraged poets and musicians to engage in the task of creating new settings for them to be used in private, family and public worship.

So it brings me great delight that my oldest, Isabella is doing just that.  Lord’s Day afternoons often find her hidden away in some quiet place, meditating upon some passage of scripture and setting it in a metrical setting to some old or contemporary hymn tune which captures the ethos of the passage.   She has been posting these on her blog and is working toward the production of a book of these Scripture songs — Songs, indeed, of the Holy Spirit.   Check out her work at her blog under Paradox and Poetry.

 

Turning Point

Today marks a turning point.  It is not lost on me that it occurs on Epiphany.  Today is my last official day as a full time Chaplain with Arkansas Hospice.   For the past four years I have walked with patients, families, nurses, CNAs, social workers, bereavement specialists, DME techs, housekeepers, cooks, managers and hired caregivers through the valley of the shadow of death.

I have seen death and dying, up close and very personally — sorrow and joy, grief and relief, anger and happiness, fear and courage, hardened unbelief and powerful faith, broken and unbreakable families.

I have been privileged to serve with the very best.  I have been changed by these past four years with my beloved coworkers and with the patients and families we served together.  I pray that I have been faithful to the calling articulated by Michael Aureli, founder of Arkansas Hospice, to show:

“the tender mercy of our God whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:78-79.

I am thankful for the years the Lord has given me in this calling, but now He has given me another calling.  As I continue to serve as pastor of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Pottsville, the Lord has also called me to help start a new church in Little Rock.  You can find out more about this new calling at  http://rivercityarp.org and why we are doing this at https://rivercityarp.org/why-do-we-need-another-church/.

Please keep our family in your prayers as we embark on this turning point in our lives.

Resolutions

What did you resolve to do or to be in 2016? Or perhaps your 2016 resolution was to stop doing or being?  Did you keep that resolution?  Is your life significantly different as you prepare for a new orbit around the sun?

Did you walk a new walk this year or only talk some talk?   We are good at deciding what we must do, but decidedly poor at actually doing it.   The Bible puts it this way.

“For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.” (1 Corinthians 4:20 ESV)

What resolutions have you begun to formulate in preparation for the new year?   Perhaps you have determined to attain a healthy weight and improve your fitness.  This is a worthy goal and should be part of every Christian’s obedience to the sixth commandment.  But as you are ordering your copy of “Trim Healthy Mama” from Amazon or enrolling into CrossFit 101, do not forget the words of Scripture,

“Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:7-8 ESV)

How are you training yourself for godliness?

Perhaps you have determined to increase your wealth and get control of your finances.  Indeed, the Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us that obedience to the eighth commandment requires “the lawful procuring and furthering the wealth and outward estate of ourselves and others.” Yet the catechism also reminds us that “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.“  To resolve only to increase wealth and get control of finances, but fail to submit all our substance to the Lordship and will of Christ incurs for us the Lord’s warning.

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? (Mark 8:34-37 ESV)

Perhaps you have resolved to reform some bad habits or character flaws – a most worthy resolution!  Scripture commands us to “be holy, for I am holy.”  Yet without faith in Christ and repentance and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, your resolve will produce only greater turmoil in your life.  No man has the power to reform himself.  Jesus warns us of the dangers of self-reformation rather than Christ-transformation when he tells of a man with an evil spirit.

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-26 ESV)

There is only one resolution that is necessary this year – that is to follow Christ.  When Christ called men to Himself his call was always the same, “Follow Me.”  Friend, let that be your only resolution this year.  And if it is, then all other resolutions will be resolved.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33 ESV)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously summed up the call to discipleship when he said, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”  What have you resolved for 2017?  Follow Christ!  Let that be it.

Not Holy Days, But Helpful Days

At this festive time of the year my Facebook feed is all aTwitter with the intramural Reformed debate over whether observance of Evangelical Feast Days are consistent with or contrary to the principle of “Worship, Reformed According to Scripture.”

The Second Helvetic Confession, authored by Zwingli’s successor, Heinrich Bullinger, notes in XXIV.3 that “if the churches do religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s Nativity, Circumcision, Passion, Resurrection, and of his Ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, according to Christian liberty, we do very well approve of it.”

Bullinger’s important contingency is “according to Christian liberty.”  No doubt he had in mind Romans 14:4-8.

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:4-8 ESV)

On the other hand, the Westminster Directory for Publick Worship, in an Appendix entitled “Touching Days and Places for Publick Worship” appears to express the matter quite differently.

THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.Nevertheless, it is lawful and necessary, upon special emergent occasions, to separate a day or days for publick fasting or thanksgiving, as the several eminent and extraordinary dispensations of God’s providence shall administer cause and opportunity to his people.

A few years ago, Danny Hyde, Pastor of Oceanside Reformed Church, wrote an excellent article on this question entitled “Not Holy, but Helpful: A Case For the Evangelical Feast Days in the Reformed Tradition.”  I recommend that you follow the link above to read the whole article.  It is worth the time.  At the end of the article he draws the following conclusion.

The Reformed family of Protestant Reformation churches affirms that worship is to be done according to the Word of God. What this means today may not be what it meant historically speaking. And so we’ve seen that some of those same churches and theologians who affirmed sola Scriptura and what later came to be known as “the regulative principle,” also affirmed the Christian freedom to celebrate the work of Jesus Christ on the evangelical feast days besides the Lord’s Day and that this was to be done with a view to the edification of the body.