Thursday, June 22, 2006

Habakkuk: Who? What? When? Where? Why?

The book of Habakkuk is not often preached upon in evangelical churches today. This, I believe, has lead to a lack of familiarity with the contents of that book, which is a shame. Sometimes Old Testament books can seem intimidating so people avoid studying them on their own. I would like to encourage every Christian to delve into all these books, but I will highlight Habakkuk specifically. In order to provide a quick intro to the book I thought I’d post some of my incomplete sermon notes. I hope they’re helpful. I focused on the '5 W's'.

Who? Habakkuk

What? Generally: He is questioning God’s inaction against a sinful Judah. He is not sinning because his complaint actually assumes God’s righteousness. Since God is righteous, why is He allowing Judah to go on without judgment?

Specifically: What are Habakkuk’s complaints?

A. The complaints: vv. 2-3a
B. Expanding on the complaints: vv. 3b-4

The Lord is unresponsive: v. 2-3 “…how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” Habakkuk had been praying long and hard for deliverance from an unjust society. Violence was running unchecked through the streets and God was doing nothing. Habakkuk was tormented in his soul because of the sin of his society. Are we tormented when we see society’s sin? Do we take it seriously?
The torment was made all the more severe by the fact that Habakkuk knew That God is holy. He knew God’s righteous standard and the judgment violation of it would bring (Deut. 28:15-68), but such judgment was nowhere to be seen.
Even in the courts of law there was no respite from cruelty. In v. 4 Habakkuk cries, “So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.” The authorities who should have been executing judgment against evil twisted it for their own purposes. The wicked used the law as a weapon against the righteous. Of course, Habakkuk wasn’t ready for God’s response.

When? Probably during the reign of Jehoiakim, not long before the Babylonian captivity. Jehoiakim was the second son of the godly king Josiah. Josiah’s first son, Jehoahaz, had been deposed and taken to Egypt by Pharoah Neco (2 Chron. 36:1-4). Jeremiah was also active as a prophet during this time. (2 Chron. 35:25)

Where? Judah.

Why? Habakkuk is questioning God because he is astounded that God hasn’t judged the sinful nation yet. He knows the promises of judgment for unfaithfulness (Deut. 28:15-68), but he sees nothing of happening. This confuses him, as it would confuse me. It is hard to remember that God’s timing is perfect when sin surrounds you as it did Habakkuk. Yet Habakkuk remained faithful to God and ultimately trusted His providence. Even though he knew judgment was coming he ends his book with a psalm of joy in the Lord (3:17-19).

Monday, June 19, 2006

Habakkuk: The Providence and Justice of God

A foremer professor of mine once told me that Barnhouse (or at least I think it was Barnhouse) would not set his pen to paper regarding a book of the Bible unless he had read it at least fifty times. I don’t think I’ve read any book of the Bible all the way through fifty times, but I know in recent days I have at least gotten into double digits with Habakkuk. Like most of the Minor Prophets, evangelicals generally ignore Habakkuk, but there is much to be learned from this book.

It comes as a surprise to some that a large part of Habakkuk’s first chapter is comprised by a complaint or questioning of God. In 1:2-4 we find the prophet complaining about God’s lack of action against a rebellious people. “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” he asks.

The book takes place in a time before the Jews were taken captive into Babylon. According to the study notes in the Reformation Study Bible Habakkuk prophesied during the reign of King Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:36-24:6; 2 Chronicles 36:4-8). This was a time marked by wickedness, as Habakkuk’s complaint indicates. The Bible gives little information on him other than the fact that he did evil deeds. Habakkuk was grieved, as would be any godly man. He saw violence and destruction (vs. 2, 3) and mourned the lack of justice that was found in the land (v. 4). Why wasn’t God doing anything?

As is always the case, God was doing something. The LORD answered Habakkuk’s question with words of impending judgment.
Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded.For I
am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if
told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter
and hasty nation,who march through the breadth of the earth, to
seize dwellings not their own. (vs. 5, 6)

The description of the Babylonians goes on to verse 11, but his is good news, right? God is not just allowing sin to pass by unnoticed. This is what Habakkuk wanted. Or…was it?

Therefore he sacrifices to his net
And makes offerings to his dragnet;
For by them he lives in luxury,
And his food is rich.
Is he then to keep on emptying his net
And mercilessly killing nations for ever? (vs. 16, 17)

Habakkuk is referring to the Babylonians here. The ‘net’ is a metaphor their ability to conquer nations and then attributing their victory to their gods and their power (see v. 11). He cannot understand why God would judge Judah using an even more wicked nation. Why allow God’s people to be conquered by someone who is not even going to give the glory to God?

God gives his answer in the form of a vision. The bulk of chapter two is a prediction of the downfall of Babylon. There are five woes pronounced upon them. Again, God will not let deeds of wickedness go unpunished. Perhaps I will write on the five woes later this week.

The close of the book is a prayer-song by Habakkuk. Though the book opens with doubt and questions, it ends with certainty.

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
Nor fruit be on the vines,
The produce of the olive fail
And the fields yield no food,
The flock be cut off from the fold
And ther be noherd in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet like the deer’s;
He makes me tread on my high places.

To which I say, "Amen."

Friday, June 16, 2006

On 'The Mortification of Sin' Part 2

Yesterday I began an examination of John Owen’s classic The Mortification of Sin. I had only just begun to look at chapter one when I had to step away from the computer, so I will be picking up where I left off.

Owen begins a more in depth look at the verse by starting with the conditional statement. “But if.” There are two things, according to Owen that such conditionals can actually mean. One conditional is uncertain. Owen describes it thusly: “the uncertainty of the event of the event promised, in respect to them to whom the duty is prescribed.” It is not as though, on this sort of conditional, that the desired outcome is certain when the duty is performed. One does not necessarily follow from the other. For instance, if I say, “if I get to St. Louis I will attend seminary” I do not mean that going to St. Louis secures my position in Seminary.

Owen denies that this is the conditional Paul has in mind in 8:13. If we look at 8:13 this way we will discover why. “If you mortify the deeds of the body you will live.” If there is uncertainty between these two then it is possible, even if the person in question mortifies the deeds of the body, for that person to die and miss out on eternal life. Owen, however, points out that verse 1 of that same chapter of Romans says Christians face no condemnation. We are set free from the law of sin and death.

What sort of conditional do we have? This conditional is one of certainty. “If I get all the answers right I will pass the test.” This ‘life’ is the guaranteed result of mortification, though not through strict cause and effect. God promises the end (life) and he ordains a means (mortification) to get us there. The promise of life is the motivation for mortification.

To some this may sound dangerously close to salvation by works. It is not because eternal life is not earned through mortification. Rather the life is granted by God, but mortification will be exemplified in the actions of he who has been given life. If you do not mortify, you will die because you did not receive life.

Next Owen focuses on the people to whom the duty of mortification is given. A quick glance through Romans 8 will reveal that Paul’s audience is a Christian one. The chapter begins, as we saw above, by telling us how we no longer face condemnation when we are in Christ. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” This is certainly written to the Christian, and there is nothing between this verse and verse 13 to indicate Paul is referring to anyone else. We must not try to push this duty onto non-Christians. It’s foolish and they lack the power of the Spirit that is necessary. It is, as Owen indicates, the beginning of superstition and a perversion of the gospel.

I will wrap up this post for now. It is taking me longer to sort this chapter out than I thought, and I can only assume it will continue on this path. I could blog on this 176 page book for the next year and a half. It seems likely, since I am preaching on June 25, that I will shift my focus next week and write about the text of my sermon, which is the book of Habakkuk. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Examining Owen's 'The Mortification of Sin'

I have of late been reading John Owen’s classic The Mortification of Sin. It has been revolutionary for me in my dealings with indwelling sin. The entire book is a meditation on Romans 8:13, which was the text I took for my own sermon on conquering sin. More accurately, it is a meditation on the second half of the verse, which reads, “…but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

Owen goes on to say how mortification is to be done through the rest of the book. I have read it from cover to cover, but it is not really solidified in my mind. Since I do not have a good command of the material I have decided to go through each chapter in greater detail, and I will use this blog as a means of organizing my thoughts.

Chapter one is an exposition of the aforementioned verse. He first lays out a motivation to holiness, namely that “if you live according to the flesh you will die”. However, since his focus lies on the second half of the verse he moves on without much further comment.

The different parts of the verse are then divided and examined. He comes up with five parts that will help us grasp what Paul was saying. First, there is a duty prescribed, namely ‘mortify the deeds of the body’. But who should mortify? That is the second part. ‘You’, that is the Christian, should mortify the deeds of the body. Then there is a promise given. “You will live” if you mortify. Fourth, Owen shows that it is the Spirit who is the means of mortification. Only through Him can mortification be done. Finally, the conditionality of the verse is emphasized. “If you mortify…”

Tomorrow I will cover the second half of chapter one in greater detail, and if I am able I will do some work on chapter two as well.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Dreaming of Virtuous Sons

I have a bit of a dream. Here I am going off to seminary, my wife and I trying to beat back worry over our finances. I have a few prospects for some good jobs, and my wife could probably get a job if need be, but…that’s just not how we want to do it. Not that I don’t want a job, but we would rather she not have to work. What does my dream have to do with this? Wait and see.

We are planning on homeschooling our children. Classical homeschooling, no less. That’s reading-intensive stuff. I’m a pretty conservative chap, as you may have guessed, and I can tell you from experience that good reading material for young boys is hard to come by. You can’t just run to Border’s and pick up whatever is on the shelf. You might as well give your child unrestricted access to TV. There will be material there that is toxic to the Christian worldview.

No, I want books that will build virtue in my sons. I want books that build distinctively masculine virtues. Let’s face it: we live in a declining civilization. The young males in college, high school and on down are mostly barbarians. They live to satisfy whatever urge hits them the hardest. The kind of book I’m after teaches my sons to be disciplined, kind to those in need, and unflinching in the face of evil. I want characters that defer gratification, treat women like human beings worthy of honor, and swallow their fears in order to sacrifice themselves for greater things.

I know such books exist, but they’re often difficult to find. Because the demand in young culture is for smart mouthed kids with idiots for parents (see almost every cartoon on the air) good books are hard to come by. Few people are writing them now, and the old ones are out of print. Some homeschool parents spend hours searching antique book stores for little treasures, but that takes a lot of time. The boys are worth it, and I’ll do it if comes to that…but that brings me back to my dream. My dream would kill two birds with one stone.

I don’t imagine clairvoyance is necessary now to discern the content of my dream. I want to write my books. I don’t want to do anything enormous, perhaps just 250 pages worth of text, but if I could capture the virtues I’m thinking of in a compelling adventure story I would be thrilled. That might play a part in the inculcation of virtue in my sons. And if I could sell these books then my wife’s dream of caring for our home and children full time could come true as well!

I’ve already begun spinning my first tale of adventure and virtue about a cooper’s son who is thrust into more adventure than he bargained for. The story is set in an alternate world where magic does not necessarily have the occult connotations it does here (like Narnia and Middle-Earth in that sense), and there will be plenty of swordplay. I know it all sounds vague and underwhelming, but I’m just starting out. Who knows? The book may flop and nothing may come of this. But maybe the book will be well done and well received! Maybe one book will become a series! The future is uncertain, but for the sake of my sons, and for any of yours who may encounter my book(s), I must try.

Friday, June 09, 2006


I have been absent most of this week due to a family situation and personal illness. I will resume regular posting next week.

Monday, June 05, 2006

God's Word: The Pillar of Certainty

I spoke with a friend over lunch of doubt and uncertainty. He had read my entry titled ‘God is in the Move’, which is about our troubles with money and the uncertainty they caused. His words were very encouraging to me and I appreciated them very much, but I think he’ll understand if I say that no word from his mouth can provide comfort and assurance like the Word of God.

Yesterday, just before our pre-service prayer at church, my brother Aaron shared a powerful verse that provides just such comfort.

Psalm 119:89
Forever, O LORD, your wordis firmly fixed in the heavens.

First Romans 8:28, now Psalm 119:89. God planted such amazing peace in my heart through that verse I immediately stood up from the table so I could grab paper and pen to write down the reference. I knew I had to take the time to meditate on it later.

There is a beautiful harmony between Romans 8:28 and Psalm 119:89. Romans 8:28 says those who love God are in His plan and their lives will work out for the good. We know that this good may not be our cultural ideas of good (comfort, ease, health and wealth), but instead the highest good, which is to glorify God. Whatever circumstance we face we can take comfort that God’s hand is in it.

But how do I know that this promise will stand? How can I be sure that God will abide by Romans 8:28? This is where Psalm 119:89 swoops in and provides a mighty pillar of support. “Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens.”

God’s word is firmly fixed. It will not, cannot be moved. It is established. It is not tentative, and God does not hold it loosely. This means that not only Romans 8:28, but God’s sovereign plan for each of us as individuals is set. There is nothing that you, I, or Satan can do to destroy that plan, and if you love God and are called according to his purpose all the events of your life will work together for good.

How long is God’s word firmly fixed? The first word of verse 89 is ‘forever’. There is no time limit to the validity of God’s word. It is not as though Romans 8:28 was a limited time offer. God’s promise is out there for us to rely on today and it will be there tomorrow.

Finally, God’s word is firmly fixed in the heavens. Even the place of the fixing adds comfort to the verse. As John Calvin stated in his commentary on Psalm 119:89, “As we see nothing constant or of long continuance upon earth, he elevates our minds to heaven, that they may fix their anchor there.” Grass and flower fade away (1 Peter 1:24), the earth will crumble and decay. But God’s word, fixed in the heavens, is not affected by such things (1 Peter 1:25).

Every day that passes gives more reason to trust in the word of God. His promises will not fail, and no change in our circumstances should alter our trust.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Putting to Death the Deeds of the Flesh

In recent years I’ve become a bit of a church history buff. I love looking back at the lives of faithful men and women and seeing what they did to represent Christ. Their stories serve as an inspiration and a warning to me.

One of my favorite historical figures is Athanasius. Athanasius lived in the 4th Century and was a key figure at the Council of Nicea, though he was mainly there to assist his bishop, Alexander. The heresy of Arianism, which held that Jesus was created by God the Father, was poisoning the church in those years and Athanasius was the principle defender of orthodoxy. There was, in fact, a time when nearly the entire Christian world held to Arianism but Athanasius held to the truth.

Because of his unwillingness to compromise with these powerful heretics he was kicked out of his bishopric in Alexandria, Egypt and banished. He returned, only to be banished again. He was banished no less than five times, but still he refused to acquiesce. Not even when he was falsely accused of murder and witchcraft did he waiver in his faithfulness to the Lord. There is a reason why we say ‘Athanasius Contra Mundum’.

A second of my favorite church fathers is Augustine. In his public life, he, like Athanasius, defended the Christian faith against heresy. Interestingly, we also know a great deal about Augustine’s internal struggles. In his autobiography, called Confessions, he spoke his intense battle against sin. Lust was a major issue for Augustine, but he was eventually able to subdue the temptation that raged in his heart.

As I said, these figures are a source of inspiration for me, and well they should be! They did tremendous things in defense of the truth and did not deny Christ with their deeds as so many have done (Titus 1:16). But how? How did these men stand so firmly for Christ in the face mounting temptation? How did Athanasius conquer the temptation to save his own life and position as bishop? How did Augustine control the fire of lust that burned in his chest? The answer to this question is not found in a history book. For this we must look no other place than the Bible.

How Do We Treat Sin?

Before I actually look at a Biblical text I want to take some time for introspection. I want to examine how I, and I believe many Christians, have looked at sin. As I have reflected on my own life I can recall times that I have laughed at my own sin. When I was 15 I went to the beach with my cousin. Long story short, I got drunk and left my shoes on the beach where they were washed away with the tide. Though losing my shoes is a bit humorous, there is nothing funny about my drunkenness.

Another summer I spent time some time at a camp. While there a friend and I had a contest in which we tried to see who could eat the most pizza during lunch. We both gorged ourselves to the point that we vomited. For a long time I thought of both of those stories as good anecdotes. We’ve all been there, right? We’ve all overindulged in one way or another and that point of commonality makes the story funny. But here’s the rub:

It’s not funny.

What is drunkenness? What is gluttony (my experience with the pizza was certainly gluttony)? These things are sin. They reveal a lack of self-control, which is a quality essential to Christlikeness (Galatians 5:22-24). They reveal intemperance, which disqualifies one from being an elder (1 Timothy 3:2-4) at the very least. I am convinced that if I tell these stories God is not laughing.

Perhaps, though, you do not laugh at your sin as I have. But still we can stumble upon another error, that of excusing our sin. I was riding in the car listening to a sermon give by a prominent young Christian. He made light of his lack of compassion in his description of his failed pastoral ministry. According to his thoughts, his personality made him ill-suited for that sort of work. I understand that we are not all called to be pastors, but the compassion should mark pastors should also mark those of us who are not pastors. Galatians 5:22 says that gentleness and longsuffering are fruit of the Spirit. Whatever our ‘personalities’ are like is irrelevant. Our personalities are to be brought under the subjection of Christ so that we may be conformed to God’s image, not to be used as an excuse for sinful attitudes and actions. Would this man have spoken similarly if lust had been his problem rather than a lack of compassion?

The Bible’s Attitude Toward Sin

The Bible’s attitude toward sin is much different than those described above.

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. -Romans 8:13 (ESV)

Romans 8:13 tells us to ‘put to death the deeds of the body’. What does this mean? It means we must kill those deeds. This is radical, violent language that must shape our attitude toward sin. We don’t laugh, we don’t excuse. These deeds of the body are to be destroyed in a ‘give no quarter’ fashion.

The question we must ask is, ‘are we ready to be radical?’ Many Christians in America are too interested in comfort and money to be ready to kill sin. The necessary steps cut too close to the things we hold dear. We like our lives as they are, and trading our pleasures can be a painful experience.

How to ‘Put to Death’*

What are these ‘radical steps’ we must take to kill our sin? How do we ‘put to death the deeds of the body?’ Romans 8:13 tells us that it must be done in the power of the Spirit. But what does that mean?

First it means that we cannot do this in our own power. There is no room for legalism in the killing of sin. No pharisee’s rule-keeping can conquer the lusts of our hearts. Such things affect only our external lives. This course will make us ‘whitewashed tombs’, to use Christ’s metaphor (Matthew 23:27).

John Piper has identified three steps in mortifying sin through the Spirit. First we must set our minds on the things of the Spirit. We can’t just say ‘no’ to sin. That is not enough. Our minds must be full of the things of Spirit. They must be our chief focus. We must also set our minds on the Words of God and the realities they stand for. This identifies what ‘the things of the Spirit’ are. 1 Corinthians 2:13-14 says that the things of the Spirit cannot be understood by the natural man. These things of the Spirit to which he refers are Paul’s own inspired writings. To put to death the deeds of the body we must embrace God’s Word. This is not simple reading, as the next step indicates. In Galatians 3:5 Paul tells us that God provides the Spirit for us not by the Law, but through hearing with faith. Hearing what? The Word of God. But simple hearing, like simple reading, is insufficient. It must be hearing with faith. Take God’s Word and believe it. Meditate on it. The Word must become so much a part of you that it changes the way you think and live.

Now we know it is through immersion in the Word that sin will be killed. Let me emphasis, however, that there is action that must be taken on our parts. We must be ruthless in removing those things from our lives that draw us into sin. Do you struggle with anger? Ask yourself, what do I have in my life that makes it easy for me to indulge my anger? The same goes for gluttony, drunkenness and lust. Often there are little things we allow to creep into our lives that lead us slowly down the wrong path. They must be rooted out and eliminated, remembering that it is only the power of the Spirit that enables us to conquer sin.
We are useless to God if we are enslaved by sin, and we bring reproach to His name, not glory.

My exhortation and counsel in conquering sin is that which I have learned from better men than myself. Make the Bible your bread. Root out those things that carry you away to sin. If these things are done in the power of the Spirit and not by your own flesh your life will bring glory to God. And there is no higher end than this.

*I am indebted to John Piper’s sermons on Romans 8:13 for much of this portion of the essay.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

God is in the Move

The move creeps closer. On the first of July my family and I will move from Huntington, WV to St. Louis, MO so I can attend Covenant Theological Seminary. This is obviously a huge step for us. We will be far from our families. We will be ‘on our own’ for the first time. The thought of being known primarily as ‘The Duncans’ and not as the children of our parents is quite attractive.

But we are not taking this step without risk. We worked on a budget a couple of nights ago, and it was UGLY. Our expenses are too high. We’re taking out student loans. The specter of tremendous debt looms overhead. Worse, my wife has seen her dream of being able to leave work and stay at home with the boys full time slip away yet again. Long story short: we were depressed.

I travel for my job every Wednesday. I got into the CRV my mood was nearly as bleak as it had been the night before. My brain was swimming in fear and second guesses. What in the world will happen to us? How will I ever get my degree? Should I have just planned to stay in Huntington? The issue was compounded by the fact that I had already tendered my resignation for my job. I felt trapped. I went through the work day seeking relief and finding none.

On my way to Praise Team Practice that night God spoke to me.

Romans 8:28.

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

A wave of joy washed over me. Somehow, some way, I had forgotten that Romans 8:28 was true! Once I thought about it, I realized that it really doesn’t matter if I get my M.Div. or not. It doesn’t matter if I have to take a semester off, or have to start taking classes part time. God is in this move. If I never finish my degree at CTS, yet remain faithful to Him and serve His purpose I am a blessed man.

After practice I drove home glorifying the Lord. He would not abandon me. He has promised to sustain me. My wife, however, was still hurting. When the time came for our evening Bible study she struggled for motivation. We turned to the book of Revelation and read chapter seven. We discussed different eschatological positions and enjoyed the praise that the multitudes gave to God. Toward the end of the study one of our boys woke up and I went to get him back to sleep. When I returned she pointed verse 17:

“For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

“I guess God never promised to make things easy for us here, did He?” she said. I sat down and we hugged each other for a while. Before we went to bed we prayed that we would find our satisfaction in God alone, not in money and not in a job or the lack thereof. That nigh sleep came easily.

Mark Dever on the Differing Approaches to Advocating Complementarianism

Mark Dever has written a fantastic post about complementarianism and the consequences of the egalitarian hermenutic over on Together for the Gospel. Read it!

Undermining Tolerance of Egalitarianism

HT: Justin Taylor