Your Labor Is Not in Vain (1)

(Originally published in Christian Renewal.)


What does Sunday have to do with our work on Monday? In theological discussions about Christ and culture, about the kingdom of God, and about the role of the church in society, it is easy to lose sight of one of the most fundamental questions: does the Christian faith make a difference for everything that I do?

The biblical vision is of the kingdom of God encompassing all of life. One of the most exciting ways to summarize this biblical view of life as it is emphasized in the Reformed tradition is the great truth that the resurrection of Jesus changes everything, that what we celebrate on the first day of the week reaches into every area of life and breathes hope and meaning into it.

The Apostle Paul’s famous chapter on the resurrection of the body – 1 Corinthians 15 – ends with this often neglected exhortation:

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (v. 58).

This is a startling passage! The conclusion of Paul’s defense of the promise of resurrection is not just that you have hope you can file away for when you need it one day. His conclusion is that this should encourage us now to do the work of the Lord, because it means that our labor – here and now – is not in vain.

What is the work of the Lord of which Paul speaks? When are we serving the Lord in our labor, the labor that is no longer in vain? Some may be tempted to think this speaks only of missionaries or pastors. But elsewhere Paul says to the household servant – one of the lowest of laborers in the hierarchy of Roman culture – these life-changing and work-affirming words:

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ (Col. 3:23).

Faithful work as a household servant is something by which the servant is “serving the Lord Christ.” All lawful vocations in God’s good creation are just that: vocations or callings by which we please and serve the Lord. All faithful work in the world God made is “the work of the Lord.”

Apart from Christ, such work would seem to be in vain. Death has the final word, rendering everything we do empty and pointless. But according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:58, the resurrection of Jesus changes all of that. The resurrection means that “in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

The goal of this series of articles is to explore the rich connections that the Apostle Paul is making in this verse. First, we need to be clear about the Christian’s hope: not just “going to heaven when I die,” but the resurrection of the body when Christ returns. Getting that right changes everything. What we do in the body is not something worthless that God will reject in favor of a disembodied spiritual existence. Rather, our bodies will be raised, and that gives meaning and significance to what we do with them now. Therefore, even the household servant of Colossians 3 is “serving the Lord Christ.”

Second, this series will also explore a deeper connection Paul is making, one that points us to the hope of Romans 8:

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (vv. 20-21).

The resurrection of the body speaks of a greater reality: the resurrection of creation. Just as our bodies are not rejected, so God will not reject or annihilate this creation. Instead, as Article 37 of the Belgic Confession summarizes, Jesus will return “burning this old world with fire and flame to cleanse it.” The promise of God is not the rejection of the creation, but the cleansing and renewing of it.

And that has everything to do with how we view our work on Monday morning. Because of the resurrection of Christ, Paul says: “in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

College Students and the Church (3): A Challenge to Churches

dinner(Originally published in Christian Renewal.)

The previous article in this series challenged college students to pursue mature participation in the life of the local church during the college years: seeking inter-generational relationships, practicing hospitality, and welcoming true accountability. This challenge comes from the conviction that the waning commitment of twenty-somethings to the church is – at least in part – a result of their never having been engaged as real-life participants in the life of the church in the first place. Part of the solution is for college students themselves to refuse to allow the college years to be a poorly-defined in-between time when it comes to their relationship with the church.

This vision for the relationship between college students and the church raises a challenging question for churches themselves. How should we order our lives together so as to encourage this sort of relationship? This article will be presenting that question as a challenge to churches in two different ways.  First, this is a challenge for the students’ home churches: are we encouraging our young people – in the way we live together – to think of themselves as full, committed participants in the life of the body of Christ? Second, this is a challenge for churches that welcome college students in their midst: do we live together in a way that readily encourages students to integrate into the broader church community?

Home church: integrate them before they leave

When college students have difficulty living as mature members of a local congregation, it’s often because they were not prepared to do so before they left for college. Our heavily programmed and segregated approaches to youth ministry can have the effect of cordoning off our young people in their own category, rather than teaching and challenging them to live together with those who are different from them. A youth group can play a very important role in the life of the church, and it is valuable for high schoolers in particular to have relationships with each other. But that must not be the beginning or the end of their experience of the church. While it is important, it must not be central.

Instead, we must seek to live together in such a way that our young people’s experience of the church is primarily just that: an experience of the church as a whole. The church’s ministry simply is youth ministry: word and sacrament, fellowship and service. This is especially important when it comes to the fellowship of the church. Our young people – while they are in high school – need to have genuine relationships with those who are much older than them, those who can offer discipleship and guidance, born of the wisdom of experience. This requires intentional effort on the part of the broader church to build relationships with young people: attending sports events and concerts, speaking with them about their calling as students, having them over for dinner with their families. That is the heart of youth ministry: loving and living with the youth as a true and integral part of the body of Christ.

This is what builds the foundation for mature involvement with the church when they are older. If we want our young adults to love the everyday-life rhythms of word, sacrament, fellowship, and hospitality when they are older, then we must love those rhythms with them when they are younger. And if we don’t, when our young adults leave the church, it will be because we never really had them in the church in the first place.

Host church: provide formal accountability

If we live with our young people in the everyday life of the church while they are younger, then they will be more likely to seek out that sort of life when they leave for college. Churches need to be ready to offer that sort of inclusion in the church’s life. One way to encourage this is by offering some form of formal accountability. Christians need a formal relationship, via church membership, with the leadership of a particular congregation. College students are no exception to this rule. And so, if someone is going to be worshiping with you for an extended period of time, it is important to in some way formalize or commit to that relationship.

Some churches do this by way of offering associate or student memberships: students keep their memberships in their own churches, while also establishing a relationship with the church where they will be worshiping. Indeed, home churches should require this sort of thing from their students while they are away. They need someone who will call them up if they are missing worship, someone who is committed to helping them through trials and welcoming them into fellowship.

Host church: encourage inter-generational participation in the life of the church

While formal accountability is deeply important, more is needed. Such a relationship needs to be lived out. The previous article challenged students to pursue inter-generational relationships in the church, relationships not only with other college students, but those with different life situations than their own. But it is not enough for students to pursue this; churches must welcome and encourage it.

When students are accustomed to centering their life around their own group in high school, it is easy for a church to encourage that pattern in college, offering a college-and-career bible study or fellowship. This can have its place and be valuable in many ways, but if it is all we do, it can have the effect of simply keeping students separate from the rest of the congregation at precisely the time when they most need the broader body of Christ.

Instead, the church must view itself as being – rather than having – a ministry to college students. What students need is what everyone else needs: word, sacrament, fellowship, service, and hospitality. If you want to see the college students in your midst flourish spiritually, then simply be the church. Don’t separate them off into their own category; instead, do the exact opposite. Invite them into your life and home and family. If you want to see the young people in your midst transition naturally into spiritual adulthood then treat them as real members of the church. Love them, get to know them, and live with them.

This simply cannot be emphasized enough. The neglected key to college student ministry is the exhortation of Peter: “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9). It actually is that simple. The vision is to build relationships with college students, relationships in which counsel and discipleship and life-togetherness will come naturally and organically. This requires hospitality. It requires welcoming them into your home and life. To put it differently, when you see college students (or anyone, for that matter) worshiping with you, you simply are the church’s ministry to that person. Get to know them. Love them. Invite them over for dinner.

This way of life gives our college students something to love and be loyal to, a vital sense of being part of something bigger themselves. It sets before them examples of marriage and child-raising and retirement and suffering and sacrifice — all of which are necessary for life in the world. And it offers them a network of relationships in which they can serve and be served, living with the church in a mature, all-of-life manner.

The Apostle Peter exhorts us to “show hospitality to one another.” If we want our students to flourish, we must include them in that “one another” life. If we want our young adults to stay committed to the church, then we need to make sure we really had them there in the first place.

College Students and the Church (2): A Challenge to Students

goingtocollege(Originally published in Christian Renewal)

In his chapter in To You And Your Children, Mark Sumpter (pastor of Faith OPC in Grants Pass, OR) observes the declining commitment of twenty-somethings to the church and argues that the problem begins with the nature of their relationship to the church before they leave: “We lose our youth in their young adult years because the church never had them” (252). His point is that we often keep our young people and college students on a separate track of church life – including their own Bible studies, their own activities, and their own leadership structure – such that they are never really integrated into the broader community life of the church. When they leave, it’s because they were never really there.

If we are going to reverse this trend, then we need a renewed vision for what it means to include our children, young people, and college students in the life of the church. The Reformed tradition gives us the theological resources we need to do this: the doctrine of the covenant, a high view of the church, our inter-generational unity as the body of Christ. But we need to be more consistent in how we express those great truths in the way we live together. This series of articles is intended to illustrate how that might be the case in one particular area of the church’s life: the relationship between college students and the church.To be sure, this vision for church life in college raises all sorts of additional questions: what role should the location of a church be in choosing a college in the first place? How should our churches order their life together in order to encourage this sort of involvement of young people and students? Furthermore, while this article addresses students in particular, this vision for church life is important for everyone. A love for the church and a desire for spiritual growth in Christ should cause churches and students to share a vision for life together. This is a vision for life in the church that we need to be instilling in our young people before they leave for college.

We begin, then, with a challenge to college students: you need the church. If you are going to stay Christian in college, if you are going to grow and mature as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, then you need a rich and robust relationship with a local congregation. The remainder of this article will suggest a number of ways in which you can pursue this sort of commitment and growth.

Do not assume that this matter is less urgent because you are going to a Christian college.

The temptations to neglect the church can be even worse when you are at a Christian college, or when you have a bunch of Christian friends on campus. This situation may make your parents feel better, but you are in fact in great spiritual danger. All of the chapel services, hall Bible studies, and campus ministries can tempt you to think: I don’t really need the local church.

While all of those things are often very valuable, they are not the institutional church. They are not the means God has promised to use to nurture you in your faith and cause you to grow in your Christian walk. You need word and sacrament on the Lord’s Day, formal accountability, and the diverse live of a congregation of people who are different from you.

The students at the large state university are likely to feel from day one that they need the church. But when you go to the small Christian liberal arts college you need to be even more careful to remember:  you still need the church.

When you do connect with a local congregation, don’t begin by seeking out the young-adult ministry or the college student Bible study.

This is the most important moment in the process of committing to a church. It all starts here: do not, as your first step, seek out the group of folks who are just like you, a group of other college students who are worshiping with the same congregation.

You need to be integrated into the real life of the congregation, not cordoned off in your own section of the church. Attend worship, build connections with those who are different from you, go to the church fellowship events. Attend the prayer meetings and Bible studies and classes that involve people who are different from you, who are older or younger than you, who are in different situation in life than you are. That is what real life is like, that is what the real life of the church is like, and that is what your relationship with the church should be like while in college.

This is, of course, a bit of an exaggeration. The young adult ministry or college student Bible study can be a real blessing. But it must not be the center of your relationship with the church. This can be difficult, to be sure, since not every church has structured its programs such that it will be easy or natural to integrate with the rest of the congregation. This means that you may need to put that much more work into welcoming others into your life.

Practice hospitality. Yes, that’s right, practice hospitality as a college student.

This sort of commitment to the church of course means attending worship faithfully on Sunday. But it means far more than that. It means embracing and following the commands in Scripture regarding the church’s life together: “show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9).

This is the advice I’ve often given college students in our own congregation as a measure of whether or not they are really plugging into the church as they should: You need to have friendships and relationships with people, not because you attend the same college or are the same age, but because you are part of the same congregation. You need to be able to say, during your college years, “I am friends with this junior high student, and this young couple, and this single mom, and this older gentleman, simply because we are part of the same congregation.”

So, how can you pursue this? Practice hospitality. It’s true, of course, that you probably don’t have a home into which you can invite somebody or a kitchen to prepare a meal. But you can still self-sacrifically, in a self-giving way, involve somebody else in your life – and that is the heart of hospitality. Invite an older couple from church to join you in the campus dining hall for a meal. Invite folks from church to your concerts and drama productions and sporting events. If you have a favorite coffee shop, ask somebody from your congregation to meet you there for fellowship. Go to a friend’s child’s piano recital. Sit with a young mom in church and help her with her squirming children. The possibilities are endless.

In short: be a real, self-giving part of the church. Love the church, serve the church, and you will grow and flourish in ways you probably haven’t imagined.

Seek formal accountability.

Would the pastor or elders or members of the church notice if you failed to attend on a Sunday? If the answer is no, then this is another sign that your spiritual health is in danger. We need accountability, and we need it within the defined committed body of a congregation. The college years are no exception.

The best way to do this is to seek something like a student (or associate) membership. You keep your membership in your home church, but establish a formal relationship of accountability with the church where you will be worshiping on Sundays.

It’s not enough to “go to church.” You need to be the church, and that means having a pastor and elders who are looking out for you, who are available for counsel, and who can then invite you into their lives as a committed part of their congregation.


None of this is easy. Churches often fail their college students in many ways. The next articles will address some of those problems. But don’t let the church’s failure keep you from being and doing what you need to be and do – both for your sake and for the sake of the congregation.

It’s not just that you need the church. The church needs you. Don’t ask what the church can do for you; ask what you, as part of the church, can do for others. Seek to be a mature, vital member of the congregation, practice hospitality, and welcome accountability, and God will use his church – with all of her strengths and weaknesses – to be a blessing to you and to allow you to be a blessing to others.

College Students and the Church (1): Introduction


(Originally Published in Christian Renewal.)

Leaders and writers in the Reformed and evangelical world are wrestling with what seems to be a growing crisis: the waning commitment of twenty-somethings to the church. In the book To You and To Your Children, Mark Sumpter (pastor of Faith OPC in Grants Pass, OR) seeks to diagnose part of the problem, writing of the “success” of youth ministry in Reformed and evangelical churches, a success when measured in numbers and busy-ness and programs, but a success that he argues has had unforeseen consequences:

“This ‘success’ has allowed young people to grow up in a youth ministry program of nurture and teaching, but sadly this is done with an emphasis that isolates the younger age groups from the rest of the community of the congregation. Therefore, we have seen a growing absence of young adults in the local church when they arrive at their early and mid-twenties. We lose our youth in their young adult years because the church never had them” (251-252).

When our youth leave the church, it’s because we never really had them in the church in the first place. To be sure, we had them busy in all manner of programs – many of which have their value and importance – but often while neglecting the difficult work of simply living with them in the every-day, inter-generational life of the church.

This is a widely acknowledged phenomenon in the broader evangelical world, and while it can be debated to what extent it has affected Reformed churches, the anecdotal evidence and the concerned conversations among parents and church leaders are growing: our young people often have difficulty transitioning from childhood to mature participation in the life of the local church. Some of our churches even speak of an absence of young adults in their early and mid-twenties, similar to what Mark Sumpter describes.

The Challenge

It is important that we ask the question of why this happens. Even if we are not yet convinced it is a crisis in the Reformed churches – and I think it is nearing that status – we need to be asking what we should be doing to avoid the mistakes of the broader evangelical world. There are many areas of the church’s life in which we need to work against this trend; the one that I will be focusing on in this series of articles is the relationship between college students and the church. This is one of the most formative times in life, and it is a time when an individual’s connection with local church life is often at its weakest.

In American culture, the presence of a “generation gap” is an assumed inevitable reality, and too often our church life conforms to that assumption, at precisely the time when our young people and young adults most need to be plugged in to the broader life of the church as a whole. Over against a culture that divides the generations, we in the church need to begin with the deepest truth of our unity together: that our fellowship is not based on shared demographics or generational sameness, but on our shared union with Christ. More than that, God intends that our inter-generational life together be a means of discipleship and spiritual growth. When we are united to Christ by faith, we are united to each other as his body, and that union should be reflected in our we love, serve, and live with each other – regardless of age or demographic differences.

My goal in this series of articles, then, is to challenge us to think more creatively – and, in some cases, to re-think from scratch – about how we can better express that shared union with Christ in our life together with the church, especially during the formative college years. We all have a responsibility to pursue this shared life, and this series of articles will be addressing three centers of responsibility in turn: college students themselves, their home church, and the congregation with whom they worship while in college.

College Students: Commit to, love, and live with a local congregation.

When in college, we face the temptation of treating those four years as an ecclesiastical no-man’s land, an in-between time of sorts, with little commitment to a local church. Especially if it’s a Christian college or the campus ministries are robust and flourishing, it is easy to feel like “adult” church life is unnecessary.

But I want to challenge college students to pursue a real-life relationship with a local congregation, not as a mere additional benefit for one’s spiritual life, but as something that is fundamental and essential for spiritual growth. This is not easy; indeed, there are many forces in college life and contemporary church life that conspire against such a commitment, and so I will be suggesting several ways to pursue a connection with a local church.

This challenge will raise a difficult question for some: what should you do if there is no faithful church near your college? That certainly is a problem. And so I want to suggest that when choosing a college – much like choosing a job – the location of a faithful church should be an important criterion. Indeed, there are situations where the availability of a church can be more important than the spiritual health or faithfulness of the college. Even in Reformed churches, we have fallen into the bad habit of underestimating the importance of one’s relationship (or lack thereof) with a church during the college years.

The Home Church: Get connected, and stay connected.

The first challenge for the college student’s home church is to get connected – in a real-life, inter-generational way – before our young people leave for college. Pastor Sumpter identifies what I am increasingly convinced is a real problem, the danger of keeping our young people on a separate track of church life such that, when they leave for college, the absence of their peers back at home means they don’t really feel like part of the church anymore. Youth ministries can have an important and valuable place in the life of the church. But we need to be careful to preserve a both/and approach in which we intentionally and creatively live with our young people as a genuine part of the broader life of the congregation.

That way of life helps with the second challenge: to stay connected with our college students while they are away. If we have lived together as we should, our young people should feel like they are away from their family – their church family, the household of faith – when they are away for college. We should be thankful that this often does happen; but we must not stop there. Home churches need to be more consistent and intentional about maintaining contact with students while they are away: encouraging commitment to a local congregation, and providing guidance and discipleship through these formative years.

The Church Away From Home: Welcome and include college students, not as a separate category, but as an integral part of the life of the congregation.

Here is the place where we may need to do some creative thinking from the ground up. Sometimes the way we structure our lives together in our churches can discourage college students from integrating into the broader fellowship. Our bible studies and fellowship groups are typically demographically segregated, and that sort of thing can certainly have its place. But if our church life is exclusively or even primarily segregated, it is difficult for a student to pursue inter-generational relationships with the rest of the congregation, at precisely the time when such relationships are most needed.

To be sure, a college-and-career group or young adults group can be valuable. But it can also be a distraction from what is really most needed: older men being an example for the younger, older women teaching the younger, all in the course of real everyday life, following Paul’s instructions to Titus.

We need to think more deeply about how we can order the life of our churches so as to encourage mentoring and discipling relationships between our young adults and the rest of the congregation – both older and younger. This is needed for everyone in the church, even as it is particularly needed during the college years.

Keller on Identifying Idolatry

“[W]e need to look honestly at each area of our lives – our families, our careers, our possessions, our ambitions, our time, and so on – and ask two questions of them: Am I willing to do whatever God says about this area? Am I will to accept whatever God sends in this area? Where either answer is ‘no,’ there is the area of our lives and hearts which we have opened up, or already given over, to an alternative god.” Judges for You, 38.

Five Principles of the New Sexual Morality

This is an excellent article from Alastair Roberts: Five Principles of the New Sexual Morality.

It’s imperative we appreciate the instinctive appeal of these moral principles to most persons within our society. These principles spring out of the liberal tradition and its definition of personhood, a tradition that has decisively shaped our politics, our economics, and our society’s ethics more broadly. As the assumptions grounding these sexual ethics are so pervasive in our society, and even in much conservative Christianity, we often lack the resources to present a principled challenge to them.

cityHis analysis leads to some of the same conclusions as Timothy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage. The church needs to offer far more than a doubling down on traditional morality.

The “thou shalt not” of biblical authority is erected as little more than a last-ditch resistance, a dam against the encroachment of principles we have no means of neutralizing, as we have imbibed them so fully. The Scriptures, however, have a far more compelling and substantial alternative vision to offer us, one that could inoculate us against this ersatz morality.

And, I would add, the church needs to live this “compelling and substantial alternative vision” in a way that is winsome and appealing.

Venema on Continuity Between Present Creation and Renewed Creation

Cornelis Venema on the continuity between the present and the renewed creation:

christ and the future

“The continuity between the pre- and post-resurrection body of the believer finds its counterpart in the continuity between the present and the renewed creation. Just as Adam was originally formed from the dust of the earth and placed within the creation-temple of God in which to serve and glorify the Creator, so also in redemption the new humanity will be restored to life and service under the headship and dominion of the second Adam, in a newly cleansed creation-temple.

“For this reason, Romans 8:18-23 describes the creation as being under the same ‘slavery to corruption’ that afflicts believers in their present bodies of humiliation. The term used to describe the corruption of creation in Romans 8 is used in 1 Corinthians 15:42, 50 to describe the corruption of the body. The creation’s groaning under the curse of sin mirrors the groaning of the believer. The creation waits eagerly for the revelation of the sons of God, because the redemption of God’s children is a redemption in which creation itself participates. The link between the resurrection of the believer and the renewal of the creation is an intimate one.

“This intimate link between the resurrection of the believer and the renewal of the creation allows us to see the unity between individual and general (or cosmic) eschatology. It joins together the salvation of the church and her members with the great events of cosmic renewal that will accompany Christ’s return. The justification and sanctification of the believer find their parallels in the justification and sanctification of the heavens and earth in the new creation. Just as the Lord declared the first creation very good (Gen. 1:31), so the renewed creation will be worthy of the same judgment. And just as the first creation was perfect and holy  in its consecration to the Lord, so the renewed creation will be one ‘wherein dwells righteousness’ (see 2 Pet. 3;10-13). Justified and sanctified saints will dwell in a justified and sanctified creation. A people holy unto the Lord, a royal priesthood, will enjoy fellowship with the Lord in the sanctuary of his renewed creation” (Christ and the Future, 168-169).


The Doorposts of Your House: Law in the Context of Grace

Originally published in Christian Renewal Vol. 32 No. 7 (Jan. 22, 2014), pp. 30-31.

According to the Heidelberg Catechism, the law always addresses the believer in the context of the gospel. Lord’s Days 2 and 3, describing our sin and misery, come after Lord’s Day 1, the confession that we belong to Jesus and are redeemed by his grace. Even more importantly, the third part of the Catechism, describing the Ten Commandments in detail as guide for the Christian life, comes after the great explanation of our salvation in Christ in the second part.

In previous articles, we have examined several New Testament passages that provide the biblical foundation for the Catechism’s use of the Ten Commandments (Rom. 15:4, 2 Tim. 3:14-17, Rom. 13:8-10, Eph. 6:1-3, and Jam. 1:25). But the foundation for this view of the law is actually much deeper than that. When the apostles apply the law to God’s people in the context of God’s grace as the life of gratitude, they are not doing something new. This was always how God’s covenant people were to receive the commandments. When Paul in Ephesians 6, for example, applies the fifth commandment to the church as part of what it means to live “in in the Lord,” he is able to do that because the fifth commandment was always given to God’s people in the context of God’s grace.

The Prologue: “I am the LORD your God”

Many have observed that this is clearly taught by the prologue of the law:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut. 5:6).

God addresses Israel as the LORD, their covenant God, the one who has already bound himself to them by his promises. And he addresses them as the one who has already brought them out of the land of Egypt and is now giving them the promised land – all by his grace. The commandments are given in that context, as a description of the life of gratitude.

This must not be missed: Israel received and lived in the promised land by faith in God’s promises. Their obedience – described in the Ten Commandments – would be the fruit of that faith. Of course they would fall short in the life of faith; that is why they were given the sacrifices as signs and seals of forgiveness through the blood of the promised Messiah. When Israel was sent into exile, it wasn’t because they failed to earn or deserve anything by their lack of obedience. It was because of their lack of faith, demonstrated in their idolatry. God never called Israel to earn or merit or deserve any of his blessings. Rather, God called his people to faith in in his promises, and to a life of obedience in gratitude for his grace.

All of this grace is proclaimed in the prologue to the law. God gives the law to those he has already rescued from slavery, and to whom he is has already promised the land that he is giving them.

“You shall write them on the doorposts of your house”

While it is proclaimed clearly in the prologue to the commandments, this gospel-context of the law finds its most beautiful expression one chapter later, in Deuteronomy 6:9.

“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut. 6:6-9)

Verse 9 in particular proclaims the gospel-context of the law: “You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” In Deut. 6, Israel is about to enter the promised land, the land that they would receive and live in by faith in God’s promises. Moses is giving them instructions regarding how they are to live when they enter the land: they are to teach the commandments to their children and keep them before the household in all of life: speaking of the commandments while sitting and walking, binding them to hands and foreheads, writing them on their homes.

At first glance we might think that surely, if anything, this is an example of the burden of the law. Nevertheless, I want to say this more pointedly. Deuteronomy 6:9 is one of the most gospel-driven, grace-saturated commands in all of Scripture. How can this be?

Blood-Stained Doorposts

This isn’t the first time the doorposts of the house are mentioned in the books of Moses, featuring prominently in Israel’s life.

“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.” (Exodus 12:7)

The context is the last plague in Egypt, the Passover, when God would slay all of the firstborn sons in Egypt. Israel would be spared, but it wouldn’t be because Israel somehow earned or deserved God’s favor. Rather, they were to sacrifice the Passover Lamb and put the blood on the doorposts of their house.

“The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)

The command of Deut. 6:9 is gospel-driven and grace-saturated, because the doorposts of the house were blood-stained. Whenever an Israelite went to write the law of God on the doorposts of the house, he was writing it on doorposts that had been stained with blood – the blood of the Passover Lamb, blood that foreshadowed and proclaimed the promised sacrifice of the Messiah.

Law in the Context of Grace

This serves as a beautiful example of how the commandments of God always functioned in the life of Israel. For Israel, obedience to God’s law was a gift of God’s grace, the fruit of faith in God’s promises, motivated by gratitude for God’s redemption. The order is essential. It is the same order that is expressed in the New Testament, the order that is taught and celebrated by the Heidelberg Catechism. First, God rescues from slavery through the blood of the Lamb. Second, he calls his people to embrace the gift of new life, described in the law, motivated by faith in and gratitude for God’s promises.

The use of the Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism faithfully reflects this use of the law in the life of Israel. Nobody wrote the law on doorposts of a house that were not first stained by the blood of the Passover Lamb. For Israel, the law was always given in the context of grace.

As for Israel, so for us: the law is given in the context of redemption, as a description of the new life God is giving to us as a gift of his grace. We are redeemed by the blood of Christ. But God’s grace doesn’t end there. We are also being renewed to be like Christ, given the gift of new life. And in that context, God gives us life according to his law as an expression of gratitude for redemption in Christ.

“Oh, How I Love Your Law!” The Biblical Basis for the Use of The Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism (3 of 3)

Originally published in Christian Renewal Vol. 32 No. 6 (Jan. 1, 2014), pp. 22-23.

Up to this point, we have examined two sorts of texts that speak of the relevance of God’s law to the Christian life: those that affirm the continuing importance of the Old testament Scriptures in general, and those that specifically apply the law to the church today. These together serve as an important part of the basis for the use of the Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism. But the biblical foundation for the confession that the good we do is that which “conforms to God’s law” is actually much broader and deeper than these several passages. In addition to other passages that speak explicitly of the continuing application of the law (e.g., Matthew 5:17), the Catechism is reflecting a broader biblical-theological theme in Scripture, that the law of God describes the new life he gives his people in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah.

The Big Picture

The law given to Israel always had the nations in view: as those who would witness and admire the life according to God’s law, and as those who would one day be given that same life. In Deuteronomy 4:6, Moses says of the laws of God, “Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” Israel’s law-keeping was part of their witness to the nations, for the Lord always had the nations in mind. Israel was the offspring of Abraham, through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). As God’s creatures, made in God’s image, living in God’s world, the nations could be expected to recognize the goodness of the law of God.

In Jeremiah 31, God promised that when Israel was restored from exile, the result would be that the law would be written on their hearts (v. 33). The New Testament is very clear that the church now lives in this time of the new covenant (Hebrews 10:16, Luke 22:20), so that Jew and Gentile now live together as the covenant people of God who have been restored from exile. As James said at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, citing Amos 9:11-12, it was always the intention of God that when he restored Israel from exile, the nations would be included. And so the nations are included in that renewed life of having the law written on our hearts. Indeed, this life of new obedience to God’s word is one of the main goals for which Israel’s Messiah came to redeem us:

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:11-14)

Paul uses the language of Exodus 19:5 – “a people for his own possession” who are zealous for good works – to describe the identity of the church in Christ. Indeed, this was the goal of redemption: to create a people who would live life as God created it to be, the life that conforms to God’s law. Like Israel in Deuteronomy 4:6, this life is our witness before the nations. Peter writes, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Indeed, he grounds that exhortation in the church having received the identity of Israel:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1Pe 2:1)

This is why the Apostle Paul so readily applies the Ten Commandments to the life of the church in places like Romans 13:8-10 and Ephesians 6:1-3. The law describes life as God made it to be, the life that was lost because of sin, the life that he graciously restores and gives in redemption. Sin is slavery; the law describes freedom. It is the “law of liberty” (James 1:25). And that freedom was a freedom that God always intended to give to the nations, as he redeems men and women from every tribe and tongue and nation to be “a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). The church then continues Israel’s calling to shine a light before the nations (Matthew 5:16) by living the life that conforms to God’s law (Matthew 5:17).

When the Heidelberg Catechism uses the law as the framework for the Christian life, this isn’t grounded in a few isolated proof texts. Instead, it is rooted in the great drama of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, in the long story of Israel finding its fulfillment in Jesus and the life of his church.

Conclusion: Why This Matters

Why does it matter that we appreciate the biblical foundation for the use of the Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism? It matters because this is no peripheral doctrine. Indeed, this view of the law is part of the genius of the Catechism, one of the ways in which it explains, protects, and celebrates a key insight of the Reformed tradition: that the life of new obedience is in no way contrary to the gospel, but is in fact one of the benefits of the gospel.

To be sure, Christ has redeemed us by his blood. But we do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself… (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 86).

It is good news that Christ is by his Spirit renewing us be like himself, so that we might do the good that “conforms to God’s law.” This Reformed doctrine regarding the place of the law in the Christian life opens up the grace-driven character and gospel context of the life of obedience to God’s Word, and it does so in a way that drives, energizes, and motivates all of life.

Moreover, the use of the Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism opens up lovely vistas of continuity between the Old and New Testaments. In a time when functional Marcionism seems to have carried the day in so much of the church, the Catechism directs us to the Christ-fulfilled, Christ-transformed, and Christ-energized relevance of all of Scripture for the Christian life.

It matters that we appreciate the wondrous ways in which the life of the church is rooted in the earthy, all-of-life teaching of all of Scripture. It matters that we be excited about the way in which the good life, life as God created it to be, the life described in the law, is given to God’s people in Christ. For centuries, this view of the law – rooted in the story of Israel, fulfilled by Christ, and energized by God’s grace – has motivated a zeal for all-of-life obedience in the Reformed churches. This biblical treasure, explained and protected by the Catechism, has motivated us to sing Psalm 119 with God’s people through the millennia: “Oh, how I love your law!”

That song, embracing and celebrating the new life that Christ gives us by his Spirit, is the grace-driven heartbeat of the Heidelberg Catechism: the good we do is that which “conforms to God’s law.”

“Oh, How I Love Your Law!” The Biblical Basis for the Use of The Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism (2 of 3)

Originally published in Christian Renewal Vol. 32 No. 5 (Dec. 11, 2013), pp. 22-24.

In Romans 15 and 2 Timothy 3, we have seen the broad New Testament foundation for the Heidelberg Catechism’s use of the Ten Commandments as a description of the new life we have in Christ, summarized in the confession that the life of gratitude is that which “conforms to God’s law.” The Apostle Paul rejects the Judaizer’s misuse of the law – their treating it as a means of earning one’s justification and their clinging to the ceremonial laws as a means of excluding Gentiles. But he also clearly says that the Old Testament Scriptures continue to guide and direct the life of the believer in Christ: “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” (Romans 15:4) and “all Scripture is … for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Understood properly in the context of the covenant of grace, the law remains the framework for the Christian life.

Someone might object that this isn’t yet an explicit affirmation of the use of “the law,” and so we now turn to a few passages that speak, not just of the Old Testament Scriptures in general, but of the law in particular as applying to the believer in Christ.

Romans 13:8-10 – “Love is the Fulfilling of the Law”

The first of those passages is Romans 13:8-10:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Paul says that the heart of the Christian life is the calling to “love each other,” and the one who does so has “fulfilled the law.” He then lists most of the commandments of the second table of the law, together with the command of Leviticus 19:18, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He concludes by summarizing his point: “love is the fulfilling of the law.” Paul’s reasoning is very clear: God’s people are called to a life of love, and that life is explained in the decalogue. This is, in a very direct and pointed way, exactly what the Heidelberg Catechism does. We are called to a life of love in Christ. The commandments describe that life, and so we should use the commandments to learn how we should live.

Someone might argue that when Paul speaks of love “fulfilling” the law, he means that love and the law are alternatives, that in Christ we now love instead of following the law. But this misses the character of the New Testament’s fulfillment of the Old. Jesus reveals the heart of the law more clearly than the Old, and he expands and intensifies its demands (e.g., the “neighbor” of Lev. 19:18 was focused on the “brother” Israelite, while Paul has the Gentiles in mind with the broader “one who loves another”). But the fulfilment is a matter of organic development, such that the heart of the law expounded by Jesus and Paul is the heart that was there all along. The fulfillment is such that, far from being de-centered in the life of the believer, the law comes into its own in Christ.

Paul demonstrates this way of fulfillment by using the Old Testament Scriptures themselves to explain the heart of the life that we are being given in Christ. When Paul says that “love is the fulfilling of the law,” he is not saying something new, something that by virtue of its newness would thereby displace the use of the Commandments themselves. Rather, he is simply expanding and explaining what the Old Testament Scriptures always said: that God’s people are called to love God (Deut. 6:4-5) and neighbor (Lev. 19:18), and that the Ten Commandments describe that life and are fulfilled in it.

Moreover, as we saw in 2 Timothy 3, this life of following the commandments is again most emphatically not something other than following Jesus and being made like him. Instead, the life that conforms to God’s law just is the life of being made more like Christ. That was the purpose of the law in the first place – to point to Jesus – so that now the life that conforms to Christ is at the very same time the life that conforms to the law.

It’s almost as though Paul knew we would be tempted by such a law/Christ or law/love dichotomy based on his polemics elsewhere in Romans. Over against that temptation, he places the Christ-centered and Christ-energized character of the Christian life side-by-side with the exhortation to embrace the commandments as the life of love: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 8:14).

These are not alternatives; they are one and the same thing. Now that Israel’s Messiah has come, to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” simply is to love your neighbor as yourself as the fulfilling of the law. It is this biblically rich, gospel-saturated truth that the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes for us when it wisely uses the Ten Commandments as an outline of the Christian’s life of gratitude.

Ephesians 6:1-3 – “The First Commandment With a Promise”

In Ephesians 6, we have another example of the Apostle Paul applying the Ten Commandments to the Christian life, only with greater precision and directness. After describing the sovereign grace of God in salvation in Christ in Ephesians 1-3, the Apostle Paul summarizes the Christian life as a matter of being part of the body that is growing up into Christ as our head:

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)

Many have argued that it is precisely this exhortation, the call to grow up into Christ as our head, that in the New Testament replaces or de-centers the Ten Commandments. But Paul sees no such dichotomy or divide. Instead, by way of applying this calling to live a life shaped and formed by our union with Christ, he directly applies the commandments, explicitly affirming their continuing use as the framework for the Christian life.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” (Ephesians 6:1-3)

It’s almost too obvious to say, but at this point the New Testament affirms – with boldness and clarity – that the church should look to the Ten Commandments for guidance and direction. There are any number of ways Paul could have made his point regarding the need for children to obey and honor their parents. He chose to use the decalogue, plain and simple.

Moreover, this use of the decalogue is perfectly consistent with the life that is “in the Lord” or “in Christ.” In verse 1, he calls children to obey “in the Lord.” By way of explanation of that very same requirement, he cites the fifth commandment in verse 3. Following Jesus or being made like him is not an alternative to following the law. Rather, the law describes the shape and form of what being “in the Lord” looks like.

And this continuing use of the law isn’t just true for the basic moral principle – “obey your parents.” The law continues to apply as the pathway along which God’s people enjoy blessings: “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” This is a strikingly earthy, this-worldly promise, boldly reaffirmed by Paul as continuing to apply to the church. The Heidelberg Catechism is therefore correct  to say that God continues to reward his people “in this life and the next” (Q&A 63), not as a payment that is earned, but as a gift of God’s grace.

This is, of course, the same Paul who teaches clearly in Galatians and Romans that we are no longer under the law. However we understand that polemic – emphasizing the Judaizers’ misuse of the law, or the need for the Mosaic administration of the covenant to give way to the new covenant – it obviously does not mean that we are to stop treating the Ten Commandments as a manual for the Christian life. Paul’s polemic against “the law” in Romans and Galatians is perfectly consistent with the direct and paradigmatic application of both the demands and the promises of the law in the Christian life.

The Heidelberg Catechism is robustly faithful to Paul – and to all of Scripture – when it uses the Ten Commandments to frame and outline the Christian’s life of gratitude.

James 1:25 – “The Law of Liberty”

The Apostle Paul, of course, is not the only one who commends the law to the New Testament believer. James, for example, exhorts Christians to be not only hearers of the word of God, but also “doers of the Word” (James 1:22). That word that James wants us to do is the Old Testament Scriptures, including the law of God.

But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:25)

James tells the church to be those who do what the law of God commands, and he says it very unambiguously. More than that, he tells us how we should characterize the law of God – as “the perfect law” and “the law of liberty.” God’s people are to continue to sing with psalmist, “Oh, how I love your law” (Psalm 119:97).

As Paul said in Romans 6:3, so James says here: the law continues to apply, not only as moral information, but as the life pathway along which God’s people enjoy blessings. Of the one who does the “law of liberty,” James says “he will be blessed in his doing.”

When James says this, he is simply explaining, celebrating, and applying the grace of God. This is part of the gospel. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, it is good news that Jesus not only redeems us by his blood, but renews us to be like himself (Q&A 86). This is expressed in a verse that is pivotal for James’ epistle as a whole:

Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:18)

Many have worried that James’ emphasis on obedience is in tension with Paul’s emphasis on God’s grace. But this is far from the truth! All that James is explaining is the fruit of God’s grace: that God has “brought us forth,” given us new life, as “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” As Paul says, we are God’s creatures, created in Christ Jesus for good works (Ephesians 2:10).

This is why James calls the law “the law of liberty.” The law describes the life of freedom from slavery to sin, the life that God gives us in Christ, by his Spirit. In this way, James and Paul both say that we should view the law and the life of obedience in the same way as Israel: the life of gratitude, in response to God’s grace, always in the context of God’s promises. As the decalogue began with the declaration of redemption by God’s grace – “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deuteronomy 5:6) –  so James begins with God’s grace – “he brought us forth by the word of truth.” As in Deuteronomy, so in Paul and James: our obedience to God’s law is a gift of the gospel, always in the context of God’s covenant promises.

The Heidelberg Catechism is correct to say that the Christian life is that which “conforms to God’s law,” because the law is the law of liberty, a description of the freedom we have in Christ.