What is Godliness?

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by Spencer Harmon

It’s a prerequisite for Christian leadership. It’s championed in Christian literature. It’s absence is a red light in romantic relationships.   It’s heralded in thousands of churches every Sunday.  It motivates accountability groups, is commended by Christians around the world, and is summarized in one word:

Godliness.   

But godliness is dangerous.  Not because you may be persecuted if you pursue it – although you may.  Not because Satan will oppose you at every turn of your striving towards it – although he will.  Not because your sinful flesh will roar in resistance as you reach for it – although it will.  No, godliness is dangerous for a much more subtle reason.  

Godliness is dangerous because we use the word so much.  And where words are used often, assumption follows closely behind.  As we continually use this word without defining it from God’s Word, vague definitions take root.  As a result, people who should be pricked are comforted, people who should be freed are burdened, and at worst a culture of shallow holiness implants itself in our Christian communities.  

When something is precious and being threatened, you guard it from multiple sides.  The same is true with godliness.  We not only need to know what godliness is, but also what it isn’t.  

WHAT GODLINESS ISN’T

Godliness is not gifting.  God gives his church gifts, but we should not equate them with godliness.  The Corinthians excelled in spiritual gifts, but at the same time were rebuked for heinous sin (1 Corinthians 5; 11:17-22).  Preaching, teaching, counseling, music, writing, leadership, persuasiveness, hospitality – all of these things can be included in godliness, but are not godliness in and of themselves.

Godliness is not personality.  Godliness is not politeness, an easy going attitude, or diplomacy. Jesus was not perceived as polite by the money-changers when he turned over their tables and called them robbers.  He wasn’t perceived as diplomatic when he called the Pharisees whitewashed tombs.  He wasn’t perceived as easy-going when he rebuked his disciples.  Paul rebukes Peter for not eating with Gentiles.  James rebukes the rich.  All of these men were godly, and one of these men was God himself.  

Godliness is not knowledge.  A robust knowledge of theology, a nuanced understanding of the human heart, and sharp apologetical skills does not make us godly.  Knowing things makes us accountable for them.  The Pharisees were men of astute knowledge, but Jesus tells them they are blind to spiritual reality (John 9:40).    

Godliness is not a leadership position.  The greatest cause of trembling for me as a young pastor is that I would begin equating godliness with my position rather than my character.  Just because we lead a discussion group or Sunday school does not make us the godliest person in the room.  Being a pastor does not automatically mean you become the holiest person in the church.  No, the Bible assumes this principle: the higher the leadership, the deeper the character (1 Timothy 3:1-7).  And the higher you get without deeper character the more likely you are to fall.  

Obvious gifting, a dynamic personality, rigorous knowledge, and lofty leadership are wonderful.  They should be affirmed in the local church lifted up as worthy of pursuit.  But these qualities are not what the Bible defines as godliness.  Knowing this for myself is challenging and clarifying as I aspire towards greater Christ-likeness in daily life.

CHARACTERISTICS OF GODLINESS

Godliness believes the truth.  The fountainhead of godliness is knowing and believing the truth.  Trees need seeds, houses need foundations, cars need gasoline, and godliness stands on truth.  The man who follows a false map walks in the wrong direction.  False teaching in the New Testament warrants swift rebuke because it leads people to sin and death.  The apostle Paul calls the gospel itself the mystery of godliness (1 Timothy 3:16).  The apostle Peter says godliness comes through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence (2 Peter 1:3).  This is why every saint is called to speak the truth in love to one another. (Ephesians 4:15)

Godliness is dignified.  In 1 Timothy 2-3, dignity is a marker of the Christian community from the laity to the leadership.  We should pray for leaders so we can live dignified lives (2:2), pastors should lead their families with all dignity (3:4), and deacons are to be dignified (3:8, 11).

Dignity is the outward reputation of a godly heart.  Dignity doesn’t flow from trying to look dignified, but it’s the result of a heart that loves Christ and others.  The Bible calls this living worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27) or conducting yourself with fear (1 Peter 1:17).  It’s a life that appreciates that gravity of their salvation in Christ, and lives a life dripping with that gravitas.  

Godliness is marked by good works.  The person who spends all their time in a prayer closet but never loves their next door neighbor isn’t a godly person in the Bible.  Godliness is not just private piety, but public goodness.  Godliness is a light that is meant to be seen (Matthew 5:16).  Good works signify a godly person, and the nature of good works are to not remain hidden (1 Timothy 5:25).

Godliness is a fight and race.  Godly people are marked by fighting and fleeing, racing and pushing, practice and persistence.  Paul tells young Timothy to train himself for godliness (1 Timothy 4:7).  Training involves intentionality and vigilance that monitors the areas of life that propel you towards or away from your goal.  This means that godliness doesn’t come automatically to us, we must intentionally grow in it, practice it, and discipline ourselves for it.  

GODLINESS HAPPENS TO US

Two parallel truths meet when we talk about godliness.  The first truth is obvious from everything written above: godliness can’t be assumed. It must be understood, pursued, and intentionally fought for.  Godliness doesn’t just happen to us.  Yet, there is a second truth that undergirds the first truth: godliness does happen to us.  

The human heart does not thirst for godliness out of the formation of new habits, but from the transformation brought about by the new birth.  God’s Spirit transforms the human heart by cleansing it from sin and giving it a new nature that desires to grow in godliness (John 3:1-8).  The human soul becomes tender as the seed of the gospel breaks through cement-soil hearts.  May we grow in this grace that he might reap a fruitful harvest.  


Spencer Harmon is the Senior Pastor at Vine Street Baptist Church and the co-author of Letters to a Romantic: On Dating and Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement (P&R, 2017).

Two New Books: Letters to a Romantic

Dear Readers,

We have some exciting news.

We have been working on a project together over the past two years. We have been writing two books that are expanded versions of our Letters to a Young Engaged Man blog series. These books are being published by P&R and will release simultaneously in the Fall of this year.  

The books are called Letters to a Romantic: On Dating and Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement.

The book On Dating begins with topics related to singleness and then covers a wide range of topics such as breaking up, physical affection, early marriage, and discussing sexual history. Some chapter titles include:

  • Marriage vs. Singleness
  • First Date
  • Should We Be in a Relationship?
  • Do We Have a Bad Relationship?  
  • What if I am not a Virgin?
  • Should I Guard My Heart?

The book On Engagement walks couples from the time right before a proposal all the way to their wedding night. Some chapter titles include:

  • The Length of Engagement
  • Till Death Do Us Part
  • Loving Your New Parents
  • Should We Elope?
  • Handling Conflict
  • On Birth Control

The chapters are designed to be short and can be read individually or together as a couple. Even though we don’t know the specifics of your situation, we have made a concerted effort to make each chapter as practical as possible. It is our prayer that this content feels immediately helpful and comes from a refreshing peer-like voice.  Our wives have also contributed to many of the letters and provided their own warm touches throughout the books.

Our prayer is that your plans for dating and engagement would begin aligning with God’s plans to glorify his Son in the world.  We pray that these letters will tune your ears to hear God’s voice in his Word and that these letters will provoke many conversations between you, your partner, and godly mentors in your life.  

We are not relational gurus.  Quite the opposite.  We would be the first to admit to you that when we follow our own wisdom… we get lost.  We are sinners who are desperately in need of God’s illuminating Word in every facet of our lives.  We have simply tasted the goodness of God’s shepherding voice in our romances, and we want you to taste it too. We pray that you fall in love with hearing his voice in the Bible so that it guides you in singleness, dating, and engagement – and every other season after that.

In the meantime you can check out the recent Truth in Love podcast with Dr. Heath Lambert and Sean on the topic of Physical Boundaries Before Marriage that discusses a controversial portion of the dating book.

As we continue to write to you, we always want to hear your letters. Don’t hesitate to send us your feedback and share your story with us.

 

Until then,

Sean and Spencer

 

A Spiritual Guide to Rogue One: 10 Lessons

rogueone-poster2-thumb
by Sean Perron

 

I may or may not be obsessed with science fiction. I blame my dad. My dad and I have logged away many hours with science fiction movies (Props to my mom for enduring some of those hours as well). At some point, I want to blog about the pros and cons of this genre, but I wanted to write down some thoughts about the latest installment in the Star Wars saga.

Perhaps you have seen Rogue One already, or perhaps you are considering going. I highly recommend it. It is captivating, clean, and classy. I don’t recall any foul language in the movie or any scandalous characters (unlike The Return of the Jedi). If you are going to watch it with your kids, or for your own pleasure, here are some spiritual lessons to ponder during or after the movie. These ten lessons are in no particular order. 

[Warning: There are some spoilers in this post. Also, the quotations may not be 100% accurate because I have only seen it in theaters.]

 

1) The wicked die by their own weapons.

The book of Proverbs repeatedly states that the wicked get caught in their own trap (Proverbs 5:22, 11:6). This truth can be seen over and over again in the Bible. Take Haman in the book of Ester for example. Hamman builds a noose for Mordecai and then dies by his own rope. Satan himself enters into Judas to betray Jesus, and then it is actually Jesus’ crucifixion that is the death blow to Satan. In some sense, a great enemy of the wicked is themselves.

Rogue One highlights this in a climatic ending. General Krennic has spent his whole life and evil career on the Death Star. He has been overseeing it’s construction, and it is his precious project. He is using the Death Start to kill others, and at the end of the movie, the Death Star kills him. The movie ends with the Death Star (manned by General Tarkin) shooting its laser beam to Scarif. If you look closely, you notice that the laser beam hits the tower upon which Krennic is located first. Krennic looks up, sees his creation, and then it takes off the top of the satellite tower before hitting the ground a few miles away. This is a good example that the wicked often die by their own weapons.

 

2) Power and pride blind us to reality

There is an obvious tension between Tarkin and Krennic. Krennic is concerned about his status in the Empire. He wants the credit for the Death Star and Tarkin stands in his way. Krennic wants to do everything he can to clear his name and present himself as a capable general to the Emperor. This is especially highlighted in the exchange between Krennic and Darth Vader.

At the end of their conversation, Krennic asks the unfortunate question “Does this mean I am still in charge?” and Vader begins to choke him. Vader points out what is taking place in Krennic’s heart. Vader says, “Be careful that you do not choke on your aspirations general.”

The great irony is that Krennic’s lust for power blinds him to the reality that Vader and the Emperor will never care about him. Ever. The Sith will destroy him in a second’s notice. They are merely using him and will discard him (like they always do) once they are finished. Krennic’s entire obsession with his status is an utterly vain effort.

His character is a lesson that a lust for power and pride is “vanity, vanity, vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2) 

 

3) You don’t have to fear death

Chirrut Imwe, a blind warrior who is Force-sensitive, is a great character. He is calm, fierce, and funny. We should all want to be like him in some sense. One of the most powerful moments in the movie is when Imwe goes to flip the master switch. The odds are against him, and one of his fellow Rebel soldiers was killed immediately upon attempting to run to the switch. Imwe is bold and uses the Force to dodge the blaster fire and get to the control panel. The viewers can expect this because of his courageous moves earlier in the movie when he defended Cassian and Jyn against a group of Storm Troopers on Jedha.

In each of these moments, it is clear that he doesn’t fear death. He trusts the Force and believes that the Force will do what is best. He says something like, “I’m not afraid, the Force is in control of what happens.” He was trusting in the sovereignty of the Force, and this enabled him to act valiantly. He didn’t fear death and accepted it when it came. How much more should we as Christians act this way when we trust in a true Sovereign God who created and controls everything? 

 

4) You don’t have to be a main character to be a hero

A ton of people die in Rogue One. But think about the final scene for a minute. Darth Vader is going on an epic rampage and slaughtering the Rebel fighters trying to get the plans. Vader kills an unknown fighter, and another, and another, and another. Yet the Rebel fighters keep passing the secret plans on down the line. Their first priority is to make sure the plans are not captured.

If any one of these unknown Rebel fighters tried to save their skin by giving the plans to Vader, the entire cause would have been lost. If any one of these unknown characters tried to rescue themselves first and neglected to pass along the secret plans, the whole mission would have failed. They all die for the cause and sacrifice themselves so that the secret Death Star plans are passed into Princess Leia’s hands. They were selfless to the point of death. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

 

5) A story doesn’t have to explain everything

I love thinking about how the various plot lines in the Star Wars Saga fit together. If you are a nerd like me, you might be concerned about any plot holes in the overall story that Rogue One could produce. Here are six different plot holes that you might be thinking about. I will spare you, but I actually think these can be answered sufficiently. Take the example of C3PO and R2-D2 being on the Rebel base when the fighters are being sent out. We only see them saying something like, “Oh my, I didn’t know we were going to battle. No one tells me anything.” Then the scene ends. You could argue that the directors made an error because in Episode IV, we seen them on the ship that was in battle in Rogue One.

However, I think it would be a better option to believe that the creators of Rogue One spent a lot more time thinking about this than we have. They certainly watched Episode IV a few times before making Rogue One. It is also a good assumption that they spent a lot of money to make sure this movie would be a success. We can be assured they thought about this before we did.

It is not necessary to conclude there was an error because they didn’t explain everything in the movie. It is possible that five minutes later a Rebel leader could have told the droids they would be on the next ship out of the hanger. That could have been the Rebel flagship. Just because a story doesn’t explain something, doesn’t mean it is unexplainable.

If we read widely enough, watch enough, or begin to notice these kinds of things in life, we can see that stories often have apparent contradictions or moments that require more information than a plot line contains. Especially if a story spans across a series of episodes. I think it is best to start out trusting the author of the stories and assume the story is complete even if we don’t always see every single angle.

How you approach a story is incredibly important when you begin reading the four Gospel accounts or compare and contrast 1 & 2 Chronicles and 1 & 2 Samuel. I think our Bible reading will be enhanced if we learn how good stories are told and how different accounts mesh together.

 

6) Ethics are sometimes complicated

Galen Erso is a good guy… But he lies and works for the Empire.

Galen convinced an imperial pilot to defect… Yet he made a machine that destroys millions of people.

But he knew they were going to make it anyway… Yet his Death Star wiped out an entire city. But he sabotaged the inner core and risked everything to leak the secret Star Dust information to his daughter…

These complicated ethical situations are highlighted in the struggle that Cassian faced when he was under orders to snipe Galen. After much turmoil, Cassian decided against it when he saw Galen stand in front of the engineers before they were executed.

If nothing else, Rogue One underscores that ethics can be complicated in a fallen world. This is a great opportunity to think through what you would have done and how you are going to explain his actions to your kids.

 

7) The Force feels good because it points to a supernatural reality

Perhaps you don’t feel anything when you watch Star Wars except boredom, but I suspect that many of you feel something powerful and compelling by the storyline. Disney certainly wants us all to feel something powerful when we watch their new episodes.

I think that the concept of the Force is compelling because we are designed to believe in and embrace the invisible. Deep down we all believe (or have a instinct to believe in) the “Tao” as C.S. Lewis calls it in the Abolition of Man. We are not just materialists. We want to believe in something beyond nature. We want to believe there is a Being or Entity that unites us all. We want to believe that everything was created by something. We want to believe in the supernatural. The fictional Force feels good because it points to what is nonfiction in the Christian faith.

There is a Being that unites everything and upholds the entire cosmos by the word of His power. There is a supernatural element to every person – the soul. There is life after death. There is something greater than what our eyes can see. Christianity gets it right, and the Force- a feeble and flawed concept- points towards it.

 

8) Everyone knows we need to do something about our bad deeds

While in the separatist prison, Cassian tries to talk with the defected Imperial pilot. He asks him if he knew Galen and the pilot says yes. Later, Jyn is asking the pilot about her dad. He says something like, “Your dad told me that I could make up for everything I had done by defecting.”

The pilot realized that he had been working for evil. He knew that the Galactic Empire was doing wicked acts against innocent people. He knew it, and he wanted to change.

This points to the reality that every human experiences when they realize they have sinned. They feel guilt and want to make things right. Defecting was the right thing for this Imperial pilot to do, but we know that good works don’t make up for bad ones. We need forgiveness for our sinful actions. No amount of good deeds can cancel out our bad ones (Ephesians 2:8-9). Thankfully, Christianity has a beautiful answer to this problem through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. 

 

9) You can’t be indifferent to injustice

The separatist leader, Gerrera, asks Jyn, “You are fine to see the imperial flag fly across the galaxy?” She responds by saying, “It doesn’t bother me if I don’t look up.”

This answer is how many people live their lives. They know injustice and wickedness abounds in the world, but they ignore it. They know that people are hurting and are in need, but they ignore it.

This answer is a weak one that doesn’t work. Jyn quickly realizes this and Cassian chides her later on. He says something like, “You aren’t the only one who has lost everything. I have been fighting in the Rebellion since I was six. It has been going on for a long time. There are some of us who decided to do something about it for a change.”

What about you? Do you ignore injustice? Do you turn a blind eye for your own interests and comfort? Or do you do something about it? There is no middle ground in real life.

Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.
If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?

(Proverbs 24:11-12 ESV)

 

10) Don’t follow human orders blindly

Cassian did the right thing by not shooting Galen, and yet he disobeyed direct orders from the Rebel Alliance. The Imperial pilot did the right thing by defecting, and yet he disobeyed his Galactic Empire orders. The only one who gets orders right all the time is God.

As Christians, our instinct must be to obey our earthly authorities. This is commanded in the Bible (Romans 13:1-7). Yet the call for Christians isn’t to obey blindly like Storm Troopers. It is better to do the right thing (obey God) than simply follow the orders of man (Acts 5:29). Do you follow the morals of humans blindly or do you match everything against the Word of God?

 

Conclusion:

Even fictional stories can’t escape themes of reality. I love some Star Wars, but I’m infinitely more grateful for the true and better story that God has woven through redemptive history. Any good thing that is present in Star Wars is a result of God’s common grace. If you liked Star Wars Rogue One, you will like the true story of Christianity even more.

This movie is a great opportunity to reflect on these ten spiritual topics and then search the Scriptures to shape our thinking. I’m looking forward to watching it again.

 

Life Through Books (2016)

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By Sean Perron and Spencer Harmon

The end of the year is closing, and many people are reflecting on the past and preparing  for the future. We’re not sure how you appraise your year, but we view life through the books that have impacted us. We don’t read just for the sake of “reading.” We read because we want to be changed.

We want to be better, more in love with God, more aware of reality, and more equipped to think wisely about life. We think through good books. If you are similar in this way, you might enjoy some recommendations for the next year. Below are five favorite books from each of us that we have read (or are still reading) in 2016.

Sean:

Animal Farm by George Orwell

I picked up this book because I never read it in middle school. I always wanted to read it because I have a small obsession with politics. The book is short, my copy is only 141 pages, and I found it captivating. I could have read it one sitting if time permitted. The book is a parable and never once mentions politics. Even if you are sick and tired of the 2016 election, you will still find this book enjoyable. Parts of it are creepy with relevance, and it is nothing less than sobering. I recommend reading it in order to make sure you have eyes to see when people are abusing power. You will realize that it isn’t just the animals on the farm who are saying: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

This is the shortest book on the list, 81 pages, but it is the most challenging. I guarantee that you won’t be able to mine all its depths with just one read. But don’t let that scare you. You should read it and wrestle with it before you realize that “you don’t have a chest” and are inhuman. This book is not necessarily an argument for the existence of God. It is an argument that Darwinism is essentially inhuman and incongruent with virtue.

This book will help you think critically about truth, virtue, and morality. It will increase your ability to think intellectually about the most significant issues in life.  To my surprise, I also found this book to be an interesting companion to Animal Farm because it discusses how the removal of objective virtue ensures an abuse of power and unhinged dominance.

Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life by Colin Duriez

There is a small list of people who influence me on a regular basis. Francis Schaeffer is one of them. His writings and ministry shape the way I think. I can’t get his books He is there and He is Not Silent or The God Who Is There out of my mind. It is a holy haunting in my head.

This biography by Colin Duriez is able to zoom into historical details to satisfy my inner nerd and also tell the broad story of the Schaeffer’s ministry. Pick up this book if you want to know more about the hospitality of the Schaeffer’s along with their deep convictions that have impacted innumerable people.

Standing Strong: How to Resist the Enemy of Your Soul by John MacArthur

This is a book about how to fight the devil. John MacArthur takes you through the spiritual armor of God in a way that is devotional, practical, and easy to understand. He argues that faith and repentance are the ways to combat demonic activity. If you pick up this book, I’m confident it will help you grow in your spiritual walk with Christ.

Everyday Talk: Talking Freely and Naturally about God with Your Children by John A. Younts

A friend at church recommended this book to me back in the summer. I ordered it then, but didn’t start reading it until this month. Jenny and I have reading a few pages each night before bed in order to help us with a couple of counseling cases involving children. This book is simple, practical, and full of the gospel.

It hits right at home because it addresses the most basic conversations we have on a hour-by-hour basis. Do you find it difficult to talk about God with your kids? Does it feel unnatural to talk about the Bible each day? This book will help oil the spiritual hinges of your house and enable you to have a long-term impact on your family.

Spencer:

A History of Western Philosophy and Theology by John Frame

Philosophy and theology impact almost everything in our culture.  Pop songs and Bible tracts stand on the shoulders of philosophers and theologians.  That’s why John Frame’s A History was so enlightening for me earlier this summer.  Frame is a seasoned teacher, and his simplicity and depth attest to it.  He gives helpful, clear, and deep overviews of the major players and ideas in philosophy and theology.  But what benefitted me the most was Frame’s ability to set each thinker in context, show how their ideas affect us today, and to biblically evaluate their ideas.  This isn’t a book to read from cover to cover, but is a helpful resource for any Christian to have on their shelf.  I’d particularly recommend it to any student getting ready to enter into college.  

Do More Better: A Practical Guide to Productivity by Tim Challies

I’m cheating here.  I read this book at the very end of last year.  However, it’s ideas shaped me in 2016, and so it deserves to be recommended here.  

I love productivity books and tools.  I haven’t read deeply in the literature, but I have read enough to know that productivity books are a dime a dozen.  Most of us don’t have time to wade through all the techniques, life hacks, and shortcuts most productivity gurus offer.  But Challies’ book is different because it offers a simple, short, practical approach to productivity that busy mom’s, overwhelmed students, and frazzled professionals can apply to their life.  This book shines because it’s both doable and devotional.  It’s my first recommendation for anyone wanting to grow in productivity.

America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation by Grant Wacker

I read (actually listened) to this book for two reasons.  

First, I’ve always been drawn to Billy Graham.   I have always admired Graham’s personal integrity, humility, character, and commitment to proclaiming Christ to those who are lost.  Reading this book gave me a closer look at the man, blemishes and all, and left me challenged and inspired.

Second, I just began pastoring a congregation made up of many elderly people whose understanding of what it means to be a Christian in America was shaped by the life and ministry of Billy Graham.  As I was reading this book and listening to Wacker’s observations of how Graham shaped the nation’s understanding of Christianity, I felt like  I was studying my people.  Wacker helped me grapple with, understand, and appreciate what was American Christianity in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s through the filter of Graham’s ministry.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This book took my breathe away on several occasions.  Anthony Doerr’s metaphors bring a sense of awe at even the most common experiences of life.  Doerr’s sentences are like sweet serenades that you never want to end.  This book, set in World War II France and Germany, takes the people and places we call common and fills them with meaning.  The story is joyful yet tinged with sorrow, dark and yet filled with shafts of light.

Disclaimer, this book has brief language and a few disturbing scenes and descriptions as a result of its setting in World War II.  

Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ by Rosaria Butterfield

Butterfield’s follow-up book to Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert continues to speak to the toughest issues about sexual identity with tenderness and transparency.  The first three chapters on conversion, identity, and repentance are worth the price of the book.  Her final chapter on community and hospitality embody the type of warmth that the New Testament pictures when it calls the church the household of God (Eph. 2:19).  Read this book if you want to be equipped to speak into the complexities of our day with both biblical fidelity and warm compassion for the lost around you.  


 

Sean and Spencer are the authors of Letters to a Romantic: Biblical Guidance on Dating and Letters to a Romantic: Biblical Guidance on Engagement (P&R, 2017)

What You Should Know about “He Knew Her Not”

joseph
By Sean Perron

Perhaps you are reading through an Advent devotional this Christmas season or focusing on the Gospel accounts of the Christmas story in Matthew and Luke. The Bible never ceases to amaze and there are always new insights to discover in old stories.

This year I was struck by a small unexpected sentence in Matthew 1:24-25. It reads:

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Mat 1:24-25 ESV)

This text teaches that Joseph obeyed God by marrying Mary (even though the child within her was not his offspring) but he did not have sex with her until after she gave birth to Jesus. The ESV uses the language of “but knew her not” as a euphemism for sex. There are other translations that read:

NAS  Matthew 1:25 and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. (Mat 1:25 NAS)

NLT  Matthew 1:25 But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus. (Mat 1:25 NLT)

There are several things to point out from these couple of verses.

First, this is a unique situation in redemptive history. The main point of this verse is not to communicate that you should avoid sex after your wedding. There are several factors that make this situation unique – not the least of which is that the Holy Spirit conceived a baby in the womb of a virgin. There are also other Scriptures that command regular sexual activity for married couples. (1 Corinthians 7:5)

Second, the Bible (and Joseph) wanted it to be crystal clear that Jesus was not the offspring of an earthly father. Jesus is God in the flesh. His birth was miraculous. Joseph and Mary had a wedding but did not consummate their marriage until after Jesus was born. They knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was not conceived by human relations. This was a divine act.

Third, this verse also teaches that Joseph and Mary had sex after Jesus was born. Mary was not a perpetual virgin. Joseph didn’t have sex with her until after she gave birth. There are also verses in the book of Matthew that talk about Jesus’ brothers and sisters. (See also Mark 6:3)

Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” (Mat 13:55-56 ESV)

These are all important things to point out from these verses, yet these were not the things that struck me this Christmas. What caught my attention was the self-control of Joseph.

Think about it. Joseph was a righteous man who followed the law (Matthew 1:19). He was presumably chaste and had no blemish on his record. He had waited his entire life to have sex until the proper context. He had been self-controlled because he wanted to obey God and follow the Old Testament law.

Then it comes out that Mary is pregnant with a baby that does not belong to him. He is told in a dream by an angel of the Lord that he should remain committed to Mary and take her as his wife. Joseph marries Mary… but still remains self-controlled.

He could have had sex with her and we have no indication that it would have been sinful. Yet, he chose to wait until after the birth of Jesus in order that it would be crystal clear that Jesus was not of earthly descent. Since he had a character of a righteous man and knew this was a unique divine circumstance, I conclude that he wanted to answer any possible claim that he was the earthly father of Jesus.

Joseph lived with Mary. He loved her. He saw her naked. He took care of her. He traveled with her to Bethlehem. And yet, he waited to have intercourse with her until after he helped her give birth to a child that was not his own.

Would you have been as self-controlled as Joseph? Would you have complained? Would you have grumbled? Would you have been bitter?

I don’t want to read more into the text than need be. Nor amy I trying to advocate for anything bizarre. I’m not advocating using Joseph as an example to refrain from intercourse within marriage. If you have followed my other blogs, you know I believe married couples should enjoy sex on a very regular basis.

I am saying that Joseph exerted a lot of self-control and truly loved well in a difficult and unprecedented situation.

Perhaps you need the grace of Jesus this Christmas to grow in the area of self-control. Are you single and struggling with pornography? Are you dating or engaged and struggling with purity? Are you married and having difficulty remaining sexually committed to your spouse? Use this Advent to ask God for the gift of control. Only the Holy Spirit who conceived Jesus can give us this spiritual fruit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  (Gal 5:1 ESV)

The Holy Spirit did a miracle in the womb of Mary. The Holy Spirit did a miracle in the heart of Joseph. And I am more than confident that the Holy Spirit can do a miracle in our lives and enable us to replace any sinful desires with steadfast love.

 


Sean is the Chief of Staff at the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors and the author of Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement (P&R, 2017)

The Bible is Practical

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By Sean Perron

The Bible isn’t relevant for life if the Bible can’t be applied practically. Biblical counseling must be practical or else it will be irrelevant. This is because we obey or disobey God in specific ways. Our idolatries are not vague. Our sins are not general. When we are fearful, we think fearful thoughts in our mind. When we are sinfully depressed, we neglect real responsibilities. When we act in anger, we do things with our tongues and our hands. Thankfully, the Bible offers practical ways to overcome our sin and change us in concrete ways.

The practical nature of the Scriptures for counseling can be seen in three verses in the New Testament. Romans 12:19-21 is just one example that gives us insight into the powerful and tangible ways the Bible can be used in counseling.

Verse 19: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 

 

1) Command and Motivation

The command in verse 19 is to never take revenge. This command is simple, but it is not merely a command. In Romans 12:19, the motivation for the command is given. We should not seek revenge because this is only God’s prerogative. Vengeance belongs to the Lord and we are called to trust him instead of taking matters into our own hands. To not take revenge requires faith. The command is given and the motivation to obey the command is also explained.

Verse 20: To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 

 

2) One Practical Application

Verse 20 goes beyond both the command and the motivation and moves into a practical example. If your enemy is hungry, you can not take revenge by feeding him. If your enemy is thirsty, you can fight anger by giving him something to drink. This is one practical way of fighting the urge to take revenge. Instead of giving your enemy poison, you should buy him coffee. Instead of giving your enemy a mouthful of harsh language, you should give him a mouthful of food.

Verse 21: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 

3) Many Practical Opportunities

The practical nature of the commands of God can be seen even clearer in verse 21. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. The practical nature of doing good in order to combat revenge isn’t bound up in giving away meals or bottles of water to your arch enemies. There are hundreds of ways in which you can tangibly show kindness instead of wrath to those who upset you. Romans 12:20 gives one practical example, but Romans 12:21 allows for a thousand other acts of kindness that are in keeping with verse 19.

 

Biblical Counsel is Practical Counsel

How do you give advice to others? Do you talk about God’s commands? Do you explain the motivations behind those commandments and how faith is required? Do you give practical examples to implement these truths? Do you then teach others to think of new ways to obey God when faced with a variety of circumstances?

Romans 12:19-21 is just one example of how the Scriptures are powerful and practical to help people change. It is my prayer that this text is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves: Do we counsel like the Bible counsels?

This post was originally posted on The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors blog. 

Some Clarification and Suggestions from a Theology of Biblical Counseling

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Post by Sean Perron
Yesterday I read David Murray’s blog post. Murray graciously asked for replies to his blog post and I hope these quotes are helpful.
Below are some of my suggestions and also some clarifications from Dr. Heath Lambert’s book A Theology of Biblical Counseling. My main suggestion is that Murray should have read the entirety of Lambert’s book before writing his post.
Murray Question 1: “Is there any revelation outside the Bible?”
Has God revealed any truth about these topics (information about obesity, nutrition, fetal alcohol syndrome, etc.) outside the Bible?
Lambert’s clarification: 
Rich Resources Outside Scripture
Some believe that embrace of the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling necessarily entails rejection of true information outside of the Bible. This is a fairly common objection to the kind of biblical sufficiency that I am discussing here…
…From the very beginning of the biblical counseling movement, leaders have made clear their belief in the legitimacy of sources of information outside of Scripture. Biblical counselors do not ignore or outright reject extra-biblical sources or counseling insights. In fact, I would argue that biblical counselors have demonstrated a high level of theological sophistication about the use of extra-biblical data, often greater than our brothers to the theological left. The biblical counseling position is that there is much true information that exists outside the Bible—that found in the sciences, for example. (53-54)
Murray’s Suggested Clarification: 
“Without the qualification of ‘special revelation’ (or spiritual truth), I think we risk being understood as saying that there is no general revelation, no truth, outside of Scripture on any topic.”
One of Lambert’s printed clarification in chapter two: 
The call to be compassionate counselors requires that a thoroughgoing theology of biblical counseling must not only address the sufficient resources for counseling within Scripture but must also address the relevance of resources that exist outside of Scripture. This is an issue that has the highest practical and personal implications for counselors. We must consider this matter very carefully if we are to be compassionate. Considering the matter in this way requires that we understand the doctrine of common grace. (66-67)
I began this chapter on the resources for counseling outside Scripture by asking what is necessary to help Rick, Wendy, Gail, Trenyan, Jenny, Scott, Drew, Amber, Sean, and Sarah. To answer that question, we examined common grace and saw that, indeed, God does allow unbelievers to come to know true principles that are helpful in counseling. (100)
The quotes that answer this question are too numerous for me to reproduce in this post.
I also want to point Murray and readers to
Appendix A: Statement from the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors  Regarding Mental Disorders, Medicine, and Counseling

Appendix B: Biblical Counseling, General Revelation, and Common Grace

Murray writes: “I’m hopeful that Heath will go on to add such qualifications in subsequent chapters, but it’s unqualified generalizations like these that confuse people and have created justifiable resistance to the biblical counseling movement over the years. With just a couple of extra words, the potential confusion is avoided and understandable reasons to resist are removed.”
My Suggestion for Murray’s Post:
I’m hopeful that Murray will go on to add such qualifications in subsequent blog posts, but it’s blog posts like his review of first chapter of Lambert’s book that confuse people and have created resistance to the biblical counseling movement over the years. By waiting just a couple of extra pages, the potential confusion is avoided and reasons to resist are removed. I wish Murray had refrained from blogging before he finished A Theology of Biblical Counseling.
What Counseling Requires 
Murray’s Question 2: “Does ‘problems’ here mean all problems (such as autism, or those Heath mentioned earlier – employment problems or choosing a college)?”
One Quote of Lambert’s Clarification: 
Biblical counselors shall encourage the use of physical examinations and testing by physicians for diagnosis of medical problems, the treatment of these problems, and the relief of symptoms, which might cause, contribute to, or complicate counseling issues. (324)
Murray’s Question 3: “Is God’s prescribed solution (singular) to our problems (plural) always simply ‘faith in Christ’?”
One Quote of Lambert’s Clarification:
Biblical counselors shall encourage the use of physical examinations and testing by physicians for diagnosis of medical problems, the treatment of these problems, and the relief of symptoms, which might cause, contribute to, or complicate counseling issues. (324)
Murray’s Question 4: “Is this the only solution to all our problems?”
One Quote with Lambert’s Clarification:
Biblical counselors shall encourage the use of physical examinations and testing by physicians for diagnosis of medical problems, the treatment of these problems, and the relief of symptoms, which might cause, contribute to, or complicate counseling issues. (324)
My Suggestion: Murray may consider being slow to blog and quick to read. Murray may consider if he is answering a matter before he hears all of the facts. I also pray that Murray would be more open to changing his position on counseling.
Other Minor Suggestions: 
  • Murray suggests Lambert should use the word “necessitates” instead of “requires.” We should not quibble over words that mean the same thing. Requires and necessitates are the same thing. These words are synonymous.
I close with this quote from Murray which I apply to this post and my suggestions:
I offer these questions and clarifications in the spirit of iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17), and in the hope that my biblical counseling colleagues will see the need for much greater clarity, carefulness, and consistency, if we are to have a hope of building the credibility of our discipline and expanding the availability and usefulness of biblical counseling throughout the world. I’m looking forward to learning from any responses to the questions, further questions to me, and hopefully clearer and more consistent definitions at the foundational level. If I have misunderstood or misrepresented anything, please let me know as this was not my intention.
Sean Perron