Pursuing Semi-transcendence

Dear Church Family,

About ten years ago, my wife and I attended a conference in which we heard a presentation from the Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias. One of the things that he talked about was how there are basically three ways to view reality:

(1) Total transcendence (or objectivity) – This, of course, is the view of reality that only the God who made heaven and earth is able to have. The Lord is omniscient (all knowing) and omnipresent (not bound by time or space), the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. He is perfectly righteous and holy. Thus, He is able to view reality (and all of creation) from the perspective of One who is transcendent and objective.

(2) Total subjectivity – This is the view of reality of human beings as fallen creatures. We are confined to space and time. Additionally, we are born enslaved to sin. As a result of the fall, we know good and evil; yet, unlike God who knows good and evil objectively, we know it subjectively. That is, God is like the doctor who can look at the patient and see his disease, and we are like that patient – riddled with the disease of sin. We may recognize it, but we are unable to do anything about it. Consequently, because of our sin, we view all of reality according to the fallen wisdom of the world – with total subjectivity.

(3) Semi-transcendence – When God regenerates us, gives us eternal life, and makes us a new creation, we do not become omniscient and omnipresent like Him. Yet, by the illumination of our hearts and minds by the Holy Spirit, He enables us to begin to understand His Word; He teaches us and grows us in godly wisdom such that we are able to begin view Him, ourselves, others, and all reality as He does. Of course, as finite creatures, we will never obtain “total transcendence,” but there is a sense in which we may begin to step outside of ourselves and view things from God’s perspective.

Seeking True Wisdom

The reason that I’ve been thinking about these things this week is because this idea of semi-transcendence is something that is explored in the passage for our sermon this Sunday (1 Corinthians 3:18-4:7).There are at least two places in which the Scriptures touch on this idea. The word “semi-transcendence” is not used, but the idea is very similar.

First, consider these words from the first epistle of John:

19 We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him  20 in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things. (1 John 3:19-20)

 

John is addressing the problem of when a believer doubts and lacks assurance about his own salvation due to the accusation and condemnation that comes from his own heart. And, one of the helps that he offers for the Christian whose heart condemns him is remembering that God is greater than our heart and knows all things.

You see, if God is greater than our heart and knows all things, then He is a more a reliable source than our own hearts. So, the solution is for us to learn what God says and what God knows. And the only way that we are able to learn what God says and what God knows is by reading and studying the truths of His written word. Through learning those truths, He enables us to break the bonds of our total subjectivity and obtain semi-transcendence: the ability to begin to view things (including our own hearts!) as He does.

Second, consider these words from 1 Corinthians which are a portion of the passage that we will be looking at this Sunday:

3 But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself.  4 For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. (1 Corinthians 4:3-4)

 

Paul intimates that he can’t ultimately trust his own conscience: though he’s not conscious that he’s done anything wrong, that is not the basis of his innocence (“I am not by this acquitted”). The ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, guilt and innocence, is the Lord. Others may judge us, we may judge ourselves, but in the end, it’s God’s judgment that counts! And, once again, the only way that we may know His judgments is by reading and studying what He says in His word.

Conclusion

Those who do not belong to Christ are enslaved to worldly wisdom and are totally subjective in their view of reality, unable to know God and unable to know their own hearts; those who are born again are enabled to begin to view reality with semi-transcendence, able to know God and to know their own hearts.

Here’s the practical application of understanding this concept of “the wisdom of semi-transcendence.” If you want to grow in true, godly wisdom (to begin to see things as God sees them), then look to His Word. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Therefore, if you have tasted of the kindness of the Lord, then, like a newborn baby, long for the pure milk of the word, so that you may grow in respect to salvation (1 Peter 2:1-3).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Conference on Technological Media and Their Effects

Dear Church Family,

Ask any fish to describe the effect that water has on him and he’ll respond, “What water?” Ask any of your neighbors to describe the effect that technological media has on him and he’ll probably respond the same way, “What technological media?” Of course, this is only true if you can get him to first put down his cellphone – or if you can put down yours!

Like the fish that takes for granted the water that it swims in, most of us have become so accustomed to an environment dominated by digital media that we fail to recognize how it affects us. Focusing on the content of what we take in, we don’t recognize how it’s form (the media technology of our computers and smartphones) influences the way we think and act – as individuals and as a society.

In the New York Times bestseller, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr writes:

Although even the initial users of the technology can often sense the changes in their patterns of attention, cognition, and memory as their brains adapt to the new medium, the most profound shifts play out more slowly, over several generations, as the technology becomes ever more embedded in work, leisure, and education – in all the norms and practices that define a society and its culture. How is the way we read changing? How is the way we write changing? How is the way we think changing? Those are the questions we should be asking, both of ourselves and of our children. (pp 199-200)

 

For Christians who seek to be a people of the word (Luke 1:2; 1 Peter 1:2-3), it is especially important that we ask these questions. We live in an age of distraction and a media-saturated culture that is dominated by the ubiquity of the moving image, immediate gratification, instant communication, and an obsession with the trivial. Therefore, it’s more important than ever for believers to find ways to “unplug” and to pursue sustainable habits of discipleship – as individuals and in our communities.

If you’re a fish, I encourage you to get back in the water so that you can get back to being a fish. If you’re a human being, I encourage you to get out of the technological-media-saturated water that you’re swimming in – at least briefly – so that you can get back to being human.

To help Christians to be better disciples of Jesus Christ (and to help human beings be more human!), on February 23-24, Providence Presbyterian Church will host a free conference entitled, “Christian Discipleship in a Media-Saturated Culture.” Dr. T. David Gordon, an ordained minister, professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College, and a leader in the field of media-ecology, will present a series of lectures on: the history of technology, the benefits and problems of new forms of communication, how digital technology affects the human brain, and the importance of pursuing solitude.

This conference begins at 7:00 pm on Friday, February 23rd and will run through Saturday morning, concluding at noon on February 24th. It will be held in the fellowship hall of Providence Presbyterian Church, 2900 Princeton Ave. More detailed information is available online: http://providencemidland.org/mrtc2018. This information is also available on the website, but here is a list of the specific times and topics for the conference:

Friday, February 23, 2018

7:00 pm - Lecture 1: Theological Introduction and Historical Survey: Six Moments from Socrates to Facebook

8:00 pm - Lecture 2: We Make Media and Media Make Us: The Reciprocal/Dialogical Relationship Between Humans and Their Tools (including their tools of communication)

Saturday, February 24, 2018

9:00 am - Lecture 3: Digital Media and Attention: How distracting digital media disrupt human attention

10:00 am - Lecture 4: Digital Media, Solitude, and Society: Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, and how the digital world suits us neither for solitude nor society

11:00 am - Q&A

This fourth annual theological conference, hosted by Providence Presbyterian Church, is a continuing effort to bring sound, biblical, and Reformed teaching to west Texas that’s relevant to the Christian life. Providence Presbyterian Church is a confessional and Reformed church, and part of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) which seeks to be “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.”

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

It's Just the Way I Am (?)

Dear Church Family,

In the sermon this past Sunday from 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, we took some time to look at the error of the “carnal Christian” doctrine that is sometimes taught from these verses. As we looked at this false teaching, I mentioned how one of the subtle takes on this heresy is when Christians learn to live with sin. That is, if one accepts the unbiblical notion that a believer in Christ can still be completely carnal or fleshy (unrepentant and enslaved to sin), then the believer runs the danger of eventually making a ‘peace treaty,’ as it were, with sin in their lives.

A Peace Treaty with Sin?

Instead of warring against the sinful passions of their own flesh, a person who believes that it’s possible to be a “carnal Christian” begins to think, “Well, I just have a temper [or insert any besetting sin here]. That’s just the way it is, and I can’t do anything about it.” In this same vein, I also mentioned how this subtle danger has gained some traction with respect to the sin of homosexuality among professing Christians in the last several years. Thus, some make the unbiblical argument that homosexual behavior may be sin, but the desire itself is not. Yet, most Christians would never make the same argument with respect to other sinful desires; for example, few would argue that the act of murder is sin, but the desire to murder is not.

Another contributing factor to this idea that a person may be a “gay Christian” is that instead of understanding human nature according to the teaching and categories of Scripture, it assumes the validity of the world’s understanding of sexual orientation. This, in fact, is basically one of the same problems with the unbiblical notion of “theistic evolution” (the idea that God did not create all things out of nothing, but that He used the evolutionary process to bring about the diversity of species that we see today).

To believe in theistic evolution, of necessity, one must also believe that death is part of the created order, not an enemy intruder which was the result of the fall as the Bible teaches (Romans 5:12). Likewise, the proponents of the “gay in Christ” movement, of necessity, eventually come to view same sex attraction as part of the created order, not as an enemy intruder – just like all sinful desires – which was a result of the fall (Romans 1:18-27).

Toward a Biblical Understanding of Human Sexuality and Desire

So, amidst a culture that is increasingly hostile to God’s design for marriage, sexuality, and human nature how ought we as Christians respond? Well, I’ve previously written on this topic of marriage, sexuality, and how we ought to respond here: “Marriage: The Bible and Human Givenness.”

But, I’d also like to point you to a very timely, pastoral, and biblically-based article by Richard Phillips entitled “Looming Debate Over SSA.” Phillips is the pastor of a PCA church in Greenville, SC. In the article, he explains the problems with how some have come to draw a distinction between sexual orientation and sinful desires, and how normalizing sinful homosexual behavior or desire is of no help to anyone. He concludes by explaining how Christians may faithfully seek the salvation of sinners by “holding out a holy identity in union with Christ and in the experience of his cleansing grace.”

We live in confusing times when there are many voices proposing many various theories about human sexuality. I encourage you to follow the link to Phillips’ article and read carefully his explanation and insights. He charts a clear, biblical, and loving way toward calling people to faith and repentance.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Martin Luther's Contributions

Dear Church Family,

This past Sunday, in our adult Sunday school class in “Turning Points in Church History,”  we picked up where we left off by examining some of Martin Luther’s major contributions to Christian doctrine and practice. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to get through all of the lesson as we had a good discussion about “vocation.” Since we didn’t get to finish the lesson, I thought that I would take this opportunity to summarize this study.

Justification

One of the major contributions of Martin Luther, and probably the one which we speak about the most, is his understanding and teaching about the doctrine of justification. Through his study of Scripture, Luther came to understand that man is justified by faith alone in Christ alone by God’s free grace alone (Romans 4:1-7; Galatians 2:16). As Luther put it, Christians are simul iustus et peccator (“simultaneous justified and sinner”). At the same time, Luther also clearly taught the necessity of good works which are grounded in true faith. Or, as the Westminster Confession of Faith states: “Faith…is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love” (WCF 11.2).

Theology of the Cross

Luther also reformed the worship of the church in making the service one which the congregation was more fully engaged (especially in singing), seeing worship not as a sacrificial work on man’s part but a gift from God. Undergirding much of Luther’s teaching was also his understanding of what it means to be a “theologian of the cross.” Reasoning from the Bible’s teaching that the foolishness and weakness of the cross is God’s means of manifesting His power and saving men (1 Corinthians 1:21-25; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10), Luther promoted a “theology of the cross” as a pattern of ministry, as well as a way of life for every Christian.

Marriage

As a former monk who married a former nun, Luther also made a bold statement about the institution of marriage. Where the church had formerly taught that the celibate life of a priest or a nun was a higher, more spiritual, calling, Luther argued that marriage was the best Christian life. He taught that that there are three main purposes in marriage: the procreation of children, the avoidance of sin, and mutual help and companionship. With this teaching, the Westminster Standards are also in agreement (WCF 24.2).

Vocation

In keeping with his denunciation of the vows of celibacy and the supposed “higher calling” of the priesthood, Luther also taught a fresh understanding of the meaning of “vocation.” Formerly, and still today in the Roman Catholic Church, vocation (or calling) is limited to ‘holy orders’ and the celibate life of the priest or nun. But, for Luther, the value of one’s vocation (all vocations) comes from the inherent call to love and serve one’s neighbor. According to Luther, God is the one who ultimately calls each person to a particular productive form of work and He is the one that ennobles the pursuit of each one’s calling.

Unfortunately, it is in vogue these days to misunderstand and misapply Luther’s doctrine of vocation. Contrary to the biblical teaching on the uniqueness of ordination to gospel ministry (e.g., Romans 10:12-15; 1 Timothy 4:14), some erroneously teach that every believer or every member of the church is a minister. And, contrary to the doctrine of the biblical teaching on the spiritual nature of the mission of the church to preach the gospel and make disciples (e.g., Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 12:13; John 18:36), some erroneously teach that the church is to involve itself in the temporal affairs of this world.

As we began to discuss this topic in class, I tried to explain how Luther’s doctrine of vocation can sometimes be misunderstood in these ways. Yet, as I sought to explain and answer questions, it seems that I may have caused some confusion. One or two people inferred that I was saying that only those ordained to gospel ministry ought to share the gospel. If that’s what came across, I apologize. That is not what I meant. Let me try to be as clear and as succinct as possible: while we may make a distinction between the ecclesial calling of ordained gospel ministry and other equally legitimate vocations, God exhorts all believers to bear witness to the Lord Jesus Christ, “to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). To better understand these distinctions and categories, I refer you to two things that I’ve previously written that deal with this topic: “The Church and the Individual Christian” and “The Two Kingdoms Doctrine in Work and Politics.”

The Priesthood of Believers

In the class on Sunday, we ran out of time and didn’t have the opportunity to discuss this last contribution of Luther’s, but it helps to clarify some of the confusion in the previous topic. In contrast to the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching about the special (and necessary) intercession of the priest in absolving a believer of their sins, Luther emphasized the “priesthood of believers”: since Jesus Christ is the one and only high-priest (Hebrews 7:23-28), every Christian believer is a part of the holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:4-5) and has direct access to God through His Son (Hebrews 13:10).

The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks to the concept of the priesthood of believers when it describes the liberty which Christ has purchased for believers under the Gospel to include, in part, “freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected,” “greater boldness of access to the throne of grace,” and “fuller communication of the free Spirit of God” (WCF 20.1).

Like many of the other contributions of Luther, the doctrine of the priesthood of believers has been misunderstood, as well. Some have interpreted this concept as teaching that there are no special church offices in the new covenant church, at all. Here, T. David Gordon helpfully points out:

Some have taken the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of believers to mean that the Reformation did not believe in an ordained ministry. The Reformers taught no such thing. For them, the ‘priesthood of believers’ recognized that the priestly duties of consecrating our lives to God were incumbent upon all believers, as was the priestly duty of interceding for others. The Reformers thus taught that the particular office of priest within the Sinai covenant became both general and non-sacrificial in the new covenant. But the Reformation recognized that other, non-priestly offices rightly existed in the NT church; they taught the priesthood of believers, but not the clergy-hood of believers.

 

Conclusion

I hope that what I have written here might help to mitigate any of the confusion from the class this past Sunday; however, if still more clarification is needed, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I’d be happy to discuss these things further.

Allow me to conclude, though, with a statement from Ronald H. Bainton’s biography of the magisterial Reformer, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, in which he enumerates Luther’s remarkable accomplishments and impact:

If no Englishman occupies a similar place in the religious life of his people, it is because no Englishman had anything like Luther’s range. The Bible translation in England was the work of Tyndale, the prayer book of Cranmer, the catechism of the Westminster divines. The sermonic style stemmed from Latimer; the hymnbook from Watts. And not all of these lived in one century. Luther did the work of more than five men. And for sheer richness and exuberance of vocabulary and mastery of style he is to be compared only with Shakespeare.

 

We do not worship the man, but we are grateful for the ways in which the Lord used Martin Luther in the Reformation of the Church. Soli Deo Glory.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch