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My Review of Walking Through Infertility by Matthew Arbo

I was drawn to read and review Walking Through Infertility: Biblical, Theological, and Moral Counsel For Those who are Struggling by Matthew Arbo because my wife and I have a number of friends who are experiencing infertility. Furthermore, for the short time that I have been in ministry, I have come to discover that this is not uncommon problem among God’s people.

The book is primarily written for couples who are not able to have their own biological children and secondarily for those who desire to minister to them. Its main purpose is “to address biblical, theological, and moral questions surrounding infertility. The aim is to instruct and inspire the church, especially, those couples with personal experience with infertility” (p. 21).

Walking Through Infertility is divided into four main chapters. The first chapter surveys the biblical stories of infertility and how God proved his faithfulness to his people. The second chapter focuses on following Christ despite the trial of not being able to have your own biological children. The third chapter centers on the church and how a childless couple can find help and comfort from fellow believers. The last chapter analyses various ethical and moral considerations regarding modern methods of helping infertile couples to conceive and give birth.

I would say that the book’s greatest strength lies in the last chapter. Arbo goes into detail to explain the modern reproductive technologies and the ethical dilemmas they pose to Christians. In as much as we should thank God for the advancements in modern medicine and medical innovations, we also need to be aware that not all of them are without moral quandaries. Arbo’s discussion of intrauterine insemination (IUI), intro vitro fertilization (IVF), and surrogacy is outstanding. I would greatly recommend any Christian who might have questions or considering these reproductive technologies to prayerfully read this section.

IUI involves a medical expert taking a man’s sperm and inserting it into a woman’s uterus during ovulation to increase chances of conception while IVF is very complex and involves a medical expert taking a man’s sperm and woman’s eggs and fertilizing them in a laboratory and later implanting the embryo in the woman’s uterus.  Surrogacy entails a couple contracting with a woman to carry their biological child to term and surrender it back to them at birth. As you might see these methods raises a number of ethical and theological concerns. Should or can a Christian use any of these methods with a clear conscience?

Arbo does not leave the couple struggling with infertility to answer this question on their own. Instead he biblically and pastorally challenges them “to consider whether the relation between conception and sex is sacred and the manner of procreation as designed by God is open to amendment?” Towards the very end of the book, he encourages a couple experiencing infertility to consult, do the hard work of listening, thinking and praying for God’s wisdom. “Speak with others you trust—family, friends, pastors—and do the hard work of listening and thinking and praying. Wise is the one who heeds a sound word of instruction. In Christ are the riches of wisdom, and if anyone lacks wisdom, ‘let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him’ (James 1:5).”

This is why I say that the last chapter is the best part of the book. Not only because of its biblical and pastoral approach to these ethical issues but also because it explains very complex reproductive technologies in an easier to understand language for less scientifically sophisticated Christians like me.

Disclosure: Crossway has given me a courtesy copy of the book for this review.

 

 

 

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Christianity and theology, Uncategorized

Christmas Reflections: God’s Gracious Choice of Mary

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.  And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.  And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,”(Luke 1:26-31).

Why did God choose Mary to be the mother of Christ? What did God see in Mary that moved him to choose her to be God-bearer? The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) responds and says that by God’s grace Mary was born sinless that is why she was chosen by God. RCC calls this the doctrine of Immaculate Conception. However, basing on the evidence of Scripture we see that there was nothing so special with Mary. Mary did nothing to deserve the honor of bringing Christ into this world. It was purely God’s gracious choice. Consider the following:

First, Mary as a descendant of Adam was a sinner just like every one else born in this world (Romans 5:12). In fact just like Jesus’ great grandfather, David, Mary was also brought forth in iniquity and in sin did her mother conceive her (Psalm 51:5).

Second, Mary was from a poor background. In her song of praise also known as the Magnificat recorded for us in Luke 2:46-55, she confesses of her humble estate and says: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant” (46, 47). Later she adds, “For he who is might has done great things for me…he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate (49, 52).

John Calvin comment on these verses observes, “This was not the loud cry of a pretended humility, but the plain and honest statement of that conviction which was engraven on her mind; for she was of no account in the eyes of the world, and her estimation of herself was nothing more.”

Third, Mary was from a very little known village of Nazareth.  She was neither from the capital of Israel nor any of its big cities. The insignificant village of Nazareth was not even mentioned in the Old Testament or other Jewish literature of that time. It is also believed that it was a popular saying in those days in Israel to ask the rhetoric question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Yet it is to this obscure village, which nobody expected anything good to come out of that God went for the choice of the mother of his incarnate Son.

Mary’s story resembles the story of our salvation. God chose to save us through Christ not because he saw anything special in us to move him to act in our favor. Apostle Paul reminds us: “For consider your calling, brothers (and sisters): not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,” (1 Cor. 1:26-30).

This, friends, is the heart of Christmas. God “tabernacled” with us not because we were lovely, righteous or friendly. To the contrary, God came to dwell with us despite being lowly, sinful, and with rebellious hearts. He came to save us from our most pitiful and hopeless state and to enable us sit with him in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). Praise the Lord for his gracious and sovereign choice!

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Does the LORD Sometimes Take “Long” to Answer our Prayers

Pastor Andrew Brunson

This is the question that came to my mind this afternoon as I was reflecting on the news of the release of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who was being held in prison and later under house arrest by the Turkish Authorities for the last two years. I should highlight on the onset that I have never met Bruson neither do I know him personally. The only connection I have with him is our common faith in Christ. But I got more interested in his case begin from the day he was arrested.

On that day I was undergoing licensure examinations on the floor of the Northeast Presbytery of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Maryland. Soon after the examinations one of the pastors at the Presbytery meeting whose church had previously supported Bruson as a missionary shared with the meeting about his arrest and asked us to pray for him.

We prayed. I also continued to pray for him as often as I remembered.  So, this afternoon when I received an update from ARP magazine that Bruson has finally been acquitted by the Turkish court, a great joy of thankfulness filled my heart. I praised the Lord for answering prayers of thousands or even millions who were praying for the pastor. But it wasn’t long before my joy was consumed by this question: Why did it take this long before the Lord answered the prayers of his people. Why did the Lord wait for two years to answer the prayers of Bruson himself, his family, relatives, and others saints including the ARP Northeast Presbytery?

I don’t have the answer to this question? I don’t even know if anyone has the answer. But as I continued to ponder, Romans 8:28 came to mind: “And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” It also dawned on me that I am not the first one to wonder. David as he was passing through trials and prayed also wondered “How long O Lord will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1). David had prayed for a “long time” but the Lord seemed not to respond with the needed promptness.

I think the hymn writer was right:

By and by, when the morning comes,

When the saints of God are gathered home,

We’ll tell the story how we’ve overcome

For we’ll understand it better by and by.

Praise the Lord for the release of Brunson. Praise the Lord for many prayers that the saints throughout the world sent before the throne of grace. Praise be to God for answering our prayers. To Him alone be the glory, forever!

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My Review of Spurgeon on the Christian Life by Michael Reeves*

It is my humble estimation that Charles Haddon Spurgeon is one of the most gifted preachers of the post Reformation era. His sermons still come alive when read today. It is little wonder then that many have labeled him the prince of preachers and deservedly so. But who was this man? Apart from his preaching what else can a Christian learn from his life and ministry? What did he teach and believe about the Christian life in this fallen world?

These are some of the key questions that Michael Reeves answers in his book Spurgeon on the Christian Life published by Crossway in 2018. Reeves himself captures the essence of his book in the introduction by observing, “This book is about Spurgeon’s theology of the Christian life…Spurgeon was unreservedly Christ-centered and Christ-shaped in his theology; and he was equally insistent on the vital necessity of the new birth. The Christian life is the new life in Christ, given by the Spirit and won by the blood of Christ shed on the cross” (p. 16).

In the first part of the book, Reeves focuses more on the life of Spurgeon. He shows how Spurgeon was a tender, affection, and generous man of deep affection for people. Spurgeon’s sense of humor could also hardly be concealed even when he was on the pulpit. In the second part, Reeves dwells more on Spurgeon’s love for Christ and his word and how this love shaped Spurgeon’s life and ministry. He also shows how John Calvin, the Puritans, and the Reformed theology significantly impacted Spurgeon’s preaching. The third and fourth parts of the book center on Spurgeon’s beliefs and teaching regarding new birth, baptism, sanctification, prayer, Christian’s suffering, and final glory.

Though not a full biography of Spurgeon I would highly recommend this book as an introduction to the life and ministry of Spurgeon, especially, for those who hardly know this man or have read little about him. Many primary sources have been cited in the book, which also act as excellent materials for further study or exploration. These primary sources also allow Spurgeon to speak for himself what he believed about the Christian life. The other strength of the book is that it is very engaging and is easier to read. Many sections of the third and fourth chapter are also good devotional materials.

As the title suggests, my initial expectation was to see more of what Spurgeon believed about many aspects of the Christian life.  However, you don’t get to that until you reach the third and fourth parts of the book. This, in my view, is one of the weak areas of the book. In addition to that my fellow Presbyterian and Reformed friends would find the section on Spurgeon’s beliefs about infant baptism, I prefer to call it covenantal baptism, to be the gloomiest part of the book (pp. 89-91). Reeves focuses more on what Spurgeon believed were the errors associated with paedobaptism without making a fair presentation of what actually the Reformed faith teaches about covenantal baptism.  May be that was beyond the objectives of the book; nonetheless, I wish Reeves would have at least briefly provided some biblical grounds why Presbyterians and Reformed believers baptize their children as well as highlight that covenantal baptism is not a baptismal regeneration as Spurgeon incorrectly argued.

All in all, Spurgeon on the Christian Life is a good book. It is well researched and provides a good starting point to get acquainted with the man who many fondly remember as the prince of preachers. Spurgeon on the Christian Lifewill definitely leave your mind informed and your hart warmed.

*Crossway has provided me with a complimentary copy of this book.

 

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Martin Bucer: Faithfulness in Obscurity

Many readers of this post would know Martin Luther and John Calvin. These are the names that usually come to mind whenever we think of the Sixteenth Century Protestant Reformation. But how many are familiar with Martin Bucer? How many of us will be able to write at least a paragraph on this reformer? The point I am trying to drive home by these questions is that unlike Luther and Calvin, Bucer is one of obscure reformers of the Sixteenth century. Yet he was the man the Lord used to mentor the great theologian of the Reformation era, John Calvin.

Martin Bucer was born on November 11, 1491 in the town of Schlettstdat in France. Later, he became a Roman Catholic monk in Dominican order. In 1581, Bucer was in the city of Heidelberg, Germany when Martin Luther came to the city for a disputation. In the debate, Luther asserted God’s sovereign grace in salvation and that salvation is by faith alone. This marked the turning point for Bucer who attended the disputation. He fully embraced the doctrines of grace and began to preach the same. He later settled in Strasbourg and labored faithfully in teaching, preaching, and shepherding God’s people for years.

Somehow, John Calvin came to know Bucer and wanted to spend the rest of his life in Strasbourg writing and laboring alongside him. So in April 1536, Calvin left Paris for Strasbourg. But due to the war between King Franz I of France and Emperor Karl of Austria, he could not take a direct route. He decided to go through Geneva.

In Geneva, William Farel, another reformer, persuaded him to stay and co-labour with him. So Calvin settled in Geneva and began to biblically reforming the church but some resisted Calvin’s reformation efforts. Eventually the Genevan city council expelled Calvin from the city in 1538 and he headed to Strasbourg where he labored with Bucer and pastored a French refugees church for three years.

In the period of three years, the Lord used Bucer to mentor the younger Calvin. Calvin himself wrote this of Bucer: “(Bucer is the man of) profound scholarship, his bounteous knowledge about a wide range of subjects, his keen mind, his wide reading, and many other different virtues, remains unsurpassed today by anyone, can be compared with only a few, and excels the vast majority.”[1] Undoubtedly, Bucer had a great impact upon the great theologian and pastor yet Bucer remains little known to many today.

Again, the point I am trying to put across is that just like in the Bible where we have saints who were used mightily by God but are little known, we also have little known reformers who played a great role in the Reformation. Bucer is an encouragement to many who are laboring faithfully for the Lord yet the world knows little or even nothing about them. Your faithfulness is not nullified by your obscurity. The Lord sees it and he will surely reward it. Not all of us were predestined to be the “Calvins.” Some of us are the “Bucers,” but in everything we ought to be thankful and give glory to Christ for he is really the one who is at work through us all (1 Cor. 3:6-11).

[1] Keith Mathison, Ligoneir Ministries, http://www.ligonier.org/blog/martin-bucer-reformer-and-his-times/ accessed on November 30, 2017.

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What about Fasting, Reformed Brothers and Sisters?

I don’t think I will exaggerate if I say that fasting is one of the dwindling practices among the Reformed Christians today. Some time ago, I was attending a workshop on the topic of fasting. All the attendees were Reformed Christians. It was a confession time when the facilitator of the workshop asked how many of us fasted regularly. Less than ten hands out of about forty participants went up.

There could be a number of factors that have contributed to this sad development, which I cannot speculate. But I believe we can all agree that this ought not to be so. Both the Bible and our Reformed tradition encourage us to engage in this practice as often as possible. But before I look at the Bible and our Reformed heritage let me highlight that there are two types of fasting: public and private or individual. Public fasting involves the body of Christ coming together to either pray for a particular issue or to thank the Lord for his mercies. The Westminster Directory of Worship is one of the best documents that ably expounds on this type of fasting.

The individual fasting is more private in the sense that a Christian fasts and prays for personal issues which might include confession of sin, thanksgiving, God’s guidance or wisdom in a situation. There are a number of Bible passages that teach and model for us this practice.

We first see individual fasting in Exodus 34:28. Moses fasts for forty days and forty nights (no food or drink) while meeting with the Lord for the second tablets of the Law. This type of fasting is a special one and certainly Moses was sustained in these forty days and nights by the special power of God. Christ will also later fast forty days after the Holy Spirit would lead him into the wilderness to be tested at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:1-2). Like Moses’ fasting, Christ’s fasting was special and extraordinary.

In 2 Samuel 12:16 we read that David also fasted and prayed. He had committed adultery with Bathsheba and later murdered Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. The Lord was displeased and declared that the child that was born out of this sin will die. David fasted and prayed probably confessing his sin and certainly pleading with the Lord that the child should be spared. However, God’s word stood and the child went to be with the Lord although David’s sin was forgiven (2 Sam. 12:13). Here Scripture models for us the fast that is both repentance of sin and supplication.

Nehemiah also fasted and prayed confessing the sins of Israel as well as asking the Lord to restore and rebuild the ruined walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 1). The young man Daniel too regularly fasted and prayed for forgiveness of Israel’s sins and that God would grant mercy to his people (Dan. 9:1-23; 10:3).

Lest we think that this practice was observed only in the Old Testament, Christ instructs us on what we should do when we fast in Matthew 6:16-18: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

We also read of early Christians fasting and praying in Acts 13:1-3 probably asking for God’s guidance in their ministry of reaching out to the lost. Therefore, there is no doubt that Christians except for those who have health reasons or limitations should fast and pray. This fasting should not only be limited to food and drink but also to other activities including conjugal obligations (1 Cor. 7:5) and use of electronics and Internet. (Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. I just said, “internet”).

Our forefathers in the faith also rightly taught on the importance of fasting and praying. We will take a brief overview at what some of our forefathers said and wrote about this practice. John Calvin in the Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.12.15-19 wrote, “A holy and lawful fast has three ends in view. We use it either to mortify and subdue the flesh, that it may not wanton, or to prepare the better for prayer and holy meditation; or to give evidence of humbling ourselves before God, when we would confess our guilt before him.”

Calvin also warned of three errors when fasting. First, we should not think of fasting superstitiously. By this he means that we should not be deceived and think that although our hearts are not right with God, fasting might still help us getting special blessings from God. Fasting is futile when practiced by unregenerate and unrepentant heart.

Second, related to the first error, we should not think of fasting as a means to merit God’s blessings. I have met some Christians who think that by fasting they can somehow force God to act according to their will. This is absolutely wrong and even blasphemous. Man can never manipulate God and force him to act against his will. Lastly, Calvin warns us of thinking that fasting exalts us to a higher position above other Christians who do not fast. While we are to encourage this practice, we should not think that those who fast are spiritually superior to those that do not.

The Dutch theologian and pastor, Wilhemus A Brakel (1635-1711), bemoaned the dying of this practice among the Reformed Christians of his day and urged them to fast regularly. “It is sad—a sign of great decay in the church—that so little work is made of fasting, both in public as well as secretly. Therefore all who wish to lead a life of tender godliness and desire to see the good of Zion ought to stir themselves up to exercise this duty… Therefore, as obedient children of God and followers of the saints, fast frequently. This was the practice of the original Christian church and of believers at the outset of the Reformation—and even long thereafter. Do not allow this practice to die out” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service Vol. 4, p. 9).

As already observed the Westminster Directory of Worship also has a lot to say about fasting. Although its emphasis is on public fasting, it has a number of important insights we can also apply to individual fasting. For instance the directory reminds us: “A religious fast requires total abstinence, not only from all food, (unless bodily weakness do manifestly disable from holding out till the fast be ended, in which case somewhat may be taken, yet very sparingly, to support nature, when ready to faint,) but also from all worldly labour, discourses, and thoughts, and from all bodily delights, and such like, (although at other times lawful,) rich apparel, ornaments, and such like, during the fast; and much more from whatever is in the nature or use scandalous and offensive, as gaudish attire, lascivious habits and gestures, and other vanities of either sex.”

So, beloved Reformed brothers and sisters, we need to rekindle this dying practice. The status quo needs to be challenged not because we become superior Christians when we fast and pray but because it pleases our Lord when we live in obedience to his revealed will.

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The Virgin Mary: God’s Submissive Servant

One important lesson we can learn from the life of Mary the mother of Christ is her submission to God’s will. By grace, she submitted to God and trusted him to accomplish what is impossible with man (Luke 1:37). The late RC Sproul once described Mary as a Christian’s model of submission.

In Luke’s account of Mary and the angel Gabriel we learn that after Mary was told that she  will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit,  she surrendered  herself to God’s word and said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

There are two important lessons we glean from Mary’s submission. First, she submitted despite having unanswered questions. In Luke 1:34 she asked how she will be able to give birth while she is a virgin. The angel explained that this will happen by the Holy Spirit. But I don’t think Mary fully understood how all things will come about just as we, today, cannot fully explain the incarnation. Remember that this had never happened before in the history of humanity. Mary was the first and the only young woman to be told that she will conceive without a man.

Then there was the question of Joseph. What will he think about this and how will he react? Will he not decide to divorce her once he discovers that she is pregnant and not by him? Mind you at this moment, the angel has not yet gone to Joseph and informed him that Mary will conceive by the Holy Spirit.

Second, Mary submitted knowing that this could cost her life. Probably, we don’t often think about it when we read this account. But have you ever wondered what would have happened if Joseph divorced Mary and told the people that he was not responsible for the pregnancy? The obvious conclusion would have been that Mary committed adultery and the sentence for this “crime” was death by stoning (Deut. 22:23). This was a costly submission. Again, Mary did not know that the angel will also go to Joseph and told him not to divorce her as we read in the gospel of Matthew. Yet she submitted to God’s will.

I am very certain that there will never be another Mary in this world. God will never come to another young woman and ask her to be the mother of Christ. However, again and again God in his word and through the work of the Holy Spirit comes to us and asks us to do some things for him and his kingdom. Some of these things might not make sense and we might not fully understand them. Others might be costly. It could be that we have to make huge sacrifices to fulfill God’s will in our lives. How will we respond to God’s call? I strongly believe that Mary’s response is the best response for every Christian called to do God’s will. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”

At the core of our daily walk with Christ is the call to obey and trust him. The hymn writer was right:

Trust and Obey

For there is no other way

To be happy in Jesus

But to trust and obey

By his  grace, Christ enables us to trust and obey just as he enabled Mary to trust and obey.

(This material first appeared in a form of a sermon which was preached at London Free Reformed Church in London, Ontario, Canada on December 17, 2017).
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