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A Faithful Father

Repeatedly, the Bible speaks of God as “Father,” and while we sometimes think of this as a New Testament distinction, we find this language in the Old Testament as well — God is the Father of Israel (Hosea 11:1), the father of the Messiah (Psalm 89:26), and the father of the fatherless (Psalm 68:5). Nevertheless, in today’s culture, many have grown up either without fathers or in contexts where their fathers model behavior that is abusive, neglectful, or otherwise self-centered. And in cases like this, the Biblical analogy of “Father” is often one with which people struggle and sometimes even recoil. In light of this reality, how are we to tackle this very Biblical notion of God being our Father.

To begin with, the one thing that we must never do is to abandon the Scriptural analogies. Many in mainline denominations prefer to speak of God as a “faithful parent,” as a “friend for the fatherless,” or even as a mother-figure given that oftentimes people’s maternal relationships have been more loving (though this is certainly not always the case). The big problem with this model is that it presumes the dysfunction of someone’s experience as normative and then rewrites the Biblical norm in light of the dysfunction.

Instead of throwing out the Biblical analogy, we ought to embrace it recognizing that God is the Father who sets the perfect ideal — an ideal that even the best of our earthly fathers never fully live up to and of which they commonly fall short. The reality is that no matter how dysfunctional our earthly fathers are and even if they are absent from much of our lives as was my own biological father, children crave time with their dad. We can try and substitute a variety of things for a father’s influence, but as noble and healthy as those things may be, they never quite reach the bar because God designed families to be constructed in a certain way — namely with both a mother and a father raising their children together and instructing those children in the Christian faith which they model.

And do understand, fathers can be absent without actually abandoning the family completely. How many fathers work so many hours that they never seem to be present in the home? How many fathers neglect time with their children because there is always one more thing to do? How many fathers flee to their workplace to avoid problems in the home with which they should be involved in discovering a solution. How many fathers abdicate their role of spiritual head of the family to their wives? And how many fathers are begetting children without first entering into a lifetime covenant with the woman who will mother their children? 

Rather than to do as the mainline churches do, the better solution is to embrace the Biblical analogy as the idea and to set the bar for our men, expecting them to rise to the call and be the kind of Father that God models for them. And then, to recognize that even though our human fathers often fall short — and we do — our heavenly Father never does and we can celebrate that because we all need strong fathers in our lives.

Ability and Will

One of the most basic principles of logic is that “Ought does not yield Is.” In other words, just because things “ought” to be a certain way does not mean that they will be that way. To assume this to be the case is what is called the “moralistic fallacy” and it would be the basis of what would later be called “Hume’s Guillotine,” in honor of the philosopher who popularized it. It should be noted that the opposite is true as well — “Is does not yield ought.” In other words, just because this “is” what happened does not mean that it “ought” to have been so (to argue thusly is called the “naturalistic fallacy).

Why is this important? There is an important principle that can be drawn from these two logical axioms. Just because you have the ability to do something does not mean that you will be willing to do so. Similarly, just because you have the will or desire to do something does not mean that you have the ability to do so.

Let’s take the simple example of a phobia — an irrational fear of something. I, for instance, am afraid of heights. I am fine on a six or ten foot ladder, but much higher than that my body shuts down and it takes a tremendous amount of intentional will-power to just complete the task I set forth to do. Early on in my time here where I serve as a pastor, one of the men of the church tried to get me to climb the ladder to the top of the bell-tower (about 50’ high). I did get to the first tier where the church bells were kept, but as soon as my eyes perceived my height through the ventilation grills, my legs turned to jelly and I never made it to the top. While my body had the ability to climb to the top of the tower, I did not have the will to do so.

Outside of phobias there are other examples of this notion at work. I do not like liver. In fact, my dislike for liver is intense. When I was speaking in Moscow in 2009, one of the meals I was served was liver and rice (and the rice had a liver-gravy on it). Usually, when I travel, I try and “Do as the Romans do…,” but no matter how hard I tried to be polite, I could not stomach more than a couple bites. Again, the ability was there, but my aversion to liver was so strong that my will did not cooperate.

It works the other way around as well. I went through a season of my life where I wanted to learn to play the drums, but I have no sense of rhythm. My band instructor would clap out a beat and ask me to mimic him, and try as I might, I couldn’t do so. Similarly, in college, I tried a semester of Chinese, which is a tonal language. The problem was that even in the language lab, I could never hear the difference between the four tones. The will was there but the ability was not.

Examples abound, but to do a thing, whatever that thing may be, requires you not only to have the ability to do that thing, but also the will to do it. Intentions are great, but where the rubber meets the road lies with two things: the ability to do it and a will to do so.

And that is the beauty of the final clause of Question 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism. It reminds us that God has the “Ability to do so because he is Almighty God” and the will to do so “because He is my faithful Father.” Ability and will, but for what? To govern all things by his providence and to take every event that happens in my life (even the bad ones) and turn them for my good, further conforming me into the image of Christ. Devils and men often try and pull one over on God, but they are never successful in doing so. He is Almighty God and he is my Faithful Father. So, what have I to fear when storms of challenge come crashing into my life?

For My Body and My Soul

“Throw down your burden on Yahweh; he will provide for you and he will never permit that righteousness be swayed.”

(Psalm 55:23 {verse 22 in English Bibles})

Not only does the catechism promise that God governs all things and that he even uses evil events for the good of our salvation and sanctification as believers, but the language also reminds us that God is the great provider who will give to us all things that we need. Yet, when we think about God providing the things we need, often the first and primary thing of which we think has to do with our physical needs — He provides a place to protect us from the weather, food for the belly, and clothes for the back. And while all of these things are important to us, they are not the most important thing — more necessarily, God provides for the needs of my soul as well.

He provides this ultimately through Christ, who did for me, body and soul, what I could never have done for myself. Christ opened the gate into heaven that I might come in. He nurtures and nourishes my soul through his Word and instructs it through his Word and Discipline. And ultimately, he conforms me into the image of his Son that the Imago Dei that has been warped and twisted within me due to sin, can be straightened and prepared for glory. And indeed, this spiritual care is my greatest need. I can survive for a season on the morsels and tidbits of food that I can scavenge, but I cannot survive for a moment without the care that God provides to my soul. Woe to the one who is apart from God; how wretched is their state of spiritual death.

So, as the Psalmist reminds us, cast your cares on Yahweh, recognizing that these cares are not just those things that plague you in the physical world — nor are they primarily those things that plague you in the physical world — but those cares for the state of your soul as well. Lay your cares upon Him and he will carry you through even the darkest days this life brings.

Turned Toward My Good

One of the great contributions that the Heidelberg Catechism brings to the table of Reformed confessions is that it is so very much first-person and pastoral in nature. As I have noted before, instead of speaking in the abstract, it uses words like “I” and “me” and “my” to convey spiritual truth. And the language of question 26 is no exception to this rule. 

The whole phrase that the catechism uses here is: “whatever evil that he sends to me in this valley of tears will be turned toward my good.” That is a remarkably powerful statement. The bottom line is that this world is filled with awful experiences. There are wicked people both inside and outside of the church and tragic events that take place all around. Yet, as Christians, we can be assured that all these events are under God’s sovereign control (Ephesians 1:11) and as a result, they will be used for our good (Romans 8:28).

The real question that we must ask is, what constitutes our God? Romans 8:29 clarifies this as well — that it is to conform us into the image of Christ. And thus, the evil that we experience has a purpose and it works into God’s plan — even the wicked being tools in God’s hands to refine the elect. That is the result of a sovereign God.

Some would argue that God is not absolutely sovereign over all things. And those who claim this, cannot claim the language found in this catechism question — or the promises that God makes to his people in the Bible. In fact, the only assurance that we can have of any good in our life is based on the premise that God is sovereignly in control…but if he is sovereignly in control, then all things are under his control and in his plan — and will be worked for my good — little by little, conforming me into the image of Christ.

Eternal Government

For most of us, the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word “government” is the government of elected officials that oversee our federal, state, and local communities. These governments seem to be ever-changing between republicans, democrats, and the occasional independent candidate. Despite the varying opinions that people have regarding the laws that get passed or the taxes that get charged to the citizenry, these leaders do have an important role to play in our society. We sinners cannot be governments unto ourselves…if we tried, we would fall into anarchy. They are God’s ministers of justice in our midst and they play an important role in keeping society functioning. 

Yet, to look only at the various civil governments that have been established over us is short-sighted. God also governs all of his creation by his eternal counsel and providence. By the way, this is one reason that we, as Christians, reject what is called “the Watchmaker” analogy. That would be the view that God brought creation into being (like a clock), wound it up, and then let it go on its own according to natural laws. Ultimately, such is the view of the Deist, but not of the Christian.

For the Biblical Christian, God not only made everything that is, but everything that takes place has its origins in His will, His design, and His plan. God truly orders all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians) and nothing that is can be apart from his design and plan. Indeed, he holds all things together in Christ (Colossians 1:17). Were God to cease governing his creation, the creation itself would blow apart into a million-billion-trillion bits and pieces and would instantly cease to exist. And this government is eternal in the sense that it is rooted in a God who is eternal and has a plan for all he has made.

All too often we do not give honor where honor is due, when we look at the ordinary things of the universe. We see things that look like cause and effect occurrences and treat them as if they are simply explainable by the laws of science. Yet, the laws of science are nothing more than descriptive of what we observe. Furthermore, what we observe is governed by the will of a reasonable and orderly God. So, we should say that the laws of science, rightly understood, are little more than explanations of the orderly government of God over his creation. And, when rightly understood, it ought to drive us to praising God for the order found in this world of ours. Such is the proper (and intended) secondary result of God’s eternal government.

Ex Nihilo: Everything from Nothing

One element of the Christian faith that makes it differ from religious and non-religious beliefs around the world is the idea that all of creation was created out of nothing by an eternal and changeless God. Pantheistic religions like Buddhism argues for a pre-existent natural realm that is an expression of the divine, Greek religions believed that the gods created all things out of pre-existing matter that was formed into the world around us, and atheistic groups hold to the position that matter is eternal. Christianity, though, takes a very different view.

In Christianity, all matter and all life was created out of nothing by divine fiat — God said, and it came into being. This makes all things to be dependent on God for their very existence. Were God to cease to exist, all matter would burst into an infinite number of particles. In philosophical terms, we would say that God is the only “non-contingent” being and all things apart from God are contingent — in other words, our existence depends on God’s, not the other way around.

Why is this important? If God is God…that is, if God is who he says he is…that means he is greater than any being in existence. Yet, to be “greater” or the “greatest” that means he must rely or depend on no one and nothing. Were God to rely on something else for his existence, then that something would be greater. 

Why can’t nature be eternal? The Greeks certainly taught that as do the atheists of today. It is primarily because nature is changing and thus contains the potential to not exist. Furthermore, if it cannot provide a first cause (what philosophers would call an “efficient cause”) that actualizes the potential. In other words, every effect must have a cause and that cause must in turn have a cause as well. At the very least, there must be an initial cause who needs no cause (in other words, that initial cause is pure actuality and has no potential). 

To some of you, that may seem like another language, but the heart of the matter is that the material world, according to logic, is dependent for its existence on a force or being that is independent or “non-contingent.” 

But, that is a broad, philosophical perspective. The more basic Christian perspective is that our Bibles teach that God created all things that are. In other words, prior to Genesis 1:1, nothing but God existed — He simply was and he existed in perfect harmony within his Triune Godhead. Genesis 1:1 begins the work of his created order…and thus it is His to be used as He intends — he governs and sustains it, in other words, but we get ahead of ourselves.

It has become popular in our recent age, to deny the historicity of God’s creative work recorded in Genesis 1-2. People often treat these chapters more as if they are a grand myth and not as if they were historical narrative. Of course, the whole Bible treats creation as historical narrative and the early church believed that a belief in the principle that God created all things was essential to the Christian religion (remember, in Heidelberg Question #26 we are dealing with the Apostles’ Creed). They would go as far as to say that you cannot even call yourselves Christians if you denied the principle that God created all things. Why do we think differently?