The Happy Threads of Divine Providence

Today’s blog is personal. I hope you will indulge me while I explain a certain happy providence that has brought a smile to my face here recently.

Sixty-one years ago this month (October, 1951) my dad, then age 22, preached a week of special meetings in a small town in northern Wisconsin. The church was newly being pastored by my dad’s best friend since high school, George Cable. Dad and George were ordained by Dr. B. Myron Cedarholm there in that church just a month previously (September), the weekend before my dad and mom were married. If you know me well you’ve likely heard me remark that my dad’s ministry was one that was unusually effective and blessed, and it was so from the very beginning. Several people came to Christ that week. One man in particular was named Dwight Duncan, a successful farmer in the area who, invited to come to those meetings, came to Christ and then raised his family for Christ, became a pillar in the church there, serving as a deacon I think until his death in the late 1990s, and remained a good friend of the Zaspel family. I recall staying at his farm as a boy in the mid 1960s. He was a bit older than my parents, and he became close with my dad’s parents also, etc. The Duncans were dear family friends. My last memory of Dwight Duncan was shortly before he died — I was home visiting my parents when Dwight phoned dad just to thank him for coming to Camp Douglas, Wisconsin, to preach the gospel so long ago.

Okay, you get the picture. There has long been a real soft spot in Zaspel hearts for Dwight Duncan and family, even though as the years have progressed the contact has been increasingly slim.

Fast forward to Lansdale, PA, 2012.  The students at Calvary Baptist Seminary are required to seek out a professor for personal mentoring — anything and everything from theology to marriage to spiritual life, etc.  When carried out conscientiously, at least, it’s a wonderful program. At my first meeting with a student here recently, over lunch, just to get better acquainted, I asked him where he was from. When he told me Wisconsin, I asked where. He replied, “Oh, a small town you’ve never heard of. Camp Douglas.” “Yeah,” I said, I think I know something about Camp Douglas.” As I began to mention my connections he of course was surprised, to say the least. Then I asked him if he happened to know the Duncan family. You can imagine my delight as he told me that Dwight Duncan was his great-grandfather. So of course now his grandmother (Dwight’s daughter) and my mother are enjoying the connection also, etc. Looking back on our lunch I feel a bit guilty — there wasn’t much “mentoring” going on, but there was a lot of tracing out our family connections!

So, sixty-one years ago this month a man came to Christ through my dad’s preaching ministry. Now that man’s great-grandson is one of my students. I hope you understand the smile that I’ve been wearing here lately!

I suspect that one of the joys of heaven will be the tracing of the many happy threads of divine providence.

Quenching the Spirit

In 1 Thessalonians 5:19 the Lord gives us a command through his inspired apostle that I have often found fascinating. In most translations the verse reads, “Do not quench the Spirit.” In our NIV it reads more colorfully, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.” I find this verse fascinating not simply because of what it commands but also because of what it implies.

We understand that this New Covenant age is the age of the Spirit’s abundant work. The Spirit of God has come to “indwell” God’s people in full measure, and he works in us in many different ways. He is “the Spirit of sonship” in that he ministers to us a confident sense of God’s fatherly love to us and an assurance that we belong to him as his children. He gifts us for service. He “leads” us into practical godliness and cultivates in us “the fruit of the Spirit” — those virtues of Christlikeness that God requires of us. And of course it was the Holy Spirit who brought us to faith at the very outset of our Christian experience. In all this the Spirit of God works sovereignly and powerfully. We would be nothing without him. We would not grow in grace, we would not serve God, we would have no assurance, and we would not even trust in Christ in the first place. What a blessed and vital role he serves in our salvation!

Yet God tells us that we should not “quench” him. We should not “put out his fire,” as it were. The plain implication is that by our sin we may stifle the Spirit’s effectiveness in us. We may by our sin hinder the work which he has come to do in us and for us.

In regeneration God acts sovereignly, and he acts alone. He works within us to bring us to life and to faith in Christ. We believe, but only in response to his initial and powerful work in us. We call this “irresistible grace,” simply because God’s calling proves irresistible in bringing about our willing conversion. In John 3, in his discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus spoke just this way — the Spirit is like the wind that blows effectually wherever he wants!

But in the process of growth in grace, a certain cooperation is required on our part. Everywhere in the New Testament we are called to “yield” ourselves to God, to submit to his leading and promptings to godliness. “Walk in the Spirit,” we are commanded. “Be filled with the Spirit.” We must work with Him in the cultivation of godliness, and only as we do will we know the fullness of his blessing. “Trust and obey,” we sing, “for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus.” We must trust and obey. And if we do not, God’s Spirit may be quenched and his effectiveness stifled.

Still further, the apostle Paul in this passage (1 Thess. 5: 11ff) is speaking to the church corporately, and there is just the hint that his warning is not to be understood merely on an individual level. His caution to the church is that by their sin — in context: by their thanklessness, their prayerlessness, their lack of appreciation for those who lead them, their lack of concern for the public ministry of the Word of God, and so on — they may quench the Spirit’s work among them.  What otherwise might have been accomplished among them has been shut out by their sin.

This, then, is just one of those passages that warns us of the effects of our sin. Our sin carries with it consequences both for us and for those around us. Like Achan in the book of Joshua, whose sin halted the progress of Israel’s army and brought the death of many, our sin can drastically hinder the Spirit’s work among us and hold back the blessing we might otherwise realize.

For God’s sake, for our own sake’s, for the sake of one another, and for the sake of our corporate advance of the gospel, let us be careful to walk in the Spirit and see to it that His work among us will not be hindered.

Who is Jesus?

In Matthew chapter 16 Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But who do you say I am?” Jesus asked. And so Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”

I am sure that when people of Jesus’ day said that they thought he was John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah, they meant to be generous and complimentary. After all, it was an honorable thing to be numbered among the great prophets! Jesus Himself said that John the Baptist was the greatest of the prophets. To be identified with them would be an honor indeed.

Not surprisingly, then, when we ask people today the same question — “Who is Jesus?” — similar answers are often given. Some may say he was a prophet like the other prophets, with some differences perhaps. They may say he was a great teacher. Or they may place him in a respectable category of religious leaders such a Mohammed, Budah, Confucious. We often hear that he was a man like other men — a man with superior qualities in significant areas, of course, but in the final analysis, a man on the level of other men.

What is significant is that these answers, as respectful as they may have seemed, did not satisfy our Lord. Not until Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Divine Messiah was the question answered well enough. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”

 In his comments on this passage Matthew Henry observes, simply, that it is entirely possible to have an honorable opinion of the Lord Jesus which is nonetheless wrong. An honorable opinion that is not honorable enough. Not until, like Peter, we acknowledge Jesus’ uniqueness and recognize Him as the Lord from Heaven do we give Him the honor and reverence that is due Him.

Wenham, Warfield, and Inspiration

I recently re-read John Wenham’s Christ and the Bible and was reminded what a helpful work it is. His purpose, as the title indicates, is to demonstrate Jesus’ view of Scripture. The survey of the evidence is excellent, treating in turn Jesus’ view of the Old Testament, his endorsement of the New Testament (ahead of time), the apostles’ understanding of their role as Jesus’ spokesmen, and concluding with an examination of the extent of the canon and the reliability of the Biblical text. Throughout he also answers objections that have been brought against each point under discussion. In the end he provides a very helpful summary of the historic Christian doctrine of Scripture. It is a truly valuable resource for anyone approaching the topic.

There is, however, a curious observation that arises from his Introduction. Here at the outset Wenham gives laudatory mention of Warfield and the momentous event he was in the history of the doctrine of inspiration. Of course. But then he goes on to claim that the argument he (Wenham) gives here (in Christ and the Bible) is substantively new. Specifically, what he has in mind is the old problem of establishing the authority of Scripture by the authority of Scripture: if we say we believe that the Bible is our supreme authority because the Bible claims to be the supreme authority, is that not reasoning in a perfect circle?

Wenham’s “new” argument circumvents this problem, arguing that quite aside from the presumption of inspiration and on any reading of the historical documents, we must say that Jesus believed and taught the doctrine.  And this is the ground on which we believe in inspiration – Jesus taught it.

All that is very good. But what is interesting is that this is not new at all. Warfield emphasized this a century ago. He stressed it at several points in his works and especially in his “The Real Problem of Inspiration” – we believe in inspiration because Jesus (and his appointed apostles) taught it.

Two observations arise from this. First, as it has been said so many times, anything in the last century written on the doctrine of inspiration is but a footnote to Warfield. It is very difficult indeed to add to the massive exposition and defense of the doctrine he provided.

Second, Wenham illustrates a point I have made elsewhere — that many today seem to reference Warfield without really reading him. No reading of Warfield could have missed this point, but Wenham thinks his argument is new.  In fact, Wenham’s argument does offer more detail on several points, sometimes considerably so, but there is nothing substantively new at all.

This second observation came to mind again while reading Wenham’s chapter on the canon. He states disagreement with Warfield but does not seem to have considered Warfield’s argument very thoroughly.

Honest, I am not on a campaign to see that every Christian read all of Warfield (even though in the back of my mind while I write this I’m thinking you’d be better for it if you did!). But I am a confessed Warfield affectionado. And we might do well to remember that when it comes to studying the doctrine of inspiration Warfield already said it, and he very likely said it better. Our study of this major point of doctrine just is not done until we have read Warfield ourselves. In God’s good providence, this was Warfield’s gift to the church, and we neglect him to our own loss.

You and Your Temper!

Proverbs 14:17 counsels us, “A man of quick temper acts foolishly, and a man of evil devices is hated” (ESV).

 This proverb warns of human anger and its results in relation to others, and it does it in a most interesting way. Notice that two men are identified in the verse, along with their distinguishing characteristics, and are then noted in respect to the effect of their actions on those around them.

The first man is short tempered, soon angry. In Proverbs 14:29 this same person is described as one who is of a “hasty spirit.” The idea, obviously, is that of one who is impatient, quick-tempered, or as we say, “has a short fuse.”

This short-tempered man “acts foolishly,” or “works foolishness” as the KJV renders it. “Foolishness” in Proverbs implies moral more than mental deficiency, and in Proverbs 14:29 it is the opposite of “great understanding” which likewise has moral as well as mental connotations. The “fool” in Proverbs is one who both lacks sense and is generally corrupt.

This first man then, by his quick temper, does things that are senseless and morally wrong. The sense seems to be that of explosive, unpremeditated violence. The proverb does not specify the precise reaction of those around him, but their distaste for him is clearly implied (17b). By his actions the wrathful man displays his own folly (14:29) and so is an unfit companion (22:24-25). He’s the kind of person whose company no one desires.

The second man is identified as “a man of wicked imaginations” or “intentions.” This man is one who, rather than being explosively violent, is one whose anger is not so visible. Rather, he quietly plots and schemes. His expressions of anger are more calculated and so more “hateful.” As the saying goes, he doesn’t get mad — he gets even.

So there are two men here, and both have a problem with anger and revenge. Just as the short-tempered man works foolishness by an anger that is quick and uncalculated; so the man of craftiness, although he displays his anger more subtly, is just as vengeful and contemptible. And so anger may show itself by an uncontrolled spirit which is quick to explode, or it may show itself in cunning and deliberate methods of retaliation. But both are reprehensible and despised.

And notice that neither man is very well liked in the community! In fact, they are disliked. People “hate” them, and do not want them to be around. It doesn’t seem to matter much how you vent your anger — in haste and violence, or by scheming revenge. The effect is about the same — no one will want your company.

The proverb, then, warns of two kinds of anger — the violent, explosive anger of a man with a short temper; and the cold, calculated revenge of an otherwise seemingly mild man. Both are foolish, and both are despised.

A man with an easily excited temper is foolish (Prov. 14:17, 29), troublesome (15:18), wicked (21:24, 29:22), and self-destructive (19:19, 25:28).

In contrast to the hot-tempered man is the man with a calm temper, the man who is able to control and even defer his anger (Prov. 19:11). Calmness of temper is a virtue that is both wise (14:29, 19:11) and profitable (15:1, 25:15), and it brings “glory” to a man (19:11) rather than shame and hatred. A calm temper shows a man to be wise (14:29). A quick temper shows a man to be a fool, and that man will be the friend of no one.

Likewise, a man who quietly and carefully devises his method of retaliation is also hated. Indeed, his wrath is more culpable, being due not to weakness but to willingness. Such a man is recognized as evil (Prov. 24:8), is hated by others (14:17) and God (6:18), and will incur condemnation (12:2 14:22). It is true folly.

By contrast, wisdom shows itself in self-restraint (Prov.12:16, 19:11), and such restraint evidences true greatness (16:32).

Both kinds of anger are senseless and moral foolishness, and both kinds are hateful. The wisdom which this proverb enjoins is that which brings a man to quell his wrath and live peaceably with all men.

We further learn from this proverb our need of Christ and his provision of the Holy Spirit whose it is to work in us self control (Galatians 5:22-23).


What More Could We Ask?

One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple (Psalm 27:4).

 There is something deeply refreshing about this verse. Here David reveals the most earnest yearnings of his heart. His supreme desire, he says, “this one thing I ask,” is to be caught up with thoughts of God. He wants above all things to be drawn away from himself and his circumstances and to have his attention riveted on the person of God. Nothing for David was more satisfying than this. His heart knew only one object that could bring fulfillment, and that was God.

There is something here that is reminiscent of Augustine’s famous prayer, “Thou has created us for thyself, and our hearts are restless save as they rest in thee.” This is David’s heart exactly. His chief desire was to go the house of God, there to be reminded of his great Lord, and gaze, as it were, on his majestic beauty.

David is in this respect no different from any Christian. Every Christian’s highest satisfaction comes from an increasing acquaintance with God. The knowledge of God is the promised crowning blessing of the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:34), and it is of the very essence of the eternal life we enjoy in Christ (John 17:3). This great glory enjoyed by every Christian — we know God! And we have all found that in our acquaintance with Him we have realized our deepest joy.

I have found this in my own experience, of course, as you have. I have noticed it particularly in the experience of Christians who are suffering or facing difficulty of whatever kind. What they want most at such a time is to be reminded about God — in the words of David, “to gaze upon his beauty.” What we want is to be able to lay hold of some massive truth, something solid and eternal, that will provide a resting place for our mind and heart. And we find it in God alone.

And so, our favorite songs, our favorite sermons, our favorite books, our favorite topics of study and conversation are those that fill and shape our minds with truth about God’s person and work — songs, sermons, and books that bring us to gaze on his beauty, as it were, and adore him just for who and what he is and what he has done.

Anything less than “gazing on the beauty of the Lord” inevitably fails to satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. Created in God’s image we are content only with an increased understanding of and acquaintance with him.

The Goal of Parenting

Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction will drive it far from him.  Prov. 22:15

 Can you remember your childhood well enough to recall how much you needed parents? Of course when we were new-born we needed our parents for absolutely everything. We were utterly dependent. And it was a long time before we were independent in any sense. By the time we were walking our parents had to micro-manage our every moment lest we run over the top of the stairs or eat the ant poison or play with a knife or some such display of childhood folly. Honestly, it was a long time before we were safe!

 For years we were very likely to make decisions that were not at all in our own best interests, and when we did we still wondered why those foolish choices did not make us happy. For most, they grow until they figure out that it is their parents who are stupid – and then are surprised some years later to learn that these same parents have grown up and become smart! And through our teen years and beyond it never occurred to us that our parents really were more concerned for our happiness and well-being than we were. And it certainly never entered our mind that we need them to give us direction.

 All this simply because “foolishness is bound in the heart of a child.”

 And most foolish of all, we were likely to think that we could be happy and find ultimate fulfillment and satisfaction apart from God. We were likely to think that temporal pleasures outweigh the eternal.

 Proverbs has much to say about the fool and foolishness. One of the most telling descriptions is found in Proverbs 1:7 – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” A right orientation to God is basic to all knowledge and wisdom, but fools despise wisdom. Question: Why would someone hate wisdom? The obvious answer: because he’s a fool. And foolishness in Proverbs has these two dimensions – it is both morally wrong and personally destructive. “Foolishness” is that which is wrong, and it is not in our own best interests.

 Foolishness, at bottom, is an inward bias to evil. It is a (foolish) commitment to find pleasure apart from God. It is a stupid, self-destructive pursuit of sin and a pursuit of happiness without God.

 And the sobering thing is that this foolishness is bound in the heart of your precious children. Theologians call it “original sin,” and you see it every day. Though you adore them, your children are likely to think that you stand between them and happiness. They are likely to think that all this religion stuff is an obstacle to freedom. And they are willing even to put their relationship with you on the rocks in order to pursue what they firmly believe is better for them. They will ruin their own happiness, both temporal and eternal, because they think they know best how to find real pleasure. You know better, and you plead accordingly, until finally you realize the truth of original sin. “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child.”

 It’s a horrible realization, but every parent has seen it, and every child has lived it. And if we would be successful parents, we must come to grips with it. Foolishness reigns in the natural heart.

 And so it is the responsibility and the goal of parenting prayerfully to teach, train, instruct, admonish, and discipline our children, and by every possible means steer them away from inbred folly. The goal is to stand between them and their own self-destruction.

 The goal is not merely to get them successfully to age 22 without a record with the police or history of drugs or pregnant. The goal is to see them come by God’s grace to bow the knee to the Lord Jesus, and to rest safely in him who alone gives true and lasting joy.

We understand that at the end of the day only God can do this. But precisely because he is the one who saves, we give ourselves to apply every means that he has appointed to that end, praying all the while that he would be merciful and spare our children from the folly that lies in the heart of every one us.

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