Discerning Children’s Books

One of our older daughters started reading the classic book The Incredible Journey when she alerted her mother and me to something in the book.  Right before the book begins, there’s a selection from a poem by Walt Whitman entitled “Song of Myself”:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.

The author of the book, Sheila Burnford, no doubt inserted this poem at the beginning in order to make a statement about the differences between human beings and animals.  Whitman was himself something of a humanist and a universalist, his worldview (and presumably that of Burnford) on full display.  The book is a tale of fiction about two dogs and a cat making their way home across the Canadian wilderness.  It’s a fairly popular tale, having sold over three million copies according to the back cover.  The 1993 film Homeward Bound was based upon it.

That a popular children’s book could contain such a strong dose of humanism right before the opening chapter suggests that the vast majority of parents didn’t discern what their children were reading all of these years since it was originally published in 1961.  But then again, a poet like Walt Whitman is just another figure in Americana, right?  Kudos to our daughter for having that level of discernment at such a young age.  It’s just another reminder to be careful about the books our kids consume, even (and perhaps especially) the ones which are considered classics.

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To Us and To Our Children

I’ve wanted to write this post for some time but I’ve lacked the right words (and frankly, the right amount of motivation) to do so.  I also wanted to let the dust settle after I basically let the proverbial cat of the bag regarding my new stance on baptism.  I had both positive as well as negative reactions.  And I expected as much.  I’m not saying that going from credobaptism to paedobaptism cost me friends or anything like that, but a lot of people who know me wanted to know exactly why I landed where I did.  So here we are.  I promised some good friends of mine that I’d write such a post and so I’ll do my best to articulate my reasons.

This is by no means an exhaustive argument for the Reformed view of paedobaptism.  I’m not writing an polemic or theological treatise on the matter.  This is merely an expression of my own journey to covenant theology through a careful examination of the Scriptures and the implications of what I was reading.

The Status of Children

When I was a Baptist, something always bothered me about the status of children in the New Covenant.  I was taught that the covenant sign and seal which we see given to children in the Old Covenant (circumcision) was replaced with baptism in the New.  This is true.  Yet only those who could articulate a profession of faith in the New Covenant were supposed to receive the sacrament of baptism.  There was a clean break rather than a continuity between the covenants.

Certainly we were to do our best to raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  Everyone agrees with that.  Yet I kept wondering in what sense children of believers differed from children raised by pagans.  I even had a Reformed Baptist pastor acknowledge to me that children of believers do indeed have a special blessing and benefit, but he couldn’t really articulate what that is or what really set them apart as such.  This nagged at me as time went on.  If my children are outside of the covenant, then how do I pray for them?  How do I disciple them?  These were serious questions which demanded serious answers.

The Nature of the New Covenant

Was the New Covenant something so drastically different from the Old that only professing believers could receive membership into the covenant people of God?  One thing I knew for sure was that the debate over baptism was not going to be solved by debating what was meant by the word “household” in the New Testament.  To me, these are merely supplemental arguments as part of the bigger picture.  What it really boils down to in the end is having a proper understanding of the nature of the New Covenant itself.  In order to justify their position, credobaptists routinely invoke Jeremiah 31:31-34 as their proof text:

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lordbut this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

What we see here is a covenant people whose hearts are changed.  They are delighting in God’s law because they have a genuine faith wrought in them by the Holy Spirit.  This, credobaptists argue, is the nature of the New Covenant as we see it today.  Thus, the only valid recipients of baptism are those who outwardly profess the Christian faith and demonstrate a changed life as a result.  Sounds reasonable, right?  Indeed, as we read in Hebrews 8:6, Christ is the Mediator of a better covenant.  And what better covenant do we have than when all of its members exhibit the outward signs of an inward reality of salvation?

The Problem of Apostasy 

Yet there’s a problem with this interpretation.  There remains in the New Covenant people of God today the problem of apostasy.  The credobaptist practice of limiting the covenant sign and seal to those who profess faith in Christ does not in any way solve the problem of apostasy.  I can recall over the years people I knew in the church who made what seemed like a genuine profession of faith, were examined, received the sacrament of baptism, and yet are no longer abiding in the Christian faith today.  And certainly credobaptists themselves acknowledge the fact that there are those in their midst who become apostates.  We all agree that such persons were never regenerate to begin with and their departure from the church signals an inward reality of its own (1 John 2:19).

In other words, no church today is a pure church.  On this end of the Parousia, the church will always be a mixture of wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30).  As we’ve seen both in Scripture itself as well as examples throughout church history (especially the American church today), there are those in the visible church who do not in fact possess a saving faith.  Since we are fallible human observers, we cannot see into the hearts of men.  At times, the tares in the church reveal themselves through their apostasy.  But scary as it may sound, there are those tares who remain in the visible church and who go to their deaths with a false assurance of salvation (Matt. 7:21).  This should rightly give us pause.

So how should we understand Jeremiah 31:31-34?  I humbly assert that we need to see this passage in light of future fulfillment.  Indeed, this isn’t speaking about the church as we see it today in our age but rather in the age to come.  We can accurately assert that credobaptists who use this passage in order to argue in favor of their position have an over-realized eschatology in that sense.

A Better Covenant?

All of this brings me back to Hebrews 8 and the discussion about the New Covenant being a better covenant, one that is inherently superior to the Old.  What Paul is doing here (and yes, I believe in the Pauline authorship of Hebrews) is exegeting Jeremiah 31:31-34.  He says that the New Covenant is built on better promises (v. 6) and then proceeds to explain what these promises are.  At the end of the chapter, Paul articulates that the Old Covenant is passing away.  Consistent with the theme of Hebrews itself, he’s pointing to the fact that the entire ceremonial system of the Old Covenant is obsolete and no longer binding upon the people of God.

That God’s covenant people possess these inward spiritual realities is an example of the “already but not yet” dichotomy.  We see solid examples in the present church of hearts changed and genuine faith lived out, but we also realize that we aren’t seeing these promises manifested perfectly in this current age.  The church is continually sanctified and the promises of the New Covenant ultimately point toward that day when we will perfectly obey and love our Lord.

So what does all of this have to do with baptism?  The fact that this is a better covenant has implications for how we view this baptism debate.  Last year I read through the 1541 edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and came across a passage where the Reformer picked up on this point:

What excuse, therefore, do we have for not testifying and sealing it today as was formerly the case? It cannot be claimed that circumcision was the only sacrament appointed to witness to it, and that circumcision is now abolished. There is a ready answer to that: our Lord ordained circumcision for a time, but after circumcision was ended there was still reason to confirm the covenant, since it is common to us and to the Jews. That is why we must always carefully reflect on what we jointly have in common and what is different. The covenant is common, and the reason for confirming it is the same. The difference lies only in the fact that for them it was circumcision which confirmed it, and that for us baptism now serves that purpose. Otherwise Christ’s coming would have meant that God’s mercy was less familiar to us than it was to the Jews, supposing we were denied the testimony which they had concerning their children. If such a thing cannot be said without greatly dishonouring Jesus Christ, through whom the Lord’s infinite goodness has been more richly than ever exhibited and shed upon the earth, we must allow that God’s grace must not be more veiled or less assured than it was under the shadows of the law.

In other words, Calvin is pointing out that it is a contradiction to say that this is a better covenant if we’re also at the same time going to conclude that the children of believers are now excluded from the covenant.  It can’t be a better covenant if our children are in a worse position in the New Covenant.  For me, this was the most powerful argument and served as the tipping point for me moving to embrace paedobaptism.

Abraham is the Model

A proper reading of Scripture gives us a proper understanding of the covenants.  When we compare the people of God in the Old Testament with the people of God in the the New Testament, we see that there is one overarching Covenant of Grace separated into two administrations–the Old and New covenants.  Even though we no longer practice circumcision (an administration of the Old Covenant), the substance of the Covenant of Grace remains the same.  Baptism replaces circumcision, but the candidates who receive the sacrament are still the children of believers.

Put another way, Abraham is still the model.  The pattern established in the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 17:7-8 is repeated in Acts 2:37-39.  There is a continuity despite these different administrations in the Covenant of Grace.  Again, this is not meant to be an exhaustive study of this issue.  I’m only laying out the issues as I came to see and understand them.  There are plenty of books, articles, podcasts, and blog posts out there which go much deeper than what I’m doing here.  I urge my readers to avail themselves of these resources.

Today my family and I are members of a Reformed Presbyterian congregation.  As of this year, all of our children have received the covenant sign and seal of baptism.  I don’t write this with any sense of pride.  In fact, those who seriously wrestle through issues like this quickly learn to bury their pride.  I was wrong about baptism before and I now humbly submit to biblical teaching on this matter.  And so I write this as an encouragement to other men who also wrestle with this issue and are looking to lead their families accordingly.  I’m thankful that God placed men in my life who helped me as I struggled to understand.

Most of all, I’m thankful that I can now tell each of our covenant children that Christ is their Mediator.  I can disciple them accordingly and rest in the promises God has given to believing parents.  In pointing them back to their baptisms, I can show them these promises in a very tangible way.

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Review: Gideons Brown Leather Personal Bible (KJV)

As a member of the Gideons International, there are numerous types of Scriptures which I can order. The vast majority of these Scriptures are intended for evangelism purposes. There are a handful of Bibles, however, which are for personal use. One of these is a brown leather Bible which, according to the website, is carried by many Gideons. I purchased one of them late last year and I decided to write a review of it.

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When I use the word “leather,” I really mean it. The color is a “chocolate brown” with gold fringe on the pages. When most people receive a Gideon-produced copy of the Scriptures, it’s usually made of the imitation leather material used in their evangelistic copies. The reason for this is cost. A Personal Workers Testament (PWT) in the KJV only costs $1.35 for this reason. That’s great if you’re handing out PWTs on a college campus or something like that, but not for a personal Bible. That’s why I was so pleased to see this particular copy they produced was made of genuine leather.

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Note the phrase, “personal Bible.” It’s size is decent, but it’s definitely not the size of a family Bible or even a “preaching Bible.” I believe it was designed mainly for devotional use or just general reading. True to this point, there are no marginal notes or cross references within the text. Its approximate size is 5.5″ x 8.25″ x 1.25″ to be specific. No font size is listed either on the website or within the Bible itself, but my guess is that it’s roughly 10-point. For some people this may not be adequate, but I think this is a decent font size given the relatively compact nature of the Bible itself.

Pros:

Cost – At $24 per copy, that’s a price that can’t be beat for a medium-sized leather Bible.

Quality – I’ve been using it almost exclusively for over six months now and I have yet to see any kind of serious wear or tear. Granted, that’s certainly not long-term use, but it definitely seems to be well made.

Simplicity – Some people will object that there are no notes or cross references, but I think that’s part of this Bible’s strength. There are times when study notes and things like that tend to get in the way of a good, devotional reading.

Cons:

“Floppage” – In terms of “floppage” (I didn’t coin that term), it tends to rank very poorly. If you’re not familiar with that term, a Bible’s “floppage” refers to its ability to lay flat when opened to a given page. With this particular Bible, you’ll have to use both hands to hold it open unless you happen to be reading through the Psalms or some other section in the middle.

Exclusivity – Unfortunately, only members of the Gideons International are able to order this Bible (and that’s true of all their other materials). Even so, you can still obtain a copy if you happen to know a Gideons member (more on this below).

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Outside of the positives and negatives, there’s not much else which can be said. There’s a golden Gideons emblem stamped on the lower right corner of the front cover. Inside the Bible, you’ll find the usual things you’d expect to find in a Gideon Bible: a basic Gospel message with Scripture proofs, John 3:16 printed in various languages, and various Scripture helps. It also comes with a yellow ribbon to mark your page.

I recommend this Bible for use as a simple, devotional copy of the Scriptures. It makes a great gift as well, especially for someone who has never had a nice Bible before. As a service to my readers, I’m willing to purchase a copy on your behalf should you desire it. So please contact me if you’d like a buy a copy. I won’t be making any profit on this whatsoever. My desire is simply to meet the needs of those who are without a quality Bible. Hope you were blessed by this review!

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Book Review: “Apostate”

We live in interesting times to say the least.  Many within the church struggle to make sense of what we now call the “post-Christian era” in which civilization itself appears to be falling apart.  Many Christians are wondering just how Western society got to this point.  In the midst of this searching for answers, Kevin Swanson presents his arguments in his new book, Apostate: The Men Who Destroyed the Christian West.  While anyone can easily lament the decline we see before our eyes, Swanson takes the reader on a historical and biographical journey to demonstrate where things went wrong.  His analysis is sure to be controversial, even within Reformed circles.  Those who know Swanson (and particularly his eschatological viewpoints) won’t be surprised by what they’ll find in this book.

This might be a crude comparison to make, but Swanson’s book is basically the Calvinist equivalent of Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West.  Whereas the trajectory of Buchanan’s book is more political in nature and focuses more on demography, Swanson’s writings are far more theological in nature and focus on the toxic philosophies of unbelieving humanists.  My overall impression of Apostate is generally good, but this book is definitely not without its flaws.  While some reviewers have chosen to attack the text because they disagree with Swanson’s eschatology and his views on theonomy, I’m not going to take that approach.  While I certainly have theological differences with Swanson here and there, I aim to judge the book based upon its own merits.

In chapter after chapter, Swanson gives a biographical overview of those “big name” apostates in Western history.  Each biographical sketch is designed to fit into the larger narrative of societal decline.  All of these men added their own fuel to the fires of apostasy.  Perhaps the most controversial name given in the list of apostates is that of Thomas Aquinas.  While Swanson admits that he is hesitant to call Aquinas an apostate, he sees the 13th century theologian as the starting point for a centuries-long decline in the West.  I’ll be the first to say that I’m not crazy about much of what Aquinas taught, but I would probably fall short of actually labeling him an apostate.  So far as we know, he did not depart from the Christian faith.  There’s certainly a broader discussion to be had about the legacy of Aquinas, but I’ll save that for another time. Continue reading

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The Gideons and the ESV

As I noted in this blog about a month ago, I officially joined the Gideons International.  They have a solid reputation for worldwide Bible distribution and I’ve heard plenty of people say that the Gideons are responsible for giving them the first Scriptures they’ve ever had.  To date, the Gideons have distributed complete Bibles and New Testaments to the tune of 1.7 billion in over 190 countries.  As we ponder over that, we must praise God for this ministry and their efforts to bring the Word to so many people.  With a legacy such as this, I can say that I’m proud to be a part of this organization.

Yet with such a high volume of Bible distribution, shouldn’t it matter which translation(s) the Gideons are using?  Most people who have any degree of familiarity with the organization know that the Gideons have been handing out the King James Version (KJV) since the ministry was founded.  Even today, the KJV is the rock-solid standard of the organization.  However, the Gideons also pass out a modern English version as an alternative.  The version used for the modern translation has changed over the years.  I’m told that the New International Version (NIV) was used at one point but later abandoned, probably because of the cost of the royalties (all modern translations have copyrights).  After that, they switched to the New King James Version (NKJV).

Setting the NKJV as their choice for a modern translation was probably one of the best decisions the Gideons ever made.  I say that because, in my humble opinion, the NKJV is the best modern translation available.  While I won’t go into all of the reasons why I say that, suffice the say that I believe the textual basis is superior, the translation itself is trustworthy, and it is very readable.  This year, however, the Gideons International decided to drop the NKJV.  I was taken aback by this, especially since their usage of the NKJV as a modern translation was one of the main reasons I joined the organization.  I was very much looking forward to ordering cases full of Personal Workers Testaments in the NKJV.  No more. Continue reading

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Not One Word?

This past week saw yet another public controversy erupt regarding a Christian pastor and matters pertaining to sexual ethics.  Most of you are aware of President Barack Obama’s first choice of Pastor Louie Giglio to give the benediction at the upcoming second inauguration.  As the story goes, Giglio was effectively canned because he preached a sermon years ago in which he affirmed biblical teaching that homosexuality is sin.  Needless to say, this was too much to bear for an administration devoted to “tolerance” and “diversity” (whatever those terms mean these days).  The homosexual activists who supported the President’s re-election got what they wanted and so the pastor will not give the benediction after all.

But the controversy didn’t end there.  It only escalated to a rather absurd level.  This week, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell gave his take on the matter along with an interesting commentary on using the Bible in the swearing-in ceremony:

This time, as it was last time for the first time in history, the book will be held by a First Lady who is a descendent of slaves. But the holy book she will be holding does not contain one word of God condemning slavery. Not one word. But that same book, which spends hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages condemning all sorts of things and couldn’t find one sentence to condemn slavery, does indeed find the space to repeatedly condemn gay people, as the now banished Louie Giglio said it does. And as the First Lady is holding that book for the President, sitting someone near them will be a pastor who the Inauguration Committee will make sure is much more adept at hiding what that book actually says than Louie Giglio was.

First, let’s give credit where credit is due.  We need to thank O’Donnell for at least having the honesty to admit that the Bible does indeed teach that homosexual behavior is a sin, although he couches this teaching in emotionally-dripping language of “condemning gay people” (echoing the culture’s attempt to make one’s perverse behavior into a personal identity).  It’s a subtle attack on Christian orthodoxy to be sure, but the acknowledgement of what the Scriptures teach on that subject is duly noted and appreciated.  Yet the same can’t be said regarding his statements on slavery. Continue reading

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Richard Baxter on Library Essentials

If you had to pick but a few essential items to have in your theological library–yes, a few bare bones essentials–then what would they be?  The Puritan Richard Baxter once asked such a question: “What books, especially of theology, should one choose who for want of money or time can read but few?”  He asked this in his work, A Christian Directory, in a section entitled “Ecclesiastical Cases of Conscience.”  Here’s the list Baxter came up with:

* The Bible

* A concordance

* Commentaries

* Catechisms

* A work on the doctrines of the Gospel

* “…as many affectionate practical English writers as you can get.”

This is what Baxter called “the poorest or smallest library that is tolerable.”  The aforementioned list was summarized on p. 39 of J.I. Packer’s book, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.  So far it’s an excellent read and it’s great to find little gems like this.

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