Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

Years ago Emily and I purposed to record things for which we’re thankful each Thanksgiving. And although we’ve not always recorded these each year, for various reasons, I think we’ve always recounted our thankfulness in one fashion or another every year since we married. We’re renewing our effort this year to record our gratitude, to write it down or type it out, for the sake of looking back at a later date at the gratitude God put in our hearts on account of his goodness.

As we’ve purposed to do this, we’ve also wanted to divide up our gratefulness into two categories: those things for which we’re grateful that we have in common with others who are not in the grace of Christ but who oftentimes possess the same things by common grace; and those things for which we’re grateful that we have only as gifts of supernatural grace through the grace of God in Christ.

So, first, five things for which I’m thankful that God gives to Christians and non-Christians alike:

1. I’m thankful for coffee and wine. I could’ve made these two separate categories, but since they’re both beverages I put them together. Besides, they form an inclusio of gratitude on each day. So, first, the coffee. I’m thankful for coffee. I don’t just say this on account of the buzz one gets from the joyful java. No, I actually really, really like the way it tastes. But, lest I give the wrong impression, I also like well the way coffee helps to kick start the day. And for my gratitude at day’s end, I’m also grateful for wine, and specifically, red wine (merlot’s my favorite). But I’m not picky about this. We get the cheap table wine from Jewel ourselves. And it’s a delightful way to unwind and end the day.

2. I’m grateful for family, grateful for both of our families. As in any family, we’ve had our ups and downs. And yet, even so, there’s nothing and nobody like family. And our families are all in all, in any event, really wonderful. We’ve been greatly blessed by our families, especially our sacrificial and generous parents, who have outgiven us and modeled what it means to give yourself away for your children. Our families are the sort of gifts from God that are seen to be the inestimable gifts they are only with more years of doing life and with having a family ourselves. We bless God for them, and bless them before God. 

3. God has given me work for over sixteen years now. And I can’t honestly say that I love everything about my work (e.g., the endless paperwork, the constant changes in insurance coverage and all that entails, etc.). But I can honestly say that there are elements about it that I am very grateful for. And of course I’m grateful for the way it provides for our growing family, even as I’ve continued to pursue graduate work now for many years and needed to be part-time through much of this.

4. Emily and I have now been married for over eight years. And they’ve been eight years of God’s goodness to me. I could just as easily have put my marriage in the supernatural grace category, because I have a marriage blessed by the gospel of Christ and shot through with many covenant mercies. But I put it here because many nonbelievers enjoy God’s good gift of marriage, and enjoy its all too often untold benefits. My wife is easily the most loyal person in my life (which is of course the way it ought to be in a good marriage). She likewise outgives me, and no doubt always will. She’s been by my side for over eight years in steadfast covenant love, and I have every reason to believe that she’ll be there in all loyalty for fifty more years if we live that long.

5. Children do not come automatically to those who desire them. This we know well, personally from our own experience, as well as through the experience of friends. And so it’s fitting to remember God’s kindness to us in giving us now two children who have survived to do covenant life together with us. We’re exceedingly grateful for our two beauties and minis: Ariana Dalissa and Grace Felicity.

And, now, five things for which I’m thankful that God has given us as those joined to Jesus by his grace:

1. I’m grateful for the indwelling Holy Spirit, poured out from the risen Jesus, who sheds God’s everlasting love abroad in our hearts, and bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God. I’m grateful for his presence and ministry of leading and guiding into the truth and in paths of righteousness for the sake of the Name.

2. I’m grateful for the resurrection of God’s Christ, in whom we too shall rise from the dead. If God raised Christ, he will also raise us. Facing death and aging in our families and in our world, the preciousness of the promise of bodily life in Christ beyond the grave has become all the more precious with each passing year.

3. I’m also grateful for the local church. Despite all the faults of the church in America (including those we ourselves bring into it), it is still the place where God moves in mercy and might. And Emily and I have received ten thousand untold mercies by being a part of the ordinary life of a local church for many years now.

4. The word of God is a treasure to me. And this year, at the forefront of my gratefulness for the Scriptures is how it has the capacity to provide a coherent worldview that is beautiful and true and good. The Bible is not merely a book of timeless truths (though there is timeless truth in it). It is certainly not just a book of rules or principles for life (though there are without question principles for living). The Bible is revelation from God. And this revelation comes in a great drama of redemption that shows us God’s work, will, and ways in countless ways. The Bible is an extraordinary book. And this year I’m grateful for how this extraordinary book shapes our worldview, giving us wisdom for living our lives in this world that God created and governs, and not the one that people wished existed.

5. Lastly, I’m thankful for the free forgiveness of my many and great sins. I’m a bad man. I’m lost and undone apart from God’s free grace. And so I’m grateful this year that God’s grace pursues me all my days, reaches down and grabs a hold of me when I’m not reaching up, and keeps me for the day of redemption, for the day of everlasting joy. Again and again God works in my life to free me up to look away from self and false saviors to the only one who can deliver me from real guilt and God’s wrath—namely, Christ crucified, risen, and exalted.

Monday, November 23, 2015

You May Safely Ignore the Philosophers, but not the Theologians

The things of divinity not only concern ministers, but are of infinite importance to all Christians. It is not with the doctrines of divinity as it is with the doctrines of philosophy and other sciences. These last are generally speculative points, which are of little concern in human life; and it very little alters the case as to our temporal or spiritual interests, whether we know them or not. Philosophers differ about them, some being of one opinion, and others of another. And while they are engaged in warm disputes about them, others may well leave them to dispute among themselves, without troubling their heads much about them; it being of little concern to them whether the one or the other be in the right.

But it is not thus in matters of divinity. The doctrines of this nearly concern everyone. They are about those things which relate to every man's eternal salvation and happiness.
—Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses 1739–1742 (vol. 22 in the Works of Jonathan Edwards; ed. Harry S. Stout; New Haven: Yale University, 2003), 92.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Grace Felicity Wencel

"We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 15:11). This was the testimony of the apostles at the Church's first council in Jerusalem around 49 A.D. And it is our testimony, the Wencel's witness, along with countless millions. From first to last, we live our lives, and we receive our salvation from sin and God's wrath, as a free gift. It is all of grace! Ephesians 2 puts it like this: it "is not our own doing; it is the gift of God, not of works, in order that no one should boast" (vv. 8–9). That is, except in the cross of Christ (Gal. 6:14).

And as partakers of the covenant of grace bought by Jesus' freely shed blood, we are constantly conscious that all we enjoy in this life comes to us from the gratuitous goodness of our triune God, who is the "God of all grace" (1 Pet. 5:10). And this includes not least of all the children God has given us, as we have asked him for these gifts for his glory.

And so on October 24, 2015, at 3:30 in the afternoon, in Joliet, IL, at Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center, the hospital where I work, God brought forth from Emily's womb our fourth child, a gorgeous girl, whom we have named Grace Felicity Wencel. Grace is from the Greek New Testament "charis," which refers to God’s free favor. Felicity derives from the Latin "felicitas," and means "happiness."

Now Grace Felicity is named "Grace" for two main reasons. First, as noted, we live our lives, and have our all, through the free grace of God in Christ. But, second, we have also named her Grace because she is a special gift to us after losing to death's clutches our second and third children (named Anastasis and Elisha, respectively).

Consequently, we know full well that Grace's being conceived and sustained and brought forth into this world, healthy and whole, are not a given. We do live, after all, we're reminded daily, in a broken and fallen world. We know therefore that possession of life for Grace comes to us through the sheer goodness and good pleasure of God, a God who is sovereign over all, a God who is Lord of the womb and Lord of the tomb. And last, though by no means least, we know that salvation from her sins and from God's just judgement—a salvation freely held out to her in Jesus' death and resurrection according to God's everlasting covenant—this salvation, from first to last, from top to bottom, from head to toe, from cradle to grave, from womb to tomb, from first breath to first death, from dust to glory, is all of it of the sheer graciousness of God.

And so standing in grace (Rom. 5:2), we receive from God's good hands, the hands of a loving heavenly Father, our beautiful tiny gift, specially crafted by a Master Maker—Grace Felicity Wencel. And now it's clear why we've named her “Grace.” She's a gift to us from God, and she's dependent on God's good Gift, even as we are. And perhaps, then, you've also perceived why it is that we've given her the middle name "Felicity." As already said, Felicity means "happiness." O the happiness! In our minds this middle name indicates the happiness that overtakes one touched by God's free favor reaching down when the sinner is not reaching up, and it points to the portion of one who is the object of God's free selective favor—divine grace!—a favor freely bestowed before the foundation of the world in Christ. O the happiness! And it also speaks to the happiness God has given us as Grace's parents, in the gift of her life, a life to be offered back up to him in our joy and for his glory.

Now, Grace Felicity Wencel, we shall address you directly. This comes from the hearts and faith of your parents. We would have you know the following, our heart’s desire, and also our prayer to God:

Our precious Grace Felicity Wencel, you are indeed a gift from God to your parents. And we are so thankful for you. In fact, we are doubly thankful, thankful for your physical life, but thankful even more for God’s gracious promise to you of eternal life in Jesus Christ your Lord. We pray that you will never doubt, not for a moment, not for the blink of an eye, the favor of our heavenly Father toward you in his Son. We pray that you will never doubt that God holds out to you freely the justification that is "by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:24).

Grace Felicity, you have been born into a covenant home, your parents are recipients of God's free favor, and so grace is already pouring forth from heaven over your life. You are "holy," according to God's Word (1 Cor. 7:14). All you need do is receive it, receive grace, that is, by receiving Christ. Receive him just like you are now receiving all you need from your parents, without a hint of deadly doing, without trying to earn what comes freely to you, coming through those (your parents) who possess far less resourcefulness than your heavenly Father possesses.

And, remember, Grace, even your receiving the grace of God through faith is a gift of God. Faith itself is a gift. It's not something you can work up on your own (Eph. 2:8–9; Phil. 1:29). God has designed it this way, so that you'll never be able to brag about being saved through your own good sense, your own biological pedigree, or your own autonomous willing. No, you are entirely dependent on God’s Gift. Dependent on God's grace!

And you need to know—because your parents' lives know it full well—that grace is sovereign. It is God's doing. Just as you didn't choose your parents, so also your salvation from sin does not come by your own choosing. It comes because God's grace pursues you, it goes after you, it lays hold on you, it will follow you all of your days (Ps. 23:6; ask your daddy about the translation of the Hebrew here). Knowing God as your parents do, and how he has reached down and grabbed hold of us when we weren't reaching up after him, it is our prayer (and expectation!) that God's grace will grab a hold of you and be your portion forever.

And you need to know, our dear daughter, that this is what we've prayed for from the moment that God formed you in the womb. For all we know (and it wouldn't surprise us in the least), God's grace has already transformed you and given you new life. John the Baptist leapt in his mother's womb at the voice of the mother of the Christ (Lk. 1:41). And in Psalm 22 David said this, speaking to God: "You are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother's breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother's womb you have been my God" (vv. 9–10).

So we, your mother and I, pray earnestly that you will never try to earn God's acceptance. If you ever dare do that, you will "nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died needlessly" (Gal. 2:21). We pray that you will regularly recall that by the grace of God you are who you are (1 Cor. 15:10). We also pray that you will know deeply in your own life that grace is not just pardon but also power, so that grace toward you will not prove vain, but be seen in your bodily labors, in your good deeds (1 Cor. 15:10). And so may you never receive the grace of God in vain (2 Cor. 6:1).

Soon you will be baptized. We, your parents, will do this in obedience to the Lord Jesus who commanded us to make disciples, "baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that [he] commanded" (Matt. 28:19–20). And we shall regularly remind you of the meaning of your baptism. You have been baptized into Christ and into his death (Rom. 6:3). You have been clothed with Christ (Gal. 3:27). And, having been baptized, you belong to Jesus, since you have died with Christ. And since he rose from the dead, you are to walk in the newness of his life (Rom. 6:4).

And now—Grace Felicity Wencel—we "commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified" by faith (Acts 20:32; cf. 26:18).

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Word of God and Your Nation

"Righteousness exalts a nation,
but sin is a reproach to any people."

This proverb comes from the Christian Scriptures. Specifically, it comes from the old covenant holy writings that were part of the canon of the old covenant community (Prov. 14:34). That it has relevance to every nation, however, and not just the theocratic nation of Israel, observe those two words "any people." 

In a nation that has come to embrace a notion of the separation of church and state that drives faith into the inner recesses of your private heart, to be confined there for you to think sweet thoughts about it, but never to come out into public view, we see that God's holy Word messes with our hair. It knocks us off balance. It rearranges the furniture. It instructs us—as a nation, as a people—in righteousness. 

And so, if you're following this simple lesson so far, if our nation exalts sin, and spurns righteousness, it is a reproach to us. There is no neutral sphere within which American can cast off the Word of God and the righteous requirements of the Maker of heaven and earth.

Monday, November 2, 2015

What God-Centeredness Looks and Sounds Like

The emanation or communication of the divine fullness, consisting in the knowledge of God, love to God, and joy in God, has relation indeed both to God and the creature: but it has relation to God as its fountain, as it is an emanation from God; and as the communication itself, or thing communicated, is something divine, something of God, something of his internal fullness; as the water in the stream is something of the fountain; and as the beams are of the sun. And again, they have relation to God as they have respect to him as their object: for the knowledge communicated is the knowledge of God; and so God is the object of the knowledge: and the love communicated, is the love of God; so God is the object of that love: and the happiness communicated, is joy in God; and so he is the object of the joy communicated. In the creature's knowing, esteeming, loving, rejoicing in, and praising God, the glory of God is both exhibited and acknowledged; his fullness is received and returned. Here is both an emanation and remanation. The refulgence shines upon and into the creature, and is reflected back to the luminary. The beams of glory come from God, and are something of God, and are refunded back again to their original. So that the whole is of God, and in God, and to God; and God is the beginning, middle and end in this affair (End for Which, in WJE 8:531).