Sermon delivered by Tyler Helfers on Sunday, December 31, 2017 at Trinity Christian Reformed Church.
Sermon delivered by Tyler Helfers on Sunday, December 31, 2017 at Trinity Christian Reformed Church.
Standing on the precipice of the land God had promised, the people of Israel stop. They stop to covenant with God--to renew their relationship with the One who chose them out of all the peoples of the world, delivered them out of slavery in Egypt, and brought them to this place flowing with milk and honey--and remember their calling given by God.
Covenant lies at the heart of, and is the foundation for, all biblical religion. As Gordon Spkyman writes:
Covenantal religion defines the fundamental structures undergirding all human relationships and every societal calling. It is not limited to a few highly "spiritual" moments in life--the birth of a covenant child, the sacramental signs and seals of the covenant, covenant training, or the covenant community at worship. It embraces every earthly institution--marriage, schooling, labor, social service, science, art, even politics. 
Thus, Israel was intended to be a "display people," a contrast (covenantal) community guided by the creational will and ways of the Lord God. And Deuteronomy, as a covenantal document, would provide the foundation for the life of this people, balancing an open-ended vision of the kingdom of God (the restoration of God's rule in the world) with practical provisions for dealing with a frail and fallen people. . Through faithfulness to God expressed in obedience to his law, flourishing would come to the people and the land.
However, there is more to the story than that. Blessedness and flourishing were not intended merely for Israel, but rather, were to be extended to the ends of the earth; to all peoples. Israel was chosen for service, or, to put it another way: Israel was chosen for a calling. Deuteronomy serves as a "call to communal transformation not merely for their own sake as God's people but also for the sake of her often hostile neighbors" by way of justice and grace .
As we begin a new year and a new semester, we also begin a new study, considering the ongoing significance of this book--Deuteronomy--for us today. Because, as those united to Christ, the Chosen One and True Israel of God, we are grafted into the spiritual history and heritage of those who renewed the covenant at Gerizim and Ebal. How does this book display the progressive unfolding of God's redemptive work and how does it speak into our contemporary context? What should our modern, Western churches look like as we seek to faithfully live out the biblical story, and into our calling as those covenanting with the Triune God? How do we live in the world--amidst the joys and sorrows of those around us--for its flourishing, without losing our distinctiveness? How do we remember, celebrate, and trust our God, and what does it look like to reflect justice, grace, and truth to our neighbors, classmates, co-workers, family, and friends?
These are some of the themes, topics, and questions we will examine this semester in our study, entitled, "Covenant and Calling: A Missional Study of Deuteronomy." Meets at 7PM in the Memorial Union, Room 3517.
 Meredith Kline, Treaty of the Great King (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), 41-42.
 Gordon Spykman, Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 359.
 J.G. McConville, Deuteronomy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002)
 Mark R. Glanville, "A Missional Reading of Deuteronomy: Communities of Gratitude, Celebration, and Justice," in Reading the Bible Missionally, ed. Michael W. Goheen (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 124.
Each year, we look back at the most popular blog posts and make recommendations for reading over the winter break (and beyond). Below are the most popular posts from this past year as well as a few book recommendations for the upcoming year.
Reformed and Always Reforming
(May 3, 2017)
Recovering the Priesthood of Believers
(November 8, 2017)
Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction by Craig Bartholomew (IVP Academic)
This book serves as a great introduction not only to the work of Abraham Kuyper, but also some of his contemporaries and successors. Writing in a clear and engaging manner, Bartholomew has given the church a tremendous gift in the form of this book, providing a standard for the study of the Kuyperian tradition for years to come.
Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics by Gordon Spykman (Eerdmans)
I began reading this book earlier this fall as a possible text for the Areopagus Leadership Training Initiative (ALTI). And while the jury is still out on whether it will be one of the main texts for ALTI, I have no reservations about recommending it to anyone seriously wanting to study theology through a Christian/Reformational philosophical lens. Though it may dense at times, it is well worth the work, and bears the fruit of a renewed vision for a Christian world and life view founded upon the Word of God.
The Works of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald (Doubleday: Black Lizard)
If you like detective fiction and haven't read either Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald, you need to pick up some of their work. Through the work of their private eyes, these two authors give us a picture into sin, corruption, and injustice at work in the world, and the hard, gritty work necessary to bring some semblance of redemption/resolution. They're always entertaining reads, but can prove to be reflective as well.
An Introduction to the Science of Missions by J.H. Bavinck (P&R Publishing)
The last recommendation is a work by the late missiologist, J.H. Bavinck. In this book, Bavinck lays the foundation for engaging in missions in a way that takes theology, culture, and history seriously. This book is extremely practical for anyone engaged in vocational ministry, as well as those who desire to engage others with the gospel of Christ (whether next door or around the world). Few books have been as helpful and encouraging to me in my own ministry.
There are also a few books I'm looking forward to tackling in the new year, including: Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (James K.A. Smith), Gospel Witness (Joseph Boot), and Dune (Frank Herbert).
I hope you find these resources and recommendations helpful and a blessing to you as we wrap up 2017 and look ahead to what the Lord has in store in 2018. If you find any of these particularly helpful or encouraging, please leave a note below, or send us an email. We would love to hear from you. Also, if you have any recommendations of your own, please feel free to add them to the comment section.
Last week, we hosted the annual Areopagus semester-end Christmas party. I wanted to post a few of the pictures from that night (just click on the image to scroll through). They can also be viewed at our Facebook page, here.
As 2017 wraps up, we rejoice in the ways God has worked in and through Areopagus to reflect the gospel and a Christian worldview into the university. We celebrate the new students who have found a home in our ministry and at Trinity Christian Reformed Church. And we praise God for the start of our new leadership training program (ALTI) and the students participating in it.
We also look forward to seeing how God is going to work in the year to come. In particular, we are looking forward to our spring lecture (featuring Dr. Craig Bartholomew), the Dordt Day of Encouragement, and our Bible study series entitled "Covenant and Calling: A Missional Reading of Deuteronomy." Join us in praying for God to use these to further his mission in the lives of his people, on the Iowa State University campus, around the world, and in all facets of life.
From all of us at Areopagus, we thank you for your partnership and support of the ministry. Merry Christmas!
"He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children."
"Hello Siri. Show me the law of God."
"Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands."
"Okay Google. What was the exodus?"
"They would not be like their ancestors--a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to him. (Ps. 78:5-8)"
The practice (art?) of remembering seems to be a relic of the past, relegated to the dustbin of outdated cultural practices. With the advent of the smartphone came instantaneous access to information that has no parallel in history. Don't remember that Bible verse? Simply look it up on Google. Cannot recall that event? Check it on wikipedia. Struggling to bring those instructions to mind? Search for them on Bing (wait, that's not right, nobody uses Bing...I digress).
And while having such unfettered access to information can be a exciting prospect and liberating experience, it also comes with unintended consequences that have a tremendous bearing on our faith.
Psalm 78 reminds us that throughout history, remembering has been important for faithfulness to God. The passing down of stories of God's mighty works and powerful words of promise were intended to instill this faithfulness in the next generation. Why? So that they would not follow in the path of their ancestors who frequently forgot to remember and strayed from God. And so the collective memory of the people of God was passed down from generation to generation through storytelling, memorization, and practice (liturgy).
The same is true for Christians throughout history. The liturgy served as a means of telling the story of God, His mission, and the gospel in the context of corporate worship. Furthermore, catechesis ingrained the truths and promises of God on the hearts and minds of children so that as they grew up among the covenant community, they would remember the Lord's deeds and keep his commands.
However, we are on a precipice today, looking over into the abyss that is the screen of our smartphones, tablets, and computers. No longer needing to remember--to embody truths, stories, and, calling--we become empty while having everything at our fingertips. To put another way, our devices cause us to "unstoried" beings whose primary (or perhaps sole) orientation is the present. And a people without a story, a people lacking an embodiment of history or a vision of the future are a people bound to forget their God, his works, and his ways. Such a people will become behold to, and enslaved by, the present, which can lead to all sorts of sinfulness (see 1-2 Kings, and a number of the Old Testament prophets).
This is why it is important to remember. To place oneself in the unfolding story of redemptive history. To memorize Scripture. To engage in the liturgy; that weekly practice in which we are reminded of, and further embedded in, the story of God's covenant people--one of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. Recurring patterns of confession, assurance, proclamation, and commissioning help to offset the formative practice of swiping right and calling out to the disembodied beings within our devices for the answers to our questions.
It is easy to despair, disparaging the impact of modern technology on life and faith practice. Considering the low rate of biblical literacy today, and the growing indifference and non-religious identification of young people today, it is easy to imagine things only getting worse. Yet, I find it is equally easy to imagine renewal and reformation in our patterns, habits, and practices as we pass down the immeasurable riches of God's grace given to us in Christ to the next generation, so that they might put their trust in the Lord and follow his commands.
The question is: What does that future require of you in this present?
Continuing the series on the story of the Bible, Tyler Helfers examines the rebuilding work of Ezra and Nehemiah in Jerusalem, relating it to the Reformation, and the ways both of these stories in history point to the ongoing work of God to bring spiritual renewal and build his Kingdom. In the end, we are left with the question: How is God at work today, in and through Trinity CRC (and other local churches), to further His work in Ames, and around the world?
"This word, priest, should become as common as the word Christian."
This quotation, taken from Martin Luther's collected writings and sermons on 1 Peter, gives us a window into the Reformer's perspective on this oft-neglected Reformation concept. For Luther, all Christians are priests. In fact, all who have been united to Christ are called to a priesthood rooted in the church and situated between God an the world; a priesthood arising out of 1 Peter 2 that must be recovered for continued Christian witness in our increasingly diverse, biblically illiterate, post-Christian Western culture.
Examining 1 Peter 2
The Church: Spiritual Household of a Holy Priesthood
In 1 Peter 2, the apostle makes two allusions to the Old Testament that would have resonated with the original hearers. The first of these is found in verses 4-5, where he refers to Christ, the living Stone, with whom the believers, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house. Peter is drawing on the Temple, which was the house of God, his representative dwelling place among the Israelites. Then, in Christ, the Lord dwelt among his creation as never before: in the form of a man. And now, by virtue of their union with Christ, these believers--and you and me--are dwelling places of God's Spirit. Thus, the church--both the gathered people and space--becomes the spiritual household where God is present
It is in this context--that of the church--that Peter explains they are to be a holy priesthood. Peter, and Luther for that matter, didn't view the priesthood of believers to be an individualistic thing, but rather something that took place in community. Reformation scholar, Timothy George, explains it this way:
For Luther, the priesthood of all believers did not mean, "I am my own priest." It meant rather: In the community of saints, God has so tempered the body that we are all priests to each other. We stand before God and intercede for one another, we proclaim God's Word to one another and we celebrate God's presence among us in worship, praise and fellowship.
So the focus is on our offering ourselves up on behalf of one another for the building up of Christ's body, each individual part.
Another way I've often heard it put is that the church is to be an embassy of the kingdom. What does an embassy do? It serves the people of that country in a foreign land. Thus, the church is to be a place where weary Christians and struggling saints can take refuge in the midst of a troubled world; a place that attracts the lost and the lonely, the poor and needy, the despised and rejected. The church is to be a place, and a gathering of people, of the Kingdom who extend the grace of God in word and deed to one another.
This means, as Christians, we have an obligation to one another as members of the church. We are to be priests standing before God and interceding for one another (prayer); speaking and performing God's Word into one another's lives (discipleship); and intentionally gather to praise the Lord and celebrate His grace as a community (worship). When it comes to the church, we must move beyond a consumer mentality to one of sacrificial giving, and view her not as a voluntary association of people with similar interests (not to mention socio-economic levels or ethnic background), but rather, a divinely gathered people called to do life together.
Such a view has a significant impact on what shape Christian education takes, what resources we avail ourselves of, and how we teach and train up the next generation of the church to live as faithful followers of Christ on mission with God.
The World: The Scope of Our Priesthood
However, there is another facet to the calling to be a priesthood. Once again, Peter employs language that would have been familiar to his audience: that of Exodus 19, in which God tells Moses that Israel will be his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.
Israel, as a people, was to serve as a priesthood on behalf of the world. They were to intercede for, and offer themselves in service (both word and deed) to the nations. In this way, they would be a blessing to the world. Yet, throughout the Old Testament, we find Israel turning in on itself, forgetting her God, and forsaking the nations around them. And though there are glimmers of this priestly work found in Elijah and Jonah, the people largely fail in this calling.
However, Jesus Christ, as representative Israel, perfectly fulfills this role of intercession and sacrificial service on behalf of the world. Nowhere is this more clear than in his atoning work on the cross--dying to satisfy the debt of sin and rising from the grave to break the power of death and evil for (ultimately) people from all tribes, tongues and nations.
Which brings us back to Peter. Having been united to Christ, or as the apostle puts it, built as living stones into him, the church has received this responsibility to universal priesthood on behalf of the world; a responsibility to proclaim to the nations the goodness and grace of our God who delivered us out of darkness and into His wonderful light.
Another of the Reformers, John Calvin, understood this responsibility in terms of the church's participation in the threefold office of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King. The church, and each member of her, is called to be a representative of Christ in his redemptive mission in the world. In his commentary on Hebrews, Calvin writes this:
All believers...should seek to bring others into the church, strive to lead the wanderers back to the road, stretch forth a hand to the fallen and win over the outsiders.
In both word and deed, every believer is to go forth into the world, exercising their priestly ministry on behalf of their neighbor to the glory of God. We cannot simply sit back in our pews, waiting expectantly for our friends and family, neighbors and coworkers, to come into the church, be discipled, and worship the Triune God. Instead, as the State, nationalism, and self increasingly take the place of God in the lives of those around us, we must go to them, declaring the gospel in powerful words of beauty and truth, as well as in redemptive works of love. We must present a compelling, holistic vision of the Kingdom of God and invite those around us to enter in through the only way, Jesus Christ.
If we are to be reformed and always reforming, we must take seriously this calling to be a holy priesthood. This is a difficult calling; one that stretches us. And, yet, as I look to the future, I am convinced it is the way to seeing the church in the West flourish; creating a theologically-rich, deeply attractive, culturally engaged, redemptive community. Furthermore, we can enter into this difficult duty knowing that:
[Christ] has made us a kingdom of priests
to serve our God,
and we will reign on earth.
God will be all in all,
righteousness and peace will flourish,
everything will be made new,
and every eye will see at last
that our world belongs to God.
Hallelujah! Come, Lord Jesus!
 Martin Luther, The Epistle of St. Peter and St. Jude: Preached and Explained (New York, NY: Anson D.F. Randolph, 1859), 106.
 Timothy George, "The Priesthood of All Believers," First Things, last modified October 31, 2016, accessed November 6, 2017, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2016/10/the-priesthood-of-all-believers.
 George, "The Priesthood of All Believers."
 John Calvin, Commentaries, Heb. 10:24.
 An excerpt from a Contemporary Testimony of the CRCNA, Our World Belongs to God.
O Lord, it's happened again;
an instrument of violence dealing death.
Blood and bodies litter the floors
of that house of worship
twisted into a macabre house of death.
Unimaginable pain and inconsolable grief
replace the hymns of praise and shouts of joy.
And this is not the first time;
no, it is one in a long line
of incidents laying bear the ruptured reality
of this kingdom (world) belonging to you.
Tears run down my face,
shared with my afflicted sisters and brothers in Texas.
This is not the first time, nor do I suspect the last,
when the pain of such loss stings the body of Christ.
How long, O Lord? When will the mourning be turned to laughter?
When will every tear be wiped away?
How long, O Lord? When will your kingdom fully come?
When will your will be done;
evil and chaos crushed by righteousness and peace?
Remind us that these statements are not mere dreams,
but promised realities proven by the wounded, yet glorified, Christ.
In a world in need of good news,
move us, O Lord, beyond empty platitudes
to act in ways that bring the gospel to bear on the world today.
And as we do so, following the way of Christ (and cross)
in powerful words and life-loving deeds,
may we continue to pray:
Come, Lord Jesus. Come.
In the absence of the true God, a vacuum is created in which humanity will inevitably make something else to be god. The only question is what that god will be. At the Areopagus, the philosophers and leaders of the people of Athens exalted gods reflecting their own image; gods emanating the wisdom and pride of the Greeks. The kingdom of humanity. And yet, Bavinck, by way of Paul, reminds us that such fabricated gods are, instead, foolishness. Further, what they trusted to bring life and flourishing to the world was only another means of death and destruction.
True wisdom, fullness of life, and human flourishing come through the recognition--not the rejection or fabrication--of the one true God, who, rather than reflecting our image, creates us in his own. The true God who stoops down to reveal himself, in revelation and redemption, extending his mercy and grace to us most clearly in the person and work of Christ. Through Christ, the Kingdom of God breaks into our world in a way unlike any other, renewing hearts and minds to trust and obey the all-wise King, and beginning his work of making all things new.
Whose vision and kingdom do you carry within you? The human kingdom, whose wisdom is foolishness and whose gods are impotent to bring the flourishing and life for which we yearn (ultimately leaving us disappointed and disillusioned)? Or the Kingdom of God, whose (perceived) foolishness is true wisdom and whose God is not only capable of bringing renewal to all things and everlasting life, but is already doing so in Christ by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit.
The theologian A.A. van Ruler often used three words to describe the church's confessions: a staff, a stick, and a song. Using these three images, van Ruler summarized the various functions of the confessions for the life of the church--leading and guiding her, correcting and defending her, and leading her in praise and worship of the Triune God.
I'd like to borrow these three images to unfold the meaning of the marks of the church as articulated in the Belgic Confession. The true church, as Belgic Confession Article 29 states, can be recognized if:
The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults..By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church--and no one ought to be separated from it.
We find in this definition three marks to correspond to the three images given by van Ruler: the staff of the pure preaching of the gospel; the stick of church discipline; and the song of the sacraments.
A staff is an object that guides, and that which serves as the guide for, and foundation of, the church and its role in God's mission is the gospel of Christ and the kingdom. The question is: What is the pure preaching of this gospel that guides the true church? At the heart of the pure preaching of the gospel is the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. However, this is only the narrow lens of the good news found in Christ and the kingdom. The wider lens of this good news is that God's plan to redeem and restore all creation from the sinful rebellion of humankind and its effects has powerfully broken into the world in Christ.
Practically, this mark is significant as a guide in that, in the midst of many ideas and various issues that seek to pull the church's focus elsewhere, it keep the church centered on and rooted in what is most important. The church, and the Christian religion, can be about many things, even good things, but apart from this mark, it will fail to live into God's mission and its calling to witness to Christ and the kingdom. Additionally, the inclusion of the phrase "pure preaching" is a reminder that simply having an orthodox understanding of the gospel means nothing if it is not, in fact, proclaimed.
A stick is an apt symbol for church discipline. A stick can be used for defense, to point something out, or to bring correction. Church discipline does all three. First, church discipline defends the truth, as well as the Lord's reputation, and his desire for holiness in the church. Second, it keeps the church, and in particular its teachers and preachers, accountable by pointing out the true doctrine of God's Word in the midst of many false teachings that seek to sneak in. Third, church discipline can do just that--discipline, or correct those who willfully sin or reject the sound doctrine of the church. Central to this use is that it is always intended to be restorative, with the return of the wandering sheep or the prodigal son as the end goal.
Contemporarily, it seems appropriate to emphasize church discipline, as the practice seems to have gone out of vogue--whether from its misuse, abuse, or the generally negative perception of the word in today's culture--and numerous teachings that contradict the Word and the confession have led people astray, causing division in the church. In the end, the church needs discipline, for the glory of God, the good of the church, and its gospel witness in the world.
This leads to the third mark: the pure administration of the sacraments. The confession identifies two sacraments--baptism and the Lord's Supper--as instituted by Christ in Scripture. As with discipline and the preaching of the gospel, the focus of the sacraments is on the plain and authoritative teaching of God's Word.
The sacraments serve as a song in that they declare and celebrate the work of God in the gospel, and praise his name for his promises, provision, and presence given to us in such visible ways. There is a doxological character to the sacraments, as we receive them from God and, in response, worship him for these gifts of grace that nourish and sustain our faith. Yet, the pure administration of the sacraments are not simply about praise, but also the means of grace necessary for those who are a part of the church to faithfully live as citizens and ambassadors of the kingdom.
These three marks--the pure preaching of the gospel, the practice of church discipline, and the pure administration of the sacraments--are doctrinal products of their time, but also very practical for our day. They are a staff, a stick, and a song for the church as she seeks to fulfill the mission given her by Christ in the unfolding of God's redemptive plan; for his glory and the good of God's people.
 Allan J. Janssen, Confessing the Faith Today: A Fresh Look at the Belgic Confession (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016), 5-6.
 Michael Goheen, Introducing Christian Mission Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 39.
 Daniel Hyde, With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession (Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 2008), 398.