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TEXT: John 17:3
SUBJECT: Midland Confession #2: God
A couple of weeks ago, we began an afternoon study of our Confession of Faith. I call it our confession because back in the mid 1980's we adopted it as a fair summary of what we believe and what we emphasize.
Except for a couple of slight changes I made for the sake of clarity, the Confession was first published in the middle of England in the middle of the 17th Century. It's called The Midland Confession of 1655. If you ever noticed the name of our church, it won't surprise you to learn the confession is distinctly Baptist. You'll find the distinctive in Articles 13 and 14.
But even though it is Baptist, what it chiefly is Orthodox, Evangelical, and Reformed. By 'Orthodox', I mean it confesses what all Christians at all times and places believe about God and Christ. The first two Articles, in particular, could be signed by a Baptist, a Lutheran, a Presbyterian, a Roman, Catholic, or any other Christian Church--but not by the cults. Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Scientists may well be good people, hard-working, sincere, and religious, but they are not Christians--and not because I say they're not, but because the Whole Church says so. And what the Church's judgment is well-informed by the Bible.
The Confession is also Evangelical, in that it affirms an inspired and authoritative Bible, a unique book that has the final word on everything. It also affirms 'justification by faith alone', the Article, Martin Luther once said, of the standing or falling church.
Most of all, the Confession is Reformed, because it centers on the doctrines of God's sovereignty and salvation by grace alone. All Christians believe the doctrines, of course, but Reformed Christians emphasize them in a way others don't. This doesn't make us better than other Christians, but I very much think we're right on this one.
THE FIRST ARTICLE
The Confession starts where it ought to start: with God. It reads--
We believe that there is only one true God, who is our God; who is eternal, almighty, unchangeable, infinite, and incomprehensible; who is a Spirit, having His being in Himself, and gives being to all creatures; He does what He wills in Heaven and earth, working all things according to the counsel of His will.
THE ONE TRUE GOD
The God our Confession affirms is not any god (as AA says, 'God as we understand Him'), but a particular God, the One who is some things and is not other things. I very much believe in 'freedom of thought', but we're not free to 'think of God any way we want to'. If a God who sends people to Hell 'offends' you, you make up a god who doesn't do that. If God is 'our Father', but you find that sexist, you think of Him as 'our Parent'.
There's a word for this kind of thinking, and it's not 'good manners', 'open-mindedness', 'tolerance' or 'Political Correctness'. The word is idolatry, making God what we'd like Him to be instead of what He is.
When President Obama was sworn in the first time, he invited Southern Baptist pastor and best-selling Rick Warren to offer the invocation. I don't have the words in front of me, but he subtly invoked three gods--the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the god of Judaism and the god of Islam--as though they were one and the same.
Many people believe this, and in an age that values 'tolerance' more than 'truth', you know why. But this kind of 'open-mindedness' terribly muddles the Gospel and does not please the Lord who said, in Isiah 46:5--
To whom will you liken me,
and make me equal
and compare me,
that we should be alike?
The implied answer is, 'no one can be compared to the Lord', whether he's a crude stone idol, chipped away by some tribesman in the jungle or a respected religion practiced by billions of people all over the world.
There is One True God, and although He is mysterious, He is also known, and He is only known as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is this particular God we affirm and not some other.
The second thing the Confession says is that this God is our God. And immediately you hear shrill voices shouting, 'Arrogant!" and 'Intolerant'. Who are we to say that the One True God is our God and not the Muslim's one god or the Hindu's many gods?
The charge would be true if we had found God for ourselves and chosen Him because we're better than the Muslim, smarter than the Hindu, more sincere than the Jew or more civilized that the Native American.
We make no such claims, and if we come off as though we do, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves and apologize to the people we put ourselves above.
Christians--like anyone else can be proud and scornful--but we have no reason to be this way. The fact is, the One True God is our God, not because we found Him or chose Him, but because He found and chose us! Why He chose us and not othres, only He knows. We feel no pride in our standing with Him, but only gratitude. Luke 10:21, Jesus says--
I praise you, Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in your sight.
THE ATTRIBUTES OF GOD
The Framers next turn to 'the attributes of God'. They don't mention all of them--no creed can do that--but the only the ones that are His alone, what theologians call His incommunicable attributes.
God is love, the Bible says, but love is communicable; it can be possessed and exercised by ordinary people, not all of whom are Christians. God gives the gift of love to the world, not just His love for us, but our love for one another.
Firstly, God is eternal. This means He is above time and not affected by it as we are. He was never young, He is not middle-aged, and He doesn't worry about growing old. Because God is eternal, He always knows what He's going to do and doesn't have to 'go to plan B', as we so often do.
Secondly, God is almighty. Can God do anything? No He can't; the Bible says, God cannot lie. Does this mean that His power is somehow limited? It doesn't mean that. What it means is, God can do anything He wants to do, anything that is consistent with His character. This means, everything God does is wise and holy and just and loving. Because He is all these things (and more) and, unlike you and me, He does not suffer from a lack of self-control.
Thirdly, God is unchangeable. This means He can never act contrary to His fixed character. At times, He seems to do that, punishing a good man like Job, for example, and letting his wicked friends off. But, at the end of Job's story, God vindicated Himself, rewarding Job for his integrity and being angry at his friends for their lack thereof.
Fourthly, God is infinite. I think they Framers should have put this fourth instead of first, because it more or less includes what they've already said. Infinity means 'without boundaries or limits'. For example, God fills all time and space but is not contained in them.
Fifthly, God is incomprehensible. This is a tricky idea and minds a lot sharper than mine have dulled themselves on it. 'Incomprehensible' does not mean 'God cannot be known', because He can be known. The New Covenant goes so far as to promise that all of His people would know Him, and whatever this includes, it means more than 'know there is some kind of God'. They will know Him, not perfectly, of course, but really know Him.
What it means is God cannot be fully known, that He's too big to fit created minds, either human or angelic. Even when we see Him face to face, He will remain mysterious--not because He's hiding anything--but simply because an ocean cannot be fitted into a tea spoon!
The attributes of God may seem rather abstract to us, a scholar's debate and of no practical value. But a moment's thought will put the lie to that. What would it be to trust a God that is subject to time? He might really love us, but He's gotten too old to help us.
A god who is less than Almighty? We'd have to tailor our prayers to His ability. A God who flip flops, loving us one day and hating us the next? Or making promises and then going back on His Word? And would you really want a god that was so puny that you and I could wrap our little brains around Him?
The attributes of God matter; they tell us what kind of Being God is, and that's the kind who is worthy of our love and service and One we can entrust our lives to.
We've all seen The Wizard of Oz (I hope!). Everyone thought Oz was really something! But when Toto pulled the curtain back we found out he was a little man with a big mouth! Unlike Oz, God is what He is, and more than our words can describe.
The Confession goes on to say God is a Spirit. This is taken directly from the Bible, a near quote of John 4:24. What does this mean?
This is a hard question, and I'd by lying to you if I said I've got a complete answer. I think, however, it means something like this.
The human spirit is the opposite of the human body. The body has some things the spirit doesn't have--weight, for example, or color. But the spirit has some things the body doesn't have, such as personality, intelligence, morals, and will. A freshly-dead person's body looks pretty much the same as a living person's body. But we don't think of the dead man as 'nearly alive', do we? Because the body we know so well is no longer a person, has no thoughts, doesn't do anything, and isn't for or against things the way he used to be.
And so, when the Framers say God is a Spirit, they mean He is not an 'impersonal force' (like in Star Wars!); He's not the philosopher's 'unmoved mover' or 'first cause'. He is a Person who knows and loves and hates and acts.
This is why, for example, Ephesians 4:30, warns us against grieving the Holy Spirit. You can't grieve a waterfall or disappoint an earthquake. Impersonal things don't care if you're not impressed with them or if they knock down your house. God does know and care because He is a Person; He is a Spirit.
BEING--HIS AND OURS
Next, it says God has being in Himself. This is another tricky line, though it too, is taken, almost word- for-word from John's Gospel, Chapter 1.
It means, unlike all other things, God is not contingent; His life does not depend on other lives; in a word, He doesn't need anything.
The rest of us do. The most self-sufficient man in the world is not self-sufficient, even if he's a hermit, living in Alaska, eating fish he caught himself with bait he dug up for himself on hooks he carved from the bones of animals he killed with a homemade spear. He depends on a great many things, from the land he walks on, to the air he breathes, to the knowledge of fishing he got from his grandfather.
God does not depend on anyone or anything. He is self-sufficient.
This brings up the doctrine of the Trinity, which is next week's study but is worth mentioning now. The fact that the One True God is also Father, Son, and Holy Spirit means He doesn't need us, angels, or anything else to keep Him company. He keeps Himself company!
The God who is alive Himself wants to share life with others, and so, in the beginning, He made a world full of living things, from trees and animals, to angels and men. He did this--not to meet some need of His own (He has no needs), but because we wanted to, Revelation 4:11--
You are worthy, O Lord,
to receive glory and honor
For you created all things,
and by your will they exist
and were created.
In good Calvinist fashion, the first article closes affirming God's sovereignty, alluding to Daniel 4 and Ephesians 1, it says--
He does what He wills, in heaven and earth, working all things according to the counsel of His will.
God is in control of all things: Creation, Providence and Salvation. He controls Himself; He controls angels; He controls demons; He controls good men and bad; He controls the economy, politics, history and medicine; He controls disease and famine, no less than healing and harvest.
What Abraham Kuyper said is true--
There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, 'Mine!'.
God is in charge of everything. Taken by itself, the thought is terrifying. But what if it's not 'taken by itself'? What if we invest the word, 'God' with the meaning the Bible gives it? What if the God who is in charge of all things is also as wise and loving as He says He is? Then His sovereignty because the thing He meant it to be--not a threat and not a debating point, but, a joy--
The Lord reigns!
let the earth rejoice;
Let the multitude of isles
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