Discerning the Spirit (or swallowing Him feathers and all)

Since I managed to attract the experimental Calvinists’ attention with a few questions about the need to read the Bible in a way that inflames readers, maybe the glowing ones can help with a question I posed once before but never received a convincing answer. (BTW, isn’t it a good thing if someone simply — sorry for the adverb — reads the Bible? Am I inadequate if I don’t guzzle the words of life? And for those who cite the Psalms to defend an earnest reading of Scripture, I sure wish they could keep in mind that this desire came at a time when Bibles were not exactly handy — cheap or widely distributed.)

Here’s the question, if earnestness is so desirable, even necessary (?), why does it not prevent the likes of Jonathan Edwards from seeing the problems of a four-year old who goes through what Phebe Bartlet did to obtain the effects of a conversion? The fans of Edwards generally gloss over Phebe’s conversion, but Edwards did not since it was a prime example of the positive benefits of the awakening in Northampton:

She was born in March, 1731. About the latter end of April, or beginning of May, 1735, she was greatly affected by the talk of her brother, who had been hopefully converted a little before, at about eleven years of age, and then seriously talked to her about the great things of religion. Her parents did not know of it at that time, and were not wont, in the counsels they gave to their children, particularly to direct themselves to her, being so young, and, as they supposed, not capable of understanding. But after her brother had talked to her, they observed her very earnestly listen to the advice they gave to the other children; and she was observed very constantly to retire, several times in a day, as was concluded, for secret prayer. She grew more and more engaged in religion, and was more frequent in her closet; till at last she was wont to visit it five or six times a day: and was so engaged in it, that nothing would at any time divert her from her stated closet exercises. Her mother often observed and watched her, when such things occurred as she thought most likely to divert her, either by putting it out of her thoughts, or otherwise engaging her inclinations; but never could observe her to fail. She mentioned some very remarkable instances.

She once of her own accord spake of her unsuccessfulness, in that she could not find God, or to that purpose. But on Thursday, the last day of July, about the middle of the day, the child being in the closet, where it used to retire, its mother heard it speaking aloud; which was unusual, and never had been observed before. And her voice seemed to be as of one exceedingly importunate and engaged; but her mother could distinctly hear only these words, spoken in a childish manner, but with extraordinary earnestness, and out of distress of soul, pray, blessed Lord, give me salvation! I pray, beg, pardon all my sins! When the child had done prayer, she came out of the closet, sat down by her mother, and cried out aloud. Her mother very earnestly asked her several times what the matter was, before she would make any answer; but she continued crying, and writhing her body to and fro, like one in anguish of spirit. Her mother then asked her, whether she was afraid that God would not give her salvation. She then answered, Yes, I am afraid I shall go to hell! Her mother then endeavored to quiet her, and told her she would not have her cry, she must be a good girl, and pray every day, and she hoped God would give her salvation. But this did not quiet her at all; she continued thus earnestly crying, and taking on for some time, till at length she suddenly ceased crying, and began to smile, and presently said with a smiling countenance, Mother, the kingdom of heaven is come to me! Her mother was surprised at the sudden alteration, and at the speech; and knew not what to make of it; but at first said nothing to her. The child presently spake again, and said, There is another come to me, and there is another, there is three; and being asked what she meant, she answered, One is, Thy will be done, and there is another, Enjoy Him for ever; by which it seems, that when the child said, There is three come to me; she meant three passages of her catechism that came to her mind.

After the child had said this, she retired again into her closet, and her mother went over to her brother’s, who was next neighbor; and when she came back, the child, being come out of the closet, meets her mother with this cheerful speech; I can find God now! referring to what she had before complained of, that she could not find God. Then the child spoke again and said, I love God! Her mother asked her, how well she loved God, whether she loved God better than her father and mother. She said, Yes. Then she asked her, whether she loved God better than her little sister Rachel. She answered, Yes, better than any thing!

So many problems here, among them publicizing a piety that is a tad self-righteous — “I love God more than my parents do.” If any minister today wrote about a four-year old conversion in this manner, chances are his session or consistory would advise against publication, and the parents might ask for the pastor to stay away. Who wants to see a four-year writhe out of spiritual anguish (who wants to see a twenty-two year old writhe during conversion?)? But Edwards gets a pass because he is — well — Edwards. Yet, what kind of discernment did he show in his observations about Phoebe or having them published internationally as evidence of the awakening’s benefits? Furthermore, is this lack of discernment what comes with a quest for zeal? As long as someone is moved, quickened, earnest, we don’t raise questions about the manifestations of that zeal?

Some people seem to think I need help. I am asking for it.

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53 thoughts on “Discerning the Spirit (or swallowing Him feathers and all)

  1. I am asking for it.

    QIRE comes to mind, but the book is still on my list to read list, admittedly. I did make it through a healthy does of M’Cheyne daily reading this morning in (all about) my exercise this morning before work. Tablets are grand for reading while on the elliptical..

    If M’Cheyne’s four recommended chapters for today didn’t inflame, I’m not concerned. I just move on to making a pot a coffee, keep calm, and carry on.

    Peace.

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  2. And for the record, on another string here, I said something to the efffect that God speaks to me when I read Scripture. Now, I want you to have felt the uneasiness of reading that sentence just now, as I feel uneasy when someone says that to me. Stay with me, then the internet is all yours, whoever you are, reader..

    I have two daughtera, a 7 and 4 (almost 5) year old. I can imagine this Phoebe episode. I second Darryl’s analysis. I don’t know Edwardsism or anything to add a anything. But children coming to know theological truth is as old as time itself. I ha e a book Big truths for little kids by the Hunts.

    Not much to see here. Darryl, I don’t think you need help, but that’s just (all about) me.

    Grace and peace.

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  3. Re: the Hunts in my comment

    We need to Catechize our covenant children. Those of us without this in our upbringing especially so.

    We have work to do, is what I mean. But nothing to stress about.

    Victory is ours already, yo.

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  4. Darryl:

    Much could obviously be said about all this but just this to set the record straight: Phebe did not claim to love God more than her parents did; she claimed to love God more than she loved her parents. The context that you cite makes this clear. She should, at least on that basis, be cleared of the “self-righteous piety” charge.

    That having been said, because earnestness and zealousness have been turned to undesirable ends does not mean that they are not, rightly held and excercised, worth something. Just ask the Laodiceans.

    Indeed, as one said earlier, we dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. Our trust is in Him and Him alone. Spiritual fervor is not the cause of our well-being but may be the result of it, part of the gratitude that is ours, expressed in the third use of the law.

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  5. Edwards coming into a Confessional Reformed church may be akin to when Lonnie Frisbee came on staff at Calvary Chapel. Highly recommended documentary, especially for our Southern California correspondents who live in this milieu:

    We need reasonable Reformed Edwardsians to dialogue with here (after being terrorized by Richard Smith for months on end).

    The problem may be, however, that Edwarsdians, who by definition may be “feelers” as opposed to cold, rational “thinkers” may be wary of coming to Old Life, fearing the reception they will get. I vow to be kind to any well-meaning Edwardsians, Pietists, or Revivalists who come here to discuss.

    Iain and Alan are a good start, although some of the people mounting a knee-jerk defense of Danny Hyde would be better.

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  6. Darryl,
    I think John Newton’s taxonomy of Christian growth is immensely helpful here (see the opening three letters in the Banner of Truth “Select Letters”). He describes enthusiasm and unusual experiences of spiritual warmth as characteristic of the “A” or immature Christian. As you have noticed, these experiences often lead the immature Christian into pride and judgmentalism. Part of the maturing process is God leaving the Christian increasingly to himself, to uncover the power of indwelling sin within them, which often feels like backsliding but is actually spiritual growth, because it promotes a greater awareness of their own sin and need for the gospel. They become less dependent upon experiences and more on regular means of grace. By the time they reach “C” or maturity, they have a settled knowledge of the gospel and of their own weakness, which makes them able to make all due allowances for the weakness of others as well.

    Newton’s response to Phebe would neither be to dismiss her feelings as unreal nor to glorify them as signs of remarkable Christian maturity but rather to put them in their proper context as plausibly a “cordial” to her immature state. He would be confident that in due season, through the work of the Spirit and life’s difficulties she would grow to a more balanced (if less excited) state. But for now, we don’t have to pop Phebe’s bubble. God will do that work in his own time.

    Many of the students to whom we minister are A’s who are moving towards B. They came from homes and churches where they had very little opportunity for sin and easily confused God’s grace to them in that as spiritual maturity. Now they are beginning to discover that they are bigger sinners than they thought (aided by a college-provided computer with no parental filters), and are often very puzzled by that since they were sold the image of a Christian life going from strength to strength. Newton is very helpful in explaining their hearts to them and helping them see what God is up to in seasons where their hearts suddenly feel out of control. Newton helps us to see that actually spiritual growth is a lot less about doing all of the right things and much more about growing humility and dependence upon God for everything good that we have. For more, see my wife’s excellent book, “Extravagant Grace”.

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  7. Why do all Edwards’ best experiences happen in the prayer closet, or the field, or on horseback, etc? Where is the church in all this? Where is doctrine? Where are the sacraments?

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  8. Iain – They become less dependent upon experiences and more on regular means of grace. By the time they reach “C” or maturity, they have a settled knowledge of the gospel and of their own weakness, which makes them able to make all due allowances for the weakness of others as well.

    Erik – Most of these people we are “debating” with (actually probably just talking past each other on different websites) are fully formed adults — even baby boomers, presumably . What stage should we expect them to be at and what stage are they at?

    Do boomers get a break for being at a lower stage than one would expect?

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  9. Erik,
    Newton would argue that there is no necessary connection between reaching a certain physical age and spiritual maturity. You can’t become a C without many years of experience under your belt (and I can’t say I know many C’s of any age), and there are plenty of retirement age A’s, especially those who have never had the privilege of sitting in a church that majored on the Word and the Sacrament. But if we remember that God the Holy Spirit is sovereign over the process of spiritual growth, it may make us a bit more patient with their immaturity, at whatever age. As Newton would say, we don’t criticize a green nectarine because it isn’t ripe. We must patiently bear with the process by which, after a few more suns and rains, it will finally reach maturity. And for many that may be in heaven and not before.
    I think Newton’s model encourages us to extend patience and grace towards the annoying A’s, trusting that God will open their eyes in due season. If he can bear patiently with us, perhaps we can learn to bear patiently with them.

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  10. I don’t know, Ian, I can see the rationale behind what Newton proposes, though I’m dubious of the whole puritan enterprise of charting out the work of the spirit in the life of believers, almost believers and pre-believers et al., I’m fairly certain it’s caused more harm than help, but what we seem to see in the american evangelical scene and increasingly in the reformed spectrum, is the perpetuation of adolescence and some of it on the back of a puritan grid of religious affections. Scripture seems to assign the ‘heart’ to the realm of God’s omniscience and commends to us the objective means by which the Spirit has promised to attend. Not that there isn’t some introspection but the result seems to consistently be; look out from yourselves. At the very least, I’m pretty sure I prefer the ratio of someone like Walter Marshall, as to the glances inward or at the law, with the view of the gospel and God’s promises toward us in Christ.

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  11. Maybe “earnest” has just fallen on hard times. What do we associate with earnest? Rick Santorum has mastered the earnest look and got himself a win in the Iowa caucus as a result. Michele Bachmann had been the first most earnest candidate but faded. Crossing the political aisle, Jesse Jackson has done very well for himself by doing an “earnest” gig.

    Ove in the religious realm, who is earnest? The evangelical cell study leader has “earnest” up to wazoo. The earnest church guy is the one with overstated affectations and/or the guy who has a thousand scruples and that is his righteousness. Make that man a leader!

    I won’t go so far as to say there is no sense in which one must be earnest. But, given its common use and abuse, how about “Don’t do your earnestness publicly, to be admired”?

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  12. We are earnestly in rebellion to the will of God. Our “free-will” is a sign of where our earnestness has taken us.

    But that just so happens to be the sort of people that God is looking for. Full-blown sinners…who have a dire need of a Savior.

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  13. Maybe “earnest” has just fallen on hard times. What do we associate with earnest?

    I remember a couple years back an NPR self-satirical Christmastime fundraising radioplay version of A Christmas Carol. Instead of Tiny Tim, it was This American Life host, who was suffering a terminal case of Earnestness.

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  14. Iain,

    Who makes the determination of who is at A, B, or C?

    And who makes the determination that the man who is making the determination of who is at A, B, or C is at A, B, or C?

    And who makes…

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  15. Do I know whether my elders are at A, B, or C?

    No, but I can observe that they have been the husband of one wife for many years, they don’t appear to have a bad temper, I’ve never seen them drunk, and they’ve been in the church for awhile.

    I judge them by their profession of faith and the visible fruit in their lives.

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  16. “I judge them by their profession of faith and the visible fruit in their lives.”

    We wouldn’t have ANY Christians left in our pews if we looked at their “visible fruit”.

    And besides, how can we know what their motives were, even if we COULD discern good, visible fruit?

    ___

    We have a bunch of full-blown sinners in our congregation…who gather to hear His promises to the ungodly. That’s good enough for us.

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  17. Steve Martin
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:35 am | Permalink
    “I judge them by their profession of faith and the visible fruit in their lives.”

    We wouldn’t have ANY Christians left in our pews if we looked at their “visible fruit”.

    And besides, how can we know what their motives were, even if we COULD discern good, visible fruit?

    ___

    We have a bunch of full-blown sinners in our congregation…who gather to hear His promises to the ungodly. That’s good enough for us.

    We should not judge “the fruits” just by the sour ones, eh? It makes more sense to judge which tree produces the finest fruits, no?

    Most [not all, but almost all] Catholic priests remain celibate for life, for the glory of the Kingdom. Argument below per Mohler, though I imagine you already read it, Darryl in First Things, to which I must assume you’re a subscriber.]

    http://oce.catholic.com/index.php?title=Johann_Adam_Mohler

    [If you have no wife and family, the State has so much less a hold over you.]

    Celibacy as political resistance: Grant Kaplan explains Johann Mohler’s political theology to subvert state domination.: An article from: First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

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  18. why does it not prevent the likes of Jonathan Edwards from seeing the problems of a four-year old who goes through what Phebe Bartlet did to obtain the effects of a conversion?

    “But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

    I do understand your objection here, Darryl. Brainwashing kids.

    My late mother taught me about Jesus. I was 4, or I was 6, or I maybe I was 7. She told me about the Passion. She told me years later about her memory of it. I was in the bathtub.

    I remember it just the same, D, I swear. The tears hot on my cheeks, dripping into the tub.

    They did that to him?

    I was never the same. Let’s not be Gaius and Titius, laughing at human emotion. Christ’s ugly and brutal death–at our hands–was meant to move us all to tears, make us weak at our knees, or it had no meaning at all.

    The child in the bathtub couldn’t understand how they could do that to him. As a grown man, now he does. It’s not as hard as you’d think.

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  19. Erik, I keep feeling I’m receiving seminary level edumacation out here, and for what? Dunno ’bout you, but I’ve been freeloading since finding DGH and co. How awesome is that? Anyway..&

    Iain M. Duguid
    Visiting Professor of Old Testament

    EDUCATION
    B.Sc., Edinburgh University;
    M.Div., Westminster Theological Seminary;
    Ph.D., Cambridge University

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  20. Andrew, thanks for highlighting Dr. Duguid’s credentials. Maybe a certain gentleman with only a blog to their theological street cred will show a little more respect for the professor? But then again, who needs a prof when you have your own blog?

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  21. Iain, what you say makes sense. What doesn’t make sense though is whether you would apply this to a four-year old, as if a person that age could be categorized as A B or C. But then the added difficulty is Edwards himself. Why did he think a four-year old was in any way representative? And why aren’t experimental Calvinists troubled by Edwards’ understanding of devotion?

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  22. Aw C’mon, Cimino, the innurnet was yours for taking.

    Unfortunately, I’ll take myself up on my own offer. I am able to laugh at my own absurdity for being here. Are you?

    But if you want to know more, Ive been tweeting, or fighing this battle at Dr. Clark’s blog. I’m done.

    http://heidelblog.net/2014/02/hermeneutics-and-the-creation-wars/#comment-273338

    I would enjoy hearing about you or what brings you here. You are right to discount my background, I crunch numbers for a living, and am raising a family. That’s that.

    Peace

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  23. Tom Van Dyke,

    Don’t we have better things to do than to run around being ‘fruit checkers’?

    As if our fecal matter had no odor.

    We sinners gather to hear the Word. And then we go out into the world and live. Isn’t that enough?

    Maybe you’ve really got it all going on and are really up to it. I don’t.

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  24. Darryl,
    I would think it pretty clear that a 4 year old would at best be an “A” in Newton’s terms. These are not hard and fast categories but diagnostic tools for pastors and counselors to work with. If they are useful, that’s great, but they are not divinely inspired. They flow out of Newton’s own fairly extensive pastoral experience.

    Frankly, I hold no brief to defend Edwards on this one. I can think of lots of fleshly reasons why a four year old might behave like this, especially in such an emotionally charged environment. The last thing I would want to do would be to publish her testimony. I’d love to know more of Phebe’s subsequent history and whether she grew up to be a godly old lady or went off the rails as a teenager. I think as parents we can often be as confused by our children’s “godliness” as we are by their sin, and we don’t always help them towards a proper understanding of their own hearts and motivations. Yes I am going to argue for the value of a certain amount of introspection (is there anyone who argues for the value of a completely unexamined life?), but would certainly affirm the formula of multiple looks to Christ for every look at ourselves. or more precisely, as I think Dave Powlison puts it, looking at ourselves so that we can look to Christ more specifically as our only hope, the specific remedy for the specific sinner that I am.

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  25. Darryl,

    I am glad that my point about Phebe was clear.

    Having said that, Isaac Watts, John Guyse and others involved in the publication of the first edition of Edwards’s Faithful Narrative (whence the Phebe story comes) questioned the wisdom of publishing this tale of the four-year-old on several grounds.

    For better of worse, Edwards was always seeking models to exemplify certain spiritual virtues or ideals that he wished to foster (Phebe, Abigail Hutchinson, David Brainerd, his own wife Sarah, et al.), and this led to some rather bizarre stuff. This does not, in my view, devalue Edwards but properly contextualizes and relativizes this remarkably brilliant Christian.

    I’ve written several things on him, and reviewed a number of books on him, and have criticized him for a number of things in print, but I continue to find him interesting and refreshing (if approached carefully; if not, one may conclude that Edwards believes that scarcely anyone is a Christian: one of his faults was to sound this way at times). At his best, however, he has a real knack for expositing, as Marsden notes, “the beauty of the redemptive love of Christ as the true center of reality.”

    But you are not alone in not finding him appealing. He’s one of those polarizing sorts that folk either love or don’t. Even so, I would hope that his most ardent proponents would be able to see his weaknesses, even as his staunchest foes his strengths.

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  26. How did this child have time to go to the household’s prayer closet 5-6 times a day? I thought children back then were making their whole family’s mittens or quilts or something. You can pray, sing songs, memorize a catechism along with the rest of the family, not necessarily alone….

    I say this was a mixture of idleness and wishing to please her elders. I distinctly remember raising my hand and swaying in P&W when I was 7 or 8, and telling my parents about the same time that I had received a call from God to be an artist (my mom still reminds me of this sometimes, as some sort of proof that Lutheran theology is error). Both actions were prompted by a desire to show I was a Christian (in the charismatic’s theology), but not in a lying, deceitful way (except in the sense that all my thoughts and actions are tainted with sin).

    [Side note: I still am irritated that when I desired to be baptized (at 7) our pastor said I wasn’t ready, yet, but would I like the “baptism of the Holy Spirit”? I sat on his lap after other folks got the water and Word in the pool, and I got to mimic his nonsense syllables until I babbled on my own. (I was regular baptized the following year.)]

    Anyway, the parents in this situation needed to be catechized in distinguishing proper Law and Gospel, and a little more sensitive to their daughter’s sinful nature. I’m not saying her experience wasn’t genuine and her feelings weren’t real, but I think it was tied a lot more to her personality and maybe Old Adam.

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  27. Katy, I recall teaching at a Pentecostal school. A mother told me they bribed their children with Tootsie Rolls in order to get their hands up in church. How do bribes go with spontaneity? Don’t they align better with catechism? Confessionalists might quench the Spirit but at least we know he can’t be bribed.

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  28. The APC’s page on some of Edwards’s excesses tempered my enthusiasm years ago when I was new to the Reformed faith. (http://www.americanpresbyterianchurch.org/?page_id=904) I don’t know how reliable Joseph Tracy’s work is but the emphasis on a direct, unmediated encounter with God is consistent with other accounts of Edwards. Modern pietists seem more about using testimonies or progress in sanctification as the ground for assurance, prescribing self-examination and trying harder (e.g., more devotions, more church, WHY U NO LOVE GOD) for those whose spiritual lives are deemed lukewarm relative to theirs, with any reluctance interpreted as evidence of hypocrisy.

    That mentality is arguably worse than Edwards, who I thought was described by R Scott Clark as calming down after Northampton instead of doubling down. Edwards also had an admirable grasp of general revelation and died in support of the smallpox vaccine in stark contrast to the inexplicable quackery in modern Reformed circles, but that’s a tangent.

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  29. BTW, I come here for the 2k.

    Then you are among bros., and all that’s left to wonder is what’s on tap here today. Machen didn’t fight prohobition for nothing. To raise a glass is but our duty.

    Where’s the Whittenblogger..

    Cheers.

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  30. DJ, if you are implying that I was being disrespectful to Dr Duguid then you’re incorrect. I was merely responding to the shocking, unconfessional emphasis in the story DGH shared. I have utmost respect for Dr Duguid. I hadn’t even read any comments when I shared my own.

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  31. Nick – wittenbeer – I knew I clicked on your blog recently. My bringing up your blog was likely the subconcious acting out, because Twitter sends random advertising in and amongst the various reformed tweeters I’ve found since trying that service out for the first time last week, or so. How they knew to advertise dos equis while I was drinking one was a bit spooky. I’ll stop thinking about that now.

    Your blog has a good name. Peace.

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  32. Steve Martin
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink
    Tom Van Dyke,

    Don’t we have better things to do than to run around being ‘fruit checkers’?

    As if our fecal matter had no odor.

    We sinners gather to hear the Word. And then we go out into the world and live. Isn’t that enough?

    Maybe you’ve really got it all going on and are really up to it. I don’t.

    Now, now. No need to get personal.

    I hear the “judge by their fruits” bit around here often. I thought my reply was worth considering, that if we are to judge fruits, we should judge by the best of a tree’s fruits, not its worst [for bad fruits are all pretty much the same, eh?]

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  33. Tom

    Scripture teaches that one sin is enough to earn condemnation before a holy God

    And that my works are like used Tampax before this Being

    What is one to do?

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  34. kent
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 6:43 pm | Permalink
    Tom

    Scripture teaches that one sin is enough to earn condemnation before a holy God

    And that my works are like used Tampax before this Being

    What is one to do?

    find better metaphors

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  35. Maybe a little late in the game for this one, but the Bereans were considered noble, not for their ardency or earnestness for the scriptures, but for their investigation of the truth of scripture. It’s not the earnestness that matters. On the other hand, Paul censures the Jews for their “Zeal, yet not according to knowledge”.

    It’s like sitting down to earnestly eat your dinner or talk with your wife. What’s the point? If it’s good for me, it will bear it’s fruit. Frankly, if I approached my wife ‘in earnest’, I’d probably end up sitting alone.

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