Monday, December 31, 2007

Osteen on Mitt and Mormonism

Mike Wallace recently interviewed Joel Osteen on Fox News Sunday. After talking with Osteen about his new book, the conversation turned to politics. Wallace asked Osteen about Mike Huckabee. Then he asked Osteen about Mitt Romney. Here is the transcript of that section of the interview.

(begin transcript)

WALLACE: And what about Mitt Romney? And I've got to ask you the question, because it is a question whether it should be or not in this campaign, is a Mormon a true Christian?

OSTEEN: Well, in my mind they are. Mitt Romney has said that he believes in Christ as his savior, and that's what I believe, so, you know, I'm not the one to judge the little details of it. So I believe they are.
And so, you know, Mitt Romney seems like a man of character and integrity to me, and I don't think he would — anything would stop me from voting for him if that's what I felt like.

WALLACE: So, for instance, when people start talking about Joseph Smith, the founder of the church, and the golden tablets in upstate New York, and God assumes the shape of a man, do you not get hung up in those theological issues?

OSTEEN: I probably don't get hung up in them because I haven't really studied them or thought about them. And you know, I just try to let God be the judge of that. I mean, I don't know.
I certainly can't say that I agree with everything that I've heard about it, but from what I've heard from Mitt, when he says that Christ is his savior, to me that's a common bond.

(end transcript)

Osteen continues his habit of equivocation and avoidance when it comes to taking a stand on tough theological issues. When asked whether a person had to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior to avoid going to hell, Osteen's answer was the same basic doublespeak - "that's what I believe for me but I can't judge others - I leave it up to God."

It is heartbreaking when a man heralded as "America's Most Popular Preacher" cannot speak clearly and directly on something as obvious as the fact that Mormonism is not Christianity. Doing so does not require a person to say that Mitt Romney is a bad person or a bad presidential candidate. It is a simple acknowledgment of the fact that Mormonism deviates from historic Christian orthodoxy on almost every theological point. This is well-attested by those who have compared the two religions.

I pray that Joel Osteen will use his formidable influence to declare to his vast audience a clear gospel that doesn't equivocate on issues that affect the eternal destinies of those who listen to him.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Whitefield on the Best New Years Gift

The following is an excerpt from George Whitefield's sermon entitled A Penitent Heart, the Best New Year's Gift. His text was Luke 13:3 - Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. You can read the entire sermon here.

O let the love of Jesus be in your thoughts continually. It was his dying that brought you life; it was his crucifixion that paid the satisfaction for your sins; his death, burial, and resurrection that completed the work; and he is now in heaven, interceding for you at the right hand of his Father. And can you do too much for the Lord Jesus Christ, who has done so much for you? His love to you is unfathomable. O the height, the depth, the length and breadth of this love, that brought the King of glory from his throne, to die for such rebels as we are, when we had acted so unkindly against him, and deserved nothing but eternal damnation. He came down and took our nature upon him; he was made of flesh and dwelt among us; he was put to death on our account; he paid our ransom: surely this should make us rejoice in him, and not do as too many do, and as we ourselves have too often, crucify this Jesus afresh. Let us do all we can, my dear brethren, to honor him.

Come, all of you, come, and behold him stretched out for you; see his hands and feet nailed to the cross. O come, come, my brethren, and nail your sins thereto; come, come and see his side pierced; there is a fountain open for sin, and for uncleanness: O wash, wash and be clean: come and see his head crowned with thorns, and all for you. Can you think of a panting, bleeding, dying Jesus, and not be filled with pity towards him? He underwent all this for you. Come unto him by faith; lay hold on him: there is mercy for every soul of you that will come unto him. Then do not delay; fly unto the arms of this Jesus, and you shall be made clean in his blood.

O what shall I say unto you to make you come to Jesus: I have showed you the dreadful consequence of not repenting of your sins: and if after all I have said, you are resolved to persist, your blood will be required at your own heads; but I hope better things of you, and things that accompany salvation. Let me beg of you to pray in good earnest for the grace of repentance. I may never see your faces again; but at the day of judgment I will meet you: there you will either bless God that ever you were moved to repentance; or else this sermon, though in a field, will be as a swift witness against you. Repent, repent therefore, my dear brethren, as John the Baptist, and as our blessed Redeemer himself earnestly exhorted, and turn from your evil ways, and the Lord will have mercy on you.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Importance of the Virgin Birth

Emergent church leader Rob Bell writes in his book Velvet Elvis:

What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births?

But what if, as you study the origin of the word “virgin” you discover that the word “virgin” in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word “virgin” could mean several things. And what if you discover that in the first century being “born of a virgin” also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse?

What if that spring were seriously questioned? Could a person keep on jumping? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian? Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live? Or does the whole thing fall apart? (026,027)

In the book Bell compares the Christian life to jumping on a trampoline. Doctrines are the springs of the trampoline. They are not the focus, the experience of jumping is the focus. Bell chides those who focus on doctrine for missing the real point which is living the life. The "springs" of doctrine can be examined and questioned without any threat to the experience of jumping.

Though Rob Bell affirms his personal belief in the virgin birth, it seems rather unconvincing in light of his rhetoric. Is the the virgin birth of Christ really a necessary doctrine for the Christian life? Can one really love God and be a real Christian if the virgin birth turned out to be a myth like those in many first century mystery cults?

In response to Bell's scenario, I give you a segment of an article from Dr. Albert Mohler entitled, Can a Christian Deny the Virgin Birth?

Can a true Christian deny the virgin birth? The answer to that question must be a decisive No. Those who deny the virgin birth reject the authority of Scripture, deny the supernatural birth of the Savior, undermine the very foundations of the Gospel, and have no way of explaining the deity of Christ.

Anyone who claims that the virgin birth can be discarded even as the deity of Christ is affirmed is either intellectually dishonest or theologically incompetent.

Christians must face the fact that a denial of the virgin birth is a denial of Jesus as the Christ. The Savior who died for our sins was none other than the baby who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of a virgin. The virgin birth does not stand alone as a biblical doctrine, it is an irreducible part of the biblical revelation about the person and work of Jesus Christ. With it, the Gospel stands or falls.

"Everyone admits that the Bible represents Jesus as having been conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. The only question is whether in making that representation the Bible is true or false." So declared J. Gresham Machen in his great work, The Virgin Birth of Christ. As Machen went on to argue, "if the Bible is regarded as being wrong in what it says about the birth of Christ, then obviously the authority of the Bible in any high sense, is gone."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Whitefield on Christmas

George Whitefield admonishes us about how to rightly observe Christmas in a sermon entitled, The Observation of the Birth of Christ, the Duty of all Christians; or the True Way of Keeping Christmas. These are the closing words of the sermon.

Let me now conclude, my dear brethren, with a few words of exhortation, beseeching you to think of the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. Did Jesus come into the world to save us from death, and shall we spend no part of our time in conversing about our dear Jesus; shall we pay no regard to the birth of him, who came to redeem us from the worst of slavery, from that of sin, and the devil; and shall this Jesus not only be born on our account, but likewise die in our stead, and yet shall we be unmindful of him? Shall we spend our time in those things which are offensive to him? Shall we not rather do all we can to promote his glory, and act according to his command? O my dear brethren, be found in the ways of God; let us not disturb our dear Redeemer by any irregular proceedings; and let me beseech you to strive to love, fear, honor and obey him, more than ever you have done yet; let not the devil engross your time, and that dear Savior who came into the world on your accounts, have so little. O be not so ungrateful to him who has been so kind to you! What could the Lord Jesus Christ have done for you more than he has? Then do not abuse his mercy, but let your time be spent in thinking and talking of the love of Jesus, who was incarnate for us, who was born of a woman, and made under the law, to redeem us from the wrath to come.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas Unplugged

Unplugged is a term familiar to those who follow popular music. It refers to performances in which musicians accustomed to using electronic amplifiers play their songs on acoustic instruments. It is an attempt to get to the pure, unaltered essence of the music by avoiding the distortions and effects caused by electronic equipment. Some of these performances have become quite cherished among music fans.

Building on the “unplugged” principle, I’d like to challenge you with some thoughts about Christmas. Layer upon layer of cultural influence has been added to the raw essence of Christmas. Many of these influences are not hostile to Christmas, but they are additions just the same. If you are like me, there are certain things associated with Christmas that are built into your psyche. For instance, trimming the tree, exchanging gifts, a turkey dinner, spending time at Grandma’s house, choir cantatas, and crisp cold weather are all part of my idealized Christmas. But what do any of those things have to do with the essence of Christmas? Nothing really. They are things I have associated with Christmas from years of family tradition.

If we unplug Christmas from all the customs and tradition which we have associated with it, what is Christmas? It is the shocking announcement to a young betrothed virgin that she is miraculously pregnant with the Son of God. It is the news that rocked the world for jealous king and set him on a murderous rampage. It was the hope that illuminated the night sky with angelic visitors for some shepherds on a Judean hillside. It was the long-awaited event that triggered the trek of some eastern wise men who observed a star announcing the birth of a king. It was the fulfillment of ancient prophecies uttered by Jewish prophets hundreds of years earlier. It was the climactic event which allowed an old man to go to his grave in peace after years of anticipating the fulfillment of a promise that he would see the Lord’s salvation. It is the unbelievable irony that the One who created the heavens and the earth could find no suitable accommodations for His birth. It is the unfathomable humility of the Eternal Son placed in the position to be suckled and nurtured by a woman who depended on Him for her very existence. It is an amazing love story that brought God to earth in the form a little Jewish baby so He could redeem His fallen creation from the eternal consequences of sin. This is the raw, incredible essence of Christmas.

I am not suggesting that you abandon your family traditions. These things can be wonderful blessings. I am suggesting that in the midst of your celebrations, you take the time to unplug Christmas from the non-essential and reflect on the real essence of Christmas. Allow the stark reality of the incarnation to shake you. Let the shock and awe of Christmas set in to your soul. Be amazed at the mystery of God becoming man without compromising the essence of either. Be moved by the depth of a love which spared no expense to redeem sinners. Be challenged by the humility of a divine Son who laid aside the glories of heaven for a life of suffering punctuated by the cruelty of a cross.

Only when we unplug Christmas can we really celebrate it properly. This year take time to hear the real music of Christmas without all the extra effects of culture. You won’t be disappointed.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Reserve Your Spot in Heaven for $12.79

Fox News reported on a Seattle-based company which is selling reservations for heaven. The company sells a travel kit which offers the "chance to enjoy your sin-filled life" without consequence while lowering the "risk of eternal damnation." The company is open about the fact that these are intended to be gag gifts. Since they began their online offerings, traffic has increased to a thousand visitors each day.

Though I believe this kind of humor is in poor taste, it does raise some interesting questions about our views of heaven and how a person gets there. Sadly, the way the gospel is represented in some circles renders results not much different from the company's tongue-in-cheek promise. I fear that many people who "prayed the prayer" or "walked the aisle" have an understanding of the gospel that promises, like the heavenly reservation brochure, the chance to enjoy a sin-filled life while lowering the risk of eternal damnation. To them the gospel is not much more than a fire insurance policy.

A biblical understanding of conversion must include more than just a formulaic "sinners prayer" or a physical act like walking an aisle or raising a hand. When our theology erodes to the point where such things are associated with true conversion, we find ourselves producing converts whose faith is misdirected. Rather than trusting in Christ, they are trusting in their "decision." True conversion includes repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ. It involves an awareness of our lost and helpless condition as sinners. It involves turning away from sin and self and trusting in Jesus Christ who died for sinners and rose again.

In addition, we must emphasize the fact that though faith alone saves, the faith that saves is never alone. It is always accompanied by works which give evidence of a changed life. To present a gospel which promises people a reservation in heaven without the evidence of a changed life is to present a false gospel. This is not salvation by works. It is merely emphasizing what the New Testament emphasizes about the life-changing results of true saving faith.

In 1 John 5:13, we read "These things have I written to you who believe on the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life." This verse is often quoted to emphasize that we may have assurance of salvation. Someone will say, "look, John said we may know we have eternal life if we believe." Fair enough. But don't forget the "these things" he mentions in the first phrase. The things he refers to there are the frequent tests presented throughout his letter intended to cause his readers to evaluate the genuineness of their profession of faith. These tests are things like obedience to Christ's commands, loving your brother, a life of holiness, embracing the truth, etc. John is not saying that these things win salvation. Rather, he is saying that if one truly has saving faith in Jesus, these are the kinds of things that faith will produce. To borrow a phrase from James, faith without works is dead.

Can a person have a "reservation in heaven?" Absolutely. Recognize your helplessness as a sinner, turn from your sin, believe that Jesus Christ died for sinners and rose from the dead, trust Him to save you. He will save you and change your life from the inside out. You will have a new heart. Things will change. It won't all happen overnight, but it will happen. The genuineness of your new life will be evidenced through holy attitudes and actions.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Abandoning Satisfaction with Self for Satisfaction with the Savior

Horatius Bonar, the great Scottish Preacher, gives us some good counsel in an age when we are preoccupied with our own feelings. He tells us not to trust in our feelings but in Christ alone. This quote is from God's Way of Peace.

In short, you are not satisfied with any of your religious feelings; and it is well that you are not; for, if you were, you must have a very high idea of yourself, and a very low idea of what both law and gospel expect of you. You are, I doubt not, right in not being satisfied with the state of your feelings; but what has this to do with the great duty of immediately believing on the Son of God? If the gospel is nothing to you till you have got your feelings all set right, it is no gospel for the sinner at all. But this is its special fitness and glory, that it takes you up at the very point where you are at this moment, and brings you glad tidings in spite of your feelings being altogether wrong.

All these difficulties of yours have their root in the self esteem of our natures, which makes us refuse to be counted altogether sinners, and which shrinks from going to God save with some personal recommendation to make acceptance likely. Utter want of goodness is what we are slow to acknowledge. Give up these attempts to be satisfied with yourself in anything, great or small, faith, feeling, or action. The Holy Spirit's work in convincing you of sin, is to make you dissatisfied with yourself; and will you pursue a course which can only grieve him away? God can never be satisfied with you on account of any goodness about you; and why should you attempt to be satisfied with anything which will not satisfy him? There is but one thing with which he is entirely satisfied, - the person and work of his only begotten Son. It is with Him that he wants you to be satisfied, not with yourself. How much better would it be to take God's way at once, and be satisfied with Christ? Then would pardon and peace be given without delay. Then would the favor of God rest upon you. For God has declared, that whoever is satisfied with Christ shall find favor with him. His desire is that you should come to be as one with him in this great thing. He asks nothing of you, save this. But with nothing else than this will he be content, nor will he receive you on any other footing, save that of one who has come to be satisfied with Christ, and with what Christ has done.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Baptists and Catholics Together?

The Catholic News Agency recently reported on a meeting between the Baptist World Alliance and Pope Benedict XVI in Vatican City. This meeting represented the second round of talks between the two groups on the theme "The Word of God in the Life of the Church: Scripture, Tradition and Koinonia." The Pope hailed this meeting as an opportunity to explore historically disputed issues in the hope of reconciliation and unity.

Back in 2004, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) voted to cut ties with the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) because of doctrinal differences. Messengers agreed with the commission which recommended the separation because of a theological leftward drift in the BWA. The recent news story from Vatican City confirms that the SBC made the right choice.

No one should think that Rome is going to move toward evangelicals on the key issues. The very theology of Roman Catholicism makes this next to impossible. When key church councils such as Trent anathematize those who believe in sola scriptura and sola fide, it doesn't seem likely that much common ground is going to be found on the gospel. To reverse such decisions would be to admit that the magisterium of the church got it wrong. Such an admission is highly unlikely. From my vantage point, it is the evangelicals who are inching toward Rome when such ecumenical meetings render documents like Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994).

Some Southern Baptist leaders made a misstep on this issue when they signed the Evangelicals and Catholics Together accord back in 1994. Such documents flow from good intentions. We want to present a solid front on social ills. We want to join hands to speak out against abortion and gay marriage and the like. However, this kind of "togetherness" serves to cloud the deep divide between evangelicals (including the SBC) and Roman Catholics on the nature of the gospel itself. Such blurring of lines is not healthy.

Jesus did pray in John 17 that all His followers would be one. I don't think, however, that Jesus would have us surrender the very gospel itself in pursuit of that oneness. In that same prayer, Jesus prayed, "sanctify them with Your truth, Your word is truth." I am grateful that the SBC saw this kind of thing on the horizon and made the decision to cut ties with the BWA.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Hank Kimball School of Theology

Phil Johnson has written a fabulous post on the issue of uncertainty among many emerging church leaders like Brian McLaren. Phil says,

In other words, Emerging religion has canonized doubt. And—let's be candid here—many who say they prefer the label "missional" are making the very same mistake. In fact, even in supposedly conservative and fundamentalist venues where "Truth and Certainty" are formally affirmed, you'll find no shortage of Christian leaders willing to palliate their supposed "convictions" almost to death in order to sound more "relevant" to postmoderns. The result has been a dearth of vigorous theological conviction which makes the whole drift instantly irrelevant—because it's nothing but a thoughtless echo of what most of the world already believes (or disbelieves) about the knowability of objective truth anyway.

The emerging conversation has become the Hank Kimball of theological discourse. Remember Hank Kimball from the TV show Green Acres? He was the county agent who never could make up his mind. He would say things like, "Nice day isn't it? Well, not that nice if you consider..." Hank was always qualifying, self-correcting, and equivocating on things to the point of being ridiculous. He never could seem to make up his mind on anything. That kind of wishy-washy approach to spiritual things is not healthy.

Many of the most visible leaders of the Emerging Church movement (McLaren, Pagitt, Jones) talk a great deal about humility in theological discussion. Humility is one of the cardinal virtues of the movement, presumably because we cannot know things with certainty. If we cannot know with certainty, it is arrogant for us to speak as if we can. Therefore, we need to have proper humility.

Is there anything that can be certainly known about God? If so, what is the source of such knowledge? I would answer that there are things that can be certainly known about God and this knowledge comes from His Self-revelation in the pages of Scripture. We need not equivocate on such things which are abundantly clear in His Word. Granted, not all doctrines have equal clarity. But the things which have historically defined Christianity are quite clear. To equivocate on such doctrines is not humble but harmful.

I would be the first to admit that we do not have exhaustive knowledge of the mind of God. We cannot speak with absolute certainty on everything. But it does not follow that we cannot speak with absolute certainty on anything. If God has certainly revealed Himself and His mind to us in Scripture on some things, then it smacks of arrogance to undermine these certainties under the cloak of humility.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Romney, Mormonism, and the White House

Like many of you, I have been hearing and reading a lot about Mitt Romney's speech on his faith and his politics. It is indeed an interesting subject. I did not hear the speech (other than a few sound bites on TV). My purpose in this post is not to address the speech per se. Rather, I want to address the question of whether a Mormon makes a good candidate for President. Though we don't wax political here very often, I am going to through caution to the wind and share some of my opinions.

One of the issues being addressed is whether Mormonism should be considered a Christian religion. I answer emphatically no. I was pleased, by the way, to hear that Dr. Richard Land, the President of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission said as much on national TV. Mormons indeed use many of the same terms Christians use. However, the actual theology behind these terms is anything but historic Christianity. Mormonism redefines practically everything Christianity holds sacred including the Person and Work of Christ, the nature of God as Triune, the atonement, Scripture...need I go on? In spite of a huge PR campaign seeking to make Mormonism seem mainstream, it is a cult. It is not accurate in my opinion to consider Romney a Christian.

Though I would certainly prefer a President who is an evangelical Christian, I do not consider this to be an inviolable prerequisite for a President. From a policy standpoint, a Romney presidency would be much more attractive to me, though he is a Mormon, than say a Clinton presidency (either one) though they claim to be Christians (one even Southern Baptist). In my opinion, Romney's policies would be a closer reflection of my evangelical convictions on political issues than would either of the Clintons, despite the difference in formal religious affiliation.

When considering a presidential candidate, personal character, policy, experience, and even electability come into play. Religion definitely has a major influence on these issues, as it should. If given a choice between two candidates with similar qualifications one being a Mormon and the other an evangelical, I would choose the evangelical every time. However, if the choice comes down to a Mormon candidate who more closely reflects traditional, Judeo-Christian values and policies versus a professing Christian whose policies compromise these values, I would choose the candidate whose values and policies more closely align with my own.

Of course it is far too early to be making any judgments about whether Romney will be the candidate. I certainly am not endorsing Romney at this point in the game. There are better candidates still alive in the race at this point, in my opinion. As followers of Christ, we must continue to pray for the election, be informed on the issues, and vote our consciences.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Thinking About Leaving Your Church?

There are lots of places where you can get good counsel about finding a church. What about leaving a church? There isn't much available on this issue. Over at New Attitude, they posted some sound advice from Mark Dever. Dever has written some excellent things on ecclesiology in recent years. This advice comes from a book called What Is a Healthy Church?

As a pastor, I appreciate this advice. Many churches have revolving doors these days. If we take seriously the doctrine of the church, we need to exercise care not only in finding a church but, if the time comes, when we leave one as well. If you are looking for a biblically sound alternative to some of the more man-centered models for church, check out Dever's book The Deliberate Church. In addition, you can find some excellent resources on a biblical model for church at IX Marks Ministries.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mohler on The Golden Compass

Dr. Al Mohler has written a review on the upcoming and controversial film The Golden Compass. This review is a must-read for anyone wanting to get a solid assessment of the film and the storyline of the series of books from which it is taken. Mohler offers some good insights on what should be the Christian response to the film.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Where Liberalism Leads

If you want to see a concrete example of where liberalism leads Baptist churches, read this article from the Dallas Morning News. The article speaks for itself. Every time I read one of these types of stories, I thank God for His providence in raising up a generation of Baptist leaders who recognized the slippery slope we were on and led our denomination to stand firm for Scripture.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I'm Still Here

For those of you who like to read my musings from time to time, I thought I should offer an explanation for why I have posted nothing for the last eight days. Our family left on Thanksgiving Day and traveled to Sooner Land for some time with my parents and siblings. It was a great time of fellowship. However, on Friday after Thanksgiving, my son Jared got very sick. After we returned on Saturday, he got sicker. We took him to the ER and he has been hospitalized since. He had pneumonitis (inflammation of the lungs) and was coughing up blood. Tests have been run and we are still awaiting a specific diagnosis.

We are hopeful that he will be released today. We thank God for His mercy and the love of our families, including our great church family at Country Acres Baptist Church. I hope to be back blogging on a regular basis soon.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Therapy or Theology? Thoughts on Conversion

Christine Rosen has written a thought-provoking piece on modern conversion stories. Here are some snippets to whet your appetite. You should read the whole article.

So who are the other writers manning the ramparts against atheism while espousing their new devotion to Christ? They are typically sappy types armed mostly with therapeutic bromides.

But the most enduring conversion stories in modern times don't offer tales of perky piety triumphing over personal malaise. They are far more ambiguous and attentive to the challenges of living a spiritual life in a secular world.

The Road to Damascus is paved with theology not therapy.

Of course God sometimes uses personal crises, family tragedies, and setbacks to awaken sinners to their spiritual bankruptcy. Genuine faith in Christ which is rooted in real biblical truth can arise from such struggles. However, it is all too common in our day to see people looking at Jesus as a coping mechanism to deal with emotional trauma instead of a Savior to deal with sin.

When one looks at the apostolic preaching of the gospel, it is clear that the primary problem is the plight of the sinner in relationship to a holy God. In other words, man has violated God's holy law and is in danger of God's holy wrath. These are theological categories, not therapeutic ones. Until this primary problem is resolved, it matters little how the Christian faith might improve ones marriage or ability to deal with stress in the workplace, etc. To borrow a phrase from Jesus, what does it profit a man if he have a great marriage, great kids, a great job, or great self-image if he lose his eternal soul.

I certainly would not deny the fact that Christianity has implications for all aspects of life. The gospel changes everything. But to suggest that the gospel is just a path to your best life now is a gross distortion of what the New Testament actually teaches about conversion.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Willow Creek, Youth Specialties, and Postmodernism

Phil Johnson has posted this insightful article about the recent admissions of Willow Creek. It appears that the findings of the Willow Creek study are going to result in some changes. However, those changes seem to be going in the wrong direction. In addition, Phil comments on the questionable alliance of Youth Specialties with some of the postmodern Emergent style ministries.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Dever on the Measure of Ministry Success

Dr. Mark Dever recently spoke at a forum at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Baptist Press reported on the forum. There are some excellent points made by Dever. Below is what he said about success in the ministry.

"The problem with the seeker-sensitive model, emerging church model and even the traditional model that say, 'Get as many people into a room as possible and share the Gospel with them,' is that they view success in light of visible fruit," he said. "All three of these approaches say, 'Change your techniques and let's get some numbers.'"Instead of being directed by [visible] success, we should be directed by faithfulness. We should say, 'If the Lord doesn't like our product, we will change the product.' We shouldn't take the idea that if we don't have X number of conversions in our church, then we must be doing something wrong. I am glad Jeremiah didn't think that. And I am glad that Jesus Christ didn't think that. Let us remember that we are following the One who was crucified as a revolutionary."

Thank you Dr. Dever for this important reminder of how success in ministry should be truly measured.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Great Book about Missions

Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn't. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.

With those words, John Piper begins the book Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions. Like so much of what Piper writes, the opening words make us look at missions from a different angle than what we are accustomed to. The opening paragraph grabs hold of you and piques your interest. The remainder of the book doesn't disappoint. It is interesting and challenging through and through.

The opening chapter makes the case for the opening statement. Missions is the work of the church in bringing the gospel to all peoples so that they can become worshipers of the one true God through Jesus Christ. Missions is God's ordained method for carrying the gospel to the hidden peoples of the world so they too may see and savor the supremacy of God and become worshipers.

Chapter two focuses on the role of prayer in missions. Piper builds upon the idea that life is war. He states, "Prayer is primarily a wartime walkie-talkie for the mission of the church as it advances against the powers of darkness and unbelief. It is not surprising that prayer malfunctions when we try to make it a domestic intercom to call upstairs for more comforts in the den." Prayer recognizes the supremacy of God as the all-sufficient supply for the missionary task.

In the third chapter, Piper discusses the role of suffering in missions. He makes the case that the suffering associated with missions demonstrates the supreme worth of God. When people suffer in pursuit of the mission task, they show the value of God by what they are willing to suffer for His glory. Drawing upon the historical examples of Henry Martyn, Charles Simeon, John Paton, Raymond Lull and others, Piper shows how their suffering in the mission task demonstrated the glory of God. God appoints this suffering for His glory and our good.

Piper takes up a controversial issue in chapter four. He argues that conscious faith in Christ is absolutely necessary for salvation. Issues such as universalism, annihilationism, and pluralism are met head-on in this discussion. Piper argues exegetically for the existence of eternal, conscious punishment in hell. He argues for the necessity of Christ's atoning work. He argues for the necessity of conscious faith in Christ as the object of saving faith. Since Jesus came to earth, died on the cross, and rose again God now sets Him forth as the unique object of saving faith. To deny this truth is to "cut a nerve in missionary motivation."

How is the missionary task defined? Geographically? Ethnically? These questions are the focus of chapter five. Piper argues from extensive biblical exegesis that the missionary task is defined in terms of peoples. The use of the term "nations" indicates that the missionary task in not primarily geographic but ethnic in nature. God has determined to save individuals from every "tribe, language, people, and nation (Rev. 5:9)." These are ethnic and cultural terms rather than geographical terms. There is extensive discussion about the nature of a people group. Piper also concludes that the diversity of the nations serves to magnify the glory of God in salvation.

Chapter six deals with the compassion of the missionary in reaching the nations. Piper draws upon Jonathan Edwards to demonstrate the the supremacy of God and compassion for people are not competing but complementary goals. If satisfaction in Christ is the ultimate end of life (worship), then the most compassionate thing we can do is help others realize the glory of Christ and find their joy in Him.

The final chapter of the book deals with the issue of the inward nature of worship. When Piper says that God's goal in missions to have worshipers among all peoples, this does not imply outward form but inward affection. Piper argues that the New Testament downplays outward form and elevates inward affection. Worship is no longer attached to a place. It is the inward worship of the Person of Christ. This frees worship from being identified with any specific cultural expression or tradition. The peoples worship God outwardly with a variety of forms. The essence is the same inwardly.

I am a "johnny-come-lately" to this book. It was originally published in 1993. I read the updated 2003 version. I'm sorry I waited so long. It is a superb book which will whet your appetite for both God and missions. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Preachers Pledge

The folks over at are sponsoring a Preachers Pledge Campaign. Here is the pledge they are asking preachers to endorse.

I will make the Bible my primary resource in
sermon preparation and preaching.

I may use other resources such as commentaries and web sites to enhance, not replace, my personal interaction with Scripture.

As I study I will strive to accurately understand and honestly apply God's Word, allowing Him to uniquely proclaim His truth in a relevant way through me.
I have mixed feelings about the Preachers Pledge. One one hand, I certainly agree with the statement. Every preacher ought to agree with these things as a bare minimum. I applaud for reminding preachers of their primary responsibility to wrestle with the text of Scripture, prepare their own sermons, and preach those sermons to apply God's Word to their listeners.
On the other hand, it is sad that today's preachers are in such need of this reminder. I have posted in the past about the sermon plagiarism problems among preachers today. There are those who would suggest that preachers ought to preach the sermons of other, more gifted, preachers than themselves. One advocate of this approach even suggested that a preacher should not waste his time in study when he could use the sermon of a well-known minister who has proven his effectiveness in the pulpit. The state of preaching in some circles today is rather anemic.
Ironically, the Preachers Pledge is coming from a site which hosts a huge database of sermons from preachers all over the world. I think I even have a couple of sermons posted there. This is not wrong in itself. Many preachers publish their material as commentaries or books to be utilized by others in their study. Yet, it is dangerous ground. It is easy to become dependent on the thinking and struggle of others without thinking and struggling yourself. Such a short-cut approach is damaging to both the sermon and the preacher.
In a culture that is so accustomed to sound bites and summaries, there is a great temptation for preachers to take a "cliffs notes" approach to to preaching. We want to shorten the preparation process and snatch bites of usable material from others. We are tempted to shorten the sermon itself because we have convinced ourselves that people won't listen more than 20 minutes. We enthrone the impatience of spiritually immature listeners by catering to their shallowness. The problem is that anemic preaching produces anemic Christians and anemic churches. I don't mean that the length of the sermon is the only issue. I would rather hear a short bad sermon than a long one. I mean that our approach to preaching has been more shaped by cultural fancy than biblical urgency. I happen to believe that timely preaching can engage both the head and the heart without being shallow, cliched, and stunted.
Preaching really should involve a pledge. First and most importantly, it is a pledge to God to handle His Word with care and urgency as we declare the whole counsel of God. Then, it is a pledge to the congregation to feed their souls with the meat of the Word so they will grow and mature in Christ. It is a pledge to the lost that our preaching will be gospel-oriented so that the good news of Christ will be clear. It is a pledge to ourselves that we will not short-change the process of sermon preparation and delivery.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Reformation Day

As most of you know, this is an important day in church history. October 31, 1517 marks the formal beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On this day in 1517, a monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses on the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg. These 95 statements were being advertised for debate among Luther's colleagues among the university faculty and clergy. Little did Luther know what a firestorm he would start with this seemingly small spark.

All who consider themselves evangelical Christians owe much to the Reformation. Luther and those who followed him (and some who preceded him like Wycliffe and Huss) led a movement which resulted in the recovery of the biblical gospel. In the providence of God, this 16th century movement still casts its light into the 21st century. Thank God for the men and women who were willing to give their very lives for the truth of the gospel.

This article by Michael Horton, though written in 1994, is a good synopsis of the basics of reformation theology and how why that theology is still important for us today.

Methodist Judicial Council Affirms Transgender Pastor

The Methodist Judicial Council has upheld the decision that Rev. Drew Phoenix, formerly Rev. Ann Gordon, may continue to serve as pastor of the St. John's United Methodist Church in Baltimore. Rev. Phoenix praised the decision as a sign that the church "will open the doors further to gay men and lesbian women." The United Methodist Book of Discipline bars non celibate gay and lesbian persons from serving as clergy. However, it does not address the issue of transgender persons.

This decision is another indication of how mainline churches are forming policy more on cultural accommodation than biblical authority. As if ordaining female pastors was not progressive enough, now the UMC is testing the waters of installing transgender pastors. Is it really a good idea for the church to give its imprimatur to transgender ministers? Rather than helping people sort out the rampant sexual confusion which characterizes our society, won't this further contribute to it?

The whole idea of changing genders questions the wisdom and sovereignty of God. Genesis tells us that God created man in his own image, "male and female He created them (Gen. 1:27)." Our gender is something God ordains and creates. This is fundamental to our personal identity. To change that gender is to introduce the idea that somehow God "got it wrong" in our case. Some transgender persons would suggest that they were "a man trapped in a woman's body" or vice versa. But this only suggests that somehow God made a mistake in assigning gender to someone.

Maleness and femaleness were both created by God and both reflect the image of God. However, God did not create male-females or female-males. There is no hybrid sexuality indicated in the biblical model of creation. The fact that God goes on to establish well-defined roles in association with maleness and femaleness clearly indicates gender clarity, not gender confusion. In addition, the Bible demonstrates the sinfulness of abandoning these clearly defined gender roles when it condemns homosexuality and lesbianism (Romans 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-10).

Of course the church should seek to love and minister to those who may experience gender confusion. The church should seek to counsel them biblically and patiently walk with them through these bouts of emotional and spiritual turmoil. The church should seek to help such persons understand and embrace who God made them to be. Admittedly, this can be a difficult and painful process.

Christians should lament the fact that sin twists and distorts that which God creates to be good. The current move to embrace transgender pastors is the spiritual equivalent to telling someone to speed up when the bridge is out. The fact that people in our society are questioning and sometimes changing their gender is not a sign of progress. Biblically speaking, it is a sign that the effects of sin are advancing. The task of the church is not to aid that advance but to slow it by the loving but firm adherence to a biblical model of human sexuality.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Goal of the Cross

This video from John Piper deals with the blasphemous way Steve Chalke describes the atoning work of Christ on the cross. This is a powerful word from one of our most passionate pastor-scholars in evangelicalism today. It gets at the heart of what is wrong with some of the theology of the prominent Emergent leaders like Chalke and MacLaren who endorses Chalke's book (The Lost Message of Jesus). Chalke is the one who refers to the penal-substitution view of the atonement as "cosmic child abuse."

Monday, October 29, 2007

Let the Bald Men Say "Amen!"

Carl Trueman over at Reformation 21 has written a piece that is both hilarious and extremely insightful. As one of those middle-aged ministers who reflects the sanctuary lights from my own dome, I found it to be brilliant! Here's a sample:

A hairstyle which tries to hide the ageing process is one thing, ridiculous but harmless; a theological agenda which mimics the world’s obsession with locating wisdom in the very sector of society with least experience of, and perspective on, everything is far more serious and potentially damaging. Let’s hope that the hairstyles of the forty-something clergy with soul patches are not sacramental: outward signs of inward spiritual realities. As to my brothers who are follicle-challenged but who faithfully study, pray and preach the gospel week by week, Be bald, be strong, for the Lord your God is with you.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Not All "Emergents" Are Equal

In September, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary sponsored a conference called Convergence. This conference focused on the emergent movement within the evangelical church. Mark Driscoll was one of the keynote speakers. Driscoll is pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Seattle. He is considered to be part of the movement known as the Emerging Church.

Driscoll's address at the conference is important for understanding that not all Emergents are the same. In his message, he comes head-on at people like MacLaren, Padgitt, and Bell. He demonstrates from their own writings and his personal experience of them how far afield these men have gone. Driscoll minces no words in denouncing the extreme and unbiblical views of the most high-profile Emergent leaders.

I am no apologist for the Emerging Church. However, this is an important reminder that not all who would identify in some way with Emergent are equal. We must listen carefully to their views and be discerning.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Building Bridges Conference a Hopeful Sign

I received my latest issue of the LifeWay publication Facts and Trends. On pages 44-45 there is an article about an upcoming conference at Ridgecrest Conference Center. The conference is co-sponsored by Founders Ministries and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. It is called Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism. The list of speakers is impressive (Mohler, Akin, Ascol, Baucham, Nettles, Stetzer, Merritt, and more).

Dr. Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Seminary says, "We hope this conference will demonstrate how important theological issues can be discussed with grace, integrity, and love." Dr. Tom Ascol, Director of Founders Ministries comments, "We intend to follow the example of those who have gone before us by rediscovering the spiritual vitality that comes from humble, honest theological dialogue." Brad Waggoner of LifeWay Research states, "Anytime Christians can come together - especially those within the same 'family' -and seek deeper biblical understanding, the entire body of Christ benefits."

These are very hopeful comments for the SBC. Rather than emotionally driven caricatures and misinformation which often accompanies both sides of this discussion, this conference promises to be a thoughtful theological dialogue. Regardless of one's personal position on the issue of Calvinism, this kind of dialogue between theologians and pastors in the SBC is healthy. These two streams of influence (calvinistic and arminian) have been present in Baptist life virtually from the beginning of Baptist life. It will be good to see proponents of both views come together for greater understanding.

I have especially appreciated the balance and graciousness represented by Dr. Akin regarding this issue. Read this to see what I mean. Men like Dr. Akin give me hope that such issues can be discussed with honesty, depth, and civility rather than sound bites and personal attacks. Kudos to LifeWay for taking a risk like this to provide a civil and thoughtful atmosphere for this kind of important discussion rather than the theological equivalent of WWE.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Pastors Need a Single-Minded Occupation with God

I have been revisiting some talks on great men of church history which were given by John Piper. The collection of talks is called Men of Whom the World Was Not Worthy. These talks were given at the Bethlehem Pastors Conference over the years.

Most recently I have been listening to the talk on Jonathan Edwards called The Pastor as Theologian. Piper describes the mindset of Edwards as "God-entranced" and "God-besotted." Though most well-known for his prodigious theological intellect and writings, Edwards was a pastor or a missionary with pastoral duties all his life. He was not a professional theologian but a pastoral theologian. As such, Piper suggests that Edwards is an example to pastors.

Piper urges pastors to be radically single-minded in their labors to know God:

How many people in your churches do you know that are laboring to know God, who are striving earnestly in study and prayer to enlarge their vision of God. Precious few. Well then, what will become of our churches if we the pastors, who are charged with knowing and unfolding the whole counsel of God, shift into neutral, quit reading and studying and writing, and take on more hobbies and watch more television?

If the single-minded occupation with these things is left to a few academic theologians in the colleges and seminaries, while pastors all become technicians and managers and organizers, there may be superficial success for a while, as Americans get excited about one program or the other, but in the long run the gains will prove shallow and weak, especially in the day of trial.

That last statement caught my attention, especially in light of the discussions about the findings from Willow Creek. Successes which are tied to programs oriented around people are bound to be fleeting. Lasting change and spiritual growth take place when people have their hearts and minds lifted Godward to see and know God through the Scriptures. Their spirituality is durable when it is rooted in a vision of a glorious, majestic, sovereign, holy, gracious, loving God. This is the pastor's great calling - to impart that vision to the people through his personal life and his ministry.

As a pastor for the last twenty years, I have seen the lop-sided emphasis on technique, managerial models, and organizational paradigms. These concerns have inundated the churches. In my lifetime the focus of pastoral ministry has radically shifted away from the biblical shepherd and toward the corporate CEO. This shift in focus demonstrates how man-centered the ministry has become.

Piper's call is for pastors to embrace a radically God-centered ministry like that of Edwards. This call is needed in our day. It is needed in my life. I see hopeful signs that many young pastors are hearing and heeding that call.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Lessons From Willow Creek

I read an interesting blog post over at Out of Ur about some recent findings regarding Willow Creek Church. They conducted some multi-year research to discover the quality of their ministry. Some of their discoveries turned out to be a bit surprising. Bill Hybels referred to these discoveries as “earth shaking,” “ground breaking,” and “mind blowing.” Hybels comments,

We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.

These are revealing words indeed coming from one of America's most influential and imitated pastors.

Greg Hawkins, Executive Pastor at Willow Creek, adds these revealing comments about the heavily program oriented emphasis which has characterized their ministry:

Increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does NOT predict whether they love God more or they love people more.

What these two pastors are telling us is that programs alone do not make disciples. Spiritual disciplines are an indispensable factor in discipleship. People who attend programs but do not have a vital, engaging relationship with Christ which is rooted in Scripture are not going to show the signs of genuine spiritual growth. Going to a restaurant does not make me a chef. Sitting in a garage does not make me a mechanic. There must be some personal engagement with the disciplines in order for me to grow in any field. The same is true with our faith.

Certainly, Willow Creek is not the only church or church paradigm which struggles with the issues their researched uncovered. Many of us see the propensity for people who come to church to have a sort of surrogate spirituality. Some believers get no more spiritual food than what they can glean from a worship service or a Sunday School class. The teacher or the pastor does all the studying, reading, and thinking and the class/congregation just soaks it in. When hard times come along, there is little real spiritual substance to help them persevere. Sometimes the pastors and teachers are to blame for making their people so dependent on them.

This is not to suggest that worship services, classes, Bible studies and such "programs" are wrong or unimportant. They are necessary and essential. But these alone are not sufficient to sustain true discipleship. At the same time we must be teaching and exhorting people to "self-feed" as Hybels put it. They must learn to read, pray, think, discern, and act in a biblically-informed, Christ-centered way.

Those who know me well know that I have never been a big fan of the Willow Creek model for church. However, I do respect the fact that Hybels and Willow Creek have the courage to evaluate what they are doing and pursue change when it is necessary. All churches can learn from this kind of self-evaluation. I can only hope that those who look to them for leadership will be influenced in a positive way by these revelations.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Continuing on the Subject of Preaching...

Dan over at Team Pyro posted about this. I was both amused and saddened. It speaks for itself.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

While We're on the Subject of Preaching...

Guess who was on 60 Minutes last week? Joel Osteen was interviewed about his mega-ministry and his new book Become a Better You. Osteen was referred to as America's most popular preacher and has been called the most influential Christian in the country. No one can dispute his success. His congregation bought a 16,000 seat basketball arena for goodness sakes. His church brings in $43 million each year from offerings and another $30 million in TV revenues. Talk about church growth.

Undisputed success aside, America's most popular preacher isn't really a preacher at all. He is a motivational speaker. The only real difference between Osteen and Dr. Phil is that Osteen uses a few Bible words. Osteen likes to view himself as a "life coach" and a "motivator." As the following segment from the interview demonstrates, Osteen's message is not what you would call biblically saturated.

"To become a better you, you must be positive towards yourself, develop better relationships, embrace the place where you are. Not one mention of God in that. Not one mention of Jesus Christ in that," Pitts remarks.

"That's just my message. There is scripture in there that backs it all up. But I feel like, Byron, I'm called to help people…how do we walk out the Christian life? How do we live it? And these are principles that can help you. I mean, there’s a lot better people qualified to say, 'Here’s a book that going to explain the scriptures to you.' I don’t think that’s my gifting," Osteen says.

Theologian Michael Horton was also interviewed as part of the piece on 60 Minutes. Horton comments:

"I think it’s a cotton candy gospel...His core message is God is nice, you’re nice, be nice. It's sort of a, if it were a form of music, I think it would be easy listening. He uses the Bible like a fortune cookie. 'This is what’s gonna happen for you. There’s gonna be a windfall in your life tomorrow.' The Bible's not meant to be read that way."

The preaching at Lakewood Church begins with an interesting ritual. Osteen stands before his congregation and begins the service by having everyone hold up their Bible and repeat this creed:

This is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I have what it says I have. I can do what it says I can do. Today I will be taught the Word of God. I boldly confess my mind is alert, my heart is receptive. I will never be the same. I am about to receive the incorruptible, indestructible, ever-living seed of the Word of God. I will never be the same. Never, never, never. I will never be the same. In Jesus name. Amen.

Ironically, it is the Bible that is painfully absent from his sermons and his books. His new book which is supposedly built on biblical principles has only 66 mentions of Scripture in 380 pages. His sermons are motivational talks which contain no meaningful exegesis of the biblical text. The enthusiastic declaration of his congregation that "today I will be taught the Word of God" rings rather hollow upon any careful examination of his messages.

Osteen's ministry embodies much of what is wrong with preaching in our times. It is driven more by the concerns of the audience than the fear of God. It is full of cute stories, jokes, and heart-tugging anecdotes but empty of an authoritatively presented handling of the text of Scripture. It is woefully man-centered, moralistic, and void of the gospel.

Friday, October 12, 2007

What About Preaching?

Dr. Al Mohler has an excellent post on his blog about the importance of preaching. Preaching is a hot topic today. One of the hot topics of debate is the nature of preaching as monologue or dialogue. Some quotes from a paper by Kenton Anderson reveal the crux of this debate.

This approach is being championed within the “emerging church” as a way to be more authentic in the preaching that we offer. In contrast to the “speaching” practiced by traditional preachers, these emergent preachers are looking for more of a relational approach that engages the listener in a process of sermon co-creation (Pagitt 2005, 22). Doug Pagitt, for example, is championing something he calls “progressional dialogue” as the way of the future for preaching.

It works like this: I say something that causes another person to think something she hadn’t thought before. In response she says something that causes a third person to make a comment he wouldn’t normally have made without the benefit of a second person’s statement. In turn I think something I wouldn’t have thought without hearing the comments made by the other two. So no we’ve all ended up in a place we couldn’t have come to without the input we received from each other. In a real way the conversation has progressed (Pagitt 2005, 24-25).

These quotes give you a sense about how radically different some people conceive the practice of preaching these days. Proponents of dialogue preaching would suggest that the traditional form of proclamation is "popish" and puts the emphasis on the preacher. The one-way form of communication modeled in traditional preaching is understood as shutting the listener/audience out of the loop. The sermon, says the dialogue preacher, belongs to the people, not the preacher. It seems to me that one important Person is left out of this discussion. Preaching is not primarily about the preacher or the audience. It is about God.

I would suggest that the sermon belongs to God first and foremost. True preaching is not the communication of the preacher's opinions, but the Word of God. The preacher is to be a spokesman for God. The point of his sermon must be the point of the text of Scripture. When true preaching occurs, the people are hearing the Word of God communicated by the man of God. The Bible is not a wax nose to be shaped by either the preacher or the audience. It is to be faithfully studied and proclaimed.

In addition, the most important audience in preaching is God Himself. With all due respect to George Barna, the audience is not sovereign, God is. The preacher must labor to please God first in his preaching. This is done by faithful preparation and delivery of biblical sermons which communicate the meaning of the text and apply that text to the lives of the listeners. It matters very little if the congregation is pleased with the sermon if God is displeased. If the sermon connects with all the felt needs of the audience but fails to faithfully transmit the meaning of the biblical text, it is no sermon at all.

The authority in preaching does not come first from the preacher or his audience. It comes from God. Any method of preaching that diminishes the authority of Scripture or veils the authority and grandeur of God who inspired Scripture fails in its task.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

What Is Orthodoxy?

The New Attitude blog has a two part post from Mark Dever on the subject of defining orthodoxy. It is well worth reading. This has become an important issue in our day because of the competing views of orthodoxy between the Emerging Church and historical evangelicalism.

Part One

Part Two

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Year of Living Biblically?

A.J. Jacobs decided he would spend a year following the Bible literally. He has written a book about his experience called The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Jacobs is an agnostic but wanted to be sure he wasn't missing something by not following the Bible. He had a spiritual advisory board made up of rabbis, priests, and ministers. As the article linked above states, this quest led Jacobs to do things like wearing white, wearing a robe and sandals, herding sheep, and even eating crickets.
Jacobs learned some things about himself while attempting to live "biblically." For instance, he was asked what his biggest challenge was in the quest for living by the Bible. He says, That'd be no coveting, no lying, no gossiping. They're little sins, but they're killers. My year made me realize just how many of these sins I committed every day. And refraining from them for a year was really hard but completely transforming. When asked about the biggest lesson learned in this process, Jacobs states,

Your behavior shapes your beliefs. If you act like a good person, you eventually become a better person. I wasn't allowed to gossip, so eventually I started to have fewer petty thoughts to gossip about. I had to help the less fortunate, so I started to become less self-absorbed. I am not Gandhi or Angelina Jolie, but I made some progress.

His experience reminds me of two very important biblical truths. First, by the law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:19-20; 7:7). As Mr. Jacobs points out, when you begin seeking to live by the biblical prohibitions against coveting, lying, and gossiping, you realize how often you covet, lie, and gossip. The law is like a bright light that reveals the darkness of our hearts and our behaviors. The law shows sin for all its ugliness and ungodliness.

Second, Jacobs' experience reminds me how often we turn to the law as the remedy for sin. As he stated, he felt the biggest lesson he learned was that acting like a good person helps you eventually become a better person. This is the age-old home remedy for sin. Do better. Keep the law. Become a better person by performing on a higher level. This was the very problem that Paul was dealing with in Romans 3.

The Bible tells us that the law can expose our sickness but it cannot heal it. To seek to deal with sin by keeping the law is a dead end. Human effort is a cul-de-sac. It is not a freeway. It ultimately goes nowhere. The harder we try, the more we realize that we can never live up to the perfection demanded by the law. God demands perfect righteousness, not better effort. This is why Paul tells us that "no flesh will be justified by the law" (Romans 3:20). The law is the X-Ray or the MRI. It is not the treatment.

We need the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ to break the iron chains of sin. The righteousness that God demands is not within us. It comes from outside of us. It comes from God himself through his Son Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-26). It is not earned by performance. It is received by faith. It is a righteousness received by faith on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ which paid the death penalty for our sins (Romans 3:25-27).

The irony in Mr. Jacobs' experience is that in his quest to live biblically, he misses the very heart of the Bible. The message of the Bible is not that we can please God by an improving grade in the class of obedience. The message of the Bible is that we are miserable failures at obedience. That is why God Himself came here in the Person of His only Son Jesus Christ to die for the disobedient, ungodly, and hopeless (Romans 5:6-8). When by faith we trust in Jesus Christ as our salvation because of His atoning death, we receive His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). God declares us righteous by faith in Jesus (Romans 3:24).

It is hardly right to characterize oneself as living "biblically" when the central message of the Bible is ignored. The religious people of Jesus' day prided themselves in studying and living by the Scriptures. Yet, Jesus rebuked them because they missed the primary point of those very Scriptures - Jesus Himself (John 5:39-40). To try and live biblically and ignore the message of salvation in Jesus Christ is an exercise in missing the point.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Only Jesus Can Satisfy Your Soul

Perhaps you remember an old song called Only Jesus Can Satisfy Your Soul. I read a passage from Henry Scougal's The Life of God in the Soul of Man that could be summarized by that song title. Scougal says:

First, I say, love must needs be miserable, and full of trouble and disquietude, when there is not worth and excellency enough in the object to answer the vastness of its capacity: so eager and violent a passion can not but fret and torment the spirit, when it finds not wherewith to satisfy its cravings; and, indeed, so large and unbounded its nature, that it must be extremely pinched and straitened, when confined to any creature: nothing below an infinite good can afford it room to stretch itself, and exert its vigor and activity. What is a little skin-deep beauty, or some small degrees of goodness, to match or satisfy a passion which was made for God; designed to embrace an infinite God?

If you read John Piper, you can easily see why Piper calls Scougal's book "remarkable." You can hear an echo of Scougal in Desiring God. What Scougal (and Piper) are insisting is that the only worthy goal of our love is God Himself. To place our ultimate affection on anything less than God is to frustrate the ultimate end for which that affection was created. Scougal speaks of how "pinched and straitened" our love is when it is set on a lesser object like human beauty or goodness. It is like putting a whale in your backyard pool and expecting him to exhaust his capacity to swim. Love set on something less than God will never find its true depth or capacity.

Is this not the reason why so many people are frustrated by their "loves." Like Solomon the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, we find ourselves pursuing things that bring no lasting fulfillment. We pour ourselves and our affections into possessions, sex, career, liesure, education, and a plethora of other things. Yet, in the end we find it is like "chasing the wind." We find no ultimate fulfillment in these things. Though we exhaust them, they leave us wanting more.

Not so with Jesus. Since He is an infinite Person, our love will never find its end when fixed upon Him. Our soul can be satisfied to the point where we think it cannot be any more happy. Then, we find ever-increasing happiness and joy in Jesus because our capacity for love cannot be exhausted since we cannot exhaust His limitless excellency. The whale leaves the pool for the vast ocean.

Of course, there is a proper sense in which we love our spouses, our children, our church, our country, our work, art, music, and other lesser objects. Yet our love for these things must be a subset of our love for Jesus. Augustine said, "He loves Thee too little who loves anything with Thee that he does not love for Thy sake." In other words, it is OK to love other things for the sake of and in connection with our love for Jesus. But Jesus remains our first and primary love. All else which we love is loved for His glory alone.

Though the sentences are long and the language lofty, I recommend Scougal to you. It is no wonder that the likes of George Whitefield and John Piper have been moved by it. The spiritual life described in its pages will whet your appetite for Christ.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Good Words Gone Bad

In my study of Ephesians 5 this week I came upon a very interesting word. It is the Greek term eutrapelia. It is translated in Ephesians 5:4 as "coarse jesting." The word literally means "well turned" and was used in the ancient world to refer to a ready wit in conversation. It described the skill of lively utilization of language to spice up conversation. We might say, "he knows how to turn a phrase" or "he's a real wordsmith." This term is almost always used in a positive sense.

However, in the context of Ephesians 5, Paul employs eutrapelia to refer to vulgar talk, obscene conversation. It is found in a triplet of terms including filthiness, foolish talking, and coarse jesting. The idea is that verbal skills which may be employed in a "well-turned" phrase for the enjoyment of lively conversation can be turned in a sinful, obscene direction. This kind of speech would include things like innuendo, hateful sarcasm, and double entendre in which normally acceptable phrases are given vulgar meanings.

As I reflect on this idea, it strikes me that much of what we call "entertainment" today is built on the principle of eutrapelia. How often do we hear this kind of double meaning utilized in sexually suggestive language in sitcoms or improv shows? One can hardly watch an episode of popular TV shows without encountering it. The entertainment industry rewards writers who are "witty" enough to come up with this sort of "engaging" comedy. From a biblical perspective it is a case of good language skills employed for the indulgence of sinful, dishonoring conversation.

How often do we find ourselves engaging in this sort of speech? Probably more than we know if we took the time to closely evaluate our words. The exhortations of Paul on this subject come in the context of the call to live a life worthy of Jesus Christ. We are reminded that this sort of language is "old man" kind of stuff. It is characteristic of the "sons of disobedience" and those who live in "darkness." Believers, on the other hand, are to put on the "new man" and live in the "light."

Chrysostom spoke of eutrapelia as "graceless grace." In other words, the gift of being able to turn a phrase and skillfully weave words together in a pleasing fashion can be utilized in way which is graceless and base. By all means, learn to speak and write well. By all means be a lively conversation partner. Spice up your conversations with great story telling and interesting phrases. But never employ your language skills to dishonor Jesus Christ by being vulgar and obscene. To take this a step further, be careful not to find pleasure in others who practice this sort of speech. We ought never to find humor or pleasure in something that elicits the wrath of God upon those who practice such things (Eph. 5:5-6).

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Pagitt, MacArthur, and Yoga

OK. I admit that the title of this post probably throws some of you. What do Pagitt, MacArthur, and Yoga have to do with each other (or at least MacArthur and Yoga). Well, over at Pulpit Magazine there is a transcript from a news interview which included Pagitt and MacArthur giving their takes on yoga. I'll let you guess who is for it and who is against it.

I have been doing a bit of study on world religions over the past few weeks. When I looked at Hinduism, I discovered that the term yoga actually refers to several paths which Hinduism suggests as ways to pursue moksha (nirvana, enlightenment). Moksha is the state in which all your karma has been eliminated and you can become one with the ultimate reality of Brahman. The physical exercise of yoga is based on putting the body into certain postures for meditation in an effort to empty one's mind and get in touch with the spark of the divine inside yourself.

Efforts to "christianize" yoga seem misguided to me. If a person wants to stretch and exercise, fine. But why import practices of a false religion into your exercise routine. There is a saying, "There is no yoga without Hinduism and there is no Hinduism without yoga." The purpose of yoga is spiritual transformation according to Hindu philosophy. The whole idea of yoga is the manipulation of the physical in order to achieve the spiritual. This just doesn't square with Christianity.

This smacks of one more way that syncretism has infiltrated the ranks of an undiscerning evangelicalism. Pagitt and other emergent types who are on the cutting edge of that movement seem all too eager to boil the gospel and Christian life down to the lowest common denominator. Thanks Dr. MacArthur for putting a gospel-centered answer forward in a clear and compelling way.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Anonymous Criticism: An Inherent Danger of Blogging

Blogging is something I find enjoyable. I enjoy reading blogs about important issues in theology and church practice. I also enjoy occasionally posting my thoughts here on this blog. There are benefits to be derived from the blogosphere.
However, there are dangers inherent in the practice of blogging. One of the dangers is that anyone with a keyboard and a random thought can start a blog. There is no editing. There are, in most cases, no levels of accountability or counsel from which a blogger must receive clearance before he or she voices their latest viewpoint.
Another danger is that a blogger may level their criticism or vitriol at someone anonymously if they so choose. Once it is posted on the web, anyone with a computer and an internet connection may read it. Whether it is true or not, the message can be spread quickly to a large number of people. All the while, the critic may hide behind their anonymity as the reputations of others are systematically eroded. Just such a scenario is being played out today. An anonymous professor posted an open letter attacking the character of two prominent SBC seminary presidents.
I do not begrudge anyone the right to criticize. If you feel that the theology or behavior of another person lacks biblical integrity, then by all means engage them for the purpose of loving correction. However, I do not appreciate anonymous criticism. I think this is called gossip. If you are going to openly criticize someone, have the courage of conviction and Christian courtesy to sign your name to it. I am not commenting on the accuracy of the alleged misbehavior cited in the professor's letter. I have my opinions about it, but the criticism itself is not my issue here. It is the cowardly way the criticism was leveled.

Of course, the world of blogging is not the only place this sort of thing happens. It happens all too often in the church. Anonymous attacks or rumors about people do not promote godliness. Such criticism does not help anyone. Brothers and sisters who truly love each other are willing to take the risk of personal engagement when correction appears to be needed. It is the loving thing to do. Anonymity makes the critic feel larger than life and emboldens him or her to paint the other person in the worst possible light. I admit that it is easier to feel like the "great Oz" when you are pulling strings behind the curtain. But the way of Jesus demands that we come out from behind the curtain and interact with each other on a personal level for mutual edification.

I remember the story of a great preacher (I think it was Moody) who received a note on the platform at one of his meetings. The note simply read "FOOL". The preacher approached the podium and said, "I have received many a note which contained complaints about me with no signature. Today I received a note with only a signature and no complaint." Ouch! Anonymity often fuels foolish words and actions rather than the loving interaction the Bible requires.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Funny in a Sad Sort of Way

For those who enjoy some satire with spiritual lessons, you will like this post from Tom in the Box News. This post reveals the sad truth about the Word of Faith movement.

Remember, this is satire with a spiritual edge.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Appalling Words from Baylor Theologian

While reading this post from Tom Ascol, I followed a link to this post by Roger Olson. Olson is a theologian on the faculty of Baylor's Truett Seminary. Not only do I disagree with Olson's position in his article, I was actually appalled at some of his statements.

Olson was writing in response to John Piper's comments on the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. He took issue with Piper's perspective on the sovereignty of God and suffering. The conclusion of Olson's article states:

The God of Calvinism scares me; I'm not sure how to distinguish him from the devil. If you've come under the influence of Calvinism, think about its ramifications for the character of God. God is great but also good. In light of all the evil and innocent suffering in the world, he must have limited himself.

What? Did he actually imply that the Calvinistic view of God makes God indistinguishable from Satan? Those are strong words indeed. In my opinion, such a statement is foolish at best and blasphemous at worst.

Olson summarizes his view of God and evil in these statements:

In this world, because of our ignorance and sinfulness, really bad things sometimes happen and people do really evil and wicked things. Not because God secretly plans and prods them, but because God has said to fallen, sinful people, "OK, not my will then, but thine be done -- for now."

And God says, "Pray because sometimes I can intervene to stop innocent suffering when people pray; that's one of my self-limitations. I don't want to do it all myself; I want your involvement and partnership in making this a better world."

Many conservative Christians wince at the idea that God is limited. But what if God limits himself so that much of what happens in the world is due to human finitude and fallenness? What if God is in charge but not in control? What if God wishes that things could be otherwise and someday will make all things perfect?

No Calvinists I know would say that God "secretly plans and prods" people to do evil. Scripture is abundantly clear that God is not the author of sin. God doesn't tempt anyone to do evil nor can He be tempted by evil (James 1:13-15). However, God does sovereignly use the evil acts of men to accomplish His purpose. The cross is a prime example of this (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).

The God described by Olson is indeed limited. He sometimes can intervene in human affairs if people pray. He is in charge but not in control. He wishes that things could be otherwise and someday will make all things perfect. He certainly has limited Himself.

My question is how will Olson's God ever intervene to make things otherwise? If He is powerless to do it now (by self-limitation or other restraints), why should we believe He will ever be able to intervene? What will change to allow or facilitate His intervention? It seems as though Olsen's picture of God is that God would like to do something about suffering and evil, He just can't.

Olson asks his readers to "consider the ramifications" of their view of God in terms of God's character. Good advice. As I consider the ramifications of Dr. Olson's view, I find them discomforting. It doesn't sound like the God who "works all things together for Good" (Rom. 8:28). It doesn't sound like the God who "works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will" (Eph. 1:11). It doesn't sound like the God who "does as He pleases with the powers of heaven and the people's of the earth" (Daniel 4:35).

Ultimately the only hope we have in the face of suffering is that God is sovereign. The idea that God would like to help me but can't doesn't offer any comfort in the face of evil or disaster. The biblical truth that God is sovereign over evil and suffering and that these both fit into His purpose gives me hope that God will ultimately triumph over suffering and sin.