Monday, June 25, 2007

Satan Hates the Church

A Decatur, Texas church put a different spin on church advertising this week. Many of us have seen the messages on church signs which are supposedly from God. This church put out a message supposedly from Satan. It said, "I hate Victory Family Church" and it was signed, "Satan." The online poll with the news story revealed mixed reviews from the public. Some found it clever, some disrespectful, and others annoying.

Regardless of your take on the usefulness or appropriateness of the sign, it is an important reminder. Satan really does hate the church. Paul makes it clear in Ephesians 6:12 that Christians, individually and collectively, are involved in a spiritual battle with satanic forces of darkness. Satan is doing all he can to impede the progress of God's people. He would love nothing more than to destroy the church. He hatefully employs several tactics in his assault on the church.
  • Satan promotes false doctrine to destroy the church (1 Timothy 4:1; Revelation 2:24).
  • Satan promotes immorality to destroy the church (1 Timothy 5:15; Revelation 2:20).
  • Satan promotes pride to destroy the church, especially among its leaders (1 Timothy 3:6-7).
  • Satan promotes hypocrisy to destroy the church (Acts 5:1-11).
  • Satan promotes persecution to destroy the church (Revelation 2:10; 3:13).

Yes, Satan hates Christians and the church. He is powerful. He does assault us and afflict us in many ways. However, we must remember that the church will triumph over the devil because of the victory of Jesus. We have known since the beginning of the conflict that Satan would bruise the heel of our Substitute. But we have also known that the bruised heel would ultimately crush the head of our enemy (Genesis 3:15). We know that God will crush Satan under the feet of His church (Romans 16:20).

We do well to remember the encouraging words of Luther:

And tho' this world with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us;

We will not fear for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.

The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure for lo, his doom is sure.

One little word shall fell him.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Why Altar Calls Never Tell the Whole Story

In our church we have what many would refer to as an "altar call." We call it the Hymn of Response. It is a time at the close of the service where we stand and sing together and I call upon the congregation to respond to God's Word. It is very low-key and never manipulative. I make myself available to those who desire prayer or to discuss a spiritual need. We also have people stationed in our prayer room following the service to pray and talk with people in a private setting.

I come from a tradition (SBC) in which the altar call ("invitation" in SBC terminology) is seen by many as the measure of two spiritual realities - the moving of the Spirit and the response of the people to God's Word. In other words, if a number of people "come forward" then it is thought that the activity of the Spirit was high and the response of the people was high as well. There are many reasons why such logic is wrong. First of all, the true invitation is the preaching of the Word of God itself. The sermon is the invitation, not the altar call. Second, it is absolutely impossible for us to know how the Spirit is working in the hearts of the congregation. As Jesus said, the Spirit is like the wind. We don't know where He is coming from or where He is going. Granted, we sometimes see the visible results of His work. However, we cannot see into the hearts of people to know just how powerfully the Spirit of God is pressing the Word of God upon their souls. Third, people often respond to the Word of God in ways that are not going to be seen during the worship service on Sunday. Arguably, the real test of a genuine response is what happens to them after they leave the service and are living in their routines Monday to Saturday. The point is that public invitations never tell the whole story and we are foolish to think otherwise.

I was reminded of this again during the week. Our worship pastor brought a letter to me from someone who had attended our church. This letter chronicled how the person had been touched by one of our members in a mission activity in our community. He was invited and came to a worship service. He was touched by the singing of the choir. He was moved by the preaching of the Word. He surrendered his life to Christ. He is attending another church close to his home. All of this was taking place as a result of the Spirit's working and I knew none of it. There was no visible response during a public invitation. But there was a secret working of the Spirit in this person which manifested itself in a turning to Christ.

I have heard some pastors and preachers talk as if the "invitation" was more important than the preaching of the gospel itself. I have heard of seminars on how to "draw the net" and get people to respond. I have heard preachers commend other preachers for knowing how to "get them down the aisle." Such manipulative jargon reveals, in my opinion, a real lack of trust and dependence on the Spirit of God. He is the one who draws men and women to Christ. Those of us who preach need to preach the gospel with passion and clarity and remember that the Holy Spirit is using the truth to convict hearts - whether we see a visible response or not.

Monday, June 18, 2007

To Preach or Not To Preach...Other Pastors' Sermons

Last week a firestorm of comments was ignited by a post on the blog Said at Southern about Dr. James Merritt inviting the preachers at the Southern Baptist Pastor's Conference to download and preach his Father's Day Sermon from his web site. The comment thread went over 70 comments. This post obviously touched a nerve. I have posted on the issue of preaching other pastor's sermons before. Here is what I said on the comment thread of the above mentioned post.

I was really surprised to hear that this came from such a luminary as James Merritt. No wonder there is little power in the pulpit when pastors abandon the weekly process of wrestling with the text of Scripture. This trend of “easy proclaimism” seems to indicate that pastors are no longer viewing the preaching of the Word as their primary task. Sad for both pulpit and pew.

Later, in response to a commenter named Dan, I said...

Dan,Your point is well-taken. All preachers utilize the material of other preachers and/or scholars in the preparation of sermons. That is a given. I think what the commenters are reacting to is the brash invitation to shortcut the process of preparation and ride the wave of someone elses work.

There seems to be a growing segment of pastors who think it is OK to minimize the importance of exegetical study and sermon craft in favor of other pastoral duties which are deemed more important. The issue is not that we all use the material of others. The issue is the trend toward devaluing the impact of personal study and preparation in preaching.
My preaching prof in Bible College said, “Men, milk a lot of cows but always make your own butter.”

Finally, I commented...

I have posted a couple of earlier comments on this issue. I am in no way impugning the integrity of Dr. Merritt. I admire him as a man of God and an excellent preacher. I have listened to him on CD and read some of his sermons. I have even quoted him in a sermon or two of my own (with proper credit given). I find him extremely gifted, passionate, and theologically sound.

I do not have a problem with Dr. Merritt making the fruit of his labors available to others. Many pastors and scholars publish (formally or informally) their material for the edification of others. This is a good thing and blessing to the body of Christ.

I have no illusions of pure originality in my preaching. In my opinion, not to read and utilize the material of great scholars and preachers, both past and present, is a sign of shortsightedness and perhaps arrogance. I would venture to say that all of the preachers who commented on this thread use all sorts of reference material in their sermon preparation. This is as it should be.

I am reacting to the idea that it is helpful to shortcut the personal preparation for preaching by utilizing the sermon of another preacher in its entirety. I think this is quite unhelpful. Preparation for preaching involves not just the message but the preacher himself. In my view, the process of exegesis, crafting a sermon outline, making appropriate application, writing an introduction and conclusion, etc. is an essential step in being prepared to preach.

This is not about plagiarism. It is about preparation of the message and the man. If one wishes to preach like Dr. Merritt, then perhaps one should do the work which Dr. Merritt does to prepare such fine messages. This is my contention. For me personally, to lift one of Dr. Merritt’s sermons and preach it as my own would seem very plastic. The fires of spiritual passion are stoked in the crucible of preparation.

I fear that the acceptance of using another man's material in this fashion betrays a flawed view of preaching itself. The reasoning is that Pastor X is a great preacher. He really knows how to turn a phrase. His outlines are biblical. His transitions are smooth. His illustrations are compelling. He gets results. Therefore, I should use Pastor X's sermons so I will get results similar to his.

Doesn't this reasoning turn preaching into marketing rather than proclamation? The church does not need unstudied and unmoved men in her pulpits. She needs men who have worked their way through the text to understand it, illustrate it, and apply it first to themselves and then to their listeners. She needs men whose minds have been enlightened, whose consciences have been stricken, and whose hearts have been set ablaze by the Word of God. This only happens through the process of soaking in it for hours.

Dr. Merritt is an excellent preacher. By all means, preachers should be encouraged to read and utilize his material in appropriate ways. But preachers should never short-change themselves, their congregations, or especially God by lazy study habits and poor sermon preparation.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Resolution on Integrity in Church Membership Declined for Another Year

Southern Baptists meeting for the annual Convention in San Antonio, Texas declined to act on the Resolution on Integrity in Church Membership submitted by Florida pastor Tom Ascol. Last year, this resolution never made it out of committee. The Resolutions Committee again failed to bring it to the convention for action. Tom Ascol was allowed to read the resolution to the convention from the floor. However, the messengers to the convention failed to provide 2/3 majority vote required to overrule the Resolutions Committee and bring the resolution to the floor. Tom Ascol has already stated his perspective on this turn of events.

From my perspective, this is disappointing. For some time now, various voices have been sounding the alarm on the deplorable state of church membership among Southern Baptists. I have blogged about this as well. I think it is disingenuous for the SBC to boast of 16 million members when not even half that number remotely resembles what the New Testament would countenance as a "member." We all know it. SBC pastors know it. SBC execs know it. SBC church members know it. Why don't we admit it and ask our churches to do something about it?

Gerald Harris, the chair of the Resolutions Committee stated that the resolution "infringed upon the honored principle of church autonomy." I understand the principle of autonomy. This resolution does not infringe upon it. Autonomy is a wonderful thing. It is a cherished principle in SBC life and rightly so. But autonomy without accountability is anarchy. I don't think any of our Baptist forbears would approve of using local church autonomy as a cloak for misleading statistics bloated with "inactive members." Nor do I think that they would be pleased that local church autonomy would be invoked to skirt the issue of church discipline.

When it comes to statistical reporting, the SBC has become like the middle-aged woman who wears immodest clothing and spends way too much time in the tanning booth. She's trying way too hard to hide what is painfully obvious to everyone else. It is time to come to grips with reality. Failed theological and/or methodological approaches to evangelism have left us with church rolls crammed with decisions instead of disciples. Failure to practice biblical church discipline (both formative and corrective) has rendered no path for addressing the problem on a local church level.

Next year, about this time, Tom Ascol will submit his resolution yet again. I pray that the Resolutions Committee will have the discernment to bring it to the floor for action. If they don't, I pray the messengers will have the discernment to overrule them and act on this important resolution.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Conventional Stenosis

The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention is upon us again. The Convention will meet June 12-13 in San Antonio, Texas. The convention sessions will be built around a theme of praying for revival among Southern Baptist churches. This is a welcome and needed focus. I pray that God will bless this meeting with an outpouring of His Spirit which will energize our convention to bear much fruit for Christ's glory.

We don't often venture into SBC politics here at Ecclesiophilist. However, I want to share my perspective on the SBC as the annual meeting is right around the corner. Several issues which have arisen in the recent history of our convention over which there is much debate. Many of you may not even be aware of these things. The list below is not exhaustive by any means. Yet, these are some of the major issues which have embattled Southern Baptists of late.

  • Baptismal qualifications for International Mission Board appointed missionaries. The IMB changed its qualifications to say that a missionary candidate must be baptized in a church which teaches eternal security. This is a departure from previous policy which stated that a candidate must be baptized as a believer in an SBC church but did not say anything about the teaching of eternal security.

  • Private prayer languages for International Mission Board personnel. The IMB has historically had a policy that prohibited the public use or promotion of tongues speaking by its personnel. Recently, the IMB changed that policy to include "private prayer language." It will not consider for appointment any candidate that confesses the use of a private prayer language.

  • Calvinism. There has been a recent move among several high-profile Baptist leaders to marginalize and even villify pastors and churches in the SBC who hold to the theology of Calvinism. In spite of its historic place among the forefathers of the SBC, this theology has been cast as dangerous and divisive. Seminary professors have presented papers against it. Mega-church pastors have publicly preached against it (Jerry Vines, Jack Graham, Johnny Hunt, etc). Even state conventions have recently promoted anti-calvinistic materials.

  • Resolution on the use of alcohol. Last year, the SBC passed a resolution condemning the use of alcohol and barring any Southern Baptist who uses alcohol from serving as a trustee or member of any SBC entity. The SBC has historically stood against the use of alcohol. Yet, this is the first time that any resolution was passed barring someone who might drink from serving in the convention. We are not talking about a stumbling drunk. We are talking about anyone who even uses alcohol to any extent.

As I said earlier, this is not an exhaustive list by any means. Yet, when one stops to reflect on these issues, a common thread emerges. In each of the cases stated above, there is a move to narrow the parameters of cooperative among Southern Baptists. In the medical field, there is word for this - stenosis. Stenosis is the abnormal narrowing of a passageway in the body. It can refer to arteries, spinal cords, even esophaguses. It appears to me that we Southern Baptists may be suffering from conventional stenosis. There is an abnormal narrowing of the parameters of cooperation and participation in the SBC.

The conservative resurgence among Southern Baptists brought the SBC back from the brink of a liberal disaster. Now, arguably, we are on the brink of a legalistic disaster. Something is wrong when it is no longer enough just to be a conservative Southern Baptist who believes in the authority of Scripture and agrees with the Baptist Faith and Message. Now, we are moving toward a situation (and we are already there in some cases) in which a person who wants to be a missionary or serve as a trustee must walk in lock-step agreement with policy makers on peripheral issues. From my perspective, the Apostle Paul could not be commissioned by the IMB today because he used alcohol, spoke in tongues, and believed in the sovereignty of God in salvation.

To borrow an analogy from the first century, we don't need either Sadduceeism or Phariseeism in the SBC. Sadducees denied essential doctrines (they didn't believe in the resurrection for instance). We cannot survive that kind of "open cooperation" which jettisons essential gospel truth for the purpose of unity. On the other hand, Pharisees went beyond essential doctrine and measured holiness not just by God's Word but the extra conditions they added to protect them from breaking the law. We cannot survive the kind of "closed cooperation" which expects uniformity among Southern Baptists on secondary points of doctrine and practice. The Sadducees would not defend essential things. The Pharisees insisted on defending non-essential things.

In the SBC, the pendulum in the 60s and early 70s was swinging toward Sadduceeism. The conservative resurgence corrected that unhealthy trend. Now, in 2007, the pendulum is swinging toward Phariseeism. Will we recognize this and correct it before the stenosis has dire consequences for us? I pray that we will.

Postscript on Alcohol Resolution

I want to make it clear that I do not drink alcohol. I never have. I have no desire to start. I would discourage others from drinking. However, I do believe it is a biblically indefensible position to say that any use of alcohol is sin. The Bible clearly warns of the dangers of abusing alcohol. The Bible clearly states that drunkenness is sin. However, there is no biblical defense for the position that all use of alcohol is sinful. This is especially true since Jesus turned water into wine and drank wine Himself, as did the Apostles.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Faith Is More than My Faith

Three of the major democratic presidential candidates participated in a forum in which they openly discussed how their faith influences their lives. You can read more about it here and here. Both articles addressed the issue of how voters respond to "God talk" from the candidates. Clinton, Edwards, and Obama all indicated that their faith is important to them. Newswriters and pundits are discussing how the democratic candidates seem to be stepping up the level of faith talk in their public appearances.

One of the things that concerns me in all the talk about faith is that some speak of faith in highly subjective terms. It is "my faith" which is important to me. Faith is certainly personal by its very nature. Yet, when talking about Christian faith, we ought not refer to it as something that, like play-doh, can be molded to one's personal taste. It rings hollow when public figures speak about the importance of their Christian faith while many of their policy ideas seem to directly challenge the very biblical core of Christianity. This gives the impression that one can pick and choose which aspects of "the faith" will be incorporated into "my faith."

Of course, even the most committed Christians must confess that they have not totally integrated their lives with biblical truth. Sinless perfection in this life is a theological fantasy. Any honest believer would be able to point out some areas of his or her life where sin still needs to be subdued and taken captive to Christ's lordship. However, serious Christians understand that one of the marks of spiritual maturity is the narrowing of the gap between what we know and what we do. There is a real and deep-seated drive to bring integrity between belief and behavior. In other words, serious Christians seek to make "my faith" mirror "the faith."

One of the great travesties of recent political history is the acceptance of a disconnect between personal behavior and religious profession. Evangelicals, of all people, should not be lured into alignments by the siren song of how meaningful "personal and private faith" is to political candidates. True faith is more than political currency whether you are on the right or the left. It is hard to take seriously the profession of Christian faith from people who do not take the Bible seriously on issues like the sanctity of life and sexual ethics. It is equally true that some on the right are more than comfortable with the disconnect between policy and biblical faith on issues like poverty, race, etc. I am not trying to let anyone off the hook here.

The very idea of integrity involves integration. It is the integration of Christ and His truth into all areas of my public and private life. The measure of the integrity of Christian faith is not how passionately I feel my own principles or how closely I follow what I have determined to be important. Sincerity is a necessary thing. But it is no substitute for accuracy. True Christian faith is measured by how passionately I pursue and how closely I follow what Christ has revealed in His Word. There is an objective standard of measurement we call the Bible. If we forget this, we will find ourselves taking false comfort in a personal faith which hardly resembles the faith once for all delivered to the saints.