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.