Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Humiliation and Humility of Christ

Last Sunday I preached from Philippians 2:5-8 on the Humiliation of Christ. This passage never fails to shatter my pride and expose my selfishness. Here are some thoughts I shared with our congregation (and with my own soul) in seeking to answer the question of why Jesus would volunteer for such humiliation.

The second answer to this question of “why” is found in the immediate context of our passage. Paul is writing to encourage these believers to demonstrate humility to each other. He is trying to pry their hearts away from their own interests and get them to minister to each other and love each other with humble hearts. He is seeking to hit them with some truth which will shatter their pride and engender some humility.

So, what does he do? He presents before them the shocking example of Christ’s humility and says, “Do you see the attitude Jesus exhibited? Now, you go and think and act like Jesus did.”

Beloved, this text should absolutely shame our pride. Have you ever heard someone say, “That’s beneath me?” In our hearts don’t we do that? We think to ourselves, “it is beneath me to be patient with that person. After all, they are a few pay grades below me.” Or we say to ourselves, “I shouldn’t have to put up with that kind of treatment.” Or in our hearts we think, “I’m too important to socialize with them.” We are hard wired because of the fall to want others to serve us.

But the Bible commands us to have Jesus’ attitude. Was it beneath Him to leave the radiant glory of heaven and come to this sinful planet rife with the stench of sin? Was it beneath Him to endure opposition from sinners and be mocked and crucified by hateful, despicable people? Was it beneath Him to wash His disciples feet? Was it beneath Him to live among people He created and subject Himself to their vile treatment? Was it beneath the Creator of all the water on the earth to put Himself in a position to be thirsty? Was it beneath the Maker of all the wheat and grain in the earth to put Himself in a position be hungry for bread? Yes. It was beneath Him. It was so far beneath Him. But He did it. He volunteered to come here and die. Because of love, He did it. Now go and follow Jesus. Live your life with this kind of humility.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Evidence of a Crisis in Preaching

Someone well said that a mist in the pulpit will be a fog in the pew. USA Today published an article regarding commonly held viewpoints among religious people. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report demonstrating the disconnect between popular viewpoints found in the pews and the official teaching of various religious groups. Consider these statistics:
  • 52% of Christians do not agree with the doctrines many religions teach, particularly conservative denominations.
  • 54% of people who attend weekly religious services believe there are multiple ways to heaven, including 37% of white evangelicals and a whopping 75% of mainline Protestants.
  • Of the 65% of people who held this open view of heaven's gates, 80% named at least one non-Christian group — Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists or people with no religion at all — who may also be saved.

In another article, Cathy Lynn Grossman led out with this assessment, "Religion today in the USA is a salad bar where people heap on upbeat beliefs they like and often leave the veggies — like strict doctrines — behind." Referring to an earlier study done by the Pew Forum, Grossman reports how people have a desire for some kind of spirituality, yet without the doctrinal precision of years gone by. People are depending more on their own personal experiences and tailoring their religious tastes to fit personal preferences.

How is it that adherents to a particular religious denomination would develop beliefs and practices so inconsistent with the theological convictions of their group? This is especially disconcerting for evangelicals which have historically championed the importance of biblical doctrine. Dr. Albert Mohler commented that these findings represent "a theological crisis for American evangelicals. They represent at best a misunderstanding of the Gospel and at worst a repudiation of the Gospel." Dr. Mohler went on to say that the survey results constitute "an indictment of evangelicalism and evangelical preaching."

As a pastor, myself and my pastoral colleagues often lament the deplorable spiritual condition and biblical illiteracy of the church today. The hard truth is that we don't have to look very hard to find the root of the problem. It is us. We have too often abandoned the clarity of the biblical message for something that goes down easier and attracts more people. We have equivocated and apologized for the gospel. We have softened doctrines like depravity, substitutionary atonement, and hell. We have forsaken the systematic teaching of the whole counsel of God for feel-good messages that have wide appeal but little biblical substance. I fear that we have allowed the culture to set the agenda for the pulpit instead of the pulpit confronting the culture with the gospel.

All is not lost. God blesses the preaching of His Word. Let us preachers return to declaring the truth of Scripture with passion and compassion. Let the gospel sound clearly from our pulpits and the difference between genuine Christianity and social churchianity will become abundantly clear. Let the goal of our preaching be the glory of God rather than the conciliation of culture. Let the mist in the pulpit clear and give way to blazing rays of biblical truth. Then the fog in the pew will dissipate and people can see their way clearly through the haze of competing religious claims.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Twenty-Five Years

As of tomorrow (12/17/08) my wife Jamie and I will be married 25 years. Of all the human relationships God has given me, my relationship with Jamie is the most treasured. She is my best friend, my encourager, my confidant, my most constructive and helpful critic, my most ardent supporter, and no one loves me more than she does. She has been my sweetheart since high school days. We were both convinced that God had brought us together when we said our vows 25 years ago. I am more convinced now than ever.

Her influence on my life is incalculable. She loves her family. She has served me and our children in hundreds of ways over the years. She continues to spend herself for our benefit as part of her service to Jesus. I have learned a great deal about consistent sacrifice from her.

Her love for Jesus and His people has been a continual encouragement to me. She loves God and the things of God. She has a deep and abiding fellowship with Him. She doesn't zone out when I come home talking about some theological concept. She engages joyfully in such conversations. She is a fantastic student of the Word and teacher. She has a deep fellowship with Jesus. She loves the ministry. She doesn't resent the unique challenges of being a pastor's wife. She embraces them.

I really can't imagine my life without her. She's not perfect. But, like the writer of Proverbs says of the woman who fears the Lord, "her husband praises her..." (Prov. 31:28). I thank God for blessing me with such a wonderful gift. Like Adam, I feel that my wife is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. She compliments and completes me in so many ways. I love her. She has been not only a source of joy and blessing but an indispensable partner. God has used our relationship to make me more like Jesus. So, this is one little way of giving testimony to the goodness of God to me.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ministry Is Not a Career, It's a Calling

US News and World Report ran a story called Best Careers 2009: Clergy. In this story they noted that millions of peoples lives are anchored in religion. People need clergy in the big moments of life like birth, marriage, death, etc. People also need clergy during times of crisis. Such times are likely to increase with the current state of things in our world. The article noted median salary information and some specializations available in the field.

Notwithstanding the accuracy of these observations, the whole approach of this article is precisely what the church does not need. We do not need people who are looking for a career path. We do not need people who approach the ministry as a "helping profession" like medicine, psychology, or education. The biblical model for ministry has nothing to do with a career or a professional guild. Ministry is not a career, it is a calling.

The Christian ministry would not have appeared on the "Best Careers" list in the first century. As a career path, it was alarmingly short-lived. Rather than leading to a cozy retirement it often led to a violent death at the hands of people who despised the message you were preaching. There were no professional perks or standing in the community. Most people looked upon them as foolish, deluded, dangerous, or all of the above. These pastors were known more for their jail time than their tee time. They would never get a key to the city but they might get thrown out of the city. Christian ministers were not the toast of society, they were considered the dregs of society.

Given this situation, why would anyone enter into Christian ministry at all? The answer is the call of God upon a person's life. Over and over again the Apostle Paul spoke about the call of God which made him a minister of the gospel. In Romans 1:1 for example, Paul says he was "called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God..." In 1 Timothy 1:12, Paul refers to God "putting me into service..." Sharing his personal story in the book of Acts, Paul refers to his entrance into ministry as being "appointed" by God and "sent" to be a minister of the gospel (Acts 26:16-18). In 1 Corinthians 9:16, Paul refers to his preaching of the gospel as a "compulsion" stating, "woe to me if I do not preach the gospel." Paul preached because God called him, appointed him, separated him for this work, and compelled him to preach the gospel.

The church does not need men who are looking for career options. The church needs men who are dying to preach the gospel because the call of God burns in their souls. As James McDonald said, "I preach because nothing else can satisfy the urgency and passion that God has ignited in my heart for His truth and His people. The same should be true for you. If you can go sell cars or shuffle stocks instead of being a pastor and preacher of God's Word, then go do that." This sense of calling and compulsion is essential to true Christian ministry.

In the preface to his challenging book, Brothers We Are Not Professionals, John Piper writes, "The title of this book is meant to shake us loose from the pressure to fit in to the cultural expectations of professionalism. It is meant to sound an alarm against the pride of station and against the expectation of parity in pay and against the borrowing of paradigms from the professional world. Oh for radically Bible-saturated, God-centered, Christ-exalting, self-sacrificing, mission-mobilizing, soul-saving, culture-confronting pastors! Let the chips fall where they will: palm branches one day, persecution the next." Strong words, but true.

As long as pastors and their congregations look upon the ministry as a profession or a career path, the power of the pulpit and the passion of the preacher will be diminished. When tough times come, those who view ministry as a career will change careers. They really should. Career men don't ignite reformations like Luther. Career men don't translate Scriptures upon pain of death like Tyndale. Career men don't spend themselves in hostile cultures like Carey. Career men don't run the risk of getting speared like Elliott. God give us called men, not career men.

Monday, December 01, 2008

More from Dr. Mohler on Preaching

Dr. Al Mohler offers this observation about what is happening in so many evangelical pulpits:

The sheer weightlessness of much contemporary preaching is a severe indictment of our superficial Christianity. When the pulpit ministry lacks substance, the church is severed from the Word of God, and its health and faithfulness are immediately diminished. (He Is Not Silent, p. 49)

Weightlessness...what an inexcusable attitude when presumably handling eternal truth as a spokesman for the living God. It struck me the other day while I was driving to work how the contemporary church, in many cases, has worked so hard to rid the pulpit of the gravity it deserves. How many people would go to an oncologist who dressed like a superhero to diagnose a potentially fatal disease? How many of us would seek out a neurosurgeon who approached his work with a careless attitude? Yet, so many pastors have stripped their pulpits of any sense of seriousness by using costumes, props, and gimmicks.

Even if attempts are made to address the serious issues of the soul, those attempts ring hollow because the preacher and his pulpit have come to possess all the seriousness of a sitcom. This is far from the sense of gravitas the apostles possessed. Paul said things like, "woe to me if I preach not the gospel" and "knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men." His understanding of God and the gospel affected both his view of himself as a preacher and the task of preaching.

We preachers must get over our infatuation with giving people what they want and start giving them what they need. We must declare God's truth with clarity, passion, and a sense of heaviness. We must feel the heaviness of our responsibility to God. We must feel the heaviness of the broken and sinful condition of our listeners. We must feel the heaviness of what is at stake in the proclamation of God's truth and the response of our hearers.

The approach of the church to the task of preaching reveals a great deal about our theology. May it never reveal that we view God, sin, the gospel, heaven, hell, or Scripture as weightless realities.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

King of Glory

As you celebrate Thanksgiving this week, here is a poem I composed for my congregation to get us thinking about the coming of our Savior. May the Lord bless it to encourage you to reflect on the magnificent wonder of His redemptive mission.

King of Glory

King of glory, Word eternal, dwells in perfect unity;
With the Father and the Spirit, long before the worlds were made.
Three-in-One, divine communion, blessed, holy Trinity;
With the Father and the Spirit, fellowship of love displayed.

King of glory, tiny baby, in a virgin’s womb He grows;
God with us, divine invasion of an unsuspecting earth.
With His advent, promised blessings of salvation He bestows;
God with us, the incarnation of the Son of matchless worth.

King of glory, suffering servant, battered, bloody, on the tree;
Crushed by God for our transgressions, dying in the sinners place.
The cup of wrath against sin’s treason, taken by Him willingly;
Crushed by God, our sins laid on Him, ransoming His own by grace.

King of glory, risen Savior, death could not His body keep;
Raised to life by heaven’s power, never more death’s grip to feel.
Like their Lord, all in Him trusting, will be raised from death’s cold sleep;
Raised to life by heaven’s power, all the curse of sin now healed.

King of glory, reigning Sovereign, seated on His throne on high;
All the nations bow before Him, praise Him, worship and adore.
Singing songs of His redemption, all His ransomed people cry;
Honor, power, and dominion to our King forevermore.

(See John 1:1-4; 2 Cor. 13:14; Matt.1:20-25; Isa. 7:14; Matt. 27:1-50; Rom. 3:21-25; Isa. 53; Matt. 28:1-10; 1 Cor. 15; Rev. 4-5)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Emergent Leader Sanctions Same-Sex Relationships

Tony Jones, once national coordinator for Emergent and a leading figure in the emerging church movement, has publicly stated that the church should sanction same-sex marriages. You can read his thoughts here. After describing his own personal ideological journey on this issue, Jones states,

In any case, I now believe that GLBTQ can live lives in accord with biblical Christianity (at least as much as any of us can!) and that their monogamy can and should be sanctioned and blessed by church and state.

GLBTQ stands for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, queer. A few years ago, Brian McLaren, another emerging church leader, suggested that we should have a moratorium on any statements from the church regarding homosexuality. We should wait five years, study the issue, and then, if we come to any conclusions, we can make a statement. To be sure, not everyone who would accept the label "emerging" would agree with Jones and McLaren on this issue. However, it is alarming that the avant garde of this movement has taken such a mushy, contra-biblical stance on an issue which is quite clear in both Old and New Testaments.

It is difficult to see how one can miss the clear testimony of the Scriptures regarding the issue of homosexuality. Genesis 2 presents the positive model given to us in the creative actions of God when He formed male and female and brought the two together to form one flesh. This model is then called upon by both Jesus (Matt. 19) and Paul (Eph. 5) as the divinely ordained pattern for human marriage and sexuality.

In addition to the positive model given in creation, there are numerous negative statements regarding homosexual acts in the Old and New Testaments. Genesis 19 records the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the homosexual acts of its residents. Leviticus 20:13 refers to homosexual acts as detestable to God. Paul refers to homosexual acts as evidence of a society which has been given over to depravity. He refers to such acts as degrading, dishonorable, unnatural, and indecent (Romans 1:24-27).

If we follow the pattern of the church in the New Testament, the church always condemns behavior that violates the divinely ordained pattern for human sexuality and family relationships. We need no moratoriums. We do not need sociological studies on the matter. God has spoken. It is not up to the church to distort or deny what God clearly says.

At the same time, we recognize that people who are involved in homosexual lifestyles are human beings whom the church is commanded to love and care for. The hope for all sinners is Jesus Christ. The gospel changes and transforms all kinds of sinners - whether they be homosexual or heterosexual. When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church about various lifestyles which are incompatible with God's kingdom, he listed homosexuality among them (1 Cor. 6:9-10) along with adulterers, idolaters, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, swindlers, etc. Paul reminded them that though many of them were once living these lifestyles, they had been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:11).

Redefining sin will not make it go away. Doing so will not improve the position of sinners in relation to God or the truth. But it has the potential to gravely damage the influence of the church.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

eHarmony to Launch Same Sex Dating Site

Reuters reports that the online dating site eHarmony will soon launch a new same-sex dating site as a result of a legal settlement. eHarmony was started by evangelical psychologist Neil Clark Warren. One can only imagine that this is the first of many such legal actions to be brought against companies that began with evangelical values.

It is disappointing that eHarmony took this action. I don't know any of the details of the legal settlement. However, it is sad to see a company begun by a high-profile evangelical pressured into taking an action which is diametrically opposed to long-standing biblical convictions which have characterized evangelicalism. I can only imagine the sadness Dr. Warren must feel over this outcome.

I am not certain who makes all the decisions at eHarmony. I don't know how much Dr. Warren is involved in the corporate decision making process. I don't want to come down too hard on him without knowing the details. Yet, personally, I think it would have been a victory if eHarmony just shut down rather than cave to the cultural pressure from the same-sex lobby.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Defender of the Faith? Or Faiths? Or Faith?

Al Mohler provides an intriguing look at how postmodernism has influenced the proposed change in titles for the British monarch. The title which was originally "Defender of the Faith" would be changed to "Defender of Faith" if the Prince of Wales gets his wish. Prince Charles actually wanted "Defender of the Faiths" but has settled for the previously mentioned "Defender of Faith" as a compromise.

The religious philosophy of the Prince was captured in statement he made a few years ago:

All the great prophets, all the great thinkers, all those who have achieved an awareness of the aspects of life which lie beneath the surface, all have showed the same understanding of the universe or the nature of God or the purpose of our existence--and that is why I think it is so important to understand the common threads which link us in one great and important tapestry.

This coronation language controversy is another sign of the inroads of postmodern thought into the religious fabric of the West. Language which once reflected the exclusivity of the Christian faith and the gospel must now give way to the nebulous phrases of religious pluralism. "Defender of Faith" - a coronation title which would make Oprah proud.

Read Dr. Mohler's analysis. As usual, it is excellent.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Worthy Reflection on Worldliness

I just picked up the new book called Worldliness edited by C.J. Mahaney. The foreword is written by John Piper. In the last paragraph Piper writes,

In the end, the sum of all beauty is Christ, and the sin of all worldliness is to diminish our capacity to see him and be satisfied in him and show him compellingly to a perishing world.

That sentence is shattering in its implications. As I read it, thoughts began to shoot through my mind like a bunch of gradeschoolers rushing out the door for recess. What am I currently doing in my life that diminishes my capacity to see the beauty of Christ? What habits, pleasures, preoccupations, or hobbies have diminished my capacity to be satisfied in Christ? What compromises with the world have I made which diminish my ability to show Christ to the perishing world?

I can't wait to read the rest of the book...I think. It could be a simultaneously painful and joyful process.

Monday, November 10, 2008

From the Ecclesiastical Wierdness Files

In what has to be one of the strangest stories of the day, rival monks had a brawl at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, revered as the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The fight broke out between Armenian (not arminian) monks and Greek Orthodox monks when the Armenian clergymen marched in an annual procession commemorating the 4th-century discovery of the cross believed to have been used to crucify Jesus. The Greek Orthodox monks said the Armenian monks had no right to march through the church, so they blocked the group from marching. Israeli police rushed in to break up the fight.

OK, let me get this straight. Two groups of guys who supposedly revere Jesus Christ decided to beat each other up on the very site where Jesus is reported to have died for our sins and rose from the dead. And this fight broke out while one of the groups was celebrating the discovery of the cross that was used to crucify Jesus.

Silliness tends to break out when so-called Christians have more reverence for religious relics, holy sites, and ecclesiastical authority than they do for Jesus or the things He taught. Lest we think that this kind of nonsense only takes place among the Catholic groups, we need to remind ourselves that many a Baptist business meeting has broken out into verbal brawling over things as trivial as colors of carpet and who is going to be in charge of the potluck this month.

There are certainly times when Christians differ over substantial issues. Sometimes these disagreements are hotly debated. This is appropriate when gospel issues are on the table. But more often than not, Christians fight over things that have little biblical significance. Such arguments are driven more by personalities and power-grabs than by a passion for Christ's kingdom.

Sadly, the outcome of these brawls has devastating consequences for the testimony of the church in the world. The irony of clergymen fighting in the very place they celebrate as the empty tomb of the resurrection is not lost on a watching world. Let's not waste our energy fighting about silly, trivial things. We have real enemies to fight. Not least is the enemy of pride and self-importance which prods us to raise ourselves and our cause above everyone else.

Brit Hume and Following Christ

Brit Hume is resigning his position as managing editor in the Fox News Washington bureau. His reasons are interesting and revealing. Hume stated,

I certainly want to pursue my faith more ardently than I have done. I'm not claiming it's impossible to do when you work in this business. I was kind of a nominal Christian for the longest time. When my son died (by suicide in 1998), I came to Christ in a way that was very meaningful to me. If a person is a Christian and tries to face up to the implications of what you say you believe, it's a pretty big thing. If you do it part time, you're not really living it.

Facing up to the implications of what we believe is a daily issue for followers of Jesus. Hume is certainly correct in saying that if you are a part-time disciple, you're not really living it. Part time disciples are like (in the words of Lou Holtz) the kamikaze pilot who flew 50 missions - involved but not committed.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Cast Your Vote But Trust Your God

Thirty feet or so away from my office a steady stream of people are casting their votes today. Our church has long been a polling site on election day. The media talking heads are forecasting record voter turnout for this election. It has been one of the most hotly contested elections in a long time. Certainly much is at stake for the direction of our country. Two very different visions for America have been presented by the candidates. People across our nation are exercising the precious freedom of participating in their government by casting their vote according to their conscience.

Within the church, this election also represents some new challenges regarding the role of the church in politics. For more than a quarter of a century, there has been a strong movement of evangelicals to energize and encourage the church toward political involvement - the so-called religious right. Issues such as abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, and school choice have dominated this conversation among evangelicals. Today there is a new stream of evangelical influence which is seeking to raise to the forefront issues like social justice and ecological concerns. The outcome of this election will also be a sort of referendum on the direction of evangelical politics. Which issues will take center stage for evangelical politics in the years to come?

As important as these questions are, there is a deeper issue here for Christians and the church. It is the issue of where we place our ultimate trust. To hear some Christians talk, you would think that the rise and fall of the church hinges on who sits in the oval office. Biblically speaking, this is dead wrong. Governments certainly exercise power and the decisions of governments do influence and affect people and nations. But behind the movements of governments is the sovereign hand of God (Isaiah 44:24-28). The people of God are never directed to put their trust in governments. They are consistently directed to put their trust in God who ultimately governs the affairs of men and nations. God rebukes His people when they put their trust in man instead of Him (Jeremiah 37).

God often uses ungodly leaders to accomplish His purposes. Habakkuk lived in a time when injustice and wickedness surrounded him. The people of God were rebellious and careless in their covenant duties. Habakkuk complained that God wasn't doing anything. God said, in effect, "Oh yes I am. In fact, you won't believe it when I tell you." God told Habakkuk he was raising up the Babylonians as a scourge of judgment against Judah. Yes, God had raised up a wicked ruler to accomplish His ultimate purposes for the world and for His people (Habbakuk 1:1-11).

I am not suggesting that believers should shirk their civic responsibilities and hide behind the doctrine of God's sovereignty. We should never take an approach that says, "God is in control so it doesn't matter what I do." God's sovereignty never excuses laziness or disobedience.

However, I am saying that no matter who wins the White House today, God's purposes will be accomplished. The early Christians never excused the culpability of Pilate or the Jewish leaders (or themselves for that matter) in the execution of Jesus Christ. At the same time, they realized that the events of Jesus' trial and crucifixion were under the ultimate control of God who was working out His eternal purposes through the most heinous of crimes (Acts 4:23-28). It was Jesus Himself who told Pilate that his authority was ultimately delegated from God (John 19:11).

Cast your vote today. But don't rest your ultimate confidence in any party, platform, or politician. The welfare of the church is not in the hands of politicians. It is in the mighty hand of God. The same could be said for you as an individual. As the Psalmist said, "I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; From where shall my help come? My help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth (Psalm 121:1-2)."

Monday, November 03, 2008

Al Mohler on Preaching and Worship

I am currently reading Dr. Albert Mohler's book He Is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World. I thought I'd share a couple of nuggets with you that resonated with my heart.

On the issue of felt-need preaching...

Urged on by devotees of "needs-based preaching," many evangelicals have abandoned the text without recognizing that they have done so. These preachers may eventually get to the text in the course of the sermon, but the text does not set the agenda or establish the shape of the message. The sacred desk has become an advice center, and the pew has become the therapist's couch. Psychological and practical concerns have displaced theological exegesis, and the preacher directs his sermon to the congregation's perceived needs rather than to their need for a Savior.

On the issue of evangelical worship practice...

I am haunted by the thought that in the average evangelical church, the God of the Bible would never be known by watching us worship. Instead, what we have in so many churches is "McWorship" of a "McDeity." But what kind of God is that superficial, that weightless, and that insignificant? Would an observer have any idea of the God of the Bible from our worship? I wonder at times if this is an accidental development, or if it is an intentional evasion.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Schuller Removes His Son for Too Many Biblical References

I never thought I'd hear this. The preacher for the Hour of Power has been removed for too many references to the Bible. Robert H. Schuller removed his son Robert A. Schuller from the Crystal Cathedral's Hour of Power broadcast. An L.A. Times article inferred that the preaching style of the younger Schuller could threaten the market for Hour of Power because he referred too much to the Bible. The article states,

Schuller built his worldwide ministry over a half century on the psychology of positive thinking and appealing to people turned off by the formality of traditional faiths. In contrast, his son's sermons have been full of direct references to the Bible.

The elder Schuller stated, "I was called to start a mission, not a church, there is a difference. . . . You don't try to preach . . . what is sin and what isn't sin. A mission is a place where you ask nonbelievers to come and find faith and hope and feel love. We're a mission first, a church second."

So let me get this straight. When you are trying to reach non-believers, you don't refer to sin? Pastors who want to reach nonbelievers shouldn't refer too much to the Scriptures? A mission is a place where nonbelievers can come and find faith and hope and feel love...with as little mention of the Bible as possible?

The Crystal Cathedral has long been an example of a completely man-centered ministry. Robert H. Schuller has championed the self-esteem gospel which refuses to offend man's sensibilities with any mention of sin or judgment. Salvation is equated with regaining one's self-esteem and living up to one's potential. The biblical gospel has replaced with Schuller's own version. With this latest development, we see how consistently Schuller is sticking to his game plan.
This reminds me of the famous statement by H. Richard Niebhur in his critique of the optimism of liberal theology. Niehbur characterized liberal theology like this: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross." One can only conclude from the elder Schuller's statement that we might add to Niebhur's critique, "...and sermons without Scripture."

How sad that Schuller continues to shield his viewers and listeners from the very thing that could actually bring them faith, hope, and love - the Word of God.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pluralism and the Enthronement of Man

Religion News Service ran this feature article on a pluralistic "church" in New York. The church called Faith House is led by Samir Selmanovic, a Seventh Day Adventist who describes himself as an "atheist Muslim" who converted to Christianity while doing military service in the former Yugoslavia. The church has three women who co-lead programs for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. According to the Harvard University Pluralism Project, these kinds of multi-faith gatherings are on the rise across the U.S.

After a recent lecture on "The Blessing of Atheism" the group was asked to scribble their thoughts about God on pieces of paper. Candles were then lit and their thoughts about God were burned. The ashes were placed in small baggies for the participants to take with them. Selmanovic commented, "when you are sure about anything at all, you can put your hand in your pocket and touch it."

It seems to me that the acceptance of such pluralism is an assault on meaning itself. If one can accept theism and atheism as equally viable "faiths" then words seem to have no meaning at all. Theism and atheism are polar opposites. A person must abandon any sense of logic to accept all the fallacies and contradictions involved in viewing the two as equally tenable. It is very postmodern of Mr. Selmanovic to have the participants at his gathering burn their concepts of God and cart the ashes off in a bag. It was a symbolic gesture suggesting that we need to abandon time-honored theological categories and open the door to our own, new formulations of who God is.

This kind of pluralism is an exercise in the enthronement of man. It is an invitation to make God in your own image. To suggest that Christianity would be a compatible partner in this pluralistic dance is to ignore the founding documents of Christianity altogether. The New Testament writers were quite insistent on the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the unique Son of God and only Savior. This would no doubt be viewed as rigid and narrow to pluralistic "Christians." Yet, it is the clear testimony of the Apostles and of Jesus Himself (John 14:6).

Christianity is not a wax nose to be shaped and formed into whatever we decide it should look like. It is bounded by the revelation of God recorded in Holy Scripture. It is a faith "once for all delivered to the saints." One may disagree with it. One may reject it. But it is intellectually dishonest (and spiritually dangerous) to reformulate it so as to make it compatible with other world religions.

It is certainly right for Christians to dialogue with those of other faiths or no faith. It is essential that Christians carry out this dialogue in a respectful way (1 Peter 3:15). Yet, Christians must not dilute or distort the truth about Christianity in an attempt to assuage the offended sensibilities of a pluralistic culture. We must never be offensive in our presentation of the Christian gospel. But we must understand that the Christian gospel has elements that are central to it which will be offensive to those who are not Christians (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). If we edit the gospel so as to appease our culture, we offend God, enthrone ourselves as arbiters of truth, and find ourselves declaring a false gospel.

Scaling the Heights When the Market Plunges

We are living through some of the most turbulent times in recent memory. Long-trusted names in the banking industry have gone belly up. The stock market has seen historic losses. I’m sure that many of you, like me, have watched your retirement fund go down, down, down. The government is stepping in with a 700 billion dollar bail-out plan. And all of this is taking place during a presidential election which is shrouded in political uncertainty. It makes us want to sing, “nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen…”

The prophet Habakkuk was living in such times. He watched in dismay while wickedness ran rampant and justice was perverted. In addition, God told him in no uncertain terms that a ruthless enemy invasion loomed on the horizon. These conditions would lead to economic collapse. Habakkuk described his response to such news in these terms:

I heard and my inward parts trembled, at the sound my lips quivered. Decay enters my bones, and in my place I tremble. Because I must wait quietly for the day of distress, for the people to arise who will invade us. (Habakkuk 3:16)

In the process of his dialogue with God about these issues, Habakkuk was reminded that Yahweh is in control of history. It is God who raises up nations and brings them down. It is God who is moving all things toward His ends and in accordance with His purposes. In the process of telling Habakkuk all these things, God makes a statement that is repeated three times in the New Testament. He tells Habakkuk, “The righteous shall live by his faith.” (Habakkuk 2:4)

Between chapter one and the close of the book in chapter three, a change becomes apparent in the attitude of the prophet. He moves from fear to faith. Habakkuk closes his brief prophecy with one of the highest expressions of faith in all of Scripture. He says:

Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and He has made my feet like hinds feet, and makes me walk on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

In an agricultural economy, this was the equivalent of a stock market crash. Yet, the prophet says that in spite of the economic collapse, he will rejoice and exult in the Lord Who is his salvation. A hind is a female deer which was known for its sure-footedness on the rocky crags of the wilderness. This was an expression of confidence and trust in the Lord in the midst of political and economic turmoil.

Our faith is not in Bernanke, Obama, or McCain. Our faith is not in the oval office. It is not in the halls of congress or the bench of the judiciary. It is not in military might or in the strength of the dollar. Our faith is in the God of our salvation who is with us through times of suffering and loss. When the market plunges, we can still scale the heights because our God reigns. Rejoice in Him!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Value of Propositional Truth Claims

I've been reading a collection of essays called Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church edited by Gary L.W. Johnson and Ronald N. Gleason. It has been a stimulating read to say the least.

In a chapter called Sola Scriptura as an Evangelical Theological Method, John Bolt is discussing the validity of expecting sources other than the Bible to contribute to the task of doing theology. Bolt concludes that there are indeed other sources which contribute to theological method since all truth is God's truth. However, Bolt takes issue with the current postmodern trend to denigrate historic evangelicals for insisting that truth can be stated in universal propositions. He quotes LeRon Shuts who said that the desire of some evangelicals to "capture God in our finite propositions is nothing short of linguistic idolatry."

Bolt responds that evangelicals agree that though we cannot know God absolutely (only God knows Himself perfectly) and though language is always a culturally constructed form of communication, it does not follow that propositions about God are idolatrous. Bolt states:

"...speaking of God with clear, thoughtfully-reasoned claims that are indeed intended to be universally true is not "linguistic idolatry" when it is rooted in biblical revelation itself. In fact, this self-celebrated epistemological humility - not making universal claims about God - when we do have revelation, should be seen for what it is; disobedience and a failure to give an account of the hope (and truth) that is in us (1 Peter 3:15)."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Devastating Critique of Obama's Position on Life

Justin Taylor has posted this article on Obama's extreme pro-abortion position. This is not a critique from an "evangelical extremist" but from a highly respected intellectual. The critique is devastating in my opinion. It is a must-read. As we prepare to go the polls in a few weeks, this is the kind information we need to understand.

Here is one excerpt from the article by Robert P. George which Taylor cites:

What kind of America do we want our beloved nation to be? Barack Obama’s America is one in which being human just isn’t enough to warrant care and protection. It is an America where the unborn may legitimately be killed without legal restriction, even by the grisly practice of partial-birth abortion. It is an America where a baby who survives abortion is not even entitled to comfort care as she dies on a stainless steel table or in a soiled linen bin. It is a nation in which some members of the human family are regarded as inferior and others superior in fundamental dignity and rights. In Obama’s America, public policy would make a mockery of the great constitutional principle of the equal protection of the laws. In perhaps the most telling comment made by any candidate in either party in this election year, Senator Obama, when asked by Rick Warren when a baby gets human rights, replied: “that question is above my pay grade.” It was a profoundly disingenuous answer: For even at a state senator’s pay grade, Obama presumed to answer that question with blind certainty. His unspoken answer then, as now, is chilling: human beings have no rights until infancy—and if they are unwanted survivors of attempted abortions, not even then.

In the end, the efforts of Obama’s apologists to depict their man as the true pro-life candidate that Catholics and Evangelicals may and even should vote for, doesn’t even amount to a nice try. Voting for the most extreme pro-abortion political candidate in American history is not the way to save unborn babies.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Church Is Not My Church

Jamie and I spent a wonderful weekend in Scranton, KS with Cross Road Community Church and my dear friend Don Herren. It was a blessing to spend some time with the Herren family just catching up and visiting together. It was a privilege to preach five times over the weekend. I thoroughly enjoyed the time in Scranton.

As a pastor of a local church, I don't often get to venture beyond my own pulpit on Sundays. Of course, I like it that way. I love Country Acres and consider it a privilege beyond words to open God's Word week by week with our congregation. However, it is helpful to periodically spend some time with other congregations. It reminds me that my church is not the church. When you spend month after month immersed in the context of your own ministry, it is easy to get tunnel vision. The kingdom of God can seem smaller and smaller as the people and issues you deal with every day consume you.

When you spend a little time with another church family, it reminds you that God gathers His people and works through them all over the place. You meet others who love the Lord Jesus and are passionate for His Name. You worship with others where the style may be different but the substance is the same. You also discover that other Christians struggle with the same kinds of issues you struggle with. And you sense the oneness of heart that the Spirit of God generates among His people wherever they are found.

The church is the theater in which the glory of God is displayed for all to see (Ephesians 3:20-21). Whether those believers gather in places surrounded by subdivisions and wide thoroughfares or gravel roads and corn fields, they are the people of God in whom the glory of God is being demonstrated. It is good to remember that my church is not the church.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Five Solas Conference in Scranton, KS

In my last post I mentioned that I would be speaking at Cross Road Community Church this weekend. Well, my buddy Don Herren, pastor at Cross Road, informed me today that he will be blogging on this conference at his personal blog Magnifying Christ. You can check it out to get Don's comments on the conference this weekend.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Semper Reformanda

This weekend I will have the privilege of speaking at Cross Road Community Church in Scranton, KS. My dear friend, Don Herren, is pastor at Cross Road. Don served with me in Wichita for nine years as our Pastor of Student Ministries. The theme of the conference is Reformation. We will be looking at how the five "solas" which characterized the Reformation still transform our lives today.

The idea behind this conference is reflected in another of the Latin phrases which flowed from the Reformation - semper reformanda, always reforming. The church is to be always reforming as the truths of sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria shape our lives. These are not museum pieces or theological artifacts. Though they shook the landscape of Christianity in the 16th century, the aftershocks of these truths are still influencing our lives today.

It will be my privilege to spend the weekend with the folks at Cross Road Community Church exploring how these truths continue to influence us. When you think about it, pray for me and for the conference. Find out more here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sooners Number One at Being Number One

With a 35-10 victory over TCU last Saturday, the Oklahoma Sooners vaulted into the number one spot in the AP and USA Today polls. With this recent top ranking, the Sooners now have the distinction of being the team which has been ranked first more than any other since the polls began in 1936. The Sooners have been ranked number one 96 weeks. Notre Dame is number two at 95 weeks.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A "Green-Letter" Bible?

Time magazine reports that Harper Collins is releasing The Green Bible for eco-sensitive readers. In this edition, thousands of verses which mention nature are printed in a forest green color. Using recycled paper and soy-based ink, it is a truly eco-friendly edition of the Bible. Evangelical eco-activist J. Matthew Sleeth, writes in the introduction to the Green Bible that "creation care"--the Christian catchphrase for nature conservancy--"is at the very core of our Christian walk."

My problem with this kind of specialty Bible is that it indirectly imposes a framework for understanding Scripture which is bound to distort the meaning of the text at some point. The point of the Bible is not ecology. Of course, we can discern important principles for taking care of the created world from the pages of Scripture. But there is no such thing as an ecology Bible. There's just the Bible. Any time we impose on the Bible a certain framework, like a conservationist framework, we are in danger of bringing presuppositions to the text which will distort our understanding. This is especially true when we highlight certain verses in green as though they were more important than other verses.
This is not just a problem for ecologists. It is a problem for all of us. We all run the risk of imposing on the text of Scripture a framework which can distort our understanding of it. The task of the interpreter is to get at the original meaning of any text. What did the author mean when the text was written? That is the question we are seeking to answer. Once we have a proper understanding of the author's intent, then we can properly apply the text to our time and situation. But the Green Bible is already predisposed to render a certain angle on the text by imposing an ecological framework upon its words.
What is next? The Baker's Bible in which all the verses about cooking bread are highlighted? Or perhaps the Hunter's Bible where all the verses about wild game or bows and arrows are highlighted? This sort of thing could reach the point of being ridiculous. Such attempts at specialty Bibles usually lead to misunderstanding and misapplication of the biblical text.
What we need is just the Bible. We need to read it in its historical context. We need to appreciate the various genre of Scripture. We need to pay attention to its grammar. We need to pursue authorial intent with great care. The Author of Scripture worked through the authors of Scripture to record for us His very words. Our task is to understand them the way He intended them to be understood.

Would You Go to Church Even if the Music Stunk?

Mike McKinley over at 9 Marks hits the nail on the head with this post. He writes about getting a glossy ad for a church in his area that boasts playing songs from popular bands and refusing to "Jesus-up" the lyrics. They boast that their music doesn't s*ck. Read the whole post. I couldn't agree more with what McKinley says.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Near, Yet Holy

Working my way through Exodus 19 this week, I was struck with the balance between immanence and transcendence in the passage. This chapter records the preparation of Israel to meet God on Sinai. God invites them into covenant relationship with Himself. He saved them out of bondage. They are His special possession. As a kingdom of priests, they will have an intimate relationship with God unlike the nations around them. Indeed, God comes down on the mountain to meet them. God provides visible and audible signs of His presence on the mountain.

Yet, with all these indicators of God's nearness and desire to have a covenant relationship with Israel, there are staggering signs of His holiness, His otherness. God warns them not to touch the mountain or they must die. He commands them to wash their clothes, abstain from sex, and prepare themselves to meet with Him. God warns the people and the priests not to come up to the mountain lest He break out against them.

There are two examples of God "breaking out" against people. In 2 Samuel 6, Uzzah is killed by the Lord because he reaches out to steady the ark of the covenant and touches it. When he touches the ark, God kills him. In Leviticus 10, Nadab and Abihu, priests and sons of Aaron, bring strange fire into the presence of the Lord which He did not command. Fire comes out from the Lord and consumes them. Why? The text says because God will be treated as holy by those who draw near to Him.

These things remind us that we must never lose the biblical tension between God's nearness and His utter holiness. God is dangerously holy. He is not to be trifled with. In today's Christian culture, the nearness of God has been overemphasized at the expense of His holiness. Some of the songs we hear on Christian radio could just as easily be sung to your girlfriend as your God. People address God and speak about God in terms that border on irreverence. The familiarity many people have with God betrays a lack of appreciation for His holiness.

It is the wonder of grace that God comes near. It is amazing that He desires to have an intimate relationship with us. We never want to underestimate this invitation to intimacy in which we can say "Abba" Father. But let us not forget that the God who calls us near is also the God in whose presence we tremble. We say with Isaiah "I am ruined because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts (Isa. 6)." Draw near? Yes, absolutely. But draw near with trembling and awe to One who, though He comes down to us, commands us to treat Him as holy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Powlison on the Therapeutic Gospel

David Powlison has posted some articles on Boundless about the therapeutic gospel. These articles are excellent. Powlison challenges this version of the gospel which has become so common in many circles today. Here are some quotes from the first article that really got my attention.

The offer of a cure logically skips lightly over the sin-bearing Savior. It's more important that He meets your sense of need than that He was crucified in your place. Repentance from unbelief, willfulness and self-centeredness is not really the issue. Sinners are not called to a U-turn and to the new life that is life indeed.

Such a gospel massages self-love. There is nothing in its inner logic to make you love God and love any other person besides yourself. This therapeutic gospel may often mention the word "Jesus," but He has morphed into the meeter-of-your-needs, not the Savior from your sins. It corrects Jesus' work. The therapeutic gospel unhinges the gospel.

Powlison concludes the article with this observation.

There are no prayers or songs in the Bible that take their cues from the current therapeutic felt needs.
That mere fact should give serious pause to anyone drifting in the direction of a therapeutic understanding of how unexamined desires link up with Jesus' gospel. Imagine, "My Father in heaven, help me feel that I'm OK just the way I am. Fill me with self-confidence. Protect me this day from having to do anything I find boring. Hallelujah, I'm indispensable, and what I'm doing is really having an impact on others, so I can feel good about my life."

Have mercy upon us! Instead, in our Bible we hear a thousand cries of need and shouts of delight that orient us to our real needs and to our true Savior.

(HT - Justin Taylor)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ray Boltz Comes Out

Ray Boltz recently went public with the news that he is gay. You can read about it in his words here (this links to a gay publication with the story). You can read a Christianity Today article about it here. Todd Pruitt offers some insightful comments about Boltz's revelation in comparison to Romans 1 here.

We need to pray for Ray Boltz that he will repent and find restoration.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Preaching and the Battle for the Bible

Lifeway Research recently published their findings on how Southern Baptists view Scripture. The survey revealed some interesting things.
  • 100% of SBC pastors surveyed strongly agreed with the statement, "I believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture."
  • 97% of pastors strongly agreed with the statement, "I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture."
  • 76% of people who attend SBC churches once a month agreed with the statement, "the Bible is the authoritative source of truth and wisdom for daily living."

Statistics demonstrate that the SBC has made some major progress in relation to our theology of the authority of Scripture. When 100% of the pastors surveyed said they believed in inspiration and 97% said they believe in inerrancy, we must conclude that the conservative resurgence in our denomination has made an impact on our stated theology. However, when 25% of those who attend our churches question those doctrines, we have to wonder if the views in the pulpit are making their way into the pews.

The real battle for the SBC at this juncture is not theoretical but practical. It is not the authority of Scripture which is being denied. It is the sufficiency of Scripture which is being ignored. There is a battle being waged for the pulpits of our churches. It is largely a battle between text and technology, between revelation and relevance. It seems to me that more and more sermons are being driven by the latest cultural fads rather than the faithful communication of God's Word. Costumes, props, and movie clips have taken center stage in many churches. Where there used to be a pulpit and a faithful preacher, there is now a projector and a stage set. What message does this communicate about the sufficiency of Scripture?

I am not arguing against the use of all technology in preaching. I am arguing that preaching is not about appeasing audiences or catering to their short attention spans. I am arguing that preaching must have as its aim the faithful communication of the text of Scripture. If the preacher comes out in a Superman suit or on a Harley in his leathers, even if he throws some Bible into the mix, I have to wonder if the people leave thinking about the Bible or the props. Of course it is appropriate to connect the Word to our audience with references to contemporary culture and illustrative material that throws light on the biblical message. But the illustration should never be the sermon. If we preachers don't keep the noses of our people in the text of Scripture, then we are sending an indirect message that our stories, props, and clips are the point we want them to remember.

I recently attended a function where a well-known guest preacher was delivering the message. I don't want to be unkind, but it was more like a blue-collar comedy act than a serious message from God's Word. It was full of one-liners that made the people laugh and clap. But it had little to do with the faithful exposition of the text which was announced. I liked much of what the preacher said. He had a good sense of humor. Many of his observations were true and helpful. They just didn't have anything to do with the text. In the final analysis, if our sermons don't flow from the text of God's Word, they are just our opinions. They might be good and helpful. But they have no authority. Even more, they do not model to our people how to use Scripture. If our sermons flow from the text and our observations and applications are clearly connected to the text, we not only preach faithfully, we also model to our people how to read and understand the words of God.

We can bang the drum for inerrancy all day long but if we fail to demonstrate through our preaching that we value the Word of God, then our theological positions ring hollow. It is inconsistent for us to insist on inspiration and inerrancy and then largely ignore those very divinely inspired words in our preaching week by week. If we would have churches that are anchored in the revelation of God, then we must have preachers that make His Word the sum and substance of their preaching. This kind of preaching models in practice what our confessional statements declare.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Against Using the Pulpit to Endorse Political Candidates

There is a new development in the ongoing battleground of the church and politics. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is initiating a movement to test the constitutionality of the IRS ban on churches endorsing candidates. Currently, the rules are that pastors and churches cannot officially endorse any political candidate. If they do, they run the risk of losing their 501C3 status as tax exempt, non-profit organizations. The ADF is seeking to enlist some churches and pastors who are willing to preach sermons publicly endorsing or opposing candidates. This would provide a platform for testing the constitutionality of the ban in court.

In response to this movement, a group of clergy are protesting that this blurs or destroys the line of separation between church and state. These clergy members are suggesting that the ADF "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" is a stunt that will ultimately harm the church. They are skeptical of the legal and religious grounds from which the ADF is launching this effort. Referring to the initiative as "reckless," they are encouraging churches to oppose it.

Personally, I believe the move to encourage pastors to endorse candidates from their pulpits is a step in the wrong direction. My objection is not driven by constitutional issues or the separation of church and state per se. I believe that such a move will simply pull the church further into the political machinery of this world. It will diminish the ability of the church to focus on its primary calling in the world. Jesus was clear that his kingdom was not of this world. In John 18:36, Jesus told Pilate that if his kingdom was a worldly one, his followers would fight to get him released. The mission that Jesus came to accomplish did not depend on earthly political structures. The focus of the church is on making disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). This is done by the preaching and living of the gospel.

This is not to say that Christians should not be involved in the political process through voting, campaigning, or even running for office. The gospel certainly has implications for every arena of life, including politics. Yet, the church should not become a political action committee. Do we really think that if we get all "our candidates" elected that we will have accomplished our mission? Like the people of Jeremiah's day who wanted to depend on alliances with Egypt to protect them instead of the Lord (Jeremiah 37), we run the risk of putting our trust in the wrong place. I am wary of anything that would distract the church from her purpose in this world.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Why All the Church Dropouts?

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an editorial on a new book entitled Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do About It. The book by Julia Duin reports that, in her opinion, there is an epidemic of evangelicals leaving their churches. According to the editorial, Duin locates the problem within the churches themselves. These churches have problems ranging from inefficient leadership, sub-par teaching, and scandals among leaders, to simply being out of touch with their congregants.

While I would not dispute for a moment that all of these problems exist to some degree among evangelical churches, it seems to me that the issue is something much deeper. The very subtitle of the book implies a contradiction. If they are truly faithful, why are they fleeing? It seems that the underlying assumption of the book (as well as the proposed solutions) are playing into the hands of a consumeristic evangelical culture which contributes to the very problem it seeks to address. Faithfulness is about staying the course when things get tough because one has a higher calling. The problem is that we haven't taught the "faithful" what faithfulness really means.

The assumption seems to be that if the church doesn't provide what I want or perceive I need, then I will simply quit going. Perhaps part of the problem lies in the anemic ecclesiology which has become so characteristic of many evangelicals. It is an ecclesiology which turns on the individual. The church has been convinced that the way to "grow" is to find out what people want and serve it to them in as appealing a package as possible. For example, people like movies, so build your sermons around movies instead of biblical exposition. If the problem is that people are not happy with your product, give them a better or different product and they will keep coming. It becomes an ever-intensifying cycle of scrambling to meet the felt needs of churchgoers.

What the church needs is to break free from this cycle of catering to the spiritual consumer. Jesus did not negotiate with would-be disciples. It was not cafeteria style Christianity where the prospective follower of Jesus could have a "designer relationship" with Him. The focus of discipleship is not the disciple but Christ. It isn't so much about what I "need" as what Jesus commands (Matthew 28:19-20).

The analogies of discipleship which Paul used to encourage Timothy seem so out of place when compared to the current emphases on "what I want" or "how I feel." Paul told Timothy to be a good soldier, a faithful farmer, and a diligent student (2 Tim. 2:1-13). Each of these analogies implies patience, endurance, and difficulty. This is the essence of faithfulness. Faithful members don't jump ship when every song doesn't fit their taste. Faithful members don't quit when the pastor preaches on hard subjects. Faithful members don't leave when called upon to work through conflict with others. Why? Because they are, well, faithful. They love Jesus and the church more than they love themselves.

We pastors and church leaders are largely to blame for this state of affairs. We swallowed the idea that catering to consumers could help us "grow" our churches. Grow we did - a mile wide and an inch deep. We grew churches where the fleshly instinct of people to please themselves was coddled instead of confronted. We grew churches where we made it clear that our philosophy of how we organize and conduct the ministry was determined by the wants that people expressed. We told them (the audience) they were sovereign and they told us what to preach or not to preach. Now we are scratching our heads when they leave or go down the street to another church with a better program and newer building. We reinforced the consumeristic instinct and it came back to bite us.

It is time to abandon the methodological madness for some theological training. We need to teach our people what the church really is. We need to teach them about meaningful membership in the church. We need to lead them to understand the corporate implications of the gospel as they are lived out in the community of God's people. They need to know about believer's baptism, the Lord's Supper, and church discipline. We need to rekindle a hunger for the meat of God's Word by stretching them with biblically saturated teaching and preaching.

When people begin to view the church as the body of Christ, the temple of the Spirit, and the family of God instead of a spiritual Sams Club, perhaps they won't be as likely to leave it so casually.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Seeing Clearly through the Dust of Clashing Kingdoms

I was talking with a friend today who was distressed about a conversation he had with his mother. They were discussing politics and his mother expressed her support for a certain candidate. "He's a Christian," she said. "He's been in church a long time." My friend tried to point out the inconsistencies of this candidate in relationship to genuine Christian faith. But, alas, his Mom had a party affiliation that clouded her perspective on the issue of the candidate's spirituality.

This scenario is a common one. We value Christian faith and we want so much for our favorite politicians, athletes, and celebrities to be "Christians." All it takes is for one of them to read the Bible in jail or record a song with a vague reference to faith in it or thank Jesus during the post game interview or claim to be a person of faith in the campaign speech and we are ready to claim them as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all too ready to ignore other factors which may be quite inconsistent with a legitimate profession of Christian faith so that we can feel good about listening to, watching, cheering for, or voting for a particular person.

Every day there is a clash of kingdoms. The kingdom of this world clashes with the kingdom of Christ. From a New Testament perspective, Christians are living in the overlap of these kingdoms. We once belonged to the world. Now we belong to Christ. We still live in this world while we are on our way to a new world. When these kingdoms clash, dust gets in our eyes. We struggle sometimes to see clearly where our allegiance lies.

To see clearly, we must first establish which kingdom is "king" in our lives. For the believer, there can be no question. Our first allegiance is to the kingdom of Christ. We are to seek His kingdom first. We are to pray for His kingdom to come. Our citizenship is in heaven and we are waiting here for our King to return. When His kingdom clashes with the worlds kingdom, we must align our lives with Him.

How are we to know what matters to our King? Historically, evangelicals have answered this question by saying that Scripture reveals to us the mind of God. If we want to know what God thinks about something, we look to the Bible. When the Bible speaks clearly on an issue, God is speaking clearly. Admittedly, the Bible does not deal in specifics with every conceivable issue of modern life. But it does give us clear principles by which to make wise decisions as new issues arise. So we want to follow the guidance of Scripture so that we are aligned with the kingdom of God.

This means that when public figures make claims of Christian commitment and then consistently act in contradiction to clear biblical teaching, regardless of how much we appreciate their movies, CDs, their team, or their politics, we must question the legitimacy of their claim. This is especially relevant right now when we are on the cusp of an election. Some evangelicals are making the claim that the traditional moral issues which guided evangelical voters are now becoming secondary to new issues. For example, a candidates view on abortion is no longer as important as his or her view on the environment.

This is wrong. It is not wrong because the environment is unimportant. It is wrong because the sanctity of life is more important. Do we really think that a candidate who takes better care of the national parks than they do of the unborn or elderly are superior? Some will say that this sort of "one issue" politics lacks vision and is narrow. My answer to that is that it depends on the one issue. As much as we may like a candidates proposals on taxes, health care, education and so on, if they are wrong on an issue like abortion, how can we justify supporting them? This would be like a theologian saying that the timing of the tribulation was more important than the deity of Christ. You can be wrong about the first and survive. If you are wrong about the second, all is lost.

God is not party affiliated. I am not suggesting that He is. But I am suggesting that God cares deeply about the issues which the parties are debating. I am suggesting that God has spoken clearly on many of those issues. I am suggesting that there is a legitimate hierarchy of importance among those issues. I am suggesting that those of us who call ourselves evangelical Christians should not be wobbling on those front-line issues like the sanctity of life. Kingdoms are clashing. Let's not be vague about where our allegiance lies.

Honorable Mention

Timothy and Epaphroditus were missionary companions of Paul. Both of these men were on the front line but not on the front page. We know more about Timothy because we have two letters in the New Testament that bear his name. But Timothy wasn’t the author, he was the recipient. Even when we think about 1 & 2 Timothy, we think mostly about Paul, not Timothy. To use a college football analogy, Paul was a BCS name. Timothy and Epaphroditus were like the Mountain West – we’ve heard of them but we don’t know much about them.

In spite of the “mid-major” status often conferred on these two men, they were held up by Paul as an example of what it means to be a man of God. In Philippians 2:19-29, Paul encourages the church at Philippi to receive these men and honor them. Paul was going to dispatch them on “special ops” to assist the church. In the process of informing the church about the arrival of these men, Paul says some amazing things about them which reveal why they were such trusted coworkers.

Regarding Timothy, Paul says that he was a man who was not seeking his own interests but those of Jesus Christ. In addition, he was a man of proven worth who served alongside Paul in the furtherance of the gospel. He was a gospel-centered man who cared genuinely about the church and other people. (see Phil. 2:19-23)

Epaphroditus is described by Paul as a brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier. In the process of his service to the Lord, Epaphroditus risked his life to complete a mission of service to Paul on behalf of the church at Philippi. When Epaphroditus heard that the church knew of his sickness, he was more worried about their distress than his own physical condition. Paul encouraged the church to hold him in high regard as a man who risked much for the kingdom of Christ. (see Phil. 2:25-29)

Those who make an impact for the glory of Jesus are not always the people in the public eye. They are not always the “platform people.” They are often the ones who labor behind the scenes at great personal sacrifice. Making an impact for the Lord is not so much about venue but about virtue. It is not the size of the task but the size of the heart that makes the difference. To make an impact for Christ, we have to be people who are gospel-centered. We have to care genuinely about people and about the church. We must be willing to sacrifice and risk for Christ.

All of us have responsibilities. We have family responsibilities and work-related responsibilities. We have our own interests to look after. But let’s be careful that our interests are not our only interests. Christ calls us to put His interests first in our lives. In doing so, we make a difference in the lives of others. Be a person who makes a difference.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Encroaching Egalitarianism

The Dallas Morning News reports that Irving Bible Church has taken an historic step away from the predominant view among evangelicals on the role of women in the church. Irving Bible Church, a church which has strong ties to Dallas Theological Seminary, had Jackie Roese preaching in all three of their services on Sunday, August 24 . Mrs. Roese is the wife of the Executive Pastor at Irving Bible. The invitation for Mrs. Roese to preach was the result of a prolonged study by the staff and elders at the church.

There are two basic positions held among self-professed evangelicals regarding roles of men and women in the home and the church. The complementarian position teaches that men and women are both created in the image of God and are equal in terms of value. However, men and women do have very different roles defined by God in terms of their function in the home and the church. The egalitarian position teaches the men are women are created in the image of God and are essentially equal in both value and role. Egalitarians believe it was the entrance of sin into the world that introduced the idea of hierarchy into the roles of men and women.

Egalitarians view the passages in the Bible that speak of male headship in the church and home as being culturally conditioned by the prevailing patriarchalism of the ancient world. In other words, when Paul says that he does not allow women to teach men or exercise authority over them (1 Timothy 2:12) his statement is bound to the culture in which he lived. It is not a universal or timeless principle of church leadership. Rather, it is merely a reflection of Paul's culture and should not be taken as directly applicable to roles in the church today.

Complimentarians would argue that the role differences presented in Scripture are not culturally conditioned. They preceded the entrance of sin into the world and are seen in the order of creation. Complimentarians would argue that within the Godhead there is evidence of equality of essence but difference in function. For instance, the Son clearly states his functional subordination to the Father while carrying out His mission on the earth (John 3:17; 6:38; 8:23-29). Yet, this certainly does not mean that the Son is inferior to the Father in essence or glory.

In my opinion, the move of Irving Bible Church is another evidence of encroaching egalitarianism among evangelicals. It seems to me that this recent redefinition of gender roles in the church is driven more by cultural pressures than biblical evidence. For more helpful information and scholarly analysis of this issue visit the web site of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Piper on Dying Protestantism

John Piper posted his thoughts on the article The Death of Protestant America by Joseph Bottum. Dr. Piper closes his article with a poignant thought:

I pray that the younger evangelicals who are pondering where to put their energies will learn from history that doctrinal accommodation brings larger audiences in the short run but death and irrelevance in the long run.

And God forbid that any should say with Hezekiah: Who cares if the death comes in 80 years as long as I have crowds and influence in my day (2 Kings 20:19).

Mohler on the Remodeling of Hell

Here is a post that Dr. Mohler wrote on the subject of hell. He offers some thoughtful commentary on the current trend to redefine the doctrine of eternal punishment.

Dr. Mohler concludes:

No doctrine stands alone. There is no way to modify belief in hell without modifying the Gospel itself, for hell is an essential part of the framework of the Gospel and of the preaching of Jesus. Hell cannot be remodeled without reconstructing the Gospel message.

Here is a sobering thought: Hell may disappear from the modern mind, but it will not disappear in reality. God is not impressed by our surveys.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Striving for an Eternal Prize

Michael Phelps has shattered the records by winning eight gold medals in a single Olympics. He ousted Mark Spitz who won seven golds in the '72 Munich Games. Phelps' run in Beijing has been the stuff of legend. He had a "fingertip finish" in one race. In the relay, he had to count on his teammates to swim well so he could rack up another gold medal. Not only has his swimming been in the news, but his training regimen as well. He spends many hours each day in the pool honing his skills and training his body to perform. Olympic fans have been wowed by how many calories he consumes while in training and competition. It has been a blast to follow his achievements through these games.

Michael Phelps has been physically and mentally tough on himself to a degree that most of us cannot conceive, much less match. And he has done it all to win a temporal prize. Yes, he is in the record books and probably will be for years if not decades to come. But even those record books will one day fade into nothing. As impressive as Phelps' feats are, they are not going to last forever.

The Apostle Paul was fond of athletic analogies. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 he says,

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

In these verses, Paul speaks about the kinds of things that Michael Phelps has had to do. These are things such as effort, discipline, self-control, following the rules and so on. But Paul takes these concepts from sports and lifts them to an infinitely higher purpose. We do not practice these things for mere temporal rewards. We practice them for an eternal reward. Believers are called to self-control, discipline, and effort for the eternal glory of Christ.

To what lengths are we (am I) willing to go in pursuit of the glory of Jesus Christ? How tough will I be on myself in spiritual discipline and self-control in pursuit of eternal reward? The serious Christian life is not one of aimless running or shadow-boxing. It is an intense, rigorous quest toward a heavenly goal. What hardships are we willing to endure to win a heavenly crown?

Of course, Paul is not telling us we earn our salvation by self-discipline or self-control. Salvation is by grace, not by works. But the path of the saved is not the path that leads through the gate of the stadium and into the stands to recline and watch others run, box, and swim. It is the path that leads onto the field or into the ring or (to keep with the swimming illustration) into the pool. It is a life of struggle and endurance and rugged living in the trenches of life where God's people battle the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Growing Softer on Hell

This article from the Pew Forum indicates that many people are modifying their views on the doctrine of hell. Only 59% of the 35,000 respondents to a recent survey said they believe in eternal punishment. This news corresponds to the softening of the church's traditional stand on the doctrine of hell.

To preach about hell or even speak about hell in conversation is increasingly viewed as impolite or downright judgmental. As one pastor in Southern California stated, he no longer mentions hell because "it isn't sexy enough any more." One writer acknowledges that the doctrine of hell "no longer gets its float in the church parade; it has become a museum piece at best, stored in the shadows of a far corner."

There was a time when straightforward preaching on hell was considered part of being faithful to the teaching of Scripture. Who can forget the powerful descriptions of hell in Edwards' sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God? Of course, Edwards didn't conjure those images from thin air. His descriptions of hell were informed by biblical data. Jesus certainly had plenty to say about the reality of hell as did the Apostles.

In his book, The Other Side of the Good News, Larry Dixon tells a story about C.S. Lewis. Lewis heard a young man preach on judgment. He concluded the message with the statement: "If you do not receive Christ as your Savior, you will suffer grave eschatological ramifications!" Lewis asked the preacher, "Do you mean that a person who doesn't believe in Christ will go to hell?" "Precisely," said the young preacher. "Then say so," Lewis advised. Say so indeed.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

More Tragedy from Lakeland

Some of you are aware of the so-called revival in Lakeland being led by Todd Bentley. I have blogged about it previously. Today John Piper has posted an article about the latest news from Lakeland. Todd Bentley and his wife are separating. Piper's article includes an assessment from J. Lee Grady, the editor of one of the charismatic movement's leading publications Charisma.

Grady states in his article...

Just because we believe in the power of the Holy Spirit does not mean we check our brains at the church door. We are commanded to test the spirits. Jesus wants us to love Him with our hearts and our minds.

Because of the Lakeland scandal, there may be large numbers of people who feel they’ve been burned by Bentley. Some may give up on church and join the growing ranks of bitter, disenfranchised Christians. Others may suffer total spiritual shipwreck. This could have been avoided if leaders had been more vocal about their objections and urged people to evaluate spiritual experiences through the filter of God’s Word.

These are not the words of a fundamentalist cessationist. These are the words of a leading figure in the charismatic community. Grady's words are sound advice for all Christians regardless of their views on spiritual gifts. We must "evaluate spiritual experiences through the filter of God's Word" if we want to avoid being snookered by a man or a movement.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Once in Hamas, Now in the Church

Fox News posted this fascinating article about Mosab Hassan Yousef. He was raised a devout Muslim by his father who was a leader in the terrorist group Hamas. According to the article, he became an evangelical Christian. He now lives on the west coast. His perspective on the struggles between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were very interesting.

Using or Abusing Sermons

As a pastor who is responsible to prepare and preach sermons each week, this post from Justin Taylor was of interest to me. With the advent of the internet, sermon material is more accessible than ever before. Most high-profile ministries like John MacArthur's Grace to You or John Piper's Desiring God put their sermon materials online for the benefit of the public. This is a tremendous ministry to the church at large. These men, and others like them, have established biblically saturated, Christ-centered pulpit ministries which have benefited thousands of people. It is a gift that their sermons are accessible to us.

However, the unprecedented accessibility of such excellent sermon material is also a temptation for preachers to grow lazy in personal study and preparation. Some have even suggested that pastors ought to use the sermons of well-known preachers and stop wasting their time on sermon preparation. Pastoral plagiarism is one of the newest ministerial ethics issues.

As a preacher, I love good preaching. I like to listen to good preaching. I like to read good sermons. I choose conferences to attend each year largely based on the quality of preaching at the conference. The sermons of other preachers have enriched my soul and stimulated my spiritual growth. I benefit from such preaching personally as the Word of God shapes my life into the image of Christ. Good preaching also helps me grow as a practitioner of the craft of sermon preparation and delivery.

That being said, I think any preacher who steals the sermons of other preachers is short-changing himself and his congregation. A sermon is more than just sound exegesis, a good outline, and memorable illustrations. A sermon has as much to do with the preparation of the preacher as it has to do with the preparation of the sermon. The preacher is prepared in the process of wrestling with the text of Scripture. Through his own study, prayer, and reflection the preacher's heart is penetrated by the text. He "owns" the fruit of the research and reflection because he has invested himself in it. Without this process, the sermon lacks the personal fire and force of a man whose heart has been gripped by the Word of God.