Monday, March 31, 2008

David Powlison on Contemplative Prayer

Justin Taylor has posted a guest article by David Powlison on prayer. Powlison addresses what is becoming a new fad in evangelicalism - contemplative prayer.

What about teachings on "centering prayer" or "the prayer of silence" or "contemplative prayer" or "listening prayer," or the notion that God is most truly known in experiences of inner silence? Or what about the repetition of mantras, even using Bible words, attempting to bypass consciousness, seeking to induce a trance state or mystical experience? The Bible never teaches or models prayer either as inner silence or as mantra. That's important to notice: "The Bible NEVER teaches or models these ideas or practices." On the surface, such teachings align with Buddhist and Hindu conceptions and practices, and are designed to evoke oceanic experience. The god of silence has no name, no personality, no authority, no stated will, makes no promises, and does not act on the stage of history. Such private spirituality can produce inner ecstasies and inner peacefulness (I experienced that first hand in the years before coming to faith). But it does not create interpersonal relationships—with God, with others—of love, loyalty, need, mercy, honesty, tears, just anger, forgiveness, purpose, and trust. It is a super-spirituality, beyond words. Jesus and Scripture speak and act in sharp contrast. The Word in person and in print expresses a humanness that walks on the ground and talks out loud. Jesus gives a richer joy and a richer peace than the unnamed gods of inner silence, inner ecstasy, and inner tranquility.

Of course, God tells us to be quiet and be still. But it's not that I learn techniques to access an inner realm of silence where I transcend my sense of self and experience a god-beyond-words. The true God quiets us so we notice him. This God is profoundly and essentially verbal, not silent: "God said . . . and it was so. . . . In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." So we listen to him. We take the time to hear his words of grace and truth. We consider Jesus. And we pay attention to what's going on in our lives, seeing the world and ourselves in truer colors. Then we can pray more intelligently and more candidly. And we can think straight and feel honestly and choose well. There is great benefit in turning off the noise machines, the chatter, the music, the crowd noise, the busy, busy, busy, talk, talk, talk—whether it's playing inside your head, or all around you, or both. When this is what "centering prayer" actually accomplishes for a given person, then he or she is moving along Christian paths, not down the paths of wordless silence. But turning off the distractions is not actually prayer to the living God. It's not how to know Jesus deeply, or how to relate to our Father, or how to "experience" the Spirit. Do be quiet, and for the right reasons: so you can notice and listen, so you can learn to talk. This living God is highly verbal and listens attentively. He made us in his image, but as dependents. We learn to listen to audible Scripture, and so learn to speak audible prayers.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Owen on His Motive for Arguing Theology

Last week I posted a nice excerpt from John Newton on the importance of making certain that we argue our theological points in the right spirit. Some might ask, "Why argue theology at all?" While reading the preface to John Owen's Death of Death, I was struck by something he said. In a section where Owen is stating his reasons for writing the book, he says that his motive is not just to be cantankerous or hard to get along with. He states his general distaste for controversy. Speaking about "continual brawls and dissensions" he states:

The strongest bonds of nearest relations are too commonly broken by them. Were it not for that precept, Jude 3, and the like, of "contending earnestly for the faith once delivered unto the saints," with the sounding of my bowels for the loss of poor seduced souls, I could willingly engage myself into an unchangeable resolution to fly all wordy battles and paper combats for the residue of my few and evil days.

Here Owen reveals what drove his polemical and apologetic writing. It was his earnest desire to contend for the faith and his compassion for the lost and deceived. He did not relish the idea of spending his days in "paper combats." But the truth was more valuable than his peace. Those who, like Owen, find themselves writing and/or preaching to expose false teaching are often looked upon as angry, bitter, and mean-spirited.

Argument for argument's sake was not appealing to Owen. But his approach to guarding the truth must be similar to that of Luther who said "If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ." Unnecessary dissension is an ugly thing. Christians should do all they can to be peaceable with everyone. However, when the truth is at stake, we dare not sacrifice it on the altar of getting along. I admire Owen's attitude in this area.

Friday, March 28, 2008

What About the Invitation?

Last Sunday morning (which happened to be Easter Sunday) we had a very full service. The order of worship included several musical presentations, a sermon, the Lord's Supper, and a choral benediction. Normally, we have a hymn of response at the close of our service during which I position myself at the head of the center aisle and make myself available to who desire to speak with me or pray about some spiritual issues. In SBC churches, we call this an "invitation."

The service had run a bit long and I made the decision after celebrating the Lord's Supper to go straight to the choral benediction. I skipped the hymn of response. As the choir began singing, I went and stood next to my wife on the front pew. She leaned over and whispered to me, "are you not going to have an invitation?" I smiled at her and said, "I already gave an invitation. I preached the gospel." She smiled back. She knew what I meant and agreed with it.

Obviously, I don't have a problem with a properly done "invitation" or what some would refer to as an "altar call." We have such a time in our service most Sundays. In addition, we have a prayer room where people are waiting to minister to those who may want a more private conversation about their spiritual needs. I think these things can be done appropriately without manipulation or pressure.

On the other hand, I have seen some ministers who believe that the altar call is more important than the sermon. They take a very heavy-handed approach to "getting people down the aisle." It easily becomes very manipulative and emotionally driven. People get the impression that it is the act of walking the aisle or filling out a card or speaking with the preacher that makes the difference. In some churches, it is seen as sacred and treated with an almost sacramental respect.

Though I am not opposed to a properly presented time of response, I do not believe that this time of response is "the invitation." The preaching of the Word of God is the invitation. The gospel invites people to faith in Christ. It is this faith that saves them, not the act of walking an aisle or other things often associated with an invitation. Every time the gospel is faithfully preached, there is an invitation for sinners to repent and trust in Christ for salvation. We must be careful that we do not connect salvation with something other than the gospel and faith in Christ.

With 50% of SBC church members absent from our churches on a regular basis, we have to wonder if perhaps some of those folks experienced an invitation instead of regeneration. Faith in a filled out membership card will fade like the ink on the paper. Walking an aisle alone will not bring a person into a vital walk with Christ. Shaking a pastor's hand will not steady a life when it is shaken by the struggles and trials of this world. Let's be sure that we are putting the emphasis where it must be - a clear and compelling presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Designer Jesus

In their book Putting Jesus in His Place, Robert M. Bowman and J. Ed Komoszewski write,

Interpretations of Jesus are fraught with bias. He’s a powerful figure whom people want on their sides – and they're willing to re-create him in their image to enlist his support. Animal-rights activists imagine a vegetarian Jesus. New Agers make him an example of finding the god within. And radical feminists strip him of divinity so that Christianity doesn’t appear sexist. Frankly, it’s hard to escape the feeling that our culture has taken Jesus’ question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ and changed it to, ‘Who do you want me to be?’

In this age of designer everything, we have taken a similar approach to Jesus. We don't mind personalizing him to our own tastes. He can be spiritual guru, life coach, prosperity genie, ancient revolutionary or all of the above.

More than ever the church needs to be clear and compelling in our presentation of the biblical truth about Jesus. May God enable us to be winsome witnesses to the truth about His Son.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Taking Care in Our Criticism

Those of us who blog are often engaged in offering critical analysis of various people and positions they hold. This is certainly a necessary and useful thing to do. Yet, we must take great care to be sure that the spirit in which we offer our criticisms is as correct and biblically grounded as our arguments. A friend sent me a link to a letter by John Newton to a friend who was engaging in printed debate. Newton offers some heart-searching counsel to his friend which all of us would do well to heed.

If we act in a wrong spirit, we shall bring little glory to God, do little good to our fellow-creatures, and procure neither honor nor comfort to ourselves. If you can be content with showing your wit, and gaining the laugh on your side, you have an easy task; but I hope you have a far nobler aim, and that, sensible of the solemn importance of Gospel truths, and the compassion due to the souls of men, you would rather be a means of removing prejudices in a single instance, than obtain the empty applause of thousands. Go forth, therefore, in the name and strength of the Lord Almighty, speaking the truth in love; and may he give you a witness in many hearts, that you are taught of God, and favored with the unction of his Holy Spirit.

By the way, I am currently reading Aitken's biography of Newton. I highly recommend it. The author of Amazing Grace experienced such grace in his own personal life. He also exhibited it in his dealings with others. He is a wonderful example for us.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Devastating Problem in the SBC

Timmy Brister has written a post that cut me like a knife. It made my heart ache for my own ministry and the SBC in general. Read it if you dare.

With No Bad News, Why Listen to the Good News?

USA Today recently ran an article called "Has the notion of sin been lost?" The article tracks the changing ideas of American culture in relationship to sin. Statistics definitely show that Americans are redefining the traditional understanding of sin. Most Americans still believe in sin (87% according to pollsters) but they define sin according to their own standards. For instance, 74% of Americans believe racism is a sin. Yet, only 43% believe that having sexual thoughts about someone other than your spouse is sinful.

The ambivalence about sin is not just showing up in pop culture. It is obvious in some of the most celebrated pulpits as well. When asked by Larry King why he doesn't speak about sin in his sermons, Joel Osteen, the pastor of America's largest church said, "I never thought about (using the word 'sinners'), but I probably don't. Most people already know what they're doing wrong. When I get them to church, I want to tell them that you can change." This is indicative of what is happening in many American pulpits today. Sermons about sin and redemption have been exchanged for sermons about self-improvement.

From a biblical standpoint, the events of Good Friday and Easter make no sense without the doctrine of sin. Again and again in the New Testament the apostles remind us that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ had everything to do with human sin. Paul tells us that Jesus Christ was delivered to death for our offenses and raised again for our justification (Romans 4:25). He states emphatically that it was while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8). Part of Paul's summary of the gospel is that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3). Peter says that Christ bore our sins in His own body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24). He also says that Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18). The book of Hebrews is replete with references to Christ suffering for sins (Heb. 9:26; 10:11-12).

The bad news of sin is what makes the good news so good. The fact is that we have broken the law of an infinitely holy God and we stand under the just sentence of His wrath. This is a condition from which we are helpless to extricate ourselves. It is a hopeless situation that, left to itself, will end in eternal separation from God and torment in hell. It is only when a person understands this reality that they can fully appreciate the news of a Savior. That is why Charles Wesley wrote:

Jesus, the name that calms my fears, that bids my sorrows cease;
Tis music in the sinner's ear; Tis life and health and peace.

The name of Jesus is music in a sinner's ear precisely because he or she understands the predicament of sin. It is only when we fully appreciate the dark and minor tones of human depravity that we hear with joy the majestic and major notes of the gospel message. What our culture needs is not less talk about sin but more. Rather than equivocating and softening our message about human sin, we need to present it clearly and forcefully. A weak doctrine of sin will inevitably lead to a weak doctrine of salvation. What people need is not the band-aid of moralism or self-improvement. They need heart surgery.

The gospel is not a self-help story for people who just haven't yet achieved their potential. It is a story of life for those who are dead in sin. It is no wonder that the news of a cross and empty tomb are received with apathy by people who think they are OK. People who think they just need to swim a little better have no use for life preservers. But drowning men will cling to them for dear life.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Perilous Union of Politics and the Church

Whether it is Fred Phelps picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers with his "God Hates Fags" signs or Rev. Jeremiah Wright making outrageous statements about the US government inventing the HIV virus as a genocidal attack on people of color, one thing is certain, the union of the church and politics is always a perilous thing. There is a debate raging currently among evangelicals over what planks belong in the political platform of the movement. A new group is emerging which calls for the inclusion of environmental issues, poverty, AIDs, and fair wages. The old guard continues to focus on the issues of abortion, gay marriage, and family. With no consensus evangelical candidate in this election cycle, there is a scramble between Republicans and Democrats for the evangelical voting block. Controversial endorsements are creating troubles for candidates in both parties. Whether it is John McCain having to distance himself from the likes of John Hagee or Barack Obama having to deflect the statements of Jeremiah Wright, the union of church and politics is creating quite a stir.

Is the pressure to use the influence of the church for political power really a biblical mandate? I don't think so. To be sure, there is an emphasis in the New Testament on the church making an impact on its culture. Jesus did talk about His people being salt and light. He did emphasize the fact that the church ought to penetrate culture and make a difference. The question is "how does the church influence culture?" The New Testament answer to this question says almost nothing about political clout as a method for influencing culture. In fact, the early church had absolutely no political clout. The early church had a much greater impact on its culture than we do. Yet, they did it with no candidates, no voting privileges, no lobby, and no opportunity for involvement in the political process.

The early church influenced its culture by bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. It is clear that the goal of the church in the New Testament was not getting their man into office. Rather, it was getting the life-changing news of Jesus Christ to sinners. The gospel reminds us that the world's problems are not primarily about broken social structures or economic inequities. The primary problem begins on an individual level with human sin. Hearts darkened by sin and separated from God are the fountain of all sorts of moral corruption. This cannot be repaired by legislators, presidents, or even judges. Christ alone changes the sinful heart. Societal change begins with heart change.

It also appears that the early Christians understood that Christ's agenda for them was not a political one. Following Jesus' lead, they realized that the kingdom of God was not going to be realized through the political machinery of the world. Jesus refused to let the people of His day make Him their king. The church understood that the gospel transcends the political systems and philosophies of the world. Their task was to make disciples of all nations, regardless of political persuasions or governmental structures. Theirs was an evangelistic task, not a political one. Their priorities were gospel priorities, not governmental ones.

Adopting a political agenda in the church leads to the confusion of our priorities. Too often the value of theological clarity is pitted against the value of broad-based political cooperation. Think of the fact that evangelicals have been so eager to join forces with Roman Catholics on political issues while downplaying their deep theological differences. One can hardly imagine Calvin and Luther promoting a coalition with the Pope to win victories in public policy. The forces of political expediency put great pressure on the church to trim our message. Too often evangelicals have sold their theological birthright for a bowl of political clout porridge.

Any genuine Christian prefers righteousness over wickedness. Christians in the USA have a great privilege to vote and participate in the formation of public policy. These are worthy duties of Christian citizens. However, let us not forget that the King of the Universe does not need the platform of the Presidency to accomplish His agenda for the church (or the world for that matter). As I heard Phil Johnson say recently at a conference, "If the question of who wins the presidency changes your shepherding agenda, you don't have a sound strategy." Pastors need to get back to their calling of teaching people the Word of God and challenging their congregations to adopt Jesus' agenda for the church. Salt and light are metaphors of gospel penetration not political pressure.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Confessing Christ with Certainty

While working through Matthew 16:13-17, it struck me that Peter's confession would not stand up well today among some self-proclaimed evangelicals who would align themselves with the leading edge of the emerging church movement. Why? Because Peter spoke with such certainty. Certainty in the most progressive emerging circles is equated with arrogance. Postmodern thinking has so undermined the idea of anything being absolutely true that to speak with any hint of dogmatism is considered impolite.

One wonders how Peter's confession would have come out under the influence of such thinking. After all the equivocation necessary to avoid offending the sensibilities of other world religions and the toning down of the language to indicate a proper amount of epistemological humility, I have to wonder if Peter could have said anything which nearly resembles his resounding confession of Christ's uniqueness as the Messiah and Son of God.

It may have come out more like this...

At this point in my limited experience, understanding that this evaluation is influenced by my context as a Galilean Jew and interpreted through the lens of my culturally conditioned messianic expectation and my three-year exposure to your life and teaching, it appears to me personally that you are probably the Messiah the Son of the living God, though not everyone will experience you in that way and they may want to describe you in ways that wouldn't demand them to repudiate their own religious commitments. It may serve them well to be Christ-followers while remaining in their Pharisaic, Sadducean, or Graeco-Roman religious context.

Of course I am overstating the case a bit to make my point. But, seriously, the infatuation with postmodernism in some Christian circles has dire consequences for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Like the popular sentiment regarding Jesus when Peter made his great confession, there are many views of Christ which may seem flattering but fall woefully short of a true Christian profession of faith. The people of Jesus day thought he was a prophet or forerunner of the Messiah. Most stopped short of believing that he actually was the Christ the Son of God. They thought they were complimenting Jesus to associate him with John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. Yet, to stop short of recognizing and acknowledging Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God is to insult His true identity. Jesus is not one choice among religious luminaries. He is the unique, divine Son of God and only Savior.

In these days when certain influences threaten to dethrone Christ and blend him in among other religious figures, the church needs to give a clear confession which rings with the authority of the New Testament. Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Only when people recognize the true identity of Jesus and by faith embrace Him as He is can they, with Peter, be called blessed.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Checking In from Ground Zero for Expository Preaching

Today is the final day for the 2008 Shepherd's Conference. It has been a tremendous time of refreshing for the soul. The preaching has been wonderfully enriching and challenging. Dr. Steven Lawson delivered a message today from Hebrews 4:12-13 on the Word of God as the preacher's only weapon. It was one of the finest sermons I've ever heard on this subject.

I often lament the sad state of affairs in evangelical life related to preaching. Yet, coming to a conference like this where 3500 men gather because of their commitment to expository preaching gives me hope that all have not lost their passion for clarity and truth in the pulpit. In addition, there are over 1000 first time registrants at this conference. This bodes well for the future of the church and her commitment to expounding the truth of God's Word.

The fellowship with the other men in our group has been refreshing as well. I thank God for a congregation and church leaders who understand the value of such conferences to me and our church staff and elders.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Off to the Shepherds Conference

Today I'm headed to the Los Angeles area for the Shepherd's Conference hosted at Grace Community Church. This is one of the best pastors conferences I have ever attended. The preaching is fantastic. The hospitality of the Grace Community Church family is unmatched. The breakout sessions are informative and challenging. The bookstore is the polar opposite of the cheesy fluff that so often fills the shelves of most popular Christian bookstores. This conference offers every opportunity for a pastor or church leader to be refreshed spiritually.

All this to say that my posting this week will be sporadic at best.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Thoughts on Unity from Iain Murray

I really like what Iain Murray writes. His books The Forgotten Spurgeon and Spurgeon vs. Hyper-Calvinism gave me a new appreciation for Spurgeon and his relevance to our times. Murray has some perspective on the issue of unity in the church because of his extensive research on Spurgeon. The issue of what constitutes a foundation for unity among Christians was a critical issue for Spurgeon during his ministry. Nine Marks has a feature article by Murray on the issue of unity among Christians.

Murray wrote something that really hit home with me about our current preoccupation in evangelicalism with numbers, publicity, and the appearance of strength.

Announcements of success, or satisfaction with numbers, are to be feared rather than sought. God’s work needs no publicity. A true advance and recovery will be marked by the sense of weakness and need which gives all glory to God. Let us not stop short of seeking a real spiritual awakening!

Review of Pagan Christianity

Peter Jones reviews the new book by Frank Viola and George Barna here. Here is a section of Jones' review which, in his opinion, reveals the real agenda of Viola and Barna.
Anything that does not fit with Viola’s highly personal, non-theological, emotive notion of the true Church, gets the boot. This is the disappointing part. Such an important theological and exegetical subject is not seriously argued and depends to a great deal on Viola’s subjective preferences for the exciting and the unexpected. It is useful to know that Viola is the author of So You Want to Start a House Church? First Century Styled Church Planting for Today (Jacksonville, Fl.: Present Testimony Ministry, 2003). As he himself says, this is the real agenda that drives the present book: "We have written this book for one reason…we believe this is God’s vision for every church…" (250). What is that vision? "[E]lectric (79)…informal gatherings permeated with an atmosphere of freedom, spontaneity and joy…open participatory meetings"…with "no fixed order of worship…" Such "mutual, organic,…impromptu (88)…edification" has no place for "human officiation" (234), that is, sermons and preachers. Rather, "the Lord Jesus Christ…invisibly" (234), through "every member functioning of his body…[leads believers to experience] the beating heart of God" (246) in "a glorious dynamic" (167). All other types of church are boring and "pagan."