Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dever on Improving the Gospel

Over at Church Matters, Mark Dever begins a series of five posts on improving the gospel. These posts are based on a message he gave at T4G earlier this month. In the first post, Dever discusses the current effort among some to "make the gospel public." In other words, some are confusing the social implications of the gospel (justice, poverty) with the gospel itself. Dever warns us that this shift ultimately causes us to lose the gospel and spend our time trying to change the social structures of a fallen culture rather than evangelizing those who are lost and in danger of judgment. Be sure to read all five of these posts!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Stetzer: SBC a Declining Denomination

Ed Stetzer, the director of Lifeway Research and noted missiologist, commented today on the most recent statistics from the SBC. His assessment was that the SBC is a declining denomination. His comments will no doubt create a wave of response in both official and unofficial channels. Read the comment thread in the post and you'll see it is already beginning.

Personally, I believe Stetzer makes some excellent points. It will be interesting to see some of his follow-up articles which further flesh out his assessment. I think he hit the bulls eye on some things which must be addressed in the SBC.

The 2007 ACP (Annual Church Profile) numbers reveal a drop in baptisms and in overall membership in SBC churches. Increases were seen in average attendance, number of churches, and giving. More details on the ACP can be found here.

For the first time in decades, the numbers demonstrate some decline in the SBC. This could turn out to be a blessing if it wakes up Southern Baptists to the real problems that are affecting the health of our churches. Perhaps we will begin asking the right questions which focus our best energy and thought in places which will have a positive kingdom impact on the SBC.

Here are some things which I believe we must address:

  • The increasing tendency to narrow the criteria of cooperation to a position of uniformity rather than unity. In other words, insisting that we all agree on non-essentials as well as essentials. This was evident in the change of IMB standards regarding baptism and private prayer language. It is also evident in the current debates on Calvinism and alcohol. A good dose of Romans 14-15 would help us a great deal.
  • The infatuation with church growth methodology which has produced a harvest of churches steeped in pragmatism and built on numerical success.
  • The recovery of meaningful church membership rooted in the principles of a regenerate church and loving discipline.
  • The recovery of a biblical understanding of the gospel itself which will shape our evangelistic and mission efforts and fuel what Stetzer calls a "great commission resurgence."
  • The emphasis of the sufficiency of Scripture which will protect us from fad-driven approaches to preaching and ministry.

Others have said these things before and said them better. My prayer is that our denomination will indeed see the signs on the horizon and come together in the power of the Spirit to address these problems. I pray that God would be pleased to do a work of revival among us which will bear the fruit of renewed churches for the glory of Christ.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Moore on McLaren

Baptist Press reports on Dr. Russell Moore's comments after a speech by Brian McLaren at a Willow Creek Conference. Dr. Moore makes some very good points. The entire article is worth a read. Here is one poignant segment.

"McLaren's comments at Willow Creek are not themselves surprising," he said. "What is surprising is that a Christian conference, especially one growing out of a movement designed to reach 'seekers' for Christ, would invite him to speak. When McLaren questions the existence of hell and the hope of the second coming, he is not a 'new kind of Christian.' Such things are neither new nor Christian.

"They are instead a repetition of the voice of a snake in a long-ago garden: 'Has God said?' and 'You shall not surely die.' It is tragic that one of the world's most renowned evangelical churches would highlight this kind of Serpent-sensitive worship."

More Contextualization Silliness

I read this brief article today about a church in Ohio that is starting a satellite in a local bar. It is called Country Rock Church. The online ad for the new church stated, "Top regional bands, pizza, wings, rowdy fun & a short message." The initial sermon by the pastor was based on the mechanical bull in the bar where the church meets. He developed the analogy of how staying on the mechanical bull is a lot like learning how to get along in life.

There is a lot of this kind of thing happening today in the name of contextualizing the gospel to reach people who don't go to traditional churches. Go where the people are, identify with their culture, tailor your message to suit their lingo and their lifestyle and seek to reach them. Like Paul said, we are supposed to become all things to all men in order to save them.

Of course, there is always some contextualization required in sharing the gospel. Language itself is a contextual issue. Mexican people understand the gospel best in Spanish, for example. Certainly it is appropriate, even necessary, to contextualize the gospel so that it can be understood in a particular cultural setting. Yet, much of what we see today in the name of contextualization seems to me to be a dangerous cultural identification which obscures the gospel.

Top bands, beer, pizza, wings, and rowdy fun will certainly draw the country-rock crowd. But will pasting a "short message" on this line-up communicate the centrality of Jesus Christ? I seriously doubt it. When Paul spoke among the intellectual elite on Mars Hill in Athens, he quoted a couple of their well-known poets. This surely demonstrated his familiarity with the intellectual culture. But he proceeded to confront their culture with the claims of Christ. He didn't change the elements of the gospel which he knew would not play well with this crowd. He spoke of Christ's Lordship, resurrection, and the coming judgment. He told them they needed to repent.

The gospel confronts people of all cultures with their need to repent of their sin, believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and surrender their lives to Him in complete trust. Anything we do in the name of contextualization which obscures or diminishes that message is not gospel-friendly.

Friday, April 18, 2008

What You Owe Your Creator

In developing the implications of the doctrine of God as Creator, I have spent some time in Romans 1:18-25 this week. I was seeking to demonstrate a proper response to the truth of Genesis 1:1. In this text, Paul traces the downward spiral of idolatry which begins with the suppression of the truth about God revealed in creation. The suppression of this truth darkens the understanding of man and opens the door for all kinds of foolish speculation. This nosedive continues with the exchange of the truth of God for the lie of idolatry in which the creature is worshiped rather than the blessed Creator. This exchange results in all manner of moral and spiritual chaos expressed in a catalog of sinful behaviors.

In the midst of this passage, there are three things pinpointed which man owes the Creator but which man did not render to Him. In v. 21 we read that thought they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or give thanks. In v. 25 we read that they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. Consider these three things which all of us owe to God as our Creator.

Acclaim: We should glorify God as our Creator. Rather than suppressing the truth about God revealed in creation and ignoring the glory of God, we ought to praise Him. As the hymn writer said in response to his contemplation of God's power revealed in creation, "Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee, how great Thou art..." Our souls should sing to God and render Him the praise that He alone deserves.

Appreciation: We should be thankful to God as our Creator. As our Creator, God is the source and sustainer of our lives. All we have comes from Him. Our possessions, our families, the very air we breathe is provided by God. To give Him thanks from a heart full of gratitude is an appropriate response to His bountiful goodness.

Adoration: We should worship God as our Creator. In both affections and actions, we should worship and serve God alone. Nothing should supplant His rightful place on the throne of our lives. We must allow nothing to eclipse His glory in our hearts. We must be honest about our tendency to worship the things God gives rather than God Himself. He alone deserves our adoration.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Jesus Is Not a Vending Machine

Paul Tripp and Timothy Lane have written a book called How People Change. It is a wonderfully gospel-centered book about how God transforms lives. One of the things that grips me as I am working my way through this book is how seriously the authors take the gospel. Like the gospel, they locate the real problems with our lives not outside of us but inside of us - our sin. In addition, they locate the solution to our problems (sin) not as something we generate from the inside, but something that comes from outside of us - redemption through Christ. It is refreshing to read a book about life change that views sin as a radical problem and salvation and as a radical solution.

There are a plethora of excellent quotes I have underlined in this book. Here is one that got my attention.

Jesus is not a vending machine that dispenses what we want to feel good about ourselves. He is the Holy One who comes to cleanse us, fill us, and change us. He does not do this according to our agendas. He will not serve our wayward needs. He loves us too much to merely make us happy. He comes to make us holy. There will be many occasions when he will not give us what we think we need, but rather, he will give us what he knows we need.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Expelled

Perhaps you have heard the buzz about the upcoming Ben Stein movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. You can read a nice article about it here. The movie is about the expulsion of various scientists from the academic community because they believe in a form of Intelligent Design (ID). One scholar who has experienced the wrath of the academic community because of his own commitment to ID is William Dembski. He states, "This film exposes the hypocrisy of an academic and cultural elite who pretend that they value freedom of inquiry and expression but in fact suppress it when it clashes with their deeply held materialistic convictions."

I applaud the efforts of those in the scientific community who have risked reputation and livelihood to demonstrate the viability of ID. Sadly, the very reason that scholars like Dembski must fight such academic battles is because of another, much more damaging expulsion. In Romans 1:18-32, Paul traces the downward spiral of a people who suppress the truth of God revealed in creation. Though the created universe reveals the invisible deity and power of God, man rejects and suppresses this knowledge. This leads to intellectual, moral, social, and spiritual darkness and idolatry. In Romans 1:28, we read the amazing statement that people "did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer (NASB)." The KJV says they "did not like to retain God in their knowledge." In other words, they expelled God from their minds.

The advent of Darwinism gave people a scientific excuse to expel God from their minds. Armed with a new theory of origins, hostile sinners could now form an alliance with "science" and defeat the idea of a Creator once and for all. It is important that we understand that man's rejection of God is not really a scientific problem. It is a moral problem. Darwinism didn't give birth to sin. Sin gave birth to Darwinism and then co opted it to make its rejection of God palatable and respectable.

Long before any academic proponents of ID were expelled from universities, God was being expelled from the minds of sinners who will go to great lengths to avoid their inevitable accountability to their Creator.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Extending the Conversation with Islam

CT Blog has reported that the World Evangelical Alliance has extended the documented conversation between Christians and Muslims. This began with the publication of a document from Muslim leaders called A Common Word Between Us and You. This was followed a few months later by a statement from the Yale Center for Faith and Culture called Loving God and Neighbor Together. Now the WEA has released a statement called We Too Want to Live in Love, Peace, Freedom, and Justice.

The WEA statement, in contrast to the Yale Center statement, is very forthright about the differences between Islam and Christianity. Things such as the doctrine of the Trinity, Christ's atoning work on the cross, the deity of Jesus, the exclusivity of Jesus as Savior, the doctrine of human sin, and religious freedom are tackled in the WEA statement. Though it calls for Muslims and Christians to be respectful and peaceful with each other, it doesn't gloss over the very deep differences between the two faiths.

This is a much more honest approach for those who hold to historic evangelical commitments. I appreciate the WEA entering this conversation. Let's hope that it leads to realistic dialogue.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Two Things Worth Remembering

In late 1807, John Newton lay dying. At the age of 82, he had lived a long and celebrated life. The printed story of his conversion entitled An Authentic Narrative had become a best-seller. It was a compelling story of the mercy of God which took a young slave ship captain, preserved him through dangers on land and at sea, and transformed him into a preacher of the gospel. Newton had also distinguished himself as a hymn writer. Along with his friend William Cowper, he had published Olney Hymns, the hymn book that became world famous and included such songs as Amazing Grace and Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken. He had become a leading evangelical figure in England, widely sought as a preacher and respected as a theologian. Through his friendship with William Wilberforce, Newton became a prominent player in the abolition movement. In addition, he personally knew some of the most influential evangelical men of the 18th century such as Whitefield, Wesley, Venn, and Grimshaw.

As Newton lay dying, confined to his bedroom in the winter of 1807, William Jay came to call on him. Jay recorded the visit in these terms:

I saw Mr. Newton near the closing scene. He was hardly able to talk; and all I find I had noted down upon my leaving him was this: 'My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.'

Of all the adventurous and significant things which happened to John Newton in his 82 years, the things his mind seized upon in his dying days were the themes of his life - the greatness of his sin and the greatness of his Savior. These same themes resound in his world famous hymn Amazing Grace. These twin truths anchored his life against both pride and despair. All of us would do well to constantly remind ourselves of the gospel themes of our great sin and our great Savior.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Great Marriage Seminar with Dr. Paul Tripp

Of the several marriage related seminars or weekends I have attended over the years, last weekend with Dr. Paul Tripp was the best. Thanks to Todd Pruitt and our friends at Metro East Baptist Church for planning and hosting this event. It was eye-opening and extremely helpful.

Three things stand out in my mind regarding this event. First, it was thoroughly biblical. Many of these kinds of things are built on techniques and how-to stuff. This event was built on the teaching of Scripture. It was very substantial rather than hollow and cosmetic. The Word of God really penetrates to the heart of our issues.

Second, the event was gospel-centered. There was repeated mention of our sin and God's grace. It was not a moralistic message to "do better" or "try harder." The teaching was punctuated with reminders that we are fallen people in a fallen world desperate for God's grace through Jesus Christ. There was no hint that we can improve ourselves apart from the truth of the gospel.

Third, the application of Scripture was personal, pointed, and penetrating. Dr. Tripp did a magnificent job painting the intersection of biblical truth and real life. I found myself identifying with many of his examples. It was truth with skin on it.

I highly recommend Dr. Tripp's written resources as well. It was nice to have so many of these things available at the conference. If you ever have an opportunity to participate in one of his seminars, don't miss out!

Friday, April 04, 2008

Jewish-Christian Relations and the Gospel - 2

In the last post we looked at some challenges raised to the idea that Christians ought to evangelize Jewish people. Specifically, we noted the arguments of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach raised in his Jerusalem Post article. In this post, I want to share some general thoughts on the issue of evangelizing Jewish people. I also want to respond to some specific issues raised by Rabbi Boteach.

The evangelism of Jews was actually launched by Jews in the first century. The Book of Acts makes it clear that the early church began as a largely Jewish group. The apostles were all Jews. It was those Jewish apostles who believed the message of a Jewish Messiah (Jesus) that spearheaded the evangelistic movement recorded in Acts. The commission of Jesus to his followers was to make disciples of all nations beginning in Jerusalem, then to Judea, then to Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. That encompasses all nations and cultures, including Jewish culture. So, for the Christian, faithfulness to the commands of Jesus does not allow us to exempt any culture from the commission to carry the gospel to all nations.

Rabbi Boteach accuses Christians of being disrespectful of Jews by seeking to evangelize them. I do not doubt that some Christians are disrespectful in their evangelism, not only to Jews, but to people in general. There have been Christians who, regrettably, have expressed even anti-Semitic views in the history of the church. However, as a whole, I do not believe that Christians disrespect Judaism. My experience has been that most Christians have great respect and admiration for the Jewish faith. We do, after all, share some very important things in common.

In addition, Rabbi Boteach seems to believe that Judaism has some important things to offer the world, including Christians. He states, "But it is specifically Jewish values which today represent a great hope for rejuvenating a crumbling modern world and from which our Christian brethren can greatly benefit." I have to wonder if he welcomes the idea of Gentiles converting to Judaism. If so, could others not accuse him of disrespecting their religion? This seems to be an inconsistent position to take.

There seem to be some misunderstandings of Christianity in Rabbi Boteach's response. He states for instance that Christianity teaches that what you believe is more important than what you do. I assume this is taken from the Christian emphasis on justification by faith rather than works. However, historic evangelicalism does not say that what we do is unimportant. Indeed what we believe ought to make an observable difference in what we do. As James tells us, the genuineness of our faith is demonstrated by our works. The gospel does teach that our salvation is by faith alone. But the faith that saves us is never alone. It is accompanied and demonstrated by good works.

Rabbi Boteach also states that Christianity values perfection while Judaism values struggle. This, again, is a distortion of the New Testament. Christianity values perfection in the sense that perfection is our hope. We believe that one day we will be perfected in Christ. However, to say that we do not value struggle would be misleading. The road to our future perfection is a road of struggle. Sanctification, the process of being perfected, is a life-long struggle. It is through this struggle that God continually shapes our lives into the image of Christ. This struggle is variously presented as the struggle of the old man and new man, the flesh and the Spirit. It is reported in great personal intensity by the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:14-25. It is in this struggle that Christians progress and grow.

Finally, Rabbi Boteach speaks of a dichotomy between the Christian emphasis on salvation and the Jewish emphasis on redemption. This too is a misleading dichotomy. Redemption is very much a part of the Christian idea of salvation. The New Testament speaks often of redemption as one key aspect of salvation through Christ. It was out of the background of the Jewish Passover that Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper as a memorial for the church to continually recall and celebrate the redemption purchased by the sacrifice of Christ Himself on the cross. Indeed, Christians view the cross of Christ as the ultimate deliverance from the slavery of sin which is typified in the Jewish Passover. Granted, the Jewish understanding of redemption may be much different than the Christian idea. Yet, Christians do value the concept of redemption as very much a part of their understanding of the work of God.

In the final analysis, it is not surprising that Rabbi Boteach finds the Christian gospel hard to swallow. In order for him to embrace Christianity, he would have to accept Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah of his Scriptures. He would have to accept the fact that his Scriptures prophesy and typify (especially in the sacrificial system) the Messianic identity of Jesus of Nazareth. He would have to accept the idea that the Jewish Messiah was indeed the Son of God who suffered and died at the hands of the Jews and Romans on a cross outside Jerusalem, and that this death was the final and perfect sacrifice for sin. Hard to accept indeed.

This is what the Apostle Paul articulated in 1 Corinthians 1:22-24:

For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

At the end of the day, it is not just Jews but all people who have a difficult time accepting the truth that the saving power and wisdom of God is Jesus Christ of Nazareth. This gospel is offensive and hard to swallow. It makes no sense to a fallen world. We Christians should never be disrespectful or abrasive in our proclamation of this gospel. But we should not be surprised when people find it incredible and hard to believe. After all, without God's help, none of us would believe it. As Paul states in 1 Corinthians 1:30, "But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God and righteousness and sanctification , and redemption."

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Jewish-Christian Relations and the Gospel

The World Evangelical Alliance ignited a firestorm of criticism with their publication of a document called The Gospel and the Jewish People - An Evangelical Statement. You can read the statement here. Jews for Jesus affirmed the WEA statement in their own email bulletin stating they "applaud the statement as should all those who believe what the Bible teaches about the gospel."

In an article in the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach argues that the WEA statement is a real setback for Jewish-Christian relations. He laments, "And just when we thought that Christians and Jews could really work together to reverse this tide, we get this: Christians who profess to be the Jewish people's friends by devoting themselves to the end of their existence as Jews." He goes on to say that though the divinity of Jesus is completely incompatible with Judaism, Jews respect their Christian neighbors. He calls for Christians to do the same by making the decision "to once and for all declare their reciprocity by refraining from ever directly targeting Jews for conversion." The Rabbi goes on to say that Jesus Himself would be appalled that Christians are trying to pry their Jewish friends away from Judaism.

Though he obviously resents the idea of Christians evangelizing Jews, Rabbi Boteach sees this latest round of controversy as an opportunity for the Jewish community to reeducate Christians about the Jewishness of Jesus. He states that "Jesus' mission was to renew Jewish attachment to the Torah in a time when the threads of tradition were being unwoven due to the oppressive hand of the occupying Roman beast." This reevaluation of Jesus in light of his Jewishness is key to restoring healthy Jewish-Christian relations.

The Rabbi then goes on to point out some areas where the Christian understanding of faith and life differ from the Jewish. Here are some quotes from Rabbi Boteach to illustrate the point.

For instance, Christianity says that faith trumps action. What you believe is more important than what you do. And that's why they want us to believe in Jesus. But is that really the problem in the world today, that people don't have the right beliefs, or that they don't have the right actions?

Another example: Christianity values perfection while Judaism values struggle. Jesus was perfect, and Christians are meant to emulate his example. But in this age where we are all so deeply flawed and so many are lost, the message they must hear is that of the Hebrew Bible, which recounts all the errors of its heroes to teach us that even flawed human beings can vastly contribute to the perfection of the world.

And is the Christian emphasis on salvation what we most need now, or is it the Jewish emphasis on redemption? Should we be talking about getting into heaven when, after so many thousands of years of human history, our earth still has genocide in Darfur, terrorism in the Middle East, and broken, lonely souls across the West? Rather than worrying who needs to be converted to get into heaven, Christians and Jews should join together to create heaven here on earth.


In my next post, I will respond to the challenges which Rabbi Boteach has raised and try to give an evangelical response to the issue of evangelizing Jewish people.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Are You Emergent?

Tim Challies posted this gem. This somewhat tongue-in-cheek post does expose some of the issues inherent in the debate between the emerging church movement and historic evangelicalism. I found it both humorous and enlightening. Maybe you will too.