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.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

God's Majesty Displayed in Judgment

We don't normally think of worship and wrath in the same context. I don't know too many worship songs which hold forth the fury of God's judgment as a theme for praise. We sing of God's mercy, love, grace, beauty, holiness, faithfulness, and so on. This is as it should be. But in working my way through Exodus 15:1-21 this week, I came across this verse.

In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries; you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. (Exodus 15:7)

This verse is part of the song of Moses lifted in praise to God after the deliverance at the Red Sea. In vv. 4-10 of this song, Moses praises the Lord for his judgment of the armies of Egypt. The arrogance of Pharaoh's army was met with the fury of God's "burning anger" (NASB). Moses and the people praised the Lord for this display of His great majesty through the utter defeat of His enemies. This display of God's power in judgment would cause the nations to tremble, be gripped with anguish, be dismayed, melt away, and be seized with terror and dread (Ex. 15:14-16). It was a fearful exhibition of God's furious wrath and power to consume His enemies in judgment.

Of course there is a sense in which we do not wish anyone to experience the fearful judgment of God. We desire that people would repent and trust in Christ and be delivered from judgment. God Himself tells us that He takes no delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:32). Yet, the expression of God's greatness in judgment still elicits the praise of His people. Why?

I think of two reasons. First, the judgment of the armies of Pharaoh also served as the deliverance of Israel. One event served two purposes. The Red Sea crossing was the salvation of Israel and the judgment of Egypt. Second, the judgment of God against the wicked is a function of His holiness. Moses follows his description of the defeat of Egypt with these words:

Who is like You among the gods, O Lord? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders? (Ex. 15:11).

The judgment of God on Egypt revealed His incomparable holiness. So, to sing in praise of the judgment of God against His enemies is not to gloat over the destruction of our foes. Rather it is to lose ourselves in the wonder of His uniqueness as the Holy One.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Plea for Passion

Sunday morning while ironing my dress shirt (yes, I know how to iron a dress shirt) I was watching a TV pastor. I don't even remember his name or his church. He was passionately preaching about something he called "the transfer zone" and generally making the statement that we need to transfer our faith from one generation to the next. I shook my head and mumbled something negative. My wife chided me for judging the preacher before I even heard two minutes of what he was saying. She challenged me not to judge him just on his style or method. This was a gentle correction which I needed. I admit that I am often very hard on preachers. So, we listened a while longer.

It turned out that this preacher did get wackier at a fairly quick pace. The wackier he got, the louder he got. He started saying something about how John the Baptist jumped in Elizabeth's womb when Mary showed up. He then said that when we hear something spiritually good it should "make our baby jump." Citing Elizabeth's old age, he said, "You're never too old to get pregnant!" He shouted about how his baby was jumping and then said he wanted to "run the pews." With that, the people were on their feet and applauding raucously. Jamie and I both agreed it was time to hit the off button at that point.

Two things about that episode really make me sad. First, I am sad that so many of God's people have the idea that this kind of thing represents "good preaching." Gumby himself could not have survived the various ways that this preacher twisted and distorted the text of Scripture. Even when he said some good things, he absolutely massacred the Bible in the process of saying it. It is a sad thing when the decibel level of the preacher is higher than the discernment level of the people. Adrenaline is no substitute for sound interpretation. In my opinion, a church built on the sands of experience instead of the rock of Scripture is ripe for a fall.

Perhaps even sadder is the fact that so many congregations where the truth is faithfully preached seem to have little or no excitement about the Word of God. Which is worse, to get a knock-off and be jubilant as though it were real or to get the real thing and be ho-hum about it? It is criminal that we should grasp the truth of God and be unmoved by it. Biblically fed churches should be the most enthusiastic, lively, joyful churches on the planet. Of course I'm not talking about "running the pews" or some kind of emotionalistic hype. I am talking about a deep and abiding joy that comes from having our souls fed and challenged by the truth of Scripture. I am talking about spiritual passion that runs deep and strong.

As a theological conservative who believes that expositional preaching ought to be the mainstay of every pulpit, I must say that I often long for more passion in the worship life of my church. I pray for God to fill my heart with passion in declaring His unsearchable riches made known in the pages of Scripture. I pray for the people of God to so engage with His Word that they are filled with joy and enthusiasm for spiritual things. I pray for a holy hunger to seize our hearts which is only matched by the utter joy of our souls being satisfied in God.

There need not be a cleavage between biblical discernment and spiritual passion. They ought to go together. I am not calling for less discernment but more passion.