Showing posts with label Church. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Church. Show all posts

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Hills to Die On

Two Johns are among the most well-recognized and respected voices of the Reformed stream of Christianity in America today: Dr. John Piper and Dr. John Macarthur. The two respect each other, and have occasionally partnered together in various ministries (in particular, Piper’s invitations to Macarthur to speak at Desiring God events). Both are gifted expositors; both are passionate about God’s word; both are dedicated to the good of the church.

In my listening to both of them, one distinct difference comes up—one that is probably as much personality as anything, and which I am not going to make too much of, other than as a starting point for the rest of this post. John Piper is a good deal kinder to those who disagree with him. Macarthur and Piper are both firebrands; that is a significant part of what I like about them. But Piper draws his circle in the sand a good deal more generously than Macarthur does.

He has encouraged the “Young, Restless and Reformed” crowd not to make the mistake of separating too quickly or easily from other believers with whom they (we) have disagreements. Macarthur, by contrast, is quite happy to pronounce that others are in serious, dangerous error over what I believe are secondary (if nonetheless important) issues: the exact timing and means of creation and a Calvinist soteriology being the two strongest examples I can think of. As I said, a great deal of this is probably personality, and I do not mean this as criticism of Macarthur, whose ministry I respect.

Even so, I appreciate Piper’s even-handed and courteous treatment of those he disagrees with—his strong but generous treatment of N. T. Wright in their ongoing discussion of justification being a prime example.

As I was thinking this through earlier, I realized that it goes to the heart of an issue I have mentally chewed on a great deal recently: the question of where we ought to condemn and where we ought to disagree. For example, I would argue that Open Theism fits in the first category, along with modalism, works salvation, and other major heresies. So do cultish views like those espoused by Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. These views fundamentally and irreconcilably distort the nature of God, our relationship to him and the gospel itself.

By contrast, I think the Calvinism-Arminian discussion fits squarely in the second category. While I disagree with the Arminian view, that makes little difference fellowship: my Arminian brothers stand well within the circle of orthodoxy. I might say the same on a number of other issues, including baptism, eschatology, and church government. In each case, I have strong, carefully thought through views—but I recognize that in those cases, they are not grounds for sundering Christian fellowship. However important these issues are, and they are very important, they are not irreconcilable differences on the gospel and the person of God. That, I think, is the difference.

(Whether they are grounds for splitting churches in another, although closely related, topic. I will be taking it up at Pillar on the Rock sometime in the next few months, so keep an eye out.)

A few months ago, I led our small group in a discussion of Titus. One of the themes of Titus is contending for sound doctrine. The elders Titus appointed were to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (1:9). Titus himself was to “rebuke [insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers] sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (1:13). Paul reminded him, “Declare these things [the gospel], exhort and rebuke with all authority” (2:15) and later reiterated this point, writing, “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things [the gospel], so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (3:8). Immediately following, though, he continues:

But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
Titus 3:9-11

The gospel summaries Paul offers stand as the foundation of the rest of the letter—and in stark opposition to the divisiveness Paul opposes. He allowed no room in the church for bickering and squabbling over secondary issues. People who stirred up division should not be tolerated. There is a hill to die on, in Paul’s mind—but it was not the hot-button issues of the day (genealogies may sound boring, but to a 1st-century Jew, they were as significant as many of our theological controversies today). He defines “these things” rather simply:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Titus 2:11-14
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Titus 3:3-7

This is the hill I will die on. On every other point, I will be as peaceable as I can, doing everything possible to preserve the bond of peace between me and my brothers and sisters in Christ. Though I will argue strenuously for my views, I will not ultimately break fellowship over them. But on the gospel itself, and on the nature of God himself, I will not budge.

Here is where I have learned from Dr. Piper: he is deeply, passionately committed to getting Jesus Christ and his gospel right. As passionate as he is about believer’s baptism, church membership, and a host of other issues, he is first and foremost committed to the gospel—and when he rebukes another view (or even more rarely, publically rebukes another leader), he does so graciously and kindly, doing his best to preserve peace. Would we were all so committed to making Christ known by loving unity even in the midst of disagreement.

Our differences will not go away, and we should not attempt to trivialize them; yet neither should we allow them to divide us and so obscure the unity that Christ bought us with his blood.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Great expectations - Sermon notes, 11/1/09

This week's message was by John Abernethy, our pastor for marriage and families. I've only heard John teach one other time, but I've always heard exceptionally good things about him from people I trust. Today's message was on expectations in relationships. Rather than a single sermon text, he taught from several passages throughout Scripture. As such, I'll quote those in the text as we go along.
Psalm 33:18-22, NASB
Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him,
         On those who hope for His lovingkindness,
    To deliver their soul from death
         And to keep them alive in famine.
    Our soul waits for the LORD;
         He is our help and our shield.
    For our heart rejoices in Him,
         Because we trust in His holy name.
    Let Your lovingkindness, O LORD, be upon us,
         According as we have hoped in You.
The passage points us to focus on God: on His promise, his name, his all-sufficiency. His lovingkindness is hope, he is help and shield, he is our trust, he is hope. No one but God will meet our needs; no one but he can meet our needs.

With this as his foundation, John moved on to discuss how so often our relationships suffer because of our expectations.
Proverbs 13:12, NASB
Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
         But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.
He argued that expectations are not only a regular source of conflict in many relationships, especially marriage; they're also something we can actively deal with and change. "Understanding, verbalizing, and changing expecations can have a large impact," he said. The expectations that we have are learned, so they can be relearned; the things we pick up from friends, family, and media can be substituted for better, healthier (more Biblical, I add!) expectations of each other, no matter the relationship.

John commented that there are three ways he sees expectations causing problems, summarized by three U's: Unaware, Unreasonable, Unspoken.

We are often unaware of the expectations we have. We expect our days to pass, our spouses to interact with us, and our friends to behave in rather particular ways, but we often don't realize exactly what it is we're anticipating until our hopes have been deferred. Then we find ourselves frustrated and angry because of those expectations. We need to carefully think about what it is that we're expecting of our days and our relationships - even as simply as writing a list.

Unreasonable expectations can upset us just as quickly, and have unpleasant consequences. John pointed to the example of Peter: a man blessed for recognizing that Jesus was the prophesied messiah, and then moments later rebuked for telling christ he wouldn't go to the cross. Peter's expectation was for an earthly king, but that wasn't what Christ had come to do; his expectation was unreasonable. We require humility to hear that our expectations are unreasonable, and gentleness and kindness to tell others as much.

Finally, we often deal with the consequences of unspoken expectations. People cannot meet expectations they are unaware of, even if they are reasonable. Especially in marriage, this one is both one of the most common and the most easily resolved problems: it simply requires straightforward communication.

Our goal is to be sweet to others souls, setting them before us and serving them.

I thought the message had a lot of good content, and it was filled with a lot of practical application. John's heart for marriages came through very clearly, and he's both a good communicator and a good teacher. I did wish that he would have spent some more time dwelling on Christ as our soul-satisfier. It is good to deal practically with our expectations, but in the end we will always be thirsty until we quench our thirst in him.
John 4:10-14, ESV
Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock." Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

179,676 Days

For years, I've promised to write a Reformation Day post. Every year, I've failed. This year, I've made no such promise, but here I am succeeding. Irony, thy name is Chris Krycho, at least for the next hour.

492 years ago—179,976 days, including leap years—Martin Luther nailed up a list of issues he saw with the Catholic church of his day on the door of a Wittenburg church. What followed was one of the most momentous changes in the history of the church, and indeed the world. It is no exaggeration to say that I sit here today, typing away, because of Martin Luther and the men that followed his lead. They shook the world, both for good and for ill.

I am grateful for men like Luther and Calvin and Zwingli. I walk with Christ because these men were as faithful as they could be to the Bible. They took it as their authority, let it rule their doctrine and their lives. They were horribly imperfect men; from Luther's anti-Semitism to Calvin's failure with Servetus, they stumbled along the way. I find it encouraging that these men, sinners all, were used powerfully by God. He is not limited by our weaknesses.

One could say many things today. For my part, I want to focus in on one thing I think the reformers themselves did very well that Protestants have generally done quite poorly ever since: reform.

The Reformers' name isn't a misnomer. Luther and Calvin both deeply valued unity, and wanted an internal restoration of the church they loved. By all accounts they were grieved that their own excommunication was the result of their efforts. They fought hard for what they believed was true, but they also cared deeply about following Christ's commands that we seek unity. For too many Christians since the Reformation, schism has become the easiest out when a doctrinal difference appears. Instead of asking whether or not we can find a way to either resolve the difference or live with the difference, we simply split and go our own way.

Worse, schism has become such a norm that churches have split over the proverbial carpet color. Instead of being a people known by their love for one another, Christians (at least, of the Protestant fold) have become a people known for their divisions. When any given topic has the potential to produce church-splitting conflicts, we are not modeling the love of Christ. We need to learn right practice as well as right doctrine from the reformers. Yes, we must hold fast to right teaching, to sound doctrine, and to the primacy of Scripture. We should not be afraid to call heresy out for what it is. At the same time, we need to be careful not to call heresy things that aren't, and we need to show grace to our brothers and sisters in the Lord. We must strive to reform our churches instead of splitting them.

When Christ is rightly esteemed, we have a much better grasp on just how unimportant things like our own decor preferences are. When He is understood to be the center of and the aim of all we're doing, our own ministry aims must be subsumed to the greater goals of the church. When Christ crucified and come to life again is our gospel, we understand that many of our doctrinal differences are simply unworthy of schism. Indeed, only heresy is worth a violent separation, and few doctrines are worth any separation at all! I may not be a Presbyterian, for example—I'm not much one for infant baptism!—but I certainly ought to have close fellowship with my Presbyterian brothers and sisters in Christ. We have much more that unites us than separates. We shouldn't paper over our differences, but we can treat them as what they are: trifling, compared to our unity on Christ and His work. When issues arise in our own churches, we should work with all of our power to resolve them or to come to a place of amicable disagreement. If at long last we should come to the conclusion that it is best to go our separate ways—e.g. over infant baptism—then it ought to be done with the deepest charity and the most heartfelt affection. When churches do separate, they ought to do it with love for one another and with the aim to continue in fellowship and in cooperation for the gospel.

Happy Reformation Day. Keep reforming.

Sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solo Christo, soli Deo gloria.
By Scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone, glory to God alone.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sermon thoughts, 10/18/08

I think I'm going to begin making a regular habit out of blogging on the teaching at my church, Wildwood Community Church in Norman, Oklahoma. The more time I spend in the church, the better I like it and the more respect and regard I have for the elders and staff there. My goal in writing these posts is encouragement of the wider body of Christ with how God is working here - and perhaps a bit of self-instruction, as I remember to learn from the teaching. It's too easy to be overly critical of a sermon or a Sunday school class, and correspondingly to miss how God is speaking. We can quite easily confuse discernment and careful consideration with simply criticizing. I intend to combat that tendency in myself and hopefully encourage others by sharing what I learned from the preaching.

For today, you might find my wife's post on the same sermon to be edifying - I did!

If you find the material useful, I'd encourage you to check out the blog of Mark Robinson, our executive pastor. (I'll make a point to highlight his blog whenever I'm referencing one of his sermons, as he often has notes on his blog that tie in.) You may also enjoy Jeremy Horton, our college pastor's blog.

I'll quote whichever version the teaching pastor used in their sermon for the sermon text, and then summarize the sermon as well as provide some thoughts of my own if I have any that are relevant and hopefully edifying.

---

October 18, 2008 - Bruce Hess, "Right Choices, Choose to Focus Wisely"
Sermon Text: Philippians 4:8-9, NASB
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

I'll open this post the way Bruce did his sermon. (Note: this would ordinarily have driven me nuts, but, as I'll explain later, I think it was right on in this case.)



Bruce spent a few minutes talking about how much of our time we spend filling our thoughts with all that is wrong, negative, gloomy, unjust, and sinful in this world. He noted that it's not merely "sinful" movies, music, and so on that's at issue here, but the news media and most other sources of information in our day. Very rarely do we hear about, much less spend our time on good things.

This, Bruce pointed out, is thoroughly unbiblical. He then moved into the text and started unpacking for us why it is good to watch news stories like the one posted above. The passage breaks down neatly into two main points and a consequence.

The first point is that we need to think right. Bruce commented that "true" here means more than simply not false, but extends to thinking on more than mere opinion. Focus on the real truth - the word of God, and the good news of Christ (see John 17:17 and Colossians 1:5). Honorable things and just things are actions that match God's behaviors and His heart toward people. When we see people behaving with honor and executing justice and doing right, we should really let it sink in. Lovely things are gracious, beautiful, or winsome - his pictures were of a stunning sunset or a nursing mother. For commendable things, he noted that we should remember kindnesses and well-done deeds. Last but not least, he emphasized that the conclusion of the verse, "any excellence... anything worthy of praise" points us to exactly that: anything that is excellent and worthy of praise.

The second point, he noted, is that we should not only think right, but also live right. He didn't spend a lot of time on this, not least because there was a good deal more going on in our service than normal, though I wish he had!

Last but not least, he dwelt on the promise that concludes the passage: if you think on these things and practice as Paul did, the God of peace will be with you. It's a striking promise, and the more so in context. Only two verses earlier, Paul instructed the Philippians that if they chose to thankfully pray instead of being anxious, God's peace would guard their hearts and minds. Here, he goes a step further: not only will God give His peace, He who is peace will give Himself, His own presence. It's a stunning promise, and one that we would do well to dwell on. (It is, in fact, something true that we should think about!)

Bruce's points of application for the sermon were good and practical. First, we need to evaluate our intake - of media, of conversation, of anything that influences our thoughts. Second, we need to examine our own conversations and make sure that we are focusing on the good things listed above. As an aside during his walkthrough of the text, Bruce hit on the fact that we should make a point to commend what is commendable and comment on what is lovely - with families, especially.

To Bruce's application, I would add one point of my own, which is that we need to choose to actively meditate on these things and to imitate Paul (and the other apostles, and Christ Himself). This is why I liked his use of the video to open the sermon. It's immensely practical, and it's the sort of story that is out there. It's not explicitly Christian, but it definitely fits in the "if there is anything worthy of praise" category. The best way to meditate on these things is to find them and enjoy them, and remember them as we go throughout the day.

One thing that struck me as terribly important in the passage, and that I was sad we didn't have time to cover today, is that Paul strongly emphasizes following his example. The Philippians were to practice what they had learned and received from him, what they had heard him say, and what they had seen him do. We should, too. It's good to remember that we have Biblical examples on which to model our lives, and that Paul is not merely a teacher of good doctrine but also a model of good practice.

Last but not least, Bruce noted (and I agree) that the point of this passage is not to stick our fingers in our ears, saying "Lalalalalala" and pretending that bad things do not happen. We need to be wise, discerning, and aware of the world. However, we should make it our practice not to live there mentally. We need to spend our mental energy on what is good. That's a significant mindset change from most of what we see in our culture, even in the church, and it's a good reminder.

When we fix our eyes on Christ and think on things that are like Him, we will be actively pursuing the sanctification of our minds. We will be transformed as our minds are renewed. And God Himself will be with us!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Traveling thoughts

This past week, my beautiful wife and I visited Colorado. One of my good friends from high school was getting married on Friday evening. The wedding stirred up a number of thoughts in me.

I thought a bit on how much has changed since high school as I saw a few friends I've literally not seen since graduation day four and a half years ago. I though for longer about how much I have changed in that time, and how much God has done since then. There have been some deeply transforming periods of time in my life, some painful and others joyful. Most of all, I've seen the faithfulness and the deep love of God as He has transformed me. He continues to do so; I learn a bit more every day about dying to myself and living for Christ, and about walking as well as talking out this faith.

The pastor at the wedding was Lutheran, as are the friends who got married. I am not. Yet I have to say that the man's teaching on marriage was some of the best I've heard, and he brought the focus back to Jesus over and over again. It's always such a joy to be reminded that the Church is indeed a body, whole and complete. We have our differences, some of them profound, but we are part of one universal whole that lives and breathes in Christ. No matter what our disagreements with other believers, it's essential that we remember that we are united in Christ. There must be a deeply irenic spirit among us in our interactions, no matter how deep our disagreements. There are lines drawn, of course, beliefs that we hold place one outside the framework of true Christian profession. It is not wrong to call a cult or a heresy by name. Yet we must always remember that God's truth came not in judgment for this age, but in "grace upon grace" (John 1:16). We should strive to model Christ's grace to all who we meet, and above all to be a picture of His love as we interact with other believers of whatever stripe. My friends and their Lutheran pastor, all of whom I have many theological disagreements with, are my brothers and sisters, and I love them. Now, I only need to learn how to love them as Christ does!

As we descended on our flight back home, we came through two and a half layers of cloud. There was a beautiful moment as we passed through the first layer and then were flying between it and the second when we could see all the way to the clear sky between the layers. Then we plunged again into cloud, and there we stayed for some very long minutes. I was reminded, as the plane bounced to and fro, as I caught my wife's nervous eyes, and as I prayed, that we were no less safe in that moment than in any other. We really are resting in the hands of Almighty God every moment of every day. Even in those troubling minutes before the clouds broke and we could see ground only a few hundred feet below, we were as safe as could be. Should our Father wish to take us home, no effort of ours could stop the plane from falling, and should He wish us alive, the plane would land whatever our fears. It is a comforting thing to know that God is truly all-powerful and good. We can rest then in His will, assured of His hand in all that passes through our lives. What hope, to know that God Himself is orchestrating our days! What comfort in the midst of affliction to remember that we are bought with a price, and that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Trolls and Truth review

I just finished reading an interesting book called Trolls and Truth: 14 Realities About Today's Church that We Don't Want To See, by Jimmy Dorrell. Dorrell is the pastor of the Church Under the Bridge in Waco, Texas. The church meets literally under a bridge year round, and is home to many of the poorest in the city. I've heard a lot of good about the church from friends who've attended, so I looked forward to reading the book.

This one is a short read - for anyone, not just for me. It's 215 pages long, with very generous margins and equally large text size. The chapters are short and concise, and Dorrell's style lends itself to quick reading. It's light and conversational, without much fluff.

Each of the 14 truths presented is introduced through a story whose subject is a currently or formerly poverty-stricken individual, many of them mentally ill. Dorrell uses them and their stories to illustrate the Biblical principles he is trying to communicate, and to show how a church implementing those principles can transform a community. Dorrell's principles - from "Looks Don't Matter" to "Use Your Gifts," and from "Fight for the Least Ones" to "The Rich Need the Poor" - are all Biblical, and Dorrell frequently references the Old Testament prophets. That's hardly surprising since his message and Amos' are much the same.

Dorrell does an excellent and admirable job dealing with some difficult subjects. He confronts and condemns racism, American individualism, and other sins from elitism to vanity. It's clear he passionately hates these sins and the way they've influenced American evangelicalism. I often found myself agreeing with his analysis of American churchgoers' selfishness and egoism, and I strongly agreed with his call for the church to do Christlike work in the community. If the church were rightly discharging its responsibilities, many of the homeless, poverty-stricken, and mentally ill would find their lives significantly bettered. He accurately comments that the church has often failed to reach those people from discomfort or laziness. He also accurately analyses the other reason for that failure: a backlash against the social gospel and liberalism of the early twentieth century.

That reaction is one we find ourselves in danger of today, with many of the emergent crowd peddling the same social gospel. Dorrell's book isn't a social gospel book, but it addresses the same issues. Because of that, it would be easy to dismiss his message. Doing so would be a problem, though: he's right, by and large. The evangelical church very much needs to step up its interactions with the poor, and on more than a Thanksgiving-to-Christmas timescale or commitment level. Dorrell hits the nail right on the head when he notes that many American churches - with their multi-million dollar buildings but insufficient money for outreach to the poor - are frighteningly similar to ancient Israel. There are exceptions, of course: good churches doing good works. On the whole, however, self-proclaimed evangelicals are not generous with their time or money: they're still caught up in the lure of the American dream. So while there is a danger of tumbling down the slope of the social gospel, we need to make sure we don't minimize the importance of doing good works in love of God and men.

James reminds us that true religion is caring for orphans and widows. Paul gave detailed instructions to young pastors on care for the widows of the church. Old Testament prophet after Old Testament prophet proclaims God's coming justice on Israel and Judah for forsaking the destitute and abusing the helpless. The apostle John reminds us that "whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him" (John 3.36, emphasis mine). Those are significant commands to care for those in need. We should not ignore Dorrell (and Scripture!) because others have lost sight of Christ in their pursuit of good works. We should simply be wise.

Truth and Trolls did have a few problems, one relatively minor and the other two more significant. The minor issue is straightforward: in his passion for helping the poor and homeless, Dorrell seems to devalue other approaches and other areas of social engagement. He makes several comments about "outdated hymns" and standard modes of teaching, contrasting them with the (apparently) better practices at his own church. I don't have any problem with his approaches, but I do have a problem with his dismissal of others' approaches. He also rags a little on evangelicals' engagement in what he calls "extreme right-wing politics," by which he means "the fight against abortion and gay right" (p. 154). While I acknowledge that the church can sometimes get too caught up in those political battles, I also recognize their importance. Dorrell doesn't seem to.

His criticism of the battle against abortion confuses me. Truth and Trolls' theme is that "our ecclesiology must be upended by the 'least of these': the hungry, imprisoned, sick, and stranger' (p. 29). The unborn, most helpless of all, certainly deserve to be in that list. Unlike the sad but hopeful stories of his 'trolls,' aborted babies have no stories at all. I would have been a little disappointed if he had not brought the issue up, but I was actively bothered when he criticized the church's work there. It seems that, in his passion and desire to see the church Biblically ministering to the poor, Dorrell has minimized the importance of other battles. I hope that he comes to recognize that the fight for the unborn and caring for the poor are not mutually exclusive. They're complementary.

My second concern is with the book's handling of Scripture. In the introduction, for example, he quotes Isaiah 43:19a, "See, I am doing a new thing!" (p. 23) in reference to the Church Under the Bridge. (It's actually about God's provision for His people in spite of their sin.) Later, he quotes from Revelation 3:17, "Because you are warm-neither hot nor cold-I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked'" (p. 32). He fails to note that the pressing concern for Christ in this passage was not wealth or poverty, but idolatry: the church had come to rely on its wealth instead of on God, leading them to be lukewarm. This doesn't hurt Dorrell's thesis, but it doesn't really support it, either. A few counterexamples sprinkle the text - he did well with Isaiah 58's call for a true fast that cares for the poor, for example - but his overall treatment of Scripture was lacking.

Finally, in a book that purports to depict how the church can transform lives and communities, especially of the downtrodden, I was astounded to find no clear declaration of the gospel or its importance. It's mentioned throughout the book - but the mentions are just that; there's no explanation of Christ's saving power or redeeming work. People's lives are transformed not by our good works on their behalf but by the redeeming work of the Holy Spirit. The body of Christ is certainly obligated by Scripture and the love that Christ has planted in our hearts to touch this fallen world. But it is dangerous to place too much emphasis on helping people in this world without doing all we can to win them to eternal life. People's deepest and most important need is Jesus Christ

I don't think Dorrell actually lives, believes, or even teaches that way. The references scattered throughout the book suggest that he and I are actually on the same page about a lot of things: easy-believism and conversionism, consumerism, and so on. Unfortunately, the book never deals straightforwardly with Jesus, the cross, or any of the direct implications on how we engage in serving the poor. That's too bad, because dealing with those topics would have made this decent book an excellent book.

The message the book offers is good and much-needed, but it's a bit incomplete. Dorrell's critiques are mostly accurate, with only a few missteps. He fails to consistently handle Scripture well, though, and he fails to communicate the centrality of the gospel in transforming lives: the most important part of our social engagement. He is certainly right that the church needs to engage in this area more effectively, and his analysis of ways that we can involve ourselves in serving the lowly and downtrodden is very helpful. The book is worth taking a look at if you haven't thought about these issues, but it must be complemented with a liberal dose of the Christ-centered gospel.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Acts29 Church Planting Network

I just stumbled across the Acts 29 church planting network. I'm curious - I've heard them highly recommended by a couple of groups I trust. I can't wholeheartedly recommend them, as I've not done enough research. Their list of qualifications for church-planters is worth taking a good look at, regardless. It's thoroughly grounded in Scripture and quite practical.

One of the best chunks of the article:
In summary, only men of finest character are fit for leadership in God's church. What is not required according to the Bible is formal theological training, though such training can indeed be very beneficial. What is also not required is a salary, though an elder/pastor is worth an honorable wage (I Timothy 5:17-18). The issue of which men lead the church is of the utmost seriousness because the reputation of the gospel in the community and health of the church are contingent upon godly, qualified men who keep in step with Jesus and can lead the church to do likewise. In this way, the elders function as an accountable team much like Jesus first disciples and are therefore quite unlike secular notions of a business or non-profit organizational board. In addition to the qualifications of an elder, the Bible also provides the duties of elders/pastors.
  • Prayer & Scripture study (Acts 6:4)

  • Ruling/leading the church (I Timothy 5:17)

  • Managing the church (I Timothy 3:4-5)

  • Caring for people in the church (I Peter 5:2-5)

  • Giving account to God for the church (Hebrews 13:17)

  • Living exemplary lives (Hebrews 13:7)

  • Rightly using the authority God has given them (Acts 20:28)

  • Teaching the Bible correctly (Ephesians 4:11, I Timothy 3:2)

  • Preaching (I Timothy 5:17)

  • Praying for the sick (James 5:13-15)

  • Teaching sound doctrine & refuting false teachings (Titus 1:9)

  • Working hard (I Thessalonians 5:12)

  • Rightly using money & power (I Peter 5:1-3)

  • Protecting the church from false teachers (Acts 20:17-31)

  • Disciplining unrepentant Christians (Matthew 18:15-17).


I'd recommend you read the whole article. You might take a look around at the site, too, and let me know what you think.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The purpose of the Church

A brief quote from J. Gresham Machen, back in 1933, on why the church exists:
The responsibility of the church in the new age is the same as its responsibility in every age. It is to testify that this world is lost in sin; that the span of human life--no, all the length of human history--is an infinitesimal island in the awful depths of eternity; that there is a mysterious, holy, living God, Creator of all, Upholder of all, infinitely beyond all; that he has revealed himself to us in his Word and offered us communion with himself through Jesus Christ the Lord; that there is no other salvation, for individuals or for nations, save this, but that this salvation is full and free, and that whoever possesses it has for himself and for all others to whom he may be the instrument of bringing it a treasure compared with which all the kingdoms of the earth--no, all the wonders of the starry heavens--area as the dust of the street.

"An unpopular message it is--an impractical message, we are told. But it is the message of the Christian church. Neglect it, and you will have destruction; heed it, and you will have life." (From Selected Shorter Writings, edited by D.G. Hart, 376)


Reminds me of several things. First, that the purpose of the church is not to save children from AIDS or to end all poverty, or any other earth-oriented cause, however noble. It will do those things, but as a reflection of its real purpose, not as its actual purpose. That's where the social gospel goes wrong: it sees the church's task as the accomplishment of all good ends here and now. In reality, the church's goal must always be to make Christ known and to show how very deep our need for Him is. All those other things will come as part of that, but they are not it, and can never replace it. When they do, the church falters.

I'm also reminded of just how much I want to read some of J. Gresham Machen's writing; every time I run into it, I appreciate the things he has to say. Add one more to the already very long reading list. It keeps growing...

HT: Kevin DeYoung @ DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed: What Is the Responsibility of the Church?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Educated pastors?

Note to my readers: I write this blog primarily for the encouragement and exhortation of other Christians. While I welcome feedback from those who are not Christians, I'd appreciate it if you directed most if not all of that response through personal messages to me, so as not to distract from the real purpose of the post. Thanks.

Several times recently I've run into what strikes me as a very strange opposition to seminary training for pastors. The underlying idea, from what I can tell, is that (and I quote) "God doesn't call the equipped; He equips the called." Now, there's some merit to that statement - God does provide spiritual power and gifting we need when we calls us into a ministry. He certainly raises up spiritual leaders in places where seminaries don't exist, or where those that do exist are bad. I'm bothered, though, by the resistance to further education for those who will be teaching and shepherding the sheep.

I understand where the resistance comes from, I think. There is a swinging ball and chain of theology in Christendom, and it delivers as terrible a blow at the extreme of intellectualism as at the height of emotionalism. American believers have seen the coldness and death of intellectual congregations without emotion or application. Along the way, many have seen pastors arrogant and self-assured because of their seminary degrees, strutting where humility was needed. Years ago, the coiled spring exploded, and the force of that recoil is not yet spent. In many circles, the sin is not merely intellectualism but intellectual engagement. "Doctrine" is a scary word, "theology" a dangerous thing to be avoided. Most people in that camp probably wouldn't say it that way, but the undercurrent remains: there is a quiet but strong antipathy to the higher education of pastors and teachers.

There are a number of problems with this, but I'll stick to the one I think is the most important. It's not Biblical.

To set the record straight from the beginning, I'm not condemning pastors or congregations where the pastor doesn't have formal training. Many incredibly gifted preachers and shepherds don't. My concern is with those who reject seminary training for all pastors, seeing it as pointless at best and wrong at worst.

If we survey the patterns and directives of the New Testament, a pattern emerges very quickly in the lives of its leaders. Not all of the leaders of the church were "educated" men—but all of them were deeply educated when they began to lead in ministry. The disciple-apostles included relatively uneducated fishermen... who then spent at least three years immersed in ministry and training under Jesus Christ. Paul was one of the best young Jewish scholars of his day, with a classical education to back it up. His disciples, Timothy and Titus, both traveled with him extensively before taking on pastorates themselves. Both of them were instructed to teach sound doctrine. Timothy was explicitly told to study to show himself approved. James told the teachers that they were under a stricter judgment than the ordinary believers in the church.

My conclusion is that the New Testament quite firmly indicates that those with authority should be seeking to grow in wisdom and in knowledge. What that looks like for each pastor will vary immensely. Some will never go to seminary; some will spend a decade there. We need training in the Scriptures, in good doctrine, in disciplemaking, in worship, in teaching well. Where better to get it than from those who have gone before us?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dealing with hard questions

There is a deep tension in Christianity garbed in modernity. We struggle to find the balance between clear proclamation of truth and a heartfelt expression of love to lost people who surround us. We wrestle with the necessities of the church's engagement with culture and politics and the church's need to present the gospel in a winsome way. At the most fundamental level, we struggle with letting the good news of Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection be the stumbling block that it is, while ourselves not being a stumbling block. And it is good for us to struggle with this tension.

An example (and not a pretty one, but hear me through to the end): the clear teaching of Scripture is that remarriage under nearly any circumstance is sinful. Jesus said, "It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.'" (Matthew 5.31-32) He followed it up some time later thus:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19.1-9)

Jesus Himself - the one we most often think of as the great voice of compassion of the Scriptures, the one who indeed is mercy and love incarnate, clearly says that remarriage under any circumstances except sexual immorality and remarries is committing adultery. Adultery is soundly condemned throughout the Scriptures - from Genesis to Revelation, and in a considerable majority of the texts. It is indeed one of the metaphors God used most frequently in the Old Testament to speak of Israel's unfaithfulness to Him. So the teaching of Scripture is that divorce is allowed because of the hardness of men's hearts and a few other circumstances - sexual immorality and abandonment being the main examples. Only in the case of divorce for sexual immorality is remarriage allowed Biblically.

With that as context, we now must face the question of how to handle that topic as the church - Christ's representatives in this age. We are left with a tension that at first seems difficult to resolve: there are people in our churches who have divorced and remarried and built new families. What do we tell them? How do we show the love of Christ to them? There is no question that we are called to pour forth love and to encourage single parents and members of blended families. At the same time, church leaders, especially teaching pastors, are responsible to clearly proclaim God's teaching on the matter and to enforce it. (I do not believe, for example, that a pastor should perform a second marriage unless the divorce was for adultery: the pastor is responsible for his sheep, and as outlined above, Scripture is clear on this issue.) At the same time, believers are commanded to love one another. We validate our discipleship to the world by the way we love one another - or invalidate it by the way we don't. We are left with a question that, in worldly terms, has no answer. Somehow we must simultaneously love with open arms those who have remarried and proclaim the sinfulness of remarriage. And there are many such questions - the most current being homosexuality or abortion and the church's response to them. It is hopeless.

But we do not operate in the wisdom of this world. We are gifted with the Holy Spirit, who teaches us all things - and the answer has already been given, if we but by His grace remember it.

Christ Jesus is the answer to this question, not only in His way of life but in His suffering and His victory. We may forthrightly proclaim the most difficult of Biblical doctrines because we are assured of the truth of the gospel. We may tell the broken prostitute who took up her trade because she saw no other alternative: Yes, this was sin. And Christ has paid the price! We may say to the man who is regularly behaving unethically in his business: this is sin. And Christ has paid the price! We may say to the homosexual: this is sin. And Christ has paid the price. We may say to every man alive: every lustful look was adultery. And Christ has paid the price! We may say to every person living: you have sinned, you have desecrated the image of God in you, you have rejected God Himself. And with tears in our eyes as we remember all that He has delivered us from, we may say:

Christ has paid the price!

For every sin, for every transgression, for every failure, the price has already been paid. We bring no condemnation, because in Christ there is none. In due time, Christ died for the ungodly.

Me. You. Every person living.

Therein lies the answer to the tension, to the question - to every difficult question that confronts us today. Our answer is in Jesus Christ Himself. We speak the truth clearly. All of it. We clearly declare what sin is - and then we clearly proclaim the reality of salvation in Jesus Christ. Where grace is proclaimed without the declaration of the evil of sin, people see no need for repentance. Where sin's horror is proclaimed without the saving power of Jesus Christ, condemnation reigns. Where both the sinfulness of sin and the greatness of the grace of God are proclaimed, there is life.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Jeremiah, Lamentations, and prayers

Jeremiah (the book) can perhaps be summed up thus: God redeems through judgment and ransoms through suffering. The rhetorical questions posed in chapter 3 resonate through the entire book: their quiet but powerful statement that, all reasons so far as man can see aside, He will redeem and restore and forgive His people. There are both quiet foreshadowing (like anticipatory echoes) and forthright proclamation of Messiah to come. Glory!

In Lamentations there is a frightful but rightful weeping over all that transpired up to the fall of Jerusalem. Great grief, terrible in its depth - for God's temporary and temporal judgment was fierce indeed. (How much more so - and thus, how much greater the suffering of those subjecting themselves to it by willful sin - the unending, everlasting torment of Hell! This is a fearful thought indeed!)

[Oh God, let me grasp how grievous that punishment, and how glorious Your life, that my heart might rightly appraise the task of spreading the Gospel! Let me know both how terrible the bad news is and how very great (both of itself and in contrast) is the Good news! Let me live my life thus in light of Light and Life!l]

[Make my life a sacrifice to You.]

[Make my life a pleasing incense to You.]

[May my prayers accord ever with Your will. May they be bold and filled with power. May the change this fallen world!]

[May my words, spoken and written, and the testimony of my deeds, be a compelling and fitting call to Life: to a proper understanding and appropriation thereof by the redeemed, and to the attaining thereof by the lost.]

[Make my influence great, and make me nothing, for the sake of Your name, that Your glory be known in all the earth!]

Saturday, December 27, 2008

After Christmas, thinking...

It's strange, sitting down to type and wondering what to say.

I've alternated between periods of prolific writing and posting and periods of posting hardly at all. I'm not really sure what the difference is.

Some of it is simply circumstances, of course. The difference it makes to be dating and engaged is... immense. There is a time commitment that is simply absent when one is single. I recognize in this the seeds of Paul's comment that he wished all were single, "as he was". There's a great deal more time that must be devoted to the one we spend our life with. And, to be clear, this is a good thing. A married couple can reflect the gospel in ways that a single person alone simply cannot. That is, after all, the very reason marriage exists, as Paul reflects elsewhere.

So many things I have pondered of late. A sampling:

The greatest miracles in history:
  • The Incarnation of Jesus Christ - God takes on human flesh... permanently.
  • The death and resurrection of Christ - God the Son bears the wrath of God the Father, separated from the presence of God the Spirit, bearing the punishment of the sins of mankind.
  • The salvation of any one soul to the kingdom of God. (We miss this one more than we ought. It's big. Really. Stop and think about it.)

The purpose of marriage: to be a living reflection of the way that Christ wins the Church to Himself, and of the loving response of the Bride to her husband and Savior. I will never be Jaimie's savior, and she will never worship me as the Bride does Christ. Nonetheless, herein lies a glorious reflection of the way that Christ and His beautiful, redeemed Bride will relate for all eternity. And this I am honored to be a part of? Incredible. Undeserved, to be certain, this gift.

Family: a treasure of incredible value. I haven't words to express beyond that, and so I will leave it there.

The profundity of the goodness of God. I hadn't realized how deeply God had impressed this on me until conversing with my family the other day. We act in our own will - we disobey - we sin - because we don't truly believe that God is who He says that He is, and because we therefore do not trust His word. We do not believe that He really is sufficient for all our needs, and that His ways truly are higher than ours. We (I!) thus embrace lust and pride and selfishness because we (I!) do not believe that God's plan for sexuality and His call for our humility and His instruction of utter devotion to Him are really better. That ultimately amounts to a horrifying sin far deeper than those: we don't believe He is who He says He is. We don't believe He loves us - though He says it - and we don't believe that He is good - though He says it - and we don't believe that the reward of obedience is better than the immediate pleasures of sin - though He says it. In short, we don't believe Him God at all.

The glory of His grace: that for His glory and our good, He saves us from sin, from death - which we have ourselves [i]chosen[/i]! It is by grace we have been saved, through faith, and this not of our own doing... it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast! He has done this to the praise of His glory, not because we deserved it. Not by our works are we saved.

Yet His salvation is efficacious! It accomplishes something real. He freely gives us grace and faith that we might believe. And when that faith is given, it births rebirth and new life... it births works, as a clear and apparent sign of what God has done. The fruits of the Spirit are present in ever-increasing measure in the life of the believer, that God's glory might be shown in His mighty transformation of persons following Him. What was dead is now alive, and that by the selfsame faith given so freely. Praise be to God who has saved us with a mighty salvation indeed!

May the glories of God consume us! May we be daily more devoted to Him. May we deepen in our love for the Church, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and our passion for together honoring our God and King. May we hunger for all the world to know Him as He is!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Go and tell

The first command Jesus spoke after his resurrection was to Mary Magdalene. Standing outside the tomb, weeping for loss and confusion, Mary asked the man she thought had moved Jesus' body where it had been put. The Man answered her by calling her name, and when she awestruck moved to cling to Him, He told her it was not yet time, and then spoke his first command as the Risen One: "go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God'" (John 20.17). His very first command as the one who had made purification for sins (Hebrews 1.3) was sending Mary to tell the good news.

We see the same pattern in Matthew's account. Jesus appeared later to the other women who had come to the tomb, but who had not returned with Mary Magdalene, and told them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me" () His command was to go and tell. Tell what? That his brothers would see him, risen from the dead. These were his first words to his own mother!

Jesus' final words spoken to his disciples on this earth are recorded in Matthew 28 and Acts 1.
Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and in the name of the Son and in the name of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to do all I have commanded you. Behold, I am with you to the end of the age." (Matthew 28.18-20))
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.(Acts 1.8-9)

Jesus' resurrection carried with it immense consequence for the lives of those who believe in him. No true belief in Christ can but proclaim the good news at every opportunity. He is risen! We must grasp, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the magnitude of that news.

Imagine the women who went to the tomb that early Sunday morning, Jesus' own mother among them, sorrowful and yet still seeking to serve the one they loved by taking care of his body. They arrived to find the stone rolled away, the linens neatly folded, and angels inside telling them that Jesus had risen from the dead. They ran and told the disciples, all but two of whom dismissed the tale as rubbish (Luke 24:10-12). And then Jesus appeared to them. He was not dead anymore.

Read that sentence again. He was not dead anymore.

For anyone we love to be no longer dead but alive would fill us with joy incommunicable, would so overpower us that we would tell everyone we could find. Death overcome? A person who was undoubtedly gone now returned? This would warrant much attention in any individual.

But this was not just any man. This was Jesus Christ, the Messiah. This was the one of whom the Hebrew Bible spoke, the Man of prophecy, the Second Adam, the Deliverer, the Kinsman Redeemer. This was the reality of which there had been so echoes and shadows through history. This was the one in whom they had placed all their hopes and dreams, the one they believed would set them free.

He had died. He had been scourged within an inch of his life and then hung on a cross until he died. He was laid in a tomb, dark and cold.

And now... now he was alive.

This was news of incredible value, infinite import.

He told them to go and tell others.

They went.

So shoudl we.

Do we grasp the immensity of this news? Do we taste even the slightest bit the greatness of the proclamation for which we are trusted to be ambassadors? Do we live as though we really believe that Jesus Christ, for the joy set before him, humbled himself to take on a human form, to be marred beyond human semblance, and then rose again to life, conquering and sitting at the right hand of God? Do we?

Do you really believe that what you believe is really real? Do you live it?

Faith without works is dead. Those who love Christ keep his commandments.

He said go and tell.

Go and tell!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Troubleshooting

A short but important life lesson:

I spent about four hours attempting to troubleshoot a problem in a piece of code I'm writing for the research I'm doing. Not even a terribly important piece of code (though understanding how it works is important). And then today I walked up to a professor who knows his way around Fortran and the problem was solved inside of five minutes.

Far too often we're afraid to ask for help - especially from those who are best able to give it: parents, mentors, and so on. Why? Usually it's a stubborn brand of pride: we want to prove that we can figure this out, we can do it ourselves. But we were not made to function that way - we were made to function in community. God has given us the body of Christ for a reason: because we need each other, and there is wisdom in others that we do not (cannot!) have in ourselves.

And that's particularly important to remember when troubleshooting. When dealing with sin, when working through conflicts, when struggling with the travails of life - when troubleshooting - never dare to do it alone. Do it in community as we are commanded.

- Chris

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

hear and Obey

We are to be doers of the Word and not hearers only.

I spoke to my dear friend Jamin this past week while driving to Ft. Worth, and - as is ever the case with us - we found ourselves amazed at how God was working the very same things in our hearts and our lives. It has been thus as long as I can recall, even in times of conflict. Such a friend - such intimacy and fellowship - is a rare blessing. And we both have been pondering things we see in the church: needs, flaws, brokenness. We spoke about fellowship - and about fruitful fellowship. We spoke of prayer - and of effective prayer. We spoke on evangelism - and on evangelism not as conversionism but as disciple-making.

And then we spoke on something just as important as all of these. It is important to strive for a vision of all that God is calling us to: excellence and Christ-likeness not only as individuals but corporately. But it is not enough to identify the places we are failing, nor even to recognize what needs to be done. We may stand about and analyze the problems and solutions all day. But if we do not act on the vision that God has given us, we are nothing. And, like a thunderstorm without rain, Christians who are all flash and talk but no fruit are a terrible thing: how great our frustration when the storm does not deliver on its promise! And how much greater the disillusionment of a world that sees us time and again make noises about the problems in the church but fail to ourselves actualize those changes!

Effecting change is difficult, of course. One must have a clear vision of the goal - and, more importantly, of the purpose of that goal. But one must also have the support and cooperation of others - including leaders, if one is a layperson, and including one's fellow leaders if one is in a position of authority. Beyond this, change requires patience and diligence, and it requires a deep and immense dedication to prayer: both for the seeking of God's will and direction, and to importune Him to bring about heart change. Without heart change, all the external changes in the world are meaningless.

And so we come to it: the great burden and great joy of our service in this life. We are called to execute the changes that the body of Christ requires. The call is on us to stop sitting and to go and be obedient to the call of the Holy Spirit as He in His grace opens our eyes to truth. If you see a need, perhaps it is time to stop complaining about it and to start filling it. If there is a lack in the body, perhaps it is you who is to meet it. If there are problems, perhaps it is your responsibility to step up and by the grace of God help fix them. Instead of throwing down a gauntlet and pointing the accusing finger, perhaps if one has vision that his brethren lack he simply ought to begin walking and let the results speak for themselves.

I am not saying that there is no place for conversation or contemplation. I am saying that faith without works is dead and that even if we accomplished great things for the Kingdom of God, it would be worthless if not done in love and grace. When we see a brother - or a congregation - struggling, we ought to simply dive in, get our hands dirty, and work - all the while, praying fervently and with passion for God to move. What right have we to criticize so angrily who will not ourselves set our hands to the plow and toil for the good of the Church and the glory of Christ Jesus? Do we really live to serve and obey Him whom we proclaim as not only Savior but also Lord?

His sheep hear His voice and they follow Him. Let us follow Him. Let us be known by our love for one another. Let us be like Him: serving where there is a need.

- Chris

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Truths from Nehemiah

I have been reading through the Old Testament in chronological order for about a year and a half now. I am consistently and constantly amazed at what God shows me - not because it's particularly surprising, but because I am always amazed by the fact that He has chosen to reveal Himself to us so fully, so deeply, so intimately.

This past week, I have been working my way through Nehemiah, and I am in awe of some of the things that pop up in the book. A few examples:
  • The commonly referenced phrase, "The joy of the Lord is your strength" (Nehemiah 8:10) originates in this book and occurs nowhere else in all of Scripture. What's really interesting about this is that it's an exhortation not to be grieved any longer over the past or to let conviction weigh down their hearts too heavily. The people were weeping after hearing the Law read, with its commands they had forsaken and its prophecies of judgment on Israel fulfilled in these people's immediate history - and Nehemiah encouraged them by saying, "Go your way. Eat the fat, and drink sweet wine, and give portions to anyone who has nothing pnepared, for this is a holy day before our God. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!"

    That's an incredible thing: that when we are crushed (and rightly so) under conviction from Him, it is His gift of joy that gives us strength - and joy comes with the morning, a fruit (a gift!) of the Spirit.

  • Nehemiah is one of the ten or so places in Scripture to quote the first thing God said to Moses on Sinai when giving him the law: "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness..." (Exodus 64:6, Nehemiah 9:17).

  • In Nehemiah 9 we have one of the briefest but most thorough summaries of pre-exilic Jewish history anywhere in Scripture - and almost every single verb referring to an active action rather than a response has as its subject God and its object His people: God accomplished the great things in Israel's history, and that is rarely made more clear than in this chapter.

  • Prayer is fundamental to the life of the one who would follow God. Over and over again in this book, something negative happens, and - whether it be bad news or outright threats against Jerusalem - Nehemiah's first response is always to pray. He takes what we might call "practical" steps - but only after he takes the most practical step and prays. Moreover, his prayers reflect a deep knowledge of God: he knows what God is capable of and calls on Him to do a great deal. When Nehemiah does take those "practical" steps, he is always aware that their success or failure depends entirely on God, and not on his own wisdom - and he makes sure the people know it, too.

  • The people have an incredibly high regard for the word. When, in Nehemiah 8, Ezra stands and reads the law for the first time, the people stand for the entire morning while it is being read and explained to them. And they stood and listened to the Scriptures being read in Hebrew - a language they neither spoke nor understood - and then translated into Aramaic, paragraph by paragraph. Then their leaders came back the next day and asked for detailed explanation - and then immediately put into practice what they heard.

    Later, the people set aside another day in which they spent a quarter of the day listening to the Scripture, and a quarter of the day confessing their sins and worshiping God. These people knew the importance of what they were hearing - not least because they heard prophesy of Moses predicting exactly what had ultimately happened to them in their exile.

  • There is a very pressing awareness of the goodness and faithfulness of God throughout the entire book. It is summed up in many ways by that reference back to Exodus: He is merciful and gracious; He is not quick to anger, but He is overflowing with love and with faithfulness. And the awareness of all of this permeates the text because it permeated the lives of those who fill the book: they saw God's faithfulness, because it was that alone that had returned them to Jerusalem and Judea, and kept them alive and their efforts progressing despite all the opposition of men. They knew without any question that God was faithful, loving, merciful, and just - and the more so when they realized that His salvation was in spite of and not because of them.


If you've never taken the time to really study through the Old Testament, I cannot encourage it enough. Even if it's just been a while since you've gone through the historical books, go back and do it! There are riches of the character of God here that you will never find anywhere else in Scripture; that's why these books are here - and God longs, as He always has, to reveal Himself to you.

Grace and peace be with you.

- Chris

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Sanctified - together

There is a necessary tension in presenting truth with grace. Truth is of the deepest necessity, but presented absent grace, it brings condemnation. Grace is a deeply felt need, but grace absent truth brings stagnation.

In this tension can be found nearly all of the difficulty in presenting the gospel, especially to those who are hurting. We must pour out our love upon the lost - dreadfully aware of our own need for Christ and His supremacy, and dreadfully aware of their need for Him - by speaking the truth. It is essential that the sinner hear of his sin and need, that he be made fully aware of his own depravity. Yet to do this, even to do this and present hope, without pouring love into the life of a person, is to push them away from the gospel. All too often, we assume that merely speaking the truth is enough to bring someone to Christ.

And certainly God may use this kind of witness. But His delight is in a witness that is demonstrated. We know God's love for us in this: that while we were still sinners, at the perfect time, Christ died for the ungodly - you and me. And the world will know Christ's love for them when we choose to die to ourselves and live for Christ: for living for Christ will of necessity mean living for others.

This is an area I struggle with. I love truth. I love right doctrine and practice. I love people seeing God as He truly is. Because of this, I can be harsh, rough, even cold in the way I treat people when discussing points I'm passionate about. And in this, God is teaching me, softening me, gentling me, growing me.

This is one of many reasons we are given each other in the body of Christ. Because without that, it would be far more difficult for me to grow in this were I without faithful friends who regularly correct me when I stray out of line. Moreover, it is where I find those who are far better at gentleness and respect than I - where I can learn by watching those more mature in this, where I can be taught how to walk aright in this.

And from all of that is born a greater presentation of the glory of Christ to this dark and dying world. We are not given the body merely for each other - but because in serving one another and helping one another and teaching one another, we reflect the very nature of God. We reflect fellowship in a way that we never could alone, and God by His nature is never alone: for He is ever in perfect loving communion and fellowship with Himself.

The Church is not for you, nor for me: it is first and foremost for Christ, and it is for us together, not you and me apart. And how glorious this Bride will be when presented to her King that day: her stains washed away by His blood, her skin made clear and beautiful by His sanctifying grace, so that she at last reflects His glory perfectly: not completely (for such is impossible) but perfectly: without blot or blemish, without any distraction, without any idolatry.

Unity, communion, intimacy: the God of all dwelling Himself among us and making us like Him in ways beyond merely cleansing us of sin - making us like Him together, corporately, not merely as individuals. This is a marvelous thing indeed, and it is unique. In no other religion is the call to both diversity and unity: either they call for people to lose themselves in the whole, or to seize their own identity all the more strongly. Only in Christ do we find a call to become our individual selves more perfectly by becoming part of the whole (the Church) more perfectly, simultaneously and in an indescribably intermingled process.

We are sanctified corporately, not individually. It is for this reason that we dare not forsake the gathering together, for this reason that we ought to delight in each others' presence, even when our relationships are difficult. It is for this purpose that God brings us into the specific places of fellowship that He does. And in all of this, He is being greatly glorified and magnified.

Praise Him, O you peoples! Together make Him of great renown, lift up His praise to the heavens, raise your voices high!

- Chris

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Bride

That the church might be the Bride!

I sometimes lose sleep because I'm talking about this. I wonder if I'm crazy. Because I keep dreaming, envisioning - I have this burning flame in my chest, this passion that deepens and saturates me more every day.

I love the Bride of Christ.

But right now, in America, there is a lot wrong with her. It's like cancer in an arm... and it's spreading.

Middle class mediocrity - a peculiar brand of materialism that is never quite satisfied but is nonetheless somehow contented with "good enough." Lethargy and complacency. Leniency with sin. Hesitancy with truth.

Because it's comfortable. It's safe. And - they think - it's good business.

I cannot express the anger, the frustration, the sorrow that rises in me when I see the church act like a corporation, pastors functioning more as CEOs than shepherds, ministries thinking like business ventures.

I long to see the church live in real fellowship, deep community where people love each other, where relationships are true and meaningful because they penetrate to the very nature of who people are. I long to see the church have real accountability, people seeing each other's struggles and starting with prayer for each other, then helping each other.

Sometimes my heart aches because "youth ministries" and "college ministries" and "children's ministries" get in the way of true discipleship. A friend of mine once pointed out that the Bible only has one word for "children's minister" - father. I hunger for churches where the focus is on discipling families all together, drawing fathers and mothers after Christ so they may draw their children after them - where older couples can mentor younger couples and people in the same stage can support and understand each other; where children play together their whole lives and know each other deeply and truly; where every family knows each other - where the young catch a vision because their elders are living it out.

I dream of a church where the Great Commission and social work and life are all one and the same, all the time. Where it is common for people to bring their friends who are unbelievers to be in the company of believers. Where missionality is not a buzzword but a way of life. Where serving the community is normal, because that's what Christ did and called us to do. Where every aspect of life is reflective of Christ - including our response when we fail.

I hunger for "worship services" that are all about the worth of Christ. That are not about our own needs being met - though they will - but are instead about ascribing Him the glory that He is due, and about serving one another as we serve Christ. There can be praise offered that ranges from the simple chorus to the lengthy hymn, and all of it properly focused on the glory of Christ - whether lament and prayer for aid, or cry of thanksgiving, or shout of praise, or quiet meditation on the character of God, all of it offered both with the depth of intimacy of calling the Father "Daddy" and approaching with reverence and awe.

The Church is Christ's. I dream of seeing the church in America awaken to that reality and set her eyes no more on the lies this world offers. Oh, how glorious that day, when the millions open their eyes to see how much better Christ than every created thing: how much less that which has been made than its Maker, and the more so as it has been subjected to futility! How grand it will be when she at last it fixated on the glory of Christ as her one chief end - and all else be nothing in comparison. Oh the longing for the day when as one we proclaim that we have counted everything as rubbish and refuse compared to the all-surpassing glory of knowing Christ - our Lord, our Savior, our God and King!

I dream of heaven. But the kingdom of heaven is come - not yet in its fullness, but it is come, for the Holy Spirit is at work bringing it in the hearts of men. Everlasting life begins not when we die but the moment we first begin to live - when the Spirit breathes in us life and faith and through the blood of Christ sets us free from sin and death and to a life with abundance, beyond all we could ask or think, greater than any mind has imagined.

Is it folly? To be certain, it is! Yet it must be, because the wisdom of God is foolishness to man. I will then be foolish all the more in the eyes of the world, for the wisdom of men is demonic, false, evil. The wisdom of God is to be prized.

Christ calls... I will follow. And I will not cease to dream.

But it is not enough to dream.

It is enough to obey.

What lies ahead? I cannot say. Only this do I know: that the Only True God has a purpose for each and every life, and if I may be a part in awakening even a few hearts to the glory of His way; if I may be but the smallest part in calling the church to be the church, then it is more than enough for one lifetime.

For His glory!

- Chris

Monday, March 31, 2008

Humility in sharing the Gospel

Last week I was in Glorieta, New Mexico, at the Dying to Live conference, organized by the University of Oklahoma Baptist Student Union and University of Southern California Christian Challenge (BCM). The week, praise God, changed a lot of lives.

Our speaker and his wife are well-traveled missionaries who have spent much of their sharing the gospel in countries where it is dangerous to do so, and dangerous to convert to Christianity. Over the course of the week, they painted a picture for us of lives lived in service of the advancement of the Gospel - with humility, willing to get out of the way of all that God is doing. His points were so important that I'd like to highlight and comment on a few of them. (It's not quite as good as liveblogging the conference, but it's something, at least!)

His wife opened the week with the observation, "Serving God is not a matter of location but of obedience," and this was a continual theme throughout the week. Whether in North Africa or East Asia or Midwest America, the key factor in the advance of the Gospel is our obedience to Christ - not where we are. God longs to bring salvation to this world. He died to bring salvation to the lost. While we were certainly encouraged to consider where God might call us to serve (and rightfully so!), he and others were faithful to remind us that all of us are called to serve. Some may be more particularly gifted to the task of evangelism and "missions," of course, but all of us - without exception - are called to go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them all that Christ commanded.

I was glad when he pointed out that this meant that many are called to go where the gospel has not been. He told an amusing story of his own discussion with a missions sending board. When they asked him expectantly about his own "call to missions" - some personal experience in which he felt God was telling him to particularly pursue overseas missions - he simply recounted reading Matthew 28:18-20 and realizing that all are called to share the gospel. The anecdote highlighted just how foreign some of our ideas are to a simple reading of the Bible.

Indeed, one of the primary themes of the week was realizing that there are many things we do - many good things, even - which are not necessary. While the structures we have built in the West - our denominations and seminaries and institutions and printing houses - are in many ways good things, they are not necessary things for the gospel. (That is not to say we ought not value them: for without them we could not have the blessing of rich teachers like John Piper available to any American anywhere. These are good things. But not necessary.) When we strap our conventions to the Gospel, we hinder it, and we can get in the way of all that God is doing. We can, through our good intentions, bring increased persecution to our brethren in nations less secularly free.

The contrast between secular and true, spiritual freedom was highlighted effectively at numerous points. Not least were his examples of the true stories of people he has known that have undergone extraordinary persecution - years in jail, beatings, and so on - who have nonetheless considered themselves perfectly free to share the gospel. This was a stunning contrast to our state here in America where most Christians are in bondage to fear of misunderstanding, fear of ridicule, fear of man, to share the gospel on a regular basis. We who are freest in the world, from a secular perspective, are often less free in reality than our brethren who, from the world's eyes, are far less free.

He asked us to consider the fundamental question: "Is Jesus worth it?" Is he worth my life? My wife's? My children's? My friends'? It is far easier to declare Christ worth our own lives, I think, than it is to declare Him worth those closest to us. Could you watch your loved one die for your actions of declaring Christ?

He asked us to be mindful of how we evangelize - both here and abroad. He asked us to understand that our actions, however well-intended, have consequences. Many of the believers he has seen undergo persecution did so not for knowing Christ, but for having a non-transferable, culturally structured Christianity.

At the same time, he noted that persecution is normal for Christ-followers, however much we may believe the contrary here in America. The primary cause of persecution in the world is people coming to Christ. We are not to pray for there to be no persecution: we are to pray for those in persecution to be faithful witnesses. He argued - and I agree - that the measure of the move of Christ and His good news is the amount of resistance. (Indeed, as I was discussing later with a friend, we might even take the stance that persecution is normative, based on the evidence from the world at large and from history.) This, of course, poses the question: just how much is the kingdom of God advancing here in America?

He encouraged us to understand the importance of oral transmission of truth. 80% or more of those in the unreached peoples of the world are illiterate. If we are to reach them, we must know Scripture. We must hide it in our heart. We must memorize it - specific passages, and entire stories. And how much more able will we be to share truth, even here in our own cultural context, if we know the truths of Scripture by heart, rather than always having to open our Bibles?

The needs of the lost always exceed the needs of the witnesser.

He shared with us a number of stories of how God is moving in supernatural ways among our brethren across the world - and how He is adding more to our number. The miracles of healing God is doing among Hindus in India, the dreams and visions He is giving to Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa, and the ways in which He unites seekers with missionaries are incredible. God is not hindered even by our lack of initiative: He is bringing salvation the world over. He is accomplishing His purposes for the Gospel. (The two questions this raises, of course, are, "Will we be involved in accomplishing those purposes or not?" and "Why is our faith so dim that our first tendency on hearing these stories is often doubt?")

Humbling were the reasons that Christian-background believers gave for their unwillingness to reach out to those around them.
  1. "They are too lost. They cannot be saved.

  2. "We don't want them to be saved."

  3. "Converts have fooled us in the past."

  4. "It is not cost-effective to reach them."

  5. "The persecutors will destroy our church."

  6. "They will marry our daughters." (Yes, this really is the racism it sounds like.

  7. "We will lose our leadership position." (Big deal in a country where this is often the only leadership they can have.)

  8. "Pay us to reach our neighbors."

  9. The heartache of betrayal.
All of these ought to break our hearts to pray for our brethren in persecuted places - but it also ought to make us stop and ask whether we are perhaps guilty of these same kinds of sinful thoughts and behaviors.

One of the significant issues he raised was baptism, as relates to practice overseas (rather than as relates to doctrine). He suggested that examination of the New Testament and realization of the consequences of missionaries baptizing local believers should perhaps lead to a reevaluation of our behavior. Every baptism recorded in the New Testament was administered within and witnessed by the local community; all but one were within a local believing community (the exceptional case of the Ethiopian eunuch). For a number of reasons, including the perceived superiority of the missionary's baptizing, he argued that it is far better that local believers do the baptizing. They do it on a different timetable, after faith has been proven. They do it in the context of the evangelization of the family. They do it in ways that are less likely to cause persecution for the outsider: if persecution comes it will be for Christ and not for the missionary.

Your call is not to a place, but to lost people.

God's will is not a safe place - all clich├ęs to the contrary - but rather the good and right place to be. (Aslan is not a safe lion... but he is good.)

There is a challenge to those called to missionary work - whether abroad or in the US - to remain among the lost, rather than shifting to "pastor" mode and getting caught ministering only to the saved. There is thus a necessity for teams such that those called to evangelism can pass on those they have brought to Christ to others to disciple them. This is best accomplished within the setting of local believers if possible, so that their reliance is on Christ and their own community rather than on outsiders. Moreover, once a missionary has won a few hearts to Christ - or discovered those already won - it is his or her job to act more as "bait," drawing in possible new believers and getting them in contact with in-culture believers. We must decrease so that Christ may increase!

Two fundamental questions to ask in the cause of the gospel:
  • How does truth travel in your culture?

  • What would you do for Jesus if you were not afraid?
The single consistent theme, hammered home again and again, was that we must have utter humility in sharing the gospel. We must recognize our own expendable nature. We must be willing to get out of the way and let God move how He wants, not how brings us the most credit or glory. We must let the glory of Christ, the advancing of His kingdom, and the salvation of the lost be our only goals - never our own gain.

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (Acts 1:8)

- Chris

Friday, February 22, 2008

Dreams/visions

Visions fill my heart, sometimes, bursting forth in unexpected fullness and with vigor and passion that surprise me though I ought, by now, to be accustomed to them. Visions of a world different from this one in which we live: visions of Christians actually being Christ-followers, of churches becoming the Church, of a people truly living as Christ's Body on this earth. I dream of what that might be like: a world transformed by a people transformed - the renewing of minds leading to a metamorphosis in our understanding of everything. I dream of what we might do, what we might accomplish for Christ if we dedicated ourselves to holiness, to the advancement of the gospel, to making Him supreme in our lives - if we decided that His glory would be our chief end, our great joy, the one source of meaning in our existence.

I wonder if - maybe - we might see a revival in this land.

Revival in this land cannot come without revival first in the churches of this land. We desperately need to understand our desperate need for Christ. We are no longer in desperate need of salvation, but we remain in desperate need for His transforming grace to work our sanctification - for even now that we are saved, our own strength is utterly insufficient for making ourselves holy. There is nothing we can do of ourselves, yet the destruction of indwelling sin and the deep hunger for and pursuit of holiness must characterize our every day if we are to truly be imitators of Christ.

If there is no revival, America will destroy itself: collapsing into a moral sinkhole, spiraling downward farther and farther as it embraces perversion and rot, calling good evil and evil good. People will continue to believe, however foolishly, that they are the arbiters of their own realities, capable of creating for themselves an ethicality and a morality that are somehow true. And as they cling to that false notion, they will run ever farther astray from the will of God. What Christian moral and ethical heritage this nation has are fast fading. We cannot trust that heritage to support us any longer in our efforts for evangelization, for people outside the church are increasingly illiterate of Scripture and ignorant of Truth. We must now instead reach out to people who live in an increasingly pagan society as pagans, not as mere unbelievers already aware of the main thrusts of our faith. We must do as the early church did, and preach the gospel with boldness, with courage, and with understanding. We must live missional lives, not simply make missional statements.

But for our efforts in reaching out to our unbelieving friends and neighbors and relatives to be effective - for us to meaningfully adopt missional lifestyles - we must first commit ourselves to the pursuit of Christ. There will almost certainly be no revival on this land unless God's people truly seek Him and seek brokenness before Him. (I do not presume to know the mind of God sufficiently to claim that there will absolutely be no revival: He is more than capable of moving in spite of the stubbornness of His people - but historically, revival has always come when His people confessed their sins, moved to a state of brokenness about themselves and the lost surrounding them, and dedicated themselves to prayer.)

Real change is possible. I can see it, smell it, taste it, hear it, sometimes, as though it were just out of sight, simply waiting for our appropriation. God works through people. Sometimes He clearly and obviously intervenes in history - but even in those instances, He nearly always does so through people. Moses. David. Elijah. John the Baptist. Peter. Paul. Tertullian. Athanasius. Many church fathers. Luther. Wesley. Spurgeon. Billy Graham. God moves through people. He rarely operates in a vacuum. And I honestly, deeply, passionately believe that He wants to use us: the ordinary men and women of this generation. There will be leaders, men and women of particular and peculiar vision and calling - but the work will be accomplished by the "lay" people. A movement requires leadership, but leadership alone is not a movement: it is when people follow leaders to accomplish a task that there is movement, and it is when movement crystallizes from short-term purpose into long-term vision that lasting frameworks of ministry are built.

Can you see it? Can you hear it? Do you realize that revival could start here, now, with you and me? That the only place revival can start is with you and me? Do you grasp the magnitude of what it would mean for revival to come - the incredible change that would be wrought upon this land and the whole world, if hundreds of thousands or even millions of Americans came to their knees and confessed Christ as Savior and Lord?

Do I sound foolish or crazy, thinking that such a thing is possible? Good! It is folly in the wisdom of man - and no wisdom or plan of man will accomplish it; nor, should it happen, will it be of the efforts of men, no matter how Godly. It will be of the grace of the Father working through the Spirit to proclaim the Truth of the Son. It is certainly not feasible in any way that I know of, save for the outpouring of power and anointing on the body of Christ - and that will come when we are brought to repentance and desperation for Him alone - when we trust no more in our material success, when we are content no longer with our comfortable middle class lives, when we are at last convinced of the necessity of sacrifice and the worthiness of the cause of Christ above our own gain - when we finally begin to count all as loss, rubbish, nothing in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.

If this be the wisdom of God, then I embrace it wholeheartedly, no matter how foolhardy it may sound to men. I will pray for God to move until I see Him move; I will preach the gospel to myself daily and preach the gospel to my saved friends as often as I can to remind them of what they have been given and gently but boldly proclaim the truth to those who are not believing so that they may know and be set free. I will press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. I will ground myself in the word of God, in prayer, in discipline, in fellowship - true, rich fellowship - and will run the race with endurance.

And I will fail. But when I fail, I will remember that it is His grace that has effectually called me, that has saved me, that is sanctifying me, and that will pick me up and carry me on when I have stumbled.

I praise God for those of like heart, of common vision; I thank God for those who He has place in my life who encourage me by their faithfulness to the word and to point me to His goodness and truthfulness and utter reliability.

I have a vision of what God can do, what I believe He longs to do. It is impossible with man - but all things are possible with God!

Vision with me.

- Chris