Showing posts with label Scripture Study. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Scripture Study. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Musings from the Month

I have blogged a good deal less this month than the previous few. The transition into fall is always interesting. I have on the one hand been working on another web design project (which, to my annoyance, has stagnated through creative blocks, but hopefully will continue to come along soon), and on the other spending a great deal of time enjoying Halo: Reach. Most of my remaining writing-oriented time has been taken up with Pillar, whether actually writing or editing others' articles.

A few things I've been chewing on recently:

  • The necessity of the Holy Spirit in Bible study. I was reading Psalm 119 on Sunday (I'm working through it with a younger guy I'm meeting with) and a number of features caught my attention. Foremost, however, was that the author of the psalm repeatedly asks God for understanding and to be taught. This plea for instruction is the most topic with which the psalmist most frequently addresses God, at least so far in the psalm!

    So, here in a psalm which is filled with references to the author's delight in and love for God's commands, law, word, and way, are constant pleas for help in understand those very things. Striking, and convicting. I need to rely more thoroughly on God for wisdom as I approach his word. While I know that to be true, it's a good reminder.

  • The appropriateness of "personal relationship with Jesus" language, especially in the context of evangelism. [This one is still very much in the early phase of thinking about it, and so subject to immense revision.] While Scripture clearly speaks of our interactions with God in relational ways, and even goes so far as to affirm that eternal life consists of knowing Him (John 17:3), I find it interesting that none of the evangelism (or any other discussion, for that matter) in the New Testament comes anywhere close to using this phrase.

    While restored fellowship with God is occasionally in view, the primary ways that the New Testament writers speak of the good news is in reference to the Messiah who has come and given himself in payment for our sins. The call the apostles offered was not, "Come have a personal relationship with Jesus," but rather "Repent and believe; call on the name of the Lord and be saved!" Even in the discussions of sanctification, the relational aspects of the restoration are rarely the focus—whereas faith and the Spirit's active work are.

    I am not suggesting that we drop this language entirely. I think it is biblical in much the same way that the word "Trinity" is: that is, it depicts something that is true in Scripture in an accurate way, despite being external to Scripture itself. However, I am pondering whether it is the most helpful way of describing conversion and all it entails to nonbelievers, and whether it should remain our primary means of characterizing the Christian walk.

    What do you think?

  • One can learn a lot of things from a book that have nothing to do with the point of the book. This has come at me from two very different angles: one, the massive and incredibly important The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N. T. Wright, and Joyce Meyer's The Confident Woman. The two books could not possibly be more different, on any level. The first is a massive, scholarly treatment of its topic, while the second is a brief, popular treatment of its. Wright is (at least in this area) thoroughly orthodox, while Meyer is heterodox throughout.

    What have I learned from each, then? From The Confident Woman, I learned a great deal about communicating the faults of a book and a writer graciously. No doubt I still have much more to learn, but I spent hours wrestling through my review of the book, striving to be gentle, courteous, and kind while being sufficiently firm with her myriad errors. From The Resurrection of the Son of God, I have learned a great deal about exegesis and exposition of Scripture. Wright does a masterful job of situating passages in the context of their author, and authors in the context of their cultures. (I am aware he sometimes argues for positions outside historic Protestant orthodoxy in other books; here he is on so foundational a point that his arguments are profitable to everyone.) In turn I have been able to start doing the same in my own study of Scripture—most notably in my final treatment of alcohol in the series I wrote at Pillar.

    From both, I learned perseverance: from Wright's book because it is simply long; from Meyer's book because it is simply bad.

I have of course also continued to learn a great deal simply from being married to my beautiful wife—not least that I still tend toward arrogance and unteachability. God graciously points out our folly and our sin consistently; where I would be without His sanctifying work I can only imagine.

Grace and peace be with anyone reading! If you are reading, do me a favor and leave a comment to say hello. Sometimes it's nice to know that people are actually reading.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Getting Real with Bible Study

An important principle has jumped out at me time and again in recent months: context is air in studying Scripture. People need more than air to breathe to stay alive, but without air, life is impossible. You need context to understand Scripture—and other things as well, but without context, you don't understand the passages at all.

This point has been made often, but perhaps not as thoroughly as it needs to be. People have a bad (however natural) tendency to think that examining the context means reading the verses immediately preceding and following the verse studied. That's a good start, and far better than reading the verse without those surrounding it. It simply doesn't go far enough.

A recent post on Evangel helped crystallize this thought for me. Sarah Flashing was spending a little time and thought critiquing some of Beth Moore's approach to Scripture, and noted, "Beth does not explain the meaning of the passage as derived from the context, she reads the passage in isolation, an elementary Bible study error" (emphasis in the original). That's precisely the issue I've observed in the little of Moore's writing I've read, and more importantly, it's also one of the biggest blunders I see Christians (and Christian teachers!) making.

Around the same time, I was writing the last article in my series on alcohol at Pillar. The first two articles were relatively straightforward: one was a quick summary of Scripture's teaching on alcohol, and one was a rebuttal of a common but very flawed argument against consuming alcohol. The last article, Tripping People With Beer, took me hours longer than the first two. I had to work my way carefully through four chapters of dense, Pauline reasoning on general Christian liberty mingled with his own apostolic actions. I had to get his argument as a whole before I could begin to tackle just a few short verses.

The answer to the questions raised by 1 Corinthians 8:9-13 (should we always abstain from anything that might make our brother stumble?) don't get totally answered until 1 Corinthians 10:25-31. The two chapters in between are a mix of Paul's exhortation to the Corinthian church to serve one another and his own example of sacrificing to serve others. Without following the argument all the way through, you might be inclined to think that Paul was urging the Corinthians to permanently forsake meat and many other freedoms. Without considering that Paul's statement at the end of chapter 8 that he will never eat meat is a transition into his lengthier discussion throughout chapter 9 of the way he forsook his own prerogatives to serve them, one would think he was suggesting it sinful for others not to follow his example.

But in tracing through his thoughts, it becomes clear that Paul was defending his own apostolic work without condemning the other apostles or the Corinthians. His final, resounding conclusion is that whether people eat or drink or whatever they do, to glorify God—proclaiming their freedom loudly immediately after he has spent two chapters tempering it with the need to serve others. In other words, the context—the whole, broad context, not simply the few immediately surrounding verses—informs our understanding of a few specific words. We cannot understand the part without having at least some grasp on the whole.

This has fairly radical implications for how we ought to expect preachers to handle Scripture. It has equally important ramifications for our Scripture study. We cannot simply approach the text, grab a verse and maybe the verses immediately above and below it, and assume we understand the point fully. We need to look at the entirety of the context.

Obviously, that's a lot of work. I am not suggesting that every time we sit down to read the Bible, we read an entire book. In some cases, that would be frustrating—in others (I'm looking at you, Jeremiah) it would be entirely impossible. However, I think it is important that as we study the Scriptures over time, we make a point to read as much as possible. Plans that take us through the whole Bible in a year are a great tool for helping grasp the greater flow of the Bible. (I know of a few that take you through even faster; Tim Challies recently referenced one that covers the whole Bible multiple times in a year, for example.) Then, when we do sit down to study particular chunks of Scripture, it is helpful to familiarize ourselves with the full context. That has two applications.

First, whenever I sit down to study, it's usually a book. Instead of just grabbing random places to read at any given time, I pick a book and go. I'll start by reading the whole book, front to back, to get as good a handle on the flow as I can. Then I start taking it in smaller chunks. The size of the chunk depends on the book in question. Narratives, for example, beg to be read large chunks at a time, while Paul's letters might demands that I slow down and tackle a sentence at a time. Doing this allows me to slowly pull apart the connections in a book. (Look at the various ways that "appearing" happens in Titus, for example. It's pretty interesting.)

Second, if I'm only planning to study a particular passage, I will read as much of the book around it as possible to familiarize myself. For example, when I was tackling 1 Corinthians for my alcohol posts, I actually skimmed the whole book, which is part of what took so long. Then, I try to ignore verse and chapter breaks. One handy way to accomplish that is to use a tool like, where you can disable verse and chapter markings. I read sentences, then the surrounding paragraphs, then the surrounding arguments, and finally the whole book (except for the Psalms, where the flow caps at the top of the psalm, at least for me). If possible, I try to understand the passage in the broad flow of all of Scripture. (To be honest, that's often beyond me, but I try when I'm on my game.) This is what II d in dealing with the Pauline passages on surrendering one's freedom for others.

So that's the practical. Returning again to the reason for writing the post: why does this matter? First, it matters because if we don't take the time to work at Scripture, we miss much of what it has to say. God certainly can and does speak to us even as we simply skim along the surface. But there is a great deal more to be had. Second, it matters because if we don't study carefully, we'll flat out misinterpret even more than we missed—or be led astray by those who have misinterpreted it themselves. We can hardly be faithful listeners if we cannot hold our teachers accountable to teach the word correctly. (That's also an argument for clarity of teaching—anyone who intentionally obfuscates Scripture is dangerous, as is anyone who acts like Scripture is generally too difficult for anyone but trained theologians to understand. It isn't.)

I challenge you, even as I challenge myself, to step it up in this area. Wherever you're at, go a little bit farther along. If you're still in the grab-one-verse-and-apply-it-to-my-life-immediately phase, that's okay. Try stepping out in your perspective a bit and see how the sentences around that one help explain it. If you're already doing that, start trying to grasp paragraphs at a time. If you're there, start trying to wrap your head around whole arguments, and maybe even whole books. Wherever you're at, seek to be more faithful with the text. In so doing, you'll see God more clearly. Since eternal life is knowing God (John 17:3), you couldn't have a better goal.

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.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tackling Paul's long sentences

A technique I find helpful when dealing with Paul's long sentences: break up the phrases in terms of conjunctions and prepositions. Once you do that, and especially if you're willing to use some spacing to further clarify, Paul's flow of thought becomes a lot clearer. That, in turn, lets us reason carefully through what he is saying, and apply it to our own lives more fruitfully.

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 and regeneration of the Holy Spirit
                whom he poured out richly on us through Jesus Christ our Savior
        so that (being justified by his grace) we might become heirs
                according to the hope of eternal life.
(Titus 3:4-7)

This helps us see why God saved us (not because... but according to...), how he saved us (by...) and a little about that process (whom...), and to what end (so that...). As a single block, that's hard to parse and follow, but with each clause broken up and its subclauses distinguished visually, it's much easier to understand. This is pretty much what I do whenever I find a tangled verse—whether it's in Paul's writings, or anywhere else. Perhaps it will help you a bit along the way as well.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Scripture, Missiology, and Trying Too Hard

Sometimes, I try too hard. Like right now. I've been trying to think of something to write for Pillar on the Rock for the last two hours. Tried a few things... they did not work. I took a break, read my Bible for an hour, studied Titus in serious detail.

There are depths and profundities and riches in every book of the Bible, but I certainly gravitate toward the New Testament. I like words, and I like digging at the way they are layered together to form coherent arguments. The Epistles normally attract people because they are the most eminently practical aspect of the Bible, apart from Proverbs (another perennial favorite). Not me. They attract me because of the depths buried in the flow of authorial thought. I tend toward the gospels and the prophets when I am hungry for longer passages to read, but when I want to dig in on a text, I tend to sit down with an epistle and try to get in as close to the author's thought process as possible.

It is good for me to read the long narrative sections of the Old Testament on a regular basis (as it is good for all of us: that is why God included it). I see glimpses of God in the narratives that are not present in the same ways in the tightly constructed argument of Romans or the sermonic structure of Hebrews. Narratives and numberings are just as important as epistles and gospels. When I read through all of the Bible last year, I was incredibly challenged and blessed. Seeing the entire flow of history laid out in the biblical narratives, complemented by the proclamations of the prophets and the explications of the epistles, was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. That said, I am glad to be able to sit down and study Titus!

Last week, Jaimie and I were discussing missions, contextualization, and the importance of narrative and storytelling in many cultures. Many missiologists have suggested that missionaries need to shift the focus away from the western preoccupation with argument and toward the broader interest in story—not least since the Scriptures are filled with narratives. I think they have a good point; western Christianity has certainly been overly preoccupied with argument. However, I also think it is entirely possible to overcorrect, and I fear many missiologists are doing precisely that. Though we should certainly not emphasize reasoned argument more than Scripture does, neither should we emphasize it less. Certainly, when engaging other cultures, we ought to look for the God-built openings for the gospel already present. Sometimes those will be narrative; other times they will be argument; yet other times they will be poetry.

What is important is that the gospel is clearly communicated, and that the people do not stay where their culture is comfortable. Just as westerners often need to grow in understanding of the importance of story in Scripture—and not merely as analogy for our lives!—so people in other cultures may need to grow in understanding of the importance of argument, or poetry, or prophecy. These may not come naturally. Certainly I don't think that the prophets or Leviticus naturally seem immediately helpful to most American Christians, and so we must learn to think in the ways that the Bible thinks. The same is true in every culture.

And now I'm trying too hard again. Part of the challenge of writing for Pillar on the Rock is that I tend not to let my thoughts move naturally anymore: I am constantly looking for ways to tie the package up neatly. This is not entirely a bad thing—but then, a blog post is not exactly an article, and it should not be treated as such. Somewhere along the way is a balance, a clear expression of my voice. I will find it eventually—but like reading the Old Testament, it may require some work. It does not come naturally.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A man like David

I'm back, and life is at last settling down into something of a normal routine again. I'm posting twice a week for Pillar on the Rock, and trust me when I say that writing two posts a week is a lot more manageable than doing the web design. I was spending 10-20 hours a week working out kinks on the site design back when PJ and I were getting it ready to deploy. The four or five hours a week I spend writing, editing my own and PJ's posts (he edits mine), and posting links to them on Twitter and Facebook seem pretty trivial in comparison. Now the holidays are over, I'm back at work, and our personal lives have settled down a bit, at least for now.

So here I am, in the few minutes I have before heading off for worship practice, tapping away at my computer on my own blog. A shock, I'm sure, to my many (ahem, not-so-many) readers.

It is, as ever, difficult to express just how much change a year brings. Certainly this year brought more than most—transitions out of college and into marriage and the working world being chief among them—but every year has its share of challenges, victories, and changes. I spent less time writing poetry and music this year than in any year since high school, and I missed both. I missed spending long hours late at night tapping away at my blog, too, in some ways. Yet I would not trade my life now for the one I had before in any way. Though I sometimes wish for more hours to read and write and compose instead of programming, I count myself the most blessed of men for the wife God has given me and the life He daily provides. Besides, programming is a good job.

My resolutions this year are few and simple: diligently study the word of God, by His grace kick a couple of troublesome sin habits in the face until they truly yield, and read a lot of good books. My goals are a bit broader: they include studying Greek at least once a week and composing equally often. My desires, from playing guitar to ranking up in Halo online, well... we'll see.

This I know: God will do mighty things this year, even if I can't see them. I'm going to content myself with learning, as best I can, to be a man like David. Early in his life, a man said of him: "[He] is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the LORD is with him" (1 Samuel 16:18). That seems a worthy goal to me.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Heart of the Motive—Sermon Notes, 11/29/09

November 29, 2009—Mark Seekins: "The Heart of the Motive"
[Christ Chapel Bible Church, Ft. Worth, Texas]

Sermon text: Luke 17:7-19 (NIV)
"Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' "

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!"

When he saw them, he said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

Jesus asked, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well."
Mark Seekins is one of the pastors at Christ Chapel Bible Church in Ft. Worth, where Jaimie and I visited today while down with her family for Thanksgiving. We've been there before and enjoyed it, so we thought we'd stop in again. They're teaching through Luke, currently, and chose this passage as a fitting point for reflection around Thanksgiving.

Pastor Seekins opened the sermon by noting that, "When it comes to following Christ, motives are important," and then asked: "Why are you following Christ?" He offered up a list of motives that many of us have had at various points in our lives:
  • others' expectations of faith
  • duty to people or God
  • fear of hell
  • love of God
  • gratitude toward God
  • the proverbial insurance policy
All of these, he argued, fit into one of two heart categories pictured by this passage. The first is a heart that is motivated by duty and fear (vv. 7-10). There are unworthy servants, he said, who do only what obligation or the threat of punishment demands. The servant does exactly what he is ordered to do, no more, and no less. Pastor Seekins suggested that it's likely this servant was simply working for wages: he needed the money to eat. The servant, he concluded, is "unworthy" because he did nothing but what duty and fear demanded.

Pastor Seekins pointed us to the rich young ruler by way of comparison: a man who had done everything the law demanded, yet could not go the next step to true faith. The modern picture, he argued, is the hard-wroking, moral, curch-attending, family-loving "Christian" without real faith in and love for Jesus.

The second heart is that pictured by the second narrative: a heart that is motivated by love and gratitude (vv. 11-19). Jesus commanded the men to show themselves to the priests—to be obedient to the Mosaic law—just as the servant above was commanded to serve by his master. All ten were healed, and they would have understood that Jesus was promising them healing: they had no other reason to see a priest. Of these men, only one returned to thank Jesus and praise God.

Unlike the other nine, he had been truly transformed as well as physically healed. While the others met the bare demands of the law, he understood that he was called to give thanks to God. Pastor Seekins argued that, though this man was still an "unworthy servant," as are we all, he was one who recognized Jesus' work. Jesus statement that the man's faith had made him well followed his return for thanksgiving: the wellness in sight here is a spiritual wellness that exceeds mere physical healing.

Pastor Seekins brought up the woman in John 12 who washes Jesus feet with her hair as another example of a person who truly understood what we owe to Christ. The modern equivalent, he said, may look much like the unsaved "Christian" above... but their motives will be vastly different. Instead of duty and fear, this true believer is motivated by love of God and thanksgiving to Him for all He has done.

Finally, Pastor Seekins concluded by asking four application questions:
  1. Are you taking God's gracious actions for granted?
  2. Have you taken time to thank and praise God?
  3. Do you live in such a way that displays that the Gospel is for all?
  4. Have you chosen Jesus

As far as Thanksgiving sermons go, this was a pretty good one. I appreciated that Pastor Seekins mostly stuck to the text (with the exception of some suppositions about the servant's motives). I had one significant issue with this sermon, though. As I've written elsewhere, the gospel is everything. Especially when we're trying to increase in love for God and gratitude toward Him, we need to remember that simply telling people, "Hey, change your motive!" isn't terribly helpful.

Rather, we grow in thankfulness because we know better what it is to give thanks for, and we love because we understand how he has loved us (for example, John 3:16, Romans 5:6-8, and 1 John 4:10). Today's good sermon would have been a great sermon if Pastor Seekins had taken the step beyond rightly exhorting the congregation to come to God with right motive and shown them how. The gospel is just as effective for sanctification as it is for justification.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mutual funds: Sermon thoughts, 11/22/09

November 22, 2009—Bruce Hess, "Right Choices: Choose to Invest in the Kingdom"

Sermon text:
Philippians 4:14-19
Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction. You yourselves also know, Philippians, that at the first preaching of the gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone; for even in Thessalonica you sent a gift more than once for my needs. Not that I seek the gift itself, but I seek for the profit which increases to your account. But I have received everything in full and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
Bruce preached this week on money: a topic to send shivers through the soul of any evangelical preacher worth his salt. Perhaps I exaggerate, but given the history of the evangelical movement over the last twenty years, it's hardly surprising that money is a touchy subject. Since Bruce has been moving through the book of Philippians verse by verse, however, he could hardly ignore the subject. I think he did an excellent job in his treatment of these verse and the topic in general.

Bruce began by noting the context of Paul's discussion of giving: his own bold statement that he could be content no matter what the circumstances. (For a discussion of that passage, see my notes on that sermon, one of Bruce's best that I've heard.) Keeping that in mind helps us understand that Paul is not getting at his own gain in the passage; he earnestly desires the good of the Philippians.

The first point in the text is that Paul applauds the generosity of the Philippians (verses 14-16). Bruce noted that Paul boasts about the Philippians to other churches (see 2 Corinthians 11:9), and that they were one of the only churches to support him financially. Moreover, he observed, they didn't have an abundance of wealth from which to give. They gave despite being in "deep poverty" (see 2 Corinthians 8:1-5). Their resources were not the issue; God could and did use even their relatively small gift. Their hearts were the issue.

Bruce's second observation was that the Philippians embraced the principle of eternal investment (Matthew 6:19-21). He illustrated this point by noting that we're like a northerner living in the South near the end of the American Civil War. Even if rich in Confederate money, the best plan would not be to try and gain more Confederate money, but to use only enough to live on and turn the rest into gold useable elsewhere after the war. We are temporary citizens here, and we should turn as much of our wealth in this age, which perishes, into eternal reward. Where you put your treasure determines whether you are moving toward or away from it as you approach death.

"The only money we're ever going to see again," Bruce commented, "is the money that's invested in the kingdom of God."

The second point Bruce drew out of the text is that Paul assures the blessing of the Philippians (verses 17-19). His joy was not in what the Philippians had given for its own sake, but because it yielded a reward for them. It was a good investment. The "pleasing aroma" referenced in the text looks back to the old covenant practice of offering sacrifices to God—not for sin, but simply to show love for him. Our giving today does not earn salvation; it is a picture of our love for God, and only one of many such sacrifices in the new covenant (see Romans 12:1-2, Hebrews 13:5,16).

Bruce noted that Paul's closing promise that God would supply all the Philippians' needs is often memorized and used without the supporting context. God's supply was not a blank check, but assurance that he would provide for the Philippians' daily needs even as they had given beyond their means. As Bruce put it, God provides "for our needs, not our greed."

Bruce then explained Jesus' words, quoted in Acts 20:35, that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Recipients are blessed, God is blessed (because he delights in our generosity), the giver is blessed now (by the joy of giving) and the giver is blessed in the future (with reward in heaven). "Too often we're just tipping God rather than investing spiritually," Bruce finished. We can't out-give God.

Bruce's closing questions for application were solid:
  • How much of your money is going to gospel causes?
  • Is He your God?

This last question was particularly fitting in context, and while I wish he'd dwelt on it even more, I'm so glad he touched it. The ultimate supply for our needs is not financial, but spiritual—because our deepest needs are spiritual. We have a need for rescue and restoration that cannot be met without God being our God.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Suspense, Memorization, Time, Prayer, Economics - 5 100-word thoughts, 11/20/09

On Monday night, I watched the theatrical adaptation of Michael Crichton's Sphere. Interesting movie, and interesting concept. I discovered—again—why I habitually avoid suspense movies. Put plainly, I don't like them. I don't enjoy the constant tension, and I find the incessant wondering when something bad is going to happen to be annoying and emotionally draining. I enjoy many an intense movie, but the tension I enjoy is not one of being horrified. Drama, action, and nearly anything in between suits my fancy just fine. You won't find me watching another Crichton adaptation any time soon, though.

Nearly a year ago, I decided to undertake a pretty huge project: memorizing the book of Hebrews. Recommendation to my readers: if you want to memorize a book, pick one that’s a little shorter. Hebrews was an ambitious place to start. My goal was to finish it in a year. That actually wasn’t unrealistic... except that I became a complete slacker for about six months. I’m back at it, though, and plugging on through chapter 7. I’m more convinced every day of the value of the project, as God continues to use it to encourage me and others alike.

One consequence of working full time is that it leaves me a lot less time to write than I had in college. Another is that I barely have time to practice one instrument, much less two, and there’s no time at all to compose in that mix. Of course, that’s probably because my wife and I love having people over, and so we have company at least once almost every week, and are often out seeing others on other nights. Add worship practice (for me) and prayer (for Jaimie) and community group (together). Eventually, we'll get the hang of it.

Prayer is hard work. At work, I have a timer set that reminds me to pray every fifteen minutes. (It goes along with my hourly reminder to run through some of Hebrews in my head.) I’ve realized this week that I need to be more faithful to build a daily prayer list. Otherwise, I get into something of a litany, and cover much less territory than I would like. Next week I plan to include: Jaimie, family, lost friends, ill friends, unreached people groups, America, our church, our community group, our church leadership, and our friends on mission abroad.

I’ve been enjoying an interesting application, WriteRoom. I downloaded it in a giveaway, but somehow missed the license, so now I’m left with a dilemma: do I opt to pay $25 to keep using it, or switch to a less-elegant-but-free alternative? An interesting economics exercise here: If it were $10, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. As is, I’m left wondering my cash or that little bit of extra polish and ease-of-use is more valuable. Maximizing the "cost-value curve" must be tricky for someone making a product like this. (What’s your vote - should I buy it or go freeware?)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Petition Repetition

November 15, 2009—Mark Robinson, "Can You Hear Me Now," pt. 2
Sermon text: Luke 18:1-8
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'

"For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'"

And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"
Mark opened this week's sermon (see his own introductory thoughts here)—like last week's—with an analogy to cell phones. If someone called you again and again, he pointed out, you'd either answer or demonstrate that you really didn't want to talk to the person calling you. The sermon text leaves us asking if God is in fact that person: the one you have to call over and over and over again to get through, no matter how important, because they just don't answer the phone.

It's a reasonable question. Jesus compares God to an evil judge who gave justice to a widow only so she would stop pestering him. We naturally ask, "Is Jesus really saying that God only answers our prayers so that we'll leave him alone?"

Of course, as with last week's sermon, the answer is revealed in how the story is told. God is good, so if even an evil judge will eventually hear a righteous plea for all the wrong reasons, how much more will God delight to hear our prayers? We should, as Luke points out at the beginning of the parable, be encouraged not to give up praying, even when it seems our prayers are going unanswered. God who is just will certainly respond more righteously than the evil judge.

Mark commented, "Waiting in prayer is a very significant thing for each of us." Every Christian who has walked in The Way for any length of time has probably had to wrestle with the question of seemingly unanswered prayers. Whether it is for a friend's salvation, a parent's health, or a child's rebellion, most of us have spent long months or years praying for something to happen, and waited a long time for the answer. Sometimes the answer we've prayed for never comes. Jesus' parable offers two lessons for us as we seek to endure in prayer.

First, we need to keep an accurate view of God's character. Jesus draws a contrast between a good Father and this wicked judge. We are like the widow: we do not have the power or authority to effect a change in the circumstances we are praying about. We are utterly dependent on the judge to accomplish our hopes. If we believe that God is like the magistrate in the parable, we will pray reluctantly, if at all. When we do pray, we will find ourselves trying to twist God's arm so he will do as we wish. In contrast, if we believe God is good and that He delights to answer our prayers, we will pray with confidence. We will be able to trust that He is good and working for good. We can believe that God is working, no matter how little we see.

Second, we are called to keep the faith. Prayer and faith are directly related. Why are we praying? Is it because God does not already know the outcome, or because he calls us to participate with him and to grow in faith? Mark argued that prayer fixes our faith on the One whose plan is already working.

Mark often does something I really appreciate: instead of offering up simple checklists for his applications, he raises questions for us to ponder. Instead of simply offering condemnation to the people who don't meet the requirements and pride to those who do, he challenges us to examine our own hearts with the questions he offers.

Today, he offered up two applications, one a question and the other an encouragement:
  • Are you praying consistently about the things that trouble you?
  • Pray with other believers, in church, with family, and with friends.

Mark's closing point deeply resonated with me today. Our vantage point, he noted, is too narrow to truly see how God is working. He is doing more than what we can see—much more! When we repeat our prayers, it is not because we do think God has not heard, but because we believe He has.

Repetition of prayers is a declaration of faith.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Prayer - Sermon Notes, 11/8/09

November 8, 2009—Mark Robinson, "Can you hear me now?" pt. 1
Sermon text: Luke 11:5-13
Then he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, 6because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.'

"Then the one inside answers, 'Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.' I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.

"So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

"Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
Our executive pastor Mark Robinson preached today. Earlier this week, he blogged on this week's sermon topic: prayer.

Mark began by directing our attention to the context: this teaching moment follows what we call "The Lord's prayer." Some of Jesus' disciples asked him to teach them how to pray. He does so, and then immediately follows by telling them the parable and giving them the illustration of a father with his children. Jesus not only told his disciples what to do, he helped them understand what that would mean for their lives.

There were two points in the sermon, and I applaud Mark for letting the text define the structure of his sermon rather than the other way around!

1. Ask, seek, and knock (vv. 5-10):
Mark first asked, quite pertinently, if Jesus is in fact comparing God to the begrudging neighbor. The passage certainly seems to read that way. The answer? —absolutely yes, but in an entirely favorable way. The conclusion of the passage points out that if even a begrudging neighbor will help, how much more will God, who delights to give good gifts?

If we doubt that, it's because our daily experience does not always seem to line up. We often feel that God is not hearing us or is not willing to come to the door with bread. This passage is a rock for us in times like that, though, because Jesus doesn't offer up a "maybe," here. He firmly promises that, no matter what our experiences, God does hear and answer us.

We might also feel that God will not hear and answer our prayers because we misunderstand the doctrine of God's immutability: if God doesn't change and is truly sovereign, the reasoning goes, then our prayers cannot change anything. Of course, this runs directly contrary to Scripture: time and again God answers prayers. Some prominent examples include Moses, Hezekiah, and Jonah. The apostle James bluntly informs us that we do not have because we do not ask. Clearly, God both is unchanging and answers our prayers.

Mark concluded the first section of the sermon with one very straightforward and important question: what would you pray for today if you knew God would hear and respond? No request is too small, no prayer has been prayed too many times, and no situation is unchangeable.

2. Believe God gives good gifts (vv. 11-13):
Mark pointed out that the choices Jesus presents in this passage are not as strange as they seem to our minds. There are snakes that look like fish, and white scorpions that, when curled up, might look like an egg. No father but the very most cruel would use either as an opportunity to play a mean trick on his child, though. Of course, Jesus points out that even "good" fathers are actually evil—so how much more will a good God give good gifts?

Yet the passage goes even farther than that. It doesn't merely say that God, like men, will give what we ask for. It says that he will give us his Holy Spirit. He will give us himself. That was a stunning promise when it was spoken: they lived in a day before the full coming of the Spirit, when the greatest blessing imaginable was for the Holy Spirit to come and rest on a person. That he would freely come to all believers was jaw-dropping. Of course, it still is, because it means that God will give of himself freely. We can make light of that because it's familiar to us, but it is incredible.

This brings home Jesus' point with a hammer blow: if God will give us his own Spirit, what would he hold back? Of course, we feel like we get scorpions instead of eggs sometimes: children we pray for die, marriages we pray for fall apart, and so on. First, we must remember that God knows what is truly good for us, even when we do not. Second, God works for what is best for us, not what we think is best for us—and he often does so through painful circumstances.

In the end, we must trust God—and when we do, we have the joyous liberty to ask Him, knowing that He will give us good things, and that He will not give us bad things. He is good, and that is our rock. It is, in fact, the point that the entire passage turns on: even evil men give good gifts... how much more so God, who is good?

Monday, October 26, 2009

An Act of Worship: Sermon Thoughts, 10/25/09 (a day late!)

This weekend proved busier than I expected, in a number of ways, not least in working on my current secret project. That should be unveiled in all its glory sometime in the next two weeks. Keep your eyes open. I think you'll enjoy it. Between that and an extra long work day today - a surprising training opportunity that stretches my days out to nine and a half hours! - I simply haven't had a chance to sit down and type until now. A day late it may be, but I'm determined not to slack off on sermon summaries after only one week.


October 25, 2008 - Bruce Hess, "Right Choices: Choose Contentment Daily"
Sermon text: Philippians 4:10-13, NASB:
But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
This was an excellent sermon, and one that Jaimie and I found very timely.

Bruce opened by noting how powerful and how pervasive advertising is in America - it's everywhere, and it performs entirely on the basis of discontent. "If you don't have this," it says, "you're nothing." But this discontent, far from satisfying us, will rob us of the joy that God longs to give us.

The two-point sermon (thank you, Bruce, for sticking to the text's outline instead of substituting your own for a convenient three points!) focused on our struggle with contentment and Paul's secret for contentment.

We struggle with contentment for two basic reasons. First, we have a bad case of what Bruce called the "if only" syndrome - "If only I had ____, I would be content." This is simply not true... it's nonsense, in fact. The discontent never ends, and as soon as we have that ____, we're questing on for something else. The important question to ask, then, is whether there is anything we would put in that blank. Do we find anything but Christ ultimately satisfying? Second, we fall prey to discontent because we don't trust God. We forget and underestimate the power of Christ that now dwells in us. If we remembered that, we would know that God supplies all our needs just as faithfully as He has given us salvation. (More on this later in the sermon!)

It's striking that in verse 10, Paul notes that he had "rejoiced in the Lord greatly" - while in prison! He was glad for a financial gift the Philippians had given, but he rejoiced in Christ;. A brief moment of application: we have an opportunity to similarly encourage people in ministry, especially those who we have let fall by the wayside, whether in prayer or financially. More, by contrast with most of us, Paul proclaims in verse 11 that he had "learned to be content." What was his secret? First, contentment is learned. It's not instinctive for us; our fallen selves tend in exactly the opposite direction. Second, it was not his financial circumstances. Paul was content in good circumstances and bad. Bruce's comment here was dead on: "Just because someone has a lot does not mean they will be content... Prosperity can feed discontent." He pointed us to a very helpful prayer: Proverbs 30:8.

Paul's secret was "all about attitude... there [was] an active reliance on the reality of his relationship with Christ." As Paul himself pointed out elsewhere, he had learned not to boast in anything but knowing God. Bruce pointed us to a fabulous passage in Jeremiah that's worth memorizing:
Jeremiah 9:23-24:
Thus says the LORD, "Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things," declares the LORD.
Similarly, Hebrews 13:5-6 reminds us that our contentment is grounded in God's promise: He will not leave us, and He will not forsake us. We can rest in the confidence that we are His. In particular, we are assured by all of Scripture that we may rely on God's providence, and that His provision is perfectly sufficient (see Philippians 4:13). We rely on God's indwelling power - the same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead! - for our provision. We can rest assured that we will have all that we need. Remember: that means that rich or poor, God has met our needs according to His perfect wisdom. As Bruce said, our attitude toward God should be, "Whatever you call me to experience, you will provide for, and I will rely on that."

I think the best moment in the sermon was Bruce's closing. He spoke to the issue dearest to my heart, reminding us that all of these things ultimately come down to whether or not we are glorifying God. "Contentment at its core," he said," is an act of worship: worshipping God for the sufficiency of His power, for the reality of his provision." God owes us nothing; we owe him thanks for everything, because every part of our life is a free gift.

Our response can be summed up in three parts. First, rejoice in your relationship with Jesus Christ above any other person or thing in this world, for He is our great treasure (Habakkuk 3:17-19). Second, keep your eyes on eternity (2 Corinthians 4:17). Finally, count your blessings: don't lose sight of all that God has done, blinded by the greed of this world.

I appreciated how saturated with Scripture this sermon was. Bruce didn't make it more than about two minutes at a stretch without reading or quoting Scripture, and doing it well and accurately. That sort of sermon is too rare in many churches, and it's always a joy to hear.

I challenge you, as I was challenged, to walk this week in contentment, remembering that contentment is an act of worship.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Make yourselves a new heart..."

A few thoughts on a passage I read this morning in Ezekiel 18:
“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?

“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”
They called Him unjust for forgiving those who repented of evil and for condemning those who turned to evil. Why? I suspect because they thought works should ultimately count for something in the eyes of God - they forgot how filthy even our righteousness is. They believed that a good man's deeds should be his security and the wicked man's his permanent condemnation. Instead, God speaks of mercy for the repentant wicked and condemnation for the rebellious righteous man. It is an inversion of expectation, and one that we shouldn't take too lightly.

The last paragraph quoted above also stood out to me: in the midst of a call for repentance, God tells His people to make themselves a new heart and a new spirit. That's quite a task. In fact, given the testimony of the rest of Scripture, I'd say it's impossible: try as we might, we're unable to change our own hearts. Yet this passage calls for just that.

This leaves us asking how exactly God expected His chosen people to make for themselves heart and spirit. Frankly, if God never said anything else on the topic, we'd be throwing our hands up in the air and calling it quits. Thankfully, however, God did not cease His revelation, even to Ezekiel, at this point. Eighteen chapters later, God shows Ezekiel what He has planned for Israel:
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel." [emphasis mine]
Striking, is it not? In chapter 18, God calls Israel to repentance, telling them that if they will forsake wickedness and make themselves a new heart and a new spirit, He will forgive their evil. Eighteen chapters later, He shows Ezekiel how this new heart will actually come into being. God is not a fool, and He is not insane: He knows that human ability will never accomplish the task. How then can He show mercy?

Where the efforts of man would always be destined to fail, God Himself promised to accomplish the work. He makes the new heart and implants His own spirit. He would take away a heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. He would case them to follow Him wholeheartedly, as their own attempts could not.

Nor did He act because of the supreme worthiness of Israel. Quite the contrary: He acted in spite of Israel's sinfulness, wickedness and rebellion. He acted for the sake of His holy name, and to vindicate His holiness - not for their sake.

There's a lot in this passage, but a few more highlights are worth mentioning.

First, this is a picture of regeneration. When we are born again, God changes us - radically, completely, transformingly. I recently heard a pastor say, "There are people who get saved, and stay saved, and live like hell the rest of their lives." Nothing could be farther from the truth. When we have new life breathed into us - like the dead bones of Ezekiel's vision - we do not live like hell. We have new hearts, we are filled with His Spirit and we walk in His ways. We walk imperfectly, of course, but there is no staying in hell for those God has rescued.

Second, God explicitly refutes the idea that this coming regeneration has anything to do with the people being transformed. It has everything to do with His showing Himself holy and good. We dare not think that our salvation is of our own merit in any way -- not even taking credit for our choice to follow Christ. We could make no such choice without His grace opening our eyes to see Him and His Spirit breathing life into our dead bodies to walk after Him.

But praise be to God, who has done just that for all who believe!
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 1 Peter 1:3-5

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Five 100-word thoughts

Things that passed through my head today that I thought my be interesting:
  1. A snippet from the Today show this morning that I caught while waiting for new tires: a couple expecting a child... to be born from another couple. Both couples were using in vitro fertilization because they could not conceive naturally. The doctor made a mistake and implanted the wrong embryo. Now one couple is carrying the baby to term (praise God!) and giving it back to his parents. What exactly does that mean? It’s a confusing, painful mess for everyone involved. Situations like this make me question the wisdom of in vitro. There are no easy answers here.
  2. In a Christianity Today interview published last Friday, Kara Powell argued that the age of age segregated ministry is over, or should be. A few highlights from the interview, especially the last one:

    • Now we tend to think that we can outsource the care of our kids to... the youth and children's workers.
    • Teens should not only be the objects of ministry; they need to be the subjects of ministry as well.
    • Tenth graders study Shakespeare. What are we offering them at church? Nothing comparable...
    •'s also very important for parents to share about their own spiritual journeys with kids.

  3. God’s grace is a pretty stunning thing. As the author of Hebrews puts it: through death He overcame the one with the power of death (the devil) and delivers those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. That’s huge. I can’t conscience dropping penal substitutionary atonement in favor of Christus Victor, but we must remember: Christ’s life and death did more than eliminate sin’s penalty! We should revel in His victory, excited about His final triumph. Praise God: we’ve been saved from God’s wrath, death, fear, and Satan’s power, and to freedom, life everlasting, joy and love.
  4. Marriage is a delightful and painful treasure. Delightful, because every day is filled with companionship, love, and adventure. Painful, because I realize more every day how wicked I am:. Yes, wicked: I am self-absorbed, unkind, rude, thoughtless, harsh. Jaimie is a delight and a treasure to me, yet too often I do not show her the depths of my love. I am just beginning to grasp how immense a thing it is to die for her every day as Christ died for the church. I desperately need the Spirit’s help to love her well. On my own, I fail horribly.
  5. In a pair of sermons on Luke 18, Matt Chandler (lead pastor of The Village Church in Texas) absolutely hit the ball out of the park. He looked at the text hard. The result: a solid scriptural rebuke to our self-reliance and our love of anything other than Christ. Topics covered: A Pharisee with a theocentric prayer who missed justification because he thought his God-given works saved him. A rich man who was still looking for how he could find eternal life in religion. And God’s way. Give them a listen: May 28 and June 7.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Two Scriptures

No, the topics here aren't related. I'm simply discussing two different passages that strongly caught my attention while reading tonight.
But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
say continually, "Great is the LORD!"
Psalm 40:16

That's a striking exhortation. David calls all those who seek God to rejoice in Him. He encourages everyone who is pursuing God to be glad in Him. He insists that we proclaim God's greatness. In short, he commends a life lived with joyful adoration of our King. Equally compelling is David's proclamation, earlier in the same psalm, that he delights to do God's will. Delight is a strong word - our hearts should leap to obey our Savior-King. That they do not simply reminds us that still the old man wars for dominion. Pick up your sword and fight, oh spiritual man. You will have the victory - and you will have true joy.
Then His mother and His brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And He was told, "Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you." But he answered them, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it."
Luke 8:19-21

This passage is noteworthy in an entirely different way. It calls our attention to how radically different Jesus' loyalties are than our own. Over and over again throughout the gospels, Jesus made it clear that His first loyalty was not to His earthly family or any other human institution. Instead, He firmly fixed Himself on the will of His Father.

The words also hold out a promise for us: if we hear and obey the word of God, we have more right to be the "immediate family" of Christ than would His own mother if she did not. The Father has made us His children, joint heirs of the promise with Christ. How stunning!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Sufficiency of Scripture

What does it mean to say that we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture? The term is common enough that it warrants definition. Inerrancy and infallibility are commonly discussed, sufficiency a bit less so. As far as theological battles go, it's deeply tied to the other two, and so isn't as hot a point of contention. For our lives, however, it's just as important.

If Scripture is sufficient then the Bible says everything it means to, and what it doesn't say, it means not to say. When tied to infallibility, it means that structure and grammar, affirmation and negation, and even the topics chosen (yes, including Leviticus) are all important. It means that the Bible is enough for all the ways we need Scripture. Sufficiency complements infallibility and inerrancy: nothing needs to be taken away from the infallible and inerrant word of God, and nothing needs to be added to the sufficient word of God.

Belief in the sufficiency of Scripture has real, practical consequences for our Bible study. For example, if Scripture is sufficient, we should take from each passage only its own implications. God intended John 3 to be a conversation on belief, with consequences for our beliefs about justification, but Romans 8 to be an extended discussion on justification with implications for our believing. The story of David and Goliath is not about overcoming our mortal enemy, debt (or any other you can name), by standing up to it and being courageous; it's about God's anointed one coming to the rescue. When we read Scripture, we should take it to mean exactly what it says, and nothing else. Let the Scriptures speak as God intends them to, and do not force them to speak to topics they don't address.

How do we apply our belief in Scripture's sufficiency? By humbling ourselves as we come to His words. We come asking what the passage says. Then, after we have a good grasp on what it says, we may begin to ask what it means. Finally, having taken the time to do these well, we can ask how to apply that meaning to our lives. In all of this, the Word itself has primacy. Our emotions don't: they have to submit to what God says. When we look at interpretations and applications, they need to come out of the passage's content, not out of our circumstances.

I don't mean to say that there are not times when God speaks to us deeply through secondary or tertiary applications of a passage. I do mean to say that we ought to let Scripture mean what it says. For example, if I am reading Lamentations, I should recognize it as a dirge for all the calamities that overtook Israel for her sins. I should not make it an allegory for my daily ups and downs in the workplace. There may be some applications to my life, but they're not direct unless I'm witnessing the violent and wrathful judgment of God on everything I've ever known and held dear. When America is burning from sea to shining sea, cannibalism is rampant, and I am not only the only man willing to speak truth but also getting thrown in a pit to die for it, then I might find myself empathizing with Jeremiah. Not before. God certainly speaks through that passage, even to our (much smaller!) travails, but our understanding needs to be grounded in what it says, not in what we feel. He doesn't need our emotions to somehow fill in the gaps in the things He could have meant by the passage. If Scripture is sufficient, there are no gaps - He said everything He meant to say.

>Another trouble many of us have is that we jump immediately to the final step. "Life Application" is a good thing - good enough that I think failing to ask how to apply Scripture to our lives leads us down the road of academic abstractions that profit very little if at all. However, moving to application without good observations and interpretations is also a recipe for failure. Why? Because we can't have good applications without having good interpretations, and good interpretations rest on good observations. We must know what the passage says before we can have any idea what it means, and we must know what it means before we can derive any response.

I've also noted a tendency in myself and others to think that interpreting Scripture (finding out what it means) and applying it (finding out how it works in my life) are the same thing. They're not. Part of the trouble here is phrasing: "What does that mean?" and "What does that mean to you?" are very similar questions. Appropriately, though, they mean two very different things.

The process of approaching Scripture with its sufficiency in mind is straightfoward enough: Observation --> Interpretation --> Application, always in that order. How do we practice it? Let's return to Lamentations for an example, briefly looking at the book as a whole.

I observe how brokenhearted Jeremiah was for his people, even when they were attacking him. I observe how deeply full of wrath God was, and how patient to hold back such great anger for so long. I observe that the destruction visited on Judah and Jerusalem was very great. I observe that the depravity of man came bubbling up and was revealed in all its horror. I observe that God's greatest condemnation was for prophets and priests claiming His authority for their false teaching.

Then I begin to interpret. God hates sin - deeply, violently, angrily. He hates it so much that He would righteously visit incredible violence and terror on people rather than allow them to continue in it. He punishes sin - slow to anger He may be, but when His anger is kindled it is fierce and terrible. I thus also interpret that sin is more awful than I yet realize. I interpret that Jeremiah was so filled with God's love for his countrymen that, though he agreed that God's judgment was just, he was rightly grieved for their destruction. I interpret that God's salvation was Jeremiah's great hope for himself and for his people.

Then I apply: I recognize the evil of my own sin and depravity. I recognize that, quite literally, there but for the grace of God go I. I recognize that it is from those depths of sin and that depth of God's wrath that I have been saved. I recognize that I need a deeper love of my fellow believers and my fellow Americans and my fellow humans - a love that is like Christ's. I recognize that I need more gratitude for the salvation God has so mercifully granted me.

And all of those things come from the passage. Those are meaningful, real applications to my life. But they are drawn from the content of the passage, not imposed on it from my circumstances. To be sure, they may speak more or less loudly to my current situation. Sometimes it's the most tertiary applications that speak the loudest. God works that way, meeting us where we are and drawing our hearts after Him. For our part, we need to be faithful to treat His word with honor and respect. We need to remember its sufficiency. God has spoken, and His words are enough.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


I find it difficult to put into words just how much has changed since last I sat and began to write in this virtual space.

In many ways, of course, I'm the same as ever I was. (Including, probably, a hint of verbosity. See?) At the same time, I've changed. I'm not who I was, never will be. I'm married, for one thing - to the most beautiful woman I've ever met. It was a marvelous ceremony. It's been a better marriage.

Not perfect. Never that. Though my marvelous wife (I rather delight in saying that, you'll find) is certainly a better woman than I deserve, God sees fit day by day to supply me with grace enough to serve her, and grace enough to serve a little better than the day before. I begin to see and understand, just a little, how a life with a family will transform my understanding not only of service to others but indeed of service to God. (Being married hasn't changed my delight in use of non-colloquial words and phrases, either, you'll note.)

Many of those who follow this blog were at my wedding - and it was a delight to see you there. For those of you who were not, however, I'd like to share here the Scriptures that God laid on our hearts as we prepared and that we had read aloud in the course of the ceremony: selections from His everlasting word that, we thought, helped paint a picture of how great this mystery is, and then comment briefly (yes, briefly; don't laugh!) on why these verses. Some of them may be obvious, others less so.

Genesis 1:27-28
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Genesis 2:18-24
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

Song of Songs 4:9:
You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride;
you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace.

Song of Songs 5:16
His mouth is most sweet,
and he is altogether desirable.
This is my beloved and this is my friend,
O daughters of Jerusalem.

Song of Songs 8:7
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
all the wealth of his house,
he would be utterly despised.

Song of Songs 8:6
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of the Lord.

1 Peter 3:1-2,7
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

Matthew 22:30
For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.

Ephesians 5:31-32
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

Revelation 21:1-5a
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Revelation 19:6-9
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”

There is a flow here - a flow from the moment of creation, when God made man not to be alone, to the shocking close of history, when God comes to dwell forever with man whom He made. These passages also tell us something incredibly important about what exactly marriage is: a picture of Christ and the Church He came to redeem to Himself, that He is redeeming to Himself.

Marriage is not, as we all too often proclaim, some eternal state in which we will remain for all time. It is inherently temporary, because it does not exist merely for its own sake. It is meant to be a glorious, shocking truth that represents a far greater Truth. The unity of man and God through the redeeming work of Christ is a deep mystery. Then again, so is marriage.

How can two people from completely different backgrounds leave behind their families and become one? And how is the becoming one flesh - joining together in every possible way - even possible? How is it that our joining in marriage is not merely a lifelong commitment to mate only with each other for social stability but a real spiritual unity that transcends the mundane and reaches to the deepest parts of our nature? It certainly does. Jaimie and I have already experienced ways in which our being married ties us far more closely than ever we were before. Most of all, we affect each other spiritually. It is, as Paul says in Ephesians 5, a mystery.

God, in His wisdom, has chosen to use this mystery to help us understand a deeper puzzle yet: How can immortal, omnipotent, omniscient God who knows us, our thoughts, our deeds better than we ourselves, relate to us? How can we and He who are so very different ever be joined in any degree of relationship? How can His transcendence meet our very thorough smallness? How could there ever be more to that relationship than distant dictator and abject subjects? How could there be intimacy? Most especially when we are so abjectly fallen, so utterly depraved in our thoughts that we run to every kind of evil whenever we can!

No, this marriage is a temporary one, so that we can glimpse the greater one that awaits: the union of God and man, Christ and His Bride. There will be, as there was in our wedding, a feast to whom all are invited. There is only one acceptable garment at that feast... the garment provided by the Lamb that was slaughtered, choosing from the foundation of the world to redeem us to Him, to make us His, to cover our transgression and make us white as snow... white as the dress a bride wears to her wedding. Our righteous deeds, prepared for us by God, will be the shining linen worn by the Church as a whole as she joyfully runs into the arms of her God-King on that last day.

This is what our wedding and our marriage are about, not some nonsensical idea of eternal bliss together. We will strive every day to be a faithful picture of Christ and His Bride. I will strive to die for Jaimie as Christ died for the church. And we together will be part of His church, striving ever to purify her for the day of His return, starting with our own hearts and reaching out to every man, woman, and child that He places in our path.

Our marriage is about the good news that Christ has redeemed for Himself a people who will share all eternity with Him.

Our marriage is about Him!

Saturday, January 31, 2009

American dreams

There is something in me that simply cannot be expressed, but comes welling up whenever I read stories like Tang Xiaozhao's. There is something about every story of people saying, "This is wrong, and that is right, and I'm willing to fight for it." There is something about every story of people yearning to break the chains of tyranny and have freedom. There is, in short, something about the American story and the way that it continues to prove a model - however broken - for millions around the world.

People love America. Plenty of people hate America's actions. Very few hate the idea of America. Tyrants do, of course. But the people? People love the idea of America.

America as it was meant to be, you understand: not this self-consumed and bloated picture of consumerism, but the land of noble people who will put others ahead of themselves and the good of their country above their own advancement. It's never really been that. But it has been the hope of that.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride form land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, you rpoor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Emma Lazarus' Statue of Liberty-seated words still move me, and deeply. Not because America is any of those things. But rather because there is something in the image painted in them that is far deeper than America. There is, you see, a promise of a better country - a really better country, where every man is every other's equal, where freedom is more than an unvoiced dream, where every man is every other's brother as well as neighbor, where justice is actually done, where pasts are washed away and every man has another chance.

America has never been that - not in its best moments, and certainly not in its worsts.

But people keep dreaming of America as what it dreams of being.

I figured out why.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in my heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 11.28-30

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to reeive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. Hebrews 11.8-10

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a temptest and the sound of a trumpet a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them... But you hve come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gather, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel... Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. Hebrews 12.18-19,22-24,28-29

For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to e a joy,
and her people to be a gladness.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and be glad in my people;
nor more shall be heard it in the sound of weeping
and the cry of distress.
Nor more shall there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who doe snot fill out his days
for the young men shall die a hundred years old,
and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for liek the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain
or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord,
and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
the wolf and the lamb shall graze together;
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
and dust shall be the serpent's food.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain,"
says the Lord.
Isaiah 65.17-25

People are dreaming of a city with foundations. They're hoping for a kingdom that cannot be shaken. They're looking for heaven. People love America because in the dream of America - only in the dream, but very deeply in that dream - there is a taste of heaven, a taste of what we long for, what we were made for.

All we dream of in America will be so far surpassed by heaven that we shall look back on it as but the shadow of an echo of a quickly fading dream.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. An dI will be their God, and they shall be my people. Jeremiah 31.33

My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Ezekiel 37.27