Saturday, December 30, 2006

Baxter on Criticism in Ministry

When pastors first enter the ministry, one of the most difficult things for them to deal with is the personal attacks and petty criticisms that come their way. In fact, they are most often blind-sided by it, and generally do not know what to do. In his 1656 book, The Reformed Pastor (Banner of Truth, Carlisle, PA: 2005), Richard Baxter takes a refreshingly different look at the nature of ungodly criticism in the ministry:

“If other men may sin without observation, so cannot you. And you should thankfully consider how great a mercy this is, that you have so many eyes to watch over you, and so many ready to tell you of your faults; and thus have greater help than others, at least for restraining you from sin. Though they may do it with a malicious mind, yet you have the advantage of it…

“Take heed, therefore, to yourselves, and do your work as those that remember that the world looks on them, and that with the quick-sighted eye of malice, ready to make the worst of all, to find the smallest fault where it is, to aggravate it where they find it, to divulge it and to take advantage of it to their own designs, to make faults where they cannot find them. How cautiously, then, should we walk before so many ill-minded observers” (75-76).

And how thankfully we should walk before them, because their malice is in the hand of God a refiner’s fire that will mold us all the more into the image of Christ--if we’ll have eyes to see, and a heart ready to receive the blessings of our Father.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On Reforming the American Church

It is no secret that the American Church as a whole is in decline. David T. Olson, founder and president of The American Church (, reports that in 1990, 20.4% of the population attended church on a regular basis, whereas in 2003 only 17.8% did so. And if this trend continues, the attendance rate in the year 2050 will be about 11.7%. While evangelical churches are gaining slightly in numbers, mainline churches are declining rapidly (see Olson’s power point presentation entitled, 29 Interesting Facts about the American Church).

Have you ever wondered why this is so? A phenomenon so serious as national church decline cannot be reduced to a single factor, but surely among the most important factors is the state of the clergy, and more specifically, the manner in which we train and employ them. Consider what Richard Baxter wrote in 1656 (The Reformed Pastor, Banner of Truth, Carlisle, PA: 2005):

“But, when languages and philosophy have almost all their time and diligence [i.e., those training for the ministry], and, instead of reading philosophy like divines, they read divinity like philosophers, as if it were a thing of no more moment than a lesson of music, or arithmetic, and not the doctrine of everlasting life—this it is that blasts so many in the bud, and pesters the Church with unsanctified teachers! Hence it is, that we have so many worldlings to preach of the invisible felicity, and so many carnal men to declare the mysteries of the Spirit; and I would I might not say, so many infidels to preach Christ, or so many atheists to preach the living God; and when they are taught philosophy before or without religion, what wonder if their philosophy be all or most of their religion” (60).

Having attended the Graduate Theological Union for four years, and having studied alongside so many preparing for the ministry in mainline churches, I can tell you that this paragraph reads more like a modern report on the state of our seminaries than like an ancient bemoaning of ancient problems. Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun! When we drift away from the Word of God and toward the philosophies of men, we reap a harvest of clergy who, for the most part, do not believe the Bible they preach. And if they do not believe what they preach, is it any wonder that they cannot inspire the souls of their hearers and impress upon them the great and urgent need to share the gospel with every man, woman, and child?

The nature of the ministry is that you have to be consumed with what you preach and teach in order for it to have its intended effect. (Except that in some cases, by grace, God is pleased to glorify himself through unbelieving clergy.) As with Ezekiel and the apostle John, you have to eat the Word of God before you declare it (Ezekiel 3:1; Revelation 10:9). The Word has to become part of the fabric of your being before it can flow out of you with power.

Thus, we would do well in our efforts to reform the American Church to start, not with reformation of the church, but with the reformation of the clergy—the content of their learning, the manner of our instruction, and the absolute insistence that everyone who takes a pulpit must be aflame with passion for what he preaches.

And let not the evangelical church think this is an issue for the mainline church only—it is not. In the last few decades we have been subtly sliding away from the Word of God to the extent that we are now sending men out to plant churches who do not believe in such crucial doctrines as the inerrancy of the Word of God or the substitutionary atonement or the uniqueness and primacy of Christ. We are a stone’s throw away from the liberalism that has sacked the mainline church, and we would do well to get back to the Word of God—learned and lived—as our primary means of instruction.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Rejoicing in the Wrath of God

One of the first essays I wrote in college was on the wrath and love of God, and probably the main effect it has had on my life is to cause joy to rise up in my heart whenever I contemplate God's wrath. I recently shared this with a pastor friend of mine and, though he said nothing to me in response, the look on his face seemed to say, "If you knew anything about the wrath of God you would not rejoice in it." At the time, I wasn't sure how to respond, but I knew that the joy in my heart was not stemming from a belittling of the horror of the wrath of God.

Then just the other day, as I was reading through the book of Revelation, I came across a couple of passages in chapters 15 and 16 that helped me understand and articulate the joy in my heart. Chapter 15 begins like this: "Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished" (v. 1).

And what was the reaction of those who heard that God was about to pour out that great and terrible and final wrath? "And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, 'Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed'" (15:3-4).

And then in the middle of the sixteenth chapter, right after the third bowl of the wrath of God was poured out, there was another outburst of praise: "And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, 'Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!' And I heard the altar saying, 'Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!'" (Rev 16:5-7)

So, what is it that causes joy to rise up in the hearts of those who love God when they contemplate and even see his great and terrible wrath?

(1) They rejoice because God's deeds are great and amazing (15:3). The essence of worship is delighting in the glory and greatness of God, and thus seeing a visible display of the same, even in terrible wrath, strikes awe and joy in the soul for those who love God, by grace, and it causes them to worship.

(2) They rejoice because God is holy and his ways are just and true (15:3; 16:5-7). Indeed, as the Psalmist has written, "You are good and do good" (Psalms 119:68). Even in his wrath the children of God rejoice because they know that he is infinitely holy, that his motives are pure and right, that he does not lash out in unholy anger as do they. And they know, therefore, that his judgments are just and right and fair, and that everything he thinks and says and does are perfectly in accordance with truth. He never gets it wrong--NEVER! Can you imagine being so perfect in your character that you never misstep with your words or actions? This is true of God, and this truth strikes awe and joy in the hearts of those who love God, by grace, and it causes them to worship.

(3) They rejoice because they know that, in the end, "All nations will come and worship [God], for [his] righteous acts have been revealed" (15:4). They know that, in the end, "...every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2:10-11). They know that, in the end, everyone will honor and revere this God who they have come to love, by grace, and it causes them to worship.

In short, the reason the children of God rejoice in the wrath of God is because it is a display of the infinite power and holiness of God. They do not rejoice in death and destruction, rather they rejoice in God himself who does all things well--even wrath.

Ministry & the Fear of the Lord

The primary thing a vocational-pastor needs in his life is a vision of God Almighty so vivid and exact that it stuns and captures his soul and puts the rightful fear of God in him. In this regard, William Perkins writes the following (The Calling of the Ministry, 128-29):

"The more afraid they [ministers] are and the more they shrink under the contemplation of God's majesty and their own weakness, the more likely it is that they are truly called of God and appointed for worthy purposes in his church. Anyone who steps into ths function without fear puts himself forward, but it is doubtful whether he is called by God as the prophet Isaiah clearly was...

"A minister is subject to pride and to being puffed up with self-conceit...To prevent this, God in his mercy has planned that all true ministers will by some means or other be humbled and emptied themselves. They will be driven to such fear and amazement at the sight of their own wickedness, that they will throw themselves down at Christ's feet, and deny themselves wholly, acknowledging that anything they are they are only in him, and rely and trust only on his grace and help...

"If we ever aim to be made instruments of God's glory in saving souls, then at the outset let us set before our eyes not the honour [sic] but the danger of our calling, and 'Humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may due time' ( 1 Pet 5:6). Let us be content for God to employ any occasion or means to pull us down either by outward crosses or inward temptation. And let us rejoice when we are humbled so that we cry out from overwehlemed spirits, as Isaiah did: 'Woe is me, for I am undone.' Otherwise if we follow the direction of our proud natures and trust in our own ability, gifts, and learning, we are using carnal weapons in a spiritual warfare."

Thus, let us shrink under the contemplation of God's majesty, that we may be sanctified and used of God to build up his church.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Why We Must Preach the Word

William Perkins in his little book entitled, The Calling of the Ministry (Banner of Truth, Carlisle, PA: 2002), gives a compelling argument for why pastors must preach the Word of God. Here he employs the word "angel" to mean "messenger," which in the Greek language is its basic meaning.

"You must understand your duty: prophets and ministers are angels; that is the very nature of their calling. Therefore, you must preach God's Word, as God's Word, and deliver it just as you received it. Angels, ambassadors, and messengers do not carry their own message, but the message of the lords and masters who sent them. Similarly, ministers carry the message of the Lord of hosts, and are therefore bound to deliver is as the Lord's , not as their own" (85, emphasis mine).

If Perkins is right, and I think he is, then the "Doctor Phil with Bible verses" method seems a great danger to me. Instead, we ought to heed the simple and emphatic words of Paul to Timothy,

"I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry." (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Life in Light of Death

"God hath concealed from us the day of our death, without doubt, partly for this end, that we might be excited to be always ready, and might live as those that are always waiting for the coming of their Lord, agreeable to the counsel which Christ gives us (see Matt. 24:42-44; Matt. 25:13; Mark 13:32; etc.)"

Jonathan Edwards, The Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time

Edwards on Meddling

In a sermon entitled, The Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time, Jonathan Edwards writes the following:

"Inquire, whether you would not much less meddle with the concerns of others, and be much more employed with your own hearts, if each day you had no dependence on living another day. If you were sensible that you had had no other day to depend upon than this, you would be sensible that you had great affairs of your own to attend to. You would find a great deal of business at home between God and your own soul; and considering that you cannot depend on another day, it would seem to you that you have but a short time in which to do it, and that therefore you have need to be much engaged. You would say as Christ did, I must work while the day lasts, for the night cometh, wherein no man can work (see John 9:4). You would find so much to be done, and so much difficulty in doing it, that you would have little leisure, and little heart, to intermeddle with the business of others. Your business would be confined to a much narrower compass. You would have so much to do at home in your closets, and with your own hearts, that you would find no occasion to go abroad for intermeddling business to fill up your time."

Grounds for Obedience

One of the things I love most about the Bible is that it is not just a list of groundless dos and don'ts. In other words, it gives reasons for why we should do certain things and not do others. And let's be honest, God is God and he does not have to give us reasons. He has every right to command as he desires and expect perfect obedience. This is the right of the creator. Therefore, when we see that God does indeed give reasons for his commands, specific commendations for obedience, and specific warnings against disobedience, we ought to see that as a sign of grace and we ought to rejoice in who God is.

Consider, for example, Colossians 3:1-17. Verses 5-11 state the "don'ts," verses 12-17 state the "dos," and verses 1-4 state the grounds for both. Here is the passage in its entirety:

[1] If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. [2] Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. [3] For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. [4] When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

[5] Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. [6] On account of these the wrath of God is coming. [7] In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. [8] But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. [9] Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices [10] and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. [11] Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

[12] Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, [13] bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. [14] And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. [15] And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. [16] Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. [17] And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

When you reflect carefully on verses 1-4, the rest of this passage just makes so much sense. And I think the end effect of solid grounds like these is that they fuel passion for and joy in obedience. Augustine once said something like, "Lord, command what you will, and enable me to do what you command." One main way God enables obedience is by giving grounds for the same. May we have ears to hear, eyes to see, and humble hearts that long to stand on that ground!

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

More from Perkins

In chapter ten of The Art of Prophesying, Perkins writes the following:

“Such a ‘demonstration’ [of the Spirit] will come to expression either in speech or in gesture. The speech must be spiritual and gracious. Spiritual speech is speech which the Holy Spirit teaches (1 Cor. 2:13). It is both simple and clear, tailored to the understanding of the hearers and appropriate for expressing the majesty of the Spirit (Acts 17:2,3; 2 Cor. 4:2-4; Gal. 3:1). For this reason none of the specialized vocabulary of the arts, nor Greek and Latin phrases, nor odd turns of phrase should be used in the sermon. These distract the minds of those listeners who cannot see the connection between what has been said and what follows. In addition, unusual words hinder rather than help people in their efforts to understand what is being said. And they also tend to draw their minds away from the subject in hand to other things. In this connection, too, mere story-telling as well as vulgar or foolish statements must be avoided.”

Remember, this was written over four-hundred years ago: indeed, there is nothing new under the sun!

Wolves & the Word

Lately I’ve been reading a book by William Perkins entitled, The Art of Prophesying (Banner of Truth, Carlisle, PA: 2002). Perkins was a late sixteenth-century Puritan (1558-1602) who had an “enormous impact on generations of preachers” (foreword, vii). So much of what he says speaks to modern times that I have often forgotten I was reading an ancient book!

In the preface of the book he writes, “In keeping with its dignity, preaching has a two-fold value: (1) It is instrumental in gathering the church and bringing together all of the elect; (2) It drives away wolves from the folds of the Lord. Preaching is the flexanima, the allurer of the soul, by which our self-willed minds are subdued and changed from an ungodly and pagan life-style to a life of Christian faith and repentance. It is also the weapon which has shaken the foundations of ancient heresies, and also, more recently cut to pieces the sinews of the Antichrist.”

I was particularly struck by the idea that one of the chief functions of preaching the Word of God is to drive away the wolves and shake the foundations of ancient heresies. If this is true, then the opposite is also true: when the church exchanges the Word of God for politics, right or left, or psychology or sociology or anything else, it invites the wolves into its fold and sooner or later they will kill their prey.

Recently a colleague of mine was at a church planting assessment center where he listened to a church planting candidate wax eloquent about the “fact” that we have for too long chosen Paul’s gospel over Jesus, and that this has led us astray. The most grievous thing about this for me is that this man was approved for church planting. Can you imagine that? A man who rejects the apostle Paul, and therefore at least thirteen books of the Bible, was approved for church planting by a panel of evangelicals.

How did the evangelical church get here? The answer probably does not boil down to one factor, but I think that the main factor this: in the 1980s the evangelical church, at least to a large extent, exchanged the preaching of the Word of God for psychologically based, felt-needs, topical messages. Instead of the Word of God being the meat of the church, it became the “book of quotes” that was used to prop up the points of the message and set up cute stories, alluring illustrations, and movie clips. And because the Word of God was not there to drive the wolves away, they have settled in and are sinking their teeth into their prey even as we speak.

Robert Schuller, who is by many accounts the father of the seeker movement via his great influence on Bill Hybels, once said in my presence that he did not have time to develop biblical sermons because he had to lead. He said that he could discuss and debate theology with the best of them, but that biblical preaching was inappropriate for Sunday morning worship because it hampered church growth and swallowed up too much of the leader’s time. He pitted leadership against biblical teaching, and thus, he exchanged the Word of God, at least in the prominent services of the Crystal Cathedral, for the power of positive thinking and interviews with famous people. I’m sure that Robert Schuller did not make a conscious decision to invite the wolves in to devour the church but that is exactly what he did.

And so have other prominent church growth leaders. And in the process many evangelicals have become so biblically illiterate and theologically ignorant that they cannot even spot heresy, and what is worse, when they do, their souls do not grieve over it and their mouths do not war against it.

Oh brothers and sisters, how desperate a time is this? Let us not pit leadership against the Word of God but rather let us lead by the Word of God. Let us feed the sheep, allure souls to worship, and drive the wolves away with that great Sword of the Spirit.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

What does it mean "to give glory to God"?

Some years ago I undertook a study of the glory of God in which I located, read, and categorized every occurrence of the word “glory” in the Bible, as well as several corollary words. Part of the way through this study I became a bit perplexed at what the Bible could possibly mean by the phrases “give glory to God” or “glorify God” (see, e.g., Jer. 13:16 & Rev. 14:7). After all, I reasoned, what do I have to give God that he does not already have? How can I in any way, or in any sense, give God anything?

I was greatly helped in this by getting clear in my mind what the two primary meanings of the words for “glory” are. First, “glory” means radiance, effulgence, brilliance, brightness, and the like. It is the intrinsic brilliance of God that is of necessity, and in a variety of ways, displayed and beheld and prized and praised. As one carefully studies the Bible, he will see that we are never commanded to give God glory in this sense of the word. That would be like asking a book of matches to add to the brilliance of the sun—not only would it fail, it would be utterly consumed in the attempt!

Second, “glory” means honor or respect or praise or credit. Take, for example, Matthew 15:29-31, “Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel.”

What happened here? The crowd (1) beheld the outworking of the great power of God through Jesus, (2) they had a natural and irrepressible sense of awe and wonder in their souls about it, and (3) they expressed that awe and wonder by giving verbal honor or credit or praise where these things were due, namely, to God. What the Bible means, therefore, when it commands us to give glory to God is that we should give him honor in all things, for it is due him in all things—whether in healing or eating or drinking or sleeping or working or playing, ad infinitum.

It is tempting to say, then, that giving glory to God is simply a matter of integrity and honesty, that it is a matter of giving credit where credit is due. But the Bible is calling for more than this: the Bible is calling for us to behold the glory of God, which is manifested in a variety of ways, to prize and love and rejoice and stand in awe of the glory of God, and then, with glad and sincere hearts, to declare the beauty of what we have seen, first to God and then to others. In other words, the Bible is calling for deep, heart-felt, authentic, grateful, humble responses to the surpassing greatness of the glory of God beheld. It’s calling for the kind of honor that is completely enamored of the person being honored.

I know this post is getting long, but I can’t resist raising and then oh so briefly addressing one more question: Why did God design creation to elicit this kind of response? Or put another way, why did God make himself the ultimate end of creation if he was already full in himself? To state the answer briefly, God did not create the world to add to his fullness, he created the world to display his fullness and to share his delight in himself. To say that the glory of God is the end or the ultimate purpose of all things, including our joy in him, is to say that he created us to delight with him in the infinitely delightful, i.e., in God himself. The God-centeredness of God, far from being the death of joy, is its very fountain and life and fullness and longevity. And hence John Piper’s now famous dictum, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

Thanks for being patient with such a long post.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

More Thoughts on Edwards

The following quote is from Chapter 1, Objection 2: “Some may object, that to suppose God makes himself his highest and last end, is dishonorable to him; as it in effect supposes, that God does everything from a selfish spirit.” This is what I call “the narcissistic problem,” and it has been my main objection to the God-centeredness of God, or at least my main confusion about it. What follows is my reflections on this problem:

1. The problem arises from an assumption that is, in the end, false. Specifically, I have assumed that self-centeredness or ultimate self-interest is intrinsically corrupt, but this is true only insofar as the nature of the being in question is corrupt. Since God is infinitely holy and incorrupt, he cannot be corrupt in any of his thoughts, choices, or actions, even if that be to commence and consummate all things in himself, for himself. Thus, the nature of his self-centeredness is as infinitely different from ours as his character and perfections and holiness are infinitely different from ours.

2. The praise of worth rightly belongs to the source of worth, and since God is the source of his own worth, it is right for him to praise his own worth. What else shall he praise? The reason it is unbecoming for a person to praise his own worth is that his worth is derived from God, and thus, to praise himself is like a painting praising itself rather than the painter. But since God is the source of his own worth it is becoming of him, and others, to praise his own worth.

3. The measure of rightful praise is equal to the measure of actual worth. The reason it is unbecoming of a person to praise himself, and more so, to do everything he does with a view to the praise of himself, is that such praise is disproportionate to his actual worth. It is like a robot seeking praise for itself because it can walk, rather than seeking praise for its creator who has made it to walk. But since God is infinitely worthy, the measure of rightful praise of him is likewise infinite, and it is becoming of him to do all that he does with a view to his praise. God’s infinite delight in himself, far from being corrupt, is a proper assessment of his worth.

4. Two quotes help elucidate the next point: “And it is impossible that God, who is omniscient, should apprehend his interest, as being inconsistent with the good and interest of the whole” (Objection 2, answer 3). “This supposes that God having respect to his glory, and the communication of good to his creatures, are things altogether different: that God communicating his fullness for himself, and his doing it for them, are things standing in a proper disjunction and opposition. Whereas, if we were capable of more perfect views of God and divine things, which are so much above us, it probably would appear very clear, that the matter is quite otherwise: and that these things, instead of appearing entirely distinct, are implied one in the other” (Objection 4, Answer 1).

I think my main confusion about God’s self-centeredness, or ultimate self-interest, lies in a failure to comprehend the infinite difference between the nature and effects of his self-centeredness and the nature and effects of human self-centeredness. The nature of human self-centeredness is the vain attempt to fill up the emptiness of the human soul with that which is finite, e.g., praise, honor, fame, wealth, carnal pleasure, etc. Thus, in its effect it tends to devalue, demote, and suppress the worth of other things and beings, to puff up the self by degrading the other, or by misappropriating the value of the other. It is like a black hole that has to suck everything into itself in an attempt, however vain, to fill itself up.

The nature of Divine self-centeredness is delight in the infinitely and ultimately delightful, it is delight in fullness, and thus its effects are infinitely distinct, and opposite from, human self-centeredness. It is nearly impossible to comprehend, because we are finite and corrupt, that a creature so great as God can seek his own interest and seek the interest of the other simultaneously, and that this is no contradiction, but a necessary consequence of his nature and being. But this indeed is the case, even if we grant that the seeking of his own interest is superior to the other.

Enough for now, more musings to come.

Thoughts on Jonathan Edwards

As part of the process of planting a church in the northwest suburbs of Minneapolis, our core group is working through the letter to the Ephesians. In the first fourteen verses Paul makes abundantly clear what is God's ultimate purpose in salvation: "...the praise of his glorious grace...the praise of his glory...the praise of his glory" (vv. 6,12,14). This presents a bit of a problem, because we are forced here to deal with a God who does all things ultimately for himself, and not ultimately for the objects of his grace. Or to put it another way, we are forced to deal with the God-centeredness of God.

So, to help me grapple with this problem, I turned to the master-theologian, Jonathan Edwards, specifically to his essay, “The End for which God Created the World." You can download a copy of that essay here. What follows in the next couple of posts is some of my rambling thoughts as I process what Edwards is helping me to see.

In Chapter 1, Section 1.4 Edwards writes the following: “The worthiness of others is as nothing to his [God's]; so that to him belongs all possible respect.” Reflecting on this truth, I articulated the matter to myself as follows:

1. Every thing and every being outside of God has a measure of worth.

2. The worth of every thing and being outside of God is derived from God and is thus finite.

3. The collective worth of every thing and being outside of God is as nothing before God because it is derived and finite, whereas God’s own worth is underived and infinite.

4. Therefore, it is absurd to think that God would have as his ultimate and highest end in creation the praise or exaltation of any thing other than himself. It is utter nonsense to think that God, who is of infinite worth, would spend of his worth to exalt that which is, by definition, infinitely less worthy and intrinsically worthless.

5. Since God is infinite in his perfections, he is not and cannot be improved by the praise of his worth among finite beings. Put another way, because God is infinite in his perfections, he is not and cannot be self-centered in the way we are self-centered.

This leads to another series of reflections which I will save for another post.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Billy Graham & Leadership

About a year ago, I was listening to a radio program on which Marshall Shelley was being interviewed about his new book, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham (Zondervan, 2005). They were giving away a few copies of the book to those who called in, and something inside me felt compelled to call. But I didn’t have a good question to ask, so I prayed to the Lord and said, “If you want me to have a copy of this book, please give me a good question to ask and I’ll call.”

I’m not sure if the Lord gave me this question or if it just popped into my head, but one way or the other, I thought to ask about the connection in Billy’s life between his private pursuit of holiness and integrity, and his public effectiveness and longevity. So, I made the call and was given the last copy of the book they had to give.

A couple of years earlier, I had breakfast with some friends and the subject of Billy Graham’s life and ministry came up. We talked mostly about his commitment to integrity in the areas of sexuality and finances. It so happened that one of the men in the conversation had coordinated all of the travel for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for some years, and he explained in great detail the measures they took to protect the integrity of the ministry. In other words, he explained just how much they valued holiness.

Somehow, in the midst of the conversation, the name of another pastor came up. This pastor had taken a small church and grown it to many thousands in the course of just a few years. He had become very well known locally and across the country through a fast-growing radio program. But one day hard evidence surfaced that he was involved in illicit sexual relationships and that he was mismanaging the ministry’s money to benefit himself. His lack of holiness not only split the church, it severely harmed the whole Body of Christ in that area, and it pained believers across the country who had come to love and respect and promote his teaching.

When we were done with breakfast, I got into my car and began to drive away. And it was as if the Lord grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me right in the eyes, and said with a serious tone in His voice, “Charlie, holiness really matters. The valuing of it impacts lives for the better, the feigning of it impacts lives for the worse. Pursue holiness!”

Without a doubt, the thing I’ve respected most about Billy Graham over the years is his undying commitment to holiness. So, I was eager to receive and read the book, and though it took some time to work through it, I’m very glad I did, and I’m glad to recommend it to you.

I have a lot to say about it, so I’m going to post my comments in several entries, probably interrupted by entries on other matters. My hope in posting these several entries is that you’ll be inspired to pick up a copy for yourself and read it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Dawson Trotman & Soulwinning

In the little booklet called Born to Reproduce (Navpress, 2005), Dawson Trotman writes, “Soulwinners are not soulwinners because of what they know, but because of the Person they know, how well they know Him, and how much they long for others to know Him.”

The only word I would add to this quote is “primarily” so that it would read like this: “Soulwinners are not soulwinners primarily because of what they know…” I agree that the most important thing in soulwinning is knowing Jesus, indeed, Christianity is not essentially informational but rather relational. However, what we know about Jesus matters very much, even if it flows from the prior fact that we know him.

For instance, if you were to say that my mother derived from the south of France, stood four-feet, eight-inches tall, and worked most of her life in the textiles industry, I would be quick to tell you that you were not speaking about my mother. My mother hailed from Missouri (pronounced Mazura), stood five-feet, six-inches tall, and worked most of her life in the restaurant and financial businesses. It is no exaggeration to say that everything I learned about my mother flowed from the fact that I first knew her, but even to say, “I know my mother,” implies specific, exclusive, verifiable information. If this were not so I would not be able to tell who was speaking about my mother and who was not.

This same dynamic is present in Christianity as well. To be a Christian is to have encountered the living Christ and surrendered to his will and ways for our lives. Then, as we walk with him we come to know more and more about him—who he is, how he thinks, what his demands upon our lives are, what his passions and motives are, what his mission is, etc. That specific, exclusive, verifiable information is the content and credence of our knowledge of the person Jesus Christ. If this were not so we would not be able to tell who was speaking about Jesus Christ as he is and who was not.

Thus, while it is true to say that the soulwinner’s main task is not to gather and dispense information, it is not true to say, or imply, that his grasp of information about Christ is altogether meaningless or unimportant in soulwinning. Because if I’m to share who I know, I must at the very least share the heart of what I know so that there’s a “who” for someone else to know.

Thinking this way helps us to see that all of our gains in the knowledge of Christ have great evangelistic potential, not in the least because as we come to know him who gave everything for the glory of the Father in the salvation of the lost, we come to love what he loves, and to lay our lives down for what he laid his life down for.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

On My Time in Raliegh, NC

I’m standing in the middle of downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, and I must admit that, as an outsider, it feels more like two cities than one to me. The Governor’s mansion, the capitol building, and the skyscrapers are relatively small compared to, say, a Chicago, but they’re impressive nonetheless. The homeless men sleeping on the sidewalks and wandering the near empty streets are almost all African-American, and represent just a portion of the many who are in the care of the Salvation Army and the Rescue Mission. The upscale, hip, modern boutiques and restaurants are closed today, but on Monday they’ll be bustling with upwardly mobile middle- to upper-middle class (mostly white) people. The black-owned businesses, which once dominated the downtown scene, are all but gone now and their buildings sit largely uninhabited.

In their place more condominiums will undoubtedly rise, not altogether different, I’m sure, from the ones sprouting up all over town. They’ll be designed for young professionals, and they’ll sell from the mid-$200s about as fast as northern Carolina barbeque. Immediately surrounding the downtown complex are middle-of-the-road-single-family homes which stand in the place of older homes that the city condemned and razed. The newer homes are by-and-large occupied by younger white families, while the poorer, black families who once lived there have resettled farther to the east, where poverty and crime have concentrated.

This, in a nutshell, is downtown Raleigh, North Carolina as I see it—one city and yet two cities. One world, and yet two realities. One city is modern, upwardly mobile, and hip; the other city is mired in the effects of racism and economic disparity that have roots stretching beyond the days of the confederacy. One city is moving and hopeful; the other city is degrading and increasingly less hopeful. One city stands to receive several billion dollars of investment over the next decade; the other city waits to be condemned and razed and relocated.

And standing in the middle of these two cities is a small, all-but-abandoned building that’s owned by a local bail-bondsman. It used to house a restaurant, and then a store called Jimmy’s, but now it sits empty most of the time waiting for a buyer to bite on the $3.5 million asking price. The dream is that one day this decrepit building will become the footprint for a skyscraper. But for now it serves as temporary housing for the homeless guys who do piece-work for the bail-bondsman, and on Sundays it’s a house of hope and worship for both cities, that is, for Raleigh.

As we enter the building it strikes me more like a dance studio with a kitchen than a former restaurant or convenience store. There are a few stacks of chairs off to the left, a disco ball on the floor by the door, two small bathrooms to the right, and four pillars running right down the middle of the room. Downstairs are several storage spaces, by which I mean chicken-wire attached to two-by-fours, a few of which have been sheet-rocked and painted to better accommodate the children of Treasuring Christ Church.

As a seasoned church planter, I must admit that I wonder how these pastors are going to accommodate 100 or more worshippers in this space, but as the pieces come together I’m pleasantly surprised. On the immediate right is the welcome table full with bulletins, handouts, and resources for dealing with everything from suicide to bad attitudes. On the immediate left is the “refreshment table” which is, undoubtedly, the main attraction for the 10 – 15 homeless guys who attend services each week.

A little further in, to the right, are 30 or more chairs arranged in three, semi-circular rows where Pastor Kent teaches ecclesiology to homeless people, seminary students, and church members. In the back right are about 25 chairs turned away from the “stage” where Pastor Travis explores issues in Christian missions with those who are moving toward a career in missions, or who are simply interested in the subject. And behind both of these gatherings, about half-way in to the left, is the youth group—three adults and four or five teens sitting in a circle, discussing the Bible and life and the relationship between the two.

As we walk downstairs, one of the children’s workers exclaims, “Hey, they cleaned the carpet and it doesn’t smell so horrible! Yeah! Our children won’t have to shower after church today because of the smell!” She’s serious.

The children’s foyer is small but split in two. On the right side is the sign-in table where parents entrust their children to the church, and on the left are three blow-up floating rings usually reserved for an afternoon in the pool but today serve as seats for a children’s Sunday School class. The teacher has no such luxury—she simply sits on the floor, despite her formal attire, and pours her heart into the hearts of the children.

Back upstairs, Sunday School is drawing to a close and everyone’s pitching in to arrange the chairs around the “stage” area. Soon enough, everything’s ready to go and the 20-something worship leaders begin to escort their people to the throne of grace. What impresses me most, I think, is that both cities are represented in this church, both are engaged in worship, and both seem like one here.

In the front row and to the left is Otis, a very large African-American man who at one time played football for USC but as of late has fallen on hard times. He’s living at the Rescue Mission now, but by God’s grace the pieces of his life seem to be coming back together. Behind him and to the right is Henry, a more-than-middle-aged white man who rides a Harley Davidson and has been coming to the church for the last month or so. Henry says that he comes here because he needs the Word of God to get him through the week, and I think he’s serious because he’s wanting to be baptized in the Treasuring Christ cow trough. (At Treasuring Christ Church they can say, “Jesus was born in a manger and we were baptized in a cow trough!”)

In the back is a well-to-do middle-aged couple who are dressed in their Sunday best and look as though they’ve been in church all their lives. I never did get to speak with them, but I noticed how easily they mixed with people who were like them and people who were not. Scattered throughout the worship area are 10 or more homeless people who seem to be enjoying the worship and companionship as much as the food. And beside and around them are more than 20 seminary students who are there because, for the most part, they long to be part of an inner-city ministry.

Pastor Sean, the main teaching pastor, seems so young, but as he stands to pray and give direction to the service it’s obvious that God has gifted him to lead this church. He has such passion for God, love for the Word, and an unusual ability to relate to people from a variety of backgrounds. It strikes me that God has shared something of His passion for both cities with Sean, and has sent him here to lead an unusual, unifying, God-honoring work. He’s feeling a bit weary these days, but I think if he perseveres the Lord will use him to do great things in these two cities.

The preaching, delivered by a guest preacher today, is exegetical and hard-hitting. It’s about the reality and inevitability of persecution and suffering in the life of a Christian. But the people eat it up like a fresh made batch of baby-back-ribs, and they digest and apply it together once the service is over. In fact, a full hour afterwards, about a third of the people are still here talking with each other and serving the needs of some who’ve come today.

And as I stand here taking it all in, I think to myself, with tears in my eyes, “He who is faithful with a little will be faithful with much.” And I lift my eyes to heaven and pray, “Oh Lord God, please bless Treasuring Christ Church. They’re being faithful with the little you’ve given them, now please give them much. And Lord, please bless the two cities that are Raleigh, North Carolina. Amen.”

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Calvin on Prayer

"To prayer, then, are we indebted for penetrating to those riches which are treasured up for us with our heavenly Father. For there is a kind of intercourse between God and men, by which, having entered the upper sanctuary, they appear before Him and appeal to his promises, that when necessity requires they may learn by experiences that what they believed merely on the authority of his word was not in vain. Accordingly, we see that nothing is set before us as an object of expectation from the Lord which we are not enjoined to ask of Him in prayer, so true it is that prayer digs up those treasures which the Gospel of our Lord discovers to the eye of faith. The necessity and utility of this exercise of prayer no words can sufficiently express. Assuredly it is not without cause our heavenly Father declares that our only safety is in calling upon his name, since by it we invoke the presence of his providence to watch over our interests, of his power to sustain us when weak and almost fainting, of his goodness to receive us into favor, though miserably loaded with sin; in fine, call upon him to manifest himself to us in all his perfections. Hence, admirable peace and tranquility are given to our consciences; for the straits by which we were pressed being laid before the Lord, we rest fully satisfied with the assurance that none of our evils are unknown to him, and that he is both able and willing to make the best provision for us.

John Calvin, The Institutes

A Lesson Learned--Again

It’s just about midnight, and we’re pulling into town. Our dog, Bella, is sleep-barking in the back seat, and our daughter, Rachel, is breathing through her nose so hard that I’m afraid she’ll suck in a stray gnat. Kim is staying awake for my sake, but I wish she wouldn’t, because she’s got to get up early in the morning and teach Spanish to a drove of middle-schoolers, just the thought of which makes me weary. I’m tired but glad to be home, feeling better about the fact that it took nine-and-one-half hours to complete a seven hour drive.

Eight hours earlier we realized that we had driven 50 or more miles passed our turn-off, and rather than driving back to it we decided (read, “I decided”) to angle our way there on back roads. But here’s the catch: we didn’t have a map with us, and I didn’t want to stop to buy or look at one. I thought I knew the general direction of the freeway we were looking for and the roads we were on, and that I could navigate from one to the other. How male is that?

“Why don’t we just stop and look at a map?” “Babe, all we have to do is keep heading north and west and north and west, and eventually we’ll hit the freeway.” Wonderful thought, horrible plan. We drove north and west and north and west for six hours! In this way, we traversed the entire state of Wisconsin, and we were still more than two hours from home.

The moral of the story? It’s not a bad idea to look at the map even when you think you know the way.

“Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray.” (Proverbs 10:17)

“Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” (Proverbs 19:21)

Desiring God National Conference

From September 29 – October 1, 2006, Desiring God (John Piper’s preaching and teaching ministry) hosted their annual conference at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The title of the conference was “Above all Earthly Powers: The Supremacy of Christ in a Post-Modern World,” which was taken from David Wells’ book of, essentially, the same title (Above all Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, Eerdmans, 2005).

Wells was the first of six speakers, and after spending quite some time setting the context for his talk, he made a statement that has continued to ring in my ears: “We simply have no other Christ to preach than the one presented us in the Bible.” Whether we live in a pre-modern or modern or post-modern or ultra-modern world, whether we live in a part of the world where none of these categories makes sense, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and it is this changeless Christ that we must preach.

It is one thing to seek to understand the postmodern world so that we can preach the gospel in words and categories that make sense to people and that are persuasive to people. It is quite another thing to look to the postmodern world to give us a context for understanding, or as some are saying today, re-imagining Christianity itself.

Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, is about as different from David Wells as one can be, but he said essentially the same thing: regardless of our changing cultural context, we cannot change the message of the gospel. We may need to change how we approach people and present the gospel, indeed we must, but we cannot compromise the truth of the gospel as we strive to contextualize it.

John Piper closed the conference Sunday with one of the more anointed sermons I’ve heard him give. I would strongly suggest that you visit and listen to it. He did a tremendous job of showing how a biblical vision of the magnitude of God puts the epistemological issues raised by postmodernism in proper context. That it is to say, he displayed how a massive vision of a massive God makes seemingly massive problems small.

I walked away from this conference more resolute than ever in several convictions: (1) The Bible is our only reliable source of information about who God is and who Jesus Christ is, and one of the main tasks of ministry is to show how this is so; (2) Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever; (3) Postmodernism is a cultural reality that must be taken seriously if we’re to preach the gospel with effectiveness; and (4) Postmodernism is not a worthy framework through which to reinterpret Christianity.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Mark Driscoll & Evangelism

Reading Mark Driscoll is like reading some sort of blend between John Calvin and George Carlin. That is to say, he seems pretty solid theologically but he is radical and funny and creative and surprising and refreshing and insightful and sometimes shocking in his presentation. I learned a lot from reading his book, and I was also entertained.

In particular, the way Driscoll thinks about evangelism and church planting really grabbed hold of me and I think this will greatly affect the way we go about ministry in Rogers, Minnesota. On page 66 of his book Radical Reformission (Zondervan, 2004) he writes,

"After some Bible teaching on the principles I write about in this book, people in our church began seeing themselves as missionaries in the culture, building friendships for the purpose of showing and sharing the love of Jesus with lost people. Our church continued to grow, and today it is one of the largest in Seattle, having grown at an average of nearly 60 percent each year since its inception. As our people function as missionaries, evangelism is done by the whole church instead of through the dated evangelistic routine of relying on the ministries of professionals, programs, or large formal events. Reformission requires that every Christian and church realize that missions is about not something they do but something they are. We are all on a mission with Jesus every day, and we are either good missionaries or bad." (emphasis added)

Wow. I am not a gifted evangelist, by which I mean that I’m not the type of guy who walks into a Starbucks and walks out thirty minutes later with a double, no-fat, no-whip latte and fourteen new brothers and sisters in Christ. So, as I’ve prepared to plant another church over the last couple of years, I’ve thought and prayed about bringing a gifted evangelist alongside me who could help shore up this weakness. But Driscoll has challenged me to think and pray in a completely different way.

A few years ago I had the privilege of meeting Lee Strobel at the Hawaiian Islands Ministries’ Bay Area Conference. I asked him if he would lay his hands on me and pray that I would receive the gift of evangelism. After all, reaching the lost for the glory of God is the only biblical reason to start a church, as far as I can tell, and I really felt the pain of my lack in this area. He answered that he would pray, but not in that way, and then told me that my lack of “gifting” in this area had the potential of being a great blessing to the church because, without it, I would an example for the people of what evangelism can look like in their lives.

This really encouraged me, but I still thought it would be a good idea to have an evangelist around. Now, Driscoll has helped me see that if I use my gift of teaching to equip the people to be missionaries wherever they are, I’ll probably have the privilege of living in the midst of many gifted evangelists who will help me find people to teach and who will teach and stretch me with regard to evangelism. Sounds an awful lot like Ephesians 4, doesn’t it?

Practically, here’s how I think Driscoll’s work will give shape to our ministry. First, if God brings us an elder-qualified evangelist, I’m not going to say no, but neither am I going to spend time and energy looking for one. Rather, I’m going to trust that God will have gifted some of us in this area, and as we “take it to the streets” he’ll make plain which ones of us that is.

Second, I’m going to pour a lot of time and energy into teaching our people that they are missionaries, and that one of the callings on their lives is to offer their weakness to Christ in an effort to reach their world. I think Driscoll is right to say that it’s better to train an army of missionaries than to employ a “hired gun.” And I think he’s more biblical in this as well.

Third, I’m going to throw as much energy as I can into reaching my world through Christ, and pray that God uses this bumbling idiot to save some. Specifically, Kim and I plan on throwing a “Matthew party” for our neighborhood on October 8, where we’ll invite our core group, our family, and all our neighbors over with no particular agenda except to sow the seeds of friendship. Further, I will continue to participate in the Twin Cities Bike Club, seeking to make friends and meet needs and share the gospel when I can. Finally, I will continue to look for ways to take my main gift, teaching, and use it as a tool for sharing the gospel. For instance, I’m developing a course on marriage that I would love to offer to the public, in a non-threatening, public atmosphere.

In these ways I think I can set an example for our people of what a passion for the lost looks like in the life of one who does not have the “gift” of evangelism. And by being open and honest with the church about my weakness in this area I will encourage them to offer their weakness to Christ in order to reach their world.

And I’m sure that every so often the Lord will bless us with someone who truly has the gift of evangelism—when that happens I’ll make it my job to pour as much fuel on that fire as I can.

Thanks, Mark.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Storms & the Rock

Every so often I think of the top ten things I want to do before I die, but one thing that’s never made the list is huddling in a small closet with my family and dog, praying that God will spare our home, our lives, and more importantly, our faith and joy in him no matter what the outcome. But that’s exactly what happened Saturday night.

That night a violent storm hit the Rogers area. It pushed over power-poles, snapped trees like they were twigs, and damaged or destroyed around 100 homes. In fact, one of the families on our church planting team sustained severe damage to their home—about half the roof and a portion of the back of it are now gone. Tomorrow they’ll find out if the house is a total loss.

As hard as that was and will be for them to go through, another family from the same neighborhood was hit even harder by the news that their ten-year-old daughter died when their house collapsed.

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that the text that has been foremost on my mind today is Matthew 7:24-27--“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

Earlier this week, I read the words of a pastor who said, “I believe in inerrancy, I just don’t think about it in the same way fundamentalists do. For instance, I don’t believe that the creation stories in Genesis are literal, and I think that most of the Old Testament is metaphorical.” (Translated meaning, “When the Old Testament purports to be historical, it’s lying—but I believe that the lies are without error.”)

This kind of thinking will not endure the storms of life. Non-historical metaphors will not sustain you when straight-line winds drive you into the closet, or tear the roof off your home, or kill your daughter. What you need in times like this is a rock for your soul that will not give way.

And Matthew 7:24-27 is not at all ambiguous about what that rock is—it is the words of Jesus Christ, taken literally, taken seriously, and applied to life over a long period of time—“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them…” The words and ways of Jesus are the only rock, and without that rock someday there will come a storm that will blow the house of your soul away.

Today I spent some time thinking about which of Jesus’ words would particularly comfort and sustain and stretch me if it was my home that had been destroyed or my daughter who had died. Here are several that immediately came to mind:

Matthew 11:28-30—“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 heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Matthew 6:31-34—“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Mark 10:14—“Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

Luke 9:23-25—“And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”

John 11:35—“Jesus wept.”

It’s more crucial than we know to build our lives daily on the rock of Jesus’ words. For then we will be “like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” I pray that you will, along with me, strive to found your life on the rock.

I close with the words to one of my favorite hymns; I hope they comfort and help you:

My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus blood and righteousness,
I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name,
On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

When darkness seems to hide his face, I rest on his unchanging grace,
On every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil,
On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

His oath, his covenant, his blood, support me in the whelming flood,
When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay,
On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

When he shall come with trumpet sound, oh may I then in him be found,
Dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne,
On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

D. A. Carson and the Emergents

I first heard of the emerging movement in the summer of 2000, and to be honest I did not take it very seriously. I had spent several years of my life studying the philosophies of Derrida, Lyotard, Fucoult, Habermas and the Frankfurt School, Locke, Rousseau, Descartes, Spinoza, and others, and I thought the emergents were applying the implications of philosophical systems they did not understand. Or to put it another way, I thought the emergent movement was more an example of evangelical entrepreneurialism than of the practical application of an intellectual revolution. I thought it would pass off the scene in due time, but I no longer think that way and here’s why.

First, about a year ago I heard one of the foremost spokesmen of the movement, Brian McLaren, express his views on the atonement, on hell, and on homosexuality. I must admit that I was surprised by the intellectual force with which he articulated his views, even if I disagreed with just about everything he said. From that time forward I began to think of the emergents as more than entrepreneurs, but also as intellectuals whose ideas have to be reckoned with.

Second, I recently had lunch with Tony Jones and Doug Padgitt, two of the originators of the movement, and as I prepared for the meeting I thought more and more, “I smell Jacques Derrida—and not distantly.” Sure enough, in our meeting I discovered that as these leaders were developing their movement they traveled to Villanova University to sit at the feet of Derrida, and in various other ways sat at the feet of those like him. I was not encouraged by this, but I was more convinced than ever that these guys are not superficially applying postmodernist ideology, but are themselves enmeshed in the thought and implications of it.

Finally, at the end of September, Desiring God (John Piper’s teaching ministry) is hosting a conference called The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World. One of the speakers is D. A. Carson who wrote the book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, and so in preparation for the conference I read the book. I was greatly helped by the first and sixth chapters, and more convinced than ever that the ideas of this movement have to be dealt with seriously.

In the first chapter, Carson introduces the movement in an admittedly cursory fashion. “Nevertheless, the diversity of the movement, as well as its porous borders, ensure that I have not found it easy to portray it fairly” (pg. 9). While I’m sure he did not find it easy, he did in the end do a good job of it and, from my own reading of the movement, I think he got it right. Or as I said to Tony Jones in an e-mail, “I didn’t get the feeling that he was describing someone other than the guys I just had lunch with.” Of everything I’ve read over the last few months, Carson’s introduction to the movement has been most helpful.

In the sixth chapter he deals more directly with two leaders of the movement, Brian McLaren and Steve Chalke. Specifically, he critiques McLaren’s book Generous Orthodoxy and Chalke’s book The Lost Message of Jesus. I’ll leave the details for you to read on your own, but let me quote some of his concluding remarks:

“I have to say, as kindly but as forcefully as I can, that to my mind, if words mean anything, both McLaren and Chalke have largely abandoned the gospel. Perhaps their rhetoric and enthusiasm have led them astray and they will prove willing to reconsider their published judgments on these matters and embrace biblical truth more holistically than they have been doing in their most recent works. But if not, I cannot see how their own words constitute anything less than a drift toward abandoning the gospel itself” (pgs. 186-87).

Those are very strong and serious words, but I have to admit that I agree with them. You simply cannot deny certain key aspects of the atonement, deny the existence of hell, waffle on ethical issues that are clear in the Bible, and say that you’re preaching the gospel.

Far from being a fad that will quickly fade, the emergent movement, I think, will have a tremendous impact on evangelicalism and will, in fact, split it right down the middle. On the left will be the neo-liberals who will not in ten-years-time be distinguishable from main-line liberals. And on the right will be neo-fundamentalists who passionately cling to the Bible and absolute truth and the communicability of specific truth and the comprehensibility of specific truth. They will argue that the emergent movement has not really said anything new, for “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

And they will flee from the wisdom of this world, in favor of the rock-solid foundation of the Word of God—“For the wisdom of this world is folly with God,” and “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (1 Corinthians 3:19 and Matthew 7:24-25).

I choose the Rock. And I pray that the left-wing of the emergent movement will, by the grace of God, wake up and choose the Rock as well. I will be overjoyed if my prediction proves to be completely false.

Trusting in the Rock,

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Proliferation of the Prosperity Gospel

I came across an interesting article this morning by John Frankel about Joel Osteen, his retail success, and the prosperity gospel in America. It says of Osteen, "As pastor of Lakewood Church, Osteen has attracted one of the nation's biggest congregations. And with his best-selling book and regular appearances on religious broadcasts, Osteen is considered the 'most watched preacher' in America." That sentence should give you great pause for concern.

You can read the whole article here, but in case you don't have time, here's a quote from David Van Biema, co-author of an up-coming Time article on Osteen:

"That really is not part of standard, orthodox Christianity...There had been some brakes on (Christianity) moving toward materialism, but those brakes are gradually being released and you're seeing more and more people saying 'Well, why wouldn't God want us to be rich in this lifetime.'"

He may well want that for some, but even then the Bible is pretty clear in its warnings about wealth. Consider this quote, for instance, from 1 Timothy 6:9-10 & 17-19:

"[9] But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. [10] For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs...[17] As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. [18] They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, [19] thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life."

And even if God wants some to be rich, this command confronts us all: "And he [Jesus] said to all, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross [instrument of suffering and death, not health and prosperity] daily, and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?'" (Luke 9:23-25, ESV)

Why the Name?

Welcome to my new blog! I took the name "Born of the Word" from the 1528 document, The Ten Conclusions of Berne, written by the Swiss reformers Berthold Haller, Francis Kold, and Ulrich Zwingli. Here is the full text of the first of their conclusions:

"The holy Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, and abides in the same, and listens not to the voice of a stranger" (Creeds of the Church, John H. Leith, ed., John Knox Press, 1982, pg. 129).

This sentence sets my heart to worship for at least three reasons. First, I was saved as I read 1 John, particularly 1:5-6 and 3:4-10:

"[1:5] This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. [6] If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth...[3:4] Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. [5] You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. [6] No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. [7] Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righ teousness is righteous, as he is righ teous. [8] Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. [9] No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. [10] By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother."

Thus, the theological formulation, “The holy Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God…” is not merely a formulation to me, it is descriptive of the story of my life. And it does indeed set my heart to worship!

Second, my life in Christ has ever been sustained and nourished by the Word of God, in fact, the more prominent the Word the more pronounced the growth. I cannot tell you how these words from Deuteronomy 31:6 and Hebrews 13:5 held me when my mother died and it seemed that my whole world was falling apart: "I will never leave you or forsake you." Or how these words from Hebrews 13:8 sustained my faith in the midst of deep intellectual crises: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever." Or how these words from Matthew 28:20 humbly emboldened me in the fires of church planting: "And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Indeed, my journals testify abundantly to the fact that, by the mercies of God, I have been sustained and nourished by the Word of God in triumph and trial, in health and sickness, in strength and weakness. And this does indeed set my heart to worship!

Finally, I love living in that truth that “The holy Christian Church…listens not to the voice of a stranger.” Consider the wisdom expressed in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25:

“[18] For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. [19] For it is written,

‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’

[20] Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? [21] For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. [22] For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, [23] but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, [24] but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. [25] For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

A few weeks ago I was with a group of church planters in Dallas, Texas. During a "paradigm stretching exercise," a few of the planters expressed that they would love to expose their church planting protégés to the greatest leaders in the world, one of whom was Donald Trump.

I must admit that I did not handle myself as well as I could have, but rather blurted out, "Who in the world is Donald Trump when we have access to God Almighty, through the Lord Jesus Christ, by the grace and power of the Spirit?" I cannot imagine Jesus or the apostles or the early church consulting the likes of Donald Trump concerning corporate growth or leadership development.

And just this week, I had the privilege of having lunch with Tony Jones, Doug Padgitt, and John Piper. While I appreciated and learned from some of what the former two shared in the conversation, I wondered what will be the implications of the fact that from the earliest days of their movement (the Emergent Church), they spent a lot of time, energy, and resources consulting the likes of Jacques Derrida.

Now, I spent several years of my life grappling with the work of Derrida and others, and I do have a certain kind of respect for them and their work. But in the end, “…the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Corinthians 3:19), and thus it is not wise to build our house on that wisdom. (Additionally, I fear that these men are repeating the mistakes of others like Paul Tillich, John Cobb, and liberation theologians who took as their points of departure existentialism, process philosophy, and Marxism, respectively. The Word of God is able to stand on its own, both in terms of its analysis of and solutions for the human condition, and it does not need the buttress of the wisdom of the world.)

There is great joy and freedom and power in forsaking the wisdom and ways of the world in favor of the wisdom and ways of God, and therefore I delight to embrace the language and spirit of the early reformers: “The holy Christian Church…listens not to the voice of a stranger.” And this does indeed set my heart to worship.

My hope for this lengthy explanation is not primarily that you'll understand why I named my blog, "Born of the Word," but that your heart will, like mine, be set to worship as you ponder the mercies and wisdom and power of God, displayed in the Word of God. I look forward to reading your comments.

For the glory of Christ, and the upbuilding of His church,