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Monday, December 6, 2010

The Wormwood Letters: Undoing the Reformation (Sola Fide)

My dear Snagheel,

I enjoy Latin—primarily because it serves as a nostalgic reminder of the way we used it so effectively, for so many years, to separate most normal people from the Book that could have changed their lives—were it not confined to a language that only the educated could read. But there are a few Latin words that I find so sickening, even debilitating at times, that I prefer not to even utter or write them. But I will force myself, for the sake of your continuing education, and the anticipated promotion I will enjoy if you ever become an accomplished tempter.

Slogans like Sola Fide (Unggghhh… It hurts to even write it!) and Sola Scriptura (Ouch again!) were invented by the Enemy and used widely by His servants during the Dark Age known as The Reformation (one more stab of pain shoots through me when I think of that…). That malignant movement did so much damage to our cause, that since then we have spent an exorbitant amount of time and energy simply trying to undo it. My discomfort is mitigated, fortunately, by the fact that we have had much success in this endeavor, generally speaking. But there is still much work to do.

Undoing the Reformation in a society, church, or individual is a difficult task that requires skill and subtlety, because for some reason the “Reformed” ideas of religion, once accepted, tend to cling to their adherents rather tenaciously. One way you can begin (though it will not solve the whole problem), is to remove offensive terminology, like those words mentioned above, from the hearts and lips of Christians. As you know, my unscrupulous student, the best way to keep dangerous truth from reaching the world is to muddle it in the minds of God’s people. So perhaps you can convince them that it is not in their best interest to keep alive those old Latin labels, other historical words that describe theological concepts, and the names of men long ago who have been thorns in our side. When terminology like that falls into disuse, there will be less interest aroused in the Dark Age and less people drawn into the study of it. Before too long, if we are lucky, most will have forgotten that it even happened. And as Mark Twain once said, “He who does not know history is doomed to repeat it.”

Many of the Christians who love the Reformation also love the Enemy, so you will have to persuade them that speaking of things which are “old” or “theological” is somehow detrimental to the promotion of His kingdom. Suggest to them that they should discard such discussions for the sake of “seekers” or “new believers” who might be put off or confused by language they don’t yet understand. They might also be led into a pursuit of unity with other Christians that downplays “doctrinal distinctives” because they might be too “divisive.” Or perhaps, since familiarity breeds contempt, they may simply grow tired of rehearsing the same old truths and go looking for something new. In that case, all you have to do is make sure there is something for them to find.

But as I mentioned, my reddish recruit, it will not be enough to merely make Christians forget about the Reformation. You must also undermine the ideas that were rediscovered at that time. Sometimes they linger in places where people are unaware of the Dark Age itself, but even in a half-dead state they can still cause us problems. In fact, you may want to reference the prolific work of our brother Bragdrench, whose fine book Diseased Tulip contains the interesting thesis that the success of our work has been directly proportional to the disappearance of the “doctrines of grace,” as some of them have been called. In other words, the less people understand and believe them, the more damage we can do.

So aim your fiery darts at the idea of Sola Fide, to begin with. That repugnant slogan from the Dark Age means “faith alone,” and one of its champions often said that it is “the hinge on which everything turns.” Mark that, Snagheel—he had a point. When our prey abandon all other objects of trust, even their own religious works, and turn to Christ as their only hope for eternity, we have been dealt a death blow. So we must work unceasingly to provide them with as many false saviors as possible, so that they will rely on something other than the One who can actually save them. Many are preserved from heaven by non-Christian religions, of course, and the agnostic worship of pleasure, love, or money. But we have also gloriously succeeded among those who call themselves Christians, by fooling them into thinking that the Enemy saves and loves them because of something they are or something they do (note how well this tactic worked with the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14). By trusting to any degree in their own worth and goodness, they narrowly miss the principle of free grace that alone could assure them of heaven.

We had, at one time, so thoroughly infiltrated the Enemy’s church with this idea, that it was about to make many of our doctrines into official teaching, and thus plunge the whole Western world into an exquisite era of darkness. But the Enemy had mercy on His people, and delivered so many of them from our influence, that the Dark Age of His Reformation overshadowed our own accomplishments in the Roman church. So from that point on, throughout much of the Christian world, these Protestants were wary of our schemes, and we could no longer dupe them with the ones that have worked so well in the Roman system. Among the heirs of the Reformation, we have been forced to invent new ways of diverting their trust from Christ alone. Fortunately, these new ways have proven almost as effective, and by making use of them you can advance our Father’s cause by undoing the Reformation…

Suggest to them that they are saved by “making a decision” or praying a prayer, as if the Enemy dispenses His grace in response to their own choices, and as if He is obligated to forgive them because of some religious act they perform. In other words, substitute such “evangelical” works for the Roman practices of confession, penance, and indulgences.

Obscure or belittle the biblical doctrine of predestination, for wherever it thrives, our power languishes. A rediscovery of that accursed doctrine was, of course, one of the primary features of the Dark Age.

Confuse them into thinking that judicial, heavenly declarations like being “crucified with Christ” and being in “union with Him” are really descriptions of their own pious behavior or mystic experience.

Water down the commands of the Enemy’s law so that the scum will actually think they can obey them. Do whatever you can to keep that law from fulfilling its primary purpose of revealing their sin and driving them to the cross. (One “Christian” book we inspired, which was about the Ten Commandments, had the title Believe in the God Who Believes in You. What a wonderful example of using the Enemy’s weapons against Him!)

If all else fails, and they irritatingly persist in understanding the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” correctly according to the Enemy’s book, try to make them think it is their theological knowledge and orthodoxy that makes them right with God, rather than the work of Christ Himself. “Faith alone” in a principle will never save them; only faith in a Person can do that.

Affectionately Yours,

Your Uncle WORMWOOD

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Wormwood Letters: A Crash Course in Screwtapery

My dear Snagheel,

It is my deliciously nefarious privilege to offer you the following summary of the strategies that have been used most effectively by your fellow tempters in this present age, two thousand years since our Enemy walked the earth in human form. I learned many of these basic principles from Screwtape, my ingenious tutor, but I have updated and added to them for your benefit. When my time-consuming current assignment in Philadelphia has ended, I will endeavor to compose for you a more complete handbook of letters, to assist you in your significant, if not happy, business.

To begin with a time-honored method: Prompt your human subjects to suppose that we do not exist. Build upon the helpful groundwork laid by the scientific empiricism of the modern age, and capitalize on the tendencies of their own hearts to think that nothing exists but what they can see, touch, or experience emotionally.

If they do believe we are real, trick them into thinking we are grotesque, slobbering monsters, rather than sly and subtle tempters. If they should discover that our master appears as an angel of light, for instance, they may become far too skeptical and discerning for their own good.

Entice them to forget that we are at war with the Enemy and with their own souls. Our most powerful weapons in this regard are the various entertainment media, of course. If you can get them to absorb large amounts of the television, movies, music, and netfare we inspire, you will most likely succeed on that count alone. And you will most certainly be successful if you can get them to do this mindlessly, without recognizing the subtle and not-so-subtle temptations and lies imbedded in their "fun."

If they do recognize the reality of spiritual warfare, try to divert them into perverse variations and additions to what the Enemy has enjoined upon them in his loathsome Book. Encourage them to think they should talk to us, "bind" us, "cast us out," or resort to ritualistic prayer formulas. You will find, if given the enviable opportunity, that there are few enjoyments greater than willfully suspending your influence on a human subject when a well-meaning friend "binds you" or "casts you out." This amusing frolic leaves the friend thinking he has power over us, while the subject has been "delivered" by some other means than his own repentance.

Remember the power of "little sins" like pride, gossip, laziness, and judgmentalism. As Screwtape so elegantly instructed me, time and again, the usefulness of these lies in the fact that a subject's life can be utterly filled with them, while he continues to be esteemed by others and think of himself as a godly man.

If the hairless apes do become agitated at their own sins, quickly offer them alternate explanations for why they have done wrong. Do not allow them to accept personal responsibility for their crimes against the Enemy, because from there they may stagger closer to his cross (which is the last place we want them to go). Toward this end, you can supply them with numerous excuses, drawn from the infinite well of modern psychological theory.

If those excuses fail for some reason, and they look toward religion for absolution and forgiveness, encourage them in this pursuit. But, as I already said and will say a thousand more times, keep them away from the cross at all costs. Non-Christian religions are ideal, most forms of Christianity are acceptable, and even evangelical Christianity will pose no problem as long as they think the Enemy is saving and forgiving them because of something that they do, and not because of his free, undeserved grace. We have made great inroads into the once formidable evangelical church by suggesting that making a "decision" or saying a prayer somehow moves the Enemy to bestow his grace. We have so successfully obscured the meaning of the word faith that even many of his captains are misusing it. I shall write more of this glorious victory in the future, but for now it suffices to say that any way of "salvation" that bypasses the cross, even slightly, is highly desirable. Like the pilgrim in that infamous and repulsive old book by John Bunyan, your subjects will most surely lose their burdens of sin and guilt if they are allowed to hear and understand what Jesus was doing on that most despised of all days. We have lost far too many promising subjects when the Spirit of the Enemy has made use of such learning, turning them away from all self-reliance and turning their hearts toward him in trust and love.

Finally, Snagheel, permit me to summarize my summary by saying that your goal should be to turn their attention away from the person of Jesus Christ, by any means available. Tempt them to focus on themselves and the world around them, or even on doctrines about Christ, benevolence in his name, or other things that are not bad in themselves. Though they might be "good" things, they fortunately can become "bad" when they distract from the one at his right hand. When such distractions fail, and the humans take the time to sit at their Savior's feet, he invariably demonstrates a frustrating ability to win their hearts completely. He becomes so awe-inspiring and beautiful to them that they willfully and cheerfully become his servants forever. Then for us, all hope is lost.

Affectionately yours,

Your uncle WORMWOOD

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Wormwood Letters: Introduction

“I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands,” wrote C.S. Lewis in the preface to his 1961 collection of “positively diabolical” advice from one devil to another (which he entitled The Screwtape Letters). The four additional letters I am about to publish on my blog were crafted by Screwtape’s nephew Wormwood to one of his lowerlings, and have an equally mysterious origin, considering the fact that Wormwood was on the verge of being “eaten” at the end of The Screwtape Letters! But apparently the young apprentice survived (unless this is all a trick), and has left us his own legacy of bad counsel.

As you read these missives in the coming days, you will notice that most of Wormwood’s strategies are centered on the communication and proliferation of ungodly ideas. For the most part, as a careful study of Scripture bears out, the demonic forces of evil spend much more time spreading doctrinal and philosophical lies than they do in personal, experiential temptations. For instance, we are much more likely to find demons plotting a new twist on an old heresy or influencing the media to make sin attractive than we are to find them soliciting an individual to believe that particular lie or to indulge in that particular sin. This is because the devils know that within man himself lies the capability of the greatest evils; as Jesus said in Mark 7:21-23: "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man."

Satan and his minions do not need to create evil inside us, nor do they even have to directly produce experiences that can mislead us. Sinful tendencies and desires lie deep inside of all of us, as does the psychological capability to manufacture “spiritual” experiences which we believe to be “from God.” And though the demons may sometimes act directly upon us (with God’s permission), it is only necessary for them to create an environment in which we will be tempted. In other words, they don’t somehow force us to fall—they simply provide the opportunity, and we fall just fine by ourselves. By our very nature we are attracted to their false ideas, and to the opportunities to sin which they present.

The first temptation recorded in Genesis 3:1-6, in fact, reveals much about the essential character of Satan’s activity. Notice that he took basically two approaches to Eve: he made sin seem attractive to her, and he also presented to her ideas that were contrary to the revelation of God. And this is what the enemies of God are still doing today, but with even more success now that we are fallen and sinful in our nature.

Finally, before you read the following entries, I must warn you that Wormwood does not write as well, nor is he as clever, as his uncle Screwtape was in his letters. Wormwood is also not nearly as creative, because his mentor innovated the practice of writing letters to junior tempters, while he is merely imitating it. Though this may unfortunately result in duller reading, for which I apologize, it may actually be a good sign for the forces of good. Perhaps as time goes on, our enemies are becoming less proficient at their schemes, and so in the end the Lord may win many more than He loses…

(Watch this blog in the coming days for Wormwood's "positively diabolical" advice about the Bible, the Reformation, women's roles, and more...)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Christmas in October

The ladies at our former church in Sonoma, CA had an annual event called “Christmas in October,” where they enjoyed a nice meal and learned about gift ideas for the holiday season. I usually wrote a short story for the event, but one year I decided to do a poem. Our family was having a tough time in various ways, so I thought this would be a good way to encourage my wife and children, as well as the ladies at the event. Hopefully you will also find some encouragement in it…

‘Twas two months before Christmas
And all through the house
A pall had fallen on our family
We were definitely “down in the mouth”

Summer trips and birthday gifts
Had left our pockets low
We were struggling to make ends meet
Hoping to get “out of the hole”

This year’s schoolwork was overwhelming
For mom and for the kids
We didn’t think we could do it
And wondered how we ever did

The leaves were falling with our spirits
Awaiting the winter winds
And soon with Daylight Savings Time
Even the evenings would grow dim

The flu season had begun
And with seven sharing air
Someone was always sick
It just didn’t seem fair!

Desperate for encouragement
And longing for some cheer
We opened the family Bible
And were given ears to hear

We read that God has granted us
The gift of eternal life
And this gift that keeps on giving
Is ours both day and night

No matter what we’re going through
We always have the hope
He’ll never let us slip too far
Or reach the end of our rope

When we receive God’s gifts by faith
They replace our doubts and fears
So it’s really Christmas in October
And it really is all year!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Evangelism: Practical Dos and Don'ts

These are suggestions based on the doctrinal truths explained in the previous article (“Evangelism: Back to Itch”). I say “do” and “don’t” for economy of words and direct application; I am not intending to say these are legalistic rules that everyone must keep in order to please God or be effective in evangelism. They are suggestions, but I do think they are wise and consistent with the biblical “doctrines of grace” I discussed previously. (Note: The original version of this article was written about the evangelism of children, and it has undergone only slight modifications, so you will find it very applicable to them as well as to adults.)

DOS
1. Tell the gospel to those you want to reach, and teach the Scriptures to them, especially the doctrines of salvation—and then tell and teach them some more! You don’t need to have a bunch of “decisions” to know that your work is producing results: God says that His Word will never return void, it will always accomplish its purpose, and its purpose is often to save many of the hearers (Rom. 1:16; Heb. 4:12).
2. Tell them that God commands them to repent from their sins and believe in Jesus Christ (and don’t forget to explain what the words repentance and faith mean!). Make it clear to them that unless they repent and believe, they will not be in heaven.
3. Make sure they understand that repentance and faith are matters of the heart, and not some outward action they can perform.
4. Ask them if they have repented from their sins (e.g. “Do you want to obey the Lord in your life?”) and if they believe in Jesus Christ (e.g. “Do you understand who He is and what He did, and are you trusting in Him to save you, and nothing else?”).
5. Always continue explaining and instructing in whatever matters they do not understand and cannot articulate themselves, especially those that pertain to salvation.
6. When they say things like “I believe in Jesus” or “I love Jesus,” encourage them by telling them what blessings God has given them, if what they say is true. Tell them, “That’s great you are saying that you believe. Remember, Jesus said that if you continue in His Word, then you are truly His disciple.”
7. Pray a “sinner’s prayer” with them—but not just one time, giving them the impression that God saves them because of some words they say. No, pray a “sinner’s prayer” over and over again, because a good “sinner’s prayer” is an expression of the continuing faith of a true believer. For example: “Dear Lord, I am a sinner unworthy to enter your presence or expect any goodness from you. Please cleanse me of my sin through Jesus’ blood. I know you will because you promised to do that when we come to you in faith. Please help me to turn from my sins, to trust in you more and more, and to obey and serve you with all my heart. Thank you for your grace to me, that has brought me into a relationship with you forever. Thank you for Jesus, who died and rose again for me. Amen.” Or just use the Lord’s prayer—the Author of it has much more wisdom than this writer!
8. Explain to them that assurance of salvation is not based on something they have “done” at some time in the past, but that it is based on the objective truths about the cross of Christ and the subjective experience of fruit in their lives.
9. Teach them the Scriptures some more! And live the Scriptures in front of them.

DON’TS
1. Don’t neglect or avoid any doctrine of Scripture because you think it might scare them, bore them, or “turn them off.” If God thought doctrines like original sin or predestination were dangerous to anyone, He would not have put them in the Bible. On the contrary, He obviously wants people to know all that He has said. But be careful that other doctrines, even important ones, are never allowed to eclipse the gospel itself in your focus and emphasis (see 1 Cor. 15:3).
2. Don’t have them “pray to receive Christ.” We do not receive Christ through prayer—we receive Christ through faith. If they say that they have repented and are believing in Christ, as you have been teaching them the meaning of those words, then encourage them to express their faith (and gratefulness, repentance from their sins, commitment, etc.) in prayer to God.
3. When speaking to a group, don’t ask “How many of you want to receive Christ?” (or believe, or accept, or whatever) as if that is an action they are going to perform. A better question, if you want some response in a group, is “How many of you want to talk with someone about what it means to be saved?” or even “How many of you want to be baptized, or come to the Lord’s Supper?” (because in the New Testament those are the outward signs of belonging to Christ).
4. Don’t use the following terminology (or at least try to use it as little as possible), because is not found in the Scriptures and can be misleading: “Accept Jesus into your heart”; “Open the door of your heart”; “Make a decision for Christ”; “Invite Jesus into your life.” Any terminology found in Scripture is obviously acceptable—but remember that it is always important to explain the meaning of the terms you are using.
5. Don’t state or imply that someone is saved because he prayed a prayer or “made a decision.” Because many people are impressionable and easily influenced to a confession (especially children), it is important when working with them to say things like, “If you really believe in Christ, then all your sins are forgiven...” Again, don’t give them the impression that God saves them because of something they do. Salvation is something that God does. Tell them they must believe, plead with them to repent and trust Christ—but let God do that work in their hearts according to His timing; don’t try to speed up the process by giving them some easy way to “believe” (like a prayer). Instead, teach them enough about the nature of repentance and faith that they will be able to recognize when they have been born again by the Spirit of God. Then they will have the true assurance that comes from the witness of the Spirit, rather than the witness of men.
6. Don’t ever stop teaching them the Word! Take every opportunity that presents itself, and then teach them some more (Matt. 28:20)…“For the Word of God is living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12).

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Evangelism: "Back to Itch"

As we begin a month of focus on evangelism in our church, the "how tos" are important and I want to address them soon. But I want to start by going back to "scratch," or even further back to "itch," by first talking about some doctrinal truths that will form the foundation of the practical suggestions that will follow (in my next blog)...

SIX TRUTHS FROM SCRIPTURE THAT SHOULD SHAPE OUR APPROACH TO EVANGELISM:

1) The radically corrupt nature of man (Gen. 6:5; Ps. 51:5; Rom. 3:10-18; Eph. 2:1)

As a result of the Fall, every person born into this world is spiritually dead and utterly unable to respond in faith and love toward God, because it is his nature to depend upon his own resources and love himself supremely. We always choose according to our strongest inclination, which is determined by our nature; therefore in our unregenerate state we will always choose to suppress the truth of God (Rom. 1:18), either through an outright denial of the truth or through some form of false religious practice.

2) The gracious choice of God to convert a great multitude of people from their sin and forgive them in Christ (Isa. 43:1-13; John 17:1-9; Rom. 9:22-24; Eph. 1:3-14)

Although God would have been perfectly just to leave all of mankind to our deserved doom of continued unbelief and eternal destruction, He did not (Hallelujah!!). Before the foundation of the world, He decided to demonstrate His love to “men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9) by mercifully delivering them from the bondage and consequences of their sin.

3) The perfect obedience of Jesus Christ and His effective, substitutionary atonement on behalf of His people (Isa. 53:4-6, 10-12; John 10:14-16, 25-30; Rom. 8:28-34; Acts 20:28)

God accomplished the salvation of His chosen people by sending His Son Jesus to be their representative by living and dying as a man. Just as Adam had represented all mankind in the Garden and had plunged us all into sin and ruin, so Jesus Christ represented all who believe in Him with His perfect life of obedience and His crucifixion, where He bore the Divine wrath that was deserved by sinners. We were condemned to the hopeless bondage of sin by the actions of our father Adam; we are gloriously saved from that bondage by the actions of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:12-21). Jesus did not merely “provide a way” for people to be saved; He actually accomplished their salvation on the cross (John 19:30). We cannot add anything to His accomplishment—even our faith. Our faith is merely the means through which God has chosen to give us the blessings of Christ.

4) The effectual conviction and call of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who are being saved (Ezek. 36:25-27; John 3:3-8; 6:44, 65; 2 Thess. 2:13-15).

The benefits secured by the atonement of Christ are applied to God’s people during their lives by the Holy Spirit, who shows them their sinfulness and need for Christ, and then transforms their nature so that they trust in Christ alone and desire to do His will. Without this supernatural work of regeneration, there would be no true faith, regardless of the variety and intensity of religious actions or experiences. And because both true repentance and true faith are a result of God’s work in the heart (2 Tim. 2:25; 2 Pet. 1:1), it does not lie within the power of men to “decide to believe” at any time. God alone has the power and the prerogative to bestow His gifts of mercy whenever He wills to do so (John 15:16; Rom. 9:15‑16). And He does this through the clear proclamation and explanation of the Word of God (Rom. 10:17).

5) God’s continuing work in the hearts of His children (John 8:31; Phil. 1:6; Heb. 3:14, 10:36)

True believers will never stop believing. Their nature has been so radically altered by God that they can now be called “slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). Thus perseverance in faith is a condition of salvation in Scripture (Matt. 24:13; Col. 1:22‑23)—not because it is the basis of our salvation, but because it is an evidence that our salvation is genuine (Matt. 13:18-23). True saving faith will also inevitably produce works of obedience (James 2:14‑26), and therefore godly changes in our attitudes and actions are an essential source for a full assurance of salvation (2 Pet. 1:5-11; the entire book of 1 John).

6) The nature of saving faith as a reliance upon the mercy of God alone, with no contribution whatsoever from our own merit, effort, or choice (Luke 18:9-14; John 1:12‑13; Rom. 4:3-8, 9:16).

It is the tendency of our sinful nature to think that we contribute something to our salvation. This is because of our prideful desire to think well of ourselves, and also because the idea that we can do something to secure our destiny is a much easier “road to heaven” than being subject to the sovereign choice of God and dependent on His work of regeneration in our hearts. We also can find assurance much more quickly in a “decision” or “4-step process” because we have now “done it,” and God presumably is obligated to save us because we have “done it.” But when we understand that salvation comes through biblical faith, which is not a one-time act but an ongoing state of the heart that produces a genuine love for God and works of obedience to Him, then we realize that our fate is not in our hands, but in God’s. This truth is quite troublesome to the unregenerate mind (and even to Christians in some cases), but we must be very careful not to accommodate unbelief by redefining faith as a work that someone can perform. There are many Christians today who essentially do this, and although their enthusiasm and good motives are to be commended, their methods and terminology have unfortunately left thousands of people with the impression that because they raised a hand, walked an aisle, prayed a prayer, or performed some other work of man, their eternal destiny is settled forever. So many of those converts, not fully understanding the righteousness of God, have sought to establish a righteousness of their own (Rom. 10:3). Their greatest need, and the greatest need of every sinner, is to be led to “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (Rom. 3:22).

Meditate on those truths for awhile and think about how they might practically apply to the way we tell people about Christ. In the next blog I will give you my ideas on that subject...

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Prayer for the Church

My wife Jill always says, "When you can't sleep, that means you should pray." My sleep patterns have been messed up since a recent sickness threw them off, so rather than lying there thinking about the rest I'm not getting, I thought I would pray for the church and record it here so it could possibly be a blessing to others as well...

"Dear Lord, thank you for the church for which your Son Jesus died. It really is a great idea: a spiritual family to meet the needs that are left unmet by our fallen, broken physical families. And even though Your original intent for your body has so often been 'lost in translation' in the hands of fallen, broken people like us, it still endures as an instrument of Your grace in so many lives. And even our weakness is a part of Your Divine plan to show that the adequacy in gospel ministry does not come from ourselves, but from the One who deserves all the glory for all good things that happen.

"Please light a fire of love for You and others in our hearts by your Holy Spirit, and fan the flames by Your means of grace--the Word, prayer, service, fellowship, and the sacraments. May we comprehend the height, depth, width, and breath of the love of Christ for us, and may that love compel us to conduct the ministry of reconciliation by calling others to be reconciled to God. May we all be 'Great Commission' believers by exalting You in worship, evangelizing the lost, enfolding new people into the body, and edifying and equipping them by the ministry of the Word, so they can become 'Great Commission' believers also.

"Please help us to remember that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing...that the gospel of grace in Christ is 'of first importance,' as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:3. Keep us from allowing the gospel to be eclipsed in the church by other, less important issues, even ones that are found in the Bible but are not as clear and central as the gospel itself. May our perspectives on important issues like worship, education, counseling, and historical systems of theology never become so important that the identity of the church is bound up in them or we cannot fellowship together with others whose perspectives are different. And please, please don't let extra-biblical matters like music styles, physical appearance, and personality differences drive a wedge between us or keep anyone from coming to learn about Christ with us.

"May we ask not what our community can do for us, but what we can do for our community, and even for the world outside our community. May we freely and cheerfully give our time, talents, treasure, and yes even our very selves to anyone and everyone we have the opportunity to help. Help us to 'reverse the curse' of selfism and materialism in the places where we live by being models of giving rather than getting, both as individuals and as a corporate body of believers. In each situation may we always ask the question 'How can I serve?' rather than 'What can I gain from this?' And may we do this with joyful hearts, so that the people around us can see the truth of Jesus' maxim, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive."

We pray all these things in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, Amen!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Owen on Sin and Temptation, Part 4 (More Morricone...)

Since I know you all enjoyed having Enrico Morricone's insanely catchy score for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly running through your heads during my last blog on Owen, I'll keep the same theme here... (can you hear the warbling whistle and wah-wah trumpet?)

The Good in my recent reading of Owen (I'm almost done) is how he confirms on pages 174-175 something I've always believed, that God gives us many different motivations to godliness, including fear of consequences (which is not a wrong motivation), but the best one is gratefulness for what He has done for us, because it produces the most energy for change. Also, I liked how he reminds us eloquently and repeatedly that sin is always with us in our "flesh" (see pages 246-247) so we shouldn't be surprised at its temptations and even victories over us. And last but not least I found his description of the unregenerate man on page 248 to be strangely comforting, because it gave me assurance that I have been changed from my former state and do in fact belong to God.

The Bad in the sections I've read recently, in addition to the usual discourses on fine points that don't seem that important, is the legalism that reared its head briefly, which the Puritans have been too famous for but thankfully has not made much of an appearance in this book. On page 178 he indicates that his definition of worldliness includes "to play at cards, dice, revel, dance," all things that the Bible itself does not prohibit. Fortunately in other places, however, Owen does define worldliness in a more biblical manner, like shortly after that last quote and then on page 180 when he speaks of "ambition, vain-glory, and the like." Those vices have ruined far more people than card-playing has! (For a thorough discussion of the issue of legalism, see my book Who Are You to Judge?)

The Ugly is something that I will be talking about on this coming Sunday in my message at Faith Church, and in fact will be reading the following quote from Owen, about the ugliness of "cheap grace," as Bonhoeffer called it. (By the way, have you seen the new book on Bonhoeffer by Eric Metataxas in which he proves that the German martyr was an evangelical, contrary to popular opinion and suspicion?) But back to Owen, and this great quote from pages 282-283:

"Most men love to hear of the doctrine of grace, of the pardon of sin, of free love, and suppose they find food therein; however, it is evident that they grow and thrive in the life and notion of them. But to be breaking up the fallow ground of their hearts, to be inquiring after the weeds and briars that grow in them, they delight not so much, though this be no less necessary than the other. This path is not so beaten as that of grace, nor so trod in, though it be the only way to come to a true knowledge of grace itself. It may be some, who are wise and grown in other truths, may yet be so little skilled in searching their own hearts, that they may be slow in the perception and understanding of these things. But this sloth and neglect is to be shaken off, if we have any regard unto our own souls. It is more than probable that many a false hypocrite, who have deceived themselves as well as others, because they thought the doctrine of the gospel pleased them, and therefore supposed they believed it, might be delivered from their soul-ruining deceits if they would diligently apply themselves unto this search of their own hearts. Or, would other professors walk with so much boldness and security as some do if they considered aright what a deadly watchful enemy they continually carry about with them and in them? Would they so much indulge as they do carnal joys and pleasures, or pursue their perishing affairs with so much delight and greediness as they do? It were to be wished that we would all apply our hearts more to this work, even to come to a true understanding of the nature, power, and subtlety of this our adversary, that our souls may be humbled."

Monday, August 16, 2010

Behind the Music: "Lucky One" and the Love of God in Christ

God has blessed me with a new friend who is very talented musically and also happens to write and play music that I like (which is not easy, because I'm picky!). Wayne Haines was most recently the lead for the band Lost in Rotation, which has some good stuff on itunes but most of their best stuff (in my opinion) is available only on CD at this point. If you're interested in hearing it, I can get you a copy of "Greatest," named for their best songs but also for the One they sing about.

Wayne and I worked on a song together recently (I helped with the lyrics)...you can listen to it at
and then come back here for a look at the lyrics and some "Behind the Music" info on the meaning of the song (see if you can figure it out yourself before I tell you). I like the song and hope you will too, but I like the main idea behind it even more, because it is my only hope for this life and the one to come!

Here are the lyrics to "Lucky One." Read them through and see if you can figure them out, and then I'll tell you the meaning below...

Your debt’s been paid in full
Even though you broke the rules
Nothing that you can do
Could pay for the sins inside of you

You’re an adopted son
An heir of all the world
You’d run the race and won
Before you had heard the starting gun

You are the lucky one
The lucky one is you
You are the lucky one
The lucky one is you
You are lucky one
There’s nothing you can say or do
You are the lucky one
The lucky one

No worries in this world
Safe in the Father’s hand
His grace will take you from
The wilderness to the promised land

Though you may suffer here
The pain cannot compare
The weight of glory there
Will make it all seem as light as air

You are the lucky one…

There’s no such thing as luck
No blind role of the dice
Nothing I have done
Just the Father’s love for Christ

I am the blessed one
A fortunate son
I am the blessed one
A fortunate son
I am the blessed one
There’s nothing I have said or done
I am the blessed one
The blessed one

The perspective of the first two verses of the song is that of a non-Christian who has a friend who is a Christian, and knows a lot about the promises in the Bible that are made to those who believe, like his friend. And it seems to him that his friend is just plain lucky to have all these great things going for him, because he knows his Christian friend well enough to know that he is a sinner too, and does not deserve any of those good things. In fact, a lot of times the Christian isn't any better than the non-Christian, and sometimes he's worse! But yet according to the Bible the Christian has all these great blessings from God even though he has done nothing to earn them. So he is, in the eyes of the non-Christian friend, the "Lucky One"...he can't see any other explanation than that.

But then in the bridge and final chorus the Christian answers him and says that although he does not deserve all these blessings (the non-Christian is right about that), it's not actually luck but a "deeper magic" as C.S. Lewis talked about in The Chronicles of Narnia. The reason that the Christian receives all these blessings is "just the Father's love for Christ," and that leads me to one of my favorite ideas in the universe, if not my favorite...

God the Father loves His Son Jesus Christ with an infinite and perfect love, and He planned to bestow every spiritual blessing to all who are united with Christ by faith, not because of anything we have done, but because of what Christ has done by identifying with us in His incarnation, taking our sins upon Himself on the cross, and rising from the dead so that we would have a new life through our union with Him. So the reason God loves us and gives us all good things is not because we deserve it (we deserve the opposite), or even because we are made in His image (we have marred that image through our sin), but because He loves His Son and has graciously included us in Him and the love He deserves. A helpful analogy is that I understandably have no special love for a kid named Brent that merely goes to school with my son, but if he becomes my son's good friend, I will have a special relationship with him and even treat him as part of the family. In a similar way, by being "in Christ" we are adopted into God's family and receive His special saving love.

Now read Ephesians 1:3-14, a passage that you may be familiar with, but perhaps have not notice how repeatedly it makes this point that all the blessings of God's saving grace come to us "in Christ" (the two most important words in the Bible, occurring over 50 times in the New Testament, and three times as much in other forms with the same meaning):

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fulness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation--having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God's own possession, to the praise of His glory."

Now that you know more about the meaning behind the music, listen to the song again at http://www.myspace.com/floridawaynemusic and praise God for His glorious grace!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Owen on Sin and Temptation, Part 3

I've seen The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in my recent reading in Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen, edited by Kapic and Taylor. (Consider Ennio Morricone's famous movie score as the soundtrack for this blog, because I'm sure it's stuck in your head now!)

The Good is the numerous profound passages I've encountered along the way, including the parts where Owen discusses the need to know our enemy on page 76 (so simple, but so true and often neglected!) and the necessity of being a believer in Christ in order to truly mortify sin (pages 79-86), which also should be obvious but is basically ignored by a lot of self-help and self-improvement teaching and programs today. But the most moving and useful contributions Owen makes, in my opinion, are when he provides prayers for us that flow from the depth of his reflection and meditation upon the Scriptures and his own sin. Here's a great example:

"What have I done? What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace have I despised and trampled on! Is this the return I make to the Father for his love, to the Son for his blood, to the Holy Ghost for his grace? Do I thus requite the Lord? Have I defiled the heart that Christ died to wash?, that the blessed Spirit has chosen to dwell in? And can I keep myself out of the dust? What can I say to the dear Lord Jesus? How shall I hold up my head with any boldness before him? Do I account communion with him of so little value, that for this vile lust's sake I have scarce left him any room in my heart?" (page 105)

This next one starts on the same dark note, which is important to hit, but it thankfully does go on to the "succor" of the gospel, as men like Owen used to call it:

"I am a poor, weak creature; unstable as water, I cannot excel. This corruption is too hard for me, and is at the very door of ruining my soul; and what to do I know not. My soul has become as parched ground, and an habitation of dragons. I have made promises and broken them; vows and engagements have been as a thing of naught. Many persuasions have I had that I had got the victory and should be delivered, but I am deceived; so that I plainly see, that without some eminent succor and assistance, I am lost, and shall be prevailed on to an utter relinquishment of God. But yet, though this be my state and condition, let the hands that hang down be lifted up, and the feeble knees be strengthened. Behold, the Lord Christ, that has all fullness of grace in his heart (John 1:16), all fullness of power in his hand (Matt. 28:18), he is able to slay all these his enemies. There is sufficient provision in him for my relief and assistance. He can take my drooping, dying soul and make me more than a conqueror (Rom. 8:37)."

Owen then quotes Isaiah 40:27-31, which is the famous "wings like eagles" passage, which I have read many times before. But in this context I saw it in a new way, with the emphasis on "they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength." The point Isaiah is making is not primarily that we should wait or persevere in faith, though we certainly should do that. But in context he is emphasizing is that we must wait on the Lord because no other source of hope or help will do the trick.

The Bad in my recent reading of Owen are a few passages that I didn't like as much, either because they were sub-par or perhaps I failed to understand them correctly (which is certainly possible!). But I have to point out some negative things about Owen's writing, so I can be a good example of exercising discernment like the Bereans and not just nod dully to everything he says simply because he's a great theologian. On pages 112-118 he goes on and on about a particular issue that does not seem to warrant such an extensive discussion (how much more we can know of God than the OT saints did)...it seems that he was in the middle of some controversy with someone at the time, but it is not as applicable to most of us. Also, on pages 126-127 he seems to be advocating a rather mystical approach to knowing when we are forgiven...kinda like "you know that you know when you know." I found this confusing and not very helpful. And finally, the distinction he makes between temptation and "entering temptation" on pages 159 and following also seems unnecessary and confusing to me. Aren't the two wordings just different ways of saying the same thing? The Puritans had a tendency to over-parse the text, precisely because their meditations on it were so thorough and deep. So as with all of us, their strength can be their weakness sometimes. But like I said, I may not be smart enough to fully understand Owen's thinking in these passages...I'm very willing to admit that possibility. Maybe someone who reads this can enlighten me...

The Ugly in my readings in Owen has been my own sinfulness reflected in the mirror of his words...words like these: "There are traitors in our hearts, ready to take part, to close and side with every temptation, and to give up all to them...Do not flatter yourselves that you should hold out; there are secret lusts that lie lurking in your hearts, which perhaps now stir not, which, as soon as any temptation befalls you, will rise, tumultuate, cry, disquiet, seduce, and never give over until they are either killed or satisfied" (page 171). It's hard to look in a mirror for any length of time and not like what you see...you want to avert your gaze and not have to focus on the ugliness there. But though it is far from pleasant, I have realized it is a necessary means to humility and the recognition of my need for God's grace. To switch the metaphor to a biblical one, I have to realize how sick I am before I will go to the Great Physician for help, and the more sick I know I am, the more help I will seek from Him and the more I will rely on Him for that help.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Three Movie Recommendations

We took a family vacation/retreat this week, and we watched three movies that were great examples of good entertainment with thought-provoking spiritual themes...

Remains of the Day has been one of my favorite movies for years, but I hadn't watched it for a long time, and loved re-experiencing it. Most of the kids fell asleep during it, so it's not for those easily bored by "no action," but it is for those who like great acting, beautiful locations, and a powerful lesson about "casting your bread upon the waters," as Ecclesiastes 11 says. Stevens the butler is a profound metaphor for the opportunities we all have missed in our lives because of fear, selfishness, pride, and even unbiblical traditions.

Jeremiah is a made-for-TV Bible epic that I had seen good reviews for on Amazon, and picked up for $9.99 at my local Genuardis. It was great! I identified with Jeremiah in some ways in his ministry, but also was made grateful that I don't have to suffer quite as much as he did! It has almost as bleak of an ending as Remains of the Day, but hope breaks through in the form of the gospel (missing from the secular movie, of course), when Jeremiah prophesies that God would make a new covenant with His people...in Jesus Christ!!

The Blind Side is one of the few bright spots in Hollywood's recent history...most really good movies are outside of Hollywood in some way, but this one not only was made by a major studio but garnered Oscar nods as well... and it's true! And it's about Christians!! And it's about Christians who actually live like Christians (at least in their ministry of mercy, which is a big part of being a Christian...see Matthew 25:31-46)!!! The movie is a great illustration of what I've said for years...if every Christian family would help just one needy individual or family, the world would be changed in a significant way.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Owen on Sin and Temptation, Part 2

Overcoming Sin and Temptation contains three books by the 17th century puritan theologian John Owen, and the first is “On the Mortification of Sin in Believers.” Owen introduces the topic by talking about how important it is, and then he expounds on “the nature of mortification.” (Mortification is mentioned in Romans 8:13 and means to kill sin in our lives…before it kills us, as Owen likes to say). In this section on the nature of mortification, I found several passages very interesting and helpful.

First, Owen discusses a passage on “false repentance” I have never noticed before, even though I have taught for many years on the topic. It is found in Psalm 78:32-27: "In spite of all this they still sinned, and did not believe in His wonderful works. So He brought their days to an end in futility, and their years in sudden terror. When He killed them, then they sought Him, and returned and searched diligently for God; and they remembered that God was their rock, and the Most High God their Redeemer. But they deceived Him with their mouth, and lied to Him with their tongue. For their heart was not steadfast toward Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant."

Owen points out how the repentance of these people, like that of Esau’s mentioned in Hebrews 12:16-17, was energetic and emotional, but failed to bring about the forgiveness of God because it was motivated more by the consequences suffered than the suffering of the Savior. This reminded me how dependent we are upon God’s grace in our lives, not only for the forgiveness that only He can grant, but also for the true Spirit-caused repentance that only He can create in us. Truly we must rely on Him to create in us a clean heart (Psalm 51)!

On the next few pages Owen gives us some deep insights into the doctrine of total depravity, first explaining why even unbelievers may not seem to be “always doing evil” as Genesis 6:5 says, but they really are in the sight of God: “The reason why a natural man is not always perpetually in the pursuit of some one lust, night and day, is because he has so many to serve, every one crying to be satisfied; thence he is carried on with great variety, but still in general he lies toward the satisfaction of self” (page 73).

Then he explains how even those with more “respectable sins” are still totally depraved and in need of grace and forgiveness: “Some men may go in their own thoughts and in the eyes of the world for mortified men, who yet have in them no less predominancy of lust than those who cry out with astonishment upon the account of its perplexing tumultuatings, yea, than those who have by the power of it been hurried into scandalous sins; only their lusts are in and about things which raise not such a tumult in the soul, about which they are exercised with a calmer frame of spirit, the very fabric of nature being not so nearly concerned in them as in some other” (page 75). In other words, just because someone is not visibly “torn apart” by their sin doesn’t mean they have less; the more subtle and unnoticeable sins can be worse because they adhere harder to the soul while leaving the impression of less need for change. I’ve noticed this in my own life, that I’ve often been worse off when I’m having “victory” over the “big sins” of action while the hidden ones of the heart are still festering there, perhaps unknown to anyone else. May God grant me the grace to mortify the sins of the heart as well as those of the body!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Some light summer reading...Not!

I just began my summer reading project, and it's a challenge...400 pages called Overcoming Sin and Temptation, by the Puritan theologian John Owen. A few friends are joining me, and we'll be meeting on Saturday morning August 21 to discuss the experience and pray about what we've learned. If anyone else would like to join us, please let me know... (you can skip the introduction like I did and go straight to Owen's own words--that will cut out almost 40 pages right off!).

I'm only a little way in and I think I've come upon the theme statement of the work, which I think is also the most famous quote from it. It goes like this: "Be killing sin or it will be killing you." In explanation Owen adds, "Your being dead with Christ virtually, your being quickened with Him, will not excuse you from this work." And later he says, "Not to be daily mortifying sin is to sin against the goodness, kindness, wisdom, grace, and love of God, who has furnished us with a principle of doing it." This is all commentary on Romans 8:13, which says, "If you through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, you shall live."

In those quotes you can see the balance that Owen strikes between the free grace of God in justification and dependence on the Spirit's work on the one hand, and personal self-denial and discipline on the other. He seems to have a very wise and complete picture of the process of sanctification, which is refreshing when compared to the extremes we modern believers can sometimes fall into, in which we over-emphasize grace at the expense of the law, or vice versa.

I am looking forward to soaking in this wonderful biblical wisdom during the next two months!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ethical Eschatology

Studying and understanding what the Bible says about the future (eschatology) is very important, and is necessary to live a successful Christian life. Studying and understanding what the Bible says about the future (eschatology) is not that important, and can even be a fruitless waste of time for a Christian. Can those statements both be true? I think so, depending on how you look at it.

Every passage in the Bible containing future prophecy is given for an ethical or "pastoral" purpose. None of them are intended as a mere "crystal ball" to satisfy our curiosity about what will happen, give us intellectual goosebumps, or to fill in our end-times charts. When the timing or sequence of events is even mentioned, which is rare, it is never the main point of the passage and is merely implied (or must be inferred). We get our theological systems regarding the order of future events (pre-, post-, etc.) mostly by bringing separate passages together or plugging them into a pre-existing overall scheme. A classic example of this would be the dispensationalist interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 that sees the "rapture" there as a removal of the New Testament church because God must return to the nation of Israel to complete the 70 weeks mentioned in Daniel 9:24.

But 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 is also a perfect example of ethical eschatology (a term I've stolen from my favorite seminary professor, Dr. George Zemek). The larger passage of which it is a part begins, "We do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope" (v. 13). And after talking about the rapture Paul adds, "Therefore comfort one another with these words" (v. 18). He has no concern whatsoever in this passage about whether this event is before, during, or after "the tribulation," or even if there will be such a time of trial in the future. He merely wants us to know that we will see our loved ones again, and take encouragement from that blessed truth.

(By the way, it seems to me that if we want to infer the timing of this "rapture," it would be better to look at the closer context of 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10--same author, same audience--where Paul refers to the "gathering together," which is presumably this same event, and uses temporal participles to say it will happen at the same time that God judges the wicked.)

So I would say that the aspects of future prophecy which have a direct application to the way we live our lives are very important, and also happen to be the ones that are emphasized in Scripture. But the details of timing and sequence are far less important, because most of the views we might have on those issues are not going to interfere with the ethical and pastoral purposes of future prophecy. I say "most," however, because I do think there are a few extremes that we need to avoid in our eschatology, precisely because they would hinder us from fulfilling the practical purposes of biblical prophecy.

One extreme we should avoid is to assume that Jesus will not be coming back for a long time. This was one of the mistakes the bad steward made in Luke 12:45 ("My master will be a long time in coming") and it is a mistake made by many postmillennialists, who say that there must be a golden age prior to the return of Christ. I believe that there may be such a golden age, but I don't believe there must be one before the Second Coming. The biggest problem with this view, besides reading more into certain texts than is actually in them, is that we are told over and over again in the Scriptures to be ready at all times (e.g. Luke 12:35-40, then verse 45 as mentioned) and the apostle Paul clearly believed that Christ might return in his lifetime (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:2-4, and his language in 1 Thess. 4 mentioned above). The belief that Christ could return at any time bears much pastoral and ethical fruit in our lives, but what exactly he will do when he returns and whether he may do other things after that is not so important or impactful.

We should also avoid the other extreme of thinking that Jesus will necessarily return soon; he may tarry hundreds or thousands of years, and we need to know that so we will plan for the future and pass down God's covenant promises to the generations who succeed us. I realize that many Christians are constantly seeing the "signs of the times" in current events, but people have been doing that ever since the first century (see the introduction to Gary DeMar's book Last Days Madness) and they have all been wrong up till now. Why should we think we are different, or have greater insight into prophecy than they did? I personally do not see any clear indication in Scripture that Christ will return in our generation, and I think that is consistent with the spirit of his teaching that "no one knows the hour of my return." Or the day, or the year, or the decade, or the century...that's the idea, I think.

This is a good time to comment on what I could call the "intentional obscurity" of much biblical prophecy. The Old Testament saints had all kinds of prophecies concerning the first coming of the Messiah, but few if any actually understood what was going to happen in any detail. I think it will be the same for us in anticipation the second coming...we'll understand it all a lot better after it happens. In the meantime it is foolish and counter-productive to gospel ministry to make our eschatological views so important that we are suspicious and separatistic toward one another, or spend too much of our precious time arguing about them.

So my "ethical eschatology," for what it's worth, is that we should always be ready because Jesus could come back in our lifetime, and we should always be planning and preparing for the future because he may wait a long time before He returns. And things could turn around for the good in our culture and in the world at large...that has happened before in the ebbs and flows of history, and it could happen again. I don't believe everything must get worse and worse until Jesus returns--that's another extreme that can rob us of the hope and energy we need for gospel ministry.

Beyond those basic, life-changing truths, I'm a classic pan-millennialist...I believe it will all pan out in the end! We'll understand prophecy completely when it happens. Until then, let's discuss it graciously and with toleration for different viewpoints, and not let it become too important, or come between us, or get in the way of our Great Commission calling.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Examine Everything Carefully

The title of this entry comes directly from 1 Thessalonians 5:21, one of the great scriptural calls to discernment, and a theme verse for a conference I had the privilege of speaking at last week. The bi-annual St. Louis Conference on Biblical Discernment was sponsored by a ministry called Personal Freedom Outreach, led by Kurt Goedelman, and featured some wonderful speakers like Paul Maier, Gary Gilley, Robert Lightner, and Ron Rhodes.

My seminar topics were "Decision Making Questions: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," "The Case Against Judging," and "The Es of Entertainment." My favorite talks by other speakers were "Jesus: What More Do We Know?" by Paul Maier, about the extra-biblical evidence for the gospel accounts, and "The Question of Homosexuality" by Ron Rhodes. You can get copies of any of these by visiting www.pfo.org. I also spoke at the host church on Sunday morning on the topic of "Relating to Church Leadership" (a.k.a. "How to Make Your Pastor Happy"), and you could listen to that online at www.gracebaptistchurch.info.

On Sunday after church Kurt and his wife Angela graciously took my son Calvin and I to visit the St. Louis Arch, which occurred to me is a giant illustration of the need for biblical discernment. I was amazed at the skill that was needed in the planning and construction of this amazing monument, one of the "seven wonders of the modern world." If a construction in the physical world requires such careful thought and exactness, how much more do we need to be careful and exact in building the church of God and handling his eternal Word!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Mystery of Mystery Novels

The mystery of mystery novels is how to find a good one! I love Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe stories from the 1940s (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, etc.), but I can only re-read them every couple years when I've forgotten the plots, and so in between I've been searching far and wide for other good ones (mostly in libraries and used book stores). As in most categories of art and entertainment, I've only found about one in a hundred that I like. I usually stop reading them shortly after I start, because they just don't draw me in enough, they're not my kind of thing, or they have too much offensive material. But once in a while I find a "keeper," so I thought I could save you some time searching yourself by telling you about a few that I liked...

Gone Tomorrow by Lee Childs is his most recent Jack Reacher novel (there's about ten or so). I've read several others in the series, and they have pulled me in, but I was not pleased with the total product, partially because of uneven quality but also because Jack Reacher is so often amoral and immoral. Gone Tomorrow is consistently good and mostly unoffensive, except for the one brief but totally unnecessary episode of fornication toward the end. Fortunately it is not described graphically...but why do authors have to throw sex into every story?! Do they think that a relationship can't be good or complete without it? Anyway, the story is very interesting, the hero has some good qualities, and the cover is soooo cool-looking! (Yes, the way a book looks is important to me, and yes, I know I'm weird that way.)

The Good Guy by Dean Koontz was a good read. I've tried several other books by Koontz and have only finished one (The Husband, which was underwhelming, especially at the end). But I thought The Good Guy kicked some derriere...probably largely because of my Christian sensibilities... the main character is actually a good guy, for goodness sake, and that was refreshing in this age of the anti-hero. I have to admit the end was a bit anticlimactic, but at least it was satisfying, and the ride to there was great. Check this one out.

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane kept me turning page after page to find out what in the world was going on...it was certainly successful by that standard. But it also raised some interesting issues about mental health, psychiatry, and even psychopharmocology that I enjoy mulling over. I tried a couple of his older private eye novels (A Drink Before the War, Prayers for Rain) but can't recommend them because the protagonists are so depraved and the ultimate "lessons" are so nihilistic or hedonistic. But though Shutter Island definitely shared some of the nihilism, it is more well directed at the depravity of man and his hopeless attempts to cure "mental" problems without God.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Church" Online

Our church could not meet on Sunday, since the building we rent was closed because of snow. So since we have this amazing medium of the web, I thought I would do my “pastorly duty” by leading our church family in an “online worship service” of sorts, which I sent to them by email. I enjoyed doing it myself, so maybe you will as well…

LORD’S DAY (Online) WORSHIP

For Praise and Thanksgiving, read or sing the words to one of our most loved songs at Faith Church, which we would have been singing this morning:

Greatly Rejoice
(1 Peter 1:2-8)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
Who has caused us to be born again to a living hope
Who has caused us to be born again to a living hope
A hope that won't fade away
Reserved in heaven for us
Protected by the power of God through faith
We are saved, we are saved

CHORUS:
We greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible
Greatly rejoice with glorious praise
Greatly rejoice in a life incorruptible
Love beyond measure and infinite grace
Love beyond measure and infinite grace

Through the trials of life You're working
To prove our faith as gold
In Your love we're persevering
For one day, Lord, we know
You'll explode through the clouds
As Your shout cracks the sky
Dead in Christ will arise
As You call home Your bride
And though we've not seen Your face
This greatest glory awaits
'Til then by the power of God through faith
We are saved, we are saved

CHORUS

© 1997 Sovereign Grace Worship (Integrity's Hosanna! Music)
Steve Earl, CCLI #2799265

Also, to continue the theme of God’s sovereignty and love even through the pain and suffering in life, listen to the Caedmon’s Call song “Lead of Love” at this link:
http://s0.ilike.com/play#Caedmon's+Call:Lead+Of+Love:615361:s13865597.8123684.946373.0.1.88%2Cstd_9329e292af5c5e9a4d86fabb0a00cd46
Or if that doesn’t work, google “Lead of Love Caedmon’s Call” and that should be the first link that comes up. Or if that doesn’t play the full song (it did the first time for me), try YouTube.

“I had to walk the rocks to see the mountain view… and looking back, I see the lead of Love” AMEN!!

For Prayer and Confession, read and pray along with these words to the Lord:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory.” Those are the words of the angels around your throne, and those are the words of praise we bring this morning. Heavenly Father, You are holy; Your eyes are too pure to look upon evil. Jesus Christ the Son, You too are holy; no man has ever come close to matching Your perfection and glory. And Holy Spirit, you set apart and forever change the lives of all those whom You touch.

We thank You so much that the God who is so holy does not utterly destroy us, Your creatures who have become so unholy. Instead You freely give us the grace we do not deserve, and grace upon grace. We thank You for Your eternal plan of redemption, in which the Holy Father sacrificed His Holy Son, so that the Holy Spirit could bring us all the benefits of Your saving love. And we pray that as the One who called us is holy, so may we be holy ourselves in all our behavior, so that You might receive glory and honor and praise through our lives, as well as our words. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.

For Prayers of Intercession, pull up a world map site on the internet, and pray for five or ten other countries, that God would guide and protect His children in those places, and bring many more sheep into His fold by the Spirit and the gospel.

For a Message from the Word, how about something different (since “online church” is pretty different already!)… go to http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/february/3.20.html and read the article(s) about sports, since tonight is the biggest sporting event of the year (the Super Bowl, for anyone who’s either been living under a rock, or commendably living out some implications of the article!). I believe you will find it very insightful and challenging—a message that desperately needs to be heard by believers today, regardless of how you end up applying the Scriptures in your own life in this area. We must be careful not to judge one another, but we do need to be stimulated to think critically and biblically about this important area of life!

Finally, here’s a Benediction for you, from a Puritan prayer:

Thou Great Three-in-One,
Author of all blessings I enjoy, of all I hope for,
Thou has shown me,
That the experience of Divine love in the soul
Is superior to and distinct from bodily health,
And that often spiritual comforts are at their highest
When physical well-being is at its lowest.

I bless Thee for tempering every distress with joy;
Too much of the former might weigh me down,
Too much of the latter might puff me up.
Thou art wise to give me a taste of both.
I love Thee for giving me clusters of grapes in the wilderness,
And drops of heavenly wine
That set me longing to have my fill.

Apart from Thee I quickly die,
Bereft of Thee I starve,
Far from Thee I thirst and droop,
But Thou art all I need.

Let me continually grasp the promise,
“I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.”
In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Biblical Counseling, CCEF, Jay Adams, etc.

I recently participated in the following email exchange about those topics with some friends, which started with one of them [Friend 1] saying that he read the book How People Change by Paul Tripp and Timothy Lane (from CCEF), and thought that it seemed to contradict my approach to counseling and shepherding. My response to that starts this string of emails, which I reproduce here for your interest and edification. As always, I welcome any posts to continue the discussion...

(My response:)
Thanks! I definitely want to discuss this more with anyone and everyone… there is nothing except the gospel itself (and maybe the doctrines of grace) that is more important and impactful to the life and vision of a church than how people change and how we deal with our problems!

But to begin with, I can tell you right now that I agree with almost everything in How People Change, and I think its a great book, but it is not complete in that it doesn’t discuss everything that is important to change, and especially church ministry (no book can, of course). I am a pastor and the men who wrote that book were not pastoring at the time they wrote it, so maybe that explains why they don’t include much about shepherding and discipline, for instance. Notice in the Scripture index that no reference is made to passages about those topics like Matthew 18:15-18, Acts 20:28ff, 1 Corinthians 5:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, 1 or 2 Timothy, Hebrews 13:17, James 5, 1 Peter 5:1-5, or the churches in Revelation.

Maybe the fact that I talk about and even sometimes emphasize those things is why you think I may contradict Lane and Tripp, but of course I don’t believe that emphasis contradicts them in any way, because it’s all from the Bible. In fact, I think that my “additions” to the content of that book fit very well with their emphasis on change being a “community” project. They just didn’t talk about that important aspect of church community…important because it is talked about so often in the New Testament (passages above). That’s why I talk about it and sometimes emphasize it, by the way, because it’s all over the Bible and because I have observed that it is often neglected. For instance, a long-time Christian who was sick recently said they didn’t even know about James 5:14-16 until I showed it to them, and it’s the most direct reference in the Bible about what to do when you’re sick.

Maybe there needs to be some additional books called “How to know if the people under your care are changing,” “What to do when people don’t change,” or most important “How church leaders can help people change.” That book would definitely need to include at least some of the passages above.

In Christ, Dave

[From Friend 2:]
Dear Brothers,

The biggest thing the Lord has been teaching me in 2009 is about his present grace. We all agree on the past and future ramifications of the work of Christ on the cross. We are lost without the mercy and work of God, and are fully saved and justified by the death and resurrection of His son Jesus. We are risen with Him to eternal life in Him. But what does this mean to our present walk in the Lord? What does it mean to the present state of our hearts? How then should we live now in Christ ?

I have come to learn much better that Christ lives in me, and I live in Christ, and that through Him I am able to stand in him and honor him in my life. But my heart remains an idol factory, prone to wander from Him in many ways. Some of those ways are outward hypocrisy on the other six days of the week (and on Sunday also, in the temple), but just as many of those ways are pride and self-righteousness, where I am "doing the right thing" and "telling myself the right thing", but for the wrong reasons, to my own glory/justification, to want to feel that God somehow "owes" me a good life because of all the good I am doing for Him. And what I have learned (and am learning) well is that I cannot stop myself from either the wrong actions or the right actions for the wrong reaons, except by the present mercy of the Lord to guide and deliver me. But that mercy and grace is ever present in my life, both guiding me in the right direction and forgiving and training and shaping and encouraging me when I fail in younger brother acts of rebellion by outward hypocrisy or in older brother acts of rebellion by self-righteousness.

Recognition of this in our lives, and from the pulpit and in our teaching, can, by God's grace, lead to an open fellowship where we are able to share our struggles and failings and encourage one another in the grace of God, because we recognize that we are all constantly in the midst of struggles and failings, and that we are all constant recipients of present grace.

But anything that tells us that we are saved and therefore need to try harder in ourselves to stop sinning and honor God more and do better is prone to lead us to self-righteous behavior and a pharisaical atmosphere where we are trying to all convince ourselves and one another that we love God and therefore want to do and are doing the right thing. It will lead us to deny our inward self-righteous sins of the heart, only focusing on outward behavior, and dividing us into the "well-behaved" people who "love God" and the "problem" people who "need help". This is the state of almost every church I know, and brings glory to "good Christian people" rather than to God.

[From Friend 1]
Dave,

I'm still trying to understand your position on the role of the church officers in how people change. If I summarize what I think you are saying, could you please let me know if I'm right about what you are saying or where I'm wrong?

Here's my summary of what I think you have taught us:

The work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts is necessary but not sufficient for sanctification. In addition to the Holy Spirit's work in our hearts, Christians need to be motivated to stop sinning by increasing levels of loving confrontation of sin by the church officers. This starts with preaching the Word and the general threat of discipline, then as the officers find out specific sins that people persist in, it leads to telling the rest of the church about specific sins and finally censures.

Is this accurate?

[My response:]
The work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts is sufficient for sanctification. Not only that, it is the only way anyone can be sanctified. (That’s actually the point of all my talk about “biblical counseling” as opposed to psychological or pharmacological methods of dealing with our spiritual problems.) But the Holy Spirit does His work of sanctification in our hearts in many different ways, all discussed in the Scriptures and commonly known as “the means of grace.” When another believer encourages me (Heb. 3:12-13) or stimulates me to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24), that is the Holy Spirit doing His work of sanctification in my heart. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper also are ways that He works in the hearts of God’s people. When we pray “in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18), we are sanctified and strengthened for spiritual battle. And so on…everything truly good that is done in us and by us (another way to say “sanctification”) is a product of the Holy Spirit’s work.

And that includes the oversight and shepherding of elders, which is Spirit-ordained (Acts 20:28) and Spirit-empowered (Col. 1:27). And part of the work of elders is to exemplify and oversee the process of loving confrontation and church discipline taught by Christ in Matthew 18:15-18 and illustrated in passages like 1 Corinthians 5, 1 Timothy 1:20, Philippians 4:2-3, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15. This is only a part of the elders’ work, but it is an important part, especially because it is so often neglected today while being so often mentioned in the NT. It is one of the ways that the Holy Spirit uses elders to encourage and stimulate the members of the body to growth in Christ. The Holy Spirit gave us the Scriptures (and empowers us) “for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Those four activities, with prayer added in, could serve as a summary of the elders’ ministry, and of how people are sanctified. In fact, it seems that Paul used them in that very way in the passage. And talking about and practicing church discipline, though it is only a small part of how we do those ministries, has relation to all of them: It is instructive to the body (1 Tim. 5:20), it is a heightened form of rebuke and correction when necessary, and it provides added motivation for continuing in righteousness (2 Cor. 13:2, Rev. 2:5 and 3:19-20).

On a different but possibly related topic, I don’t know if this applies to any of you, but we need to guard ourselves from an error that I and others have noticed can sometimes develop along with the emphasis on “Sonship,” “gospel-centered living,” “living by grace,” etc. This emphasis is very biblical and important, especially for people who tend to have a legalistic or “performance” mentality, but it should never be emphasized to the exclusion of other important biblical principles like self-discipline, church discipline, etc. Nor should our counsel to people be only concerned with inward faith and repentance, without helping them to practically put off and put on in their actions (Eph. 4:22-32). The heart is of utmost importance, no question, but remember that Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). Who you are inside affects what you will do, very definitely, but what you do also affects who you will be inside.

Sometimes people get excited about the doctrines of free justification, Sonship, and the role of faith in sanctification (and well they should, because those doctrines are exciting!), but then they start to think that any concern or teaching about our behavior or morals is behavioristic or moralistic, and they lapse into a modern form of quietism, or worse, antinomianism. But behaviorism or moralism is talking about what we do exclusively without referencing why we do it… a biblical balance is what we need. To bring this back around to our original topic of conversation (the book), I can put it this way… If someone thinks that How People Change is a comprehensive treatment of sanctification, they are wrong. There are many aspects of sanctification not discussed in that book (of course, because no book can cover it all, except the Bible itself). I’m sure the authors don’t think it is exhaustive, but if they or another else did that would be an error akin to quietism or antinomianism, because of the important aspects of sanctification and ministry that it does not address. Jay Adams’ books tend to emphasize more the behavioral aspects of sanctification and counseling, and the “new CCEF” guys tend to emphasize the heart and gospel aspects more. I think they are both basically biblical in what they say, and should be combined for a good balanced approach to Christian life and ministry. That’s what I try to do... with varying degrees of success, I’m sure!

In Christ, Dave

[Friend 2:]
- Quietism and Antinomianism would be very grave errors indeed. Thankfully, I have not seen them whatsoever in the Gospel Transformation materials or in the reading and training I have had through CCEF. All of the aforementioned are very concerned with outward change toward holiness, but that it come from a heart that is turned to and reliant upon the Lord, that finds it's righteousness in Christ rather than in the individual.

- Agreed that 'How People Change' is not a standalone book claiming to be the first and last word on sanctfication. It deals with inner change. It is part of a trilogy, along with 'Instruments in the Hands of the Redeemer' (which is subtitled "People in need of change helping people in need of change") and 'Relationships: A Mess Worth Making'. It would be good to read all three books.

- I don't see inward faith/repentance and outward change as either/or, or even as both/and. Outward change that is true, meaningful, God-pleasing, and lasting, can only come from inward heart change. If it could work the other way, the pharisee and the older brother would have been growing in Godliness and approved by God in Luke 18:9-13 and Luke 15:11-32 respectively. If we are working with the behaviors apart from the heart, we are helping to produce pharisees and can't help but engender self-righteousness. If the old heart is no longer sinning in one way, it is not growing in righteousness in the Lord, but rather sinning in new, different ways (and often will then also return to the old ways in frustration). I am in constant fear of that in my own life, and for my children. Any teaching that is urging moral behavior from them, but not impressing the gospel and their needy hearts on them, is working against what they need to grow in their reliance on the Lord, and is producing a self-righteous, better than thou attitude.

[My response:]
Good thoughts! I totally agree with you that “working with behaviors apart from the heart” is wrong and counter-productive. I would just encourage you to recognize also, based on Scripture, that God uses “outward” means in our sanctification process (defined as change that flows from the heart). The Pharisee and elder brother did not want to do the right thing, so no amount of behavioral counsel or change could make an iota of difference in their relationship with God (as you said). But for believers who want to do what is right, become more like Christ, etc. what we do is an important part of God’s means of grace (Kent Hughes and Jerry Bridges have called them “The Discipline(s) of Grace” in good books by that title). And I think we also need to say that God can use “outward” discipline, even from human authority, to work in people’s hearts. A clear example is parental discipline… Proverbs says “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him” and “You shall beat him with the rod and save his soul from death” and etc. etc. If I just spank my kids but don’t teach my children the gospel, they will never believe and honor God; but on the other hand, if I only teach them the gospel but never discipline them, they probably won’t either. Likewise, a man who has been addicted to porn can want to change and even “preach the gospel to himself” regularly, but if he doesn’t discipline himself to pray, spend time in the Word, practice radical amputation in specific ways, and put off and put on in other ways in his actions, he likely will not see permanent change. And if he does do those things out of a desire to please God, that will contribute to further heart change, for again as Jesus said, “Lay up treasure in heaven…for where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.”

So in our understanding of sanctification, we need to factor in that verse and the others mentioned above (particularly Eph. 4:21-32) plus Romans 6:12-13, where after telling us our spiritual position (“died with Christ”) Paul commands us to live out that position practically: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” Romans 12:1-2 also comes to mind, where our response to the mercies of God involves both our actions (“present your bodies as a living sacrifice”) and our hearts (“be transformed by the renewing of your mind”), with logical priority placed on the heart change.

[Friend 2:]
Thanks Dave, very helpful email and one I want to digest for awhile. You make some really good points that I think it would be fruitful to discuss how they should inform preaching. I'll flesh that out in another email after I have a chance to think through it some more...

[Dave's concluding note about the emails:]

The comment below by a pastor friend uses the word "conflict" to refer to this discussion, but I don't think any of the ideas presented in the emails are really conflicting (though the writers might be like "passing ships" sometimes). That's what I was trying to say throughout, that positional and practical righteousness are both important truths taught in the Bible and are not contradictory to one another. And I think those who emphasize one can learn from people who emphasize the other, and we should not "polarize" in opposite directions. I hope this discussion has been helpful to you as you seek to understand the Scriptures and how they apply to our lives!

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Wife of a Husband of One Wife

I've been teaching on the list of elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 the past few weeks at Faith Church, and even though it's a long four-part series, I'm still having difficulty fitting in everything I want to say! One matter I hoped to address but just didn't have time is this: "What kind of woman helps her husband to be a one-woman man?" That is the basic meaning of the second qualification in that passage, as I understand it...it speaks of marital faithfulness and sexual purity. (It can't only mean you have one wife, because many men with only one wife are not being faithful and pure.)

The primary responsibility in this regard lies with the men, of course, because regardless of how our wives look or behave or treat us, we can still choose to do what is right by the power of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says that we will never be tempted above what we are able to bear. But it occurred to me that although wives cannot make their husbands into one-woman men, they can make a big difference by helping them to be more godly in this area of their lives.

First, a wife can help her husband by loving and respecting him, and even admiring and adoring him for his good qualities. Many wives may think this is impossible because of all their husband's weaknesses, but just as faithfulness is a responsibility and choice that husbands can make by the power of the Spirit, so a wife can choose to have this kind of good attitude toward her husband. And if she does it will go a long way toward helping him to be "exhilarated always with her love" (Prov. 5:19), because he will be less likely to look elsewhere for the appreciation he desires.

Also a wife can work hard to be attractive to her husband, and to satisfy him at all times (Prov. 5:19 again). As I've already mentioned, a man must bear full responsibility for any impurity in mind and body, but it also seems to me that many wives have to bear their own responsibility also for not helping their husbands as they should in this regard. Some wives act as if they deserve faithfulness from their husbands, when clearly they do not, because they have contributed to the problem by neglect and done so little to solve it. Some advice for wives at this point: Find a godly woman (or more than one) whose husband is in love with her, and find out from her what she does to be a "helper suitable to him" in this area (Gen. 2:18). Be open to biblical counseling from such a woman, or even from a godly pastor (together with your husband, of course), because you may need help to be a helper if you have never had good discipleship in this area of life and/or you have developed bad habits and patterns over time.

A final thought (though I'm sure there are many more) is that a wife can help her husband to be a one-woman man by protecting him from temptation. She should understand what activities can cause him problems, respectfully encourage him to stay away from them, and make sure to never cause him to stumble in any way. An example would be some of the TV shows and movies that couples may watch together, which include female characters that are depicted in a way designed to appeal to the desires and pleasures of the males who watch them. A wife may not even think about the effect that might have on her husband, and may make a mistake by enjoying the good things about the show without considering the possible dangers. She may not ask her husband direct and thorough questions about those possible dangers, perhaps because it is just not on her "radar" as a woman. But men are different from women, and a woman who understands the difference can help her husband more.