Bernie’s Blunder

June 15th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Although I’m a tad late to the party (I only blog once a week), I think I should offer some words of response to the comments Senator Bernie Sanders made last week at the confirmation hearing of Russell Vought, an evangelical Christian. I think some response is in order because the views Sanders espouses have broad cultural appeal, even though they betray misunderstanding, illogic, and hypocrisy. It is very likely most evangelical Christians will have to respond to a similar line of argument, and should be prepared to answer with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

 

Here is a transcript of the exchange, per David French:

 

Sanders: Let me get to this issue that has bothered me and bothered many other people. And that is in the piece that I referred to that you wrote for the publication called Resurgent. You wrote, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned.” Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?

 

Vought: Absolutely not, Senator. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post, as I stated in the questionnaire to this committee, was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation, and . . .

 

Sanders: I apologize. Forgive me, we just don’t have a lot of time. Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned? Is that your view?

 

Vought: Again, Senator, I’m a Christian, and I wrote that piece in accordance with the statement of faith at Wheaton College:

 

Sanders: I understand that. I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that all those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?

 

Vought: Senator, I’m a Christian . . .

 

Sanders: I understand you are a Christian! But this country are made of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?

 

Vought: Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals . . .

 

Sanders: You think your statement that you put into that publication, they do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned, do you think that’s respectful of other religions?

 

Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.

 

Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.

 

There are substantial, significant constitutional issues with what Sanders had to say. Those wondering why Christians fear the loss of religious freedom in America need look no further than this exchange. However, I am not a constitutional scholar, nor do I care much to meddle in politics (especially at this point in history), so I will restrict my comments to the logical and theological issues in Sanders’s views. There are three in particular that bear mentioning:

 

  1. The Theological Issue. Here we might give Sanders the most grace, as one wouldn’t assume he would know the central teachings of a faith not his own. His ignorance can be excused, although his audacity in decrying orthodox Christianity in his ignorance probably should not be. For the view that Vought attempts to express at several points in the interview includes, as he says, the centrality of Jesus for salvation. At my church we’re in a series on the five “solas” of the Reformation right now, and among them is solus Christus—only Jesus. This is not a peculiar understanding of Christianity, held only by a few radicals; this is the express teaching of Jesus himself, who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The idea that salvation is found in Jesus alone—that there is no other name under heaven whereby all must be saved (Acts 4:12)—is central to the entire story of redemption as revealed in Scripture. Hardly a jot or tittle anywhere in the whole of the Bible would make sense apart from it. It is true that some who profess to be Christians—such as Senator Van Hollen, who joined the questioning—deny the exclusivity of Christ. But as J. Gresham Machen demonstrated almost a century ago in his monumental Christianity and Liberalism, that view is something altogether different from Christianity, and ought to go by a different name. That religion teaches, in the famous words of H. Richard Niebhur, that “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” One may certainly adhere to that religion, but one cannot deny that it is different from the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone found throughout the holy scriptures—and on the lips of Jesus himself!
  2. The Pluralist Issue. In many ways this is the most troubling part of the exchange. It seems that Sanders displays not only ignorance of Christianity, but also of Islam, Judaism, and really every major religion, for all teach exclusivity of salvation. If it is offensive to millions of Muslims in America that Christianity teaches salvation in Christ alone, is it also offensive to the tens of millions of Christians in America that Islam teaches salvation through Islam alone? The first of the five pillars of Islam is shahada (faith), and requires that every convert utter and believe the phrase, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” In other words, a non-Muslim cannot be saved. When orthodox Muslims are candidates for public office, will Sanders ask them if all Christians stand condemned in their view? If they reply in the affirmative, will he accuse them of being Christophobic? Will he ask the same of orthodox Jews? Hindus? Buddhists? It seems, given Sanders’s comments, that the only people fit for public office are those who hold to a heterodox, secularized, pluralist understanding of any religion. And given the illogic inherent in the pluralist position—different religious teachings are mutually exclusive, so they cannot all be true—this seems to be a doubly foolhardy view.
  3. The Hypocrisy Issue. That last point—that only secularized views of religion are acceptable—brings out the hypocrisy of Sanders’s views. Though not in the name of any religion, Sanders’s comments imply a wide variety of religious beliefs, such as pluralism and tolerance. But even though this is a “secular” perspective, it is still theological at its core. Sanders is making claims about ultimate reality—about God—whether he intends to or not. He is declaring orthodox Christianity suspect, and with it—given the pluralism issue—every major religion. In its place he is extolling the virtue of secular humanism, with its views about deity, humanity, morality, etc. He is, in effect, claiming that his view is exclusively true. This is shocking hypocrisy, because he is making this implicit claim while denouncing the exclusivity of another! Sanders thinks he is right. Vought thinks he is right. The beauty of a democratic republic—one that at least claims to value religious liberty and treasure it as a right—is that both men are entitled to their opinions, and to bring them into the public sphere. The government cannot endorse one or the other, but can welcome men of both faiths into office. Sadly, Sanders, in his hypocrisy, is trying to shut the door to every faith but his own—in essence, asking government to enshrine secular, humanistic pluralism as the official state religion.

 

How should Christians respond? In the words of 1 Peter once more, “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.” We need to address the arrogant, illogical, and hypocritical teaching of Sanders with love, humility, and winsome persuasion. Some will have the opportunity to do so on the national scale, and I am grateful for men like Russell Moore who are seeking to do just that. But most of us will have to do it one-on-one, with our family and friends, neighbors and colleagues, who have imbibed the spirit of the age without recognizing the dangers inherent therein. We can ask loving, insightful questions, drawing them out until they begin to see the concerns I’ve expressed today.

 

And above all, we can keep pointing them back to Jesus, because he is the only way—no matter how unpopular that teaching (and it was equally unpopular in the state-sanctioned pluralism of first-century Rome!). Contra the spurious Christianity Niebuhr described, we have sinfully rebelled against a perfect and holy God, and he is justly angry with us. We deserve the condemnation we stand under. But he has made a way. Our punishment fell on Jesus, that we might seek shelter from the storm of God’s wrath through trust in him. Remember, all—Jew and Gentile, Christian and Muslim, secularist and mystic—“have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24)—and Christ Jesus alone.



Lessons from the Garden

May 30th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , ,

I love to garden. When I’m outside planting or weeding or pruning, it reminds me that I was made to garden. I feel like I’m back in Eden, worshiping the Creator by stewarding his creation. Occasionally I even feel I’m imitating my Father—like the son who follows behind with his toy lawn mower while Dad actually mows the grass—by using the creativity he’s given each of us to design and develop (I won’t say create) a landscape.

 

But there is another reason I love to garden, and that is because I am reminded of deep spiritual truths every time I’m out there working. The garden is filled with illustrations of our spiritual lives which minister to me as I dig and deadhead, water and weed. Here are ten spiritual lessons from the garden.

 

  1. If you neglect the garden, weeds will overrun it. I wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t. If you neglect a flower bed, you won’t walk out one day to see splendid color and brilliant blooms. You’ll find all those nice plants you put in have been choked out by weeds. So it is with our character. If we neglect our spiritual development, we’re unlikely to discover the fruit of the Spirit in full bloom within us; we’re rather more likely to see our hearts overrun with idolatry, and sin choking out the life of the Spirit.
  2. The best way to keep weeds out is to make sure what you’ve planted is healthy and thriving. You can weed a bed over and over again—picked bare every time—only to find the weeds are back in force unless you plant something else there. If you want to keep a bed free from weeds, put in some groundcover. Once more, so it is with our character. The best way to keep our lives free from sin really isn’t relentless weeding (although that has its place, of course), but cultivating virtue. Paul used the analogy of clothing to make the same point: you put off sin, but then have to put on If we spend all our time mortifying sin and no time cultivating Christlikeness, we’ll likely end up weeding and re-weeding endlessly.
  3. If you just pick off the flower, the weed will grow back. I can remember as a child helping my mom “weed” by picking the heads off all the dandelions. When I got a bit older I did better, picking off all the leaves as well. Not surprisingly, the weeds always grew back. If you really want to get rid of the weed, you have to dig out the whole thing, all the way down to the root. In the same way, if we want to mortify sin truly and completely, we need to attack it at its root—the idolatry that feeds and encourages our transgression. Too many of us keep playing an interminable game of Whack-a-Mole because we don’t deal with the root issue; so sin keeps springing up in new places, and we keep whacking it down, picking off the dandelion flower only. Speaking of flowering weeds, though. . . .
  4. When weeds flower, it helps us locate them easily so we can dig them out at the root. The trouble with so many weeds is that they blend in—they’re green like the grass! That’s why I love dandelion season even though I hate dandelions: now I can find them easily so I can put them to death. When we mess up noticeably—when our sin flowers in a particularly flagrant way—it helps us locate and identify the roots that our nourishing it, so we can put the sin to death at its deepest point. Too often we simply repent of the flagrant sin without attacking the roots. Did you blow up at your kids again? Okay. Repent of that, absolutely. But then dig a bit deeper and find out why. Do you have deep control or comfort issues? What is the root idolatry that produces this particular fruit or flower? When our sin flowers, as awful as it is, we can start to discover what’s really going on within us.
  5. The hardest weeds to get out are the ones growing up in the middle of a plant. I’m dealing with this in my backyard right now. I’ve cleared out a bed that was overrun with weeds (because it had been sorely neglected for some time). However, there are still a few prominent weeds shooting up—right in the middle of my boxwoods. I’m not sure how to get to them without hurting the plant. It’s very irritating. Now, I find that the hardest sins to eliminate are the ones growing up right in the middle of my virtue. I finally get into a good rhythm of prayer and study, only to find I’m taking sinful pride in my habits. I devote myself to a genuinely fruitful ministry, only to discover my identity is wrapped up in it rather than my unity with Christ. How do I eliminate the transgression without killing the transformation? Seeing the weeds in the middle of the shrub reminds me to examine even my virtuous habits for iniquity.
  6. If the roots grow strong and deep enough, the plant will flower again, even if it’s been trampled. I had some people working at my house this week, and they trampled some of the perennials I’d just planted. I had to replace them because I knew the plant wasn’t established enough to survive that sort of turmoil; the roots weren’t deep enough yet. But give those same plants a few more years, and I’d expect them to come back even if they got trampled to the ground. Circumstances will inevitably trample us to the ground. A cancer diagnosis will come, the marriage will hit the skids, layoffs will strike. Though those circumstances might seem to destroy our faith for a while, if our roots go deep enough, we will soon see our peace and joy in Christ flower again.
  7. If you want full blooms, you need to prune and deadhead relentlessly. I spend more time than I care to admit deadheading my petunias, but I want them to keep blooming, so I don’t have any choice. If you want various perennials to flower throughout the season, you have to keep trimming them back. Similarly, if we want to keep vital in our union with Christ, we need to keep pruning any dead branch or leaf or flower from our lives. Do I have any wasted time? Is there any habit that is draining life from me? Is there some good that is the dreaded enemy of God’s best for my life? Snip, snip, snip.
  8. What wondrous variety in God’s creation! One of the reasons I love to garden so much is because I’m never bored. There is always a new flower, a new color, a new shape that I haven’t seen before. How does he do it? He is infinitely, endlessly creative, and I worship him for it. It reminds me that every person is both created in his image and yet wondrously unique. How boring it would be if every flower were yellow! And how boring if every person had my personality, or your gifts, or his passions, or her story. We each bear his image uniquely, to his everlasting praise.
  9. I can’t cause anything to grow, but I can help get the conditions right so that growth can happen. Since I don’t sustain all things through my powerful word, I need to leave the growth of my garden in his hands. But that doesn’t mean I sit back and wait for him to do it. I am active: tending the soil, fertilizing, watering, pruning. I want everything I can do to be done well, because I know growth won’t happen apart from it. (He could miraculously sustain my plants, of course, but he chooses not to, and I can’t say I blame him.) So it is with my life in Christ. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3:6, he alone can cause the growth. But that doesn’t mean I’m inactive in my life or the lives of those around me. I use the means of grace—prayer, study, meditation, memorization, fellowship, fasting, evangelism—because I want the conditions for my growth to be ideal. Any good that is in me is his work alone, a gracious gift to an undeserving sinner; but I strive to do all I can to put myself in the right position to receive that gift.
  10. Very little seeds and seedlings can grow very large. You put these tiny dots into a giant bed and hardly expect anything to happen. Soon enough, however, you see the seedling grow and expand until it takes up more of your garden than you’d planned. Jesus himself compared the kingdom to a very small seed, which soon grows until it is almost a tree, large enough for birds to nest in it (Matthew 13:31-32). Don’t despise the day of small things. Just as tiny seeds grow into large plants, tiny acts of devotion grow into true Christlikeness, and tiny relational investments—life-on-life evangelism and discipleship—produce harvests of conversion and growth.

 

Perhaps the most wonderful reminder of all comes any time we transplant a flower, shrub, bush, or tree. You go to the nursery, select a plant, and then make it a part of your home. In Psalm 1:3, the psalmist tells us that the blessed person—the one who delights in God’s Word—is “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.” The Hebrew word for “planted” means transplanted. It didn’t spring up by the stream on its own. Someone put it there—took the time to prepare the soil, dig the hole, water and care for it until it grew. All of us who are in Christ are there because God chose us, uprooted us from our selfish, self-determining ways, and planted us in him. Every time we plant we preach the gospel of our salvation; and as we care for what we’ve planted, we remind ourselves of God’s unfailing presence and goodness in our lives. That’s a lesson from the garden I’m delighted to keep learning!

 

What other lessons have you learned while out in your garden?



A Virtual Gospel

March 28th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

Yesterday, Ezra Klein of Vox interviewed Yuval Hariri, the Israeli author of Sapiens and his latest, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. In Homo Deus Harari envisions humanity’s future (including its likely end) with specific focus on technology and artificial intelligence. Near the end of the interview, Harari makes this claim about religion generally, and Christianity in particular:

 

You can think about religion simply as a virtual reality game. You invent rules that don’t really exist, but you believe these rules, and for your entire life you try to follow the rules. If you’re Christian, then if you do this, you get points. If you sin, you lose points. If by the time you finish the game when you’re dead, you gained enough points, you get up to the next level. You go to heaven.

 

Now, I’m hardly qualified to comment on AI or other cutting-edge technological developments, but Christianity I know decently well. And this description bears no resemblance to the Christianity I profess, nor the Christianity of Jesus’ followers throughout the past two millennia.

 

The root issue, of course, is the notion of merit. Do Christians do anything whatsoever to merit their own salvation? That is, do Christians really “earn” or “lose” points by our good and bad deeds, respectively, hoping somehow to attain a high enough score to pass through those famed pearly gates? Harari certainly thinks so, but the Bible teaches otherwise.

 

Paul, for example, says quite clearly, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Our salvation is by grace (unmerited favor) alone, not by our deeds; no works involved, so no boasting allowed. Now, if you’ve ever played video games, you know much boasting succeeds a new high score, so Harari’s view of Christianity and Paul’s seem to be at odds.

 

So, as I read the interview, I was deeply troubled as I considered my own culture, and what misperceptions those around me might have about Christianity. I have had conversations with many people throughout the years that have echoed Harari’s sentiments about religion. Most do not understand grace, which means they do not understand the gospel, and can have no good understanding of why Jesus came to live among us before dying in place of us and rising again. In other words, we are surrounded by people who have rejected (or are at the least unpersuaded by) a version of Christianity completely foreign to the teaching of Jesus and his Apostles. They have rejected not the gospel, but their own misperceptions about the gospel.

 

Many who profess to be Christians reviewed the Vox interview, or gave it brief treatment on Twitter and elsewhere. In general, the tenor of the response was, “We can’t believe how dumb you are to misunderstand Christianity so badly.” I have to confess, I found this response wanting. I’d much rather our response had been, “How badly we have failed our culture, if we haven’t made clear what the gospel really teaches!” (I’d have liked to have seen some Christians engage Vox and Harari with what the gospel really says, to see if the seed might not just fall on good soil.)

 

This is the challenge I see for the church going forward: to communicate the gospel clearly and persuasively to a culture that doesn’t want to hear what they don’t understand. I believe that will take a few critical steps (repeated ad infinitum until glory):

 

  1. We need to present the bad news of humanity’s plight before the good news of the gospel will make sense. People today believe they are pretty good, and therefore probably could “score enough points” to earn their way into heaven. This is in marked contrast to Paul’s description of humanity apart from Christ (cf. Romans 3:10-18).
  2. We need to bear the name of Christ with much more humility and expressed repentance than we normally do. My question here is have we given the impression that we earned our salvation? Listening to Christians speak—especially when it comes to social or political issues—one might very well draw that conclusion. The church has been notoriously guilty of adopting a holier-than-thou mentality, leading to the same self-righteousness and hypocritical judgment that Jesus stridently condemned in the Pharisees of his day.
  3. We need to make very clear the distinction between Christianity and the other world religions. We live in a tolerant, pluralistic society. One will often hear that all religions are basically the same, in that they all teach the same basic moral requirements. Now, if Christianity is just one more set of rules to follow so that you can earn enough points to get to heaven, then truly it is the same as the other religions. I’d be hard pressed to argue that Jesus is the only way. But if, as the Bible teaches, Christianity is not a set of rules to be followed, but rather a grand story of God’s unfolding plan of redemption accomplished through the sacrificial death of his Son, then Jesus is, as he himself said, “the way, the truth, and the life”—and no one can come to God apart from him (John 14:6).
  4. We need to do a better job explaining why Jesus came and why Jesus died. In many ways, this is just restating the last point in different words. What is the heart of Christianity? Not that sinners try to claw their way back into God’s good graces by dint of their effort, but rather this: “While we were still sinners [trying to claw or not], Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus came to live the perfect life we were called to live but unable to live because of our sin nature. Then he took our place—bore our punishment in his body, absorbed the full force of God’s fierce anger at our sin on the cross—that we might take his place, welcomed as beloved, righteous children of God by faith: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). I am loved by God because of Jesus, not because of anything I have done.

 

I was reminded as I read the interview, that this is not a video game, and certainly is not an alternative reality. In a video game, when you die, you start over and try again. There are no consequences for making the wrong decision other than wasting even more of your life in front of a flickering screen. But this is no game. Eternity is at stake. Will the church answer the call and proclaim the good news of the gospel clearly and persuasively, or will we whine about how misunderstood we are while the world around us perishes?



The Great Gospel Opportunity

February 1st, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

As I mentioned last week, we are currently living in a culture of division and hostility. Our desire to vilify our political opponents has led many to accept and promote #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts. We are more wedded to our ideology than to reality, in other words; more committed to our narrative than to truth.

 

This all feels fairly depressing, I admit. But the current backlash against #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts also presents us with a tremendous gospel opportunity. I’m not sure Paul’s words to the Ephesians have ever felt so apropos: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (5:15-16). So, then, what is the gospel opportunity before us, and how can we make the most of it?

 

Put simply, the opportunity before us is that truth is starting to become fashionable again. We live in a post-truth culture—it was OED’s word of the year in 2016—which is highly suspicious of absolute truth claims. But we are fast reaching the limits of philosophical relativism. Christians have long been saying truth cannot be relative, and if we live as if it is, well, we’ll end up in the mess we’re in. Our culture is waking to this reality. One cannot plant one’s feet in mid-air, as Beckwith and Koukl might put it. #FakeNews isn’t to be believed just because we like it; #AlternativeFacts aren’t facts at all because they don’t square with reality. If truth is real, and not a product of our wishing only, we get to ask the all-important questions: Which truth? How can we distinguish truth from error?

 

Now we can see how to make the most of the opportunity before us. These questions lead to God, for God is the ultimate Reality. As Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the Life” (John 14:6). Christians should never fear truth, because Christianity is true—and the facts point in that direction, as you’d expect. (One thinks of the evidence for creation, for example, and especially the evidence for the resurrection.) As I joked in my last post, the non-existence of God is the original #AlternativeFact.

 

So if you have a friend, colleague, neighbor decrying #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts, pleading with humanity (read: those on the other side of the political aisle) to wake up to the truth, you have a gospel opportunity before you. This person believes truth is real. This person has stated that facts matter. In impassioned tones, this person is proclaiming an objective morality. That’s a place to begin a gospel conversation. “I hear your heart, how concerned you are for justice in this world. I’m concerned for justice too, because I believe God is a God of justice. Would you mind my asking you a question? How do you know justice is good and right and true? How do you determine what justice looks like in this situation? What ethic undergirds your passion for justice?”

 

These are questions one cannot answer without revealing an ultimate foundation. And if that foundation is in mid-air—“I just know it to be true!”—we can gently, lovingly suggest what the foundation actually is. We want justice, feel the burden of morality, because God has written the moral law on our hearts. And unfortunately, it is a moral law we have broken: we have all acted selfishly (time and again) when we should have chosen sacrificial love. Now we have a crisis. If justice is real, and we have been unjust, what does that make us? Law-breakers. Or, as the Bible would put it, sinners in need of grace. Enter Christ.

 

Now, Paul follows up his charge to live wisely with this statement: “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:17). We have an opportunity before us, yes, but we have the opportunity to make fools of ourselves if we’re not sensitive to God’s will. In our cultural context, I think we can pinpoint the foolish opportunity pretty easily: to make the gospel secondary and our other political concerns primary. I hope and trust we can all agree that some political issues are more important than others. I hope and trust we can all agree that the Bible is not equally clear about where Christians should stand on all political issues. Sometimes the biblical principles are so clear, and the issue so black-and-white, that we can confidently state what the policy should be on the basis of those principles. More often, however, the principles are clear, yes, but there can be genuine disagreement over the best policy. For example, the Bible is undoubtedly clear that we as Christians should care for the poor, and that a concern of the state should be the welfare of its citizens. But well-meaning, loving Christians could certainly disagree about what government policies genuinely help the poor.

 

The foolish opportunity is to take a hard stand on debatable policy discussions rather than pursue the gospel conversation. If my social media feeds are any indication of how many Christians engage in these conversations, I think we can all agree we tend to be foolish, unwise, not understanding what the Lord’s will is. My advice is simple here. When it is an unimportant, secondary issue on which loving people may disagree (and that is most of the issues), yield the right to be right. It doesn’t matter. Pursue what matters most. Engage with the gospel. When we start the conversation with, “I hear your heart, how concerned you are for justice in this world. The problem is you’re an idiot and so is your whole party and if you all get your way we’ll all be dead in a week,” we’re unlikely to have many follow-up gospel opportunities.

 

Francis Schaeffer once said, “If we do not show love to one another, the world has a right to question whether or not Christianity is true.” In too many cases, Christians have not shown love—to each other or anyone—and in so doing we’ve forfeited one of the greatest gospel opportunities in recent times.

 

If you’re a greater evangelist for your political viewpoint than the gospel—if you pursue every political conversation, often unlovingly, but can’t manage to find time to live or speak the gospel—repent. Be very careful how you live. Don’t be foolish, but understand what God would have you do here. Make the most of the opportunity.



Fighting Idolatry

January 10th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

Now that I’ve started to identify my idols, what next? How do I fight idolatry in my life? How do I learn to treasure Christ more, to value supremely only that which is supremely valuable?

 

On a handful of occasions I’ve tried to learn some form of artwork or other—drawing, painting—usually with 5229725173_493ea39a9f_zspectacular ineptitude. The most enjoyable part of the process, though, is reading the manuals that purport to teach you in four easy steps. Steps one to three usually involve drawing some very basic shapes, starting to get a sense of proportion, etc. Then step four shows the completed picture, colored and shaded, with detail and nuance throughout. I always feel like they’re missing a few steps in there.

 

So, in sketching out these four steps, I’m well aware that I’m missing a few steps in here too. The broad outlines are easy, but the nuances of working them out in your own heart are difficult and time-consuming. They will take a lifetime of gospel contemplation. Nevertheless, here they are, just to get us started.

 

  1. Confess and repent. This seems like a no-brainer, but I’m amazed at how often we skip this part. If you’ve done the hard work of identifying idols, make sure you then recognize the idolatry as sin, and repent of it. For example, if you’re in a dating relationship with a non-Christian because you’re worshiping the idol of human love, confess your idolatry—which will mean getting out of a sinful relationship. If your life of luxury and self-indulgence betrays an idol of comfort, repent of it—which will mean sacrificial giving and a simpler lifestyle. Listen to how Paul puts it in Colossians 3:5-8: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” These sins, he says, are expressions of idolatry—and the wrath of God is coming because of them. That means we need to act; we need to rid ourselves of all the sinful manifestations of our idolatry. Confess and repent.
  2. Work out the end game. Really, where will your idolatry lead? Will anything in this world ever be enough to satisfy the deep longing within you? If you get everything your idolatrous heart desires—which is unlikely anyway—will that be enough? One way to think this through is to look at people who have what you want: are they satisfied? From what I can tell by looking at the wealthy, money doesn’t bring any real satisfaction, so why would I devote my life to it? I’ve watched many climb the career ladder without ever achieving the feeling of significance they’d hoped for. Addicts are addicts precisely because their “drug”—sex, shopping, heroin—is never enough. C.S. Lewis hits the nail on the head: “Most people, if they really learn how to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning can really satisfy. I am not speaking of what would ordinarily be called unsuccessful marriages or trips and so on; I am speaking of the best possible ones. There is always something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, that just fades away in the reality. The spouse may be a good spouse, the scenery has been excellent, it has turned out to be a good job, but ‘It’ has evaded us.” I suspect this is why people move so quickly from one fascination to the next: first a job, then marriage, then a new home, then a child; when the excitement wears off, we have to begin again—a new job, another child, a bigger house, a better spouse—only to find “It” still evading us. This is very much the point of Ecclesiastes, and its truth is felt intuitively by the great mass of humanity. Work out the end game. Your idolatry will leave you unsatisfied at the last.
  3. Treasure Christ. If your idolatry will lead you unsatisfied in the end, turn to that which alone can satisfy—God himself. To quote C.S. Lewis again, “Creature are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.” Some of our longings are met in this world—hunger and thirst, for example—but the deepest longings are not, so we must look beyond this world, to the invisible yet more substantial spiritual world. Asaph expresses it nicely: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25). St. Augustine taught that what shapes us most fundamentally is not our beliefs or thoughts, but out loves. We are what we love—and we are most what we love I may say I love truth, but if I tell lies to protect my reputation, I prove I love my status more than I love honesty. Our deepest longings will be met only when we love most what is most deserving of our love, Jesus. As Augustine famously said in the opening lines of his Confessions, “You stimulate [us] to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.” In other words, this is the positive side of working out the end game: look at what will actually satisfy in the end, and then order your loves so that you can experience the fullness of joy found in him.
  4. Apply the gospel. You’ve begun to treasure Christ, you understand your need to seek ultimate joy in him alone, but how do you go about it? Turn to the gospel again and again. God does not love us in the abstract, but in the true story of Christ’s coming to earth as a human to live the life we should have lived, then to die the death we deserved to die, before being raised to the newness of life which we can experience through faith in him. Paul describes it thus: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the beautiful exchange wrought at Calvary: he takes my sin, which God punishes in him at the cross, so that I may take his perfection as my own—welcomed, then, as a dearly loved child of the Almighty Father. What will contemplation of a love like that do to me? First, it will soften my heart. It will humble me, because I recognize in this story the price of my rebellion against my good and gracious Creator. I am more sinful, more wretched, than I would ever have dared admit. But second, it will enflame my heart. It will captivate and enthrall me, because I apprehend, at last, the overwhelming, relentless, costly love of my Father. I am more loved, more cherished, than I would ever have dared dream. To the extent that I can grasp this truth, allow this love to seize and transform me, I will be freed of my idolatry, freed to order my loves rightly. Money is good because with it I can purchase what I need to survive, but it is as nothing before a love like this. Human love is excellent and often praiseworthy because we were made for fellowship and intimacy, but a finite being cannot offer me the infinite love for which I thirst. Achievement is fine because I am using my gifts to glorify God and serve my neighbors, but my significance is already given in God’s acceptance of me. Apply the wonder of the greatest, truest story ever told to your heart, and your idols will soon dim in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

 

What other strategies have you found effective in overcoming idolatry through the gospel?



Identifying Idols

January 5th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

bell_idol_louvre_ca_573_%e2%88%9aGod takes idolatry very seriously. The first of the Ten Commandments—and they are given in order of priority—is about idolatry: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Nothing else should get pride of place in our lives. He alone deserves our highest devotion, he alone is of infinite worth, and he alone can provide us with the ultimate meaning we seek.

 

But our hearts are idol factories, as John Calvin wisely noted. You see, we are sinners—every one of us—and the root cause of sin is always idolatry. That is, we sin because we value some object more highly than God himself, even though he is the infinitely valuable One. We make something an idol when we attach ultimate value or meaning to something other than him, which is why even good things—marriage, family, achievement, ministry—can become idols if we are not vigilant.

 

If this is true, we need to pay exceedingly careful attention to our own patterns of idolatry. I will experience no victory over sin unless I see I am treasuring something above the love of Christ. What is it that I treasure more? Or, to put it another way, how can I identify my heart’s idols?

 

Here are six ways I have found helpful in pinpointing the root idols in our hearts.

 

  1. You are devastated if you lose it (or never get it). We all experience disappointment and grief when we lose something we treasure, and that is true even if we have not made an idol of it. I am speaking of something else though: an utter devastation—the feeling of being unmade or undone—at the loss of your greatest treasure. We would all feel fear, anger, disappointment at losing our job, for example, but if your self-regard is tied to your career (“I achieve, therefore I am”), then the loss of a job becomes something else entirely. You will soon plunge into despair, desperate because you’ve lost, not just a job, but your very self. (And you can experience this same devastation if you never get the idol you’ve been worshiping—never made partner, never have children, etc.)
  2. You are always dissatisfied in this area. No matter how much you get, you always want more—more money, more fame, more power, more pleasure. Your heart is like the leech’s two daughters crying, “Give! Give!” (Proverbs 30:15). Where do you see that you lack contentment? Dig deep enough, and you will undoubtedly find an idol at the core. Do you always want newer, nicer things? Look for idols of comfort, status, or security. Do you struggle with an addiction? Check for idols of pleasure and self-indulgence. Do you need another degree, another accolade, another promotion? Search for idols of success, approval, or achievement.
  3. You spend your time and/or money on it. Worship demands sacrifice, and we will gladly count that cost to get what we treasure most. Watch your spending habits—time and money—and see what patterns you discern. If you’re spending more time exercising than connecting with your family, I’d be concerned about the idol of health or appearance (and likely the deeper idols of security/control or love/acceptance). If you’re not giving sacrificially to support the work of God’s kingdom because you’re always on five-star vacations, I’d worry about the idols of comfort and self-indulgence.
  4. You are willing to sin to get it. This may seem like an obvious one, but it’s worth teasing out a bit. What sin habits have you formed in your life—and why? Do you find yourself gossiping time and again? You’re probably looking for status or acceptance, and the best way to get yourself in the inner ring is to get someone else out! Do you sit in self-righteous judgment of others? You’ve probably made an idol of your religious performance. Are you in a sexually illicit relationship, or willing to date someone who doesn’t share your religious convictions? There’s a good bet you’re worshiping the idol of human love—marriage, sex, a sense of belonging. Are you a bully, trampling on people in meeting after meeting? I’d check for the idol of power.
  5. Your emotions spike in this area. You don’t just feel happy; you feel elated when that person compliments or affirms you (acceptance, approval). You don’t have a good time; you have a great time when you’re chasing that hobby (comfort, pleasure). You don’t feel hurt; you feel crushed when you receive criticism at work (achievement, success). This is a bit more subjective—some of us feel more deeply than others, many factors contribute to our emotional state, and so forth—but if you see patterns of extreme emotional highs and lows, I’d start asking the hard questions.
  6. You can’t help but mention it—right away. Pay attention to what information you want to make sure people know about you early on. When you first meet someone, how do you introduce yourself? If you’ve listed all your degrees, titles, and credentials by the sixth sentence, for example, I’d check for the idol of status or achievement. This can be subtle, by the way. I knew an older woman who always shared about her singleness when introducing herself, usually right after giving her name. It may have been her approach to her biography, but it may have inadvertently revealed a hidden idol of love (marriage, family, romance, belonging).

 

Those are some of the ways I have identified the root idols in my own desperately sinful heart.

 

What are some other ways you’ve used to help you identify idols in your life?



The Cost of Prayer

April 8th, 2015 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

When trouble hits, as it inevitably does, the human heart instinctively cries out in prayer. (To the best of my knowledge, no other species exhibits this praying-hands-blackwhitetendency.) A majority of people the world over pray regularly, even daily; remarkably, this number includes a large percentage of those who profess not to believe in God. Theologians would attribute this to our sensus divinitatis : our innate sense of the divine (cf. Romans 1:20), or our “incurable God-sickness,” as Karl Barth put it memorably. We all know God exists, even if we work diligently to suppress that truth, and so we cry out in prayer to him when we need him.

 

But there is often a drawing back, a slinking away, once we have made our request. The psalmist writes, “I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble” (Psalm 142:2). Complain to God—can it be so? The impertinence of troubling him thus! How dare we? Will he hear us? Will he answer, even if he does hear? Surely not, we reason. The fresh bloom of faith withers in the frost. We slip back into self-reliance. God helps those who help themselves.

 

In prayer we find ourselves trapped between the holiness and love of God, his transcendence and his immanence. Do we address an awesome Majesty or a tender Father? The Psalms—our God-given instructors in prayer—help us proceed, not by navigating a narrow path between two extremes, but by teaching us to embrace and address the fullness of God simpliciter.

 

David offers us a neat theology of prayer in Psalm 5, showing us our access to God—and what that access cost.

 

It begins, as prayers often do, by invoking God’s presence:

 

Listen to my words, LORD,

consider my lament.

Hear my cry for help,

my King and my God,

for to you I pray. (vv 1-2)

 

Tellingly, he brings his issue to God because he feels assured that God will hear and answer him. He waits expectantly for God to respond:

 

In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice;

in the morning I lay my requests before you

and wait expectantly. (v 3)

 

Even if expressed more poetically and assuredly than our prayers, so far this feels like spiritual boilerplate. Then the prayer takes an odd turn:

 

For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness;

with you, evil people are not welcome.

The arrogant cannot stand

in your presence.

You hate all who do wrong;

you destroy those who tell lies.

The bloodthirsty and deceitful you, LORD, detest. (vv 4-6)

 

While waiting expectantly for God to answer his prayer, David apparently feels free to launch into a diatribe against sinners. In fact, these are some of the strongest words against sinners in all of Scripture, because they teach that God hates sinners—not just the sin. What are we to do with this? This is the self-righteous bigotry Jesus condemns (cf. Luke 18:9-14). It is this sort of “us-and-them” mentality that leads to dangerous, destructive Pharisaism. We want nothing to do with it. David isn’t done yet, but we’re growing skeptical about how much we have to learn from him:

 

But I, by your great love,

can come into your house;

in reverence I bow down

toward your holy temple. (v 7)

 

At first glance, this makes it worse. God hates sinners but not David—David can waltz right into God’s house (reverently, of course). Why, precisely? Not because David isn’t a sinner; no, we all remember Bathsheba, never mind the census.

 

At second glance, it all starts to make sense. David says he can come into the house by God’s great love. That is the key to the whole text—the gospel in miniature. David is most certainly not deceived about himself. He knows he is a sinner, the worst of all, I feel certain he would argue (cf. Psalm 51). He can boldly approach the throne of God only because it is a throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). Even though God, being a perfectly holy God, cannot abide our sin; even though we by nature are objects of justly deserved wrath; nevertheless, God welcomes us with unfathomably open arms, invites us to call on him in prayer, even teaches us to address him as Father. What wondrous depths of mercy, grace, and love!

 

No, David is not describing other sinners in verses 4-6. He is describing himself. This is not an us-and-them moment. It is an us-and-Thee moment. We are all of us in this boat together, hopeless apart from the Hope of nations—Christ, our salvation. God is at once transcendently holy and immanently loving, both Majesty and Father, through Christ.

 

Who may call on God as Father? Who may boldly approach the throne of grace to find mercy in times of need? The one who has faith in the finished work of Christ. Even though it was faith in the promise, not the completed work, still David commends this sort of faith:

 

But let all who take refuge in you be glad;

let them ever sing for joy.

Spread your protection over them,

that those who love your name may rejoice in you. (v 11)

 

Those who take refuge in God—a metaphorical depiction of faith—it is they who possess the singing joy, the resolute gladness of those who know God will hear and answer them. For through Christ we all have “access to the Father by one Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18).

 

We would do well to remember the cost of this access. Ironically, it was another psalm of David, Psalm 22, taken onto Jesus’ lips that best expresses the cost. Tim Keller explains,

 

The only time in all the gospels that Jesus Christ prays to God and doesn’t call him Father is on the cross, when he says, “My God, my God, why have you forgotten me? Why have you forsaken me?” [Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46] Jesus lost his relationship with God the Father so that we could have a relationship with God as father. Jesus was forgotten so that we could be remembered forever—from everlasting to everlasting. Jesus Christ bore all the eternal punishment that our sins deserve. That is the cost of prayer. Jesus paid the price so God could be our father.[1]

 

When we pray, as David did, “But I, by your great love, can come into your house,” we do so with a piercing recognition that his love was not only great, but costly. It cost him his Son, his only Son, whom he loved. That is the price of adoption; that is the cost of prayer.

 

[1] Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014): 79-80.



A Holiday Rant

December 1st, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

I’m not in the habit of ranting—at least not this early in the morning—and the holidays don’t bother me much, but there has been something brewing in me for several years now, and I feel it is time to let it out. As I say that, the wisdom of Proverbs assails me, imploring me to hold my tongue: “Those who guard their lips preserve their lives,” I hear, “but those who speak rashly will come to ruin” (13:3); “a fool’s heart blurts out folly” (12:23), they tell me, but still I speak.

 

Here it goes.

 

There has been a growing frustration among evangelicals about the phrase “Happy Holidays,” which is now excoriated almost universally among my brethren as “offensive”HappyHolidaysGiftChristmasTree2012_freecomputerdesktopwallpaper_2560 and “politically correct” (an odd combination of critiques). It represents, so they tell me, the slow degeneration of the once great American society—a Christian society, you will remember—into the godless postmodern slough we now inhabit. Christmas is about Jesus (as it surely is), and December is about Christmas—that’s why your kids have a break, after all—so let’s all just acknowledge this fact and wish everybody a merry Christmas, and expect everyone to wish us the same, even if they’re Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist. It would be offensive for them not to, that’s what I says.

 

I confess I find this logic (a generous term) bewildering. Debates about just how Christian a nation America ever was notwithstanding (the evidence is a pretty mixed bag though—just ask the esteemed Mr. Jefferson), I still can’t understand why we make such a fuss about this. America is not now a Christian nation. Given the history of Christendom, I think we can all thank God for that; I would much rather we be yeast in the dough, rather than decreeing that all the dough has been successfully leavened by government fiat (see: Theodosius, Edict of Thessalonica). Many who inhabit this great nation believe in other gods, or believe in none at all. That is part of what makes our nation great, and is a tremendous spur to winsome, loving evangelism in one of the largest mission fields in the world.

 

And there’s the rub: how can our winsome, loving evangelism and our petulant, trenchant demands that everyone wish us a merry Christmas coexist? In the community of believers, it is a reasonable expectation. Outside, I’m not so sure. Do we imagine ourselves to be contending for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints by insisting everyone celebrate our holiday on our terms? Do we think we honor the name of Christ by demanding that our Hindu or Sikh or agnostic neighbor speak our language or face our wrath (and, worse still, our clever memes on social media)? Why would we expect someone who does not believe in the incarnation of Christ to pretend that matters to them? Would we even want them to?

 

In acting thus, many of us have defamed the name of Christ, and have given offense where none is needed. We imagine our friends and family, neighbors and coworkers, have stumbled over the Cornerstone, when in fact we have simply tripped them (1 Peter 2:7-8). This is not the offense of the cross. This is a scandal of our own making. Rather than becoming all things to all people so that by all possible means we might save some, we have demanded all people come to us on our terms. Those terms are two: “merry” and “Christmas.”

 

If we would rather be the aroma of life this Christmas season, let us revere Christ as Lord in our hearts and in our Advent practices, being ready to give an answer to anyone who inquires as to our holiday plans or our seasonal worship customs (1 Peter 3:15-16). We have had a number of people ask about various family worship practices during Advent, leading to some rich conversations. Evangelism is a process, and we have the opportunity to encourage a step in that blessed process—or to stall it before it begins. As for me and my house, would to God it be the former.

 

Enough, already. Happy holidays, everyone.



Homiletical Relativism

October 15th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , ,

A Tale of Two Sermons?

I recently heard two close friends give their opinion of the same sermon—a sermon I did not hear, delivered at a church I have only attended once. These were both seasoned believers who genuinely love God and seek to follow him. One raved about the sermon, touched by the pastor’s humility (and self-deprecation) and the liveliness of the delivery. The other actually preacherwept at the conclusion of the message because she was devastated by the pastor’s self-centeredness and twisting of the text. I was so astonished by the conflicting reports that I wondered if they had even heard the same sermon!

 

In thinking about these two comments, and many more like them given through the years, I began to wonder if there isn’t a touchstone for sermons. Are we hopelessly adrift in a sea of personal preferences, or are some sermons actually better than others? It was a dangerous thought, and one I really didn’t want to pursue—especially since preaching is my craft—but the question has nibbled at me since then, and I feel compelled to reflect (incompletely, imperfectly, with fear and trembling) on it.

 

The Sermon: Your Way, Right Away

We live in a consumerist culture. People want what they want when they want it. If the store doesn’t have what they want, they will go elsewhere—online, if they have to, because you can find everything online. No compromise necessary. Your way, right away.

 

Consumerism’s penetration into the church has been widely documented and loudly bewailed. The great contribution of modernity and its obstreperous stepchild, postmodernity, is the elevation of the autonomous self.[1] In the space of a few short centuries, we moved from “In the beginning, God” to “I think, therefore I am.” That this emphasis on self-determination should permeate a group of people who have committed to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Another strikes me as both ironic and chilling.

 

But it has, and the effects have been discouraging.

 

Since the 1990s, the consumerist approach to Sunday services has tightened its grip on the Western church. Congregants increasingly evaluate the sermon according to individual preferences, rather than an objective standard. Now, let me be the first to admit that some aspects of a sermon may vary according to preferences. For example, how long should a sermon run? I see no command in Scripture suggesting a divinely established length. Jonah’s preaching was blessedly short (Jonah 3:4), whereas Paul occasionally waxed protracted (Acts 20:9).

 

Nevertheless, there are other aspects of preaching that are non-negotiable, and we would do well—as preachers and as congregants—to remember them. The practice of these principles can and should vary from congregation to congregation (see #6), but the principles themselves should never change.  In other words, we do not want to be guilty of homiletical relativism. We do not want to make ourselves the locus of judgment: “what I deem to be a good sermon is a good sermon; what I deem poor is poor.” Just as we submit our lives to the judgment of God’s Word (cf. Hebrews 4:12-13), so we submit our sermons—those we preach and those we hear—to its judgment.

 

A brief caveat before I outline some of the principles: no preacher will do this perfectly every time out, because we are all fallible and finite—myself chief among them! However, we will practice these principles intentionally as surely as we practice them imperfectly.

 

What Makes a Good Sermon?

  1. It centers on God’s words. We need to hear God’s words, not a preacher’s words, because only one has power to transform. God describes the efficacy of his word in a famous prophecy of Isaiah: “It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (55:11). God’s words accomplish his purposes—warning, correcting, teaching, promising, inspiring faith—perfectly and without fail. What preacher among us can say the same of his words? The word of God is “alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). My words, however, are dead unless God gives them life; they lack the precision, power, and perfection to cut to the heart of my audience. God’s words never have that problem. A good sermon proclaims God’s words in God’s power in order to accomplish God’s ends.
  2. It points to Christ no matter the text. This follows necessarily from the first point. If, as Jesus himself taught, every text points to him (Luke 24:27; John 5:39), then every text we preach will point to him as well. A narrative from the Old Testament, an exhortation from the New Testament, a psalm or proverb—these all point to or are grounded in Christ’s finished work. To preach the narrative or exhortation, psalm or proverb, without preaching Jesus, is to miss the heart of the message. To be sure, this must be done carefully. Some preachers will do the “Jesus bit” in every sermon, but fail to remain faithful to the text at hand. If every passage points to Christ, then a preacher should be able to unearth what is already in the text, without having to import Jesus from somewhere else. Gospel threads—rest, exile, temple, kingdom, exodus, covenant, wisdom, and many others—run throughout Scripture. A faithful sermon will see the thread running through the passage at hand and draw it out for the sake of the congregation.
  3. It proclaims the gospel. As a sermon draws out the gospel thread, it will proclaim the richness of the gospel week in and week out. Paul’s resolve at Corinth—to know nothing while he was with them “except Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)—sets the standard for every sermon. The gospel is the power of salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16). A faithful sermon proclaims the twin graces of the gospel—justification and sanctification—in delicate balance. As Paul writes to his protégé, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good” (Titus 2:4-8; cf. Ephesians 2:8-10). God saves us by his mercy, not according to what we have done—we are justified by grace; God renews us by his Spirit so that we devote ourselves to doing what is good—we are sanctified by grace. Preaching justification alone leads to libertinism: spurious salvation by cheap grace alone. Preaching sanctification alone leads to legalism: climbing a ladder of our own making to reach a heaven of our own imagining. Preaching neither at all is just self-help, moralism, or banal psychotherapy. Would to God we heard the gospel instead!
  4. It proclaims a multi-faceted gospel. The gospel message is clear, simple, and unchanging on the one hand, but it is endlessly rich and multi-faceted on the other hand. Scripture presents not only a wide array of gospel threads, but also a variety of “atonement grammars,” as Tim Keller calls them. Given our cultural heritage in the West, today we are most familiar with the “legal” grammar: Our sin demands a righteous judgment, which Christ Jesus takes on himself; he is declared “guilty” in order that we might be called “righteous.” This is a powerful grammar, and one that we need to hear regularly. Nevertheless, it is not the only way to speak of the atonement! Throughout the Bible, we read of the atonement in language taken from the battlefield (Jesus has secured our victory), the marketplace (Jesus has purchased our freedom from slavery), the temple (Jesus purifies us so that we can draw near to a holy God, cleansing our guilty consciences), and the exile (Jesus was cast out so that we could be brought in, welcomed back home).[2] Different grammars speak to different people; different texts highlight different grammars. If every sermon drills the same theme, it will likely speak to only one segment of the congregation, and will only address one element of our despair apart from God. If the gospel is endlessly rich, each new sermon should sound a different note that resonates with a hitherto untouched corner of our hearts.
  5. It strikes the heart. Jonathan Edwards rather famously emphasized this aspect of preaching. He saw that in his day too many preachers aimed at our thoughts, feelings, or will, rather than striking the heart, which is the source of all three (cf. Proverbs 4:23; Matthew 15:18-19). Sermons that strike the mind only produce a dead orthodoxy. Sermons that strike our feelings only produce a shallow emotionalism. Sermons that strike the will only produce moralism or legalism, and ultimately despair. However, sermons that strike the root of all three—the heart—will lead to transformed thoughts, feelings, and wills, producing theological orthodoxy, relentless joy, and loving obedience from the inside out.
  6. It addresses the audience. No sermon is preached in a vacuum. It addresses real people at a specific time and in a specific place. Even in our shrinking world, with the advent of technological globalization, differences between cultures and sub-cultures are marked. Preaching the same passage in the same way regardless of the audience is sheer folly. The urban intelligentsia in Manhattan does not need the same message as migrant workers in rural California. A faithful sermon considers its culture carefully, and contextualizes the unchanging truth for a changing population.

 

As always, I’m sure this list is not only incomplete, but also imperfect. Nevertheless, I hope it will stimulate sustained reflection and increased discernment—never a critical spirit—and ultimately charitable engagement.

 

[1] Some would prefer to speak of “late modernity” instead of postmodernity, because both modernity and postmodernity share this fundamental characteristic. Views on epistemology have shifted, yes, but at their individualistic core, they remain the same.

[2] Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012): 131.



Imitation Maturity

October 14th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

I always enjoyed walking the streets of Bogotá because of the remarkable variety of goods available for sale by innumerable street vendors. In fact, my wife and I began keeping a list of things we saw being sold, because we were so surprised by the spectrum. From toys to housewares, from food to technology, we could purchase just about anything we wanted without getting out of our car.

 

There was a small danger though: we were never quite sure if we were getting the genuine article. We might purchase something hurriedly at a stoplight, only to discover when we got home that the Nike “swoosh” was going in the wrong direction, or that the new purse was a DKNV special. (Apparently Donna has a base in Nevada in addition to her better known New York line.)apple-iphone-knockoff

 

One may face a similar danger in the church, unfortunately. The church seeks, by the grace of God and in the power of the Spirit, to produce disciples. The genuine article bears his trademark: increasing Christ-likeness. Genuine disciples display equipped maturity, to draw on the language of Ephesians 4:11-16. They demonstrate growth in both spiritual character and spiritual abilities. In them one discerns the fruit of the Spirit in increasing measure—spiritual character; in them one also witnesses the gifts of the Spirit effectively stewarded for the sake of the kingdom—spiritual abilities. The two elements are inseparable. As one develops the ability to read Scripture rightly, one’s heart softens increasingly to the claims of Christ on our lives, leading to growth in humility and faithfulness, for example. Or as one learns to deny self and love others sacrificially, one learns simultaneously to serve in the local congregation.

 

However, owing to the triple threats of the world, the flesh, and the devil, local churches may begin peddling imitation wares—may settle for a version of maturity that falls far short of God’s standard. I suspect this stems from our love of systems and processes, of efficiency and convenience, though I am confident the enemy has had his part in it. Attaining to any form of maturity is hard; cultivating a disciple-making culture that pervades a local congregation, and still maintaining oversight of that culture, is a whole other beast. But that doesn’t mean we settle for an imitation article; rather, we fall on our knees in humble, dependent prayer, trusting that the Lord will provide, will supply our need.

 

I am sure this is far from exhaustive, but here are four imitation brands sometimes sold in place of equipped maturity. Each one contains a genuine element about it—otherwise it wouldn’t deceive unsuspecting buyers!—but none fully encompasses true discipleship.

 

  1. Law

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere law. Jesus did not suffer the agony of the cross so that we would keep a list of dos and don’ts. He endured God’s wrath so that we could enter back into full fellowship with the triune God—adopted to sonship through Christ—and then live in the light of that vital relationship. Training people what is kosher and what is forbidden is moralism or legalism, not discipleship (and certainly not the gospel!). This happens in many “fundamentalist” churches, of course, where legalism replaces gospel, and socially acceptable behavior—“don’t drink, smoke, gamble, or go with girls who do”—replaces discipleship. This also happens in many “seeker-sensitive” churches, however, with the moralism of Oprah and Joel Osteen substituted for gospel-centered discipleship.

 

  1. Activity

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere activity. The end goal in this scheme is to have people actively participating in the local congregation: serving in a ministry, fellowshipping in a small group, and giving cheerfully and sacrificially to support the church’s ministry. These are all good aims, of course, provided they are not regarded as the final aim. One could serve, fellowship, and give actively, and yet not even know Jesus truly. These are all aspects of equipped maturity undoubtedly, but if taken as markers of discipleship themselves, they are liable to deceive. What if someone gives to ease a guilty conscience or to win God’s favor? What if the small group is a glorified social gathering? What if the service offered is the same as coaching your child’s soccer team?

 

  1. Information

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere information. Churches that emphasize the life of the mind, usually for historic, denominational reasons, are particularly susceptible to this imitation product. The sermon becomes mere data transfer; small groups are only Bible studies; devotions center on knowing more about God, his Word, and theology. Now, anyone who reads my blog knows how much I value the life of the mind; nevertheless, information is not the same as equipped maturity. There are many scholars living in active, cheerful rebellion against God who have much more information than I will ever have. If information is not sought in service of transformation, as in Romans 12:1, then it is inimical to growth in grace—knowledge puffing up, where love would do the better work of building up.

 

  1. Leadership

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere leadership. If leadership is defined carefully, it may mean equipped maturity, in which case it should be the genuine article. This is not always the case, unfortunately. What makes a leader? Sometimes churches will elevate someone to leadership because they are willing to do the job, which is really just an extension of replacing discipleship with activity. Often we select leaders because they have the requisite abilities, while paying but cursory attention to their character. I suspect one reason why “leadership development” and discipleship are so rarely synonymous is because discipleship places a great deal more emphasis on following, not leading. Leadership is an unexpected, unsought, reluctantly accepted consequence of learning to follow. To make it the center of the target will likely turn that truth on its head, with leaders begrudgingly learning to follow instead.

 

Jesus Christ gave us a clear commission, to make disciples. We would do well to examine the sort of disciples we are making, lest we discover—too late!—that we have been producing but a pale imitation of Christ’s glorious desire for us all.