Saturday, February 28, 2009

Radicalism and Compromise

I just finished working on tomorrow evening's sermon on Donatism. In my preparation I came across this quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics about the dangers of radicalism and compromise. The paragraph is provocative and worth pondering.

Radicalism sees God as Judge and Redeemer; compromise sees God as Creator and Preserver. In Radicalism the end is rendered absolute; in compromise, things-as-they-are are rendered absolute. Radicalism hates time; compromise hates eternity. Radicalism hates patience; compromise hates decision. Radicalism hates wisdom; compromise hates simplicity. Radicalism hates moderation and measure; compromise hates the immeasurable. Radicalism hates the real; compromise hates the Word (quoted in Heresies and How To Avoid Them, 90).

Pray for the Kluck's Adoption

Most people reading this blog probably don't know me personally. But one of the blessings of the internet (among many non-blessings too) is that strangers in Christ can pray for each other.

Most of you know that Ted Kluck was my co-author for Why We're Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be. Ted and Kristin are also very good friends (and that's not just author-speak for 'we met one time at a conference'). They are members at my church and my wife and I are in a small group with them.

Right now Ted and Kristin, with their six year old son Tristin, are on their way to Detroit to fly to Washington D.C. to fly to Vienna to fly to Ukraine (or something close to this itinerary). On Tuesday they will meet with the adoption agency in Ukraine and find out who will be joining their family. Age, gender, and health are all unknowns.

Instead of going there, coming back, and going out again, the Klucks will be staying in Ukraine through the whole adoption process. Consequently, they will be overseas for almost two months. Please pray for the Klucks if you have a moment: for safety, adjustment, good family time, a smooth process, spiritual blessing, and the perfect child for them (whatever perfect looks like).

Friday, February 27, 2009

Saint Who?

Over at the Beliefnet blog, Tony Jones has been posting some thoughts about Pelagius. The series is not quite finished, but you can find the latest in the series and the other links here). The gist is pretty simple. Jones puts his thesis in bold letters in his Intro: "I have come to reject the notion of Original Sin. I consider it neither biblically, philosophically, nor scientifically tenable." For good measure, Jones excerpts from a blogger named Brian (not McLaren) and his piece "Thank You, Saint Pelagius."

There are so many things wrong with these posts, from the erroneous historical reconstruction, to the strawmen arguments (e.g., if you believe in original sin you can't believe in human responsibility), to conversation stoppers from Jones like "Watch out, Brian, the NeoReformed stormtroopers went after Scot McKnight last week, and they'll probably come after you here!"

In July, Ted Kluck and I have a new book coming out, Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion. In the epilogue, I make the argument that the missing element in the contemporary church is a robust doctrine of original sin. It saddens me to get further confirmation that this assessment is correct.

Here's a few paragraphs from the Epilogue.

The doctrine of original sin teaches that every single human being who ever was, is, or shall be inherited from Adam a sinful nature that make us predisposed to wickedness and rebellion against God. The Belgic Confession (1561) summarizes the doctrine this way: “We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has been spread through the whole human race. It is a corruption of all nature—an inherited depravity which even infects small infants in their mother’s womb, and the root which produces in man every sort of sin. It is therefore so vile and enormous in God’s sight that it is enough to condemn the human race…” (Article 15). For most of church history—certainly from Augustine on down—most Christians, especially the Reformers and their confessional and evangelical heirs, have believed in original sin. The rosey view of human nature espoused by Pelagius was condemned as heretical at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Since then, if there has been any shared starting point across the theological spectrum of Christianity it was this: we are born into the world with a bent toward evil and in need of a Savior.

More recently, however, prominent “evangelicals” have questioned the validity of the doctrine of original sin. Brian McLaren mocks it, making original sin the subject of Mary’s Magnificat until it sounds ridiculous. Steve Chalke denies it, claiming that “Jesus believed in original goodness.” David Tomlinson rejects it, finding total depravity “biblically questionable, extreme, and profoundly unhelpful.” And Doug Pagitt is completely fed up with it, basing his rejection of original sin on the belief that “Augustine’s doctrine of depravity was based on a particular linguistic and cultural reading of certain passages of the Bible."

It’s worth mentioning at this point Alan Jacobs’ reflection in Original Sin: A Cultural History that those “who credit or blame Augustine for the ‘invention’ of original sin contend that he misread Paul; and it seems to me that the scholars who make that contention tend to be attached to the Christian faith in some way.” In other words, Christians don’t like to disagree straight up with Paul, so they try to sidestep the doctrine claiming that Augustine misinterpreted him. But as Jacobs points out, Tertullian, two hundred years prior to Augustine, saw “our participation in [Adam’s] transgression, our fellowship in his death, our expulsion from Paradise.” Tertullian believed that “the evil that exists in the soul…is antecedent, being derived from the fault of our origin and having become in a way natural to us.” His contemporary, Cyprian of Carthage, spoke of a “primeval contagion” and the “wounds” we all receive from Adam. So if Augustine misread Paul, he was not the first (and certainly not the last).

More important than the record of history is the testimony of Scripture. And it’s hard to see how the doctrine of inherited and total depravity is not taught in the pages of Scripture. No one is righteous (Rom. 3:10). All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). The human heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick (Jer. 17:9). The natural man is dead in trespasses and sin (Eph. 2:1). By nature, we pass our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating on another (Titus 3:3). We are inclined toward evil (Gen. 6:5), conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity (Psalm 51:5). All of us like sheep have gone astray (Isa. 53:6). Even our righteous deeds are as filthy rages before the Lord (Isa. 64:6). We are by nature not just morally tainted, but children of wrath, deserving of God’s punishment, even before we actually sin in our flesh (Eph. 2:3). Even on the best of days, we are divided, doing what we don’t want to do and failing to do what we know is right (Rom. 7:18-19). Because of the Fall, we are hard-wired toward evil. We sinned in Adam and died through his trespass, inheriting his guilt and a corrupt nature (Rom. 5:12-20).

It’s precisely this doctrine of original sin, and the related doctrines of total depravity and the divided self, that need to be recovered if we are to have a biblical, realistic, and Christ-centered doctrine of the church.

Start Your Family

Start Your Family: Inspiration for Having Babies is a surprisingly good book. I say surprisingly not because I expected a bad book, but because I expected an overly-sentimental, "children are so awesome", lightweight kind of book. But this book is much better than that.

Steve and Candice Watters, founders of Focus on the Family's webzine for young adults,, have written a careful, readable, very helpful book on starting your family. My wife and I have always been advocates for having children sooner than later. At the very least, we urge young couples getting married to think through the decision and not just assume you need three to five years to get adjusted and build up a nest egg. My wife was pregnant nine months after we were married. We have never regretted welcoming Ian into the world 18 months into our marriage, and I bet you would be hard pressed to find many Christian couples who regret having children right away, though you could find many who wished they hadn't waited so long.

The Introduction leads off with the Watters' main thesis:
You just got married and now it's time to enjoy your husband.
You're starting grad school.
You just got your dream job.
You want to buy a house.
You finally dropped a dress size.
You have a low pain threshold.
You like sleeping through the night.
You think you're too immature to care for another person.
Your friends who did it never call anymore (and they don't have much sex, either).
Your sister did it and traded her job for what seems like mindless babysitting.
Stranger is the mall who did it look haggard and irritated.

There are a thousand reasons not to have a baby.

But in deciding against children, or even in just deciding to wait a little longer, you risk missing out on a miracle--a larger-than-life, inexpressible joy. Some women will have to take extra measures to conceive, but the rest of us have a marvelous opportunity regardless of income, education or background (19-20).
What I really liked about Start Your Family is that it manages to argue for having children, without resorting to shame and manipulation. The Watters marshal plenty of facts on declining fertility (female fertility starts going down at 27, really goes down after 35 and plummets after 40) and the risks involved with pregnancy the older you get. But yet they are sensitive to those who have waited or are now having a hard time conceiving. As parents of four children, the Watters are obviously pro-children, but not unrealistic about the challenges. The book offers enough Scripture and other evidence to be compelling, and enough personal vignettes to be interesting. The book is a quick read, but not fluffy.

The Watters make a strong case for staring your family earlier rather than later, without making you feel like you need to be pregnant all the time and pump out 18 kids in order to be spiritual. In a 150 pages they simply make the argument that God is good. Kids are good. And the longer Christian couples wait to have kids, the harder it can be to start.

If you or someone you know is newly married or about to get married, they would do well to pick up this wise, encouraging book.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!

The third of the three standards of unity is explicitly about defining Reformed theology, especially Reformed soteriology.

Jacobus Arminius lived from 1560-1609. He began his teaching career thoroughly Calvinistic. After studying for a time in Geneva (1582-87), Arminius moved to Amsterdam to pastor a prominent church there. As a pastor, he was called upon to defend Calvinistic teaching against Dirck zoon Koornheert. In preparing his defense of traditional Calvinist doctrine, Arminius became convinced of his opponent’s teaching.

In 1603, Arminius was appointed professor of theology at the University of Leiden, where he was strongly opposed by his colleague, Francis Gomarus. Both Arminius and Gomarus believed in predestination, but they differed over the meaning of the word. At the heart of the disagreement was whether predestination was based solely on the will of God (Calvinism) or based on foreseen knowledge of belief (what would later be called Arminianism). The two met for a public debate in 1608, but the issue was no closer to being settled. Both men thought of themselves as Reformed, as Calvinists, but they were not saying the same thing.

Following Arminius’ death in 1609, the movement continued under the leadership of Janus Uytenbogaert, a court preacher at the Hague. In 1610, the Arminian party issued a document called the Remonstrance, setting forth the “Five Articles of the Arminians.” Gomarus and others formed a Contra-Remonstrance party (Gomarists) to oppose the Arminians. Things continued to heat up when Arminius’ successor at the University of Leiden was named–-a man by the name of Vorstius, who was practically a Socinian. When the Arminian Simon Episcopius was named Gomarus’ replacement at Leiden, it looked like the tide had turned in favor of the Remonstrants. The Remonstrance party was further supported by the statesman John van Oldenbarneveldt and the jurist/theologian Hugo Grotius.

Political Intrigue
The Netherlands had recently won its independence from Spain. Some were still leary of the Spanish, while others welcomed a closer relationship. In general, the merchant class, for economic and trading reasons, desired improved relations with Spain. The clergy, on the other hand, feared that more contact with Catholic Spain would taint the theology of their churches. The lower class sided with the clergy for theological reasons, for national reasons (anti-Spain), and for class reasons (anti-merchants). Thus, merchants saw Arminianism as favorable to their desire for improved relations with Spain, while the clergy and lower class sided with Gomarus.

The Remonstrance of 1610 was issued to Oldenbarneveldt, Advocate-General of Holland and Friesland. Oldenbarneveldt, who was working to secure a better relationship with Spain, wanted toleration for the Arminians. The Contra-Remonstrance from Gomarists was submitted to the States of Holland in 1611. Oldenbarneveldt and the States of Holland decided on toleration. But the Gomarists wanted an official theological pronouncement to settle the issue once and for all.

Prince Maurice, the son and heir of William of Orange, eventually took the side of the Gomarists (perhaps for theological reasons, but perhaps in an attempt to garner more control of the Netherlands for himself). After Maurice had Olderbarneveldt and others imprisoned, the Estates-General called for an assembly to end the conflict.

The Synod
An international synod convened in Dordrecht from 1618-19. Of the approximately 100 members present, 27 were from Britain, Switzerland, and Germany, while the rest were Dutch. The Dutch contingent was comprised of roughly an equal number of ministers, professors, laymen, and members of the Estates-General. The Remonstrants were soundly defeated at Dort, leading to one of the greatest theological formulations of the Reformation. Unfortunately, Maurice, a product of his times (and not a very nice man it seems), condemned Barneveldt to death and had some Arminian pastors imprisoned. When Maurice died in 1625, measures loosened considerably, and in 1631 Arminians were officially tolerated in the Netherlands.

As everyone reading this blog probably knows, the Canons of Dort, in rejecting the five points of Arminianism, outlined five points of their own: Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Total Depravity/Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Since Dort, TULIP, or ULTIP in the original order, has been a short-hand definition of Reformed theology. The Canons do not pretend to explain everything about Reformed theology, or about the Bible for that matter, but they do argue that this is real Reformed theology, not the inventions of the Remonstrants.

Oh, and one more thing. The Canons are important not just because they are Reformed, but because they are biblical. To God be the glory.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Heidelberg Truth Rockets!

I love the Heidelberg Catechism, not like I love my wife or I love the Bible, but in a deeper way than I love the Chicago Bears and a more eternal way than I love a good deep-dish pizza. “Love” and “Catechism” are not two words usually heard together, unless it’s something like “I love that my church doesn’t make kids learn catechism anymore.” Nevertheless, I freely confess I love the Heidelberg Catechism. I love it because it’s old, it’s biblical, and it’s true. It’s not perfect. It’s not infallible. But it is trustworthy and beautiful, simple and deep. I love the Heidelberg Catechism because I love the gospel it expounds and the salvation is proclaims.

I grew up with the Heidelberg. I don’t recall having to memorize it cold like some organic chemistry nightmare. It wasn’t front and center in my life, but it was there. I’ll forever be grateful to my childhood pastor for making me read the Heidelberg Catechism and meet in his big office with him to talk about it before I made profession of faith in the fourth grade. I was nervous to meet with him, even more nervous to meet before all the elders. But both meetings were pleasant. And besides, I was forced to read through all 129 questions and answers at age 9. That was a blessing I didn’t realize at the time. Ever since then I’ve had a copy of the Catechism and have grown to understand it and cherish it more and more over the years.

Not everyone is as keen on catechism as I am. For some, catechisms are too linear, too systematic, too propositional. For others, the catechism gets a bad rap because, fairly or unfairly, the only stories that we hear about catechetical instruction are the stories of old Domine VanderSoandso who threatened to smite us hip and thigh if we couldn’t remember what God required of us in the eighth commandment. More often, catechisms simply never get tried because they are said to be about theology and theology is said to be boring and words like “Heidelberg” and “Westminster” are even more boring. (Incidentally, I have never been a fan of snazzy Sunday School curriculum that tries to pretend that a catechism is something other than questions and answers about the Bible. You can call it “Journeys with God from the Palatinate” or “Heidelberg Truth Rockets” but it’s still a catechism and our kids know it.)

But even with all this bad press, I think the Catechism can make a comeback. All of us—kids and adults—need to know the Bible better than we know the Heidelberg Catechism. No doubt about that. But all of us—kids and adults—can have our faith strengthened, our knowledge broadened, and our love for Jesus deepened by devoting ourselves to reading true truth like the kind found in the Heidelberg Catechism. I’ll never forget sitting in my Christian Education class at my evangelical, non-Dutch, non-denominational seminary. One of our assigned texts was the Heidelberg Catechism—this little book that growing up was usually good for rolling the eyes of students into the backs of their little heads. But my fellow students at seminary marvelled at this piece of work. “Where has this been all their lives?” “This will be perfect for Sunday School!” “I’m going to use this for new member’s classes!” Most of the Dutch Reformed kids I knew were ready to see the Heidelberg Catechism go the way of the dodo bird. But at seminary, my classmates were seeing something many of my peers had missed. The Heidelberg Catechism is really, really good.

History and Structure

In 1562, Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate, a princely state of the Holy Roman Empire (think Germany), ordered the preparation of a new catechism for his territory. A new catechism would serve three purposes: (1) as a tool for teaching children, (2) as a guide for preachers, and (3) as a form for confessional unity among the Protestant factions in the Palatinate. Frederick wanted a unifying catechism that avoided theological labels and was plainly rooted in the texts of Scripture. To that end, he commissioned a team of theological professors and ministers (along with Frederick himself) to draft a new catechism. Although the catechism was truly a team effort (including Caspar Olevianus who used to be considered a co-author of the catechism, but now is seen as simply one valuable member of the committee), there is little doubt the chief author was Zacharias Ursinus.

Ursinus, a professor at the university in Heidelberg, was born on July 18, 1534 in what is today Poland but at that time was part of Austria. Ursinus was the chief architect of the Heidelberg Catechism, basing many of the questions and answers on his own Shorter Catechism, and to a lesser extent, his Larger Catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism reflects Ursinus theological convictions (firmly Protestant with Calvinist influence) and his warm, irenic spirit.

This new catechism was first published in Heidelberg (the leading city of the Palatinate) in January 1563, going through several revisions that same year. The Catechism was quickly translated into Latin and Dutch, and soon after into French and English. Besides the Bible, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, the Heidelberg Catechsim is the most widely circulated book in the world. Since its publication in 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism has been used in scores of languages and is widely praised as the most devotional, most loved catechism of the Reformation.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Belgic Confession and the Hero No One Remebers

After suggesting some possible dangers for the Presbyterian/Reformed crowd (to which I belong gladly), I thought it might be helpful to take a few posts to introduce the Reformed Confessions. I am ordained in the Reformed Church in America, and as a mainline denomination we are a real mixed bag. But our confessional standards are second to none. We adhere to three doctrinal standards: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. The story behind the Belgic Confession is particularly inspiring.

Guido de Bres was born in 1522 in Mons, on the border between France and the part of the Lowlands which is now Belgium. He was the fourth child in a family of glass painters. As a young man he was apprenticed to a stain glass artist, but his life’s work was not to be in glass artistry.

While a teenager, he obtained a copy of the Bible (which was not nearly so easy to do in those days) and read it for himself along with some of the literature coming out of the Reformation. Before he was twenty-five, he converted to Christ and embraced the teachings of the Reformers.

He then moved, for a time, perhaps because of the threat of persecution, to London, which had become a haven for religious refugees. In London, he found a Reformed Walloon congregation (French-speaking citizens from the Lowlands). Here he studied for the ministry and heard great Reformers like a Lasco and Bucer.

In 1552, at the age of 30, he returned to the Lowlands and became an itinerant preacher. He ministered to a group of Christians meeting in secret in Lille (about 35 miles from Mons). The fellowship there called themselves "The Church of the Rose" and many of them would be martyred when Philip II came to power in Spain and called for a crack down on the Protestant heretics.

Much of the congregation fled to Frankfurt where there was a Flemish congregation. De Bres met John Calvin while in Frankfurt and from this meeting, he wound up spending two years studying Hebrew and Greek with the Reformer Theodore Beza, and then another year in Geneva studying under Calvin.

After three years of study, he re-entered the ministry, pastoring an underground congregation in Doornik (10 miles from Lille) called "The Church of the Palm." While in Doornik, Guido de Bres, who now went by the pseudonym “Jerome,” fell in love with Catherine Ramon, and the two were married in 1559 and had four or five children together.

As long as the Protestants in the Lowlands stayed underground, they faced minimal persecution. Or at least, at first. Robert du Four, a member of de Bres’ church thought it was cowardly to keep their faith secret. So for two nights in a row–September 29 and 30, 1561–du Four organized a mass demonstration. Several hundred Protestants met in the marketplace and marched through the street of Doornik singing the Psalms, which was a sign of Reformation defiance. The Bishop told the Regent and the Regent dispatched investigators to Doornik to suppress the Protestant uprising.

De Bres lay in hiding for several months. While in hiding, de Bres, along with a few others, became convinced that the best course of action was to present the King with a Protestant Confession of Faith in order to show that they were not violent revolutionaries like many of the Anabaptists. This Confession published in 1561, modeled after Calvin’s French Confession and chiefly authored by Guido de Bres, became known as the Belgic Confession.

On November 2, 1561, the gatekeeper at the castle of Doornik found a package which had been thrown over the wall addressed to King Philip II. The package contained the Belgic Confession and a letter from de Bres and his fellow Protestants. The letter said in part “If you try [to stop us] by killing, for everyone who dies, a hundred will rise in his place. If you will not forsake your hardness and your murder, then we appeal to God to give us grace patiently to endure for the glory of his name...and heaven and earth will bear us witness that you have put us unjustly to death.”

De Bres escaped Doornik just before the authorities pieced together enough information to implicate the Church of the Palm and ransacked de Bres’ home, destroy his papers, and burn his effigy in the city square. As an exile in France, he pastored various Huguenot congregations. In 1566, de Bres attended a secret synod held in Antwerp. Only those who knew the password, “Vineyard,” were permitted to enter. At this meeting, they revised the Confession and adopted it officially as a statement of faith for the Reformed Churches in the Lowlands.

De Bres then accepted a called to work with another minister as field preachers to the Church of the Eagle in Valenciennes near the French border. Together, they drew quite a following with their preaching of the Reformed faith. Unfortunately, some of their followers went too far and broke into cathedrals, smashed icons, and ransacked Catholic churches.

When Philip got news of the uprising, he intensified the persecution. The people of Valenciennes, against de Bres’ advice, decided to fight Philip’s men. After holding out for several months, the people of the Church of the Eagle surrendered and the city was overtaken. Amazingly, de Bres escaped. But he was soon captured and put in the prison for seven weeks in the infamous dungeon, the Black Hole of Brunain.

While in prison, he wrote a 233 page treatise on the Lord’s Supper and wrote a final letter to his wife. It is one of the most touching, faith-filled, heart-wrenching, God-glorifying pieces of writing that no one knows about.
My dear and well-beloved wife in our Lord Jesus, Your grief and anguish are the cause of my writing you this letter. I most earnestly pray you not to be grieved beyond measure...We knew when we marred that we might not have many years together, and the Lord has graciously given us seven. If the Lord had wished us to live together longer, he could easily have cause it to be so. But such was not his pleasure. Let his good will be done....Moreover, consider that I have not fallen into the hands of my enemies by chance, but by the providence of God....All these considerations have made my heart glad and peaceful, and I pray you, my dear and faithful companion, to be glad with me, and to thank the good God for what he is going, for he does nothing but what is altogether good and right...I pray you then to be comforted in the Lord, to commit yourself and your affairs to him, he is the husband of the widow and the father of the fatherless, and he will never leave you nor forsake you.
On May 31, 1567, Guido de Bres, 47 years old, was publicly hanged in the marketsquare of Valenciennes. He was pushed off the scaffold as he exhorted the crowd to be faithful to Scripture and respectful to the magistrates. His body was buried in a shallow grave where it was later dug up and torn apart by wild animals. Today few know the name of Guido de Bres, but millions continue to be nourished by the Confession he wrote.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Critique from R. Scott Clark

R. Scott Clark, a professor at Westminster West has posted a critique to my post from earlier today. Apparently he couldn't get his remarks to work in the comments section, so he wrote them on his blog. You can read it here.

Calvin Conference and Confessional Calvinists

Over the weekend our church hosted a Calvin conference in honor of John Calvin's 500th birthday. Collin Hansen, author of Young, Restless, and Reformed, was our keynote speaker. I also spoke at the conference, as well as several local pastors. The conference audio should be online in the next day or two.

I will probably share more about the conference throughout the week, but let me just share one highlight and one bit of reflection.

One of the highlights was getting to spend time with Collin and his lovely wife Lauren. They are both intelligent, affable, and great lovers of sports (yes, both love sports!). My wife and I enjoyed their company. Collin has lots of great stories (he's interviewed so many fascinating people) and a very keen mind for analysis. Somewhat unrelated, I should add that Collin insisted, and apparently always insists, on using "Peach" as his driver in Mario Cart (because of the way she "oohs" he says). I, on the other hand, enjoy Wario for his intimidating countenance and no-holds barred attitude. Surely if the stereotypes mean anything, Wario is the Reformed driver, not Peach. But other than Collin's curious Nintendo choices, the weekend with he and his wife made for great company and conversation.

On to my one bit of reflection. As Collin spoke I was struck by the fact that the Reformed resurgence is due in large part (though certainly not entirely) to non-confessional (at least in the historic sense) Baptists (e.g., John Piper, C.J. Mahaney, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll). As a confessional Reformed paedobaptist, this caused me to reflect on what some of the influence-limiting dangers may be for people in my camp.

1. There is a danger that we get bored with the doctrines of grace. Many baptists stand out in their own circles because of their reformed theology and they often come to it later in life, whereas those in confessional Reformed/Presbyterian background gets Calvinism from day one and grow tired of it. It's no coincidence that the largest (only large?) emergenty church is in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Many people raised on reformed theology, if they don't see vitality and enthusiasm in their families and in their churches, grow tired of Calvinism and end up dabbling with something newer and cooler. This will be a challenge for those of us in the young, restless, reformed crowd as we try to pass on our passion to our children.

2. There is a danger that we call people to confessionalism instead of calling people to Christ. I love the doctrinal standards of my denomination. I wrote on the Heidelberg Catechism for an entire year. I've preached for months on the Belgic Confession. I've taught Sunday school classes on the Canons of Dort. I read all three Standards devotionally. I think young people are hungry for the meat of confessions and catechisms. But only if we use them to point people to Christ. We must not be heralds for Presbyterianism, but rather heralds for Christ, who love our historic documents because we see Christ in them.

3. There is a danger that we focus most on what makes us Reformed or Presbyterian instead of what makes us Evangelical. I am not advocating for a bland kind of evangelicalism, but rather a passionate Reformed confessionalism that centers on and glories in the gospel and the cross rather than on the nuances of Van Til's apologetics and the intricacies of the regulative principle.

4. There is a danger that we do not know how to be ourselves. Effective preaching is always truth through personality. This means letting our own humor, intensity, interests, and stories come through in our preaching, not so that we become the focus but so people see us as real people and not automatons for the Westminster assembly. We need to be ok in our own skin, not in B.B. Warfield's skin.

Thankfully, we in the confessional Reformed tradition are not without good models (e.g., R.C. Sproul, Ligon Duncan, Sinclair Ferguson, Tim Keller). So let all the confessional Calvinists give thanks for the Baptists, Charismatics, and Anglicans who love the doctrines of grace. And let us proclaim the doctrines of grace with all the gospel-centered, Christ-centered passion they deserve.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Just Do Something

As you can see from the side panel off to the left, I have a new book coming out. Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God's Will (Moody Publishers) will be released April 1, which means it should hit the brick-and-mortar and online stores during the last week in March.

The gist of the book is that too many of us spend too much time trying to divine God's will and too little time striving to obey the plain commands of Scripture. God's will is not a corn maze or magic eight ball. His will is our sanctification. God promises to direct our steps all throughout life, but he never promises to show us what each step is ahead of time. Too many of us are prone to passivity and indecision, because doing nothing feels more spiritual (and less risky) than doing something. So we stumble around in chains of subjective impressions and wander here and there and in and out of our parent's basement.

God's will is not a bullseye to hit, but a life to live.

For Chapter 1 of Just Do Something go here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Won't Someone Please Think About the Children?!

In all the recent talk about stimulus, compassion, markets, incentives, and justice, we sometimes forget to ask whether the ones we are helping actually want to be helped. Everyone talks about caring for the children, but no one actually stops to listen to their fears and concerns. Won't someone please think about the children?!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What I Mean By Reformed

Most people don't like labels. They don't like wearing them, being given them, or owning up to them. I don't mind labels, as long as they are fair. It's impossible to speak in specifics all the time. We simply must generalize, categorize, and classify if we are going to be make any understandable, accessible analysis and evaluation. So I don't mind being called Calvinist, or Reformed, or even Evangelical. I am all three, glady.

But I also realize that labels turn people off. If I say I'm Reformed some people assume I'm that kind of Reformed, whatever that kind is (see Scot McKnight's recent post for one definition of that kind of Reformed). Or they imagine I automatically look down on them for not being a part of my team. Or they wonder if I'm following a man (Calvin) or a system (Calvinism) instead of Jesus. Or they think I'm a starstruck Piper-Driscoll-Mahaney groupie. Or they figure I'm into theology just like other people are into art, science fiction, or car repairs.

So I don't mind the label, but I call myself Reformed for different reasons. When I say I am Reformed I mean I am a Protestant, Evangelical Christian--rooted in historic, orthodox Christianity, and growing in the soil of Reformation theology as passed down through the trans-Atlantic evangelical movement that began to take shape with Whitefield, Wesley, and Edwards. When I say I am Reformed I am laying claim to this great tradition, and I give thanks for others rooted and growing in the same soil.

But that's not all I'm saying with the word Reformed. I don't view the Reformed faith as simply one branch on the Christian tree. I believe the Reformed understanding of the Bible is Christianity in full bloom. Hopefully, this does not make me haughty about "my flower." But it does make me glad to have the flower (or for the flower to have me), because I find the flower to be the most beautiful, sweetest smelling bloom on the Christian tree.

When I say am I am Reformed I mean:

I marvel at God's holiness, that he is independent, pure, good, and utterly beyond me.

I glory in God's goodness, that he should save a wretch like me, totally undeserving, bent toward evil in all my faculties.

I rejoice in God's sovereignty, that he chose to save me for the praise of his glory, not owing to anything I did or would do or any potential in me.

I find my hope in the second Adam who gives me life and imputed blessing, triumphing over the first Adam's imputed death and curse.

I am grateful for God's power by which he caused me, without my cooperation, to be born again and enabled me to believe his promises.

I take comfort in God's all-encompassing providence, that nothing happens to me by chance, but all things--prosperity or poverty, health or sickness, giving or taking away--are sent to me by my loving heavenly Father.

I praise God for his mercy, shown to me chiefly on the cross where his Son died, not just to make a way for me to come to him, but died effectually in my place such that my sins, my guilt, and my punishment all died in the death of Christ.

I find assurance in God's preserving grace believing with all my might that nothing--not even myself--can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord which he began in me and will see through to completion.

I rest secure in God's covenant love, depicted in both the Old and the New Testament, showing me the incomparable blessings of knowing that the Lord is my God and I am his beloved son, that God is a God to me and my children after me.

I stand amazed in the justifying grace of God whereby I am acquitted of all my sins and clothed with new garments in the presence of my King and Judge, not because of anything I have done but only because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in which I trust.

I delight in the glory of God and in God's delight for his own glory which brings me, on my best days, unspeakable joy, and on all my other days, still gives purpose and order to an otherwise confusing and seemingly random world.

I cherish the word of God because it is all true, because I see Christ in it, and because its rules and precepts are for my good,

I rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to illumine my mind, convict me of sin, and make me holy as God is holy.

When I say I am Reformed I mean that God is the center of the universe and I am not. I mean that I am a worse sinner than I imagine and God is a greater Savior than I ever thought possible. I mean that the Lord is my righteousness and the Lord alone is my boast. By Reformed I mean all this, and most of all that my only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own but belong, in body and in soul, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever, amen.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Lost Blurbs...

Here are a few lost blurbs for Revolution by George Barna. Apparently, in the end the marketing folks decided to go in a different, less revolutionary, direction.

"Although the book had less to do with death to traiterous, capitalist pigs than I imagined, I found the sections on golfing to be quite inspiring."
Fidel Castro, former benevolent dictator of Cuba

"This book was a breath of fresh air. Religion has often been the opiate of the people. So I'm thankful for Barna's emphasis on leaving church. I also like the part about workers owning the means of production. A must read."
Karl Marx, friend of peasants and author of the original manifesto

"This volume is an intellectual tour de force. I especially appreciate his rejection of routines, church buildings, and the status quo. I throw my beret in the air and give three hurrahs!"
Che Guevera, Argentine Marxist Revolutionary and popular t-shirt vendor

"Stirring, captivating, liberating. I applaud Barna's vision of eliminating church as we know it. He's right: church is the problem. I say, "Let a thousand Barnas bloom!"
Chairman Mao, Chinese leader and subject of many large paintings

"Lacks the creativity of Revolution 9 and the soul of Revolution 1, but Barna stays close to my original in this heartwarming book. 'Imagine there's no churches, no religion too'--I like the sound of that!"
John Lennon, acclaimed singer/songwriter and more popular than Jesus

Monday, February 16, 2009

Marcionism and the New Mood

There is a New Mood in evangelicalism. The New Mood can be found in emergent writers like Brian McLaren who speak mockingly about the wrath of God and dismissively about the reality of eternal punishment. The New Mood can be found in Christian academics who marginalize, or even deny, the concept of penal substitution. The New Mood can be found in megachurch pastors who argue that the essence of Christianity is that Jesus "shows us the best way to live." The New Mood can be found in bestsellers like The Shack with its claims that "The Bible doesn't teach you to follow rules" (197), God doesn't need to punish sin (120), and the biblical portrayal of God's justice is caricatured as an blood-thirsty God who runs around killing people all the time (119).

The New Mood is squeamish about hell and uncomfortable with God's wrath. The New Mood envisions a Christianity where the attribute of God's love eclipses all other attributes, especially God's justice and power. The New Mood tells the Christian story not first of all (or at all) as good news about a Substitute who saves us from the wrath of God, but as a message which means to inspire us to live a life of sacrifice and shalom.

Marcion was born in Sinope in 85 AD in the northern province of Pontus (in what is now Turkey) right on the coast of the Black Sea. Marcion, the son of a Bishop, was an intelligent, capable, hard, unbending, vain, rich, ambitious man. He made his way to Rome sometime between 135-139 AD and was accepted as Christian into the church there. He even gave a large gift to the congregation–200,000 sesterces (worth over a hundred year’s wages). His stint in the church at Rome, however, did not last long. He was formerly excommunicated in 144 AD and his lavish gift promptly returned.

Marcion was one of the most successful heretics in the early church. He was opposed by everyone who was anyone. For nearly a century after his death, he was the arch-heretic, opposed by Polycarp (who called him the firstborn of Satan), Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Origen. He was one of the few heretics that the Greek and Latin Christians united in condemning.

After his excommunication, he traveled around the world as a missionary for his version of Christianity. And he won a lot of converts. According to Tertullian, he planted churches as “wasps make nests”, teaching men “to deny that God is the maker of all things in heaven and earth and the Christ predicted by the prophets is his Son.” Marcion's church was rigorous, demanding, inspiring, well-organized, and for about a century fairly successful.

Marcion's theological errors (and there were many) came from one main root. He refused to believe that the God of the Old Testament was the same as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Marcion could simply not believe in a God full of wrath and justice. So he threw away the Old Testament and took for his Bible a truncated version of Luke's Gospel and selectively edited versions of Paul's epistles. When all the cutting and pasting was finished, Marcion had the Christianity he wanted: a God of goodness and nothing else; a message of inspiring moral uplift; a Bible that does away with the uncomfortable bits about God's wrath and hell. Marcionism was anitnomian, idealistic about human potential, and skittish about dogma and rules.

Here's how Angela Tilby describes Marcion in Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why it Matters What Christians Believe (edited by Ben Quash and Michael Ward):

For him, there was a fundamental contradiction between law and love, righteousness and grace. Marcion thought that true Christianity was flawed by the incompatibilities at the heart of its teaching. His solution was radical. Nothing less than a restatement of faith would do, and for Marcion that restatement had to focus on what for him was the essential gospel: the love, mercy and compassion displayed in the life and teachings of Jesus. This, for him, was all that was necessary, it was the blueprint for a new and pure humanity. There was no other truly Christian foundation for belief or morality.

What Marcion couldn't bear was the note of judgment that went along with the preaching of the Christian message, the warnings that came with the teaching of the law, the call to obedience and the threat of hell. For Marcion, the picture of God given in [Exodus 20:18-20], a God whose presence is manifest in thunder and lightning and smoke on the mountain, was simply unbelievable. A God who makes his people tremble with fear, a God with whom they are afraid to communicate, could not be the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, passages like this seemed to him to cast doubt on the central claim of the gospel. As he saw it, the Christianity of his day needed purging so that the pure gospel could be received in all its radical simplicity and appeal to the heart (75).

The idea of recasting Christianity for a new day--in softer, gentler hues, more focused on the life of Jesus instead of the death of Jesus--sounds familiar, does it not? Listen to some of the country's most popular preachers, or to some of the loudest voices in the emergent conversation, or to some of the bestselling Christian books and you will find that Marcionism is alive and well.

The New Mood is not that new after all.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Shaq

This looks like a great new book.

...Four years later in the midst of his Great Sadness, Shaq receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, but actually from Pat Riley...

Some of the blurbs are unbelievable.

When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize the result is a novel on the order of The Shaq. This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good! - Dicky Simpkins, former NBA point guard.

For more on this runaway theological bestseller, go here.

Values Voters in the 2008 Election

The latest issue of First Things (March 2009) has several great articles. One for number-crunchers is the piece by John C. Green "What Happened to the Values Voter? Believers and the 2008 Election." Drawing from the University of Akron, Post-Election Survey (which can be read in its entirety here), Green concludes that enough changed from 2004 to 2008 to swing the election to the Democrats, but not enough changed to signal any significant shift in voting patterns.

Below are net percentage changes in favor of the Democratic presidential candidate for various religious groups. A minus sign indicates a swing in favor of the Republicans. The number in parentheses indicates the percentage from that group that voted for their candidate of preference.

Minority Religious Groups
Black Protestants +12 (95% Obama)
Other Faiths +5 (81% Obama)
Ethnic Catholic/Other Catholic +9 (74% Obama)
Ethnic Protestants + 27 (52% Obama)

Unaffiliated +1 (73% Obama)

White Catholics
Modernist Catholics -8% (66% Obama)
Centrist Catholics -7% (66% McCain)
Traditionalist Catholics +17% (61% McCain)

White Mainline Protestants
Modernist Mainline Protestants -8% (61% Obama)
Centrist Mainline Protestants +4% (51% Obama)
Traditionalist Mainline Protestant -2% (68% McCain)

Other Christians -7% (72% McCain)

White Evangelical Protestants
Modernist Evangelical Protestants -1% (55% McCain)
Centrist Evangelical Protestants +2% (69% McCain)
Traditionalist Evangelical Protestants -1% (89% McCain)

ALL +5% (54% Obama)

So what should make of this data? Probably not too much.

Green summarizes:

Taken together, the results of 2008 reveal little evidence of a fundamental shift in the structure of faith-based voting. Just two groups showed changes large enough to alter their relative order in the presidential vote: Ethnic Protestants (who switched from Republican to Democrat) and Traditionalist Catholics (who become more Democratic than Centrist Catholics).

There are many ways to parse the election, but basically Obama was a likeable candidate in a bad year for Republicans. The Republican base was virtually unmoved, but the Democrats chipped away at the Catholic vote and won big (bigger than usual) among ethnic minorities, thanks no doubt to Obama's personal story and the Republicans' hardline stance on immigration. All in all, 5% more of the population voted for Obama than for Kerry, and that made for a 54-46 victory for Obama in 2008, whereas Bush won 51-49 in 2004.

So if you like numbers, there you go.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Calvin Conference: February 20-21

Next weekend, several churches from the Lansing, Michigan area will be hosting a conference in celebration of the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth.

The conference is called Magnifying God: The Legacy of John Calvin in the 21st Century and will be held at my church, University Reformed Church (new website coming very soon!) in East Lansing, across the street from Michigan State University.

The conference begins Friday, February 20 at 7:30 pm and runs until 5:00pm the next day.

The keynote speaker is Collin Hansen, editor-at-large for Christianity Today and author of Young, Restless, and Reformed: A Journalist's Journey With the New Calvinists. I'm excited to hear Collin's three lectures on "Calvin's Kin" (and am grateful that he let me rip off his book title for my blog).

I will be speaking Saturday morning on "All Men Are Like Grass: The Life of John Calvin." Three local pastors will be conducting workshops in the afternoon. The event will finish with a panel discussion.

You can get more information about the conference and register at Early registration has been extended, so you can still register for $25, which includes a copy of Collin's book, or for $20 if you already have the book. I hope to see some of you next Friday night.

Speaking of Calvin...

I stumbled upon this rare footage of Calvin answering the phone. Listen for the last line and you'll get the essence of the Genevan reformer's world-and-life-view, his weltanschauung as it were.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Love Is In the Details

Over at the First Things blog, they referenced an article on prostate cancer from The New York Times. In a age where romantic love equals sex and sentimentality, and on the eve of the eve of Valentine's Day, I found the article's depiction of marital love to be quite moving, in spite of (or is it because of?) the earthiness of the subject matter.

Dana Jennings (the husband) writes:

These days, I epitomize the “in sickness” part of the wedding vows that Deb and I took back in 1981. Since we learned last April that I have prostate cancer, I’ve had my prostate removed, found out that the cancer was shockingly aggressive, undergone a 33-session course of radiation and am finishing up hormone therapy.

Right now, I’m not quite what you’d call “a catch.” I wear man-pads for intermittent incontinence, I’m a bazaar of scars, and haven’t had a full erection in seven months. Most nights, I’m in bed by 10. The Lupron hormone shots, which suppress the testosterone that can fuel prostate cancer, have sent my sex drive lower than the stock market, shrunken my testicles, and given me hot flashes so fierce that I sweat outdoors when it’s 20 degrees and snowing.

Even so, Deb has taught me that love is in the details. Humid professions of undying love and tear-stained sonnets are all well and good, but they can’t compete with the earthy love of Deb helping me change and drain my catheter pouches each day when I first came home from the hospital.

Yes, in the details. She measured my urine, peered into places I couldn’t (literally and figuratively), and strategically and liberally applied baby powder, ice and Aquaphor to my raw and aching body. She battled our intractable insurer, networked, tracked down the right doctors — and took thorough notes all the while.

I was wounded. She protected me. She chose to do these things.

Deb and I have been married for 27 years, have two sons (22 and 19), and have ridden the usual Ferris wheel that comes with a long marriage. But our love for each other has deepened in this time of prostate cancer.

We talk more often about the life we’ve built together, about sex and money, about the joy we take in our sons, about the uncertain future. When cancer moves in, there’s nothing you and your spouse can’t talk about.

Our love has been seasoned with a bitter pinch of mortality, and the classic quarrels of marriage hold little power over us anymore. When I say to Deb, “I love you,” I mean it. And when she responds, “I love you more,” she means it, too. We understand that time, perhaps, is not on our side.

Time, we are told, will give us our sex life back. As I said, the hormone shots have shut down my sex drive. And my poor penis is still in recovery — from the surgery and the radiation. But as we wait, I’ll tell you this: Love abides.

Yes, yes and yes — lust is essential. But right now, sex seems quaint, old-fashioned. Oddly enough, it can’t compete with the depth and gravity of a light touch, a sly glance. I’m in the mood for the Beatles and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” not Grace Jones growling, “Pull up to my bumper, baby.”

Don’t get me wrong. I really, really like sex. But given a choice between the mere biology of lust and the deep soul of love, I’ll take love. My body has changed — but my doctors say my libido will be warming up again before I know it. Deb understands, and we’ve adapted.

Deb’s love is one to live up to, one to reciprocate. Who else is going to snuggle up to me on the couch, smile, listen — and nod knowingly — as I complain about my hot flashes?

In the long shadow of prostate cancer, I’ve learned that I married the right woman.
A story like this doesn't have "blockbuster romantic comedy" written all over it. But it's the most touching, hopeful, honest, and moving piece of romantic sentiment I've come across in quite some time.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Abortion and the Duty to Legistlate Some Morality

In addition to this blog, I also blog once in awhile from our denominational magazine, The Church Herald. Being a part of a mainline church, I often disagree with other pastors in my denomination. Last week one of the issues up for debate on the blog was whether the government should legislate moraliy. The gist of the debate was whether we are being consistent if we want the government to intervene in some areas but not in others. The three examples mentioned were abortion, gay marriage, and economic redistribution. How can Christians be in favor of legislating morality on some of these issues but not all?

The question is complicated because there is no "consistent" position. Everyone, except anarchists, wants the government to legislate some morality, and everyone, except full blown recontructionists, want the government to stay out of some issues. For example I want the government to prohibit stealing but I don't want the government to prohibit the worship of Shiva, even though I think both are grave sins.

But what about abortion (leaving aside the other two examples for this post)? Is it enough that no one is forced to have an abortion ("Don't like abortion? Don't have one.")? Is abortion a personal issue that involves freedom over one's body? Do the difficult emotional, financial, and pyschological situations that pregnant women sometimes find themselves in necessiate that abortion be at least an option, though not an ideal one?

These are common questions but not really germane to the issue. The question is not whether a woman has a right to choose what do with her body or whether a woman might suffer greatly if she brings the child to term. The question is whether "the unborn entity, from the moment of conception, is a full-fledged member of the human community", to quote Francis Beckwith. If the fetus is a human person, then abortion is prima facie morally wrong, and a moral wrong that ought to prohibited by the state. If the fetus is not a member of the human community, then we can debate whether the mother can terminate the pregnancy or not. But this would be to conclude that the unborn child is nothing much more than a mass of flaking skin cells. We don't talk about a man's right to choose to shoot his wife, or the right of a parent to suffocate her 4 year old, or the right of a 55 year old to push his aging mother in front of a car. These are not rights because in each case an innocent human person is being killed. If the fetus is a human person, then how can abortion be a right?

Despite the rhetoric, abortion is not just one issue among many. It is different. No one has come out in favor of hurting the poor. No one runs for office on a plank of trashing the environment. No one advocates the killing of innocent Iraqis. You may think that the policies you oppose are tantamount to these things. You may even think the politicians you oppose secretly want these things. But no one is arguing for them. The debate, at least ostensibly, is about which policies best help the poor, or best preserve peace, or best care for creation.

Abortion is different. Here we have some people saying "unborn life should be protected." Others are saying "the fetus does not need to be protected." The debate is about ends, not means. The abortion argument is not about how to best helpo the child, but whether they child deserves to be helped at all. The plain fact is millions of Americans argue for the right to terminate the unborn. Perhaps they think the fetus is not a human person. Perhaps they think small persons does not have a right to live. Perhaps they haven't thought through the issue very carefully.

I know there are Christians who support the right to abortion, but, honestly, I cannot see how. Besides the familiar and important verses about being knit together and even regenerated in the womb, just think about real life experience. My wife and I had our 20 week ultrasound last week for our fourth child. We had an earlier ultrasound around 12 weeks because we feared a miscarriage. At both ultrasounds, and every other one we've had with our other three children, we've seen a little child rolling around, kicking its legs, moving its head, bending its arms. We've seen the baby's spine, 10 fingers and 10 toes, and a little heart racing. If my wife went into preterm labor right now (heaven forbid), our doctors and hospital would do everything to save the life of our child. And if the child died (heaven forbid), the nurses and doctors and staff would mourn with us, and no one would think such a loss to be a small grief.

And yet, many Americans, and not a few professing Christians, would think nothing of ending this child's life on their own. And still others would think it a travesty not to have the "right" to do so. Almost every state has fetal homicide laws for the prosecution of those who harm a child in the womb. And yet, every state allows for abortion in all three trimesters for any reason. It is a sad and terrible kind of blindness that sees no contradiction in praying for safe pregnancies while still defending the right to kill the child of that pregnancy.

Either the unborn child is a human person or not. And if the fetus is a human person, then it is has a right to live whether we want it to or not. Which brings me to the main point: the government has no greater responsibility than protecting the lives of those who do not deserve to die. So when it comes to defending the unborn, I say legislate away and give the very least of these a chance to drink their first cup of cold water.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Calvin and Your Best Life Now

Are you interested in finding your best life? Calvin has some good advice:

Let us therefore hold, that our life will be framed in best accordance with the will of God, and the requirements of his Law, when it is, in every respect, most advantageous to our brethren. But in the whole Law, there is not one syllable which lays down a rule as to what man is to do or avoid for the advantage of his own carnal nature. And, indeed, since men are naturally prone to excessive self-love, which they always retain, how great soever their departure from the truth may be, there was no need of a law to inflame a love already existing in excess. Hence it is perfectly plain,that the observance of the Commandments consists not in the love of ourselves, but in the love of God and our neighbour; and that he leads the best and holiest life who as little as may be studies and lives for himself; and that none lives worse and more unrighteously than he who studies and lives only for himself, and seeks and thinks only of his own. Nay, the better to express how strongly we should be inclined to love our neighbour, the Lord has made self-love as it were the standard, there being no feeling in our nature of greater strength and vehemence. The force of the expression ought to be carefully weighed. For he does not (as some sophists have stupidly dreamed) assign the first place to self-love, and the second to charity. He rather transfers to others the love which we naturally feel for ourselves. Hence the Apostle declares, that charity “seeketh not her own,” (1 Cor. 13:5). Nor is the argument worth a straw, That the thing regulated must always be inferior to the rule. The Lord did not make self-love the rule, as if love towards others was subordinate to it; but whereas, through natural depravity, the feeling of love usually rests on ourselves, he shows that it ought to diffuse itself in another direction—that we should be prepared to do good to our neighbour with no less alacrity, ardour, and solicitude, than to ourselves (Inst. II.viii.54).

Monday, February 9, 2009

Why I Think the Church is Amazing (Even Though We Don't All Get Cool Buildings Like This One)

Church bashing is in. And no wonder. It's very easy. All you have to do is be attuned to the failures of others. Everyone has a story, or two, or twenty, of how lame/boring/hurtful their experience of church has been.

But what about the stories of how amazing/unbelievable/inspiring the Church can be? (For shameless book plug go here.)

Even by conservative estimates, this past weekend over 50 million Americans attended church. No law forced them to. They just went. Sure, we might see enormous stadiums full of people gathered on Sundays to watch grown men in battle gear run into each other, sometimes paying large sums of money to sit in the freezing cold for four hours just to watch them do it. But don't be over-impressed by the crowds. What do 16 stadiums add up to? A million people maybe. And there are only 16 games a year, only 8 in your town (if you live a big town). Try having 50 times as many games, and playing them every single week of every single year for decade after decade. There would be a lot of people sick of football too. And I guarantee there wouldn't be 50 million people going the stadium every week.

What's more, lots of the people who came to church over the weekend did more than just attend. They taught Sunday school, handed out bulletins, played the guitar, stacked chairs, and held babies in the nursery--all without getting a dime for any of it. In fact, many of the 50 million gave money over this weekend. Sure, not as much as they should, on average. But millions still gave and they gave millions. They didn't have to. Congress didn't tell them how much to give. No collection agency was going to track them down. But they gave anyway. And with that money the church will pay for disaster relief in Louisiana, a week of meals at the Rescue Mission downtown, some new coats for the homeless, a little extra cash for the unemployed in their midst, and a few more bricks for the school being built ten thousand miles away for people they'll never meet.

More than 50 million Americans gathered in sprawling megaplexes, storefronts, whiteboard meetinghouses, and urban cathedrals this weekend. And millions of them did more than just sit there. They welcomed the new family, invited the college student over for dinner, and prayed for the young wife who's missing terribly her husband in Iraq. They planned meals for the new mom, talked about raising children to the glory of God, and cried with the widower who feels all alone. No doubt, millions of Christians heard some bland prayers this weekend, and sang some awkward songs, and sat through some stilted sermons. But they still prayed, sang, and worshiped Jesus--a bunch of them from the bottom of their hearts.

Of course, someone else could write a few paragraphs about all the rotten things that happened in our churches this weekend. But we know that already. We know why we sometimes want to ditch the church. We get sick of the church because we get wick of people acting like people. That's not to excuse sin or crummy churches. But it is to say, you find what you're looking for. I can find faults in my church just as they can find faults in me. But the longer I'm at my church, the more I see how special my church is, how special the Church is. All I need is a willingness, or better yet an eagerness, to see what God is doing and has already done.

We don't need eyes to spy the church's failures. That vision is getting closer to 20/20 all the time. What we need eyes for are all the reasons we should love the church. The reasons are out there. We just need to open our eyes and smell the cheap coffee brewing in the foyer.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Christ and Caesar, Not So Fast

It has become popular in recent years to argue for, and in many cases assume, a strong anti-imperial agenda in the New Testament. From popular teachers like Rob Bell to serious scholars like N.T. Wright (also popular), it's not unusual to see the New Testament interpreted in light of Augstus, Pax Romana, and the imperial cult. Words and phrases like "savior", "son of God" and "gospel"--words the New Testament shares in common with the Roman political world--should, it is argued, be read as an attempt to purposefully subvert the Roman Empire, it's aims, and its authority. One is, of course, from here free to draw all sorts of contemporary political applications.

The New Testament is all about Christ and Caesar, right? Not so fast says Seyoon Kim, a professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, who tries to temper the recent enthusiasm for an anti-imperial hermeneutic in his book Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke (Eerdmans 2008).

Kim objects to an anti-imperial reading of Paul on several grounds: inappropriate parallelomania, the strong support for imperial authority in Romans 13 and elsewhere, incorrect assumptions about the breadth of the imperial cult, unwarranted proof-texting, the lack of an anti-imperial understanding interpretation in the early church fathers, Paul's confidence before Roman tribunals (why did he always expect to be exonerated if deep down he understood one of his main objectives to be the taking down of the whole empire?), and the dubious appeals to hidden "coding" where an anti-Roman agenda does not seem to be present. Kim summarizes:

Thus, there is no anti-imperial intent to be ascertained in the Pauline Epistles. All attempts to interpret them as containing such an intent, as shown above, are imposing an anti-imperial reading on the epistles based merely on superficial parallelism of terms between Paul's gospel preaching and the Roman imperial ideology, while the texts themselves clearly use those terms to express other concerns. Several attempts have turned out to suffer from grave self-contradiction. Some have betrayed their arbitrariness or desperation by appealing to the device of "coding," that Paul coded his real anti-imperial message in politically innocuous language or in anti-Jewish polemic (68).

Similarly, Luke's writings (his Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles), while aware of the evils of the Roman Empire, are not, strictly speaking anti-imperial. The Lukan message is one where the diaobolical nature of the empire is recognized (because every human system is fraught with evil), but is nevertheless coupled with a willingness to cooperate with the Roman Empire and use its facilities (190). The point, as Kim argues, is that empire is not the main problem in the world of the New Testament. Instead, "The fundamental problem for human beings and the world is the reign of Satan in sin and death (Luke 11:14-23; 13:16; Acts 10:38; 26:18; etc.)" (191).

Even in Revelation, where an anti-imperial agenda is clearly evident, there are still no calls for revolution or plans laid out for this-worldly liberation. The real enemy is Satan and human sinfulness and both are overcome by faith and the witness of the gospel.

However, in spite of his fervent critique of the beastly Roman Empire and his explicit interpretation of Christ's work in the category of the messianic war, the seer John does not envisage the church as actively engaged in political subversion and military campaign. Nor does he show what concrete political changes in the present are entailed in the conversion of the nations to be brought by the Spirit-empowered church's faithful witness to the true God and the Lamb slaughtered. Instead, John prophesies conversion of the nations as constituting the ultimate victory of Jesus Christ and ushering in the consummation of the Kingdom of God, and therefore as something that will take place at the parousia of the Lord Jesus Christ. With this apocalyptic prophecy, John is interested only in assuring the believers of the victory of Jesus Christ and his imminent parousia for the eschatalogical judgment and redemption and calling them to "conquer" (Rev 2:7, 11; 12:11; etc.) the "Beast," the Roman Empire, in the same way that Jesus Christ, the Lamb slaughtered but now enthroned on God's throne, conquered (Rev 5:5): namely, by maintaining faithfully "the testimony of Jesus" unto martyrdom (195).

I couldn't have said it better myself (though I would have said it with smaller words and shorter sentences).

Friday, February 6, 2009

6 More Questions for the Potentially Crusty

I've been writing about the need for core theological convictions without a crusty, crotchety shell. Christians should be a kind of inverse tootsie roll pop--a soft, sweet exterior surrounding a strong, solid interior. Yesterday I suggested six questions to help prevent crustiness in the theologically devout. Today, six more questions.

7. Are we bringing everything up all the way to the glory of God? This is is one of the things I appreciate most about John Piper. Instead of just arguing for justification by faith alone or God's all-controlling sovereignty, he shows how these precious truths bring glory to God. If we don't bring everything up to the level of God, our churches will have factions of book people, youth people, social justice people, evangelism people, etc. We need to see how our unique interests and callings relate to God.

8. Are we experts in Scripture first? It's quite possible to be well-versed in Van Til's apologetics, Calvin's third use of the law, and David Well's critiques of evangelicalism without knowing well the verses of the Bible. We need to know the Bible better than any other book, memorize it, pray it, and teach it (not just a catechism) to our children.

9. Are we theological snobs? If many of my readers are Calvinists, then many of my readers have gone through a crusty Calvinist stage. Some, sadly, never leave it. Certainly, we need to be discerning and help our people grow in their understanding of truth and appetite for meat. But beware the “I’m hipper than thou” attitude that looks down on everyone interested in Left Behind or Facing the Giants are benighted fools. The truly wise learn to benefit from those who don't get everything right.

10. Can we accept that there are Romans 14 issues? The tricky question (the trickiest question in my opinion) is which issues are Romans 14 issues. But for starters, we should at least affirm in principle that sometimes we will agree to disagree. We will say at times, "Let each person be convinced in his own mind." This doesn't mean the issue is pointless or unimportant. It means we recognize that the Scripture is not abundantly clear on every issues and we must allow for differences.

11. Are we resounding gongs and clanging cymbals? If we have convictions and disagree with others, some people will call us loveless. But, that doesn't mean we have to live up to the charges. We need to love our friends, love the church, and love our enemies. We should not be scared to love and talk about love just because liberals have hijacked the word.

12. Do we possess deep and pervasive piety? I know that pietism is a bad word in some circles. It conjures up notionas of anti-intellectual sentimentality. But we got pietism because Protestant scholasticism had gotten dry (or at least many of the churches of the time had). If we want to be more than intellectual people who happen to be into theology, we need to cultivate deep affections and deeper sanctification. As Reformed Christians (assuming many of you are), let's lead the way, not only in theolgocial integrity, but also in meditation, Scripture memory, intercession, and earnest worship. What our families, friends, and churches need most from us is our own personal holiness.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

6 Questions for the Potentially Crusty

Yesterday I wrote about the necessity of having a theological core and the danger of being spiritually crusty. I certainly don't get it all right myself, but here are a few questions that can help prevent crustiness as we unapologetically exult in the precious truths of Scripture.

1. Do we actually care about evangelism? The plight of the lost should break our hearts and the opportunity to share the gospel should be a delight.

2. Do we wear smallness as a badge of honor? "Successful" ministries are not always sell-outs and small churches are sometimes just not very healthy.

3. Are our passions in the right proportion? It's fine to be passionate about our view on baptism, as long as this passion does not outshine our passion for the cross, the Trinity, and the glory of Christ.

4. Do we (or our pastors) preach with personal, passionate, pleading? The truths we believe are not for dissecting as much as for heralding with joy and humble intercession.

5. Do we know ourselves? We need to understand our gifts, our personalities, our strengths and weaknesses. We need to be ok with who we are and not try to be Driscoll, Piper, Keller, or anyone else. A sense of humor also helps. The Lord probably laughs at us on occasion so we should be able to laugh at ourselves.

6. Are we fighting the battles that matter most in our context? Don't spend gobs of time preaching on the emergent church if no one in your church has heard of it. Don't waste a lot of time defending the Pauline authorship of Ephesians if no one around you has ever thought anything different. Understand the issues of worldliness and disobedience that most affect your friends, church, and family.

Tomorrow... six more questions for us to consider.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Crust and the Core

If we are to be fruitful and godly Christians we need to have a theological core without being theologically crusty.

In desiring a theological core I don’t mean that all Christians must be bookish and given to intellectual contemplation. I mean that every Christian must be shaped from the inside out by a set of convictions about who God is and what he has accomplished in Jesus Christ. As Christians we should be animated (given life) and motivated (compelled to action) by a core of doctrinal truths–truths like God is loving, sovereign, and holy; God created the world and created it good; as a result of Adam’s sin humans are bent toward evil; Jesus Christ was God’s Son, begotten not created; Jesus suffered and died on the cross for sins and rose again on the third day; the Holy Spirit is God and fills us with power, enables us to believe, equips us with gifts, and bears fruit in our lives; the Bible is God’s word; Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead, and justification is by faith alone.

These truths need to be more than a set of beliefs we assume. They should be the lens through which we look at ourselves and the world. There are many Christians and churches that don’t deny any cardinal doctrine of Christian faith, but they still don’t have a theological core. They have, instead, a musty statement of faith they barely understand and hardly believe and wouldn’t dare preach. They are animated and motivated by politics, church growth, relational concerns and the like, but the gospel is merely assumed. “Yes, yes–of course we believe in the Virgin Birth, and the atonement, and the resurrection, and heaven and hell,” they say. But its all periphery, not core. It’s all assumed, not all-consuming. Theologically hollow congregations and pastors may like to think they will bequeath a gospel legacy to the next generation, but the truth is we only pass on what is our passion. New converts and new kids won’t think and live and love like mature Christians, let alone be able to articulate the Christian story, if our beliefs rest in a pamphlet and not in our hearts.

I make no apologies for having a theological church. The church ought to be about the business of the gospel, and the gospel is a message of historical fact plus God-given interpretation. That’s theology. I hope we never feel like we have the “theology thing” down at URC just because we have solid book studies and long, meaty sermons. The “theology thing” is a lifelong project of being transformed by the renewing of our minds. We want to be thinking Christians who know what we believe, why we believe it, and live and die in the comfort of these beliefs.

Having a theological core means, among other thing, that our unity is theological. Of course we want to be united in love and purpose too. But whatever actions and affections we share in unison ought to radiate from a theological core. There is so much talk around the broader church about being missional Christians that it’s easy to think the church should be missional-centric. And in one sense, mission is certainly at the center of what we do. But mission itself is not what ties us together or fires us up. It’s only when the mission is defined and it’s genesis is proclaimed that we can rally around mission.

What I mean is that we should be, first of all, Christocentric; that is, centered on the cross of Christ. Christ is our identity, our passion, and our hope. And because of this identity, passion, and hope we pray, and evangelize, and do missions. But missions is not the center. Christ is–which shapes, defines, and launches us into mission. It’s like John Piper’s famous line: “Mission is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is.” Being missional is not a sufficient basis for unity. One, because I’m never quite sure what missional means. Two, because the blazing hot center of Christian identity, passion, and hope is not that we are all doing things in Jesus name. Of course, we should be doing things in Jesus’ name. But the blazing hot center is what God has already done for us in Christ. This must always be explained and rejoiced in, not merely assumed.

Which brings me back to the main point. We desperately need Christians and pastors and missionaries and churches and denominations and movements and institutions which are theological to the core, where doctrines are not simply items to be checked off the dogmatic grocery list or statements to be dusted off out of the ecclesiastical attic. We must all be theological because being a Christians means we embrace a message about who Jesus is and the victory he won for us. And that’s theology.

So, core, yes. Crust? No.

Please, don’t skip the last part of this post, especially if you really liked the first part. Because you may just be a crusty Christian if you’re not careful.

What makes a Christian crusty? A number of things. For starters, it’s an attitude. It’s a demeanor where being Calvinist or paedobaptist or inerrantist (three things I am gladly) are put on like armor or wielded like weapons, when they are meant to be the warm glow of a Christian whose core radiates with love for Christ and the gospel. I believe in theological distinctives–I believe in them and I believe it is good to have them–but if the distinctives are not manifestly the flower of gospel root, the buds aren’t worth the blooming.

A second mark of crusty Christians is approachability, as in, not having any. There is a sizing up-ness that makes some theological types unnecessarily prickly. They are bright and opinionated and quickly analytical. As a result, knowingly or unknowingly, they emit a vibe which communicates something between “You Max Lucado reading moron!” and “I wish R.C. Sproul were here to teach you a thing or two!” Crusty Christians are hard to be around. They are intimidating instead of engaging and growling instead of gracious. They are too willing to share their opinions on everything and unable to put any doctrine in any category not marked “absolutely essential.”

When theology is more crust than core, it’s not so much that we care about good theology too much, we just don’t care about some other hugely important things in the same proportion. So we end up largely skeptical of a prayerful, fruitful, warm-hearted, godly, Arminian leaning pastor. Now, I might think such a pastor is prayerful, fruitful, warm-hearted and godly despite too much emphasis on libertarian free will, but I sure hope to be mighty thankful for all his prayerfulness, fruitfulness, and warm-hearted godliness. Some Christians allow evangelism to trump all other considerations, others size up fellow Christians by their attention to social justice concerns, but a lot of us do our judging with theology. If the theology fits, the lack of mission, prayer, and compassion doesn’t matter much. But if a few theological pieces are misplaced in the puzzle, see you later and don’t let Hymenaeus and Philetus door hit you on the way out.

Striking the balance is not easy. But let’s try hard to be discerning and grounded without always looking for the next theological misstep in our friends, our family, or the songs we sing. And let’s be able to tell the difference between wandering sheep and false teachers. We must delineate between a slightly ill-informed wording of a phrase and a purposeful rejection of truth. We must pursue a passion for fidelity to Scripture and a winsomeness that sweetens the already honey-like drippings of the word of God. Let us be more like a chocolate covered raisin, likeable on the outside and surprisingly good for you on the inside, and less like a tootsie roll pop with its brittle, crunchy exterior that must be broken through before anyone can get to the good stuff. Our theological heart, if it is worth anything, will pulse throughout our spiritual bodies, making us into someone more prayerful, more godly, and more passionate about the Bible, the lost, and the world around us. We will be theologically solid to the core, without the unnecessary crust.

Monday, February 2, 2009

True Confessions

After our two services yesterday morning, I headed out with several other guys to go to the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors. It's about an 11 hour drive from East Lansing to Minneapolis so we decided to stop over night in Wisconsin. It was a fun drive and a fun night with five other guys I really like and respect. And we saw a good part of a great Super Bowl.

After the Super Bowl, NBC went right into an hour long episode of The Office. My relationship with The Office has had a lot of ups and downs. I don't set the show as appointment viewing. But it's the only non-sports show on television that I ever watch. It's absolutely hilarious at times, and my wife likes the Jim/Pam relationship thing. So we've watched it from time to time.

So, on the one hand, I think the show is very funny. Its satire of corporate America and its ingenious characters always provide many opportunities to laugh aloud. But on the other hand, the sexual innuendo, sexual sin, sexual perversity, and sexual talk, always give me reasons to cringe. So over the past few years I've been up and down about the office. At times I've really enjoyed it and have even been thankful for its humor as a gift from God. At other times I've mentioned to others (including our college students a college retreat) about how it offends my conscience.

Well, after watching last night's episode--which made me laugh uproariously at several spots--I think I need to pay more attention to my conscience. I'm not trying to make viewing decisions for every other Christian. It's unwise to lay down absolute entertainment standards for everyone else. All I know is that after watching The Office last night I did not love Christ more; I was not more ready to worship him; I was not more aware of the closeness of God; I did not feel like I was obeying the command "Be holy as I am holy." It felt more like worldliness to me.

Again, I laughed a lot. And maybe other people handle the sexual stuff in a different way. But for me, I can't, in good conscience, give thanks for what I saw last night--and the ability to give thanks is the crucial test for gray areas of Christian liberty. As we get ready for a great Pastor's Conference I couldn't help but think about pastors of old. Did George Whitefield get to be George Whitefield by listening to an endless stream of sexual jokes? Would Calvin or Spurgeon or Athanasius dared to have watched The Office. Different times, sure, but most people in our culture, myself included, are more apt to define deviancy down than to live in fearful prudishness.

Let each person be convinced in his own mind. But my mind right now says The Office is not good for my sanctification. And that means its not good for me, my family, or my church.