Space, Steve Miller, and a Good Christian Time


 

About forty years ago, my friend and I sat excitedly as the diamond needle made its way from the edge of the vinyl disc toward the center. Reliably, the turntable rotated at 33.3 RPM until the needle made its way to the grooved section with the song we most wanted to hear: “Fly Like an Eagle” by the Steve Miller Band.

bald-eagle-521492_1920As Miller’s melody filled the air, we experienced many feelings; disappointment wasn’t among them! The instant the “space intro” began to play, we were transported from our south Louisiana homes into a far-away world of rhythmic delight.

More recently, in a different small town in south Louisiana, scientists were likewise transported into a far-away place of audible fascination, but theirs was not a musical adventure—at least not technically. Scientists detected a faint chirp from deep space, instantaneously affirming Einstein’s century-old prediction that gravitational waves permeate our universe.

Writing in the New York Times, Dennis Overbye describes this chirp as music to the scientist’s ear,

“If replicated by future experiments, that simple chirp, which rose to the note of middle C before abruptly stopping, seems destined to take its place among the great sound bites of science, ranking with Alexander Graham Bell’s “Mr. Watson — come here” and Sputnik’s first beeps from orbit.”

On September 14, 2015, scientists at two different LIGO[1] facilities in Washington and Louisiana achieved the milestone discovery of GW150914—the first directly observed gravitational wave in space. Lasting only 0.2 seconds, the chirp of this wave reverberated around the world to the delight of scientists everywhere. Though discovered in September 2015, the wave was not announced until February 2016. Scientists ever since have been heralding the wave detection as a major achievement in science. Bruce Gordon of the Discovery Institute calls this discovery “the real thing,” while Szabolcs Marka of Columbia University says it is one of the major breakthroughs of physics. Eric Katsavounidis (LIGO team member) says, “This is the end of the silent-movie era in astronomy.”[2]

Astronomers are ecstatic about this discovery for more than one reason. Sure, Blog universe-2368403_1920GW150914 affirms an important aspect of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Perhaps more importantly, the detection of this gravitational wave means an entirely new dimension of exploration is unfolding. In the past, scientists studied the universe mainly by observing light. Now, gravitational waves can be studied throughout the cosmos, further clarifying aspects of motion, time, and origin of the cosmos. Adding gravitational waves is like adding sound to the light of the universe.

Years before my friend and I even heard of the Steve Miller Band, scientists had already begun working to observe gravitational waves. LIGO began as a dream in the 1960’s with scientists like Kip Thorne at Caltech. These scientists persevered through funding issues, research setbacks, and technology deficiencies for forty-eight years before their dream of detecting a gravitational wave was realized. If nothing else, the achievement stands as a testimony to human perseverance.

In 1916, Einstein first proposed finding gravitational waves. The search for these waves began in earnest about fifty years ago. Construction of super-technical, super-sensitive equipment began two decades ago. Over the last two decades, more than two hundred million dollars were invested in upgrades to the two LIGO observatories, culminating in a final round of intensive upgrades over the last five years. And just about a year ago—before the equipment was officially ready to launch—it happened. The chirp sounded (listen here). For two-tenths of a second, the earth surfed across a gravitational wave. Scientists worldwide rightly applauded.

Gravitational wave GW150914 was produced by the final collapse of spiraling, binary black holes. These spiraling black holes were once massive stars which collapsed into themselves, then into each other. Each of these black holes began as stars with a mass thirty times that of our sun. The collapse of the two stars, and the consequent merger of the two black holes, happened 1.4 billion light years away in the Southern Celestial Hemisphere.

No one on earth felt the gravitational wave. Without the sophisticated, ultra-sensitive LIGO equipment, no one would ever have known that such a wave existed. But because of LIGO scientists who were able to split laser beams and send them through 2.5 mile long vacuum tubes 90 degrees apart in Louisiana and Washington, the world now knows for sure that gravitational waves are rippling through the cosmos like intergalactic whirlpools. It’s easy to see why physicists are so excited.

Christians should join their applause. LIGO is a monumental achievement. Christians might be tempted to conflate this discovery too quickly into an argument for design (against evolution), or to question the assumptions of origins (for fiat creation against Big Bang cosmology). Scientists do tend to leave a number of metaphysical questions hanging like the ill-fitting apparel we put on the discarded clothes rack in fitting rooms. Charles Q. Choi explains it this way:

“Since the universe by its definition encompasses all of space and time as we know it, NASA says it is beyond the model of the Big Bang to say what the universe is expanding into or what gave rise to the Big Bang. Although there are models that speculate about these questions, none of them have made realistically testable predictions as of yet.”[3]

blog galaxies-connectedWhy is the universe expanding? To what end is the universe expanding? Is there a purpose built into the expansion? Where did the energy and mass derive from which the Big Bang occurred? Why should there be a Big Bang in the first place? These and many other questions remain unanswered. In truth, GW150914 answers some questions, refuses to answer other questions, and reveals still more fascinating questions waiting to be asked.

One such question in my own mind is how does this discovery affect our understanding of time and history. Ostensibly, the experiment had little to do with time; it was an experiment designed to detect gravitational waves in space. Yet everything about the experiment extols the virtues of linear time.

Think back to the song “Fly Like an Eagle.” The song wished for a revolution to eradicate poverty. Steve Miller wished he could fly like an eagle until he was free from the suffering in this world. Miller hoped for progress over time. One of the more memorable lines from the song is the confident refrain, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, into the future.”

Like those of us whose cognitive formation took place in a western tradition, Steve Miller assumed that time is linear—that time progresses toward a defined point which we call the future. Does the notion of linear time correspond to the reality of the cosmos? Eastern religions doubt linear time. Even in the West, some have begun to doubt that time has a fixed beginning and a linear progression into the future.

Friedrich Nietzsche may be the most influential philosopher in the West to argue against linear time. According to Nietzsche, time occurs in a series of endless loops, a system he referred to as eternal recurrence. In this system, time is more like a wheel, turning round and round but going nowhere. Human action is rendered insignificant because whatever is has already been and will be again. In eternal recurrence, human action is pre-determined by the cycle of time. Thus, no human action ultimately changes history. The future is swallowed up in the past. So Nietzsche explained in Zarathustra, “The soul is as mortal as the body. But the knot of causes in which I am entangled recurs and will create me again.”[4]

Nietzsche was comfortable with—if not excited by—this loss of future meaning, but not everyone shares his zeal for embracing (and thus defying) the meaninglessness of human existence. Philosopher Ron Nash points out that Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence robbed history of meaning: “In order for history to have significance, it must have a goal. Without a purpose or goal, neither history nor individual human lives can have significance. Without a goal, there would be no basis by which mere change could be identified as progress.”[5]

It’s easy to see that the LIGO scientists pay close attention to history—especially the last 100 years. Not only history, these scientists are serious and sober about the future. They believe they are making progress, but they know they are only scratching the surface. They are determined to learn as much as they can before they die, leaving a knowledge trail for future scientists. In other words, these scientists believe in progress. LIGO scientists believe in the future.

The optimism of this work affirms in three ways the linear concept of time: First, that this universe has a single point of origin. Second, that this is an orderly universe which remains intact over time. Third, that the work done presently matters (has enduring significance not just now but in the future). These scientists share a belief in the progress of knowledge (preservation and advancement).

Christians, too, believe the universe has a single point of origin. We proclaim the significance of human life now with great confidence toward the future. We believe, for instance, that Christ died for our sins once in history for all time, and the benefits of that death endure to the future.

Christians should join the celebration of GW150914. The discovery of this wave affirms the way we see the universe. Christians and physicists agree that time is significant for human beings in the past and present. This discovery also means that we can keep singing Steve Miller, as time keeps on slipping, slipping into the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                [1] LIGO stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. There are two observatories, one in Livingston, LA, the other near Richland, WA.

[2] As quoted by Robert Naeye, Sky and Telescope, February 11, 2016, accessed [on-line] 27 January 2016: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/gravitational-wave-detection-heralds-new-era-of-science-0211201644/

                [3] Charles Q. Choi, “Our Expanding Universe: Age, History, and Other Facts,” Space.Com (January 13, 2015), accessed January 30, 2017, [on-line] http://www.space.com/52-the-expanding-universe-from-the-big-bang-to-today.html

 

                [4] As Quoted in C. Ivan Spencer, The Tweetable Nietzsche (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 104. Originally, this quotation is found in Nietzsche, Friedrich, Thus Spoke Zarathustra [III, “The Convalescent”].

[5] Ron Nash, The Meaning of History (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1998), 38.

How Serious Are You About the Lord’s Supper


“In 1530, not even two decades into the Reformation, Martin Luther lamented the way that Christians viewed the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, stating that ‘people now regard the holy sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord so lightly and assume an attitude toward it as if there were nothing on earth which they needed less than just this sacrament.’”[1]

Lord's Supper Bread WineWhen I first read that quote, I thought—Wow! If Luther thought the Lord’s Supper was treated casually in his day, what in the world would he think about our treatment of it today! I heard of a group of Christians who thought they could take the Lord’s Supper in their dorm room using Twinkies and Kool-aid. Even in established churches one gets the idea that the Lord’s Supper is often nothing more than a procedural stamp of approval so the service can conclude. There are even “all-in-one” disposable Lord’s Supper kits—wafer and grape juice in a single hygienic package to get the deed done in rapid-fire succession.

But historically speaking, the bread and the wine have been subjects of the utmost importance. A century or two before the arrival of Martin Luther, men like John Wycliffe were risking their lives to expound a biblical view of what we now call the practice of the Lord’s Supper.  Wycliffe escaped martyrdom, but not persecution. Indeed, he was ultimately condemned as a heretic by the Council of Constance in May of 1415—four decades after his death. Here is the Council’s condemnation of Wycliffe:

Furthermore, a process was begun, on the authority or by decree of the Roman council, and at the command of the church and of the apostolic see, after a due interval of time, for the condemnation of the said Wyclif and his memory. Invitations and proclamations were issued summoning those who wished to defend him and his memory, if any still existed. However, nobody appeared who was willing to defend him or his memory. Witnesses were examined by commissaries appointed by the reigning lord pope John and by this sacred council, regarding the said Wyclif’s final impenitence and obstinacy. Legal proof was thus provided, in accordance with all due observances, as the order of law demands in a matter of this kind, regarding his impenitence and final obstinacy. This was proved by clear indications from legitimate witnesses. This holy synod, therefore, at the instance of the procurator-fiscal and since a decree was issued to the effect that sentence should be heard on this day, declares, defines and decrees that the said John Wyclif was a notorious and obstinate heretic who died in heresy, and it anathematises him and condemns his memory. It decrees and orders that his body and bones are to be exhumed, if they can be identified among the corpses of the faithful, and to be scattered far from a burial place of the church, in accordance with canonical and lawful sanctions.

Why dig up a man’s bones and burn and scatter them forty years after he died? Because his crime was so heinous that his bodily remains could not be allowed to rest among the “faithful.” And what were these awful crimes? The Council enumerated 45 different anathemas of which it found Wycliffe guilty. Interestingly enough, the first 5 of his crimes were directly related to the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. The Council pointed out that Wycliffe believed

  • The bread remained bread and the wine remained wine.
  • The bread didn’t just “appear” to be bread. It remained bread and not the flesh of Christ.
  • That Christ did not bodily become the bread.
  • And that the current (14th century) practice of the Mass was not supported by Scripture.

For these beliefs about the Lord’s Supper, Wycliffe’s body was exhumed and destroyed. He was condemned forever as a heretic. Today, most Protestants agree with Wycliffe’s observations about the Roman Catholic mass and its insistence upon the doctrine of transubstantiation (where the wine becomes the blood of Christ and the bread becomes his flesh).

While we can be glad that we are free to believe and practice the Lord’s Supper as we think it is taught in Scripture, we should not be casual or indifferent towards this ordinance. It is specifically commanded by Christ for us to practice, and it is designed by Christ for us to remember his sacrifice on our behalf and proclaim his greatness until he returns.

A great many of our Christian fathers have been persecuted—and some have even died—for the right to celebrate the Lord’s Supper by faith according to the Scriptures. The next time we go to take the bread and the wine, let us remember that this is no small practice. It has been ordained by Christ Himself so that we will remember him and preach him to the watching world. Let us remember that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. Then let us obey our Lord’s command,

“Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

[1] Matthew Crawford, “On Faith, Signs, and Fruits: Martin Luther’s Theology of the Lord’s Supper,” in The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ Until He Comes, NAC Studies in Bible and Theology (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2010), 193.

How Many Meanings Can a Biblical Text Have?


How many meanings can a biblical text have? Here is a good question—and a pertinent one. In Sunday school classes from coast to coast, in small group Bible studies, in house groups and house churches, this principle question is tested week after week.

Text hermeneutics single meaningIs it not quite common for a group of believers to sit around and say in turn, “To me, this text means…?” Some house churches even pride themselves on an equal meaning principle which says that no one is to be viewed as an authoritative preacher or teacher. All share equally in interpretations. But there are good reasons such careless language needs to be clarified and avoided.

A biblical text can have only one meaning, except in the rare cases in which the author uses double entendre (an intentional double meaning).[1],[2] If a text is able to mean different things to different people, then, ultimately, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Here is the correction that is needed: Texts mean what the author intended them to mean.

So meaning is bound by authorial intent. Such a bound meaning means that our work is to dig through the author’s writings to determine how he uses words and phrases, thus discovering what he intended to say when he put ink to parchment. This differs from common practice in three ways.

First, it obviously differs from the practice of “Reader Response,” in which the reader gets to decide the meaning for him(or her)self. Second, it differs from locating the meaning in the text itself, as though the text has a life of its own, morphing and changing from generation to generation. Third, it differs from many forms of “theological” interpretation which often include allegorical interpretations. What I have in mind here is laying some “higher” meaning over the text, saying things like, “We believe in the Scriptures as interpreted by Jesus.” The end result of this thinking is to free us (as Christ’s representatives) to believe—or not believe—whatever we wish from the Scriptures, justifying our belief by saying “What Jesus really meant was….”

The real work of a preacher or teacher begins with digging into the Scriptures to determine what the author meant for the reader to understand when he wrote the text. Obviously, a myriad of mitigating circumstances can make this task quite difficult. Our culture is not like David’s culture from 3,000 years ago. Our languages are different, too; and language differences always cause problems. Yet, there is a meaning the author willed, and that meaning is our original exegetical task.

At this point, we need some clarification. Usually, when our Christian brothers and sisters sit in a circle saying “to me, this text means,” they are not actually speaking of the meaning of the text; rather, they are speaking of their understanding of the text. So, technically, they might say, “My understanding of this text is….” Of course, our understanding could be wrong. We might misunderstand. The meaning itself is unaffected by our error. It is our understanding which must be corrected.

Another helpful clarification is that a text may have many applications, even if it has only one meaning. Take, for example, Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:18:

“And do not get drunk with win, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.”

What is the clear meaning? Be wise. Don’t drink yourself to drunkenness. Rather, seek to fill yourself with God’s Spirit for Bible hermeneutics interpretation single meaningthe good of God’s people. (See vv. 15-21 for the reason that I added wisdom and fellowship to my interpretation of v. 18).

Ephesians 5:18 has a single meaning. My interpretation above represents my attempt to put into words Paul’s meaning. Like my understanding, my interpretation could also be wrong. Still, Paul’s meaning stands. Assuming that I am right about my interpretation, I can then move to an application from this text. The point of the verse is to practice wisdom, being filled with the Spirit for the good of others, while avoiding drunkenness. So, I could apply this to my own life and say that I will not get drunk on any alcoholic beverage (beer, bourbon, or wine). Others might realize that for them this would apply to their need of avoiding marijuana or narcotics. Paul’s meaning stands, even while the application to our lives differs.

These clarifications may seem like a nit-picking of words. But there is an enormous cost to saying that a text has many different meanings. If a text can mean different things to different people, then who can say that the cult leader David Koresh was not the Lamb of Revelation 5?  Koresh believed that Revelation 5 spoke of him and his ability to open the scrolls (see here).  Hmmm… I think he was wrong—fatally wrong—and guilty of distorting the Scriptures to his own destruction (cf. 2 Peter 3:16). There is a right way to interpret Scripture and a wrong way.  And the right way is to begin with the author’s intended meaning.

Let’s be helpful to our brothers and sisters in our small groups and Bible studies. Let’s encourage each other to share interpretations of the Scripture together and to tell how the Holy Spirit is leading us to apply those Scriptures in our own lives, but let us all agree that God led these authors to write certain things with single meaning and purpose. Our work is to pursue that meaning and purpose and obey it joyfully, while honoring our pastors and teachers who pay extra close attention to such things.


Definitions Needed for Persecuted Christians in Nigeria

Why Definitions Matter

[1] See for instance John 2:19-22, in which Jesus speaks of the temple of his body, but the disciples obviously understand the temple to be in Jerusalem—but realize the full meaning of Christ’s teaching after his resurrection.

[2] The principle of single meaning was affirmed in Article VII by the 1982 International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.

What Good Is Hell?


The doctrine of eternal hell is one of the most controversial of Christian beliefs—even among professing Christians!  For some, the doctrine is simply unthinkable. Thus, like a nasty family secret, the doctrine is tucked away in a mental category called “Let’s not talk about that anymore.” For others, Hell is to be explained away through a belief in annihilation (that we will finally be destroyed) or universalism (that somehow all will be saved eventually). 

Persecution and HellEven Christian leaders who are convinced of the biblical teaching concerning a literal hell find themselves struggling with the concept and almost apologetic about its inclusion in the canon (see one example of such struggling in this review of Erasing Hell). According to one scholar, however, the New Testament is not as squeamish about eternal torment as 21st century Americans. 

Chris Morgan, editor of Hell Under Fire and a wheel barrow full of other evangelical books, has written a fascinating little article in the most recent edition of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. His article displays his passionate, pastoral heart, along with his focused, intentional mind:

There is a sense in which we sympathize with these concerns. In a very real sense, hell is tragic, because sin is tragic. We are rightly repulsed by people who angrily and gleefully wave banners such as “You’re going to hell!” as weapons in their cultural wars. No, we do not want people to go to hell, we are grieved at the prospect, and we pray, minister, give, and witness in hopes that people will come to Christ for salvation, glorifying God as worshippers of Jesus.

But Morgan is neither naïve nor satisfied with mere sentimentality. He delves further into biblical teaching to discover an untapped mine of theological riches concerning hell and persecuted Christians.  (And once again, the biblical text challenges what we think we know.) Meditate on this amazing realization from Dr. Morgan:

Far from displaying our current moral angst, the Bible routinely portrays hell as right, just, and an aspect of God’s final victory. Even more, the Bible regularly instructs about hell in order to comfort God’s people, particularly those undergoing severe persecution…

After quoting Paul (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10), Morgan offers this insightful commentary from that text:

Paul comforts these believers by emphasizing the just judgment of God:  “God’s judgment is right” … “God is just: he will pay back trouble for those that trouble you.” … Thus, these persecuted Christians can find hope in God’s retributive and vindicating judgment.

So what good is there in hell? It is a sign of God’s victory to encourage the faith of God’s saints suffering persecution.

I really appreciate these insights from Dr. Morgan. I’m sure you will, too. You can read the whole article here.

Who Is Persecuting Palestinian Christians?


No one needs to ponder whether Christians in Palestinian territories are suffering terribly. They are. Who’s to blame?

Christian persecution middle eastThere are very strong voices in the media and in political circles who point out that Israel is the country doing all the killing. Sure, Hamas is firing hundreds of missiles into Israel, but they don’t end up killing anyone because of Israel’s advanced “Iron Dome” defense systems.  Meanwhile, Israel’s rockets do reach their targets, and, so, more than 100 Palestinians have been killed in recent fighting. Palestine has been an area of Christian influence for centuries. And Israel has been an unwelcome occupier of the land since 1948. Protected by her western allies, Israel is responsible for exerting its disproportionate force in such a way that Christians in Palestine are the ones who end up suffering.

Against this view, there are those who argue that Israel has done no wrong. They point out that Hamas—a known Islamic terrorist organization—has been in control of Palestine since 2007.  In the last decade more than 4,000 rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza.  The rockets are fired by Hamas, Al Quds, and others, who launch the rockets from hospitals, elementary schools, and apartment buildings in order to prevent Israel from fighting back.  If Israel were to fight back, she would inevitably kill civilians, which would then create “martyrs” for media manipulation.  The entire affair is as cynical as it is sordid.

What if—instead of being sucked into the bi-polar, geo-political warfare being waged from both sides—what if we could hear directly from Palestinian Christians? Maybe we can. They have been speaking out for the past couple of years.  From a 2012 Gatestone Institute report,

In a rare public protest, leaders and members of the 2,000-strong Christian community in the Gaza Strip staged a sit-in strike in the Gaza Strip this week to condemn the abductions and forced conversions in particular, and persecution at the hands of radical Muslims in general.

Most of us are not experts on the political machinations of the Middle East. We rely on news reports, testimonies, and research we hope we can trust. And we must do our best to make sense of a situation that always seems to inflame passions more than light the way of truth. It isn’t easy. But here’s a thought.

Given the fact that these Christians are living in Hamas-controlled Palestinian territories, they would be applauded by their government and by the sentiments of the general population if they blamed Israel. Blaming Israel would be the most natural, most agreeable, and most simple statement for them to make.  But they have been doing the opposite. They have been protesting the treatment they are receiving at the hands of Hamas and their own leaders.  They have been saying that their people are being kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam. And they have said this publicly at their own risk:

The protest has further aggravated tensions between Muslims and Christians in the Gaza Strip, which has been under the control of Hamas since 2007.

Leaders and members of the Christian community now fear reprisal attacks by Muslim extremists. Some have appealed to the Vatican and Christian groups and churches in the US, Canada and Europe for help. 

It seems to me that it would take much more courage for them to speak against their own Muslim (Hamas/PA) leaders than it would for them to Israel Flag God Favor Israel Ethnic National Christspeak out against Israel. Thus, I tend to believe that Palestinian Christians are in fact being persecuted by and, consequently, have been suffering at the hands of Hamas and other Muslim radicals in Gaza.

I’m not saying that Israel is always right. I don’t believe that. I don’t even believe that the land and geopolitical entity we now call Israel is particularly favored by God (as I have explained here).  There is no doubt that Israel’s wartime mentality is creating a terrible hardship for many, even if Israel has taken the unprecedented step of announcing ahead of time where and when she will strike. (See here for particular stories with varying degrees of blame toward Israel).

What I am saying, however, is that Palestinian Christians have been persecuted by the Hamas-led Palestinian authority. And at least some Palestinian Christians have been trying to speak up about it.  They feel that the media are punching the mute button toward their voice-boxes because their complaints don’t fit the typical political script.

At the end of the matter, of course, it does not matter who is to blame as much as what will we do? Will we help them with our prayers (1 Cor 1:8-11)?  Above all, let us pray that Christ Himself would be their strength, their hope, and their refuge through this awful storm in which they seem to have lost all their earthly allies.

For Krauthammer’s take on current Israel-Palestine crisis:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/charles-krauthammer-moral-clarity-in-gaza/2014/07/17/0adabe0c-0de4-11e4-8c9a-923ecc0c7d23_story.html

 

 

 

Here’s a Great Test for True Religion


Our van was nothing fancy.  No one would have mistaken it for a limousine. It was plain, boxy, kind of like a Volkswagen cargo van in which someone bolted a couple of seats to the floor. Nothing about the van stood out in the bustling African streets of Addis Ababa. Like everyone else in town that day, we darted and beeped and chugged along through the crowded automotive corridor, windows down, taking our oxygen from air saturated with a mix of dust and exhaust fumes.

Ethiopia Widow True Religion Cochran blogAs inconspicuous as our vehicle was in the city traffic, our faces were not so unnoticed. Our skin was noticeably pale compared to the native melanin. Immediately upon entering the market area our van became a gathering spot for kids selling toothbrushes, kids shining shoes, and kids selling packs of chewing gum. But worse than the badgering of the ambitious children trying to make a living was the agonizing appearance of destitute women, widows we were told.

In Ethiopia (and in many other places in Africa), there is little provision for widows. In the market place, haggard ladies wearing mismatched patches of dirty material draped over their malnourished figures tap incessantly on the van windows before we’ve even parked. Through the obstacles of a language barrier, they somehow communicate very clearly that they are starving and want money for food. They know we have money because we are, after all, going shopping at the market.

How could we not help these women? They were widows. And what is pure and undefiled religion if it isn’t helping widows in need?

James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (ESV).

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, we had the opportunity to visit widows in their affliction with help that was sorely needed.

In Nigeria, an African nation just three countries to the left (west) of Ethiopia, widows also cry out in the name of pure and undefiled religion. But in Nigeria the pure religion being sought lately is not the care of widows and orphans. Instead, the pursuit for pure religion has become the occasion for turning these women into widows.

The pure religion being sought in Nigeria is not that which is mentioned in the New Testament book of James; rather, it is the pure religion of Islam—according to the terrorist group Boko Haram.  And the widows are crying out not simply because their husbands are dead, but because their husbands were murdered in Boko Haram’s effort to purify Islam by ridding the country of its Christians.

According to this report, more than 2,000 women have unexpectedly become widows as the result of their husbands being murdered by Boko Haram’s quest for Islamic purity in Nigeria.  These women are destitute.  They have children to feed but no means of providing them the basics of food and shelter.

Here–in this Nigerian nightmare–we have a true test of pure religion. On the one hand, Boko Haram in the name of Islam believes that Christian men should be killed, leaving in the flow of bloodshed a wake of widows and orphans–hoping eventually for a purely Islamic Nigeria. On the other hand, Christians have a clear statement from James 1:27 that pure and undefiled religion does not result from killing opposing ideologies. Instead, pure and undefiled religion is on display when we help these widows and orphans pick up the pieces of their broken lives—somehow helping them reassemble the shattered mess of their lost hopes, dreams, comforts, and expectations.

In the case of Nigeria in particular, Christians have the duty to act. It’s easy to see a widow’s need when we are forced to look into her hungry eyes. It’s harderPure Religion James 1 Widow Orphan Cochran blog when the widow lives an ocean away.  And yet, our Christian sisters in Nigeria represent the actual intent of James’s admonition.  In the New Testament, the first responsibility for widow and orphan care exists within one’s own family (1 Tim 5:4, 8).  When the family cannot provide, the church must—starting with widows and orphans within the body of Christ.  For James, the pure and undefiled religion of caring for widows and orphans would begin with the church taking care of Christian widows and orphans (for more, see here or here).  James has been addressing his readers as “brothers” throughout the letter, signaling that this is from a Christian brother to other Christians.

Furthermore, James spells out that his talking of the poor means primarily poor brothers and sisters in the faith (2:15).  He is constantly speaking throughout the letter to brothers and sisters about righteousness and faithful works.  Like any believer in the first century, James thought in terms of a covenant community. The church was like family, and who could allow orphans and widows in his own family to starve? No one could if they understood God’s nature. Just listen to Exodus 22:22ff.,

“You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.”

How awfully dreadful is the state of those who oppress widows and orphans! I have no doubt that those who murder Christian men in their zeal for a purified religion are under the weight of the wrath of God almighty for causing children to be fatherless and wives to be destitute.

But what about us? Do we not have an opportunity—even an obligation—in the face of this wrongful attempt to purify religion by killing Christians to actually demonstrate the pure and undefiled religion God requires? It’s time for us to come to the aid of Nigerian widows in distress. How pure is our religion? The African widows know.

 

Christians Stop Calling Yourselves Sinners


Billy Joel famously confessed in song,

“I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints

The sinners are much more fun—only the good die young!”

Overlooking his obvious false dichotomy between saints and fun and his full-throttled embrace of sin, we can give Joel credit for seeing something that many sinners and saints equally miss: Saints and sinners are two distinct groups of people. In this distinction, Billy Joel is being quite biblical.

These two categories, in fact, are biblical categories by which all of humanity can be divided.  The Bible makes this distinction in various ways: darkness/light; believers/unbelievers; children of God/children of the devil; and saints/sinners.  The New Testament does not call Christians sinners.

Did you hear that?  Christians are not addressed as sinners by the writers of the New Testament.  Christians are called saints. See Paul’s address to the Corinthians for a clear and very common example:

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours…

If Christians are saints, and not sinners, then why do Christians refer to themselves so often as sinners and almost never as saints?  I came up with four possible explanations. You may think of more (or better) explanations. Here are my four thoughts:

First, we Protestants have a lingering discomfort with the catholic traditions (Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox) because of their veneration of the saints. Variously, these traditions pray to the saints, hold feast days in their names, and revere certain saints above others. Indeed, these catholic traditions do not use the word saint to refer to all Christians set apart by the gospel. Rather, they use the term to refer to super holy Christians (or something like that).  So, the catholic traditions employ the term in a way we don’t like. We, in turn, choose not to use the term much at all.

Second, we are simply too aware of our own sins, individually and collectively, to think of ourselves as anything but sinners.  We know we have sinned terribly against the Lord.  We know that we still fall short of His glory. Thus, we think of ourselves as sinners.  We call ourselves sinners because we know that is what we have always been.

And all of this is true of course. We were born sinners.  We still sin.  Thus, in a very real sense, we are still sinners.  We feel the tension Martin Luther expressed so well: Simul iustus et peccator [at the same time, we are righteous and sinners]. Our problem is that the apostles and writers of the New Testament refer to Christians as saints, not sinners. Our experience makes us feel like sinners. (So, Paul would call himself the chief of sinners, yet he referred to believers in the churches as saints).  There is serious tension.

Third, let’s be honest—we are not comfortable being called saints. Going by the name sinner is easy. It sounds humble—“I’m just a poor sinner.”  It relieves our responsibility (and even guilt?) somewhat because we can identify with every other Christian who knows he, too, is just a poor sinner.  We commiserate.

Such thinking might also build a certain level of defeatism into our spiritual psyche.  When it comes to exercising spiritual discipline in the morning, it’s easier to slide into sinner mode than saint mode.  When it comes to fighting temptation toward lust, laziness, or lack of evangelistic zeal, we have an easier time consoling ourselves of our failures when we think of ourselves as failures—as sinners.

But the New Testament thinks of us differently. Peter, for instance, reminds his readers,

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Wow, that’s a high calling!  Peter and Paul tell us we are saints, holy, royal, and chosen. They do not say we are sinners, partly because (as a biblical category) sinners are condemned (see Paul in Romans 3:7, Peter in 1 Peter 4:18).  Mostly, they use saint as a reminder of our high calling in Christ.

Fourth, we might be confused about the term saint. What does it even mean?

Basically, a saint (‘agion) is a person who is sacred, holy, or “set apart.”  It does not mean super moral or super righteous Christians.  All Christians are called by God, set apart from the world.  We are no longer in the darkness, but we have been transferred into the light, into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.  As such, we are saints by God’s calling.

The Apostle Paul explains this concept in Romans 6:12-14:

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.  Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (ESV).

Paul is borrowing temple language. In the temple, there were instruments set apart for use in temple service. What was the difference between a

Fan of saints not sinners

www.Wallpixr.com
(Yes, I’m a saints fan!)

firepan in the temple and a firepan used, perhaps, in a pagan temple?  Nothing, materially speaking.  But everything in a spiritual and theological sense!  One was pleasing to almighty God and used for worshiping him.  The other was abhorrent to God and used to commit idolatry against Him.

Paul reminds us that we are called (set apart, saints) to be useful in worshiping God, not to be useful in the idolatrous practices of our past (or those present in the world).  We should remember our calling to be set apart. We should remember, as Paul told the Philippians, to let our lives be lived in a manner worthy of the gospel to which we have been called.  Today, we are to be instruments useful to God, set apart for His good purposes. We are His saints today. Therefore, we must go and be useful for God.

The distinction between saint and sinner is not essentially moral. Neither the saint nor the sinner is perfectly holy in moral terms. Yet, one is characterized by his sinful desires; the other is characterized by his holy desires.  One is characterized by idolatrous and fleshly practices; the other is characterized by godliness and usefulness to Christ and the gospel.

Billy Joel, it seems, got two things right. There are sinners, and there are saints. Which one are you today?

Imagine Living as a Christian in Nigeria


Just this past weekend, my family and I hosted a World Cup party. About 25 people crowded into my living room to enjoy the epic battle in which the U.S. Men’s National team fought against the highly-touted, Ronaldo-led squad from Portugal.

Religious Freedom down Hostility Up

Freedom Down, Hostility Up

Yes, the last-second cross from Ronaldo to the head of Varela sent shockwaves down all 25 spines in the room, causing us—at least momentarily—to lose both our will and our ability to speak.  But, all in all, we enjoyed the football, the food, the fellowship, and the fun of the World Cup event. Many people around the U.S. enjoyed similar parties in similar settings.

But World Cup parties played out differently in Nigeria. Nigerians—including Nigerian Christians—also had World Cup viewing parties. Sadly, in the Mubi area of Adamawa state, Muslim extremists bombed a party of football watchers gathered (just as we were) to enjoy this global spectacle that, by design, hopes to bring the world together.

According to this Reuters report, the attack left 14 people dead and 12 injured, some of those are critically wounded.  Most people suspect Boko Haram, a terrorist group working to rid Nigeria of all but the purist form of Islam. In April of this year, this terrorist group kidnapped 200 schoolgirls possibly to keep as brides for Muslim men. The girls are still being held. And, since the kidnapping, Boko Haram has killed more than 500 innocent civilians in settings similar to World Cup watching parties. The majority of those being targeted by Boko Haram are Christians.

We have taken much for granted in the U.S.  Even while our freedoms are shrinking daily, we still have not come to a place where bombs are expected at “futbol” parties. We can be thankful for that, of course, but we also can be more sober about the world in which we live.

Islam is a force of intolerance with no equal right now. A couple of Islam scholars I have read have argued that groups like Boko Haram spring up in countries where Islam is almost a majority. Their hope is that through violence and intimidation and an appeal to Islamic heritage they can tip the Lady Justice Judge othersscales nationwide toward Islam and Sharia law.

I’m certainly no expert on these matters, but I will say that Nigeria fits that description. Nationwide, they are 50% Muslim and 50% Christian or traditional African religion.  The area targeted in this recent attack is a Fulani area (I think). That would make sense because Boko Haram has been slaughtering Christians and any who don’t appear Muslim enough. The Fulani people, I believe, are mostly Muslim, but they hold to a tradition all their own.

Regardless of the particulars at play in Nigeria, the case is certain that it is not safe to be a Christian there, especially in the northern parts of the country like Adamawa state (where this attack occurred).  Our brothers and sisters in Christ in Nigeria need our continued prayer and support. Our concern for humankind and for individual liberty calls us to care for the fate of the Fulani people in Nigeria, too.

To contemplate the reality that while we were joyfully watching a game for its entertainment value other people were being mercilessly slaughtered in the name of religious conformity is, at the very least, sobering. It is an almost unbearable reality.  We can’t just ignore it for that would make us cold, indifferent, and almost culpable.  We also can’t be debilitated by it. We must continue both to express our own freedom and work so others can enjoy theirs. Both in Nigeria and in California, people should be free to watch the World Cup together without fearing an Islamic invasion.

More thoughts about religious liberty

 

A Simple Way to Share Your Faith


The hardest part of sharing the gospel (for me) is starting the conversation. Like most Christians, I love to talk about Jesus and the truth of the Scriptures, but it is hard to get the conversation going. So, I’ve tried to identify easy “connections” between the Bible and everyday life. One of the most natural connections to everyday life is found in John 3:16.

Share Christ Christian Evangelism Salvation PersecutionJohn 3:16 is a great place for starting gospel conversations because it is easily remembered. Most Christians memorize John 3:16 early in their Christian walk. More than a few pastors, scholars, and teachers have recognized how clearly the gospel is present in this simple verse:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

To begin with, John 3:16 gets immediately to the heart of the human problem: Perishing. From birth, we are perishing apart from the life-giving, resurrection power of Jesus Christ. This concept of perishing operates as a great connector from the mundane world of human existence to the heavenly glories of Christ and His kingdom. Here’s how to make that connection plain.

Have you ever heard your friends talk about their problems? Have you ever had family members dump their emotions on you, venting about their frustrations? Have you ever heard your colleagues bemoaning some injustice in the world? Yes, yes, yes! Of course, you have. Each of these experiences exists on account of the Fall of humankind from peace with God.

In other words, all problems are ultimately rooted in the singular problem of our being at odds with God: the Fall. Because of the Fall, we are all mired in sin, stuck in a web of deceit, sinfulness, and death. The problem, ultimately, is that we are perishing. We are in the darkness and hating the light because of our own evil deeds (John 3:19-20).  We are living as human beings in the world, but we are under the curse of death. That is our problem. We are perishing.

God’s provisionto remedy the curse and reconcile us to Himself, giving us life instead of death, is nothing less than Jesus Christ. God so loved…that He gave Christ to be a payment for our sins. The problem is that we are perishing under the curse. The Provision from God is Christ Himself, who came to satisfy the payment price for our sins and purchase for us the remedy for death.

The problem is that we are perishing in our sin under the curse of death. The provision is Christ who came to pay the price for us. And now there is a promisefrom God. The promise is eternal life. God so loved that He gave with the purpose and intent that whoever believes will NOT perish, but HAVE eternal life. Christ remedies the curse of death with the sure, purchased promise of eternal life in His name.

In this simple way, this one common verse is able to move you from a perennial problem (sin, death) to an eternal solution (eternal life in Jesus’s name). You are likely already familiar with John 3:16 so there is no need to get anxious about “what should I say” or “how should I start”? Just start with John 3:16 and cover the problem (perishing); God’s provision (Christ); and the promise of a new life (eternal life).  Problem, Provision, Promise. There’s the gospel from John 3:16. Now, let’s go share it!

Christ’s Heart for the Persecuted: A Simple Explanation with Current Illustrations


I know a woman whose life was very hard through no fault of her own. She and her husband had 8 children together when he was murdered, leaving her a widow with very little means to survive. Family members offered to take the younger children so she could try to survive with the older ones. She told them they might as well have asked for her arms, or legs, or her very heart. She could not part with any of her children.

Christ love persecuted churchHer children remained poor, but they were loved. This simple, widowed mother was asked one time which child she loved the best. That question would shock some of us, as we might wrestle within ourselves with guilt over the tension and frustration we feel toward some of our own kids. I mean, I could see wrestling with the question and having to ask myself, “Oh, no! Is there a chance I love one child more than another?” –I don’t, mind you, but my emotional weakness would cause me a little anxiety.

But the question did not cause this woman even the slightest angst. She was not flummoxed by it a bit. Her answer was simple and to the point. When asked which child she loved the most, she quickly and calmly replied, “Whichever one is hurt.” The child who is hurting is the one most in need of a mother’s love and, thus, the one to whom her love must be directed. It’s a simple, profoundly true concept.

I know it is not appropriate to take our own illustrations and project them upward, onto God. Yet, the truth of love and its direction toward the needy must correlate to some extent. It might be better to say it this way. The reason a mother (or father) knows instinctively to love the child in need is that we have a heavenly Father whose heart is toward the needy, the suffering, and, especially, the persecuted–those who suffer explicitly because they belong to Him.

When Christ’s martyr Stephen was stoned, Christ was standing there to receive him (Acts 7). When Christians are called on by governors and authorities to answer for their faith in Christ, they are instructed by Him not to prepare what to say because His very Spirit would speak through them in that hour:

they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake. 13“It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. 14“So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; 15for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute. (Luke 21:12-15, NASB)

We could continue on–Christ identifies Himself as the object of persecution when He calls Saul to account (Acts 9). He takes it personally: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”  And, Christ is pictured in Revelation as holding all time at bay until the full number of his saints are martyred, then the reckoning will follow, and his angels of vengeance will reap full justice on the earth (Revelation 6…). The principle seems sound to me. Christ is particularly present with his saints who are suffering on account of Him.

So, below, I have listed a few examples of Christians who may be the objects of Christ’s particular love and affections–where He may be particularly present in this hour of need. Let us, too, draw near to Him and offer prayers for these suffering saints since we ourselves are in the body.

From Back to JerusalemMuslims in Syria recently crucified two Christian teenagers for refusing to convert to Islam. The story was crosses persecution Christian syriareported on a Croatian Catholic website by Sister Raghida, former head nun at the Christian School in Damascus who witnessed the atrocity.  (This story is graphic. Villages were stormed and Christians killed mercilessly. Some were beheaded, and the killers “played soccer” with their heads).

Lela Gilbert reminds us of the plight of Asia Bibi: Nonetheless, since 2009, this falsely accused woman has been on death row in a filthy prison cell, wondering if and when her death sentence will enforced. She longs for husband and five children. Day and night, in squalid surroundings, she fights off her fears, endures physical illness and prays.

And from Nigeria: Muslim herdsmen armed with guns and machetes on Friday night (March 14) launched attacks on three villages in Kaduna state, killing more than 100 Christians and destroying homes, sources said. 

May the Lord indeed be present with His people in their darkest hours, as we help them through our prayers (see 2 Corinthians 1:5-11).

What Should I Read This Summer?


I once saw a Facebook status which confused me: “I’m sooooo bored,” it read. I wondered–with so many great books and so much to explore–how could anyone be bored?

Book Schaeffer How Then LiveBelow is my service to any who might be tempted to boredom. Here is a list of some helpful and Biblically sound literature. I compiled this list (or one closely like it) for a student of mine who asked what he should read this summer. These are not recommended as “must -reads.”  And they are not listed in any particular order. They are simply some of the books thinking Christians will want to read.

I hope this list sparks your interest in learning more. The list covers hermeneutics, apologetics, theology, pastoral ministry, productivity, and even history. I tried to offer a variety of topics. Enjoy.

  1. Robert Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules.
    1. Dr. Stein’s book is deceptively simple. It reads as a basic introduction to reading the Bible, but it is thoroughly informed by the most important trends in hermeneutics. Dr. Stein is a gifted writer, and this book is profoundly simple in offering a few rules for how to approach the Scriptures, taking into account authorial intent, genre, text criticism, etc.
  2. Matt Perman, What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done
    1. Matt has done a great job of sorting through the latest literature on business, productivity, and efficiency. He then interprets that literature through the lens of the gospel to produce a helpful resource for making the most of our time as Christians.
  3. R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe
    1. In this classic overview of the literature related to the age-old question of God’s sovereignty vs. Free will, R. C. Sproul offers a thorough Book Willing Believe Free will sovereigntyintroduction to the best arguments for and against “Free –will.” He traces the debate from the Scripture through Augustine, Calvin, Arminius, Edwards, to the present. It is amazing how succinctly and clearly he is able to cover so much ground.
  4. R. C. Sproul, Getting the Gospel Right
    1. In this volume, R. C. Sproul—somewhat controversially—takes aim at some of the more stalwart evangelical Christians of our day. His reason is to protect the gospel from the errors of the Reformation. Even if he might be deemed too harsh in his criticism, Sproul does a great job in this book of highlighting the importance of Reformation distinctions related to the gospel.
  5. Carl F. H. Henry, Twilight of a Great Civilization
    1. Written in the late 1980’s, this book by Carl Henry proved prescient indeed. He spoke of the “drift” in culture and offered a Christian response which proved to be prophetic. His remedies are still worth considering by those wishing to remain evangelical in a world which emphatically is not. Henry is too quickly being dismissed by evangelicals today. We need to keep reading the works of this brilliant stalwart of our Christian faith.
  6. John R. W. Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait
    1. For those who are pastors, or those wishing to be pastors, or even those just wishing to understand the basic nature of pastoral ministry, John Stott has written a simple little volume which offers a snapshot of the pastoral life. His style is simple and clear. This is a very helpful little volume.
  7. Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life
    1. Don Whitney is a gifted writer and speaker. This book—which is about to be released in an updated anniversary edition—should be required reading for every Christian. He walks through the Christian disciplines in a simple, step-by-step way. His work is as encouraging as it is enjoyable to read. For anyone who has not read this work, you should start here. Dr. Whitney is a reliable guide for the Christian faith.
  8. Ron Nash, The Meaning of History
    1. For a change of pace, I offer this intriguing read. It isn’t a long book, and it is well written, but, I will warn you, it is a work of philosophy.Book Meaning History philosophy time hebrews As philosophy books go, this one is easy to read, but the ideas are profound. Dr. Nash demonstrates how important the Christian view of history is. We take this view for granted, but such a view of history is fading as our culture reinvents itself in a non-Christian way.
  9. J. I. Packer, Knowing God
    1. Hopefully, you have already read Packer’s classic volume on the basic proposition that we are able to know God through His revelation. This book is foundational in many ways. It is, as I sad, an evangelical classic. The book has been in print for 4 decades and has sold millions of copies.
  10. Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live
    1. Like Carl Henry, so, too, Francis Schaeffer’s voice was absolutely prophetic. All the dangers about which he warned us have unfolded over the last 30 years. This book by Schaeffer has been a foundational work in apologetics, particularly from the presuppositional perspective. It is still very much worth reading because of the manner in which Schaeffer traces ideas through history which have brought us to our present state of affairs. Schaeffer is an outstanding writer.

I hope at least some of these titles will interest you, as you continue to be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Calvin Goes to China? A Look at How New Calvinism Is Spreading in China


Time magazine provoked evangelical paroxysms back in 2009 when the publication unveiled its list of “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” According to Time, New Calvinism was the number three idea at work reshaping America. (Don’t know what New Calvinism is? See here) Calvinism China New Calvinism

Five years on, New Calvinism is still going strong, so strong, in fact, that the New York Times has now taken notice of its growth. This New York Times article points to the rise of New Calvinism at evangelical conferences and in several denominations across the U.S., including Presbyterians and Baptists. The article points out that nearly one-third of Southern Baptist churches self-identify as “Calvinistic.”

The article points out also that the New Calvinist movement has more than a few detractors. Rather than engaging that debate, I have a different question to ponder. Is New Calvinism spreading beyond America and Europe? Specifically, are there Calvinists in the eastern world? Have Communists in China discovered predestination? Is Calvinism now spreading through the world’s most populated nation?

A review of recent literature demands an affirmative response: “Yes, there are Calvinists in China, and they seem to be spreading.”  Fredrick Fallman of Stockholm University has done a good bit of research on this question. He has a chapter titled “Calvin, Culture, and Christ,” in the book, Christianity in Contemporary China: Socio-cultural Perspectives. In his chapter on Calvinism, Fallman makes a strong case for the New Calvinism in China to be the product of universities and networks of highly educated elites. Here is how Fallman says it:

There is a tendency among some of the urban, unregistered churches to adhere to reformed theology, inspired by what in North America is sometimes known as “New Calvinism.” The focus is more on Puritan teachings than on John Calvin himself. Such communities draw much interest from young urbanites, and they seem to attract these young people because of their solid stance on moral issues and their non-relative beliefs, contrasting with society at large. Reformed Christianity may also appeal to the subconscious Confucian thought patterns and beliefs that linger among Chinese elite intellectuals in general. As both Christian elders and public intellectuals, the young urban church leaders also assume the traditional role of the intellectual, feeling his responsibility to act and assist when the nation is in danger, this time from moral decline.

No doubt, many in the cities and in the university are well-educated and, most likely, exposed to Calvinism through books and conversations in academic settings.  Likewise, I have no doubt that the certitude provided by reformed theology offers much-needed antidotes to the less desirable aspects of the brand of Communism which has run its course through China in the last 5-plus decades. Nevertheless, from mere instincts and from personal experience, I have the feeling that something more is happening.

I, for one, will not be at all surprised to discover a much broader base of support for New Calvinism in China. While Calvinism is gaining traction among the educated and the elite, it may be appealing to more than the upper crust of Chinese citizens. My guess is that there are plenty of “Calvinists” in the lower classes and in the rural areas of China as well. Here are three reasons I make this assertion.

First, Christianity in China blossomed and bore the majority of its present fruit through intense persecution. Stories of faithful saints like Samuel Lamb, Allen Yuan, and Li Ying reverberate with strong chords of God’s sovereignty. I’m not arguing that those who suffered intense persecution were by definition part of the New Calvinist movement. Instead, I am simply saying (in accord with the book of Revelation, for instance) that intense persecution demands a sovereign Christ. Thus, when the biblical and doctrinal support for such high thoughts of Christ arrives in Calvinistic form, it resonates with many grassroots-level saints.

The Sovereign Lord of Revelation has eyes of flaming fire and will return mounted for war to bring justice to His suffering saints.  Chinese Christians have suffered long bouts of persecution. They are not interested in anemic, pseudo-Freudian portraits of Jesus. The “New Calvinists” offer a Jesus of worthwhile authority making claims of eternal dominion.

Second, the New Calvinism movement in America has had a strong missionary impulse from the beginning. Many would consider John Piper one of PiperMissions New Calvinism Chinathe “fathers” of the movement. His missionary zeal is legendary. His website mentions about 4 dozen languages around the world where his books have been translated. In addition, conferences and conventions within the movement have included pastors, laymen, missionaries, and teachers from around the world. Congregations in remote parts of Africa were livestreaming the recent Together for the Gospel (T4G) event in Louisville, KY. I know also that people living in the remote northwest portion of China were in attendance at the first T4G event eight years ago.

The endurance of Christianity is at least partially the result of those receiving truth sharing it unsparingly. Obviously, none of this proves anything. It is, to be sure, anecdotal. One could easily assert that those who attend such events or read such books would also be from the affluent, educated classes of China’s citizens. I’m simply guessing that some of them are not.

And even if those who have attended the conferences and have read the New Calvinism literature have all been from the affluent, elite strata of China society, they have undoubtedly not been silent. They have been leveraging their influence for the sake of good theology. Thus, I’m guessing their teaching is spreading.

Finally, Piper is not the only one publishing “New Calvinist” literature in China. Other publishers are legally publishing reformed literature in China. Again, this literature may first go to the educated in easy-to-reach urban centers. But it will not end there. Perhaps it already has spread beyond the urban areas and further into the heart of China. It may well be the case—as with Calvinism in America; and as with the house church movement in China—that the strong roots of fervent Christianity are already quite strong in Communist China. The New York Times caught up with New Calvinism 5 years behind Time. So, what  do you think will be the report on Calvinism coming out of China in 2019?  What do you hope is the report?

Shall We Give Them What They Want?


Shortly after Thanksgiving a few years ago, my wife and I were in the yard with a dear, dear brother. His name before he was converted was simply “Mad Dog.” As he says, “when I was a pagan, I meant it with all my heart.” (He is just as sincere now that he is a believer.)

Dog Desires John 6 JesusAnyway, our dog, Tess, had found the post-holiday turkey carcass and was in full delight tearing at the bones like the hungriest of wolves. For Tess, the random meat portions she found along the way were better than music to her ears.

My friend noticed both how delighted the animal was and, yet, how dangerous were the turkey bones. Turkey bones are notoriously damaging to dogs because of the way the little bones splinter in digestion. So, my friend said, “You can’t let her have that.” – He really loves dogs. My wife replied, “But she’s enjoying it so much. We can’t take it away from her.”

At this point, the wisdom of conversion overcame our friend. Fired with conviction and unafraid in his love both for us and our animal, he replied, “Well I used to love marijuana, too, but it doesn’t mean it was good for me.” His point was simply made, and profoundly true.

But his is a lesson easily forgotten. When our children cry for ice cream and cookies instead of carrots and peas, when our bodies crave sleep or stimulation instead of sermons and truth, or when our lusts crave riches and ease rather than conversions and faith—we, too, demonstrate the animal-like tendencies of a dog eating turkey bones. We want what we want, with little regard for truth beyond our immediate appetites.

Jesus once pointed out this human tendency to a very large crowd of onlookers. In John 6:26, Jesus said to a large crowd of followers:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”

Notice the Spirit of Jesus here was the same spirit exhibited by my friend toward Tess: Don’t go after that which ends—sooner or later—in death. Rather, seek that which gives life. Life comes from one source: the living God. And Jesus Christ has made Him known. So hunger and thirst for Jesus. Feed on Jesus Christ, who has been raised from the dead to give eternal life to all who believe and follow Him.

Sadly, if you know the rest of the story of John 6, then you know that the vast majority of those assembled found no use for Jesus and His instruction. They truly were following Him only to feast on his baskets of bread.

This Easter season, we should remember that we follow Christ not because He can give bread, but because He alone is life. The story in John 6 ends with almost the entire crowd turning away from Jesus. Listen to Peter’s response and offer your own “Amen!”

67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” 68 Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. 69 We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”

How Have We Kissed the Son?


Psalm 2 famously states, “Kiss the son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way” (2:12, NKJV).  But there is more than one way to kiss the son.

Luke 22 tells the story of Jesus’s arrest. Jesus was handed over to his captors by a kiss from Judas Iscariot: “Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’”

The irony of such a kiss is captured by Michael Card in his song, “Why?”

What Kind of Kiss World Vision PersecutionWhy did it have to be a friend
Who chose to betray the Lord
Why did he use a kiss to show them
That’s not what a kiss is for

Only a friend can betray a friend
A stranger has nothing to gain
And only a friend comes close enough
To ever cause so much pain…

Card goes further in the song to explain that the world cannot offer a true kiss, just as the world cannot truly crown Christ as king. Christ’s demands of allegiance are too great. His love is too pure,

Because in this life that we live

For all who seek to love

A thorn is all the world has to give.

Christ offers himself in love. The world crowns his love with thorns. Judas Iscariot indeed did kiss the Son, yet he perished in the way. The kiss of Psalm 2 was never meant to be merely a kiss. A kiss of genuine affection and devotion was the one intended by the psalm.

A kiss of mere lip service is never enough, as though the action itself were all that was demanded. Spurgeon reminds us to be on guard “when the world puts on a loving face, for it will, if possible, betray me as it did my Master, with a kiss. Whenever a man is about to stab religion, he usually professes very great reverence for it.”

Our kiss must stand the trials of time. When pressure builds to affirm same sex marriage, will we still offer our affectionate embrace of God’s Son, or, as with World Vision, will we seek favor with donors or those wielding political clout? When we are called hateful bigots because we think homosexuality is sinful, will we still kiss the Son?  When we are ostracized, outcast, and persecuted, will our kiss endure?

We must kiss the son, but not like Judas.

Who Is a Disciple of Jesus Christ?


Working from Matthew 28:18-20, I would say that anyone who is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and who is obeying everything that Jesus taught—that person is a disciple of Jesus Christ.  No doubt, there is room for dispute. But the bottom line is that we must be able to define who is and who is not a follower of Christ.

Christ definition disciple what is disciple christianThis question takes on significance when considered in light of “fencing the table” for the Lord’s Supper. Throughout history, Christians have had to wrestle with who should partake of the Lord’s Supper (Communion).  Is it for anyone and everyone who happens to show up the day it is celebrated? Or is it for only some of those present? On what basis does one decide?

The natural sentiment is to say that we should not exclude anyone. But to say such a thing is to gut the Lord’s Supper of its meaning. The Lord’s Supper is for those who have communion with God through Jesus Christ. When He instituted the Lord’s Supper, Christ did not celebrate it with the whole crowd gathered for Passover. He celebrated it explicitly with His disciples. So, it seems logical to conclude that the Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated by Christ’s disciples.

Most Christians would agree that the Lord’s Supper is not for all, but for some. Non-believers, atheists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Mormons—all these groups find themselves routinely excluded from the Lord’s Supper because they are not disciples of Christ Jesus. If it is the case that one must be a disciple to partake of the Lord’s Supper, then it must be necessary to exclude non-disciples from the Lord’s Supper. To do that, one must be able to define who is a disciple.

Some wish to simplify the process and say a disciple is “a follower of Christ.” The problem with saying this is that, often, people in the excluded categories mentioned above will profess to be followers of Christ. I have had Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons tell me they are “Christians.” Does follower of Christ (or Christian) get defined by the individual? If one professes to be a follower of Christ, then she is—on that basis—a follower and, thus, able to enjoy the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper with other believers?  If not, then on what basis is it decided whether or not the person is a follower of Christ?

As a pastor, I answered the question using the equation found in Christ’s great commission. Instead of the term follower of Christ or Christian, I used Christ’s word in Matthew 28—disciple. And, using Christ’s definition, I concluded that a disciple is someone who obeys all that Jesus commands and has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-20). These two characteristics—having been baptized and being obedient to Christ’s commands—are the defining characteristics of a disciple of Christ.

This will not satisfy all, but it is a biblical position. Regrettably, it does exclude those who have never been baptized as believers. It excludes those who are ignorant of or in rebellion against the commands of Christ, too. But it defines disciple in Christ’s own categories, which include being baptized and being obedient.

Making Unity Stick in the Church Body


I am not a fan of preaching that calls for people to chant or clap or do certain things to prove that they are listening. However, I understand that such interactive responses can be helpful to make a message stick and to keep the audience engaged. Maybe it’s a personal preference issue, or maybe there is biblical, theological warrant for my concern. Either way, I am not personally comfortable with interactive gimmicks during the Sunday sermon.

sticky sermon activity unity illustrationI do understand, however, that there are occasions for preaching and teaching which allow for more interactivity between the preacher and the audience. Classroom settings, Wednesday night Bible studies, or conference sessions could be places that allow for more interactivity between the preacher and the audience.

For those worried about the charge of being unbiblical for using interactivity as a vehicle for communication, I would encourage a quick review of the prophets—especially Ezekiel. The writer of Hebrews may have had Ezekiel in mind when he opened his great letter by saying in former days God spoke through the prophets in many portions and in many ways. Surely, God spoke through Ezekiel in some bizarre ways.

Ezekiel had to act out the siege of Jerusalem. He had to pack a bag and go on a trip to demonstrate the reality of Judah’s upcoming Exile. He was required to bind himself with ropes to teach the people of their impending bondage. He was required to bake his bread over a flame fueled by dung in order to demonstrate the poverty awaiting God’s people. There is no lack of dramatic flair in the book of Ezekiel. The message for God’s people was severe. Drastic measures had to be taken to make the point plain. For Ezekiel, this meant drama and interacting with the people in unconventional ways.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Ezekiel gives us warrant to do whatever we want in a worship service. There are limits and parameters to pulpit activities. Again, I am not advocating lying forty days on your side with your arm bared before your people the way Ezekiel had to do it, but I am saying in some contexts it may be appropriate to “act out” a part of your message or to introduce an easy activity to make your point plain to your people. Allow me to offer an example.

In a particular message on a Wednesday night, I was hoping to get across the point that we too often fall prey to comparing ourselves with others and, thus, judging one another with human motives rather than seeing one another as God sees us. That point can be made from several different places in the New Testament (Matthew 7:1-5; Romans 14:1-4; Romans 15:1ff.).

On this particular occasion, I was teaching from Ephesians 2, that great passage in which Paul exalts the unifying power of Christ, who is able to break down all the barriers and dividing walls that we artificially overstate. To feed our fleshly pride and pretend that we are superior to others, we proudly build walls of division around educational levels, annual income, managerial rank, neighborhood of residence, color of skin, or type of music. We separate based on whether we like motorcycles, bull-riding, or beer drinking. The sinful human heart can build a wall out of just about anything.

In Ephesus, there was still a problem of wall-building in this predominately Gentile church. Paul reminds them (2:11-12) that there was a time they were excluded—until Christ obliterated the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile. On the basis of Christ’s work, the church at Ephesus could reasonably expect to dwell in unity with all believers—regardless of ethnic heritage (4:1-6).  My dilemma in light of this great instruction was how to make this truth stick with us after the message ended. Here is what I decided to do.

I had everyone stand up and look around them—particularly noticing all the differences in the congregation gathered. Some folks were tall; others were short. Some had on very nice clothes, others rags. Some folks had white skin, others black or brown. Some folks were old, while others were young. There were gray-haired folks with brown eyes; brown-haired folks with blue eyes; and blond-haired people with green eyes. A few of the people had red hair with either blue or hazel eyes.

All the distinctions were noticeable and very real. We could have divided into groups if we had so desired. But, of course, that was not our desire. The desire we were pursuing was the desire to be united in such diversity. How could this diverse group of people see themselves as one body? How could we help but notice all the differences?

After folks had enough time to notice all these differences, I asked them first whether they noticed any differences within the congregation. Of course, everyone noticed a great many differences. Second, I asked them to imagine this same group of people assembled outside in the parking lot.  Then, I asked the group to imagine what differences would be visible from a jet flying overhead.

Our congregation was situated such that, on occasion, jets flying to the airport made their landing approach just overhead. From one sticky sermon illustration unity one faithof those jets, all the people in the parking lot looked the same—more like ants than humans. The truth is, from high above everyone looks the same. The variances which we think make us so different from one another are barely visible from the window of a jet.

If we can see such a radically different perspective from the window of a jet at 30,000 feet, how much more can God see a different perspective from heaven above!  What this interactive illustration demonstrates is that we overplay distinctions between us when we maintain a merely human perspective on life. If we somehow could see ourselves the way God is able to see us from an eternal, divine perspective, we would likely see the barriers and dividing walls broken down.

This idea is captured in a ministry of which I am aware called Vision Beyond Borders. The ministry focuses attention on needy people abroad, stating that Christ’s view from the cross was a vision beyond borders. We artificially accept the boundaries built by prejudice and by practical political concerns, while Christ died with a view of saving people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. The New Testament encourages us to be leaders in breaking down the artificial walls which tend to rob us of fellowship with other sinners saved by grace.

When I had the people sit down again, I did so with the reminder that even sitting down causes some of the distinctions to diminish (height for instance is not as noticeable while seated). The main point of the illustration—a point which was cemented by the interactive illustration—was that the distance between us is major only when we fixate on ourselves. When we fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, we get a different view altogether. The distinction between us and Christ far exceeds any distinction we notice between ourselves in our pews. Christ is highly exalted—the name above all names, the one seated at the right hand of God. If our attention and affection remains focused on Him, then our barriers and divisions will begin to disappear, proving to have been no more durable than the morning fog which dissipates under the heat and light of the rising sun.

Can Watching a Horror Film Save Your Soul?


William Peter Blatty, the son of Lebanese immigrants from New York, won an Oscar and three Golden Globes for his famous movie, The Exorcist. Before this film, Blatty’s success was limited. Most likely, the success of The Exorcist exceeded even his wild imagination. It turns out, the success of that movie extends beyond the material world and into the spiritual. God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.

Exorcist Salvation While Blatty was touring and doing interviews about his movie, a street kid from Los Angeles was studying martial arts. Mr. E grew up in the city, in a home which included daily beatings from his dad for both him and his mother. Mr. E was cruelly made tough. He could take a hit. And he learned to deliver one as well.

Nevertheless, the streets were hard. So, Mr. E decided that he could not yet match everyone on the streets. He had been fighting since he was a kid in grammar school. And he knew there were kids tougher than he was. Sort of foreshadowing the MMA/UFC movement, Mr. E decided he needed the extra advantage martial arts could give him.

Feeling relatively secure with his fighting abilities and martial arts training, Mr. E was beginning to trust himself more and more in the concrete jungle of inner-city LA.  Drugs, violence, and a cock-of-the-walk swagger characterized the young man’s life, until his friends took him to see this “bad” movie (Bad meant then what sick means now). The movie, in his words, “literally scared the hell out of me.”

The young man wasn’t scared because he realized the demonic powers might really exist. He knew such forces of evil were real. He was scared because of how much sense the movie made to him. He was scared because he felt like he knew these demonic powers. The movie made Mr. E realize that no amount of martial arts sophistry—no degree of toughness or physical power—could enable him to stand against the forces of evil.

The next Sunday—not knowing what else to do—Mr. E went to a local church and asked someone there to tell him whether God had the power to overcome the forces of evil. Can you imagine stepping out of Sunday school and being asked such a question by a troubled young man? What glorious Providence!

The young man went home after the service and devoured the Bible he was given, reading the gospels with such a liberating force that he knew he was saved before he reached the Great Commission of Matthew 28. His life was transformed, and his soul secured in the rest of Christ.

Today, this street kid no longer fights with his fists and his feet. He no longer needs the empty crutch of martial arts to protect him. He no longer craves the drugs that once drove his fleshly desires—he flushed two bags of dope the day he read the gospels. And he never went back.

Mr. E has earned college and seminary degrees and pastors a church in a growing suburb outside of LA. His life has been surrendered to fight the good fight of faith, a fight which has love as its aim and eternal security as its prize. Blatty may in fact be glad to know his movie played a part , but I doubt he ever expected The Exorcist to lead to the saving of a man’s soul.

Can Christians Read Pagan Literature?


Should Christians read pagan literature? The question is a fair one, considering that more than one place in Scripture expects the believer to renew his mind and do everything he does to the glory of God. It’s hard to see how Buffy the Vampire Slayer might be considered mind-renewing. It may be even more difficult to place The DaVinci Code in a category anywhere close to “devotional.”

Christianity pagan literature glory GodYet I’m wondering if we might be asking the wrong question when we ask whether we can read pagan literature. The question can we—as though we really hope we get permission to do something that might be bad but we really want to do it anyway because everyone else is doing it—sets us up for a yes-or-no, up-or-down decision. But maybe the answer is not yes-or-no. Maybe there is a better question for us to ask regarding pagan literature:  How are Christians to read non-Christian literature?  There are two reasons that asking how is better than asking if we can.

First, in a very real sense, there is no way to avoid reading pagan literature, if one reads at all.  Think about the non-Christian writing that makes up our daily lives: Billboards, advertisements, newspapers, owner’s manuals, textbooks, school reading assignments, and terms of agreement (you do read those, right?).  As Paul told the Corinthians, we would have to go out of the world to avoid contact with unbelievers. There is no way to avoid some pagan literature.

So, second, asking how are we to read pagan literature makes better sense because it focuses the responsibility on the individual Christian to practice discernment, rather than pretending there is some inherent righteousness which makes the abstaining Christian superior to the Homer-reading one. Asking how means the Christian takes seriously the task of renewing his mind and doing only what can be done to the glory of God.

When it comes to asking how to read pagan literature, perhaps no Christian has explained the dynamic better than Peter Leithart. His two books—The Brightest Heaven of Invention and Heroes of the City of Man—are practically guidebooks, complete with “walk-along-beside-me-and-hold-my-hand-while-I-show-you-how-to-do-this” instructions. Leithart makes two simply profound statements beneficial for all who wrestle with this important question.

  • 1.  Leithart acknowledges that there is no imperative for Christians to read non-Christian literature. As he puts it,

Christians have no more moral duty to read and study Greek and Roman literature than ancient Israelites had a duty to study the myths of Baal and Asteroth [sic].  Nor should Christian schools or homeschoolers think that they can have a good Christian education only if the ‘classics’ are prominent in the curriculum. The goal of Christian education is to train a child to be faithful in serving God and His kingdom in a calling, and certainly this goal can be achieved by a student who never cracked the cover of a Homeric epic.

And he continues,

Given the appalling ignorance of the Bible among evangelical Christians today, mastering Scripture must be an overwhelming priority in all Christian education. If one must choose between studying Leviticus and Livy, Habakkuk or Homer, Acts or Aeschylus, the decision is, to my mind, perfectly evident, and the point holds even if the non-biblical literature were Christian.  The genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1-9 are vastly more important to study than Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, or Dickens….

And we could add Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games.  How are Christians to read pagan literature? The Christian imperative is first to understand all that Jesus has commanded. The Christian who has not yet mastered Scripture does not need to ask the question “can I read pagan literature.” Instead, he or she would need to ask, “How can I read pagan literature…when I am still so ignorant of what I claim is most important?”   The how question, in this case, answers itself.

  • 2.  Leithart explains the how question another way. “Assuming a student has a strong grounding in Scripture, there may be good reasons for taking up a study of other literature… Daniel and his three friends learned the language and literature of the Chaldeans (Dan. 1:4).”

Likewise, Paul quoted pagan poets to make theological points which called unbelievers to repentance.  Leithart offers a number of biblical examples, then concludes,

God, in short, calls us to war against the idols…. With ideas and literature, the confrontation between the Bible and paganism will be more intense, but with great care and wisdom, we can plunder even pagan literature and make it work for us. As Proverbs says, the wealth of the wicked is stored up for the righteous (Prov 13:22).

Asking the how question concerning non-Christian literature puts the perspective back on redemption. How can this literature glorify God? There is a way, but it takes hard work, wisdom, and great care. Those unwilling to engage in the difficult work of redeeming fallen literature—those wishing only the entertainment value of paganism—have not yet learned how to read pagan literature.

But I think Leithart is right, there is a way to read pagan literature to the glory of God. We just have to learn how.  How do you think Christians can read pagan literature to the glory of God?

Why Caring for the Persecuted Is a Christian Priority


So our friends and family back east—especially in Kentucky—are experiencing one of the toughest winters on record. Even now, there is snow on top of ice on top of snow. Out here in California, we are experiencing a drought, although we got a few sprinkles overnight (and snow in the mountains). And, so far, the drought has not caused a famine in the land.

Christian needs ministryImagine if it had. Imagine a drought so bad that it caused a famine in which food became scarce and lives were being lost (like the 2011 drought—and famine—suffered in the Horn of Africa, from which thousands died, and 90,000 kids are still in danger). In a situation like that, would a Christian be obligated to share food with others? If not obligated, then wouldn’t the Christian at least want to share food with others to keep them alive?

Feeding the poor is an on-going ministry need and a need which nearly everyone agrees ought to be met. What’s more basic than food and water, right? And Christians—where possible—are obligated to help secure these necessities for those in need.  But there is a Christian hierarchy for meeting physical needs. Consider the severe principle Paul lays down to Timothy:

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8).

In its context, this verse is speaking of caring for widows in your own family. Don’t have the church (or the government!) provide for your widowed mother, grandmother, or aunt—take care of her yourself because you are her family. If you don’t take care of the need in your own family, then you don’t understand the faith.

This idea of taking care of family first is found throughout Scripture and throughout the New Testament. In fact, it is such a basic notion that to fail in this regard would be not just falling below the gospel standard of morality—but below even the standard recognized by the pagan culture. Everyone knows that family comes first.

Because family comes first, Paul actually views caring for poor and needy Christians as a priority over caring for poor and needy non-Christians. Does this sound strange? Harsh? It shouldn’t.  This principle is woven from the fabric of basic familial priority: Feed your family first. Paul says it this way in Galatians:

“So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Galatians 6:10).

Returning to our hypothetical drought and famine, we can think of the matter this way. If we were living through a famine, we would naturally feed ourselves and our own families first. It would be neither heroic nor laudable to feed our neighbors’ kids, while allowing our own to starve. Each father must provide for his own.

In Galatians 6:10, Paul is not intending to drive a wedge between serving the needy church and serving the needy pagans. The command is “do good to all.” So, there is no diminishing of social justice, feeding the poor, or loving our neighbor. Yet, there would be something terribly dysfunctional if we were to concentrate our care on those outside the faith, while we left our own faith family to starve, suffer, and die.

The world will not be sure that you are Jesus followers if you simply love the poor and feed the needy.   Jesus made this point plainly for His disciples in John 13:35: “By this,” Jesus says, “all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” The need hierarchy of the New Testament demands that we take care of our brothers and sisters suffering on account of Christ. Loving one another will itself witness to the world that we are Christians.

As Tom Schreiner writes in his commentary on Galatians: “A hierarchy is established, so that a priority is assigned to those who are fellow believers.” Our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world are fellow believers. How do we make them our priority?

Jesus Christ’s Invincible Church Growth Strategy


Books abound on church growth strategy. There are books to grow your church from the inside out. Other books teach church growth from the outside in. One book wants you to grow your church by learning from unchurched Americans. Another book says Christians just need to become contagious (in a good way, of course).

Christ church prevail persecutionEach of these books has the right heartbeat: Christian churches ought to grow and bear good fruit. Jesus Himself said,

By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples, John 15:8.

That churches ought to grow is not as difficult a question to answer as is the question, how are churches to grow.  That question begets much opinion with copious emotion.  The vast array of such opinions and emotions has generated wave after wave of church growth movements. Pastors and laypeople alike may, at times, feel swept away by the waves of change mandated in the latest church growth stratagem. How can we grow the church?

In response, I offer this reminder of a simple, helpful, strong, and encouraging message embedded in the Scriptures, one which is also being demonstrated in real-time through the persecuted church.  The lesson?  Jesus Christ will build His church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against her.  Consider the scenario unfolded in Acts 8.

A very bad thing happened in Acts 8. A great persecution struck the church. Christians had to flee Jerusalem (in the same way they are having to flee the Middle East today).  The ones who thought they might stay and maintain some form of normalcy in Jerusalem were dragged off to prison (Acts 8:3). It was all bad. All their dreams of family comfort were shattered as a crystal glass shatters on a granite counter—instantly broken into scattered pieces.

And what of the decimation to the Jerusalem church? After whom would the persecutors go? Persecutors typically attack the leaders first. So, the great persecution unleashed in Jerusalem decimated the church, chasing even some of her leaders far away and out of reach. And yet, the bad news had a divinely-empowered good result. As Acts 8:4 reports, “those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.”  And the people in the places they went to ended up rejoicing. The bad the persecutors were producing ended with the good news of the gospel spreading.

In a similar way, a very bad thing happened in China in 1949.  Communism took over in China, and, among other changes, the Christian Church China PersecutionCommunist government expelled all missionaries from the land. And that wasn’t all:  The Communist government immediately began putting in prison Christians who could not swear first allegiance to the Communist party.  The blood-bath was immense through the 1960’s, as government officials announced “the death of God.” The situation was very bad indeed.  But God was not dead. He was as alive as His Word.

Without foreign missionary aid, without government help or support, without any serious infra-structure or property or resources in the country, the Christians of China did not die. The church grew.

When Communism took over, there were 870,000 Christians in China. Today, after a 60 year assault on the Christian church, there are an estimated 90 million Christians in China. There may in fact be more Christians than there are Communist party members! That growth happened—as it happened in Acts 8—through the promise from Christ that He would build His church–that His word would continue to increase and go forth empowered by the Spirit to the ends of the earth.

The point for us to remember is simply that Jesus is the one building his church, and the work cannot fail. Indeed, Paul tells us that the work we do in the name of the Lord will never be done in vain (1 Cor 15).  So, by faith, preach the Word. Strategize. Seek to fulfill the Great Commission mandate, but, even when persecution and unexpected setbacks come, take courage:  Jesus Christ has not lost control of heaven or earth, and He will build His church.  That’s a strategy with a 100% durable success.

Why Give a Definition of Christian Persecution?


Tryon Edwards, great grandson of Jonathan Edwards, once said,

Most controversies would soon be ended, if those engaged in them would first accurately define their terms, and then adhere to their definitions.

Edwards was perhaps too optimistic about the end of controversy, but he was right to note the power of definitions to bring clarity and, perhaps, unity. Definitions are important things. A trip to the local reference section of a library or bookstore proves beyond doubt that we think definitions are important things.

Christian persecution definitionConsider the prevalence of English dictionaries. There are dictionaries for synonyms, dictionaries for war terms, for business terms, legal terms, theological terms, psychological terms. A seemingly endless stream of dictionaries flows from the ocean of words which break upon the pages of our literature and, thus, land upon our minds, enabling and empowering our thoughts. Our thoughts ride and move upon the surf of words.

But words do not always come as docile tides bathing a white sand shore. Words break upon our ears and often crash into our minds challenging our very existence. As the existentialist Sartre declared, “Words are loaded pistols.” And that is often true. Defining words can be a dangerous game because words are the means by which reality takes its shape.  Consider, for example, how the Nazis defined treason and loyalty. And consider the implications for Germany and the world.

In our own culture, consider how important it is to define the word person. It has become a deadly word for babies developing in the womb because they have been excluded by definition from the semantic range of the word person. So, you see, subtle changes in the definition of words can have cataclysmic long term effects for us. Definitions are exceedingly important.

Two particular words Christians must define in our own day are marriage and persecution. The first is necessary because the word is being redefined.  The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has fallen on notoriously difficult times, and marriage is now successfully being redefined to include same sex unions. In fact, as I’ve noted in prior posts, the new definition of marriage demands no boundaries on the basis of avoiding all discrimination. A recent federal case in Utah may now allow group marriages (read about it here).

Because marriage is now redefined, Christians will be tested on whether or not they believe what they have been saying about their own definition.  Do we as Christians believe God’s monogamous design for heterosexual marriage? Will Christians stand on these convictions? What if group marriages, gay marriages, or even bestial marriages become matters of civil rights? Will Christians remain steadfast in their biblical convictions? Will we pay the price in persecution? What if churches will lose their tax exempt status as a result of monogamous marriage commitments? What if pastors are convicted of civil rights crimes—or hate crimes—and sent to jail for refusing to marry a small group of lovers?

Persecution will likely flow from the deluge of court decisions against traditional marriage. Thus, Christians ought to start defining persecution so we understand what and why we are suffering.  Persecution means many things to many different people. I read an article recently which stated that wild birds were being persecuted in northern England.  Whatever the journalist covering birdcrime in Great Britain meant by his use of the word persecuted, the Christian must understand it much differently. Both Christians and birds of prey can be hunted and threatened with extinction, but Christians alone are human beings created in the image of God and charged with witnessing to His glory. Birds are not people and, thus, not created in God’s image.  Persecuting birds is not the same as persecuting Christians. But Christians will be persecuted. Thus, persecution is a concept which needs to be properly defined. Here is a good, biblical definition of persecution:

Persecution is a retaliatory action against the revelation of the righteousness of God in Christ which is represented or proclaimed by the followers of Jesus Christ. 

The definition is helpful for Christians so we can test ourselves (as Peter commands) to make sure our suffering happens because of Christ and His righteousness, not because of our own stupidity, arrogance, or offensive behavior. The definition is also helpful so we can experience the full joy of the blessings of Christ (Matthew 5:10-12). Finally, the definition is important because we will likely be facing persecution of a more intense nature than at any time in America’s history.

Here we return to Edwards’s point. Definitions do provide clarity and can lead to unity. Often, however, the clarity itself leads to controversy.  Such controversy by no means argues for de-emphasizing the need for definitions. Rather, the controversy serves further to clarify where to stand, when to stand, and how to stand. And if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. If you do stand for something as a Christian, you will face persecution. Define your terms so you will know why you suffer.

And as you suffer, remember the words of your great Shepherd: “Blessed are you.”  Learn from this Shepherd the definition of being blessed—even when you cannot be united on account of the words you have learned to define.

Noisy Saints Need Ears to Hear


“He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7).

I am a football fan. And I am a Christian. Therefore, as any good Christian ought, I cheer for the Saints!  The Apostle Paul blesses the churches at Ephesus and Colosse because of their love for the saints. So, it is obviously biblical to love the saints  😉

Last week, the Saints had a very rough time in Seattle. They were barely able to escape being scoreless in Seattle. Part of the problem for the Saints was the noise. The crowd in Seattle sought to break the Guinness record for loudest fans at an outdoor stadium. To do so, they had to exceed 137 decibels. They did—mostly during the crucial seconds the Saints needed for calling plays at the line of scrimmage. Congratulations, Seattle, you broke the record, reaching 137.6 decibels—and registering as a small earthquake on the regional Richter scale.

More importantly, this event is capable of instructing us in a serious theological matter. The Seahawks fans made so much noise that the Saints had to wear specially-fitted earplugs in order to hear plays being called at the line of Scrimmage. Think about that. Earplugs (used for silencing) became necessary in order to hear. The earplugs were necessary so that the outside noise (ambient noise) would not overpower the direct-line speech from player to player. The earplugs were designed to “drown out” the 137.6-decibel flood of Seattle Seahawk sound waves. The plugs filtered the noise to allow the team to hear close, direct-line speech.

All Christians–all saints–need ear-filters such as this. Indeed, one of the primary distinctions between “saints” and “sinners” in the New Testament is that the one “has ears to hear” what the Spirit is saying, while the other cannot hear the word on account of its being choked out by the cacophony of words being shouted by the world.

Richard Wurmbrand, founder of Voice of the Martyrs, spent 14 years in prison, often in solitary confinement. His book, Tortured for Christ, tells of his response to being free. In short, he states that he was most unimpressed with how those outside of prison squandered their freedom by simply making “noise” with their speech. According to Wurmbrand, even Christians squandered their speech on the noise of talking about sports, the weather, and the amusements of entertainment. After solitary confinement, Wurmbrand discovered that very few things in life were really worth talking about at all.

He also offers another telling story about the proper filtering of noise:

In the homes of many Western Christians, hours are sometimes spent listening to worldly music. In our homes loud music can also be heard, but it is only to cover the talk about the gospel and the underground work so that Ear to hearthe neighbors may not overhear it and inform the secret police.

Wurmbrand learned the real mechanics of noise and how to use it (like specially-fitted earplugs) to make the gospel more clearly, directly heard. Preachers must learn the same lesson. Unfortunately, many preachers spend too much time seeking to sound like the world (for apologetic or evangelistic purposes) instead of intentionally filtering a focused word for the saints, who are in the world but no longer desiring to be part of it.

With all the ambient noise surrounding us on billboards, television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, Netflix, and Hulu—we need Christian pastors who are capable of tuning a message to the frequency of the Scriptures and broadcasting it directly through the crowd noise to ears of those who have an ear to hear.

Stop Chronological Snobbery


The lure of chronological snobbery is an almost invincible force which overwhelms us all. Each of us hopes to excel our own pasts and, thus, to excel the generations which gave us birth. So, it is understandable that we are tempted by chronological snobbery.  As a term, chronological snobbery was first utilized by C. S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy.[1] In that work, Lewis described how he had been guilty of making fallacious arguments as a result of his own chronological snobbery:

 

…”chronological snobbery,” [is] the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

Chronological SnobberyThe 20th Century was birthed in chronological snobbery, as the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century brought unparalleled prosperity to the western world, making it possible to be affluent and comfortable without necessarily being moral. Progress was the century’s theme, and progress meant affluence. In other words, economy trumped morality. The old vestiges of Christian virtue were discarded as out of fashion. In the same manner that we threw out bell-bottom jeans in the 1980’s, so, too, Americans threw out chastity in the 20th Century. Now, our chronological snobbery declares that the prudish sensibilities of our sexual past are forever positively usurped.

But notice the two-part definition from C.S. Lewis. In the first part, he mentions that old truths are dismissed as out of date. In the second, he notes that in the place of the old, a new set of “widespread assumptions” arise which are never even questioned. So, the common sense of our age has dismissed the old and blindly adopted the new.  We mock a “puritanical sexual morality,” while, at the same time, we applaud the supposed right of women to kill unwanted babies in the womb. Our chronological snobbery blinds us to the gruesome reality of our own age and robs us of truth which lies embedded in the wisdom of ages past.

As an antidote to the mind-numbing effects of chronological snobbery, the Bible encourages two alarmingly sober lessons. First, the Bible is plain that what has happened in the past is supposed to be remembered for our instruction. Paul says this very thing to the church at Corinth (1 Cor 10:11), urging them to learn from Israel’s mistakes:

Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.  

The Bible is clear that past generations made mistakes. In that way, the Bible sounds faintly similar to a central concept of chronological snobbery. But the similarity ends there, for the Bible assumes further that the present generation is every bit as capable of making the same mistake as the prior generation. Thus, the present generation is always in need of learning from the mistakes of the prior generation. Otherwise, as George Santayana said, ““Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[2] Learn from the past so that you do not repeat the mistakes from it. This is the first biblical antidote to chronological snobbery.

The second biblical antidote to chronological snobbery is much simpler and, thus, even more profound: Don’t think too highly of yourself.  Paul says in Romans 12:3, “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.” 

The reason we must be taught this is that we all tend to hold ourselves in high esteem, while holding others in contempt. We all think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. This principle applies to each person in particular, as well as to humankind in general. Because such thinking is inherent in every person, it is also indicative of all of us. All of us are prone to think that we are advanced and enlightened in ways unfamiliar to the past. But it really is not so. The writer of Ecclesiastes got it right when he said (more than 25 centuries ago) that there is nothing new under the sun. Human nature has not changed.

Let us learn from the past in humility, realizing that the very mistakes which tripped up our predecessors are the same mistakes which threaten us. Let us also in humility humble ourselves, esteeming others as more honorable than ourselves. This means we esteem Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, Bunyan, Edwards, and Spurgeon, as though they were actually more intelligent than we (which they were). They each made mistakes from which we can learn, but such learning should be humble and should correct us, conforming our thoughts more to the thoughts of Christ.

Rather than falling prey to Chronological Snobbery, we can learn from the past and be humble. These are the two simple, biblical strategies necessary to combat the error of Chronological Snobbery.


[1] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, pp. 207-208.

[2] George Santayana, The Life of Reason.

 

Christian Rappers Neither Disobedient nor Cowards


Last week, the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches (NCFIC) unleashed a maelstrom of confusion and discontent among Christians over the place of Rap in Christian worship. As is always the case in situations like this, there is inevitably more heat than light. Emotions are running high, and unfortunate (and unnecessary) divisions are now forming.

Form Worship RapAfter watching the video of the NCFIC conference, I was, frankly, embarrassed—embarrassed for the panelists and also embarrassed by the panelists. It was not their finest hour. Nevertheless, my aim here is neither to “pile on” criticism nor offer correction. Others have done that much better than I ever could (see Ligon Duncan’s comments here).

My aim is redemption and clarity, a word of edification for rappers and non-rappers alike. However clumsily and (perhaps even sinfully) the comments were made by the NCFIC panelists—one panelist (Geoff Botkin) called Christian Rappers disobedient cowards (and has since had to apologize)—still, there may be a helpful lesson embedded in the NCFIC critique. The lesson I have in mind is the distinction between form and content in worship.

Music itself is devoid of content. Music is, by definition, form. Content must be added to musical forms if we are to have songs which serve to praise God. Those who advocate for a kind of 4/4 Classical form of music—as though God’s metronome cannot accommodate syncopation—miss this basic point that music itself is all form. Why would it be that the music of Beethoven and Bach is allowed in the worship service while that of BB King and Flame is not?

Typically, one might argue that Beethoven is more refined than Flame, but are we sure that is God’s measure? Neither form existed in the wilderness wonderings of ancient Israel. Neither form existed in the early church of the New Testament. Neither form existed in the Protestant Reformation. Both forms have evolved post-Reformation. So, neither is prescribed for Christian worship.  Both are forms of music which developed culturally.  Lest we become like Islam—sanctifying a particular cultural norm as divine—we ought to re-think offering canonical status to any cultural norms.

Musical forms are always contextual, largely dependent upon the instruments available in a given region. Why sanctify white, American pianos, organs, and guitars? On what basis? Is Beethoven really more holy than BB King? Is Mozart more pristine than Flame? A music leader once shared with me a telling story on this matter. His church was quite traditional—a high culture, hymn singing church. They began the service one morning with a traditional hymn built on the platform of a classical piece of music by Beethoven. Part of the way into this classical hymn, a young man—a visitor that day—went screaming from the service, running down the aisle and out the front doors.

Church members followed up with the man to determine what had happened. He told them that he had been a member of a cult group and was recently saved, miraculously redeemed by the washing of water with the word. He then explained that he had been brainwashed by the cult group. The cult used Beethoven’s music to alter the minds of unsuspecting youth. When this man heard Beethoven’s music being played at church, he freaked—thinking the church was just another brain-washing cult!

The point is that Classical music is no more holy than hip-hop. Both are contextualized vehicles upon which the content of Christian lyrics is free to ride. The aim of Christian musicians should be to utilize any and every form of music to the glory of God. Some songs need to be driving and forceful, while others should be irenic and serene. Different instruments accomplish different things and ought to be employed in diverse ways to glorify God. The content of the Christian message ought to determine the form of music used. If the content of the message is from Hebrews 10:24-25, for example—a message to stir one another up to love and good works—then the form of the music ought to be “stirring,” such as the form used by the group Downhere in their song, “Stir.”

Pianos, keyboards, organs, banjos, and didgeridoos are all—equally—instruments which ought to be used instrumentally as vehicles to carry the content of Christian proclamation and praise. Let us not sanctify any instrument or form over another—such sanctifying leads only to unfounded self-righteousness. And it is ugly. If we were to consider any instruments holy in themselves, then, surely, it would be those instruments found in the Scriptures. Surprisingly, no one is arguing for the holiness of a trumpet or pipes or cymbals, yet these are the instruments actually found in Scripture, along with harps and lyres.

We will build up our people best if we keep them focused on the content of our message rather than on the form of our music. Use whatever gets the point across to the audience assembled. Forget attempting to sanctify the style of your musical preference.

An Ugly, Unattractive Jesus


Jesus

Jesus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy once proclaimed, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.”[1] Americans in particular have a fascinating attraction to beauty (or, more accurately, to the beautiful). Consider this simple factoid: Vogue magazine has nearly three times the readership of Sports Illustrated—and Sports Illustrated’s most successful issue is the annual swimsuit edition! Beautiful women get our attention.

 

The quest for beauty is not lost on the church in America. Sanctuaries and lobbies are often decorated by women with a feminine perspective of beauty: flowers and pastels rule the day.  Not long ago, I visited a church which was intentionally “masculine” in its décor: rocks, stones, steel, and brown. Mundane. Bland. Yet very sturdy and forceful was the building. Which is the more biblical approach to building décor? That is a great question to which I do not know the answer. I do know, however, that we have a problem when it comes to communicating Jesus.

 

The biblical record is quite plain: Jesus isn’t pretty. Jesus is ugly. We tend to feminize Jesus—painting Him in accord with our lobbies—in pastels and flowers. He is rarely forceful. And never ugly.  Yet, in the Bible, He is unattractive. Consider the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53:

 

…He has no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon Him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
 He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

 

Contrast the passage above, which the New Testament affirms is fulfilled in Jesus Christ,[2] with the popular presentation of Jesus in our churches. Typically, Jesus is promoted as the antidote to whatever is your Kryptonite. Are you weak and in need of power to perform? Get Jesus. Are you depressed and in need of a super-sized, pick-me-up? Get Jesus. Are you suffering from a rotten life and in need of a better life now? Get Jesus. Does your marriage suck? Get Jesus. Financial woes? Jesus. No matter what brings you down, Jesus lifts you up.

 

Jesus has been tamed into a prophetic panacea, a Self-help Savior. He is no more threatening than “Mr. Rogers with a beard.”[3] And he is typically portrayed as being at least as attractive as Brad Pitt—but even more popular. The musical group Down Here gets to the point in their song “The Real Jesus:”

 

Jesus on the radio, Jesus on a late night show

 

Jesus in a dream, looking all serene

 

Jesus on a steeple, Jesus in the Gallup poll

 

Jesus has His very own brand of rock and roll

 

Watched Him on the silver screen

 

Bought the action figurine

 

But Jesus is the only name that makes you flinch

 

Oh, can anybody show me the real Jesus?

 

Oh, let Your love unveil the mystery of the real Jesus

 

The real Jesus has scars. He is cursed by God, hanged on a tree. He is forsaken by men who mock him, ridicule him, and slander him falsely. So

 

Leo Tolstoy 1848

Leo Tolstoy 1848 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

hideous were his final hours that his closest companions denied they ever knew him. When he died, he had no crowd. Even after his post-Resurrection appearances, Jesus had only 120 following him (Acts 1:15). His ministry would not be lauded by anyone taking score with any human measure of efficiency.  Jesus proved not to be much of a leader (by our typical leadership measures).

 

There was nothing in His appearance to draw us to Him. In fact, He had the kind of life—and the kind of appearance—that would make us turn away from Him.  The real Jesus turns out to be ugly, unattractive, and downright distasteful. He proves to be the kind of man rejected by almost everyone.

 

So, why would anyone follow such a man? The real ugly truth about Jesus is that His ugly appearance reveals our own sinful nature. He condemns publicly the sin that ruins us privately. He reveals to us the life that swallows our own deserved death. He reveals the purity that washes away our vanity. But vanity, sin, and death are not easily dismissed. The remedy for such horrendous maladies is unapproachable apart from suffering. And suffering God’s curse is an ugly affair. Christ came as a suffering servant for us.

 

If we see our own sin as ugly before the holiness of God, then we might begin to see the loveliness of a suffering Savior. The one reason to follow Jesus is to be reconciled to God forever. And, for us who are being saved, ugly has never been as lovely as it is in Jesus Christ.

 


[1] Leo Tolstoy, Kreutzer Sonata.

[2] See Acts 8:34-35; Matthew 8:17.

[3] Phrase used by John Eldrige in Wild at Heart.

 

 

Why (some) Stubborn Baptists Still Fence the Table of the Lord’s Supper


As a pastor, I have often had folks close to me ask (in separate—and as far as I know—unrelated incidents) for me to explain why Baptists don’t allow Presbyterians to fellowship with us in the Lord’s Supper. [The questions were not all that succinctly worded, but they were all to the same effect.]  So, I feel obliged to answer the Presbyterian question from a Baptist perspective.

Lord Supper Close CommunionAllow me to say at the outset that I am burdened by division in the body of Christ. I long for the day when there are no dividing walls disturbing the fellowship of the faithful.  One cannot help but feel the force of Robert Frost’s tension in “Mending Wall.” In that poem, one farmer is dutifully determined year after year to reconstruct a boundary wall between the two farms on the dubious authority of a single proverb: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

For his part, the second farmer at least asks what is being walled in and what is being walled out; nevertheless, without answering the question, the first farmer faithfully rebuilds the wall because “Good fences make good neighbors.”  Many Christians feel this poem pictures our present predicament with the Presbyterians.  The current evangelical ethos appears ready to test the proverb again.  To many evangelicals, Baptists appear as stubbornly stuck in fence-building as Frost’s farmer, perhaps explaining why I—a Baptist pastor—have suffered through a mini-explosion of pointed questions sympathetic toward the Presbyterian position.  I am left feeling sort of like a father who has had the distasteful task of taking candy away from his little daughter, only to watch her eyes pool with tears.

Feelings aside, the questions are legitimate and deserve a studied answer.  Though I profess to be no expert, I have been pondering the question for months now. Honestly, I desire to find a way to resolve the tension between myself and others of the Presbyterian persuasion.  I am personally affected by this tension nearly every day.  Yet, there are three things which I have not been able to reconcile.

First, though Baptists typically are those whose position is targeted for intolerant ire, the Baptists are not the only fence-builders in the Christian community.  Indeed, every Christian church and denomination builds fences around the Lord’s table.  Granted, a very few ecumenical churches (no longer evangelical in most cases) build the largest fence possible, allowing anyone without examination to partake of the Lord’s Supper.  But they are exceedingly rare and certainly not biblical.  The overwhelming majority of churches build a much smaller fence around fellowship.

All Christian churches build a fence around the table of fellowship known as Communion (or the Lord’s Supper).  Typically, these churches share the Baptist position, building the fence along the line of baptism to protect the Lord’s Supper.  Baptism is viewed by Christians as the rite which signals entry into fellowship, while the Lord’s Supper is the rite which signals on-going fellowship in the body of Christ.  So, it is really no mystery that Baptists require baptism before one partakes of the Lord’s Supper.  All Christians do that.  Who doesn’t require baptism prior to the Lord’s Supper?  Lutherans require it.  Roman Catholics require it.  Methodists require it.  Eastern Orthodox require it. And, yes, Presbyterians require baptism prior to partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Speaking of what it calls the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the Orthodox Presbyterian Book of Church Order says, “They are properly administered only in a gathering of the congregation for the public worship of God, baptism being a sacrament whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and the Lord’s Supper signifying and sealing the communion of believers with Christ and with each other as members of his mystical body.”

All Christians build fences for the sake of the gospel.  Though we can bemoan the final outcome of such fence-building, let us not too hastily condemn the practice. As you will remember, Paul once informed a church that her members were getting sick and dying because of the manner in which some were partaking of the Lord’s Supper.  If we value Christ’s instructions at all, then we will treat with gravity the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  We will likely agree with Christian history that the Lord’s Supper belongs to those who have been baptized.

Second, the issue between Baptists and Presbyterians on the topic of the Lord’s Supper is not really about the Lord’s Supper.  The issue is the significance of baptism with regard to church membership.  Baptists—whose very identity is tied to their convictions on this issue—insist that Baptism is a visible, initiatory rite for entrance into the church.

I have stated already that all denominations fence the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper with the entry ordinance of baptism.  The issue is not whether one ought to be baptized before partaking of the Lord’s Supper. On this point, we all agree. All disciples must be baptized (Matthew 28:18-20).  And that baptism must take place before taking the Lord’s Supper.  What we do not agree upon is the definition of baptism.  What is baptism?

Rather than attempt to explain the various nuances between Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians on the question of baptism, I think I would simply say that Baptists alone insist upon a clear text-by-text definition for the practice of baptism.  The clear teaching of the New Testament appears consistent with Acts 2:41, “So, then, those who had received his word were baptized…” (NASB).  Baptism is reserved for those who hear the Word of Christ and respond to it by faith.

As Paul explains in Romans 6:3-7, baptism is a testimonial picture of the power of the gospel in the believer’s life.  Baptism functions as a confession because of its signifying visually the gospel of our Lord.  Baptism, then, is for believers who have (through the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ) died to the old way of living in sin, have buried both their sin and their guilt in Christ’s cleansing flood, and have risen anew from the waters with the empowerment of the Resurrection working in them to ensure a new walk in the narrow way of life.

According to the New Testament, baptism is pretty much what The Baptist Faith and Message teaches that it is:

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper. –Baptist Faith and Message, 2010.

The verse references used in the Baptist Faith and Message: Matthew 3:13-17; 26:26-30; 28:19-20; Mark 1:9-11; 14:22-26; Luke 3:21-22; 22:19-20; John 3:23; Acts 2:41-42; 8:35-39; 16:30-33; 20:7; Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 10:16,21; 11:23-29; Colossians 2:12.

All denominations pretty much agree that baptism must precede partaking of the Lord’s Supper.  We do not agree on the definition of baptism, although I would point out that even the OPC Book of Church Order recognizes that baptism ought to be for believers.  Accordingly, Presbyterians can say, “Baptism with water signifies and seals cleansing from sin by the blood and the Spirit of Christ, together with our death unto sin and our resurrection unto newness of life by virtue of the death and resurrection of Christ.”  -That could be said by a Baptist, although we would most likely quibble with the “sealing” part.

What a Baptist cannot say, which the Presbyterians can say, is, “The time of the outward application of the sign does not necessarily coincide with the inward work of the Holy Spirit which the sign represents and seals to us.”  I cannot find warrant for this application of baptism anywhere in the New Testament.  In fact, I can think of an instance in which people were baptized (“outward application of the sign”) but not born again of the Holy Spirit.  In Acts 19, Paul arrived in Ephesus to discover a group of professing believers who had been baptized into the promise of John the Baptist.  Paul explained that the promises John was preaching were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  With that knowledge, these professing Christian adults gladly agreed to be “re-baptized,” as folks are wont to say nowadays.  Paul, I don’t believe, thought that he was re-baptizing them.  He thought he was baptizing them in the New Testament understanding of the term, complete with the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.

Likewise, Baptists today are simply trying to maintain the biblical practice of keeping the ordinances in order: baptism, then the Lord’s Supper.  Baptism means what the New Testament declares that it means.  Baptists like me do not wish to withhold the Lord’s Supper fellowship from anyone who professes Christ, but we must also insist (again as all denominations do) that any who receive the sign of fellowship must first undergo baptism.  How is a Baptist supposed to ignore that which he believes is the biblical definition of baptism?

Finally, the issue of baptism is inherently and inextricably linked to church membership.  As stated, the real issue between Baptists and Presbyterians is the issue of the significance of baptism with regard to church membership.  Once again, most Christian churches place the same fence around membership as they do around the fellowship ordinance of the Lord’s Supper: Baptism.  Presbyterians agree with Baptists that one must be baptized in order to be a member of the church. Obviously, there is disagreement about what constitutes baptism.  As a result of the different definitions of baptism, the two groups end with a different definition of church.

Baptists believe that only those who receive the Word should be baptized. That appears to be the pattern of the New Testament (as mentioned above).  Historically, Baptists have referred to this practice as regenerate church membership. Who makes up the body of Christ if not the followers of Christ?  Who is the Bride of Christ if not those who have come to love Him through the gospel?  The one who has been taught to obey what Jesus commanded is the one who should be baptized and called a disciple (Matthew 28:18-20).  Where in the New Testament is the church made up of those who never believed or repented or exercised faith?

Presbyterians (at least as indicated above from the Book of Church Order) understand that baptism ushers one in to membership in the local, visible church.  Yet, they are comfortable baptizing persons who have never been born again in the Holy Spirit.  Presbyterians baptize into the church people who have never made a profession of faith.  In the case of young children, Presbyterians will baptize into the church persons who are unable to profess faith.

Presbyterians do this because they hold to a different definition for baptism and a different definition of the church.  Presbyterians (if I understand their Baptism Lord's Supper ordinanceteaching correctly) equate the visible church with the covenant community of Israel, utilizing baptism as roughly equivalent to circumcision—a sign of the covenant people of God.  Thus, believers are baptized into the visible church, but so also are their children.  If there is a family in which the wife is a believer, and the husband is not, the Presbyterian Church will baptize their children into the visible church. As long as one parent is a believer, the children can be baptized into the church.  In this scenario, the church ends up being redefined.

Obviously, I am a Baptist. Thus, I think Presbyterians have a faulty definition both of baptism and of the church.  About these two important Christian concepts, we disagree.  We have learned to live with that disagreement.  Though I can think of a great many arguments for my positions on baptism and church, I will forego those arguments in order to stick to the single point of this article—explaining why Baptists look so intolerant on the matter of the Lord’s Supper.

Presbyterians (or any denomination that demands Baptists to offer the Lord’s Supper) are asking Baptists to do something they themselves are unwilling to do—serve the Lord’s Supper to those who have never been baptized.  According to the PCA Book of Church Order,

6-4. Those only who have made a profession of faith in Christ, have been

baptized, and admitted by the Session to the Lord’s Table, are entitled to all

the rights and privileges of the church. (See BCO 57-4 and 58-4)

It is a little hypocritical for Presbyterians and other evangelicals to demand that Baptists allow admission to the Lord’s Supper merely on profession of faith.  No Presbyterian Church would allow that.  Why should the Baptist Church be so compelled to disregard baptism in relation to the Lord’s Supper? I’ve had cult members profess faith in Jesus Christ. Of course, I know that they don’t mean what it sounds like they are saying. Their profession is insufficient. This is why most who argue for allowing the Lord’s Supper based on profession will usually end up qualifying what they mean by profession. They mean not profession, but evidence of conversion. They mean the Lord’s Supper is for disciples. With that sentiment, I heartily agree.  But discipleship is defined by Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).

As Baptists, our problem is that we insist on defining baptism so closely to the New Testament practice. We may lament the consequences of such a definition, but we must ask in response, “how else are we to know the definition of the word?”  We must be guided by our study of the New Testament, and we must act according to the dictates of our consciences on the matter.  Whatever the New Testament says is baptism, that is what we must practice.

So, who should partake of Lord’s Supper?  All disciples of Christ.

Who are the disciples of Christ? Those who have learned to obey Christ and have been baptized (Matthew 28:18-20).

 

Preaching and Persecution Simply Explained


As noted in the first part of this article, Christ taught His original followers that persecution would continue on account of Him (Mat 5:10-12).  We have seen that the presence of Christ provokes persecution now just as it did when Christ walked the streets of Jerusalem (and was eventually nailed to a cross). What we shall consider further in this article is what the presence of Christ means.

Preaching persecution Christ KingdomAt minimum, the presence of Christ means that Christ is present with His people in the fullness of His identity. He is not present as we want Him to be. He is present as the true person He is. Christ exists as the Son of God without reference to our preferences. He is who He is. He will not be someone He is not.

Returning to Matthew, we see that Christ is present in the gospel as Himself—namely, as the king of heaven and earth. In preparing their readers for studying Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, well-respected New Testament Scholars Davies and Allison explain it this way:

   Before Jesus utters his commands, the reader has been informed—by OT prophecy, by John the Baptist, by God, and by the devil—who he is: the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God . . . .  This Jesus, therefore, by virtue of his identity, must speak with authority and make sovereign demands.  The obligation to obey the commands of Mt 5-7 is grounded in Christology, in the person of Jesus.  Matthew sets up his gospel so that one may first recognize Jesus’ unique status and then heed his commandments.[1]

Jesus is King of heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18-20). So, when we say that Jesus is present in the church, we say that the sovereign Jesus is present with claims of kingdom authority and demands for obedience.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus saying that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. No one overrules Jesus Christ. And, in fact, Jesus gives His followers the commission to make disciples of all peoples, and part of the disciple-making process is teaching people to obey everything Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). Such authority means that Jesus is king.

True to being a king in the God-intended sense (see Deuteronomy 17), Jesus established the righteousness of God on earth. Jesus the King still demands all men everywhere uphold the righteousness of God.  So, where Jesus is present, there is also a demand to uphold the righteousness of God. It isn’t simply a demand to obey; it is a demand to obey which is backed with authority from God.

Indeed, this startling dynamic is the thing which surprised people in Jesus’s day. At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, the people were amazed that Jesus spoke with such authority, rather than speaking as merely “a good teacher” (Matthew 7:28-30).

The presence of Jesus is the presence of a sovereign king making sovereign demands. His is not the presence of merely a good moral teacher. When preachers preach Christ, they present before their hearers a king making sovereign demands with implications for eternity. The stakes could not be higher, and the claims could not be greater.

The point is that Christ has come as a king establishing the righteousness of God. There is no other Christ. Such a Christ is offensive to fleshly indulgence. He sounds restrictive, audacious, and even oppressive. His claims of eternal reward or damnation—all or nothing depending on relation to Him—are simply unbearable apart from faith. On occasion, the weight of the matter will so overwhelm the unbeliever that he will seek to silence the man or woman who carries the message. That is preaching and persecution simply explained.


 

[1]Davies and Allison, Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, 64.

The Dark Side of Preaching


Few evangelicals would argue against the primacy of preaching Christ in Christian ministry. We evangelicals preach Christ. As we preach Christ, we do so with an expectation of benefit to our hearers. Through the preaching of the Word of Christ, the lost are saved. Paul tells us that this is in fact the way sinners get saved (Rom 10:14-15).

Preaching PersecutionIn addition, believers get edified, instructed, and trained in the way of righteousness when Christ is properly preached, according to the Scriptures (2 Tim 3:16). There are untold, eternal benefits rendered through the preaching of the Word of Christ. Little wonder, then, that evangelical preaching books focus on the positive side of preaching, the side of preaching in which hearers are enlightened and continue walking in the light.  Every good preacher practices his homiletical craft for the benefit of those who hear him.

Nevertheless, holding merely a beneficent view of Christian preaching is slightly askew from the biblical portrait of those preaching Christ. Consider the fate of biblical preachers: James was killed (Acts 12). Peter and John were beaten.  Paul was stoned and repeatedly imprisoned. John was exiled. And Christ was crucified.

Where many contemporary preaching texts read like primers on how to win friends and influence people, the Bible—the original preaching text—expects preachers to make enemies as well as friends. “If they hated me,” Jesus told his disciples, “They will hate you also” (John 15:18-25). In Acts 14:19-23, Paul is stoned and left for dead after preaching in Lystra. He and Barnabas then moved on to Derbe and other places, teaching the disciples along the way: “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”  Biblically speaking, the work of a preacher may be rewarding, but it is not necessarily safe. As Calvin said centuries ago, “But in every age the prophets and godly teachers have had a difficult struggle with the ungodly, who in their stubbornness can never submit to the yoke of being taught by human word and ministry.”[1]

Why is preaching such a precarious profession? Two simple reasons: the presence of Jesus and the person of Jesus.

Jesus is present in authentic, biblical preaching. Whether one ascribes to Luther’s concept of the Word or Calvin’s sacramental explanation of proclamation, the truth abides: Jesus Christ is present with his people through the preaching of His Word.  “The Word—faithfully preached—is Christ’s Word or voice, and an offering or presentation of Christ himself.”[2] This truth was clearly displayed by Christ Himself, as He taught His followers that His sheep would hear His voice, know His voice, and follow His voice (John 10). Christ also left His followers with the sure promise of His presence with them throughout the church age (Matthew 28:20). Christ will never leave nor forsake His people. He is now (as always) present with His people.

Christ’s presence now (as always) provokes persecution. Christ taught His original followers that persecution would continue on account of Him (Mat 5:10-12; Jhn 15:21).  Christ told the disciples He would send the Holy Spirit as a helper to be present with them. This Holy Spirit (while helping the disciples) would also convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment. (More will be said of this righteousness in part two).

The point for now is to say the presence of Christ is every bit as divisive now as it was in the first century because (a) Christ is still present with His people, particularly through the preaching of the Word, and (b) because the world has not changed, it is still fallen, along with those unbelievers who remain under the curse of sin and death. If the unbelieving world persecuted Christ when he walked physically on the earth, they will now persecute His followers with whom He remains present until the day of His return. The presence of Christ in preaching provokes persecution.

…Part Two of this article will consider the person of Jesus in preaching.


[1] Calvin, Institutes 4.1.5

[2] See “The Real Presence of Christ in the Preaching of the Gospel: Luther and Calvin on the Nature of Preaching,” by J. Mark Beach,  http://www.midamerica.edu/resources/journal/10/beach.pdf

 

Which Church to Choose?


My family and I are adjusting to living in the population-dense city of Corona, CA.  While Corona is not as populated as its neighboring Orange County or Los Angeles County residences, it is substantially more peopled than our prior residence in Bullitt County, Kentucky.  There, we could not hit our neighbor’s house by throwing a rock. Here, we must be careful to turn from our neighbors when we sneeze.

Church Holy Spirit Word God Christ

Church Holy Spirit Word God Christ

At any rate, we have been fascinated to watch how Christians have responded to booming populations. In Corona, there are about 4,000 people per square mile. And there are about 2.5 churches per square mile. Driving home from our wonderful new church (FBC Norco), my wife and I noticed several church plants. In fact, there were two church plants in a single commercial distribution facility. We passed them both and noticed their names. As a kind of thought experiment, I asked my wife which of the two she would prefer.

Think about which church you would choose. The first church we came across in this industrial/commercial complex was called “Led by the Holy Spirit Worship Center.”  Clearly, they desire to fulfill the spirit of Galatians 5:25, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”

The second church advertised itself as “The Word of Truth Gospel Church.” Clearly, this congregation hopes to keep in step with the spirit of Jesus’s own prayer to the Father in John 17:17, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” So, which church would you choose: The one led by the Holy Spirit or the Word of Truth?

My savvy wife ended up turning the question back on me. So, here is my short reply (and admittedly a reply ignorant of any knowledge about either church beyond its name). Given only the names, I would lead my family to the “Word of Truth” church over the “led by the Holy Spirit” church. The reason is simple: One church stands or falls on experience, while the other stands or falls on an eternal, unchanging word.

I am very much in favor of being led by the Holy Spirit—without the Spirit there would be no new birth (Jn 3) and no helper to call to our minds the Word of Christ (Jn 14:26). Without the Spirit, our prayers would be impossible, for He intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words, and He reminds us that we are children of God and are thus able to cry out to our Father in heaven (Rom 8:12-27).  The Holy Spirit empowers us to love and to good works. We cannot live the Christian life apart from the Spirit.

Nevertheless, the foundation for our faith is not the Spirit but the Word—the living Word of God who put on skin and came to live on the earth in the midst of a crooked and perverse, sin-filled people. The living Word of God in the person of Christ is the foundation of our faith. Christ is the eternal Word, whose work has wrought our salvation.  The Holy Spirit applies, empowers, and recalls to us the work of Christ. Christ is foundational–the author of our faith.

This distinction is slightly forced because both Christ and the Holy Spirit are one unity with the Father (the Trinity). Nothing I have said should be taken to imply division between Christ and the Spirit. But it is necessary for us to keep Christ first, for some in the name of the Spirit act as though the Spirit has the right to overrule the Word.  They allow experience to trump the Word.

For example, I spoke with a man who believed he should divorce his wife because she wasn’t as spiritually mature as he was. He believed the Spirit was leading him to get a divorce (his third). Another woman I know thought the Spirit was leading her to an adulterous affair. After all, God wants us to be happy, right? In both cases, experiences (and fleshly desires) were running roughshod over the clear teaching of the Scripture.  The Word of God forbids such behavior (Matthew 19:1-11).

So, my conclusion is, first, to say that we ought not separate the Trinity!  We need both Spirit and Word. But if you are forced to choose a Spirit church over a Word church, stick with the Word.  The eternal Word of God will correct your fleshly appetites and guide you in the way of salvation.  Your experiences need God’s interpretive guide—that occurs when you are led by Christ’s words, obeying all that He commands you.

 

Protect Your Pastor: Two simple steps to stop the devil’s scheme


Christ's Charge to Peter by Raphael, 1515. In ...

Christ’s Charge to Peter by Raphael, 1515. In telling Peter to shepherd his sheep, Christ was appointing him as a pastor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In story after story, pastors are being targeted for persecution. One recent story told of pastors in Asia who were chained to metal poles and beaten so they would renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. I know at least one of the pastors in the story remained faithful.  I hope they all did. But the persecution pattern is predictable: “Strike the shepherd, and they will flee.”

Jesus applied a prophecy from Zechariah to Himself when he quoted this phrase (see Matthew 26:31).  Though the original quote refers back to a judgment passage, Jesus quotes the verse in application to Himself. He was going to suffer God’s wrath and also the injustice of sinful men; and His sheep were going to turn away from Him. Sadly, the enemy knows this scheme is still effective. So he still uses it.

In contexts like the Asian one mentioned above, local leaders target pastors with severe persecution. They know if they can defame and dishonor the pastor, then the flock will flee (either for safety or just to save face, as Peter did on the night our Lord was betrayed).  Defamed pastors put the flock in disarray. So, strike the shepherd, and the sheep will flee.

For most of us reading this blog, there should be two simple responses to this diabolical scheme.  First and foremost, we must guard our shepherds and watch their backs. There will never be a shortage of folks attempting to discredit the shepherd. They know any defamation of his character will lead to a separation of his power.  Deceivers in the church wish to divide the flock, thereby gaining power to levy against the shepherd—to force him to bend to their will rather than following Him as He obeys God’s will. The gravity of this scheme is affirmed in the commands of Scripture which tell the flock not to even entertain a charge against a pastor except on the presence of two or three witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19).

This protection is put in place for elders because of how vulnerable he is. Anyone who leads is obviously a target for ridicule, slander, and malicious gossip.  Any pastor who leads faithfully will offend some people (even as Jesus and Paul and Peter offended some). The gospel is offensive to the flesh! For the good of the flock, God commands the flock not to entertain an accusation against the pastor unless the proper protocol has taken place.

And what is the proper protocol? The idea in 1 Tim 5:19 is that anyone wishing to make an accusation must FIRST go and speak directly to the pastor and work for reconciliation. If there is no reconciliation at that point then the SECOND step is to take along two or three witnesses and work toward reconciliation. Only after the FIRST and SECOND steps have failed to bring reconciliation should there be the THIRD step of entertaining an accusation against a man called by God to be a pastor.

What grievous wrongs might be made right if only churches would properly safeguard the Scriptures and, thus, protect their pastors from gossip, slander, and even more intense forms of persecution!

The second simple response to the reality of the devil’s “Strike the shepherd, and they will flee” scheme is for the flock to doubt the accuser instead of the accused—unless the accuser has followed the biblical pattern. If he has followed the pattern stated above, then the charge must be taken seriously. If he has not, then take notice of him and warn him against the sin of being divisive. If he continues to make accusations without following the biblical order, then have nothing to do with him:

You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned (Titus 3:11, see vv. 9-11).

Finally, decide that you will be a faithful servant of God’s flock. Follow Titus 3:1-2,

Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.

Do not go with those who make accusations in secret rooms or in public settings but never bother to actually seek reconciliation in private with the person they are accusing of being unfit for ministry. They are doing the bidding of the one still hoping to strike the shepherd so the sheep will flee. Protect your pastors. They are always particularly vulnerable.