Saturday, March 26, 2011

It's Not the Church

This little battle over speakers at the homeschool convention in Cincinnati gives me an opportunity to point out something of great importance to American Christians at this historical moment.

The homeschool movement is not going to save America.

Conferences, conventions, concerts, camps, movements, museums, ministries, celebrity speakers, and crusades are the stuff of life of evangelical Christianity in this nation. Many Christians derive their Christian identity from their participation in the ministry for which they "feel a burden." It is not too much to say that many Christians have a fetish for celebrity conference speakers, concert artists, and latest and greatest Christian books. These things may have their place, but we need to clearly understand that they are not the answer for all our ills.

Now, as you folks know, I'm all for homeschooling. I disciple my six children at home, and I'm happy to encourage other families to do the same. But homeschooling does not translate into a massive movement of the Spirit of God, neither do all the other things I just listed.

There is a simple reason I make this assertion - homeschooling is not the church.

Christ has promised to build his church, and to his church he has committed the message and the gifts needed to accomplish his mission. There is no way to make disciples apart from the functioning manifestation of the body of Christ, which is the local church.

The homeschool convention referenced above provides a good illustration of what happens when Christian unity is reduced to feeling led by the Spirit and not criticizing anyone else who claims to be Christian. Read the full email (found in this article) sent by Brennan Dean, leader of the homeschool convention in Cincinnati, to Answers in Genesis, and pay attention to the reasoning. I don't know about all that happened in this situation, but I can see what was plainly communicated by the homeschool convention leadership - "It is unchristian to criticize the beliefs of another professing Christian. We don't allow doctrinal controversy at our convention. That's not loving." If this is what it means to be a Christian, then it is no wonder that being a Christian is meaningless.

Why would a homeschool convention feel the need to avoid doctrinal controversy, even over such basics as the authority, clarity, sufficiency, and inerrancy of the Bible? Why does being nice trump fundamental and defining Christian doctrine? According to their statement, I believe the answer is found in their faulty view of Christianity which is represented in their constituency. The convention wishes to be "unashamedly Christian" without putting boundaries on what that actually means. They studiously avoided even mentioning the fundamental issue which Ken Ham raised, which was not the creation debate but the authority of the Word of God. They want to leave it up to the parents to decide what their families ought to believe, as long as it is "Christian." They wish to rise above sectarian divisions.

The reality is that there is no such thing as Christian unity with those who deny the inerrancy of the Bible and undermine its authority, as BioLogos unashamedly does (see, for example, this clear assessment by Albert Mohler).

Well, there is a pathway toward true Christian unity, but it is painfully clear that a homeschool convention lacks the spiritual navigation kit to walk it. There is only one institution that has the spiritual resources necessary to build unity founded on the truth of Christ, and that institution is the church.

Now it just so happens that life in the church is not glamorous. It doesn't have outstanding speakers and Tim Hawkins live. Real pastors aren't rock stars. Meeting with fifty or a hundred nose-blowing brothers and sisters doesn't have the carnival euphoria of going to a convention. There are no famous people. You know that half of the people there have real problems, and the other half have problems that you don't know about. (At least at a conference you don't have to deal with other people's personal lives.) But God has said that the church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth. God uses what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chooses what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has equipped his church with the preaching of the Word, with the ordinances, and with church discipline, and thus armed by the Spirit, the church holds forth the gospel that can save. She disciplines her members and she puts false brothers away from the Table. This is not glamorous life, but it is life from the Spirit.

If we want to see the cause of Christ advance, we need to commit ourselves to the one institution which Christ has promised to build. We need to define ourselves primarily, not by our homeschooling (or any other movement), but by our membership in Christ's body with the structures Christ designed.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Behold, Your King Is Coming

In the elderly apostle John's memory, a shouting crowd with palm branches, a dead man returned to life, a donkey, and two texts of Scripture combined in one powerful scene to prove that Jesus truly was the Messiah, King of Israel. We will see that scene this Lord's Day, and may each one of us see Jesus as our true King.

O Worship the King (#46)
Glory Be to the Father
Psalm 118b
Change Your Church, O God
How Good Is the God We Adore (#738)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Genesis 34; Psalm 4
New Testament: Matthew 21:23-46

Behold, Your King Is Coming - John 12:12-19

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Purpose of the Gospel of John

It is often debated whether John wrote primarily for unbelievers or for believers. The content of the Gospel itself leads me to believe that John has in mind primarily those who consider themselves to be believers, simply because much of what he says assumes the knowledge that believers would have. Yet this does not mean that his Gospel was not addressed to unbelievers, as well.

I believe that this debate sometimes suffers from a false dichotomy. It is not the case at all that these two purposes are in conflict with each other or even that these are two distinct purposes. The tension we feel may come more from our false pre-understanding that evangelism is somehow separate from discipleship, that believing is a momentary, one-time experience, or that the gospel has nothing important to say to believers. In reality, any true presentation of Jesus will shine on all men and force the issue of who he is and how they must respond to him. The Gospel of John calls upon everyone who hears, whether professing believer or unbeliever, to believe that Jesus is the Christ.

A Caution

I've been arguing that true faith is not the decision of a moment but the disposition of the heart. These two perspectives on faith lead to different methodologies for presenting the gospel. We are not out to get decisions for Christ; we are endeavoring to make disciples. Understanding this is crucial in the pop-saturated world of Christianity in which we live today.

Nevertheless, as with all crucial truths, it is possible to take faith-as-a-disposition-of-the-heart in a wrong direction and end up in a different error. This error holds that one can be a believer without knowing it. One can be a believer without ever consciously turning from sin to Christ. But we must maintain that while real faith is the habit of the heart, it is not passive. It is always active.  True faith is not implicit faith. True faith is not unintelligent faith.True faith is not merely a feeling. True faith always includes an active purpose of the will, an attachment of the affections, an engagement of the mind. In short, it is personal trust in Christ alone for salvation.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

I Am a Christian

Hence it is apparent, that church membership is no trifling matter, since it is calling heaven, earth, and hell, to witness our solemn declaration of submission to the authority of Christ. It is saying, in the hearing of more worlds than one, “I am a Christian.”

Dan Greenfield provides a good quote from John Angell James on church membership. See it all here.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Giving and Taking

Some people come to Jesus ready to give their all for him. Others come to Jesus to get whatever they can from him. That's the difference between a Mary and a Judas. Why do we come to him? Join us this Lord's Day as we seek to give ourselves for his glory.

All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name (#36)
The Name High Over All (#31)
Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove (#211)
O for a Heart to Praise My God (#70)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Genesis 33; Psalm 36
New Testament: Matthew 21:1-22

Giving and Taking - John 12:1-11

A Bit of Parenting Wisdom

"Do not withhold discipline from a child;
            If you strike him with a rod, he will not die.
If you strike him with the rod,
You will save his soul from Sheol."    Proverbs 23:13-14 (ESV).

Because of a recent discussion on parenting, I thought I would comment on the meaning of this text. Sometimes those who get into all kinds of theories of child-rearing struggle to take the wisdom from Proverbs in a straightforward way, and they begin to invent unlikely interpretations of what are really simple observations of wisdom. Truly, understanding Proverbs is not all that complicated. The beauty of Proverbs is found in its earthy statements which are so readily seen in everyday life.

On the other hand, because we come to the Scripture with many ideas which we perceive to be normal but do not square with a biblical understanding of reality, our common-sense interpretations of Proverbs can sometimes miss the mark. We must make sure that we understand the proverbs as God wants us to understand them. With that in mind, let’s look at the text.

Simple Instruction

This pair of proverbs is part of the “words of the wise” (Prov 22:17) which we must hear so that our trust will be in the Lord (22:19) and so that we will know what is right and true (22:21). The pair begins with a simple instruction – do not keep discipline away from a child. Discipline includes both verbal instruction/reproof (Psa 50:17) as well as corporal punishment (Prov 13:24). In this text, the parallel with the rod shows that corporal punishment is the predominant idea. The child in Proverbs could be any young person ranging in age from infancy to young adulthood, with the common understanding that he lacks wisdom (cf. Prov 7:7; 20:11; 22:15; 29:15). In this text, the child clearly needs the discipline through which he can gain wisdom.

The second half of the proverb gives the condition that if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. A rod is simply a stick or a staff that in Scripture could be used as a tool for a wide variety of situations. Now comes a crucial point that the proverb seeks to teach:  the youth will not die because of the discipline. The relationship between discipline and death is actually exactly the opposite. Discipline saves from death. In other words, the second half of verse 13 is not saying that the child will not die from a beating. It is not addressing that at all. Rather, it is saying that striking with the rod will not cause death, and the death in mind here is not merely cessation of biological activity but being cut off from a relationship with the living God.

Life and Death

As we read this proverb, we must understand the concept of “death” in Proverbs. When Proverbs speaks of life and death, it often points to more than the narrowest idea of biological function. Derek Kidner says, “In several places it is not too much to say that ‘life’ means fellowship with God….[S]ome of the major Old Testament expressions for godliness are interchangeable with ‘life’ or ‘to live’” (Proverbs, 53-4). Bruce Waltke agrees, “In sum, ‘life’ in the majority of Proverbs texts refers to abundant life in fellowship with God, a living relationship that is never envisioned as ending in clinical death in contrast to the wicked’s eternal death” (Old Testament Theology, 909). Thus Kidner goes on to say of death, “The Old Testament looks at the subject in depth: death is a whole realm in conflict with life, rather than a single and merely physical event” (Proverbs, 55).

Save His Soul

The second proverb in this pair (v. 14) makes this point explicitly clear. Striking the youth with a rod will actually result in saving his soul (that is, saving him) from Sheol or the grave (note the parallel with death in the previous verse).[1] The discipline envisioned in this pair of proverbs is life-giving. It enables a child to enjoy life with God, a life that even physical death cannot kill (compare the following two proverbs in vv. 17-18). It saves him from separation from God.

I would like to point out one common modern misconception which may inhibit us from understanding these proverbs, even though they speak plainly. Once we understand what they say, we might immediately question, “How can corporal discipline result in spiritual good?” We are accustomed to putting a hard division between physical and spiritual. It is part of our Enlightenment heritage. However, the Scripture does not do this. In order for these proverbs to make perfect sense, we simply need to remember the ideas that inform the noble historic Christian teaching of “means of grace” (or perhaps even better stated as “gifts of grace” or simply “graces”). God gives us ways to enjoy his favor. He grants his favor through our obedience to his instruction. This is the way that God has given to us to enjoy his blessing (which equals abundant life with him).

Before I close, I need to give all the obligatory caveats and cautions about spanking which any parent with an ounce of common sense and anything faintly resembling godly love already knows. But since you already know them, I’ll just consider it done.

So, in the end, these two proverbs really do say what you basically thought they said in the beginning, with perhaps a little twist. Discipline, which definitely includes spanking, is the way a wise person trains up a child in the way he should go. Discipline is for a child’s eternal spiritual good.

[1] Bruce Waltke argues that v. 14 escalates the instruction beyond a condition to an obligation which has the force of “You must strike him with a rod.” See The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15-31, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 252.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Glory Coming Out of a Tomb

The threat of death stalks the entire chapter of John 11, yet it is the most glorious chapter to this point in John's Gospel. How can this be? Join us this Lord's Day to see God's glory coming out of a tomb.

Come, Let Us with Our Lord Arise (#25)
Who Is He in Yonder Stall (#120)
Christ, the Lord, Is Risen Today (#156)
Thine Be the Glory (#162)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Genesis 32; Psalm 28
New Testament: Matthew 20:17-34

Glory Coming Out of a Tomb - John 11

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Oh, Now I Get It

Herman Bavinck on the kind of faith presented by antinomians:

People need only to believe; that is, they need only to arrive at the insight that they are justified, born again, sanctified, that they are perfect in Christ....Believing, accordingly, is nothing other than putting aside the illusion that God is angry with us (Reformed Dogmatics, vol 3, 530).

A Contrast Continued

We have been discussing how we present the gospel so that we encourage genuine faith in Jesus Christ and discourage false faith. We have seen the contrast between the method used by Evangelism Explosion (EE) and the method used by Richard Baxter. Let me enumerate some distinctions I noticed.

1. Baxter has a strong sense of the inability of the sinner to believe. EE treats the sinner's inability as unimportant. In fact, EE gives the distinct impression that the right presentation will significantly impact the outcome.

2. Thus, Baxter seeks to powerfully persuade the sinner by pointing to Christ but intentionally refrains from leading the sinner in a prayer or any other religious action. He simply urges the sinner to act. He closes by praying to God himself on behalf of the sinner, but does not ask the sinner to pray a prayer. EE treats "the sinner's prayer" as the whole goal of the gospel presentation.

3. Baxter's concept of trusting in Christ includes a robust sense of fully turning from the old way of life. Without this there is no conversion. EE seeks to assure the "convert" of everlasting salvation simply on the basis of right answers to a few questions and a brief prayer.

4. Given his concept of conversion, Baxter emphasizes using the means of grace. EE omits this entirely as irrelevant to the gospel.

Though there are obviously many similarities in these two presentations of the gospel, the differences are stark and significant. They encapsulate two different conceptions of Christianity.

Post Script: For those who would like to consider further how one's doctrine influences the presentation of the gospel, you may wish to read these two recent blog posts:
(1) An Open Letter to Seekers
(2) A Five-Pointer Shares the Gospel

Friday, March 04, 2011

The Scripture Cannot Be Broken

Riots in Libya, Supreme Court decisions on free speech, and training my two year old remind me of one thing - authority is a perennial issue socially, politically, and above all, religiously. Thankfully, in this confusing and changing world God has given us one final and infallible authority - the Bible. This Lord's Day, we will hear what Jesus had to say about the authority of the Scripture.

Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing (#243)
How Firm a Foundation (#610)
Psalm 119f
O God Our Help in Ages Past (#49)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Genesis 31; Psalm 3
New Testament: Matthew 20:1-16

The Scripture Cannot Be Broken - John 10:35

Thursday, March 03, 2011

A Contrast

I have been dealing with the nature of true faith and how we can lead people away from true faith by our presentation of the gospel. In order to bring the subject into clearer focus, I would like to provide a contrasting method of calling men to follow Christ. Like Evangelism Explosion is in our day, this method was well-known in its own day. In this post I have no intention of judging whether this method of presenting the gospel was right or wrong, good or bad, or better or worse than what we find today. My sole objective to provide a contrast so that we can begin to see core issues emerge more clearly.

My example is Richard Baxter's Call to the Unconverted from 1658, an earnest and extended plea for men to heed the gospel. At one point in the book Baxter addresses the man who says, in effect, "What must I do to be saved?" He gives 10 directions to this searching soul, which I excerpt from Baxter's own words here.

1. If you would be converted and saved, labour to understand the necessity and true nature of conversion: for what, and from what, and to what, and by what it is that you must turn.

2. If you will be converted and saved, be much in serious secret consideration. Inconsiderateness undoes the world. Withdraw yourselves oft into retired secrecy, and there bethink you of the end why you were made, of the life you have lived, of the time you have lost, the sins you have committed; of the love and sufferings, and fulness of Christ; of the danger you are in; of the nearness of death and judgment; of the certainty and excellency of the joys of heaven; and of the certainty and terror of the torments of hell, and the eternity of both; and of the necessity of conversion and a holy life. Absorb your hearts in such considerations as these.

3. If you will be converted and saved, attend upon the word of God, which is the ordinary means. Read the Scripture, or hear it read, and other holy writings that do apply it; constantly attend on the public preaching of the word. As God will light the world by the sun, and not by himself without it, so will he convert and save men by his ministers, who are the lights of the world.

4. Betake yourselves to God in a course of earnest constant prayer. Confess and lament your former lives, and beg his grace to illuminate and convert you. Beseech him to pardon what is past, and to give you his Spirit, and change your hearts and lives, and lead you in his ways, and save you from temptation. Pursue this work daily, and

5. Presently give over your known and wilful sins. Make a stand, and go that way no farther. Be drunk no more, but avoid the very pleasures with detestation. Curse, and swear, and rail no more; and if you have wronged any, restore, as Zaccheus did: if you will commit again your old sins, what blessing can you expect on the means for conversion?

6. Presently, if possible, change your company, if it hath hitherto been bad; not by forsaking your necessary relations, but your unnecessary sinful companions; and join yourselves with those that fear the Lord, and inquire of them the way to heaven.

7. Deliver up yourselves to the Lord Jesus, as the physician of your souls, that he may pardon you by his blood, and sanctify you by his Spirit, by his word and ministers, the instruments of the Spirit. He is the way, the truth, and he life; there is no coming to the Father but by him. John xiv. 6. Nor is there any other name under heaven, by which you can be saved. Acts iv. 12. Study, therefore, his person and natures, and what he hath done for you, and what he is to you, and what he will be, and how he is the full supply of all your necessities.

8. If you mean indeed to turn and live, do it speedily, without delay. If you be not willing to turn to-day, you are not willing to do it at all. Remember, you are all this while in your blood, under the guilt of many thousand sins, and under God's wrath, and you stand at the very brink of hell; there is but a step between you and death: and this is not a case for a man that is well in his wits to be quiet in. Up therefore presently, and fly as for your lives, as you would be gone out of your house if it were all on fire over your head. O, if you did but know in what continual danger you live, and what daily unspeakable loss you sustain, and what a safer and sweeter life you might live, you would not stand trifling, but presently turn. Multitudes miscarry that wilfully delay, when they are convinced that it must be done. Your lives are short and uncertain; and what a case are you in if yon die before you thoroughly turn! Ye have staid too long already, and wronged God too long. Sin getteth strength while you delay. Your conversion will grow more hard and doubtful. You have much to do, and therefore put not all off to the last, lest God forsake you, and give you up to yourselves, and then you are undone for ever.

9. If you will turn and live, do it unreservedly, absolutely, and universally. Think not to capitulate with Christ, and divide your heart between him and the world; and to part with some sins, and keep the rest; and to let that go which your flesh can spare. This is but self-deluding; you must in heart and resolution forsake all that you have, or else you cannot be his disciples. Luke xiv. 26, 33. If you will not take God and heaven for your portion, and lay all below at the feet of Christ, but you must needs also have your good things here, and have an earthly portion, and God and glory are not enough for you,—it is in vain to dream of salvation on these terms; for it will not be. 

10. If you will turn and live, do it resolvedly, and stand not still deliberating, as if it were a doubtful case. Stand not wavering, as if you were uncertain whether God or the flesh be the better master, or whether sin or holiness be the better way, or whether heaven or hell be the better end. But away with your former lusts, and presently, habitually, fixedly resolve. Be not one day of one mind, and the next day of another; but be at a point with all the world, and resolvedly give up yourselves and all you have to God. Now, while you are reading, or hearing this, resolve; before you sleep another night, resolve; before you stir from the place, resolve; before Satan have time to take you off, resolve. You never turn indeed till you do resolve, and that with a firm unchangeable resolution. 

And now I have done my part in this work, that you may turn to the call of God, and live....I have cast the seed at God's command; but it is not in my power to give the increase....
But O thou that art the gracious Father of spirits, thou hast sworn thou delightest not in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn and live; deny not thy blessing to these persuasions and directions, and suffer not thine enemies to triumph in thy sight, and the great deceiver of souls to prevail against thy Son, thy Spirit, and thy Word! O pity poor unconverted sinners, that have no hearts to pity or help themselves! Command the blind to see, and the deaf to hear, and the dead to live, and let not sin and death be able to resist thee. Awaken the secure, resolve the unresolved, confirm the wavering; and let the eyes of sinners, that read these lines, be next employed in weeping over their sins, and bring them to themselves, and to thy Son, before their sins have brought them to perdition. If thou say but the word, these poor endeavours shall prosper to the winning of many a soul to their everlasting joy, and thine everlasting glory.—Amen.

Baring Your Soul

One of the major vehicles through which we express worship (not to mention fellowship, instruction, and witness) is music. Not surprisingly, music has come to be the focus of the worship wars. The reason is that the message of music is not so much propositional content as affection. That is what makes music such a powerful medium of communication. It is also why people become so attached to “their” music—the music is an externalization of what is in their souls. To criticize the music they love is to criticize their very capacity for loving. Furthermore, this affective aspect of musical communication is precisely what gives music such a powerful capacity to debase or trivialize the objects that it examines.

Kevin Bauder

There is a great amount of wisdom packed into this short essay, originally published as the forward to Worship in Song by Scott Aniol. So, as they say, read the whole thing.