Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Global through Local

What we need, then, are world Christians - not simply American Christians or British Christians or Kenyan Christians. By "world Christians," I am referring to Christians, genuine believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the following things are true:

Their allegiance to Jesus Christ and his kingdom is self-consciously set above all national, cultural, linguistic, and racial allegiances.

Their commitment to the church, Jesus' messianic community, is to the church everywhere, wherever the church is truly manifest, and not only to its manifestation on home turf.

They see themselves first and foremost as citizens of the heavenly kingdom and therefore consider all other citizenship a secondary matter.

As a result, they are single-minded and sacrificial when it comes to the paramount mandate to evangelize and make disciples.

The church, of course, is the only institution with eternal significance. If anyone ought to transcend the limitations of merely temporal allegiances, then those who constitute the church should. 

D. A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry, 116-17

Excellent, excellent thoughts from Dr. Carson. May they be true of us.

I would like to add one thought to the second truth about "world Christians." The commitment to the church everywhere must be grounded in and spring from our commitment to the church right here. Many Christians these days try to commit to the church everywhere without being committed to the church right here, and hence they end up being truly committed to the church nowhere.

The Testimony of One Idol Worshiper

In light of the sermon last Lord's Day, let me share this poem with you. We might think of it as one idol worshiper "sharing what the idol has done in her life."

In The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a sonnet which is a powerful contrast to God's vision of human sexuality. It is a heart-breaking expression of the emptiness and destruction of worldly sexuality, yet it seems to come from a heart that cannot be broken. There is no love here, only selfish navel-gazing. Serving the idol of sex gives only barrenness, not fruitfulness.

“What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply.
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands a lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet know its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.”

Which song do you want to sing – this song or the Song of Songs?

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Apostles' Creed - The Folk Song of Christianity

The Apostles' Creed could be called a true Christian folk song. True folk music (as opposed to the pop music that likes to claim "roots" as a status symbol) is not made famous by a famous performer. Usually we don't even know who originally composed it. It can't be copyrighted and marketed.

Instead, folk music expresses the shared language of the soul of a particular people. No one has imposed it on them. No one has issued a proclamation that this is their music. It just is because they all know in their hearts that this is theirs.Their mothers sang it to them in their cradles, and their fathers sang it in the fields. They sang it at gatherings of family and friends. It passes along not only the events of the past but also the shared meaning of those events. It identifies them and holds them together.

The Apostles' Creed was not birthed as a formally adopted creed at a church council. It was not written by any one person. It has nothing in common with market-driven Christianity.

Instead, it was the widely accepted truth of Christianity which was used at baptisms. In other words, it was the basics of Christianity, or as Philip Schaff says, "a profession of living facts and saving truths...a liturgical poem and an act of worship." It is the heart language all true Christians share.

Whoring on Every High Hill

"Have you seen what she did," the Lord asked Jeremiah one day, "that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore?"

We are identifying the idols that range the land in our day, so that we might not lead a brother into that destruction. So far in this series of sermons, we have pointed to mammon and Americanism. But there is another form of idolatry that is front and center in the moral battles of our day, and it is a battle within the church. I'm referring to the idolatry of sexual immorality. The Bible reveals a consistent link between idolatry and sexual immorality, and the Corinthian church faced precisely these issues. It ought not to surprise us that we face them today. The only thing that ought to surprise us is how much "knowing" Christians in America justify their participation in such wickedness and teach others to do the same. This idol needs to be exposed for the shameful thing that it is. We will endeavor to do that this Lord's Day.

I Sing the Mighty Power of God (#19)
How Sad Our State (#333)
Psalm 15b
O God, Our Help in Ages Past (#49)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Exodus 38:1-20; Psalm 97
New Testament: Hebrews 12:1-11

Loving Your Brother and Leading Him Away from Idolatry:
Part 3: Identifying the Idols: Sexual Immorality - 1 Corinthians 8:7-13

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Oath for Compassionate Service

How do we show Christian love in ways that really help people?

Robert Lupton has been in the trenches and has done some good thinking along these lines. Here is his "Oath for Compassionate Service."
  • Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  • Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
  • Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said - unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  • Above all, do no harm.
Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

God Will Not Be Used

Some further reflections regarding the sermon from last Lord's Day.

What I called "Americanism" is basically the same thing that J. Budziszewski has called "civil religionism," "instrumentalism," and "Caesarism." He writes,

According to [civil religionism], America is a chosen nation, and its projects are a proper focus of religious aspiration; according to Christianity America is but one nation among many, no less loved by God, but no more.

No nation can presume to take God under its wing. However we may love our country, dote upon her, and regret her, God can do without the United States.

He continues on the closely related theme of instrumentalism,

According to [instrumentalism] faith should be used for the ends of the state; according to Christianity believers should certainly be good citizens, but faith should not be used.

Religious conservatives who pine for the days when jurists called America "a Christian country" and recognized Christianity as "the law of the land" are deeply in error if they think such statements expressed belief; what they usually expressed was instrumentalism.

Caesarism means that the laws of man are higher than the laws of God. Budziszewski notes,

The peculiar thing about the American variety of Caesarism is that the state never says that its laws are higher than the laws of God; in the name of equal liberty for all religious sects, it simply refuses to acknowledge any laws of God.

Budziszewski has done some good spade work, digging up the grubs that eat out the the roots of our common life together. [All quotes taken from The Revenge of Conscience, pp. 108-113.] Only when we are freed from serving the idol of Americanism will be be ready to glorify God and advance the gospel in America.

P.S. I blogged about one encounter I had last year with civil religion. You can read it here. The salient part is as follows.

"However, two other observations struck themselves like darts into my mind while at the conference. The first was that the military co-opts the church for its own purposes. This underlying premise seemed to be shared by every speaker I heard, Christian or non-Christian, military or civilian. I heard nothing about sin, righteousness, and judgment. I did not hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. I did not hear that Jesus is Lord and that all men, including those in the U.S. military, must bow the knee to him. I certainly did not hear that allegiance to Christ was far more important eternally than allegiance to America. I did hear, repeatedly, how churches can help military personnel and their families in order to have a strong fighting force. It's not about seeking first the kingdom of God; it is about seeking the kingdom of America. This is civil religion with a vengeance."

P.S.S. Read this quote from Oliver O'Donovan, too: "Authoritarian Idolatry".

Friday, July 20, 2012

Identifying the Idols

One of the crucial tasks of the church today is to unmask the worthless idols that usurp Christ's Lordship. It's all well and good to say that we shouldn't worship the whole alphabet of ancient gods from Apollo, Aphrodite, Baal, Chemosh, on down to Zeus. But what does this look like today? How does the fiend Abaddon tempt us away from exclusive loyalty to our Lord Jesus Christ? I'm not talking about the subjective idolatry that can creep into our hearts. I'm talking about the objective, socially sanctioned, tradition hallowed forms of idolatry that our pluralistic (read polytheistic) society offers. If we are going to love our brothers and lead them away from idolatry, we have to have some idea of where the idols lurk. Join us this Lord's Day for this reconnaissance mission.

Psalm 24b
My Soul, Be on Thy Guard (#595)
He Who Would Valiant Be (#508)
Soldiers of Christ, Arise (#589)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Exodus 37:17-29; Psalm 96
New Testament: Hebrews 11:23-39

Identifying the Idols (Part 2 of "Love Your Brother and Lead Him Away from Idolatry") - 1 Corinthians 8:7-13

Friday, July 13, 2012

Don't Send Your Brother into an Ambush

Would you knowingly destroy your brother? We certainly hope not! But there is a way to do exactly that in the spiritual realm, and this Lord's Day we will learn how not to do it.

Let Us Love (#483)
I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord (#224)
The Living Stone (#225)
How Good Is the God We Adore (#738)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Exodus 37:1-16; Psalm 132
New Testament: Hebrews 11:1-22

Love Your Brother: Lead Him Away from Idolatry - 1 Corinthians 8:7-13

The Apostles' Creed - No and Yes

Did the Apostles' Creed come from the twelve apostles?

Actually, no. For many centuries there was a legend that the apostles' themselves had composed the creed, but there is simply no evidence that that is the case. God used the apostles to give us the Scriptures and to found the church (Eph 2:20). Only the New Testament is apostolic in that sense. Only the Bible is breathed out by God, and no other document can ever claim this authority.

But in another sense, yes. The teaching of the Apostles' Creed is entirely in line with the Scripture. In that derived sense, we can say that the creed is apostolic. It teaches nothing that the apostles themselves did not teach, and it preserves these truths for us in a powerful and worshipful way.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Gospel Questions

During our recent seminar on evangelism, we shared several questions that you can use to steer a conversation toward the gospel. Here are some of them.
  1. Where do you think life came from?
  2. Why did God create you?
  3. What kind of struggles are you facing?
  4. Why do you think bad things happen?
  5. Have you ever visited a church here?
  6. Do you have any kind of spiritual background?
  7. Have you ever read the Bible?
  8. If you could ask God any question, what would it be?
  9. Do you think a person can know God?
  10. How can a person know God?
  11. Who was Jesus?
  12. Why did Jesus die on the cross?
  13. Do you think a good person should go to heaven or hell? Why?
  14. Are you a good person?
  15. Would you like to know what the Bible says about...?
Obviously, different questions fit in different circumstances, but the point is to be prepared to talk about Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dining for Destruction

A couple weeks ago I was reading Gerald Bray's recent systematic theology God Is Love, and I came across this:

The church can support the right of individuals to freedom of conscience without necessarily endorsing what that conscience feels strongly about. A precedent for this can be found in the tolerance shown by Paul to the ‘weaker brethren’ who did not eat meat sacrificed to idols because of their tender consciences. Paul did not agree with their reasoning but he respected their scruple and told the Corinthian church that it must do the same [citing 1 Cor 8:4-13 in a footnote] (484).

Later he writes,

there are always gray areas where it is not entirely clear what we should do. In the New Testament, we come across this phenomenon in the case of those who felt at liberty to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols [citing 1 Cor 8:1-13]. Christians do not believe that idols exist, and so it ought to make no difference whether meat has been sacrificed to them. In terms of strict logic, this is undoubtedly true, and the apostle Paul recognized that, in principle, there was nothing wrong in ignoring such pagan habits. Those who had been brought up as  Jews, however, were sensitive to this….People who saw them doing such things might easily have thought that they were indulging in a pagan practice, if only by association, and therefore they believed it was better to avoid ‘idol meat’ altogether [citing 1 Cor 8:1-13; Rom 14:13-23] (691).

Bray makes some valid points, but I question whether 1 Corinthians 8 supports them. Now, 1 Corinthians 8-10 has its fair share of interpretive difficulties. Some of them don't make a dollar's worth of difference in the application of the text, but some of them do, and in this post I'd like to suggest that this common way of understanding the "weak conscience" in this text is exactly backwards. I argue this for pastoral reasons. I believe it makes a significant difference how we relate to any society in which we live as well as how we relate to our fellow believers.

This common position (which to be forthright is held by quite a number of top-notch scholars and preachers, among them Gordon Fee, D. A. Carson, James White, and John MacArthur) holds that a weak conscience thinks something is evil which is not really evil. In other words, it really was okay to eat food sacrificed to idols, but those with weak consciences didn't think so. They couldn't get over their pagan background. But they felt pressure from the "strong" Christians to go ahead and do what their conscience said not to do. This led them to violate their consciences, which is a dangerous thing to do.

Let me briefly suggest some reasons why this position does not seem to fit the text.

  1. We must not read Romans 14 into 1 Corinthians 8. The two texts are dealing with fairly different situations. The reason they are often confused is that they both mention food, someone who is weak, loving the brothers, and destroying one for whom Christ died. However, Romans 14 is not talking about the issue of food offered to idols but about Jewish scruples regarding food - a different scenario in which different instructions apply.
  2. Paul never approves of eating food sacrificed to idols when it is known that the food was sacrificed to idols, regardless of the setting. This is consistent with all the NT teaching on food offered to idols (Acts 15:29; 21:25; Rev 2:14, 20), as well as with its OT background (e.g. Exod 34:14-15). Granted, Paul argues that a believer has no need to try to find out the entire history of a piece of meat before he eats it because meat is a good gift from God, no matter what happened to it in the past. But the issue is participation in idolatry, which we must never condone in any circumstance.
  3. The meaning of "defiled" does not comfortably fit with the common position, which always seems to have a slippery, subjective notion of what defiled means. But "defiled" is best understood as "to cause something to be ritually impure" (BDAG). Besides considering the OT background of defilement, a comparison with Revelation 3:14 and 14:4 is helpful. In 3:14, the church at Sardis was accommodating herself to her pagan environment, which made her unfit to be in God’s presence. Yet there were a few people who had not defiled their garments, and they will walk with Christ in white. In 14:4 the 144,000 are described as virgins who had not defiled themselves with women. As we find in this text, molu,nw regularly had connotations relating to immorality (cf. Zech 14:2 [LXX]; 1 Es 8:80; Tob 3:15). So when Paul speaks of consciences being defiled, he is talking about them becoming ungodly, unfit to be in the presence of God. The weak consciences of people who are led to participate in idol worship become ritually impure for worship and fellowship with God (cf. 10:21). Defilement is simply incompatible with exclusive loyalty to the one true God (8:6). (That this is the concept in Paul's mind seems to be further strengthened by his reference to being "presented" or "close to" God in v. 8.)
  4. Further, the results that could come from the actions of the "strong" are extremely serious. Paul warns about becoming a stumbling block (i.e. causing someone to turn away from Christ) and destroying a brother. It seems like the Corinthians wouldn't be persuaded too easily that influencing someone to do what is right (even though he thinks it is wrong) would be a step toward perdition. On the other hand, if they were influencing the weak to think that it was perfectly okay to worship idols, then it is easy to see how that could result in the destruction Paul warns about. Participation in idolatry is incompatible with participation in Christ, as Israel's experience shows (10:1-14), and it does result in destruction.
  5. Verse 10 speaks of weak consciences being "built up" to eat food offered to idols. This does not mean that they were pressured into doing something against their better judgment. It means that they were actually influenced to think that eating food offered to idols was just fine. In other words, their weak consciences were trained incorrectly, so that they now had no problem doing what was wrong.
  6. The common position sometimes speaks of the weak as wounding their own consciences (v. 12) (e.g. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry, 123). While this may be true in a roundabout sense, the text says that the "strong" are the ones who sin against their brothers and wound the consciences of the weak. This simply reinforces the point that the weak are not going against their better judgment; they are having their poor judgment strengthened by the example of the "strong."
Therefore, rather than interpreting "weak consciences" to mean those who were over-scrupulous and unnecessarily rigid, it is better to see those with weak consciences as easily swayed into wrong judgments. They are not well-grounded in the faith, so they are easily influenced to think that it doesn't matter if they participate in idolatry.

Some sources I found helpful:

Cheung, Alex T. Idol Food in Corinth: Jewish Background and Pauline Legacy. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.

Fotopoulos, John. Food Offered to Idols in Roman Corinth. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.

Garland, David E. 1 Corinthians. BECNT. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Friday, July 06, 2012

One Lord Jesus Christ

There is no doubt that we live in a land of many gods. Our humanism regularly gives birth to baby deitys, sometimes even in twins and triplets. How do we give glory to God in such a situation? Last week we learned that we must let love lead. Knowledge without love will lead us astray. There is one more essential principle that must guide us as we learn how to live which is also a function love, namely, we give exclusive loyalty to the one true God. Join us this Lord's Day.

Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above (#60)
More Love to Thee (#477)
Be Thou My Vision (#462)
Glory Be to God the Father (#72)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Exodus 36:20-38; Psalm 135
New Testament: Hebrews 10:19-39

One Lord Jesus Christ - 1 Corinthians 8:4-6

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Fiery Rhetoric

Not really....but you can find some answers to spiritual questions some people have about the Waldo Canyon Fire (and others like it) here.