10/22/2014

The Ways of God

Twentieth-Century Southern Baptist Pastor Vance Havner wrote these words after his wife died:

Whoever thinks he has the ways of God conveniently tabulated, analyzed, and correlated with convenient, glib answers to ease every question from aching hearts has not been far in this maze of mystery we call life and death…  [God has] no stereotyped way of doing what He does.  He delivered Peter from prison but left John the Baptist in a dungeon to die….  I accepted whatever He does, however He does it.

Vance Havner, Though I Walk Through the Valley (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1974), 66-67.

10/20/2014

Everybody Has A Liturgy

James K.A. Smith has shown that there are even such things as secular liturgies (see Desiring the Kingdom).

But it’s also true that every church has a liturgy, even the ones that think they’re non-liturgical.

In Chapter 7 of Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel Mike Cosper gives an insightful historical overview of different church tradition’s approach to gathered, corporate worship.  His treatment of the negative impact of Revivalism (think Charles Finney) on public worship was helpful:

Rather than worship being a formational process in the lives and hearts of believers over years of gathering and learning, it became an ecstatic experience driven by emotive preaching and decorated with music.  The goal was a catalytic, life-changing moment.

He cites Kent Hughes who outlined the changes:

The structure of corporate worship became: (1) the preliminaries, (2) the sermon, and (3) the invitation….  Singing and musical selections were made in regard to their effect rather than their content.  Gospel songs (celebrating experience) often supplanted hymns to God.  Scripture reading was reduced so as not to prolong the ‘preliminaries.’  Prayers were shortened or even deleted for the same reason.  As to the sermon, the careful interaction with the biblical text so treasured by the Puritans was in many instances replaced with a freewheeling extemporaneous discourse.

More recently according to Cosper,

Many have embraced what’s sometimes called the Temple Model (or the Wimber model, given its usual attribution to John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement of churches).  This model likens the journey of worship to a pilgrim’s journey to the temple in Jerusalem.  As one worship leader [Vicky Beeching] describes it, ‘We see the “Temple journey” of worship from every day life, walking towards Jerusalem, into the Temple courts and finally into the deepest place of God’s presence.’

The journey begins in the ‘outer gates,’ where the crowd assembles rambunctiously, with celebrative and energetic music.  As worship continues into the inner gates and into the temple, music becomes more intimate and the presence of God becomes more immanent.  The goal of worship is to enter the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence is most profoundly known and experienced.  Once there, we sing only ballads and hymns, with tears streaming down our collective face.

Directly and indirectly, much of the church has embraced this model….  It’s… present in the way we talk about worship experiences, saying of worship leaders and teams, ‘They really led us to the throne room,’ or, ‘They ushered [us] into God’s presence.’

The problem with this model is twofold.  First, it’s developed backwards.  The theology of the Temple Model is a theological interpretation of an experience, and it is divorced from any kind of historical perspective on the gathered church.  Second, it ignores most of what the New Testament teaches us about worship, the presence of God, and the temple.  Instead of being led by Jesus through the inner curtain, we’re led there by a worship leader or a pastor – a pseudo-priest.

So it’s clear that every church is operating on some form of a liturgy.  The question is, Which one is theologically correct and will make the healthiest disciples over time?

10/14/2014

The (Christian?) Hedonist Paradox

Happiness is like a cat. If you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap.

- William Bennett, as qtd. in Michael Horton, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 57.

Joy comes as we look at Jesus, not into ourselves in an attempt to conjure up joy.

09/23/2014

Jonathan Edwards and Helping the Poor

In 1733, aware of growing poverty and increasing social stratification in Northampton, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon entitled, “The Duty of Charity to the Poor.” Tim Keller summarizes:

The heart of the sermon is a set of answers to a series of common objections Edwards always heard whenever he preached or spoke about the duty of sharing money and good with the poor. All of the questions sought to put limits on the Biblical injunction to love their neighbor.

One of the objections was ‘Though they be needy, yet they are not in extremity. [They are not destitute.]‘ I remember one of my parishioners responding to one of my sermons in a similar manner. ‘All the poor people in my part of town have nice TV sets. They aren’t starving,’ he said. But Edwards says that this hardheartedness is not in accord with the Biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself. We don’t wait until we are in ‘extremity’ before doing something about our condition, he argued, so why should we wait until our neighbor is literally starving before we help? Edwards goes further, and asks if Christians who say this remember that we are to love others as Christ loved us. ‘The Christian spirit will make us apt to sympathize with our neighbor when we see him under any difficulty… we ought to have such a spirit of love to him that we should be afflicted with him in his affliction.’ Christ literally walked in our shoes and entered into our affliction. Those who will not help others until they are destitute reveal that Christ’s love has not yet turned them into sympathetic persons the gospel should make them.

Another objection comes from people who say they ‘have nothing to spare’ and that they barely have enough for their own needs. But one of the main lessons of the Good Samaritan parable is that real love entails risk and sacrifice. Edwards responds that when you say, ‘I can’t help anyone,’ you usually mean, ‘I can’t help anyone without burdening myself, cutting in to how I live my life.’ But, Edwards argues, that’s exactly what Biblical love requires. He writes:

We in many cases may, by the rule of the gospel, be obliged to give to others when we can’t without suffering ourselves…. If our neighbor’s difficulties and necessities are much greater than ours and we see that they are not like to be relieved, we should be willing to suffer withy them and to take part of their burden upon ourselves. Or else how is that rule fulfilled of bearing one another’s burdens? If we are never obliged to relieve others’ burdens but only when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor’s burdens, when we bear no burden at all?

Two other objections Edwards takes on are that the poor person ‘is of a very ill temper; he is of an ungrateful spirit’ and ‘he has brought himself to his [poverty] by his own fault.’ These are both abiding problems with helping the poor…. We all want to help kind-hearted, upright people, whose poverty came upon them through no foolishness or contribution of their own, and who will respond to our aid with gratitude and joy. However, almost no one like that exists… The causes of poverty are complex and intertwined. And while it is important that our aid to the poor really helps them and doesn’t create dependency, Edwards makes short work of these objections by, again, appealing to the gospel itself.

In dealing with the objection that many of the poor do not have upright, moral characters, he counters that we did not either, and yet Christ put himself out for us:

Christ loved us, and was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very hateful persons, of an evil disposition, not deserving of any good… so we should be willing to be kind to those who are… very undeserving.

When answering the objection that the poor have often contributed to their condition, Edwards is remarkably balanced yet insistently generous. He points out that it is possible some people simply do not have ‘a natural faculty to manage affairs to advantage.’ In other words, some people persistently make sincere but very bad decisions about money and possessions. Edwards says we should consider the lack of this faculty to be almost like being born with impaired eyesight:

Such a faculty is a gift that God bestows on some, and not on others. And it is not owing to themselves…. This is as reasonable as that he to whom Providence has imparted sight should be willing to help him to whom sight is denied, and that he should have the benefit of the sight of others, who has none of his own….

But what if their economic plight is more directly the result of selfish, indolent, or violent behavior? As Edwards puts it in the language of his time, what if ‘they are come to want by a vicious idleness and prodigality’? He counters that ‘we are not thereby excused from all obligation to relieve them, unless they continue in those vices.’ Then he explains why. Christ found us in the same condition. Our spiritual bankruptcy was due to our own sin, yet he came and gave us what we needed.

The rules of the gospel direct us to forgive them… [for] Christ hath loved us, pitied us, and greatly laid out himself to relieve us from that want and misery which we brought on ourselves by our own folly and wickedness. We foolishly and perversely threw away those riches with which we were provided, upon which we might have lived and been happy to all eternity.

Tim Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010), 69-73.

09/11/2014

Joy IS Circumstantial

Joy is deeper than happiness, but like happiness, joy is always circumstantial.  Because the gospel is true, then, even when we aren’t happy we can know the deeper joy because of the circumstances of God’s goodness and love.  On the permanent condition of God’s unrelenting grace, joy is a permanent possibility.

- Jared Wilson, Gospel Deeps: Reveling in the Excellencies of Jesus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 83.

08/29/2014

Which Bible Translation?

I’ve preached from the NIV for 10 years.  It was the Bible of my youth, so I have sentimental attachments to it.  I’ve generally been happy with its balance of accuracy and readability.

But the NIV I knew is no more.  And we will have a decision to make.

In 2011 an update to the NIV was released.  All previous versions are no longer available.  The changes were not minor.

A recent event at our church illustrates this well.  Last Sunday the Scripture reading was from Romans 3:21-28.  I was following along in my NIV (1984).  The reader was reading from the NIV that he found on http://www.biblegateway.com.  Look at the differences:

NIV (1984)

21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished– 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. 27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.

NIV (2011)

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in[a] Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement,[b] through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.  27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. 28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.

I won’t delve into the translation choices here.  My main point is just that these are two very different translations!

One major difference in the update is the shift to gender inclusive language.  I’m not entirely opposed to this across the board.  Two weeks ago I wanted to quote 2 Timothy 3:16-17.  In this famous passage on the inspiration of Scripture the ESV and HCSB and the NIV (1984) all say the Scriptures are useful so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped.  The word is anthropos, which is referring to humankind in general and not one specific gender.  So I checked out the new NIV to see what it did.  It had – “…so that the servant of God might be thoroughly equipped.”  It introduced into the inspired text a completely new word!  The Greek language had a word for servant, if that was what Paul wanted to use.  But, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he chose a different word – anthropos.  There are no textual variants that I am aware of.  The NIV translators, in an attempt to avoid the generic use of man replaced it with a word that’s not there!  This is a big problem.

I recently read the helpful book Which Bible Translation Should I Use?.  It compares the ESV, NIV, HCSB, and NLT.  None of these popular modern versions are perfect.  The NLT is definitely the weakest of the four.  Of the other three I believe that the ESV wins out.

But I wish the NIV (1984) was still an option.

08/12/2014

40 Years, 40 Things

This July marked 10 years for me as a pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in the city of Chicago.  That’s nothing.  Charles Lyons has been doing it for 40 years.  He barely knows me, but I have a lot of respect for him.  I enjoyed reading his reflections on ministry over the last 40 years here:

 

40 Years, 40 Things

by Charles Lyons

This July I mark, celebrate, and praise God for 40 years serving my church family. I have been privileged to shepherd the Armitage congregation in Chicago for a generation. The wild rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, twists and turns, springtime and harvest, winning souls, baptizing disciples, organizing, administrating, leading, buying property, battling hostiles, capital campaigns, renovation, construction, and finding paths through times of transition and change has been extraordinary.

The year I began pastoring, Chicago saw a number of murders that has never been exceeded: 970 in the year 1974. Our neighborhood was a significant section of the battlefield. The number fell for a few years and then rose again to 943 in 1992. Since then, the numbers have steadily declined. Though Chicago street violence continues to command national headlines, our reduced murder rate has more to do with shifting demographics than with nicer people or better police work.

A striking shift in the spiritual landscape has occurred. In the 70s, the handful of non-black evangelical churches in the city was shrinking. The tiny number of non-black Baptist churches dwindled. In the last ten years, a wave of young church planters has arrived. Presently, there are at least 150 church planters in the Chicago area. Such a thing was unthinkable even a dozen years ago.

I have watched mayors come and go. Richard J. Daley, Michael Bilandic, Jane Byrne, Eugene Sawyer, Harold Washington, Richard M. Daley, and now Rahm Emanuel.

Four decades have changed our world radically. Chicago is a completely different city. Our neighborhood has gone from jungle to hipster-ville central. Our ecclesiastical ship has ridden crests and troughs in the deep blue sea of demographic shifts, political storms, and church life cycles.

As the years pass, one thinks he is learning lessons. Come to find out, many of those lessons have to be learned again and again, over and over. So I think the process is not so much “lesson learned, move on” as it is “lessons we are learning.” I wish I was learning more, but I think the following represents all I can handle.

40 Things I think I’m Learning

  1. God is on the throne. No, really!
  2. Jesus loves His church more than I ever can.
  3. The Spirit is at work even when you think He isn’t.
  4. The worth of an excellent wife is far above jewels.
  5. Mistakes, bad moves, and poor judgments are part of the journey.
  6. The local New Testament church on the march, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is a terror to Satan.
  7. In the city, everything is magnified, multiplied, and intensified — the good, bad, and ugly.
  8. God called me to do what I do.
  9. Everyone leaves — it’s just a matter of when.
  10. Encouragement at a low moment, PRICELESS.
  11. Being at the right place at the right time is just the best.
  12. Sometimes success is simply refusing to quit.
  13. The Spirit led Paul to plant churches in cities because cites are amplifiers and distribution engines.
  14. Ministry is brutal.
  15. Ministry is exhilarating.
  16. Some deacons are demon-free. Thank God ours have been.
  17. God’s people are amazing.
  18. Keeping the main thing the main thing takes relentless effort.
  19. Good people can disagree and be good friends.
  20. Not everyone who thinks he can, can.
  21. Often, the best man for the job is a woman.
  22. Men rally when RALLIED.
  23. Christ can change anyone, even me.
  24. If you’re not at the table, you have nothing to say.
  25. Urban ministry is like tent camping in a hurricane.
  26. Desperate straits are God’s set-up for a miracle.
  27. Preach the announcements.
  28. Loyalty is scarce stuff.
  29. It is wonderful and high drama when the church family declares forgiveness in response to public confession.
  30. Democrats are crazy.
  31. Republicans can’t be trusted.
  32. God brings unexpected allies.
  33. God may not come when you want Him to but He’s always on time.
  34. When God gives a vision, He’s serious.
  35. The rewards are in the long haul.
  36. Today’s surge doesn’t mean tomorrow’s a cinch.
  37. God’s Word is even more amazing than I had imagined.
  38. A vision can be realized even as dreams are deferred.
  39. Reach the city and you will touch the world.
  40. Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before.
08/05/2014

A Comment on Commentaries

It’s rare to find a biblical commentary that is well-written and engaging.  It’s even more rare to find one that uses poetic, imaginative language.  I’ve been enjoying Ronald B. Allen’s commentary on Numbers in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.  Check out this comment on Numbers 11:31-34 –

 

The scene must have been similar to a riot: people screaming, birds flapping their wings, everywhere the pell-mell movement of a meat-hungry people in a sea of birds.  Dare we picture people ripping at the birds, eating flesh before cooking it, bestial in behavior?  They must have been like a sugar-crazed boy in a child’s daydream, afloat on a chocolate sandwich cookie raft in a sea of chocolate syrup, nibbling at the cookie before drowning in the dark, sweet sea.

(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 795.

07/28/2014

Preaching Wisdom from Art Azurdia

Last week I was at The Legacy Conference and was ministered to in many ways.

One of the highlights was Art Azurdia’s message on Friday morning. That was preaching!

So I went to his workshop session that afternoon on “Spirit Empowered Preaching of the Text.” Here are some of the golden nuggets I got from it:

* In preaching we are not merely giving an ‘invitation’. An invitation is something you can accept or decline. Preaching the gospel is giving a ‘summons’ that to reject is to disobey.

* We have a foolish MESSAGE (the gospel), a foolish METHOD (proclamation), and a foolish MEANS (Spirit empowered preaching)

* A preacher is a butler, not a chef. You don’t make the meal, you just get it to the table without messing it up.

* Don’t share; declare!

* In determining your call to preach there must be three things present:
(1) Internal Compulsion
(2) External Confirmation – (a) gifts; (b) character
(3) Providential Opportunity

And he shared this quote from Spurgeon:

The gospel is preached in the ears of all men; it only comes with power to some. The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher otherwise men would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning; otherwise it could consists of the wisdom of men. We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were mysterious power going with it – the Holy Ghost changing the will of man. O Sirs! We might as well preach to stone walls as preach to humanity unless the Holy Ghost be with the word, to give it power to convert the soul.

07/23/2014

The Utility of the Law

The utility of the law may be shown by this, that it obliges all whom it proves guilty of transgression to betake themselves to grace for deliverance… For it rather commands than assists; it discovers disease, but does not heal it; nay, the malady that is not healed is rather aggravated by it, so that the cure of grace is more earnestly and anxiously sought for.

–Augustine, “On the Grace of Christ,” in Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, vol. 1, part 2 (eBook: Kessinger Publishing, 2006), 589.

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