11/28/2016

The Institutional Church and Politics

There’s a lack of clear thinking among Christians and even pastors about the church’s role, especially as it relates to social issues.

In a very helpful chapter in Christless Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008) Michael Horton walks through recent examples of liberal and conservative church bodies weighing in on specifics of public policy – “everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to farm policy;” immigration, NAFTA, economic issues, global warming, etc…  Then he writes:

Since any number of secular NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) currently exist to lobby for precisely the same policies, why do churches believe it is within their area of expertise, much less their official mandate, to offer pronouncements in God’s name on these issues?  Why not allow their members to pursue the general human calling to public justice through these common grace institutions alongside non-Christians?  Why must denominations commit their entire membership to very specific policies while often leaving matters of doctrine and worship more ambiguous and open-ended?

Surely the abolition of the slave trade was a noble work, yet it is interesting that in Britain it was not the church as an institution that abolished it but Christians who had been shaped by the church’s ministry and held public office in the state….

I often wonder how American history might have turned out differently if the churches in the South had disciplined members who held slaves.  In other words, if the churches had simply followed their own mandate of preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and exercising discipline and care for the well-being of their flock.  Would not the institution have lost its moral credibility even outside of the church?  Both Northern and Southern churches had reduced slavery merely to a political issue when they should have done what only churches can do: proclaim God’s judgment upon the kidnapping and forced labor of fellow human beings and excommunicate members who refused to repent of the practice.  At the same time, church members could have exercised their moral conscience in deciding for themselves how best to abolish the institution in courts and legislatures.

….

The church as an institution appointed by Christ has a narrow mandate with global significance.  Individual Christians, however, have as many mandates as they do callings: as parents, children, extended relatives, neighbors, coworkers, and so on.  In addition to loving and serving each other in the fellowship of saints, believers are enjoined ‘to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one’ (1 Thess. 4:11-12).  It may not sound as grand as creating a global trading policy or ushering in the kingdom by driving out the ‘Romans’ (whether Democrats or Republicans) in the next election, but it is the proper kind of discipleship for this phase of Christ’s rule: the kingdom of grace, which only at Christ’s return will be a kingdom of glory.

So getting the church to mind its own business and get its own house in order is not a call to passivity in the face of injustice, unrighteousness, and oppression.  Especially when dominant churches have succumbed to civil religion, their repentance has enormous significance in the wider society.  Even where it does not have that kind of effect, however, the church’s repentance is always God’s call.  Christians can always have a broader impact in their callings than the church as an institution with its restricted mandate.  Even so, a church that fully exercises its commission is a potent source of genuine transformation, forming a new society within the secular city that is nevertheless completely distinct from it (214-16).

11/08/2016

White Christianity-ism

In Free At Last?: The Gospel in the African-American Experience (Downers Grove: IVP, 1983/96) Carl Ellis makes a helpful distinction between Christianity and an imposter religion that tries to go by the same name in this country.

Christianity The gospel* applied in a cultural context, involving both its expression and the response of its adherents.  These cultural manifestations do not contradict or undercut the gospel itself.  On the contrary, a properly functioning cultural Christianity can bring out insights on the gospel not seen in other cultural contexts.

Christianity-ism; “Christianity”  This ugly term is most fitting, because of its ugliness, to refer to negative or unchristian religious practices expressed in the language of Christianity.*  Christianity-ism consists of making Christianity itself the object of faith* rather than an expression of faith in God’s solution to the problem of human unrighteousness and God’s revealed wrath on humankind.  In essence Christianity-ism is a subtle form of idol worship – the idol being institutional Christianity, and the form often being associated with racism.

This election cycle has shown that we have a lot of work to do in order to make clear the difference between authentic Christianity and White Christianity-ism.

10/31/2016

NPR on the Protestant Reformation

Today marks the 499th anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg, sparking what is known now as the Protestant Reformation.  Recently, I listened to a piece on NPR trying to explain the Reformation and reporting on recent ecumenical efforts to see Protestants and Catholics come back together.

Pope Francis now praises Martin Luther as an “intelligent man” who rightly protested many abuses at the time.  He maintains that we have much in common and should work together on social issues like caring for the poor, immigration, and persecution of Christians.

However, NPR reported, there are three remaining areas of doctrinal division:

(1) The question of the universal church and papal primacy

(2) The priesthood, which includes women in the Lutheran Church

(3) The nature of the Eucharist or Holy Communion

Why do we continue to miss the point?  Is it simply ignorance?  Or is there a willful denial?  Until people recognize that the main issue in Luther’s theology… in fact the biggest question in all of life is – How can I be right before a holy God? – then they cannot understand the Reformation and there cannot be unity between true Protestants and Catholics.

10/14/2016

Does Inspiration Still Happen?

From the Introduction to George Barna’s book The Power of Vision: Discover and Apply God’s Plan for Your Life and Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009 [1992]) –

Writing this book was such a different and memorable experience for me because never before – or since – have I had a book that seemed to be written through me rather than by me.  During that week of writing, it often seemed as if I were having something akin to an out-of-body experience, watching my fingers type in word after word and reading the text with admiration.  Without wanting to overstate the case, let me simply say that this book is one of my proudest offerings to the Lord – largely because I know how deeply integrated He was in the writing process.  When people give me compliments for the book, it is simply confirmation that the Lord wanted to get these thoughts into the minds and hearts of some of His people, and I was the available scribe of the moment.  What a privilege that was and continues to be.

That quote may reveal more about our culture’s view of Scripture than any of Barna’s polls.

10/07/2016

The Inspiration of the Bible

Around the turn of the twentieth-century a parasitic religion called Liberal Christianity was spreading.  Liberals (or Modernists) wanted to retain some traditional Christian language, but re-define the terms in keeping with their primary allegiance to Enlightenment Rationality instead of Divine Revelation.

One such term was the “inspiration” of Scripture.  There were several different definitions of inspiration being put forward.  But B.B. Warfield of Princeton pointed out:

Over against the numberless discordant theories of inspiration which vex our time, there stands a well-defined church-doctrine of inspiration.  This church-doctrine of inspiration differs from the theories that would fain supplant it, in that it is not the invention nor the property of an individual, but the settled faith of the universal church of God; in that it is not the growth of yesterday, but the assured persuasion of the people of God from the first planting of the church until to-day; in that it is not a protean shape, varying its affirmations to fit every new change in the ever-shifting thought of men, but from the beginning has been the church’s constant and abiding conviction as to the divinity of the Scriptures committed to her keeping….

What this church-doctrine is, it is scarcely necessary minutely to describe.  It will suffice to remind ourselves that it looks upon the Bible as an oracular book, – as the Word of God in such a sense that whatever it says God says, – not a book, then, in which one may, by searching, find some word of God, but a book which may be frankly appealed to at any point with the assurance that whatever it may be found to say, that is the Word of God….  We know how, as Christian men, we approach this Holy Book, – how unquestioningly we receive its statements of fact, bow before its enunciations of duty, tremble before its threatenings, and rest upon its promises….

Nor do we need to do more than remind ourselves that this attitude of entire trust in every word of the Scriptures has been characteristic of the people of God from the very foundation of the church.  Christendom has always reposed upon the belief that the utterances of this book are properly oracles of God.  The whole body of Christian literature bears witness to this fact.

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Inspiration of the Bible,” in Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 51 (1854).  Found in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (Baker, 2003 [1932]), 1:52-53.

 

09/28/2016

Fresh Dose of David Wells

I first read David Well’s No Place for Truth back in the late 90s.  I praise God for leading me to good books in my formative years!  Every few years I need to get a fresh dose of David Wells and thankfully every few years he publishes a new book in this same vein.  Right now I’m reading the latest – God in the Whirlwind (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014).

There are, in fact, gut-wrenching changes taking place in our Western societies.  Our world is being shaken to its very foundations.  Instead of offering great thoughts about God, the meaning of reality, and the gospel, there are evangelical churches that are offering only little therapeutic nostrums that are sweet but mostly worthless.  One even wonders whether some current churchgoers might even be resistant were they to encounter a Christianity that is deep, costly, and demanding.

That is why we must come back to our first principles.  And the most basic of these is the fact that God is there and that he is objective to us.  He is not there to conform to us; we must conform to him.  He summons us from outside of ourselves to know him.  We do not go inside of ourselves to find him.  We are summoned to know him only on his terms.  He is not known on our terms.  This summons is heard in and through his Word.  It is not heard through our intuitions.

These are our most basic principles because they deal with our most basic issues and our most basic calling.  That calling is to know God as he has made himself known and in the ways that he has prescribed.  We are to hear this call within the framework he has established.  He is not there at our convenience, or simply for our healing, or simply as the Divine Teller handing out stuff from his big bank.  No, we are here for his service.  We are here to know him as he is and not as we want him to be.  The local church is the place where we should be learning about this, and God’s Word is the means by which we can do so.

09/21/2016

Words at a Grave

Rosemary Ellen Carter

Graveside Committal Service

New London Friends Cemetery

9/20/16

 grandma-carter

We come now to this place where so many of our ancestors have been laid to rest in order to commend the soul of our sister, sister-in-law, mom, mother-in-law, grandma, great-grandma, and friend to Almighty God as we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

 

The reason why we have profound sadness in our hearts right now is because we know it wasn’t meant to be this way.  Tragically, sin entered our world, and death through sin (Rom. 5:12).

 

But the great reality that gives hope is that God has entered this world, in the person of Jesus Christ.  He took on our flesh; and then took on the sin of all those who are united to him by faith and graciously paid the penalty for that sin in his death on the cross.  He was buried.  And then three days later his body came back to life never to die again.  He ascended into heaven and has promised to come again one day to finally put everything right.

 

Grandma repented of her sin and put her trust in Christ as her Savior, therefore we can have assurance that though her soul is absent from her body, it is present with the Lord at this moment (2Cor. 5:8).  And one day at Christ’s return her soul will be reunited to this body and she will rise to live forever in a new creation with God where he shall wipe away all tears and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things will have passed away (Rev. 21:4).  Therefore, we do not have to sorrow as others who have no hope (1Thess. 4:13).

 

Grandma wanted Jesus’ words from John 14 to be read on this occasion.  It was a favorite passage of hers that perfectly puts this scenario into perspective for all of us.  Jesus said to his disciples:

 

Let not your hearts be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there you may be also.  And where I go you know, and the way you know.  Thomas said unto him, Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?  Jesus said unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no one comes unto the Father, but by me.

 

God has told us very clearly the way to be with him forever.  Praise God for this!

 

Let us pray:

 

Into thy hands, O merciful Savior, we commend thy servant Rosemary Ellen Carter.  Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming.  Receive her into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.  Amen.

08/14/2016

God’s Desire To Be Honored

From the Gospel Transformation Bible notes to 1 Samuel 2:12-36:

God’s desire to be honored, or glorified, may on a shallow reading seem vainglorious.  But that God should require his creatures to honor him, to give him weight, is no more vainglorious than that the law of gravity requires to be acknowledged.  Simply put, God has weight!  To neglect this fact is to lose one’s own center of gravity.  Giving God the center is at the heart of accepting the gospel.  Every line of the prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray manifestly gives weight and centrality to God (Matt. 6:9-13).  As our hearts are gripped with the magnitude of what God has done for his people in the gospel of grace, we are compelled to gladly ascribe all honor and glory to God alone.

07/12/2016

Justification by Faith Before the Reformation

I heard a great talk today on Sola Fide by Pastor Phill Howell.  He shared several examples from the early Christian writings that indicate this doctrine doesn’t originate in the 16th century.  Take a look for yourself:

1 Clement 32:3-4

All therefore, were glorified and magnified, not through themselves or their own works or the righteous actions that they did, but through his will. And so we, having been called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have done in holiness of heart; but through faith by which the Almighty God has justified all who have existed from the beginning; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” 

 

The Epistle to Diognetus 9:2­–5

When our unrighteousness was fulfilled, and it had been made perfectly clear that its wages—punishment and death—were to be expected, then the season arrived during which God had decided to reveal at last his goodness and power (oh, the surpassing kindness and love of God!). He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!

 

Odes of Solomon 29:5-6

He justified me by His grace.

For I believed in the Lord’s Messiah, and considered that He is the Lord.

 

Origen (See Thomas Oden’s “The Justification Reader, pg. 45)

Faith is the foundation of our justification, so that righteousness isn’t based on works of the law as seen in the thief on the cross.

 

Chrysostom 

He insists that justification can’t be given through works since God demands perfect obedience. Hence, the only way to be justified is through grace. (Schreiner, “Faith Alone”, pg. 32)

 

Ambrosiaster (Ambrose)

By faith alone one is freely forgiven of all sins and the believer is no longer burdened by the Law for meriting good works. Our works, however, are demonstrative of our faith and will determine whether we are ultimately justified. (Schreiner, “Faith Alone”, pg. 33)

07/10/2016

What I Said Before the Prayer Time During our Service Today

My family and I were gone all this last week on vacation, trying to be cut off from the world, but it was impossible not to hear about the latest flare up of the disease of racial injustice that plagues our society.  It was a uniquely eventful week.  And so I wanted to take some time to briefly address this and give some guidance on how we should respond.

What can we do?  Facebook posts can only do so much.  We must do more.  But we can’t change Dallas or Baton Rouge or Falcon Heights or our whole nation.  So what can we do?

We can pray.  And that is what we are about to do together in just a moment.  We can go to the only One who can ultimately help.  And he hears us.

In our prayers we can lament, grieve to God, pour out our sadness, mourn.  Beg him to move.

And in our prayers we can repent.  If we have hatred and unrighteous anger, we can confess that.  If we don’t care, we can confess our apathy, confess our lack of love for the Other and ask God to change us.  We can ask for forgiveness for ways that we have been complicit in the problem through sins of commission and/or omission, and ask God to give us the right heart.

And then in addition to praying, we can think biblically about these matters.  We must work hard to get the right biblical categories in our minds for how to approach matters of race and institutional sin.  We can’t let the world define our terms and shape our hearts and set our agendas, but the Word.

The Bible tells us that we all have different callings in the world.

Some of you may be called to contribute to the righting of wrongs through political or legal action – organizing, policy making, lobbying…

Some of you may be called to law enforcement in some way.  We’ve had a member of our church become a cop and we need more good cops who truly serve and protect.

Some of you may be called to educational reform.  We’ve had members working in CPS, which is a less than cushy school district, in order to seek the welfare of a city ravaged by racial inequalities.

Some of you may be called to economic investment.  We need more real jobs in neighborhoods that are racially segregated.  We need more felon-friendly jobs, so people have a way out.  This requires entrepreneurial risk and creative thinking from those who have capital.

There are tons of different ways to address the systemic and complicated issues that we’ve been reminded of again this week.  Some of you are called to do something about the problem in some of these ways.

But let me remind you what all of us are without a doubt called to do.  Every Christian is called to give him or herself to the local church.  That is the most important thing we can do in response to these events.  Government is not where our hope finally lies.  Education, the economy… God can work through those institutions in a general way, but the clearest location of God’s special, redeeming work in the world is the church.  Here is where God is reconciling people to himself and to each other for ever.  The church is a foretaste and preview of the coming New Creation where every tribe, language, and nation is gathered around the throne of God.

As we drove back into our neighborhood last night, after spending a week in parts of the country that are by and large oblivious to these sad realities, I was reminded of how exciting it is to be the church here in the UIC Area, with such diversity yet disparity.  What a place to do the long-term work of preaching the gospel and making disciples and living sacrificially for others.  It’s all right here within a few blocks of where we sit right now.  It’s all right here.  Let’s not miss it.

So with all the national news swirling that highlights the problems, let’s recommit ourselves to this specific church and our mission to this neighborhood.  What can we do?  Let’s be the church, be the people of God assembled under the Word of God, demonstrating to the world the supernatural power of the gospel to make enemies of God adopted sons and daughters of God and true brothers and sisters to each other through the cross.  Let’s help this body continue to reflect God’s kaleidoscopic kingdom.  Let’s dig in deeper to each other’s lives, loving one another deeply from the heart and seeking to bring our neighbors in on that.  We can, and must, all do at least this.