Archive for ‘Culture’

03/01/2017

The Five SOLAS Five Hundred Years Later

 

At our church we have a questionnaire that anyone who desires to be an elder has to fill out.  One of the questions is – “What are the five solas of the Reformation and would you be willing to be burned alive at the stake for holding these?”  We strongly believe that these rallying cries of the Reformation are still just as needed today as they were 500 years ago.

 

Before returning to Germany and facing his eventual martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis, theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived for a time in the United States.  His assessment of the religious scene here was – “Protestantism without Reformation.”  This critique still largely holds true.  We may not be Roman Catholic, but might some of the same problems that precipitated the Reformation in 16th Century Europe be present in 21st Century Evangelicalism?  I am afraid so.

 

The Five Solas provide a helpful grid for assessing the American church’s current spiritual climate and guide us in how to pray and work for revival.

 

Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) – I think that there are many churches who say that they believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, sufficient Word of God on paper, but in practice you cannot tell.  Scripture does not saturate their worship services.  The sermon is cut short and full of stories and tips instead of exposition and proclamation of the whole counsel of God.  The Word is not trusted to grow the church, but rather we look to and lean on techniques and tricks.  Science is respected over Scripture, psychology prized over theology, experience trusted over exegesis.  And many church-goers today are as biblically illiterate as they were in the Middle Ages.

 

Sola Fide (faith alone) – If we gave Southern Baptist church-goers a test with a True or False question – “People get into heaven by doing good” – I imagine a majority would know enough to say FALSE.  But that doesn’t mean they could pass an essay question on what justification by faith entails.  We may have simply lowered the bar or tried to lighten the law, but we still are preaching a form of works-righteousness when we major on what people need to do… to end sex-trafficking, get out of debt, have healthy families… instead of what Christ has done to free us from sin, forgive us our debts, and adopt us into his family.  The truth is that you actually have to be perfect to get into heaven, and thus our only hope is having Jesus’ perfect record given to us as a gift, received by faith.

 

Sola Gratia (grace alone) – We like grace… when it is seen as an assist for our slam dunk.  The polls are heart-rending which show the number of Christians who think that the quote – “God helps those who help themselves” – comes from the Bible.  Do we really believe our salvation is wholly of grace?  If so, then we could never allow our Christianity to be a badge of pride that makes us feel superior to or live in fear of the big, bad world.

 

Solus Christus (Christ alone) – We may say that we believe Jesus is the only way to God, but do our actions back that up?  We live in a highly pluralistic society.  Do we really believe that the nice Hindu family living down the street is destined for hell apart from faith in Christ?  Do we believe it enough to lovingly and sacrificially share the gospel with them of what Christ has uniquely done?  Our lack of evangelism betrays our lack of belief in the exclusivity of Christ.  Furthermore, so much of our faith talk is vague spirituality that does not really need the virgin birth, perfect life, substitutionary death, victorious resurrection, and imminent return of the historical God-man Jesus Christ.  We spout meaningless Oprah-esque mumbo-jumbo and it is no wonder that our kids start to think Christianity is not that distinct from the other religions and philosophies of their friends.

 

Soli Deo Gloria (the glory of God alone) – Ministry can so easily become about our name or brand.  We like to take the credit for our successes.  Plus, there is a pervasive man-centeredness among our culture which has seeped into our churches.  We are not in awe of God, but obsessed with our felt needs.  Therefore, we fundamentally view God as there to serve us instead of the other way around.  We have not been struck by the utter weightiness of the Triune God, but are pathetically shallow and flit about from this to that fad so easily.

 

In our consumeristic context where everyone is bombarded with endless options all the time, the solas can at first seem like a straightjacket.  But they truly represent our only hope.  We are in desperate need of a fresh vision of God’s glory, in the face of Jesus Christ, as a result of his grace, perceived by faith, in the pages of the Bible!

This article appeared in the February 27th issue of the Illinois Baptist.  It can also be found here.

 

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12/15/2016

Is Church Membership Necessary?

My good friends Q and Sergei have started a podcast that is usually worth your time.  In this episode they invited me on to join their discussion of church membership.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/q7t2q-646bc2-pb?vjs=1&auto=0&from=share

https://thezeppelinlounge.podbean.com/e/make-the-church-great-again-1478737496/?token=2c2890a0e7a0dc1d208fb09bc73f3b02

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).

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.

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.

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.

04/18/2016

Some Should Go, Some Should Stay

Mark Dever’s recent little booklet entitled, Understanding the Great Commission, succinctly and successfully makes the case that the Great Commission is fulfilled by and results in CHURCHES.  It’s not an individual mandate to make individual converts.

But here is the section that stood out most to me (p. 53):

Just because a move might be costly doesn’t mean you should not go.  It has been costly for most of the saints who obeyed Jesus’ command to go.  And unless you live in Jerusalem, praise God that someone paid that cost and took the gospel to your nation and your city and your house so that you believe!

Is the point of this chapter to say that some of you should leave your churches?  Kind of.  Some should go to help struggling churches.  Some should plant new ones.  Some should go overseas.  And some should stay.

Of course people have to stay for any given congregation to remain a congregation.  Every church needs consistency in leadership, discipling, and long-term friendships.  In fact, staying in our culture is often the countercultural thing to do, especially among the younger generation.  With all the career or educational transitions that characterize modern urban life, the radical thing to do for some will be to stay in one place for decades.

Whatever you do, don’t make such decisions rashly.  And don’t make such decisions in isolation, but make them in prayer and conversation with your friends who know you well, and with at least one elder who knows you.

12/03/2015

Wisdom from Wendell

I’m reading of collection of interviews that Wendell Berry has given over the years.  They are another quality addition to his body of work that includes novels, essays, and poetry.  There’s much to highlight, but this section was particularly profound:

Plowboy: …it takes a conscious effort to reinstate the ceremony and ritual in our lives.  Many intentional communities are trying to generate this kind of awareness and stability…

Berry: But I’m much more interested in the results of accidental communities that have formed by fate and fortune and circumstance.  The intentional community seems to me a rather escapist idea, sort of a new version of the white citizen’s council.  I thought that’s what we were trying to get away from.  I think the idea that you can have an intentional community is about as misleading as saying you can have an intentional life.  If you’re going to have a decent and stable community, you’ve got to produce the cultural and social forms by which to deal with the unexpected and the undesirable.  The intentional community idea assumes that when you say love your neighbor as yourself, you have some kind of right to go out and pick your neighbor.  I think that the ideal of loving your neighbor has to take on the possibility that he may be somebody you’re going to have great difficulty loving or liking or even tolerating.

Plowboy: In your writing you emphasize that the inhabitants of a region thrive on the daily interchange between old and young… yet many of these new communities are made up primarily of young people.

Berry: Yes, and that’s one of the worst possible kinds of segregation.  This is probably the first generation not to have a history.  They have their own immediate history but not one that comes from having older people around them.  They’re coming up to adult life without the awareness that anyone has ever gone through their experiences before, much less learned anything from them.  But I know people who as children had their grandparents’ memories in their memories, so that in a sense, as young people they had old minds.  They had a kind of seasoning.

From Morris Allen Grubbs, ed., Conversations with Wendell Berry (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 10.

09/17/2015

We Crave Something Beyond Our Biology

I don’t usually list Andy Stanley as one of my theological heroes or ministry role models, but his recent defense of monogamy in TIME magazine is brilliant:

Cassette tapes are obsolete. Monogamy is more like an endangered species. Rare. Valuable. Something to be fed and protected. Perhaps an armed guard should be assigned to every monogamous couple to ward off poachers. Perhaps not.

The value a culture places on monogamy determines the welfare of its women and children. Women and children do not fare well in societies that embrace polygamy or promiscuity. In the majority of cases, sexual freedom undermines the financial freedom of women. Sexual freedom eventually undermines the financial and emotional security of children.

If we are only biology, none of the above really matters. All’s well that ends with the survival of the species. If we are only biology, monogamy was probably a flawed concept from the start. But very few of us live as if we are only biology. I’m not sure it’s possible. We constantly refer to “our bodies”—an acknowledgement that we are more than “bodies.” Apparently, there is an “I” in there somewhere, an “I” that desires more than another body with which to ensure the survival of the species. As a pastor, I’ve officiated my share of weddings and I’ve done my share of premarital counseling. I always ask couples why they are getting married. Survival of the species never makes the list.

The “I” and “You” that inhabit our bodies desire more than another body. We desire intimacy—to know and to be fully known without fear. Intimacy is fragile. Intimacy is powerful. Intimacy is fueled by exclusivity.

So, no, monogamy is not obsolete. It’s endangered. But so was the buffalo.  Perhaps we happily monogamous couples should relocate to Yellowstone.

05/15/2015

Great Expectations or Delusions of Grandeur?

From John Koessler’s book The Surprising Grace of Disappointment : Finding Hope When God Seems to Fail Us (Chicago: Moody, 2013):

“Mary, I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that.  I’m going to leave this little town far behind and I’m going to see the world.  Italy, Greece, the Parthenon… the Coliseum.  Then I’m coming back here and I’ll go to college and see what they know and then I’m going to build things  I’m going to build air fields. I’m going to build skyscrapers a hundred stories high.  I’m going to build bridges a mile long.”

So says George Bailey in director Frank Capra’s beloved classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.  But George is wrong.  He doesn’t know what he’s going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that.  As it turns out, what he is supposed to do tomorrow is pretty much what he did today.  God’s plan for him is to do the ordinary thing, which of course is the last thing that George wants to do.  Because George Bailey wants to lasso the moon.

Like George Bailey, we want to do something extraordinary.  It is no wonder.  This is what we have been told that we should do by our parents, pastors, and teachers.  We have been urged to take our little lasso of Christian ambition in hand, shake it loose, and aim as high as we are able.  We are told to expect great things from God and attempt great things for God.  But for most of us the moon isn’t what God has in mind.  His plan does not call for us to streak into the heavens and leave behind a trail of glory.  God’s purpose is more down-to-earth.  God’s purpose for us is more mundane.  At times we might even call it dull.  And like George Bailey, we are not happy about it because we do not want to lead an ordinary life.