Archive for ‘Scripture’

05/09/2017

Calvin’s Company of Pastors

I gather monthly with a group of like-minded pastors for fellowship and to discuss pastoral ministry.

 

Lately we’ve been reading together Scott Manetsch’s Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 (Oxford UP, 2013).  This is from the Epilogue:

 

The task of the historian is not simply that of an antiquarian who dusts off ancient artifacts that are roped off from the general public with a sign reading ‘do not touch.’  The study of religious history invites, even compels, us to investigate the past with an eye toward the present, to explore the foreignness of history with the expectation that ‘cultural immersion’ of this sort will not only expand our knowledge of peoples and events but also enrich our experience by providing needed perspective, timely wisdom, apt warnings, and precious glimpses into the failings, the beauty, and the sheer complexity of the human condition.

Manetsch then provides four final observations and insights for pastoral life today gleaned from its practice back then.

(1) “The vocation of Christian ministry is a difficult one.”   “Pastoral effectiveness in Geneva required courage, a clear sense of vocation, thick skin, a generous dose of humility, and solid Christian faith.”

(2) “The importance of accountability and collegiality in pastoral work.”  “Contemporary Protestantism, with its infatuation for robust individualism, celebrity preachers, and ministry empires, has much to learn from the example of Geneva’s church.”

(3) “The leading role that the Scriptures played in Calvin’s Reformation, suggesting the central importance of God’s Word for Christian renewal in our own day.”

(4) “The ministry of pastoral care.”  “In our modern world where men and women so often struggle with spiritual dislocation, fractured relationships, and deep-seated loneliness, Calvin’s vision for pastoral oversight that includes gospel proclamation and intense relational ministry appears especially relevant and important.”

03/06/2017

Congealed Divine Oral Communication

Here’s a gem of a quote from a commentary that might not make it into a sermon, but needs to be shared and is too big for a tweet:

This written document represents not only a written transcript of Moses’ pastoral addresses but also congealed divine oral communication.  Since Yahweh’s voice is expressly identified with a written text, in the Torah of Moses Israelites of all generations have access to the divine voice.

Daniel I. Block, Deuteronomy, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 699; commenting on Dt. 30:9-10.

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.

 

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.

04/16/2016

Cooperation in Theological Unity

Here’s my latest article for the Illinois Baptist newspaper.

I often find myself at denominational functions looking around the room and wondering, “What is it that really brings us together here?”  Is our unity based simply on an expressed common desire to reach the lost?  Or do we gladly join together in mission because we have deeply shared doctrinal convictions?

 

Did you know that there is actually a lot to be found in the little books of the Bible?  One way to read 2 and 3 John (which combine for a total of just 28 verses) is to put them side-by-side as two crucial lessons in cooperation.

 

Here is the background to both books: a church planting movement is taking root in the Roman world furthered by traveling missionaries who depend upon support from other Christians, primarily in the form of food and lodging.

 

In 2 John the tone and feel is one of caution.  “Many deceivers have gone out into the world.”  “Watch yourselves.”  The emphasis is on getting the gospel right.  Specifically, some of these traveling missionaries “do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” – what has been referred to as the “Gnostic heresy.”  John speaks soberly of remaining in Christ’s teaching and not going beyond it.  He then directs genuine believers – “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your home… for the one who says, ‘Welcome,’ to him shares in his evil works.”  In other words, don’t cooperate with everyone!

 

The tenor is different in 3 John.  Here John is commending a “dear friend” for his generosity to certain missionaries.  The emphasis in this mini-epistle is on getting the gospel out.  “You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God.”  These missionaries “set out for the sake of the Name” and trusted God to provide through his people.  “Therefore, we ought to support such men,” says John.  He even calls out a guy named Diotrephes for his independent spirit.  “He not only refuses to welcome the brothers himself, but he even stops those who want to do so.”  Don’t be like Diotrephes.  Don’t cooperate with no one!

 

2 John teaches us not to make our tent too big.  3 John encourages us not to draw our circle too small.  We need both messages.  Notice the disproportionate amount of times that the words truth and love occur in these two short letters.  We absolutely cannot disconnect them.  There are people who have great drive, but do not have good doctrine.  We have to be discerning about who we partner with.  On the other hand, there are Christians who are cranky and overly separatist.  We must be large-hearted and kingdom-minded.

 

Because of 2 John I know that the Apostle John would applaud the “Conservative Resurgence” in the SBC.  Is it not amazing that we have six top-notch seminaries that are committed to robust and orthodox theological training?

 

At the same time, based on 3 John I am pretty certain that the Apostle would thoroughly endorse the concept of the Cooperative Program and be thrilled with our North American and International Mission Boards.  It is wonderful that we have state and local associations.  And is it not telling that we have Directors of Mission and not District Superintendents?  We are the people who come up with campaigns like “Million More in ’54.”  And I love that I live in what was once a Strategic Focus City, now a SEND City.

 

However, we have not always gotten this balance right.  At times I have seen people approved for work in the SBC based on their passion without an examination of their doctrine.  And at other times I have seen people who were well qualified turned away because of a technicality.

 

In all of our missional zeal, may we will never fudge on doctrinal clarity.  And in making sure we are all on the same page about what the gospel is, may we make sure we are doing whatever it takes to get the gospel out.  If we are truly faithful to Scripture we will heed the lessons of both 2 and 3 John.  But there just might be something to the fact that 2 John comes before 3 John.

05/04/2015

God Talks to Us Through the Bible

A reoccurring theological question from my kids revolves around why God doesn’t speak to them directly, like in a voice they can hear.  I’ve tried giving them several different answers.  It came up again the other day.  I was opening up the Bible to read at bedtime and said something like, “Let’s see what God has to say to us tonight.”  The honest, genuine questions started coming – “I don’t want to have to read the Bible; I want God to just talk to me.”  I told them that God could speak like that to them.  He certainly has done that to people in the past.  But now he has given us a book and told us to listen to him there and we can’t demand that God speak to us the way we want him to.  This was not finally satisfying for them.

As I thought more myself about why God has primarily ordained to speak to us through a written revelation today, another reason came to mind (from the Holy Spirit?).  He doesn’t speak audibly to everyone in private with their own personalized messages because he wants our faith not to be a merely private, personal faith.  Rather, Christianity is supposed to be a communal reality where we’re all hearing and believing the same messages from God.  The Scriptures are objective revelations available to all so that we all can hear the same things and respond together.  “God told me this…”  “Well, God told me this…” (either audibly or subjectively through impressions) will only lead to further division and isolation.  God has spoken clearly in one place so we can all be together on the same page.

This was not ultimately satisfying to them… yet, but I pray that one day they will hear God’s voice distinctly calling them from the pages of Scripture into the people of God and they will find it truly satisfying.

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.

10/28/2013

Hold Fast the Confession

Yesterday I preached on Hebrews 4:14-16. One of the points was that we must “hold firmly to the faith we profess” (v. 14b). This charge doesn’t stem from an isolated snippet of Scripture. This is a repeated admonition (for example see 2Thess. 2:15, Titus 1:9, Jude 3). Theology is not supposed to be creative. Our task is simple: hold fast to the faith once for all handed down from Christ and his apostles. Don’t tinker or toy with it. As Millard Erickson put it, we may translate, but we must not transform. Furthermore, to hold firmly implies that there is substance to be grasped and it is not slippery.

Yet there is always a perennial pressure to lose your grip on the faith, to drift from the confession. Study of Church History will repeatedly bear this revisionist tendency out. W.A. Criswell in his rousing address to the Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference in 1985 put this pattern into poetic terms:

An institution can be like a great tree which in times past withstood the rain, and the wind, and the storm, and the lightning, but finally fell because the heart had rotted out. Insects, termites destroyed the great monarch of the woods. This is the unspeakably tragic thing that happens to many of our Christian institutions, and eventually threatens them all. They are delivered to secularism and infidelity, not because of a bitter frontal attack from without, but because of a slow, gradual permeation of the rot and curse of unbelief from within.

If you want to watch a powerful explanation of this, you can go here. If you do, keep in mind a few things:

(1) Not all Southern Baptists are Anglo Saxons (the current SBC president is Black).
(2) This was 1985 and not all Southern Baptists look or talk like this today.
(3) Criswell gave this address when he was in his mid 70s.
(4) To affirm the full authority of the Scriptures and decry the dangers of modern critical methods is not to be obscurantist.
(5) By God’s grace, there has been an unprecedented (!) turn around in the SBC since 1985…

…but the pressure is always before us…