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Tim Challies

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January 2005

January 31, 2005

James White’s book Scripture Alone, contains a chapter entitled “Definitions: More Than Half The Battle.” He begins the chapter with these words: “After engaging hundreds, possibly thousands of individuals over the sufficiency of Scripture, I have come to realize that 85 percent of the battle is fought over definitions.” Later he warns against arguing against concepts that have not been clearly defined. “Straw men have never been known to put up much of a fight, hence, trying to defend an errant view of sola scriptura always results in defeat.” He then goes on to thoroughly define sola scriptura, both in terms of what it is and what it is not. I find myself in agreement with White that when we discuss matters of theological importance, definitions are more than half the battle. We often argue against things we do not truly understand because the terms have not been adequately defined. To borrow a very tired cliche, we often compare apples to oranges and oranges to apples.

Consider the issue of ecumenism, especially as it pertains to uniting Protestants and Roman Catholics. Those who believe that Protestants should put aside differences and unite with the Catholic Church often point to Jesus’ last words to His disciples where he prayed for unity among them to prove that Jesus valued unity in the church. They will point (correctly) to Catholic doctrine where it affirms that we are justified by faith. But here the Protestant apologist stops and asks what the Church means by faith, what it means by justification, and whatever happened to that pesky little word “alone” that causes so much trouble. Once definitions have been established, the apologist can proceed. Of course, this is theoretical, as more often than not the definitions never align and the discussion can never move beyond them.

In recent weeks I have been continually challenged on my comments on the Emergent church, and in particular on the review I wrote of Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy. Another article that has drawn much critcism (some nice, some not so nice) is this one which discusses an article in Christianity Today about Rob Bell, an Emergent pastor who ministers in Grand Rapids. In the ensuing conversation I have found, time and again, that definitions become critically important. For example, A Generous Orthodoxy is a book about, obviously, orthodoxy. But when we look at McLaren’s definition of “orthodoxy” we find that it bears little resemblance to what most believers understand the word to mean. A standard definition of the word might be “a belief in the standards of accepted and true doctrines taught in the Bible.” McLaren, however, defines it far differently. “Orthodoxy in this book may mean something more like “what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn.” Or it may mean “how we can search for a kind of truth you can never fully get into your head, so instead you seek to get your head (and heart) into it.”” Perhaps an even more clear example is in the chapter dealing with the Reformed tradition where McLaren affirms that he is Reformed and believes in TULIP, but only after redefining TULIP so that it bears absolutely no resemblance to what the rest of the world understands by it. Without defining the terms, one would arrive at many false conclusions about his beliefs.

Similarly, I continually hear from people that there are few pastors who have a higher regard for the Bible than Rob Bell, but then I wonder how that can be reconciled with his statement that a breakthrough came for him when he discovered “the Bible as a human product…rather than the product of divine fiat.” Bell’s Church has a set of core beliefs which includes the following statement: “We believe the Bible is inspired by God and is without error as originally transcribed. It contains His truth for our lives for today and tomorrow.” How does one reconcile these? It can only be done by defining the Bible’s teaching on itself, and then comparing that to Bell’s definition of the doctrine.

Perhaps this issue has become most clear to me in the ongoing discussion on a Reformed mailing list I subscribe to. The recent topic of discussion has been the New Perspective on Paul and, in particular, the writings of N.T. Wright. This is an issue where defining terms takes on special importance. There are several areas of difficulty. Wright has appeal to many Reformed believers, based on his supposed adherence to Reformed principles (as we find them in the Church of England) and his ongoing defense of the historical accuracy of the Scriptures. Thus he is intimately familiar with the Reformed position and is able to make a reasonable defense of his new perspective on Paul while keeping Reformed believers content in his doctrinal orthodoxy. But once again, definitions become important. For example, here is Wright’s definition of justification. “ ‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about ‘getting in,’ or indeed about ‘staying in,’ as about ‘how you could tell who was in.’ In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.” So while he may affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone, we find that the justification he speaks of is far different than justification as Reformed believers understand it. If we read his books and articles without defining terms, we will arrive at far different conclusions than if we do.

Now the purpose of this article is not to engage in further discussion on theological definitions used by Wright, Bell or McLaren, but rather to point out the critical importance of establishing definitions. I can email back and forth with a member of an Emergent church until both our fingers are bleeding, but if we do not first establish that we are working with the same definitions, it may well have no value whatsoever. Someone may affirm N.T. Wright as a trustworthy teacher of the Scripture based on his affirmation of justification by faith alone, but until we have defined justification, we cannot begin to understand what he really means and I cannot begin to refute his beliefs in this area.

It seems to me that the closer an error is to truth, the more important definitions become. The Protestant apologist may have little cause to thoroughly define terms when defending the faith against Islam compared to when he is defending it against the New Perspective or the Federal Vision. Often it is more difficult to defend the faith against minorly errant doctrine than it is to defend it against a radically false one.

I suppose this article serves as a reminder to me, as much as to anyone, that before I begin to address the concerns of others, and before I begin to examine false doctrine, I need to first define terms.

January 30, 2005

George Barna has an interesting job. He must feel that more often than not he is the proclaimer of sad tidings. His surveys often showcase the ways in which Christians are struggling and the ways Christianity is changing for the worse. Some of his recent studies have concluded that “Americans Agree: Kids Are Not Being Prepared for Life,” “Born Again Christians Just As Likely to Divorce As Are Non-Christians” and “Faith Has a Limited Effect On Most People’s Behavior.” I am sure that he found his most recent poll comforting. In it he asked 614 Senior to identify up to three individuals whom they believe have the greatest influence on churches and church leaders in the U.S. Those pastors named over 300 individuals.

To no one’s surprise, Billy Graham remains the most trusted spokesman for the Christian faith in the U.S. and has the greatest influence on American churches and church leaders. The top four influencers are: Billy Graham (who was selected by 34% of respondants), Rick Warren (26%), George W. Bush (14%) and James Dobson (11%). “Other influencers who were among the ten most frequently listed were Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church (9%); Bishop T.D. Jakes of The Potter’s House (7%); author and motivational speaker John Maxwell (6%); researcher and author George Barna (5%); Pope John Paul II (5%); and author and speaker Max Lucado (4%).”

Billy Graham also led the pack as the most trusted spokesperson for Christianity, garnering the support of six out of ten pastors (58%).

It was interesting to see the “theological divide” in Christianity. While Bapists chose as their top five Billy Graham, Rick Warren, George Bush, James Dobson and Bill Hybels, Pentecostals chose Billy Graham, George Bush, T.D. Jakes, James Dobson and Rick Warren. Benny Hinn, Pat Robertson, Joyce Meyer and Paul Crouch also made appearances for the Penetcostals.

I doubt if anyone was really surprised by this list. The study concluded “Change comes slowly when related to the development of influence. However, the ranking of the most influential leaders affecting church life in America struck researcher George Barna as a demonstration of the shift in authority within the ranks of American church leaders…’Billy Graham has been a consistent presence in the minds and hearts of church leaders and the public at-large for many years. However, many of the other leading influencers in the Christian Church are relative newcomers to such widespread impact. Names like Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes, Franklin Graham, John Maxwell, Joyce Meyer and Will Willimon would not have appeared on the list a decade ago. It is also interesting, though, how relatively few names – less than two dozen – show up on the two lists, across multiple segments of the pastoral community. That suggests that the influence of these leaders is both broad and deep.’”

As one might expect, I was not terribly impressed with this list. I am sure the first part is quite accurate as it simply asks pastor’s impressions of who are the top influencers of Christians. If I had been asked to suggest who these people are, here is the list I would have written up:

  • Robert Schuller. His proteges are Rick Warren and Bill Hybels. His indirect influence is far greater than his direct influence.
  • Rick Warren. Pope Rick has a massive, dedicated following both among pastors and the laity.
  • Bill Hybels. Bill has a huge following as well, though not on as popular a level as Warren.
  • Billy Graham. I don’t even know if he would rate this high. People admire him, but he doesn’t have nearly the influence on ministry as Hybels and Warren. What has Graham done in the past two decades that can even begin to rival The Purpose Driven Church?
  • James Dobson. This is a tough one, but I think Dobson does have quite a great influence on moral issues amongst evangelicals. However, I do think many mainliners are growing tired of him.

Now, who would I choose as my most trusted spokesperson for Christianity? That’s another difficult question. Perhaps I will rephrase it slightly to “who would I choose as the person whose beliefs best represent Biblical Christianity?” That way I am removing the element of “niceness” that may be foreign from some of these guys!

  • James White. He isn’t as pleasant and uncondemning as many of the men on Barna’s list, but I don’t think there would be too many people who have a stronger grasp of the heart of the Gospel than White.
  • John MacArthur. MacArthur is often featured on Larry King and such shows, and I wish he would be on more often instead of men like Schuller and Warren.
  • R.C. Sproul. I love Sproul’s writing and trust him to present the Gospel in a way that is consistent with Scripture.
  • Michael Horton. Not too many people even know who Horton is, but every Christian should.
  • John Piper. As is well-documented on this site, I love Piper’s theology, but don’t enjoy reading it. Still, I would trust him to represent Christianity.

Aren’t we blessed as Reformed believers to have such men laboring for the Lord and sharing what they have learned with us? I admire each of these men (and so many more) and do wish that they could represent Christianity to the world. However, that is not the way God works, is it? God calls each of us, and especially those of us that no one will ever know of, to represent Him before the world. Each of us represents Christianity every time we open our mouths, or every time we take a step outside of our homes. We don’t need spokesmen, for we already are spokesmen. So really, it’s a moot point, isn’t it? If “nobodies” like you and me are good enough for God, those same “nobodies” should be good enough for us too.

January 29, 2005

Amazing GraceThanks to all who participated in the giveaway of Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism. Participation once again exceeded all expectations.

Unfortunately, there can be only two winners in this giveaway. Before I announce their names, I would like to let you know that Monergismbooks.com, which sponsored this giveaway, has offered a great discount to all contest participants who purchase Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism. Anyone ordering the DVD set will receive free shipping (domestic or international) as well as another great bonus that you will find edifying. You’ll have to visit the site to read about it! The deal will not last long, so don’t dawdle!

I am also pleased to say that on February 7th I will announce a giveaway with the best prize I have been able to offer thus far. I’ll tease it just a little by saying the winners will each receive two items, one of which is an autographed copy of a great book written by one of everyone’s favorite authors. The second item is even more exciting, but you will have to wait and see what it is.

And now, without any further ado, I will announce the winners of this month’s prize. I generally say that the winners were chosen randomly, but that statement seems out-of-place when it concerns a DVD dedicated to Calvinism. Thus I present to you the people who were fore-ordained to win. They are:

Angus MacKillop

Congratulations to Angus and TulipGirl. I have contacted each of you seperately and the DVD will be shipped as soon as I receive your information.

As for everyone else, thank you for your participation. Hang in there until February 7th when I will send information about the next giveaway.

January 28, 2005

I generally don’t go for all these blog awards, but because I consider myself a responsible member of the blogosphere and enjoy the Evangelical Underground, I will play along. Evangelical Underground is hosting the 1st Annual Evangelical Blog Awards. My site has been nominated thus far in the category of “Best Designed Evangelical Blog.” In order to maintain my place in that category, I require nominations. After all nominations are in place, the top 5 in each category will eligible to receive votes for the awards. Therefore, I am supposed to get my readers to send their nominations to ensure I am eligible for the award. Got all that? Great. So here is how you do it:

Send an email to eblogawards@gmail.com and nomimate this blog. You could send an email with a subject of Nomination and this in the body:

I’d like to nominate Challies Dot Com at / for Best Designed Evangelical Blog.

To make it easy, the following link will open your mail program and set the email up for you (neat trick, eh?). nominate me!

I guess you can feel free to nominate me in other categories as well. International Blog sounds like a good one so I can represent Canada. The other categories for which I am eligible are Overall and Apologetics. If you are Emergent or Arminian, perhaps you’d like to nominate me for Humorous Blog as well (that’s a joke). If you want to send an email nominating me for the lot, click here!

Now I am going to post this with the greatest of embarrassment. I have made it a policy to never “take” from the readers of this site. People have often asked why I do not have advertising banners, a “tip jar” and so on. Well now you know. But to be a good, supportive citizen of the blogosphere I am asking my readers to do this for me if they are so inclined.

January 28, 2005

I have once again dipped into my site’s archives to update and refresh an article I posted in the past. In the past few days there has been much discussion in the forum and in my inbox about how we can define “Calvinist” and “Reformed.” I covered this very topic last year, but since that was over 500 posts ago, I have edited it and will repost it here, hoping it will stimulate some discussion and clarify the definitions. I will treat the terms “Reformed” and “Calvinist” as being synonymous. While some may disagree with this, I believe it is beyond dispute that most people use the terms interchangeably. Perhaps a later article can examine the minor differences between them.

January 28, 2005

I would like to make some further comments on the topic I wrote about yesterday.

First, thank you to all the readers who pointed out that “Biblical Theology” is in reality something of a “reserved term” as it has a definable theological meaning. Biblical Theology is considered an alternative to Systematic Theology and to Historical Theology. They are three seperate disciplines within the scope of theology. I do know this. A couple of my readers who have attended Bible studies I have led can attest to this! The reason I chose to use the term Biblical Theology is that it is the term others have used regarding my confidence in the doctrines known as Calvinism. There are two quotes within the article that support this. Perhaps I should have been more clear within the text of the article that I am familiar with the term and that I knew I was using it improperly. If I were to do it again, I would title the article Calvinist Theology = The Gospel. Fair enough?

Second, if you read yesterday’s article and thought I was condemning Arminians and adherents to other systems of theology, you misread my intent. It may be my fault as perhaps I did not make it sufficiently clear. My point was this: It is my deep conviction that Calvinist theology is the theology of the Bible. But even more important to the article is the conclusion that I am a Calvinist precisely because I believe that Calvinist theology is the theology of the Bible. I do not understand why people sneer at my assurance that Calvinist theology = the Gospel, for I would hope that they have similar assurance that the theology they hold to is Biblical. If they do not have this assurance, I believe they ought to seek it through the Scriptures. One of two things must be true: either these people have similar assurance in their theology (in which case they have no right to condemn me) or they should seek assurance. I do not mean an assurance grounded in their own intellect or in what feels right to them, but an assurance grounded in the Word of God, “that [they] may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” (Colossians 4:12)

Third, the opposite of Biblical Theology (in the way I used it) is not necessarily Unbiblical Theology. It is more likely to be less-Biblical theology. Arminianism represents a theology that is grounded in Scripture, but is less-Biblical than Calvinism because it does not have as full an understanding of God’s sovereignty and man’s depravity. As I indicated yesterday, “thankfully God does not require perfect doctrinal orthodoxy as a prerequisite to salvation.”

Fourth, … there is no fourth.

January 27, 2005

Writing for a forum as public as the internet provides ample opportunity to receive criticism. While I rarely take the time to respond to people who post on other sites long, drawn-out criticisms of myself and what I write, I always respond to those critcisms when they are directed at me through the forums or through email. I make my contact information readily available for anyone who would wish to contact me and I am always genuinely thankful for brothers and sisters in Christ who take the time to exhort me. Though I rarely respond when criticisms are posted in other forums, blogs or web sites, today I will make an exception mostly because doing so will provide a lead-in to a topic I have desired to write about for some time. In a Yahoo mailing list, there has been some ongoing discussion of my review of Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy. Of course with a review as negative as the one I wrote I expected some people to be upset by it, and that is well and good. In this particular group, a person took the time to go through line-by-line and critique everything I wrote. Just about every sentence or paragraph receives a snarky response.

January 26, 2005

In the past few days I have been going back and reading some articles I wrote months or years ago and have been updating a few of them. Last night I had my weekly home church meeting (AKA small group Bible study) and we discussed the importance of confession among Protestants. I realized I had written an article on this very topic last year so decided to rewrite it and post it again. The article stemmed from a challenge I received via a Catholic apologist’s web site. The author said that “Protestants do not believe in confession.” The statement is correct only insofar as Protestants do not practice auricular confession (confessing ones’ sins to a priest in order to receive forgiveness). That statement along with others I have heard and read shows that there is a misunderstanding about the Protestant view of confession.

That God calls us to confess our sin is clearly supported by Scripture. The Bible teaches us much about confession.

Leviticus 16:21 shows that confession is an integral part of forgiveness. “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness…” Though confession is implicit in asking for forgiveness (an admission of wrong-doing is necessary before one asks for forgiveness), the Biblical model is one of explicit confession. The priest did not simply send the scapegoat into the wilderness as a sign of forgiveness. Nor did he simply mumble a few platitudes and consider that sufficient. Rather, he first laid his hands on the animal and confessed the sins of the nation. The implication is that the priest would have confessed specific sins rather than simply offering a vague admission of guilt.

Psalm 32:3-5 shows the burden of unconfessed sin. “When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; And You forgave the guilt of my sin.” David says that while he refused to confess his sin his bones wasted away, God’s hand was heavy upon him and his strength was sapped. The burden was psychological, spiritual and probably physical as well. Finally, after David confessed his sin before God he experienced God’s forgiveness. At the close of the psalm we see a radical transformation as Davis is glad – singing and rejoicing in song. David shows us that confession is a necessary aspect of spiritual health.

Most Christians have, at one time or another learned the acronym A.C.T.S. as a model for prayer. Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication is a good and a logical way of ordering prayer. It seems, though, that little time and teaching is dedicated to how one should confess.

Giving God the adoration due Him will prepare us for confession. Focusing on God’s attributes will help us see where we have fallen short of His standards. A part of our adoration is focusing on the attributes of God that we shared with Him before our fall into sin. For example, we may give God glory for being perfect in holiness. As we do this it opens our eyes to the fact that this perfection is God’s standard for us. He demands and expects no less from us. Once we have established who God is and what He has done we cannot help but see how our lives and character fall short of the perfection He demands. The reaction of a contrite and broken heart can be nothing other than confessing our sinfulness before Him as we begin to pour out our requests before Him.

So what does confession actually look like? Here are a few pointers:

  • Confession is specific. Like most things in life and in the Christian life in particular, speaking in specifics is superior to speaking in generalities. We commit specific sins and need to confess them specifically. Consider, for example, someone who struggles with feelings of jealousy. Praying “I confess that I am a jealous person” is less specific than praying “I confess that I am jealous of the talents You have given to someone else.” The more specific we are, the more we show to God that we have thought about our sins and that we are truly sorry for them. A vague admission of sin shows that we are only vaguely repentant.
  • Confess the consequences. True confession involves looking not just at the sin we commit but also at how this sin has affected us. It is more than an admission of guilt but is a process of soul-searching to see where sin has taken root in our lives. So we need to search our souls and then confess not only the sin but also the effects of the sin. “I confess that I am jealous of the talents you have given to someone else” is a good place to start, but praying “I confess I am jealous of the talents you have given someone else, and this makes me resentful towards You for not blessing me in this way. It also damages my relationship towards this person” shows that I have searched my soul and seen how my sin has affected me.
  • Confession precedes forgiveness. Confession leads us to ask for forgiveness. Confessing leads us to fall on our faces before God, literally or figuratively, to ask for forgiveness. A confession is not, in itself, enough. In our court system a criminal may plead guilty for a misdeed, but this does not necessarily indicate that he is sorry for what he has done. Similarly we need to ask God for His forgiveness, not just confess our sins to Him.
  • Confession before someone we have harmed. There may be times where our sin requires us to confess and ask forgiveness from someone our sin has affected. One must be careful with this because there are times when our sin should remain only between ourselves and God, especially if revealing it to others would only hurt them and damage relationships. Knowing when it is appropriate to confess before men and when it is best to confess before God is a matter of discernment, and discernment is dependent on a deep and intimate walk with the Lord.
  • Confession before Men. At times it may be wise to confess our sins before a friend or other trusted individual. This is an aspect of confession that we often overlook, perhaps because it is not part of our Protestant heritage or perhaps because it is so unnatural for us to want to confess sin to others. Confession is therapeutic. While we may not have to confess our sins to a person we have sinned against (again, this is dependent on specific situations), it may still be helpful to confess this sin to a close friend so this person can then pray with us, pray for us, and help us believe in God’s assurance of forgiveness.

On his album The House Show, Derek Webb provides a lengthy spoken introduction to his song “I Repent” where he says that often it might just be the best thing in our lives if our deepest, darkest sins, the ones we work hardest to hide, were exposed to the world and broadcast from the rooftops. If our sins were exposed, we would have no way of hiding from them and we would have to deal with them. That is how our sins have been exposed to Jesus. Jesus sees and knows them all. Yet, praise by to God, if we know Him, all our sins have been forgiven! Having confessed and asked for forgiveness, we have God’s assurance that He has forgiven us. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” We need to believe in this promise, believing that our sins have been paid for by Christ. Naturally, our reaction should now be one of joy as we thank God for allowing Christ to take our sin upon Himself. Finally, having confessed to Him and having thanked Him for forgiveness, we can pour out our requests to Him, asking that He would help us turn from our sin and become more and more like His Son.

We see, then, that confession is an integral part of the Protestant faith and a necessary part of our Christian walk. While vastly different from Roman Catholic confession, it is no less important a part of the faith.