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May 2007

May 27, 2007

People often ask me if some speakers are easier to “blog” then others. The answer is a clear yes. There are some speakers who speak in such a way that they are really quite easy to capture and to summarize. There are others that are very difficult. The primary difference, I think, is between those who provide very logical, clear, alliterated and structured outlines versus those who may not. This would include the likes of Steve Lawson, Ligon Duncan, and Mark Dever. Dr. Mohler is one of those guys who is on the “harder to liveblog” list. I often wrestle with writing a cogent summary of his talks. This one proved no exception! Yet, like most of Mohler’s talks, I learned a lot from it. There are few people I’d rather listen to than Dr. Mohler.

Mohler’s topic for today is Discerning the culture.

He began by saying something I fully believe: if there is any one thing lacking in the church today it must be discernment. That’s the only explanation for how things are as they are. How else could the church be so seduced and how else could Christians be indistinguishable? Discernment is one of those things you need to live, both in the spiritual realm and outside of it.

A lot of people think discernment is nothing more than a matter of taste and, in fact, everything is just a matter of taste. Saying that one thing is truth and another isn’t is just a matter of saying that you like one thing or not another. Discernment, though, is knowing what is a taste issue and what is a truth issue. Discernment, then, must be a matter of deadly seriousness and it is absolutely synchronous with maturity.

How do we discern the culture? This is a big issue because we can’t get away from it. Culture is (And here he defined culture. Though I’ve heard Mohler define it in three different conferences I still can’t quite catch it). Language is one of the very first signs of culture. You put two people together and they will start communicating in overt and covert ways. Discernment is necessary to negotiate this culture that is all around us. We are always communicating, we are always embedded in culture.

He spoke of Aristotle’s conundrum of the fish. If you ask a fish what it is to be wet, he can’t give an honest answer because he doesn’t know anything else. Most human beings are just like this: they are swimming in the culture and don’t even know it’s there.

Mohler provided five wrong ways of understanding the culture:

To adopt the motto “let’s get completely wet.” Let’s just join into the culture and assume that it’s all neutral. Yet culture is never neutral because every structure of the society has an agenda. The church can’t possibly say “let’s just dive in.” We can’t assume that the culture is a safe institution.

To say “we’ll stay completely dry.” We’ll remove ourselves from the culture and stay totally dry. But this is impossible. You cannot separate yourself from the culture. How will you talk? What will you eat? What will you wear? The reality is that we’re deeply enmeshed in a system and network of culture. The danger is that we’re not even aware of this. It is dangerous to think we’re outside of the culture, so we’ll step outside and let culture go to hell while we wait it out.

To reduce cultural engagement to taking a dip. This is something Christians do thinking we can just drop into the culture as we wish and drying ourselves off. Culture, though, is a system and an entire web. You can’t touch one part without touching another part. You can’t enter it without touching the entire system.

To take a sip of the culture. This is where we think we can understand another culture by just sampling it quickly. “We’re going to do an immersion experience in another culture for a good 72 hours.” You can’t sip a culture. It is such a deep and complex reality that it takes serious study to figure out what it is.

Thinking we can treat culture by watching an aquarium. This is the National Geographic method and the arrogant American method. Looking at the aquarium doesn’t help because you need to be engaged in the culture, not just looking at it from the outside in. This is a great challenge for evangelism and for Christian missions.

Real life means that we’re embedded in culture and the most dangerous aspects of culture may be the ones we’re not even aware of. For Christians this is particularly dangerous because, once we have come to know Jesus as Lord, the last things we often see with the eyes of Christ are the things closest to us-the things we don’t even think about.

Matthew 22 is a place we find an amazing engagement between Jesus, the Pharisees and the Saducees. In the midst of this conflict Jesus gives us a centering set of commandments. He gives the Great Commandment showing that God comes first. The love of God is the great prioritizing issue. The second commandment is like it, that you shall love your neighbor as yourself. This is an exercise in discernment: the two main issues are love of God and love of neighbor. Jesus puts them in the right order. We love our neighbor not just because of who he is, but because we love God and because God loves our neighbor. So here we have a prioritization, a framework for discernment.

Why do we seek discernment in culture? Because we love God and love our neighbor. And nothing tells us more about ourselves than what we love. This means that ever person on the planet is our neighbor and thus we need to be concerned about every culture. Everyone person we wish to take the gospel to is immersed in a culture.

One of the earliest Christians said that for us no place is home and all places are home. Our ultimate citizenship is in heaven. When we think about culture we need to do an exercise in systematic theology and we have to ask how we know anything. Fundamentally our epistemology is from the heavenly city, not the earthly one.

God established culture in variety and revels in this. God established different nations, different cultural units. In Revelation we are told that in heaven there will be men and women of every tongue, tribe and nation praising God in all of the languages of earth. God revels in the fact that he made people to be different. Systematic theology reminds us that God is even now ruling over all creatures and all cultures. And then we come to sin and affirm that every culture is fallen and every culture is marked with human pride. God has forbidden cultures from exercising the ultimate human pride that led to them being scattered at Babel. We see that every culture becomes a force of seduction.

Jesus was within a culture. He spoke a language, wore the clothes of that culture, and so on. But he was never bound by this system. We do not worship Jesus by trying to dress as He dressed or by trying to speak the language He spoke, but by following Him in obedience in this culture. The gospel is now address to all people in all cultures and people can now remain in just about any culture and remain agents of the gospel in that place. We are not saved from culture but are saved from sin. We are left in the world to be agents of the love of God and to take the message to this culture. We are to engage it in such a way that we know where to go and where not to go, how to speak and how not to speak. The church becomes the presence of the eternal culture, becoming in every culture a counterculture. It is a counterculture that has absolute heart symmetry with where Christians are found in any other culture. This is where, in a fallen world, you’ll receive just a hint of the culture that is coming when the Lord returns. The difference is not in what we where or how we drive, but in what we say and in how we live. We’re not Lone Rangers.

We need to look to eschatology and see that this culture will end. No one will look at what we did in heaven. There will be no artistic display of what we’ve done. Rather, we’ll give ourselves eternally to the worship of God and what He has done. God will bring all things to absolute congruence to His purposes.

And now we think about our culture, this 24 x 7, sexually deluded, sexually obsessed culture. Our presuppositions about everything are formed by this culture so we desperately need the church to ask how we’re supposed to raise our children, what we should understand about marriage and so on. We live in a time of tremendous trial and it is unprecedented for us to have access to culture 24 x 7.

Discernment means seeing that we are fish swimming in a dirty, dangerous sea. We are to engage the culture for God’s glory and to engage the culture for gospel witness. We must do things for the glory of God, whether we create art or buildings or anything else. Anywhere you go and anything you do, you won’t jump out of the culture. Wherever you are, you must be deeply involved in a church that tries to help you show the glory of God in every dimension of life. Even though culture is everywhere, Christians must have discernment to step back from it. By the Word of God we have the speaking God telling us what we need to know. We need detox from time-to-time. That’s what this conference is all about; it’s what the Lord’s Day is all about. We come in with all the toxins and poisons and in the midst of God’s people, confronted by His Word, the toxicity becomes clear and, as the Holy Spirit applies the Word to our lives, we are sanctified. Until Jesus comes we are to be discerning Christians in the midst of this culture.

May 27, 2007

The speaker of this, the first session of the second day of the New Attitude Conference, is Mark Dever, whom you may know as the pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, the leader of IX Marks Ministries, and the author of several notable books. He said he was excited to be here to speak to what he considers to be a bunch of missionaries to the future. His topic essentially boiled down to this: How do we tell the difference between primary doctrine we need to contend for and secondary doctrines we can disagree with but still stay together? What is orthodox and what we can do to encourage each other to hold to it with humility. How can we differentiate between primary and secondary doctrine?

Mark’s message was framed around six questions we wanted us to consider: Do we follow commands to purify or to unite? What are some common fights Christians have? These first two questions set up the problems while the last four present elements of the answer. What are we together for? What must we agree upon? What may we disagree about? How can we disagree well?

Mark warned that the talk would be both dense and long (and it was, though more so the former than the latter).

Do we follow commands to purify or to unite? There are times when people no longer care for sound doctrine and when those who consider themselves believers care little for biblical doctrine. This is, sadly, one of those times. Throughout the Bible we are told to be on our guard for false doctrine. But how do we do this? We have tendencies to be too inclusive or too exclusive (ready to quickly declare someone or something wrong or unchristian, neglecting the wideness of God’s love). None of us approach this problem perfectly balanced. We end up pitting God’s Word against itself by putting one aspect of His character against another. What we should do is to grow in our knowledge of God’s Word and of our own hearts, so we’re more attuned to God’s truth and more appreciative of His love and gracious kindness. Truth and humility should not be enemies and, in fact, if we want to be truly humble we must also be filled with this truth.

Too often we have unity people and purity people, but not people who properly balance both. The unity people are willing to lay aside doctrine and group together around anything else whereas the purity people are fundamentalists, people who separate themselves from unbelievers and from believers with whom they do not agree. They have what Dever calls “a prophetic ministry of correction.” To today we ask how do we take the best of both of these, of the unity and the purity?

What are some common fights Christians have? There are so many to choose from: Sabbath-keeping, music styles, instrumentation, election and predestination, baptism, and on and on. This is the easy one to answer.

Now we move from the problem to the answer.

What are we together for? The cooperation we’re aiming at should determine how much agreement we need. The degree of cooperation in a relationship will depend on how close the relationship will be. There are, after all, different levels of agreement. So we need to ask, what is the purpose of agreeing with this person? For example, if you want to have an evangelistic Bible study, you need to agree on the gospel. If you want to begin a church with someone, you’ll need a greater level of agreement.

What must we agree upon? What are the basics, the essentials? This is a dangerous question and we have to proceed very carefully. Taken wrong, this can sound a bit like the teenager asking “How far can I go?” We must not ask this in the spirit of “What can I get away with?” Christian fellowship can only be had with those who share the Christian faith. In Acts 2 Luke writes that the people first shared the apostle’s teaching and then they enjoyed fellowship. Some errors are more serious than others. Some have to be corrected while others can go on for a lifetime. When we get to heaven, all of us will be corrected on some things simply because we’ve misunderstood some portion of Scripture. Some doctrines can go awry and a person can continue to serve as a faithful Christian.

There are three ways we learn what we must agree upon: through the Bible, through the church and through the conscience. We learn the truth fundamentally and supremely through the Bible—through God’s Word written. We are not to be earthly orphans, self-taught, self-regulating, self-centered. We must be in churches where the Word is taught well and taught faithfully. It is the duty of the local church to define what we must agree upon to be Christians and to be a member of that church. We also learn through conscience. This important part of God’s moral image has not been lost in the Fall, but it is now not always accurate. We all have an inherent sense of right and wrong but the conscience is inherent, not inerrant. We need our consciences to be trained and taught by God’s Word.

Here is a four-fold test to put on a doctrine to see how important it is. How clear is it in Scripture? How clear to others feel it is in Scripture? How near is it to the gospel? What would the effects be doctrinally and practically if we allow disagreement in this area?

One of the best words for a Christian is Evangelical. Jesus was all about news (the “evangel” is a word for “news”). We must not feel uncomfortable with making some truths more important than other truths. This is exactly what Paul and the other biblical writers did. Are you clear in your understanding of what you must believe to be a Christian? Godlessness and falsehood often go together. We must prioritize the doctrines that the biblical writers emphasized.

We must agree upon three things in order to put our trust in God and be saved. God, the Bible and the gospel. We have to believe in the one true God—that He is one, that He is triune, that He is uncreated, that He is morally perfect and that He is the one we are called to believe in. There are theologians today who speak of “anonymous Christians,” of people who believe in no God or in another God. But the Bible does not support this. We have to believe that the Bible is how we know the truth of God. How do we know what God is like? Because He has revealed Himself in Scripture. We must believe the gospel. The good news is that Jesus Christ became incarnate. Without this understanding we couldn’t uphold the truth of God’s triune nature. We also confess his substitutionary death on the cross, of His resurrection and His impending return. We are made right with God by faith alone, by trusting in this Jesus. Someone who does not believe in this gospel is not a Christian. Calling yourself doesn’t make you that, so even though many people consider themselves Christians and call themselves by Christ’s name, they cannot be truly saved unless they believe this.

What may we disagree about? This is not giving permission to not care about things God says in His Word, but rather, showing how much we can cooperate with others who share the gospel. You can have disagreements about practical matters and some of these things may even cause people to separate into different churches. We see this even in Acts 15 where Paul and Barnabas came to mutually exclusive opinions and decided to separate in love. There are a number of issues in the New Testament that people disagreed with—issues such as eating meat offered to idols and Paul allowed them to disagree as long as they still recognized that both parties were Christians. You can work together with another Christian as long as you won’t be distracted by the things which you disagree on. What are disputable matters today? There are too many to list, but Dever offered and expounded upon four test cases: the millennium, prayers for the dead, complementarianism and egalitarianism, and cooperation in evangelism.

How can we disagree well? Dever turned to the Reformation phrase “In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.” He looked also to Roger Nicole who asks “What do I owe the person who differs from me?” The Bible tells us we owe love, respect, charity. Be sure to honestly and respectfully represent the opponent’s view. Consider what goals you share and ask what the other person is aiming at with his belief. Nicole also asks, “What can I learn from the person I’m differing with?” You must not be more interesting in winning an argument. We’ll need humility to do this, welcoming correction as the enemy of your pride.

Ultimately we want to be known more for what we are for than what we are against. And we are for the gospel. In essentials unity. In non-essentials diversity. In all things love.

May 27, 2007

I think the powers that be must have read my blog and noted my comments about the music being “not quite rock concert loud.” This morning the music seemed noticeably louder. I’m quite the fan of loud music, so this suits me fine, even if it is difficult to use my laptop when my foot keeps tapping. When 3,000 voices are added to the already amplified singers and instruments, it becomes very loud indeed. It’s a good thing.

I’m sitting in the middle of the room at a table with four other people, all attempting to describe what’s happening here. There are two guys from Boundless and Ricky Alcantar from New Attitude. On the other side of the sound booth is another table where I believe the Rebelution guys have set up shop for the weekend. And during the times of teaching there are laptops throughout the auditorium with others typing out their thoughts and, no doubt, posting them for the world to read. This morning I met up with Josh [Harris] at Starbucks and we were imagining what a conference would look like where there was no liveblogging, no audio recording and no video. Conferences have become something that people can experience by proxy-that they can experience, at least in part, even if they are not at the actual event. It’s a good thing, too.

The morning opened with something called Community Groups and Family Groups, where the people attending the conference join together in small groups to begin to apply what has been taught and what they are learning. Every Community Group is divided into several Family Groups, each led by a young man who leads and guides discussion and prayer. There are, I believe, 180 of these groups. Aileen and I are not participating in these, so you’ll have to go elsewhere to find out what this part of the experience is all about. I’m sure it’s also a good thing.

There are to be three general sessions today (and three tomorrow and one on Tuesday). It’s hard to believe it’s Sunday today as the days all kind of seem the same at conferences. We’ll hear from Mark Dever this morning, then from Al Mohler this afternoon, and finally from C.J. Mahaney this evening. It’s a busy day, really, with sessions running from 10:45 AM until 10 PM. It’s bound to be a great thing.

May 26, 2007

We arrived in Louisville after two good and uneventful flights, including one that is the shortest I’ve ever been on. Our first hop took us from Toronto to Cincinnati, a flight of about an hour and a half. The flight from Cincy to Louisville clocked in at just sixteen minutes or something like that. No sooner were we up than we were down and on our way to the hotel. After waiting through a long check-in line at the hotel (it seems we arrived at the Galt House at the same time as a busload of conference attendees being shuttled in from the airport) we got settled into our beautiful and spacious room. And then we went to find the conference venue, the same venue that will be used for next year’s Together for the Gospel Conference. And here we are.

Now this is definitely not your grandmother’s conference. I don’t say that to be disrespectful to grandmothers. Rather, this is a conference both by and for young Christians. And it shows. It is loud (not quite rock concert loud but pretty close) and boisterous. Yet it is controlled and clearly well put together. There is a lot of excitement in the room along with the 3,000 or so young people in attendance—people representing 39 states, 6 countries and 3 continents. It’s certainly a far cry from some of the more recent conferences I’ve been to: The Basics, Twin Lakes, Ligonier and so on. And that is part of my attraction to it. I am, once again, delighting in diversity.

The conference kicked off at 7:30 and began with a worship set that included a mix of hymns, modern worship songs, choruses and a few Sovereign Grace favorites. Eric Simmons then introduced the conference and its topic—spiritual discernment. It seems that the purpose of this conference, like the New Attitude conferences before it, is to rediscover truth and to live in the light of it. Sounds good to me!

The first teaching session fell, as we might expect, to Josh Harris. His exhortation was simple: we must be humble before truth. When we encounter truth we need to first live it ourselves and then humbly proclaim it to this lost world. We need to proclaim this truth not as people who are right but as people who have been rescued. You can’t have humble orthodoxy without discernment. You can only love the truth if you can distinguish it from error, and this is what discernment is all about. Tonight’s goal is to introduce the topic and to convince us of its importance, thus whetting our appetites for what is going to come over the next three days.

So what is discernment? The simplest definition is “the ability to judge well.” It is the ability to identify something of good quality. A person with a discerning ear is a person who can judge good music or a person with a discerning eye is a person who chooses his decorations or clothes tastefully. Conversely, when people choose poor quality we say that they lack discernment. Discernment is very similar to possessing wisdom and the two are very closely connected. Wisdom is the ability to understand and to see life in light of who God is and how He has created the world and then to make appropriate decisions. Discernment is a part of living a wise life but is specifically the ability to distinguish between things. The root word means “to separate apart.” Discernment is the ability to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and error, wise and unwise. 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 says “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” This is a description of the activity of discernment. First you test, examine and look closely. You determine the true nature of what you’re interacting with. And then you have to sort that idea or concept—you need to hold on to or cling to what is good and avoid what is evil. You need to not only see and distinguish but also act on what you see in light of what God values. This is really quite straight forward. If that’s discernment, do we really need a whole conference about this?

Josh provided two reasons we need to give attention to this topic. First, discernment is not as simple as doing something like picking the peanuts from a bowl of Cracker Jacks. We are not born with a full measure of discernment and it is not always obvious what is good and what is evil. If people always announced that they were evil, discernment would always be an easy discipline. Yet the real content and the eventual consequences of ideas and practices that we encounter in this world and in the Christian subculture are not always obvious. There are subtle, unhelpful tendencies; there are pitfalls we don’t immediately see. Discernment between wise and unwise counsel isn’t always easy and it’s sometimes mixed together.

The second reason we need to take the time to focus on discernment is because whether or not we have this discernment is a matter of life and death. These are not exaggerated words. There are portions of life where discernment is of little consequence, but in the spiritual realm we’re talking about our souls. We’re talking about whether or not we will know and obey the truth that has the power to redeem fallen humanity. We’re talking about whether or not we will know the living God for who He is. We’re talking about whether we’ll walk the narrow road leading to life or the broad path leading to destruction. We see this throughout the Bible where people have set before them the path to life or death. Discernment matters because our souls are at stake and we have the chance to distinguish truth and live it in such a way that we can serve those around us—people who need to hear the untainted gospel. Discernment ultimately matters because God’s glory is at stake. The right understanding and right application of God’s Word brings glory to Him.

The Bible tells us in many places how we can grow in discernment. It shows us that this is not the privilege of only a few Christians. There are several passages Josh pointed out: Psalm 119:125, Daniel 2:21 and 1 Kings 3:9. We’re not only to ask for it but to work at it. The first step in gaining this knowledge is studying God’s Word: There are several passages pertaining to this as well: Psalm 119:104, Ephesians 5:10, Hebrews 5:14.

The remainder of the message was based around Romans 12:1-2.

Chapter twelve of Romans is a significant transition in this letter. He has just explained that we can only be justified by faith in Jesus who died as our substitute. The first eleven chapters provide the glorious gospel. In chapter twelve Paul makes the transition from the truth of the gospel and begins to look at the ethical implications for this gospel on our lives. He turns to practical application. These first two verses are very pivotal, holding on to two things: the truth of the gospel and gospel living. And this is what discernment is really all about. Holding on to the truth and to the application. “I appeal to you therefore brothers by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” In light of what Jesus has done for you, here is the perfect response: Give Him everything that you are.

In verse two Paul explains the work that is involved in maintaining a life of worship like this. How do you stay on the altar as a living sacrifice? How do you live a life that is fully given to the Lord? It tells us we need to live in a certain way so we can perceive the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. The reason we want discernment is so that we can know and follow God’s will. The reason we want to grow in discernment is that we want God. We want to please Him and walk humbly with Him, glorifying Him. This passage tells us what this kind of discernment requires:

Discernment requires resistance. “Do not be conformed to this world.” It could also read “do not be conformed to this age.” We need to resist being pulled along by the modern godless way of thinking like the world. Don’t think like the way this world thinks. Resist this! An aspect of discernment is taking the time to understand our age and its values. Do you know how this world is trying to make you conform to it? Have you ever taken the time to truly understand the values of our age? This takes a lifetime of hard work to do and that’s why a conference like this needs to celebrate the teaching of men who are a generation or two ahead of us. We need those who have trained themselves in discernment so they can come along beside us and help us understand the culture. The resistance takes work but inevitably following God’s way and choosing His good and acceptable and perfect way involves being rejected by this world. It involves the loss of this world’s admiration and respect. Not being conformed means that you don’t fit in. It means that you’re going to be left out. You need to count that cost. This is one thing to agree to during a conference like this, but a completely different matter when we get to real life. The practice of discernment requires a break with the world. Christian nonconformity is not the cool kind. When rock stars are nonconformists they are cool, but when Christians are nonconformists we’re idiots; we look silly. If you’re not willing to die to the desire to appear sophisticated and hip and together in the eyes of the world then we will never be willing to risk conformity and we will never be discerning. We want to serve Jesus, but we want to do so in a way where people will say “Those Christians really aren’t so bad. They’re really kind of cool in their Christian kind of way.” If we allow this desire to rule us, we will let our theology and lifestyle be molded by the world’s pattern and discernment dies.

Discernment requires renewal. Instead of being conformed to our age we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. This means a constant reclaiming of the truths of God’s Word. We don’t just hear God’s Word once and figure we’ve got it down, but instead we need to constantly review and renew the truths of the Word. They need to be constantly renewed.

Discernment requires action. The purpose of resisting conformity and being transformed is so that by testing you may discern God’s will. You can’t discern God’s will by sitting back and evaluating from a distance. Armchair discernment that is never played out in real life is not true discernment. Rather, it requires theologically-informed action. The only way for you to grow in discernment is to act on what God has already revealed to you. We could say that discernment requires application or implementation. You can’t fully understand or appreciate how good and acceptable and perfect God’s will is until you apply it to your life. We don’t test God’s will in the way a teacher might give a pop quiz. We are not in the position of authority. This is saying that we must test and examine it by obeying it and doing it. When by grace we obey God’s Word we are testing the goodness of His way and we find that it is truly good. It is also important to note that when we fail to act on truth, discernment dies. When God makes something clear and you don’t live in light of that truth, you’re not only disobeying God but you’re also stepping into spiritual blindness; you’re deceiving yourself. For many here, the best thing you can do to grow in discernment is simply to obey God in the places that He has already made His will clear in His Word.

Discernment requires the gospel. In the flow of our text this point really should have been the first point, but it’s here because it’s the most important point to make. The work of Christ undergirds all we say and teach about discernment. We cannot rightly live the Christian life, we cannot be holy, we cannot be discerning unless we understand that the foundation of everything is not what we have done and not what we do, but what Jesus Christ has done for us. Paul points us back to the glorious gospel. Even this application is built upon the gospel. Discernment must never be separated from the gospel because it’s only possible to discern because of the gospel. We can only resist conforming to the world because Jesus’ work on the cross has freed us from the dominion of sin. Because of Christ we can now resist the devil and obey God. Our practice of discernment must be done with great humility because we know that it is through God’s mercy that we can discern anything. We discern in view of God’s mercy. There is no place for an arrogant practice of discernment. Self-righteous views of discernment have no place and make no sense. To have a heart of superiority has nothing to do with the mercy that you have been shown. If we practice discernment in view of God’s mercy we will practice it with humility. Any time you open your Bible and see and understand something, anytime you turn from any kind of error, that moment is a moment for you to thank God for His mercy in your life.

The theme for NA 2007 is discernment, but even while we focus on this, let’s not be preoccupied on it. Let’s be preoccupied by the undeserved mercy we’ve been given. We see only because Jesus died for us. Discernment is not an end in itself and is not our destination. God calls us to something greater. He wants all of us and His call on each person is to offer our very bodies to Him as living sacrifices. He calls us to give up any claim we have on our own life, any desire to rule and decide for ourselves. Discernment is simply the fruit of a life willingly offered to God. It is the result of knowing and enjoying our glorious God.

Josh closed with Roy Ortmund Jr.’s paraphrase of these verses, which went on just a little too long and a little too fast for me to be able to capture…

I’ll be back tomorrow with several updates, including summaries of sessions led by Mark Dever, Al Mohler and C.J. Mahaney.

May 26, 2007

This morning Aileen and I are leaving for sunny (we hope) and beautiful Louisville, Kentucky so we can take in the New Attitude conference which runs from this evening until Tuesday morning. It will feature a great group of speakers: Joshua Harris, Eric Simmons, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, C.J. Mahaney and, of course, the ever-present John Piper. The topic, spiritual discernment, is of particular interest to me and I look forward to learning all sorts of things I will only be able to wish I had added to my book before submitting it to the publisher. It should be an educational, exciting and humbling weekend.

Now I am clearly far too old to be at this conference. Looking at the photographs from last year’s conference I can see that the average person there will be much younger and, no doubt, much more energetic. The conference schedule reflects this with the evening sessions ending after my normal bed time!


This will be the first time Aileen has accompanied me to a conference and she is looking forward to seeing what these conferences are all about. We’re also bringing the baby with us (is she still a baby at one year of age?) so if you’re going to be there, look out for the two old people with the little red-headed baby. We’d love to meet you. Also, keep an eye out for the Crossway booth or table where I believe they’ll be giving away downloadable copies of a portion of my book.

This will be the final conference on my busy spring itinerary and it looks like it will be a great way to close out the season. Check back later today (quite a bit later, really) and I should have the first update long after the sun goes down. See you in Louisville!

By the way, here is a funky video about the conference.

May 25, 2007

This is the fourth installment in a series of articles discussing the Christian tendency to put God in a box. In the first article we saw that we tend to feel insecure about God unless we have contained Him within a box in our minds and then saw that God has revealed Himself to us in a way that is incomplete, but which we can understand. God’s revelation of Himself provides a framework within which we can understand Him. While incomplete and not exhaustive, this framework is nevertheless accurate and trustworthy. In the second article we examined how we can allow our doctrine to put God in a box through our ignorance, through our imaginations and by making theology and end in itself. In the third article we looked at ways we put God in a box through our attempts to live a life of Christian piety.

As I explained in previous articles, the Christian faith in general, and the Reformed faith in particular, has often been divided into three main thrusts. These overlap, and thus are somewhat false distinctions, but serve to differentiate between diverse emphases of the Christian life. They are the doctrinal (what we believe), the pietist (how we worship on the basis of what we believe) and the transformationalist. Today we will look at the Christian’s duty to the world to be a transformationalist and how it can lead us to put God in a box.

The transformationalist emphasis refers to the way Christians relate to the world and to the culture around us. It seeks to avoid isolationism, but to impact the culture in ways consistent with Christian doctrine and piety. It seeks to fulfill the Great Commission to take the Gospel to the whole world, and to respond to the exhortation of James that “faith without works is dead.” For some believers it includes the “cultural mandate” which is how they describe the job description God gave to man at the beginning of time: to rule the world with Him. Yet in doing these things—noble pursuits though they may be—we can unknowingly or unintentionally place God in a box of our own making.

When we emphasize God’s Sovereignty over Human Responsibility

There is always a tension in the Christian’s life between the sovereignty of God and our responsibility to act. We can never come to a full understanding of how God interacts with this world and with its inhabitants for this is a mystery too great for us to conquer. Thankfully God does not expect us to conquer it. Rather, we are to live in this tension and to delight in it. He commands us to go forth in His power in order to do the work He has assigned to us. We do not need to concern ourselves as much with the “why” as with the “how.” And then we just begin to do it.

When we over-emphasize God’s sovereignty, we can place Him in a box whereby we deny that He can or will act to save people. Taken to its deepest connotations, we know this as hyper-Calvinism, and it is a dangerous belief to slip into. Hyper-Calvinists see no reason to go into the culture or to evangelize the lost. For, they say, God will necessarily save His elect and He does not depend on us to help Him. This view fails to understand that God sees fit to use us to accomplish His work in the world, not out of necessity, but because it fits His plan. We must act in full view of God’s sovereignty and trusting in His sovereignty.

When we emphasize Human Responsibility over God’s Sovereignty

Just as we can overemphasize God’s sovereignty, in the same way we can place too great an emphasis on human responsibility. When we do this, we tacitly deny that God is the one who is sovereign in the salvation of souls. When we lose sight of God’s right to act as He sees fit, and to act in accordance with His plans, we can place God in a box whereby we believe that He is helpless without us. We may then examine our words or actions in light of their results instead of in the light of God’s Truth. We may elevate results to the status of ultimate arbiter of right or wrong.

This is known as pragmatism and it is very common in the evangelical churches. It underlies the church growth movement and has done much to damage the church. The biblical truth is that God does not need you or me. God expects us to act in accordance with His wisdom, as revealed in Scripture, instead of human wisdom which is based on human folly. Hudson Taylor, missionary to China in the nineteenth century, said, “God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack for supplies.” They key to doing God’s work in a way that pleases Him is to do it in His way, acknowledging that He chooses to use us, despite not needing us. We must act, to be sure, but we act only in the ways God, in His sovereignty, has told us to act.

When We Forget Where We Came From

When we have been justified and are beginning to be sanctified, conforming ever more to the image of Christ, we can become smug, forgetting that it was only the grace of God that saved us and made us new. We can begin to believe that we somehow merited His favor, or that the changes wrought in us have been made through our own power. It is shocking that we can so quickly lose sight of our past and lose sight of God’s grace, but this is all too common among believers.

It is crucial that we continually heed the words of Peter where he warns that we must, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). We need to maintain a humility born of knowledge of who we are. We need to realize that God did not choose us because of anything in us or anything we could offer Him. God chose us only through His sovereign free will.

When we forget the past and lose sight of our total and absolute depravity, we place God in a box whereby He chooses those who love Him most or those whom He can use best. And then we hesitate to take the Word to those we deem somehow unfit to hear it or unlikely to respond to it.


Through the last four articles we have seen that Christians can box God in any and every area of our lives. We are as likely to box Him, denying His power or right to act in our piety as we are in our doctrine. We are as likely to need to break boxes in our attempts to take the Gospel to the world as we are in our understanding of His character.

This short series will conclude with one final article where I’ll attempt to put this together and see what boxing God can do to us. We will see the wonders that can be ours when we let God be God.

May 24, 2007

This is the third article in a series that discusses that tendency Christians have to put God in a box. In the first article (link) we saw that we tend to feel insecure about God unless we have contained Him within a box in our minds and then saw that God has revealed Himself to us in a way that is incomplete, but which we can understand. God’s revelation of Himself provides a framework within which we can understand Him. While incomplete, this framework is accurate and trustworthy. In the second article (link) we examined how we can allow our doctrine to put God in a box through our ignorance, through our imaginations and by making theology and end in itself.

Today we will look at Christian piety and how it can lead us to put God in a box.

Piety is the desire and willingness to live out what we believe—to live in light of our faith. Any religion can and does encourage piety in its adherents. There are pious Muslims, pious Hindus and pious Christians. The difference between Christians and adherents to other religions is that Christians are indwelt by the Spirit of God, who enables us to live in ways that are consistent with the Scripture and are pleasing to God. This process of sanctification (becoming holy) is a necessary component to the Christian walk and is the very basis of Christian piety. The Spirit gives us both the ability and the desire to live in a way that is pleasing to God; to perform our religious duties for His sake and in His power.

But just as something as wondrous and pure as doctrine can lead us to box God, in the same way we can box God through our piety. Today we’ll look at three ways that we are prone to do this.

Boxing God When I Know That I Know

We put God in a box when we “know that we know” what God can or will not do. This is a popular phrase in evangelical circles and one that people often use to convince others that they are secure in God’s will or understand exactly how God works. In the first article of this series we looked at verses of Scripture written by the prophet Isaiah. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). We need to keep in mind that what God has revealed of Himself in Scripture is true. We can know with certainty from Scripture, for example, that God can and will not sin. Were God to sin, He would disprove His own existence and Divinity. Were God to send a flood to destroy the entire world, He would contradict a clear and absolute promise. God is entirely rational and trustworthy. So what the Scriptures plainly teach, we can believe with confidence.

But too often we limit our belief in what God can or will do in areas far beyond those He has expressly told us. We need to be careful when we say “God wouldn’t do that” or “God doesn’t act like that in the world today.” If God did miracles in days past, He can do so today. If He healed the sick and raised the dead, He has proven that He can and will act in that way. For us to flatly deny that He acts in that way today is to deny Him an ability that is His. He may choose not to act like that in our day or even in our culture, but we need to be careful with what we state He will never do (or what He will always do).

Some of the most shocking verses in the Bible come from Mark 11:23, where Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Do we really believe this, or have we filed it away as metaphor or exaggeration? A similar passage is 1 John 5:14-15 which reads “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.” God places no limits on His own ability to act in and through us. But often we impose those limits in Him.

Boxing God by Knowing the Unknowable

We put God in a box when we believe we know exactly why things happen the way they do. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). The starting point of Reformed doctrine is often taught to be the depravity of man, but it really needs to begin and end with God’s sovereignty. God is overwhelmingly sovereign in this world, so that there is nothing that happens that is beyond his knowledge and control. When calamity strikes, God not only knows about it, but has in some way ordained that it should happen (yet in a way that does not make Him the author of evil). As the Shorter Catechism tells us, “The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass” (Question and Answer 7). Somehow, mysteriously, everything that happens brings glory to God. God has necessarily withheld from us why many things happen. Why the tsunami of 2004 had to take so many lives and destroy so many families, we do not know. And we do not know why God allowed and decreed that thousands of lives would be lost on September 11. But God does. We need to rest in our knowledge of His foreknowledge and sovereignty.

When we determine why things have happened, we place God in a box, believing that we can know the unknowable and that we can understand what He has not given us to understand. Soon after the tsunami I heard Christian leaders suggesting that the tsunami was sent to punish people in areas of the world where Christians are undergoing particularly harsh persecution. But we do not know this. After September 11, vocal Christian leaders decreed that the events of that day were sent as a punishment for America’s moral decay. But we do not know that either. God has hidden that knowledge from us, and we should not place Him in a box by making up in our minds why these things have come to pass. We need only look to Job’s friends to see the danger and the folly of declaring the hidden things. Perhaps in eternity God will reveal these things to us and make the reasons clear. Perhaps not. In either way, this is His world and He is free to act in it as He sees fit. Rather than boxing God as the one who sends calamity to punish evil, we need to understand Him as the one who controls the world, yet dispenses knowledge only as He sees fit.

Boxing God By a Faith/Values Split

We put God in a box when we separate our piety from our every day lives. We live in a society which makes it easy to claim to be a Christian, but also makes it too easy to separate our faith from our everyday lives. Nancy Pearcey, in her book Total Truth, says that Christianity is in “cultural captivity.” She shows how far too many Christians have succumbed to society’s belief that there are two spheres in society, the private and the public. The private sphere is awash in moral relativism. Religion is to be kept in the private sphere and is considered a subjective choice, not an objective reality. This is the sphere of values. Conversely, the public sphere is the dwelling place of facts — that which is objective and can be proven scientifically. The public sphere, the sphere of facts, is objective and binding on everyone.

Far too many Christians see the world in this way. We see this often in the words and the faith of politicians. They constantly claim to be Christians, yet are always careful to separate their faith from the decisions they make in ruling the nations. They claim to hold Christians beliefs but also claim that these beliefs have no real bearing on the way they act as politicians. Privately they are Christians but publicly they are not. Sadly, this is in no way unique as it is probably safe to say that the majority of those who claim to be Christians hold similar beliefs. In Total Truth Pearcey writes about a woman she met who claimed to be a Christian, yet worked at a Planned Parenthood clinic (which, sadly, was staffed by many other Christians). She did not see the clear conflict between her values and her job — she had compartmentalized God in the values sphere while her job was part of the objective, facts sphere.

When we view the world through this lens we have placed God in a box (or a sphere — I’m beginning to mix my metaphors). We have practically, though in all likelihood unknowingly, defined our faith as a private, subjective belief. We have boxed God as One who is important to us privately, yet has little impact on our daily lives. We need to understand that we cannot and must not separate our piety from our doctrine. We must always live what we believe, at home, in church and in the workplace.


I made it clear in the last article that the Bible does not contain God. Rather, the Bible contains and restrains us. This is as important to note in our piety as in our doctrine. We must live lives that are consistently pleasing to God, never placing limits on His ability to act in a way that is consistent with His revelation of Himself. At the same time, we must maintain a piety that reaches every corner of our lives, for His grace and in His power.

In our next article we will look at how we place God in a box Transformationally.

May 24, 2007

Thursday May 24, 2007

Conference: Various people, including this guy and this guy are bringing blog updates from the Gospel Coalition conference.

Justice: Sweet justice. “A Lakewood, Ohio, landlord has been ordered by a judge to house arrest in one of his derelict buildings until he makes the proper repairs.”

Theology: Julian is laying out the case for all-male eldership.

Books: CT has announced their 2007 book award winners. Mark Dever’s “The Message of the Old Testament: Promises Made” earned an Award of Merit.

Photos: This site, offering thousands of free stock photos, is worth bookmarking.