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October 25, 2007

“O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you…”

One of my favorite television programs is Antiques Roadshow. The program affords people the opportunity to present their antique possessions—whether furniture, paintings, toys, or anything else— and to have them appraised by some of the world’s foremost experts in antiquities. For every episode the producers single out ten or fifteen items and show an expert providing a detailed description and valuation of the item. Each section closes with the expert telling the owner just what the item is worth. It is always amusing to see eyes pop out or to see people jump up and down with excitement as they realize that they have in their possession an item worth tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. During every episode the viewer has opportunity to see “junk” transformed to treasure.

There is one segment from a particular episode that stands out in my mind, because it featured the most valuable item they had appraised to that point. An elderly gentleman from Tucson, Arizona, brought in an old blanket he had inherited several years before. He knew it was old and believed it had a little bit of value, perhaps a few hundred or even a couple of thousand dollars. After inheriting this blanket he had thrown it over the back of a rocking chair in his bedroom and had not often thought about it until presented with opportunity to take it to the Roadshow.

With the blanket hanging on a rack behind them, the expert appraiser told the old man that his heart had stopped when he first saw it. As I watched the show, I could see the excitement written all over the expert’s face and extending throughout his body. He could not stand still. He began to explain that the item was a Navajo chief’s blanket that had been woven in the 1840s. In wonderful condition, it was one of the oldest, intact Navajo weaves to survive to the twenty-first century, and certainly one of only a tiny handful to exist outside of museum collections. He showed the fine detail of the weaving and even showed where it had been torn and repaired shortly after it was first made. I could see the excitement in his eyes as he looked at something he knew was extremely valuable. He knew that sitting before him was something more than a blanket—it was a rare national treasure of incredible value and historical significance.

The appraiser seemed to have trouble even beginning to convey to the audience the importance of this blanket. He left no doubt, though, when he told of its value. Because of its rarity and significance, he had no trouble assigning a value of somewhere between 350,000 and 500,000 dollars. This elderly gentleman had come to the show carrying a blanket worth almost a half-million dollars. He simply could not believe what he was hearing. Choked up and with tears pouring from his eyes he asked to hear the amount again. He looked as if he might pass out.

As the man walked out of the convention center where the show had been held, the blanket he had cavalierly carried in with him was now cradled carefully in his arms. He walked out of the building with security guards on either side of him, drove straight to a bank, and placed the blanket in a safe deposit box. What had been “junk,” a mere accent to an old rocking chair, had been instantly transformed into a precious treasure.

When God saves his people, bringing us from death to life, he opens our eyes to love and appreciate the supreme treasure that is Jesus Christ. What had once been of little interest or significance is suddenly transformed into something of inestimable value and worth. The gospel message—the news of Jesus’ miraculous birth, perfect life, substitutionary death, and glorious resurrection—is great and joyous news, and yet, for this very reason, it is under attack by the forces of evil. The eminent nineteenth-century pastor and author J.C. Ryle wrote of just some of the ways the gospel can be spoiled to us:

You may spoil the Gospel by substitution. You have only to withdraw from the eyes of the sinner the grand object which the Bible proposes to faith,—Jesus Christ; and to substitute another object in His place … and the mischief is done. Substitute anything for Christ, and the Gospel is totally spoiled!

You may spoil the Gospel by addition. You have only to add to Christ, the grand object of faith, some other objects as equally worthy of honour, and the mischief is done. Add anything to Christ, and the Gospel ceases to be a pure Gospel!

You may spoil the Gospel by interposition. You have only to push something between Christ and the eye of the soul, to draw away the sinner’s attention from the Saviour, and the mischief is done.

You may spoil the Gospel by disproportion. You have only to attach an exaggerated importance to the secondary things of Christianity, and a diminished importance to the first things, and the mischief is done. Once alter the proportion of the parts of truth, and truth soon becomes downright error!

You may completely spoil the Gospel by confused and contradictory directions. Complicated and obscure statements about faith, baptism, Church privileges, and the benefits of the Lord’s Supper…are almost as bad as no statement at all!

The gospel can be spoiled, though not objectively, for it is an objective reality. Yet it can be spoiled by us and to us. We can modify the gospel, either deliberately or inadvertently, stripping it of its power and its glory. We can bring to people a counterfeit gospel that is no gospel at all. It is the discipline of discernment that God has provided us to guard the purity of the gospel.

Discernment, then, is not an end in itself. Rather, discernment is the means to a far greater and nobler end. By practicing spiritual discernment we guard the gospel, the message of eternal life. The apostle Paul, writing to his young protege Timothy, called him to do just this in both of the letters to Timothy recorded in Scripture. “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you,” Paul writes in 1 Timothy 6:20. In his next letter he reiterates, “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:14). Through the power of the Spirit, Timothy was to guard the gospel.

This word deposit is taken from the ancient world. In the age before personal safes and safe deposit boxes, a person who was going to be away for some time might ask another to care for a treasured possession. He would entrust this possession to another, depositing it to him, and this person was bound by a sacred oath to protect it. In his letters to Timothy, Paul, who knows that he will not always be able to encourage and mentor Timothy, entrusts to him the gospel message. Timothy would be expected to guard this message and to find worthy, godly Christians to whom he could in turn entrust it. And so the gospel has been protected and has carried from one generation to the next through the long, storied history of the church. And so it has been handed in trust to you and to me and to all who believe.

John Stott, in his introduction to his commentary on 2 Timothy, says this:

The church of our day urgently needs to heed the message of this second letter of Paul to Timothy. For all around us we see Christians and churches relaxing their grasp of the gospel, fumbling it, in danger of letting it drop from their hands altogether. A new generation of young Timothys is needed, who will guard the sacred deposit of the gospel, who are determined to proclaim it and are prepared to suffer for it, and who will pass it on pure and uncorrupted to the generation which in due course will rise up to follow them.

God has given us the gospel in trust. He has deposited it to our account and expects that we will guard this priceless, precious treasure. God has entrusted to us something of infinite worth and unsurpassed beauty. He has not left us to our own devices, but he has provided for us the Holy Spirit, that with his help we may be faithful in guarding the gospel of Jesus Christ. Spiritual discernment allows us to keep the gospel central and allows us to see and guard against error. Spiritual discernment is absolutely crucial to the one who would understand and heed the gospel. Nothing less than the gospel is at stake.

This is a brief excerpt drawn from my upcoming book “The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment.” This subject of guarding the deposit has been much on my mind lately so I thought it would be appropriate to share with you this small portion of the book.

October 24, 2007

Will you participate in Halloween this year?

Halloween is once again nearly upon us. Articles about the occasion are beginning to make their way into my RSS reader and I thought I’d keep up with one of this site’s few traditions and write an article on the subject. My thoughts on the subject continue to develop as perhaps long-time readers will notice.

Just this morning Pulpit Magazine linked to a great article courtesy of Grace to You. The article deals well with the subject, seeking to answer these questions: “How should Christians respond to Halloween? Is it irresponsible for parents to let their children trick-or-treat? What about Christians who refuse any kind of celebration during the season—are they overreacting?”

The article spells out several legitimate ways Christians will react to Halloween this year:

  • Some will adopt a “No Participation” policy. As Christian parents, they don’t want their kids participating in spiritually compromising activities—listening to ghost stories and coloring pictures of witches. They don’t want their kids to dress up in costumes for trick-or-treating or even attending Halloween alternatives.
  • Other Christians will opt for Halloween alternatives called “Harvest Festivals” or “Reformation Festivals”—the kids dress up as farmers, Bible characters, or Reformation heroes. It’s ironic when you consider Halloween’s beginning as an alternative, but it can be an effective means of reaching out to neighborhood families with the gospel. Some churches leave the church building behind and take acts of mercy into their community, “treating” needy families with food baskets, gift cards, and the gospel message.
  • There’s another option open to Christians: limited, non-compromising participation in Halloween. There’s nothing inherently evil about candy, costumes, or trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. In fact, all of that can provide a unique gospel opportunity with neighbors. Even handing out candy to neighborhood children—provided you’re not stingy—can improve your reputation among the kids. As long as the costumes are innocent and the behavior does not dishonor Christ, trick-or-treating can be used to further gospel interests.

I appreciate the sensitivity the authors display in dealing with what is a difficult topic. It is my conviction that this is, in many ways, an issue of conscience. I do not believe there is absolute right and wrong here—we can’t be too dogmatic about it. Each person (and, in particular, I believe, each father) must examine the Bible and his conscience to see where that leads him. It may lead him to any of these options, each of which can be legitimate. The Bible says nothing about Halloween, though certainly there are principles we can find that will help guide us. But ultimately I believe we have to trust our biblically-informed consciences and our sanctified reasoning to guide us. Let me share where this has led me.

My conviction has long been that it would be a poor witness to the neighbors if my family were to refuse to participate in Halloween; it would be inconsistent with the way Aileen and I feel we are to live within this neighborhood. This day provides a unique opportunity to interact with neighbors, to enjoy their children and to prove that Christians are part of the community and not merely people who want only to interact with Christian friends or to only interact in our own way and on our own terms. Aileen and I are fully part of the community around us and look forward to being part of the community events that happen here. And so we allow our children to go out trick-or-treating, provided they do not wear evil or occult costumes. It still feels like a bit of a compromise, and admittedly one with which I am not entirely comfortable. Yet I would struggle far more with turning out the lights or finding something else to do that evening.

The truth is that I have several convictions regarding Halloween. I despise the pagan aspects of it. I am convicted that my children should not dress as little devils or ghosts or monsters or otherwise glory in evil. But I am also convicted that it is a poor witness to have a darkened house, especially in a neighborhood like ours which is small and where every person and every home is highly-visible. We know that, if we choose not to participate, the neighbors will notice and assume that we feel somehow above them for not participating (and that we are judging them for their participation). We have nothing to fear from our neighbors or from their children, no matter how they choose to dress for an evening. So my children will dress up (my son as a soldier and my daughters as a ballerina and a princess) and we will visit each of our neighbors, knocking on their doors and accepting their fistfuls of candy. Either my wife or I (I think it’s my turn this year) will remain at home, greeting people at our door with a smile and a handful of something tasty. If the kids are deemed too old to trick-or-treat, they’ll be forced to sing a song to merit any handouts. Our door will be open and the light will be on. A contributor to an email list I participate in once concluded his defense of participating in Halloween with these words: “One night does not a neighbor make (and one night does not a pagan make), but Halloween is the one night of the year where the good neighborliness that flows from being in Christ is communicated and reinforced. We are citizens of another Kingdom where The Light is always on.” That analogy seems particularly appropriate.

This year we’re doing something else. We’ve invited all of the neighbors over for dinner before the festivities begin. We’ve got at least 40 or 50 people who are planning on coming by for a barbeque. We’re doing this simply because we enjoy our neighbors and love to spend time with them. Halloween evening can be hectic, with parents getting home from work and then rushing to prepare their children, so we thought we’d attempt to relieve one burden by taking care of dinner for everyone. It should be fun and we’re looking forward to it.

My encouragement to you today is to think and pray about this issue so that you can do what your conscience dictates for that day. I do not see Halloween as a great evangelistic occasion and this is where some of my thought on the issue has probably developed most. In the past I may have tried to convince myself that Halloween would offer occasions to share the gospel, but I don’t think this is usually the case. Nor does it have to be. I think Halloween is a time that you can prove to your neighbors that you care about them, that you care about their children, and that you are glad to be in this world and this culture, even if you are not of this world or this culture. Aileen and I feel that God has deliberately placed us here and among these people. We want to celebrate with them, even on an occasion of such dubious importance as Halloween.

Addendum - Let me add just one thing here. This year Halloween is on a Wednesday which means it will conflict with many mid-week church services. We did not realize that the two conflicted until after we had already made and spread our plans for the evening. I am generally convicted that we need to be at church when the doors are open. If you are of the same mind, this article may be more theory than practice, at least for this year. We unwittingly made an exception this year, but probably would not have if we had not already invited the neighborhood to our home that night. And yes, we feel a bit guilty about it. My pastor offered this advice for next time: “Get a calendar!” That’s not a bad plan…

October 23, 2007

Though Satan makes his claim on my life…

Studying European history can be both fascinating and frustrating. Understanding the intricacies of nations, borders and rulers could easily be a life-long pursuit. The history of the continent is filled with claims, and counterclaims as one person sought to prove himself the legitimate heir to one of its many kingdoms. There were many who sought to claim thrones and kingdoms and these claims had to be settled through lengthy and detailed examination. Generations, kingdoms, marriages, and thrones had to be examined to understand who had the rightful claim to a throne.

I once found a similar concept of “claiming” in the Bible and it struck me as one of the most terrifying passages of Scripture I’ve ever read. I remember as a child finding Revelation to be a dark and scary book. Visions of beasts and persecution, wrath and disaster gave my imagination much fodder to create terrifying scenarios that played out in my mind as I tried to sleep. But I can’t call to mind anything that has struck my heart with such a pure and informed terror as this verse I read.

It comes as Jesus is preparing to leave His disciples for the last time. They are in the upper room together celebrating the last Passover and the first Lord’s Supper. Jesus is giving his disciples their final instructions, telling them that all He has taught them is about to be fulfilled. He is gentle with them, knowing that they are blinded to the reality of what is about to happen. He is kind to promise that He will send His Spirit to indwell and guide and teach them. And then He tells them that it is time to leave.

“I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me…” Jesus knew that Satan was about to unleash his full fury upon Him. And far, far worse, He knew that Satan’s wrath was as nothing compared to the wrath of God that He would soon have to face. Satan, the ruler of this world, was coming. He was going to drag Jesus, like a helpless, hopeless lamb, through the streets, through the courts, and to the cross where He would be tortured and nailed and pierced in utter agony. Satan was going to do his worst. But Satan would not accomplish what he had hoped. In fact, he would accomplish the very opposite of what he had intended. By inciting the masses to drag Jesus to that tree, Satan would make sure his own doom and ensure the salvation of multitudes of God’s people. Satan could do nothing to Jesus beyond the physical, for he had no claim on Him. He had no claim on the Son of God.

The Bible calls Satan the accuser for that is how he does his work. In Revelation 12 we read of a voice that cries out, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.” Satan delights in accusing God’s children of sin. Before the throne of God he tells of our sin and our failure. He tells of his reign in the hearts of all who have sinned. He tells of his rightful claim to the souls of all who have sinned against the Creator.

But he had no claim on Jesus. Satan could not whisper in Jesus’ ear that He was unloving or unworthy or sinful. He could not remind Jesus of sins He had committed, people he had shunned or offenses against God. He could not remind Jesus of impure motives or impure thoughts. Satan was powerless to accuse Jesus. He had no claim against Him. In John 8:46 Jesus asked the Pharisees a rhetorical question after they accused Him of being in league with Satan. “Which one of you convicts me of sin?,” he asked them. And none of them could answer. They were silent. Satan is likewise unable to convict Jesus of sin. He has no claim. He must stand in silence before the perfection of Jesus.

But not so with us. Satan has a legitimate claim to my soul and yours. Satan can recount endless lists of offenses against God. You and I have committed grevious offenses against God. We have done so joyfully, willingly, deliberately. We have done so as a show of our rebellion against God. We have enjoyed being sinful. We have enjoyed giving Satan a claim on our souls. In a time of judgment there is no doubt that Satan can produce a list of offenses more than sufficient to prove his claim on us. It is a legitimate claim. He has ruled us and we have allowed ourselves to be ruled by him.

Terror should fill the hearts of all who ponder Satan’s claims on their souls. And how could it not? Satan, the accuser, the evil one, wants my soul as his own possession. He has a claim on it. He has a claim on you. How can you not fear as you read those words?

But praise be to God, there is more. When Satan flung Jesus upon that cross, he was unwittingly bringing about his own destruction. When Jesus’ time on the cross was complete, He cried out, “It is finished!” It was a cry of triumph - a cry whose fullest meaning we can never know. It was a cry that pierced history - it divided the history of humanity. It was the greatest, purest, most meaningful utterance the world can know. In His death Christ took our sin upon Himself. He took the accusations of Satan and bore them on our behalf. As God turned His back on Jesus, while at the same time pouring out His wrath upon Him, Jesus atoned for our sins. He entered a claim of His own in the lives of His children. My sin became His and His righteousness became mine.

The accuser lost his claim. When Satan accuses me now I am able to know, to believe, to trust and to affirm that his claim is null and void. I am clothed in Christ’s righteousness. My sin has been removed. My guilt has been taken away. I have been redeemed. And, as the climber in triumph leaves a flag at the peak of a mountain, Jesus Christ has sent His Spirit to live within me and to mark me as His own possession.

Satan may still accuse me. He may still seek to convince me that I am his. But he has lost his claim. Jesus has washed me with His blood. He has set His Spirit within me. Jesus Christ has claimed me as His own. The terror fades as love and praise well up within my heart. Tears fall from my eyes as I know and believe that I have been claimed by God Himself.

Yes, I wrote something like this once before, though quite some time ago. I was revisiting this topic and was once again reflecting on Christ’s claim. It was good to do so.

October 22, 2007

Is submission a consequence of man’s fall into sin?

The concept of submission is a tough one to get our minds around. There was a time when I’m sure it came more naturally to people—a time when inequality and hierarchy were assumed. In that kind of social situation I’m sure submission would seem more natural. But today, when we acknowledge that all men (and women) are created equal and when and when there are few things we value higher than equality, submission seems like a relic of the past. And yet the Bible is clear that submission is a duty we all share. All of us are to submit to God and to submit the the authorities He has placed over us. And then there is the one that continues to raise eyebrows: women are to submit to their husbands.

I have often been challenged with the subject of submission and how it relates to the role of women in a marriage relationship. In particular, I have been challenged to understand and then prove that the submission prescribed by Scripture is inherent in God’s created order. In other words, the fact that women are to submit to their husbands is not merely the product of the Fall of the human race into sin, but is a product of God’s creation. Even if sin had never entered the world, a wife would still be expected to submit to her husband. Having studied this issue I believe that is a fair statement and wrote this brief article in an attempt to prove my understanding.

I have discussed this topic with several women and have been a little bit surprised by their reactions. It seems to me that women would be glad to know that the idea of submission precedes the fall. This shows us that the headship of the husband is not rooted in a punishment, and perhaps even an unfair punishment where woman was given the harsher penalty of having to submit, but is rooted in the very purpose and creation of mankind. Yet women have told me that they prefer to think that submission is a product of the Fall. Perhaps this shows just what a poor job the church has done in teaching this subject and what a poor job husbands have done in making submission joyful. Or maybe this is simply society echoing even in the church.

Strange though it may seem, submission is a good and beautiful and godly thing. The most perfect relationship in the world, the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, displays a perfect example of submission. The Son submits Himself to the Father. They are, to echo the Shorter Catechism, “the same in substance, equal in power and glory.” Yet the Father demonstrates headship. We speak of Jesus’ mission to the earth in two ways. We speak of Jesus being sent by the Father. And this is true. From eternity it was decided by the Father that man would have to be ransomed by a perfect substitute. The Father tasked the Son with this responsibility. But we also speak of the Son willingly giving up his life. These are both true. The Son’s perfect submission to the Father’s will meant that a command of the Father is indistinguishable from a decision of the Son. Christ was perfectly willing to submit to His Father’s will. This relationship within the Trinity provides us many clues as to the nature of the relationship between husband and wife.

So let me provide ten proofs that submission precedes the Fall and is part of God’;s natural order. We will follow the structure outlined by Wayne Grudem in his thorough study on the subject, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth.

  1. The order of creation: Adam was created before Eve. This may seem to be weak grounds for an argument yet it was significant enough for Paul to mention in 1 Timothy 2:12-13 where he does not “permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man…For Adam was formed first, then Eve.” Inherent in the order of creation is the foundation for the order of human relationships.
  2. The representation of the human race: It was Adam who had a special role in representing the human race. Though Eve was the first to sin, it was Adam who was considered most responsible for their combined disobedience. In Corinthians we read that, “as in Adam all men die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Christ is the second Adam, not the second Eve as we might expect if the Bible held Adam and Eve as being equal in representation and headship.
  3. The naming of woman: Adam was given the honor and responsibility of naming his wife. “She shall be called woman,” he said, “because she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23). Within the Scriptures we see that the person who names something is always the one who has authority over it. This parallels the account of creation where God named the night and the day, the expanse, the earth and the waters. By naming them He showed His authority. And in naming Even Adam proved his headship.
  4. The naming of the human race: The human race is named after Adam, not Eve. Neither is it named after both Adam and Eve. God named the human race “man.” “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created” (Genesis 5:1-2). While this does not provide a cut and dry case, it points again to the headship and leadership of the man in the created order.
  5. The primary accountability: God held Adam primarily accountable for the Fall. While Adam and Eve hid from God, God called “to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” (Genesis 3:9). God did not call to both Adam and Eve, but called to Adam alone. Dr. Grudem draws an analogy of a parent who, upon entering a room where several children have been misbehaving, will summon the oldest and demand answers. It is the oldest who bears greatest responsibility. In the same way God summoned Adam and demanded an account of both his sin and that of his wife. Notice that Satan reversed this order, approaching Eve before Adam in an obvious (and successful) attempt to disrupt the God-given pattern.
  6. The purpose of women: Eve was created as a helper for Adam, not Adam as a helper for Eve. While feminists have made much of the term “helper,” the fact remains that in any given situation, the person doing the helping necessarily places himself in a subordinate role to the person needing help. Yet helping does not remove accountability. While I may help my son with a paper route, the ultimate responsibility is still his. Eve’s role, from the beginning of creation, was to be a helper for Adam. This does not by any means indicate a inferiority, but a helper who was Adam’s equal. She differed in ways that would complement Adam.
  7. The conflict: A dire consequence of the Fall is the conflict it has introduced into the relationships of husbands and wives. In Genesis 3:16 God tells Eve, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This desire is to interfere with or distort the role of her husband. The roles God gave to the husband and wife have been distorted through the Fall. Eve would now rebel against the God-given authority of her husband and he would abuse the authority to rule poorly, forcefully and even harshly.
  8. The restoration: When creation is restored through the work of Christ we do not find an undoing of the marriage order. Were submission a consequence of the Fall we would expect Christ to “make all things new” in this manner. Instead we find that Christ provides power to overcome the sinful impulses of a wife against her husband and the husband’s response of ruling harshly over her. But Christ does not remove the order of a husband being in authority over his wife.
  9. The mystery: When the Apostle Paul wrote of a “mystery” he was describing something that was understood only faintly in the Old Testament but became clear in the New. In Ephesians 5:31-32 Paul shows that the ultimate purpose in marriage is to mirror the relationship between Christ and the church. “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Dr. Grudem says, “Although Adam and Eve did not know it, their relationship represented the relationship between Christ and the church. They were created to represent that relationship, and that is what all marriages are supposed to do. In that relationship, Adam represents Christ and Eve represents the church…”
  10. The parallel with the Trinity: The triune nature of God provides the perfect example of submission. “The equality, differences, and unity between men and women reflects the equality, differences and unity of the Trinity.” We are blessed and honored to be able to represent that relationship in our marriages.

The ultimate reason a wife is to submit her husband may not have been clear to Adam and Eve. It was not clear to God’s people until after the writing of the New Testament. The ultimate reason a wife is to submit to her husband is that the marriage relationship is to mirror that of Christ and His church. Just as Christ is head of the church and we submit to Him, in the same way man is the head of the family and the wife should submit to Him. A husband is to lead in the same was as Christ: lovingly, tenderly and always seeking the greatest good for his wife. A wife is to mirror her relationship with Christ in her relationship with her husband. She is to trust him, be loyal to him and help him. This can only be done in a relationship of humble, loving, godly submission.

When men lovingly lead their wives and when women respond in joyful submission, we see a beautiful echo of the relationship of the Father to the Son and we model the love of the Son for His bride. Submission may be unpopular, it may be a difficult word to say, but it is a concept that existed in a perfect world and is one that will endure for eternity.

October 17, 2007

The Second Annual Reformation Day Symposium

October 31, two weeks from today, will mark the 490th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg. In so doing he struck a match, beginning a fire that quickly spread throughout Europe and throughout the world. Having become increasingly disillusioned with the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, and in particular the sale of indulgences, Luther wrote his Theses to try to begin the process of reform. While he was unable to bring reform to the church, he did trigger the Protestant Reformation by rediscovering the Gospel - the good news of salvation by grace through faith. The Reformation had profound influence in politics, art, literature and theology - while it was at its heart a Christian movement, it impacted all areas of society. That seemingly insignificant act is, in reality, one of the defining points of history. It is a shame that the day has largely been forgotten in favor of what is now the year’s most popular day, Halloween (Halloween is, after all, one of the few holidays that our society can celebrate without shame and without feeling politically incorrect).

Last year, on October 31, I hosted a “Reformation Day Symposium” and invited bloggers to write articles dealing with the Reformation. A whole crowd of bloggers participated and it was a thrill to read all of the articles written to celebrate such a monumental occasion in the history of the church.

Due to the success of last year’s Symposium, it seemed worthwhile to me to revisit the idea. So once again I’m asking you to consider blogging about the Reformation to celebrate Reformation Day. As I did last year, I’ll link to all of the posts from this site. And as I did last year, I’ll award prizes to the “best” entries (as judged by myself and likely a couple of other judges, and based on whatever subjective criteria we come up with).

You may want to reflect on a person, an event, or a particular point of theology. The topic is wide open, so long as it somehow ties in to Reformation Day. And remember, you do not need to be Reformed to appreciate the Reformation and all it stood for. If you do not have a blog of your own, but would still like to participate, why not ask another blogger if you can “guest” on his site that day.

There will be three winners, each of whom will each receive two free prints from Reformation Art.

So start thinking, start writing, and prepare to post your articles on October 31. When you have prepared an article and posted it (please hold off posting until October 31), include a URL to my blog (so I can find all of the posts using Technorati) and send me an email to make sure that your article has been included.

October 14, 2007

One of my ongoing concerns with the way churches tend to be gathered today is that people seek to build very homogeneous communities. Pastors or church planters often choose a target audience and attempt to attract primarily that kind of person, gearing all the church does to one particular audience. Many of these churches have seen dramatic growth, but growth that does not show a lot of diversity. Yet diversity is one of the things the church is known for, or at least that the church should be known for. Our churches are meant to reflect the reality that God’s people is made of those of every nation, every tribe and every tongue. The mixture of ages, cultures, and even languages is meant to stand as a testimony to God’s amazing ability and desire to draw to Himself people of all kinds.

Of course we feel much more comfortable around people who are like us. It stands to reason that we prefer to gather with people who are our age, who look like us, who talk like us, and who we would otherwise be glad to spend time with. As I was recently reading A Journey Worth Taking by Charles Drew, I came across a quote that I found convicting.

“Church” is not an event. It is people—people whom God calls us to love. What is more, it is in a very important sense an involuntary community of people: we don’t choose our brothers and sisters—God does. And sometimes (oftentimes) those people are not terribly compatible with us—not the people we would choose to hang out with. But it is this very incompatibility that is so important, for at least two reasons. First, learning to love the people I don’t like is by far the best way to learn how to love (it’s easy to love people I happen to like). Second, the church is supposed to be a sociological miracle—a demonstration that Jesus has died and risen to create a new humanity composed of all sorts of people.

This challenged me to learn to love and appreciate the people in my community of believers who may not be like me. They may bear little resemblance to me, to my family, or to the way we live. Yet instead of allowing this to keep me from them, I should view this as grounds to learn about them, to get to know them, and to learn to love them. As we build loving relationships between people who would otherwise have little in common, we enjoy just a glimpse of the heavenly diversity we will enjoy for eternity.

October 12, 2007

This is a compilation of various things that caught my eye this week. They were things that needed more explanation than I could offer in A La Carte, but not enough that they merited an article of their own.

Same Sex Blessings

It’s easy to write off the Anglican Church, and especially so up here in Canada where it seems that so few churches have really remained faithful to the gospel. So many churches, or at least the ones that get the publicity, have long since forsaken the gospel. But sometimes we receive a breath of fresh air. Such was the case when I read a three-part series called “Where Do I Stand (On the issue of Same-sex Blessings)?” Written by Mark Larratt-Smith (who, incidentally and according to my parents, used to attend a Bible study group they were part of back in their Anglican days), the article details his view on these same-sex blessings. He begins with an affirmation and defense of the Sovereignty of God and then moves to the authority of Scripture. He roots the issue firmly in God’s authority over us. “The central issue here really isn’t about same-sex relationships at all, but about God’s sovereignty and the creation of idols.” He gets it right as he cuts to the very heart of the issue:

In fact, what is involved is an attempt to redefine the nature of Almighty God, in order to make Him fit with our contemporary society’s view on a single social issue. In this it does not seem to me to be any different from any other attempt to create a tame god who will comfortably reflect and endorse our own sense of what is appropriate. It is just another example of making one of the gods of stone or wood that the Old Testament prophets denounced. Its implicit message is that, if I don’t agree with God’s version of reality, I will reconstruct a god who is more congenial with my own view of the world. As I have stated above, such a god is not worth worshipping and certainly not the source of any hope to rely upon.

People who do not get right God’s sovereignty and God’s authority through His Word will never be able to get other issues right. Larratt-Smith goes right to the gospel—right to the source.

You can read the article here: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

The Emergent Kingdom

Just a few days ago I was pondering the whole emerging and emergent Church movement(s) and began to realize that there is one issue the emerging people have been writing about a whole lot and that most traditional Protestants do not speak of nearly as often. I was thinking of the kingdom of God. Whether you are emerging or emergent, the kingdom of God plays a pivotal role in your theology. And yet it tends to be a mere footnote for most Protestants.

The very next day I received in the mail the latest copy of Gary Gilley’s “Think on These Things” newsletter and was delighted to see that the title is “The Kingdom of Emergent Theology - Part 1.” While Gilley approaches the issue from a dispensational perspective, already he has shared some valuable insights. While he acknowledges the differences between emerging and emergent, Gilley says “Since both emerging and emergent camps have the same view of the kingdom, I will be using the term ‘emergent’ throughout this discussion to refer to both wings.”

If there is one thing the emergent conversation has closed ranks around it is that the kingdom of God is on earth now, but it will progressively resemble God’s kingdom in heaven as Christians understand their true mission, which is to make this world a better place for all. The emerging movement sees itself as a wakeup call to those who would follow Jesus. It is our task to bring the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven by aggressively challenging injustice, fighting poverty, aiding the sick, working on ecological concerns and, in general, saving this planet and everything on it. Emergent leaders believe that people are catching on to this new vision of the kingdom, and as a result, are optimistic about the future. No doomsday tribulation period is on their radar screen nor is Jesus coming in judgment upon the wicked. The kingdom, while already here, will progressively become like heaven as we attend to the social ills and needs around us. Tomorrow looks bright and the day after that looks brighter still.

Gilley continues to tie emergent theology into postmilleniallism and offers a brief critique. “Emergent eschatology is by-and-large identical to liberal postmillennialism which flourished prior to the mid-twentieth century.” Since I am not dispensational I know that I will have some disagreements with Gilley, but still look forward to reading the rest of the article when it becomes available next month. For now I’m hoping that someone from the non-dispensational perspective can also do some work on the issue of the kingdom. I think if we narrow in on that one issue, we’ll be in a better spot to understand much of the appeal of this whole emerging movement.

You can read Gilley’s article here: The Kingdom of Emergent Theology

Was the Father Smiling?

This came in to my RSS reader just a few minutes to late to include in today’s A La Carte, but it was too good to pass up. Mark Altrogge posted a great little article on The Blazing Center. Here’s a brief excerpt:

When in college, every Saturday after Thanksgiving, I played in the “Turkey Bowl” (the original and true Turkey Bowl, not one of the ten thousand played across the nation which are but cheap imitations). Before this collar-bone-cracking, skull-smashing game of tackle football, the 2 best players would pick their teams. I always knew I’d be chosen last, like I had some kind of disease they might catch from me if I were on their team. By the time the picks dwindled down to me, the captain with last pick would “choose” me with as much enthusiasm as if he’d just been asked to shovel a mountain of manure.

I’m glad God didn’t choose his children with such “enthusiasm”. I can see the Father smiling as he wrote the names of his chosen ones in his book. He elected his own with joy and excitement, not in compulsion. He saved because it brought him pleasure and joy. God inscribed his children’s names on his palms with a happy flourish. Jesus said it was his Father’s pleasure to give his children the kingdom.

Read the rest here

The New Monergism Books

Last week marked the launch of a new Monergism Books. Though I did not do all of the design work for this project, I was involved in various ways behind the scenes (configuring the shopping cart, adding functionality to it, and driving the project forward).

Some of the more notable new features, other than the new design, are: improved search functionality, book recommendations, customer profiles and wishlists, product ratings and reviews and even an affiliate program (which will launch very soon). There is also a new economy flat rate shipping option that will get your books to you for only $3.99 (provided you are shipping to a U.S. address).

Reformation Theology has a more complete explanation of the new features. And, of course, you’ll want to check out the store.

October 08, 2007

Taking God at His Word.

Do you remember that amazing miracle of Jesus where he brought life to Lazarus? I’m sure you must remember it. Lazarus was sitting in his home along with his sisters Mary and Martha. He was chewing on some bread and cheese as an afternoon snack when, from outside the door of the house he heard a bit of a commotion as if a crowd was quickly approaching. There was mourning and weeping. And suddenly a voice boomed “Lazarus, come forth!” He licked his fingers clean and walked out the door where he saw that his good friend Jesus was standing there along with His disciples. Everyone gasped in amazement as Lazarus walked out into the bright sunshine.

That’s absurd, I know. It didn’t go like that at all. In the biblical narrative Lazarus wasn’t sitting in his house but was dead in a tomb. He wasn’t eating a snack but was rotting and decaying. Lazarus was dead and was brought to life. If it was any other way it would not have been much of a miracle. It doesn’t take any special power to bring life to the living. Jesus would not have been a great miracle worker if He simply gave life to those who already had it.

But this is a claim I see far too often—that people can bring life to the living.

One of the dubious perks of being a reviewer is that I receive all kinds of marketing material for various products. Just recently I received a copy of the marketing package for the new Word of Promise New Testament audio Bible produced by Thomas Nelson. It is a recording of the New King James translation of the Bible that is performed by a talented and well-known cast of characters. It boasts Jim Caviezel as Jesus, Richard Dreyfuss as the voice of Moses (in New Testament quotes), Stacy Keach as Paul, Marisa Tomei as Mary Magdalene, Luke Perry as Judas and Stephen, and so on. Slightly dramatized and complete with a soundtrack and various sound effects, it is something of a throwback to the days before television—the days when radio dramas were all the rage. All-in-all it seems like a decent enough production, though I listened only to the few sample clips that were provided.

But there’s one thing about it that really bothers me.

Hear the Word Come Alive

The cover page for the brochure says this, and only this: “The Word Comes to Life.” On the inside of the CD case are these words: “Hear the Bible Come Alive!” Interestingly, a similar product and one I reviewed a short time ago, The Bible Experience, makes a similar claim: “Hear the words of the Bible brought to life like never before. Inspired By…The Bible Experience: New Testament Audio CD is a fully-dramatized reading of the Bible performed by an unprecedented ensemble of distinguished African-American actors, musicians, and personalities.” And as I pause to think about it, I realize I’ve lost track of the number of products that claim to bring the Bible to life or to make its words alive.

I object. Every Christian ought to familiarize himself with the incredible words of Hebrew 4:12 which read, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The Word, it seems, is already alive. And like the living Lazarus, it has no need for us to breathe life into it. That is no cause for boasting; no cause for acclaim; no headline for marketing materials. The Bible is alive. We can’t make it more so.

Now I’m no dummy and will admit that I know what the marketing people mean when they say they will bring the Bible to life. I make no objection to people trying to inject some emphasis and drama into the biblical text. Just yesterday our pastor’s assistant preached about Jesus’ crucifixion and clearly invested a lot of effort in reading the biblical text in a dramatic way. A drab, monotone, unenthusiastic reading can certainly seem to rob the text of its life or vitality. I believe it is right and good when the text is read in a way that emphasizes what ought to be emphasized. But we need to be careful how we speak of such things. We need to show a little bit of theological precision lest we inadvertently cause people to doubt that the Bible has life of its own and that we somehow need to inject it with excitement in order to give it vitality.

If we claim that a dramatization of the Bible brings life to it, we tacitly suggest that Joe Christian, reading the Bible in the morning before heading to work, is somehow reading it in a way that is less living, less powerful than when Marisa Tomei and Jim Caviezel read it superimposed over a professionally-produced soundtrack. By emphasizing the life-giving nature of dramatization, we necessarily de-emphasize the Bible’s own qualities; we de-emphasize the Bible’s power of having and giving life.

After all, the Word does not gain its power or efficacy from the way it is read or through dramatization. Rather, the Bible has innate power—power given it simply by virtue of its authorship. Because the living God has given us the Word, it has power and life of its own. In that way it is absolutely unique; there is nothing else like it. We can bring other words to life; we can bring the plays of William Shakespeare to life; we can bring history to life; we can bring other cultures to life; but we cannot bring the Bible to life. Nor should we even attempt to do so. The Bible is already alive. It is living and active and powerful. It is sharper than any two-edged sword. It has life of its own.

So don’t try to make the Bible come to life. You don’t need to do that anymore than you need to perform CPR on a living, breathing, healthy individual. It’s already alive. Dramatize it if you wish; there is value in doing that, I am sure. But be careful how you speak of such things. Be careful how you understand such things. God hasn’t told us to bring the Word to life. He has told us simply to bring the Word. If we bring the Word, He will bring the life.