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June 29, 2005

Today I come looking for answers. I trust that some of you lurking out there have some experience in this matter that you will be willing and able to share.

As you know, I lead a home church (small group Bible study) through my church. Not too long ago our discussion turned to our children and the proper time and place to address the birds and the bees with them. The children in our group range from nearly-teens to infants. None of us have yet had to see our children through their teenage years, though a couple of the families are getting very close. Some of the children have already had a version of “the talk.” I’d hate to put words into the mouths of those parents, but it seems that they are not entirely confident that they went about things in the best way.

By way of background, all of the children in the group attend either public or Catholic schools. The Catholic School Board has only moderately better values than the Public, but of course the children are not much different. If my experience in Christian schools is any indication, they are probably far worse than their unchurched counterparts.

It seems that children these days know a whole lot more than they did ten or twenty years ago. If my experience is any indication, children learn at least the basics of sexuality from their friends. I assume my childhood was quite typical in that I slowly became aware of sex and sexuality through whispered words about what people did behind closed doors. At some point a friend got ahold of a Playboy Magazine he stole from his older brother, and we became somewhat acquainted with the allure of the naked female form. Of course I did not share any of this with my parents, and they, as parents tend to do, assumed I was perfectly naive and innocent. I didn’t know much, but I knew there were secrets. And I knew those secrets were forbidden to me at the time which just made me want to know them more.

My first memory of my parents formally addressing sexuality with me was through the book Preparing for Adolescence by James Dobson. It had all the usual warnings about increasing amounts of body hair and the need for deodorant, but also had a chapter about (tee hee) sex. I was obviously a pivotal moment in my life because I still remember many of the details. Dobson talked about how as a boy I would start to notice girl’s bodies (particular parts of their bodies more than others) and so on. My parents let me read it and then talked it over a little bit. My family was very open about such matters, so it was not particularly humiliating talking to them about it. And that was that. As I grew older I had the occasional opportunity to look at a dirty magazine, but since I was far too timid to steal one for myself (which is how my friends got them, of course) I really did not have much access to pornography. And for this I am exceedingly thankful. When I became a believer in my mid-teens, I became convicted that I should not be polluting my mind with such filth, and as far as I remember, I didn’t. Whether that was because of conviction or lack of opportunity I cannot say.

So I guess I can summarize my experience as follows:

  • I came from a family that did not consider sexuality a forbidden topic. Thus I knew it existed, but only that it was for mommies and daddies.
  • As I got older I was introduced by my friends to sexuality and to some extent, to deviant sexuality.
  • My parents intervened while I was still young and taught me about God’s design for sexuality.
  • After that foundation was laid I learned more about sexuality from my friends, but I knew instinctively what was deviant because I had the proper foundation.

As I look to the future, I realize that I want to ensure that I begin to lay the foundation for a proper understanding of sexuality while my children are still young. Ideally I would like to get to them before their friends do. However, I would love to see them maintain their innocence and childlike naivety as long as it is both proper and possible. While my wife and I are hesitant to put our children in the Public School system, we are not planning on homeschooling them, so whether in Christian or Public schools (or in the neighbourhood or in church), they will be surrounded by friends who may know more than they do while at a younger age.

At this point the questions I have should be quite obvious. When do you feel is the best time to begin educating your children about sexuality? When do you feel it is time to give them more detail? How much do you feel it is proper to tell them? To what extent do you address deviant sexuality in your talks with them? Do you make them aware of the many improper forms of sexuality they may be exposed to that are directly unbiblical?

So many questions. I would love to hear from parents who have already addressed these issues with their children. I look forward to learning from your collective wisdom and know that the parents in my home church, who asked me to post about this, do as well.

June 28, 2005

Canada is poised to become one of the most progressive countries in the world. Following in the footsteps of such avant-garde nations as Holland and Belgium, the Canadian government will, in all likelihood, legitimize homosexual marriage this evening. It will still take some time for the law to pass through the necessary channels, but Bill C-38, titled Law on Civil Marriage, is expected to clear the House of Parliament tonight. After that it awaits only the mere formality of passing through the Senate and being passed into law.

The Liberal Party seems to excel at wooing people to their cause. Recently the Conservative Party tried to bring down the government with a non-confidence vote, but the Liberals managed to persuade a Conservative Member of Parliament to cross the floor and join their party (in return for a cabinet position) and her vote was the deciding factor in upholding the status quo. Prior to that the Liberals promised huge amounts of cash to a cause the New Democratic Party supported in order to secure their votes. And now to pass the legislation to allow homosexual marriage, the Liberal Party has formed an unholy union with the Bloq Quebecois, a Quebec party that exists only to split the nation. The party exists to focus only on the needs of a single province at the expense of the others. Yet the Liberals saw fit to join with them in this cause.

The truth is, of course, that the term “homosexual marriage” is an oxymoron, and a tragic one at that. In Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, Al Mohler writes, “The fact that homosexual marriage is even an issue for public debate demonstrates that we are a civilization in crisis, because a great many barriers must be breached in order to put this question on the cultural agenda. Firewalls, traditions, habits, and convictional practices must fall before marriage can be redefined and utterly transformed by the inclusion of same-sex relationships” (page 105). Mohler correctly states that at the very heart of this debate is an attitude of moral rebellion that seeks to bring confusion to the God-given order of nature and that seeks to redesign human sexuality.

Tragically, this is no longer a matter of debate in Canada, for the Liberal government has sought to limit debate whenever possible. This is now all but a reality. By this time tomorrow, barring some unforeseen intervention, this legislation will be passed through the House and will await only formatlities before it becomes another sad chapter in Canadian history.

The government has been quick to assure Canadians, the majority of whom are against homosexual marriage, that this legislation will not result in a backlash against Christians (and members of other religions) who teach the homosexuality is wrong. Most Christians are not convinced. In reality we know that it is only a matter of time before speaking out against homosexuality becomes a hate crime. It is only a matter of time before Canadians lose the ability to proclaim a God-given truth - that homosexual marriage is not marriage at all. As the Creator of marriage, God has given us the boundaries of what constitutes marriage. We are not free to tamper with those boundaries and extend them however we want. God clearly states that marriage is to be between one man and one woman. End of story. We, as God’s created beings, have no more right to redefine marriage than you, the reader, has to rename the company I began. I created it and that gave me the right to name it. God created marriage, and thus reserves the right to define and limit it.

So what is a Christian to do as he faces a country that not only allows, but celebrates homosexual marriage? Al Mohler once again provides sound advice. We need to become compassionate truth-tellers. This is a task that is never easy, but carries with it the biblical example of countless men and women. The apostles, for example, were sent out by Jesus to compassionately tell the truth of Jesus Christ. They took this news to all of the known world. They suffered greatly, but witnessed the greatest outpouring of the work of the Holy Spirit the world has ever known. We must take our example from them. We, as Christ’s representatives to the world, as His envoys, need to share our deepest convictions with the world, but to do so in a way that is compassionate and which demonstrates the love of the One whose name we bear.

We must realize that homosexual marriage is not an isolated issue. It is merely a symptom of the wider problem that our society has an unbiblical worldview. We need to frame our response to homosexual marriage within the context of a wider Christian worldview and within the great story of Creation, Fall and Redemption.

Marriage is a Creation ordinance - one that was created by God as a fundamental building-block of His plan for humanity. But the Fall polluted everything, and especially those things which are most pure and most good. When humanity fell, the institution of marriage fell as well. But when Christ paid the price for our Fall and redeemed us to be His people, He graciously allowed marriage to be redeemed in us as well. We see examples of this type of marriage all around us in the church, where a man and woman pledge themselves to each other but also to the Lord. We see glimpses of marriage as it was designed by the Creator. We see that marriage allows no room for same-sex unions.

And so we, as the church, must stand for marriage as God intended it to be. We need not stand with signs and placards and chants, for these address only the result, not the real problem. We must believe that the definition of marriage is not able to be modified, but is firmly set in the very fabric of Creation. We must speak this truth in love and compassion, addressing homosexual marriage not as the greatest evil our nation faces, but as the natural outworking of a larger problem. Without addressing the secular worldview, without addressing the fallenness of our world, we have nothing to offer. But when we lovingly, compassionately offer the world the biblical truth about redemption, we offer hope. We offer an answer. We offer the very compassion of Christ.

June 27, 2005

This is the first in a series of articles that will examine various doctrinal and societal challenges the evangelical church must face early in the 21st Century. Today we will look at the doctrine of open theism. Future articles will examine the Emerging Church, ecumenism, postmodernism, and a variety of other topics.

Open theism is a relatively new doctrine that has only gained popular prominence since 1994 with the release of the book The Openness of God which was written by five evangelical scholars and edited by Clark Pinnock. What began on the fringes of scholarship has quickly gained a popular following, in part because of the publication of entry-level titles such as Gregory Boyd’s God of the Possible and in part because of the acceptance of the doctrine by various popular authors. While many evangelicals do not embrace this doctrine themselves, they may regard it as an optional doctrine that remains within the pale of orthodox evangelicalism. This article will define the doctrine, describe its chief characteristics, introduce its proponents and explain the challenge to the church.

A Definition

This is a definition I have adapted from Monergism.com. “open theism is a sub-Christian theological construct which claims that God’s highest goal is to enter into a reciprocal relationship with man. In this scheme, the Bible is interpreted without any anthropomorphisms - that is, all references to God’s feelings, surprise and lack of knowledge are literal and the result of His choice to create a world where He can be affected by man’s choices. God’s exhaustive knowledge does not include future free will choices by mankind because they have not yet occurred.”

One of the leading spokesmen of open theism, Clark Pinnock, in describing how libertarian freedom trumps God’s omniscience says, “Decisions not yet made do not exist anywhere to be known even by God. They are potential—yet to be realized but not yet actual. God can predict a great deal of what we will choose to do, but not all of it, because some of it remains hidden in the mystery of human freedom … The God of the Bible displays an openness to the future (i.e. ignorance of the future) that the traditional view of omniscience simply cannot accommodate.” (Pinnock, “Augustine to Arminius, ” 25-26)

Defining Characteristics

Open theism is characterized in several ways:

  1. God’s greatest attribute is love. God’s love so overshadows His other characteristics that He could never allow or condone evil or suffering to befall mankind.
  2. Man has libertarian free will. Man’s will has not been so effected by the Fall that he is unable to make a choice to follow God. God respects man’s freedom of choice and would not infringe upon it.
  3. God does not have exhaustive knowledge of the future. Indeed, He cannot know certain future events because the future exists only as possibility. God is unable to see what depends on the choices of free will agents simply because this future does not yet exist, so it unknowable. In this way open theists attempt to reconcile this doctrine with God’s ominiscience.
  4. God takes risks. Because God cannot know the future, He takes risks in many ways - creating people, giving them gifts and abilities, and so on. Where possibilities exist, so does risk.
  5. God learns. Because God does not know the future exhaustively, He learns, just as we do.
  6. God is reactive. Because He is learning, God is constantly reacting to the decisions we make.
  7. God makes mistakes. Because He is learning and reacting, always dealing with limited information, God can and does make errors in judgment which later require re-evaluation.
  8. God can change His mind. When God realizes He has made an error in judgment or that things did not unfold as He supposed, He can change His mind.

The most important thing to note is that God knows the future only as it is not dependent on human, free-will decisions. God does not know what any free-will agents (ie humans) will do, because those decisions do not yet exist and God cannot know what does not exist. God decided, in Creation, that He would limit Himself in this way in order to give complete freedom to human beings. Therefore, God does not know or control the future - He learns from our decisions and constantly adapts as necessary. He often needs to change His mind or re-evaluate His options as the future unfolds.

Chief Proponents

The best-known proponents of open theism are:

Clark Pinnock - Clark Pinnock spent 25 years preaching, teaching, and writing at McMaster Divinity College after having served previously at the University of Manchester, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Regent College in Vancouver. He is best-known for his contribution to the book The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God.

Greg Boyd - Greg Boyd is the Senior Pastor at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota and previously served as a Professor of Theology at Bethel College for sixteen years. In 2000, Dr. Boyd founded Christus Victor Ministries, a nonprofit organization that promotes faith which satisfies the mind and inspires the heart. Dr. Boyd regularly speaks at academic and religious conferences, college campuses, and churches throughout the United States and abroad. His most popular book is God of the Possible which is a popular defense of open theism.

In Their Own Words

There is no better way of understanding a doctrine than through the words of those who believe and teach it. So let’s turn to some of the prominent Open Theists and hear them in their own words. I will provide brief commentary where appropriate.

We must wonder how the Lord could truly experience regret for making Saul king if he was absolutely certain that Saul would act the way he did. Could God genuinely confess, “I regret that I made Saul king” if he could in the same breath also proclaim, “I was certain of what Saul would do when I made him king?” Common sense tells us that we can only regret a decision we made if the decision resulted in an outcome other than what we expected or hoped for when the decision was made.

Gregory Boyd – God of the Possible, page 56.

Boyd tells us of a God who regrets - a God who sorrows over decisions He has made as He is genuinely saddened by the results of His poor decision.

God makes a covenant with his creation that never again will virtually everything be annihilated. The sign of the rainbow that God gives us a reminder to himself that he will never again tread this path. It may be the case that although human evil caused God great pain, the destruction of what he had made caused him even greater suffering. Although his judgment was righteous, God decides to try different courses of action in the future.

John Sanders – The God Who Risks, page 50.

In this quote we are told that God regrets. God suffered greatly as a result of a decision He made - a decision that may have been rash. It may have been an over-reaction.

I suggested to her that God felt as much regret over the confirmation [of marriage] he had given Suzanne as he did about his decision to make Sault king of Israel. Not that it was a bad decision - at the time, her ex-husband was a good man with a godly character. The prospects that he and Suzanne would have a happy marriage and fruitful ministry were, at the time, very good. Indeed, I strongly suspect that he had influenced Suzanne and her ex-husband [toward] their marriage.

Because her ex-husband was a free agent, however, even the best decisions have sad results. Over time…[he] had opened himself up to the enemy’s influence and became involved in an immoral relationship. Initially, all was not lost, and God and others tried to restore him, but he chose to resist the prompting of the Spirit.

By framing the ordeal within the context of an open future, Suzanne was able to understand the tragedy of her life in a new way. She didn’t have to abandon all confidence in her ability to hear God and didn’t have to accept that somehow God intended this ordeal “for her own good.” … This isn’t a testimony to [God’s] exhaustive definite foreknowledge; it’s a testimony to his unfathomable wisdom.

Gregory Boyd – God of the Possible, pages 105-106.

This has become one of the best-known defenses of open theism and is a story that is told often. God did the best with the information He had at the time and confirmed a woman’s choice of husband. But God was later surprised to see this man prove himself anything but a good husband. God did His best to restore this man, but was unable. God had ultimately made a mistake in confirming Suzanne’s choice of a spouse.

The overarching structures of creation are purposed by God, but not every single detail that occurs within them. Within general providence it makes sense to say that God intends an overall purpose for the creation and that God does not specifically intend each and every action within the creation. Thus God does not have a specific divine purpose for each and every occurence of evil. The “greater good” of establishing the conditions of fellowship between God and creatures does not mean that gratuitous evil has a point. Rather, the possibility of gratuitous evil has a point but its actuality does not. … When a two-month-old child contracts a painful, incurable bone cancer that means suffering and death, it is pointless evil. The Holocaust is pointless evil. .. God does not have a specific purpose in mind of these occurences.

John Sanders – The God Who Risks, pages 261-262.

Quotes like this one were used to comfort a shocked world during the aftermath of the Tsunami of 2004. Many professed Christians denied that God had a hand in this disaster, and that He had foreknowledge of it. According to Open theology, there is no purpose in gratutious suffering and evil, and it occurs outside the will and foreknowledge of God.

It is God’s desire that we enter into a give-and-take relationship of love, and this is not accomplished by God’s forcing his blueprint on us. Rather, God wants us to go through life together with him, making decisions together. Together we decide the actual course of my life. God’s will for my life does not reside in a list of specific activities but in a personal relationship. As lover and friend, God works with us wherever we go and whatever we do. To a large extent our future is open and we are to determine what it will be in dialogue with God.

John Sanders – The God Who Risks, page 277.

This quote emphasizes the reciprocal nature of the relationship between men and God espoused by Open Theists. Humans and God work together to create, know and understand the future. When it comes to the future, God is no further ahead we are and no more responsible for what will happen.

[W]e must acknowledge that divine guidance, from our perspective, cannot be considered a means of discovering exactly what will be best in the long run - as a means of discovering the very best long-term option. Divine guidance, rather, must be viewed primarily as a means of determining what is best for us now.

[S]ince God does not necessarily know exactly what will happen in the future, it is always possible that even that which God in his unparalleled wisdom believes to be the best course of action at any given time may not produce the anticipated results in the long run.

David Basinger – The Openness of God, pages 163 & 165.

Basinger tells us that God’s guidance is accurate only for the present - only with a view to the knowledge God currently posesses. Because God does not know the future, His guidance cannot extend beyond the present. Even the best of God’s wisdom can only anticipate results based on current conditions.

Where You Might Encounter open theism

John Eldredge - Though Eldredge denies he is an open theist, the evidence does not support his claim. Time and time again he speaks of God in ways that can only be explained if you hold such views. While the following quotes are taken from Wild at Heart, similar beliefs are expressed in at least one of his other works (The Sacred Romance). “God is a person who takes immense risks” (p. 30). “It’s not the nature of God to limit His risks and cover His bases” (p.31). “As with every relationship, there’s a certain amount of unpredictability. God’s willingness to risk is just astounding. There is definitely something wild in the heart of God” (p. 32).

Gregory Boyd - Boyd’s books are becoming increasingly popular. The doctrine is evident even in the books that do not specifically address open theism.

I have encountered open theism in books written by other lesser-known authors.


The chief concerns with open theism are as follows:

  1. A Denial of Omniscience. While men like Greg Boyd deny that open theism denies God’s omniscience, this is simply not true. Even if it is true that the future exists only as possibilities, something that is not adequately proven by open theists, we are still putting a limit on God’s knowledge when we state that He cannot know these possibilities. This view of God’s knowledge of the future is unique in that it is at odds with every other Judeo-Christian tradition.
  2. God’s goodness, greatness and glory are at stake. The God of the Open Theists is, in the words of Bruce Ware, too small. He is not the all-knowing, all-powerful God revealed so clearly in the pages of the Bible. Christians need to always be concerned that both they and God are making poor decisions based on inadequate information. Thus we cannot always count on God to do what is best, because even He does not always know what this is.
  3. The Christian’s confidence in God is at stake. If open theism is true, the Christian cannot put his full trust and confidence in God. “The God of open theism will always want our best, but since he may not in fact know what is best, it becomes impossible to give him our unreserved and unquestioning trust” (Bruce Ware, Their God is Too Small, page 20. When hardships arise we will have to ask if God anticipated these, or if He is as shocked and distressed as we are.

My View

Needless to say, I find this doctrine wholly incompatible with our knowledge of God as presented in His Word. While open theism contradicts the understanding of God in every Judeo-Christian tradition, it is most completely at-odds with the Reformed understanding, which teaches the highest view of God’s foreknowledge and sovereignty. This doctrine undermines our confidence in God and erodes our trust in His promises that He always has our best interests in mind. It is a dangerous, pernicious doctrine. Unfortunately, with it being subtly taught by popular teachers like John Eldredge, it is being introduced to millions of Christians who may come to accept the view of a risk-taking God without understanding the consequences of such a view.



Clark H. Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger. The Openness of God (InterVarsity, 1994). The book that began it all.

Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Baker Book House, 2000). The popular entry-level introduction to the doctrine.

John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (InterVarsity Press, 1998). Another popular introduction to the theology.


Bruce A. Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of open theism (Crossway Books, 2001). A thorough, biblical response to open theism.

Bruce A. Ware, Their God is Too Small: open theism and the Undermining of Confidence in God (Crossway Books, 2003). A condensed, simplified version of God’s Lesser Glory targetted at the layperson.

This page contains a lenghty list of books, articles and speeches defending both sides of the debate. The list was compiled by Justin Taylor.

If you are going to read only one book on the debate, I would recommend Their God is Too Small

June 23, 2005

Earlier this year, Eric over at Evangelical Underground presented the 1st Annual Evangelical Blog Awards. He gave recognition to some of the leading sites in the Christian blogosphere. Sadly, he did not recognize those bloggers who deserve demerit. That is what I intend to do today through the 1st Annual Christian Blogosphere Awards of Demerit. You can find the list of awards and winners right here, right now.

RSS Aggravation

This is awarded to the blogger who most often edits his or her posts, causing people with RSS Readers to scream in frustration at being notified multiple times about the same post.

And the winner is! Phil Johnson, the Pyromaniac. His obsession with detail may make him a fantastic book editor, but it is not so wonderful in blogging. Hey Phil! How about proofreading before you post an article? We don’t all want to be notified every time a comma becomes a semicolon!

Honorable mentions in this category go to:

  • Amy of Amy’s Humble Musings who recently edited a post 11 times, possibly the record for a single post. In her defense, the post was announcing some pretty special news and she may have been a bit giddy. I’m willing to forgive her if you are.
  • Centurion who likes to tamper with posts two or three days after they are first written.

Most In Need of a Template Change

This is awarded to the blogger who is most in need of a template change. This year’s award go to:

James White and his crew at Alpha & Omega Ministries. I am thankful that they fixed the most pressing of the Firefox problems (there are a few remaining!) and actually added some margins to the permalink pages, I think it’s time to upgrade. How many copies of Scripture Alone (great book, by the way) do we need to buy to convince you to find a new template?

Honorable mention goes to the Blogger or WordPress users who have the same template as any of 250,000 other bloggers (you know who you are). A quick Google search will turn up hundreds of free templates available to you. Why not try something new?

Blogroll Bloat

This is awarded to the blogger with the most bloated blogroll. These people do not seem to realize that each link they add to their blogroll decreases the value of every other link. While linking to some other blogs is expected and perhaps even necessary, blogrolling is a bit like drinking: it’s important to know when to draw the line.

This award goes to Dory at Wittenberg Gate. She has a whole lot of linking going on. I’m guessing that if she actually read even a tenth of those blogs she wouldn’t have time to do much else.

Honorable mentions go to the seperated-at-birth-brothers Jollyblogger and Adrian Warnock both of whom must feel obligated to post the full list of users associated with the aggregators they manage.

Worst Use of A Foreign Language

Using foreign languages in the title of a site is all the rage in the blogosphere. This award is given to the blogger who displays the worst use of foreign language.

And the winner is Schadenfreude. Because of people can’t pronounce it and can’t spell it, they can’t visit it.

Honorable mention goes to Echo Zoe. The name necessitates the use of special characters which appear on blogrolls as this gibberish - έχω ζωη. Okay, then.

Design Discontentment

This is awarded to the blogger who shows the greatest discontent with the current state of his site’s template, no matter what the current state may be.

And the winner is…Tim Irvin of The Irvins. Tim constantly fiddles with his design (though usually for the better) and as this is being awarded, is transitioning from WordPress to Movabletype and starting with a whole new template. Again.

Honorable mention goes to What Is This. James is a web designer and so I feel his pain. But sooner or later you’ve got to just let it rest! I can’t think of any of his templates that have been bad, yet he rolls out a new design every couple of months.

Comment Ratio

This is awarded to the blog with the lowest ratio of comments to posts. It seems we have a tie in this category. This years co-winners are:

Boar’s Head Tavern and Alpha & Omega which each average precisely 0 comments per post. Coincidence? I think not!

Special Achievement in Demerit

This award goes to a blogger who shows special achievement in the blogosphere.

This year’s award goes to Hugh Hewitt, who, despite writing a book about the subject, does not offer many of the staples of effective blogging. His site has no RSS feed and features archives that are nearly impossible to negotiate. And yet he managed to figure out how to add a tip jar. Come on, Hugh, email me and I’ll get you all fixed up! It’s time to walk the talk here and get back on the cutting edge. How many copies of Blog do we need to…ah, never mind.

And that wraps up this year’s Christian Blogosphere Awards of Demerit. I hope you’ll join us again next year, when we once again poke fun at the best and worst of Christian blogging.

(Please take these awards in the spirit they are intended - a spirit of humor and deliberate exaggeration. It’s supposed to be funny. I take full responsibility for any lack of humor.)

June 22, 2005

Have you ever stopped to consider just how strange prayer is? Have you considered the implications of the fact that we, through our prayers, have the ability to interact with the God who is sovereign over all of the universe? It is a profound thought that God even changes the future (so to speak) based on our prayers.

Of course God does not need our prayers to accomplish His will, does He? He could rule this universe perfectly well without any input from the beings He created to inhabit it. Yet in His sovereignty He decided that this is how the world would operate. In some way He operates in such a way that He takes into consideration the needs and desires of His people. God does not answer every prayer. It is strange to think that in many cases godly men and women are praying for things that are exactly opposite. While the farmer prays for rain to water his crops, a pastor prays for sun during the church picnic.

Let’s stop for just a moment to consider how the world might be different if God answered every prayer, if indeed such a thing were possible. Imagine, for a moment, that you were present when Joseph was being assaulted by his brothers. There is little doubt that you would drop to your knees and ask that God would save him; that God would send someone to rescue Joseph and return him to his father. Or imagine that you were present with Mary and Martha when they were praying for their brother, Lazarus. You would have been beside them, praying over the inert form of Lazarus as he drew his last breath, begging that God would restore his health. Or what if you were present at the cross? Would you not have been praying for God to send the legion of angels to deliver the King from His cross?

What if God had answered your prayers? In each of these cases God knew exactly what had to happen in order for Him to accomplish His eternal purposes. As mere humans our ability to pray effectively is always limited by our limited knowledge.

Do you ever wish that you were better at praying? Or do you ever find yourself wishing that you had more confidence in your prayers? This lack of confidence seems to be especially difficult in my life. I often find that I really have no confidence that my prayers really make a difference or that God is even interested in hearing them. I sometimes feel like I am praying only for my own benefit and really am almost praying to myself rather than to God. I pray selfishly, even considering my own needs and comfort when praying for others.

In recent days I have been reading Praying Backwards by Bryan Chapell. It has a snappy title that refers to something I discovered not so long ago: while we often end our prayers “in Jesus name,” in reality we need to begin our prayers in His name, acknowledging that it is only through the blood of Christ that we have the ability and privilege to approach God.

The fourth chapter of this book discusses “Praying in the Spirit.” This is a topic I have studied in the past and have even written about, but for some reason it has not been absorbed into my heart the way it should. One of the clearest teachings of the Spirit’s role in prayer is found in Romans 8:26-28, where Paul writes, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Last year I wrote about the final part of this passage, “for the good.” I wrote:

God’s desire for His children is that they more and more become conformed to the image of His Son. So when God tells us that He will work all things for our good, He indicates that all things work to make us more like Jesus. Those who have been believers for many years will know that this is not always a gentle or fun process. Sometimes God has to use radical, terrifying or even sorrowful measures to help us change. Sometimes we work in concert with God in our sanctification, but other times He has to reach down and force the issue. My pastor is fond of saying that “God is less concerned with your comfort than your character” and this is exactly what Romans 8:28 tells us. God will work for the good of His purposes, not necessarily our purposes.

In reading Chappel’s book, and his explanation of these verses, God spoke directly to my heart (not a phrase I use often or lightly) about the words that precede those ones. When I feel weak in prayer, the Holy Spirit is there, helping me. Even when I do not know how or what to pray, the Spirit knows, and stands between myself and the Father, presenting to Him prayers that express what is best. Where I am limited by limited knowledge, the Spirit is not. He takes my prayers and conforms them to the Father’s will before bringing them before the Throne of Grace. When I pray in Jesus’ name, humbling myself before His sovereignty, I offer my will and desires to Him, and truly seek “the good” that Paul speaks of. I acknowledge that in my humanness I would make a mess of even the most trivial decisions, and trust that God knows best.

Chapell provides a helpful illustration. “I have enjoyed watching a baker decorate a cake with an icing pipe. The icing is globbed into the tube as a yucky, unformed mess. But that’s not the end of the process. Attached to the end of the pipe is a decorator tip. When the baker forces the icing through the tip, the mess gets shaped into intricate designs that make the cake beautiful. The Holy Spirit similarly helps my prayers. I glob my desires into my prayers. I do not intend to make a mess of things, but with my mixed motives and limited vision, I have no assurance that my prayers match God’s design. In fact, I would hesitate to pray at all if my prayers were God’s only direction for accomplishing his purposes. Were my prayers truly capable of binding God’s hands, I would be dangerous. My finite, fallible will cannot devise the best course for the universe. Still, I pray because I believe the Holy Spirit works like that decorator tip. He forms my prayers into God’s beautiful design for all things” (page 73).

That is a beautiful assurance and one I have long been seeking. While it does not remove my responsibility to seek to pray for things that truly are “for the good,” I also know that my limited vision and human selfishness will not interfere with presenting to the Father prayers that are powerful and sweet. A useful illustration for this is the power of water as it flows through a sluice, heading towards a dam. The water flows with greater and greater power. Where the water I send out is barely moving, the Spirit narrows it, presenting to God a stream that is able to cut through steel.

God has shown me, through His Word, that I can have confidence in my prayers, even when I feel like they are going nowhere and accomplishing nothing. I do not have confidence in my own earnestness or ability. I have confidence that before my prayers reach the Father, they are mediated by the Holy Spirit, whose groans and utterings are made in the full view of His sovereignty, eternity, and omniscience. The Holy Spirit presents prayers that are fully conformed to the will of God, even when I cannot.

I have not yet completed this book. I am reading it slowly (for me), savoring it. I should have a review in a few days. For now, you can check it out at Amazon. Praying Backwards

June 20, 2005

I received an interesting book from Moody last week. Entitled Perimeters of Light, the authors take on a daunting task. They seek to define some boundaries for the emerging church. Notice the lower-case “e” in “emerging,” as they are not referring to the Emergent church but to what evangelical churches are becoming in the early 21st Century. The authors, Elmer Towns and Ed Stetzer are both Southern Baptists and both have ministry experience (though at this time Towns is dean of a school of religion and Stetzer directions the North American Mission Board Church Planting Center).

One chapter in the book is dedicated to examining music. Woven throughout the book is a parable of two missionaries, and these men showcase an extreme example of the difficulty in choosing music that is acceptable for church. The younger of the two wants to bring conservative, Western styles of music to these natives of Papua New Guinea. The second realizes that the music we sing in this part of the world, and that we associate with traditional Christianity, is not the music of Christianity. The authors teach through this parable that God has no musical preferences. However, this does not mean that we are free from using discernment in selecting music. They go on to make some suggestions that will help in selecting good music that is appropriate for worship.

Three months ago I read With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship, written by D.G. Hart and John R. Muether. They also had suggestions for God-honoring music, though in a distinctly Reformed setting. Based on the writings of Terry L. Johnson, the authors suggest four criteria for music appropriate for the worship service. First, is it singable? Second, is it biblically and theologically sound? Third, is it biblically and theologically mature? Fourth, is it emotionally balanced? “It is crucial that the church’s songs be substantial enough to express accurately mature Christian belief as well as the subtlety of Christian experience….Simplistic, sentimental, repetitious songs by their very nature cannot carry the weight of Reformed doctrine and will leave the people of God ill-equipped on occasions of great moment” (page 173).

While Hart and Muether’s suggestions were perhaps more mature, they were less-specific. Towns and Stetzer go into quite a bit of detail as you will soon see. The aforementioned chapter leads to a section that provides seven tests which “focus on biblical principles that we should apply to our music to determine if it is Christian.”

An Eight-Part Test

The Message Test - Does this song express the word of God? Is there a strong message and one that appeals to the new man or to the old man?

The Purpose Test - What is the purpose of this music? Was it written to lift you up or to bring you down? To make you joyful or to make you sad? Different types of song may be appropriate at different times. Obviously the very nature of music dictates that certain patterns in music have the ability to stir emotion independent of the song’s lyrical content.

The Association Test - Does the song unnecessarily identify with things, actions or people that are contrary to Scripture? An otherwise good song may have to be rejected simply because people will make inappropriate associations with it in their minds. The authors provide the example of singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “The Rising Sun” which is a song about drinking and gambling. As people were singing worship to the Lord they would also be thinking of the song’s original words, leading their minds to think of things that are inappropriate for a worship setting.

The Memory Test - Does the song bring back things from your past that you have left? The purpose of this test is not to guard against music that people may dislike, but to guard against music that may cause them to sin, heeding the biblical warning about not offending one’s brother. So it has less to do with taste and more to do with leading people to sin.

The Proper Emotions Test - Does the music stir our negative or lustful feelings? Amazingly enough, music does have the power, once again independently of lyric, to stir emotions to sin. If you don’t believe this, watch a room full of young people during a hard, driving rap beat, even before the words begin.

The Understanding Test - Will the listeners have a hard time understanding the message or finding the melody. Different people know and understand different types of music. People will have an easier time worshiping to a type of music that they understand. Those new believers in Papua New Guinea may have a difficult time worshiping to contemporary Christian music as they would simply not understand it. The same principle holds true with the lyrics, though I would suggest to a lesser extent, because unlike music, words are objectively true or false. If a song is strong in its theology, the people should eventually understand it, even if they do not now. With music this is not the case. Those natives will be no farther ahead if they learn to appreciate church-rock (and many would suggest, perhaps correctly, that they would actually be farther behind!).

The Music Test - This test asks if there is really “a song within the song”? Is the song singable? Does it flow from verse to verse? Does it stir the listener’s heart to join in the song? A song with beautiful words may quickly disappear from the hymn books simply because it is not singable.

So there are the seven tests suggested by the authors. Conspicuous by its absence is one I would like to add, which is:

The Excellence Test - Does the song provide God with the best music and lyrics? We should strive for excellence in all we give to God. If our giving to Him should not be half-hearted, how much less our worship?

I wanted to examine a few songs through this seven-part test (which I have expanded to eight parts) using some real-world examples. We’ll put each of three songs through this filter and see what comes out the other side.

“Amazing Grace” Meets “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

When I was younger, I attended a church where the worship leader sang “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” This was, of course, the version of the song make popular by The Tokens in 1961 and not the original which became popular as early as 1939 and which was subsequently recorded several times by several artists.

  1. The Message Test - Pass. You can’t do much better than “Amazing Grace.”
  2. The Purpose Test - Pass. The music is joyful and fun, much like grace.
  3. The Association Test - Fail. People will associate this song with anything but worship.
  4. The Memory Test - Fail (though this test is somewhat subjective). But memories of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” will likely not be God-honoring
  5. The Proper Emotions Test - Pass. The emotions stirred by the music will be good.
  6. The Understanding Test - Pass. Words are easy to understand and the tune is easy to understand.
  7. The Music Test - Pass. The song is plenty singable.
  8. The Excellence Test - Pass. “Amazing Grace” is an excellent song. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is silly, but is musically sound.

So there we have it. Singing “Amazing Grace” to is a mix of passes and fails. I would suggest that it is inappropriate for use in worship.

Psalm 23 Travels to Geneva

I struggled a little bit to think of a song that seemed to have problems opposite to the last one. A church I used to attend sang The Apostles Creed to a tune that was quite reminiscent of the old “Davy Crockett” tune, but that didn’t quite do it. But I think I found one. Psalm 23 in the Genevan Psalter is a wonderful lyric set to an awful tune.

  1. The Message Test - Pass. The words are drawn almost directly from Scripture.
  2. The Purpose Test - Pass. The song was written to honor God.
  3. The Association Test - Pass. I don’t people will associate the music to much of anything.
  4. The Memory Test - Pass. See above.
  5. The Proper Emotions Test - Fail. Psalm 23 is a beautiful and joyous Psalm, yet this tune is in minor chords.
  6. The Understanding Test - Fail. People have likely never sung Genevan tunes, and especially the more difficult ones.
  7. The Music Test - Fail. It is difficult to sing this music (which has not been popular for at least half a millennium).
  8. The Excellence Test - Fail. The lyric passes, the music fails.

In this case we have quite a mixed result. The words are consistently strong, but the music is irrelevant and very difficult to sing. And it is such a shame that one of the greatest Psalms is presented in a format that is nearly impossible to enjoy. No wonder the people in these churches do not sing it very often. I still remember the first time I sang this Psalm set to a different tune (one of the two that goes with the lyric “The Lord’s my shepherd / I’ll not want / He makes me down to lie / In pastures green / He leadeth me / The quiet waters by”). I was suddenly amazed at the beauty of the twenty-third Psalm.

“Gonna Be” Rewritten

Allow me to present a third example. In this case we’ll look at a situation I heard of recently where “Gonna Be” by The Proclaimers (“I would walk 500 miles / And I would walk 500 more / Just to be the man who walks 1000 miles / And falls down at your door”) was rewritten and sung in the worship service. There were minor lyrical changes (ie “door” was changed to “throne”), the “Da da la da” during the chorus was changed to “You are my Lord,” etc. And of course the verses about drunkeness (“When I get drunk / Yeah I know I’m gonna be / I’m gonna be the man who gets drunk next to you”) and “havering” were removed.

  1. The Message Test - Fail. There were parts that expressed theology, but in the end it’s a love song converted to a God song.
  2. The Purpose Test - Fail. The song was written, at least partially, to laugh at and celebrate drunkeness.
  3. The Association Test - Fail. The song will certainly not be associated with God.
  4. The Memory Test - Fail. I doubt many people have God-honoring memories associated with this song.
  5. The Proper Emotions Test - Pass. It’s a fun, upbeat song that could be appropriate to joyful lyrics.
  6. The Understanding Test - Pass. It’s generally easy to understand.
  7. The Music Test - Pass. The lyrics and tune are quite easy to sing.
  8. The Excellence Test - Fail. The music is fun and good, but a quick re-write of lyrics does not generally produce excellence.

This example speaks to something that is increasingly popular in contemporary churches, which is re-writing popular songs to make them “church-worthy.” I would suggest, as in the above example, that this usually fails, either because of association or because the end result is just a bad song.

I would be interested in your thoughts on this eight-part test. And furthermore, if you have some songs you would like to run through the filter, feel free to do so and post the results in the forum.

June 17, 2005

In recent weeks I have read several books addressing Christian perspectives on our North American society. Postmodern culture is, as you well know, difficult to define and understand. In fact, postmodernism almost defies definition, as one of the basic tenets of the postmodern mindset is a removal of absolute standards, even when it comes to the meaning of words. Bear with me as I try to organize my thoughts on a particular issue.

One thing that is clear when I examine the culture around me is that postmoderns place high value on morality. There is something a little bit bizarre or ironic about this, isn’t there? It seems odd that when people abandon standards of absolute truth, they continue to demand morality. This serves to show the irrationality that is so prevalent in postmodernism. It simply cannot be logical and rational.

I live in a suburb of Toronto that just so happens to be the wealthiest town in Canada. This town is a bedroom community for the movers and shakers of Canadian business and politics. There are more of the big decision-makers in my town than in any other in the nation. My wife and I do all we can do to pull down the average family income, living in the neighborhood that everyone starts in but moves away from as soon s they can. We’ll be here for a while. But I digress. What I mean to say is that we live in a town whose inhabitants are thoroughly postmodern in their mindsets. Many of them have far more money than common sense, and it turns out that the two are not necessarily related. This town is filled with people who value postmodern morality.

Postmoderns try to be moral people. They want us to know that eating veal is baby-killing. They also want us to know that it is immoral for us to legislate about what a woman can or cannot do with her own body. Many feel that it is against their moral standards for the United States to go to war against Iraq and Afghanistan. In all these things they make moral judgments.

But what is the standard of postmodern morality? On what basis do these people make moral decisions and judgments? The obvious answer is that postmoderns emand to have personal moral autonomy. They want to describe morality the way they understand it, using their minds, emotions and experiences as the foundation. They want to be morally autonomous.

It is interesting to consider that this autonomy does not consistently extend to all areas. I do not know of too many postmoderns who wish to have personal standards of mathematics. Most are content to believe that one equals one, and one plus one equals two. Similarly, they agree on a specific tone relating to the musical note of “D” and agree that blue is blue and red is red. But when it comes to morality there can be no absolutes.

Implicit (and often explicit) in such a stance is a rejection of moral authority. Moral authority is quickly falling out of favor. After all, if postmodernism is built on relativism and narcissism, such a mindset can hardly agree to allow another person or standard to trump personal freedoms.

The Christian mindset stands at odds with this. The Bible claims that it is the foundation for all morality. The Bible, being the living, breathing Word of God, stands as the moral authority. And what are its standards? It begins with ten that should be well-known (though recent studies show that even most Christians can’t name all ten): have no gods apart from God; do not serve idols; do not take the Lord’s name in vain; honor the Lord’s day; honor your father and mother; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not lie; do not desire what is not yours. These standards were not only given by God to His people thousands of years ago, but were also written right into the human heart by God Himself. Jesus later told us that the true basis of morality can be described in two simple commandments: to love the Lord with your whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself. He also clarified these standards, telling us that it is not enough merely to keep from committing the actual deeds listed. If one seeks to be free from the sin of adultery, he must keep his mind, and not only his body, pure, for if a man thinks lustful thoughts towards a woman that is not his wife, he has already committed adultery in his heart.

Thus the Bible is our moral authority.

There is one more thing that humans need, as unfortunately, due to our sinful natures, authority is not enough. We also need accountability. Postmoderns reject this accountability as much as they do authority. They are held only accountable by their personal standards. Thankfully, as Christians we can know that God has given us two means by which we can be held accountable to His standards of morality. The first is the Holy Spirit. After Jesus returned to His Father’s side, the Spirit was sent out to live within believers and to guard their hearts. The Spirit is a constant presence in our lives, taking the Words of the Bible and quickening them within us. He shows us where we are failing to uphold God’s standards and stirs our hearts to despise our sin.

The second means by which we are held morally accountable is the church. Christ handed to the church the keys to the kingdom, instructing that in every church men be raised up who will serve as pastors and elders. These men are tasked with, among other things, ensuring that the body of Christ continues to adhere to godly standards. When a Christian begins to exhibit lax standards of morality, it is the responsibility of the church to challenge, confront and rebuke the person. If he does not repent, refusing to admit his sin, the church may have to cast him out where He can hopefully come to a place of repentance.

And so it is that postmodernism rejects both of these facets of morality. They reject moral authority, and it necessarily follows that they then reject accountability. And so I guess where this is all going is that I’m wondering how this will impact the church. Scriptural authority and godly accountability are already on the decline. And just as Jesus told us, the church stands at polar opposites to the world in mindset. As believers we have to continue to stress the importance of submitting to God’s Word, no matter how unpopular such a belief may be. Only then will we have the authority and accountability to live lives that truly begin to measure up to God’s standards of morality.

June 15, 2005

My friend Rick Pearcey asked if I would consider posting this article, which is an appreciation of the ministry of Francis Schaeffer, known primarily through the work of L’Abri Fellowship, begun this month 50 years ago. As you may know, both Rick and Nancy Pearcey were profoundly impacted by the Schaeffer’s ministry. What you may not know is that Rick is formerly managing editor of the Capitol Hill weekly Human Events and that he served as primary editor of David Limbaugh’s book Persecution. My parents, who have long been friends with the Pearceys, were likewise influenced by the Schaeffers, and spent almost a year studying at two of the L’Abri locations (Switzerland and England) when they were young and newly-married. So it is from a profound respect for the influence of Francis Schaeffer on those who have influenced me that it is my honor to post this article here, an article written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of L’Abri. From here on out you reading words written by Rick Pearcey.

It happened one summer day in the early ’70s on the campus of Georgia Tech in Atlanta. That’s when I first heard about an individual unlike any Christian I had ever met, and about an approach to people and ideas that was unlike any I had ever known. Strange as it may seem, Francis Schaeffer and his distinctive approach would begin to have an impact on this college student’s life before I knew anything about him or his work.

How can this be? For an answer, we begin where Francis and Edith Schaeffer began, when L’Abri Fellowship entered the world in 1955, hidden from view in the Alpine village of Huemoz, Switzerland, when the couple set out several principles to guide their new work. As we shall see, each of the principles emphasizes prayer as a way to achieve the overarching purpose of “[showing] forth by demonstration, in our life and work, the existence of God.”

After ten years in pastorates in America, and then a few years in Europe as missionaries, the Schaeffers on June 4, 1955, “reached a decision.” They were ready to act on the conviction that a real God who is personal would be able to act and communicate in space and time, in the present moment of history, and that living and working on the basis of prayer was key to demonstrating the existence of such a God in a “hard, hard world” that could sniff out phonies a mile away.

For Schaeffer, “belief” that such a God exists was not a matter of subjective “faith,” but rather a reasoned conclusion based on evidence. As a teenager, and then again later as an adult, Schaeffer had worked through agnosticism and concluded that the Judeo-Christian worldview is objectively true — that is, that the system of thought and life set forth in the Old and New Testaments answers the basic philosophic questions of life in a way that is rationally consistent, historically verifiable, and existentially livable. In addition to taking God seriously, Schaeffer also took students and other searching people seriously as individuals whose questions should not be relegated to “smokescreen” status — as a front for spiritual rebellion, for example — but rather respected as the searchings of people who need answers to basic questions. This is why he tried to give “an honest answer to honest questions” to those who wondered whether God exists, truth is real, or life has any meaning.

But, however important, and Biblical, is this emphasis on having solid intellectual grounds for affirming the existence of God, Schaeffer felt something else was needed — namely, “the demonstration [italics added] that the Personal-Infinite God is really there in our generation,” as he wrote in the foreword of Edith’s book, L’Abri, which was published in 1969. Schaeffer understood that “talk” really is cheap, and that words written in books also can be “cheap” if they are just “god-talk” that gives readers a momentary buzz that disappears soon after the book is put down and the readers confront reality.

He realized that people need to see an exhibition that God actually exists, and that’s why he felt led to live a life, and begin a ministry, based on principles that emphasized verifiably answerable prayer, so that atheists, agnostics, and doubting Christians (sometimes hobbled by other Christians), could observe “living evidence,” to borrow a phrase from author Udo Middelmann, of God at work in the modern world. Schaeffer’s vision was that when “people come to L’Abri they are faced with these two aspects simultaneously” — honest answers to honest questions and the practical demonstration of the existence of God — “as the two sides of a single coin.”

Madison Avenue vs. God

The first of L’Abri’s founding principles was to “make our financial and material needs known to God alone, in prayer, rather than sending out pleas for money.” From his own experience, Schaeffer knew that some in leadership positions at Christian organizations speak with inspiring confidence that they earnestly believe it is God who is at work in providing financing. But in reality, if you go behind the scenes, one may learn that, despite the god-talk, it isn’t so much God at work, but rather what Schaeffer regarded as the “arm of the flesh” — that is, a “Madison Avenue” sales mentality that relies on a vast system of marketers, fundraisers, PR people, researchers, ghostwriters, and all the rest, to come up with clever, and sometimes less than honest, ways to “sell” Jesus or the ministry, its necessity, effectiveness, influence, and so on, to the public.

For Schaeffer, Christianity is worthless if it isn’t true. But if it is true, its principles have to be practiced in a way that is observable to any who care to take a look, whether they be French existentialist, German agnostic, Cambridge student or London dockworker. PR is cheap if not rooted in authenticity. It is one thing to confidently pronounce, “We believe in prayer,” for example, and yet really rely on a fundraising apparatus that spits out hundreds of thousands of impersonal form letters, sometimes of questionable veracity, written by marketers and signed by a machine that inscribes the name of a well-known persona. It is quite another thing, as Schaeffer knew from personal experience, to actually live and operate a ministry on the basis of the principle that “we believe that He can put into the minds of the people of His choice the share they should have in the work.” Witnessing specific answers to specific prayers at L’Abri helped many skeptics “to see” that a personal God actually exists and that Christianity may have more going for it than they had thought.

Schaeffer was once talking with a group at L’Abri, and he said that people sometimes ask him about the practicality of L’Abri’s bringing financial requests to the Lord as opposed to making such requests known publicly. “What do you do if the money doesn’t come in?” would be the question. Schaeffer gave perhaps the only possible honest answer — if he authentically believed what he said about a God who is really there and who can act into history today in response to human communication: “Well, I guess we’ll be smaller.”

In the real world of some big-time Christian ministries, fundraising too often makes the world go round, and a financial shortfall might well result not in an honest reexamination of one’s methods and a renewed questioning regarding where God may be leading, but rather in firing staff and re-oiling the money machine. Schaeffer regarded such an approach not just as un-Biblical, but also as profoundly ugly and destructive, regardless of how much outward “success” or “influence for Christ” an organization or person might appear to achieve in this life in supposed centers of power.

People of God’s Choice

L’Abri’s second founding principle was that they would “pray that God will bring the people of His choice to us, and keep all others away.” Such a prayer may seem an odd way to build a ministry or conduct “outreach,” but Schaeffer understood that, if God is real and can speak and act in the modern world, it follows that such a God ought to be able to lead people who need help to a hidden-away place such as L’Abri.

“There are no advertising leaflets,” Edith explained in L’Abri, “and this book is the first to be written about the work.” The Schaeffers’ mindset is decisive here. They weren’t focused on trying to build a powerbase, create a constituency, lead a huge organization, rehabilitate a reputation, craft an image, recover past glory, carefully manufacture celebrity, or impose a legacy. Rather, they simply made themselves available to God to be helpful to people and decided to let the results take care of themselves. Edith’s book describes some of the unusual ways in which people heard about the Schaeffers, or just happened upon a chalet door at L’Abri to find a new world of concern for truth and for the individual.

A personal story may help illustrate this. To build on what I said earlier, in the summer of 1971, I was a college student living with a group of people in Atlanta in a fraternity house on the campus of Georgia Tech. We were participating in a discipleship program with a Christian organization called the Navigators. During one weekend, I was sitting with others in the large living room of the house, where we had gathered to hear a talk about a person I’d never heard of. If you met this person on the street, said the speaker, and you asked him, “How are you doing?,” he might well reply, “What do you mean?” Members of the audience chuckled, and I remember thinking that such an unexpected reply could be the start of an intriguing interchange. Little else about the talk stands out in my mind.

Except this. About halfway through, the back of my neck began to tighten up, a kind of pinching sensation. It felt like one of those occasions when your grandmother grabs you with her thumb and index finger and pinches the back of your arm while you’re doing something you ought not be doing. Except that in this case there was no pain in the “pinch” I felt in the back of my neck. The sensation wasn’t unpleasant in any way. But it did get my attention. “Strange,” I thought. In fact, I’d never felt anything quite like it before — or since. The sensation stayed with me, so much so that I decided to take note of the surroundings, in case there was something else happening that perhaps I needed to be aware of. I looked around the room and considered the setting, the speaker, the other people sitting in chairs.

Nothing stood out. Then it occurred to me. There was something new — the unusual individual the speaker was talking about. I made a mental note to keep in mind the unfamiliar name of a person about whom I knew next to nothing: Francis Schaeffer.

At the time, I had no idea that I might be on the receiving end of the Schaeffers’ prayer that God would bring the people of His choice to L’Abri. By August the next year, I was hitchhiking through Luxembourg and Germany on my way to Switzerland. There are many such stories that could be recounted, each with its own peculiarities, which help demonstrate to many searching people that God exists and acts into history today.

Your Planning Is Too Small

A third principle that helped set Schaeffer apart from his contemporaries, whether Christian or otherwise, was his attitude toward planning. Schaeffer did not reject planning per se, but he did specifically reject the practice of allowing human planning to replace the possibility of moment-by-moment leadership from the Lord. For this reason, the third founding principle of L’Abri was that “we pray that God will plan the work, and unfold His plan to us (guide us, lead us) day by day, rather than planning the future in some clever or efficient way in committee meetings.”

Schaeffer reasoned that the Infinite-Personal God could be far more effective than any human committee or charismatic leader with a plan, even if such leadership has vast financial resources, or other avenues of power, at its disposal. The history of L’Abri appears to bear this out, as the Schaeffers worked in principled obscurity with individuals one by one in simply trying to address the questions and personal concerns of those who crossed their doorstep.

L’Abri Fellowship had no master plan, a shoestring budget, and no formula for becoming a ministry of international reach and reputation. If the Lord so led, Schaeffer was quite content to work hidden away in relative obscurity on the side of a mountain. There was no plan to write books, build a chapel, create a study center, begin a cassette program, film documentaries, hold conferences, or expand into other countries-all of which eventually happened. In fact, from the point of view of secularized marketing or some “steamroller” Christian organizations (as Schaeffer calls them in his letters), Schaeffer did it all wrong. But his own life struggles had brought him to a place of understanding that the practice of being alive to God moment by moment is far more crucial to authentic living as a person, to genuine success in ministry, to real victory in the seen and unseen world, than any plan or program devised by the well-heeled, the well-known, and powerful ever could be. The thousands of diverse individuals, believer and unbeliever alike, who found their way to L’Abri and a more humane Christianity would likely agree.

No Little Workers

I recall that Schaeffer expressed during the ’70s his gratitude that, of all the people who had come to work on staff at L’Abri, not one had left Huemoz on bad terms. This is an enviable statement, even if one would not want to deny that there might be legitimate instances of concern in the later history of the work, which would hardly be a surprise, given that human beings are imperfect creatures.

The record of Christian organizations in regard to how regular people are treated, or people lower on the perceived totem pole of power are treated, could be better. This is well-known by people who have worked with religious organizations and celebrities, and it is evident from books and magazine articles on the topic of spiritual abuse. Schaeffer was concerned about the trail of damaged people left in the wake of some apparently fine people of sterling public repute whose stated aim was to win the world for Christ but whose methods of ministry stand in sharp contrast to the spirit of Christ. It was not at all uncommon to hear a struggling Christian say that he had come to L’Abri as his “last hope,” having been spiritually flattened by some variant of a steamroller “hard-charging,” popular and esteemed Christian leader or group or icon on a mission from God and don’t you dare get in the way.

Schaeffer’s demonstration of substantial healing (not perfection) in the area of helping hurting people may have something to do with L’Abri’s fourth founding principle-namely, that “we pray that God will send the workers of His choice to us, rather than pleading for workers in the usual channels.” Again, the point is not that the Schaeffers rejected normal employment practices per se, but rather that they felt led to rely on prayer in this area, at their moment of history, so that the existence of God could be demonstrated to Christian and non-Christian alike in a very practical and observable way. And, naturally, if Schaeffer understood that L’Abri workers were sent by the Lord, it followed that they had to be respected for who they are in their own right, and not be used up as fodder for a leader’s ego or an organization’s expansion.

Schaeffer aimed to be faithful to God and simply did not concern himself with creating a huge organization to be the “definitive voice” on Christian worldview, for example, or with striving for greater influence, in the greater service of the Lord (which Schaeffer saw as a pernicious temptation and rationalization for sin). Again, quite practically, and refreshingly, if God didn’t send the workers, well, then L’Abri would just have to be smaller — which is not quite the crisis it could be for someone whose ego feeds on growing numbers and increasing influence. Schaeffer wasn’t out to be “the best” at anything, or “branded” as anything, but just to be the best he could be. This meant he could afford to respect people, including fellow L’Abri workers, and refuse to debase seekers by reducing them to potential donors, or by reducing their struggles to anecdotal highlights for fundraising letters, or by humbly claiming some of them — especially celebrity converts — as scalps for his ministry, thereby using their celebrity to indirectly bring glory (and money) to his work.

This authenticity regarding people really set Schaeffer apart. Again, not as a perfect person by any means, but as real. And in contrast to some in leadership inside and outside the church and evangelicalism, he was a giver and not a taker. He was not looking for “alter egos” or for people whose energy and talents he could sap and then claim their work as his, whether “for the ministry” or “because the message will reach more people,” or for some other unfortunate instance in which the end justifies the means. For Schaeffer, there were “no little people,” a phrase taken from the title of one of his most important sermons and books. And I would suggest that that’s one of the reasons so many different kinds of people from around the world, after spending some time at L’Abri, where they could observe Schaeffer’s thinking and living in action, found his distinctive approach such a life-affirming alternative to much of the status quo.

Francis Schaeffer was different. But, as he himself no doubt understood, we don’t need more cookie-cutter Francis Schaeffers. Some may covet the mantle of Francis Schaeffer, but the secret is: There isn’t any such mantle. Rather, we need more individuals willing to embrace truth and then flesh out that truth with a measure of consistency across the whole of their lives, including the nuts and bolts of our methods of ministry. When a person has said yes to demonstrating the existence of God in one’s life and work, then what happens on the side of a Swiss mountain, or in a fraternity house on a college campus, though largely unnoticed, may change everything.

© J. Richard Pearcey.

June 15, 2005

“Rebel soldiers were starting at one end of a large room, taking women away one by one and bringing them back after they were finished with them. Helen’s first impulse was to hide and not have to bear this humiliation again. Then she thought of Jesus. He put himself forward as a substitute for us. The fellowship of his sufferings - she moved to the front, to try to protect some of the other women from undergoing a new trauma they might possibly have escaped so far.

She looked back later on this whole period and wrote: ‘We learned why God has given us His name as I AM (Exodus 3:14). His grace always proved itself sufficient in the moment of need, but never before the necessary time…As I anticipated suffering in my imagination and thought of what these cruel soldiers would do next, I quivered in fear…But when the moment came for action…he filled me with a peace and an assurance about what to say or do that amazed me and often defeated the immediated tactics of the enemy.’

She writes movingly of how abandoned she felt…’My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ His answer to her was a removal of the fear as if it had been rinsed out of her - and a strong sense of his arms around her, holding her and comforting her. She felt as if he were saying, ‘When I called you to myself, I called you to the fellowship of my suffering. They are not attacking you. They are attacking me. I’m just using your body to show myself to the people around you.”

Those paragraphs are found in Noel Piper’s new book, Faithful Women & Their Extraordinary God in the chapter providing a brief biography of Helen Roseveare.

In recent weeks I have been pleading with God to show me where sin has taken a hold in my life - those hidden areas that far too often are difficult to see. There is some sin in our lives that is so obvious that we simply cannot deny it. But there is some sin that is buried far beneath the surface and only God can call it to our attention. In the past days I believe God has answered my prayer and is showing me some of those areas. I think He is showing me how I have valued security and selfishly valued myself far too highly. Life in North America, even as a Christan, can be far too comfortable for my own good.

What was murky in my mind was made clear as I read about Helen Roseveare and other faithful women of God - saints who gave all they had to their Lord.

How many people would be willing to lay not just their lives, but their bodies on the line, as she did? How many would be willing to be used as she was, believing all the while that what men were doing to “the least of these” they were in fact doing to her Savior? How many would be willing to do this knowing that they would have to live forever with the consequences? How many would be willing to do this out of love for women she did not even know?

It was only later, when she had returned to her native England, that she found out an amazing part of her own story. “It was the very night of Helen’s attack. [A] woman had been awakened with a strong sense to pray intensely for Helen, whom she only knew of. She prayed and didn’t feel free to stop until a certain time that she named to Helen. Given the difference in time zones, that was the same time that Helen had been washed through by the peace of God and known that she wasn’t abandoned by Him.”

As Helen Roseveare abandoned herself to men, she was in reality abandoning herself to God and to His promises. She was willing and able to trust that as she gave herself to God, He would be her strength. She knew that her body was but a vessel God was using to show Himself to the people around. She knew in her heart of hearts that the anger of the men was really an anger directed at God. And unbeknownst to her, while she went through her ordeal, other believers were holding her up before the throne of Grace.

“In 1989, 120 young people sat cross-legged in the Piper living room and dining room, covering nearly every square inch of floor space. They had accepted our open invitation to anyone who thought missions might be in his or her future.

As Helen Roseveare stood by our fireplace and looked into their faces, she reached backward toward the mantel and eased a long-stemmed rose bud from a tall vase. As she spoke, she broke off the thorns, the leaves, the petals, the green out layer of stem - every element that makes a rose and rose. All that was left was a lithe, straight shaft. The pieces that lay on the floor were not bad things. But, she explained, they had to be removed if she were going to make an arrow. God does this to us, she said. He removes everything - even innocent, good things - that hinders us from being the arrows that he will shoot for his purposes at his intended target.”

And that is what God has been teaching me. I know now that I need to abandon myself to God so that He can make me an arrow to shoot for His purposes and His intended target. Like so many faithful men and women that God has used for His purposes, I need to allow Him to strip away layer after layer of myself, that I might be wholly and completely His.

I so enjoyed this book, and was so blessed by it, that I am going to post a link to Amazon in case you would like to read it too. I will be reviewing it shortly. I believe it releases in the next day or two, so it should be available to ship shortly.

June 14, 2005

In the forthcoming Sex and the Supremacy of Christ (read my review here), Al Mohler has written a chapter entitled “Homosexual Marriage as a Challenge to the Church: Biblical and Cultural Reflections.” He provides seven principles that can serve as a framework for a Christian response to the issue of homosexual marriage. They are:

  1. We, as Christians, must be the people who cannot start a conversation about homosexual marriage by talking about homosexual marriage.
  2. We must be the people who cannot ever talk about sex without talking about marriage.
  3. We must be the people who cannot talk about anything of significance without acknowledging our absolute dependence on God’s revelation - the Bible.
  4. We must be the people with a theology adequate to explain the deadly deception of sexual sin.
  5. We must be the people with a theology adequate to explain Christ’s victory over sin.
  6. We must be the people who love homosexuals more than homosexuals love homosexuality.
  7. We must be the people who tell the truth about homosexual marriage, and thus refuse to accept even its possibility because we love and seek the glory of God for all.

As part of his third point, Mohler writes about the “yuck factor” that exists in the minds of many Christians and serves as their attempt to deal with homosexuality. Yuck factor is a term that I believe was first coined by C. Gerald Fraser in the early 80’s. It refers to “A revulsion or discomfort that influences a person’s attitude toward a thing or idea.” In other words, and to use Mohler’s definition, “it is an attitude of disgust that lacks any serious moral argument” (page 116).

I am convinced that the “yuck factor” towards homosexuality comes quite naturally to men (and boys). I think all men can remember their school days and think back of times when we expressed disgust at homosexuality. The very thought of what homosexuals do and celebrate brings boys to express the worst insults by implying these acts. It is possible that this shows some cultural conditioning, but I believe boys react naturally at the thought of men doing together what God designed for only man and woman to share. After all, the union of man to woman is part of the perfect Creation ordinance and one that God has surely written on our hearts. Paul tells us as much in Romans 1.

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

God gave them up to their passions that were in no way natural.

Back in the days before I began to do web design, when I actually ventured outside the walls of my house to earn a living, I worked with and became friends with Scott, a practicing homosexual. His story was probably quite typical. He had grown up in a weak church, came from a broken family, and up until university had chased (and often caught) girls. But during college he realized that he was attracted to men and soon became a practicing homosexual. He marched down the streets of Toronto on Gay Pride Day and brought boyfriends to office parties. He was proud of his orientation.

I would often talk to him and ask him pointed questions about his lifestyle. I asked if it was true that homosexual relationships bred abuse, and he felt that was true. I asked if it was realistic that the average homosexual man had twenty or thirty or even more sexual partners in a year, and he felt that if anything those numbers might be a little low. He told me about practicing a lisp and teaching himself how to walk like a woman in front of a mirror in his room.

The point is that he was quite willing to admit to me that there was nothing inherently natural about the homosexual lifestyle. He knew this, but as humans are prone to do, justified his behavior as freedom of choice. At times I cannot deny that I felt some of the “yuck factor” towards him. When he and his boyfriend took to the dance floor, swirling across the floor, cheek-to-cheek during the ballads, it was more than a little difficult to feel normal about it. When he boasted about the fun he had during Pride Week, I had to walk away (though I walked away from many co-workers talking about their heterosexual exploits as well).

I found, as has Mohler, that while the “yuck factor” may be instructive, it cannot be trusted as a moral argument. We must note that “human beings have demonstrated time and again that we can overcome any amount of disgust if we are determined to rationalize behavior” (ibid). We are masters of rationalization, able to turn anything to our advantage. I’m sure that as a child Scott found homosexuals just as yucky as the average boy. But as he gave himself over to sin, and even more so as God gave him over to sin, he began to rationalize it away. We should also note that before the believer has been regenerated, he harbors the same “yucky” attitude towards God. The unregenerate man, in his heart of hearts, feels the same was towards God as young boys feel towards homosexuals.

I would suggest that as Christians it may be most helpful to keep the “yuck factor” to ourselves. I do not know that we gain anything in our conversations with and about homosexuals by expressing our disgust towards their actions. We can always plead “love the sinner, hate the sin,” but this falls flat when we can barely look in their eyes because of the disgust we feel for what they do. After all, the “yuck factor” is not consistent as a moral argument. We must dig deeper than that.

It is most instructive to heed Mohler’s advice and to love the homosexual more than the homosexual loves his homosexuality. Do note that we can show love and grace to the homosexual while still hating and condemning homosexuality. All sin is dark and disgusting in the eyes of God. We often do things that are vile before the eyes of a perfectly holy God. He could as easily avert His gaze from us in His disgust. But we know that when we were at our most vile, He came to us and loved us more than we loved our sin. As Charles Spurgeon once said, “God is infinitely more willing to forgive your sin than you are to commit it.” Similarly, God is infinitely more willing to love us despite our sin, than we are to continually pollute ourselves with it. Should we not show the same grace to others?