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September 26, 2013

It’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? We can’t all be right and we can’t both be right. Sooner or later we have to have a discussion about charismatic (continuationist) theology and whether or not the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit remain in operation in the church today (or, if you prefer, about cessationist theology and whether or not the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased in the church today). We have wanted to make sure New Calvinism is large enough for both, that it will not fracture along this particular line, and this has delayed the conversation. But at some point we just have to talk about it.

John MacArthur is forcing the issue with a book and a conference titled Strange Fire. The conference is still several weeks away and the book will not be widely available until a few weeks after that. However, I recently received an advance copy of the book and have read it a couple of times now. I want to begin a conversation today, and my purpose is really to get an idea of how people feel about the whole issue.

I am going to make just a few observations about the book and what I think MacArthur is attempting to accomplish. First though, some terminology.

  • Continuationism is “the teaching that (at least some of) the miraculous gifts assumed and described in the Bible ought to continue in the church and, in fact, do continue to be given to the church.” When we think of miraculous gifts, we typically refer to prophecy, speaking in tongues, and miracles.
  • Cessationism is the opposite and “teaches that all the miraculous gifts have ceased to be given to the church today.” (Both definitions are taken from Sam Waldron’s To Be Continued?)
  • Continuationism is a subset of charismatic theology, and generally refers to more moderate and theologically-minded charismatics who are attempting to distance themselves from a wider and more distressing movement that includes all of your least-favorite prosperity preachers, miracle crusaders, and anointed prayer cloth hawkers.

By way of context, John MacArthur is a cessationist while leading continuationists include men like John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and D.A. Carson.

And now, here are a few observations to get us started.

Observations

Self Examination. I want to begin with this: We will learn a lot about ourselves in this conversation, about the maturity of whatever this theological movement is. This is going to be a difficult conversation because for each of us to explain what we believe is to state that others are wrong, to explain how they are wrong, and to suggest why it matters. Here’s the thing: If the continuationists are right, cessationists are calling good evil, ascribing to Satan what is of God if the cessationists are right, the continuationists are calling evil good, ascribing to God what is of Satan. We all love to be outraged, to react indignantly, and a conversation like this one may push our buttons and cause us to lash out with anger or self-pity. We are about to learn if we can have a conversation like this with maturity.

September 23, 2013

We have just witnessed the greatest entertainment launch in human history, though I suspect few of us noticed. We remember the buzz around James Cameron’s Avatar which quickly became the highest-grossing film of all time, raking in over $2 billion since its 2009 debut. Well, last week Grand Theft Auto V, a video game, put it to shame, raking in $800 million on launch day, and surpassing the $1 billion mark on its second day.

To put this in perspective, the previous entertainment launch record was $500 million in one day, set by another video game: Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. It crossed the $1 billion mark 14 days after it was released. The Avengers holds the record for the fastest movie to gross $1 billion, a feat that took 19 days. And now GTA V has smashed all previous records; it is not implausible that it will surpass Avatar in earnings.

We are accustomed to looking to the movies or to television to take the pulse of the culture around us, to see what people believe, and to see what they deem important. But this week proves we should be looking to video games as well. GTA V is a cultural phenomenon. Smashing those records must mean something. And as it smashes those records, it is piling up rave reviews, currently holding down a 97% at Metacritic, a site that collects reviews and offers an average score.

There are important differences between movies and games. It is easier to gross $1 billion in games when a game costs five times more than a movie. This means that $1 billion in film revenue indicates that more people have seen it than have played the game that gains $1 billion. Then again, where a movie will last for two or three hours, a game offers deeper immersion as it will often take forty or fifty hours to complete and many people will play it repeatedly. Not only that, but a game typically appeals to a narrower demographic than a movie, which means a narrow slice of the population may be heavily impacted by it. This game is making a huge mark in a relatively small crowd—men in their teens, twenties and thirties.

September 18, 2013

LogosWe are not yet at the point of demise for the printed book. Not yet. Not imminently. However, we do now have a viable and attractive challenger in the electronic book. While we think little of dropping the occasional $2.99 on a discounted Kindle edition of a Christian living title, more serious libraries merit more serious consideration. You will gain or lose little by reading my most recent book in print or on your Kindle, but what about those serious works—the commentaries, the church histories, the dictionaries and encyclopedias and concordances? Should you buy those in print or in bits and bytes? Many pastors, many scholars, many students, many people who just plain love to read and research are asking the question.

Many of them are asking about Logos in particular. Logos is near the cutting edge when it comes to a Christian reference library. They are at every major conference, they put a lot of time and attention into attracting pastors, scholars, and anyone else who is interested in serious theological works. They offer a great product. Many people I know are considering trying Logos, or are dabbling in it and are thinking about jumping in with both feet. I even know a few people who have sold their entire print libraries in favor of electronic-only. I know many others who are suspicious of the whole idea.

In this article I want to examine some of the benefits and drawbacks of Logos compared to old fashioned print books. My purpose is to help you think through the options.

Apples & Oranges

It is important from the outset that we do not make too rigid a comparison between a printed library and an electronic library—between your father’s library and your son’s library. While a printed book and a Logos book may contain the same words, they are different media and each has strengths and weaknesses. We need to resist making a 1:1 comparison between the two.

The greatest strength of Logos is in its wider system. What a Logos book offers that a printed book does not is integration into that system. When you add a new book to your Logos library, you increase the power and usefulness of the entire system. It is less like adding a printed book to a bookcase and more like adding memory to a computer or a new Christian with his spiritual gifts to your congregation—it improves and strengthens the entire system.

The most important part of the system is in its power to find and relate information across an entire library. With a print library, it may take me hours of searching bookcases, looking for Scripture indexes, and referencing endnotes to find all my library has to tell me about a particular verse or subject. Logos makes it as easy as typing in a keyword or clicking a Scripture verse. Within seconds it will search an entire library, organize the results, and show the best ones; one more click will begin a deeper search. Logos also makes it easy to do word studies and to find information about the Greek and Hebrew. It allows notes and easily formats footnotes. It is feature-rich.

Apples 2.0 & Oranges 2.0

We cannot make too strict a comparison between Logos and a printed book. We should also be careful not to make too strict a comparison between Logos and a Kindle book or another ebook format. Here is the difference: Kindle is primarily for reading; Logos is primarily for researching. You may notice that a Logos book tend to be more expensive than the same book in those other formats. We see lots of $2.99 sales for Kindle books but not many at all for Logos. This is because Logos books are specially prepared so their Scripture references can be clicked to immediately display the appropriate passage, so their prominent headings will appear in searches, and so on. This extra preparation carries an extra cost. Again, you are not simply adding a book to your library; you are strengthening a system.

On Building a Library

Here are several principles to consider when it comes to building a Logos library.

September 15, 2013

John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress and undoubtedly the most famous of all Puritans, was born on November 28, 1628 in Bedfordshire, England. His father was a brazier (a brass worker) and it was intention that his son would take over the family business. But in 1644, when he was 16, both his mother and sister passed away. Within two months his father remarried, and Bunyan soon left to join the Parliamentary Army.

After two and a half years in the army, Bunyan returned home to take up the work of a tinker (an itinerant metalworker). Before long he was married, and his new wife brought into the relationship two books God used to convict him of his sin: The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven by Arthur Dent and The Practice of Piety by Lewis Bayly. Bunyan stopped his swearing, which must have been a particular vice of his, and took up regular attendance at a church.

Through the influence of some godly women in the church, the preaching of pastor John Gifford, and the writing of Martin Luther (especially his commentary on Galatians), Bunyan came to a real and saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and was baptized in 1653.

Before long Bunyan began preaching in small circles and discovered his gift for teaching. Soon he was formally appointed as a lay preacher and began preaching more regularly. Around the same time he published his first work, Some Gospel Truths Opened, written in opposition to the teaching of the Quakers, and thus began what would become his most fruitful and enduring ministry: writing books.

His first wife passed away in 1655 leaving him four children, the oldest of whom, Mary, was blind from birth. Bunyan married again in 1659 to Elizabeth who would bear him two more children.

Bunyan was arrested in 1660 for preaching without a license. As the story goes, when told that he would be freed if he stopped preaching, he responded, “If I am freed today, I will preach tomorrow.” Bunyan would spend the next twelve and a half years behind bars for this conviction, supporting his family by making countless shoelaces for them to sell.

After his release from jail in 1672, Bunyan became pastor of the nonconformist congregation of Bedford from which he staged a wider ministry throughout England. During this time he earned the playful title “Bishop Bunyan.” During another brief stint in jail in 1675 Bunyan wrote his most remembered title, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which he then published in 1678.

In 1688, while in London on a preaching trip, Bunyan was overtaken with fever and died on August 31. He was 59.

Unique Contribution

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about John Bunyan was his unusual ability to preach and teach. It is recorded that King Charles II once asked John Owen why he listened to Bunyan, an uneducated tinker, to which Owen replied, “Could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, please your Majesty, I would gladly relinquish all my learning.”

However, his abilities were not limited to the spoken word, but instead were perhaps all the more effective in what he wrote. J. I. Packer notes that over the course of his 30 year writing career Bunyan published a total of 60 works, and he adds, “they are all worth reading still,” though none of them are as accessible as The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The incredible success of The Pilgrim’s Progress is a testimony to Bunyan’s ability to teach, in this case through an allegorical narrative. Beeke & Pederson observe that, as some scholars have asserted, “with the exception of the Bible and perhaps Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, this Bunyan classic has sold more copies than any other book ever written.”

Most Important Works

Obviously his most important work, and the one every Christian should at least try to read, is The Pilgrim’s Progress. In Meet the Puritans Beeke and Pederson say it is The best of Bunyan and a perfect pictorial index to the Puritan understanding of the Christian life.”

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners - “An indispensable source for Bunyan’s early life and conversion, this autobiographical classic chronicles his life from infancy to his imprisonment in 1660.”

The Holy War - Another allegory by Bunyan, considered second only in quality to The Pilgrim’s Progress. It “is more difficult to read but is also more profound in places … because it involves several levels of allegory.”

September 11, 2013

It is not quite time to return home from Scotland; Aileen and I are first spending a couple of days together in the Highlands. We spent much of yesterday exploring the area, driving the narrow country lanes, visiting churches, graveyards, memorial markers and artifacts, each one somehow significant to the history of the church.

At one point we came across an old church building that is barely still standing. The roof has long since collapsed and even the walls are now tottering. Signs warn that the building is derelict; to enter is to risk your life. The graveyard is overgrown with tomb stones broken and toppled. Lying flat on the ground, just beside one of the church’s walls, is the tombstone of the church’s founding pastor, Thomas Hog, who lived from 1628 - 1692. The words on his tombstone are very nearly worn away through the passage of time, but in 1940, someone had a new stone made to ensure those words would not be lost.

Be Warned
“This stone shall bear witness against the parishioners of Kiltearn if they bring ane ungodly minister in here.” Over time the church did bring ungodly ministers into their association and into their pulpit. And today that stone, better preserved than anything else on the whole property, bears witness against them. It seems an apt illustration of what has happened to so many churches in Scotland, the UK, and across the world.

Yet hope remains. Congregations have come and gone, buildings have risen and fallen, but the Word of God endures forever. The gospel remains the power of God for salvation.

I have spoken a lot about 20schemes over the past few days. I have seen the ministry up-close now. Obviously I got only a glimpse of it and there was only so much I could see and do in 4 days. But from what I observed I was greatly encouraged and came to believe even more in what they are doing and in what they are seeking to accomplish. I want to leave you with a few calls to action—things you may wish to consider exploring.

  1. Take the 10-4-20 pledge. A donation of $10 per month helps fund their training programs for indigenous workers.
  2. Consider going on their next vision trip. It will take place March 7-12, 2014. You can email 20schemes@gmail.com to get more information.
  3. Become a church partner. They are seeking 100 church partners to give, to go and to send.  Again, email 20schemes@gmail.com and visit 20schemes.com to get more information.
  4. Join 20Schemes in Calgary at their Workshop on Oct 26th or keep an eye out for other events at 20schemes.com/events. If you are in Toronto, you can get in touch with me about a 20schemes event we will be hosting in October.
  5. Best of all, go. They are looking for church planters, female outreach workers, and ministry apprentices who will go there, settle into a scheme, and tell people about Jesus.

September 10, 2013

I think I saw about half of Scotland yesterday. I am here to see the work of 20schemes, an organization dedicated to providing gospel churches for Scotland’s poorest. Scotland’s poorest tend to live in schemes, government housing that is free for the destitute or subsidized for the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Scots live in such housing and these neighborhoods extend through every Scottish city. Very few of them have churches where the gospel is believed, honored and preached.

We began our day in a scheme on the outskirts of Edinburgh. For ten years one young lady and her brother have been working with the young people in this scheme, even moving in to be a part of the community. She befriends the children, organizes sports and activities for them, and tells them about Jesus. Just a couple of days ago one of the children saw her mother die of a drug overdose; her care will now pass to her grandmother. Around 150 children attend the programs every week. There is no church in this scheme and no nearby church to send children to when they profess faith in Christ. She has a growing number of children asking about the gospel and showing interest in it, but no church there and no pastor. It was a joy to see her joy, it was a blessing to see her serving, but sad to know that there is no church nearby.

From Edinburgh we headed to the city of Dundee, a working-class town traditionally built around the textile industry. It has a significant Roman Catholic population that came in a wave of Irish immigration. There in the heart of a great neighborhood is a church building that has not housed a congregation for over 20 years. The building could easily house 100 or 200 people, just as it did in its glory days. Today it provides a location for some clubs and activities, but there have not been worship services there for many years. A nearby gospel-loving church has made a commitment to continue to support the building, to pay for its maintenance, to keep it open, even to provide some funding for a plant. But again, there is no pastor. 20schemes is partnering with this church to look for a team of people who will settle in the scheme, who will become part of the community, and who will preach the gospel. In Toronto and so many other places we have planters with no buildings; in the schemes there are buildings with no planters.

We left Dundee and drove to Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city and the city with the highest population settled in schemes. And here we met two young men who, along with their wives, are caring for the kids in one of these schemes. Just like that young lady in Edinburgh, they lead the children in games and activities and they tell them about Jesus. And just like her, they do not have a solid church to direct the children to. A Church of Scotland building houses the activities; its sanctuary has seating for 600 or 700 people, but today only 40 or 50 attend on a Sunday. There is no pastor and if one is ever assigned, it is unlikely, based on the condition of the Church of Scotland, that he will know or preach the gospel.

September 09, 2013

I have not traveled often beyond the North American continent, but when I do, the truest joy is not in seeing the sites or getting a glimpse of the culture. The truest joy is in worshipping with fellow believers. Last fall I was able to worship with Christians in Dubai and India and was deeply moved. Yesterday, on this vision trip with 20schemes, I worshipped at two different churches in two different cities in Scotland and they highlighted both the past and the future of what Christians are trying to accomplish here.

We began the day at Niddrie Community Church. Mez McConnell became pastor here six years ago. When he arrived it was a church in long decline. There were believers here who genuinely loved the Lord and longed to serve him, but the members were intimidated by the people in the neighborhood and were making few inroads into the scheme. The church building was a constant target of vandalism and the pastors were being oppressed and intimidated.

Niddrie
Yesterday there were well over 100 people in attendance, many of them new believers and the majority of them saved in just the past few years. There were children all over the place, young couples, singles young and old, and some elderly. The church has seen a complete reversal and an exciting revitalization under Mez’s leadership.

The service could have been copied and pasted from my own Grace Fellowship Church where I worshipped last week or from Redeemer Church of Dubai where I worshipped last fall. They sang, they read, they prayed, they preached and they went their way. There was nothing fancy about it.

There is no great trick to Mez’s ministry and no secret to the church’s successful impact in the neighborhood over the past few years. The people have moved into the scheme, they have built relationships, and they have preached the gospel. They’ve left the results in the Lord’s hands and he has done amazing things. There are people here like Ricky (who is tracking toward church leadership) and Paul (who is doing his first paid work in 17 years and scrubbing toilets for the Lord) and Natasha (who has taken such good care of us over the past few days). Each of them testifies to the Lord’s work in their life and each of them shows clear evidences of his grace.

We joined in the church’s fellowship lunch and then went on our way.

The evening took us to Grangemouth, a sprawling scheme about 45 minutes away, on the outskirts of the city of Glasgow. This is a church whose best days are in the past. Six seniors gather on a Sunday evening to sing songs and to hear a sermon from one of elders of Niddrie Community Church. The sanctuary with seating for well over 100 people sits empty and they meet in a tiny little room off to the side in order to save money on heating. Our little group tripled the attendance and added more than a little volume to the singing.

September 08, 2013

I mentioned on Friday that I had arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland and am here to look into the work of a ministry called 20schemes. 20schemes is dedicated to providing gospel churches for Scotland’s poorest people and these are, almost by definition, people who live in schemes.

“What is a scheme?” you may ask. It is a good question. It is also a little bit difficult to answer, even though I have spent a few days in one and have heard several explanations. Part of the difficulty comes in that there is no direct comparison between a Scottish scheme and something that exists in North America.

In most of the United Kingdom a scheme is referred to as “council housing.” In the United States you might know something similar as a “project” or in Canada (or Ontario, at least) as “Ontario housing” or “welfare housing.”

Schemes began as housing developments for the working class and factory laborers. Beginning between the two world wars, the government wanted to tear down inner-city slums and tenement buildings and in their place developed schemes outside the city centers. The government owned these homes, managed them, and rented them to the workers. This was the socialist utopia, the place where the working class could live in ideal conditions. These were desirable homes and there was some pride in moving to these new neighborhoods.

Over time, as the nation became increasingly socialized, the schemes were reassigned as subsidized housing for the poor or free housing for the destitute. Through the 60’s and all the way to the present, urban blight set in and the schemes were left to decay. Soon they were overtaken by gangs, violence and drugs. Today they house many of the “benefits class” of people who exist entirely on social security handouts and who may have done so for generations. Many of the schemes have decayed to such a degree that they are now little more than slums, though there are also revitalization programs underway to replace some of the worst of the housing.

To complicate things further, Margaret Thatcher introduced a program in the 1980’s that allowed residents to purchase their homes at subsidized rates, so that today some homes in the schemes are owned privately while others are owned by the government. Additionally, with real estate prices rising, homes in the schemes have become an affordable entry-level option for those wanting to begin to climb the real estate ladder. As this middle class contingent has moved in, they have brought a very different worldview and a whole new set of complications. In most schemes, then, you have an eclectic mixture of people: social climbers, lifelong welfare recipients, drug addicts, released criminals, elderly residents who bought their homes years ago but no longer have the funds to maintain them, and more besides.

Each scheme has its own identity, heritage and local culture so that residents will acknowledge they are from this scheme or that scheme and perhaps even feel a bit territorial. Many schemes span a whole neighborhood with defined boundaries and thousands or even ten or twenty thousand residents living within it. Many families have been there for several generations.

September 08, 2013

Thomas Boston might not technically count as a Puritan in the minds of some, either because he was Scottish or because he lived the majority of his life in the eighteenth century. J. I. Packer, however, includes him in his book Puritan Portraits and describes him as one who, alongside Jonathan Edwards in America, “represents most brilliantly the prolonging into the eighteenth century of pure Puritanism” (106). He was an “inheritor and champion of Puritan theology and of the Reformational rethinking that preceded it.”

Boston was born in Duns, Scotland in 1676, the son of good Presbyterian parents. Once as a child he even accompanied his father to jail because of his father’s lack of conformity to the established church. Boston’s own conversion to Christ came at the young age of 11 as he sat under the preaching ministry of Henry Erskine.

By the age of 22 he was a licensed preacher in the Church of Scotland and already writing books. In 1707 he took up the pastorate in the southern Scottish town of Ettrick, where he would remain up to the point of his death in 1732 at age 56.

Unique Contribution

What is most remarkable about Boston is the unique combination of so many graces in one man. Packer again helps us understand his significance by describing him as one who had

… a dazzling mastery of the text and teaching of the Bible; a profound knowledge of the human heart; great thoroughness and clarity in exposition; great skill in applicatory searching of the conscience; and a pervasive sense of the wonder and glory of God’s grace in Christ to such perverse sinners as ourselves. (117)

Elsewhere he writes that, “as Boston had a sensitive spirit, so he had a first-class mind, a retentive memory, and a way with words.” Jonathan Edwards also regarded him highly, calling him “a truly great divine.”

Most Important Works

The Art of Man-Fishing - Remarkably written when Boston was just 22, this book represents well the Puritan understanding of evangelism—what Christ meant when he spoke of fishing for men, and how we can follow him in that work.

The Crook in the Lot - Derived from seven sermons which he preached during a period of great pain in his own life, this book contains Boston’s meditations on God’s sovereignty and wisdom in placing thorns in your side (or, as the title says, crooks in the lot of your life).

Repentance - In this book Boston “links together expositions … on the necessity, nature and urgency of repentance, and the folly of ignoring or postponing this life-and-death issue.”

September 06, 2013

I am writing today from Edinburgh, Scotland. Aileen and I boarded a flight last night and arrived first thing this morning. It has been twenty three years since I was last in Scotland; Aileen has never been. We are here with a small collection of pastors and church leaders who have traveled from all over the United States or Canada. We are here to visit 20Schemes, a ministry hard at work in a unique mission field—Scotland’s schemes. I will be telling you more about schemes in the days ahead.

Each person who made the journey paid their own way over. Most are here to consider partnering with 20Schemes or even to consider moving to Scotland to lead a church plant or revitalization. I came because I want to see the ministry first-hand and because I’d like to introduce you to it. I’ve met the leaders, I’ve heard of their work, and now I get to see it close-up.

Scotland and Christianity have a long history together. At one time this country was one of the strongholds of the Christian faith. It was once considered a Christian nation. But no longer. Christianity is now an afterthought for the majority of people here. Churches are empty. This is true especially in the schemes, those large areas of the cities given over to government housing and welfare support.

And yet this ministry is in the schemes doing two simple things: getting involved in the community and telling people about Jesus. And the Lord is at work. I plan to go looking for evidence of that work over the next few days, and as I see it, I am going to tell you about it.

(For now, would you pray for me? I’m feeling a little bit under the weather. It might be the jetlag, it might be the big ol’ plate of haggis I ordered as soon as I got here. Either way, I could use the prayer.)

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