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The False Teachers
February 16, 2014

This morning I am setting out on a new series of articles that will scan the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—and pause to examine some of Christianity’s most notorious false teachers. Along the way we will visit such figures as Pelgius, Servetus, Fosdick, and even a few you might find on television today. We will begin this morning with one of the very first, and certainly one of the most dangerous, false teachers: Arius.

Arius

Arius is said to have been Libyan by descent, and he was probably born around 256 AD. We know little about his early days except that he studied under Lucian, the presbyter of Antioch. He later returned to Alexandria and became a presbyter there where he quickly became both prestigious and popular.

Arius’ difficulties began in 318 when he clashed with Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. Alexander believed in the co-eternality of the Word of God while Arius taught that the Word was created by God. Because Alexander understood this as a dangerous threat to the church, he publicly condemned Arius’ teaching and removed him from all church posts. However, Arius refused to accept Alexander’s judgments and appealed to the people of the city and to other eastern bishops. In this way the dispute spread and became a severe threat to church unity. Seeing this danger, and wishing to avert division within his empire, Constantine called the first Christian council: the Council of Nicaea.

At the council, Arius’ teaching was formally condemned. The debate lasted from May 20 until June 19, at which point the council produced an initial form of the Nicaean Creed which explicitly affirmed the “begotten” position and condemned Arianism. All but two of the attendees voted in its favor and those two, along with Arius, were excommunicated and banished to Illyria. All of Arius’ writings were ordered confiscated and burned.

After being in exile for a decade, Arius sought to be restored to the church, and appealed directly to the emperor. Constantine became convinced of Arius’ return to orthodoxy and soon ordered Alexander, the patriarch of Constantinople, to reinstate him. Alexander was wary of letting Arius back into the church and, according to a letter by Athanasius, prayed that God would somehow prevent it. Very soon after this prayer, before Arius could be reinstated, he died.

Nathan Busenitz summarizes Arius’ impact in this way: “In ancient times, Arius’ teachings presented the foremost threat to orthodox Christianity—which is why historians like Alexander Mackay have labeled him ‘the greatest heretic of antiquity’.” His false teaching, coming as it did in the church’s infancy, truly did represent a grave threat.

His False teaching

Arius’ unorthodox position can be summed up very simply as “there was when he was not.” In other words, he held that God the Son is not co-eternal with God the Father. Instead, he believed that the Son was God’s first creation and that through him everything else was made (Colossians 1:15). This made the Son the only direct creation of the Father and thus unique among all creation as the first and greatest created being, but it also made the Father’s divinity greater than the Son’s. He argued that the opposing view, which would soon be officially established as the orthodox position, was incompatible with monotheism.

February 13, 2014

There is a lot to look forward to when the Lord returns and when we begin life anew in the new heaven and new earth. I guess you could say that infinite pleasures await there—pleasures that will know no end, because time will know no end. The greatest of all these pleasures will undoubtedly be the ability to be face-to-face with God at last, free from all traces of sin and evil. Of all heaven’s treasures, none offers more than this.

But heaven’s greatest pleasure is not it’s only pleasure. Lately I have been thinking about another joy that awaits—the joy of a very different relationship with time. When we are mortal, time is a finite resource. But when ten thousand years is as a day, and a day as ten thousand years, time will be infinite and we will be immortal. That will change everything.

I thought about this last week when I traveled to Grace College in Indiana to speak at a few of their chapel services. I had chosen to accept their invitation and was grateful for the opportunity—I enjoyed speaking to the students and I enjoyed getting to know a few of them. There are few things I like more than spending time with Christian college students. Yet in choosing to accept the invitation, I had to choose not to do other good things for those two days.

One of the most exasperating parts of life in this world is that I must constantly choose the good things not to do. So much of life is not the choice between good and bad, but between good and good. Even in the joy of doing one good thing, there is the sorrow of not being able to do another good thing. Three days spent in Indiana, is three days spent apart from my wife and my children. It is three days away from the people I love; I will never get those days back. I have been given perhaps 7,000 or 8,000 days with my children before they move out to begin life on their own, and in going away, I permanently traded away three of those precious days.

Bad Singing
February 10, 2014

One of the real privileges I’ve had over the past few years is experiencing and participating in worship services at quite a variety of churches. These churches have spanned a few different continents, at least four or five different countries, and a host of denominations and traditions. They have ranged from congregations with hundreds or even a thousand members all the way down to churches with just a handful of faithful Christians.

Yesterday I found myself reflecting on many of these churches and I realized something that surprised me: I am drawn toward a church that sings poorly and am a little suspicious of a church that sings really well. Let me explain.

A few years ago I worshiped at a church that had been established decades ago. This was quite a large congregation where three or four generations were worshiping together and where God’s Word had been faithfully proclaimed for many, many years. It was faithfully proclaimed the day I was there. The congregation has a distinct but unusual style of singing, one established many years in the past and carried on to our day.

These people know how to sing. They sing loudly. They sing skillfully. They sing beautifully. They sing in parts and with minimal instrumentation so that together they raise one voice to the Lord.

But one reason they sing so well is that there are very few among them who are new to the faith; there are very few among them who have not been raised to hear those songs week by week from their youngest days. By their own admission, they are poor evangelists and their church is not attractive to outsiders because it is so bound in a distinct culture foreign to those around them. They sing so well because they evangelize so poorly.

And then I think to another church I visited in the not-so-distant past. This is a church where the singing is, well, not quite as beautiful. Though there are some in the church who know the songs and who know how to sing a hymn or a contemporary worship song, there are many more who simply do not. As the music rises and falls, many of those voices fall and rise. As the songs progress, many in the church can do little more than mumble along and hope to hit at least a few of the notes.

February 06, 2014

If you were visit Oxford, England today, and find your way to the Angus Library of Regent’s Park College (a part of Oxford University), you might just come across an old, nondescript couch settled there in the archives. This antique couch sits at the top of a stone staircase, beside a plaque warning that this area of the library is a “quiet area.” It looks for all the world like a piece of furniture someone put down for a moment and then forgot to move to a better place. And yet this couch has greater significance than you might guess, because William Carey died upon it in Serampore, India, almost two hundred years ago. William Carey’s couch is the next of the twenty-five objects through which we are exploring the history of Christianity.

Carey CouchWilliam Carey was born on August 17, 1761 and raised in Paulerspury, a small village in central England. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a cobbler in a nearby village and, though Carey had been raised Anglican, a fellow apprentice who was a Dissenter influenced him to leave the Church of England and join a Congregational church. This was just the beginning of an important spiritual pilgrimage.

During Carey’s time as an apprentice and shoemaker he found that he was adept at languages and taught himself Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Dutch, and French. In 1783 he became a Baptist and by 1789 was a full-time pastor at Harvey Lane Baptist Church in Leicester. After reading Jonathan Edwards’ account of the life of David Brainerd, as well as the journals of the explorer James Cook, he became increasingly interested in missions and in 1792 published his most enduring work, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. This book outlined the Christians’ obligation to do missions, shared a brief history of missions, gave statistical data about the world’s need for missions, provided answers to objections against doing missions, and a contained a proposal for the kind of society that could be formed to support such an effort.

Also in 1792 he preached the sermon which contained the quote that has become indelibly associated with his name: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” In the fall of that same year, he formed the Baptist Missionary Society alongside other charter members Andrew Fuller, John Ryland, and John Sutcliff. Carey sailed to India the following April, and would never again return to England.

Over the next 41 years Carey accomplished or influenced a remarkable amount of work, and for good reason is considered the father of modern missions. He translated the entire Bible into India’s major languages: Bengali, Oriya, Marathi, Hindi, Assamese, and Sanskrit and parts of 209 other languages and dialects. He influenced social reform, including the abolition of infanticide, widow burning, and assisted suicide. And he helped found Serampore College, a divinity school for Indians. But, as Mark Galli says, “His greatest legacy was in the worldwide missionary movement of the nineteenth century that he inspired. Missionaries like Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and David Livingstone, among thousands of others, were impressed not only by Carey’s example, but by his words ‘Expect great things; attempt great things.’ The history of nineteenth-century Protestant missions is in many ways an extended commentary on the phrase.” Carey expected great things from God and on that basis attempted great things; thousands would follow his lead.

February 02, 2014

Today I am completing a series of articles on the seven ecumenical councils of the early church. These councils commenced with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and concluded with the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Between these two events were five more, each of which attempted to understand and establish a unified Christian theology.

In this series we have taken a brief look at each of the seven councils. For each one we have considered the setting and purpose, the major characters, the nature of the conflict, and then the results and lasting significance. We close the series today with the final council: the Second Council of Nicaea.

Setting & Purpose

The Second Council of Nicaea opened on September 24, 787, some 452 years after the first ecumenical council met in that same city. Between 258 and 335 bishops were present, presided over by Tarasius, who was Patriarch of Constantinople. The council had been convened by Empress Irene in order to discuss the use of icons, a practice which had been condemned by the Council of Hieria in 754.

Major Characters & Conflict

Constantine V (718 – 775) had led a campaign against icons that had begun with his father, Emperor Leo III. The campaign culminated in the Council of Hieria in 754. This council claimed to be ecumenical and succeeded in establishing iconoclasm (the rejection and destruction of religious icons) as the orthodox teaching of the church.

When Constantine V died, his son Leo IV took over the throne. He maintained his father’s iconoclasm, though he was less forceful against those who remained in favor of using them, perhaps because his wife, Irene, was an iconophile. When Leo IV died in 780, just five years after taking the throne, Irene succeeded him.

In 784 the outgoing patriarch of Constantinople, Paul IV, urged Irene to call a council to help mend some of the divisions between the Eastern and Western church and to examine the use of icons. She agreed, and soon after appointed a new patriarch of Constantinople, Tarasius, to help her. She also wrote to Pope Hadrian in Rome, asking him to prepare for a council. He agreed, and expressed his support for the use of icons based on his understand of Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers. Though he did not travel to Nicaea, he did send two representatives.

January 29, 2014

Of all the casualties the church has suffered in recent decades, I wonder if many will have longer-lasting consequences than the loss of the evening service. There was a time, not so long ago, when many or even most churches gathered in the morning and the evening. But today the evening service is increasingly relegated to the past.

At Grace Fellowship Church we hold on to the evening service and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It is a commitment, to be sure—a commitment for the pastors to plan a second service and to prepare a second sermon, and a commitment for the members to give the church not only the morning but also the evening. But these are small costs compared to the great benefits. Here are a few things I love about an evening service.

It Begins and Ends the Day With God

Perhaps the best part of having an evening service is that, just as the morning service allows you to begin the day worshiping God with his people, the evening services allows you to close the day worshiping God with his people. As a church we love to sing the song “We Are Listening” which proclaims, “Morning and evening we come / To delight in the words of our God.” And with an evening service, we are able to do exactly that: We begin the Lord’s Day in worship and close it in worship. That’s a beautiful thing.

It Sanctifies the Time Between

If beginning and ending the day in corporate worship is an obvious blessing of an evening service, a less obvious but still important benefit is that having these bookends around the day encourages the best uses of the Lord’s Day while discouraging the less significant uses. Knowing that you will have to leave the house before the football game ends does wonders to uproot any real desire to watch football (or, over time, to even care about football, as I have discovered!). Conversely, knowing that you have four or five hours between services helps you spot a perfect window for extending hospitality. There is no better or more convenient time to open your home, especially to those who drive from a distance, than between the morning and evening service.

It Provides Another Opportunity to Learn

I grew up in the Dutch Reformed tradition where the evening service was considered an integral part of any Christian’s duty. The morning service was set aside for verse-by-verse preaching through God’s Word while the evening service was set aside for advancing question-by-question through the catechisms and confessions. Even if your church will not use an evening service for teaching the catechism, it does offer an opportunity to teach something else, perhaps a second book of the Bible or a topical series. It also affords a natural context to integrate new or young teachers, to give them a place to grow in their ability to teach and preach.

January 27, 2014

I sometimes find myself grumbling a little bit about the state of publishing today, and especially the state of Christian publishing. Many of the big publishers have been gobbled up by corporations whose primary concern is not the glory of God but the health of the bottom line. Some of the medium-sized publishers seem to collect any and every rambling word of the popular pastors and personalities so they can slap those words on paper. Many of the smallest publishers are churning out books that simply do not deserve to be printed. New tools for self-publishing allow anyone with an idea to commit it to paper and distribute it as widely as they can. And that’s not all that is concerning or annoying. There are the thousands of truly awful, unbiblical books being published each year, and the fact that the bestseller lists are inevitably dominated by titles that are not only bad, but often downright dangerous.

And yet, when I stop and consider the state of Christian publishing, I can’t help but think that we are in a golden age. A strange age, to be sure, but a golden one nonetheless. Christians today are extraordinarily blessed by a vast number of excellent, Christ-centered, God-glorifying books.

I see evidence for this golden age in so many different ways.

I see it in Christian-owned and Christian-operated publishers who believe their mission is to publish books that are doctrinally-rich, biblically-sound, and skillfully-written. Many of these publishers have existed for decades and have maintained their mission and focus for generations. I am grateful for the work of P&R (serving us since 1930), Crossway (serving us since 1938), Christian Focus (serving us since the early 1970’s), and so many others.

I see it in the dedicated men and women who work for publishers formerly owned by Christians that have since been purchased by giant multinational corporations. While the corporations may be answerable to their shareholders, there are sincere people within these organizations are who committed to publishing excellent and God-glorifying books. In that vein I am grateful for so many dedicated Christians who labor behind-the-scenes at Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, Multnomah, and others.

I see this golden age in new and promising strategic partnerships between ministries and publishers, where publishers are joining with gospel-loving ministries to extend the reach of those ministries through the printed word. The Gospel Coalition is partnering with Crossway, 9Marks is partnering with B&H (and several others), while many other partnerships are only just taking shape; as they do that, they will bring us even more good books.

January 26, 2014

I am in the midst of a series of articles on the seven ecumenical councils of the early church. These councils commenced with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and concluded with the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Between these two events were five more, each of which attempted to understand and establish a unified Christian theology.

In this series we are taking a brief look at each of the seven councils. For each one we are considering the setting and purpose, the major characters, the nature of the conflict, and then the results and lasting significance. We continue today with the sixth council: the Third Council of Constantinople.

Setting & Purpose

The Third Council of Constantinople was convened by Emperor Constantine IV in an attempt to settle further differences between the Eastern and Western church in the way they understood the nature of Christ’s will and power. The council began on Nov 7, 680 in the Trullus, a great domed room in the imperial palace at Constantinople. Only 43 bishops were present, marking this as the smallest of the seven ecumenical councils.

Major Characters & Conflict

Constantine IV opened the council and presided over the first 11 of the 18 sessions (which would go on for 10 months). But unlike the councils before and after it, the Third Council of Constantinople did not have one or two men who dominated the proceedings.

The primary conflict in the council was regarding the two doctrines of monoenergism and monothelitism. Monoenergism arose not long after the Second Council of Constantinople as another attempt to reconcile the churches of the East and West. It was the belief that, though Christ may have had two distinct natures, there was but one energy operative in his person: the divine energy. Leo Davis describes the position like this: “Whatever was done by the Incarnate Word was done by Him as Creator and God, and that therefore all the things that were said of Him either as God or in a human way were the action of the divinity of the Word.”

January 23, 2014

In the fall of 1740, America was abuzz. Revival was sweeping the northern states and Christian fervor was at fever pitch. George Whitefield, the great English evangelist was traveling through the colonies, and his reputation as a powerful preacher and orator had preceded him so that great crowds swelled to hear him preach. Because most churches were closed to him, he chose to preach in the open air just as he had so many times in his native England. On October 16 he stood in the center of the Quaboag Plantation in West Brookfield, Massachusetts with a crowd of at least 500 standing about him and there he preached the gospel of Jesus Christ. As he preached, he stood upon a great rock, known today—appropriately—as Whitefield Rock. And this, Whitefield Rock, is the next of the twenty-five objects through which we are tracing the history of Christianity.

The Great Awakening was an unexpected revival that swept North America in the 1730s and 1740s, a sustained time in which God granted unusual response to the preaching of his Word. This awakening was closely related to similar revivals that occurred in Europe around the same time.

The Great Awakening is usually associated with two men who were to become close friends, but who did not meet one another until after the revival began: Jonathan Edwards, the preacher and theologian, and George Whitefield, the preacher and evangelist. However, the revival was carried along by many other sincere and unknown Christians. The first spark of revival glimmered forth in Edwards’ town of Northampton, Massachusetts. As Edwards preached to his church, he emphasized the importance of a vital, personal faith in Jesus Christ. People heard that word and were transformed. People heard that word and took it with them, believing it, sharing it. Collin Hansen writes, “During the First Great Awakening, God worked through men like Edwards and Whitefield to save thousands of sinners. Local awakenings connected through the itinerant ministry of Whitefield and writing of Edwards dramatically affected colonial America.”

George Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England. He attended Pembroke College, Oxford, where he met John and Charles Wesley and joined their “Holy Club.” However, it was only when he read Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man and became seriously ill that he was genuinely converted. He immediately became passionate about sharing the gospel with others and was soon ordained an Anglican clergyman.

Whitefield Rock

January 20, 2014

Accountability has gotten a bad rap. It is easy to see why, I guess. When it comes to battling against sin, and especially those stubborn, addictive sins, accountability relationships are sometimes held up as a cure-all, a near guarantee of success. Yet often they end up being a means of commiseration more than challenge, a time when Christians sit around feeling sorry for one another rather than full-on battling against sin.

Yet I believe the Bible promotes and even demands accountability relationships for Christians who want to battle hard against a dogged sin. Paul writes, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1-2). Accountability is a specific—and if done right, helpful—form of bearing one another’s burdens.

However, for accountability to be successful, it must be done well. In his book Finally Free, Heath Lambert includes some helpful principles about effective accountability. He writes in the context of battling against pornography, but the points he makes are equally applicable to any sin.

Here are seven principles for effective accountability; each is further explained by showing what effective accountability is and is not.

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