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April 21, 2014

I am one of those New Calvinists, I guess, which means I am part of a crowd that values preaching, and expository preaching in particular. Of course I was an Old Calvinist before I was a New one and was raised in a tradition that valued preaching just as highly. For my whole life I’ve been around preachers and preaching.

I spent a good bit of time last week pondering the nature of God’s Word and thinking specifically about Paul’s mandate to Timothy: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” That’s a passage about preaching, but it’s also a passage about just plain reading the Bible out loud. It intrigued me.

I travel a fair bit these days and often enjoy worshipping in other churches, and here is something I’ve noticed: We tend to be far more committed to the second part of that command than to the first. We love our preaching, but what about the public reading of Scripture? Most churches I visit will read the Bible immediately prior to the sermon, and some will read a text in sections during the sermon, but few just dedicate themselves to reading the Bible aloud. Conferences, too, are known for their preaching, but not necessarily for their emphasis on reading the Bible. Last week I found myself wondering why this is. I wonder if our emphasis on preaching has inadvertently nudged it out.

Paul’s command to Timothy that he devote himself to the public reading of Scripture can be better understood by looking to 2 Timothy 3 where Paul speaks about the nature of God’s Word. When we understand what God’s Word is and does, we better understand why we ought to read it. Paul tells Timothy that the Scriptures are “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Paul isn’t talking about the Scriptures as they are preached here—not yet—but the Scriptures as they are, as they are read, as they are understood, as they are absorbed by the Christian.

Paul uses two groups of two words to explain how the Bible functions and what it accomplishes. The Bible is profitable for teaching and reproof. These are words related to doctrine, to the positive teaching of truth and to the correcting of falsehood. The Bible teaches us truth and it convicts us of error. The Bible is also profitable for correction and for training in righteousness. These are words related to living, to the correction of unrighteous ways of living and instruction in godliness. The Bible teaches us how to live and convicts us of sinful habits and patterns.

And because it does all of these things it completes us, it grows us in Christian maturity and prepares us to do those good things—those good works—that God means for us to do. It prepares us to do good things that are done not to make us look great, but to make ourselves diminish so that God can increase all the more.

Once more, the Bible does not need to be preached in order to do this. It just needs to be read. God’s Word alone has the power to do this because those words have been breathed out by God; in that way it has a supernatural power no other words can have. Preaching has a role, to be sure, but preaching only does what it does because the Bible is what it is. God allows us to preach and even tells us to preach, but he does not need preaching in order to change us and mature us. The Bible alone can do this. The Bible is its own preacher, its own counselor, its own teacher, its own evangelist. If we have de-emphasized the public reading of the Bible because of our love for preaching, the solution is not to diminish preaching, but to re-emphasize the reading.

So here’s the question: Do you commit yourself to the public reading of Scripture? Do you read it in your church, even if you cannot explain it at the time? Do you read it in your home, with your family, even if you do not have a lot of opportunity to explain and apply it? If the Bible is so powerful, and if the Bible accomplishes so much, it would be ridiculous not to read it, not to read it faithfully and consistently and expectantly.

And here’s another question: What do you expect when someone reads the Bible to you? Do you expect that it will teach and train you? Do you expect that it will admonish and correct you? Do you expect that as the Bible is read, God himself will speak to you and convict you of sin and unrighteousness and teach you about himself and how to live in a way that honors him? You should expect nothing less.

The Bestsellers
April 20, 2014

A short time ago I launched a new Sunday series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I will look at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. So far we have looked at three titles that were awarded Platinum status in 2005; today we advance to 2007 and a surprise bestseller.

90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper

90 Minutes in HeavenIt is not often that a book races to the top of the bestseller charts and opens up the way for a whole new genre of Christian literature. But such is the case with Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven, a book that spurred an entire genre of what I refer to as “Heaven Tourism” books.

Don Piper was involved in radio and television ministry when he determined that he had been called to be a pastor. In 1985 he was ordained as a Baptist minister and was soon serving in Houston as a minister of education and single adults. It was shortly thereafter, in 1989, that he had an experience that would forever change his life and ministry. Fifteen years later, in 2004, he would team with Cecil Murphey and Baker Publishers to release 90 Minutes in Heaven, the book in which he described his experience.

On January 18, 1989, Piper was driving through rural Texas, returning from a Christian conference that had ended a little bit earlier than expected. As he was crossing a long bridge with water on either side, an 18-wheeler owned by the Texas Department of Corrections swerved over the center line and hit his Ford Escort head-on. Piper was killed instantly. The steering wheel impaled his chest and the roof collapsed on his head. Emergency medical technicians responded and pronounced him dead, laying him on the road and covering his body with a tarp.

Dick Onarecker and his wife Anita had been at that same conference and were driving the same route. They pulled up to the scene shortly after the EMTs had declared Piper dead. Onarecker later said, “The Lord just impressed on me very emphatically very urgently that I was to pray for him.” Ninety minutes after his accident, Piper awoke to hear that pastor praying and singing.

It was what happened in those ninety minutes that became the subject of his book. Piper claimed he was immediately transported to heaven. There he saw people he knew and loved—relatives, teachers who had gone on to glory years before, and friends who had died in high school. Each of these people was the age they had been when they died. They were joyful and welcoming and were there to help him through the gates of heaven. Ahead of him was a gate that looked as if it had been carved from a giant pearl. The streets were made of gold and beyond the gate was a light too bright to imagine and the sound of an angel choir. “In all honesty,” he said, “as awesome as the sight was, the sound was more amazing. I heard literally thousands of praise songs. They were all praise songs. I really couldn’t see anything. I was so preoccupied with the people around me, I couldn’t see anything. But you could sense this hum of wings hovering all about you, like you were being ministered to by angels, and they were observing this whole episode.”

And then he heard the sound of Onarecker singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and realized he was joining in. He was alive and was quickly transported to Herman Hospital in Houston where doctors found that his body had been completely shattered. He would have to live with chronic pain and endure an excruciating recovery that required some thirty-four medical procedures. The book documents his time in heaven in about fifteen pages and the context and recovery in about one hundred and eighty.

The False Teachers
April 16, 2014

A few weeks ago I set out on a series of articles through which I am scanning the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—to examine some of Christianity’s most notable false teachers. Along the way we have visited such figures as Arius, Joseph Smith, Ellen G. White and Norman Vincent Peale. Today we will look at a man who commands more followers than perhaps any other person in the world: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, known also as Pope Francis.

Pope Francis

Pope FrancisJorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on December 17, 1936, the first child of Italian immigrants Mario and Regina. He graduated from college as a chemical technician and pursued that career for a short time before entering seminary at the Diocesan Seminary of Villa Devoto. On March 11, 1958 he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus and over the next decade studied and taught in a variety of disciplines. He was ordained a priest in December 1969 and made his final profession with the Jesuits in April 1973.

In July of that year he was appointed Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina and held that position for several years before resuming his work as a priest and a teacher and, later, as spiritual director and confessor to the Jesuits in Cordoba. As a priest he was loved and admired for his kindness and willingness to engage in patient dialog with his students and parishoners. However, he also walked into a political quagmire as the military sought to assert its dominance over the nation. He was accused of complicity with the military forces in the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests, though he has strenuously denied the charges which have not been satisfactorily proven.

In 1992 Pope John Paul II appointed Bergoglio titular Bishop of Auca and Auxiliary of Buenos Aires. He became the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, and was quickly elevated to Cardinal in 2001. After Pope John Paul II died in 2005, some reports indicated that Bergoglio received the second-most votes in that papal election, though Joseph Ratzinger (who became Pope Benedict XVI) was eventually elected to succeed John Paul. As a cardinal Bergoglio gained a reputation for his low-key lifestyle, his commitment to social justice, and his doctrinal conservatism, proving himself an ardent opponent of same-sex marriage and public efforts to introduce free contraception. One of his friends says, “He’s as uncompromising as Pope John Paul II, in terms of the principles of the Church - everything it has defended regarding euthanasia, the death penalty, abortion, the right to life, human rights, celibacy of priests.”

When Pope Benedict XVI voluntarily resigned as pope on February 28, 2013, the papal conclave elected the 76-year-old Bergoglio as his successor. He chose Francis as his papal name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi and his lifestyle of simplicity. He is the first Jesuit to be pope, the first pope from the Americas and the southern hemisphere, and the first non-European pope in almost 1,300 years.

As pope, Francis immediately made his mark by maintaining his relatively austere lifestyle and eschewing much of the formality that has marked previous pontiffs. He chose not to live in the Apostolic Palace but instead to reside in the Domus Sanctae Marthae guesthouse. He wears simpler vestments than his predecessors and insists that he wants the Roman Catholic Church to be a church for the poor. He immediately began planning reforms to the Vatican’s expansive bureaucracy, emphasizing efficiency and transparency.

Francis has given hope to both conservatives and to progressives within the Roman Catholic Church, sometimes by apparently contradicting himself. While insisting that the Church’s view on sexuality will not be the subject of negotiation, he has also said “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” He has also hinted toward a kind of universalism saying, “You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying—and this is the fundamental thing—that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience. Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.”

In the year since he became pope, he has received wide acclaim both from within the Roman Catholic Church and from far outside it. In 2013 he was named Person of the Year by TIME magazine as well as LGBT-interest magazine The Advocate. Esquire noted his simpler dress and named him The Best Dressed Man of 2013. Fortune magazine ranked him at the top of their list of the top-50 leaders while Rolling Stone featured him on the cover of a recent issue.

Porn-Free Family
April 15, 2014

I am a father of three children who are fully part of the digital generation. They are as comfortable with iPods as I am with a paperback and have only ever known a world where almost all of us have cell phones with us at all times, where Facebook is a teenager’s rite-of-passage, where every home has five or ten or twenty devices that can access the rest of the world through the Internet. Yet I know of the dangers that are lurking out there, waiting to draw them in.

I want to protect my children in a world like this, but I want to do more than that. I want to disciple my children to live virtuously, to use these new technologies for good purposes instead of bad ones. I believe this is a crucial part of my calling as a parent. To address this great need, I have put together what I call The Porn-Free Family Plan. It is a plan designed to protect my children from online dangers so that I can train them to use their devices and technologies well.

The Porn-Free Family Plan

A thorough plan needs to account for three types of device:

  • Fixed devices. These are the devices will only ever be used in the home. Here we have desktop computers in the home office or Internet-enabled televisions and gaming consoles. Parents can have a significant level of control over these devices.
  • Mobile devices. These are the laptops, tablets, smart phones and other devices that can be used in the home but also carried out of the home and used elsewhere. Parents can have as lesser degree of control over these devices.
  • Other people’s devices. These are the computers children may use at another person’s home or the tablets other children may show to their friends. Parents can have no control over these devices.

In all of this there are two broad goals: To prevent those who want to find pornography and to protect those who do not want to find it but who may otherwise find themselves exposed to it, to confound those who want to see porn and to shield those who don’t. And while the plan is geared specifically to combat pornography, it will also help battle other online dangers.

The Porn Free Family Plan has four steps: Plan, Prepare, Meet and Monitor.

Plan

You’ve heard the old maxim: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. The maxim applies well to what we are attempting to accomplish here. A successful plan will need to account for every device in your home that combines an Internet connection with a screen. So let’s get to work.

Step 1: Inventory
You need to know exactly how many Internet-enabled devices you have in your home. To do this, you will need to take an inventory. Make a list of all your Internet-enabled devices: desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and smart phones. Don’t forget the Playstation 3, Xbox, smart televisions, Apple TVs, iPods, and e-reader tablets. Even a Kindle reading device has basic web-browsing capabilities. A family recently reported that after doing this they were shocked to learn they had 22 devices to account for!

Step 2: Budget
Decide whether you are able to make Internet security a regular and recurring monthly expense. Where it used to cost money to access pornography, today it often costs money to avoid it. While there are free options available, the best services have a cost associated with them. A budget of $20-$25 per month will allow a family to take advantage of the premier options.

Step 3: Learn
Now that you have taken your inventory and have a better grasp of the devices your plan needs to account for, it is time to learn about the options available to protect those who use them. There are four broad categories of protection we have available:

  • Filtering. Filtering proactively detects and blocks objectionable content. (Examples: If your child does an Internet search for “naked girls,” it will block the search; If your child mistakenly clicks a link to a pornographic web site, it will block access to the site.)
  • Accountability. Accountability software tracks web sites visited from different devices and then prepares and delivers regular reports. (Example: If your child visits a pornographic web site or performs a search for “naked girls,” the accountability software will note it and include it in a report emailed to you.)
  • Parental controls. Parental controls block certain functions of modern devices (Examples: Preventing the use of the Internet browser on an iPod Touch; preventing the use of the Facebook app on a tablet).
  • Communication. We cannot rely on technology to solve all of our problems, so the plan must also involve regular, deliberate and open communication.

Because none of these offers complete protection, the wise plan must use some combination of all four. The Porn-Free Family plan uses the following tools:

  • OpenDNS. OpenDNS uses filtering to automatically block objectionable web sites for every device connected to your home network. It is activated by making a small change to the settings on your existing router. 
  • Covenant Eyes. Covenant Eyes tracks the web sites visited by your computers and mobile devices and sends regular email reports; it also offers optional filtering that can be configured specifically for each member of your family.
  • Parental Controls. Parental controls allow parents to disable certain functions on devices.
  • Meetings. The most indispensable tool is regular, open, deliberate communication between parents and their children.

Step 4: Discuss
Before you begin to implement the plan, it may be a good idea to meet with your family to explain what you are about to do and what you hope to accomplish by it. You will be inconveniencing your family and putting rules in place that will impact them, so it may be wise to discuss these things with them.

April 14, 2014

I hear it so, so often: “Help! My kids are looking at porn!” A few days ago one mom wrote to say that she and her husband had allowed their young teenaged boys access to the Internet to play an online video game, thinking they had taught and trained the boys well enough that they would be able to resist whatever temptation they encountered out there. They were wrong, and had just learned that for the past four months, when mom and dad left the house for a date or to run some errands, the boys had been looking at pornography. What should they do? How should they respond?

I have dedicated a lot of attention over the past several years to the battle against pornography and would like to offer a two-part answer. Today I will address the immediate response and tomorrow I want to help you put together a plan that will protect your family in the future, both preventing those who want to look at porn and protecting those who don’t yet know that it exists.

For today, here are some suggestions for how to respond when you learn that your children have been looking at or looking for pornography.

Don’t Despair

Different parents react in different ways when it comes to their children and pornography. Some treat it in a matter-of-fact manner while others respond with more emotion and can find themselves on the brink of utter despair. Guard yourself against those depths of despair. While this situation is difficult and painful, it does not mean the world is ending; it does not necessarily mean your children are unsaved and certainly does not mean they are unsaveable. By looking at porn they have opened up a window to their heart and you now have the opportunity to address it in a helpful way. Despair will only interfere with your ability to do this effectively.

Be Careful with Shame

There may be a tendency to compound shame upon shame, to want to ensure that your kids are feeling the shame they ought to feel. But be careful with shame. Our goal is to have the Holy Spirit convict your children of their guilt more than to have mom and dad make them feel a deep shame. It is very possible that you are feeling embarrassed or feeling a sense of failure as a parent, and this may lead you to be harsher than you ought to be. Your goal is not to convict your children of their shame before mom and dad, but to assist the Holy Spirit as he convicts them of their guilt before God.

Ask Questions

Whatever else you do, you need to communicate with your kids. It is easy for a parent to assume he knows why his children have been looking at pornography, but I’ve learned over the years that there are a host of reasons. Some children look at porn purely out of lust and curiosity; some do it primarily to fuel masturbation; some do it out of a desire to be disobedient and act out against the authority figures in their life; some do it out of a response to abuse they’ve suffered in the past. Where the temptation will be to bludgeon your children with reasons they should not look at porn, your time will be spent far more effectively if you are able to slow down, ask lots of questions, and engage them in conversation. Find out what the allure is. Find out what need it seems to be meeting. Prepare for uncomfortable discussions about topics you don’t want to discuss, like masturbation and even abuse. Don’t let their bad behavior distract you from addressing their hearts.

Go to the Gospel

I said earlier that by looking at pornography your children have opened up a window into their hearts. They’ve opened it up and shone a spotlight onto a particular sin. They’ve shown that they are dissatisfied, that they are lustful, that they are disobedient to God and to their parents. And that’s just who the gospel is for—for the dissatisfied and lustful and disobedient. All of this presents a powerful opportunity to get straight to the gospel. The gospel offers them forgiveness, but it also offers them hope that they can overcome this sin, that they can be rescued from the guilt of the sin, that they can find a deeper and more lasting satisfaction than what pornography promises. As always, the heart is the heart of the matter.

Plead With Them

I believe that as a parent you have many opportunities to teach your children, but only a few opportunities to really plead with them. This is a time to plead with them, to plead for their lives and to plead for their souls. You are older and wiser than your children, you understand the Bible more than your children, and you know the long-term cost of a commitment to sexual sin. If ever there is a time to plead with them for their life and for their souls, this is it. Allow Solomon to give you your words:

The Bestsellers
April 13, 2014

A short time ago I launched a new Sunday series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I will look at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. Today we look at a book that introduced many of us to one of this generation’s most popular preachers. The book is titled Your Best Life Now.

Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen

Your Best Life NowJoel Osteen was born on March 5, 1963, the son of John and Dolores (known as “Dodie”) Osteen. John founded Lakewood Church in Houston Texas on May 10, 1959, and pastored the church until his death in 1999. While he began his career in ministry as a Baptist, he later experienced something he believed was the baptism of the Holy Spirit and founded Lakewood as a haven for charismatic Baptists. By the 1980s John and Dodie had become well-known among their fellow charismatics. The church had over 5,000 in attendance and their services were broadcast across the world. From a young age Joel was involved in this work, laboring behind the scenes in support of the family ministry.

When John Osteen died suddenly of a heart attack on January 23, 1999, Joel, who had preached his first sermon the week before, succeeded him as pastor with his wife, Victoria, serving as co-pastor. Very quickly, the church exploded in growth and Joel’s broadcasts become more popular than his father’s had ever been; his sermons, full of homespun wisdom and messages of self-empowerment, were heard all over the world and it was only a matter of time before he penned his first book.

In October 2004 FaithWords released Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. The book is framed around seven steps meant to instruct the reader in living out God’s big dream for his life.

  1. Enlarge Your Vision. Osteen begins the book by teaching that God wants to make our lives easier and provide his people with special advantages and preferential treatment. We need to learn to expect good things from God so, for example, if we are in a crowded parking lot, we can pray, “Father, I thank you for leading and guiding me. Your favor will cause me to get a good spot.” Throughout the day we ought to declare “The favor of God is causing this company to want to hire me. The favor of God is causing me to stand out in the crowd.”
  2. Develop a Healthy Self-Image. In this section Osteen teaches that we are what we believe, that we need to think positive thoughts. “God sees you as strong and courageous, as a man or woman of great honor and value.” He bases much of this on the story of Abraham and Sarah, saying “I’m convinced that the key to the promise coming to pass was that Sarah had to conceive it in her heart before she was able to conceive it in her physical body.”
  3. Discover the Power of Your Thoughts and Words. Osteen wants us to believe that our thoughts and words have creative power. “Our words become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you allow your thoughts to defeat you and then give birth to negative ideas through your words, your actions will follow suit. That’s why we need to be extremely careful about what we think and especially careful about what we say. … Your words have enormous creative power. The moment you speak something out, you give birth to it.”
  4. Let Go of the Past. We need to let go of past hurts and past failures, knowing that these will only keep us from the blessing and favor God wants to pour out upon us.
  5. Find Strength Through Adversity. Osteen wants his readers to know that we cannot allow adversity to stop or slow us. “God has promised that He will turn your challenges into stepping-stones for promotion.”
  6. Live to Give. In this section he calls for compassion and kindness, using the principle that in order to receive, we have to first give. “If you’re struggling financially, go out and help somebody who has less than you have. If you want to reap financial blessings, you must sow financial seeds in the lives of others. If you want to see healing and restoration come to your life, go out and help somebody else get well.”
  7. Choose to Be Happy. In this final section he calls the reader to a life of happiness and excellence. “If you will start taking care of what God has given you, He’ll be more likely to give you something better.”

The great promise at the end of it all, is that by following these seven simple principles, each of us can have our best life now.

Sales & Lasting Impact

Your Best Life Now quickly debuted on the New York Times list of best-sellers and remained there for more than two years. By December, just three months after its release, Your Best Life Now had tallied over 500,000 sales and was awarded the Gold Book Award. In May 2005 it achieved 1 million sales and received the Platinum Book Award. To date it has sold over 4 million copies.

Osteen’s book was widely criticized by Christian leaders for ignoring the gospel of salvation through Christ’s atoning sacrifice in favor of a gospel of financial and life-wide prosperity. While Osteen claimed to be teaching biblical principles, he was instead picking and choosing isolated verses of the Bible to teach self-empowerment much as Norman Vincent Peale and so many others had done before him. In a helpful review of the book, Greg Gilbert summarizes it well: “Yes, Osteen talks about God throughout, but it is not the God of the Bible he has in mind. Osteen’s God is little more than the mechanism that gives the power to positive thinking. There is no cross. There is no sin. There is no redemption or salvation or eternity.” He continues: “If Joel Osteen wants to be the Norman Vincent Peale of the twenty-first century, he has every right to give it a shot. But he should stop marketing his message as Christianity, because it is not. You cannot simply make reference to God, quote some Scripture, call what you’re saying ‘spiritual principles’ and pass it off as Christianity. That’s the kind of thing that will have people ‘enlarging their vision’ and ‘choosing to be happy’ all the way to hell.”

April 10, 2014

So how many people go to your church? This is question nearly every pastor faces at just about every conference he attends. I’ve written about the question before but, having spent the week at Together for the Gospel, and having been part of many conversations, it seems like a good time to revisit it. It usually doesn’t take long for a conversation with a pastor to progress to that point. For the pastor this can be a moment of pride or humility, freedom or shame. And somehow it is a question that always seems to come up. And it comes up for those who are not pastors as well; you begin to talk about your church and the other person inevitably asks that same question. So how many people?

I’d like to make the same two-part proposal I made a few years back: Let’s stop asking, “How many people go to your church?” And when someone asks us that question, let’s not feel obliged to give a direct answer.

We all pay lip service to the reality that we cannot necessarily measure the health of a church by its size. We all know that some of the biggest churches in the world are also some of the unhealthiest churches in the world. The history of Christianity has long-since shown that it is not all that difficult to fill a building with unbelievers by just tickling their ears with what they want to hear. We also know that the Lord is sovereign and that he determines how big each church should be and we know that in some areas even a very small church is an absolute triumph of light over darkness. And yet “How big is your church?” is one of the first questions we ask.

Why is this? I don’t know all the reasons but I’d suggest at least two. First, I think our question betrays us and shows that in the back of our minds we equate size and health. Somewhere we make the connection between big and healthy, between big and blessing. We exacerbate the problem when we ask and answer this too-easy question. Second, we just haven’t taken the time and made the effort to form better questions. Instead, we gravitate to the easy one.

The False Teachers
April 09, 2014

A few weeks ago I set out on a new series of articles through which I am scanning the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—to examine some of Christianity’s most notorious false teachers. Along the way we have visited such figures as Arius, Pelagius, Joseph Smith, and Ellen G. White. Today we will look at the life and legacy of a man who assumed and further developed theological Liberalism and paved the way for what became known as Progressive Christianity. His name is Marcus Borg.

Marcus Borg

Marcus BorgMarcus Borg was born in 1942 to a Lutheran family in North Dakota. After high school he went to Concordia College in Minnesota determined to become an astrophysicist but soon changed his major to math and physics, and then again to political science and philosophy. As a young man he experienced great doubts about his Christian faith and decided to pursue postgraduate studies at Union Seminary in New York City and here he was heavily influenced by W.D. Davies, a man who laid the groundwork for what has become known as the New Perspective on Paul. After graduating from Union he moved overseas to Mansfield College, Oxford University, where he earned his Doctorate of Philosophy.

In 1979 Borg became a member of the faculty at Oregon State University, a position he would hold until he retired in 2007 as Distinguished Professor in Religion and Culture and the Hundere Endowed Chair in Religious Studies. However, his career as a professor would be overshadowed by his career as a writer and public figure, and his leadership in what has become known as Progressive Christianity, an updated form of theological Liberalism.

Borg is a gifted writer who is adept at popularizing difficult concepts and his prose is attractive for its lively and meditative style. One person he has influenced writes, “Almost single-handedly among progressives, Borg has opened up new avenues of experience and thought for lapsed Christians or nonbelievers interested in re-visioning the Christianity of their childhood. He writes clearly and concisely about the meaning of wisdom, compassion, justice, the kingdom of God, and life as a journey of transformation. His books boldly take us into fresh fields of wonder, mystery, and passion in regard to Jesus, God, the Bible, and the Christian way.”1

His most significant contributions have been as a scholar whose focus has been on the person and work of Jesus Christ. He has written or edited more than twenty-five books, and the great majority of them have been focused on Jesus. He also led two nationally-televised symposia—one focused on Jesus and the other on God—, served as national chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, and has made regular appearances on PBS and other television networks. His bestselling book is Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and it is in this book that he most clearly lays out his convictions. He draws on his own journey, from a childhood, childish faith in Christ to the development of what he considers a deeper, richer, and more plausible set of beliefs based on a historical rather than fabled Jesus. He teaches here that the Christian life is not meant to be rooted in dogma or creed, but in compassion and community.

In 1985 Robert Funk founded the Jesus Seminar, a group of 150 critical scholars who were tasked with re-examining the traditions surrounding the historicity of Jesus, and in particular, his deeds and his sayings. Among these scholars was Marcus Borg. The scholars employed social anthropology, history and textual analysis to attempt to reconstruct Jesus’ life and to separate the historical Jesus from what they take as myth. They famously used a voting system that relied on colored beads to represent whether one of Jesus’ deeds or sayings was authentic. Of the over five hundred sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, they determined that only thirty-one were authentic with the rest being possibly authentic, doubtful or completely inauthentic. Over their many meetings and through much dialog they eventually determined that Jesus was a mortal man who, like the rest of us, had been born of two parents, that he did not perform miracles, that any healings attributed to him were merely psychosomatic, that he did not die a substitutionary death, that he was not physically resurrected, and that the post-resurrection sightings of Jesus were merely visions.

April 07, 2014

I suppose it has always been difficult to teach boys about sex. The trouble is that you need to begin those talks while they are still quite young—probably too young to handle the information with the maturity it deserves. This may be especially true today when pornography and other blatant sexuality is so prevalent that we have to address these things at younger and younger ages. Still, every parent does it and blunders through it one way or another.

I sometimes read a magazine called The Walrus. It is a Canadian magazine that exists on the left—just about as far left as you can go, I think. Still, it features some skilled writers and presents a perspective that I wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, so I rather enjoy reading it. In the current issue there is a column called “The Talk” that discusses teaching boys about sex. I realized as I read it that the way I have been teaching my children about sex and gender and sexuality is very, very different from the way society around us would teach them if given the opportunity. We use similar terms, but mean very different things by them. As a Christian, and as a Christian parent, I found it very helpful to have this alternative view so clearly laid out.

The article begins in a ninth-grade classroom on the far side of the country where an organization called WiseGuyz is leading an opt-in sexual education class. The article explains that these teachers face the “radical act of teaching them to question all they have been told about what it means to be a man.” Men from the organization are teaching boys about sex and sexuality and, not surprisingly, the boys are responding with confusion and wisecracks. One of the instructors has just spoken about intersexuality, being born with a combination of male and female physical characteristics.

A few boys nod, but the rest look baffled. Stafford Perry, another facilitator, speaks up. “It helps if you understand that for many people, gender is not just two possibilities but many,” he says. “Being a man or a woman exists on a scale, so it’s not either/or. You don’t have to be one or the other.”

This is key. Much of what used to be considered binary now exists on a scale. When I was a child I was taught that sex and gender are binary—you are male or female, and your gender identity and gender expression will accord with it. There may have been some small scales—with tomboy to princess representing different scales of femininity and rough-and-tumble to sensitive representing different scales of masculinity—but the categories were clear: You were a boy or a girl and if you were a boy you were expected to behave like a boy and if you were a girl you were expected to behave like a girl. Today, though, children are taught that every aspect of sexuality exists on a scale with no either/or. They are taught that this is the normal and natural state of humanity.

The instructor then takes a whiteboard and draws a figure shaped like a gingerbread man. This gingerbread man has a smiley face, a heart, and a starburst at the crotch. And he uses this figure to teach some important lessons—some important terminology.

The Bestsellers
April 06, 2014

Last week I began a new Sunday series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I will look at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. Today we look at one of the bestselling Christian books of all-time: Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life.

The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren

Purpose Driven LifeRick Warren was born in 1954 in San Jose, California, the son of Jimmy and Dot Warren. Jimmy was a Baptist minister and from a young age Rick determined to follow in his father’s footsteps. He received an undergraduate degree from California Baptist University before going to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to receive his pastoral training.

In 1980, Warren founded Saddleback Church in Laguna Hills, California. The church’s inaugural service was held on Easter Sunday in Laguna Hills High School with nearly 200 people in attendance. Under Warren’s leadership and winsome personality, the church grew rapidly, outgrowing facility after facility until they finally purchased land in Lake Forest and began construction there in the early 1990’s. By the time the church settled in the Lake Forest campus, they already had 10,000 people attending their services each week.

In 1995, Zondervan published the semi-autobiographical The Purpose Driven Church, a book that soon proved popular and influential in teaching the principles of church growth. While the book was targeted squarely at pastors and church leaders, it introduced Warren to the leaders who would be key to the success of his next work.

In 2002 Zondervan released The Purpose Driven Life, a forty-day devotional meant to lead the reader on a spiritual journey. Warren considered it an anti-self-help book, a manifesto for Christian living in the twenty-first century. It famously begins with the words, “It’s not about you.” Instead, Warren shows that we exist for the glory of God and that our innate desire for fulfillment can be found only in Him. The forty devotional readings are divided into five themes:

  • You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure (Worship)
  • You Were Formed for God’s Family (Fellowship)
  • You Were Created to Become Like Christ (Discipleship)
  • You Were Shaped for Serving God (Ministry)
  • You Were Made for a Mission (Mission)

Each chapter contains a short devotional several pages in length followed by a section titled “Thinking About My Purpose” which offers a Point to Ponder, a Verse to Remember, and a Question to Consider.

The book was released hand-in-hand with a substantial viral marketing campaign meant to take advantage of the Internet and to encourage word-of-mouth and bulk sales. The 40 Days of Purpose campaign invited pastors to lead their entire churches through the book, reading it day-by-day and even preaching sermons provided by Warren. This campaign was launched with 1,5000 participating churches and that led to the book’s first print run of 500,000 copies selling out very quickly. Some 20,000 churches eventually took advantage of the program.

The book received a substantial and unexpected boost in March 2005 when Brian Nichols, a man wanted for a series of shootings in Atlanta, took Ashley Smith hostage in her apartment. During the seven hours he held her captive, she read chapter 32 aloud and later suggested that this helped in his decision to release her.

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