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September 15, 2006

God, Max & Me - I’ve felt a little bit brain-dead this week. Grieved by the shallowness of my devotional life and my difficulty in making sufficient time for it, I recently decided to try a whole new approach. I now wake up an hour earlier than I used to but leave my Bible on the shelf. I get up a good long time before the sun comes up and head outdoors with just my iPod which I have loaded with hymns, classical music and Max McLean’s recording of the ESV. I walk the darkened streets of Oakville for a time I affectionately call “God, Max & Me.” To this point I have really enjoyed this time and I’m grateful for the technology that allows this. It is awfully difficult to drag my tired carcass out of bed at such a ridiculous hour, but it has proven well worth it. I am surprised at how much I am enjoying listening to the Bible instead of reading it. I can easily walk for an hour, listening to Scripture, listening to hymns and praying and return home wishing I could spend another hour doing the same. I assume my body will eventually adjust to waking up earlier as since I began doing this I’ve had trouble thinking, writing, working and generally staying awake! But even so, it has been worth it.

Sermon CloudSermoncloud - Here’s an interesting idea. Sermoncloud is a site that provides “advanced sermon syndication.” “Sermon Cloud is a website for a community to interact with sermons. What are the powerful sermons people are listening to? Who are the up-and-coming preachers of the day? Where are the messages about themes that you need to hear? How can you find a great preacher in your home town? Sermon Cloud was designed to help you with all of these questions. Sermon Cloud users help let each other know which sermons they amen. An ‘amen’ is a recommendation of the sermon. Users can post comments about their interaction with these sermons (even the comments can be designated as helpful or unhelpful).” As sermons are recommended, they become apparent to a wider audience, thus suggesting that better sermons will be heard by more people. Obviously the usefulness of the site depends, in large part, to the quality of the sermons. To this point it appears that many of the pastors are engaged in biblical preaching. But certainly having more preachers who deliberately and humbly exposit the Scriptures would increase the value of the site.

Clarity and Mystery - Just this morning I was discussing Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy with some friends. We had read his chapter on “God Incomprehensible” and we noted that a book about knowing God began with a chapter affirming that God is incomprehensible. Yet Tozer is careful to state that while we can never know all there is to know about God, He has still revealed much about Himself and we can know these things with confidence. “ ‘What is God like?’ If by that question we mean ‘What is God like in Himself there is no answer. If we mean ‘What has God disclosed about Himself that the reverent reason can comprehend?’ there is, I believe, an answer both full and satisfying. For while the name of God is secret and His essential nature incomprehensible, He in condescending love has by revelation declared certain things to be true of Himself.”

We spoke of the Emerging Church Movement and of the way they celebrate doubt over certainty. This is something I was struck by (read it here) several months ago after hearing Brian McLaren speak. A faith which measures maturity by doubt rather than confidence is, frankly, ridiculous and unscriptural.

Interestingly, when I returned home I opened up my RSS reader and found the following on Phil Johnson’s blog:

This morning, I taped a one-hour interview with John MacArthur on the Emerging Church Movement. He spoke with his usual candor about various trends in the post-evangelical wasteland. He said one of the worst tendencies of the “emerging” spirit is the way it exaggerates and venerates mystery at the expense of the Bible’s clarity. Denying the perspicuity of Scripture has the same practical outcome as denying the truthfulness of Scripture. The essential message of Scripture is not unclear or uncertain, and Jesus Himself bore testimony to that fact repeatedly.

It is also worth quoting John Frame who writes the following about doubt:

[T]he Bible presents doubt largely in negative terms. It is a spiritual impediment, an obstacle to doing God’s work (Matt. 14:31; 21:21; 28:17; Acts 10:20; 11:12; Rom. 14:23; 1 Tim. 2:8; James 1:6). In Matthew 14:31 and Romans 14:23 it is the opposite of faith and therefore a sin. Of course, this sin, like other sins, may remain with us through our earthly life. But we should not be complacent about it. Just as the ideal for the Christian life is a perfect holiness, the ideal for the Christian mind is absolute certainty about God’s revelation.

We should not conclude, however, that doubt is always sinful. Matthew 14:31 and Romans 14:23 (and indeed the other texts I have listed) speak of doubt in the fact of clear special revelation. To doubt what God has clearly spoken to us is wrong. But in other situations, it is not wrong to doubt. In many cases, in fact, it is wrong for us to claim knowledge, much less certainty. Indeed, often the best course is to admit our ignorance (Deut. 29:29, Rom. 11:33-36). Paul is not wrong to express uncertainty about the number of people he baptized (1 Cor. 1:16). Indeed, James tells us, we are not always ignorant of the future to some extent and we should not pretend to know more about it than we do (James 4:13-16). Job’s friends were wrong to think that they knew the reasons for his torment, and Job himself had to be humbled, as God reminded him of his ignorance (Job 38-42).

But as to our salvation, God wants us to know that we know him (1 John 5:13)…

The Bible celebrates confidence, not doubt. The Emerging Church celebrates doubt, not confidence. You do the math.

September 14, 2006

Yesterday my friend Justin Taylor (I think he’s everybody’s friend, actually. I’ve been meaning to ask him—is there a Reformed author whose Justin hasn’t spoken to just a couple of days ago?), sent me an article entitled “The Ambiguously Cured Soul” that was written by David Powlison and published in the Spring 2001 edition of The Journal of Biblical Counseling. It is a fascinating article and Justin was kind enough to ask if I could post it on my site. Dr. Powlison was equally kind to agree to this. I would encourage you to work through the six-page article before reading the following commentary on it. It is in PDF format and you can access it here.

Powlison frames this article around the story of Amelia, a woman who struggles with lesbian fantasies and whose story appeared in the journal of a Christian counseling center. Here is a portion of Amelia’s story:

The idea of counseling scared the wits out of me. I’d never told anyone my struggle. I’d had lots of friends, was always popular and vivacious. People liked me, but I always thought, “If they knew the real me, I’d be rejected.” So I never let anyone in. They’d think I was some weird and dangerous pervert, though I’d never acted out my fantasies. I never consciously chose to have lesbian desires. It seemed like something that just happened to me as a child, a decision made for me, something I “discovered” inside me, not something I decided.”

So what happened? My therapist accepted me. That allayed my anxieties. As we worked in counseling over the next year and a half, he helped me to understand the reasons for my lesbian attraction. My father had been an alcoholic. When I was a child he beat me often, and sometimes sexually molested me. His anger scared me—it still does. I learned never to trust men, and to look towards women for love. But my mom was mostly helpless and passive through it all, preoccupied with her own troubles. She could never really protect or comfort me. So I spent my life trying to meet my need for love that no one had ever met. That parental combination made me hungry for an intimate, accepting relationship with a woman, a “precious friend” who’d fill the empty space inside.

Counseling taught me a perspective on my past, to see how the pain and disappointment of my family upbringing produced my struggles with lesbian fantasy. I’ve learned to understand why I am the way I am. These realizations about my past have helped me to make better choices in the present. My counselor helped me to learn that only God can fill the void inside me, and can quench my deep thirst for an accepting relationship.

God has been at work in me. Jesus was “tempted in all ways as we are, yet without sin,” and I’ve learned more and more to come to Him, and that He will “never leave me nor forsake me.” I’ve become accountable to my husband and a couple of female friends at church, not just to my therapist. I’ve learned to identify the situations when I’m tempted to old patterns of fantasy, and to resist more effectively. Praise Him that I am changing!

This seems to be a wonderful story of healing. Amelia came to understand the source of the sins with which she struggled and found useful ways of dealing with them when they strike at her. But, while affirming that Amelia seems to be a “sincere sheep, wanting her Shepherd’s presence, and wanting to put secret sin to death, … it appears that her counselor nourished her with a mixture of Bible truths, half-truths, and fictions.” The Holy Spirit was good to animate the biblical truths and to bear fruit in her life. And yet her life now bears an interpretive map that offers confusion and error. Amelia is an ambiguously cured soul.

One aspect of David Powlison’s ministry that has often challenged me is that he gives no quarter to sin. He never allows sin to be shown to be anything other than what it is: an offense to God that arises from a person’s sinful nature. For instance, when speaking of the counselor’s method of helping Amelia understand the source of her sin, he writes, “Knowledge of a person’s history may be important for many reasons: compassion on sufferers, sympathetic understanding, locating the present within an unfolding story, knowledge of characteristic temptations, and so forth. But it never determines the heart’s proclivities and inclinations.” We know this because many people experience similar events in their histories and react differently. One woman may indulge in lesbian fantasies, another may drift from man to man, and another may seem to go through life unscathed.

There is a certain mysterious quality to sin that many modern methods of counseling ignore. “Psychodynamic myth has mingled a significant illusion with elements of Christian truth. To say that her lesbian struggles were caused by unhappy childhood circumstances fails to bow before the riddle, unfathomableness, and culpability of sin. Sin is its own final reason. Any theory that claims to explain sin actually falls prey to sin’s intellectual effects, and wriggles away from both theological truth and psychological reality. Sin is the deepest explanation, not just one more problem begging for different and “deeper” reasons.”

Did you catch that? “Sin is its own final reason.” We can only do so much to explain sin, for ultimately, there is a mystery to sin that we just cannot understand. We can attempt to find reasons for our sin, or look into the past to find its source, but in the end, sin is the deepest explanation and the final reason.

But this is not the purpose of Powlison’s article. The article shows something that has been discussed a fair bit in the Christian blogosphere: so often truth and folly are bound up together. “Things would be nice and tidy if you could always keep the good guys straight from the bad guys. But often it’s not possible. The same person who is a primary means of grace to another may also be a secondary means of confusion—or a primary means of confusion and a secondary means of grace. We consciously aim to disciple others in the truths we know and seek to live - but others easily catch our errors, blind spots, and failings in the bargain!” Where there is sin, and sin exists in all of us, there will be confusion. Where there is truth there is so often error. This ambiguity is constant. There are not always good guys and bad guys. Rather, often the good guys are the bad guys.

To learn more about Dr. Powlison, visit CCEF. You may also be interested in reading his book Seeing With New Eyes. This article has been reprinted as one chapter in that book and the approach is extended and applied to other issues such as motivation, defense mechanisms, feelings, and love languages.

September 11, 2006

A week ago Suzanne Sataline published an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Veneration Gap: A Popular Strategy For Church Growth Splits Congregants.” The article examines several examples of churches that have experienced great trial and turmoil as a result of attempting to become Purpose Driven. The article does not seem to be an attempt to prove that Purpose Driven principles are inherently evil or that they always cause conflict. Rather, it seems that Sataline is attempting to show that the transition from traditional to Purpose Driven can be a difficult one and is not always as easy as people may believe.

Through the article she discusses four churches:

Iuka Baptist Church in Mississippi is a Southern Baptist congregation that lost 40 members after voting to throw a deacon off the board for publicly taking a stand against a transition; Valley View Christian Church in Dallas expanded their sanctuary five years ago to accommodate an influx of new members that would follow their decision to adopt the five Purpose Driven principles. About 200 people refused to get on board with the transition and left to form a new church; First Baptist Church of Lakewood in Long Beach, California has seen attendance fall from 700 to 550 after the pastor led the church through a transition about seven years ago; Brookwood Church in Burlington, North Carolina has had attendance fall from 600 to 275 since becoming Purpose Driven.

Sataline mentions an organization called Church Transitions Inc., which exists to help churches move through the transition from traditional to Purpose Driven. She seems to target them as a cause of many of the problems. While it is not directly affiliated with Purpose Driven, Rick Warren does endorse this organization. Warren wrote the foreword to Transitioning, a textbook for the transition written by Dan Southerland who serves as President of Church Transitions. Warren writes, “This is a book to be studied, not just read. To get the most out of it I encourage you to purchase a copy for each of your staff and study it together, one chapter at a time, as many have already done with The Purpose Driven Church. … If you are a pastor or a key leader in an established church—this manual will help you implement the principles of being purpose driven. So go for it!” Here is what Sataline writes about the organization:

Some pastors learn how to make their churches purpose-driven through training workshops. Speakers at Church Transitions Inc., a Waxhaw, N.C., nonprofit that works closely with Mr. Warren’s church, stress that the transition will be rough. At a seminar outside of Austin, Texas, in April, the Revs. Roddy Clyde and Glen Sartain advised 80 audience members to trust very few people with their plans. “All the forces of hell are going to come at you when you wake up that church,” said Mr. Sartain, who has taught the material at Mr. Warren’s Saddleback Church.

During a session titled “Dealing with Opposition,” Mr. Clyde recommended that the pastor speak to critical members, then help them leave if they don’t stop objecting. Then when those congregants join a new church, Mr. Clyde instructed, pastors should call their new minister and suggest that the congregants be barred from any leadership role.

“There are moments when you’ve got to play hardball,” said the Rev. Dan Southerland, Church Transitions’ president, in an interview. “You cannot transition a church…and placate every whiny Christian along the way.”

Philip Ryken, pastor Tenth Presybterian Church in Philadelphia, having read this, writes: “While I am sensitive to the difficulties of dealing with whiny Christians, and while I recognize that there are times when Christians need to go separate ways for ministry, I also seem to recall that there are biblical guidelines for dealing with differences in an open, honest, and charitable way.” Surely there are, but the methods outlined in Transitioning are not all that conducive to reconciliation or negotiation. A person is offered only two choices: get with the program or get out.

I found it interesting that Sataline’s article revolves around numbers. She proves that the Purpose Driven method is fallible by citing statistics showing church memberships falling, sometimes drastically. This is largely the same methodology used by Purpose Driven and Church Transitions to measure success. As if to emphasize the concerns of those who believe that the church growth movement is driven by pragmatism, the author’s bio in Transitioning says “Dan Southerland is the pastor/teacher at Flamingo Road Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida—a purpose-driven, contemporary congregation that has grown from 300 in 1989 to over 2,300 today and launched seventeen other churches.” The author’s sole credential is that he has made the Purpose Driven principles work by seeing the requisite numerical growth. For many who are eager to adopt Purpose Driven principles, this is enough.

That there are churches struggling with a transition to Purpose Driven methodology does not surprise me, for I read the textbook to transitioning a couple of years ago. If The Purpose Driven Church is the “what” and “why” of the church growth movement and all things Purpose Driven, Transitioning represents the “how.” “If the thought of switching from a traditional church to a purpose-driven church leaves you with mingled feelings of excitement and fear, good! It means that, as a pastor, you know the incalculable worth of aligning your church with God’s vision…Transitioning is written for you.” (From the back cover). We also learn from the cover that the book will help a pastor and congregation navigate change and attain rewards that far exceed the risk. Essentially, this book is a how-to guide for changing an existing church from program-driven to purpose-driven. It is written by Dan Southerland, but endorsed by Rick Warren who says that Southerland’s church is “one of the most exciting and encouraging examples of transitioning from being program driven to purpose driven.” (From the foreword) In my review I outlined several concerns with the book and the methodology:

First, the principles within this book are steeped in pragmatism. What works is elevated far above what Scripture teaches. If it works, in the author’s view, it must be good. This is, of course, consistent with The Purpose Driven Church which is modeled as much on Peter Drucker as on the Bible.

Second, the author misuses Scripture. The web site for Church Transitions says the model is “Biblical—based on the book of Nehemiah.” In a vain attempt to lend Scriptural credence to the book, the author bases the process of transition on the model of Nehemiah, who led the Israelites in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Many of these parallels are forced and the Scripture simply does not support the conclusions. For example, when discussing the reality and inevitability of opposition, Southerland writes about Sanballat and his opposition to Nehemiah’s work (see Nehemiah chapters 2 and 4). Of course there is vast difference between opposition raised by a hostile unbeliever and a concerned believer! Southerland, though, groups all those who oppose change as Sanballats. In the Church Transitions model there is little room for the concerns of other believers.

Third, the author does away with biblical models of leadership. One of the necessary steps in moving to a Purpose Driven church is to make the church staff led instead of committee/deacon led. Rather than having a plurality of elders, a church should have a vision team which is composed of dreamers and power brokers, so that the church becomes led by those who dream big and those who have the money and power within the church. But what of the biblical qualifications for leadership? What of elders, deacons and proper church government?

Fourth, the churches the author proposes are custom-built to appeal to a very limited element of society. It is not mere chance that the author’s church had the average age of attender fall nearly 20 years over his transition period. The church was custom made to appeal to a certain element of society at the expense of others. Who is building and planting churches designed to appeal to the elderly? This model would deem a church successful that has driven away the elderly and replaced the pews with people in their teens and twenties.

Fifth, there is little consideration given to whether this transition is right or biblical. We are to blindly accept that it is the way to do church and to begin the process, regardless of what other church members may desire. The first step in transition is creating a vision. This teaching about vision is something that is in-line with the teachings of Schuller, Warren, Wilkinson, Blackaby and the New Age - we are to dream a big dream, call it vision, and raise that up as our standard. Decisions are made and programs are accepted or rejected based on their conformity to this vision. Yet this vision is created by a man. He may ascribe it to God and it may be biblical, but it needs to be regarded as a lower standard than the Word of God!

Sixth, the method is brutal in its dealing with opposition. There is no latitude given for those who oppose the change, even if they object on biblical grounds. Criticism is viewed as inevitable and unfortunate, but ultimately an attack on God Himself. The pastor is cautioned to remain on track with the change and not allow opposers to derail the process.

I wrote these six concerns after reading the book and evaluating Southerland’s methodology and his supposed biblical support for it. It seems that Sataline’s proves these concerns to be valid, for all of them are illustrated in her article. While Purpose Driven principles may seem innocuous, wise pastors and leaders will count the cost before dedicating themselves to them.

September 08, 2006

Bright and early each Friday morning I meet at a local coffee place with a couple of friends. We read a portion of a book during the week and get together once a week to discuss what we’ve read. Having previously worked our way through Os Guinness’ The Call, we have now begun The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer. While only a short book, I have little doubt that it will prove to be profoundly challenging. I have read shamefully little of Tozer in the past and am eager to remedy that oversight.

Tozer premises The Knowledge of the Holy on the statement that “what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” While he does not provide a Scripture reference to back this claim (I don’t recall a verse that states, “God spake thus: what thou believest about me is the most important thing about thee…”) I believe he is correct in this assertion. After all, “the history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” If no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God, the same is true of individuals. We can never rise above our idea of God.

Why is this important? As Tozer says, “We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God…Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God, just as her most significant message is what she says about Him or leaves unsaid, for her silence is often more eloquent than her speech. She can never escape the self-disclosure of her witness concerning God.” And he is right, for once we have decided who God is, we chase after that image of God. It is critically important that we learn about who God is through the Scripture, for this is His self-disclosure.

And here are words that gripped me and kept me tossing and turning last night (though one too many cans of Coke may have also contributed): “Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, ‘What comes into your mind when you think about God?’ we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man. Were we able to know exactly what our most influential religious leaders think of God today, we might be able with some precision to foretell where the church will stand tomorrow.” This is a sobering though, for when we survey the leaders of the church today we will find a vast variety of views on God, many of which are clearly unbiblical. We have leaders who deny the Trinity and others who deny the atonement. We have leaders who clearly have never stopped to seriously consider just what they think of God. There are many followers who have likewise never stopped to consider who God is, what He has done, and what He demands of us. And as we can see where the church will be led in the future, we can look at the leaders of families, men like myself, and understand where we will take our families. When I survey my heart and ask what comes to mind when I think about God, I will know where my family will stand tomorrow.

“It is my opinion,” writes Tozer, “that the Christian conception of God current in these middle years of the twentieth century is so decadent as to be utterly beneath the dignity of the Most High God and actually to constitute for professed believers something amounting to a moral calamity.” If this was true of the middle of the last century, how much more true is it in the early years of the current century? And yet, “All the problems of heaven and earth, though they were to confront us together and at once, would be nothing compared with the overwhelming problem of God: That He is; what He is like; and what we as moral beings must do about Him.” But still many Christians do not think deeply about God, about what He is like, or about what we must do about Him. “I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”

This is a serious matter. “Before the Christian church goes into eclipse anywhere there must first be a corrupting of her simple basic theology. She simply gets a wrong answer to the question, ‘What is God like?’ and goes on from there. Though she may continue to cling to a sound nominal creed, her practical working creed has become false. The masses of her adherents come to believe that God is different from what He actually is; and that is heresy of the most insidious and deadly kind.”

And here is Tozer’s charge: “The heaviest obligation lying upon the Christian Church today is to purify and elevate her concept of God until it is once more worth of Him—and of her. In all her prayers and labors this should have first place. We do the greatest service to the next generation of Christians by passing on to them undimmed and undiminished that noble concept of God which we received from our Hebrew and Christian fathers of generations past. This will prove of greater value to them than anything that art or science can devise.”

Having read these words I see, more clearly than ever, the importance of placing myself under the leadership of men who have a high and biblical view of God. If nothing is more telling and more important than what comes into my mind when I think about God, it must also be critically important that I learn from men who think deeply about God and who humble themselves under His word.

September 07, 2006

I try to avoid writing about what feels like gossip. It is far too easy to write about issues that are contentious simply because they attract attention and satisfy some depraved and unsanctified portion of my heart. I know that I used to give in to this desire far more than I do today and I thank God for challenging me on this. Over the past few weeks, several people have asked me about a particular situation with Ligonier Ministries. Others have taken to posting links to exposés about the ministry. To this point, we (myself and David who helps me with moderating the comments here) have deleted these links since they point to a site we feel offers little more than gossip. I have also chosen not to write about it. Recently, though, the story has hit the mainstream. A Florida newspaper published a report on it and since then many bloggers have followed suit. Christianity Today has even seen fit to link to comments critical of Ligonier. And so I thought I would offer what I can on this issue.

On September 5, the Orlando Sentinel featured an article (link) entitled “Lawsuit seeks to block blogger.” Rene Stutzman, a Staff Writer, broke the news that Ligonier Ministries has sued a blogger, Frank Vance, for defamation, seeking unspecified monetary damages. For the past several months Vance has used his blog to post articles harshly critical of Ligonier Ministries, and in particular, its President and CEO, Tim Dick. As Stutzman points out, “In the past five months, Vance’s blog has described Dick as part of a ‘family of nincompoops,’ ‘a very corrupt man’ and ‘a lying, thieving con artist,’ according to the lawsuit.” Vance’s blog, “Contending for the Truth,” is the site that has been at the center of increasing controversy and to which people have often attempted to link from my site.

“Contending for the Truth” exists for the sole purpose of exposing what Vance considers the misdeeds of Ligonier Ministries. The site was begun on May 8, 2006 as a response to something that happened right here at Challies Dot Com. I’ll let Vance give his version of the back story:

On March 9, 2006 Tim Challies started a thread on his blog to report “live” on the Ligonier Ministries National Conference [Note from Tim: A reader of this site was at the conference and asked if I’d consider allowing him to post some reflections on the conference. I was glad to do this. Do note that I was not the one reporting from the conference]. Some discussion ensued there about the fact that RC Sproul Jr was speaking at the conference, even though he’d just been defrocked by the RPCGA just a little over a month prior. To say the least, some people were offended by that (myself included) and posted their objections in that thread. The blog moderators quickly stepped in and squelched any and all discussion of the RC Sproul Jr scandal. They also deleted several posts. Given the hostile environment arrayed against any open discussion on the issue, I didn’t even bother to post there.

Then on March 13 moderator David made the following post:

“Those of you who want to discuss the Sproul Jr. issue can go here [link to the General Forum] to start your own discussion. Once again, this thread is not the place for that.” So, I did just that, at [now defunct link] Hits to that particular discussion thread rapidly climbed to over 4000, far more than any other discussion thread there had ever generated so rapidly.

Then in early April, without any prior notice, Tim Challies jettisoned the entire forum and replaced it with a new one, minus all the content of the old one. His excuse? “Frankly, I am exceedingly tired of having to wade through so much spam and trash and perversion just to keep the forums running. Maybe I’ll investigate another option—one that does a better job of keeping out the trash.”

Vance went on to say that my new forum was a useless “Pile ‘O Crap” and suggested that there was another reason I had dumped the forum, hinting that his article about Sproul caused me to remove it. The truth of the matter is what I mentioned here. It turns out that the forum was getting heavily spammed and was causing incredible stress on the server. The heart of the problem was that I was using the forum as my commenting system for the blog and the combination of the two was causing excessive load on the server to the point that I was using 100 percent of the server’s processor. My host threatened to shut down my site if I did not remedy the problem immediately and even cut off service for several hours at a time to show they weren’t bluffing. The only workable solution was to shut down the forum. Sometime later, I believe it was a few weeks later, in response to pleas from those who enjoyed using it, I installed a new forum and attempted to solve the previous problems. Unfortunately, that proved impossible. The site was soon bringing the server to a crawl and I was being inundated with spam. I made the decision to take the forum down once and for all and to revert to using Movabletype’s internal commenting system. Had I not removed the forum, my site would have been permanently shut down. The decision certainly had nothing to do with Vance and his post.

All this is to say that Vance was dead wrong about the reason I took down the forum. And not only that, but he never contacted me to clarify, instead choosing to create a blog to share his inaccurate understanding of what happened. He has gone so far as to credit me with providing the impetus to enter the blogosphere. Until this point I have ignored him. It is interesting to see the influence he has had on others in their impressions of me. Here are a few quotes taken from his commenters, all of whom are responding to his charge that I am trying to hide the truth about Ligonier and about R.C. Sproul Jr.: “And Challies shut down a forum over it!! (Note he is live blogging for all the biggies).” “Tim Challies is a great example of a cover up artist.” “You’re too much of a shill to let anybody know about them yourself Tim, or even permit anyone else to say anything.” “Tim Challies needs a reality check. Keep up the good work Frank.” “And as to Challies, he has built up a nice live blogging business with these guys. He has a lot to lose, too. And he is young and mesmerized by these big men of God.” “This is off topic but today Challies posted that he is writing a book on…of…all…things…discernment! In light of his obviousw protection of the Sprouls, I find this quite nervy. I am afraid Tim has little credibility in this area.” I have never once, to my recollection, received an email from any of these people asking me to clarify my position or asking why I shut down the forums. None have ever tried to contact me, to properly admonish me, or to clarify the situation.

This proves two things to me. First, Vance is willing to write something libelous about someone else (in this case, about me) without any proof or substantiation. His entire story about me is mere fantasy and fabrication. Secondly, those who allow themselves to be influenced by him are eager to believe what he writes and to have their impressions about others (once again, about me) shaped by him. Does the fact that he was wrong about me mean that he is wrong about other things he has written? Not necessarily, but it certainly does make me think twice about his desire to be truthful. Has anyone looked at Dan Rather the same since we found out about his eagerness to take down George Bush using fabricated evidence? I didn’t think so.

Vance has used his blog to level various charges at Ligonier Ministries and at Tim Dick. Until recently, the posts dealt with R.C. Sproul Jr. and his being deposed by his denomination. Recently, though, Vance also wrote an article in which he accused Ligonier of defrauding Soli Deo Gloria publications, which Ligonier acquired in 2004. He charges that Tim Dick found a way of underhandedly stealing the company from Don Kistler, the man who founded it. “Dr. Kistler’s ministry was stolen from him by, quite literally, nothing more than a cheesy sleight of hand trick. After weeks of contract negotiations a final version of the contract was agreed upon by all parties. However, when it came time for the signing of the final contract, unbeknownst to Don Kislter, Tim Dick secretly switched contracts. The textual difference in that switched contract was small enough to have easily escaped the notice of everyone, yet the implications for Don Kisler were immense.”

This article charging Tim Dick, and thus Ligonier, with fraud has now been widely read and I have had many people ask me to comment on it. What I have pointed out to all who have asked me about it is that Vance writes an interesting article, but one that is entirely devoid of any proof. He levels many charges at Dick and calls him many names. He writes like he has facts at his disposal, but provides no proof. He says only that he has gained his facts from someone who has spoken to Don Kistler. This is, at best, third-hand information. Without proof what he writes is nothing more than gossip. It is unconscionable that, as a professed believer, he would write such a condemnatory article but without offering proof. Regardless of whether what he writes is true, he deserves to be ignored on that basis. To this point I am not aware of any response from Don Kistler as he is currently recovering from a serious stroke.

Clearly one of the responsibilities of the President and CEO of a ministry is to protect the integrity of that ministry and the man who founded it. It should be mentioned that Tim Dick has a personal stake as well, for he is Dr. Sproul’s son-in-law and surely has a deep love and respect for the man. While the press is eager to report this as an issue touching on the First Amendment, in the lawsuit Ligonier makes it clear that they regard it as an issue of slander, libel and defamation. One does not have to read far into “Contending for the Truth” to see that they can make a case for this. The press will be eager to make this into an issue about freedom of speech. They will make it into an issue of the big corporation versus the little man. But, as I understand it, freedom of speech does not provide a person the right to fabricate stories and to slander others. Without proof, this is all that Vance offers. As believers we cannot regard Vance as a victim here, for his attacks on Ligonier and on Tim Dick (and his family) are mean-spirited and clearly not written out of Christian love or concern.

This lawsuit will inevitably raise questions about the teaching of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6. Paul writes, “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?” While I do not know how I feel about legal action in this particular case, especially because I have access to few of the facts, I think it bears mentioning that if a person continually responds as an unbeliever, he may no longer merit treatment as a believer, especially when he continues to do harm to an organization. Also, it bears mention that Ligonier is an entity, a non-profit organization, not a person or individual believer. Neither is it a church. When there is interaction between a person and an organization, it may fit in a different category than the one-to-one interpersonal relationship described in Scripture. A corporation dealing with an anonymous person does not have the ability to deal with such issues within a church setting.

My purpose in writing all of this is not to suggest that I feel Ligonier is a perfect or blameless organization. I have no stake with Ligonier in writing this. While I am acquainted (at best) with several people who work for the organization, I have nothing to gain or lose from them. I am not, as has been charged against me, a “shill” for Ligonier.

There may even be some truth about a misunderstanding in the situation regarding Soli Deo Gloria, though surely suggesting that Tim Dick surreptitiously switched contracts is either a fabrication or a ridiculous oversimplification. My purpose is not to condemn Frank Vance and to suggest he is a liar, though admittedly I do not know where Vance gathered his facts and he is not willing to reveal his sources. My purpose here is to urge caution. We do not know all of the facts and neither are we ever likely to. What we do know is that Frank Vance has shown his willingness to write negatively about me based on mere conjecture and without checking his facts or seeking any kind of reconciliation. He has since written a great number of negative things about an organization that has served Christ for many years. He has done so without offering any shred of evidence or proof. As I read his articles I thought immediately of the Old Testament laws concerning witnesses. Deuteronomy 19:15 reads “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” Already many professed Christians have had their opinion about Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul influenced by the word of only one man. Surely we ought to know better.

Frank Vance has little credibility and, even if what he writes is true, does not deserve to be heard. If he has evidence, he ought to present it. If not, he should retract his comments, shut down his site, and be silent. At the very least, he should examine his motives and ask how his site is serving the body of Christ.

It is situations like this that cast a shadow over the blogosphere, for it has given voice to a whole new breed of gossips. People with only a story, no matter how little evidence is provided, can gather an audience and turn the opinions of men and women, even against a man with the long record of R.C. Sproul. There is something wrong when an anonymous gunslinger, who does not have the courage to identify himself beyond his name and his American citizenship, can cause great harm to a ministry with which he is not affiliated. There is something even more wrong with those who allow themselves to be so influenced by such a person.

If you agree with what I have written here, I’d urge you to do (or not to do) three things. First, do not to visit Vance’s site. There is no reason to sort through his articles and the increasingly belligerent and irrational comments that follow them. Second, if you are a blogger, do not link to his site. Links and visits are the currency of the blogosphere and there is no reason to give him either one. Third, and most importantly, I plead with you not to allow a charge to be established in your mind on the evidence of a single witness! Surely a man who has served the church as long and as well as R.C. Sproul, and surely the organization he founded, deserve the benefit of the doubt.

August 29, 2006

John Mark Karr has been cleared in the slaying of JonBenet Ramsey. Clearly a sick and disturbed individual, Karr claimed responsibility for a crime he did not commit. Only a monstrously sick individual would claim responsibility for the rape and murder of a 6-year-old knowing full well that the crime was not his. Some are suggesting that his claim to this murder is a well-constructed plan to ensure that he will not be convicted for child pornography charges brought against him in California. Steve Janke says, “He won’t pay for any crimes he might have committed for the simple reason that it will be impossible for Karr to get a fair trial. Any jury pool is irredeemably tainted by the publicity. And Karr’s lawyer would be right.”

Frankly, this entire case makes me sick. I can barely bring myself to look at pictures of JonBenet Ramsey, the little girl whose parents dressed her like a sultry and seductive teenager and then marvelled that anyone would respond to her in that way. I am sickened by the sexual violence committed against her. Surely this crime is a stark display of the depravity of mankind. But as I continued to see headlines about the case a strange thought entered my mind. It quickly became obvious that Karr was not the murderer and was somehow using his confession as a means to a selfish end. But still I thought, what would be wrong with having him serve the sentence for this crime? If the state of Colorado charged him with the murder and put him in prison for the rest of his days, would the demands of justice be satisfied? Can justice be satisfied if one man serves a sentence on behalf of another, even if this is done voluntarily? The answer is obvious. The demands of justice could not and cannot be satisfied by the wrong man suffering on behalf of the one who has committed the crime. We do not need to look to the laws of our nations to determine this, for our hearts tell us this is so. God has imprinted the demand for justice into the human conscience.

And yet this is just what happened with Jesus Christ, is it not? Jesus committed no sin, and yet He suffered for my sin so that I can be declared righteous. Was this a grave miscarriage of justice or was this, as the Bible indicates, a perfect expression of both mercy and justice? And if John Mark Karr cannot satisfy justice’s demands on behalf of the man who really killed JonBenet Ramsey, why is it that Jesus can satisfy justice’s demands on behalf of the man who actually did?

I thought about this for some time and asked some friends for advice. I shuffled through five or six systematic theologies as well. All the while I felt stupid for not arriving at an easy and obvious answer. But in the end, my first instincts seemed to offer the best answer. It all comes down to imputation.

There are three times we encounter imputation in the doctrines of Scripture. The first deals with the sin of Adam. In Romans 5 we read, “One trespass led to condemnation for all men…by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” Paul declares that through the sin of Adam, all men were counted guilty. When faced with the choice to disobey God, Adam served as the representative of all mankind. When he sinned, he sinned on our behalf. Wayne Grudem says, “God counted Adam’s guilt as belonging to us, and since God is the ultimate judge of all things in the universe, and since his thoughts are always true, Adam’s guilt does in fact belong to us. God rightly imputed Adam’s guilt to us.” This word impute is critically important. Grudem defines it as “to think of as belonging to someone, and therefore to cause it to belong to that person.” As the righteous judge, God imputed Adam’s sin to all who would come from the line of Adam. From that moment, all who are born of Adam, all who are sons and daughters of Adam, are conceived and born in sin. We sin because we are sinners.

Imputation is found again in the suffering and death of Jesus. The Second Adam, Jesus Christ was appointed to be the second and greatest representative of the human race. Conceived of the Holy Spirit, Jesus did not have Adam’s sin imputed to him. He was born blameless and perfect in every way. But then, on the cross, sin was imputed to him. He bore our sin. Isaiah 53:6 says, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Galatians 3:13 tells us that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Christ bore our sin and even became sin. In the very same way that Adam’s sin was imputed to the human race, our sin was imputed to Christ. God thought of our sin as being on Christ’s account rather than our own, and so actually caused our sin to belong to Christ. Christ bore this sin perfectly and so satisfied God’s demands for justice.

But, thanks be to God, this is not all, for we soon encounter imputation once more. God does more than allow Christ to suffer on our behalf. While Christ died for us and bore our sin, the fact remains that we are guilty of committing countless sins. And so God also imputes to us the righteousness of Christ. Paul says in Philippians 3:9 that he does not have, “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” The righteousness he enjoys is not his own, but is a gift of God. Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to him and to all who believe. We are now thought of by God as righteous and therefore are now righteous. Praise God.

Based on plenty of thought and reading, I’ve concluded there are several reasons that John Mark Karr could not satisfy the demands of justice on behalf of another. First, God is ultimately the offended party any time a sin is committed. While a sin may hurt, bother, or even kill me, ultimately all sin is committed against God. And since God is the one who is offended, He is the one who determines how justice can be satisfied. Scripture gives no hint that one person may suffer for another, except in the case of Christ. Second, in order for Karr to suffer on behalf of another person, he would first need to have that person’s sin imputed to him. Without imputation, payment for the crime would be little more than a valueless legal fiction. Only God is able to impute sin, for, as we have seen, all sin is committed against God. Karr might be able to pretend that the sin of another person is actually his, but this would be nothing more than make-believe. Only God could actually impute that sin to him. Third, even if God were to do that, Karr could never suffer perfectly and justly for that sin. The demands of justice could not be met in one who was himself a sinner. And finally, even if Karr did have the murderer’s sin imputed to him, and even if he did bear it perfectly, the murderer would still be counted guilty, for Karr has no righteousness to offer him. Where there is sin, there is guilt. Karr is a sinner, just like you and me. He has no righteousness of his own. If he is to be ushered into heaven, he must first, by faith, believe in Christ and have Christ’s righteousness imputed to him.

We depend on Christ always, fully and finally. Only He is able to bear our sin. Only He is able to offer us His righteousness. Only He, if only we believe.

August 28, 2006

I believe in the value of good conferences. Though short-lived, conferences can be a wonderful time of growth, challenge and refreshment. I have been privileged to attend many such conferences in recent years and hope to attend many more in the years to come. As a service to the Christian community, I’ve decided to create a list of conferences that are either offered by Reformed ministries or are of particular interest to Reformed Christians. I draw that line simply to maintain a list that is manageable. You would not believe just how many conferences there are in the wider Evangelical world!

This is a living document that will be frequently updated. I will attempt to note in the A La Carte section of this site when I make major updates to it.

If you would like to suggest a conference to add to the list, please contact me with the appropriate information.

And now, without any further ado, here is the Directory of Reformed Conferences.

August 25, 2006

I came to my office this morning ready to post the utterly brilliant article I wrote yesterday. I couldn’t remember exactly what it was that I had written about, but knew it was good. I opened up the folder where I keep the upcoming posts I’ve written for this site and was unable to find the article. That’s strange. I looked on my desktop and other likely spots and found nothing. And, try as I might, I couldn’t remember what it was that I wrote about.

I think I know what happened. I probably had a dream last night in which I wrote a really good article. Somehow I had a bit of a disconnect and convinced myself that I had really written something when in reality it was only a dream. This was very disappointing to me. Still, this is not all bad, for it allows me to tackle another project. I am interested in compiling a list of conferences for the year 2007. I would prefer to keep this as a list of conferences that will be of particular interest to Reformed believers. I will format this list to look all pretty and make it available to anyone who is seeking a good conference to attend next year. I will differentiate between national and regional conferences. Here are the ones I have come up with so far. Please feel free to suggest others and I will update and formalize the list as we go.

National Conferences

February 16-19 - Resolved (Long Beach, CA) is a ministry of Grace Community Church and targets primarily College-age students and young adult Christians. Keynote speakers at this year’s conference include John MacArthur, John Piper, C.J. Mahaney, Rick Holland and Steve Lawson.

March 7-11 - The Shepherd’s Conference (Sun Valley, CA) is a ministry of Grace Community Church. It is geared towards pastors and includes both general sessions and seminars. General session speakers include John MacArthur, John Piper, Steve Lawson, Albert Mohler, Ligon Duncan and Mark Dever. Seminars are led by pastors and elders of Grace Community Church and professors from The Master’s College and Seminary.

March 15-17 - Contending for the Truth - Ligonier Ministries National Conference (Orlando, FL) is the national conference for Ligonier Ministries. This year’s speakers will be John MacArthur, Albert Mohler, John Piper, R.C. Sproul and Ravi Zacharias. R.C. Sproul Jr. will be a special guest. This conference is targeted at a general audience.

May 7-9 - The Basics (Pastor’s Conference) (Cleveland, OH) is a ministry of Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio and is targeted at pastors. The list of keynote speakers includes Alistair Begg and others.

May 26-29 - New Attitude (Louisville, KY) is the annual conference of New Attitude. This year’s theme has yet to be announced. The primary audience for this conference is single young adults. Featured speakers include John Piper and Josh Harris. Further well-known speakers will be announced in the near future. The conference includes both general sessions and seminars.

June 26-29 - Southern Baptist Founders Conference (Owasso, OK) is a ministry of Founders Ministries and is targeted towards a general audience. This year’s theme is “God’s Truth Abideth Still: Confronting Post-Modernism.”

October 2007 - Desiring God National Conference (Minneapolis, MN) is the annual national conference of Desiring God. At this time details have not been released.

Fall/Winter 2007 - Alpha & Omega Conference is a ministry of Alpha & Omega Ministries. It is targeted towards a general audience. It typically features a debate involving James White as well as sessions led by Dr. White and other keynote speakers.

Regional Conferences

Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology (Sacramento, CA) is a ministry of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and is intended for a general audience. Speakers includes Donald Carson, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, Richard Phillips, Philip Ryken and R. C. Sproul. The conference is held four times: Sacramento, CA March 2-4, 2007; Jackson, MS March 23-25, 2007; Grand Rapids, MI April 20-22, 2007; and Philadelphia, PA April 27-29, 2007.

August 23, 2006

driscoll-cover.jpgMark Driscoll is a bestselling and highly-regarded author. He is pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, a popular speaker at conferences, and is founder of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network. But is there more to this man than meets the eye? According to a shocking new article in Preaching Illustrated, there may be.

In a bizarre turn of events, Mark Driscoll has become embroiled in a theological doping scandal. Random testing, conducted immediately following the sermon he delivered in his church on Sunday August 20, revealed the presence of unusual and inconsistent teachings. While no official statement has been released, investigators have hinted they suspect Driscoll has been using theobolic steroids. Like the sport of professional cycling, those under investigation are considered guilty until proven innocent. This could prove to be a serious blight on an otherwise surefire hall of fame career.

“This is becoming increasingly common,” said David Pullman, lead investigator in the case. “This guy has no seminary degree, no Calvinistic background. He writes books, preaches sermons, runs a church planting network and has a whole brood of children. Somehow he finds time to do all of this and to maintain theology that is consistently biblical and Reformed. It doesn’t add up.” Theobolic steroids, consumed in small amounts, can increase a pastor’s understanding of theology and his theological output, giving him a decisive edge over competitors.

“It’s little wonder his church has grown so quickly,” said another investigator who spoke under condition of anonymity. “What chance does anyone else have against a guy who is willing to shoot up with theobolic steroids? It is a despicable crime!” Rumors are circulating that discarded syringes containing traces of Reformed theology have been discovered scattered around the pulpit at Mars Hill.

The side effects to theobolic steroids can be serious, ranging from the eventual shrinking of a pastor’s discernment to the complete undermining of his faith. George Wright, a former theobolic steroid user, was recently interviewed about his years of steroid abuse. “It seems so harmless, but soon you become addicted. You set a standard while on the steroids you can’t hope to match without them. Your sermons are great, your theology is sound and people are convicted.” After many years of abuse, Wright found his faith and discernment lessening. Now a decade removed from that abuse, he currently serves as pastor of a PCUSA church and spends his mornings watching preachers on BET and TBN. “Last week I heard Joel Osteen preach a sermon on the importance of eating a healthy breakfast. It was so convicting to me! Joel Osteen is my hero!”

A source close to the investigation hinted that Driscoll will also be investigated for blood doping. This is the process of artificially increasing the amount of theology infused in the bloodstream in an attempt to improve theological performance. Preachers have been known to “donate” a unit of blood following a particularly edifying conference or immediately after reading a good book. This blood is stored and transfused back into the body immediately before a big preaching or speaking engagement. This effectively increases theological output because of the extra theology contained in the blood. Investigators were tipped off to the possibility of blood doping shortly after Driscoll attended a Chris Rock show. “We suspect he mistakenly ‘donated’ blood immediately after the show and returned it to his body several weeks later, immediately before writing Confessions of a Reformission Rev. That will explain a thing or two!”

At the time this article went to print, there had been no statement from Mark Driscoll or Mars Hill Church. Investigators are expected to report on their findings in the coming weeks.

August 20, 2006

Not too long ago, I was faced with the question of whether God is active in sending people to hell, or if he is passive, choosing instead to allow unbelievers to send themselves their through their free will. “God does not send people to hell,” the common saying goes. “They choose to go there themselves.” When reading The Great Work of the Gospel by John Ensor I found that he has also faced this question. Here is his explanation. I found it very convincing.

Several years ago I attended an evangelistic crusade. The preacher wanted to affirm the loving-kindness of Christ and at the same time affirm the reality of hell. The two appeared incompatible to him. So he explained, “God does not send people to hell. They choose to go there.” This statement has a certain attractiveness to it. It affirms the reality of hell but appears to take God off the hook in terms of being personally accountable for the actual damnation involved. But is this a biblically accurate explanation of the tension? I think not. The statement is distorted in several ways.

First, it uses the term people in reference to God’s final judgment. The Bible does not generally use the term people with reference to God’s judgment. The term people is used to describe what we have in common with each other as created beings, without any reference to our moral character. We talk of the people in our neighborhood. Our coworkers are people. People make up a crowd gathered in a football stadium, or an entire city or nation—the Chinese people, for example. No moral distinctions are made. Nothing is known or stated about any individual’s moral goodness. It is people we see dying of starvation. We are moved because we see them as fellow human beings made in the image of God.

When speaking of God’s final judgment, the Bible uses a variety of terms that reflects the substance and foundation of or moral nature. We are called the “righteous” or the “wicked.” God’s judgment is not on people but on the wicked. So we read, “The wicked will be cut off from the land” (Proverbs 2:22) and “The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blessed the dwelling of the righteous” (Proverbs 3:33)…

When we hear about a planeload of people dying in a crash, without knowing any of them personally, we grieve. We think of their pain, the sorrow of their families. Suppose, however, that we know what young twelve-year-old Susan knows—that her father, the man in seat 23C, has been molesting her for two years and plans to do so that evening when he gets home. If we did know this, we might weep in relief that a wicked man is no longer alive to destroy an innocent young life. Our ability to sympathize or grieve over someone’s death and judgment is largely guided by this judicial sentiment.

When we speak of God’s wrath coming on people rather than on the wicked, we invariably sense a oneness with them rather than with God. But this puts us in opposition to God and the righteousness of his ways. Therefore, this difference in the language we use is important. We ought to take our cue from the moral and judicial language of Scripture; that God loves the humble but opposes the proud (James 4:6), that he honors the tearful (Isaiah 38:5) but warns the obstinate (Isaiah 30:1), and so forth. The judgments of the Lord are right, true, and truly praiseworthy. The people of God will rejoice when God brings an end to the wicked. This is not beyond our current judicial sentiment. Law-abiding, peace-loving people rejoice when the corrupt are judged and removed from power or the violent are judged and removed from the presence of the community. How much more will we say of the perfect Judge, “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty…for rewarding your servants, … and for destroying the destroyers of the earth” (Revelation 11:17-18).

The wicked do not choose hell. It may be more accurate to say they choose to reject heaven. If we reject God and his supremacy, if we live to deface his glory, then heaven is the last place we would enjoy. But the wicked never choose hell. They go there against their will, “weeping and gnashing [their] teeth” (Matthew 25:30). In all of his judgment, God, boldly and without apology, takes an active role, not a passive one…The wicked do not leap or fall into the lake of fire. They are thrown into it, on purpose, according to the perfect righteousness of God. “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). Sobering, to be sure. May it also be motivating.

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