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April 22, 2009

Since yesterday morning I’ve been in Chicago at The Gospel Coalition Conference. This is my first time at this particular conference and, as you may have noticed, I am not giving it the usual liveblog treatment. The sessions are going out live over the internet (where, from what I hear, tens of thousands of people are taking them in) so there seemed to be little reason to go through all the work of typing out summaries. If you want to watch them, simply head over to christianity.com. You can watch live as it happens and, as soon as they can work out the details, you’ll also be able to watch the archived sessions.

I came here with one goal—to figure out what The Gospel Coalition is and to find out if (and why) you should care. And, honestly, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure it out. It has proven a bit harder than I would have thought. Somehow the vision for this organization or conference or movement—this coalition—is just a little bit hard for me to describe. This is the reason for the silence on my blog—I’ve been learning. I’ve been going to sessions featuring D.A. Carson and Tim Keller (the men behind it) and have been talking to guys like Ben Peays who does the administration and is, as far as I know, one of only one or two employees of the Coalition. I’ve been asking almost everyone I meet while walking the halls and hanging out in the bookstore, “What is The Gospel Coalition?”.

I think I am starting to figure it out. Check in here tomorrow and I will start to tell you what it is, what it hopes to be and how you can be a part of it.

April 15, 2009

John MacArthur has kicked off a bit of controversy with his posts on Song of Solomon and, in particular, with his rationale for doing so—addressing pastors who, when preaching through the book, “employ extremely graphic descriptions of physical intimacy as a way of expounding on the euphemisms in Solomon’s poem.” In his first two articles he has singled out Mark Driscoll as one he considers a prime offender. This will be the last time the name Driscoll comes up in this article; I really do not want his name to sideline any discussion.

As I wrote in yesterday’s A La Carte, I think this is a discussion that we will all benefit from. I look forward to hearing what Dr. MacArthur has to say about Song of Solomon and a proper, biblical way of understanding, interpreting and preaching it. I think his long and faithful ministry has given him the right to speak out and speak up. We’d be foolish to immediately write him off as old and irrelevant and out-of-touch (as some are doing, based on what I’ve seen in blog comments). There is no need to be defensive here! The men he is writing against are all big boys and can handle what he says and the discussion that will ensue.

And already I have read some interesting discussion. For example, Erik Raymond gave me some things to think about when he gave two reasons that he is uncomfortable with all the talk of sex coming out of evangelicalism today. Here is what he wrote:

1. The emphasis upon sex has become so strong that it has begun to sound like our message. The danger here is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is regrettably assumed, neglected or forgotten. When many evangelicals begin to ride the waves of media popularity and are given a platform to speak, they sound more and more like sex coaches than ministers of a message. Somewhere along the way that which is of first importance gets shelved.

2. Most of the way in which these pastors handle the text is just flat out troubling. Often times we are given a reading of a verse or a section and then the pastor launches off into sexual advice and counsel. And when there is something that is legitimately debated among Bible teachers the issue is not dealt with responsibly (in my view) but rather quickly. The text then, which has not been adequately unpacked within its context, is then made prescriptive for the Christian.

I have listened to a couple of sermons of the kind MacArthur is reacting against—sermons which tend to look at Song of Solomon line-by-line, expressing how each metaphor, each poetic device, describes a particular part of the body or a particular sexual act. I have been bothered by such sermons for two reasons. The first lines up with what Erik wrote above: the poor handling of the text. Turning Song of Solomon into a how-to manual that describes or prescribes certain acts is to miss the point of the book. As MacArthur says, “It is, of course, a lengthy poem about courtship and marital love. It is filled with euphemisms and word pictures. Its whole point is gently, subtly, and elegantly to express the emotional and physical intimacy of marital love—in language suitable for any audience.”

The other reason is one for which I’d be interested in feedback. Song of Solomon is poetry and as such, should not be treated, exposited, in the same way as prose. Not too many people would disagree with this. It strikes me as well that Song of Solomon is substantially different from other kinds of biblical poetry. If we compare one of David’s Psalms to Song of Solomon we see that they are tangibly different. So while it may make sense to progress line-by-line through Psalm 119, interpreting each line, it seems to me that Song of Solomon does not give itself to this kind of interpretation. Song of Solomon is an expression of wonder, an expression of joy, an expression of mystery. Or that’s certainly how it appears to me. I don’t think we are supposed to understand it in a word-by-word, line-by-line sense as we might the book of Romans.

MacArthur quotes a few lines. They are worth reading just for the beauty of the poetry and the creativity of the imagery:

A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
A rock garden locked, a spring sealed up.
Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates
With choice fruits, henna with nard plants,
Nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
With all the trees of frankincense,
Myrrh and aloes, along with all the finest spices.
You are a garden spring,
A well of fresh water,
And streams flowing from Lebanon.”
Awake, O north wind,
And come, wind of the south;
Make my garden breathe out fragrance,
Let its spices be wafted abroad.
May my beloved come into his garden
And eat its choice fruits!”

MacArthur says it right, I’m sure, when he says “Let’s face it: overall, the Song is about as far from explicit as the writer can get.” Had the author wanted to be explicit, he could have done so. Instead, he wrote in poetry, in metaphor, carefully crafting a poem that is full of mystery. “Song of Solomon is incredibly beautiful precisely because it is so carefully veiled. It is a perfect description of the wonderful, tender, intimate discovery that God designed to take place between a young man and his bride in a place of secrecy. We are not told in vivid terms what all the metaphors mean, because the beauty of marital passion is in the eye of the beholder—where it should stay.” To remove the veil is to remove the beauty!

So here is what I am wondering. Don’t we do damage to the Song of Solomon when we seek to interpret and explain every line? To use an old cliche, don’t we miss the forest for the trees? Isn’t it better to leave some mystery in the Song, understanding themes but ultimately finding satisfaction not in drawing a one-to-one comparison between metaphor and act, poetry and body part, but rather in seeing it as one man’s attempt at expressing the joy, the wonder and the mystery of sex and sexuality? Isn’t the very reason he had to use poetry was that prose just couldn’t express the wonder? The beauty and the mystery of the Song go hand-in-hand. To remove one is to remove the other.

April 13, 2009

In early 2006, firefighters in Orange County, California, anticipating a dangerous forest fire season, began a controlled burn of 10 acres of canyon land forest. They lit a small fire to prevent a bigger fire, attempting to reduce the amount of flammable material that might serve as tinder during the dry season. They thought everything had gone as planned until the winds shifted and picked up. Somewhere in the brush a hot coal sparked a new fire and soon the forest was burning anew. Almost 1,000 firefighters were called in to fight this new blaze. Within days area schools had been closed, thousands of homes had been evacuated and nearby roads had been shut down. In the end, the fire consumed over 8,000 acres of forest. The 10 acre controlled burn turned into an 8,000 acre raging fire. Lesson learned: there is danger inherent in fighting fire with fire.

Last Monday I posted an article called Evil as Entertainment in which the basic encouragement was to avoid reading watchblogs. Much discussion, much gratitude, much criticism ensued. I am caught somewhere between having so much more to say and never wanting to mention it again. Today I’ll tend toward the latter and perhaps in the future I can write about this again and in more detail.

I guess any writer can attest that every now and then you write something that is really, objectively good; and other times you lay an egg. Having talked it over and having read plenty of feedback, I’m going to have to say that I laid an egg on Monday. While I do not feel that what I said was wrong or unnecessary, I can see that I should have said it better. At the same time, I think it sparked some useful discussion and for that I am grateful. I can see how I should have nuanced my article and how it could have been so much better and so much more useful. In just a moment I want to point you to a couple of articles that may be of use to you if you wish to think further about the issues I raised.

Since I posted that article I’ve gotten heaps of email (I think only articles on homeschooling could generate more feedback) and have learned more about these watchblogs than I would have wanted. I received plenty of ugly, angry rebukes and a few kind, gentle rebukes. I also received many comments that echoed my own experience—that these sites are like an anchor to joy in Christ and an anchor for many a Christian’s love for his brothers and sisters in the Lord. These sites have undoubtedly caused much harm. Several others wrote to say that they are reevaluating their desire to read such sites. This is good, I think, and shows that God may be willing to use even a bad article for his purposes.

Let me offer this as an aside: a few people, including some of the angrier emailers, suggested that I was censoring comments in that article—that I was deliberately excluding certain comments. I suppose you’ll just have to take my word for this one, but I did not censor any comments. I checked published comments, unpublished comments and spam comments and there was no trace of anything beyond the ones that were published to the site (with the exception of one very long and rambling one that was about the length of War and Peace except with no paragraph breaks). ‘Nuff said.

Now, for those articles. Here are four you may find useful:

  • Great Damage: The Gift of Discernment Used in the Flesh - James MacDonald wrote this a few weeks ago and in it he highlights some of the ridiculous, ungodly argumentation used against him by just the kind of watchblogger I wrote about. He says, “A post I wrote on January 20th when President Obama was sworn in was picked up by a number of ‘watch dog’ discernment groups and the rest is history. I have been called weak, soft on the truth, a compromiser, politically correct, foolish, and worst of all, apostate (not truly saved). Wow!!!” Read between the lines a little bit and you can see the tactics such packs of watchbloggers use against their quarry.
  • Establish Elders - Frank Turk simply says this: “Notice that Paul here instructs Titus to appoint elders in every town and not watchbloggers. That is: the focal point and center of discernment ought to be in the local church. If your counter-concern is that local churches today lack discernment (and this may be a valid concern), I suggest that the place to fix that is in the place God ordained and not everywhere else but that place.” The discussion that follows is very interesting. With Frank I believe the best, most natural context for discernment is the local church.
  • Among the comments is this one by Frank and I think it is a very valuable read.
  • Turning a Blind Eye to Evil is Evil Too - Phil Johnson wrote about how he both agrees and disagrees with me. This article really helped me see the lack of clarity in my own article (well, that and my wife telling me that Phil’s article was better than my own). “I think what Tim Challies is saying is that it’s unhealthy to fix one’s attention on error full time rather than spending most of our time dwelling on things that edify. If that’s all he is saying, I say (as heartily as possible) AMEN! (Philippians 4:8). But if someone wants to seize that point in order to suggest that it’s always better to be an encourager than a critic, my reply is: That very attitude is largely responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place.” Exactly. There is a time and place for calling error error; there is a time and place for humor and sarcasm and all the rest. But a fixation on evil is dangerous!

Most of what Phil says is most of what I should have said (or said more clearly) on Monday. There is a time and place to expose sin and even to expose sin publicly (see this article by James MacDonald for some good thoughts). But a blog that has as its bread and butter exposing error in the church, and especially error that is completely decontextualized and irrelevant to any of its readers, is a blog I think we ought to avoid. A Christian’s thoughts ought to be dominated by “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). As I said last Monday, “Do I really need to read and to know about the seedy underbelly of the church, when such things happen thousands of miles away, among people I will never meet and in places I will never be? Such news is plenty entertaining, but it is useless to me. It does nothing to further my faith or to cause me to grow in godliness.”

One analogy I opted not to use in Monday’s post was that of pornography. But let me haul it out now as I think it helps show what it is that I am reacting against. Imperfect, I’m sure, but worth thinking about. If a site wished to combat pornography, would the best way of doing so be to display lots of pictures of naked women with comments about how wrong they are to be doing what they are doing? Posted below the picture of a naked woman engaged in some lewd conduct are the words “This is what passes for sex in the church today. Lord save us!” If you were to visit this kind of a site day after day, do you think you’d continue visiting to help you be prepared to combat pornography (because by knowing what pornography looks like you could spot it in your own life)? Or do you think, just maybe, you’d find that you were visiting to see the naked women themselves? Isn’t it better to turn to Scripture to find what it says about sex and sexuality? Isn’t that the best way to learn about what is right? By studying evil you are learning about evil and are liable to be consumed by it. “Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).

Now I will grant that there are times when it is well and good to bring evil deeds to light and in such times there is a difference between heresy and nudity. But I think the point remains. Be very careful fighting fire with fire! Be careful fighting heresy with heresy, bad theology with bad theology, lack of love with lack of love. So easily the noble becomes ignoble. So often the controlled burn becomes the raging wildfire.

If you could take one thing away from this whole discussion I hope it is this: For the good of your own soul, think about why you visit the blogs you do. There is nothing wrong with entertainment and there is nothing inherently wrong with visiting a site to be entertained. But think about the nature of the entertainment. Is it possible that you are being entertained by what is evil? Are you finding joy in what God hates? Is it possible that there is no real value in learning what you are learning and in seeing what you are seeing? As you close down your browser and walk away from such sites, do you find that you are filled with the fruit of the Spirit? Or do you find your heart hardened and your mind cynical? Do such sites help you grow in your love for your brothers and sisters in Christ or instead do you find yourself hardened against them and mocking them? Think carefully about such things.

I leave you with those questions and with this Scripture: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22,23).

April 12, 2009

It is Easter today, and I woke up thinking about this song, a new favorite Easter hymn. It is written (not surprisingly) as a collaborative effort between Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. You can find at least a couple of different versions of it at Amazon or on iTunes. There is the studio version on the Getty’s album In Christ Alone or, the one I prefer, a live recording by Stuart Townend on the album See, What a Morning. With solid lyrics and a fitting melody, it simply rejoices in what this day is all about: Christ is risen from the dead!

See, what a morning, gloriously bright,
With the dawning of hope in Jerusalem;
Folded the grave-clothes, tomb filled with light,
As the angels announce, “Christ is risen!”
See God’s salvation plan,
Wrought in love, borne in pain, paid in sacrifice,
Fulfilled in Christ, the Man,
For He lives: Christ is risen from the dead!

See Mary weeping, “Where is He laid?”
As in sorrow she turns from the empty tomb;
Hears a voice speaking, calling her name;
It’s the Master, the Lord raised to life again!
The voice that spans the years,
Speaking life, stirring hope, bringing peace to us,
Will sound till He appears,
For He lives: Christ is risen from the dead!

One with the Father, Ancient of Days,
Through the Spirit who clothes faith with certainty.
Honor and blessing, glory and praise
To the King crowned with pow’r and authority!
And we are raised with Him,
Death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered;
And we shall reign with Him,
For He lives: Christ is risen from the dead!

April 10, 2009

As seems to be the case with most boys, my friends and I went through a stage where we found great joy in tying people to things. In second or third grade we would take turns being the guys who would grab the skipping ropes and twist endless knots, fastening one of our friends to a tree or fence or flag pole. And, of course, we would take turns being the unfortunate one who was on the receiving end of the action. I remember one time when I was, thankfully, not the one being tied. It was recess, and we had only a few minutes to have our fun. We had tied a friend to a tree and it was now his time to play Houdini and escape from the ties. But something went wrong—we had tied him up too well. He struggled to get undone but could make little progress. And then, from across the school yard, the bell rang. We were torn. Should we help our friend and risk detention for being late to class? Or should we forsake our friend and look out first for ourselves? Typical children that we were, we left our friend struggling with the ropes and dashed for the door. A few minutes later he walked meekly into class, late and knowing there would be consequences.

I thought of this incident some time ago in what was a rather unlikely context. In our church’s evening service, a service that culminated in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we sang Stuart Townend’s hymn “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” Like all good hymns, this one gives a lot to think about; it contains deep and biblical content. As we sang it, I was struck by the words “It was my sin that held him there.” As we sang those words I found my mind bouncing to some of the other occasions in Jesus’ life, times when He escaped pain or death.

There were several occasions in Jesus’ life when He escaped the wrath of His enemies. For example, in John 8:56-59 Jesus called Himself by the name “I am,” utter blasphemy to the Jewish nation, and cause for death. Though they picked up stones with which to execute Him (in the temple, no less), he managed to hide Himself and to make His way out of the temple. Just a short time later, in John 10:31-39 we read that people picked up rocks and sought to stone Him. But Jesus escaped their attempts to arrest Him and to put Him to death. This was the pattern, for a while. The people would misinterpret Jesus, accusing Him of blasphemy one time and seeking to make Him king the next. Jesus would escape or rebuke to ensure that His mission did not get derailed.

But then came the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter, drawing his sword and swinging at one of the men, clearly thought this was going to be another chance for Jesus to slip away from His accusers. But Jesus knew that this time would be different. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53). With only a single word, Jesus could have summoned to his defense more than twelve legions of angels. Look to the Old Testament and you will see the kind of devastation that could be brought about by twelve legions of angels. With a single word Jesus could have caused the heavenly host that sang of His birth spring to His defense. But He did not. This was true in the Garden, in the court, and on the hill. This was true as the spikes were nailed into His body and as the cross was raised to the sky.

Some words that I first pondered a few years and that have continued to be deeply affecting to me are found in Matthew 27:50: “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.” The amazing thing about these words is that they show us that Jesus was in control of the timing of His death. Though the nails had pierced His hands and feet, and though He had been beaten to be point of being almost unrecognizable, He died only when He decided to yield up His spirit. In his account of the crucifixion, John says Jesus “gave up His spirit.” This was an active, not a passive act. The significance of this wording is that it shows that Jesus was in control of the timing of His death. He did not die because His body could take no more punishment or because of blood loss. He died because He decided it was time to die. His work was accomplished and there was no reason for Him to linger. And so he gave up His spirit and returned to His Father.

All of this tells me that Townend is right—it was not the nails that held Jesus to the cross. He could so easily have escaped the cross and, even if He decided to go there, could just as easily have escaped from the cross. He could have stepped down and watched as His angels gained vengeance on the heartless men who had nailed Him to that tree. But He did not. Jesus remained there until the work was accomplished. He stayed there until He had done the work His Father had assigned Him. He stayed there until He had secured the redemption of all of His people. It was not the nails that held Him, but His love for the Father and His love for us. It was my sin that held Him there in the deepest expression of love the world could ever know. It was death by love.

The key to it all comes from John 10:17-18. “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” No one took Jesus’ life from Him. He did not lose it, He gave it.

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He would give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross
My guilt upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no powr’s, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

April 10, 2009

Today is Good Friday and, not coincidentally, today we finish reading The Cross He Bore by Frederick Leahy. It has proven, I think, a valuable read leading to those days we set aside to particularly remember Jesus’ death and resurrection. Today’s text is Matthew 27:45: “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.”

Here is a short quote:

*****

At Bethlehem, when the Saviour was born, the night was changed to day as the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds. On Golgotha the day gave way to night as Christ sank deeper and deeper into the abyss of damnation. At Bethlehem there were countless angels praising God; on Golgotha legions of darkness filled the impenetrable gloom, hoping that darkness would finally triumph over light.

Golgotha was so different from the mount of transfiguration where the Lord conversed with Moses, representing the law, and Elijah, representing the prophets (Mark 9:2-4). There, for a brief moment, the glory of deity broke through the veil of flesh, a fleeting glimpse of the radiant splendour of Christ when he comes at the end of this age “in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

Between the shining forth of glory at the transfiguration and the glory of the second coming, however, lies the heavy darkness of Golgotha.

At the creation, God, at an early stage, introduced light. Yet now he leaves his Son suspended in darkness at midday…

April 09, 2009

There is just one day remaining in our thirteen-day read of Frederick Leahy’s The Cross He Bore. Tomorrow we will finish just on time to remember the death of Jesus on Good Friday. Meanwhile, today’s text is Luke 23:33: “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.”

Leahy looks at what it means that Jesus was crucified between two bandits, two common criminals. Here is a brief excerpt:

*****

In no way did the Lord resent being placed among such men at Calvary. The quotation from Isaiah 53:12 may literally be translated, “He…let himself be numbered with the transgressors.” He was totally content with his position; we would not have had it otherwise. He knew that his place among these bandits was willed by his Father and his Father’s will was his will. These criminals, placed there by God, were appropriate company at this time for his Son.

Here, too, is the mystery of divine sovereignty and human responsibility (Acts 2:23), those parallel lines that to our finite minds never meet. Those who try to make them meet succeed only in distorting both. It is possible, but by no means certain, that in heaven the parallel lines will be seen from a different perspective. In this life they must not be tampered with. They are both true and that is enough. Let the people of God praise him that his Son was so placed at Calvary. Let it be maintained that Christ died not as the representative of his people, but in their stead, dying their death that they might live. In a word, he died as their Substitute.

April 08, 2009

Today we come to the eleventh chapter of Frederick Leahy’s The Cross He Bore, a book many of us are reading to turn our hearts and minds toward the cross as we prepare to remember Jesus’ death and to celebrate his resurrection. Today’s text is Mark 15:23: “And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it.”

Leahy uses this chapter to look to the cup Jesus refused and to compare that to the cup of God’s wrath he was in the midst of drinking, and to the cup of righteousness he could then offer to all who would believe in him.

Here is a short quote from the chapter:

*****

It was customary, by way of preparation for crucifixion, to offer the condemned a sedative drink. Mark says that Christ was offered “wine mixed with myrrh” (15:23). Matthew speaks of “wine…mixed with gall” (27:34). The word translated “gall,” like “marah” in the Old Testament, can be used broadly of something which is bitter. Thus in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) the word for gall is used in the same sense, and in Deuteronomy 32:32, KJV, we read “Their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter.”

This narcotic drink was offered for the purpose of deadening the pain. Matthew in his account was probably thinking of Psalm 69:21a, “They put gall in my food…” (NIV). Dr. J.A. Alexander remarks that “the passion of our Lord was providentially ordered as to furnish a remarkable coincidence with this verse.” It must not be forgotten that, in the final analysis, it is Christ who speaks prophetically in this great passion Psalm.

The soporific mixture offered to the Saviour was immediately refused. As soon as he tasted it he realized what it was (Matt. 27:34). A drink to quench his thirst would have been welcome, and he did accept such a drink (verse 48). That sour wine he accepted, but the drugged drink he instantly refused. To the very last he must have full possession of his senses. As A.H. Strong observes, his cry of dereliction on the cross “was not an ejaculation of thoughtless or delirious suffering.” Nothing must be allowed to insulate his spirit from the reality of the situation. Spurgeon remarks, “He solemnly determined that to offer a sufficient atoning sacrifice He must go the whole way, from the highest to the lowest, from the throne of highest glory to the cross of deepest woe.” He must suffer to the utmost. He must feel the full “sting” of his death. No anaesthetic was permissible. In Mark’s account of this incident the Greek text would suggest that they persisted in offering this drink to Christ and consequently he repeatedly refused it.