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June 14, 2006

There has been a good bit of talk in the blogosphere over the past couple of weeks about the election of a new President of the Southern Baptist Convention. As you no-doubt know, there are many who have been seeking to build bridges between the Calvinist and Arminian factions within the Convention. Monday’s “debate” between Paige Patterson and Al Mohler was an indication of the willingness of men on both sides of the divide to affirm their mutual respect and admiration.

As is so often the case, much of the discussion between the two factions deals with the subject of evangelism. It is a common charge levelled against Calvinists that Reformed doctrine somehow reduces the desire to share the gospel with the lost. Whether fairly or unfairly, Calvinists are notorious for their lack of evangelism.

This is not a fair charge and I believe that, in many ways, Arminian churches can be every bit as lax in their efforts to evangelize. I would go so far as to say that millions of Americans, sitting in Evangelical churches week after week, have never been evangelized. The reason for this is that too many believers do not understand the difference between outreach and evangelism. Efforts have been made to reach out to unbelievers and they may even have been drawn in to a church, but without ever hearing the gospel message.

Every Christian should agree on the necessity of reaching out to the world with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Through history some Christians and some groups of Christians have placed more emphasis on this than others, but nearly all have agreed on its importance. In the English language we have two terms that are often used synonymously to describe the sharing of the Good News - evangelism and outreach. In this article I would like to address the difference between outreach and evangelism, for I believe we often confuse the terms. We often feel that we have fulfilled the Lord’s command to preach the gospel through evangelism, when in reality we have been involved in outreach. While both are noble pursuits and can bring honor to God, it is evangelism that best fulfills His command to take the Good News to all the world.

Evangelism
e-van-gel ( -v n j l)

n.

1. The Christian gospel.

2. An evangelist.

[Middle English evaungel, from Late Latin vangelium, from Greek euangelion, good news, from euangelos, bringing good news : eu-, eu- + angelos, messenger.]

The root of the word evangelism, evangel, is derived from the Greek word euangelion which is translated good news. From that same word, we derive the word gospel. We find also that many words we use in English are in reality synonymous - evangel(ism), gospel and good news all speak of the same thing and find their root in the same word. They speak of the act of spreading the gospel and to the content of the message that is given. This is an important point to note - they refer both to the method and the message.

The word euangelion is found in many places throughout the New Testament. “The term is often used to express collectively the gospel doctrines; and ‘preaching the gospel’ is often used to include not only the proclaiming of the good tidings, but the teaching men how to avail themselves of the offer of salvation, the declaring of all the truths, precepts, promises, and threatenings of Christianity.” It is termed “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23), “the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 1:16), “the gospel of peace (Eph. 6:15), “the glorious gospel,” “the everlasting gospel,” “the gospel of salvation” (Eph. 1:13).” (Easton Illustrated Dictionary)

In the Elwell Evangelical Dictionary we read specifically about Paul’s application of the term which he used over 60 times and is found in every one of his letters except for Titus. “Paul’s ministry was distinctively that of the propagation of the gospel. Unto this gospel he was set apart (Rom. 1:1) and made a minister according to the grace of God (Eph. 3:7). His special sphere of action was the Gentile world (Rom. 16:16; Gal. 2:7). Since Paul accepted the gospel as a sacred trust (Gal. 2:7), it was necessary that in the discharge of this obligation he speak so as to please God rather than man (I Tim. 2:4). The divine commission had created a sense of urgency that made him cry out, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (I Cor. 9:16). For the sake of the gospel Paul was willing to become all things to all men (I Cor. 9:22-23). No sacrifice was too great. Eternal issues were at stake. Those whose minds were blinded and did not obey the gospel were perishing and would ultimately reap the vengeance of divine wrath (II Cor. 4:3; II Thess. 1:9). On the other hand, to those who believed, the gospel had effectively become the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16).”

We can find insight into what the gospel means to Christians through the words of William Tyndale, who was a great English Reformer and Bible translator. To him it signified “good, mery, glad and ioyfull tydinge, that maketh a mannes hert glad, and maketh hym synge, daunce, and leepe for ioye.” It truly is Good News!

Evangelism is more than telling people that Jesus loves them or that He died for them. It is telling people that they have offended a Holy God and stand before Him as condemned sinners. It is sharing with them that the good news, the best news of all, is that Jesus died for that very type of person. Jesus died to reconcile those condemned individuals to this God of justice. It is sharing with people that through faith they can be saved and can avoid an eternity of suffering for their offense to God. The Good News can only be understood in context of the bad news. If people do not understand the bad, if they do not realize that they are repugnant to God, befouled by their sin, they can not understand just how good the Good News is!

Outreach

Unlike evangel, the term outreach is not found in the Bible, though the idea certainly is. Outreach implies action more than message. Perhaps it is best defined as a business term: “an act of reaching out, bringing an organization’s services or products out into the community.” When a church engages in outreach, it is reaching out to the community in order to meet needs or to let people know of its existence. The Salvation Army is an excellent example. When tragedy strikes, especially in the case of natural disasters, the Salvation Army is often on the scene, providing food, clothing and other necessities. The Southern Baptist Convention does much the same as we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Local churches in my hometown have some excellent outreach programs. For example, every year our town has a festival in a park down on the shores of Lake Ontario and one church brings in a climbing wall and allows all the children to scale the wall for no cost. This is an act of love by the church and allows people to make a connection with the church - a connection they hope will eventually draw people into fellowship. They see this as a selfless act and an act of grace as they give people something for nothing. So often people are shocked that a church would do this, for this activity usually represents the only activity in the entire festival that costs nothing. And so the church reaches out to people to give them an opportunity to see Christians in action and to learn about the church.

This is outreach. Unbelievers are given a glimpse of the love of Christ through believers. Believers take their love for the lost into the community and allow them to see changed hearts in action. There is usually nothing offensive about outreach, and it is often regarded as noble, even by those who are opposed to Christ.

The Great Commission

Jesus’ final words to His disciples, the foundation upon which His church would be built, were “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” This “Great Commission” was given by our Lord to direct the actions of His church from the moment of its birth until He comes again to bring it to Himself. Jesus’ words imply not outreach, but evangelism. We are to go to all nations and share this awe-inspiring message with people of every nation, race and creed. We are to share the full truth of the gospel. Needless to say, we can only share such news with our words. Our actions are important and should not be under-emphasized, but people are not saved by actions - they are saved by this message which holds the power to convict men’s hearts.

1 Corinthians 1:21 tells us “it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” This speaks both of the method, which is preaching, and the message, which is the Gospel. When we share the Gospel, then, we share a message that is offensive to the natural human mind. No human likes to be told that he has offended God and stands before Him as a condemned man. No human, in and of himself, would humble himself before this God and seek repentance. It is only through the power of God through the message of the Gospel that people can be saved, for God has ordained that He will work through this message to save His people. God uses this seemingly foolish and offensive message to reach people’s hearts and turn them to Him.

When we evangelize, we share this message in all its offense, for in the offense of the Gospel there is power! When we remove the offense, we remove the power.

Outreach vs. Evangelism

There is clearly a significant difference between outreach and evangelism. They are both noble actions and bring honor to God. It is important to realize, and this should be clear through the descriptions, that they are not synonymous. The greatest difference is that evangelism is primarily a message while outreach is primarily an action.

We should note that there may be an important link between outreach and evangelism. Often times we reach out to people to draw them into a place where we can evangelize to them. We may provide children with an opportunity to have fun so that we can invite their parents to come to our church where we will take the opportunity to share the Good News with them. It is the hope of any believer that his actions will cause others to realize he is somehow different and convict that person so he can ask what makes the believer different.

Conclusion

It is important that we do not confuse outreach with evangelism. Jesus gave His church, the body that He valued so highly He gave His life for it, a commission to go to the world and share the Good News of what He did. Every believer is responsible before God to do this - we are to tell others of their condition and to share with them God’s remedy. This can only be done through evangelism, through sharing the evangel which God uses to draw His people to Himself.

Don Whitney likens the evangelist to a mailman. The mailman has fulfilled the obligation of his job when he has delivered the mail to me. The measure of success in his job is to carefully and accurately deliver the message. How I respond to the letters I receive is none of his business. And the same is true of the evangelist. We have successfully evangelized when we have shared the Gospel. When we have carefully and accurately delivered the message of God, we can trust that we have pleased our Father. The message is delivered not through outreach, but through evangelism. It is simple enough to attract people to a message through outreach, and we can gather a large group of people through simple outreach, but we may not have evangelized them, even if they fill the pews of our churches.

Do you wish to fulfill our Lord’s great commission? Then go boldly, sharing this foolish, offensive gospel message, knowing that it carries in it the very power of God. Trust and believe that in so doing you are bringing honor to our Lord and Savior and doing your part to build His Kingdom. Reach out to the lost, but ensure that you always leave them with the message of the gospel. Actions may draw them, but words are necessary to convey the message through which God saves His people.

June 13, 2006

Sometimes I am tempted to think that I enjoyed blogging more back in the days when nobody read my site. Of course those are mostly moments when I am feeling sorry for myself and the thoughts are not worth entertaining. After all, if no one read this site I wouldn’t get nearly as many opportunities to liveblog some really amazing conferences. And I really enjoy those conferences. Now that I have written a great deal, people tend to assume they know what I am saying even before I say it. It seems that some people begin to read my articles, or perhaps even just read the headlines, and immediately jump to conclusions. Or maybe I am just very poor at expressing myself. I prefer to believe the former.

A case in point was the article I wrote yesterday. I thought I was quite clear in expressing that the point of the article was not “Tim Challies believes that the Roman Catholic Church is the antichrist.” Yet, judging by emails I’ve received and comments posted at other sites, that is exactly what people took from it.

Andy Jackson said “Tim wants to defend Roman Catholic Beast position…” and that I believe that “there is a forceful argument for the Roman Catholic Beast postion based on past great men, not the Bible or contemporary great Evangelical theologians.” Blogotional says I came out “in defense of the contention that the Roman Catholic Church is the beast of Revelation!” He also says that “Challies needs to grow a pair and say what he thinks.” Joe Carter addressed my article (calling it a beastly argument), even analyzing my line of reasoning:

Tim’s primary premise could be outlined as:

The Beast of Revelation (a) is an Antichrist (b)

The papacy (c) is an antichrist (b)

The Beast of (a) Revelation is the papacy (c)

And so on. The fact is that my argument was clearly stated in my final sentence. “To simply ignore the consensus of so many great men, and to label such a consensus as ‘absolutely ridiculous’ seems to me to be far more ridiculous.” I was not arguing that the Roman Catholic church is antichrist, but that to simply ignore the testimony of so many other believers is folly. And secondarily, I wished to show that these people made some claims that were not wholly unjustified. My purpose in writing the article was to show that Andy Jackson’s charge that to consider Rome the antichrist was “ridiculous” was itself a ridiculous claim, for this is a belief a great number of Christians have held to.

Several people expressed disgust that I did not back my claims from Scripture but only from a bunch of old, dead theologians. And yet this was exactly the point of the article. These old, dead theologians, despite being both old and dead, deserve to be heard. And yesterday I gave them a voice. I did not argue from Scripture that the Catholic Church is antichrist because I don’t know that this is true.

Clear?

I don’t know how I could have stated this more clearly. It seems to me that many who read the article carefully understood my intent and responded accordingly. If you want to argue whether or not the Catholic Church is the antichrist, take it up with Luther or Calvin or any of the rest of them.

June 12, 2006

Every now and again I receive an email, often as part of a group mailing addressed to a wide variety of the most-read bloggers, asking me to use my site as a platform to post or provide comment on a particularly inflammatory issue. I got one of those emails today, this one from Andy Jackson of “SmartChristian” fame. Andy noticed that Ken Silva, one of the writers at the “Slice of Laodicea” blog, quoted Robert Murray M’Cheyne and his suggestion that the beast of Revelation is the church of Rome. On his blog Andy declares that “this is absolutely ridiculous” and in his email says: “Please take a look at this post at Slice and either post on it or provide a comment. I understand apologetics and standing for right teaching, but I have concerns about this blog labeling and condemning others in the body of Christ that we might not agree fully with.”

Here is the offending quote from M’Cheyne:

Now, we know quite well that the beast is the Church of Rome; we are told that the beast sits upon seven hills; and we are told at the end of the second verse that the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority. So that there is no doubt, dear brethren, but that the great enemy of the sheep the false shepherd, who comes like a lamb, but who has the paw of a bear - is Antichrist. Now, there can be no doubt but that he gets his power from Satan.

M’Cheyne is by no means unique in suggesting that the beast is none other than the Roman Catholic Church. One could easily argue that this is nothing more than the consensus of historic Protestantism. If Ken Silva does believe this, and nowhere in the article does he affirm such a belief, he finds himself in good company. It is only in the past few decades that this belief has fallen out of favor. Not surprisingly, this change coincides with increasing efforts to bridge the theological gaps between Catholicism and Protestantism.

I’d like to take a look at what some great Protestants of days past have had to say about the beast of Revelation. As you read, remember that we tend to misrepresent the meaning of the prefix “anti-” in the word “antichrist.” We most often think of the prefix “anti-” as meaning “against,” but in context of antichrist it actually means “in place of.” So these men were not looking for someone or something that sought to fight explicitly against Christ (such as the Muslim faith) but something or someone that sought to set itself up in place of Christ. Of course the two means lead to the same end, but a person who puts himself in place of Christ is likely to be far more subtle and may arise from within rather than from without the visible church. Those who look outside Christianity for antichrist may miss him altogther. This is the true sense of what the word means and this is the sense in which Christians used it in days past.

Before we look at some interesting quotes, I will affirm that Protestants do not have a great track record when it comes to predicting just who the antichrist is. Some time ago Stephen Nichols wrote an article entitled “Prophecy Makes Strange Bedfellows: On the History of Identifying the Antichrist” in which he argued that Christians should not attempt to identify the antichrist. After examining the biblical case for antichrist and the history of biblical interpretation regarding this figure, he suggests that prophecy makes strange bedfellows, for Protestants of all stripes, many of whom would agree on little else, have affirmed their belief that the pope or the Catholic Church is anitchrist. He goes on to list some other people who have been so labelled. “The studies of Paul Boyer…chronicle the vast range of likely and unlikely suspects including Juan Carlos of Spain, Mussolini, Hitler, Ronald Wilson Reagan (whose name contains three words of six letters each and who almost moved to a 666 street address), Elvis, JFK, FDR, Henry Kissinger, Gorbachev (who has an uncanny birthmark on his forehead), Moshe Dayan, Anwar el-Sadat, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, and Saddam Hussein.” I would like to note three things about this list.

First, while it is true that all of these men have been labelled as the antichrist, this has never been done with any sort of consensus within the church. If we were to look through church history since the time of the Reformation for the church’s consensus, we would soon find that all roads, or most roads at any rate, lead to Rome. Second, all of these figures are from recent history. Prior to the twentieth century, there was, as I have indicated, a much more consistent consensus. Third, we should note that most of the men listed by Boyer are dead, and those who are not will surely die soon. And yet the Catholic Church lives on; the papacy continues. Rome is, by her own testimony, semper idem: always the same; never changing.

Some time ago I discovered an interesting list of quotes from some of the great Reformers and spiritual giants of the past concerning the Roman Catholic Church. I will post them below that you may understand the consensus of these great men of faith.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) (Lutheran): “Luther … proved, by the revelations of Daniel and St. John, by the epistles of St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. Jude, that the reign of Antichrist, predicted and described in the Bible, was the Papacy … And all the people did say, Amen! A holy terror siezed their souls. It was Antichrist whom they beheld seated o­n the pontifical throne. This new idea, which derived greater strength from the prophetic descriptions launched forth by Luther into the midst of his contemporaries, inflicted the most terrible blow o­n Rome.” Taken from J. H. Merle D’aubigne’s History of the Reformation of the Sixteen Century, book vi, chapter xii, p. 215.

Based o­n prophetic studies, Martin Luther finally declared, “We here are of the conviction that the papacy is the seat of the true and real Antichrist.” (Aug. 18, 1520). Taken from The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, by LeRoy Froom. Vol. 2., pg. 121.

John Calvin (1509-1564) (Presbyterian): “Some persons think us too severe and censorious when we call the Roman pontiff Antichrist. But those who are of this opinion do not consider that they bring the same charge of presumption against Paul himself, after whom we speak and whose language we adopt… I shall briefly show that (Paul’s words in II Thess. 2) are not capable of any other interpretation than that which applies them to the Papacy.” Taken from Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin.

John Knox (1505-1572) (Scotch Presbyterian): John Knox sought to counteract “that tyranny which the pope himself has for so many ages exercised over the church.” As with Luther, he finally concluded that the Papacy was “the very antichrist, and son of perdition, of whom Paul speaks.” The Zurich Letters, by John Knox, pg. 199.

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) (Anglican): “Whereof it followeth Rome to be the seat of antichrist, and the pope to be very antichrist himself. I could prove the same by many other scriptures, old writers, and strong reasons.” (Referring to prophecies in Revelation and Daniel.) Works by Cranmer, Vol. 1, pp. 6-7.

Roger Williams (1603-1683) (First Baptist Pastor in America): Pastor Williams spoke of the Pope as “the pretended Vicar of Christ o­n earth, who sits as God over the Temple of God, exalting himself not o­nly above all that is called God, but over the souls and consciences of all his vassals, yea over the Spirit of Christ, over the Holy Spirit, yea, and God himself…speaking against the God of heaven, thinking to change times and laws; but he is the son of perdition (II Thess. 2).” The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, by Froom, Vol. 3, pg. 52.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647): “There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition that exalteth himself in the church against Christ and all that is called God.” Taken from Philip Schaff’s, The Creeds of Christendom, With a History and Critical Notes, III, p. 658, 659, ch. 25, sec. 6.

Cotton Mather (1663-1728) (Congregational Theologian): “The oracles of God foretold the
rising of an Antichrist in the Christian Church: and in the Pope of Rome, all the characteristics of that Antichrist are so marvelously answered that if any who read the Scriptures do not see it, there is a marvelous blindness upon them.” Taken from The Fall of Babylon by Cotton Mather in Froom’s book, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, Vol. 3, pg. 113.

John Wesley (1703-1791) (Methodist): Speaking of the Papacy, John Wesley wrote, “He is in an emphatical sense, the Man of Sin, as he increases all manner of sin above measure. And he is, too, properly styled the Son of Perdition, as he has caused the death of numberless multitudes, both of his opposers and followers… He it is…that exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped…claiming the highest power, and highest honour…claiming the prerogatives which belong to God alone.” Antichrist and His Ten Kingdoms, by John Wesley, pg. 110.

Charles Spurgeon: “It is the bounden duty of every Christian to pray against Antichrist, and as to what Antichrist is no sane man ought to raise a question. If it be not the popery in the Church of Rome there is nothing in the world that can be called by that name. If there were to be issued a hue and cry for Antichrist, we should certainly take up this church on suspicion, and it would certainly not be let loose again, for it so exactly answers the description.”

“Popery is contrary to Christ’s Gospel, and is the Antichrist, and we ought to pray against it. It should be the daily prayer of every believer that Antichrist might be hurled like a millstone into the flood and for Christ, because it wounds Christ, because it robs Christ of His glory, because it puts sacramental efficacy in the place of His atonement, and lifts a piece of bread into the place of the Saviour, and a few drops of water into the place of the Holy Ghost, and puts a mere fallible man like ourselves up as the vicar of Christ on earth; if we pray against it, because it is against Him, we shall love the persons though we hate their errors: we shall love their souls though we loath and detest their dogmas, and so the breath of our prayers will be sweetened, because we turn our faces towards Christ when we pray.”

A Great Cloud of Witnesses: “Wycliffe, Tyndale, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer; in the seventeenth century, Bunyan, the translators of the King James Bible and the men who published the Westminster and Baptist confessions of Faith; Sir Isaac Newton, Wesley, Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards; and more recently Spurgeon, Bishop J.C. Ryle and Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones; these men among countless others, all saw the office of the Papacy as the antichrist.” Taken from All Roads Lead to Rome, by Michael de Semlyen. Dorchestor House Publications, p. 205. 1991.

These are but a drop in the bucket. It would not be difficult to fill a book with similar expressions. Protestants have long held the Roman Catholic Church with great suspicion, and more often than not, have done so for good reason.

Back at “Slice of Laodicea,” Silva posted a brief article to provide a point of clarification regarding his intent. “My intent with the Robert Murray M’Cheyne quote was simply to illustrate how far Christians have fallen from a proper view of the apostate Church of Rome, and not to state that I personally believe Rome is the ‘great whore’ or ‘beast’ in Revelation.” He does well to quote John MacArthur who says “The Catholic Church claims to be true Christianity. And…we [can’t] reverse 450 years of history and just throw our arms around the Roman system, which…we have to say in all honesty is not a group of wayward brothers, but is an apostate form of Christianity. It is a false religion; it is another religion.” It is, indeed. In fact, it is a false church that sets itself up not against but in place of the true body of Christ.

Like Silva, I am not arguing that I believe the Roman Catholic Church is the beast of Revelation, but am saying that one could make such an argument and make it forcefully. And of course, through the history of the church, many have made that argument. Those who do so today have many heroes of the faith on their side—men who knew their Bibles and loved God. Some of these were even put to death by the church they labelled antichrist. Among these was Thomas Cramner, who, when asked to renounce his heresies, said “And as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine.” He was soon led to the stake where he often spoke the “words of Stephen, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,’ till the fury of the flames putting him to silence, he gave up the ghost.”

In his article, Nichols writes, “Naming the antichrist probably reveals more about the person naming than anything. In some instances naming reveals a person’s interpretation of texts or theology. In others, the naming has more to do with one’s sociological or political views.” He warns against improper hermeneutics, saying “Overcoming what one brings to the text is, as many contemporary writings on hermeneutics conclude, not so easy, if even possible. Nonetheless, a reading of the text that is governed by what we bring to the text as opposed to what we find in the text is likely to lead to a misreading of the text.” As we saw in a previous quote from this article, Protestants have a long history of seeing antichrist only within the context of a particular time and culture. How else could anyone understand Henry Kissinger or Elvis Presley to be the antichrist? In the days of the Reformation and the years that followed, Christians brought to Scripture their understanding of a Church that was adamantly and violently opposed to their faith and was seeking, by fire and sword, to stamp it out. It is little wonder that they saw the Church in the beast. In our day and in our culture we bring our understanding of a Church that regards us as but separated brethren and which seeks to unite us under the papacy through gentle persuasion. We bring an understanding of the faith that is, in many ways, blind to the history of the church. It is little wonder that we do not see the Church in the beast.

In the days of the Reformation, the Catholic Church sought unity through force. Today, many Protestants and Catholics seek unity through dialogue. But unity comes at a cost whether it be with a clash of swords or a meeting of minds. As the ends are the same, so must be the ground we give. That ground is the pure, true gospel message of justification by grace alone through faith alone. Surely the exhortation of Charles Spurgeon, even with the offending word “antichrist” removed, stands true today: “It should be the daily prayer of every believer that [the Roman Catholic Church] might be hurled like a millstone into the flood and for Christ, because it wounds Christ, because it robs Christ of His glory, because it puts sacramental efficacy in the place of His atonement, and lifts a piece of bread into the place of the Saviour, and a few drops of water into the place of the Holy Ghost, and puts a mere fallible man like ourselves up as the vicar of Christ on earth; if we pray against it, because it is against Him, we shall love the persons though we hate their errors: we shall love their souls though we loath and detest their dogmas, and so the breath of our prayers will be sweetened, because we turn our faces towards Christ when we pray.”

Is the Roman Catholic Church the beast of Revelation? I don’t know. Truthfully, I have never invested a lot of time or effort in examining the evidence and forming such a judgment (and, in fact, the same is true of me in most areas of eschatology). I am not convinced that God has enabled us to know the identity of the beast with any great certainty. But it seems to me that if we are to ignore the testimony of so many great believers, from Luther to Spurgeon, from Whitefield to Lloyd-Jones, we may do so at our peril. To simply ignore the consensus of so many great men, and to label such a consensus as “absolutely ridiculous” seems to me to be far more ridiculous.

June 08, 2006

As you might imagine, I receive a good deal of email from people who read this site. More often than not I am glad to receive these emails and to respond to them. Communication with readers has proven to be a tremendous challenge and encouragement to me, for which I am exceedingly grateful. Probably the most common questions I receive deal with the subjects of books and reading. It seems that I have established a reputation as a bookworm (which may be justified: I did a Google search on my site this morning for the term “reading.” Google turned up 10,700 results) and people often ask just how I find time to read so many books. I thought that today I might share a little bit about how I read as well as why I read and hope it proves interesting and perhaps helpful.

I love to read and have always loved to read. There have been times in life where I have preferred other hobbies, but on the whole reading has been my favorite past-time since I was just a child. When I was younger my parents gave me books by Christian authors like R.C. Sproul and encouraged me to read biographies of great men and women. They modelled a love for reading as both of them constantly read good books. While I chewed on the books they gave me dealing with spiritual topics, I positively devoured books on history, and in particular, military history. My love for this subject took me through university and into adulthood. About four or five years ago, though, I began to be drawn towards Christian books. As far as I can recall, the first of these I bought was Classic Christianity by Bob George and it was soon followed by Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur. That began a trend that has only intensified a the years have gone by.

It just just about three years ago that I decided, mostly on a whim, that I would try to read a book each week for what I hope will be the rest of my life. Subsequently, I also decided that I would attempt to provide reviews of the majority of these books. My reasoning was simply that through these reviews I could help other people who are interested in reading only a few books per year focus on books that are worth their while, while helping them avoid the mountains of trash on the bookstore shelves. My primary inspiration in both reading and reviewing was Gary Gilley of Southern View Chapel and I will always be grateful to him. I realized that if I were to live for another fifty years, this commitment would mean that I would be able to read over 2500 books before I die. The thought of being able to learn from what God has taught 2500 other people was inspiring. Since I set that goal I have found that I can actually read closer to two books every week, so now tend to read and review between 100 and 120 books a year. I suppose this raises the potential to reading over 5,000 books in the next fifty years. I’m going to need some more bookshelves.

What follows is some seemingly-random points about reading that you may find helpful.

The more I read, the easier it is to read. A couple of years ago I read four books that discussed godly principles for decision making. Three of them were based primarily on the fourth (and anyone who has read about this subject will know what book I am referring to). Needless to say, it became progressively easier to read and understand each subsequent book. I have found that this is true of any topic. It is also true of reading in general. The more I have dedicated myself to reading, the better I have become at it. I have often spoken to people who have given up on reading because they have found it difficult. To these people I offer this encouragement: press on. Like any discipline, reading will become easier as you dedicate yourself to it.

A lot of the books I read are short. The majority of the books I read are under 250 pages, and quite a few have fewer than 200 pages. I generally do not discriminate against a book based on its page count, so this is either a product of coincidence or of percentages. It seems to me that the average “Christian Living” book weighs in between 160 and 200 pages. Biographies and books dealing with theology or church history tend to be longer and require greater effort.

I read all the time, or most of it anyways. I do not watch all that much TV, but even when I do, I usually have my nose in a book. I also get out of bed a couple of hours before everyone else so I can have some quiet time to read. When I go to the doctor or the barber, I tend to stick a book in my pocket so I can use that fifteen minutes doing something other than reading old copies of People magazine. It is amazing how many ten and fifteen minute periods there are in life that can be used for reading. I realized two Sundays ago that the perfect Sunday afternoon involves being sprawled out on the couch reading systematic theology, sipping on a Coke (with Lime, and in a glass with ice) and having a baseball game (the Toronto Bluejays, of course) on in the background. Life does not get much better.

I do not advocate reading while driving or while operating heavy machinery.

For those who insist that they have no time to read, consider this. If you were to read one page of a book per day, you would be able to read at least two of the average Christian Living books in a year. And, of course, a bathroom break is the perfect time to read a page or two of a book. So consider: if you were to keep a book in the bathroom and read only when you were going to the bathroom, you could read two books per year. If you were to read only when you were brushing your teeth, you could read another book or two a year. So if you feel that you do not have time to read, why not keep a book in the bathroom and commit to reading it there? Here is a good book to keep in the bathroom.

One of my peculiarities, but one I have found helpful, is reading two or even three books at a time. I used to find that I would sometimes mistake physical fatigue for what was actually a fatigue brought about by dwelling too long on a particular subject. A perfect example is the biography of William Tyndale I was reading last night. It is a difficult, dense book and I found myself growing very tired as I was reading, even though it was only nine o’clock. When I put it down and began reading a second book, I immediately felt refreshed. My mind was tired and this was making my body feel tired.

I have never been taught how to best read a book. It is entirely conceivable that I do things all wrong. I know there are some excellent books on the topic, but it seems somehow strange to me to read a 500-page book that will teach me how to read a book. Over the past years I have tried a few different methods, some of which have worked and some of which have not. Here is a basic outline of how I read a book.

I begin by giving the book a quick scan, hoping to understand what it is about, what the author is going to attempt to prove and how he is going to set about this task. I read the back cover and the endorsements. I skim over the table of contents and look through the endnotes and bibliography. Having done that, I tend to linger a little bit over the introductory chapter(s), for I find this to be the most important section in the book. It generally lays out the basic framework of the author’s argument and lets me know what he is arguing against. I read with a pencil in hand (I buy those clickable Bic pencils by the box) and underline liberally (usually using a Monergism.com bookmark as a ruler). I also tend to jot short notes and questions in the margins or at the end of chapters. Points that are important to the author’s argument tend to receive a *, and points that are exceedingly important receive a bigger *. I often also make a list of important page numbers and questions on the inside front cover of the book. In some cases I’ll make two or three columns of page numbers. For example, when I was reading Mark Driscoll’s Confessions of a Reformission Rev. I found myself writing down the page numbers that contained his best points in one column and the page numbers containing his irreverent, crude points in another. I don’t know if there is an objectively good way of marking books, but I doubt it. So work on a system that works for you and stick with it.

This method does not always work. Lately I find myself doing a lot of reading while holding a baby. I can hold a baby and a book, or a pen and a book, but not a baby, pen and book all at the same time. I also tend to spend a lot of time reading while walking the baby in endless circles from the living room to the dining room to the kitchen to the hallway and back to the living room. In such cases I continue reading and try to return later to mark down important points. Looking over the books I have read recently, I can tell which chapters I read while walking the baby as they tend to have far less markings.

I forget a great deal of what I read. Anyone who tells you otherwise may not be telling the truth (unless he has a Spurgeon-like photographic memory). I used to be discouraged if, a year after reading a book, I could barely remember the content. I have since realized that this is inevitable. I focus on remembering what I can and trust that simply because I do not remember the complete outline of a book, this does not prove that a book has not been edifying to me. After all, if this was our standard, every sermon would be a complete failure. I trust that the Spirit works in me as I read good books and that He works despite my imperfect memory.

Reviewing books is an excellent way of driving home the main points of a book. It is as good a memory device as I can imagine. In fact, I would encourage every reader to review the books they read, even if those reviews will never be made public. It is a good discipline to think through the main points of the book and is as valuable a discipline to formulate thoughts on whether or not the reader agrees with a book.

When looking for a good book to read, find a person whose judgment you trust and read what that person is reading. I am collecting lists of recommended books from a wide variety of discerning Christian authors and leaders and will soon post these lists at Discerning Reader. I believe these lists will prove valuable and I am excited to work my way through the books on some of these lists.

Let me wrap it up this way. I see reading as a discipline, but a pleasurable one. I love it and have found it to be tremendously beneficial to my spiritual life. Reading and writing have together brought me untold benefit. I can honestly say that most evenings there is nothing I’d rather do.

June 07, 2006

I have been chipping away at this post for two weeks. And in reality I have been thinking about it for far longer than that. And yet what I bring you today is really quite pathetic. I have been unable to formulate clear, biblical wisdom on this topic. And so I am going to present it to you regardless, hoping that your input and discussion will be able to make plain what is still cloudy.

I often receive questions from readers of this site which hint at a question that has often troubled me and caused me to think or to search the Scriptures. I have seen this same question crop up occasionally at other blogs as well. The question deals with the nature of blogging. What is blogging? Of the various types of communication we experience in the world, how does blogging compare? Is it teaching? Is it simple discussion? Is it analogous to a preacher standing in a pulpit or could it be analogous to a few friends standing around a water cooler? What biblical guidelines should we adhere to when we write blogs and when we read blogs?

I think this is an important topic for Christians to consider. I think our understanding of this topic will inform our behavior in terms of topics we write about, the way we write and the way we respond to what others write. One important way this will manifest itself is in the relationship of men to women, and this is an area I will focus on today, simply because it is the area I have thought about most.

I have found it helpful to think of blogging within the spectrum of communication we experience in fellowship on one hand or in reading a book on the other (perhaps because fellowship and reading are two of my favorite things to do).

On one end of the spectrum we have books. Books are a rather impersonal form of communication, but a form that carries a good deal of credibility. We assume when we read a book that it has passed through several levels of editing and that what is presented to us within the book is well-researched, measured and verified. Books convey an air of authority (though of course true authority in matters of the faith is granted by Scripture and by faithfulness to Scripture) but are also reasonably simple to disagree with because we generally have no access to the author. I can examine a statement an author makes and easily agree or disagree with it without fear of offense.

I don’t know of any man who would object to his wife reading a good book on the basis that she will be learning from a man other than her husband. She may even be corrected by a man other than her husband by reading such a book, as he may bring Scripture to bear on areas in which she has been unfaithful to Scripture. Also, I do not know of too many men who would refuse to read a book written by a woman on the basis that in so-doing he would be learning from a woman, though this may depend on the nature of the topic she discusses. In general, books are impersonal but authoritative means of learning.

At the other end of the spectrum we have personal fellowship. This may be as simple as two or more Christians speaking to each other face-to-face. There are certain biblical standards that many Christians adhere to in such circumstances. Defending each of these is outside the scope of this article, so I will merely provide some examples that I feel are quite typical. For example, I do not feel it is appropriate for a man to correct the theology of another man’s wife. This may serve to undermine the authority of the husband, for it is the task of a husband to guide and teach his wife as she searches the Scripture. It may also cause offense, for long (and occasionally painful) experience has shown me that men and women relate far differently and this type of situation can lead to needless pain and offense (by which I mean to say that the woman inevitably ends up in tears and the man inevitably ends up looking and feeling like a chump). If a man sees behavior in a woman that needs to be corrected, he should approach not the woman, but her husband. The husband then bears the privilege and responsibility of addressing the problem with his wife. Much of our fellowship is guided by simple and clear biblical wisdom relating to how men and women ought to relate.

I have found it instructive to think about where blogs fall within this spectrum. Having done so, I believe blogs fall, or ought to fall somewhere in the middle. This may seem like a safe choice, but I believe it allows for important distinctions. It has often caused me to pause and consider whether a particular topic is appropriate for a mode of communication that bears at least some resemblance to fellowship. There have been some topics that I have felt should probably not be addressed in a blog setting. Let me provide an example:

I recently came across a section in a book which I thought would make for interesting discussion, but I decided that I would not post it to my site for I felt that it would not be entirely appropriate to discuss this in such a setting. The potential for discussion arose when I was reading the book A Love That Lasts by Gary and Besty Ricucci (read my review). As we might expect in a book dealing with marriage, one of the chapters dealt with sex. In discussing 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 (the passage which begins: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband…”), Betsy Ricucci says “There are three clear and inescapable points in this passage. 1) In matters of sexuality, the spouse’s body belongs to the other. 2) Therefore, denying sex to one another is never legitimate. 3) In fact, abstaining from sex should only take place when three conditions are met: you both agree to it, the abstention is temporary, and it’s intended to serve a season in which prayer is particularly emphasized” (146). In other words, and on the basis of an example she provides, fatigue or lack of desire is not a legitimate reason to abstain from sex, even for a single night, for “prayer is the only legitimate reason for abstaining if there is no actual physical hindrance” (147).

Now I think we could have had some interesting discussion about this. Yet as I considered posting it, I thought about whether this would be something I would be comfortable discussing with my female friends face-to-face. I quickly concluded that it was not and thus decided to find something else to right about. I felt that having such a discussion in mixed company may not prove edifying.

In thinking about these things, I reached a few conclusions, but none of them were all that satisfying. And so I invite your input. Is this a topic which Christians should discuss and be aware of? Is it possible that blogs are interfering with God-given patterns of communication and authority? Or am I making something out of nothing here?

June 06, 2006

I spent nearly my entire young life attending Christian schools. From the first grade all the way to the eleventh, there was only one year that I did not attend a Christian school. During these formative years I did not only attend schools where I was taught God’s Word, but I also attended Catechism classes, Sunday school and everything else churches have to offer young people. In my younger days the teachers used to enjoy asking us questions that would try to help us understand the Biblical times and places a little better. One question we were sometimes asked is what we thought we might have done for a living had we lived during the times of the Bible. It was fun to think that perhaps we would have been soldiers, perhaps even some of David’s mighty men. Or maybe we would have been prophets, used by God to reveal His will to kings and princes. Or maybe we would even have been among Jesus’ Apostles, privileged to follow in the very footsteps on the Son of God.

Age has a way of destroying dreams. I realize now that I would never have made a mighty soldier or an outspoken prophet or a gifted Apostle. Over the past few weeks I have been studying the latter chapters of Genesis and have since begun reading these chapters with my family. The children love to hear about Joseph, and about his alternating rises to prominence and crushing defeats. And yes, we even read the dreaded story of Onan (which always proves a little awkward around little ears). I have since read further, reading into the books of Kings and Judges. As I read the stories of the kings and prophets, I have come to know what my vocation would have been had I lived in Old Testament times. Much as I am today, I would have been an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship does, after all, suit my personality. But since Al Gore had not yet invented the Internet, I would have had to find a new line of business. So here it is, my chosen profession: I would have been a shopkeeper, opening my very own clothing store. Timothy’s of Jerusalem. That would have been my business.

Hear me out here and I’m sure you’ll be impressed.

People in the Bible had a unique way of expressing grief and anguish. Where today we weep and moan, try to get on the Oprah Winfrey show and probably spend a few hundreds dollars on some counseling (just enough counseling to convince us it isn’t actually going to help us), in those days they had a much more direct and visible means of expression. The first thing they would do is tear their clothes. A perfectly good garment would be reduced to ribbons anytime a Biblical character experienced grief or penitence or realized he was being rebellious against God. It is probably safe to assume that had Adam and Eve been wearing clothes when they sinned in the Garden, they likely would have torn them up in anguish. But since they had no clothes, I believe the first time we see tearing of clothes is in Genesis 37 where Reuben returned to the cistern only to find that his brothers had sold Joseph into slavery. Angry, upset and fearful of what his father would say, Reuben tore his clothes. Returning home to his father, he told Jacob the tragic news, and Jacob, perhaps to emulate his son, or perhaps because he did not want to make a long distance call to Dr. Phil, also tore his clothes. Just a few chapters later all the sons of Jacob are tearing their clothes (see Genesis 44:13 – of course this was several years later). Now clearly this was an opportunity for an entrepreneur like myself to make some good money. I can only imagine that once the period of grieving had ended, these men would have been looking around sheepishly for a person would could either repair or replace the clothing they had just shredded. And of course, if there had been a franchise of Timothy’s of Jerusalem in the neighborhood, they would have been able to get quickly fitted with some nice, new, unshredded garments. Perhaps there could even have been a catalogue scroll order service so they could have had their new clothes delivered directly to their tents via pack camel.

The secondary aspect of the business would have been the sale of sackcloth. It seems that the tearing of garments was often accompanied by the wearing of sackcloth. Sackcloth is, of course, a course, uncomfortable material used in sacking that people would wear as a sign of remorse. The first usage of sackcloth is also in Genesis 37, where immediately after tearing apart his clothes, Jacob dressed in sackcloth as he mourned for the son he thought was dead. There are about fifty uses of sackcloth mentioned in the Bible and often times there were large groups of people wearing it at a given occasion. There must have been brisk business in the sackcloth market and I see no reason that I would have been unable to be part of it.

As a matter of fact, it occurs to me that there would have been ample opportunities to sell “clothing packages.” For example, the silver package might be a sackcloth garment with the repair of the torn garment and the gold package might be a sackcloth garment, the repair of the torn garment plus the purchase of a nice new garment. Either way, it seems there would have been many opportunities for the shrewd businessman to earn some shekels.

So there you have it. Had I been born in Old Testament times I would have been the proud owner of the great clothiers Timothy’s of Jerusalem, specialists in sackcloth, garment repair and garment replacement. And if our culture ever heads in the direction of tearing clothes and wearing sackcloth, you can bet that I’ll be looking to take advantage of it. I wonder where sackcloth futures are listed on the market?

Timothy’s of Jerusalem: coming soon to a neighborhood near you. Franchise opportunities available. Inquire within.

Yes, long-time readers may recognize this as an article I first posted away back in ‘04. I rearranged it a little and reposted it. So sue me! If Joe Carter can post the occasional old article, so can I!

June 03, 2006

A couple of months ago I wrote about the Emerging church and suggested that a movement which celebrates doubt is a movement which Christians should not be eager to join. I suggested that this movement (or conversation, as they prefer) values doubt over assurance, seeing doubt as being somehow more humble and godly than assurance. Over the past week or so I have been reading John Frame’s Salvation Belongs To The Lord (look for a review next week) and came across an interesting section dealing with assurance of salvation. I thought I would share that passage today. I realize that is is not directly applicable since some within the Emerging church doubt not only assurance of salvation but really any kind of theological assurance. Yet I believe Frame provides much biblical wisdom on the subject of 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)…”

I believe Frame is correct on several important accounts. The Bible presents doubt largely in negative terms. Doubt is not presented as a reason for pride and assurance is not presented as something that is shameful. And in fact, doubt is a hindrance to doing God’s work and is the very opposite of faith. A person who is filled with doubt may well be a person of weak faith. An ideal faith is one that has absolute certainty about God’s revelation.

And so we are to pursue assurance, for assurance of salvation and assurance of God’s revelation is the mark of faith, not something that is opposed to it.

May 29, 2006

Tony Jones, one of the more prominent leaders within the Emergent church movement has recently posted a pair of articles at the “Out of Ur” blog responding to the charge that Emergent is the new Christian left. “[I]s Emergent a new camp for Christian liberalism? In this post Tony Jones, the national coordinator for Emergent, responds to critics by championing Emergent’s conversational purpose and celebrating the group’s diversity.”

There are three things that struck me in these articles. First, these two articles highlight some of the ways in which any meaningful discussion with the Emergent leaders is little more than an exercise in frustration and futility. Second, they also highlight just how far some leaders within the Emergent conversation have gone in abandoning truth. And third, they highlight the mixed-messages sent out from the leadership of this conversation.

Like many participants in this Emergent “conversation,” Jones feigns surprise and ignorance at the outcry against the Emergent church. He presents this movement as a simple, innocuous friendship, for who could possibly criticize a friendship? Here is how Jones describes Emergent Village: “And some of those blogs are deeply critical of Emergent Village, a decade-old friendship that has, after my family, become home to my most important relationships.” Further along in the same article he describes the people who inhabit this harmless village. “Within Emergent are Texas Baptists who don’t allow women to preach and New England lesbian Episcopal priests. We have Southern California YWAMers and Midwest Lutherans. We have those who hold to biblical inerrancy, and others trying to demythologize the scripture. We have environmental, peacenik lefties, ‘crunchy cons,’ and right wing hawks.”

Surely those who are leery of the Emergent church would not waste so much effort discussing what this movement is accomplishing if it were nothing more than a decade-old friendship. And surely Jones and others would not bother to participate in such a conversation if they felt that it had no hope of accomplishing anything. Jones presents something in harmless terms that, in reality, has the potential to bring about a great change within the church. Thus it is ridiculous to feign surprise that people react in alarm to such a movement.

What continues to surprised Jones is “how dangerous some people consider this friendship I’m in to be. If you take some of these blogs (and books) seriously, those of us who make up the Emergent Village are a great threat to the Christian church-we have undermined doctrine, truth, and church life. The fact that we’re discussing theological items that have been previously deemed ‘undiscussable’ is considered grounds for labels like ‘heretic’ and ‘apostate.’” That is a ridiculous and irrational statement. The fact that this Emergent conversation discusses doctrine and theology that has long been considered heretical or apostate is surely not grounds to label those who discuss it with those terms. After all, every seminary student discusses heresy and apostasy and learns both true doctrine and false. The true objection, or the most common objection, against the Emergent church is that these doctrines, long-since deemed heretical, are often given equal footing and are discussed as if they had never been deemed harmful in the past—as if the church had never formulated a biblical consensus as to where these doctrines deviate from Scripture. We can see the fruit of this in the very fact that the conversation includes people whose beliefs are, in theory at least, diametrically opposed to each other (ie. “Texas Baptists who don’t allow women to preach and New England lesbian Episcopal priests”). There is nothing that is undiscussable, but there are doctrines that are clear and settled and do not merit being placed on equal footing which what Scripture clearly presents as true.

Jones eventually stoops just about as low as one can go in an argument, arguing that those who disagree with the Emergent church simply misunderstand it. “Honestly, I care little about these critiques. They come from those who either have no idea what Emergent is all about and/or could not possibly be persuaded from their position anyway.” Even though some world-class scholars and committed Christians have expressed concern about the Emergent church, Jones simply states that these people either do not understand Emergent or are hardened in their ignorance.

In the second article, Jones turns his attention in particular to Chuck Colson who has become a vocal critic of the Emergent church (of course it is difficult to know if it is Chuck Colson or Anne Morse, his writer, who is truly most concerned). Colson’s latest missive against Emergent says that “truth is truth”—something Jones says is a “ ‘self-referential argument,’ or a ‘circular reference’ and it’s non-sensical.” He also turns his guns on the phrase “true truth” (a term most often associated with Francis Schaeffer). And this is where Jones’ argument gets very interesting and he reveals just how far he has slipped into the postmodern mindset.

But if I can try to surmise Colson’s meaning from the subtitle of the essay [Jesus is the Truth Whether We Experience Him or Not], he means to indicate that we in the emerging church have placed too much weight on “relational” or “experiential” theories of truth. The gospel is true, Colson seems to be saying, regardless of your human experience of that truth.

But philosophically, the obvious follow-up question is, Why? What makes the gospel true, especially if those of us in the world have no experience of its truthfulness? Is it true because Chuck Colson says so? Because Augustine said so? Because Paul said so? Is it true because, as Karl Barth might say, God’s revelatory action that breaks into our space-time continuum? But isn’t even that subject to our interpretation of the event?

Jones then states his agreement with “postmodernist extraordinaire” Stanley Fish “argues that truth comes to be known in and among and on the basis of ‘the authority of interpretive communities.’” Jones goes on to say, “We are subjective human beings, trapped in our own skins and inevitably influenced by the communities in which we find ourselves. And isn’t this what the church is, or at least should be: an authoritative community of interpretation? Indeed, isn’t this just what Colson did when he converted to Christianity in prison many years ago: placed himself under the authority of the church of Jesus Christ?”

He concludes as follows:

What I was trying to get at in my blog post earlier this week is that Emergent Village endeavors to be a catalyst of conversation, community, and, ultimately, interpretation. We want the church to reclaim its place as the authoritative community of interpretation of scripture, culture, and human existence. We want Christians to be engaged politically and culturally, and we want to provoke robust and respectful dialogue around issues that matter. Many of us think that the polemical nature of the church today precludes just this kind of necessary conversation. So, we’re going ahead and doing it, with or without the imprimatur of evangelical elites like Colson and Carson.

If that’s a compelling vision for you, then jump on board, we’re glad to have you. If, however, you’d like to first see our doctrinal statement on penal substitution or read a position paper on homosexuality, then Emergent Village isn’t for you.

Jones has taken the Emergent church from being a mere conversation between friends to “a catalyst of conversation, community, and, ultimately, interpretation.” Can he still feign surprise when Christians express concern that such a varied group of people, many of whom reject the authority of Scripture and other fundamental doctrines, intend to be a catalyst of conversation, community and interpretation?

Jones clearly struggles with the concept of truth. What makes the gospel true is not experience of those who hold to it. It is not because Augustine or Paul says so. It is true because God says so. The gospel is true because God tells us it is true. God, the source of truth, God who is truth, tells us that the gospel is true. We need no other authority to tell us this and to assure us of this. If God is who He says He is, the gospel must be true. An argument about truth is, in reality, argument about the very nature and character of God. Jones and other Emergent leaders are treading on some very dangerous ground when they begin to question or abandon or relativize truth.

Here are the articles I have referenced:

Second Article
First Article

May 26, 2006

Spiritual discernment is a subject that has been much on my mind in recent weeks. I have been thinking a great deal about how I can become more discerning and how I can serve others in helping them understand the value of discernment as well as the practice of discernment. To that end I have been attempting to formulate a “discernment filter.” I have been attempting to formulate a small set of rules through which I can pass a teaching or doctrine in order to discern whether or not it is consistent with Scripture.

Today I am going to make my first public attempt at passing a teaching through this filter. The teaching I would like to examine is “self-forgiveness.”

Self-Forgiveness

A few days ago I purchased the newest album by Downhere, a band I quite like and have followed for some time now. It is a good album and I’ve enjoyed listening to it. There is one song, though, that got me thinking. The song is entitled “Forgive Yourself.” I’ll give you the lyrics so you can read them for yourself:

You keep laying down $100 bills
On the counter of your untamed guilt
And you’ll keep paying out from your empty purse
Until you feel you’ve satisfied your curse
No one here is throwing stones
But you have got to drop your own

Forgive yourself, forgive yourself
Anyone who bears a scar wants to forget it
Forgive yourself, forgive yourself
Nothing ever frees you more than just believing
That you’ve been forgiven, come out of the prison

Can you tell me how you spend every day
Looking in the mirror of your shame
And staring like a judge, you are ruling for yourself
You tied a stone around your neck
You’re drowning in a past regret

Don’t believe it’s okay to be like this
Don’t believe you deserve to live like this
‘Cause every part of you wants to know
Just one reason why you should let go

Forgive yourself, forgive yourself
Nothing ever frees you more than just believing
Come out of the prison
You’ve been delivered

The idea of self-forgiveness, which is clearly presented in this song, is one that I have come across in the past. But as I thought about this, I realized that I could think of no biblical proof to support it. And so I decided that this teaching could become a test for this discernment filter.

This filter has three steps, modelled after 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 which exhorts all Christians to “test everything; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” And so in this filter we first test, then abstain, and finally hold fast.

Test

We will first test this doctrine, studying the issue and holding it up against the truths of Scripture. We may seek the wisdom of other believers who, having been guided by Scripture and plain reason, have reached conclusions of their own. If possible, we will also seek the consensus of historic Christianity.

As we peer into Scripture, it becomes quickly apparent that “forgive yourself” is not biblical language. I have not found any place in Scripture where we are told to forgive ourselves, either in those word or even in concept. We are told to seek forgiveness from God and from our fellow man. We are told to extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us and release any bitterness we feel towards them. But I do not see that we are ever told to forgive ourselves.

Forgiveness is a constant, recurring theme in Scripture, so I will present only a few of the many verses dealing with it along with a brief comment for each:

  • “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no deceit!” Psalm 32:1-2. The man is blessed whose sins have been forgiven by God.
  • “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.” Mark 11:25. We are to forgive each other so that God will continue to forgive us.
  • “Bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.” Colossians 3:13. We are to forgive each other as a way of modelling the forgiveness God extends to us.
  • “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9. When we confess our sins to God, He is faithful to forgive and cleanse us.
  • “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” 1 John 2:1. When we sin, Jesus Christ stands as our advocate before the Judge.

In searching other resources, I was not able to find much material on this subject written by Bible-based, discerning authors. In fact, much of the material advocating forgiveness of oneself is written from the perspective of a New Age, pop-Christianity. It is the “Dr. Phil” brand of Christian psychology that tends to advocate the view that we need to forgive ourselves. One discerning leader who has written on this subject, though only briefly, is John MacArthur. He writes the following:

I realize there are some who teach that a kind of self-forgiveness is necessary. I find this nowhere in Scripture. I’ve met many people who claim to be unable to forgive themselves, but on careful examination this usually turns out to be a kind of sinful pride exacerbated by modern self-esteem philosophy. The person who complains about not being self-forgiving is often simply looking for flattering or consoling words from others as a way of salving the hurt that guilt has caused to their pride.

He also quotes Jay Adams who, in his book From Forgiven to Forgiving, wrote:

The problem is not self-forgiveness. Their expressed agony stems from the very fact that, in the worst way, they want to forgive themselves. They want to put it all behind them, they want to bury it once and for all…

The problem is that people who talk this way recognize something more needs to be done. Forgiveness is just the beginning; it clears away the guilt. They also recognize that they are still the same persons who did the wrong—that though they are forgiven, they have not changed. Without being able to articulate it, and using instead the jargon they have heard all around them, they are crying out for the change that will assure them they will never do anything like it again. When, as a counselor, I help them to deal with the problems in their lives that led to the wrong, in such a way that they lead a more biblical lifestyle, I then ask, “Are you still having trouble forgiving yourself?” Invariably, they say no.

Discernment, as the word is used in Scripture, implies that we are to “separate things from one another at their points of difference in order to distinguish them” (Jay Adams). The point of difference in our study seems to be in our understanding of who it is that we sin against. We must realize that, first and foremost, no matter who has been harmed by our sin and how many people have been affected by it, our sin is primarily sin against God. Many of those who advocate the view that we must forgive ourselves would have a low or non-existent understanding of the holiness of God. Thus, in their view, my sin is primarily against myself. They hold forth a selfish, self-centered view of sin which says “Against myself, myself only have I sinned.” It seems to me, then, that self-forgiveness has roots buried more deeply in self-esteem and sinful, human-centered psychology than in Scripture.

While Scripture does not forbid self-forgiveness, it also does not require it. I would suggest, then, that we do not need to forgive ourself and nor should we make this our practice. If we struggle with guilt or shame, forgiving ourselves may be a temporary salve but it cannot bring the peace and healing we seek. We can only have true peace, lasting peace, by accepting God’s forgiveness and allowing Him to remove the guilt of our transgression. This must be an act of God rather than an act of self.

Abstain

In this step we will determine what it is that we must avoid, now that we have determined that we are not required to forgive ourselves. We will substitute what is false for what is true.

It seems to me that the lesson here is that we must always remember and believe that we sin primarily against God. What we need to avoid is a man-centered approach to sin where we first ask “how have I harmed myself with this sin.” Rather, we must turn to God and ask Him to forgive us, for our sin has been primarily against the Lord. We substitute self-forgiveness for true repentence before God and acceptance of His forgiveness.

Hold Fast

In this final step we implement the truths we have learned and seek to apply them to our lives. We will hold fast to the truths God has revealed and ask that He will help in the application of these truths.

As I have suggested, it seems to me that I do not need to forgive myself for my sin. Rather, I need to ask God’s forgiveness and, having confessed and repented of my sin, I need to hold fast to God’s promises that He has forgiven me. My primary responsibility is not to myself but to God. When I sin against another person or against myself, I primarily sin against God. Thus it is His forgiveness that I require. I can live without the forgiveness of men. I can live without self-forgiveness. But I cannot live without God’s forgiveness. My responsibility and my privilege is to receive God’s forgiveness, trusting that, if I confess, He is faithful and righteous to forgive me my sins and to cleanse me from all unrighteousness.”

The application of these truths may be a deeply personal matter. I may need to change the way I ask God for forgiveness. I may need to extend greater effort in seeking the forgiveness of others. I may need to repent before God of taking His holiness so lightly that I could believe that my sin has been primarily against myself.

Conclusion

So there it is: my first attempt at passing something through this “discernment filter.” I would be interested in your feedback (more on the process than this particular teaching).

May 25, 2006

As I began writing this little post, my RSS reader pinged and up came the headline: “A Dog Story With A Happy Ending.” This comes courtesy of Rebecca, it seems. The timing is somewhat ironic, since the dog story I’m writing today has quite an unhappy ending.

Almost eight years ago, shortly after we got married, Aileen and I decided to get a dog. I was working late nights and we were living in Brantford. If you lived in this area and heard the word “Brantford,” you’d nod your head knowingly. A woman who is home alone at night in Brantford needs a dog in the house. We visited the Humane Society and came home with an energetic little Black Lab/German Shepherd cross we decided to name Tiazzi. It was a strange name for a strange dog. I can’t count the number of times over the past few years that Aileen has wondered why she didn’t choose the sedate little puppy, Tiazzi’s sister, that looked like a German Shepherd. But instead she took the tiny one that looked like a Lab.

Tiazzi was a smart dog, though never really looked it because she had oversize ears, one of which stood straight and tall while the other constantly flopped forward. She always looked a little cock-eyed. She always had far more energy than we could deal with, though as she aged she finally lost some of the edge. She had an enduring hatred of cats, mailmen, firetrucks and doorbells. She never bit or harmed anyone, but she had a loud bark that would strike fear in any heart (just ask my pastor if you don’t believe me!). We never worried about break-ins when she was around.

We did all the things first-time dog owners do. We took her to obedience lessons and played with her constantly. Aileen spent hours training her to do silly but amusing tricks. I took some time to play with her, but she really was Aileen’s puppy. I tolerated the dog, but never loved her. She was a difficult dog, and a stubborn one. She was probably too smart for her own good. She knew how to heel but chose not to obey us as we tried to convince her to actually do it when we walked her. She would pull and strain against the leash and no amount of convincing or cajoling or even pain would make her stop. Pinch collars, choke chains and other special devices proved useless. She would also jump up on visitors when they arrived. And again, there was nothing we could do to get her to stop this obnoxious behavior. As time went on, and as she got older, she got more hardened in her areas of poor behavior, caring less about our attempts to curb her.

puppy.jpgAfter a while a funny thing happened. Aileen gave birth to our first child and suddenly Tiazzi did not seem quite so important. We spent less time with her, both out of desire and necessity. Nevertheless, she adjusted quite well to the arrival of my son. She didn’t ever really like him or play with him, but she tolerated him and never tried to bite him, even when he helped himself to her kibble. My son was followed three years later by a daughter and when she was born the dog went on a short hunger strike. Tiazzi was, however, a dog and no dog (especially a Lab) can maintain a hunger strike for long. Eventually she gave in and began to tolerate a second child. That was three years ago.

A few months ago we moved to a new home and then, three weeks ago, Michaela was born. This time Tiazzi, now eight years old, seemed unable to adjust to the change. Her behavior changed. She began to bark at sights and sounds that seemed to exist only in her mind. She developed severe separation anxiety which led her to be destructive. When we put her in her kennel she would yelp and struggle until she shifted the kennel far enough along the floor that she could find something, anything, to destroy. Having torn a shirt or even her own bed to shreds, she would settle down and sleep. She soon confused the basement and her dog run, deciding that she no longer enjoyed being outside and would rather use the basement as her bathroom. She began to make a mess of the kid’s playroom.

Yesterday, nearing the end of our rope, we tried a new strategy, giving her the run of the whole laundry room (in the basement) while we went to my son’s ballgame. We came home to find she had chewed away a piece of the doorframe and had clawed under the gate to shred some of the basement carpet. This was the final straw. It was clear evidence of what we already knew—she was sick and was not going to get better.

There were not many options. The Humane Society would not take her. “If her anxiety is that bad now, it’s only going to get worse in the high-stress environment of the kennel. No one will ever adopt her here.” They suggested we put her on medication and take her to some form of pet counselling. The only other option, they said, was to contact our vet, who happens to be a great dog-lover, and have her euthanized. We do not have money for counselling (and probably not for medication either!), so we contacted the vet who said that, from the sound of things, her situation was sufficiently severe that even medication would not help. If we could not deal with her systematically destroying our house, we should consider putting her down. He has seen this before. After much consideration and many tears (from Aileen, at least), we decided that there was no option but to have her put down.

We felt better doing this based on the vet’s counsel, but it was still an awful option. This morning we had the children bid the dog farewell. They know only that Tiazzi has gone to the vet and that she won’t be back. I’m not sure how much more we should tell them. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. Perhaps this is a good moment to teach them a reality about life and death and sin and evil. We’ll worry about that later. Aileen gave Tiazzi a last hug and a last scratch behind the ears. I loaded the dog into the van and we drove to the vet’s office.

I arrived at the vet and, leaving the dog in the car, went inside. I filled out the paperwork, signed something I didn’t bother to read and gave them the ridiculous sum of $281.41 for their services. Having done that, I walked out to the car, fetched the dog, handed the leash to the receptionist and then turned my back and walked away. I didn’t exactly forget to say goodbye to the dog. I guess it’s more that I just couldn’t. I never loved the dog and really only barely tolerated her much of the time, but she was part of our lives for a long time and it was surprisingly hard to know she was going to die.

And then I dealt with this the way I deal with most difficult things. I turned on some really loud music and began to write.

It’s strange, really, that already I am writing in the past tense, even though the dog is probably still alive, at least for a few more minutes. I am reasonably comfortable with the decision we made, though I wouldn’t be surprised if I struggle in the dark hours of the night when I tend to lie awake and think. Aileen is less sure of what we did, but she also loved the dog more. In the end I console myself with the knowledge that Tiazzi was only an animal. She was a living being and was, in some way, precious in God’s eyes. She was certainly precious to Aileen. But she was a dog and had no soul. She will die sometime today and that will be all. Her heart will stop beating and she will be no more. She will not go to heaven and will not chase rabbits through the happy hunting grounds. She will simply stop being. She will be no more than a memory.

God is good to give us animals to serve and protect and comfort and cheer us. Tiazzi did plenty of all of that. But her time came to an end and I’m glad that she could go in peace. As much as I hate to say it, I am going to miss her. Despite the hardship she brought us, I am thankful that we were able to know her and have her live with us. I will choose to remember her fondly.

Dumb dog.

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