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April 11, 2006

Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading is the second of a five-part series of books being written by Eugene Peterson who is best known as the translator of The Message. This series of books comes in the twilight years of Peterson’s career as author, pastor and translator, and it allows him to reflect on his many years of ministry. It is a rather strange and wandering book in which Peterson meanders through a wide variety of topics having to do with the theme of Scripture. At heart, though, the book is an attempt to convince the reader of the importance of reading Scripture in order to promote life change. Peterson feels this is best done through the ancient practice of lectio divina. In many respects, then, this book is a beginner’s guide to that practice. The book also contains a great deal of information about Peterson’s philosophy of Bible translation and it is to this topic that I will turn my attention today.

In a section entitled “Caveat Lector” (or “let the reader beware”), Peterson shows concern with the response that the Scriptures are to evoke in us. “The words printed on the pages of my Bible give witness to the living and active revelation of the God of creation and salvation, the God of love who became the Word made flesh in Jesus, and I had better not forget it. If in my Bible reading I lose touch with this livingness, if I fail to listen to this living Jesus, submit to this sovereignty, and respond to this love, I become arrogant in my knowing and impersonal in my behavior. An enormous amount of damage is done in the name of Christian living by bad Bible reading” (page 82). This shows, I think, that Peterson is genuinely concerned with how Christians read the Bible. He realizes that, when read with an impure heart or out of poor motives, the Bible can be used to cause all manner of harm. Great damage has been done by those who know the words of the Bible best. Satan himself knows and quotes the Bible. But is the problem with the Bible or with the reader?

Peterson further voices this concern in a metaphor. “The Christian community is as concerned with how we read the Bible as that we read it. It is not sufficient to place a Bible in a person’s hands with the command, ‘Read it.’ That is as foolish as putting a set of car keys in an adolescent’s hands, giving him a Honda, and saying, ‘Drive it.’ And just as dangerous. The danger is that in having our hands on a piece of technology, we will use it ignorantly, endangering our lives and the lives of those around us; or that, intoxicated with the power that the technology gives us, we will use it ruthlessly and violently” (page 81). I do not feel that this is a fair parallel. I know of people, and you probably do as well, who have been simply handed a Bible and been told to read it. They read and were changed. They read and were saved. There is a vast difference between an adolescent who takes the wheel of a car and a man or woman who is given a Bible. While I appreciate Peterson’s concern, what he fails to take into account is the fact that the Holy Spirit works through Scripture as the primary means of changing lives. The metaphor that compares a Bible to a car and an adolescent to a reader is simply not fair or accurate. It gives far too little credit to the work of the Holy Spirit.

It is possible that Peterson feels that the Scriptures are somehow a little bit deficient? That they are not the best way that God could have revealed Himself to us? “There is a sense in which the Scriptures are the word of God dehydrated, with all the originating context removed—living voices, city sounds, camels carrying spices from Seba and gold from Ophir snoring down in the bazaar, fragrance from lentil stew simmering in the kitchen—all now reduced to marks on thin onion-skin paper” (page 88). While this is true, at least to some extent, what Peterson fails to mention is that this is exactly how God intended to give us the Scriptures. God never refers to His Word as “dehydrated” or in any way deficient. Yes, we need to invest time and effort in knowing, studying and understanding them, but we do so knowing that the Scriptures, exactly as they are, are just what God desired that we have. Any fault we perceive in them is a fault within us.

In these three quotations, three of a number I could have referred to, I think we see an important piece of the puzzle that led to The Message. Eugene Peterson feels that the equation of person plus Bible can lead to all manner of hurt and pain and destruction. This is, in many cases, true. Yet it seems, as we will see, that Peterson’s solution is to change the Bible rather than to focus on the people. The Bible is good and perfect and true. It is the people who cause the trouble.

In a chapter entitled “God’s Secretaries,” Peterson examines Nehemiah 8 where the Israelites, having just rediscovered the Scriptures, stand before Ezra as he reads them to the assembly. And as he reads, select Levites “give the sense” of the passages. “ ‘Gave the sense,’” he says, “did more than merely provide dictionary equivalents to the words that were being read that day. The Levites’ interpretive translation work engaged the lives, the hearts and souls, not just the minds, of the people: at first they wept and then they rejoiced ‘because they had understood the words that were declared to them’ (Neh. 8:9-12). This is the intended end of true translation, to bring about the kind of understanding that involves the whole person in tears and laughter, heart and soul, in what is written, what is said” (page 125). It is interesting and helpful, I think, to compare Peterson’s philosophy of translation to that of the English Standard Version. In the preface to the ESV we read, “The ESV is an ‘essentially literal’ translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. As such, its emphasis is on ‘word-for-word’ correspondence, at the same time taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.” Note the difference. The ESV seeks, in so far as possible, to bring the original text before the reader. Peterson seeks to bring about the understanding and response of the original reader. The ESV values words while Peterson values response.

We continue with words found almost at the end of the book. Peterson has continued to discuss The Message. He now sets his sights on essentially literal translations, suggesting why he feels they are less useful than a more dynamic translation. “Translation is a complex activity that takes place between a polarity of two questions. The question asked from one pole is, ‘What did she mean?’ ‘What did he say?’ answered strictly on its own terms yields a literal translation. Find the German word equivalent to the English word and that’s it. ‘What did she mean?’ requires an imagination, often a poetic imagination, that brings the ‘world’ of the German text into the ‘world’ of American English…” He quotes Sebastian Brock: “In the case of free translation, it could be said that the original reader is forced to go to the original; or, to put it another way, in the first it is the reader who is stationary, but in the second it is the original” (page 169).

His distaste for literal translation soon becomes more apparent. “In my work as a pastor and writer, teacher and preacher, I began to gather observations and witnesses on the nature of translation, noticing how unsatisfactory ‘literal’ turns out to be and how conveniently it serves as a cover for avoiding the obvious intent of words spoken or written” (page 170). And again, “Preference for the literal has a long life. But I have come to believe that it is an unthinking preference…The language [in a literal translation] is lobotomized—the very quality that gives language its genius, its capacity to reveal what we otherwise would not know, is excised. Extreme literalism insists on forcing each work into a fixed immovable position, all the sentences strapped in a straightjacket” (page 171).

And then, finally, we see exactly what Peterson presented in The Message and why he did so. “[T]he most important question is not ‘What does it say?’ but ‘What does it mean and how can I live it?’ I wanted to gather a company of people together who read personally, not impersonally, who learned to read the Bible in order to live their true selves, not just get information that they could use to raise their standard of living” (page 176).

I found it an interesting and worthwhile pursuit to piece together this information and to try to understand what lies behind The Message (and behind other dynamic or paraphrastic translations). What it led me to see is that this type of translation relies on a particular class of person—the rare person who can both interpret and translate the Bible. Peterson believes that the Bible should already be interpreted before it is read, so that interpretation and translation are one and the same. The reader is then left in a position whereby once he reads the Bible, he can immediately respond correctly to it. Peterson sees himself and other translators as standing in the role of the Levites of Nehemiah 8, giving the sense of the Scriptures in order to evoke the right response.

This philosophy differs substantially from the more literal translations, where emphasis is placed primarily on words, not meaning. With a literal translation we are given, in as much as is possible, access to the original words of Scripture. It is then up to the individual Christian, not a particular class of “translator-interpreters”, to interpret Scripture and to apply it to our lives.

The problems with Peterson’s approach are numerous, but are too varied to discuss in this article. Perhaps I can discuss them at another time, though I have written about Bible translation enough times that it may not be necessary.

April 10, 2006

Yesterday morning in church we sang a song I knew from the album “Songs For The Cross Centered Life” but had never had the privilege of singing during a worship service. The song was “I Come By The Blood” by Steve and Vikki Cook. It is quite a recent song, but one whose expression of theology is easily equal to many of the old hymns. It proves, as do many of the songs recorded on the albums released by Sovereign Grace Music, that modern music can be as full of meaning and depth as songs that were written long before. Here are the lyrics:

You are the perfect and righteous God whose presence bears no sin
You bid me come to Your Holy place, how can I enter in
When Your presence bears no sin
Through Him who poured out His life for me, the atoning Lamb of God
Through Him and His work alone, I boldly come

The chorus has some wonderful lyrics, but all I heard or understood was this:

Bold bold bold bold bold, bold bold bold bold bold
Bold bold bold bold bold bold bold bold bold bold
Bold bold bold bold bold bold bold bold bold bold
Bold bold bold bold bold bold bold bold bold bold bold bold
Bold bold bold.

To be honest, I heard little of the rest of the song. I was just overwhelmed by that one word: bold. I was moved almost to tears. No, let’s be honest. I was moved to tears by that simple word. I stopped singing and just thanked and praised God for the boldness He gives. I stopped and thanked Jesus for the boldness He won for me through His sacrifice. It was a blessed moment.

I think the significance of the moment was brought about, at least in part, by what I experienced the previous evening. Brian McLaren had been in town the night before. Having read many of his books and having invested a fair amount of time in studying what he teaches, both as a Christian author and as an apparently reluctant leader in this strange movement conversation known as emergent, I thought it would be both interesting and useful to hear him speak. The event was held in Richview Baptist Church and the setting was informal. McLaren sat in the front of the auditorium with the audience arrayed around him, grouped around small tables. It was a small gathering of probably only forty or fifty people which made it a good setting to ask questions and to hear from McLaren in a reasonably “safe” environment. I asked no questions, choosing instead just to listen.

McLaren, as we have come to expect, never really answered a question. At one point one of the men in attendance, who clearly had a great deal of respect for McLaren, asked him whether this was natural or whether it was deliberate and something he had had to work at to perfect. McLaren, in as lucid an answer as we got all night, responded that it is something he does deliberatly. I have no doubt that this is the case, but unfortunately, I found it exceedingly frustrating, though certainly not surprising. One might expect that, when attending a Question and Answer session, one might hear some answers. But this was not, unfortunately, the case. Instead, we were subjected to long, rambling discourses that seemed to do anything but address the actual question.

Of course while McLaren was not always lucid in answering questions, in a sense he answered questions simply by not answering. He made statements throughout. In fact, he made a statement by not bringing a Bible with him to the event. And really there did not appear to be any Bibles at the event (and, conspicuous by its absense, was any type of prayer). When asked questions, there was only one occasion where McLaren referred to Scripture as the foundation for his answer, and even then he took a verse far out of context (in an attempt to show that God is, essentially, unknowable). I do not recall a single time that he answered a question by recommending a verse or passage of Scripture. While he widely quoted or recommended the works of other authors and mystics, he did not seem to show any real knowledge of the Bible or trust in and affection for Scripture. For an evening led by a man who is considered one of the world’s most important and influential evangelical leaders, it was certainly surprising that Scripture played no role.

Throughout the evening, boldness was absent. The faith of the emergents, the postmodern faith, is a faith that is devoid of boldness before God. It is timid, angry, tentative, questioning. It is not a faith of assurance and boldness. It emphasizes the unknowability of God more than what God has revealed to us about Himself. The faith McLaren commends is a faith that always questions, always doubts. It seems that the only faith McLaren hates is the faith of a person who knows what he believes and is convicted by Scripture and by plain reason that what God has revealed is truth—true truth. As others have observed, the real enemy of the Emerging Church is conservative, biblical Protestantism. McLaren will commend anything or anybody, it seems, except those who have a faith built upon the truths revealed in the New Testament epistles.

I think that last sentence is important. It struck me while driving home from church yesterday afternoon. McLaren mentioned at one point how many times he has studied and read the gospels since he professed Christ many years ago. But when he spoke of the book of Romans, he did so without the same reverence. When I examined the evening and pieced it together with what McLaren has revealed of himself in his books I was led to conclude something that startled me. Brian McLaren loves the red letters of the Bible, but hates the black. The red letters so easily support the type of Christianity he is attempting to build and promote, but the black interfere. He can reconcile Jesus with his faith, but he is stopped short by Paul. Brian McLaren loves Jesus, but does he love God in the same way?

This postmodern faith, a faith that seeks to emulate Jesus but without the explanation and application taught by Paul and the other apostles, has no certainty, no boldness. This was brewing in my mind as I reflected on the evening. It was brewing in my mind as I drove to church on Sunday morning. And it brought tears to my eyes on Sunday morning as I worshipped and thanked God for the boldness He provides and makes available to those within whom He has done His work.

“…Jesus Christ our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in Him.” (Ephesians 3:12)

Jesus Christ gives boldness to His people. It is not a rash and arrogant boldness that takes refuge in our own intellectual capacities, but a boldness that what God reveals of Himself through Scripture is real and right and true and knowable. It is a confidence that we, simple human beings, can know and understand God. This is what Paul celebrates in the final verses of Romans 11. Having spent 11 chapters discussing the greatness of God, he bursts forth in a song of praise for all that God has revealed of Himself. “Oh the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” This is an expression of wonder for all God has chosen to reveal about Himself to mere sinful, hate-filled human beings. It is an expression not of timidity but of boldness! Not of tenativeness, but of confidence!

We can share in this expression of praise, and so should we, for knowledge of God is a gift of God. Confidence is our privilege, boldness our birthright. We can know God and we can have confidence in what we know, as long as it accords with the words of Scripture—not merely the red words, but the black words too.

April 07, 2006

Until yesterday it had been quite a while since I had written about worship. I had forgotten what a difficult and even contentious issue it is within the church. I guess, at least to some extent, it has always been this way. The issue of music brings out both the best and the worst in Christians. While I had another article ready for posting today, I thought I would put it off for a day and dedicate one more article to worship while my mind and the minds of those reading this site are tuned in to this topic. This is a topic I have written about before in an article I originally titled “Songs of Procrastination.”

I had recently read (and enjoyed) a book edited by Carson entitled, Worship by the Book. Carson suggested that some Christians have come to worship worship instead of worshipping God through worship. He says, “This point is acknowledged in a praise chorus like ‘Let’s forget about ourselves, and magnify the Lord, and worship him.’ The trouble is that after you have sung this repetitious chorus three of four times, you are no farther ahead. The way you forget about yourself is by focusing on God—not by singing about doing it, but by doing it.”

Since I read that, these words have often played in my mind, causing me to examine many of the worship songs I have encountered. I listened to some of the worship albums I have accumulated over the past years and was struck by how true Carson’s words are. Carson also writes, “Despite the protestations, one sometimes wonders if we are beginning to worship worship rather than worship God. As a brother put it to me, it’s a bit like those who begin by admiring the sunset and soon begin to admire themselves admiring the sunset.” It is all too easy for us to engage in “worship” which does not worship God.

This morning I thought of Sonicflood’s self-titled debut album. This one rocked the Christian music scene when it arrived a few years ago and immediately many of these songs went from nearly-unknown to exceedingly popular. Take a look at the lyrics for “I Want to Know You” (In the Secret):

In the secret, in the quiet place
In the stillness You are there
In the secret, in the quiet hour I wait only for You
‘Cause I want to know You more

I want to know You
I want to hear Your voice
I want to know You more
I want to touch You
I want to see Your face
I want to know You more

I am reaching for the highest goal
That I might receive the prize
Pressing ownward, pushing every hindrance aside, out of my way
‘Cause I want to know You more

I was led to conclude that song really says nothing of great substance about God. As the Christian sings this song he pleads to know God more, to hear His voice and to see His face, yet all this time he probably has the Bible sitting on the pew beside him! As Carson says, after you have sung this song through a few times you are no farther ahead. This song will not help you know Him, hear Him, touch Him or see Him. Consider another favorite from the same album:

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see you, I want to see you

To see you high and lifted up,
Shining in the light of your glory.
Pour out your power and love,
as we sing holy, holy, holy.

Holy, holy, holy
Holy, holy, holy
Holy, holy, holy
I want to see you

I want to see you
I want to see you

For sake of brevity I removed the portions of the lyric that are repetitive. This song is similar to the last in that it pleads what the songwriter wants to do (he wants to see God), yet it brings him no closer to doing so. Granted this song has at least somewhat more depth of theology to it than the first example, but it still does not bring the person any closer to what he desires. We can tell God that we want to see Him, but that does not make it happen!

Despite the risk of belaboring this point, allow me to provide one final example. Here are the lyrics for “You Are Worthy of My Praise” by David Ruis.

I will worship (I will worship)
With all of my heart (with all of my heart)
I will praise You (I will praise You)
With all of my strength (all my strength)
I will seek You (I will seek You)
All of my days (all of my days)
And I will follow (I will follow)
All of Your ways (all Your ways)

I will give You all my worship
I will give You all my praise
You alone I long to worship
You alone are worthy of my praise

I will bow down (I will bow down)
Hail You as king (hail You as king)
And I will serve You (I will serve You)
Give You everything (give You everything)
I will lift up (I will lift up)
My eyes to Your throne (my eyes to Your throne)
And I will trust You (I will trust You)
I will trust You alone (trust You alone)

Once more, the lyrics of the song do not express any substantial worship to God. The words talk about all the things the songwriter (and thus the person singing the song) intends to do, but does not actually do it. We do not worship God by telling Him that we will, at some point in the future, worship Him. It is akin to a husband heading to work and instead of telling his wife that he loves her, telling her that he will express his love for her at some other time. That is not an expression of love!

I do not wish to denigrate any and all songs that are written in a future tense or that anticipate future actions, blessings or rewards. There are some songs that anticipate the future and are built around passionate, biblical, soul-stirring truths. But too many songs really do not do this. They speak about worship without actually allowing us or encouraging us to engage in worship. A song that is merely about worship is no more worthwhile in corporate worship than a song about making a peanut butter sandwich. I wonder if we shouldn’t term these “songs of procrastination.” After all, by singing them we are procrastinating the very thing we claim to desire. Why not forget “In the Secret” and instead sing a song that will tell us about God and how we may know Him? If we want to know Him so badly, perhaps we should just end the song and open the Scriptures. Instead of telling God “I will worship you” and “I will bow down,” why don’t we just do it! Worship Him and bow before Him instead of just expressing the desire.

Thankfully, there are many songs that do this. One hymn, a favorite of mine, came to mind—“God, Be Merciful to Me” which was penned by Jo­seph P. Hol­brook. It is an adaptation of Psalm 51. I can hardly imagine a better song to lead an album or a worship service. Please, do not skip casually over the words, but read them, consciously looking for expressions of true worship.

God, be merciful to me,
On Thy grace I rest my plea;
Plenteous in compassion Thou,
Blot out my transgressions now;
Wash me, make me pure within,
Cleanse, O cleanse me from my sin.

My transgressions I confess,
Grief and guilt my soul oppress;
I have sinned against Thy grace
And provoked Thee to Thy face;
I confess Thy judgment just,
Speechless, I Thy mercy trust.

I am evil, born in sin;
Thou desirest truth within.
Thou alone my Savior art,
Teach Thy wisdom to my heart;
Make me pure, Thy grace bestow,
Wash me whiter than the snow.

Broken, humbled to the dust
By Thy wrath and judgment just,
Let my contrite heart rejoice
And in gladness hear Thy voice;
From my sins O hide Thy face,
Blot them out in boundless grace.

Gracious God, my heart renew,
Make my spirit right and true;
Cast me not away from Thee,
Let Thy Spirit dwell in me;
Thy salvation’s joy impart,
Steadfast make my willing heart.

Now this songwriter accomplishes what he sets out to do. He does not merely tell God that he is sorry for his sin, but he asks God to cleanse and forgive him. He admits his sinfulness and his brokenness and acknowledges that God’s judgment is just. He expresses confidence in God’s grace and forgiveness. It is a powerful and moving song. It is a fitting song to begin a worship service so the believer can acknowledge his unworthiness, plead God’s mercy, and rest in the acknowledgement of God’s pardon. Do not think that I am denigrating contemporary music in favor of hymns. There are many contemporary songs that likewise express depth and go far beyond mere suggestions. Here is a modern worship song which wonderfully expresses heartfelt worship, and not just the intention to engage in worship. This is “The Glory of the Cross” by Bob Kauflin.

What wisdom once devised the plan
Where all our sin and pride
Was placed upon the perfect Lamb
Who suffered, bled, and died?
The wisdom of a Sovereign God
Whose greatness will be shown
When those who crucified Your Son
Rejoice around Your throne

And, oh, the glory of the cross
That You would send Your Son for us
I gladly count my life as loss
That I might come to know
The glory of, the glory of the cross

What righteousness was there revealed
That sets the guilty free
That justifies ungodly men
And calls the filthy clean?
A righteousness that proved to all
Your justice has been met
And holy wrath is satisfied
Through one atoning death

Returning to Worship by the Book, Carson makes an analogy between a person who watches a sunset and another person who stands before the same sunset but becomes fixated on watching himself watch the sunset. The first person delights in the beauty of Creation, while the second person can see no further than the act of watching it. In this way he misses the sunset altogether. What folly it is to miss the beauty of the sunset by fixating on ourselves. And what a tragedy it is if we go no further than asking God to touch us or speak to us, but do not use what He has given us to accomplish that end. We would be better off not singing at all than engaging in “worship” that unintentionally focuses on us and commends us for our act of worship.

April 06, 2006

The most recent issue of Christianity Today features a short article by Chuck Colson entitled “Soothing Ourselves to Death” which, if you are so inclined, you could read by clicking here. Colson contends that “much of the music being written for the church today reflects an unfortunate trend—slipping across the line from worship to entertainment. Evangelicals are in danger of amusing ourselves to death, to borrow the title of the classic Neil Postman book.” Colson singles out a particular song, “Draw Me Close to You,” which he was forced to sing repeatedly at a recent church service. This song, he says, “has zero theological content and could just as easily be sung in any nightclub.”

Here are the lyrics of the song in question:

Draw me close to you, never let me go.
I lay it all down again, to hear you say that I’m your friend.
You are my desire, no one else will do.
No one else can take your place, to feel the warmth of your embrace.
Help me find the way, bring me back to you.
You’re all I want. You’re all I’ve ever needed.
You’re all I want. Help me know you are near.

Sam Storms of Enjoying God Ministries, respectfully disagrees with Colson (click here for the article). Storms writes:

I happen to love “Draw Me Close to You”! Colson calls it a “meaningless ditty” with “zero theological content.” That’s a pretty serious charge, even if he’s using hyperbole to make a point (which I doubt that he is). Personally, I’d be thrilled if it were sung in ‘nightclubs.’ Maybe then the inebriated and self-indulgent patrons would see an unashamed and extravagant passion for Jesus that would lead them to ask, ‘Who is it that inspires such love and devotion? Clearly people courageous and committed enough to sing in a nightclub of their personal yearning for this God and their intimate relationship with him have discovered something I have yet to find.’

While Storms affirms his love for hymns, he contends that “many of them, for lack of a better way of putting it, enable the soul to ‘keep God at arm’s length.’ One can sing ‘about’ God with theological precision and yet never engage the heart.” “Singing descriptively is all well and good, even essential, but it isn’t the same as singing ‘to’ God in personal confession. In the latter we express our desire for him, our yearning for him, our thirst and longing and love and delight and joy in all that he is for us in Jesus.” He feels that the appeal of contemporary music is that it allows the Christian not only to stimulate the mind, but also to awaken the spirit, stir the affections, and intensify the expression of our hunger for God.

About the song, Storms suggests that “there isn’t a sentiment or syllable in the song that isn’t found somewhere in the Psalms as an expression of legitimate, biblical, heartfelt worship.” “The song is intentionally written to be an intercessory cry for the awareness of God’s presence, a plea that his loving embrace (spiritually speaking, of course) and the security of his affection never end. It is an expression of personal consecration and commitment. It is a declaration of the all-satisfying love of God and the soul’s delight in it.”

Justin Taylor, who drew my attention to this disagreement with his short article, agrees with Storms.

A couple of years ago I spent some time reflecting on the question of “What is Christian music?” What is it that makes one song Christian and another mainstream? What makes an artist Christian while another is mainstream? What makes one song suitable as an expression of love to God and another unsuitable? This seems to be the point of disagreement between Storms and Colson. Colson feels that “Draw Me Close To You” is inappropriate for worship while Storms disagrees.

At the time I first began to reflect on this issue the American Music Awards had just been handed out. This organization distributes awards based on genres. They give out awards for rap music, jazz, pop, heavy metal and other categories. Each of these forms its own musical genre. Though the lines dividing the genres may not be perfectly clear, there is usually little doubt as to what constitutes a jazz album versus what constitutes a blues album. But then there is the award for Christian music (or, as they call it, Contemporary Inspirational Music). This one is not awarded based on a style of music, but on lyrical content, or further, on the beliefs of the artist. Is it not strange that Christian music forms the sole exception to the rule? Is it not strange that in a system divided by genre, a hard rock Christian album can be considered in the same category as an adult contemporary album?

I have no answers except to suggest that according to the American Music Awards, a Christian album is probably one that has been distributed by a Christian label. How those labels define a Christian album or song is anyone’s guess, though I’m sure it varies greatly from company to company. I know the Gospel Music Association holds to the following definition. A Christian song is one:

  • substantially based upon historically orthodox Christian truth contained in or derived from the Holy Bible
  • and/or apparently prompted and informed by a Christian world view.

I began to think of songs in the mainstream that could pass as Christian songs. One of the songs that I thought of was that once-famous Bryan Adams song, “Everything I Do.” I noticed that it does not have any words in it explicit enough to tell the listener for whom it was written. The only object he refers to is “you,” with no reference to the usual “baby,” “girl,” or “lover.” Therefore, it could be a song sung from a woman to a man or a man to a woman. Fair enough. I’m sure we can all think of examples of songs that are written in such a vague fashion. As I listened to it I began to wonder what would happen if we were to sing that song in our church. Couldn’t we just direct the song towards God? Listen to these words:

Look into my heart - you will find
There’s nothin’ there to hide
Take me as I am - take my life
I would give it all - I would sacrifice
Don’t tell me it’s not worth fightin’ for
I can’t help it - there’s nothin’ I want more
You know it’s true
Everything I do - I do it for you
There’s no love - like your love
And no other - could give more love
There’s nowhere - unless you’re there
All the time - all the way

There are songs we sing in church that are little different than that. Consider Sonicflood’s “I Want To Know You,” a song you may well have sung during a worship service.

In the secret, in the quiet place
In the stillness You are there
In the secret, in the quiet hour I wait only for You
Cause, I want to know You more
I want to know You more
I want to hear Your voice
I want to know You more
I want to touch You
I want to see Your face
I want to know You more

Surely if heard outside a Christian context no one would guess that “I Want To Know You” is directed to God. Similarly, inside a Christian context I doubt if anyone would guess that “Everything I Do” is just another mainstream love song. Evidently this further complicates the matter. So again I ask, what constitutes a Christian song? Though certainly not an exhaustive list, here are some options. Perhaps a Christian song is:

  • A song written by a Christian. This speaks of the songs’s authorship.
  • A song written to be a Christian song. This speaks of the motive of the song’s author.
  • A song sung as a Christian song. This speaks of the motives of the individuals singing the song.
  • A song with explicitly or obviously Christian lyrics. This speaks of the song’s content.

Does any one of these, taken alone, provide a definition of Christian music? I don’t think so, as each of them seems to have an obvious flaw. What we find is that no song can truly be said to be Christian. The term Christian speaks of people, not of songs or t-shirts or bumper stickers. So there is a sense in which “Amazing Grace” is no more or less Christian than “Everything I Do.”

What we need to determine, then, is not whether a particular song is Christian or pagan, but whether a particular song is suitable for worshipping our God, especially in a corporate setting. A tool I have found useful in this was provided by Elmer Towns and Ed Stetzer in their book Perimeters of Light. They propose a seven-part test which will “focus on biblical principles that we should apply to our music to determine if it is Christian.” To that list I append an eighth test.

The Message Test - Does this song express the word of God? Is there a strong message and one that appeals to the new man or to the old man?

The Purpose Test - What is the purpose of this music? Was it written to lift you up or to bring you down? To make you joyful or to make you sad? Different types of song may be appropriate at different times. Obviously the very nature of music dictates that certain patterns in music have the ability to stir emotion independent of the song’s lyrical content.

The Association Test - Does the song unnecessarily identify with things, actions or people that are contrary to Scripture? An otherwise good song may have to be rejected simply because people will make inappropriate associations with it in their minds. The authors provide the example of singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “The Rising Sun” which is a song about drinking and gambling. As people were singing worship to the Lord they would also be thinking of the song’s original words, leading their minds to think of things that are inappropriate for a worship setting.

The Memory Test - Does the song bring back things from your past that you have left? The purpose of this test is not to guard against music that people may dislike, but to guard against music that may cause them to sin, heeding the biblical warning about not offending one’s brother. So it has less to do with taste and more to do with leading people to sin.

The Proper Emotions Test - Does the music stir our negative or lustful feelings? Amazingly enough, music does have the power, once again independently of lyric, to stir emotions to sin. If you don’t believe this, watch a room full of young people during a hard, driving rap beat, even before the words begin.

The Understanding Test - Will the listeners have a hard time understanding the message or finding the melody. Different people know and understand different types of music. People will have an easier time worshiping to a type of music that they understand. Those new believers in Papua New Guinea may have a difficult time worshiping to contemporary Christian music as they would simply not understand it. The same principle holds true with the lyrics, though I would suggest to a lesser extent, because unlike music, words are objectively true or false. If a song is strong in its theology, the people should eventually understand it, even if they do not now. With music this is not the case. Those natives will be no farther ahead if they learn to appreciate church-rock (and many would suggest, perhaps correctly, that they would actually be farther behind!).

The Music Test - This test asks if there is really “a song within the song”? Is the song singable? Does it flow from verse to verse? Does it stir the listener’s heart to join in the song? A song with beautiful words may quickly disappear from the hymn books simply because it is not singable.

So there are the seven tests suggested by the authors. Conspicuous by its absence is one I would like to add, which is:

The Excellence Test - Does the song provide God with the best music and lyrics? We should strive for excellence in all we give to God. If our giving to Him should not be half-hearted, how much less our worship?

In a previous article, which you can read here, I ran several popular songs through this test. Let’s briefly run “Draw Me Close To You” through this test. Do realize that the test is somewhat subjective. There will be differences in regards to understanding, excellence and other factors.

  1. The Message Test - Fail. Colson would clearly fail this song on the basis of the message and so would I. Storms and Taylor would pass it. It seems to me that the song is trite, void of meaningful content and too man-focused.
  2. The Purpose Test - Pass. The song was written to honor God.
  3. The Association Test - Pass. I don’t know that people would associate this song with much of anything.
  4. The Memory Test - Pass. See above.
  5. The Proper Emotions Test - Pass. The music is consistent with the lyric.
  6. The Understanding Test - Fail. The song is schmaltzy in its lyric and many people, especially men, will object to the romantic overtones.
  7. The Music Test - Pass. While it is not inspired music (see the next point), it is singable.
  8. The Excellence Test - Fail. Neither the music, nor the lyric is an expression of excellence.

I would encourage you to test the song against those criteria and decide if you feel it is appropriate for a worship service. Feel free to post a comment with your assessment.

As I wrap this up, I would like to make one further comment. Even if a song is not inappropriate, this does not necessarily mean that we ought to sing it. Most worship services (for good or for ill) allow time for only five or six songs. Should we not seek to sing excellent songs rather than marginal ones? With the massive body of musical works available to us, could we not find songs that are better than this one and sing them instead? If we focused on songs which were excellent in their music and lyrics, I would suggest that many of these discussions would never need to arise.

April 05, 2006

King for a Week is an honor I bestow on blogs that I feel are making a valuable contribution to my faith and the faith of other believers. Every week (or so) I select a blog, link to it from my site, and add that site’s most recent headlines to my left sidebar. While this is really not much, I do feel that it allows me to encourage and support other bloggers while making my readers aware of other good sites.

This week’s King for a Week is the blog of Dr. Albert Mohler. While there is a good chance that you already read this site, that does not preclude me from presenting it with this award. Dr. Mohler, as you may know, wears many hats. He is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a columnist and commentator, an author, the host of a radio program, and a husband and father. And I’m sure this is not all! Dr. Mohler is one of the four men that have organized the Together for the Gospel conference which will be held later this month. Seperate from his blog, Dr. Mohler posts daily commentaries which I highly recommend as they are always worth the read.

For the next few days you will be able to see the most recent headlines from Dr. Mohler’s Blog in the sidebar of my site. I hope you will make your way over to the site and look around.

I continue to accept nominations for King of the Week. If you have a site you would like to nominate, feel free to do so by clicking on the “suggest” button below the King of the Week box. Thanks to those of you who nominated this week’s honoree.

April 03, 2006

There’s a sucker born every minute. Bob Ross thinks I’m one of them. Last week I posted an article defending the need for Christians to prepare themselves for the Da Vinci Code movie, but for their own sake and for the sake of their neighbors. Bob responded to this:

There is some dispute about whether P. T. Barnum or someone else said “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but there seems to be little doubt as to the validity of the remark.

And those men and women out there who refer to themselves as “Apologists” are glad to have the suckers keep coming, for they “make a good living” off of them. I like to refer to the “apologists” as the “APPALLINGISTS,” for most of them are godawful appalling and need to make some apologies.

He goes on to draw a rather ridiculous parallel between Da Vinci Code and Y2K before turning to the “Bible Code.”

Awhile back it was the hidden, secret “Bible Code.” Now it is the “Da Vinci Code” that the Appallingists are using to take advantage of the naive suckers.

These entrepreneurs thrive off of selling products to those whom they persuade need to be “equipped” and “prepared.” Or, if they themselves don’t need to be “equipped” and “prepared,” surely they know some needy believer who is apt to be terribly deceived — so they can be a Good Samaritan and order the cassettes, videos, booklets, books, and other useful “tools” to help arm the weaker brethren to offset and overcome the horrible Da Vinci Code — especially the movie.

Yesterday I was referred to the CHILLIES.COM blogstie by one of my readers where they were trying to “fry” me over what I had said about the item on James White’s website pertaining to being “prepared” for the Da Vincd Code movie – a piece of fiction based on a piece of fiction based on a Roman Catholic fictional painting of a few hundred years ago.

The email goes on for a while. The one thing Ross forgets to do is to interact with what I wrote. His thesis (and I use that term loosely, as most rants are devoid of any clear thesis) seems to be that preparing for Da Vinci will only put money in the hands of Christian hucksters and send even more Christians to the cinemas to watch the film.

“Now, if you want to join the suckers and “spend your money for that which is not bread,” you are free to do so. It’s still a free country. Otherwise, I suggest you keep your hand on your billfold when you hear some of the Appallingists palabberating about all the evils, dangers, and other devilish attributes of which you are in danger if you don’t get ‘eqipped’ and ‘prepared’ by sending for whatever the Appallingist has to sell you for a ‘gift donation.’”

It seems to me that this is a terribly naive attitude. I wonder if Ross would also object to Scripture’s admonition to “be prepared (uh oh, there’s that word) to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” One does not have to look far within Scripture to find great emphasis on both equipping and preparation.

You will note that my article said nothing about supporting Purpose Driven or any of the other ministries that are releasing books and DVDs and other material dealing with the film. Nor did I suggest that we go and view the movie in order to be able to dialogue with our friends about it. I merely suggested that we be able to have an answer to the lies that this movie puts forth as truth. Doing this will guard our hearts but may also make us more effective witnesses to those who have serious questions about the Bible’s claims. Bob’s rant has failed to convince me that this is a bad thing.

March 31, 2006

A few months ago I signed up for Bob Ross’ email updates. I don’t know much about the guy, but I believe it was Phil Johnson who recommended his writings. Phil wrote, “He’s a prolific writer of passionate commentary on just about everything, ranging from serious theological aberrations to little things that just get under his skin. He’s a kind of fundamentalist Andy Rooney.” But rather than complaining about the ingredients in Girl Guide cookies, Bob Ross complains about James White. A lot. He also complains about just about anything else under the banner of Calvinism. It gets old pretty quickly. Still, he seems like a nice enough guy and I think that he and I would see eye-to-eye on most matters.

Today he sent out a little missive mocking, once again, James White.

I got a chuckle from James White’s blog today where he says the following;

Da Vinci Debunked in Tabletalk

This month’s Tabletalk magazine from Ligonier Ministries focuses on preparing believers to handle the release of The Da Vinci Code film this month. In order as they appear, the first feature article is by R.C. Sproul, “The Da Vinci Conspiracy.” Then my article appears, titled, “The Fool’s Folly Uncovered.” Then R. Albert Mohler Jr.’s article “Historical Propaganda,” followed by Peter R. Jones’ work, “The Pagan Agenda of the Code.” If you don’t subscribe to Tabletalk, you may still want to pick up this issue, or better yet, subscribe!

What sort of “believer” needs to be “prepared” for a movie tale relating to a Roman Catholic painting by a 15th - 16th century Roman Catholic painter which supposedly has a significant “code” in it?

Give me a good ole “Charlie Chan” black-and-white movie mystery any day over this! Or even an old Don Adams’ “Get Smart” TV program — or better still, a Three Stooges “Horse Collars” or “Restless Knights” movie short. If we need to be “prepared” for comedy, then at least let’s have something worthwhile in the field of comedy!

“Tabletalk” is Presbyterian pedobaptist R. C. Sproul’s magazine, and I can think of several things more significant for “preparing” believers than this movie — such as, for instance, Dr. Sproul’s Hybrid Calvinism theory which fantasizes that one is “born again before faith.” Also, the pedobaptist idea that the infants born to pedobaptists are “regenerated” either before, at, or shortly after baptism.

I think those erroneous teachings are much more important to believers than their being “prepared” for the Da Vinci code movie. If believers need that kind of preparation about a fictional tale, it may be a result of their having been told that they were “regenerated” as babies or “before” they believed on Christ for salvation. — Bob L. Ross

I have to assume that his final sentence is really meant to be a lighthearted slap at paedobaptists. Bob somehow wanders from White to Sproul and then to strange beliefs about paedobaptism. I suppose he is Rooney-like in that way. Anyways, Ross’ article got me a little hot under the collar because I happen to believe that Christians ought to be prepared for the Da Vinci Code movie. Here is why:

First, many who attend evangelical churches are woefully poorly taught when it comes to matters dealing with the believer’s confidence in the Scriptures. The Da Vinci Code is a direct, frontal attack on this confidence. While the book will be found in the fiction section of a bookstore, many people are only too willing to believe that it is built around a solid core of truth that calls into question the very fundamentals of the faith. I have met people who believe it all, and unlike Bob, they do not feel that it is a comedy. The author, Dan Brown, has been anything but forthcoming with what he feels is truth and what is merely the product of his imagination. He clearly believes that much of what lies behind the fictional story is true. And so this movie, like the book, will undoubtedly cause a lot of Christians, and a lot of people who consider themselves Christian, to doubt the authenticity of the Scriptural account of Jesus and the intentions of those who worked to define and protect the canon of Scripture.

Second, this film will have a very wide reach. While the book has sold millions of copies, far more people will watch the film than have read the book. Dan Brown’s outright lies will be presented to tens of millions of people in a whole new format. Teenagers who may not have cared to read the book will swarm to the theatres to see what promises to be an exciting, fast-paced movie.

In short, the lies of this film, which are presented as truth to a gullible culture, will spread far and wide.

What does this mean? It means that Christians must be prepared. They must have confidence in their understanding of Scripture so that they are not left grasping and stuttering when challenged by their friends, family members or co-workers who have embraced the lies. They must have confidence in the Bible and confidence in the biblical account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. They must know that there is far more proof for the biblical account of Jesus’ life than for anything Dan Brown has imagined.

Also, Christians should be prepared to challenge their friends with facts and questions. “What do you think is fact and what is fiction?” “Is there any evidence that Jesus was never crucified?” “How do we know that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had an affair?” “Is it true that Jesus’ followers did not understand Him to be God?” Just as when The Passion of the Christ was released, Jesus’ name will be everywhere in conversation and his face will be on the news and in magazines. Christians will have the opportunity to talk about Him and to challenge others with what is true and what is false.

It seems to me, then, that a little bit of preparation would be very helpful as Christians prepare to deal with a film that seeks to undermine our faith.

March 30, 2006

Every March I read Proverbs. I’m not sure how this tradition came about, but I always look forward to it. Over the past few days I have been finishing up the book, reading those meaty chapters near the end. I was struck by the constant, ongoing, application to my own life. I began to think of all the applications I could make towards blogging, both as a person who publishes a blog and as one who reads and participates in other blogs as a commenter. As I sat and pondered these things, I began to feel a since of deja vu, and it didn’t take me too long to realize that I had had these same thoughts last year. And, as I tend to do, I had written down many of them. It turns out that many of the verses I pulled out from this year’s reading were among the verses that had struck me last year. I love it when that happens!

So I am returning to this list of wisdom from Solomon, and adding to it what I have learned this past year. Here is the wisdom of Solomon as it might apply to something as simple as blogging.

Think before posting.

“Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him (29:20).” How many arguments would be avoided and how many relationships saved if people were only a little less hasty with their words? Before posting an article or before replying to one, it is always (always!) a good idea to re-read what you have written and consider if your words accurately express your feelings and if expressing such feelings is necessary and edifying. Remember also that online communication, because it is not face-to-face, and the recipient cannot see facial expression and bodily expression, can often cause confusion. Sarcasm is often lost and adding a little emoticon smiley face does not necessarily mean that a person will understand your intent. And while I’m on the topic, a spell-check doesn’t hurt either.

Avoid the foolish.

“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself (26:4).” There are times when it is best to leave a foolish person to his own devices rather than to try to change him. Sometimes it is best just to leave him alone rather than providing him more ammunition to work with. There are some bloggers and some commenters that are simply not worth responding to. When you tangle with them, you are more likely to fall into foolishness than they are to grow in wisdom.

Help the foolish.

“Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes (26:5).” Here it is - undeniable proof that the Bible contradicts itself! Are we to answer a fool according to his folly or not? Evidently this “contradiction” is deliberate and is in the Bible to show that there is no absolute law in this situation. There are times when folly must be exposed, either if the fool is one you believe is honestly seeking after wisdom, or if his folly will damage others. If a fool is impacting others, drawing them into his foolishness, he must be exposed for the sake of the church’s health. It takes wisdom and discernment (and sometimes outside counsel) to know when a person is one with whom you should communicate or one you should leave to his own devices.

Know when to walk away.

“If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet (29:9).” There are times when you need to walk away instead of carrying on an argument. Foolish people have no real desire to learn or to be wise. Instead, they only seek opportunities to loudly proclaim the folly. Walk away so you can have peace. It is not worth having to deal with a prescription for high blood pressure based on ongoing arguments with a complete fool.

Watch what you read.

“Like one who binds the stone in the sling is one who gives honor to a fool (26:8).” Be careful whose words you read and whose wisdom you trust. Foolish men may seem wise, but they will still lead others astray. If you give honor to a foolish man by reading and heeding his words, you are as foolish as a person who binds his stone in a sling, rendering the sling useless and leaving himself defenseless. If you are uncertain about whether a particular site is worth reading on an ongoing basis, it may be worth seeking the counsel of another Christian or two.

Be humble.

“Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger and not your own lips (27:2).” “One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor (29:23).” Let others praise you. If you never receive praise from anyone, especially from those who are wise, it may be a good time to examine your heart and examine if you are walking in the ways of wisdom. Those who are humble and lowly in spirit will receive honor while the arrogant will be brought low. If you are a blogger, this may mean re-examining the list of endorsements and words of praise you’ve posted on the main page of your site.

Avoid the arrogant.

“Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him (26:12).” Just as we must be humble, we should be careful not to be too close to those who are foolishly arrogant. There is more hope for a fool than a man who is both foolish and arrogant. Seek to learn from people who display a wise and humble heart.

Mind your own business.

“Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears (26:17).” If you have ever grabbed a dog by the ears you know it will inevitably bring trouble. Grabbing a strange dog by the ears will bring even more trouble. Stay out of other people’s fights rather than wading into them as if they are your own. Avoid quarrels that are not your business and will only expose you to trouble and to foolishness. After all, it is the prudent who “sees danger and hides himself, but the simple [who] go on and suffer for it” (27:12).

Don’t be a troublemaker.

“Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling (26:27).” Those who exist only to bring trouble to others will pay a price. And unfortunately, on the Internet there are many of these people. Don’t be one! Seek to edify others and to bring glory to God, whether you publish a blog of your own or whether you prefer to comment on other peoples’ sites.

Examine why you write.

“A continual dripping on a rainy day and a quarrelsome wife are alike (27:14).” The proverb speaks of a quarrelsome wife, but it could as easily apply to anyone. If you are writing merely to be quarrelsome or because you enjoy an argument, perhaps it is best to find something else to do. There is already enough negativity in the world and on the Internet. If you find yourself continually depressed by what you write, it may be best to find a more uplifting hobby. “Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.” Just as bad news can push a person down, so joyful words can uplift.

Be careful what you teach.

“Whoever misleads the upright into an evil way will fall into his own pit, and the blameless will have a godly inheritance (28:10).” Those who choose to teach others accept a grave responsibility, for if they mislead others, they must expect that there will be consequences. So be careful that what you write and what you teach is in accordance with Scripture. Continaully pray for God’s wisdom.

Be a friend.

“Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (27:6). When a person you know and trust expresses something that goes against Scripture, humbly but firmly correct that person. Do so in a spirit of love, peace and patience.

Meditate upon what you write.

“As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man” (27:19). It is a good practice to review what you write on a weekly or monthly basis. What you write is likely an accurate reflection of your heart. If your words are filled with anger and bitterness, the same may be true of your heart. If your words are seasoned, measured and joyful, so is your heart.

Walk with the Lord.

“Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered (28:26).” And here is the key to everything else. Trust in the Lord rather than in yourself. Walk with the Lord and in the ways of wisdom taught in the pages of the Bible. Be a wise man or woman of the Word, rather than a fool who trusts in his own wisdom (or lack thereof).

March 27, 2006

This little devotional, which I wrote partially a couple of years ago and finished this morning, was primarily for my own benefit. It was inspired initially, as I recall, by reading John Piper’s book Desiring God.

I can almost never bring myself to buy greeting cards. When it is Aileen’s birthday, I either tell her how I feel or I buy a blank card and fill it with my own words. For some reason it just seems too fake to give her a card with a little poetic inscription written by someone else - someone who has never met her and knows nothing about her. It seems that a card like that really means nothing to me, and I would rather give her a card that has come from my heart instead of someone else’s. I prefer to invest the time and affection in expressing myself for her benefit.

Have you ever stopped to consider what it must be like to work for Hallmark or another of the companies that create greeting cards? Imagine spending your whole day attempting to come up with wonderful statements of deep feeling – love, remorse, sympathy - yet without feeling any of the emotions. Imagine having to write words that express sympathy, yet not feeling any sympathy yourself. Or imagine having to write words that can express the deep, passionate love a man has for his wife as they celebrate fifty years of marriage, but without having ever experienced that sort of love yourself. It must be unspeakably difficult to spend the whole day writing words of love and passion but then return alone to an empty home and a life lived alone.

I fear that all too often we, as Christians, worship God in just this way. So often we sing songs with the most wonderful lyrics. We sing “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.” But when we sing those words, so often it is as if we are single men writing a greeting card to celebrate a fiftieth anniversary – though the words may sound wonderful, they are devoid of any true meaning to us. When we sing “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me” do we even try to understand just how amazing God’s grace is? Have we experienced that grace and allowed it to transform our lives? Do we know that the very grace we sing about is the only thing keeping us from an eternity of separation from God? Do we feel deep love and affection to the giver of Grace? Or do we merely speak the words?

True worship relies on both feeling and understanding, or as Jesus said, on spirit and truth. Worship that is devoid of feeling and emotion will be dead worship, for the God we serve is worthy of feelings that express His worth. It is the very height of hypocrisy to pay lip-service to God when we do not truly feel affection for Him. At the same time worship needs to be thoughtful. While it engages our feelings it must also engage our minds. Our feelings must have their basis in what we know about God so that the more we know about Him the greater will be our feelings of affection for Him.

Before I married my wife I heard time and again from the wonderful older couples in our church that after forty, fifty or even sixty years of marriage, they continued to love each other more deeply and more intimately. I marveled that this could be true, yet through the first years of my marriage I have already seen that it is not only possible but it is the way God intended marriage to be. I love my wife in a deeper way now than I did the day we exchanged vows. In the ensuing eight years we have faced trials together and have spent countless thousands of hours talking, laughing and crying together. The more I learn about Aileen and the more time I spend with her the greater my feelings of affection for her. To know her is to love her, and to know her more is to love her more.

Great knowledge of God must produce great feelings of affection for Him. These feelings of affection give me the burning desire to worship Him. I long to express my feelings, not as a means to some devious or selfish end, but simply as an expression of the affection I have for Him. As such, worship is not a means to an end, but it is an end in itself.

March 20, 2006

I love, respect and appreciate the ministry of John Piper. I have learned a great deal through his teaching and am convinced that I will continue to do so in the years ahead. Much of what Piper has taught has resounded deeply within my soul and has helped shape and mold my faith. Yet despite all of this, I find his books difficult to read and truthfully, often finding reading them to be something of a chore. I don’t really understand it. Still, because I have always benefitted from reading his books, I do try to read new ones as they are released.

Yesterday, after seeing it on my shelf for the better part of a year (first in pre-release and now in a printed copy), I decided I would read God Is The Gospel (perhaps because we are moving this week and it is one of the few books that has escaped my wife’s attempt to corral and contain my entire library in cardboard boxes). I was only a few pages into the book when I found a passage, a question, that left me nearly undone. Piper is discussing the gospel and the full message it contains. He asks about heaven:

The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever say, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?

That question led me to put down the book and to spend a few moments in self-examination. I had to admit, to my great shame, that there are many times in my life where I feel that I could be perfectly content to consider a Christless heaven—a heaven that did not include the one who purchased my redemption so that I could be there in the first place.

This took me back to the very first page of God Is The Gospel. There Piper, having challenged the reader to understand that “The best and final gift of the gospel is that we gain Christ,” says, “In place of this, we have turned the love of God and the gospel of Christ into a divine endorsement of our delight in many lesser things, especially the delight in our being made much of.” Of all the gifts God offers, I continue to embrace the love of God as the gift of everything but Himself. I have a faulty understanding of what it means to be loved. “Our fatal error is believing that wanting to be happy means wanting to be made much of. It feels so good to be affirmed. But the good feeling is finally rooted in the worth of self, not the worth of God. This path to happiness is an illusion.”

And he is right. And so we return to the question: If I could have a heaven that was built around all I wanted and all I loved and all I desired at my weaker moments, would this satisfy me? I know in my heart of hearts that it would not, for I know that it would not be heaven if Christ were not present. But in my day-to-day life, I know that I often consider heaven as being a place where what is most important to me is what is most important to me here on earth. This would be true, if only Christ were always foremost in my thoughts here and now.

Piper challenges Christian leaders:

Do we preach and teach and lead in such a way that people are prepared to hear that question and answer with a resounding No? How do we understand the gospel and the love of God? Have we shifted with the world from God’s love as the gift of himself to God’s love as the gift of a mirror in which we like what we see? Have we presented the gospel in such a way that the gift of the glory of God in the face of Christ is marginal rather than central and ultimate?

In heaven it will be Christ Himself, not His gifts, that are the supreme pleasure. This makes our culture’s obsession with heaven all the more ridiculous. Surveys of North Americans continue to show that most people want to go to heaven and most feel that they indeed will go to heaven. Yet the vast majority of those surveyed are not Christians. Why would a person want to go to heaven if the ultimate pleasure of heaven is a person they hate or deny? What happiness would be found in such a place? What joys could there be for one who has refused to take joy in Christ while sojourning here on earth? Maybe the most difficult question to face is whether this misunderstanding of heaven is one that exists only outside the church, or whether we, as those who profess Christ, have made heaven out to be a place that exists primarily for our pleasure—a place that substitutes something other than Christ as the great and final gift.

Piper closes this short section with a reflection. “Nothing fits a person to be more useful on earth than to be more ready for heaven. This is true because readiness for heaven means taking pleasure in beholding the Lord Jesus, and beholding the glory of the Lord means being changed into his likeness.”

I wrote this article this morning after spending some quiet time with God. I can’t express the longing that I felt in this time to desire Christ above all else. I can’t describe just how much I wanted to long to be with Christ and to desire Him as the great and final gift of heaven and earth. How I wanted to know Him in that way here and now, and not to have to wait for heaven to delight in the Savior in such a way that He is what I want above all else. Oh, that I would desire Christ above health and friends and food and leisure and beauty and and pleasure and all manner of earthly satisfaction!

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