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April 12, 2007

I had a long and deep sleep last night and then headed to the dining hall for breakfast with a Reformed Virginian and an American Swede. After munching down some crispy bacon (seems to be how they eat it in Mississippi) and french toast, we gathered again for the conference’s final worship service, this one led by Ken Pierce and with Derek Thomas preaching “The Benediction” from 2 Corinthians 13:14.

It was Martin Luther who reintroduced the benediction as a liturgical act of bringing a worship service to a close and since the Reformation this verse (2 Corinthians 13:14) has had pride of place in many services. But we may have lost a sense of the usefulness of a benediction. It is more than just a farewell or a prayer, but is meant to be a blessing (which means you should be looking up, not looking down with your eyes closed). This particular benediction functions covenantally, indicating the twin themes of blessing and cursing, the way of the Lord and the way of the world. At the end of the service it is appropriate to declare to the people which is the way to true joy and happiness. When using this benediction, every service ends with God, His Word and His covenant. It reminds us of the faithfulness, character and immutability of God. It also serves as a prooftext reminding us of the Trinity, of what He is in His being and essence. It is a constant reminder to us of the essential truth of this doctrine and reminds us how important it is that the rest of the service is also trinitarian.

Thomas then expounded on each of the benediction’s three points, the grace of the Lod Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, my notes on this sermon left a little bit to be desired (actually, they left a lot to be desired) so decided it would be best to just leave things like this, as only a brief summary. The sermon was meant to uplift pastors who are so often burdened by their work, and who are tired and sometimes worn out or beaten down. This benediction serves as a reminder to them of these three wonderful principles that should minister to the hearts of those who minister to others.

And this was a recurring theme at this conference, that ministers so often face extraordinary difficulties and that they come under attack from within the church and without as they attempt to bring the Word to God’s people. I could quickly see that this conference, this fellowship, serves as an opportunity for pastors to escape, for just a few days. It is an opportunity for them to hear some teaching and to offer worship to the Lord. But most of all it is an opportunity for them to fellowship with other ministers, to relax and to unwind, whether than involves quiet Bible study under a tree, endlessly casting a line into the lake and hoping that there is a fish in their worth catching, or using a handgun to obliterate the threat posed by marauding haybales conveniently covered in concentric circles.

I’m not really sure how one becomes a member of this fellowship, but I do know that many ministers would benefit from it. The grounds of this conference are unique and uniquely beautiful. It is an amazing place to be and wherever I go I hear people saying how much they love this time and how much they love to meet here with their brothers in the Lord and brothers in the ministry. The flavor is southern and southern Presbyterian in particular. But even as a Canadian and a Baptist I felt welcome and felt at home. It has been a grand week.

April 11, 2007

This afternoon we enjoyed a panel discussion in which Ligon Duncan spoke with several African American pastors. He asked about how they were saved, how they came to embrace the doctrines of grace, and how they feel the church can best address issues of race. He also spoke briefly on the phone with Mark Dever (asking Mark about his upcoming writing projects) and then with D.A. Carson (whom he also asked about his upcoming writing project). In the afternoon we had a few hours of free time which I used to make a long and circuitous tour of this incredible facility. I even found myself at a shooting range with a bunch of pastors blasting away at some targets with at .45 (two to the chest, one to the head seemed to be the order of the day). We walked for at least an hour and still had to stop short of seeing everything.

After dinner we reconvened for another worship service, this one led by Jay Harvey and with a sermon by Thabiti Anyabwile.

Thabiti spoke from Ephesians 2:11-22 on the topic of “The End of Alienation, Hostility, and Homelessness.” He began by discussing how important and confusing this issue is, and how racial identity continues to be a major struggle for individuals and for our culture even in the twenty-first century. Many unbelievers are attempting to sort out the issues, but even the best and brightest minds continually contradict each other. The vision held out to us by God through His apostle in Ephesians 2 is glorious and provides the biblical solutions.

The three problems connected with race and identity that are addressed and answered in this passage are Alienation, Hostility and Homelessness.

The answer to our alienation is nearness to God. Verses one through ten of this chapter see Paul addressing individuals but in verses 11-22 he zooms out and looks at the people of God. He addresses these Gentiles with whom there is sharp ethnic division from the Jews. Because they were not Jewish they had been foreigners to the covenant and were without hope and without God. This is how people show up at our churches, in a desperate, desolate condition. They are estranged from God, from His people and from any kind of hope. Through Christ they are now brought near to Christ and are Christians. They are a new spiritual ethnic group. This changes everything! Alienation ends when we find nearness to God.

The answer to our hostility is reconciliation and peace through Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself is our peace. Peace is a person and He is the only peace available to Jew or Gentile. To achieve this peace, Jesus made groups that were once hostile to be unified, He destroyed the wall or barrier of hostility, He abolished the law and its regulations, and He came and preached this message of peace (which is a way of summarizing His earthly ministry). Jesus’ purpose in creating this peace was to create one new man, a man characterized by reconciliation with God and with fellow Christians. We see the power of what Christ achieves in the cross when He offers Himself in our place. We see the end of alienation and the end of hostility. He does not make it possible or make it available in the future, but something He does and accomplishes. Why stress this? Because in most Christian churches we live beneath our inheritance on this issue. The power for reconciliation is found in the power of the cross. The danger for us is that we can live in a way that we show the world, which is so confused by racial reconciliation, that we haven’t figured it out either. When we do this we lie about Jesus and what He has accomplished for us.

The answer to our homelessness is a new, permanent dwelling with God. Because of our hostility we are a people that are not at home with God or with each other. We are a household built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets and with Jesus as the chief cornerstone. He anchors this building, keeping it level and sturdy. All of history is about God building for Himself a holy temple, a dwelling place. It is a new building made of living stones which each of us is (or, as Thabiti said, “we be that!”). We are the temple, the place where God resides.

God ends the alienation, hostility and homelessness. So what? How does this impact a pastor’s ministry? What difference does a passage like this make in living out our faith? There are several applications:

First, Ephesians 2 lets us know that Christianity is more corporate than we may be accustomed to thinking. It is about more than our personal relationship with God. The doctrine of the church may be a secondary doctrine but it is not a primary reality. We cannot afford to have an anemic understanding of how we cultivate togetherness in the church.

Second, this passage promises greater unity than we may imagine or experience. The cross holds out for us more promise, power and deliverance than we may have ever imagined. We need to preach the cross in such a way that it applies to the way people think about identity.

Third, this passage begs us to be an aggressively inclusive people. Christians, of all people, who have been strangers in this world and who have been alien, are to be the people with the widest arms, the people seeking to embrace the most. This may be in evangelism or in hospitality or in any other way either inside or outside the church. Failure to do so is a failure to rightly grasp the gospel with our own lives.

Fourth, we need a new anthropology, a new understanding of man. We need to speak to the likeness of all people, regardless of race, but we need more. Distinctly Christian anthropology has to go on to talk about our new identity of Christ in dialog with notions of culture. We need a Christological anthropology. It also needs to be ecclesiological as well.

To summarize briefly, through the cross of Christ we can hold out to the world what it looks like to no longer be alienated, hostile or homeless.

Tonight’s winning quote came courtesy of Thabiti: “I’m in Mississippi in front of a largely white audience…in the woods!”

I’ll be back tomorrow with one more update and possibly some reflections. And then I’ll be heading home!

April 11, 2007

The day began with David Robertson speaking to us about Robert Murray McCheyne. Robertson, who currently pastors St. Peter’s Free Church, the very church of McCheyne, wrote a biography (Awakening: The Life & Ministry of Robert Murray McCheyne) of McCheyne in 1994 and shared with us some of the lessons we can learn from the all-too-short life of this great Scottish preacher.

We then turned to the second of this conference’s worship services. After Kevin Smith assisted in reading the Word, praying and leading worship, Brian Habig preached from Genesis 11:1-9.

Depravity is not an abstraction but has particular manifestations.

Why are these people building the tower? - The world’s population is increasing but is not expanding outwards as much as they could or as much as they were commanded to. The earth was still wild and people were staying where it was safe and settled. The people decided to make a name for themselves by making a city and a tower that could sustain them. They were effectively saying, “When someone comes from afar they will see this tower—our tower.” Remember that Moses originally wrote this text for a people who had just been released from Egypt and it would be difficult for them to believe that someone could actually make bricks and create huge buildings on a volunteer basis.

What does God not like it? - He is against this project because something that is natural to Him is that He wants people made in His image to spread out and fill His earth. We speak of the Great Commission but the first commission is to fill and subdue the earth. These people are simply ignoring this and do not want to fill the earth.

What does God do about it? - He does something in the short-run and something in the long-run. In the short-run, He comes down, though we don’t fully know what that means. He Himself goes to Babel and draws this conclusion: if they are already doing this and have one language, there is almost no cap on what they will come up with. So he confuses their language, making it so bewildering and confusing that they cannot finish the project and the city goes unfinished. He scatters them over the face of the earth.

In the long-run He comes as both God and man to earth. He comes as the God-man and does not just appear to walk around, but really lives here and dwells in our midst and He says things like “I have come to seek and to save the lost.” He goes to all kinds of people—the poor, women, the marginalized, etc. And finally, lays down His life for His people and is raised in glory. When He is risen from the dead He gathers his disciples together and, before He ascends, says “you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” At Pentecost you get the reversal of Babel so that all languages declare the only name worth naming. Luke goes out of his way to let us see something—he lets us see how the gospel message began to be taken to the world as the people were scattered through persecution (Acts 8). God Himself scattered them in this way.

Habig then reminded the people here that one of the founding principles of the PCA was an emphasis on the Great Commission and, while this continues to be emphasized, many PCA churches have neglected the mission field in their very backyards. We are to spread out where God has placed us. The question for pastors is this: Is that the fruit of what you’re teaching and preaching? Does your own behavior exemplify this? Do you put yourself in uncomfortable places where you will be able to meet people who need to meet the Savior (much as Jesus placed Himself in a strange place to meet the woman at the well)? The exhortation is this: place yourself unnaturally to reach people where you would not naturally go.

If you are a pastor or an elder, I think this is a message you will want to hear.

April 10, 2007

This afternoon Carl Robbins invited different pastors, church planters and heads of ministries to provide brief updates on what has happened in their ministries over the past year. This was really an amazing time as we were able to see the diversity of Reformed ministries. We heard from missionaries raising support to head to other countries to begin churches or whole denominations. We heard from churches that are helping the recovery efforts in Gulfport, Mississippi, we heard from people who translate good books into Spanish and from people who have begun new churches. This was only the first round of these updates and I look forward to hearing more as this event continues. I really got the feeling as I sat here that the value of this event must grow with each year a person attends. A person who has heard updates and prayer requests year-after-year will be able to immediately recognize the answers to prayer and praise God for them. Most conferences have a clear beginning and end. It seems that this fellowship is merely paused at the end of each year and that each time these men gather they just pick up where they left off the year before.

Tonight we had the first of what will be four worship services during the course of the conference. Each is a full service and allows the ministers in attendance to gather ideas about how others conduct their services. Tonight’s service was led by Harry Reeder and the sermon was preached by Douglas Kelly. He preached from Mark 11:24-26 (and do note that verse 26 does not appear in some translations, the ESV included—Kelly preached from the King James) and dealt with the subject of forgiveness. Satan will not be likely to attack a conservative pastor on issues such as “the enlightenment tells us that miracles can’t happen.” Rather, he seeks to have him believe that prayer goes unanswered and seeks to keep him from having a vibrant, powerful prayer life.

The point of this passage is simple. You have to forgive in order to be powerful in prayer. The bad news is that this is one of the hardest commandments in the Scripture to practice. But it’s not really bad news because we have the Holy Spirit to help and guide us.

The sermon was framed around four matters raised by this matter of forgiveness for personal and ministerial prayers to be answered:

The importance of forgiveness - We know that forgiveness is important because Jesus says in several different places that we are to do it. In this passage he connects our willingness to forgive with the power and effectiveness of our prayers. There are never grounds for a Christian not to forgive since God has forgiven us the infinite debt we owe to Him. There are two major impediments to an effective ministry in the local church, one being lack of perseverance in prayer and the other being a lack of forgiveness. It is difficult to think that heartfelt prayers for other people within the church can be blocked because you have neglected to extend forgiveness to others. Yet this is what this passage preaches.

What forgiveness is not - We do not pay off God to forgive our sins by forgiving others. To accept the Divine forgiveness through Jesus’ blood and resurrection ushers me into God’s holy presence where I experience great changes of heart and mind and attitude. It means that the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in my deepest personality. To refuse to forgive others means you’ve never really understood the gospel in the first place.

How forgiveness works - Forgiveness day-by-day unblocks the barriers to joyful communication. Being a forgiving person unblocks any barrier between my soul and the Lord’s favor. Forgiveness on a human level unblocks the joy of communication with other brothers and sisters in the Lord, allowing happy, ongoing relationships.

Several objections to forgiveness - While we tend to agree that this is biblical, we often raise objections to actually having to do it. This is easy to understand but very hard to practice. Hence a self-protective device so we don’t have to go through the pain of forgiving is to come up with objections to forgiveness. Here are five objections: First, if we forgive someone who hurt us, we will be taken advantage of and they might do it again. The answer to this is, yes they might but Jesus told us to forgive seventy times seven. We do our part and leave what they do with God. Second, to forgive some unworthy person would lower our moral standards. This can’t be right because God the holy and pure forgives sinners without lowering His standards. Third, it is embarrassing to ask for pardon. Many of us feel that if we apologize the other person will know that we were in the wrong. But, of course, they already know that. Fourth, it is hard to forgive but the answer is to understand what it took for Jesus to forgive us. There was nothing easy about it. Fifth, we worry that the other person has not apologized to us. but we are to be like God in taking the initiative to forgive.

We closed with that great Getty/Townend hymn, “The Power of the Cross.”

April 10, 2007

Ligon Duncan kicked things off with an explanation of this fellowship (they do not refer to it as a conference), the reason it exists and what they mean by continually referring to “the ordinary means of grace.” The Twin Lakes Fellowship is a ministerial fraternal committed to connecting gospel ministers and elders with one another. Duncan quoted Jonathan Edwards who said that when God prepares His church for a significant blessing, He brings together a brotherhood of ministers. These people will have differences but believe passionately in the things that bind them. The Fellowship represents a wide variety of Christians spanning Presbyterians, Baptists, Christian Missionary Alliance, etc.

Every minister at some point feels alone and this is too hard a work to feel alone. This fellowship promotes a dissipation of that aloneness and promote this fellowship. They can come together to know that they’re not alone and to find people who are close to them both theologically and geographically. It is not just a ministerial fraternal but one that wants to have a positive effect on church health and growth through the ordinary means of grace. They want to promote church planting and kingdom extension.

This phrase, the ordinary means of grace, required lengthy explanation. The ordinary means of grace are a focus on the Word, prayer and sacraments. These are the ordinances given by God through which congregational life is nurtured. A ministry that focuses on the things God says are critical to the health and growth of His people.

He paused here to reflect on results-based ministry and said we cannot shoot for only short-term results but need to work towards the long-term results. He quoted Jim Boice who said Evangelicals over-estimate what they can accomplish in five years but under-estimate what they can accomplish in twenty. Far too many ministers and ministries focus on the short-term at the expense of real growth and change.

Ministers today are facing challenges from the emerging church, the word faith movement, Purpose Driven and other fad-driven programs. These programs claim that, since everything in the world has changed, we need to change. But the fundamental human problem has not changed and thus neither has the biblical solution or the God-given means. Effective Christian ministry has always been marked by a confidence in God’s Word both in message and method. This doesn’t mean that we don’t think hard about cultural context but we must know what God’s answer is.

There are only three views of gospel ministry:

  • Effective engagement requires us to update the message.
  • Effective ministry requires us to update our methods.
  • Effective ministry begins with a pre-commitment to God’s methods and message as set forth in His Word.

The first approach is that of theological liberalism and says that the gospel won’t work until the message is changed. The second approach is that of modern evangelicalism and especially the seeker-friendly approach, as they say that the gospel won’t work until the method is changed—the message is fine, but the methods need to be tweaked. However, the medium is the message. The method and the message cannot simply be neatly separated. The third approach is that of those who are committed to the ordinary means of grace. Those committed to an approach that believes that the gospel works and that God has given both the message and the method. This is a ministry based on doing the things God says are central to the spiritual health and growth of His people. It is radically committed to a biblical direction of the priorities of ministry. There is a desire among young Reformed evangelicals to see change in the church but “what kind of change?” is the question of the hour. Some people say we need to reject how church and ministry have been done because they don’t work, but they look only to recent church history and blame Protestant confessional theology on the mistakes of the past forty years. This is bad diagnosis and the solutions are worse than the problem. The other direction of change is to go back to the way the Bible says we are to do things. This means challenging some of the sacred cows of church tradition and the culture around us.

However important it is to understand our times and our context (and they are very important!) the ordinary means approach to ministry is first and foremost concerned with biblical fidelity because we believe that faithfulness is relevance. As David Wells says, those whom the world thinks are most irrelevant are in fact those who are most relevant to this world.

People committed to the ordinary means of grace know that God instructs ministers and churches to: Give attention to the public reading of the Word; Preach the Word; Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…; Celebrate the Lord’s Supper; Pray. These are the ways that God’s people grow. These are the tools of God’s grace and nothing else in the church’s program should detract from these means of grace. This means that ministry is not rocket science. Gospel faithfulness does not require a PhD in Sociology. Ministry is determined more by reading the Word of God than by reading culture. The ordinary means of grace minister wants to think hard about culture, but when it comes to determining method and priorities he moves from text to ministry, not from culture to ministry.

Duncan then asked What do we want to see coming out of the Twin Lakes Fellowship? He mentioned briefly that a few days ago he was with John Piper who has told Reformed leaders that they need to take responsibility to shepherd the young Reformed awakening and to give it godly, biblical counsel. Duncan then said that this Fellowship longs to see a renewal of the old evangelical alliances around the gospel and a strong coalition of [And here he began to channel John Piper in a paragraph that would have broken the - key on my keyboard had I been able to keep up with it and transcribe it] pastors working together for the gospel. And these men will shepherd churches banding together for the gospel and holding tightly to biblical theology.

And that is an overview of the Twin Lakes Fellowship. After a brief pause he called Philip Ryken to discuss two projects Ryken is leading, a literary study Bible that will be published by Crossway and the Reformed Expository Commentary series.

April 10, 2007

I’m sitting in a lodge of sorts, way down south in Mississippi. Jackson, Mississippi, to be exact. I shamefully admit that I had to look up both Jackson and Mississippi on a map yesterday before I set out just to figure out where I was going to be spending my week. I am here for the Twin Lakes Conference, a small but impactful conference sponsored primarily by First Presbyterian Church of Jackson (a.k.a. Ligon Duncan’s church). Attendance is expected to be around 250 men, the vast majority of whom seem to be Presbyterian pastors. Rumor has it I am the only Canadian in attendance. Among the speakers will be Ligon Duncan (obviously) and Thabiti Anyabwile.

The conference is held on the grounds of Twin Lakes Camp and Conference Center which is owned and operated by First Presbyterian Church. While I haven’t had time (or daylight) to check it out more thoroughly, it seems to be just an amazing facility and is by far the nicest church camp I’ve seen. Best of all, they have wireless internet here. That’s my kind of camp!

The conference kicks off this afternoon with Ligon Duncan speaking and I’ll be bringing updates as the day goes on. It seems to be a conference that is as much about the fellowship as the teaching, so I anticipate that this conference will be unique when compared to the many others I have visited and still will visit this year. It’s sure to be an interesting one.

March 17, 2007

Sproul began the conference’s final session by describing what may well be the oldest question of theology. It is the one asked by Job: “If a man dies, shall he live again?”

He turned to Emmanuel Kant an explained why he was one of the most important figures of the 18th century. Specifically, he turned to Kant’s critique of the classical arguments for the existence of God in The Critique of Pure Reason. Kant set the bar for centuries to follow for religious agnosticism. As a scientist he argues that we cannot rightly and logically move from the visible to the invisible world, from the physical to the metaphysical, from the phenomenal to the pneumenal world. This critique was a watershed moment in Western history because thereafter was the seemingly unbreachable rift between science and theology. Though Kant is known for ushering God out of the front of the house, he ran around and opened the back door and tried to let God in there. He did this not by metaphysical pursuit but by reason of practical thinking. He was very concerned about morality and ethics. He saw that in the heart of every human being was this sense of duty or “oughtness” for which he is famous as identifying as the categorical imperative. It was his version of the Golden Rule. But then he asked, What would the necessary conditions be to make this sense of oughtness or duty which provokes the pangs of conscience in human beings, what would be necessary for this sense of duty to be meaningful? What would have to be for ethics to be meaningful? He was concerned for the survival of civilization and knew that without some sense of ethics civilization cannot survive for long. As he pondered this, he said the first thing is that there would have to be justice because if there is no justice the person who acts according to this sense of duty would be involved in a fool’s errand. He saw that in the phenomenal world justice does not always prevail. For justice to be true, we must survive the grave and not only that, but there must be something beyond the grave to ensure justice a judge who would mete out and dispense pure justice. What would be the necessary condition for this judge? He would have to be perfectly righteous and above reproach because if the judge on the other side were unjust, we’d have no guarantee of the victory of justice. That judge would also have to be omniscient because for a judge to execute perfect justice he needs to be free from being misinformed. And even then, he would still need to be omnipotent so he could carry out the sentence. And so, on the basis of practical considerations for a meaningful ethic we must assume the existence of God since otherwise life is meaingless. And so we must live as if there were a God. This was the dyke that held back the torrents of skepticism for a few years at the end of the enlightenment. There were cracks in the dyke that soon gave way and a metaphysical and ethical “Katrina” happened.

Sproul then suggested that there is some parallel thinking between Kant and the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:12 and the following verses. What follows Paul’s initial question is a particular form of debate common to ancient philosophers and one that was used regularly by Paul as an apologist. It is called the ad hominem form of argumentation and must not be confused as the ad hominem abusive fallacy. There is another form of ad hominem reasoning that is sound and that has been in use by philosophers since time immemorial. This is simply “arguing from the man” or stepping into the shoes of the opponent. It says “I will grant you your premise but let’s see where this premise goes out of logical necessity. I will take the argument to its logical conclusion showing that his conclusion will be absurd.” This is know as reductio ad absurdum.

And this is exactly what Paul does with these folks in Corinth who are denying the resurrection. They say that it is universally true that there is no resurrection. If this is true, then using the laws of necessary inference they must also conclude that Jesus has not been raised, for if there is a universal negative there cannot be as much as a single positive.

What Paul says is this: If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. You’ve invested your trust and hope and faith in a man whose bones have just been dug up! Not only that, but we are found to be misrepresenting God because we have testified that it is God who has raised Jesus. If the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised and if He has not been raised, your faith is futile. And if this is all true, you are still in your sins. You’re still contained and enmeshed in sin. Our justification does not end with the cross, but rather Jesus was raised for our justification. The resurrection is God’s apologia certifying to the world that He accepted the atonement that Jesus made on the cross.

Sproul paused briefly here to comment on the anger unbelievers feel towards Christians. If you don’t like what Christians preach, do not hate us, but pity us, he said. If we’ve been wrong, we’ve forfeited much of the fun of this world and have done so simply to perish without hope. Without Christ we are without hope.

At this point Paul has drawn for us a ghastly picture of the consequences of no resurrection, no life after death. He is saying that if there is no resurrection then life itself is meaningless. As Kant understood, your ethic or sense of duty is meaningless. Without ethics, society and civilization cannot last and you are doomed to barbarianism (which our nation now is rushing towards with such velocity that we wonder if anything but God’s direct intervention can stop it). As Kant understood, if there is no God, all things are permitted. All that is left are our personal preferences which can only be exercised by power. Might becomes right for there is no other recourse. Kant was saying that since the alternative to life after death would make ethics impossible and since life without ethics is meaningless, we must live as if there is a God. Talk about a justification for using religion as a crutch against facing meaningless!

Paul does not argue for the resurrection on the basis of the hopelessness of life without it. He agrees that without it life is hopeless. But that is not the foundation for his assertion that Christ is risen. He goes on to talk about the analogy that exists in nature with animals and plants and grasses and human beings, that you put a seed in the ground and before the life comes out of the grond there is a sense in which that seed must, at least metaphorically, die. In like manner when our bones go in the ground they await the final metamorphosis when we are raised in incorruption. This closely resembles the argument Plato had used centuries before. Paul does not rest his case on metaphors.

Why does he assert the reality of the resurrection? Early in the chapter he reminds his readers of the gospel. Paul appeals to the Scriptures (for Christ died in accordance with the Scriptures). Paul’s first line of apologetics is an appeal to sacred Scripture. He believes in the resurrection because the Word of God proclaims it. The Apostles declared their empirical experience with Jesus, having actually seen and touched Him after His resurrection. It was not the empty tomb that fueled the faith of the early church but the appearance of Christ. Paul challenged the Corinthian believers to ask people to verify the resurrection by simply asking those who had seen Him.

The reason people today believe the resurrection is a myth is that judging by our 21st century understanding of biology, if there is anything that we know is that when people die they stay dead. It is impossible for the dead to rise. Given this, it is obvious that the New Testament story of Jesus’ resurrection has to be a myth. It could even be an outright lie. But only if it is impossible for the dead to rise. What a different view of reality and life we find in the New Testament where the impossibility according to the New Testament writers was for Him not to rise. The impossibility was death’s ability to hold Him. When people die they stay dead, but there is something more universal and that is that it is sinful people who die and stay dead. What happens to the premise when a person dies who is not sinful? In the Bible, death is inseparably tied to sin. Sinners die. If there was no sin in Christ, we would anyone expect Him to stay dead. What is hard to explain is that He died at all and He could only do this because He took upon Himself humanity and our sin. Apart from this He would never have died. Having paid that price and having finished that work, the Father raised Him for our justification. This was God’s proof of the person of Jesus.

Why is there life at all in this universe when we understand the necessary conditions for life cannot be found in us? You did not create your own life. There was a time when you were not. The only one with the power of life in Himself is the eternal self-existent God who is the author of life and death and who has the keys of life and death in His hand. As the one who created life, He can call life out of death. What is so hard to believe? It is the opposite that is impossible.

As we just learned, people believe the resurrection is a myth and know this because of their understanding of biology. They think those poor people in the first century had no problem with the resurrection because they saw resurrections all the time. The truth is, that this was as foreign to the experience of those people as it is today. This is why Thomas doubted. He and those around him no more expected or accepted the resurrection than we do.

“God commands all people everywhere to repent because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed and of this He has given assurance of all by raising Him from the dead.” No other sign will be given and you need to believe this. God has already set a day to judge the world and He will not wait. He commands (not invites) all men to come to Jesus because He has proven that Jesus is the one through whom He will judge the world. He has proven this by raising Him from the dead. We believe the resurrection because of the biblical testimony of its reality in time and space.

And this was the end of the ‘07 Ligonier Conference. This isn’t quite true. A throng of attendees moved to the front of the room and closed with a great rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” It is such a beautiful piece of music and was a great way to end what was a wonderful, enjoyable conference. I’ve got little doubt that the teaching and fellowship of this conference will be one of this year’s highlights for me and for many others.

March 17, 2007

Seemingly unaware that today is Saturday (and not Friday as he mentioned at the beginning of his address), Dr. Mohler took the pulpit to discuss “The Holy Spirit and Apologetics” and answer the always-difficult question of Why are there some who believe and some who do not? He began and ended with Matthew 13:1-17.

The world thinks we’re nuts for being here this morning. The world has no understanding of why such a crowd would be here on a beautiful day like this, We are, after all, turning to a 2000 year old book, asking questions and searching it for the answers. And on the subject of crowds, all across America are crowds that think they are churches. There is too often no distinction between a crowd and a church. Jesus’ disciples had trouble understanding this as well and wondered why so few turned to their Lord in faith. We encounter this in Matthew 13 where the disciples ask Jesus why He speaks to the crowds in parables. Of course there are questions that are not truly questions. (“Honey, you’re not going out in that tie, are you?” - this is not a question!). This is a question that isn’t actually a question. They don’t understand what Jesus did when He encountered what must have been the largest crowd that had ever followed Him. The disciples are perplexed as to why Jesus would essentially send people away because of this parable. Jesus’ answer is instructive: to the disciples it has been granted to know, but not to many others.

How do we explain why there are some persons who respond to the gospel with a response of faith, who believe and trust and are transformed while others hear it and simply do not believe or understand? Jesus’ says “if you read the prophet Isaiah you would understand this.” If we understand the reality of why some don’t come to Christ we will not be surprised when we see this phenomenon. This is not a new problem but a problem as old as the church. Theologically we explain this with the noetic effects of the Fall—and by this we refer to the effects of the Fall that refer to our ability to know. The effects of the Fall are many and evangelical Christianity often forgets to take these into account. The effects of human sin extend to our ability to know the things of God and this is a key epistemological crisis and one that is deeply spiritual. The first way out is God’s grace demonstrated in Scripture but we still are unsure why so few choose to “put on spectacles” of God’s Word to understand. Why are there those who prefer idols to the one true and living God even when they hear the gospel presented. It is because our epistemological crisis is deeper than we even knew.

Mohler turned to several passages of Scripture to show the Spirit’s role in understanding.

John 14:26 - the Holy Spirit will teach us all things and we are dependent on Him. This is why the Reformers stressed that Word and Spirit are always conjoined. The problem is not with the Word but with the human heart.

John 16:7-14 - the Holy Spirit is referred to hear as “the Helper.” How else do we think conviction of sin, righteousness and judgment will take place? We are dependent upon the Spirit for this. He is referred to as the Spirit of Truth who will guide into truth and will speak of what is to come. We cannot sever the Holy Spirit from Scripture. We are not told that He will speak apart from Scripture. It is interesting that there is relatively little material about the Spirit in the New Testament but this is testimony that He comes to point to Christ who is central to the Bible. For us to believe and receive the Spirit must first do His work.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5 - Paul came declaring the simplicity of the gospel of Jesus Christ and not with words of wisdom (which is to say the world’s wisdom). He came in weakness and in fear and with trembling. See also verse 10-16. This is humbling as it reminds us that the only reason we have seen what others do not see is because of the sovereign grace of God. The Holy Spirit opened our eyes and ears and allowed us to see what is before us.

Mohler offered several important points of clarification: 1) We are speaking here of the internal testimony of the Spirit. This not a form of enthusiasm or God speaking to us apart from Scripture. Rather, He speaks through Scripture to allow us to see what it contains. 2) The issue is a faith that saves (fiducia - trusting belief). The consequences of the Fall do not mean that we can know nothing. There is a lot we can know and in reality the unregenerate human can know many things that are correct and necessary for the Christian faith. There are many unregenerate people who know the facts of Christianity but reject the essence of the gospel. 3) The Holy Spirit does not open our eyes and ears and hearts so we can embrace the irrational. We do not believe against reason or over against the evidence but rather receive and believe the evidence.. He opens our eyes to see what is plainly there and what our will had refused to accept. 4) Why are there so many who know so much and yet so little? To answer this question he pointed to our reliance upon the Holy Spirit in life and apologetics. 5) The Spirit points always to Christ. 6) We cannot believe there is any other way people can come to faith except by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Spirit is more comprehensive than we will ever understand. He does not bring attention to Himself but to the preeminence of Christ. The ministry of the Spirit is to draw us into the Word—to draw us closer to Christ through His Word and not through some other means.

There are several implications when we think of the Spirit’s work in life and apologetics:

1. The reality of an outward and inward calling must be at the forefront of our understanding. There is the outward call of the gospel that goes out when we preach the Word and share the gospel. In that process we extend the outward call because we can reach no further. Our responsibility is to get the Word from our mouths to their ears and trust that only the Spirit can get the Word from the ears to their hearts. Evangelicalism today has no clear concept of the differentiation between the inward and outward call. We need to trust the Spirit to do what we cannot do.

2. We are absolutely dependent upon the Spirit for evangelism and apologetics. As we pray about these vital concerns as we think about the lost,about ministry in postmodern times, We need to remember that we are not left without the one Jesus called the Helper. Jesus said it is better that He go so that the Helper could be sent.

3. We must be clear about the nature of faith that saves. It is faith built upon truth. It is not merely enough to come face to face with these truths and accept them as facts. There must also be faith. Mohler quoted Calvin’s definition of this kind of faith and it went something like this: It is a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts where these truths are confirmed deep within us through the Holy Spirit.

4. Our absolute knowledge of the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners. How is it that we can miss this? How could Jesus’ disciples miss this? How do we explain why some believe and others do not? How do we understand that this is not a mere matter of the human will? We see that it is all of grace and all of the sovereignty of God in salvation. The Word of God is emphatic: “No one” can come to God by himself. No one can come unless it has been granted by the Father. This is a humbling thought when we consider the sheer grace and mercy of the sovereign God who has allowed us to see what we would otherwise reject.

5) The necessity of expository preaching. We must preach the Word for it is through this Word that God convicts of sin and calls people to Christ. Again, we need to get the Word from our mouths to their ears.

Some came to hear Jesus because of superficial interests or simply because there was a crowd. But some came because in their deepest recesses they were seeking a Savior. The disciples of Jesus were not smarter or more spiritually sensitive than the rest. They were not the seekers but the sought. It was by the Spirit that they were drawn to Christ and were able to see and hear what they otherwise would not have.

Why are there some who hear and others who do not hear? It’s an interesting metaphor because people knew nothing about hearing at this point. Today we know the art and science of hearing and know that it is an understandable process and sound is actually a physical force. We can understand everything about the auditory process and know nothing about the gospel because there are people whose ears do not hear a thing who by God’s grace have heard the gospel clearly. There are some who have never seen with their physical eyes who see the gospel clearly. We are all born blind and deaf and only by God’s grace does anyone see, does anyone hear. Praise God that He has chosen to save some by His grace.

I’m sure I have not encapsulated the excellence of this message. This was definitely one of the highlights of the conference for me and this is a message well worth listening to.

March 16, 2007

Sooner or later they had to give Al Mohler an opportunity to take the stage and he did so in the day’s final session. He spoke on “The Authority of Scripture” using 2 Timothy 3:14 and the verses following as his text (though this was certainly not an expository message as much as a lecture).

He began by speaking of epistemology which is the study of how we know anything (and a word that is nearly impossible to type quickly). How can we claim to know anything? Epistemology is the division of philosophy that seeks to explain knowledge. Every day we deal with epistemological problems. We require different levels of proof or attestation for issues we face in life. There are things we can get through in life without ever seeing one (i.e. germs). Even the question of global warming comes down to an epistemological challenge for most of it is based on computer modeling and backwards casting on what they think the weather must have been like. The reality is that the debate has many dimensions but there is no shared consensus about what we know or can know about the question. No wonder we’re confused.

The harder the question the higher the stakes. We receive some information by experience, some by trial and error, some by external authority. But when the questions get to the highest level of importance—the meaning of life, the origin of the universe, the reality of evil—epistemology becomes a genuine intellectual crunch. What form of knowledge or evidence or clarification would be necessary for a person to claim that he knows anything about these questions. Every worldview has to deal with four factors: the question of beginnings, the question of what has gone wrong, the question of whether or not it can be fixed, the question of eschatology or the end. Where will we find answers to these questions? We as Christians are inheritors of a worldview that answers all these questions and more. Christianity recognizes human beings as intelligent creatures with the ability to know and to know God. This capacity that allows us to know God also allows us just to know. This distinguishes us from the animals who are not writing books of philosophy (when you go to the zoo you read a human guide to the animals, not an animal guide to humans). There is within us a hunger for the knowledge of God. Romans 1 makes it clear that this knowledge exists and that creatures have corrupted this knowledge. Within human beings there is a quest for worship and this leads inevitably to idolatry. The lack of knowledge and understanding becomes deadly. The human capacity that cries out that there is a God is filled with idolatry and paganism. This is and always will remain an epistemological issue. This is not a new challenge but it is an urgent matter in our age.

Christianity is founded on the view that God exists and that He makes Himself known. We need to make it clear that this universe is stuck in an epistemological crisis. If we are left in the trap of this crisis, we’ll never really know the truth about God, the meaning of creation, the meaning of life, what’s wrong, whether this can be fixed and where this is all going. Thankfully we are not left in this crisis because God has revealed Himself to us not just in the form of ideas or vague concepts, but in the form of words.

We need to focus on words. Words are incredible things. They bind us; they are symbolic representations and once written are fixed. There are some who believe that the text is a dead thing and that the reader provides the meaning, but no one truly believes this (about a contract, for example). The God of the Bible is a speaking God though He is under no obligation to do so. He has no obligation to resolve this epistemological crisis. In the Bible we encounter the speaking God who has given us the gift of an inscripturated revelation. Our access to God’s ways of speaking (fire, theophanies, visions, etc) are not to be taken back to the actual place of encounter, but through the inscripturated book known as the Bible. What access do we have of God’s revelation of Himself in His Son? Some evangelicals would answer with mysticism. But we know what we know through the Word and only through the Word. Christianity is the only belief system that provides a complete account of revelation—beginning, necessity, authority, reception, effect. The Christian doctrine of Holy Scripture sets it apart from all other religions.

In our age this is considered extremely exclusive. It is considered intolerably objective. It is considered to be essentially arbitrary. This is a claim with evidence and reason. We claim this book and this book alone is the inscripturated Word of God.

Mohler suggested two tests for Scripture: the test of content and the test of miracles.

The entirety of the Koran came through one person who was supposed to be unable to read or write. The Book of Mormon is parallel with the revelation supposedly coming through an angel. Both say all revelation was delivered at one time in one book. In contrast the Bible has 66 books that were written over several centuries and involved multiple authors, multiple contexts and venues of writing, multiple styles and circumstances, and a variety of revelatory forms. We see in the Bible a book that was validated by the experience of many people versus a person who wrote it all himself. The Word of God is validated by the coherence and consistency of the Old Testament. The experiences recorded in the Bible were verified by the people who were there when they happened. The Bible deals with historic claims involving those who were alive when the claims were made.

The more we know of the textual history of the Bible, the more it supports the Bible’s claims of who wrote it and when they wrote it. The more you look at false gospels the more you see the validity of the genuine gospels. The history of the Bible attests to its truthfulness. Similarly, archaeological discoveries continue to attest to events, people and places in the Bible and even its background stories.

When we look at what the Bible says about humanity, we see that Scripture tells us what we would never say about ourselves. Humans would never call themselves sinners! And so the Bible holds up perfectly under the test of content.

And then he turned to the test of miracles and whether the Bible provides information that could only be known by God. Predictive prophecy provides a good example of this. The Bible continually provides prophecies and then fulfillment of its prophecies.

Our confidence in the Bible comes down to this simple formula: when Scripture speaks God speaks. We must acknowledge our dependence on the Bible for true knowledge of God. Human beings could never find their own way to a true knowledge of the true and living God. It’s not that the knowledge isn’t out there but that our minds are so muddled that we need God’s help to see Him.

How do we know the one true God? We know Him through His book. This book is immediately a limiting factor on the way we know and do theology. We are limited to this book and if we do not understand our limitation to this book we will become idolaters. We will invent ever-new forms of paganism. It is the grace of God that He reveals Himself to us in words and that He gives us those words.

Mohler turned to Calvin’s six proofs of Scripture’s authenticity:

Content
Antiquity of the book
Miracles
Fulfilled prophecy
The preservation of this text
 Martyrdom

To this he added several but the one that most resonated with me is the candor of the Bible being a sign of its authenticity. He considered Moses as the hero and anti-hero, Peter, and others. In the Koran or Book of Mormon we do not find the authors speaking badly of themselves and yet in the Bible we do. The candor is unmistakable.

The Bible does not have its position because we have been able to recognize it for what it is, but because God gave us this book. The only rescue from our epistemological hole is a God who can speak and who has spoken through the words of His Word. The Bible is, to borrow a strange but effective phrase, the norm that cannot be normed and norms all other norms.

And now I think my brain is full. Hearing MacArthur, Piper, MacArthur, Zacharias and Mohler is a good day by any measure. But it is also a day that requires some good brainpower. I was grateful to have a reader of my site ask me to go to dinner with him and his family. We went to a seafood place (where I forsook the seafood in favor of a good slice of a cow-based product) and greatly enjoyed a time of fellowship with them. I feel truly blessed.

March 16, 2007

Until today I had never attended a conference featuring Ravi Zacharias. I know a fair bit about the man as his reputation precedes him, but had never sat under his teaching. Now that I’ve done so I can affirm that I have never been and will never be a philosopher. I am a simple guy I guess. While I enjoyed his discussion on the existence of God, a whole lot of it went right over my head. This made it, understandably, I’m sure, quite difficult to encapsulate. Furthermore, he does much of his teaching in the form of stories and anecdotes and it is awfully difficult to quickly and neatly type these up in the heat of battle. So with great shame I admit that I’ve got no liveblog of this session to share with you.

What I do know is that his speech answered three questions: What are the intense philosophical problems arising from denial of God’s existence? How do we demonstrate God’s existence? How is the Christian faith unique in portraying God? To answer the first question he said that a denial of God’s existence presents a problem with defining or arriving at morality, that it removes any way of positing meaning, and that it takes away all hope. To answer the second question he, well, he just made it even more difficult for me. So tell you what. How about you just download the audio when it is available. I’m sure you’ll find it beneficial. And I dare you to try to take good notes while listening the first time! Even if my pride is damaged, I am at least comforted by the fact that he said the session would be very difficult for note-takers…

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