Friday, September 11, 2009

Should Christians "Forgive" Everyone?

I don't frequently just re-post someone else's article, but this one really has me thinking... Are we to "forgive everyone" unconditionally? When wronged, are we merely to "forgive and forget"? Is that the Biblical mandate?

The author makes a convincing argument that we are NOT to do that. In part:
"Christians are not called to automatically forgive every offense. Rather, we should offer forgiveness to all. Said another way, we should maintain an attitude of forgiveness. But biblical forgiveness is more than a feeling. It is something that happens between two parties, and it takes place in the fullest sense only when the offending party repents and the relationship is restored..."
It is, I think, very helpful to adopt a Biblical approach to forgiveness... especially these days.  All too often, breaches happen in relationships - from families to churches - and it is very uncommon to find people willing to do the hard work of actually addressing the breach.  How many marriages, families, friendships or church memberships are shattered - with potentially years of wasted time - because the parties involved don't want to address the problem? 

So here"s my question:  In the case of a relational breach, are we Biblical when we ignore the breach and "let time heal all wounds" or should we offer forgiveness freely, but withhold it's delivery until repentence and restoration is achieved?

If you missed the link above, you can find the entire article at

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Evangelical Confusion: What Is Justification?

Confusing? Sometimes the direction you get just isn't really helpful...

If you're listening, you've noticed that there is a LOT of confusion in the Evangelical church these days… in a LOT of areas. Many - even pastors - seem confused (at best). Certainly, the lack of practical commitment to sound doctrine lends itself to this confusion, and the Evangelical trend towards viewing doctrine as divisive has lead to increasing distain – at both the lay level and even among leadership - for precision and consistency in theology.

American Evangelicalism is increasingly a sub-culture which seems determined to distance itself from its historical roots. The bounds of orthodoxy are being stretched in every direction, churches are setting aside their own historic distinctives, and practical theological training is increasingly ignored or even ridiculed in some Evangelical circles. (I confess to not understanding the reasoning for this; after all, I don’t think any of us want to go to a dentist who didn’t go to dental school! But that’s the subject for another post.)

If what we think about God matters, it’s no wonder there is rampant confusion, even on this fundamental question: What is the Gospel?

How do you answer that question?
I’ve been astonished as I’ve listened to answers from those who claim to represent Jesus. Too often, their response is some variant around the theme of personal transformation – that is, what I have done, am doing now, or what I have experienced. It may sound something like this: “I was [bad/unhappy/unfulfilled/addicted, etc.], but I accepted Jesus and now I’m [getting better, etc.]” Said another way, the answer is “inside” us. It is the Good News about our transformation.*

If anecdotal evidence is at all indicative, the common Evangelical answer is miles away from the way the Bible defines the Gospel… which is the objective declaration of the finished, historical work of Jesus Christ, particularly in His death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). What happens to us (through the work of the Holy Spirit) is the result of the Gospel - not the Gospel itself... and that is an important distinction to remember.

There is a lot of confusion these days in the Evangelical church about this. Even where Biblical doctrine is affirmed in a church's statement of faith, all too often the primary focus of attention in ministry practice is on changing a person's life without addressing what they believe! These churches operate under a false dichotomy (“we’re not interested in doctrine, we’re interested in life” or “we don’t want ‘head-knowledge,’ we want to live the gospel”), as if they had never read Romans 12:1-2! This has lead to a de-emphasis on - and even more importantly, a lack of confidence in, Truth as revealed in Scripture, and an over-emphasis on one's personal experience. This is why sound doctrine is a bad word in many circles, and the focus of ministry is shifting from "mind-renewing" to the pragmatic focus on pietism and personal fulfillment.

Here's my question: Is “the Gospel” at its core the good news about Jesus or good news about us?

I’m not saying, of course, that we are not transformed by the Gospel – we are (2 Corinthians 5:17). But the shift in focus has led to a growing confusion among the rank and file in Evangelicalism between “justification” and “sanctification.”

So, What's the Difference?
The Biblical position is that justification is a legal determination which occurs on the basis of faith the finished work of Jesus Christ alone. In temporal terms it is an event, and distinguished from the process of sanctification. That is what Evangelicals have historically believed as essential.

Other positions deviate from the Biblical view. For example, the Catholic position historically (effectively) has been that “justification” is sanctification. Similarly, while claiming “Evangelical” status, N.T. Wright’s position in his variant of the “New Perspectives on Paul” is essentially the same - that we are justified (finally and definitively) at the end of our life “on the basis of the whole life lived.” Sadly, the view of the average current Evangelical is strikingly similar in practice. Because the Good News we share is about our personal transformation, the primary assurance of our salvation is also our personal transformation. Our assurance is undermined by an honest evaluation of our lives and our own current performance!

No wonder Semi-Palagianism is the default theology of the Evangelical movement** as the common thought seems to be that one can lose the salvation God has given. Some people try to ignore theological labels and, if pressed, seek to draw a distinction between “assurance” and “security” (the former being knowing that you have been converted and the latter that you will persevere). Others seek to try to carve out novel positions, like “God won’t let go of you, but you can somehow 'nullify' God's work on your behalf.” (I'm serious! I've heard both taught... and they are both are just variants of the same old Semi-Palagian thinking).

It is important to be precise in our understanding between our justification and our sanctification because it underscores the source of our confidence. So let’s draw the distinction:

Said simply, the Bible teaches that justification is being legally declared righteous by God. This happens only one time and changes our legal standing before God as a result of faith in the finished work of Jesus on our behalf (Romans 5:17-19). Sanctification is being made experientially righteous by God over time by God. This is a process, continuing through our lives, and it is both the work of God and something we are commanded to pursue (Philippians 2:12-13). They are both part of the Salvation process, but they are different. More precisely:

Justification is the legal determination made by God Himself, which addresses everyone’s “most urgent need” – that is, the need to deal with our condition by birth of being enemies of God and under His Divine wrath. We are born with a sin nature, hostile to – and enemies of - God Himself (Romans 1:18, 3:23, 5:12, etc.). We all stand guilty before Him (Romans 3:23). In other words, we have two distinct, but related problems: First, we are sinners (that is, NOT righteous), and second, we have sinned – that is, we deserve God’s wrath. The first separates us from God and the second demands punishment. And the good news is that God has dealt with this Himself on behalf of those whom He has chosen (Romans 8:29-30) in two very important ways:

First, God addressed our need for punishment by making Jesus to be a propitiation by his blood on our behalf (Romans 3:25). This means that Jesus’ death paid the penalty due to us by God’s righteous wrath for our sin. He paid our price for us and, as a result, we are forgiven… “just as if” we had never sinned. This is why the Biblical view of the work of Jesus on the cross is described as a substitionary atonement. But that by itself does not address the whole problem, because if that were it, we still would be separated from God because of our unrighteous nature and our failure to be perfect in His sight. So...

Second, to address our unrighteousness and imperfection, God imputed Jesus’ perfect righteousness to us (Romans 4). In other words, God credits the righteousness of Jesus to those of us who believe. This faith itself is, of course, itself a gift from God – not of works (Romans 4, Ephesians 2, etc.) This second point is increasingly lost in Evangelical discussion, but it is critical to understand. Wayne Grudem, in his systematic theology, says this:

"It is essential to the heart of the gospel to insist that God declares us to be just or righteous not on the basis of our actual condition of righteousness or holiness, but rather on the basis of Christ's perfect righteousness, which he thinks of as belonging to us. This was the heart of the difference between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism at the Reformation. Protestantism since the time of Martin Luther has insisted that justification does not change us internally and it is not a declaration based in any way on any goodness that we have in ourselves." (Grudem, Systematic Theology 1994, p. 727)
Grudem rightly contrasts this with the Roman Catholic view, which mixes justification with sanctification, defining it (for example, from the Council of Trent) as as "the sanctifying and renewing of the inner man" (Grudem, p. 727, quoting Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p.257).

So, Why Does It Matter?
The difference - and the implications - between the Protestant and Catholic view are massive. It is critically important because a misunderstanding between these two parts of salvation leads to all sorts of confusion around whether or not we can have assurance of our salvation... and what that assurance (if any) really looks like. If you believe that your assurance depends on your personal transformation – as many seem to these days, you will have a very difficult time accepting the Biblical teaching on assurance. On the other hand, if your confidence rests on what Jesus has done, you will find the comfort and encouragement that God has intended for His children (1 John 5:13).

If one sees their personal progress in holiness (that is, their sanctification) as an evidence of their legal standing before God (that is, their justification), any sin at all calls their status before God into question. But the Good News is that God has – in the past – historically and finally – justified us. Made us right with Himself… forgiven us and credited us with the righteousness of Jesus Christ himself. And here is my point: The reason that we can have confidence before God is all based on the finished work of Jesus Christ – not on our personal transformation or other "inner"experience. The Good News is an external, objective reality… not an internal, subjective experience.

Of course we are being transformed (or sanctified)… and the God will complete the work He has begun in us (Philippians 1:6). All who have been justified are being sanctified. But the two must not be confused, because all Christians continue to wrestle with sin… it is our experience in this life (Romans 7). We cry out with Paul in the struggle between who we are currently and eschatologically (Romans 7:15-25). As we grow in knowing God and understanding His character and requirements, we see ourselves falling farther and farther short and who we are to be.

The problem, of course, is that Evangelical teaching is all too frequently indistinguishable from Catholic doctrine on this point. Mike Horton touched on the growing confusion about this in the Evangelical movement - and its implications - in the October 21, 2007 edition of the White Horse Inn (“Faith and Assurance”). He said this:
"In his book Revisioning Evangelical Theology, Stanley Grenz argued that Evangelicalism is more a spirituality than a theology, more interested in individual piety than in creeds, confessions, doctrines and liturgies. Experience gives rise to, in fact determines doctrine - rather than the other way around. The main point of the Bible, he says, is how the stories can be used in daily living. He goes on to write this:
“Although some Evangelicals belong to ecclesiological traditions that understand the Church as in some ways a dispenser of grace, generally we see our congregations foremost as a fellowship of believers. We share our journeys, our testimony, of personal transformation. Thus, a fundamental shift in self-consciousness may be underway… a move from a creed-based to a spirituality-based identity that is more like medieval mysticism than protestant orthodoxy.
Consequently, spirituality is inward and ‘quietistic,’ concerned with combating the lower nature and the world in a personal commitment that becomes the ultimate focus of the believer’s affections. Therefore, the origin of faith is not to be attributed to an external gospel but arises from inner experience, because ‘spirituality is generated from within the individual, inner motivation is crucial… more important than ‘grand theological statements.’
The spiritual life is above all the imitation of Christ. In general, we eschew religious ritual, not slavish adherence to rights, but doing what Jesus would do is our concept of true discipleship. Consequently, most Evangelicals neither accept the sacramentalism of many main line churches, nor join the Quakers in completely eliminating the sacraments. We practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but understand the significance of these rights in a guarded manner. In any case, these rights are practiced as goads to personal experience, and out of obedience to the Divine command.
So, get on with the task! Get your life in order by practicing the ‘aids to growth’ and see if you don’t mature spiritually. In fact if a believer comes to the point where he or she senses that stagnation has set in, our counsel is to re-double one’s efforts in the task of exercising the disciplines.”
Check up on yourself, the Evangelical counselor admonishes. We go as Evangelicals to the Church, he says, but not in order to receive means of grace, but for fellowship, instruction and encouragement.
All of this emphasis, as you can see, is on what happens inside of us, what we can do by ourselves alone, and what we do – not on what God does for us and gives to us when we assemble as His people.

This is a very different kind of view than you have with the spirituality generated by the doctrine of Justification. Here there is real assurance, genuine assurance. Luther says because you believe in me, God says, and your faith takes hold of Christ whom I have freely given to you as your justifier and Savior, therefore be righteous. Thus, God accepts you or counts you righteous only on account of Christ in whom you believe. Whatever other piece of good news concerning New Birth, Christ’s conquest of sin’s tyranny, the gift of the Spirit, His promise to renew us throughout our life, the resurrection of our body and the freedom from the presence of sin, much less the useful exhortations we may offer ourselves. The announcement that Luther here summarizes is the only thing that can create and sustain the faith that not only justifies but assures and sanctifies as well.

The External Gospel creates assurance. We don’t focus on something inward to create something inward… its something outward that creates inward assurance that we belong to Christ… Christians are the people who make it to the finish line; those who persevere to the end will be saved. We’re not justified by the level of our faith, by the degree of our faith, or by how strong our hold is on Christ, but by how strong his hold is on us. We will endure to the end, because he has saved us. Having been justified, we have peace with God.”” (White Horse Inn Broadcast, October 21, 2007, my emphasis added.)
So what is the Gospel? What is the Good News God has for us? It is an announcement of the finished work of Jesus Christ. It is external to us… because of Jesus’ perfect life, God has declared us righteous. Because of Jesus’ propitiating death, God’s justice is displayed and satisfied, and through His resurrection, we are justified (Romans 4:25).

The Gospel is Good News because it is OUTSIDE of us! So don’t be confused: Your confidence should rest on what has already happened (your justification), not your current status in personal transformation (your sanctification). And that confidence leads us to be encouraged in the process of our ongoing sanctification. After all, this is what John meant when he said Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as He is pure." (I John 3:2-3).

Think about it this way: The question for our lives is NOT primarily “What Would Jesus Do?” That is consistent with our tendency to put our confidence in ourselves… if we could obey perfectly, we'd be fine - but since we don't, we would always be in trouble. The Good News is the answer to the question “What Has Jesus Done?” Our confidence is not in ourselves and our performance, but in Jesus who said:
“…I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:38-39)
And that, my friend, is good news!


* By the way, the “testimony” is typically moralistic (Jesus is making me a better person), therapeutic (God is helping me become happier, a better husband, beating my addiction, etc.) and deistic (as a practical matter, God requires very little of me… He’s not that involved, but He’s there when I need Him) – Mike Horton describes that so much better than me in his book Christless Christianity... give it a read!

**We’re always thankful for thoughtful exceptions. Please consider – and give a listen – to the ministries of solid teachers like John Piper, John MacArthur, Alistair Begg, James MacDonald – and some locals including Josh Moody, Craig Troxel, David Helm, and (thankfully) others. But be "Berean" in your hearing... (Acts 17:11).

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Evangelical Confusion: What Is the Gospel?

I've been thinking about confusion in Evangelical thinking lately, particularly around the core message of the Gospel.  This thought from David Wells seems to capture both the problem with the movement's underlying philosophy - and the results succinctly... It's a sad commentary, and I think his choice of descriptives is both helpful and Biblical.  But what do you think?

If we mute the biblical gospel by our misunderstanding, or by our practice in the church, we destroy the possibility of spiritual authenticity in the church. In theory, most evangelicals assent to all of this. In practice, many evangelicals – especially those of a marketing and emergent kind – are walking away from the hard edges of these truths in an effort to make the gospel easy to swallow, quick to sell, and generationally appealing. They are very well aware of a deep cultural hunger for spirituality in the West, and they are trolling in these waters. The problem, however, is that this spirituality is highly privatized, highly individualistic, self-centered, and hostile to doctrine because it is always hostile to Christian truth. Evangelicals gain nothing by merely attracting to their churches postmoderns who are yearning for what is spiritual if, in catering to this, the gospel is diluted, made easy, and the edges get rounded off. The degree to which evangelicals are doing this is the degree to which they are invalidating themselves and prostituting the church.” (The Courage To Be Protestant, page 372, emphasis added.)
Ouch.  I see too often churches who "mute the Biblical Gospel by ... misunderstanding" and even open hostility to doctrine.  Have you seen this in your experience?  Is Wells right or wrong in his assessment?  Comments are open!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Genesis Confusion - What Can We Really Know?

Christianity Today published an interview last week with Francis Collins, the former director of the Human Genome Project, who also recently launched the BioLogos Foundation, which "promotes the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms seeking harmony between these different perspectives."  Collins gave a personal account of his attempt to harmonize faith and science in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, published in 2006.  Karl Giberson (who became Executive Vice President at the request of Collins  in 2008) conducted the interview. There's certainly a lot one can say regarding this article.  (By the way, if you are interested in a solid, Biblical response to the theory of evolution, I'd highly recommend listening to John MacArthur's talk on Creation, Theology and the End of the Universe from the opening of the 2009 Shepherd's Conference.)  But what stunned me in the interview was the pejorative tone used by Mr. Gilberson - sanctioned apparently by the editors over at CT.   For example, what is one to think of the introduction to this question posed by Mr. Gilberson (on page 4 of the website)?

"One of my theologian friends once said, in great frustration over this issue, "I wish they had never put the Bible in the hands of ordinary people." It seems to me that we need to take more seriously the teaching ministry of the church. We encourage people to read the Bible on their own, but certain misunderstandings are bound to emerge with that approach. Young people are going to read Genesis and think of Adam and Eve as real biological parents of the human race..."
What a shocker, Karl.  Imagine that people might read the Bible and actually believe what it says.  What has happened to CT - and the Evangelical movement that it seems to represent?  Has the idea of creationism really become that unpalatable?  Not surprisingly, Collins reviews favorably Dr. John Walton's The Lost World of Genesis One:  Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, in which Walton advances his theory that Genesis 1 isn't about creation at all (not withstanding Genesis 1:1), but rather a description of the functional ordering (as opposed to material creation) of the Earth, in a pattern recognizable to the ancient middle-eastern culture. 

I guess I'm just too simple minded.  The point of much of this seems to be to make the Bible obscure... why anyone is seeking to apply scientific law to a miraculous event seems to be a category error to my limited way of thinking.  I remember sitting in a class listening this theory once, and hearing from a good friend and younger Christian afterwards who said this:  "Wow!  He's smart.  I'll never understand the Bible!"

Maybe that's what some are aiming at these days - and one wonders what the Reformers would have thought of the re-institution of the Magisterium... and counter to the Reformation principles we're remembering following a half-millennium since Calvin's birth.  There was a time when we recognized the supremacy of theology over the other sciences; now, folks like Collins seem to assume it's subordination to science!

For those of you who don't accept the historicity of Genesis 1 and 2, here's a question:  Why not?  Have you considered the following?

  • If you believe in evolution as the origin of humanity, when did "the fall" happen?  
  • Evolution, by the way, requires death - in the process of natural selection.  Where did "death" come from prior to the fall of man (who, under the theory, is the product of evolution)?
  • Is it not possible for God to have operated outside of the laws of science in creation - and why do you insist on judging the account of creation by something that may not even be applicable?'
  • If you don't believe Genesis 1 and 2, just when do you start believing the text?  What other chapters would you have us not believe?
Perhaps most importantly, for people who don't believe in God's miraculous intervention in creation (and, as a result, don't accept Adam's headship and representative status for the human race), how do you explain man's sinful condition? 

So many questions... and here's mine:  Why not just take God at his word, and believe Him?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why This Blog??

I’ve been asked on some occasions why this blog exists. I assume that the question isn’t referring to a philosophical question (“Cogito Ergo Blog” or “I Think, Therefore I Spam”), but rather what my point is in the eclectic series of periodic posts published here.

I think that’s a fair question… one that I’ve been thinking about for some time.  So, I thought I’d “re-boot” the blog with a modest attempt at articulating an answer.

I am a student of history. Or at least a product of the History Department of a Christian liberal arts college, a frequent reader of history and a person with a life-long interest in the ebb and flow of “what-has-gone-before” us. In addition to history generally, I have grown up with a love of the history of the Church. I love this not merely culturally, but because it is the Bride of Christ – He laid down His life for it, He loves it, He will glorify those in it. I think that anyone who gives up on the Church really misses the heart of our Lord.

But things aren’t going so well for the church in America these days – and especially for the Evangelical church. Watching it, participating in it, praying for it, grieving for it… You’ll note that I focus on this frequently, and this is the heart of the question I’ve gotten: Why focus on what’s wrong – why not just talk about what is right? Why be “negative” anyway?

J. Greshem Mechan was faced with this same question early last century. If you don’t know him, you should… at least read his book Christianity and Liberalism. Here’s his take on the question:
“ tell us that our preaching should be positive and not negative, that we can preach the truth without attacking error. But if we follow that advice we shall have to close our Bible and desert its teachings. The New Testament is a polemic book almost from beginning to end.  Some years ago I was in a company of teachers of the Bible in the colleges and other educational institutions of America. One of the most eminent theological professors in the country made an address.  In it he admitted that there are unfortunate controversies about doctrine in the Epistles of Paul; but, said he in effect, the real essence of Paul’s teaching is found in the hymn to Christian love in the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians; and we can avoid controversy today, if we will only devote the chief attention to that inspiring hymn.  In reply, I am bound to say that the example was singularly ill-chosen. That hymn to Christian love is in the midst of a great polemic passage; it would never have been written if Paul had been opposed to controversy with error in the Church. It was because his soul was stirred within him by a wrong use of the spiritual gifts that he was able to write that glorious hymn. So it is always in the Church. Every really great Christian utterance, it may almost be said, is born in controversy. It is when men have felt compelled to take a stand against error that they have risen to the really great heights in the celebration of truth.” [“Christian Scholarship and the Defense of the Faith," in J. Greshem Machen: Selected Shorter Writings (Pages 148-149, emphasis added).
I’m not comparing myself to Machen, mind you. But I share his understanding of the authority of the Bible, and the clarity of its message.  But is it possible today:
  • Even with all of the talk about “humility” in our theology, that there is much that God has revealed clearly - and that the Evangelical church obscures it by alternative views on every possible theological issue? 
  • That the Bible really is God’s word to us and that He intends for us to know it - and that the Evangelical church dilutes it through a variety of means (from Archeology to bad hermeneutics) which undermine the practical authority of Scripture? 
  • That somewhere, deep in our sinful hearts, we rejoice in the confusion some find in Scripture because it gives us an excuse to “wriggle off of the hook” of the conviction we’d experience from a clear presentation of Scripture?
The sad fact is that when reading the Bible, you are repeatedly confronted with the disparity between what we are supposed to experience in a corporate body and actual experience.   You'll also see our clear responsibility to stand up against the doctrinal error constantly confronting us from all sides within the Church.  But to recognize the disparity and stand against error is a sure-fire way to be vilified and marginalized in the average Evangelical congregation.

I'm no longer surprised by teaching which seems to “darken counsel by words without knowledge” (Job 38:2), which is so prominent in pulpits and Sunday School classrooms (that's in the rare cases where adult Christian education even exists anymore).  I am surprised though that so few Christians seem to want to stand against it!

Loving Truth requires me - no, all of us - to recognize that it is wrong to obscure the truth of God's Word by make disputable that which God makes clear in the Bible.   The results can be seen in tolerating broken relationships, abusive and disfunctional authority structures – and most clearly in lack of sound, Biblical doctrine taught. 

To acknowledge the existence of this type of error in many Evangelical churches is one thing - which seems undisputable to me.  It is heart-breaking when you see it in your own community of faith.  It cries out for someone to stand up and point it out.

It's interesting to me that I usually don’t get much push-back on the existence of the problem…  In fact, the people I’ve found myself in debate with seem comfortable to agree that things aren't what they should be, but they assume that things always have been this way, and that they will always continue.  The argument I most usually get is that even though these problems exist, we shouldn’t focus on them because to do so is "negative."

So what does the Bible intend for us to do with calls to “contend for the faith once for all delivered” (Jude 3)?    How ought we rightly emulate the Berean attitude towards teaching (Acts 17:11)?  The answers - however uncomfortable - seems clear to me.  

Those are the question I’m wrestling with in this blog… and the reason I write.  And in light of the usual reaction received, I've been slower to post lately as I have been asking this:  When "contending for the Truth," what should our heart attitude be? I love John Piper’s words in this regard, in setting the stage for the great battles for truth in the lives of Athanasius, John Owen and - coincidentally - J. Gresham Machen:
Some controversy is crucial for the sake of life-giving truth. Running from it is a sign of cowardice. But enjoying it is usually a sign of pride. Some necessary tasks are sad, and even victory is not without tears—unless there is pride. The reason enjoying controversy is a sign of pride is that humility loves truth-based unity more than truth-based victory. Humility loves Christ-exalting exultation more than Christ-defending confrontation—even more than Christ-defending vindication. Humility delights to worship Christ in spirit and truth. If it must fight for worship-sustaining truth, it will, but that is not because the fight is pleasant. It’s not even because victory is pleasant. It’s because knowing and loving and proclaiming Christ for who he really is and what he really did is pleasant.(John Piper, Introduction in Contending for Our All, page 17.)
So why do I blog? Because the Truth of Jesus is far better, far more desirable, far more profitable than the error… even today.  I long to see the day – even in my lifetime – when the error is confronted appropriately and dismissed, Christian unity is based on a common Truth rather than merely a shared program and where real love is embraced and displayed – even (or maybe especially) in how we pursue the Truth.

I may fail in the process of contending well, but I'll go with A. W. Tozer when he says that "what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us."  A.W. Tozer, Chapter 1 of Knowledge of the Holy, page 9.)   And that's my heart behind these musings.  Perhaps you'll help in dialogue, leading to a more Biblical understanding of God and His Truth.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Why I Don't "Tweet"

Ok, I must be getting old. I love technology - I am usually the first to buy it, try it or at least read about it.

But not this. I think it's evil... no matter what the kids say about it.

It's twitter. And here are my top 10 reasons why I think it may foreshadow the end of modern civilization - even though I may try it out!

Top 10 Reasons I Don't Twitter

10. The people who need to know "what I am doing" already know

9. I have never seen a "tweet" that was important enough to merit the time I spent reading it... do I need to know what you had for lunch, your workout schedule, your random thoughts while watching "24" or your semi-profound insights?

8. People's tweets aren't as interesting, funny and/or profound as they imagine

7. Unlike blogs - which can admittedly be trivial - Twitter's character limit guarantees triviality. Besides, you can blog about ideas, present argument and reason, etc. In tweets, you are limited to mere information or assertion

6. As "a way to stay in touch with family and friends," its a lame substitute for a phone call or (gasp) a conversation

5. Particularly pathetic is the false sense of community - and even intimacy - perpetuated... (should I be getting regular messages from Oprah?)

4. Tweets are forever. No edits. No erasing.

3. What people tweet generally tells more about them than they think.

2. Twitter is a stalker's dream... accessible to anyone who can google your name and the word "twitter"

and the main point...

1. Narcissism is spelled "T-W-I-T-T-E-R"


Monday, June 15, 2009

What is Happening to the Pulpit?

I found this article - about the loss of the pulpit in church - very interesting. Although the "worship wars" seemed to have ended in Evangelical-dom (with the methodology and ministry philosophy of the Marketers having clearly won the hearts and minds of most non-denominational evangelical churches)... I think it’s especially important to note the symbolism of the pulpit – even for those who’s preaching is biblical, we risk undermining our message (or at least confusing it) by how – as well as what – we do.
What do you think?

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Very rarely would I post something this personal, but...

My older sister has suffered for years from a condition called dystonia. I love her very much - and I've been troubled for literally my entire life at the lack of information and, more importantly, attention and understanding about this disease.

I saw this story today on CNN, and my heart aches for the Staab family - and for my own, too. I'm grateful for the attention they are willing to bring to this... and I'd ask for you to consider helping them - and to pray with me that God might provide direction to the doctors and healing to people with this condition - the Staab children, and my sister too.

For more information about the Staabs and their efforts, please visit their foundation website, Tyler's Hope.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A View of America From Russia...

I never thought I'd link to an article on Pravda, but this article from Russia is - I'm afraid - more true than not. Especially where highlighted (my emphasis). But you decide... discussion, anyone?

American capitalism gone with a whimper

It must be said, that like the breaking of a great dam, the American decent into Marxism is happening with breath taking speed, against the back drop of a passive, hapless sheeple, excuse me dear reader, I meant people.

True, the situation has been well prepared on and off for the past century, especially the past twenty years. The initial testing grounds was conducted upon our Holy Russia and a bloody test it was. But we Russians would not just roll over and give up our freedoms and our souls, no matter how much money Wall Street poured into the fists of the Marxists.

Those lessons were taken and used to properly prepare the American populace for the surrender of their freedoms and souls, to the whims of their elites and betters.

First, the population was dumbed down through a politicized and substandard education system based on pop culture, rather then the classics. Americans know more about their favorite TV dramas then the drama in DC that directly affects their lives. They care more for their "right" to choke down a McDonalds burger or a BurgerKing burger than for their constitutional rights. Then they turn around and lecture us about our rights and about our "democracy". Pride blind the foolish.

Then their faith in God was destroyed, until their churches, all tens of thousands of different "branches and denominations" were for the most part little more then Sunday circuses and their televangelists and top protestant mega preachers were more then happy to sell out their souls and flocks to be on the "winning" side of one pseudo Marxist politician or another. Their flocks may complain, but when explained that they would be on the "winning" side, their flocks were ever so quick to reject Christ in hopes for earthly power. Even our Holy Orthodox churches are scandalously liberalized in America.

The final collapse has come with the election of Barack Obama. His speed in the past three months has been truly impressive. His spending and money printing has been a record setting, not just in America's short history but in the world. If this keeps up for more then another year, and there is no sign that it will not, America at best will resemble the Wiemar Republic and at worst Zimbabwe.

These past two weeks have been the most breath taking of all. First came the announcement of a planned redesign of the American Byzantine tax system, by the very thieves who used it to bankroll their thefts, loses and swindles of hundreds of billions of dollars. These make our Russian oligarchs look little more then ordinary street thugs, in comparison. Yes, the Americans have beat our own thieves in the shear volumes. Should we congratulate them?

These men, of course, are not an elected panel but made up of appointees picked from the very financial oligarchs and their henchmen who are now gorging themselves on trillions of American dollars, in one bailout after another. They are also usurping the rights, duties and powers of the American congress (parliament). Again, congress has put up little more then a whimper to their masters.

Then came Barack Obama's command that GM's (General Motor) president step down from leadership of his company. That is correct, dear reader, in the land of "pure" free markets, the American president now has the power, the self given power, to fire CEOs and we can assume other employees of private companies, at will. Come hither, go dither, the centurion commands his minions.

So it should be no surprise, that the American president has followed this up with a "bold" move of declaring that he and another group of unelected, chosen stooges will now redesign the entire automotive industry and will even be the guarantee of automobile policies. I am sure that if given the chance, they would happily try and redesign it for the whole of the world, too. Prime Minister Putin, less then two months ago, warned Obama and UK's Blair, not to follow the path to Marxism, it only leads to disaster. Apparently, even though we suffered 70 years of this Western sponsored horror show, we know nothing, as foolish, drunken Russians, so let our "wise" Anglo-Saxon fools find out the folly of their own pride.

Again, the American public has taken this with barely a whimper...but a "freeman" whimper.

So, should it be any surprise to discover that the Democratically controlled Congress of America is working on passing a new regulation that would give the American Treasury department the power to set "fair" maximum salaries, evaluate performance and control how private companies give out pay raises and bonuses? Senator Barney Franks, a social pervert basking in his homosexuality (of course, amongst the modern, enlightened American societal norm, as well as that of the general West, homosexuality is not only not a looked down upon life choice, but is often praised as a virtue) and his Marxist enlightenment, has led this effort. He stresses that this only affects companies that receive government monies, but it is retroactive and taken to a logical extreme, this would include any company or industry that has ever received a tax break or incentive.

The Russian owners of American companies and industries should look thoughtfully at this and the option of closing their facilities down and fleeing the land of the Red as fast as possible. In other words, divest while there is still value left.

The proud American will go down into his slavery with out a fight, beating his chest and proclaiming to the world, how free he really is. The world will only snicker.

Stanislav Mishin

Monday, May 18, 2009

CBS News on "Safe Families"

Here's a brief look at an organization we value a lot called "Safe Families" - a practical way to show Christ's love in a world full of real need. Malik (one of the boys featured in this story) has been a joy in our home and we've had the privilege of being able to participate with his family - and to share the Gospel with him.

Watch CBS Videos Online

By the way, they can always use another loving home... if you're interested, check out the link above or drop a note to us here at the blog.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Another "Trouble Maker"...

Here's a great thought from Eric Ludy, author of The Bravehearted Gospel: The Truth Is Worth Fighting For, from his podcast for today (broadcast on Moody Radio):

Sadly, I think he's right on target. Nothing seems to rile an evangelical more these days than questioning whether what they are doing is Biblical. But questioning whether something is consistent with God's revealed will is something all true Christians are required to do... first in their own lives, and then also in their experience - especially in their local church.

Just a few things worth repeating from his post:

"There are a few things that are classified as out of bounds these days in modern Christianity and 'pulling an Elijah' is one of them.

It’s obvious that the Church is in the midst of a drought just like back in the days of 1 Kings chapter 18. But we don’t want to hear anything about our version of Christianity being the reason for this drought. We’ve been eating slim spiritual pickins for years in the church. The grand and epic Gospel has been trimmed down to a mere stump of Truth. We’ve treated sin as if it is simply a necessary bedfellow and haven’t allowed our Savior to actually rescue us from all that is destroying our souls."

It is no surprise that I don't like a lot of what I'm seeing these days in my limited sampling of Evangelicalism - and I'm certainly not Elijah. But the truth is, it doesn't seem to matter whether you are correct or incorrect in your assessment when you question these days because you'll be vilified for the act of questioning. Oh, and you certainly won't get a reasoned, Biblical response, because the Evangelical response never seems to move beyond the messenger to the message itself.

I'd like to hear the Evangelical response to Elijah, which would likely sound like these typical thoughts: "It's not his message I object to, it's his tone." "He doesn't sound very humble about his views." "Who is he to say, anyway?" "Why does he focus on such petty issues - they don't really matter because nobody agrees about that doctrine stuff anyway." "Don't respond to him, nothing will be good enough for him anyway."

If someone insults or misrepresents the character of your spouse or parent, you're likely to get angry about that. You might even use a "harsh tone" in response. Why? Because it is an appropriate response. So here's my question: Where is the "appropriate response" to the widely documented, growing Evangelical apostacy these days? All too often, the decline is met with silence. And like the spouse or child who doesn't rise to defend their insulted relative, the observer is left to question the love within the relationship.

Eric concludes by saying this:

"So if a modern day Elijah raises his voice to speak, the Church at large is hotwired to shake their heads and moan under their breath, 'not another one of these trouble-makers.' But, let’s get something straight: The man with the message of 'repent' is not the problem! The weeping prophet that says with a tear-choked voice, 'wake up Church' is not the one creating the trouble! America, can we admit that we’ve grown fat and sloppy spiritually? We are not a finally chiseled athlete ready to fight for Truth, stand for the Gospel, and defend the Sacred Text of Scripture. "

I do think that "we all need a little kick in the rear end from the Old Prophet Elijah. We need to hear a firmer message, a message with guts, a message with the ring of uncomfortable truth once again... so instead of furrowing your brow and muttering, 'trouble-maker!' Say, 'Thank you God that you still care enough about me to speak above the din of modern American Culture.'"

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Great God Entertainment

Here's a timely message from A.W. Tozer* from way back in 1955 - imagine what he'd say today...

"A German philosopher many years ago said something to the effect that the more a man has in his own heart, the less he will require from the outside; excessive need for support from without is proof of the bankruptcy of the inner man.

If this is true (and I believe it is) then the present inordinate attachment to every form of entertainment is evidence that the inner life of modern man is in serious decline. The average man has no central core of moral assurance, no spring within his own breast, no inner strength to place him above the need for repeated psychological shots to give him the courage to go on living. He has become a parasite on the world, drawing his life from his environment, unable to live a day apart from the stimulation which society affords him.

Schleiermacher held that the feeling of dependence lies at the root of all religious worship, and that however high the spiritual life might rise, it must always begin with a deep sense of a great need which only God could satisfy.

If this sense of need and a feeling of dependence are at the root of natural religion, it is not hard to see why the great god Entertainment is so ardently worshiped by so many. For there are millions who cannot live without amusement; life without some form of entertainment for them is simply intolerable; they look forward to the blessed relief afforded by professional entertainers and other forms of psychological narcotics as a dope addict looks to his daily shot of heroin. Without them they could not summon courage to face existence.

No one with common human feeling will object to the simple pleasures of life, nor to such harmless forms of entertainment as may help to relax the nerves and refresh the mind exhausted by toil. Such things, if used with discretion, may be a blessing along the way. That is one thing, however, the all-out devotion to entertainment as a major activity for which and by which men live is definitely something else again.

The abuse of a harmless thing is the essence of sin. The growth of the amusement phase of human life to such fantastic proportions is a portent, a threat to the souls of modern men. It has been built into a multimillion dollar racket with greater power over human minds and human character than any other educational influence on earth.

And the ominous thing is that its power is almost exclusively evil, rotting the inner life, crowding out the long eternal thoughts which would fill the souls of men, if they were but worthy to entertain them. The whole thing has grown into a veritable religion which holds its devotees with a strange fascination; and a religion, incidentally, against which it is now dangerous to speak. For centuries the Church stood solidly against every form of worldly entertainment, recognizing it for what it was—a device for wasting time, a refuge from the disturbing voice of conscience, a scheme to divert attention from moral accountability.

For this she got herself abused roundly by the sons of this world. But of late she has become tired of the abuse and has given over the struggle. She appears to have decided that if she cannot conquer the great god Entertainment she may as well join forces with him and make what use she can of his powers. So, today we have the astonishing spectacle of millions of dollars being poured into the unholy job of providing earthly entertainment for the so-called sons of heaven. Religious entertainment is in many places rapidly crowding out the serious things of God.

Many churches these days have become little more than poor theaters where fifth-rate 'producers' peddle their shoddy wares with the full approval of evangelical leaders who can even quote a holy text in defense of their delinquency. And hardly a man dares raise his voice against it.

The great god Entertainment amuses his devotees mainly by telling them stories. The love of stories, which is a characteristic of childhood, has taken fast hold of the minds of the retarded saints of our day, so much so that not a few persons manage to make a comfortable living by spinning yarns and serving them up in various disguises to church people.

What is natural and beautiful in a child may be shocking when it persists into adulthood, and more so when it appears in the sanctuary and seeks to pass for true religion. Is it not a strange thing and a wonder that, with the shadow of atomic destruction hanging over the world and with the coming of Christ drawing near, the professed followers of the Lord should be giving themselves up to religious amusements? That in an hour when mature saints are so desperately needed vast numbers of believers should revert to spiritual childhood and clamor for religious toys?

'Remember, 0 Lord, what is come upon us: consider, and behold our reproach. The crown is fallen from our head: woe unto us, that we have sinned! For this our heart is faint; for these things our eyes are dim.' AMEN. AMEN."

Taken from Root of the Righteous, Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1955, p. 32-33.
*And just think... he was an Arminian!

Friday, March 13, 2009

What Is An "Evangelical"?

I was telling Mrs. Doulos the other day that I have a remarkable ability to be profoundly oblivious to the PAINFULLY obvious. To my kids, that’s no real news, but let me give two examples (and I am not making this up…):

#1 - I was preaching at Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago last Tuesday night… presenting the Gospel from Isaiah 53:4-6 (what an incredible passage!). I was really captured by the text, and anytime you’re talking to anyone about the great need that we have and the unbelievable provision God has for us in His Son – and the unfathomably suffering He endured to deliver that provision, well… there aren’t enough superlatives to describe it. I felt that I had just a glimmer of a vision for that Truth when I stepped up to speak. I did my best, I was focused on the task at hand, and I finished on time. After returning to my seat, a co-worker greeted me with the following statement (or something like this):

“I’m amazed at your concentration – I can’t believe that didn’t phase you.”

I had NO IDEA what he was talking about. It turns out that while I was preaching, a man in the second row of the auditorium (center aisle, almost right under the pulpit) threw up! It caused quite a stir (and a mess), and required someone with a BUCKET AND MOP to clean up.

I understand that people sometimes feel sick when I talk, so I am not surprised that someone finally expressed this thought so graphically. But here's the point: I DIDN'T EVEN SEE IT! When they told me, I smelled it, but I still can’t believe it happened – literally – right under my nose without my notice!

#2 - Reading Phil Johnson’s talk (What Is An Evangelical?) at the Shepherds’ Conference reminded me of this reaction (the “oblivious” part, not the “vomiting”), and this is what I mean: I am amazed that I continue to be shocked at the condition in the Evangelical church these days. I’d recommend Phil’s talk – it merits close attention (part 1 here and part 2), but I think he is accurate in his assessment of the broader Evangelical movement.

What is an "Evangelical" these days? According to Johnson:

"It's frankly one of those questions you can answer almost any way you want and defend your answer as articulately as you like, and most people are still going to tell you you've got it wrong. Because it seems these days everyone has his own personal idea of what constitutes an evangelical. Ask 100 evangelicals to define that they mean by the term and odds are you're probably going to get 100 different answers—some of them so wildly different as to be virtually contradictory.

Evangelicals have been trying hard to be all things to all men for at least two or three generations, and in this regard they have completely succeeded: The evangelical movement is now so broad and diverse that you can define it practically any way you want. In an article celebrating their 50th anniversary a couple of years ago, Christianity Today said they think diversity is in fact the dominant feature of evangelicalism." (emphasis added)

And therein lies the problem. I don't think CT is alone in celebrating "diversity" - even on core doctrines like the nature of man, the work of God and the very definition of the Gospel itself! The problem is, when you question theological diversity in Evangelical circles, you are very quickly labeled as a trouble-maker, opinionated or, even worse, "negative." (There is a FAR worse label being tossed around these days, but that's the next post!)

Johnson says that people accuse him of being "negative" and so, in response:

"… So let me say it this way: I'm positive that the broad evangelical movement today is abominable. The brand of Christianity (or should I say "the assorted brands of Christianity"?) represented by Christianity Today, The National Association of Evangelicals, and the Christian Coalition—the spiritual heirs of Billy Graham, Fuller Seminary, and the Urbana Conferences—that large movement that most of our spiritual parents identified with—that vast movement is now as utterly backslidden and spiritually degenerate as Israel was in her most backslidden state during the times of apostasy described in the book of Judges. We have reached that point where ‘Everyone [does] what [is] right in his own eyes.’ And lots of so-called evangelicals think that's just fine. The current editors of Christianity Today seem to think that's just fine. They never tire of celebrating their constituents' "diversity." (emphasis added)

I frankly don't like to identify with the contemporary evangelical movement. I'm strongly tempted simply to stop calling myself an evangelical altogether, just to keep from being associated with every infamous religious scoundrel from Ted Haggard to Joel Osteen. What does it actually mean to say we're evangelical when the menagerie of heretics and charlatans appearing nightly on TBN all insist they are evangelical, too? Tony Campolo, who has renounced practically everything that's distinctively evangelical, insists on calling himself an evangelical. Lots of Roman Catholics call themselves evangelical. Lately even Mormons have begun arguing that they have a right to the label as well. None of them would agree on what the term means, of course, but they all want to wear it, because it gives them an artificial connection with the rich heritage of evangelical history.

You go, Phil. I’m with you when you say that
“I do affirm historic evangelical principles. The original evangelicals are my spiritual ancestors. I believe what they believed, and I'm passionate about the things they were passionate about. We share a common faith, and I happen to believe it is the same faith proclaimed by apostles and the early church. But in the broad sweep of church history, the set of convictions I hold is best known by the name evangelicalism. And I'm not ready yet to concede that label to people who in fact have no spiritual connection—and nothing whatsoever in common—with historic evangelical beliefs.”
I know there’s press all around on this subject, particularly since the Internet Monk met the Christian Science Monitor this week. And I’m also surprised at the way that the discussion lines are being drawn. (By the way, read IM's full posts before you dismiss him as some have for the CSM article). For those who have concluded that this assessment (from Michael Spenser or Phil Johnson or many others) is wrong, they’ve found “the Enemy.”

But for some of us, we think these guys are on to something that is not only right, but important. I'm not sure I'm understanding how to attribute electrical properties (like negative and positive) to this discussion - but I do think their assessment is accurate.

So here's my big shock: I'm surprised that people hate the truth so much. I'm surprised that people think personal attacks or blind optimism somehow deflect reality. And when I think about the state of things generally (and when I read the mainstream Evangelical thinking in response), I feel a little like the guy in the second row at Pacific Garden Mission. I guess I’m just surprised that I’m still surprised.

Next Time: Who Is the REAL Problem?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Coming Evangelical Collapse

I trust that you all noticed Michael Spenser’s provocative – and brilliant - article in today’s Christian Science Monitor. Not a pretty picture, but spot on in articulating the sorry state of many churches today.

It’s very sad that once solid, Bible-believing churches continue to trade away the very thing that gives them influence in the world – that is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ – for a stab at “influence” from the world’s perspective. They have seemed to embrace the notion that the Gospel is a stumbling block to the Jew, foolishness to the Greek (and, in the words of Kim Riddlebarger, “both to an American”).

Spenser is devastating in his assessment and analysis. His conclusion is both breathtaking and easily foreseen – if one has eyes to look beyond the self-deception so common in inbred corporate systems that Evangelical churches so frequently emulate. Why, he asks, are we on the verge of a collapse of the Evangelical movement? In part, he says (and the emphasis is mine):
“We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.” (Take that, “deeds, not creeds!”)
“We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we've spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.” (I’d add that this condition clearly isn’t limited to merely the young people either).
What does he see coming? In part:
“Expect evangelicalism to look more like the pragmatic, therapeutic, church-growth oriented mega-churches that have defined success. Emphasis will shift from doctrine to relevance, motivation, and personal success – resulting in churches further compromised and weakened in their ability to pass on the faith.”
This is the core problem for Evangelical churches – a shift from doctrine to ... well, something else. It always leads to compromise and weakens - even destroys - a church's effectiveness. In their effort to become “relevant” they lose their relevance. When a church compromises on its doctrine and distinctives, it becomes unable and weakened to pass on its truth to the next generation of believers; in fact, it ceases to have anything meaningful to pass on! When a church ceases to defend its own doctrine, for example, it has defaulted on its primary responsibility! Increasingly (if Christianity Today is any indication), churches are afraid to take a stand on even the most basic – core – doctrines because somebody somewhere disagrees. Churches like this may still remain “christian” in the most general (or generous sense), but they are a “church” only in the organizational sense. This is the error that the Mainline denominations made… and the Evangelicals are running after them as fast as possible.

Evangelical churches used to organize around what they believed. Now they organize around what they do. That is a great operating philosophy for a para-church organization, but it has become the philosophy of ministry for local churches!

“Evangelicalism doesn't need a bailout. Much of it needs a funeral.” Amen, Michael. I trust, though, that you are wrong when you predict that the “purveyors of the evangelical circus [continue] in fine form, selling their wares as the promised solution to every church's problems.” I pray that God will open the eyes of His people to desire beauty and substance of His Word; that God’s people will give up the lie that “we can’t know;” and that men in leadership would be cut to the heart in understanding their responsibility to care for and to feed God’s people with the Word of God.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Important Read...

Whose voice are you listening to these days?

In studying the book Christless Christianity, I've been struck repeatedly by the increasingly pervasive trend in the evangelical world towards denying both the certainty of truth and its practical application in evangelical theology. A clear demonstration of the sad decline in biblical theology (where it was once rightly assumed) was reported from the National Pastors Conference in San Diego last month. It is incredible to me that many seem very comfortable leaving issues like the authority of Scripture, the nature of the atonement, the centrality of the person and work of Christ himself up for debate! Evangelicalism IS being "hijacked by closet theological liberals!"

It would be sad enough if the problem was just conferences and books... but the real problem lies inside local churches. The trends in many churches (including the purpose driven churches, seeker sensitive churches, the planter-driven churches and, sadly, even in established evangelical churches) is towards softening their doctrinal distinctives or ditching them altogether. The sad - but observable fact - is that increasingly churches who used to organize around what they believed and taught organize now around what they do.

This was the liberal experiment in the early 20th century, and I don't think it will be any more successful for the evangelicals of the 21st century who embrace the same strategy. IMHO, the evangelical movement is trading influence - which is found in fulfilling its mission to be a truth-teller and to feed the people of God - for the appearance of significance through programs and activity. What ever happened to "being transformed by the renewing of our minds"?

The Dallas-Fort Worth Star Telegram had an interesting article last Saturday about a book which seeks to answer the question "Why IS the church losing its influence in modern society?". The author of The Vanishing Church: Searching For Significance in the 21st Century makes this interesting and important observation:

"What I’m saying is that the biblical New Testament church is vanishing from society today," he said. "Anything and everything is acceptable as long as it builds a crowd. Jesus wasn’t as interested in building a crowd as he was in telling the truth."

Here's an important reminder as well from John MacArthur:
"People say, 'Oh doctrine divides…doctrine divides.' I say, 'Amen, preach it, doctrine divides.' You know what it does? It confronts error. It separates true from false. It makes judgments. Today’s climate, however, of unity in the priority of relationships, that’s not tolerable."
Hmmm. Maybe they're on to something. Make sure you're following someone who isn't leading you over a cliff...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Pelagianism vs. Biblical Christianity

Here's the recap from today's class...

Man’s nature and Original Sin - Pelagius taught that man was morally neutral before God. He rejected the idea of “Original Sin” and taught that sin consists of sinful acts – not a condition of the heart. This is, however, contrary to the testimony of Scripture, which teaches that:

a. We inherited guilt from Adam (Legal Guilt)
  • “Therefore…sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all have sinned.” (Romans 5:12)
b. We have a sinful nature because of Adam’s Sin (Original Sin or Inherited Corruption)
  • "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5)
  • We are “…by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:3)
c. In our nature, we totally lack spiritual good before God. (Total Depravity) – not that we are as bad as we could be, but that every part of our being is affected by sin… our intellects, emotions, desires, goals, motives, etc.
  • “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18)
  • “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
  • Apart from the work of Christ, all are “…darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” (Ephesians 4:18)
d. In our actions, we are totally unable to do spiritual good before God.
  • “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
  • “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34)
  • “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Isaiah 64:6)
  • “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” (John 6:44)
For other references, see also Genesis 6:5; Job 15:14-16; Psalm 130:3; Psalm 143:2; Proverbs 20:9; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Jeremiah 13:23; John 3:19; James 3:8; 1 John 1:8

Note: What about AFTER conversion?
  • “…As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” (John 15:4) See also vs 5.
  • “For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh…” (Philippians 3:3)
  • “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)
Man’s capacity and Free Will Pelagius also taught that God holds man responsible only for those things that man is able to do. Since God warns us to do good, therefore we must have the ability to do the good that God commands. (“Ought implies Ability”) The idea, though that we are responsible before God only for what we are able to do is contrary to the testimony of Scripture.

a. Because of Original Sin, he is unable to do anything good (meritorious) before God (see above).

b. He is unable to believe in God (or come to him)
  • John 6:44 (see above)
  • “… no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:65)
  • “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil and your will is to do your father’s desires…” (John 8:43-44)
  • “…you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.” (John 10:26)
  • “Therefore they could not believe. For again, Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart’…” (John 12:39-40)
c. He is unable to understand the truth
  • “…even the Spirit of truth, who the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” (John 14:17)
  • “The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
d. He is unable to seek God
  • Rom 3:10-11
e. He is spiritually dead
  • Genesis 2:16-17; John 3:5-7; Ephesians 2:1-3; Col 2:13
f. He is blinded and corrupt in his heart
  • Gen 6:5; Gen 8:21; Ecclesiastes 9:3; Jeremiah 17:9; Mark 7:21-23; John 3:19-21; Romans 8:7-8; Ephesians 4:17-19; Ephesians 5:8
g. He is captive to sin and Satan
  • John 8:34; John 8:44; Romans 6:20; 2 Timothy 2:25-26; Titus 3:3; 1 John 5:19
h. He performs actions freely according to his nature, but his nature is wholly evil
  • Job 14:4; Matthew 7:16-18; Matthew 12:33; Mark 7:21-23; James 1:13-14
The Glen Ellyn Bible Church Statement of Faith says it this way:
"We believe that our first parents were created holy and upright, that they fell from this condition, and that, in consequence, the whole human race is by nature dead in trespasses and sins" (Romans 5:12; Ephesians 2:1,2).
Pelagianism was first condemned by the church as heresy at the Council of Carthage on May 1, 418 – and repeatedly thereafter. But, it continues to influence thinking in the Church.
For example:
  • Charles Finney - Pelagian in theology and influential in Evangelical thinking and methodology.
  • Willow Creek (Reveal Study) -Pelagian in assumptions when they say:
"There is a passionate instinct born in all of us that desires to draw closer to God... The human spirit is wired by God to search for him, just like birds are wired to fly south for the winter." (Reveal Study, pages 41 and 44)
  • Joel Olsteen - he's a poster-boy for Pelagian thinking
Well, so what? The issue is this: The Pelagian viewpoint influences our thinking in at least 2 ways:
  • First, it leads to an UNDERSTATEMENT of our problem (pre-and post- conversion)
  • Second, it leads to an OVERSTATEMENT of our ability.
We'll talk more about this, but if you don't understand the severity of the problem and the importance of the solution, you'll minimize both. We'll unpack this more as we go, but this means that, in many cases, our message ceases to be about the Good News of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus, and is replaced by a call to our responsibility.

Think about this as we prepare for future discussions: All of this leads to the first sign of "'Christless' Christianity"":

If we're lost in sin without ability to save ourselves, we need "Good News." If we have a little problem with God and retain the ability to fix it ourselves, we just need "Good Advice".

In the book, Dr. Horton says this:
Without understanding “…the human predicament before a holy God, it is unclear what this personal relationship [with Jesus] might accomplish.” Without an understanding of the mediating work of Jesus, His substitutionary death on our behalf in order that His righteousness could be imputed to us by faith – which is itself a gift from God – the danger is that a personal relationship with Jesus becomes “…a vague, sentimental attachment to someone who is more like an invisible friend than the incarnate, dead, raised, ascended, and reigning Savior of the ungodly.” (Christless Christianity, p. 73)
  • If sin isn’t so bad, the practical focus becomes what we are to do – rather than what has been done for us. (That's moralistic)
  • If God isn’t so mad, the practical focus becomes how obeying God benefits us – rather than its proper focus on God and His glory. (That's therapeutic)
  • Most damaging of all, these misunderstandings of the problem and the focus lead us to conclude, as a practical matter, that we don't need God to address our need. (That's deism)
And Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism just isn't Biblical Christianity.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Pelagianism and the State of the American Church

Glen Ellyn Bible Church College Class:

This coming Sunday, we're going to continue our discussion about Pelagianism, and its impact on American thinking - both secular and, sadly, Evangelical as well. We'll talk about its history, the impact of Charles Finney on American Evangelicalism and how that carries on, even into today's popular Evangelicalism.

You may recognize this all too well.

So, if you'd like to get ready for the discussion this coming Sunday, here's some material for you to watch/read:

Video: The State of The Church
(from the White Horse Inn)

Additional Reading:
"Pelagianism" by Michael Horton

"The Pelagian Captivity of The Church" by R.C. Sproul

"The Legacy of Charles Finney"
by Michael Horton

Yet Another Example...

... How about this as another example from The Gathering Church in Franklin, Tennessee?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The American Church In Captivity: Naming The Issue

Thanks to those of you who joined us this week - great discussion!

We continued our discussion of the book Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church today, focusing on chapter 2. (All quotations below are from the book.) As mentioned last week, we are exploring the extent to which - as a theological, philosophical and practical matter - American culture influences not only what we do, but why we do it. Is it possible that "American" thinking is shaping what we do - and even what we believe?

While we haven't arrived there yet in totality, both Dr. Horton and I agree that we are well underway.

For those who weren't there, here are the class notes:

I. A Brief, Unscientific Survey
We started class by looking at the following video, and discussing the sermon series described...

Note the focus of each series - both in terms of the problem or issue(s) to be addressed and the assumptions about the audience. (By the way, I've added a few other examples that didn't make the video cut below*.)

The point is that the presentations focus on us and our needs. So... is that wrong? There's nothing bad about offering help in these areas, but I'm asked a different question, which is this: Is this The Gospel?

The answer? No, it isn't. (Bear with me on that - we'll prove that up as we go.)

It sure is appealing to Americans, though. Witness the growth in churches who use these strategies to appeal to both the "unchurched" and to those who "don't like church." Why is this so popular?

To get a handle on that, consider the mind-set of America on religious issues. George Barna, in his book The Second Coming of the Church, said the following about the average American's religious view:
"To increasing numbers of Americans, God - if we even believe in a supernatural deity - exists for the pleasure of humankind. He resides in the heavenly realm solely for our utility and benefit... this same group of people, including many professing Christians, also believe that people are inherently good; that our primary purpose is to enjoy life as much as possible."
If this is the case (and who really knows whether these kinds of studies are accurate or not), its no wonder that the presentations above can appeal to the average American. This is, however, further aggravated by the level of Biblical illiteracy that exists (sadly, even in the church). Michael Horton points out that:
"Eighty-two percent of Americans (and a majority of evangelicals) [polled] believe that Benjamin Franklin's aphorisms, 'God helps those who help themselves,' is a biblical quotation. A majority believe that 'all people pray to the same god or spirit, not matter what name they use for that spiritual being' and that 'if a person is generally good or does enough good things for others during their life, they will earn a place in heaven.'"
Adding insult to injury and after citing a series of reports, Barna concludes,
"In short, the spirituality of America is Christian in name only... We prefer choices to absolutes. We embrace preferences rather than truths. We seek comfort rather than growth..."
Finally, Horton states that "[a]mong the false assumptions 'killing the ministry' today are that 'Americans have a firm understanding of the basic tenets of Christianity,'... or that non-Christians are interested in salvation, since most Americans 'are relying instead on their own good deeds, their good character, or the generosity of God' apart from Christ."

These are stinging indictments. If true, they deserve our attention - and even more so if they are part of our own mindset.

II. Defining the Condition: “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism”
Horton points out that "Americans have always been can-do people. Pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, we assume that we are good people who could do better if we just had the right methods and instructions. Add to this the triumph of the therapeutic in popular culture and we end up with what sociologist Christian Smith has called 'Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism." (I've included a link to a paper presented at Princeton Theological Seminary on these findings at the 2005 Leadership In Youth Ministry Lecture Series below.)

Citing a study conducted from 2001 to 2005 through the University of North Carolina, Smith conducted extensive research and interviews to understand teen spirituality in America today, and concluded that "moralistic, therapeutic deism" is "the dominant form of religion or spirituality" among American teens. (I'll also note that Smith bemoaned the fact that "most teens - even those reared in evangelical churches who said their faith is 'very important' and makes a big difference in their lives - are 'stunningly inarticulate' concerning the actual content of their faith.'"

What they do appear to believe is this:

1. God created the world.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when needed to solve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

In short, these beliefs are summarized as
  • Moralistic - In general, the major purpose of religion is to be a "good" person.
  • Therapeutic - In other words, religious participation will often be defined around how religious experience has helped someone overcome personal difficulties.
  • Deism - While not necessarily denying the truth of orthodoxy, as a practical matter believing that while God does exist and has a lot do with how the world came to be, He is not that demanding of God’s creation.
We're using this as a working definition for now. But that leads to another question: What is it in America (and even in the human heart) that makes this plausible (and popular)?

III. A Theological Footprint
To understand this, I asked the foundational question: What is Man's condition? After the fall, what happened to man? We touched briefly on the 3 historical views of the nature of man:

1. Man fell up! He's getting better and better. Said another way, there is nothing in man which prevents him from being good or bad... he has only to decide to improve himself and he can do so. As a result, he needs information and/or motivation. This is Pelagianism - it is the "default" setting of the human heart, the prevailing view of American culture and, increasingly, rearing its ugly head in the Church today.

2. Man fell down, he's in a very precarious spot and is in deep trouble. He needs help to improve his situation... maybe a little, or maybe a lot, but this view says that man retains the ability to cooperate in that rescue. Ultimately, he has to decide to take the help. It is a "synergistic" (cooperation is required between God and man, with the focus on man's response to God's initiative.) This is Semi-Pelagianism - while this hasn't been true historically, it is the "default" setting of the Evangelical movement today.

3. Man fell down to the ground, and he died. He is dead to God - he doesn't need information or motivation, or "help" - he needs life. This is the Reformed/Augustinian view... I would point out that it is the Pauline view, the view of Jesus - in short, the Biblical view.

This doctrine of man's "total inability" is shocking to American thinking. It is deeply offensive to be told that you can't do anything. But it's offense doesn't make it any less true.

Without regard to the differences between the Biblical view and the Semi-Pelagian view (and there are many, they are significant, and we'll deal with them later), the point this week is to begin to examine how the Pelagian view - which we will argue is the default view of American thinking (if not the default view of the human heart) - impacts the thinking and operation of the church.

The denial of "original sin" isn't being left to those outside the Evangelical movement today... witness the broadside on the doctrine from the blog postings of Tony Jones from Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis... consider “Original Sin: A Depraved Idea” where this conclusion is presented: “I have come to reject the notion of Original Sin. I consider it neither biblically, philosophically, nor scientifically tenable…” (This is Monday's post - you can follow the trail to keep up with the conversation. Does anybody want to ask Tony about this the next time he comes to Wheaton?)

IV. Where is The "Scandal of the Cross" in America?
As noted in the sermon series highlighted above, is it possible that much of what is proclaimed in "Christian" churches today is not "scandalous" because it conforms to the culture's underlying Pelagian assumptions?

So, what is “the Scandal of the Cross” in our culture? I'll suggest this: It is scandalous to say that man is TOTALLY LOST and UNABLE to help himself in ANY WAY. His problem is not primarily HIS experience or life circumstance, but that he has offended His creator. And that without merit or participation, the God of the Universe demonstrates both the justice of His wrath and the extent of His love and grace by saving people through the substitution of Himself in the person of His Son Jesus. It is precisely this unilateral action that is so offensive to Americans. We want to believe that we are inherently good and self-reliant. The Gospel message at its heart is exactly the opposite. And when the Gospel is preached in its fullness, it is deeply offensive to the American mindset at precisely these points.

Christless Christianity avoids the scandal by denying these points. The observation about liberal theology in the 1950s by H. Richard Niebuhr seems sadly appropriate to even some Evangelical messages today:
“A god without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.”
And just to repeat myself again, in the words of William Willimon,
“Lacking confidence in the power of our story to effect that of which it speaks, to evoke a new people out of nothing, our communication loses its nerve. Nothing is said that could not be heard elsewhere… In conservative contexts, gospel speech is traded for dogmatic assertions and moralism, for self-help psychologies and narcotic mantras. In more liberal speech, talk tiptoes around the outrage of Christian discourse and ends up as an innocuous, though urbane, affirmation of the ruling order. Unable to preach Christ and him crucified, we preach humanity and it improved.”
If we are to recover the scandal of the Cross in our culture – the Gospel itself – we will have to face head on the diametrically opposing viewpoints of Biblical Christianity and American culture on these 3 questions:

1. What is our nature?
2. What is our problem?
3. What is God’s role in the solution?

Next Week: The Message of Christless Christianity, Part 1: What Is Man's Problem?

Additional Helpful Reading:

"On Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as U.S. Teenagers' Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith" by Christian Smith

"The Pelagian Captivity of the Church"
by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

"An Interview with David Wells" (Do yourself a favor, too - If you haven't read David Wells, be sure to read his book The Courage to be Protestant (or any of the 4 preceding books in the series - they're listed in the right-hand column of the blog).


*Here are just a few other sermon series promotion videos to consider. My biggest problem with this exercise was deciding which of the many to highlight!)

One of the many "Pure Sex" sermon series... (is it just me, or is it tacky to use as the website for a church?)

"Bringing Sexy Back"

Bringing Sexy Back Promo from Revolution Church on Vimeo.

"Rock of Love"

Rock of Love Invite Cole Phillips, The Connection Church from The Connection Church on Vimeo.

"Confessions of a Pastor"

We Bare All from Ian Schneider on Vimeo.

"Purple People Leader - Activate Your Leadership Potential"

Elevation Church - Purple People Leader Trailer v2.0 from Geoff Schultz on Vimeo.