Monday, December 19, 2011

Voices from the Past: Provocative Perspectives on Accreditation (Part 2) [or] How BJU "Turned to Egypt"

"We ought not to survive." "We ought to just close."

That's what BJU's representative at a 1995 conference said should happen rather than pursuing regional accreditation.

Part 1 drew our attention to BJU's decision to pursue regional accreditation–a more widely-regarded and secular alternative to its present accreditation with TRACS. We looked at a short quote from the leader of a sister institution. Now we'll see at what the BJU president had to say:
Bob Jones University refuses regional accreditation because we can't take our counsel from two masters. If indeed the Scriptures and the God of the Scriptures is the God we bow our knee to, we cannot bow before a dual authority. We cannot bow in educational matters to the secular world that knows nothing of our God and the purposes of our institution. Those who are accredited—if we were accredited at Bob Jones University we would always have to turn one ear toward the accrediting agency, and that means we only have one ear turned to God. And when God is speaking in one ear, and the accrediting agency is speaking in the other ear, I wonder which authority we would yield to when the two were in conflict.

I believe with all my heart the Bible has a great deal to say that precludes our being able to be accredited. Second Corinthians 6:14 makes it very clear that we are not to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. With all my heart I believe this is unequal yoking.

I remember twenty-six years ago this summer [1969] some 25 men assembled themselves together at Bob Jones University—Christian college men who said, "We know accreditation is wrong. It's not for Christians. We know it's bowing to an authority that's going to make us cease to bow our knee to the Lord's authority and to the authority of his Word. [Explanation of how those men considered forming their own accrediting association and discarded it. Then names a bunch of the men who were there at that meeting.] I was there in that meeting 26 years ago. Some very wise and godly men who understood the horrific dangers of being regionally accredited and said, "We cannot do this."

Were they wrong? Did they misunderstand the Scriptures? Is their advice to be thrown aside and stepped underfoot and trampled and considered old-fashioned and no longer valid for our day? Bob Jones University cannot be accredited because of the abundant present evidence that accreditation does change the purpose of the school—does impose upon schools things that their Christian conscience would not allow them to do. [Lists several examples.]

We're not accredited because of the inconsistency of being accredited as a Christian college. You know, ladies and gentlemen, I don't think anybody here would have a debate at this conference that fundamental independent churches should join a liberal denomination for whatever perceived benefits there might be in doing so. We would say, "That's not a talking point for fundamentalism." Why? Because they give up their autonomy when they do this, and they get into a political arena when they do this, that eventually affects their pulpits, destroys and degrades their pulpits. Now why should we that the educational institutions doing the same thing with a counterpart—a hierarchal [sic] control, if you will, of the accrediting agency—why should we be immune from those political pressures and the degradation that will take place?

If the accrediting agencies praised us—if they thought Bob Jones University was a great school, and if we had to have their endorsement that we were doing a good job and that we were a great school, I think something would be drastically wrong with Bob Jones University. The endorsement we want is from above. The endorsement we want is from the people of God who stand by the Word of God, and the endorsement because we stand by the Word of God, and if we don't they ought not to endorse it. We're not looking for the endorsement of the world. We don't want them to praise us. If they were praising us, something would be wrong with what we were doing. This is why Bob Jones University is not accredited. We would be scared to be accredited. We would feel that we had failed God if we were accredited.

[Discussion of graduates' access to grad schools.]

If we were going to get accredited, what would be our motive? I can tell you what the motive would be. And I have to guess—I don't know the motive of anybody else—but I can tell you what our motive . . . It would have to be survival. We don't need the accrediting agency unless we think they would make our job easier, and it'd be better for our graduates, unless we were in financial difficulty.

Why would we turn to Egypt? You'd turn to Egypt because you're in trouble and Egypt has something you think you need. I believe with all my heart that regional accreditation is not essential to survival, and if it is then we ought not to survive. The survival of our institutions is not the issue. The faithfulness to God is the issue!

And if we have to do what I would say is absolutely wrong and unscriptural in order to survive—if God wants us to close, let him close us. We may close one day. We too, Dr. [speaker in first set of quotes], may be greatly smaller one day. That's ok! Survival is not the name of our game. Trying to please God and be faithful and do right is the name of our game.

So as far as I'm concerned, the bottom line in discussing accreditation is, "Is it right?" If it is let's do it. If the argument is, "Well, it's essential for the sake of financial or academic survival," and we have to go down to Egypt to survive, we better not go. We ought to just close. There are worse things than being dead and buried. Far worse is to live without the approval of God. [emphasis mine]
Four observations, at least a couple of them brief:

1. I have no quarrel with BJU pursuing regional accreditation. I suspect it'll be quite helpful in the short term.

2. Whether the perspective in the above quote about deleterious long-term effects is correct, I do not know. I suspect no one really does, though it does seem plausible.

3. This extended quotation offers a vivid argument for why institutional leaders in the BJU wing of a [former?] movement are unpersuasive when they try to claim that there's no change taking place in how they apply long-held principles. They're moving their "ancient landmarks," as some folks used to say. Maybe they were dumb landmarks to use in the first place, but they were landmarks nonetheless.

4. I wonder if we shouldn't learn something about our rhetoric as we read that quote and look at BJU's recent choices. Was the speaker right? Is this decision really about survival? Is BJU now refusing the counsel of God? Is it "unequally yoked" with unbelievers? Has it surrendered its autonomy to an accrediting agency? Does BJU now think that they've "failed God" because they're pursuing accreditation? Should the school shut its doors? And didn't we alumni pledge to make happen? (Maybe Christmas vaca will be busier than we expected.)

So has BJU turned to Egypt?

Fact is, I don't know and don't intend to spend a great deal of time thinking about it. But it seems that there must be at least one person who either thinks so, or perhaps has reconsidered his judgments of 1995.

Maybe this sort of rhetoric worked back in the day. Maybe it's the sort of authoritarian leadership that, as I heard someone recently suggest, was necessary for its time. I'm not so sure. I'd like to think not.

In any case, my judgment—and you can make up your own mind whether it's good or not—is that the sort of culture reflected in that quote is unworthy of emulation. It's bankrupt of principles. Bankrupt of morals. What else could we say about a culture that produces this sort of manipulation and implicit criticism of sister institutions, and then turns on a dime to serve its own interests? Are some hoping that we'll all forget the bold promises of the past?

Don't miss this: a champion of morality and principalled stands has abandoned on both. And come to think of it, I'm not the one saying it; it's the former president. (Just take another look at the bold text above.)

Like I said, I don't care if BJU gets regional accreditation. It really might be a good thing—short term and long term. I hope it is, for the kids' sakes. Frankly, I think people can and have made good cases both for and against regional accreditation. But you can't have it both ways. When you're the general and you tell the troops "with all my heart" that a hill's worth dying on, you lose a bit of credibility when you surrender that hill to save your skin. We all make mistakes. We all change our minds. But at some point, this sort of rhetoric has to remind us of Matthew 23:1-4.

Folks, friends, pastors, men, may I make a few suggestions?

1. Study God's Word relentlessly so that you may know him as he's revealed himself to us.
2. Learn to discern foundational, unchanging principles and how to distinguish them from relatively peripheral issues.
3. Declare your allegiance to those principles and hold on for dear life.
4. Don't stop listening to people you disagree with strongly.
5. If you become convinced from the Word and the work of the Spirit that you were wrong about one of those principles—either about the substance or about just how fundamental to the faith you thought it was—repent, admit you were wrong, and seek forgiveness from any that you hurt in your previous zeal for your misjudged principles.
6. Maintain your allegiance to the rest of those principles.
7. Don't confuse allegiance to institutions with allegiance to principles. Drench yourself in the truth of the Word rather than loyalty to a cabal. Don't fear man; be a man.

Well, I better stop there.

But just one more thing: I believe some folks might owe an apology to Arno Weniger.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Voices from the Past: Provocative Perspectives on Accreditation (Part 1)

At its regularly scheduled meeting Dec. 2, 2011, the Bob Jones University Board of Trustees unanimously granted approval for the University to pursue the process of applying for regional accreditation.
BJU says in this statement that regional accreditation (a more secular form of accreditation, as distinct from other options available to distinctly religious institutions) is now feasible due to changes in the Southern Association's (SACSCOC) approach to accreditation:
BJU believes these recent changes significantly address past concerns we’ve held about regional accreditation.
These do appear to be helpful changes, apparently similar to the approach the North Central Association has practiced for some time. Back in 1993, Maranatha Baptist Bible College achieved regional accreditation with North Central under Arno Weniger's leadership. Weniger came under fire both within the MBBC community and from outside, particularly from the leaders of "sister" institutions. A forum at a 1995 conference brought together Weniger, another president of a regionally accredited institution, and two presidents of institutions that, at the time, resisted all forms of accreditation. (None of these men still fill the roles they did at the time, though some are still on staff at their institutions.)

Here's a bit of what one of those latter two said:
I've decided not to surrender the authority of the Scriptures in that regard. We're going to stay a Bible college; we're going to stay functioning in. That's what we're going to be. Not a half Bible college or maybe a Bible college, but that's what we're going to stay.

I think a signed agreement joins me officially in an unequal yoke in that aspect. That is a concern to me. This generation? Maybe not. Those leaders in position now may be no problem at all. "Hey, we're not going to touch you." But what I've done is I've given permission by that joining to perhaps cause some real difficulties later.
What's most interesting is that the line of argumentation offered here isn't that the particular approach to accreditation taken by SACSCOC makes regional accreditation objectionable, but that regional accreditation itself constitutes compromise. (This school doesn't even fall under SACSCOC's geographic jurisdiction.) The quotations in part two should make even more clear the perceived compromise in the very essence of regional accreditation.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Leaving Elementary Doctrines

Awhile ago some of you may have heard a prominent leader—certainly no less prominent now—argue that once we're converted we need to move on, past the gospel. His argument was rooted in Hebrews 6:1-2:
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
Bobby Jamieson deftly exposes the flawed exegesis at the root of that argument in this post at the 9Marks blog. Here's his conclusion:
So, when the author of Hebrews “moves on from the gospel,” what does he move on to? The priesthood of Christ, the sacrifice of Christ, the heavenly intercession of Christ, the new covenant mediated by Christ, the future return of Christ, and how all of that enables us to turn from dead works and serve the living God.

In other words, the author of Hebrews doesn’t move on from the gospel; he moves deeper into the gospel. He doesn’t leave the gospel behind, but instead claws his way into more and more of its riches.

So then, at least for the author of Hebrews, leaving behind elementary teachings doesn’t mean leaving behind the gospel. Instead, it means diving into the deep end instead of splashing around in the shallows.
His follow-up post spells out some warnings and advice for those of us who believe that the gospel remains at the epicenter of Christian life and discipleship.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Speaking the Truth, in Love, of Course

As long as we're kicking the concept around, let me just say a few true things in love—things that ought to be said.

Sometimes, love—whether for a person, an idea, or for God himself—demands that we say things that we assume people don't really want to hear. Depending on the person (and how we say it), we may find that we're right. But how we go about saying the things that need to be said gets a bit tricky. We've got to grapple with all sorts of factors—a list that I just deleted from this post, because they're not really my point.

Bottom line: This gets messy. We face unavoidable judgment calls, often contingent more on wisdom and prudence than exegetical clarity. We probably tend to speak too aggressively and abrasively when we're wrestling over a public issue with minimal relationship. And we probably speak too privately when we sense a stronger relationship and some hope for incremental influence. No doubt you can imagine the tendencies of other scenarios.

All that to say this: If anyone ever writes a history of the sort of ideas and people we've discussed here over the past few years (and I'm not suggesting someone should), I hope that person gets the fact that the people who changed the game weren't the people in key positions of influence. Rather, it was people like D.M. and B.B. and A.B. and a few others who put their names (and necks) on the line by telling the emperor his attire fell a few articles of clothing short of afternoon dress.

Those guys (and that's not to exclude some ladies) proved that the dog might bite, but the wound heals. Maybe the dog runs you out of the neighborhood, but you wind up a couple streets over and realize it actually wasn't such a great neighborhood after all. (The new neighborhood may not be so hot either, but hey, it has are fewer ferocious dogs.) Sometimes you stare down a dog and you actually see it's not a pit bull but a paper tiger. Then you realize that its bite is really just a paper cut.

Newt Gingrich tells the story of how Pope John Paul II visited Communist-dominated Poland in 1979. He was greeted by immense throngs of people at every stop. Eventually, the people looked around at each other and said, "You know what. There's more of us than there are of them."

So once those guys started writing and SI opened for business, it didn't take the rest of us long to figure out there were more of "us" than there were of "them." Look at all the non-change change effected by the non-leader leaders in the non-movement movement over the past couple years. It happened for a reason. I simply believe market forces are that reason—not the non-leading leadership.

[Let me just say, we should not blame the non-leading leaders too much for not leading the revolution or for not exposing other non-leading leaders for their hypocrisy and reprehensible behavior. Many of them are doing outstanding work related to the missions of the ministries that they actually do lead. Revolutionary work is almost always counterproductive to the mission of a para-church. Incidentally, the guys whose initials appear above—the leading leaders—all happen to be pastors.]

So maybe petitions as a mechanism for change are a good idea, and maybe they aren't. I read the con side's arguments and they really do resonate. I read the other side's, and I'm really glad that truth has found a voice. Those among us who've been obnoxious and/or abrasive and/or self-aggrandizing and/or [your accusation] in the forms of confrontation we've chosen will one day give account. I'm quite sure I will.

I can tell you what I believe: I'd rather give account for pursuing the proclamation of truth in love and falling short of perfect love, than for knowing truth and not speaking it. It was not so long ago that a certain dank, putrid serenity rested in our air, so we all tried to breathe through our mouths. I'm grateful for those guys who loved what ought to be and spoke the truth. It's been a breath of fresh air.

The weapons of our warfare are not silence.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

My Favorite Dispensationalist Quote. Ever.

Thirteen or fourteen years ago students in the Dispensationalism class at MBBC were assigned Alva McClain's Law and Grace as one of the required texts. I'm sure I read it at the time. Unfortunately, I didn't mark it at all. Flipping through the notes I might have written, from the vantage point of the present, would be a bit of theological archeology. Ah, what might have been.

The book is marginally useful—maddeningly frustrating by repeatedly ducking at least one foundational issue, while making a quite helpful contribution to the indefatigable specter of legalism. Maybe we'll get back to that later. Written in 1954, it feels a bit dated.

But one little snippet just about knocked me out of my chair towards the end of my recent re-read. Let me just say first that McClain is no junior varsity Dispensationalist. His The Greatness of the Kingdom is a Dispensationalist classic. He's actually much more thorough and persuasive than some of the more widely-known Dispensationalist authors. And he's highly regarded by Rolland McCune, who—perhaps more than any other living theologian—represents the Dispensational wing of the Dispensational Party.

So here's what McClain had to say:
I would like to encourage Christians who delight in finding the Lord Jesus Christ upon every page of Scripture. Do not permit yourselves to be frightened by those over-cautious souls who cry against what they call "too much typology." Doubtless there are some things which may properly be catalogued as "types" and the others not. But whatever you may call it, it is the privilege and highest duty of the Christian to discover and behold the face of the Lord Jesus in Scripture—everywhere! Far better to break a few rules of classical hermeneutics than to miss the vision of his blessed face. (67-68, emphasis added)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

“ 'The covenant of grace' is a misleading category."

So it's a painfully long paragraph, but I still find it pretty remarkable that Steve Wellum's able to dismantle the heart of a complex, centuries-old theological system so efficiently. Here's Justin Taylor's question, followed by Wellum's response:
Do you disagree that there is such a thing as the “covenant of grace,” or is your argument rather that infant baptism is not a proper implication from it?

What I argued in my chapter is that “the covenant of grace” is a misleading category. Let me explain it this way. It is beyond question that the theme of “covenant” is an important unifying theme in Scripture. However, if we are not careful the notion of the covenant of grace can flatten the biblical presentation of God’s plan of salvation in terms of biblical covenants. In truth, “the covenant of grace” is really a comprehensive theological category, not a biblical one. This does not mean it is illegitimate. After all, theological terms are often used in theology, which are not necessarily biblical terms—e.g., Trinity. However, the problem with the theological category—”the covenant of grace”—is that, if one is not careful, it tends to flatten the relationships between the biblical covenants across redemptive history without first allowing each covenant to be understood within its own redemptive-historical context, and then how each covenant relates to the other biblical covenants, and then how all the covenants find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. I have no problem in using the category “the covenant of grace” to underscore the unity of God’s plan of salvation and the essential spiritual unity of the people of God in all ages. But if it is used, which I contend is the case in Reformed theology, to downplay the significant amount of progression and discontinuity between the biblical covenants, especially as fulfillment takes place in the coming of Christ, then it is an unhelpful term. In fact, I argued in my chapter that it would be best to place a moratorium on the category, especially if we want to make headway in the baptismal debate. In its place, we should speak of the one plan of God centered in Jesus Christ. And, furthermore, in speaking of the “covenant,” we must think in terms of the plurality of biblical covenants as we carefully unpack the relationships between the covenants across the canon. In short, it is imperative that we do a biblical theology of the covenants which, in truth, is an exercise in inter-textual relations between the covenants which, in the end, preserves a proper balance of continuity and discontinuity across the canon in regard to the biblical covenants. It is only when we do this that I am convinced we will make headway in our debate over the relationship between the biblical covenants without prejudicing the debate in one direction or the other.
I wish I'd have written that. And come to think of it, Wellum might have done a bit of damage to another theological system along the way, without even trying.

Full interview here, as well as links to several other related resources. It's all well worth a read, and I suspect that any serious adherent of a traditional theological system will do well to interact with the argument of his forthcoming book with Gentry. In the meantime, here's the outstanding book his chapter was published in.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Dumbing Down Theological Debate

What do you do when you have a weak argument, a naïve audience, and a superficial medium? I'm learning lots of tricks as I'm slowly catching up on the critiques of Gilbert & DeYoung's What Is the Mission of the Church?. One post from an often-insightful and always-influential author relayed no less than six such strategies, which are no doubt rather effective in our contemporary theological climate:
  1. Combine catchy rhetoric with exegetical oversimplification.
  2. Pretend your critics didn't really address an important question, even though they actually addressed it rather directly and expansively.
  3. Merely stipulate that "it doesn't have to be 'either-or'; it's 'both-and'!"
  4. Portray your critics as isolationist bumpkins who just don't grasp the issues or comprehend the big picture.
  5. Don't cite your critics. Broad-brush. Generalize. Caricature.
  6. My personal favorite: Cherry-pick a few critical but marginally coherent sentences from a generally positive review, and pretend that they "offer a unique degree of clarity." (My dear brother, "I felt like they were a little pessimistic" and "there was not much discussion of" and "seemed to push too far into saying" and "[Name] and [Name] have interesting books" is not the stuff of which unique clarity is made. I suspect the guy who wrote those lines probably knew that. You should too.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Carl Trueman on the Mission of the Church, the Gospel Coalition, and Gospel-Centered Polarization

Just over a year ago I argued that the growing debate over the Church's mission is likely to be "the fault line that will form a crevasse, dividing evangelicals—even conservative, reformed evangelicals." In their new book, Greg Gilbert and Kevin DeYoung make the same argument:
[O]ur sense is that this whole issue of mission (along with related issues like kingdom, social justice, shalom, cultural mandate, and caring for the poor) is the most confusing, most discussed, most energizing, and most potentially divisive issue in the evangelical church today. (25)
And last week Carl Trueman made a similar point:
The gospel-centred world seems divided over whether the gospel is primarily about transforming culture or individual forgiveness for sins. Of course, there is a spectrum of opinion on this matter and not everyone is at one end of it or the other. Yet the passions generated by DeYoung and Gilbert highlight the problem and indicate that it cannot be ignored. Indeed, it seems likely that the gospel-centred world is set to become more, not less, polarized on this issue. After all, how one answers the question of the mission of the church reflects how one understands the gospel and shapes everything that the church does.
In that same article Trueman alludes to some of his concerns about both the nature and role of The Gospel Coalition in reformed-ish, conservative-ish evangelicalism. But he's much more punchy in this interview. There, he relates an anecdote that might be a bit repugnant to those who share his sensibilities:
I received from an employee of The Gospel Coalition just last week an e-mail basically telling me to shut up about James MacDonald because I was effectively opposing the work of the church in the current time, and I'm sitting in my office thinking, "Since when did James MacDonald get appointed as my spokesman? I'm ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He's not an officer in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Who has decided that the agenda of my denomination and my congregation is suddenly to be set by people that I hadn't heard of until six months ago?"

So I think the overweening ambition of the parachurch becomes critical at this point as well. To me, churches should set the Church's agenda. Parachurch is helpful in supporting the church in that, but when you get an organization that is effectively starting to creep into church areas and trying to silence churchmen on these key points, that is very, very problematic to me.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Wager of the American Experiment (or, Why We Can't Keep Thinking We're a Christian Nation)

Leave it to an Irishman born in China to offer the most succinct insight into the matter that I've ever encountered.

Video is embedded below. Start at 53:13 for context. Or click here for an external link to that precise point. Or just read the most important part:
There's two places on which America is a gigantic wager, or gamble. Put it like this: On the one hand, the republic requires ultimate beliefs. It requires them. Otherwise, there's no roots to the rights. On the other hand, the republic rejects any statement of what those ultimate beliefs are. There is no orthodoxy. There's no heresy.

How do you bring those two together? The republic requires them; the republic rejects anyone saying what they are. The only way you bring that together is, the republic wagers that in the free democratic debate the best beliefs—the most human, the most true, the most just, et cetera—win the argument!

And it's foreseeable in two ways that you might have trouble. One is if there are so many views that nobody cares about everything. You have such tolerance that it becomes indifference. We all just . . . slump. And clearly, parts of the country are towards that today.

The other view is, in the open pluralistic games, someone plays the game to get power who doesn't believe in pluralism and puts everyone else out of business. And if you've read the stuff of the extreme Islam-ism—not Islam, Islam-ism—they want to replace the Constitution with a caliphate. And they're in essence openly trying to exploit pluralism to get the power to put others out.

Another way of putting it is like this: Constitutionally, there's absolutely no limit to what anyone in America can believe, is there? First Amendment: Constitutionally, no limit. Sociologically and culturally, there is a limit. As I've just said, you could have beliefs arise that endanger the whole thing. How do you bring that tension together, once again? Democratic debate.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pagan Sermons, David Cloud, and Preacher Idol

1. Your Old Testament sermon needs to get saved. Though I might push back on a couple points, this is the most clear, compact argument I can remember for why and how we should preach the OT in light of the pervasive Christological themes in Scripture.

2. Read this article on church music and tell me who Al Mohler's quoting in this tweet. Because I'm not sure I believe my eyes. Maybe now I've seen it all.

3. The next hipster rage: having some fun with elders who sense a call to preach, inspired by the "American Idol" concept. I'm grateful to serve in a church that treats elders with greater dignity.

4. An interesting look at the divergent trajectories of historically Baptist colleges, and the price required to pursue biblical fidelity.

5. Some helpful perspective on student ministry from SEBTS prof Alvin Reid here. He cites a startling admission from the founder of one of the largest youth ministry organizations:
We got what we wanted. We turned youth ministry into the toy department of the church. Churches now hire professionals to lead youth ministry. We got relevance but we created a generation of teenagers who are a mile wide and are an inch deep.
Here's the fourth component of the corrective measures Reid proposes:
Connect to the whole church, across generations. The generation of teens today is not only the largest, it is also the most fatherless. We must connect students to the larger church and not function as a parachurch ministry within a church building. Students need older believers in their lives. We need a Titus 2 revolution where older men teach younger guys and older women teach younger ladies.
6. Finally, I greatly appreciated Ryan Martin's concluding post on biblical discernment—a brief summary of some key texts. I'm posting the link here so I can find it later, but I suspect you may enjoy it as well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sound Familiar?

God wouldn't demand something of us that we don't have the capacity to do.

Makes sense, right? Fair. Reasonable. Just. Logical.

I wonder if you've ever heard someone make that argument. I know I have. And of course it's not a new argument. Someone else made it centuries ago. No less than sixteen centuries, as a matter of fact:
No one knows better the measure of our strength than he who gave us our strength; and no one has a better understanding of what is within our power than he who endowed us with the resources of our power. He has not willed to command anything impossible, for he is righteous; and he will not condemn a man for what he could not help, for he is holy.
Only problem is, that's not biblical. It's actually a logical extrapolation proceeding from unsubstantiated assumptions about God's nature and character. In other words, the premise is flawed.

I heard a conversation on evangelism and divine sovereignty in salvation not too long ago. Funny thing was, the most aggressive anti-Calvinist was the person who wanted to deal most with philosophical categories and least with the biblical text.

Maybe that was an anomaly. At the very least, it was ironic. But the more I thought about it, the less surprising it became.

By the way, the above quote [PDF] is drawn from Pelagius, whose teaching has been condemned as heresy throughout the history of the Church. One might argue that this particular statement is not precisely what was condemned, and it doesn't necessarily lead to full-blown Pelagianism. I'm just not sure what would stand in its way.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Libertarians, Singles, Billy Graham, and Rick Perry: You won't get this anywhere else.

1. The first story in Al Mohler's 10/25 edition of "The Briefing" is chilling. It tells the story of the gravely wounded Chinese toddler left to die on the street. But it's more than a tear-jerking human interest story or a commentary on Chinese society and jurisprudence. It also demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of a market system disconnected from a traditional-moral-religious foundation.

In other words, don't buy the Libertarian lie that the free market will solve all our problems. Libertarianism, at best, maintains uncomfortable and flimsy ties to theistically-defined morality, not to mention the doctrine of depravity. When those ties are finally severed as pluralism pervades Western culture, we'll see stories like this one from China on our own shores. Or perhaps we've already seen 50 million of them.

2. I haven't yet watched the Mohler-Wallis debate on social justice and the mission of the church, but if you beat me to it, let me know what you think.

3. This is a great list of things not to say to single women in your church. (With my wife's help, I continue to compile a list of things not to say to pregnant women. Suggestions are welcome.)

4. And then here's some constructive advice on how we can serve singles well.

5. Could be some interesting stuff in these sermon archives if someone wants to dig around. Let me know what you find.

6. Now, for my favorite part, the Rick Perry section. (We don't do much politics here, but today I just can't stop myself.)

First, the pastor who endorsed him and called Mormonism a cult fields some pointed questions and doesn't Osteen them.

And somebody please tell me, why are Perry supporters working so hard to convince people this is what he's like when he's sober? As if that's a real win for him?

Monday, November 07, 2011

On Climbing the Shepherding Career Ladder

A friend told me about a pastor he's known for years who wrote a personal resolution in the margin of David Wells' No Place for Truth, where Wells addresses "The Pastor as Impermanent" (249-250). First, a bit of what Wells had to say:
The combination of professionalization and [the impermanence of modern society] has encouraged pastors to suppose that it is proper for them to seek careers. When they cannot form lasting relationships in a particular community, they are tempted to look inward for the measure of fruitfulness rather than outward. They will be tempted to seek first a career rather than to make an enduring contribution to the people in a particular place. But how can the biblical teaching on service be reconciled with the psychological appetites for greater visibility and power that careers generate? Perhaps, instead of seeking a career, the modern minister would find it easier to model the virtues of humility and self-sacrifice by seeking to be a fool.
Here's what the pastor wrote in the margin:
Resolved, by God's grace and not against his clear leading: I am unwilling to subject the precious sheep under my charge to the indignity and pain of saying to them that a different flock—with which I am not intimate—is more worthy of my efforts and merits the uprooting of all my perseverant labors with my flock merely because the new flock is larger (or smaller) or grazes in a more verdant, visible field.

My present charge may, in some ways, take me for granted. And by jumping ship, I might initially be greeted with a burst of noteworthy success. But at the end of the day, would I not stand guilty of sacrificing a content and vulnerable flock for the advancement of self as a shepherd? What do shepherds know of self-advancement? And in the end, is not the Chief Shepherd whose commendation matters? And will he not commend faithful, life-long fidelity to a flock that is ever confident in the persevering, selfless love of his loyal under-shepherd?
He's had his chances to jump ship. His sheep are fortunate.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

How Much Stuff Happened to David So That He'd Look Like Jesus?

I'm in no position to analyze the chain of causation, but one of the benefits of the attention to biblical theology and gospel centrality in the last decade or so has been a rediscovery of the Old Testament. Maybe the Presbyterians out there are laughing at me for that comment, but I think it'd be fairly easy to make a case that the OT was largely ignored (at best) or grossly abused (at worst) by baptistic folks in recent decades.

That rediscovery of the OT has sparked a healthy conversation about how the OT text casts historical (real) events and characters as emblematic of larger patterns in the development of the biblical storyline. (Hamilton's recent book is one place to see some of those issues under the microscope.) Trouble is, Covenant Theologians and Dispensationalists are inclined to polarized conclusions. Someone positioned between those systems might say that CT'ers flatten everything out and see too much continuity—types everywhere, descending into allegory. And D's often deny all types but those the NT explicitly identifies, disrupting the unity of the Bible.

One of the more thought-provoking discussions I've encountered is Jim Hamilton's 2008 lecture, The Typology of David’s Rise to Power: Messianic Patterns in the Book of Samuel [PDF] Audio's available here. Hamilton considers:
whether we are limited to the examples of typological interpretation seen in the Old and New Testaments, or whether, taking our cues from those examples, we can build upon them.
In other words, does the NT identify every OT type, or should we look for the same kinds of correspondence that the NT writers identify, and apply them to OT figures that the NT writers don't? Or, should we apply the same hermeneutic to the OT that the NT writers did? If your answer is no, why not? And if your answer is yes, how do you know when you've crossed the line into unjustifiable allegory?

One of Hamilton's more important arguments against the limitation of OT typology to those specifically identified in the NT is that the OT itself interprets other OT texts typologically. On top of that:
[S]everal passages in the New Testament invite readers to conclude that the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus and the church in more ways than are explicitly quoted in the New Testament (cf. Luke 24:25–27; John 5:39–46; Acts 3:24; 17:2–3; Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:11; 2 Cor 1:20; Heb 8:5; 10:1; 1 Pet 1:10–12).
Where the rubber meets the road on all of this is that Hamilton perceives several dozen points of correspondence between David and Jesus—right down to the minute details of the number of days between events. Were they all providentially ordained in history so that they might be recorded in the OT text as instruction both to its original and intended readers? I'm not fully convinced, and Hamilton concedes that he's not either. But he's convinced that some of them are, and that they're pretty important for how we interpret our Bibles:
It seems to me that typological interpretation is central to answering that question: precisely by assuring us of the unity of Scripture and the faithfulness of God—that as God has acted in the past, so he acts in the present, and so we can expect him to act in the future—we find the words of Paul true in our own lives:

"For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 15:4–6).

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Neither Dispensationalism nor Covenant Theology understand . . ."

This is the end of the end. As you've seen in previous posts, we're interacting with the relationship between the biblical covenants and the association of the nation of Israel and the Church with them. Below is a chart reproduced from John Reisinger's Abraham's Four Seeds. The chart is rooted in what Reisinger calls "five biblical facts."






















His conclusions (117-118) ought to be thought-provoking, not lightly dismissed on the basis of our rigidly held presuppositions:

1. Neither Dispensationalism nor Covenant Theology understand the biblical doctrine of the Church as the Body of Christ in the redemptive purposes of God.

2. Neither of these systems really has a true New Covenant replacing an Old Covenant where both covenants relate to the same redemptive purposes of God for his one true people. This is why Hebrews 8 does not fit either system.

3. Neither of these systems sees the true relationship of Israel and the Church. Both Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology insist on bringing the physical aspect of Israel as a nation into the New Testament either directly or indirectly.

Finally, and this is what ties it all together:
It should be abundantly clear that the unconditional promise that God made to Abraham has nothing at all to do with plural "seeds." It can have nothing to do with physical Jews and Palestine or with the children of believers and their salvation. God unconditionally promised Abraham that his seed would be the Messiah. The seed promised to Abraham is Christ! God promised to save and keep all those who were chosen in Christ to be the objects of the Father's unconditional love and grace.

There is only one really vital question: "Are you personally in Abraham's seed and an heir with him according to the promise?" The answer has nothing at all to do with your family lineage or what religious rite or ceremonies were performed on you. It has to do with whether you are in Christ. It has to do with the power of the Holy Spirit revealing Jesus Christ to your heart in saving grace and power. (119)

Monday, October 24, 2011

"The Church is now all of the specific things that Israel never became."

A long, long time ago—back in May—I launched a series on the relationship between the major biblical covenants. Initially rooted in arguments from this book, we more recently (July!) interacted with John Reisinger's Abraham's Four Seeds. And that's where we'll land, finally, in this post and another scheduled to publish soon.

Reisinger published a chart on pages 114-115 that was designed to compare and contrast the nation of Israel with the body of Christ—two nations, two covenants, related to one another under "God's one single goal." I've reproduced it below, not because it indisputably resolves all the issues (I actually think it doesn't), but because it's an enlightening glimpse at the issues from one particular angle that I've seldom heard discussed:






















Reisinger argues that the chart is rooted in five biblical facts. He expands on and defends them (115-117); I'll merely list them:

1. The physical nation of Israel was given the specific promise of becoming the true holy nation of God if the people would obey the covenant of law given at Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:27, 28).

2. Israel, as the physical nation of God, was brought into being, as a nation or "body politic," by the Law Covenant at Sinai (Deut 4:13). Their national existence and special relationship to God were based on their obedience to that legal covenant and all its ceremonial and civil accruements.

3. The physical nation of Israel was cast off and the special national covenant relationship was totally ended when Christ came (Matt. 21:43)

4. The spiritual nation, the Body of Christ, was "born in a day" [an allusion to Is. 66:8] and has become all of the very things Israel never became. . . . It is impossible not to see 1 Peter 2:5-9 as the word-for-word fulfillment of the promise made to Israel at Sinai in Exodus 19:5, 6.

5. The Church inherits the true spiritual blessings promised to Israel in the law covenant at Sinai simply because her Lord has kept the covenant for her. Christ earned every blessing the law covenant promised by being born under that covenant (Gal. 3:24-4:7), and then rendering to it the perfect obedience that it demanded (Phil. 2:5-11 and Rom. 8:1-4). This was the only way that he could earn (for us) the righteousness that was necessary to inherit the blessings that the law covenant promised. Christ also endured every curse that same law covenant threatened when he died on the cross under the judgment of God. [. . . and I hope we can all say amen to that . . .]

His final conclusions soon to come . . .

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What Luther Might Say About Our Preaching

I just finished typing into a Word doc a few quotes that I wanted to remember from Luther's The Bondage of the Will. As it happens, at the same time I was listening to the conclusion of a sermon preached at a Bible college. I was struck by the juxtaposition of two strikingly different articulations of the gospel and sanctification—one entering through my ears, and the other through my eyes.

In the sermon, the preacher argued that if we're going to obey Scripture, we need a strategy. We need an achievable plan of action if we want to pursue our new direction successfully. We need to figure out what we need to do to change.

Depending on how we define some of those terms, I wouldn't necessarily argue that he was wrong. I do wish he'd have said a bit more, somewhere along the way. I think Martin Luther tells us why:
I frankly confess that, for myself, even if it could be, I should not want ‘free-will’ to be given me, nor anything to be left in my own hands to enable me to endeavor after salvation; not merely because in face of so many dangers, and adversities, and assaults of devils, I could not stand my ground and hold fast my ‘free-will’ (for one devil is stronger than all men, and on these terms no man could be saved); but because, even were there no dangers, adversities, or devils, I should still be forced to labour with no guarantee of success, and to beat my fists at the air.

If I lived and worked to all eternity, my conscience would never reach comfortable certainty as to how much it must do to satisfy God. Whatever work I had done, there would still be a nagging doubt as to whether it pleased God, or whether He required something more. The experience of all who seek righteousness by works proves that; and I learned it well enough myself over a period of many years, to my own great hurt. But now that God has taken my salvation out of the control of my own will, and put it under the control of His, and promised to save me, not according to my working or running, but according to His own grace and mercy, I have the comfortable certainty that He is faithful and will not lie to me, and that He is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can break Him or pluck me from Him. . . .

Furthermore, I have the comfortable certainty that I please God, not by reason of the merit of my works, but by reason of His merciful favour promised to me; so that, if I work too little, or badly, He does not impute it to me, but with fatherly compassion pardons me and makes me better. This is the glorying of all the saints in their God. (313-314)
We need to preach biblical imperatives. We need to help believers see their obligations to obey biblical commands in a culture that's very different from the first century. But if we fail to encourage them that their hope of victory isn't grounded in their action plan, but in a whole-hearted dependence on the transforming power of the Holy Spirit of God—then we've taught them how to fail, and we've given them a reason to quit.

We can debate whether that's a chord we need to play every time we step into the pulpit. I think I can make a reasonably persuasive case that we should. But I suspect that many of us have lived and served in places where we never heard it. My question is this: How big of a problem do we think that is? How we answer that question reveals a great deal about our understanding of the gospel.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Can We Advance the Kingdom?

I found David Wells' survey of the biblical data quite helpful:
[T]his reign, this rule, is something God is doing. The reason, clearly, is that this is not something that emerges from "below," which we ourselves can get going. It must come from "above." We cannot bring it about; only God can.

We can search for the kingdom, pray for it, and look for it, for example, but only God can bring it about (Luke 12:31; 23:51; Matt. 6:10, 33). The kingdom is God's to give and to take away. It is ours only to enter and accept (Matt. 21:43; Luke 12:32) We can inherit it, possess it, or refuse to enter it, but it is not ours to build and we can never destroy it (Matt. 25:34; Luke 10:11). We can work for the kingdom, but we can never act upon it. We can preach it, but it is God's to establish (Matt. 10:7; Luke 10:9; 12:32).

God's inbreaking, saving, vanquishing rule is his from first to last. It has no human analogues, no duplicates, no parallels, and no surrogates. It allows of no human synergism. The inbreaking of the "age to come" into our world is accomplished by God alone. This is all about the spirituality that is from "above" and not at all about that which is from "below." It is about God reaching down in grace and doing for sinners what they cannot do for themselves. For if this is God's kingdom, his rule, the sphere of his sovereignty, then it is not for us to take or to establish. We receive, we do not take; we enter, but we do not seize. We come as subjects in his kingdom, not as sovereigns in our own.

David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant, 196.
For similar exegetical analysis, check out this 9Marks interview with Greg Gilbert and Kevin DeYoung.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

A Brief Tour of Some Spirits of the Age

1. Just for starters, another Kindle deal that's too good to pass up: The two-volume Works of Jonathan Edwards for $1.99.

2. I've been told that a particular brand of children's pirate CDs now lead children through the "sinner's prayer" at the end. Aarrrrrrrghhh! Can anyone confirm yea or nay?

3. None of these arguments actually support the author's conclusion. One or two of the arguments aren't even true. Let me quote a wiser man than I once again:
If we wanted to devise a plan to turn out as many legalists as we could, how would we go about it? One way that we might do it is to offer some sort of of a carnal or this-worldly inducement for performing spiritual exercises.
4. Any idiot can throw rocks at Joel Osteen, so that's not my point here. He's simply ahead of his time. This sort of spineless attempt to maintain some veneer of biblical fidelity while accommodating secularists' incredulity is going to be the temptation the people in our pews face. Sooner or later, if not already. And, frankly, probably our temptation too. As David Wells has said in this outstanding book, "Engaging the culture is not the same thing as capitulating to it" (92).



5. And speaking of a look into the future, here's what Apple thought the future looked like back in 1987:

Monday, October 03, 2011

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Another Chance

A few months ago I pointed out a great sale on a useful (but otherwise pricey) pastoral tool: CCEF booklets. It's back. You can buy a whole set of 27 for $39.99 (50% off) or a 5-pack of one title for $1.64/booklet ($3.99 regular price).

These aren't magic bullets. They may be merely a first step as men and women desire to fight sin and pursue godliness in the midst of difficult circumstances and seductive temptations. But they can be an extraordinarily helpful way to put people on a trajectory towards biblical thinking and repentance, particularly if they're shamed by their sin and not yet ready to speak with a pastor.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Elders and Theological-Pastoral Development

Over the past several years, beginning long before I was here, our elders have set aside time in our bimonthly meetings to discuss the content and pastoral implications of one chapter in a book. We've worked our way through Grudem's Systematic Theology, and we're about to finish Believer's Baptism. Lord willing, in a few week's we'll start a new study. These books are theological enough to offer some real meat to chew on, but the pastoral implications are pretty obvious in most of the chapters. And at some point we may also work through some of the dialogues on sanctification that have emerged in the blogosphere in recent weeks.

These conversations have been fruitful in three ways. First, we've each grown in our understanding of Scripture and how various texts relate to each other. Second, we've identified areas in which we still don't agree completely and considered what we really do and don't need to agree on in order to function together as a church—even as elders. And finally, we've wrestled with some practical pastoral questions outside the context and pressure of a real-life situation.

Let me encourage you to create these sorts of conversations among your elders. And, of course, if you don't like the historically Baptist ecclesiology of elder-led congregationalism, you might even find this sort of thing helpful among your pastoral staff. Or even with the deacons.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Who Should Marry Cohabiting Couples?

This post raises a thought-provoking conversation for pastors to consider. I agree in principle with Doug Wilson that it's better for non-Christian*, cohabiting couples to get married than to continue cohabiting unmarried. I also agree with those who note that this creates an opportunity for a conversation about marriage and the gospel. (Well, a couple people sort of reference the gospel, at least.)

But there are other issues that no one addresses and only Al Mohler even approaches. For example, why would a cohabiting couple even desire marriage by a pastor? Do they want a "church wedding"—a Christianized ceremony conforming to societal expectations and endowed with a pastoral imprimatur? Is that something a pastor really wants to offer couples in an ongoing state of unrepentant sin?

My dad's a mayor and (at least so far) marries everyone that the law allows. Couples leave that ceremony with no illusion that they have the blessing of a religious sacrament. I think I could marry a non-Christian, cohabiting couple, but only if I'd thoroughly persuaded them of that same fact.



*The post doesn't explicitly address whether the couples are believers or not, and some of the commenters unhelpfully increase that ambiguity.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Does Racial Sin Undermine the Gospel?

I get the sense that's one of the key questions John Piper's new book addresses. You can read an excerpt from it in Christianity Today—though not one that addresses the exegetical issues. I suspect you can get a hint at his ultimate conclusion from this comment:
The Bible does not oppose or forbid interracial marriages but sees them as a positive good for the glory of Christ.
It reminds me of some comments Michael Lawrence made in a sermon a couple years ago.

Piper's excerpt raises a number of personal and historical perspectives. This reminder draws on both:
[T]here is no mystery in it as to why a young black man [Jesse Jackson, taken in context] growing up [in Greenville, South Carolina]—or a Martin Luther King growing up in Atlanta a generation earlier—would get his theological education at a liberal institution (such as Chicago Theological Seminary or Crozer Theological Seminary). Our fundamental and evangelical schools—and almost every other institution, especially in the South—were committed to segregation.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Did Decisionistic Revivalism Marginalize Baptism?

Ardel Caneday argues that it did in his thought-provoking article, "Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement," in this book. Here's his case:
Ironically, since the Great Awakening, [zeal to isolate baptism from Christian conversion] has permitted "new measures" of various kinds, such as the "mourner's bench," the "invitation system," or a recited "sinner's prayer" to displace baptism as the rite of conversion, thus shirking and even marginalizing Christ's command to the church. Zeal to avoid "baptismal regeneration," which many perceived to be the necessary consequence of Alexander Campbell's teaching, actually spawned another error, "decisional regeneration." This was an error rooted in revivalism that is now a traditional element in American evangelicalism. If the former error is to relegate regenerating efficacy to the rite of baptism itself, the latter error assigns the same efficacy to the human decision to act upon whichever measures preachers may use.

The Enlightenment's high estimation of the power of human choice took root in the frontier American church. Regrettably, evangelical churches yielded to confluent streams of revivalism and Enlightenment influences. Though Alexander Campbell unwittingly yielded to the Enlightenment's overconfidence in human reason, he rightly opposed the introduction of "new measures" that began to impoverish churches by the acceptance of conversions that did not yield transformed people. (p. 325, paragraph division mine)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Theoretical Calvinism, Functional Arminianism

When I read an influential book from the 50s, I found myself thinking, "He says he's a Calvinist, but he's arguing like an Arminian—as if modern strategies, social engagement, and intellectual credibility offer our best shot at persuading people to receive our message." In these two videos John MacArthur accurately identifies pretty much the exact same mindset among the YRR crowd today. Here's what he says:
How in the world could you have a true, reformed view of the doctrines of grace related to salvation, and then think that having holes in your jeans and an Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirt and a can of beer in your hand somehow give you access to the lost. I mean, c'mon, that's irrelevant to what you're trying to do. So because you affirm the Calvinistic doctrine of salvation, it seems to me that you can be an Arminian everywhere else you want to be. And the fear is that the power of the world's attraction is going to suck these guys in every generation after them more and more into the culture, and we're going to see a reversal of the reformed revival.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Five Great Books on Afghanistan

I'm not saying these are the best five. Just the five I happened to read during the past few years, of the many that came highly recommended. I loved each one. In chronological order . . .

1. The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan. The story of a lone American who maneuvered his way into power in the early 19th century. Great story, of the five, the one I'd least recommend.

2. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. When you hear people talk about how Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, this is one of the classic illustrations. It's a fascinating story of a different time—and a place people who really know Afghanistan will tell you to start if you want to understand it.

3. The Kite Runner. By now you've probably seen the movie and at least heard of the book. The movie was harder to watch. The book painted a more memorable picture of Afghanistan both pre- and post-Taliban.

4. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Absolutely gripping and well worth a read for its thorough research and wide-ranging scope, thought it's a bit tough to follow for the same reasons. It ends with the bad stuff that happened on September 10th that you probably never heard about.

5. Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan. Wow. If you want a feel-good story from Afghanistan, this is probably as close as you're going to get. Did your jaw drop reading accounts of the OBL-killing mission? This one's even better. What this handful of guys did is just astonishing.

Bonus: Haven't read it, but lots of people tell me The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 is quite good. Covers more or less the same time period as Ghost Wars, but I think it focuses more on Al-Qaeda and less specifically on Afghanistan.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Have You Hugged a Presbyterian Today?

Two reasons you should:

1. Should I ever attend the SBC annual meeting again, it's going to be sorely tempting to nominate Carl Trueman for our president. Here's why:
Southern Baptists should be delighted that the organizers [of the National Cathedral's 9/11 commemoration] had the sensitivity and foresight not to place them in the grim position of having to turn down such an invitation in order to avoid compromising their orthodox, Protestant identity. The public relations disaster that would have followed this elementary stand for biblical truth and exclusivity would have been spectacular. After all, how could one maintain that one is taking seriously 1 Timothy 2 while sharing prayer time with a real-life incarnate lama?

The Southern Baptists need to stop feeling disappointed that such a well-intentioned but theologically incoherent gathering does not want their presence and they should instead remember the wisdom of Marx - not Karl, but Groucho: you should never want to join any club that would have you as a member.

2. When I watched Collision, a documentary of debates and conversations between Doug Wilson and Christopher Hitchens, I was looking for a clear exposition of how Hitchens' atheistic worldview is compatible with his affirmation of the existence of objective evil. Though Hitchens addressed the issue with characteristically entertaining disdain, I didn't find his argument coherent. Unfortunately, the medium didn't really permit a sustained clash of ideas. But now Wilson's dismantling response to Hitchens' recent declaration that 9/11 was a day of "pure evil" provides exactly that. Wilson's essay is one of the rare things you find on the internet that's worth reading more than once. Here's his conclusion:
[Hitchens'] atheistic rhetoric is full of borrowed theistic words. He sounds like totalitarianism is objectively bad. His approach would seem to indicate that being vicious is a sin. The big lie would be a violation of the Ninth Commandment, of course, but I thought we had explained all that.

I for one am glad that Hitchens wants to repudiate the big lies. I am glad that he stands against vicious totalitarian ideas. Thus far I can applaud him. But in order to stand against anything, however obviously bad it is, you must have something to stand on.

Anybody Surprised? Just Curious . . .

Jonathan Leeman interviews Andy Naselli and Collin Hansen on their forthcoming book, Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism. Leeman asks, "Did anything surprise you when reading the answers and rejoinders of these four authors?"

Hansen replies:
I was surprised to see the close resemblance between Mohler's confessional evangelical position and the fundamentalist view, at least as described by Kevin Bauder. John Stackhouse and Roger Olson respond with alarm as they point out this similarity.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Exegeting the Church's Mission

I've speculated previously that the increasing tension among reformed, conservative evangelicals over the church's mission may lead to a deep fissure between those who otherwise have much in common theologically. As this conversation points out, when you start talking about the church's mission, you inevitably wind up in a difficult conversation over soteriology, ecclesiology, and even eschatology—just not the "Left Behind" kind.

A big part of the trouble here is that far too often the debate is cluttered with flimsy exegesis. That's why I'm looking forward to reading this book. Back-of-the-book endorsements sometimes skew towards hot air. But scan these comments and you'll see a consistent emphasis on Gilbert and DeYoung's sound exegesis. And take a look at who's saying those things, and I think you'll find the sort of people who know what sound exegesis looks like.

And by the way, for the next couple days you can get an outstanding deal—about half what Amazon's listing it for, with a special quantity discount if you want to create a good discussion among your elders, church staff, or missions team.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Your Best Life Now: A Review of Milltown Pride

I'd like to affirm that David Oestreich [seems at this time to be misspelled on SI] "hit the ball out of the park" with his review, but I have to be honest that I haven't seen the movie. Nevertheless, he's a thoughtful guy, skilled in aesthetic issues. I suspect his critique is spot-on. But what I'm most interested is his conclusion, which exposes the film's pseudo-gospel. Here's a portion of his argument:
Unlike the prodigal son, Will moves from one comfortable situation to a different comfortable situation, the latter complete with a cushy job, a girlfriend and the unfettered pursuit of baseball!

Which brings us to Milltown Pride’s worst weakness—an incomplete portrayal of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is one thing to use characters as a means to a narrative end. It is quite another to so use the gospel. But when the outcome of Will’s conversion is not only the erasure of nearly all his personal problems but a clear path to realizing his goal of playing professional sports, there is but one thing for a viewer to think: trust Jesus, and all your wildest dreams will come true.
Perhaps easy-believism and a partial message might be forgiven in the film genre. Perhaps. (As someone used to say, "I speak as a fool.") But when the producer/actor/BJU Dean of the School of Fine Arts and Communication argues that Unusual Films' "primary mission is to produce high-quality films that clearly present the Christian message" because "older forms of Christian expression aren't as effective any more," you better make extra special sure you get the gospel right.

According to Oestreich, they didn't. Not even close.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Utilitarian, Prophetic Religiosity: The Handy god of Evangelical Politics

In a campaign appearance last weekend, Michelle Bachmann said,
I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.”
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Washington Post blogger and President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, responded:
[Ms. Bachmann] imagines not only that there is meaning and purpose to such events and that they are controlled directly by God, she imagines that she knows the mind of God and can tell America what such events mean. That is called prophecy, especially when done in such an immediate and direct way, and as far as I know Michele Bachmann doesn’t claim to be a prophet. Or does she?

While not making that claim overtly, Ms. Bachmann consistently approaches both politics and religion from a position of absolutes - the kind of absolutes which, if not absolutely 100 percent correct, can be pretty dangerous. From defaulting on our national debt to abortion to this weekend’s hurricane, there is, according to Michelle Bachmann, only one right answer - hers. And unless someone speaks with the absolute knowledge that most believers ascribe to God or prophets, that’s a pretty dangerous way to speak.
Though I'm rather confident that Hirschfield and I don't share the same view of God and the gospel, I agree with every word he wrote about Bachmann. But because of what I do believe about God and the gospel, I'm persuaded that there's more to be said, and I'll get straight to the point.

Bachmann's comments are utterly indefensible. Some, Hirschfield apparently among them, believe her speech will further damage our national political discourse. I agree, but I suspect it (and so many others like it) is actually more detrimental to the Christian faith. As the prophet Joel reminds us, God does intend for natural disasters to direct our attention toward the certainty of future and greater divine judgment on human rebellion. But the notion that judgment falls on us for rampant spending grossly distorts the human condition and cheapens the gravity of our fundamental need. Bachmann claims the comments were made in jest. If that's true, she's treating God and his verdicts lightly—taking his name in vain—and the offense is only greater.

C.S. Lewis wrote, "We will never save civilisation as long as civilisation is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more." (You may have read that somewhere before.) The price of Bachmann's comments is the marginalization of the gospel of God's eternal kingdom in exchange for immediate and temporary political influence. I wish evangelicals and the God-users they vote for would learn what the Preacher in Ecclesiastes knew—that fixing our hopes on that which cannot last and will not satisfy is emptiness and striving after wind.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Before Gospel-Centered Was Cool, It Was True

From Richard Sibbes in The Bruised Reed, 1630:
[Christ] is our Sanctifier as well as our Saviour, our Saviour as well by the effectual power of his Spirit from the power of sin as by the merit of his death from the guilt thereof; provided these things are remembered:

1. The first and chief ground of our comfort is that Christ as a priest offered himself as a sacrifice to his Father for us. The guilty soul flies first to Christ crucified, made a curse for us. Thence it is that Christ has right to govern us; thence it is that he gives us his Spirit as our guide to lead us home.

2. In the course of our life, after we are in a state of grace, if we are overtaken with any sin, we must remember to have recourse first to Christ's mercy to pardon us, and then to the promise of his Spirit to govern us.

3. And when we feel ourselves cold in affection and duty, the best way is to warm ourselves at this fire of his love and mercy in giving himself for us.

4. Again, remember this, that Christ rules us by a spirit of love, from a sense of his love, whereby his commandments are easy to us. He leads us by his free Spirit, a Spirit of liberty. His subjects are voluntaries. The constraint that he lays upon his subjects is that of love. He draws us sweetly with the cords of love. Yet remember also that he draws us strongly by a Spirit of power, for it is not sufficient that we have motives and encouragements to love and obey Christ from that love of his whereby he gave himself for us to justify us; but Christ's Spirit must likewise subdue our hearts, and sanctify them to love him, without which all motives would be ineffectual.

Our disposition must be changed. We must be new creatures. They seek for heaven in hell that seek for spiritual love in an unchanged heart. When a child obeys his father it is from reasons persuading him, as likewise from a child-like nature which gives strength to these reasons. It is natural for a child of God to love Christ so far as he is renewed, not only from inducement of reason so to do, but likewise from an inward principle and work of grace, whence those reasons have their chief force. First we are made partakers of the divine nature, and then we are easily induced and led by Christ's Spirit to spiritual duties. (80-82)
May it never again be denied that the cross is the epicenter of sanctification.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Is the Sin of Idolatry Pretty Much Obsolete?

Jay Adams seems to suggest that it is—unless, of course, you're bowing down to a piece of stone. At the very least, he's arguing that we're acting unbiblically if we help people identify their heart idols. Adams' comments are rather vague. It's not at all clear what he's responding to, or whether his preference is that counselors deal exclusively with raw human behavior rather than the affections that motivate the behavior.

Frankly, his comments are puzzling, since I'd assume most pastors and counselors would find some benefit in identifying the sinful heart issue beneath the sinful behavior. And it's not as if Adams (a Presbyterian) is coming from some hyper-dispensationalist position that radically bifurcates the OT prevalence of idolatry from the NT.

Adams, and all of us, ought to be able to recognize that the issue in OT idolatry isn't the nature of the object, but that the idol displaces God in the human heart. OT idolatry is a worship issue. It's about misplaced or distorted affections, values, allegiances, and hopes. One might well ask a NT sinning saint, "What were you loving or trusting in most at the moment you chose to sin? What lie were you believing about whom is worthy of your ultimate affections? What or whom were you really worshiping?" If that sort of communication isn't present in our preaching and our counseling, I'm not sure how we're going to accomplish anything more than behavior modification—treating symptoms

Of course, these notions aren't original with me. You can find them in Paul Tripp's books (especially this one), Tim Keller's sermons, and this outstanding little sermon series from Kevin Bauder. As I remember, the final sermon, "Shaping Our Affections Toward God" [MP3], spelled it out most directly.

Finally, and briefly, if you want NT texts that prove believers need to be warned about idolatry, in Galatians 5:19-20 one of the works of the flesh is idolatry. And even more explicitly, in Colossians 3:5 covetousness is idolatry. Covetousness—by definition a sin of the mind and heart.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Exegesis or Extra Jesus: How Much Christ in the OT Narratives?

Anybody else out there struggle to preach OT narratives? I was completely lost until a couple people helped see that narratives are more than stories with moral lessons, but actually teach theology and call for faith. Increasing exposure to biblical theology helped me begin to grasp how individual narratives relate to the overall metanarrative. But I've remained puzzled by how to handle the selection and arrangement of narrative material. Why did authors include some stories and details and omit others? And what does one narrative have to do with the one that precedes it and another that follows it?

Dale Ralph Davis' The Word Became Fresh is the most helpful resource I've encountered on that particular issue, and it's a useful overall intro to preaching OT narratives as well.

His approach to preaching Christology from OT narratives is also worth noting. Some exegetes suggest that we should only see Messianic references in OT texts that are specifically identified in the NT—and sometimes not even then. Others suggest that texts like Luke 24 teach that we need to find Christology in every OT text. Davis denies both extremes, and clarifies a balanced (some might say "plain" or "normal") reading of that chapter:
From Jesus' statements I make an inference and form a corollary: the whole Old Testament bears witness to Christ; and, the Old Testament does not bear witness only to Christ. Why this corollary? Because I agree with making an extensive inference from Luke 24:27 and 44 but hold that an intensive inference is illegitimate.

What on earth does that mean? It means I think Jesus is teaching that all parts of the Old Testament testify of the Messiah in his suffering and glory, but I do not think Jesus is saying that every Old Testament passage/text bears witness to him. Jesus referred to the things written about him in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms—he did not say that every passage spoke of him (v. 44). Therefore, I do not feel compelled to make every Old Testament (narrative) passage point to Christ in some way because I do not think Christ himself requires it (pgs. 134-135).
I would simply add that true, full-orbed exposition of any text in its context must consider that text's relationship to the full context of Scripture—Genesis to Revelation. And that work must surely take the person and work of Christ into account.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Pastors Who Prophesy About People's Hidden Sins

If you put a gun to my head and make me pick teams in this fight, it's not a tough call. And I'm guessing that if you know me well at all, you can figure it out without breaking much of a sweat. (Unless, of course, you're the guy who told my then-boss that I was in the tank for a couple guys with the initials R.W. and J.O. . . .)

Now having said that, it just happened (I'm not calling it revelation) that I was cleaning out some really old e-mail tonight and stumbled across a link a friend sent me back in 2008. That article contains this curious anecdote:
The ministry of Charles Spurgeon is a case in point. Read carefully the following account taken from his autobiography:

“While preaching in the hall, on one occasion, I deliberately pointed to a man in the midst of the crowd, and said, ‘There is a man sitting there, who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays, it was open last Sabbath morning, he took ninepence, and there was fourpence profit out of it; his soul is sold to Satan for fourpence!’ A city missionary, when going his rounds, met with this man, and seeing that he was reading one of my sermons, he asked the question, ‘Do you know Mr. Spurgeon?’ ‘Yes,’ replied the man, ‘I have every reason to know him, I have been to hear him; and, under his preaching, by God’s grace I have become a new creature in Christ Jesus. Shall I tell you how it happened? I went to the Music Hall, and took my seat in the middle of the place; Mr. Spurgeon looked at me as if he knew me, and in his sermon he pointed to me, and told the congregation that I was a shoemaker, and that I kept my shop open on Sundays; and I did, sir. I should not have minded that; but he also said that I took ninepence the Sunday before, and that there was fourpence profit out of it. I did take ninepence that day, and fourpence was just the profit; but how he should know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul though him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met with me, and saved my soul.’”

Spurgeon then adds this comment:

“I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases in which I pointed at somebody in the hall without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it; and so striking has been my description, that the persons have gone away, and said to their friends, ‘Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did; beyond a doubt, he must have been sent of God to my soul, or else he could not have described me so exactly.’ And not only so, but I have known many instances in which the thoughts of men have been revealed from the pulpit. I have sometimes seen persons nudge their neighbours with their elbow, because they had got a smart hit, and they have been heard to say, when they were going out, ‘The preacher told us just what we said to one another when we went in at the door’” (The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon, [Curts & Jennings, 1899], Vol. II, pp. 226-227).
Now, the preacher in the first link might be quite appropriately criticized for many things—many things even in the 5-minute clip embedded in that post. But perhaps the root issue—the question of whether the Spirit supernaturally reveals specific details of people's sins—might be more complex than we think. At the very least, perhaps we need to expand the objects of our criticism.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Some Fun Video

If you like this blog (and I don't assume that you do), I think you'll really enjoy these two links.

First, Ed Stetzer posted a couple videos of a conversation that happened several years ago. It addresses contextualization, ecclesiology, and appropriate levels of cooperation when we don't agree. That was one of the most unusual days from my time in DC—eye-opening on several levels, and hopefully fruitful on some as well.

Second, I've been eagerly anticipating release of the videos Southwestern Seminary kindly recorded of Paige Patterson's interview at 9Marks@9 at the SBC annual meeting in June, 2011. The video interface is a bit cumbersome, but it's worth your patience if you want to pick up some important perspective on history and interdenominational cooperation from a warrior-statesman (if there is such a thing).

A couple brief highlights:

Patterson: "The beginning of trouble came with topical preaching."

And when asked, "Is 9Marks more a part of the problem or of the solution, when it comes to what's going wrong with the SBC," Patterson replied, "I don't see it as a major part of the problem." Funny, sort of.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

On Repentance, People Who Dilute It, and Much, Much More

1. I can't remember a more helpful sermon explaining the biblical definition of repentance than Michael Lawrence's from August 7, 2011. A couple brief quotes follow, but listen for much more, including an apt analogy between a conversion to Islam and the way too many Christians think about "the sinner's prayer." Lawrence argued, "A regenerate heart repents," and, "When we separate repentance—biblical repentance—from conversion, it's kind of like we're giving people a vaccine against the gospel."

2. I'm wondering, if one were of a mind to do so, if it might not be possible to make the argument that John MacArthur is to the ideological right of several leaders of independent, fundamental Baptist institutions.

3. Some folks might argue that the problem with this [PDF] is the association it creates with another speaker. I actually think that the real issue is direct fellowship with false doctrine about how God has spoken. Which issue bothers you more, or whether any of it does at all, reveals a bit about whether your analytical grid is shaped by the tradition of a movement, doctrinal fidelity, or a set of networked relationships.

4. Thank you, Michael Horton, for saying some things that needed to be said. And frankly, we only needed title of the CT article to know that someone needed to say it.

5. From Carl Trueman's argument that we ought to fire boring preachers:
Praise and worship - the ascription to God of the honour and glory which is his - is a response to knowing who he is and what he has done. It is provoked and shaped by the description of God which the teacher gives. Anything else which calls itself worship, whether traditional or contemporary, whether exhilarating or soothing, is not worship. It is merely an aesthetic experience which helps to achieve a certain psychological or emotional state. I remember at college I would often hear people talk of this church as being great at doctrine and that church as being great at worship. That should a false dichotomy. One cannot really be good at one and not the other, for they are intimately and inseparably connected.
6. I do not know of a more useful extra-biblical pastoral tool than a well-designed and maintained membership directory.

7. Here's a piece of the late Mark Hatfield's story that you won't find in the mainstream media.

8. No more Mars Hill "campuses." This is an intriguing shift. Of course they're right that the NT speaks of "churches," not "campuses." But I'm not exactly sure how this structure is meaningfully distinct from Anglican polity.

9. Michael Green shares an absolutely priceless Francis Schaeffer anecdote beginning at the 35:35 mark of this video:

Panel 20/20 Collegiate Conference 2011 Session 3 from Southeastern Seminary on Vimeo.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Ten Things You Need to Read Before You Go Watch "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" This Weekend

1. Chris Anderson just highlighted a blogpost from Jay Adams that simply floored me. Though I share Adams' concern that "gospel-centeredness" can be an amorphous blob of mystical platitudes, he proceeds to suggest that learning to preach the gospel to yourself is an unhelpful idea. It seems clear to me that he doesn't really understand the concept. (NANC has developed a reputation for emphasizing moralistic human effort over our need for the ongoing work of the gospel as we pursue sanctification, has it not?) It's just difficult for me to imagine that Adams—having surely forgotten more counseling sessions than I'll lead in my lifetime—seems never to have encountered someone who needed to learn how to remind himself of the past, present, and future work of the gospel in his life.

2. The senior managing editor of Christianity Today believes people find evangelicalism to be "bankrupt" because of "crazy uncles" Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Ironic?

3. Some fascinating statistics on church planting rates for various denominations.

4. Some reflections from John Piper on John Stott. This comment from Piper is very close to the reason I have a rather sporadic interest in The Gospel Coalition blog (exhibit A):
To this day I have zero interest in watching a preacher take his stand on top of the (closed) treasure chest of Bible sentences and eloquently talk about his life or his family or the news or history or culture or movies, or even general theological principles and themes, without opening the chest and showing me the specific jewels in these Bible sentences.
5. Speaking of Stott, somewhere in one of his obituaries I learned that he was Queen Elizabeth II's personal chaplain from 1959-1991.

6. Here's what Stott said in 1996 about when it would be time for evangelicals to leave the Church of England:
I've always felt that it's unwise to publish a list of criteria in advance. Nevertheless, I'm quite happy to talk about them. I think one's final decision to leave would be an exceedingly painful one, a situation that I cannot envisage at the moment.

I would take refuge in the teaching of the New Testament, where the apostles seem to distinguish between major and minor errors. The major doctrinal errors concern the person and work of Christ. It's clear in 1 John that anyone who denies the divine-human person of Jesus is anti-Christ. So, if the church were officially to deny the Incarnation, it would be an apostate church and one would have to leave.

Then, there's the work of Christ. In Galatians, if anybody denies the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone, that is anathema: Paul calls down the judgment of God upon that person.

On the major ethical issues: the best example is the incestuous offender in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul called on the church to excommunicate him. If you want me to stick my neck out, I think I would say that if the church were officially to approve homosexual partnerships as a legitimate alternative to heterosexual marriage, this so far diverges from biblical sexual ethics that I would find it exceedingly difficult to stay. I might want to stay on and fight for a few more years, but if they persisted, I would have to leave.
7. Speaking of things that were never supposed to come true, remember when everybody told us this wouldn't happen? Next up, polygamous marriage rights.

8. Strictly speaking, Stott may not have been the annihilationist he's often claimed to have been. Here's how he described his view in that same wide-ranging 1996 interview linked above:
In Evangelical Essentials, I described as "tentative" my suggestion that "eternal punishment" may mean the ultimate annihilation of the wicked rather than their eternal conscious torment. I would prefer to call myself agnostic on this issue, as are a number of New Testament scholars I know. In my view, the biblical teaching is not plain enough to warrant dogmatism. There are awkward texts on both sides of the debate.
9. This conversation on whether and how much we should study cultural backgrounds to Scripture barely scratches the surface of a topic that has been largely ignored in far too many places. It needs to be at least an hour longer.



10. And finally, anybody else out there who just can't wait to ask Carl Trueman to autograph your Bible after his breakout session at T4G12?