Saturday, June 30, 2007
By Kirk M. Wellum @http://redeemingthetime.blogspot.com
The word "ekklesia" means "gathering or assembly." Therefore, at the most basic level the church is the gathered or assembled people of God (see: Matt 16:18; Acts 19:32, 39). Beyond this the church is also presented as the new covenant community that fulfills the promise of passages like Jeremiah 31:31-34 (cf. Lk 22:20). It is a community empowered by the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Isa 44:3-5; Ezk 11:19-20; 36:25-27; Joel 2:28-32. The church is also an eschatological community, part of the world to come which has broken into this age; or what one has described as an "outpost of heaven" that partakes of the classic "already/not yet" structure of the Bible. The church is God's dwelling or temple where he dwells in and with his people because of their relationship to Jesus Christ who is the ultimate meeting place between God and human beings (see: Jn 1:1-18; 2:19 cf. 1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 5:1; 6:16; Eph 2:13-22; 1 Pet 2:5. The church is also the beginning of the new humanity (Eph 2:10-18) that God is creating, the humanity that will replace those who will not bow to his authority. The church is also described by other metaphors which enrich our understanding: the family of God, the bride of Christ, an olive tree, a field, a vine, the body of Christ, among others.
This very cursory overview of the biblical data reveals that "the church" is much more than sitting in "church" on Sunday morning, or if we are super orthodox, Sunday morning and evening! It is a community for teaching, worship, fellowship, discipleship, interaction and service. The church is also integral to the plan of God. Eph 1:22 indicates that Christ has been made head over everything for the sake of his church! In other words, at a personal level, the church is central in God's plan for you as a Christian. The question is whether or not you are in God's will?
We cannot speak about the church without appropriate reality checks. There are no perfect churches. No not one! Churches are composed of imperfect people who are growing in the grace of God. Churches are always changing with every person who is added or taken from them. Building strong churches takes commitment, time and hard work. John Fitzgerald Kennedy's famous quote applies here in a revised form: "Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church!" This is the complete opposite of the popular consumer approach to church which asks as the question of first importance: "What's in it for me?"
It is also important to realize that the church is not for everyone except you! You need to become involved in a number of ways. First, by becoming a Christian and turning in repentance and faith to Christ. Second, you need to be baptized as a believer and join a local manifestation of the church. Third, you need to be as consistent as possible in your attendance and participation in the life of the church. Fourth, you need to support the church financially by giving sacrificially, proportionally and systematically. And fifth, you need to use your gifts to enhance the ministry of the church. Everyone has gifts given to us by God. Some gifts we know about, others we do not know about... yet. But we need to pray, seek the counsel of wise leaders and friends and look for opportunities to serve, and in these ways discover what God has for us.
Time only seems to go faster the older we get. Don't procrastinate, get involved today. A good church family will benefit you as an individual, couple and family. God's purposes in Christ are tied to the church in very significant ways (Eph 1:22-23). One question that we used to challenge ourselves with when working to establish Sovereign Grace Community Church was this: "If every one's commitment to this church was the same as yours. what would it look like?" This question puts the onus where it belongs: on the individual! What changes do you need to make in light of what the Bible teaches in this area?
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor will all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
This passage in the early history of the church tends to stun us with the obvious and powerful supernatural acts of God on display. There were "many wonders and signs" and "the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved." It's as though our eyes tunnel in on these extraordinary aspects of that huddled mass of early Christianity.
On the other hand, though, the passage is remarkably ordinary. The early church's "program" was really quite simple, devotion to:
- the apostles' teaching,
- breaking of bread, and
It's actually a pretty mere list. No vacation Bible school. No organized men's or women's fellowships. No alternative services for differing musical preferences. No special auxiliaries of the church for this or that social or political cause (and surely there were plenty to be involved in in 1st century Rome and Jerusalem). Nothing mentioned about youth group or youth church. It's a pretty plain paper bag approach: teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer.
And yet, see how the Lord used these basic floorboards in the lives of people. "And awe came upon every soul." "All who believed were together and had every thing in common." Gladness, generosity, praise and thanksgiving to God, and "favor with all the people." All of this from the simple and unadorned life together of the church, a life that stressed the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer.
In today's church, the life of a local congregation is often built on so many things other than these simple things. Church's are organized as "family centers," cater to Gen-Xers, offer special services and programs for nearly every thing that ails a community, runs from special program to special program, and even dabbles in economic development and political initiatives. Meanwhile, almost no one is left in awe any more. Church disunity is fairly commonplace. You can almost forget about selling possessions and giving to the poor, else people go away sad like the rich young ruler or label you a cult. The church has anything but favor with all the people.
She's despised and ridiculed and blamed for everything. We're quick to conclude that such accusations are a form of persecution or hatred of God and His church. And to some extent that's certainly true. But how many of us have draw any connection between the customarily low and skeptical view of the church and the supplanting of a mere life together emphasizing doctrine, fellowship, prayer, and breaking bread? In other words, could it be that there is no awe and no favor because we've abandoned the simple corporate life outlined in Acts 2?
Prayer meetings are almost empty in most churches. People tire of doctrine and theology; they want something "practical" they tell us. Hospitality and fellowship are a lost discipline in many quarters; privacy and anonymity are vaulted values. For some, communion is an "add on" to the service, a ritual often not understood or esteemed even by many in the ministry.
And I wonder if this state of affairs, where it exists, is not the result of thinking low and infrequent thoughts about the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer. The early church did these things "day by day," in the temple and in their homes. This is what "devotion" looked like: constancy combined with eagerness and joy.
Perhaps one of the most destructive things that can happen to individual Christians and entire congregations is to develop a programmatic mentality toward church life. Where churches commit themselves to a view of the Christian life that emphasizes canned and special programs, the mereness of simply knowing and living with one another can be deeply undermined as people live from event to event, special high to special high. Over time, the church is seen as "boring" if there is "nothing going on" and people begin to mark their lives by this or that event rather than by discerning the Spirit's work in producing fruit that remains. Awe is replaced with or misdefined as excitement. Genuine togetherness may be lost as the basis for unity becomes a good program rather than the truth of the apostles' teaching. And along wiht the program mentality oftem comes its twin, the success syndrome where a "good program" and therefore a "good church" is defined by numbers and customer satisfaction. It's a subtle state of affairs but it's powerfully destructive.
The old simple approach is still best. We still need a mere focus on the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer. What Christian thinking biblically could ever define this as boring or insufficient? What Christian who has ever benefitted from the power of God's word, the intimacy of fellowship, the grace of breaking bread, and the delight of prayer would really want to exchange all of that for the newest denominational initiative and publication? Deep, refreshing, joyful, lasting, awe-inspiring, favor-inducing, thankful and ultimately evangelistically powerful corporate living is actually quite mere. What we need is devotion to it, a back to basics, Word-trusting approach.
It would be hard to have a slow, careful, exegetical Bible study about the second half of the book of Joshua. Chapters 13 to 21 are mostly lists: what parcels of land are going to which tribe of Israel.
Much of the Old Testament is like this—genealogies, lists, rules, procedures. As lovers of the Bible, what should we make of these mundane details? Is it even appropriate to call parts of God's word mundane? It sounds sacrilegious.
What does it matter, though, that Issachar received the territories around Jezreel, Chesulloth, Shunem, and 13 other cities? Or that Manasseh's land reached from Asher to Michmethah, just east of Shechem?
Joshua tells us why these obscure details are important: So that the Israelites would have specific and extensive evidence that God does what he says he will do.
Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. (Joshua 21:45)
The more detailed the report of God's faithfulness, the more proof that indeed not one word of his had been false. He promised their forefathers this land, and now, because of this account in the book of Joshua, they can remember specifically how God was faithful. Faithful in concrete detail. Faithful down to the most boring of trivia.
As Joshua died, he said to the Israelites,
You know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed. (23:14)
It's true that knowing Michmethah is east of Shechem ranks very low in the list of facts that are important to know from the Bible. But it matters, because the sum of all the dull details that God has accomplished proves that whatever he promises, he will do.
We have a God who keeps a tally of sparrows, who counts the hairs on our head (Luke 12:6-7), and who watches over the grass as it grows (Matthew 6:30). If that's not boring, what is? But it is his power over the mundane and trivial details that proves his power over the universe. And because of this power, we know he can keep his promises.
Are Mormons Christians? Beliefnet.com invited me to debate that issue with Orson Scott Card, a prominent Mormon author. The exchange is already interesting and we will see how it develops. You can find the debate here.
In me first argument, I deal with the fact that Mormonism begins with the rejection of historic Christianity:
We are not talking here about the postmodern conception of Christianity that minimizes truth. We are not talking about Christianity as a mood or as a sociological movement. We are not talking about liberal Christianity that minimizes doctrine nor about sectarian Christianity which defines the faith in terms of eccentric doctrines. We are talking about historic, traditional, Christian orthodoxy.
Once that is made clear, the answer is inevitable. Furthermore, the answer is made easy, not only by the structure of Christian orthodoxy (a structure Mormonism denies) but by the central argument of Mormonism itself – that the true faith was restored through Joseph Smith in the nineteenth century in America and that the entire structure of Christian orthodoxy as affirmed by the post-apostolic church is corrupt and false.
In other words, Mormonism rejects traditional Christian orthodoxy at the onset – this rejection is the very logic of Mormonism's existence. A contemporary observer of Mormon public relations is not going to hear this logic presented directly, but it is the very logic and message of the Book of Mormon and the structure of Mormon thought. Mormonism rejects Christian orthodoxy as the very argument for its own existence, and it clearly identifies historic Christianity as a false faith.
Without doubt, Mormonism borrows Christian themes, personalities, and narratives. Nevertheless, it rejects what orthodox Christianity affirms and it affirms what orthodox Christianity rejects. It is not Christianity in a new form or another branch of the Christian tradition. By its own teachings and claims, it rejects that very tradition.
Richard John Neuhaus, a leading Roman Catholic theologian, helpfully reminds us that "Christian" is a word that "is not honorific but descriptive." Christians do respect the Mormon affirmation of the family and the zeal of Mormon youth in their own missionary work. Christians must affirm religious liberty and the right of Mormons to practice and share their faith.
Nevertheless, Mormonism is not Christianity by definition or description.
We've had an incredible trip here in Utah. Many of our discussions center on the nature of salvation. According to the LDS Standard Works (the King James Bible, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), the best Mormonism has to offer its adherents is exaltation with the heavenly father. But at minimum, exaltation is only available to those who have repented:
"Wherefore teach it unto your children, that all men, everywhere, must repent, or they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God, for no unclean thing can dwell there, or dwell in his presence..." (Moses 6:57)
And what is repentance according to the LDS Scriptures?
"By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins--behold, he will confess them and forsake them." (Doctrine & Covenants 58:43)
"...go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God." (Doctrine & Covenants 82:7)
According to LDS Scripture, true repentance is confessing sin and forsaking it or never returning to it again. As former LDS prophet Spencer Kimball has said, "The forsaking of sin must be a permanent one. True repentance does not permit making the same mistake again." Indeed, if you repeat a sin all of your "former sins return." Therefore, on the LDS view it is not enough to try your best. Rather, you must stop sinning. Period.
Given the clear teaching of the LDS scriptures, it has been very interesting to encounter many Mormons appealing to God's grace in addition to their own works. And certainly we see this in their own Scriptures:
"...for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." (2 Nephi 25:23)
But what does "after all we can do" mean?
"Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God." (Moroni 10:32)
So when does God's grace kick in? Once you "deny yourselves of all ungodliness." In other words, the LDS gospel is a gopsel of perfection. But what are to make of grace on an LDS view? Either grace is redefined and looks nothing like the biblical view of grace exemplified in Ephesians 2:8-9 or the LDS scriptures are contradictory in their view of salvation. Either way, this is a very troublesome problem for LDS and there are some who have been honest enough to admit it to us.
Thankfully, God does offer true grace:
"But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life." (Titus 3:5-7)
"What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.' Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 'Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.'" (Romans 4:1-8)
And this is the message of hope we have been offering to those we have encountered in Utah.
At the heart of Congregationalism is the belief that local congregations are to govern their own affairs. This stands in contrast to both Episcopacy and Presbyterianism. Within the scope of Congregationalism there are a variety of ways in which the relationship between local church leaders (whether one or several pastors or elders or a combination of both) is construed. In this regard the spectrum reaches all the way from a full-fledged democratic model on the one hand to elder rule on the other, with various forms of church leadership and congregational rule or participation in between these two extremes.
In the congregational model, local churches sometimes have elders (as in Presbyterianism), yet there are no larger outside governing bodies. At the same time, churches adhering to congregational polity often opt to associate in form of conventions and to cooperate with outside agencies, though these hold no authority over individual congregations. This cooperation enables churches to engage in strategic ministry, demonstrating “in a visible way their belief in the oneness of the larger body of Christ” (Hammett, Biblical Foundations, 145). Among the churches practicing congregationalism are the Churches of Christ, Bible Churches, many non-denominational congregations, Baptists (including Southern and General Baptists), and churches carrying the title “Independent.”
In churches practicing congregational polity authority is vested in the church as a whole, although it is a matter of debate to what extent the church is able to delegate this authority to church leaders and whether or not church leaders’ authority is derived from the congregation or directly from Christ. Typically, in a congregational system the church does the following: (1) select, appoint, and, if necessary, remove church leaders; (2) (help) guard pure doctrine; (3) exercise church discipline and decide on church membership; (4) participate in major decisions affecting the entire congregation (Dever, Display of God’s Glory, 31–43). Usually, the congregation operates in democratic fashion by way of regular church business meetings at which each member has an equal voice and vote. It is often noted, however, that some of these procedures may owe more to the political democratic system than New Testament teaching.
In a representative form of the congregational model, an effort is made to balance authoritative leadership with genuine congregational participation. In this approach, it is the elders who have ultimate authority, not the congregation. The elders consult the congregation on important matters and involve them in the decision-making process, but in the end the elders’ decision obtains. It is recognized that the congregation’s participation in the selection of elders does not necessarily amount to an exercise of authority and that the New Testament teaches congregational participation but not necessarily congregational rule. It is also noted that elders hold positions of authority as church members, so that local elder authority with congregational participation is not based on a clergy-laity distinction but is consistent with the notion of the priesthood of all believers.
The two major models practiced in Congregationalism in a variety of permutations are: (1) single-elder or pastor; and (2) plural-elder leadership. In the single-elder model, the church votes into office one (senior) pastor who oversees the congregation (Akin, “Single-Elder-Led Church,” in Brand and Norman, Perspectives on Church Government, 25–86). While the congregation retains final authority, in practice the senior pastor wields considerable power due to his public teaching office. In addition, deacons are chosen to assist, and in some cases supervise, the pastor, though assigning to deacons authority over the pastor clearly conflicts with New Testament teaching. In the latter case, deacons form a “deacon board” taking the role of a body of elders.
In the plural-elder model, several elders and/or pastors are chosen to oversee the congregation. Within this model, there is considerable variety as to the way in which the authority of the elders and/or pastors is construed. Some take the notion of the priesthood of all believers to imply that no one should have authority over individual believers (pure democratic model. Others view the elders’ authority as derived from Christ, not the congregation, and believe the church is called in Scripture to submit to those serving in this office (White, “Plural-Elder-Led Church,” in Brand and Norman, Perspectives on Church Government, 255–96).
In certain cases there are two bodies—an elder board and the pastoral staff—that meet periodically to determine the direction of the church. Some churches have only lay elders while pastors comprise the full-time, paid staff of the church. In another scenario the elders include both pastors and lay elders, or a church may have only pastors but no lay elders owing to the belief that a special divine call is required. In some cases a corporate board model may prevail where the elder board rules the church, often without sufficient accountability to the church and without adequate congregational input into decision-making. In the plural-elder model deacons serve under the authority of the elders.
Adherents to Congregationalism build their case on the following considerations. (1) In the New Testament “there is no superior organizational level to which churches are accountable” (Hammett, Biblical Foundations, 146). No clear New Testament evidence exists to suggest that local churches were governed by an outside body. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 should not be regarded as a permanent paradigm for regional authority. (2) The authority to exercise church discipline is assigned to the local church body rather than to regional elders or bishops (Matt. 18:15–17; 2 Cor. 2:6). (3) The New Testament local church chose qualified men to meet practical needs (Acts 6:1–6), commissioned Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1–3), and was involved in the discussions and decision of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:4, 12, 22).
Objections to Congregationalism include the following. (1) Proponents of Episcopacy contend that Congregationalism does not take sufficient account of the fact that the earliest apostolic churches and those of subsequent centuries were hierarchically governed. Congregationalism reflects modern democracy rather than apostolic and post-apostolic tradition. (2) Advocates of Presbyterianism object that the New Testament vests more authority in elders than proponents of most forms of Congregationalism allow (Rom. 12:8; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17, 24); and that (3) the Jerusalem Council did not merely issue suggestions but rules to be followed (Acts 16:4). (4) Against those who define Congregationalism as congregational rule, it is objected that many of the above-cited texts cited in support of Congregationalism only mandate congregational participation but not necessarily congregational rule.
The question of how the church should be governed in part hinges on whether sole authority is assigned to the New Testament or one holds to the dual authority of Scripture and church tradition. The New Testament stipulates two church offices: (1) elder (presbyteros) or overseer (episkopos) or shepherd (poimēn; authoritative); and (2) deacon (diakonos; non-authoritative). In the patristic period the authoritative office was gradually bifurcated into bishop and presbyter (priest), with the former being in authority over the latter. A clergy-laity distinction prevailed that was challenged by the Reformation notion of the priesthood of the believer. Over the centuries three major approaches to church government took shape: (1) Episcopacy; (2) Presbyterianism; and (3) Congregationalism.
These models differ as to whether the chain of authority moves from the top down (Episcopacy; in a modified form, Presbyterianism, plus hybrid models seeking to balance elder authority with congregational participation) or from the bottom up (Congregationalism). To advance their argument, proponents claim support from biblical teaching and, in the case of Episcopacy, also church tradition. It appears, however, that neither a strict hierarchical nor a thoroughgoing congregational model is entirely in keeping with New Testament teaching, which seems to favor a combination of authoritative leadership and genuine congregational participation. However one resolves the question of church government, there are important practical implications for the life of the church and the ministry of individual believers.
Brand, Chad Owen and R. Stanton Norman, eds. Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity. Nashville: B & H, 2004.
Dever, Mark E. A Display of God’s Glory: Basics of Church Structure. Deacons, Elders, Congregationalism & Membership. Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform, 2001.
Hammett, John S. Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Bob Kauflin, has posted the recording of a new and beautiful rendition of What a Savior. It appears this was recorded at New Attitude ‘07 conference.
I’m not one for Christian celebrities. To me, the whole concept of a “Christian celebrity” loiters in oxymoron territory, like “jumbo shrimp” or “corporate ethics.” Still, Christian celebrities exist and hold a lot of sway in some circles.
Recently, Kirk Cameron (actor/hero of the Left Behind films) addressed a convention of Southern Baptist pastors on what he sees as a pressing need in the pastorate:
Can I speak to you from my heart for a moment? I realize that, theologically, I’m not worthy to wash your socks. But imagine this scenario with me, if you will: Imagine I’m a “seeker”- I’m a non-Christian, sitting in your church week after week after week listening to you. Am I ever going to hear the message that will save my soul from Hell? Will you ever tell me the truth clearly enough so that I realize that my sin has made me an enemy of God: that I am currently on the path that leads to destruction, with the wrath of God dwelling upon me, and that unless I repent and put my faith in the Savior, I will perish? Or have you decided that it’s better to simply entertain me, and on Sundays I can come to have my “felt needs” met with good music and good advice? Pastor, while I would appreciate that, it’s the ultimate betrayal of my trust in you if you don’t tell me the truth. Will I ever hear the words “repent,” “surrender,” “turn to the Savior,” “be born again”? If you don’t tell me those things, how will I ever know to do it?Please don’t leave it up to the Wednesday night small-group leader. They’re taking their cues from you. You’re leading the flock.
(HT: The Thinklings)
Awesome passion there out of Mr. Cameron. I’m certain a few hearty “Amens” will rise up out of the reading audience.
But on perusing that impassioned plea, I noticed a couple enormous problems.
- Fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
- Fifty percent of pastors’ marriages will end in divorce.
- Eighty percent of pastors and eighty-four percent of their spouses feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastors.
- Fifty percent of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
- Eighty percent of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years.
- Seventy percent of pastors constantly fight depression.
- Almost forty percent polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.
- Seventy percent said the only time they spend studying the Word is when they are preparing their sermons.
- Eighty percent of pastors’ spouses feel their spouse is overworked.
- Eighty percent of pastors’ spouses wish their spouse would choose another profession.
- The majority of pastors’ wives surveyed said that the most destructive event that has occurred in their marriage and family was the day they entered the ministry.
While the issues Cameron confronts and Patrick notes appear unrelated, a general truth emerges about the flawed way we American Christians do church.
Consider the following verse:
And truly He gave some to be apostles, and some to be prophets, and some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.
—Ephesians 4:11-12 MKJV
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…
—Ephesians 4:11-12 ESV
And indeed He gave some to be apostles; and some prophets; and some evangelists; and some pastors and teachers; with a view to the perfecting of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ…
—Ephesians 4:11-12 LITV
I gave a few different translations there to provide a more thorough understanding of the passage in question. The Greek word used for pastor is the same as used for shepherd in the NT. Either way one looks at the word, it carries the meaning I wish to use in what follows.
My main criticism of Cameron’s exhortation is not that it’s wrong in content, but that it’s directed to the wrong people. Cameron’s talking to pastors, but he clearly gears his message to people inhabiting another ministerial office. Notice the meat sentences:
Pastor… it’s the ultimate betrayal of my trust in you if you don’t tell me the truth. Will I ever hear the words “repent,” “surrender,” “turn to the Savior,” “be born again”? If you don’t tell me those things, how will I ever know to do it?
Cameron’s mistake here is to charge the pastor with the job of the evangelist. Some will accuse me of drawing too fine a line on this, but you’ll have to argue with Paul. The apostle clearly noted a distinction between pastors and evangelists in Ephesians 4.
It’s popular today to speak of The Five-fold Ministry of Ephesians 4, and many churches adhere to the idea that the pastor should be an apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher, but I can’t read the Bible and find folks who fit that mold. (The role of apostle itself appears to include many of the functions of the others, but let’s be real here: apostles are exceedingly rare.) I mentioned the NT prophet Agabus the other day, but no one called him a pastor or teacher. Paul told Timothy to do the work of an evangelist, but he didn’t tell him to also do the work of a prophet or apostle.
Why are we not asking what the genuine biblical role of the pastor is? Perhaps it’s far more limited in scope than we’ve made it out to be.
If we consider the finer truth of the use of the word shepherd for pastor, what does a shepherd do?
- He protects the flock from harm.
- He tends to their wounds and diseases.
- He comforts them when they are afraid.
- He takes them out to a place where they can find the substantial food and water weaned sheep need to reproduce, tend their lambs, grow, and prosper.
I think that’s an apt description of what a pastor does with his flock of believers. We can take this analogy one step further. The apostle is the one who supervises the farm’s staff. The evangelist is the one who coordinates the reproduction, overseeing the birthing of new lambs. The prophet communicates the will of the farm owner.
But we in the Western Church don’t run our churches this way, do we? I hear so many calls from big name Christians to raise up more pastors. But who is calling to raise up more evangelists? Do we even acknowledge that such a role exists in the modern Church? Should we assume that all pastors are evangelists?
I’m not sure we should. This doesn’t mean that a pastor should never address issues the evangelist lives for. He should. But that’s not his primary role! And we forget this to the detriment of pastors and their flocks.
Cameron’s exhortation opens up another problem as it relates to pastoring: making the elementary primary.
I’ve long contended at Cerulean Sanctum that we’ve bungled a major Gospel truth by turning our churches, which are meant as the assembly of believing saints, into a pre-natal ward. Our church meetings were never intended to be a place for unbelievers to hang out and hear an evangelistic message Sunday after Sunday. You simply can’t find evidence for that kind of idea in the New Testament.
We’re to go outside the church walls and lead people to Christ, THEN bring them into the church. This places the onus of evangelism squarely on the shoulders of the regular Joes and Janes in the pews. Spiritual reproduction is the mark of mature Christians. Real Christians lead other people to Christ. We simply can’t walk away from that truth.
But what we’ve done (erroneously) is make our churches into midwife clinics. The result?
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. 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.
Does your church sound like the kind of church that reiterates the same elementary principles week in and week out? How does anyone go on to maturity in such a church?
The answer is that few can. The fallout comes when we look around and can’t find mature believers, the kind that reproduce spiritual children. And why can’t we? Because we rely on the pastor to do all the heavy lifting of leading folks to Christ. And because that’s how we run our churches today, we can never go on to maturity because we force pastors to dole out milk.
It’s a vicious cycle. And who gets killed softly in this vicious cycle? Yes, your pastor.
Considering that our pastoral model in the modern American Church may not even be biblical, should we be surprised at the damage a pastor endures? When we ask him to be everything, how can he not fail? When he’s forced to constantly preach and teach milk, how can he ever grow enough mature believers to fill the other roles in Ephesian 4, crucial roles designed to take the pressure off him?
Folks, we need an overhaul in the way we do church and how we define the role of pastor. Perhaps then we wouldn’t grind up so many good men of God (and their families). Perhaps then we’d do a better job raising up evangelists. Perhaps then we could grow more Christians to maturity. Perhaps then we could bring more people to the Lord.
Perhaps then we could attain the fullness of the beloved Bride of Christ, the fullness the Bridegroom so longs for us to have.
The term hyper-Calvinist is often used as a pejorative. Almost any Calvinist who adheres to the doctrines of grace is likely to be considered a hyper-Calvinist by at least someone. Frankly speaking, a hyper-Calvinist can be any Calvinist to a person who doesn't understand Calvinism. So today, just briefly, and because the term has come up a few times in recent weeks, I want to narrow in on a more accurate definition of it. First we'll look at a few examples of what does not constitute hyper-Calvinism. Then we'll actually define the term.
While most Calvinists hold to the five points of Calvinism as summarized by the acronym TULIP, there are some who refer to themselves as six or seven-point Calvinists. One person who is known to identify himself as a seven-point Calvinist is John Piper. He does so half-jokingly but does so to communicate a truth that the five points of Calvinism are not exhaustive in a consideration of God's sovereign saving grace. The Desiring God web site says, "Piper isn't seeking to add two more points, but is simply calling attention to his belief in the traditional five points (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints) in a way that also points toward two additional 'Calvinistic' truths that follow from them: double predestination and the best-of-all-possible worlds." Double predestination is widely considered the sixth-point. It is simply the other side to predestination, that just as God sovereignly chooses those whom He will save, in the same way he chooses those whom He will not save. There are some Calvinists who reject this idea, saying that God chooses His elect while everyone else makes their own choice to be condemned. A six-point Calvinist though, believes that God chooses some for salvation and some for perdition and that He does so not on the basis that some people are better or worse than others, but simply through His sovereign choice.
The seventh-point of Calvinism, at least according to John Piper (and I'm uncertain whether others regard this as the seventh point) is the best-of-all-possible worlds, which "means that God governs the course of history so that, in the long run, His glory will be more fully displayed and His people more fully satisfied than would have been the case in any other world." Yet even someone who is willing to extend Calvinism beyond the five points is not "hyper." A seven-point Calvinist is not a hyper-Calvinist.
An Enthusiastic Calvinist, or a person who really, really likes to talk about these doctrines, is also not a hyper-Calvinist. Someone who is an ardent Calvinist, who believes in these doctrines and talks about nothing else is still not "hyper" according to the historic use of the word.
So what, then, is a hyper-Calvinist?
Part of the confusion about this term no doubt arises from the use of the prefix "hyper." "Hyper" does not refer, as many might think, to enthusiasm or excitement. Rather its basic meaning is along the lines of "excessive or excessively." You might think of the word hyperactive which means "excessively active." Hyper- comes from the Greek prefix huper-, which comes from the preposition huper, meaning "over, beyond." So a hyper-Calvinist is one who goes beyond and over the bounds of what Calvinism teaches (and thus over the bounds of what the Bible teaches). He is excessive in his application of the doctrines. This manifests itself in an over-emphasis of one aspect of God's character at the expense of another. Hyper-Calvinists emphasize God's sovereignty but de-emphasize God's love. They tend to set God's sovereignty at odds with the clear biblical call to human responsibility. We can see how these are worked out as we look at a concise definition of the term. Phil Johnson, who has done extensive research on this subject very helpfully defines hyper-Calvinists using a five-fold definition. A hyper-Calvinist is one who:
- Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear, OR
- Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner, OR
- Denies that the gospel makes any "offer" of Christ, salvation, or mercy to the non-elect (or denies that the offer of divine mercy is free and universal), OR
- Denies that there is such a thing as "common grace," OR
- Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.
As Phil says, "All five varieties of hyper-Calvinism undermine evangelism or twist the gospel message." So this is the key to understanding hyper-Calvinism: it undermines evangelism and/or somehow distorts the gospel message.
Probably the most distinguishing characteristic of a Hyper-Calvinist is an unwillingness to evangelize at all, or to evangelize without extending a call to accept and believe the gospel. An example of a hyper-Calvinistic confession makes this clear. Article 33 of Articles of Faith of the Gospel Standard Aid and Poor Relief Societies says, "Therefore, that for ministers in the present day to address unconverted persons, or indiscriminately all in a mixed congregation, calling upon them to savingly repent, believe, and receive Christ, or perform any other acts dependent upon the new creative power of the Holy Ghost, is, on the one hand, to imply creature power, and on the other, to deny the doctrine of special redemption." In other words, they say, to command people to turn from their sin and to repent is to command them to do something they are unable to do for this would deny the doctrine of particular redemption. Yet this teaching is clearly at odds with the Bible's call for all men to believe. The offer of the gospel is universal and God truly does command all men to heed it. Faith is a duty for all men. God's common grace extends to all men and, while God does not love elect and non-elect in the same way, the Bible is clear that He does love all that He has created.
Keep that five-fold definition in mind and you'll have a good idea of what it truly means to be a hyper-Calvinist. Of course I have little confidence that articles like this one will make any real difference. The term hyper-Calvinist is a convenient and baggage-filled one to lob into an argument or discussion. But at least now we know whether or not we truly fit that mold!
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Unbelief is Irrational
It’s not uncommon today for atheists to rise to their pulpits and boldly preach that belief in some god (let alone a specific god) is simply irrational. Dr. K. Scott Oliphant, professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary, disagrees. In a recently published essay he points to Paul’s words in the first chapter of Romans to make his case that unbelief is irrational.
Oliphant’s proposition is this: Unbelief is irrational because, at its core, all sin is irrational. He argues, “Sin is essentially, and will remain, deeply unreasonable, utterly irrational … Given that unbelief is at root the quintessential sin, it is therefore, necessarily, quintessentially irrational” (pp. 59-60). He backs up this proposition exegetically from Romans 1:18-32.
Oliphant begins by pointing to Paul’s emphasis in Romans that all people are covenantally bound to Adam or to Christ, walking under condemnation or justification (Rom. 5:12-21). The first two chapters of Romans are devoted to revealing God’s wrath upon those in Adam. Specifically, God’s wrath is kindled against sinners who “suppress the truth” (1:18).
The act of suppressing divine truth is sinful or “unrighteousness” (1:18). So sin is by nature the suppressing of truth. “In other words, God’s wrath is revealed from heaven because, in our wickedness and unrighteousness (in Adam), we hold down (in our souls) that which we know to be the case” (p. 64)
So what knowledge is suppressed? Paul tells us we suppress the universal truths about God — that He exists, He is infinite, eternal, wise, unchanging, glorious and wise. Far from being a mere intellectual knowledge of God, there is included in this a very personal knowledge of God communicated from His Person to our person. So personal that Paul can write, “they know God’s decree that those who practice such things [sins] deserve to die” (Rom. 1:32). Every sinner that suppresses God’s truth and lives on in sin knows that sin is rightfully punished with death. But this and all truth about God is suppressed. The point is clear: God has spoken so openly and so clearly that every sinner knows these universal truths.
How do sinners suppress divine truth? By exchange. We take the glory of our great God and Creator and exchange His glory for superficial images of reality. The next step is to worship and serve the phantoms of reality we create. The truth of the created order becomes twisted into what we think is right. There is an exchange of the natural for the unnatural, like in the case of homosexual relationships (Rom. 1:26-27). Oliphant writes, “All of us, in Adam, are experts in inventing idols” and later he writes “we only retain that [knowledge] which will serve our own idolatrous purposes” (p. 69, 70). Paul tells us this idolatry – worshiping a false reality — is at the center of unbelief.
Paul then goes on to list all sorts of sins, not just homosexuality, but also unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossip, slander, hatred of God, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless (Rom. 1:29-31). Oliphant writes, “All sin, as sin, is rooted in an irrationality that seeks in earnest to deny what is obvious and to create a world that is nothing more than a figment of a sinful imagination” (p. 72).
The sad reality is that for those outside God’s sovereign election, this personal knowledge of God will be drowned out by the noise and passions of the sinful heart. The witness of God’s existence in the heart becomes futile knowledge to an irrational mind. God reveals Himself all around, and blind sinners in Adam respond by suppressing this truth and living in a phantom irrationality.
Paul paints a humbling portrait of all unredeemed sinners. We did not learn Christ because we were more perceptive or less sinfully irrational. God alone opened our eyes. Oliphant says, “The truth that we know – that we retain, possess, and suppress – therefore, is truth that is, fundamentally and essentially, given by God to us. God is the one who ensures that this truth will get through to us. It is his action, not ours, that guarantees our possession of this truth” (p. 66).
This first chapter of Romans is useful to remind believers of our personal sin and irrationality. We are still tempted to live at the feet of a phantom shrine forged in our minds rather than live within reality. And rather than scoffing at the unbeliever, we can look at our own hearts and see where we — as seasoned idolaters! – continue to suppress truth and twist reality in favor of escapism, fantasy and worldly comforts.
But also armed with Paul’s teaching in Romans and brought under the humility of dead sinners raised to life by the power of God, we are prepared to think through apologetics, preaching and personal evangelism. All of our hearers have heard a personal message from a personal God and we are all without excuse (Rom. 1:20). Apparently evidence does not demand a verdict from irrational minds.
Understanding this awful irrationality of the sinful mind will cause us to once again pray like Spurgeon:
“‘Rise up, Lord!’ O God the Father, rise up! Pluck Thy right hand out of Thy bosom, and let Three eternal purposes be accomplished! O God the Son, rise up; show Thy wounds, and plead before Thy Father’s face, and let Thy blood-bought ones be saved! Rise up, O God the Holy Ghost; with solemn reverence, we do invoke Thine aid! Let those who have hitherto resisted Thee, now give way! Come Thou, and melt the ice; dissolve the granite: break the adamantine heart; cut Thou the iron sinew, and bow Thou the stiff neck!”
[This exegesis of Romans 1 can be found between pages 59-73 of P&R’s latest release edited by Oliphant and Lane G. Tipton titled, Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R) 2007.]
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
"Welcome to Vacation Babble School"
ROANOKE, VA - Anyone passing Gethsemane Assembly of God cannot miss the words on the church sign marquee: "Welcome to Vacation Babble School." The sign often requires a daring double-take from drivers because of the obvious similarity with the much more common "Vacation Bible School." Dwight Knox, senior pastor at Gethsemane, explained his church's VBS this way, "At Gethsemane, we want to stress to our kids that they have been gifted by the Holy Spirit to serve the body of Christ. We have decided to gradually put an emphasis on all of the spiritual gifts, and we agreed that there is no better place to start than with speaking in tongues."
We at TBNN asked specifically about the name "Vacation Babble School." Pastor Knox indicated that there are two reasons for the name. "The first reason is that we just thought it would be 'catchy' sounding. Second, because we will be teaching kids how to speak in tongues, the word 'babble' seemed appropriate."
Cindy Proctor, the Gethsemane Children's Director, told us all about their VBS curriculum and schedule. It is outlined here:
9:00 AM - Group Assembly (Each day at this time, the Pastor Knox will model speaking in tongues to the children.)
9:30 AM - Children break up into age groups and head to 4 different 30-minute rotating stations. The 4 stations are entitled:
-"Learn to speak in tongues."
-"Learn how to interpret tongues."
-"Learn how to build a private prayer language."
-"Recreation" (Only speaking in tongues is allowed during kickball.)
11:30 AM - Group Assembly (Students are randomly chosen to perform speaking in tongues and interpretation of tongues in front of the larger group.)
We asked Ms. Proctor how, exactly, the curriculum would be taught. She told us, "For speaking in tongues, the kids will be encouraged to just say whatever comes to mind. If nothing does at first, we tell them to just pick a two or three syllable word, and then say it backwards quickly four times. For example, 'banana' backwards is 'ananab.' After one or two tries, the kids get it."
Ms. Proctor continued, "As for interpreting tongues, we teach the kids to be very quiet and listen to what is being said with both their heads and their hearts. Whatever comes to mind must be the correct interpretation. Quite honestly, we don't stress this gift too much because most churches don't bother with interpretation. As for private prayer language, that is private so it is difficult to teach. We just tell them that if it is private and it feels good, then do it. Recreation is, well, to both get exercise and to force the kids to speak their new language."
Some local parents have complained to TBNN that they were confused by the church sign. Susan Woods, mother of 9-year-old Tiffany who attended the first day at the Gethsemane VBS, told us, "I assumed that 'Babble' referred to the Tower of Babel in Genesis. I just figured the church would be focusing on bible stories from the Old Testament. To be frank, I was looking for free day-care for my daughter for the mornings this week. I had no idea she would come home speaking gibberish. I keep finding her mumbling to herself all over the house. What am I supposed to do now? We attend a Baptist church after all, so we don't speak in tongues!"
Pastor Knox informed us that this VBS has gotten more attention than any in the past. "We have had a lot of people asking about us. We must be doing the right thing. Next year we'll keep some of the speaking in tongues classes, but our emphasis will shift to another spiritual gift. We haven't decided yet, but I think we will focus on healings and miracles. That should bring the kids in to the church."
A project called The Books of the Bible Project is about to release a new layout for the bible that encourages reading of the books as literature. Endorsed by a few heavy hitters like Gordon Fee, this Bible makes some interesting and thoughtful changes to increase comprehension. But the most interesting and radical change made is that they are re-ordering the books of both testaments - wow!
I'm on the Creation Northwest mailing list, and as part of promoting this year's festival, they sent me a link to download five free songs from up and coming Christian artists. One of the tracks I enjoyed was from KJ-52, who is basically a Christian Eminem (CT interview). In fact, he actually has a couple of songs dedicated to Eminem entitled Dear Slim (parts I and II). He's pretty funny, and a decent artist.
But the free track they gave out was Wake Up featuring Toby Morrell of Emery, a heavier Christian band. Wake up is a nice heavy hip hop song, sort of like Linkin Park. Check em out, see if you can dowload the tracks from itunes. And btw, if you think heavy music can't be Christian, you might like to read my post What is Christian Music?
The main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problem of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man's treatment [in Psalm 42] was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself, 'Why art thou cast down, O my soul?' he asks. His soul had been repressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: 'Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you'. Do you know what I mean? If you do not, you have but little experience.D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures, pp. 20-21; emphasis added.
The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: 'Why art thou cast down'--what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: 'Hope thou in God'--instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: 'I shall yet priase Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God'.
ow's this for an idea? A translation of Scripture that takes postmodern inclusiveness to the furthest extreme, dumbs down the text to something less than MTV level, and changes all the politically-incorrect parts to make them teach the opposite of what they mean?
It's been done. Seriously. I'm not making this up.
Titled Good As New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures, this atrocity actually carries a foreword by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest-ranking minister in the Anglican Church.
The author, however, is a former British Baptist minister, not an Anglican. John Henson now identifies himself as a member of One, "a network of radical Christians."
Williams's foreword claims Henson's perversion of Scripture actually aims to show us "What . . . Christianity [would] look like, what . . . Christian language [would] sound like, if we really tried to screen out the stale, the technical, the unconsciously exclusive words and policies and to hear as if for the first time what the Christian scriptures were saying."
Yeah, right. Henson substitutes modern nicknames for most of the characters in Scripture. Peter is called "Rocky," Mary Magdalene is "Maggie," Aaron is "Ron," and Barabbas is shortened to "Barry."
Here's a typical sample, taken from Mark 1:10-11—Mark's account of Jesus' baptism: "As he was climbing up the bank again, the sun shone through a gap in the clouds. At the same time a pigeon flew down and perched on him. Jesus took this as a sign that God's spirit was with him. A voice from overhead was heard saying, 'That's my boy! You're doing fine!'"
Or consider Jesus' rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:25 ("Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!") Henson reimagines it this way: "Take a running jump, Holy Joes, humbugs!"
But that's not the worst of it. Henson's version often turns the Bible's meaning on its head. Consider, for example, 1 Corinthians 7:1-2. In the King James Version, it says, "Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband."
Henson renders it this way: "Some of you think the best way to cope with sex is for men and women to keep right away from each other. That is more likely to lead to sexual offences. My advice is for everyone to have a regular partner."
When he gets to 1 Corinthians 7:9 ("If they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn"), Henson's revision reads: "If you know you have strong needs, get yourself a partner. Better than being frustrated."
Of course, the revision also removes every condemnation of homosexuality and carefully feminizes the language. In fact, the publisher's catalog copy for the book describes it as "women, gay and sinner friendly."
Here's a Web page with some samples of this abomination, if you want to read more.
The irony is that "Good As New" is being marketed as a tool for helping 21st-century readers "hear for the first time what the Christian Scriptures were saying." What it's really designed to do is just the opposite.
From Thabiti Anyabwile @ http://purechurch.blogspot.comIntroduction
And this mereness also allows the church to demonstrate Christ-centered unity across natural divisions of age, ethnicity and class. And this isn't a matter of "style," but of teaching. I've belonged to a congregation that placed pretty heavy emphasis on the singing of hymns (old hymns!) and benefited from the 20-somethings along with the 80-somethings singing them to each other with joy, love, and enthusiasm. I've been in congregations that primarily sing solid contemporary songs with a hymn or two added in, with great unity displayed as people from different ethnic backgrounds lifted their voices in thanksgiving to the God who bought them. In both cases, I think it was the pulling away of musical and lyrical "clutter" under the guise of cultural or age-group experience/distinctives that made that participation and unity possible. Avoiding the temptation to cater to a majority group's preferences and simply adding a word of instruction or introduction made all the difference in the world in the church's ability to demonstrate unity in diversity when it came to the music. I've seen two wonderful recent examples of this at conferences. At both the Desiring God Pastors' Conference and the New Life Bible Conference, there was music and singing that allowed this unity. Songs were chosen from various genres, various historical and ethnic backgrounds, biblical in their content, Christ-centered, singable, and introduced well. The effect was that the mereness aided a wider unity.
As mentioned in an earlier post, I read through Lou Priolo's book Pleasing People last week. This was a book that just showed up in my mailbox. It is not one I would have chosen and even after I pulled it out of the box and set it in my "to read" bookcase I didn't think I'd actually care to read it. I've got a billion other books to choose from and this one didn't seem to offer much based on a quick perusal of the front and back cover. But eventually I began to feel guilty that I had read several mainstream books and thought that Pleasing People would be good for me to read something that might just challenge me on a personal level. So I grabbed my pencil and my highlighter (yes, at long last I've stooped to highlighting my books) and got to work. At first I thought my suspicions may have been correct that this book would offer me little. But as I read further and began to read about what it means to please people, and even more, what the symptoms are of a heart that desires to please people above God, I began to see glimpses of myself. And really, it has only been after I finished the book, in times of prayerful reflection, that I've begun to see myself even clearer. It was a valuable read and one I'm glad I made time for. It has shown me that there are areas where I seek to please people above God; areas where I seek approval and acceptance rather than seeking the Lord.
There was a little chart in the book that I found very helpful. I spent some time in Photoshop today and rigged up my own version of it and thought I'd share it with you. It comes from a chapter dealing with the question of whether we, as sinful human beings, can please God. There is a section heading entitled "The One you please will judge you not on outward appearance, but on that which is in your heart." So, unlike people, who see only dimly, God sees with complete clarity. He sees not only the outward appearances but the attitudes, thoughts and motives that drive those outward expressions. One reason that living to please people is a dead end is simply that humans see that which is most superficial rather than that which is deepest. Actions which are based on pure motives can be misinterpreted as being spiteful and words that are said from an angry and sinful heart can be interpreted as loving, caring, godly words. But God is not so easily fooled.
We all know that others cannot see our thoughts and motives, but the Bible tells us that we can't even see into the deepest recesses of our own hearts. As Priolo says, "the further into our hearts we look, ... the more difficult it comes for us to evaluate things accurately. In other words, because they are more readily apparent to our view, our words and actions are much easier to detect than our attitudes, thoughts, and motives."
And then he provides the following diagram. As the arrows extend downwards into the heart, they become darker and thus represent the greater difficulty in seeing with clarity.
I'll grant that this is a simple diagram but it nicely put into a picture what before I've seen only in words. It shows just what the Bible says: when I look at others, I can evaluate only on the basis of words and actions and perhaps get a glimpse of the attitude. But I cannot see their thoughts or motives. When I look at myself I can evaluate words, actions and attitudes. But the thoughts begin to appear dim and the motives even more so. As well as I know my own heart, I can still not properly evaluate or judge my motives. But then there is God. God sees everything with utter clarity, judging not just words and actions, but attitudes, thoughts and motives alike. Nothing is hidden; nothing is even darkened. "God is the only one who can see and rightly evaluate all our external and internal behavior. And He assesses these things in our lives even better than we can. His ability to judge these areas is at once more severe and more merciful than our own sin-tainted capacity to discern ourselves."
So it is God, and only God, who can truly judge whether we are truly doing what is right and good. It is only God who can see deep enough into our hearts to tell whether we are doing what we do our of pure hearts or hearts that are set on pleasing others. Thus we must seek to please Him--the One who can evaluate our hearts rightly and truly; the One who is never fooled.
The passage for my message yesterday was Mark 3:20-35. Within those sixteen verses are two which have troubled many readers of Scripture. In verses 28-29, Jesus says, " Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin." This passage would surely be reckoned among the "hard sayings" of Scripture. And people have thought that the "unforgivable/unpardonable sin" meant many things. Many of these judgments, however, are (in my judgment) incorrect - and have caused unnecessary concern to believers.
Here are a few things that the unforgivable is not.
1. It is not cursing the Holy Spirit or using God’s name in vain. Some people have been terribly troubled that they have committed this sin, because of blasphemous thoughts they have had, or even blasphemous words they have said. These are terrible sins, but Paul tells us that he himself was a blasphemer in 1 Tim 1:13. Perhaps some have feared that because their cursing was particularly connected to the Holy Spirit, that they had committed this sin. But I seriously doubt that Jesus was saying that a specific using the name of the third person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit) in vain was in a different category than doing the same with one of the first two persons (Father or Son).
2. Neither is the unforgivable sin any form of sexual sin, whether fornication, adultery, or homosexuality. Again, we have examples in Scripture of people who committed terrible sexual sins, even incest and adultery, yet were forgiven and restored (for example, David and Lot)
3. The unforgivable sin is not abortion, murder, multiple murders, or even suicide. David and the Apostle Paul both stand as examples of men who were guilty of murder, yet found mercy and forgiveness. Again, all of these things are sins. And all of them deserve and receive God’s just wrath and judgment. But through faith in the ransom paying death of Jesus (Mark 10:45) all of these sins can be forgiven. That is why Jesus can say in verse 28: “all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter.”
4. In light of a question I received yesterday, perhaps I should add one more thing that the unforgivable sin is not. It is not simply unbelief. Evidently, people have often thought that the one sin that could not be forgiven is the sin of unbelief. I think it has even been said that God forgives all sins and sends no one to hell for any of their sins except for the sin of unbelief. But there are numerous problems with that view. The most obvious problem is that in Rev. 21:8 and many other texts, the Scriptures teach that God does in fact judge men for their sinful deeds - and not just the sin of unbelief. Another problem is that prior to our coming to faith in Christ, all of us are guilty of the sin of unbelief (again, Paul is a case in point in 1 Timothy 1). Clearly, there is provision in Christ for the forgiveness of our unbelief.
So, what is the unforgivable sin? In light of the context of Mark 3, there is warrant to say that it is a particular kind of unbelief. The unforgivable sin is the settled refusal of Jesus’ claims in the face of indisputable evidence along with the insidious choice to instead attribute his miracles to the power of evil.
This is clear from the context. Verse 30 tells us why Jesus made this statement: “for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’" As William Barclay puts it: “these men had been able to look at the incarnate love of God and to think it the incarnate power of Satan.” The scribes believed that Jesus was “a sorcerer, invoking occult power,” says R. T. France. They were confronted with the undeniable power of the purest and most holy man to every walk the face of the earth, and such was their obstinate unbelief that rather than acknowledging the obvious, they concocted the most unbelievable and vilifying lie possible. They accused Jesus of being demon-possessed! So the unforgivable sin is this obstinate and willful rejection of truth with the choice to call Jesus demon possessed and evil rather than bow to his claims.
Most evangelical commentaries affirm this interpretation. R. T. France says, “The blasphemia referred to is the scribes’ accusation of demonic collusion and possession.” D. A. Carson defines the unforgivable sin as “thoughtfully, willfully, and self-consciously rejecting the work of the Spirit even though there can be no other explanation of Jesus’ exorcisms than that.” James Edwards calls it “a specific misjudgment that Jesus is motivated by evil rather than by good, that he is empowered by the devil rather than by God." This fits the context of the passage and makes the best sense of Jesus' words.
One of the insights we can gain from thinking through the meaning of this passage is the importance of interpreting a passage within its context. The real clues as to the meaning of Jesus' severe warning are embedded within the narrative in which his warning appears. Sticking to the context helps us avoid wrong-headed interpretations that could needlessly torture the consciences of genuine believers who have received forgiveness through the death of Christ.