Thursday, January 26, 2012

50% off sale on IX Marks books at

Big sale going on over at the Westminster Bookstore: All IX Marks books are 50% off, or you can buy the entire IX Marks book library at 52% off. As I've shared before, their partnership is what allows this blogger to read so many books in a cost-effective manner. So please click on the photos in this post. Or better yet, buy a book or two (or the set)! Their prices are consistently cheaper than Amazon, and shipping is free on order $49 and up, or a flat $3.99 otherwise!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Who Wants Old People in the Church?

In our age, it is quite common to view the elderly as passé and unequipped to respond to new trends like development in technology, emerging ideas and shifting values. Youth and vitality are prized against the wisdom that can come with age. It is the cult of youth, and you can find it in the church. The push today is for young pastors to revel in being unbalanced towards Generation X or younger. It is sad when church leaders then set no goals in correcting the imbalances as if older people are poison to the church.

All things being equal in the Biblical mandates for a church, young people typically choose young people to be around. Even a church meeting the Biblical marks can turn younger people away if too much gray hair is present. But can we be more balanced and see value of every generation? In this post, what I would like to do for the reader is commend to them why elderly are vital in the life of the church today.

In full disclosure, I am nearing thirty two years of age and I pastor a church where half to two-thirds of our regular members and attenders are old enough to be my parents or grandparents--with more tilting towards the latter. I also used to be a youth pastor so I still value raising up the next generation of Christians.

Let me suggest several things that a church with an average age of fifty or older can offer. I will call this an older generation church or OGC for short. In no particular order:

(1) Opportunities for mentorship. In Titus 2:3-4 older women are to train or encourage the younger women. Older men likewise have experience that may equip them to mentor other younger men. The reality of life is that no matter how much things around us change, they stay the same. Raising a family may present twenty-first century challenges but more often the concerns and the ‘how to’s’ remain the same. For example, the distractions of an age may change but the reality of needing to spend time with your kids and love them for who they are is an enduring concern. Wisdom, insight and life experience abound in an OGC to which young people can avail themselves.

(2) Mutual care for one another in the body. Specifically I have something more in mind that just mentorship. Experienced elders can be good at counseling the distraught and needy. Older members often understand the hurts of life and are a shoulder to cry on in an hour of need. On a number of occasions in my church I have received a call to the hospital at which I immediately head out only to arrive at the hospital to find I have been beaten there by caring elderly members. Once when three people from my church were all on the same floor of the hospital we had so many church members come through for a visit that nurses on the floor were asking where in the world we all went to church. With time of their hands and years of cooking experience they can be exceptional at hospitality or cooking meals for the needy. While OGCs are far from perfect, I marvel at God’s grace shaping the body to care for its members.

(3) Opportunities for younger generations to use their gifts. Let’s face it--an older generation cannot get around as much or as fast. OGCs can always use more people my age to serve especially for deaconal type ministries.

(4) Children treasured as a gift. Sometimes elderly do find children annoying and ‘under foot.’ More often, in a church where God’s grace abounds, the elderly long to see children hearing the gospel, singing children’s songs and coming to love Jesus. As a result of having fewer children, OGCs often cherish the ones that come identifying and praying for them by name. Sometimes families, especially those far from extended family, find that their children inherit extra grandparents from inside the church family. These relationships can last a lifetime.

(5) Prayer warriors and encouragers. I know the stereotype is that old people grumble and complain but in all honesty I’ve seen youth do just as much. If the congregants have been Christians for a long time, OGCs tend to have folks who have been shaped by the trials of life into having a steadfast spirit. They often know how to encourage a person in struggles or how to pray for them. Even more, once people become more homebound sometimes they become greater prayer warriors. We once had a lady who would arise and pray at five in the morning. Only after she had passed did her husband discover journals that were the fruit of countless hours of prayer and Bible reading.

(6) A Bible that is alive. I have people in my church who have been reading and applying God’s Word twice as long as I’ve been alive. They fall in love with it more everyday. For them it is a living book and they know from hard fought experience that it is the only book with the Words of Life. They respond not  to me as authority but to the authority of the Word of God as I minister it. It is a blessing to teach such hungry and knowledgable souls. I once knew an elder in his seventies who although without any formal Bible training he could teach the Bible with unparalleled spiritual force. If I were a betting man, I would bet on his Bible knowledge over any recent college or seminary grad in a heart beat. On Sundays he sat in a front pew and once told me: “Pastor, I close my eyes when you preach so that I can focus on your words.” He wasn’t lying to cover for sleeping because his face would always tighten up in earnest concentration when his eyes closed. This kind of love for God’s Word is precious.

(7) Honesty and familiarity with the realities of the end of life. In anyone's life, death is a regular reality. More vividly it is a cruel enemy that needs defeated. At an OGC, my young girls have already attended funerals and have seen death. It leads to honest talk about why we need Jesus. Illness is another cruel enemy. It can be quite sobering to sit at the bedside of the aged and be reminded by their vibrant stories that they once had more energy, vigor and athletic ability than you. But even more, it is in facing these moments that are the reality of existence that the power of the message of the gospel shines out. It makes one feel like an exile on earth and long for the Kingdom in the New Heavens and Earth. Sometimes young trendy theologians and missiologists quip at churches that are only concerned about saving people to heaven yet they miss that Paul’s goal of ministry was to present people mature in Christ, holy, blameless and complete in that eschatological end (Col. 1:22-28, 29). Carl Trueman once said “it is the job of the church to prepare people to die” and in an OGC that is a pressing reality. 

Don't Overlook a Church with Elderly
This short list is not to argue an older generation church is better. I am not disparaging churches composed primarily of young people or suggesting you will never find these qualities in them. There is no perfect church.

Far too many blog posts have been written on the value of church planting and starting afresh with the new, hip and young than have been written about ministering to those closer to the end of life. Older generations are often rightly challenged to accept the younger in church life while few, if any, issue challenges in the reverse. I hope this post offers a small correction to that imbalance.

I am not naive nor am I trying to brag. Some of the stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. Sometimes the problems in OGCs run deep covered over by decades of scarring. But that does not excuse us from sacrificially loving people of all generations. Young people can benefit from the wisdom age brings. Older individuals can benefit from youthful exuberance and energy. Old generations, just as much as the young, can be powerfully reshaped by God’s Word if the Spirit is at work. 

All I would ask is if you are in Generation X or Y, or whatever is the next trendy label, consider the value of the elderly in church life. Don’t submit to the bias against age that is our modern church. If you are looking for a church, do not overlook an OGC. If you are in a church, value and do not dismiss the older generation. If you are a Generation X or Y church, consider how you might expand your ministry into every age group. Consider outreach to older generations. Do ministry outreach in a retirement community. And if you are a younger pastor, consider a calling to a church that is an OGC where you may have to shepherd more people into the grave than you shepherd through births and marriages. Are those of an elderly generation as precious to you as they are to Lord?

Feel Free to Leave a Comment or Testimony: What are some experiences that you have had with the elderly in your church for which you would praise God?

(Tim is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary and is now the pastor of Pocono Mountain Bible Fellowship Church. He is married and the father of four daughters. He also blogs theology, Bible and occasionally some Star Trek at The Voyages. You can follow Tim on Twitter: @tim_bertolet)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Book Review: Counterfeit Gospels by Trevin Wax

The word "gospel" has become a buzzword of sorts [1][2] among evangelicals but while the word is used more and more (especially in print), the intended meaning can often remain fuzzy to audiences. This "gospel drift" is only magnified when those communicating are themselves uncertain or even dangerously flexible with how they use and what they include in the gospel.

Into this gap of fuzziness and uncertainty steps Trevin Wax with his book Counterfeit Gospels. Trevin describes the gospel as a three-legged stool: the gospel story, the gospel announcement, and the gospel community. As he describes, "The gospel story provides the biblical narrative necessary for us to understand the nature of the gospel announcement. Likewise, the gospel announcement births the gospel community."

After devoting a chapter to each of the three legs, Wax describes two counterfeit gospels that result when one of the legs is left off. Forgetting the gospel story can result in a therapeutic or judgmentless gospel. Ignoring the gospel announcement may lead to a moralistic or quietist (personal and passive) gospel. And dropping the gospel community can birth an activist or churchless gospel.

This is a solid book and my one reservation may be more semantics than anything. Also, I know that every analogy breaks down at some point. That being said, the image of the gospel being a three-legged stool has a couple liabilities in my mind. First, I would suggest that community is a result of the gospel, not part of the composition of the gospel. Much as in the faith/works debate (salvation is by faith alone but genuine faith results in works), I would suggest that the gospel is centrally the story but that story properly understood results in community. (I know, semantics, you say). Second, the analogy of a stool gives the impression that all three legs (story, announcement, community) are equally important to the gospel, while I would suggest that the gospel "stands" on the story even if the community and announcement are weak and flawed.

However, my concern ends there. While the imagery may break down at a point, the content and clear picture of the gospel dominate this book. Trevin has brought some needed clarity to the gospel discussion and I for one am glad for it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Evangelistic Christians, anyone in ministry or desiring clarity on the gospel (I know, that should be everyone)

This book was a free review copy provided by Moody Publishers.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Sex Challenge Evangelicals Never Give (But Scripture Does)

Spend any amount of time in the evangelical world or blogosphere and you have probably run across a sex challenge of some kind. I have seen the challenges come in the 7-day, 10-day, and 30-day varieties. Their basic common trend is: have sex ____ number of days in a row to revitalize your marriage. In the last week or so several prominent pastors have published books on sex further adding to the evangelical preoccupation with the topic.

Sex challenges, along with preaching through Song of Solomons, are often propagated as means by which one can grow the church. After all, since the world cares about sex, it needs to know that God and church care about sex. Sex challenges, the paragon of  niche marketing, can miss the need to minister to the least among us. I fail to see how the challenges aid the parentless child brought to church by their grandmother, the widow grieving the loss of a spouse, or the aging who just worry if they can faithfully care for their spouse up to end.

Even more, in our zeal for sex challenges, evangelicals miss the one sex challenge that Scripture actually does give us: the challenge to abstain for prayer. Scripture clearly states: “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:5)”

When was the last time you heard a pastor challenge a zealous young couple deeply passionate in their intimacy that they might mutually agree to take some time off for a season of prayer together? It makes me wonder: in our zeal to recover Biblical sexuality have we lost the balance of Scripture? What if prayer can do more for your marriage?

The Bible Endorses Regular Healthy Marital Intimacy
Let me assure the reader that I am not some crypto Gnostic covering for some hidden resentment of sex or repressing some hatred of the physical for a unbiblical view of ‘spiritual’. God created bodies and God created sexual union so that in marriage the two should become one flesh. Some churches wrongly avoid teaching God’s view of healthy sex. In Proverbs (e.g. 5:15-19) and in Song of Solomon the Bible lays out prescriptions and descriptions of healthy marital sexuality that entail physical enjoyment, delight and fulfillment.

When Paul wrote the Corinthians, they clearly had a wrong view of sexuality that seemed to assume avoidance of marital intimacy was the best policy (1 Cor. 7:1). Paul’s principle is that in marriage a person’s body does not belong to themselves. Like Proverbs, the way to avoid sexual temptation is healthy activity in marriage (1 Cor. 7:2,5; Prov. 5:15-19). When it comes to sexual intimacy in marriage the husband has the duty to fulfill the needs of his wife. Equally, the wife has a duty to fulfill the sexual intimacy needs of her husband (1 Cor. 7:3). For purposes of sexual intimacy do not consider your body your own but as belonging to your spouse (1 Cor. 7:3-4). Give liberally according to the needs and wants of the other, not your own. Any use of your body to deprive (a standard set by their needs not yours) or withhold from your partner is sin (1 Cor. 7:4-5a). Of course, there are circumstances of health or trauma where abstaining is necessary and in these circumstances the spouse desiring more intimacy must be understanding. Similarly a spouse should not use these verses as an excuse for self-centered unloving demands. In summation of 1 Cor. 7:1-5, a partner should be giving intimacy to their spouse at the frequency their spouse desires because in marriage the body is not one’s own but belongs to their spouse.

What Ever Happened to Abstaining for Prayer?
My larger concern is that sex in a marriage is not a means of grace. It can help a marriage in wondrous ways as a form of Christian obedience to God. It can keep us from temptation. But Biblical sexuality does not confer to us the fruit of the Spirit. Sex does not directly connect us to God--that would be the pagan view. 

Communion with God is a higher priority. While the command is not to deprive each other, Paul’s only delineated exception of abstaining for prayer is the greater challenge given today’s evangelical climate. First, stopping for a time of prayer is given as the only reason to abstain from regular intimacy, assuming Paul would have been understanding to medical or physical conditions. Second, this time of abstaining must come by mutual agreement. Both parties without coercion must agree. Consider covenanting together for a period. Third, the time is not to be indefinite. A time is to be specified in advance where after it is over the couple rejoins in regular intimacy. Fourth, like fasting the time of abstaining is for a period to be wholly devoted to prayer. I do not think that Paul is suggesting that intimacy hinders prayer. We do not need to take a view of sexuality that is akin to that of Augustine or other church fathers. Food is good but when we fast we show that we need to depend more on God in focussed extended prayer. The same may be true of marital sexual intimacy.

So here is the Biblical challenge: (1) Do not deprive your spouse. That is to both men and ladies in marriage. More than that (2) consider having a discussion and coming to an agreement to spend more time in prayer together. Ask your spouse: how is your communion with God? Maybe together you should agree to set aside intimacy for several nights (or whatever would be out of the norm for your habits) so that you can devote yourselves to prayer--not more TV or other personal activities. Do not let it be indefinite but come back together to rejoice in what God has given you.

In our sex obsessed culture, without diminishing marital intimacy we need to be reminded that prayer is a higher value. As evangelicals, we need to follow all of Scripture. I am sure there are committed Christians out there who do not have a healthy view of intimacy. But if evangelicalism's forty year obsession with sex is any indicator, there are more evangelicals out there for whom intimacy in marriage has gone beyond the Biblical balance. We need to take a cold shower and ask ourselves: why is it that the one challenge that Scripture gives is noticeably absent from our obsession? While sexuality in marriage is important: how important is prayer to your marriage? More or less important than sex? When was the last time you heard a minister or a blog give a sex challenge: “hey healthy lovers out there, why don’t you try abstaining for prayer?” Well, you just heard a challenge of this different sort.

(Tim is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary and is now the pastor of Pocono Mountain Bible Fellowship Church. He is married and the father of four daughters. You can follow Tim on Twitter: @tim_bertolet)

Monday, January 16, 2012

No More Excuses!

Guest Blogger: Sten-Erik of  Theological Pursuits

The concept of the New Years Resolution has become a cultural icon for failure.

Fide, "New Year Lights" December 20, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Non-Commercial Attribution.
Let that roll around in your brain a bit. I have heard (and made) many sincere resolutions over the years, but the reality is that this concept has been reduced to an absurdity to be laughed at on television sitcoms and talk shows. I recently read some statistics in a January 2010 article from Psychology Today that stated that over half of New Years Resolutions have been abandoned within a few months, and by the end of the year less than 10% are still being held. My guess is that 90% of that 10% are lying to save face. And there is always an excuse or rationalization for our failure.

“Excuses are the nails to build a house of failure.” ~ Don Wilder

So what is the point? Why are we setting ourselves up for such colossal failure each year? It may have something to do with the nature of the resolutions that we make, and a lack of understanding of how difficult it is to break a deeply held habit. I propose it is because of our American “I can pull myself up by my own bootstraps” mentality. How are typical New Years Resolutions typically phrased? “This year I will lose 30 pounds.” “I will read the Bible every day for 20 minutes.” “This year I will commit 30% less felonies.”

Proverbs 16:9 reminds us that when man plans, God laughs. (Okay – that’s an unsanctified paraphrase, but you get the idea.) The typical New Years Resolution is made because we aren’t happy with an aspect of our life or being, and we desire to change it – but not enough to have already taken concrete steps to do so. Real change doesn’t happen in our lives because of a flippant (sorry, but it must be – it seldom sticks!) vow made on an arbitrary date on the calendar.

Real change happens when we hit a breaking point – an epiphany of some sort – that drives us beyond a passing thought of change to the point of a pressing conviction. And for the Christian, that means we don’t set forth as independent, self-reliant catalysts of personal change. It means that we embrace the reality that what is done in our strength is often ashes, but what Christ does through us in our weakness is beautiful.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that we just lean back in our beach chairs with our hands behind our head and say, “Go ahead God – change me.” The Christian experience is one in which we respond to the Spirit’s work in us by cooperating in our growth and development. If we strive to do it all on our own, we fail. If we just passively wait for God to do it for us, we stagnate. But when the Spirit indwelt believer submits him or herself to the process of sanctification through active cooperation, amazing things can happen.

With that philosophy as the backdrop, I love the challenge from Henry Ward Beecher to “hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anyone expects of you. Never excuse yourself.” When I commit to do everything I do for the glory of God, what other choice do I have?

So this year, don’t make a flippant resolution that has over a 90% chance of failing. Instead, seek that breaking point. Where is that moment of epiphany? What is it that must go, and you are willing to submit yourself to God’s refining work in order to make the change? Persevere – and have patience. It may take a while. Indeed, the change we seek will take us the rest of our lives – but it is something worth pursuing!

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
Kipling once said, “There are a million reasons for failure – but not one excuse.” So – No more excuses…or idle resolutions. Over several years Jonathan Edwards wrote down 70 of his resolutions. He didn’t treat these as flippant desires for self-improvement. Instead he viewed them as maxims by which he should live his life. It is my understanding that he reviewed these weekly. I commend them to you to read and consider as potential models for your personal resolutions both in content and intent. I close with the opening paragraph to Edward’s resolutions, as it captures the attitude we should each have as we strive to become the men and women God has called us to be:

Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.

(Sten-Erik is currently on staff with the Department of Spiritual Formation at Dallas Theological Seminary, where he is wrapping up a Th.M. with a dual focus in systematic and historic theology as well as an M.A. with an emphasis in New Testament Studies. He is married and the father of four daughters.)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The perfect justice of hell and the cross

John Piper addressed bitterness in last week's sermon:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
(Romans 12:19 ESV)
Justice will be done. It may not be done now. If one of the things holding you back from letting it go is "It's wrong, justice hasn't been done, they're getting away with murder" then this promise is tailor-made for you.

God will lift from you the suicidal load of vengeance and carry it to one of two places: he will carry it to the cross if the person repents or he will carry it to hell where they will be forever. And you can't improve upon either of those. If they're in hell, you don't need add to their punishment. If their load was borne and forgiven and paid at the cross, you dishonor the Lord if you don't share in that forgiveness. It's a massive promise, "I will repay", and that is true for every single sin that has ever been committed anywhere in the universe at any time!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The humility of Jefferson Bethke and Kevin DeYoung

Jefferson Bethke is a spoken-word artist featured in the latest video to go viral and spark all sorts of bloggosfury in the process (I googled it, I think I made up that word). His video, "Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus" is nearing ten million views on YouTube alone.

Now I am not going to be offering my opinion or rebuttal to anything he said in the video. To be frank, I haven't even watched the video all the way through (and probably won't). However, several Christian blogging heavyweights have watched the video and graciously responded including Jared Wilson and Tullian Tchividjian, while Kevin DeYoung even dissected it verse by verse. In all honesty, I didn't even read his whole dissection because I felt the whole topic was—as Kevin later described—all "sound and fury signifying nothing". (Side note: that's good stuff, Kevin, someone should put that in a novel or play or something.) But then again, anything drawing that much attention needs careful thinkers offering careful thoughts.

However, Jefferson Bethke actually responded personally to Kevin DeYoung's critique and even gave Kevin permission to share their subsequent back-and-forth exchange. And the thought that Kevin closed with grabbed me more than anything said up to this point:

The actual emails were longer, but these excerpts give you a feel for the tone. I’m immensely grateful for Jeff’s response and feel like I’ve made a new friend in this process. We talked on the phone this morning and had a chance to get to know each other better. We talked about the wonders and trials of the internet and the difficulty in receiving praise and criticism. We both talked about what we could have done differently in retrospect.
A friend wrote to me yesterday and said, “This is a good test for both Jefferson and for yourself. Is he the kind of guy who would be willing to write a critic with humility? And did you write the piece in such a way that the one being criticized would feel comfortable chatting with you?” I hope we are passing that test. Through the years I haven’t always aced this kind of exam.

This is a beautiful picture of the sort of humility that we need more of within the Christian blogosphere. I know controversy and criticism drive the hits up, but when building a following trumps building up the church, this is a red flag that we've run off course. I have personally unsubscribed from blogs that I felt were doing more tearing down than building up, and I pray this blog never falls into that trap. Yes, there are times when hard words are necessary, but I hope myself and anyone representing this blog will always do it in such a way that, as Jeff and Kevin modeled, edification would be the end result. There is a sort of criticism that only tears down and vilifies and there is a sort that invites clarification, edification, and reconciliation. I pray that ours (and yours) is always characterized by the latter.

Friday, January 13, 2012

In Pursuit - Part 1

Guest Blogger: Sten-Erik of  Theological Pursuits

“I really want to disciple somebody.”

“I took this class on discipleship, and now I’m ready to be a mentor!”

“I’m so thankful that I’m being discipled by Pastor so-and-so.”

To quote everyone’s favorite swordsman, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” If you went to and typed in “discipleship” you would get nearly 10,000 hits. If you look at church websites you’ll see discipleship programs and job titles like “Pastor of Discipleship.” But what exactly does that mean? This question became all the more pressing when I did a search in the Greek text of the New Testament for the noun form of the word disciple (μαθητής). The word is used 261 times in the four Gospels and the book of Acts. But after that? It does not make a single appearance. Not one.

This merits a study of the concept of being a disciple as it is used by the One who calls us to discipleship – Jesus. This is hardly an original thought. Almost every book on discipleship on my shelf starts with the great commission in Matthew 28:19 – “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This verse is in virtually every mission statement for Christian churches around the world, and rightly so.

But something is missing. Where is Paul chiming in on this making of disciples? What about Peter, or in John’s letters?

I think the answer needs to come from the source. Those final words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew are just that – His final words. He had a lot to say about being a disciple before he gave that great commission. What did He say to His disciples? What are the instructions of Jesus telling us how to be a disciple?

In Mark 3:14 we have a significant verse that may shed some light on this question. “And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach…” But it wasn’t until Mark 6:7 that we discover that Jesus began to send them out. There is a space between the invitation to come learn and the commission to go and make. In between the invitation to communion and the imperative of commission we find Christ’s definition of discipleship.

Let’s look at that verse a little closer:
  • And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles)
  • so that they might be with him
  • and he might send them out to preach…”
In this verse we have a snapshot of Jesus’ strategy for discipleship:
  • The Men – First we have the selection of men. He selected these twelve men to be His disciples. E.M. Bounds once said, “Churches are looking for better methods. God is looking for better men.”
  • The Mentoring – Second we have a close association. Jesus didn’t need them to “be with him” because he was lonely or needed companionship. Rather, He needed them to be with Him so that they might learn from Him. Absorb His teaching. Learn His methods. Be shaped by Him. This was essential to the third and final step;
  • The Mission – Finally we have the sending. But before they could be sent, they needed to be with Him.
If we start our “discipleship strategy” with Matthew 28:19, we are putting the metaphorical cart before the horse. Matthew 28 is our goal – our target. But we have a long road of preparation before we get there. A road characterized by being with Him. This is discipleship – not something we do to others, but something to which we first commit ourselves.

(Coming Soon – Part 2: Where is our invitation?)

(Sten-Erik is currently on staff with the Department of Spiritual Formation at Dallas Theological Seminary, where he is wrapping up a Th.M. with a dual focus in systematic and historic theology as well as an M.A. with an emphasis in New Testament Studies. He is married and the father of four daughters.)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Faith Isn't Knowing

From Melinda at the Stand to Reason blog:

There are at least two things wrong about Paul Pardi's analysis of Christianity in this article.  He claims that Christianity should be kept private by those who believe it because it's known by an irrational method - faith - that isn't accessible by everyone.
First, we don't know about Christianity by faith.  Everyone knows about the claims of Christianity and the Bible in the same ways other things are known.  Faith isn't a way of knowing. It's trusting in what we have come to know to be true.  Faith is laying hold personally of what is true in the Bible.  Knowledge is the first step and it's no different than coming to know about anything else.  So it can be discussed between those who have faith and those who don't because they're both operating in the same way to evaluate truth claims.  Faith comes after knowing.
Second, Christianity isn't a private topic.  This is a way to subjectivize Christianity - to relativize what Christians believe.  But essential to the what the Bible teaches is that it's not subjective or relative.  It's true for all people.  Things happened in history that were witnessed and reported.  And what the Bible teaches is for all people.  So engage in consideration of the truth claims of Christianity, but don't dismiss them as private, subjective beliefs.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

My Accidental Life Verse

Guest Blogger: Timothy Bertolet of The Voyages...

I have never been a big “find your life verse” guy. But I think I can make a case for Proverbs 18:17 having become a life verse for me. Over the years, the events of life and ministry have inadvertently thrust Proverbs 18:17 into this position. In numerous situations I have found so many practical applications to the wisdom contained within it. It simply states: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (ESV)

At the least, this says as our modern axiom puts it “ there are two sides to every story.”

So for example, what parent among us has not had ‘Child A’ come and say “‘Child B’ hit me”? As a parent it is easy to rush to judgment “how could you hit ‘Child A’?” You are all ready to hand down the sentence when Child B responds, “‘Child A’ hit me first.” So the case was right until another comes along and examines it.

I have experienced this type scenario on many levels. It even happens in the church, thankfully without the hitting. One person will present a set of events arriving at a conclusion with all the details in seeming support. The judgment seems certain and easy. Then, upon talking to the other party involved, the case is not quite so easy, the judgment not quite so certain.

This proverb says more than just “there are two sides.” It says that searching judgment of another can overturn what seemed easily and discernibly right when you first heard the case. Consider the analogy from our own legal system: the adversarial system is an important part of the process of discerning justice. If juries heard only the prosecutor present his case determining verdicts would be easy.

As another example of this, I have been the chairman of a non-profit board and at times we are faced with tough decisions. At times we find ourselves in a situation that requires decisive action upon which someone makes a case for a specific response. The case seems right and clear. However, as chairman in particularly difficult instances I have stated things like, “I am here to guard the integrity of the process.” Discussions must be fair and full. At times that entails being sure that no one voice dominates the conversation. Consensus and decisions in the board need, at times, to have a bit of an adversarial process to them. Matters must be weighed and even debated. We need people who will examine the case that another proposes so that we are not deluded into thinking a certain course is right just because it was the first suggested. Sometimes our opinions are changed; other times they are not but we become more prepared for objections as we proceed.
Let me ask you this: how do you respond to someone examining your best case? Often times we misconstrue a necessary and helpful adversarial process for an adversarial or enemy relationship. “If he disagrees with me, he must be an enemy.” To this end pastors and leaders can stack their boards with the aptly named “yes man.”

In other instances, I have seen people unable to handle an alternative interpretation of Scripture because for them the first interpretation they arrived at must be right (no matter how much I might try to prove via careful textual examination that the alternative is indeed correct).

I am hardly using this to advocate hermeneutical uncertainty or deny the necessity of firm convictions. Quite the opposite, sometimes careful examination from another can be the process by which we arrive at right judgment or course of action. Sometimes my best and closest allies are those who will bring questions and examine carefully the position that to me seems self-evidently right. Sometimes my case is not as airtight and self-evident as I first thought. Other times in personal confrontation, I will be more cautious when I approach people because I recognize that while my case might seem right, a little searching on their part--a little more detail that they might bring to the story--and the problem might be more complex then I was first lead to believe.

Have I made my case for a life verse? Maybe another needs to come along and examine it. What ever your opinion consider this. Next time you encounter some scenario with opposing actions or judgments remember Proverbs 18:17 “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” --then proceed with cautious humility before you close on the necessary firm conviction. Another examining the case might just be part of the discernment process.

(Tim is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary and is now the pastor of Pocono Mountain Bible Fellowship Church. He is married and the father of four daughters.)

Monday, January 9, 2012

...for it was the Lord's will to put them to death...

This is part 5 of a continuing series on hard questions from the Old Testament. They have been adapted from a series of articles I wrote for my church's community groups during our Old Testament Challenge. You can also read the introduction, part 2, part 3, and part 4.

Sin is a serious thing. Throughout the Old Testament God is trying to help Israel get the picture—usually with mixed results at best. While God gave the Canaanites 430 years before he finally executed judgment, he was often much more swift and severe when dealing with Israel.

In the past few weeks we have read of God’s judgment on a corporate level (Canaanites, Israel, Achan’s family). In the coming weeks we read of two such accounts on an individual level (Eli’s sons and Uzzah). In each of these accounts, the judgment dealt required the offending party’s life. How do we make sense of this in a time when God is not dealing such judgment (at least not in such overt and expressed ways)? This problem challenges two modern assumptions:

Assumption #1: God cannot take a life justly. This challenge has power only to the extent that we cease to believe that God is the true author and sustainer of life. But if God is the author of life, he also has authority over life to give and take away. In fact, it is by sheer mercy that God doesn’t require our lives from us at the moment of our first sin (which was the warning to Adam and Eve in the garden, see Genesis 2:17).

We are thinking in very temporal and earthly terms if we believe our lives are our own, or that any life cut short is a tragedy (the apostle Paul disagreed, see Philippians 1:21).

Assumption #2: God cannot judge a group fairly. We find it rash that God would judge a group for the sin committed by less than every person in the group. But we must be open enough to challenge our modern value of individuality against most cultures’ higher value of community. (It may be an unexamined belief in the superiority of your historical moment over all others[1]). The Bible is chock full of warnings against the communal effects of sin. Considering the biblical warnings, perhaps God was not being quite so imprecise as we assume. Notice, too, that this challenge depends on the first assumption being true, that God cannot take any life justly at any time.

Yet the Bible would repeatedly affirm that God is capable of and faithful to deal with justice and mercy towards each eternal soul—man, woman, and child.

[1] Tim Keller, The Reason for God (New York, NY: Dutton, 2008) 109-114.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

How the Kindle killed my reading plan

Every new year I set a goal for myself regarding how many books I want to read in the following year. 2011's goal was the first I failed to meet and I blame my new Kindle for that. Yes, you heard me right. I only read 42 of my target 52 books (one a week) and I hold my Kindle responsible.

You see, I was at 42 books partway through November when something momentous occurred. I got a Kindle for my birthday. And just like that, my reading screeched to a halt. More specifically, my reading productivity ended.

All technology is created to solve a problem (or at least that which the manufacturers and advertisers can convince you is a problem). In the case of the Kindle, it was created to make the transportation and navigation of large quantities of books easier. I'm sure there are more reasons, but those were the two most appealing to me. The thought that I could carry one device with me and have at my disposal my entire book collection was too much to resist. Now, as John Dyer pointed out in From the Garden to the City (One of CIC's Top 10 of '11), "Sometimes, the effects of a medium are more important than any of the content transmitted through that medium...the transformative effect of a technology is so powerful that it often overshadows what we say or do with that medium."

To put it another way, the Kindle was designed to make reading easier, but (in my case) it made three other things easier as well:

Book hoarding - With the Kindle, I felt like a teenage girl with her dad's credit card (please, don't read too much into that). What I mean is, due to the fact that there is so much free or dirt cheap content out there for eReaders, there is a smaller financial restraint to keep your book collection in check. So I probably spent more time hunting for and downloading eBooks after my birthday than I did reading them.

Book surfing - Much like channel surfing on the TV, the Kindle makes it easier to browse your collection. This is because, even as you hold and read one book in your hands, you are at the same moment holding every other book in your collection. While this is sometimes good, I found that at other times it made it much easier to drift away from one book to another. Which brings me to my last negative effect.

Book infidelity - I am by no means a "read one until you're done" kind of guy. I always have at least five books going at any given moment. But the Kindle requires even less investment into any given book. When you read a print book, you must "give yourself" to it as you bend covers and pages, underline, and make notes. The Kindle makes it easier to juggle reading ridiculous numbers of books at one time without giving yourself to any one book. The Kindle also removes any sort of anticipation and delayed gratification as you wait for a printed book to arrive.

So what's the real problem? The problem, of course, is me. The problem is my self-control, or lack thereof. And this is true with humanity and virtually every advance in technology. Each new technological advance (in my case, the Kindle) makes all sorts of things easier, and while some of those are good (book reading), others are bad (book hoarding and surfing). There are a few things I'd like to see the publishing industry do in the wake of the eBook revolution that I think would help, but that is another post. If I may close with one more quote from John Dyer's From the Garden to the City, "When we are aware of the tendencies and values inherent in our technology, we have the best chance of avoiding the negative trade-offs it brings and instead using the technology to serve God".

What about you? If you have an eReader, have you noticed these (or other) negative effects? Have you noticed more positive effects (e.g. my wife says she could barely finish a book before she got a tablet)? If you don't have an eReader yet, is your resistance motivated by such concerns?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Jeremiah 29:11 According to the Gospel

Guest Blogger: Timothy Bertolet of The Voyages...

The new year is both a time of reflection and hopeful anticipation of what lies ahead. In that spirit of anticipation, one Bible verse that seems to get particular attention around the new year is Jeremiah 29:11 “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (NIV).

For some, Jeremiah 29:11 seems the ideal quotation to express our aspirations for good things in the new year. We use it to baptize our sentimental feelings of all the possibilities the new year must hold for us. The possibilities of prosperity are endless--so long as prosperity is largely interpreted along individualistic Americanized notions of what success and prosperity will entail.

But what if Jeremiah 29:11 is about something deeper?

First, Jeremiah 29:11 is not about your personal prosperity. While Scripture is clear that God is sovereign over all events and has declared the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10, et al), it is equally clear that our Americanized versions of the prosperity gospel are not Biblical. In fact, Biblically we are often called to suffer (Rom. 8:16-17; Phil. 1:29). God’s best life now is often walking the path of Christ in exile to the world’s versions of favor and prosperity.

Let’s face it, we should be grateful for all that God brings into our life both good and bad (Job 2:10). The reality is that this year may not be a bed of roses for you. Your year ahead may involve difficulty, suffering and trials for the purpose of building perseverance (Romans 5:3-5). It may very well be the Lord’s will to crush you to break you for some set of reasons known only to Him. In this respect, Jeremiah 29:11 may not be ‘your verse’.

Second, Jeremiah 29:11 is about God’s plan for Israel. The point of Jeremiah 29:11 is that God will bring Israel back to Jerusalem and the promised land.

Jeremiah is writing to Israelites who had just been taken captive into Babylon with more destruction of Jerusalem just around the corner. Jeremiah prophesies full exile is imminent and lasting as Israel will be in Babylon for seventy years (Jer. 29:10). But Jeremiah announces a hope and a future so that we might know God keeps all of His Word. Jeremiah’s own prophecies are reflections of God’s earlier words to His people.

Centuries earlier in Deuteronomy 30:1, God had promised that the curses of the covenant laid out in Deuteronomy 29 would come upon Israel--including the climactic exile from the land. Yet the promise to Israel is her return from exile:

and you return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons,
then the Lord your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.
“If your outcasts are at the ends of the earth, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you back. (Deuteronomy 30:2-4)
In Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, we have God’s overarching plan for Israel. After Israel’s seventy years of captivity, God will reestablish them as a nation. Notice that Jeremiah 29:11-13 calls Israel to national repentance just like Deuteronomy 30:2. Jeremiah, echoing Deuteronomy, promises that the fortunes of the nation will be restored (Jer. 29:14; Deut. 30:5ff). Both Jeremiah 29 and Deuteronomy 30:7 promise covenant curses on Israel’s captors.  After exile, God will prosper His people (Jer. 29:11; Deut. 30:9). God’s plan for Israel is made clear with this proclamation by Jeremiah.

Third, Jeremiah 29:11 is really about the gospel. In context, Jeremiah 29:11 has really always been about the gospel. God curses His people with the curse of His Law, but His plan is to redeem them of that curse. The seed planted in Deuteronomy 30 is the return from exile which takes it’s ultimate shape in the New Covenant--God’s people receive a new circumcised heart (Deut. 30:6). Jeremiah 30-33 is about the New Covenant, the restoration of Israel and the establishment of the King of the line of David back on the throne (see esp. Jer. 31:27-37).

The New Covenant ushers in the ‘last days’ where God acts on behalf of His people. Israel’s iniquities are atoned for and the Spirit is given (Jer. 31:33-34). Fulfillment is the Messiah, the Son of David, on the throne of David as he sits at the right hand of God. In the New Covenant, which Jesus Christ has now established, God does not cast off His covenant people (Jer. 31:35-37).

So the verse is for you after all. If you are a Christian, whether Jew or Gentile, you can name and claim Jeremiah 29:11--but it is through Jesus the Son by which you claim that verse. Your hope is that the Son has risen and ascended to the right hand of God. The Son has established the New Covenant and put the Spirit in our hearts. In Jesus the ‘last days’ have dawned. That which Jeremiah says ‘the days are coming’ (31:27,31) are those which have now come. Jeremiah 29:11 has reached fulfillment in the fullness of time with the gospel concerning the Son.

I hope that next time you read Jeremiah 29:11 you will reflect on the New Covenant promise given in the passage and know that it is yours in your union with Christ. Put aside the silly notions of prosperity and sentimentality and embrace the gospel in this promise to you.

(Tim is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary and is now the pastor of Pocono Mountain Bible Fellowship Church. He is married and the father of four daughters.)

Monday, January 2, 2012

New to the Christians In Context blog?

Christians In Context is a gospel-centered collective of writers, pastors, teachers, musicians, hotel shuttle drivers . . . you get the idea. We are united in our belief in the historic good news of Jesus' life, death, burial and resurrection to purchase a people for God from every tribe and tongue and nation, and the implications and applications it has on all our lives. While you will find some of the standard blog fare here (book reviews, links we like, etc.), our original content will largely focus on three main themes: gospel preparation, gospel presentation, and gospel application. We've shared some of our favorite posts from each to get you started!

Gospel Preparation
By this we mean apologetics, pre-evangelism, and the dismantling of defeater beliefs. Our aim is to remove every offense but the gospel. Ultimately we strive to open the way and lay the groundwork for a clear and compelling presentation of the good news of Jesus Christ and leave the results up to God.

Five Reasons Why a Thoughtful Person Would Start Their Religious Quest With Christianity
Fear God?
God Isn't Fair

Gospel Proclamation
We want our presentation of the gospel to be biblically faithful, historically grounded, and culturally relevant. Clarity and honesty are our main goals here.

Jeremiah 29:11 According To the Gospel
Law Vs. Grace by D.L. Moody
The Reason For the Season
The Solution to God's Justice and Love Towards Man

Gospel Application
The implications of the gospel are multifaceted and limitless. It impacts how we approach everything from our churches to our culture, from work life to home life, from public policy to personal sanctification. We desire to be Christians bringing the gospel to bear in every context.

The Gospel and Lent: A Reformer's Reasoning
Body Snatchers, Splinters, and Being a New Creation
3 Ways the Gospel Should Influence Leaving a Tip
The Sex Challenge Evangelicals Never Give (but Scripture Does)

And if you want other ways to connect with us, you can also find us on:

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Open Casting Call for Bloggers

2011 was an exciting year for Christians In Context including a new look and the biggest giveaway we've ever hosted to cap it all off. However, we have no plans to just coast in 2012, which means work. So we're looking for a couple independent Christian bloggers interested in partnering with us in the coming year. (If this isn't you, feel free to pass it along to your friends.) As a matter of fact, we've already got our first guest poster lined up and ready to start this month. But more on that later this week.

The best applicant submission for us to consider would be in the form of a blog address. This not only gives us a good example of your work and style of writing, but it also demonstrates (hopefully) a track record of being able to blog on a regular basis. Ideally, this would mean little or no additional work on your part other than posting your work on a second blog. We're primarily looking for original content, although we'd happily take book reviews and links posts as well.

What this means:
  1. We're offering a sort of guest-post partnership with the possibility of becoming a regular contributor. 
  2. We're looking for an original post about once a week. Of course we're flexible with vacations and such.
  3. Hopefully you'll get a larger (or at least different) audience for your content.
  4. You may have the option of free books for review on the blog.

What this doesn't mean:
  1. That you have to drop your current blog. You are welcome to cross-post any content written for CIC on your personal blog as I have continued to do ever since I joined.
  2. That a guest-posting partnership automatically leads to a regular contributor on the blog. 
Direct any questions or blog submissions (yours or a buddy's) to: Jared_at_ChristiansInContext_dot_com