Monday, February 27, 2012

Announcing our next giveaway!

We're very excited about our latest giveaway! Starting next Monday (March 5th) and continuing through the month of March we will be giving away John Piper stuff each week. I'd love to give you a full list of the prizes, but I can't cause I'm hoping to add more as the month rolls on. You can see a partial list above in the banner. We will start each giveaway on Monday and close it on Friday. But we wanted to give you a week to let all your friends know before we got rolling!

In the meantime, here's some "freebies" from my blogroll to whet your appetite:

1. Pastor John will be leading a free seminar on theme of Future Grace March 16–17 at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. I can't make it to this one, but anyone in the Minneapolis area (or with a few days free, even if you're not in the area) would be well advised to attend.

2. Ryan Harper says Future Grace is Piper's greatest book in Books & Culture:
I was not prepared for so careful a treatment of race and Christianity as I found in Bloodlines. No Piper text of which I am aware displays the pathos and intelligence of Bloodlines. The book contains passages that I never thought I would read from a popular, supposedly “conservative” evangelical—on white normativity, on whites’ funding of negative black media images, on sin as not simply self-aggrandizement but also self-hatred. Piper’s adumbration of individualistic-versus-structural accounts of racism in the book’s second section is informed and cautious against reduction. True, concerns remain; despite Piper’s insistence that Christ challenges individualists and structuralists alike on race matters, the primacy of Christ-initiated heart transformations in Piper’s argument belies an inclination toward individualistic anthropologies. But great books prompt as many concerns as they resolve. Bloodlines is Piper’s greatest book.
You can read the whole thing here.

3. Tim Challies has put together a list of 12 songs (mostly hip-hop) that either feature John Piper preaching or have been directly influenced by him or one of his books.

  • "Don't Waste Your Life" by Lecrae
  • "Make War" and "This Song's for You" by Tedashii
  • "All-Consuming Fire" and "My Portion" by Shai Linne
  • "Who He Is" by Json
  • "Unstoppable" and "Desiring God" by Voice
  • "Sanctification" by Timothy Brindle
  • "Actions Speak Louder" by Swoope
  • "The Glory of God" by Matt Papa
  • "The Best Is Yet to Come" by The Joy Eternal
See Challies' post for links to watch or listen to these songs. (Thanks to Tyler Kenney at DG for this list)

Puritan Quote for Mondays

Do you let your faith in Christ sit down satisfied in the all-sufficiency of worth and merit in Christ's work for you?

"Therefore (to conclude) get your hearts and consciences distinctly and particularly satisfied in the all-sufficiency of worth and merit which is in the satisfaction that Christ made. As it is a fault and defect in humiliation, that men content themselves with a general apprehension and notion that they are sinners, and so never become thoroughly humbled; so it is a defect in their faith, that they content themselves with a superficial and general conceit, that Christ died for sinners, their hearts not being particularly satisfied about the transcendent all-sufficiency of his death. And thence it is, that in time of temptation, when their abounding sinfulness comes distinctly to be discovered to them, and charged upon them, they are then amazed and faith nonplussed, as not seeing that in Christ which might answer to all that sinfulness. But as God saw that in Christ's death which satisfied him, so you should endeavour by faith to see that worth in it which may satisfy God, and then your faith will sit down satisfied."

Thomas Goodwin, Christ Set Forth, p.58

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Gospel and Lent: A Reformer's Reasoning

Lent isn't just for Catholics.

This year will mark the third year that my church (Southern Baptist if you must know) has observed the Lenten season together. While I don't even pretend to know all the historical context (nor will I address any of it), I would like to offer what I feel is a healthy use of the Lenten season that keeps the emphasis of our faith on grace and the gospel and away from self-righteousness and moralism.

In its simplest form, Lent is a time of preparation for remembering and celebrating the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ around the Easter season. Often this is done through some sort of self-denial as a means of reminding us of our dependence on God and our need to connect with him through prayer and the Word. Jesus himself modeled this sort of self-denial when he, though utterly drained after days full of teaching and miracles, often chose to spend his nights in fervent prayer to the Father rather than in sleep. There are two simple guidelines that my church uses when picking something to fast from:

1. Pick something that is good or amoral (morally neutral) from which to fast. As Timothy pointed out in an earlier post, Lent is misused—if not abused—when used as an excuse to give up something temporarily that we should really be giving up permanently. Tim is right, it doesn't go deep enough in killing our sin. If I may use two fifty-cent theological terms, I would suggest that Lent is more about sanctification and only about mortification as a by-product. Fasting from something isn't an end in itself (like trying to stop a certain sin). Rather it is a means of reminding us of our dependence on and submission to God the Father and of identifying with Jesus in his humble incarnation. Fasting, then, is a tool to make additional space in your life for devoted time to prayer and the Word.

Jesus wasn't against fasting in principle, only when used as a means of grandstanding. Jesus modeled this for us as he fasted from food (during his temptation in the desert) and sleep (as previously mentioned). He also gave instructions to his followers as to how to fast (Matt. 6:16-18) and assumed that his followers would fast after "the bridegroom is taken away from them" (Matt. 9:14,15). The early church fasted from food (Acts 13:2,3 and 14:23) and Paul's only allowance for a married couple to stop having sex was for a sex fast (1 Cor. 7:5). If that doesn't change your perception of the word "fast", I don't know what will.

2. Pick something in your daily routine from which to fast. A fast doesn't have to be just from food (as I'm sure you've already gathered). But food is a very effective fast because your body will remind you when you are missing a meal. However, there are other equally effective fasts that will bring a daily reminder to dependence, submission, prayer and the Word. Just have a peek at the Word Cloud above and you'll see something there that you use daily but could live without. As a personal example, I am giving up all music and podcasts when I am alone in my car (this is probably a bigger deal for me than some others). So I am either driving in silence and praying or listening to my Bible on mp3. Fasting, then, is also a tool to give daily reminders for devoted time to prayer and the Word.

And here's where grace and the gospel comes home. My church takes every Sunday off during Lent. So I get to rock out to tunes on my way to church. Someone else finally gets that cup (or five) of coffee that they've been craving and head-aching for all week. Every Sabbath leading up to Easter is a mini-celebration that we are no longer under dietary laws—and The Law in the larger sense. Lent fasting is for prayer and submission and dependence, but we will always and only do these imperfectly. So each Sabbath of Lent—but especially Easter—is a celebration of the fact that our right stand does not depend on a fast (and its success or failure). It does not depend on how well or how long we pray. It depends solely on the One who fed himself and depended on prayer and the Word throughout his faultless life. It rests completely on the One who submitted to being emptied, being a servant, being humbled, and being crucified. My righteousness rests in the fasting of another, the dependence of another, the submission of another, the prayers of another.

Fasting isn't an end in itself (if it is, then it's just dieting). But when we willfully give up something good in order to learn greater dependence on and submission to God through prayer and the Word, then our very discipline reflects and identifies with Christ in his humble incarnation and celebrates Christ in his perfect substitution. I can hardly think of a better preparation for Easter.

An Open Letter to Praise Bands and a Rebuttal

I love it when this happens to me. I read an article and think "He has a point" until I read someone else's response to it. As it says in Proverbs 18:17, "The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him."

 James K.A. Smith wrote "An Open Letter to Praise Bands" in which he shared some strong concerns with the practice of "leading worship" (a role which I currently hold). His three central cautions were as follows:
  1. If we, the congregation, can't hear ourselves, it's not worship.
  2. If we, the congregation, can't sing along, it's not worship. 
  3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it's not worship. 
 Valid concerns, no? In fact, I've made a conscious effort in exactly these three areas: bringing down the volume of my band, choosing songs that have a shorter learning curve, and doing my best to direct our congregation's attention away from the musicians and myself.

But then Luke Larsen from Mars Hill Portland wrote an insightful response (though without three simple titles with a nice alliteration):
  1. Trying to define what makes something “worship” in terms of anything but the posture of your heart toward God is stepping on some dangerous ground as far as I’m concerned . . . to say that playing music loudly is somehow keeping congregations everywhere from worshiping God is going too far. 
  2. Is it not possible to worship without singing at all? Is it not possible to worship in utter silence?
  3. If we are not mature enough to be able to be led by another human being to Jesus and not worship that human being, perhaps we shouldn’t have pastors speaking at churches either. Why not just play a recording and have everyone worship to that?
So, what say you?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Our Obsession with Lent

I usually don't think too much about Lent. However, with my good Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, we never forget Fauschnaut Day here in Pa. Two things got me thinking about Lent this year.

First, Wednesday morning on my Facebook page someone posted the following redacted conversation:
Person 1: "What are you giving up for Lent?"
Person 2: "The Church Calendar."
The friend is going to a strong Protestant and Presbyeterian seminary. The quote made me chuckle because we're Protestant and therefore not strongly liturgical. This was the first thing that made me think about Lent and made me say to myself: "well, yeah, we're Protestant."

Second, Wednesday afternoon I was doing some driving and was amazed at how much the regional Christian radio station was focussing on Lent. They had a large number of call-ins with testimonies about what people were giving up for Lent. It ranged from bad habits, to trivial things, to coffee, to moralism like "instead of trying to give something up, try to do something nice every day." By far the best (or worst depending on how you look at it) were "I'm going to give up negative thoughts and be positive."

It made me think: "Wait, what?! Are we Protestants?"

Here are my thoughts about Lent.

1. I don't really care what you give up or don't give up. If you want to give up coffee, great--I won't, but if you feel like it is 'enslaving you' go ahead and give it up. It won't hurt you physically or spiritually... well, ok, maybe you'll be more irritable for 40 days but then you can try to give that up during lent too. I will modify a Pauline phrase: neither Lent or non-Lent,  matters, what matters in the New Creation.

2. Your Lenten celebrations won't 'do' anything spiritual for you. No really, they won't. Listen to what Paul says:
Colossians 2:20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh
I am not going to unpack this exegetically except to say: forgoing anything during Lent is not going to do one ounce of spiritual good in putting to death the 'indulgence of the flesh.' At its worst, Lent is a form of asceticism or self-made religion and we trick ourselves into thinking that it is a means of crucifying the flesh.

Again, my take is: if you want to celebrate Lent it's not bad to give something up. It's not bad to say "I can go without something because I am too obsessed with it [e.g. coffee]." But don't think it is a higher form of Christian obedience or that it will mark you on a spiritual path towards dealing with the flesh.

This is probably one of the saddest things about the whole "what did you give up for Lent" discussion: it presupposed that giving up things for Lent would help you with your spiritual life and 'the flesh,' our sinful self.

3. Lenten celebrations don't go far enough. By far the most infamous comments on the Christian radio were ones that talked about giving up some outward habit that truly were sinful. So if you have a cursing problem a person might propose giving it up.

The problem it that this doesn't find the root of sin as deep enough. We need more to our spiritual life then giving up our habits for 40 days and hoping they will be gone for good. This is a bit like pulling out weeds by cutting off the stems. If you never get to the root, you never get the weed.

How many people will not say any curse words because of Lent but will hold anger in their heart? How many people vow to get rid of lashing out in anger but will never by outward habits deal with their heart?

We live in a day and age where people assume that the heart can be controlled and reshaped merely by changing the outward habits. People will cite psychological study to defend such methods, and Christians buy in to it.

Biblical teaching is quite different. The heart needs to be changed. If the heart is changed the habits will flow from the heart. This thought flows into my next.

4. Changing outward habits for Lent doesn't take sin serious enough. Sin is deeper than something a 40 day Lent period can deal with. In this way, Lent celebration can subtly soften our view of sin. I need to be crucified and made alive in Christ--and no amount of Lent season can deal with this. Lent is not a means of sanctification, Christ alone is.

My worry is that such obsessive focus on Lent and what it can do for us, will actually make Christ less sweet. His majesty and the depths of his work for us will seem shallow because we've used Lent to make sin, its effects, its causes and its perversity something milder than the horrid depths at which the Bible portrays it.

The most disheartening thing about the Christian Radio conversations that I overheard is that sin was largely treated at surface level as an external problem hence people shared their external treatments to the problem. We should weep over such a shallow definition of sin because in such contexts the penetrating medicine that only Christ truly offers is overlooked for more user friendly options.

5. Whatever happened to justification by faith? There seems to be a subtle slide into justification by Lent. Perhaps I'm overstating my case... but consider this: Roman Catholics believe in justification by faith... but not by faith alone. For them faith combines with charity and righteousness is infused in us by the Spirit and our patterns of behavior. The righteousness of justification comes from within.

This was not all that dissimilar from our Lenten call-ins. 'Sure I trust Christ, sure I believe he died for me, but now I'll really be a serious Christian with a right standing before God because of how I am living during Lenten season.' I couldn't help but think the calls were less about 'the life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God' (Gal. 2:20) and more about 'the life I live during Lent I live by giving up things to make God pleased.'  The emphasis seemed to me to drift towards a works-centered approach with self-denial as a means of vindication of the Christian.

I think one of the primary reasons for giving up Lent is what we need to communicate about justification by faith alone. Of course, distinct and inseparable from our justification is our sanctification in Christ. But even sanctification taken seriously has little or nothing to do with Lent.

Look, I'm not against Lent per se. Nothing wrong with giving up some habit for 40 days. Just don't turn it into some spiritual quest. Don't treat it as a means of crucifying the flesh. Be on your guard about the potential for undermining key Protestant doctrines. I really do mean this is a potential not an absolute.

I am sure many who celebrate Lent as Protestants are well meaning. I just worry: are the doctrines of the Reformation so far gone that we can't even see the works-righteousness approach that is creeping back into our Christianity? I worry that evangelical young people celebrate Lent because it is cool, trendy and a mark of 'serious Christian commitment.' If this is true it is horrid to the 'good news' of the gospel.

I don't want to be legalistically for or against Lent. I would just caution you to think about things Biblically and carefully. Examine your heart before you proceed. Ask yourself: what does this say about my doctrine? Will Lent highlight the gospel of free grace or take away from it?

I would say in some cases--though admittedly not in all--it actually does begin to point away from free grace in the gospel. The danger is that we never notice the subtle shift in direction and soon find ourself heading down a road to another gospel.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Use of Psalm 102 in Hebrews 1

Hebrews 1 is one of the best chapters in the Bible for an articulation and defense of the deity of Christ. The author's motives in writing the book of Hebrews is to challenge the reader (listener?--if it was orally read to the congregation) to stand firm in their confession of Christ. 

In 2:1, we are to hold fast and not drift away. In 4:14, we are to hold fast to the confession of faith. It is important than that we recognize Christ's person and work--and Hebrews is a great book to defend this in its various aspects. You and I need to hold fast to our confession that Jesus is Lord.

With this in mind, one thing I would like to draw attention to is Hebrews 1 quotation of Psalm 102. As we see who Jesus is by these three verses alone, let us hold fast to what it truly means to confess Jesus is Lord.
Hebrews 1:10 And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; 11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, 12 like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.”  
Psalm 102:25 Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.  26 They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, 27 but you are the same, and your years have no end. 
There are a three things worth noting about this passage and the use of the Psalm:

(1) Notice that it is the LORD who is addressed in the original Psalm. Whenever the OT is quoted in the NT we should go back and pay close attention to the context. It is a basic principle in the Bible that whenever a later writer is using an earlier writer (OT using older OT; or NT writer using OT verse)--they are using in light of or with disregard for the original context. This is not necessarily to say that their hermeneutical methods are like ours in all respects but rather as, C.H. Dodd pointed on in his classic work According to the Scriptures, we are not to think the context and background are unimportant. New Testament writers in particularly are often well aware of what they are quoting and why they are quoting it.

So look at the Psalm:
v.12 "But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations."
v.16-- The LORD builds Zion.
v.18,19, 21 and 22 all focus on the LORD's work, activity and plan.
v.24 "“O my God,” I say, “take me not away in the midst of my days—" 

The person being addressed in this passage is the LORD. The English translation of all caps is an indicator that the Hebrew is YHWH, the divine name, sometimes translated as Jehovah in older translation. It is the tetragrammaton--God's special covenant name revealed in Exodus 3.

The purpose of addressing the LORD in this way is an appeal to the LORD to spare his life. The reason he can make such an appeal is that the LORD does not pass way like the rest of us. In fact, He has created all things and will not wear out like his creation. The creation passes away, God does not pass away.

(2) In Hebrews Psalm 102 is quoted as the Father's address to the Son. Psalm 102 is about a person crying out to God. Hebrews is not denying this but focusing on a more subtle detail. Hebrews, believing Scripture is God's Word, applies the object of address in Psalm 102 as the Son--and thus God the Father in His God-breathed Word speaks the verses of His Son.

Verse 8 introduces a quotation of Psalm 45 with "But of the Son he says, "--'he' clearly references God the Father speaking to the Son (see the context with verse 5-8). Of course, Psalm 45's usage in this passage is a defense of the deity of Jesus in and of itself.

But note how Hebrews 1:10 starts out with 'And' as an introduction to the quotation. We are to see that the same introduction of verse 8 applies to verse 10. God the Father is saying to God the Son.

A second indicator is tracking the use of 'you' in the passage. 
God the Father says to the Son:
"your throne, O God..."
"you have love righteousness..."
"therefore God, your God, has anointed you..."
"beyond your companions..."
"You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning," 

Being anointed beyond 'your companions' is probably a reference to the Messianic anointing of the Son in his humanity as Psalm 8 is quoted in Hebrews 2 as Christ becomes like the children in all respects so that he might bring many 'sons to glory'.

But notice that we are given insight in to a divine conversation. God the Father addresses God the Son and calls the Son both 'God' and 'Lord.' The Father says that the Son has done things that only God can do. And when God wrote his Word in Psalm 102, Hebrews is telling us it was talking about the Son. 

(3) The Son is described as doing what only YHWH could do. According to the Old Testament only the LORD could create:
Isaiah 44:24 Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: “I am the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself
Job 9:8 who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea; 
It is no small detail then when the NT speaks of Christ as acting in creating (John 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2).

Either the New Testament is blaspheming by describing to Jesus something that only God can do or the New Testament is showing us the divine identity of Jesus [to use Richard Bauckham's term]. Of course it is clearly the later. The New Testament is God's Word.

Notice also in verse 12 the reference to "earth" and "heaven". Frequently in the Bible the two together "heaven and earth" designate the scope of creation. It is that frequent comprehensive description of everything that is created--all of it. It describes 'all things,' a tag which is also descriptive of the scope of create. There are ultimately only two categories: God and creation. We are told that the latter, as creation, "will perish,...will all wear out like a garment,". 

Anything and everything created will ultimate wear out and be destroyed (at least before its recreation in the New Heavens and New Earth). Only that which is not creation (and hence is God) will not wear out and grow old.

In the Old Testament, especially in Isaiah 40-66, only the LORD does not end. He is the first and the last. Not that he has a beginning or an end but that he is before and after His creation. And so Jesus is described as "But you are the same, and your years will have no end.” Unlike all things created, the Son does not wear out. Plainly, Jesus is an eternal person not a created being. If he was the latter he would fail into the category of that which perishes and wears out. 

YHWH doesn't change. He doesn't wear out. There is no decay, shifting or degradation to God as there is to His creation. In short, Jesus is describe as something that only God is. Yet, the Father and the Son are distinguished in this passage as distinct persons. The fact that the Father address the Son rules out an sort of modalism. 

When you and I confess Jesus is Lord, we are ascribing to Him the divine name. Not only is he lord in the kingly and ruling sense, we are confessing that He is God and Savior. 

Hebrews 1 is a defense of the deity of Christ and clearly distinguish Jesus the Son from being an angel or any kind of created being. It is important that we pay attention to the detail of Hebrews 1. We have sought to briefly show here the riches of Psalm 102 and its use in Hebrews 1. 

It provides to us powerful testimony to the deity of the Son. It is a piece of the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity. Jesus is truly God the Son--sharing in full deity, addressed as YHWH. Jesus is also distinct as a person from God the Father.

We believe God's Word in inspired and therefore to hear any portion of it is to heart what God himself has breathed out. But I would suggest in sticking closely to this chapter we pay special attention: the Father designates these things of His Son.

You and I are being told by God the Father what God the Son is like. The Father himself is demonstrating to us that there is a second eternal person in the Godhead--that of the Son. This is not merely man describing something of the Son, but like at Jesus' baptism, you and I are hearing to voice of Jesus' Father and our Father describing something about the Son. 

If the Father can designate his Son as such as testimony to us, how much more are we accountable to listen? Even more, as creatures, how much more should be bend the knee and worship both the Father and the Son?

2 Peter 3:18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him [the Son]be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Turning from one lostness to another

    “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
(Luke 15:17-20 ESV)

I know Tim Keller has brought new life to many insightful ideas surrounding the story of the prodigal son. Not the least of these is the fact that both the younger brother (at the beginning of the story) and the elder brother (at the end of the story) are lost and outside of fellowship with the father.

But as one who holds a more reformed position, one part of the parable always bothered me even after Keller's wonderful work. The younger son, after losing all and ending up in a pig sty, decides to return to his father and plead for an employed position. Yet this seemed to portray the son as the one initiating repentance and forgiveness. And this seemed to be at odds with the reformed teaching that God initiates salvation and reconciliation. But as I read closer, I realized something that not only made sense of the story but also perfectly fit with the reformed position.

The younger brother isn't turning back to his father in repentance, he's merely turning from younger-brother lostness to elder-brother lostness. He hadn't had a change of heart, he had just realized that his rebellion had dead-ended and the only way to survive was to adopt the elder brother's approach of obedient service to the father. He doesn't consider being brought back into the family (not even in his self-speak), only brought on as a hired servant. He wasn't approaching his dad for forgiveness and grace, just a job!

If the sin of both the younger and older brother was that they loved and wanted the father's stuff more than the father, then the younger brother's return and plea to the father is no different. So while the younger son returns in worldly sorrow (and a prepared speech with sufficient self-flagellation) in order to gain employment, it is the father alone who initiates and extends grace, forgiveness, and a place back in the family.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book Review: The Gospel Story Bible by Marty Machowski

If you've followed this blog for any time, you know we don't traffic in children's books all that much. But last year Marty Machowski captured my interest with a book called Long Story Short: Ten-Minute Devotions to Draw Your Family to God. Long Story Short covered the major stories Old Testament, looking first at the OT passage then to a NT passage to connect it to Jesus then back to the OT passage to dig a little deeper, all in the span of a week. Essentially, it is a black-and-white Old Testament study guide for children. I say this not as a criticism, indeed I was very impressed with the material when I reviewed it.

But if you are simply expecting Long Story Short Part 2 when you pick up The Gospel Story Bible, you're in for a surprise. While Long Story Short was made with parents in mind to lead their children through a study of Jesus in the Old Testament, The Gospel Story Bible is made with the kids in mind. It is hardback, full color, and each turn of the page starts a new story. This is noticeably helpful when a story than can span chapters of the Bible (and lose a child's attention in the process) is boiled down to a one-page account. The study portion has been minimized but not thrown out as each story includes a "Let's Talk About It!" section with three questions about the story. And the use of the ESV when Machowski quotes the text will be the icing on the proverbial cake for some.

For those parents concerned with such stories getting boiled down to theological fluff, I appreciated this comment in the introduction: "It is possible to simplify Bible stories so much that you edit out important gospel connections to God's larger plan of salvation. In The Gospel Story Bible, we've set out to preserve this theological detail by ending each story with a short commentary, designed to connect events in the story to God's larger redemptive plan. Old Testament stories point forward to Jesus. New Testament stories point to the cross."

2.15.12 Out Across the Internets

I know we don't usually do a links post (it seems there are enough prominent bloggers doing that), but I had a number of interesting things in my Google Reader this morning, so I thought I'd throw something simple together:

John Piper's booklet-length explanation of the Five Points of Calvinism

Aaron Armstrong explains why he quit  following celebrity pastors on Twitter

Matt Papa continues his critique on the current state of CCM

Desiring God (and Piper) announce all DG products are $5 as they reevaluate how to use their website

Kathy Keller explains why the city is a wonderful place to raise children

Postscript: If you think you'd like one more blog sending you interesting links, leave a comment letting us know!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Jeff Bethke's thoughts after his viral video

Jeff Bethke catapulted into viral history recently (don't worry, he's fine) with his spoken word video "Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus". All of the details regarding his video and the ensuing controversy have already been written about (or linked to) here on this blog under the title "The humility of Jefferson Bethke and Kevin DeYoung". While not much has changed since we last posted (other than the hits of the video have grown to nearly 20 million now), Jeff has written a reflection on the whole affair and I really liked part of his comment in particular:
"All in all these past few weeks have been a quick lesson and reminder of where my identity is. Is my identity in my failures? Nope. Is it in my successes? Nope. Is it in how many views I get on YouTube? Definitely not. My identity is in the Cross of Jesus, and His resurrection. I’ve had to anchor myself in that truth every morning, because the voices of the world are incredibly powerful. Nothing can show me how unworthy I am more than the Cross of Christ already has, and nothing can show me how much I’m worth and treasured more than the Cross of Christ already has. His Cross is a double edged sword, and when anchored in it, it protects me from both the praise and critique of man in a dangerous enslaving way."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Excellency of Christ

One sermon that I think would be beneficial for everyone to read is Jonathan Edwards' "The Excellency of Christ." You can read it here or get an audio reading here.

Jonathan Edwards is probably best, or perhaps infamously, known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He is so caricatured that some have remarked that interpretations of Edwards and the Puritans are “Jonathan Edwards in the hands of angry sinners.” Jonathan Edwards emphasized the glory and power of God in accomplishing salvation. His sermons were doctrinal and applicational. If all you know of Jonathan Edwards is his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" you do not get a picture of who he is. Go read his "Heaven is a World of Love," "God Glorified in the Work of Redemption" or "The Excellency of Christ."

He was enraptured by the power and majesty of God. His theology & preaching, like Puritan theology & preaching as a whole, was ‘experimental’--we would say “experiential”. Edwards, like the Puritans, believed that truth entered through the mind, would change the heart creating new ‘affections’ and this would change the will and lead to proper behavior.

The text that "The Excellency of Christ" is from is Revelation 5:5-6.

His main point is: “There is an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ.” Edwards unpacks how Christ is both the Lion and the Lamb. He is the Lion in his infinite majesty. He is the Lamb in his infinite condescension. It is a powerful image to picture two aspects within Christ's person and His works.
The lion and the lamb, though very diverse kinds of creatures, yet have each their peculiar excellencies. The lion excels in strength, and in the majesty of his appearance and voice: the lamb excels in meekness and patience, besides the excellent nature of the creature as good for food, and yielding that which is fit for our clothing and being suitable to be offered in sacrifice to God. But we see that Christ is in the text compared to both, because the diverse excellencies of both wonderfully meet in him,
While Edwards never mentions it directly, he clearly is operating out of an orthodox Christology of Nicea and Chalcedon--of course this is part and parcel of Edwards' Reformed theology. The point would be that Edwards' sermon is a remarkable example of orthodoxy leading to orthopraxy. 

Consider some highlights from Edwards' sermon:

To the point that "There do meet in Jesus Christ, infinite highness, and infinite condescension." Edwards writes:
Christ, as he is God, is infinitely great and high above all. He is higher than the kings of the earth; for he is King of kings, and Lord of lords. He is higher than the heavens, and higher than the highest angels of heaven. So great is he, that all men, all kings and princes, are as worms of the dust before him; all nations are as the drop of the bucket, and the light dust of the balance; yea, and angels themselves are as nothing before him. He is so high, that he is infinitely above any need of us; above our reach, that we cannot be profitable to him; and above our conceptions, that we cannot comprehend him.”
But also consider his infinite condescension:
And yet he is one of infinite condescension. None are so low or inferior, but Christ's condescension is sufficient to take a gracious notice of them. He condescends not only to the angels, humbling himself to behold the things that are done in heaven, but he also condescends to such poor creatures as men; and that not only so as to take notice of princes and great men, but of those that are of meanest rank and degree, "the poor of the world," ...
Yea, so great is his condescension, that it is not only sufficient to take some gracious notice of such as these, but sufficient for every thing that is an act of condescension. His condescension is great enough to become their friend, to become their companion, to unite their souls to him in spiritual marriage. It is enough to take their nature upon him, to become one of them, that he may be one with them.
In Christ there is both infinite justice and infinite grace.
Though his justice be so strict with respect to all sin, and every breach of the law, yet he has grace sufficient for every sinner, and even the chief of sinners. And it is not only sufficient for the most unworthy to show them mercy, and bestow some good upon them, but to bestow the greatest good; yea, it is sufficient to bestow all good upon them, and to do all things for them. There is no benefit or blessing that they can receive, so great but the grace of Christ is sufficient to bestow it on the greatest sinner that ever lived.
In Christ's exaltation, Christ is the Lion who has triumphed over sin. Yet, Edwards turns our attention to the mediatorial office of Christ. Cheer up believer, he still is a lamb towards you in kindness and gentleness.
Indeed, in his exalted state, he most eminently appears in manifestation of those excellencies, on the account of which he is compared to a lion; but still he appears as a lamb;...Though Christ be now at the right-hand of God, exalted as King of heaven, and Lord of the universe; yet as he still is in the human nature, he still excels in humility. Though the man Christ Jesus be the highest of all creatures in heaven, yet he as much excels them all in humility as he doth in glory and dignity, for none sees so much of the distance between God and him as he does. And though he now appears in such glorious majesty and dominion in heaven, yet he appears as a lamb in his condescending, mild, and sweet treatment of his saints there, for he is a Lamb still, even amidst the throne of his exaltation, and he that is the Shepherd of the whole flock is himself a Lamb, and goes before them in heaven as such...And in his acts towards the saints on earth, he still appears as a lamb, manifesting exceeding love and tenderness in his intercession for them, as one that has had experience of affliction and temptation. He has not forgot what these things are, nor has he forgot how to pity those that are subject to them. And he still manifests his lamb-like excellencies, in his dealings with his saints on earth, in admirable forbearance, love, gentleness, and compassion. Behold him instructing, supplying, supporting, and comforting them; often coming to them, and manifesting himself to them by his Spirit, that he may sup with them, and they with him. Behold him admitting them to sweet communion, enabling them with boldness and confidence to come to him, and solacing their hearts. And in heaven Christ still appears, as it were, with the marks of his wounds upon him, and so appears as a Lamb as it had been slain, as he was represented in vision to St John, in the text, when he appeared to open the book sealed with seven seals, which is part of the glory of his exaltation.
Most powerfully in Edwards' sermon, he turns the listeners attention to Christ. That Christ is worthy of our faith and trust. He addresses the person who may have a spiritual burden. "Here let me a little expostulate with the poor, burdened, distressed soul."
What are you afraid of, that you dare not venture your soul upon Christ? Are you afraid that he cannot save you, that he is not strong enough to conquer the enemies of your soul? But how can you desire one stronger than "the almighty God"? as Christ is called, Isa. 9:6. Is there need of greater than infinite strength? Are you afraid that he will not be willing to stoop so low as to take any gracious notice of you? But then, look on him, as he stood in the ring of soldiers, exposing his blessed face to be buffeted and spit upon by them! Behold him bound with his back uncovered to those that smote him! And behold him hanging on the cross! Do you think that he that had condescension enough to stoop to these things, and that for his crucifiers, will be unwilling to accept of you, if you come to him?...
What is there that you can desire should be in a Savior, that is not in Christ? Or, wherein should you desire a Savior should be otherwise than Christ is? What excellency is there wanting? What is there that is great or good; what is there that is venerable or winning; what is there that is adorable or endearing; or, what can you think of that would be encouraging, which is not to be found in the person of Christ?...
“How much Christ appears as the Lamb of God in his invitations to you to come to him and trust in him. With what sweet grace and kindness does he, from time to time, call and invite you... 

What is the purpose of our redemption? That God might be all in and that we might have communion with God. There is an implicit Trinitarian structure to Edwards' thinking (although admittedly he focusses primarily on the Father and the Son).
One design of God in the gospel is to bring us to make God the object of our undivided respect, that he may engross our regard every way, that whatever natural inclination there is in our souls, he may be the centre of it; that God may be all in all. But there is an inclination in the creature, not only to the adoration of a Lord and Sovereign, but to complacence in some one as a friend, to love and delight in some one that may be conversed with as a companion... 
And thus is the affair of our redemption ordered, that thereby we are brought to an immensely more exalted kind of union with God, and enjoyment of him, both the Father and the Son, than otherwise could have been... 
This was the design of Christ, that he, and his Father, and his people, might all be united in one (John 17:21,23)...Christ has brought it to pass, that those whom the Father has given him should be brought into the household of God, that he and his Father, and his people, should be as one society, one family; that the church should be as it were admitted into the society of the blessed Trinity.
This sermon makes you want to worship Christ more. It makes your rejoice in the wonder of fellowship that we have with the Triune God. It makes you marvel at the diverse excellencies of Christ. Please go and read this sermon because Edwards unpacks the diversity of these excellencies in numerous ways both in the person and works of Christ. But is a model of a robust orthodoxy leading to a robust orthopraxy in worship and delight in God.

One final thought: Edwards' sermon is evangelistic in a way that is rarely witnessed today. All of the rich doctrine becomes a reason for the sinner to trust Christ. What more can one find in Christ? If one is afraid Christ is not strong enough: Behold He is a Lion. He can save. If one is afraid Christ is not compassionate enough: Behold He is a Lamb. Edwards seeks to capture the majesty of God in all its infinite greatness but then we equal ponder just how far "down" Christ has come. Of course, Christ never sets aside his divinity--not these two 'dialectic' excellencies stand side by side in one person.

This sermon makes me wonder, when we evangelize--do we set out the excellency and majesty of Christ as Edwards' does? How often do we rush through creation, fall, redemption to press home a decision: 'choose Christ'. Edwards does press the listening to trust Christ and to find Christ sufficient. He liters his sermon with Scripture to make these points. But only after Edwards seeks to display the majesty and glory of Christ in His person and His work does he press the listener to respond. His sermon gives ample tools for the Holy Spirit to use as Edwards lays out solid Biblical exposition.

Again, I encourage you to read or listen to this sermon. Meditate on it and the Biblical doctrines contained therein. May it be of spiritual benefit to you beyond just a mere intellectual enterprise.

You can read it here or get an audio reading here. Take up and read!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Fear God?

The idea of fearing God is a common one in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. But it is almost completely foreign to the modern conception of God, one that is often no deeper or well thought-out than the simple platitude of "God is love". For this reason, the idea is often a difficult hurdle for many reading the Old Testament the first time.

The first thing that must be made clear is that fearing God is not equal to being afraid of God. Certainly, being afraid may be part of one's proper response to God. Consider the prophet Isaiah's response (Is. 6) or the disciples' response at the realization of who Jesus really was after calming the storm (Mk. 4:35-41). This kind of fear is the natural response of the finite in the presence of the infinite, the response of the sinful in the presence of the holy. But being afraid is not the sum of fearing God. In fact, I would suggest that the greater part of the biblical concept of fearing the Lord has nothing to do with being afraid (this would explain why God and the angels so often had to begin their messages with the phrase "Fear not"). Thus when God calls us to fear him, he is calling us to much more than being scared and faint-hearted.

 In 2 Kings 17, God explains why he has sent the nation of Israel into exile. And it begins with this:
And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced.
(2 Kings 17:7-8 ESV, emphasis added)
Are we to take this as meaning that the Israelites spent sleepless nights huddled in the corner with their swords for fear that the their little household idols might turn homicidal? Of course not. In fact, this passage makes little or no sense if we force our simplistic, modern meaning of "fear" on the text. But the author doesn't leave us guessing. The rest of 2 Kings 17 details the nature of their fear of other gods, and in doing so fleshes out the the biblical idea of fear.
  • Worship - "They built high places", "they set up for themselves pillars", "they used divination and omens". We only worship those things that we believe have power over us or power to benefit us, those things that are in some sense greater and "other" than us.
  • Sacrifice "There they made offerings", "they burned their sons and daughters as offerings". Every sacrifice is, by definition, something that costs us. Whether it be our time, money, family, or lives, when we make a sacrifice, we are deeming the recipient of our sacrifice as worthy of the cost we bear.
  • Obedience - "They served idols", "they sold themselves to do evil". Of course, obedience is the natural response to the things we worship. Everything that we worship makes some sort of demand on our lives, and the things that we obey reflect what we truly worship. 
So in summary, the biblical concept of fear (both the Israelites' misplaced fear of other gods, and our properly directed fear of God) speaks of that which we deem greater than us and worthy of worship, sacrifice, and obedience. Some Christians thinkers have summed all this up in one word: reverence. Yes, there is a place in this definition for the natural response of the finite in the presence of the infinite, the response of the sinful in the presence of the holy. But I submit to you that this is not the whole (or even the greater part) of godly fear. To fear God is to esteem him most worthy of our worship, sacrifice, and obedience.
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?"
(Deuteronomy 10:12-13 ESV)

For further reflection: Acts 9:31, 1 John 4:18, Hebrews 12:28-29, Deuteronomy 6:1-2

Thursday, February 2, 2012

…the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul…

This is part 6 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 and  parts 2, 3, 4, and 5.
Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him. – 1 Samuel 16:14
This verse packs a one-two punch that provokes two very troubling (and very challenging) questions.
Question 1: Can a Christian lose the Holy Spirit (and salvation)?

The simple answer here is “no”. It is important, first of all, to draw a distinction between the work of the Holy Spirit before and after Jesus. In the Old Testament, the presence of God’s spirit represented his power and endorsement on a chosen leader for Israel (prophet, priest, or king)—and it would come and go. It was God’s way of saying “This is my guy, I am working and leading through him”. God is here choosing a new king and so the Spirit of the Lord leaves Saul and anoints David (16:13).

In the New Testament, we see a shift when Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit on all his followers after he departs (John 16:7, Acts 2:33). The Spirit is spoken of in the New Testament as a promise (Gal. 3:14), a seal (Eph. 1:13), and a guarantee of what is to come (2 Cor. 1:22). To put it simply, the Holy Spirit was a temporary presence on leadership in the Old Testament, while he is now a permanent presence on every believer.  

Question 2: How can God send harmful, tormenting spirits on people?

While this is a troubling idea to consider, it is not the only time we read of an account like this. The story of Job, for instance, records his torment by a harmful spirit as well (and not just any spirit, Satan himself). Yet the book of Job allows us to peek behind the curtain to understand such situations a little better.

First, it shows us that God does not “sic” demons on us like a pack of dogs, rather he at times gives them freedom to act. In this way, God is not an active accomplice to any evil done.

Second, it shows us that God is sovereign over the entire universe, Satan and the demons included. This should give us great peace in knowing that the evil forces of the spiritual realm cannot take an inch more than God gives them in his wisdom and sovereignty.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

In Praise of Brevity

Anyone who loves theology and Biblical studies will often find that the best treatments of an issue are seldom brief. A verse, a doctrine or an idea must be examined, turned over from multiple angels. While I enjoy clear writing, I enjoy writing that does not leave the loose ends of points undiscussed. My wife will attest that I do not excel in brevity. In blogging I'd often prefer to expand and explain my thought rather than cutting it short and tight. In that light, I find it a bit ironic then that I would find myself writing this post.

For the past six months, I have been leading my children in family devotions by working through the book Training Hearts; Teaching Minds by Star Meade which are devotions on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Each week covers one questions. Each day contains a reading about the length of a the Daily Bread devotional with some accompanying Bible verses.

Here is what I have noticed as I go through a catechism and the short devotions on it: I may enjoy plumbing the depths of Biblical studies and topics but sometimes people need a short crystalized statement that cuts straight to the point. One or two well thought out sentences can sometimes ring truer than a morass of paragraphs or essays.

As a pastor, sometimes on the way out of the sanctuary someone hits you with a question. The parishioner does not want a long winded answer as you ruminate on Augustine's, Calvin's and Luther’s interpretation of the passage--they just want a straight forward bullet point. A tweet. I do not always like it but it is the reality on the ground. After I had memorized my church’s doctrinal statement for my ordination, my mentor instructed me in the value of retaining the knowledge. A doctrinal statement contains the core. It can be used to quickly answer doctrinal questions. “Hey pastor, what does justification mean again?”

Here’s what I would suggest: we must read weighty treatments of doctrine but we don’t necessarily start or stop there. Treatises can enrich our lives but so can brevity. When was the last time you pulled out a Creed, a Confession, a Catechism or your own church doctrinal statement and said: what are the cores of orthodoxy? This blog is after all about orthodoxy. Consider the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. Do you know them? Could you discuss them? They don’t say it all--but in those moments when you need to say enough without a deluge, what better tool?

I have personally been blessed by reading the Westminster Shorter Catechism with my four girls (and I’m not even a paedobaptist). One example of that blessing, it has been exciting to see its movement from Questions 24-30. There is progress: Christ’s three offices (prophet, priest and king) to the linchpins of historia salutis: Christ’s humiliation and exaltation to the application of redemption specifically on the role of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s continuing work in exaltation or the Holy Spirit’s application are often overlooked in pop-evangelicalism somewhat truncated theology. But here a catechism lays a grid. It is brevity. But it is like laying pillars that go deep upon which we hang more complex and thorough explanations of the topic. As I read it I realized how much of my seminary education could be hung around these questions. 

When was the last time you checked the pillars of your theology? Those of us who love theology and the Bible can amass great amounts of knowledge while over time neglecting the continual reassessment of vital cores. Have you looked for cracks your understanding of the basics? Are your fundamentals sound?  Can you state them briefly or do you fumble for words with ever expanding convolutions that covering for your lack of mental clarity? The Trinity? The Deity of Christ? Soteriology? Christ’s death and resurrection and the benefits flowing from both

As I read to my children, who by the way are 2, 4, almost 6 and 8, they do not understand all of the doctrine but they pick up some. I am reminded that the gospel is for children. Any doctrine that is worth anything is something that can be communicated to children--that includes the Trinity.

In parenting and other types of discipleship, we are laying doctrinal bricks upon which we will build a house of faith. As they grow their understanding will, Lord willing, become more sophisticate--like the walls, siding and trim on the house. But the house is only as good as the foundation which must have the cores of the faith. I hasten to aid these are truths about Jesus in whom we trust and teach them to trust, not empty headed ivory tower expositions limited to head knowledge alone. 

Brevity is a necessity. It is not sufficient in doctrine but it is a necessity. Men like Athanasius  or the Cappodocian Fathers demonstrate brevity in Creeds is not sufficient in defending and articulating doctrine--but neither is it dispensable. Brevity of a catechism or creed that has stood the test of time can remind us of our cores. Like steel beams in a house, it may lack sophisticate erudition but it can bear the load. 

In this respect, brevity is to be praised.

So here’s some questions worth discussing in the comments. 
Do you agree or disagree with my point of brevity?

How would you suggest our generation rediscover the value of Creeds and/or Confessions in the twenty first century? 

What tools have you found useful for training in basic doctrine?