What Good Is An Imaginary Savior?

    It is true that fictional stories have the power to awaken consciences and inspire action. Satires, like Animal Farm, can teach us about certain truths in a way that a textbook never could. However, when we make fiction the governing principle of our lives, we label it insanity at worst and quirky at best. Think of the person whose life revolves around playing video games or dressing up like movie characters. There is nothing inherently wrong with video games or movies, but they are certainly not worthy of our deepest loyalties. The power of fiction lies in its ability to creatively and, at times, subversively highlight truth which exists in the real world. That power is lost when we confuse fact from fiction.  

    In the nineteenth century, many biblical scholars began to toy with the idea that some of the Bible is simply fiction. They weren’t referring to the parts of the Bible that were intended to be read symbolically, such as parables, poetry and apocalyptic literature. These biblical scholars looked at a scriptural character like Abraham and said that he was “simply Israel’s projection of its ideal self into the unknown past” (B.W Bacon, 1860-1932). These sentiments were not so slowly transferred to the New Testament as well. Scholars of the twentieth century essentially said: If Jesus was a real person, the historical Jesus has been lost and replaced with the theological Jesus of the New Testament. Christianity, then, became nothing more than a fictional tale with kernels of profound truth, like any other good fiction. Is this a Christianity that ought to organize, inspire, and instruct our entire lives? B.B Warfield, reflecting on this fictional Jesus, once said, “How dreadful to have only an imaginary Savior and an imaginary salvation.”   

tuce-253800.jpg

    Many evangelical Christians believe that they have avoided the kinds of problems described above. They go to Bible-believing churches, after all. They hold to the truthfulness of Scripture! Yet, many evangelicals, while paying lip service to the “literal approach to the Bible,” nonetheless live their lives as if Jesus were nothing more than an idealized version of themselves. The Jesus of evangelicalism has become indistinguishable from the fictional Jesus of the preceding paragraph. Evangelical Jesus is merely an idealized human who inspires us to “be all that we can be.” The evangelical Jesus motivates and spurs us on, but he doesn’t truly demand anything of us. The evangelical Jesus is worthy of our occasional reflections, but not of our entire lives.     

    The worship services of many evangelical churches portray this very reality. Churches may as well promote their services this way: Come and receive nuggets of ethical advice while being emotionally stirred and surprisingly entertained! If Jesus and his ministry is simply a fiction, then we can practice this kind of truncated Christianity and engage in this kind of self-serving worship. But if the Jesus of the New Testament is non-fiction, then we are dealing with a far more transformative kind of Christianity. We are dealing with a Christianity where God truly interacts with and exerts authority over our world. 

    This non-fictional Jesus entered into our world and lived a life of perfection, conforming to the standards of God’s character, so that we might know God. He died on a wooden cross, upon Golgotha, to rid us of our sins. His feet left this ground as he ascended to heaven and sat down in victory over death. This Jesus will return, in the flesh, to bring about a resolution of all things. This Jesus is the God-man who calls us to follow him by faith. Indeed, this Jesus demands our very lives! 

*B.B Warfield (1851-1921) remains one of America's greatest theologians and defenders of "non-fictional Jesus." In his selected shorter writings, Warfield addresses some of the issues raised above in his article entitled "How to Get Rid of Christianity." 

Pastor Scott

I Believe...In...What Again?

   Everyone believes in something. In fact, everyone believes in many things. I believe that the computer I’m typing on exists, or else I wouldn’t be moving my fingers in the manner I am moving them. I believe that chocolate tastes delicious, or else I wouldn’t take every opportunity possible to consume it. But of course, I also have foundational beliefs that we sometimes call convictions, because we hold them more strongly than we do our beliefs in the taste of chocolate or the existence of our laptops. 

    Foundational beliefs guide us in how we approach the world. They include beliefs about God, good & evil, how we come to know things and the nature of the cosmos. It's “big stuff,” I know, but we all have beliefs about the “big stuff” of life. Sometimes we haven’t thought through our big, foundational beliefs, as much as we probably should, but that doesn't discount the fact that we have them. Whenever you try to explain human motives, you are relying on your big beliefs. Whenever you attempt to speak meaningfully about tragic events or give advice to someone in need of perspective, again you are relying on those big beliefs. 

    This all brings me to traditional Christian worship. When I say traditional, I don’t mean outdated. I am simply referring to practices that the Christian church has made use of for many centuries. One component of this kind of traditional, Christian worship has been the corporate confession of faith. Christians, since the time of the apostles, have been reciting summaries of the Christian faith (Matt. 10:32; 1 Tim. 3:16). The corporate confession of faith often looks like this: the pastor says “Christian, what do you believe,” and those gathered respond in unison by reciting a summary of the Christian faith. One summary used by many churches is the Apostle’s Creed.

The Apostles’s Creed

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, And sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; The holy catholic Church; The communion of saints;The forgiveness of sins; The resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

    So, why do it? Why participate in this old practice? Well, I can think of a handful of very good reasons: to remind, to check, to separate, to motivate, and to unite

    First, to remind yourself. We are a forgetful people. I forget what I’m doing all the time. I forget what I’m supposed to be working on or what I’m trying to say or where I am supposed to be. Something tells me that you may be able to relate. We humans are forgetful about the little things and, regrettably, the big things too. Honestly, we are probably apt to forget the big things even more than the little things. We have calendars and apps designed to help us remember our routine tasks, and yet we tend to neglect practices that remind us of our foundational convictions. The corporate confession of faith is a weekly reminder for the church and those watching of what the Christian truly believes. It's a needed opportunity for church members to stand in front of the mirror and be reminded of their Christian identity.  

    Second, to check yourself. It is one thing to hold a belief and a wholly different thing to act upon that belief. A college freshman who philosophizes his way into believing that his chair doesn't really exist is not likely to impress or persuade anyone until he stops relying on the chair to bear his weight. Sometimes Christians are the inverse of the college freshman but no less hypocritical. Christians say that they believe in the God of the Bible while refusing to trust that He can "bear their weight." The weekly confession of faith allows the Christian to evaluate whether or not their lives match up with the faith they claim to inhabit. 

    Third, to separate yourself. This one may be the toughest for (post)modern people to stomach. Confessing the Christian faith means that your basic beliefs about the world are distinct from the beliefs of others. The Apostle's Creed speaks of foundational issues to the Christian faith: God as Creator, God as triune, salvation in Jesus alone, judgment, and eternal life. These beliefs act as clear boundaries, distinguishing the Christian from the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Mormon, the Muslim, the Jew, the secularist etc. By stating what you believe, you are also declaring what you do not believe.

    Fourth, to motivate yourself. While some would see it as divisive or arrogant to separate oneself from others on the basis of religious beliefs, many Christians have viewed it as fundamental to evangelism. When we embrace the exclusivity of the Christian message, we realize that Christianity is more than a result of personality and culture. The biblical claim is that Christian faith is necessary for anyone to enter into the fullness of human life as God intended it - "life everlasting" as the Apostle's Creed states. Christianity isn't just true for me, rather it is simply true, whether or not you believe it. The reason for this, according to the Apostle's Creed, is that truth is located in the triune, Creator God, not in the human individual. So, the corporate confession of faith should motivate the Christian church to take their confession into the world with a renewed confidence that it is universally true and therefore always relevant.

    Fifth, to unite the church to one another and to God. To speak the words of the confession is to bind yourself to the covenant of grace; this is a covenant summed up in God's promise: "I will be your God, you will be my people, and I will make my dwelling place among you" (Jer. 32:38; 2 Cor. 6:16). It is very much like taking wedding vows: "I take this God to be my God and his church to be my church." You are not simply saying the words of confession into the air, rather you are declaring them as an oath to God and to your fellow Christian. In essence, you are saying, "these are words to which God and my local congregation can hold me accountable." 

    Why is it then that so many churches no longer participate in this ancient and biblical practice? Perhaps churches have abandoned it without sufficient consideration. If you go to a church that still practices corporate confession, rejoice for you are greatly blessed! If you go to a church that doesn't, maybe it's time to humbly suggest that your church leadership recover the practice. And if you are looking for a church home, perhaps you should seek out a church that allows you to confess the faith weekly.

Pastor Scott

  

Compromise: Dirty Word or Christian Duty?

    It is well known that Jesus addressed taxes during his ministry. Typically we think of the famous line, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). In a lesser known text, recorded in Matthew 17:24-27, Jesus addressed the payment of a temple tax. This wasn’t a tax paid to the ruling nation but to religious authorities at the temple. The tax collectors were interested to see whether Jesus would pay this tax. Jesus basically said: I’m not obligated to pay the tax because I’m the Son of God, but I’ll pay it so as not to offend. The direct quote from Jesus in Matthew 17 goes like this: “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?And when he [Peter] said, ‘From others,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them…[Jesus went on to pay the tax for himself and Peter].’” 

    What is Jesus up to in this passage? Is he compromising? Yes. Did Jesus always compromise in order to avoid offending others? Clearly the answer must be a resounding no. Jesus had no problem characterizing the pharisees as little devils (Matt. 12:34), and he wasn’t talking about cakes. Also, we should remember how Jesus upended tables within the very same temple that he was sponsoring in this Matthew 17 passage. So, what was it that allowed Jesus to compromise regarding the temple tax but not to compromise in other situations? And how does this question relate to Christian life and ministry? 

    The tax in question finds its origins in the Old Testament, in Exodus 30:11-16. The tax was taken from every jewish citizen for the upkeep of the temple, originally the tabernacle. Ultimately, though, this tax was spiritual and theological in nature. Exodus 30:16 even refers to the money collected for the tax as “atonement money!"

    This tax was supporting the sacrificial system of the temple. The sacrificial system reminded the people of Israel that they were morally tarnished and were therefore estranged in their relationship with God. Yes, that’s right, the temple reminded the “chosen people of God” that they were far from God because of their sin. And the temple also pointed the jewish people to the fact that a bloody death was necessary to wash their sins away and re-connect them to God (i.e. atonement).

    Jesus is, as John the Baptist put it, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The sacrifice that forgives sin once and for all had arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore the sacrificial system of the temple would no longer be necessary. Who needs a sign that reads “This Way to Disney World” when you are standing in the park? Likewise, who needs the blood of bulls and goats when the only begotten Son of God has spilled his blood on the cross for sinners?

Let’s go back and talk more about Jesus’ compromise in Matthew 17.

    In the Matthew 17 passage, Jesus says that he is not obligated to pay the temple tax. This makes sense, as we heard from Jesus’ quote above, because he is basically the issuer of the tax. Not only that, but Jesus knows that the days of the temple are drawing quickly to their end. In fact, the temple would be laid to waste in just a few short decades after Jesus’ death. But in order not to give unnecessary offense, Jesus, here, pays the tax. 

    Had Jesus not paid the tax, the people would have thought that Jesus didn’t embrace what the temple was all about. Ironically, the temple was all about Jesus! Also, the people may have responded by delaying Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and ultimately to the cross. since the cross was central to Jesus' message and mission, Jesus decided to pay the tax.

    It was not a sin for him to pay, because Jesus had immense freedom in his standing as the Son of God. He was not obligated to pay, but he was free to pay. So, Jesus paid a small tax to a temple system that could never absolve the full debt of human sin. He pays in order to continue his march to the cross, where, as one hymn puts it, “Jesus paid it all.” On the cross Jesus far and away surpassed the greatness of the Temple and of it’s sacrificial system by making a costly deposit as the means of liberating sinners from their enormous debt.

    Obviously, it’s no stretch to say that compromise is not always a dirty word, because Jesus compromised. This Matthew passage is a great example of that. How can we learn to compromise like Jesus did? First we need to make some important observations about the way that Jesus compromised:

    1. Jesus avoided unnecessary offense, which reminds us that sometimes Jesus was necessarily offensive.

    2. Jesus did not and would not sin in order to compromise for the sake of avoiding offense.

    3. Jesus’ compromise allowed him to move on to the cross and eventually fulfill and do away with the very tax that he paid.

With these observations in mind, let’s try to apply Jesus’ compromise to compromises that we must make. Let these three instructions, derived from Jesus’ own actions, form a helpful set of guidelines for your Christian life and ministry:

    1. We must make compromises in order to avoid unnecessary offense, even if this means surrendering our Christian liberties.

    2. We must never let compromise be an excuse for our sin.

    3. Significant compromise in Christian life and ministry must be a means of communicating the gospel, not of protecting our pride.

Defending the Biblical Canon

Dr. Michael Kruger is one of the leading evangelical scholars in the area of biblical canon today.  He has some wisdom for us as to how we can answer questions like these:

  1. Why are these sixty-six books the right books to call "Scripture" and not other books?
  2. What separates Protestants from Roman Catholics on this issue?
  3. How do we answer skeptics?
  4. Should the differences between greek copies of biblical books bother us?

If you want to read more from Dr. Kruger, check out his website http://michaeljkruger.com and some of his books, listed below.

Recommended Reading

  1. Canon Revisited
  2. The Question of Canon
  3. The Heresy of Orthodoxy 

Why Do You Need Your Pastor?

    While boarding a plane in St. Louis, I noticed that the man in front of me was oddly dressed. He was wearing a long brown robe with a rope belt. The man looked like a monk from an age long past. The woman taking tickets gave the man a big smile and said “Hello Father.” as if she knew him. The medieval-monk did not know the woman, but he noticed that she had addressed him with the title “Father,” so he asked if she was a Catholic. She replied hesitantly, “Well, yes, but I have not been to mass for a long time.” The monk gently chided her for her idleness as he moved on to board the plane, and then the woman, still laughing nervously, turned to scan my ticket.

    Why did this woman call the man “Father,” if she had no real connection to the institutional church anymore? Why did this priest, and supposedly priests like him, garner a measure of her respect while having little to no impact on her behavior, specifically regarding church attendance? These questions, I think, all revolve around one larger question, “Why do you need your pastor?”

    Christians in our country tend to view pastors as noble holy men who fill a niche role in our society. They are seen as servants of the people who push us to better ourselves. In this way, pastors and priests are the original self-help gurus, in the eyes of many Americans. They are also understood to have some form of authority, because they are in touch with the “big guy upstairs.” And so, like the woman taking tickets, we instinctively know that they deserve a measure of our respect.  Yet, whether a pastor wears an archaic robe or not, the profession of pastor is also viewed as old-fashioned, a remnant of times gone by.

    Is the role of pastor really so superfluous? The answer is probably yes, if pastors are merely what the previous paragraph describes: self-help gurus and holy men with a direct line to the “bearded man in the clouds.” But this isn’t what a pastor is supposed to be. If American Christians genuinely understood and embraced the biblical vision of pastor, they would likely be more active in their local church.   

What is this vision? I’ll be brief, but I will also list a few books for further reading at the bottom, in case I spark your interest. 

    Here are three descriptions of a pastor that fit the biblical bill but, unfortunately, are not the descriptions many Christians would ascribe to their own pastors. I’ll begin each description with “your pastor,” so that you can think about these descriptions and how they fit or, unfortunately, don’t fit your pastor. 

1.  Your Pastor is a Local Theologian

    In the age of podcasts, religious television, and YouTube, many Christians consult “the experts” for their theological questions rather than their own pastors. While not every pastor has been adequately trained in biblical studies and theology, for the most part, I think this trend is a mistake. The local pastor is called to shepherd the local church, and this includes shepherding our biblical and theological viewpoints. By this I mean our most basic, fundamental beliefs about the world around us. And the reality is, only your local pastor can give you this kind of theological counsel in the personalized way that we so need. 

    Let me put it this way: the pastor is meant to be your metaphorical ophthalmologist (eye doctor). When I was twelve, I went to the eye doctor to get glasses. The ophthalmologist used her expertise to fit me with the correct lenses and frames that I needed. These glasses allowed me to see the world as it really was, rather than as the fuzzy mess my eyes beheld, based on their own strength. In the same way, pastors are meant to fit a congregation with a biblical framework that allows each member to see the world for what it truly is: a broken, fallen creation of God in deep need of redemption through the God-man, Jesus Christ. 

    Christians should be in the process of being formed by the local theologians that are our pastors. These pastors should be intentionally shaping their sermons (formal Sunday sermons & informal biblical counsel) to instill in their particular congregations a thoroughly and extensively biblical worldview (Rom. 12:1-2). Sunday morning sermons are not mere self-help talks to give you techniques to achieve personal happiness. Sermons are one of the most powerful means by which God cleanses you of your default selfishness and re-orients you for the sake of His own Kingdom purposes.

2.  Your Pastor is a Liturgical Waiter

    We often picture pastors as relatively benign individuals. As I use the word “pastor,” you may picture a man in a suit or a black robe standing in a church pulpit, delivering a sermon. You may see him playing baseball with the youth group or praying at a fellowship meal. But sometimes the ordinary and familiar nature of pastoral work causes us to overlook the, dare I say, “epic” role that the pastor holds. Picture this: a man with an oversized Bible boldly standing in a storm at the edge of a seemingly endless sea. The expansive mass of water is being violently stirred by the storm. And on the other side of the man is a magnificent, wooden table, set for a feast. 

    This man is a pastor, ready to be an administrator, a liturgical waiter of sorts. He stands between the Lord's table and the seas of baptism, in the midst of the brutality of this fallen world. This picture reminds us of the divine, Spiritual power which stands behind the seemingly ordinary pastoral ministry of Word and Sacrament. Every Sunday we get to partake in the Spiritual benefits of the “means of grace” that are found uniquely in the reading, preaching, singing, confessing, seeing, tasting and “amen-ing” of the Word of God. Your pastor gets to be the minister or waiter of these most gracious means. Epic, is it not? 

3.  Your Pastor is a Specialist in the Art of Dying Well

    In theology there is a term that is often misunderstood. The term is “eschatology,” or the study of the end. Sometimes we think that eschatology can only be associated with Armageddon, predictions of approaching catastrophic events, and the final return of Christ. What we tend to forget is that eschatology is deeply practical, because eschatology is also about how we live our lives now. The end of a well-crafted story will determine the identity of the good guys and the bad guys and will evaluate the worth of the choices and events that took place during the earlier parts of the story. Christians, in the Scriptures, have been given a glimpse into the end of the story (Rev. 21 & 22), and therefore we have been given great wisdom about how to live now. 

55qfoliyqwq-simeon-muller.jpg

    Pastors are trained to tell the story of Christianity, the great narrative of God’s redeeming his creation through Christ (Col. 1:19-20). Our life now is not all that there is. Jesus will win and his beloved church will live on into eternity. Death acts simply as a door through which we all must walk. The only question is: “Will we die well”? Will our lives be geared in such a way that ignores the reality of death and the afterlife or will our stories be shaped by the biblical picture of the end? 

    Therefore, pastors are called to be our own personal “specialists in the art of dying well.” A pastor will welcome a newborn infant into the world with joy and into the church with baptism one day. While that same pastor, on the next day, will accompany, comfort, and counsel a grieving family in a funeral home. The work of the pastor as "specialist in the art of dying well" has just begun for this little baby and it has come to its completion for the one who has "passed on." Only the Christian pastor is equipped by his training and his office to play these privileged and humbling roles in the great story of God’s redemption as we anticipate the end.

    “Why Do You Need Your Pastor?” Well, perhaps the descriptions above have brought more substance to the calling that is the Christian pastorate. If this has made you curious to learn more, try reading one of the books below.

RECOMMENDED READING

1.  The Pastor As Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision by Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachen

2.  By His Spirit and Word by Cornelius Venema

3.  Becoming a Pastor Theologian: New Possibilities for Church Leadership edited by Todd Wilson & Gerald Hiestand 

Pastor Scott

A Country of Religious Fanatics

I live in the mid-west now, where everyone claims to be a Christian, but the churches are empty. 

Old Man in Church .jpg

    A fellow pastor and I agreed that we’d much rather have a discussion with a hard-nosed atheist about spiritual matters than have the same conversation with a nominal Christian. Part of our reasoning had to do with something we both admire in atheists and have trouble finding in most Christians. Atheists, we agreed, at least know what they believe or don’t believe. They even attempt to structure their lives in light of that belief or unbelief. But can we say the same about many American Christians? 

     An early protestant, pastor-theologian, John Calvin, once spoke of “fanatical men” who thought corporate worship and preaching were unnecessary. They are not what we tend to think of when we hear of "religious fanatics." But, they were “fanatical” in Calvin’s view, because they were both wrong, biblically, and a minority within the society. But now, our country is filled with such “fanatical” men and women who share the very same beliefs. 

    Another protestant, theologian, Herman Bavinck, called this same group of people “spiritualists.” They were “spiritualists” because they thought that God would ordinarily work in their lives directly through the Holy Spirit, apart from such means as preaching, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper and the like. To put it differently, if asked how a Christian should grow in godliness, the spiritualist would simply say “God will make me godly.” This is true enough, but when asked how God would make them godly, the spiritualist would say, “through my own personal, private and direct interactions with God.” 

    It seems that most American Christians have adopted a religion that is, if nothing else, personal, private, and lacking in outward spiritual disciplines. Today, many self-proclaimed Christians roll their eyes at the idea that joining a church and faithfully attending that church’s worship gatherings is essential to Christian living. This is an idea that would have been taken for granted not many generations ago. It is an idea that is clearly taught by Christ himself (Matthew 16:18; Luke 22:19; John 13:34-35) and by the authors of the New Testament (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 14:40; Hebrews 13:16-17). 

What is at the heart of this revival of Calvin’s “fanatical men” and Bavinck’s “spiritualists”? 

    The answer to this question is, I think, an old answer, not a new one. The answer is not ultimately tied to ever changing societal preferences or to recent technological advancements. Rather, the answer is this: In the hearts of many American Christians, God has taken a back seat to idols. Christians have allowed for the idols of our day to supplant the true God of Scripture. One might think that idolatry is a sin of older societies, but that is not at all the case. Let me update the language, so to speak, to illustrate my point.

    If I were to say that Jesus is the hero and central character of the Bible, most Christians would gladly agree. But if I were to say that Jesus is the hero and central character of your life-story, while many Christians would politely nod in agreement, any evidence to support such a statement would, in most cases, be desperately lacking for American Christians. How could Jesus be considered the hero and central character when most people treat him like a supporting role, at best, and a brief, on-camera cameo at worst!

    This is because all Americans, including American Christians, have been taught that we are the heroes of our own lives. The "pursuit of happiness" is defined by our own affections, desires, and goals, or so we are told. If that's not idolatry, I don't know what is! We have been taught to seek the “high life” and to marginalize anything that stands in the way of our pursuits. So, when Jesus bluntly says, “seek first the Kingdom,” most of us are forced to explain away the meaning of Jesus’ annoyingly clear words. “But, ‘first’ can’t actually mean, well, first!” 

    What would it look like if Jesus and the things that Jesus held to be of first importance came first in our lives? What would it look like if the quality of our life-stories were judged by their compatibility with the grander story of Christ and his Kingdom, instead of the other way around? What if Jesus became the hero and was given the on-camera time that he so deserves? Maybe Christians would see a radical spike in their holiness and their feelings of closeness to God. Who knows, maybe Christians would be as interesting to talk to as atheists. 

Pastor Scott

Do You Believe in Demons?

    Do you believe in demons? If not, you are in good company. Well, if not “good,” at least you belong to a densely populated company. Even many self-proclaimed Christians have no trouble dismissing the reality of demons while embracing a messiah who spent plenty of time battling them. For instance, in Matthew 8:16, we see Christ casting demons from their human hosts. Just a handful of verses later, Jesus allows demons to inhabit the bodies of swine and then rush off the side of a steep bank to their own demise. 

night.jpg

    For atheists who claim that non-material entities are unreal by definition, it is understandable why they balk at the concept of demons. But why have Christians in the west ignored or denied the existence of demons? And by the way, does it really matter all that much to the gospel of Jesus? Does the average Christian lose something by denying the reality of demons?

    During a conversation I had with a Christian psychologist, it was suggested that the presence of demons in the Bible is simply due to the ignorance of biblical times. In other words, Jesus and the people of his day were ill equipped to understand the abnormal behavior of people who were really suffering from un-treated mental illnesses. Of course, this explanation doesn’t account for why Jesus claimed to speak with demons, or cast demons into pigs or successfully healed individuals of these ailments. If Jesus was unaware of “mental illness,” how was he such a successful physician in ridding his clients of them? On the other hand, if Jesus did understand the categories of mental illness, why did he lie? Jesus was not one to treat his friends, or his enemies for that matter, with kid gloves. This psychologist's explanation may feel like a reasonable middle ground between outright secularism and full-blown biblical literalism. However, in reality, it creates more problems than it solves.

    Maybe at this point the Christian reader is thinking, “Ok, I’ll just believe that demons exist. But, honestly, I’ve been a Christian for years, and it’s not made a big difference either way.” Certainly, I agree that demons don’t cross my mind all that often, even as a Christian pastor. The existence of demons is not central to Christian living, and this is without a doubt. But Christians really do lose something important by denying the existence of demons or by ignoring the biblical significance of demons.

    The Christian psychologist above was trying to explain away the existence of demons by pointing to mental illness. For this psychologist, individual brain and behavioral malfunctions replaced the biblical category of demons. Why is this a colossal, theological problem? Because, demons are not simply personal disorders or afflictions. Demons are a cosmic problem. They are more analogous to Germany invading Western Europe than to your grandmother contracting cancer. In our evangelical climate, the gospel of Christ has become hyper-individualized, to a dangerous degree. The central goal of the gospel of Christ is not that Bob or Sally “get saved,” and have an existential feeling of wholeness as a result. The central goal of the gospel is that the Kingdom of God would come on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 4:17; 6:10). The goal is for God to reconcile all things to Himself, for His own glory (Eph. 1:5, 6; Col. 1:20). 

    John's understanding that currently “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one [Satan and his demons]" (1 John 5:19) should remind us of the grandeur of Christ’s redemptive work. At the resurrection, Christ “disarmed” Satan’s kingdom of darkness, putting them to “shame, by triumphing over them” (Col. 2:15). So, Jesus has not merely delivered us from our own “personal demons,” rather he has “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin” (Col. 1:13-14). When Christ returns, he will bring the final deathblow to the kingdom of darkness. 

    This is the story of the cosmos that should shape and direct our entire lives. Too many Christians are living off of the truncated story of American evangelicalism that has radically over-emphasized personal conversion. As important as our conversion to Christ certainly is, we ought not to confuse our being welcomed into the Kingdom with the Kingdom itself and its larger, cosmos-sized, goals.

Pastor Scott 

Integrity or Authenticity?

    Do you have a moral responsibility to be authentic? The authenticity movement within our culture and its parallel within the church make this persuasive claim: You are being an inauthentic hypocrite if you refuse your desires. Beginning in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus preaches a sermon directed at his disciples, the church. This sermon is crucial for evaluating the authenticity movements’ claim, especially for Christians. Jesus is passionately anti-hypocrisy. He says to his disciples, “…you must not be like the hypocrites” (6:5). Is the authenticity movement right that acting in a manner contrary to your desires automatically makes you a hypocrite?

Bed:Window.jpg

    Surely, all of us have had to do things that are contrary to our desires. On weekday mornings, most working adults have had the desire to stay in bed. Are you being inauthentic by going to work in spite of your desires? In this situation, if you skip work, laziness would likely identify you, not authenticity. It requires integrity to keep your word and remain diligent in spite of desires to do otherwise. If the authenticity movement isn’t calling people to skip work whenever they feel like it, what is it encouraging us to do? When does the act of denying our feelings stop being positive to the development of character and start being hypocritical?

    In the broader culture, the push toward authenticity has been decidedly focused on sex. If you do not desire to get married but have a strong desire for sex, you should feel free, if not obligated, to act out those feelings in whatever way you see fit. If you don’t feel like taking responsibility for the lives created through your sex life, you should be able to avoid that responsibility by whatever means. To fight this radical autonomy in the area of sex will pigeonhole you as being "inauthentic" and a likely hypocrite, so says the culture. 

    Within the church, the authenticity movement has focused primarily on the spiritual rather than the sexual. It is conspicuous how this feelings-driven form of authenticity is so selective in its application. Many Christians look at the authenticity movement in the broader culture and readily recognize its destructive results. Yet those same Christians fail to see the havoc wreaked in their own spiritual lives by the very same movement. 

    The Christianized authenticity movement (CAM) calls believers to “authentic spirituality.” On paper this sounds good, but, in reality, it tends to leave Christians isolated from the church and spiritually anemic. The church has historically and biblically required structure, commitment, and accountability within its fellowship (Matt. 18; 1 Tim 3; Hebrews 13). All three of these principles have been discounted by CAM, which says that genuine spirituality is individualistic, spontaneous, and radically egalitarian. As a result, Christians have lessened their engagement with other believers and with the institutional aspects of the church, including public worship. I would point you to another blog I’ve written called “Do we have to go to church today?” to see why I think this has contributed to the spiritual anemia prevalent in evangelicalism today.   

    This all brings us back to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. During Jesus’ teaching, he raises concerns about spiritual disciplines that were commonly practiced by Jews in the first century. He addresses giving to the poor, praying, and fasting. Had Christ agreed with CAM, he may have said something like this: “Don’t be like the hypocrites who are compelled to regularly practice spiritual disciplines, but if you do give, pray, or fast be sure to do so out of a sincere desire.” But Jesus doesn’t say this! Rather he says, for example: 

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:5-6).

Jesus bemoans the religiosity of the Pharisees, because their practices look godly but are actually rituals for the sake of self-promotion. Jesus is identifying genuine spiritual practice by whether or not one’s motivations are God-centered rather than man-centered. All the while, Jesus assumes that his disciples are disciplining themselves spiritually through regular practices of mercy, prayer, and even the kind of self-denial required by fasting.

    Hypocrisy should not be defined as a denial of desire. As we saw above, acting in accord with one’s commitments in spite of desire is often recognized as integrity in the context of the workplace. The same standard should be applied to our spirituality as is applied to our careers. A Christian who believes that God is King and seeks to obey the Bible is not acting as a hypocrite when he attends worship, even in spite of conflicting feelings. Rather, he is sticking to his guns, you may say. He is having integrity! 

    True authenticity for the Christian means living as the new creature, re-born in Christ, that God says he is (Eph. 2:8-10). When we live in this Christ-honoring pattern, our desires tend to align with our actions (Matt. 6:21). God renews our hearts and minds through ordinary means like prayer, attending worship, having fellowship with other believers, giving to the poor and to the local church, fasting, etc. We need more Christians who are honestly, though imperfectly, striving to live in a manner worthy of the calling to which they have been called (Eph. 4:1).

Pastor Scott

What Kind of Zealot Are You?

    Words like “extremist” and “zealot” get a bad wrap in our culture. While everyone wants to be called moderate, the reality is that no one is moved to action by being moderate. Recent shootings in the country have led to passionate protests from various perspectives. Devious terrorist groups are able to draw western twenty-somethings to their zealous cause. Presidential elections this year have been drastically polarizing, resulting in a deepening divide in american society. Zeal is winning the day, for it always does.

    Of course, there are times to have a moderating influence for the sake of peace and civility. For example, in the case of interpersonal conflict, a third party acting to moderate discussion is of great use. Someone who is able to listen well to people of differing opinions will often thrive in various spheres of life. Yet, being moderate, in and of itself, is not truly the answer to any of our problems. As was stated above, simply being moderate is never a winning tactic. There is a reason for this. Being moderate is a tool for reaching a goal, not the goal itself. That goal is, broadly speaking, the good. Individuals, families, and societies should be zealously pursuing what is good, righteous, just, and true.

    Everyone is zealous, or passionate about something. Typically zeal pursues what someone believes is “the good,” whether they are misguided or not. This zeal is part of what makes us human. It would be a foolish and vein pursuit to stifle passion all together. We simply need the right kind of zeal, a zeal that pursues what is truly good.

    Theologians once spoke of a “sacred zeal.” The puritan thinker, William Fenner, said that zeal is “the fire of the soul.” He went on to say that everyone has zeal but not all have sacred zeal. Another theologian from a similar time period said that sacred zeal “is a holy ardor kindled by the Holy Spirit of God in the affections, improving a man to the utmost for God’s glory and the church’s good…it is not so much any one affection as the intended degree of all.” Jesus himself encouraged this sacred zeal: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16). 

    Doesn’t sacred zeal produce ‘heavenly minded’ people that are of no ‘earthly good’?  I do not believe so. In fact, the quotes above tell us that only sacred zeal has the momentum to drive us toward a desirable end in this life. The Christian’s zeal for God fuels his pursuits of goodness, justice, mercy, and righteousness. Zeal that finds its source and ultimate goal anywhere other than in God will produce burnout and imbalance. While it is good to be zealous about one’s career, this zealotry can lead to the destruction of a person’s family. Interest in popular media may be harmless for some, but it can be ruinous when it’s the passion of one’s life. 

    The typical evaluation offered for the examples above is that there is a lack of moderation. Moderation is the answer to imbalance, you may say. Yet, if we truly have a fire in the pit of our souls longing to burn brightly for something, a plea for moderation surely will not quench this flame. Maybe the reason zeal causes destruction in our lives is that human souls are longing to pursue that which the natural world cannot deliver. We have been designed for a sacred zeal, powerful to fuel every righteous affection. The chief end of men and women is "to glorify God and to enjoy him forever," as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it.

    So, what kind of zealot are you? Is your life oriented around your family, your work, or your leisure? Maybe it’s time to orient family, work, and leisure around the Creator of all those good things. How? Well, a time-tested pattern for zealous Christians is this: six days should be taken-up in our work and other tasks, while one day is taken-up in the worship of God. This is the Christian’s sacred rhythm.

    The one day of worship, the Lord’s Day, is the pinnacle of our week. On this weekly Christian holiday, the worshiper meets with his God. What greater respite could there be for the weary creature? The number of hours may be imbalanced in favor of family, work, or leisure, but these are not the apex of Christian zeal. Our zeal is oriented toward the heavenly and the eternal. This pattern is not restrictive, rather it frees the Christian to burn with love while avoiding the wildfires of self-absorption and pride. Be zealots then, dear Christians, first for the Lord.

"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works" (Titus 2:11-14).

Pastor Scott

Are You Abiding in God's Will?

    We as Christians tend to be paralyzed by our fear of being outside of God's will. “I just don’t know if this is God’s will for my life,” we may say. Now, without a doubt, it is an admirable desire to be inside of God's will. When thinking through this practical topic, a couple of basic questions arise: 1. How do we come to know God's will?  2. What are the limits to knowing his will?  I will attempt to address these questions in some detail below.

    Certainly, we as creatures can't know the future other than what God has revealed in Scripture. All that God tells us of the future (the return of Christ, resurrection of the body etc.) excludes any particulars about our individual lives (which job to take, what man/woman to marry, what shirt to wear etc.). Everyone generally agrees on this last point. As a result some have asked whether or not the Bible has enough information to keep us in God’s will. Should we rely on dreams, intense desires and feelings to reveal God’s will for the specific details of our lives? These are good and weighty questions, and thankfully the Bible has substantive answers to them.

    The Bible itself teaches us (2 Tim. 3:16-17) that everything we need to know about God’s will is found within its pages. Theologians call this God's “revealed will.” We know, for instance, that God prohibits adultery, murder, and theft according to Scripture. Consequently, when we disobey these prohibitions, Christians possess certainty that our actions stand outside of God’s revealed will. Sin, in its basic definition, is failing to obey God’s revealed will for our lives. Theologians speak not only of God’s “revealed will” but also of His “secret will.” 

92H.jpg

    The secret will of God includes all that will occur in creation, including our acts of disobedience to His revealed will (acts of murder, adultery and theft). God is not passive in regard to these events. On the contrary, he determined “all things” (Eph. 1:11). The secret will of God is just that, secret. It is for God's knowledge alone. No one besides God is aware of His secret will (Deut. 29:29). 

    Nowhere in Scripture does God promise to reveal aspects of his secret will to individuals through the cryptic means of goose bumps, dreams, internal nudges, or the like. Just imagine if sin included a breach, not only of God’s revealed will but also of God’s secret will? How would you avoid sinning if the standard of sin has not been revealed to you? Of course some believe that God’s secret will is revealed to individuals in selective parts.

    I have met people who believe that they are married to the wrong person, or that they moved to a new place when they shouldn’t have. How do they know? They claim to be informed by a strong feeling or desire, which they labeled “a word from God.” But, what if they mistook that strong feeling or misinterpreted that strange coincidence. By what standard could you discover your failure to interpret God’s sign? How do you decide between your interpretations of what is God’s secret will and someone else’s opposing interpretations? “God told me to break up with you,” one person may say. Well, what if the other person responds, “But…God told me to marry you.” How does this couple follow God’s will if God appears to be speaking from both sides of his mouth? This is the confusion that results when Scripture fails to provide sufficient words from God on how to live the Christian life. 

    Sometimes Christians have strong desires and feelings that move them toward certain behaviors. These behaviors may often line up with God’s revealed will as well as end up being wise decisions. This success does not, however, justify labeling our intense desires and feelings as being “a word from God.” Only the Bible is “breathed out” from God (2 Tim 3:16-17). Our feelings and nudges should not add to the amount of words we have from the Lord. How, then, should we understand the wise decisions that often result from these so-called messages from God? In these situations, I think there is a more biblically responsible category to which we should appeal. 

    Why do we need to label the nudges of our consciences as being from God anyway? Don’t we think that the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of Christians could better explain our increasingly accurate consciences? I’m of the opinion that it could. Perhaps our Spiritually and biblically renewed desires, emotions, intellects, and feelings could be responsible for leading us to make godly choices. This alternative to “God said” or “God told me” does not strip our ordinary lives of the work of God. Rather, it prevents two dangers and promotes two goods.   

    First, this alternative prevents us from attributing potentially false desires and thoughts to God. “God told me to abandon my spouse,” for example. Secondly, it prevents manipulative elitism. Those who claim to have received special, private information from God can use that information as a power play against others. For instance, “God told me that you should really go on a diet.” 

    My proposed explanation also promotes the exaltation of the Spirit of God, rather than exalting our thoughts and desires. “Because the Holy Spirit has been diligently working on my stubborn heart, conforming me to Christ’s image, through learning Scripture in the worship and fellowship of Christians, I was able to make a godly decision.” Notice that the credit goes to God’s Spirit and God’s Word, both of which are accessible to all Christians. Lastly, when Christians give advice, this approach promotes grounding one’s perspective in Scripture rather than in an appeal to personal authority. 

    Here is the simplest way I know for Christians to stay in God’s will: Make decisions in the fellowship of the church, informed by the sufficient Word of God in Scripture by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God our Father. And when we stumble and sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, to whom we flee. 

For further reading on this topic I would recommend Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung and The Doctrine of the Word of God by John M. Frame (especially the chapter on the sufficiency of Scripture)

Pastor Scott 

What Kinds of Beliefs Count (Part Two)

        In the previous blog, we began to examine three common assumptions held by many in our culture regarding religious belief. Here they are again:

1.  Religious belief is more akin to feeling than fact

2.  My beliefs are not religious

3.  Religion should be personal and private 

    These assumptions fuel other, more substantive beliefs about the relationship of religion to reason and the place of religious belief in the public square. I argued that the first assumption must be baseless if the second assumption is false. Using Roy Clouser’s work, I asserted that all worldviews are religious in some sense (refer to the previous blog post to learn more). Now, let’s continue to address the second assumption, using an illustration to bolster my previous point.  

    In debates surrounding abortion, the pro-life movement has remained steadfast on this one point: the status of the life in the womb is most foundational to the discussion. There is a reason for this stubbornness. If the life in the womb is deserving of full personhood, then the pro-choice side loses the argument outright. The right to choice would then have to apply equally to the child in the womb as it does to the mother. As I've heard said by pro-life philosopher Scott Klusendorf, "the woman’s choice ends where another person’s life and choice begins." 

    Why bring all of this up? Because, the common response I hear to this pro-life position is, “not everyone believes like you do” and “well, that’s just your religious belief.” Sound familiar? But what if their objection were to cut both ways? Think of it: 

    Pro Choice Advocate: I don’t believe that the fetus (a term meaning young one) in the womb is deserving of full personhood. The reason being that a woman would then have to undergo unwanted limitations and burdens to bring that child to full term and delivery. It is an ugly and wicked thing to force a woman to endure such limitations and burdens.

    Interested Bystander: Why is it wrong for her to undergo unwanted limitations and burdens? I have all kinds of unwanted limitation and burdens in my own life.

    Pro Choice Advocate: Because of her right to unrestricted human autonomy. If she is able to free herself of unwanted limitations and burdens, no one should restrict her from doing so. I would say the same about anyone's unwanted limitations and burdens.

CHurchy CHurch.jpg

    Interested Bystander: Well, that’s just your belief — a right to unrestricted human autonomy is a religious (based on our definition in my first blog) position held by some in the society, but not others. So why should we enforce your religious beliefs? And of course, if you’re wrong about the status of the life in the womb, you should want that same right of human autonomy applied to the child, right? You seem to want your own beliefs to be forced on others all the while assuming, not proving, a certain status of the life of the unborn.

    You see, everyone is asserting beliefs or interpretations of reality. Pro-life and pro-choice advocates are in the same boat. Everybody has an interpretation of the world, a worldview. And this pro-choicer demonstrates how a so-called secular belief is actually religious. His humanist worldview holds that bodily self-governance is an unalterable, non-dependent reality. This is what Clouser meant by “divinity." I'm not debating here whether the pro-choice advocate’s professed "divinity" is real or not. My argument is that his belief in unrestricted self-governance is not justified solely by observing the physical world. It is a religious conviction. 

    If the pro-choicer and the pro-lifer both come to the abortion debate with basic “religious” beliefs, then the objection, "well, that's your religious belief and not everyone holds to it,” is a truism if raised by either side. 

    The question is, which worldview is true? What set of beliefs best explains the world around us. And, from where do you derive your religious beliefs? This leads us to the third assumption, "religion should be personal and private." I will address this last assumption in the next blog post. 

Pastor Scott

What Kinds of Beliefs Count? (Part One)

“Keep your religion out of the market place!” “Humpf, well, that’s just your religious belief.” “Not everyone is religious and believes like you do.” “Keep the secular and the religious separate.”

    As a Christian and a pastor of a church, I tend to hear these comments often. And I presume that many other Christians do too. But what are the assumptions that stand behind statements like these? There are, I think, at least three. Understanding these assumptions will help the Christian in taking every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). Christians now, more than ever, should learn to think as the Bible teaches us to think. It's going to take a few blog posts to unpack these three assumptions:

1.  Religious belief is more akin to feeling than fact

2.  My beliefs are not religious

3.  Religion should be personal and private 

  1. Religious belief is more akin to feeling than fact

    Now, maybe this one stings more for me than most. I’ve spent years studying various commentaries and theology books. My vocation as a pastor sets the Christian religion as the basis of what I do every day. If religion contains no real knowledge, then what in the world was I thinking? Were those theology books really just journals of feelings in disguise?

    This assumption that religious belief is based on feelings rather than facts appears to be pervasive in our day. This has not always been the case. There has been a shift in the past couple hundred years. The reason for the shift is not due to the invention of the i-phone or some other technological advancement. It is all about belief. 

    In his belief system, a man named Kant divided the realm of religion from the realm of experience, and never the two shall meet. He believed that the realm of religion was inaccessible by way of reason. Faith, divorced from reason, was the only way to reach it. So, within the last hundred and fifty years, faith has become synonymous with deeply held feelings. Kant's thinking has lived on, in part, through everyday people functioning as if “the secular realm” is the only domain of reason. This realm is free of religious dogma. It is neutral and based only on concrete experiences in the "real world." In reality, though, the secular realm doesn’t exist. It is a fairytale. Every human being has a worldview. And every worldview is “religious." How so? Let me briefly explain.

    What makes a worldview religious? Must it hold to a belief in a personal god(s)? Well, there are forms of Buddhism that don’t embrace the existence of a god. Are Buddhists not religious? There are forms of hinduism and deism that don’t profess a god with personal characteristics. What about the religious status of these worldviews? Well, you may say, "religious worldviews believe in spiritual, non physical realities." Yes, many do, but, there are plenty of "non-religious" worldviews that believe in non-physical realities too. For instance, the greek philosopher Plato and his rationalist followers believed in a non-physical reality called the realm of the forms. So then, what actually does distinguish religious worldviews from non-religious ones? And if there is no way to distinguish the two, what binds them together?

worldview.jpg

    One thinker named Roy Clouser, in a book entitled “The Myth of Religious Neutrality,” claims that every worldview is religious, because every worldview believes in a “divinity” of some kind. He defines "divinity" as that which is unconditionally and non-dependently real. Put simply, it is that crucial element of one's worldview on which the rest depends. Clouser argues that every worldview contains an element like this. 

    Let's consider polytheists as an example (I'd point you to Clouser's book for more examples). One may think that the worldview of polytheists, like followers of the greek gods and goddesses, would contain multiple "divinities." Actually, this is not true for the greeks. The greek gods were not "divinities" according to Clouser's definition. The existence of these gods were not "unconditional," considering that they all had stories detailing their origins. They were certainly not "non-dependent," since they were sustained by eating the sacrifices of their worshippers. To eat is to be dependent after all. The greek gods were more like super-humans than a non-dependent "divinity." For the followers of these greek gods, fate was the only divinity that matches Clouser's definition. Fate was the eternal force that governed and sustained the universe, even the gods. Clouser's claim is that every worldview, not just this one, contains a divinity. 

    If Clouser is right, there's no substantial difference between a "secular" worldview and a worldview derived from a traditional religion. This idea would immediately undercut the assumption that certain worldviews are  inherently "more akin to feeling than fact," simply because they are derived from traditional religions. 

 I'll further illustrate what I mean in the next blog post when we tackle the second assumption: My beliefs are not religious.

Pastor Scott

 

"Do we have to go to church today?"

churchy church.jpg

  The number of Americans who identify as Christian has fallen in recent years. To see what I mean, just look up a study from the Pew Research Center entitled "America's Changing Religious Landscape." Along with this decrease in the professedly religious has been an expected drop in church attendance. The most startling aspect of all this is the staggering number of people who retain the title “Christian” but neglect to meet for worship with fellow believers on a regular basis. 

    Now, there are a couple of common directions we could go at this point. We could simply argue that these “Christians” who seldom dawn the doors of a church, are merely nominal Christians. They are Christian by title, not conviction. Or, we could go down the road of the church-growth movement and ask where we as the American church have gone wrong. Subsequently, we would ask how the church must change in order to regain the attention of the disenfranchised and get their butts back in the pews (or comfy chairs, whatever makes them feel more comfortable, of course).

    Well, I’m going to avoid both of these common paths, not that they are unworthy of someone else’s attention. I want to focus on a more foundational issue. Why have Christians made a practice of worshipping regularly in the first place? What should motivate the parent to answer "yes" when asked, "do we have to go to church today?" The answer to this question is not found in your (or my) personal feelings. The answer is historical, theological, and most primitively biblical.

    Let me boil it down for the sake of space (I’ll leave recommended readings below). The church is the people of God. God says things like this: “You are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession” (Deut. 14:2). We are many individuals drawn together to be a distinct group, a people set apart for the Lord’s purposes (1 Peter 2:9). We are so connected to one another that the Bible uses the analogy of being one united body (Eph. 4:16). Individuals are made a part of this body by the grace of God in Christ, conferred by faith. Just as the Israelites were redeemed out of slavery in Egypt and gathered as a worshipping community at Sinai, so too the New Testament church is delivered through Christ's sacrifice and gathered to offer spiritual worship all around the globe (John 4:21-24).

    But God, in Christ, has not only delivered his people from sin and called them together as a church; he has also given them certain gifts. These gifts are meant to train his church how to live. These gifts are absolutely pivotal for living the Christians life without falling away, as Hebrews 6 warns. These gifts teach, encourage, discipline, and spiritually nourish God’s church. In short, they are the means by which God molds the body of the church to look more like Christ. This is why theologians have called them "means of grace.”

    So what are these gifts? They are the Word, sacraments, and prayer. The Word is the Bible read, preached, sung, and confessed. The sacraments are Baptism and the Lord's Supper, which visually present the gospel to us. Prayer is an intimate interaction with God through the mediation of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. These three gifts are uniquely available to believers (Rom. 8:8-9). And, these means of grace have a particular potency when taken advantage of in the context of corporate worship (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; Eph. 5:19; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 10:25). 

chuych.jpg

    Ok, let’s take it at face value that the hoards of professing Christians who rarely attend worship services are actually Christians, under the biblical definition (Rom. 10:9). Perhaps part of the problem is that they haven't been taught the significance of worship for living the Christian life. What’s more, many church leaders don’t know or don’t believe that corporate worship is really all that consequential. As a result, they deprive their services of a healthy use of the means of grace in favor of more flashy alternatives. But I believe this change, taking place in many of our worship services, is a deadly error. The condition of the church's soul is at stake.

    If we really believe that God has supplied his people with what they need to live the Christian life (2 Tim. 3:17), then we better start taking advantage of what He has supplied. Let's not settle for generic, feel-good lyrics, when we could have biblically rich songs in our worship. Why let pastors get away with reading just a few verses from the Bible when our whole services could be filled with Scripture readings? Why should our services be guilty of prayer-anemia when we very well could add extended times of prayer? And of course, what about taking communion more often and having further explanation as to what the sacraments really mean? When the church returns to this biblically rich model, as it did in the 16th century's Reformation and the 18th century's First Great Awakening, we see the Lord bring spiritual vitality and evangelical fervor to his church.

    So, what should we as Christians do? Let's start by calling fellow Christians to attend church service. And may we never do this from a desire to win a culture war or see the percentage of church attendance go up. Do not forget — the aim is God's glory and the good of your brothers and sisters in Christ. They need these gifts to live the Christian life! So many are feebly attempting to fight a spiritual battle with earthly weapons. Go and persuade them that God has provided the arms and armor they need to live the Christian life (Eph. 6).

    Lamenting our duty to attend worship each week is like lamenting having to eat regularly; it is something that only those in an unhealthy state of mind tend to do. And, remember, we are called to renew our minds through the means of grace provided (Rom 12:1-2). So encourage one another within the church to feast upon the riches found in the Word, sacraments and prayer — for the glory of God and the good of the church! 

Recommended Reading:

  1. Reformed Worship by Terry L. Johnson  
  2. City on a Hill by Phil Ryken
  3. The Church by Edmund Clowney
  4.  Worshipping With Calvin by Terry L. Johnson
  5. Worship by Hughes Oliphant Old

Pastor Scott

More Than a Member

    In the past several decades we have seen a growing number of churches that either do not have church membership or see church membership as a cumbersome appendix to the life of the church. Many have pointed out that church membership is assumed on every page of the New Testament. For example, how can Paul tell the church in Corinth to discipline a man for sexual immorality but neglect to call for the same treatment of the woman involved? Clearly, it is because the man is a member of the congregation and the woman is not. The elders have no authority over this particular woman, but they do over this man. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?  God judges those outside” (1 Cor. 5:12, 13). 

    Abolishing or downplaying membership is an extreme and harmful move for any church to make. It results in lazy elders who fail to truly shepherd the flock (1 Pet. 5). Also, expelling membership can lead to a congregation filled with unrepentant sinners for, as Paul put it, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6).   

member.png

    But there is an opposite extreme that can be dangerous as well. Sometimes, people trust in their status as members in the visible church to an unhealthy extent. Membership in the church is not meant to guarantee salvation. It is true that ordinarily people come to the Christian faith through interactions with the Bible, the sacraments, and God through prayer. And, yes, these are three ordinances given particularly to the church, not just individuals. But, we can’t forget the important lesson that John the Baptist taught as he rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3.

    John the Baptist’s ministry was all about repentance, a change of heart and mind toward God. His baptism was a baptism of repentance. The first words we hear from John the Baptist in The Gospel of Matthew is “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (3:2). This same emphasis is found in the ministry of Christ (Matt. 4:17), which is the fulfillment of John’s ministry. 

    One day, while John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing, some of the religious leaders came to him. They came to hear what John was saying. John the Baptist noticed them and knew that they had not come to participate in repentance, only to spectate and criticize. John knew that these men trusted in their status as religious leaders and as ethnic Jews. John attacked these false comforts by saying, “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (3:9). John also told them that if they do not show fruit of true repentance for their sin, they would be cast into the eternal fires of Hell (3:10, 12). John doesn’t mince words!

    So Christians, be members of a church, for it is your Christian duty (Hebrews 13:16, 17). But, do not trust in your membership alone. John certainly didn’t accept the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ membership as sufficient fruit of repentance (Matt.3:8), and nor should you!

    Do not flee to church membership as a foundation for your status before God. Flee only to Christ. John saw himself as a road sign pointing to Christ. John the Baptist was leading people into the waters of the Jordan just as Moses led Israel into the Red Sea. For John, he was taking them on a journey out of their bondage to sin and into the only location where genuine forgiveness could be found. But this location of redemption was not to be found in a physical land but in a person, namely Jesus Christ. 

    To have the spiritual benefits of forgiveness, repentance, joy, love, humility, and holiness, you must turn to Christ and have an intimate knowledge of him through faith (Eph. 1&2). It is dangerous to place our trust in anything or anyone other than this Savior, as John clearly told the religious leaders of his day.

Pastor Scott

Political Promises & Pursuits of Heaven

What does heaven have to do with politics?

    If you have been paying any attention to the current presidential candidates, you should know that they are talking a great deal about heaven. Sure, they aren’t using the term “heaven” or using explicitly theological language. Yet all of them appear to proclaim a narrative of gloom and a gospel that will deliver us into the Promised Land!

    Some of the candidates point to the upper echelons of society as if they are piñatas that, when struck, will pour limitless wealth onto the rest of society. There are those who support a witty, down to earth entertainer whom they believe will return our nation to its former glory. Don’t you see the promises of heaven here?

    Prophecies like those proclaimed by the candidates are standard fare for politicians. Why does it work? Shouldn’t our nation have realized by now that heaven isn’t going to appear through our political process? Yet, we are caught up in trying to create a little heaven on earth for ourselves.

    The culture we have produced tells us to put our resources, talents, and time into constructing a personal heaven. Heaven is often defined as a limitless supply of comfort, security, convenience, wealth, affirmation, prestige and power. Can we really achieve all this?

    No one on earth has ever constructed an airtight heaven which perfectly keeps out the brokenness and lawlessness. Even the most wealthy of the “one percent” would say that their lives are lacking in various ways.

    Let’s examine the life of Herod the Great (Matt. 2). This was a man who worked very hard to earn the title, “King of the Jews”. This title came with much power and prestige. It was his little piece of heaven. To retain his title, Herod murdered his wives, his own sons, and even had his brother-in-law drowned at a ‘pool party’. In fact, Herod was driven into extreme paranoia by the mere notion of losing his heaven on earth.  

crown-of-thorns-golden-crown copy.jpg

    Herod had huge stockpiles of wealth. He constructed impressive monuments solely for the preservation of his legacy. In Matthew 2:1-18, Herod committed infanticide in Bethlehem, ordering the death of many young boys. This order was an unsuccessful attempt to murder Jesus, the rightful King of the Jews.  

    That’s right, Herod tried to kill Jesus to protect his own personal heaven – Now that’s dedication!  But did Herod succeed? The Bible eloquently marks the end of Herod’s heaven with just two words, “he died”.

What can we learn from the life of Herod in relation to politics and our pursuits of heaven?  

    Trying to create heaven through coercion, political power or wealth will never work. So it does not benefit us to believe the gospel of one politician and then despise those who have chosen to believe in the message of a different messiah.

    Do not misunderstand me – we must take the issues seriously and debate them as a nation. The Bible calls Christians to love the world and to strive for what is good, just and beautiful (Rom. 12:9-21; Phil. 4:8). However, as many political debates fill up prime time television, I never hear a constructive dialogue that attempts to define what the good, just and beautiful are and how they relate to policies.

    Shouldn’t we be challenging the very foundations of the gospel messages being proclaimed today by politicians and the culture at large? I am simply asking for more meaningful dialogue. And Christians, knowing the identity of the true King and how heaven will come to earth, should be the ones pushing for this kind of constructive dialogue. 

    We must consider whether fairness can be harmonized with the principles of personal property, religious liberty, federalism and free trade. Or, must we at times throw aside those latter principles for the sake of fairness and equality? And what about the desire to bring back the past? Was there ever really a golden age to which we can return in America? And if so, is a product of the shallow, self-promoting entertainment culture really the best means to get back there?

    Most importantly we must ask, does it make sense to be so caught up in building our own personal heavens when, deep down, each of us knows that the words, “he died” are drawing near. We are left, then, wondering how to live apart from the pursuit of these unattainable, pseudo-heavens. 

    The answer to the question above is not found in Herod’s life. It is not found in the promises of our political candidates. Nor is it found in the emptiness of much of our culture. It is surprisingly found in the magi of Matthew 2. We find the answer in these foreign dignitaries who traveled a great distance to lay their treasures at the feet of a child. They knew that the true King, the real Messiah, the central prize and only guarantee of heaven had arrived. Freedom from vain pursuits and empty promises is found only in the person of Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:18).

Pastor Scott

Christmas in April: On the Virgin Birth

I know this is an oddly timed blog on the virgin birth, but I think the absence of any "Christmas spirit" may actually serve us well to approach this topic afresh. 

    Mary, a virgin, conceives before she “comes together” with Joseph, as Matthew puts it (1:18). This is the miracle we call the virgin birth of Christ. But what’s the big deal about this birth? Myths like this must have existed before Jesus came along. Just think of the pagan myths that involved virgin births like this…oh wait, there aren’t any. 

    Yes, it is true that there are pagan myths where a deity impregnates a woman through a sexual encounter or where contact with an inanimate object mysteriously results in the conception of a child (my favorite is an Aztec myth where a woman is impregnated by feathers). 

    While these stories are often cited as pre-Christian “virgin births,” I think we can all see the substantial differences. In fact, to compare the two is very much, pardon the cliché, like comparing apples to oranges. Or if we want to avoid similes and metaphors all together, to compare pagan myths with the virgin birth is to compare worldviews that are fundamentally in contradiction to one another.

Mint Gold Feather Tree Ornaments Large.jpg

    If you read the accounts of these pagan myths, you will find many similarities. Often these tales include evil, capricious, and sexually promiscuous gods who are more comparable to marvel superheroes/villains than to the omnipotent Creator of the Bible. These “miraculous” events tend to be immoral and braggadocios demonstrations of the deity's superpowers.  

    In contrast, when you approach the biblical narrative, there is one God. He is not just another player in the story, for he has shaped the story. He is not corrupt or capricious, for he is the very standard of good, justice, and beauty. And finally, we see that the God of the Bible is up to something very big in the virgin birth — far bigger than saving face. 

    Matthew tells us that his gospel is the “book of the beginning (or genesis if you will)” of Jesus; It’s interesting for Matthew to put it this way. Moses uses the exact same phrase in chapter two of the Book of Genesis when talking about the creation of the world (2:4) and also in chapter five when he details Adam’s family tree (5:1). So, Matthew’s point, and he is in harmony with the rest of the New Testament, is that Jesus is a second Adam as well as the start of a new creation. The birth of Jesus, then, should be less Hallmark Channel or Charlie Brown’s Christmas and more Garden of Eden in our minds. 

    Jesus has come to begin something new and to fix something profoundly broken. How does God key us into it? He does something that hasn’t been done since the Creation of the heavens and the earth. He creates a man by the Holy Spirit.     

    Have you ever wondered how Mary became pregnant without a male counterpart? It was not like the perverse myths of the pagans, rather, God created something from nothing in order to provide the seed necessary for life. Now that’s what you call an attention-grabber! God sampled from one of his grandest of acts, creation, to alert us that Jesus was here. And this Jesus is the forgiver of sins, the mediator between God and man, the LORD of and the Son of David, the final sacrifice, the great high priest, and the Son of God. 

You see, the virgin birth is no myth, isolated from reality. It is an act of the God who made reality and is re-making it through Jesus. 

Pastor Scott

Now That's One Messy Family

    History is our recorded past, and each of us has a history. That history can be broadened to include movements, communities, nations, and even to include the entire world. But we also have our own, more personal histories as well. The people that we come from, our genealogies, and the events that surround those people contribute to the make up of our personal pasts. 

    This week I’m tasked with researching the ancestry of a very famous person, namely Jesus. In the first chapter of the first book of the New Testament we find a family history of Christ. Now, to many, this text in Matthew is a fly-over chapter, so to speak. "It's just a boring list of names," you may say. I get it; I have been there. But as I’ve been looking into the individual names and stories of those names, it is hard not to marvel at the great meaning of this chapter in Matthew’s Gospel.

art-genealogy.jpg

    Let me give you just a little taste before I go back to my studies. Matthew starts with three familiar names: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The fourth name in the list is Judah. At this point we should pause to ask a question. Why is Judah listed when Reuben was the oldest? Judah wasn’t even the second oldest of the twelve sons of Jacob. There were three brothers older than Judah. Yet, the reason for Matthew’s choice is clear; Jacob, by God’s choice, had chosen Judah as the heir to the messianic promise (Gen. 49:8ff). Judah and his sons, not Reuben's, would carry on the line of promise leading to the messiah. 

    But before we think that Judah was chosen because of his moral purity, Matthew gives us this particular piece of information about Judah: “the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar.” In case you’ve forgotten, Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law. Now to be fair to Judah, he was under the impression that he was sleeping with some random prostitute, not his daughter-in-law Tamar (Gen. 38). Not much of a defense of his character you say? Perhaps. And yet, this wicked act of incest and adultery is only one example of many less than pure aspects of Jesus’ family tree.  

    So, if you think that your family history is bad, I’m sure that Jesus can relate. But remember that Paul tells us why Jesus came into the world; "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). No matter what you or any family member has done, the Lord Jesus likely has family members who have done the same. He came for people like you and like me; the godly died for the ungodly. He came to bring forgiveness, to bring newness of life, and to bring a way of reconciliation with God to even the most vile of sinners.

For further reading on why Jesus died check out Christ Crucified by Donald Macleod.

Pastor Scott

Book Review: Seeing With New Eyes by David Powlison

powlison.jpg

    Powlison has the unique ability to gently critique falsehood in a manner that is clear and intentional. He takes the best of the biblical counseling movement and applies it to the modern context. This book teaches the Christian how to bring Scripture to bear on our everyday moments. 

    In a chapter focused on Psalm 131, Powlison comments on human pride and how it creates noisiness and anxiety. “I just want a little respect and appreciation…I want approval and understanding…I want to feel good…I want my way…I want God to do my will. I want to be God…doesn’t everybody?” (79).  These moments in the book are challenging and insightful. The effects of sin on our thinking is a doctrine that many forget but that Powlison brings to the foreground in this book.

    The author examines a handful of psychological perspectives and compares them with biblical Christianity. He does this effectively and without sounding overly critical. On page 191 he gets to the root of “defense mechanisms” by re-naming them “war-making tendencies.” Powlison's critique flows out of a distinctly covenantal perspective. All people are either covenant makers (in Christ) or covenant breakers (in Adam). By doing this Powlison is able to examine the offensive nature of defensiveness. This is something that an overly psychologized church needs to hear, because once we diagnose the problem correctly we are that much closer to the biblical solution.

    Powlison also critiques popular “Christian” perspectives on counseling. He takes an entire chapter to critique the extremely popular book, The Five Love Languages. In this chapter, Powlison is at his most polemical.  He attacks the unbiblical premises that lead to “deplorable” conclusions and methods. The author of The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman, writes that people sin because of a love deficiency rather than because of willful sin.  Certainly there may be sin done to the individual which may even be connected with a lack of love, but this does not cause sin. Chapman's perspective leaves the sinner with a viable excuse for his sin; this is something that the Bible never does. For this reason, Chapman’s system appears to commend an unbiblical view of sin and love. Powlison handles the issue well and is a must read for those who have embraced the love language philosophy. 

I highly recommend this book for the Christian who longs to apply Scripture to one's own life and to the lives of fellow Christians. 

Pastor Scott

Who Says?

    How can Christians answer fellow believers who embrace the new sexual ethic of our day without sounding smug?

    These professing Christians will often defend their position by protesting, “Who am I to say that my homosexual friends cannot love each other and be who they really are? It’s not like these homosexual men and women are hurting anyone.” 

Well, who wants to disagree with that?

    These Christian brothers and sisters have often not been given the tools to engage with the arguments of the broader culture, so, as a result, they have surrendered to the culture. They may even admit that the Bible lists homosexuality as sin but refuse to declare, “Thus saith the Lord.”

    When discussing these issues with confused believers, it is important to wrench them out of their culturally defined worldview and place them back into the world of the Bible (which is the real world). Take them back to the beginning…    

    In the beginning God made everything including humans. He spoke clearly to Adam and Eve about what they could and could not do. God told them to eat from every other tree but not from the one tree, for its fruit was deadly.

    Along came a serpent and said that God was wrong. The serpent proposed another interpretation of the fruit. “No, no, no, Adam and Eve, the fruit is not deadly; it is life!” 

    Adam and Eve had two interpretations set before them. The fruit probably looked like all the other fruit. It was not magic. It did not contain black ooze that would pour from its center the moment its fragile skin was pierced. There was a troubling absence of empirical evidence to aide them in this dilemma. The Word of God set the fruit apart (deadly), and the word of Satan set it apart (life). So Adam and Eve climbed atop the throne of authority in their hearts and minds, ripped God off, and took a seat. From atop this throne, Adam and Eve declared that the fruit was life! But what happened?

    No matter what Adam and Eve believed about this fruit, or what the serpent said, that fruit was deadly. Why? Was it really deadly, or had God just arbitrarily declared it to be deadly? Well, the proof is in the pudding, as they say.

   Death, spiritual and physical, actually followed the eating of the forbidden fruit. Why? Well, because God’s speech is not like ours, nor is it the counterpart to Satan’s speech. God’s speech is not arbitrary. It is not groundless commentary on what exists.

    Remember how God created? He spoke and so it was. His Word brought the universe into existence! Do we really think it is any different with morality? God declared the fruit on that particular tree to be deadly, and so it was deadly

    No matter what the culture says about homosexuality, ("it is love", "It is good", "it is all the same", "it is my true identity", "it is my personal right") the truth remains, it is death. Like all other sins, it is death. Let us now answer the question posed above:  "Who am I to say...?"

    You are right. You have no authority to declare homosexuality right, wrong, or neutral. Your word is just a word, but the Word of the Lord is authoritative for all. He has said that sin is death, so the most loving thing for you to do is to speak and act in accord with this Word. Remember fellow Christian, if you are able to identify sin, you are able to point the world to the Savior. It takes wisdom to speak such truth in a loving fashion. Yet it is far better to take up this work than to assist the serpent in his endeavors by asking God, “who says?”

For further reading check out The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield and The Same Sex Controversy by James White

Pastor Scott

Paul's Apologetic Encounter at Athens

Here are some reflections on Acts 17 and how Paul’s confrontation with the philosophers at Athens is instructive for Christians today:

    The apostle Paul was a master of discernment. When faced with the impressive culture of Athens, Paul demonstrated how Christians today should interact with unbelievers. As Peter instructed (1 Peter 3:15,16), Paul showed “gentleness and respect” as he interacted with the Athenian philosophers of the first century. Yet, he was unwavering in his Christian faith. 

    At no point did Paul doubt his Christian worldview or put God on trial for the sake of supposed intellectual honesty. Rather, Paul assumed the truth of his religion and sought to bring its truthfulness to bear on the thinking and living of the Athenian philosophers.

    Paul was brought to the Areopagus to share and defend his Christian faith. The apostle opened his address by saying that the Athenians were superstitious. What did Paul mean by "superstitious?" Well, he meant that the Athenians, like all of us, were religious by nature. Yet, because of sin they were misguided in the object of their worship. 

    Paul was in Athens to authoritatively proclaim the true God, who is worthy of worship (v. 23). This God is the Creator of all things (v24). Then, in verse 27, Paul says that all men are groping for God, but in reality this God is not far from them. In other words, the Athenians were without excuse for their false worship; they knew the true God but denied him in their idolatrous worship.  

    In verse 28 Paul gives examples of this culpable suppression of truth by quoting two Greek philosopher-poets. The first quote comes from Epimenides whom Paul also quoted in his letter to Titus. The Cretans had come up with a story about Zeus’ death, so Epimenides wrote against the Cretans in response. Epimenides argued from living men and women to a living Zeus as he says, “in him we live and move and have our being.” If we are alive, this philosopher argues, so is Zeus. Paul is doing the exact opposite by moving from an independent God, who is the source of life, to living men and women (Acts 17:24-26). From this living God's existence we derive our very being! 

    Paul’s meaning for this quote, as well as the second quote by a Stoic writer, was that God is the Creator and Sustainer of all life. Paul was not adopting the false teaching of either Epimenides or the pantheist, Stoic writer who penned, “For we are indeed his offspring.” These pagan men could say what is right, not in accord with, but only in spite of their unbelieving worldviews. In fact, taken as the authors had intended (pagan motivation and pagan goal), their statements must be deemed false.  

    Paul, then, is re-locating these assertions, from a false and falsifying system, to the only worldview that can interpret such statements aright. This is a microcosm of what Paul is trying to do with his audience in this chapter. The Athenians are image bearers who worship wrongly and in ignorance, and so Paul longs for their worship to be relocated in Christ by completely replacing their pagan system of thought with a Christian worldview. Paul's intention with these Athenians is an entire shift from darkness, ignorance, and rebellion to light, knowledge, and faithfulness. This apologist doesn't want the Athenians to add Christianity to their paganism; he wants Christianity to supplant and totally replace their paganism. His goal is grand and requires divine assistance.

Christians, then, should remember these 5 key principles from Paul’s experience in Athens:

  1. Approach unbelievers with gentleness and respect, because they are image-bearers, they are your neighbors, and they are in need of the saving truth of the Gospel.
  2. Remain faithful to the Lord in your thinking as well as in your affections and actions.
  3. View unbelief and other faiths/worldviews through the lens of the Bible.
  4. Demonstrate for the unbeliever that any truth found in the non-Christian worldview can only find its natural home in the Christian worldview (think of what Paul did to Epicurus' quote). 
  5. Make the gospel call to repentance and faith your main goal (go read the end of Paul’s interaction with the Athenians in Acts 17 to see how Paul does it)

For further reading check out Paul at Athens by Cornelius Van Til and Covenantal Apologetics by K. Scott Oliphint

Pastor Scott