Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Lord Needs Bulldozers

“St John the Baptist Preaching to the Masses in the Wilderness,” Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Brethren, the time has come, once again, for the Church and her preachers to take heart and play the part of men in the face of the world’s whirling winds.  We will need the steadfastness of John.  Congregations need pastors who will dare to preach to them, not merely opine.  Pastors who, like John, will look their people in the eyes and tell them the truth about sin, faith, death, sex, marriage, faithfulness, virtue, and truth; who will call sin “sin,” and point sinners to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away their sins; the Lamb hidden for them to eat in the bread and the chalice.  We need the ministry of John, that the Church dare to stand apart from the world for the sake of the world; to look, speak, and act differently from every other place in the world for the sake of engaging the world with a Gospel not of this world.  We all need Pastor John’s preaching in our lives, to bulldoze our idols and make plain to us our priorities.  To call us out into the wilderness to repent and believe our Baptism.  To give us a joy for which we will gladly lose our heads.

Joshua Hayes, Gottensdienst 24.4

Monday, November 21, 2016

How Gnostic Are You?

Sophia: Goddess of Wisdom & God’s Wife
Relatively recently, I came upon a post written in 2010 by Robin Phillips that struck me in it’s declaration of the obvious.  Entitled “8 Gnostic Myths You May Have Imbibed,” the author works through the following:
  1. Christianity isn’t a Religion, it’s a Relationship
  2. Salvation Means Going to Heaven When You Die
  3. The Material World isn’t Important
  4. Institutional Religion is Bad
  5. It isn’t Going to Last Forever
  6. Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this World
  7. Knowledge saves
  8. God Doesn’t Work Through Means
Be careful not to read into his opinions what is not there.  For instance, at least half of my readers will bristle at the first point: the dichotomy of religion and relationship has become a sacred cow in evangelical circles.  The author is not saying there is no individual aspect of Christianity, rather he is pointing out that evangelicals are, in effect, denying the corporate aspect from beginning to end.  Take worship as an example.  In too many congregations, though believers meet together in the same building at the same time, the entire worship experience is geared to allow individuals to be engaged in whatever way they choose and to take away from the teaching their own conclusions.

The same group that dislikes the first point will also dislike the last, but they do not realize that actually agree that God works through means.  How is that?  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom 10:17).  That’s right.  The means of grace every Christian acknowledges is God’s Word—the Bible.  That is the means by which faith and grace was delivered to you that you might believed.

Give some serious consideration to the Phillips’ points and compare them against what you and your local assembly teaches and practices.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Sunday

Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice.”  (2 Chr 7:12)

In addition to these things, [Moses] also appointed a place in which alone it should be lawful to them to sacrifice to God.  And all this was arranged with this view, that when the fitting time should come, and they should learn by means of the Prophet that God desires mercy and not sacrifice, they might see Him who should teach them that the place chosen of God, in which it was suitable that victims should be offered to God, is his Wisdom.

Pseudo-Clementine, Recognitions 1.37

And as for you, if you will walk before me as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, “You shall not lack a man to rule Israel.”  (2 Chr 7:17-18)

For Holy Scripture supports the freedom of the will where it says: “Keep your heart with all diligence.”  But the Apostle indicates its weakness by saying “The Lord keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  David asserts the power of free will, where he says “I have inclined my heart to do Your righteous acts,” but the same man in like manner teaches us its weakness, by praying and saying, “Incline my heart unto Your testimonies and not to covetousness.”  Solomon also: “The Lord incline our hearts unto Himself that we may walk in all His ways and keep His commandments, and ordinances and judgments.”

John Cassian, Conference 13.10.1

Thursday, November 17, 2016

An Unexpected Gift

Have you ever received a gift that caused you to stop and think about the giver.  These vary in shape, size, and worth.  A familiar form comes at the naming of a child, wherein parents consider several options that are important to them as a way of bequeathing something special to the child.  For, instance, my first and middle names came through my parents’ maternal great-grandfathers’ middle names.  I consider that a cherished heirloom and blessing.  There are other gifts that come as a mixed blessing or even a burden.  At the time, we may question the purpose of the gift or the motive of the giver, but we accept it grudgingly and discover later that the gift was far more precious and appropriate than first expected.

The people of God had been rocked with multiple instances of rebellion against God’s order:
  • Aaron and Miriam sought share in the prophetic office with Moses. (Num 12)
  • Ten spies gave a bad report of the Land of Promise, so the people chose not to enter. (Num 13)
  • When God told the people that generation would not see the Land, they attempted to enter anyway. (Num 14)
  • Korah, Dathan, and On sought to share in the leadership of Israel. (Num 16:1–40)
  • Each of these ended with God’s righteous discipline against the instigators, after which the people grumbled again resulting in more discipline. (Num 16:41–49)
Finally, the Lord set up a sign whereby all would know which house would serve Him in the priestly ministry: Aaron’s rod budded.  By this time everybody had learned their lessons—so much so that the people were afraid of YHWH’s presence among them:
So the children of Israel spoke to Moses, saying, “Surely we die, we perish, we all perish!  Whoever even comes near the tabernacle of the Lᴏʀᴅ must die.  Shall we all utterly die?” (Num 17:12–13)
To quell the people’s fear, Aaron and his sons were given a divine gift of greatest import:
Then the Lᴏʀᴅ said to Aaron: “You and your sons and your father’s house with you shall bear the iniquity related to the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear the iniquity associated with your priesthood.… Therefore you and your sons with you shall attend to your priesthood for everything at the altar and behind the veil; and you shall serve.  I give your priesthood to you as a gift for service, but the outsider who comes near shall be put to death.” (Num 18:1, 7)
Stop and soak that in.  Aaron’s tribe alone carried the burden of iniquity for the sanctuary and the priesthood.  No other person need fear for their safety because they will not come into the Lord’s presence.  However, this does place on the shoulders of Aaron’s tribe the sole ability to come before the Lord, so that they were the sole mediators representing men to God.  They alone could touch the holy things, offer the appointed sacrifices, and pronounce a declaration of cleanness or absolution of guilt.  You can see, then, that both great responsibility and authority come together in this gift.

When Jesus came into this world and completed the work given Him by the Father to do, He fulfilled all that was limited in the Aaronic priesthood and sacrifices—their scope and nature—by virtue of His all-sufficient atoning death.  What Aaron and his sons could never complete in their service of bearing iniquity, our Lord Jesus took upon Himself as the ultimate High Priest.  This work was the Father’s gift of service delivered to and gladly received by the Son in the eternal counsels of the Godhead.  Jesus continues His High Priestly work ever interceding before the Father on our behalf (Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25).

Believers now are a royal priesthood (1 Pet 2:4–5, 9–10), having been adopted as sons and coheirs, and are in right standing to come before God presenting spiritual sacrifices.  In the same way as the old priesthood, we now are called to intercede on behalf of our brethren.  Within the framework of the Aaronic priesthood, most of the offerings allowed a portion for the priest to eat.  Whether someone came because of guilt from a sin or trespass, or from gratitude for what the Lord had done for him, the priest received nourishment through the work of intercession.  In like manner, Christians now are nourished within their worship, whether through confession and absolution of sin or feeding on the body and blood of Jesus as true food and true drink (John 6:53–58).

Besides the corporate aspect, we also find it individually as believers share in one another’s burdens (Gal 6:1–2).  We pray for each one before the Lord for His loving-kindness and righteous dealings.  If there is sin, seek repentance and confession that forgiveness and reconciliation might be given.  If there is a burden to bear, bear it as well.  If a burden is released, enter into their joy.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15).

We can see, then, that the work of believers to intercede on behalf of one another is not grievous but a great endowment from a most generous Benefactor.  As a priesthood, we are privileged to have access before the throne of grace, both corporately and individually, to “obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16) for our mutual nourishment that the whole body might be built up in Him.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Neglected Half of the Great Commission

Rembrandt, “Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch”
[T]he obligation to preach the Gospel also includes the duty and the goal to baptize.  Although conversion comes about through the preaching of God’s Word, it is anchored and made visibly manifest in Baptism.  From Scripture, we also know that Baptism is the means whereby one is added to the communion of believers (Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12; 18:8).  In view of the fact that the great Commission speaks so clearly of preaching coupled with Baptism (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:16), it seems odd that so little attention is given the Sacrament of Baptism in missiological literature.  One notices primarily a minimalist version that focuses on witness, isolated from Baptism.  Peter Brunner’s insights on Baptism seem instructive:
The Gospel seeks the faith of the hearers.  Once it comes to faith, then baptism follows by necessity.  Therefore the Great Commission embraces immediately also baptism.  It cannot come to a faith in the Gospel through the Holy Spirit, that does not desire and lead to baptism.  The place where baptism takes place is where church has come about. 
Klaus Detlev Schulz, Mission from the Cross, 191

Friday, November 11, 2016

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Sunday

After these things Jesus showed Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and in this way He showed Himself: Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together.  Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.”  They said to him, “We are going with you also.”  They went out and immediately got into the boat, and that night they caught nothing.  But when the morning had now come, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  Then Jesus said to them, “Children, have you any food?” They answered Him, “No.”  And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.”  So they cast, and now they were not able to draw it in because of the multitude of fish.  (John 21:1-6)

Our Lord Jesus Christ once more gladdens His disciples with the enjoyment of the sight of Himself, Whom they so greatly longed to see, and entrusts unto them a third visit, in addition to the other two, in order that He might confirm their minds, and render them unchangeably steadfast in faith towards Him.  For how after they had seen Him not once, but now for the third time, could they fail to have their minds released from all wavering in the faith, and to become faithful instructors of the rest of mankind in the doctrines of the religion of Christ?  Peter then goes forth with the others fishing.  For when he was bound on this errand they hurried with him, and doubtless our Savior Christ is here seen working for their good.… In order, then, that He might convince them by a palpable sign that every Word that He had spoken would surely come to pass, and that His promise would result in complete fulfillment, He draws a convincing proof from the trade at which they were at work.  For the blessed disciples were practicing their art, and were fishing, but yet they had caught nothing, though they had toiled all the night.  And when it was already early morning, and the dawn was beginning to break, and the sun’s rays to appear, Jesus stood on the beach.  And they did not know that it was Jesus.  And when He questioned them whether they had any fish fit for the table in their nets, they said they had taken nothing at all.  Then He bids them cast down the net on the right side of the boat. And they, although all the night they had spent their toil in vain, replied: “At Your word we will cast down the net.”  And when this was done, the weight of the fish that were caught overpowered the strength of the fishermen who were hauling it up.

Such is the narrative of the inspired Evangelist.  As we have just observed, the Savior, by the actual performance of a palpable miracle, satisfied the holy disciples that they were destined to be, as He had said, fishers of men.  Come, then, let us convert, so far as in us lies, that which was fulfilled in type into the truth of which it is symbolic; and let us bear witness to the truth of the Savior’s Words, and, according to our ability, unfolding the meaning of everything that took place, let us put before those who may light on these pages what may serve in some measure, I think, to start a spiritual train of thought.… I think, then, that the fact of the disciples fishing all the night, and taking nothing, but spending their labor in vain, signifies that no one, as we shall find, or very few, would be wholly won over by the teaching of the first instructors of old, and caught into their net to do God’s pleasure in all things.  We may regard what is very small in amount as equivalent to nothing, especially when it is taken out of a great multitude.  And, surely, we must regard the number of mankind scattered throughout the whole world as exceedingly great.  What hindrance, then, or obstacle was there in the way which rendered the labor of the pioneers of the faith fruitless?  And why did their preaching fail to bear fruit?  There was still night and darkness, and a kind of mental mist and devilish deceit brooding over the eyes of the mind, not allowing men to perceive the true light of God.… The inspired disciples, then, without hesitation, obeyed the bidding of our Savior, and let down the net.  And the meaning of this is, that they did not seize for themselves the grace of apostleship, but at His bidding went forth to capture the souls of men.  “Go therefore,” He said, “and make disciples of all the nations.”  The disciples themselves say, that at the Word of Christ they let down the net.  For they fish for men only by the Savior’s Words and, commandments in the Gospels.  And great was the multitude of fish within the net, so that the disciples were no longer able to haul it up.  For they who have been caught, and believed, are innumerable, and the marvel thereof seems in truth to surpass, and be out of all proportion to the strength of the holy Apostles.  For it is the working of Christ, Who gathers by His own power the multitude of the saved into the Church on earth, as into the net of the Apostles.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, XII

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Addressing the Symptom or the Source?

Recently, I have been pondering the common usage of “broken” and “brokenness.”  I looked for a dictionary definition on-line and found several definitions:
  • infringed or violated
  • interrupted, disrupted, or disconnected
  • weakened in strength, spirit, etc.
  • tamed, trained, or reduced to submission
  • (of a relationship) split apart; not intact
  • (of a family) disunited or divided by the prolonged or permanent absence of a parent
  • not smooth; rough or irregular
  • ruined; bankrupt
We know the effects are common to the human condition and empathize with those currently enduring them.  Life is difficult and messy.  Desiring to convey understanding and compassion, we use such language to describe stress and hardship in ourselves and others.  As Christians, we know the real problem: all creation is ruined because of sin.  However, a question remains.  In our efforts to address and ease human suffering, do we go too far in softening our language to ease that pain?

One does not need to go far in Christian circles before encountering therapeutic language in response to the pervasiveness of brokenness.  Evangelism has become communicating the aforementioned empathy.  Songs relate how Jesus can fix the hurts and burdens.  Radio stations bill themselves as positive and encouraging.  Pastors preach a relationship with Jesus.  The problem is not the language.  We are called to compassion.  We can walk through Scripture identifying the passages that are the basis for these actions.  Indeed, we should teach and practice the care due to the downtrodden, discouraged, etc.

This is not a new phenomenon.  Decades ago, mainline denominations shifted from preaching God’s Word in truth to appeasing hearers in order to address societal ills.  In an effort to create a level social strata, immediate conditions were salved, even improved, with the desire that those receiving help would then attend church services and be grafted in the to local flock.  As time progressed, those ills became more varied and debauched as culture shifted in nature from communal to personal: “What I need (or think I need) must be honored or met.”  With this shift, the centrality of what kept the denominations grounded has been replaced with affirmations of the individual and personal choice.

Sadly, sections of conservative denominations and independent churches that watched the decline of mainline denominations has begun sinking into the same morass.  Those groups lacking a formal confessional foundation appear to be particularly susceptible to the downward slide, but they are certainly not alone.  Congregations are seeking to be relevant to the culture for the same reasons that mainline denominations tried—expecting different results.  Instead of focusing on collective ills, the congregations have focused on the personal, offering multiple ways to connect with the local assembly.

We are called to help, but there is a serious flaw in the way the above has been practiced: the root cause is minimized.  Dealing with the symptoms, scant attention is given to the source issue of sin.  Considered the new hymnody of western evangelicalism, Praise & Worship (or contemporary Christian) music gives itself over to personal feelings and experience.  Consider the following first verses from two songs written 150 years apart:

Hallelujah! What a Savior You’re Beautiful
Phil­ip P. Bliss Phil Wickham
Man of Sorrows! what a name
For the Son of God, who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
|   I see Your face in every sunrise
|   The colors of the morning are inside Your eyes
|   The world awakens in the light of the day
|   I look up to the sky and say
|   You're beautiful

The differences between them are ever so subtle—not.  While both claim to glory in the Son, the emphases cannot be further apart: the former in a savior, the second in what exactly?  To be fair, both speak of the need for the cross, though in quite different terms:

Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
“Full atonement!” can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
|   I see You there hanging on a tree
|   You bled and then you died and then you rose again for me
|   Now You are sitting on Your heavenly throne
|   Soon we will be coming home
|   You're beautiful

The former explicitly conveys our desperate condition and need for rescue, while the latter speaks of a sacrificial act and a reunion, both of which I should appreciation, but what they entail is never given.  We are left with a selfless, humanitarian act, but to what end?  In the final analysis, we can appreciate the effort, but why does it matter ultimately?

This is one example among many methods of communication that can be given.  When presenting the Gospel, we have an obligation to make known the whole truth.  While experiences and outcomes are nice to understand, we should not end there.  Comfort and healing of soul does not come from the outward application of biblical principles.  That comes from believing on God’s promises in Christ Jesus.  In trusting the finality of a full atonement, we rest in the work completely accomplished for each of us.  He died for me, therefore all He gives is mine as well.

Many will say that because we believed once in the the saving work of Christ, we are free to pursue the upward life by through our efforts if we but have enough faith.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  While freed from the law of sin and death, believers carry within them the old man that must be put to death daily.  Only by daily reliance on Christ, on the sure Word of God delivered to us, can the walk of faith be taken much less finished.  The endless appeal to relationships and emotions will produce growth that will wither and die, either through lack of depth or the heat of outward pressure.  Rather than settle for the “feels,” long for and cling to the pure milk of the Word by which you grow and might be part of a crop that produces thirty, sixty, or a hundred-fold.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Trying Too Hard?

Miguel Ruiz has posted a nice piece entitled “10 Signs a Church May Be Trying Too Hard to Be Hipster.”  Those ten points are:
  1. Trendy names.
  2. No visible leadership over 40.
  3. God is apparently doing everything (and endorses every leadership decision).
  4. Overactive social media presence.
  5. It sounds just like the radio.  Really, JUST like it.
  6. Everything is really, really, ridiculously real.
  7. Everything is super casual.
  8. Endless cycles of catchphrases, buzzwords, and clichés.
  9. They are unlike any other church in your area.
  10. Their leaders are more spiritual than yours.
The post was written from a confessional Lutheran perspective, but the points made are relevant across denominations.  American Christianity needs to get over its fascination with all things trendy.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Tuesday Night Activities

Over at The Federalist, Cheryl Magness has offered some tips on what to do tomorrow night instead of watching the election returns:
  1. Have Some Friends Over and Sing Together
  2. Read the Constitution
  3. Make It Movie Night
  4. Have a Game Night
  5. Invite Your Neighbors Over for a Potluck
  6. Restore Your Soul
  7. Do Something Kind for Someone
  8. Teach Your Kids American Classics8. Teach Your Kids American Classics
  9. Read Your Bible
  10. Pray
She gets no argument from me.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Sunday

The Church Fathers, 11th century

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.  (Rom 12:1)

Paul pleads with them through the mercy of God, by which the human race is saved…. This is a warning that they should remember that they have received God’s mercy and that they should take care to worship the one who gave it to them.  God’s will is our sanctification, for bodies subject to sin are considered not to be alive but dead, since they have no hope of obtaining the promise of eternal life.  It is for this purpose that we are cleansed from our sins by God’s gift, that henceforth we should lead a pure life and stir up the love of God in us, not making his work of grace of no effect.  For the ancients killed sacrifices which were offered in order to signify that men were subjected to death because of sin.  But now, since by the gift of God men have been purified and set free from the second death, they must offer a living sacrifice as a sign of eternal life.  For now it is no longer the case that bodies are sacrificed for bodies, but instead of bodies it is the sins of the body which must be put to death.

Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles

Let love be without hypocrisy.  Abhor what is evil.  Cling to what is good.  (Rom 12:9)

I think that any love without God is artificial and not genuine.  For God, the Creator of the soul, filled it with the feeling of love, along with the other virtues, so that it might love God and the things which God wants.  But if the soul loves something other than God and what God wants, this love is said to be artificial and invented.  And if someone loves his neighbor but does not warn him when he sees him going astray or correct him, such is only a pretense of love.

Perhaps it seems odd to find hatred listed among the virtues, but it is put here of necessity by the apostle.  Nobody doubts that the soul has feelings of hatred in it; however, it is praiseworthy to hate evil and to hate sin.  For unless a person hates evil he cannot love, nor can he retain the virtues.

Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Reforming Modern Worship

Jonathan Aigner has written a good piece: “95 Theses for the Modern Church’s Door.”  As the title suggests, he mimics Martin Luther’s theses as debate points to address the abuses brought into the Church through modern worship.  These points are not for the faint of heart.  I found the following points particularly scathing but accurate:
  1. Just as pornography creates attraction through empty promises of fulfillment, so does commercial worship, especially through the music of the worship industry.
  2. The fulfillment is never found in the art itself, but in the truth the art represents.
  3. Such pornographic worship is fundamentally idolatry.
  4. Worship that seeks personal fulfillment, release, or refreshment is a masturbatory act.
Yes, he went there—and rightfully so.

Read the points Aigner makes, and as you do, consider not how megachurches compare but how your own local assembly compares.