Deeper Still

“If you are not holding down a little church merely until you get a big one, but really care for people, at least as much as you care for your own life and children, then you must convey to them a real awareness that you are interested in their problems.  If you are not interested in the problems of sincere, ongoing Christians you ought not to be in the work of ministry at all” (p42).

(William) Still Waters Run Deep

“You may have heard the story of the man who went to the psychiatrist and told him that his problem was an inferiority complex.  The psychiatrist did his best with him, and then brutally, perhaps too brutally, gave his considered opinion.  ‘Your trouble is not inferiority complex,’ he said, ‘but just that you are plain inferior.’  Cruel, but probably true!

“There is a lesson here.  Some meddling ministers want to sort out everybody.  God is not so optimistic.  There are some who will die mixed-up personalities, and they may be true believers. (In some ways perhaps I am that, and hove no hope of ever sorting myself out.  Indeed, my salvation is to live with my oddities and partly put up with them, not to say help other people to put up with them, and partly rise above them to show that grace is better employed wrestling resignedly, realistically, cheerfully with our problems than demanding from God heavenly solutions on earth.)  Don’t try to do the impossible” (pp38-39).

Easy Come, Easy Go, Easy Come

“. . . the American church has not treated [growth in Christ] with an equivalent urgency [compared to evangelism].  The American church runs on the euphoria and adrenaline of new birth–getting people into the church, into the kingdom, into causes, into crusades, into programs.  We turn matters of growing up over to Sunday school teachers, specialists in Christian education, committees to revise curricula, retreat centers, and deeper life conferences, farming it out to parachurch groups for remedial assistance.  I don’t find pastors and professors, for the most part, very interested in matters of formation in holiness.  They have higher profile things to tend to” (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, p5).

Customer service is always the best when the customer is new.  The new customer gets the best deal, latest program, most attention and grandest promises.  Maintaining loyal customers takes far more hard work than finding new ones.  Let the disgruntled, underserved old customers leave.  We’ll find three new ones to replace them.

You can always find someone new to buy what you’re selling as long as the sales pitch is relevant and right.  A regular influx of new customers gives the appearance of a vibrant, healthy business and we love appearances more than substance.  We want to know how much we’ve generated new business, not how much we’ve retained and cultivated old business.

This mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to American business and the church.

This is the Americanization of congregation.  It means turning each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques and organization flow charts, and then energized by impressive motivational rhetoric (Ibid., p24).

We need look not much farther than a church’s membership roll to see the effects of this “Americanization.”  Churches attract thousands of members (customers) with slick programming and irresistible sales pitches.  And over time those members regularly drift into obscurity with little to no accountability or spiritual formation.  The church is then awash in pragmatism, having to keep up with the market to stay alive.

There is little to no concern because thousands have come in to replace them.  And so on and so on.  Not until there is a down trend in new customers will there likely be any angst among the ranks.  Therefore, pastors shepherd a number rather than individual sheep and churches pride themselves on new “customers” despite the overwhelming number of old “customers” they were glad to see drift away into the wolves’ land.  Who cares which 2,000 sheep we have as long as we kept 2,000?  Who cares if 500 members went AWOL last year if we added 1,000 new ones?

All the while, our Great Shepherd would not stand for replacement sheep (Lk 15.3-7).  If even only one strayed from the flock he would not find a replacement.  He would leave ninety-nine secure sheep to retrieve the lost one.  He wouldn’t have just any old hundred sheep, but the one hundred he knew by name.

It is God’s will that all those given to Jesus will be raised up by Jesus on the last day (Jn 6.39).  Jesus will not lose one of them, which is a good thing because we lose them all the time.  Our Lord is not content to lose one of his children.  Yet, our flippant, weak view of church life (“congregation” to use Peterson’s word) implies he just might.  It implies Jesus cares only about those who seemingly start well rather than those who finish well. He’ll simply replace those who wander rather than bother with finding and retrieving them.

If Jesus will not lose one of his own on the last day, then let us resolve not to lose one on this day.

A Love to Shepherd or To Be Heard?

When considering pastoral ministry I’m confident it was neither pastoral nor ministry at all I was considering.  I wasn’t driven by a deep desire and compassionate love to shepherd souls through the ministry of the Word and prayer.  I was driven by the egotistical desire to be heard.  If you love preaching but don’t love those to whom you preach then you simply love being heard.  You love people listening to you.  You have little patience listening to them, but assume it’s their biblical responsibility to listen to you.

Mark Dever reminded us at a recent conference that no one is called to preach.  One is called to preach the Word.  In other words, there is no preaching that is not saturated in, devoted to and exposited from God’s Word.  It is not our voice that we want folks to hear, but God’s voice.

I would add that one is “called” to preach God’s beloved Word to God’s beloved people.  As much as preaching is a love for expounding on God’s Word it is also a love for the people who hear it.  We are not disinterested shepherds who simply throw out feed and retire to more important matters while the sheep fight for the food.  We must also take the food in hand and – sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully – hold it before the sheep’s mouth because we love that sheep in particular.

William Still says it much better:

“If you are not holding down a little church merely until you get a big one, but really care for people, at least as much as you care for your own wife and children, then you must convey to them a real awareness that you are interested in their problems.  If you are not interested in the problems of sincere, ongoing Christians you ought not to be in the work of ministry at all.

“Of course, you have to deal faithfully with those who are attracted to you and want to be that little bit farther in with you than their sparring partners, and you will have to deal with those who like attention and who manufacture problems, or even excuses, to draw inconsiderately on your time.  Some even love to see a queue waiting to speak to you after a service and maliciously drag out their story to keep others waiting.  But, remember, when you are brokenhearted about the sheer cussedness of some, and bitterness, enmities, jealousies, grudges and feuds seem to rock the boat, remember that, in time – you don’t need to go out of your way to dot Mrs. Brazenface on the nose from the pulpit! – in time, it will all be dealt with by the systematic preaching of the Word.  The answer to every problem, even the ones that have no full and final earthly solution, is in the Word.  Pin your faith to that.  Let the Word solve or settle all” (William Still, The Work of the Pastor, pp42-43).

When we hear of someone “called to preach” we must ask if they have a deep love for God’s people.  If they do not demonstrate a “real awareness” of interest in the problems of people then they have little awareness of what it means to be pastor. As much as we should examine and encourage their preaching skills we should equally test their shepherding skills.  How patient are they with the elderly?  How compassionate are they toward the grieving?  How joyful are they with growing saints?  How eager are they to invest in people?  How willing are they to be interrupted by souls seeking Living Water?

Imagine a young culinary upstart demanding to be your family’s personal chef.  He wants your family to enjoy his finest creations.  But you have a diabetic child.  If that young chef has no concern for that child then you’re not to trust him, no matter how great a chef he might be.  He may love to cook, but he doesn’t love you.  Likewise, if one feels the “call” to preach but demonstrates no real love for God’s people then he cannot be trusted to provide decent meals that edify, encourage and equip the saints.  He simply loves to preach with little regard for those to whom he preaches.

Where is one to develop this “real awareness”?  It can only be developed in the life of a local church.  It comes from riding in the front seat of roller coaster lives.  It comes from crying with the broken-hearted and rejoicing with the glad-hearted. The finest homiletician in the finest seminary in all the world cannot teach this “real awareness.”  It is born by the Spirit in the heart and cultivated by the church in loving relationships informed by Scripture.

Are you called to preach?  Then make sure you’re called to love or else you will be nothing but a clanging cymbal (1 Cor 13.1).

Don’t Be So Cavalier About It

Lebron James (a.k.a. King James) has caused no small stir the world of professional basketball.  In what resembled a celebrity divorce, he shook the Cleveland dust off his feet only to wiggle them in the white sands of South Beach.  Cleveland got stood up at the altar while Lebron parades around town with his new girlfriend(s).  The Heat are in first place and the Cavaliers are dead last.  Despite the desperate longings of all Cleveland fans, poetic justice is heretofore denied.   The divorce wasn’t an amenable one and the aftershocks still reverberate.  The Cavaliers try to save face while Lebron rubs their face in it.  The drama is as entertaining as it is silly.

Last Tuesday night the Los Angeles Lakers handed the Cavaliers a 55-point drubbing.  And like a husband who prides himself on exploiting how pathetic is ex-wife is without him, Lebron James tweeted during the game: “Crazy.  Karma is a [expletive]. Gets you every time. Its not good to wish bad on anybody. God sees everything!”  It’s not good to wish bad on anybody; unless, apparently, you’re Lebron James speaking of Cleveland.  Poor Lebron.  Little Ol’ Cleveland just won’t leave him alone to play million-dollar footsie with his new suitors.

Dare I call into question King James’s theological acuity.  After all, I don’t want him tweeting about me!  But he was quite confused to use “karma” and “God” as cooperating partners (i.e. syncretism).  Karma, an Indian concept, is the universe’s (or gods thereof) way of maintaining moral balance.  Do good things and good things will happen to you.  Do bad things (like pick on Li’l Lebron) and bad things will happen to you (like 55-point losses to the Lakers).  In the end, god (whoever or whatever that is) rewards those who do good and punishes those who do bad.  So do good, Cleveland.

This, however, has nothing to do with how God orders the universe.  Lebron was right in one sense: God does see everything.  I suppose this includes the process by which Lebron fathered two children out of wedlock, whose mother he’s stringing along as a perpetual “fiancee.”  Nevertheless, God does see everything but not in order to reward self-righteousness.  God doesn’t measure his favor based on human merit because no human is meritorious of his favor (Rom 3.10-18).  Good things happen because Christ happened.  And only those in Christ can expect any favor from God.

Still, there are Christians who might snicker at Lebron’s sophomoric tirade but themselves live as though God does co-op karma to accomplish his will.  For example, how often do we think that since we read our Bible this morning then God owes us some favor this afternoon?  Or, since I prayed earnestly about something that God should return the favor.  I scratched God’s back so he will scratch mine.

What about the other side of the coin?  My car wreck this afternoon was God getting me back for sinning this morning.  Or, since I’m on God’s “bad side” then I shouldn’t expect his favor until I can get back on his “good side.”  That’s a karmic way of life, and one that is not fit for God’s people.

There are consequences for sin that God rightly sees they’re played out (Gal 6.6-10).  But this is different than viewing the universe as a cosmic chess game in which we’d better make all the right moves before God checkmates us.  God doesn’t relate to us based on how well we impress him.  On our best day, we are still law-breakers and God cannot abide law-breakers (Rom 3.23).  As Christians, we are at all times dependent on the intercessory of ministry of Jesus (Heb 7.25) “who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor 1.30).  There is never one moment when God does not relate to his people apart from the imputed righteousness of Christ.  We don’t impress God.  He impresses us in Christ.  Jesus is the only one who has rightly obeyed and earned a way back into Eden (Heb 10.19-20).  And our best effort at worship must be filtered through and cleansed by the interceding ministry of Christ.

In catechizing our children we ask, “Can you see God?”  They respond, “No, but he always sees me.” Lebron might tell his children that since God always sees you then make sure what he sees is good so that he’ll do good to you.  Let us tell our children differently and biblically.  What God sees in and from us is worthy of eternal death.  But he sent his Son to die for what he saw in us.  Now, for all who repent and believe, even when God sees everything about us he chooses to see Jesus instead (Col 3.3).

Lebron may think himself worthy of God’s applause, but God has a far different understanding of “heat.” One taste of God’s heat and Lebron will beg to be back in Cleveland.

The Work of the Pastor, William Still

“God has caused you to become pastor to some souls here who are as valuable to Him as any in the world – your quiet persistence will be a sign that you believe God has a purpose of grace for this people, and that this purpose of grace will be promoted, not by gimmicks, or stunts, or new ideas, but by the Word of God released in preaching by prayer.

“There will soon be evidence that God is at work – and the devil will rouse himself too! . . . There will be opposition, and you may be quite surprised at where it comes from – notably those who have been ‘running the church’ and who have turned the church of Jesus Christ into their private preserve and hobby.  Those whose daily lives do not match up to their profession will begin to be disturbed.  Those who maintain class distinctions, social or intellectual, in the congregation, and all who put up with the fulminations of a young minister as along as he does not seriously interfere with their status quo, will begin to panic.  Amidst all this, consciences will be stirred and lives will be searched, home life, business, church activities examined.  People will begin to take sides, objections to you and to what you preach, and how you preach it, will become increasingly plausible (but quite irrational when you consider them).  Your manner, length and style of preaching, etc. will all be torn to pieces.

“In this work we must not be afraid of upset.  We must not go out of our way to create it; we don’t look for trouble, but seek peace.  But if we are going to be faithful to God and to men, there will be upset.  The great thing to know is that God is at work creatively, through His Word, in answer to the prayers of His people.  There is not a greater task a man can perform in the whole world than this, that he is being used to release the all-searching Word of God upon a company of needy souls.  It is the most amazing thing.  It works!  God works.  His Word works.  Prayer works. The Spirit Works.”

(William Still, The Work of the Pastor, pp25-27).

Do We Worship God or Worship Worship?

Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote (Is 28.13).

There is a fine line between worshiping God and worshiping worship.  Worshiping God is to glory in the mystery of Christ who “was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3.16).  Such worship creates more longing to know and obey this Christ.

Worshiping worship is to glory in the feelings generated by the truth of Christ in whatever context he is proclaimed.  Such worship creates more longing for the feelings we get when hearing of Christ, not Christ himself.  We don’t so much want more of God, per se, but more of whatever feeling is created in the name of God.  In this case we don’t “experience worship,” but worship the experience.  The feelings we have are no different than those generated by our favorite band, team or event.  And the reason we go back to church are not all that different, either.

We can be very easily deceived into thinking what we call “worship” is not worship of God at all.  It’s actually the worship of ourselves.  And like a drug, it takes more and bigger productions to feed the feelings we get from such “high.”  No longer do we expect simple gatherings of Christ’s church, but demand to be “wowed” so that we can feel like we’ve worshiped God.  Theatrics trump theology.  We’re no longer moved by the simple drama of baptism and communion, but need far more, far louder, far bigger to satiate our experiential appetites.

It’s the nature of Adam to be more concerned about appearances than reality.  But it’s the nature of Christ to examine the heart despite appearances.

How do we know if we’re worshiping worship rather than worshiping God?  We might answer that on two levels: congregational and personal.  At both levels we must ask if what the world sees in our public worship is consistent with what it doesn’t see?

At the congregational level:

  • Is our singing of Christ’s purity and glory reflected in our commitment to biblical church discipline?  In other words, do we just like singing and hearing snappy songs about Christ’s glory so we feel happy or are we serious about defending it in sad situations?
  • Is our preaching and listening of Christ as our Good Shepherd from the pulpit reflected in faithful shepherding in living rooms?  In other words, is our proclamation of the gospel simply about getting public results at the end of a service or is it to transform sinners into saints?
  • Do we care more about what the world thinks of our church rather than what God thinks of it?  In other words, do we measure our health by worldly acclamation or by biblical standards?
  • Does our public worship rightly reflect the identity of God’s people?   In other words, do we depict God’s people as pretty people who have it all together with quaint platitudes and smile all the time about it, or as warrior-saints who gather to fight the world, flesh and devil with God’s word and Christ’s strength?
  • Are the relationships “on stage” consistent with them “off stage”?  In other words, are we like actors who come together to put on a good show but have little to do with spiritual investment otherwise?  Or, is what we see “on stage” an overflow of what is true off it?
  • Are our long, elaborate prayers offered before the world reflected in a robust congregational prayer life?  In other words, do we give the appearance of being committed pray-ers or are we serious about prayer as a congregation?  Are the prayers offered on Sunday mornings substitutes for or supplements of a healthy congregational prayer life?
  • Is what we confess on Sunday mornings reflected in a vigorous congregational life of biblical theology, accountability, evangelism and prayer?  In other words, do we merely want everyone to think we do church or do we really do church?

At the personal level:

  • Do I evaluate a church’s service in terms of how it made me feel (amped, bored, etc.) rather than if it what was said, prayed, preached and sung was true?  Do I conclude that as long as I feel like I’ve worshiped then I must have?
  • Am I moved more by how a song was sung than what was sung?  (I realize there are less-conducive styles that do not facilitate congregational singing, but that’s for another post.)
  • Do I define worship in terms of how I feel about God rather than how he feels about me?
  • Do I leave the church’s gathering saying, “What a great service!” or “What a great Savior!”?
  • Do I subject God to my feelings so that if I feel a certain way then God must conform to it?  Or do I subject my feelings to God so that whatever I feel is tested in light of Scripture?
  • How much does the church’s worship influence my life beyond Sunday, or has the feeling waned by Monday?  Does the truth displayed in last Sunday’s gathering linger in my family worship, private worship, business deals, eating habits, thought patterns, conversations, etc.?
  • Do I only consider that I’m worshiping when I feel happy and clappy toward God?  Or is the crying out of a downcast soul as honoring, if not more, to God?
  • Do I leave the church’s worship making big promises to God about repentance, forgiveness, faith, etc. or do I actually repent, forgive and believe?  Oh, how we like to exalt making big promises to change rather than actually changing.  Feeling moved to change is far easier than actually doing it, but we think the feelings are enough to God.  Don’t make some big spectacle before men about how you’re going to forgive and love your enemy.  Just go and do it!

God is not unmoved toward heartless, hypocritical worship.  He’s provoked by it (cf. Mal 1.10).  What we feel about our worship and what God feels are not always the same.  But what he feels about it is always right.  Let’s make sure our lips and hearts are on the same page with God’s book.

Book Review: The Gospel-Filled Wallet by Jeff Weddle

“Being poor is not the issue; love is.”  This statement on page 22 should be the first sentence of the book.

Mention “stewardship” and many Christians get immediately defensive.  We will tolerate encroachment in many areas but the wallet is not usually one of them.  The nearer biblical counsel, preaching, exhortations and appeals get to our back pockets the more we “feel led” to a different church or ministry.  Though we rarely remember last Sunday’s sermon, we’re convinced the preacher is always preaching about money.  Does he expect us all to live in poverty, for God’s sake?

“Being poor is not the issue; love is.”

In some ways America’s rugged individualism has hijacked faithful Christianity and biblical community.  The “American Dream” may not always be heaven’s vision, however.  As Americans we are free to earn a living; but as Christians we do not live to earn.  And in a folksy way, Jeff Weddle attempts a helpful corrective for our love of money in The Gospel-Filled Wallet.

Book Summary

Weddle begins and ends his book autobiographically.  He was led to write this book because he was led to confess his own love of money.  I wonder if he may have been a bit hard on himself, but who is to stand in the way of confession?

He systematically surveys the New Testament’s teaching about money beginning with Jesus in the Gospels, then Paul’s letters and lastly the other writings.  He then highlights various biblical “celebrities” who either surrendered their wealth for God’s purposes or retained their wealth in a godly way.

So where does Scripture commend the spending of our money?  Weddle ends with practical and pastoral answers to that question.  In fact, I would suggest reading this chapter first in order to guard against any hasty conclusions and unfair presuppositions you might otherwise develop.

The postscript Q&A provides a helpful, humorous way to cushion the fall if you’ve been unusually provoked by the book.

Commendations

I commend Weddle’s courage to confront a volatile issue in American Christianity.  I must humbly appreciate any attempt to call me and/or the Church to faithful biblical stewardship.   We don’t want to be idolaters after all.  We need faithful exhortation to consider and organize our lives (including our money) around God’s word.  And Weddle provides just that.  Whether or not you agree with Weddle’s conclusions, you must wrestle with the biblical texts he addresses.  Although, any interpretation cannot stray very far from the plain reading of Scripture!

I commend Weddle’s understanding of Matthew 11.5 (pp15-16).  Of all the signs and wonders that would convince John the Baptist of Jesus’  Messiahship, one was that he preached the gospel to the poor.  Unlike the stream of Israel’s religious leaders who exploited the poor, Jesus brought grace to them.  Jesus turned the world right side-up again.  God’s kingdom would be populated by those considered least likely and least deserving of kingdom benefits.  In fact, as Weddle points out, a religious leader genuinely loving the outcast and poor is as radical as curing blindness and deafness.

Is the modern church much different that those first century Pharisees?  Are people a means to an end?  Do we serve those who can return the favor?  Do we find ourselves attracted to the same folks Jesus was?  Do we find ourselves attractive to the same folks Jesus was?  One look around a typical Sunday church gathering and it looks nothing like the gathering around Jesus.  “Talking to poor people shows that you aren’t selling something,” says Weddle (p16).  And they aren’t a consumer, product or project.  We do well to remember that.

I commend Weddle’s “rapid fire” treatment on where Christians’ money should be spent (pp56-62): on the poor, unbelieving friends (with some qualification), family, your church’s ministry, missions, hospitality, taxes and wise, tempered investments.  His tone softens in this chapter to steer us away from legalistic checklists toward hearts that love what Jesus loves and commends.

Recommendations

I hesitate to critique another man’s heart when it comes an honest pursuit of biblical understanding.  Therefore, I consider my recommendations of little value compared to the book as a whole.

1.  Weddle readily admits the King James Version is his favorite and “fun” (p2).  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard KJV and “fun” in the same sentence, but I did find the version cumbersome.  He admits that the KJV “employs words we no longer use” so why not provide a more readable translation for the general reader?  Where the KJV provides helpful insight then refer to it.  Otherwise the NASB or ESV would’ve been easier to digest.

2.  Weddle’s opening salvo had a superlative tone about it.  Based on what how he spends his money, he says he must inevitably hate God (p1).  I trust he’s speaking hyperbolically and provocatively.  Nevertheless, based on Mt 6.24 he writes, “If you love money, you hate God” (p3).  He then goes on to describe ways in which we may love money without ever realizing it.  However, given his scenarios we must all resign ourselves to the hatred of God, too, which is exactly where he concludes: “Thus, we hate God” (v5).

He concludes we’re “consumed with money” (p5) because most everything we need temporally requires money.  This is a large leap, in my estimation.  Just because I need oxygen to breathe doesn’t mean I idolize oxygen when I gasp for breath.  It means God has created me to need oxygen and he is to be thanked when it’s provided for me.  Likewise (and I think Weddle does eventually conclude this), because my two-year-old uses diapers does not mean I’m consumed with money because I must buy them.  And when I do I am to thank God for his undeserved favor.  We must be very careful of assuming the effects of how we spend money are necessarily to be imposed on others who may spend it with a different heart.

Does Jesus intend a “straight up dichotomy” (p3) in Matthew 6.24?  Or was he using rhetorical hyperbole to emphasize the nature of kingdom affections?  For example, in Luke 14.26, Jesus said his disciples must hate (Gk. miseo as in Mt 6.24) their fathers, mothers, wives, brothers, sisters and children.  Jesus did not establish a “straight up dichotomy” but depicted a rhetorical comparison.  Nothing and no one (not even the closest of kin) must come between our pursuit of Christ.  The same holds true for money.  I think Weddle eventually gets to this understanding, but the reader is not encouraged toward it until then.

3.  Weddle included Abraham in the catalogue of men who’d surrendered wealth and riches for God’s sake (Noah, Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, etal.).  However, Abraham did not “give up his home and his stuff to follow God” (p41).  Genesis 13.2 clearly says “Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold.”  In v6, we learn that between Abram and Lot “the land could not sustain them while dwelling together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to remain together.”  Although, on p51 Weddle did include Abram among those “who had wealth and still served God.”  Weddle should’ve instead included Abraham in with Joseph, David, Solomon and Job.

Review Summary

In The Gospel-Filled Wallet, Weddle doesn’t attempt an exhaustive exegesis of all things money and wealth.  He does provide witty, pastoral and provocative insights to get us thinking the right way.  You’ll find the book an easy read and one that will encourage more faithful stewardship.  In the end, I think he concludes with Paul that “those who use the world” are to do “as though they did not make full use of it” (1 Cor 7.31).

PhD in [Your Church] Studies

Recently, John Piper answered the question, “Should pastors get PhDs?”  His tempered and pastoral response provoked some contemplation here at BMF.

Virtually every pastor I know has considered whether or not he should pursue further studies.  Whether or not a pastor should pursue a PhD is up to that pastor, his God and his church.  He must determine if his efforts will ultimately result in more faithful ministry to the local church.  Often it does and the church is better for it.

As one who likes the idea of holding a PhD more than actually earning one, I’d like to encourage all pastors toward a PhD nonetheless.  A PhD in their local church studies, that is.

A PhD is designed to identify a person’s mastery of a certain discipline and verify their competence in teaching it to others.  They are experts in their field.  Should not pastors apply that same, if not more, expectation and discipline to their local church?  Before a pastor considers a PhD in anything, he should first devote himself to becoming the expert of his local church.  In my case, I should want to earn a PhD in Unity Baptist Church Studies.  We should want to master all that can be known about our church and the people in it.  We should ensure no one on the planet knows more about our congregation than we do.  No one should be more qualified to speak on our local church than those who shepherd her.  There are dozens, hundreds and thousands of PhDs in any given discipline, but only few (or one!) in your local church “studies.”  I’d say that is a very special PhD and unlike any university PhD in the world!

Earning this PhD means to master the material of the souls in your local church.  What are the requirements to that end?

  1. Read and study your people.  As university PhDs immerse themselves in the writings of all those influencing their discipline, so pastors immerse themselves in the lives of their congregation.  Know what they think, how they’re influenced, where they live, and who they admire.
  2. Interpret your people.  As university PhDs critically interact with all the angles of their discipline, so pastors must know all the angles of their congregation.  Know how to best encourage, confront, comfort and motivate them.  Paul explained this in terms of becoming all things to all people (2 Cor 9.22).  Pastors do not apply a one-size fits all strategy but tailor their tone and counsel to the particular soul.
  3. Be jealous for your people.  As university PhDs protect their dissertations like one of their children, so pastors must guard the knowledge of his people with great care.  Paul asked the Corinthians, “Who is weak without my being weak?  Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” (2 Cor 11.29).  In other words, pastors are jealous to know what’s happening in the lives of his sheep whether it be weakness, sin or joy.
  4. Teach your people.  As university PhDs are the resident experts in the academy, so pastors should strive to be the resident biblical scholars in their local congregation.  Teach the Bible.  Train your people to study the Bible.  Don’t settle for biblical and theological mediocrity.  Pastors are theologians training other theologians.

There are some distinctive features of this PhD program, however:

  1. It takes years to get started and decades to improve.
  2. It will never be completed because the objects of study are always changing.
  3. The graduation ceremony will coincide with your funeral.
  4. There will be no piece of paper awarded but you might a watch after fifty years.  There will be a crown, though (2 Tim 4.6-8).
  5. No university will recognize your work, but Jesus will.

Should a pastor pursue a PhD?  Absolutely.  He should become the world’s foremost expert in matters related to his local church and the souls therein.  He should make sure no one knows more about his church than he does.  If he does, he might find it far more satisfying and infinitely more rewarding.

Not only must the children of the redeemed family be born, but they must also be fed, watched, guided, and nourished up to manhood.  The growth of the heirs of immortality in grace and knowledge must be an object of deep solicitude with the faithful pastor.  His children in the faith are not glorified as soon as converted, but are carried through a probation, and often a long one, of conflict, trial, and temptation; and it is his business, by the instrumentality of the truth, deeply searched, carefully expounded, and appropriately applied, to conduct them through the perplexities and the dangers of the divine life” (John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry, 40).

Full Atonement, Can it Be . . . Limited?

Philip Bliss gave the church a treasure when he wrote the hymn “Man of Sorrows! What a Name” (1875).  There is no sweeter foretaste of heaven to hear your church belting out:

Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was he;
Full atonement! can it be?
Hallelujah! what a Savior!

Full atonement.  What is it about full atonement that Bliss (and we) would be led to wonder if it could be?  When did this atonement happen and when was it considered “full” (i.e. complete, irrevocable)?

The doctrine of limited atonement has caused no small stir in the history of Christian theology.  In fact, it has caused its share of theological tsunamis which have left some drowning in confusion and others awash in abject hatred.  There is no way I will stem the tide in a measly blog post (or in any format, for that matter!).  If 2,000 years of weighty volumes written by infinitely smarter Christians has not settled the matter then it’s the height of folly to assume I will.

Often, limited atonement (or particular redemption) is assumed to be a logical inference from Scripture rather than explicit biblical teaching.  In Calvinist lingo, you cannot logically spell TULIP without “L.”   I appreciate the healthy skepticism toward logical inferences in spite of clear biblical evidence. We’re not to logically conclude anything that Scripture does not intend we conclude.  Where Scripture upholds apparent paradoxes we shamelessly uphold them.  Where it leads us to solid, reasonable conclusions then we defend them.  Where it leads us to God’s mystery, then we rest in God’s wisdom with the other ignorant travelers.

Let’s first set the record straight, though.  Every Christian believes in a limited atonement.  If there is a real hell populated by real people in an age to come, then there are necessarily unatoned-for people in the world.  The atonement is not universal because not every single person will have their sins atoned for.  Many will pay the penalty of their own sin by suffering God’s eternal wrath.  Every Christian believes this, or should.  So, the question is not whether or not the atonement is limited.  It is.  The question is who limits it and when.  Does God limit the atonement at the cross?  Or does man limit the atonement by his unbelief?

Though we could survey a host of biblical passages, I will defend from Mark 10.45 that for the atonement to be “full” it must be limited by God at the cross.  What follows is a sliver’s sliver of what should be and has been said.

Jesus prepared his disciples for a lifetime of radical servanthood by appealing to his own example:

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Mk 10.45).

If the Son of Man claimed no rights of privilege then neither will his followers who serve God’s kingdom after him.

But what did Jesus say about the atonement?  He said it would be substitutionary and particular.

It would be substitutionary in that he would give his life as a ransom “for” or “instead of” or “in the place of” (Gk. anti) many.  So rather than “many” drinking God’s cup of or being baptized in God’s wrath, Jesus would do it for them.  Whatever hell would be for every one of God’s people, Jesus would endure it on their behalf.

But, the atonement would also be particular.  How so?

The very idea or theme of “ransom” implies a transaction of redemption, wherein two estranged parties satisfy terms of an agreement that protects someone from an otherwise just and rightful punishment (in this case, death).  See Exodus 21.29-30 where an exchange happens that liberates a person from his debt.  When the exchange happens, there is no longer any debt to the offended party.

This is why Jesus is going up to Jerusalem: to satisfy the terms of agreement between God and his people.  What is that agreement?

God created us for his glory (Is 43.7); namely, to rebound back to him eternal praise and honor for his greatness, grace and goodness.  But we’re born with hearts intent on our pleasure and glory (Eph 2.1-3).  And as soon as we’re able our hearts express themselves to that end through the members of our bodies (mind, heart, eyes, ears, arms, legs, etc.).

God is owed eternal praise from every person he’s created.  And every person who fails to give him eternal praise must pay the penalty that fits the crime: eternal death (Rom 6.23a).  I owe God an eternity’s worth of honor.  When I fail to do that then I owe him an eternity’s worthy of judgment.  Life for life.  Skin for skin.

However, God has set a ransom price.  That is, we can be bought out by the right person.  God will release from his wrath all those for whom a proper substitute is provided.  That proper substitute must live perfectly–giving God the honor he is due in a lifetime of obedience.  And he must then suffer the just punishment for all those he would redeem.  In other words, God will get paid.  If anyone is going to enjoy the new creation with God then they must present to God a perfect record of obedience.  Someone has to meet those demands or else no one escapes eternal death.

Having set the ransom price, God himself provided the ransom payment.  He is owed a perfect life and sufficient death and Jesus went up to Jerusalem to meet that demand for all of God’s people (the “many”).

So it wasn’t to Satan that Jesus paid the ransom because Satan didn’t hold the ransom note.  He doesn’t have the power to eternally condemn (see Mt 10.28).  God holds the ransom note and provides the payment himself!

Now, many would object saying Jesus died for the penalty for everyone that has ever lived.  He atoned for the sins of every single person.  But it’s up to every single person whether or not he/she takes advantage of that work.  God has done his part in crucifying and resurrecting Jesus and now he waits longingly to see who will choose to benefit from that gracious work.  In other words. if the atonement is limited it will be so by unbelieving men but not by God.

To illustrate, we could use the coupons included in your Sunday paper.  They’re sent to everyone whether or not everyone decides to use them.  Likewise, God has sent the “coupon” of redemption (the work of Christ on the cross) to every person, but that’s all he can do.  It’s up to each person to decide whether or not he/she will redeem that coupon and receive what is promised in return (i.e. atonement).

But this offends the notion of ransom or redemption as it’s presented in the New Testament.  Jesus said he would give his life as a ransom, not offer his life as the potential ransom.  He is saying that a transaction is going to take place at the cross, wherein God will accept Jesus as the price for those who would otherwise be damned.

God is a just and righteous God.  When the terms of atonement (redemption) are met he must–by his own name–liberate all those for whom the price was paid.  If the cross was the act of redemption (ransom) and it was according to Jesus, then God must–unless he offend his own character–release all those from their debt for whom Christ’s death was intended.  Jesus’ death was a ransom payment, not a ransom offer.  And if a payment for everyone then everyone must be released from their debt to God.

But the cross was not the sending out of coupons to everyone.  The cross was the actual redeeming of the coupon!  The cross was not offering a redemptive transaction to everyone; it was the the transaction wherein Jesus’ life actually (not potentially) bought particular lives from God’s just and eternal wrath (Jn 10.11, 15, 17f.).  How could Jesus cry out with his last breath, “It is finished!” (Gk. tetelestai) if he knew redemption wasn’t really finished, if there was still part of the transaction left to be completed by us?

Isaiah 43.1-7 anticipates the cross, where Jesus’ life was given in exchange for the lives of all those who would later believe.  At his death (not at the point of faith) Jesus said to the grave, “Give them up!”

John Murray wrote in his classic Redemption Accomplished and Applied:

The ransom utterances of our Lord show beyond question that he interpreted the purpose of his coming into the world in terms of substitutionary ransom and that this ransom was nothing less than the giving of his life.  Redemption, therefore, in our Lord’s view consisted in substitutionary blood-shedding . . . in the room and stead of many with the end in view of thereby purchasing to himself the many on whose behalf he gave his life as a ransom” (p47).

So when exactly was Jesus’ life exchanged for the lives of sinners?  When did full atonement happen?  Consider the following sample of texts (all emphases mine):

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood (Acts 20.28).

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life (Rom 5.10).

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace (Eph 1.7).

When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,  having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Col 2.13-14).

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil,  and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives (Heb 2.14-15).

For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance (Heb 9.15).

We don’t activate an otherwise latent redemption.  We don’t complete the transaction of redemption when we repent and believe.  We repent and believe because the transaction was completed at the cross for the sake of those who believe.  The “coupon” was exchanged there.  Regeneration, repentance, faith, justification, sanctification and glorification are the applications to us of Christ’s completed work on our behalf.  All those and only those for whom Christ died will repent and believe.

In John 10.15, Jesus promised to lay down his life for the sheep.  In v26, he chastises “the Jews” and explains the reason they don’t believe him is because they’re not his sheep.  So, if Jesus lays down his life for the sheep (v15) and only sheep believe (v25), then only those for whom Jesus lays down his life will believe.  Or, those who believe (sheep) do so because Jesus has laid down his life for them.  Stated negatively, if you’re not a sheep for whom Jesus laid down his life (as a ransom) then you will not believe.

Some may protest saying God would not be fair if particular redemption is true.  But God will not be praised for his ingenious plan to share or offer salvation to sinners.  He will be praised for the glory of his grace in actually saving sinners (Eph 1.7).  God did more than come up with a great plan.  He actually affected that plan by exchanging the life of his Son for the children he gave Jesus (Jn 6.37; Heb 2.13).  What exalts God more: that he does some saving of everyone or that he does all the saving of some?  The apostles thought the latter was more glorious.

Particular atonement is not to restrain grace from anyone, but to unleash grace on those who know they’ve been ransomed: “to make known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom 9.23).

Dear Christian, God did it all! He did it all for (not because of) you!  You are not a little bit redeemed or a little bit ransomed.  You were ransomed in full at the cross and that’s why you now believe.  You are free entirely (Gal 5.1).  You are no longer under God’s thumb of wrath, but under his wing of mercy.

My sin–oh, the bliss of this glorious tho’t;
My sin not in part, but the whole
Is nailed to the cross
And I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

Wingless Bones, not Boneless Wings

“For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mk 12.25).

The Sadducees made great 1st-century conservatives but even better 21st-century liberals.  They denied all things supernatural, especially any notion of bodily resurrection from the dead (cf. Mt 3.7; 16.1, 11-12; 22.23, 34; Lk 20.27; Acts 4.1-2; 5.17; 23.6-8).  Their creed was Sola Torah (Torah alone); whatever Torah did not clearly teach was not to be believed.  As their Torah did not command a resurrection they denied its reality.

They tried to stump the resurrection-believing Jesus with a stock apologetic argument against resurrection (Mk 12.18-23).  The Pharisees fell for it every time so why not Jesus?  “Riddle me this, Jesus.  Seven brothers marry the same woman according to the law of levirate marriage (Dt 25.5-6).  Who of the brothers has dibs on this woman in the so-called ‘resurrection’ you so firmly believe?”  They were sure they’d stumped the Truth.

But Jesus quickly dismissed their straw man argument on grounds of ignorance of both Scripture and God’s power (Mk 12.24).  They had no clue about the nature of the resurrection life.  It’s not the unending continuation of this life, but a whole new life in a whole new dimension.  Ain’t no marriage in heaven because there ain’t no death in heaven and therefore no need for procreation (Lk 20.3).  Resurrected folk become like angels in that they do not maintain familial or conjugal relationships (v25).  Again, Jesus did not say the brothers became angels at death, but became like angels in the way that they don’t marry and have families.

So let’s be clear: people who were “good” in this life do not become angels when they die.

This may not be news to you, but it will be to many who do not understand Scripture’s teaching on life after death. How many funerals—even those considered “Christian”—have this underlying assumption that our deceased loved one is now floating around in heaven with fluttering wings and a flowing white robe, looking down on us and following us around in the breeze wishing we wouldn’t cry.

I remember at Mom’s funeral (20 years ago this year) how many would console me with the thought that she was now an angel. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but now I realize that wasn’t good news. And it came from folks who should’ve known better. So, let’s make sure we know better before the next funeral!

This news may be a profound disappointment to you or someone you know.  After all, what could be better than becoming angel and flying around wherever you want, being willingly invisible and invincibly powerful for eternity?  Not becoming an angel doesn’t sound like good news.

While it may seem like harmless sentiment, it actually cheapens several important biblical doctrines. So I want to try to defend why it is not good news that people become angels when they die. Stated positively, I want to prove why it is actually good news for the Christian that we do not become angels when we die.  I suggest five theological areas where this “harmless” sentiment actually harms how we understand humanity, Christ, salvation, sanctification and judgment.

Anthropology: God created humans to be physical, corporeal beings.

To discount the body as less important than the spirit is a product of Greek—namely, gnostic—heresy. It was common in 1st century Greek life to assume the body to be evil and the spirit to be good. And as such, one could do whatever he wanted with the body because it’s evil and will be destroyed. What one does with his body has no affect on his spirit.

To assume we become angels at death is to consider the body to be worthless, temporary and unnecessary to being eternally complete as a human being. This is why Paul spent so much time defending the glory and importance of what we do with our bodies:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom 6.12-13).

For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6.20).

What we do with and how we treat our bodies matters because our bodies matter to God. God created us as unified, holistic beings with a spirit that impacts the body and vice versa (for examples, see Ps 32.3-4; Is 40.31). By nature, when we suffer spiritual strain we lose appetites. By nature, when we’re sick we feel spiritually drained. This is why the gospel is so radical: it gives strength where there is no strength to be had!

For example, why do post-abortive moms suffer spiritual affects? They’ve been sold the line that it’s their body to do with what they want (there is no connection between body and soul), but they suddenly realize that to monkey with the body has far-reaching spiritual implications.  They realize God has created our bodies to respond to and affect spiritual realities.  This is why our spiritual appetites lead to physical actions (cf. Jas 1.14-15; 4.2).

God did not create us as physical bodies with a spirit, or spirits with a body, but as spiritual bodies to reflect his glory both inside and out. To separate the soul from the body is to be sub-human.

Christology: Jesus’ bodily resurrection anticipates what will happen with all believers in Christ.

God promises to conform all believers to the image of his Son (Rom 8.29). God will “transform the body of our humble state inot conformity with the body of [Christ’s] glory” (Phil 3.21). When we see Jesus we will be like Jesus (1 Jn 3.2).  Therefore, whatever Jesus is in his glorified state is what we will be in ours. And Jesus was raised bodily to become the first fruits of God’s intention for true humanity.

Stated negatively: Jesus did not become an angel when he died. God promises we will be like Jesus. Therefore, we will not become angels when we die.

Stated positively: Jesus was raised bodily. God promises we will be like Jesus. Therefore, we will be raised bodily.

But if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8.11).

To assume we become angels at death is to say we would rather be an angel to be like Jesus for all eternity. That’s an insult to Jesus.

Soteriology: God’s salvation is complete when our physical bodies are redeemed/glorified in a bodily resurrection.

Given God’s valuing the body, his salvation must necessarily include—and his grace experienced by—the redemption of our fallen bodies.  What happened with the Fall in Eden was the destruction of the body and soul. We die in every sense of the word. We die physically and we die spiritually. In Christ, God reverses that curse so that both body and soul are redeemed restored to unrestrained, eternal glory.

. . . we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom 8.23).

For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked” (2 Cor 5.1-3).

Christ’s work is not complete when we die and go to heaven. His work is complete when “all who are in the tombs will hear his voice, and will come forth; those who did the good to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil to a resurrection of judgment” (Jn 5.28-29).

So we don’t breathe a sigh of relief at the funeral of a dead Christian because God has finally taken them to a better place. While we’re thankful that is true, we also groan because there is still something wrong with seeing a soulless corpse decaying in a box. God’s plan of redemption is not yet complete until the redeemed soul is reunited with the redeemed and resurrected body.

The gospel does not end at “going to heaven when you die.” It ends at the resurrection, where recreated body and souls enjoy and worship Christ’s unrestrained glory in the recreated cosmos. It ends when all our senses are redeemed from the curse of sin so that we know God with every faculty of our being.

Sanctifcation: Being human for eternity is necessary for understanding, appreciating and enjoying God’s grace for eternity.

As a sub-category of soteriology, we should say something about the affect this has on our sanctification: our becoming like Jesus by growing in the understanding and enjoyment of the gospel.   God designed the plan of redemption so that he will be worshiped for his being the God of sovereign and unending grace, displayed in Jesus Christ.

He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to himself, according to the kind intention of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, which he freely bestowed on us in the beloved” (Eph 1.5-6).

So the content of our worship for eternity will be to glory in God’s grace. It will be praising him that though we deserved the fullness of God’s wrath in hell, we now enjoy the fullness of God’s blessing in heaven. As the smoke of hell rises up forever and ever (Rev 19.3) we will proclaim, “Hallelujah! We’re not there, but we should be! We’re not where we deserve to be, but where God chose us to be!”

The glory of the gospel is that in Christ alone God saves forever those who otherwise deserve to be damned for their sin. They experience God’s grace for no other reason than God chose to love them for his own sake.

These are things, Peter wrote, “into which angels long to look” (1 Pt 1.12). In other words, angels love to watch God’s plan of redemption working out in the lives of his people. But, they watch it as outsiders looking in. They will never experience what it’s like to be cast under the wrath of God only to be redeemed from that wrath by the work of Jesus. In a word, they will never know what it’s like to experience the fullness of God’s grace.

Neither unfallen or fallen angels (cf. 2 Pt 2.4) will experience the fullness of God’s grace. Only redeemed and resurrected humans will.

So it is better to be created by God, left to fall into sin and under his eternal and just wrath, to be dogged by sin and pain of repentance, and then to be rescued from that wrath by grace through faith in Jesus Christ than to be created as or become an angel.  Becoming an angel at death would actually shortchange the worship God is due and our eternal joy of being the object of God’s sovereign grace.

Wings would actually interfere with our enjoyment and vision of God!

Judgment: God’s ultimate judgment of sin will be the physical, bodily torment of all unbelievers.

Just as the eternal enjoyment of God’s grace in the new creation will be a bodily, physical experience, so will the experience of God’s wrath in hell.  To make light of the body with respect to eternal life is to make light of God’s grace in the gospel. To make light of the body with respect to eternal death is to make light of God’s judgment.

Hell is not en vogue these days (if it ever was!). But all of Scripture, and especially Jesus is quite clear that hell will be the eternal, conscious, physical (bodily) torment of all those who resist Christ in this life.

“If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell” (Mt 5.29-30).

Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10.28). Satan doesn’t destroy the soul and body in hell. God does!

In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame” (Lk 16.23-24).

We’re all familiar with John’s image of the “lake of fire” that will receive all unbelievers and Satan himself (Rev 20.14f.; 21.8).

Every description of hell depicts a physically painful experience of God’s eternal wrath. And regularly the image of hell is a place where people suffer skin-scorching fire and lung-filling toxic fumes. Now, that may all sound fanciful and a bit cartoonish to you. But, even if the language is symbolic then how much more will the reality be!

I’m told that 3rd and 4th degree burns create the most horrific pain we could ever experience. So if you wanted to describe the fullness of God’s wrath it would be appropriate to depict the unending pain of 4th degree burns. Death would be a favor, but there will be no favors in hell.

Hell is not the absence of God, where all unbelievers are left to their own devices. God will be just as present in hell as he is in heaven. Only, he will be present in the fullness of his wrath rather than the fullness of his blessing.  And all those there will have every one of the their senses fully sensitive to that wrath. Just God must raise our bodies to be equipped for heaven (unending life without pain) so must he raise and prepare the body for hell—unending pain without death.

To assume good people become angels at death you must consistently assume bad people become demons. Just as becoming an angel would shortchange joy, becoming a demon would be getting off easy!

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Would Jesus Join the Tea Party?

And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12.17)

Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1862 about the conflict over slavery between the Union and Confederacy “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time.”

In his second inaugural address in 1865, he’d not changed his mind: Both [North and South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

And when asked by a preacher if he was sure God was on the Union’s side, Lincoln replied famously and summarily the question was not whether or not God was on their side but if they were on his.

So whose side is Jesus on anyway? Mine or yours? Ours or theirs?  Would Jesus join the Tea Party? What does he think about income taxes and government loyalty? Is he an anarchist (all government is bad and should be resisted)? Is he a theocrat (society should be ruled by religious law and devotion mediated by the authority of the church)? Where does Jesus stand politically: with conservatives, liberals, progressives, independents, libertarians? Would he plug his car in or gas it up or ride a bike?

The Pharisees tried to pin Jesus down on a similar issue: should Jews pay taxes to Caesar or not (Mk 12.14)?  Did Jesus join the Jews in their hatred of paying tribute to a Gentile who think s himself God?  Or did he sell out and cower in the shadow of Tiberius Caesar, Son of Divine Augustus?

While Jesus did not say everything that would be said about the relationship between his followers and the State, he did provide enough for the apostles to unpack.

1) Civil government—even an evil one—is a legitimate institution to be supported by taxes and respect.  Christians should be the most faithful and honest taxpayers on the planet.

What if our taxpayer dollars go to fund ungodly initiatives (abortion, for example)? Caesar was no altar boy himself. He spent taxpayer dollars building pagan shrines and temples to himself and his false gods. Yet, Jesus said to give Caesar his due not because we agree with his policies but because he will be held accountable to the authority granted him by God (see Rom 13.1-7).

After all, Paul wrote Romans during the reign of Nero after having survived the reigns of Caligula and Claudius. I think he’d be surprised at how easily we complain about our democracy!

2) Christians are to live as exemplary citizens so that if they are despised it is only because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The world must have no charge against Christians except where their allegiance to the gospel trumps their allegiance to the State.

Christians are not to be seen as revolutionaries or mutineers. They’re not tax cheats or snarky loophole lovers. The freedom provided by Jesus in the gospel is not be used for rebellion, but for humble submission (see 1 Pt 2.13-17; Heb 10.32-39).

How we joyfully submit to the state often reflects how much faith we have in God to make good on his promise in the gospel. Do we really believe this world is not worth what we often spend to hold on to it?  Don’t throw away your confidence in God to hold onto stuff. Believe it or not, submitting to our civil government insofar as we can without compromising the gospel is an act of worship to God.

3) Jesus prioritizes the two kingdoms. Jesus did not define two mutually exclusive kingdoms: Caesar’s and God’s. He wasn’t saying Caesar has his kingdom and God has his kingdom and we live in one or the other. We often separate them into the secular and sacred. Jesus wasn’t proposing radical separatism or radical revolution. He prioritized the kingdoms. He didn’t offer an either/or scenario but a both/and scenario, with one kingdom subject to the other.

He was prioritizing the kingdoms as one being temporal and earthly (Caesar’s) which is subject to one that is eternal and sovereign (God’s). Paying taxes to and honoring Caesar is part of living in this kingdom; this age of fallen humanity where we need police and firemen and roads. What Caesar does with those taxes and honor will be held accountable by God, but we entrust that to God while we gladly file our 1040s and honor the king.

The church should never be despaired by any administration. Listening to Christian talking heads, you’d think electing President Obama was the end of the world. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s. But don’t give to Caesar what is God’s. And ascribing any king, president, monarch, dictator, sheik or imam the power to govern the affairs of redemptive-history is to give to Caesar what alone belongs to God.  God alone determines the affairs of the world.

If it’s the end of the world, it won’t be because of President Obama or a nuclear Iran but because of our Great and Sovereign God who is bringing all things in subjection to the Lord Jesus Christ. We should be less concerned about who is in office and far more concerned about who is in Christ, because it’s before his court we’ll appear in the end.

Of course, we must engage in civil affairs in this life but only as long as we remember the priority of God’s kingdom to come.

4) It’s of more eternal importance that we give to God what is God’s than we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Jesus said to these Pharisees and Herodians, “You hypocritically assume that it’s more important what a person gives to Caesar than what a person gives to God. You’re the religious leaders of Israel and you are not giving God what he is due. Who cares about Caesar’s tax rates when you have no fear of God? Why are you more concerned about what happens at Caesar’s palace than what happens in the temple of God?”

We must prioritize the kingdoms such that God’s kingdom—evident in the church now but ultimately realized in a new heavens/earth—takes precedence over all other allegiances.

Folks often ask preachers what they’re going to do if/when it become illegal to preach on certain topics. While God will supply sufficient grace should the time come, I’m not scared of what the government might do if we preach the gospel. I fear what God might do if we don’t!  We don’t fear wrongly (in the eyes of men) preaching the gospel. We fear preaching the wrong gospel (cf. Acts 4.16-30).  We need not fear what laws may be enacted against Christian witness. We’d better fear God more than the state.

So, we pay our taxes on time. We do the speed limit. We buckle our seatbelts!  We gladly obey the law insofar as it doesn’t collide with God’s law.

And even more, we joyfully preach Christ. And we give the state only one option for despising/arresting us: hatred of Jesus and his gospel. And on the way to prison or the gallows we pay up our taxes, we speak respectfully of those arresting us (see Acts 24.2-4; 26.2-3), and then thank God that all government rests on the shoulders of Jesus (Is 9.6).

For the Christian, the health of the church, purity of her witness, the zeal of her worship is more important than the health of city hall, Nashville (in our case) or Washington. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is the only God-ordained institution by which he broadcasts his interests to the world. And she will be the only “nation” standing in the end. So the amount of energy we spend on political discourse should be exponentially outdone by the amount of energy spent on gospel discourse.  The amount of energy we spend compelling others to this or that candidate should be exponentially outdone by the energy spent compelling them to Jesus.  Our allegiance to Caesar must be exponentially outdone by our allegiance to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. We’re merely aliens and strangers here. We’re citizens of God’s kingdom.

Despite what I may nor may not want to give to Caesar, am I giving to God what is God’s? We were stamped with the imago Dei—long before anything was stamped with any other image. Therefore, I owe God my life and paying Caesar is a small price to pay in light of that.

Brother and sister, what do you fear more: national socialism or local church apostasy?  In what do you put more hope: the spread of democracy or the spread of the gospel?  What makes you rejoice more: the election of a certain candidate or one sinner who repents?  Which kingdom takes priority in your time, money, efforts and conversation?

How would Jesus answer those questions? Would he be on your side, or would you be on his?

There will be hundreds of professing Christians gathered locally and thousands nationally for the National Day of Prayer in about a week. And they will be Christians who never gather with their local churches to pray. They will gather to pray for people they’ve never met and situations they’ve never touched. But yet don’t gather with their churches to pray for people who sit right around them every week in situations that affect them greatly.

But God hasn’t ordained your town to be a house of prayer for the nations. He’s ordained the church as the house of prayer for the nations!  God will change America, not when towns take a National Day of Prayer seriously, but when the local church takes her weekly day of prayer seriously. I’m not saying boycott the National Day of Prayer (I plan to be at our local one). I’m staying participate with far less expectation, investment and energy then than the local church gathers in prayer.

Would Jesus join the Tea Party? In one sense, who really cares? The question is are we part of his party? He’s more concerned about saving and sanctifying the people for whom he died. He’s more concerned about people hearing and believing that this world is under judgment and only those who repent and believe in Jesus will survive its destruction. He’s more concerned about holiness than taxes.

So pay your taxes. Rally your candidates. But you’d better make sure you’re keeping God’s kingdom in Christ your primary allegiance. Get out the vote if you want, but make sure you’re getting out the gospel more. You’d better be sure to love Jesus and the church more than democracy and the State. You’d better make sure that when these two kingdoms collide (and they always do) that you’re standing with Christ and his people.

And if someone asks you what you think about what’s going on in America you tell them it’s not nearly as important as what’s going on with them and God. Are they giving God what is God’s?

Strive to Be Ordinary

Today I had the privilege of sitting in the shadow of ten giants of the church.  Ray Van Neste and nine pastoral ministry students at Union University graciously and patiently endured my rambling thoughts on pastoral ministry.  For those (or the one) so interested here is the manuscript.  Sweet dreams.

God’s Restraining Grace

“Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’ So Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.  But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, ‘Behold you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married.’  Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, ‘Lord, will you slay a nation, even though blameless?  Did he not himself say to me, “She is my sister”?  And she herself said, “He is my brother.”  In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.’  Then God said to him in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her'” (Gen 20.2-6).

Though credited with righteousness for his great faith, Abraham did not always live up to the hype.  He was frankly a sneaky man with a trophy wife (Gen 12.11).  Having received the promise of a great heritage despite Sarah’s infertility (Gen 12.1-3), Abraham meandered down to Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan.  He knew that Pharaoh would take a shine to (then) Sarai because men always did.  And what Pharaoh wanted Pharaoh got.  So, Abraham was resigned that he would lose his wife to Pharaoh.  However, if he could convince Pharaoh she was his sister then he could at least save his own head (Gen 12.12).  He sold out his wife to Pharaoh’s harem “so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live on account of you” (Gen 12.13).  Mighty Abraham and his great faith didn’t believe God would keep him alive.  He thought he would live on account of “Sister” Sarai rather than Yahweh.

God proved himself able to manage Abraham’s well-being all the same.  He plagued Pharaoh’s house until he returned Sarai to her rightful place (Gen 12.17-20).  God has a habit of punishing those who try to own what is given only to his people (cf. Exod 7-12; 1 Sam 4-5).  Oh, to be a fly on Abraham’s donkey on that long journey back to Bethel (Gen 13)!  “So, honey, how was your stay at Pharaoh’s place?  Were the other gals in the harem nice?  You know I did what I did for us.”

Abraham hauls his estate into Gerar, where he was sure King Abimelech would take a shine to (now) Sarah (Gen 20).  By this time, Abraham had received further revelation that he would have a son by Sarah (Gen 17-18).  Therefore, he could not die until he and Sarah had a son together.  Nevertheless, Abraham invoked Operation She’s-My-Sister again (something that v13 indicates was a regular scheme).  Abimelech fell for it and Abraham slept alone; alive, but alone.

God did not visit Abimelech via plagues this time but a fearful dream.  Return Sarah or else you’re a dead man.  (Oh, how we need men in churches who will declare the same to one another who flirt with disastrous sin!)  Abimelech pled ignorance.  He did, of course, take her on good faith she was Abraham’s sister and there was not DNA test available.  God conceded the point but didn’t let Abimelech assume he was taking the high road.  The only reason Abimelech didn’t touch Sarah was because God restrained him.

Even when Abraham’s scheme was uncovered he still tried to weasel his way out of a loophole.  Instead of owning up to and repenting from his selfish deception, he admitted that Sarah was actually his half-sister and was therefore not technically lying (Gen 20.12-13).  Uh-huh.  And Abraham even had the gall to justify his deception by assuming there was no fear of God in Gerar (v11) and therefore no decorum or respect for a wife’s husband.  Doesn’t sound like there was much fear of God in Abraham!  Abimelech was the one who feared God enough to make it right.

Yet, God struck all Abimelech’s women barren for his “innocent” treachery until Abraham prayed for God’s mercy (vv17-18).  Seems like just the opposite would’ve been more just.  Yet, God will have his man often despite that man!  He is carrying out a sovereign plan that goes through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, no matter what.  Thankfully, come Genesis 22 Abraham would not try to weasel out of any more impossible situations but would trust God to make good on his promise.

But enough about rascally Abraham.

What would we do were it not for God restraining our sin?  Were God to visit us in our dreams, every night he could say, “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her.”  How can we deny that God often “overrules” our free will to restrain us from doing what we freely want to do?  Abimelech took Sarah because he wanted to have sex with her, but he didn’t.  Was it because Abimelech was an upstanding citizen who wanted only to protect Sarah?  No!  God orchestrated whatever means in order to keep her from touching her.  In so doing, he protected the one-flesh union with Abraham (though Abraham hadn’t!) and the promise of her first son being the promised son.

We should readily confess our sin and thank God for his forgiveness freely given in Christ to all those who believe.  But, oh, how must we thank him for keeping us from sinning against him!  Let us not assume that we avoided sin because we’re that strong or spiritually-minded.  We sin because we want to and we would sin far more were it not for God’s restraining grace.  So listen to your dreams tonight to see if God says:

  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I disconnected your modem before you could click on that blinking site.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I ordained that last-minute phone call so that you did not hear what was said about you in the breakroom.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I had you shop in the same aisle as your enemy so that you would be forced to consider love and make peace.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I delayed your tax refund so that you would not blow it on a silly gadget that was only on sale this week.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I afflicted your daughter with an illness so that you would not assume you could live prayerlessly.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I zapped your satellite so you wouldn’t be tempted to stay home from another Sunday gathering.”

We glory in what Abraham teaches us about justifying faith.  Let us not forget Abimelech, who is a case study in God’s restraining grace.  Sweet dreams.

Local Church School of Theology

The New Testament describes a Spiritually communal approach to developing and incarnating a sound biblical theology.  The Bereans didn’t care how famous the dynamic duo Paul and Silas were (Acts 17.10-11).  They were as eager in their scrutiny of the apostolic witness as they were in receiving it.  The Corinthians themselves would be responsible for validating prophecy shared in their assembly (1 Cor 14.26-33).  They wouldn’t write down all the prophecies and overnight them to Paul before passing judgment.  They had to do the hard work themselves.

We consistently find that the local church is responsible for its own theological maturity and expression.  It would not be apostolic succession but apostolic confession that would sustain the church long after the apostles died.  It’s the local church’s responsibility to maintain that confession (Heb 3.12-14; 10.23-25).

In what way does the local church provide the best context for developing a sound biblical theology?  (By “local church” I mean the gospel-forged relationships with those with whom I live out and before whom I am accountable to the Christian faith.)  I’ll approach an answer by way of an illustrative detour.  Bob attends Main Street Baptist Church in Smalltown, USA.  He sits weekly with his family and other church members under the authoritative preaching of God’s word.  He appreciates his preacher and enjoys the church’s fellowship.  But his real consideration of Scripture comes from John MacArthur’s study notes and listening to John Piper’s sermon from last Sunday.  Then he can tweet and chat with other anonymous folks about it.  He enters a pseudo-community where you know everybody and nobody at the same time.  He really isn’t concerned with how his MSBC brothers and sisters benefited from their preacher’s exposition.  He sees little need in consulting his pastor when he can easily Ask Pastor John.  He really has no idea if his brothers and sisters are holding fast the confession of faith.

In no way minimizing the gift these pastoral and theological giants are to the church, the primary field in which our soul’s graze is our local church.  It is to our local brothers and sisters we owe primary attention.  It is with them we must work out God’s word and share common convictions and confession.  What Piper, MacArthur, Driscoll, Sproul or you-name-him thinks about an issue is important, but not nearly as important as what our local church thinks about it.  Unless we’re members of Bethlehem Baptist Church John Piper is not commanded to keep my brothers and sisters from evil, unbelieving hearts that fall away from the living God, nor we him (Heb 3.12).  We as members of our local church are commanded to do so for our brothers and sisters with whom we’re covenantally committed.

Rather than immediately wonder what Piper might think, we would benefit far more by asking what our brothers and sisters might think.  If I’m commanded to help my brother hold fast his confession then I’d better know what he confesses! How will Bill work out this week’s text in his marriage?  In what way did Bonnie see Christ in the text this week?  How do we as a church work through Jesus’ teaching on divorce or Paul’s teaching on communion?  Do we insist on independence and autonomous self-study (hyper-priesthood of the believer) or do we want to work out and share convictions within the biblical community?

It matters what “those” guys think in the big picture scheme of things, but not nearly as much what “these” guys in my life think.  These guys with whom I share the same cup and loaf.  These guys who know my children and cry when we’re hurting.  These guys who see me sin and fumble the faith.  These guys who know the right ways to encourage and confront me.  These guys are the theologians from and about whom I should most want to learn.

In what way does the local church provide the best context for incarnating a sound biblical theology?  Back to Bob.  Bob listens to Piper’s sermon and assumes the proper application of the text is to do what Piper and Bethlehem do.  Start a worldwide adoption fund.  Plant six new churches among unreached people groups.  Multiply campuses.  Bob gets quickly frustrated because his church does none of those things.  His church only cares about a little clothes closet and sewing blankets for foster kids. He then becomes critical that his church is not faithful and that maybe he should lead his family elsewhere, where the people are “serious.”

The best application of Scripture is however your local church attempts to obey Jesus.  John Piper does not live in our community.  John MacArthur has no idea about our local gospel soil.  What they do in their contexts is what they should do. The church is far better and healthier for their efforts.  However, what we do by faith in our contexts is what we should do.  Discerning what that is demands a deep commitment to working out our salvation within our community of faith.

Do I care more how John Piper handles his cancer or how Mrs. Smith, who sits three rows behind me, is handling hers? Did I even know she has cancer? Do I spend more time parsing MacArthur’s view on suicide than I do encouraging Penny who sits across from me and nurses suicidal thoughts?  Am I caught up in the Manhattan Declaration fuss or caught up in my brother who considers divorce or sister who suffers post-abortion guilt? Do I care more about what Mark Driscoll thinks about sex than I do what my pornography-addicted brother thinks about it?  Am I jealous of the celebrity ministries or jealous for my church to be faithful in worship, love and service?  The best context in which I can incarnate a biblical theology is to invest in the brothers and sisters in my local church.  It is among them I learn how to confront sin, encourage biblically and counsel wisely.

How will we live out the Christian faith together in our local community?  Maybe applying last week’s sermon in your local church is not launching a global missions initiative.  Maybe it’s writing an encouraging note to a sister who wonders if anyone cares about her.  Maybe it’s buying a year’s supply of thread for those blankets.  Maybe it’s visiting a brother at the job he hates and just wants some light to shine during the week.  Maybe it’s paying attention to the folks no one else pays attention to.  Maybe it’s praying for and encouraging the church down the road everyone in town gossips about.  Whatever it is, work it out in your local church and embody the biblical theology you confess together.

I don’t suggest ignoring the large-scale, public affects of uniquely-gifted pastors and churches.  I am suggesting that we not substitute them for Jesus’ prescribed means of loving and obeying him: the local church.  But then again, a small town, small church pastor would say that, wouldn’t he?