Thursday, 26 February 2009

Pentecostal Subversive Slavery

Pentecostal worship has entered our church buildings in the name of freedom; freedom to express ones' self, freedom to dance, raise hands, close eyes, sing songs over and over, speak in tongues etc. In my opinion, it has done the opposite to liberating those in the pew. I really don't like it personally, and I am sure that it reflects an unbiblical pietism.

Fundamental to Pentecostal/charismatic worship is the idea that we attend church to 'experience God', and this (it seems to me) primarily through the singing of modern worship songs. As one sings, he/she is drawn into the presence of God. There are some who can really sense 'it'. People react to this presence in different ways depending on the church context. If the church is at the more conservative end of the wackometer, you might see some hands raised, eyes closed, dancing, face beaming, etc. Across at the other end of the spectrum, anything goes, from shaking like a malfunctioning washing machine to 'manifesting' some strange prophetic sign.

I'm not too interested in the wackier end of the spectrum. Their craziness is self-authenticating. It's the supposed Reformed/conservatives I've got a beef with. First, the idea of experiencing the presence of God as the reason to attend church is nonsense. It's unbiblical and mental (British for mad). We attend church to hear God's word. 'Church' merely means gathering, and has its roots in the Israelites 'gathering' round Sinai to hear God's word. We, like the OT saints, gather round a mountain to hear God speak. Except this mountain isn't one of smoking fury and terror. We gather round Zion, not Sinai (Hebrews 12:22-24). We gather round this joyful and happy mountain, and really do meet with Christ, angels and the departed saints. Our church then is an overlap of the ages. We meet the new eschatological age while still in the body of our flesh. The only 'experience' we seek, is the Holy Spirit, bridging the two eschatological ages for us and feeding us with the risen Christ by word/sacrament.

If that's the case, then what is happening when people sway with their eyes closed, tremble, cry, etc? Nothing. Nothing spiritual anyway. Maybe they downed half a bottle of vodka, or perhaps more likely, they've learned to react this way. And this type of behaviour is poisonous. It feeds the whole 'me and God in a personal relationship and stuff you if you don't like my behaviour' ethic. It feeds the pietist, experience focused Christianity that neglects the need for word/sacrament ministry. It induces feelings of insecurity in good saints, who while looking at the 'spiritual experiences' of others in worship, believe that there is something deficient in their own experience because they are not 'feeling it' or 'getting it'.

The upshot of this is that it creates a two-class Christianity; those who can 'feel' God's presence (while we repeatedly sing crap hymns) and those who don't. Those who are 'free' to behave like individualistic, selfish buffoons and those who are emotionally retarded and need to be freed. If I see another Christian service on TV with wacky dancing, I'm going to punch MYSELF in the face. (BTW next time you see someone dance in church, ask them why they don't strip to their underpants too).

Listen, as Chuck D so famously said, "Don't believe the hype!" Just because you don't feel comfortable with Pentecostal worship, this doesn't mean you're a Spirit quenching, conservative meanie. Perhaps it is because you are jealous to worship in spirit and truth that you do things decently and in order? Perhaps it is because you are jealous for AUTHENTIC experience, that you don't want to pimp your bodily members out to every form of charismatic craziness? Perhaps it is because you, in your gut but not in your conscious, know that the Regulative Principle for Worship is a pretty good idea?

Prophetic Craziness

Jack Deere..believes that it is wrong to hold modern-day seers to the test of 100 percent accuracy. Deere recounts the story of a prophet who, in front of eight hundred peers of a nineteen-year-old, falsely accused the young man of having a problem with pornography. The seer in Deere's story called out the young man and said, "You're into pornography. And the Lord says you have to repent!" Deere says the young man began to weep because the truth was that he was not into pornography. As Deere elaborates, "He was publicly humiliated before eight hundred school kids. We had to go back to his church, apologize to his whole church, apologize to the whole conference. It was a horrible mess."

Despite the mess, Deere concludes, "But you know what? God is in the process of offending our minds in order to reveal our hearts. And I don't know any place where He's going to give us a pure ministry. I don't know any place where it's going to be 100 percent right. There's going to be stumbling blocks in every ministry THAT THE HOLY SPIRIT IS RESPONSIBLE FOR (emphasis Hanegraaff)". (The Counterfeit Revival, pp75, 76, Hank Hanegraaff)

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

We Need Justification By Faith Alone

I love the gospel; the pure, unmixed gospel as confessed by Reformed Christians all over the world. It is amazingly good news to be told that we are justified by receiving and resting (WCF 11,2) on Christ and his righteousness alone through faith. To know that his death exhausted the wrath of God against all my sins (past, present and future) and that his perfect righteousness is mine because I am hidden in him gives unspeakable comfort. It makes the weakest, stumbling Christian as bold as a lion when he discovers it.

Yet "Protestants" today seem desperate to jettison the doctrine. The New Perspective on Paul (NPP), particularly N.T Wright's (NTW) brand is a contemporary example of a dilution of this great truth. Wright describes justification as occurring now AND at the judgement. We are justified by faith now, and justified by "the whole life lived" on judgement day. As well as being completely incoherent, this view is completely hope shattering. NTW's view is incoherent because it smacks of a kind of "bait and switch". You are justified right now, in this life, through faith, but after you die, God judges you by your works!? "Come in by faith alone", says the NPP preacher, "now you're justified in this life, you'd better work at getting justified in the next." Eh?

As well as incoherent, I mentioned that this view is hope shattering. Where is the good news in being told that God will give you power to live a clean life so that you can be justified by works on judgement day (even though you're justified by faith in the present!)? As exegetically 'tight' as some of the arguments are, they don't stand up to closer scrutiny. Yet my focus here is not primarily exegetical but practical. It leaves the unconverted legalist convinced that Christianity is baptised moralism and it is a counsel of despair for ordinary believers. In short, it doesn't bear up in real life.

If we are justified by our works, where is your hope when you drop an F-bomb while driving? Where is your hope when you post something silly on your stupid blog? Where is your hope when you say something FILTHY in front of your unbelieving friends? Where is your hope after failing with porn....again? Where is your hope when you find that old bitterness and resentment still eating at you? Still want to be told you'll be justified by your works? By the WHOLE life lived?

If you're like me, and you regularly leave work kicking yourself because of some foolish indiscretion in front of the watching godless world, isn't it good to know that Abraham was justified while still a sinner? Isn't it good to know that it isn't good people God justifies but ungodly ones (Rom. 4:5)? Isn't it good that the dying thief didn't have to rely on his whole life lived on the day of judgement?

If you want hope, let go and let God. There, I said it, a heretical old evangelical catch phrase. But I'm taking it and re-shaping it in a Reformed context. LET GO of trusting in the whole life lived and LET GOD's work for you in the Gospel through the dead, buried and raised Christ be your ground of confidence. Rest in it. Receive it. Ahhh.

We need the gospel. We need to guard the gospel from hope gutters. I really believe that gospel truth is counter-intuitive. There is a natural perversity in all our hearts that wants to drag us away from the good news. If there can be an exegetical basis for it, to consolidate us in our gospel denying perversity, then we're really up the creek. But don't let sola fide go. It isn't too good to be true. It's good AND true. Get to know this gospel of resting and receiving. Read the confessions and study the works of Presbyterians who articulate it so well. The danger of non-confessional churches is that they are filled with adherents who are hazy about the gospel. This is a travesty. Let's keep beating it into our stupid sin-sick heads and hearts.

Calvin's twist in the redemptive tale

Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, and the other patriarchs cleaved to God by such illumination of the Word. Therefore I say without any doubt they entered into God's immortal Kingdom. For theirs was a real participation in God, which cannot be without the blessing of eternal life.

(1559) II.X.7

Sure makes for interesting theological exegesis of Roms 5 and 1 Cor 15.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Rubbish Hymns

Some hymns are rubbish. After reading R. Scott Clark on Recovering the Reformed Confession, I'm wondering if we should be singing uninspired hymns at all. A great argument for the RPW is the amount of dross that we sing.

Here is but a sampling of hymns old and new with rubbish lyrics:

Oh, I feel like dancing, it's foolishness I know. But when the world has seen the light, they will dance with joy like we're dancing now. [I thought the world saw the light but hated it because they loved darkness? (John 3:19)]

Jesus, lover of my soul, all consuming fire is in your gaze (so far, so passable). Jesus, I want you to know, I will follow you all my days. [Peter said something similar before bottling it before a little girl beside a fire]

I will dance, I will sing, to be mad for my King. Nothing Lord is hindering, the passion in my soul [maybe some Valium would stop you dancing like an idiot? If this alludes to David dancing before the Lord, why doesn't the song advocate stripping to the underpants too?]

You're my all, you're the best [there is something awfully cheesy about saying "You're the best Jesus!"]

You ask me how I know he lives?, he lives within my heart. [nothing here about the self-authenticating Word of God through the preached Gospel of the crucified and risen Christ. Pure pietist poo.]

Jehova Tsidkenu meant nothing to me [I suspect "Jehova Tsikdenu" still means nothing to those who sing it]

These are the days of Elijah, declaring the word of the Lord [where do I start with this?]

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, your love makes me sing [the only time Hallelujah is sung in the NT it's in Revelation 19:1-8 where the saints are celebrating God's judgement on the wicked. "Hallelujah, Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgements are true and just: for he has judged the great prostitute" (v1, 2). Maybe some of our boyband worship leaders should pen a song with the lyrics "The smoke goes up from her forever"?]

I like the Bible, I read it and I do it ["like" the Bible? And do what exactly?]

Any more examples of truly pants lyrics in our songs, ancient and modern will be delightfully received in a spirit of loving cynicism.

Owen's Touchstone

In these evil days wherein we live, I hear many daily complaining that there is such difference and contrariety among preachers, they know not what to do nor scarce what to believe. My answer is, Do but your own duty, and this trouble is at an end. Is there any contrariety in the book of God? Pin not your faith upon men’s opinions; the Bible is the touchstone. That there is such diversity amongst teachers is their fault, who should think all the same thing; but that this is so troublesome to you is your own fault, for neglecting your duty of trying all things by the word. Alas!, you are in a miserable condition, if you have all this while relied on the authority of men in heavenly things.

The Duty of Pastors and People Distinguished (1644) John Owen

Monday, 23 February 2009

Which Catechism?

The missus and I are contemplating memorising a catechism together. I'm thinking of the WSC. Is that a wise choice? Are there any others my Reformed buddies could recommend?

Sunday, 22 February 2009

The Primacy of Preaching

Church was a feast today, as it is every week of course! Yet the fare served by the Lord this Sunday morn was particularly sumptuous (how pompous do I sound?).

After the Lord's Supper, we were treated to John Thomson (former elder and the best lay preacher I've ever heard bar none) continuing our series on 'church matters'. His focus was on the central place that the PREACHED Word of God must have in our solemn assemblies. He pointed to Ephesians 4:

11And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (ESV)

Some thoughts in summary:
1. The gifts Christ gave to His church for edification are ONLY Word based gifts. Only by the Word preached will the church reach maturity and have the necessary equipment for 'the work of ministry'.

2. People like to force an antithesis between preaching and praxis, between love and theology. There is no such dichotomy here. The focus is preaching FOR praxis.

3. We are in a spiritual war. Satan is desperate to silence the voice of God. So those who want to sideline the Word in the worship service to replace it with anything i.e. praise, puppets or plays are unwittingly doing Lucifer's dark work. We only get around an hour and a quarter teaching on a Sunday. This is to help sustain us against the constant barrage of the counsel of the ungodly (through TV, conversations, etc). An hour and a freakin' quarter!, and some wish to cut it back? Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

4. We ought to be suspicious of our motives if we want to constantly sing about how much we love God, yet have little interest in hearing him speak to us.

5. The purpose of preaching and teaching is to create a church of mini-pastor/teachers, who constantly build one another up in love, as we teach and admonish one another with Psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit.

6. The ONLY skill Paul requires of elders is that they be apt to teach. Not that they be skilled with finger puppets, good with a guitar or whatever. The job of elder is to minister God's word, period.

Watch out for a link to the sermon on the blog shortly. You won't hear much better stuff anywhere on the web.

Bless God for John Thomson. Would that there was more like him.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Baptistic Musings - 5 More on the age of accountability

Baptists are all over the place regarding the proper subjects of baptism. While denying access to the covenant community to babies due to a lack of matacognitive ability, they are quick to stress, on other occasions, the mercy of God towards the mentally handicapped, the still-born, and dying infants. Am I missing something here? Does "cake and eat it" come to mind?

The confessional Reformed approach is far more consistent. For instance, according to 1 Cor. 7:14:

For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (ESV)

According to the passage, children of believers are 'clean'. That is a word shot through with covenantal overtones. Therefore, children of believers are covenantally accepted. There can be no other conclusion from this passage. For believers grieving over the death of a child, there is hope; hope that the child is clean and with the Lord in glory. This is why King David was so confident that he would see his dead son again (2 Sam. 12:23). Reformed theology is at least consistent as to why believers' children who die go to be with the Lord.

The other side of the passage is less hope-giving i.e. "otherwise they would be unclean." All that the Reformed can say about children who die outside of the covenant is that they are in God's hands and that the judge of all the earth will do what is right.

If Baptists really want to be consistent, they should affirm, (contra 1 Cor. 7) that ALL children are unclean and that they are unsure of the fate of ALL those who die in infancy.

Baptistic Musings - 4 Tongues, Age of Accountability and other stuff

For those of you who are regular readers, you'll notice that I've been doing some wrestling with the doctrine of the sacraments; particularly infant baptism. Having attended an independent brethren/evangelical/baptistic church since my youth, I'd always considered infant baptism a Roman Catholic heresy on which the Reformers didn't go far enough. That is until I read Robert Reymond's Systematic Theology on infant baptism and the unity of the covenant. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Calvin, et al, actually had sound exegetical and theological reasons for baptising babies. I couldn't escape the penetrating logic, the sound covenantal organising principle, the historical continuity, the warm pastoral implications and the (yes, believe me) exegetical integrity that characterised the Reformed approach to infant baptism.

Further, I was always concerned that the baptistic doctrine of believers' baptism had effectively 'unbaptized' all of the greats throughout Christian history. Origen, Irenaeus, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Beza, Bucer, Owen, Perkins, Sibbes, Whitefield, Murray, Lloyd-Jones, Packer, Stott, etc. (The only positive to this is that it would unbaptize the Pope, but he's got bigger problems, like wearing a daft hat, worshipping a dead woman, gutting justification and blaspheming Christ.)

So I'm coming out of the closet (in a non-gay manner of course) as an infant-baptist. I could be wrong, but then again, so could millions in Christ's church. I'd rather stand in an unbroken line of church history than join in with a crazy anabaptistic innovation.

One of my main reasons for my discomfort with the baptistic position is that I believe baptists don't know what to do with their kids. Jesus said that we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. Yet baptists while affirming this, bar entrance to their children and tell them they must reach a nebulous "age of accountability" whenever the hump that is. "Heaven is only for grown ups who become like children, not for children who behave like children" is the reasoning.

So, as opposed to nurturing, baptists wait for their kids to go through some sort of conversion experience. They don't believe in liturgy, but they have a liturgy for their kids. That is, the liturgy of the summer camp. Only after their kids attend this, cry and chuck some twigs in a fire are they really converted. Then they're allowed to be baptized and received into fellowship. During the years in church leading up to that first camp, they hear wonderful testimonies of people being "born again" from scandalous pasts like prostitution, crime, drunkenness, etc. They think, "I've not had this conversion experience. Am I born again?" So to make sure, they go out and live it up for a while, get drunk, have sex, etc. After they "get saved" they've at least got a nice before and after picture.

Further, those children who are unfortunate enough to listen to these dramatic testimonies are only those who are old enough to sit in church. The "little ones" who are too young and disruptive are farmed off to creche or Sunday School. After all, you don't want them disturbing the speaker.

Baptists really have turned the kingdom on it's head. The root cause is the belief that conscious participation in the presence of God is necessary to receive entrance into the covenant community. One must be able to give a conversion testimony and an understanding of the gospel before admittance into the heavenly society.

I don't believe that this is a Scriptural position. If the apostolic-era gift of tongues should teach us anything, it's that a communion with God which bypasses the mind is at least possible. John the Baptist being filled with the Spirit from the womb, while not an example explicitly demanding infant-baptism, should at least give us pause to think that there can be more going on in the heart of a baby/child/infant than that which has passed directly through the conscious. I believe that the baptist position is rather akin to the disciples pre-Pentecost position on children when they told those bringing babies to Jesus to scram. Jesus disagreed profoundly of course. What was the point in bringing little children to Jesus? The point was so that he could place his hands on them and bless them, apart from their conscious participation in his blessing.

So when the church is gathered, with angels and the power of the Lord Jesus present (1 Cor. 5:4), should we be farming out the little ones to a room in the back? Isn't it possible that Christ's word preached will bless them without their conscious participation? Isn't it possible that the waters of baptism as they are poured over the wee one's head will convey God's promise to work savingly and sovereignly in the life of the helpless recipient?

Friday, 20 February 2009

Anti Effectual Atonement Proof Texts 2

My church's full time elder Andy Hunter made a good point about the word "all" in Scripture.

Sometimes "all" doesn't mean absolutely everything. A case in point is 1 Corinthians 15:27:

For "God has put all things in subjection under his feet." But when it says, "all things are put in subjection," it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. (ESV)

Is it possible then, that when Scripture says Christ died for "all", that it doesn't mean absolutely everyone?

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Anti-Effectual Atonement Proof Texts

So your evangelical/Arminian sparring partner doesn't like limited atonement (which you've now re-named Effectual Atonement). He's got issues with it; exegetical issues. He's arguing for Ineffectual Atonement. In a flash he gets out his "Spirit of Arminianism Study Bible" and hits you with 2 Corinthians 5:14. "For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died" (ESV). "Hah, explain that one. Christ died for all" he says lovingly.

You come back, in that same spirit of kinship with Romans 6:5 "For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his." (ESV)

If 2 Corinthians 5:14 states that the "all" whom Christ died for consists of absolutely everyone who ever lived, then, according to the same passage, absolutely everyone who ever lived has died with him too. Then Romans 6:5 tells us that those who have been united with Christ in death WILL be united with him in resurrection. Therefor we are left with two options; universalism (everyone will be saved) or effectual atonement. The only conclusion for one wishing to remain within the bounds of historical Christian orthodoxy is that the "all" of 2 Corinthians 5 must be ALL the elect from Israel AND the Gentile nations. More to come on this...

Monday, 16 February 2009

Atheological Evangelicals and Fruity Language

WARNING: This post is SERIOUSLY offensive. I MEAN SERIOUSLY OFFENSIVE. If you're a sensitive soul, go and watch Veggie Tales with your kids instead.

Steve Chalke, in his thoroughly rubbish book The Lost Message of Jesus ,believes that a distinguishing mark of the Pharisees was their "disempowering and alienating rhetoric" (p43). There is something revealing about Chalke's assessment of the essence of Pharisaical transgression. In short, it's pretty trendy. Doug Wilson, with whom I rarely agree, accurately described Chalke in this respect as a "zeitgeist-meister if ever there was one". In other words, in our ultra-modern super-sensitive culture, one of the biggest sins you can commit is being mean about someone and disparaging their viewpoint. There's nothing worse than making someone else FEEL bad, or FEEL disempowered, by something you say or the way you say it.

So, among many evangelicals, the essence of Christian charity is "being nice". It's about not being mean. You never say anything hard-hitting, especially about one's doctrine. After all it's faith in Jesus that counts, not the theological i's dotted and t's crossed blah blah blah.

In short, that view of love is warped. An ethic like this doesn't stand up in the light of Scripture. For example, God himself uses pretty scathing language when talking about his people. Read the LORD's alienating rhetoric in Ezekiel 23 where he describes his covenant people, Israel and Judah, as a pair of slutty sisters. In verse 8 the LORD says, "You let everyone grope your breasts and shagged any passer by"! "Now come on LORD," says the focus on the family campaigner, "that's pretty extreme language. Sure these people are bad, but your language is a little gratuitous. My mother-in-law was offended and my kids have started cursing as a result."

If you're still reading and you haven't joined the fundamentalists burning effigies of me, we also see a similar brand of alienating rhetoric from God's servants. We read in 1 Kings 18:27 of Elijah mocking the priests of Baal saying, "I thought Baal was a god? Why can't he hear you? Maybe he's taking a dump?" "Now hold it there Elijah," says the evangelical, "maybe if you witnessed to these guys and showed a bit of love you might win them for YHWH? Try giving them a tract." "Nah," replies Elijah, "think I'll just call on fire from YHWH and then go medieval on their asses."
"Ah," says the pastor in a cute lemon tank top, "that was the OT. The NT is a lot more full of love and grace." Well Mr. Sensitive Pastor, let me get you in a head-lock and take you to the words of Paul in Galatians. Paul gets so mad with the gospel-gutters he says, "they should go to hell" (1:10), but not before he wishes that they would have a nasty accident and "emasculate themselves" (5:14) in the process of circumcision. Along the way, Paul also gives Peter the razor edge of his gospel sharpened tongue (2:11). "How judgemental! How mean! How could he speak to the pope like this? Peter had been with Jesus since the beginning. Who did this Johnny-come-lately apostle think he was? He was power mad!"

Peter goes on to write a letter describing false prophets metaphorically as "dogs that eat their own puke." (2 Peter 2:20) "Oh Peter, didn't your experience with Paul teach you a little humility? You got it wrong before, you could be wrong now. Show them a little Christian love."

Our blessed Lord Jesus himself, uses the strongest language in describing the Pharisees in Matthew 23. He calls them "hypocrites" (v13), "sons of hell" (v15), "blind idiots" (v17), "filthy inside" (v25), "whitewashed graves" (v27). He even says of the Laodicean Church, saints of God, that he wants to spit them out of his mouth (Rev. 3:16).

So sometimes God and his servants have used shocking language when describing the sins of covenant people and the status of false prophets/teachers. So what am I saying? I'm not condoning vile language for the sake of it (Eph. 5:4). I'm not condoning being mean for meanness sake. What I am saying is that if a servant of God, in zeal for the the name of Christ and the glory of the gospel, and in compassion for His dear church, says words which are wounding, hard, nasty, shocking and mean, perhaps he IS fulfilling God's command to walk in love.

POSTSCRIPT: This is the new, post-rebuke post-repentance sanitised version.

Do you really want to be Reformed?

Okay so we're thinking a lot about being Reformed. But do we want to be really Reformed, or do we just want a safe robust theology that stands up to fluffy nonsense, but doesn't make any real difference to our way of living?

I'm currently reading Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin's Geneva: Volume 1 Courtship, Engagement and Marriage.

I can't begin to describe Calvin's radically different view of society. How far do current "Reformed" Christians wish to go in their return to the old ways? For example, engagement to be married: Calvin and his colleagues allowed for only two get out clauses, and the time between engagement and marriage was to be around 8 weeks. Any longer, you got wrapped over the knuckles and were compelled to marry.

In lists of pastoral vices found in Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541) rebellion against ecclesiastical order is included in the "intolerable" section, along with drunkenness. Thankfully, buffoonery comes in under the "can be endured" section.

What's my point? One thing to love the doctrines of grace, another thing entirely to apply the civil laws and principles for living of the Reformed churches. Two kingdoms? We struggle with the idea of one!?

And before anyone jokes about why I'm reading such a volume... let's just say I'd be viewed with a high degree of suspicion in Calvin's Geneva for being 32, eligible, and single. The church would have to arrange a marriage for me before disciplining me for buffoonery.

Everyone Limits the Atonement. How do you limit it?

One of the real sticking points to many folk considering Reformed theology is the doctrine of limited atonement. To speak of limiting the atonement seems so wrong, so constricting to the plan of God to save the world. To be sure the word "limited" does have an unnecessary pejorative effect.

Yet, we have to ask the question, "What happened at the cross?" Did the death of Jesus make salvation "possible" for everyone, or did the death of Christ actually "save his people from their sins"?

If you take the former view, you've limited the atonement as well. You've limited it's effect and power to the extent that the only sin it does not atone for is unbelief. This leaves us with three problems, one philosophical, one pastoral and the other exegetical.

Firstly, the exegetical problem. In Scripture, it does not say that people will perish because they merely refuse to believe. Reading through the book of Revelation, we see the nations punished not just for unbelief (the root of all sin), but for idolatry, sexual immorality, etc. Read chapter 21:8; God is still enraged by the actual sins of rebellious humanity. If Christ's death had taken away his wrath for these things, with the exception of unbelief, surely he would only be mad at their faithlessness?

Secondly, the pastoral problem with this approach is that if unbelief is the only sin for which God did not atone, what happens to genuine Christians experiencing doubt? Doubt is a sin. It must be punished. Will these Christians have to pay the ultimate price?

Thirdly, and philosophically, if the wrath of God is exhausted against sin on behalf of everyone, it is unjust of him to require it again of sinners in eternity. God is punishing the same sins twice. This injustice leads some to reject penal substitutionary atonement (see Pierced for Our Transgressions, p268). At least those who reject PSA on this argument do so on the basis of understanding the doctrine better than most Arminian evangelicals.

No, we must believe that the atonement is limited in scope, although not in value. We believe that God really punished sin in Christ. This punishment is sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world. Yet, covenantally, God reckons this punishment sufficient only for the sins of the elect. Only a covenantal framework will make sense of the cross. Those for whom Christ died will be saved, will be granted the gift of faith, will be united to Christ and his benefits by the Holy Spirit, will be accounted righteous, will be accounted raised with Christ and will most certainly and actually BE raised at the eschaton. This is far more exegetically, philosophically and pastorally satisfying than the normal bland evangelical presentation of Christ's death.

"Limited" Atonement is a crap name. It concedes too much to Reformed hating theologies. It's time for a re-branding. Effectual Atonement anyone?

The Blog Commandments

I've only been blogging a short time, but it's been long enough for me to see the need for some ground rules when it comes to posting comments:

1. Post under your own name. Don't expect to be taken seriously if you're taking potshots anonymously or from behind a pseudonym. Take responsibility for your words and man up (or woman up or whatever).

2. Stay on topic. Tangential rants will be deleted.

3. False prophets get lost. Anyone posting a link to a heretical website/blog will have their comment binned.

4. Genuine questions are nevertheless encouraged. There's a world of difference from some snake-dancing nut job telling us that Jesus isn't God from a genuine believer struggling with doubt over some doctrine or other.

5. If you can't take a dig, don't give one. Think, "would I be happy with someone saying this to me?"

6. Be thick-skinned. Expect robust debate/argument. The law of love doesn't forbid strong words.

7. No gossip. If making a claim about what someone said, provide a link or a reference.

8. Have a go at me when necessary. I'm a righteous sinner and a hypocrite. I will fail to live up to these standards. When I do, remind me.

9. Love one another.

10. Er...

The Worst St. Valentine's Date Ever?

My brother in-law, Stephen, must have had the worst St. Valentine's night in Britain. When at a ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee, a Scottish dance) with his girlfriend held at my church building on Saturday evening, he thought he'd put his newly acquired break-dancing skills into practice. He'd been attending a body-popping class for a while now, and it was time to show his friends what he could do.

Sure, for a while he was bustin' some sweet moves; the church couples were impressed. That is until he decided to do a single-handed handstand. While executing the maneuver, he flicked his legs upwards and clobbered his girlfriend in the face with his Timberland clad feet. She rushed from the hall, in full view of everyone, clutching her face. Stephen, concerned, pursued her into the ladies toilets to find blood pouring from her nose. He was then hysterically reminded by the females present that this was a ladies toilet and that he had to leave. If he didn't have such a good head of hair, chiseled features and a natural talent for everything, I might have felt sorry for him. Ah, schadenfreude.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

The Program-Driven Church

You've got to read this. Seriously.

Justification: Understanding the Reformed Doctrine

I plan to blog through "Justification: Understanding the Reformed Doctrine" by J.V Fesko. By all accounts it's a big and meaty book. Watch out for posts over the coming weeks/months.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Recovering the Reformed Confession Part 8 - Concluding Reflections

Ok, so I've read the book. I thought I would just post some random thoughts on the work as a whole.

1. I think that without doubt, Clark has demonstrated that the word "Reformed" has a fixed definition. This has implications for how we should name our churches, movements, theologies, etc. In the light of the "Young, Restless and Reformed" movement in the US, Clark makes a point in the epilogue:

Imagine that these "young, restless and Reformed" leaders traveled to the Synod of Dort and presented themselves to the Reformed churches of Europe and England as "Reformed Christians". Wouuld they be accepted as such? Of course, the first questions would be "What do you mean by Reformed?" "Do you confess the BC and the HC?" At that point the discussion would soon fall apart because, though these visitors to the synod would have much in common with the synod on soteriology, they would have rather less in common with them on the doctrines of the church and the sacraments and on the hermeneutics of covenant theology. One cannot doubt that our time travelers would return home disappointed to be rejected by the Synod of Dort, but were they to try again at the Westminster Assembly, they would find a similarly chilly reception. (p344)

That's hard to quibble with. To say that some of these guys are "Reformed" because they believe, not even in the 5 points, but merely in predestination, is akin to calling John MacArthur a charismatic because he believes in the Holy Spirit. Maybe some better names to describe these guys would be Sovereign Grace Baptists, or SoRe (Soteriologically Reformed) Baptists or the YMCA (Young Moderately Calvinistic Anabaptists)?!

2. The book was like a cool drink of water to this Reforming evangelical. It should be to many other evangelicals like me too. I think that there is a restlessness in evangelicalism. Many have come to faith in evangelical churches, and like Bono, can speak with the tongues of angels, but can also sing "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." Charismatics are being tired of blown to and fro by every Wimber doctrine. Baptists and brethren are lacking clarity with regard to the gospel. They've been taught that they're all little popes, deciding what is and what isn't Scriptural, and they're tired of the awful responsibility that this carries. No man is an island. No one man can decide between all the competing voices of those who have exalted their biblicist ideas to confessional status. We need each other and we need community. We need to stand in the good of the great traditions of the church, knowing that these doctrines have been ironed out in community and in continuity with the church fathers. To quote the great Bono again, "Sometimes you can't make it on your own."

3. I do have some questions though. If the definition of "Reformed" is fixed, then how can we go on Reforming the confessions (if necessary of course) and keep the label "Reformed"? Further, if a US Reformed group wanted to change some aspect of the, let's just say, WCF how would they go about it? Would they call an assembly of just the NAPARC churches? Or would they attempt some global conference to discuss these things? Who would be invited? You can see my point. I suppose that since technology has made the world a smaller place, this wouldn't be as difficult as in previous generations.

4. The Reformed Confession is a great simplifier of church practice. The gospel is kept central to the Reformed liturgy. Innovations are frowned upon. The word (sung and preached) and sacraments are the focus. It really should make church plants a lot simpler. For instance, if you're going to surf close to the RPW, you'll either only need a piano, or even no instruments at all. complex sound system. No big screen for power point presentations. It subverts all the values and glossy superficiality of culture.

5. Clark's exposition of Reformed piety and his emphasis on the law/gospel distinction is an antidote to the quiet time slavery besetting many. I think that the rule of daily readings/prayers as THE means of grace is killing Christian people. Many see the Christian life as "doing" stuff. Doing church, doing quiet times, doing worship etc. Yet it's the law which tells us to "do". It says "Do this and live." Whereas God in the gospel says, "I've done this in Christ so that you'll live." The apostle Peter describes the law as "a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear." (Acts 15:10) Yet we put this law of daily prayers on our necks and the necks of others (even though there isn't a single text advocating daily quiet times). "No," say the Reformed, "we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus." (Acts 15:11) So we are not doers, but receivers. We receive Christ through the word preached and the sacraments given. Private prayer is a mere overflow of this.

6. The Reformed Confession is an antidote to the emerging epistemological reaction to fundamentalism. Long before McLaren and co. were writing about chastened epistemologies, John Owen and co. were writing about the ectypal and archetypal distinction.

7. The book is very well written. Not many people can write a 362 page work on Reformed confessionalism and keep it engaging. Clark, remarkably, seems to have pull it off. It is an absolutely cracking read. Give it a go. Even if you disagree with him, you'll enjoy his style.

Recovering the Reformed Confession Part 7 - Keep the Sabbath Wholly

You might have heard these types of sound bites emanating from your evangelical friends:

"Sunday morning should be an overflow of your private devotions throughout the week."

"It's hypocrisy to break bread when you're private quiet times are a mess."

"Sometimes it's good to take time out from church just to have some alone time with you and God."

"It's not what you get out of church, it's what you put in."

"God isn't interested in Sunday Christians."

In true sound-bite fashion, they sound preachy, punchy and pious, but upon reflection in the light of the Reformed Confession they are more pompous, preposterous

In Chapter 8 Clark bemoans the loss of the second Sunday service in contemporary confessional Reformed churches. "Classical Reformed practice was to hold two worship services on the Lord's Day. In recent years, however, the second service or vespers has fallen on hard times. It is becoming more difficult to find a second service. Judging by anecdotal evidence, a significant number of Reformed congregations have eliminated the second service." (p293) He goes on to note that this is a problem "not really peculiar to our age" but rather one that has challenged Reformed churches since the establishment of the second service in "the earliest stages of the Reformation in the 1520s and 1530s." (p294)

Essential to a recovery of the Reformed practice of the second service are two conditions. "The first and necessary condition is to recover the confessional doctrine of the Christian Sabbath. The second and sufficient condition is our doctrine of the Word and sacraments as the divinely appointed means of grace." (p295)

Clark proceeds to give a biblical account of "the Sabbath" as something grounded in creation before it was ever re-published in the law of Moses. He says, "The sanctity or uniqueness of the seventh day is grounded in God's resting, that is, his 'stopping' and entering into his Sabbath rest. The entering into rest by Elohim is regarded by the text as a deliberate, message-laden act. It sends an implicit message to his analogues: 'You are my image bearers. I 'worked' for six days and rested the seventh. You do the same.'" (p299)

So Sabbath is a creational institution. Clark goes on, "Our Lord not only taught the permanence of the creational (i.e. moral) law (Matt. 5:17-19) and never repealed the creational pattern (which he himself instituted) of setting aside one day in seven, but he also kept Sabbath perfectly every day, having loved his Father and his neighbour (Rom. 5:19). Our Lord was crucified on (Good) Friday and spend the old Sabbath in the tomb, in another sort of rest. He was raised, however, 'on the first day of the week' (Matt.28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1)."

He continues, "The old covenant festival calendar was determined principally by redemption, so it is fitting that the new covenant calendar would be determined by the first act or the new creation (2 Cor.5:17; Gal. 6:15; Col.1:15)." (p303)

Clark also notes the historical pattern of the Christian Sabbath. Most surprising to me was his quotes from Calvin and Luther. Have you ever heard the claim that these two reforming giants were not Sabbatarians? Well if we're talking about typological Jewish Sabbath keeping, the claim is accurate. Yet in practice, they seemed to advocate the keeping of a Christian Sabbath.

Here's just one Calvin quote to whet the appetite:

If we turn Sunday into a day for living it up, for our sport and pleasure, indeed, how will God be honoured in that? Is it not a mockery and even a profanation of his name? But when shops are closed on Sunday, when people do not travel in the usual way, its purpose to provide more leisure and liberty for attending to what God commands us that we might be taught by his Word, that we might convene together in order to confess our faith, to invoke his name, [and] to participate in the use of the sacraments. (p314)

After discussing the history of the Christian Sabbath, Clark goes on to demonstrate the unified confessional approach to the Lord's Day. Despite some pitting the Heidelberg Catechism against the Westminster Standards, there is remarkable consensus.

Traditionally, I would have poo-pooed a chapter on the Christian Sabbath. My neo-Lutheran, New Covenant approach to law and gospel forbade me from dividing the law into civil, ceremonial and moral. I thought this distinction a quaint reformed innovation that lacked any real scriptural substance. To cut a long story short, I came to the realisation that, if you reject the threefold distinction in theory, you certainly end up applying it exegetically and practically. (For instance, what will the New Covenant exegete do with the command not to have sex with animals in Leviticus? Interpreted through Christ, it stays the same, i.e. a moral command to leave hamsters alone. Whereas, ceremonial washings and the stoning of adulterers are no longer binding laws.)

Also, horror stories from various parties (Isle of Lewis Presbyterians, West of Scotland Closed-Brethren) about Sabbath legalism and the absolute misery imposed on Christian kids by over-scrupulous parents made it convenient for me to jettison the whole idea. Nevertheless, if we view the Sabbath as merely the freeing up of a day to meet with God, hear his word and feed on Christ, while enjoying some rest, then surely that is a good thing? For a man like me, who burned out so spectacularly, I'm not so opposed to the idea of "The Lord's Day" anymore.

Clark then moves to the sufficient condition for the Reformed recovery - the means of grace. He basically argues that if our theology of how God gives grace to his people is flawed, then our attitude to church will be flawed. I used to think that "the quiet time" was the principal receptacle that God had ordained in the life of the believer for the accumulation of "grace and power". If you didn't pray every day, or have a solid time of Scripture meditation every day, then you were walking in disobedience and God would be pretty concerned about you.

On top of walking around with a whole load of guilt on my shoulders, this type of thinking also made church superfluous. What was the point of turning up on a Sunday if you could have just as good a time in private prayer or meditation? (By the way, if communion is merely "remembering the Lord", I can do that at home too).

Clark argues that the Reformed have always viewed God's means of grace as public and not private. The Heidelberg Catechism states that "The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts through the preaching of the holy gospel and confirms it through the use of the holy sacraments." The Belgic Confession speaks of the sacraments as "the means by which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit." (p333)

Indeed even when the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q88 speaks of prayer as a means of grace, we should realise that it speaks of prayer "in the context of the public worship service." (p329)

This leads Clark to the startling conclusion that "perhaps attendance to the second service is actually a better indicator of spiritual maturity than are the calluses on our knees or the wear on our Bibles." (p330)

This type of statement would send your average "spiritual formation" evanglical into a tail spin. "What? You mean my prayer rope isn't a means of grace?" To which the Reformed reply is, "No, it's got about as much grace-giving power as a turd."

It would shock many but, in my opinion, it should lead to the liberation of many too (as it did me). God wants you off the evangelical treadmill. Stop trying to impress him. Stop timing your private prayers. Stop going to church with the attitude, "it's really what I put into it that matters." Stop seeing church as an optional extra, a mere appendix to your private spiritual life that you grace with your presence if you've got nothing better to do. Stop wondering if you should break bread because you don't do daily readings. Stop seeing the Christian life as a private thing between you and God. Stop burning yourself out on the Lord's Day with church activities which are not related to word/sacrament ministry.

Start rather, seeing church as the climax to the week. See it as a restaurant, not a gym. See it as a place where you feast on Christ and are given sustenance for the week. You're like Elijah, burned out after his exertions, with the Lord saying on Sunday, "Rest and eat (the body and blood of my Son), because the week is too long for you."

Ever since my Reformed conversion I come across the same response from my evangelical friends when I tell them about the means of grace, "That's amazing, I've never heard that before." Find out about this for yourself and read the book.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Down Time

I won't be posting for a couple of days. I need to take some time to read the rest of Recovering the Reformed Confession. I've been on the last chapter for ages, and it seems that I've always got something else to do, like wipe babies bottoms or post tripe on the blog.

So, I'm having a blog-fast and will come back (God willing) with two final posts on the book.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Atheological Evangelicals, Ecumenism and Ezra

Defending the gospel can be tiring.

If schism has been a dirty word throughout church history, in our tolerant post-doctrinal churches of the 21st century it is positively dripping with steaming manure. The greatest sin in our church today is not introducing works into the doctrine of justification. It is not saying that penal substitutionary atonement is cosmic child abuse. It is not playing fast and loose with the Trinity. It isn't saying that Jesus didn't rise from the dead.

The biggest sin in evangelicalism today is believing something strongly enough to separate from or even merely disagree with "brothers and sisters". Evangelicals you see, are atheological. The gospel is no longer the story of forgiveness and righteousness through the dead, buried and raised Christ. It is now framed in terms of a "personal relationship" with Jesus. The whole thing has been given over to subjectivity to the extent that right belief has been separated totally from right experience.

What we used to call liberalism now passes for orthodoxy. Read this statement from liberal theologian Marcus Borg:

"For me, to believe a set of statements is impossible," Borg says. What is possible, he argues, is to "belove" Jesus and walk in his path.
"For the past 300 years," Borg says, "faith was a matter of believing a list of beliefs about Jesus. The list varied among Christians -- that Jesus was the son of God, that he was born of a virgin, that the tomb was empty on Easter morning.
"But in the pre-modern world, before about 1600, the object of belief was never a statement," he says. "It was always a person. To believe meant to belove a person.
"To belove Jesus means more than simply loving Jesus. It means to love what Jesus loved. That is at the heart of Christianity.

This statement is an outpouring of pure liberalism, but it accurately describes the beating heart of many an evangelical or emergent Christian. "I'm not into a bunch of statements," they cry, "I'm into loving Jesus and following him." To have faith in Jesus, or a spiritual experience with Jesus, or a nebulous love for Jesus, is enough for most evangelical leaders to describe a Christian.

Yet for others who at least try to Scripturally justify their open-arms approach to "Christians" of all creeds and experiences it has been trickier. Ecumenism has been an impulse in search of an exegetical justification. It seems to have found it in various brands of the New Perspective on Paul. By redefining the sin of the Galatian Judaizers as merely erecting fences between Christians and by redefining the self-righteousness of the Pharisees as merely sectarianism, the NPP has given ecumenical initiatives a new lease of life in conservative circles. "You are saved by believing in Jesus, not by believing in justification" is the joyful cry. As I will show, this is pure, naive, seductive and destructive reductionism.

Now I know that according to Romans 10:9, in order to be saved one must confess Jesus as Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead. Yet is this all that is required? Just believe in Jesus? To quote the apostle "by no means." It is possible to disqualify yourself from the faith and this through wrong belief!

For example, you can be disqualified by adding worship of any other created thing to the worship of Christ (Colossians 2:9). You can be disqualified by introducing works into justification (Galatians 1:8, 3:1-5, 10). You can be disqualified by tampering with the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) It is only evil spirits who mess with the doctrine of Christ's humanity (1 John 4:2, 3). Furthermore Jesus hates tolerance of false doctrine and will punish those in the church who tolerate and propagate it (Revelation 2:14-16).

So right belief is important, eternally important. That's why Jude wrote his letter reminding his readers to "contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (v3). So loving Christ and his Gospel will cause discomfort. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild came to bring a sword and not peace. The Gospel will even turn families against each other (Matthew 10:34-39).

So Gospel truth is of eternal significance. We can't water it down. We can't tolerate falsehood. We can't cooperate with Mary-worshipping, justification destroying churches. We shouldn't sell heretical, gospel diluting, prosperity advocating books without stamping "health warning" on them. We should never hold joint evangelistic events with churches who do not confess a pure gospel. We should be willing to stand up in committee meetings and veto the invitation of a wishy-washy preacher to our church weekends.

It will get tiring. You'll be the emotionally stunted doctrinaire bigot who is so uptight you could pick up a pound note with your butt cheeks. People will, with eyes closed, shake their heads and pray that God would break into your life with love and grace (because love and grace means tolerating all kinds of evil in their book).

Don't worry, you'll be in good company. Zerubbabel shows us the way. Let's take a leaf out of his book. He was rebuilding the temple and the syncretists asked him, "Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do....But Zerubbabel, Jeshua and the rest of the heads of fathers' houses in Israel said to them, 'You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God.'" (Ezra 4:2, 3)

Guard the gospel. Did I mention it will get tiring?

Monday, 9 February 2009

Procrastination and Imputation

Procrastination is the blight of many a Christian life. So many of us are just waiting for it to start in earnest. We harbour aspirations of a future glory in our lives that we are not yet experiencing. Here are some examples of Christian procrastination:

"When I get out of this crappy job and head off to seminary things will take off. Then I'll have real time for prayer and study and my ministry will change lives."

"When I get married, then I'll conquer lust. Then I can fulfill my life's work for Christ."

"When I get baptized in the Holy Spirit, then I'll experience power for evangelism and personal victory. Then I'll know true joy in God."

Well, what happens when you go to seminary and your prayer life is still rubbish and you pastor a church that no one attends? What happens if you never get married? What happens if you do get married and lusting after different women takes on a more dangerous turn? What happens if you spend your whole life waiting for a spiritual experience that is nowhere promised in Scripture? What happens if this is it?

I believe that many of us suffer from this procrastination (i.e. waiting for the Christian life to truly start) because we have a defective view of the gospel. It comes from a works-righteousness ethic fed by remarkable testimonies like those of saints who prayed long and hard and "brought revival" down. Is there such a thing as a life that counts for God?

If the history of the human race has taught us anything, it's that we're a miserable bunch. Look at the great saints of the OT. Abraham was so scared of being killed that he was happy to pimp out his wife. Moses, as great as he was, failed to make the promised land because of his temper. David, a man after God's own heart, committed adultery and murder and went on to raise a family so dysfunctional it made the Jackson 5 look like the Waltons. Samuel's family life wasn't great either as his sons were a waste of space, profaning God's sacrifices and sleeping with the temple cleaners. And that is the OT good guys!

"Ah," retorts the pietist Arminian, "that was the pre-Pentecost dispensation of the law. Now in the NT, Christians are called to a victorious life through the power of the Spirit."

Ok, then, in the NT, we have Peter, post-Pentecost Spirit-filled Peter, retreating in fear because of the circumcision party and abandoning the gospel.

What marked the Biblical saints was not that they had lives that counted for God, but the fact that they were sinners, righteous-ed through faith. Read through the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. Even Samson is a hero of faith; hooker-loving, Gentile compromising Samson. What made these saints heroes is that they believed the gospel (with faith given them by God, see Eph 2:8-10).

If the doctrine of Christ as the last Adam has taught us anything, it is that there is only one victorious Christian, only one person whose life really counted. His "one act of righteousness", i.e. his perfect life culminating in the cross, is all that God is interested in. I heard Carl Trueman say, God is only interested in two people, Adam and Christ. Either God sees you in Adam or in Christ. Are you hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:1)? Then God doesn't see your pathetic little life with all of it's false starts, broken promises and mucky little secrets. You are already a conqueror "through him who loved us". Your life already counts, already is victorious because you are united to the Victor through the Holy Spirit by faith.

So stop waiting for life to happen. Stop waiting to experience the victorious Christian life. Grab hold of the Victor, through faith and start basking in His victorious life now. Only by "getting" the imputation of Christ's righteousness will we rid ourselves of this perfectionist, works-righteousness slavery.

We're constantly being told (by Christian pastors who should know better) to reach for the life we've always wanted. Christians only need receive and rest in Christ and his righteousness through faith and God sees us ALREADY with the Life He's always wanted for us.

(PS - The atrocious spelling mistakes and typos have hopefully now been rectified!)

Sunday, 8 February 2009

The Nebulous Indefinite Verson - Isaiah 6

You've been sitting in the Emergent Church service in Starbucks for about half an hour now. A young girl has just done an interpretive dance representing the emotional wounds caused by her growing up in a middle class Christian home with parents "who loved her, but like, didn't get her, ya know?"

You're just about to have contextual communion with latte and almond cake, but it's your turn to take part. What will you say? You could talk about the evils of John Piper's grammatical idolatry, but you remember that you have your new emergent bible translation, "The Nebulous Indefinite Version" in your cargo-pants pocket. Time for some Lectio Divina. You turn to Isaiah 6 and read:

I saw the lord low, at about my level, and seated on a Lazy Boy. Candles, banners, acoustic guitars and ancient icons filled his temple. Surrounding him were cool people, drama groups, comedians, finger-painters, storytellers and crowds engaging in private religious devotion. The people all called out to one another and said, "Relevance, relevance, relevance, fills the place. The whole earth reflects our relevance." And as the floor reverberated with the sound of the acoustic guitars, the bongos and the interpretive dancing, the temple was filled with applause. Then I stood straight and tall. I laughed and shouted, "I'm okay. You're okay. We're all okay!"

And one of the mime-artists went over to the coffee shop to bring me a flapjack and a mocha. And he said to me, "Woe, woe, woe to those who love propositional truth," and it was then that three cool middle class white dudes appeared. With dark-framed glasses he covered his eyes, with a cool goatee he covered his mouth and with a Che Guevara T-Shirt he covered his back.

And the first cried, "We're an inclusive community." And the second cried, "Fight racism." And the third cried, "End third world debt." Then I heard a sweet voice from the Lazy Boy, "Who will go share these messages with others?" And I felt cool and lovable, and I said, "Sure, I'll go. No sweat. Everybody's aching for this word. Send me!" The voice said to me, "Guard each person's self-worth, and save each man's pride." And I said, "For how long?" It said, "Until they've decided how to live their own lives, until they've chosen their own values, until they've found the gloss, until they become like the lords they worship. And good luck to you! I'm not quite sure what the future holds." And I went out feeling super."

(Postscript - I adapted this from a similar parody on the Banner of Truth website.)

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Wine or Grape Juice?

It seems to me that the most powerful argument advanced against using wine in the communion cup is that it discriminates against alcoholics. Living in a city with a large proportion of citizens who suffer from alcoholism, this one is a live issue.

What must a congregation, which has a significant number of current/ex-alcohol abusers, do with the cup? I'm told by some ex-alcoholics that just a taste of wine can be enough to send one hurtling off the wagon.

Does that mean therefore that we should be serving grape juice in our communion cups? It would certainly seem the loving thing to do. It would express a godly solidarity with our weaker brothers and sisters. It would affirm the apostolic command to do nothing which causes the weaker sibling to sin.

I'm wrestling with this one because I feel that something important is lost when we use grape juice. First, Christ commanded that we use wine. In Matthew 26:29, Mark 14:25 and Luke 22:18 Christ described the last supper drink as the "fruit of the vine" (ESV). It's pretty hard to argue that this means grape juice. Indeed, the NLTse translates Luke 22:11 as "For I will not drink wine again until the Kingdom of God has come." My NLTse Study Bible note on this passage says:

The traditional Passover celebration used four cups of wine - at the opening benediction, after the Passover explanation, after the meal and after a concluding psalm. This was probably the first cup that introduced the ceremony. (p1755)

It was wine...with alcohol, not grape juice, not Baby Sham but wine. If Jesus said we should use wine, then we should use wine. If we're not willing to swap bread for pizza, we should ask ourselves why we're so willing to switch the cup.

Second, I do think a drink of wine at communion has a powerful impact on the recipient. As we sip the bitter taste and feel our throats burn, we remember that Christ drank a bitter cup for us, the cup of wrath (Matt 26:29). Christ drank the cup that was full of maddening wine, a bitter wine reserved to disorient the wicked (Psalm 75:8). He drank that cup, so that we could drink the cup of the new covenant. Without doubt the use of wine has a gospel impact.

I'm sure that there are other, more significant reasons for using wine. Yet these are the two that come most readily to my mind. I think they are strong reasons for using them, yet again I'm torn. What of the weaker brother? If we change the wine for grape juice because of alcoholics, should we change the bread to rice cakes for the sake of the obese?

Friday, 6 February 2009

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation - Part 5 Affirming the sacred/secular distinction

Steve in the comments section at the Heidelblog raises a good point about my language of spiritual work and nonspiritual work (remember I said that we don't need to be involved in spiritual work like preaching, running clubs etc to please God):

Is it that there is no “spiritual” and “non-spiritual” work, or that “spiritual” work is not “better” work than “non-spiritual”? I believe in a sacred/secular dichotomy, I just don’t think “secular” is a bad word. Or is the argument that these different kinds of work are just different and we should throw out terms like sacred/secular, spiritual/non-spiritual altogether?

Scott Clark answers:

It’s that “non-spiritual” (i.e. civic, common, secular, or cultural) work is an honorable, good, worthy vocation before the Lord. A spiritual vocation (i.e. ecclesiastical or sacred) is also honorable before the Lord.

...An honorable secular/common/civil/cultural vocation is good and clean and doesn’t need to be metaphorically baptized by being made into a “spiritual” vocation in order to justify it. We’re not Manichean. We recognize that God instituted different spheres (as Kuyper taught!) in this world and that each sphere is under the Lordship of Christ but that he administers these distinct spheres (or kingdoms) in distinct ways. We don’t need to make civil/common/cultural/secular work into “kingdom” work in order to make it good or pleasing to God nor do we need to make spiritual/sacred/kingdom of God work into common/cultural/secular work in order to make it significant.

So for the record, if there is the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man, then there are two realms, the sacred and the secular. Therefore, contrary to what Rob Bell says, not everything is spiritual. For instance, there's nothing spiritual about me going to the can and taking a dump. All that this is, is my body of flesh disposing of refuse. Nevertheless, I can do it in such a way that honours God. I can give him thanks that my bowels moved nicely. I can flush the toilet and put the lid down to keep my wife happy. I can spray some air freshener to get rid of the putrid stench. I can wash my hands so that I don't spread germs to friends and family. I can do all this because I love God. Nevertheless, what I did wasn't spiritual.

So, folk who say stuff like, I felt really close to God when I listened to jazz/rap etc are misguided. They might have felt nice, but they were doing something secular, something of this world. And why not listen to a bit of r&b? Jesus prayed that we wouldn't be taken out of the world even though we aren't of it. Paul said, didn't he, that we can use the things of the world and not be engrossed in them? Yet, even though we use the things of this world, we know that they (beautiful sunsets, great music, TV, etc) don't draw us near to God. How do we know? Because the place we draw near to God is located in heaven, i.e. Christ. We draw near in full assurance as we hear his word and feed on his body and blood every Sunday.

Atheological Evangelicals and the Trinity

To large numbers of professing Christians, doctrine is not important. It's regarded with suspicion. The hard-hearted Pharisees loved doctrine, they reason. Jesus was more into personal transformation than dotting the theological i's and crossing the propositional t's. For may evangelicals, true Christianity is framed in terms of a personal encounter with the risen Christ rather than a grasping of the gospel of justification. In the past we called this theological liberalism, now we call it evangelicalism or emerging theology.

Great confusion abounds. For instance, we have the author of possibly the greatest ever work on the resurrection telling us that we can't say that resurrection-denying liberal Marcus Borg isn't a Christian. Faith in Jesus is what saves, not faith in the gospel. You can have true faith in Jesus yet deny the gospel.

Yet as Kevin DeYoung reminds us in "Why We're Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be" you can't love Jesus without loving the propositions of Jesus. Doctrine matters. You can't worship in spirit without worshipping in truth. To worship in spirit and truth are two sides of the same coin. It's a false dichotomy to seperate the two. So when a charismatic congregation is accused of worshipping in the Spirit without the truth, you can be assured that it's not the Spirit in whom they worship.

Nowhere is the evangelical indifference to theology more apparent than in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity. While listening to Carl Trueman on the the life of John Owen, he spoke of his interaction with various church pastors. He would ask them why the Trinity was important. Most pastors would come back with something like "If you don't believe it, you're a heretic." Sir Carl of Trueman would follow up with the question, "but of what practical use is the doctrine of the Trinity?" Most of the time this question would be met with a blank stare.

The practical application is that we worship God as a Trinity. The Reformed have always been very careful in their formulations of the Trinity. They never spoke of the one-ness of God apart from the three-ness and never spoke of the three-ness apart from the one-ness. That is why, as Trueman asserted, Sunday school analogies using ice, water and steam, etc are heretical. They represent modalism i.e. one God revealing himself in three disguises as opposed to one God in three persons.

We must affirm the Trinity, but we can never really understand it, given that our theology is ectypal and not archetypal. Nevertheless, we worship the one in three who is three in one. Any rejection of this doctrine is a rejection of God, Christ, the Spirit and the Christian faith. To reject this makes one a false believer. To teach against it makes one a hell-bound heretic.

So why the hell are our "Christian" bookshops stocking books by unitarian T.D Jakes and CD's by unitarian singers Phillip's, Craig and Dean? In short, because they don't give a rats bottom about the truth of Scripture, the Gospel, the Godhead or the good of Christ's flock. If you're going to insist on listening to unitarians, listen to the Kings of Leon. They make the best secular rock music today. Otherwise, it's time to smash our syncretist high places folks. Burn your crappy Jakes books. In true fundamentalist style, smash your Phillips, Craig and Dean CD's. Why? They're singing about another God, another Christ and another gospel. Don't join them in their sin.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

The Reformed Doctrine of Justification and Me

So some of you who are reading this blog might be asking, "who is this angry controversialist idiot?" I thought it'd be good to give God the glory by telling a bit of my story.

I'm 32 years old at present and I teach maths in a Glasgow secondary school. I grew up in a Christian home, attending a brethren church from the age of about 4. When the Lord awakened faith in me at age 18, I set out to read everything I could lay my hands on. Up until that point I'd only been interested in watching TV, taking the odd drink, getting into the odd street brawl and doing the bare minimum work at school to get my grades, so the reading thing was kind of miraculous! I'd only ever read two or three books, and one of those had pictures.

Over the years, I continued to read, yet for all my reading, I was pretty unstable in my knowledge of the gospel. I was looking for something, although I didn't know what. It seemed like my most recent book was the formative influence in my life at the time. Over the years, I flirted with Arminianism, the 5-points of Calvinism, Open-theism, Pentecostalism, Tongues speaking, the Toronto phenomenon, Emerging/Emergent theologies, the New Perspective on Paul, the Federal Vision. You name it, I've tried it. I was like one of those whom Paul describes as "always learning, but never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth."

I was pretty emotionally unstable as you might imagine. It took me a while to get to grips with the fact that I was suffering from depression. One day I'd be as high as a kite, the next I'd be blinded with rage or melancholy. I would start projects with a relentless fury and then abandon them as quickly as I had begun. My chickens would come home to roost.

Gradually, the Lord helped me find my vocation as a teacher. I loved the job. Finally I had something that I was motivated to do and that utilized my natural abilities. I threw myself into work with great gusto, trying to excel as far as possible. My past underachievements were eating at me, and in my insecurity, I wanted to get promoted as far as possible as young as possible.

All the while I was involved heavily in church work. In the last few months of 2007 I must have preached about 7 times at various brethren churches. I ran the Sunday evening Youth Fellowship, was on the prayer meeting committee, sang in a choir that practiced every Sunday afternoon and had regular week-night concerts and also chaired church services. On top of all this, I had a 1 year old son and a pregnant wife at work. In short, I was exhausted. After Sundays, it felt like I was returning to work for a rest.

It was February 2008 and I noticed that I had lost a little of my joy in work. "Maybe it's time to go for a promotion" I thought. And so, a job came up in another school as a departmental principal. I prayed it over, applied for the post and hey presto, got the job. It felt like God's provision. With a new baby on the way in June the pay rise was going to help a great deal. Who knows, Sharon could even quit work.

In the time leading up to the job I had been listening to Tim Keller on my iPod. I also had subscribed to podcast by the guys at the White Horse Inn. As Keller and Horton described 'justification by faith' I remember lying in my bed and praying, "God, I don't think I get it. I know it in my head, but I don't think I'm experiencing the glory of this. Help me understand it."

The time came for me to begin my new post. I should have been excited, but all I could feel was dread. As I arrived at the new school and met my department, all I could do was stare out the window. I got slaughtered by my classes (who were pretty tough but nothing I wasn't used to) and just had no emotional resilience to deal with them. After two days, I had a complete breakdown and couldn't stop crying. I was completely broken and wanted to die. If I didn't have a wife and family, who knows what I could have done?

The doctor signed me off work and I started a course of anti-depressants. I never went back to that school and remained off sick for 9 months just sleeping and recovering.

I now had time to read. I remember one day flicking about the web and remembered hearing a guy called R. Scott Clark as a guest on the White Horse Inn. I thought, "I wonder if that guy has written anything?!" After doing a search in google I came across this article. It was Clark's Reformed critique of the Federal Vision. I had long regarded them as good guys and believed that works had a place in final justification. As I read, the scales fell from my eyes. I couldn't believe it. We are justified by "receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness through faith"! It was almost too good to be true. I felt like the heavens had opened and God had poured joy into my heart. It was better than anything I'd experienced in my charismatic wanderings.

For once, I felt the goodness of the good news. It wasn't good news before. Where is the good news in telling someone that God is going to give them power to live a good life so that they can be justified by works on judgement day?

I needed some more of this Reformed wine, so I downloaded this talk by Clark on Recovering the Reformed Confession. I remember sitting my wife down and making her listen to it. Clark went on about the piety of the Reformed Confessions. It isn't a quiet time piety. Evangelicals, he argued, have a theology of glory as they seek to gain the brownie points with God through daily devotions. The piety of the Reformed is public, it is word and sacrament. Prayer is a mere overflow of being fed with Christ on a Sunday. Wow, my chains fell off, my heart was free! Sharon remarked how providential this was for her. She'd been struggling with assurance because she believed she was unsaved due to her faltering private devotions.

To grasp that I'm righteous by resting in Christ's righteousness, to let go of the private devotion mentality and focus on corporate feeding on Christ, to embrace a solid theology of the work of the Spirit in mortification as opposed to personal 'leadings' which lead to emotional paralysis, to discover all these things saved my Christian life. Before I thought sola Scriptura meant reading the Bible alone - solo Scriptura. The Reformed taught me to read with the great tradition of the church and, in community, listen to Scripture. I don't need to be blown about by private opinions of men who have elevated their own views to confessional status.

Since my 'conversion' I managed to get a job back in my old school. God has been good. Justification has taught me to value who I am in Christ and not judge myself by how successful I am.

In short then, I love the Reformed approach. I will always be grateful to Keller, Horton and of course, R. Scott Clark. I love these guys. Yet, they would be the first to admit to being mere instruments in the mighty hand of the Lord for the good of the church. Glory to God alone.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation - Part 4 An alternative dialogue

Picture the scene, you are in the coolest bookstore in town, and you've just purchased the latest Emergent Bible translation called "The NIV: Nebulous Indefinite Version". You pop into the cafe area and start quaffing a skinny latte and tucking into some chocolate (oh, it's fair trade I should add). The candles are burning around you. Sigar Ros is playing over the sound system. As you relax, you turn to your new purchase and open it to John 21:15-19:

Jesus: Simon, do you love me?

Peter: Yes Lord, you know that I love you.

Jesus: Fight injustice, homophobia, racism, you name it. Simon Peter, do you love me?

Peter: You know all things Lord, you know that I love you.

Jesus: Fight poverty. Don't let anyone fool you when they say you'll always have the poor with you. You can make a difference Pete. Do you love me?

Peter: You know that I love you.

Jesus: Burn out my sheep for the glory of God. I'm telling you Peter, one day the world will love you for these things...

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation - Part 3 Let church be church

Emerging christians, multitudes of evangelicals and I dare say some Reformed folk are confused about the role of church in society. Again, it's down to a misunderstanding related to the two kingdoms.

Rick Warren for instance, wishes to tackle the world's 5 big giants. They are 1. Spiritual darkness; 2. lack of servant leaders around the world; 3. poverty; 4. disease; 5. ignorance, manifesting itself in illiteracy. At first glance, these look like noble goals for a church leader of Warren's influence. Yet how do these goals square with Paul's priorities conveyed to young church leaders in the pastoral epistles?

I read of Paul charging Timothy to "Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preahed in my gospel" (2 Tim 2:28). I read of the pastor "correcting his opponents" (2 Tim 2:25). The pastor is to "continue in what he has learned" (2 Tim 3:14). He is to "teach, rebuke, correct and train in righteousness." (2 Tim 3:16). He is to "preach the Word, in season and out of season." (2 Tim 4:2). He is to do more rebuking (2 Tim 4:2). He is to teach sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). He is to do some more rebuking, this time with complete authority. (Titus 2:15). He is to remind the church to be submissive and full of good works. (Titus 3:1)

I don't read Paul saying, "Timothy and Titus, you really need to start attacking injustice in this world ruled by Rome. Fight global poverty, tackle disease, start backing liberal emperors." His priorities for church pastors is their complete immersion in God's Word - period.

Who knows, maybe some members of the congregation will decide to do the best job they can for the glory of God and change society as a result? Maybe a christian doctor will work so resolutely to find cures for various ills that he makes great breakthroughs? Maybe a soldier will stop roughing up prisoners and treat them with a little dignity? Maybe slave masters will treat their slaves with respect? Maybe a toilet cleaner will do such a good job of cleaning the latrine that you could eat your dinner off of it? Mabye a young William Wilberforce will use his political influence to abolish slavery? Maybe they'll have the energy to do this because they're being fed by Christ every Lord's Day? That's a world away from church based initiatives where the zealous pastor fights every cause he can but forgets the gospel.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation - Part 2 (Lay preaching and stuff)

This is going to hack some people off.

If our labour in the Lord is not in vain, if our daily work pleases the Lord and if the church is about announcing God's kingdom through word and sacrament, then this has implications.

Firstly, there is no such thing as 'spiritual' work and 'nonspiritual' work. The school teacher, the police officer and the office clerk are all doing God's work inasmuch as they do their work unto Christ.

Secondly, there is no need to be involved in lay ministry, (be it preaching, running youth clubs, etc) in order to be about God's work. There are many in evangelical church's who have a nagging suspicion that they need to get involved in some church programme, the worship team or lay preaching in order to justify their existence. If they 'only do their job' nine to five through the week and neglect to do something 'spiritual' the rest of the time, they are burying their talents and God will be sooo mad. Sorry, but this is works/righteousness coming through the hole caused by a defective theology of the two kingdoms.

The result of such an approach to church, and I've been the victim of it as well as seeing it around me, is burned out men and women in the pews. In the past I've found myself, after a punishing day at work and putting kids to bed, sitting down to prepare a sermon at 8.30pm. I then preach a substandard message on the Sunday, feel crappy about it and then go back to work for a rest. Surely lay ministry in Scripture is the exception rather than the norm? Surely Christ's precious blood-bought church deserves better than the scraps of one's day?

Third, the word/sacrament ministry is a peculiar vocation. Not everyone should do it. Only those who are first men, second who are apt to teach and third who exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit should be considering it. Those who enter the Word ministry are the exception, they are freaks who should not be held up as the examples of how to please the Lord in your work.

Fourth, churches should be clear as to the purpose of church. Why is the Lord's Day the most draining day of the week? Why is it packed with 'stuff' that is not related to word and sacrament? The purpose of church is to feed the flock with Christ. It is a spiritual meal, a refreshing supper that takes hold of God's righteousness in Christ through word and sacrament. The flock attends to feed and graze. Imagine a sheep going to graze and the shepherd saying, "I know you've been busy having lambs and growing your coat, and I know that you're famished. But grazing isn't what you get out of it, it's what you put in. Go and plant some grass seed for your fellow sheep." Sounds ridiculous, yet I fear we evangelicals are guilty of a similar folly.

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation

This week's White Horse Inn podcast touches on the vocation of Christians. Fundamental to a solid theology of vocation is a proper understanding of the "two kingdoms" i.e. the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. Before the fall, in the garden, the kingdom of man was the kingdom of God. Man's realm belonged to God and, if I may say anachronistically, man belonged to a Christian culture.

Ever since the fall, man was driven from God's presence. No longer was the dwelling of God with man. Sure, mankind could still work, have children and build cities, but these societies did not have God walking among them. To cut a long story short, it's only in the NT with the coming of Christ that we see the return of the kingdom of God. Yet even still, his kingdom was and is not of this world. He inaugurated a new creation in his death, burial and resurrection and we await the final renewing of the heavens and the earth.

So at the moment, Christians are kind of stuck in a tension. We live in the world but we are not of the world. We are aliens and strangers whose citizenship is in heaven with Christ. This present evil age is passing away. Therefore, it is utter folly for the church to attempt to "transform the culture", a culture which is being prepared for burning.

The church's job is to announce God's kingdom through the preaching of the risen Christ and the administration of the sacraments. It seems weak and foolish compared to the whole "fighting injustice for Jesus" emerging ethos, yet it is God's plan.

This is fundamental if we are to grasp the purpose of our vocation. If the church is about word and sacrament and not about transforming culture, then what of the laity? What are we to do? It seems that our whole purpose is to live in this fallen world quietly and humbly going about our jobs. The apostle even wrote to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and work with your hands so that you might win the respect of outsiders. The purpose of the church is to feed us with Christ, so that we might have the resources to be salt and light in our vocation. God is more pleased with a street-sweeper who sweeps for the glory of God than one who locks himself away praying 24/7 in a monastry.

There is an interesting point from 1 Corinthians 15:58 where Paul tells us that our "labour in the Lord is not in vain." There seems to be an echo from Ecclesiastes here, where we are told that the whole of life (work, play, laughter, etc) is "vanity". Yet for those of us in Christ, all these things (work, play, laughter, etc) are not in vain. We can do the most mundane tasks knowing that, done in Christ, they have purpose in God's eyes.

Your job isn't a waste of time. If it's done in Christ it's valuable to our heavenly Father.