Monday, August 3, 2009

A Giddy Bride

We saw something both unique and delightful at the wedding of a friend. He is a seminary student and she is a school teacher. They were married this summer just before he must return to his theological studies. Their pastor performed the ceremony. The pastor's meditation stressed the theme that their marriage was to be a picture of the gospel and the love Christ has for the church. He returned to this theme at every point along the way using the text from Ephesians 5:22-33.

Throughout his message there were the funny quips about each of them as they would learn to adjust to one another. But the humorous tone was always referenced to "Christ and his bride, the Church."

When the pastor pronounced them to be "husband and wife," that's when we saw the unique and delightful thing: the bride's reaction to the good news that she was now married to the man of her dreams. She squeeled and jumped up and down like a giddy school girl! The new husband chuckled and drew her closer to himself in warm response. I, for one and my wife for another, had never seen such a thing. As I say, I thought it delightful that she delighted in her husband so much.

But as I reflected on this scene during the bride and groom's beaming recessional, I wondered if the church in our day was as delighted in her Husband as this young bride was in hers. No, I don't think we are to be "as giddy as a school girl," but surely we must be thrilled! How else will the world know that Christ our Groom is worth it. He is our Savior, our Leader, our Protector, our Provider and rich beyond all comparisons in grace and beauty.

Or are we bored with Him? After all, He is our goal in heaven. John Piper rightly asks whether today's American Christians would accept a heaven of eternal life, unending peace, and perfect health without Christ. If our answer is "yes," then I am afraid we would never be able to "see" the bride in my little story through the eyes of Scripture.

Striving to be satisfied only in Christ,

Disapproval is now "hate speech" for Fox News

On Saturday, at 10:30 am MT, Mike Tobin reported from Tel Aviv about two young people, a lesbian and a homosexual, senselessly murdered in a city night spot. The night spot was clearly targeted by the killer. In the report Mr. Tobin mentioned Tel Aviv's tolerant attitudes toward the homosexual lifestyle. In fact, he said that Tel Aviv prided itself on its toleration. Fair enough and balanced. However, his next statement was anything but fair or balanced. "However(he stressed vocally), ultra-orthodox leaders often incite hatred against gays, describing homosexuality as an abomination against God."

This statement caught my attention because it was an unsubstantiated assertion and reported without qualification. Was this Tobin's opinion of the teaching of ultra-orthodox leaders? Was this a quote from an official representative of the the Gay and Lesbian community? Was this Tobin's own conclusion after hearing ultra-orthodox leaders preach in a synagogue? Was this an admission by an ultra-orthodox leader himself? Worse: was this the official stand of the Fox News Network! What's more, was the use of the participle "describing" employed as the means for "incit[ing] hatred against gays"? If so, (which it implied grammatically) then would all disapproval of someone's behavior incite "hate speech"?

For example, if I were to tell my four year old daughter not to run into traffic on a busy street, but see her do it, rescue her and then tell her that I disapprove of her behavior, have I crossed over into hate speech? Probably not. What if my 16 year old daughter starts smoking cigarettes and I express my disapproval based on the obvious health risks, have I crossed over into hate speech? Probably not. If I tell my 20 year old daughter that partying every night in bars and consuming large amounts of alcohol that issue in being taken home drunk is unhealthy (think of the damage to her liver!) and that I disapprove, have I crossed over into hate speech? No again. If I disapprove of my 25 year old daughter's multiple sexual partners, say about 50 in one year, and I express my disapproval, again due to health as well as emotional, moral and spiritual dangers, do I now hate her? I don't think that any sane parent would say that my disapproval of her behaviors is "hate speech" in any of these cases. Each of these behaviors has some destructive behavior linked to it in either a physical,moral, emotional or spiritual way.

Has it become the case that any sexual activity is off limits for such expressed disapproval? According to Mr. Tobin's unsupported but clear denunciation of ultra-orthodox leaders, disapproval of sexual activity, for any reason would be considered hate speech.

Why stop at denouncing ultra-orthodox Jewish leaders. Why not denounce evangelical pastors (like myself, just so you know), and many evangelical Christians around the world who read the same Bible as ultra-orthodox leaders, albeit with a very different hermeneutic. Yet we have in both Old and New Testaments, God's disapproval of homosexual activity. (See Leviticus 18:22; Romans 1: 26, 27). Has God now crossed over into hate speech, or will we allow him the right to express his disapproval of human behaviors? Fair enough. Which ones? Only the ones with which we agree? That's not fair.

If we are to be "fair and balanced," then I can only conclude from Mr. Tobin's report that disapproval of any behavior has now become "hate speech." But to that assertion, I doubt even he would agree. Perhaps it's only sexual behavior that should be tolerated, while all other forms of destructive behavior (both physical and moral) should be denounced? How will we decide this ethical matter?

Perhaps a word from the wisest man ever to live might be of some insight: "A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, But a just weight is His delight" (Proverbs 11:1). See? Even God is concerned about "fair and balanced" reporting.

Loving the truth in speaking to one another,

Monday, December 22, 2008

Coming to a Town Creche Near You

The Denver Post (December 14, 2008) reported on a small New York town trying to be all things to all people this Christmas. The town in Armonk, NY (not far from my hometown), just north of New York City. This year in the town square a Christmas tree stands proudly in the little gazebo to commemorate the season. For fifteen years, the town has also displayed a menorah in commemoration of Hanukkah. Along the way, the town added a Kinara candle holder for Kwanzaa.

This year there is a new addition: a star and crescent to celebrate Islam. Although there is no special Muslim holiday slated for celebration in December, the town and Asad Jilani the sponsor thought it would be culturally appropriate to represent Islam during the Christian holiday.

So, the city threw out the welcome mat to Buddhists and Hindus to display their symbols at this time of year in the spirit of inclusivism. Judy Wesley, director of the Armonk Chamber of Commerce, caught the spirit of the age when she said that although she was raised as a Catholic, "in my opinion there's nothing wrong with having a spirit of inclusion. Jesus Christ himself would have gathered everyone around him."

Naturally, there are odd guidelines for adding to these displays: formal applications must be made, the symbols must be privately funded (i.e., no government money), the board will not try to distinguish between religious and secular symbols (whatever that means!) and "the symbol will be displayed only during the Christmas season." Huh?

All of this comes courtesy of an American culture racing toward the philosophical positions of inclusivism and diversity. But I'd have a few questions for the town of Armonk or any town trying desperately to avoid the nasty fight and court challenges that come every Christmas. First, why not display a cross at Christmas? After all, the accepted Christian symbol is not a Christmas tree but a Roman "tree" of execution. Jesus' birth is not the most important event in the gospels, evidenced by the amount of ink not spent on it. Only two of the four gospel writers took the time to write anything about Jesus' birth and both of them focused their attention on the birth of Jesus as the fulfillment of God's promises to send a Messiah. The birth itself gets only one verse in Luke (2:7). But compare that to the fact that all four gospels spend several long chapters on Jesus' suffering, death and resurrection. That is the central message of Christianity.

Second, why display all these symbols only at Christmas time? Here I think the town has shown its wishy-washy hand. Symbols are powerful reminders of what is believed by the adherents of a religion. Symbols are rooted in history and are meant to capture at a glance the meaning of signature events. Every religion offers some "plan of salvation." However, the menorah is not the most significant event in Jewish history. Most Jewish people work on the days of Hanukkah and celebrate it as "spiritual" but not "religious" in meaning because there are no prescribed religious obligations as in the observance of Sabbath or Passover. The star and crescent, as the Muslim Asad Jilani admitted, has no historic event rooted in the month of December. In fact, Islam denies that Jesus is the Savior sinful men and women need. He may be one of the prophets but not the necessary Substitute standing in the place of sinners to make atonement for them to a holy God. No one can be saved in that way; we must save ourselves claims Islamic teaching, and hope that we can appease Allah by our good deeds of prayer and alms. So, the two symbols clash in their understanding and remedy for humanity's greatest problem.

The presence of other symbols in December makes no sense if those symbols have no historic link in the yearly calendar or contradict each other's claims. I say it makes no theological sense but it all makes cultural sense. Even though the symbols lay no claim to significant events in their yearly religious calendars, yet for the city to omit them would be culturally unacceptable, insensitive and intellectually arrogant. The spirit of the present age is called accommodation. In the name of accommodation, I wondered if it would it be alright with the city if Christians displayed the cross of Christ during Ramadan? Or Passover? It would be appropriate since Christ is reigning until all his enemies are placed under his feet but the problem is it would also be offensive.

Judy Wesley is right about one thing: Jesus would have gathered everyone around him but it would have been to explain his claims -- exclusive claims -- to be the Source of salvation to all who believe in him. He often gathered people around himself to tell them exactly this thing: that he was "the way, the truth and the life [and] that no one comes to the Father except by him" (John 14:6). In an earlier gathering, Jesus told the crowds that "no one can come to him unless the Father grants it" (6:65).

The church must be ready to accept the same response today that Jesus got immediately after saying those words to the crowd that he gathered: "After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him."

Those who are married to the spirit of this age, will be divorced in the next. Beware of making accommodations that leave you bankrupt.

Standing together with you with an exclusive and joy filled gospel,

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Churches Work on their Message

A news story by Stephanie Simon and Suzanne Sataline from the Wall Street Journal (July 3, 2008) reported on the Pew Research Report survey about the state of the church in America. The Journal's report focused on potential flaws in the Pew survey because the questions were so nebulous in nature. However, the report has not told us what we have not been experiencing for some time. If you've been in a local evangelical church for the last 30 or so years, you have seen massive changes in the methods of ministry.

The challenge that faces the church, according to the article, is how churches and in particular pastors can get "their message" out without offense. "Most individuals think the truth can be what they want it to be," said R. Albert Mohler, "That represents a tremendous challenge." Indeed it does. The gospel is about one Savior who demands exclusive trust in his work for acceptance with God. It's a message that is entirely unacceptable in the brave new world of tolerance for all.

The article pointed out that while Protestant churches "are firmly rooted in Christianity," the "messages (never sermons) [are] jazzed up with video clips and hard-rocking nine-piece praise bands. . .They offer weekly Bible-study classes and make clear in their statement of faith that Jesus is the only way to heaven. But the sermons tend to be buoyant, hip and dedicated to self-help themes, rather than theology." Odd that a secular newspaper would have enough insight to point that out!

According to the Journal, the survey that surprised Willow Creek leadership last year has gotten at least one pastor of a California mega-church to plan to put more emphasis on Scriptural understanding in his sermons. The California mega-church pastor admitted, "We as a church have let [Christians] down . . . I feel a great responsibility to equip them better."

The authors of the article then raised what I believe to be a straw man argument: "This renewed determination to bring the flock more firmly into the fold raises other questions. If pastors hammer home the message that theirs is the one true path, will that encourage prejudice and intolerance -- 'will it necessarily bring more finger-pointing attacks?' asked Robert Millet, who teaches Mormon doctrine at Brigham Young University at Utah." The authors feared that perhaps this renewed vigor on the exclusive message of the gospel will invite pastors and church leaders to "clamp a lid on spiritual exploration."

We should welcome the awakened sense in pastors who may be coming out of their hang-overs from having imbibed deeply at the wells of church-marketing techniques for so long. Like Os Guinness said, if you are going to dine with the devil you need a long fork. For pastors who are coming around to their responsibility to faithfully preach the gospel every week and to feed the flock for which Jesus died, we must praise the Spirit of God and give Him thanks. God will not leave himself without a witness in the world; even in America. For those pastors who have gone completely unnoticed and sometimes endured harsh criticism from their congregations for not being "seeker sensitive" or "mega" enough, you are to be commended for not leaving your post.

Given these rays of light in the recent year and in light of the movement of young men flocking to conferences like T4G, we should devote ourselves to pray that God's Spirit will revive his church in America. Perhaps there will then come a clear delineation between the church and the world. Perhaps we will see the gospel spread, sin taken seriously, God's Word loved and the saints devoted to each other. Perhaps then we will also see fewer and fewer of the kinds of newspaper display ads that I cut out of the Denver Post just about a week ago that seem to want to push the envelop. In the middle of the movie page was an ad for a new church in downtown Denver. The caption read: "Why is this Man Wearing a Fig Leaf?" Indeed, the pastor of the church, pictured standing in front of the Denver Capitol building with a smiling passer-by in the background, was in a semi-crouch holding a giant fig leaf in one hand to cover himself, and with his other hand covering his breast. The ad included the name of the pastor and his new fall sermon series: "Good News from the Garden of Eden."

The good news from the Garden to the ascension is that Jesus has crushed the head of the serpent and God has gotten himself a people who were not a people.

Be of good cheer,

Monday, September 22, 2008

Everything's in the DNA

Sin is so sinful it blinds the mind to its presence, reality and horror, convincing the heart that it's just not that bad.

An article from the Los Angeles Times by Denise Gellene reports a new study that says, "Die-hard liberals and conservatives aren't made; they're born. It's literally in their DNA." Unnamed scientists studied 46 people and discovered that a person's political "bent" can be explained by the DNA make up. "The study added to the growing research suggesting that over millions of years, humans have developed two cognitive styles -- conservative and liberal," wrote Gellene of comments by James H. Fowler. Liberals want gun control, conservative want none; fear is the denominator. Conservatives have higher levels of fear and so favor the possession of guns.

Jon A. Krosnick, a Stanford poly-sci prof said this was a bogus "study." "I don't' believe any of this. The people who are most scared are less in favor of gun control. Why wouldn't they be more in favor? Because they need guns to fight the bad guys? You can make up a story in either direction."

Undeterred, Gellene writes, "The study is the latest to challenge the long-standing dogma that upbringing and environmental factors determine political attitudes."

Most every "malady" is ascribed to DNA, which has the effect of turning every "malady" into "that's just the way I am, so I'm okay and you must be okay, too." (Remember Thomas Harris' practical guide to transactional analysis in 1969?). Criminals, sexual perversions and promiscuous men have all but been given a pass based on the DNA argument.

An OT prophet, without benefit of "scientific studies" had the revelatory insight we need: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!" (Isa 5:20).

The Bible gives us a better explanation; one from which slaves to their DNA can become free: sin. Our behaviors mirror our hearts and our hearts are steeped in rebellion against God and uncleanness of all sorts. The bent of our hearts is always to oppose God's moral laws and vast goodness. The power of sin is strong and stronger in its deceptions. As John Owen warns, "be killing sin or it will be killing you." Self-help is as powerless as a flea in the face of the prowling lion of sin.

There is only one Power effective enough to kill sin before it kills you: the Holy Spirit who leads us into the fight.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 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. So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Romans 8: 9-14).

If you find yourself focused on the "sins out there," pause and reflect on the "sins in here." Ask the Spirit of Christ who dwells in you to "search...and know my heart, and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps 139:23-24). If it's in our DNA, Christ is our Savior from even our DNA to cleanse and to give victory over sin!

Be of good cheer in the fight for holiness!

What books are on your shelf?

Do you find yourself scanning the book shelves of other people when you are in their homes? I do. It's a bit like "trespassing" with the exception that your friends display their books, so I conclude it's fair game. Looking at the titles tells you something about them; about their souls. Looking at someone else's books "offers keys to a particular temperament, an intellectual dispostion, a way of being in the world" wrote Jay Parini.

You have to be a book lover in order to understand. I suggest you follow the link to Al Mohler's blog entitled, "By Their Books We shall know them." You will enjoy this. Find it at: From there he will take you to Parini's article, "Other People's Books."

Good reading may start with good snooping!


Friday, September 12, 2008

The Dangers of Assuming the Gospel

A number of years ago I asked a friend, also a pastor, when the pastors in our fellowship last talked to each other about the importance of proclaiming the gospel and all its implications for Christian living and local church ministry. He sadly shook his head and replied, "I've been in this [fellowship] for ten years and we've yet to have such a discussion." It was over five years ago that I asked the question, and to my knowledge it has yet to be discussed in any meaningful way. That brings us to just over fifteen years of pastors assuming the gospel.

There was a reason why I brought up the subject at the time. I had been involved in an assessment of pastoral candidates for church planting. The assessment included a session wherein candidates were asked to explain the gospel to us. At least the one pastor I asked took half an hour and shared with me his testimony. As wonderful as his story was about his own experience in submitting his life to Christ, it was not God's story, which Paul calls "the gospel of God" (Romans 1:1).

We have great good news to tell! It is the amazing story of what God has done in Christ to rescue sinners from bondage to their sin, their blind hatred of God and deliverance from the coming wrath of a holy God (Acts 26:18). But far too often, this story is assumed rather than proclaimed as the pre-eminent message of the church, at least in America.

What do I mean that the gospel is too often "assumed"? The best definition comes from David Gibson who wrote on this subject. He wrote that an assumed gospel ". . . believes and signs up to the gospel. It certainly does not deny the gospel. But in terms of priorities, focus, and direction, assumed evangelicalism begins to give gradually increasing energy to concerns other than the gospel and key evangelical distinctives, to gradually elevate secondary issues to a primary level, to be increasingly worried about how it is perceived by others and to allow itself to be increasingly influenced both in content and method by the prevailing culture of the day."
(Gibson's article available on line at:

The premise is this: whatever is assumed is soon left behind; perhaps not in our generation but the next. Sooner or later whatever is left behind will be denied. We have seen this drift in institutions, churches, denominations and theologians at one time devoted to the gospel.

If the gospel is assumed, then the contents of the gospel follow the same path: the cross will be assumed, discipleship in the local church will be assumed and unhinged from the cross, along with the integrity and authority of the Word.

Dangers to the Local Church
Assuming the gospel in the local church, rather than making it a priority for ministry, eventually clouds or obscures the proclamation of Christ. Other things become "of first importance" (1 Corinthians 15:1-5). The numbers of people involved in small groups or the attendance and giving figures take priority of concern and effort. The style of ministry takes priority over the faithfulness of ministry to the gospel. You may have heard the saying, "We don't change the message; only the method." Good! But there are times when methods obscure the gospel. See how Paul handled an argument similar to this in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. There are "styles" and expectations that come from the culture and used uncritically will obscure (at best) or distort (at worst) the message of the gospel.

Ministry structures in a local church must keep the gospel's content and aims in mind. When we say we want to make disciples (Matthew 28:19) are they the ones Jesus had in mind (v. 20)?

Dangers to the Local Church Pastor
A pastor should beware of assuming that the folks sitting in front of him on Sunday mornings or in the classrooms, can present the gospel with clarity. The gospel is not doing good works, is not stories of personal conversion or only for unbelievers. (For an excellent talk on this matter listen to Mark Dever's lecture "Exercises in Unbiblical Theology" at this year's Together for the Gospel conference: If a pastor wants to know how well his church's members know the gospel, he should ask them to explain it. In our church, one of the questions we have begun asking prospective members is this very thing. During the interview we ask them how they came to Christ and also to explain the gospel. It is true that a person can come to faith in Christ without a full or even clear presentation of the gospel. I'm proof of that. However, the pastor must be clear and able so that others learn and are saved (1 Timothy 4:16).

However, I believe the danger starts in the pastor's study. If he misses the story line of redemptive grace, he misses the power of his message and his applications may fall into moral imperativalism. By that I mean, he will come to the pulpit Sunday after Sunday with the worst kind of "gospel:" "Get out there this week and don't be like David who fell into sexual sin." Or, "Get out there this week and be like David defeating your giants!" No, I'm not for sexual sinning or against victory over sin, please don't get me wrong on this. What I am for is Christians realizing that the power to avoid sexual temptation and the power for victory over sin rests not in their moral will power but in the sin-killing power of the Holy Spirit, who applies to the heart the victory of Christ's cross to the power of their flesh.

This is why the pastor must proclaim the gospel every Sunday morning. Sinners need to hear its offer of grace and threats for disobedience. But so do Christians. Christians need to have the gospel "rubbed into their pores" so that they not only believe it but they live it out with their spouses, their children, their brothers and sisters in Christ and the God-ignoring neighbor next door.

Dangers to the Christian
Which brings us to the individual Christian. When a Christian assumes the gospel as sufficient for "getting into heaven" but not for continued sanctification, two dangers arise. Gibson points these out in his article and I was thankful for the warnings. The first danger is that the believer may fall into the "ditch of license" believing that it doesn't really matter how life is lived because "I've got my Jesus-ticket." They forget that grace "teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age" (Titus 2:12). Or, the believer may fall into the "ditch of legalism" adding behaviors and beliefs to grace that nullify and frustrate grace. By assuming the gospel, focus shifts toward an inclination to keep outward rules: "having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power" (2 Timothy 3:5). Either way its a denial of power; the Spirit's power to sanctify the believer in that march toward Christlikeness.

The gospel of Jesus Christ must set the pace and inform the functions of our churches, pastors and saints. Gibson says, "This also means that a vital way to evaluate our evangelicalism (in its application to our churches and preaching and disciplemaking) is to ask to what extent these issues dictate our priorities in life and our visions and strategies."

It is the gospel that God has always intended to bless. When and where we "get on the stretch" to proclaim that message, God will bless: "I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6). To God the gospel is a big deal!

Be of good cheer,

PS: Take a look at Mark Dever's comments from The Gospel Coalition at: