Tuesday, March 5, 2019

On Zion Williamson and a World Full of Catch 22s

If you’re a sports junkie like I am, you are familiar with the ongoing debate about whether or not the recently injured Zion Williamson, Duke Blue Devils star, should try to heal and come back and play this season.  He’s the best player in college basketball, the most electrifying NBA prospect since Anthony Davis (and Kevin Durant before him, and Lebron James before him), and he will go number one in this June’s NBA draft.  But he was injured in a freak shoe-tear a few weeks ago.  And now people are saying, “Should he just sit out the rest of the year and get ready for the draft, or should he return to Duke?” 
Advocates saying he should not play argue that these players who help their universities make millions and millions and millions of dollars every year should be making money themselves.  Since Zion doesn’t see any money directly, he should therefore protect himself for his NBA career where he’s guaranteed to be a multimillionaire. 
Advocates saying he should play argue that he’ll be immortalized if he
returns and helps Duke win the national championship.  Further they rightly know that competitors – and if you’ve ever watched Zion, you know he is a fierce competitor – want to play.

Pay the Players? 

The operative issue is the ongoing discussion about college players and whether or not they should make money.  It seems to me that they should, but I’m not sure exactly how it should work, because the scholarship players, as conservative commentators argue, are in a sense being paid with free college.  Of course, guys like Zion aren’t going to need their degree (and so most of them won’t finish it), because the second he’s drafted number one, he’ll be guaranteed a salary of over $6.5 million (and increasing) each of the next several years, a shoe deal, and many more millions from endorsements.
But we’re in a time of changing definitions – it used to be that college sports were exactly that: college sports– extracurricular competition for those attending college. But now, especially college football and basketball are an institution in themselves – a type of professional sports audition leagues, where the college part is secondary. 
But by definition college basketball is NOT a sport’s league.  It is still an extra-curricular competition league for those attending college.  And this is why the NBA is considering lowering the minimum age to 18, so that players who are ready can come into the league straight out of high school.  This will effectively change college basketball for forever (as it was in the process of doing before the NBA raised the minimum age to 19 in 2005).  And potentially, it may be best if it does happen. 

Nothing is Perfect in a Fallen World

But if you ask me, it seems that what is driving the “Zion needs his money”  narrative is the common liberationist belief that there are systems ran by rich people purposely set up to keep talented individuals down.  And I’m not a conspiracy theorist like so many today, young and old, are.  I just think things are the way they are because life in a fallen world has challenges and injustices all over the place.  Therefore the creation groans to be liberated from the effects of the fall (Romans 8:22-23).  Until that day, nothing in life is without thorns, thistles, pain, and futility (Genesis 3:17-18).  Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward (Job 5:7).  Nothing we can do today will change the trouble that is around every corner.  As a Christian, I believe the only hope we have is the resurrection of Jesus which is making all things new, so that those who seek refuge in Him will be kept until (and prepared for) the new creation where true righteousness dwells  (Ps. 91:1, 2 Peter 3:13).

Number One

People forget that Zion’s year at Duke is what has made him a household name, and has made him the number one prospect in this year’s draft.  So what happens if he comes back and plays and wins a championship?  Won’t it be more so?  But one may retort, what happens if he comes back and gets injured again?  I’ll tell you:  He’ll still go in the top 5, because NBA teams will want to take a chance that their training staff can keep him healthy.  And he’ll still get his money, and likely be an all-time great anyway.

By the way, if you’ve not watched Zion Williamson, go over to Youtube and get dazzled.  Even if you don’t like basketball, you may like it after watching him.   I’ve been watching basketball my whole life, and seriously, his highlight reels are like watching old Michael Jordan and Larry Bird reels.  It’s so fun.  I hope the next time we see him on a basketball court is in a Duke uniform. My Boiler pride won’t let me say, “I hope he wins the championship.” (Boiler up, Purdue is currently #11 in the country after losing 4 starting seniors last summer, and about to win the Big Ten for a record 24th time).  But I confess; even as a historic Duke-despiser, I find it impossible not to root for him.  I just think the best thing for him will be winning the championship and not taking the easy way out, regardless of what the talking heads on TV say.  Something tells me he thinks so, too. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Remedies for Anxiety and Depression

“Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me!” – Psalm 25:20

I’ve had continuous exposure to anxiety and depression for the last 10-15 years.  Whether it be through my own personal struggles, or through working as a pastor of hurting and broken people, it seems that that which is commonly referred to in terms of poor “mental health” (but which I refer to sometimes as “the darkness” and other times as “the mist”) is such a common occurrence that it is worth understanding if one really wants to help others in our increasingly depressed world.

It was a formative bout with depression in my early 20s that made me a Christian.  Let me explain.  I grew up in the church, but my faith was my parent’s faith and it depended on a vibrant Christian sub-culture (fun youth group, high school conferences with legit-sounding bands leading worship, etc.)  It wasn’t until I went away to college that I had such a crisis of identity that I was forced to ask the question, “What do I really believe?”  It was in that time of darkness (and many of my friends from that time can attest to how dark it was for me) that I started reading the Bible out of a need to find answers.  And boy did I find them, in the form of an unfolding story that showed me through narrative why I feel so far from God, and how God graciously came into His creation to find me (Luke 19:10).  As I found these answers, I changed for forever.

The last ten plus years (the first few as a staff pastor and the last eight as a “senior” pastor) have afforded me countless opportunities to help others through their struggles with the darkness (or, if you prefer Churchill’s term for his depression: the black dog).  And the Lord has repeatedly used times of personal darkness to keep the feeling fresh in my mind. 

That said, if you struggle, I’d like to offer five remedies that may help.

1. Breathe.

One remedy in moments of intense anxiety (and these moments are neither the same for everyone nor easy to understand) is to slow down your mind by focusing on breathing.  This may sound like some kind of far-eastern yoga technique or something like that. But one of the very things that distinguishes us as people made in God’s image is that we have his ruah (Heb. breath, spirit) in us (cf. Gen. 2:7, Job 34:14-15).  Since God has made all things to be reminders of His concern for our good and flourishing, we can conclude that our breath is meant to be a reminder of His love and care for us.  He gives us "life and breath and everything" (Ac. 17:25).
Psalm 46 was written in a time of intense trouble (46:1).  After establishing God’s faithfulness and goodness, the reader is told to “Be still and know that (I) am God,” after which the reader is reminded that God “will be exalted among the nations” (46:10).  “Be still” is another way of saying to slow down, or even to just breathe.  The idea that God will be exalted among the nations is an invitation into the Bible’s metanarrative – the great end and goal toward which God is moving His creation. That leads to point #2

2. Remember the big picture. 

There is a reason why we love movies and television series so much.  It is because in telling stories with happy endings, we're encouraged to think that our story will have a happy ending as well.  For people prone to anxiety and depression, the fear that one’s story will not have a happy ending is crippling.  
But the fact that the Bible is a story – a journey if you will – and that it is written specifically to people who have been invited into life with God (an implication I see in 2 Timothy 3:16-17) shows us that God wants to sweep us up into His story.  The difference between His story and the fictional stories of the big screen is that the latter can at best tell stories that have echoes of truth, while the former, if the resurrection is true, is the truth.  That is to say that the movies and TV shows are shadows and types while the Bible’s story is the reality to which they point.*  And for those on the journey with Jesus into God’s reality, not only is your future incredibly bright, but it is getting brighter and brighter as the days go by.  This doesn’t mean every day will be happy, but that every day you are being prepared for that happiness for which you long.
This seems to be Jesus’ point when His disciples ask him to help them be more prayerful like He is (Luke 11:1) – He sets their minds to the "big picture" by telling them to pray about the Kingdom and the hallowing of God’s Name, then telling them to only be concerned with enough food for the day, receiving and giving grace, and being kept from sin’s temptations along the journey (11:2-4).  Apparently as they get a clear picture in their minds of the journey they’re on, it’ll make them prayerful.  And then as they pray, God will give them the Holy Spirit to help them walk faithfully in Him (11:13).

3. Don't just doubt yourself: doubt your doubts. 

Again, let me explain.  The anxious and melancholy among us struggle to think they have what it takes not only to make it through life’s big challenges, but even the little ones (and truly the little ones often loom large).  So they doubt themselves.
But work toward consistency in your natural skepticism: Doubt your doubts as well!  Most know that anxiety problems are primarily a tendency to focus on irrational fears (or at least irrationally overblowing rational fears).  But who says the thing you fear happening is going to happen?  What if you tend to make certain fearful outcomes happen by thinking about and dwelling on them?  I know that what I just said is part of your struggle – feeling like it’s your own fault. But what if instead, you began to doubt your doubts as much as you doubt yourself?  Jesus said that Satan is a liar who is out to destroy (John 8:44), and he does this by accusing God’s people (Rev. 12:9-10) and bringing them to trust in their own fallen understanding.  Instead of leaning on your thinking, do what Solomon said: Acknowledge God (Prov. 3:5-6).  The command is not “Don't lean on your understanding, but lean on God” or "Lean on God's understanding." Rather, it is, “Acknowledge God.”  And as you do, like King Nebuchadnezzar, your reason will return to you (Dan. 4:34), maybe not all at once, but in time.  Just acknowledge the Lord, and you'll be amazed at His ability to bring you along toward (though perhaps not yet to) peace.

4. Keep moving 

Both depression and anxiety tend to stagnate people.  Since they’re either so fearful of what may happen or so hopeless about the point of it all anyway, they just stop. That’s poison.  Keep yourself moving.  Get involved at church.  Go to work and sign up for overtime doing extra tasks.  Say yes to social activities.  Make friend dates and go to movies and out to eat.  Get regular exercise (especially calisthenics and cardio). You will find that as you keep “moving,” you will "quiet the fear", to borrow from a Desiring God article I read once.
Jay Adams is a Christian counselor of over 50 years.  He made a fantastic point in his magisterial Competent to Counsel:  We’re sort of dual-natured in that we have both emotions (feeling) and volition (will to act).  The emotional side of you can’t be controlled.  You feel how you feel, and you can't stop it.  But the volitional side of you can be controlled.  You can act.  You can change things.  And the beauty of our human makeup is this: If you control the volitional (that is, by moving), it’ll have an effect on the uncontrollable part (your emotions).**  So keep moving.
This is why the Psalmist, in a time of apparent depression (Psalms 42 and 43), talks to himself, saying, “Why are you downcast, o my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (42:5-6).  Doctor turned preacher David Martin Lloyd-Jones once wisely said that in this Psalm we have an example of a depressed person taking their heart in their hands and saying, “NO, I refuse to be beaten.”*^  I submit that as you keep moving, you’re not ignoring your problems (like some may say), but you’re refusing to let your problems beat you.  And just like God told Abraham to leave his home to go to a place that would be shown to him later (what a scary call!, Gen. 12:1), so God will show you His purpose in time.  

5. Be patient

If you are a Christian (and I pray that you are, because if you aren’t, most of what I’ve said in this post has likely made no sense), you are by definition living a life of patience. Christians are those on a journey to a new creation where righteousness dwells, and their faith in Jesus has caused them to receive His Spirit, by whom they are themselves a new creation already in Him (2 Cor. 5:17).  Until then, they, like Abraham and all of those making up the Hebrews 11 so-called “hall of faith,” are sojourners through life. 
Therefore, all that you as a believer go through is given to you so that through it God will prepare you for what He has for you in the new heavens and new earth.  You are being conformed to the image of Christ, who endured suffering because resurrection was around the corner.  As you endure suffering, you’ll find resurrection as well (cf. Phil. 3:8-10).

This is why so much of the Bible is given to promises made to those waiting on Him:
            -“The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Ex. 14:14)
-“Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (Ps. 27:14)
-“They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Is. 40:31)
-“Blessed are all who wait for him!” (Is. 30:18)
-“My soul waits for the Lord .. in His word I hope … for with the Lord there is steadfast love” (Ps. 130:5, 7)
-“And after you’ve suffered a little while, the God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet. 5:10).

When you consider these promises in light of the Bible’s narrative, which is full of people who went through all that you’re going through, it encourages you to know you’re not alone.  And since there was a deliverance for them, so there will be for you.  
How can you be sure? Because in Jesus’ work at the cross, God didn’t decide to stand aloof from the suffering of His people. Instead, as Tim Keller has rightly said, at the cross God came and got involved in the suffering.  And if He loved you then, He’s going to love you now.  You have only to wait on the Lord, while He fights for you. 

Only God can deliver

What I've written probably hasn't taken away the darkness from you that always seems to be there.  But nothing will.  What I'm suggesting is following Jesus through it.  In time, He'll turn the lights back on, and everything will look different and better.  But that will take patience on your part to wait on Him.  Thanks be to God, Christian, you have the very Spirit of Jesus living inside of you, and one of His works is patience (Gal. 5:22).  As you pray, asking the Lord to endure you, sustain you, and do His good work, you will in time find peace.  And it will last forever. 

*See Jeram Barr's Echoes of Eden, where he beautifully shows how all of our favorite stories today unwittingly betray a longing for what the Bible promises.
**Adams, Competent to Counsel, 97.
*^ Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression, 20.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

When the Church Gathers to Sing

"God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth"
                                                                                                                        -Jesus, John 4:24

I've been doing a lot of recent reading on corporate worship in the church.  Many of you who know me know that I used to be a worship pastor.  You may know that a great goal of mine was to be a well-known worship leader with a big band and original songs that would not only be sung in churches but played on the radio.  I wanted to be a worship fixture in evangelical Christian America.  

As I studied the Bible, God changed the direction of my goals and desires toward preaching and teaching, with no further need to be famous or well-known.  I became convinced that the great need in the church in the present hour is individual congregations receiving a steady diet of clear Biblical preaching that shows Jesus as the hero of the story and the one who leads us in our story.  This doesn't mean I became convinced that worship in the church doesn't matter, but that I was called to help worship in the church by providing first a doctrinal backbone.

Simple Worship

Over the years of preaching and ministry, I've become convinced of the need for simple worship.  I just don't feel the same way about Hillsong, Passion, Jesus Culture, etc. that I used to.  That "flavor" of worship seems a little showy, and too much like a modern concert.  Concerts aren't bad things, and music is a great gift from God meant to be enjoyed.  But I've become convinced that there is a time and a place for that kind of musical expression, and corporate worship among God's people especially on Sundays is not it.  You will not find an elaborate use of instrumentation in Temple worship in the Old Testament (and even during victory celebrations and special days, the instrumentation was modest and purely for accompaniment cf. 1 Chron. 15:16, 28; 16:5, 6; Ezra 3:10)*; and you won't find any instruments being used in New Testament worship.  While I'm not convinced that these facts suggest that we are to not use instruments, I am convinced that these facts give a persuasive argument that God wants us to guard against overdoing it in our corporate worship.  Further, while worship is to be more about what is said than how it is said (since Jesus said unequivocally that God seeks those who will worship him "in spirit and truth", meaning with our hearts, inwardly, and with truth, doctrinally; Jn. 4:24), how it is said can have a definite effect on whether or not the truth sung is truly being sung with one's spirit.  Therefore the expression of our truth-filled worship matters a great deal.

The issue in question not only concerns various forms of music in church, but also other forms of artistic expression therein: musicals, dramas, movies, etc.  It isn't that I'm saying these things are off limits in church, but I wonder if they're a sign of the church's lack of trust in faithful Bible preaching, and a possible attempt by the church to cater to the entertainment-hungry masses in the world.  

The Challenge, Even Seventy Years Ago

In that vein, an illustration might be is insightful.  I'm currently reading Iain Murray's magisterial biography of David Martyn-Lloyd Jones, part two.  It is almost 800 pages long, and I plan on reading a 4-5 pages a day and finishing it sometime this year.  Murray tells us in the section that deals with Lloyd-Jones' first years as pastor at Westminster Chapel in central London (during the tumultuous WWII air raids) of a young American women who was regularly visiting Westminster while she worked in London.  In a letter sent home to Pennsylvania, the young woman, Mary-Carson Kuschke, wrote of a church discussion on "how to fill the galleries" (that is, how to grow the church again).  Her letter says this: 

"The question was admitted for discussion, and members of the group began making suggestions along the lines of more music, livelier music, special music numbers, shorter sermons, sermons not so deep, more variety in the services, etc.  I was listening to all this with mounting consternation, and when, in response to the idea that the church members could help fill the galleries by inviting others to the services, someone said that such invited visitors would not return a second time if they did not enjoy the service, I was finally constrained to raise my hand and request the floor.  I do not recall my exact words, but I presented myself as one who had come among them as a stranger, had come a second time, liked everything that I saw and heard, and was obviously continuing to come.  I said that for my part, no changes whatsoever were needed to keep me coming.  Dr. L-J smilingly thanked me for 'the first kind words I've heard this evening!'.  He then rose and asked the group what they would say if he told them he knew a way to ensure that every seat in the Chapel would be filled on the following Lord's Day.  He assured them that he did, in fact, know how this could be accomplished.  'Tell us, tell us!' they said, and 'Let's do it!'.  'It's very simple', he said.  'Simply put a notice in the Saturday edition of The Times that I shall appear in the pulpit the next day wearing a bathing costume!'.  This was followed, of course, by a period of shocked silence.  He then went on to expound the biblical basis for proper worship, using as a counterpoint the error, then just beginning to be prevalent, of introducing various forms of entertainment into the worship as a means of enticing people to attend."*

Even 70 years ago, amidst mounting opposition, Lloyd-Jones saw that it is a fool's errand for the church to try and entertain the world. If you make that the end-all be-all, two things will happen:  First, the Spirit of God won't be in the church (because the church will have forsaken the source of the Spirit's presence, which is Christ being set forth in faithful preaching, 1 Cor. 2:4, and in loving community, Eph. 4:3).  And second, the church, having lost it's identity, will lose the masses even further, because why would people come to such a clearly lesser form of entertainment on a Sunday morning when they can stay home and watch what Hollywood and New York has to offer?  

This is by no means my attempt to suggest that all of the old ways are the best ways.  Sometimes the church does have to scrutinize it's methods and make them more timely.  Sometimes the church is stuck with a worship expression that is just an outdated version of old styles that in their day were up-to-date.  And that's no better, if it isn't Scriptural.  But I'm convinced that our attempts at modernized music, if we're not careful, might actually be our attempt to shake free from God's tried and true fool-proof method for drawing the masses: Believers sharing the Gospel with their friends and family, and pastors preaching full of the Spirit, expounding the Scriptures.

And I believe that if churches seek faithfulness in these areas, the other stuff will fall into place.  Pray with me to that end.

*Peter Masters, Worship in the Melting Pot, London: Wakeman Trust 2002, 55ff.  Masters shows that when you bear in mind how many people participated in temple celebrations, the instrumentation was actually pretty modest by many of our modern worship standards.  
**Iain Murray, David Martyn-Lloyd Jones: The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth 1990, 111-12.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

To Us a Child is Born

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” 
                                                                                                                                 -Isaiah 9:6-7

My reading plan (very appropriately) has me in the early chapters of Isaiah right now  This morning I came across the verses listed above, and what struck me wasn’t the richness (I’ve always been struck by it), but instead all that led up to these verses in the preceding chapters.  There is so much here about what the Messianic figure will accomplish in coming to the earth.  

I thought thus that it’d be helpful to give a quick synopsis of the Christ-figure’s work according to Isaiah 1-12.  I hope this blesses you and helps you to truly remember the "reason for the season." 

Isaiah 1a(:1-20) – Among God's people, religious practice hasn’t worked, because it hasn’t changed the heart.  The people have been given the Law, which, if they’ll keep it, will be righteousness for them (Dt. 6:25).  But they haven’t kept it, and indeed this inability serves to prove the fallenness of man in Adam (cf. Rom. 3:20).  Therefore, the Lord is going to have to atone for the people Himself (1:18).  The offended will have to become the offense.

-1b(:21-31) – Because of the lack of godliness among the people of God, the nation, symbolized as a “city,” is entirely evil, and living in a different paradigm entirely than what is God's purpose for them.  This city exemplifies what Augustine called the “City of Man,” which was being built ever since Cain went in his sinful pride away from God's seed to build cities (Gen. 4:17ff). Thus there is a need for a new godly city to be established, and God will build it.

-2a(:1-5) – God will establish this new glorious city up on a mountain, higher than all the other mountains.  Moses gave the Word of God to the people from a mountain (Ex. 20ff), and later, the city of God in the world, with the Temple in the middle, was founded on a mountain (in Jerusalem). Now, a new spiritual city with a new Temple is said to be built, out of which will flow the Word of God, drawing people from all nations to come hear from God and live with Him (2:2-5).  Their song as they draw near to God will be like the songs of ascents in Psalms 120-135.

-2b(:6)-3 – In this day, God’s people will be known as those who see how counterfeit the idols of their hearts are, and repent from them to serve Him.  Thus they cast them away to follow God (cf. Ac 14:17, 1 Thes. 1:10).

-4-5a(:7) – The “branch” of the Lord – personifying the source of life in God’s creation – will be established, since the first vineyard of the Lord (Israel) has been proven as fallen and lifeless.  (Thus Jesus later says He’s the Vine and His disciples are branches – all spiritual life in the world comes from Him alone, Jn. 15:1ff).

-5b(:8-30) – God will judge the pride of man.  Indeed, he does judge it – where there is pride, there will always be judgment and hardship. (cf. Rom. 1:18ff)

-6a(:1-7) – Isaiah the prophet is brought in a vision to God’s throne and is struck down in his own eyes as a man in desperate need for salvation.  This witness of God’s glory and the reality of man’s sin is a picture of what all people must undergo to be “saved”: They must see that they’re made for God’s glory, that they have fallen short of the glory, and that in Christ alone, they can be brought near through God’s atonement (Rom. 3:21ff).

-6b(:8-13) – Isaiah then is sent as a messenger to take this message to the world. Of course people won’t listen, but that doesn’t change Isaiah’s mission.  Thus sometimes God’s Word doesn’t save but instead condemns (which is what exactly Jesus says at Mark. 4:11-12).  But a remnant will hear.

-7-8a(:10) -  This miraculous inbreaking of God’s grace into the world (not to suggest He’s never been gracious) will be accompanied by another miracle: a baby being born to a Virgin (7:14), who will be called “God with us” (Immanuel).  Apparently this impossible act will be possible because the child is divine.  But then a child is born to Isaiah, as a miraculous event nonetheless (named "Mahershalalhashbaz"), with this purpose: to show that the coming “God with us” child will also be a human.  In essence, Isaiah is saying “He’ll be 'God-with-us,' but He’ll be a human child.” 

-8b(:11-22) – The one coming is identified with God, and he will become a) a stone of stumbling, b) a sanctuary, and c) a rock of offense (8:14). That is, 
a) He’ll be seen as the Law of God personified (thus righteousness - conformity to God's truth - will be tied up with him, cf. Jn. 1:1ff, and all will one day be judged up next to Him, Ac. 17:31). 
b) He Himself will become the spiritual house of God, so that people come to God through Him as the Mediator and Way to heaven (cf. Jn. 14:6, Heb. 4:15-16).  The Temple will thus fall later and never be reconstructed because He is the Temple (Jn. 2:20-22).
c) He’ll offend many people, but only because He reveals fully the pride and sin of man, and their need thus to be atoned for by God’s grace.  Therefore, “Blessed are those who aren’t offended by me” (Matt. 11:6).

Ch. 9 – The Divine child born to the people, will rule, counsel, and work peace, even Fathering the people; and nations will come inquire of Him.  His rule will fulfill the promise to David to have a Kingly descendent whose Kingdom never ends (cf. 2 Sam. 7:11-14, Dan. 2, 4, 7:13-14).  

-10-11 – Only a remnant of the proud nations (including Israel) will embrace this King and come under His rule (10: 20-23, 11:11).  But there will be a profound wisdom and excellence to His rule (11:1-5), such that the world has never seen.  Thus, though only a remnant will come, people will continually be coming to Him, so that the number of those coming to Him increases.  

Ch. 12 – Those under His rule will never spiritually thirst, but will rest satisfied and happy in Him.  “With joy” they will “draw water from the wells of salvation” (12:3).  Thus Jesus said at the Feast of Tabernacles, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said” (likely referring to Isaiah 12:3, Ezekiel 47, Zechariah 13 & 14, and perhaps many others), “’Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (Jn. 7:37-38).   

Upon reading Isaiah 1-12, I’m struck at how beautifully the whole story of the Bible is contained here. The preeminence of God’s glory as the backdrop of man’s existence is perfectly contained in His anger over sin alongside His desire to bless and bring life to people.  The sin and fallenness of man is seen in Israel’s history and the historical situation that they’re under that thus makes them ripe for promises of the coming of a Messiah.  The temporary nature of the city of Jerusalem, the Temple, the sacrificial system, and the fact that these things are merely meant to show outwardly what God wants to become inward, is all depicted vividly.  Thus this teaching opens up the door to understanding that the Messiah’s work will be to fulfill righteousness in Himself (Matt. 3:15), become Himself the spiritual city and Kingdom of God (Heb. 12:22), and satisfy those who are over life and themselves enough to long for and thus see His glory (Matt. 5:6).  Very few will embrace Him.  But some will; and those who do will be captivated by His wisdom and perfection, such that, if ever presented with the option to leave him, can only respond, "Where else can we go?  You have the words of eternal life!" (cf. Jn. 6:68)

Thus we see why the New Testament Christians were so captivated by Christ’s glory: What a glory to behold indeed!  And we also see why the Christmas season is so joyful: With joy, in Jesus, we draw water from the wells of salvation, and it satisfies us eternally.

So come and drink! 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Lauren Daigle, and Biblical Clarity

Lauren Daigle has been on the scene for several years as an extremely talented (and now accomplished) contemporary Christian singer.  Her first songs a couple of years ago were immediately attention grabbing because she has a voice that is so unique and of such a high quality that it’s hard to ignore when she comes on.  She’s drawn some comparisons to Adele, and I think these are warranted comparisons. (Note, a comparison isn’t an equivocation – it just means that there are similarities.)

Daigle has come under fire recently for her statements regarding whether or not homosexuality is a sin.  In an interview with iHeart radio, she said

“In a sense, I have too many people that I love that they are homosexual. I don't know. I actually had a conversation with someone last night about it. I can't say one way or the other. I'm not God. So when people ask questions like that, that's what my go-to is. I just say read the Bible and find out for yourself. And when you find out, let me know, because I'm learning, too."

It is hard to imagine that she really doesn’t know what the Bible says about homosexuality.  But since no one has omniscience, one could say that it is fair to give her the benefit of the doubt.  Perhaps she doesn’t know.  After all, she did say to read the Bible and let her know, since she is apparently still learning.  But maybe she does, and she doesn’t want to give an opinion that could lose fans (although, this opinion has lost her some fans as well.)

Let’s consider the two possibilities: Either she does know and she’s afraid to take a definite stand, or she doesn’t know, being a Bible-belt-raised Christian who doesn’t know the basics of Biblical sexual ethics.  Either option provides somewhat of a snapshot of problems with American evangelicalism. 

Maybe she knows

The former possibility (that she knows Scripture and won’t take a stand) snapshots the problem of Christians claiming the Christian name but not being committed to the authority of the Christian sacred text, which we call the Bible.  Instead, one of the primary teachings of the sacred text - love - has grown to usurp the authority of the very text from which it came.*  Since love is the authority (as a listener to Christian radio, Lauren Daigle’s workplace, may conclude), propositional truth concepts that could be potentially challenging to another person’s lifestyle or beliefs quickly become no-nos.  

This is why Daigle said elsewhere, 
“I think the second we start drawing lines around which people are able to be approached and which aren't, we've already completely missed the heart of God.”  

But no one is saying a homosexual can’t be approached.  In fact, Christians think that all people – homosexual, heterosexual, etc. – need Jesus.  But embracing Jesus means embracing His opinions about what is right and wrong.  “Why do you call me Lord but don’t do what I tell you?” (Lk. 6:46)  If Daigle knows what the Scripture says and is afraid to confront what Scripture confronts, then she apparently doesn’t understand how one can simultaneously love someone and disagree with them.  

The real issue, as it appears to me, is that there is some other authority over our cultural conscience, and perhaps there are many varying authorities over our own personal consciences, instead of God’s truth as He has revealed it in His Word.  Daigle is not the first professing Christian who has publically claimed that she can’t say one way or another whether something is wrong because she’s not God, implying that we need to leave all judgments to God.  

But to imply this is to say that we therefore should stop reading the Bible, because it so emphatically confronts and condemns so many things as wrong and in need of forsaking.  Perhaps this is the greater reason for Biblical illiteracy in the 21st century church: Fear of becoming as judgmental as God is.  After all, Jesus said that we shouldn’t judge because we’ll be judged with our own standard, right? (Matt .7:1-6).   But in the same passage Jesus said to remove the log from our eyes (judge ourselves) so that we can remove the speck from our brother’s eyes (judge your brother)!  Further, Jesus very clearly told His followers that they need to learn to judge rightly (Jn.7:24).  In short, where does Jesus stand on being judgmental?  Learn to judge rightly, but be careful because it’ll be turned around on you in the end.  And we need Scripture to straighten out our standard so that we can discern what is righteous and what isn’t.**  Therefore Paul says that only by being transformed in our minds can we learn to discern what pleases God (Rom. 12:2).

But maybe she doesn’t know 

The latter option – that Daigle doesn’t know what the Bible says – snapshots a problem I’ve already alluded to: Christians today don’t know the Bible.  And this apparently applies to Christians in the public sphere as well.  It just seems like the church is at an post-Reformation all-time low when it comes to Biblical literacy

But if this is so, it begs a question: What then makes a person a Christian?  
-Is it “believing in Jesus”?  Then what does it mean to believe in Jesus – just in his existence, or even further, in his power?  That qualifies us as demons (Jms. 2:19, cf. Lk. 4:34).  Or is to believe in his life, death, and resurrection, and what it means for me?  Most Christians would say, “That’s the one.”  But you can’t have this without the Bible, and you can’t have the Bible without the Bible’s morality, too. 

-Is it having grown up in the church?  It can’t just be that – the Bible quite clearly says that one isn’t a child of God just by being born as a human.  One must be reborn as a Christian (see John 1:12-13).  Again, we need the Bible to understand this. 

-Is it being an American?  Does being an American make a person a Christian?  No, and it never has.  A Christian is a citizen of heaven first (Phil. 3:20).  One must embrace the Biblical message of Jesus, His Kingdom, and His atoning work at the cross.  Further, Jesus’ kingdom is to intentionally span across every tribe, tongue, and nation (Rev. 5:9).

A Pillar of Truth 

The Apostle Paul said that the church is the pillar of truth in the world (1 Tim. 3:15).  This means that if the whole world continues to morph in its understanding of what is true and absolute or right and wrong (or, in our case today, in its recategorizing of ethics so that “right and wrong” is thought of as the wrong paradigm all together, being too “binary”), then those who are inevitably worn out by the shifting shades of grey should be able to look at the church to find truth.  And if truth can’t be found in the church, the church is no longer the church.  Thus the apostle writes, “I rejoice to find you walking in the truth” (2 Jn. 4), and Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth (see John 14-16).  It is a sad day when people claim Christ but don't think Christ's thoughts after Him, especially when we are supposed to "have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:15).  But if we don't think the Bible is clear enough or trustworthy enough, how can we have the mind of Christ in the least? 

Post-modern Christian tension

You may notice by now that I don’t want to throw Lauren Daigle out as not being a Christian because of what she said.  Perhaps she doesn’t know what the Bible says. Or perhaps she does, and she, like many today, doesn’t understand how to love Jesus’ truth and love her friends well.  My prayer is that she’ll love Jesus enough to abide in His Word (Jn. 14:15, 15:5f).  In this way her love for her homosexual friends will be a love that shares with them the love and truth of Jesus, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” (Is. 30:21).  She may then add, “If you don’t walk in Jesus’ way, I still love you, will pray for you, and will be there for you. But if I have to choose between you and Jesus, I’m going to choose Jesus, because He loved me, and gave Himself for me.  And I’m only really being your friend if I want you to know him, too.  But I only really know Him if I accept His standard of righteousness.  So come, let’s repent and follow Jesus together.” 

This tension – how to slay sin and follow Jesus while loving our friends who aren’t slaying sin and following Jesus – is a difficult place for the Christian.  But this is what it means to be the church, the pillar truth: In the midst of the shifting opinions of men, we are to stand firm on Christ’s word, prayerfully seeking to radiate Christ’s warmth to a cold world that is dead in sin, and totally unaware of it.  And in being steadfast and faithful this way, we’ll be fruitful too. 

*Further, the Bible defines love:
-1 Corinthians 13: Love is patient, kind, slow to anger, hoping all things, etc.  See there.
-John 14:15: obeying Christ, which, extrapolated, means treating a person how they should be treated, like Jesus, being the Son of man, should be obeyed.
-1 John 5:1-2: we only love others when we love God and walk in His way (2 Jn. 6)
-Matthew 22:34-40 Jesus says that to love God with your whole self and love your neighbor IS the Law, whereas at Matt. 7:12 He says treating others how you’d want to be treated is the Law.  Apparently love for others means treating them how you’d want to be.  And since Jesus speaks in Matt. 7 during the sermon on the mount to Christians who are striving for perfection (5:45), love does not exclude sharing God’s standard so people will know what He wants from them.
Thus, our definition of love today is significantly different than God's.

**For the record, I believe this to be the singular cause when any branch of Christianity veils or forsakes the absolute authority of the Bible over all of life. 

Friday, November 30, 2018

Old/New American Gospel vs. Gospel

I recently saw on a Southern Baptist Facebook page a David Platt meme where he is quoted as saying, "We desperately need to explore how much of our understanding of the Gospel is American and how much is Biblical." I thought it was a really good quote.  Nothing could be more Biblical than saying that the Word and the Word alone defines our Christianity. 

The challenge to this is in considering America’s fairly Christian history, which stems from a millennium and a half-long Christendom in the west.  It becomes very difficult to distinguish between "American" and "Biblical" in many peoples’ minds when the alternatives to "Biblical" seem to be either civil religion* (an Americanized Christianity where the church's mission is primarily to help make a great nation) or expressive individualism** (a post-modern development in thought where happiness is found in finding one's own identity by looking inward, and expressing it outwardly; so, no need for God).  Many old-school American Christians are tempted to take parts of the Bible that fit a civil religious grid, but leave others.  Many younger Christians (and younger Americans who don’t identify as Christian but are acquainted with the Bible) are tempted to do the same, as long as it fits their grid.  In the end a statement like Platt's can be taken as accusatory to one side, without rebuking the other.  

Should the other side - the post-modern side - be rebuked, though, since their side contains some who are not professing Christians?  Well in the west, Christianity has been so engrained that if one isn’t a Christian, there’s a good chance that they still have some kind of working knowledge of the Bible.  Therefore they are accountable to scrutiny with their view of the Bible - and their morality in general - the same as the Christians.  

The fact is that both sides can be accused of picking and choosing what to keep and what to discard based on what fits their own version of utopia.  Many who would “amen” Platt’s meme are those rightly opposed to an old Americanized version of Christianity.  But if opponents aren't careful, their opposition may only be in favor of a new Americanized Christianity.  They may be after a 21stcentury love-centered red-letter Christianity that is only hard-hitting to the old side.  And in that way, they may simply replace the old Pharisaism with a new one.  We always have to be careful not to simply replace one mode of Pharisaism with another.  Note I say, "we," because none are immune to this tendency. 

Biblical Christianity 

Without tossing out Platt’s statement all together, because I think he makes a good point that should especially be considered by the older side, I’d pear it down and restate it as thus: “We need to explore whether or not our understanding of the Gospel is Biblical.”  That’s all.  And that requires knowing the Bible.  Biblical illiteracy among professing Christians in the Christian west is bafflingly low.
I think there are a couple of reasons for this: 
1. Church attenders don’t want to know the Bible.  So they don’t listen when it’s preached, but are only in church to ease their conscience, and not to hear from Jesus as He speaks through His anointed preachers who expound His word. 
2. Pastors don’t preach the Bible.  They either preach series based on the latest bestsellers, never expounding entire books of the Bible which would lead their people through an end-to-end completion of thought based on an occasion of sacred writing.  Or they preach based on their own opinions and angry passions regarding what they see as wrong with the world.  
3. Churches and denominations are often only committed to the Bible in name only.  I remember hearing in college of something called Bibliolatry, which is the worship of the Bible instead of the worship of the God of the Bible.  The point is that we shouldn’t make too much of the Bible, and this is true.  But it’s also true that we don’t want to make too little of the Bible. If we don’t let Scripture define the church’s mission, right and wrong for the individual and the world, and everything else, we’ll define these things somehow, based on some other criteria.  In my experience, most of those talking about bibliolatry are those who aren't prepared to let the Bible define our standards for us.  If the church were to get serious about the Bible’s message, believing that it gives a clear message that if followed would lead us into the Promised Land, the church would be more unified than it is.  But instead, the visible church is divided because the Bible’s message isn’t heralded, and that is because the Bible’s message isn’t pursued, and therefore it is neither heard nor understood.

The Story 

I was a youth pastor in my early 20s who was a cultural Christian from the time I was a teen. When a church in my home state brought me on post-college to work with youth and lead the music, they graciously gave me time to study God’s word so I could teach God’s word.  Even in my cultural Christianity I just had a sense that the Bible was true.  As I worked in this church and read the Bible, I came alive, because the story gave rise to certain clear conclusions about God, man, sin, the world, etc. etc.  
Each book of the Bible has a unique genre and setting, but they all contribute to the same story, displaying a rather impressive unity even in the midst of the Bible’s complexity.*** In essence, and this is what I’ve been preaching now for the last 7 years in the pulpit, the story is this: 

-God made man for Himself, to rule over His creation.
-Man ran away from God, in sin, following Satan’s temptation and his own reasoning. Now he has an innate rebellious nature in both thought and action. 
-The Old Testament bears out this rebellion in detail through Israel’s history, while also establishing patterns for the coming redemption.
-Jesus is the God-man who came on a rescue mission to live a perfect life so as to be a perfect Lamb who, in his dying, reconciles men to the God from whom they’ve run.  God is justly angry at sin, and yet merciful in offering His Son for the salvation of men. Through Jesus, men are brought into a just state with God as Jesus bore their sin and the punishment earned therein. In Jesus’ rising from death, He brings about a new creation where righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13).
-People who listen to Jesus and follow Him have, in the Holy Spirit, His presence with them until He returns to earth a second time to fully establish His new heavens and new earth.
-Until that day, they walk together in love, spurring one another on in love and good works, sharing His love with their neighbors, in hopes that they’ll repent and embrace Jesus, who to know is eternal life (Matt. 5:17).  They can't fix every problem in the world, but they try to shine Jesus' light into their world, to effect change for good.


When this story grips you, your prior agendas are shaken off (though you may at times fall back into those old patterns of thinking) and replaced by a better story.  America isn’t God's Zion.  And conversely, while the poor and marginalized in society need to be loved and cared for, more than anything they need Jesus.  Rich, poor, man, woman, black, white, etc. etc., all need the real Jesus, because Adam's fallen pride is an innate fatal flaw in each one of us.  
When you see this as the story, you see Jesus as the answer to life’s problems, because now you can see clearly to discern what are the real problems.  The problems are not just in “them” (whoever "they" are), but in me.  And just like Jesus is renewing me, He can renew all others if they’ll listen and consider the claims of the Bible in it’s clarity (which may require my sharing it).

Therefore you don’t think old-school American fundamentalists are the only ones with a propensity to get the gospel wrong.  You assume all people can get the Gospel wrong.  And the only way to get it right is to put yourself before Jesus and ask Him to cut the lines straight and set your feet on the true path.  Fighting the tendency to spend all your energy calling out the problems, you begin offering the solution, because you know the solution.  And His name is Jesus, who lives today, has spoken loud and clear, and is in the business of leading people into light.

Platt was making a good point that confronts many old-school American Christians.  My prayer is that not only they but also all those who don't fit into that category will consider the point, because all of us have a propensity to miss the Bible’s message and get the Gospel wrong.  Let’s listen to Jesus and follow Him into the truth.

*Robert Bellah, “American Civil Religion,” 1967, quoted in Mark Driscoll, Call to Resurgence, 10.
**Bellah, ed. Habits of the Heart, 2008 edition, 142f.
***See Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 22.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The church, life with God, and history

Even faith, Paul says, is not from us.  For if the Lord had not come, if he had not called us, how should we have been able to believe?  “For how,” Paul said, “shall they believe if they have not heard?” (Rom. 10:14).  So even the act of faith is not self-initiated. It is, he says, “the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8c).                                                                 John Chrysostom, late 4thc. A.D.

My last post was written in celebration of the 16thcentury Protestant Reformation, where people of my theological ilk hold that the Biblical gospel was recovered to the church.  This idea requires qualification, though: We do not hold that the Gospel was all together lost throughout the ancient church and the so-called Dark Ages.  Rather we hold that the Roman Church had so progressively apostasized (that is, they had progressively run from God’s Word to the point of no return), that there was a theological revival needed in order for the Gospel to not be lost.  In came Luther and Calvin, following closely behind their forerunners Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Savonarola.  All Protestantism traces its lineage to and through this movement from the 16thcentury. 

Into Church History 

In the spring I graduated from RPTS in Pittsburgh with a masters degree in church history and theology.  I grew up assuming (based on not thinking about it much) that church history jumped from Jesus’ day to Billy Graham’s day and so on down to my day.  Then as I came to Biblical Theological convictions, I learned of church history back to the reformers of the16thcentury.  But when I got to RPTS I learned of church history that fills the gap between the reformers and the apostles.  Truly, there is no gap.  Jesus was always building His church, as he said he would (Matt. 16:18).  The Reformation was not a putting forth of new ideas, but a recovery of Biblical ideas that people had held throughout history, ideas which had been buried under centuries of increasing man-made tradition.  Therefore, Calvin, in his Institutes, wrote that if Protestants and Romanists had a fair and objective comparison of each of their doctrinal convictions with the church fathers, the victory would side decidedly with the Protestants.* 

The Gospel For All Peoples

The doctrine of justification by faith alone is the issue for the church at all times.**  It separates the true church from the false church, and the church from other religions.  Our pluralistic society assumes that since no one can know what is the right religion, therefore they’re all equally legitimate.  This notion sounds tolerant and good, but in the end it insults each of the religions, all of which claim exclusivity.  The church’s doctrine of justification by faith alone holds that one is reconciled to God and brought into His new creation through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, received by faith.  That is, we are saved not by our own good works, but by Christ’s good works (cf. Matt. 3:15, Jn. 4:34; Eph. 2:8-9; Tit. 3:4-6).  We can contribute nothing, save the need to be saved.  Even our faith in Christ is worked in us by God’s effective grace (see Ac. 18:27, Phil. 1:29), as the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to the truth of God’s Word, and what it says about God, ourselves, and the world (Jn. 6:63, 1 Pet. 1:23).  

All of this is to say that every other religion or worldview in the world holds a performance-driven redemptive narrative, where we have to change our own behavior in order to be saved and/or save the world.  This is true of every single religion, as well as secularism and anti-religious social concern (however sincere and well-intentioned as may appear). Biblical Christianity answers this and says that we can’t do what we must nor can we rightly define for ourselves what we must do.  So Jesus did it for us.  And if we put our trust in Him, He’ll bring us to God, and do it in us today.   Thus the prophet Jeremiah says that Jesus will be called “The Lord is our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6).   Eternal life is life in Jesus Christ the righteous.  

As I learned the Biblical Redemptive narrative of salvation in Jesus, I came alive.  And this Protestant-Reformed theology, as I’ve been describing it, has been labeled as Christ-centered theology, because it anchors Biblical doctrine in His Person and work.  But did the ancient church hold this, or was it invented in the 16th century by men named Luther, Calvin, Bucer, and Zwingli?

The Gospel in the Ancient Church

The quest for the gospel in the church led me into further reading, and it’ll probably never stop. Recent reads include Nate Busenitz’ Long Before Luther and Steven Lawson’s Pillars of Grace.  These books are studies in the distinctives of Protestant theology as they were in fact taught and upheld between the time of the Protestant Reformation and the New Testament days.  While the early church fathers wrote much that can, quoting various independent texts, be used as proof texts by a Romanist, the fathers also wrote a lot that can be used the same way by Protestants.  This calls into question the fathers’ consistency and leads one back to the absolute authority and clarity of the Bible alone (which is what the Protestant Reformation was all about, and which is what the ancient church fathers held).***  It also begs the question, "Have we understood the fathers rightly?"  I've come to believe, with Calvin,^^ that the fathers were more Protestant than Romanist, though there are caveats.  But the point is that the teaching of the Scriptures is where the conversation is to begin and end.  

Therefore the quote above from John Chrysostom, the greatest preacher of the ancient church, helps illustrate that he knew the doctrine of justification by faith alone, apart from any works.  That is, he seems to have known that baptism doesn’t save and that the Lord’s Supper (or the Eucharist) was only grace-giving in the sense that it encourages us and reminds us of our salvation.  This, by the way, was Augustine’s view.^*  Many other examples could be given, but I’ll just commend you to Busenitz’s Long Before Luther, pages 165-90, or just listen to his talk from the 2018 Shepherd’s Conference.

A Divided Church?

Conservative Internet superpersonality Matt Walsh has recently tweeted that Protestants shouldn’t celebrate the Reformation on October 31 because, by it, the church is more divided than ever.  This would be a legitimate critique but for the Protestant conviction that prior to the Reformation (and even more so after) the unreformed Roman church forsook the risen Christ and His finished work.  Thus the Reformation was about gaining back the truth of the Risen Christ and what it means for our salvation today.  In short, we’d rather have a divided church than a Christ-less church.  According to the apostle Paul, a church that adds any kind of works to Christ and how His work effects us is not only confused, but bewitched (Gal. 3:1), having forgotten the gospel it once knew.  This isn’t to say that good works don’t follow saving faith in Jesus’ merits.  But the good works don’t contribute to one’s merit.  And the ancient church, including men like Origen, Irenaeus, Ambrosiaster, Tertullian, etc. etc. etc. knew it.   They knew it because it was indeed what Jude called “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).  The reformers were laboring to recover it.  Now I am too, even if it means division among those who profess Christ.

And even if the ancient church was confused on justification, the important point is that Jesus himself made it clear: “Whoever believes in me has eternal life.  He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (Jn. 5:24).  

This is indeed the faith once for all delivered to the saints.  Therefore, let the true saints listen to God’s voice.  All others can be content with a man-centered wish-dream. But let them do so with the warning of the Lord, that if you deny Him, He’ll deny you before His Father (Matt. 10:33).  And let us all prayerfully consider the warning, and simultaneously follow and bow the knee before Jesus together.  He'll receive us, for "He lives to make intercession for us."

Soli Deo Gloria! 

*Calvin, Institutes, Prefatory Address, 4; in Beveredge's translation, xxv.
*Ibid, 3.11.1, 3.15.7.
**see Roger Beckwith. The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and It’s Background in Early Judaism, 386-90.
^^Calvin, Institutes, xxvi-xxvii.
^*Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Robertson's translation, 87, 93.