With the election hard upon us, it is a good time to be reminded that nothing we do can rightly be divorced from the sufficient governance of Christian Scripture. No pockets of neutrality exist in any sphere of life, including our politics. While the battery of issues facing voters today is exceedingly complex, one option always proves better than the rest—and it is safe to say that were the incarnate God to join us in the polling booth next week, he would be able, in his perfect wisdom, to discern in every case the best possible option in view of all the facts available.
Of course, we possess neither all the facts nor the wisdom necessary to perfectly harmonize and synthesize those facts. As a result, we Christians tend to vote provincially, and we do not all vote the same. This does not mean (necessarily) that one voting bloc is sinning and the other is not. Still, moral ought does exist in politics: there are some choices that are better than others, and some choices that are flat out wrong.
Most Christians will admit this, conceding that the Bible should inform our voting decisions at some level. We can’t vote for a platform of pure evil. But platforms of pure evil are rare: all candidates exhibit at least some common grace, and a goodly percentage of them are sincere in pursuing what is, at least in their best opinion, most advantageous to their jurisdiction or to the country.
In their various stewardships of common grace, however, politicians tend to privilege certain virtues over others, and we voters do the same. Some of us privilege national security, others economic stability, others moral values, job security and a safe workplace, education, freedom, protecting the environment, assisting the disenfranchised (whether ethnically, generationally, medically, or financially), or the advance of the Gospel. All of these are arguably good things, and if asked to do so, we could all arrange them in an pecking order ranging from the issues most important to me to the issues least important to me.
In Christian ethics, however, the unaided self is never awarded such broad liberties. Instead, the Scriptures are declared to be the Norma Normans non Normata, sufficient for every expression of godliness. Obviously, the Scriptures do not give us the names of the best candidates, but they do give us more guidance than a list of “good stuff that you can prioritize however you want.” Specifically, the Scriptures offer us a short list of duties of government commended in Scripture as duties of government that take precedence over all other “good things” that our government might accomplish. These primary duties include…
(1) The Protection of Citizens from Violent Death. This is the sole occasioning concern that led to God’s original establishment of human government (Gen 9:6), and it has been a primary reason for the formation of nearly every human government since. And lest there be concern that this purpose has been usurped, we see Paul revisiting this theme, asserting that the emblem of human government is the “sword” of protection/justice leveled against “wrongdoers” (Rom 13:4). The first concern of any government is to protect its citizens from violence. Peter concurs (1 Pet 2:14).
(2) The Establishment of an Environment in Which the Gospel Can Advance. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul urges believers to pray that their governors would create an environment where believers may pursue holiness and godliness without harassment (2:2); an environment conducive to the announcement and embrace of the gospel (v. 4). Note that Paul does not expect the state to establish or even to favor the Christian religion, but he expresses hope for a climate in which the Gospel is able to flourish without restriction. This being Paul’s primary hope and only recorded prayer for human government, it follows that this is a primary duty of human government.
(3) Finally, the Promotion of Moral Good. This theme, found in both Paul and Peter’s calls for governors to commend those who do good (Rom 13:3–4; 1 Pet 2:14–15), is the broadest of God’s prescribed purposes for government. The specific “good” is not given, but the word group used here (ἀγαθός) favors the nuance of beneficence over the nuance of righteousness. As such, government is to praise and encourage, by its policies, the private practice of charity and benevolence, and thereby serve as a societal “minister of good.”
This is by no means an exhaustive list of things that human government may legitimately do; indeed, the Bible seems to allow the government to assume rather broad powers. But by privileging these three concerns, the Scriptures offer specific guidance to Christian voters today about what should be their principal voting concerns.
Resource materials from 2014 Mid-America Conference on Preaching, “Striving Together for the Faith of the Gospel,” are now available for free download. Included are audio recordings (mp3) from all general sessions and workshops, as well as printed notes (pdf) from the workshops.
Last year we were jolted when the Supreme Court struck down one of the central pillars of the “Defense of Marriage Act,” effectively releasing whatever brake was still restraining same-sex marriage. This week we moved one step closer to trouble for our churches when a lawsuit was leveraged against a pair of Idaho ministers who operate a wedding chapel and refused to accommodate a same-sex couple.
No, the situation does not involve a church (it’s a commercial wedding chapel) or pastors (it’s a mom and pop ministerial team peddling their wares); still, the threat to our churches just slid closer. Pastor, are you ready? And is your church ready? If not, consider the following:
- If you rent out your church buildings commercially to marrying couples outside your membership (i.e., publicly), recognize that the time bomb is already ticking. It’s just a matter of time before your church is faced with a compromising situation—which is to say, assuming you don’t bend under pressure, a potentially litigious situation. My advice? Get out of the wedding chapel business entirely. This policy may well put a dent in your church’s budget and/or damage a relationship or two, but it will also close a door that potentially leads to catastrophic litigation.
- No matter what you do decide, document your policies carefully to avoid problems and implement them consistently. Is the building available for the marriage of members only? Document it. For a church member and a non-member of like faith and practice? Document it. For other believers who submit to marriage counseling and to specific protocols? Document it. And having prepared your documents, do not make exceptions to them, even when your most influential deacon brings his gushing niece by to rave over the flowing lines of your cute little sanctuary. The enemies of the Gospel are actively looking for churches without governing policies, and also for churches that inconsistently implement their governing policies. Take the time to shore up this vulnerability.
- Finally, Pastor, if you have been licensed by the state to perform weddings, realize that you are in some sense an officer of the state. With that position come privileges and advantages for both you and your church. Make preparations now for the possibility that you may lose those privileges and advantages if you and/or your church refuse to do all that the state asks of you.
I would like to think that the distant drums are a false alarm. And I hope that you don’t hear me announcing that all churches everywhere need to PANIC! But we’d be foolish not to prepare for the possibility of such problems as the nation continues to stumble and “slouch toward Gomorrah.”
In the midst of Paul’s argument for the bodily resurrection of believers, he offers a proverb: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” (1 Cor 15:33). At first it seems a bit out of place—why would Paul be concerned about who the Corinthians are hanging around? Isn’t his focus on what they believe? Paul’s point is that your associations can influence what you believe, and what you believe influences your behavior. That’s one of the reasons why God instructs his believers to practice separation. A failure to separate from false teachers can lead believers to be corrupted by that false teaching—even if they currently have their doctrine correct.
In a sermon on this passage, Alistair Begg gives his pastoral exhortation to believers who do not separate from false churches, urging them to apply this verse.
If you hang around with these people who say there is no resurrection of the dead, although you think there is, you’ll start to believe just as they do. And when you start to believe as they do, then you will start to behave as they behave. And he said “I want you to understand it, bad company corrupts good character.”
Incidentally and in passing there is a word here I believe that had never struck me in studying this passage before. But there is a word here for these solid Christians who determine that they are going to stay in liberal churches where the minister does not believe the Bible and does not teach the Bible. And they’re staying there, they say, because they’re going to turn it around. I admire their zeal. I call in question their strategy. Why? Because of this statement: “Bad company corrupts good character.” You cannot sit and listen to nonsense week after week after week without imbibing a significant amount of that nonsense. And over twenty years of observation, I have yet to see a group turn a church around but I have seen many within those groups lose their flame, lose their passion, lose their light, lose their edge. Cause they wouldn’t apply the proverb clearly. It is the responsibility of every straight-shooting Christian to sit consistently under the effective, useful, clarifying, relevant preaching of the Word of God (33:26-34:49 of If There Is No Resurrection).
The Mid-American Conference begins this Thursday, October 16, at the Inter-City Baptist Church, 4700 Allen Road, Allen Park, MI. The theme is “Striving Together for the Faith of the Gospel.” The speakers are:
- David Doran, Pastor, Inter-City Baptist Church & President, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary
- Jim Newcomer, Associate Pastor, Colonial Baptist Church, Virginia Beach, VA
- Chris Anderson, Pastor, Killian Hill Baptist Church, Lilburn, GA
- Brian Fuller, Pastor, Trinity Baptist Church, Concord, NH
- Lukus Counterman, Gospel Grace Church, Salt Lake City, UT
- Ken Endean, President, International Baptist College, Chandler, AZ
- Mark Brock, Pastor, Crossway Baptist Church, Bakersfield, CA
- Mark Snoeberger, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary
- John Aloisi, Assistant Professor of Historical Theology, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary
- Ben Edwards, Executive Pastor, Inter-City Baptist Church & Instructor in Pastoral Theology, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary
- David Doran, Jr., Pastoral Assistant for Outreach, Inter-City Baptist Church
- Exalting Christ in Everything at All Time (Philippians 1:18-30)
- A Gospel Disregard (2 Corinthians 5:16-17)
- Grace Works (Ephesians 4:1-6)
- Fellow Workers for the Truth (3 John)
- Properly Set Apart for the Gospel (Acts 13:1-3)
- Cultivating Mission-Minded Unity in the Congregration
- Cooperation Without Compromise?
- 2:42 Life Groups: An Idea for Small-Group Discipleship
- Multi-Ethnicity in the Local Church
- Guarding Moral Integrity
- Building a Culture of Evangelism
- In the Word Together: One to One Bible Reading
- Factors for Building a Cohesive Church from 1 Corinthians 12-14
- The Gospel and Sanctification
- Building Unity Around Historic Confessions
- Worldview Evangelism: Understanding and Engaging Underlying Beliefs
For more info see here.
A few weeks ago, Mark Snoeberger had a post arguing that in the matter of salvation, especially the issue of regeneration, there are only two possible options, which he labeled as Calvinism and Arminianism. As might be expected, there was some push back to the idea of this two-option-only proposal. Mark also alluded to an ongoing series of blog posts on this issue titled “Why I’m Not a Calvinist…or an Arminian,” which is currently up to five parts. I would like to try and reinforce the point that Mark was making.
The real issue comes down to the question of who saves us. Does God save us, or do we, with some help from God, save ourselves? That’s rather stark, so let me expand upon that. What I mean, and what I’m trying to get at, is who is the ultimate decider in the matter of our salvation? Is God the one who ultimately decides if I end up in heaven or hell, or am I the one who ultimately decides if I end up in heaven or hell? Quickly, someone will say that both God and I decide. There is truth there, but there can be only one ultimate decider, one person who makes the final determination.
This binary choice I am insisting on is nicely captured in the U of the acronym TULIP, where the U stands for unconditional election. Grudem says, “The reason for election is simply God’s sovereign choice…. God chose us simply because he decided to bestow his love upon us. It was not because of any foreseen faith or foreseen merit in us” (Systematic Theology, 679). Calvinists of all persuasions believe in unconditional election: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world” (Eph 1:4). God’s choosing or election of the individual to salvation is not conditioned on anything within the individual himself—thus unconditional.
The other, and the only other possibility, is conditional election, which says God’s election is conditioned on something within the individual. God is said to elect those to salvation whom he foresees will have faith in Christ. This is the viewpoint of Arminianism.
In Calvinism faith is the result of election; in Arminianism election is the result of faith. All evangelicals, whether Calvinist or Arminian, believe in salvation by grace. All agree that we are sinners and because of depravity need God’s grace: efficacious grace in the case of the Calvinist, or prevenient grace in the case of the Arminian. In Arminianism prevenient grace is given to all people, or at least to all who hear the gospel, and enables them to be saved by cooperating with God’s grace (synergism), but this prevenient grace may be rejected. Again, there are only two choices. Either God’s grace is efficacious and ultimately overcomes the individual’s depravity and brings him to faith in Christ (Calvinism), or God’s grace is just prevenient, that is, it is sufficient to overcome depravity, but the individual may reject this grace (Arminianism).
This binary choice is untenable, unthinkable for many. There must be another way, a third position (tertium quid), particularly a middle way (via media) between these two harsh extremes. But there is none. In Calvinism God ultimately chooses (unconditional election) and gives grace (efficacious) to bring the sinner to Christ. The sinner makes a real, genuine choice for Christ, but only because of God’s prior choice. God is the ultimate decider. In Arminianism the sinner cooperates with grace (prevenient) and chooses God (conditional election). In Arminianism God is not the ultimate decider. If the sinner chooses God, God must choose to save the sinner, but if sinner rejects God, God cannot choose to save the sinner. God simply ratifies whatever decision the sinner makes. God is not deciding anything. The sinner is the ultimate decider.
Both Calvinists and Arminians agree that the sinner chooses Christ. The sinner is not coerced into a decision for Christ. The major difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is what ultimately and finally causes a depraved sinner to choose Christ. Imagine Joe and Jack, identical twins, attend church together and sit together in the same pew week after week listening to the gospel being proclaimed. Maybe their hearing of the gospel goes on for many years. But Joe eventually responds to the message, receives Christ, dies, and goes to heaven. Jack rejects the message, never receives Christ, dies, and goes to hell. Why does Joe go to heaven and Jack to hell? What is different about these two similar, in many ways identical, men, who both heard the gospel over many years? Why does Joe say “Yes” and Jack say “No”? What rational person wants to go to hell?
One answer is that God chose Joe (unconditional election) and gave him grace (efficacious) that caused him to believe. He owes his salvation completely to God (monergism). Joe cannot boast in his salvation (1 Cor 1:28–29; Eph 2:8–9). This is Calvinism.
The other, and only other possible, answer is that God chose Joe because Joe chose God (conditional election). God looked down the corridors of time and saw that Joe would one day believe the gospel, so he elected Joe. But actually God did not make any independent choice. If Joe chooses God, God must choose Joe, but if Joe rejects God, God cannot choose Joe. God simply ratifies whatever choice Joe makes. Joe has the same grace (prevenient) necessary to believe the gospel as his brother Jack. According to this view, everyone who hears the gospel has the prevenient grace necessary to believe the gospel. But if that is so, how do we explain why Joe accepted the gospel and Jack rejected it? The only answer is that there is something in Joe, something superior in Joe (intelligence, merit, goodness—something) that caused him to believe—something that Joe had but Jack lacked. This difference between Joe and Jack is not due to God. God does exactly the same thing for both Joe and Jack. They had the same opportunity, the same grace (prevenient). The only conclusion that can be drawn is that in some way Joe must be better than Jack. Joe did not do it all, or most of it, but he deserves some credit. This is Arminianism.
One may not like the labels Calvinism and Arminianism and can rail against them all day long. But they historically represent the two evangelical options for the salvation of sinners. Either God is the ultimate decider: He gets all glory. Or the sinner is the ultimate decider: he deserves to share in that glory.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
Even though in conditional election God does not really elect anyone—he simply ratifies the sinner’s decision—some Arminians have rejected conditional election since for them any sense of God choosing individuals for salvation is too repugnant and contrary to their concept of man’s free will, which is the animating principle behind Arminianism. They promote what they call corporate election, which insists that God does not choose individuals, but the church. But as Arminian Brian Abasciano admits: “Nevertheless, corporate election necessarily entails a type of individual election because of the inextricable connection between any group and the individuals who belong.” In other words, corporate election is a form of conditional election since membership in the elect church is conditioned upon the individual’s faith.
Roger Olson, who is probably the most prominent Arminian theologian in America, has said: “Isn’t there a ‘middle ground’ between Calvinism and Arminianism? A: No, there isn’t, not that is logically coherent. In fact, Arminianism is the middle ground between Calvinism and ‘semi-Pelagianism,’ which is the heresy (so declared by the Second Synod of Orange in 529 and all the Reformers agreed) that sinners are capable of exercising a good will toward God unassisted by God’s grace” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2014/07/arminianism-faq-1-everything-you-always-wanted-to-know).
Last month a new book was released titled A Conservative Christian Declaration. Co-authored by six men (Kevin Bauder, Scott Aniol, David de Bruyn, Mike Riley, Ryan Martin, and Jason Parker) this fairly short volume (92 pp.) is intended to articulate “a fully orbed conservative Christianity that includes both doctrine and practice” (6).
Although six men are listed on the book’s cover, Scott Aniol appears to be the guiding force behind the book. In the introduction, he writes, “in July 2013 I gathered together a group of pastors and ministry educators to discuss the future of conservative Christianity” (6). This book was written as a result of that meeting.
After the book’s introduction and preamble follows a list of fifteen “Articles of Affirmation and Denial.” The bulk of the book is then comprised of short explanations of these articles. Here are the topics covered in the articles:
Article 1: On the Gospel
Article 2: On the Whole Counsel of God
Article 3: On Transcendentals
Article 4: On Ordinate Affections
Article 5: On the Appetites
Article 6: On Beauty
Article 7: On Scripture Regulated Worship
Article 8: On Works of the Imagination
Article 9: On Harmony and Variety in Ordinate Expression
Article 10: On Meaning
Article 11: On Popular Culture
Article 12: On the Cultivation of Christian Tradition
Article 13: On Today’s Congregational Music
Article 14: On Our Children
Article 15: On Local Churches and the Sovereignty of God
As these headings suggest, the writers did not intend for this declaration to provide a complete statement of basic Christian doctrine. They explain, “This statement does not fully articulate the fundamentals of the Christian faith. We look to the traditional creeds and confessions for that” (7). Assuming the fundamental doctrines of orthodox Christianity, this declaration focuses on a number of issues that the writers believe need to be reaffirmed in our current cultural context. In the book’s preamble the authors say,
Historically, Christians have committed themselves to perpetuating biblical Christianity by pursuing absolute truth, goodness, and beauty. These transcendent realities, which are grounded in the character of God, are expressed through his works and his Word. In every age, Christians have determined to believe God’s truth, live out God’s goodness, and love God’s beauty, preserving these transcendentals by nurturing expressions, forms, and institutions capable of carrying their weight.
More recently, many Christians have abandoned their commitment to these ideals and are therefore failing, in one respect or another, to pursue fully orbed biblical Christianity. The result is a shrunken creed, a waning piety, and a worship that has become irreverent and trivial. We object to this religious reductionism and desire to reclaim the entire heritage of Christian doctrine, obedience, and adoration (10).
The fifteen articles of this declaration are intended as a partial remedy to this decline. The text of several historic creeds as well as a list of significant confessions of faith are included in the five appendixes which round out the book.
You may or may not agree with everything in the book, but it’s worth checking out. For the time being, it looks like the only place you can purchase a copy is through Amazon.
Among the many promises of John 14–17 are several that anticipate heightened activity by the Holy Spirit in the apostolic era. These have long been a source of both comfort and confusion to NT believers. Assurances that the Spirit would assume new functions of “bringing to remembrance” Christ’s words (14:25–26) and empowering the testimony of the disciples (15:26–27) gave confidence to the early church that Christ had not abandoned his people when he ascended to be with the Father. But they also raise questions about the nature of the Spirit’s work. Are these promises offered generally to all NT believers? And if so, were OT saints summarily denied these benefits as they struggled to bear witness to the superiority of Yahweh? IOW, can we expect the Spirit to do more spectacular things for Christian believers as they witness for him today than he did for earlier generations of God-worshipers?
The answer to this question is complex, and I cannot hope to give a comprehensive answer in a single blog post. But the conundrum is reduced at least in part when we correctly see at least some of the promises of John 14–17 as having a narrower scope than is often assumed. While Christ is surely using these chapters to prepare the whole Christian church generally for his departure, some of the promises he makes in this pericope have a restrictive application. Note, for instance, that some of the promises are limited to those who had been “with Christ from the beginning” (15:27) and who could be “reminded” of things that Christ had personally “spoken to them while still with them” (14:25–26). IOW, some of these promises anticipate what Larry Pettegrew has labeled an “apostolic anointing”—a special dispensation of Spirit activity to be “breathed out” on the Twelve (20:22) as they set out on their peculiar mission as foundation blocks for the brand new Christian community denominated “the Church.”
Of particular interest here are Christ’s oversight and the Spirit’s equipping of the Apostles to produce the New Testament canon. Note the following:
- As with his ministry to the writing prophets of old (Amos 3:8), some of the Spirit’s promised function is efficacious (15:26–27). The apostles spoke/wrote of necessity what were God’s own words (cf. 1 Cor 2:11–13; 2 Pet 1:19–21). Here is no promise of memory jogs made generally available for Christians at large as they testify humanly for God, but a special promise that the Apostles would testify necessarily and in errantly as authorized spokesmen for God.
- The Spirit’s work was also comprehensive in scope (the “all things” of 14:26 and 16:13). We’ve already seen from the context that the “all things” can be restricted to the words that the disciples had personally heard Christ say, but we can probably reduce it still further: They did not necessarily remember Christ’s every word (e.g., “Hi Mom” or “Hey Peter, please pass the salt”), but rather everything in that special category of “things necessary for life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3–4) that “thoroughly equips” the believer for “every good work” (2 Tim 3:17). The promise reflects one of biblical sufficiency.
- The Spirit’s work was also derivative in nature (16:14–16). What I mean by this is that he was not offering his independent and original services to the apostles, but was carefully taking divine thoughts expressed first by the Father and thence by Christ and expressing them in spiritual words (cf. 1 Cor 2:10–13) that live on in the divinely inspired and humanly unoriginal words of Scripture (2 Pet 1:19–21).
Some believers hesitate to accept this interpretation, preferring instead the occasional spiritual memory prompts that they hope the Spirit will miraculously bestow as they witness for Christ. But the promise here is much greater than this! Here instead is Christ’s promise that he would, through his Spirit, oversee the inspiration of the NT Scriptures, offering a personal imprimatur on those words as the very Word of God containing everything necessary for life and godliness. This is indeed a grand promise for the Christian Church as it labors faithfully in the physical absence of our Lord Christ. And in this promise we have something far more scintillating than individual and existential experiences of the divine to which many modern expressions of the Christian religion have reduced. We have God’s sufficient Word transmitted, recorded, canonized, and preserved!
It’s mid-September here in Michigan. The much-anticipated, season-changing cold front has gone through, the mornings have become crisp and clear, and the first smells of Autumn have started to fill the air. And this week my son and I are observing a little-celebrated but highly anticipated local holiday: the start of small game season.
By coincidence I am also teaching this week on the topics of natural revelation (in Systematic Theology I) and natural law theory (in Ethics), so it seems that everything in my life this week is converging on God’s “general” or “common” activities in his universe. Hence my blog topic.
Scripture makes much of these general, divine activities and common graces, and though we are constantly reminded that these are not final or comprehensive vehicles of divine disclosure, they are still true and valid means to the knowledge of God and a necessary backdrop to the special revelation of God that has climaxed in the revelation of his Son (Heb 1:1–4 cf. Psa 19; Rom 1:18–2:16). We recognize the voice God who speaks because we have seen from infancy the hand of God who shows.
And so I invite all of you, at a time of year when the change of seasons causes the mind to drift to God’s common gifts, to revisit them for what they are—common graces that appear to all but can be fully appreciated only by those who have been recipients of God’s redemptive grace. And to facilitate that end, let me put a couple of verses of song into your mind to serve as pointers to the sometimes neglected but eminently praiseworthy common graces that we experience daily:This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise, The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise. This is my Father’s world: he shines in all that’s fair; In the rustling grass I hear him pass; He speaks to me everywhere.
andHeav’n above is softer blue, earth around is sweeter green! Something lives in every hue Christless eyes have never seen; Birds with gladder songs o’erflow, flowers with deeper beauties shine, Since I know, as now I know, I am his, and he is mine.
A few weeks ago there was an event here at Dodger Stadium with Joel Osteen, thirty-five thousand people at Dodger Stadium, something like that. He is now the largest, quote/unquote church…. I’m using the word loosely…in America down in Houston. You need to understand that he is a pagan religionist in every sense. He’s a quasi-pantheist. Jesus is a footnote that satisfies his critics and deceives his followers. The idea of this whole thing is that men have the power in themselves to change their lives. In his definitive book, Your Best Life Now, he says…and that ought to be a dead giveaway since the only way this could be your best life is if you’re going to hell. He says that anyone can create by faith and words the dreams he desires…health, wealth, happiness, success…the list is always the same.
Here’s some quotes from his book Your Best Life Now. “If you develop an image of success, health, abundance, joy, peace, happiness, nothing on earth will be able to hold those things from you,” end quote. See, that’s…that’s the law of attraction that’s a part of this kind of system.
Here’s another quote, “All of us are born for earthly greatness. You were born to win.” Win what? “God wants you to live in abundance, you were born to be a champion. He wants to give you the desires of your heart.” “Before we were formed, He prepared us to live abundant lives, to be happy, healthy and whole. But when our thinking becomes contaminated, it’s no longer in line with God’s Word,” end quote. By the way, “God’s Word is not the Bible, God’s Word is that Word that comes to us mystically, spiritually, that tells us what we should want.”
Here’s another quote, “Get your thinking positive and He will bring your desires to pass. He regards you as a strong, courageous, successful person. You’re on your way to a new level of glory.” Hum…how do you get there? “Believe…he says…visualize, and speak out loud.” Same exact approach. Words release your power. Words give life to your dreams.
Here’s another quote. “Friend, there’s a miracle in your mouth.” I think Isaiah might object to that. He said, “I’m a man of unclean lips and I dwell amidst a people of unclean lips.”
Here’s Joel Osteen’s prayer. “I thank You, Father, that I have Your favor.” Wow! Did he meet the Pharisee in Luke 18, or what? “I thank You that I’m not like other people.”
Here’s another quote. “I know these principles are true because they work, for me and my wife.” Oh, so that’s the test of truth. Are you kidding? I know these things are true because they work for me and my wife? Sure, you’re at the top of the Ponzi scheme.
And then he said, “Even finding a perfect parking spot at the mall.” And I ask, “What about the little old lady you cut off to get into that parking? What about her dreams?” Maybe she was born to lose. I mean, it’s so silly, so bizarre.
He says, “God has already done everything He’s going to do, the ball’s in your court.” You have to take that part of God which exists in you and create your own reality.
What is the source of this? Where does this come from? Answer: Satan, this is satanic. This is satanic. This is not just off-centered, this is satanic.
Why do I say that? Because health, wealth, prosperity, the fulfillment of all your dreams and your desires, that’s what Satan always offers. That’s called temptation, based on the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. That’s exactly what corrupt fallen unregenerate people want. That’s why it works so well, right? You can go right into Satan’s system, make everybody feel religious and turn their desires, their temptations into somehow honorable desires. I mean, what did Satan say to Jesus? Grab some satisfaction, why are You hungry? You need to eat. You need to be healthy, whole. Why would You let Yourself be unpopular? Dive off the temple corner, whew, everybody will be wowed. You’ll be the winner, You’ll be the champion. You’ll be the Messiah. They’ll hail You. And by the way, if You just look over the kingdoms of the world, I’ll give those to You, too.
That’s satanic. So the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life, 1 John 2:15 to 17, it’s all a part of the world and it’s all passing away. And why are these false teachers so successful at what they do? Because they’re in cahoots with the devil. Why is Satan successful? Because his temptations, although they might appear noble on the outside, are in perfect accord with all the fallen, corrupt, selfish, proud, evil desires of sinners. This is a false kind of Christianity and a false view of God. God is the one who reserves the right to make you well. “Have not I made the blind and the lame and the halt, He says? Or to allow you to be sick? God has the right to make you prosperous or to give you little. God reserves the right to control the circumstances and events and experiences of your life for His own ends and His own purpose.”
You can read the rest of it here.
In August 1998, I ordered some of my first seminary textbooks as a student. That particular semester, one item stood out above the rest. Philip Schaff’s 8-volume History of the Christian Church stood out primarily due to its price. At the time Schaff retailed for about $249. Most of us discovered that you could purchase the set for a little under $100 through CBD (and if you could find a free shipping code so much the better), but it still wasn’t a particularly cheap item. For a single guy living on a grocery budget of $10/week (yes, I did), it was a major purchase.
Fast forward some sixteen years. I still refer to Schaff from time to time. In fact, someone gave me a second set a few years ago and so now I keep one in my office and one at home for ease of reference. But I recently noticed that something significant has changed about the set. In printed form, it still costs eighty-something dollars at CBD and Amazon. The thing we couldn’t have imagined sixteen years ago is that one can now purchase Schaff’s entire 8-volume set on Kindle for just $1.99.
Budget-conscious students are sometimes loath to spend money on textbooks, but the book market has changed quite a bit in recent years. Many resources that would have cost hundreds of dollars just a decade or two ago, can be had for a few dollars or sometimes even for free. Here are a few more Kindle deals that may be of interest to students, pastors, and other Christian readers.
The Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene/Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection (37 vols.) – $2.99
The Works of Augustine (50 books) – $1.99
John Calvin’s Complete Bible Commentaries (22 vols.) – $2.99
The Essential Works of John Owen (22 books) – $2.99
The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Banner of Truth ed.) – $2.99
Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology (3 vols.) – $2.99
W. G. T. Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology (3 vols.) – $4.99
J. P. Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology – $.99
The Essential Works of Charles Spurgeon (14 books) – $2.99
Augustus Hopkins Strong’s Systematic Theology (3 vols. in 1) – $1.99
MacArthur Study Bible (ESV) – $6.00
On Being a “Biblicist”: Why You Can’t Choose “None of the Above” on the Calvinism/Arminianism Question
For my whole life I’ve been broadly a part of an ecclesiastical culture/movement that has been disinclined to commit either to Calvinism or Arminianism. A steady stream of articles, essays, and blog posts have kept this delicate balancing act alive for decades (for a recent and more-than-usually scholarly example, see the ongoing series here—I was going to wait for the conclusion, but I ran out of patience). I don’t believe, however, that this position is ultimately sustainable. And so my thesis in this post is simply this: the principal question in the Calvinism/Arminianism debate is a fundamentally binary one: you have to choose one or the other.
Of course, I am not so naïve as to imagine that variations and nuances of the two basic positions do not exist. I am, after all, editor of a soon-to-be-released book detailing THREE perspectives on the extent of the atonement (and in my introduction I suggest that there are others). So by saying that the principal issue is binary, I am not saying that it is simple. I recognize, for instance, that there are some Arminians who deny prevenient grace and affirm eternal security; likewise there are some Calvinists who deny particular redemption and assert the priority of faith to regeneration. IOW, there are some who are not historically pure Arminians or historically pure Calvinists. But while I concede the existence of variations of Arminianism and Calvinism, this is where my concession stops: there is ultimately no neutral ground here. There are Arminian-types and there are Calvinist-types, and a single, binary question distinguishes them.
The question is this: Do believers play any independent role in their own regeneration? This is the watershed issue and it is absolutely binary.
Note that the issue is not whether or not believers play any role in salvation—both sides agree that believers choose to believe. The question is not even whether or not believers have divine aid in choosing to believe—both sides believe in assisting grace of some sort (if you believe that the believer needs no help at all from God, you have embraced the Pelagian heresy and your very Christian identity is at stake). The issue is whether a believer is in any sense an independent arbiter of his own regeneration.
Arminian-types are ultimately obliged to admit that what ultimately distinguishes a believer from an unbeliever is not divine grace (which for the Arminian is always indiscriminate); rather it is the informed but autonomous choice by grace-assisted persons to either embrace or reject Christ. Calvinist-types on the other hand, necessarily affirm that while human faith is requisite to salvation, the ultimate efficiency of that faith is not human but divine.
“None of the above” is not a valid answer.
One of the issues that still needs clarification in Christianity is how to weigh doctrines. Christians have historically recognized that certain truths are fundamental or essential to Christianity, while others have less importance. But how do we know which doctrines are which?
In the last issue of Themelios, D. A. Carson writes an editorial offering some thoughts on what we mean when we talk about “gospel issues,” concluding that the category of “gospel issues” is helpful if it refers to “biblical and theological topics the denial of which clearly affect our understanding of the gospel adversely.” The point is that you cannot deny a certain truth or else you’ve seriously undermined the gospel. Other truths may be important, but they do not rise to the level of upmost importance like gospel issues.
I’ve heard a professor put it this way before: if you put a gun to my head and said “Deny the deity of Jesus or you’re dead,” by God’s grace I would hope to respond by saying “pull the trigger.” If you put a gun to my head and said “Deny the pre-tribulational return of Jesus Christ or you’re dead” I would say “Put the gun down and we’ll talk.” Some truths really are worth dying for.
Yet there still seems to be a lot of confusion about what qualifies for those kinds of truths. Recently, TGC (the same organization that publishes Themelios) ran a post discussing how “scholars” approach inerrancy. In the article, the author reached a startling conclusion:
Belief in the truthfulness of the Bible, then, like belief in the truthfulness of Christianity or materialism or anything else, is provisional—scholars hold to it (or not) on the basis of the evidence they’ve seen. Affirming the Bible is true, just like affirming the Christian creeds, is a statement of current conviction.
Dan Phillips picked up on one of the issues with this mindset: if all of our beliefs are merely provisional, is there anything worth dying for? Why die for what you believe today when tomorrow you may very well change your mind?
Though more could be said about the matter of the truthfulness of the Bible and Christianity, I’d like to consider a different doctrine and whether or not it would qualify as a “gospel issue.” The kinds of doctrines that usually fit in this category are things like the deity of Christ, salvation by grace, the resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, the second coming of Christ, substitutionary atonement, etc. What about the bodily resurrection of believers? Is that a “gospel issue”?
If you are like me, your first inclination would probably be to say “I don’t think it reaches first level importance.” But it seems like the Apostle Paul would put it in the category of “gospel issues” based on his discussion in 1 Corinthians 15.
Paul begins by noting the common ground shared by him and the Corinthians. He had preached the gospel truth held by all Christians—that Christ died for our sins, evidenced by his burial, and that he rose again on the third day, evidenced and testified by those who saw him after the resurrection. This was the gospel they believed—the gospel that would save them.
Having reminded the Corinthians of their shared faith in the resurrection of Christ, Paul moves to confront the problem in Corinth. Some in the church at Corinth were denying the bodily resurrection of the dead. We can’t know for certain why they were denying this. Perhaps it stemmed from a false understanding of the new life they had in Christ, so that they believed they were already experiencing a spiritual, resurrected life. Perhaps it stemmed from the philosophical belief of the time that the spirit was immortal but the body was not, so that the idea of resurrected bodies was absurd. Maybe it was a combination of sorts. What we do know is that some were denying that Christians would be bodily raised from the dead.
Paul responds to this false teaching by demonstrating the necessary conclusion of their belief in 1 Cor 15:12-13. He does so by offering a syllogism of sorts.
- Dead people do not rise (their belief)
- Jesus was a dead person
- Therefore Jesus did not rise
This is an airtight argument. The unspoken premise is the second, but since no one (Christians and non-Christians alike) questioned whether or not Jesus was a dead person, Paul does not need to address it. The Corinthians denied the conclusion of C (as Paul had already stated, they all believed that Christ rose from the dead), but Paul shows that they can’t deny C and affirm A. In other words, denying the bodily resurrection of the dead adversely affected the gospel. It seems like it’s the kind of doctrine that would be worth dying for.
How does this help us with thinking about gospel issues? First, it should warn us about too quickly dismissing certain truths as unimportant just because we fail to see their significance. Second, it provides a biblical example of how certain doctrines that do not seem to be at the heart of the gospel are so closely connected that denying them means effectively denying the gospel. Perhaps we can use Paul’s discussion as a model for evaluating other doctrines to determine whether or not they are gospel issues.
Mid-America Conference on PreachingOctober 16-17, 2014“Striving Together for the Faith of the Gospel”
Dear Fellow Servant of Jesus Christ:
It seems like every day brings more bad news in this crazy, sin-cursed world. And it seems, at least sometimes, like God’s people are dropping into defense-mode as the world becomes increasingly hostile toward Christianity. While all of this may be new to us, it is not different from the landscape that the churches in the New Testament faced. The Philippians, for example, were “granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Phil 1:29).
The darkness of our day should make us more urgent about obedience to Christ’s commission, not less so. To that end, the theme for our fall conference this year, based on Philippians 1:27, is “Striving Together for the Faith of the Gospel.” By God’s grace, we’ll gather for two days, October 16-17, to focus our attention on biblical truth about building greater unity within and between our assemblies for the sake of the gospel. Incredible gospel opportunities are all around us. We need to sharpen our focus on biblical truths that will equip and encourage us to make the most of them.
I hope you will plan to join us on October 16-17, 2014 for what I believe will be a wonderful time of refreshing fellowship, helpful workshops, and encouraging preaching. We will do all that we can to make it a time of genuine spiritual encouragement for you. We would love to have you join us!
For the sake of His name,
David M. Doran
Michigan Cherry Coffee
Sure, you can order it online. But only Michigan coffeehouses serve freshly brewed coffee made from cherries grown just a few hours to our north. If you like coffee but haven’t tried Michigan Cherry coffee, you need to. And if you don’t like coffee, you should probably see a doctor.
While visiting a church a few weeks back I heard something I’ve not heard in many years: a sermon on predictive prophecy. Not a general sermon on the Second Coming, the final judgment, or the joys of heaven, but a sermon on the grind-it-out details of eschatology from the book of Zechariah.
I grew up with a steady diet of biblical prophecy. The books of Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation were perennial favorites. The late 1970s and early 1980s, as I remember them, were troubled times, and as Stan Gundry aptly pointed out back then, this kind of climate had a tendency to make believers long for a day when God will bring this troubled world to its conclusion and flex the muscles of his sovereignty to set things straight. So we got a lot of preaching on prophecy when I was a youth.
Now, it seems, we are paying penance for the excesses of previous generations, with the result that preaching on prophecy has all but disappeared. Part of this neglect is due to our aversion to controversy and speculation, both of which featured fairly prominently in the glory days of the biblical prophecy movement. But neglect is still neglect, and for those of us charged with preaching the whole counsel of God, it behooves us to reconsider the value of preaching predictive prophecy. It is, after all, a substantial block of the biblical record. And so, in no special order, let me offer a few positive reasons for dusting off those neglected sections of Scripture and carving out a few new sermons from their depths:
- Preaching predictive prophecy keeps the present in proper perspective. When we focus entirely on the present, our scope of reality has a tendency to narrow inordinately. We start to think with a sort of forward-looking uniformitarianism, i.e., that the present is the key to the future. But that’s not true. What we imagine today to be “reality” will undergo sudden, explosive changes at some future point and what seems important now will suddenly come into proper perspective. Preaching prophecy helps us to see the present in the light of the future.
- Preaching predictive prophecy keeps our affections properly aligned. Preachers who make much of predictive prophecy and especially those of a premillennial, pretribulational bent are often accused of being “escapists”—other-earthly and countercultural dreamers so eager to leave that that have lost all practical value for the present. But while the “desire to depart and be with Christ” can surely be emphasized to the neglect of the fact that “it is more necessary that I remain” (Phil 1:23), we should not forget that the former is “better by far.” We should, as Paul, be “torn” between the two options. A far greater problem than escapism in today’s church, I would hazard, is the unnatural ambivalence of Christians toward their “departure” and neglect of preparation thereto. Better a homesick alien, stranger, and pilgrim than one who has been taken captive to this world, who has lost all interest in escape, and who has developed a sort of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome that empathizes with and craves this world more than the next.
- Preaching predictive prophecy keeps the climax of history in view. Modern evangelicals have rightly deduced that the death and resurrection of Christ enjoy a central place in the biblical story line that is rightly to be emphasized. But it surely is not the whole story, much less the climax of the biblical story line. The Day of the Lord, complete with the crushing of the nations, the purification and salvation of Israel, the revelation of the warrior-king Jesus Christ in unparalleled power, glory, and pomp, and his ascent to the throne of the world as King of kings surely must not be relegated to the periphery!
- Preaching predictive prophecy keeps the mission of the church intact. A few years ago, Don Carson was asked how to keep the mission of the church in proper balance, and his response was spot on. He said, “Preach Hell.” His point was that preaching to humanity’s ultimate need keeps their temporal needs in proper perspective and keeps our message to the world properly evangelistic. I’d like to expand his answer. Preach Hell to the world, yes, and also preach Heaven to the saints. Preach the Rapture. Preach the Time of Jacob’s Trouble and the Purgation of Israel. Preach Armageddon. Preach the Incarceration of Antichrist and Satan. Preach the Second Coming. Preach the Kingdom. Preach the delivery of Christ’s Kingdom into the hands of God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power, including death, and God is all in all.
And don’t just preach in vague generalizations about eternity, sovereignty, and judgment. Preach the details too. Tell the story. Better, paint the story in vivid relief and give stamp that image upon the imaginations of your listeners. Do this successfully, and it will remain there forever. And the benefits of that practice will be substantial.
I’m working up a paper on ‘The Story of Israel in Hebrews 11’ and one of the preliminary matters I’m trying to get a handle on is the point of the chapter. That is, before I can say anything about how Hebrews tells Israel’s story, I need to figure out what the author’s trying to do with his ‘catalogue of heroes.’ I was doing a bit of reading in Gary Cockerill’s (magnificent) new commentary and came across an article he’d published about this very issue. In it, he suggests that Hebrews 11 is about encouraging ‘resurrection faith,’ based on its references to resurrection in vv. 17–19 and v. 35. To prove his point, Cockerill argues for the centrality of these two references in the chapter’s structure. Here I’d simply like to summarize his argument and pass it along for consideration.
The centrality of vv. 17–19. Cockerill suggests that vv. 17–19 stand at the center of the chapter’s first major section (vv. 3–31). He begins by arguing that vv. 17–19 climax the ‘Abraham’ section of the ‘Abraham and Moses’ narrative, extending from vv. 8–31. Seven examples of faith are associated with both ‘heroes’—four directly related to the individual and three with their progeny/followers—and, for each, the fourth example (Isaac’s sacrifice, vv. 17–19; Passover, v. 28) acts as a climax. Each concludes the focus on the individual himself, each involves a sacrifice and each results in deliverance from death. Beyond this, Cockerill insists that vv. 17–19 climax the ‘Canaan and Egypt’ section (vv. 8–27) of the ‘Abraham and Moses’ narrative (vv. 8–31), a section Cockerill distinguishes from the ‘Exodus and Conquest’ material (vv. 28–31) within this same larger narrative. Here he notes that vv. 13–22 are situated between chiastically-parallel statements in vv. 8–12 and vv. 23–27 (v. 8//v. 27; vv. 9–10//vv. 24–26; and vv. 11–12//v. 23) and, moreover, that vv. 17–19 form the center of these bracketed verses, since vv. 13–16 and vv. 20–22 are parallel. Finally, Cockerill suggests that vv. 3–7 and vv. 28–31 are also parallel, which, of course, would further underscore the centrality of vv. 8–27 and, thus, vv. 17–19. He admits, however, that this suggestion rests on only one clear parallel, namely vv. 7 and 28.
The centrality of v. 35. Cockerill suggests that v. 35 stands at the center of the chapter’s second major section (vv. 32–38). He argues that the section divides, after an introduction (v. 32), into two ‘catalogues’—a catalogue of triumph (vv. 33–35a) and a catalogue of suffering (vv. 35b–38)—that the two catalogues, each comprising three parts, are chiastically-related (vv. 33abc//vv. 37d–38; vv. 33d–v. 34ab//v. 37abc; and v. 34cde//v. 36), and, therefore, that v. 35, with its ‘resurrection faith,’ stands at the center of the chiasm.
During his lifetime, C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) received thousands of letters from young fans who had read the Chronicles of Narnia and wanted to connect with the author. One such fan was an American girl named Joan Lancaster, who wrote to Lewis in June of 1956. We don’t know exactly what Joan wrote in her letter, but Lewis’s reply is one of the many letters preserved in his book Letters to Children (63–65). (As a side note, if you begin reading this little book you probably won’t put it down until you reach the last page. Lewis’s graciousness and creativity in these letters is quite refreshing. For a university professor, he treated children rather well.)
In his reply to his young admirer, Lewis talked about the nature of language and writing. He said that in his view “good English” was basically “whatever educated people talk,” and that this would necessarily vary depending on region and time. More significantly, he offered her five suggestions about how to become a better writer. Reading these, I realized that most of us could benefit from the advice. Here are Lewis’s suggestions with a little commentary added:
- Always try to use language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
In other words, be clear. If what you write could be misunderstood, it probably will be. When writing a term paper, article, or book review, try to have someone read what you’ve written aloud to you. Does it sound right? Did the reader stumble over certain sentences because he or she couldn’t tell where the emphasis belonged?
- Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
A helpful book in this regard is William Brohaugh’s Write Tight. If you have a tendency to blow past page limits when writing, you need to read this book. Long words don’t necessarily make a writer sound intelligent, in fact, sometimes quite the opposite. Regardless, you should be writing to communicate something, not to prop up your self-image, and good communication is usually direct and appropriately concise.
- Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
Sometimes abstract nouns are needed, especially in academic papers. But when they are not, using them just adds another layer between the writer’s mind and that of the reader.
- In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me.”
In grammar school you were likely taught to use lots of adjectives in order to make your writing more interesting. You were taught wrong. Whether you are writing fiction or prose, don’t pile on the adjectives. Instead, use strong nouns and verbs to communicate what you mean.
- Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
More generally, don’t misuse words. Lewis uses the example of “infinitely.” The word I see (and hear) misused the most is “literally.” E.g., People say that they “literally died of laughing.” Unless you’ve figured out a way to communicate from the grave, you shouldn’t use this phrase. Make sure you are using the right word in the right place. Check a dictionary or usage guide if you’re not sure. The best long-term solution to the problem of misusing words is to read a lot of good literature. Good writers can help their readers become better writers.
A lot more could be said, but a wordy post about good writing would be rather ironic. If you are interested in improving your writing, a great little book to check out is Doug Wilson’s Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life. In about 120 pages, Wilson provides more advice about how to write well than most of us will ever be able to implement—though it wouldn’t hurt to try.
Over the past decade it has been popular to distinguish between “cultural fundamentalism” and “historic fundamentalism.” Cultural fundamentalism is regarded by its critics as very, very bad. It consists of folksy/outdated traditionalism that has drifted from its quaint, innocuous origins and has entered a bitter, skeptical stage of life—complete with theological errors of a sort that typically attend aging, countercultural movements. Historic fundamentalism, which focuses more on basic theological issues, fares a little bit better, but only a very little bit. Critics puzzle over those who accept this label, marveling that anyone would risk associative guilt by lingering near those nasty cultural fundamentalists: “Why not get with the program,” they ask, “and become a conservative evangelical?”
Part of the reason, I would venture, is that conservative evangelicalism itself appears, to all but those blinded by its euphoria, to be yet another cultural phenomenon—a new iteration of a broader movement (evangelicalism) that, let’s face it, has a track record easily as jaded as that of fundamentalism. True, the conservative evangelicals of today are a bit more conscious of theology and mission (that’s how the life cycle of ecclesiological “movements” begins), and their culture is more up-to-date; but it’s just a matter of time until the present iteration of evangelicalism grows old, propped up only by the same nostalgia that today keeps Billy Graham crusades and Bill and Gloria Gaither homecomings on cable TV (except that these will be replaced, for a new generation of elderly evangelicals, with John Piper recordings and Keith and Kristyn Getty sing-alongs that allow folks to relive the glory days).
Last week Darryl Hart, a notable critic of conservative evangelicalism (a.k.a. the “New Calvinism” and “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movements), wrote a scathing exposé of today’s culture-heavy evangelicalism. Speaking specifically to his own confessional concerns, he made the obvious point that the major attraction of the “New Calvinism” and the “Young, Restless and Reformed” movements wasn’t primarily theological (the “Calvinism” and “Reformed” part) but cultural (the “New, Young, and Restless” part). Calvinism, he observed, has been faithfully preserved for centuries in confessional churches (like the OPC of which Hart is a part) that guarded it far more carefully than the confessionally unconstrained evangelicals ever could. No, the major attraction of the “New Calvinism,” Hart opined, was that it offered something that the Old Calvinism didn’t, viz., “the sorts of celebrity, technology, mass crowds, and enthusiasm upon which the young sovereigntists thrive.” The “Gospel Allies” (a derogatory label Hart uses for the conservative evangelical movement) deliberately denigrate the Old Calvinists for one prevailing reason: They’re not new. And since they’re not new, they have little appeal for the young and restless crowd. The “Gospel Allies,” on the other hand, stay new by brokering alliances with cool, edgy, avant-garde, and (mostly) Reformedish celebrities like Driscoll, McDonald, and Mahaney, who, granted, might fall over the edge with which they flirt—but it’s worth the risk.
So what comes next? Well, if history is our guide, the generational cycle of cultural ecclesiology will soon move to its next phase, what I call ecclesiastical “niche-making.” The fundamentalist version of this is well documented. The 1940s and 50s revivalist culture (the best snapshot of which is found in its music) was all new and fresh and culturally edgy in its day. But now it is the realm of churches populated by 80-year-olds who can’t figure out why there are no “young people.” It’s happening again with the Patch the Pirate generation. Patch and Company were all the rage in the 1980s and early 1990s, but now they’re old news. Still, by publishing their magnum opus, Majesty Hymns, a coalition of Patch-culture churches lives on, populated mostly by those who were parents of small children during the 1980s. Now they’re beginning to wonder why the “youth group” is so small.
But evangelicalism is no different. Visit the various evangelical churches in your neighborhood and you’ll find Gaither churches, romantic but theologically vacuous churches from the golden age of CCM, and now Getty/Townend/SG churches (hint: this is where that missing generation has gone). I have little doubt that this cycle will repeat, because there is little in place to break the cycle. The pattern for all of these groups has been to push the cultural envelope until they create their niche, then settle down to enjoy it.
The possible conclusions, then, appear to be twofold: some churches will (1) do nothing and become culturally backward, ingrown congregations that reminisce together until they eventually die of old age, while others will (2) transition to the next cultural cycle and thrive for another 25 years or so. But is this the way it’s supposed to be? I think not.
The answer, I would suggest, is faithful ministry in confessionally bounded churches committed more to the spirituality of the church than they are to the socio-political and cultural relevancy of the church. By striving, self-consciously, to be as culturally transcendent as possible, I would argue, we can cultivate timeless, transgenerational bodies that do not need to reinvent themselves every quarter century to remain solvent. It will not be easy—after all, culture has told us for a hundred years that this is not the way church is done. But it’s definitely worth the effort.
In 1768 the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Voltaire was not trying to denigrate Christianity. Rather, he was arguing for the social benefit of belief in God. He thought that belief in God helped provide incentive to people to live morally and helped establish social order and justice. Thus, if God did not exist, it would be better for society to convince people that God did exist.
There are a growing number of atheists in our day who are clamoring for the abolishment of religion. The late Christopher Hitchens was a leading voice in this movement, and he did not hide his contempt for Voltaire’s sentiment. “Though I dislike to differ with such a great man, Voltaire was simply ludicrous when he said that if god did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. The human invention of god is the problem to begin with” (God is Not Great, 96).
In response to these calls for the abolishment of religion, some are continuing to argue that religion, though perhaps (likely?) false, is still good. Thus, much of the discussion has moved past the question of whether or not Christianity is true to whether or not Christianity (and religion more broadly) is beneficial. Where should Christians side in this debate? Should we tout the idea that religion has tangible benefits even if it is false?
One of the central tenets of the Christian faith is that Jesus is alive today—He rose from the dead. This historical event has been both questioned and affirmed for centuries. A couple of years ago, we held a lecture for our campus ministry at Wayne State University on whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. During the Q&A session afterward, a young lady—after stating that she was a Christian—asked whether or not it really mattered. Is anything changed if Jesus did not rise from the dead? Even if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, isn’t Christianity still good?
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he addresses an issue related to that question. Some in Corinth were denying the Apostolic teaching of the resurrection of the dead. In confronting this error, Paul considers the consequences if Jesus did not rise from the dead.
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:14-19)
What if Jesus did not rise from the dead?
The first consequence Paul mentions is that the preaching of the gospel would be empty. If Paul were to talk with the preachers in churches all over America who do not believe Jesus rose from the dead but still “preach” each Sunday, he would tell them it would be better if they just went fishing or golfing on Sundays. There is no truth to the message being preached if Jesus did not rise.
Some in our day might respond that the objective reality of Jesus’ resurrection is insignificant. What really matters is that we believe he is alive in our hearts! But Paul next states that our faith is empty if Jesus did not rise. The Christian faith is not about wishful thinking. It’s not hoping something is true in spite of the fact that it probably isn’t. It’s about trust in a person and what that person did. If that person did not do what he claimed, then the faith is empty.
Many today would point to the value of moral instruction that religion provides. But Paul next states that he and the other apostles are liars if Jesus did not rise from the dead. He and the other apostles have been preaching that God raised Christ from the dead, and if He did not then they have been lying about God. They have been testifying falsely against him. If they’ve been lying about God, why would we trust them on what they have to say about moral issues? (Or why would we trust Jesus on moral issues when He said He would rise from the dead?) Here’s some valuable advice you may want to tuck away: you don’t want to get your ethical instruction from someone who has been lying about the central part of their message!
But isn’t there still a personal, psychological benefit from believing in Christianity even if it is not true? Paul points out that our faith is of no value if Jesus is still dead. Whereas before Paul says our faith is empty, here he says it is futile or worthless. It’s incapable of accomplishing anything for us.
The reason our faith is futile is because it is not intended to provide a psychological benefit but to deal with our problem of sin. Jesus, as a sinless person, died to pay the penalty for our sins. The resurrection is God’s public display of approval of Christ’s payment for sin. But without the resurrection the payment was not accepted. If Jesus did not rise from the dead then his death was simply for his own sin—just like everyone else who has ever died.
If our sin has not been dealt with, then there is no hope of escaping death. If we are still in our sins, death is not simply falling asleep in Christ but is really the end—eternal separation from God.
Paul concludes by declaring that, if Christ is not raised, Christians are the most to be pitied. He is not simply saying that Christians are to be pitied because they expected heaven but didn’t get it. Christ’s resurrection has bearing on our current lives. It frees us to willingly sacrifice for the sake of God and others (cf. 1 Cor 15:30-32). But if Christ is not alive, there is no point in living a sacrificial life for others. We might as well simply live for ourselves.
Paul does not believe that the Christian life has meaning in itself if Christ is not risen. Christians are a bunch of fools if Christ has not risen! But as Paul points out in the next verse: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor 15:20). Christianity is worthless if it is not true. But Christianity is true, and the truth of Christianity is infinitely good.