I’m finding myself somewhere between pity and embarrassment as I watch otherwise respectable middle-aged white men tripping over one another to be first in line insisting that they’re not racist because they’re OK with Reformed Rap and Holy Hip-Hop as valid worship forms. Not everyone is riding the wave (see esp. Darryl Hart’s comments here), but I’m definitely feeling inundated right now. How did we get here? Let me suggest three culprits:
- Evangelicalism: In one sense I am forced to concede that I am an evangelical, because I affirm tenaciously the central tenets of the Gospel. But while evangelicalism is ever concerned about the practical success of the Gospel, the movement has never really been about the “central tenets” of anything (indeed, the admission standards to the Evangelical Theological Society have absolutely nothing to do with the evangel). Evangelicals place primary concern on horizontal interests (how to successfully connect with the people we need to reach and the people we need to keep). Whether people are properly catechized to live and worship in the right way is secondary to whether they are being touched by the Gospel.
- Neo-Kuyperianism: There is nothing profane in culture, so everything in culture can and must be redeemed. We must eliminate explicitly sinful deeds, of course, but those are incidental intrusions into culture—the culture itself is a product of people in God’s image variously and creatively fulfilling the dominion mandate. Every culture is equally good or at the very least equally neutral. To affirm otherwise is racist, which is probably the worst possible label you can affix to an evangelical.
- Celebrity: Christianity is, to a greater or lesser degree, publicly performed by celebrated individuals and subsequently experienced by worshippers in the form of personal admiration, pleasure, and ecstatic experience. Though these experiences may be felt in a group setting, the experience itself is individual, not corporate.
Since I am not a card-carrying evangelical, am not a Neo-Kuyperian at all, and am contemptuous of celebrities, every possible reason for embracing Reformed Rap and Holy Hip-Hop as a worship form disappears for me. Note the following:
- Since I despise Christian celebrity, I cannot fathom how rap or hip-hop can find a place in public worship. At this point I am saying nothing about the credibility of the art forms in general, only that some forms are totally non-conducive to biblical worship (see, e.g., Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). Congregational rap does not and cannot exist. No rap exists other than celebrity rap.
- Since I reject Neo-Kuyperianism emphatically, I do not define culture as neutral people in God’s image variously and creatively fulfilling the dominion mandate in neutral ways. At the very root of every depraved human culture (no discrimination here) lie elemental principles and philosophies that are woven into the very fabric of its cultural expressions (Col 2:8, 20). I do believe in common grace, and thus that all people are not equally evil or as evil as they can possibly be, but the fact remains that common grace often functions more as a brake on a runaway train than as the track on which the train runs. As such, (1) some cultural expressions are so hopelessly interlaced with depraved assumptions and associations that they are irredeemable (eating meat in a cultic context); (2) others are so closely connected with depraved assumptions and associations that they should be politely declined (eating meat that is perceived by pagan community itself to be evil), and (3) still others must be eaten (eating meat after it has been successfully extricated from depraved assumptions and associations so as to be profitable for the cause of Christ) (1 Cor 8–10). From where I live in a semi-rural suburb of Ann Arbor, the cultural forms of rap and hip-hop hover somewhere between (1) and (2). It is possible that my evaluation is wrong and that the evaluation of my own particular pagan community is likewise wrong, but I do not see how the use of these media could ever be justified in my context.
- Since I do not self-identify primarily as an evangelical, my first question in matters of corporate worship is not a horizontal one (i.e., how can the gathered church successfully connect with the people it hopes to reach and the people it hopes to keep): a great many other questions precede this one, and none that impel me to use rap or hip-hop. That is not to say that I eschew evangelism or tear 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 from my Bible; however, (1) I do not see the context of this passage as one of worship, and (2) I find qualifications placed on the sentiment of this passage elsewhere in Scripture.
Is it possible that I am a self-deceived racist. I truly hope that this is not the case. I take solace in the fact that for 20 years I’ve been a fairly aggressive equal-opportunity critic (more so, I admit, than my colleagues, and at times more than has been wont—please see this as a personal reflection, not as an institutional one), and during those years my targets have overwhelmingly consisted of very white musical forms. In questioning the use of rap and hip-hop in worship I am not demeaning the race or tastes of those who embrace the forms, much less calling them “disobedient cowards” (which, by the way, was way out of line); instead, I am doing my best to make a biblically-informed judgment of the propriety of these forms in worship. And at the end of the day I don’t find a place for them.
I want to both inform you and ask you to spread the word about the 2014 Student Global Impact Missions Conference taking place in about one month on January 2-3, 2014 at Inter-City Baptist Church. We pack several inspiring and informative workshops and sessions on missions into these two days, for the purpose of encouraging students to give their lives for the sake of missions. The conference is for both “goers” and “senders,” so you don’t need to be a missions or bible major to profit from the conference.
Our culture tells us that we must live for the moment, seize the day, live life to the fullest. If you really want to live you have to do this, try that, have this experience, etc. But the Bible gives us a different message. Paul, the first missionary, said that for him “to live is Christ,” and that if spreading the gospel of Christ meant his death, that was okay too because “to die is gain.” We need to be reminded that real life is life lived for Christ and that death in Christ really is gain. Student Global Impact exists to remind young adults that telling others about Jesus is worth your life (and death).
On January 2-3, 2014, hundreds of young adults will gather in the metro Detroit area for the SGI National Conference under the theme “To Live is Christ. To Die is Gain.” Join us as we focus on the Word through preaching, conservative corporate singing, practical and academic workshops on missions topics, and fellowship with other young adults who love Jesus and the cause of His gospel.
If you are a pastor or parent reading this, I would urge you to send your college students to this event. This is a great opportunity for spiritual refreshing and advance. The SGI conference can be especially helpful to those who do not normally have the opportunity to fellowship with Christian students. What better Christmas present to give to them than a trip to the SGI conference! You can register here. You can share the conference Facebook page here. If you know of students in your church and family, please send them the links provided. If you have questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section.
For some reason it seems to have started earlier than usual this year. Naïvely perhaps, I’ve always thought “Black Friday” referred to the day after Thanksgiving (i.e., Friday). The reality is that we’ve all been receiving emails and seeing print ads about Black Friday and pre-Black Friday sales for a couple of weeks now.
It has been estimated that last year Americans spent more than $59 billion during Black Friday weekend (Thurs–Sun). Assuming a U.S. population of 315 million, that works out to about $187 spent per person (every man, woman, and child) in the country during a single four-day weekend. Incidentally, total holiday spending for 2012 came to about $580 billion.
There is nothing wrong with purchasing gifts for other people and even spending money on one’s self. But somewhere along the way, we as a nation seem to have crossed the line from enjoying God’s good gifts and displaying generosity toward others to blatant consumerism and greediness.
Many biblical principles come into play when considering how much to spend on gifts and such during the holiday season. One of the first to come to mind is “The borrower becomes the lender’s slave” (Prov 22:7). Admittedly, the Bible nowhere forbids borrowing altogether, but the Scriptures do repeatedly warn us about the dangers of debt. Browse the ads and enjoy some holiday shopping, but don’t let Christmas spending become an entrée to the realm of slavery.
This being Thanksgiving, I wanted to express my thanks to all of the faithful pastors that are opening their hearts to people—upholding them in their hearts through prayer, pouring out their hearts in preaching, and exposing their hearts in counseling. It is a great privilege to serve as a shepherd and it is also a grave responsibility, but men all around the world do it gladly with grace, in the Spirit’s power, in large and small places, and we can be thankful for them!
I particularly want to thank a faithful pastor I had as a child, Pastor Oddos Morris of the Poplar Run United Baptist Church. He hasn’t written any books or blogs or tweets that I know of. The church doesn’t even have a website. But he did play a vital role in seeing the Gospel written on my heart.
Poplar Run, then Philadelphia United Baptist, is a small country church that sits literally on the corner of an Indiana cornfield (alternatively a soybean field) in Farmland, Indiana. After church in the summers, we boys would run races around the building and throw the few parking lot rocks we had at the dilapidated barn across the street. Babies would crawl under the pews during the service, and, occasionally, a very elderly lady named Edith would bring tears to our eyes, shouting “Praise the Lord, and Praise Him, and Praise Him, and Praise Him!”
Pastor Morris, or “Brother Oddos” as most people would say, was a kind and quiet man outside the pulpit, but bold in it. He preached the gospel to me personally and publicly. I remember when he first sat down with me in one of the small side rooms, looked me in the eye and asked me if I was saved. I am sure he prayed for me after that. I just as plainly remember the Sunday morning a few months later in April when he preached “Let Him who is athirst, come, and take the water of life freely”—the Sunday that the Lord graciously saved me. His faithful personal and public ministry had reaped a harvest!
To all those like Pastor Morris ministering in seemingly small places, you have a big place in my heart, and in the heart of God. Though the harvest of your ministry is not concentrated in one place, it has been distributed into places of which only the Lord fully knows. Thank you for your faithful ministry!
Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to the meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, this year in Baltimore, MD. The ETS is a professional society made up of several thousand professors, students, academically-minded pastors, and other thrill seekers who submit to the meager but important doctrinal standards of (1) Trinitarianism and (2) biblical inerrancy. I’ve been a member for about fifteen years (with a year off in protest over the Pinnock/Sanders incident—more on that later), and thoroughly enjoy these annual trips. In fact, I think last week’s meeting was my favorite to date. Some thoughts I had:
- I have made peace with the fact that the ETS doctrinal standards are not denominational subscription standards or “fundamentals.” Early on, I thought that this was the case, and was aghast when Clark Pinnock retained his membership despite clear evidence that his idea of inerrancy was woefully deficient. I later realized that this society (despite its published standards) is really a “village green” where broad theological conversations can occur—even debates over the doctrinal standards themselves. This was especially evident with this year’s conference theme (inerrancy), which seemed to invite an inordinate percentage of papers detailing just how far the definition of inerrancy may be stretched and still be called “inerrancy.” Some will not feel comfortable with this kind of society, and I have sympathy with those so inclined. The content of the ETS standards and laxity toward subscription do not offer a good model for ecclesiastical fellowship, but then again, that’s not what ETS is—and there is need for a place where the conversations common at ETS may be conducted dispassionately in a professional, face-to-face venue.
- Since ETS is not really about expressing mutual agreement (like, say, a denominational fellowship meeting might be), why do I go? Three major reasons: I go (1) to encourage and be encouraged by comrades-in-arms, many of which I see only at this venue, (2) to make new connections for fellowship, publication, and other joint efforts, and (3) to be part of the conversation, participating interactively in solutions to contemporary problems in a community than is larger than the one with which I interact every day. This kind of conference is as invigorating to an academic as a denominational meeting or preaching conference is for an isolated pastor. I come back each year thoroughly refreshed, with new books to read, new ideas for teaching/research, and a generally renewed resolve or “vision” for what I can accomplish for the cause of Christ and of God.
I also spent a bit of time this year pondering the idea of being evangelical. To be evangelical has historically meant that primary emphasis is placed on taking the evangel to those who don’t have it. This fact has two important implications for the conference:
- Many ETS papers are dedicated to “answering the fool according to his folly” (Prov 26:5) and to being “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks the reason for the hope that you have…with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). The topics are often clustered around the edges (where the evangel is not prominent), and the tone is almost always irenic, sometimes unduly so. It is a place where fundamentalists and confessionalists (among whose ranks I count myself) are in the minority—emphasis on exclusivity in the context of local churches is not prominent. Still, I am forced to admit that the evangelicals have been good at reminding me that my life is lived not only as a member of the church, but as a member of civil society, where life is often intellectually messy. Granted, many at ETS confuse the two spheres of ecclesiastical and civil society (after all, there are a LOT of Neo-Kuyperians who attend), but the reminder is helpful.
- Self-styled evangelicals tend to take greater theological risks for the sake of the Gospel than do their confessional and fundamentalist brothers. There is in evangelical quarters a pervasive tendency to overlook incidental differences for the sake of the Gospel. This is something I need to learn better. Still, there is also a tendency among evangelicals to overlook significant and even watershed differences for the sake of the Gospel. This remains a problem of serious import, and one that is never far from my mind when I am at ETS.
To summarize, I love going to ETS and I plan to go every year so long as I am able to do so. It is a refreshing and stimulating highlight of my year. I remain fully aware of the deficiencies of evangelicalism as an idea and as a movement, and suspect I will always be something of an outsider, but I still find this venue an immensely profitable one. ETS is not the church, and I was delighted to be back on Sunday morning worshipping in that far different and much more important venue. But ETS equips me, I think, to function more effectively in the church, and I recommend the ETS experience to others.
One of our seminary graduates, Dr. Rod Decker, is suffering from stage 4 incurable cancer. Rod is Professor of Greek and New Testament at Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, PA. Recently, Rod and a colleague spoke about their health situations in chapel at the seminary. Rod’s presentation is titled “I’m Not Afraid to Die.” You can read it here. Please pray for Rod and his family.
In Gal 3:10–4:7 Paul gives two reasons why works will not justify. One the one hand, he says that justification by works would change the terms of God’s covenant with Abraham. And, Paul adds, one simply isn’t allowed to do that sort of thing with an established covenant (see Gal 3:15–18). On the other hand, he says—or, at the very least, implies—that justification by works is impossible, since one would have to perfectly obey the law in its entirety to be justified (see Gal 3:10). Some think this second point misrepresents Judaism. After all, Paul’s insistence on perfect obedience fails to take on board the law’s own provision for imperfection: the sacrificial system. Has Paul (deliberately?) misrepresented Judaism or did Judaism, as Paul implies, actually require perfect obedience from those who wanted to live (Gal 3:12)? Tom Schreiner nicely slices the onion, noting that “[p]erfect obedience was not required under the Sinai covenant, for the law provided via sacrifices for those who transgressed. In Paul’s view, however (see Gal 3:15–4:7), the Sinai covenant was no longer in force. Therefore, those who observe circumcision and the law to obtain justification (Gal 5:2–4) are turning the clock backwards in salvation history” (Galatians, 213, emphasis added; cf. also n. 65), and are doing so without the benefit of the now-fulfilled sacrificial system. Thus, to borrow E. P. Sanders’ famous (and reductionistic) line, “This is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity.”
Note: For Schreiner’s resolution to the tension his solution creates with Paul’s first observation noted above (i.e., inheritance not through obedience but promise), see his comments on pp. 231–33, where he distinguishes between the promises (inheritance) of the Mosaic covenant (see, e.g., “land,” 233) and of the Abrahamic covenant (i.e., “final inheritance,” 231; salvation, 233). One came through obedience; the other through promise (233).
This past week the good folks at Crossway sent me a copy of a new book that will likely stir the theological waters a bit. I’m referring to From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson.
This hefty volume includes 23 essays written by Michael Haykin, Paul Helm, Carl Trueman, Tom Schreiner, Steve Wellum, Sinclair Ferguson, and John Piper among others. It also bears endorsements by J. I. Packer, D. A. Carson, David Wells, John Frame, Richard Gaffin, Ligon Duncan, and Kelly Kapic.
In the foreword, Packer identifies the book’s thesis: “As the Reformed faith and its pastoral corollaries is the true intellectual mainstream of Christianity, so the belief in definite, particular, and sovereignly effectual redemption…is its true intellectual center” (13). Packer then goes on to suggest that it is about time to lay the TULIP acronym to rest. In his opinion, the phrase “limited atonement” is overly negative and somewhat misleading and therefore should be replaced by the phrase “definite redemption” or as the book’s title suggests “definite atonement.” Agree or disagree with Packer and the other authors in this book, one will certainly find much meat to chew on in this 700-page volume on a subject that necessarily concerns not only the extent of the atonement but also the very nature of Christ’s work (see esp. chaps 17 and 23).
Table of Contents
1. Sacred Theology and the Reading of the Divine Word: Mapping the Doctrine of Definite Atonement (David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson)
I. Definite Atonement in Church History
2. “We Trust in the Saving Blood”: Definite Atonement in the Ancient Church (Michael A. G. Haykin)
3. “Sufficient for All, Efficient for Some”: Definite Atonement in the Medieval Church (David S. Hogg)
4. Calvin, Indefinite Language, and Definite Atonement (Paul Helm)
5. Blaming Beza: The Development of Definite Atonement in the Reformed Tradition (Raymond A. Blacketer)
6. The Synod of Dort and Definite Atonement (Lee Gatiss)
7. “Controversy on Universal Grace”: An Historical Survey of Moïse Amyraut’s Brief Traitté de la Predestination (Amar Djaballah)
8. Atonement and the Covenant of Redemption: John Owen on the Nature of Christ’s Satisfaction (Carl R. Trueman)
II. Definite Atonement in the Bible
9. “Because He Loved Your Forefathers”: Election, Atonement, and Intercession in the Pentateuch (Paul R. Williamson)
10. “Stricken for the Transgression of My People”: The Atoning Work of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (J. Alec Motyer)
11. For the Glory of the Father and the Salvation of His People: Definite Atonement in the Synoptics and Johannine Literature (Matthew S. Harmon)
12. For Whom Did Christ Die? Particularism and Universalism in the Pauline Epistles (Jonathan Gibson)
13. The Glorious, Indivisible, Trinitarian Work of God in Christ: Definite Atonement in Paul’s Theology of Salvation (Jonathan Gibson)
14. “Problematic Texts” for Definite Atonement in the Pastoral and General Epistles (Thomas R. Schreiner)
III. Definite Atonement in Theological Perspective
15. Definite Atonement and the Divine Decree (Donald Macleod)
16. The Triune God, Incarnation, and Definite Atonement (Robert Letham)
17. The Definite Intent of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (Garry J. Williams)
18. Punishment God Cannot Twice Inflict: The Double Payment Argument Redivivus (Garry J. Williams)
19. The New Covenant Work of Christ: Priesthood, Atonement, and Intercession (Stephen J. Wellum)
20. Jesus Christ the Man: Toward a Theology of Definite Atonement (Henri A. G. Blocher)
IV. Definite Atonement in Pastoral Practice
21. Slain for the World? The “Uncomfortability” of the “Unevangelized” for a Universal Atonement (Daniel Strange)
22. “Blessèd Assurance, Jesus is Mine”? Definite Atonement and the Cure of Souls (Sinclair B. Ferguson)
23. “My Glory I Will Not Give to Another”: Preaching the Fullness of Definite Atonement to the Glory of God (John Piper)
Billy Graham just preached his final sermon (well, sort of—it was more a few sentences inside of a state-of-the-art video presentation). We’ve not seen a lot from him lately, so we instinctively tuned in to hear America’s pastor one last time. Everybody liked it. It had the Gospel woven through a pair of compelling narratives—who can possibly complain about that?
For sake of brevity, let’s look at just one of the stories: A suicidal girl desperately in need of “tangible healing” goes to a church against her will and the pastor divines that there was “a suicidal spirit in the room.” Based on this stunning bit of divination, with the hair standing up on the back her neck and thinking, “This is really weird,” the girl flees. But a white-headed man stops her and says, “The Lord wants me to speak with you.” The man somehow knows that the girl has never had an earthly father and that she cries herself to sleep every night. Overwhelmed, she submits to his prayer on her behalf and afterward “feels God inviting her to an embrace of grace and love…. It was like God was saying, ‘I will make you new if you’ll let me.’” Shortly afterward, she prays, with the result that “Jesus saved my life and on top of everything else, the life of my son and the new baby.” Oh, and the girl became a crossover pop icon.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must concede that the video also articulates the doctrines of divine holiness, human depravity, and substitutionary atonement. The Gospel is definitely there if you know what to look for. But I can’t shake the feeling that the theological supports woven into the narrative are so rotten that the Gospel is in imminent danger of being lost to our own Western version of syncretism: you can be right with God and retain the personalized, man-centered, existentialist, and culture-affirming worldview of your choice.
This has been Billy Graham’s legacy. So long as one is able to carefully articulate the sinner’s prayer and leave the world a better place, little else matters. And this persistent error has not only led people astray by theological omission, but has also done much to actively savage churches committed to affirming the whole counsel of God. So while in God’s providence we can rejoice that many people have been saved through the ministry of Billy Graham, we should check ourselves before giving in to the wave of pragmatic fondness that is thick in the air this week.
Most likely you’re familiar with the idea of cults, but you may be less familiar with the anti-cult movement. Though you may not realize it, your understanding of cults is likely influenced by the anti-cult movement. For as long as “cults” have existed, others have adopted the mission of discrediting and destroying cults, publishing exposés and alerting media to the dangers of these new religious movements. Many would consider this a noble task, since cults are viewed as a menace to society—they distort facts, employ bullying tactics, and refuse to allow dissent. However, those same characteristics often appear in the anti-cult movement.
In the opening chapter of Cults and New Religious Movements, Eileen Barker notes some of the characteristics of the anti-cult movement.
In some ways, the ACM [anti-cult movement] can be seen as a mirror image of the NRM [new religious movement]. Both tend to want a clear, unambiguous division between “us” and “them”; but while the NRM will select only good aspects, the ACM selects only bad aspects. Most ACM pronouncements tend to be about “destructive cults,” lumping all NRMs together as though they were a single entity, the sins of one being visited on all. Any evidence or argument that could complicate or disprove their negative construction (or reform that may be introduced) is more likely to be ignored or dismissed than denied….
As a matter of principle, anti-cultists are likely to refuse to have direct contact with the primary construction itself as a source of information. This is justified by the premise that cults are, almost by definition, bound to practice deception and are probably dangerous. Data for ACM stories tend, therefore, to be collected from anxious parents, disillusioned exmembers, and negative media reports. Often there is a circularity involved in that the anxious parents have been alerted to the negative aspects of their child’s movement by anti-cult “atrocity tales” (Shupe and Bromley 1980); the ex-members have been taught by deprogrammers or exit counselors to believe that they were brainwashed and that their whole experience is to be interpreted in negative terms (Lewis 1986; Solomon 1981; Wright 1987); and the media frequently get their stories from the ACM which then uses the fact that the story has appeared in print as proof that it has been independently verified. There have been cases where the media have included rebuttals to a story supplied to them by the ACM, which has then innocently asked why the question was raised in the first place, suggesting that there is no smoke without a fire—even when they themselves had kindled the fire.
(Barker, Eileen. “The Scientific Study of Religion? You Must Be Joking!” Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader. Edited by Lorne L. Dawson. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, pp. 15-16.)
What is saddening is that her description closely resembles many of the “watchdog” organizations in our day—including many supposed Christians. I’ve observed Christians employing these same tactics to discredit other Christian ministers or ministries they deem to be in error. Far too often, in our efforts to warn against abuse or condemn error, we fall into the same error. Many times, those who were once a part of the problem group adopt the same sinful mindset in now opposing it. Perhaps without realizing it, they have become what they are against.
If you have been around the internet the past couple weeks, you have undoubtedly become aware of the controversy over the Strange Fire Conference sponsored by John MacArthur and Grace to You. MacArthur’s book by the same name (Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship) goes on sale tomorrow. Most of the criticism of the conference has been directed toward MacArthur’s opening message, which you can view or read here. MacArthur is commonly criticized for painting the Charismatic movement with “too broad a brush.” Tim Challies has conducted a two-part interview with MacArthur in which, I think, he goes a long way toward answering his critics, especially in the first interview. You can read them here and here.
The Life of a preacher should be a magnet to draw men to Christ…. Sanctity in ministers is a loud call to sinners to repent, and when allied with holy cheerfulness, it becomes wondrously attractive.
This from Charles Spurgeon in his lecture, “The Minister’s Self-Watch,” in chapter one of his Lectures to My Students.
Rather than seeking to be relevant and missional on one hand, or prudish and isolated on the other, relational joy mixed with a genuine godly piety are the keys that Spurgeon recommends will draw men to Christ. These are both evidences of the Spirit’s work in our lives, and when they are displayed, they bear witness to the conscience and the present-yet-marred image of God in those around you.
I would encourage you to read the whole lecture. I recommend my students read this one, if not the whole book, at least once every year.
After using Kindle for PC for several years, this past week I finally bit the bullet and purchased a Kindle Paperwhite. My initial impression of the device is very positive. I think I’m really going to like this thing. Perhaps I’ll write a post reviewing the device itself at some point down the road, but that isn’t the purpose of this post.
Prior to owning a Kindle, I downloaded nearly 100 Kindle books without paying a penny. The volumes are mostly classics and worthwhile books that have been offered “free for a limited time” at some point. In the past week or so, I’ve been looking to add more titles to my Kindle “library” without spending much money. So far the most helpful third party site I’ve found for locating free Kindle titles is Freebook Sifter. Freebook Sifter provides links to the more than 40,000 Kindle titles that can currently be “purchased” for free through Amazon’s website. These titles are organized into various categories and subcategories (e.g., History → U.S. History → 19th Century). The database is fully searchable as well. Theoretically, one could find all of these books through Amazon’s website, but Amazon’s goal is to sell you books while Freebook Sifter only lists books that are free.
Alternatively, the Kindle owners’ lending library allows Amazon Prime members to borrow any of the 442,000 books currently in the lending library one volume at a time. Admittedly, this isn’t the same as owning the book. But one could argue that the question of ownership is somewhat of a slippery point when we’re talking about electronic data that can be removed from your device by Amazon if they so desire. Many public libraries also now allow their patrons to checkout electronic versions of some books.
In addition to Kindle edition books, Kindle devices also support pdfs, docs, docxs, etc. Amazon recommends several websites as sources of free books in a variety of formats that can be viewed on a Kindle. I’ve just begun to scratch the surface. If you’ve found a particularly helpful website or technique for locating free or inexpensive books that can be read on Kindles (or even on a Nook), please share your find in the comments below.
A few years ago, Stanley Gundry wrote an article, “Hermeneutics or Zeitgeist as the Determining Factor in the History of Eschatologies?” (JETS 20 : 45–55). In it, he proposed that the church’s eschatological trends have not been established principally by hermeneutics or exegesis but by Zeitgeist, the “spirit of the age.” In times of persecution or societal disfavor, the church prefers eschatologies of discontinuity or escape (e.g., premillennialism and even pretribulationism). In times of goodwill and societal favor, the church prefers eschatologies of continuity or progress (e.g., amillennialism and postmillennialism). Gundry admitted that these are generalizations, with every era sporting exceptions—principled hermeneuts who transcend their Zeitgeist—but after he completed his historical survey, his thesis feels remarkably solid.
The lesson? Zeitgeist has a far more powerful influence that we realize when we “do theology” (whether in the classroom or pulpit), and we need to make self-conscious efforts to create distance from our Zeitgeist, standing above it without disengaging from it entirely. We need to apply Christ’s injunction to be in the world but not of it (John 17:15ff) not just to our ethics, but to every aspect of the Christian doctrine and practice. Specifically, I’d like to suggest in this blog post that Gundry’s approach to eschatological trends in the church may also be applied to trends in worship and musical style in the Christian community. Note the following historical generalizations:
- The late nineteenth century was a period of tremendous progress, and the church was leading the way. This was the era of martial hymnody—“Onward Christian Soldiers,” “The Banner of the Cross,” “Faith Is the Victory,” and the like.
- The early twentieth featured much societal contradiction. Progress slowed and even reversed during the Great War, but the 1920s featured a roaring comeback that in retrospect we know was counterfeit. The church did the same thing, wishing away the looming fundamentalist-modernist controversy with a battery of impossibly happy, rollicking songs like “He Keeps Me Singing,” “In My Heart There Rings a Melody,” and “Love Lifted Me.”
- The New Deal, the Second World War, and the ensuing recovery was a reality check of sort—a period of necessarily organized rebuilding and industrial development. People united to save the country and then to rebuild it. The same thing happened in the church. The music matched the efforts, introducing new forms of upbeat group-sing. It was the era of ladies’ trios and men’s quartets, and whole congregations learned, under the guidance of dymanic song-leaders, to participate in lively and interactive harmonies.
- The late 1960s and 1970s were a darker time, and so was the music of the era. Cynical and wistful critique in secular music gave way to outright defiance as the youth culture gave up on the perceived hypocrisy of the “establishment”—both political and ecclesiastical. In Christian music, the group-sing of the previous group found gentle resistance in the sad, crooning folk style of the “Jesus People,” then more emphatic resistance in the cacophonous sounds of “Jesus Rock.” The church began to polarize over their favored Zeitgeisten.
- The 1980s and early 1990s represented a recovery from the bleakness of the 1970s. With apologies to Neil Diamond and Keith Green, people wanted something lighter and more perky. We found it in Sandi, Twila, and even an unlikely guy named Patch the Pirate.
- The mood of today’s hymns is harder to classify—we lack the benefit of historical reflection. Perky and light is mostly out, replaced by an odd combination of celebrity and deep-seated but private earnestness. Small group-sing (e.g., quartets and choirs) is also out of favor, replaced with music suitable only to acutely expressive individual performance on the one hand or to provincial unisons on the other. And generational segregation, sadly, has never been greater.
So what’s my goal here? It’s not to defend any one popular style as better or worse than the others (I’ve tried to be an equal-opportunity critic). It’s not to say, either, that older popular styles are superior to newer popular styles. And it’s surely not a statement that contemporary musicians are universally too naïve to escape the clutches of their own Zeitgeist. Instead, my point is the same as Gundry’s: We need to be aware of the powerful influence of Zeitgeist on the production and selection of our music (both in content and in style). Then, having become aware of this influence, we need to privilege musical forms that, irrespective of when they were written, self-consciously offer timeless, transcendent, and other-earthly commentary on our Zeitgeist, rather than transient, provincial, here-and-now expressions of the Zietgeist in which we feel most comfortable. We are in this world, yes, but when the mood of the church’s music matches exactly the mood of the age, we inevitably end up with (1) sharp generational polarization and (2) the troubling possibility that the Christian community has missed the paradox/antithesis that attends our dual citizenship both in this world and in the next.
I think I can make a pretty good case that Hebrews was a sermon, probably, in fact, a handful of sermons stitched together to respond to the urgent needs of a community in crisis. (You’re just going to have to trust me on this one.) Here I want to reflect on three things aspiring pastors like myself—and, I suspect, seasoned ones too—can learn from the wise pastor who prepared this sermon.
#1: What sort of sermons—solutions—should we offer? The pastor models for us what we should do to address the needs of people within our churches. He’s met with a problem as multi-faceted as it is urgent and he thinks long enough about it to tell the difference between its implications and its cause. Then he identifies what part of his community’s confession—what part of the Gospel—they needed to hear to confront their problem and heal their spiritual disease at its source (for a summary, see, esp., 4:14–16; 10:19–21). Pretty straightforward. It’s pretty simply, even if it’s not often very easy. There’s quite a bit more I might say about this one, but let me here simply draw out two further implications. First, we need to listen. That’s right. Listen. We need to spend the energy necessary to get the “pulse” of our communities, to know our people’s hurts, disappointments, fears, accusations, doubts, etc. (After all, we’re not looking to do exploratory surgery with every sermon.) To put it another way, as pastors we’ve got more than one “text” to exegete each week. And, added to this, we need to follow Hebrews lead and commit ourselves to a robust, probing grasp of the Gospel so that we’re ready and able to faithfully, nimbly and insightfully bring it to bear on the needs of our flocks.
#2: What shape should our sermons—our solutions—take? The pastor also models how we should bring the Gospel to bear on our community’s needs. He doesn’t simply meet their problems with Gospel aphorisms, with naked Gospel propositions, with—forgive the way I’m going to put this—dogmatic theology. Rather, he brings the Gospel to bear by placing his people and their problems within God’s story. He meets their needs with biblical theology. He places his friends, first, in the story’s broadest context—Jesus and Adam (1:5–14; 2:5–9, 10–18)—and, then, in one of its narrower story-lines: Jesus and Israel (spec. Levi; 5:1–10; 7:1–10, 11–28; 8:1–13; 9:1–10, 11–28; 10:1–18). In both places, the author shows the audience that what the Gospel asserts about Jesus corresponds to what earlier parts of the story anticipated and, moreover, prepares the audience for the story’s next chapter. We might say, then, that there’s a satisfying movement, complete with an eschatology, to the author’s response.
#3: How should our sermons—our solutions—be administered? Finally, the pastor models for us how our sermons—our solutions—should be administered. At the heart of his response (see, e.g., 10:22–25, esp. vv. 24–25), the pastor insists that the community of faith—the church—is an indispensable part of the solution, a urgently-important means of grace. If the gospel work of our sermons is to have its full effect, the church must be actively involved. The pastor encourages his friends to follow his example and do the hard work of insightfully-preaching the Gospel to one another. The pastor makes it clear, in other words, that his and the other elders’ leadership was insufficient. His friends needed the member-to-member ministry of the word; they needed the pastoral oversight of the community itself.
I was pleased to receive in the mail this past week a new historical theology text. BJU Press has recently released David Beale’s two-volume work, Historical Theology In-Depth. I’ve only just begun dipping into the set, but I wanted to mention it here and provide a few initial impressions.
In contrast to Gregg Allison’s recent Historical Theology which is arranged topically like a systematic theology (Grudem’s Systematic Theology, to be specific), this work by Beale is written largely in a chronological format. Volume one contains 37 chapters that cover the Apostolic Fathers up through the Middle Ages. Demonstrating how difficult it is to discuss historical theology in a strictly chronological format, several later chapters in this volume focus on developments which took place within Roman Catholicism after the Protestant Reformation. Volume two includes 20 chapters and four appendices. This volume covers Martin Luther up through about the late nineteenth century. Toward the end of volume two, Beale once again transitions to more topically-oriented discussions. This time, later chapters and the appendices focus on evangelical views of the Bible, historical perspectives on abortion, and various issues related to creationism. Several other topical chapters also appear at various points in the text, but for the most part, these volumes read more like a church history than a history of doctrine.
On the negative side, I do not find Beale’s emphasis on paradox and “theological mystery” to be particularly helpful (e.g., 1:2–4, 2:98). In fact, I think such an emphasis is generally counterproductive to the work of interpreting Scripture and attempting to correlate what God has said about specific topics (i.e., systematic theology). A lesser problem is the fact that Beale tends to use older translations of historical sources (e.g., ANF & NPNF) and older editions of certain modern sources when newer editions have been readily available for years (e.g., Holmes’s 2nd vs. 3rd ed. the Apostolic Fathers). And then, more significantly the work seems to contain some rather obvious historical gaps. For example, I looked in vain for more than a passing reference to John Wesley, Methodism, or for that matter, most of the major English Puritans (outside the topical discussion of the Sabbath). In fact, the English Reformation and the Church of England are barely discussed at all.* It seems to me that a significant bit of historical development was left out somewhere between the continental Reformers and the rise of the Baptists.
Those criticisms aside, overall, this looks to be a generally helpful work. I like that the author includes brief excerpts from primary sources and short bibliographies at the end of most chapters. These bibliographies brought several older titles to my attention for the first time. I also appreciated the chapters that diverged from the chronological format to discuss the development of a specific idea (such as transubstantiation or the Sabbath) through a broader stretch of church history. In my view, such chapters are the most helpful sections of this work.
*Illustrative of this kind of problem is the fact that Josh McDowell and Gary North made the index of volume two, whereas John Owen and John Wesley did not.
I just finished reading Samuel Miller’s book Thoughts on Public Prayer. As the title suggests, the book does not offer a cohesive treatise on the topic, but a governing thesis nonetheless emerges: since prayer rivals preaching as the most important of a pastor’s public ministries, he ought to prepare his public prayers as carefully as he prepares his public sermons. The book functions loosely as a guide for preparing public prayers.
While Miller does not totally reject spontaneous public prayer, neither does he regard the practice as a desirable norm: spontaneous public prayers should be as rare as spontaneous public sermons. For Miller, privileging spontaneous pulpit discourse (whether prayer or preaching) over studied pulpit discourse is a troubling concession to pietism. That being said, however, Miller also takes a dim view of recited or liturgical prayers, repeatedly thrashing such prayers for their many demerits. Miller advocates instead for prayers extempore, that is, prayers carefully planned (even written), but freshly prepared for each occasion according to the wisdom of the minister.
Miller also rejects the popular idea that the best public prayers are simply shared private prayers. To pray publicly is to lead in prayer, and this demands constant attention to style and manner. Care must be exercised to ensure that nothing in the delivery of a public prayer interferes with the edification of those who hear it. If our public prayers feature halting rhetoric, poor grammar, and “undue prolixity,” a segment of our hearers will recoil from them and their minds will wander. If we use prayer expletives to excess (“O, Lord,” “we pray,” etc.), our listeners may learn to pray in vain repetitions. If our prayers are rambling and disorganized, our listeners will not learn the structure of private prayer and may neglect some of its “departments” (e.g., adoration, thanksgiving, petition, etc.). If public prayers are used to make announcements or even to teach doctrine, our listeners may begin to use their private prayer time to needlessly inform God of what he already knows. If our prayers are uniformly filled with high passion, vehemence, or other excesses, our listeners will not learn the discipline of ordinary prayer. Worst of all, if our public prayers seem perfunctory to our listeners, they may stop praying entirely.
Public prayer also teaches people indirectly about God himself—a fact that, in Miller’s studied opinion, should promote an elevated rather than a casual style of public prayer. Wit and silliness should be eliminated at all costs, together with all that is overly familiar or “amatory” (e.g., “Dear Jesus,” “Sweet Lord,” etc.). Above all we should avoid all that might possibly be viewed as crass, irreverent, or inappropriate to public discourse. Miller grieves over the lack of transcendence in his day and remarks that if the church abandons the gravitas appropriate to its meetings, God’s otherness might be lost entirely. One wonders what Miller would think of the contemporary church!
Positively, public prayers should be saturated with Scripture, organized, dignified, beautiful, and varied. Attention should be directed, by both thanksgiving and petition, to the advance of the Gospel, and all prayers should close with humble doxology and a thoughtful “Amen.” Above all, however, public prayer is rendered excellent by means of preparation and practice: personal study of informing Scriptures and of its exemplary prayers, and most especially the regular cultivation of private prayer.
How does your church feel about the need for new churches? Sometimes statistics can help out our feelings. Consider these simple statistics briefly:
- The population of the United States, the third most populous nation in the world, is about 316,700,000.
- The population of the United States is growing by 0.9% per year.
- This means we are adding a net of about 2,800,000 people per year (rounding down to the nearest 100,000). That only includes documented increases. (source: World Factbook)
Conclusion: If we only wanted to plant one church for every increase in, say, 10,000 people, Gospel-preaching churches need to plant 280 churches per year to keep up with the population growth rate alone. I think we would all agree to the need for new churches even without the growth in population, but with it, the stewardship of the gospel becomes all the more important.
May God burden us with the need and help us take the steps to meet the need for new churches!
Here is an important and helpful discussion on religious liberty with panelists Kirsten Powers, Ross Douthat, Russell Moore, Jennifer Marshall, and Timothy Shah. Panel starts at the 12:15 mark.
HT: Denny Burk
The problem of worldliness is an ever present issue for the church. While it is important to warn individual believers against worldliness, it is also vital for local churches to avoid this danger. Why do local churches so often blend in with the world?
Local churches are too often composed of a mixed company of regenerate and unregenerate members. The problem in these cases is not that believers are living like the world but that the world, in the form of unbelievers, has been granted membership in the church. It may be true at times that the church is like the world because born-again Christians are continuing to live as though they had never been born again. But it is also very likely that the church is like the world because unconverted people have infiltrated the church. The remedy for this problem is to keep the world out of the church by guarding the membership of the local church.
The local church should be a reflection of the body of Christ, which means it should only be composed of regenerate, Spirit-baptized individuals. Though it is impossible to guarantee that all those who are members of a local church are truly regenerate, there are three important means to promote a regenerate membership. These three means were considered the marks of a true church by the Reformers: faithful preaching of the Scripture, proper administration of the ordinances, and consistent practice of church discipline.
Faithful Preaching of the Scripture
The preaching of the Scripture is perhaps the most important and fundamental of the three marks of the church, since it in essence governs the administration of the ordinances and the practice of church discipline. Paul exhorted Timothy to “devote [himself] to the public reading of the Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13). He charged him “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: [to] preach the word” (2 Tim 4:1–2a). The preaching of God’s Word must always be central to the life of the church.
Faithfully preaching God’s Word is vital to a regenerated church membership, for “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Rather than assuming that the current members of the church are truly regenerate and understand the Gospel, pastors should continually explain the true nature of salvation and warn against the danger of false professions. As Mark Dever reminds fellow pastors,
Assumption on our part leads to presumption on theirs. That is, when we assume the Gospel instead of clarifying it, people who profess Christianity but don’t understand or obey the Gospel are cordially allowed to presume their own conversion without examining themselves for evidence of it—which may amount to nothing more than a blissful damnation. (Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel, p. 43)
If the mark of a true church is the faithful preaching of God’s Word, a failure to clearly proclaim salvation by faith through grace will not only lead to unregenerate people in the membership of a church but will ultimately lead to absence of a true church—replaced by an apostate one. God’s Word in all its fullness—especially the truth concerning the Gospel—must be proclaimed every Sunday to help ensure the regenerate membership of the church, for “in so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16).
Proper Administration of the Ordinances
There are two ordinances which have been entrusted to the care of the local church: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. When properly administered, these ordinances are an effective means of guarding the regenerate membership of the church.
Baptism is a physical symbol, or picture, of spiritual reality. It pictures the believer’s union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Rom 6:4). It is a physical display of the invisible act of Spirit baptism that occurs at the point of salvation (1 Cor 12:13). Since Spirit baptism places one into the body of Christ, water baptism rightly serves as the means to joining a local church. It is incumbent upon the church to obtain a credible testimony from all candidates for baptism. Though baptism need not be delayed for an extended period of time to observe the evidences of salvation in a person’s life, no one should be baptized who does not possess a clear understanding of the Gospel or who gives evidence of an unrepentant heart by living in open sin. The requirement that all candidates for membership have received believer’s baptism is vital for guarding a regenerate membership:
This is the primary way that we protect the regeneracy of church membership. That is, by being baptized as a believer, each potential new member is publicly stating that his heart has been circumcised by the Spirit, that he has been crucified, buried, and raised with Christ. He is testifying by his own symbolic actions that he has in fact genuinely repented and believed in the Gospel. In so doing, he identifies himself as one whose heart has truly been regenerated—a new creation in Christ, and as such a member of God’s people. (Dever and Alexander, The Deliberate Church, 106)
The Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper serves several functions for the church, two of which are significant here. It pictures the believer’s individual participation in the body and blood of Christ and the benefits therein (John 6:53–56; cf. Matt 26:26–29), and it also pictures the unity of the church in Christ (1 Cor 10:15–17; 11:17–22).
The Lord’s Supper is only intended for believers. Christ initiated it with his disciples, but not before he had purified the group by Judas’ leaving in the middle of the supper. To protect the Lord’s Supper from unbelievers, there should be three basic requirements for those who wish to partake. They should be regenerate individuals, who have been baptized, and are members in good standing of a Bible-believing church. A mere profession of faith is not sufficient to maintain the purity of the Table. Those who do not wish to follow in obedience in baptism do not have a credible profession of faith and should be excluded from communion. Since the ordinance has been entrusted to the local church and membership is the only way for a church to approve of a person’s profession and conduct, church membership should be a prerequisite for participation in the Lord’s Supper. Those who offer no evidence of regeneration must be excluded to maintain the distinction between the church and the world.
Consistent Practice of Church Discipline
Though often ignored or neglected today, church discipline is a necessary and important aspect of the local church. Jesus instructed that those who refuse to repent of a sin against a brother, after being confronted privately, plurally, and publicly, should be treated as an unbeliever and put out of the church (Matt 18:15–20). False teachers, though they may arise from within the church, must be avoided by believers (Acts 20:28–30; Rom 16:16–17). Paul urged the Corinthians to remove the man who was living in immorality with his father’s wife. When they gathered as a church, they were “to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor 5:1–5). Anyone who refused to obey Paul’s teaching was to be removed from the fellowship of the church with the hope that the resulting shame would bring about repentance (2 Thess 3:14–15).
When a church fails to practice church discipline, it allows unbelievers to remain firmly entrenched within its ranks. Thus the purity of the church is lost and its distinction from the world is blurred. Though discipline is always a difficult step for a church, it must be taken to keep the church from becoming like the world. Those who live like the world—walking in lawlessness and darkness, worshipping false idols of the heart—can have no fellowship with true believers for they have nothing in common (2 Cor 6:14-16).
The neglect of church discipline has been one of the leading causes for the growing worldliness of the church. Since worldliness is not just external action but an issue of the control of the heart, churches must warn those who are not living their lives with Christ at the center that they need to repent or be put out of the fellowship of the church. The world must be removed from the church, for continued worldly practice reveals an unregenerate heart:
Myriads of so-called Christians today think like the world, look like the world, and act like the world. They may appear morally decent, but Christ is not the focus of their lives. They are at home in this world and lack a passionate commitment to Christ and His Great Commission. They forget that when the worldly man thinks he has conquered the world, the world has conquered him. Then he is no longer salt and light in the world, and provides evidence that he is not born again after all. (Joel R. Beeke, Overcoming the World: Grace to Win the Daily Battle, 37)
Many today have accepted the false idea that born-again Christians can continue to live like the world, when the Scripture is clear that regeneration brings about a change. Often, the problem is not that regenerated people continually live like the world but that unregenerate people are allowed to continue to live in the church. The church is distinct from the world because it lives in submission to Christ, seeking to glorify God in everything, while the world continues to pursue its own pleasures and earthly treasures. If the church is to display its distinction from the world, it must guard its regenerate membership by faithfully preaching God’s Word, properly administrating the ordinances, and consistently practicing church discipline.