A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the myth of unchurched Christians. Unfortunately the reality is that there are a good number of professing Christians who either shy away from church membership or avoid church attendance altogether. The problem of professing Christians who neglect church involvement is sadly not a myth.
There are a number of excuses that such professing believers give for their lack of church involvement. Here are three that I’ve heard:
- “I’ve been hurt by a previous church (or church leader).”
Sadly, this reason is often grounded in reality. Many people have been emotionally torn up by the actions of other people. Churches are full of sinners—hopefully, redeemed sinners, but sinners nonetheless. It should come as no surprise that sinners sin, and although all sin is ultimately against God, human sin often has harmful consequences in the lives of people who have been sinned against. But someone’s sin against you is not a good excuse for you to sin against God by ignoring his plan for this dispensation which is for his people to identify with a local church.
- “The church is full of hypocrites.”
Yes, local churches contain people who live hypocritically. To some extent, every person that acknowledges the lordship of Christ but continues to sin is acting hypocritically. This was a problem in the first century, and it remains a problem in the twenty-first as well. As long as believers possess a sin nature, they will sin against their Lord and Savior, and such sin runs contrary to their profession. However, this isn’t a good reason for avoiding the church, for few things could be more hypocritical than professing to love Christ while refusing to identify with his people in a local expression of the body of Christ.
- “I can worship God better on my own.”
Some professing believers speak of being “churchfree” or “satellite Christians.” They feel that because they can approach God directly through Christ, they do not need to be connected to a local church. In fact, some profess that their relationship with God has actually improved by walking away from the church. But if God’s plan for this age involves his people assembling together for worship, fellowship, and mutual accountability, then it doesn’t ultimately matter how one feels. The quality of one’s worship is not completely separate from affections or “feelings,” but feelings cannot override commands. One cannot worship God better by ignoring his instructions and the model that is pretty clearly laid out in the NT.
Sometimes these three excuses are used together, as if one could build a cumulative case for why he or she doesn’t need to be connected to a local church body. I’ve provided only the simplest replies to these excuses. Here are a few NT passages so-called unchurched Christians must wrestle with if they wish to continue excusing their lack of local church involvement:
Acts 16:5: “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.”
1 Corinthians 5:2, 4–5, and 12–13: “Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?… So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan…. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked person from among you.’”
1 Timothy 3:14–15: “Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”
Hebrews 10:24–25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Hebrews 13:7, 17, and 24: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith…. Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account…. Greet all your leaders and all the Lord’s people.”
See also Acts 15:41; 1 Cor 1:2; 1 Cor 4:17; 1 Cor 7:17; 2 Cor 8:1–24; Gal 1:2; 1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:5–9; Jas 5:14; and 1 Pet 5:1–4 among others.
At long last, we are pleased to announce that a new multiple views book, Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement is now available. It has been an adventure and a wonderful learning experience working alongside Andy Naselli and the three major contributors (Carl Trueman, John Hammett, and Grant Osborne) to produce this work. I have high hopes that this book will be immediately useful not only for the academy, but for the church as well.
From the Foreword:
One can scarcely think of a question debated more passionately than the one addressed in our little book. Some of our readers can even now reflect on some acerbic quarrel about the extent of Christ’s atonement in which Christian restraint was wanting. So when we first floated a project that deliberately convened participants with conflicting perspectives on this topic, we wondered fleetingly whether the project might be a dreadful one. Our fears proved unwarranted as grace prevailed. The project proved to be a delightful one.
Our original band of three essayists morphed a bit over the course of time, and ended finally as a band of four. Carl Trueman, Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, brought his sprightly voice to the debate as champion of a definite atonement. Grant Osborne, long-time Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, crafted an initial essay in defense of a general atonement, then, after some serious health difficulties, handed the baton to his colleague at TEDS, Tom McCall, Associate Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, who capably contributed responses to the other two positions. John Hammett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, rounded out the group with an apology for the multiple intentions view of Christ’s atonement.
Over the past several years we have had several posts about a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Mark discovered several years ago that preliminarily dates from the 1st century A.D. This would make it the earliest copy of the New Testament known to exist and the only one from the 1st century. It was supposed to have been published in 2013.
Now there is some new information from Dr. Craig Evans. He claims the papyrus fragment had been dated by various methods to be earlier than A.D. 90. and will be published in 2015. You can read about it here.
As the world becomes more global, the increasing awareness of and interaction with different religions combined with a change in the conception of truth has caused a reevaluation of Christian missions. Questions about the propriety of conversion, methods for evangelism, and the goal of missions have been debated for over a hundred years. Writing closer to the start of these debates (1938), The Dutch Reformed theologian and missionary Hendrik Kraemer offers his clear and forceful opinion on the necessity of Christian missions for the world in The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World. (The following quotations are from the third edition, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1969).
Kraemer begins by describing the state of affairs at the time of his writing and the difficulties it posed for the world at large and the church in particular. The beginning of post-modernism was shaking much of the West, while the East was still reeling from its collision with the West. The Church was continuing to wrestle with how it should function as only a part of society rather than as the center. After noting these realities, Kraemer defends the importance of Christian missions and the need for conversion in the midst of this confusion: “The starting-point of missions is the divine commission to proclaim the Lordship of Christ over all life; and therefore a return to the pristine enthusiasm for evangelism and a new vision of what this implies in word and deed in the present and complicated world are needed” (60).
If Christians are to work towards the conversion of adherents of other religions, how should they view those religions? It is common today for professing Christians to view other religions as either equally valid paths to God or partial paths to be complemented by Christianity. Kraemer, though addressing the second mindset more directly, offers his unqualified denial of those options. Christianity is not fundamentally similar to other religions but is sui generis—in a category of its own. Religions are “the various efforts of man to apprehend the totality of existence, often stirring in their sublimity and as often pathetic or revolting in their ineffectiveness” (111). Christianity is not the pinnacle or culmination of these efforts because these efforts are not pointing to Christ to begin with.
The Cross and its real meaning—reconciliation as God’s initiative and act—is antagonistic to all human religious aspirations and ends, for the tendency of all human religious striving is to possess or conquer God, to realize our divine nature (theosis). Christ is not the fulfillment of this but the uncovering of its self-assertive nature; and at the same time the re-birth to a completely opposite condition, namely, the fellowship of reconciliation with God (123).
This understanding of non-Christian religions reveals the continuing necessity of conversion but removes the sting of the charges of arrogance and superiority leveled against evangelism. If Christianity is the culmination of human religion, then the Christian missionary has the missing puzzle pieces others have lacked—strongly implying their inability to grasp them prior to the missionary offering his superior perception. But if Christianity is a completely different understanding revealed by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the missionary is in no state of superiority. Rather, he is an individual who has been graced with the truth of God and now humbly and fearfully works to bring this revelation to others.
This understanding of Christianity’s place in relationship to other religions also addresses the question of “points of contact.” Often, missionaries look for beliefs or practices in other religions that they can utilize to bring Christian belief and practice into a particular culture. Kraemer finds this practice dubious. First, because religions are a unified set of beliefs and practices, so no individual belief or practice can be separated from the whole.
Every religion is a living, indivisible unity. Every part of it—a dogma, a rite, a myth, an institution, a cult, is so vitally related to the whole that it can never be understood in its real function, significance and tendency, as these occur in the reality of life, without keeping constantly in mind the vast and living unity of existential apprehension in which this part moves and has its being (135).
Second, since religion is by nature an outgrowth of man’s rebellion against God, a better approach to other religions is an emphasis on the points of difference rather than similarity. “In light of the dialectical situations of all religious life and of all religions…points of contact in the real deep sense of the word can only be found by antithesis” (139). Kraemer proceeds to provide an overview of other main religions as they are found in various parts of the world and demonstrates this antithesis.
Is missions work then simply a rational persuasion highlighting the confrontation between the revelation of Christ and other religions while trusting the power of the Spirit? No, Kraemer does note a human element of contact—the missionary himself. The missionary must be aware of how the people think, believe, and live in order to best demonstrate his sincere concern for those he wants to embrace Christ. “Only a genuine and continuous interest in the people as they are creates real points of contact, because man everywhere intuitively knows that, only when his actual being is the object of human interest and love, is he looked upon in actual fact, and not theoretically, as a fellow-man” (140).
Though Kraemer’s denial of points of contact may need to be nuanced in some way, his focus on antithesis is a helpful reminder of the uniqueness of Christianity. God is not revealing Himself through the different religions around the world. He has revealed himself generally through creation and specifically through Jesus Christ and His Word. Thus, the only way for people to know God is through someone verbally communicating to them that gracious revelation found in Jesus Christ.
From time to time I’ve met professing Christians who for one reason or another claim that they do not need to be part of a local church. In most cases, they seem to believe that because God has placed them in the universal Church, they can worship God just fine apart from a local body of believers. I’d like to suggest that such a view is not only mistaken but is also harmful to the unchurched person and dishonoring to God.
Everywhere one looks in the NT, one sees believers actively participating in a local body. In fact, the NT knows nothing of a perpetually disconnected Christian. The apostle Paul says roughly as much about healthy unchurched Christians as he does about minotaurs, unicorns, and leprechauns. From the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) to the seven churches addressed in Revelation 2 and 3, everywhere the NT assumes that those who profess faith in Christ in this dispensation are part of a local body of believers. Much of the NT was originally written to specific local churches and addressed questions about how the local church should conduct itself. The professing believer who attempts to live apart from a local church will not be able to obey a significant portion of the NT (1 Tim 3:15). Although I’m thankful for access to good books and sermons produced by believers all over the world, it is first and foremost within the context of a local church that believers are to be instructed in the Word and exhorted by fellow believers (Eph 4:11–13; 1 Tim 4:11–16; 2 Tim 4:2; Titus 3:1–2). Those who profess Christ but remain disconnected from a local church need to realize that they have turned away from one of God’s clearly intended means of spiritual growth: the leadership and fellowship of a local assembly.
More importantly, those believers who choose to live apart from a local church dishonor the head of the Church. Both the Church universal and the church localized are God’s idea, not man’s (Matt 16:18; Acts 2:41–47). God’s Word never depicts local church involvement as optional for the believer. And God certainly didn’t intend for there to be two kinds of Christians, those who worship him within a local church and those who just do their own thing. Those who profess to follow Christ while remaining disconnected from a local church are really saying that they know better than God.
The local church is one of God’s gifts to his people. It is a means by which they can be taught, encouraged, and exhorted to follow Christ. And ultimately, local church involvement is an essential part of a genuine Christian profession. Apart from such involvement, the profession itself can only be incomplete and highly suspect.
As a conservative instructor at a conservative school, I occasionally meet with surprise that I use and love my NIV Bible. Classed by most as coming from the “functionally equivalent” school of Bible translation, the NIV has long been viewed with skepticism by many in the fundamentalist community, and has fallen on hard times among conservative evangelicals as well, picking up critics like John Piper, Leland Ryken, and others.
I’ll frankly concede up front that the publishers of the NIV have not helped themselves in the past decade by being a bit “stealthy” (the whole TNIV fiasco) and more culturally driven, at times, than is prudent; still, I remain sympathetic to the idea of the functional equivalency theory of translation. My primary sympathies derive not from the fact that functionally equivalent translations are simpler or easier to read (though they often are), but because I am convinced that this theory has the potential to produce the very most accurate translations—more accurate sometimes even than formal or literal translation theories. And as an inerrantist, I am extremely interested in accurate translation.
A few years back, the late Rod Decker published an exceptional article on this topic that confirmed me in this understanding, and I’d like to take a few moments to honor his memory by rehearsing a few of his arguments (mixed together with some commentary of my own):
(1) Functional equivalency theory most successfully accounts for idioms (not that formal equivalency has no answer to this problem, but its answer is simply to say these are exceptions to the normal rules of word-for-word translation).
(2) Functional equivalency theory most successfully accounts for the extremes of highly paratactic languages (enormously long strings of independent clauses connected by “and,” such as is common in Hebrew) and highly hypotactic languages (enormously long strings of dependent clauses connected by a variety of logical connecting devices, such as is common in Greek). Of course, this sometimes leaves functionally equivalent translations in the unenviable position of not including “all the words” (drawing ire, for instance, from John Piper in this video clip), but it also explains why this is sometimes warranted, viz., because transitions of thought and speech are often not identical when one language is converted to another.
(3) Functional equivalency theory most successfully accounts for the problem of non-SVO languages (subject-verb-object) without producing translations that sound faintly like Yoda is reading the Bible.
(4) Functional equivalency theory most successfully accounts for the problem of non-corresponding vocabulary sets between transmitter and receiver languages without opting for arcane or antiquated terms that average readers cannot recognize.
(5) Functional equivalency theory most successfully accounts for the principle that the basic unit of propositional thought is not properly the word, but the clause/sentence.
My point here today is not to criticize formal equivalency in Bible translation or to wish that literal translations will “ride into the sunset” to disappear forever (as Piper did of the NIV). As many have pointed out, those who are familiar with Greek and Hebrew can often “see” the original languages bleeding through formal equivalency translations, making it easier to reconstruct the original and interpret it. For this reason I use formal equivalency translations regularly and with great profit, and promote their use particularly among those with advanced linguistic skills.
Nor have I found that using translations other than my functionally equivalent favorites to be a barrier to preaching or a danger to readers. The differences between formal and functional translations are not great, much less insuperable, but they are real, and I believe that a valid defense of functional equivalency may still be made despite the growing aggregate of arguments against it.
If you notice the header of this blog, you will see a tab marked “Journal,” which if selected will take you to the web page for our seminary journal. Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal began in 1996 and is published annually in the fall of the year. At the web page you will find the table of contents for all the back issues as well as free pdfs for all articles prior to 2011.
Here are links to a few of the articles from 1996–1997 that you may find of interest:
Last month Ryan Kelly and Kevin DeYoung posted an essay on The Gospel Coalition (TGC) blog (that originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of Affinity) defending the existence of interdenominational or extra-ecclesial partnerships. Though the essay addresses a few different examples of these kinds of partnerships, the main focus is on TGC. After a quick historical look (that, oddly, focuses primarily on state-sponsored efforts) they briefly discuss Together for the Gospel before providing a quick synopsis of TGC and then attempt to answer several criticisms that have been leveled against TGC. Whether or not they are successful at understanding and answering these criticisms is not under consideration here. Instead, I’d like to consider an interesting statement about TGC and Dispensationalists.
In the midst of defending TGC against the charge of being either too narrow and exclusive or too broad or ambiguous in its doctrinal stance, they discuss the nature of TGC’s Founding Documents:
“TGC circumscribes certain doctrinal positions and not others, because some are central to the preaching of the gospel (for example, penal substitution, the uniqueness of Christ, eternality of hell); some differences evince deep hermeneutical differences, and are practically necessary for something like a preaching conference (complementarianism); and some so affect our understanding of God’s glory and grace that they must be made explicit (Reformed soteriology)….TGC’s Confessional Statement falls within the broader Reformed tradition, and, as noted earlier, it is particular regarding monergistic soteriology, complementarianism, inerrancy, a historical Adam, and double imputation in justification; yet it is unspecific as to eschatology, church polity, sacraments, miraculous gifts, and the like. The Foundational Documents could not be fully embraced by hard-line dispensationalists, Lutherans, emergents, or mainline liberals. However, among the council there are Presbyterian, Reformed, Episcopalian/Anglican, Baptist, Free Church, and nondenominational, all of which must agree with what is contained in the Foundation Documents. At a little more than 2,300 words, the confessional statement is not aiming for the kind of doctrinal specificity found in the Westminster Confession of Faith or The Second Helvetic Confession. The points of doctrinal specificity in TGC’s documents are intentional, as are the areas of silence.”
Though I’m not certain what they mean by “hard-line dispensationalists,” I find the listing of four categories of “Christians” who could not fully embrace the Foundational Documents interesting: “hard-line dispensationalists, Lutherans, emergents, or mainline liberals.” The latter two would not be able to embrace the documents because they do not affirm things like inerrancy, penal substitution, the uniqueness of Christ, etc. In other words, they could not be part of TGC because they effectively deny the gospel. I’m not certain why Lutherans would be excluded (perhaps this is a reference to the controversy of the Lutheran view of sanctification espoused by former TGC blogger Tullian Tchividjian), but it seems odd that they and “hard-line dispensationalists” would be excluded along with those who have practically rejected the gospel.
So why would “hard-line dispensationalists” be excluded? Dispensationalism has no distinct teaching on areas related to “monergistic soteriology, complementarianism, inerrancy, a historical Adam, and double imputation in justification.” Many Dispensationalists—from a variety of flavors of Dispensationalism—would affirm all of those things. Where Dispensationalism offers a unique understanding in theology centers first of all in ecclesiology (e.g., what is the church, when did it start, what is its relationship to Israel) and secondarily in eschatology (e.g., when will the rapture occur, what is the nature of the kingdom, etc.) Those two areas seem to be matters where these authors claim TGC has remained silent: “[TGC’s confession] is unspecific as to eschatology, church polity, sacraments, miraculous gifts, and the like.”
Why are “hard-line dispensationalists” excluded then? My guess is that, despite Kelly and DeYoung’s claims, TGC has taken a stand on eschatology. As Kevin Bauder has noted, most traditional dispensationalists (perhaps this is what is meant by “hard-line”) do not believe that the kingdom has been inaugurated, while TGC’s Founding Documents explicitly claim that it has.
My question: why include a specific statement on the kingdom of God in the confessional statement but not specific statements on things like “church polity, sacraments, miraculous gifts, and the like”? Where does an inaugurated form of the kingdom fit in their explanation for what doctrinal specifics are included? Is it “central to the preaching of the gospel”? Is it a difference that “evince[s] deep hermeneutical differences, and [is] practically necessary for something like a preaching conference (complementarianism)”? Does it “so affect our understanding of God’s glory and grace that [it] must be made explicit”? I don’t see how it fits in any of those areas. So why include a statement in a confession designed to unite believers around the gospel that excludes a large number of believers who fully embrace the gospel?
We are pleased to announce that Josh Peglow of Silverdale, WA is the winner of our recent book giveaway. The books will go in the mail today. Thanks to all who entered.
Last week, Pope Francis made headlines by announcing in his weekly address that we will be able to see our pets in heaven. Specifically, he pontificated, “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.” Since this statement is sure to set the theological world abuzz, I thought I would use this week’s blog post to help delineate some key theological implications of this statement:
(1) Since Paradise is only “open to” all of God’s creatures, it is clear that the Pope is not advocating Pet Universalism, but something on the order of Hypothetical Pet Universalism or possibly Pet Amyraldism. It seems unlikely, however, based on the Pope’s track record, that he affirms the dread doctrine of Limited Pet Atonement.
(2) As such, we must conclude that some pets do not meet the criteria for regeneration. Based on other Roman Catholic materials, it seems fairly clear that baptism is a critical piece of the puzzle. I am convinced that it is theologically necessary to conclude that while most dogs will go to heaven, cats universally go to Purgatory and thence to hell. This is because all cats refuse to submit to baptism—especially baptism by immersion. In my former life as a catvangelist, I found this to be consistently true.
(3) The foregoing suggests that cats have been “given over” to a reprobate mind (Rom 1:24). Paul’s words later in the chapter are particularly instructive: while dogs do sin, they always look guilty afterward and seek forgiveness. Cats, on the other hand, “knowing that those who do unrighteous deeds deserve death, not only continue to do these very things, but also approve of those who practice them.” Cats definitively prove the doctrine of total depravity.
I could go on, but I thought the blogosphere would be the perfect place to collect additional materials toward a theology of pets. When you’re all done, I will collect all of your responses and forward them to the Vatican.
Nothing serious, please—any responses that are not at least a little bit funny will be snagged and summarily deleted by our blog enforcer.
In the spirit of the season, we’ll be giving away a couple of books to one of our readers very soon. Here are the books:
Christians in an Age of Wealth by Craig Blomberg
Workbook in Romans by Kenneth Berding
If you’d like to be entered in the drawing, just leave a comment below mentioning one book you’ve read this year. The entry period will end at 5 pm EST, Tuesday, December 16, 2014. We’re planning to announce the winner sometime on Wednesday.
In the latest issue of the Michigan Daily, the campus newspaper of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Claire Bryan runs an intriguing article, “Born to Believe?” The basic thrust of the article is that part of the human tendency toward “being religious” stems from the presence of a particular gene in our DNA sequence, viz., VMAT2. Those who have this gene have an elevated sense of “self-transcendence,” or “the interest people have in searching for something greater in this world, beyond their own personal experience,” usually reflected in a “desire for things like compassion, art, creativity, expression, spirituality.”
The author does not deny the influence of cultural background in individual expressions of religion, but affirms that “accepting this environmentally molded spirituality that is taught to you may be affected by the way you were born and the genes you have.” She concludes, “‘Being religious’ may not be in my control entirely. It may be the biological science of my body and beyond some of my own means.”
Of course the person who wrote this little article is theologically challenged (retarded is the word that came immediately to mind, but that word is not political expedient any more). All people, being endowed by their Creator with the imago dei, are born with lively and true religious impulses that we suppress or exchange for lies due to sin (Rom 1:18ff). So Ms. Bryan is flat-out wrong in her assessment.
But what I found particularly intriguing in this article is how it surfaces the great tension of the Aristotelian worldview held by many in the university community. For these, nothing is attributed to chance, much less to God, because everything about me is the product of biological, physical, chemical, and genetic patterns in combination. In such a system, no one can be culpable for who he is, because he can’t help it! And so we must allow left-handed people to be left-handed, allow vegans to be vegans, and allow homosexuals to be homosexuals. To suggest that any of these recessive traits should be “corrected” is the height of arrogance and intolerance: a denial of the liberty of authenticity. “People must be allowed to be themselves,” is the mantra of our day.
But no one can live with the implications of such a worldview. It might work on a limited scale, but surely not on a universal one. We don’t, for instance, appeal to genetic predispositions in allowing murderers to kill, pedophiles to abuse, or kleptomaniacs to steal; instead, we build correctional facilities to remediate such people. Nor do we shrug our shoulders upon meeting alcoholics, chain smokers, and compulsive gamblers and say, “Oh well, it can’t be helped. That’s just the way they are!” Instead, we offer means of correcting destructive behaviors and changing the way people are. And, ironically, it is unlikely that this university newspaper, which has ostensibly discovered that religious people can’t help being religious, will dissuade its own professors from attempting to “correct” the religion of their religious students or even attempting to disabuse them of their religious proclivities entirely.
No worldview save the Christian worldview is demonstrably free of such inconsistencies. And so let us promote it enthusiastically.
I heard recently of a church seeking a new pastor. Some said, “We want a pastor whose preaching is practical and encouraging.” Others said, “We need a doctrinal, expositional ministry.” Still others prefer preaching heavy on confrontation. It is easy to identify what some people want in the preaching they hear (sometimes they will tell you!), but what, exactly, do they need? Pastors, we should strive as preachers to provide preaching that truly meets peoples needs.
Now, I am not talking about felt needs, as in the “give them what they feel they need and they will come,” seeker-driven church model. Neither am I talking about the need of the moment preaching that identifies cultural trends and is constantly addressing the latest headline. Nor, just what we think they need, based on our perceptions or personalities. I am talking about seeing the needs God has designed the Scripture to meet and then providing preaching that, in a balanced way, reflects that design. God has given us a simple pattern to follow in Scripture’s stated purpose that can guide us in providing preaching that meets people’s needs.
2 Timothy 3:16-17, a very familiar passage, says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (NASB). The Bible is God’s revealed means for the growth of lives into maturity, and preaching this Word, according to the purposes for which it has been given, will produce mature people. We know that in all of Scripture we find passages that are particularly good for teaching doctrine, or for correcting wrong thinking or behaving, or encouraging practical growth in sanctification. However, sometimes we fail to realize as well that in every part of Scripture, there is truth to be taught, reproof to be given, correction to be made, and practical training to be provided.
When you approach your study of the Word for preaching, ask yourself questions about the text that reflect these purposes, and then preach them all in the sermon. This will help provide a well-balanced preaching and teaching ministry that meets the needs of the people God has given you to shepherd. It will also help us avoid the tendency to over-emphasize certain types of preaching based on our personalities and our or others’ preferences.
This may seem too simple and too obvious to qualify as a “homiletical model.” Maybe so, but are you willing to try it? Here are some steps for application. First, review your notes before preaching and mark the categories in the margins or headings of your notes. Understand the text drives the sermon, so some texts will be more heavily weighted in one area or the other. Each text will have its “big idea,” but all of the people’s needs can be met from each text as well. Second, ask several trusted members (including your wife and children) to take notes on your sermons for a month—specifically looking for the four general purposes—teaching (truth to be believed), reproof (confrontation of wrong belief or behavior), correction (truth that specifically corrects what is reproved and edifies), and instruction in righteousness (practical application in righteous living). See how balanced your preaching is between these categories in the minds of your hearers, and be willing to make adjustments. Finally, talk to people about your sermons. Ask them what they learned and how they think that should make a difference in their lives.
God has told us what people need, so let’s provide preaching that meets people’s needs!
When one thinks of the primary sins in our world today, we tend to think big, pointing to sins like murder, abuse, sexual sins, and possibly blasphemy or idolatry. Very few of us, I think, would leap up to suggest that the sin of ingratitude should supplant these vices as more primary.
The Apostle Paul, however, is deeply concerned about the sin of ingratitude. Not only does it earn a spot on one of Paul’s famous “sin lists” (2 Tim 3:2), but it also stands in Romans 1:21 as the capital crime in the downward spiral of depravity that has marked the human condition from its inception: “They did not give thanks to him.”
We should not be surprised by this. Since the greatest commandment is to love God supremely (Matt 22:37–38), then the foremost sin is failing to observe the great commandment and preferring instead gods of our own choosing (so Rom 1:21ff). Before man can construct alternative gods and alternative ethical systems, he must first deconstruct the God that is unavoidably plain to him; before the floodgates of vice can open, Paul says, one must first be guilty of the more primary sin of ingratitude. It is for this reason that ingratitude takes its ignoble place in Scripture as the dark vestibule not only to idolatry but to all that is evil.
And so it is eminently appropriate that we set aside a day for thanksgiving each November. It is a day set aside to curb vice by fulfilling the first and greatest commandment. Ebenezer Scrooge may have learned how to “keep Christmas well” (whatever Dickens may have meant by that), but perhaps the more primary virtue is learning to keep Thanksgiving well.
Churches that are concerned for artistic excellence in worship will often employ unregenerate musicians to “lead in worship.” Though these individuals do not know God, as skilled musicians they are able to offer fine presentations in the worship service. Is this a biblical practice? If churches are concerned about offering fine presentations in their worship service, will they be forced to enlist unregenerate people to lead in worship? The answer to this question can be a resounding “no.” But if we are to offer that “no,” we must understand what we mean by “artistic excellence” and what we mean by “leading worship.”
Worship cannot be offered by those who do not know God through Jesus Christ. Thus, it would be impossible to have an unregenerate person leading in worship, since leading would include participating in worship—something an unregenerate person cannot do. Thus, the issue would be whether or not a church’s emphasis on “artistic excellence” would risk enlisting the unregenerate to utilize their skill in facilitating the worship of the regenerate.
This is where 1 Corinthians 12 provides an important reminder. Paul points out that God has carefully designed the body so that each member is integral for the health of the body. No member can claim that they do not need the body nor that the body does not need them. In fact, God has given spiritual gifts to the church in order to edify the body, to unify the body, and to manifest the reality of God’s presence in the world.
These three purposes help shed some light on the differences between a natural ability and a spiritual gift and on when someone gets his/her spiritual gifts. A spiritual gift is different from a natural ability because it displays the Spirit, but also because it is designed for the edification of the Church. There is a difference between a person who utilizes teaching in a business or school and someone who utilizes it in the church. The first is a “natural” ability (still given by God), while the second would be a spiritual gift.
Since a spiritual gift is a manifestation of the Spirit, it cannot simply be something someone had prior to salvation. Spiritual gifts are either bestowed at or energized at conversion—when one receives the Spirit. It may be that a natural ability, which is still a gift from God but not a spiritual gift, is energized by the Spirit at conversion for the good of the church. For example, a person may have been a compassionate person before he/she was saved, but at salvation the Holy Spirit takes that compassion and energizes it to minister to others in the church. It may also be that at conversion or sometime thereafter a new gift is given to a person since verses 7 and 11 state that the Spirit gives them as He wills. Thus it is possible that He could choose to add or subtract spiritual gifts when He thinks it will better manifest Himself and edify and unify the church.
I’m inclined to think artistic ability could be a spiritual gift (since there is no definitive list of gifts in the New Testament). But that would mean that either a person gains artistic ability at conversion or, more likely, that artistic ability is now energized for the good of the church. An unregenerate person would not possess that spiritual gift and would not, then, be able to edify and unify the church in its worship. So a church should not enlist the unregenerate in the hopes of accomplishing what only the regenerate can do.
What should a church do if it does not have people with artistic ability to lead in worship? Again, Paul points out that God is in charge of distributing the gifts (v. 11). God has ensured that each church has within itself what it needs to glorify God at that time, which is why it would be best to think of “artistic excellence” along these lines—doing the best with the resources (talent, time, money) that you have. Thus, what artistic excellence means will be different for each church, but each church should be striving for it with the resources God has given.
In his commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, John Calvin discusses Jesus’ statement that the “Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:8). Calvin addresses the question of why believers should pray if God already knows what we need. He suggests the following as at least a partial answer:
Believers do not pray, with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray, in order that they may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from Him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things (Calvin, commentary on Matt 6:8).
When praying, believers never tell God something he doesn’t already know. But God has chosen to use prayer as a means by which God’s people express their dependence upon their Father who knows all things and can actually do something about the most puzzling problems of life.
Students sometimes ask me the difference between the hermeneutics employed by Covenant, New Covenant, Progressive Dispensational, and Traditional Dispensational theologian/exegetes. Perhaps the easiest way to answer is to offer an example of one of the most heavily disputed topics of Scripture, viz., the Abrahamic Covenant. After detailing four basic approaches to these covenant promises, I will offer three key informing OT texts, each selected and highlighted, but otherwise not annotated, to emphasize the reasons why I hold to the last hermeneutical approach:
A supersessionist hermeneutic says that the land promise to Abraham’s natural seed is a recapitulation of the Covenant of Grace that will be fulfilled when a group of people who are not Abraham’s natural seed receive something other than the land promised.
A typological hermeneutic says that the land promise to Abraham’s natural seed is a genuine but temporary historical reality that falls away in disinterest after God discloses a new, culminating, and much greater inheritance (a new heaven and new earth) for the greater, spiritual seed of Abraham.
A complementary hermeneutic says that the land promise to Abraham’s natural seed will be fulfilled exactly as promised to ethnic Israelites in the Millennium/Eternal State, but that a share of this reward will also accrue to Abraham’s spiritual seed, who become new and equal partners of an expanded Abrahamic promise.
A literal hermeneutic says that the land promise to Abraham’s natural seed will be fulfilled exactly as promised to ethnic Israelites in the Millennium/Eternal State, and that all the peoples of the earth are afforded substantial subsidiary blessings through the obedience of faith.
Genesis 12:1–3: The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Genesis 13:15–17: The LORD said to Abram, “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”
Genesis 15:2–6: Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
Obviously much more can be said, but it’s a blog post, not a book. I trust that this can serve as a faithful summary and preliminary defense.
Most of us are familiar with how 2 Cor 5:7 reads in the KJV, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” If you do a Google search on this verse, you will find explanations of what this means, such as, “the Bible challenges us to ‘walk by faith, not by sight,’” or you are to “walk by faith, not by sight,’” or you ought to “walk by faith, not by sight.’” You have probably heard the same kind of thing in sermons. Just to clarify, the word walk in this verse is, of course, used in the metaphorical sense of “live”; so the NIV, “For we live by faith, not by sight.” Thus, Paul’s words are taken to be an exhortation or command to “live by faith.” According to this view, we are challenged to rise above our normal Christian experience, and rather than operating from a worldly perspective (“living by sight”), we should conduct our lives and make our decisions based upon our faith and trust in the God and his Word. There is nothing wrong with this idea in and of itself. It is theologically accurate to say and to insist that the Christian must always seek to live by faith and trust in God and his promises, and not be motivated by only what he or she can see and hear in their present circumstances.
The problem is: this is not what the text says, nor what it means. Paul is not commanding the Corinthians to “live by faith”; he is making a statement: the Corinthians are living by faith.
Our text is also popular in the Word of Faith movement, which I won’t take time to describe at this point. Another popular TV preacher in that movement, Frederick Price, closes every sermon by citing 2 Cor 5:7.
But in all these instances, this text has been stripped of its context and a new meaning assigned to it. Paul is not saying that we “should live by faith” or that we “ought to live by faith.” No, he directly and unequivocally says that we, all believers, do, in fact, live by faith. But why does Paul make this statement?
Verse 7 is rightly understood to be a parenthesis in the thought of vv. 6-8.
(6) Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. (7) For we live by faith, not by sight. (8) We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
Let us go back for a moment to the beginning of chapter 5 in order to get the broader context. Paul begins in v. 1 by explaining what happens to a believer who dies, “if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed.” Fortunately, Paul says, we can look forward to a resurrection body, “a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” But until then “we groan” (v. 2), knowing that our present bodies are subject to ailments, injury, and disability. And since we know that “as long as we are at home in the body we are away [in a spatial sense] from the Lord” (v. 6), we “would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (v. 8). All believers here on earth are presently “away from the Lord” in the sense Paul means in v. 6.
But Paul’s reasoning in vv. 6 and 8 could leave the wrong impression. That’s why he interrupts v. 6 with 7 before he completes his thought in v. 8. The “for” that begins v. 7 is what the standard Greek dictionary (BDAG) calls a “marker of clarification.” One could easily take Paul’s statement in v. 6 to mean that since believers are presently “away from the Lord,” they enjoy no fellowship with him at all. But, of course, that is absolutely false, for, you see, Paul says (v. 7), “we presently live in the realm of faith ["by faith"], not in the realm of sight.” Paul is contrasting actually seeing the Lord (“at home with the Lord”) with our present experience of believing in the Lord without seeing him (“away from the Lord”). For now believers “live in the realm of faith,” trusting in the Lord whom they have not seen, but one day they will “live in the realm of sight.” This is same sort of contrast we see in John 20:29 and 1 Pet 1:8.
So although we are presently “away from the Lord,” this does not mean that we are cutoff from fellowship with the Lord. But for now we live “in the realm of faith,” which is no hindrance to communion with our Savior, though truly we look forward to the day when we will live “by sight.” Then, as the hymn writer puts it, our “faith shall be sight.”
[This entry was originally posted on Feb 1, 2012]
In honor of Reformation Day, here are a few resources you might want to check out. Ligonier Ministries has made a number of Reformation-related e-books and audio/video resources available to download for free (until 11:59 pm, Oct 31, 2014).
Over on Amazon, several books by Martin Luther are currently free in electronic format.
Works of Martin Luther, vol. 1 (contains his 95 Theses)
Bondage of the Will (abridged ed.)
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.