Sunday, December 30, 2007
The title of the book is in no way meant to belittle Jonathan Edward’s famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Rather it defends the truth that God’s wrath toward sinners in no way diminishes His goodness. MacDonald firmly dismissed the clear teachings of Scripture concerning God’s judgment of the wicked as being inconsistent with His being a loving Father. MacDonald wrote angrily against any notion that God would punish anyone in hell for eternity. MacDonald reasoned that in hell, “God is triumphantly defeated, I say, throughout the hell of His vengeance. Although against evil, it is but the vain and wasted cruelty of a tyrant.”
Commenting on the theology of George MacDonald which is incarnated in much of contemporary evangelicalism, David Clotfelter writes:
“I would like very much to think that God views all people as His children. I would like to believe that the only punishment any person will receive is that which is tailored to promote his or her repentance. I would like to believe that all finally will be saved. I find, however, that the Bible keeps getting in the way.
“The fundamental problem with MacDonald’s theology is his insistence that the analogy of fatherhood provides a sufficient basis for understanding God’s relationship with human beings: ‘Men cannot, or will not, or dare not see that nothing but His being our Father gives Him any right over us – that nothing but that could give Him a perfect right.’ Scripture does not back him up at this point. While God is acknowledged to be the creator of all (Isa. 45:12) and the judge of all (Gen. 18:25), the analogy of the parent-child relationship is almost always restricted in the Bible to God's relationship with with Jesus, His relationship with Israel, and His relationship with the individual Christian believer…To say that God treats all people as His children goes far beyond the actual assertions of the Bible and undermines Scripture’s teaching about the spiritual status and privileges of believers.”
As he goes on, Clotfelter helpfully comments on the difference between our sentimental notions of God and what the Bible actually declares. In the church today it is common for preachers and laity alike to speak copiously on their own feelings and opinions about God. What is lacking is faithful understanding of and submission to God’s Word.
“The truth, I believe, is that we can rightly understand God only if we forswear the temptation to draw our own extended conclusions from the analogies He gives us, and stick as close as possible to what He has actually said…We may not always find it easy to reconcile the various truths of the Bible. Nevertheless, we must humbly keep in check both our desire for logical consistency and our outrage at truths we do not like…We may be quite sure that all that God does is, in fact, logical and self-consistent. But we should not presume to reject that which we have not had the patience or humility to accept on God’s own terms.”
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
To bear good news to every home;
Glad tidings of great joy I bring,
Whereof I now will say and sing:
To you this night is born a child
Of Mary, chosen virgin mild;
This little child, of lowly birth,
Shall be the joy of all the earth.
This is the Christ, our God and Lord,
Who in all need shall aid afford;
He will Himself your Savior be
From all your sins to set you free.
He will on you the gifts bestow
Prepared by God for all below,
That in His kingdom, bright and fair,
You may with us His glory share.
These are the tokens ye shall mark:
The swaddling-clothes and manger dark;
There ye shall find the Infant laid
By whom the heavens and earth were made.”
Now let us all with gladsome cheer
Go with the shepherds and draw near
To see the precious gift of God,
Who hath His own dear Son bestowed.
Give heed, my heart, lift up thine eyes!
What is it in yon manger lies?
Who is this child, so young and fair?
The blessed Christ-child lieth there.
Welcome to earth, Thou noble Guest,
Through whom the sinful world is blest!
Thou com’st to share my misery;
What thanks shall I return to Thee?
Ah, Lord, who hast created all,
How weak art Thou, how poor and small,
That Thou dost choose Thine infant bed
Where humble cattle lately fed!
Were earth a thousand times as fair,
Beset with gold and jewels rare,
It yet were far too poor to be
A narrow cradle, Lord, for Thee.
For velvets soft and silken stuff
Thou hast but hay and straw so rough,
Whereon Thou, King, so rich and great,
As ’twere Thy heaven, art throned in state.
And thus, dear Lord, it pleaseth Thee
To make this truth quite plain to me,
That all the world’s wealth, honor, might,
Are naught and worthless in Thy sight.
Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for Thee.
My heart for very joy doth leap,
My lips no more can silence keep;
I, too, must sing with joyful tongue
That sweetest ancient cradle-song:
Glory to God in highest heaven,
Who unto us His Son hath given!
While angels sing with pious mirth
A glad new year to all the earth.
- Martin Luther
Monday, December 24, 2007
WALLACE: And what about Mitt Romney? And I've got to ask you the question, because it is a question whether it should be or not in this campaign, is a Mormon a true Christian?
OSTEEN: Well, in my mind they are. Mitt Romney has said that he believes in Christ as his savior, and that's what I believe, so, you know, I'm not the one to judge the little details of it. So I believe they are. And so, you know, Mitt Romney seems like a man of character and integrity to me, and I don't think he would - anything would stop me from voting for him if that's what I felt like.
WALLACE: So, for instance, when people start talking about Joseph Smith, the founder of the church, and the golden tablets in upstate New York, and God assumes the shape of a man, do you not get hung up in those theological issues?
OSTEEN: I probably don't get hung up in them because I haven't really studied them or thought about them. And you know, I just try to let God be the judge of that. I mean, I don't know. I certainly can't say that I agree with everything that I've heard about it, but from what I've heard from Mitt, when he says that Christ is his savior, to me that's a common bond.
For Joel Osteen, issues like the Trinity and the incarnation are "little details." Some of the other "little details" in Osteen's book are:
1. Whether or not Jesus and Satan are brothers.
2. Whether or not Jesus came and visited ancient America.
3. Whether or not Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God.
4. Whether or not Yahweh is one of many gods.
5. Whether or not faithful Mormon men will become Gods and inherit their own planets to populate.
Granted, it is probably true that Joel Osteen is ignorant of these facts of Mormonism. But sadly he is also ignorant of much of the Bible. He stated in an interview on 60 Minutes that his calling was not to teach the Bible. So, the question is, why has this man not resigned his post as pastor?
"For the overseer must be above reproach as God's steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict." (Titus 1:7-9)
Friday, December 21, 2007
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
By God's grace Metro East will make known in word and deed the Lordship and love of Jesus throughout Wichita and the world for the sake of God's glory and the salvation of sinners.
One connection that is particularly moving and challenging to me is that between the Gospel and community. My experience in church is that God-glorifying, soul-shaping community is very elusive. We simply do not see much of it. That is my experience at least. We know what it is to have friendly acquaintances. We know what it is to spend time with people we like. But does our experience within the body of Christ resemble that which is described in the church of Jerusalem in Acts two or that which seemed to exist in the church of Thessalonica? Are we connected to a community of Christ-followers who love God and His Word, pray and worship together regularly, eat together frequently, take care to watch over each other’s needs, and experience the fruit of conversion?
Titus 2:14 tells us that Jesus Christ gave himself for us "to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works." Commenting on those words, Sinclair Ferguson writes that “Christ wants to create ‘a people’, not merely isolated individuals who believe in him.” The church is not a club or support group that Christians join. Rather, when God saves us by His grace He also adds us to the church, His people, the body of Christ.
I am reading a book called Total Church by two British pastors: Tim Chester and Steve Timmis. It seems that God put this book in front of me at just the right time. It is proving to be an excellent follow-up to the other work in which I have been involved over the past two years. Particularly challenging has been the book’s emphasis on the inseparable link between the Gospel and community.
Regarding the priority of community in the body of Christ the authors write:
“By becoming a Christian, I belong to God and I belong to my brothers and sisters. It is not that I belong to God and then make a decision to join a local church. My being in Christ means being in Christ with those others who are in Christ. This is my identity. This is our identity. To fail to live out our corporate identity in Christ is analogous to the act of adultery: we can be Christians and do it, but it’s not what Christians should do. The loyalties of the new community supersede even the loyalties of biology (Matt. 10:34-37; Mk 3:31-35; Lk 11:27-28). If the church is the body of Christ then we should not live as disembodied Christians!"
We talk a good game about community but our priorities often betray us. The fact is, community is costly. People hurt us. We get disillusioned when our brothers and sisters disappoint us. It is even worse when a pastor disappoints us. But being in community always involves sacrifice. It involves a kind of death whereby we lay down our rights for the good of others. It means we serve without demanding to be served. It means we lovingly absorb many of the hits we take along the way. Timmis and Chester write, “In our experience, people are often enthusiastic about community until it impinges on their decision-making. For all their rhetoric, they still expect to make decisions by themselves for themselves. We assume we are masters of our own lives.”
One of the points that Total Church makes well is that community is essential to effective proclamation of the Gospel. The authors write:
“God is a missionary God and God’s primary missionary method is His covenant people…God made us as persons-in-community to be the vehicle through which He would reveal His glory…Israel’s priests represented God to the people by expounding the Law, and represented the people to God through sacrifice and intercession, so the nation as a whole has a priestly role of making God known to the nations and bringing them to the means of atonement…
“The center is no longer geographic Jerusalem. Now it is the community itself among whom Christ promises to be present to be present (Matt 28:20). The community moves out across the globe, all the time drawing people to its Lord through its common life…
“The church, then is not something additional or optional. It is at the very heart of God’s purposes. Jesus came to create a people who would model what it means to live under His rule. It would be a glorious outpost of the kingdom of God: an embassy of heaven. This is where the world can see what it means to be truly human.
“Our identity as human beings is found in community. Our identity as Christians is found in Christ’s new community. And our mission takes place through communities of light.”
Monday, December 17, 2007
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Friday, December 14, 2007
Andrew Peterson's "Behold the Lamb of God" is a truly great Christmas album. It serves as a kind of primer on biblical history. The songs point to God's good hand of providence moving from the first inklings of Messiah in the Old Testament to the birth narratives to the ministry and atoning work of Christ. There is even a song on the geneology of Jesus which is an impressive display of lyrical dexterity.
From now and until Christmas I will be posting videos from a live performance of "Behold the Lamb of God."
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
This, I believe, is a digression into parochialism at a time when we should be partnering with other kingdom minded Christians who are committed to advancing the Gospel and sound doctrine.
“In the church the risen Christ rules through His word. This is why the only skill required of church leaders is that they can teach, rightly handling and applying the word of God. Their authority is a mediated authority. They have no authority in and of themselves. Instead they exercise Christ’s authority on His behalf as they teach and apply the word. This defines the amazing extent of their authority: when they apply the word they are exercising the authority of God himself. But it also defines the limit of their authority: they have authority only as they teach God’s word. They should not exercise an authority that comes because of the position they hold or the force of their personality. It is through their teaching that leaders exercise the authority of Christ, the Head of the church.”
- Tim Chester and Steve Timmis from “Total Church”
Monday, December 10, 2007
Check out these new sites.
Saturday, December 8, 2007
Friday, December 7, 2007
Christian, Mormon doctrinal differences
By Tal Davis
Dec 6, 2007
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following information is adapted from the North American Mission Board's www.4truth.net apolgetics website.
ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)--The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon church) professes to be a Christian church. However, a careful comparison of basic doctrinal positions of that church to those of historical, biblical Christianity reveal many radical differences. This comparison utilizes Mormon doctrines as stated in LDS authoritative primary sources and those of historic Christianity as derived solely from the Bible.
THE DOCTRINE OF GOD:
-- Historic Christianity
The one God is a Spirit who is the personal, eternal, infinite Creator of all that exists. He is the only God and necessary for all other things to exist. He exists eternally as a Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (see Deut. 6:4; Isa. 43:10; 44:6-8; Matt. 28:19; John 4:24; 17:3)
God (Heavenly Father) is an exalted man with a physical body of flesh and bone. LDS founder Joseph Smith said, "If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible -- I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345). The trinity is denied with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost seen as three separate entities. "The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us" (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22).
THE DOCTRINE OF JESUS CHRIST:
-- Historic Christianity
Jesus Christ was the virgin born God incarnate who existed in all time with the Father and Holy Spirit in the eternal Trinity. As a man He possessed two natures -- human and divine. He lived a sinless life and willingly died on the cross as a sacrifice for the sin of all humanity. (see John 1:1-18; 8:56-59; Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:13-22; Heb.1:3; 13:8)
Jesus was the spiritual "first born" Son of God in the preexistence. "Every person who was ever born on earth was our spirit brother or sister in heaven. The first spirit born to our heavenly parents was Jesus Christ, so he is literally our elder brother" (Gospel Principles , p. 11)."And now, verily I say unto you, I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn" (D&C 93:21). He is also the "only begotten" physical offspring of God by procreation on earth. "Jesus is the only person on earth to be born of a mortal mother and an immortal father. That is why he is called the Only Begotten Son" (GP, p. 64). His atonement (death and resurrection) provides immortality for all people regardless of their faith. "Christ thus overcame physical death. Because of his atonement, everyone born on this earth will be resurrected ... This condition is called immortality. All people who ever lived will be resurrected, 'both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, both the wicked and the righteous' (The Book of Mormon , Alma 11:44)" (GP, p. 74). (See GP, pp. 11, 17-19, 61-77.)
THE DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURES AND AUTHORITY:
-- Historic Christianity
The Bible (Old and New Testaments) is the unique, revealed, and inspired Word of God. It is the sole authority for faith and practice for Christians. (see 2 Tim. 3:15-17; 2 Pet. 1:19-21)
Recognizes the LDS Four Standard Works as authoritative. These include the Bible "as far as it is translated correctly" (Articles of Faith 1:8). It also includes The Book of Mormon (BOM) which Joseph Smith declared is "the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 194).
The church also regards The Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) as Scripture. It "is a collection of modern revelations ... regarding The Church of Jesus Christ as it has been restored in these last days" (GP, p. 54).
The Pearl of the Great Price (PGP) is the fourth book believed to be inspired.
"It clarifies doctrines and teachings that were lost from the Bible and gives added information concerning the creation of the earth" (GP, p. 54).
The church's president is regarded as "a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet" (D&C 107:91-92).
THE DOCTRINE OF HUMANITY:
-- Historic Christianity
Human beings are created in God's image, meaning they have personal qualities similar to God's. Every person is a unique, precious being of dignity and worth. (see Gen. 1:26-27)
People are the preexisted spiritual offspring of the Heavenly Father and Mother. "All men and women are ... literally the sons and daughters of Deity ... Man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents, and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father, prior to coming upon the earth in a temporal (physical) body" (Joseph F. Smith, "The Origin of Man," Improvement Era, Nov. 1909, pp. 78,80, as quoted in GP, p. 11).They are born basically good and are "gods in embryo." A commonly quoted Mormon aphorism (attributed to fifth LDS president Lorenzo Snow) says "As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become."
THE DOCTRINE OF SIN:
-- Historic Christianity
Human beings have chosen to sin against God, rejecting His nature and pursing life opposed to His essential character and revealed law. (see Rom. 3:23; 7:14-25; 1 John 1:8-10)
People sin by disobedience to God's laws. Adam's fall, a part of Heavenly Father's plan, caused a loss of immortality, which was necessary for mankind to advance, (see GP, pp. 31-34). As Eve declared according to LDS scripture, "Were it not for our transgression we never should have ... known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient"(PGP, Moses 5:11; see also BOM, 2 Nephi 2:22-25). Each person is responsible for his or her own sin.
THE DOCTRINE OF SALVATION:
-- Historic Christianity
Salvation is release from the guilt and power of sin through God's gift of grace. It is provided through Christ's atonement and received by personal faith in Christ as Savior and Lord. (see Rom. 3:20; 10:9- 10; Eph. 2:8-10)
Jesus' atonement provided immortality for all people. Exaltation (godhood) is available only to Mormons through obedience to LDS teachings: faith, baptism, endowments, celestial marriage, and tithing. "Wherefore, as it is written, they are gods, even the sons of God -- Wherefore, all things are theirs" (D&C, 76:58-59).
These are some of the blessings given to exalted people:
1. They will live eternally in the presence of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ (see D&C, 76).
2. They will become gods.
3. They will have their righteous family members with them and will be able to have spirit children also. These spirit children will have the same relationship to them as we do to our Heavenly Father. They will be an eternal family.
4. They will receive a fullness of joy.
5. They will have everything that our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ have -- all power, glory, dominion, and knowledge (See GP, p. 302).
Baptism for the dead provides post-mortem salvation for non-Mormons, and is "by immersion performed by a living person for one who is dead. This ordinance is performed in temples" (GP, p. 375). (See also GP, chapters 18-23.)
THE DOCTRINE OF LIFE AFTER DEATH:
-- Historic Christianity
Eternal life in heaven with God for those who have trusted in Jesus Christ. Eternal separation from God's presence in hell for the unsaved. (see Matt. 5:12-30; 25:41; Rev. 20-22)
One of three levels of glory:
1. Exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom for faithful Mormons where people may become gods or angels; "Then shall they be gods" (D&C 132:20).
2. Terrestrial Kingdom for righteous non-Mormons; "These are they who are honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men. These are they who receive of his glory, but not of his fullness" (D&C 76:75-76).
3. Telestial Kingdom for wicked and ungodly (not hell); "These are they who are liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers ... who suffer the wrath of God on earth"(D&C 76:103-104). (See also D&C 76:57-119; 131:1-4.)
THE DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH:
-- Historic Christianity
Christians congregate together in local bodies and along denominational lines sharing distinctive doctrinal and ecclesiastical concepts. There is no organization or denomination that can claim exclusive designation as the "one true church." The universal church consists of all the redeemed in Jesus Christ in all of the ages. (see Matt. 16:15-19; 1 Cor. 1:12-14; Eph. 2:19; 3:11-12)
Asserts that the LDS is the one true church on the face of the earth. Joseph Smith claimed Jesus Christ told him to join none of the existing denominations because "they were all wrong ... that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt" (PGP: Joseph Smith-History 1:19-20). Mormons claim only the LDS possesses the divine authority of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood as restored by God to Joseph Smith in 1829. (D&C 13; 27:8- 13; 107:1-20; PGP: Joseph Smith-History 1:68-73)
Tal Davis is the strategic mentoring manager of the North American Mission Board's evangelization group.
Gospel Principles. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1992.
McConkie, Bruce. A New Witness for the Articles of Faith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1986.
Smith, Joseph, Jr. The Book of Mormon - Another Testament of Jesus Christ. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982.
Smith, Joseph, Jr. The Doctrine and Covenants. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982.
Smith, Joseph, Jr. History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 7 vols. 2nd ed. rev. Edited by B.H. Roberts. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932-1951.
Smith, Joseph, Jr. The Pearl of Great Price. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982.
Smith, Joseph Fielding. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1977.
Copyright (c) 2007 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press
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Nashville, TN 37203
There are a few exceptions out there. For instance, I do enjoy reading certain portions of the Missouri Baptist paper: "The Pathway". Perhaps the main reason it is a good paper is that the editor, Don Hinkle, is actually interested in theological issues. This is reflected in the paper. To be sure, there is a lot of controversy in the Missouri Baptist Convention between conservatives and liberals. But shouldn't denominational papers for the largerst Protestant denomination in the world be steeped in theology and biblical reflection?
This calls to mind one of the problems in the SBC: a lack of interest in doctrinal precision among the laity, pastors, and key denominational leaders. I was at Ridgecrest a week ago and had a chance to visit the Lifeway bookstore. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the SBC, Ridgecrest is one of our conference centers and Lifeway is the publishing arm of the SBC. Anyway, I was shocked at many of the books that the Lifeway store carries. I saw books by John Hagee who is a hyper-dispensational (Jews don't need Jesus to be saved) and prosperity gospel preacher. There were books by John Eldredge whose views of God run to the somewhat exotic. There were many other troubling authors and titles. Why should this be in the book stores of the Southern Baptist Convention? I know heresy sells well but should Southern Baptists participate?
Thursday, December 6, 2007
This is a tidbit from Newspring Church in Anderson, South Carolina. Newspring is part of the new breed of mega-church which entices people to come with all the trappings of entertainment. Perry Noble, the pastor of Newspring was in a series called "American Idol" when this song was performed. How innovative.
I get criticized when I call attention to such foolishness but what are we to do? Are we to be silent? Are we supposed to lay back and surrender to pragmatism and the idolatry of the crowd?
Friends, what we win people with is what we win them to. If we "win" people with a show then it is a show that they will expect. If we "win" them with positive thinking, self-help, use the Bible sparingly types of messages then that is what they will expect. We may produce attenders with such approaches but there will be precious few converts.
Perhaps Jason can kick things off at Metro East this week with "Whiskey River" by Willie Nelson.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Of course everyone knows that pastors are sinners. What is difficult, however, is to actually see the sins of your own pastor on full display. Perhaps he is jealous or insecure. Maybe he struggles with anger, pride, depression, or a critical spirit. Seeing these things in one’s pastor can be a heavy burden to bear. As a pastor I know what it is to disappoint people that I care about. I know what it is to go home feeling miserable because some of the ugliness in my heart escaped in the site of people I am called to shepherd. In those times I say with Paul, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15).
This is not false humility on the part of the apostle. Neither are we to surmise that Paul committed more heinous sins than anyone who ever walked the face of the earth. I am pretty sure that the point Paul is making is that he is the worst sinner he knows. This displays the default position that all Christians should embrace: “Knowing the condition of my heart in a way that I cannot know yours, I can only safely conclude that I am in worse shape than you.” This doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to our brother’s sin. Indeed, we are to hold each other accountable in a loving, but if necessary, firm way. However, the wickedness in my own heart ought to always be a greater source of concern to me than the wickedness present in anyone else.
So, I am a sinful pastor. I sometimes wear my sins and flaws on my sleeve for all to see. Very often, perhaps more often than not, I fail to live up to my confession. As far as I know, my heart is in worse condition than that of any of my brothers and sisters. So I will endeavor to take my own sin more seriously than yours. I will try to be more offended by my own sin than by yours. I will, by God’s grace, always be ready to receive the loving correction of my fellows in Christ. This, I believe will guard me from the pessimism and cynicism that so easily accompany service to the church. I hope you will join me in this.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
Monday, December 3, 2007
Unfortunately, Dr. Mohler's message from Monday night was not recorded. That's a shame because it was a truly important and timely message.
Saturday, December 1, 2007
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
One of the issues addressed at Building Bridges is the nature and extent of the atonement. Dr. David Nelson of Southeastern Seminary approached the subject from one who fully affirms sovereign election but holds to a general view of the atonement. He did an excellent job of offering support for his view. He also was a model of irenic discussion. The response came from Sam Waldron who advanced the idea of particular redemption. Dr. Waldron gave compelling support from the Scriptures for particular redemption and like Dr. Nelson was very generous in his style. Both addresses are well worth the hearing.
I can say the same about all the sessions. Nathan Finn of Southeastern Seminary gave a very helpful address on common misconceptions about Baptist Calvinists. He offered five myths that are often held about Baptist Calvinists:
Myth 1 – Calvinism is a threat to evangelism.
Of course this is nonsense. Less than two hundred years ago most Protestants were Calvinists. The founders of the modern missions movement as well as the Southern Baptist Convention were Calvinists. Calvinists see no contradiction between sovereign election and the call to world evangelization. This is so because not only ordains the ends but He ordains the means to those ends. God promises to win for Himself a people from every nation, tribe, language, and people. He also means to use His people as the means toward that end.
Myth 2 – Calvinists are opposed to invitations.
Wrong. The proclamation of the Gospel is an invitation. What many Calvinists are uncomfortable with is the modern practice of altar calls. An invitation and an altar call are two entirely different things. Charles Spurgeon and George Whitefield pleaded passionately for their hearers to repent and believe in Christ. Under their ministries untold thousands were converted, yet without altar calls. Many Calvinists are bothered by their memories of manipulative altar calls and incomplete presentations of the Gospel. Also, Calvinists do not like being told they have to do something that is not commanded or modeled in Scripture.
Myth 3 – Calvinism is the same thing as hyper-Calvinism.
The typical non-Calvinist evangelical has rejected Calvinism because hyper-Calvinism is the only Calvinism of which they have ever heard. Hyper-Calvinism is an aberration that is no more representative of Calvinism than Pelagianism is representative of Arminianism. Hyper-Calvinism rejects both the necessity of evangelism and the call for all men everywhere to repent and believe. The fact is, there are not very many genuine hyper-Calvinists around anymore. Groups that do not reproduce tend not to last very long.
Myth 4 – Calvinists deny human free will.
First of all, there is no single Calvinist or non-Calvinist view of human free will. The fact is, while many non-Calvinists claim to believe in free will they actually believe that man’s will is limited. Every decision we make is conditioned by countless factors. Also, we pray regularly that God will overcome people’s stubborn will. “God change my son’s heart.” “Lord bring my friend to repentance.” Calvinists affirm just as strongly as non-Calvinist evangelicals that repentance from sin and faith in Christ are absolutely necessary for salvation. All who repent and believe will be saved without exception. Furthermore, no one is saved against their will. The Calvinist, however, is careful to affirm that it is God who makes the convert willing. The Calvinist credits his willingness to repent and believe to God alone.
Myth 5 – Authentic Baptists are not Calvinists.
Baptist history is strongly rooted in Calvinism. Take time some day to read the London Baptist Confession of 1689 or the Abstract of Principles of the Southern Baptist Convention. The examples of prominent Baptists and Southern Baptists who were/are Calvinists are legion. From John Bunyan, William Carey, Charles Spurgeon, and Adonirum Judson to Andrew Fuller, J.P. Boyce, W.A. Criswell (that’s right), and many others in our own day Calvinists have always been a part of Baptist life.
Dr. Finn’s address is well worth the hearing. If you are a Calvinist then Charles Lawless’ address on misconceptions that Calvinists often hold about non-Calvinists was excellent and gracious.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
One of the unique things about Building Bridges is that each session consists of two speakers addressing the same theological issue; one from the perspective of a Baptist Calvinist and the other from that of a non-Calvinist. It is a somewhat grueling but nevertheless excellent format. The lectures have been scholarly, challenging, and irenic. It has been an example of how theological dialogue ought to be conducted among brothers who affirm Gospel essentials.
There has, however been one exception so far. In my opinion Malcolm Yarnell who teaches at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary did not display the kind of fairness and irenic spirit that was so characteristic of the other presenters. Dr. Yarnell, a decidedly NON-Calvinistic Southern Baptist, addressed the topic “Calvinism: A Cause for Rejoicing, A Cause for Concern.” Needless to say, his perspective weighed most heavily on the cause for concern. Fair enough. After all, his job was to speak from the non-Calvinistic point of view. The problem, to my thinking was two-fold: his attitude and his scholarship.
I will not go into too much detail but Dr. Yarnell made several errors. First of all he defined three “Calvinisms”: 1) Classical Calvinism 2) Baptist Calvinism 3) Hyper-Calvinism. Those are helpful distinctions. The problem is that even though Yarnell affirmed the difference between hyper-Calvinism and the first two options he seemed then to confuse the categories. He seemed to suggest too close a kinship between Classical and Baptist Calvinism and Hyper-Calvinism.
Dr. Yarnell highly exaggerates the presence of hyper-Calvinism. I know a lot of Calvinists and not one of them could be considered “hyper” except by the most ill-informed among us. While hyper-Calvinists certainly did have a presence in England in the 19th century there are very few of them left. Systems which reject the call to evangelize don’t tend to reproduce themselves. However, Dr. Yarnell seems to see a hyper-Calvinist boogey man lurking somewhere within every Calvinist just waiting to get out.
Incidentally, hyper-Calvinism is not five point Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism is an aberration that believes sovereign election renders missions and evangelism unnecessary and that the Gospel should not be freely offered to all. Calvinists have always rejected those ideas.
Another weakness in Dr. Yarnell’s presentation was his downplaying of the prominence of Calvinism among the early Baptists. He even denied the Reformed character of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. That was a new one for me. I don’t know of any non-Calvinist church historians who deny the presence and, indeed prominence of Reformed doctrine in Baptist and Southern Baptist origins. Dr. Yarnell, however, seems to question this.
Another questionable tactic used by Dr. Yarnell was the use of anecdotes. At one point he said he once spoke to a Calvinist who justified leaving his wife because it must have been God’s will. In twenty years of pastoral ministry, I have talked to numerous men and women who justify their divorce by saying, “It’s God’s will,” none of whom were Calvinists. Is it then legitimate for me to conclude that non-Calvinists are susceptible to such nonsense because they do not embrace Calvinism? I was amazed that a scholar would make such a nonsensical link.
To make matters worse, Dr. Yarnell actually played the Servetus card. Now, I expect uninformed persons who have no formal training in church history to appeal to Michael Servetus in order to discredit Calvinism. I expect people like Dave Hunt and Ergun Caner, neither of whom are careful scholars, to appeal to Servetus to dismiss Reformed doctrine. But Dr. Yarnell should know better. It was purely anecdotal and even inaccurate not to mention the fact that the Michael Servetus situation has nothing to do with the legitimacy of Reformed doctrine.
I felt as if I were being scolded during Dr. Yarnell’s address. He even took a few swipes at John Piper. If he does not agree with Dr. Piper’s Calvinism, fine. But John Piper is a careful scholar and pastor. He is a godly man who has provided laypersons with some of the most accessible theology of any Christian writer. He is also, by any measure, passionate for the cause of world evangelization and a tireless champion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For those reasons any non-Calvinist ought to extend Piper a measure of kindness and respect. But those are qualities that, in my opinion, were missing from his address.
I am sure Dr. Yarnell is a fine man. I have no doubt he is an intelligent man who also loves Jesus and cares about the Gospel. I was disappointed that he did not make a better attempt to get his facts right and to truly understand those with whom he disagrees.
Merritt did a fine job but the evening belonged to Mohler. His message was deeply moving. I urge you to go to the Lifeway site linked on a previous post and listen. There are a lot of good sermons preached every week in America. There are far fewer great sermons preached. Dr. Mohler’s sermon Monday night was a great sermon. I will not attempt to summarize. You simply must hear it.
Monday, November 26, 2007
He offered eight assertions:
1. Baptist Calvinists are most consistent in their affirmation of biblical innerancy. If we are to affirm the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture then we must affirm that God's free will trumps man's free will (only Calvinism upholds this truth). How can we trust the full inspiration and innerancy of the Bible if God was not free to overcome the "free will" of the human authors and cause them to write just as He decreed? Only Calvinism upholds "compatibility" or "concurrance" - the biblical position that God's total sovereignty is compatible or runs concurrant with human responsibility.
2. Baptist Calvinists have an intrinsic dependence upon the Trinity. Only Calvinism consistently upholds the unbreakable nature of purpose and action within the Trinity. In other words, what the Father decrees, the Son successfully accomplishes, and the Spirit unfailingly applies. In other theological systems, that union is broken. What the Father decrees, the Son does not necessarily accomplish. What the Son accomplishes the Spirit does not always apply.
3. Baptist Calvinists are consistent in their affirmation of the substitutionary atonement of Christ.
4. Baptist Calvinists have consistently affirmed religious liberty. Faith cannot be coerced since it is a gift of God.
5. Baptist Calvinists have consistently championed missions and evangelism. Nettles cited such luminaries as William Carey, Adinirum Judson, Luther Rice, John Dagg, and Charles Spurgeon. The founders of the Southern Baptist Convention were uniformly Calvinistic. They founded the denomination for the sake of missions and evangelism. How can the doctrine of the founders of the largest Protestant denomination in the world be condemned as anti-evangelistic?
6. Baptist Calvinists are consistent advocates of Christ-centered preaching. They hold unswervingly to the fact that the Gospel is God’s power unto salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16). So, it is in the preaching of Christ and Him crucified which leads to genuine conversion. The manipulative mischief which came of age in the days of Finney and are still nourished in many evangelical churches have all been birthed by systems other than Calvinism.
7. Baptist Calvinists are consistent advocates of personal holiness. Because regeneration (the new birth) is entirely a work of God’s sovereign grace, it cannot but produce genuine transformation.
8. Baptists Calvinists are consistent advocates of regenerate church membership. It is the Calvinists within the Southern Baptist Convention from which the calls for a new commitment to regenerate church membership are coming.
It's late (11:35 eastern). The opening sessions were outstanding. I will post more about those in the morning. Please take advantage of the audio provided by Lifeway here (http://www.lifeway.com/lwc/article_main_page/0%2C1703%2CA%25253D166704%252526M%25253D201042%2C00.html?). Sorry. I haven't figured out how to shorten that whole thing to a simple "here".
Sunday, November 25, 2007
While I am thankful for the opportunity to attend the conference I will, as always, miss being home. I missed being in the pulpit this morning but I know that Kris did a great job. I am blessed to work with men who do not need me to be effective in their ministry.
I will be posting daily on the conference sessions. I hope they will be helpful and encouraging to you.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Friday, November 23, 2007
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom
and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable His judgment,
and His paths beyond tracing out!...
To Him be the glory forever!
We hear a lot of talk these days in evangelical circles about mystery. When difficult theological questions are raised we often retreat to the safe confines of the, “We just can’t know” defense. True, there are many questions that will not be fully answered in this lifetime. Indeed, who in their right mind would suggest that we can know all there is to know about God? However, let us not retreat to mystery in response to those doctrines where Scripture speaks with clarity. After all, God did not inspire the 66 books of the Bible so that everything would be hopelessly draped in mystery. For instance, Paul’s words quoted above about the depths and unsearchableness of the knowledge of God are expressed only after 11 chapters worth of rigorous theological instruction on such doctrines as original sin, the substitutionary atonement, God’s wrath, God’s grace, election, and predestination.
Melanchthon was right to a degree. Certainly, to the one whose faith is not much more than intellectual investigation I would join the chorus: “We do better to adore than to investigate!” However, this is an oversimplification. The fact is: how can we properly adore what we do not know? How do we rightly worship what we have not come to understand? The answer is: adore and investigate; study and worship; know and thrill.
It is fashionable in certain circles within evangelicalism to deconstruct Jesus. Rob Bell, popular author and emergent church pastor affirms that such key doctrines as the Trinity, virgin birth, and resurrection of Christ are dispensable. He likens those doctrines to springs on a trampoline. According to Bell, you can disconnect those springs and still bounce on the trampoline (his metaphor for Christianity). Brian MacLaren the unofficial leader of the emergent movement openly dismisses the substitutionary atonement, the doctrine of hell, and the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation. It is one thing for brothers and sisters in Christ to wrangle over the various theories of the end times and the exact role of Israel in God’s plan but when the atonement, the resurrection, and the uniqueness of Christ are jettisoned then what is left is not orthodox Christianity.
The objection from within the emergent movement and other liberal Protestants is that certainty is arrogant. In the words of Brian MacLaren: “Certainty is overrated.” They tell us that Christians should embrace a more “humble apologetic” or “generous orthodoxy.” But one wonders. Is it more humble to say about what Scripture makes plain: “We just can’t know”? Is it humble to constantly question doctrines that God Almighty has revealed with such care in His Word?
Jesus is under attack both from within the church and from the outside. However, it is not the atheists like Christopher Hitchens who disturb me so much as the prominent Christians who dismiss much of what the Bible makes plain about Christ. How can these men and women with a simple wave of their post-modern skepticism put asunder what God has made so clear? The arrogance is breathtaking. They have reduced Jesus from the eternal Son of God, propitiation for sinners, and returning King who will judge the living and the dead to a political radical and environmentalist who bears little if any resemblance to the Christ of Scripture.
The Reformers and Puritans spoke of the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture. This was to affirm that God has not left His people in the dark. The doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity declares that God desires His people to know Him well; that our worship and devotion might be undergirded with clear knowledge. During this season of Advent may we all linger long over the precious words of God’s clear and abiding Word concerning our Savior. May we adore the pre-existent, virgin born, divine and human, atoning, and risen Christ. He is worth our careful study and exuberant praise.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Thursday, November 15, 2007
A few other excellent resources on the Puritans are:
Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke
Quest for Godliness by J.I. Packer
Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken
The Devoted Life by Kapic and Gleason
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
The current presidential race has seen divisions and confounding alliances among evangelical leaders. Wayne Grudem, a leading evangelical theologian has endorsed Mormon and former (?) liberal Mitt Romney. James Dobson, true to his convictions is supporting Mike Hukabee. Perhaps most shocking, arch conservative Pat Robertson has publically endorsed Rudy Giuliani.
Of the current political influence of evangelicals, Kirkpatrick writes:
“Today the movement shows signs of coming apart beneath its leaders. It is not merely that none of the 2008 Republican front-runners come close to measuring up to President Bush in the eyes of the evangelical faithful, although it would be hard to find a cast of characters more ill fit for those shoes: a lapsed-Catholic big-city mayor; a Massachusetts Mormon; a church-skipping Hollywood character actor; and a political renegade known for crossing swords with the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell.”
Of particular interest to “Wichitans” is the inclusion of an analysis of pastor ________. As anyone living in Wichita knows, __________ has been a fixture in local news primarily because of his involvement in political issues. Kirkpatrick ends his article with a quote from pastor ________ that is sadly illustrative of the attitude he has displayed in the pulpit and the public square: “Some might compare the religious right to a snake. We may be in our hole right now, but we can come out and bite you at any time.”
The problem revealed in that statement and with much of the political activism on the part of conservative evangelicals is that they wage war with the same weapons and attitudes of the left. In the first three quarters of the 20th century conservative Christians criticized the political activism of liberal Christians. Dismissed as “the social gospel” conservatives saw the left’s politicking as a sad accommodation to culture. It was seen as seeking cultural transformation with worldly weapons rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ which the liberals had already jettisoned. Ironically, while seeking different ends, conservative Christians have become accustomed to employing the same means as liberals.
What bothers me about this brand of evangelicalism is not that it offends but that it offends for the wrong reasons. The Gospel of Jesus will be a stone of stumbling to both conservative and liberal alike. The problem is that the Gospel and politics have, in many cases, become intertwined and confused. For instance, when a pastor rants about politics for 30 minutes (instead of preaching Scripture) he is said to have “really preached the Gospel.” This example, which I have personally observed in this community, reveals the sad reality that many conservative evangelicals have equated conservative political positions with the Gospel of Jesus.
Perhaps now is the time for a bit of self-disclosure. I am a flag-waving patriot and self-described conservative. I am pro-life and support an amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. I have taught my children about the significance of Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day. We value American history in our home. My wife and I vote and believe it is a privilege and responsibility to do so. I love America and look forward to taking my children on their first trip to Washington D.C. I believe displays of patriotism should be common in the public square. However, God shares His glory with no one. The gathered worship of God’s people is not to be divided between praise for God and nationalistic celebrations. The mixing of worship and patriotism can be a very dangerous thing as Israel has found during her long history.
Be cautious my fellow conservatives. Just as liberal Christians became an arm of the Democratic Party, conservative evangelicals have been, in too many cases, co-opted by the Republican Party. The church must never become an extension of any political party. Politics and the Gospel mix about as well as oil and water. The message that Jesus Christ died for sinners, rose victorious from the grave, and all must turn to Him in repentance and faith or perish is incompatible with success at the polls. How many evangelical politicians have stumbled in articulating the Gospel because they are well aware of the fact that it is a stumbling block?
The bravado and vitriol so common among certain evangelical leaders seems inconsistent for a people who follow a crucified Savior; a Lord who said His kingdom was not of this world. What is more, Jesus resolutely refused to involve himself in the politics of His day. There was much to condemn in the Roman system and yet Jesus resisted the political wrangling so common among many of His fellow Jews. He turned down all attempts to become politically influential. The power that many of His followers hungered for, He rejected. I cannot imagine Jesus saying, “My followers may be down but not out. You never know when they will come out like a snake and bite you!”
Monday, November 12, 2007
Saturday, November 10, 2007
Friday, November 9, 2007
John Hagee teaches that Israel does not need Christ as Savior. He teaches that God will save them apart from the work of Christ on the cross.
This is where hyper-dispensationalism leads folks. It is the unbiblical teaching that God has one way of salvaiton for Israel and another way for Gentiles. It is heresy plain and simple.
Transforming Culture with a Messiah Complex
By Michael Horton
Evangelicals have been talking lately about transforming the culture, doing kingdom work in all of life, and incarnating the church in the world. Sound good? The trouble is, these movements can conceive of the church as a substitute for Christ, shifting the focus of Christians from his promised return to your best life now.
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT: FROM REVIVALISM TO WARREN
To understand this, it’s helpful to consider how the evangelical church has related to the wider culture over the last couple of centuries. We are often told that evangelicalism was a sleeping giant—aloof and passive toward social, political, economic, and wider cultural concerns. As the story goes, the separatist giant was awakened from its dogmatic slumbers by Francis Schaeffer and the Moral Majority, unleashing the enormous energy of conservative Protestants, with the result that, at least since the 1980s, evangelicals can make or break political campaigns.
However, this picture isn't quite accurate. The evangelical revival in Britain, led by both Calvinists like George Whitefield and John Newton as well as Arminians like John and Charles Wesley, contributed significantly to the abolition of the slave trade throughout the empire. Historians often credit this movement, known in its American theater as the Great Awakening, with galvanizing the colonies into a republic. It is impossible to tell the story of American independence, abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, child labor legislation, and prohibition without mentioning the impact of revivalism.
In fact, by the nineteenth century, the leading evangelist Charles Finney was actually defining the church as "a society of moral reformers." Taking advantage of every opportunity to attack Calvinism, Finney's theology was not even Arminian, but Pelagian: he explicitly denied original sin, substitutionary atonement, and justification; and he considered the new birth to be a self-generated conversion from sinful behavior to upright living. His sermon with the title "Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts," which he preached at Park Street Church in Boston, summarizes the Second Great Awakening and much American revivalism ever since.
True to their pragmatic and self-confident instincts, American Protestants did not want to define the church first and foremost as a community of forgiven sinners, recipients of grace, but as a triumphant army of moral activists. Even if one does not explicitly endorse Finney's Pelagianism, the undercurrent of assumptions and practices that evolved from his Pelagianistic social activism are powerful and pervasive. In the nineteenth century, most Protestants were optimistic about wider cultural change. Temperance societies emerged as one of many movements organized around the vision of a Christianized America.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, fellow evangelicals Josiah Strong and D. L. Moody would represent the growing cleavage between the triumphalistic postmillenialists and the pessimistic premillennialists. "The kingdoms of this world will not have become the kingdoms or our Lord," Strong opined, "until the money power has been Christianized." Long before the conservative-liberal polarizations, American evangelicalism had championed the so-called "social gospel," as one notices in the following comment from Horace Bushnell:
Talent has been Christianized already on a large scale. The political power of states and kingdoms has been long assumed to be, and now at last really is, as far as it becomes their accepted office to maintain personal security and liberty. Architecture, arts, constitutions, schools, and learning have been largely Christianized. But the money power, which is one of the most operative and grandest of all, is only beginning to be; though with promising tokens of a finally complete reduction to Christ and the uses of His Kingdom….That day, when it comes, is the morning, so to speak, of the new creation. Is it not time for that day to dawn?
But evangelist D. L. Moody marched to the beat of a different drummer. Although he was initially representative of Charles Finney’s social activism, Moody became increasingly pessimistic about the extent to which earthly empires could become the kingdom of God. "I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel," he would later write. "God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’" Whereas many people increasingly regarded revival as an instrument for Christianizing society through evangelism and social action, Moody saw it as a means of converting individuals. In Josiah Strong’s vision, however, an American version of the Holy Roman Empire began to proliferate with Protestant hospitals, colleges, women’s societies and men’s societies, all signs of God’s approval and, indeed, of the advancement of the kingdom of God.
Finney has been hailed as an evangelical hero by Protestants as diverse as modernist Harry Emerson Fosdick and fundamentalist Bob Jones, Sr., and, more recently, as the exemplar of left-wing political causes by Jim Wallis and right-wing causes by Jerry Falwell. It is perhaps no wonder that a bewildered visitor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, could describe American religion as "Protestantism without the Reformation." As George Marsden has documented in various places, both the Christian Right and the Christian Left derive from this late nineteenth-century evangelicalism. It is this quite recent train of thought (or, more precisely, activism), rather than the profound reflection of Augustine and the reformers, that guides contemporary evangelical activism. Ironically, even staunch premillenialists like Jerry Falwell sound a good deal like the postmillenialists of yesteryear. The agenda for moral reform may have divided in liberal and conservative directions, but both owe their origin to the revivalism of Charles Finney.
So when a conservative Southern Baptist like Rick Warren embraces "new measures" in church growth by advocating a vision of the church as an army of reformers who can end the plagues of disease, war, and poverty as well as promiscuity, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, and alcoholism, he stands in a long line leading from Finney to Strong to Sunday to Graham. "Deeds, not Creeds!" used to be the mantra of the social gospel of mainline churches, but Warren has revived it today as if it were newly minted. After a brief dispensationalist interlude, American evangelicals returned to their more positive and triumphant (postmillennial) message of transforming American culture into "a shining city upon a hill."
Of course, this cursory overview does not answer the normative question about what the church should be doing in relation to the wider culture, but it does provide a context that helps us understand perennial assumptions often taken for granted at least in American churches. Ironically, in the land that prizes the legal separation of church and state, the identification of church and sub-culture, each with its political agenda, is nearly total: white suburban evangelicals, the Black church, mainline social gospels, and the more recent "new urbanism" of the emergent movement. Yet in spite of their different agendas, each of these ecclesiastical demographics is largely dependent on the heritage of American revivalism.
So far we’ve considered the historical context of the question, "What should the church's role be in the wider culture?" Now to the biblical and theological context.
BIBLICAL/THEOLOGICAL CONTEXT: CHURCH AS MESSIANIC SUBSTITUTE
Many writers today are calling for a greater emphasis on the resurrection. What’s overlooked, ironically, is the importance of Christ’s ascension.
The resurrection and ascension of Jesus generate a remarkable paradox. Right at the place where the Suffering Servant has been exalted as conquering Lord, the first fruit of a new creation, and the head of a body, he disappears. Then, precisely in that place that is vacated by the one who has ascended, a church emerges.
The most direct ascension account comes from Luke (Luke 24:13-27; 24:50-53). Acts 1 reprises this episode in its opening verses (Ac 1:6-11). Thus the ascension (and parousia) became part of the gospel itself. Not only was Jesus crucified and raised according to the prophets, but the Messiah will be sent again. Jesus, says Peter, "must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets" (Ac 3:20-21, emphasis added).
As they were taught by Jesus in the Olivet and Upper Room discourses and on the road to Emmaus (Matt. 24-25; John 14-16; Luke 24:13ff), the apostolic preaching in Acts follows the familiar pattern of descent-ascent-return, justifying the confession in the eucharistic liturgy, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." Jesus’ departure is as real and decisive as his incarnation, and he "will come [again] in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" (Ac 1:11)—that is, in the flesh. In the meantime, he is absent in the flesh.
Under-realized Ascension, Over-realized Eschatalogy
One problem in the history of interpretation, however, has been to treat the ascension as little more than a dazzling exclamation point for the resurrection rather than as a new event in its own right. The ascension of Jesus in the flesh opens up an interim within history that keeps us looking forward to the return of the same Jesus. Nothing can replace Jesus in the flesh.
As the first fruits of the new creation, Jesus in his ascension does not abandon history but redefines all that has preceded it as the old age of sin and death, subjecting it to judgment. The history of human misery and pomp, autonomy and strife, which can only yield the fruit of condemnation, is now passing away. It’s becoming obsolete. Even now the "age to come" is reconfiguring reality around its glorified head. The time that the church thus occupies because of the ascension is defined neither by full presence nor full absence, but by a eucharistic tension between "this age" and "the age to come." The church is lodged in that precarious place of ambiguity and tension between these two ages, and it must live there until Jesus returns, relying only on the Word and Spirit.
Yet the church does not like to stay put. It wants to jump the gun and realize the kingdom of glory when, for now, God has determined for it to be a kingdom of grace. Looking away from the absence of Jesus of Nazareth, the church, as the body of Christ, can easily come to see itself as his visible and earthly replacement. As Douglas Farrow notes, "When the earthly church is seen as a mirror of heavenly triumph, when its success on the horizontal axis is thought to display the dizzying heights to which its Lord ascends, it is difficult to set limits to the glory which should accrue to it." Augustine spoke of a totus Christus, the whole Christ consisting of its head and its members. In other words, that which is human about Jesus—visibility, temporality, fleshiness—is now transferred to the church as a historical body. Jesus proclaimed himself as Jacob’s ladder (Jn 1:50-51), but in his bodily absence the church offers itself for that mediation. The history of Jesus in the flesh is at least implicitly replaced by the history of the church as the kingdom of God. The deity of Christ remains transcendent, but his incarnate existence is "fleshed out" by and as the church.
In this context, it is not surprising that the kingdom of God was identified directly with the church—a kind of "over-realized" amillennialism that was no longer palpably aware of the church's location in the already/not yet tension of God's plan in history. The kingdoms of this world are gradually becoming the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.
Church As Christ’s Regent
This transition to what we might call anachronistically a "postmillennial" optimism was more plausible with the conversion of Constantine since Christianity was given imperial status. Constantine's admiring assistant and biographer Eusebius announced that Christ had, as it were, handed over earth's title deed to his servant, Constantine, who advances Christ's reign "through the ordinary usages of war." Eventually, the bishop of Rome would vie for the keys to the kingdoms of this world.
For Thomas Aquinas, Christ's physical presence was under the control of the church, which could summon him with the ringing of a bell in the mass. The miracle of transubstantiation "placed Christ fully in the church’s possession," notes Farrow. "Indeed, it meant that the church now controlled the parousia. At the ringing of a bell the Christus absens became the Christus praesens…Seated comfortably with the Christ-child on its lap, the church soon became his regent rather than his servant."
Incarnation Or Substitution
Why this excursus on the ascension? Because there is so much dangerous talk these days about the church as the continuing incarnation of Christ, the active agent of redemption, who completes the work that Christ came to accomplish. In short, the church is substituted for Christ. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic followers of German idealism have made this move, and the trail leads all the way to Pope Benedict XVI, Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz, and the circle of brilliant writers known as Radical Orthodoxy.
Graham Ward, a representative of Radical Orthodoxy, has recently written,
"We have no access to the body of the gendered Jew…It is pointless because the Church is now the body of Christ, so to understand the body of Jesus we can only examine what the Church is and what it has to say concerning the nature of that body as scripture attests it...As Gregory of Nyssa points out, in his thirteenth sermon on Song of Songs, ‘he who sees the Church looks directly at Christ.’"
I realize that most evangelicals bristle at such grandiose claims for the institutional church, much less the pope, but do we not regularly encounter the claim that Christians are called to save Western civilization, transform the culture, and build the kingdom of God as the extension of Christ's redeeming mission in the world?
According to the late Archibishop of Canterbury, William Temple, "The church should recognize in itself the earthly body of the ascended Lord; and not only in itself, but also in the world, it should recognize the work of the Spirit drawing all things to God." The question of Christ's bodily whereabouts is no longer important, because the church is alive and well, picking up where he left off.
In fact, "incarnational" is becoming a dominant adjective in evangelical circles, often depriving Christ’s person and work of its specificity and uniqueness. Christ’s person and work easily becomes a "model" or "vision" for ecclesial action (imitatio Christi), rather than a completed event to which the church offers its witness. We increasingly hear about "incarnational ministry," as if Christ's unique personal history could be repeated or imitated. The church, whether conceived in "high church" or "low church" terms, rushes in to fill the void, as the substitute for its ascended Lord. In its train, the sacramental cosmos returns. As Christ and his work is assimilated to the church and its work, similar conflations emerge between the gospel and culture; between the word of God and the experience of our particular group; and between the church’s commission and the transformation of the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ.
It is this recurring temptation to look away from Christ’s absence—toward a false presence, often substituting itself as an extension of Christ’s incarnation and reconciling work—that distracts it from directing the world’s attention to Christ’s parousia in the future. Yet a church that does not acknowledge Christ’s absence is no longer focused on Christ; instead, it’s tempted to idolatrous substitutions in the attempt to seize Canaan prematurely.
The parallel with Moses is striking:
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him" (Ex 32:1).
Of course, the church has seen and heard a lot since then, including confirmation upon confirmation of God's saving promise. Yet we must wait for the restoration at the end of the age. We hope and act in the present not in order to save the world or build the kingdom of God, but because "we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken" (Heb 12:28).
IS ALL OF LIFE KINGDOM WORK?
If this theological argument is correct, then we should question popular statements like, "All of life is kingdom work." No, proclaiming the Word, administering baptism and the Supper, caring for the spiritual and physical well-being of the saints, and bringing in the lost are kingdom work. Building bridges, delivering medical supplies to hospitals, installing water heaters, defending clients in court, holding public office, and having friends over for dinner are "creation work," given a pledge of safe conduct ever since Cain under God's regime of common grace. In this work, Christians serve beside non-Christians, as both are endowed with natural gifts and learned skills for their common life together.
Only when Christ returns in glory will the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. Until then, the New Testament does not offer a single exhortation to Christianize politics, the arts and sciences, education, or any other common grace field of endeavor.
Of course, Christians will bring their worldview and values to their secular callings. Instead of simply working for the weekend out of pure self-interest, believers should choose and fulfill their vocation as a way of best loving and serving their neighbor. What the church does for those who are of the household of faith is different from what individual Christians do as neighbors in the world.
Where we might hope for triumphant calls to "redeem culture," the New Testament epistles offer comparatively boring yet crucial exhortations to respect and pray for those in authority, to treat employers and employees well, and to be faithful parents and children. We are called "to increase more and more" in godliness through the ordinary means of grace in the church. And in our secular vocations we are called to "aspire to lead a quite life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside and that you may lack nothing" (1 Thes 4:10-12).
SHOULD THERE BE "CHRISTIAN" INSTITUTIONS?
Again, if this theological argument is correct, we should ask whether there should be Christian hospitals, Christian businesses, or Christian entertainment industries. Haven't such enterprises, which often do no more than mimic their secular counterparts, distracted the church from its primary focus and ministry? What if churches were more seriously Christian, concentrating on Christ as he is delivered to sinners through Word and Sacrament, and their members were scattered throughout the week to occupy posts alongside their non-Christian neighbors instead of being driven into an ostensibly Christian sub-culture? What if, instead of trying to discipline a pagan culture, we restored the evangelical practice of church discipline in our own churches (a point made better by Paul in 1 Cor 5:9-12)?
Surely the abolition of the slave trade was a noble work. Yet in Britain it was not the church as an institution that abolished slavery, but Christians in public office who had been formed by the church's ministry. When William Wilberforce came to John Newton for advice on whether he should enter the ministry, Newton encouraged his friend to pursue politics instead. It was as a member of parliament that Wilberforce loved and served his neighbor, benefiting from the ordinary means of grace that Newton ministered to him. The church preaches God's transcendent law and gospel, and her children pursue their cultural mandate in their secular vocations. One wonders what might have happened if, instead of dividing over national policy, Protestant churches in the antebellum American North and South practiced church discipline against slave-holders. After all, according to numerous accounts, South African apartheid in our own time came crashing down when the Dutch Reformed Church confessed that its religious justification of the system was "heresy." Disciplined by its sister Reformed churches around the world, the church did what only the church could do, and the result was that the system lost its moral legitimacy.
I realize that this argument only scratches the surface. It is too broad to offer an adequate answer to important questions about whether and to what extent mercy ministries should be extended to those outside of the household of faith. However, I hope to have offered some more general thoughts to help frame such a discussion.
The ascension highlights Christ's bodily absence, while Pentecost highlights his presence in saving action by his Spirit, working through the Word. Even now, the powers of the age to come are breaking in on this present evil age, yet we remain pilgrims, not emperors or architects of a new world order.
In imitation of our Father, who in this era of common grace sends rain upon the just and the unjust alike, we are called to fulfill our secular vocations as a loving service to our neighbors. As citizens of the City of God, we are called to grow up into maturity together in the body of Christ and proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. Only at Christ's appearing will these two callings—the creation mandate and the Great Commission—become identical.
The law can guide us in godly living, but it can never—even after we’re justified—give us any life. "Deeds, not creeds!" means "Law, not Gospel!" By going beyond God's law, this moral agenda imposes on Christ's sheep burdens that he has not commanded to be borne, agendas that do not have his authorization; and it dulls that patient and hopeful cry engendered by the Spirit in our hearts, "Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!"
At the same time, by placing an emphasis on unwarranted "kingdom movements," Christians are distracted from the concrete vocations God has given us in the world simply to love and serve our neighbor with patience, respect, and excellence.
Just as we cannot derive any life from the law, we cannot derive any confidence in our cultural triumphs in so many fields. As with law-and-gospel, our earthly and heavenly citizenship are not opposed unless we are seeking a way of salvation for ourselves or our nation. But once we recognize that there is no everlasting rest from violence, oppression, injustice and immorality through our own political or cultural works, we are free to pursue their amelioration with vigorous gratitude to God for his saving grace in Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, we pursue this cultural task looking back to the creation which God blessed and looking forward to this same creation that will be restored when the kingdoms of this world will finally be made the kingdom of our God and of his Christ forever, world without end. Amen.
Michael Horton is J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, editor of Modern Reformation magazine, and a host of the White Horse Inn, a nationally syndicated radio/internet broadcast. His latest book is Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ (WJK, 2007).