Friday, August 5, 2016

Five Sermons on the Five Solas

Late last year, our church joined a wonderful fellowship of churches, pastors, and missionaries called the “Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals” (FIRE).  FIRE describes itself as “a unifying network for independent Reformed (and Reforming) baptistic churches to experience mutual edification, fellowship, cooperation and prayerful support in ministries and missions.” 

In the short time that I have been acquainted with FIRE, I have been blessed and encouraged in a number of ways and I am excited that our church is now a part of this fellowship. 

It was for this reason that I decided to take five Sundays recently to preach on what being a “Reformed” church means to our specific local church here in Colorado.  Until our association with FIRE, our church had held to certain Reformed convictions but had never officially identified itself as a Reformed church.  So, the pastors of our church thought it would be worthwhile to explore the convictions that lead us to identify ourselves in this particular manner. 

The result was a five week sermon series called “Clarifying Our Convictions: SCC & the 5 Solas of the Reformation.” 

Here are the sermons in the order in which I preached them. 

Sola Scriptura (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5)

Solus Christus (Acts 4:1-12)

Sola Gratia (Ephesians 2:1-10)

Sola Fide (Romans 3:21-26)

Soli Deo Gloria (Romans 11:33-36)

I pray these sermons are a blessing to all who listen to them. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

She Went to a Strip Club

A couple of days ago I saw a provocatively titled blog post being passed around on social media, written by a woman named Anna McCarthy on her blog called “Just a Jesus Follower.” 

The post led with the title: “I went to a strip club.”  Provocative indeed.  It tells the story of a group of pastor-wives that decided to visit various strip clubs every month to deliver meals and gift baskets to the women working in them.  These visits led (according to McCarthy) to a number of ongoing relationships between the pastors’ wives and the women they visited, apparently in at least one case to a Bible study in a club led by one of the ladies’ pastor-husband, and a number of changed lives.  “All because,” McCarthy says, “this group of women and this pastor were unafraid to go where God was leading them.” 

McCarthy tells of her initial apprehension about going to the clubs, given the unusual approach these pastor-wives were taking to reach out to “women that society had thrown aside,” but because of how much it reminded McCarthy of Jesus, she decided to go with them one night, a night that obviously made a big impression upon her.  She saw that the women dancing in the clubs were not fundamentally different than her.  She saw them as real people with real needs, in need of Jesus just like everyone else.   

I will admit to you at the outset, I have no idea who Anna McCarthy is and to my knowledge I had never visited her blog before last week.  A quick perusal of her blog shows that she has written on a number of controversial issues, and likes to make a splash with dramatic writing from an anti-traditional evangelical (I use that term loosely) perspective.  

I did read this particular article, however, and found it troubling in many ways. 

Now, the truth is that I’m troubled on a near-daily basis by an article or two from some professing Christian source, in part because I can sometimes be overly critical and lacking grace, but primarily because there is no end to junk pile that continues to grow with posts cast out into the interwebs by Christians who seem to live without any serious, discerning, and biblically based accountability.  Becoming frustrated with posts like this one isn’t a unique experience for me. 

At the same time, I don’t typically consider it worth my time to take up my laptop and write a response to the latest troubling article or blog post.  There are far too many discernment bloggers out there; some better than others (okay, most are pretty bad, actually), and most of the junk I read doesn’t seem to have a real effect on any of my friends.  Additionally, I serve as a pastor in a specific local church – and so most of my study, reading, and writing are put to use for them.  So, if it’s not directly affecting our church in some way, I typically won’t write anything about it.

The reason I wanted to write a response to this particular post, however, is because I believe it illustrates a problematic trend in a lot of Christian writing these days that needs to be challenged, for the reason that it tends to serve as an effective vehicle to smuggle bad theology and unbiblical thinking directly into the church. 

It’s not as if McCarthy’s article only has one problem however.  I believe her article illustrates a number of problematic trends in today’s Christian writing, such as the lack of serious engagement with Scripture (which this response addresses extremely well), or the practice of equating anti-traditional strategies for ministry with the way of Jesus, or the practice of equating criticism of anti-traditional strategies for ministry with lifeless Biblicism, or the repudiation of the biblical teaching of the believer's separation from the world, or the redefining of love according to worldly values, among others.  Many faithful brothers and sisters regularly address these trends rather effectively, so I’m not going to address those kinds of things here.  

Rather, there is only one problematic trend in a lot of Christian writing that I wish to point out in this post, in hopes that doing so will help others practice discernment when they read.  This is something that I encourage my friends to watch out for when reading Christian blogs and books these days. 

The trend to watch out for is over-dramatic writing that masks shallow thought and unbiblical theology.

In 1,355 words (by my count) McCarthy presents a purely emotional case for a highly controversial approach to ministry with no references to Scripture, no interaction with a single critical source, no acknowledgment of legitimate objections to what she is advocating, while using loosely defined terms and an extremely casual tone; at no point giving any substantive defense for the ministry she celebrates in her post. 

Consider what McCarthy’s post presents as an exemplary approach for ministering to strippers: Women going into strip clubs, while strippers are on the job, to give them food and gifts while they are objectifying themselves before men, who are sinning against God and their families by paying women to whom they are not married to take off their clothes and dance on their laps, so that they might lust after them and fulfill at least some of their perverted sexual fantasies. 

McCarthy wants for us to believe that Jesus would willingly go into such an environment, armed a basket of sandwiches as if he were going to a family picnic, and that he might do so simply to “freak out” religious people.  She also wants for the church to consider following suit. 

The problem with all of this is simple; not a single text of Scripture, when interpreted according to its plain and original meaning, would lead us to believe such things.  Does Jesus love strippers?  Absolutely.  Biblical text after biblical text would lead us to believe this, such that it’s not even worth a debate.  But to say that Jesus would walk willingly into a strip club during business hours to present scantily clad women with a gift basket is utterly without biblical support.  The only reason one might walk away from McCarthy’s post thinking that Jesus might do such a thing and would want his church to do the same, is because the ideas are presented to us in the form of tears, humor, personal experience, and language that appeals primarily to our emotions rather than to our minds. 

McCarthy’s post, like the writing in so many Christian blogs and books today, works to move the reader’s will, by appealing almost exclusively to the reader’s emotions, and bypassing the reader’s intellect and objective reasoning. 

In doing so, she leaves us with a post that cannot stand up to serious biblical critique. 

What is a “broken” person anyway? 

Take, for example, her mention at the outset of the article of “broken” people.  Near the beginning of her article she writes, “I love people. Especially ones who are broken; it’s part of my calling. But, given what I’ve walked through, I know how fragile broken people can be.

As compassionate and humble and praiseworthy as this may sound, a serious question that McCarthy nowhere answers is, “What exactly is a broken person?” 

Is a broken person a sinner in need of God’s grace?  I could accept that definition.  Yet, by that definition the Bible says we are all broken.  As the Apostle Paul reminds us:

(Romans 3:10-18)  10 as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one;  11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.  12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one."  13 "Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive." "The venom of asps is under their lips."  14 "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness."  15 "Their feet are swift to shed blood;  16 in their paths are ruin and misery,  17 and the way of peace they have not known."  18 "There is no fear of God before their eyes."   

And just a few verses later:

Romans 3:23  all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Or perhaps a broken person is someone who is enslaved to a sinful lifestyle and is lost in unbelief.  Yet, by that definition, wouldn’t all unbelievers qualify?  What sets a stripper apart from your co-worker who is a committed husband and loving father, but who doesn’t know Christ and clearly has a bit of an anger problem?  Or for that matter, what sets a stripper apart from the men objectifying them in the strip club?  Aren’t they broken people too?  I wonder if the pastor-wives gave them a gift basket.  Somehow, I doubt it. 

Or perhaps a broken person is someone who has been abused and mistreated throughout their life, and who feels dirty and shameful to this day as a result.  I know people like that and my heart breaks for them.  Yet, do broken people only work in strip clubs?  And are all strippers broken by this definition?  Why would you assume every stripper is broken in this manner?  Perhaps some have simply lived a reckless and immoral life, feel no shame over it, and see dancing naked as an easy way to make money?  Are they still “broken” if that is the case?  If so, aren’t we back to the previous question?

I hope my point on this is clear.  The only reason we would read McCarthy approvingly for her love of “broken” people, is because we don’t really care what she means by “broken.”  And the only reason we wouldn’t care about a term like that, is because we’ve been sucked in by the rest of her emotionally gripping post. 

One non-negotiable mark of a serious, biblical thinker and communicator is that they address your will through your mind, not your emotions.  Consider how Paul speaks in Romans 6 of the way the Romans were converted and brought to maturity in Christ. 

(Romans 6:17-18)  17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,  18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

Notice, how the Roman Christians come to faith in Christ and experience freedom from sin.  They became “obedient (the will) from the heart (their inner emotional / spiritual life) to the standard of teaching to which [they] were committed.”  Their minds were engaged with the truth, which gripped them internally, and led to a change of life.  That is the mark of any trustworthy Christian teacher.  They don’t seek to manipulate your emotions with subjective experiences and opinons; they seek first to address your mind with the truth. 

McCarthy takes no time whatsoever engaging her readers’ minds with the truth.  She leaps over the mind and appeals directly to the emotions; masking shallow, unbiblical, and easily refuted ideas with flowery, emotional language.  Whether that is her intent or not (and I have no reason to believe it is), it is the effect. 

But McCarthy is by no means alone.  Her style is illustrative of a lot of Christian writing these days, that despite being emotionally stimulating tends to be objectively light, unbiblical, and easily picked apart. 

Christians need better than this.  We should demand better than this.  But perhaps if fewer people read this kind of stuff, we would naturally get less and less of it in the future.  Here’s hoping to that.  Perhaps this little post will help in some small way to reverse this troublesome trend.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Planting and Waiting: Ministry in a Nutshell

Planting and waiting.  That, I am learning, is the essence of biblical ministry.  It is perhaps the most important lesson I have been learning over the last few years, at least as it concerns my life as a pastor. 

Of all the things that I long to see happen in, around, and as a result of my ministry, I have no power whatsoever to make happen.  I cannot save a single soul.  I cannot make a single Christian more like Christ.  I cannot cause a single saint to endure to the end of his life in faithfulness to Christ.  

Beyond these things, I cannot heal a single marriage.  I can’t make a single husband love his wife as Christ loved the church, nor can I give a wife with a difficult husband the grace to submit to him as the church submits to Christ. 

Just as difficult of a pill to swallow is the fact that I cannot heal people of physical maladies and diseases.  The woman suffering with chronic pain.  The elderly widow with a painful sore that just won’t heal.  The faithful deacon with Parkinson’s disease.  The thirty-year-old father with brain cancer.  I can’t heal anyone, nor can I enable the suffering saint to trust God in his pain.  

And I hate to break it to you, dear reader, but neither can you.  

The list of things I cannot do, of fruit that I cannot produce, and of results I cannot guarantee, is endless.  If my inabilities and limitations filled my resume, I'd be a superstar, and so would you.  

It reminds me of one of the many parables Jesus taught throughout his earthly ministry, one that is only found in Mark’s Gospel account.  The passage is Mark 4:26-29, which reads:

26 And he said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.  27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.  28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.  29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."  (Mark 4:26-29 ESV)

The parable is about “a man,” any old man it seems, who throws seed upon the ground and waits for that seed to grow.   More specifically, it is about what the man does from the time that the seed is planted until the time of the harvest.  That is the thrust of this parable.  Its emphasis is upon the importance of the man’s work, after the seed has been planted into the soil.

The parable paints a very ordinary, unremarkable, and unimpressive picture of a farmer between the times of planting and harvest – so ordinary, unremarkable, and unimpressive that it deserves a closer look. 

What does the man do after he plants his seeds into the ground?  Jesus says simply “and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows-- how, he himself does not know.” 

Essentially, the man goes on with his life, waiting for the day of the harvest. 

And what we see is that the harvest comes in its own time.  Farmers get this.  It is not until “the crop permits” (v. 29) that the man is able to put it in the sickle.  From the time that the seed is planted into the ground, to the time that the crop is ready for harvest – the man can’t really do anything to bring about the growth of the seed but go to bed, and get up in the morning, and then do that all over again. 

From the time the man puts the seed into the ground to the time that the crop is ready for harvesting, the man has to wait – because the process of growth is ultimately outside of his control.     

Now, also not to be missed is where Jesus tells us that the purpose of this parable is to teach us something about the Kingdom of God.  “The Kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil…” (4:26).  In this case he is telling those in his audience, at least generally speaking, what this parable is about.  It has to do with the Kingdom of God.

Often times when we see Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of God in the Gospels, he is referring to the future Kingdom of God as it will be established on the earth.  Often times when Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he’s not speaking in generic terms, simply about the reign of God over his people (though at times that is the sense in various biblical writers); he is referring to the day when God’s Kingdom breaks fully into human history and God renews the whole creation, rescues his people from all of their enemies, and judges his enemies once and for all through the Messiah.  It is a future Kingdom.  A Messianic Kingdom established on the earth at the end of history. 

This parable is about the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on the earth; God’s glorious end for history and the world.  Jesus, here in this parable, as He often does, is pointing down the corridor of time to that glorious day. 

Even more specifically, in this parable Jesus is showing the relationship between those who proclaim the Gospel and the establishment of that Kingdom on the earth.  It is the nature of the relationship between Kingdom workers and the establishment of the Kingdom on the earth that Jesus is teaching about here.  And what he is saying is that just like the man who sows seed into the ground, all we can do apart from taking the Gospel to people, is trust in the mysterious, sovereign and faithful work of God and wait for the harvest to come according to God’s perfect will.  That’s the relationship between our work and the establishment of God’s Kingdom on the earth. 

In the parable, our role in bringing about God’s Kingdom amounts very simply to planting seed and waiting for the harvest.

That, I believe is as simple of a description of my job as you could find in the Bible.  What do I do?  I plant seed and I wait for the harvest.  

Yet, this is also a very simple description of any active, Kingdom-minded ChristianAll of Christian ministry could be boiled down to these two basic activities; planting and waiting.  

Planting:  Mark 4:26

The first thing we see Jesus say is that “the Kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil” (4:26).  Now, if we read this parable in light of the others, the most reasonable understanding for what it means to scatter seed here is to simply proclaim the Gospel – just as it meant in the parable of the soils earlier in Mark 4.

This is a picture of a disciple of Jesus in some of the simplest terms, as one who throws the seed of the Gospel onto the soil of the human heart.  He’s being intentionally generic here, I believe, when he says, A man…casts seed upon the soil.”  A man.  Any man.  Any Christian.  Kingdom workers are simply those who cast seed upon the soil.  

It’s the pastor preaching the Bible faithfully to the saints week after week, Sunday after SundayIt's the faithful evangelist sharing the Gospel in season and out of season with the unbelievers in his life, whether at work, in his neighborhood, or at home.  It’s the children’s Sunday School teacher seeking to share the Gospel in simple, meaningful ways to seven year olds.  It’s the stay-at-home mom introducing a big and gracious God to her pre-schooler, hoping to lay a foundation of truth in the lives of her children, so that they might be spared years of sinful rebellion against the God who created them. 

It’s the mature Christian man getting together regularly with a young husband and father at a local coffee shop to help him grow in Christ.  It’s the Christian woman sitting down with one of her spiritual sisters to carefully point out sin in her life in an effort to help her repent and be restored to fellowship with Christ and his church.  It's the teenager looking for opportunities to talk about what God is doing in her life, and to tell her friends that Jesus is a real and living Savior. 

Kingdom work is a Christian casting the seed of the Gospel revealed in the Bible, upon the soil of the human heart…actively, carefully, and liberally. 

This doesn’t mean that all of Jesus' followers will be proclaiming the Gospel in the same ways and in the same places; it simply means that in the various arenas of life in which God has placed them, Christ’s followers will be seeking to scatter the seed of the Gospel.

This is really important for us to remember, since there are many voices these days who so heavily emphasize the importance of deed-focused ministries that Word-focused ministry is relegated to a category of secondary importance, as if what people need is not ultimately the seed of the Gospel, but the water of human kindness.  

Yet, without the seed of the Gospel, water only floods the ground.  John Piper put it so well a recent message at a student missions conference, when he made this statement:  “There are a thousand needs in the world, and none of them compares to the global need for the gospel.”  So true.  There is no act more loving and more Kingdom-minded than to seek to effectively plant the seed of the God’s Word into the soil of a human heart.  

Beyond this ministry of planting, however, all we can really do is wait; wait for God’s eternal purposes to be fulfilled, in God’s own time and God’s own way. 

Waiting:  Mark 4:27-29

Look at what the man does after he has sown the seed.  Jesus says that he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows-- how, he himself does not know. 

Some interpreters take the man who sows seed here to be Jesus.  I can’t see how this could possibly be Jesus, because the way that this man is described here, makes it seem like his activity after planting the seeds is fairly irrelevant, at least as it concerns the final growth of the crop.  So, Jesus just goes to bed and gets up?  That’s all he does? Jesus has no idea how the seed grows?  Jesus is dependent upon the crop to finally come forth?  Jesus doesn’t play a role in the establishment of the Kingdom?  Surely, this is not a description of Jesus.  

But that is a perfect description of Jesus’ disciples; of us.  All we can do is plant seed.  But we have no ability to ensure that when the seed is planted that it will produce a harvest.

In the same way, we don’t bring in the Kingdom.  And if we read our Bibles carefully, we’ll learn that we don’t build the Kingdom either.  We don’t advance the Kingdom.  We don’t usher in the Kingdom.  We don’t establish the Kingdom. 

So many of the terms so commonly used to describe the relationship between our work and the coming of God’s Kingdom are found nowhere in the Bible.  And this is because the Kingdom of God is not our Kingdom!  It’s God’s Kingdom.  He builds it.  He advances it.  He ushers it in.  He establishes it.  Not us. 

Herman Ridderbos puts it extremely well in his book The Coming of the Kingdom (despite the fact that I’d differ with the framework of his eschatology): 

“[The] absolutely theocentric character of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ preaching…implies that its coming consists entirely in God’s own action and is perfectly dependent on his activity.  The kingdom of God is not a state or condition, not a society created and promoted by men (the doctrine of the ‘social gospel’).  It will not come through an immanent earthly evolution, nor through moral action; it is not men who prepare it for God.  All such thoughts mean a hopelessly superficial interpretation of the tremendous thought of the fullness and finality of God’s coming as king to redeem and to judge.” (p. 23)

Our ability to affect the coming of the Kingdom of God begins and ends with the proclamation of the truth.  Apart from that, we can do nothing but wait. 

What does this mean?  It means that the Kingdom is going to come in God’s timing and in God’s way.  It will not come about as a result of our ingenuity or our initiative.  It won’t come as a result of our work, or our engagement in society, or our involvement in the world.  Every ounce of Kingdom fruit that we will ever see or taste for ourselves will come as the result of the sovereign power and authority and wisdom of God.  The Kingdom will not come as a result of our effort, it won’t come in our timing, and it won’t be established by our sweat.  The Kingdom will come whenever God has determined. 

As the Apostle Paul put so memorably:  “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7 ESV).

Only God can take the seed of the Gospel and cause it to germinate in the heart of a sinner.  Only God can take a sinner and give him a new nature and make him a new creation in Christ.  Only God can forgive sins.  Only God can reconcile man to himself.  Only God can justify and sanctify sinners.  Only God can promise and give eternal life.  Only God can rescue his saints.  Only God can defeat the devil.  Only God can judge the wicked.  Only God can establish his Kingdom on the earth.  Only God can make a New Heaven and a New Earth….

Are you getting the picture?  Everything we long for, only God can do.  Everything we hope for, only God can fulfill.  Every promise made, only God can keep. 

And so, what are we to do?  We plant the seed of the Gospel, scattering it whenever and wherever we can.  Then, we go to bed, sleep on the soft pillow of God’s sovereignty, get up in the morning, and do it all over again.   

That’s ministry in a nutshell.  A very ordinary, unremarkable, and unimpressive sort of thing.  And yet, God promises to use it to bring about a glorious harvest.  Until then, we keep planting the seed and seeking to grow more patient and more prayerful, trusting our good God until the time of the harvest.