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The fourth, and currently last volume, in Nick Needham’s history of the church (2000 Years of Christ’s Power) is entitled The Age of Religious Conflict. This volume covers the 16th to 18th centuries. Just as the early church struggled with conflict within, so the post-reformational church struggled with conflict within. This book still includes some conflict between the branches of the church (particularly in the section on Eastern Orthodoxy).

This volume acknowledges the help of old friend Keith Mathison. It does change the format slightly which threw me off when approaching it. The major sections of chapters are numbered and start on new pages as if they were themselves chapters. This briefly messed with my reading schedule. A tiny, inconsequential thing.

He addresses these conflicts in Lutheranism, the Reformed Church (continental), England, Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church (centered on France) and the Eastern Orthodox Church (centered on Russia). The focus is on England which occupies two chapters in the volume. Throw in Scotland and you have 3 chapters on the British Isles. He does have 2 chapters on Roman Catholicism as well. We see the book is heavily weighted toward Protestantism and particularly light on Eastern Orthodoxy. Thankfully he does cover EO, which so many histories seem to neglect after 1054.

One conflict that runs throughout the book is the relationship between church and state. We’ve seen this conflict before, particularly between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. Now it unfolds in a number of nations as various kings and tsars want to control the church and various popes, patriarchs and archbishops want to either be free from state control or control the state. It seems that no good equilibrium could ever and can ever be achieved. The conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman will always be played out on this field of battle until King Jesus returns to set all things right. To those willing to listen, there is much that applies to their particular situation. The quest for power and control exacts a great toll.

A second conflict that runs through much of the book is the place of Augustinian theology in the life of the church. The questions of human depravity and election rise in each of these church bodies. I think this illustrates for us the importance of this question as one that should captivate the church.

In Lutheranism, the death of Luther meant it lost its earthly center, the figure who drew all the strands together. The theological tensions, understandably, began to pull the church apart. Such a focus on theological controversies led many to view them as falling into dead orthodoxy. Pietism rose to call people to faith and sound practice, not the pursuit of theological subtleties. In the midst of this was the Thirty Years’ War which ravaged northern Europe. The root of the war was state control of the church. In one of those ironies of real life, Catholic France supported the Protestants against the Holy Roman Emperor in order to weaken him and gain power for France. War can create strange bedfellows and alliances.

Image result for synod of dort

Synod of Dort

In the Reformed church there were two theological controversies that occupied most of the energy: Arminianism and Amyraldianism. Surprisingly he didn’t trace the shifts in the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper very much. I say surprising because it was a frequent topic in the 3 previous volumes. The first of these controversies had some sort of settlement at the Synod of Dort. This did not put an end to Arminianism, of course. Much of Protestantism is Arminian today.

The lesser known and understood conflict was a result of the teaching of Moise Amyraut: Amyraldianism. He was the son of Huguenots. He was no stranger to controversy. Some political (refusing to kneel before King Louis XIII since Roman clergy didn’t have to) and some theological. At a time when the Huguenots were an oppressed minority, the battle over his theology split them as a kind of civil war. This civil war spread to England and other branches of the Reformed church.

Since this controversy is less known I will try to briefly summarize. Amyraut was distressed that many in Reformed theology held to double predestination and the idea that God created much of humankind for the purpose of damnation. Being in France, he was sensitive to the (mis)characterizations of Calvinism by French Catholics. He saw himself as rescuing the Huguenots from this caricature of God as “capricious, unjust, and unloving.” He viewed election in light of the cross instead of the cross in light of election. Therefore, Jesus did not die to save the elect, but died for all humanity. Salvation was conditioned upon faith. Since faith is not possible for fallen sinners, God elected some to salvation. In some ways this is a quibble about the order of decrees (which in my opinion is part of the secret things referred to in Deut. 29:29). In my opinion he presents a very confused God. This view is sometimes called the hypothetical atonement. He’s trying to walk a mediating position between Augustinianism/Calvinism and Arminianism. To me it seems an untenable position- logically unstable and unable to stand long before lapsing into greater problems.

In England there would be a literal civil war as various kings sought to control the church. England has some who wanted an Episcopal church, whether of Arminian or Calvinist leanings, some who wanted a Presbyterian church of England with a solid Calvinist bent. The Independents wanted religious freedom so that England could have Episcopal, Presbyterian and Congregational churches who held to Arminian or Calvinist views. As mentioned, Needham spends two chapters laying out the groundwork for the civil war, the war itself, life under Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy which again ruled the Church of England too. In many ways this is a sad tale as so much blood was spilled to accomplish essentially nothing. Christians should be wary of taking up arms for the sake of faith (see the Thirty Years’ War as well).

Scotland had a similar struggle between the Crown Rights of Jesus (church over the state) and the will of a king who wanted to rule the Church of Scotland. We see the rise and fall of the Covenanters who pursued the rights of Jesus and desired a free church in Scotland. At times the Presbyterians won in Scotland. At times kings introduced an episcopal form of government which led to a watering down of the theology of the church. As you consider Scotland’s history of being occupied, any English influence was offensive to them.

Blaise Pascal Versailles.JPG

Blaise Pascal

Needham focuses on France for Roman Catholicism since at this point it had become the most powerful Catholic nation, supplanting Spain. Most of the movements within the Catholic church had their center in France. One of the main controversies was the Jansenist controversy. In a very Jesuit nation which was therefore not friendly toward the influence of Augustine’s view of salvation, a view that was dependent on Augustine would be controversial. The Jansenists were essentially Catholic Calvinists. They still submitted to the Pope and held to the doctrines of transubstantiation and purgatory. But they held to total depravity and election. The most famous Jansenist was French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. The fortunes of Jansenism were often tied to politics. The more power the Jesuits had, the more the pressure on them. When a French king wanted to establish his own power the Jesuit influence waned and Jansenism was able to grow.

What Jacobitism was to the churches in the British Isles, Gallicianism was to France. It was the view that the king of France, not the Pope was the head of the church in France. While there was not outright war, it saw political maneuvering and persecution.

Another controversy that can’t ultimately be separated from the political situation was the growth of Quietism, a form of mysticism that flourished in France for a time. It would fall in and out of favor with kings, surging and shrinking as a result.

In this section he also mentions Jesuit missions to eastern Asia. We see early versions of the Insider Movement as missionaries struggled to be all things to all men. Sometimes they allowed all men to remain in their paganism. Sometimes they required converts to become western. These are struggles that still take place in missions.

Cyril Lucaris 1632 Geneva.jpgAs Needham turns to Eastern Orthdoxy we see various splits form in the church. Some feared the power of the Pope and unification with Rome. They were haunted by the Union of Florence. Seeing the success of Protestants in separating from Rome, some like Cyril Lucaris began to use their methods and some theological distinctives. Cyril is controversial, to say the least. He clearly adopted “total depravity” which affected his view of salvation. His critics claimed he was corrupted by Reformed theology. A quite Protestant sounding confession that bears his name (whose authorship is questionable) was condemned and he was too, if he held to those views expressed that confession.

Others fearing the Protestant leanings or reform of men like Cyril, used the theology and methods of the Jesuits to reform the eastern church. So we find the main reformers in Eastern Orthodoxy at this time drawing on western methods and articulation of doctrine, whether Protestant or Catholic. They weren’t trying to become either but trying to protect Orthodoxy from the corruption of the other.

Since Constantinople was now under the control of the Ottoman Empire and called Istanbul, the Patriarch of Constantinople was under the control of muslims, Moscow grew in power as the “defender of the faith.” We see the same struggles there. Who would be in control: the tsar or the patriarch? With the rise of Peter the Great this was answered once and for all in favor of the state. Peter would also seek to westernize Russia, and the church. We also see a worship war that was far more bloody than ours since it got wrapped up in politics. With the advent of the printing press in Moscow, they discovered variants in liturgies. Their assumption was there was ONE way to worship. So, which was it? Some stuck with the way the Russian church worshiped while others argued they should be worship in accordance with the older Greek liturgies. Our sinful quest for power again corrupts the worship of God and splits the church.

In some ways this was the most difficult volume in the set for me to read. I was familiar with the material covered regarding England and Scotland, so I didn’t learn as much. Due to my existential realities, reading about all the conflict was less than pleasant. One thing is clear is that the Church desperately needs Christ. She so quickly lapses into conflict, splitting over points great and small. She is ceaselessly attracted to power.

This is not to say this wasn’t worth reading. It is an excellent series and this is a very good volume in this set. This is helpful reading for pastors and lay leaders. It is good reading for anyone with an interest in history. Written by a Protestant, this much more information about Eastern Orthodoxy than you are used to seeing. It helps balance our perspective on the Church, and that is a great thing.

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Another vacation means reading another volume in the “Theologians on the Christian Life” series of books. So far I’ve read the volumes on Newton, Luther, Bavink and Edwards. I enjoy these books tremendously as they interact not just with their theology but also their practice.

This summer I chose Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever written by Michael Horton. I had some hesitancy about this volume. I haven’t read any Horton in years having grown weary of polemical theology, and not finding his expressions of two-kingdom theology all that helpful. I always seemed to be left saying “And?” when he talked about it.

This book was a pleasant surprise. It was a little more weighted toward theology than some of the others, but that theology was a necessary background to understanding how Calvin viewed life in Christ. There was a good progression of thought throughout the book. There were no exceedingly long chapters. There were plenty of quotes from Calvin and others who have produced volumes on his life and thought to make Horton’s points. I found it to be an edifying and encouraging volume in this series.

As he notes, Calvin’s was a very different time. The Reformation had been spreading throughout Europe and nation-states were gaining some measure of independence from the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Emperor. Like today there were many political and religious refugees in Europe, and many of them made their way to Geneva. In the religious reforms they were still in the process of sorting out how to implement what they believed. Calvin was one of the people working to bring the Protestants together as some differences seemed to be driving them apart.

Church was a central part of life with daily services part of many people’s routine or rhythm of life. It was a less distracted time, even if sin still found its way to manifest itself abundantly. As a result of this, some of how Calvin viewed the Christian life is anachronistic, or at least seems to be to us with personal devices, long commutes, mass media and more. Christian living, while personal, was far more public than we see today.

As one of the great figures in the Reformation we tend to think he was a parochial as we can be. There was no “Reformed tradition” or heritage for Calvin to draw upon. He drew upon the larger tradition of the Church, eastern and western. He was influenced, not only by Augustine, but also by Chrysostom, Cyprian, Irenaeus, and Bernard of Clairvoux among others. He interacted with Luther and Melanchthon to find common ground. He was not impressed with Zwingli. He spent time during his exile with Bucer and found that a great benefit. He influenced many of the next generation of leaders, like John Knox. Calvin was not an innovator but a man who lived as part of a theological community that exceeded his geography and time.

Horton begins where the Institutes begins: the knowledge of God and self. We were made to be in relationship with God and to reflect or reveal His glory as His image. So, to know God is to know ourselves in greater measure even if we see what we are not. Calvin was no fan of speculative theology. We cannot know God in the abstract, but know Him in Christ who came in the flesh to exegete the Father. We know God through His works, and so we recognize the divine drama or great Story of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Glorification. All of Scripture reveals this larger Story. We see some differences between how the Reformers and Roman Catholicism viewed general revelation and common grace. He saw our depravity going deeper so that no one was neutral when examining our world and/or doing theology. The pursuit of truth is distorted by our depravity. General revelation is not simply a “dimmer light but a different light than special revelation” because it does not speak of redemption.

Like Luther, Calvin was a theologian of the cross rather than a theologian of glory. God is known through Christ, and Him crucified. We do not seek to climb “ladders of speculation, merit and mystical experience” to gain union with God. Rather we are united to Christ crucified and resurrected for us to gain knowledge of God.

In this great drama there are actors and a plot. Here Horton explains that for Calvin the solas of the Reformation were a fabic, not independent statements. Similar to TULIP which was formulated long after Calvin’s death, they stand or fall together. Scripture is our final authority because it is God speaking to us about the Son through the inspiration and illumination of the Spirit. The great actor is the Triune God, not merely dogma but “the heart of reality in which we live and move and have our being.” The Incarnation of the Son reminds us that matter is good, not evil. That there is nothing inherently sinful about humanity itself despite its weakness and limitations. Our sinfulness is tied to being “in Adam” not simply being human. So Calvin did not hold to a Spirit-matter dualism as did medieval Rome and early Anabaptists. Rather, God made matter and uses it to His good purposes. One application of this is that the Spirit works thru the Word, contrary to the views of the Anabaptists and other fanatics.

The other actors in this are people, and so Horton moves quickly through Calvin’s anthropology. He is always contrasting this with the views of Rome expressed through the medieval church. This brings us to providence and grace as God works to redeem fallen humanity. Horton contrasts providence with the Stoic notion of fatalism. We see a God at work to redeem us, not a people who seek to redeem themselves. We see people who are lifted up by a Redeemer, not who lift themselves up by their bootstraps. We see people who are sought (and found) by God though they hide in the bushes, not people who seek after a God who hides. When we grasp both providence and grace, our circumstances are not punishment from a Judge but instruction from a Father who seeks to mold and shape us.

“Properly speaking, God is not angry with his elect, whose diseases he cures by afflictions as it were by medicines.”

From here, Horton proceeds to Christ the Mediator who came to us and for us. He uses a phrase that will be used often within the book, here with reference to His two natures: “distinction without separation”. This is a difficult formula to maintain but it was the heart of the Chalcedonian formula which made its way through Calvin’s theology. This formula, and how it is understood, was a key in the disagreements about the Lord’s Table that separated the Protestants. Horton’s comments on this are quite helpful.

As the Mediator, Jesus does not merely provide assistance to us but saves us to the uttermost. Yet, we live in the gap between inauguration and consummation, the already and not yet tension is at the heart of Calvin’s spirituality. Our salvation is received in union with Christ. We don’t receive His benefits so much as Christ Himself. He brings all those benefits with Him. They are distinct but without separation because we don’t have a divided Christ. Horton distinguishes these benefits in another chapter. They include effectual calling, justification, sanctification, and adoption. He always distinguishes the Protestant view from the Roman view, particularly as expressed in the Council of Trent.

With this heavier theology out of the way, Horton moves into life in the Body of Christ. Our Christian living is not a private thing, but one that is lived in the context of the Christian community. This is important for our individualistic society to hear so we can be freed from the shackles of a privatized faith. For Calvin it was corporate worship (Word, sacrament & prayer) that fed our personal worship (Word & prayer), and not the other way around. Corporate worship is where we learn how to read the Word and pray. We apply that in our personal and family worship. Community has precedence over individual. This is a radical statement today. Yet at we look at love and the fruit of the Spirit we see they all require others. The Trinity is an eternal community or fellowship of love. We have been made in God’s image to be a community or fellowship of love, not simply a periodic gathering of saved individuals.

This plays out in seeking grace in public worship, not medieval spirituality. We do not ascend to God, but Christ descended to us. We do not seek seclusion like the monks and nuns, but live in Christ in the midst of the world. Horton speaks of Calvin’s views of the preached Word, baptism, confession of sin (a good thing in worship!) and the Lord’s Table.

“The only way to serve God well is to serve our fellow believers. Since our good deeds cannot reach God anyway, he gives us instead other believers unto whom we can do good deeds. The one who wants to love God can do so by loving the believers.”

Horton continues with worship, discussing visual representations and music. These are some of Calvin’s more controversial views regarding worship today. While I want to keep the images of Christ out of our worship, I don’t want to keep the instruments out. I don’t see how they are part of the shadows and ceremonies. I see instruments in the heavenly visions of Revelation. If they are symbolic, what do they symbolize (it notes the singing, so….)? Music seems circumstantial to me. We don’t have any “authorized” tunes. So we waste our time, energy and breath arguing over such things. I’m sure God is more concerned with whether I strummed my guitar for him or myself, or if you listened to the instruments for his glory or simply your pleasure, than whether or not the corporate worship used instruments or not. But I digress.

Horton then brings us to Calvin’s view of prayer as the chief exercise of faith. Horton notes “true worship consists not in outward rights but in casting ourselves on the Father’s gracious care in Christ and by his Spirit.” He interacts with God’s providence and prayer so that prayer is one of the instrumental means of God’s providence. For Calvin prayer was “to the Father, in the Son and by the Spirit.” Our union with Christ also means that we do not pray alone but that Christ is praying not just for us, but with us. Our prayers are an echo of His prayers for us, we are following His lead because of the work of the Spirit in us resulting from our union.

You can’t talk exhaustively about Christian living without touching upon the Law of God. Horton brings in Calvin’s views in the tenth chapter. Like Luther, Calvin utilized a law and gospel distinction. “Calvin also appropriated Melanchton’s threefold use of the law.” The Law drives us to Jesus as He is presented to us in the Gospel. As justified people, the law shows us the pattern of holiness the Son wants to create in us by the Spirit. Law and gospel are distinct but not separate. Christians hear the law as the words of a Father, not a Judge; wisdom and guidance, not condemnation; and cry out to the same Father to help them walk in this way that pleases Him. Horton then summarizes Calvin’s view of these “house rules” expressed in the Ten Commandments.

Horton then addresses this new society, the church, as a theater of God’s fatherly care. Christian living includes finding a faithful church and making disciples. In church we are fed and guided by pastors and elders. We receive God’s hospitality from the deacons. Horton explains Calvin’s view of elements and circumstances regarding worship and how legalism turns circumstances into binding elements. License turns elements into circumstances. “Thus, the Reformer could see even among elements a ranking order, prizing unity over polity. Here we see a man of principle, to be sure, but among the principles was love. While wanting to obey everything that Christ commanded, he realized that not everything was equally clear or equally important.” And so my comments on music.

“Even when the church lies in ruins, we still love the heap of ruins.”

This new society exists, just as our original parents did, for a mission. For the creation mandate to be fulfilled, the Great Commission must be fulfilled. The church exists to make Christ as He is presented to us in the Gospel known, and to teach people to obey Him. The circumstances of the day meant that the Roman Catholic nations controlled the seas. But Geneva sent missionaries throughout Europe, many of whom died in France. The church brings Christ to the world.

We not only live in the church, but we live in the world. Here Horton explores Calvin’s view of the relationship of church and state, and Calvin’s understanding of the two kingdoms. There is discussion of moral law and its reflection in natural law. Christians don’t retreat from the world, nor do they think they can save the world (or creation) through “social justice”. This doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t seek justice within our spheres of influence, but we have realistic expectations, goals and agendas. It also makes no sense to focus on race relations in society unless we are addressing them in the church. We don’t focus on sins in one kingdom while ignoring them in God’s kingdom. (My thoughts there)

We offer our gifts and abilities to the world, and the church, in terms of our vocation. The sacred-secular distinction has minimized the value of a layperson’s work in the world. Work that helps others survive or flourish is valuable work, not merely legitimate work. Jobs have value not simply as opportunities for evangelism, but for loving others by providing goods that enrich life. This is a big part of Christian living.

Lastly Horton ends with contemplation of glorification. We are not escaping the material world, but longing for freedom from sin; ours and others against us. We live in the not yet with regard to sin. This is intended to shape our lives in the already.

Horton lays before us a very thorough look at Calvin’s understanding of the Christian life. We exist for God, and to enjoy God. This means we live before the face of God at home, at work and at church. We live before the face of God and experience His grace because of Christ our Mediator in whom we experience all God’s blessings. Christian living is not about trying to attain God’s grace, but receiving it so we can glorify & enjoy Him. This was a great addition to the series.

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For the World: Essays in Honor of Richard L. Pratt Jr. is reflective of Richard’s life and ministry in many ways. First, the subject matter is diverse: Biblical and Theological Studies, Ministry & Missions, Ministry Training & Theological Education. These are the diverse areas of Richard’s work and ministry. Second, the authors compiled by Holcomb and Lucke are also diverse in ways that reflect Richard’s ministry. There are seminary professors and academicians, missionaries, and a counselor. There is also ethnic and gender diversity as well. There are people I know and studied with, and those I’ve never heard of before.

I don’t know the circumstances and commitments of other people but I was disappointed to not see chapters by R.C. Sproul and Chuck DeGroat among others. This reflects the fact that I wish this was longer. For instance this book is 184 pages but the book in John Frame’s honor is over 1,000 pages. Somewhere in between would have been an improvement on an already good book. But let’s focus on what is there.

The book begins with a chapter surveying Richard’s life. I will use Richard because that is what he wanted us to call him. He is one of the two people I’ve allowed to call me “Stevie”. Richard was definitely the most popular professor on campus. As a result, I tended to talk with other professors more often. I am thankful for those relationships. Still, while reading this chapter (shortly after reading a biography of Dr. Nicole) I was struck by the great men that I have been privileged to know: Dr. Nicole, Richard, R.C. and Saul Cruz. In retrospect I wish I had pursued them more. I’m not sure why but surely my own insecurity and shame issues: why would THEY want to invest in me? These men, and others you have never heard of, have been used by God to invest in me. For this I am thankful.

The diversity of the subject matter is both a blessing and a curse. There were some subjects with which I was unfamiliar (and many other readers may be) and therefore I didn’t quite have the pegs to hang the info on yet (hey, just like the first year of seminary). It is very good to learn new things, but some people may similarly feel lost at times. Other chapters were great reminders of the things Richard taught us (particularly Monica Taffinder’s chapter) and delved into the why’s and how’s of his method (Scott Redd’s chater). Other chapters expressed an extension of Richard’s sometimes radical ideas with regard to theological education (Michael Briggs, John Frame and Gregory Perry) with which I generally agree with Richard.

The chapters that I found most helpful were the aforementioned chapters by Monica and Scott Redd, as well as those by Reggie Kidd, Justin Holcomb, David Correa and Simon Vibert. Overall the book touches on a variety of topics helpful for those in ministry and missions: prayer, hermeneutics, counseling etc. This is not just a helpful addition if you were one of his students, but particularly if you weren’t.

One (unintended?) consequence for me was regret that I didn’t take ITS (Introduction to Theological Studies) which was instituted in my middler year so I could take other electives. This may be rectified, so to speak, as I plan on watching some of the Third Millennium materials.

 

 

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The other day a congregant asked me a question about tongues since someone was encouraging them to “use their gifts.” Today I was turning to Augustine’s Homilies on the Gospel of John for my sermon. I neglected to read it last week and decided to play catch up instead of skipping over it since it was a great text.

37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. John 7

In the course of Homily 32, Augustine moves in a direction I did not anticipate: tongues. He went there because he clarified that the Spirit was given at Pentecost. The point was should we expect a similar experience as they had. This is a question that continues 1,600+ years later.

Just because nowadays those who are being baptized in Christ and who believe in Christ do not speak in the languages of all nations, is it to be assumed that they have not received the Holy Spirit? No such lack of faith should tempt our heart. We are certain that everyone receives him; but whatever size vessel of faith you bring to the fountain is filled up.

First, let us note that “speaking in tongues” was not common in Augustine’s day. He understood the languages which they spoke to be human languages the speaker did not know. These were not “heavenly languages” as some seem to teach. Speaking in tongues, he says, is not the or a sign that someone has received the Holy Spirit.

Early Pentecostals, believing that the tongues in Acts 2 were earthly languages, believed they would receive this gift while on the mission field. It didn’t happen. Now Pentecostals and Charismatics typically believe they speak in a heavenly language taking Paul’s hypothetical in 1 Corinthians 13 as reality.

“Well, since then he is received nowadays too,” somebody may say, “why is no one speaking in the languages of all nations?” Because now the Church speaks in the languages of all peoples. Previously the Church was to be found in one people, when it was speaking in the languages of all. By speaking with the languages of all it was signifying what was going to happen, that by growing among peoples, it would speak everyone’s language.

His argument was that only one people at the time, Israel, had the Gospel. The Church was comprised on one nation, Israel. The Gospel was about to go to the nations, and they could come into the Church (grafted in and joining, not replacing!). At that time the Church needed the gift of tongues, Augustine is arguing, to speak to the nations represented in the crowd there. With the Gospel and therefore the Church spreading to the known world in Augustine’s time, it now spoke all those languages. God no longer needed to give the gift of tongues.

The Church spread throughout the nations is speaking with all tongues; the Church is the body of Christ, you are a member in this body; so then, since you are a member in his body, which is speaking with all tongues, confidently believe that you are speaking with all languages.

Since you are united to the body, he argues, you therefore speak in all languages.

There is much to like about his overall argument. But it is not perfect.

The main weakness is that there are many unreached groups that we have since learned about. No one in the Church speaks their language. One would think that the gift would be “revived” in order to reach these groups. Many a linguistic missionary wishes it was that easy. But we have not seen this happen. We cannot anticipate how Augustine would answer this development after his death. It is an interesting view held by one of the great theologians and during the early centuries of the Church.

Other books of interest on this matter would include Gaffin’s Perspectives on Pentecost and Stott’s Baptism and Fullness. On my shelf is a copy of Anthony Hoekema’s What About Speaking in Tongues? that I’ve been meaning to get to for years. Maybe soon.

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I have great appreciation for The Swans are Not Silent series by John Piper. Each volume includes 3 character sketches of significant figures in church history. Each  volume has a particular focus that determines the material Piper included and excluded from the volume. They were originally presented at Bethlehem’s Pastors’ Conference. So they are meant to be encouraging as well as convicting.

The 5th volume, which I finally made time to read, is focused on a passage from Colossians 1. It is appropriately called Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ: the Cost of Bringing the Gospel to the Nations… .

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.

I was preaching on this passage and decided it would be a good move to read it. In the introduction, he asserts that Paul’s point is not merely that we suffer on account of the gospel, but for the benefit of the proclamation of the gospel. The introduction has some good material to help you think through this passage.

“One of the most sobering discoveries of my life is that God spreads the life-giving news about Jesus Christ by means of suffering and martyrdom.”

(more…)

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My ‘relationship’ with John Newton was a slowly developing affair. I’m sure you’ve had friendships like that. You meet a person, don’t think much of them at the time. Slowly you begin to see more of them. You see your common interests, and their strengths, previously hidden, come to light. Your appreciation grows.

That is my relationship with Newton. Ah, he wrote a few hymns, that’s nice. Over the years people shared some of his letters. I got to know a little bit more of his life. I read Piper’s short account of his life and bought The Letters of John Newton and Wise Counsel. Over time he has become one of my heroes in the faith. His importance to the church and the world is matched by few.

John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace attempts to let us in on the ‘secret’ that is the life of John Newton. The book is easy to read, with short chapters that fit into busy schedules.  Aitken does not hide from us the sinfulness and brokenness of the young Newton. He was the son of a captain whose mother died when he was young. Her gospel influence gone, he often lived with relatives while his father was at sea. He would follow in his father’s footsteps, but soon earned a reputation as being a despicable human being. He was a piece of work, as they say. Some of the words used to describe him would be blasphemer, fornicator, obstinate rabble rouser, dabbler in black arts and more.

“For the fourth time on four successive ships, Newton managed to alienate his captain.”

(more…)

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I first read Desiring God in the late 1980’s after hearing about it from someone I knew. I was a young Christian at the time. Like Knowing God, it would be one of the books to lay the foundation for my life as a Christian.  But not all books hold up over time. So I am reviewing the revised edition from the perspective of an older Christian who has read this book a few times. Does it hold up? Why should I bother with a revised edition? Those are the questions I come to the book with.

Does it hold up? Classic books stand the test of time. There are books that are very popular when they are released, but 10 or 20 years later people won’t point to them as significant long term. This is a book people still talk about. This book is chock-full of good theology. Piper not only defends his assertions regarding Christian Hedonism, but he lays out lots of good theology. In other words, his theological distinctive (you can actually see similar teaching in Calvin, Burroughs, Owen and other Reformed pastors, not just Edwards) does not exist in a vacuum.  Piper has to work through the sovereignty of God, the character of God and the nature of salvation. I think I used more ink in my new copy than in my old one.

People often misunderstand his position based on the name. But the point is that a Christian Hedonist seeks their pleasure in God, one of the many things were are commanded to do in Scripture. Piper shows how Scripture not only teaches but feeds Christian Hedonism. He unpacks the doctrine to see how it plays out in marriage, money, missions and more. One subject that is missing would be work (perhaps in the 30th anniversary edition). This is a very practical theology book, but one that is rooted in theology.

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The attempts of missions organizations like Wycliffe to translate the Bible into languages in predominantly Muslim cultures has hit a snag recently.  The Insider Movement was an issue at some General Assemblies this past year.  The issue is about the interface of translation and cultural context.  For Muslims the concept of God the Son is quite troubling and offensive.  When we say that they are importing an meaning that is quite different from what we intend.  They think of it in a most crass sense, as if God the Father was Apollo cavorting with women.

There is a way in which these concerns seem valid on the surface.  If care about success more than faithfulness.  They are not mutually exclusive.  We should want the gospel to prosper, but not at the expense of faithfulness to the message.  This tension plays out in ministry philosophy (I hate using those 2 words together), church growth and more.  Translation principles is not the only place this plays out.

As ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor. 5), we are to faithfully relate the message He has given us to proclaim.  He is far wiser than us, so we should not presume to radically alter the message He has given us in the name of contextualization.  Contextualization is intended to assist meaning, not obscure it.

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Jonah 4 seems to be the key chapter of the book (yes, hard to say for such a short book).  Everything has been pointing to this showdown between God and Jonah.  Yet both Ferguson and Estelle cover this in far too pages.  Ferguson takes 3 (short!) chapters to address it, while Estelle takes one longer one.  What they do say is good, I just hoped for more in light of the multiple chapters written on the other chapters in Jonah.

Here we get to why Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah in the first place- he was afraid God would be merciful!  He didn’t want mercy for the Ninevites?  Is there some person or group of people you don’t want mercy to find?  We all struggle with that.  But Jonah 4 reveals that mystery that Paul discusses in Romans 9-11 which was earlier unveiled in Genesis and Exodus.  God is sovereign in His distribution of mercy- He has mercy upon whom He has mercy, and shall harden whom He shall harden.  Despite Jonah’s fears and misgivings, God has had mercy upon Israel’s enemy!

But it is not just about God’s sovereign mercy toward Ninevah.  It is also about God’s continuing pursuit of Jonah’s heart.  Jonah 4 contrasts God’s responses with Jonah’s.  They are at odds, but God moves toward the once again retreating Jonah.

“But God was not willing to give him up.  That was why, in all likelihood, his misery was so miserable.  Jonah was caught between the vice of his own self-will on the one hand, and and the strong hand of God on the other. … He was bound to remain miserable until either he or God let go.  He knew that God had no intention of giving up!”  Sinclair Ferguson

God illustrates the problem for Jonah.  He provides a vine to provide some needed shade from the sun and the hot east wind (which God also appointed).  It may have been his companion, much like Wilson in Castaway.  The Lord gives …. and the Lord takes away!  He appointed a worm to eat the plant.  Jonah was ticked about the demise of this plant.  The word of the Lord came to Jonah a 3rd time!  Jonah was again confronted with the need to either commit himself to God’s purposes or to disobey.

Ferguson continues with this internal struggle in Jonah, relating them to the common missionary experience.  Proper doctrine is not enough, and is not the same as love for Christ.  Jonah had orthodox doctrine, but his heart was not in line with God’s.  Like the commom missionary experience, the pressures of the task brings out the worst in them.  Ferguson quotes a missionary-

“I never knew what a heart of stone and filth I had until I went overseas.”

The key, for Ferguson, is how we react to hardship.  This is a better barometer of where we are.  How do we react to failure, rejection, affliction etc.?  He then talks about success from the life of Martin Luther.  After seeing the progress of the gospel in significant ways “the devil rode his back.”  He experienced great temptation and affliction.  Dan Allender talked about this on a visit to RTS Orlando some years ago.  Elijah experienced a deep depression after his showdown with the prophets of Baal.  Our reaction reveals how much more progress the gospel needs to make in our own hearts.

Another issue Ferguson takes up is the rise in nationalism.  Sadly, Christians (and denominations) are often more American, or British or Kenyan than they Christian.  They are shaped more by their culture and national agenda than by the gospel.  We can care more about how our country propers than about whether or not the gospel prospers around the world.  Like Jonah, we can be more concerned with our comfort than the salvation of anyone.

I was reminded of this last night and this morning.  I returned home from vacation to discover I had no phone (digital), no internet and no digital cable.  A power surge had wiped out my cable modem and DVR.  A minor inconvenience, even the DVR’d movies I’d planned on watching while the family was away.  This morning I discovered my old laptop was also knocked out by the surge.  I had not backed it up before leaving, so months worth of photos, updates to resumes, questionaires were lost.  I can’t apply for a position from home now.  I was surprisingly non-apopyletic.  I was reminded- the Lord gives, the Lord takes away…

I need to remember that many people like the Ninevites are around me.  They are trapped in sin, and don’t know how to get out.  They need people like me to instruct them in all Christ has done to save sinners like us.  We must keep in mind that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, and that He now sends us out to tell other sinners of His saving acts.

Sinclair Ferguson ends his book with a bit of a surprise.  He notes, again, that Jonah is biographical.  What we read here really happened.  But he says it operates like a parable (he calls it a parable).  What he means is that the story ends without Jonah’s response to God.  It is ambiguous precisely because Jonah represents us all.  We struggle with the same issues he did.  The point becomes, what will you do?  Will you embrace all that Christ has done for you both in His earthly ministry, and the special providences of His heavenly ministry has He pursues us?  Will we embrace His call and Commission?  Or will we  remain blinded by our selfishness and prejudices?  The ambiguous ending of Jonah puts the ball back in our court, so to speak.  Having heard, what shall we do?

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Let me tell you a story ….

Years ago in Orlando I was the member of a church that was beginning a capital fund raising program to move across the street into a huge new facility.  They thought it would take $5-6 million.  I met the pastor for lunch one day.  I asked him about the abandoned super-market next door: might make a good sanctuary and office space.  Apparently his deacons didn’t think it looked like a church.  I thought it would save lots of money.  “What about planting a church?”  I was not expecting the response I got.

He claimed you needed to have a membership of 3-400 to plant a new church and not “harm” the mother church.  “So, you’re telling me we have to spend $5-6 million to get a congregation large enough to think about planting a church?”  He said yes.

Since then I’ve seen churches committed to church planting rather than endless building programs.  I worshipped in one today that has planted 3 churches so far.

The authors of Total Church think this should be the rule rather than the exception.  I agree.

“Church planting puts mission at the heart of church and church at the heart of mission.”

It is too easy for churches to lose sight of vision and mission in order to maintain and sustain a bulding and programs.  Churches move into a maintenance mode, so they plateau and eventually decline.  But a gospel community is one for which growth is a commitment.  And a natural expression of that growth is the planting of new churches.

“But mission very easily becomes one activity among others in church life.  It sits on the agenda alongside a list of other items, vying for attention.  Or it is left to the enthusiasts to get on with it at the edge of church life.  For some churches mission seems a distant dream as they struggle to keep the institution of the church afloat.  Putting on a weekly service is challenge enough.”

Sounds strange, why go all the trouble to convert and mature those Christians if you’re going to send them off to start a new church?  Sounds just like a family.  You have and raise kids so they can go and start their own families.  It is part of the natural growth process God has established for your household … and His.  Building His kingdom (instead of ours) means having His priorities and passions of mission instead of ours.

The Book of Acts reveals to us that God’s priorities are for new Christians and new churches- worldwide.  Most of that book is taken up with Paul’s missionary journeys, which resulted in new churches.  The church is God’s mission strategy: locally and globally.  Remember, Paul and Barnabas were sent out by the church to form new churches (not merely convert individual sinners).  Gospel communities want to beget new gospel communities, just like families want to beget new families at least if they are healthy.

Not only that, but it takes it back out of the realm of “programs” and into the very rhythm of life.  It is no longer a “special event” but something you are always working towards, something that intentionally affects each decision for the community.

“Mission is a communal project in which a number of gospel communities are involved together as they seek to extend the reign of Jesus though planting more churches.”

Precisely!  Chester and Timmis are calling us back to gospel priorites in these chapters.  We would do well to listen.  Bigger is not always better.

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As part of his chapter on Worldliness in Respectable Sins, Jerry Bridges talks about money and how Christians use it.  First, let’s see his definition of worldliness.

“Worldliness means accepting the values, mores, and practices of the nice, but unbelieving, society around us without discerning whether or not thos values, mores, and practices are biblical.”

Pretty good definition.  It is when we are shaped by the world instead of being conformed to Christ in how we approach seemingly trivial matters.  He points to how Christians use money as a place where we are often quite worldly.  We often don’t examine how we spend our money- only if we have enough to get what we want.  We tend to get caught in that self-centered approach to living when it comes to “our” money.

Evangelicals are giving far less money to their churches than they did in years past.  He notes that in 8 evangelical denominations (not mainline ones) people give only 4.4% of their income.  They are spending more money on themselves by keeping up with technological toys, collecting music or movies, big boy toys (boats, snowmobiles..), eating out often, etc.  But here was what disturbed me even more.

“Not only are we giving less to our churches, but it seems that more of what we do give is spent on ourselves.  In 1920, the percentage of giving to missions from total offerings was just over 10 percent.  But by 2003, that figure had declined to just under 3 percent.  That means we spent 97 cents of every dollar on our own local programs and ministries while sending 3 cents overseas.”

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Who said New England was a spiritual wasteland?  Okay, much of it is.  But I found some good sermons and lectures while visiting a website for a church in Portland, ME.

2006 Northern New England Presbytery (PCA) Missions Conference, Speaker Richard Pratt

2008 Northern New England Presbytery (PCA) Missions Conference, Speaker D.A. Carson

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Scottish pastor-theologian Eric Alexander has said this about Our Sovereign Saviour: The Essence of the Reformed Faith by Roger Nicole: “I could not speak too highly of this book.”  That is an apt summary of my sentiments as well.

All the more reason for me to wonder why this delightful little book is so unavailable.  It seems downright difficult to find in the places it should be easy to find.  Dr. Nicole is one of the pre-eminent theologians of the 20th century.  In the words of ‘King Arthur’, “You make me sad.”  But to the book!

In 184 pages Dr. Nicole summarizes and explains the distinctives of the Reformed Faith, and its implications on other doctrines.  Here is a chapter outline:

  1. The Meaning of the Trinity.  He establishes the 3 truths we hold in balance, and how the various heresies exalt one truth at the expense of the others.
  2. Soli Deo Gloria– or to God Alone be the glory.  This is a chapter on the glorious extent of God’s sovereignty, including individuals and the Church.
  3. Predestination and the Divine Decrees.  He explores what is meant, and not meant, by God’s sovereignty.  It does not mean we are puppets, for as the Westminster Confession notes, “nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures (III, 1).”  God ordains all things in keeping with our nature/character and how he plans to work to change our character.  He also briefly explains & critiques supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism.
  4. Calvinism: the Five Points.  He briefly explains the 5 main ideas of Calvinism, and dispells some common misunderstandings based on poor terminology.
  5. Particular Redemption.  He explains and defends the doctine of definite atonement, summarizing John Owen’s arguments from The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
  6. The Doctrines of Grace in the Teachings of Jesus.  He shows that these are not doctrines of John Calvin, or Paul but taught by Jesus Himself, particularly in the Gospel According to John.
  7. Reconciliation and Propitiation.  He explores the use of these terms in Scripture and how they fit best with an understanding of definite atonement.
  8. Justification: Standing by God’s Grace.  He explores the 3 main illustrations of justification in Scripture to understand it fully.  In this chapter he mentions students who ‘made a virtue of being poorly attired’ hoping they learned to dress better before candidating for a position.  Sadly, I was one of these immature slobs who thought so little of themselves.
  9. Sanctification: Growing unto God.  He explains what it means negatively (mortification) and positively (vivefication).  Whereas justification is something done for us, sanctification is something done in us.
  10. Predestination and the Great Commission.  He shows, primarily through the example of William Carey, that election and evangelism are not at odds with one another if properly understood.  He defends the free offer of the gospel from misunderstandings.
  11. When God Calls.  Shows from God’s call of Paul and Barnabas that God is mission-minded in a way that ought to challenge us all to become engaged.  Without using the term, he builds a quick case for missional living.
  12. Freedom and Law.  He addresses the issue of what freedom really is, against some silly misconceptions, and how the Law fits into freedom.
  13. Prayer: the Prelude to Revival.  He addresses prayer as an established means for revival.  He also talks about some fundamentals of prayer in relation to sovereignty.
  14. The Final Judgment.  He defends the doctrine of the final judgment.

In these chapters you find typical Dr. Nicole.  Though humble and irenic, you find him quite knowledgable and more than capable of dispelling any misunderstandings or strawmen opposed against the truth.  He is brief, not laboring his points.  He uses illustrations from everyday life, and history.  I’m not sure if he’s ever seen a movie.  But this means that the book is not bound in time unnecessarily.  How I wish he wrote more!  This is a book that often moved me to prayer- gratitude and petition.  That is what good theology does.  This is a book that can encourage those who understand the distinctives of the Reformed Faith.  It is also a great, winsome book for those who do not yet understand and embrace them. 

Here are a few choice quotes:

“Thus, the sovereignty of God immediately crushes man as sinner into the very just of the ground, for he is unable to rise in God’s presence but must be the object of his fearful condemnation. … When we talk about the sovereignty of God we emphasize the sovereignty of God the Holy Spirit who works in the lives of men and does not await some consent that would be coming fron unregenerate sinners but who himself transforms at the very depths of their personality lives that are disrupted, distorted and destroyed by sin.”

“There is no circumstance of life that should be totally disconcerting, because God has ordained it and is at the back of it.  His loving and gracious purpose is fulfilled even in the events which may appear quite contrary to our wishes.”

“The grace of God does not function against our wills but is rather a grace which subdues the resistance of our wills.  God the Holy Spirit is able to accomplish this.”

“Authentic Calvinism has always confessed particular redemption and at the same time insisted on the universal offer of the gospel.”

“God cannot punish a sin twice.  He cannot punish it once in the person of the Redeemer and then punish it again later in the person of the perpetrator.”

“The Lord Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  He is not going to allow his sheep to wander away.  That, in fact, is expressly stated.  He gives them eternal life.  They shall never perish.”

“It is only when we consider how grievous a thing sin is and how greatly displeased God is with it, that we are in a position to understand what it means to be reconciled to him.”

“The very fact that you know this person- the very fact that you are in contact with this person, the very fact that there is a burden upon your heart for this person- ought to be an indication that quite possibly, even probably, he or she has been picked by God.”

“There is no Christian who can say, ‘I am not a missionary.’  There are places that you can reach that nobody else can reach.  There  are people for whom you can work that nobody else can invite in the same way in God’s name.  We have a task to accomplish.”

“What people fail to understand is that the spiritual laws that God has established are equally binding. … They think they can violate the moral laws that God has established at the root of the universe and not bear the consequences. … To disregard the laws of God is not to achieve freedom; it is to sink into futility.  It is to break oneself against the structure of the world in which we live.”

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The 3rd chapter of Velvet Elvis is called True, and I think I know what Rob Bell is trying to say, and I estimate I agree with about 90-95% of it.  I only say I think I know because Rob is not writing to me, someone who prefers precision, but for a group of “spiritual” people who want to find a non-dogmatic religion.

What is Rob “trying” to say?  That there is such a thing as General Revelation, and that all truth (not just what you might think is true) has the triune God as its source.  It is his world, and not all truth is found in Scripture (though all Scripture is true).  So, other religions have fragments of truth.  His example is Muslims being debt adverse.  I’d tell Rob that this is actually a biblical idea they happen to share with us.  So, other religions have areas of overlap with Christianity.

But he doesn’t put it that way, which opens the door for pluralism (even if he didn’t intend it).  This is where Rob’s non-linear style, focused on tangentially related stories does him a disservice.

Rob makes a good point that many kids who grow up in fundamentalist homes think that the church as a market on truth.  So they go to college and some prof blows their mind and they leave their faith behind.  Yep, happens.  The problem is not Christianity but parents who don’t live in the real world, nor prepare their kids for the real world.

Where Rob really loses me is in talking about missionaries “transporting God” to other cultures.  He sees this as a basic misunderstanding some have about missionaries.  God is everywhere.  Yep- with you.  But I’ve never heard of any misguided person talk about “bringing God” to other people.  Bringing the gospel, yes.

And I guess this is what saddens me about sections of this book.  He does what John McArthur often does- take an extreme, often foolish example as though it were the norm for a particular group of people he doesn’t really like or agree with.  So, Rob pokes fun at Fundamentalists and how goofy they are (and they really can be).  But he never really says that is who they are- so your average conservative Christian whose not as hip as some, gets painted as guilty by association.  Don’t want to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints or you are a “wall builder”, and that is bad.  Don’t want to say “Scripture alone” because some dolt in Idaho uses that to defend his strange views.  Sola Scriptura becomes bad.

I guess I’d like it if Rob just said something like, “I grew up Fundamentalist” (I don’t know if that’s true), “and had a bad reaction.”  I prefer if he expressed his prejudices so people would know upfront instead of us having to read between the lines.  He’s not objective- but neither is he upfront about his true convictions.

(I am a Christian who finds his heritage in the conservative, evangelical, Reformed, Prebyterian, missional branch of the church.  I grew up Catholic, converted in college was a Conservative Baptist => Reformed Baptist => PCA/ARP.  Just to be fair, you know.)

Add-on:  I slept on the chapter and had some additional thoughts.  Rob is not really repainting the Christian view of faith here, just disagreeing with a fringe element.  But what is disappointing, is that Rob provides no real framework for people to separate the true from the fascinating.  His example of kids going to to college is important.  At college, some of what they hear will be true, but lots of it will be fascinating half-truths, false interpretations etc.  I don’t think that has changed much from when I went to college.  You have many different theories of economics, psychology, politics etc.  Many of these can seem fascinating, for they “ring true” to someone’s experience.  But interesting/fascinating does not truth make.  Non-Christians know lots of true things.  But, due to the noetic effect of the Fall, they have a tendency to mis-interpret reality by denying the Creator.  Becoming a Christian does not utterly remove that tendency.  But Rob opens the floodgates without providing any sort of way for a young person to discern what is true and what is false.  I guess he’s assuming someone else, an agenda-driven prof perhaps, will provide that.

Repainting truth from the reality of General Revelation => (what sounds like) Pluralism.

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More from God is the Gospel

“In evangelism the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of sinners to see the glory of Christ who is faithfully preached in the gospel. If Christ is not preached and his glory is not exalted, the Holy Spirit does not open our eyes, for there is no glorious Christ displayed for us to see.”

The Westminster Confession talks about the ordinary means. The preaching of Jesus crucified is the ordinary means the Spirit uses in conversion. Many churches wonder why they do not see conversions. Are they preaching Jesus crucified (1 Corinthians 2) or something altogether different? Is our personal evangelism focused on Jesus crucified, or something completely different? It makes quite a difference!

“The work of the Holy Spirit in changing us is not to work direction on our bad habits but to make us admire Jesus so much that sinful habits feel foreign and distasteful. … Therefore, if we neglect the glory of God in Christ as the greatest gift of the gospel, we cripple the sanctifying work of the church.”

This is far different from the preaching you’ll find in most churches. I keep my ears open in public, and hear what is going on in other places. It usually sounds like Jesus is an afterthought, moralism or self-help. If we could change on our own, Jesus would not have to be crucified (to paraphrase Paul in Galatians).

“There is no gospel where the glory of God in Christ is not shown. And there is no salvation through the gospel where the glory of God in Christ is not seen.”

Piper keeps hammering this idea, because people are so resistant to it. Much of what passes for Christianity today is all about me (ego-ism), not Jesus. We are focused on our name, our glory, our (fill in the blank). This sounds more like the idolatrous worship of the Canaanites who lead Israel astray repeatedly.

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