Friday, April 29, 2011

Mormonism, Mama And Christ

I was directed this morning by a friend to this book. I found the reviews to be interesting. One gave the book 5 out of 5 stars, while the other gave it only 1 star. Here is the review that rated this book as a 1:
"...and her conversion to the Christian faith." LOL What a hoot! Give me a break! I know that evangelical Christians refuse to admit it, but Latter-day Saints (Mormons) ARE Christian. They believe in Christ, they follow Him, they worship Him, His name is in the name of the Church for goodness sakes! "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints." I know they say that Mormons believe in a different Christ - but there's only one Christ. They're striving to be good people who follow Christ's commands and example. It's comments like this one above that confuse and mislead people about who Latter-Day Saints truly are.
This reviewer is right in many of their affirmations. Evangelicals do refuse to admit that Mormons are Christians. It is true that there is only one Christ. But this is where the (presumably) Mormon writer misses the point. The fact that there is only one Christ and that Mormons do not worship him is why they are not Christians. Just saying the name "Jesus Christ" does not mean you worship him. Would Mormons call a group Christian that worshiped the moon and called it Jesus Christ. Of course not! Granted this example is extreme, but the point still stands. The Jesus that Mormons worship is not the Jesus of the New Testament. Jesus is not the brother of Lucifer, for example. Contrary to Mormon teaching, Jesus has always, from eternity, been God. These few examples could be multiplied. The point stands that the reason Evangelicals do not call Mormons Christians is because they are not Christians. You must worship the Christ of the New Testament who is God of God, very God of very God from all eternity in order to be a Christian. This is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be a Christian. If you, like the Mormons, deny that Jesus Christ has been God from all eternity, you are not a Christian.

[*UPDATE* It appears that the review I am interacting with has been removed since I first posted this blog.]

ACE Atheist Chaplain Enterprises: Keeping You Out of the Faith

We at ACE Atheist Chaplain Enterprises have a saying: when the going get tough, you may need a boost to your faith (or lack thereof). Sure it's not a catchy saying, but it is a factual one. You may be new to your atheism, or you may have struggled with holding onto it all your life. But as this New York Times story explains, once you find yourself in a foxhole with Charlie breathing down your neck, you never know when you might be tempted to make a quick conversion, just in case you're looking for a little fire insurance.

Well never fear, because that's where ACE Chaplains come in. Our team of materialistic humanists will be there with you through the thick and thin. Feeling a little guilty because you cheated on your wife with one of the Korean drinking girls? We'll be there to remind you that there's no deity watching us. Can't kick that drinking habit? We'll be there to slip a little rum in your coke in the mess hall - just to get you through the morning. Thinking of browsing through a Bible, "just to see what it says?" We'll be waiting with a stack of pornography to keep your mind off of the so-called "big issues" of life. Maybe you're tired of your watching the guy next to you praying to Mecca five times a day. We'll let him know that's a bunch of nonsense.

At ACE, we know that it takes work to keep you out of the Kingdom of God. Temptations are all around you to draw you into the religious life. You need an advocate who can stand against the spiritual onslaught which you encounter throughout daily life. The Army's no cake walk, what with all the killing and swearing and guilt attached to your daily existence. You need someone to take your mind off of things by pulling you aside, putting an arm around your shoulder, and saying, "Hey! Carpe Diem."

On top of all these great benefits, our skilled chaplains can respond to your deepest doubts by reading the latest Christian "scholarship." Say you're afraid about what if you're wrong and there really is a hell. We're ready with something to think about: "You know, there are Christian theologians who say that hell really isn't even that bad. One of them even says that it's basically this emo place of existential angst that you can eventually get out of if you just start thinking positively. Not that there is a hell, or a God, of course... I'm just saying... if there was..."

Atheist Chaplain Enterprises. We'll be your humanistic influence. God knows you need one.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Atheists are...(n't?) a Religion?

One of the more repetitive claims I hear from atheists is that, contrary to ignoramuses like me, they are actually not a religious faith. That appears to be changing, according to this story from the New York Times. Evidently, alongside the slew of multifaith chaplains that the military has installed, there is even a push by atheists for them to have their own representatives amongst the chaplaincy. My favorite quote from the story:
Jason Torpy, a former Army captain who is president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said humanist chaplains would do everything religious chaplains do, including counsel troops and help them follow their faiths. But just as a Protestant chaplain would not preside over a Catholic service, a humanist might not lead a religious ceremony, though he might help organize it.

“Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews,” Mr. Torpy said in an interview. “It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values.”
So let us get this straight. Humanism functions in the same way that Christianity does, and their chaplains would do things the same as a Protestant chaplain might, and yet I wonder if atheists will come around these fellows and support them. To do so, they will have to insist that atheism does qualify as a "faith," according to the story. Okay, I can't resist. Here's another brilliant quote:
“You’re not a faith group; you’re a lack-of-faith group,” First Lt. Samantha Nicoll, an active atheist at Fort Bragg, recalled a chaplain friend’s saying about the idea. “But I said, ‘What else is there for us?’”
This whole article is a gold mine for Christian apologists - just a complete untapped gold mine.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Unprofessional Book Review: The Writings of John by C. Marvin Pate

C. Marvin Pate's The Writings of John is an introductory book addressing the Johannine corpus. It covers the Gospel of John, the three Johannine Epistles, as well as the book of Revelation. While the book is intended to be used as a textbook in introductory New Testament classes, it is just as acceptable for personal reading and study. Each chapter is relatively short, and you can tell that Pate put a great deal of effort into ensuring that the book isn't bogged down by technical details while at the same time taking care to cover the relevant and necessary information that any introduction to the writings of John ought to at least touch upon.

In the introduction to each of the Johannine books, Pate spends an adequate amount of time discussing issues of authorship, dating, textual transmission, historical context, as well as theological context. For example, in his introduction to the Gospel, he discusses the Hellenistic religious environment as well as the various theological pressures from Judaism and establishes briefly but effectively that the book was not written in a theo-social vacuum.

I should mention as an aside that Pate does his best to steer clear of theological debates regarding issues such as predestination. In his introduction to the Gospel of John, instead of taking a position on what he calls "eternal security," he simply lists some verses used by each side in defense of their particular view. A safe move no doubt intended to keep a wide readership.

Along the way, he provides quotes from historians such as Josephus in the side-columns which relate to the historical context. These extended quotes are quite appropriate and serve in most cases to reinforce the historical realities being dealt with. Also, I should note that the entire book is full color, and almost every page has colorful images of Palestine and artifacts conceivably related to the story. As an example, the chapter on the wedding at Cana includes photos of large jars used by ancient Jews as well as photographs of the modern Cana region, to give an example of the way the book uses images. For my own part, I enjoyed the photographs since they lent a sense of atmosphere to the readings.

At the end of each chapter, Pate offers a handful of review questions as well as between a half dozen and several dozen key terms which were touched on in the chapter. I can't help but think that this would be very helpful in a teaching context, and it is the strongest indicator that this book is meant to be used in the classroom.

After the introductory chapter for each book, the remainder follows a commentary structure grouping the chapters thematically around a particular section of John's writings. For example, chapter 4 of The Writings of John covers "The Miracle at Cana and the Cleansing of the Temple; John 2."

Although it wouldn't be mistaken to suggest that Pate's chapters constitute a commentary, it does seem that Pate is more interested in giving a thematic overview of each of the books. Again, there is a commentary here, but it very brief and probably is only helpful for getting a basic grasp of the text. You won't be throwing away your New International Commentary on John anytime soon.

My biggest complaint about Pate's project is that it seems to be dodging predestinarian elements in John's writings. For example, when he discusses John 6:44, he has the crowd being offended strictly because it was offensive that Jesus equated Himself with the bread from heaven. No doubt, this assertion was offensive. However, he skips over verses 44-48, where Jesus says that no one can come to Him without being drawn by the Father - if I might, a classic Calvinist prooftext. No mention from Pate. Again, a safe move likely to endear him to a more Arminian readership and also unlikely to highly offend more Calvinistically minded readers.

Pate's tendency to just skip over verses which hold no interest for him - for one reason or another - is why I would again emphasize that this is not really a commentary so much as an overview.

Another negative feature, depending on what you're looking for in a book on the subject of John's writings, is that at times he tends to refuse to take sides in scholastic debates. As an example of this, on page 68, he is discussing the Temple Cleansing of Jesus. He addresses the fact that many believe there were two temple cleansings, with one at the beginning of Jesus' ministry in John 2 and one near the end of Jesus' ministry (Mark 11:15-18; Matt. 21:12-16; Luke 19:45-47). My problem with the way Pate addresses this issue is that he states the three views of this issue, but never weighs their merits or demerits. While he does point us to Kostenberger's conservative commentary on John, Pate doesn't get any further into the discussion than simply listing the three perspectives that exist on the number of temple cleansings.

To some this may be a plus. I could see where many would enjoy the somewhat noncommital nature of Pate's approach - especially as a text book. In my opinion, however, a student who is learning about these issues would be greatly helped by seeing how one arrives at a conclusion in difficult discussions like these.

This is not always Pate's approach in every situation. For example, in chapter 45, where he deals with the question of the 144,000 in Revelation, he spends an impressive amount of space dealing with the question of whether the 144,000 in 7:4 is the same as the numberless multitude in 7:9. In this case, he comes right out and says, "For several reasons, I am convinced that Revelation 7:1-8 is not to be equated with Revelation 7:9-17," and then he offers seven convincing reasons in favor of his take on things. I personally enjoy when the author puts his views out there like this. Even if I disagree with the author, I can appreciate where he is coming from.

Overall, Pate's treatment of the writings of John is solid. It does what it is meant to do. It is a good undergraduate textbook, and I would not shy from recommending it to someone who is looking for a very broad, theologically noncommital overview of the writings of John. I appreciate that Pate holds conservative understandings of the authorship and dating of the books. To my mind, this is important, and a big plus. Depending on your needs, this may be just the book for you. If you want a more opinionated take on things, you may find Andreas Kostenberger's A Theology of John's Gospel and Letters to be a bit more to your liking.

You can purchase The Writings of John through one our Associate links at Amazon by clicking here.

Monday, April 25, 2011

What is Monergism?

In the comment section of this post, Evan posted a link to an article by a Roman Catholic on monergism. This article starts off by offering a definition of monergism.
Monergists, i.e. Calvinists and some Lutherans, claim that man cannot cooperate with God in salvation, because that would detract from God’s glory.
And this is where the problem begins. The Reformed (and Lutheran) understanding of monergism is particularly concerned with regeneration, and not all of salvation. A simple look at the five solas of the Reformation should make this clear, one of which is sola fide or "by faith alone." The Reformers taught that believers must have faith to be saved. This is something the believer does. Granted, faith is a free gift from God and it is not meritorious in any sense, but it is still something that the believer does. In regeneration, on the other hand, the believer is completely passive. In other words, regeneration is something that happens to the believer and the believer does nothing for it to happen. In John three Jesus likens the new birth with the first birth. So, just like a baby is born without doing anything, so too a Christian is born again (i.e., regenerated) without doing anything. defines monergism as: "In regeneration, the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ independent of any cooperation from our unregenerated human nature." Notice there is nothing about salvation as a whole. I think the problem here might be with the term "salvation." This term can refer to an aspect of the total work God does in the elect (i.e., justification) or the whole of God's work. In theological discourse, however, especially when critiquing another view, a person ought to be a careful as possible and offer the best the other side has to offer, not the worst. It is easy to pick the low hanging fruit off a tree. Thus, by confusing the terms salvation and regeneration, our Roman Catholic blogger is able to make the Reformed faith seem unbibilical, when in fact the view he is interacting with is not the Reformed view at all. He would benefit from a better understanding of the view he is attempting to decry. Straw men are easy to knock down, I guess that is why theologians enjoy building them.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Lorainne Boettner's The Atonement Free Today on Kindle

Monergism, once again, has made another classic work available for free on the Kindle. In honor of Easter, I suppose, they have made Boettner's classic work The Atonement available in both ePub and mobi formats.

Table of Contents
1. The Atonement
2. The Significance of Christ’s Death
3. The Satisfaction View of the Atonement
4. The Active and Passive Obedience of Christ
5. Christ as Our Ransomer
6. The Representative Principle

Also, on the subject of atonement and justification, Wes White has a great blog entry today about how Christ was "raised for our justification," and what that really means, featuring an extended quote from French Reformer Pierre Du Bosc.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Unprofessional Book Review: The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Kostenberger & Kruger

Even though it was not their intention, when Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger (hereafeter K/K) penned The Heresy of Orthodoxy, I really think they ended up writing one of the finest defenses of the Protestant view of the formation of the Canon of Scripture that I've ever read. Now that I've begun with that bombast, I want to take a step back, look at what the authors were attempting to do in this book, and then to show you why it is that I think they did such a fabulous job of arguing their case.

A little bit of oversimplified background is in order. Most of our readers will have a cursory understanding of who Bart Ehrman is. If you don't, just go to Google and you'll be quickly brought up to speed. Perhaps lesser known in popular Christian culture is the fact that Ehrman was really a student of Walter Bauer who himself suggested that early Christianity was shockingly diverse and that in the beginning of the church there never was really one "christianity," per se. He suggested that only later, once the Church emerged as the global religious superpower, did they concoct a conspiracy to cover up the early diversity in the church.

Anyway, there's more to this crazy conspiracy theory, but let me just suggest that the convenient thing about conspiracy theories is that they are not falsifiable. Whenever someone holds to a conspiracy theory, they will always see evidence against their theory as reinforcing the reality of the conspiracy.

The book's full title is The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture's Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity, and in essence, the book is addressing itself the the cultural problems related to the widespread interest in the works of Bart Ehrman - and by extension, Walter Bauer. After reading the whole book, I'm tempted to summarize the book by saying that the book is all about debunking the Bauer-Ehrman thesis... except that the authors say exactly the opposite in their concluding appeal:
[D]ebunking the Bauer-Ehrman thesis was not the main purpose of this book...The intriguing question is why the Bauer-Ehrman thesis commands paradigmatic stature when it has been so soundly discredited in the past...The reason is rather that Bauer's thesis...resonates profoundly with the intellectual and cultural climate in the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
I really want to dispense with the Ehrman talk for the rest of the review. This is because, while K/K spend the entire book demonstrating why the Bauer-Ehrman thesis has no basis in reality, what the book really does so brilliantly is demonstrate for the reader the truth about the canon so that we can spot the counterfeits when they cross our paths. In some ways, Ehrman's challenges to the historic, Biblical faith simply give K/K a structure around which to build the book's beautiful edifice. This book is more than a polemic against a liberal New Testament scholar. It is a crash course in the canon, textual transmission, and manuscripts.

The book is organized into 3 main parts. Part One is devoted to the subject of pluralism and the origin of the canon. Part Two addresses the formation of the canon itself. Finally, Part Three clears up issues of textual criticism, the work of scribes, and the transmission of the text.

In Part One, K/K argue that if you allow the evidence of New Testament authors and early church fathers, then one finds a profound unity- especially in the first 150 years or so of the church.
[H]eresy arose after orthodoxy and did not command the degree of influence in the late first and early second century that Ehrman and others claim...instead, heresy grew parasitically our of an already established orthodoxy. (p 66-67)
They argue carefully and methodically for this conclusion, but I'll never get through this review if I show in detail how they do it.

Part Two of the book was the most beneficial to me, primarily because I had half believed the old Catholic argument that we wouldn't have the canon if it weren't for the Catholic church's pronouncement of what was Scripture and what wasn't. K/K, however, argue that the canon was already in use almost as soon as it was written. They demonstrate, by citing numerous early church fathers (who radically predate the fourth century date given by Bauer-Ehrman for the closure of the canon) that the
idea of a New Testament canon was not something developed in the second century (or later) when the church was faced with pressing needs, but rather it was something that was handed down to and inherited by the early church from the beginning. It was the foundation for the church, not the consequence of the church. The idea of canon, therefore, does not belong formally in church history, but is more accurately understood as a central plank in redemptive history. (p 117)
For myself, this was very helpful. After I digested what they were saying, the pieces fell into place and I grasped the reality that the church only received the canon - it did not create it.

As an aside, one of the chief benefits I derived from this book was not simply that the authors made interesting arguments, but that I've never seen all of these arguments so conveniently packed into one place - and so fat-free. There is not a wasted sentence in this book. I had previously seen that the canon was from God and not from the Church, but my vision of the whole process was somewhat scattered and imprecise. This book gave my understanding of the canon some much-needed structure, and then K/K poured concrete over the whole thing for good measure.

Finally, Part Three of the book consists an assault on each stage of Ehrmans argument. See, Ehrman argued that it is impossible to know what the original NT was like because of problems in textual transmission and scribal errors. Where K/K most shine is in their demonstration of double standards and inconsistencies in Ehrman's reasoning. On the one hand, Ehrman argues that the overwhelming number of manuscripts is precisely the reason why we can never know what the originals were like (a preposterous claim if you even have an elementary knowledge of textual criticism). On the other hand, the authors argue that if there were less manuscripts of the New Testament, Ehrman would almost certainly argue that there were too few manuscripts and so we can never know what the originals said, either.
Regardless of the evidence-whether the manuscripts are many or few, whether the variants are many or few - Ehrman's conclusions would remain unchanged.
The most obvious problems with Ehrman's arguments are his unobjective approach to arguing history. He clearly has a theological agenda, and K/K intend to expose it. In one of the greatest moments in the book, they argue that the theological heart of Ehrman's presuppositions lie in his belief that an inspired canon requires perfect and inspired preservation. Says Ehrman:
If [God] really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved these words, just as he miraculously inspired them in the first place.
K/K reflect on this standard:
His approach certainly does not reflect the historical Christian positions on inspiration (except perhaps the King James Only camp)...Ehrman has investigated the New Testament documents with an a priori conviction that inspiration requires zero scribal variations - a standard that could never be met in the real historical world of the first century. (p 229-230)
Contra Ehrman, K/K argue, "the original text has not been lost but has been preserved in the manuscript tradition as a whole" (p 231).

The only problem I had with the book was that - no matter what they say - this book really is about shooting down the Bauer-Ehrman thesis. I realize that they wanted to say that this is about the bigger social issues that paved the way for Bauer-Ehrman's thesis to find traction. But in reality, there was little time - except for perhaps the first part - spent arguing in this way.

At the end of the day, no objective reader could conclude that the Bauer-Ehrman thesis still has any leg to stand on. The Heresy of Orthodoxy really is a masterwork on the part of Kostenberger and Kruger. A tightly written apologetic work that never wastes a sentence and has a lot to teach its readers. Even if you have a pretty good handle on the subjects presented here, I can almost guarantee you've never seen this much helpful information packed into such a relatively small (235 pages) resource. This book has a wide range of potential readers, as I see it. Maybe a pastor has been getting questions about Ehrman's books from people in his congregation. Maybe someone just wants to understand where the canon came from or wants the broad view of what textual criticism is. The book would be ideal for almost anyone. Honestly, every Christian ought to have at least a cursory grasp of the issues covered in this book - especially since Ehrman is still releasing books.

After finishing The Heresy of Orthodoxy, I can't help but marvel. Ehrman makes the rounds on cable news shows and morning talk shows. The man is everywhere. He's probably hugged Oprah at some point. And yet his arguments are so flimsy. It really shows where our culture is at that the man with the horribly argued provocative statements gets his face all over the news and yet Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger are the real guys who ought to be paraded before the cameras with a wonderfully argued book such as this. Whether the book launches them to CNN-level super-stardom or not, Kostenberger and Kruger certainly have something to be proud of... a book which powerfully argues for the truths of the historic Christian faith and gives the glory to God in the process. I say, well done - TV cameras or not.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Larry David - More Like God Than Ted Danson (This Time, at Least)

A few years ago, the television show Curb Your Enthusiasm ran an episode called "The Anonymous Donor," where Larry David donated money to a children's hospital (or some sort of charity) and they named a wing of the hospital after him. Meanwhile, at the grand opening, someone else had donated a wing of the facility as well, only this donation was done "anonymously." Larry becomes agitated when it becomes clear that this anonymous donor is upstaging him, since everyone sees the anonymous donation as being more noble than Larry's publicized donation. The funny part of the episode was that Ted Danson was quietly telling everyone that he was actually the anonymous donor, which only caused everyone to praise Ted even more highly. If you've ever watched Curb (and I'm not saying that you should), then you will know that predictable Larry confronts Ted and tells him what a dirtbag he is for donating the hospital wing anonymously while a crowd of people just stares at him incredulously.

What caused me to think about this was the idea of philanthropy which was raised in a brief but helpful section in Geerhardus Vos' Biblical Theology.
"God is not a philanthropist who likes to do good in secret without its becoming known; His delight is in seeing Himself and His perfections mirrored in the consciousness of the religious subject. No compromise is possible here" (p 235).
So in one sense, Larry David is more like God, strictly speaking, in this episode of Curb than Ted Danson was, because God is not interested in doing good without his goodness being recognized and rejoiced in. Ultimately, everything is a manifestation of God's desire to be known and rejoiced in by His creatures. In other words, God is not strictly altruistic. When He does good, it is for a selfish reason - a glorious, selfish reason which promotes His glory and our own happiness.

However, lets temper these thoughts by recalling, as Jonathan Edwards argued, that this is not selfishness, strictly speaking because it actually is God extending the kindness of communion with Himself to a needy, hungry, and lonely creation which is badly in need of the Creator's touch. So everybody wins. Humanity's yearning for communion with God is met, and the Creator is glorified by being rejoiced in because of it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

King and Servant Show 30

Blubrry player!

Jonathan looks at what the Holy Bible has revealed about the hidden world of the demonic, and how the believer is to live in light of this opposition.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Confessions of a (Former?) Reformed Celebrity Fanboy

Some of these thoughts have been gestating for awhile, but ever since I read "A Not-Famous Pastor's Take on Evangelical Hollywood," I have felt somewhat affirmed that I ought to share my more recent struggles. I write this without a bit of cynicism or sarcasm. This just comes from a place of honest struggle.

While I don't wish to dramatize every little decision in my life, one of the greatest struggles I have dealt with is simply coming to terms with the possibility that I may be called to be a pastor. I have touched on this frequently here and there in the last few months on the blogs. The truth is, it is very hard not to compare yourself to the celebrities of the preaching world. I know that this is not something that these godly pastors would want to have happen because of their ministries, but it is a reality for myself and for many others, I am sure.

The truth is, we are living in a day and age when I have at my finger tips every single sermon that John Piper has preached since starting preaching back in the 80s. I can listen to thousands of sermons from the heavyweights. And if you're just listening to listen, there is nothing but healthy and good eating to be done. But what if you're like me, and you want to be a great pastor and show Christ to your people someday? Well, that's when the celebrity pastor thing becomes a little bit trickier. Yes, the responsibility lies with me to be a grown up and have realistic expectations of life in the ministry and not get too excited about Paul or Apollos. But what if I'm not getting sectarian because of Paul or Apollos? What if I'm just paralyzed at the thought that each Sunday when I'm preaching to these people, many of them will be going home and listening to far more substantial, robust, careful preaching than I could ever hope to deliver from my pulpit?

Perhaps the fact that I have 30 years' worth of sermons from Piper, MacArthur, and Ferguson on my iPod cheapens the preaching, just like it cheapens Led Zeppelin's discography to know that you could download the whole thing in 15 minutes from the internet.

Sermons were meant to be studied, poured over, and prayed over. I can get them at the touch of a button. At one point while I was in college, I listened to 8 hours of preaching a night at my overnight job at Target. While I was fed, I never really appreciated the blood, sweat, and tears that must have gone into each and every sermon. The digging, the reading, the praying, the linguistics involved, the people in the pastor's mind as he was working the sermon out... it all gets lost because it's just raw consumption with no interaction, no personal touch.

Morrissey (the former lead singer of the band The Smiths) was being interviewed once, and they asked him what music he's been listening to. He said (and I'm paraphrasing because I can't find the quote), "I just keep listening and listening. I'm like an obese person who eats even when they don't enjoy it. I just consume so much that it all sounds the same to me after awhile." What if we're becoming like that today with regard to preaching. "Preaching? Oh yeah, I can get that whenever I want. Yeah, Piper's pretty good. My pastor doesn't sound anything like him, but at least I can hear him whenever I want."

I think that the celebrity culture that exists in the Reformed world today is introducing a subtle cheapening of preaching. After all, if I can get it and hear it this easily, and it's always so GOOD, how can my pastor's Sunday sermon NOT seem cold, dry, and lifeless in comparison?

I have two great and godly pastors - Pastor George Granberry and Pastor Rick Franks. Pastor Rick has taken me under his wing, as it were and spent a great deal of time with me mentoring, discipling me, and just spending much needed time encouraging me to grow in the Lord and to develop the traits that a good pastor needs to. And you know, as much time as I spend listening to Piper and Keller, one thing I know is that it wasn't John Piper who called me after my daughter had to be admitted overnight to the hospital. And it wasn't John MacArthur who got in touch with me to see how my foot was doing after I sprained it on the job. It was these men. Men who minister to me week in and week out.

I do not envy my pastors. Just like I don't envy the wife of a man who won't cancel his subscription to Maxim magazine. I know the comparison is horrible, but how can the pastor or the wife ever compare to what the man is getting the rest of the week? The airbrushed falsity of the magazine is similar to the airbrushed picture of the life of the much better pastor across the street who comes to you without any baggage, without making any demands of you, without asking anything of you. He delivers the Word, packaged up perfectly to the 'T' and then he goes, once the audio file is finished. Meanwhile, your pastor comes down from the pulpit, perhaps he's a big socially awkward, and maybe he trips when he's coming down from the pulpit. At the church potluck, you hang out with him but have trouble making small talk. It's these flaws, these imperfections that give the preaching of the Word it's power - because it comes from earthen vessels who are unable, under the gaze of their congregations, to present the illusion of perfection or meet any unrealistically high standard.

So as I said, I don't envy my pastors. As long as I keep giving into the Reformed celebrity culture, they are always going to play second fiddle to Keller, Piper, and Ferguson. Who could stand in comparison to such luminaries? Maybe church members like me were really meant to be fed by their pastor and not subsidized the rest of the week by the "big boys." Maybe the internet has presented unprecedented opportunities that I shouldn't be taking advantage of. I don't know... I'm still trying to work through these things. But if I don't verbalize the problems I am seeing right now, will I ever be able to be honest with myself about the strengths and weaknesses of the way in which I was discipled by the radio and iPod for most of my life before finally finding a Reformed church to call home? I really don't know.

[Edit: Let me also suggest that Carl Trueman's post at Reformation 21 is certainly relevant to what I have to say here.]

Twin Lakes Audio

The audio from Twin Lakes Fellowship has been posted here. Of note are: 1) the sermon by Derek Thomas on adoption in 1 John 3:1-5, here; and 2) the interview with Sinclair Ferguson, here.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Free Loraine Boettner eBook

The fellows at Monergism have made available Loraine Boettner's book The Reformed Faith in eBook format and also in Kindle format (.mobi). Follow the link, and they provide instructions for transferring the book over to your Kindle. The nice thing is, you can still get the book - whether you have a Kindle or not.

Incidentally, they also have his book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. It is in HTML format. Although it is not in an immediately Kindle-friendly format, you could make your own Kindle version by following directions which I previously shared awhile back. Happy reading!

Friday, April 15, 2011

This Just In: Everybody's Christian!

I've made a decision. It's a big one (and it's also sarcastic, so don't take it too seriously). Everyone who claims to be a Christian is now a Christian. As long as you use the specific word "Christian," and say that Jesus is important to you, you're in. At least that's what some would like us to think.

A few weeks ago, Rachel Held Evans lamented that she shouldn't have to keep defending her Christian credentials just because she has liberal theological tendencies.
But the problem is that after ten years, I’m getting tired of trying to convince fellow Christians that I am, in fact, a Christian, even though I may vote a little differently than they vote, interpret the Bible differently than they interpret it, engage with science a little differently than they engage with it, and understand sovereignty and choice a little differently than they understand those things.

And I think a lot of other young evangelicals are growing weary of those arguments too. We’re ready to rebuild in communities where a commitment to love and follow Jesus Christ is enough common ground from which to start.
Once again, she laments:
I haven’t lost hope in the future of evangelicalism, but I’ve lost the desire to fight for my place in it. I’m tired of trying to convince other Christians that I am a Christian.
There is a need on the part of Bell's supporters to - not defend themselves - but to remove the need to defend themselves. Rachel Held Evans is understandably tired - exhausted at the thought that she might need to "contend for the faith," as she sees it. Fellow critics like John MacArthur can't possibly be making it easier for her. In his more recent blog posts, MacArthur has been arguing quite vigorously that Bell is not a fellow sheep, but rather, a wolf within the fold.

I've been asking myself a lot of questions after I read Evans' blog entry a few weeks ago, but perhaps the one that seems the most unfair - and at the same time relevant is this one (and it is a bit off topic, but I have to chase this rabbit for a moment): is there something about Arminianism that makes Arminians just more comfortable dancing/flirting with heretical doctrines? I don't mean this glibly or rhetorically. I mean this honestly. But I also mean it very generally, since I can think of many I would call Arminian whom this criticism does not apply to. However, in general, Calvinists tend to fall on the more conservative, old-school side of theological debates. To quote Spurgeon, "Calvinism has in it a conservative force which helps to hold men to vital truth."

But why is it that Bell's defenders themselves see this battle really falling along the old lines of the debate over Calvinism/Arminianism (Evans says it's between the New Calvinists and New Evangelicals, but it's really the same old debate). Read my review of Love Wins. See if I have had any interest in making this about election or predestination in my critique of the book. And yet Rachel Held Evans and many others see the whole debate as - ultimately - falling along the age-old lines of the evangelical debate over election and predestination. How interesting.

Allow me to use Bell as an example of the encroaching problem I see. Bell's only ground in claiming orthodoxy and historical pedigree for his views is words. He uses the same words that the old creeds do, and even that the Bible uses. These are words which he has clearly, blatantly, undeniably redefined from the way that they were previously understood through most of Christian history. His dissenters (including Ben Witherington, who is certainly not a Calvinist) have recognized this, while his supporters appear indifferent as to preserving the use of words. For Bell's supporters to remain supporters (and here I include Richard Mouw - a Calvinist), they must be indifferent as to whether historical words are used consistently from one generation to the next. And many of them are, to be sure. They argue that the meaning of words do change from one generation to the next. Certainly. But if someone bites their thumb at you, you won't be offended until you discover what this Shakespearean gesture actually means. The same is true of Biblical words. Hell sounds very unpleasant until you discover what Rob Bell means by it. Suddenly, it becomes a rosier destination for all of God's enemies.

So here we come back around full circle to Evans' complaint, once again. Look carefully at what she says near the end of the quote:
We’re ready to rebuild in communities where a commitment to love and follow Jesus Christ is enough common ground from which to start.
Now here is where we really must protest against Evans. She has requested that the lines be drawn so broadly that there is now room within the church for any and every cult/group out there. Who could argue that the Branch Dividians loved Jesus? Who can deny that Jehovah's Witnesses love Jesus? Who can deny that Mormons love and follow Jesus? If Evans had her way, they would be in the circle. Or look at it another way. If she wants to draw the circle that broadly, then consider what brought her to that place. The Jesus and Bible of Rob Bell and of the Emergents is so ill-defined that the cults now do have a legitimate place at the table. In opening the door wide enough for her own orthodoxy not to be called into question, she has flung open the doors and is letting the flies and the wolves, in.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Refreshing Appearance by Edwards

While I'm waiting for Sean Lucas' forthcoming volume on Edwards to see an affirmative take, contra Helm/Hart, I wanted to share a newly found quote of Edwards that reminded me of why it is, once again, that Jonathan Edwards has been so crucial in the formation of my own deep-thinking/deep-feeling approach to Christian doctrine. I found this in the Piper festschrift, but to the best of my knowledge, it is a quote that I have never seen before.
Now what is glorifying God, but a rejoicing at that glory he has displayed? An understanding of the perfections of God, merely, cannot be the end of creation; for he had as good [i.e., might as well] not understand it, as see it and not be at all moved with joy at the sight. Neither can the highest end of creation be the declaring God's glory to others; for the declaring God's glory is good for nothing otherwise than to raise joy in ourselves and others at what is declared.

(Jonathan Edwards; The "Miscellanies": Entry Nos. a-z, aa-zz, 1-500,)
"Neither can the highest end... be the declaring God's glory to others..." What a difficult charge to lay upon someone like myself who always has his eye on the horizon of pastoral ministry. But a thought like this is necessary. I can declare the glory and majesty of God until I am blue in the face, but if I am not, myself captivated by, rejoicing in, and "enjoying" (to quote the Confession) God in my preaching, then my first duty has not been done.

P52: The Trial of Jesus

Friday, April 8, 2011

Has Bell Been Understood?

The newest viral video that supporters of Rob Bell (and presumably the theology in Love Wins?) have been circulating apparently is from a recent event with Bell speaking. At the end he throws in a jab about not reviewing books before you read them. Interestingly, the internet furor wasn't over the book, it was over the blurb and the video that accompanied the blurb. One supporter of Bell's calls this video "the clearest no nonsense, non-confusing rhetoric I've ever heard Bell speak."

Notice that in this long list of things that Rob Bell affirms, at least half of them are (in his book) redefined so far from the historic Christian definition as to be nearly unrecognizable. "I believe in heaven...hell...the bible is God's word...salvation...a whole new creation right here in our midst..." He certainly does believe in Heaven and Hell, although he doesn't mean what you and I mean when we say it.

Many of the things he says he is in the video are not contested by most of his critics (such as myself). I have never said that he was not a Christian or even denied that he believed in Hell (per se). I understand that there are a lot of sloppy mis-statements of the ideas Bell presents in his new book, and I'm noticing them more and more as the book begins to be read more widely by Calvinists in the blogosphere.

This leads me to Michael Horton. I don't want to take issue with most of what Michael Horton said in his 9-part review of the book, because he did a much more in-depth analysis of the book than I did, and he was quite skillful and could theologically trounce me in a heartbeat. However, one thing that I noticed was that in part two of his review, when he summarized Bell's view of God, he said the following:
God: God’s attributes are reducible to love; Love requires the best outcome for the greatest number of people. Therefore, God’s nature requires universal salvation.
I would feel like I was nitpicking Horton here, except that this particularly unique view of love which Bell has can only be understood in the context of libertarian freedom. And his view of love is central to understanding the whole book. For Bell, it isn't necessarily that love demands "the best outcome for the greatest number." Rather, for Bell the most important thing about love is that it is free and uncoerced. In a sense, for Bell, whether love winning means heaven or hell is inconsequential. What is most important about the success of God's love is that God has to keep his hands off of the beloved.

Now, Horton's not completely off in understanding Bell. After all, Bell does seem to think that God's love implies wanting everyone to be in heaven (or the heaven realm or in the heavenly state of mind or however it is that he sees the postmortem state existing). But if Bell were to read part 2 of Horton's review, I really do think he would not recognize his views in the particular section I quoted from Horton. Bell argues that God always gets what God wants and that He wants all people to be saved, but he also confusingly enough makes the success of love contingent on freedom. As long as humans can will autonomously, then LOVE WINS (hence the title of the book). For Bell, even though God supposedly always gets what God wants, God really wants the human will to operate under its own weight and will hang the "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" banner on the deck of His aircraft carrier, so long as God leaves everyone alone in their perverted wills without coercing them or changing their hearts.

This means that in Bell's universe where God always gets what God wants, this "sort of great" God (his words) may not get what he wants because of human freedom. Hence his repeated claims to not be a universalist. I defend him in this respect. We ought to stop focusing on claims that he is a universalist and deal with the deeper assumption of Bell's that there are repeated (infinite) post-mortem opportunities at salvation. That's the really concrete claim that Bell makes. He can honestly evade claims of universalism by repeatedly pointing to human autonomy. He does exactly that around the halfway point in the video posted above.

If we do not address accurately the views that Bell sets forth, then it will be a perpetual cycle of talking past one another. And anyone who really gets what Bell is saying will have more and more reason to stop listening to us Calvinists in our criticisms of the man's views.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Of The Removal of Fear For Our Sins

Earlier today I was in the midst of chastising my daughter for some pretty upsetting behavior. As I was doing so, I found myself at a crossroads. I could either say, "If you do that again, I will spank you!" or I considered another more Gospel-oriented approach. And so I decided to turn down the Gospel road. I leaned down to her crying face and said, "Sweetheart, do you love me?" to which she replied through pouty lips, "Yes. But you're gonna spank me." I paused and said, "I'm not going to spank you. But I do want you to listen to me. Do you love me?" She said, "Yes." I said, "If you love me, then please show me by your actions. You don't have to be afraid of being spanked. I don't want you to just do what I say because you're afraid you're going to be punished every time you mess up. I want your heart, and that means that I want you to obey me because you love me, because you want to please me. Because it gives you pleasure to bring joy to your Dad. That's the way God is with us. Jesus takes away our fear of death and condemnation so that we can obey him out of love instead of fear. That's what the Gospel is all about. Now you're old enough to understand what I'm saying, okay? God has taken the punishment from us so that we don't have to constantly be afraid of being punished, and that's what I'm doing with you, okay? Now, will you please apologize to your brother - not because you're afraid of me, but because you love me?"

Now, I don't want to drag anyone through the mud, but another family member (not my wife) chimed in and said, "Yes, but there's still an element of fear. We still have to fear disobeying God, because He does punish us when we sin." I just felt like a whole lifetime of poor Gospel preaching went into that comment. Is it possible that we can hear the Gospel our whole lives, sit under Protestant preaching all our lives, attend and teach Sunday School all our lives - and still completely miss the Gospel?

If you are talking to someone who still has to fear any condemnation from God, then you are not speaking to a Christian. And if you are not speaking to a Christian, then that person ought to hear the condemnation that is inherent in the Law for those who are not in Christ. They have reason to fear.

This is the greatness of the Gospel - in Jesus Christ, God has removed all of the punishment due his people. Any and every bit of God's wrath which we are worthy of was born in the body of our Lord. Either we are forgiven or we are not. God does not partially pour his wrath on us. He does not place some of our sin on Jesus and the rest on us. This is where a really solid view of the atonement is crucial. If we miss this, then we miss the Gospel. Jesus removes God's wrath completely from his people.

"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love" (1 Jn 4:18). If perfect love really casts out all fear, then Christ's perfect love definitely casts out all fear. Obedience to God (lets call it Sanctification) does not run on the fuel of fear. It is fueled by love. If you are putting the fuel of fear into your tank, you will fall flat every time.

This is a message I need to constantly remind myself of - especially when I am in the mire of sin and condemnation. Yes, I should put my sins to death, but I should not do it because I am afraid of condemnation or of being damned if I cross some sort of "sin boundary." Christ has taken that possibility as far as the east is from the west. Rather, my new motive is pleasing Christ. We move from having a negative relationship with God to a positive one. Rather than looking over our shoulder at a task-master, we look straight ahead into our Father's eyes, knowing that no sin in our lives is too wretched to separate us from Him.

In this respect, Luther's commentary on Galatians has been a great comfort to me. In one particularly simple and yet pointed passage, Luther considers that Christ has born our sins and concludes that "All this is of wonderful comfort to a conscience troubled by the enormity of sin. Sin cannot harm those who believe in Christ, because He has overcome sin by His death."

In another place, Luther speaks peace to our consciences again:
Practice this knowledge and fortify yourself against despair, particularly in the last hour, when the memory of past sins assails the conscience. Say with confidence: "Christ, the Son of God, was given not for the righteous, but for sinners. If I had no sin I should not need Christ. No, Satan, you cannot delude me into thinking I am holy. The truth is, I am all sin..." Let us equip ourselves against the accusations of Satan with this and similar passages of Holy Scripture. If he says, "Thou shalt be damned," you tell him: "No, for I fly to Christ who gave Himself for my sins. In accusing me of being a damnable sinner, you are cutting your own throat, Satan. You are reminding me of God's fatherly goodness toward me, that He so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. In calling me a sinner, Satan, you really comfort me above measure." With such heavenly cunning we are to meet the devil's craft and put from us the memory of sin.

With what greater words can I speak than these? In this blog post, I hope most of all to speak to the troubled consciences of my brothers whom I know are hurting from the sting of sin in one way or another. The longer I follow Jesus, the more I become convinced that the Gospel is for us, all the time. That we ought to practice preaching the Gospel to ourselves at all times. That we ought never to tire of the old message that our sin has been removed. That if we ever think that we're mature enough to move on from that old message that we're as immature as we could possibly be - regardless our education or status in the church.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

My Two Theological Treasures

I want to share the two things that I show every visitor to my house who loves the Lord.

First up, is my signed copy of The Consequences of Ideas by R.C. Sproul. In 2000 (really!? a decade ago!?) Sproul actually came to Wichita, KS and spoke at a rather large church for two days. I made the hour drive each day to see him. In between one of the sessions, he was walking back to the bookstore area, and I saw him from quite a distance and yelled, "Dr. Sproul!" He paused, turned towards me, gave me a moment to catch up with him, and then shook my hand and said, "How are you, young man?" I was dumbfounded... starstruck, really. Here was a man who had been ministering to me for at least a year or more and who had led me happily into the Reformed faith. And I had nothing to say to him. I felt so silly. Oh, and his hands were soft - really soft. He was just so kind and gracious, and he signed my book. So here it is - my Sproul autograph.

My second object may be a bit more inestimable in value. It is a letter written on a typewriter and signed by Lorraine Boettner personally. Here's the story. I went to Westminster California around 2004 or so to visit the school. I had lunch with Scott Clark and sat in on a Michael Horton class, which was a real thrill. I decided I really wanted to go to this school but would never be able to afford to live in San Diego and abandoned the whole project. But before I left, I discovered that the Westminster Library was having a clearance sale selling off some old used books, so I found two treasures - a used copy of Geerhardus Vos' Biblical Theology for $2 I think, and a badly worn copy of The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination for $1. As I opened the Boettner book, I discovered this letter hidden inside:

Several poor Westminster students were standing around me and watched as I opened the book. They were all in awe, as I also was. To think that Lorraine Boettner had held this book in his hand and personally shipped it to this man was quite a thrill. To know that he had recently met with Dr. Van Til just added more thrill to the find. One of students around me offered to give me $5 for it (had to be a Seminary student, eh!? It was probably all he had, poor guy!). There was no way I was giving it up, of course. So I returned to Arizona (where I was living at the time) with my new treasures in hand. This was a very memorable and blessed to trip to WSCAL.

So these are my theological treasures. I hope other bloggers out there will start sharing their own treasures, as well.