Links I like

Links

Kindle deals for Christian readers

Jesus in the Present Tense: The I AM Statements of Christ by Warren W. Wiersbe is free through the end of the day (I reviewed this one a few years back here). Also on sale:

Six Questions on Men and Women Serving Together

Eric Geiger:

I gather on a monthly basis with all the managers in the division that I lead for a time of training. A few months ago I asked Faith Whatley, our director of adult ministry, to train and offer insights on men and women serving alongside one another. Faith has been serving at LifeWay for 20+ years and is well respected as a godly woman and an extremely effective leader.

 

Police or Pastor?

Justin Holcomb:

Following an act of violent abuse, a Christian wife should first turn to the police. We definitely support calling her pastor, too, but only after calling the police.

Dear Franklin: It is not a good idea

I don’t normally like open letters (even when I occasionally write them), but this one by Marty Duren’s well worth your time.

Hair Gel, Burgers, and Smartphone Depression

David Murray:

The global hair care market is estimated to be worth $81 billion dollars in 2015, with a large part of that being spent on various gels that shape and control the hair. All that money to beautify ourselves and make us more attractive to others!

But there’s a free “hair gel” that can make us more attractive and beautiful, not just to others but to God.

Have We Made Too Much of Grace?

Joey Cochran:

My concern is that some in their thirst and need for grace fashion an idol out of grace. Though we should make much of grace, we should not make too much of grace. Fundamentally, as Watson says above, grace makes a poor Christ. It is no Christ at all. Grace is an instrument of God. It is an abstract idea that describes a relationship. It is an attribute of God, so a facet of him for sure. But you cannot worship the part in substitute for the whole. Then you make less of who God is. Grace, I would say, is more than a thing but certainly less than a person, and it’s only a person that saves, the person, Christ (1 Th. 5:9). I am fascinated by how Watson refers to grace as a creature.

Christians cannot pray like Unitarians

pray-like-christians

A number of years ago, I was part of a Toastmasters group here in London, Ontario. I learned a lot of valuable skills—most importantly, how to speak in public (and realizing that, yes, anybody can do it if they’re willing to work at it). But one of the things that always made me uncomfortable was opening the meeting with a word of prayer.

This isn’t because I hate prayer or anything like that (clearly, I don’t). But Toastmasters is a non-religious group, welcoming members from every conceivable background. So they always want to be as inclusive and non-judgmental as possible with their meetings (which, to be fair, is something admirable). And if you were going to pray at the opening, it was to be open—kind of like recognizing the “god of your understanding” of Alcoholics Anonymous.

But I couldn’t do it.

Sometimes when I’d open a meeting, because I was a bit more of a rabble rouser than I am now (maybe), I’d open with an inspirational line that would surprise people. Like Proverbs 12:1, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but one who hates correction is stupid “(HCSB). And then I would take my seat.

Because I’m a jerk.

But if I were going to pray, it would be a real prayer. It had to be. Because I don’t pray to a generic, nondescript god. I can’t pray like a Unitarian. I pray to the triune God—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I pray to Jesus, not the Jesus of our own understanding, but the one through whom and for whom all things were made. And if I’m not praying to this God—the true God—then I’m just performing some sort of bizarre civic function.

But prayer is anything but. When Christians pray, we don’t pray generically as though God didn’t really exist. We pray because we know—or, rather, are known by—the maker of the heavens and the earth. We pray because we are part of his family. So when we pray “in Jesus’ name,” it’s helpful to remember that this isn’t some sort of silly tag-on. It is not, as Russell Moore points out in Onward, the same as including “the word ‘just’ before every request or to ‘lead, guide, and direct us’ or ‘bless the gift and the giver.'” It isn’t mere religious language because we “recognize that ‘there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus’ (1 Tim. 2:5). We can come before God only because we share the Spirit of Christ through whom we cry ‘Abba, Father’ (Rom. 8:15)” (176 [ARC]).

Though many people—including people in my old Toastmasters group—offer inspirational words to an unknown God, this should not be said of us. We can speak to the God we do know, in recognition of the one who gives us access to God—and we can make what (or rather him who is) unknown known in the process.

Does it matter what Americans really believe about God?

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You might recall last fall a big hubbub about a research project LifeWay conducted, which was commissioned by Ligonier Ministries. If you read the study, I’m sure you were as surprised—and in some ways unsurprised—as I was.

But I will say, I was delighted when I learned The Gospel Project and Ligonier Ministries were releasing it as a new, free eBook, The State of American Theology: Knowing the Truth, Loving the Church, Reaching Our Neighbors. This book collects the research and thoughtful essays from the likes of R. C. Sproul, Ed Stetzer, John Piper, Alistair Begg, Thabiti Anyabwile, Trevin Wax, and many more.

And it couldn’t be more timely.

Confused beliefs about God and the faith

Let’s face it: Americans are confused about what Christianity actually teaches. All you have to do is get into a discussion on… well pretty much anything really, and you’ll see what I mean. This confusion is everywhere: Facebook, Twitter, blogs, books, podcasts, and sadly even the pulpit.

  • Does it surprise you that more than six in ten Americans believe the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force?
  • What about a slight majority (58 percent) believing that the creeds—the ancient formulations of the Christian faith such as the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds—have little value for us in our day?
  • Or a large minority (37 per cent)—and yes, I’m aware of the contradiction of a large minority—being unsure if it’s possible or actually believing that God is capable of making mistakes?

Download the ebook for more.

Why it matters

In some ways, none of this should surprise us at all. In fact, it should encourage us. Knowing what Americans (and I’d argue by extension, westerners in general) believe about God, the Bible and key doctrines of the faith is good for us. In fact, it helps us in a couple of important ways:

1. It helps us to know where we are weak in our discipleship of believers. Remember, these statistics include Christians of various traditions—evangelicals, mainline protestants and Roman Catholics—as well as those unaffiliated with Christianity or any particular religious belief. So for us to know that there is a great deal of confusion even in our own churches is a good thing.

We need to know this stuff because we need to know how to help Christians grow in their faith—how to be the sorts of Christians who think and believe as Christians. Teaching seven steps to a better whatever isn’t going to do that. But teaching them to read, study and apply their Bibles, with the Holy Spirit’s help and through his power, just might.

2. It also helps us to remember who theology is for. One of the things that always makes me uncomfortable is hearing a Christian say we should leave theology to the theologians. Now, this is true—if we understand that everyone is a theologian. As Jared Wilson puts it in his essay, “Laypeople have no biblical warrant to leave the duty of doctrine up to pastors and professors alone.” If we take the greatest commandment seriously—to love the Lord our God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength—then we must diligently learn things about him.

3. It helps us answer the real questions of unbelievers. We often assume the questions unbelievers ask, or what we think they need to know. This is why so many gospel presentations default to “not religion, but a relationship,” or the four spiritual laws, or filling a Jesus-shaped hole in our hearts. This reminds us that we actually need to answer questions like, “Who is God?” because there is no culturally agreed upon understanding that can serve as our starting point. Once we know where to begin, we can start having really meaningful conversations.

There are more reasons, but I think these three sum it up pretty well. Do you care about discipling people? Do you care about theology have a right place in the life of believers? Do you care about reaching people for Christ? If you answered yes, you should care about this study. Be sure to head over to gospelproject.com and grab a copy. 

 

 

 

Evil ≠ stupid

evil-stupid

I was lied to by cartoons as a kid. On every cartoon—from GI Joe to Looney Tunes to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—the bad guys, despite their self-assured brilliance, were always complete nincompoops. Cobra Commander always blew it. Wile E. Coyote always blew himself up. Shredder always found a way to throw himself into another dimension just as he was about to defeat a bunch of overgrown amphibians (which are actually reptiles).

If only evil were like this in real life.

But it’s not. Evil is not stupid. The perpetrators of evil are not stupid, either. People like the young men and women from Europe and North America who are running off to join ISIS (as soldiers and brides) and purge the Middle East of any trace of its history, including Christianity. Like the lawmakers who’ve turned their backs on the Lawgiver to do what is right in their own eyes. Like the men and women who make their living perpetuating a culture of death in organizations like Planned Parenthood. And like the Christians who say nothing in the face of these atrocities—or worse, celebrate them.

These are not stupid people. Many of them are quite brilliant, in fact. They are university students, authors, lawyers, doctors, judges, pastors, entrepreneurs, politicians… They are many things: They are blinded by sin. They are deluded into thinking they’re actually doing the right thing. They are so certain, in fact, that they fail to see that what’s right in their eyes may well be, as one noted lesbian feminist described, the beginning of the fall of western civilization.

But stupid they are not.

Now, I am not as pessimistic as some, but make no mistake: a society that murders its own children in service to the god of self may be lost. And society that cares little for history (beyond being on what they perceive as the right side of it) is teetering on the brink of disaster.

And we have to wonder, who profits from this? Not the activists who’ve worked diligently for the last 40 years to completely change how westerners view same-sex relationships. Not the terrorists who may yet succeed in their goal of wiping out all evidence of Christianity from the cradle of civilization. Not even the executives who profit from the deaths of untold millions of babies each year.

There is only one who ultimately profits: the enemy of our souls, the devil, the usurping prince of this world. And he is most assuredly not stupid. Unoriginal, maybe, but not stupid.

We’ve seen it countless times throughout history—in the Bible, we see mankind’s seemingly endless cycle of faithfulness and apostasy. We worship our creator, we reject and deny him, we worship ourselves, we nearly destroy ourselves. We watch as our champions pummel each other for sport. We bow down before idols of gold, silver and wood. We throw our children into the fire.

Second verse, same as the first.

No, evil isn’t stupid. The devil isn’t stupid. But he is defeated. Christ has already won. What we face now in these “last days” until Christ’s return are the final gasps of a cornered, but beaten, enemy. One who will viciously attack at every opportunity, knowing that while he cannot win, he can at least hurt his opponent.

Soon that will all be done away with. Soon the cycle will end. Evil will be thrown into the lake of fire. The devil’s schemes will join him in the second death. The world will be made new. The blood of Abel will no longer cry out for justice, for justice will be done. Every tear will be wiped. Every knee will be bowed. The kingdom will have come, finally and fully!

But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier in the meantime. Yet still we wait. We groan. We weep. We pray and fast and plead and beg and suffer and die. But we do not lose hope because Jesus has overcome the world. He will surely do all he has promised.

Evil is not stupid, but it is defeated.

The one thing that changed how I engage online

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Sometimes I wonder if the fastest growing industry on the Internet is slander. It’s not uncommon to see my Twitter feed flooded with updates slamming this person or that—sometimes warranted, but usually not. And it doesn’t take long for it to get ugly.

The Internet seems to bring out the worst in people, simply because of the illusion of anonymity. Behind a screen and in front of a keyboard, the most timid soul can become a raging lion. I know because I’ve been around long enough to have been that guy at least once or twice.

I was heavily active in message board communities for close to ten years, usually related to comic books and music. Some of these had a healthy self-governing aspect to them. But others wound up devolving into chaos. And when the chaos started, it always got personal really, really quickly.

But one of the cool things that happened out of those communities is sometimes a few of us who lived in the same town would—gasp!—get together and have coffee or dinner. And it was always funny to see how much we were like yet not how we portrayed ourselves online.

And that’s what changed everything for me with how I engaged online.

We sat around, shared a meal, made bad jokes, talked about inconsequential things. We were people being real people—something that’s easy to forget when all we see is a 200×200 px avatar.

And although it’s been said many times, we always seem to forget this truth. Our lack of physical proximity, our mediated contact lulls us into a false sense of security and power. So we need to be careful. That’s why when I write, Tweet, or update Facebook, I have to ask: would I say this to someone’s face? Would I be able to look you in the eye and say whatever I’m planning to without flinching?

That’s the rub, isn’t it? If you look at what so many people say and do online, I doubt many of them would be comfortable saying these things out loud, to the person they’re talking about. That’s because when you see a person right in front of you, you’re confronted by the fact that they are made in the image of God, just as you are. They have feelings and family, just as you do.

Let’s not lose sight of that, okay? We will stand before God for every careless word, thought, blogpost and Tweet. Judging with right judgment (John 7:24) means we must not settle for cheap shots, click bait or any of the evil stuff that’s quick and easy (and in some cases, easily disproven), but is damaging and detestable. We should not be cowardly, but we should be marked by charitable spirit. We should be willing to ask hard questions and confront error, but if we’re going to do it, let’s do it while seeking the good of others.

If your goal is to do enough, you’re going to be disappointed

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Every week, I’ll see another email hit my inbox talking about the strides humanity is making in alleviating extreme poverty. And while I’m thankful for all the good work that’s being done, I can’t help but wonder about the message I pick up from many of the communications I receive.

See, most of them, though they are well meaning, have the wrong goal in mind. They’re trying to figure out what “doing enough” means. The only problem is, “doing enough” doesn’t work, as a goal or a reality. Why? Here’s how I put it in Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation and the End of Poverty:

“Doing enough” can be overly simplistic. One problem with “doing enough” is that it tends to focus us on the wrong goal. We pick a dollar amount, or an income percentage, or a number of hours per month. We construct a set of checkboxes to see if we’re meeting the output criteria we have set for ourselves. Some suggest, for example, that if we all give just one percent more financially, global poverty can be wiped out forever. All we have to do, they say, is track the progress, allocate the resources, and we’re set.

When “doing enough” becomes primarily a matter of numbers, we can be sure we are focusing on the wrong thing. Alleviating poverty is about more than a certain amount of giving, whether of time or money.

“Doing enough” is legalism. Worse, this “doing enough” mindset is textbook legalism—the effort to be pleasing to God through our external behavior. And encouraging people to be active in helping the poor can promote legalism like few other activities. Unless God cuts someone to the heart and instills a compassion for the poor, exhortations to “choose your fast” or “just give more money” either will be ignored or will feed one’s “inner legalist.”

If our focus is whether we are doing “enough,” it may be that our hearts are as dead as those to whom Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel preached. “We have all become like one who is unclean,” Isaiah said, “and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6). (58-59)

Doing enough isn’t the point—not even with such a noble cause as caring for those in need. Glorifying God is. This must be our goal, all the time and in all places. It’s the only one that will keep us from being disappointed—and potentially doing more harm than good along the way.

The world needs strange Christians, not relevant ones

rolling-stone

One of the things we Christians tend to make fun of ourselves over is our desire be culturally relevant—to be hip, cool and engaging enough to hold the world’s attention. We know, at least to some degree, that it doesn’t work. We’ve seen what happens when people go too far in their attempts to be like the world (think the former megachurch pastor whose message to the world bears no resemblance to biblical Christianity), and we know that when we do try to be with it and hip, we wind up being neither.

Instead, we get stuff like this:

Russell Moore reminds his readers repeatedly throughout his upcoming book, Onward, that Christians should seem strange to the world—because the gospel itself is strange. Think about it: Christians believe that God became a man, a poor carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus who was crucified, rose from the dead and now rules over the entire universe.

When you actually say it out loud, yeah, it’s kind of strange. But that’s the thing about Christianity: either it’s true or we’re all nuts for believing it.

And this also shouldn’t surprise us. After all, as Martyn Lloyd Jones pointed out in Preaching and Preachers, “Our Lord attracted sinners because He was different. They drew near to Him because they felt that there was something different about Him.”

So for us to go about trying to win the world by being basically like the world is “basically wrong not only theologically but even psychologically,” he wrote. “This idea that you are going to win people to the Christian faith by showing them that after all you are remarkably like them, is theologically and psychologically a profound blunder.” (139, 1972 edition)

What Moore and Lloyd-Jones before him encourage us to do is recognize that trying to be relevant is a lost cause. We can never reconcile Christianity to the culture on its own terms. After all, “culture is a rolling stone, and it waits for no band of Christians seeking to imitate it or exegete it” (Onward, 107 [ARC]). Instead, we need to embrace the strangeness of Christianity—remembering that our “distinctive strangeness,” as Moore puts it, is what the world needs.

 

20 of my favorite quotes from The Prodigal Church

Recently I’ve shared a couple reflections on, as well as a review of, Jared Wilson’s new book, The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo. This was a book that I underlined quite heavily—probably more than I’ve done on any since Keller’s book on prayer. There’s a ton of wisdom found within its pages. So today, I thought I’d share a few of my favorites (some of which have been made into nifty shareable graphics):

“‘Healthy things grow’ sounds right. But cancer grows too.” (40)

“I want to suggest that it’s possible to get big, exciting, and successful while actually failing substantially at what God would have us do with his church. It’s possible to mistake the appearance of success for faithfulness and fruitfulness.” (46)

“Pragmatism is anti-gospel because it treats evangelism as a kind of pyramid scheme aimed at people who have it all together, not discerning that, in the Gospels, those most ripe for the gospel were those at the bottom of the social caste system, the undesirable, the non-influential.” (53)

“Pragmatism is legalistic, because it supposes that evangelism can be turned into a formula for ready results.… The pragmatist has forgotten that Christianity is supernatural, that it is capital-S Spiritual.” (53)
2

“When you try to help the Holy Spirit, you quench him.” (54)

“It is not in the best interest of the very unbelievers we’re trying to reach to appeal to consumerist tastes in the interest of offering them the living water of Christ.” (67-68)

“When we stage a worship experience that hypes up experience, feelings, or achieving certain states of success or victory, we miss the very point of worship itself: God.” (68)

3

“Neither the Spirit nor the gospel needs help from our production values.” (70)

“We have not prospered theologically or spiritually when we emphasize the professionalization of the pastorate.” (75)

“Fortune-cookie preaching will make brittle, hollow, syrupy Christians.” (77)

“We must have a stronger faith to trust that a sermon mainly about Jesus will ‘help people grow’ more than our set of tips will.” (80)

1

“I will go so far as to suggest to you, actually, that not to preach Christ is not to preach a Christian sermon. If you preach from the Bible, but do not proclaim the finished work of Christ, you may as well be preaching in a Jewish synagogue or a Mormon temple.” (80)

“The self-professed ‘culturally relevant’ churches are the chief proponents of legalism in Christianity today.” (84)

“The ‘dos’ can never be detached from the ‘done’ of the finished work of Christ in the gospel, or else we run the risk of preaching the law.” (85)

“When we preach ‘how to’ law sermons instead of the gospel, we may end up with a bunch of well-behaved spiritual corpses.” (89)

“The reality is, worship does not begin with the worshipper. It begins with God. It is a response to God’s calling upon us.” (97)

4“We do not worship the Father, the Son, and The Holy Ingenuity.” (167)

“If you worship God in a less-than-clear or in a doctrine-less sense, you end up worshiping another god. You worship the god made in your image. When we divorce theology from worship, when we fail to cultivate a theology of worship, we compromise our worship. It may look great, but it is hollow and shallow.” (99)

“Part of moving forward and away from the functional ideologies of the attractional church is also abandoning ourselves to the sovereign mercy of the Spirit, who cannot be measured or leveraged or synergized or whatever.” (162)

“The Spirit doesn’t wear the church’s wristwatch. You cannot control him.” (166)

We talk about hell so we can marvel at grace

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I’ll be honest, in the last while, I can’t remember the least time I read a book or blog post or heard a sermon that spent much time dealing with hell. Now, there are some good reasons for this, obviously. If you’re preaching and it’s not really relevant to the text you’re focused on, you probably don’t need to bring it up. If you’re writing on marriage, you may not need to deal with it (unless it’s to counter the “marriage and/or singleness is…” attitude).

But I suspect one reason we shy away from talking about hell is we don’t get why it matters to us as Christians. We easily imagine every mention of wrath or hell as being straight out of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (despite most of us never having read it). We hold it at an arm’s length because it’s too unpleasant to deal with. Because we don’t want to be scene as fear-mongering—trying to scare people straight.

But preaching about hell, writing about isn’t about scaring anyone straight (at least not ourselves). Not really. We should grieve, certainly, as we consider what awaits those who die apart from Christ, and we should warn them to flee from the wrath to come. But there are good reasons for believers to think about hell, too. And chief among those is to help us appreciate the grace we’ve been shown. Sam Storms puts it this way in To the One Who Conquers:

Thinking about hell and the second death has immense practical benefits.…It is remarkable how tolerable otherwise intolerable things become when we see them in the light of the second death.… It puts mere earthly pain in perspective. It puts tribulation and poverty and slander and imprisonment and even death itself in their proper place. The collective discomfort of all such temporal experience is nothing in comparison with the eternal torment of the second death in the lake of fire.

The one who conquers, said Jesus, “will not be hurt by the second death.” Not even when Satan viciously accuses me of sins we all know I’ve committed? No, never, by no means ever will I be hurt by the second death. Not even when others remind me of how sinful I still am, falling short of the very standards I loudly preach and proclaim? No, never, by no means ever will I be hurt by the second death. Not even when my own soul screams in contempt at the depravity of my heart? No, never, by no means ever will I be hurt by the second death.

And that for one reason only: Jesus, in unfathomable mercy and grace, has suffered that hurt in my place. (73-74)

I will never be hurt by the second death. I never have to fear for the wrath to come. Why? Because “Jesus, in unfathomable mercy and grace, has suffered that hurt in my place.” Amen.

The kind of fundamentalist I want to be

the fundamentals

With the exception of a few “badge of honor” types, no one really likes to be called a fundamentalist these days. But that’s really just because we use it as the dirtiest Christian cuss-word we can think of—as a pejorative or conversation killer. There’s an image of the fundamentalist as a joyless, angry, fire-and-brimstone preaching, King James reading, hymns-only singing cranky pants who has his tie just a bit too tight on Sunday mornings.

And while there are some who probably fit the stereotype a bit too closely, we really only think this way because we’ve actually forgotten that being a fundamentalist is a good thing. We should absolutely be fundamentalists—at least about the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

So what are the fundamentals? What are the things that make Christians Christian?

There are a number of formulations, but I believe the best place to look is to two ancient creeds: the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creeds. These were two of the earliest formulations of Christian doctrine, and so they have much to say about any discussion of fundamentals of the faith.

The Apostles’ Creed summarizes the fundamentals this way:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.

Amen.

Here we have a few basics: we have God himself, that is his nature (the Trinity) and his character—the maker of heaven and earth and the author of salvation. We have Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of a virgin, who was crucified and rose again, and now sits at the right hand of God, from which he will return to judge the living and the dead. We have the Church, both universal and local, and the future promise of the resurrection to new life in the new creation. In other words:

  1. God as Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  2. The virgin birth and divine nature
  3. The atoning death, resurrection, and eternal lordship of Jesus
  4. The centrality of the Church (as what we are saved into)
  5. Christ’s future judgment (resurrection of the living and the dead, heaven and hell)

In the Nicene Creed, we have something similar:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Nicene Creed provides essentially the same formula, but makes explicit one element that is assumed in the Apostles’ Creed: the authority of the Scriptures. So from it we get:

  1. God’s nature and character
  2. Jesus’ virgin birth and divine nature
  3. The work of Christ (perfect life, atoning death, resurrection and eternal lordship)
  4. The Church
  5. Christ’s future judgment (resurrection of the living and the dead, heaven and hell)
  6. The authority of the Scriptures (for all of this was “according to the Scriptures”)

Later groups would again redefine these fundamentals, sometimes with as few as three points (as I offered in my book, Contend, which condenses a few of the essentials seen in the creeds together), or as many as 90, as in Torrey et. al’s The Fundamentals. But they all come back to what we see in the Creeds. And where we choose to narrow down, it tends to be in relation to Jesus specifically, such as highlighting the historical reality of his miracles, the miraculous nature of his birth and his bodily resurrection—all the stuff that tends to be heavily under fire in our day and in every era.

But fundamentally, everything comes back to these six points we get from these two ancient creeds.

And this is what we have to remember: without these key truths, there is no Christianity. 

We need the Trinity, as confusing as it can be. We need the true gospel message—including all the sticky bits that make us seem like weirdos (because, y’know, they’re weird). We need the Church, both the reality of the universal invisible body and the local communion of the saints. We need the promise of Christ’s future judgment and final victory over sin and death as it’s what gives us hope. And we absolutely need the Scriptures—in all their inspired, inerrant glory—because without them, we have no clue about any of this stuff at all!

These are the fundamentals of the faith. 

And if believing these things is what it means to be a fundamentalist, sign me up!

Don’t ask me to do you harm

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If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told, “You can believe whatever you want, as long as you keep it to yourself,” I’d be wealthier than a prosperity preacher after his royalty check arrives.

The notion that your beliefs should only affect you, but the rest of the world should remain unaffected is so common, and yet it’s completely illogical. It’s a contradiction, one where we see the values of one being or group infringe upon the other—all the while telling the group being infringed upon this is what we are not to do.

This is the line that is appearing in an ever increasing number of articles, particularly those dealing with the religious liberty implications of the recent ruling on same-sex marriage in America. Some bring it up as they dissect the words of the majority judiciaries, usually with some handwringing. Others affirm it openly in their commentary, often with arrogant presumption.

Yet, what I consistently fail to see is anyone—particularly from those affirming the statement—acknowledging that what they’re asking for is impossible. And not just for Christians who are commanded by God himself to share their beliefs openly and without apology.

No one can not share their beliefs. Why? Because out of the heart, the mouth speaks. What we care about, what matters most, what is at the root of our affections, is always going to come out in what we say and what we do. Even if we narrow the idea to imposing our beliefs upon another, we run into more or less the same problem. If one were to follow the logic to its conclusion, the result would be anarchy.

Consider parenting: my job as a dad is to do all I can to ensure my kids grow up to be responsible human beings, with a clear understanding of right and wrong, the ability to make decisions and solve problems, and who (Lord willing) worship Jesus as Lord and Savior. But my three year old boy doesn’t have a terribly well defined sense of right and wrong, and he’s very “in the moment”. So he’ll be playing and then decide it’s a great idea to smack one of his sisters. As a dad, my job is to impose my will in order to stop him from continuing in this pattern of behavior.

Am I wrong to do so? Most, I hope, would say no.

But what would happen if I were to say, “Sorry girls, I believe it’s wrong for the boy to smack you, but it’s really best that I keep it to myself”? Would that say that I care about my daughters?

This is the dilemma that Christians feel pretty dramatically, although to be honest, people from a number of different faith backgrounds feel it, too. The Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who show up at my door with their false gospel and deficient Jesuses. The Muslims who believe that all must submit to Allah. The Bahá’ís’ who believe that they will be the ones to bring about a perfect new world order1

And this is also what we’ve, quite honestly, been terrible at expressing in our concern over religious liberty issues. It’s not simply that American Christians want to see the First Amendment upheld and Canadian Christians want to see the first of our fundamental freedoms upheld simply for the sake of them being upheld. We want to see them upheld because we love the people around us. The consistent Christian recognizes that the logic of keeping our beliefs to ourselves is really a call to do those around us harm. For to know the truth of what awaits us all after death and to say nothing is to be a perpetrator of great evil. And that’s something we simply cannot do. So please don’t ask us to do you harm. Because we won’t do it.


Note: After writing this article, I noticed several friends sharing a terrific comic by Adam Ford, which expresses a similar sentiment, however those similarities are purely coincidental.

How helpful is the Christian confessional?

christian-confessional

He walked across the stage toward the microphone, the room was more crowded than he’d expected. All eyes were fixed on him. He smiled awkwardly and wondered, can I really do this? What will people think? Heart racing and palms sweating, he gathered up his courage and began to speak softly.

“Hi, um, I’m a, uh, a Christian,” he said, “and I have a… a confession to make.”

He cleared his throat, tugged at his collar and continued.

“I want to apologize for the Crusades. And I want to apologize for politics being confused with Christian faith. I apologize for hate crimes being perpetrated in the name of Christ and for slavery. I’m sorry for everything that we’ve ever done that has made life difficult for anyone. But I want you to know something… We’re really not all that bad. I hope you’ll forgive us.”

As he exited the stage, several people came up to him, most of them from his small group, and congratulated him on his effort.

“I don’t know if I would have had the courage to say that,” they told him. “That was so humble of you.”

The young man blushed and thanked them for their kind words.

“I just want to be real, y’know? Authenticity is important to me.”

* * * * *

You’ve probably seen, heard or read something similar to this before: the Christian confessional.

This idea was popularized by Donald Miller in his too-young-to-write-a-memoir memoir, Blue Like Jazz. Miller describes setting up a confession booth on a college campus where he and others would confess the sins of Christendom and ask for forgiveness. In the years since the book’s release, many others have gone and done likewise. These days it’s usually seen in the form of videos of random dudes confessing the institutional sins of Christendom on YouTube.

Now, I’m not against publicly confessing sin, obviously. I’m not even entirely against the idea of the Christian confessional under certain circumstances. But whenever I see it, it’s typically only used to say to our post-Christian culture, “See, we’re not so bad.” And I’ve got to be honest, I wonder if it’s actually beneficial? I mean, I know it’s typically done under the guise of being authentic, and I’m sure those doing it have the best of intentions, but is it really authentic to confess sins you have not committed to people who may not have been sinned against?

Now, certainly there are some (many, even) institutional sins we should ask forgiveness for broadly. For example:

  • We should ask forgiveness for our churches or denominations using the Bible to wrongly treat other people as less than human.
  • We should ask forgiveness for failing to remember that the “but you were washed” of the gospel applies as equally to the gossip and slanderer as it does to the homosexual man or woman.
  • We should ask forgiveness for giving cover to peddlers of God’s word who seek to fleece people instead of feeding God’s sheep.

But these things should always be done from a place of genuine heartfelt repentance. We ask forgiveness because we see genuinely believe they were wrong and we are striving to reconcile with those who have been injured by those actions and beliefs.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if the Christian confessional is just another attempt to have the appearance of godliness without actually having to be godly. It’s like confessing generic issues in a small group—”Gosh, y’know, I’m just really wanting to follow God’s will for my life, but it’s a struggle. Pray for me, if you don’t mind.” Now, there are definitely times when you need to be a little more vague than even you might prefer—especially if you’re in a place where you’re not sure what’s actually wrong, but you’ve just got a sense that something’s off—but it’s easy to use this kind of thing to give you a pass from actually repenting of anything at all.

It’s like saying “mistakes were made,” or “I’m sorry you felt that way,” which is really just having the appearance of contrition without a contrite heart. And the thing that is so deadly is that most of us wouldn’t even be able to recognize that’s what’s going on. But that’s how pride deceives us, isn’t it?

In Luke 18:10-14, Jesus tells the following parable:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Pharisee thanks God for the righteousness that God has given him; that He has made him not like other men who are “extortioners, unjust, adulterers.” He even points directly to the tax collector and thanks God for not making him like him.

Think about that for a second. The Pharisee slams the tax collector—right to his face. All while he’s thanking God and declaring how he fasts and tithes faithfully. Imagine if the Pharisee, rather than saying, “Thank you that I’m not like this tax collector,” said, “God, thank you for not making me like the Crusaders, the slave traders, and the fundamentalists. I live in a monastic community and only buy products that reduce my carbon footprint.”

Imagine if the Christian confessional went a little more like this, “I want to apologize for every time I’ve put my own desires ahead of those of others. For using my words to cut people down instead of building them up. For using the Bible in a hamfisted manner instead of taking the time to explain what it says with patience. For constantly forgetting that grace is freely given to all who ask, and that I am in dire need of it. And I would ask anyone here who has been personally hurt or offended by me to come and speak with me, so I can ask your forgiveness directly for what I’ve done wrong.”

The Christian confessional has its place, just as asking forgiveness for institutional sins has its place. But what’s more authentic, and what’s more God-glorifying, is to put our own need for God’s mercy on display—and to rejoice in the knowledge that while we are great sinners, we have a great savior in Jesus Christ.


An earlier version of this post first appeared in 2010.

 

The limits of love

heart

One of the greatest lies we tell children is a nursery rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I remember repeating this to myself as a little boy, over and over again, with tears running down my face, as the terrible things other kids said about me kept repeating in my head. I was desperate for it to be true.

It never was.

So I get how so many Christians feel living in a thoroughly post- or anti-Christian culture, as many of us do in the West. Recent political decisions only officially made legal what was already approved culturally. Those who hold to the traditional or biblical definition marriage have long been called intolerant, bigots, homophobes, and numerous other pejoratives. One website ran an entire article that existed only to direct the F-word (and I don’t mean “fundamentalist”) at us, and particularly politicians and political figures who voiced concerns about or opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage.

The intolerance of tolerance is at work.

The hurtful words are terribly discouraging. No one wants to be called a bigot, or a hate monger—no one. And yet, this is what is happening and will continue to happen until the West falls or Jesus returns, because we have to understand that love has its limits. There are places that, because we love people, we cannot go and ideas we cannot embrace or endorse.

I was reminded of this again by Sam Storms in his devotional, To the One Who Conquers: 50 Daily Meditations on the Seven Letters of Revelation 2-3. In writing of Jesus’ commendation of the Ephesians, Storms describes them as a church that had “20/20 discernment.”

They hated evil—period. No ifs, ands, or buts. Whatever form evil took, whether ethical or theological, they stood resolute in their opposition. No compromise. No cutting of corners. Their love was revealed in their intolerance.… This was their most stellar achievement. No heretical concept could ever raise its ugly head in Ephesus without being decapitated by the swift stroke of biblical truth. (41)

The Ephesians understood that Christian charity could not give room to false teaching within the church. Whatever else was going on in the culture, whatever trials they would face, whatever persecution they would be forced to endure, they would; but they could not suffer the usurping or perversion of biblical truth. And, again, Jesus commended them for this. Why? Because, as Storms writes, Jesus hates moral and theological compromise.

Any appeal to grace to justify sin is repugnant to our Lord. Any attempt to rationalize immorality by citing the “liberty” we have in Christ is abhorrent to him and must be to us. True Christian love is never expressed by the tolerance of wickedness, whether it be a matter of what one believes or how one behaves. (43)

This is the position we find ourselves in today. The culture has spoken and, while we can (and I believe should) disagree with the outcome, we should at least acknowledge the reality. This means the hateful and hurtful words are going to keep coming, with a promise they’ll stop as soon as we are willing to stop believing what we believe. If we can just embrace same-sex marriage, and then polyamorous relationships, we can all get along. But is that the best way to demonstrate love to our unbelieving neighbors and our fellow believers?

No. Instead, we need to be willing to affirm that love has its limits. And just as the Ephesians were forced to in the face of the Nicolaitian heresy, we must ask what we must say no to for the sake of our devotion to Christ—and in order to demonstrate the love of Christ to all.

Choking ourselves to death

choking

During Jesus’ incarnation, the religious elite of His day, the scribes and Pharisees, would follow Him around and seek to trap Him, discredit Him and have Him arrested and killed.

The Pharisees honestly get a bad rap sometimes. During the 400 year silence prior to John the Baptist’s arrival on the scene, these men saw the godlessness of their countrymen and wanted to do something about it. They wanted Israel to live according to the Law. So the strove to obey the Law as closely as possible; to obey God as His people. But then they started adding laws to the Law in order to help them obey the Law. The spirit of the law became the letter of the law and man’s laws overtook God’s Law and then they were left with something opposed to the Law.

Although there were many, a common example is found in the Sabbath. God had commanded that on the seventh day, all his people should rest. No work was to be done, for just as God had rested from his work of creation on the seventh day, so too would his people from theirs. They had a lot of extra rules about what to do, where to go, what you could carry and even whether or not someone could be healed. So one day, Jesus was at Bethesda and saw a man who has been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. (John 5:6-9)

Jesus performed an amazing miracle in the life of this man. An invalid for over 30 years, yet now he could walk. People should have been celebrating! Except, there was one small problem: “Now that day was the Sabbath” (v. 9b). The Sabbath—the same day on which the Pharisees had determined that people could not carry a mat because they considered that work.

So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” (John 5:10-17)

The Pharisees sought to persecute Jesus because “he was doing these things on the Sabbath” (v. 16). They persecuted Jesus because he broke their rules. Rules they had equated with God’s. And they became so blind with pride that they could not see who Jesus was or what he was doing.

This is something we all need to be careful of. There’s a tendency among Christians to be afraid of grace—if we talk about it too much, or if we really believe in it, people might start thinking we don’t care about obedience, or we think you can live however you want because “once saved always saved.” Even when we don’t do this, we add rules about what to wear, what to drink, what to say, what to think, how to pray, how to sing, whether to put our hands up (and how high)…

We love our rules, don’t we?

And yet, they’re the very things that might be choking the life out of us. When we substitute human effort for genuine affection for God, terrible things follow. I can’t help but think of the seven churches of Revelation to whom Jesus sent warnings and encouragement. The Ephesians, for example, he commended for their uncompromising doctrine, and their unwillingness to bear with false teachers. Yet he warned that they had abandoned “the love [they] had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:4).

Jesus warned these Christians that he would put an end to their church not because they were following false teachers, but because their hearts were far off from him. Their right concern over protecting their doctrine was choking the life out of them because they’d forgotten the spirit in which it was to be pursued. Right doctrine was to lead to greater delight and devotion, not to a cold, “dead” orthodoxy (which is completely unorthodox).

One of the things I always want to be careful of in my own life—and I’ll be honest, I chafe at it whenever certain things are imposed from the outside—is whether or not the rules and structures I’ve implemented in my own life and in my family are life-giving or if they are ultimately pushing me and others away from Jesus. If a “read the Bible in a year” plan is about little more than checking a box, it ought not be done. Bible reading should happen, but the form that takes needs to change. If prayer is rigidly structured and my words are rehearsed, there’s a problem. Prayer should still happen, but the form is (generally) open by necessity. If “worship” only happens when hands are raised higher and voices are louder, well… you get the idea right?

Seeking to obey God in all of our lives is right of course. It is good and necessary and life-giving. However, we need to be careful of not adding rules that go beyond those found in Scripture lest we become proud, devoted and dead.


This post is based off a much earlier one from 2010.