Is this authentic authenticity?

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A young man walked onto the stage at the front of the crowded room. 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 into the microphone.

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

“I apologize for the Crusades and political action 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, people came up to him, congratulating him on his effort. “I don’t know if I would have had the courage to say that,” they said. “That was so humble of you.”

The young man blushed and thanked them for their kind words. “I just want to be real. Authenticity is important to me.”


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

This idea was most recently 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.

Since the book’s release a number of similar things come out of the woodwork, whether it’s a video of a guy confessing the institutional sins of Christendom on youtube or a pastor publishing letters he wrote to people he’s sinned against in a book.

While I don’t want to judge the motivations of people who have done things like this, I have to ask the question:

Is it really authentic to publicly confess sins you didn’t commit to people who were not sinned against?

Is it really even confessing when you’re stating something that you haven’t done?

Something I’ve been reminded of in my own life of late has been the deceptiveness of pride.

For me, one of the ways it manifests is by the confession of generic sin, with no concrete example. “Gosh, I really struggled to guard my words today. Pray for me about that, won’t you?” That kind of thing.

But am I that proud to honestly believe that I don’t have a specific instance of sin which requires repentance?

Is it really authentic for me to say that I struggle with guarding my tongue, but not say how I realized this when I’m speaking with the men I do life with?

Maybe I’m just projecting my own junk, but I wonder if our quest for authenticity isn’t a cover for doing the hard work of pursuing genuine humility?

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. That’s a cold bit of business right there.

The Pharisee slams the tax collector. Right. To. His. Face. All while he’s thanking God and declaring how he fasts and tithes faithfully.

Is that any different that you or I apologizing for sins committed under the banner of Christ?

“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.”

Is it possible that in the name of authenticity, we blind ourselves to our pride? That we forget our need to personally cry out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

The problem is, there’s only one man who is perfect. And we’re not Him.


Originally published in 2010.

Have the courage to apologize

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

So yesterday news broke about yet more unethical behavior from a celebrity pastor, this time buying his way onto The New York Times bestseller list.

There is so much wrong with this kind of behavior that I don’t even know where to begin. Frankly, I’m not sure I could say it any better than has been said here. But since reading about this latest in a series of life lessons on the dangers of unchecked hubris, there’s been one thing I’ve felt I’ve needed to say:

If you’ve done this, have the courage to apologize. 

Look, I know none of us are perfect. Anyone who says they’re without sin is a liar and a fool, and I am chief among them. But you know what I do expect? I expect that if we’re people who claim the name of Christ, we’re people who apologize and mean it.

What do I mean when I say we “mean it”? Simple: we’re genuinely repentant.

So a true apology is not immediately pleading Jesus, saying how thankful you are that He’s forgiven all your sins, past present and future. That’s spiritual and emotional manipulation, not asking for forgiveness. And it’s not a political non-apology, something akin to “mistakes were made.” That’s acknowledgement, not contrition.

What I mean when I say apologize is simple:

  • specifically name your action or attitude
  • own your personal error
  • explain how you are making restitution
  • ask for forgiveness

But all of this, of course, hinges on a critical truth: you have to actually think what you’ve done is wrong.

My fear for many who engage in shenanigans of this sort is they really don’t care. As much as they want to say they’re trying to boost the name of Jesus, they’re really out for themselves. They’ve traded integrity for influence. So the ends justify the means (even when the means are wrong). Their consciences may be so seared that that they’ve become blind to their own folly. They are like those leaders who sat in Moses’ seat, whom Jesus commanded the Jews to listen to but not imitate, for they do not practice what they preach.

They talk a good game, but it’s all talk.

“What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26)

Your integrity is worth more than your celebrity.

Your ministry is more important than your influence.

Your reward with Christ is better than the riches of this world.

If you are truly in Christ, you know this to be true. Now act like it. Have the courage to apologize.

Being disciplined about disciplines

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At the beginning of the year, I decided to try out a couple of different ideas on how to read my Bible this year. All of these have revolved around short, attainable goals (something my friend Steve McCoy has been strongly advocating of late).

The whole purpose of this isn’t to make life easier when it comes to disciplining oneself, but to create momentum. So many of us set goals planning to read the Bible in a year and wind up throwing in the towel within three to six months for one reason: the long-term goal doesn’t create check-points along the way. So if you miss a day, it’s harder to adjust. If you miss a week, it’s a lost cause. It’s hard to keep up any sort of momentum without having somewhere to stop, catch your breath and say, “Yep, I accomplished this thing.”

This has been really helpful for me since it’s allowed me to be a little more focused and intentional with my reading of Scripture. So, I fired up Logos and started making a couple of different plans:

In January, I did an overview of the Bible’s big story, hitting key points from Genesis through Revelation. Although the plan’s choices of passages weren’t always my favorite (I think it missed a few key ones, like most of Isaiah), it was still super-helpful, not because I don’t know the big story, but because it’s so necessary to keep it fresh in my thinking. All of us can become so consumed with minutiae or on a particular cause that we forget that the Bible really is a story about God’s redemption of His people.

Take the issue of poverty, for example. When we’re focused on the cause—caring for the poor—we tend to read passages in isolation. But if we don’t read Isaiah 58 in light of Israel’s idolatry problem and the economic aspects of the Mosaic Law, or Isaiah 61 as being explicitly Messianic, or the Beatitudes without the backdrop of Genesis 3, what do we have? Moralism. We wind up putting ourselves at the center of the story, and determine that it’s our job to fix the world . In other words, we have a thoroughly gospel-less—and therefore thoroughly anti-Christian—approach to the subject.

But putting the issue of poverty into the context of the redemptive story changes how we approach it—we see ourselves as being poor, and Christ being extravagantly generous, pouring Himself out on our behalf. We begin to have less concern for trying to save the world (for the world is not ours to save), and greater concern for how caring for the poor is a matter of worship, something we do in response to how great and wonderful Christ is.

(And for more on that, I’ll direct you to this book over here.)

In February, I started a pretty aggressive reading goal: to read the entire New Testament in 31 days. (I’m a couple of days behind, but hey, 33 days is pretty darn good, I think…) This has been a really great exercise, not because I’m trying to retain anything in major—when you’re reading between up to 16 chapters in a day, you’re not really shooting for comprehension—but because it allows you to see the consistency of the New Testament.

By reading Paul’s epistles in big chunks, you get to see patterns and particular emphases you might miss when reading in isolation. You get a better sense of the challenges he faced as a minister of the gospel, and the delicate balance he strikes on so many issues that we find offensive in our day. Just as importantly, you get to see how consistent Paul is with Jesus in the gospels. If you want to put silly notions of pitting Jesus against Paul, all you have to do is read the New Testament. It’s seamless in what it presents. And this is a very good thing indeed.

I haven’t settled on what I’m going to do after I finish my read through of the New Testament (I’m guessing I’ll wrap it up by Friday)—I’m currently leaning toward reading through Isaiah or Jeremiah in four weeks. But wherever I wind up, it’s going to be fun. Setting short, attainable goals has been incredibly helpful and rewarding for me, even at this early point in the year. Being disciplined about spiritual disciplines really matters, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where things go as the year continues.

A responsibility that cannot be ignored

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…bringing the people of God to consistent Christian living in the light of the gospel of the crucified Messiah is so important to Paul that he will not turn from this goal. If he moves people in this direction by encouragement and admonition, all to the good; if severer discipline is called for, he will not flinch. So Paul offers the Corinthians a choice: “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?” (4:21). He does not mean, of course, that if he comes with a whip (literally, a “rod” of correction, continuing the father/son metaphor) he will not love them. The contrast refers to the manner or form of his coming, not his motives. But spankings still hurt, even from a father who insists that he is spanking his son because he loves him. It is much better for the son to change his behavior, so that the manner of the father’s coming will be not with discipline but with a gentle spirit.

In short, Christian leaders dare not overlook their responsibility to lead the people of God in living that is in conformity with the gospel. That is why Paul urges people to live a life worthy of the calling they have received (Eph. 4:1). It is why Paul prays that believers may live a life worthy of the Lord, the crucified Messiah, and may please him in every way (Col. 1:10). And if the people of God dig in their heels in disobedience, there may come a time for Christian leaders to admonish, to rebuke, and ultimately to discipline firmly those who take the name of Christ but do not care to follow him. The sterner steps must never be taken hastily or lightly. But sometimes they must be taken. That is part of the responsibility of Christian leadership.

D.A. Carson, Cross and Christian Ministry, The: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians

Spontaneous baptisms and a nasty case of the heebie jeebies

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Over the last week, there’s been a lot of discussion about the practice of spontaneous baptism, spurred on by controversy surrounding Elevation Church’s how-to guide for “doing your part in God’s miracle.” Russell Moore’s weighed in, The Gospel Coalition released a roundtable discussion between Matt Chandler, Mark Dever and Darrin Patrick about 18 months ago, and undoubtedly many more voices are bound to say something.

None of us, of course, should be surprised that Furtick and Elevation would meticulously plan out such things—after all, anyone who has read Furtick’s books or heard him speak anywhere would be painfully aware of his Revivalist, um, “exuberance.” The first time I heard him speak was at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit a few years back where he demoed the power of Spirit Keys to set the mood during a worship gathering (and I hated Spirit Keys ever since).

Obviously there’s a lot more to be concerned about with Furtick than the spontaneous baptism issue (I’ll spare you my laundry list)—but the spontaneous baptism issue is an important one. While we see a few instances of spontaneous baptism in Scripture, which should lead us to be cautious of completely ruling it out as a practice in all circumstances, it’s still something we need to be careful of.

A bit of backstory: I was baptized in a more-or-less spontaneous situation. I’d been a Christian for about three months at that point and knew it was something I should do, but didn’t know when. One weekend in August 2005, the church we attended was performing baptisms (the majority of which were planned in advance). Emily and I watched each person and as we did, I felt compelled to get baptized. So Emily and I both talked to the youth pastor, asked if we could, the pastor got back into his wet pants, we shared what God had been doing in our lives—how He brought us to faith, how the gospel changed us—and then we were baptized.

The church I was baptized in was careful—their wasn’t a pressure for us to get baptized right away. There wasn’t an overly emotional appeal at the end, although they did invite people to come forward if they felt the Holy Spirit compel them to do so (which is fairly typical for most evangelical churches these days from what I can tell).

As you can imagine, the whole conversation is very personal to me. But here’s where I land, for what it’s worth: we should be very, very cautious to baptize anyone too quickly. I’d rather wait and (as best as any of us are able) be sure that someone is truly saved, is bearing fruit (even if it’s a tiny amount) and understands the significance of the sacrament.

What Furtick’s approach (and the revivalist mindset in general) reveals is a deficient understanding of this essential sacrament. But Furtick isn’t alone in this. We laughingly call baptism getting a bath, or getting dunked… When we’re being serious, we tend to stick to the now standard “outward declaration of an inward transformation” definition.

And while this elevator speech version is certainly true, we need to more fully express what that “inward transformation” entails. J. I. Packer’s definition of baptism is exceptionally helpful in this regard:

Christian baptism, which has the form of a ceremonial washing (like John’s pre-Christian baptism), is a sign from God that signifies inward cleansing and remission of sins (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 5:25–27), Spirit-wrought regeneration and new life (Titus 3:5), and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit as God’s seal testifying and guaranteeing that one will be kept safe in Christ forever (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 1:13–14). Baptism carries these meanings because first and fundamentally it signifies union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:3–7; Col. 2:11–12); and this union with Christ is the source of every element in our salvation (1 John 5:11–12). Receiving the sign in faith assures the persons baptized that God’s gift of new life in Christ is freely given to them. At the same time, it commits them to live henceforth in a new way as committed disciples of Jesus. Baptism signifies a watershed point in a human life because it signifies a new-creational ingrafting into Christ’s risen life. 1

While a convert doesn’t necessarily have to understand all the implications of this reality, if they understand none of it—if they’re compelled only by an emotional experience, if there is no credible evidence of Spirit-borne fruit, if there’s no evidence they understand the gospel at all—then we are absolutely right to have a nasty case of the heebie jeebies. Baptism signifies our union with Christ, the forgiveness of our sins and is a commitment to living as one of His disciples. When people just take a bath, they’re missing the point. And when we encourage them to do so, so are we.

photo credit: Mars Hill Church via photopin cc

Authority in Christianity belongs to God

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The Christian principle of biblical authority means, on the one hand, that God purposes to direct the belief and behavior of his people through the revealed truth set forth in Holy Scripture; on the other hand it means that all our ideas about God should be measured, tested, and where necessary corrected and enlarged, by reference to biblical teaching. Authority as such is the right, claim, fitness, and by extension power, to control. Authority in Christianity belongs to God the Creator, who made us to know, love, and serve him, and his way of exercising his authority over us is by means of the truth and wisdom of his written Word. As from the human standpoint each biblical book was written to induce more consistent and wholehearted service of God, so from the divine standpoint the entire Bible has this purpose. And since the Father has now given the Son executive authority to rule the cosmos on his behalf (Matt. 28:18), Scripture now functions precisely as the instrument of Christ’s lordship over his followers. All Scripture is like Christ’s letters to the seven churches (Rev. 2–3) in this regard.

J.I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs

Read The Pilgrim’s Progress with me

One of my favorite parts of the day is reading books with my kids, especially with Abigail (our eldest). While I love reading with the younger two, Abigail’s old enough that I get to start reading cool stuff with her.

Last year, we read through The Chronicles of Narnia in its entirety (it took about three or four months). I’ve just introduced her to Calvin and Hobbes (and soon the complete collection will become part of our family library). More recently, we’ve been working our way through John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

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And I’ve been having such a good time reading it with her, I wanted to invite you to read it with me, as well.

Why this book?

One of the major reasons is this is one of the few books outside the Bible all Christians should read. In fact, historically, it’s been the most widely-read book outside the Bible, although this is not the case today. It’s a book that was instrumental in the faith of Charles Spurgeon and countless other believers. And it’s one of which’s influence is in danger of being lost. J.I. Packer wrote:

For two centuries Pilgrim’s Progress was the best-read book, after the Bible, in all Christendom, but sadly it is not so today.

When I ask my classes of young and youngish evangelicals, as I often do, who has read Pilgrim’s Progress, not a quarter of the hands go up.

Yet our rapport with fantasy writing, plus our lack of grip on the searching, humbling, edifying truths about spiritual life that the Puritans understood so well, surely mean that the time is ripe for us to dust off Pilgrim’s Progress and start reading it again.

Certainly, it would be great gain for modern Christians if Bunyan’s masterpiece came back into its own in our day.

Have you yourself, I wonder, read it yet? 1

The way this reading project will work is pretty simple:

  • We’ll read one chapter a week, starting the first week of March.
  • I’ll be sharing some reflections on the chapter in a new post, along with some additional questions for discussion.

Like I said, pretty straightforward, but I promise it’ll be worth it.

So how about it? Will you read The Pilgrim’s Progress with me?  

What does the Bible say about religion?

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It’s really popular today to distinguish between religion and Jesus—as though the gospel and religion are diametrically opposed. We love Jesus, but hate religion. Religion says “do,” Jesus says, “done.” And although many of the critiques have their own strengths and weaknesses, there’s a small problem: the way we understand “religion” entirely depends on what we mean by the word. This is a subject I’ve explored in a new paper I’ve written for ExploreGod.com:

Millions of people around the globe consider the Bible an authoritative guidebook on how to live a godly, righteous life. So how does the Bible understand “religion”? What does it say?

The answer isn’t as cut-and-dried as we might like to think. The Bible itself is neither wholly positive nor entirely negative about religion. After all, at the most basic level, a religion is a set of deeply held personal or institutional beliefs or principles. There’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. In fact, by that definition, every human being on earth is deeply religious.

But the issue is not whether we have deeply held beliefs and practices—the issue is to whom those beliefs are devoted. To better understand this, let’s turn to the book of Romans in the Bible.

Keep reading at ExploreGod.com.

(photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photopin cc)

Choosing family over stuff

Today is Family Day, a civic holiday allowing us to enjoy an extra day of family togetherness, in many parts of Canada. One of the ironies of Family Day, though, is how little “regular” time families actually get together, especially as increasingly the average family requires two (or more) incomes to survive.

I really feel for families in this situation. I know a lot of people for whom this is reality. They’ve got mortgages, car payments, student loans… Some of them are cool with it, others feel stuck.

When Emily and I got married, a big question we wrestled with was whether or not Emily would stay home with the kids or if she’d go back to work. We chose for her to stay home, knowing  there would be a cost. So we went from a fairly decent two incomes to… less. Like a lot less.

About five years ago, I had a meeting with the pastor of the church we formerly attended. We wound up discussing some of our adjustments to the single income lifestyle, and toward the end of our conversation, he said, with more than a hint of resignation, “The days of the single-income household are gone.”

Around the same time, we watched Maxed Out, a brilliant and troubling documentary chronicling the practices of the credit card industry in the United States, and the stories of many Americans whose lives have been crippled by debt. They can’t escape it, no matter how hard they try, it seems.

We’ve made tremendous mistakes financially over the years, and everything came to a head when we finally decided to sell our house. For us, it came down to a choice about our convictions. Which was more important—owning a home or having Emily stay at home? 

We chose Emily staying at home.

We chose to remain at one income, to sacrifice some of the things the world, our friends and even our parents kept telling us we “should” want. Why? Because we’d considered the cost, and found it worth the price we had to pay.

It was better for us to say goodbye to a lifestyle we should have wanted, in order to embrace the one we have. We have everything we need, if not always everything we want.

And that’s okay. This, again, is not to say our decision is the right one for everyone. Some of our friends have decided to go the same route as we have. Others have not.

But when we feel trapped by the expectations of the world, we need to remember: we can always choose to go another way. We don’t need the house. We don’t need the new car. But kids need their mom and dad. Husbands need their wives. Wives need their husbands.

Sometimes we can have it all, and that’s not bad. But sometimes we have to choose between the two. And when we do, it’s always better to choose family over stuff.

Three reasons to keep reading the Old Testament

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The Old Testament causes much consternation among North American evangelicals. Although historically, Christians have embraced the Old Testament as being absolutely essential to the Christian life—I believe the first person to do this was Jesus—somewhere along the way, we got scared of it.

We started reading into the New Testament a kind of sentimental love that isn’t there. We started seeing the actions of God in the Old Testament as harsh and mean. And as our sentimentalism took root, we found ourselves asking, “can’t we just skip this?”

Here are three reasons to keep the Old Testament front and center:

1. To understand God’s actions in the world. To not put too fine a point on it, when you lose the Old Testament, you lose the gospel. Period.

The Old Testament is the historical backdrop for everything we see in the New. The gospel takes place within the framework of the covenants established with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, and fulfills them. If you do not have the Old Testament, you cannot understand why Christ came to die. We lose the foundation for his death and resurrection.

But when you maintain a solid grasp on the Old Testament, you not only keep the gospel’s foundation, you get the fuller picture of God’s actions in the world. The entire Bible tells the story of God’s war against sin—from the first promise of the coming of one who would crush the head of the serpent until the consummation of the new creation, this is what God is doing.

When you lose the Old Testament, you lose the reason for God’s actions in the world. You lose the gospel. So read the Old Testament.

2. To understand the character of God. When we skip the Old Testament, we lose a clear picture of who God is. In his Christianity Today article addressing this very subject, Mark Gignilliat puts it well:

We do no favors for God or ourselves when we lessen his severity, even in our attempts to make him acceptable to non-believers. While many of our worship songs today speak of touching and seeing God, most biblical characters did not line up for such an opportunity. Isaiah knew his life was over after seeing Yahweh. Jacob never walked the same way again. Job asked for a day in court with God and then regretted it.

We cannot understand God’s character without reading the Old Testament. He reveals himself in all his perfection there. His holiness is on display—and his love is magnified more deeply because we understand just how great our offenses are. So read the Old Testament.

3. To avoid becoming a heretic. This might seem ironic considering just yesterday I wrote about our need to not cheapen words like this one. But if you skip over the Old Testament consistently, if you create a false dichotomy in the Bible, you’re going to fall into heresy. Here are two common heresies that stem from rejecting the Old Testament:

Marcionism. A heresy that emerged around the year 144, this is a dualistic view that rejects the Old Testament and the God of Israel as being a tyrannical monster where the God of the New is a God of love and peace. This is the god we see in Rob Bell’s Love Wins, Brian McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity, and so many others (whether it’s outright stated or not is another question). But more practically, it’s the god of anyone who says, “I could never believe in a God who…”

Antinomianism. This is the more subtle heresy because it’s harder to spot. In its crassest forms, antinomianism proposes that we don’t need the Old Testament—and more specifically, the Mosaic Law—at all anymore. It has no good purpose or benefit for the Christian. It suggests Jesus obliterated, rather than fulfilled the Law. Yet, this is what Paul warned of in Romans 6:1, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” And his answer, “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:2).

But we still need the Law—not as a means of earning salvation (for it was never that to begin with), but to see the perfection of God, to see the requirements of holiness, to see how far we fall short and our desperate need for rescue.

If we lose the Old Testament, we lose all of this. We lose all hope, all joy, and all purpose in the Christian faith. So, Christian, read the Old Testament.

The accidental cheapening of heresy

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There once was a man named Seth. Seth was a popular author, especially among creative and “non-traditional” leadership types. He wrote with an unusual buzzwordiness while sharing many truths and many half-truths about tribes, lynchpins and meatballs on top of sundaes.

He wrote of our desperate need for people unafraid to challenge the establishment and chart their own course for the good of the many.

He called them “heretics.” But we should not.

This week I was reading a very good book on social media that embraced Seth’s “heretic” ideal. Not theological heresy, the author stressed, but ideological—being willing to push the boundaries of comfort in order to reach as many as possible.

But I’ve got to be honest, whenever I see Christian authors use the term “heretic” in this way, I get a little nervous. It’s not because I disagree with the sentiment (I generally don’t)—it’s the danger of cheapening the word “heretic.”

Imagine you’re in a room with no windows and only one door, which is at the farthest point from you. The door opens a little bit and someone throws a grenade in, which promptly explodes (as it is intended to do). This is what calling someone a heretic is like. Or at least, it should be. Churches have split over heresy. Ministries have been destroyed because of it. It’s a big word, and just like a grenade, once you pull the pin, there’s no going back.

So why do we treat it so flippantly?

Why, following along with a popular book, are we redefining a word that carries such weight and power—transforming a profanity into a virtue? Truthfully, I don’t believe it’s of malicious intent. I think it’s simply that we’re careless with words. We don’t give them enough weight; we don’t consider carefully what they mean.

Seth used the word “heretic” intentionally. He knew the power it holds, otherwise he wouldn’t have used it. We, on the other hand, have simply poured ourselves a nice, tall glass of his Kool-Aid.

When we assign foreign meanings to familiar words, we wind up cheapening the concepts they represent as a result. When it comes to a word like “heretic,” we must avoid this at all costs. And this is but one example. We’ve transformed tolerance into something wholly intolerant. We’ve desecrated love, turning it into a mere feeling flitting about with no depth or power. So love becomes preference, disagreement becomes prejudice, truth becomes error… Careless words cheapen powerful truths.

Three reasons to study church history

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I never loved history in school. In fact, I downright hated it. It wasn’t because I didn’t care about history itself—it’s that it was pretty clear my teachers didn’t give a rip about it. This might be because, as Canadians, our history textbooks are notoriously dull (although our history itself isn’t).

Over the last few years, though, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to studying history—specifically church history. The history of Christianity is so rich and so fascinating—whether we’re looking at the shining moments of spectacular faith, or the worst gaffes of the Reformers and their persecutors, there is much to be gained by studying it.

So, with that in mind, here are three reasons why we should all be studying church history:

1. The Bible commands us to.

Over and over again, the Bible commands God’s people to “remember,” to look back on what God has done, to remember His wondrous works (Ex. 13:3; Deut. 5:15; 7:18; 8:1; 8:18; 1 Chron. 16:12; Psalm 105:5). By looking back at what God has done, we can look forward in confidence that He is faithful to keep His promises and fulfill His purposes in this world.

2. The stories of the past help us persevere in the present.

You can’t help but be inspired at the kind of faith that God’s people have shown throughout the years. When you read of the trials of so many men and women in a book like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, you can’t help but be amazed at how God’s people faithfully endured immense suffering and trial over the centuries—and be inspired to persevere in your own difficulties.

3. The past helps us defend the faith in the present.

Studying church history helps us better understand key events and crucial doctrines—how the New Testament canon came to be, or how the doctrine of the Trinity developed, for example. It also helps us to see patterns of thought, particularly when it comes to heresy.

“Heretics, in fact, served the church in an unintended way,” writes Bruce Shelley in  Church History in Plain Language. “Their pioneering attempts to state the truth forced the church to shape ‘good theology’—a rounded, systematic statement of biblical revelation.”

When you have a sense of the issues the Church has faced over the centuries, it helps you better understand the debates of our own day. Right now, there are a number of ancient heresies being promoted by popular authors, including Pelagianism (a rejection of the sinfulness of man), Marcionism (the rejection of God as depicted in the Old Testament—and of Christianity’s necessary connection to Judaism)… even Montanism has made its way back into the spotlight, if Phyllis Tickle is in fact promoting what she appears to be in her recent interview with Jonathan Merritt and in her book, The Age of the Spirit.

But by studying church history, we can see what’s come before and recognize the modern variants today, which better enables us to defend the truth.

Where to start?

The best thing to do is start simple. Read Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language, which is both brilliant and comprehensible. Start listening to Stephen Nichol’s Five Minutes in Church History podcast. Read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Take Robert Godfrey’s courses available through Ligonier Connect.

And from there, keep going. Start digging into books like Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context by Everett Ferguson or 2000 Years of Christ’s Power by Nick Needham. There is no limit to how deep you can go, and there is no limit to the rewards you’ll find in your study.

(Photo credit: Vincent_AF via photopin cc)

Your presuppositions shape your response

Bill-Nye-debate

Last night was the big origins debate between Bill Nye (the Science Guy) and Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis). And while I’m sure every side is declaring victory over the other, from what I saw an opportunity was lost. Why?

Because the problem with the origins debate is the key point that’s almost always missed: this isn’t a scientific debate. Not really. Instead, we need to recognize it for what it truly is: a philosophical and theological one. 

A year ago, I read a very thoughtful book by Gerald Rau, who is both a Christian and a scientist, called Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything (reviewed here)In this book, Rau makes a critical point:

“Our worldview and philosophy shape the way we view that evidence from the first time we hear it… Each scientist is working from the perspective of one particular theory, which affects both data collection and interpretation.” (Kindle locations 189, 202)

Sha-zam.

Rau gets it.

Your worldview—the underlying presuppositions you hold which help you make sense of the world—necessarily affects your observations about the world. So think about it this way:

For the Christian, everything ties back to the truth that God created the universe and everything in it. That he creates and sustains and holds all things together.1 And so the Christian can provide an answer to many questions the naturalist cannot.2

His worldview is begins with a Creator, and the natural response for the Christian is to worship. To give praise to the One who made all things.

For scientists who are Christians, this is what drives so much of their work. It’s not a desire to simply know “what,” but a desire to worship the “Who” behind the “what.” (Does that make sense?)

For the naturalist, though, the answers Christians provide come across as pat or (as my my friend Bill described it), as though you’re trying to counter science with magic, something that’s incredibly frustrating to Christians for whom these answers seem so “obvious.” Why?

Because the naturalist’s underlying presuppositions about how the world works—his worldview—necessarily prevents him from accepting even the idea of God as a possible answer. In order for his worldview to remain coherent, he must reject categorically reject the supernatural, even if it means having to say “I don’t know” to questions Christians can answer.

And because the subject is rarely ever broached, the real debate gets completely missed. It’s like buying a house and spending all your time focused on the flooring, but never investigating the foundation. You might buy something that looks pretty, but is structurally unsound.

This is where our debates need to go—Christians need to stop trying to debate symptoms, and start dealing with causes. The creation vs evolution question is a symptom of competing worldviews crashing into one another.

We must always remember that our presuppositions shape our response to the evidence we see. We always interpret what we experience and what we learn through the lens of our worldview.

So we need to open up the worldview question, and humbly begin to explore its coherence (or lack thereof). When we do this, we may find our debates to be far more fruitful for all.

God’s love attracts and repels all of us

amber-heart

We claim to find comfort in the fact that God is love, as the apostle John put it. We pine after him. We talk of him incessantly. We spend centuries waiting for him. We prepare for his coming by building grand religious edifices. But when this God who is love comes, we, like the grand inquisitor, imprison, interrogate, and then kill him. That’s why Christ’s compassionate acts could draw great crowds that in the next moment would turn and lunge at him with bared fangs, like a startled dog or provoked bear (Matt. 21:9; 27:20ff.; cf. Prov. 17:12). Every one of us does this, including the author of “The Grand Inquisitor.” The story is powerful because it points to something deep in all of our hearts—a hatred not just for God but for his love!

What people fail to realize is that true love—God’s love—simultaneously attracts and repels all of us. It’s a thing of beauty and a thing of gross offense to the fallen heart. That’s why Jesus is the bad guy, at least in our minds. Gaze upon the love of God from one angle, and it will appear as the most resplendent thing in all the universe. But walk a few yards and look up again, and you will find that your lip snarls, your fists clench, and your heart becomes morally offended. It’s the same thing you’re looking at—God’s love. You’re just seeing it from a different angle.…

 Christ’s love, though beautiful to the natural man by common grace, also offends him (see 1 Cor. 2:14). We like all the talk of compassion and caring for the downtrodden. Our eyes sometimes weep over acts of self-sacrifice by a mother, a brother, a friend, or a lover. Still, there’s something deeper about God’s love that offends our natural, unregenerate eyes.

Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love, p. 79