Monday, May 25, 2009

More Than Words

Consider this post a link between the one before it (The Power of Words) and the one after it (The Power of Community). Consider this a three-part balanced presentation of how I am convinced our contemporary culture should understand and experience the Kingdom of God, before it is finally consummated with the return of Christ. The first part is meant to highlight the necessary focus on the gospel word, this second post you are currently reading is to connect the two together and make some clarifying observations, and the third part is meant to highlight the necessary focus on gospel community.

Essentially this presentation is a summary of the book Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community. I think this book has to be one of the best and most balanced treatments of this topic available. There are a lot of books - I mean a LOT - that talk about church, what is wrong with church, how we should reshape, or change, or do church in our culture, but frankly, most of them leave me seriously wanting. That is very ignorant and arrogant of me to say; ignorant because I haven’t read many of them, and arrogant because I certainly haven’t written one myself. But I have read the summaries, the table of contents, the first chapter or introduction, and parts in the middle of enough of them to see where the authors are going. And most of it is unbalanced and therefore unhelpful. Much of it is very good, and very convicting, and very true, but my conclusion is that Total Church includes all of these components (some of which I am uncomfortable with) but does it in a way without neglecting the balance, and therefore in a way that is helpful and loving for people, and honoring to God.

I don’t mean for this, or any of my posts, to sound critical or unloving. If it sounds that way, please tell me. I also don’t want to hinder the energy that is making real kingdom impact to the glory of Christ. I am sensitive to the challenge that those who say something can’t be done (or say it is being done the wrong way) shouldn’t interfere with those who are actually doing it. I don’t want to interfere in that way. What I want to do is humbly utilize my careful, analytical, teaching, and perhaps prophetic personality and gifting for the glory of God.


My concern is the classic theological error of reductionism. The problem is not that these arguments, or movements, or books say things that are themselves untrue, but they just don’t say everything the Bible says about the subject. One side makes the assumption that the gospel word (truth and mission) will be preserved and proclaimed in gospel community, so no need to stress out about the word part of it. The other side makes the assumption that gospel community will naturally result from the faithful proclamation of the gospel word, and so no need to specifically prioritize the community part of it. Both of these sides are wrong. And so these incomplete presentations of truth can quickly become unclear truth, or unhelpful truth, or worse - untruth - without anyone even knowing it. My opinion is that Total Church offers the best example of the biblical balance between the gospel word and the gospel community that Jesus Christ intends for in His Church, and that we long for in our soul.

Let me give you one example of what I am talking about. I’m reading the book The Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay. Let me say that it is really good and really convicting and really important for Christians to read to understand what Church should be. Emphasis on the posture of our proclamation of the Gospel was particularly helpful to me. There is a chapter titled 1700 Year Wedgie, which I also like. It is meaningful (albeit provocative). But the author would do good to be more careful with his premise. The chapter basically makes the argument that we have misinterpreted, or plain messed up, the biblical concept of church for 1700 years. Essentially everything since Constantine has been a downward spiral of unbiblical, institutionalized church that needs to be seriously rethought and modeled after the churches and incarnational communities in Acts.

To which I say: Wait a minute. I agree that Constantine screwed up the distinction that God intended between the church and secular society in a profound and devastating way. And I agree we should by all means strive to become more like the biblical model of church presented in the Book of Acts. And I agree that people are leaving, or will likely never come, to our churches. But minimizing the impact and good that the church as we know it today has done is an ignorant and offensive interpretation of church history. Millions of people have been saved, communities have been transformed, the Word of God has been proclaimed at home and around the world to the eternal salvation of souls and the temporary care of bodies, evils have been silenced, and God has been glorified in immeasurable ways during these glorious years.

Much has gone wrong, and still the name of Christ and the cause of Christianity is wrongly associated with evil and manipulation, or boredom and hypocrisy, in some cases. But God has worked mightily through Great Awakenings, giant preachers, fearless missionaries, faithful churches, selfless servants, and ordinary people to move mountains. And in most cases, this has happened through the structure of a local church by the proclamation of the gospel word. In many cases, you might say, God has worked by underground means and “Jesus movements” despite the local church. True enough.

But I’m not about to throw away the example and impact of John Calvin, John Wesley, John Owen, Jonathon Edwards, John Newton, John Knox, and some others not named John (like Charles Spurgeon, Charles Simeon, Martin Luther, Athanasius, Augustine, George Whitefield, William Tyndale, etc.) who preached, defended, and translated the Word of God in local churches in a way that saved souls, loved people, and changed the world. And in some cases they paid the ultimate price. Or people like Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, David Brainerd, William Carey, Hudson Taylor, David Livingstone, and more, who were sent out, by local churches, for the sake of the nations, proclaiming the gospel word across the globe, some giving their lives to show that Christ is more precious.

All these men did not proclaim the gospel word only as if community was irrelevant. Their radical Christian service demonstrated the gospel in a way that created and sustained authentic community. But they did proclaim the gospel word. I'd like to suggest that the greater problem today is not that the church has become institutionalized and therefore destroyed the biblical model of gospel community (though it has); but that it has become less clear in its proclamation of the gospel word and therefore been missing the power that God intended for it to have.

I get so frustrated when this presentation is made about going back to the church of Acts because of the bad that the institutional church has done (which is true) while completely ignoring the good it has done. As if God has not been sovereign, in control, and honored the whole time. We need more balance. In the ancient church portrayed in Acts the missional, incarnational, counterculture, and communal experience of gospel community (which was and is central) would have had no impact without the understanding and proclamation of the gospel word (which was and is central). We should move forward with all the energy and passion that is driving those who want to throw away the institutional church – because they are right about what the church is and should be (namely a gospel community, not a building). But we should do it embracing and protecting the aspects of the institutional church (namely the faithful proclamation of the gospel word, through preaching and mission) that have been the vehicle of God’s mighty and sovereign hand for seventeen hundred years.


I was further relieved and convicted of my heart in this matter after I read Mark Driscoll’s article on the Fox News website. Responding to the recent article in Newsweek about the Decline of Christian America, which I have posted on already, Driscoll indicates that there is a distinction that needs to be made between Christian America (comprised of those people who have had a truly transforming experience with Jesus Christ and are living new lives as practicing Christians), and Christendom America (comprised of those people who have not had a truly transforming experience with Jesus Christ and are living lives virtually indistinguishable from those who are non-Christians, but who may still profess Christ). The latter is declining and the former is growing. Praise God.

To look at the damage Christendom America has caused, and to look at its resulting decline, is much less important than looking at the strength of Christian America, and to acknowledge its roots. We should embrace and even participate in the decline of Christendom America, in part because it identifies the faith and evangelicalism primarily with politics. But we should encourage and continue the advance of Christian America, and the role of the local church in that advance. This advance did not begin with the house church or emerging movements. It has been building for 1700 years in local churches, and it needs our passion for and commitment to the gospel – word and community. It always has been, and needs to continue to be, on the margins of society living as a counterculture for the common good. To challenge the institutionalized model of Christendom America is not a new idea, and gospel-centered preachers and local churches have been doing it for centuries. We need to continue it, with all the passion from the emerging and community-minded type, and all the faithfulness of the truth-saturated, gospel-centered and word-minded type.

There are obviously examples on the other side of the coin of books or arguments or movements who are mega-defensive when you say anything bad about the institutional church as if you just uttered damnable blasphemy, and who prioritize the gospel word only. These examples portray so much arrogance, so much pride, so much religion, and ultimately so much biblical ignorance, that they are hardly worth mentioning. They make the assumption that community is expendable and that Jesus Christ doesn’t care as long as you get your doctrine right and have a successful church service. Silliness. I get it. I try desperately every day not to drift into this category.

So if you are waiting for that list of books I was going to give you to read along with me so you could intelligently participate in this dialogue about the Church (was there anybody that was willing to do this?), keep waiting. In the meantime, pick up Total Church, alongside your Bible, and I think you’ll understand the topic and have a great resource to approach it with balance. And please let me know when you do so you can add to and help my imperfect, and hopefully humble, and hopefully balanced, interpretation.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Power of Words

If you’ll forgive the generalization, I would say that I think there are (at least) three kinds of people in our culture: number people, picture people, and word people. Now, all people are really all of these types of people, which is to say, that all people communicate and think and interact in numbers, pictures, and words. But some are more naturally inclined to one or the other. Would you agree?

Hopefully you can relate and follow this categorization. Number people think in numbers. They are good with dates, organized with money, and probably particularly good in business, finance, or perhaps certain areas of science. Picture people think and interact more abstractly, are artistic, visual learners, and creative. Word people are good at reading and writing, communicate well in conversation, are articulate, maybe a bit introverted, but probably good at teaching.

In case you have been living under a rock and couldn’t guess, I will reveal that I am a word person. I don’t want this post to sound like a defense for word people being the most dominant people (if you are a fellow word person, check out John Piper's interpretation of 1 Corinthians 1:17 and whether there can be Christian eloquence without emptying the Cross of its power), but that I think God has made me this way (among other things) for the purpose of calling attention to the power of words, and most fundamentally, the power and centrality of a Word.

Our culture, though the people in it are not all word people, is increasingly interested and influenced by words. Have you ever heard of the Internet? If not, it’s the one with email (and the one that connected you to this blog). Through the Internet - information, opinions, truth, deceit, blessing, and debauchery - is being communicated through pictures and numbers, yes, but most predominately, through words. And as Rick Warren would say, those words are instant, constant, global, and permanent. Check out this article in The Economist that explains the groundbreaking technology called Hyperwords, which is designed to transform Internet browsing by providing more connections between data, presenting information in new ways, and making it easier to navigate. Rummaging through the Internet.

This time in our culture is a unique and important opportunity for word-centered Christians.

The Bible is a word. It is the communicated word of God through inspiration of the Holy Spirit, about the story of the Creator who has existed for all time in perfect holiness and who created man in His image to exist in perfect relationship with Him, but who rebelled from the beginning, and while we were yet sinners He chose a people to demonstrate his redemptive and covenant love to, which was eventually fulfilled and completed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Bible is a word, which is made up of individual words, and phrases of words, that all have power to impart grace on the spot to those who hear.

The Gospel is a word. It is Good News. It is a message. It can only sufficiently be communicated through the words of people, as it has been throughout history, and based on its most complete revelation in Scripture. It is through these words that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation. Just as light was spoken into existence by the word of God, and Lazarus was raised to life by the word of Jesus, so light and rebirth can only come into our hearts by the word of God, through the Holy Spirit, spoken and written faithfully by those who believe. The Gospel is a missionary word. It is meant to be proclaimed.

Jesus Christ is the Word. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Through Him all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We now see and experience the Word of God, by the proclamation of the Word of God, through the revelation to us in the Word of God.

Words are important. The Bible, the Gospel, and Jesus Christ himself is not an empty word; but our very life, and by that Word we shall live long in the land we are destined to possess, as it says in Deuteronomy. And the Word is not bound, as Paul says in 2 Timothy. It will always accomplish the purpose for which it was sent.

In the Panel Discussion at The Gospel Coalition Conference, after explaining the importance and effectiveness of having your nose in the text for those who communicate the Word of God, John Piper said:

“The assumption that having your nose in this text, phrase by phrase, to see what every precious word means for your soul, for the church, and for this world, would result in unimaginative, boring, disconnectedness from the world is JUST RIDICULOUS. Where did that ever come from? Well, it came from boring preachers who are disconnected from the world and didn’t have their nose in the text, I suppose.”

If you communicate the Gospel and the content of the Bible in some form – in the pulpit, in a small group, in conversation, anywhere – please take this thought to heart. It is really all I wanted to say. When we communicate the words of Jesus, who is the Word of God, through the Bible, which is the Word of God, by the proclamation of the Gospel, which is the Word of God, we not only speak about Jesus, and for Jesus, but as Jesus. The Word of God is not just about the grace of God, but it is the grace of God, imparted to its hearers on the spot. The Gospel is not just about a power, but it is power, for salvation.

Preach the Word. It is not unimaginative or boring or disconnected from our culture. It is our culture’s only hope. No community or relationship is anything of eternal value without it.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Cross and Swine Flu

The swine flu reference was only for the headline, as a way to draw you into this post. Sorry. I don't have much to say about it except that I have enjoyed and benefited from humorous, and profound, commentary on it from others more witty and intelligent than myself. Perhaps you will also.

By way of transition, what I hoped to do was consider the message of the Cross of Jesus Christ in the complex culture we live in that talks more about illness than it does about cures, and is more concerned (at least right now) about staying away from people who are hurting than of loving them in community and offering them help and healing. Say what you will about the seriousness or danger of swine flu, but you have to admit that the current buzz is an interesting statement about the way our culture approaches and talks about sickness and healing.

With that said, I wonder if I can ask you to follow the analogy of sickness as representing sin and healing as representing the Cross (which the Bible essentially teaches), and with that in mind reflect on this presentation of the centrality and necessity of the Cross of Jesus Christ and the Gospel, as power to save not only from physical sickness (eventually), but also from much worse.


Without the message of the Cross, or outside of the truth of Christ’s substitutionary atoning death for us on the Cross, there is no hope or counsel or ultimate love we can give to any person or that we can bring to any community. Without it, all we have is Christ as our example (He is that!), but which is not only insufficient for the life to come, but also is incomplete for our lives now, because we could never expect to completely live up to His example. Thinking we can will always inevitably lead us to either legalism or license. Or, without it, all we have is a vague, impersonal, big picture story of creation and restoration that while true and absolutely crucial to clarify, is not sufficient without the spoken word about the centrality of the Cross for individual salvation.

Unregenerate people doing life together in a loving community, identified as Christian, is not enough, and is actually borderline dishonoring to God. And no unregenerate person becomes regenerate (saved by grace through faith, born again in Christ) without the proclamation and understanding of the Gospel of the Cross. This by no means implies that people can’t become saved in community, or through countless other ways by the unpredictable and spontaneous work of the Holy Spirit, who is present in every fabric of this world. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. But the Gospel is a word, and it must be spoken and heard for the Spirit to move and for people to be saved. Why then is there so much hesitation to be clear about the nature, accomplishment, and necessity of the message of the Cross?

Is it offensive? Jesus warns and guarantees us that it will be, and through Paul instructs and commands us to proclaim and preserve it anyway. Is it difficult to relate to? I don't think so. Who couldn’t relate to the ultimate satisfaction of their deepest longings that is found in the crucified and resurrected Christ? Is it ineffective? Such a notion is altogether ridiculous, as history has shown us quite the opposite. Martin Luther, among others, immediately comes to mind.

But, the message of the Cross, this substitutionary atonement message - that Jesus absorbed the wrath of God that we deserve as our substitute on the Cross, accomplished for us forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to the Father, and made us clean in Christ - does not make any sense without the knowledge of the wrath of God, which does not make any sense outside of the holiness of God. So at some point in community, there has to be a clear communication and deep understanding of the holiness of God for the Cross to make any sense, and therefore for any balanced Christian love to minister to, or have any impact on, people.

This does not mean that our proclamation of the Gospel, in word and deed, has to begin with a hell-fire declaration of the wrath of God and the reality of hell. You do not wake someone up by shining a flashlight in their face (you could, but it is not recommended). It does mean we should start with who God is, what His holiness means, and then allow that to apply to our condition. We shouldn't start with who we are without first identifying who God is. If we expect in Christian community to show people Jesus, and bring people into the experience of His grace and the authentic reconciliation with Him that will enter them into the abundant life He created them for and the restoration of a new heaven and new earth - if we expect to do this without ever communicating the reality of the wrath and holiness of God, and in turn the centrality of the Cross for the hope of their souls and the hope of the eternal community within the kingdom of God that they can become a part of through repentance, than we are kidding ourselves and ultimately replacing the saving power of the Gospel with the condemning power of a non-Gospel.


Taking the advice of a trusted friend, as I discern how best to be a force for the Gospel, I want to labor and pray and balance my vigor for truth with the grace of Jesus. Call me out if my approach or words are in any way unloving or inconsistent with the Sovereign and unfailing grace of Jesus Christ. Please. I need you.

These categories of people are not exhaustive, and may or may not apply to you. Some are extreme, and Death by Love by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears was the origin of some of these points. Hopefully, the ministry of the Cross in them is helpful and convicting to you. And hopefully they are exhaustive enough for you to see that the message of the Cross is able and has power to minister to whatever category of suffering or life you would place yourself. I promise it is. If you can relate, I pray that the grace of Jesus lands on your through them in a life-changing way.


The Cross of Christ is their propitiation and justification. The guilt, shame, and punishment they feel they deserve was accomplished and wiped away in Jesus Christ. The righteousness of Jesus that they are far from is accounted to them freely in Christ by faith.


The Cross of Christ is their expiation. The dirtiness they feel about themselves is wiped clean in the expiation achieved by the death of Jesus Christ. They are clean in Christ. White as snow.


God intends for the physical, mental, emotional, psychological, or material suffering we experience in this life to be a representation (a small glimpse) of the horror of sin. We should feel the same way about our sin that we do about the suffering in our lives; the same anger, pain, sadness, frustration, confusion, and hatred. But in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, we see one who suffered more uniquely, severely, and terribly than anything we could ever imagine or experience, and not only did He overcome it by ultimately overcoming death, but also He did it all so that we would not have to, and so that we would be reconciled to God the Father. The anger and pain we feel toward our suffering, and which God feels toward sin, and which we deserve, was absorbed in Jesus Christ. It is gone. And now He promised that these light and momentary afflictions are producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, and that He works all things together for good for those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose.

The “love requires free will” defense doesn’t suffice for me as an explanation to the existence of evil and suffering, and in my opinion doesn't minister that well. I believe in love and I believe in free will. But the little it does to explain the existence of suffering does not make up for the even less it offers as to an explanation of its purpose. We, as Christians, have a more complete, helpful, and hopeful answer to suffering that we should be faithful to in our apologetics, love, and proclamation of truth. And it centers entirely on the Cross of Christ.


Our sufferings are to the world a personal presentation of the sufferings of Christ. In our suffering, we fill up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions; not by way of accomplishment, but by way of presentation. If we suffer well, we show to the world that the most precious thing in the universe to us is not our job, or our possessions, or even our family or our life – the most precious thing is Christ, and like Him, for the joy set before us we will endure our suffering, knowing we can never lose Christ. Jesus endured the most terrible and unique suffering that we ever could and He did it by focusing on the joy set before Him, namely, reconciliation with His father and His children. By our suffering, we offer a personal presentation of this most severe and important suffering to those who would not otherwise have seen it (except in the Bible, which is powerful, but not personally visible). We show its power to save, to strengthen, to comfort, and to love. And by so doing we satisfy our deepest joys, we witness to the salvation that we have into a kingdom community of love, and we bring ultimate glory to the God of the universe, who is seen as infinitely more precious than anything we could lose in this life, and anything that our temporary suffering could take.


Those who are healthy, wealthy, and living the American dream, whether they know it or not, are paralyzed and controlled by idols in their lives. These idols may come in the form of personal idols like money, romance, or children; religious idols like truth, gifts, or morality; or cultural idols like reason, family, or ideology. Good things, that are made to be ultimate things. Whatever they are, idolatry in any of these forms is promising affluent people in America salvation, social order, and joy that it can never give them. None of their idols can die for their sins. If we take the Gospel to the culture of idols, in entertainment, academia, media, and business and show that only in Jesus can the powers and principalities that control us through idols be ultimately defeated, we can turn the world upside down. How could He do this in a way that both punishes our idolatry and reconciles us to Him?

As Tim Keller says, at the Cross Jesus defeated our idols objectively, by paying the punishment for our spiritual adultery and reconciling His bride to himself, becoming both just and the justifier for those who have faith in Him; and He did it subjectively, by being a personal Savior who did what no idol could ever do - die for our sins - and who will outlast all the idols in our life (even our family). If we take this Gospel to the idols of our culture, we will turn the world upside down and free people from a power that they don't even know is controlling them and waiting to crush them eternally, if it is what they have their ultimate hope in.


As Andy Stanley wisely points out in his sermon series Defining Moments, we often get preoccupied with our temporal needs and neglect our eternal need. In other words, we often come to Jesus (or some other personal quasi-savior in our life) like the men in Mark 2 who desired to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus to be physically healed. And Jesus tells us, as He told the paralyzed friend, that our sins are forgiven on account of His name. And we wonder why He doesn’t just address our temporary, physical need. That is, until we realize that we have a more profound and lasting need, and that His temporary miracles are evidence of His authority to perform the eternal miracle in our lives. In His life He spoke the forgiveness of sins, in His death He accomplished it, and in His resurrection He confirmed it and made it eternal.

Now, our urgent needs (health, job, money, food) are a constant reminder of our ultimate need; our pressing needs are a constant reminder of our primary need; what we want always will remind us that He gave us what we really need. I think this presentation of the Cross is relevant and ministers powerfully to those who are struggling to pay the bills, may be out of work, needing health care, and just feel straight outta luck. Their ultimate need is accomplished in the Cross of Jesus Christ. And He might tell them to pick up their mat and walk also in this life – but if not, He will take care of them. Forever.


Cross-centered ministry is the only kind of ministry that inevitably leads to humility and sacrifice, instead of works-based righteousness, for those who minister to it. This reality should be exemplified in our proclamation of the Gospel to the poor, both in spoken word, and also in visible love and service. It is true that a person who is physically hungry will not have the same capacity to understand and respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ than those who are fed and physically and mentally attentive. So we should feed them. But after we feed them, we should not neglect to tell them the message of the Cross that will save them both from the hell on this earth (by showing them the authentic experience of love and community instead of loneliness and despair), and the hell to come (which is real, eternal, and conscious).


Recently Rob Bell was interviewed in Christianity Today, and asked the question (which is a great one): How would you present the Gospel on Twitter? His answer, in my opinion, was less than helpful:

I would say that history is headed somewhere. The thousands of little ways in which you are tempted to believe that hope might actually be a legitimate response to the insanity of the world actually can be trusted. And the Christian story is that a tomb is empty, and a movement has actually begun that has been present in a sense all along in creation. And all those times when your cynicism was at odds with an impulse within you that said that this little thing might be about something bigger—those tiny little slivers may in fact be connected to something really, really big.

While agreeing with Bell that it is hard (probably impossible) to present the whole Gospel on Twitter, my answer would have been different. Not just because I am not on Twitter and quite ignorant to the concept in general; but more so because I believe the Bible is more clear and specific and helpful and personal than what Bell describes. I hope the difference is clear and helpful to you, and honoring to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ:

The Gospel is that the infinitely holy and all-powerful God of the Universe, who created everything that is, including us, came to earth as a child in a manger - fully God, yet fully man - and lived a sinless life providing for us an example and picture of the loving nature of Almighty God.

He suffered and died on a Cross, as a substitute for us, fulfilling the eternal plan of the Father, absorbing the wrath of God we deserve, applying to us justification and forgiveness of sins and eternal reconciliation with God Himself, the lover and ultimate desire of our souls.

He then literally and physically rose from the dead on the third day, overcoming sin and death and suffering forever, and will come again in glory to permanently establish His kingdom, which temporary resides in us through the Holy Spirit and the good deposit of the Gospel lived out in authentic community as the Church. He will bring forth this eternal kingdom once and for all in the form of a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more suffering, or tears, or pain, where He will be the light and center of our worship and everything in creation, and the Cross will forever be the representation of the love, justice, holiness, and power of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

Is that too many characters for Twitter? Either way, I think it is what our sin sickness needs, and it is what will effectively, lovingly, and authentically bring people together in community centered on the Cross, for the glory of God - without the facial masks.