Saturday, October 29, 2011

What Prevents Me From Being Baptized?

This post, is, needless to say, a long time coming. For lots of reasons. First, let me tell you how gracious the God of the Universe is in Jesus Christ. May I? He is unbelievable. While I was yet a sinner, Christ died for me. He died!

I have always been drawn to the passage in Acts 8 about the Ethiopian eunuch who was ignorantly reading the prophet Isaiah, and Philip came along by the leading of the Holy Spirit, and explained to him about Jesus, and about the gospel, and the eunuch believed. He then came across water, and asked the question, "What prevents me from being baptized?" It was, and is, a good question. I read the Bible ignorantly for 21 years. In college, in the context of a fraternity house, I was explained the gospel and about the Person of Jesus Christ. I believed, and have since that time always read the story in Acts 8 with hesitation but deep conviction. I have tried to answer the eunuch's question for me since the time I first believed the gospel of Jesus Christ and was saved. Yet, ultimately, I have been unable.

I grew up in the Episcopal Church, was baptized as an infant, and confirmed as a teenager, per the traditional process of many Christians over the years for as long as the church has existed. So one seemingly good answer for me to the eunuch's question would be the personal and theological one surrounding infant baptism. I have already been baptized. What, if anything, would being baptized again possibly accomplish? Other than perhaps, confusion and disrespect not only to my parents, who made the decision for me, under the authority of God and a church, to count me as part of the New Covenant family through the sign of baptism, but also to those outside my family, or even outside the church, who know I have already been baptized and even been a Christian outspokenly for a number of years. What prevents me from being baptized? Well, the fact that I already have been, thanks to my loving parents, and the grace of God, who saved me, outside any merit or action of my own.

Then there is the theological predicament, and the precedent of much of church history. The issue of infant baptism is passionately defended and practiced to this day, and those that uphold its Biblical importance are not naive or ignorant. If I myself defended my own infant baptism as sufficient for my obedience even after my adult salvation, I would certainly be in good company. Even now, I have quite a lot of trouble thinking that R.C. Sproul, Tim Keller, Sinclair Ferguson, Ligon Duncan, among others, could misinterpret Scripture in this way, not to mention those who have come and gone earlier in church history that were worthy heralds of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What prevents me from being baptized? A pretty legitimate, frequently practiced, and widely held theological argument that because I already have been, as I should have been, doing so again is unnecessary.

Still, the question has not been adequately answered. I know that even to defend infant baptism, and look to my own as sufficient, does not clear up the issue of salvation, and identification with Christ and His church. The argument in support of infant baptism does not even claim that the act itself, or the physical water, is the means to saving you, reconciling you to God, accomplishing your justification, or covering you in the sacrificial blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. It has never been practiced for that reason. Neither then, is baptism that is delayed until a conscious decision for Christ is made, and repentance is shown, practiced or believed for this reason. So why is baptism so important, and why is it mentioned so much in the New Testament? Is this an either / or issue? For those who have been baptized as infants, and continue to do the same for their children, why can't that be sufficient for them? And for those who believe that baptism is meant only for those who consciously accept Christ in faith accompanied by repentance, why can't that be sufficient for them? To each his own. Right? Either way, God is accomplishing salvation in people outside the act itself. That is what is the most important. So I'm good to go.

Unless, one way more clearly demonstrates authentic faith, not just for the individual, but also for the church. In other words, if one way more clearly identifies you with the Savior, and more clearly identifies you as part of His body, and the other way, perhaps, confuses or blurs not only your ultimate association with Christ's body of believers, but also confuses your association (or union) with Him, then surely the former way should be preferred.

John MacArthur explains that at the end of the day, a professing Christian really has only a few possible answers to the Ethiopian eunuch's question. None of them are good. One is ignorance - either having not been taught or wrongly taught. Another is pride - not willing to be obedient to what is clearly a Biblical mandate. A third is indifference - not considering obedience a priority. Fourth is deviance - unwillingness to obey. And finally, a professing Christian may resist baptism because they are not truly converted and therefore have no desire to publicly demonstrate the significance of baptism on behalf of the honor of Christ.

God has brought me to a place where I believe He greatly desires to be glorified through what He has done and is doing in my life. Specifically, now, in the context of a local church body of believers in Indianapolis - College Park. It is at this church where I will be getting married in March. Married! What an answered prayer and what a great joy! It is at this church where I am completing, with my future wife, the process of membership, which includes submission to the authority of the leadership, who are under the authority of Scripture, and identification with the congregation of believers here, among whom I am anxious to selflessly serve based on the Spirit's leading. And it is at this church where I am to be baptized.

And I do so humbled, and excited, with no good reason or answer to the Ethiopian eunuch's question, but with one very profound answer to another question: What drives me to be baptized? And the answer is this: a deep desire to publicly confess and visibly demonstrate, in front of my local church, the reality that I have been bought by the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross on my behalf. And I have died to sin. Died! It has no dominion over me, even as its presence remains in this life. And I have been raised to new life in Christ. I'm alive! United in Christ, in His life, in His death, and in His resurrection, only by His grace, and all for His glory. This is not an abstract truth that is only objectively true for all believers. It is real, and it is also subjectively true for me. That God has provided a way to publicly demonstrate this supernatural and glorious reality is beyond gracious. It is wonderful. And I do it willingly.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Book of Acts in 26 Months

In June 2009, a small group of people and I embarked on what was promised to be not your average weekly bible study. We began with Acts Chapter 1, Verse 1.

Tonight, August 4, 2011, we conclude Acts Chapter 28, Verse 31. Twenty-six months in one book of the Bible. What have I learned? For one thing, this is not enough time. So much more we could have covered. I'm not joking. The Acts of the Apostles is an amazing narrative and theological example for Christians today to enjoy, be challenged and convicted by, and hold on to as we continue the very account that ended in Verse 31. I know I will never leave this book. Hope the same for you! Special thanks to everyone who was a part, and to John MacArthur, who preached diligently through this book from 1972 to 1975. The lasting application will never cease to amaze me.

Meanwhile, it appears that there are quicker ways to survey this book. Who knew.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Whole Counsel of God

This topic has been heavy on my heart in recent weeks. Am I proclaiming the whole counsel of God? Most of it at least? Part of it only? Am I living the whole counsel of God? Are you hearing the whole counsel of God? Am I innocent of your blood? What is the whole counsel of God?

Three things have set me on this journey. The first is the natural progression of a Bible study through the Book of Acts that I help lead, and the confrontation with the text of Acts 20: "But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God."

The second is the firestorm over and the very existence of the book Love Wins, by Rob Bell, which offers some surprising interpretations on the Bible's teaching on judgment and salvation. The third is my experience at The Gospel Coalition conference earlier this month in Chicago, which focused on preaching Christ and the Gospel from the Old Testament. So, in other words, the first part of my journey has involved a thorough study of the biblical exhortation to declare the whole counsel of God; the second part has involved an encounter with a very bad example of this in practice, and the third part has involved the experience of a very good example. God has brought me closer to Him in this journey, and closer, I think, to understanding what the whole counsel of God is, how to proclaim it, and how to live it.


Why should you care? I try to always ask that question in my posts, because it is a legitimate one. What are you doing on here? How did the interwebs lead you here? Why are you reading these strange words? Why I am taking the time to write them? The Spring has sprung. It's beautiful outside. Do you see how long my grass is right now? I don't have time for counsel. Seriously, my mower doesn't have a setting high enough to conquer the field outside my window, and I'm about to reek havoc on my blade and many other things, not least of which my allergies; uncontrollable sneezing is about to commence. I don't have time to delay the inevitable. The longer I wait, the more miserable it is going to be. Are you with me? So what is the point here? The whole counsel of God? Come on. My grass looks like a jungle. I don't care about this elusive "whole counsel" of God, and I don't have time for it. Or, you might have just had, or are very soon expecting, a baby. A human being. This is not assumption, as I know many people this month or the next few months who are expecting children. This is a big deal. Obviously a bigger deal than an untrimmed lawn. But, I wonder, how does the whole counsel of God apply to your newborn? Are you going to explain it to them? Shouldn't you?

Oh, that you would care, and have time, and explain it! As usual, what I write here is not sufficient to explain such a massive topic. But I hope it plants a seed. I hope it helps your reading of the Bible. I hope it encourages your love of people. I hope it allows you to rejoice at the deepest level. I hope it secures your joy in suffering. The Bible is the special revelation of the God of the Universe in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. When you read it, this is always the point, and it always will transform your life. Confusion about these things is not God's will for us. So, let's get into it.


Some of you might not be aware of a pretty fundamental disagreement within the Christian Church. I want to expose you to it, but with great care, because I don't mean to confuse you or distance you from the Savior; I mean to draw you closer to Him in awe and surrender, where He is waiting for you with open arms. This disagreement centers around salvation. One extreme says that God predestines those who will come to faith in Him and does the entire work in saving us. The other extreme says that we come to salvation based on our free will decision. Many label those that believe completely in predestination as "Calvinists" (even though this description can include a much wider, and more specific, interpretation of the nature and grace of God). Many label those that believe completely in human free will as Arminians (even though, in my experience, those that lean this way are largely less informed about the difference, by their own admission). A wise man, and a friend, once explained in a Bible study I was in, a simple answer to this question when it came up. It has stuck with me like a super-glue backed post-it note on my brain: both are 100% true. Whoa. Right? God predestines us, and we are responsible for the free will decision. That some read the Bible and don't see this is quite perplexing to me. The fact that is makes no logical sense whatsoever is irrelevant to its presence in Scripture and very clear truthfulness.

Reading Acts has been very revealing about this reality of both being equally and completely true at the same time. "Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?' Peter said to them, 'Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself." (Acts 2:37-41)

"When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed." (Acts 13:48)

"A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshipper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul." (Acts 16:14)

Charles Spurgeon, no slouch when it comes to Bible teaching, offers the balance of these two truths as a central part of what it means to preach the whole counsel of God. In other words, if you favor one at the expense of the other, you are falling short of God's complete truth (whole counsel), and leading people astray. God predestines us, and we are completely responsible. Sorry if that is confusing. I didn't make this stuff up. Its just true. Listen to Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers (read his entire address here):

"To proceed then:—I question whether we have preached the whole counsel of God, unless predestination with all its solemnity and sureness be continually declared—unless election be boldly and nakedly taught as being one of the truths revealed of God. It is the minister's duty, beginning from this fountain head, to trace all the other streams; dwelling on effectual calling, maintaining justification by faith, insisting upon the certain perseverance of the believer, and delighting to proclaim that gracious covenant in which all these things are contained, and which is sure to all the chosen, blood-bought seed... We are told that the times have changed: that we are to modify these old (so-called) Calvinistic doctrines, and bring them down to the tone of the times; that, in fact, they need dilution, that men have become so intelligent that we must pare off the angles of our religion, and make the square into a circle by rounding off the most prominent edges. Any man who doth this, so far as my judgment goes, does not declare the whole counsel of God.

"But beloved, a man might preach all these doctrines to the full, and yet not declare the whole counsel of God. For here comes the labour and the battle; here it is that he who is faithful in these modern days will have to bare the full brunt of war. It is not enough to preach doctrine; we must preach duty, we must faithfully and firmly insist upon practice. So long as you will preach nothing but bare doctrine, there is a certain class of men of perverted intellect who will admire you, but once begin to preach responsibility—say outright, once for all, that if the sinner perish it is his own fault, that if any man sinks to hell, his damnation will lie at his own door, and at once there is a cry of 'Inconsistency! How can these two things stand together?' Even good Christian men are found who cannot endure the whole truth, and who will oppose the servant of the Lord who will not be content with a fragment, but will honestly present the whole gospel of Christ. This is one of the troubles that the faithful minister has to endure. But he is not faithful to God—I say it solemnly, I do not believe that any man is even faithful to his own conscience, who can preach simply the doctrine of responsibility. I do assuredly believe that every man who sinks into hell shall have himself alone to curse for it. It shall be said of them as they pass the fiery portal: 'Ye would not.'...

"I do not see that the whole counsel of God is declared, unless those two apparently contradictory points are brought out and plainly taught... Espouse but one phase of the truth, and you shall be cried up to the very heavens. Become such a Calvinist that you shut your eyes to one half the Bible, and cannot see the responsibility of the sinner, and men will clap their hands, and cry Hallelujah! and on the backs of many you shall be hoisted to a throne, and become a very prince in their Israel. On the other hand, begin to preach mere morality, practice without doctrine, and you shall be elevated on other men's shoulders; you shall, if I may use such a figure, ride upon these asses into Jerusalem; and you shall hear them cry, Hosanna! and see them wave their palm branches before you.

"But once preach the whole counsel of God, and you shall have both parties down upon you; one crying, 'The man is too high,' the other saying, 'No, he is too low;' the one will say, 'He's a rank Arminian,' the other, 'He's a vile hyper- Calvinist.' Now, a man does not like to stand between two fires. There is an inclination to please one or other of the two parties, and so, if not to increase one's adherents, at least to get a more ferociously attached people... Therefore, it was no mean testimony that the apostle asked for himself, that he had not shunned to declare the whole counsel of God.

"But, then, let me remark further, while there is this temptation not to declare all the counsel of God, the true minister of Christ feels impelled to preach the whole truth, because it and it alone can meet the wants of man. What evils has this world seen through a distorted, mangled, man-moulded gospel. What mischiefs have been done to the souls of men by men who have preached only one part and not all the counsel of God. My heart bleeds for many a family where Antinomian doctrine has gained the sway. I could tell many a sad story of families dead in sin, whose consciences are seared as with a hot iron, by the fatal preaching to which they listen. I have known convictions stifled and desires quenched by the soul-destroying system which takes manhood from man and makes him no more responsible than an ox. I cannot imagine a more ready instrument in the hands of Satan for the ruin of souls than a minister who tells sinners that it is not their duty to repent of their sins or to believe in Christ, and who has the arrogance to call himself a gospel minister, while he teaches that God hates some men infinitely and unchangeably for no reason whatever but simply because he chooses to do so. O my brethren! may the Lord save you from the voice of the charmer, and keep you ever deaf to the voice of error."


Clearly, Spurgeon's point was that you can mess it up, and fail to declare the whole counsel of God, if you talk about and model God's predestination only, or man's responsibility only. But predestination and responsibility need more explanation themselves to get at what is included in the whole counsel of God, and to keep us from messing it up.

There are many ways to get at this. John Piper, for his part, describes certain truths in Scripture that must be included to declare the whole counsel of God. He says that people need to understand something about God - his holiness, his role as Creator; something about Man - created in God's image; something about Sin - our falling short of the glory of God; something about Christ - His virgin birth, sinless life, deity, example; something about the Cross - Christ's death in our place for our sins, his resurrection to give us hope and secure our future; something about the Holy Spirit - its supernatural transformation of our heart, and its presence in our lives as a deposit of eternal life; and something about Faith - our trusting in Christ and repentance as a necessary step for this salvation.

That is a lot. And, Piper says, you can go wrong concerning these things in a hundred different places. As luck would have it, contemporary culture has offered a very relevant example of one of those places in recent months. I wish it hadn't.

My last post was about Rob Bell's book, Love Wins, specifically its denial of the existence of hell, as traditional Christianity has understood it, and its portrayal of salvation as a universal promise, with or without trust in Jesus. I have now read the book. Let me tell you, it is not very good. I say that with as much respect and love for Rob Bell as I can muster. It's horribe. I'm just sayin'. Seriously, its bad, bad, bad. I'm not kidding around. If you must read it, immediately after you do so, check out Scot McKnight's careful critique. Then, listen to, watch, or read, Mark Driscoll's bold and pastoral message on the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16. Seriously, please watch it. Then, check out John MacArthur's less gentle, but equally fair, analysis of the book and the overall theology of Rob Bell. That should give you the basics. If you still want more, go to Kevin DeYoung and his massive review. If still not satisfied (at this point you're a glutton for punishment), maybe some snippets of what I found as serious issues with the book will be helpful to you:

- He doesn't talk about individual sin, and almost never his own sin. All sin is corporate from his perspective. This is unhelpful to me, an individual sinner.

- Although he explains Bible verses, he does very little Bible exposition. In other words, he doesn't let the text speak for itself; instead he uses it to make his points, some of which are not coherent. This is unhelpful to me, as I am not a Bible scholar, yet I care about what the Bible actually says.

- He shows downright apathy towards the reality of judgment day. Of the verses he references to explain hell, none of them are the ones that mention a day of judgment. This is unhelpful to me in my preparation for judgment.

- He offers no explanation for the character of John the Baptist and his warnings. What I am to make of this rough, hairy, locust-eating man?

- He ridicules immature, ignorant, unnamed Christians as he communicates his frustration with traditional Christianity's articulation of hell. Mature believers would never talk the way he accuses. What would he say to the articulation of hell by lifelong Bible teachers who preach it with trembling, and plead with their hearers to trust in Jesus?

- His explanation of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 is the worst form of moralizing. Ok, so I should pay attention to the poor people begging outside my door. That is convicting. But what am I to make of the torment, agony, and flame that the rich man faces?

- In general, he responds to an under-realized eschatology with an over-realized eschatology. God's kingdom has come to Earth, but its not fully here yet, but it kinda is. Or is it? If it is, why is there still death?

- He considers sin the rejection of the life God designed, not rejection of God himself. This is not a helpful description of my longing for a Savior or my guilty conscience, or much guidance as to how to live the life God designed.

- The only invitation he offers is to trust that we are loved, and that a new story is being told about us. I don't know many skeptics or unbelievers that would take the time to consider such a mediocre version of good news. His attempt to make the Gospel more palatable probably won't even work.

- He explains Hebrews from the perspective of the end of pagan sacrifices, instead of the fulfillment of Old Testament sacrifices. This makes the Book of Hebrews even more confusing to me.

- He can't understand hell outside the assumption that it represents that God has "changed gears" in his redemptive purposes. This assumption is not necessary and inconsistent with biblical truth, and makes Ephesians 1, for example, unintelligible to me.

- He actually utters the words, "We shape our God, then He shapes us." We shape our God? What? This does not give me any assurance at all that I will shape God anywhere close to how He is actually shaped.

I have a folder on my jump drive with more than 100 articles about this book from all over the Internet. I can find very few in support of it. Like I said above, Scot McKnight, a discerning Evangelical who has been sympathetic to the Emerging Church over the years, offers what I see as the most telling effort at correction. Please let me know if you would like other resources on this topic. I think I've said more than enough, and to be honest, I'm tired. The issue is now more so about the content of the controversy rather than the nature of it, and not even really about Rob Bell anymore. As John Piper hastily but prophetically stated in reaction to the promo video, Bell has now officially distanced himself from the Evangelical community, with which he, for some reason, still identifies.

Bottom line: if you diminish a doctrine as fundamental to the Gospel as the judgment of God, and ignore the glory that is seen in Jesus taking that punishment in our place, not only are you falling short of declaring the whole counsel of God, but also you are setting the stage for gradual disintegration of just about every other truth that makes the Gospel coherent, and wonderful. Don't do that.


Did you watch the video above yet? It is way more important than anything I am writing here. I have been watching it every day. The Bible is not about me? The Old Testament characters point to something (ahem, Someone) more significant than a moral lesson on how to overcome obstacles or treat people more nicely? Even Jonah and the whale? And Esther? And David and Goliath? And the temple? And light? And bread? And the lamb? Its all about Jesus Christ? That is illuminating, life-changing, endlessly helpful, and a great relief. The Gospel Coalition conference featured brillant proclammations of this reality from very difficult to understand Old Testament passages. Here is an inadequate synopsis of some of the highlights:

John 5: 31-47 -- Albert Mohler

Mohler opened the conference with an overview of this passage in John and the practice of studying the Scripture and finding Jesus. He went through a fast-paced explanation and interpretation of the Book of Hebrews that I could never begin to summarize. He highlighted some of the ways that the general public dismiss the Old Testament, such as 1) considering it a different book (Hebrew Scriptures vs. Christian Scriptures), 2) considering it about a different deity (Angry God the Father vs. Loving Jesus), 3) denying that it has continuity with New Testament, and 4) presenting it as a moral dilemma. He then mentioned ways that preachers handle the Old Testament, such as 1) Avoid it altogether, 2) Use it as background only, and 3) moralize. By moralize, he meant turn every passage into a moral lesson, which in some ways is a good thing to do. "The only alternative to a moralizing preacher is a sociopath - but for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Moralizing is not wrong, its not just the main point, and it is tragic to end there."

After debunking a lot of these ways of handling the Old Testament, he showed how John indicates that Moses, John the Baptist, Scripture, and the Father Himself all bare witness to the centrality of Jesus Christ; how the purpose of the law was to foster hope; and how we need the New Testament to understand the Old. It was an amazing introduction.

Exodus 14 -- Tim Keller

And then came Tim Keller. This message was a game-changer. Just incredible. Do you ever think about the crossing of the Red Sea? I mean, really think about it? Maybe you don't believe it actually happened. That's fine. But when you start to realize its foreshadowing of our deliverance from bondage into the presence and salvation of Jesus Christ, all by grace, the struggle with whether or not to believe in the literalness of it fades away. And then, amazingly, it becomes more believable.

Keller asked and answered 3 questions:

1.) Q: What do we get out of? A: Bondage with layers
2.) Q: How do we get out? A: Cross over by grace
3.) Q: Why is it possible for us to get out? A: Because of a mediator.

Bondage with layers? You don't think of yourself in bondage, do you? If you're not a Christian, you are in bondage to sin, guilt, and to the law. If you are a Christian, you're still in bondage. Did you know that? "You can take people out of slavery, but you can't take the slavery out of the people." Even though there is now no condemnation for you, Keller says, subjectively we all know deep down that we're supposed to be perfect. We always default back to works righteousness, or trying to earn favor from God. And we fall short. Beyond that, we are in bondage to our sin nature. Justification delivers us from the penalty of sin, but sanctification is a gradual process of delivering us from the power of it. Think about this: every time you sin, you make it that much harder to resist that sin going forward. Every single time. Sin is suicide. We're in bondage! Finally, Keller explained how we are in bondage to idols. Even after we trust in Christ, our "old masters" come back after us, like Pharaoh in this passage, and try to convince us that we have to serve them or die. We all know this. An idol is something, besides God, that when it gets taken from you, you want to die. It is something that tells you that you will die if you don't "serve it". And you try, but it fails you. And then you're devestated.

So, how do we get out? We cross over by grace. By grace! Towering down on either side of us is a chaotic wall of water of God's wrath, unstoppable in its force, save by the power, willingness, and grace of God. And like the Israelities, and like Paul, we cross over, in an instant, and are changed. One minute we're in the bondage, the next minute we have crossed over by grace. Some of us may have crossed over in great confidence, some of us in great fear. No matter; we are equally saved. Keller explained how when you ask someone whether they are a Christian, and they answer something like, "Well, I'm trying", that shows they don't understand Christianity at all. Not at all. We are not saved because of the level of our faith but by the object of it - Jesus Christ. "After that, every problem is a flea bite in comparison to what has already been accomplished for you. And that's how you deal with the flea bites!"

Why is it possible? Because of a mediator. Greater than Moses, who stood aligned with God, as he spoke for Him to the people, and also aligned with the people, as he shared in their guilt, as a mediator - is Jesus Christ, who is our perfect mediator, living a sinless human life, taking the punishment we deserve, and rising from the dead as fully God to give us hope and assurance of salvation. Keller explained how in the Bible, from the very beginning, water represented chaos, and the Flood in Genesis is referred to by some as "decreation". When we turn away from our Creator, we get chaos and disintegration. That is what happened during the Flood, the Exodus, and even today. The Israelites had a mediator during the Exodus, Moses, who in the power of God held back the water walls of judgment. For us today: "Jesus Christ, on the cross, was being decreated so that you and I can be recreated."

Jeremiah 23:1-8 -- Conrad Mbewe

Hear the "African Spurgeon", Conrad Mbewe: "Brethren, this is the promise of the whole Bible. If God was to simply raise human shepherds over His people, sin would always bring about their downfall. The great promise of God is that He is sending Another, with a capital 'A'. And who is this? He is referred to in this passage as a branch, a Righteous Branch.

"What is it that destroyed Israel to the point that God would send them into captivity? It was the unrighteousness in leadership that seaps through and becomes the unrighteousness of the people. Therefore, if there is to be a real restoration from a place of judgment, than the wrath of God, which is essentially the justice of God, has to be lifted off from the people that were under its chastisment. And that could only be done with the satisfaction of justice through another. And beyond that it must be that this new leadership must be in himself righteousness. Because any other position would still mean that there is a debt to be paid, and consequently, (the people) would be right back to square one. So, who is this, who provided leadership to Israel on the basis of righteousness? You don't need to search very far to realize that there is only one across the whole of history who answers to this description....

"Whoever this person is, is God. For He is described in (Isaiah 9:6) not only as Wonderful Counselor, but also as Mighty God! This child, who is to be born, who is to be given to us, is the infinite and most glorious being, that angels have worshipped from eternity to eternity! The one who through His hands has brought into being the universe as we know it! He who governs all the rolling spheres across the entire universe, including the minutest details of our lives! And He will ultimately judge the living and the dead, including all of us in here. This is the Person being spoken about as the King. He is the Person who one day in the midst of all the confusion and sinfulness that was there in Isreal, was born as a little baby."

Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:14 -- Matt Chandler

"Rejoice, young man, during your childhood, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood. And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes." - Ecclesiastes 11:9a. Amen to that! Right? That's in the Bible?? Ok! Let's party! Seriously. We all know how to rejoice right? This is easy. Realize, though, that our rejoicing is deeply broken, and its on the surface. It's shallow. We rejoice in our youth, in our strength and energy, when underneath God designs that we rejoice in His grace that sustains our energy and youthfulness. We are wicked people.

"Yet, know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things." - Ecclesiastes 11:9b. Oh. Not as much Amen. That gives us quite the gut-check to the brokenness of our rejoicing, does it not?

"Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, 'I have no pleasure in them'." - Ecclesiastes 12:1. Is there, then, Matt Chandler asks, a way to remember that redeems out rejoicing, and allows us to rejoice beneath the surface, deep down where God created us to rejoice, in Him? If so, how?

Read Scripture. It is everywhere in the pages of the Bible. There is a "gospel rhythm" throughout the Old Testament that points us to Jesus, and reminds us to remember our Creator, and our Savior, and His deliverance for us. Repent and believe in Jesus. Your remembering won't do much redeeming if you are not born again, saved by the blood of Jesus. Approach the throne of grace with confidence. "The litmus test of how well you understand the Gospel is how you respond when you fail." Meditate on the Gospel, constantly. Don't assume it! "If you assume the Gospel, all people will hear is moralistic therapeutic deism! That's all they'll hear." Finally, walk by the Spirit. Don't let a moment come when you are not overwhelmed, and marvelling at the Lord Jesus Christ and His accomplishment and love for you. Not a moment!


So, in conclusion, the whole counsel of God is something along the lines of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That's really all. Jesus Christ really did come to earth as a baby, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. He really did live a perfect, sinless life. He really did bring a taste of the Kingdom of God to earth. He really did demonstrate the power of God in healing, and He represents our prime example of who God is, and how He wants us to live. He really went to the cross, willingly, in accordance with the eternal plan of the Father, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. He took our sin upon himself, and He really was forsaken by the Father and tasted the cup of His wrath, the punishment we all deserve. He really did die, and was buried. He really did rise from the grave, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, giving us confirmation of His deity and that His sacrifice was approved by the Father, and giving us assurance of salvation and hope that we too will rise in Him. And He really is coming back to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom really will have no end. He really did appoint and elect, before all time, those that are His own and would come to believe, and we really do still need to respond in faith and repentance. To those who by perseverence seek for glory and honor and immortality, He really will grant eternal life. But to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, He really will grant wrath and indignation. There really is a heaven, and there really is a hell. Heaven really is way better than you could possibly imagine, and hell really is more agonizing than we could ever describe. And Jesus really is the way, and the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by Him. No one. Really. But, by the grace of God, there really is salvation. Really! Today is the day!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hell? Yeah!

I could include a scary picture or video to start this post to get your attention, but that would not adequately communicate my purpose, so instead I'll stick to words, of which I have many. The purpose of this post is to humbly, and with much trembling, state a harsh biblical truth that will sound like very bad news but is actually very good news. Please pay attention! To some, it will sound deeply offensive. It will make some people throw their computer across the room. It will make some people deeply despair. Some will claim it's not so cut and dry. Some will consider it unnecessarily judgmental, intolerant, or fundamentalist. Some will say they are not ready to hear it. Some will say you are not ready to hear it. Some will smirk. Some will yell. Some will cry. Some will laugh. Some will ignore. Some will fall on their knees. I don't know what your reaction will be, but I hope it will be a healthy mixture of boldness and compassion, grace and truth, fear and confidence, and, as Piper would say, I hope it makes you "tremblingly, soberly....hopeful."

What the hell am I talking about? Well, I am talking about hell. I am talking about (deep breath) the reality as explained in the Bible that for those who do not put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, in this life, there awaits for those individuals the terrifying experience of the eternal wrath of God. This may not be something you think about a lot, even if you believe it. But you need to, and not because you need to be afraid, but because you need to see and understand God for who He really is, as revealed in Scripture, so you can really experience joy. And joy matters, doesn't it? Meetings, emails, presentations, exams, games, toys, news, economics, money, shopping, conversations with friends, date nights, time with your kids, bible study, service to the poor - all these things are not the same without authentic, lasting joy. Right?

See, when Jesus died on the cross, the Bible teaches that He, among other things, absorbed the wrath of God that we deserve for our sin and rebellion against our Creator. The wrath of God He absorbed was infinite, and more than we could ever imagine. Physically and spiritually. He was flogged, beaten, and bloodied, even before He was crucified. He was forsaken by His Father, the God of the Universe. Jesus in this way was our substitute, because God could have not been just and left our sins unpunished, so in the sacrifice of His Son on our behalf, He became both just and the justifier of those who put their trust in Him. To those who don't put their trust in Him, this sacrifice does not apply, and the Bible says that the wrath of God remains on them. For every human being, this wrath has to either be satisfied on the cross, or eternally in hell. To vindicate a Holy, Loving God, there could be no other way. Our sin is that bad. If you doubt the reality of sin, consider this challenge from Mark Driscoll, "All who think people are good at their core need to stop being hypocrites and take the locks off all their doors."

This all is not some wild concoction from the brain of some human being sometime in history meant to oppress people. The Bible is very clear about this reality, and it is meant to liberate people. Tim Keller once said when asked about what he believes about hell, "One thing I believe is that probably, the biblical imagery of hell fire is metaphorical... It’s metaphorical for something probably infinitely worse than fire." Whew (Deep breath). What you are hearing and understanding right now as bad news, making you perhaps angry, is actually the greatest news in the universe. Yes, I'm serious. Has no one ever told you that?


This topic has become especially relevant recently because of the pre-release of a controversial book by talented communicator and famed pastor, Rob Bell. You may know him for his catchy book titles like Velvet Elvis and Sex God, or his inspirational Nooma videos. His publishing company issued a promotional statement, he released a video preview, and then all hell broke loose (pun intended) on the Internet and in social media because of some vague, perhaps heretical implications Bell seemed to be making. There is so much you could read on this, and likewise there is so much I could say. The New York Times and CNN have even weighed in, among others. I'll try my best to be concise, because what I really want to communicate is the clarity of Scripture and the hope of the Gospel that Bell is not doing justice to, and in turn not serving believers or unbelievers very well, whether he is a heretic or universalist or not. Some words of summary:

Be cautious of those who are commenting or criticizing the nature of the debate, instead of the content of the debate. In other words, those who are blaming the "Reformed Resurgence", including men such as Justin Taylor and John Piper, for defensiveness, fundamentalism, and lack of compassion and charity in dialogue, are likely unwilling or unable to intelligently engage the content of the issue, which, don't be mistaken, is a matter of life and death, heaven or hell. For an example of calling out theology-minded "Neo-Calvinists" in a naive way that both misunderstands and also doesn't address the theological issues in question, see Jarrod McKenna: Love Wins: Rob Bell and the New Calvinists, or worse, Brian McClaren: Giving Us All a Wonderful Opportunity, or even, the Good Morning America coverage.

However, also be cautious of those who are merely stating the biblical truth about hell, the exclusivity of Jesus Christ for salvation, and the wrath of God, without also humbly offering the hope, grace, and compassion that comes through these truths. For an example of how not to communicate the wrath of God, reference the Westboro Baptist Church picketing of military funerals to draw attention to their provocative view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. This is absurd, hurtful, and unbiblical, and even if the Constitution supports it, the Church certainly shouldn't.

For an example of a good balance in addressing the nature and the content of the debate, and specifically a helpful explanation about the streams of "universalism", check out Scot McKnight: Waiting for Rob Bell, and Waiting for Rob Bell 2. McKnight says, "To talk about wrath apart from this depiction of the grace-consuming God is to put forward a view of God that is not only unbiblical but potentially monstrous. And, to put forward a view of God that is absent of final judgment, yes of wrath, yes of eternal judgment, is to offer a caricature of the Bible’s God. No one should begin to talk about hell without spending fifteen minutes in pausing prayer to consider the horror of it all." Another good and balanced write-up is from Mark Galli at Christianity Today: Heaven, Hell, and Rob Bell.

Tim Keller says, "The Christian understanding of Hell is crucial for understanding your own heart, for living at peace in the world, and for knowing the love of God." This is the point! Oh, that all would understand this! Rob Bell is right with the title of his book that "love wins". But the love that wins is not a love that rips the justice away from the character of God, because that love would not be very loving, and it would not be very God. Further, it doesn't make much sense when we compare it to history or the natural order. Keller wrote in The Reason for God, "The belief in a God or pure love - who accepts everyone and judges no one - is a powerful act of faith. Not only is there no evidence for it in the natural order, but there is almost no historical, religious textual support for it outside of Christianity. The more one looks at it, the less justified it appears."


Bell asks a lot of questions in his preview that Christianity and the Bible have clearly answered for 2000 years. Why does he ask them? Because they are good questions and people are asking. That is a good reason. However, his asking of them rhetorically is not helpful. You might say, don't we have to wait for the book to see his real purpose in asking these questions and his real answers? Don't we have to wait to see if he is going to answer them the way that orthodox Christianity has been answering them for years? Maybe. But consider the following suggestion from Kevin DeYoung, who shows the power of questions to communicate a point, in a way similar to what Bell is doing in his book promotion.

Rhetorical questions from Rob Bell:

Gandhi's in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure? Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe or what you say or what you do or who you know or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated or take a class or converted or being born again? How does one become one of these few?

Then there is the question behind the questions. The real question [is], “What is God like?”, because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?

This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies and they say, why would I ever want to be a part of that? See what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like. What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, beautiful, that whatever we have been told and been taught, the good news is actually better than that, better than we could ever imagine. The good news is that love wins.

Rhetorical questions from Kevin DeYoung to show the power of questions to communicate:

Will God save everyone? Does everyone go to heaven no matter how bad they were and no matter what they believed? Is Hitler there next to Bonhoeffer enjoying the same eternal bliss? What kind of God would that be? How would we make sense of Jesus’ strong language about hell or the chilling scenes in Revelation? Would that God still be holy and just?

And what would that do to our understanding of the gospel? Would Jesus’ death still be necessary? Would faith in him really be that important? Why would we still send out missionaries and evangelists? What would be so good about the good news if, in the end, there is no bad news? And if there is no hell, or we can’t really be sure anyone is there, why have almost all Christians in all of history believed there was such a place of eternal suffering? Have we found something that historic orthodoxy has missed all these centuries?

What if the things you’ve heard recently are not the truth about Christianity? What if the warnings in Scripture are real warnings? What if God is purer than we thought, we’re worse than we imagined, and hell is as real as the nose on your face? What if the “only way” means the only way? What if God is glorified in salvation and judgment? What if the God of love and the Father of mercies is also a righteous Judge, a holy Sovereign, and a conquering King?

Is both cases, DeYoung asserts, the questions tell you what the speaker thinks is foolish and what he thinks is wise. That much is plain. So, in this way, the asking of the questions by Bell, on its own, gives very credible cause to offer correction based on his implications. Albert Mohler explains:

"We must await the release of the full book in order to know what Rob Bell is really saying, but his advance promotion for the book is already saying something, and it is not good. The material he has already put forth does demand and deserve attention. The Emerging Church movement is known for its slick and sophisticated presentation. It wears irony and condescension as normal attire. Regardless of how Rob Bell’s book turns out, its promotion is the sad equivalent of a theological strip-tease. The Gospel is too precious and important to be commodified in this manner. The questions he asks are too important to leave so tantalizingly unanswered. Universalism is a heresy, not a lure to use in order to sell books. This much we know, almost a month before the book is to be released."

Even though Bell doesn't technically identify himself with the "Emerging Church", and therefore its "slick and sophisticated presentation", he is playing around with essential truths such as the exclusivity of Jesus for salvation, the existence of Hell, and the reality of the wrath of God, all of which the Bible is very clear about, and all of which the Gospel of grace is incomplete, insufficient, unloving, and unhopeful without!!


So that brings us to what matters. Back to Keller's quote: "The Christian understanding of Hell is crucial for understanding your own heart, for living at peace in the world, and for knowing the love of God." Do you believe that? Hell and wrath are good. Yes, I'm serious! Has no one ever told you that? To shy away from them for fear of offending people is crazy. It is crazy because in your effort to not offend them, you actually are crippling them in the battle for joy, and robbing them of the most glorious message in the universe, because without wrath and hell the Gospel of Jesus Christ is just a fairy tale love story that has trouble holding water. It is also a theologically ignorant point of view, because it assumes that a loving God cannot coexist with the concept of Hell and judgment. The Bible does not make that assumption and in fact reveals that such an assumption is false, dangerous, and less glorious. As Keller says, "Ironically, people by getting rid of the idea of judgment and hell, try to make God more loving, and they make Him less." Let's get into it.


This is amazingly helpful. Please read! Why is a Christian understanding of Hell crucial to understanding our heart? I can’t say it better than Keller and C.S. Lewis, so I’ll just quote:

“I believe one of the reasons the Bible tells us about hell is so it can act like 'smelling salts' about the true danger and seriousness of even minor sins. However, I've found that only stressing the symbols of hell (fire and darkness) in preaching rather than going into what the symbols refer to (eternal, spiritual decomposition) actually prevents modern people from finding hell a deterrent. Some years ago I remember a man who said that talk about the fires of hell simply didn't scare him, it seemed too far-fetched, even silly. So I read him lines from C.S. Lewis:

Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others . . . but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God 'sending us' to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.

"To my surprise he got very quiet and said, ‘Now that scares me to death.’ He almost immediately began to see that hell was a) perfectly fair and just, and b) something that he realized he might be headed for if he didn't change. If we really want skeptics and non-believers to be properly frightened by hell, we cannot simply repeat over and over that 'hell is a place of fire.' We must go deeper into the realities that the Biblical images represent. When we do so, we will find that even secular people can be affected.”

Are you affected? Keller goes on, "Even your good things enslave you, they're starting to disintegrate you, they're starting to isolate you, so that when something gets in the way of them, instead of just being afraid, you're paralyzed; instead of just being angry, you're implacably bitter; instead of being despondent, you endlessly hate yourself for ever and ever. This is the fire. Do you not see it in yourself? Do you not see where its going?....Are you willing to look as deep into yourself as the doctrine of hell is calling you to look?"


It is true that some people disdain others who they believe to be in, or on their way to, hell, because of their rejection of Jesus. Rob Bell mentions someone who did so to Gandhi, one of the great humanitarians in history, also a Hindu. This disdain is rightly frowned upon, and is actually evidence of a really bad understanding of what the Bible says about hell. There also may be others who impose the reality of hell on people in a violent way, but this also is not biblical, as we see specifically in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 16, where Abraham speaks down to the rich man in hell, and says, "son". Not "sinner" or "evil person", but "son". The understandable objection from many in our culture that the doctrine of hell creates an environment where people oppress, look down on, or disdain those they believe to be headed there, does not adequately account for the love and justice of God. Consider victims of injustice. How are you going to prevent someone, who has had their house burned by enemies, for example, from falling into a cycle of violence and vengeance? Are you going to tell them that violence doesn't solve anything? Keller says:

"Not only will such moralizing not touch their hearts, but also it shows no concern for justice! Miroslav Volf (a Croatian familiar with this kind of injustice in the context of the wars in the Balkans) said, 'The only resource I know of powerful enough to both pacify the human heart's desire for justice, and at same time keep us from being sucked into the cycle of blood and vengeance, is to say that there is a God, and He will put everything right....If you don't believe that the doctrine of God's judgment is a powerful resource for living at peace on Earth, then you've lived a sheltered life."


Finally, the understanding of hell and God's judgment is necessary in order to see God's love. It is to this point that the development with Rob Bell and his new book is the most ironic. To repeat Keller again, "Ironically, people by getting rid of the idea of judgment and hell, try to make God more loving, and they make Him less." First question that comes to mind is, why do we do this? Probably, either because we care too much what people think, or because we do not adequately understand what we are talking about. I can't really help you care less about what people think. But you should. There; that is my best effort. But I can, hopefully, help you understand what the hell you're talking about (pun intended again).

The second question is why and how is this so? In other words, why and how does the reality of judgment and hell show God as more loving? It is actually quite simple when you think about it. Again, I'll let Keller explain for me. Stay alert! This is so important for you to grasp!

"In Matthew 10:28 Jesus says that no physical destruction can be compared with the spiritual destruction of hell, of losing the presence of God. But this is exactly what happened to Jesus on the cross - he was forsaken by the Father (Matthew 27:46.) In Luke 16:24 the rich man in hell is desperately thirsty (v.24) and on the cross Jesus said 'I thirst' (John 19:28.) The water of life, the presence of God, was taken from him. The point is this. Unless we come to grips with this 'terrible' doctrine, we will never even begin to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross. His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way, but that was a flea bite compared to what was happening to his soul. When he cried out that his God had forsaken him he was experiencing hell itself. But consider--if our debt for sin is so great that it is never paid off there, but our hell stretches on for eternity, then what are we to conclude from the fact that Jesus said the payment was 'finished' (John 19:30) after only three hours? We learn that what he felt on the cross was far worse and deeper than all of our deserved hells put together.

"And this makes emotional sense when we consider the relationship he lost. If a mild acquaintance denounces you and rejects you--that hurts. If a good friend does the same--that hurts far worse. However, if your spouse walks out on you saying, 'I never want to see you again,' that is far more devastating still. The longer, deeper, and more intimate the relationship, the more tortuous is any separation. But the Son's relationship with the Father was beginningless and infinitely greater than the most intimate and passionate human relationship. When Jesus was cut off from God he went into the deepest pit and most powerful furnace, beyond all imagining. He experienced the full wrath of the Father. And he did it voluntarily, for us.

"Fairly often I meet people who say, 'I have a personal relationship with a loving God, and yet I don't believe in Jesus Christ at all.' Why, I ask? 'My God is too loving to pour out infinite suffering on anyone for sin.' But this shows a deep misunderstanding of both God and the cross. On the cross, God HIMSELF, incarnated as Jesus, took the punishment. He didn't visit it on a third party, however willing.

"So the question becomes: what did it cost your kind of god to love us and embrace us? What did he endure in order to receive us? Where did this god agonize, cry out, and where were his nails and thorns? The only answer is: 'I don't think that was necessary.' But then ironically, in our effort to make God more loving, we have made him less loving. His love, in the end, needed to take no action. It was sentimentality, not love at all. The worship of a god like this will be at most impersonal, cognitive, and ethical. There will be no joyful selfabandonment, no humble boldness, no constant sense of wonder. We could not sing to him 'love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.' Only through the cross could our separation from God be removed, and we will spend all eternity loving and praising God for what he has done (Rev 5:9-14.)

"And if Jesus did not experience hell itself for us, then we ourselves are devalued. In Isaiah, we are told, 'The results of his suffering he shall see, and shall be satisfied' (Isaiah 53:11). This is a stupendous thought. Jesus suffered infinitely more than any human soul in eternal hell, yet he looks at us and says, 'It was worth it.' What could make us feel more loved and valued than that? The Savior presented in the gospel waded through hell itself rather than lose us, and no other savior ever depicted has loved us at such a cost."

So does hell exist? Hell yeah! And we are better off because of it. Praise God that Jesus experienced that horror on our behalf so we wouldn't have to, though we deserve it very much. And then he rose from the grave to give us hope that His sacrifice can apply to and save us, if we trust in Him. This message is good news! And hell is an essential part of making sense of it. We will try to get rid of hell at our own peril, and doing so will take away our joy, even before it waits to destroy our soul. God forbid! Trust in Jesus!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Doctrinal Boot Camp

It is greatly encouraging to read something that echoes the word that God has being putting on my heart and in my reading and writing so often of late. This is Chuck Colson from Christianity Today:

"The psychology of boot camp is instructive. The first six weeks are spent—figuratively speaking, mostly—beating out of recruits every habit, attitude, and preconceived notion about life and the world. You are told you are worthless and are 'not a special snowflake,' as Campbell says. You are now part of the Marine Corps and will do what the drill instructor says. Period.

"After the drill instructors get rid of the old man—there's a good analogy—the instruction changes dramatically. They now tell you that you're a marine and can achieve anything if you live by the rules. Though it was half a century ago, I vividly remember what it meant to be a marine. I found confidence in myself that I'd never had before. But I also learned that the man next to me had my back. And I had his. We could trust each other with our lives. There was camaraderie, indeed a fellowship, unlike anything I've known since.

"This is what becoming a Christian means. We put off the old man, get rid of the old habits, and embrace a new set of beliefs and standards defined in Scripture and lived out over 2,000 years. Just like the Marine Corps, the church has learned what works and what doesn't, what is right and what is wrong. And the goal of Christian discipleship is to conform to the truths of the Christian faith, just as a marine has to conform to the truths of the corps.

"Come to think of it, isn't the church today in a far more serious battle than any the Marines have fought? Aren't we called to make disciples who will advance the kingdom of God in an extremely hostile world? Haven't we inherited 2,000 years of very hard-earned lessons? The more I've thought about the parallels, the more I am convinced that we have failed younger evangelicals and new believers generally. We have told them or at least implied that they can live happily ever after, that Christianity is all about what's good for them—not necessarily about what is true. Things just go better with Jesus.

"If we want to see revival in the church, we need to be at least as serious as the Marines are about preparing men and women for battle. Perhaps we ought to rethink Sunday school, dust off the catechisms, and start teaching the Bible and theology to our young people again. If the theologically attuned young Reformed crowd is any indication, they can handle it. But it's not just for Calvinists. Every successful Christian movement has embraced ways to effectively pass on the faith entrusted to the saints once for all."

"The church is looking for a few good men and women. Is anyone ready to enlist?"

This is going to become especially relevant in our generation. In large part, because some will de-emphasize its importance, or redefine its content. Some will avoid the parts of the Bible and the parts of Christian doctrine that seem to offend people. And while they think by doing this they are shielding believers, they will actually be crippling them. While they think they are wooing unbelievers, they actually will be robbing them of the most glorious message in the world. Tim Keller said, "Neglecting the unpleasant doctrines of the historic faith will bring about counter intuitive consequences. There is an ecological balance to scriptural truth that must not be disturbed."

More to come. Stay alert.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Immortal Until Your Work is Done

J.C. Ryle said the following of George Whitefield, the great preacher and church planter during the Great Awakening in the 18th Century, in reference to his unmatched and rigorous ministry schedule: "He was immortal till his work was done." Whitefield was thought to have preached 18,000 sermons in his lifetime, and for much of his life that equated to 13 per week. If you have ever prepared and then preached a sermon, this reality is either ridiculous and foolish to you, or impressive and humbling beyond measure. No doubt, these sermons were either really bad, or really good. Read even one of them and you will quickly know which is more accurate. On the effectiveness of Whitefield's preaching, Ryle says, "I believe that the direct good which he did to immortal souls was enormous. I will go further - I believe it is incalculable. Credible witnesses in England, Scotland, and America have placed on record their conviction that he was the means of converting thousands of people."

Much of this preaching was in the open air, which exposed him to ridicule and in some cases physical persecution. The church at that time was not ready for Whitefield, "too asleep to understand him", and so they shunned him, and in turn "lost the use of his services". Ryle's description of him as immortal may have been an understatement. "That any human frame could so long endure the labors that Whitefield went through does indeed seem wonderful. That his life was not cut short by violence, to which he was frequently exposed, is no less wonderful." He lived through what many would have outright avoided because of its physical and emotional cost. He had pieces of dead cats thrown at him. No joke. Ryle's words represent to us a powerful and convicting challenge for the Christian life.


Do you? Our days are known by God, and we will not go home early or late. Therefore, we can be sure that while we have breath, we have work to do. That "work", a.k.a. our normal life surrendered to Christ, which consists of, among other things, family, vocation, and participation and service in a Christian community and in our spheres of influence, does not promise to be easy. In fact, many times, this work, or normal life, is accompanied with great risk and suffering. But it will not separate us from the love of God and it will not take our life prematurely. The Sovereign God of the Universe counts our days and gives us breath enough to finish our work, which is ultimately for His glory and our joy.

So, if that is true, we should feel a lot less anxious in the midst of risky, sacrificial service to God (which includes sacrificially loving your family and your neighbors, and persevering at your job as if it were Christ you were serving, even when its hard or boring), then we feel in the comfortable corner of minimal sacrifice and risk, cleverly disguised as the American dream. In other words, if you feel like you have little left to accomplish, and prefer to avoid risk and seek comfort and self-preservation, your days are likely numbered.

Isaiah 54:17 says, "No weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgement. That is the heritage of the servants of the LORD and their vindication from me, declares the LORD." Is that your heritage? Are you a servant?

The Apostle Paul says in Philippians, "If I am to go on living in the body, it will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two. I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith." These thoughts alone make me tremble and rejoice simultaneously.


All this has been marinating in my mind for awhile in the form of a definition of what it looks like to live the Christian equivalent of the U.S. Army Special Forces lifestyle. Hang with me here. Allow me to offer a definition of spiritual discipline from the words of a retired Delta Force Commander: "We trained our bodies and our minds to a level that gave us supreme confidence in our capability to be successful in any situation, anywhere in the world."

What if we trained ourselves to that level spiritually, so that we could have that confidence as we face spiritual warfare, ridicule, maybe physical persecution, emotional pain, loss, depression, mental fatigue, boredom, spiritual apathy, stress, doubt, discouragement, or temptation? What if we became so familiar with God from his Word, and so close to Him through prayer, that we really believed that He is always for us and working in all situations and struggles for our good? And so much so that we would not necessarily be prepared for every situation, as if there is a blueprint or manual for everything we face, but that we would be adaptable, and able to apply biblical truth and the presence of God to every situation, anywhere. That would be awesome, and I think what God is calling the Christian to be. Anything less may simply be laziness and disobedience.

Just imagine, if disciples of Christ were like covert warriors, completely fearless, trained in body and mind, not intimidated at all by people smarter or richer than them, with impeccable judgment, adaptable and unshaken by unpredictable circumstances, confident that their Lord himself was praying for them (John 17), and focused without wavering on the mission. Worst case scenario, our mortal bodies expire, and we go to be with Jesus as the immortals we are. At that time, there will be, for us, no work left to be done. And says our Lord, "Well done, good and faithful servant."


How am I ever going to be qualified for this? you ask. How am I ever going to be disciplined like this? Maybe your vision is poor. Special Forces soldiers don't wear contacts, just in case you were wondering. Maybe you have asthma or sinus issues. These aren't normally conditions that elite soldiers deal with. Maybe you are not a people person or very articulate in even your first language. CIA spies don't usually get nervous talking to people, even in second or third languages (Ever heard of Moses?). Maybe you don't have a very good short-term memory. Covert operatives don't usually forget detailed instructions when their life depends on it. Maybe you can't run a mile without stopping to walk. Maybe you are not a quick thinker. Maybe your navigational skills are embarrassing. Maybe the most "adapting" you have done in the last week is switching lines in the grocery store.

Can I tell you something? There is no boot camp for Christians. There is no elite selection process. You don't have to be a perfect specimen. The Bible says that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. It says that God has granted to us everything we need for life and godliness. It says that we were created to do good works, prepared in advance for us. Bearing fruit is not probable for the Christian; it is assured. Why aren't we doing it? My only answer is that we are not disciplined. We do not yield to the Spirit, receive the Word, and understand grace. These things are hard, and risky. Harder than learning multiple languages. Riskier than hiking a mountain range in pursuit with limited nutrition. We have to live the disciplines of grace. Not the disciplines of physical fitness or defensive driving or complex reasoning or hostage negotiation. The disciplines of grace.


I have talked before about the dangers of assuming you can, or thinking you have to, become perfect in the Christian life. I'll save that this time other than to say, no! The only thing worse than thinking you can or have to become perfect is thinking you shouldn't strive for it. Confused? Consider George Whitefield. He was just a man. Immortal only in the sense that he had eternal life in Jesus Christ and the God of the Universe had control over the timing of his entrance into the heavenly kingdom. As He has over us all as well. But Whitefield was still a sinner, and it is worth taking note of his imperfect qualities. The Mars Hill Church blog said the following:

"George Whitefield lived in a religious culture where celibacy was the highest calling and marriage was allowed only within carefully prescribed emotional and sexual limits. Sex existed primarily for procreation. Therefore, he had no children with his wife, Elizabeth. The Methodist code shaped and influenced Whitefield, who was convinced that no passion or emotional commitment could be stronger than the 'spiritual marriage' to Christ and his church. This meant for Whitefield, impassioned feelings between the sexes had to be suppressed to prevent the possibility of idolatry. His wife miscarried several times and became ill but Whitefield traveled for months by himself. Moreover, Elizabeth largely remained in silence, which was reflective of the role of women and marriage at the time, and she did not receive much attention even by later biographers of Whitefield. Whitefield’s priority list would have been Jesus, ministry, and marriage last, whereas marriage should have been a higher priority than ministry in a biblical man’s life."

This sense of priorities is not commendable. However, does it cancel out his passion and ministry? Maybe you can relate more with not prioritizing ministry at all and perhaps idolizing you spouse or family to the neglect of God's kingdom. Does that cancel out your love for them? Maybe you can relate more with idolizing work to the neglect of your family, and then also your ministry. Does that cancel out your dedication at work? Do any of these unbalanced examples give us reason to be so dominated by our sin and guilt or confused priorities that we mope and pout all the time, and ignore the call of God on our lives in family and vocation first, then ministry? God forbid! If you idolize your family over God, His reshaping of your priorities will not necessarily include an abandonment of family. If you idolize your job over your family and ministry, His reshaping of your priorities will not necessarily include altogether neglect at work. Does that make sense? God has given you everything you need. We just need help applying that the right way sometimes. And that likely means focusing more passion in certain areas, not less in others. God is not calling you to love your family or your job less. He is calling you, probably, to love Him and his ministry for you more.


This last week the news has been dominated by yet another tragedy resulting from a crazy and evil-intended young person with access to a weapon and some confused priorities. It is no less tragic than shootings that have dominated the news before, maybe more. Six people were killed and 14 wounded, among them Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Gifford. It was not a crazy shooting spree only. It was an assassination attempt. Yet, emerging from the story are ordinary heroes who made a big difference. Take 61 year old white-haired Patricia Maisch.

CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports we may never know why the shooting started, but it ended because Bill Badger, Joe Zamudio and Patricia Maisch saw a chance and took it. With the gun aimed at his head, Badger, a 74-year-old retired army colonel, made a lucky move. Badger indicates the back of his head, saying, "I turned my head and the bullet went right though, right above my ears right above here." He points across the back of his head. The gunman turned to Patricia Maisch. "I was really expecting to be shot," she says. "And just then the gunfire stopped and two men jumped on him." One of those men was Badger, wounded and bleeding. "I got him by the throat," he says. "The other guy has him on his knee right on the back of his neck." The gunman was down but trying to reload his 9mm handgun. "So I grabbed the magazine before he could and held onto it," says Maisch.

A 61-year-old woman wrestled an ammunition clip from the Arizona gunman as he tried to reload his weapon. That is amazing. She was not a former Special Forces soldier. She was not professional law enforcement personnel. She was disciplined enough to trust what she did have, and use it for good.

God has equipped us with everything we need for life and godliness. What acts of spiritual heroism has God designed you for? What disciplines do you need to master? You're immortal until your work is done, so get to it, trusting the constant grace of a Sovereign and loving God to protect and provide for you along the way. You don't have to be a perfect specimen. Or a perfect person. All you need is perfect grace. You will receive it in Jesus Christ.