Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Apply Directly to Your Life...

Speaking of mi hermano en Cristo Miguel (see my last post), he and his family had a challenging week. Miguel's wife had an allergic reaction to something she ate and her throat nearly closed up so she couldn't breathe. The kids called 911 and when the EMT's got there they gave her a epinephrine injection. Except that it was the wrong dose, and it opened her airway but also caused her to go into cardiac arrest, or as Miguel said, "flat line." She spent a couple days in the hospital recovering, then had to go back again due to severe headaches as a result of the overdose. In the meantime Miguel has been keeping a household of three girls (including a toddler) going, holding down a couple of jobs and filling in as pastor for a little Latino church here in town, the one I preached with him at a couple weeks ago (remember that, it will be important). In the middle of all this, Miguel has a fender-bender at the church while hurrying to go home and pick up his notes that he forgot. Aye-aye-aye!

So talking with Miguel tonight, he had a great perspective on all this. He pointed back to the message I had preached a couple weeks ago with him at the Pan de Vida church. My text - James 1:2-5. All about having the right perspective on the trials and tests and difficulties that God sovereignly causes and/or allows in our lives. A perspective that sees these trials as divinely appointed opportunities to trust Him and His grace and sustaining power. Tests to grow us in our faith and to mark us as approved by Him. Miguel's view was that God had me preach that message just because it was what he needed to hear, so that God could give him the opportunity - immediately - to apply it. And his response to all this? To quote: "The Lord is so good!"

Of course, his wife Elsa told me that I shouldn't preach again too soon, hard telling what might happen if I did.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Seems I'm doing some transitioning in teaching ministry over the next couple of weeks. I just last Sunday finished teaching my study of 1st John in Sunday school. I really loved that class, and that letter. Lots of challenging, black-and-white truth in there. And so "relevant" to today's church. Anyway, that's over and done with and I will be starting teaching a new class in two weeks. Doing a study on Biblical worldview, using material from Summit Ministries called Thinking Like A Christian. It's not the greatest curriculum, but it works well in a Sunday school setting, and doesn't go over too many people's heads. At least gives them a frame of reference for thinking Biblically. And boy, do we ever need that these days.

And my friend, or should I say mi hermano en Cristo Miguel is finishing teaching the study on the identity of a Christian that I have been helping him with, and will start teaching a theology class on the attributes of God for our Latino attenders. So I am going to be meeting with Miguel and continuing mentoring him through this study as well, while he translates it into Spanish and teaches it. I'm really loving this mentoring thing, I think I'm getting more out of it than he is as he gives me insight into the thinking and culture of the Latino people.

It's kind of funny, but as I'm sitting here writing this it occurs to me that I am more and more seeing my primary focus as being on ministry, specifically teaching and preaching and discipling. And less and less on my "day job", the one that pays the bills. I have a lot of things going on work-wise, with several projects I'm managing and the like. But God seems to be transitioning me (there's that word again) from gaining my identity and sense of purpose from my career to my ministry. This has been going on for a few years now, but seems to be accelerating lately. And I gotta say, I like it. I don't know what the future holds, but I could certainly see myself "retiring" from my job and taking on ministry on a full-time or near full-time basis sometime in the not too distant future. That would be a really big transition, but not if God was calling me to it. Guess I'll have to wait and see what He does. Isn't life with Christ the ultimate adventure?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Spiritual Ignorance

I had a very clear reminder today of the current state of total spiritual ignorance that is rampant in the culture around us, particularly in the younger members of that culture. I was getting my hair cut this afternoon at the place where all of us in the family get our hair needs met. The girl cutting my hair is probably in her early 20's, knows all of us and knows that our oldest son Mike is attending college in California. For those of you that don't know, Mike is studying at The Master's College, working on his Bible Exposition degree in prep for seminary and ministry. She asked how he was doing and how long it would be til he graduated, etc. Then she asked what he was studying to be, and I told he he was preparing to be a pastor, and he's studying the Bible. Her response was, "Which one is that?" I didn't quite know how to answer, so I told her, you know, the Bible, Christianity, God and Jesus and all that. She asked if he was liking his classes, and I told her that he was, and in fact had just called me about he had aced a really hard Greek test. "Greek?" she asked. "So are there any Greek temples around here?" Ummm... Again, I wasn't quite sure how to answer. I said that no, that's not the reason for the Greek, that the New Testament in the Bible was originally written in Greek and so to study it you need to know the language. I could tell by her response that I had gone way over her head. All she could say was, "Wow, I couldn't even learn Spanish in high school!"

As I left, I recalled a previous discussion I'd had with this same girl about Mike's college pursuit. When I had told her that he was studying to be a pastor, she said, "Really? I didn't know you had to go to school for that!" Now, she is a really nice girl, but I realized how completely ignorant she is regarding anything spiritual. God, Jesus, the Bible, Christianity, church, ministry and all that goes with it is completely outside of her experience in the first twenty-some years of her life. And she is just an example of what I think is an entire generation that is largely in the same boat. As their parents have abandoned the church, as even the minimal shared cultural knowledge of Christian faith is being lost by ignorance. Not necessarily by outright rejection, but more so by apathy. What this means, and I am seeing it more and more, is that we are dealing with people in our culture who have absolutely no idea what we are talking about when we try to speak to them regarding the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It's not so much that they have wrong understandings about God. They have no basic understanding of God at all. He is outside their frame of reference.

Of course, there have always been cultures in this state of spiritual ignorance. And the Gospel of Christ and the Word of God does not need cultural understanding of Him to bring His elect to faith. But this is something new for the American church, for American Christianity. And the aha to me has been that we must be aware of this when we seek to speak the Gospel to those with this state of ignorance. We have to speak to them in categories they can understand. We have to help them first understand who God is. We have to recognize that we are dealing with a blatantly pagan worldview, that fundamentally has no place for spiritual realities. And we have to realize that this spiritual vacuum largely explains this culture's susceptibility to any kind of "spirituality" that comes along.

I'm not sure which is worse - having wrong spiritual understandings, or having no spiritual understanding whatsoever.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Christian Buzzwords 101

I've been thinking for some time about putting together a new study for use in Sunday School and similar settings, focused on Biblically defining what I call "Christian buzzwords." By that I mean those terms that seem to populate the vocabulary of most evangelicals, but which they rarely seem to be able to clearly express the meanings of. Over and over as I have taught Bible studies, classes, discipleship groups and the like, I have been amazed at how so many professed Christians, some believers for many years, are unable to give definitions for so many basic terms that deal with the foundational truths of our faith. I'm not talking about arcane theological words like supralapsarianism or the like. I'm talking about terms like faith, repentance, santification, regeneration, propitiation, atonement, justification, grace, mercy, and others like these.

In so many cases it seems that rather than do the work to understand Biblically what these terms mean and how they relate to the fundamentals of Christian doctrine, instead so many of today's Christians will adopt some cute little cliche that they hear from some cute little teacher that falls far short of really defining the word. For example, how many times have you heard someone define justification as "just-as-if-I'd never sinned"? Now, to be sure, there is a sense in which this is a true statement. The believer in Christ stands justified before God, and his or her sins are remembered no more. But that is really a better definition of forgiveness, the remission of sins, rather than justification, the imputation of Christ's perfect righteousness to the believer. Justification is so, so much more than simple forgiveness of past sins. But when we adopt a cliche-based definition like this, we are never forced to go beyond the superficial and appreciate the deeper truths of the term and the doctrine. Or appreciate the deeper understanding of Jesus Christ and His grace that comes from a fuller understanding of these terms. They simply remain "buzzwords" that we toss around in Bible studies and similar contexts.

Maybe this is just a phenomenon that I am imagining and that really isn't there. Does anyone else see this kind of superficial "Christian buzzword" thing going on as you teach or converse with other believers? Does it bother you like it does me? I mean, most of these terms are explicitly used in the Bible, so if people are reading their Bibles and encountering these terms but yet having unclear definitions of what they mean, how much is their understanding of the whole counsel of God and the Gospel being affected?

Comments welcomed...but no buzzwords allowed.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Stylin' for the Savior!

This was just too good to pass up. Here's a news article regarding this line of cosmetics marketed as "Lookin' Good for Jesus" in Singapore. Unfortunately for the American Christian fad promoters, the line has been taken off the market before they could pick them up. This looks like something I would expect to see at my local neighborhood Christian stuff store. Right next to the WWJD pencil sharpeners, the Prayer of Jabez bottle openers and the Purpose Driven Lifesavers.

I wonder - do they make a line of dental care products under this name? If so, I'm sure Joel Osteen would be all over the endorsements.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Every Tribe, Tongue and Nation

Preaching at the Pan de Vida church Saturday night was an amazing experience, I must say. Even though it was as if I had been transported to a foreign country when I walked in the door of the little Latino Pentecostal church on the south side of town in the little buidling next to the railroad tracks, the common bond of the grace of God and eternal life in Christ Jesus went far beyond the cultural and language barriers on the surface. The people, few though they were (maybe thirty adults) were the most gracious and appreciative people I have ever met. I was told by my friend Miguel that the church is made up of mostly natives of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. The pastor is currently in Honduras helping plant a church, hence the need for some pulpit fill.

The service started with the pastor's wife leading in worship, with a guy on drums and her son on keyboards. I'd been warned by Miguel that they like their worship loud - and they do. But it was great just experiencing the expressiveness of these folks as they poured out their hearts in song to the Lord. I even recognized a few of the songs in the half-hour worship set (with no breaks at all) and sang along in English, with a little broken Spanish here and there.

After the music was a "special time", where people could read Scripture, give a testimony or whatever they wanted. A man got up, read a Psalm and sang a worship song. A lady read a passage of Scripture and told with tears how God had used the Word to encourage her this week. Several more of this kind of thing. Nothing overtly Pentecostal or even wrongly focused on the Spirit - only heartfelt devotion to their Lord. Many, many "alleluia's" and the like. Spontaneous, yet orderly. I was blessed by this time as Miguel interpreted for me.

Then Miguel got up and introduced me, and I took the pulpit. I started with prayer - to which everyone stood to their feet. Yes, they stand for prayer and the reading of the Word. I started preaching my sermon, based on James 1:2-5, with Miguel standing next to me and interpeting. We hadn't practiced this at all, but we seemed to develop a rhythm and flow to the process where I would speak and pause for him to interpret, then alternate back and forth. It really wasn't distracting at all.

The thing that struck me most while I was preaching, though, was the attentiveness and responsiveness of the congregation. They were all on the edge of their seats, Bibles open, staring intently at Miguel and me as we spoke, following every word. Occasionally breaking out in a smattering of applause or an "alleluia" when I made a point. Once even all standing to their feet in applause - not for me, but for the faithful God I was speaking of. Preaching to a group of people like this is incredibly energizing, as God's Spirit was present and working. I found my voice rising, my gestures becoming more animated, my passion increasing. And my joy in the proclamation of the Word overflowing like never before. Not sure how long the message took, but it must have been around 45 minutes. I could have gone on for another hour if I had the material!

And as the service ended, nearly every person in the place made a point to come up to me, warmly shake my hand or embrace me and give me a genuine "God bless you!", or sometimes a "Dios le bendiga!" One older man, with a huge smile on his face, came up and gave me a hug like he'd known me for years. I have to say, I have never experienced this kind of genuine expression of appreciation anywhere else. I was so blessed. And to top it all off, they made me take a gift for coming and sharing the Word with them. I really didn't want to, but I also didn't want to offend them or rob them of their blessing by refusing it.

It's so easy for those of us in the mainstream of American evangelicalism to look down on and trivialize little churches like this. To be sure, many of these kind of churches have their issues, both theologically and ethically. I'm certain that Pan de Vida is not a perfect church - because there is no such thing. But I am equally certain that we Christian "gringos" can learn much about authentic life in Christ as a community from our Latino brothers and sisters. I know I did Saturday night. We dare not forget that we will be worshipping our Lord and Savior for eternity alongside fellow recipients of Christ's grace from every tribe, tongue and nation. Might not hurt us to experience a bit of this now.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Doing New Things

Seems that this is the week for me to try new things, ministry-wise that is. At the request of my friend Miguel, I will be preaching Saturday evening in a little Latino church here in town, named Pan de Vida (Bread of Life). And Miguel will be interpreting for the congregation. I have to say, this will be something totally outside my experience, and I know like two words of Spanish ( I can say "Me no habla espanol, senor.") But Miguel is really excited about it and he says the people in the church are excited about having a gringo Bible teacher come to visit while their pastor is gone for a few weeks. So I am revising a sermon I did a couple months ago for the little Shell Creek Baptist church out in the country, based on James 1:2-4. Although I may need to add some to it, since it seems the Latinos have no concept of time. Miguel told me that the service starts at 7:00, and I'd probably start preaching around 8:00, and to take as long as I want since they don't have a set time to end the service. Ay-ay-ay!!

So then I also agreed to fill in as teacher of a systematic theology class next Tuesday evening. It's part of Biblical Leadership Training (BLT) at my church, normally taught by our leadership development pastor who will be gone. So I get to teach a lesson on - the trinity. Yeah, something really simple and easy to illustrate. Actually it will not be that difficult, since I have all the notes and class outline. And the class is based on Grudem's Systematic Theology, just taking one chapter from it for this and the students have already read the material and will be coming to class prepared. Just hope that I am.

So I wonder what the next new thing will be? Please God, just don't send me to be a missionary in Africa!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

In Christ Alone...Alone

I think I’ve been spreading my reading attention a bit too thin lately. I am currently reading a number of books, simultaneously. I’m in the middle of re-reading Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language. About halfway through with The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. I’m also sporadically going through some of Spurgeon’s sermons, as well as Luther’s sermons. Needless to say, my mind is having problems keeping on track with all these books. But the one that I have found myself being drawn back to and spending the most time with is a new book by Sinclair Ferguson, titled In Christ Alone.

In Christ Alone is a series of short articles and essays by the noted Scotsman on the person, work, nature, supremacy and all other aspects of Jesus Christ. Right away I was struck by the short and digestible format of these articles, but also by their clarity and depth. I found myself stopping in the middle of a paragraph, going back to re-read and think through what Ferguson was saying. I found myself drawn into the words and the ideas. And when I finished one essay, I was ready to dig into the next one. The book is to me a series of mini-feasts, taking me to a deeper appreciation for my Lord and Savior with each bite. Maybe it's partly because as I read each one, I can hear Ferguson's rich Scottish voice that I love so much.

One of my favorite essays in the book is entitled The Romans Exchange, where Ferguson does a masterful job of outlining Paul's explanation of justification by faith in terms of a series of exchanges. That humanity has exhanged the glory of God for a lie. That God in response has exhanged man's privileged knowledge of Him for His righteous wrath. The gracious exchange of Christ for Adam. The exchange of righteousness for unrighteousness that God has graciously provided in Christ. And the final exchange that takes place in each person who trusts in Christ:

"In response to the great exchange that has been accomplished for us in Christ, there is an exchange accomplished in us by the Spirit: unbelief gives way to faith, rebellion is exchanged for trust. Justification—our being declared righteous and constituted in a righteous relationship with God—is not made ours by works, ceremonial or otherwise, but by the exercise of faith in Christ."

The format of In Christ Alone seems to be one that would lend itself well to a reading group or use as a devotional, but with far more depth of understanding than most devotional works of our time. I’m part of a group of guys that have had a reading group in the past, and I am going to recommend we read through In Christ Alone as our next project.

In Christ Alone is published by those fine folks at Reformation Trust Publishing. Click on the link. Go there. Buy the book. Enjoy.

Now, if I can just get around to finishing all those other books I have in progress…

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Testing Spirits

As I was doing my final prep for teaching on 1st John in my Sunday School class this morning, I was struck by the need for hearing and heeding the words of the apostle recorded in the first part of chapter 4. John says there:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 John 4:1-3)

The first warning is to not believe every "spirit", but instead to test them to see if they are from God. By "spirit", John here means person or in the context of the letter, teacher. His warning to the first-century churches in Asia was against the false gnostic teachers that were deceiving them. The command he gives is to not blindly believe whatever a teacher of spiritual things says, but rather evaluate their message and their motive. Why? Because many "false prophets" are out there. Those who would claim to speak for God, but in truth are false, or as the Greek says, "pseudo" prophets. But then John gives a test condition for discerning true teachers and false ones. The one who confesses or proclaims that Jesus Christ has come "in the flesh" is from God, and the one that does not confess this true Jesus is not from God, but is rather of the antichrist.

As I considered this statement, I understood that John was refuting those early Gnostic heretics that held to a dualistic view that separated the physical from the spiritual, and so denied the doctrine of Christ's being fully God and fully human. This is the original context for the letter. But as I considered this further, I realized that John is by implication also speaking here about all that the truth of Christ's incarnation entails. See, by denying the humanity of Jesus Christ, one is denying the ability of Christ to be the perfect, satisfactory sacrifice for man's sin. By teaching that Jesus Christ was not fully human in His incarnation, then the central truth of the Christian gospel - the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ - is destroyed. And by destroying the nature of the atonement, the false teacher is in effect destroying the core of Christianity itself. I came to see that this is why John makes such a point of this as a truth-test for those who would teach spiritual things.

And what is a central doctrine that is under attack today in the postmodern church? Why, it is the nature of the atonement, the doctrine of the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Christ. There are many, many more pseudo-prophets today than in John's time, but their message is much the same. For example, Brian McLaren, that eloquent spokesman for the emerging church movement, who first coined the term "cosmic child abuse" in referring to what he sees as a twisted view of the person and work of Christ. In his book, The Story We Find Ourselves In, one of the fictitious characters states, “That sounds like one more injustice in the cosmic equation. It sounds like divine child abuse. You know?” And British emergent author Steve Chalke picks this theme up in his book, The Lost Message of Jesus, where he states the following: "The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement that “God is love.” If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to reply evil with evil." And McLaren continues this denial of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement in his recent book Everything Must Change, where he refers to this doctrine as "the conventional view" and thus states that “the conventional view relegates Jesus to practical irrelevance in relation to human social problems in history; his message is about the soul, its guilt before God, and its afterlife, not about our world and its crises”, and concludes that this conventional view “offers relatively little hope for history”.

And these are just some of the more blatant contemporary evangelical pseudo-prophets that are doing just what John warned against. Joel Osteen does the same thing, only not by refuting the incarnation of Christ but rather by simply ignoring it, preferring instead to focus on "speaking positively to people." What about evangelical superstar Rick Warren? In any of his Purpose-Driven stuff will you find this central truth of the Christian faith? No, you won't. Again, no outright denial, but rather silence. How many other of what passes today for "Christian" authors, teachers, speakers, ministers, and leaders in pop-Christian culture are in the same boat? Many. The top 25 best sellers rack at your neighborhood Christian bookstore is chock full of what John, and more importantly the Lord Himself, refer to as false prophets.

Now, more than any time in the history of the Christian church, the core truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are in danger of being set aside due to ignorance on the part of the people of God. John's command to test the spirits echoes across the intervening centuries to call us today to be equipped to discern, to evaluate, to test the message behind the messages that are coming from so-called teachers. And to turn away from those that are shown by this test to be, as John says, of the antichrist. As you might be able to tell, this is a subject I am passionate about. So my exhortation to you is - test the spirits. Rely on the truth of the word of God, and on the testimony of the Spirit of God who indwells you if you know Christ. Because as John goes on to say in verse 4, "You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world."