The Danger of Divine Familiarities

“We are frequently told, indeed, that the great danger of the theological student lies precisely in his constant contact with divine things. They may come to seem common to him because they are customary. As the average man breathes the air and basks in the sunshine without ever  thought that it is God in his goodness who makes his sun to rise on him, though he is evil, and sends rain to him though he is unjust; so you may come to handle even the furniture of the sanctuary with never a thought above the gross earthly materials of which it is made. . . . The very atmosphere of your life is these thing; you breathe them in at every pore: they surround you, encompass you, press in upon you from every side,. It is all in danger of becoming common to you! God forgiven you, you are in danger of becoming weary of God!”

-B.B. Warfield from “The Religious Life of Theological Students”

The Testimony Trap

In his hilarious book Stuff Christians Like, Jonathan Acuff has a section titled Telling Testimonies That Are Exciting Right Up Until The Moment You Became A Christian. The idea is that the way testimonies are often recounted, life is wild and exciting until meeting the living God.

I had this really hot girlfriend who was named after a city, and we were living in this cool loft downtown and every night, not just on the weekends, every night, we were going out. Her uncle owned a bunch of nightclubs and a fleet of yachts, so we would just party and then get on one of the yachts and have the craziest times and catch fresh crabs in the Florida Keys and then watch the sun pierce the morning sky with streaks of red and orange and yellow. And then I became a Christian. The end. (pp. 125-6)

The hair-raising excitement is all pre-conversion, and kids growing up in the faith, listening to this account at a church function, have the distinct sense they are missing all the fun. “Why can’t I wreck my life and have a thrilling testimony?”, they want to know. Churches that tend to emphasize conversion run into a real problem this way, but it really only surfaces because of another problem.

To the extent that pre-conversion life is truly interesting and exciting, it is so because God gives rain to the just and the unjust. The world is an interesting place and everyone with life and breath can go enjoy it. It’s the job of Christian parents to school their kids in the art of enjoying it, living full, grateful, generous lives in fellowship with the Giver of all of it. The scope of this discipleship has to be total. If it’s not, people will think the grass is greener on the other side, and that is exactly what the world is telling them. It’s not whether they will encounter this lie, but simply when.

Since sex, for instance, is one of God’s gifts to us, if you let your kids learn about it from pop culture, they’re going to buy the lies that result in broken hearts and bodies. These details often get left out of the testimony given to a large crowd. “She was hot, but also had an advanced case of genital herpes.” That isn’t appropriate in every setting, but rebellion always has its underbelly, one that you ought to know from fearing and enjoying the Lord. You don’t need to try heroin to know it must come with intense, short-lived pleasure, and long-term utter misery. You don’t need to learn your lessons on covetousness by going bankrupt.

The hard balance is to keep the testimonies, showing trophies of grace, and making life in the covenant what’s it’s supposed to be–an abundant one. Conversion is exciting and if we’re faithful to proclaim the gospel, it will continue to be. But so is life with Christ, ever deepening over a lifetime. These stories too must be told in the church.

Gay Marriage & the Missional Position

Every state in our country restricts marriage in various ways. In most of them you can’t marry 1) a family member, 2) a minor, 3) more than one person, or 4) someone of the same gender. All law is imposed morality, and we see that current marriage law imposes on anyone who would like to marry these (and other) restricted persons. For the polygamist, love won’t cut it. For the pederast, emotions are not enough. And for the homosexual, the state has never defined marriage based on the strength of affection between two (or more) people. True, some people marry for love. But we’ve never had  a love commission at any government level measuring the strength of emotional bonds between two people.

Until now. Or so you would guess from the reasons given by same sex marriage proponents. Here is Washington State Governor Gregoire saying that the state cannot tell homosexual people that their love does not qualify for marriage (see just after the 2min mark). But the state has never said anything about the love of homosexuals or the love of anyone else for that matter. The state has supported the union of one man and one woman because that union not only naturally produces children, but it has been seen as the best environment in which to raise them. This shouldn’t be controversial. As my friend Joe Backholm points out, take one million kids raised by their biological parents and one million kids raised by anyone else. Which million do you think does better? If you’re not sure, you’re not paying attention. This is not an argument against adoption or anything else. It simply makes the point, plainly for anyone to see, that kids do best, all things being equal, when raised by their biological parents. The state has historically supported the union of one man and one woman for this reason.

Gregoire also says the state cannot discriminate this way against homosexuals, and to do so is similar to the separate but equal evil of segregation. We’ve seen this is false. The state does discriminate–against homosexuals, polygamists, pederasts, and the incestuous. Now imagine, 30 minutes after two homosexuals get “married”, a guy and his two consenting fiances walk up to the county court house demanding their marriage license. They are in love, you see. And who can argue with them? Polygamy has as much historical presence as homosexuality. Probably more so. But the state can discriminate against one and not the other? Now a lot of sentimental people would never want the state to grant marriages to a dude and his wives, or a dude and his three cats, or a 9 year old boy and his 30 year old girlfriend. But if the criterion is love, and the state cannot discriminate–in the words of the governor–then there is absolutely nothing to stop that train. The president has recently said his view on marriage has evolved. Shouldn’t we expect it to continue evolving? Or is this the one place evolution stops? Of course this doesn’t mean beastiality is right around the corner. But who would have thought in the 70s that we’d be here?

Christians are required not to be sentimentalists, and to see the consequences of ideas before those consequences arrive. This is what it means to be prudent. Go back to 50’s unitarian conformity and you’re on the doorstep of the 60’s. Ah, the good ol’ days. We’re also required to resist tyranny and protect the weak. One common response to the fight over gay marriage by Christians is to say that marriage is one thing for non Christians and another for Christians. They take an oath before the state (at least sign something), we take an oath before God. Therefore, we should not withstand what they are doing. But consider, when God told Noah he would require a reckoning for murders, was he only talking about Jewish murders (Gen. 9:5)? Of course not. When Dan Savage gets a speaking spot to high schoolers on anti-bullying, and proceeds to attack his lame understanding of “the bullshit in the Bible” and the “pansy-assed” Christians who believe it, is there any wondering what this effort is about?

The irony is elephantine. In the name of not discriminating or imposing on others, elected liberals are imposing a minority view on the majority. Gay marriage has been voted down 32 out of 32 times when states actually vote on it, most recently by a landslide in North Carolina. Never has Peter Berger’s quip been truer that if India is the world’s most religious country and Sweden the most secular, America is a nation of Indians governed by Swedes. The only way gay marriage has become legal in a state is when enforced top down. It’s not as if the proponents of gay marriage are signing Referendum 74 that actually lets Washington voters choose what they want. Actually, I should qualify that. Some proponents of gay marriage probably have signed the Referendum, and hats off to them. They at least want democracy to live, stand with racial minorities in our country who overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage, and would likely never tell African American pastors who disagree with them to evolve like Chris Matthews did.

Data says that roughly 40% of evangelicals vote. The common line in churches is that the gospel is all about love, and politics all about power. This is true in one sense. The gospel is all about love, and when it comes to power, it primarily exercises left-handed power: sacrifice, blessing, love, influence. Politics of the usual kind is all about right-handed power: coercion, force, violence, control. What kind do you think is being used right now to redefine marriage? Do you think you’d be called to exercise some right-handed power if you saw a man raping a woman? But I digress. Whatever kind of power voting is,  it’s a privilege and a basic civil responsibility for Christians. I’ve been amazed to be at churches where people simply do not regularly vote. I’ve also been amazed at the refusal of many churches in Washington to take part in the Referendum effort. If you’re a pastor at a conservative church, you might have a few people who are over-zealous, who have not gotten the beam out of their own eye but complain about all sort of political specks out there. But you probably have a lot more people who are lazy in their civil duties, duties that affect their neighbors. You can talk about being missional and loving the city and shaloming all over the place, but if you don’t care enough to protect Johnny down the street from learning in school that marriage is a genderless institution and that we all need to explore our sexuality, then it’s time for another walk through Romans 1 with your eyes open. It’s time to remember that Jesus got murdered by political authorities because he threatened their influence. If we want to do justice and love mercy, this is the easy and first thing. Perhaps after the little, we will be entrusted with more.


Can’t Take it for Granted

She [the church] has felt that it is a very good thing for people to be within the home of the church, that she may protect them from the temptations of the world. But the tragedy is that so often she takes it for granted that these people are truly Christians. The church has addressed, to such, messages which are quite appropriate for the true Christian, but are not of much value to those who lack the essence of the faith. Thus, I say, it comes to pass that the church can be a very dangerous place. It may be that because these people are in the church they will never have addressed directly to them some of the primary, fundamental questions which all true Christians must be able to answer. There is a real danger of our assuming that we are Chrsitians for wrong and false reasons, and I do not hesitate to say that it is a very real and great danger.

-D. M. Lloyd-Jones, True Christian Discipleship

The Critical Call

“Why does the sense of call need to be so powerful? Because, sooner or later, the preacher will have to cope with depression and a temptation to despair. Only a deep convicition of the call to the ministry will keep him through what the Puritans, following St. John of the Cross termed ‘the dark night of the soul’–when all hell seems to be let loose and despondency threatens to stifle the preacher. Yet the call and the anointing sustain the ministry. Clearly, it was this that took Jeremiah though his time of crisis.”

Tony Sargent, The Sacred Anointing, p. 23

2011 State Pastor’s Conference: “Understanding the Times”

This looks like a good conference, put on by friends at the Family Policy Institute of Washington in Bellevue on May 16th. One day, Wayne Grudem, and free–hard to beat. Sign up here. From the flyer:

The purpose of the conference is to help church leaders think biblically about the relationship between the church and civil government.  During the course of their ministry, every pastor is forced to deal with people in their congregations to have different opinions on controversial issues.  They are also required to make a decision about how they will deal with, or not deal with, these cultural issues.   Dr. Grudem is one of the most well-respected theologians in America today, and his knowledge and insight into scripture will provide revealing, and perhaps surprising, answers to these question.

Topics that will be discussed include:

  • Will my tax exempt status be threatened if I discuss political issues?
  • What does scripture say about civil government and the church?
  • Should I care how my church votes, or if they vote at all?
  • Should I speak to my congregation about political issues?
  • Is it biblical to say “We don’t discuss political issues”

Apostolic Unrespectability

From Douglas Wilson’s comments on Paul’s warning to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:11-14).

Paul is not feeling sorry for himself here. He is pointing out something that should have been glaringly obvious to people who had a moral obligation to have seen it already, and whose inability to see it was a great spiritual danger to them. The apostolic band that Paul was the center of labored under unbelievable opprobrium. Moreover, they were able to do this without their “beloved sons” even noticing it. Paul therefore warns them. Take heed. If you must have great learning, as Paul most certainly did, make sure to carry it in such a way as to make people think you are crazy (Acts 26:24). It is the only safe way.

Pulpit Echoes

Conservative churches rightly emphasize the preached word. Paul says “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14). The emphasized whom is how the Greek ought to be translated rather than of whom, as the NIV and ESV mistakenly have it. People need to hear Christ, and not about Christ.

The bulk of a minister’s time ought to be given to preaching. This doesn’t need to be counted as minutes actually writing it or reading a specific book for it, but rightly understood, connected and applied, a preacher centers his broad reading, evangelism, counseling and teaching to that preached word, for it is there that Christ specially speaks to his people and there the power of the Spirit of Pentecost is felt. The pulpit is the prow of the world, as Melville called it.

It’s ironic that churches that most value the pulpit often flag in its application. If Jesus came and spoke this Sunday at your church, would you talk about what he preached on? Of course. Yet this is exactly what Paul says happens every time a minister faithfully proclaims the Word. We fail to intentionally interact with it, to take that gift and wring all we can out of it. Small-group focused churches routinely minimize the importance of Sunday worship other than as an evangelistic event. The preaching is largely for unbelievers and therefore not challenging to mature Christians. It is wrung out in a few minutes on the way back to the car. Then the action comes Wednesday night at the small group when the Bible is examined and the deep things of God brought out. The small group has now become the place of theological depth and personal sanctification.

Sermon-based Bible studies and small groups uphold the Bible’s high view of preaching, allowing, in fact requiring, the minister to preach in-depth and challenging sermons. They also require those sermons to be earthly good. Every sermon does not need explicit applications (as any survey of the Apostolic sermons in the book of Acts will reveal), but every sermon does need to be applicable. Rather than draw people away from the centrality of Lord’s Day worship, sermon-based studies bring them in, making them pay attention, take notes, and prepare to think later about it. Larry Osborne relates a common case:

Let’s take Marginal Mark as an example. He comes to church primarliy for his wife and kids. During a typical sermon, he daydreams about his job, some major decisions he’s facing, or his fantasy football team. He’s a moral guy, just not too “religious.” He’d rather leave the extra stuff for those who are really into it.

Now let’s imagine that his wife gets him to sign up for a sermon-based small group. Suddenly, despite his previous lack of interest, he’s listening at a deeper level. He’ll almost certainly start taking some notes. Then he’ll look at them again, however briefly, before the meeting. At the meeting, with some friends in a safe and non-judgmental enviroment, he’ll discuss the Scriptures and what it means to follow Jesus.

The hook has been set.

He’s now interacting with the Word of God at a level far beyond anything he’s ever done before. And in most cases it won’t be long until the Scriptures start to do their stuff convicting him, instructing him, and training him in a righteousness he didn’t even know he was looking for. (Sticky Church, p. 66)

Jesus speaks through fallible men, and because the words are his, they scatter out beyond worship, accomplishing his purposes. Churches ought to make sure the pulpit echo as far as possible.

Devil, I must sleep

Martin Luther dealing with his depression:

When I go to bed, the Devil is always waiting for me. When he begins to plague me, I give him this answer: “Devil, I must sleep. That’s God’s command, ‘Work by day. Sleep by night.’ So go away.” If that doesn’t work and he brings out a catalog of sins, I say, “Yes, old fellow, I know all about it. And I know some more you have overlooked. Here are a few extra. Put them down.” If he still won’t quit and presses me hard and accuses me as a sinner, I scorn him and say, “St. Satan, pray for me. Of course you have never done anything wrong in your life. You alone are holy. Go to God and get grace for yourself. If you want to get me all straightened out, I say, ‘Physician, heal thyself.'”