Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Getting old

Carl Trueman laments the aging of his favorite rock stars over at Reformation21 blog:
the shortness of time: is Clapton really in his sixties? Is Ginger Baker really suffering from arthritis? And has Jack Bruce really had a liver transplant? The music is still marvellous, and better than anything being pumped out by the synthetic stars of today, but the men are old and wrinkled, shadows of their former selves. Nothing is so disturbing to the human mind as seeing the golden icons of yesterday going grey and fading away. Mortality is an unbearable thought, and old age is that most hideous reminder of the one thing we all hate and fear -- the fact that we are not god. No wonder that the we spend so much of our lives and our money pretending that we are not getting old.

But cheer up -- the word of the Lord lasts forever.
If only it were that easy. =)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Awareness of sin

The book of 1 John contains a list of the evidences of a life that has been changed by the Holy Spirit and one of the evidences is an awareness of our sinfulness before God.
If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. - 1 John 1:8
But is this awareness of sin merely something that we must deal with when we first become a Christian? Is sin (and the gospel) simply "beginner's Christianity" and then after you have felt guilty about sin for one or two years, you move past that to bigger and better things? After all, this sure seems to be the case from today's preaching. Sure once or twice a year, there will be "evangelistic" Sundays where the pastor will preach about sin and the gospel. But once you get that over with, you can now go on to spend the rest of the year talking about purpose and self-esteem and gifts and relationships. From the lack of preaching about sin in our pulpits today, it is no wonder that the church has become less aware of sin.

But Spurgeon once noticed that this was not the case with the Apostle Paul. In one of his first apostolic letters, he writes to the Corinthians,
For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. - 1 Cor. 15:9
Many years later, having grown as an apostle and led many people to Christ and planted several churches, Paul writes to the Ephesians,
To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ - Eph. 3:8
And finally, towards the end of his life, not knowing what will happen to him, Paul writes to Timothy,
It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. - 1 Tim. 1:15
From "the least of the apostles", to "the very least of all the saints", to the chief of sinners... As Paul grew in maturity, fruitfulness, gifts, revelations, and intimacy with Jesus Christ that most of us will never experience here on earth, he also grew in his awareness of his sinfulness, until at the end of his life, rather than being proud, he considers himself the worst of sinners. And having become so aware of his sinfulness, he now loves the grace of God in the gospel more than ever before.

This is why we as Christians can never "get over" our sinfulness. If we "get over" our sinfulness, then we will also "get over" the preciousness of the gospel. And if we "get over" the gospel, that means we no longer have God as our greatest treasure.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Thankful for the love of God...Why?

In this Thanksgiving season, we must remember the fundamental reason for why we should be thankful for the love of God. In one of my favorite sermons of all time, John Piper preaches,
"Thankful for the Love of God. Why?" And you might think, "That is so obvious. What's the point? It's plain why. To be loved is a wonderful thing. You don't need any explanation, do you?" And my answer is it's not obvious why we should be thankful for the love of God. It's not. When you're loved, you're given something that is good for you, usually at significant cost to another. And the better it is for you, the more love and the more cost to the lover, the more love you feel. But it isn't obvious what that gift is. It isn't obvious why the love that God gives us and leads us into is good for us.

Let me get at it by comparing the issue of forgiveness. Why should you care about being forgiven? That's not obvious either. Take a husband who has wronged a wife, perhaps even abused or just spoken cruelly, and he wants forgiveness, and he asks for it. Is that a good thing? Maybe. The question is, "Why does he want forgiveness?" Is it because his conscience is killing him and he is losing sleep at night? Is it because he's getting an ulcer because of the tension in the air? Is it because he's starting to be afraid maybe even for his life because she is so angry at him that he is not sure he wants to go to sleep next to her? Are those the reasons why he might want forgiveness? If so, I say there is no virtue in this. It is not obvious why you might want to be forgiven.

Of course, another alternative would be that he misses his wife. There is such an alienation; there's such a distance between them. They can scarcely talk with each other. He wants her back. He loves her. He misses her. She doesn't talk the way she used to talk. She doesn't touch the way she used to touch. Is that good? That's good. That's real good.

You see, it is not obvious to say, "I want you to forgive me, God; I want you to love me." Maybe it's good, and maybe it's not. So I asked that question.... "Thankful for the love of God - but why?" What's your answer? Why do you want God to love you this morning? It might be a good answer, and it might be a bad answer. Why do you want God to forgive you this morning? It might be a good answer, and it might be a bad answer.

...

The love of God for you is the work of God at great cost to give you the gift of Jesus Christ to enjoy forever and all that he is for you in him. It is not mainly about escape from hell, though that is precious beyond words. It is not mainly about a conscience that is clear, though that is precious beyond words. It is not mainly about all the ways he heals your mind and heals your body and heals your relationships, though that is precious beyond words. But these are not the main thing. The main thing is 1 Peter 3:18 - "Christ suffered once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God." To bring us to God!

Thankful for the love of God. Why? Because at great cost to himself, it brings us to God. It brings us to the splendor behind all splendor. You think the Alps or the Rockies are something? Do you think the Grand Canyon is something? You young people, do you think your favorite music group is something? These are echoes of splendor. And, of course, we all know - or maybe we don't - that there's a massive obstacle between us and God, and it is called sin. And the essence of sin is this: exchanging the glory of God for his gifts and creation. You are offered God for your fellowship forever, and you lay it aside and you take his gifts and say, "No thank you. I'm not interested in fellowship with you and enjoying you and being satisfied with you. I want your gifts - wife, child, the applause of men, health. That's what I want."

...

So I'm closing by asking you, "Would you want to be in heaven if Jesus weren't there?" You could have all the health you wanted. You could have all the relationships with friends you wanted. You could have a clean conscience. You could have your favorite toys and recreation - just no Jesus. Would you want to be there? A woman came forward in our church two weeks ago whose tears were just running down her face. She quoted me that question that I had asked and she said, "Yeah, I would. I would, and I'm scared of myself." She was honest, and we need to be honest.

God's love is his doing everything it takes, even the death of his Son, in order to so work in you that you would stop feeling loved by being made much of and start feeling loved by the enjoyment of making much of him forever in all that you do.

So, this is good news, and I pray that you will see it. He came to his own and his own received him not (John 1:11). But to as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the children of God (John 1:12). And if children, then heirs, heirs of God (Romans 8:17). Whom have we in heaven but thee? And on earth there is nothing that we desire besides thee. Our flesh and our heart may fail, but you are the strength of our heart, and you are our portion forever (Psalm 73:25-26). You're our inheritance forever.
Listen to the full sermon here or read it here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Contextualizing Theology

There are two main challenges in contextualizing theology within and for another cultural setting. First, you must state your message in a way that is applicable to a certain culture. This is known as cultural contextualization and is the relative aspect of the application of truth. Second, while contextualizing certain truths, you must also be able to express truths that transcend the culture you are in at any time. For example, a Christian in China should understand the atonement the same way that a Christian in Africa understands it. This is known as trans-cultural normativity and is the absolute aspect of the meaning of truth. Therefore, the challenge is to avoid making relative what is absolute (i.e. post-modernism) and making absolute what is relative (i.e. the American way is the right way!).

A very important question that arises from this task of contextualization is: “What is the extent to which a given culture’s worldview affects and should affect how theology is formulated within and for that culture?” In other words, yes there is a legitimate place for cultural input, but to what extent? Before we can answer this question, there are two pitfalls we must look at.

First is "cultural Christianity". Cultural Christianity is a formation of a theological understanding that is nothing more than an echo or reflection of values and beliefs that are already resonant in that culture. One example of this pitfall is Liberation Theology, which has been used in Third World countries by corrupt leaders to gain influence among the masses. This theology begins with a preferential option to the poor and builds a theology of the wickedness and oppression of the rich, and the innocence and righteousness of the poor. Of course, such theology is found nowhere in the Bible, but comes from their culture. An almost directly opposite example is Health and Wealth Theology, which is used among the affluent and materialistic. Here, right standing with God means being healthy and wealthy and Jesus is taught to be a rich man!

Second is “non-cultural Christianity”. This pitfall is when people claim to hold the pure and simple Christian faith with no mixture of culture in this faith. The reason this is a pitfall is because this is nothing but deception and naïveté. All of us are more inculturated than we are aware of. An example of this would be a missionary who goes out to Africa claiming to have a pure Christianity and teaches people that Christ died for their sins, to believe in Him to be saved, to wear clean clothes to church, to put a cross on the church, and to clap in 4/4 beat. We must realize that we have preferences that have nothing to do with the Bible or the Gospel.

The third alternative to these two pitfalls is contextualized normativity. Notice that “contextualized” is an adjective to the main noun, “normativity”. In other words, we must hold on to the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. There is an apostolic teaching that is normative and must be taught in any culture that is to become Christian. And yet, we realize that this normative truth has to be communicated in a contextualized form. We must contextualize it in a way where it is understandable but not compromised by that culture.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Mutability and Emotions

We see in the Bible that God is not a stoic, unfeeling, unemotional God. Rather, He is a God full of powerful emotions, expressing joy (Mt. 25:21, 23, Lk. 15:7) and pleasure (Ps. 115:3, Lk. 3:22) and joyful singing (Zeph. 3:17) and sorrow (Matt. 23:37, Jn. 11:35) and regret (1 Sam. 15:11) and grief (Gen. 6:6, Eph. 4:30) and anger (Ex. 32:10) and many other emotions.

We can now make sense of these passages in the Bible that describe Him as an emotional Being, because God's relational mutability allows Him to experience these emotions. This is how we can understand God expressing anger and wrath and sorrow and regret and joy and gladness and satisfaction and pleasure. Unlike us, His emotions are pure and holy and good, never tainted by deficiencies or sin or weakness. Rather, God experiences emotions in way that is pure and totally appropriate and righteous for whatever situation He is encountering. And because His relational mutability is based on His immutability, therefore His sovereignty, foreknowledge, complete self-sufficiency, etc... are not in any way diminished.

Some people would argue that the emotions of God are anthropomorphic. Anthropomorphism is when Scripture presents God as transcending the very finite human qualities it elsewhere attributes to Him. For example, when the Bible talks about "the arm of God", we know it is anthropomorphic because elsewhere it speaks of God being Spirit. God doesn't really have a physical arm the way we do, but rather the writer is expressing a truth about God using finite human attributes. So are emotions also anthropomorphic? To answer that, we would have to ask, Does the Bible ever teach that God transcends emotions? And the answer is no. Therefore, we see that in the Bible that God's emotions are a real part of who God is. In fact, I would argue that it is our emotions that are theopomorphic (to make up a word). In other words, the reason we have emotions and are emotional creatures is because God is the one that has real emotions and we are created in His image. The emotions of our hearts are merely a small flicker compared to the blazing sun that is the heart of God.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Immutability and Mutability

With the growing popularity of Open Theism, the doctrine of God's immutability has been challenged and needs once again to be established in the church. Here's a formal definition of God's immutability:
God cannot change in the essential attributes of His being or in the ethical commitments that extend from His moral nature.
In this definition, we see two complimentary aspects to God's immutability. First is the unchanging nature of His being (also known as Ontological Immutability). This is the unchanging nature of the essential attributes of God’s being. In other words, God is loving and cannot be other than loving. God is just and cannot be other than just. God is holy and cannot be other than holy. We also see a second aspect of His immutability in the Bible, and that is His faithfulness to His Word (also know as Ethical Immutability). When God makes a promise, He will keep it no matter what. We know this as the faithfulness of God in Scripture. God is faithful to His Word.

These two aspects of God's immutability build on one another. The ontological immutability has a primacy over the ethical immutability. His ontological immutability is absolute, while His ethical immutability is contingent on His making that promise/giving His Word. In other words, if there was no promise given, we would never see His ethical immutability. But once He gives it, He is bound to keep it. Some Scripture passages:
“Of old You founded the earth,
And the heavens are the work of Your hands.
“Even they will perish, but You endure;
And all of them will wear out like a garment;
Like clothing You will change them and they will be changed.
“But You are the same,
And Your years will not come to an end. - Psalm 102:25-27
David thinks of the most unchangeable things he can think of, namely heaven and earth, and compares them to God like an old garment, which wears out (not to mention goes out of fashion) in days.
For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed. - Malachi 3:6
Ontological immutability (I the Lord do not change), leads to ethical immutability (therefore you are not consumed, i.e. I will keep my Word to preserve you). We also see this truth all over the New Testament.
Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. - James 1:17
This verse is referring to His ethical immutability, namely He only gives good to His people. God doesn’t tempt His people! God only gives what is good for His people. And one of my favorites:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. - Romans 8:28
This is only possible because God is good (ontological immutability). But the main emphasis is His ethical immutability (promise to work all things for the good of His people).

So as we can see, the immutability of God is one of the most precious truths that we see from the Bible about who God is. Yet, if this was all we knew about God, then we would have an incomplete picture. Not only that, but we would be in a lot of trouble, because we see in Scripture that we are born in sin and God is full of wrath and unless there is somehow a change in God towards us, we are undone.

So there is one sense in which we must talk about the holy mutability of God, and this is God’s "change-ability" of His relationship with us (also known as relational mutability). When a sinner repents, obviously something changes in us. But does any change happen in God? Yes! There is a change in relationship from wrath and enmity to reconciliation and adoption and love. The basis for this mutability is God’s ethical immutability, namely His promise to keep His Word. In other words, God's ethical immutability brings out His relational mutability.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Songs for Hard Times

Bob Kauflin is one of the worship leaders for Sovereign Grace Music and he is another great songwriter of our day. In his blog he is writing about a movement in songwriting to write worship music that can deal with suffering.
I recently heard someone comment that modern worship songs only cover about 3% of the topics found in Scripture. I don't think that's entirely accurate, but we surely lack contemporary songs that help the church respond appropriately to disasters and tragedies such as 9/11, the tsunami, or the recent hurricanes. Fortunately, that's changing. Over the next few days I'm going to highlight some of the songs we've used in my home church to give voice to the confusion, sorrow, and hope we experience during these times.
One of these songs is one of my favorite poems, William Cowper's God Moves in a Mysterious Way. He has set it to music and it is available on their latest CD entitled Worship Live. You can also download a full MP3 of the song from his blog.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Model Prayer

"O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.” - Daniel 9:18-19 (ESV)

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Cultural Revolution and Post-Modernism

I attended an international student conference this weekend, put on by the Kentucky Baptist Convention. We had almost 200 high school and college students from over 20 different countries represented at the conference and it was really something special to be a part of.

The speaker for the conference was a Chinese lady who came from a very poor peasant background in China, and yet by the grace of God, had the opportunity to come to America to work, study, raise a family, and most importantly, hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. She shared her story, which was a fascinating account of her experience of the Cultural Revolution. One of the more interesting things she shared is how when the cultural revolution first started, all the landowners and aristocrats were publicly condemned and punished. It now was a crime to be wealthy or educated or experienced, and all wealth now became common property. She shared one story about how as a student, one of their heroes was another student who always caused trouble and never studied, and one time he turned in a blank test and demanded that the teacher give him a perfect score. Because of the constant threat of being labeled a counter-revolutionary, the teacher gave him the score.

Well, after the counter-revolutionaries were killed, life went on, and the peasants were told to go out and work the fields. Since everyone shared in common property, people were only allowed to own the clothes on their backs and their beds. At mealtimes, they were instructed to go to the village wok, where they would have food available to all the families. This system lasted about two years, and after that people began to starve. She asked, "What happens if you get to eat no matter how hard you work and cannot keep any wealth no matter how successful you are? People will no longer work." Once the distributed wealth of the aristocrats ran out, the villages became extremely poor and hundreds of thousands of people all over China starved.

As I heard her tell this, I couldn't help but think of the parallel between the Cultural Revolution and today's post-modern pluralism and relativism. What will happen to a people if they are affirmed to be in the truth, regardless of what they believe in, regardless of the inconsistencies of it with their lives, regardless of the fruit of their beliefs? What will happen to a people if they believe there is nothing to gain by believing one faith over another since all faiths are true and good? People will no longer work to find the truth. People will no longer seek after the truth. And very soon, they will starve and find themselves spiritually bankrupt and hopeless. Only this time, the consequences are far more dangerous. If you starve physically for a lack of food, you will lose your health and maybe your life. But if you starve spiritually for a lack of truth, you will lose your soul forever. Are we seeing the days of Amos again in our day?
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD,
“When I will send a famine on the land,
Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water,
But rather for hearing the words of the LORD. - Amos 8:11

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Tolkien, Lewis and Creation

Joseph Pearce is the professor of literature at Ave Maria University and recently gave two talks at Southern Seminary on myth, creation, and creativity in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. They were two fascinating and enjoyable lectures, especially for you Tolkien fans out there, and are available for download.

Lecture 1: "Truth and Myth: Unlocking the Lord of the Rings"
Lecture 2: "Creator, Creation and Creativity: Understanding Tolkien's and Lewis' Philosophy of Myth"

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Grace and Mercy

I've often heard people define grace as "getting what you don't deserve" and mercy as "not getting what you do deserve", but this has never been a very helpful distinction. After all, if you get what you don't deserve, aren't you by default not getting what you do deserve? Not very helpful. Well yesterday, I learned a much more helpful, biblical distinction between these two terms.

Grace can be defined as "the unmerited favor of God given to those who are totally undeserving of His favor or good pleasure". One of the ways we know that this is what grace means is because of how often the word "grace" is linked to the word "gift" in the Bible. A gift is not something you earn, like a paycheck. Rather a gift is undeserved and given freely, and so is grace. The key to understanding grace is understanding the undeservedness of the recipient. Some texts:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. - Eph. 2:8-9

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus - Rom. 3:23-24
Mercy on the other hand can be defined as "the compassion or pity of God, which is expressed to those who are in dire need, who are downcast, ruined, hopeless and helpless". It is the kindness of God expressed to desperately needy people. It is the compassion of God given to people who cannot make something of themselves or help themselves. And who are these people? Because of sin, it includes all people. We all need mercy. The key to understanding mercy is the ruin and helplessness of the recipient.
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ - Eph. 2:1-5

For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit - Titus 3:3-5
Grace and mercy... these are two concepts that are largely lost even in the church today! We have bought into our culture that lives in "entitlement". We think we are entitled to blessings and comforts, when the reality is that all we deserve is destruction. We think we deserve a break, when all we deserve is hell. The only wage we have earned is death. We don't deserve any good that comes to us. None of us receive good because of merit or entitlement. All good things in our life (and bad things that God turns for our good) only come by grace alone, and not the least of these is our salvation.

And add to that the foolishness of the self-esteem culture that so much of today's preaching has adopted. The goal of the Bible is not to increase our self-esteem, but our God-esteem. If we are to understand mercy, we have to realize our condition of utter helplessness and desperation before God. We have much work to do in overcoming the constant bombardment of the self-esteem movement from our culture. The Bible teaches self-repentance, self-sinfulness, self-helplessness and the mercy of God as our only hope.

Our sins and rebellion have incurred the wrath of God and we are utterly undeserving of any good. Not only that, but we have been killed by our sins and have no hope of any life on our own. But the grace of God and the mercy of God have been manifested in Jesus Christ and in them is power sufficient to save even the most desperate of sinners!