Tuesday, September 26, 2006

An honest insight from an unbeliever

This past Sunday, Thabiti preached a powerful sermon on Psalm 119, which is considered by many Puritans as one of the hidden treasures of the Bible. In his introduction, he quoted Sam Harris' new book, "Letter to a Christian Nation", in which Harris provides an honest insight as a non-believer:
We agree, for instance, that if one of us is right, the other is wrong. The Bible is either the word of God, or it isn't. Either Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation (John 14:6), or he does not. We agree that to be a true Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so. If Christianity is correct, and I persist in my unbelief, I should expect to suffer the torments of hell. Worse still, I have persuaded others, and many close to me, to reject the very idea of God. They too will languish in "eternal fire" (Matthew 25:41). If the basic doctrine of Christianity is correct, I have misused my life in the worst conceivable way.


I have written elsewhere about the problems I see with religious liberalism and religious moderation. Here, we need only observe that the issue is both simpler and more urgent than the liberals and moderates generally admit. Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn't. Either Christ was divine, or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ was an ordinary man, the history of Christian theology is the story of bookish men parsing a collective delusion. If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself. You understand this. At least half of the American population understands this. So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.
Either Psalm 119 is true, or it is not. What will you stake your life on?

More: Mohler blogs on Harris' new book

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

God's love for His enemies

Jonathan Edwards is most notorious for his sermon, Sinners in the Hands on an Angry God, but there are other sermons that are even harder on sinners. Consider this passage from Men Naturally Are God's Enemies:
Some natural men are such “dogs” as to do things, if they had opportunity, which they do not imagine it is in their hearts to do. You object against your having a moral hatred against God; that you never felt any desire to dethrone him. But one reason has been, that it has always been conceived so impossible by you. But if the throne of God were within your reach, and you knew it, it would not be safe one hour. Who knows what thoughts would presently arise in your heart by such an opportunity, and what disposition would be raised up in your heart. Who would trust your heart, that there would not presently be such thoughts as these, though they are enough to make one tremble to mention them? “Now I have opportunity to set my self at liberty — that I need not be kept in continual slavery by the strict law of God. — Then I may take my liberty to walk in that way I like best, and need not be continually in such slavish fear of God’s displeasure. And God has not done well by me in many instances. He has done most unjustly by me, in holding me bound to destruction for unbelief, and other things which I cannot help. — He has shown mercy to others, and not to me. I have now an opportunity to deliver myself, and there can be no danger of my being hurt for it. There will be nothing for us to be terrified about, and so keep us in slavery.”

Who would trust your heart, that such thoughts would not arise? Or others much more horrid and too dreadful to be mentioned? And therefore I forbear. Those natural men are foolishly insensible of what is in their own hearts, who think there would be no danger of any such workings of heart, if they knew they had opportunity.
This is a stunning insight into my own heart. Oftentimes, my sinner's heart deceives me by keeping me in just the right amount guilt as to make me discouraged and yet think I can improve, but not so much as to be desperate for God's mercy and aware of my need of a Savior. But sermons like this strip away these sinful lies. In unveiling the human condition, however, Edwards' purpose is not simply to discourage us, but to present Christ and His precious, gracious salvation in the Gospel.
How wonderful is the love that is manifested in giving Christ to die for us. For this is love to enemies. “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” How wonderful was the love of God the Father, in giving such a gift to those who not only could not be profitable to him, but were his enemies, and to so great a degree! They had great enmity against him; yet so did he love them, that he gave his own Son to lay down his life, in order to save their lives. Though they had enmity that sought to pull God down from his throne; yet he so loved them, that he sent down Christ from heaven, from his throne there, to be in the form of a servant; and instead of a throne of glory, gave him to be nailed to the cross, and to be laid in the grave, that so we might be brought to a throne of glory.

How wonderful was the love of Christ, in thus exercising dying love towards his enemies! He loved those that hated him, with hatred that sought to take away his life, so as voluntarily to lay down his life, that they might have life through him. “Herein is love; not that we loved him, but that he loved us, and laid down his life for us.”
Print out the sermon and read it when you get home tonight. It will humble you and encourage you.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Reaching the next generation

Seeker-sensitive strategy for reaching the next generation:
Mr. Warren preaches in sandals and a Hawaiian shirt, and he encourages ministers to banish church traditions such as hymns, choirs, and pews. He and his followers use "praise team" singers, backed by rock bands playing contemporary Christian songs. His sermons rarely linger on self-denial and fighting sin, instead focusing on healing modern American angst, such as troubled marriages and stress... He figured they might find God if they could sit in theater-style auditorium and listen to live pop music and sermons that could help them with ennui and personal problems.

A Popular Strategy for Church Growth Splits Congregants; The Wall Street Journal, Tues. 09/05/2006, A1.
9Marks' strategy for reaching the next generation:
I visited Capitol Hill Baptist in January. The church kicked off with Sunday school, which really should have been called Sunday seminary. Class options included a survey of New Testament and a systematic theology lesson on theories of the Atonement.
Such rigor can be expected from a church led by Dever, who earned a Ph.D. from Cambridge studying the Puritans. He embodies the pastoral theologians who are leading young people toward Reformed theology. He has cultivated a church community in the Puritan mold - unquestionably demanding and disciplined. And the church attracts a very young crowd. Its 525 members average 29 years old. Dever mockingly rejected my suggestion that they aim to attract an under-30 crowd. "Yes, that's why we sing those hymns and have a [55-minute] sermon." Dever smiled. "We're seriously calibrated for the 18th century."

Young, Restless, Reformed; Christianity Today, Sept. 2006, p. 38.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Compassion ministries and the gospel

This past weekend at CHBC, Mark spoke on the theme of compassion from Ruth 2. After discussing the various ways compassion is expressed in that passage of Scripture, he went on to draw out implications for this on how Christians should think about compassion, particularly for the Christian, the State and the Church. This is a hot issue in evangelicalism today as people like Tim Keller, and to a greater extreme, N.T. Wright, are advocating (potentially) new understandings of how compassion ministry should fit with our understanding of the Gospel.

We had some good discussion on the sermon yesterday and here are some thoughts that are helping me solidify my thinking:

- Perhaps the easier inclination for Christians is towards expressing compassion through various church programs, which can be good and helpful. Particularly for subarbanites who do not have many in need around them, they are a great opportunity for them to show compassion. Yet, for others, the danger is that on our way to the mercy ministry activity, we trip over neighbors who are struggling to make ends meet and need our compassion. Perhaps the emphasis these days should be more on developing personal, individual relationships where we can express compassion to those around us who are struggling, rather than more programmatic ways to do mercy ministry. What's the relationship between teaching on individual compassion actions and corporate compassion ministries? How can the church teach on this in a balanced way so that our participation in mercy ministry programs doesn't just become an action item in order to relieve our guilty consciences? I'm still thinking through these questions.

- Much of the discussion of mercy ministries has been grounded in deep theological understandings of the kingdom of God. In the New Testament, we see that among individual Christians, as they are gathered in local churches, we are beginning to see a reversal of the effects of the Fall. We see this powerfully in the Holy Spirit's work to regenerate the human heart and cause Christians to grow in Christ-likeness. But this is also happening not only spiritually, but in very physical, practical ways. For example, one way this is expressed in the NT church is in Paul's instructions that there are not to be any poor and in need from within the church and that widows and orphans are to be cared for. We see churches cooperating generously to support each other so that there is equality and all are provided for (2 Cor. 8). But notice, these sorts of instructions are for the local church only. Notice how Paul doesn't go on a moral crusade in the city of Corinth, but rather only commands the church to be sexually pure.
1 Cor. 5:9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; 10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. 11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13 But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.
The kingdom of God certainly has broken into this fallen world and we are to see this in the local church, in the lives of those who have been transformed by the Holy Spirit.

- One of the more powerful points in the sermon is that the local church is the only institution that has been uniquely commissioned by God with the task of spreading the gospel. There are ways that the gospel is uniquely and powerfully displayed through the preaching of the Word and the ordinances and through the unity and love of the congregation in the local church. So if the church fails to do mercy ministries, there can always be other organizations to do it. But if the local church were to somehow lose the gospel, this unique display of its message will be lost.

- Therefore, whatever the church does, it should only do it subservient to the gospel. Mercy ministry is important in so far as it commends the gospel. This doesn't mean you have to go through a gospel presentation and press for a decision every time you buy a homeless person a lunch, or tutor a child. But if your motivation to help a person is only to fix his hunger or his grades, without giving thought to his eternal condition, you will not truly help him. So in all you do, strive to build relationships, act in ways that commend the gospel, be purposeful in your language to point to Christ... in other words, act in ways that will be strategic so that you can express your convinction of people's greatest need, namely a savior from their sins.

Listen to the sermon and join the conversation.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Entertainment and Evangelism

The Gospel is inherently and irreducibly confrontational. It cuts against our perceived righteousness and self-sufficiency, demanding that we forsake cherished sin and trust in someone else to justify us. Entertainment is therefore a problematic medium for communicating the Gospel, because it nearly always obscures the most difficult aspects of it - the cost of repentance, the cross of discipleship, the narrowness of the Way. Some will disagree, arguing that drama can give unbelievers a helpful visual image of the Gospel. But we have already been given such visual images. They are the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper and the transformed lives of our Christian brothers and sisters.

The Deliberate Church, pg. 55.