Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Marley was as Dead as a Door-Nail

A month ago I was preparing for my Thursday morning Berkhof reading group. The Dutchman was writing about fallen angels, and made this comment: “They are even now chained to hell and pits of darkness, and though not yet limited to one place, yet, as Calvin says, drag their chains with them wherever they go...” (Systematic Theology, pg. 149).

Well, this quote triggered two things in me: the unstoppable desire to hunt down the original quote (always find the source!) and a sudden yearning for the Advent season.

First, the source. John Calvin says what he says about dragging chains around speaking not of the fallen angels (as Berkhof used the imagery), but of the lost: “The lot of the reprobate is doubtless the same as that which Jude assigns to the devils; to be held in chains until they are dragged to the punishment appointed for them” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.25.6). A chilling image. Those who are without Christ in this world are already bound to hell by chains which they drag around everywhere they go. Billions of people going about normal everyday life (Matthew 24:36-42) bound by chains which find their anchor in eternal fire. I just read The Christian Atheist last night – there was a chapter in this book where he describes the person who believes in God but doesn’t share his/her faith. Groeschel does the important job of reminding the reader of the (unpopular) reality of hell in that chapter. And, as Calvin says, they’re already chained to that hell and dragging the rattling fetters about everywhere they go and in everything they do. The bride coming down the aisle, the fan cheering for the game, the soccer mom going about her ceaselessly busy life, the farmer in his tractor, the teacher, the...well, every type of person you can imagine...chained to hell...the noise in the spirit realm must be deafening. Powerful image. May God give the Church ears to hear it.

As I said, Berkhof sent me hunting for the Calvin quote, but it also made me long for the Advent season. Why? Because Charles Dickens once wrote a Christmas ghost story (A Christmas Carol, 1843), and Berkhof’s quote made me think of Jacob Marley (yes, I had to resist call of mental chaos to reggae-jump to Bob Marley): “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that... You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

I’m not a Halloween guy, and have never cared for A Christmas Carol (the line in 1963’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” about “scary ghost stories” has always seemed stupid to me), but culture’s a pretty powerful influence. So Berkhof made me think not just of Calvin, but of Dickens. “Marley was as dead as a door-nail.” But still he shows up in Scrooge’s room one night.

“After several turns, [Scrooge] sat down again. As he threw his head back in the chair, his glance happened to rest upon a bell, a disused bell, that hung in the room, and communicated for some purpose now forgotten with a chamber in the highest story of the building. It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this bell begin to swing. It swung so softly in the outset that it scarcely made a sound; but soon it rang out loudly, and so did every bell in the house. This might have lasted half a minute, or a minute, but it seemed an hour. The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine merchant’s cellar. Scrooge then remembered to have heard that ghosts in haunted houses were described as dragging chains. The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door. ‘It’s humbug still!’ said Scrooge. ‘I won’t believe it.’ His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, ‘I know him; Marley’s Ghost!’ and fell again. The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent, so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.”

This is what Berkhof’s quote brought to my mind. Any excuse to be in an Advent frame of mind – even when it’s a stretch like this. But this whole collision of images made me look at the people around me differently. They are walking around right now as I once was. “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” (Ephesians 2:1-3).

More Dickens:

“Again the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands. ‘You are fettered,’ said Scrooge, trembling. ‘Tell me why?’ ‘I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost. ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?’”

“Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out. The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free.”

“Free will” is not free. We all sin (Romans 3:10-12,23), and sinners are slaves (John 8:34; 2 Peter 2:19). Your “free will” is enslaved and can only choose rebellion against God unless it is freed in Christ. It is the instrument by which you forge your chains to hell (Romans 6:1-23). The air is filled with phantoms. “We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

Lose the chains. Repent of your rebellion against God’s Law and put your faith in the free gift of salvation He has given in His Son, Jesus Christ. “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 (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 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. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:4-10).

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Proclaim, Hear, Believe

What do we expect when we gather for Sunday School, Bible study, the sermon, etc.? What is our sense of anticipation if we are the ones teaching or preaching in these gatherings? Is it enough? God works mightily through the proclamation of Christ’s Word.

“When a large crowd was coming together, and those from the various cities were journeying to Him, He spoke by way of a parable: ‘The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it the parable is this: the seed is the word of God. Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe [πιστευω] and be saved [σωζω]’” (Luke 8:4-12). To hear and believe the Word of God from the heart is to be saved.

“Now on one of those days Jesus and His disciples got into a boat, and He said to them, ‘Let us go over to the other side of the lake.’ So they launched out. But as they were sailing along He fell asleep; and a fierce gale of wind descended on the lake, and they began to be swamped and to be in danger. They came to Jesus and woke Him up, saying, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And He got up and rebuked the wind and the surging waves, and they stopped, and it became calm. And He said to them, ‘Where is your faith [πιστις]?’ They were fearful and amazed, saying to one another, ‘Who then is this, that He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him?’” (8:22-25). The disciples, who had heard His Word, feared. The wind and waves heard, and obeyed (the standard for being part of His family, 8:19-21).

A man notoriously filled with the Legion of hell. Now free. “The people went out to see what had happened; and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting down at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they became frightened. Those who had seen it reported to them how the man who was demon-possessed had been made well [σωζω] (8:35,36).

“When the woman saw that she had not escaped notice, she came trembling and fell down before Him, and declared in the presence of all the people the reason why she had touched Him, and how she had been immediately healed. And He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith [πιστις] has made you well [σωζω]; go in peace’” (Luke 8:47,48). This is one of the ones waiting for Jesus to “return” (8:40), who had heard Him speaking in the earlier part of the chapter (8:1-22) before they’d departed for “the country of the Gerasenes.” Why did she touch Him? Because she’d heard His Word and believed.

“While He was still speaking, someone came from the house of the synagogue official, saying, ‘Your daughter has died; do not trouble the Teacher anymore.’ But when Jesus heard this, He answered him, ‘Do not be afraid any longer; only believe [πιστευω], and she will be made well [σωζω]’” (8:49,50). He commanded her to arise and she lived. Death itself cannot deny His Word.

After all the proclamation, hearing, belief/faith, and salvation (“made well”), the Lord then sends the disciples out to proclaim with His own authority.

“And He called the twelve together, and gave them power and authority over all the demons and to heal diseases. And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to perform healing. And He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, neither a staff, nor a bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not even have two tunics apiece. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that city. And as for those who do not receive you, as you go out from that city, shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ Departing, they began going throughout the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere” (9:1-6). As we saw from chapter 8, the “healing” was a visible illustration of the power of proclaiming “the kingdom of God,” or “preaching the gospel.” Calming wind and wave, casting out demon-armies, healing from chronic disease, and undoing death itself: as impressive as these things are, they play a supporting role in the real work. Proclamation.

Gather, hear, and believe His Word. May we expect more from its proclamation!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Assurance in Christ and the Works of the Law

Got back to one of the books in my large “half-read” pile this week: Mark Jones’ Antinomianism.

Dr. Jones, in describing the role of obedience in our assurance, offers this syllogism:
“Major Premise: Those who keep God’s commandments love Christ.
Minor Premise: By the grace of God, I keep God’s commandments.
Conclusion: I love Christ” (pg. 103).

(For the scriptural support for the major premise, see Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 5:10; 7:9; 11:1; 30:16; Joshua 22:5; Nehemiah 1:5; Daniel 9:4; John 14:15,21-24; 15:10-14; 1 John 2:3-5; 5:2,3.)

Jones then points to Westminster Confession of Faith 16.1,2 as the reflective of this syllogism: “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in His holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant whereof, are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention. These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, Whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life” (emphasis mine).

One assurance that we are saved in Christ is our desire to do what the Bible commands for our lives. How do we know that Christ is our Lord unto salvation, and that our confession is true (Romans 10:9)? We honor Him as Lord by obeying His commands and embrace His commission to teach other disciples to do the same (Matthew 28:18-20).

There is a dangerous side to this, of course, that deserves mention. What about those who are vainly pursuing a non-Christian salvation? It is only biblical Christianity that seeks salvation solely through faith in the accomplished work of salvation, apart from obedience to the moral Law. All world religions and non-biblical “christian-esque” religions seek salvation through works. This is the “impossible” human salvation spoken of by Jesus (Matthew 19:25,26//Mark 10:26,27//Luke 18:26,27). No one is justified by the works of the Law (Romans 3:20,28; Galatians 2:16; 3:11; 5:4).

Some others may seek salvation through impressive spiritual deeds that are not commanded by the Law. Remember the confession that true good works are those “commanded in His holy Word...done in obedience to God’s commandments.” Consider the words of the Lord concerning “false prophets” (Matthew 7:15) with impressive spiritual resumes: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father Who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; [as it says in Psalm 6:8,] depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Neither Law-keeping nor good spiritual deeds will achieve salvation. Only by faith in Christ’s all-sufficiency will God “reckon...righteousness” to us (Genesis 15:6; cf. Romans 4:3,9,22; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23). The Law’s role is to lead us to Christ. It does this by showing us our sinfulness and the only atonement for that sin – Jesus Christ’s self-sacrifice (Romans 3:19,20; 7:7-12; Galatians 3:19-25; 1 Timothy 1:8-11).

But what role does the Law play after our salvation? This is not an easy issue, and has been one of much controversy throughout Church history. I don’t pretend to be the one to solve it to everyone’s satisfaction, but Dr. Jones’ (and the W.C.F.’s) connection between Christian Law-keeping and assurance was worth highlighting.

This Christian obedience, while a reason for assurance, is not to be a cause for our boast or self-confidence (sadly, many confuse spiritual self-confidence with assurance). We are sealed in the new covenant by the blood of Jesus (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25) – the precious reminder of our observance of the Lord’s Supper. We don’t hold ourselves there by our good works. We are held there by the sacrifice of Christ. One of the promises of the new covenant is God’s work in putting His Law on our hearts and a desire/ability to obey:
  • “Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6). Apart from the work of God Himself on the human heart, we could not obey the “greatest commandment” (Deuteronomy 6:5; cf. Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:33; Luke 10:27).
  • “‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the LORD. ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,’ declares the LORD, ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more’” (Jeremiah 31:31-34; cf. Hebrews 8:8-12; 10:16,17). We lay claim to this promise when we observe the Lord’s Supper, since (as we’ve already seen above), with the cup we pronounce our sealing in this “new covenant” by the blood of Jesus.
  • “They shall be My people, and I will be their God; and I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me always, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me” (Jeremiah 32:38-40). There is a connection between the fear of the LORD and obedience to the Law (Deuteronomy 17:19; 28:58; 31:12).
  • “And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances and do them. Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19,20).
  • “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

All of these passages teach a God-created obedience from the heart in His true people. In this way, obedience to God’s moral Law is a source of assurance, since it is the work of God Himself.

While the passages above were from the Old Testament, Christian obedience as a gracious work of God is a common New Testament theme, as well. I love these verses and quote them often. We need this constant reminder to daily kill the Pharisee in us all (that part of ourselves tempted to take pride in the good works, Luke 18:11,12):
  • “But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God” (John 3:21).
  • “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. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
  • “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12,13).
  • “Now the God of peace, Who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20,21).

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine...because in Him this Law-breaker loves His Law and desires to obey Him as my Lord by the power of His Spirit, to the glory of His Father.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Give Them the Sermon

Let me get this straight: lawyers from a major U.S. city subpoena sermon notes & recordings concerning anything said in the pulpit concerning a controversial law and/or the major who supported the law and/or anything topically related to the content of the law, and the general majority response of the church and pastors is basically, “h**l no, we won’t go”?!

Dr. Moore (whom I normally enjoy reading) of the S.B.C.’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission even managed to dig up a Bible reference to defend this attitude: “The churches, and pastors, of Houston ought to respond to this sort of government order with the same kind of defiance the Apostle Paul showed the magistrates in Philippi. After an earthquake, sent by God, upturned the prison where Paul and Silas were held, Luke tells us that the officials sent the police to tell Paul and Silas they could go. Paul replied. ‘They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned men who are Roman citizens and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly. No! Let them come themselves and take us out’ (Acts 16:37).”

Seriously? Why are we surprised by these subpoenas? Are we still so theologically thin that we think unbelievers will always act with logical consistence, clarity of thought, reason-guided passions, and true “liberty and justice for all”?

First, regardless of where you stand on apocalyptic biblical texts, it seems clear that just a cursory reading of them indicate difficult times for believers, be it in the past, present, or future (Daniel 7:17-26; Revelation 11:3-7; 12:17; 13:6,7; cf. John 15:19-21; 16:33; Acts 14:22; 2 Timothy 3:12). “He will speak out against the Most High and wear down the saints of the Highest One, and he will intend to make alterations in times and in law; and they will be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time” (Daniel 7:25). “They will be given.” Who does the “giving”? Who measures the “time, times, and half a time”? Who’s in charge?

Secondly, and – most importantly from a Great Commission standpoint - why in the world wouldn’t we joyfully turn over every single sermon we’ve ever written and preached (they’re probably all on these churches websites for all to access anyway)?

“Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city. Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. But beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues; and you will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they hand you over, do not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say. For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved” (Matthew 10:14-22).

“But be on your guard; for they will deliver you to the courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them. The gospel must first be preached to all the nations. When they arrest you and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of My name, but the one who endures to the end, he will be saved” (Mark 13:9-13).

“But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake. It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute. But you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name. Yet not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Luke 21:12-19).

I interpret these passages to be exclusively about the events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, but I know that most people understand these passages to refer to the “end times.” Given that popular approach to these red-letter passages, where do we find the civil disobedience as far as sermon material goes? Don’t we find the opposite, whether we interpret this to be general principle or specific command? Doesn’t the Lord tell us we will be brought before the government for the purpose of the Trinity (Father, Matthew 10:20; Son, Luke 21:15; Spirit, Mark 13:11), that He might speak through us as a testimony? Why wouldn’t we want city lawyers and their masters to hear the Word? Hopefully somewhere in these sermons the Gospel was presented and the Word faithfully taught – if not, why were any other things said in the pulpit?

Hopefully we have faith that the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a means of saving grace through the effectual calling of God the Holy Spirit when and with whomever He sovereignly chooses to extend it. After all, we were saved by it. These who oppose are not greater sinners than we ourselves were, are they? They are not deader in their transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1), more committed to being enemies of God (Romans 5:10), more faithful to dad the devil (John 8:43,44), are they? If so, we have a more serious problem – you don’t have a Christian view of the lostness of humanity and the grace of God, but ultimately have a thinly-veiled merit-based religion. I don’t believe that to be true of any of you protestors in this situation (I write this way by means of illustration). We believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that – by the power of the Spirit – saves absolutely dead human beings from their sin and the wrath of God against that sin and brings them into right relationship with their Creator through the work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit unto rebirth and eternal life by His great and amazing grace through faith. The dead – be they us formerly or massive cities of the lost with their democratically-elected leaders presently – can be brought to life by the Word of Christ. Give them the Word.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (Amendment I, December 15, 1791). Our confidence must not be in the Bill of Rights, magnificent as it is for a man-created document. The lostness of humanity and the Scriptures teach us that, apart from the divine imposition of general grace, there can be no legal or logical consistency when it comes to the people of God in Christ. We will be hated because they hated our Lord first (John 15:18). We need to be cautious about filtering our response through either American convictions or warrior bravado more than we do through Scripture. The Church is, and always will be, “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). We are far more than non-profit incorporations under the laws of this government or that government. We are something eternal and unstoppable. And we have the only message of life, life, eternal life.

I appreciate these pastors so much and all who speak out as heralds of the truth of the Word of God (despite how my over-use of rhetorical questions may skew perception of my attitude). I don’t think I’m bringing up Bible verses these guys (or you) have never read or heard. Of course not. Sometimes, though, in the emotional reaction to lawlessness (which is what these subpoenas are) and astoundingly corrupted logic, we momentarily get shifted on our firm theological/biblical foundations. Brothers and sisters, the lost cannot think or act with consistent justice or logic (2 Kings 17:15; Romans 1:21; Ephesians 4:17,18). I am reminding us that the same Word which declares the folly of the world to be lawless sin also clearly lays out the consequences for proclaiming that Word and being faithful to its Author. Keep fighting, but be sober and prayerful, not shocked and dismayed. May we preach “faith in Christ Jesus” (which Acts 24:24,25 says includes “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come”) even more firmly anchored to the Word with “great sorrow and unceasing grief” (Romans 9:2) for their ensnarement to “the devil, since they have been held captive by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26). This is a spiritual battle - the legal and political is necessary but not ultimate. Prayerfully proclaim the truth louder and stronger with hearts broken for those still in absolute darkness.

Give them the sermon.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Brief Theology of Administration

It seems that in this last quarter the administrative aspect of my job has demanded a larger slice of time than it has in two decades of ministry. At the beginning of that two decades I was convinced I would never make it as a pastor because of committee meetings, deacons’ meetings, and business meetings. Thankfully, things are a little different now. No, I haven’t come anywhere close to mastering Robert’s Rules of Order, and I don’t believe meetings to be a means of grace like preaching, prayer, or the ordinances. But I do understand that in Baptist life the committee and its meetings are the rallying point for involvement in the cooperative. The committee and its meetings are a tool to involve “the saints [in] the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12,13). There is a collectivism in the Baptist Church that necessitates some means of organization (“A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord,” Baptist Faith & Message 2000, VI). This increased time in administrative duties and the fact that I am introducing the business session of our State Convention next week with a Scripture reading and prayer have me reading and meditating on “administration” as a theological concept.

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Savior, and of Christ Jesus, Who is our hope, to Timothy, my true child in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:1-5).

“Administration” (οικονομια) literally means “house-law” or “house-rule.” It is usually rendered “stewardship.” Notice that the ruling of the house according to laws is “of God,” and “by faith.” This ought to change everything. General Robert may guide us in our parliamentary procedure, but he’s not the goal or the motivation (the good General, by the way, wrote his “rules” after a calamitous experience leading a meeting at a Baptist church...I’m not making that up!). I think he’d agree. The apostle Paul introduces this letter (and this paragraph) by a focus on the command-Giver (“God our Savior”) and Hope (“Christ Jesus”) of himself and the Christian congregation. He reminds us of the ideal of the Church – that we are family (“Timothy, my true child in the faith”). I’m jealous for that kind of view of the Church for our congregation. After a mostly standard blessing from the Father and Son (notice, though, that he adds “mercy” to his usual “grace and peace”), he gets into the administrative stuff, along with its motivation and goal.

Timothy has been stationed in Ephesus to fight false doctrine and bad teaching. These things, Paul says, hinder the house-law of God which is according to faith (and biblical faith is always based on the Word of God). God says there is a certain way we live and grow together as His people (house-law), and we believe and obey it (faith) for His glory. “Strange doctrines,” “myths,” “endless genealogies,” and “speculation” hinder that life together as the covenant people of God. Timothy’s task is to make sure that God’s reign is firmly established in the congregation by putting down insurrection (“with gentleness,” 2 Timothy 2:25). The apostle’s goal is not just orderliness for its own sake, but the preservation of the means by which God rules His household: the proclamation, teaching, reading, praying, singing, meditation upon, and living out of His Word (“the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith”). If the order does not serve the Word, it is vanity at best and idolatry at worst.

Committee meetings and the business of the congregation (or convention) need to have this in mind: our goal in all we do is to lift up the reign of God over us through His Word for our involvement in the “work of service,” our further unity as the Body, growth in obedience-producing faith, and the glory of God in His Son. Administration is good when it is “Great Commission” administration, the teaching of all the commands of the One Who has been given “all heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18,20).

This is not optional for me as the vocational elder called to “shepherd” and serve as an “example” to “those allotted to [my] charge” (1 Peter 5:2,3). I must do all I can to lead us into a collective obedience to Christ to the glory of the Father (this is the practical application of Philippians 2:10,11). In a Church with congregational polity, this happens through administration, meetings, councils, committees, etc. But we cannot lose sight of the purpose. I cannot lose sight.

“For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict. For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain” (Titus 1:7-11). Part of God’s job description for me is that I’m to be “above reproach as God’s steward,” or οικονομος (house-ruler, enforcer of the laws of the house)...administrator. Again, this is founded upon and carried out through “the faithful word which is in accordance with teaching” and “sound doctrine.” It is the preservation of the reign of God over and through the congregation by His Word. That’s the job description. Don’t overlook (pun intended) the job title: “overseer” (a good, literal rendering of επισκοπος). I love teaching and preaching. I would do it all day long every day until I was so emptied that the great New Mexican winds would blow my rattling husk to the heavenly country. But this teaching and preaching must be done as one called to overlook the congregation – not any congregation, but this one currently “allotted to [my] charge.” Untrue beliefs and practices must be deterred, and the reign of Jesus in our lives must be lifted up above all. I must administrate from here.

The apostle Peter agrees: “The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer. Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaint. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards [οικονομος] of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to Whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:7-11). The pressure of the “end of all things” is a motivation to “good administration” by the gifting of God. And, once again, it is manifested in a corporate setting (“serving one another”) through teaching (“speaking the utterances of God”) to the glory of God “through Jesus Christ,” Who alone is worthy of “dominion.” There is, further, a plurality of “good stewards.” God willing, there are several men gifted and called to serve the congregation in this way, vocationally and/or non-vocationally.

Returning to 1 Timothy, this is why Paul writes to Timothy: “I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household [the οικος of the οικονομια we’ve been considering] of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:14,15). The administration of the Church is based on the “writing” inspired by God for our “conduct.” It is molded by the reality that this house is “the pillar and support of the truth,” that is, the Word of God.

Is the “house” a building? No, of course not. As our confession stated above (a “congregation of baptized believers”), the “house” is made up of those holding “fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:6). The goal of our “business” in meetings and committees is “to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5 – the text prior to this, 1:22-2:3, shows us that we are governed by the Word in this).

The ordering (administration) of the house of God must be done according to an obedience-producing faith by the authority of the Word of God for the purpose of bringing glory to God in Christ together as His people. This is the goal and the prayer of this steward. It requires more than I have in myself (and more than General Robert had in himself, for that matter). Thankfully, God the Son, the Lord of the manor, is faithful to accomplish His purpose for His house.
Maybe this is General Robert's real secret to orderly meetings...a uniform!

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Place of Tears

Aside from motivation speakers (and the example of us pastors on social media), I wonder where we got the idea that our church leaders must only present a smiling face and an exaggerated optimism concerning the spiritual state of the congregation? It doesn’t seem to be from the Word.

There are times a leader must weep over the congregation.

“And when they had come to him, he said to them, ‘You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ...therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears’” (Acts 20:18-21,31).

“For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not so that you would be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you” (2 Corinthians 2:4).

“Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:28-30).

There are times a leader must weep over those who are attempting to mislead the congregation.

“For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18,19).

There are times a leader must weep with those who are weeping.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). This is, in part, what it means “to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (12:1).

Speaking of worship, if the Psalms are in any way meant to be informative to our worship as the Spirit-filled people of God in Christ (and the Spirit did inspire them, after all), then our songs and prayers shouldn’t be all optimism and smiles, either. That same Spirit Whose fruit is “joy” (Galatians 5:22) prays from within us “with groanings too deep for words...according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26,27).

This is not an easy scriptural reality to embrace honestly. We can fake Spirit-gifted tears as much as we can counterfeit joy in a practiced smile and expertly-spun assessments of the spiritual maturity of the Church.

There are times a leader must weep over those who are lost.

“I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh...” (Romans 9:1-3).

“Rescue the perishing, care for the dying, snatch them in pity from sin and the grave; weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen, tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save...rescue the perishing, care for the dying, Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save...plead with them earnestly, plead with them gently” (Fanny Crosby, 1869).

In addition, in addressing sinfulness in the culture or in the congregation, it is easy in our own sinfulness to take on a tone of righteous indignation.

Consider the two witnesses of the Revelation: “And if anyone wants to harm them, fire flows out of their mouth and devours their enemies; so if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed in this way. These have the power to shut up the sky, so that rain will not fall during the days of their prophesying; and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every plague, as often as they desire” (11:5,6).

That is impressive power and authority. Imagine the look on their face, the tone (and volume) of their speech, the words they use. Is there anger there? Righteous indignation?

If it were me “prophesying” to the beast and his worshipers with the powers of the two witnesses, I know how I’d look and sound. Threatening. Intimidating. Dark. Loud. Angry. But that’s not what we see in the description of the two witnesses.

“And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for twelve hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth (Revelation 11:3).

They prophesy from a place of grief and mourning, even as they administer the curses and plagues of God. The fire comes through weeping, and even in the drought there is water – their tears.

Yes, one day there will be joyful singing over the pit as the smoke of Babylon’s eternal destruction rises (Revelation 19:1-5). However, that will be in the end, when “the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready” with “the righteous acts of the saints” (19:6-8). The celebration over judgment comes after our work is done here. It’s not yet. We still have tears to shed over (and with) the wayward, the lost, the perishing, and the slaves of the devil.

I appreciate a smile, a laugh...I enjoy being around happy people. But I abhor artificiality as much as anyone (except, I suppose, the artificial). There are times to weep (Ecclesiastes 3:4). May God give us discernment, honesty, a willingness to vulnerability, and a unity in His Spirit that enables us to weep together as the Church when it is right to do so.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Apostasy and the Hammer

I had thirty minutes between things this morning, and took the chance to do some background reading in preparation for next Wednesday night’s survey of 2 Thessalonians. In 2:3, the apostle Paul mentions “the apostasy.” This, and other language, echoes some things mentioned in Daniel and 1 Maccabees. In reading about the lead-up to the Maccabean rebellion, I came across the following extended passage and thought it worth sharing. The narrative begins in the midst of the “abomination of desolation” (Daniel 11:31; cf. Daniel 12:11; Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14) in Jerusalem’s temple by Antiochus IV, “Epiphanes” (215-165 B.C.).

“Then the king [Antiochus IV] wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath. And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane Sabbaths and festivals, to defiled the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the Law and change all the ordinances. He added, ‘And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.’ In such words he wrote to his whole kingdom. He appointed inspectors over all the people and commanded the towns of Judah to offer sacrifice, town by town. Many of the people, everyone who forsook the Law, joined them, and they did evil in the land; they drove Israel into hiding in every place of refuge they had. Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year [167 B.C.], they erected a desolating sacrilege [“abomination of desolation”] on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah, and offered incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. The books of the Law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. Anyone found possessing the Book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the Law, was condemned to death by decree of the king. They kept using violence against Israel, against those who were found month after month in the towns. On the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar that was on top of the altar of burnt offering. According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants’ from their mothers’ necks. But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. Very great wrath came upon Israel. In those days Mattathias son of John son of Simeon, a priest of the family of Joarib, moved from Jerusalem and settled in Modein. He had five sons, John surnamed Gaddi, Simon called Thassi, Judas called Maccabeus [“the Hammer”], Eleazar called Avaran, and Jonathan called Apphus. He saw the blasphemies being committed in Judah and Jerusalem...then Mattathias and his sons tore their clothes, put on sackcloth, and mourned greatly. The king’s officers who were enforcing the apostasy came to the town of Modein to make them offer sacrifice. Many from Israel came to them; and Mattathias and his sons were assembled. Then the king’s officers spoke to Mattathias as follows: ‘You are a leader, honored and great in this town, and supported by sons and brothers. Now be the first to come and do what the king commands, as all the Gentiles and the people of Judah and those that are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons will be numbered among the Friends of the king, and you and your sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts.’ But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: ‘Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, everyone of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the Law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or the left’” (1 Maccabees 1:41-2:6,15-22).