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Monthly Archives: March 2013

Conversion

To review: a sound church is one that is committed 1.) to obeying Scripture as its final authority, 2.) to a steady diet of expositional preaching that explains the meaning of the Bible, and 3.) to understanding Scripture within its proper context of systematic and biblical theology.

The next commitment of a sound church is exceedingly important, because it is the kind of thing that identifies what the church is. The church is made up of those who follow Jesus Christ. But following Jesus is an ambiguous expression. Are we following Jesus if, before making any decision, we ask what Jesus would do? (Side observation: I suspect he wouldn’t wear one of those bracelets, although I may be mistaken.) While the Bible does point to Jesus as an example for right living, the Christian message can never be reduced to exhortations to live like he did. To quote the great Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen, genuine Christianity can be distinguished from spurious Christianity in this way: for some, Jesus is the example of faith, but for the true Christian, Jesus is the object of faith.

There is a world of difference between these two conceptions of Christianity. If Jesus is merely the example of faith, the Christian message is one of works: be saved by doing what Jesus did. The problem with this should be obvious: who among us would dare claim that we live up to this standard? To reduce salvation to following the example of Jesus is to lay a burden on people that no one can meet. A message of works can produce only two kinds of people: the insufferably arrogant who falsely believe they can meet the standard, and the despairing who know they can’t.

By contrast, to say that Jesus is the object of faith is to maintain that it is of high importance that all people affirm certain truths about Jesus. We’ve considered this already in Paul’s explanation of the gospel in the opening of 1 Corinthians 15. The gospel is, quite literally, good news. It is a message to be believed. The core of this belief is that Jesus died for our sins, which means that we need to believe (at least) that we are sinners and that there is something about Jesus that makes his death the means by which I can be delivered from sin.

To believe this gospel is to be converted; this is what it means to be saved. Any church that fails to make this message central to its entire operation has abandoned its real reason for existence. We should not be surprised, then, to find that this message, the necessity of saving faith in Jesus, characterized the apostolic preaching in the book of Acts. In his very first message, Peter explained to his audience who Jesus is, and concluded by instructing them to “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

To insist on the importance of conversion, then, is another mark of a church with its priorities in order.

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Posted by on March 29, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

On the incarnation

To some degree, the incarnation of Christ will always remain mysterious to us: how can God become man and yet remain God? There is mystery here, I say, and the volumes that theologians have written on this topic can hardly be condensed to a short paper column. So I will offer a simple devotion for this Christmastime.

The author of Hebrews highlights for us some astonishing truths that are possible only because Jesus Christ was fully human: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7–9).

These are truly statements that, if we didn’t find them in the Bible, we might hesitate to think them (much less say them out loud), lest we be considered irreverent. Jesus prays with tears? Jesus learned obedience?! How does the perfect Son of God learn obedience? Wasn’t Jesus always obedient? By turning our heads this direction, the author of Hebrews forces us to look squarely at the humanity of Christ, the humanity that is his because of his incarnation.

These are not just abstract theological questions; for believers, these verses are foundational to the mercy we find in Christ. The verses that immediately precede this passage tell us that the full humanity of Christ is the basis upon which he can be a merciful priest for us (Hebrews 4:15). He knows, in a fully experiential way, what it is to come to the Father in prayer as a reverent son (even though he is also the Son). He knows what is to pray with loud cries and tears. We must think here, quite obviously, of the Garden prayer, in which Christ, agonizing in prayer, submits himself to his Father’s will. Do we not find encouragement here, that we share these struggles with Jesus himself?

Further, Jesus knows what it is to learn obedience. The Gospels tell us that the young Christ grew in wisdom, stature, and favor with God and man (Luke 2:52). These verses most clearly show us the fullness of the humanity of Jesus; his growing in favor with God and man and his learning obedience show that his perfect humanity was no sham, no mere show. While the Bible teaches that Jesus is the sinless man, it also here tells us that his experiences, and particularly his sufferings, were how he grasped the full human concept of obedience. And we share this with the Son of God as well. Who among us has not grown to know obedience to the Father more clearly through our suffering?

And so, as we celebrate the Christmas season, the rejoice in the full humanity of our Savior, who has mercy on us because he shares our flesh.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Theology

 

A sound church: systematic theology

Just to get our bearings, let’s review where we are in our series. I’m addressing the question, “What does God look for in a church?” We began by observing that a sound church will be one that looks to the Bible alone as the final authority for everything that it does. We then saw a church should feature, as a first priority, preaching and teaching that attempt to clearly explain the meaning of the Bible. And most recently, I’ve argued that a good church will give careful attention to the meaning of the text by placing it in its context.

The context of the Bible is its theology, and theology is of two kinds. The first we addressed last week: the Bible, from beginning to end, forms one major story. This story, as we see illustrated in so many of our Christmas hymns, is ultimately about the kingship of Jesus. Understanding a passage of Scripture rightly involves, at the very least, knowing where it falls in the biblical story. This kind of theology, with its emphasis on the story of the Bible, we call biblical theology.

The second kind of theology is not organized as a narrative, but rather by topics. If we ask, for instance, what the Bible teaches about salvation, or angels, or the end times, we’re asking questions about doctrine. The theology of the Bible that is concerned with questions of doctrine is called systematic theology. Although most people assume that theology is a dry and impractical thing, systematic theology ought to be deeply important to anyone who takes the Bible seriously as being the Word of God. Almost always, when we encounter a verse in the Bible that addresses a particular topic, there are also other verses that speak to the issue as well. If we want to get a good grasp of the Bible, we cannot merely pick and choose verses that support our own positions; instead, we need to see how the Bible as a whole addresses our questions. To do this is to do systematic theology.

We can illustrate the importance of theology this way: come this time of year, we give our attention to the birth of Jesus Christ. By why is this birth so important? As soon as we ask this question, we are doing theology. Here is one answer to this question, from John 1: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” That is to say, when Jesus was born, God was in human flesh. To see this baby was to see God. The implications of this theology are truly life-changing.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

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A sound church: biblical theology

In last week’s essay, I commented on the importance of reading the Bible in context. We noted that, without context, a person can make the Bible say just about anything he wants. However, just as you object when your words are taken out of context, God expects us to read his Word with careful attention to its intended meaning. And we are on a better path to finding the intended meaning when we stop reading the Bible as though it’s simply a scattered collection of wise sayings; instead, we should read it as a coherent book.

We can speak about the coherence of the Bible, however, in at least two ways. The first one is this: the Bible, from beginning to end, tells a story. (I’ll address the second kind of coherence next week.) What is the Bible’s story about? To answer that, let’s take a brief rabbit trail.

Have you ever noticed just how many familiar Christmas carols proclaim that Jesus is a king? “Let earth receive her King.” “Come and behold him, born the King of angels.” “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.” “Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King!’’ “Noel! Born is the King of Israel!” And this list is merely a quick sampling.

The hymnwriters here reflect an accurate understanding of the story of the Bible: from beginning to end, the Bible is about God’s plan to establish his kingdom on earth, with Jesus as the king. We see hints of this in the Garden, when the first man is given the instruction to subdue and have dominion over the world, establishing the principle of kingship. Even before we reach the end of Genesis, we find prophecy that a king will arise from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10). The story continues, gradually highlighting David as the head of the royal family of Israel. God gives David this promise: “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).

And so we should not find it surprising at all that the announcements of Jesus’s birth are filled with language about kings and thrones and kingdoms. Consider Gabriel’s announcement to Mary: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33). And skipping ahead to the end of the story, in the words made so familiar in Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).

This theme is the story of the Bible: Jesus is king, and he will reign!

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

A sound church: exposition and context

So far in this series, I’ve argued that a church wishes to align with God’s priorities will have two characteristics: a commitment to follow the Bible as an absolute authority, and (following from the first) a preaching and teaching ministry that is characterized by careful and accurate explanation of the meaning of the Bible. Our third commitment of a sound church will take this a step further.

One common concern that I hear, when I tell people that my authority is the Bible, is this: how can the Bible be the authority, when people can make it mean just about anything they want it to mean? Here’s the reality: I’m sympathetic with this concern. I’ve heard many, many sermons preached in which the pastor takes a snippet of this passage, a phrase of that one, and stirs them together to say whatever it is he wanted to say in the first place, with little regard for the actually meaning of the text. There’s a joke about pastors: they have a sermon to preach, and now they just need to find a text to preach it from. I’d chuckle, if this weren’t so serious.

But is this how it has to be? Is it, as so many like to say, a situation in which you simply have your interpretation and I have mine, and no progress can be made? I’m convinced that the answer to this is no.

Let’s be clear: the Bible isn’t always easy to understand. In fact, Peter himself tells us this! Speaking of Paul’s writings, Peter says, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). If a very apostle confesses that the Bible isn’t always simple, we should not always expect it to be easy for us!

That said, notice that Peter doesn’t give up hope of understanding the Bible rightly, for he talks about people who “twist” Scripture. To accuse a person of “twisting” Scripture, we must accept the possibility of an “untwisted” understanding of it.

So how might we arrive at an untwisted understanding of the Bible? The most important factor here is context. I think most of us have a good understanding of this: it’s simply never fair to a person to take his words out of context, because without a context, words can be made to mean almost anything. But within a context, we recognize that there are limits on what a statement can mean.

What this means for a church is this: a church that takes the Bible seriously must be committed to showing that its interpretation of Scripture is in line with the context of the Bible. What that looks like, more specifically, I’ll address next week.

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

A sound church: expositional preaching

In the previous weeks’ essays on the commitments of a sound church, I’ve argued that the Bible alone functions as the highest authority in the church. If this is true, then it becomes exceedingly important that a church be devoted to understanding what the Bible actually says. The chief way that a church learns is through the preaching. Therefore, a sound church must be committed to accurate, clear exposition of the Bible.

Paul himself gives us exactly this argument. Immediately after reminding Timothy that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God, he gives this command: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus…: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:1–4).

Note that Timothy is to preach the Word, and that he is to do so even though this message will not always be popular. Paul’s instruction here suggests that popularity is not as accurate a measurement of a good church as faithfulness to Scripture is.

The commitment to the exposition of the Bible prevents the church from degenerating into a mere platform for the pastor’s favorite topics and issues. Furthermore, while I certainly don’t believe that everyone must do things this same way, it is for this reason that I advocate preaching through entire books of the Bible sequentially, as opposed to picking various passages for sermons in a more haphazard manner. Our church just finished a series of sermons on Mark’s Gospel, and undoubtedly, there are passages in Mark that I might never have addressed had I not been committed to preaching the entire book.

Again, Paul is our model here. As he prepares to leave Ephesus for Jerusalem, with the expectation that he will never see the Christians in Ephesus again, he says, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27). That is to say, Paul’s basis for blamelessness in ministry is that he said all that God had for him to say, not avoiding even those things that are hard to say because they are hard to hear.

Therefore, a commitment to accurate exposition of Scripture should be among our very highest priorities when we evaluate a church.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Preaching

 

A sound church, part 2: the regulative principle

Last week, I proposed that we would do well to consider what God looks for in a church, and our first characteristic of such a sound church is that it will be one that is committed to the authority of Scripture. The church, from its leadership through its membership, must insist that the church will do whatever the Bible directs it to do.

Let me add a qualifier to this standard: not only should a church do everything that the Bible does command it to do, it should refrain from doing anything that the Bible does not command it to do. In other words, the church is not free to institute practices and policies for which it does not have explicit biblical authorization.

One way to illustrate the importance of this principle is to consider what happens to a church that disregards it. The church as an institution holds a unique position in claiming to speak for God. When a church institutes policies and programs for which it lacks biblical warrant, it is in effect saying “thus says the Lord” when the Lord has not spoken. This is an abuse of the church’s authority, for the church may not bind the conscience of the believer based merely on its own preferences or opinions.

Allow me to suggest a provocative, real life example: I see no New Testament warrant for the church to incorporate dramatic productions into its worship service. If we are serious about being biblical, no appeal to pure pragmatism can trump the fact that Scripture simply doesn’t command the church to do such things.

The protection of conscience is biblical. At the end of the book of Romans, Paul has to caution the church at Rome about divisions in the church caused by differing views of holy days and permissible foods. Some in the church thought that specific holy days should be observed, while others viewed all days as equal. And some thought that certain foods were unclean, while others felt free to eat. In either case, both those taking the stricter and those taking the most permissive positions were looking down on the people in the church with whom they disagreed. And so Paul says, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand…. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.”

Paul’s instruction here would demand that not only should the people not judge one another, but surely also that the church can’t insist that the people eat (or refrain from eating) the disputed food. And similarly, the church should not, in other cases, insist on positions unless it can offer biblical justification for doing so.