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Preaching wisdom to the Greeks

In recent weeks, my thoughts have been coming back time and again to the opening chapters if 1 Corinthians. The church at Corinth was quite a piece of work. The church was founded by Paul, but after Paul left to continue his ministry elsewhere, the Corinthian believers were apparently joined by a motley group of false teachers. This introduced all kinds of divisions into the church, with different factions pledging their loyalty to this or that teacher—and not just the false teachers, but Paul, or Apollos, or Peter, or even Jesus himself (1 Corinthians 1:12).

So Paul begins 1 Corinthians by addressing these divisions. His key idea is this: the gospel of Jesus Christ runs completely contrary to worldly wisdom. You see, the message of this world has always been the same: seek to get ahead. Winners conquer. The message of the gospel turns this on its head, and this inversion is seen most clearly at the cross. At the cross, we see the great King dying. Let that sink in: God comes to earth in human form, and is put to a shameful death by his own creatures. Could there be a more humiliating defeat?

The application to the factionalism at Corinth is this: true ministers of Jesus Christ don’t operate according to the worldly wisdom of self-promotion. To the degree that they are driven by ambition, they are evidencing that they aren’t following their Lord, who humbled himself to death. Thus, the notion of “celebrity” pastors is directly counter to the gospel, and the Corinthians who aligning themselves as followers of men are missing the point of the faith rather badly.

And so worldly wisdom and the gospel are directly opposed to one another. Paul illustrates that by talking about his own gospel preaching. He observes that unbelieving Jews want to hear about a conquering Messiah, and unbelieving Gentiles want to hear about a great wisdom teacher. Now get this: Jesus is in fact a mighty conqueror (read Revelation) and he is a great wisdom teacher.

But Paul realizes that if he preaches Jesus as a conqueror to the Jews or a wisdom teacher to the Greeks, he will simply be propping up their idolatries. So he preaches Jesus as the opposite of their expectations. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22–24).

There is much to say here, but let me offer you one reflection: Paul’s example of ministry indicates that we should avoid allowing the values of those who don’t believe Jesus to determine the shape of our preaching. We should be uneasy about an approach to ministry that asks what people want to hear, and then preaches Jesus as the answer to their desires. To do so, according to this passage, is to make worldly wisdom and the gospel compatible with each other—and they never are.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2015 in Newspaper Article

 

Salvation in the Church

I have a weekly column in our local newspaper. What follows is this week’s essay.


There’s no point in avoiding the obvious: I’m biased in favor of the church. For the cynical reader, the reason for my bias is obvious: I draw my paycheck from the church, and so promoting the church is in my own interest. But may I suggest another, less insidious reason that I love the church? I believe that I love the church because Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25). If I love Christ, I will love what Christ loves.

In our day, the church is a suspect institution. Some of this is of her own doing. But some of it is in our national DNA. We Americans are an independent people. And as I’ve told our church before, many of us who live here in the UP do so because we’re especially independent people. Generally speaking, you don’t live in New York City if you like to be left alone, and you don’t live in the Upper Peninsula if you like the constant buzz of society.

This independent streak shows up in how people view the church. For many professing Christians, the church is thought to offer a service. The church provides help to people with spiritual needs. And therefore, if these folks don’t view themselves in particular need of that assistance, they don’t feel any need to connect themselves to a church. They can love God on their own, thank you very much.

The problem I see with this approach to Christianity is that it is strikingly unbiblical. Let me point you to one passage that highlights this.

In Ephesians 2, Paul talks about our salvation in two ways. The first is very familiar to us. In verse 1–10, he reminds us that, before we came to Christ, we were “dead in the transgressions and sin” in which we once walked. But God intervened in mercy, and because of Christ’s work (received by faith alone), those of us who were once dead have now been made alive by grace. This is salvation viewed individually.

In verses 11–22, Paul talks about our salvation again, but this time corporately. Here, he reminds us that before we were saved, we were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.” Why does this matter? Because, in biblical terms, to be cut off from the people of God was to be cut off from God himself.

So here Paul observes that Christ’s work makes us “no longer strangers and aliens, but…fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Again, this is simply another way for Paul to talk about our salvation. In one metaphor, we were dead but are now alive. In another, we were foreigners to God’s people, and now we have been made part of the people of God.

The bottom line is this: we cannot rightly understand the work of Christ in our salvation while intentionally cutting ourselves off from the people of God. To do so is to reject one of the major reasons that Christ came to die: so that we, who once were far off, could be brought near. Therefore, come near to God’s people!

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2014 in Newspaper Article, Theology

 

Christianity: The Mannequin

I have a weekly column in our local newspaper. What follows is this week’s essay.


In these last couple of months, our church has spent our afternoon services studying American church history. I find it hard to overestimate the importance of a study like this. Churches are what they are today because of decisions that have been made in the past. Ignorance of that past almost inevitably means that we view “the way we do church now” as “the way that it’s always been done.” Only when we see that many of our contemporary church practices are innovations are we in position to ask whether those practices are biblical.

I’ve jokingly subtitled our series “From Jonathan Edwards to Joel Osteen.” Jonathan Edwards is widely considered to be the most brilliant American theologian (though he lived before the Revolution). He is best known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and he represents the last flourish of Puritanism in America. Osteen, on the other hand, is a contemporary megachurch pastor, known for his bestselling work Your Best Life Now. He preaches a God who desires, above all things, that we be happy and have our ambitions fulfilled. The difference between these two men and their messages is gaping. The question is, how did Christianity in America transition from one to the other? Regardless of which vision of Christianity you prefer (and I definitely have a preference), the shift itself is intriguing.

One thing becomes readily apparent: whether consciously or not, ministries often view Christianity like a department store mannequin, capable of being outfitted in contemporary fashions as the seasons change. This tendency to re-form Christianity to meet the taste of culture has at least two consequences.

The first is that it cheapens Christianity. Think about it: nothing looks as silly as that which has just gone out of fashion. Try getting a thirty-something to show you her senior pictures, for an example. Churches doing ministry by chasing trends are at a distinct disadvantage, because they will almost always be a step behind the real culture-makers. The folks making the movies and music will always be edgier than the church, and therefore the cheap knock-offs the church offers will tend to look just like that: cheap knock-offs.

And Christianity, which is supposed to be timelessly true, ends up looking like the most dated thing going.

I think that this cheapening of Christianity is a serious issue, but the second consequence is of even greater importance. As Christians seek to re-dress the mannequin to meet the tastes of the culture, they almost inevitably change the message itself. Think back to Edwards and Osteen. For Edwards, our basic problem is sin against God, and our need is to be forgiven through Jesus Christ. For Osteen, our basic problem is a lack of self-worth and success, and our need is to believe that God wants to supply all these things. By any measure, these aren’t the same messages.

Let’s choose instead to follow Paul’s example. Disregarding the pressures of culture, he said, “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23–24).

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2014 in Conservatism, Newspaper Article

 

What it’s like to know Christ

I love Martin Luther. The great Reformer and fountainhead of Lutheranism had a way of communicating deep theology in a practical and earthy way. He also had a way of showing the emptiness of any religion cut off from Jesus Christ.

Luther talked about a difference between theologians of glory and theologians of the cross. The theologians of glory claims that if God is glorious, we should expect that his work on earth must be glorious as well. In their view, religion should be full of pomp and ceremony, and Christian living should be filled with victory and triumph.

Theologians of the cross, by contrast, realize that God’s work in this world is often a paradox: that God’s strength is evident in weakness, that he takes the weak of the world to shame the wise, the poor to shame the mighty. And there is obviously no greater emblem of this paradox than the cross, in which Christ gains victory over all through dying.

Do you see that these conflicting views create two different sets of expectations of what Christian living will be like? The theologians of glory want a Christianity that is full of earthly power and success. The theologians of the cross know that following Christ in this life almost always involves difficulty.

Our next passage in Philippians (3:8–11) speaks of the importance of knowing Christ. Paul begins by telling us why we should be so concerned to know Christ in verse 9: in knowing Christ, we gain a righteousness that is not our own. You see, the righteousness that we need does not come by the works of the law: we’ll always fall short of God’s perfect demands. Instead, the gospel offers us a righteousness “which comes through faith in Christ.” The apostle John says it this way: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). If the only way to eternal life is by gaining righteousness, and we can only gain righteousness by knowing Christ, then knowing Christ is of infinite value.

But then Paul tells us what it is like to know Christ: “to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” This is striking language; it is the language of a theologian of the cross, not a theologian of glory. In Paul’s thinking, we come to know Christ most vividly when we follow him through difficulties in this life. This is why Christ tells us that we must take up our cross and follow him. This theme is common in Paul. Consider 2 Corinthians 4:11: “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” Or Romans 8:16–17: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

Christian, are you going through great difficulties? Take heart in this: your Savior has gone this way before. By following his steps, you are coming to know him more and more.

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2013 in Newspaper Article

 

Some cautions on children’s ministry

This week, Calvary Baptist Church is hosting its annual Vacation Bible School, so I thought I’d  say a word or two about the privilege and challenges of ministering to children. The faith of a child is precious thing, and should be cultivated with the utmost care. It is my hope that my own children and those to whom I minister would be better Christians than I am, by God’s grace. This forces me to look at the long-term consequences of how we minister to children.

It is a standard characteristic of evangelicals to emphasize the importance of conversion, which means that “being a Christian” is not something that you’re born with. It isn’t genetic; it’s a decision. But if it’s a decision, it becomes deeply important for us to teach our children what it is that they’re supposed to be deciding about. There is a difference, we must admit, between teaching and manipulating. Frankly, it is relatively easy to get a child to “pray a prayer,” to ask Jesus into his heart, or something similar. No doubt, some who are reading this post right now can remember a time that they, as a small child, prayed such a prayer. Some of you look back at that decision as a key turning point in your life; you were truly converted and have followed Christ since. Other readers, in all forthrightness, would have to admit that such a childhood decision really hasn’t meant much for the direction of the rest of their life. This is a danger of children’s ministry: pressing for decisions from some who, in Jesus’s words, really aren’t in any position to “count the cost” of being his disciple (Luke 14:25–33, which is a weighty passage indeed).

This leads directly to one more caution in doing children’s ministry. The Bible teaches us that following Christ really is a life-and-death issue: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23, one of many passages on the same theme). For that reason, we think it is extremely important that our children be attracted to Christianity, to genuinely like it, so that they want to continue to follow Christ as they mature. And this is as it should be.

That said, we need to be mindful of a real danger: that in our eagerness to have our children like the faith, we change the faith itself into something that they’ll like. This can be done in a variety of ways, but most of them have to do with pressure to make Christianity into something “fun.” Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not opposed to fun, not at all. But while Scripture repeatedly commands us to be joyful and rejoice in the Lord, it gives precious little suggestion that worship is to be fun. And when we rear our children with the expectation of fun in church, we oughtn’t be surprised when, upon reaching adulthood and the reality of mature Christian ministry, they drift from the faith altogether. We’ve given them the sweet tooth that the meat of the Word simply won’t satisfy.

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral

 

Discipling, part 2

If it is the case, as Ephesians 4:11 teaches, that the leadership of the church is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry,” what should that look like? In order to answer this question (“how do we prepare Christians to do ministry”), we need to first answer a more basic question: what is Christian ministry?

Ministry that is genuinely Christian must have the gospel of Jesus Christ at its center. This means that basic humanitarian service, while always admirable and worth pursuing, does not by itself rise to the level of being Christian ministry. At the risk of being blunt, it should be obvious that the kinds of good works that an atheist, a Christian, and a Muslim could all work together to pursue cannot be thought of as in any way distinctively Christian. So, then, building hospitals and feeding the poor are good things, and we should do them. What we shouldn’t think, however, is that by doing these things that we have done Christian ministry in the fullest sense of the term.

Christian ministry must focus on the work of Christ on our behalf. Remember Paul’s description of the Christian message in 1 Corinthians 15: that Jesus died for our sins, and that he was raised. The work of the ministry must emphasize this point.

But this means that doing the work of ministry requires that we understand why Jesus died for our sins. And if we begin to answer that question, we are immediately doing theology.

If you’ve followed the argument so far, you will now understand that if the pastor and leaders of the church are doing what they are supposed to be doing (equipping Christians to do ministry), a good church will be one in which the people become more and more knowledgeable about the Bible, increasingly able to take what God has said and apply it to the needs and hurts of people around them.

So the leaders of the church need to be patient teachers. Peter gives this instruction to pastors: “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). A pastor who is territorial about ministry, who insists that only he or those who have similar stature can do ministry, has utterly missed the point of ministry in the church. The pastor is to be investing himself in doing ministry, yes, but even more so, he is to be investing himself in the people of his church, so that more and more they are ready to do genuinely Christian ministry. This is what a sound church looks like.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral

 

Discipling into ministry

These last several weeks, we’ve been highlighting the priorities God expects a church to have. While all of these are crucial, the one we’re about to see is quite dear to me personally.

How should we measure the success of a church? Our society tends to place highest value on things that can be counted. Applied to church life, then, the health of a church tends to be evaluated by the number of people attending, the amount of the offerings, the variety of programs and ministries, and other such things. Paul offers us a different standard of measurement. Two passages are key for us here.

The first is 2 Timothy 2:1–2: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” In this passage, we see four generations of leaders trained to serve the church: Paul, Timothy, the “faithful men,” and the “others also.” Paul’s point here is that the leaders of the church are to keep training new leaders.

The second key passage is from Ephesians 4. Having laid a theological foundation for the church in the first three chapters of this important book, Paul turns to explaining the practical application of these truths. He begins by listing the things that all believers have in common: there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father. Having listed the things that unite Christians, Paul shifts his attention to the things that make us different from one another: various giftings for service in the church.

Believers have different gifts, and these gifts exist in order to serve the church. Paul highlights five kinds of gifted people in Ephesians 4:11: “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.” Now, for what purpose did Jesus give these gifted leaders to his church? Paul answers this directly: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”

This is extremely important. The leaders of the church, given to her by her Lord, are not there to be the ones doing all the ministry. Rather, Paul tells us, the leaders of the church are to be equipping the people of the church to do the work of the ministry. That is to say, a church is not functioning properly if the clergy or the ordained leadership are looked upon as solely responsible for doing the work of the ministry, while the rest of the church is content to be ministered unto.

Thus, a chief measurement of the success of a church is this: are the people of the church becoming more and more prepared to do the work of the ministry? If so, that church is following Paul’s instruction.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral

 

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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