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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.

 

A sound church, part 1

What do you look for in a church? Most people, I’ve found, are looking for are specific kinds of programs: children’s ministries, support groups, outreach plans, and so on. And none of these things are necessarily problematic.

That said, have you ever considered what God looks for in a church? If indeed God does expect certain things from his churches, it seems to me that his priorities should trump ours. And the church is indeed a great priority of God; Paul speaks of the church as “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

For this reason, churches are not just like other clubs or groups. Most social organizations could, if they wished, simply redefine their purposes, goals, and leadership structure. Of course, radical changes can upset the long-time members, who might be angered if a group departs from its original intent. But even so, such re-direction is entirely within the rights of a group; it owes its allegiance, ultimately, only to itself. If the local stamp collecting club decided, on a whim, to become a chess club, they have done nothing wrong.

Churches are not like this; or, at least, they oughtn’t be. Instead, a church’s charter and direction must be determined by the Bible itself. Think of it this way: if there is anything unique about a church, it is that the church claims to proclaim the will of God. If this isn’t true, the church is truly no different than any other social club; it would merely be a gathering of people who like to talk about God. But if the church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth,” it must confidently declare that truth.

If declaring the truth of God is the mission of the truth, the church must be definitively shaped by the Bible. A church that refuses to submit to the Bible will inevitably take mere human opinion and impose it on others in the name of God. God takes such presumption seriously: “But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die” (Deuteronomy 18:20).

So what should you look for in a church? The first priority is that you find a church that is committed to being shaped by what the Bible says. We’ll consider in the coming weeks what that might look like specifically, but a commitment to submit to the Word of God, as a matter of principle, is non-negotiable in a sound church.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral

 

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The Right Side of History

This past weekend, I traveled to Minnesota to visit friends and take in a college football game. I saw no shortage of roadside election banners there, as the state is voting on a couple of deeply polarizing issues. On the ballot this week in Minnesota (and in several other states) is a proposal to amend the state constitution with a definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. In all likelihood, by the time you are reading this essay, the votes will have been counted a decision announced. And unsurprisingly, the announcement of a winning side of the proposal will do almost nothing to keep the debate from continuing.

It is not my point in this short column to offer a full defense of the traditional family, although I believe that Scripture undergirds such a position unequivocally. Instead, I want to discuss the merits (in this case, the demerits) of one common argument for expanding the legal right of marriage to homosexual couples.

Not infrequently, I’ve seen those in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage appeal to being “on the right side of history.” One version of this argument juxtaposes pictures of segregationist demonstrators from the 1950s alongside pictures of opponents of same-sex marriage from today, with the caption, “Imagine how ridiculous you will look in fifty years.” The message is obvious: there is a certain sort of inevitability to the eventual legality of same-sex marriage, so it would be best to advocate it now.

What should we make of this appeal? Even on a simple logical level, it is an abject failure as an argument. It has no more validity than any other appeal to the crowd; “everybody else is doing it” might be emotionally compelling, but it hardly proves that the thing that everybody is doing is good.

Suppose, just for sake of argument, that global warming is an actual threat and that it is caused by human activity (industrialization and so forth). And further suppose that the doomsayers are accurate, and that our pollution results in the utter decimation of our planet and the extinction of the human race. If this is going to happen, who in their right mind would encourage us all to start polluting, so that we’ll be on the right side of history? But is this not the same kind of argument being offered by the proponents of same-sex marriage?

My hunch is that, in the near future, same-sex marriage will indeed become a commonly accepted practice in our nation. So is support for same-sex marriage a move to the right side of history? Maybe so, in the short term. But the Bible has much to say about the future, and because God ultimately wins, siding with His opinion is to be ultimately on the right side of history.

 
 

Is Christianity a Religion, part 2

In last week’s essay, I gave half of my answer to the question, “Is Christianity a religion?” If the word religion is understood to refer to rites and ceremonies that are supposed to earn us favor with God merely through our participation, I insist that Christianity is not a religion. Scripture is abundantly clear that none of our works, even those done in church, have any hope of bringing us into right standing with God.

That said, there is an error on the other side of the ditch that we must also avoid—and frankly, I’m not sure which ditch is more crowded. While some seek assurance in religion as a ritual, others find religious ceremony and such not only meaningless, but obviously meaningless. For these folks, authentic Christianity is solely a matter of the heart, and their creed is that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.

This position is well-intentioned, but I think it fails to take seriously what Jesus himself says about being one of his disciples.

The rites that some churches call sacraments, Baptists typically call ordinances. There are reasons that I prefer the latter designation, but the most relevant one to my point here is that these acts (namely, baptism and the Lord’s Table) are ordained specifically by Jesus. Jesus’s final instruction to his disciples before he ascended is this: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20). Therefore, part of being an authentic follower of Jesus is submitting oneself to baptism. Jesus’s own instructions make this unmistakable.

We have similar instruction from Jesus about the Lord’s Table. Just before his betrayal and death, Jesus observed a Passover feast with his disciples. During the meal, “he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” Paul highlights that last statement of Jesus as the basis for the church’s continuing observance of the Lord’s Table (1 Corinthians 11:23–26).

In light of these Scriptures, no one can rightly claim to follow Jesus while remaining separate from the church that he has established, for baptism and the Lord’s Table are functions of the church, the body of Christ.

I understand that many folks today are deeply suspicious of organized religion. Unfortunately, churches have given people sufficient reason for their distrust. And yet, if we take Jesus’s teachings seriously, claiming to follow Jesus while refusing to be baptized or participate at the Table is not authentic Christianity. We must rightly insist that Jesus of Nazareth established something that is more than a religion; but we must also insist that the teachings of Jesus are not less than a religion, as well.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2013 in Conservatism, Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

Is Christianity a Religion, part 1

Is Christianity a religion?

Not surprisingly, my answer here is going to depend almost entirely by what we mean by the term religion, for its dictionary definition and its meaning in popular usage are often at odds with one another. My trusty American Heritage dictionary offers the following relevant meanings: “1a. belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe…. 3. a set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.” I suspect that most of the controversy here centers on the word practices: in what sense are certain practices essential to being a Christian?

People have always looked to rituals, rites, and ceremonies as a way to gain favor with God, and not wholly without reason: the Bible itself gives us chapter after chapter (and even entire books, like Leviticus) that detail the proper procedures for sacrifices and feasts days and the like. It simply cannot be asserted, by anyone who takes the Bible seriously, that the Christian God is opposed in principle to rituals. God clearly institutes a religion, in every sense of the word, in the Old Testament.

And yet it is also the case that we, as people, have a tendency to misunderstand the proper use of religion in this sense. We are tempted to think that, if we do a ritual properly, we can somehow manipulate God into looking on us with favor. For this reason, we find God regularly rebuking his people, even in the Old Testament when such sacrifices were still demanded. For instance, God says this in Psalm 50:

I will not accept a bull from your house
or goats from your folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.

God’s point is clear: none of our religious ceremonies are intrinsically valuable, because the God of the Bible has no needs. There is nothing that we can do that bring us the favor of God; this precisely Paul’s point when he insists that if God’s favor “is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6).

This is still true in the New Testament age in which we live: the religious acts which Jesus ordained (baptism and the Table) don’t work magically, as though if by doing them correctly, we obtain right standing with God. Salvation is not by works, even religious works.

This is half of my answer. Next week, I intend to argue that spirituality apart from biblical religion is also inadequate.

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2013 in Conservatism, Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

The Christian Message, part 4

I’ve spent the last couple of essays unpacking the significance of Paul’s summary of the gospel: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). In the last essay, I attempted to explain why, biblically, we need someone to die for our sins. Scripture is clear on this: sin merits eternal punishment from God. Accepting this truth is not easy on our pride, but it is essential to embracing the gospel. As I often remind our church: the good news is only as good as the bad news is bad. Jesus didn’t die to save us from bad complexions, flat tires, empty bank accounts, and faulty hot water heaters. A person who delivers us from such things deserves our gratitude. Jesus, however, demands our worship, because he has done far more than provide a more comfortable life—he has laid down his life as a ransom for ours, opening the way to eternal life.

What, then, are we to do with this news? The short answer is that we are to believe this news, but the short answer might be misleading. We have already seen that while the gospel message includes historical truth, it is not only historical truth. That is to say, it is not sufficient merely to acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth died and rose from the dead. To paraphrase James: the devils even believe that much!

No, the kind of truths that we’re discussing here are the kinds of truths that you cannot believe in such a simple sense. It is rather like believing that the building that you’re sitting in is on fire; to believe something like that, and to believe it for real, demands some kind of response. Likewise, one who truly believes that Jesus died for his sins cannot remain unchanged.

Let me suggest two ways that change should be evident in the life of a person who actually believes the gospel. The first we’ve already mentioned: one who believes the gospel will become a worshiper of Jesus. There is a substantial difference between being generally favorable to Jesus (something many would profess) and embracing Jesus as your God. Jesus demands worship, and worshiping Jesus reshapes all our other priorities.

The second consequence flows from the first: those who truly believe that Jesus died for their sins begin to forsake sin. Paul says it this way: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1–2).

Even though I’ve been brief, it should be apparent that believing the gospel introduces radical change in a person’s life.

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

The Christian Message, part 3

The core of the gospel message is this: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Paul is making two kinds of claims in this verse. One is historical: Jesus of Nazareth truly did live and die (and rise!). The other is doctrinal: Jesus died for our sins. Both of these claims are vital to the good news; the doctrinal claim tells us why the historical claim should matter to us. The reality is that scores of ancient men were executed on Roman crosses; Jesus’s death is significant only because of the meaning that Scripture ascribes to it.

But the explanation seems to require its own explanation: why would we ever need someone to die for our sins? To be told that Jesus died for our sins seems to solve a problem that few would acknowledge having. Most folks are happy to concede that they are not perfect. However, we also tend to think that, in terms of general morality, we are about average—if not a little above average. (Although most people can’t, by definition, be above average.) We are quick to insist that there are some people who really are truly awful, and in comparison, we tend to think we’re not all that bad. Certainly, our faults don’t deserve death!

Unfortunately for us, comparing ourselves with other people sets the bar far too low (see 2 Corinthians 10:12). The standard that God holds us to is infinitely more demanding: we must “be holy in all [our] conduct”; we must “be holy as I am holy,” God tells us (1 Peter 1:14–16). Why would God hold us to such an impossible standard?

God demands perfection because, if he didn’t, he would be implying that he really isn’t all that important. Think about it this way: God says that we are to love him with our whole being. And yet instead of loving God, we tend to value other things higher than we value him: money, sensual pleasures, and a thousand other things. If God simply overlooks what we’ve done, he would be agreeing with us that he is not all that important. God would, in essence, be denying that he is God!

But God doesn’t do this. Rather, he says things like, “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (Isaiah 42:6).

It is for this reason that sin (which is nothing other than having other gods before God) demands death in God’s universe. Death is fair; Paul calls it the wages of sin, and he reminds us, very straightforwardly, there no one is righteous (Romans 3:10).

It is only when we acknowledge that we merit punishment from God that the gospel message becomes good news to us. If I deserve death, but Jesus died for my sins, perhaps there is a way that I can avoid the damnation I deserve. That will be our topic next week.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology