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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

 

Ordination

This week is an important week in my life and in the life of our church. On Friday, Calvary Baptist Church will be hosting an ordination council and an ordination service for me. I thought I’d take advantage of the opportunity by offering some explanation of the meaning and significance of ordination, at least from a Baptist perspective.

Ordination is a recognition, on the part of a church, that a given man has been set apart for the ministry of the gospel. The basic idea is reflected in Acts 13:2–3: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” We see in this passage that specific people in the church were designated by the Holy Spirit to specific tasks in ministry. The church’s obligation, then, was to set them apart and send them into this ministry.

A key difference between this passage and our day is that the Spirit no longer speaks in such a direct and unmediated way (a topic for another article sometime). Instead, the pursuit of ministry often begins with a desire: “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). But the desire alone is insufficient; someone might insist that he has the desire to be a pastor, but the Bible not only speaks of desire, but qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9; 1 Peter 5:1–4).

Who is to say whether someone with the desire meets the qualifications? It is the local church itself that is authorized to appoint its deacons (Acts 6:2–4; this is another office with qualifications), and the church has the authority to dismiss members (1 Corinthians 5:4–5). In the same way then, we maintain that the task of judging whether a man meets these qualifications falls to the church. The church ordains.

If you look at the list of qualifications in the passages I cited, most of them have to do with the character of the pastor. This is important, because it means then that the church needs to know their pastor well enough to be able to say that he has this kind of character. In addition to these character qualifications, however, the pastor must be able to teach and must be sound in doctrine. In many cases, the local church simply isn’t fully qualified to assess whether a potential pastor is sound doctrinally. This is the place of the council, in which other ordained, likeminded pastors are brought in to examine the candidate’s theology. The council does not do the ordaining; they simply pass along a recommendation to the church to ordain (or not ordain) based on their examination.

We must take the issue of leadership in the church seriously, because Paul warns us that bad leadership is a dire threat to the church (Acts 20:29–30).

The council will be held at Calvary Baptist Church from 1:00–4:00pm. We will have dinner at 5:00pm, and the ordination service will be at 7:00pm. All are welcome.

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Lewis, liturgy as dance, and the regulative principle

Yesterday, I posted a link over at Religious Affections to one of my favorite quotes from the eminently quotable C. S. Lewis. Lewis offers a comparison between liturgy and dance: both must be learned, he suggests, so that when they are employed, they needn’t be thought about. When dancing (I suppose, not having any experience here myself), you do not want to have to give your attention to the dance steps; you want to give your attention to the one with whom you are dancing. In the same way, a learned liturgy allows us to give our attention, not to the liturgy, but to the one we have come to worship.

(Side note: I think there is another Lewis quote along the same lines, in which he notes the caution that, having learned the dance, it is possible then to not think of the dance steps or the person with whom you are dancing, but of something else altogether. In worship, this is the very real danger of formalism: having the liturgy ingrained, we attend to neither it nor the Lord, but to the thousand other things that suggest themselves during the hour.)

I want to make one further point from Lewis’s analogy. It is easy for us who advocate traditional or conservative worship to find support in Lewis’s words: we are the ones fighting novelty in worship, and here is Lewis castigating novelty in worship. Hurray for us! But there is a problem: many of us find ourselves in situations in which we are seeking to introduce conservatism to those unaccustomed to it. What we are introducing is not novel in any historical sense. But it is novel to our congregations, to our people. And if so, its introduction will have exactly the same intrusive, awkward, and disruptive effect that Lewis describes. They will be thinking about the form, and not about Christ. This is an enormous problem, which we must take seriously, without being evasive.

It is serious, and when we adjust the familiar liturgy, it is unavoidable. If it is serious and unavoidable (assuming we are making changes), we had better have some good justification for introducing change. It is never a light matter to disrupt the worship of Christ. Change, even good change, disrupts. Even welcome, appreciated change (which is not common) is problematic on this account: to learn a new hymn (even if you love it) is to give your attention, at least initially, to the hymn.

So ought we abandon the thought of introducing new old things? I don’t believe so. Let me offer a few points of explanation.

  • If new people are coming to our church, something about our worship will undoubtedly feel left-handed to them (or, to continue the dancing imagery, as though they have two left feet). This is especially true of the newly converted: what is natural to them is quite unlikely to be deeply sanctified, for the simple reason that their exposure to the Word and Spirit is likely to have been minimal. All this suggests that some awkwardness is unavoidable in worship, even if the forms remained completely static. This awkwardness, then, cannot be always and everywhere immoral.
  • While Lewis’s admonition is wise and merits a hearing, it is not law. We could all imagine scenarios in which the worship of a given group of Christian is so aberrant that some changes must be introduced. Assuming here a Protestant audience, we would not long permit the practice of public prayers to Mary and the saints during the corporate worship time, even if such were the time-honored practice of the church that we just arrived at. There are obviously times that changes to the liturgy must be introduced; this also indicates that changes are not always a bad idea. Thus, the reference to the regulative principle in the title: Scripture, not Lewis, regulates the worship in Christ’s church.
  • Nonetheless, Lewis’s caution is weighty; we must seek to minimize the awkwardness, the distraction, of altered worship. As an example, Kevin argued in a recent Nick essay that new songs should not be introduced on a Sunday morning; this, in general, seems like profitable counsel. I would add that, as much as is possible, teaching and consensus should precede implementation of new forms of worship.
  • A final caution: a “successful” move toward conservatism can, at times, be akin to the newly minted Calvinist: the delight has ceased to be in Christ, but in the new thing (whether Calvinism or the hymnody). If we introduce changes, we must do so with vigilance against our churches becoming delighted in their own worship. What an evil thing to find that in our very worship, purportedly to honor God, we have transformed it into a time to delight in ourselves!
 
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Posted by on August 7, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

What music does

In my last post, I had shared a brief argument that, at least for me, undergirds my conservatism in worship, without forsaking the principle of sola scriptura. I noted in the post that it originated as a letter to a friend of mine, so I was taken aback a bit when some of the comments said they were looking forward to the next part of the discussion, for there is really no “next part.” I wrote it to begin a conversation, not as an introduction to a larger work.

That said, the person to whom I wrote did reply, and so I thought I’d go ahead a reprint here my response to that reply. A bit of context: he sent me a brief poem on the Trinity, which he acknowledged was nothing particularly artistic, and suggested the possibility that it might be used with children, to the tune of “I’ve Got a Mansion” (my example song from the previous post). Here was my reply:

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Your first example is really quite useful, because I think it highlights an important point in this whole discussion. You ask me to consider using that poem, with the tune of “I’ve Got a Mansion,” for teaching children. It’s that last part, I suspect, that is the key to this particular illustration. And, perhaps contrary to what you might expect me to say, it’s the teaching part, not the children part, that is at issue.
 
Here’s the point: music is not just a medium for making doctrine memorable. Art, real art, is decidedly inefficient at teaching propositions. Think of something like Psalm 23: if you want to teach the doctrinal truths of that poem, you could do so in a line or two. Poetry is about creating a feeling, not simply about communicating propositions. Music is like poetry in this regard. Sure, we all know that if we take truths, set them to little tunes, maybe make up some ridiculous rhymes, we can memorize them easier. I’ve undoubtedly done that while preparing for tests or the like. But that’s not why we sing. That’s not why huge swaths of Scripture is written in poetry. Good art shapes feeling, it doesn’t merely impart propositions.
 
Let me sharpen the point by changing your question. You ask, “Can a simple tune like it still be fitting to communicate excellent theological truths that are praiseworthy?” I would ask, “Can a simple tune like this elicit feeling about God that reflects the mystery and awesomeness of the Triunity?” We may still disagree about the answer to that question. But I want to phrase it that way, because I think your question is asking about something else altogether. You’re not asking whether the music is good, but merely if its useful. Does that distinction make sense?
 
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Posted by on August 6, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Accepting sola scriptura and arguing musical style

This is a little intro piece that I’ve written for some friends who have asked for a basic defense of musical conservatism. It hardly gets us to full-blown conservatism, but at least offers the structure of why I think the Bible, while not addressing musical style, still gives us a standard for musical style.

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Here’s the quick outline of my argument on music; it’ll be something to get the conversation started, as we can then have specific claims to discuss. I’ll also say this: I find that these conversations are much better in person than in pixels. There are reasons for that, but given the circumstances, I am happy to do whatever you think would be helpful.

1. In any given passage of Scripture, we can ask what the passage is saying. This is basic hermeneutics.

2. However, I would also contend that every passage of Scripture not only has a what it is saying, but a how it is saying it.

3. I would further claim, then, that faithfulness to the Word of God means that our re-presentation of the text (whether in sermon or song) must accord not only with the what of the passage, but also with its how.

A quick example that I used at our church: I read to them Revelation 21–22. Then I had them sing “I’ve Got a Mansion Just Over the Hilltop.” My point is that, even if every phrase of that song were true, the focus of the song and the triviality of its poetry and tune are such that it is utterly incompatible with the content of John’s vision of the final making right of all things in Christ. The longing created by that song simply is not the longing created by the text of Scripture. It might say what John says, but it doesn’t come close to saying it how John says it.

Another example: a pastor could preach a message that faithfully states Paul’s teaching of justification in Romans. If he does so, however, in the manner of a stand-up comic, I would say that he has not been faithful to how Paul has told us about justification, and is therefore liable to criticism. An obvious modern example of this kind of preaching is Mark Driscoll. Another obvious example would be a great many fundamentalist evangelists, even on the occasions when they did get the doctrine right.

As I say, this is the core of my argument, and it does not give direct and precise applications. Music and poetry do things; that is not disputable. It is disputable what a particular piece of music or poetry is doing. That is to say: even if you agree with the idea that Scripture has a how it is saying, it doesn’t mean we’re going to agree that any given song matches the Bible’s how.

This, to me, does not undermine the basic argument, because of the parallel notion of the what and the how of a passage. Christians do not always agree what the text is saying. Consider the diversity of positions on the end times, etc.

The fact that Christians do not always agree about what the text is saying does not allow us to conclude, however, that there is no what it is saying. Furthermore, there are disagreements about what it is saying that are significant enough to break levels of fellowship. It may be that differing eschatological views are sufficient to hinder some cooperative ministry. However, if someone denied a literal return of Christ altogether, that person would be so far from the what Scripture says as to be outside the bounds of any real Christian fellowship.

I would say that the same thing is true about the how Scripture says. Christians disagree in their reading of how a thing is said in Scripture; this does not allow us to conclude that there is no correct understanding of the how. Further, it may be that two well-intentioned, Christ-loving Christians come to sustained differences in their understanding of the how of Scripture. This is no mere triviality: it has to do with their understandings of what God is like, in a manner beyond the propositions of systematic theology. And so it may be that these Christians find their ability to cooperate strained in some way. If the differences are great enough, they may come to the conclusion that, while their propositions are largely in agreement, their views of God and his revelation are so different as to cause them to suspect that the other person is not loving God rightly at all. The claim here is that there is, in addition to orthodoxy and orthopraxy, such a thing as orthopathy, and that the standard for all three is the Word of God, and that disputes about the contents of each are not sufficient to undermine their existence.

Again, I have not yet made the case that a trap-set is on the other side of a line for me. What I want to establish, before we might even begin to discuss application, is that these issues of right affections have an objective standard for evaluation in the Word of God.

The Bible doesn’t tell us about our style of worship. The Bible shows us its style of worship, and we must submit to that.

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2013 in Conservatism, Music, Worship

 

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