Sunday, July 16, 2017

God Permits?

After giving a variety of biblical examples of God willing evil deeds so as to punish the wicked and bring about salvation, Calvin notes that by contrast the "doctrine of permission" makes God aloof from salvation history. The God construed by the doctrine of permission cannot truly be the active Lord of history. For Calvin, those who rely upon the doctrine of permission depict God ‘as if he sat in a watch-tower waiting for fortuitous events, his judgments meanwhile depending on the will of man.’ This aloof, detached, passive God is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible, Calvin observes, acts within the minds of human beings not only to enlighten them, but also to blind them and to intoxicate them. God thereby compels the wicked to serve him.

The danger with the doctrine of permission is that it seems to question the goodness of the omnipotent God’s eternal decree. In observing that predestination means ‘the eternal decree of God, by which he determined within himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man,’ Calvin puts his finger on the difficulty: God’s permission of everlasting rebellion cannot be disjoined from God’s eternal will. God fully knows and freely wills this order, which includes everlasting rebellion. Since God is free and all-powerful, he is not constrained to create this kind of order. God wills an order in which some are left out from union with God, and so this must be a good order, one that does not need the covering of the doctrine of permission. Calvin senses that the doctrine of permission originates in doubts about the justice of reprobation ‘by the just but inscrutable judgment of God, to show forth his glory by their condemnation.’ Discussing Paul’s interpretation of Malachi 1:2,3 (see Rom. 9:13), Calvin urges that the doctrine of double predestination in fact elucidates the scriptural doctrine of undeserved grace, God’s bounty rather than harshness.

The notion of permission is a way of opening a gap between the ultimate outcome of history and God Himself, the Lord of history. Calvin on the contrary insists on the goodness of God’s plan, which is a plan that includes hell.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

How We Read the Bible Rightly and Get It Wrong

Let's show mercy to those who 'misinterpret' Jeremiah 29:11 and other favorite verses.

Imagine yourself as a seminary student. Now imagine yourself as a young, male seminary student with a semi-educated, somewhat emotional, faithful churchgoing but biblically untrained mother-in-law. You like her well enough, but as your own seminary training has increased your exegetical skills, knowledge of church history, and theological acumen, you have found a corresponding increase in discomfort when talking to her about God and the Bible. She is very passionate about the latest devotional book she is reading and the new insights she has gained into passages of Scripture from looking up Greek words in Vine’s Expository Dictionary.

Every time you see her, you sense with increasing intensity that she could be on the cover of the next edition of Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. On your better days you just nod and smile politely. In your grouchy moments you daydream about ripping the books out of her hands, mocking them, stomping on them a few times, and throwing them into the fireplace while quoting Greek paradigms.

But then when you arrive at her house one Thanksgiving, you see something that pushes you over the edge. On the refrigerator, holding up her unrealistic diet plan, is a magnet with a nice flowing script of Jeremiah 29:11—“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” It is obvious that this verse and this diet plan are organically related in her mind. She is taking this verse to heart every day as a promise from God for her success in shedding a few pounds.

How will you respond? Your exegetically and theologically trained mind immediately populates a list of problems with her use of this verse: this is a horrible translation of the Bible; this verse is taken out of context; this is a word spoken to the nation of Israel in the Old Covenant and therefore can’t apply to her; God doesn’t care about her diet, and on and on. Thankfully, you have enough sense and wisdom not to attack or mock her and her refrigerator magnet, but in your quiet moments later you face a couple of crucial questions. These questions are ours as well when we read Scripture and when we read and hear interpretations of Scripture. First, what is wrong with her interpretation/reading/application of this verse? And second, should you say anything to her about it?

What is wrong with this use of Jeremiah 29:11? In the first instance, we are right to emphasize that what a text or verse means is best approached in its own literary and theological context. Her ignorance of the overall story of the Bible and the fact that this verse is from a letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent to the elders and priests of Jerusalem who were then in exile in Babylon is a regrettable oversight. This knowledge would deepen and contextualize the significance of these lines. We may also register some concern that not every word to the nation of Israel necessarily has a direct application to the individual Christian. Other examples come to mind including details of the Mosaic law concerning diet and clothing or promises of physical blessing for obedience to Torah.

However, we must also ask what might be good about her reading. And herein lies much that we might initially overlook. Even though her reading and application of this verse may not be very sophisticated or theologically astute, I would suggest that ultimately what it possesses is greater than this deficiency. At one level her reading is in fact more theologically perceptive than our systematized view might be. That is, in a very real sense a promise like Jeremiah 29:11 does apply to the individual who is in Christ (in whom “all the promises of God are Yes and Amen”; 2 Cor. 1:20). Jeremiah’s words are God’s words; they reveal God’s heart and disposition toward his people, who are now defined no longer ethnically but based on faith response in Jesus—that is, all Christians. To read Jeremiah Christianly is to receive this as God’s promise to us, albeit in light of the full picture of Scripture in which the church is now in a time of sojourning exile awaiting the return of the Son.

Moreover, what is good—even glorious—about her reading of Jeremiah 29:11 as applied to her diet is that she has the right posture toward God and Holy Scripture as she reads. That is, she is going to the Bible looking for God to speak and guide and direct her life very personally. She expects the living God to speak to her, and she is willing to listen. She has chosen the better part. Certainly we might want her to grow in her theological knowledge and interpretive skills, but not at the expense of this simple God-ward faith and posture.

We as trained exegetes and theologians can and should also have this posture, but honest self-reflection reveals that for most of us, our learning often creates layers of distance between us and hearing the Bible as God’s Word to us. Although it was obtained for the supposed goal of bridging the gap between us and the biblical text, our training in fact often creates in our hearts and minds an elaborate structure of paper walls and divisions that create a maze of distance between us and Scripture. Relegating meaning to the sensus historicus, obtained through the employment of an elaborate skill set, and making understanding and application secondary steps only opens the door for this deferral more widely. Instead, we can learn from our faithful mothers-in-law that to read Scripture is to seek to hear and obey God now in very practical ways. Anything less is not reading Holy Scripture according to its purpose.

If we’ve made it this far in our thinking, then the second question posed to ourselves becomes a little clearer. We should not say anything to her about her refrigerator magnet if that conversation will be a lecture on improper exegesis or the foolishness of such mistaken theological reading. If we discourage her devotional reading of Scripture and/or sow seeds of doubt in her mind about reading the Bible as God speaking to her, then we are certainly doing more harm than good and likely we should be put into the category of “causing those little ones to stumble”—not a positive place according to Jesus.

Yet at the same time, this does not mean that she is free from the need for instruction and guidance in reading. This is, after all, why God has always given teachers, preachers, and prophets to the church: to guide how we read and understand and apply the Scriptures. And herein lies a beautiful balance worth pursuing: developing skills as readers (whether professional or lay) while also keeping the true goal always in sight—hearing, reading, and applying the Holy Scriptures to our lives. This is understanding. This is wisdom.

This same situation was already pondered and illustrated by the great theologian and hermeneutist Augustine in his textbook on how to read Scripture. His illustration has stood the test of time and indeed has experienced a renaissance recently through the rediscovery of a theological reading of Scripture. Augustine promotes a balance between reading the Scriptures for the sense that the author (including God) intended and yet recognizing that the ultimate purpose is to build up “the twin love of God and neighbor.”

Thus a reading that results in greater love for God and for neighbor, no matter how poor the exegesis, is in some real sense good. Those who read in this way—maybe our mothers-in-law—are mistaken, Augustine says, “in the same sort of way as people who go astray off the road, but still proceed by rough paths to the same place as the road was taking them to. Still, they must be put right, and shown how much more useful is it not to leave the road, in case they get into the habit of deviating from it, and are eventually driven to take the wrong direction altogether.” 

Good exegetical skills, reading for the authorial/Authorial intent, are important guidelines for our reading now and in the future, and thus they should be learned and taught to others. But we must never mistake these means for the real end—developing a posture and practice of love for God and neighbor. And to the question of how we speak to our mother-in-law about her reading, Augustine would be the third person, I’m sure (after Jesus and Paul), to remind us to speak in such a way that we too promote the twin love.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Monday, April 3, 2017

When you listen to a sermon, do you feel the weight upon the preacher’s shoulders?  Do you recognize that every sermon is designed to leave an indelible mark upon your soul and to shape you by God’s Word?  When you listen to a sermon preached, do you get the idea that the overall aim is to bring glory to God?  Are you captivated by the drama of God’s redemptive story as you see God’s plan and your connection to the story?  If not, perhaps you’ve never heard real preaching.
When J. I. Packer was a 22-year-old student in the years of 1948-1949, he heard Martyn Lloyd-Jones preach each Sunday evening in London. He said that he had “never heard such preaching.” According to Packer, it came to him “with the force of electric shock, bringing to at least one of his listeners more of a sense of God than any other man” he had known. [1]

Preaching Involves a Weighty Responsibility

When Paul charges Timothy to “preach the Word” in his final New Testament letter (2 Tim. 4:1-5), he was not talking about a casual conversational approach to the pulpit.  One glance at Jesus’ preaching, John the Baptist’s preaching, and Paul’s preaching will prove that true biblical preaching is not casual.  John Piper accurately summarizes the work of preaching by stating, “Preaching is God’s appointed means for the conversion of sinners, the awakening of the church, and the preservation of the saints. If preaching fails in its task, the consequences are infinitely terrible.” [2]  In an interview on January 31, 1892, Charles Haddon Spurgeon was asked if he was ever nervous when he preached, and Spurgeon replied:
I tremble like an aspen leaf. And often, in coming down to this pulpit, have I felt my knees knock together – not that I am afraid of any one of my hearers, but I am thinking of that account which I must render to God, whether I speak His Word faithfully or not. On this service may hang the eternal destinies of many.
Every person who enters the sanctuary of the local church and sits down to hear the sermon will spend eternity in heaven or hell.  We must never forget that preaching matters.  Preaching has an impact upon eternal souls—for good or bad.  It is the duty of the preacher to feed the flock of God.  Too many preachers miss opportunities to feed God’s flock because they waste time seeking to entertain or motivate.  Preaching cannot be casual because every preacher should recognize that every person in their congregation will be in eternity in just a short while.  There is a stewardship that comes with preaching.  Time is valuable.  Souls are eternal.  Eternity is forever.  George Whitefield once described the type of preachers that he was praying for God to raise up:
And what manner of men will they be? Men mighty in the Scriptures, their lives dominated by a sense of the greatness, the majesty and holiness of God, and their minds and hearts aglow with the great truths of the doctrines of grace. . . .They will be men who will preach with broken hearts and tear-filled eyes, and upon whose ministries God will grant an extraordinary effusion of the Holy Spirit, and who will witness ‘signs and wonders following’ in the transformation of multitudes of human lives. [3]

Worship Is Not Casual

In many circles, preaching is something that comes after the worship takes place.  Far too many Christians fail to recognize that preaching is worship.  If we consider the goal in worship and how our aim is always the glory of God, how can that pursuit be casual?  How do redeemed sinners pursue God in a mundane manner?  The reason this happens in some circles is because the type of preaching the people are hearing is not bringing them into contact with the true image of God and His glory.  A low view of God leads to a low view of worship.  The result is a posture of worship that’s ultra casual.
One look at the preaching of Ezra in Nehemiah 8, Jesus in His earthly ministry, Peter at Pentecost, or Paul in his apostolic ministry will prove that preaching is not casual.  The Jews listening to John the Baptist didn’t listen casually.  The ground thundered when such men preached.  The problem today is that the ground rarely shakes.  Preaching is not like taking another at-bat as a baseball player.  The risk as a baseball player is personal glory or the team’s glory, but in preaching it’s all about God’s glory.  This should be at the forefront of every preacher’s mind each time he approaches the pulpit.  Preaching is not casual because the glory of God is not casual.  Too many sermons make the glory of God appear to be cheap.  There seems to be no opportunity to behold the glory of God in many sermons.

God’s Drama is not Casual

How many times have you heard people claim that the Bible is boring?  In some circles, people claim that the Bible is not relevant, so they use drama presentations in order to spice things up in their worship services.  Is the drama of God’s redemptive plan boring?  While it’s possible to preach a boring sermon, we must never lose sight of the fact that God’s drama is exhilarating.  If preachers will preach the drama of the text in the way God intended, the drama team will no longer be needed in the weekly worship service.
What would your church say about the worship service next week if the additives were removed and people were expected to look earnestly into God’s Word to reflect upon His glory and witness His drama?  Would true biblical preaching be enough?  Alistair Begg has a noteworthy point that we would do well to consider as he writes:
One of the reasons for the disinterest in expository preaching is surely that so many attempts at it prove lifeless, dull, and even thoroughly boring. I never cease to be amazed by the ingenuity of those who are capable of taking the powerful, life-changing text of Scripture and communicating it with all the passion of someone reading aloud from the Yellow Pages! [4]
The next time you worship with your gathered church—look for the thrill of God’s drama as the preacher unpacks the Word of God before you.  Worship God with a proper and honoring posture.  A true sense of God and His glory will not be a casual experience.

  1. Christopher Catherwood, Five Evangelical Leaders, (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1985), p. 170.
  2. John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 54.
  3. Jason Meyer, Preaching: A Biblical Theology, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 301.
  4. Alistair Begg, Preaching for God’s Glory, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1999), 22.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Is Religion the Cause of Most Wars?



-- by Brett Kunkle


On Sunday, I returned home from another Berkeley Mission trip, where I intentionally exposed high school students to some of my atheist friends in the Bay Area. For the last six months, we’ve taught apologetics to these high schoolers from Upland Christian Academy. Now it was time for them to “get off the sidelines and into the game” and engage non-Christians with the truth. Of course, my atheist friends are more than happy to oblige, so they meet with our missions teams, challenge them with a short lecture, and then dive into some rigorous dialogue.

Without fail, a couple of our atheist guests will contend, “Religion is the cause of most wars.” This cultural mantra has been uttered so often and with so much force, it has come to be accepted as an undeniable declaration. Prominent atheists like Sam Harris contribute to the chorus of voices, arguing religion is “the most prolific source of violence in our history” (The End of Faith page 27). Richard Dawkins claims, “There’s no doubt that throughout history religious faith has been a major motivator for war and for destruction.”

But as we trained students for this trip, we equipped them with a simple question to expose such claims: “How did you come to that conclusion?” (also known as Columbo Question #2). We simply taught students to recognize when someone makes a claim and then to request their supporting reasons. When our atheist presenters were challenged to provide justification, they could only offer up the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9-11, or vague references to Islamic terrorism. Certainly we recognize religion’s role in these examples, but three or four references cannot support the claim that most wars are caused by religion.

Not only were students able to demonstrate the paucity of evidence for this claim, but we helped them discover that the facts of history show the opposite: religion is the cause of a very small minority of wars. Phillips and Axelrod’s three-volume Encyclopedia of Wars lays out the simple facts. They examined 5 millennia worth of wars—1,763 total—and found that only 123 (or about 7%) were “religious in nature.” If you remove the 66 wars waged in the name of Islam, it cuts the number down to a little more than 3%. 

A second scholarly source, The Encyclopedia of War edited by Gordon Martel, confirms this data, concluding that only 6% of the wars listed in its pages can be labelled religious wars. Thirdly, William Cavanaugh’s book, The Myth of Religious Violence, exposes the “wars of religion” claim. And finally, a recent report (2014) from the Institute for Economics and Peace further debunks this myth.

We didn’t stop there. We showed students it gets worse for the atheists’ claim. A strong case can be made that atheism, not religion, and certainly not Christianity, is responsible for a far greater degree of bloodshed. Indeed, R.J. Rummel’s work in Lethal Politics and Death by Government has the secular body count at more than 100 million...in the 20th century alone.

Our students were able to see that a simple examination of the facts relieves religion from blame for most of the world’s wars. In addition, we were able to help cultivate in students a healthy skepticism of atheistic claims. If the skeptic will shout such an unsubstantiated claim so loudly and with so much force, what other skeptical claims might quickly fall apart under rational scrutiny?

- See more at: http://str.typepad.com/weblog/2016/02/is-religion-the-cause-of-most-wars.html#sthash.MRJgDMEH.dpuf