Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Greatness of Giving Thanks

There are 13 letters from Paul in the New Testament, and in 9 of them he explicitly gives thanks for the recipients of the letter (Rom. 1:8; 1 Cor. 1:4-8; Eph. 1:15-16; Phil. 1:3-5; Col. 1:3-5; 1 Thess. 1:2-3; 2 Thess. 1:3-4; 2 Tim. 1:3-5; Phm. 4-5). The only exceptions are 2 Corinthians (where he jumps in with a word of comfort), 1 Timothy and Titus (for whom he implicitly gives thanks), and Galatians (who were in danger of apostasy). The mighty apostle Paul was a man marked by gratitude.

Paul did not have an easy life. He was beaten, slandered, misunderstood, imprisoned, shipwrecked, stoned, and opposed by someone almost everywhere he went. Nevertheless, he was profoundly grateful. Being grateful has little to do with your circumstances. Sure, it’s easier to be happy when everything is coming up roses, but we’ve all known people who seem to have everything, and yet are terrifically unhappy. Conversely, we all know people who seem to find hidden blessings in every trial. Grumbler or thanks-giver: we really do have a choice.

Think of the godliest people you know, the saints you most respect, the ones you want to be like when you grow up, the believers you want to emulate and imitate. Almost certainly, the people you are thinking of are thankful people. Cynics and critics may be celebrated on social media and on late-night television, but they do not make great heroes of the faith.

Despite his many earthly reasons to complain, Paul was constantly giving thanks to God—and not mainly for food or health or safety (though all are worth remembering), but for triumphs of the gospel.
Look at the beginning of Paul’s letter and notice what he gives thanks for in the churches.
  1. Have gave thanks for their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, 1, 2 Thessalonians, Philemon).
  2. He gave thanks for their love for all the saints (Ephesians, Colossians, 1, 2 Thessalonians, Philemon).
  3. He gave thanks for their steadfastness, especially in trials (1, 2 Thessalonians).
  4. He gave thanks for their spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians).
  5. He gave thanks for their partnership in the gospel (Philippians).
  6. He gave thanks for their history and mutual affection (2 Timothy).
It’s quite a list, especially when I consider the things that I’m most naturally thankful for (my family, a house, a job, good health, safe travel, nice holidays). These are all gifts from God too. There is no shame in thanking God for a million different things. After all, every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights (James 1:17). But Paul’s list reminds us of the greatest gifts: gospel faith, gospel partnerships, and gospel victories.

As most Americans gather around the table this Thursday, take a moment to put on your apostle Paul hat and share what gospel graces you are thankful for. And while you’re at it, think about the friends and family you’d love to be like. Chances are they are overflowing with gratitude, even more than they are overflowing with turkey and stuffing.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Again, All Hallows Eve


Faith For ALL of Life

A Christian's worldly vocation is to be pursued with spiritual and moral fervor in order to realize the Kingdom of God on earth. The world is to be regarded not as the inevitable expression of God's will, to be passively accepted in pious submission, but rather as the arena in which man's urgent religious duty is to fulfill God's will through questioning, and changing every aspect of life, every social and cultural institution, in order to help bring about that realization of God's Kingdom and a Christian Commonwealth.
It is a serious mistake to see theology as an academic exercise. The word theology means God's word; it begins with the presupposition that Scripture is the word of God, and the duty of the theologian is to understand it and to apply it to every area of life and thought. Theology belongs in the pulpit, the school, the work-place, the family, and everywhere. Society as a whole is weakened when theology is neglected. Without a systematic application of theology, too often people approach the Bible with a smorgasbord mentality, picking and choosing that which pleases them. Theology means the total mandate of God through His word for every area of life. --Chris Ortiz

The Lord’s promises don’t excuse inaction. They motivate action. Rather: Because the Lord has spoken, “this is the thing which you shall do.” Trusting in his promise, doesn’t make for complacency and passivity. There's no room for, “Well, if God wants it done, He’ll do it.” -HT: Peter Leithart

One of the principle fruits of the Reformation was the restoration of dignity to the work of the ordinary man and woman. A waitress is just as called to her vocation as a minister is to his. We are not divided into a two-tier system—where the clerics are holy, and a grubby laity pay the bills. A gospel that reaches down to every person has the effect of lifting up every person. And this is why we are enabled to live out every aspect of our lives coram Deo, before God. --Doug Wilson

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

How Should Christians Think About Halloween?


In all of this, of course, we should keep things in perspective. Don’t try to make any of it fanciful and sacred. It’s not. It’s just permissible fun and a good opportunity for teaching and edification. Make the most of the opportunity, and whatever you do, do it to the glory of God.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Repetition is inescapable

Repetition is inescapable, and many who object to weekly commemoration of the Lord’s sacrifice for us have no problem whatever with comparable repetitions in other settings.

Christians who would object (loudly) to our recitation of the Apostles’ Creed weekly—because it makes the words “meaningless”—have no problem founding Christian schools where the students recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily. Is that meaningless too?

When you ask a co-worker if he would like to go out for lunch together, do you expect to hear that he doesn’t like to eat really, because he doesn’t want it ever to become “routine.” Asked how often he eats, he says that he likes to take a meal once a quarter, so that it will remain “special.”

In the grip of such thinking, the absence of the Lord’s Supper is repeated also. Week after week, the Table is consistently not there. Does that become part of a routine?

The answer to faithless routine is not to abandon the routine, but rather to embrace faith. To abandon routine is simply to establish another routine, and if faith has not been exercised, it too will become an idol. We are Christians; this is the Table of the Lord. We are to put away our idols.

--Doug Wilson

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Contending in Healing Ministry

by Vincent Cheung

Here are some of the assumptions, principles, and practices that I implement in the healing ministry. These come to mind due to our context, but there are others. For example, I could also say something about demons and insanity, the relation of prophecy and healing, healing and evangelism, the sin of competition in ministry, apprenticeship, teamwork, and the use of extended prayer.
I have not been one who takes a long time to pray for a sick person, but there are some who regularly engage in protracted prayer over the sick — hours, days, and weeks — and they see remarkable results. This type of ministry has its own guidelines. Once you have been involved in praying for the sick, you will learn more about the kind of ministry you should have, and develop your own way of doing things.
Some are biblical principles and must be enforced, but some are only practical guidelines. The practical ones should not complicate the ministry, and cannot be imposed on the conscience, but they are implemented to ensure transparency, protection, and sustained growth. In the end, if there is one iron rule that I insist everyone follows, it is to have faith toward God and compassion toward people.

Let us first cover the most unpleasant item. Some of our guidelines are necessary especially because of this aspect of the healing ministry.
Many of those who call themselves Christians are ungrateful and dishonest people. So it is a sad reality, but you must protect yourself from the people you help. The biblical basis for the healing ministry is considerably larger than the biblical basis for several of the historically accepted doctrines combined, such as baptism and communion, but somehow it is often considered strange or even heretical. One reason is that the healing ministry demands genuine faith to produce evident success, whereas counterfeit faith in some of the other doctrines and practices is harder to detect.
Christians whose faith cannot rise above the level of confession and ceremony – they might be pretending even when it comes to these – therefore refuse to practice the healing ministry and attempt to destroy it. If you can’t fake it, kill it. Like the Pharisees, who slandered and murdered Jesus, instead of using the Sabbath to show faith and mercy, and to pray for the sick, these Christians continue to use the Sabbath to attack Jesus’ healing ministry (Mark 3:4, Luke 13:16), which he has never ceased to perform (Acts 9:34).
These Christians honor the Sabbath with their lips and persecute those who disagree with them about the Sabbath, but they never really practice the Sabbath. Otherwise, they would offer the people the rest that belongs to them in Christ, received by faith. And healing is one of the benefits of the Sabbath rest: “Then should not this woman…be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:16). Christ has secured continuous rest for his people. They should heal the sick every day, but when they meet on the Sabbath to attack his healing ministry instead of to receive and promote it, then they condemn themselves. They are anti-Christ and anti-Sabbath.
They might also come to your meetings to criticize, spread dissension, or set up traps for you. This is their way. If they cannot find something to use against you, they will make up something. Let your conduct be above reproach. Watch the things you say, the claims you make, and who, when, and where you touch. Sometimes it is better to let the people declare that a miracle has occurred instead of making the claim yourself. Perform ministry with witnesses present. Keep records if possible. Do not claim to be a doctor or a healer. Present the situation as one where people come together to look to God alone for healing. Avoid laying your hands on a person if you perceive that there might be a problem with him. You can always pray without touching. Respect the parents or spouses and ask for explicit permission when deciding how to minister to a person. For example, if a woman wants you to lay hands on her, but the husband has a displeased expression on his face, take a step back and do not touch her.
If “Christians” will lie and set up traps for you just because they disagree on a relatively nuanced point on theology or philosophy, they will not spare you when it is said that miracles happen in your meetings. Some people would even pretend to be sick in order to set a trap for you. However, you cannot be faulted if you make no other claim than that you are praying for God to help the people.
One reporter pretended to be a cripple and limped up the stage on a crutch. His plan was that he would receive prayer, pretend to be healed and throw off his crutch, and then he would expose the healing as a hoax. A trap like this is occasionally used by “Christians” and reporters. The preacher hesitated and stepped back for a moment, then said, “According to your faith be it unto you,” and the man’s leg detached from its socket (Acts 5:4-5 and 9, Acts 13:9-11). When he repented, the preacher prayed for him and he was healed.
There are reasonable ways to expose a fraud, but this method makes no sense. Even if the audience thought that the reporter received healing when he was only pretending to be a cripple, it would not mean that no one was healed. This case would have no direct relation to any other case. Indeed, it might draw attention to the need for investigation before making dramatic claims. But an incident like this can show only that the “Christian” or the reporter is a fraud, not the preacher. Here the reporter was the only one who lied. The tactic to discredit the healing ministry would impress only gullible people, and sadly, this means that it has been highly effective at times, especially among those who wish to justify their unbelief.
It is likely that most of the underhanded attacks and slanders will come from the “Christians” — the religious establishment, the watchers of the cults, the defenders of the faith. Some of them have established whole empires that receive donations and sell products in order to criticize those who receive donations and sell products. You see, if you cannot capture the stupid charismatic market, you capture the stupid cessationist market. If you cannot defraud those who are not very smart, you defraud those who think that they are very smart. As long as you are dealing with stupid people, you get paid either way.
Apologetics can be a pretty lucrative industry if your conscience can take it. However, bogus heresy hunting might cost you much more in the end. Do you think that you would escape judgment if you say to the Lord, “Lord, Lord, have we not gone undercover? Have we not shut down healing ministries in your name? Have we not persecuted and entrapped them like the Pharisees did to you? Have we not discredited them by any means necessary?” But you fall under the same condemnation as the others: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” The Lord told you to have faith, and pray for the sick. If you do not like how other people are doing it, you do it. If you are not doing it, then you are at least as bad as the people you criticize.
“Christians” have always been the most hostile and devious enemies of Christ and of his healing ministry, but others will also interfere on occasions. You should have this in mind and develop measures to keep everything transparent and everyone safe. Do not be so ready to believe gossip and slander against a ministry. It might be someone’s way to cover his own tracks.

God is pleased only when we have faith in him, believing that he is a rewarder of those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). Yes, he wants you to see him as a rewarder of faith. He is pleased when you have the faith to “get stuff” from him. The faith that pleases God receives not only “spiritual” blessings and persecution, although it includes these, but all kinds of material blessings – deliverance, territory, children, entire kingdoms, miracles of healing, miracles of nature, miracles of resurrection, miracles of military conquest – and this is only Hebrews 11.
A person who thinks that he is too pious to receive “stuff” from God by faith is not spiritual, but a high-minded religious phony. Stupidly saying “for the glory of God” all the time means nothing. If you think that you are too good to receive from God, then you are the worst believer ever, if you are a believer at all. Why don’t you step down from that religious pedestal, humble yourself, and ask for your daily bread?
You are so high on the glory of God that you have become delirious and you cannot even stick to English — Soli Deo Gloria! But you know nothing about God’s glory. You keep thinking that giving him glory has to do with how much you do for him, how much you sacrifice for him, how much you suffer for him. Jesus knew all about you. You are the prodigal son’s obnoxious brother (Luke 15:25-32).
You think you are some Christian elite, some theological expert, but you are nothing more than self-righteous garbage. You pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – Arminians, Pentecostals. I come to church every Sunday (but not every day like the charismatics) – I don’t even go to the grocery store or touch a newspaper on the Sabbath! And I baptize my babies right.” (Luke 18:11-12). You are just spiritual landfill. Even the prodigal son, whose only talent is to take and take and take from the father, is better than you by far. At least in all his taking, he displays the father’s generosity and forgiveness.
You have it all wrong. Your whole religion has been upside down. God’s glory is not in how much you do for him, but in how much he has done for us in Christ, not in how much you sacrifice for him, but in how much he has sacrificed for us in Christ, not in how much you suffer for him, but in how much he has suffered for us in Christ. Indeed, God is glorified when we suffer persecution – something that you know a lot about, since you persecute so many believers – but even when that happens, it seems we get more out of it than he does (Matthew 5:10-12, Acts 5:41, Hebrews 10:34, 1 Peter 4:14).
God’s glory is in healing (John 11:4). He glorifies himself by giving to us, not by receiving from us. You do not glorify God by showing how good you are to him, but he glorifies himself by showing how good he is to you. God pays his own bills. In fact, his glory is that he pays for everyone at the table. He doesn’t need you to pay your share. He doesn’t need you at all – like, not even a little bit (Acts 17:25).
Why don’t you receive from God as a child? But no, you are better than that. You want to be a pompous ass (donkey) “for the glory of God.” And no smart aleck with a Bible is going to stop you from rubbing it in, around, and everywhere “before the face of God” – Coram Deo!

Jesus devoted so much time to the ministry of healing, sometimes performed in public to reach as many people as possible, sometimes performed in secret and not done to prove anything. He could have spent more time teaching the people, or even writing books, or doing some other kind of ministry, or performing other kinds of miracles. But he healed the sick, and healed the sick, and healed the sick. Then he healed the sick, and healed the sick, and healed the sick. Healing time is not wasted time. He had compassion on the people, “healing all that were oppressed of the devil” (Acts 10:38).
Recall a time when you were sick, perhaps with a fever or injury. Then imagine that some people feel like that, or much worse, all the time, year after year, with no end in sight. Have compassion on the people. Follow the way of love. Love can heal anything. Rather than obsessing about spiritual gifts or some special anointing, direct your attention to relieve the people’s suffering and to showing God’s concern for them. Do not worry about having this or that spiritual gift. God has all the gifts. Teach people to have faith in him, not in you.

Always speak in faith, but in general, do not guarantee that healing will come to a particular person, or that it will come at a particular time. This is not due to the fact that God is sovereign, as if this means you can never know what would happen. As one preacher said, “I always know what God is going to do. He will do what he said. It’s people I can’t figure out.”
You usually do not know the sick person’s condition. He might have been conned by the master heresy of cessationism, or received some other false teaching. Perhaps he has experienced many disappointments, and now he is filled with doubt and cynicism that might take some time to dismantle. Even if you are confident that he would be healed, you might not know how it would happen. It might be a gradual healing, and he might be healed as soon as the next morning when he wakes up, so that a guarantee of immediate healing might needlessly lead to doubt and discouragement.
Nevertheless, there are times when you can declare that a person would be healed right then and there. And there are times when you can declare that a person has been healed, even when nothing has changed in terms of appearance. This is foolish when it comes from presumption or a desire to impress the audience, but there are genuine instances of such faith. When you know it, you know it.

Praying for healing again and again can come from faith or from doubt. It depends on why you keep asking. Elijah prayed again and again, but he prayed in faith, and James refers to his example in the context of praying for healing (James 5:15-18). Repeat if you expect a breakthrough. Do not repeat if you do not really think that anything will change. Let another person pray, or talk things over with the sick person to see if you can discover the hindrance. The need for repetition in itself does not signal error or weakness in the ministry.
Jesus made two attempts on a blind man before the healing was complete (Mark 8:22-26). Some people are puzzled by this, because they have a defective understanding of Christ and of spiritual operations. Jesus said that he worked miracles by the Spirit of God (Matthew 12:28). If he worked miracles solely as the Son of God, then he would not have needed the anointing of the Spirit in the first place. He ministered under the same Spirit by which we receive power to work miracles (Acts 1:8). He was fully God and fully man the whole time, but as he functioned in the office of the Messiah, he ministered by the Spirit of God.
Spiritual operations on this level has much to do with faith (Galatians 3:5), among other things. Jesus did not work many miracles when there was much unbelief (Matthew 13:58). Perhaps sometimes for this reason, when a place was filled with skeptics, he removed them before he performed the miracle (Matthew 9:25), and perhaps sometimes also for this reason, he removed the person from the crowd before he ministered healing to him. A number of variables are involved in this kind of ministry, and these could result in the need for repeated attempts, counseling, and so on, before the healing is complete (1 Kings 17:21, 2 Kings 4:34).
God’s sovereignty is indeed a factor, but not in the way many people think. He often sovereignly overrides unbelief and performs miracles either upon the skeptics or before the skeptics, even those extremely hostile to the gospel and to the healing ministry. After all, one of the purposes of miracles is indeed to confirm his revelation, most often not his new revelation, but his old revelation. In other words, God’s sovereignty ensures that there are many more miracles than what our measure of faith might permit us to expect (Ephesians 3:20). Instead of exploiting this precious doctrine of divine sovereignty as an excuse for failure, it becomes the basis for an assurance of success.

When someone is not healed, it has been said that we should never blame it on unbelief, because it brings a sense of shame and helplessness, when the true explanation is the sovereignty of God. Then, some claim that if we must blame it on unbelief, we must point only to the unbelief of the ministers, and never the unbelief of the people. There are also those who declare that if a person has the “gift,” then it will work no matter what, because that’s how it was with the apostles. Every one of these points is the opposite of what the Bible teaches. The Bible attributes failure to lack of faith in either or both the ministers and the people when healing does not happen, and not to the sovereignty of God. And it did not “just work” for the apostles.
In one case, the disciples that Jesus had directly authorized could not cast out a demon from a boy who was sick. Jesus lamented, “O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” He was not worried that this would bring a sense of shame and helplessness. Then the disciples asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith” (Matthew 17:14-20). Those who ministered healing and those who came for help did not appear especially hard-hearted, but Jesus still told them that the failure was due to their lack of faith. Sometimes the Bible blames only the people for their unbelief, and not the ministers, as in the case of Jesus (Matthew 13:58, Mark 6:5-6).
This does not mean that unbelief is always the explanation, but it is wrong to dismiss it completely as some people do. If there is unbelief in you, then work on the problem by prayer, the word of God, and other means. If it is clear that a case of failure is due to unbelief in the sick person, and it is often obvious, then encourage faith in him by teaching him what the Bible says, and by showing him examples of those who have received healing. Never lie and say that any failure has nothing to do with his unbelief, but exercise patience if he is teachable. However, if he is hostile and hard-hearted, then there is no reason to hold back. Rebuke him with all authority. Regardless of his suffering, unbelief is a sin.
Another false teaching is that we must never suggest that a person’s sickness has something to do with his sin. This is wrong (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). And another false teaching is that when healing comes from God, it will be always instant, always complete, and always permanent. All three assumptions are wrong (Luke 17:14, Mark 8:24, John 5:14).

Sometimes God’s power comes upon people and they fall to the floor (1 Kings 8:11, John 18:6). Some preachers have developed the habit of pushing the people down to make it appear that God’s power is at work. And the people have developed the habit of leaning and falling backward to make it appear that they are receptive.
This is grotesque. Do not push. Do not allow the people to pretend. Do not make it easy for people to think that God is at work when he is not. If you are going to do anything, make it harder for God, not easier. When Elijah asked God to send fire on his sacrifice, he did not first add gasoline to it, but he poured twelve jars of water on the sacrifice before he prayed. The wood was all wet, and the trench was filled. Then God sent fire and burned up everything (1 Kings 18:30-40). If you make it harder for misunderstanding to arise, God will increase the power, and there will be no mistake when he answers.
There is no need for someone to fall down to receive healing. When someone deliberately leans back and begins to fall, I would grab him and make him stand. When God is the one doing it, the person is struck down. There is no drifting or floating, or looking back to see if anyone is catching. If the person keeps leaning back, I would put him in a chair, and would usually not touch him when I pray. If God wants him on the floor for some reason, he can throw him off the chair. He can hit hard and break the chair if he wants. He does not need me to make it easy for him.

Operate within existing laws. Do not offer medical advice. Do not make any medical diagnosis, or prescribe any medical substance or procedure. Do not take it upon yourself to remove any medical apparatus, such as a neck brace.
If it is not dangerous, suggest that a person do something that he could not do before. For example, a person who has been crippled can leave his wheelchair and walk, but watch him closely. There might be nothing wrong with your faith or ministry, but if the sick person doubts, he could sink like Peter (Matthew 14:28-31). Do not insist on a course of action if the sick person refuses to cooperate.
If my advice appears too safe, it is in part because we are focusing on someone who is beginning in the healing ministry. One would see plenty of results even if he adheres to these practical guidelines. God can override them whenever he wishes, but he will back it up with divine power. When it happens, there will be no guesswork, and there will be certain success.
Do not tell someone to stop taking his medication. Peter said to a crippled man, “What I have I give you” (Acts 3:6). You do not get a person healed by taking away something. You get him healed by giving him something. With some conditions, one might have an adverse reaction to his medication when he keeps taking it after he has been healed. When a person comes with such a case, tell him to watch out for this possibility. If he thinks he has been healed, he should let his doctor examine him, so that the doctor can take him off his medication.

Do not let people associate giving money with receiving healing. Do not ask for money in exchange for or in connection with prayer for healing. When people can see that God is at work, if you ask for money, they will give — do not ask. Do not take advantage of the people or exploit them. Do not buy and sell when healing ministry is occurring. Do not open the book table or conduct business. If you must offer products during healing ministry, give them away. Do not allow the people to form a false impression of how this works, as if it has to do with anything other than the grace of God and faith in the name of Jesus.
When people see that the sick have received healing or when they have received healing for themselves, some of them would come up to me and stuff cash into my pocket while I am talking to others. Some people would reach out to shake my hand, and when I take my hand back there would be a wad of cash in it. Others would throw money into my bags and containers while I am not looking, or they would hide money in places for me to find later. At first I did not realize people would do that, so I did not know to anticipate it or regulate it. This would happen even if you only preach, but it tends to happen more when there is also healing.
It is fine to receive financial support for a ministry (1 Corinthians 9:14), but do it in a context and in a manner that will not allow people to perceive it as an exchange. “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8). As much as possible, encourage the people to give when they are not emotional, or taken up with the shock of witnessing the healing miracles. Set up a system for people to give to the ministry, but disassociate it with the immediate environment of receiving prayer for healing. This is especially important when there are unbelievers or immature believers in the crowd (2 Kings 5:15-16, 26), who lack understanding in “the matter of giving and receiving” (Philippians 4:15).

Our topic is the healing ministry in the form of praying for the sick, but an essential aspect of the healing ministry is to teach the people to pray for themselves and receive healing that way. God would heal a non-Christian when a believer prays for him, but all Christians have full access to God. They can enter the throne of grace directly, without any mediator other than Jesus Christ, and receive healing by faith. However, they either need someone to teach them the word of God about healing, or study the topic for themselves (Romans 10:17, Galatians 3:5).
Although it is less immediate and glamorous, this is an essential work in the healing ministry, because it offers the people permanent access to healing, and also opens the door to their own ministry to pray for the sick. They will learn that healing comes from God through faith, and they will not have to look to you as someone special (Acts 3:12, 16). The word of God will enable them to pray for themselves, to pray for others, and to teach others how to receive healing.


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