Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ask RC: Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?

No. The god they worship is, in reality, a demon. In terms of their own theology, however, he is a single person, transcendent. The God we worship, on the other hand, is the maker of heaven and earth. He is one being and transcendent, who exists in three persons, which are also immanent. Neither the one-ness nor the three-ness of God are tangential attributes. They are instead essential attributes; they define who He is. Move away from that definition and you move away from the true and living God.

That same God has spoken in His Word, the Bible. He has not spoken again in the Koran. The God we worship did not send his most important prophet hundreds of years after the ascension of Jesus. The differences are too many to list. The overlap is here- in both instances we have a creator, a unity, a judge, one who transcends, who gives law, who is called “God.” (Allah is not a distinct name for God, but is simply the Arabic word for “God.) To suggest that they are the same would be like arguing that since my sister and I both live in central Florida, both have red hair, both work for the same organization, both have the same parents and both think my wife is wonderful, that we are in fact the same person.

The better question is this- given the obvious and yawning gap between who God actually is and what Islam says their god is, why would anyone try to pretend that they are the same? It could be for the sake of earthly peace. At least some people in both faith groups are weary of all the killing. If our killing of each other, which includes ongoing wars in the middle east, ongoing attacks on our own soil, all the way back to the Crusades, is grounded in different views of who God is, and if we can agree we’re both right, then we can all lay down our arms. Or it could be a ruse in the ongoing battle. If Islam can get the Christians to lay down their arms, they can win more victories. If Christians can get Muslims to relax, maybe we’ll be able to tell them about Jesus. We build bridges for evangelism. They build bridges to attack. My suspicion is that we, on the Christians side, affirm such nonsense for a very simple reason- we don’t believe. This kind of nonsense is not the result of succumbing to Islam, but on both sides, succumbing to the unbelieving spirit of our post-modern age.

The Bible teaches clearly that those who do not trust in the finished work of Christ alone will spend eternity in torment. To deny Jesus, His incarnation, His perfect life, His atoning suffering and death, His resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father is to be damned. Islam does just that. Islam not only does not look to the work of Christ for atonement for sins, they have no doctrine of grace at all. One cannot worship the true and living God while denying His Son. If the Bible’s message here is true, it is false that we worship the same God. And we are in grave danger to suggest otherwise. Islam is a false religion, created by a false prophet who gave the world a false book. The Christian faith is true, because Jesus is the Word, and His Word is true.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ask RC: In worship: Isn't God concerned only with our heart?

Is it true that the outward trappings of our worship and our lives matter not at all? Isn’t God concerned only with our hearts?

God is indeed principally concerned about where our hearts are. The woman at the well (John 4: 1-15) was concerned about the proper location for worshipping God, while Jesus was more concerned about the proper mind and heart, that we would worship in spirit and in truth. Jesus reiterated this same truth when He spoke of the publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18). The unkempt, unwashed publican cried out “Lord be merciful to me, a sinner” and went home justified. The proper, dignified Pharisee, on the other hand, full of pride, left the temple still under God’s judgment.

That said, it is precisely because God is concerned about our hearts that we dare not utterly write off issues of decorum. In The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis pointedly explained man’s nature by having Screwtape, the senior demon complain to the junior demon Wormwood, that we humans are amphibious creatures. Animals are bodies without spirits. Angels and demons are spirits without bodies. We have both, and they are intimately tied together.

We struggle with this in both the church and the rest of our lives. We live in an age that cherishes a casual mood and posture, somehow seeing these as the equivalent of sincerity. Order and dignity are seen as the exclusive province of the prideful and phony. As a result our worship services look like a picnic at the beach and our workplaces look like little league games. Worse still, our attitudes toward our work and not just our worship, but the God we worship are casual as well.

All of us still take seriously those events we know are serious. Precious few of us, were we honest, imagine getting married in khakis and a polo shirt. Nor would we sincerely imagine appearing at a White House function in our favorite pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. Which means in turn that we must not actually think that when we gather together for worship that we are receiving a foretaste of the marriage feast of the Lamb. We must not believe that we are going to meet the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

What we do when we are dressed casually we treat casually, because we are bodies and souls, not just souls.

Does this mean that we ought to look down on those whose wardrobes come from Goodwill? Of course not. Does it mean that Lord’s Day worship, or even our workdays, should become fashion shows? Of course not. Does this mean that if you were married in cut-offs and flip-flops that you aren’t really married. Of course not. Does it mean we ought to come in our best? Yes, it does.

Our fathers in the faith, in the first century, were slaves. They dressed like slaves. They were hunted down for their faith, and so met in the catacombs. They did indeed worship in spirit and in truth. But the truth is, we do what we do because we worship in the spirit of our age. Casual is as casual does. It’s time we took seriously our worship. Better still, it’s time we took seriously the One we worship.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Ask RC: Are there still prophets in our day?

Yes, and no. Too often we in the evangelical church see the prophet as a sort of white witch, a godly soothsayer that can see into the future and tell us what is going to happen. Not only do we not have anyone filling such an office in our day, there was never anyone filling such an office. Foretelling the future never was and never will be the calling of the prophet. The prophet, instead, is called to speak God’s Word to God’s people.

The beginning of that Word from God always looked back rather than forward. That is, the prophet served as a kind of lawyer bringing suit for failure to keep covenant. Thus the beginning of the message was “You agreed to this covenant. You said you would honor it.” It moved from this glance backward to an assessment of the present, “You are not keeping the covenant. You are breaking this provision and that one.” Finally, the prophet gives this typically general vision of the future, that God had revealed, “If you don’t repent, judgment will come. If you do repent, God will spare you and bless you.”

Because God spoke directly to the prophet in the Old Covenant, there certainly could be greater specificity to the prediction: your descendants will be slaves in Egypt for 400 years; the son of your adultery will die; the Assyrians are going to wipe the floor with you; you will return from exile; a prophet greater than Moses will come. This was God’s message, and either implicitly or explicitly it always carried the notion of forgiveness for repentance and judgment for failure to repent.

Does God still speak this way? Yes, and no. No, because we have the complete Word of God. Yes, because the Word of God is God speaking in this way. We do not have new prophetic messages, but we do have the prophetic message. It is complete, and speaks with all the thundering glory, all the refulgent promise of the prophets of old. As individuals, as families, as churches, as nations the message is the same- if we repent God will bless. If we do not, God will judge.

Prophets in our day then do not receive new revelation from God. They do, however, continue to proclaim the Word of God. Husbands prophesy to their wives when they wash them with the water of the Word (Ephesians 5:26). Parents prophesy to their children when they speak to their children of the things of God when they lie down and when they rise up and when they walk by the way (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Churches prophesy to the world when they proclaim the faith once delivered (I Corinthians 11:4-5).

It is important that we affirm the overlap between Old Testament prophecy and prophecy in our own day. In both instances God’s Word is being proclaimed. In both instances God’s people are called to repentance. It is important also to note the differences. God spoke directly to the prophets of old. Now, His Word is complete. Those who claim to hear directly from God now besmirch the fullness of the Word, and mislead the people of God. On the other hand, those who refuse to speak His Word besmirch the power of the Word, and fail to lead His people. Speak. His Word.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Five Things I’m Not Surprised I Don’t Find in the Bible

In a previous piece I listed five things I am surprised I do not find in the Bible. I introduced the list by affirming the sufficiency of Scripture and the perspicuity of Scripture. I affirmed that my surprise is not evidence that Scripture fails us, but that we fail it. I affirmed as well that in the end we sometimes find answers to difficult questions through the necessary consequences of what is clear in the Bible, rather than what is clear in itself. What follows are some things that are part and parcel of at least some portions of the evangelical church that are not explicitly taught in the Bible. The Reformation did not cure our propensity for elevating our traditions to the level of Scripture. Thus we are always reforming.

First, I don’t see programs in the Bible. No Sunday school, no youth group, no Christian schools, no men’s meetings or women’s circles. It is not my intention here to argue that therefore these are all bad things. It is important, however, to note that none of these things are necessary. God does not require that we have these programs, nor that we participate in them. To insist that we must is legalism, adding to God’s Word.

In like manner, second, the Bible no where forbids the drinking of alcohol in moderation. The Bible says a great deal about the sin of drunkenness, but never says, “Thou shalt not have a glass of wine.” When we say this, we are adding to the Word of God. One of the ironies of the usually friendly debates that go on between Baptists and Presbyterians is that our Baptist friends are always insisting on an explicit text that shows babies being baptized. Presbyterians, confessing that no such text exists, are left arguing by implication. I happen to believe the implications to be valid and thus am Presbyterian. But when the shoe is on the other foot, on the issue of the moderate enjoyment of alcohol, our Baptists friends suddenly find the shoe on the other foot. They move from clear Biblical injunctions against drunkenness to the unbiblical inference of complete abstinence.

Third, the Bible no where teaches that we are to accommodate the worship of the living God to those who don’t worship the living God. The whole notion of “Seeker Sensitive” services is an idea that came from man, not God. The Bible, in fact, gives us as the example of the most effective evangelistic sermon ever Peter preaching at Pentecost. A fair summary of his message could be, “You stiff-necked Jews- you crucified the Messiah.” The message here brought 3000 into the kingdom. When Stephen gave essentially the same message just a few pages later in Acts, he is martyred for it.

Fourth, the Bible no where says that a spiritual person must have a quiet time. I discovered this counter-intuitive truth, ironically, through a quiet time. That is, in reading through the whole of the Bible I found out that it no where says we need to read the Bible every day. The Bible does say that the Word preached has the power to change us. How American of us to take that Biblical notion and turn it into something we can do on our own.

Fifth, the Bible does not explicitly teach that all sins are equal. This little nugget of received wisdom in the evangelical church is actually rather explicitly rejected by Jesus who said of the Pharisees that they tithe their mint and their cumin but neglect the weightier matters of the law. It is a good thing to recognize that all sin is cosmic treason. It is a good thing to affirm that any one sin causes us to stand guilty before God. It is a bad thing, however, to utterly flatten out the law of God.

Now keep in mind that I am not here arguing that at least some of the things in this list might be legitimate consequences of what the Bible does teach. I am neither suggesting that it is a bad thing to read one’s Bible daily, or that this program or that is evil. Instead I am arguing that we need to be a touch less dogmatic on these things, not elevating our traditions to the level of Scripture.

We need, while rightly arguing against Rome’s and Orthodoxy’s dogma on tradition, to be alert to our own practice with respect to our own traditions. We say “Sola Scriptura” but we cling to and defend our traditions as if we were defending the honor of the Blessed Mary herself. In short, we have logs in our eyes.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Smell of Death Surrounds You

I found myself, when a recent graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary persuaded of two truths. First, I understood and believed the Reformed faith. Second, I wasn’t much different from my unbelieving neighbors. The problem wasn’t that my theology was wrong. The problem was that is was stuck. My head was crammed full of sound Reformed doctrine, but it wasn’t getting to my heart, and out my fingers. I suffered from theological constipation.

Because the Reformed faith is true, which is to say Biblical, the problem wasn’t, I determined, with my theology. The solution wasn’t to believe it less, but to believe it more. Since then that has been my goal, and could arguably be said to be the focus of my public ministry. I would never want to change the Reformed faith. I’m not the best at explaining it. (But I know who is.) My calling is to hold it up and say to the world, “Hey, look at this. Can you believe it? We ought to believe this.”

We Reformed folk, for instance, affirm that man is totally depraved. Our hearts, however, tend to believe that we are rather fine fellows, and therefore other folks must be pretty good as well. Thus hell is too hot of an idea for some of us. Others of us, however, have a more banal response. Our failure to grasp the scope of our sin creates a sense of entitlement. Because I’m basically good, I am due a basically good life. Something is wrong when calamity strikes my world, whether it be an earthquake in New Zealand, the murder of unborn babies, illness, or even financial tensions. We are strangely surprised by suffering.

When, however, our hearts concede what our minds know, that we are desperately wicked, that none is righteous, no not one, when we truly face the hard truth that in ourselves we would kill God if we could, suddenly we see the world for what it is, a sea of grace. That people die, even that people suffer eternal torment no longer surprises us. That people are spared, that is astonishing. We are all, in our natural state, not theologically, not figuratively, under a death sentence from God. The fiery cauldron isn’t the surprise. Our spider-liness isn’t the surprise. The gossamer texture of the web on which we hang isn’t the surprise. That God’s hand holds on, that is the surprise. Sinners in the Hands is a sermon on grace.

My wife is not my due. She is grace. My children are not my due. They are grace. My parents and my sister are not my due. They are grace. My friends are not my due. They are grace. They all deserve to die, and I not only deserve it as well, but I deserve to lose them all.

If we believed the Reformed faith we would not be sour and morose because it reminds us of what horrible sinners we are. We would instead of all people be the most joyous, because it reminds us of the grace of God. The smell of death surrounds us. But our lives are hidden in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. And He smells like grace.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ask RC: Can a person be evangelical and not believe in hell?

The difficult truth of the matter is that language, while actually having the ability to communicate, is not static. Words have real meanings, but those meanings are grounded both in history and in usage. Sometimes those two come apart, and a word is caught in the tension. “Evangelical” is just one of those words.

Historically speaking evangelical was a redundant term for Protestant. In both cases the term referred to those who affirmed the binding authority of the Bible alone and that one could have peace with God only by trusting in the finished work of Christ alone. Contra Rome then the term affirmed sola scriptura and sola fide.

Three hundred years after the Reformation, however, the term took a small turn, a tiny nuance was added by the beginnings of theological liberalism. Institutionally theological liberalism was found within Protestant churches. Its defining qualities, however, were a denial of the truthfulness and authority of the Bible and a denial of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Evangelical suddenly became not a synonym for Protestant, but a sub-category. It was how we distinguished actual Christians from liberal “Christians.” Thus Machen’s later great work, Christianity and Liberalism affirmed that the two were utterly distinct.

One hundred years ago there was yet another shift. The evangelical wing of the Protestant church offered competing strategies for dealing with the liberal wing. One side was slightly less sophisticated, slightly less academic, and, given its accompanying pessimistic eschatology, more retreatist. They, distinguishing themselves from evangelicals, called themselves fundamentalists. On the fundamentals both fundamentalists and evangelicals agreed. Evangelicals, sadly, were slightly more accommodating of theological liberalism, slightly less ardent in denouncing it.

Over the last thirty years that spirit of accommodation has mushroomed inside the evangelical church. Indeed if evangelical has any meaning at all in current usage, it is far more about a mood, a posture, than it is about an affirmation of cardinal doctrines. Evangelicals, on the whole, do not scoff at the Bible like theological liberals. They are willing to affirm, at least in principle, biblical miracles. They are even willing, in a nuanced way that ultimately neuters that authority, to affirm the authority of the Bible, at least parts of it. That nuance typically softens the edges of the Bible by interpreting it in light of our post-modern wisdom. Suddenly the “clear” passages by which we must interpret the less clear are those passages that best reflect current common wisdom. “God is love,” which the Bible clearly teaches, suddenly means that its condemnation of homosexual behavior, or women ruling over men in the church, are suddenly open to re-interpretation.

More important, however, is the notion that “God is love” undoes the necessity of trusting in the finished work of Christ for salvation. Now, either due to a generous inclusiveness that welcomes Romanists, Mormons, Hindus, Muslims, ad nauseum, or a denial of the reality of hell, we no longer must embrace the work of Christ to be with Him forever. This, historically, is nothing like evangelicalism. It is a denial of the most basic element of the word’s historical and etymological root- the evangel.

If current trends continue, evangelical will no longer be a synonym for Protestant, because there is no error so grievous that it must be protested. It will instead become a synonym for liberal. To be acceptable, respectable, we now must give up our narrow evangel. Will we, no are we willing to confess this hard truth- we are all fundamentalists now?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Cooling the Fires of Hell

Bad theology is rather easy to see. We have been given a true and trustworthy Book. When our convictions clash with rather than flow from that Book, we are wrong, and it is right. What is slightly harder to discern is how, given the clarity and truth of that Word, and our purported commitment to it, we can end up so wrong so often. The Word, however, gives us wisdom even on this question.

Consider Peter, the poster child for heroes of the faith who end up doing and saying some pretty stupid things. While Paul was certainly the Apostle to the Gentiles, it was Peter who first opened that door. Acts records His proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles, and his insistence that they be welcomed in. It includes the story of the Jerusalem Council that publicly codified the glorious truth that Israel and the church are one. What it doesn’t record, though we know about it from Paul, was Peter’s shameful betrayal of this great truth. When the Judaizers came to town, Peter suddenly turned his back on the Gentiles. Why? Because he wanted to be loved, to be welcomed, to be accepted by exactly the wrong crowd. He stood up for the dogs, the outcasts once. But later, he turned his back on them so he would be welcomed by the cool crowd.

Which is precisely what we do. We fail to believe the Bible because we want to be liked, to be thought well of. We want to be cool. The only recent change that I have discerned is the proliferation of demographics by which we hope to be deemed cool. Sixty years ago the church was dominated by those who desired to be thought cool by the academics at the highest institutions of higher learning. Thus mainline seminaries and churches jettisoned such jejune ideas as the Virgin Birth of Jesus, His resurrection, even the existence of God. They threw over anything that would get in the way of being considered high brow, sophisticated, urbane. Of course it didn’t work. It never does. Desperate attempts to be welcomed into any clique breed only contempt. All that happened is that those trying this strategy agreed with each other that they were cool. You know, like the kids in the marching band in high school.

Thirty years ago the spirit of Peter blew into the evangelical church. What the seeker sensitive movement sought was admission into the cool club, this time among the suburban middle class. And all we had to give up was our stodginess. We gave up the music of our fathers in favor of praise bands. We gave up the preaching of our fathers, replacing sin with a meaningless grace. Once again, it didn’t work. The church didn’t reach the lost, but instead grew by appealing to the weakest elements in the church, by feeding the flesh of the faithful.

And now the ghost of Peter past emerges again. Rob Bell is the buzz on the internet because he seems to have consigned hell to the fires of the uncool. The po-mo promo for his latest book, Love Wins, demonstrates that the demographic he is trying to reach is the baristas down at the local Starbucks. Long ago the emergents gave up on the notion of knowable truth to get in with this crowd, so I’m not real clear why the hubbub over the rejection of one particular truth, the biblical doctrine of hell. Once again, however, the emergents are still just geeks that are unwelcome by the cool crowd.

My demographic is different. I want to be deemed cool by the TR’s of this world, the thoroughly Reformed. We are the ones who rant and rave against theological liberalism. We are the ones who mock the desperate hunger for acceptance in the seeker sensitive crowd. We are the ones who write incendiary blog pieces against anyone with a soul patch and those narrow little glasses the hipsters go for. Which means, of course, that we are caught in the same trap. We just have a more narrow audience.

The truly cool are those who are on fire. They are the ones who truly don’t care what others think. You will find them warning the lost of the wrath of God. You will find them preaching on the streets. You will find them being called fools by the world, and that which is of the world in the church. May we all find grace to be such fools.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Juicy Nuggets In the Valley of Death

One of the hardships that comes with walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death is what you are expected to carry out. We tend to think that in that valley there grows a very special sort of tree, a wisdom, or insight tree. We think that this rarest of trees is perpetually heavy laden with low hanging, choice, juicy morsels of brilliance. You’re supposed to bring these precious nuggets out the other side to share with your friends. Understandably, though they should know better, some who trek this valley think they’ve found this precious fruit. The quiet whispers of death on the prowl beget therefore footprints-in-the-sand poems and too often, whole therapeutic books of lessons learned.

It is my habit to write one or two pieces a week for the internet. I write columns for two nationally distributed magazines. I publish, six times a year, my own magazine, Every Thought Captive, that itself in turn carries a column or two by me each issue. All those deadlines do not disappear when my mind is preoccupied as it is now with my wife’s battle with leukemia. Which means in turn that her health issues (this is not the first, nor the second time my precious bride has battled cancer, but the third) show up in my prose. If therefore, you are a regular reader, please do not expect me to bring extra-special never-before-written insights. I pray I will write from the heart, but as many of you know, it is the heart of a sinner.

It is true that God is busy sanctifying Denise, and me, and our eight children as He takes us through this. Suffering, however, is rarely given as a narrowly targeted response to a very specific sin. God did not find that I have trouble keeping Book 17, Chapter 12, subsection D paragraph four of His law, then check His Great Physicians Desk Reference to send the right anti-biotic for that weakness. Nor did He send this to help me grow a third arm of holiness. That is, this hardship will not bring forth some weird, never-before seen form of righteousness. The changes He has designed for this are incremental, common, plain. Cancer is manure cast on the ground of the Spirit Tree. His goal through this is that we would love that which is lovely a little bit more. His aim is that we would walk in joy more than we did before. His purpose is that we would exhibit more peace even in the midst of this great battle. The Great Gardener is cultivating the fruit of the Spirit.

There is, therefore, nothing extraordinary about what we are going through. There is no special revelation we’re supposed to come away with. We are instead studying in the school of Christ, which has as its end that we would become more like Him. To that end suffering is indeed a great teacher. Her lessons, however, are rather ordinary. When this is over, I pray I will look a little more like Jesus. I pray the same for my wife. It may be His will, however, that she should sooner come to look exactly like Him. Either way, this much I know. Goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.