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Thoughts in Response to John Piper

Pastor John Piper’s “Ask Pastor John” podcast this week discussed the question posed by Arminian Professor Roger Olson “Where’s the Arminian John Piper?” Upon listening to John’s response I asked my friend, Pastor Tim Brown, for his reactions. I found them very thought provoking and worth consideration.

Here is Piper’s podcast…

Here is Tim’s response…

I think it is self-serving and borders on intellectual dishonesty to recognize man’s role as opposed to God’s role as being the core of Arminian theology.

  1. I don’t know of any theologians who actually teach this or would recognize it as such.
  2. Man can do nothing unless God has done something. What rule of theology makes the responder superior to the initiator? What metric makes the final move the crucial move? One could argue that the move which makes possible the final move is the crucial move.
  3. If you were to give me $1 million, for me to walk away praising myself for having the presence of mind to extend my hand and take it from you flies in the face of psychology and history.
    1. Psychology – no one does this, i.e., walks away and focuses on their cleverness rather than the generosity of the giver. Everyone would walk away and say to others, “Wow, did you see what that guy just did? That’s amazing! Who is he!?” The focus would be on the giver and not the receiver and anything he did to position himself to receive.
    2. History – we don’t see what Piper asserts even in our most recent history. I am sure that Piper would consider Pastor Chuck an Arminian, or at least Arminianism would be a more dominant note than the principles of Calvinism. We see in our own quasi-Arminian movement a God-honoring focus on Jesus Christ. Our non-Calvinistic soteriology doesn’t produce the praise of man, but the praise of Jesus Christ. Our soteriology can bear the weight of worship and wonder.
    3. Isn’t it interesting that the man-at-the-core theology of Pastor Chuck birthed the Jesus movement and Piper’s God-at-the-center theology birthed the neo-Calvinist movement. The longer I think about it, the more Piper’s little clip strikes me as being self-serving and not well thought out.

In addition, for someone to take up Olson’s challenge to become the darling and champion of Arminian theology would be to betray the very gospel they preach. Pastor Chuck would have no interest in taking up this challenge. He wanted to promote Jesus, not a system. I’m sure that Piper sees Billy Graham as an Arminian. Billy wants to preach Christ and Him crucified – he doesn’t want to promote a system. Greg Laurie would be seen as an Arminian by Piper (no doubt), but Greg wants to preach Jesus and not argue system. It seems like the ones who are accused of being man-focused are more Christ-focused than the ones who say they are the ones who are most God-focused and God-honoring.

Piper’s contentions in his podcast don’t ring true theologically, psychologically, or historically.

[Furthermore] it’s amazing to me in the light of Piper’s contentions, that the Arminian theology of Pastor Chuck got the nation talking about Jesus and the Calvinism of Piper gets people talking about Calvin and Calvinism. You shall know them by their fruits. (struck through per Tim’s comment/retraction below)

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Santa Claus and Chrisitans

How should Christians handle Santa Claus?  Answering this question could start a fight…which I have no intention of doing.  I’m certain that your personal background shapes how you answer this question.

Personally, I really enjoy Christmas.  There are a lot of things I like about Christmas that really have little to do with Christmas Day.  I love Christmas Carols.  I’m not too embarrassed to admit that I look forward to rocking out to Elvis’ Blue Christmas for most of the year.  I love seeing colorful Christmas lights everywhere—the more the merrier!  I love decorating the Christmas tree.  I love seeing the lights on the tree.  Who doesn’t love seeing gifts under the tree?  I love my family’s tradition of Christmas Eve dinner, the opening of one Christmas gift, going to our church’s Christmas Eve Service, and ending the night by watching Elf (yes, you read that right).  I love the laughter and joy this season brings.

I share the previous paragraph with you so you know that I really do like this holiday.  I’m not opposed to having fun through imagination.  I’m not bunkered down teaching my kids that “Santa is just Satan spelled differently.”  However, I am very careful with how we’ve handled the issue of Santa Clause with our children and with my teaching at the church.

I love the imagination and creativity that God has given us.  I’m not looking for a history lesson on the origin of Santa Claus—I’ve already checked out his Wikipedia entry.  I’m fine with telling stories and having fun with creativity.  However, I don’t understand when parents push the line from fantasy or imagination to reality and outright deceit to their children.  I know, I know, that sounds really harsh.  I need to lighten up, right?

Have fun with your imagination.  I’m all for imagination.  I’m not suggesting that Santa can’t be a part of the Christian’s holiday plans.  God gave us creativity and imagination.  Use it, have fun with it.  Children have a special connection to the make believe that I wish I were better at reconnecting with as an adult.  I love that my kids help me tap into my inner child—my wife may not be as thrilled with this as I am.  Just leave Santa here.

Protect your children’s trust.  I have never lied to my kids about Santa.  They have always known that he is make believe, just like the tooth fairy, and any other make believe people.  I will not intentionally deceive my children for a number of reasons, but I want them to know that they can trust me no matter what.  There is nothing greater than anyone’s trust, especially your children’s.  Why would we jeopardize this trust by pitching something as truth when we ourselves know it’s just in fun?

Why this matters to me?  I’m a Christian.  I have a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe through Jesus Christ my Lord.  I didn’t come to know Christ until I was an adult and when I did, I came to understand the overwhelming historical evidence concerning His prophetic coming, His life, death, and resurrection.   In hindsight, I see that during my youth, I’d begun to lump Jesus with Santa Claus, the Boogey Man, and Tooth Fairy.  Jesus has nothing to do with fairy tales and I want no part in deceiving my children or confusing them about who Jesus is.  This is ultimately why I take the matter of Santa so seriously in my home.  We can get our pictures taken with Santa, threaten coal for gifts if they’re naughty, but let your kids know that it is all make believe.

For the skeptics out there, I encourage you to really investigate the gospel.  My prayer is that this would be the greatest Christmas of your life.  Jesus came and died for you so that you might find life in Him.  This grace of God is indescribable and is truly the greatest gift one can receive.  Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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Give Thanks!

The famous scholar, Matthew Henry, wrote these words in his journal after being robbed of his wallet, “Let me be thankful first, because I was never robbed before; second, because, although they took my purse, they did not take my life; third, because, although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed.”  Have you ever wondered how some people can be so thankful regardless of their situation?  I know I have!

To be quite honest, I’ve always been a “the glass is half empty” kind of guy.  I don’t like this bent of mine, but because of this hard wiring I notice those thankful types of people.  I’ll never forget one man I met while going through Navy SEAL training.  We were a few days into the miserable rigors of Hellweek (a grueling test over 5 ½ days where only 4 cumulative hours of sleep are given) and he always had a smile on his face and was thankful every minute during this miserable week.  I never asked him why he was so thankful, but his joyful attitude was noticed by all and very contagious.

The older I grow, the more I appreciate Thanksgiving.  As a Christian, I believe this holiday celebrates a virtue followers of Christ are to embody—thankfulness! In First Thessalonians 5:16-18, the Apostle Paul instructs Christians to, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  How do these verses become reality in a person’s life?  I think perspective is everything as it relates to thankfulness.

God desires you to be joyful and to give thanks!  In thinking about this it seems that thankfulness is the antidote to discouragement and ultimately produces joy in a person’s life.  There’s an old hymn titled Count Your Blessings.  The refrain instructs the hearer to, “Count your blessings, name them one by one, count your blessings, see what God hath done!”  There is great power in simply naming things one is thankful for because it forces the individual to back up and take the larger picture into perspective.

Whenever a wave of discouragement comes in my family, we play the “Thankful Game” with each other.  What is this game?  I’m glad you asked.  We simply work our way through the alphabet giving thanks for something that starts with each letter. For example, I would say, “A – I am thankful for my wife Anna.  B – I am thankful for the Bible.  C – I am thankful for chocolate covered doughnuts at Petersons, etc, etc.”  I know it sounds silly, but it never ceases to amaze me how much better we feel after intentionally giving thanks for the many ways in which God has blessed us.

God has blessed us each tremendously whether we acknowledge it or not.  My prayer is that we each would cultivate a spirit of thankfulness in our hearts.  I’m convinced that as we express our thankfulness our joy will increase.  Ultimately God is pleased with our spirit of thankfulness and others are blessed.  Albert Barnes, a theologian from the 1800’s, once said, “We can always find something to be thankful for, and there may be reasons why we ought to be thankful for even those dispensations which appear dark and frowning.”  Regardless of your present situation, what are your thankful for today?

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Misericordia Por Favor

Those illegal aliens are driving me…

How did you answer that question?  I have a rant that’s been brewing in me for a while.  I really don’t know where I’m going with this blog, but I have some things that I feel need to be said from a biblical perspective.  I also think this post may get me into some hot water, but that’s okay.  I am a patriot of this country, but my allegiance is to Christ first and foremost.

I feel that racism is growing in my part of the United States towards Hispanics.  From my perspective it seems that the majority of Hispanics are viewed as being illegal regardless of their actual status in the United States.  I’m not sure that the things I hear and the attitudes felt towards Hispanics is glorifying to Christ.

I understand that this is a complex situation.  Don’t let your mind run wild.  I am not speaking of those trying to enter our country to do us harm.  Citizen or not, we must defend and protect the innocent from evildoers.  Period.  The irony is the terrorists who have done us harm in recent years have all been here legally, but I digress.

Yes, I agree that laws should be obeyed and honored.  We see this throughout the Bible.  We have a difficult political and financial situation on our hands.  I have no intention on trying to resolve these problems in this blog.  I resist bringing up the history of how we obtained California or how we treated the Native Americans securing our land.  I don’t have the answers, but I do believe there are two issues here: 1) How should this situation be handled politically with laws?  2) How we as individuals should treat other human beings.  This, in large part, is the part that has been bugging me.

How should a Christian respond to this difficult situation?  I like what our Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  I believe this statement applies to all humans regardless of their citizenship.  Quite frankly, the illegal immigrants that I have met are extremely hard working and are trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.  I don’t blame them and I would do the same thing if I were in their shoes.  It pains me to hear Christians speaking poorly towards these people just trying to survive.

One passage that has planted itself in my heart is Leviticus 19:33-34, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD you God.”  Interesting passage as it relates to this subject.

One complaint I hear often relates to immigrants and the medical system.  First, I would encourage you to go to a community health clinic.  View the conditions and care they are receiving.  Hardly world class treatment and certainly not better than any American citizen would receive.  I like traveling.  I like experiencing other cultures.  I’ve never been really hurt in another country, but I certainly hope that I would receive the care I needed because I am a human and not based on my citizenship.  I hope that we as a people would care for other people in need to the best of our ability, yet sadly, in our nation people seem to care more about animals than people.

My prayer is that we who follow Christ would be a merciful people.  For it was Jesus who said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7) and “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).  I don’t know about you, but I’ve received a ton of mercy from God.  May we come to see people as God sees them (2 Cor. 5:16-21).

Prophet Priest King

Do you preach a three-fold Mediator?

Sometimes when God grips my heart in a certain area or when I have grown in my understanding of some aspect of biblical understanding/interpretation, I can allow that to dominate my teaching. While it is unavoidable (and even to some degree vital for the things I am personally learning) for things to come through my teaching, we should allow the text itself to shape our message. If our emphasis is always in one direction, then other areas become deficient. One of the areas we can do this is in our proclamation and understanding of God’s Mediator, Jesus, as Prophet, Priest and King.

As Prophet, salvation is proclaimed. One of the ways that Jesus is mediator is that he comes and proclaims to us the way of salvation. In John 1:18, Jesus tells us that he has made the Father known to us. (made known in Greek is exegeomai, where we get the word exegesis). In other words, one of the offices of Mediator is declaring the way of salvation. If Jesus is not the prophet (as Deut 18:15-22 describes), then the way of salvation is left to us to discover. We must find an invisible God (Col 1:15). Without Jesus’ mediatorial role of Prophet then who’s to say that there is only one way to God. It’s up to us to find it ourselves, which in that respect means we mediate ourselves. Sadly this is the only natural route for sinners because it is self-blinding and self-exalting. God must penetrate our self-exalting world with a prophetic message, turning on a light in darkness, causing faith at the hearing of God’s prophetic message (Rom 10:5-17).

As Priest, salvation is obtained. Jesus’ priestly role is critical to mediation. Someone had to stand in the gap to effect reconciliation. Of course that reconciliation is uni-directional. It is us who have to be reconciled to God. God has not sinned against us, we have sinned against him. This makes us objects of God’s wrath (Rom 1:18; Rom 2:5). Our sin against a holy God is heinous. Without Christ as our preist, we must become our own priests. No earthly priesthood is sufficient for such reconciling work, because then the reconciler needs himself to be reconciled just as the high priest would have to offer up sacrifices for himself (Lev 16:6; Heb 5:1-3). The true Priest, must hold a forever priesthood (Heb 5:6). One of the things that makes this so unique, is that the true High Priest, not only offered a sacrifice, but was himself the sacrifice. Yet he was raised from the dead meaning his priesthood isn’t for a term, but eternal. This means he is always in the position of bringing us to God. God’s wrath is appeased by his sacrifice. We have true hope because our priest represents our new selves before his Father.

As King, salvation is applied. The King has power to rule his subjects. The world is subject to him. We are not monarchs of our own little kingdoms. We are taken captive by the devil to do his will (2Tim 2:26). We need a King with power to deliver us from the guerilla domain of darkness (Col 1:13), having been conquered by the benevolent King of kings (2Cor 2:14). It is the king who has the might and right to set captives of sin free and to establish legitimate rule. He also has every right to wield the sword of justice (Rom 13:3-6). We respond then in love to the King.

If he were to simply rule us without a priestly work, we would be judged in our sin. We would never know such a king without his prophetic work. Only as Prophet, Priest, and King is Jesus all sufficient. Sin is entirely dealt with. Righteousness is fully applied. The invisible God is clearly seen by faith through prophetic revelation. We serve a great Mediator. He declares the way as Prophet, prepares the way as Priest, and preserves the way as King.

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A Few Thoughts on Calvinism

Dear reader: the following article was impressive to me, so I decided to pass it on to you. I hope your love for and trust in the Lord increases as you read; that’s the effect it’s had on me. ~ Bill Holdridge

A Few Thoughts on Calvinism

By Pastor Doug Hileman

First Christian Church of Marysville, CA

In the churches I have attended through the years, Calvinism has been viewed with suspicion and even scorned (“Once saved, always saved.”)  Consequently I have never been exposed to more than a brief mention of the subjects of election and predestination in sermons or Bible studies conducted in a non-Calvinistic setting.  As these two doctrines are major recurring themes in the New Testament, I view their virtual dismissal by those of my persuasion as misguided censorship.  I suppose this should come as no surprise—once you have developed a loyalty to a doctrinal point of view you tend to lose a measure of objectivity—viewing any “opposing” texts or concepts through the filter of your own settled convictions.  This tendency cuts both ways, of course. Calvinists exhibit their own reluctance toward thoughtfully considering the other point of view; I think it is fair to say that within their ranks their own conclusions are rarely examined with fresh eyes.

My intention in writing these thoughts out is mostly to help me sort through my own frustration with the knee-jerk responses associated with this area of study.  Obviously, I do not write from a neutral position— I strongly disagree with Calvinistic teaching.  However, I have had good fellowship with a number of Calvinists, and have accepted that we will probably have to agree to disagree.  And so in my musings here, I really only intend to pursue a single question—why would an interpretation of scripture that seems to me to be so unreasonable have such a strong appeal to people who seem to be at least as reasonable as I am?

To begin, I consider the probability that there are motivations on both sides of the issue in addition to simple love of the truth.  From an insider’s point of view, it’s fairly easy to understand the lack of enthusiasm for Calvinism which is held by most non-Calvinists, as well as virtually all non-believers. Calvin’s view of predestination is a maddening thing to consider:  A view that says that in spite of the soul’s desire to be at peace with God, and to enter into a relationship with Him; no matter how willing one might be to fulfill whatever conditions are required of them to draw near to God and believe the gospel and thereby receive mercy; unless they are the object of a divine election that has no reference whatever to anything they might say, do, or believe, they are lost— without remedy, hopelessly and eternally.  Such teaching is acknowledged by Calvinists to be—“hard”.  James Black, a Calvinistic pastor from a previous generation authored a book that is a classic on the subject of preaching.  But along with some wonderful insights regarding the art of creating and delivering sermons, the book also provides some valuable insight into the mental workings of a faithful Calvinist.  I will have occasion to quote from Rev. Black a couple of times in these notes, first of all regarding the hardness of Calvinistic doctrine. 

“Our Scottish Calvinism may have been a hard, unbending, even logically cruel thing: but what gave the Calvinistic church its unfailing dignity and power was its prostrating sense of awe—wonder at the decrees and sovereignty of God and wonder at His unmerited mercy.”  (The Mystery of Preaching, pg. 130)

Again, I can easily understand why the average non-Calvinist shrinks back in apprehension from Calvin’s view of predestination, but I remain mystified by the behavior on the other side of the aisle:  what is it that compels Calvinists to embrace such a “logically cruel” notion, and reject out of hand the idea of full access to a salvation offered freely to all men?  Aside from their obvious answer—“That’s what the Bible teaches” (an answer I would contest)—I am inclined to look further than that.

Certainly there is an appeal to being one of the chosen ones, the “in” crowd so to speak.   But that does not seem to be the motivation behind the attraction, for Calvinists seem to be as humble regarding their own lackings as they are suitably awed by the glory of God. No, I feel the issue is more fundamental than that.   Lately, as strange as it might sound, I have begun to wonder if the awe-stricken worship referred to so often by Calvinists might be where the “hard and unbending” nature of this system has its roots.  I have heard and read professions of fear and awe from Calvinists many times before.  It is striking how much more frequently that type of sentiment is expressed in Calvinistic writings when compared with the works of others.  I had always assumed such statements were the spontaneous, personal expression of their reverence for God, and thought I would do well to learn from their example.  But through the years as I have read more of their material, I have begun to wonder if this is an acquired sensitivity, perceived to be obligatory;  not an affectation, but something along the lines of a theological tradition or culture, passed down from one generation to the next.  This mindset of fear and awe is not improper, of course—far from it.  But along with the teaching in Scripture to relate to God in that particular way, there are other biblical examples of individuals who had a degree of relaxed familiarity with God; not from presumption or disrespect, but of an “Abba Father” nature.  The “Calvinistic Awe” that James Black refers to smacks more of Sinai than of Zion.  The Israelites— including Moses himself— were certainly shaken by fear and awe of God at Sinai.  But that is not the pattern which we have been given to follow in this present age.  (Hebrews 12:18-24)  The view of God at the foot of Sinai contrasts dramatically with the perspective gained on the slopes of Zion.   And needless to say, so do the covenants they represent.

Consider the concept of God for a moment—what is God like?  Christian thinking in the first several centuries after the Apostolic Age leans very heavily on Greek philosophy, especially in regards to the nature of God in His perfection.  The view of God held by virtually all Christian leaders at that time mirrored the Platonic one.  As a perfect being, God was untouched by emotion, passion, or change.  Based on this assumption, one view of Christ developed as having a “compartmentalized” dual nature, because His divine nature would by definition be incapable of suffering.  With this non-Biblical model of divine nature at the headwaters, the understanding of everything downstream became subject to a nagging, polluting influence, which causes confusion to this day.

So what if, in a parallel fashion, Calvin embraced a narrow view of God; while ostensibly based on the Scriptures, it is a view that is inconsistent with the full revelation of God as recorded in the narrative of Scripture. For the picture he draws of God in the exercise of sovereign election seems to be one of unfeeling intellect—His is a merciful intelligence to be sure—but of a cold and detached sort.  For in Calvin’s estimation, all that really matters is God’s sovereignty expressed through His decrees.   The eternal bliss or misery of humanity are not really considered for their own sake, and are viewed only as a means to an end—to glorify God.  Now, when examined as individual components, each of the aforementioned concepts would be considered orthodox to most Christians. There is nothing of higher value than the glory of God, His sovereign will is the ultimate good, both heaven and hell will be used to demonstrate His glory, etc. But something is missing in the overall picture when we view these particular teachings in isolation from the narrative of scripture: the revelation that the Bible gives us of the personality of God. Calvin attempts to give something of the machinery but nothing of the heart; and Calvinism has a very mechanistic feel to it. Could it be that, having embraced a one-dimensional view of God as the whole, (in terms of election and predestination, at least) Calvin’s theology in all its “hard, unbending, cruel logic” is the inevitable outgrowth what seems to me to be theological tunnel vision?

There is much to be said regarding what might be termed “the reasonableness of God” in the Bible.  That emphasis seems to be entirely absent from the Calvinistic perspective.   God demonstrates this side of His nature rather frequently in His dealings with men, and appears to respond to their perceptions of justice, explaining Himself and even reasoning with them on occasion.  Some examples:

  • Cain, and his appeal that his punishment was too hard to bear. (Gen. 4:13-15)
  • Abraham, and his attempt to bargain for the lives of the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah. (Gen.18:20-33)
  • Moses, interceding for Israel when God wanted to destroy them and start over.  (Ex. 32:9-13) (This case is especially notable, as God exclaims to Moses at one point in the conversation, “Leave Me alone!”)
  • Jonah, pouting about God not destroying Nineveh, and God gently reasoning with him so he would see His perspective on the matter.  (Jonah 4:9-11)
  • And in the New Testament—The Gentile woman who came to Jesus and asked for deliverance for her demon possessed child.  Initially Jesus refused, but she won Him over with her reasoning.  (Matt. 15:22-28)
  • Throughout scripture, God is revealed as possessing a willingness to talk things over and reason things out.  He makes a distinct offer through Isaiah along these lines. (Is. 1:18)

My point is this: much of the “hardness” in Calvinism seems to emanate from the unswerving reliance on the teaching in Romans 9 alone to absolutely define the nature of predestination and election, without reference to other passages of scripture.  This is where Paul is defending God’s right to make one person a vessel of mercy and another a vessel of destruction—any way He sees fit, no questions asked.  (Or no reasoning allowed, if you will.) And so the conclusion is drawn that everyone’s eternal destiny is determined on that basis alone.  Now pause for a moment and consider that there are several examples of biblical teaching that initially appear to be contradictory to other scriptures.  When two such views seem to be at odds with each other, we generally look for the balance between them.  As an example, the doctrine of the Trinity when viewed alongside the submission of the Son to the Father.  Or the view of justification by faith in Romans in conjunction with the same doctrine in James.  I submit that Romans 9 taken alone will give an imbalanced view of the workings of predestination and election.  Let me quote once again from James Black as he instructs his students on the function of isolation in preaching:

“In this connection may I add—do not be afraid of exaggeration.  Isolation of any kind is exaggeration: and when you isolate a text or subject from the whole coherent body of truth, you exaggerate it in the very process.  State your main truth, in the distinct and even limited aspect you have chosen, and trust to the correcting influence of your whole ministry.  There is nothing so futile as aiming at a foolish completeness.”   (The Mystery of Preaching, pg. 51)

In a nutshell, he says that examining one aspect of a doctrine in isolation may give a false impression of sorts (imbalance or over-emphasis), but you can and should supply the balance over the course of your ministry.  He says it is often quite impossible to give the whole picture within the framework of one solitary sermon.  This wonderful advice for preaching the Bible seems to be overlooked by Calvinists when it comes to interpreting it.  Rather than look for a balance between the teaching in Romans 9 and other portions of scripture that strongly indicate man’s free will and a universal opportunity to come to Christ, it seems to me that Calvinists firmly shut the door of further inquiry with these familiar words—“ But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? ” (Rom. 9:20) In doing so, they believe they contend for the faith, and take a firm stand in defense of God’s sovereignty and glory.  But I contend that Calvin taught a view of God that is not wholly biblical.  As a result he unwittingly ended up with a duality of his own—the God of love revealed to us in the Person of Christ, and the God of ancient mysterious “wisdom”, that predestined some to glory, and the rest to damnation.  This second side of God is not talked about openly, especially to non-believers.  It is a thought too terrible to consider at length. Martin Luther alluded to it, but did not like to ponder it himself. The Calvinists will never state the doctrine of election in all its stark reality to a congregation.  They will focus on hope.  On the “lighter side” of God, if you will.  But in the background, under the surface, in the darker corridors of theological imagination lurks this image of an inscrutable and severe Intelligence in eternity past who determined to cast millions and millions of humans into hell—why?— because it made sense to Him.

Calvinism has an overarching design to it—to “protect” the doctrine of God’s glory and sovereignty.  The urgency and zeal which Calvinists exhibit for this mission remind me of the man named Uzzah who lived in David’s day.  (II Sam. 6:1-19) The Ark of the Covenant was being transported on an oxcart on one occasion, when the cart hit a pothole and the Ark began to tip.  With the best of intentions, Uzzah reached up to steady it, and was struck dead instantly.  David “was afraid of God” that day, and immediately put a safe distance between himself and the Ark.  He later discovered through a study of the scriptures the reason for this God’s behavior—the Ark was being transported contrary to the pattern given by Moses, who taught that it was never to be touched by any man who was not a Levite.  Using the oxcart to transport the ark seemed logical enough, but it was a mimicry of the unbiblical method adopted by the Philistines when they returned the Ark to Israel just prior to this incident.

David’s fear on this occasion was based on what David perceived as unpredictable behavior on God’s part.  It is also significant that David was, “…angry because of the Lord’s outbreak against Uzzah.”   I don’t think it is stretching things to say that at that moment David thought God was unreasonable, and anger is a very logical reaction to unreasonableness. However, once David understood and practiced the teaching of scripture (I Chron. 15:1-15), God wasn’t so scary after all.  He understood God’s actions and intentions and felt safe enough to draw near again.  David began to worship with tremendous joy, and God’s presence at last came to rest in Zion.  One of the many lessons contained in this account is this: every time the church relies on the wisdom of the world to interact with God, it causes problems—in particular, problems with man’s perception of God. It seems to me that most of the difficulties Calvinists have with their interpretation of predestination and election have more to do with logic than with scripture.  They pose questions like, “If God doesn’t control all this absolutely, how can He really be considered sovereign?”  Or, “How could Christ die for someone and that person still end up lost? Wouldn’t that mean His death was in vain? Wouldn’t that mean that the purposes of God are subject to the will of man?”  Nevertheless, the Scripture seems pretty clear on these two points;  that God has given man a free will, and Christ died for the sins of the whole world. Logic notwithstanding.

Having shackled themselves with presuppositions that have no mandate in Scripture, Calvinists have embraced a system of theology that is neat, tidy, marvelously logical, and paradoxically, quite unreasonable.  They have fallen prey to the same temptation as the early Church Fathers—leading with logic rather than scripture.  As a consequence, they have ended up with a similar dilemma.  I must conclude that when Calvinism is embraced there is an unavoidable tendency to compartmentalize God.  He is eternally loving toward us, and eternally not towards the non-elect.  The contemplation of God’s love for the elect is cherished and gratefully viewed from every conceivable angle by Calvinists, as it should be.  His supposed lack of love for the non-elect, however, is stated flatly, and then for all intents and purposes, promptly ignored. This is understandable, because if Calvinistic theology is pursued relentlessly to its logical conclusion, the serious hindrances posed are inescapable (despite the denials of its adherents).  Calvinism produces a sense of hopelessness in potential converts; while seeking to defend the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, it holds forth a twisted, monstrous view of His heart toward mankind.  Christian workers are affected as well, for the good news of the gospel has been replaced with a formula that is fatalistic, logically reducing the efforts of the church for the evangelization of the world to little more than posturing.  All that work is to be done, it seems, to glorify God through obedience, but not really for any actual effect on the eternal destiny of others.  Here is the bottom line: if any effort of individual believers or the church can be said to the slightest degree to have any bearing whatever on the outcome in an individual’s response to God, then the whole system of thought erected to protect the sovereignty of God comes crashing down.  It seems to me therefore that to be a Calvinist one is forced to live in a “pretend” world.  You must pretend that your efforts actually make a difference, and you must pretend (at least in front of others) that everybody has a chance to be saved.  The whole system is so unnecessary, and so unnecessarily complicated, that I wonder why it has gained as much acceptance as it has. No doubt the attraction is “the security of the believer.” But that is a topic for another time.

scripture

The Anti-Scripture

I was at conference a couple weeks a go here in London hosted by CCEF. One of the things they mentioned doing when looking at the Psalms in order to get a clearer understanding of what the Psalm is saying is to take a look at what it is not saying. I loved the idea and decided to use it on Ephesians 2:8-9. If we turn those two verses on their head and turn them into Anti-Scripture, here’s what we get..

For by your efforts you have saved yourself through your hard work to please God. You’ve done it! You are now worthy of God, so take pride in your accomplishment and compare yourself to those losers who are not as far along as you. You have earned God’s acceptance, but you better keep it up so you don’t lose it.

I found this a powerful device to underscore what the verse is actually saying. I think I’m going to incorporate this as a regular part of my study of Scripture. What is this Scripture not saying? Just for clarity sake, let’s look at the legit verses.

Ephesians 2:8–9, (ESV)

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Praise God for his gift of grace!

 

 

Food for Thought

I was flipping through an old book on my bookshelf the other day and stumbled upon this section dealing with maintaining a middle-ground position on divisive theological points.  Personally I appreciate such a humble orthodoxy.

Some people object because they feel that I gloss over certain passages of Scripture, and they’re correct. But glossing over controversial issues is often deliberate because there are usually two sides. And I have found that it’s important not to be divisive and not to allow people to become polarized on issues, because the moment they are polarized, there’s division.

 

A classic example is the problem in our understanding of the Scriptures that refer to the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. The Bible actually teaches both, but in our human understanding they’re mutually exclusive. People who become divisive on this issue claim that we can’t believe both, because if you carry the sovereignty of God to an extreme, it eliminates the responsibility of man. Likewise, if you carry the responsibilities of man to the extreme, it eliminates the sovereignty of God. This mistake is made when a person takes the doctrine and carries it out to its logical conclusion. Using human logic and carrying divine sovereignty out to its logical conclusion leaves man with no choices.

 

So, how are we to deal with rightly dividing the Word on the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man? We need to believe both of them through faith, because I can’t keep them in balance by my understanding. I don’t understand how they come together. But I do believe them both. I believe that God is sovereign, and I also believe that I’m responsible and that God holds me responsible for the choices that I make. I simply trust God that both assertions of Scripture are true.

 

 

Don’t get polarized. Don’t let the people get polarized. The minute you do, you’ve lost half your congregation because people are split pretty evenly on this issue. So if you take a polarized position you’ll lose half of your congregation. Do you really want to lose 50% of your congregation?

 

– Chuck Smith

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Godly Fear (part 2 of 2)

In my last post I discussed many Scriptures that tell us about the reality, the need, and the purpose of a proper fear of the the Lord. It’s probably best to skim back over that again before reading on.

There is a stigma and negativity attached to the word “fear” that is normal in most senses. But many people, especially in western cultures, have forgotten about “good fear”. Similar to the good fear that encourages your feet to not fall of the edge of the steep slope, that warns your “gut” about impending danger, or that tells you that playing with a rattle that’s still attached to the rattlesnake is deadly behaviour, their is a good fear that keeps us close to our good Father.

With those things in mind, I want to share a story that not only helped me to teach “good fear” to others who were asking during a study of the Psalms many years ago, but also helps me to remember and apply it myself even now.

It was several years ago while teaching at the first church plant I was involved with in the San Diego area. I found myself trying to explain the concept of fearing God and the usual struggle that Christians have with the idea of fearing God: that they have also learned from Scripture that God is their father who loves them, so why on earth would they fear him?!

That’s a great question, and one that’s valid. Why would God give us His word and through it teach that we are His beloved children, and then tell us that we are supposed to fear Him?

Normally when something just doesn’t seem to make any sense at all, the problem is either one of communication or culture, both of which are part of our worldview. This is the lens through which we understand the things that we interact with in life; be they speech, written words, people, body language, images, sounds, etc. In this case — at least for myself and most people I’ve known in the U.S. — the idea of “fear” is totally contradictory to our idea of love. So when we hear the phrase “fear God”, we normally envision a powerfully awesome and angry God who is about to smite a whimpering weakling of a human. But why? Why is that image, or one similar, the way in which we automatically conceptualize fearing somebody? The answer to that could take weeks of posts on a blog, so I’ll leave it for now. But suffice it to say that this paradigm of ours, one that automatically evokes images of trembling, despair, and woe when the idea of fearing another is mentioned, is not what the Bible is advocating or instructing when it tells the believer to fear God. In fact, I hope that with this personal story I can help us see that we actually do understand the other aspects of fear, we just don’t think of them often because of our worldview: one that teaches us from an early age to disregard and suppress this good fear because it may be mistaken for weakness.

So several years ago, as I was sitting on a wooden swivel stool before a small group of believers gathered together for a mid-week Bible study, the Holy Spirit suddenly brought a story to mind. A story that aptly portrays the kind of godly fear that keeps our hearts in check, provides the basis from which wisdom and knowledge can blossom, and yet does no violence to our fragile concept of the love that God has for us and towards us. As I opened my mouth, the Spirit brought this story to remembrance:

When I was just a young boy we would often drive from the San Diego area up to Los Angeles to visit my grandparents. I would often spend several weeks or more each summer with them, and because of this I had made a few friends on the street where they lived. One summer my father came up to spend a few days visiting before taking me back home with him. I was a few doors down the street on my bicycle, playing with a couple of the kids from the neighborhood. We were in the driveway of the home of one of the kids I knew when these two scary looking teenagers approached on their bicycles. They had long hair and black t-shirts with Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath logos, and they stank of cigarette smoke. They were probably only 16 or 17 years old, but I was only about 10 at the time so I felt fearful at their sudden appearance.

As they rolled up on their cool bicycles they began talking to one of my friends. I just assumed that she knew them but wasn’t sure. One of them pulled up right next to me and was looking at my bike. It was a cheap bike — one of the store brands — but my aunt had it painted for my birthday so it would look more like the expensive Diamond Back bicycles of the day. I then saved up some lawn mowing money and bought a Diamond Back brand bar cushion and cover — you know the kind made of foam that wrapped around the top bar and then had a cover that wrapped around that secured with velcro. It was the best I could do to make my poor man’s Diamond Back look legit.

After a few uneasy minutes of visiting us, it looked like these two potential trouble-makers were going to leave. But just as they were leaving, the one who was right next to me reached over and ripped off the Diamond Back cover from my top bar and then sped off with it. I was in shock! I was angry and hurt and confused. I couldn’t believe what had just happened.

The thing is… it only took me about two seconds to figure out what to do about it. That’s right. GO GET DAD!

I rode my bike fast and hard down the street and ran inside to get my dad. He was napping in the guest bedroom but was already waking up by the time I got into the room because of all the commotion and crying on my way into the house. He asked what was wrong and I told him what had happened. He then got a look on his face that etched itself into my memory like the bright spots that burn into your retina after looking at the sun. It was a look that I, myself, would come to understand and develop my own version of as I got older, got married, and had my own children. It was the look of a father who was ready to defend and meet out justice on behalf of his son. A father who’s primary goal in life had just shifted from all of the typical cares and responsibilities of fatherhood to one single all-consuming goal: find the people who did this to my son and right the wrong!

We hopped into the old, green LTD and pulled out of the driveway. One of my friends had carefully ridden down to the end of the street to see which way the thieves had gone and relayed that information to my father. We headed off after them. Watch out Hawthorne!

At the end of the street we turned left, and then continued for a couple of blocks. My dad decided to turn right and search down the street at the third block. After one block I saw up ahead on the right-hand side a few teenagers rough-housing in the front yard. As we got a little bit closer I told my dad, “That’s them!” I was sick to my stomach with nervousness.

My dad drove past them to the next intersection and then turned around. He went back and parked on the opposite side of the street from their house. I can still see his face and hear his voice decades later. “Stay in the car, son. I’ll take care of this.” That look on his face… that tone in his voice… they caused a distinct reaction throughout my whole being that can only be described as fear. And yet… I wasn’t afraid of him. I was just fearfully cognisant of who he was and the power that I saw in his demeanor and attitude.

My father crossed the street and walked directly up onto the grass where the three teenagers were wrestling around and listening to music on a boom box. I couldn’t hear the first few words spoken, but I could see my father’s face and the shocked and confused faces of the boys on the lawn. Then my dad looked down and saw my Diamond Back bar cover on one of the bikes on the lawn. He asked them, “Did you steal this from my son?” The fear billowed up inside of me at what would happen next. I thought I was going to explode. One of the boys got an attitude and answered back, “No, that’s mine!” WRONG ANSWER!

With that lie, my father stripped the stolen item from the bicycle with one hand, picked up the bicycle with the other hand, and then proceeded to HURL the bicycle from the middle of the front lawn all the way across the lawn, the sidewalk, and the street, so that it landed clear across on the sidewalk just in front of our parked car where I sat in complete awe and fear of my father’s strength and authority. That bicycle must have traveled a distance of forty plus feet in the air before landing in a mangled mess. (Did I mention that my father was a fireman and a carpenter with arms and a chest like Popeye’s?)

As my father began his walk back to the car, my recovered possession in hand, I distinctly remember the fear, the awe, the reverence and wonderment at what had just happened. I didn’t fear my dad as I would if I had just been caught skipping school and lying about it. I didn’t fear him the way an abused child fears a drunk father when the knob of the front door begins wiggling as dad gets home from the bar. I didn’t fear him in any way that made me want to run or hide or separate myself from him. Rather, I feared him in a way that made me want to slide over to the middle seat so that I could be closer to him. I feared him in a way that made me want to shout, “That’s my dad!” I feared him in a way that caused a deep respect and honor for him; the kind of respect that drives a son to please his father and never be the cause of his just discipline.

That, I believe, is the fear of the Lord described in Scripture. Our heavenly Father is awesome! He is mighty and powerful and just. His authority is final and his action without repentance. AND HE’S MY DAD!

I fear Him in such a way that I want to get closer to Him and enjoy the benefits of sonship. I fear Him in such a way that makes me tremble for those who would defy Him, blaspheme Him, and challenge His authority. I fear Him in such a way that I have the utmost honor and respect for Him and would never want to run from His presence and behave as those who are not His children, and receive His swift discipline in order to save my soul from my self.

Fear God, brothers and sisters. He is awesome. He is just. He is mighty. He is holy. He is great.

He’s my Dad… and I fear Him.

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Godly Fear (part 1 of 2)

Hundreds of times the Bible instructs others and us to NOT FEAR: don’t fear circumstances, don’t fear people, don’t fear the unknown, don’t fear difficult things, etc. But the one singular consistent thing that we are to fear… is GOD!

Psalm 33:8 — Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!

We’ve all heard it said: godly fear is a great awe or reverence. Like watching a very large storm with raging winds, lightning, and thunder. But I believe that to be a very simple, incomplete answer. It’s so vitally important that we get this one right. Let’s look into it a bit further.

Proverbs 1:7 — The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

There is no real foundation for understanding and knowledge apart from a proper fear of the Lord. Without it all knowledge and understanding is fatally flawed:

  • origin sciences
  • psychology
  • astronomy
  • physics
  • chemistry
  • history
  • medicine
  • ethics
  • business
  • Theology
  • How to Make Disciples
  • How to Plant Churches
  • Preaching and Teaching
  • Blogging 😉

Proverbs 23:17 — Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the LORD all the day.

To envy the ungodly means that you don’t trust the Lord; His plan, His purpose, His will. In order to truly trust the Lord you must properly fear Him.

Matthew 10:28 — And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

To fear anything or anyone else other than God is to not understand Him and trust Him. God alone is the ultimate authority and nothing will happen without His sovereign permission or decree. He alone should be feared, not any person or circumstance.

Matthew 28:8 — So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 

Here we see “fear” and “great joy” in the same context! What kind of “fear” is compatible with “great joy”? The kind that recognises the awesome power of a God-man who can resurrect to life and is overjoyed by this reality. Proper fear of God doesn’t reduce our ability to experience the joy of the Lord… it heightens it. It both primes it and catalyses it. A proper fear of the Lord is like oxygen to joy’s flame.

Mark 4:35-41 — On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” 

Fear of everything else but God is lack of faith in God because you don’t really know Him (“who then is this”). Conversely, to truly know Him and His character, and therefore truly trust Him, a proper fear of God is required. More than required, it is a natural antecedent to faith.

Mark 5:35-36 — While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” 36 But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”

Again we see the dual opposites: fearing man/circumstances/world is the opposite of fearing God. To fear man/circumstances/world is to think only carnally and put your faith in the things of this world which fail, rot, lie, hurt, and die. To fear God is to put your faith in Him and His perfection, sovereignty, power, love, grace, mercy, and will.

Luke 1:46-55 — And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” 

Here we see the relationship between fear and humility which leads to God’s mercy. We cannot properly fear God unless we are humble. It’s interesting that the Bible does not list humility as a gift of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t talk about asking for humility. It only speaks of doing it:

  • Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Pet 5:6)
  • Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5)
  • “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”. (James 4:6-7)
  • Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:10)
  • “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” (1 Pet 3:8)

Luke 7:12-16 — As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!”

Their reaction to witnessing the power and majesty and authority of God was a fear which lead them to glorify God! Proper fear of God leads to proper worship of God.

Luke 8:37 — Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.

There is an opposite reaction to witnessing the power and majesty and authority of God. In this case the people were not humble and therefore they didn’t express proper godly fear and submit to the power and majesty and authority of God. So instead of proper fear which leads to proper worship, they were fearing the wrong things (a fear of how God might ruin or interrupt or change their lives), which lead to the opposite of worship… rejection.

Luke 23:39-43 — One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 

Here again we see the dichotomy of proper and improper fear. One criminal fears death. He is thinking only of self and carnal things. He lacks the humility to admit his sin and fear God. The other criminal humbles himself, fears God, and asks for forgiveness. This man has a proper fear of God, based in the humility of knowing that he is a criminal and Jesus is the Judge; he is a vile sinner, and Jesus is a pure and holy Saviour; he deserves death and wrath, but Jesus does not, though He suffers it anyway.

Acts 9:31 — So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.

Here we see the connection between a proper fear of the Lord and the growth of the Church. Just as proper fear requires humility and leads to faith, God’s mercy and salvation, and encourages proper worship and joy for the individual believer, so it does the same for the corporate body of believers, the Church. The health and growth of the church was and is directly related to the proper fear of the Lord.

Acts 10 – This chapter tells the story of the Centurion who, along with his entire family, FEARED GOD.

Peter says that “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.” Cornelius and his family have a proper fear of God which leads to salvtion and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon them.

Romans 8:12-17 — So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 

Those who walk in the flesh are slaves, seized with fear. Those who are sons and heirs of God are not seized with fear and do not walk in the flesh because the Almighty, powerful, majestic, awesome, glorious, merciful, gracious, loving, holy God of heaven and earth is their “Abba”! And yet they do fear Him.

So it seems clear to me that there is a kind of fear, truly fear, that is not only good, but a natural antecedent to salvation and true faith. In my next post I want to look at an example that may help us regain the ability to recognise this “good” fear, and embrace it fully in our faith and practice.