the-holy-trinity

Serving in Light of the Trinity

Why should Christians serve in the church? Some will say it is because we are supposed to. Others will say that is how we show gratitude. Without denying these answers, I think there is a fuller answer and this is grounded in the very nature of the God we serve. We serve because of the Trinity.

Have you experienced the frustration of volunteerism in the church? They go on holiday and do not honour their commitment, or they are not punctual whether because they didn’t set/hear their alarm or simply didn’t think it was more important than what they were doing at the present moment. I’m not writing as a grumpy ungrateful pastor, though if I’m honest, my heart’s default is exactly that. How can service in the light of the Trinity inform our service?

The triune God works.

In Genesis 2:2 we read that God finished his work of creation. Creation was a triune work. In the beginning God created. As the old hymn says, “This is my Father’s world.” God the Father created (Gen 1:1; Rev 4:11). God the Son created, for without him nothing was made that was made (John 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17). God the Spirit created (Gen 1:3; Psa 104:30). Jesus said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17 ESV).

The God in whose image we are created is at work. He is faithful in his work. In the person of the Son, we see that the work was even excruciating.[1] Jesus’ work of service was not based upon whether or not it was easy or fun.  Jesus’ excruciating work was to the Father’s glory.

The triune God works with joy.

God is the joy giver. He is the joy giver because he is the possessor of all joy. Fred Saunders calls God in Himself being “within the happy land of the Trinity”. There is an ecstatic[2] working of God. We see this “fleshed out” in the Son during the horrendous beauty of the crucifixion. The author of Hebrews tells us that joy motivated the crucifixion (Heb 12:2). True, Jesus despised the shame of the cross, but that didn’t diminish the joy in the work of redemption.

The God we serve works joyfully and ecstatically. If we are to reflect God as those made in his image, our attitude in service should reflect the One who served us. This is also where I preach to myself, for when others fail in their service, I can easily become frustrated, and although my service may be diligent, at that point it is not joyful, and thus not Trinitarian.

The triune God works diversely and inter-dependently.

The Trinity is one God in three distinct persons. They are not symmetrical. In other words, the Father is not the Son. The way the Father and Son relate to each other in their roles is distinct. The Son never becomes the Father. It was Jesus, the Son who incarnated and was crucified, not the Father or the Spirit, although God (the Father) was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor 5:19). Their work was distinct, but the work was not independent.

In our service of the triune God, we need to understand that we do not serve alone. We serve with the people of God. We serve the same high goal. However we serve that goal diversely. As a body’s purpose is to obey the head, the heart and the hands work out that obedience in a different fashion. They are gifted to do different things. We work unto the one God with various gifts, services, and activities (see 1 Cor 12:4-7, notice the triune emphasis). However, we do our part in harmony. In other words, God has written a symphony, and every instrument plays it’s part according to the Conductor’s movements and the Composer’s manuscript. The second violin gets to play it’s part for the glory of the music, just as the first violin does. By the way symphony means a togetherness of sound.[3] In joyful, diligent, diversity there is beauty in our service when conducted unto the common goal.

The triune God works selflessly

Within the Trinity there is no fighting or debating about who does what. There is a perfect harmony of self-giving. This can be seen in the incarnation of the Son. Philippians 2:1-11, clearly shows the humility of the Son and the Father’s exaltation of the Son.

Our service should not be for self-promotion. Whether that promotion is to advance to another ‘level’ of service, or the promotion is to promote the way others view us. If the Triune God, who is worthy of all glory and honour exhibits outpouring service. How much more should we the creature serve for his honour and not our own? This means we can be content with where we serve instead of longing for another’s position or opportunity. We can serve God fully with the opportunities that the Triune God has placed before us.

There is a lot we can learn from the Three in One, regarding how we serve God through the Church. It may go a long way to encourage our people in light of the Trinity. Oh yeah, and one more thing. If we are actually becoming like God instead of simply working for God, then we are discovering something about the partnership of the Spirit (2 Cor 13:14), and that is, in part, experiencing the glorious Gospel.


[1] Latin excruciatus, past participle of excruciare, from ex- + cruciare to crucify, from cruc, crux cross, or literally “out of the cross”

[2] ek-stasis meaning to go out of yourself. Each Person in the Trinity is giving unto the others.

[3] From the Greek symphonia = syn- “together” + phone “voice, sound”

 

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Keys to Successful Pastoral Ministry

“This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, {19} having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck…” (1 Timothy 1:18-19)

In my own ministry as a pastor, I have often turned to this passage to strongly remind myself of the call of God upon my life. I do not think I’m alone in this … we pastors have great need to build upon the foundation that Jesus Christ has laid down for us, and in us.

The passage includes four critical criteria for effective and God-honoring ministry.

1.      We must accept the charge or command of God concerning the focus of our ministry. 

In the context of 1 Timothy, the command of God had to do with the proper interpretation and application of the law of God (“the law is good if one uses it lawfully”), as well as the instructions concerning the nuts and bolts of pastoral ministry found in the letter.

1 Timothy 3:15 …but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

2.      We must conduct our ministries in view of specific prophecies that came to us as part of our calling. 

Every pastor I have ever asked about their call into pastoral ministry has a story to tell. There were Bible verses, there were words of knowledge, there were direct words from God in times of private prayer, there were prophetic words that were often unsolicited.

What Paul is telling Timothy here is that he must call to mind these words from God, and use them for courage, for authority, and for specificity in serving our Chief Shepherd.

3.      We must exercise faith. 

No one can fulfill the ministry of pastor-teacher without faith. Sometimes the faith is the actual gift of faith … the supernatural ability to believe God for supernatural things in a specific situation. Sometimes the faith is visionary faith. The pastor knows the Lord is leading, and trusts God to guide and provide for what He is doing. At all times the pastor is to believe what he believes … about the Bible, about God and about sound doctrine.

4.      We must work hard to maintain a good conscience. 

No doubt this is a difficult task, especially because the enemies of all true believers are also the enemies of the pastor. We deal with the world, the flesh, and the devil. The devil uses these realms—the world and flesh—in his attempts to destroy us. Only through Christ will we emerge victorious.

Thankfully, the pastor has access to all the means of grace … the word of God, the Spirit of God, Christian fellowship, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, confession of sin, sanctifying grace enabling him to repent when necessary. He must be diligent to apply these means of grace in order to live a life pleasing to God and fruitful in His work.

The prize of a good conscience makes the effort worth it. Continued fellowship with and closeness to God are of inestimable value.

The success of our ministries cannot be measured by numbers, budgets, or programs. Success can only be measured by the degree of faithfulness to our calling. God is faithful, who will also bring it to pass if we allow Him.

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.

spiritual

Personal Spirituality

In the day in which we live, “religious” has been replaced with the term “spiritual,” which is both ambiguous as well as hard to define. That said, it is clear that religion and spirituality play a roll in the lives of every human being, as we were created to worship. Therefore, as individuals imaging the divine, we all have what might be termed “personal spirituality;” and in the protestant evangelical Christian tradition, personal spirituality is relational and not merely religious. Thus it is common to hear evangelical Christians say, “I don’t have religion, I have a relationship.” But if “spiritual” needs definition, then the concept of a relationship over religion certainly needs clarification.

As a pastor, I have regularly been confronted with the dreadful reality that it is far to easy to default to a pattern of life and ministry that is overly religious. By religious, I mean that daily life and ministry can have an appearance of spirituality and devotion, but be terribly devoid of genuine godliness and sincere worship. In other words, ministry, for the minister, can become inordinately professional. The task of sermon preparation and the sacerdotal functions in the ministry are inherently spiritual; or at least appear to be. Consequently, the minister and those ministered to by him, might wrongly assume that the one doing such things is inherently spiritual too. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Christian in general, and those called to Christian leadership specifically, must never allow the daily disciplines of Christianity (i.e. prayer, Bible reading, memory, etc.) and the functions of Christian ministry to become heartlessly mechanical. As an instrument of worship, the disciple of Christ must aim to worship through these activities and not simply do them by rote. Therefore, enjoying the relationship of Christianity demands Spirit directed devotion and worship; not just a codified ethic.

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Boston Observations

Like virtually every American I was glued to the news this last week as a result of the Marathon Bombing. I was however somewhat detached being that I was teaching at a small international bible college in Ireland. That said, I did have a few observations in light of the happenings.

Bravery

Quite honestly it is awesome to behold the bravery of “strangers” in the face of the atrocious acts of cowardice displayed by the bombers. The bombers dropped their packages and briskly waked away, leaving destruction in their wake. But immediately following the explosions loads of people ran to the aid of the injured. My heart broke and was warmed all in one moment.

Brave men and women, knowing not whether other bombs were awaiting them, risked their lives to hurry to those that were hurt. Individuals tired after running 26 miles continued to run to nearby hospitals to donate blood. The cowards hid and [apparently] planned future acts of terror. Fortunately, aside from one other terrible act, their reign of terror ended quickly.

Solidarity

In Europe, upon hearing my accent each individual I encountered instantly expressed their sincerest sympathies. Their hearts hurt for the pain of our nation. They didn’t have to be American, they’re human, and the heart of any individual with a modicum of compassion, breaks in the face of such suffering.

Efficiency

The Law Enforcement and Emergency Medical communities are to be lauded for their expertise and efficiency. EMS workers worked with brave professionalism. I imagine that they would have prior to 9/11/2001, but all the more since. The Law Enforcement agencies [apparently] worked harmoniously together to identify (with the aid of many witnesses) the alleged terrorists and effectively remove them from the streets within 4 days of their conscienceless act.

Idiocy

The press displayed (almost as expected) absurdity. If they would limit their scope of practice to reporting the facts, it would be bearable. But in a day in which “that which bleeds leads” and he who is first to the story wins the ratings game, stupidity abounds. In addition flows the constant drone of editorializing and and biased interpretation. I’d much rather know what they know and not what some uppity news correspondent thinks it means.

I realize that at this point I’m editorializing too, but quite frankly that’s what a blog is.

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Sphere’s of Gospel Sovereignty

Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch Prime Minister of the 19th Century, developed a concept known as Sphere’s of Sovereignty. The idea is that different principalities hold different authorities in different areas in different ways. Last week in our Sunday gathering we were considering the Great Commission as presented by Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 28:18-20). Jesus says to his disciples in this passage, “ALL authority is given to me.” This would have seemed a radical statement to make to a group of marginalised peasants out in the sticks of the Roman Empire. But it’s true.

We live in a society that has authorities in different spheres. People go to work under their employer’s authority. They live in a nation under government authority. They live life in familial structures, in contexts of social authority. We are all dominated by authority structures and these are not a bad thing. Authority is God-given, but some authorities over-step their mandate. There is an authority that reigns supreme. All these domains of authority exist within the realm of Christ’s authority. It all belongs to Jesus. Kuyper, in speaking about spheres of authority says this, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry ‘Mine!'”

Gospel Spheres

The fact of the matter is Jesus trumps all authority claims. The work place assumes authority that says, “you can’t mention Christ here.” Families assume authority that say, “Christ doesn’t have dominion over the skeletal closets, and familial practices.” Governments assume authority which says, “There is no place for your God here.” Society assumes authority that says, “Don’t talk about faith, that’s a private matter.” Religiously assumed authority says, “Every faith is equally valid, your faith is no more valid than mine.” But there is an over-riding all-legitimate authority. Jesus says, “All authority is given to me… Go…”

The Great Commission is about responding to a higher sphere of authority. Paul was subdued by political authority being placed in chains, but he said the gospel is not chained (2 Timothy 2:9).

GOSPEL Fears

There are other spheres of authority though. These are the spheres of our idols and fears. Sometimes, it is the unnamed things that wield the true weight of authority in our lives. The authority of approval says, “If you tell me about Jesus, I will no longer accept you.” The authority of comfort says, “To make disciples of Christ is work, and you will no longer be able to maintain your comforts.” The authority of control says, “If I make it clear that I’m a Christ-follower, I will no longer be able to control people.” The authority of superiority says, “This person doesn’t deserve to hear the gospel. I do not want to see them as my equal.” What fear or idol is assuming the authority in our lives and the lives of our church families? These are forces to be reckoned with. But here’s the answer. Jesus has all authority over every sphere. He is Lord of all.

The Great Commission is responding to Jesus’ All-authority, over all peoples, to obey all Jesus’ commands, recognising his empowering presence at all times and in all places.

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Explosions in Boston

Certain events are seared into our memories.  I will never forget sitting in my elementary classroom as the space shuttle exploded after lift off.  Or hearing the news of the towers falling on September 11, 2001.   I’m not sure how you heard about the events in Boston on Monday.  I was at my computer and saw someone post, “Praying for Boston.”  This peaked my interest enough to Google “Boston.”  All the top hits revealed the Boston Marathon was in progress.  Strange.  Well maybe not as I am friends with a bunch of athletes and just assumed that they were praying for friends running.

Then I saw “explosions rocks finish line” and my heart sank.  Of course I was sickened as I felt like the war against terrorism had come to our shore; again.  I know, its entirely too early to speculate who is responsible for this attack, but warrior spirit rose up within me wanting to defend and protect.  We have to wait for the evidence to come in before we can identify who is responsible for this horrible act.

It’s far too early to start answering the many questions that surface from such a horrible attack, but I feel its appropriate to share how I have processed some of my questions.

Evil exists in the heart of humanity.  I am limited in covering this subject in full, but in short, the Bible makes it clear that humanity is sinful.  I am preaching through Romans right now and phrases like “There is none righteous, not even one”, “There is none who does good”, “Their feet are swift to shed blood”, “Destruction and misery are in their path” fill the first three chapters of this powerful book.  The apostle Paul makes it clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  As individuals, we are warned of the wrath of God and are encouraged to turn to Christ for life and security.

This may seem obvious, but we must recognize and understand that evil exists in our world when events like this occur.  Our culture seems to have difficulty admitting that evil does exist for one reason or another.

The role of government as revealed in Scripture.  Our government does a lot for us.  In fact, almost all political debates revolve around how much, or little, should the government do for the citizens.  As I have scoured the Scriptures, I see one, quite possibly the only, command given towards authorities like our government.  This command is presented clearly in Romans 13:4, “It is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”  This short sentence concisely identifies the problem and how it is to be dealt with.  Evil is the problem and the government has a responsibility to inflict the wrath of God on the one who does evil.  Bringing about justice to the individual, or individuals, behind this act of terrorism should be the top priority of our government.

How are we to respond to such events?  I’m not sure if this is the proper order, but this is the order of responses that come to my mind.

My first thought is thankfulness for the work God has done in my own heart through Christ.  I recognize my capacity for anger, rage, and evil.  I can’t help but to think, “But by the grace go I.”  I totally believe it’s okay to have a little righteous anger, but in that I realize if it wasn’t for the grace of God restraining me I could have been responsible for some evil act.

Second, I am so thankful for my life and family.  I thank God that my family is safe.  How many accidents has He protected me from that I was unaware?  I’m reminded of the shortness of life.  I need to appreciate each moment as a gift.  I think this is what Solomon meant when he wrote, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting” (Ecc. 7:2).

Third, my heart and prayers go to the victims of this which are many—from those killed, the injured, their families, and the first responders both volunteers and professionals who first responded to the victims and to the scene of the crime.

Fourth, I pray for our leaders in charge of us as Paul commands (1 Tim. 2:1-2).  I pray that they would have wisdom, discernment, and courage as they stand against evil.  They have many difficult decisions to make as they protect those they have been entrusted to protect.

Fifth, I pray for those that “bear the sword” (Rom. 13:4).  There are men and women who have been tasked to bring about justice.  I am thankful for the sheep dogs who are willing to place their personal safety second to the safety of the general population.  The weight of this responsibility on them and their families is hard to describe.  I am thankful for them and pray for them as they carry out this great responsibility.

Finally, I cry out “maranatha” which Paul writes in 1 Corinthian 16:22 and means “Our Lord, come!”  Ultimately He is the one who will restore order in this world.  I realize that He is our only hope.  We need His help and should cry out to Him.

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Gospel Conflict

Conflict and the Gospel go together. You might think this is an odd pairing, but it’s an inescapable truth.  I recently read an article by Winston Smith entitiled, “Getting the Big Picture of Relationships.”* This gospel conflict was highlighted by this article. Pastorally, I found this concept extremely helpful.

Conflict began in Genesis 3 when humanity sins against the Creator. There is a promise of an ultimate conflict in Genesis 3:15, where Jesus would go to battle against the devil and though he would be bruised, the devil would be defeated. Winston points out that conflict exists because of sin, which we all know. He also points out that the gospel enters into conflict for reconciliation. Sin makes conflict unavoidable. We cannot get away from it being in a broken world. Conflict exists between us and God, between one another, and within each one of us.

It is important then to view God’s activity in conflict. Jesus came and endured hostility from sinners (Hebrews 12:3), but also with the Father (Isaiah 53:10), in order to bring about our redemption. As Jesus is the ultimate display of love, we see that love will enter into conflict. Some love conflict, and so they look for opportunity to enter conflict wrongly. Some love the absence of conflict and avoid it at all costs. The gospel calls us to love God and thus be willing to fight against sin for God’s glory, and to love our neighbour, bringing us into godly conflict against sin with others for their good (Matthew 22:36-40).

Such conflict as Winston puts it “is a God ordained opportunity to participate in the triumph of God over sin. Biblically speaking, peace is not the absence of conflict, but the absence of sin. Until sin is completely destroyed, there will be conflict, not as a curse on man, but as a curse on Satan. It is a promise of redemption and a sign of God’s grace that Adam and his descendants are to be instrumental in the destruction of evil.”

Here in the U.K., the culture is an anti-conflict culture, which means anything goes. But conflict motivated by love and a desire for God’s glory and people’s joy is redemptively waging war on sin.

So let us love our Lord, and love our congregations.

*The Journal of Biblical Counseling: Volume 22, Number 3, Spring 2004 (Glenside, PA: The Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, 2004).

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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!