"Unity without verity is no better than conspiracy." - John Trapp

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Sovereign Gospel

I've been taking this class along with three other people from Grace and Peace. In the final week's reading was this quote:

"'The gospel has a sovereignty of its own and is never an instrument in the hands of the evangelist.' The good news is not ours to feel superior about or to use as a tool or a weapon. It is not our story; it is God's story." (Bryant Myers in Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development quoting Lesslie Newbigin on p. 216)
There is a sense in which the gospel is our story. Luther said that the pronouns make all the difference in the gospel - e.g. Jesus died for me. Luther was getting at the fact that we must see and experience the gospel personally, as, in a sense, our story.

But the quote is concerned not with how we experience the gospel, but who has ownership of the gospel. I see two implications/applications from this idea that the gospel has its own sovereignty. First, in regard to the Gospel not being a tool in the hands of the evangelist, the sovereignty of the gospel has been increasingly lost in America since at least the Second Great Awakening. The preacher/evangelist became the focus of the activity and the power of the gospel was downplayed.

Charles Finney's focus on methodology has had a serious negative impact on our preaching and teaching. This is seen in those who do not preach the whole counsel of God out of concern that the message will not be received. Instead of the message the emphasis is put on methods. The sovereignty of the gospel is not recognized either in the fact that we do not have the right to change it nor does it need to be changed to have an transform lives.

This is not to say that preaching today must be of one particular style, a monotone without emotion. If God used men to write Scripture such that the writings are stamped with personalities and passions of the human authors, then we should expect that the personalities and passions of preachers will come through the preached word as well. But the content of the message must not change in favor of what is perceived as more palatable (attractive) content.

Second, whether we would verbalize it or not, we tend to think and act like we are the caretakers of the gospel. We are like John wanting Jesus to act because someone who is not part of our circle is casting out demons. We are the enlightened and the gospel becomes a tool in our hands to exalt ourselves above the "heathen" (and we get to define who the "heathen" are). This attitude is not only misguided, but dangerous. It is the attitude of the Pharisees.

So long as people are not deny core truths (e.g. the Galatian heresy adding Law to gospel, or denials of the resurrection as addressed in 1 Corinthians 15), we cannot sit in judgment over them. We can, and should, dialog on matters of disagreement and try to come to the unity of the faith. But the gospel is sovereign enough not only over itself, but also over the human heart, so that it can work despite my lack of understanding and my false ideas. Therefore, I have to believe it can do the same for others.

If we want to fully participate in what Jesus is doing in these last days, then like John we are going to have to learn that He will use those not like us. Sometimes he will even use those that we may think should be stopped. Paul was even willing to rejoice in the proclamation of the gospel by those who were motivated out of a desire to see him afflicted.

Because the gospel is sovereign, and we are to be subject.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

In Memory

James Beal
April 4, 1926 - January 28, 2000

Sarah Beal
July 10, 1925 - March 2, 2001

Jason Beal
January 16, 1975 - January 15, 2000

Dad served during both World War II (in Europe) and in Korea.
Jason, my nephew, died while on duty as an Indiana State Trooper (Jason is third from the bottom on this link).
Mom served by waiting while her husband, one of her sons (Gene, Jason's dad, in Viet Nam), and Jason put themselves in harm's way for others.

Christmas 1999

I found the following from a thank you card I had made after Dad's death for those who had displayed Jesus' compassion to our family.

These have been dark days of sorrow for us, and we would have been overwhelmed, had the Lord not been gracious to us. We are thankful for people whom God has used as His hands and His voice in these days.

May all who know Jesus be His body to those who are lost and hurting, particularly on this day of rememberance.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

What Is Worship?

My temptation is not to tell you who is in this video (though some, I presume would know) because for some who says it might ruin what is said. From what I know of Brian McLaren's theology, I disagree with some with him on what I would consider core doctrines. With that said:

As a new believer, I remember listening to a sermon about worship and righting a question in the notes I was taking, "What is worship?" I did not come up with a great answer then, and now over 20 years later I'm still not sure I can give a great answer. I'm also convinced I'm not alone. Part of the reason, I think, is what McLaren is addressing. Worship in many churches is as much about putting on the right face, if you know what I mean, as it is about declaring the glory of God.

So, given that, whatever you think of Brian McLaren, watch the following and answer this: What do you agree and/or disagree with? Also, what is true worship?

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Isaiah and the Nations

The Tuesday night study group of which I'm a part has been studying Isaiah. We are planning a break for a few weeks from Isaiah and are going to use some Q&A from Redeemer and Tim Keller as a way to talk about a wide variety of subjects (Redeemer's website has been redesigned and if the Q&A audio is still available I cannot locate it).

In wrapping up Isaiah for a few weeks we concluded with Isaiah 21. For the last several chapters, Isaiah has been writing "oracles" (ESV translation) against foreign nations. As part of our (temporary) wrap-up, we discussed why God would have Isaiah deliver all these oracles to all these nations. Three reasons were discussed, each of which are major themes in Isaiah.

Reason one is that God takes all sin seriously. The majority of the oracles are prophecies of coming judgment. How God is going to use, typically, another nation to destroy the nation being prophesied against because of their wickedness. We see similar judgments offered by other prophets (perhaps most famously Jonah against Nineveh). God will judge all sin, whether by those who have His word, or those who don't. In Romans 2, Paul puts it this way:
12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.
Reason two that Isaiah spends so much time on the nations is to show that God is sovereign. In that time it was supposed that local deities controlled only the affairs of specific areas. One could judge how strong a deity was by how far that deity could extend the control the people that worshiped him (or her or it). Through Isaiah God is declaring that the idols of the nations are nothing. Yahweh is declaring the fall of these other nations not to be the work of the deity of the conquering nation or their god, but His work. The nations should not fear idols, but the true and living God. Regarding the idols of Babylon Isaiah (21:9) writes:

9 And behold, here come riders,

horsemen in pairs!”

And he answered,

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon;

and all the carved images of her gods

he has shattered to the ground.”

Similarly, Isaiah (19:1) had earlier pronounced judgment on Egypt and her idols:

1 An oracle concerning Egypt.

Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud

and comes to Egypt;

and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,

and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.

It matters not whether the nations are small like Philistia or Moab, or great and powerful like Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon. God is sovereign and will do His will in their midst (Isaiah 14:26-27):

26 This is the purpose that is purposed

concerning the whole earth,

and this is the hand that is stretched out

over all the nations.

27 For the Lord of hosts has purposed,

and who will annul it?

His hand is stretched out,

and who will turn it back?

Reason three that Isaiah deals with the nations is God's love for all His creation. In the midst of displaying His judgment, God shows that His sovereignty will reach out to those who are far from Him and bring them near. Of Egypt, who had long been an oppressor of God's people, Isaiah (19:20) writes:
20 It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt. When they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them.
Eventually, regarding the Suffering Servant, Isaiah (49:6) will write:

6 he says:

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant

to raise up the tribes of Jacob

and to bring back the preserved of Israel;

I will make you as a light for the nations,

that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

God through Isaiah is telling us that sin is no minor matter and that we cannot escape His judgment unless we can find refuge in His lovingkindness. One day, those who have done so, people from every tribe and tongue and nation, will together worship the Lamb, God's Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) Jesus.

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God Moves

In part due to a discussion elsewhere, I have been thinking about William Cowper. Cowper is best known, at least in Baptist circles, for the hymn "There Is a Fountain" but my favorite is "God Moves in a Mysterious Way". Cowper struggled through several periods of severe depression in his life, to the point of attempting suicide. He had experienced the dread of cloudy days, had seen God's frowning face of providence, and tasted the bitter bud.

Should we experience the kind of despair that Cowper experienced? I proposed in "These Days" that we have a better witness if we display the joy of our salvation. But I don't want to minimize the fact that believers will at times walk through very dark and difficult days. We see this in many Psalms, especially in Psalm 88, the "black sheep of the Psalter."
1O Lord, God of my salvation;
I cry out day and night before you.
2Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!

3For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
5like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
6You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah

8You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
10Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you?Selah
11Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

13But I, O Lord, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
16Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
17They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
18You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness.
In other Psalms that start similarly, the Psalmist always comes to an affirmation of God's final deliverance. Not here. The Psalmist knows the bitterest despair (though still he prays).

Though not explicitly a Messianic Psalm, in reading this I cannot help but reflect on the night of Jesus' betrayal, arrest, and ultimate abandonment by His friends. Notice three particular statements here, though we could look at others as well.

First, the Psalmist says his soul is full of trouble and he is about to die. In Matthew 26:38, Jesus tells Peter, James and John, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me."

Second, the Psalmist says that his friends shun him and see him as a horror. All the disciples flee at the arrest (though John has returned by the crucifixion) and Peter denies Jesus three times.

But, third, in Jesus we find the answer to the Psalmist's question:

10Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you?Selah

If Heman is the one mentioned in Chronicles, then the answer would not come for hundreds of years, but the question was answered. Yes, God does work wonders for the dead. Yes, the departed have (Jesus) and will (those in Christ, from both sides of the cross) rise up to praise God.

We will know sorrow in this life. Jesus, the Suffering Servant, was described by Isaiah as "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." We very well may experience times like the Psalmist when we feel abandoned and even crushed by God. Others may look at us like they looked at Jesus and assume that God has abandoned us. In those times, joy may seem very far away, and we may be in deep despair.

But we can and should endure, like Jesus, for the joy set before us. And we can and should sing with Cowper:

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
- William Cowper (1731-1800)

For we will likely never know the why of suffering in this life, but the great question of the Psalmist has been answered. Even if death overtakes us, one day God will work wonders for the dead, and we will rise up and praise Him forevermore.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Closet Feminist?

There is an interesting post (short) over at the Reformation 21 blog by Carl Trueman (HT: Riddleblog)

I have to say I agree. I think that in resisting culture we often let the pendulum swing too far the other way. To go a little deeper here, Dr. Trueman's post was in response to this post by Phil Ryken. In Dr. Ryken's post he relates a story told by D. A. Carson at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology (PCRT) in Philadelphia. Dr. Carson also told the story at the PCRT in Grand Rapids:
Don Carson shared a telling anecdote from a colleague involved with the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship. Women on campus face three crushing cultural pressures: first, to get all "A's" -- a parental and in some cases personal expectation; second, to be themselves and have a good time all the time; third, to look totally hot.

Dr. Carson observed that it is little wonder that as many as 80% of college women will be clinically depressed at some point during their college years. Whatever happened, one wonders, to doing your best for the glory of God, to being who you are in Christ, and to cultivating the inner beauty of a quiet spirit, which is pleasing to God?
The answer is that is not the culture we live in, but is the culture we need to transform (in many cases starting with ourselves) with the power of the gospel. In that vein, and in response to these two posts, Rick Phillips added his own thoughts. Really, you (especially since most - who I am kidding - all four of you are male) need to read this if you have not already. Let me try to whet your appetite.
So while so much effort goes to repudiating evangelical feminism -- and to a certain extent this is unavoidable given the force of today's polemic -- it is more important and more ultimately fruitful for us to repudiate bogus evangelical masculinity.
That's the end of his introduction. Go read the whole thing. Seriously. I'm convicted and I'm not even married. Then after you're done reading that, go read this.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

These Days

In my younger days (high school and college), I was really into music (all pop culture generally, but music in particular). I think I shocked my 11th grade high school English teacher, who used to write quotes on the board that we had to copy down and occasionally pick one for an essay. He began writing one morning,
"I've seen the needle and damage done.
The little part of it in everyone.
But every junkie's like the setting sun."
I leaned over to a friend of mine and finished the quote before the teacher finished writing. He turned around when he was done and, somewhat incredulously, asked if I knew the song (Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done" off of the "Harvest" album; arguably Mr. Young's best work). I wasn't exactly the kid you would expect to be a Neil Young fan. I was one of those kids that you would have expected to never have his nose out of a science fiction novel or a comic book (somewhat true, at that).

One artist, out of many, that I would buy every time he released something new was Jackson Browne. While probably not considered as artistic as a Neil Young, Browne likewise tended to a more philosophical lyrical content, but at a more introspective and less social turn than Neil Young. This is particularly true of Browne's work up to and including "Running on Empty" (after which he began to take a more political bent musically. He had always been something of an activist, but with the election of Ronald Reagan, his activism started to increasingly infiltrate his music).

On an early album ("For Everyman") there was a song called "These Days." We are attracted, I think, to music that either reflects something within us, or calls us to something to which we aspire. "These Days" was the former for me, particularly in the closing line, which states:
"Don't confront me with my failures;
I had not forgotten them."
I have a tendency to dwell on the past. Particularly on things that remind me just how fallen I am.

Why bring this up? Because I want to reflect on the power of the Gospel. In the book of Hebrews, the author tells us that under the Old Covenant "gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper" (ESV Hebrews 9:9). I would argue that this is true not only of the Old Covenant sacrifices, but any religious activity that man undertakes. It fails to deal with our guilty conscience. So we seek other things (sex, drugs, and rock&roll) to blunt our own recognition of guilt.

Let me quote another artist who I've quoted before on this issue:
"There's a void in my heart
I can't seem to fill.
I do charity work when I believe in the cause,
But my soul it bothers me still.
Hey Lord you can make me like I am,
Can you heal this restlessness?
Or will there be a void in my heart
When they carry me out to rest?"
That's from a song titled "Void in My Heart" from John Mellencamp's "Big Daddy" CD. This also includes the lines:
"As I sit alone tonight
I see a billion just like me.
With a void in their hearts,
And running from eternity."
Not surprisingly, on the back of one CD ("The Lonesome Jubilee" I think) Mellencamp had the first chapter of Ecclesiastes reproduced.

There is only one answer to this guilt and void. The Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel tells us that Jesus has removed our guilt by being the once for all sacrifice for sin (see Hebrews 10:1-23). Note especially in contrast to Hebrews 9:9 that in 10:22 we are told, "let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." The Gospel, rightly understood, cleanses our guilty conscience and fill the void in our heart.

We, even we Christians, must continually preach the Gospel to ourselves for this to be true. Especially those of us who are prone to reflect back on past mistakes and dwell on them. One of the most comforting passages for me in this regard is the close of the book of Micah (chapter 7). A proclamation that one day God would deal with our sin, and not by punishing us.
18 Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
19 He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities under foot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
20 You will show faithfulness to Jacob
and steadfast love to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our fathers
from the days of old.
At the cross, the burden falls from our back and we are free. All our sins, not just part - not everything but that one thing we can't let go of - all our sins are tossed by God into the depths of the sea. So deep that no submersible can ever reach them. They are gone forever. For "there is now therefore no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus!"

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

So Far As Possible

In dealing with Romans 12:18, the final question I want to address is what do we do when it is not possible to live peaceably with someone? I think there are different answers depending on what kind of disagreement is in view. Perhaps the most frightening, but easiest to deal with in the theoretical, is the person who is violent. In this case, the state, if it is fulfilling the purpose for which God created it, should step into the situation (see Romans 13). Unfortunately for Paul, it was often agents of the state who were being inappropriately violent. In this case, we submit to the persecution and praise God anyway.

Those who are merely being antagonistic should just be avoided. I see this as the equivalent of Jesus telling the disciples that if they were not received in a town, to shake the dust off their feet. I do not think this should be done hastily, but if after repeated attempts to be civil have failed, the best option is to avoid the situation as much as possible. This assumes, of course, the other party is an unbeliever. As believers, we are called to reconcile our differences, if necessary seeking other believers as mediators.

The New Testament is also clear that those who seek to undermine the authority of the Scriptures, or to distort the gospel, cannot be left to promulgate their teaching in the church. Paul, in Galatians and the Pastorals especially, makes it clear that false teaching of this type requires swift and decisive action.

But what about those who hold the Scriptures in high regard, and are sound on the gospel, but hold to some doctrine that we feel is contrary to Scripture. Should those who hold to infant baptism have discourse with one who believes in believer's baptism? Should one who holds to a day-age view of creation be shunned by those who believe in literal 24 hour days? Individual lines are always difficult to draw. What may be a major doctrinal point for you may not be for me.

In my opinion, those who hold to certain essentials should be treated as brothers. In non-essentials, we should be able to openly disagree without dividing. Being at peace with someone should not exclude us from having spirited (Spirited?) discussions about doctrine. In fact, it should encourage it. Our unity in essentials should free us to discuss our differences in substantial matters that are not essentials. I have benefited from interacting with and reading those with whom I have some fairly significant differences.

I am a fallen creature, and as such I know that my doctrine is not now perfect. Therefore I have to be open to the possibility of change. At the same time, I have centuries of discussion on critical doctrines where other redeemed men have been united on key doctrines that they have found in the Bible. I cannot in good conscience set those aside because of a contemporary mood that finds them distasteful.

Therefore, so far as I am able, I will live peaceably with all. But I will also heed the call to contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

Addendum (Monday, May 7 at ~ 8:30 EST): Reading through this again, I want to emphasize that the ending is not intended too mitigate the beginning of the series. There are only a few doctrines for which I see us being called to contend earnestly. While I don't see these doctrines as being limited to either the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed, they are definitely good starting points. I would quickly add the inspiration and authority of Scripture. I would not include, for example, the mode and timing of Baptism, which I see as important and worth discussion, but discussion that first and foremost acknowledges the bond of Christ. This does not mean that I would expect an expressly paedobaptistic congregation to accept me into leadership (I would, in fact, expect the opposite). But I would expect that we could fellowship and grow together in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I also believe in that situation I have an obligation to not make baptism a subject of discussion. (As a sidenote, it is generally much easier for a Baptist to be accepted into a congregation of paedobaptists than vice versa.)

This is all to say that I think too many of us are too willing to divide over doctrines over which we should not be dividing. While some of them may lead us to be parts of different congregations, they should not prevent us from having close friendships with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. If it sounds like I've been listening to the Together for the Gospel guys again, I have.

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