Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In the Diner

It’s quiet today. Only a few people here.

I just had a long conversation (mostly listening) with someone who lives fairly close by who was talking about their car getting shot up a few weeks ago. Apparently the neighbors are part of a pretty big family with a lot of issues, to put it mildly. The neighbor’s house had the windows shot out. One boy was hit in the throat. He’s not yet 21. He might never get there. And there are still bullets in the car somewhere.

How do you minister to people who live like this? How do convey the message of hope in Jesus in the midst of people whose hope is pulling the trigger before the other guy does? How do you preach Jesus to people who think life’s problems can be solved with a .45?

I don’t have a lot of answers. The problem is real, even if it never gets to guns. The hopelessness that invades jobs, bank accounts, marriages and families, and life in general is all over.

No doubt many have just accepted that this is life the way it is. It is risk that they no longer think about. They just play the hand life dealt them, and they play with a decided lack of enthusiasm. It’s just the way it is. 

I, like most of my readers, live in a decent neighborhood. For me, these problems are usually at least a short drive or a medium walk away. For many of you, they are even farther away. I don’t know what it’s like to hear gunshots in the streets outside my window. I don’t know what it’s like to make sure my children don’t sleep on an outside wall, just in case.

But many do.

And I know that these are people that desperately need the message of Jesus. They don’t need the message of white middle-class lifestyle and Republican (or Democratic) politics. They don’t need messages about how more faith will help them escape poverty. They don’t need to hear about how Jesus can give them a better sex life. They don’t need exegetical lessons about minute details of Hebrew or Greek.

No, they need much more than these simplistic platitudes.

They need to see how the message of the Bible is the only thing that can explain everything in life, that can truly make sense of the world we live in.

They need to hear that Jesus is the only hope.

So we, in our preaching, we must be concerned about more than the text. Lest that sound like heresy to some, let me quickly add that we must not be concerned about less than the text.

Relevant preaching and teaching is not about slick marketing campaigns complete with billboards, slick invites, great videos. It is not about concordance preaching—doing a word search to find a verse that may address something we want to say. It’s not merely talking about Jesus.

Relevant preaching and teaching is about showing how the text itself is God speaking truth into our lives wherever we are. It must show how the revelation of God explains life—all of it, not just the good parts or the easy parts. And it must be understandable and applicable to the people who sit in front of us.

As I sit here, I am looking at a man about five tables away, engrossed in the Detroit Free Press. Why should he care what I have to say? Why should he care about Jesus’ teaching when he is reading about how close NW253 came to raining down on our neighborhood last week. And how will I show him how God, through the text, is speaking truth to him?

I am looking at a lady at another table. She is in her golden years. How does God speak to her through the text? Why should he care about the Bible when she is worried about whether or not her retirement income will last long enough for her money to outlive her?

I am thinking of a teenager with a gun in his belt. Why should he care about Jesus’ death when he is trying to avoid his own?

I am thinking of a marriage on the verge of divorce. Why should a husband and wife care about the love of God when they hate each other?

Why should anyone follow God when life is like it is?

We must show how God speaks to us through the text. The role of preaching is to make that happen.

Whether it’s the young man with a .45 looking for revenge, the worker with a newspaper looking for safety, or the retiree with a pension hoping to stay retired, God must be heard.

It must be loud and clear.

And we must be his voice.

And it’s not just the pastor’s job. It’s the job of every believer.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


I have a fondness for news stories that reveal the silly foolishness of politicians. Here’s a great example from the Detroit Free Press this morning:

Heritage Park's athletic fields are expected to receive new energy-efficient lights by mid-March, in a change that is projected to save $121,500 in energy costs over the next 25 years.

The $272,950 project, funded by federal stimulus dollars and timed to avoid disrupting the next playing season, involves removing lights that were installed more than 25 years ago on the two softball fields and replacing them with 60 luminaries mounted on 10 new athletic field poles.

Let me sum this up:

$272,950 will be spent to save $121,500 over the next twenty-five years. By my math (and help me out if I am adding this wrongly), in fifty years, the estimated cost savings will be $243,000.

Which means that in fifty years these lights still be just a shade under $30,000 of paying for themselves. 

And my guess is that the lights (and possibly the fields) will be long gone by then.

Instead of hyping the nonsensical cost savings (which aren’t cost savings at all) why don’t we just say, “The federal government is passing out free money like candy and we might as well get some for us.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Jesus Creed is running a series of posts on the the topic of hell, based on Gregory MacDonald’s book, The Evangelical Universalist which defends “Christian Universalism.” MacDonald is arguing that one could be an evangelical and still be a universalist.

My first question is, Why would you need to be an evangelical and a univeralist? If everyone goes to heaven anyway, there is no need to be an evangelical on earth.

Jesus Creed defines MacDonald’s “Christian universalism” this way:

Christian universalism believes in all the classic evangelical and orthodox doctrines (Trinity, creation, sin, atonement, return of Christ, salvation through Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone) and also in hell. But, and here's the big but, one's eternal destiny is not fixed at death so that those in hell can repent and trust in Christ, and in the end all will make this decision without coercion.

Right away we notice that apparently hell is not one of “all the classic evangelical and orthodox doctrines.” It is an addition, an “also.” I think that would come as a surprise one to the host of evangelicals and orthodox people who preceded this modern tinkering with hell.

I won’t respond to each point, but let me make a couple of comments which actually predate this post and was the fodder for another post that may eventually appear.

One commenter suggests, “Jesus only talked about Hell to religious folk, and it seems today the issue only comes up when we talk about the fate of non-believers.”

Yet even a surface reading of the NT shows that the “religious folk” were “non-believers.” That was exactly Jesus’ point in passages like John 8. Pretending like they are two different groups is hardly a reasonable proposition.

But here are two more concrete observations. First, I have never seen anyone argue for universalism or the lack of eternal, conscious torment starting with the text and building on the text. In other words, the arguments against the biblical doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment always begin with emotion. This is seen in the second post at Jesus Creed which talks of the problem of justice and the problem of joy.

These arguments, in effect, assert the authority of emotions (tainted by sin) and human depraved intellectual ability over the revelation of Scripture. It says, “We know the Bible says that hell is eternal conscious torment for unbelievers, but we don’t think that’s just and I am uncomfortable with that, so it can’t be true.”

This is exactly the reason why no less than John Stott became an annihilationist, which is the idea that unbelievers cease to exist.

Which brings me to my final point of this post. Why does the Bible have such strong warnings about not existing? If hell is simply annihilation, why do we need to preach the gospel to every creature? Why do we need to cut off our hand or our foot, or pluck out our eye in order to avoid non-existing?

People say, “Well existence is better than non-existence, and therefore heaven is better than annihilation.”

But friends, how would anyone know that? A non-existent person has no consciousness.

The warnings of Scripture and the gospel mandate to preach the gospel to every creature make clear that “Christian universalism” is not Christian at all. It is old heresy relabeled and reargued to salve someone’s conscience.

It does nothing to promote or honor the glory of God. And it certainly does not reconcile with the Scripture.

I haven’t devoted my life to telling people about the dangers of non-existence. I haven’t devoted my life to telling people it’s all okay because we will all be in heaven anyway. The Bible gives no room for such thought.

And neither should those who claim to believe it. 

Is it really asking too much to believe that a God of justice will do nothing wrong, and that therefore eternal conscious torment is not only real, it is also just.

And if you don’t think so, then the problem is with your sense of justice.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Word about Dress

For those who like to consider the issue of dressing up and how it expresses values, here’s some fodder for you.

Never let it be said that I shy away from the tough, thorny social issues of the day.

In the Diner

It was hard to find a parking place this morning. Good for business. Bad for people who don’t like to walk very far in the cold. I suppose I fit into both categories.

I am studying the life of John the Baptizer for Sunday’s message—along the lines of His Mission, His Message, His Martyrdom. I don’t normally alliterate my talks because it’s too hard and I think that sometimes it tends to manipulate the the story or passage based on words you want to use (or can think of) rather than preaching the story or passage itself. But this one came pretty easy.(That’s my homiletical digression.)

I look across the diner and see a bunch of people and think to myself, “What difference does John the Baptist make to them?” That is the question I must answer.

Billy Joel is on the radio. His “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is serenading us.

This song is a reminiscence of sorts about a high school couple, Brenda(r) and Eddie, who was “the king and queen of the prom.” They got married, started their life together, and then came the problems they weren’t expecting.

Then “they got a divorce as a matter of course.”

This song tells the story of millions who got married to their high school sweetheart or some other “like no one else” thinking that life was going to be one long weekend date with a house and furniture rather than the backseat of a car.

When life settles in, they realize that things aren’t quite what they thought they were going to be.

And they are totally unprepared for reality because they have been raised from birth with the idea that life is all about them. Pursue your dreams (most of which involved self-satisfaction). The whole world exists to make you happy and satisfied. And in that little apartment or big house they find that the person who used to make them happy now wants to be made happy above all else.

There is no teaching of self-sacrifice and self-denial. And life crashes rather quickly.

A divorce is the course for millions of couples.

Part of raising children and making disciples is to prepare people for the reality of life as a Christlike husband and a churchlike wife.

Premarital counseling can only do so much when parents have dropped the ball for twenty years already.

You see, being a godly husband or a godly wife doesn’t start with marriage preparations. It doesn’t even start with training to be a godly husband or a godly wife.

It starts with training to be a godly person in all areas of life, from toddler obedience and kindness to teenage humility and self-control.

You see, being a godly spouse is the natural extension of being a godly person. You won’t be one without the other.

Parents, we must start when our children are young, to prepare them for life by teaching them to be godly people, transformed by Jesus through the gospel, and living for something bigger than ourselves.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Here’s My Take – The Manhattan Declaration

Much has been said about the Manhattan Declaration (MD). For those who don’t know, MD is a declaration of “Christian conscience” about abortion, marriage, and religious liberty authored largely by Timothy George (Beeson Divinity School), Robert George (Princeton), and Chuck Colson.

As of this moment, there are 273842 signers, including some very prominent people. You can go elsewhere for a fuller analysis of it, such as John MacArthur, Alistair Begg, or Dave Doran, or R. C. Sproul.

Here’s the simple point, as I see it: the document uses the term “Christian” for people who believe very different things about the gospel of Jesus Christ that brings salvation. In other words, they use the term “Christian” for people who believe very different things about what a “Christian” is. 

Therefore, it is misleading and confusing at best. (That’s my attempt to be charitable). It is closer to a compromise on the very nature of the gospel, and the people who signed this should know it. There is no reason for people like Al Mohler (perhaps the most visible evangelical to sign) to even tacitly suggest that the signers of this document are all Christian in the historic, biblical-theological sense of the term. That is disappointing, to say the least. He knows better, and led a fight a Southern to cleanse of the school of people like this (who in some cases were probably closer to Christian orthodoxy than some of these signers).

If the document were designated as the concerns of “concerned citizens” or “religious leaders,” it would be an entirely different issue.

I probably still wouldn’t sign it because 1) no one knows me and no one would know that I even signed it, and 2) I think these types of things are generally a lot more about show than substance.

The Christian position on these issues of abortion, marriage, and religious liberty is well known. Calling it that “Manhattan Declaration” won’t increase the visibility of it, and certainly won’t cause people of power and influence to do anything differently.

Change won’t come because a quarter of a million people add their names on a document that most people don’t even know exists.

But for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of the souls of men and women all around the world, let us not create confusion by pretending that the word “Christian” can describe all those people.

It doesn’t. And it is dishonest to say that it does.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Christmas Gifts and Christian Values

Christmas is a time of giving … and getting. The older we get, it is likely that we become less concerned about getting. We probably enjoy giving, particularly to our children to see their joy.

But there are some cautions we must be aware of.

First, gift giving can feed idolatry. At the heart of Christmas lists can be greed, a desire for what we do not have. After Christmas, the inevitable if unspoken comparisons take place. The Bible says that greed is a form of idolatry (Colossians 3:5). A sign in the national park says, “Don’t feed the bears.” A sign at the toy store should say, “Don’t feed the idols.”

Second, gift giving can expose the recipient to danger. 1 Timothy 6 warns about the dangers that accrue from a love of money and a desire to get rich. It reminds us that this world is temporary (you can’t take it with you, v. 6), and that stuff brings temptation and snare which plunge men into ruin and destruction. It causes people to wander from the faith and pierce themselves with many griefs (1 Timothy 6:7-11). So don’t think of that gift as the next best and greatest thing. Think of it as a bomb, waiting to go off and drive the recipient away from the faith.

Third, gift giving can attach the recipient to a dying world. The more stuff we have, and the nicer stuff we have, the more attached we are to it. Most of us aren’t attached to the paper wrapping and the bows. We want that gone. Many people help others lay up treasures on earth, and as a result strengthen the ties to earth. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure it, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). That is why he says, “Lay up your treasure in heaven … not on earth.”

Fourth, gift giving can decrease sacrifice for missions. When Jesus called us, he called us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him (Luke 9:23). He calls us to leave things from his sake and the gospel’s sake (Mark 10:30). It is hard to preach sacrifice to people who judge Christmas by the pile of stuff under the tree. It is hard to preach sacrifice to people who do not want to leave their stuff.

Gift giving is not bad. It is not sinful. God both gives good gifts and commands us to give them.

But we should be aware of their dangers. We must work to cultivate a heart of contentment and satisfaction and a life of commitment and sacrifice.

So in this season of gift giving, be loving and generous. And be cautious. Do not doom your loved ones to idolatrous and dangerous attachment that may decrease their sacrifice for the gospel.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Machen on Education

In discussing the fight for Christianity against liberalism (which Machen rightly considered two different religions), Machen closes with four points of action, the last of which is the “renewal of Christian education.”

He says,

In countless cases, Christianity is rejected simply because men have not the slightest notion of what Christianity is. An outstanding fact of recent Church history is the appalling growth of ignorance in the Church. Various causes, no doubt, can be assigned for this lamentable development. The development is due partly to the general decline of education—at least so far as literature and history are concerned. The schools of the present day are being ruined by the absurd that education should follow the line of least resistance, and that something can be “drawn out” of the mind before anything in put in. They are also being ruined by an exaggerated emphasis on methodology at the expense of content and on what is materially useful at the expense of the high spiritual heritage of mankind (Christianity and Liberalism, p. 176).

Machen sparks two thoughts centered primarily on pastoral training.

First, Christian education, even of pastors, seems woefully deficient. A man believes he is called of God to pastor and believes that the call alone makes him qualified. So he gets to work at the task of pastoring. But he has never taken time to learn first. It is a tragedy foisted on an unsuspecting church. And all are the worse for it. Such a man may believe he is called, and he may well be. But zeal is no substitute for knowledge. Nothing can be drawn out until something has been put in.

Before you pull out the line that the disciples were uneducated men, remember that they spent three years with Jesus day after day.

Second, a man who learns primarily methodology will soon find himself past his “use by” date. Methods are constantly changing. The methodology you learn in seminary today will be out of date before the next class graduates. A sound biblical theology will never be out of date. A man who goes to seminary and learns theology and languages will find himself well ground to learn methodology later.

A seminary filled with methodology will train a man to pastor for ten years or so. A seminary filled with theology and the languages will train a man to pastor for a lifetime.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Keller on First Pastorates

Tim Keller has some good thoughts that echo some of my own experience, namely, the value of actually doing things rather than having someone tell you about doing them. He suggests that pastoral wisdom and experience are often better gained as the solo pastor of a small church than a staff member at a large church.

You can't teach a younger pastor much about things they aren't actually doing. And in a large church they aren't a) bearing the burden of being the main leader, b) leading a board of elders, c) fund-raising and bearing the final responsibility of having enough money to do ministry, d) and doing the gamut of counseling, shepherding, teaching, preaching. In a smaller church as a solo pastor you and only you visit the elderly, do all the weddings and funerals, sit by the bedside of every dying parishioner, do all the marriage counseling, suspend and excommunicate, work with musicians, craft and lead worship, speak at every men's retreat, women's retreat, and youth retreat, write all the Bible studies and often Sunday School curriculum, train all the small group leaders, speak at the nursing home, work with your diaconate as they try to help families out of poverty, evangelize and welcome new visitors to the church, train volunteers to do some (but not all) of all of the above tasks, and deal with the once-a-month relational or financial crisis in the church.  No amount of mentoring can teach you what you learn from doing all those things.

While, as Keller says, there is no “one right way” his thoughts are certainly insightful. Having been the solo pastor of a small church for almost eleven years, I have learned by doing. It hasn’t always been pretty, and I have often longed for a mentor, but by God’s grace I have been able to do things that many others have only watched or listened to someone else tell about.

And it isn’t the same.

So if you are a seminary student or graduate considering the pastorate, don’t despise small things.