Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Way of Suffering in "Feel Good" Culture

Christianity bears the mark of the cross while popular religion is driven by success.  Christian formation (discipleship) that does not take Jesus' self understanding seriously as the suffering Messiah will by default be what the Scots called a church of Satan. 
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:31–36, ESV) 

How do  we measure success?  By gospel faithfulness? By the discipleship of self-denial? Or by numbers, claiming what we want from God no matter what, the financial bottom line, or the "relevance" of our worship service?  Calvin wrote, "...all ministers of the Word, who desire that their preaching may be profitable, ought to be exceedingly careful that the glory of his resurrection should be always exhibited by them in connection with the ignominy of his death."  Is our will put to death so that God has his way with his Church?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Watch out for Dialoguing: Instead Hear so that your Hearing Becomes Seeing

Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread.” (Mark 8:14–16, ESV)
When the revelation of God is right in front of you and you begin to hold a “Jesus Seminar” voting on which words are his or not you are in trouble.  The religious moralism of the Pharisees (the religious right) and the irreligious libertine liberalism (the libertine left) are dangerous challenges to believing the gospel.  Jesus commands us to beware so that the gospel can take root in us.  God saves sinners.  God propitiates his own wrath through the gift of his Son and adopts us as sons.  Grace is like the arms of the Father reaching deep down inside us having removed the wrath that alienated us so that he can live life from our hearts without the stones of sin and weights of skepticism that burden us.  Real grace forgives and set us free to live righteously because we love God and are thankful. It is rooted in a gospel understood through reasonable preaching that becomes faith by means of the inner working of the Holy Spirit taking what we understand and turning it into encounter with the Living God.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Understanding the Gospel's Power in Post-Christian America

We are in a unique time.  The early church wrestled with the religion of Judaism on one hand and the pagan world of ancient Rome on the other.  The attack upon Christianity was fierce.  But in the west as marriage is redefined and the last vestiges of Christendom pass away we face sharing the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ with a world that thinks it has heard the gospel and rejected it.  Our world thinks it has tried Christianity and found it wanting. But it is not real Christianity that has been rejected it is religious moralism.  Now we face a growing climate of various spiritualities of self-centered religions on one side (I am God or God is so distant I can't know him.) and irreligion (I don't believe in God or trust just in myself.) on the other.  Tim Keller has been very helpful in helping us discover aspects of the gospel that relate to both the religious and irreligious. Jesus faced the religious in the guise of the Pharisees and the irreligious in the political form of the Herodians. Mark 8:15 (ESV)And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”  This focus of Jesus and the warning to the disciples is something we do well to heed.  On one side we can retreat from the culture in moral disgust and on the other we can embrace its cynicism.  But Jesus calls us to participate in his work of bring the gospel to both religious and irreligious America.  We speak to people who worship every sort of idol and people who are rejecting God.  The gospel speaks judgment and holds out hope in grace that saves.  It connects with our neighbors and repels our neighbors.  Why? Because the gospel is the truth and it is filled with grace upon grace.  

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Contending for the Gospel

When I was with Dr. J. I. Packer in June he encouraged us to "guard the gospel – keep it in tack, never mind the dissensions. Don’t allow the gospel to be changed, and don’t be distracted from it.  Avoid the irreverent and what is falsely called knowledge."  

His comments came to me in a time when I have been struggling with mega church winds and the popularity of their crowds. My service is to be that of a humble gospel preacher centered on Jesus Christ.  There are winds blowing around us that shout success is in numbers.  They say, "how can you argue with the sheer fact that so many attend" such and such a church?  They say there is so much more than the gospel.  But the Scriptures remind us that anything but the gospel is to be rejected. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:6–8, ESV)  

American religion has been distracted from the main thing: Jesus Christ and his gospel.  That is why Dr. Packer led us in a study of 1 Timothy which ends with the important encouragement: “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you.” (1 Timothy 6:20–21, ESV) It is a great temptation to spend time attacking those who have lost sight of the gospel.  There are many out there spending too much time attacking those who are preaching self-help spirituality, success and personal blessing.  But Paul urges Timothy to keep his head and remain focused upon the gospel.  God saves sinners, that is the heart of the matter.  The call to preach the gospel and only the gospel, means I must refuse to get caught up in the spectacular and novel, for the sake of serving people with the gospel.  It means I work with fellow pastors who represent the gospel as we bring the gospel to our world; and avoid the babble and shinning appeal of popularity in favor of solid formation in Jesus Christ.  God, help me to seek your face and not the success or popularity of contemporary religion.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Gospel is Central

Since re-reading Tim Keller’s “Center Church” and reflecting on the Gospel of Mark where Jesus feeds the multitudes for the second time, I have been contemplating what happened:

In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha. The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.” (Mark 8:1–13, ESV)

According to James Edwards (The Gospel According to Mark), many scholars think Mark 8:1-9 is a doublet.  They think Mark repeated the same incident in different language. But if you compare it to the feeding of five thousand in Mark 6:30-44 there are several striking differences Edwards point out.  The season is different.  The crowd, Jesus’ approach, and the setting among other things are also different.  It is not uncommon for people of faith to have to have a “do over”.   We are taught a lesson as similar circumstance arises and we don’t put to work what Jesus has already taught us.  It seems that is the point that Mark makes as he includes the text. 

               We experience the same tension.  Jesus works wonders.  That is what makes us people of faith.  But the greatest miracle is the gospel He embodied and proclaimed.  How long, how many times do we need to hear the gospel preached until Jesus walks through our cities?  You see Mark is showing us that it took many times of hearing and seeing Jesus work before the disciples got it.  What was it they got?  That Jesus is God with us.  When we are in a storm, when we are praying for the sick, and when we face homelessness and hunger; Jesus is God with us.  So I asked myself, “What does it takes to walk with Jesus through the streets of Redding with the compassion of Jesus?” The word of God must indwell me so that Jesus is my constant resource.  Emmanuel God is with us.  His heart that is broken and compassionate toward all those I pass on the streets.

… Then because Jesus is compassionate toward the hungry, I learn to be open to join in bringing the good news to the streets.  Jesus is challenging disciples to hear and understand His Word that makes us fruitful in the harvest out there. We are to be gripped by the gospel.  The fact that Christ saves us through his message proclaimed so that the Word contained in the Scriptures and Jesus himself the Word joined with the Spirit brings Jesus to life  so that are believers his life renews us. Christ is embodied as we hear, believe and become fruitful.  The Word of God is not just to be believed for its truth, it is to be lived into until its life flows in us up to eternal life. 
               Jesus sees the homeless lining the streets of Redding and living in the woods around North State. He has compassion for the mother with her baby walking the tracks near the train station having just slept on the streets.  What is her story? 
               People tell us to preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words.  This much used misquoted statement is really not very helpful. The gospel is a message to be proclaimed.  The gospel is lost if it is removed from the message and becomes something we do.  The saving power of the gospel ends up being moralism.  Giving food to the homeless without introducing them to the person who can save them and change their lives is not helpful – it does not end the cycle of poverty and dependence.  It is only at the Cross that a new life is born.
               We have a message of God’s salvation and we have compassion that results from the gospel to share.  The gospel message flows out and into us so that we might live a life for others. For those three days, the people were with Jesus hanging upon the words he spoke.  Words Jesus speaks have the power to change life.  Mark tells us so from the start: “And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.”” (Mark 1:38, ESV) He came for one reason to proclaim the Good News so that his kingdom gospel would reign and create new people, new communities and new cultures.  Preach the gospel and remember Jesus is with us to share his compassion. 
               The gospel became incarnate more than once in Jesus Christ.  The gospel message by the Spirit comes to live in the Church.  When Christ lives in us, then the Church moves out with that message “gospel - good news” upon our lips and his compassion flowing forth to care for the hungry. The old fashioned gospel of his death, resurrection and saving grace received by faith in Christ alone leads to the advancement of the kingdom. God saves sinners and Jesus cares about our cities.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Covenant Theology is Reformed Theology

The theme of covenant is something that is rooted deeply in the fabric of the biblical account from Genesis to Revelation.  Just a few days ago I shared with Dr. J. I. Packer the difficulty I have in communicating this alien idea to my contemporaries.  We are familiar with contracts that reflect a fallen “tit for tat” mindset.  We commit ourselves to others as long and they please us¸ satisfy us and give us pleasure.  We are used to disposable relationships.  Friendships end after the illusion fades just as quickly as romance ends in too many marriages.  Marriage is even more misunderstood since the confused decision of the five judges who redefined marriage as a relationship between two persons.  Marriage between a man and a woman till death do they part, as the traditional marriage pledge goes, is a glimpse of covenant.  It has no loopholes and is meant to create space for two very different people to know and share love in the arena of a covenant.  Covenant language goes like this:

I, _______, take you, __________, to be my wife; and I promise before God and these witnesses, to be your loving and faithful husband; in plenty and in want; in joy and in sorrow; in sickness and in health; as long as we both shall live. 

            Dr. Packer reminded me that ‘covenant’ is a word from the ancient world.  He alluded to his article in Concise Theology on the topic and quoted from memory the content contained here: “Covenants in Scripture are solemn agreements, negotiated or unilaterally imposed, that bind the parties to each other in permanent defined relationships, with specific promises, claims, and obligations on both sides (e.g., the marriage covenant, Mal. 2:14).”[1]  In the ancient world the Suzerain made a covenant with his vassal, normally a conquered nation that had certain blessings if kept along with certain curses if broken.  But the astonishing thing is that many of the Old Testament covenants are simply one way.  God makes covenant, “cuts a covenant” is the language.  Dr. Packer writes, “When God makes a covenant with his creatures, he alone establishes its terms as his covenant with Noah and every living creature shows (Gen. 9:9).” [2]   In Gen. 12:1-3, the covenant with Abraham is establish in the same fashion and then commemorated in Gen. 15:17-18 through the sacrifice of a bull through which God passes to ratify the covenant.  God does something amazing. Rather than having Abraham walk through the divided pieces of the bull thus taking the curse of death upon him if he doesn’t fulfill his part; God, instead, walks through the pieces taking the curse upon himself.  Christ is the One who took that curse upon himself at the cross.  Dr. Packer puts it this way:

Jesus Christ, the mediator of the new covenant, offered himself as the true and final sacrifice for sin. He obeyed the law perfectly, and as the second representative head of the human race he became the inheritor of all the covenant blessings of pardon, peace, and fellowship with God in his renewed creation, which blessings he now bestows upon believers. The typical and temporary arrangements for imparting those blessings were done away with through the realizing of that which they anticipated. Christ’s sending of the Spirit from the throne of his glory seals God’s people as his, even as he gives himself to them (Eph. 1:13–14; 2 Cor. 1:22).[3]

Scripture then reveals the mystery of God’s eternal covenant (Heb. 13:20).  It is rooted in God’s eternal commitment to know and love people to himself.   God did the work of securing our salvation before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:1-13ff).  Jesus Christ is my righteousness.  So when I praise God for being the God of covenant faithfulness and consider my half-hearted ways, and my sin, they do not disqualify me for Christ is mine by faith.  Packer explains further:

Salvation is covenant salvation: justification and adoption, regeneration and sanctification are covenant mercies; election was God’s choice of future members of his covenant community, the church; baptism and the Lord’s Supper, corresponding to circumcision and Passover, are covenant ordinances; God’s law is covenant law, and keeping it is the truest expression of gratitude for covenant grace and of loyalty to our covenant God.[4]

After studying theology under Dr. Packer at Regent College and when I was examined by the Presbyterian Church in 1991 I was asked by one of the teaching elders Chet Dorsey, “What is covenant?”  I gave a text book answer.  Today, the theology of covenant is the driving force of Christ’s love working in and through me as I trust him for my salvation and pray through the work of the ministry as a pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. 
            Covenant means we belong, and God will never let us go. Our modern time has very little patience with theology.  It claims to have no creed but Christ.  But I believe we are impoverished by just such a simplistic answer.  Christ is our faith and Jesus Christ is the covenant keeper. 
            Too often we feel alone and cut off in our modern world, adrift as solitary souls.  But through faith in Christ we are part of the elect of God: The Church – ecclesia.  We are those who are called out for relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who is love in community.  Covenant is the very core of the love we long for today. 
            There was a time when the Church was drench in the theology of the covenant.  The Westminster Divines wrote:

Under the gospel Christ himself, the substance13 of God’s grace, was revealed. The ordinances
of this New Testament are the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments
of baptism and the Lord’s supper.14 Although these are fewer in number and are administered
with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet they are available to all nations, Jews and
Gentiles,15 and in them the spiritual power of the covenant of grace is more fully developed.16
There are not then two essentially different covenants of grace, but one and the same covenant
under different dispensations.17

13. Gal 2.17, Col 2.17.
14. Mt 28.19-20, 1 Cor 11.23-25, 2 Cor 3.7-11.
15. Mt 28.19, Eph 2.15-19, see under figure 11 above, Lk 2.32, Acts 10.34-35.
16. Heb 12.22-28, Jer 31.33-34, Heb 8.6-13, 2 Cor 3.9-11.
17. Lk 22.20, Heb 8.7-9, Gal 3.14,16, Acts 15.11, Rom 3.21-23,30, Ps 32.1, Rom 4.3,6,16-17,23-24, Heb 13.8,
Gal 3.17,29, see context and citations under figure 10 above, Heb 1.1-2.

Is our theology better for its lack of understanding?  I think not.  I owe all I am to the blessed truth of the covenant spelled out in the scriptures and remembered by the Puritans who defined it so beautifully.  I have been resting in the reality that my life is secure because Christ bought me at the cross. He is my covenant keeper. 
            The Scottish theologian wrote of this covenant love in his hymn Love That Will Not Let me Go.  George Mattheson  was blind and the hymn was written when his sister who did all his reading to him announced that she was to be married to a man who lived the other side of Scotland.  These are his words:

  1. O Love that wilt not let me go,
    I rest my weary soul in thee;
    I give thee back the life I owe,
    That in thine ocean depths its flow
    May richer, fuller be.
  2. O light that foll’west all my way,
    I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;
    My heart restores its borrowed ray,
    That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
    May brighter, fairer be.
  3. O Joy that seekest me through pain,
    I cannot close my heart to thee;
    I trace (George originally  had “I climb”) the rainbow through the rain,
    And feel the promise is not vain,
    That morn shall tearless be.
  4. O Cross that liftest up my head,
    I dare not ask to fly from thee;
    I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
    And from the ground there blossoms red
    Life that shall endless be.
 God, I praise you for your covenant faithfulness that keeps me every day. 

[1] Packer, J. I. (1993). Concise theology: a guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.
[2] Packer, J. I. (1993). Concise theology: a guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.
[3] Packer, J. I. (1993). Concise theology: a guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.
[4] Packer, J. I. (1993). Concise theology: a guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.