Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reformed Church Marketing

My wife and I are a part of a newly forming team that is going to be planting a new church in Broadripple Village, a popular cultural center in Indianapolis. As we talk about the church and our focus, it's been very interesting how many of the accepted practices for church "marketing" and growth strategies seem to contradict Scripture. So, in my usual jovial style, I'd like to offer a few church marketing tag-lines that I'm proposing to our group.

If you're looking for a church where you'll feel comfortable? This ain't it!

Consider attending a church where you won't feel judged by other people. God, on the other hand...

Ever feel like you just can't do ANYTHING right? Come find out why.

What's wrong with tithing? It's a 90% off sale!

We can show you how to achieve incomparable health, wealth, and happiness. You'll just have to die first.

At our church, God-willing, executions performed weekly.

Now, effectiveness aside, is there anything theologically or even ecumenically wrong with any of these statements about the church? And, note, I'm actually asking. There may be. It's quite often that my wit out-runs my senses.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit: What is the Unforgivable Sin?

I have a friend in prison who has recently come to know the Lord. As he studies his Bible alone in his cell, many questions come up. Via the mail, I am able to write responses to his many questions. What follows is one such response. I welcome any additional feedback that I may include in my next letter.

You've stumbled upon quite the brain teaser for any Biblical scholar. Over the centuries, Christians have disagreed sharply about what this text actually means. There is no shortage of different teachings you might hear about it. One such teaching that you've obviously heard is that to "blaspheme the Holy Spirit" means to say the words "God damn it." Let me start by saying: whatever blaspheming the Holy Spirit does mean, that isn't it.

How can I say that? Well, for three reasons. The first is simply context. One of the things we have to be careful about when reading the Bible is that the original authors weren't 21st century Americans writing to our culture. They were Jews living 2000 years ago under Roman rule where Greek was the universal language (like English is today). Their culture had its own unique set of moral problems, some the same as today (sexual immorality, greed, etc.) and some entirely different (pagan worship, child sacrifice, etc.).

So, if you consider their culture, the simple fact is that the expression "God damn it" didn't exist. People didn't walk around saying that whenever they were angry or surprised. So, it doesn't make any sense that Jesus would be referring to that phrase in 30 AD speaking to a crowd of people who would have no idea what he meant.

Second, the idea of saying "God damn it" is a very simple request: we are asking God to condemn some person or object to destruction because we are angry with it. You could argue that it is a prayer. Read Psalm 7:6, where David makes the same request of God in slightly different words: "Arise, O Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice" (Ps. 7:6). So, simply asking God to damn something is not a sin at all. However, what is a sin would be to do so "in vain"-meaning, for personal and selfish reasons rather than for reasons of God's glory. That is the meaning of the 4th commandment, "You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God" (Exodus 20:7), which is, by the way, forgivable.

And the third reason that I can tell you "God damn it" is not the unforgivable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is because the text itself (Matthew 12) tells us what Jesus was referring to.
"Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, 'Could this be the Son of David?' But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, 'It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.'" (Matthew 12:22-24)
Notice that all the people did not even consider that Jesus was himself a demon. In fact, they immediately began to consider that He might be the Messiah, the "son of David," whom Jews had been awaiting for a long time. However, the Pharisees-religious elite who were intent on discrediting Jesus altogether-made an audacious claim. They said that He did these works by the power of Satan.

Actually, they called it Beelzebub. Here again we have to understand cultural context of 2000 years ago. Beelzebub was the name that Jews assigned to the most evil and deplorable pagan god. It was for them a name which figuratively represented everything opposed to God. It could be compared to our concept of "the devil" with horns and a pitchfork. It was derived from the name of one of the pagan gods nearby, and suffice it to say that anything related to a pagan god was deplorable, sinful, and evil.

So, whereas the people who saw Jesus' works were quick to believe that He was not only doing these miracles by God, but that he may also be the Messiah, the Pharisees identified His miracles as demonic and something to be feared. And, so, Jesus said of those Pharisees:
"He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Matthew 12:30-32).
It was the Holy Spirit, not Satan, who did the miracles that this crowd had seen. So, the ordinary sins of the people-"every sin and blasphemy"-could be forgiven. But for those who blasphemed against the Holy Spirit by saying that the Holy Spirit's works were actually evil and demonic, they could not be forgiven that sin.

The word "blasphemy" means to tell a slanderous lie, like spreading a vicious rumor. So, to blaspheme the Holy Spirit was to lie to the people about the source of Jesus' power in order to persuade them not to follow Him. That is the sort of sin that won't be forgiven. But, Jesus goes on to explain that it was not that they had accidently misspoken and now were condemned forever. This was no simple mistake on the Pharisee's part. The Pharisees were deeply evil. Jesus was describing their real hearts:
"You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:34-37).

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Dekker's "Thr3e" - Pelagianism Alive and Well

I have to admit it: I'm a junky for the psycho-thrillers. Movies, that is, not books. I can tell you that watching "The Ring" in 2002 marked a coming of age for me and my movie-going experiences. So, when a friend told me about this Christian fellow, Ted Dekker, whose novel was made into a nail-biting thriller, I was intrigued.

The movie, Thr3e, was released in 2006. I recently had the opportunity to watch the film with friends on home video. Not that I'm a movie critic (nor is this blog devoted to such content), but I will tell you that from a purely entertainment standpoint, it's well worth the view. Low-budget, for sure, but behind the lackluster cinematography and screenplay, the plot alone is enough to keep one's attention. I have no doubt the book is equally worthy.

But, while the film is entertaining, the undertones presented by an outspoken Christian author are cause for viewer discretion to be advised. As the plot unfolds, we find seminary student Kevin Parson entangled in classic predicaments which force him to face his own sins and deepest secrets. Meanwhile, Parson is struggling to complete his doctoral thesis--a work on the nature of evil within man--which contains the theological message that viewers (whether aware of it or not) are asked to believe based on the story presented.

What the student, Parson, posits in his thesis soon becomes the reality of his life. (Warning: if you haven't watched the film and plan to, what follows may be a spoiler for you). The three main characters--Parson, his warm-hearted friend Sam, and the evil antagonist Slater--are eventually exposed as mere alter-egos of the skitzophrenic Parson. In the dramatic scene where the mystery is revealed, Parson's thesis is cited regarding the three (hence the title) natures that he argues every man contains: the evil, the good, and the moral creature struggling in between.

Had I not known of the author's professed faith, I would not have given the plot a second thought. It cannot be overlooked, however, that the Christian author Tim Dekker is offering his audience more than just an exciting plot. He is offering a statement on philosophy with deep theological implications.

Is man really entangled in such an epic battle? Are we torn within ourselves between the good nature and the evil? Scripture, church fathers, and historic doctrine all say no--and I humbly submit that I, too, deny an ounce of "good" in unredeemed Man. Man, outside of the redemption which comes through Christ, is not torn at all. There is no struggle. There is no epic battle of moral disposition. Man is, and has been since the fall, full of sin. "Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned" (Romans 5:12).

Though Pelagius' heresy was identified and condemned at its outset in the 4th century, his teaching has permeated the Church, both pre and post reformation. Not only so, but his notions of a morally-torn man struggling against and capable to overcome evil has been the tune of countless religions in every culture throughout history. Indeed, the Spirit's work in the world is not merely to reveal Christ as perfect and good, it is also to convict men that they, contrary to popular belief, are quite the opposite.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Who do you think you are?

A little over 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson penned a statement (amid a much longer document) that stated his belief that all men are created equal. 55 other men put their signatures on the document, affirming that they, too, believed this and the accompanying statements that it supported. Do you know what was so equal about these 55 men? They were all white males who owned black people because they didn't see them as equal--which meant, in turn, they didn't see them as men.

The problem with the perspective of our founding fathers was not their self-image. They knew they were white. They knew they were males. The problem was the inherent value that they placed on these qualities.

In the last few verses of Galatians 3, we find Paul charging something very similar. His opponents, the judaisers, were not incorrect in their self assessment. They were indeed Jews. They were indeed freemen. They were indeed male. And, as an interesting tidbit of historical context, those three attributes comprised a common prayer for the Jewish member of a synagogue in the 1st century--not unlike (though not identical to) the haughty prayer of the Pharisee in Luke 18.

The Judaisers were not wrong, however, in that they were Jews. They were male. They were freemen. They were wrong, however, in the ultimate relevance of these facts to the matter of their own righteousness.

However, this topic burrows far deeper into the theological and doctrinal realms than mere social justice and racial equality. In the verses that follow, the first 7 verses of Galatians 4, Paul goes on to describe exactly what sort of equal playing field "we"--both Jews and Gentiles--are all on. Paul describes all of God's sons as once being children, and as children, likened to slaves. Under the guide of masters, children are held prisoner to the most basic of rules--such as the Law.

But Christ, born of a woman under the Law, redeemed us. The language is very reminiscent of Exodus 13, where firstborn sons belong to God and must be killed, that is unless redeemed by the blood of a spotless lamb. So, then, having been redeemed in similar fashion we are spared from death and reinstated our "full rights" as sons--nay, even heirs, as if to say firstborn sons. As a deposit of this inheritance--since, after all, we are sons--God sent the Spirit of His Son.

So, up to this point you may be thinking that all this amount to the very familiar doctrine of the atonement. Where does all that "burrowing far deeper into the theological and doctrinal realms" come from? Well, ask yourself this. In the description Paul gives in this text, is there ever a moment when we are not children, even before we are redeemed and given full rights as sons? As Paul teaches his readers the right view of their humble beginnings with God, he is sure to remind them that God foreknew them and redeemed them with purpose.

Moreover, the spirit of the sonship is not just a deposit. He is not just sent to help us live as heirs. He is not just sent to give us special powers and supernatural abilities as God's children. No, it is the Spirit Himself who actually cries "abba, Father." The Spirit is not sent to those who believe, it is sent to those to believe.

So, who do you think you are? Are you the religiously pious overly confident in your own righteousness. Are you the spiritually insightful one who found God and pursued Him with all your might? Are you the loving soul mimicking Christ as you try to bring Heaven to earth? Or, are you the child, born a child of God, redeemed by His son, and even given the very Spirit by which you cry out to your Father?

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Did father Abraham really have many sons?

Well, if you grew up in a Sunday School like I did, you probably already have an answer for that. Of course he did, and many sons had Father Abraham, too. But, being the antagonist that I am, I have to ask: what does Scripture say?

In our study of Galatians, we find ourselves this week in the latter half of chapter 3 where Paul makes a startling statement about this Abrahamic lineage. Whereas Paul's Jewish opponents in the church would have been firmly rooted in their belief that their descent from Abraham warranted their higher importance in God's view, Paul has a new revelation for them. "The Scripture does not say 'and to seeds,' meaning many people, but 'and to your seed,' meaning one person, who is Christ" (Galatians 3:16).

The promise, specifically that of inheriting the aptly deemed "Promised Land," was given not to many children of Abraham, but to one. In the words of the Apostle Paul, God had in view just one of Abraham's seed that would inherit the land as promised. Now, Paul was no amateur Bible scholar, either. The Hebrew does indeed support the singular use of this term. So what do we make of it?

By contrast, of course, the Jews would quickly recall Moses' words in Deuteronomy 32:46-47. At this second reading of the Law, the young nation was promised that if they obeyed fully they "will live long in the land." That was the promise, after all. God swore on oath to give Abraham's seed the land of Canaan. Now, here they are at the border of the land and God promises them that it will indeed be theirs... on one condition. Obey fully.

But this kind of agreement, Paul points out, is not consistent with the idea of a promise. It's two-sided and conditional, and put in place by a Mediator. "A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one" (Galatians 3:20). God is one and in His promise it was He alone who would ensure the inheritance. So, is there conflict here? Does the Law as stated above contradict the promise?

"Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not!" (Galatians 3:21). In fact, there was one person who pulled it all off. By the Law, one man did obey fully. He did fulfill the Law--every letter. He did earn His inheritance just as God had promised. Christ, the God-man! Jesus Christ, the seed of Abraham and begotten of the Father, inherited the land according to the promise.

"Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham" (Galatians 3:7). By faith, we are not only adopted, saved, forgiven, justified, and made pure for presentation to God. We're made into the very image of Christ. We are "clothed" in Him. All the perfection that He accomplished is imputed to us, and in so multiplying the person of Christ by imputing Himself onto His people, God is making Abraham's one seed as numerous as the sands on the seashore.

As the song goes: "Father Abraham had many sons. Many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them..." Are you?

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Promise of the Spirit: A Defense of Credobaptism

Well, there's nothing like coming right out in the title and saying what this article is all about, eh? No creative tricky titles from this guy. I'll just lay it out there. Unless, of course, you have no idea what Credobaptism means and what I might be defending it against. It's quite simple really: do you take the plunge only after you believe, as an adult presumably, or should we in the Church baptize our infants (paedobaptism) as a sign of the promise much like the descendants of Abraham did with circumcision?

If you're new to the debate, the arguments on both sides are compelling. On the one hand, why would you baptize any infant without the ability to flex a sphincter, much less confess their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? On the other hand, Israel, God's chosen people, were instructed to mark the members of their community at just eight days old with an indelible mark, so what's the beef?

Circumcision was not credo-circumcion. No, infact, I'm quite sure few people would opt for that route. It was a sign given by God to remind Abraham and his descendants after him of the promise that God had made, and had not yet fulfilled.

We have the same promise today. Christ is said to have inaugurated eschatology. The kingdom is already but not yet. We are forgiven by Christ's past atoning death and resurrection, but we await the final and complete installment of His glorious kingdom and our glorified bodies when He returns. We wait.

But we do not wait without a reminder. Like Abraham, we were given a sign. God did not leave us without a tangible reminder of His eternal promise. What, then, is this reminder of which I speak? The sprinkling of some Evian on a baby yet in diapers? Is that how indelible, how powerful, how unforgettable and life-transforming the reminder of God's promise really is to us?

Well, if you read the title. You'll know that my answer is indeed, No. Instead, "Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory" (Ephesians 1:13-14).

Gosh, that language sure sounds reminiscent of circumcision, doesn't it. And, to add to the debate, Paul's argument to the Galatians echos the same notion. How could the Galatians be confident that circumcision was of no value to them? But of course, they had already received the Spirit, the promise. What purpose, then, could circumcision hold for a person already marked with an indelible seal which, more than simply reminding, even guaranteed what was to come.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Exclusive Christianity: There is Not Other Gospel

Wow. What a harsh title. Isn't it just typical of some egotistical Christian to think he is the only one who is right. How absurd and closed minded the Church must be to have such a narrow view. With all the wisdom, all the great thinkers, all the various people on earth and differing views which constitute a celebratory diversity for so many modern thinkers... how can we be so backwards to think we're the only people right on the face of this grand planet?

In our study of Galatians this week, we took a closer look at Paul's outrageous claims in chapter 1:6-8. "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel... But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!"

Eternally Condemned? What was the crime worthy of such a judgment? To turn from the Gospel, perverting it from it's original truth. This leaves one of two options: either Paul was inescapably close-minded and unloving, warranting the complete dismissal of this and all his writings, or there must be something crucially important to the Gospel. So crucial, in fact, that to pollute the message with any falsehoods is a capital crime, worthy of death. Which is it?

While we may be under the impression that diversity of thought is good, that perpetual evolution of truth is the ultimate reality, and that any and all claims to exclusive truth must be folly--the reality is that these sentiments are not consistent with a Biblical outlook. Any perversion--modification, addition, revision, or outright restatement--of the Gospel will ultimately fail in one or both of the following ways:
  1. Failure to acknowledge the gravity of our sinful nature, which ultimately leads to idolatry of Man.
  2. Failure to recognize God’s complete character as He has revealed Himself, which leads to idolatry of a created god.

At the core of the issue is God, not man. The charge that Paul, and evangelical Christians today, are in fact intolerant and closed-minded will attempt to center the debate around man. The exclusivity of the Gospel has become an issue of Man's creativity and the assumption that it is our right to determine truth for ourselves. Inasmuch as this is the case, we are already idolaters.

The simple fact is that the Gospel is about God, not man. God desires that all men worship Him, and yet this cannot come about by spreading false testimony about Him--a false Gospel that is, as Paul said, really no Gospel at all.

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