31 March 2008

Too Busy to Say Much...

by Phil Johnson

'm just back from the Dallas area and too busy to blog properly today. But I wanted to point you to a friend's blog. Doug McMasters is pastor of Trinity Road Chapel, Upper Tooting. That's a London-area church within short walking distance of the home where Spurgeon lived for several years. Spurgeon helped inaugurate Trinity Road Chapel.

Anyway, Doug has been posting some selections from the 1894 isue of The Sword and the Trowel. These articles were initially published two years after Spurgeon's death, and they include some letters, rare sermon excerpts, and other items of interest not published during Spurgeon's lifetime. Enjoy, and I'll pick up the Acts 17 series later this week, Lord willing.

Phil's signature


My friend and favorite radio talk-show personality Todd Friel started a new daily television program today: "Wretched."

That's the name of the program, not my assessment of it. It's on FamilyNet, which means as far as I can discover, it's not on DirectTV, so I can't watch. But check it out if you get FamilyNet.

29 March 2008

Some Certainties for These Uncertain Times

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon
posted by Phil Johnson

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. The following excerpt is from "The Need of Decision for the Truth," a message Spurgeon preached at his pastors' college a few years before the Down Grade Controversy erupted. This message was originally published in the March 1874 issue of The sword and the Trowel.

here are gentlemen alive who imagine that there are no fixed principles to go upon. "Perhaps a few doctrines," said one to me, "perhaps a few doctrines may be considered as established. It is, perhaps, ascertained that there is a God; but one ought not to dogmatise upon His personality: a great deal may be said for pantheism."

Such men creep into the ministry, but they are generally cunning enough to conceal the breadth of their minds beneath Christian phraseology, thus acting in consistency with their principles, for their fundamental rule is that truth is of no consequence.

As for us—as for me, at any rate—I am certain that there is a God, and I mean to preach it as a man does who is absolutely sure. He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the Master of providence, and the Lord of grace: let his name be blessed for ever and ever! We will have no questions and debates as to him.

We are equally certain that the book which is called "the Bible" is his word, and is inspired; not inspired in the sense in which Shakespeare, and Milton, and Dryden may be inspired, but in an infinitely higher sense; so that, provided we have the exact text, we regard the words themselves as infallible. We believe that everything stated in the book that comes to us from God is to be accepted by us as his sure testimony, and nothing less than that. God forbid we should be ensnared by those various interpretations of the modus of inspiration, which amount to little more than frittering it away. The book is a divine production; it is perfect, and is the last court of appeal—" the judge which ends the strife." I would as soon dream of blaspheming my Maker as of questioning the infallibility of his word.

We are also sure concerning the doctrine of the blessed Trinity. We cannot explain how the Father, Son, and Spirit can be each one distinct and perfect in himself, and yet that these three are one, so that there is but one God; yet we do verily believe it, and mean to preach it, notwithstanding Unitarian, Socinian, Sabellian, or any other error. We shall hold that fast evermore, by the grace of God.

And, brethren, there will be no uncertain sound from us as to the doctrine of atonement. We cannot leave the blood out of our ministry, or the life of it will be gone; for we may say of our ministry, "The blood is the life thereof." The proper substitution of Christ, the vicarious sacrifice of Christ, on the behalf of his people, that they might live through him. This we must publish till we die.

Neither can we waver in our mind for a moment concerning the great and glorious Spirit of God—the fact of his existence, his personality, and the power of his workings; the necessity of his influences, the certainty that no man is regenerated except by him; that we are born again by the Spirit of God, and that the Spirit dwells in believers, and is the author of all good in them, their sanctifier and preserver, without whom they can do no good thing whatsoever. We shall not at all hesitate as to preaching that truth.

The absolute necessity of the new birth is also a certainty. We come down with demonstration when we touch that point. We shall never poison our people with the notion that a moral reformation will suffice, but we will over and over again say to them, "Ye must be born again." We have not got into the condition of the Scotch minister, who when old John Macdonald preached to his congregation a sermon to sinners remarked, "Well, Mr. Macdonald, that was a very good sermon which you have preached, but it is very much out of place, for I do not know one single unregenerate person in my congregation." Poor soul, he was in all probability unregenerated himself. No, we dare not flatter our hearers, but we must continue to tell them that they are born sinners, and must be born saints, or they will never see the face of God with acceptance.

The tremendous evil of sin—we shall not hesitate about that. We shall speak on that matter both sorrowfully and positively; and, though some very wise men raise difficult questions about hell, we shall not furl to declare the terrors of the Lord, and the fact that the Lord has said, "These shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal."

Neither will we ever give an uncertain sound as to the glorious truth that salvation is all of grace. If ever we ourselves are saved, we know that sovereign grace alone has done it, and we feel it must be the same with others. We will publish "Grace! grace! grace!" with all our might, living and dying.

We shall be very decided, also, as to justification by faith, for salvation is "Not of works, lest any man should boast." "Life in a look at the Crucified One" will be our message. Trust in the Redeemer will be that saving grace which we will pray the Lord to implant in all our hearers' hearts.

And everything else which we believe to be true in the Scriptures we shall preach with decision. If there be questions which may be regarded as moot, or comparatively unimportant, we shall speak with such a measure of decision about them as may be comely. But points which cannot be moot, which are essential and fundamental, will be declared by us without any stammering, without any inquiring of the people, "What would you wish us to say?"

Yes, and without the apology, "Those are my views, but other people's views may be correct." We ought to preach the gospel, not as our views at all, but as the mind of God—the testimony of Jehovah concerning his own Son, and in reference to salvation for lost men. If we had been entrusted with the making of the gospel, we might have altered it to suit the taste of this modest century, but never having been employed to originate the good news, but merely to repeat it, we dare not stir beyond the record. What we have been taught of God we teach. If we do not do this, we are not fit for our position.

If I have a servant in my house, and I send a message by her to the door, and she amends it, on her own authority, she may take away the very soul of the message by so doing, and she will be responsible for what she has done. She will not long remain in my employ, for I need a servant who will repeat what I say, as nearly as possible, word for word; and if she does so, I am responsible for the message, she is not. If any one should be angry with her on account of what she said, they would be very unjust; their quarrel lies with me, and not with the person whom I employ to act as mouth for me. He that hath God's Word, let him speak it faithfully, and he will have no need to answer gainsayers, except with a "Thus saith the Lord."

C. H. Spurgeon

28 March 2008

What is an "antinomian"?

by Dan Phillips

This might be briefer, less commented-on, and less controversial than its predecessor, on legalism. The word "antinomian" isn't thrown around quite as freely. Maybe because (unlike legalism) it's not much of a dodge to hide behind. You can't get much mileage, when a brother is exhorting you to take the Word to heart on some point, by calling him an "antinomian."

It is, however, misused as a dismissive way of refusing to deal seriously with other Biblically-based positions. If you can successfully label a person (or school) "antinomian"... well, he's bad, and that's that. So you don't need to think too hard about it.

It also is of course properly used of schools that are antinomian; and they are bad. Once again, then, what matters is using the word correctly — which, again, depends on defining it correctly.

So here are some proposed definitions. Note: they all have to do with Christian living, not how to become a Christian. None has to do with how to get saved, but with how to live as a Christian.

By popular usage (and with some overlap), an antinomian is...
  1. Anyone who believes that Christians are not obliged to obey any part of the Law of Moses qua Law-of-Moses
  2. Anyone who believes that Christians are not obliged to obey the moral division of the Law of Moses qua Law-of-Moses
  3. Anyone who believes that Christians are not obliged to obey the commands of Christ and the apostles
  4. Anyone who believes that Christians are not obliged to obey any law
  5. Anyone who sets the leading of the Holy Spirit in opposition to obedience to any rule or law, whatever the source or location
  6. Anyone who sets grace in opposition to obedience to any written word of God
As before, in the meta, tell us:
  • Which of these have you heard most frequently?
  • Which do you think is (or are) accurate and legitimate uses — and on what basis?
  • Which do you think are inaccurate and illegitimate — and on what basis?
Again, have at it.

Dan Phillips's signature

27 March 2008

Paul on Mars Hill (part 1)

A short introduction to a series of posts on Acts 17:22-34

n Acts 17, Paul preaches to the intellectual elite of Athens. The narrative includes one of the classic examples of New Testament gospel-preaching. It shows us the apostolic evangelistic strategy in action. It's an especially helpful example of how to confront false religion, philosophy, and elitism in an evangelistic setting. And it takes place in a highbrow academic environment. It's one of the best-known portions of the book of Acts, but it's also one of the most-abused sections in all of Scripture. It's a favorite passage for those who insist if we're not finding (or creating) as much common ground as possible between church and culture we are not properly contextualizing the gospel.

People who are enthralled with style-driven missional strategies almost always single out this famous account. "Paul blended into the culture," they say. "He adopted the worldview and communications style of his hearers. He observed their religion and listened to their beliefs and learned from them before he tried to teach them. And he didn't step on their toes by refuting what they believed. Instead, he took their idea of the unknown god, embraced that, and used it as the starting point for his message about Christ. And there you have some of the major elements of postmodern missional ministry: culture, contextualization, conversation, and charitableness.

I think if we look at this passage carefully in its context, what we'll see is that Paul used none of those strategies—at least not in the way they have been defined and packaged by most today's postmodern, Emergent, and missional trend-setters.

Paul was bold and plain-spoken. He was counter-cultural, confrontive, confident, and (by Athenian standards, much less today's standards) closed-minded. He offended a significant number of Athens's intellectual elite, and he walked away from that encounter without winning the admiration of society at large, but with just a small group of converts who followed him.

That is the biblical approach to ministry. You don't measure its success or failure by how pleased the crowd is at the end of the meeting. Our first concern ought to be the clarity and power with which the message is delivered. The right question to ask is not how many people received the message warmly. (It's nice if they do, but that's not usually the majority response.) The right question to ask is whether the signs of conviction are seen in those who have heard. And sometimes a forceful negative reaction is the result of the gospel's convicting aspects. In fact, when unbelievers walk away without repenting of sin and embracing Christ, an overtly hostile reaction is a much better indication that the message was delivered clearly and accurately than a round of applause and an outpouring of good feeling from a crowd of appreciative worldlings.

We need to remember that. We're tempted to think that when people reject the gospel it's because we have done a poor job of presenting it. Sometimes that may be true, but it's not necessarily true. Of course, our job is to be as clear and accurate as possible, and not to be a stumbling-block that keeps people from hearing the gospel. But the gospel itself is a stumbling-block for unbelievers, so people will stumble and even get angry when they are presented with it. And we have no right to try to reshape the gospel so that it's no longer a stumbling-block. You can't proclaim the gospel faithfully if your goal is for no one ever to be offended or upset by it.

We could learn a lot from what Jesus did in John 6. That chapter begins with this in verse 2: "Then a great multitude followed Him, because they saw His signs which He performed on those who were diseased." They liked it when He did miracles, but they didn't want His message.

He preached to them anyway, and at the end of the chapter (v. 66), John writes: "From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more." And then while the crowd was diminishing to almost nothing, Jesus turned to the twelve and said, "Do you also want to go away?" (v. 67). And then in verse 70, He added, "Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?"

In the face of a mass exodus of His disciples, Jesus was not concerned about doing what He could to seem more "likeable." He pressed the message with more clarity and more candor than ever.

That's exactly what Paul does in Acts 17. His strategy was about as far as possible from the postmodernized approach that drives so much of the contemporary evangelical church's outreach efforts.

Read it for yourself this weekend. I'm off to Dallas for a weekend conference.* Lord willing, we'll start an extended look at the text of Paul's sermon in Acts 17, beginning with the context of the chapter itself. Prepare yourselves.

Phil's signature

* (For those who have asked for info about this conference: it's a weekend men's retreat sponsored by a church in the Dallas area.)

26 March 2008

What YHWH meant when He said ...

by Frank Turk

We're going to delve into the Message today, partly because I love to see people lose it when I cite the Message, and partly because there's a passage in the OT which I wanted to chat about briefly:
That same day Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's sons, took their censers, put hot coals and incense in them, and offered "strange" fire to God—something God had not commanded. Fire blazed out from God and consumed them—they died in God's presence.

Moses said to Aaron, "This is what God meant when he said,

To the one who comes near me,
I will show myself holy;
Before all the people,
I will show my glory."

Aaron was silent.

Moses called for Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Uzziel, Aaron's uncle. He said, "Come. Carry your dead cousins outside the camp, away from the Sanctuary." They came and carried them off, outside the camp, just as Moses had directed.

Moses then said to Aaron and his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, "No mourning rituals for you—unkempt hair, torn clothes—or you'll also die and God will be angry with the whole congregation. Your relatives—all the People of Israel, in fact—will do the mourning over those God has destroyed by fire. And don't leave the entrance to the Tent of Meeting lest you die, because God's anointing oil is on you."

They did just as Moses said.
Now, the especially-sharp among you will notice right away that this is a passage from Leviticus 10, and it's about the altar-worship, the priestly worship of Israel -- and Aaron's sons, who were priests, presented worship which God "had not commanded". And you sharp ones will say, "yes, but Frank: Christians don't do 'altar worship' anymore. We live under Grace and not the Law, so this passage may have some value as an artifact of a past time, but it's hardly good for my best life now...the way I do church...a new kind of Christian a relevant guy like me."

Well, that person would be right to notice we don't carry a tabernacle around with us anymore, and that the blood of bulls and goats isn't what we turn to as a people when we find ourselves wanting to approach the living God.

But let me suggest something: what Moses tells Aaron here speaks to us clearly across the ages since which he said them.

This is what God meant when He said, "To the one who comes near me, I will show myself holy; Before all the people, I will show my glory."

That's Moses' explanation to Aaron why his sons, who were anointed as priests, were struck dead by God while they were allegedly worshipping: God shows Himself holy to those who approach Him.

Now today, this week after Easter, He is risen indeed -- and our sins no longer require a sacrifice because the work of that law is finished: paid in full. But let's think about whether or not God has changed -- and what God meant when He said "I will show myself holy".

What should a people like us do when we approach a God like that? I think that it has congregational implications, it has pastoral implications, and it has personal implications.

As Dan would say, discuss.

25 March 2008

What is a "legalist"?

by Dan Phillips

Were I forced to pick the most overused and undefined word in Evanjellibeanism today, and I might pick legalist. I think most Evanjellybeans think of legalism as Associate Justice Potter Stewart (January 23, 1915 - December 7, 1985) thought of hard-core pornography: he wasn't sure he could define it, but said "I know it when I see it."

We all know legalism when we see it — or so we think. But do we? Here are some definitions that I have culled from common use, by means of hearing, reading, observation and/or analysis. There will be some overlap and repetition.

Got all that?

Here we go, then:

A legalist is...
  1. Anyone who thinks Christians are under the Ten Commandments
  2. Anyone who thinks Christians are under the Law of Moses (more broadly)
  3. Anyone who thinks that we must obey law (— any law, whether of Moses or of Christ) to merit salvation
  4. Anyone who thinks a Christian should obey the commands of Christ and the apostles
  5. Anyone whose example makes me feel bad about my life
  6. Anyone who imposes man-made rules on other Christians' consciences
  7. Anyone who lives by standards that I don't share
  8. Anyone who tells me that I should not do something I want to do, or do something I don't want to do
  9. Anyone who tells me that a sin I sinned was sin, that I must repent before God and man, and that I must make it right with those I've wronged
  10. Anyone who seriously thinks that what the Bible says is more important than what I strongly feel
  11. Anyone who seriously thinks that the Bible should be our only rule of faith and practice, and that it is wholly sufficient to that end
  12. Anyone who quotes a Bible verse I don't want to hear
  13. Anyone who affirms a Biblical truth I don't want to think about
  14. Anyone who thinks that, just because I say I believe in Jesus, I should take seriously anything that Jesus or His apostles or prophets say, even if I don't want to
  15. Anyone who evaluates my outpouring of emotions and reactions in a Biblical manner, however humanly and compassionately
  16. Anyone who holds to a lot of rules
  17. Anyone who applies the Bible accurately, but without so much as a breath of grace, patience, compassion or humility
  18. Anyone who thinks we should ever say "No" to anything we really deeply feel in our hearts
  19. Anyone who goes to church when he doesn't feel like it
  20. Anyone who takes literally parts of the Bible that I don't take literally
  21. Anyone who thinks I should go to church when I don't feel like it, just because I say I believe in Jesus
  22. Anyone who thinks I should respect an authority I don't agree with
  23. Anyone who thinks that, just because I call Jesus "Lord, Lord," I should actually do what He says
  24. Update: Anyone who tries to hold another to a biblical standard [credit: Carrie]
  25. Update: Anyone who thinks that there is no problem that cannot be solved by more and better rules
In the meta, tell us:
  • Which of these have you heard most frequently?
  • Which do you think is (or are) accurate and legitimate uses — and on what basis?
  • Which do you think are inaccurate and illegitimate — and on what basis?
My chum: it is unlikely that anyone will be able to make a case that legalist is never used in any of the senses given above. I observe that this plethora of competing usages creates two very serious problems:

First, Christian A preaches or writes or otherwise rails fiercely against "legalism" in, say, senses 3, 6 and/or 17, but is heard by Christian B as denouncing legalism in, say, senses 9, 10 and/or 23. (Or vice-versa!)

Second, Christian A bitterly denounces Christian B as embodying senses 3, 6 and/or 17, when Christian B was in reality motivated along the lines of senses 4, 10, 11, 15, and/or 23 — because this pious dodge sounds and looks so much better than simply admitting the truth of the matter.

Have at it.

Dan Phillips's signature

23 March 2008


by Phil Johnson

o I stabbed my hand with a paring knife today trying to remove an avocado pit just before lunchtime. Three stitches. Believe it or not—although I am one of the most consummately clumsy people you would ever want to meet—this is the first time in my life I have ever needed to have stitches for an injury. Three of them.

The urgent care nurse asked me when I last had a tetanus booster. It was ten years ago, on the Fourth of July, when I stabbed my finger with a razor-sharp BBQ fork whilst trying to separate two frozen hamburger patties. That wound went all the way through my finger but was too small in diameter to require stitches. This one went only about two-thirds of the way through my palm, but it was big enough to need sutures.


Serious prayer request:

Our friends Chuck and Teresa Weinberg are going through a severe trial this weekend—replete with dozens of small but amazing miracles, wonders of divine Providence, and timely answers to prayer. I'll let Chuck tell you about their family's ordeal in his own words here. Please keep Chuck, Teresa, Grant, and their family in your prayers this week. And keep watching Chuck's blog for updates.

Phil's signature

And now...

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. The following excerpt is from "The Evidence of our Lord's Wounds," a sermon preached 2 December 1877, on a Sunday evening at the Met Tab.

ook at Jesus, dead, buried, risen, and then say, "He loved me, and gave himself for me"! There is no restorative for a sinking faith like a sight of the wounded Savior. Look, soul, and live by the proofs of his death! Come and put thy finger, by faith, into the print of the nails, and these wounds shall heal thee of unbelief. The wounds of our Lord are the tokens of his love.

They are, again, the seals of his death, especially that wound in his side. He must have died; for "one of the soldiers, with a spear, pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water. And he that saw it bare witness."

The Son of God did assuredly die. God, who made the heavens and the earth, took to himself our nature, and in one wondrous person he was both God and man; and lo! this wondrous Son of God bore sufferings unutterable, and consummated all by his death. This is our comfort, for if he died in our stead, then we shall not die for our sins; our transgression is put away, and our iniquity is pardoned. If the sacrifice had never been slain, we might despair; but since the spear-wound proves that the great Sacrifice really died, despair is slain, hope revives, and confidence rejoices.

The wounds of Jesus, next, are the marks of identity. By these we identify his blessed person after his resurrection. The very Christ that died has risen again. There is no illusion: there could be no mistake. It is not somebody else foisted upon us in his place; but Jesus who died has left the dead, for there are the marks of the crucifixion in his hands and in his feet, and there is the spear-thrust still. It is Jesus: this same Jesus.

This is a matter of great comfort to a Christian—this indisputably proven doctrine of the resurrection of our Lord. It is the keystone of the gospel arch. Take that away, or doubt it, and there remains nothing to console you. But because Jesus died and in the selfsame person rose again, and ever lives, therefore does our heart sweetly rest, believing that "them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him"; and also that the whole of the work of Jesus is true, is completed, and is accepted of God.

Again, those wounds, those scars of our Lord, were the memorials of his love to his people. They set forth his love so that his chosen can see the tokens; but they are also memorials to himself. He condescendingly bears these as his reminders. In heaven, at this moment, upon the person of our blessed Lord, there are the scars of his. crucifixion. Centuries have gone by, and yet he looks like a Lamb that has been slain. Our first glance will assure us that this is he of whom they said, "Crucify him; crucify him." Steadily look with the eyes of your faith into the glory, and see your Master's wounds, and say within yourself, "He has compassion upon us still: he bears the marks of his passion." Look up, poor sufferer! Jesus knows what physical pain means. Look up, poor depressed one! he knows what a broken heart means. Canst thou not perceive this?

Those prints upon his hands, these sacred stigmata, declare that he has not forgotten what he underwent for us, but still has a fellow-feeling for us. Once again, these wounds may comfort us because in heaven they are, before God and the holy angels, the perpetual ensigns of his finished work. That passion of his can never be repeated, and never needs to be: "After he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, he sat down on the right hand of God." But the memorials are always being presented before the infinite mind of God. Those memorials are, in part, the wounds in our Lord's blessed person.

Glorified spirits can never cease to sing, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain"; for every time they gaze upon him they perceive his scars. How resplendent shine the nail-prints! No jewels that ever gemmed a king can look one-half so lustrous as these. Though he be God over all blessed for ever, yet to us, at least, his brightest splendor comes from his death.

My hearer, whensoever thy soul is clouded, turn thou to these wounds. which shine like a constellation of five bright stars. Look not to thine own wounds, nor to thine own pains, or sins, or prayers, or tears, but remember that" with his stripes we are healed." Gaze, then; intently gaze, upon thy Redeemer's wounds if thou wouldest find comfort.
C. H. Spurgeon

22 March 2008

Low in the grave He lay

by Dan Phillips

Between the dark shame and misery of Good Friday, and the joy of Resurrection Day ("Easter"), lies a sabbath, a Saturday. Of that day, only one Gospel makes a direct comment: "On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment" (Luke 23:56b). The other Gospels only speak of the Sabbath prospectively ("since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath," Mark 15:42), or retrospectively ("Now after the Sabbath," Matthew 28:1).

Luke's ἡσύχασαν ("they rested) does not mean that the disciples rested in the sense of having a nice, enjoyable, relaxing day. It simply means they were quiet, inactive, as required by Moses' Law. Presumably this is why the Dutch call it Silent Saturday, while other calendars call it Holy Saturday. They make have been silent, they may have been inactive; but I doubt there was anything restful about the day.

That the Gospels pass over that day in near-silence (no pun intended) points up the fact that they are really about Jesus, not about the disciples. But it is not difficult to imagine the horror of that day.

Friday was simply stunning and shattering on every level. Clearly the disciples' hopes and dreams had featured no Cross — in spite of Jesus' repeated predictions (Matthew 16:21, etc.). Yet the Cross had come, filling the day with numbing horror.

But Saturday must have been worse. While Jesus had life, they could have had hope. He might have pulled off a stunning reversal, this Jesus, who walked on water, threw demons out like they were scrap-paper, told the very elements to "shut up" — and the wind and storm obeyed!

But now He was dead and gone. There had been no display of power, but rather of apparent weakness. A mockery of a trial, brutal beatings, and the most shameful death the Romans could dream up. The body of the Messiah lay in the tomb, and with it, all their aspirations and expectations lay cold and dead. In fact, their lives were buried when His body was entombed. With Jesus dead, they had nothing to preach, they must have thought. All their hopes were pinned on Him, and He had died.

Beyond that, they loved Him, and He had suffered unimaginably.

And beyond that, they had failed Him, every one of them. The shame and guilt and self-reproach of that must have burned like fire in their hearts.

This day marks that day. "Dark Saturday" would seem a fitting name for it. That must have been a dark day indeed for the original believers, since not a one of them was taking comfort in faith. That is, Jesus had foretold the events of Friday, and they happened just as He said; but that is not all He foretold. Just as clearly and insistently, Jesus had said from the start that He would rise on the third day (Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19, etc.).

But we see no sign that even one of them believed nor took comfort in His words. Even the women, who in some ways outshine the men, went to the tomb expecting to find His corpse (Mark 16:1; Luke 24:1-3; John 20:1-2) .

As we reflect on the events of our Lord's death, burial, and resurrection, let us reflect also on this: the world looks entirely different, depending on whether we do, or do not, take God at His Word. Events are what they are. What they mean, and what they mean to us, is another matter.

It is widely understood that Jesus lived, and that He died. But the significance of His life, and of His death, and of the aftermath, are understood only by the light of the Word of God.

Let us not repeat the mistake of the sad mourners on that Saturday long ago.

Dan Phillips's signature

21 March 2008

Context and Contextualization

by Phil Johnson

More about why I've been so adamant in my refusal to embrace and celebrate a word so many people seem enthralled with.

efore the 1970s, the word contextualize was pretty hard to come by. It was, however, listed in unabridged dictionaries as a verb meaning "to study something in its own context." (The Oxford English Dictionary still gives that as the word's primary meaning.)

In the early 1970s, left-leaning missiologists made contextualization into a religious shibboleth. They also turned the dictionary definition of the word inside out. They weren't talking about studying or explaining biblical truth in its own context; instead, what they wanted to do was adapt and stylize religious ideas and symbols to fit into the cultural context of their target audience—namely oppressed and marginalized people groups.

It wasn't long before hip, young evangelicals discovered and embraced the basic concept, and then franchised it. Instead of targeting impoverished and downtrodden people, however, they turned contextualization into a tool for attracting Yuppies. People-pleasing activities quickly replaced God-exalting worship. Popular entertainment, apparently, was the one "context" the new evangelicals' target clientele were drawn to en masse.

Now post-evangelicals have canonized contextualization as the one essential belief they all agree on. The "context" that seems to interest them most is the postmodern underbelly of western youth culture. (They evidently believe nihilistic post-generation-Xers are the very epitome of an oppressed and marginalized people group, so in effect they have brought the term back to its roots.) They defend contextualization with a zeal most of them don't even have for the authority of Scripture.

A fundamental problem in all those cases is that the starting point of their hermeneutic is not a careful study of the biblical text in its own context—but a sympathetic self-immersion into various contemporary cultural contexts. The favorite emblems of faddish subcultures are then borrowed and blended with spiritual imagery in order to make selected elements of the Christian message seem as comfortable and familiar as possible. Re-contextualization or even de-contextualization would be more fitting terms.

I realize there are some sensible and sane evangelicals who are quite fond of the word contextualization—and they generally try to define it in innocuous terms that defy the word's actual derivation and history. That strikes me as an utterly wrong-headed way of thinking—especially for those who profess to be concerned about context and communication. And yes, I know the word is currently in vogue and gaining ground even in conservative circles. I don't mind being countercultural and uncool, so that plea carries no weight whatsoever with me.

Let me be clear: My objection to "contextualization" in evangelical and post-evangelical parlance is not because I think context is unimportant. On the contrary, context is vitally important—and when we're dealing with revealed truth from God, biblical context is vastly more important than the context of any contemporary subculture.

In that context, consider this comment from a semi-prominent post-evangelical blogger:

Phil Johnson’s current post on contextualization . . . should be read to get a clear picture of what Johnson and his supporters hear when they hear "context." Summary: the worst aspects of culture embraced at the most cost to the clarity of the gospel. Is that what missiologists and missional pastors mean by contextualization?

  1. First, the fellow utterly misses my whole point. My objection to the popular notion of contextualization has nothing whatsoever to do with any phobia about context—either the word or the concept—properly considered. I'm simply pointing out that of all the contextual issues we must consider as ministers of the gospel, biblical context must always be first in order and is always of supreme importance.
         But biblical context is not what the word contextualization refers to. I frankly wouldn't care if the very finest aspects of culture dominated the concerns of contextualizers. I'd still reject the concept. What I object to is the utterly fallacious idea that something other than the biblical context should be the starting point for our understanding or application of spiritual truth.
  2. Second, when considering our own contemporary cultural context, we need to make honest and biblically-informed assessments about what's compatible (or not) with timeless biblical principles—rather than uncritically embracing the ephemeral icons of popular culture.
  3. Third, in questions about spiritual truth, biblical context is infinitely more relevant than any cultural context is. That's because meaning and truth are properly determined by the Author, not by the ambassador, and certainly not by the audience.
  4. Finally, with regard to the question of what missiologists and missional pastors mean by contextualization," one of the problems with the term, as I pointed out the other day, is that no two people ever seem to mean quite the same thing when they use it.
The Emerging Conversation illustrates this problem. Some think in order to reach a generation weaned on Ultimate Fighting, South Park, and hip-hop, you have to live and breathe and speak that language, with all its profanity and vulgarity and sexual innuendo. Be loud and proud with it. And, they insist, if you don't frame the gospel in that kind of context, you simply cannot reach postmoderns.

Others take "contextualization" a whole different direction, saying that if you really want to reach postmodernized cultures and subcultures, you can't preach anything with strong convictions. Certainty is offensive to postmodern sensitivities; firm doctrinal positions are perceived as arrogant; so traditional approaches to Christianity are not only uncool; they are hopelessly ineffectual.

What both sides of the Emergent/emerging divide do agree on (in practice if not in precept) is that the application of spiritual truth should begin with the contemporary cultural context, not the biblical context. That's precisely where I think the idea of missiological contextualization went astray, and it happened at the very start.

Oh, and one more thing: the supreme irony here is that the word contextualization itself is a kind of religious jargon—the very kind of thing most contextualizers say we ought to eschew. Do a Google search for the term and see who is using it. Religious people—stylish evangelicals, postmodernized pundits from the emerging conversation, missiologists, church-growth experts, CT editors, missionaries who toe the School of World Mission line, and evangelical jargonauts of all types. Collectively, they seem to use the word at least 75 times more than anyone else. So it is exactly the kind of Christianese the champions of contextualization say we should stay away from. Odd, isn't it?

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20 March 2008

The Hell, you say?
(Keller on Hell, discussed)

by Dan Phillips

I recently stumbled across an older article by Tim Keller titled Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age. Keller is something of a celebrity in many circles, and his recent The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism is causing a good bit of blogbuzz. So I thought I'd see how he handled this tense and controversial issue.

Keller begins thus:
The young man in my office was impeccably dressed and articulate. He was an Ivy League MBA, successful in the financial world, and had lived in three countries before age 30. Raised in a family with only the loosest connections to a mainline church, he had little understanding of Christianity.

I was therefore gratified to learn of his intense spiritual interest, recently piqued as he attended our church. He said he was ready to embrace the gospel. But there was a final obstacle.

"You've said that if we do not believe in Christ," he said, "we are lost and condemned. I'm sorry, I just cannot buy that. I work with some fine people who are Muslim, Jewish, or agnostic. I cannot believe they are going to hell just because they don't believe in Jesus. In fact, I cannot reconcile the very idea of hell with a loving God—even if he is holy too."
The rest of the article deals with how Keller responds to that question, that issue — the issue of Hell. (Note: "Hell" should be capitalized; it is a place-name, a proper noun.)

What Keller does. So Keller sets out to make the idea of Hell more reasonable to this man, and to others. It's quite a readable and thoughtful article, and I commend it to your consideration.

First, Keller provides a section subtitled "How to preach hell [sic] to traditionalists." These sorts of folks already have a moral framework, and may not struggle against the idea of Hell per se; the problem may be that it is their prime motivation for faith. And it is an inadequate motivation.
The way to show traditional persons their need for the gospel is by saying, "Your sin separates you from God! You can't be righteous enough for him." Imperfection is the duty-worshiper's horror. Traditionalists are motivated toward God by the idea of punishment in hell. They sense the seriousness of sin.

But traditionalists may respond to the gospel only out of fear of hell, unless I show them Jesus experienced not only pain in general on the cross but hell in particular. This must be held up until they are attracted to Christ for the beauty of the costly love of what he did. To the traditional person, hell must be preached as the only way to know how much Christ loved you.
To postmoderns, Keller says he makes these arguments:
  1. Sin is slavery.
  2. Hell is less exclusive than so-called tolerance.
  3. Christianity's view of hell is more personal than the alternative view.
  4. There is no love without wrath.
Keller's case is interesting, clever, creative, well-made, and useful to have in your toolbox.

It just isn't the way I'd respond.

What I do. Let's go back to the beginning, and lift out the challenge laid down by the man who opens Keller's article:
"You've said that if we do not believe in Christ," he said, "we are lost and condemned. I'm sorry, I just cannot buy that. I work with some fine people who are Muslim, Jewish, or agnostic. I cannot believe they are going to hell just because they don't believe in Jesus. In fact, I cannot reconcile the very idea of hell with a loving God—even if he is holy too."
I think I'd respond this way:
Suppose you and I were having a conversation about the American system of law and justice. You are making the argument that, on the whole, it's a just system.

Suppose I were to reply, "You've said that if someone molests children sexually, he should go to jail for a long, long time. I just cannot buy that. I work with some fine people who molest children. I cannot believe they are going to jail just because they molest children. In fact, I cannot reconcile the very idea of jail with a loving society — even if it is just too."

How would you respond to me?

You're a decent person. I bet you'd recoil in disgust. You'd quickly and heatedly respond, "Then your idea of justice is completely screwed up!"

Which is exactly my response: your idea of justice, holiness, sin and punishment, is completely screwed up.

God tells us what his moral hierarchy is. God tells us how sins rank, ethically. God says that the pressing moral imperative of the entire universe is to love Him with all one's being (Mark 12:28-30). That is the highest imperative. Therefore, the highest crime is to refuse to love God as he deserves.

What's more, the God who makes this command, also specifically demands that we worship His Son just as we worship Him (John 5:23). Therefore, anyone who refuses to worship Christ as God is not worshiping God — and is guilty of the worst moral crime in all creation.

Like many people, you put man at the center of the universe. God puts God at the center of the universe.

Child molesting is among the most horrible moral monstrosities I can imagine. I share your revulsion for it.

But rejection of Christ is even worse.
Then, I would proceed from there to speak further of God's holiness, our sin, Christ's salvation — the Gospel.

(In an earlier post, I made this same case from a different angle.)

Why I do it. First, I'd approach it that way for what I think are Biblical reasons. For instance, Proverbs 21:22 says, "A wise man scales the city of the mighty and brings down the stronghold in which they trust." Apologetics necessarily involves a lot of demolition-work (cf. Proverbs 26:5; Jeremiah 1:10, etc.).

Second, my ultimate goal in apologetics or evangelism is to proclaim the Lordship of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:5; 1 Peter 3:15). As I just explained to my twelve-year-old, "apologetics" is not the practice of saying you're sorry that you believe in Christ. Apologetics is making a reasoned defense of the Christian faith, giving a grounded answer.

In fact, I think the problem with apologetics today is that too much apologetics is too apologetic. Too often, we actually come across as if we're saying, "Yeah, sorry... but I do believe this. Sorry. I know it's lame. It's true for me. You don't have to believe, if you don't want to. That's cool. But there you have it. Uh... Sorry!"

Well, I'm not sorry, and I don't think it's lame. In fact, I think unbelief is lame. Or I wouldn't bother with this whole take-up-your-cross and deny-yourself business of walking after Jesus. And there you have it.

Now, I'm about to fault Keller's approach specifically, but let me undo myself before I do it. I'm not really accusing Keller of anything bad, truly I'm not. And I'm not saying there's anything evil or anti-Christian or sinister about it — or about you, if that's how you choose to approach the question. Hats off to Keller for preaching the truth of Hell, and for not backing down on a very unpopular issue.

But that approach makes me uncomfortable, and I'd not employ it, myself.


Because to me it feels like that approach says, "You have a right to challenge God, and oppose your judgment over His. My job is to make God seem reasonable to you, in your judgment, by your standards."

And so the person who accepts Keller's line of reasoning may be saying, "Okay, now that makes sense to me, so I can accept it. It's okay with me if God is God in that area. He has my permission." (And then I guess God says "Cool!", and goes on being God.)

But what if this person later doesn't find our reasoning so persuasive, or if he's not initially caught up in Keller's chain of reasons? Well, then, he has the freedom to disagree with God and reject God's ways.

So since the ultimate issue is going to be the clash between (if you will) God's autonomy and mine, why not start the discussion out right there?

Then some of Keller's other arguments can well be brought in to demonstrate the wisdom of God — but not to get the rebel's permission for God to be God. In his topsy-turvy, chaotic, rebellious moral universe, God's ways will never "make sense" to Joe Autonom — because he has the foundational equation wrong.

Remember what Keller said about the man with whose words he began the article: "He said he was ready to embrace the gospel. But there was a final obstacle." So the man was convinced that he was lost in sin, helpless under the deserved wrath of a holy God; convinced that Jesus was truth incarnate, God incarnate, and Lord of Lords; convinced that his only hope was to come out with his hands up, and bow the knee to the Lordship of Christ as his only hope for life, forgiveness, reconciliation to God — but he still feels his judgment is superior to Jesus'? He's negotiating with God? And Keller's going to help? Obviously Keller can't tell the whole story, but something doesn't fit here. It's that aspect that niggles at me.

Remember: the unbeliever's starting point is, "I am Lord." He's wrong about that, dead-wrong. So that's where the heavy artillery needs to be directed.

My approach, then — and, yes, it probably rhymes with sman Smilianis not, "Lord Pagan, is it okay with you that God is Lord, too? Can I negotiate a treaty between you and God as among equals?" My approach is, "
Here's why and how the boat you're in is sinking, and why you need to bail out; and here's what God the true Lord says."


(Not really!)

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19 March 2008

The Most Basic Questions

by Frank Turk

I've taken up three hobbies lately, all of which will probably vie for the honor of actually killing me. The least of these hobbies – but the one which is likely to be the most fun for the most people – is my new blog called "GiMP University", through which many of you have already clicked through to. Let me know if there's a particular technique or final product you'd like to learn how to create.

The second hobby has resulted in a sort of avalanche of free books. Some of you have noticed that I've been on a book review tear lately, and it's because if I'm going to read two books a week I figure somebody ought to benefit from it – like me. If I read them and review them, and publishers want reviews for their books, I can often get the best books out there for free.

Mostly, it's because I'm a member of TeamPyro, and we get 3000-ish hits a day, and blahblahblah. My hat's off to Phil for inviting me and to Dan for being the smart one in our group that causes readers to return.

Anyway, I'm sort of on a tear right now through books which are or ought to be useful to pastors since I spent 2007 beating down the average church-goer for wanting to leave his church. Next week, DV and the creek don’t rise, I'm going to cover D.A. Carson's new book about his father's lifetime of ministry, but this week I'm going to review a book by a couple of young guys you may have never heard of before.

Kevin Deyoung is a young pastor in Michigan who has previously written a book about practical complementarian theology, called Freedom and Boundaries; his writing partner is Ted Kluck, who has written a couple of books about football and a book about guys who fought Mike Tyson.

Together, they have turned out Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be), published by Moody Press. It's technically in pre-release right now, so you can't buy it yet, but let's talk about the "you" here before we talk about "should buy this book".

You are just this guy (or woman) who reads blogs, and maybe some books, but you're not working on your Th.D. and you can't read Greek or Hebrew. You watch a little TV because, well, it's fun and enjoyable, but it's not a lifestyle for you – you don’t schedule your life around "Lost", and you haven’t lost any sleep over the fact that SciFi is about to start the last season of Battlestar Galactica, and you wouldn't care if I printed spoilers right here. You read the Bible, attend church, and you have this fear of something called "emergent church" because, it seems, their Bible is missing some pages or something.

Or you may be a person who has listened in to the "emergent conversation" over coffee at the local bean-ista, or maybe at Barnes & Noble. "Church" for you is something that people do when they can't figure out how to live like Jesus, and for people who prefer to read dead Presbyterians more than they prefer to read the Sermon on the Mount. For you, chatting in someone's living room about the mystery of God is way more interesting and edifying than thinking about the problem man's vain reasonings pose for man when he's faced with the God who talked to Moses and wrote a Law in stone with His finger – as if God actually has a finger.

Listen: if these two versions of "you" are two points on a line, and the actual "you" falls in between these two points someplace, you need to read this book. The brainier, academically-inclined professorial types have already read D.A. Carson's Becoming Conversant with Emergent, and also everything by David Wells on American Culture, Postmodernism and the Church. The rest of us have been waiting for a book by someone with an I.Q. below the boiling point of water to speak simply, plainly, and clearly about what's at stake in the "emergent conversation", and why someone who shares many of the concerns of the Emergents would choose to do something besides, well, what the Emergents are doing.

Without boxing pastor Deyoung in, I'd call him one of the better examples of the so-called "young Calvinists" out there. He obviously has a robust faith, something which is not a "mere Christianity" but a robust philosophy that hinges on a real Christ, a real Jesus who isn't far away from us in time and space but speaks to us through Scripture. And he's a serious thinker – not someone seeking to score cheap shots or create unnecessary controversy. And he's sort of the anchor in this book – the guy who keeps us faced toward the real issue, which is "Is Jesus real, and can we know Him?"

Ted Kluck, on the other hand, is sort of an interesting bird. He comes across as a very level-headed guy who has a very pleasant, anecdotal style of writing; he does really nice things with common-place events like the death of one of his childhood Sunday school teachers, or a conversation which takes place in a diner. And at one place, he calls Donald Miller "the male Ann Lamott", which I think he means as a compliment, but I thought that was exactly right – for better and worse. The thing with Kluck is that exactly where you think he's going to sort of duck into an "emergent" brain-storming alley about mystery and poverty and candles, it turns out he is actually turning on the street light of thought about the problems or questions at hand; he answers a little more deeply and a little less, um, adolescently and demonstrates to the reader that the call to faith is not merely a poetic notion.

And we're blogging here, so rather than turn out a 10-page paper on this book, I'm going to give you what I think is a taste of what's inside, and leave it up to you to actually buy and read this book.

First, from Pastor Deyoung:
I understand that the emerging church is only addressing certain areas of inquiry that they deem are most crucial. That's their prerogative. But at some point in the conversation it would be nice if they would share their convictions on something other than community, kingdom living, and mystery. The emerging church will grow irrelevant to the very culture it is trying to reach if it can't answer with some measure of clarity, however tentatively, the most basic questions that face every human being.
And also from Ted Kluck:
I am struck by the fact [while reading Peter Rollins' book How (Not) to Speak of God] that what is billed as sort of unchecked creativity has produced ten liturgies that are remarkably similar in look, feel, and purpose. This is not a critique so much as an observation that Ikon may be more like its traditional counterparts than it would like to think. At the beginning of the tenth liturgy we are reminded by Rollins that Ikon "has no substantial doctrinal center ... just as a doughnut has not interior, but is made up entirely of an exterior.

I am reminded of what goes on in seeker-friendly megaplexes all across the country on Sunday morning – slickly produced music, followed by multimedia clip, followed by drama, followed by ambiguously thought-provoking/inspirational message with a minimum of Scripture at its center.
Get this book; read this book. It frames the issues both for the Emergent church and for the larger body of Christ in such a way that both side get rightly challenged and called to action for the sake of our Lord and Savior.

Oh yeah: my last new hobby. The last hobby is, um, ... it's a TeamPyro podcast. Details to follow.

Oh, you have GOT to be KIDDING me

by Dan Phillips

In the meta to my previous post, Mike Hall pointed me ultimately to something that had me literally slack-jawed.

Step away from sharp objects, sit down, have your heart-medicine at hand, take a few deep and slow breaths...

...and read this.

You'll see "A Special Note About Easter" which, according to pastor Blake Hickman, came from the First Look Sunday School publishers.

In the letter they explain how — you are sitting down, right? I wasn't kidding. They explain why they are leaving Easter out of their Easter materials. They've decided that the story of the Cross is too violent and disturbing for young children, and the Resurrection wouldn't make any sense without it, so they "are focusing on the Last Supper, when Jesus shared a meal and spent time with the people He loved."

I just... is this Scrappleface? Is this some sort of joke?

See further comments:
Tom Ascol
Tim Ellsworth
Russell D. Moore
Do any of you use this curriculum? Are they barking-mad in other ways as well?

At this point, I run out of post-conversion, sanctified vocabulary. Over to you.

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18 March 2008

Jesus and His "trick questions"

by Dan Phillips

When we read John 6, sometimes we Calvinists tend to race down to verse 44. But let's slow up a bit and not rush by this:
Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?" 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. (John 6:5-6)
On one level, I think we can look at this as a charming little story: dumb disciple, amazing Lord, big miracle. Cool! Jesus is great and powerful. Can we do verse 44 now?

When we read it that way, we feel no connection whatever between ourselves and the story itself. Which one of us has ever been in this situation? None of us. We've never been physically standing with Jesus, in immediate communication with Him; never been faced with a huge obstacle, and had Him verbally ask us, one-on-one, what we propose to do about it. Never. Huge gap between the Then and the Now, the There and the Here.

So let's step 'way back and paint the situation with a very broad brush:
  1. A disciple is pursuing God's will
  2. Providence puts a difficulty on his plate
  3. The difficulty is insurmountable
  4. He must make a decision
When we put it that way, the gap 'twixt it and us rather narrows, doesn't it?

"Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?", Jesus asks.

Today, we'd say reverently that Jesus' question was a trick-question. Not deceptive or insincere; but effective on two levels. Jesus means to teach Philip something, and He has to put him in a test-spot to do it. So Jesus in effect takes Himself out of the lead, approaches Philip as if He were observing the situation (instead of controlling it), and makes Philip deal with it.

Now, has that ever happened to us? "In the last five minutes, no," you say. "But before that, oh, about a zillion times."

Indeed yes. We're not pursuing sin in a brothel, or selling our souls to land a book-contract to peddle heresy, or waiting to rob a liquor store. We're doing something within God's will — preaching the Word, raising our children, loving our wives, doing our jobs. And then Providence drops a knotty dilemma on our plate, with no divine answer in sight.

"What are you going to do about this?", comes the question. How do we field it? Do we panic, because the train is clearly off the tracks? Do we lose all hope, all faith? Do we approach the situation as if we were indeed facing it alone, as it seems to the naked eye?

Well, look: if it weren't hard, it wouldn't be a test, would it? Do you build muscles by hefting a piece of typing paper, or by groaning over something that taxes your strength?

Nor do we grow as disciples by easy-answer situations. We grow by dealing with dilemmas, insolubles, dead-ends.

Are there promises of God's goodness, His kindness, His sovereignty, His invincible benevolence towards His elect? Is He panicked? Has He already made provision, in His eternal plan? Is there not, even in this "trick" question, a subtle hint: "Where are we to buy bread?" Philip isn't actually alone in the situation. Will he deal with it as if he were, or will he factor Jesus into the solution?

And so, in our situation: has God granted to us exceedingly great and precious promises to hold onto?

Now's the time to reach for them. The hopelessness of the situation is the illusion; the promises are the reality.

This dilemma that Providence has posed — it's a trick-question.

Careful how you answer.

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17 March 2008

Why I Don't Like the C-Word

A Short Prologue to a Discussion on Paul's Mars-Hill Strategy
by Phil Johnson

Contextualization? Why Not?
Here's a handy index to this entire series:
  1. "Why I Don't Like the C-Word"
  2. "Context and Contextualization"
  3. "Paul on Mars Hill (part 1)"
  4. "Paul and Culture"
  5. "Paul and Conversation"
  6. "Paul and Contextualization"
  7. "Paul and Charitableness"

   remarked in a message at the Shepherds' Conference two weeks ago that I'm not a fan of the word contextualization—or the set of ideas usually associated with that word. Although the message was generally well-received by the pastors who heard it in person, it unleashed an avalanche of forceful reactions from people in the blogosphere—ranging from shocked disbelief to angry derision. The former reaction came from people who gave me the benefit of the doubt. They were merely stunned at my astonishing naïveté. The latter brickbats came from less sympathetic folk, a couple of whom said that they have pretty much always thought of me as a fundamentalist cretin anyway.

My favorite response was from someone who basically said, Sure, the word contextualization is misunderstood and much-abused today, but so is justification. Rather than simply discarding these terms, we ought to fight for their biblical meaning.

See, the thing is, contextualization isn't a biblical word like justification is. Although lots of people now think of contextualization as one of the most essential and elementary terms in the theological and missiological lexicons, it's a word no one ever even heard of until 1972, when Shoki Coe used the term in a paper delivered to the World Council of Churches. (Prior to that, the favorite fad in missiology was indigenization, which was a little more passive approach to tweaking the gospel than contextualization, but a similar idea in some ways.)

Anyway, critics in the blogosphere are nothing if not predictable. They intoned the baby/bathwater cliché; they recited mantras selectively adapted from 1 Corinthians 9:19-23; and they suggested that whether I knew it or not, I myself employed a kind of contextualization when I compared the Athenian philosophers of Paul's day to people who surf the Web and watch YouTube for viral videos.

As if I hadn't already addressed all those "arguments."

So I intend to begin a series of blogposts which will contain the heart of that message (including, especially, a close look at Paul's Mars Hill strategy). But first let me reiterate a few crucial things I said at the very start in my session at the Shepherds' Conference:

  1. Definitions of the word contextualization tend to be murky and far too open-ended. It's one of those currently-popular jargon-words like missional that gets defined differently every time, depending on who is trying to explain it.
  2. People explaining contextualization usually start by making the (obvious) point that in order to cross linguistic and cultural boundaries effectively, we need to translate and illustrate our message in a way that is suited to the understanding of the people or people-group we want to reach. Quite true. And if contextualization entailed nothing more than translation and illustration, the word would be superfluous. It practically always means something more—and that "something more" is what I object to, not the translation and illustration of biblical truths.
  3. The idea of contextualization first gained traction among evangelicals in the realm of Bible translation, and it's easy to see why. Obviously, if you take the word of God to an Eskimo culture where they have no clue what sheep are, you need to find a way to explain all the pastoral references in terms that Eskimos can understand. Something like Psalm 100:3 ("We are His people and the sheep of His pasture") is naturally harder for an Eskimo to relate to than it is for a New Zealander. So in one famous instance, a group of Bible translators working in an Eskimo language translated the word "sheep" as "sea lions" throughout Scripture. (I can't imagine what that does to the 23rd psalm or why it wouldn't be a whole lot easier just to teach eskimos what sheep are, but there you have a classic example of verbal contextualization, showing how it can actually obscure more than it really clarifies.)
  4. In postmodern missional strategy contextualization always seems to involve embracing the values of the target culture. Listen to those who talk most about "contextualizing" the gospel and it becomes clear that their actual goal—sometimes deliberately and sometimes unwittingly—is to make Christianity seem more familiar and more comfortable and less counter-cultural.
  5. Many advocates of contextualization expressly state that proper contextualization involves temporarily adopting whatever worldview is held by the people we are trying to reach, so that we can speak to them as one of them, and not as outsiders and aliens.
  6. In the real world, therefore, contextualization usually goes far beyond translating and illustrating truths. It also goes far beyond adopting the language and the social conventions of polite culture while avoiding certain cultural taboos (which is what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 and 10:32-33). Today's contextualizers are trying to adapt the content of the gospel message as much as possible to the worldview of whatever subculture they see as their target audience. Not only do sea lions become an acceptable substitute for sheep; postmodern tolerance becomes an acceptable replacement for Christian charity.
  7. In fact, people who are enthralled with contextualization nowadays tend to turn the "give no offense" principle of 1 Corinthians 10:32-33 on its head. Rather than avoiding cultural taboos in order not to obscure the gospel unnecessarily, they sometimes purposely try to flout as many taboos as possible. Unlike Paul, who wanted to avoid anything considered impolite or uncouth so that the gospel could be heard without unnecessary distractions, they want to maximize the shock-and-awe effect, thinking that is going to gain them a better hearing with the South-Park generation.
To sum up: proper cross-cultural translation and illustration ought to aim at making the gospel clear. Listen closely to the typical missiologist or church planter who champions the idea of contextualization—and what you'll usually hear is someone trying desperately to make the gospel more palatable. Unbridled enthusiasm about this sort of contextualization has dramatically changed the evangelistic strategy so that the number one goal in contemporary evangelical outreach is for the church to assimilate into the world as much as possible—and above all, be cool—so that the world (or some offbeat subculture) will like us. That is actually the driving idea behind both seeker-sensitivity and the Emerging church approach.

The idea of "contextualization" by adjusting Christianity to existing beliefs, values, and traditions was probably the twentieth century's most significant contribution to ministry strategy—and it is not a good one. It has made the church indistinguishable from the world, indistinct in its message, and (frankly) ineffectual as an evangelistic force in an unbelieving culture.

But the whole idea is actually unbiblical, counter-productive, and contrary to the real strategy the apostle Paul modeled and advocated. That's what I'm planning to demonstrate in a short series of posts beginning later this week.

Stay tuned.


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