31 December 2008

Out with the old

by Frank Turk

They say -- whoever "they" are; people who are apparently vetting Oprah's choices for book of the month -- that whatever you are doing at the turn of the new year, that's what you'll be doing all year long.

Here's a suggestion for you: repent of sin, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and be saved. You see: Christ died for our sins in the way the Old Testament said he would -- and because the Old Testament said he would. He was buried, and he was raised again from the dead because the Old Testament said he would be. There were many witnesses to this, and if the resurrection is not true, we're the most pathetic of all men anyway.

Believe in that: trust it, and repent of your sin so you will be forgiven. Know for certain he is both Lord and Christ, this Jesus who was crucified.

That's worth staying up late for.

30 December 2008

"Horrible stories" and the Whole Story

by Dan Phillips

What would you think of a literary critic who reviewed a certain work of literature thus?
The Lord of the Rings is a dank and depressing tale of despair, pointlessness and woe. The story begins in a happy community of prosperous, jolly souls, and ends in defeat and ruin. Frodo bears "The One Ring" through countless toils and trials, only to lose it to the evil Gollum at the end. The Quest comes to nothing, the Dark Lord Sauron enslaves all free peoples, the lives lost are sacrifices on the altar of meaninglessness, and the author's sole intent apparently is to crush out and mock all that is happy and hopeful and purposeful. It is a gloomy and miserable threnody that only a dark and sadistic heart could have begotten, or enjoy.
Or how about this in a film reviewer?
One watches The Sixth Sense in growing puzzlement. Though blessed with capable actors and a very poignant mood, the movie seems to go nowhere. A little boy is afflicted with terrifying visions, for which he suffers cruelly. A psychologist tries to help him, but seems equally lost and confused himself, drowning in his own growingly troubled and distant marriage. In the end, the erstwhile counselor simply comes to an impasse as one "case" is solved — leaving the wretched tot in the same dilemma, pathetic and unhelped. It is an aimless, pointless, purposeless, depressing movie. Watch it if you feel yourself to be too jolly and happy. Otherwise? No point!
If you actually knew either work, wouldn't you immediately conclude that the writers were burbling idiots, and disgraces to their craft? Wouldn't they completely lose all credibility to you?

Why? Because they hadn't considered the whole story. They'd lifted out one part, judged the whole on the basis of that part, and blamed their misunderstanding on the creators.

I actually read a review like that, decades ago. This professional critic, writing for a major daily newspaper, started off her review of the movie Cujo saying something like, "For no apparent reason, a sweet-natured St. Bernard becomes rabid, and...." Immediately, everyone who had either read the book or seen the movie knew that the reviewer had somehow missed the beginning of the movie! It colored and skewed her view of the whole.

This major gaffe discredited both her review, and the writer herself. She tried, afterward, but never was able to recover her credibility with the readership.

The point is obvious: you can't really assess a story if you get the beginning wrong, or ignore the end — much less both.

Given our sharp readership, I'm sure my point is obvious. But let's consider further together.

When you hear anti-Christians spitting out their venom about the God of the Bible, don't you often see exactly the same gaffe? They ignore (or are completely unaware of) both the beginning of the story and the end. They ignore Creation, they ignore the Fall, they ignore Redemption, and they ignore Final Judgment. They see evil in its ascendancy, and slander God as either immoral, uninvolved, or impotent. So on the basis of their misunderstanding, God is condemned. It's a bad Story — with an inept Storyteller, they scoff.

And in so doing, they discredit — not God, but — themselves.

This particularly struck me from my Bible reading for 12/24/08:
"Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! 4 Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed." (Revelation 15:3b-4)
"Revealed," the saints sing. God's righteous acts are revealed. John actually uses the verb φανερόω (phaneroō), meaning to make plain, obvious, apparent. They were there all along, but they were hidden from popular view. Only at this penultimate point, at the Eschaton, at the final judgments that sweep the planet and humanity on to their date with the Judgment Throne of God — only then are those judgments revealed. Now all can plainly see God's awesome justice, truth, holiness and worth, shining in the light of His righteous acts that are to be made public.

At the end of the story.

Remember this when skeptics, atheists, and mockers in and out of the professing church lift a snippet out and make light of the judgment of God. Ask them if it'd be fair to judge them by short selected clips of their talks and writings.

Nor should they — or we — make the same mistake regarding God and His Story.

Dan Phillips's signature

29 December 2008

Some things are hard to deny

posted by Phil Johnson

t TimesOnline, avowed atheist Matthew Parris writes an article admitting that "Africa needs God." Here's a portion of the article:

Travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.
HT: Joel Griffith

28 December 2008

A Message for the Last Sunday Night of the Old Year

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 Last Message for the Year," a sermon preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, on Sunday evening, 28 December 1873.

ossibly there is someone, on this last Sunday night of another year, who is saying to himself, "I hardly know why I came here, for I have been everything that I ought not to have been, and nothing that I ought to have been."

But, friend, dost thou desire to begin a new life even before the new year dawns up thee? Art thou willing to leave thy sins? Dost thou long to be a holy man? In a word, is it the one wish of thine heart that thou mayest be saved? Then I remind thee that the Lord Jesus Christ said, "Him, that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out." There is nothing there to shut out the most irreligious man if he will but come to Christ.

You say that you are an odd man,—well, I have often said and others have said that I am an odd man, a lot that cannot be put in any catalogue; you are self-condemned, and so was I before I came to Christ; you feel that you are, as George Whitefield used to say, one of the devil's castaways, so bad that even Satan himself would not own you.

Why, you and I ought to shake hands, for that is just how I felt when that poor local preacher pointed to me, and said, "Look, young man, look! Jesus Christ says to you "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else." I did look, and was saved by the same gospel I preach to you; and as this is the last Sunday night in another year, and as it may be the last gospel invitation you will ever have the opportunity of hearing, I repeat to you the very last invitations recorded in the Word of God, "The Spirit and the bride say, comes and let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely."

This agrees with John 3:16 which I have already quoted to you, and it also agrees with Christ's words in our text, "Him that cometh to me" and John Bunyan said that meant any "him" in all the world,—"I will in no wise cast out," that is, for no reason, for no conceivable motive, for no possible cause will Christ cast out one who comes to him by faith. "Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out" is a grand old Anglo-Saxon expression, that sweeps round the man who comes to Christ, and guards him, like a sword of fire protecting, him from every possibility of being cast out by Christ.

C. H. Spurgeon

25 December 2008

The Christmas Story

by Dan Phillips

The Christmas story doesn't really start with wise men nor shepherds. It does not begin with Gabriel's announcement to the young virgin, nor his earlier word to old Zechariah.

Its real origins lie far back in the days of eternity. Infinitely intelligent, wise and powerful beyond all imagining, the triune God conceived the entire plan that hinges on Christmas before He had lit a single star or spun a single planet. Never caught by surprise, God's masterful and intricate plan repeatedly surfaces throughout the pages documenting the thousands of years of Old Testament history and prophecy.

The first specific glimmer twinkles at the first fall of gloomy darkness. Eve and her idiot husband had just done the most foolish thing a couple can ever do: they had opposed their judgment to God's judgment. She had been a fool, and he'd trotted along like a moronic puppy. Of course, they had lost, in their fools' gambit; worse, they were lost, and God read them the riot act.

But amid God's announcement of the woes they'd brought on themselves and their children comes this word, spoken to the Serpent who had fooled Eve into rebelling:
I will put hostility between you and the woman,
and between your seed and her seed.
He will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel (Genesis 3:15 CSB)
Odd phrase, that: "her seed." The seed properly is what the man contributes to the birth of a child, and then it is used of the child so conceived, singularly and collectively. But in the hundreds of chapters and tens of thousands of words in the Old Testament, "her seed" never occurs again. It means... something, surely. But, at this first read, we're not sure what.

However, we do know that this theme of the seed keeps popping up throughout the Old Testament. God clearly is up to something. This is the outworking of some plan.

When all of the race has gone bad in Genesis 6, God wipes them all out — all except one family of one man, righteous Noah. Three sons are born to Noah, but Shem is the one singled out as chosen by God for a relationship (Genesis 9:26). Shem has many sons, but only one named Abram is isolated as the one in whom all the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:3). In Abram, and in his seed (Genesis 22:18).

The years roll by, and the narrowing continues. Abram has two sons, but Isaac is the one dubbed his "seed" (Genesis 21:12). Two sons are also born to Isaac, and it is the younger one, Jacob, who continues the line of the blessed Seed (Genesis 28:13-14). Jacob then has twelve sons. Which of them will continue this line? So much space is given to Joseph of the technicolored dreamcoat that we might think it is he - except that God identifies Judah as the one son who will produce the line of kingship (Genesis 49:10).

And here's one more clue for us: each of these moves involves a miraculous birth, a birth involving an act of God. How so? Every one of these matriarchs is infertile. Abraham's wife Sarah is infertile (Genesis 11:30), and so are Isaac's wife Rebekah (Genesis 25:21), and Jacob's wives Rachel and Leah (Genesis 29:31; 30:22). So we keep hearing that faint ringing of the bell, associating something remarkable with births in the line of the woman's Seed.

Are we given any help as to which of the thousands of children descended from Judah will be the line of the delivering, ruling, blessing, conquering Seed? Indeed we are, and we'll single out two.

First, around 1000 BC, Judah's grandson King David gets the news that he will never lack a son to sit on his throne, which is thereby guaranteed to his seed (2 Samuel 7:14). Of the thousands of Judah, that family is the one through whom the kingly Seed will come.

Then some three centuries later the house of David is told that a virgin would conceive and bear a Son, whose name would be God-with-us (Isaiah 7:14). Ah, now — the mystery is both solved and deepend! What would be remarkable about the Seed's birth? He really would be "her Seed," the seed of a woman without the normal participation of a husband. His origins would be from God.

That was why He would be named God-with-us; because He would actually be God in human flesh, as we further learn in Isaiah 9:6 —
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

So there, you see, is just a bit of what is behind the lovely story of the girl and the star and the shepherds and the angels. More importantly, this is why Heaven itself was so excited at the Child's birth, that no less than the Chief Angel was sent to announce it; and that is why Heaven emptied out to pour out its joy and praise, lighting up the darksome Mediterranean sky that night (Luke 2:13-14).

It wasn't just a story or an isolated event, like some bright fleck of confetti. It was part of an eternal plan, devised in the heart and mind of the infinite-personal God of Scripture. It was God's plan for the rescue of our fallen, lost, helpless race.

We were so far from God, so alienated and hostile, that no less of a measure could redeem us. We had had laws, examples, warnings and promises. None had worked!

The problem wasn't the laws; the problem was us. We were estranged rebels under God's judgment from the start and in the middle, and we still were. Nothing coming from us could save us, because we were the source and focus of the problem. We needed an extraordinary intervention from outside of us, from God Himself.

We didn't need to be merely instructed or improved. We needed to be saved.

That is exactly what Christmas was all about.

On Christmas, God the Son was born a man, and given the name Jesus — which means salvation. Jesus lived as a man, obeying God perfectly from the heart as none of Adam's natural sons had done. Jesus spoke God's words, and did God's deeds of power over the natural world and the spiritual world.

How did we respond? Our highest representatives in the sacred and secular realms hated Him, rejected Him, misjudged Him, condemned Him, and crucified Him. He died the death of a guilty man under God's judgment — though He had never done anything but the good and the righteous.

In that bloody death, Jesus fully satisfied the justice of God, by taking the place of lost sinners. Then Jesus rose from the dead, and ascended to the Father's right hand. One day Jesus will come to rule from David's throne, just as promised.

This is the Child of Christmas, no longer a babe in a feeding-trough: Jesus Christ, the woman's conquering Seed, the Son of David, God with us, the Savior.

Where does this leave you, then? Maybe now you know more than you once did. If so, that is wonderful.

But Herod knew all this, and he hated the Christ, and wanted nothing to do with Him. The religious leaders couldn't be bothered with Him. The politicians couldn't be rid of Him quickly enough.

It was the simple shepherds, and the foreign magi, who came to worship Him.

In which group do you stand?

Let us take our place by their side, marveling and wondering, believing and adoring. Let us worship God come in the flesh for our salvation: Jesus Christ, the true and only celebrity of Christmas.

Dan Phillips's signature

24 December 2008

As it had been told to them

by Frank Turk

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

For to which of the angels did God ever say,
    "You are my Son,today I have begotten you"?Or again,"I will be to him a father,and he shall be to me a son"?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
    "Let all God's angels worship him."
Of the angels he says,
    "He makes his angels winds,and his ministers a flame of fire."
But of the Son he says,
    "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;therefore God, your God, has anointed youwith the oil of gladness beyond your companions."
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to her. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But Mary was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?"

And the angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy--the Son of God. … For nothing will be impossible with God." And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word."

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
    "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us).
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son.

A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
    "Glory to God in the highest,and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

And at the end of eight days, when [the child] was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him."

(they said this because the prophet Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, and he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness. And Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe. And the Spirit of God came upon him, and he took up his discourse and said,
    I see him, but not now;I behold him, but not near:a star shall come out of Jacob,and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;")
After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Merry Christmas

23 December 2008

King Herod, the believer

by Dan Phillips

Though he appears in the narrative after the birth of Christ, King Herod ("the Great," 47-4 BC) is one of the well-known villains of the Christmas story. He's notable in history for his viciousness and jealousy; he's known to Bible readers for his infanticide.

But King Herod should also be known for his deep faith in the Bible.

The magi had asked Herod, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?" (Matthew 2:2). Herod himself was part-Edomite, not of the line of David, and thus not "born king of the Jews." To this murderously jealous man, the question was - well, let Matthew tell it:
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
6 "'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.'"
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him."
Herod called a plenary session of the Sanhedrin (as Lenski observes), and ἐπυνθάνετο παρ᾽ αὐτῶν ποῦ ὁ χριστὸς γεννᾶται — demanded of them where the Messiah would be born.

So Herod looked forward to the Messiah in faith — just the formula some theologians use of saving faith in the OT. Faith? Herod had faith. He believed in Bible prophecy. He believed in Messiah, that Messiah would be a literal individual, who would be king of the Jews. Herod's faith was informed, firm and motivating. It even issued in works!

So Herod believed — but he didn't believe. Without breaking out the theological Latin, Herod had knowledge, he had understanding, he even had a degree of acceptance — all of which are elements of saving faith.

In some ways, Herod's faith was superior to many who confidently call themselves "evangelicals."

But what did Herod lack?

Herod lacked the personal embrace of and repose on the truth he intellectually accepted and acknowledged. To use my favorite analogy: he saw the boat, he knew a lot about the boat, he may even have thought the boat could (theoretically) hold him. But he did not get in the boat. In fact, to work the analogy, he hated the boat. He tried to sink the boat.

So in Herod we see that awareness of Biblical facts is not enough, acceptance of Biblical fact is not enough; even a degree of action on the basis of Biblical facts is not enough.

Now, before our occasional mystical drive-bys get too excited, let me say this: if those factors alone are not enough, then how deficient is "faith" that lacks those elements? The problem isn't their inconsequentiality. It is their inadequacy. It isn't that they are dispensable. It is that they are, by themselves, insufficient.

Saving faith must be of a different kind than Herod's faith, which is fundamentally the same as Satan's faith. The demons are aware of far more Biblical facts than we; they acknowledge the truth of (at least) many of those facts. They even respond to those facts in a deeply emotional manner (James 2:19).

In spite of all his awareness and acceptance of facts, one fatal factor remained in Herod. It lurks behind his response:
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men (Matthew 2:16)
Herod believed in Messiah - and he wanted to kill Him. There wasn't room in Herod's universe for two kings, and he insisted that he be the one left standing.

So it is for many today, including many "evangelicals." They know some true things, they accept some true things, and to a degree they even act on some true things. But that core sin remains, lives, and thrives: pride, the motivator that transformed the anointed cherub into Satan, the Devil. Saving faith must be a knowing fact, an accepting faith — and a repenting faith, a submissive faith, a pride-crucifying faith.

That's why, when push comes to shove, they buckle and bail rather than push ahead and fight. Whether in conflict with inner passions or worldly fads, their faith isn't worth fighting for, suffering for, dying for.

One more thought: is this not why Christmas is not great good news to more people? In their hearts, they know the truth of the Christmas story (Romans 1:21). But it is not a welcome truth — because there is not room for two Kings, two Gods, in their universe. For them to remain king and god, Messiah must die. Since they can't accomplish it literally, they bury Him under trivial distractions and whistling past the graveyard — particularly that graveyard with the empty tomb.

But what makes it a Merry Nativity to us is we've seen the ruination and despair wrought by our own wretched attempts at godhood and autonomy. We're glad beyond words at the birth of Christ the King, the Savior. The history of Christ is the best news we ever heard! So we rejoice at and glory in the birth of Jesus Christ, who topples us off our cardboard thrones and saves us.

Scary man, Herod.

And instructive.

Dan Phillips's signature

22 December 2008

The Arminian Problem in Simple Terms

by Phil Johnson

f God knows the future with certainty, then the future is (by definition) already predetermined. If tomorrow is predetermined and you don't want to acknowledge that the plan was decreed by God, you have only two choices:

  1. Some being other than God determines the future and is therefore more sovereign than He. That is a kind of idolatry.
  2. Some impersonal force does the determining without reason or coherence. That is a kind of fatalism.

So anyone who denies that God preordained whatsoever comes to pass but wants to avoid both fatalism and idolatry is logically compelled to deny God's omnscience.

That of course, is precisely the rationale that has led so many to embrace Open Theism.

The more sensible option—and the biblical one—would be to abandon Arminian presuppositions and acknowledge that God declared the end from the beginning, and that He works all things according to the counsel of His own will.

Phil's signature

20 December 2008

Penn Jillette on Evangelism

by Phil Johnson

inda speaks for itself:

Phil's signature

Christ Alone Is Lord of His Church

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon
. . . and a word of encouragement for my friends at Grace Community Church, Jacksonville
posted by Phil Johnson

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. The following excerpt is from "The First Sermon in the Tabernacle," a sermon delivered on Monday afternoon, March 25th, 1861, at the dedication of the then-new Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. He took the occasion to lament the growing tendency of secular courts and governments to meddle in church affairs, such as cases of church discipline, heresy trials, and other matters over which the state has no valid jurisdiction.

In this passage, Spurgeon puts his finger on what he saw as the gravest danger posed by the established church.

    fear there are times coming when the minister will not be true to his duty unless he goes further, and preaches Christ as the sole King of the Church.

There has been a disposition on the part of the state, especially with regard to the Free Church of Scotland, to exercise power and judgment over church decrees. No king, no queen that ever lived, or can live, has any authority whatever over the church of Christ. The church has none to govern and rule over her but her Lord and her King.

The church can suffer, but she cannot yield; you may break her confessors alive upon the wheel, but she, in her uprightness, will neither bend nor bow. From the sentence of our church there is no appeal whatever on earth. To the court of heaven a man may appeal if the sentence of the church be wrong, but to Caesar never. Neither the best nor the worst of kings or queens may ever dare to put their finger upon the prerogative of Christ as the head of the church.

Up, church of God! If once there be any laws of man passed to govern thee, up, dash them in pieces! Let us each catch up the war cry, and uplift the lion standard of the tribe of Judah; let us challenge the kings of the earth and say, "Who shall rouse him up?" The church is queen above all queens, and Christ her only King. None have jurisdiction or power in the church of Christ save Jesus Christ himself.

If any of our acts violate the civil laws, we are men and citizens, and we acknowledge the right of a state to govern us as individuals. None of us wish to be less subjects of the realm because we are kings and priests unto God. But as members of Christian churches we maintain that the excommunication of a Christian church can never be reversed by the civil power, or by any state act, nor are its censures to be examined, much less to be removed, mitigated, or even judged.

We must have, as Christ's church, a full recognition of His imperial rights, and the day will come when the state will not only tolerate us as a mere society, but admit that as we profess to be the church of Christ, we have a right by that very fact to be self-governing, and never to be interfered with in any sense whatever, so far as our ecclesiastical affairs are concerned.

Christ must be preached, then, and exalted in all these respects, or else we have not preached a full Christ.

C. H. Spurgeon

Church discipline survey

by Dan Phillips

Lifting one theme from the previous post that many seem to be missing:
How many of you attend or know of churches whose constitutions/bylaws expressly state that running away does not cancel the discipline process?
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19 December 2008

BREAKING NEWS: church dares to practice NT Christianity!

by Dan Phillips

Unrepentant Professors and Faith-Fabricators Hit Hardest!
Media in Panic!

Good grief. You'd think no church had ever had to discipline a member before.

Well, probably for many reporters and readers — and, possibly the woman in question — this might as well be true.

The story: last Monday, the News4Jax website reported that one Rebecca Hancock was complaining that the church she'd attended was in the process of disciplining her for an ongoing, unrepented sexual relationship with her boyfriend.

The church is Grace Community Church in Jacksonville, Florida. (Phil Johnson spoke there last September, and their site links to Pyromaniacs.) The elders of the church sent Hancock a letter appealing to her in Christian love to repent of her sin, and be restored to fellowship with God and the church. The letter lays out the Biblical teaching about sexuality and holiness, and about church discipline. It relates that she has been confronted in the past, and has rejected attempts by the elders to speak with her.

Accordingly, the elders inform Hancock that, unless she repents and deals with her sin as God calls her to do, the church will obey Jesus' command in Matthew 18:17, telling the church of her sin.

Hancock laments (to the reporter) that "my sins will be told to the church, publicly, with my children sitting in the church and my friends." To yet another reporter, Hancock said
"I am concerned about my children sitting in church with their mother being crucified by the church that they trust,” she said. “I am very concerned about how it would affect them."
Hancock's children are 18 and 20 years old.

Unwilling to repent or speak to the elders of the church she had joined, Hancock left the church, and told it to stop trying to contact her. She felt that this would end the process; she was mistaken.

And now she's complaining to the media about the church's invasion of her privacy.

The Biblical backstory: anyone who has a standard New Testament has this passage:
15 "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them" (Matthew 18)
This is the Gospel of Matthew. It's been around awhile. It isn't hard to get a copy. It isn't apocryphal; it is textually well-verified; it isn't in a special, secret, "insiders-only" edition of the Bible. To have a Bible is to have this passage, as well as
other passages where church discipline is actually enjoined and/or done (i.e. Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 5; 6; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14; etc.). It is rendered in perfectly clear English.

Further, to claim to be a Christian is (at bare minimum!) to believe that Christ is Lord, that His words are binding and authoritative. By definition as a Christian, you set yourself to study and learn and practice those words (John 8:31-32; cf. Matthew 28:18-20). You should already know this teaching, if you've been a Christian for any length of time. If you haven't, and
someone shows it to you, your allegiance to Christ binds you to accept it.

In disciplining an unrepentant church member according to Jesus' words, a Christian church is doing just one thing: it is being a Christian church, as defined by Jesus.

Which, apparently, is a shocking event to Ms. Hancock — and the media.

The reporters and the experts: in spite of its (faux) reputation as a right-wing shill organization, the Fox News piece is actually the worse of the two I cite. The reporter speaks of "church orders," and of an "ultimatum" (twice) from the church elders. Hancock is spared such colorful language; her letter of resignation is described as sent "in hopes of solving the dispute" — not as an attempt to elude consequences for her refusal to practice the faith she professed.

Both reporters go to "experts." The Channel 4 article refers to unnamed "[p]astors with whom Channel 4 spoke," who said discipline is not abnormal, but that it is unusual to pursue a member after she's departed.

The FOX reporter speaks to Dr. Darrell Bock of Dallas Seminary. Bock has a reputation of being a conservative NT scholar, employed by a conservative seminary (Dallas), working in the worlds of academia and literature. What would Bock contribute to a real-life, tense situation involving an actual church, actually trying to practice the book Dr. Bock has made a career teaching about?

Professor Bock is reported as faulting Grace for insufficient private interaction. (NOTE: Bock makes this criticism publicly; how many private attempts he first made to interact with the Grace elders is not reported.) Bock also piles on the church for pursuing Hancock after she severed her relationship with the church.

(Bock comments on the story in this meta; readers can determine if his comments alter the impression created in the story.)

Also, note: the elders' letter is presented by FOX under the file-name Church_Extortion.pdf.

Reflections: I wonder... well, I wonder a lot of things. Evidently, I (though not a Trained Journalist) wonder more things than these two professional reporters. Here are just a few of the things I wonder:
  1. Ms. Hancock is so worried about how hearing of her sin in church will affect her (adult) children... that she goes to the media with it? So, instead of a small local congregation knowing about her sin, now (potentially) the whole world knows about her sin. That makes sense? Neither reporter thought to ask her about that?
  2. In fact, we're to believe that Ms. Hancock thinks it would have less of a negative impact on her children to have the whole world know (A) of her sin, and (B) of her unwillingness to take responsibility for it. That made sense to the reporters? No question-marks? None?
  3. Does Hancock say that church discipline was never mentioned in her membership class? Is that possible? Did the reporters try to contact other members?
  4. Has Hancock ever read Matthew 18? What does she think it means? To whom does she think it applies, if not to her?
  5. The reporters are so busy amassing condemnation of the church for pursuing her after she left — did anyone think to ask whether the church constitution and/or bylaws deal with such a situation? Many church-constitutions expressly deal with members under discipline who try to escape the process by resigning before completion. Does Grace's? Were the reporters unable to get a constitution or bylaws? Did Ms. Hancock not have a copy? Was no member willing to share a copy?
  6. And if the reporters did not wonder this, why did not Dr. Bock wonder it (— assuming the reporting is complete and accurate)? Bock has been training men to be pastors for years. Is he unaware of churches with explicit provisions about such attempts to dodge discipline? How is it that I, a relative nobody, can know about such provisions, while Dr. Bock (to be charitable) was unable to impress that possibility on the reporter? (Or did he try, and she refused to listen?)
  7. I think it would be interesting to ask Dr. Bock's students how they feel knowing that if they do something Biblically-defensible that the world doesn't like in a few years, Dr. Bock stands ready to join forces with (or, at least, be used by) the world in faulting and criticizing them, while they are under fire?
(Update: I was a bit surprised that even the panel of conservatives at OneNewsNow expressed concern [at about 18.3 minutes] at the process continuing after her departure, without even considering that the church constitution/bylaws might have anticipated such an occurrence.)

My other thought is personal. I have lived well within in the blast-zone of what happens when churches refuse to obey what Scripture says about discipline. I have seen the misery, chaos, confusion, conflict, and heartache that come from irresponsible pastors refusing to perform this miserably difficult, but absolutely necessary ministry for their sheep.

Conclusion: Ms. Hancock says, "I am a Christian, and that will never change. My relationship with Jesus has to do with me and Jesus, and he knows my heart."

No one disputes Jesus' knowledge of Ms. Hancock's heart — nor of anyone else's heart.

The issue in dispute: who knows Jesus' heart, apart from His self-revelation in Scripture? That self-revelation includes these directions regarding church discipline. Must that revelation necessarily have an actual impact on the lives of those professing faith in Him, and churches who profess to serve Him?

Grace Community Church evidently thinks so.

And so do I.

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18 December 2008

Unpacking forgiveness in real life

by Dan Phillips

In his book Unpacking Forgiveness (reviewed here), Pastor Chris Brauns relayed a number of stories illustrating situations of injustice and wrong. One particularly harrowing tale involved Scott and Janet Willis, six of whose children died from a fiery accident caused by a driver who gained his license due to Illinois' Governor George Ryan's corruption. It is hard to imagine a parent reading that story without gasping in horror.

The Willises had to deal with their horrific grief, and all the train of emotions that it brought. They also had to deal with Governor Ryan, and how to respond to his ultimate responsibility. Would they be bitter, angry, hateful, vengeful? Or did they feel obliged (contrary to Scripture) to "forgive" someone who admitted to no wrongdoing? Or would they work it through Scripturally, along the lines that Pastor Brauns set out in his book?

In fact, they did the latter.

Pastor Brauns reproduces the portion of his book relating the Willis' story here, because of a recent development. As part of an apparent attempt to position himself for a pardon from President Bush, Governor Ryan has reversed-course and issued a kind of an apology. Ryan in fact uses the words "truly heartfelt apology." But for what? Ryan says that his "service to the people...was less than [his] best, and for that [he is] sorry." The inmate speaks of "mistakes" (thrice). He never admits to crimes nor to wrongdoing, nor accepts that his jail sentence is just, nor pledges to serve the full term rather than evade the consequences of his actions.

Nor does former Governor Ryan mention killing "the investigation into the crash that took our children," retired pastor Scott Willis observes.

Because of this vague and carefully-worded letter, the Willises find themselves involved in the situation once again. First, they must determine: did Ryan actually apologize? Or did he give another good study in how not to apologize? (NOTE: ironically Senator Dick Durbin, the subject of the previous link on how not to apologize, urges Bush to commute Ryan's sentence.) Is Ryan repentant? What would genuine repentance look like?

I'd wager most of my readers have experienced this. One finds himself in such a swamp, when another wrongs him unambiguously and badly, then offers a namby-pamby, ambiguous non-apology, accepting no consequences and refusing to right his wrongs. Is this where the Willises find themselves?

Regardless, they are committed to seeing it through Biblically. The Willises want to go and talk to Governor Ryan in prison, look him in the eye, and seek resolution. They're willing to forgive, but know the need for genuine repentance and dealing with culpability and guilt. They are concerned for his soul. And they've been guided by the Biblical teaching in Pastor Brauns' book — which they, in fact, specifically cite.

For the Willises, this whole "forgiveness" thing is not only a doctrine nor a theory. We should pray for them, and for former Governor Ryan.

UPDATE: some more reflections on "'Sins' and 'mistakes'" over at my joint.

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17 December 2008

And he preached

by Frank Turk

This morning we got a prayer request for Ashley, so before getting started here take a moment to ask God for mercy and His power to be real for Ashley's family today.

Last week I think I exceeded my word count by a jillion, so just a brief post today. And in posting briefly, I'm realizing that this year I haven't blogged a single word about Christmas yet -- and a week from today is Christmas Eve.

You know: the Gospel of Mark is the only one which doesn't really give a "Christmas" account. Some people may say that John doesn't either, but maybe those people don't really understand why John goes from "in the Beginning" to "the Word became flesh".

At any rate, Mark has other fish to fry in telling the Good News of Jesus Christ, starting here:
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

"Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,'"

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, "After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
Now, when Mark wrote this, Leviticus and Deuteronomy would have been books ~1400 years old, (thanks Dan!) right? And Isaiah would have been a book about 700 years old. And the last OT prophet would have spoken about 400 years previous.

I mention that because even 400 years is a long time -- especially in an age with no internets and blogs, no printing press for weekly news magazines, no technological tools for preserving cultural foundations except pen and paper. Yet Mark makes a point of starting out his view of the Gospel by showing that in fact there is no Gospel without these pen and paper artifacts.

Think of this as a devotional moment for us as we consider Christmas -- because what we really want to do at Christmas is sort of close the Old testament and get on with the angels, and the shepherds, and the girl with the forgiving fiance, and the stable, and the idea or the story that this Jesus fellow was relatable and therefore we should at least give him a chance to say what he has to say.

But when Mark starts his story of the Gospel of Jesus, he says first of all that this three thousand year old story is where the story of Jesus begins: the story of Jesus begins in the Prophets.

And in that, what the Prophets were saying about Jesus was not something like, "well: your view of God is evolving, Israel, and one day someone will help you to come to a more human way of relating to and thinking about God other than this sacrificial system you are bloodying the place up with today."

In fact, the Prophets were saying, "God Himself is coming, and you should 'make straight his path'."

What a thing to say, right? "Make straight His path".

Listen: I think it's ironic that Newsweek took a week out of the Advent season to say exactly the opposite in making an editorial case for a religious view of Gay "marriage". In doing so, they have done exactly the opposite of making straight a path for this Jesus.

Don't make the same mistake they are making. Jesus is the one whose sandal we are unfit to untie, and we ought to be preparing the way for Him -- through repentence, through connecting to the Old Testament, and through the tutor of the Law which God gave us so that it will go good for us.

There's a voice crying out in the wilderness: make a straight path, for God is coming to dwell among us. Don't change the channel. Listen to this voice because it is good news -- even if it means that you have to admit that it is not the good news you were thinking you wanted to hear.