29 June 2009

At Home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8)

by Phil Johnson

Jackie and Mike
Jackie and Mike Taylor

ike Taylor was the first friend I made when I came to work here at Grace to You in 1983. His office was right next to mine, and we almost immediately formed a mutual respect and deep affection for one another that did not diminish with time.

In those days, Grace To You operated under the oversight of Grace Church's elders, and I was the first non-Grace-Church person ever hired (from Chicago, no less) to work for the ministry. Mike was still a fairly new Christian—a one-time bartender and frustrated film-school graduate who had been hired to edit study guides. (The study guides were those simple outline-style curricular books Grace to You used to publish as companions to each new series we broadcast on the radio.) Mike's full-time employment began just two or three months before I arrived, so we were the newest employees in the building.

Ironically, although I had worked as an editor at Moody Press, my first job at Grace to You was answering listener mail. Mike was inexperienced as an editor but devoted to the task and committed to excellence. For the first year and a half or so, I deliberately kept my nose out of all editorial affairs. But I needn't have worried. Mike welcomed me heartily from day one, and there was never any tension (and not one cross word that ever passed between us) in more than 26 years of friendship.

As it turned out, Mike had numerous innate abilities that perfectly suited him for editorial work. He was an excellent writer with a powerful instinct for clarity and brevity. He was also a quick learner. Everything he ever wrote or edited was superb. He had enough natural talent and developed enough wordsmithing skills that he would have qualified to work for any publisher anywhere.

When Mike first started working for Grace to You, it was only on an hourly ad hoc basis. Even when he was first hired full time, I presume he still thought of the job as temporary and transitional; not exactly a promising career move. But as a new Christian, he was hungry to learn the Word of God, and that job gave him an opportunity to study Scripture for long hours and get paid in the process. He could hardly believe that Providence would bless him with such a privilege.

Many years later, more than two decades after Mike moved into management at Grace to You and embraced the job as his life's work, he still felt exactly the same way—utterly amazed at the thought that God took him from tending bar in a joint on Hollywood Boulevard to serving in such a strategic, far-reaching role of ministry alongside John MacArthur. Mike had a loud, infectious laugh that echoed daily through our hallways. He became more knowledgeable about doctrine and Scripture than many seminary graduates. He proved to be an excellent teacher himself and was a key person in the leadership of GraceLife (the group Don Green and I jointly pastor at Grace Church).

Mike met his wife, Jackie, at Grace Church in 1982 or so and married her shortly after I first met him. Jackie and Darlene became lifelong friends, too. The Taylors had two precious daughters, Amanda and Emily, who grew to adulthood alongside my three boys, attending all the same schools, riding in the same carpools, and going to all the same church activities together. All five of them are still active in young-adult activities at Grace Church. Amanda and Emily both serve on the church staff. My eldest son, now 29, found a kindred spirit in Mike. They loved going to hockey games together. Our families were close at every level.

Anyway, two or three years ago, Mike contracted Valley Fever, a fungal infection that in most cases causes nothing worse than mild flu-like symptoms. In a narrow percentage of people, however, it can be very serious, or even prove fatal. Mike seemed to recover from the worst of the fever after that initial severe bout, but a few nagging symptoms remained. By March of this year, he was feeling back pain and losing his sense of balance; his walk became slow and deliberate, and he finally began using a cane. By April, those symptoms worsened; Mike was experiencing a creeping paralysis, and he was obviously losing mobility at a disturbing speed. We were all concerned. Mike, however, remained upbeat. He answered all my concerns with reassurances that he was regularly seeing doctors and he believed they understood what was wrong and could treat it.

The problem, as I understand it, is that the fungus had invaded Mike's spinal column, causing scar tissue that constricted those central nerves and was gradually paralyzing him. The lead doctor proposed a heavy steroidal treatment to knock the fungus out.

About two weeks ago, Mike entered the hospital for ten days of treatment with powerful doses of anti-fungal medication and steroids. Apparently the medication had side-effects that caused massive internal bleeding. Doctors were unable to stop the bleeding, and Mike went to heaven Saturday morning.

The entire Grace to You staff is still in a deep state of shock over Mike's death, and we will all miss him greatly.

Mike and I went together from being the youngest rookies to being the longest-tenured employees in the whole building. I find it hard to believe so many years have gone by so quickly, and I can't imagine what life at Grace to You will be like without Mike's laughter echoing in the hallways.

Please pray for Jackie, Amanda, and Emily. The loss for them is surely even more bitter-tasting than it is for us, and that is almost unimaginable.

And yet in the midst of all that sorrow is a sense of unspeakable joy and rejoicing when we think of Mike. We know he is in the presence of Christ, basking in the glory of heaven, and surely more amazed than ever at by the grace that carried him from Hollywood Boulevard to heaven. Words can't possibly express the triumphant gladness the truth of the gospel brings in moments like this.

What a profound blessing assurance is!

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28 June 2009

Precious in the sight of the Lord

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 sermon "Precious Deaths," preached Sunday morning, 18 February 1872 at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. (HT: Steven Hall)

"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints."—Psalm 116:15.

e it known that while we are sorrowing Christ is rejoicing. His prayer is, "Father, I will that they also whom thou hast given me be with me where I am," and in the advent of every one of his own people to the skies he sees an answer to that prayer, and is, therefore, glad. He beholds in every perfected one another portion of the reward for the travail of his soul, and he is satisfied in it. We are grieving here, but he is rejoicing there.

Dolorous are their deaths in our sight, but precious are their deaths in his sight. We hang up the mournful escutcheon, and sit us down to mourn our full, and yet, meanwhile, the bells of heaven are ringing for "the bridal feast above," the streamers are floating joyously in every heavenly street, and the celestial world keeps holiday because another heir of heaven has entered upon his heritage.

May this correct our grief. Tears are permitted to us, but they must glisten in the light of faith and hope. Jesus wept, but Jesus never repined. We, too, may weep, but not as those who are without hope, nor yet as though forgetful that there is greater cause for joy than for sorrow in the departure of our brethren.

. . . . . . . . . .

Death, too, we may be sure from this statement cannot be any serious detriment to the believer after all; it cannot be any serious loss to a saint to die. Looking upon the poor corpse, it does seem to be a catastrophe for death to have passed his cold hand across the brow, but it is not so, for the very death is precious; therefore, it is no calamity. Death if rightly viewed is a blessing from the Lord's hand. . . . It is not a loss to die, it is a gain, a lasting, a perpetual, an illimitable gain.

The man is at one moment weak, and cannot stir a finger; in an instant he is clothed with power. Call ye not this a gain?

That brow is aching; it shall wear a crown within the next few tickings of the clock. Is that no gain?

That hand is palsied; it shall at once wave the palm branch. Is that a loss? The man is sick beyond physician's power; but he shall be where the inhabitant is never sick. Is that a loss?

When Baxter lay a dying, and his friends came to see him, almost the last word he said was in answer to the question, "Dear Mr. Baxter, how are you?"

"Almost well," said he, and so it is. Death cures; it is the best medicine, for they who die are not only almost well, but healed for ever. . . .

Death to the saints is not a penalty, it is not destruction, it is not even a loss.

C. H. Spurgeon

26 June 2009

After the Sermon

by Phil Johnson

ne of our frequent commenters, Sir Aaron, posted a comment the other day which prompted some thoughts about preaching and the typical kinds of on-the-spot feedback preachers get. He wrote:

I'm always fascinated by stories from Pastors who are accosted immediately after their sermon. When I hear these stories, I always remind myself that I'm not that different in my own pride. So if I find I have a question, I never ask the Pastor after the service (especially since he wants to greet and talk to other people too). I merely tell him that I may have questions and ask permission to talk to him later. Then I take some time to research, study, and pray about the situation.

I think that's a generally sound policy. Almost every pastor I know will tell you that few things are more annoying than the guy who always wants to straighten out some fine detail in your theology right after you finish your sermon. It's invariably some incidental detail, hardly germane to the point of your sermon. But this guy can't wait to explain to you why something you said is wrong and if you only understood the meaning of the seventh toe in the image of King Nebuchadnezzar's vision your whole perception of the Bible would be opened up. This fellow never wants to discuss it during the week. But he figures the 10 minutes immediately after your closing prayer belong to him, and he wants to make the most of it.

Or there's the guy who has a novel view of sanctification. It's really just a re-tread version of some old antinomian/perfectionist scheme, but no one has ever understood it quite like him, and rather than being chastened by that fact, he is proud of it. Every week he wants to try to convince you how much better your sermon would have been if only you shared his understanding of "the crucified life," or whatever.

Somehow, a few of these people, piranha-like, usually manage to get to the front of the auditorium first. Their criticism colors your mood as you try to interact with other people. It can really be a severe trial, especially if one of the perennial critics wants to stand there and debate with you for a long time.

Having said that, however, in most cases, I don't mind it at all when people give me feedback right after a sermon, even if it's negative. (In fact, negative comments from people who aren't constantly negative are almost always helpful on one level or another.) What's frustrating about the type of people I just described is not that they disagree with something I said in the sermon—it's not even that they are predictably negative—but that they clearly have an agenda or a mental defense-mechanism that keeps them from hearing the real point of the sermon and taking the preaching seriously.

I actually love it when someone raises a question or objection that shows he or she was listening carefully and with a discerning heart. If they are right, I might actually learn something. (Hey: it happens more often than you might think.) If they are correcting a fact I got wrong ("You said 'Henry James,' but you meant William James"), they might even save me some embarrassment in the second service. If I have stated something in an unclear or muddled way, it gives me an opportunity to clarify. Or, if they have a wrong belief that was challenged in my sermon, it's an opportunity to refer them to some book or other sermon that will give them a better understanding.

So I don't want to discourage people from approaching the pastor after a sermon if they disagree or don't quite understand something. Go for it.

Just don't drag it out, and don't make it your weekly habit. And if you're going to tell your pastor on the spot when you think he got something wrong, be sure that you are even more diligent to give him encouraging feedback on the spot when you benefit from his teaching (Galatians 6:6).

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25 June 2009

Using the Bible to diss the Bible dodge (NEXT! #15)

by Dan Phillips

Challenge: We've got to go by the Spirit, not the literal Bible; after all, "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."

Response: Yep, that's what the Bible says. Literally.

(Proverbs 21:22)

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24 June 2009

Planted by

by Frank Turk

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you - if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
If you recall, back when I started this series, I said this:
    So you're saying to yourself, "cent -- don't be like this. Pastors have it hard enough, and the people who go after them are worse than wicked." Oh wait -- no: most of you are saying something like, "I sure wish my pastor was reading this," or, "I sure hope my ex-pastor is reading this -- maybe it'll drive some sense into his fool head."
And for those of you who thought that, you were waiting for us to get to this part of Paul's letter so that we could get very serious and systematic about the sufficiency of Scripture and the need for expositional preaching.

Yeah, well, hold on a second: that's quite a mouthful there -- none of which I would deny in principle, but none of which I would actually endorse from this passage.

What this passage says is not that he will open a Bible (which they didn't actually have at that time -- no bound books, no printing press) and read out loud and then expound from it. It says first that he will "hold firm" to the trustworthy word as it was taught to him. That word there "ἀντεχόμενον" means to hold one's self up with, or to cleave to, or to pay special attention to another -- in this case, to the word which is itself trustworthy.

If you mull this over for a few hours, you'll find yourself seeing something here which you probably didn't expect: that what Paul is exhorting Titus to find is men who are informed by the word, not men who are particularly informative about the word. That is: when Paul gets to the "instruct and rebuke" part, it's not because Titus has found seminary graduates where there were no seminaries. It is because there are men there who have, in the end, listened to what the word teaches them, and they are made into something better for it.

So all this fruit of the spirit stuff -- the "blameless" stuff -- is one aspect of this kind of man, and the other is that he's not just a kind and generous soul but he is in fact made into a disciple by the word, therefore he is able to disciple and discipline others.

Yes: he prolly can open the word and teach from it. He prolly talks good. But that's not what Paul is getting at here. The man who is qualified to be an elder in the church is one who is cleaved to the word and listening to the word and standing up against the word -- and from that place, he can therefore tell others something they don't know, and turn away those who are doing themselves and others harm by their false teaching.

And this goes back to his character, dear pastor reader. You might say it this way: Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of the mockers -- because his delight is in YHVH's testimony, and on His word he meditates day and night. That man is like a tree planted by streams of water that bears fruit in season, and its leaves do not wither. All that he does will then prosper.

You might find another way to say it; I'm not sure it'd be better. But that's what the comments are for.

23 June 2009

What prayer is and isn't [requested classic re-post]

by Dan Phillips

[From September of 2006 comes this (slightly-edited) post, requested by Jude (who also caught my attention with a string of non-top-40 Chicago titles off of their third album). The post swings a Louisville slugger at a couple of evangelidom's most treasured traditional fictions, as both part of the original meta and a couple of attempted rebuttals on other blogs attest. Enjoy. Or whatever verb fits.]

The minefield that is prayer. I can't offhand think of one specific doctrine which is more tradition-laden, nor buried under sentimentality, than that of prayer.

For that very reason, it's a risky topic. Step in any direction, and you land on someone's toes. Worse, diverge from the "party line," and it's as if you're insulting Mom. Only a fool, or someone with nothing to lose, would knowingly poke a stick at that particular venerated bovine. (Say... why are you looking at me like that?)

Christianoid notions. Common Christian coinage describes prayer as a conversation, declares that "there is power in prayer," makes prayer out to be the be-all and end-all of Christian living. Prayer is "the greatest power on earth," we're told. Is this Scriptural thinking?

Think of Frank Peretti's Darkness books. I read one or two. I thought them imaginative and fast-moving, but neither great theology nor great literature.

In his imagination, Peretti pulls the curtain aside on the spiritual battle that Scripture describes. He shows demons and angels alike in action, fabricates their dialogue, fantasizes their attempts to ruin or protect human beings.

Here's what sticks in my mind. What do you suppose strikes terror into Peretti's demons? When does everything start to turn around, for the demons' defeat and the saints' victory? It's when the saints pray. Nothing scares fallen angels, apparently, like praying Christians.

Now, it strikes me that all of this is backwards at worst, sideways at best.

Biblical teaching. What is prayer, in the Bible? It's one thing, and one thing only: prayer is talking to God. Period. That's it.

Prayer might be talking-to-God in the form of praise, petition, confession, supplication, exclamation, or a host of other forms. It might be talking to God while happy (Psalm 43:4), sad (Psalm 42:9), mad (Psalm 10:15), hurried (Nehemiah 2:4), guilty (Psalm 51:1), busy and distracted (Nehemiah 4:9), or near death (Acts 7:59-60). But it all boils down to that one irreducible: prayer is what you say to God.

No arguments so far? Great. Now fasten your seatbelts, and consider this:
  • Prayer is not a dialogue.
  • Prayer is not a conversation.
  • Prayer has no intrinsic power, whatever.
"What?! Heresy! Get the comfy chair!"

Oh? Fine: show me from the Bible. In the Bible, what I say to God is prayer, what He says to me is revelation, it is prophecy. If I am a Christian, I talk to Him. If He talks directly to me, unmediated, so that I can inerrantly communicate that to others, I am a prophet, or a seer.

And I'm neither; nor are you.

Scripture constantly urges believers to pray, in both covenants (Psalm 32:6; 72:15; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; 1 Timothy 2:1f., etc.).

By contrast, Scripture never urges believers to pray and then wait for God to speak back in that prayer, expecting (demanding?) that God engage us in conversation as a regular facet of normal Christian living. (I am using "conversation" in the strict sense: I speak, then God talks back, unmediated, verbally. "How's your day?" "Oh, fine, thanks. Yours?"). Scripture never directs us to an Eastern-style emptying of the mind and listening in and to the numinous silence, for an imaginary "still, small," never-promised "voice" of God.

Prayer, if you will, is depressing the button on the walkie-talkie, and talking. No more, no less. It has been described as a soldier in the field calling for supplies and reinforcements, and that's not bad. Prayer is you, talking.

Now, if you want to hear God speak to you, go to His Word in faith, and He will (Proverbs 6:20-23; Hebrews 3:7ff.; 2 Peter 1:19-21, etc.).

Not only is prayer not the be-all and end-all; in fact, sometimes it is positively wrong to pray.

What? More heresy? Where's that chair?!

Except it isn't heresy if your Bible contains Proverbs 28:9, which reads "He who turns away his ear from listening to the law, Even his prayer is an abomination" (NAS). Such prayer is appalling to God. It (so to speak) turns His stomach, when someone turns a deaf ear to His voice in Scripture, but expects God to hear him rattling off his "honey-do" (or "Deity-do") list of requests.

Nor is it heresy if your Bible still features the devastatingly wondrous first chapter of Isaiah, where we read in verse 15, "When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood." (Remind me sometime to tell you what I think of the National Day of Prayer. Or maybe you can guess. [A few years later, I did.]

What does this mean? It means that sometimes, when someone says "I'll pray about that," the most Biblical response is, "No, please — don't pray. Don't bother. You'll only make it worse." In such cases as these, the only appropriate prayer would be a prayer of broken, heartfelt repentance and confession (Psalms 32; 51; 1 John 1:9).

Now, wonderful things can happen in response to prayer. When prayer is expressive of a relationship with God, and in accord with God's will as revealed in the Bible alone, prayer can accomplish much (James 5:16; 1 John 5:14). But of course, in these cases, the prayer itself is of no power, whatever. It is the God who hears prayer — He is the powerful one.

Think about it. When the bully is beating you up, and all you can choke out is "Dad!" What is it that dooms your tormentor? Is it the power of your word, your cry for help, your "prayer"?

Or is it the big, angry man who loves you, hears your voice, and comes running?

So is it prayer per se that really strikes terror into demons' hearts in this spiritual battle of ours? I do read some detail about the armor of God, crafted in Heaven to equip us for that battle (Ephesians 6:10ff.). I do read somewhere around there of prayer, and I do read of a weapon.

One weapon.

But the weapon isn't prayer (Ephesians 6:18). Prayer is just us talking to God. Our words are without intrinsic power. I don't think that us talking, per se, scares demons. In fact, I'm pretty sure that sometimes it positively cracks them up.

The weapon is the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17). God's Word sent Satan running from our Lord (Matthew 4). It will do the same for us.

Now, there are some words with power (Psalm 33:6, 9; Jeremiah 23:29; Hebrews 4:12)! Read, them, study them, believe them, embrace them, glory in them, live them — and use them in prayer.

That would result in some quaking, shaking, and glory.

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22 June 2009

Sheep's Clothing

by Phil Johnson

here's a spiritual lesson in this article from this morning's Washington Times:

Some Taliban fighters have been able to ward off attacks by U.S. aircraft by wearing special infrared patches on their shirts that signal that they are friends rather than foes.

The patches, which can also help suicide bombers get close to U.S. targets, are supposed to be the property of the U.S. government alone, but can be easily purchased over the Internet for about $10 each.

Yesterday I was preaching on John 10:1-5, whose theme has to do with miscreants who climb into the sheepfold in order to kill, and steal, and destroy. I had barely descended the platform after the second service when a zealous and agitated gentleman accosted me and began to admonish me with tears about the folly and futility of trying to distinguish sheep from robbers; shepherds from hirelings.

"Jesus said, 'Judge not, that you be not judged" (Matthew 7:1)," he pleaded, in all sincerity. "Let the wheat and tares grow together (Matthew 13:30). It's the Lord's business whether someone is a false shepherd or a phony Christian, not mine. We're supposed to assume the best of everyone and love them all alike. That's how the world knows we are Christians."

I fear that guy's attitude actually reflects the majority opinion in evangelical circles today. Anyone who wears any of the badges of Christianity is eagerly embraced and encouraged, even while some of them are wreaking spiritual havoc against the flock. And those badges are very easy to come by nowadays.

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21 June 2009

The Folly of Toning Down Hard Truths

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 chapter 10, "The Evils of the Present Time, and Our Object, Necessities, and Encouragements," in An All-Round Ministry.



see the spirit of compromise concerning holiness and sin, truth and error, far too prevalent. The spirit of compromise comes not of the Spirit of God, but of the spirit of the world.

It is always wisest and best to exhibit clear decision upon fundamental points; we must draw the line distinctly, and then stand to it firmly. Do not alter your course because of winds and currents. Do not try to make things pleasant all round.

Do not be like the fellow, in one of the American towns, who saw a traveller leaning against a lamp-post, weary and worn with his journey. The traveller enquired of him how far it was to such a place, and was told that it was ten miles. The weary traveller sighed, and said, "I shall never hold out. I shall faint on the road."

"Ah!" said his sympathizing informant, "I did not know you were quite so far gone, I will knock off three miles, and make it seven for you."

Of course, this operation in words did not alter the fact, nor really reduce the ten to seven. Yet this is the method of some weakly, amiable souls; they tone down truth, forgetting that their tone does not affect the fact.

This obligation is too severe; and, therefore, it is suggested that it may be somewhat relaxed. This doctrine is too stern; so make it wear a milder aspect. This manner of pleasing everybody at any cost is the style of the period. If sin, and human depravity, and so forth, are strongly spoken of in the old theology, run off to the new, and soften matters. If the punishment of the impenitent too much alarms men, treat it lightly, and spirit it away; who wants to win converts by fear?

Yes, yes; "make it seven."

But what avail your soft words? The distance is all the same for your lying; and when the deceived one finds it to be so, he will pour no blessings upon your heads.

May the Lord save us from the doom of deceivers of souls! May we be watchmen who will be clear of the blood of all men! Be decided yourselves; and then, like men who themselves stand fast, you will be able to help others whose feet are slipping.

C. H. Spurgeon

19 June 2009


by Phil Johnson

s Emergent fizzling, or is it already completely finished? That's the topic on the table this month in the Emerging Conversation—or what's left of that phenomenon. You can read about it here, here, here, and here. The one person whose perspective I'd most like to hear from the Emergent side, Andrew Jones, has dropped out of the blogosphere.

For a totally different (and clearer) perspective, the always-sardonic Remonstrans has the best analysis here.

I'd like to think the Po-Motivators® hastened the demise of Emergent, but let's face it; the movement was doomed by its own radical principles from the start. Brian always said everything must change. The "National Coordinator" thing was clearly a misconceived idea. In the words of one angry Emergent bad-boy: "A coordinator!? For a 'conversation'? Give me a break!"

Of course, the erstwhile coordinator himself, Tony Jones, isn't happy with that meme, but he more or less admits that he doesn't want to lead a revolution. He points out that Emergent has looked dead before but managed to get going again, and then he punts to Shane Claiborne.

But Mike Clawson notes that this time "emergent types" themselves are playing taps. Still, he doesn't believe the situation is as bad as many others are saying. "The emerging church doesn't go away just because you don't want to call yourself that anymore, and you don't stop being what you are just because you take down your 'Friend of Emergent Village' blog button. (Mrs. Clawson also weighs in here.)

For once I think Mike Clawson is right—sort of. The Emergent idea (really an agglomeration of neo-liberal ideas) isn't going to go away just because Tony Jones stepped down as National Coordinator. Emergent Village—the 501c3 organization—may indeed be in its death throes (and let's earnestly hope so). But the contempt for truth and clarity that gave rise to Emergent in the first is deeply engrained in secular culture. And as long as the church is full of wannabe hipsters who think the biblical mandate is to marry the culture rather than confront it, postmodern irrationalism and post-evangelical apostasies will simply mutate into new strains, blend into existing movements of all stripes, and continue to trouble the church for generations to come.

It's a gazillion times worse than swine flu.

And while you are thinking about what a mess various "missional" strategies are getting us into, here's something else to be concerned about.

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18 June 2009

N. T. Wright on Hell

or, "Honey, I shrunk the Lake of Fire!"

by Dan Phillips

This is not new, but it is new to me; and may be to you.

Here's part of a transcript from this page, with some cleaning up and emphasis:
The word hell has had a checkered career in the history of the church. And it wasn't hugely important in the early days. It was important, but not nearly as important as it became in the middle ages. And the in the middle ages, you get this polarization of heaven over here and hell over there, and you have to go to one place or the other eventually. So you have the Sistine Chapel, with that great thing behind the altar. This enormous great judgment seat, with the souls going off into these different directions.

Very interestingly, I was sitting in the Sistine chapel just a few weeks ago. I was sitting for a service, and I was sitting next to a Greek Orthodox...who said to me, looking at the pictures of Jesus on one wall. He said, these I can understand. The pictures of Moses on the other wall, he said, those I can understand. Then he pointed at the end wall of judgment, and said, that I cannot understand. That's how you in the west have talked about judgment and heaven and hell. He said, we have never done it that way before, because the Bible doesn't do it that way.

I thought, Whoops. I think he's right actually. And whether you're Catholic or Protestant, that scenario which is etched into the consciousness of Western Christianity really has to be shaken about a bit. Because if heaven and earth are to join together. Its not a matter of leaving earth and going to heaven. Its heaven and earth joined together.

And hell is what happens when human beings say, the God in whose image they were made, "We don't want to worship you. We don't want our human life to be shaped by you. We don't want, who we are as humans to be transformed by the love of Jesus dying and rising for us. We don't want any of that. We want to stay as we are and do our own thing." And if you do that, what you're saying is you want to stop being image-bearing human being within this good world that God has made. And you are colluding with your own progressive dehumanization. And that is such a shocking and horrible thing, that its not surprising that the biblical writers and others have used very vivid and terrifying language about it.

But people have picked that up and said, "This is a literal description of reality. Somewhere down there, there is a lake of fire, and its got worms in it and its got serpents and demons and there coming to get you. But I think actually, the reality is more sober and sad than that, which is this progressive shrinking of human life. And that happens during this life, but it seems to be that if someone resolutely says to God, "I'm not going to worship you . . ." (It's not just, "I'll not come to church." Its a matter of deep down somewhere, there is a rejection of the good creator God), then that is the choice humans make. In other words, I think the human choices in this life really matter. Were not just playing a game of chess, where tomorrow morning God will put the pieces back on the board and say, OK that was just a game. Now we're doing something different. The choices we make here really do matter.

There's part of me that would love to be a universalist, and say, "It'll be alright. Everyone will get there in the end." I actually . . . The choices you make in the present are more important than that.

Some of my thoughts:
  1. Did the polarization of Heaven and Hell into two diametrically-opposed destinations really arise during the Middle Ages (cf. Matthew 25:32-46; Revelation 20:4-15)?
  2. If someone "cannot understand" the concept of a final judgment, is that a comment on the concept, or the individual?
  3. Is Hell something that "happens" when we make certain philosophical choices, or is it a place of judgment and punishment?
  4. If Hell were an actual place, what language would the Bible have had to use to make that fact clearer than it is in the text as we have it?
  5. If the writers of Scripture saw Hell as "shocking and horrible," and used "vivid and terrifying" language to describe Hell, but it is a mistake to take it as a "literal description" of Hell — (1) then shouldn't the reality be more terrifying than their language?; and (2) is what Wright describes more shocking and horrible and terrifying?; and (3) how could they have signaled more clearly that they were not speaking metaphorically?
  6. Does Wright leave the impression that avoiding Hell is worth cutting off precious and irreplaceable parts of our body (Matthew 5:29-30)?
  7. How does Wright's notion of Hell relate to Jesus' flat statement that God throws the damned, body and soul, into Hell — and that He should be feared above all else for that reason (Matthew 10:28; cf. Revelation 20:15)?
  8. Is there something un-Biblical about viewing the last judgment as a separation of two humanities with two starkly different eternal destinations (Matthew 25:32-46; Revelation 20:4-15)?
  9. Is it that view of judgment and Hell that is "Western" — or is it not Wright's own existential, philosophized presentation that is thoroughly and almost squeakingly "Western"?
  10. Does Wright's explanation of Hell as the "progressive shrinking of human life" strike you as "more sober and sad" than unquenchable and eternal fire, endless gnawing of worms, in fathomless darkness, cut off from every vestige of God's goodness?
  11. Do you have to been born in the East to understand fire and darkness and wrath and judgment?
  12. Does Wright present his unbelieving listeners with a Hell that is just and unbearable punishment for crimes of infinite gravity and guilt that we committed against a blindingly holy God; or with a Hell that is a rather tame, if "sad," natural consequence of our philosophical bent?
  13. Which is truer to Jesus' presentation of Hell?
  14. Does Wright communicate any urgency in escaping Hell?
Your thoughts?

see also this companion-piece.

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17 June 2009

Mature men

by Frank Turk

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you - if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

I know you are all chomping at the bit over the next phrase in this letter from Paul to Titus, but we need to get seriously serious for a last time here regarding the question of what it means for an elder to be "blameless" or "above reproach".

Almost everyone reading this thinks that Paul could not have meant "blameless" because Christ is the only truly-blameless one, right? And our problem is that we are either "without any sin" or "just a sot".

Let me say this plainly: that's not the comparison Paul is making here. Paul is saying that the one who ought to be an elder is (as we mentioned last week) the mature believer, the one who has received grace through faith and is justified before God, but is also thereby sanctified -- manifesting the gifts of the spirit. And that would be love, joy, peace, patience, etc., not tongues, signs, prophecy, card tricks, etc.

That's why Paul assumes the elders have a wife, and a family, and children, and all the other stuff we'll see in the letters to Timothy: they are mature men and not barely men. No offense to anybody.

But here's the thing: not only will these kinds of guys be good elders for the church: they will also be men in whom we can place our confidence in a way which is unlikely to be betrayed.

All men are human, and human beings will fail. But our hedge against that is calling men with godly character. If character comes first, rather than being allegedly built on the job, trust comes built-in, having been earned.

The elder must have blameless character; he must show the fruit of the spirit.

We'll find out why next week.

16 June 2009

Sister... show mercy! (Annual repost #2)

[This one was in fact already being requested before I asked for suggestions. This post from 2006 created a bit of a stir, and some very gracious response. Let me add this one word to husbands: you too. By which I mean, you remember what it was like to be single. You know how guys are. You show some mercy to your brothers, and help sensitize your wife to showing love for others in this important way. Or worse still, if you know what's going on, and you derive pleasure from the thought of the effect your wife is having — do you really need me to tell you to repent?]

Preface: "What are you? Nuts?!"
Just thought I'd lead with the question you'll be wondering in a few minutes. I am about to stick my finger in the fan, about up to my elbow, and I know it. But I really think someone needs to say this — and why not me? I have less to lose than many who've thought the same thing, but daren't say it.

So here we go.

What will change, and what won't. Spring's sprung, and summer looms. Mercury rises, fashions change. But one thing that won't change, unless I'm happily mistaken: some good Christian sisters will not dress as helpfully as they could.

I chose that word with care: "helpfully." I am not talking about sin, shame, indecency, wantonness, or the like. Perhaps I could, with some justification. But that's for another time — and probably another writer. At this point, I just want to talk about being helpful.

Sister, if there's one thing you and I can certainly agree on, it's this: I don't know what it's like to be a woman, and you don't know what it's like to be a man. We're both probably wrong where we're sure we're right, try as we might. So let me try to dart a telegram from my camp over to the distaff side.

"Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied, and never satisfied are the eyes of man" (Proverbs 27:20). Solomon doesn't use the Hebrew words that would indicate males exclusively, so this and Ecclesiastes 1:8 may apply across the gender-board. Libbie pointed out very ably that we men wrongly assume that we alone battle with temptations entering through the eye-gate.

But. But if men aren't alone in the battle, they may have a particular weakness for this aspect of it. Consider passionately-godly King David, whose psalms express aspirations after God beside which our own are pale, bloodless things. One day King David is in the wrong place, at the wrong time; sees a naked woman bathing next door, and boom! he's gone (2 Samuel 11). Family, kingdom, God — all forgotten, consumed in the flash-flame of a lust that was only visual in its inception.

And what of that Israelite Philistine Samson and his own "eye trouble?" He sees a fetching young pagan, and bellows at his dad, "Get her for me, for she looks good to me" (Judges 14:3 NAS). Where did Samson's passions take him? How did his course end?

Unless all the men I've known personally or at a distance are completely unrepresentative, it's a lifelong struggle, a lifelong weakness. As I recall from a Proverbs lecture on mp3, Bruce Waltke says that his dad, at around age 100, told him, "Bruce, I still have the same struggles I did when I was 50." It was sobering for Dr. Waltke to hear; sobering for any man! (In fact, put me down for "disheartening.")

Where am I going with this? Oh, don't try to look so innocent. You know exactly where I'm going.

This is... church? So here comes this brother into the assembly of the saints, hoping for a rest from the battles of the week, a moment to regroup, sing, pray, get the Word, fellowship. He looks up to the choir, or to his left or his right — and in a tick of the clock, he's facing the same struggle he faced every time he turned on his TV, opened a magazine, or went down a city street. He's seeing things that make it far too easy for him not to keep his mind focused where it needs to be focused.

And he's not in a nightclub, he's not at a singles' bar, he's not at the beach. He's in church.

Now, some very direct disclaimers:
  • Every man's sin is his own, and every man's struggle is his own (Proverbs 14:10)
  • No one makes a man think or feel anything (Proverbs 4:23)
  • It is each individual's responsibility to guard his own heart (Proverbs 4:23)
  • Beauty is a wonderful gift of God (cf. Exodus 28:2; Song of Solomon 1:8, 15, etc.)
Having said all that: while it may be true that I'm the one holding the matches, you won't help me if you pile twigs all around my feet and douse them with lighter fluid. To be a little more specific: if you know I've had trouble with drunkenness, you won't wave a glass of wine in front of me tauntingly. If you know I battle covetousness, you won't take me window-shopping in high-end stores I've no business frequenting.

That is, you won't do those things if you love, if you care for me at all.

So I put this question: what are some sisters thinking, in how they dress?

"Attractive"? As the ladies pick clothes, they'll consider what's pretty, what's flattering, what's attractive. Who could blame them? But, "attractive" to whom? In what way? To what end? With what focus?

I want my lure to attract trout so they will bite and get hooked, and I can kill them and eat them.

A business wants to attract buyers so they will spend money and acquire their product or service and make them rich.

By that blouse, those pants, that skirt — what are you trying to attract? Attract to what, so that they will focus on what and feel what, and want to do what?

Consider the questions again. "Is it pretty?" Fine question, no evil in it. "Is it comfortable, is it complimentary, is it fun?" No problem. I'd just suggest you add one more question: "Is it helpful, or is it hurtful, to my brothers in Christ? Will this unintentionally contribute to their having a focus that is harmful to their holy walk?"

Now, lookie here:
In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; 19 the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves; 20 the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; 21 the signet rings and nose rings; 22 the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags; 23 the mirrors, the linen garments, the turbans, and the veils (Isaiah 3:18-23)

...likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness--with good works (1 Timothy 2:9-10)

Do not let your adorning be external--the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing-- 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious (1 Peter 3:3-4)
What it isn't. Immediately we'll swing in, as we always do, and say, "Now, the writer's not saying that women can't dress nicely, or wear jewelry, or blah blah blah." And we'll all disown our Fundie forebears who focused on nylons and lipstick, and came up with precise hemline measurements. We'll want to make sure that we're not advocating a new line of Bible Burqaware™ for evangelical women. All that will be true and valid enough.But... what is it? But I'm concerned that, in our anxiety to be sure to prevent the wrong interpretation, we effectively cut off all interpretation. We have swung from making the passages say silly things, to not letting them say anything. These passages have to mean something! They must have some application! What is it?

Surely the passages warn against vanity, externality, sensuality; and promote a focus on a godly character as true beauty. Who you are; not just what you look like. Remember: "As a ring of gold in a swine's snout, So is a beautiful woman who lacks discretion" (Proverbs 11:22 NAS).

Oh boy, I'm going to make it worse now. Deep breath....

Say what? What are your clothes saying about you, sister? What are they supposed to say to your brothers? "Hey, look at this?" Well, they actually are trying to look at the Lord; it's not good for them, not helpful for them, to be looking at that. No, it's not your fault that they have a problem. We established that. And it's really great that God has made you beautiful. May your husband (present or future) celebrate your beauty.

But, please hear me: you can help the brothers who aren't your husband, or you can not-help them. Which are you doing? If you're not married, and a man looks at you, is he thinking, "What a great character"? Or are you giving him reason to think something else about you is "great"?

I know many of the responses. I've heard them. "You don't know what it's like to buy women's clothes, you ignorant man!" Mostly true. My first just-for-fun purchase of (what I thought was) a pretty blue dress for my wife was... well, it was appalling. What a good sport my wife was. I took it back to the store immediately, and made a much better choice.

"I caaaan't." But this: "I can't find anything modest! It's all too revealing! It's impossible to get something that looks nice, yet isn't too tight, or too short, or too-something / not-something-enough!"

Sorry, but baloney.

I put modest women's clothing Christian in Google, and 63,500 pages come up. (Up from 43,200, last year.) Yes, some are funny and quaint at best. But are they all Amishwear? "Can't find?"

More fundamentally: I do not accept that anyone has to wear clothes that are too tight or too sheer or too short — unless you are the largest and tallest woman living in the hottest part of the planet. Because I see larger, taller women than you walking around in hot weather, and they're all wearing clothes, every last one of them. They got those clothes somewhere, I reason. You could too.

"But — but they won't look good on me! The shoulders will be wrong!"

Need-to-not-know. I'm not sure that's necessarily true, but let's accept it and pose a counter-question. You tell me. Which is worse: your shoulders hanging a half-inch too low? Or a blouse/skirt that simply (shifting into turbo-delicate) provides need-to-know information to those with a need-to-not-know?

I'm sure we all agree that there are clothes that show off what others have no helpful business seeing. Here's what to show, in clothes-selection: show a Godward focus, discretion, a godly character.

And show mercy.

Parting thought. Darlene pointed me to a statement by Arthur Pink, which makes everything I've just said look awfully mild. But there's no denying that Pink has a point. I'll close with it:
Again, if lustful looking be so grievous a sin, then those who dress and expose themselves with desires to be looked at and lusted after-as Jezebel, who painted her face, tired her head, and looked out of the window (2 Kings 9:30)-are not less, but even more guilty. In this matter it is only too often the case that men sin, but women tempt them so to do. How great, then, must be the guilt of the great majority of the modern misses who deliberately seek to arouse the sexual passions of our young men? And how much greater still is the guilt of most of their mothers for allowing them to become lascivious temptresses?
Now, note, Pink and I speak to different audiences. I speak to those whom I charitably assume are inadvertently dressing in an unhelpful manner. Pink speaks to those whose intent is to allure. Between the two of us, I can pray we've provided food for thought, prayer, reconsideration, and needed change.

One last thought: it is a mistake to think I exclusively have church-attire in mind. That is lifted as a particularly egregious example of what-are-you-thinking? In what I say, I have in mind any place where both sexes are present.

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15 June 2009

Simple Substitution

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 Saddest Cry from the Cross," a sermon preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle Sunday Evening, 7 January 1877.

"At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" which is translated, 'My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?'" (Mark 15:34).

he only solution to the mystery of Jesus' exclamation on the cross is this: Jesus Christ was forsaken of God because we deserved to be forsaken of God.

He was there, on the cross, in our room, and place, and stead; and as the sinner, by reason of his sin deserves not to enjoy the favor of God, so Jesus Christ, standing in the place of the sinner, and enduring that which would vindicate the justice of God, had to come under the cloud, as the sinner must have come, if Christ had not taken his place.

But, then, since he had come under it, let us recollect that he was thus left of God that you and I, who believe in him, might never be left of God. Since he, for a little while, was separated from his Father, we may boldly cry, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" and, with the apostle Paul, we may confidently affirm that nothing in the whole universe shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Before I leave this point, let me say that the doctrine of substitution is the key to all the sufferings of Christ. I do not know how many theories have been invented to explain away the death of Christ. The modern doctrine of the apostles of "culture" is that Jesus Christ did something or other, which, in some way or other, was, in some degree or other, connected with our salvation.

But it is my firm belief that every theory, concerning the death of Christ, which can only be understood by the highly-cultured, must be false.

"That is strong language," says someone.

Perhaps it is, but it is true. I am quite sure that the religion of Jesus Christ was never intended for the highly-cultured only, or even for them in particular.

Christ's testimony concerning his own ministry was, "The poor have the gospel preached to them;" so if you bring me a gospel which can only be understood by gentlemen who have passed through Oxford or Cambridge University, I know that it cannot be the gospel of Christ. He meant the good news of salvation to be proclaimed to the poorest of the poor; in fact, the gospel is intended for humanity in general; so, if you cannot make me understand it, or if, when I do understand it, it does not tell me how to deliver its message in such plain language that the poorest man can comprehend it, I tell you, sirs, that your newfangled gospel is a lie, and I will stick to the old one, which a man, only a little above an idiot in intellect, can understand.

I cling to the old gospel for this, among many other reasons, that all the modern gospels that leave out the great central truth of substitution prevent the message from being of any use to the great mass of mankind. If those other gospels, which are not really gospels, please your taste and fancy, and suit the readers of Quarterly Reviews, and eloquent orators and lecturers, there are the poor people in our streets, and the millions of working-men, the vast multitudes who cannot comprehend anything that is highly metaphysical; and you cannot convince me that our Lord Jesus Christ sent, as his message to the whole world, a metaphysical mystery that would need volume upon volume before it could even be stated.

I am persuaded that he gave us a rough and ready gospel like this, The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost; "or this," With his stripes we are healed "or this," The chastisement of our peace was upon him;" or this, "He died the Just for the unjust to bring us to God."

Do not try to go beyond this gospel, brethren; you will get into the mud if you do. But it is safe standing here; and standing here, I can comprehend how our Lord Jesus took the sinner's place, and passing under the sentence which the sinner deserved, or under a sentence which was tantamount thereto, could cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

C. H. Spurgeon

13 June 2009

A little (!) weekend reading, if you'd like

by Dan Phillips

Exiled preacher Guy Davies, who pastors two churches in the UK, did me the honor of sending me a series of genuinely probing and challenging questions for an e-interview.

The results can now be perused at leisure (and at length; the quality of the questions moved me to wax prolix) here.

Read it all, and you'll know more about what I think than I do.

I think Guy printed all my answers in full. He did expand his own parts a little bit, so as to counter my more serious doctrinal errors (and deservedly chide my geographical/historical inadequacy).

Guy asked me better questions than I would have asked myself. They reflect a sharp, thoughtful mind and a lively sense of humor. It was both a workout and a pleasure.

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