29 April 2011

On the Threefold Division of the Law

by Phil Johnson

    rarely post book reviews here. (Challies does them so well, why should I?) But from time to time I get the urge to feature a book I totally love—or more rarely, to critique a book I really hate.

Today, uncharacteristically, I'm going to take a middle position and recommend a book, but add a few caveats.

The book is From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law, by Philip S. Ross, published last year by the Mentor imprint of Christian Publications.

A book on this subject, showing "the biblical and theological basis for the threefold division" is long overdue. Those who deny any and every distinction between the law's moral, ceremonial, and civil aspects make mincemeat of the New Testament's teaching on the law and its proper uses.

This subject comes up in our comment-threads from time to time, and invariably, someone insists that there is absolutely no valid categorical distinction to be made between one kind of law and another—as if the OT restriction against shellfish were morally equivalent to the restrictions against bestiality.

Of course, I've argued otherwise. Invariably—usually early in the debate—someone will demand a proof-text that explicitly differentiates between moral and ceremonial law in precisely those terms. The biblical rationale for different categories of commandments is not quite that simple, but (I'm convinced), it is nevertheless a necessary deduction that the Hebrew dietary laws don't have the same universal and eternally-binding significance as the laws against blasphemy and idolatry.

Anyway, here's why I need to add a caveat to my recommendation of this book: Despite the promise of the subtitle, Ross begins his argument with an appeal to tradition rather than explicit Scripture or the good and necessary consequence of sound theological logic. His first chapter is titled "A Catholic Doctrine," and his opening words are an appeal to the majority opinion of "the church's most prominent theologians" from East and West, Catholic and Protestant, conservative and liberal, patristic and Puritan—who (Ross says) "throughout history," have either explicitly affirmed the threefold division or "work[ed] within its framework."

To be clear, I don't think that argument is entirely without merit, but it's not a very good starting point for a book promising to deliver "the biblical and theological basis" for what has become (in evangelical circles) a hotly debated point.

By page three, Ross is appealing to the presuppositions of covenant theology—quoting the Westminster Confession on how "God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works." And by page 6 he has identified Sabbatarianism as the lynchpin of the threefold division: "Strike out the Sabbath and you also shatter the entire category of moral law and all that depends on it."

Many (perhaps most) who deny the threefold division will actually be put off by those lines of argument after the subtitle's promise that the book will set forth a biblical case.

Besides, the real truth is that the Fourth Commandment presents some interesting and troubling difficulties to the neat bifurcation maintained by those who say (as Ross does on page 2) that "the only laws that are, without exception, ever-binding are the laws of the Decalogue." (In other words, he believes the Ten Commandments and "moral law" are precisely identical.) As a matter of fact, many of the detailed Sabbath restrictions in Moses' law have a ceremonial flavor, and Colossians 2:16 classifies "the Sabbath days" with the law's ceremonial features. I realize Sabbatarians typically dismiss that verse as a reference to special feast-days. But given the fact that lots of non-Sabbatarians (including yours truly) do affirm the threefold division of the law, Ross's emphatic denial that such a position is possible rings somewhat hollow.

Get past the opening chapter, however, and you'll find (for the most part) a thorough, thoughtful discussion of the differences between the law's moral, civil, and ceremonial aspects from a biblical perspective. Overall, the book (weighing in at 370 pages plus back matter) is quite helpful, and I'm happy to recommend it.

I just wish Ross had saved his doctrinaire covenantalism to be used as a kind of punctuation at the end rather than making it the book's opening argument. If you're interested in this subject—especially if you doubt the legitimacy of categorizing the law's precepts—please persevere past the opening ten pages or more.

Phil's signature

28 April 2011

Pray for Chris Anderson and his mission to Uganda

by Dan Phillips

Pastor Chris Anderson is a good brother and a good guy. I've enjoyed reading his posts at his blog, profited from listening to sermons he preached at his church, and enjoyed meeting him (too briefly) at T4G08.

What's more, Chris was an extremely helpful reader of my World-Tilting Gospel manuscript as it was being readied. The Proverbs 27:17 bloodying he gave my precious darling was absolutely essential; I'll owe him forever for that favor.

So now Chris is heading to minister to pastors in Uganda, as of next week. He plans to open up the book of Colossians at a Pastoral conference in Uganda, where they are preparing for 20,000 to be in attendance. You can read more about the incredible logistics required in preparation for this conference. Also, Challies interviewed Chris' brother Jeff, who works with International Bible Conference. Clearly, given the fourteen studies we've had up here at Pyro, Chris is loving a book I love as well. Colossians is a perfect choice for that situation.

In fact, Chris said my studies helped more than any commentary he read.

Okay, I completely made that one up. Ahem. Back to serious:

What an opportunity. Pray for Chris' safety, for His care for Chris' wife and daughters as he's gone, and for the Lord to fill Chris with His Spirit. Pray that the sound teaching of the Word of the Lord might speed and spread through and take deep root in that continent, to produce abundant fruit, that Christ might be glorified.

And if you can give, financial support is still needed and will be appreciated. For instance, $15 would put a Bible in the hands of a Ugandan pastor. That would be a good investment in Kingdom work.

Dan Phillips's signature

27 April 2011

Open Letter to Jon Meacham

by Frank Turk

Dear Mr. Meacham –

Back in 2008, you were working at Newsweek and your team of professionals decided to take on the question of marriage and whether or not it should be redefined. As I responded to you in full back then, I don’t have anything new to say on that subject, but I wanted to let you know I’m familiar with your work and your outlook on “Christian” things.

This month, TIME magazine has published its list of the 100 most-influential people in the world, and it’s an interesting compendium. From my desk, anyone who has heard of more than 30% of these people is probably a pretty avid world news buff. But as a list of people with substantial influence, that list can hardly be criticized for its inclusiveness or broad interest in how “influence” is demonstrated.

Rob Bell turns up on their list, and you’re the one who drafted his entry, crediting him for his contribution to Christian thought. Here’s what you said:

I particularly enjoyed the photo TIME included with your report as it included a subtle halo around Rob’s head, but I’ll bet you didn’t choose that photo. You did, however, choose to say something specific, and then adorn it with praise for Rob: a vexed church has wrestled with the question of hell for 2000 years.

I read that a few times in and out of context to make sure it's what you meant, and I'm convinced. So from my perspective, I only have one question for you: is it true?

What I am not going to do here is fall into the trap of arguing with you about it -- or arguing at you, since it's unlikely you'll respond to a Christian Lifestyle blog with fewer readers than Gismodo. But what I am going to do is think about that question for a moment in the hopes that others will join me in considering the matter.

How would we know the answer to that question? Is there a way to know whether or not the Christian faith (and specifically, the Christian church) has made any decisions about the doctrine of hell? If there's not, I think Rob Bell is actually a kind of snake-oil salesman -- because let's face it: he's portraying a doctrine of hell which he thinks other people ought to adopt. He's a partisan guy -- and we can see that in almost every interview he's done for his book so far. That is: he wants us to know that for certain the Greek word "Aeon" doesn't mean "forever and ever" (at least, not in reference to hell -- in reference to heaven he's convinced that the good stuff doesn't ever stop). He thinks that we do God a disservice by saying hell is punishment that lasts longer than the crime(s). He wants people to get a firm grip on the doctrine of hell -- and not fear it. We should embrace it as a commentary on what we do to ourselves.

What he doesn't want for them is a doctrine in which hell is an unquenchable verdict.

That's strange, isn't it -- if the story of salvation in the biblical discussion is, as you put it, contradictory, perhaps the problem is that Rob has put too fine a point on it. And if that's the case, I wonder why his influence is seen as so useful by yourself and by TIME.

So I ask you: is it true? If it is not in fact true, should you do anything about it?

Look: sometime around 60 AD, there was this fellow Paul -- he wrote a lot of books and letters in his day, so you may have heard of him. Anyway, around 60 AD he was rounded up by the religious leaders of his day, and by the Romans, and he was put on trial for what one account calls “serious charges,” but it was likely for sedition and upsetting the peace of the city of Jerusalem.

When Paul came up for trial, and he was asked to explain himself – to defend himself against the charges at-hand – he did a strange thing: he appealed to what actually happened to him. He said: “I am not insane, Most Excellent Festus. What I am saying is the sober truth. And King Agrippa knows about these things. I speak boldly, for I am sure these events are all familiar to him, for they were not done in a corner!”

For Paul, the question of who Jesus was, and what his purpose was on this Earth, was a question of truth -- of things not done in a corner which cause speculation or uncertainty but of things for which there are many witnesses.

But what is truth, Mr. Meacham? Is it something we need today, or is it something we have outgrown?

I ask that of you, and I leave it to you. I hope that there is something true, and that it finds you ready to receive it.

26 April 2011

Book review — God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment, by James M. Hamilton, Jr.

by Dan Phillips

God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment, by James M. Hamilton, Jr.
(Wheaton:Crossway, 2010; 639 pages)

Jim Hamilton is Associate Professor of Biblical Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has an active blog that's on my personal daily-visit list. I know that, yet I keep thinking of Hamilton as an OT guy, because he's made particularly notable contributions in that area. For instance, Hamilton did a detailed, solid grapple/review of Sailhamer's recent opus. Before that, I knew him as author of God's Indwelling Presence, a book helpful to me in writing part of The World-Tilting Gospel.

However, in this terrific book, provided by Crossway for me to review, Hamilton's scope is as wide as the Bible itself. He sallies forth into the already-crowded field of those proposing a "center" for the Bible. Seminarians, particularly of the OT-phile species, will nod knowingly. They will recall the many previous propositions concerning the OT itself or the Bible as a whole, such as Kaiser (promise), Eichrodt (covenant), Terrien (presence of Yahweh), Martens (God's design), and so forth (cf. Hasel's discussion of the field as of 1991). In fact, Hamilton himself engaged the alternatives in a Tyndale Bulletin article in 2006.

In such a populous arena, does Hamilton's contribution stand out? My verdict is an unequivocal "Yes." What distinguishes God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment is a happy conjunction of various valuable features. I'll enumerate, then expand on some of them.

Sparkling and distinctive aspects of this book include:
  1. Accessibility.
  2. Literary quality.
  3. Comprehensiveness.
  4. Currency.
  5. Lively engagement by the author.
  6. Clarity of conviction.
...and all of this is irrespective of whether or not Hamilton convinces you that his chosen center is in fact the center of all the Bible.

Let me start with that last thought, then move to the other aspects. Hamilton insists that the center of the Bible is as the title suggests: God's glory in salvation through judgment. By "center" he means a "singular coherent faith articulation" (41, quoting Brueggemann). In Hamilton's own words, it is "the theme that is prevalent, even pervasive, in all parts of the Bible" (49), which indeed "organizes the thoughts of the biblical authors" (48, footnote).

Walter Kaiser grappled with this decades ago, insisting that "successful exegesis" required a means of "identifying the center or core of the canon" (Towards an Old Testament Theology [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978], 18). Kaiser identified the "center" as a key for "an orderly and progressive arrangement of the subjects, themes and teachings" of the OT (ibid, 20). He warned against refusal to identify such a center as "the tyranny of the particular," whose hostile modern grid would make constructing an OT theology impossible (28). Kaiser insisted strongly that the Bible emphatically lays forth a central plan (29ff.), centering on what the NT would identify as promise (33). Kaiser attempted to develop this throughout the OT, and has now (in a more recent book) extended his argument more fully to the New.

For any system, though, books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon are a challenge. I found Kaiser's treatments to fall short of conviction. Did Hamilton fare better on their rocky shoals?

I think he did, though one sees it only if he understands Hamilton's broad use of "judgment." As a Proverbs-lover, I thought going in that Hamilton would have tough slogging finding his proposed center in Mishley. But Hamilton corrected me, pointing out that judgment is a constant refrain in Proverbs: the foolish are judged in myriads of ways for their belittling of the fear of Yahweh, whereas the wise can be saved in life and beyond only through that knowledge grounded in the fear of Yahweh, which thus is to the glory of Yahweh.

One might object, "I don't think Proverbs uses those words." True enough; but Hamilton reminds us here and elsewhere that tracing concepts is more than an exercise in word-study, and it takes more than plugging words like "salvation" and "glory" into a concordance/Bible software program to follow a theme out through Scripture.

Hamilton's clarity, personal engagement and conviction shine out from the very beginning. In the Acknowledgments (25ff.) Hamilton lists Scriptures extolling God's word, then he gives glory to God for His goodness in his life. What is more, he is up-front as to his goal. It is not to dissect the Bible as one might approach a cadaver, as an object of detached inquiry. "My goal... is to help people know God," he tells us candidly (38). To Hamilton, academics serve as tools to pursue that goal, not as ends in themselves.

Is this an inappropriate goal for a scholar? Affected, bloodless detachment may be de rigeur to many in the Academy, but I've often argued that personal engagement as a Christian academic is far from inappropriate. Look: worldviews are like belly-buttons. Everyone has one. Worldview controls all. To insinuate that one can write from a Weltanschauung-free perspective is a silly conceit, and Hamilton is free of it.

After laying his basic case, Hamilton sets out to demonstrate it by going through every book of both Testaments. In that way, this tome ends up being an extended argument, a Biblical theology of sorts, and a Bible survey. It is full, very useful, and satisfying.

What is more, Hamilton not only writes with clarity, but with style. He turns phrases memorably, seasoning with elements of irony and humor, as well as sharp conciseness. It is not only helpful and informative reading, it is good reading.

We noted that Hamilton is a professor of "Biblical theology." What does that mean, to Hamilton? He approaches biblical theology as focusing on "what the Bible meant  for the purpose of understanding what the Bible means" (41). Exactly right; there can be no facile, "great gulf fixed" between examining the Bible's contents, and finding that those contents are in fact examining us. To approach the Bible as if it were not what it claims to be is a faith-commitment; just not a Christian faith-commitment.

Further, that Bible is a whole Bible, starting with Genesis and not resting until Revelation. Thus Hamilton chides Goldingay for wanting to write about the OT — but not through Christian or NT lenses (46). Hamilton views this with something like incredulity, as a sort of pretending not to know what one knows. "If our presuppositions do not help us understand, rather than pretend we do not have them, why not revise or, if necessary, reject them?" (47). 

At this point, I realize that this is going to be a very, very long review indeed if I discuss everything I liked about the book. So let's shift gears.

Who would profit from this book? Anyone who wants to understand the Bible better. If I were teaching through Bible books in survey fashion or in-depth, I would want Hamilton's opus on my desk. His summaries are as a rule masterful, he captures the flow of the book expertly, and he often brings out themes and patterns that, in thirty years of attentive reading, I hadn't noticed. As an added bonus, Hamilton's footnotes are a rich resource. The man reads encyclopedically, and his notes are direction-signs to other treasure-troves of fuller reference works. It's simply a goldmine.

Did he convince me, and does it matter? Hamilton absolutely convinced me that God's glory in salvation through judgment is a theme-complex that literally runs through Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. I am not quite convinced, however, that it was a conscious driving force behind the writing of each canonical book.  Maybe my brain is too small. But that truly does not matter a speck in terms of the value or usefulness of the book. Further, Hamilton does not do as some, flattening uncongenial details of books if they fail to further his thesis.

Do I have any quibbles with the book? Significant quibbles, nary a one. Minor ones, sure. The publisher was unkind to us old geezers in using such a small font on the footnotes — but at least they're footnotes, so I'm content to squint. I don't share Hamilton's exact interpretation of this and that, and find myself a good bit more on the not-yet side of the eschatological spectrum than Hamilton is. Our eschatologies may not be identical. So, we have the same marginal distinction that I experience in reading Spurgeon, Owen, Lloyd-Jones, Calvin, Machen, van Til, and a truckload of other brothers who have done me a world of good.

Honestly, we're talking hiccups in a hurricane of wonderfulness. I so profited from the way Hamilton carries forward the Seed-of-the-woman/seed-of-the-serpent conflict themes, keeps identifying intertextual relationships, and a hundred other ways. Heck, I even hustled to insert some interaction into my forthcoming (DV) Proverbs book. Now I'm going back through the book, adding note upon note to the treasures I've already transferred from this book to my BibleWorks notes.

Therefore, I recommend God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment unqualifiedly and enthusiastically. Five matches. You want a better grasp of the Bible's big picture as well as vital small details? Get this book. Dive in. Stay in. Once won't be enough. You will not regret it.

POSTSCRIPT for Kindlefolk: the terrific Kindle deal I mentioned in March is still in effect. Amazing buy.

Dan Phillips's signature

25 April 2011

A Double Repost? Why Not?

by Phil Johnson

Salad Days
I wanted to do a repost today, and this one struck me as fairly important and yet potentially fun. Yes, I know there's a repost within this repost, but these days I think it's important to keep trying to get people to realize that doctrinal statements really are more important than fashion statements.

(First posted Thursday, March 01, 2007)

by Phil Johnson

   have two things to say to those who think "relevance" is related primarily to matters of style, youthfulness, and external appearance:

First, what seems really hip today might just make you look like J. R. "Bob" Dobbs tomorrow. There were people on the fringes of evangelicalism pushing a superficial notion of "relevance" for several decades before the Emergers emerged with the idea, and the cooler those people seemed at their peak, the more ridiculous their style looks today. When a particular "style" is your main distinctive, you're guaranteed to be outmoded soon. More important, if "style" is your main contribution to the conversation, you're already irrelevant, whether you know it or not.

Second, to stress the point a little more, here's a repost from my original blog that seems apropos to the current discussion. It was a reply to an e-mail from a reader who was irritated with me:

To: "Savage Countenance"
From: "Phillip R. Johnson"
Subject: Re: Cr—t-r?!!

Dear "Savage Countenance,"

Many thanks for your message. You wrote:

> why would you question a brother
> who just wants to fit in with the
> people he's trying to reach?...you
> should quit trying so hard to be
> different and try harder to be
> genuine...i'm making this point
> b/c my eyebrow is pierced and i
> have a tatoo on the back of my
> neck...i wear combat boots...and
> i usually wear all black..i listen
> to Christian metal and industrial
> music—i've seen too many christians
> hide in a corner away from the world
> and wait for them to come to
> us...and it just doesn't work
> that way, you know?

OK, first of all let me say that the point I want to make here has very little to do with the question of whether body piercing and tattoos are always inherently sinful.

Don't misunderstand: I would indeed argue that if you pierce or tattoo yourself as an act of self-mutilation, narcissism, or rebellion, then the motivation for such "body modification" is clearly sinful and therefore something Christians ought to avoid.

But that's really beside the point at the moment. Because your whole argument is that you have tattooed yourself and put studs in your face in order to be more "genuine" and to have a better testimony for Christ.

And that's what I want to respond to: the notion that adopting the fads of a juvenile, egomaniacal, shallow, self-destructive, worldly culture "works" better as an evangelistic strategy than a lifestyle that gives more prominence to the principle of Matthew 5:16 and 1 Peter 2:9.

As you have described it above, body modification and combat boots are a significant and deliberate part—if not the very centerpiece—of your evangelistic strategy. You seem to imagine that if you try hard enough to fit into the punk culture, you might actually win people by convincing them that Jesus would fit nicely into their lifestyle, too.

But wouldn't you yourself actually agree that there is—somewhere—a limit to how far Christians can legitimately go in conforming to worldly culture? Surely you do not imagine that the apostle Paul's words about becoming all things to all men is a prescription for adopting every vulgar fashion of a philistine culture. Do you?

Can we agree, for example, that it wouldn't really be good or necessary to get a sex-change operation in order to reach the transgendered community? OK, you might dismiss that as something inherently sinful and wrong for that reason. Well, how about pulling a few teeth and adopting the trashy patois and tasteless lifestyle of Jerry Springer's guest list in order to have a more effective outreach to the underbelly of the cable-TV community? How serious are you about your strategy of accommodation and conformity?

And why is it mainly the lowbrow and fringe aspects of Western youth culture that this argument is invariably applied to? Why are so few Christian young persons keen to give up video games and take up chess in order to reach the geeks in the chess club? or give up heavy metal and learn the cello in order to have a ministry to the students who play in the orchestra?

There used to be a misguided youth on the Web who ran a website called "Backyard Wrestlers for Jesus." He was trying to tap into the backyard wresting culture as a mission field. So he set up a Web site showing kids how to build a backyard wrestling ring, how to do what The Rock and the Dudley Boys do without getting hurt, and how to talk smack without really talking dirty—so that kids who wrestle in their own backyards could improve their style. Along the way, he figured they would see that his Web site had something to do with Jesus, and they'd know Jesus is cool, and they'd like Jesus better because he's so cool.

I admire his desire to reach a troubled culture, but the methodology is all wrong and completely without any credible biblical warrant. I realize making Jesus seem cool is the dominant evangelistic strategy of this age, and everyone from Rick Warren to Brian McLaren is trying in whatever way they think best to make Christianity more hip and trendy.

But I still think it's a bad idea.

Incidentally, I grew up in the 1960s in a liberal church with a fairly sizable youth group where dances with live rock music were the bait used to draw us on a regular basis. So there's nothing particularly fresh or innovative about this philosophy. It didn't work in my generation, and it's not really working now. It's made the church more worldly; it hasn't made the world more spiritual.

In fact, I'd say that this strategy represents the wholesale abandonment of the church's responsibility to a sinful culture.

The most effective way to minister to any culture—and this goes for every culture, from highbrow society to white middle-class suburbia to the urban street gang—is to challenge and confront the culture instead of conforming to it. "Therefore 'Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean'" (2 Corinthians 6:17).

Yes, I know Jesus was a friend of sinners, and His enemies accused Him—wrongly—of participating in their excesses. The truth is that He became their friend without adopting their values. That's the example we should strive to follow, not the example of worldly culture itself.

Phil's signature

23 April 2011

Worst day, ever

by Dan Phillips

The irony of the phrase "Good Friday" has been noted, probably, by all of us. "Good" for us, certainly. Without the cross-work of the Son of God on that day, all would be lost, hopelessly and forever.

But of course it was a horrid day, viewed from any other angle. Our race — Adam's race — reached its nadir on that day. Any appalling crime you can call to mind was bottomed by the mock-trial and the mocking of God incarnate. At that point, we hit bottom, and the Gospels record it for all to see, for all time.

But the worst day, ever, for the apostles and most who loved Jesus, had to be that Saturday, which today marks.

The events of Thursday night and Friday must have been a surreal nightmare, a madman's collage. With "the triumphal entry" still in their minds, the apostles had suddenly seen everything turned on its head, beyond their darkest imaginations. They must have fallen asleep — assuming they fell asleep, since that was about all they were good at — with numbed hearts and bedazzled minds.

But then Saturday dawned. Reality hit. It had really happened. They were now waking up, for the first time in three years, with no Jesus. That meant no Messiah, no Lord.  No hope, no guide; no one who really knew what He was doing. No point to doing what they had all left their jobs and their lives to do.

And nothing had changed overnight. He died Friday. He was still dead, Saturday.

Horrible, throbbing reality settling down on their chests like a massive elephant. What now? Dear God in Heaven, what now? What do we do? What do we say? What do we tell the crowds? What do we tell our families? Do we go back with our tail between our legs, and beg for our jobs back? And what, what do we make of the world now, now that we had repented because the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand... and yet it seems more distant than ever?

Not only that, but there had to be the throbbing pain of guilt. We think of Peter's big talk, but remember: everyone had said the same (Mark 14:31). Big talk, big promises, massive failure, every one of them.

What, what to do about all that?

For them, Saturday had to be the worst day, ever.

All that, for one reason: because they did not believe the Word of God.

We should never forget what a surprise Sunday was for all of them. This is a critical miscalculation for every worldling who has whistled past the empty grave, trying to explain away the Resurrection as wish-fulfillment or mass hallucination. None of them expected it, in spite of Jesus' teaching. None of them was looking for it. All of them thought it was over. All of them were caught off-guard that Sunday.

Let us think about that, this Saturday. We should learn from it. And while we thank God that Friday was not the end of the story, let us also thank Him that Saturday wasn't its end, either.

Dan Phillips's signature

22 April 2011

Something to Consider This Good Friday

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 "Tender words of terrible apprehension!," a sermon preached at Exeter Hall on Sunday morning, 4 November 1860.

he wrath of God and the judgment of the day of the Lord cannot be a trifling matter. How emphatically are we told in Scripture, that it is "a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." Upon such a subject we cannot afford to trifle.

Besides, the mystery of Calvary indicates to us that sin must deserve at God's hand a terrible penalty. Did Jesus suffer so bitterly to save men, and will not the unsaved endure bitterness indeed? Must the eternal and holy Son of God, upon whom sin was only an imputed thing—must he bleed and die, and offer up his life, with his soul exceedingly heavy even unto death—and is the world to come a thing about which men can afford to sport or idly dream?

C. H. Spurgeon

21 April 2011

Mouth, lips, heart

by Dan Phillips

Proverbs has a lot to say about use and abuse of mouth, tongue, lips.

For instance, Proverbs 18:6 warns us that "A fool's lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating" —constantly writing checks that the rest of his body isn't up to cashing. Over and over again, "By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back" (14:3a), and he never learns: "Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his folly will not depart from him" (27:22).

By contrast, "The lips of the wise spread knowledge" (15:7a), and "feed many" (10:21a), because "The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life" (10:11a). "The tongue of the righteous is choice silver" (10:2a) and "brings forth wisdom" (10:31a), but "the perverse tongue will be cut off" (10:31b).

That is why we see cautions against being overly wordy, overly garrulous. "When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent" (10:19). Indeed, "Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent" (17:28). For "Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble" (21:23).

So is that the solution? Simply exercise mouth-discipline? Learn to keep your mouth shut? Watch what you say, learn some Bible verses so you can make yourself say helpful and edifying things? Watch encouragers, learn how they talk, and do the same? There's some value in all that.

Yet I've known of folks in public and private life who lament the fruit of their lips, vow to do better... then simply repeat the disaster. What's the problem?

Of course, one problem is our common problem as Christians: remaining corruptions (Romans 7:14-25; 8:13).

But beyond that, I think the problem is when we don't go beyond the effects to the cause. Why do we say what we say? Jesus knew, because He knew man (John 2:25), and He knew Proverbs. Hear Him: "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil" (Matthew 12:34b-35).

What does that have to do with Proverbs? It points us to what I think is an absolutely critical verse to understanding the book, second perhaps only to 1:7/9:10/31:30. That verse is Proverbs 4:23. Here's my ad hoc translation, to catch the doubled verbal synonyms most versions overlook: "Keep watch over your heart more than all you guard, for from it flow the issues of life." Solomon emphatically traces it all — not merely to choices of behavior and action, but — to the heart. Every detail of our lives flows from our hearts, so we must maintain a watch over them more than we guard anything else.

Cutting right back to our topic, then, why do we say such bad things? Because we believe, cherish, and think such bad things. What fills the heart goes out the mouth. We can't really change our mouths until the atmosphere and furnishings of our hearts change.

This underscores the utter necessity of regeneration, of being born again and made new people (John 3:1ff; 2 Corinthians 5:17). We don't merely need to adjust our hearts, we need new hearts (Ezekiel 36:26). We cannot merely learn new habits; we must be made new people by God's sovereign grace. But having been made new, we still are in constant need of continual renewal of our minds (Romans 12:3).

So why does this wife keep saying poisonous things to her husband, making it hard for him to trust her (Proverbs 31:11-12)? It is because, when she does, she laments how her mouth got her into trouble, and perhaps blames her husband for his reaction to her shaming speech. "I'll just keep my mouth shut," she vows — stoking the flames of martyred, bitter self-pity that rage in her heart. She does not realize that God calls her to think of her husband in a respectful way (do read that linked essay), and so to battle and put to death and wholly replace the poisonous thoughts that give birth to the poisonous words. They are her enemy, not her husband. If her heart changes, her mouth will change.

Or why does that husband keep belittling and objectifying his wife? Maybe he is mulishly unaware, or maybe he has some dull consciousness that his words aren't feeding an intimate relationship. Or maybe he just thinks she's too touchy. Whatever grain of truth there may be in any of that, his main problem isn't his mouth, it's his heart. It is that he does not see her as a gift from God (Proverbs 18:22). He does not value her as befits a fellow image-bearer of God (Genesis 1:27). He does not make the decision to assign her great honor and value as the weaker vessel who is his equal in being heir to the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7). He does not love her — an activity of the heart that moves the hands and feet and lips — as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25f.). So he does not say words that are tender, appreciative, and loving, because those are not the thoughts that fill his heart.

These same principles could be applied to how we speak to children/parents, bosses/employees, church leaders/church attenders, and on and on. Attend to the mouth, yes, Proverbs calls us to do that, and to learn wisdom for how we speak.

But don't forget to start with the heart, or all efforts are doomed.

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20 April 2011

Intermission: Paul's Open Letter to Agrippa

Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You may speak in your defense.”

So Paul, gesturing with his hand, started his defense: “I am fortunate, King Agrippa, that you are the one hearing my defense today against all these accusations made by the Jewish leaders, for I know you are an expert on all Jewish customs and controversies. Now please listen to me patiently!

“As the Jewish leaders are well aware, I was given a thorough Jewish training from my earliest childhood among my own people and in Jerusalem. If they would admit it, they know that I have been a member of the Pharisees, the strictest sect of our religion. Now I am on trial because of my hope in the fulfillment of God’s promise made to our ancestors. In fact, that is why the twelve tribes of Israel zealously worship God night and day, and they share the same hope I have. Yet, Your Majesty, they accuse me for having this hope! Why does it seem incredible to any of you that God can raise the dead?

“I used to believe that I ought to do everything I could to oppose the very name of Jesus the Nazarene. Indeed, I did just that in Jerusalem. Authorized by the leading priests, I caused many believers there to be sent to prison. And I cast my vote against them when they were condemned to death. Many times I had them punished in the synagogues to get them to curse Jesus. I was so violently opposed to them that I even chased them down in foreign cities.

“One day I was on such a mission to Damascus, armed with the authority and commission of the leading priests. About noon, Your Majesty, as I was on the road, a light from heaven brighter than the sun shone down on me and my companions. We all fell down, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is useless for you to fight against my will.’

“‘Who are you, lord?’ I asked.

“And the Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. Now get to your feet! For I have appeared to you to appoint you as my servant and witness. You are to tell the world what you have seen and what I will show you in the future. And I will rescue you from both your own people and the Gentiles. Yes, I am sending you to the Gentiles to open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. Then they will receive forgiveness for their sins and be given a place among God’s people, who are set apart by faith in me.’

“And so, King Agrippa, I obeyed that vision from heaven. I preached first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that all must repent of their sins and turn to God—and prove they have changed by the good things they do. Some Jews arrested me in the Temple for preaching this, and they tried to kill me. But God has protected me right up to this present time so I can testify to everyone, from the least to the greatest. I teach nothing except what the prophets and Moses said would happen— that the Messiah would suffer and be the first to rise from the dead, and in this way announce God’s light to Jews and Gentiles alike.”

Suddenly, Festus shouted, “Paul, you are insane. Too much study has made you crazy!”

But Paul replied, “I am not insane, Most Excellent Festus. What I am saying is the sober truth. And King Agrippa knows about these things. I speak boldly, for I am sure these events are all familiar to him, for they were not done in a corner! King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do—”

Agrippa interrupted him. “Do you think you can persuade me to become a Christian so quickly?”

Paul replied, “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that both you and everyone here in this audience might become the same as I am, except for these chains.”

19 April 2011

The "scientific evidence" dodge (NEXT! #27)

by Dan Phillips

Challenge: Unless you give me (materialistic) scientific evidence for the existence of God, I will not believe.

Response: ...and the materialistic scientific evidence that "(materialistic) scientific evidence" alone can and will always be dispositive of everything is...?

(Proverbs 21:22)

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18 April 2011

Keeping Our Priorities Straight in These Spiritually Treacherous Times

by Phil Johnson

Preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (1 Peter 1:13-14)

eter wrote those words to Christians living in exile (1 Peter 1:1) and suffering under the cruelest kind of Satanically-inspired persecution (1 Peter 5:8-9). Their lives were constantly in danger because of their faith; most had already lost all their earthly posessions. Their suffering was multilayered and relentless.

Yet Peter's first concern was their holiness.

He urges them to gird up their minds, and in so doing, he reminds us what spiritual warfare is all about. It is a fight against sin, and it is first and foremost a personal warfare against our own carnal desires. Although we are beset in this world by the enemies of truth and people who would persecute and abuse us, this world is our mission-field, not our battlefield. Rome, and Nero, and the rest of the pagan world are not our main enemies—our own carnal desires are. So that is where Peter focuses our attention.

Here's how Matthew Henry paraphrases verse 13:
You have a journey to go, a race to run, a warfare to accomplish, and a great work to do; as the traveller, the racer, the warrior, and the labourer, gather in, and gird up, their long and loose garments, that they may be more ready, prompt, and expeditious in their business, so do you by your minds, your inner man, and affections seated there: gird them, gather them in, let them not hang loose and neglected about you; restrain their extravagances, and let the loins or strength and vigour of your minds be exerted in your duty; disengage yourselves from all that would hinder you, and go on resolutely in your obedience.

Matthew Henry goes on to say, "The main work of a Christian lies in the right management of his [own] heart and mind; [that's why] the apostle's first direction is to gird up the loins of the mind."

So in the midst of all the dangers these Christians were facing, Peter's first and most important exhortation was a call to personal holiness. It was not that Peter was unconcerned for the temporal welfare of these exiles. The epistle is full of encouragement for them. But even in that, Peter takes the long view and encourages them by reminding them that this life's suffering is temporary while the hoped-for glory is eternal (1 Peter 1:3-4, 7; 4:12-13; 5:10).

Persecution has a purpose, and it is to conform us to the image of Christ. The fires of persecution have a purifying effect, so Peter encourages these believers to rejoice in the midst of their trials. Note verses 6-7: "In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."

Pursue that end, he says, by cultivating holiness, starting with your own thought life. That's what the true Christian warfare is all about.

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17 April 2011

The Right Kind of Zeal

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 "Growth in Grace," a sermon delivered on a Sunday evening in the autumn of 1858 at the New Park Street Chapel.

t is no use to try to get more zeal except in the right way, knowing more of Christ; and if we seek to grow in zeal as certain people we might mention have done, we shall have a zeal like a house on fire! It will do more mischief than it will do good. There may be some heat, and a deal of illumination; but it will die away, by-and-by, into black ashes, poisoning the churches everywhere.

I have seen a certain kind of revival in England, and I can always tell where such "revivals" have been by the scarred state of the places after them. These so-called "revivals" have been wrought by excitable meetings, held by sundry preachers, who have invented strange doctrines, but have said nothing about the grace of God. They have for a time stirred up the people to a kind of religious furor, and they have left behind them a very desert. Before them it was like a garden of the Lord, but behind them barrenness and desolation.

The church has been divided; there has been a reaction, and the people have sunk into the most lamentable condition. If we would have true zeal, it must be by the preaching of the good old doctrine, proclaiming Jesus Christ and him crucified; for anyhing else comes of the devil, and to hell it shall tend; its issue shall be destruction, and not salvation.

But if we keep to the truth of God, there will be "revival" enough. We want nothing but the good old-fashioned gospel to stir the world again. Though men have tried new schemes, God will not own them. All these heresies must be swept away, and the true gospel—distinguishing grace of God in all the sovereignty of election—must yet again be preached; and when it is preached in all its fullness, then shall the church be zealous, and then shall Zion arise, and shake herself from the dust, and put on her beautiful garments.

C. H. Spurgeon

14 April 2011

Proverbs book: invitation for (more) endorsers

by Dan Phillips

Let me say in opening that, though I am here to ask for something, it isn't money!

HSAT: I'm in a happy dilemma. I just tapped about all the folks I know to amass endorsers for World-Tilting Gospel for Kregel. Wonderful folks responded (thank you, every one of you), and a number of gracious souls drawn from that number are currently reading with a view to endorsing it.

But now, guess what? My Proverbs project has been moved to the front-burner. This is absolutely terrific news to me, of course. But what it also means is that I get to go beat the bushes to find some more gracious souls to consider endorsing that lengthy tome. (Reluctant, you will understand, to impose on those already doing me a favor to add yet another, so soon!)

Thank God, I already have some absolutely terrific brothers who have generously agreed to read and consider endorsing the Proverbs book. All I need now is... more.

What you need to know: it's not short! And the deadline the publisher is looking at for endorsements is the end of May.

What I am asking: interested parties meeting these criteria —
  1. If you are a published author, and/or you teach (preferably Old Testament) at some institution, and if you believe you can make the deadline, drop me a line.
  2. If you don't meet either specification, but know someone who does, to whom you might commend my meager effort, ask him to drop me a line.
What it is: The working title of the book is currently God's Wisdom in Proverbs: Hearing God's Voice in Scripture. I am dearly hoping that it makes a unique contribution to Proverbs literature. Here are some of the book's singular aspects:
  1. Written, and reaping benefits from, conviction of the Solomonic origin of the whole. (You'll be surprised to learn what a minority opinion that is among evangelical writers, and what difference it makes.)
  2. Deals with the Biblical text both in its historical/canonical position in the process of unfolding revelation, and in its larger Biblical context.
  3. Engages the Hebrew text; yet
  4. Crafted with a practical/pastoral focus and broad appeal (i.e. any reader can read, learn, profit).

Topics include:
  • How to read, understand and apply proverbs.
  • What the fear of Yahweh is.
  • How to find wisdom.
  • A fresh, closer look at the real meaning of Proverbs 1:7; 3:5-6; 22:6 (among others).
  • Wisdom for friends, singles, married couples, parents, children.
  • ...and other good stuff.
Sound like fun?

Of course, eventually I hope it sounds like fun to all of you and many others as well, God willing. But right now I need it to sound like fun to some additional endorsers. Lord willing, you will all have access to it in just a matter of months.

So if you fit the bill above or know someone who does... drop me a line.

My email is, without the spaces: filops @ yahoo.com

That is all. Thanks!

PS — I'd be tickled if a WTG endorser wanted to read this, too. Two already are, praise God. I'm just reluctant to pile on!

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13 April 2011

Open Letter to Dr. Karl W. Giberson

by Frank Turk

Dear Dr. Giberson,

I enjoyed your post at CNN last week about what Jesus would believe about evolution, and I wanted to comment on it.

I'm pleased that you referenced one of the sayings of Jesus straight off in your post, but there's another one I'm thinking of right now. Let me tell you the story. It's the one where Jesus had finished teaching about the Kingdom of God, and he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

But the Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?" Jesus answered, "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate."

Now, this is an interesting story for a couple of reasons. The first is one which Dr. John Piper has preached on powerfully (among other men) to point out that this is a great place to show what Jesus says about the nature of the Bible itself. Here Jesus says plainly that "He who created" man and woman also "said" that there is a command for marriage -- even though the bit in Genesis Jesus quotes is not directly attributed to the Creator but is simply the 3rd person omniscient narrator of Genesis. That is: all the words in Genesis 1-3 are God the creator's words.

Just to be fair to you, I think you would say such a thing -- I just don't think you would mean what I mean by saying such a thing. And that brings us to the second reason to consider this story: why Jesus would tell it. You know: why would Jesus go to a place in the Bible where, in your view, the historical and theological issues are very complicated and somewhat ahistorical to tell the Pharisees what they ought to have known (in his view) by simply reading the text?

Here's what I think: Jesus tells this story to straighten out the question of what Marriage is and ought to be because there is something authoritative in the origin of man (male and female) that speaks to who he ought to be. But the reason for that is not an ontological argument. It's not a deduction from fit, form and function to foundational principle. It's not something that science discovers for us. It is certainly not something science discovered for Jesus. Jesus appeals to the declaration of Scripture to define the origin of things -- in this case, Man.

You see: In the beginning there was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning, and all things were made by him, and nothing was made without him. And then, the Word became flesh, and lived among us. And while you are right that Jesus said he was "the Truth," he wasn't the victim of truth the way you and I are; he wasn't just wise and educated so that he discovered the truth. His problem in life wasn't trying to make sense of the world because he didn't know anything about it.

Unlike you and me, Jesus knew the world because He is its creator and sustainer. So when he tells the story of Genesis 2, and says that man and woman were actually made for each other with an intention, it's not because he thinks evolution worked out nicely for us: it is because he made things this way, and is informing us of his view of the way in which it was made.

And this, my dear, unfortunately-eager friend and human brother, is where your reasoning goes completely haywire. In your view, Jesus must believe in evolution because you believe in evolution -- you and your whole tribe of rationalist, positivist scientific non-atheists (and also atheists). Because you have seen the shapes in the book of the world and have given us your authoritative reading for them -- that is, you have given us your words for what is there -- you demand that Jesus accept your words for what is there. Somehow your paraphrase for creation is the one which must lead the way.

But Jesus is the one who spoke these things into existence. Your words, compared to His words, are not even hot air. They are, like all human words including my own post here, like the flatulence from the wet tail of a ballon as it discharges and flies away: it may be good for a childish laugh, but it doesn't have eternal significance.

On the other hand, Jesus' words not only have eternal significance: they are the words which have established all of eternity. And my advice to you, before you say any more to those who do not believe and are willing to hear anything but Jesus' words on any subject, is to consider your place in the arrangement of things. Putting yourself in the position of speaking for God, the Creator, who knows more about the last 10 seconds than either of us could learn through fervent study for the rest of our lives, is a weightier thing than you have made it. Worse still, your dismissal and denigration of what God has actually said through your work at BioLogos and elsewhere is stunning for a man who says he believes that God is real. Isn't it strange that your explanation with words is somehow more important to you than God's explanation to you with words? Why exactly would that be true, if you were to speculate on it for a moment?

So I leave you with my simple concern that you repent of your blasphemy -- you repent of your idolatry of your own mind, and of human reason, and of the supremacy of created things over their creator when it comes to explaining what they are and why they exist. Repent -- because Christ died for sin, and came at the right time to save sinners like you and like me. There is forgiveness for repentance, and it is not yet too late for you.

May God richly bless you, and open your eyes, and show you his love, and change your mind. What Jesus said ought to mean more to you, and my prayer is that it will do so soon.

12 April 2011

Urgency: friend, and sometimes foe

by Dan Phillips

If we really believe what we are writing, blogging, talking, and preaching about, should it be difficult to find notes of passion and urgency in what we say and how we say it? I think not; yet urgency can be both friend and foe.

Friend. I remember one towering Biblical scholar (no longer with us), a good man, who has generated work that will be useful for years. Yet his writing tends to be dry, dry, dry. Even a work of his meant for devotional reading was solid, sound, orthodox... and fairly desiccated.  No passion, no urgency, just detached discussion of things and facts. Merely stylistic? Perhaps.

I've long argued that Biblical academes should not count themselves exempt from thinking and writing as Christians. (BTW, my previous example in this post was not Bruce.) I do not mean that every work needs overtly to be an evangelistic tract, or to be filled with personal testimonies. I do mean that a Christian scholar/pastor/whateverer should write as a Christian, who believes he is dealing with eternal truths of eternal consequence to the eternal souls who are reading his writing, and who are themselves a literal heartbeat from eternal judgment.

A really fine example would be Jim Hamilton, in his work God's Glory in Salvation by Judgment: a Biblical Theology. Since I plan to review the book within the next week or two, for now I'll just say Hamilton is a model in this regard. His scholarship is thorough, sound, and up-to-date... and Christian. He writes as a Christian. He writes as if what he is treating is true, and matters.

But don't just think smugly of Those Scholars and Their Dry Ways. The problem isn't necessarily aridity nor academics. We garden-variety believers sometimes unintentionally belie our own urgency, and communicate the opposite of what we believe, by bad (or ill-considered) habits we slip into.

For instance, church services should be both somber and joyous, and loving... and urgent. But when we saunter up to the podium and fill time with chit-chat, casually meandering around as if there's no particular hurry in getting to the Word, I think we undercut what we believe. I think we send conflicting messages.

There was a church with a terrific pastor, and sweet, genuine, loving people, plus a sound doctrinal position. Services started off at varying times, in a meandering, wandering way, with chit-chat and this-'n'-that amid general continuing buzz and conversation, followed by maybe 60 minutes or so of choruses and ditties sung a few times through, crowned by about a 25-30 minute sermon. Not bad, far from it. But not urgent.

Whether 60 minutes, 90 or 120, church services or other words given in Christ's name should be urgent affairs. Stephen's hearers saw in him the face of an angel (Acts 6:15). Perhaps that meant he literally glowed with a reflection of God's glory. Perhaps it was that he was a consummate messenger, clearly urgently intent upon what he had to say, as if it were the last message he would ever impart — which, in fact, it was.

Never forget: each confrontation with the Word is a crisis. Crisis comes straight from the Greek krisis, which means judgment. God's word is living, powerful, unimaginably sharp, and it judges us (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus' words judge us (John 12:48). Angels apparently watch (1 Corinthians 11:10; Ephesians 3:10; 1 Timothy 5:21), and wonder (1 Peter 1:12). Souls hang in the balance, lives are at unknown crossroads. This tidy fellow may be on the verge of a heart-attack; that polite couple could be headed for divorce; this young single might be hovering at the brink of a terrible decision; that young lady could be desperately snared in the jaws of a deep, dark, papered-over depression....

It's not teatime on the deck of some luxury cruiser. It ain't Oprah. It's strategy-time, for soldiers under fire, in the midst of a war.

Foe? At the same time, that very urgency, once it grips us, can also work against us us, or dampen our effectiveness.

Here it is too easy for me to dip into the deep well of my own frailties. My late father heard me preach a couple of times, and said "It just amazes me that you can think of things to say every week." I said, "Oh, Dad, the Bible is so rich that my problem is never thinking of things to say. My problem is stopping."

This has always been my struggle. When I was first offered chances to teach or preach, I grabbed at such opportunities as if I'd never have another. Consequently, I would try to say everything in one sermon. And again in the next. And in the next. Because — who knew? So much to give, so few opportunities.

Of course this is wearying to listeners. Folks can only hold so much; I of all people should have known that. A favorite Far Side cartoon of Valerie's and mine is the "my brain is full" one. I'm certain that I've been guilty of overfilling more than one brain, due to excess of passion and urgency. Perhaps some preachers here can identify as well, themselves?

The same temptation attends writing. I have two books coming out, Lord willing. Both are very exciting to me, culmination of years and years' worth of dreams, hopes, preparation, practice and effort.

And they're both not short! But when and if you put your hands on them, please know this: they could easily have been twice as long. In both cases, almost immediately after submitting them, the wincing and the cringing started as I thought of this thing I could have explained more, that application I could have included, this excursus I could have inserted, those passages I could have opened up.

I hope that urgency will be plain to each reader; at the same time, it had to be moderated, tamed, formed, aimed, directed... or it would have been undone by a verbal flood. The preacher feels it when he tries five ways to say one thing, or takes 10 minutes to close a sermon (like Spurgeon's mariner, rowing back and forth, back and forth, in search of a harbor). We need to pray, think, aim, select, and fire a single well-aimed shot.

But why the temptation to go on and on? Urgency! I don't know whether I'll ever have the opportunity to write again. What if I take all the rest to the grave undeveloped, unpreached, ungiven?

Bottom-line. In the final analysis, that would be God's concern, wouldn't it? He knows to a nanosecond how long we have left. He'll accomplish what He intends to accomplish through us.

Meanwhile, we who lack such knowledge do nonetheless have the guidance we need (Deuteronomy 29:29). On the one hand lies Scylla's warning against hiding God's investment in a field under pious-sounding protestations (cf. Matthew 25:24-30). On the other stands Charybis' admonition not to risk ruin by excess (Proverbs 10:19; 15:2b, 28b; Ecclesiastes 5:3).

The golden mean is to have a heart aflame with zealous love for God (Romans 12:11; Revelation 3:15-19), and then wisely to ponder, choose, fashion, form, and launch just those words that best convey His truth (Proverbs 15:2a, 28a; 16:23).

Which may be easier said than done — but merits both saying, and doing.

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11 April 2011

The Neo-Liberal Stealth Offensive

by Phil Johnson

I wrote this brief article last year for the 9Marks eJournal. We excerpted a few paragraphs on PyroManiacs at the time. Here's the complete article.

he gospel's most dangerous earthly adversaries are not raving atheists who stand outside the door shouting threats and insults. They are church leaders who cultivate a gentle, friendly, pious demeanor but hack away at the foundations of faith under the guise of keeping in step with a changing world.

No Christian should naively imagine that heresy is always conspicuous or that every purveyor of theological mischief will lay out his agenda in plain and honest terms. The enemy prefers to sow tares secretly for obvious reasons. Thus Scripture expressly warns us to be on guard against false teachers who creep into the church unnoticed (Jude 4); wolves who sneak into the flock wearing sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15); and servants of Satan who disguise themselves as angels of light (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

Theological liberalism is particularly dependent on the stealth offensive. A spiritually healthy church is simply not susceptible to the arrogant skepticism that underlies a liberal's rejection of biblical authority. A church that is sound in the faith won't abandon the gospel in order to embrace humanist values. Liber alism must therefore take root covertly and gain strength and influence gradually. The success or failure of the whole liberal agenda hinges on a patient public-relations cam­paign.

That is precisely how neo-liberals have managed to get a foothold in the contemporary evangelical movement. Consider how evangelicalism has changed in just a few short decades.

Classic Evangelicalism

Historic evangelicalism has two clear distinctives. One is a commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. The other is a conviction that the gospel message is clear and non-negotiable.

Specifically, evangelicals understand the gospel as an announcement of what Christ has done to save sinners, redeem Adam's fallen race, and usher believers into His eternal kingdom. The gospel is not a mandate for sinners to save themselves, redeem humanity, recover human dignity, safeguard cultural diversity, preserve the environment, eliminate poverty, establish a kingdom for themselves, or champion whatever social concept of "salvation" might be popular at the moment. In fact, the gospel expressly teaches that sinners can be justified only through faith in Christ alone, and exclusively by His gracious work—not because of any merit they earn for themselves.

The Protestant Reformation clarified and illuminated those same two principles—sola Scriptura and sola fide. Indeed, they are sometimes known as the formal and material principles of the Reformation. But they weren't novel ideas someone dreamed up out of thin air in the sixteenth century. They are and always have been essential principles of biblical Christianity. In the long course of church history, those truths have frequently been clouded and confused, or mingled with (and sometimes overwhelmed by) bad teaching. Yet since the time of Christ and the apostles those truths have never been totally silenced. They are in fact the very backbone of New Testament doctrine.

Historic evangelicalism made much of that fact. From the dawn of the Reformation through the mid-20th century, no honest, authentic evangelical would ever have thought of questioning Scripture or modifying the gospel.

Contemporary Evangelicalism

With the advent of the seeker-sensitive movement, however, evangelicals began to be influenced by a new species of entrepreneurial leaders who marginalized those core doctrines by neglect. Most of them didn't overtly deny any essential biblical truths; but neither did they vigorously stress or defend anything other than their own methodology.

The results were predictable: Churches are now filled with formerly unchurched people who are still untaught and perhaps even unconverted. Multitudes of children raised on a treacly diet of seeker-sensitive religion grew up to associate the label evangelical with superficiality. Most of them couldn't tell you what the term originally meant, and they reject whatever vestigial evangelical boundaries or doctrinal distinctives their parents may have held onto. But they figure they are still entitled to call themselves evangelicals when it's convenient, and many have remained at the fringes of the visible movement, decrying how out of step the church is with their generation. That, after all, is exactly what they learned from their parents.

This is fertile soil for liberalism to burst into full flower, and that is precisely what is already happening. Evangelicals are blithely following a number of trends that advance the neo-liberal agenda. Unless a faithful remnant begins to recognize and resist the neo-liberal strategy, evangelical churches and institutions will eventually succumb to rank liberalism, just as most of the mainstream denominations did a century ago.

Four Liberal Trends Evangelicals Must Resist

To help you withstand the drift, here are four major trends today's crop of neo-liberal leaders are fostering and taking advantage of:

1. They recklessly follow the zeitgeist.

Theological liberals have always been diligent students of the spirit of the age. A century ago, they were known as "modernists" because post-enlightenment values were the pretext they used to advance the liberal agenda. They insisted that if the church refused to change with the times, Christianity itself would become irrelevant.

Naturally, "changing with the times" meant abridging the gospel message. Sophisticated modern minds would not accept the miracles and other supernatural elements of Scripture. That was OK, the modernists insisted, because the real heart of the Bible's message is the moral and ethical content anyway. Besides, they said, practical virtue is what the church ought to focus on. They considered it sheer folly for preachers to stress difficult doctrinal features that sounded primitive and offensive to modern ears—such as the wrath of God, blood atonement, and especially the doctrine of eternal punishment. Future generations would be lost to churches that held onto such beliefs and refused to accommodate modern thought, they solemnly warned. The situation was urgent.

(Of course they were dead wrong. Churches and denominations that embraced modernist ideas declined severely, and some died. Churches that stayed faithful to their evangelical convictions thrived.)

Postmodernism is the pretext neo-liberals nowadays use to argue that everything must change in the church. The world has changed its point of view once more, and the liberals are still complaining that the church is lagging behind, out of step, and increasingly irrelevant. Notice, however: although the neo-liberals' pretext departs from the modernism favored by their 19th-century counterparts, both the line of argument they use and their theological agenda remain exactly the same. The doctrines postmodern liberals relentlessly challenge are the same ones the modernists rejected: especially God's hatred of sin; penal-substitutionary atonement, and the doctrine of hell.

It's no secret that the world has always despised certain aspects of biblical truth. If it were a legitimate goal for the church to keep in step with the world, it might make sense to review and revise the message from time to time. But the church is forbidden to court the spirit of the age, and one of the main reasons the gospel is such a stumbling block is that it cannot be adapted to suit cultural preferences or alternative worldviews. Instead, it confronts them all.

Beware of church leaders who are more worried about being contemporary than they are about being doctrinally sound; more concerned with their methodology than they are with their message; more captivated by political correctness than they are by the truth. The church is not called to ape the world or make Christianity seem cool and likable, but to proclaim the gospel faithfully—including the parts the world usually scoffs at: sin, righteousness, and judgment (cf. John 16:8). Jesus expressly taught that if we are faithful in that task, the Holy Spirit will convict hearts and draw believers to Christ.

But speaking of wanting to be hip and fashionable, that's another major trend currently advancing the neo-liberal agenda:

2. They want the world's admiration at all costs.

There is of course nothing wrong with being winsome. As recipients of divine grace, if our lives properly manifest the Spirit's fruit, we should by definition have personal charisma (cf. Galatians 5:19-23). We also ought to maintain a good testimony before the world. In fact, to qualify as an elder, a man "must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace" (1 Timothy 3:7).

That of course speaks of a person's character—graciousness, compassion, and a reputation for integrity. It is not a prescription for the appeasement of worldly tastes or the endorsement of every earthly fashion. When we need to shave corners off the truth or compromise righteousness in order to gain the world's friendship, bearing the reproach of Christ is an infinitely better option. No true friend of God deliberately seeks the world's camaraderie (James 4:4).

But one of the common characteristics of liberalism is an obsession with gaining the world's approval and admiration no matter the cost.

We witnessed the germination of this attitude in the evangelical movement at least four decades ago, especially among contemporary church leaders who let neighborhood surveys and opinion polls determine the style and agenda of the church.

When a church gives in to that craving for worldly approval, they will inevitably subjugate the gospel to a more popular message. At first, they won't necessarily deny (or even challenge) core gospel truths such as the historical facts outlined in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. But they will abbreviate, modify, or add to the message. The embellishments usually echo whatever happens to be politically correct at the moment—climate change, world hunger, the AIDS crisis, or whatever. Those things will be stressed and talked about repeatedly while the historic facts of Christ's death and resurrection, the great themes of gospel doctrine, and the actual text of Scripture itself will be largely ignored or treated as something to be taken for granted.

Feed any church a steady diet of that for a few years and they will have no means of defense when someone attacks the faith more directly. That's precisely what is happening today with various attacks on substitutionary atonement, the exclusivity of Christ, the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, and other essential Christian truths. All of those things were first downplayed in order to make the church's message sound more "positive." Now they are being subjected to a full-scale assault.

Such problems are exacerbated and the liberal craving for worldly esteem reaches a white-hot intensity in the academic realm. That brings up yet another feature of the neo-liberal agenda to watch out for:

3. Their "faith" comes with an air of intellectual superiority.

Liberals treat faith itself as an academic matter. Their whole system is essentially a wholesale rejection of simple, childlike belief. Their worldview foments an air of academic arrogance, setting human reason in the place of highest authority; treating the Bible with haughty condescension; and showing utter contempt for the kind of faith Christ blessed.

Consequently, liberals are and always have been obsessed with academic respectability. They want the world's esteem as scholars and intellectuals—no matter what they have to compromise to get it. They sometimes defend that motive by arguing that the secular academy's acceptance is essential to the Christian testimony.

Of course that is a quixotic quest. It is also a denial of the Bible's plain teaching. Believers cannot be faithful to Scripture and win general accolades from the wise men, scribes, and debaters of this age. The world hated Jesus, and He made it clear that His faithful disciples mustn't expect—or seek—the world's honor (John 15:18; Luke 6:22; cf. James 4:4). Paul, himself a true scholar in every sense, wrote this world's wisdom off as sheer foolishness: "Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God" (1 Corinthians 3:18-19).

True Christian scholarship is about integrity, not accolades. Liberalism covets the latter, and that explains why liberals are always drawn to ideas that are stylish and politically correct, yet they are resistant to virtually the all the hard truths of Christianity—starting with the authority Scripture claims for itself.

Be on guard against that tendency. Here's one more:

4. They despise doctrinal and biblical precision.

This may sound like an oxymoron, but while treating faith as an academic matter, liberals prefer an almost anti-intellectual, agnostic approach to dealing with the specific truth-claims of Scripture. They like their doctrine hazy and indistinct.

One maneuver neo-liberals have perfected in these postmodern times is an artful dodge when they dislike a particular doctrine but cannot afford to make a plain and open denial. Instead, they will claim that Scripture is simply too unclear on that point. We can't really be sure. The point is disputed by top scholars, and who are we to speak with too much certainty? Let's have a five-year moratorium on strong opinions.

Thus without denying (or affirming) anything in particular, and without even technically dismissing the matter under discussion as an unimportant point, the ruse effectively sets the truth aside. The skeptic's goal is thus accomplished without incurring any of the odium of skepticism.

Heavy doses of that flavor of postmodern, neo-liberal evasion have conditioned multitudes of church members to regard carefulness and precision in handling doctrine as both unimportant and potentially divisive. These days the person who shows evidence of doctrinal scruples is much more likely to be held in suspicion or disdain among evangelicals than the neo-liberals who have deliberately made the study of biblical doctrine seem so cloudy, confusing, and contentious.

In reality—and this is a lesson the church should have learned from both Scripture and church history—unity and harmony cannot exist in the church at all if there is not a common commitment to sound doctrine.

As long as these four trends and others like them continue to thrive within the evangelical movement, the threat posed by neo-liberalism looms large. Conservative evangelicals should not grow apathetic or take too much comfort in the apparent meltdown of Emergent Village and the liberal wing of postmodernized Christianity. Even if the Emergent ghetto does finally and completely give up the ghost, many of the leading figures and popular ideas from that movement will simply blend into mainstream evangelicalism (which is growing less mainstream and less evangelical all the time).

We must pay attention to the lessons of history and stand firm on the truth of Scripture—and we desperately need to be more aggressive than we have been so far in opposing these neo-liberal influences.

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