31 August 2018

Sheep, or Wolf? A Call to Discern

by Dr. Colin Eakin

If you were asked to identify the Bible's most neglected command for the Christian today, how would you answer? Richard Stearns of World Vision has written that our greatest neglect—what he terms the "hole in our gospel"—is failure to address adequately the physical/material needs of the world's less fortunate. Is that true? Is this where Christians are most deserting Christ's work today?

Here is a survey of mission projects featured on the websites of a random selection of Bay Area churches this past year: homeless shelter, fair trade, sex trafficking, micro-lending to the Third World, food for the hungry, Africa relief, Haiti relief, flood relief, fire relief—the list goes on. Even a cursory glimpse of area churches across a wide spectrum of doctrinal beliefs shows a tremendous commitment to the downtrodden, to those most materially "at risk." There may be a "hole" in our outworking of true Christian faith, but it doesn't lie in inattention to the less fortunate. So if there is a so-called "hole," a most neglected biblical doctrine, wherein does it lie?

Looks Can Be Very Deceiving

As a hint, imagine this scenario. Maybe someone you know is alone, wandering in his own spiritual desert. Not only that, maybe he has unmet physical needs, maybe even actual hunger. To go even further, maybe to all appearances he cannot or will not recognize his innate capacity for success, his opportunity to exert his God-given aptitude for noteworthy accomplishment.

Then along comes someone of friendly countenance, one who is sensitive to the loner's difficulties. He appears on the scene just in time to encourage and uplift the forlorn stranger. He sees his hunger and provides an opportunity for food. He senses the loner's spiritual longing and encourages him with promises from Scripture. He grasps the unrecognized or unacknowledged potential in the loner and exhorts him to fulfill all that he is designed to be.

Pretty magnanimous, wouldn't you say? This would seem, at least on first glance, to mirror sound Christian practice in every sense. In fact, this outreach seems not unlike the Good Samaritan in action. He has come alongside the loner when no one else has or will. He has tended to the loner's physical, spiritual and psychological needs in a noble manner. And in so doing, he has walked in Jesus' footsteps, hasn't he? He has proven himself to be a true "Jesus-follower," right?

There's just one problem. The scenario outlined above is not hypothetical. This scenario actually happened and is recorded in the Bible. The loner described above is Jesus, as depicted in Matthew 4:1-5. The "friend" is Satan.

Whoa! What's going on here? How could this be? Isn't Satan always despicable in practice? Doesn't he only work in the realm of violence, hatred, wickedness, perversity and other forms of obvious evil? The friend here seems loving. The friend here seems kind. The friend here is meeting the loner's needs, addressing Stearns' "hole" in the gospel. The friend here couldn't be Satan, could he?

The process of detecting satanic activity from true righteousness concerns the vital area of spiritual discernment. It is the ability to separate biblical truth from falsehood accurately and reliably. And without a doubt, the lack of spiritual discernment among professing Christians is the most neglected demand God makes upon believers in our day.

Discernment: The Neglected Imperative

Where does God command believers to exercise spiritual discernment? Perhaps a better question is, where doesn't He? The answer is Philemon. Of all the books in the New Testament, this letter of twenty-five verses is the only one in which there is no instruction for the believer to be on guard against falsehood. All remaining twenty-six books of the New Testament (and many of the Old Testament) exhort the believer, to a greater or lesser degree, to discern truth from falsehood and to act upon it. In fact, Second Peter and Jude were written explicitly for this purpose. A summary statement on the need for spiritual discernment comes in Christ's warning at the end of His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:15): "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves."

Wow! There it is in plain language, from no less an expert than Jesus! This is the climax of Jesus' longest uninterrupted teaching in Scripture. Jesus could have focused on a number of other issues as He concluded His momentous sermon, but He chose spiritual discernment. Not only that, He warned His listeners that the threat to them was as if being attacked by a wolf! Jesus is implying here that the threat of spiritual death—eternal destruction!—weighs in the balance. With such clear instruction from God, how could this imperative escape the Church's notice? How could today's professing believers be so blind to this threat? The answer is three-fold:

Ignorance. Many professing believers today are ignorant of what God's Word has to say and how it is to be interpreted, especially in the area of spiritual discernment. Many are not instructed in the complete counsel of God (Acts 20:27), and so are ignorant of its demands upon them. In fact, because a number of modern evangelical churches are themselves pastored by wolves, the teaching these congregations hear will tiptoe around any explicit warning to be on guard against spiritual falsehood.

Difficulty. Detecting falsehood from truth is challenging. It requires an awareness of how Satan operates (2 Corinthians 2:11). It requires constant vigilance, knowing that Satan is ceaseless and relentless in seeking to devour the unwitting and naïve (1 Peter 5:8). And it requires insight into his typical guise and ploy, that he resembles not the comically devilish caricature he has gone to great lengths to propagate, but rather an "angel of light," and that his demons resemble "servants of righteousness" (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). It has been said that Satan would always rather slightly pervert the truth than utter a complete falsehood. He does his best work, not by attacking the Church, but by joining it. This is why the great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon once wrote that discernment is not telling right from wrong; it is telling right from almost right—an arduous task indeed, especially for the uninformed and disinterested.

Unpopular. Even when falsehood is discovered, it is rarely denounced. Why not? Because in today's evangelical morass, that is to be unloving. Rather than follow God's dictum to expose and denounce falsehood for what it is (Ephesians 5:11; 2 Corinthians 10:5; Titus 1:9; 2:15; 2 Timothy 4:1-5; Rev. 2:2), today's pattern heads 180-degrees in the opposite direction, sweeping aside any doctrinal differences in the "broad-minded" search for unity. The modern evangelical ecumenical drive redefines love as acceptance and kindness as the universal embrace of any and all ideas with even the slightest patina of "Christian-ese." All that is required for entrance to the club is to be earnest and agreeable. Small wonder, then, that those raising their hands to identify unbiblical ideas and their source are more often scolded than applauded. The zeitgeist of today's Church finds it unkind and unloving to inspect the ideas of a would-be Christian leader or teacher, looking for any telltale seams in an otherwise congenial veneer that might uncover lupine intent.

Biblical Strategies for "Wolf Detection"

So how do we correct this disobedient drift? Supposing one wants to obey God's guidelines regarding the detection and denigration of falsehood, how does the believer exercise such biblical discernment? Christ's example in His confrontation with Satan gives us straightforward guidelines:

Read, study and apply God's Word. Jesus answers each of Satan's temptations with Scripture, quoting Isaiah every time in retort to the devil's lies. In doing so, He establishes the pattern for His true followers in their confrontations with Satan and his minions. Christians need to use the Word of God just as Jesus did, as a weapon for both defending the truth (1 Peter 3:15) and for tearing down falsehood (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). God describes His Word as a fire, a rock and a sword in destroying all forms of falsehood (Jeremiah 23:29; Hebrews 4:12). Christians must have a ready command for the martial use of God's Word against false doctrine, just as God intends.

Pray. Although Matthew 4:1-2 does not explicitly mention that Jesus was praying, we can infer that He did this along with His fast. Prayer and fasting are often linked in Scripture (Dan. 9:3; Luke 2:37; Acts 14:23). Moreover, all other passages where Jesus goes to be alone mentions His praying (Matt. 14:23; Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:28; Mark 1:35).

Prayer helps the discernment-desiring believer in a number of ways. It brings him or her into a proper place of reverence, awe and humility before God, recognizing that there is a fearsomeness to His holiness and to His wrath against falsehood. It sharpens one's commitment to righteousness through repentance of encumbering sins so that one might be sober-minded and alert to falsehood. It invites the Holy Spirit to bring illumination of the Word and its uses against Satan. And it solicits the blessing of God for those wayward in their doctrine, that He might open their blind eyes and redirect them toward truth—the ultimate goal of any discernment ministry.

Test the spirits (1 John 4:1). What does that mean? It means to place what you are hearing, reading or witnessing from those professing like-minded faith alongside what God has put in His Word. Does it align? Does the would-be partner in faith know and embrace the gospel? Is he or she able to articulate it accurately and clearly as "the power of God for the salvation of all who believe" (Romans 1:16)? Or is it in some refurbished form focused more on earthly considerations and culturally-approved values? In His temptation, Jesus knew the Word of God so perfectly that He easily identified its violation in the wiles of Satan.

Differentiate a person from his/her ideas. The Bible says we are always to be ambassadors for people (2 Corinthians 5:18-21), even as we war for and against ideas (2 Corinthians 10:5). The Christian has no enemies, only opportunities to proclaim God's Word, that God might turn hearts and minds towards Him. As such, we need not fear the denunciation of falsehood as though it somehow endangers its proponent. After all, ideas are fungible. No one is inextricably connected to his or her own error, as though it is integral to his or her makeup. Part of the process of growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ—which all believers are to do (2 Peter 3:18)—involves the abandonment of error for truth. So don't recoil from the confident censure of a professing believer's error, provided it is done in love, gentleness and respect (1 Corinthians 13:1-3; 2 Timothy 2:24-26). You are not undermining who he or she is as a person. On the contrary, you are opening him or her to the opportunity to exchange error for truth.

So how is your commitment to spiritual discernment? How sensitive is your antennae to the beckoning of Satan? Who are today's evangelical wolves? Can you recognize and name them readily?

The widespread and pervasive biblical exhortation to practice spiritual discernment is not an option for the believer. It is, rather, God's oft repeated and enduring command for those who would honor and glorify Him. With this in mind, let us commit ourselves to learning and applying God's Word, to praying, to testing the spirits and to exercising godly wisdom as we, as Christ's sheep, persevere on the lookout for wolves.

Dr. Colin L. Eakin

Dr. Eakin is a sports medicine orthopædic surgeon in the Bay Area and part time teacher at Grace Bible Fellowship Church's Stanford campus ministry. He is the author of God's Glorious Story.

26 August 2018

A word to soul winners

Your weekly Dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from the lifetime of works from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  The following excerpt is from The Sword and the Trowel, volume 7, pages 124-26, Pilgrim Publications.   

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"Are you not willing to pass through every ordeal if by any means you may save some?"

I want to say a word to you who are trying to bring souls to Jesus. You long and pray to be useful: do you know what this involves? Are you sure you do? Prepare yourselves, then, to see and suffer many things which you would rather be unacquainted with. Experiences which would be unnecessary to you personally will become your portion if the Lord uses you for the salvation of others. 

An ordinary person may rest in his bed all night, but a surgeon will be called up at all hours; a farming-man may take his ease at his fireside, but if he becomes a shepherd he must be out among the lambs, and bear all weathers for them; even so doth Paul say, “Therefore I endure all things for the elect’s sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” For this cause we shall be made to undergo experiences which will surprise us.

Suppose that by some painful operation you could have your right arm made a little longer, I do not suppose you would care to undergo the operation; but if you foresaw that by undergoing the pain you would be enabled to reach and save drowning men who else would sink before your eyes, I think you would willingly bear the agony, and pay a heavy fee to the surgeon to be thus qualified for the rescue of your fellows. 

Reckon, then, that to acquire soul-winning power you will have to go through fire and water, through doubt and despair, through mental torment and soul distress. It will not, of course, be the same with you all, nor perhaps with any two of you, but according to the work allotted you will be your preparation. 

You must go into the fire if you are to pull others out of it, and you will have to dive into the floods if you are to draw others out of the water. You cannot work a fire-escape without feeling the scorch of the conflagration, nor man a life-boat without being covered with the waves. 

If Joseph is to preserve his brethren alive, he must himself go down into Egypt; if Moses is to lead the people through the wilderness, he must first himself spend forty years there with his flock. Payson truly said, “If any one asks to be made a successful minister he knows not what he asks; and it becomes him to consider whether he can drink deeply of Christ’s bitter cup and be baptized in his baptism.”

19 August 2018

The catholicon for church problems

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Your weekly Dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from the lifetime of works from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  The following excerpt is from the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, volume 36, sermon number 2127, "Love's competition."   

"Love to God is a sort of natural consequence which follows from a sight and sense of the love of God to us."

Where there is much love, there is sure to be much service in proportion to the strength. Give us a church that loves Christ Jesus much. 

You will have mighty prayer-meetings; you will have a holy membership; you will have liberal giving to the cause of Christ; you will have hearty praising of his name; you will have careful walking before the world; you will have earnest endeavours for the conversion of sinners. 

Missions at home and abroad will be set on foot when love is fervent. When the heart is right, everything is likely to be right; but when the heart goes wrong, oh, what a fatal thing it is! 

A disease of the heart is looked upon as the worst of mischiefs that can happen to a man. One old doctor of my acquaintance used to say, “We can do nothing with the heart.” 

God keep us from a diseased heart: a fatty degeneration of the heart, or an ossification of the heart towards the Lord Jesus Christ!

12 August 2018

The Parting

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Your weekly Dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from the lifetime of works from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  The following excerpt is from According to Promise, pages 28-30, Pilgrim Publications.   

"If my reader would feel freer and more at home in society than in the church of God, let him know assuredly that he belongs to the world, and let him not deceive himself."

Isaac and Ishmael lived together for a time. The self-religionist and the believer in the promise may be members of the same church for years, but they are not agreed, and cannot be happy together, for their principles are essentially opposed. As the believer grows in grace and enters upon his spiritual manhood, he will be more and more disagreeable to the legalist, and it will ultimately be seen that the two have no fellowship with one another. 

They must separate, and this is the word that will be fulfilled to the Ishmaelite: “Cast out this bond-woman and her son: for the son of this bond-woman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.” Grievous as the parting may be, it will be according to the divine will, and according to the necessities of the case. Oil and water will not mingle, neither will the natural man’s religion agree with that which is born of the promise, and sustained by the promise. Their parting will be only the outward result of a serious difference which always existed.

Outwardly, and in this present life, the heir of the promise did not appear to have the best of it. Nor, indeed, should this be expected, since they who choose their heritage in the future have, in fact, agreed to accept trial in the present.

Isaac experienced certain afflictions which Ishmael never knew: he was mocked, and he was at last laid on the altar; but nothing of the sort happened to Ishmael. You, who like Isaac are the children of the promise, must not envy those who are the heirs of this present life, though their lot seems easier than your own. Your temptation is to do so; even as the Psalmist did when he was grieved because of the prosperity of the wicked.

There is in this fretting a measure of running back from our spiritual choice: have we not agreed to take our part in the future rather than in the present? Do we rue the bargain? Moreover, how absurd it is to envy those who are themselves so much to be pitied! To lose the promise is practically to lose everything; and the self-righteous have lost it. 

These worldly professors have no spiritual light or life, and they desire none. What a loss, to be in the dark and not to know it! They have enough religion to make them respectable among men, and comfortable in their own consciences; but this is a sorry gain if they are abominable in the sight of God. They feel no inward fightings and wrestlings; they find no contention of the old man against the new; and so they go through life with a jaunty air, knowing nothing till their end come. 

What wretchedness to be so besotted! Again, I say, do not envy them. Better far is the life of Isaac with its sacrifice, than that of Ishmael with its sovereignty and wild freedom; for all the worldling’s greatness will soon be ended and leave nothing behind it but that which will make the eternal world to be the more miserable.

05 August 2018

Prescient medicine for social media (circa 1883)

Your weekly Dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from the lifetime of works from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  The following excerpt is from the The Sword and the Trowel, May, 1883, "The use of wool in the ears."   

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"It will be a mark of wisdom to be impatient with the follies of human converse."

We are told concerning Bernard of Clairvaux that, after he had given himself up entirely to contemplation and walking with God, he met with a considerable difficulty in the visits of those friends who were still in the world. Their conversation brought back thoughts and feelings connected with the frivolities which he had for ever forsaken; and on one occasion, after he had been wearied with the idle chit-chat of his visitors, he found himself unable to raise his heart towards heaven. 

When he was engaged in the exercise of prayer he felt that their idle talk was evidently the cause of his losing fellowship with God. He could not well forbid his friends coming, and therefore he prepared himself for their injurious conversation by carefully stopping his ears with little wads of flax. He then buried his head deep in his cowl, and though exposed for an hour to their conversation, he heard nothing, and consequently suffered no injury. He spoke to each of them some few words for edification, and they went their way. 

We do not suppose that for any great length of time he was much troubled with such visitors, for he must have been an uncommonly uninteresting companion. If people once discover that their clatter is lost upon you, they are not quite so eager to repeat the infliction.

We are not admirers of Bernard’s monastic severity, but we wish it were possible to imitate his use of wool, in the spirit if not in the letter. We are all thrown in the way of persons who will talk; and their talk has in it about as much solidity as the comet, of which we are told that a thousand square miles, if condensed and compressed, would go into a thimble or an acorn-cup. Cowper made an accurate computation of the value of ordinary conversation when he said, —

Collect at evning what the day brought forth,
Compress the sum into its solid worth,
And if it weigh the importance of a fly,
The scales are false, or algebra a lie.

If it were of any use to these human fog-horns, whose noise so much disturbs gracious souls, we would reason with them: but, alas, it would be casting pearls before parrots, who would hop off with them, drop them, and come back to scream again. 

Still, though it may be wasted effort, we would tell them a little story, which we met with in a tiny book called “Gold Dust.” “‘ Mother,’ asked a child, 'since nothing is ever lost, where do all our thoughts go?’ ‘to God,’ answered the mother, gravely, ‘who remembers them for ever.’ ‘For ever!’ said the child; he leaned his head, and drawing closer to his mother, murmured, ‘I am frightened!’”

Do you triflers never feel frightened too? If so, permit this healthy fear to grow; and remember that idle words are worse than idle thoughts, for they lead others into evil, and murder good thoughts in those who else might have quietly meditated.

As the topics of conversation which are usually intruded upon devout minds are worthless, if not worse, the best way is to escape from them altogether; but when this is not possible; oh, would that the gift of deafness could be conferred upon us! Oh, to protect the drum of the ear with a plate of iron! Will no one invent us ear-shields? 

The process of letting chit-chat go in at one ear and out at the other is greatly injurious to the brain; and the mere passage of such traffic through the mind is painful to the spiritual man’s heart. It would be a far better thing not to let it enter at all. 

Could we not manage, by determinedly introducing holy topics, to become as truly bores to the foolish talkers as the chatterboxes are to us? or, better still, could we not turn the flood of conversation into a profitable channel, and subdue wild tongues to some useful service, as men tame rushing rivulets and make them turn their mill-wheels? Oh, that it were possible!

How often, immediately after a holy service, where in heart and mind we have been carried to the top of Tabor, so that we have beheld the transfiguration of all gracious truth, have we come down to the foot of the mountain to meet with very fools! They have inane remarks to offer upon the congregation, the faults of the singing, the mistakes of the preacher, or other worthless trifles. They behave as if, in the presence of God, and heaven, and hell, they found a fit place for acting the merry-andrew, and playing their fantastic tricks. 

If they have ever been in the presence of the King of kings, they have been more engrossed by the dust beneath his feet than with his majesty and glory. This dust they bring away, and throw into our eyes, so that with the pain thereof the holy vision vanishes away. Oh, that such beings should exist! 

02 August 2018

Sola Scriptura vs. Church Traditions

by Phil Johnson

I'm in Finland to speak to a group of Reforming church leaders on the subject of sola Scriptura. The conference here started tonight. I'll be covering topics like the authority, accuracy, and sufficiency of Scripture. I'll also be highlighting the dangers of vesting too much authority in ecclesiastical tradition—especially when our traditions might burden or obscure the simplicity of the gospel. Or worse yet, in some churches and denominations, long-treasured church traditions have often been used to adjust or nullify clear statements of Scripture (cf. Mark 7:13).

To be clear: I am not one of those who thinks we need to jettison every order of service, structure, or interpretation of Scripture that has some pedigree in church tradition. (I'm not an organoclast.) I would be the very last person to advocate ignorance of church history, show sneering contempt for the very idea of tradition, or recommend a haughty, overweening attitude toward godly churchmen and their beliefs and practices from past ages. Tradition has a legitimate place in the church; but that place is not near the top of the hierarchy.

Anyway, while I was at dinner with conference attendees tonight, a friend in America texted me a question about those very issues. He was asking if we could have an extended conversation when I get back in the office. I'm looking forward to that. Meanwhile, I thought his question so good and the issue so important that I decided to answer him briefly with a text message on the spot. My Finnish friends around the table were engaged in conversation with one another, so I thought I could dash off a quick reply without being impolite.

Wrong. My reply became a bit longer than planned, and by the time I finished thumb-typing, I was the only one left at the table. So with apologies to my Finnish hosts to whom I was unintentionally rude, here's my reply to my friend's question. My answer should give you sufficient clues to discern everything you need to know about the gist of what he asked. Here you go:

Short answer: as in all structures, authority is definitionally hierarchical. I think well-established ecclesiastical traditions can carry some authority, but never in a way that trumps the Bible.

In other words the practice and teachings of our spiritual forefathers ought to be studied and taken seriously, and though they have no authority to challenge or add dogmatic articles of faith to what the Bible teaches, certain traditions do have more authority than whatever "God told me this morning. . . "

I think one of the besetting sins of the current generation(s) is a tendency to ignore the voices of godly men who preceded us. Sola scriptura properly understood is not a recipe for each person arriving at his or her own interpretation of the text without any insights gleaned from commentaries, reference works, or the history of what godly men and councils have said in the past. (The notion that me and my Bible are all the instruction I'm willing to heed is what I would typically refer to as "nuda scriptura rather than sola Scriptura.")

In short, if I arrive at a belief or interpretation that no one before me has ever seen, my assumption should be that I'm probably wrong.

On the other hand, the danger of placing too much weight on tradition was shrilly rejected by Christ himself, so I'm inclined to think the greater danger lies there. But there's a deep, deadly ditch on both sides, and it behooves us to stay between those ditches.

See also: Sola Scriptura and the role of teachers in our spiritual growth.

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