Monthly Archives: October 2005

Faith’s centrality

Most times I hear of discussions of love and selfishness in the Christian life, I feel like we are stuck on a treadmill inside a maze on a foggy night.

I don’t think the ultimate issues boil down to selfish motives v. selfless motives. I think we’d be better off asking, “Who do you trust?” Do you think you know what your ultimate happiness would be? Are you confident that you know how to acquire it? Then the problem is not a desire for “happiness” (a term that is almost as abstract–and therefore as useless–as “being”), but autonomous unbelief.

We’re supposed to trust God about the path and the desirability of the goal. Worry about motives after you have made sure who you trust.

The Tower of Babel in the Gospels?

Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.” (Mathew 12.25).

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; (Luke 1.51b).

For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish” (Luke 14.28-30).

Worth thinking about, though I’m not ready to commit to anything yet.

In Jerusalem in Acts 2 it is quite obviously the natives of Judea who do not hear anything in their own language and thus think they are hearing drunken speech. In a sense then, the gift of glossalalia fits in with the curse that causes the eventual ruin of the tower that reaches into heaven…..

From post-reformation to post-mortem

The day it is acceptable for a Reformed minister to defend Reformed doctrine by quoting Hebrews that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and mean by “Jesus” a document produced by human tradition is a day in which the Reformation needs to be declared D. O. A. The day it is acceptable to refer to “our theological foundations,” or “the solid rock amid shifting sands, ” and to refer thereby to human documents rather than to Scripture is a day that has proven the only thing left of the Reformation is a corpse. Any signs of animation thereafter will only be a threat. It will suck the life out of you.

On that day God grant us a steady hand, a sharp eye, and a sharp wooden stake.

The challenge of a godly Reformed pastor, in his preaching, teaching, reading and life, is to model and encourage his congregation to hear the living voice of Scripture through godly teachers of the past, but to detect and reject all worship of the dead. To lead them between the twin evils of revolutionism and traditionalism.

Church Landmines: extrapolating from anomalies

  • A group of speakers that is interdenominational (Reformed, Baptist, Charismatic) but all belong to a distinctive group are on the radio show run by one of them. I’ll call the group, off the cuff, Objectivist/Conceptual. They represent, they obviously believe, the best of ecumenical predestinarian soteriology, theology, and church practice, and they are discussing the “emergent church” movement. These targets of their criticism believe that we must “reinvent the way we do church.” But this is obviously nonsense. Each one of these few men pastors a church that could deservedly be called “mega,” and they see new people coming into their congregations. Obviously, everything is fine. The real key to healthy churching is for everyone to imitate them.
  • An independent Reformed congregation in a small town grows from a few to almost a thousand, planting churches and being key to the start of a new denomination. They have a host of particulars that have worked for them which others are prone to emulate.

I’m sure I could go on, because nothing about what I am saying is limited to Reformed congregations. I’m sure it could be said of the “Emergent Church” success stories as well. Or anything else.

We live in a nation of hundreds of millions of people. If you look long enough you will find almost anything working. Be careful.

Let me put it this way. Say Joel Olsteen is as heretical as I hear he is. (I have no opinion since I haven’t read anything firsthand and since I refuse to publicly believe anything I read from any Reformed critic in our present hour.) Fine. Lets say Olsteen had been converted to the true faith in the past so that he is now preaching a message that is just as unattractive as yours is. His church would probably still be larger than yours. And if not, it might be due to a bunch of accidental factors having to do with the local economy or whether another mega-church blew up at just the time he was planting his own.

People have gifts and they do amazing things. The Spirit does not limit gifts to those with correct theology or method. Some church leaders are going to grow a church and others aren’t. There is nothing that says that we should be able to look across the vast data-pool that is the demographic of the United States, and produce a few examples that will show “what works.” Maybe nothing works. Maybe everything works. It depends more than we want to believe on personality and providence.

Four national church leaders in a room have no business assuring us that they represent anything about the future of the church. The only reason they are prominent is precisely because they and their churches stick out from the landscape as exceptional. If they weren’t anomalous, no one would take notice of them and they wouldn’t get their own radio show. That tells us nothing about whether they are the beginnings of a swelling wave or the pools left over from a receding tide (and this, either way, tells us nothing about what God thinks of their distinctive commitments).

And this applies in all sorts of directions. We all say we are just following “the truth,” but for better or worse (both usually) we find the truth embodied in communities. Reproducing that sort of community life becomes our vision (as it often should) and we assume that all the community’s principles are responsible for its existence (as they almost never are, at least not to the degree of importance ascribed to them).

Not sure what the implications of this are. Pray a lot. Look for demographic research that covers a great many more variables. Pray often. Make sure that all your principles are really found in the Word of God and aren’t simply extra credible because they were embodied somewhere successfully. Pray a great deal.

And there is more. A hope deferred, God assures us, will make a heart sick. Not, “might make a heart sick if he is not pious enough.” We meet pastors in horrible congregational situations and we meet pastors in wonderful congregational situations. We notice a difference in their personalities, in their stance, even in their postures. Take some advice from the atheist Hume: don’t pretend to understand cause and effect. You have no idea if the neurotic pastor caused a bad situation or if he bears the scars of being in a bad situation. And you have no idea what economic and demographic wave might have swelled up under the other. You simply can’t tell (though any number of search committees operate every year under the assumption that this is all self-evident).

And don’t adapt your theology to your circumstances as a result of disappointment. The Great Commission still stands and God’s work to Isaiah is that it is “too light a thing” for Him to merely save a remnant. Success stories may appeal to you for fleshly reasons, but rejecting success may be just a fleshly. Maybe it is God’s will that you live in frustration. Maybe being faithful in your situation means refusing to get comfortable with your situation.

Drinking blood

Adding a couple of thoughts to this post on the subject.

Blood was not simply prohibited. In Leviticus, when Israel was in the camp, every sanctuary animal that was slaughtered, even for a normal meal, had its blood put on the altar. In Deuteronomy, when Moses readies Israel for a situation when the sanctuary will be more distant, he commands them to pour out the blood on the ground. The promised Land is more sanctified than the wilderness and it functions as a secondary altar allowing a secondary Levitical status to all Israel.

One reason for the prohibition then, is that the blood was given to reconcile us to God and then to give us life. But there is no point in the OT economy when the reconciliation is completed. To start drinking blood would be to claim that God’s wrath had been satisfied with the blood of bulls and goats. But it never was. Only when Christ died was that propitiation made. Now we can ritually drink his blood. (Nevertheless, the prohibition on blood remains in force and Leithart gives some reasons why.)

Reading and hearing Leviticus lately, I’m struck by the command to sprinkle blood seven times before the curtain to the Holy of Holies. Was the priest to keep trying in the hope that something would happen, only to give up after the seventh attempt. Jesus bled much farther away from the Sanctuary, yet even at t a distance the sanctuary responded by tearing the curtain in two.

R&RJ for only $14!

Following up on this post Reformation and Revival Journal is out and contains my brief essay on “Why Not Get Rid of Doctrine?” (You’ll have to read it to find out which way I vote). There is some great stuff in that article, including an heplful piece by PCA pastor Craig Higgins.

Just to clarify, the article now published is not the one mentioned by Jeff Meyers. That article will be pulished in the forthcoming issue of R&R Journal.

(A funny thing happened recently. The editor emailed me and asked why I had used the word “propitiation” in an article pleading that we use normal, everyday words, as much as possible in theological discourse. Every time I explaine the word, “propitiation,” I say that it means to appease or placate God’s wrath. So why not simply say that what Jesus did on the cross appeased or placated God’s wrath? Why insist on an extra step by using a word no one knows that can be rather readily defined by a word that everyone knows?) If J. I. Packer is right, that this term is the heart of the Gospel (and he is), then why not use vernacular speech to explain the Gospel?)

If anyone is not a subscriber to the Reformation & Revival Journal, now is the time to fix that. John Armstrong is selling a year for a mere fourteen dollars! It is a good magazine. Give it a try.


We are approaching the year anniversary to my interview in Saint Louis that eventually led to my move and my new call. That’s the good news. The not so good news is that the weather in St. Louis was quite different than Oklahoma at that point. I got sick and stayed sick until at least the end of April. No really. If you find my sermons for AAPC I think you will hear me hacking away as I try to preach.

Well the weather has taken a turn. In general I like this. I get to wear my Angel jacket (if you don’t know you don’t want to) and start playing more U2 on my computer. But I’m sick again. Headache. Everywhereelseache. Congestion. Cough. Sore throat. Drowsiness. Yuck.

I’m really hoping this ends this week rather than next April.


Interesting: this post has made it into the commercial blogosphere. I suppose a couple of comments are in order. First off, I began preaching and teaching from the ESV when it came out and I am quite happy with that decision. It was confirmed for me when I moved to providence and found it was the new pew Bible.

The ESV corrects some misjudgments in the NASB. Of course, I’m not going to say that, as a whole it is better than the NASB since that would require a lot of study to back up. As translations I think they are both great. When it comes to the readibility issue, however, the ESV is far, far, superior to the NASB. The NASB prints the Bible with an individual paragraph for each verse. It looks like a checklist or a series of aphorisms. The ESV uses a normal paragraph format and has much smaller subscripted verse numbers. I wish a version could be produced in which all of this is marginalized (literally! put in the margins), but it is still quite good.

By the way, not only is the ESV an awesome translation, but their is a wonderful freebie. It is much easier on the eyes than the Bible Gateway website (though it provides a button to go there and compare texts side by side–if only they would add a koine option). Furthermore, thanks to this great feature, I now have a three-hole-punch folder of Romans without any chapter divisions or verse numbers–something that reads much more like an actual letter.

While I’m hoping for more great stuff from the ESV, there is one product which figures perfectly with my mass-market paperback rule: the ESV Psalter. This is a great little paperback that has helped me with personal devotions time and again (the Psalms, while also a hymnbook, can easily function as a prayerbook and should). Notice the warning on the main product page: “No center-column reference system.” That means that there is only one column a page. Aesthetically, this is gold. We have a book that reads like a book rather than a textbook.

So,no matter what translation you normally use, even if you are stubbornly resistant to the ESV marketing campaign, I think you should order this. The only comparable product I have seen are the Dover editions of the KJV Psalms, which, as an English speaker, I can’t use.

Arguably, one of the major distinctions of the Reformed communions, during the Reformation, was their use of the Psalms. If we want to see Reformation i our own day, the very best of the Reformation, recovering the Psalms as the hymn- and prayerbook of the Church is a needed step. Buy the Psalter for yourself and for stocking stuffers this Christmas. You won’t be sorry.

Is mature faith the fruit of works?

Something is bothering me about James 2.14-26. Verse 26 is probably the biggest (though not the only) irritation to what I thought I understood about the passage: “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” In my thinking, faith has always been this animating force, a motive power, from which good deeds are the consequence, result, effect, fruit, etc.

But doesn’t this verse go the other way? Spirit animates body so that without spirit the body is just a corpse, right? Isn’t James saying that faith is a mere corpse without the animating power of works?

Of course, we actually come close to this model when we talk about “dead orthodoxy.” So maybe James is talking about something closer to verbal affirmations then personal trust. Without acts of trust the verbaql affirmations become dead propositionalism…? Is James’ point that without a life words are empty?

My other question is why does the objector in verse 18 claim to have works and claim that James has faith? I would expect exactly the opposite statement. In fact, I think I’ve been suppressing it in order to make it fit. Why would someone being told he needs to show his faith by his works object that he has works but that his critic has faith?

Time to hit the library when I get a chance!