November 30, 2008

Therapeutic Church Slogans

During my holiday travels in recent days I observed a number of signs in front of churches with slogans that publicized a characteristic which the church apparently wanted to make known about itself. Here are three that caught my eye: 1) "where Jesus heals the hurting," 2) where we help people get back to God," and 3) "got problems?" You may be wondering what these have in common and why I found them so interesting. Well, they all seem to have in common a focus on the therapeutic. They say to the passerby, "If you've got a problem, come here to get it fixed. We are the problem fixing people." Now there may be nothing wrong with this. And I agree that the church is the place where God intends to redeem and transform people. However, I must ask, is therapy to be our central word of proclamation? Is the church to be identified by its therapeutic services? Is this what we should put on the sign out front? Personally, I would like to see a sign that reads, "First Church of This Town...Where Jesus Is Lord," or "First Church of That Town...In the Sure and Certain Hope of the Resurrection of the Dead." These seem to me to be more central to the church's identity and its core proclamation. Are we the therapy people or the gospel people? I may be wrong, but I am concerned that these instances are indicative of a larger trend in evangelical churches.

It is not the church's job to meet every little perceived problem that everyone thinks they have. It is the church's job to tell people that they don't actually know what their real problems are, namely sin and death. And it is the church's job to faithfully proclaim the one who is able to deal with these problems. Problems are part of life and anyone who thinks that being a Christian will fix their problems is bound for a rude awakening. Just ask the Apostle Paul who was stoned and lived to tell about it. If anything, being a Christian invites problems. It was Jesus who said we would have trouble. The church's job is not to fix felt needs and perceived problems. The church's job is not primarily therapy (of course this doesn't mean that faithful Christians cannot be therapists...certainly they can). The church's job is faithful proclamation of the gospel about God's Son and our Lord, Jesus Christ, who died for our sins according to the scriptures and was raised on the third day according to the scriptures.

November 10, 2008

Christian Faith: It's Object and Content

I'm currently in a class called "Communication as Chrstian Rhetoric." We are assigned two speeches to be delivered in the class. The first speech is to be on faith while the second is to be on love drawing on the idea of faith working through love in Gal. 5:6. Here is the manuscript from my first speech delivered earlier tonight.
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“The only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Such a declaration raises at least a few important questions. To who is this faith directed or to what? What is the content of this faith? How is this faith defined? What sets this faith apart from any other faith? And what does it mean to say faith works through love? After all, isn’t faith personal while love is something that is directed towards another?

As Christians, it is important for us to be clear about the object and the content of our faith. This is especially the case in the present day because faith has become something of a buzzword. We’ve just finished an election season last week. We’ve seen presidential candidates interviewed by preachers. We’ve seen the candidates both associate and dissociate themselves with other preachers. We’ve heard them speak about their faith albeit generally vague. Faith is a buzzword and it seems that in our day, it’s more important to have faith than to be clear about the object and the content of that faith. So, what is Christian faith? To who is Christian faith directed?

When Paul the Apostle wants to talk about the origins of Christian faith, he goes all the way back to Abraham who is the “father of all who have faith” (Rom 4:11). And he keys in on two things. Abraham believed in the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. The creator God who gives life to the dead is the object of Abraham’s faith.

You see, Abraham had a problem. He and his wife Sarah had no children, and they were too old to have children. This is a problem because, for Abraham, when he dies, that’s the end of his name, the end of house, the end of his heritage. His property will go to a slave in his home, and he will be forgotten because there is no one to carry on his name. So, what is it that makes Abraham so special? Paul says that Abraham believed a promise. He believed the promise of God that God would give him a family. Now talk about unlikely. Paul likes to point out that Abraham was one hundred years old. He was as good as dead. His wife too was elderly and barren. But instead of wavering, Abraham glorified God. He grew strong in his faith and he believed that God could do what he said he would, namely bring life out Abraham’s dead old body. For Paul, this is the paradigm, the model of Christian faith. Christian faith is faith in the creator God who raises the dead.

Now you and I live in a period of history where God has revealed more than he had revealed to Abraham. The God who raises the dead has given us a concrete demonstration of his power to give life to that which was dead. The creator God has made himself known in history in Jesus of Nazareth who was handed over by the Jews to be crucified by Romans. They put him on trial and put him to death. But the Creator, the one who is able to give life to the dead, the one that Jesus knew as Father, reversed the decision of the court by raising Jesus from the dead. So, you see, to believe in the God who Abraham believed in, to believe in the God who raises the dead, is to believe in Jesus, the one who was dead but now lives. Christian faith is faith whose specific object is the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Now if the object of Christian faith is the God who raised Jesus from the dead, then what is the content of Christian faith? What is the central proclamation, the gospel that Paul says is the power of God for salvation to those who believe? What is the message, that when believed, leads to salvation?

Paul opens his letter to the Romans with a description of his gospel. He says that the gospel is about God’s son, who is descended from David according to the flesh and declared to be son of God with power according to the Spirit of Holiness by resurrection from the dead (Rom 1:3-4). So, the gospel has to do with Jesus’ descent from David, a king of Israel, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead which confirms his Messianic status as Son of God. The gospel has to do with Jesus’ kingly descent and his resurrection from the dead.

This is confirmed later in the letter to the Romans when Paul articulates the “word of faith which we proclaim” (10:8). He says, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9). This, then, is the word of faith, the gospel, and the central Christian proclamation: Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead. The crucified and risen Messiah Jesus is Lord of the world. Paul says believe that and you will be saved.

So, to this point we have seen that the object of Christian faith is the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the God, who by his Spirit raised Jesus from the dead. We have also seen that the content of the word of faith, the gospel, is Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead.

Now someone is going to ask why this is important. After all, I’ve simply defined Christian faith. Who is to say that some other faith is not valid? Why is Christian faith any better or more important than any other faith?

The answer to such an objection is that the gospel, the word of faith, is the power of God for salvation to all who have faith. The gospel itself is God’s power for salvation to all who believe (Rom 1:16). Well what does that mean? Well, sometimes an example is helpful in trying to understand the scriptures. In 1 Thes. 1:5, Paul says, “Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” When Paul preached the gospel to the Thessalonians, the Holy Spirit went to work powerfully to convict them of sin. So, why is it important to be clear on the content of the gospel? It’s important because the proclamation is the means of grace by which the Holy Spirit goes to work to convict of sin and draw people to the Father through the Son. We need to be clear about the content of the gospel so that we can be faithful preachers of the gospel. We need to be clear on the content of the gospel so that we do not distort the gospel and strip it of its power because we think we know better than the Spirit. This is important because sometimes we are tempted to tweak it because we think if we can phrase it just right, then we can hook ‘em. But our job is not to tweak the word of faith. Our job is to be faithful preachers of the word of faith. When we proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead, the Spirit of God goes to work in power to convict and convert. We must be clear on the content of this word.

So, some will respond that you’ve got your faith and I’ve got mine. The problem is if it isn’t Christian faith in the Lord Jesus and the God who raised him from the dead, then it isn’t saving faith. In fact, Paul says in 1 Cor 15 that if it is not resurrection faith, then it’s futile faith. And we are still in our sins. So, when Paul says that the only thing that matters is faith working through love, he has in mind a very specific kind of faith.

So, the call for us today is a call to clarity, boldness, and faithfulness: clarity in the object of faith, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, clarity in the word of faith, Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead, boldness in our proclamation of that word, and faithfulness in our proclamation of that word despite opposition which will try to relativize faith. There will be voices which proclaim alternatives. Our task is to be faithful to preach the good news: Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead.

November 8, 2008

The Problem with Open Theism: A God Who Cannot be Trusted

I'm tired of Open Theism. For those who may be unaware of what this nomenclature refers to, Open Theism is the view that God knows all of the past and all of the present but only has 99.9% knowledge of the future. The argument is based on Biblical texts that speak of God's seeking to know something. Proponents also argue that if an event has not yet taken place, then there is nothing for God to know.

The position comes from an honest attempt to try to justify authentic human freedom when it comes to decision making. Open Theists fear that if God has knowledge of future events and human choices, then the choice is already made and the human being has no authentic options to choose from. She must simply do what God already knows she will do. Unfortunately, this fails to see that foreknowledge does not imply predetermination. Few, if any, in the history of the church have argued that God's foreknowledge results in his determination of human choices. Neither Calvinists nor Arminians hold such a view. Calvinists believe that God's foreknowledge is a result of his decree not a result of human choices. Arminians believe that foreknowledge is simply knowledge of free human choices. So, neither side has classically affirmed that foreknowledge equals determinism.

The problem with Open Theism is that it creates a God who cannot be trusted. If God's knowledge is at all limited, then how does God know that God is God. Perhaps, the one we worship as God is the mere creature of some higher power or deity. Perhaps the one we worship as God is simply under the illusion that he is God being deceived by this malevolent higher power. If God does not have full knowledge of the future, then he cannot be trusted to return in the person of Christ to raise the dead and perform the final work of new creation because, for all God knows, there may be some other more powerful God that will thwart the plans of the one we worship as God. God is trustworthy because he knows what he will do. So, one implication of Open Theism is that it opens up the possibility of polytheism. To limit God's knowledge is to undermine his trustworthiness and to make so-called Christian faith futile. If God's knowledge is not exhaustive of every possible future event, then faith gives no assurance and it may be the case that the one in whom we place our faith is powerless to save us.

November 5, 2008

Abortion and the Apostolic Voice

"I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." Romans 12:1

One of the most important issues challenging us today is whether a woman has the right to terminate the life of her unborn baby. Faithful Christians regularly call for the child's right to life, and rightly so. However, perhaps we could approach the issue from another angle as well, from the angle of sacrifice. For Christians, at least, our bodies are not our own. If Jesus really is Lord, then he sets the rules for what we do with our bodies. When the Apostle Paul appeals to the Roman Christians by the mercies of God, he is calling up everything he said in the first eleven chapters of the letter. By his mercy, God has forgiven your sin. By his mercy, God has given you right standing and brought you into his family. By his mercy, God has joined you to Christ. By his mercy, God has given you his own Spirit to transform your character. By his mercy, God will glorify you raising you from the dead to give you the cosmos. How will you respond to such mercy? Paul's answer...offer your body to God. This is clearly applicable to the abortion debate. It is, of course, clear that we cannot expect non-Christians to submit to such an expectation. Those who deny the Lordship of Christ cannot submit their bodies to him unless he justifies them and begins to transform them by his indwelling Spirit. However, what if Christians stopped calling so much for our rights and started offering our bodies to God as a living sacrifice? What if we offered our mouths to God? Our hands? Our eyes? Our conduct? What if we were to live such radical lives of living sacrifice to God that when one of our little girls gets pregnant outside of marriage or unexpectedly or, God forbid, by force, her first tendency will be to offer her own body as a living sacrifice to God for the sake of the child she carries because she has learned that this is just what Christians do? It is right to speak about the rights of the child. But we ought to expand our witness and our behavior to testify to the universal lordship and supremacy of Jesus as we respond to his mercy by offering our bodies to him.

November 4, 2008

Holiness in the 21st Century

I was privileged to attend an academic conference this past Saturday on the future of the holiness tradition. The conference was a project of the Francis Asbury Society and funded by an anonymous donor with the theme of "understanding and communicating Christian holiness in our day." Attendees were invited from the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary, Asbury College, and the Francis Asbury Society, and each faculty member was allowed to invite a student who might be interested in the future of the holiness movement. The keynote speaker was Dr. Graham Walker, President of Patrick Henry College, who presented a stimulating paper called "These Perverse Times: A Diagnostic." Dr. John Oswalt, Professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary, delivered a paper on "Holiness and the Scriptures." Dr. Paul Vincent gave a paper on "Holiness and the Nineteenth Century: Our Problem or Our Promise." Each session was followed by discussion and interaction with the speaker. After the last paper, we divided into small groups to discuss some of the issues that had been addressed during the day. The conference concluded with a large group discussion led by Dr. Oswalt and a time of prayer. Overall, I found the conference to be very fruitful, and I learned a lot about the holiness tradition. Having been quite eager to get involved in a group like this, I was very excited to be a part of this meeting. I am encouraged and look forward to seeing how our Lord works through the holiness tradition as it continues to grow and flourish in the coming days.

Photo: Statue of Francis Asbury

November 2, 2008

Abortion and the Prophetic Voice

Ezekiel 16 paints a sublime portrait of the Creator God's love for his chosen people. This God expresses his love saying, "I pledged myself to you and entered into covenant with you...and you became mine...I bathed you with water and washed off the blood from you, and anointed you with oil. I clothed you with embroidered cloth and with sandals of fine leather; I bound you in fine linen and covered you with rich fabric. I adorned you with ornaments" (8-11). This poetic expression of God's passionate adornment of his beloved people is moving. There is, though, an interesting detail earlier in the chapter which is not to be overlooked. The word of Lord through the prophet says, "As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; but you were thrown in the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born" (4-5). I find it fascinating anc comforting that the metaphor chosen by God to express his love to his people is that of an unwanted, unloved, and left for dead newborn. The one whose cord was not cut, who was left unwashed, abandoned by her parents, and thrown in a field to die, this is the one that the Lord chooses for himself to raise up as his own making her the object of his covenant love. When God wanted to express his passionate love and loyalty to his people, he chose language not altogether unlike a partial birth abortion. Evidently, God loves babies that no one else does.