A Severe Mercy: Rediscovering the Holiness of God

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Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen,
but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.
— Romans 11:22 —

When God created Adam and Eve, he endowed them with a holy calling to worship Him. In fact, made for God’s glory, it was the chief design of humanity to worship and serve the Creator—not only in holy assembly but in every human endeavor (cf. Col 3:17, 23).

Sadly, this original design was lost when the first couple rebelled against God (Gen 3:1–6). Seeking to be like God, they spurned their Creator. As Paul puts it, “For although they knew God, they did no honor him as God or give thanks to him, . . . Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” of created things (Rom 1:21–23).

The Idolatry of Self

In context, Paul is speaking about Gentiles, but indeed, he is using the backdrop of the Garden to explain the source of humanity’s sin. In a word, sin finds its source in idolatry (cf. Jer 2:13). Human hearts are compelled to worship, but after Eden, the Adam’s offspring worship what their hands can make, what their minds can imagine. Even the most avowed atheist cannot stop worshiping—even if he only worships himself. Continue reading

Theological Triage (pt. 3): Love Covers a Multitude of Differences

loveToday, we finish our three-part series on “theological triage.”

In part 1, I suggested genuine Christians stand united in mere Christianity against those who deny the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and justification by faith. At the same time, I explained in part 2 how churches and individuals must pursue unity in the gospel, even when we differ on matters of church government, church ordinances, or charismatic gifts. This gospel unity that overlooks ecclesial differences does not deny the importance of these secondary matters, but it keeps in mind that some doctrines are more essential than others. Some doctrines separate Christians from non-Christians (first-level), some separate genuine believers into different congregations (second-level), and others remain points of disagreement even in the same local church (third-level). This tripartite division has been labeled “theological triage,” and it is this third section we consider today.

The Doctrinal Core

Members of any orthodox church must share the core convictions delineated in the first level (e.g., the Trinity, the Incarnation, the resurrection of Christ, salvation by grace alone, and so on). Likewise, every church must also come to biblical conviction about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, congregational authority, etc. In most churches, both of these sets of doctrines (first and second level) are found in their statement of faith.

The practical function of such a confession (or statement of faith) is that when the church gathers there is no need to debate why the Bible is central, why men lead, and why babies are not “baptized.” The confession functions as a general consensus—a doctrinal core if you will—of what the church believes the Bible to teach about the most important tenets of the faith. Still under the banner of a church’s confession (which derive it’s ministerial authority from the Scriptures themselves), there are other doctrines that are not defined. Wisely, confessional statements are abbreviated statements of faith that do not attend to every doctrine. Accordingly, there are other views, beliefs, or questions that members may hold differently.

Some of these doctrines include the doctrines of grace, the way spiritual gifts continue in the church today, and the timing of the millennium. The point of this post is not to address these doctrines, nor to suggest what to include or exclude in the confession. The point to be made here concerns how to handle these third-level doctrinal disagreements in the local church. Continue reading

Reconsidering “Above All”: How Hermeneutics Must Intersect with and Inform Our Hymnody

aboveallYesterday, I raised concerns with the popular song “Above All” by Michael W. Smith. For some time, I have taken theological issue with the central lyric of the song:

Like a rose / Trampled on the ground
You took the fall / And thought of me
Above all.

Those last two lines have always made me stumble because of the way they seem to eclipse God with humanity. I’ve always heard them as making the claim that Christ thought more of me than he did of God—which I argued reverses the God-centered nature of the universe and the cross.

For that reason, I was theologically opposed to the song. While I could sing the rest of the song with delight, I always cringed as the chorus neared. Hence, I set out to write these reflections so as to expose the errant chorus. However, a funny thing happened along the way—I read the lyrics again (and again) and this time in context.

Unlike any time before, I read the chorus in light of the whole song. Not surprisingly, reading it context provided greater light. But surprisingly, I had to adjust my thinking for I realized that if I (or we) let the song define its own terms—a principle of general hermeneutics—it does not ascribe humanity to a place higher than God. In fact, the song rightly retains a high view of God’s sovereignty and the dignity assigned to humanity, as the pinnacle of creation. Continue reading

Above All, Who Did Christ Die For?

crossCrucified / Laid behind a stone
You lived to die/ Rejected and alone
Like a rose / Trampled on the ground
You took the fall/ And thought of me
Above all

 

These words, the chorus of the song “Above All,” have echoed in evangelical churches far and wide. On the whole I like the song, it’s first two stanzas testify to the universal sovereignty of God. However, as it enters the chorus, the sweeping sovereignty of God appears to be displaced by a form of sentimentalized love that is all too common in our self-exalting century.

The theological problem that some have with this song comes at its climax, the point that the whole song drives towards. In that final line, “Above All” ostensibly leaves the high ground of God’s sovereignty (“above all kingdoms / above all thrones / above all wonders the world has ever known”) to frolic in the marshes of ego-boosting self-esteem (God “thought of me above all”).

Intended to express breadth, length, height, and depth of God’s unfathomable love, Michael W. Smith’s lyrics come close to severing the root of God’s love by leading the chorus to sing that God in his love thought about me “above all.”  I say close, instead of actually committing the act, because I think upon closer inspection “above all” in the chorus should be delimited by the earlier “all” statements.

Tomorrow, I will show how I think “Above All” can serve as a God-exalting worship song, but today let me unpack the theological truth that has led many to take issue with this song, namely that the highest purpose of the cross is not directed towards man, but towards God himself. Continue reading

On Baptism and Children

baptism1A recurring question that all pastors will face is this: Pastor, will you baptize my child? With the (all-too-common, but misguided) pressure to please parents and their young child, it is vital for pastors and churches to know what they believe about baptism and children. For parents too, when little Johnny shows interest in baptism, what should you do?

These are vital questions and ones that have received no little attention among Christians committed to believer’s baptism. To find good answers, we don’t need to recreate the wheel. We simply need to know where to turn. Therefore, in what follows, I have listed a number of helpful articles to help you and I think through this important issue.

A Biblical, Pastoral, Denominational, and Parental Perspective by Jason Allen

In a recent blog, Jason Allen (President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) urges pastors and parents (and the SBC, as well) to “joyfully and wholeheartedly press the accelerator on the gospel while tapping the brakes on the baptistery.” He rightly affirms the fact that it is wise and pastorally-sensitive to affirm children in their desires to follow Christ but to be slow in moving them towards baptism. Since “we must remember it requires more than agreeing to facts about Jesus to be saved,” it is unwise to baptize a young child, simply because they might be able to affirm the plan of salvation. Let me encourage you to read the whole thing.

“Reforming Baptism and Church Membership” by John Hammett (in Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches)

In his excellent book on Baptist ecclesiology, John Hammett, professor of Systematic Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary gives sage counsel on baptism as it relates to children. He writes,

Caution is especially appropriate in the case of very young children. Anyone who works with children knows that five-year-olds will readily ask Jesus into their hearts, but until very recently Baptist would never have considered baptizing them. Believers baptism was seen as virtually synonymous with adult baptism. To request baptism was regarded as a decision requiring a fair degree of maturity. For a church to grant it was to welcome the person into the responsibilities of church membership, which would include participation in the governance of the church, which seems inappropriate in the case of preschoolers. Overseas most Baptists delay baptism until the teenage years, but it is difficult to avoid arbitrariness in setting any specific minimum age for baptism. (Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 122)

While it is true that delaying baptism does add a measure of subjectivity, if not arbitrariness, he lists at least four reasons for delaying.

Continue reading

Confronting Falsehood in the Church

falseIt is striking how often Jesus’ apostles warn the church about false teachers and divisive persons. In the Pastoral Epistles Paul calls Titus and Timothy to beware of false teachers in Crete and Ephesus, respectively. But it’s not just these two pastors who are to address falsehood, the entire New Testament calls out the darkness resident in the church. Because of the cosmic conflict between Christ’s church and Satan’s hordes, false doctrine and false living are regular threats to Christ’s kingdom.

Since many churches face such internal and internecine threats, we need to steel our minds with God’s Word so that we might boldly address the darkness around us. Continue reading

From Performing in the Flesh to Panting for the Spirit

vinePerforming in the flesh is shorthand for doing work unto the Lord in your own strength, by your own wisdom, and with your own will power. In short, it is service without spiritual grace, and Satan loves to seduce you with it. Such Spirit-less service may be outwardly beautiful, relationally effective, or even successful, but because it is done without faith, it displeases God (Rom 14:23; Heb 11:6) and bears no lasting fruit. Sadly because our hearts are deceitful we may even call such unbelieving service good, when God does not. For that reason, it is always right to return to the Word and ask: What does God say?

What service does God find pleasing? What counterfeit performances originate in unbelief? And how can we tell the difference? Continue reading

Putting the Resurrection on Display: Walking and Talking as Witnesses of the Gospel’s Power

witnessesWhen Jesus told his disciples to stay in Jerusalem until the power from on high came (Luke 24:49), he said that they would be “my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Ten days later, the Father sent the Holy Spirit and innervated the church with Christ’s power (Acts 2).

Since then, Christ’s pilgrim people have traveled the globe, witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; etc.) and upsetting those who refuse to submit to Christ’s lordship (17:6). In every place the gospel has gone, local churches have sprung up to give a permanent witness to the kingdom of Christ.

As one of those churches, it behooves us to ask the question: In what way or ways should we witness to Christ’s kingdom? And how well do we do it?

Believing the Bible to answer such questions, we see that the lives we live and the words we speak play a significant role in Christ’s ability to work through us. In truth, it is not just the church who preaches the gospel. Ephesians 2:17 says Christ himself preaches the gospel of peace. But seated in heaven he preaches by proxy; it is his Spirit and his bride that say, “Come!” (Rev 22:17). Therefore, the effectiveness of Christ’s evangelism is contingent upon the purity of our lives. As we continue to consider what Jesus’s evangelism program looks like, let’s see how our lives contribute to the power of our witness. Continue reading

The Lord’s Supper: A Messy Meal for Messy People

traySilver trays, clean hands, fresh bread, sterile cups, and a well-ordered room may be just a few of the things that keep us from seeing how messy the Lord’s Supper is. And how the Lord’s Supper is for messy people.

Think about it. The cross of Christ was invented to be the most horrendous bodily experience known to man. It is reported that spectators sometimes vomited as they watched the crucifixion. One account describes the physical effects of the cross this way.

Naked and embarrassed, the victims would often use their remaining strength to seek revenge on the crowd of mockers who had gathered to jeer them. They would curse at their tormenters while urinating and spitting on them. Some victims would become so overwhelmed with pain that they would become incontinent, and a pool of sweat, blood, urine, and feces would gather at the base of their cross (Death by Love, 25).

In Jesus’ case, we know he did not use his remaining hours to malign his accusers. Rather, he prayed for those who killed him; he granted pardon to the thief next to him; he cared for the mother who had once caressed him; and he prayed to the God who was abandoning him. In all of these ways, Jesus’ death was wholly other. And yet, his body beaten and bleeding, lacerated and lashed to the cross, was a mess.

From what we know of crucifixions at the time, Jesus’ “cross was likely already covered in the blood of other men. Timber was so expensive that crosses were recycled; therefore, Jesus’ blood mixed with the layers of blood, sweat, and tears of countless other men who had walked that same path before him” (ibid.). All in all, Christ’s crucifixion was anything but a sanitary affair.

Pure and holy? Absolutely!

Clean and sterile? Hardly! Continue reading

A Heart for Christmas or for Christ?

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“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”
– Jesus –

The Christmas music played in the background as Rod wrapped packages. While the music brought back many happy memories, recent events took his mind in another direction.

Work at the courthouse was increasingly difficult. Last year they removed the Ten Commandments. This year county employees received a memo requesting everyone to tone down “Christmas” rhetoric. They didn’t outright censor “Merry Christmas,” but they might as well have.

Closer to home Rod received his yearly Christmas list: Put up the tree. Buy non-perishables for the church’s homeless offering. Put up the crèche. Have some holiday cheer.

“Very funny,” Rod thought to himself. “My wife thinks of everything: Have holiday cheer!”

And she did. She knew the pressures of work and the added stress of church had made Rod more than just a “grouchy bear,” as she liked to call him. Only two weeks remained until Christmas, and he was overwhelmed with Christmas events at church. And as a result his Joy to the Lord was out of tune. So to spark his Christmas spirit, Rod’s wife put him to work on the crèche he loved. It worked marvelously. Continue reading