Saturday, October 11, 2014

Second-, Third-, Fourth-, or Fifth-Blessing Theology

In short, I see biblical support for the thesis that although all true believers have received the Holy Spirit and have been baptized in the Holy Spirit, nevertheless the Holy Spirit is not necessarily poured out on each individual Christian in precisely equivalent quantities (if I may use the language of quantity inherent in the metaphor of “filling”). How else can we explain the peculiar unction that characterizes the service of some relatively unprepossessing ministers? Although I find no biblical support for a second-blessing theology, I do find support for a second-, third-, fourth-, or fifth-blessing theology. Although I find no χσµα (charisma) biblically established as the criterion of a second enduement of the Spirit, I do find that there are degrees of unction, blessing, service, and holy joy, along with some more currently celebrated gifts, associated with those whose hearts have been specially touched by the sovereign God. Although I think it extremely dangerous to pursue a second blessing attested by tongues, I think it no less dangerous not to pant after God at all , and to be satisfied with a merely creedal Christianity that is kosher but complacent, orthodox but ossified, sound but soundly asleep.

Carson, D. A. (1996-08-01). Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians, 12-14 (Kindle Locations 2654-2662). Baker Book Group - A. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Christ Redeemed All People

A key element in my sermon today is the teaching that Christ has redeemed all people (universal atonement).  Here’s an excellent summary of this teaching.

When Paul writes that Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25), he does not limit the redemption to the church, the believers, or the elect. Although it is true that these are the only ones who actually receive the benefit of Christ’s redemption, the Bible explicitly states that Christ redeemed all people. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). He is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2; 1 Timothy 2:6). He reconciled the world to God (2 Corinthians 5:19). “All people” even includes those who are ultimately lost in hell. They were bought by Christ too (2 Peter 2:1). There is no human being that was overlooked; Christ tasted death for every person (Hebrews 2:9). Although there is no redemption for the fallen angels, there is a perfect redemption for all people, including the worst of them. The apostle Paul declares: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). All nations and races may gather under the cross of Christ and find redemption there.

Koehler, Edward W.A. (2006-06-28). A Summary of Christian Doctrine: A Popular Presentation of the Teachings of the Bible, 3rd Edition (Kindle Locations 2906-2909). Concordia Publishing House. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Spiritually Strong Church Devotes Itself to the Teaching Ministry

In my last post I pointed to fellowship as one of the signs of a spiritually strong church (Acts 2:42).  My focus was on rooting out judgmentalism and seeking an environment of genuine acceptance based on who we are in Christ.  It’s in a such an atmosphere that we can confess our faults to one another and be healed (James 5:16).  It’s in such an atmosphere that true love is known (John 15:12).

Another mark of a spiritually effective church is strong preaching and teaching.  Acts 2 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (42a NIV).  In fact, teaching is listed first among the marks of the church, and in that day items were placed first in the list for emphasis.  The point is clear: a church must be a teaching church if it is to be what it is supposed to be.

And what was that teaching?  The teaching of the apostles.  A spiritually healthy church is an apostolic church, a church devoted to the apostles’ teaching.  For us today this means receiving the apostolic witness of the New Testament as authoritative for how we are to believe and behave.  (This includes the Old Testament because the apostles’ based their teachings in the New Testament on the 39 books we call the Old Testament.)

In just a few weeks we return to our normal Sunday School routine and to confirmation classes.  This is a good time to remind ourselves how important the teaching ministry is to the health of our church.  We will only be as healthy as our teaching ministry.  Let us be praying for our Sunday School teachers and for me as your pastor-teacher, that all of us will be faithful stewards of the trust we’ve been given.  Let us pray for the guidance of THE teacher who alone can guide us into the fullness of truth.  John tells us that this teacher is the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:27). 

Likewise, may we all commit to growing in our understanding of the Scriptures.  The Bible commends the people of Berea for checking for themselves whether Paul’s teaching was in line with Scripture (Acts 17:11).  Nothing builds faith like coming to understand what the Bible teaches for ourselves.

One of my favorite Luther quotes:

“We must ourselves know what we believe, namely, what God has said and not what the Pope or the councils decree or say. For you dare not trust in men, but must trust in the bare Word of God" (St L. IX:1235 f., quoted in Christian Dogmatics by Francis Pieper).

It’s when we know why we believe what we do that faith is strengthened, and we’re moved to action.  It becomes our own possession, instead of something outside ourselves.  That’s why the best preaching and teaching helps people see clearly what the Bible teaches and points people to trust God’s word (rather than the word of a mere man).

And when we trust God’s word by acting on it lives change, and we become a spiritual potent people.  May God increasingly make this true of us here at Salem!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Judgmentalism: Prescription for a Spiritually Weak Church

A healthy church is a place of life transformation.  One of the great hindrances to life transformation is an atmosphere of judgmentalism.  In such an atmosphere people are encouraged to hide their stuff, and that which is hidden can never be dealt with.  Oh, the spiritual power that comes when the people of a church live into Jesus’ command, “Judge not, lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1)!  But how does this happen?

One of the best bits of practical advice I picked up from seminary is the admonition of a pastoral care and counseling professor.  He admonished us to learn to be shockproof.  He said that when people confess to you their past sins or present state learn to hear it without conveying the least bit of being shocked by what you have heard.  In so doing you are creating an atmosphere of trust. 

By learning to be shockproof we are fulfilling the words of Galatians 6:1-5 which tell us to recognize we’re just as susceptible to the power of temptation as anybody else, and we truly shouldn’t be shocked by what we hear.  Our being shockproof is grounded in reality.  We’re all sinners dealing with constant temptations to sin.  We shouldn’t be shocked by those who find themselves having gone down a destructive path.  Truth be told we all have.

Which brings me to another practical bit of advice from seminary.  This time from a preaching professor.  He admonished us to speak not so much in terms of “you” as in “we”.  By including ourselves in the sermon we are acknowledging the truth that we have no ability to speak from a position of being above others.  We are in this together.

All of this is grounded in a right doctrine of the human condition.  It’s not an empty acceptance based on overlooking sin.  In fact, a church where members are shockproof and think in terms of “we” should have a greater ability to call sin what it is because people will know they’re not going to be judged for having sinned.  They know their past and present sins are going to be treated in a matter-of-fact manner, as that which is common to all humanity. 

It’s in this atmosphere of genuine acceptance that people can be led to life change, and real life change happens only as people are personally convicted about a particular thought or desire, word or deed.  Only when a person is personally convicted about something can they genuinely change.  The process goes like this: genuine conviction leads to sorrow and confession, renunciation of sin, and longing for grace (Evangelical Catechism question 79).

Only the Holy Spirit can bring about the gift of genuine repentance (John 16:8), and the Holy Spirit works by means of the word.  As people become open and vulnerable to the word (in an atmosphere that breeds trust) they will become convicted about sinful attitudes and actions (and they’ll have to do something about it one way or another).  God does the work in and through us, and we get to participate in seeing lives changed!

The word for the church atmosphere I’m describing is fellowship (koinonia).  Fellowship means we’re in this thing together.  It is “we” and so we bear each other’s burdens.  We refuse to be shocked because to be shocked would be to undermine God’s work among us and would convey a lie (the lie that it’s somehow shocking to us that people sin).

Friday, July 18, 2014

What is the Spirit-filled Life?

“A Spirit-filled and Spirit-directed life is nothing other than a life that day by day turns away from reliance on self to trust Christ in everything.”

“The Effects of Faith” in Welcome, Holy Spirit

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Spirit and Truth (Both/And NOT Either/Or)

“As some see it, a humble, spiritual attitude means little. According to others, truth or doctrinal soundness is of no importance. Both are one-sided, unbalanced, and therefore wrong. Genuine worshipers worship in spirit and truth! For such are the very people whom the Father is seeking as his worshipers …” (Baker New Testament Commentary on John 4:23).

Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Vol. 1, p. 167). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Exhortations to Ministers from John Nevin

“Cultivate vital piety in your own soul with all diligence.  Labor to be more and more assured about the meaning of the Scriptures.  And study the Bible with humility and prayer as little children.”

“Should you come to the conclusion that you have no piety, quit the ministry, or be converted at once.”

“Should you change your position in the church to oppose her doctrines: go out openly and honestly from her communion.”

--John Nevin in The Reformed Pastor: Lectures on Pastoral Theology

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Life of the Preacher: Groping after an Ideal

“No man [one] knows how to preach.  You will have to reckon with this significant, disconcerting fact, that the greatest preachers who have ever lived have confessed themselves poor bunglers to the end, groping after an ideal which eluded them for ever.  When you have been preaching for twenty years, you will be beginning to realize how incalculably much there is to learn.”

--James S. Stewart

Friday, June 6, 2014

Wright on Penal Substitution and Westminster’s Covenant of Works

“I have always stressed that Paul taught a penal, substitutionary atonement (e.g., Rom. 8:1–3)” (N.T. Wright in Christianity Today).

“I don’t know what logic Mr. Mohler is applying in the quote you give. I think it’s probably that of the “covenant of works,” found in the Westminster Confession and elsewhere, according to which God gives Adam a kind of moral test which he fails. Then he runs the test again with Jesus and he gets it right, so his “getting-it-right” (aka “righteousness”) is available for the rest of us. Obviously if you take Adam out of that equation it falls apart.

I do not believe that that is a good way of describing how biblical theology works, for reasons I’ve gone into at length in other books” (N.T. Wright here).

Just wanted to post these quotes for future reference.  In the first quote N.T. Wright makes clear what I pointed out in an earlier post, the Bible teaches that Christ took sin’s penalty in our place (penal substitution).  In the second quote Wright responds directly to the Reformed teaching of an original covenant of works, indicating that he doesn’t see the Bible teaching such a covenant.  In an earlier post I quoted the conservative Lutheran theologian Robert Kolb on why traditional Lutherans do not hold to a covenant of works.

I post these because as I’m trying to understand Wright’s position I hear concerns that he is undermining faith in Christ’s finished work.  So far I’m not finding that to be true in any of his actual statements of what he believes.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Predictions of Pruning: The Collapse of In-Name-Only Christianity

More robust churches will result from the death of nominalism. The next 20 years are going to be a challenge for convictional Christians and churches in many places.

It is beginning to cost something to be a Christian in America—not as much as in many places in the world or in much of history, but more than it used to. And, as living for Christ costs more in our culture, it will mean more in our context.

Churches that are preaching the Gospel and are focusing on biblical truths are going to become more clearly distinct from the culture around them. The end result? Robust Christian communities are going to get stronger.

These gospel-preaching churches will have members who are more, not less, committed and these committed churches will have less nominal Christians in the years to come. Christianity will become more of a minority in culture, but more refined, more biblical, and more missional churches will be the result.”

From an article by Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Believing as a Way of Seeing (or the Risky and Exciting Nature of Faith)

“Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27 NIV).

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29b NIV).

In the well-known story of Thomas and his doubts the risen Jesus makes every effort to distance himself from Thomas’ need for evidence.  He makes it obvious that Thomas should have believed without evidence and that the truly blessed ones are those who believe without seeing (see quotes above).

Indeed, never, ever does Jesus commend people who demand signs from him, and he never gives them what they ask for.  Instead, time and again he chides people for their lack of faith and even expresses frustration.  Fascinating!

jesusthomasdoubt1

Today we would say things like, “I can understand why it’s hard for you to believe, Thomas”, but not Jesus.  Jesus expects faith.  Why?

Faith is constantly portrayed in the Old Testament as the proper response to God speaking.  God’s voice awakens us to faith.  The gift nature of faith is expressed in the New Testament by the apostle Paul when he says to each one has been given a measure of faith (Romans 12:3).  The idea is that we’re to live by the faith we’ve been given and not by our doubts.  But if God speaks how can we have doubts?  Ah, the answer is because God works through means and not in naked power.  He comes to us through the word about Christ (Romans 10:17).  God gives us just enough space to say “no” if we so choose.

You see faith involves decision.  Not the decision to have faith; that is a gift.  God gives us the measure of faith.  The decision is precisely what Jesus said to Thomas, to stop doubting and believe.  The decision is the daily choice to live by the faith we’ve been given, and the person who lives by that faith is blessed according to Jesus.  Why? 

Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus tells Martha, “Did I not tell that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40).  Seeing does take place, evidence is given, but it happens as we believe.  You see faith is a way of knowing.

Some time ago my daughter asked me about my Bible college experience and how it was different from studying religion in a secular school.  I told her it was the difference between looking with or through the power of Christian faith at something (i.e., God and spiritual reality) and looking at Christian faith.  In the secular school Christianity is studied.  One stands on the outside and looks at Christianity.  In the Bible college we looked at God through the lens of faith.  We stood inside Christian faith as a means of seeing something far greater than a human religion.

This is what people often mean when they say Christianity is not a religion but a relationship or that they’re not religious.  What they’re meaning to say is that they’re not caught up in looking at Christian symbols and traditions.  They’re interested in looking at God, the God they’ve come to know in Christ by means of their Christian faith.  They’ve come to realize there is a difference and that the one (looking at God) is much richer and deeper by far than the other (looking at religious beliefs and practices).

To be sure there is a place for the academic study of religion and there is a place for evidences.  Thomas was chosen to be among those whose lives would be the evidence that Christ had been raised, but such evidences were never meant to replace faith as a means of knowing.  Knowing God was meant to be much riskier and much more exciting than that.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Born Again?

Crijn_HendrickszI’ve been having an ongoing friendly debate with a local pastor friend.  It’s over the meaning of being “born again”.  When my friend hears “you must be born again” he hears the command to mean “you must have a born again experience”.  This means to him that you must have a dateable conversion experience, a time when you came to faith from unbelief.

This view is quite common among certain Protestants.  It’s often identified as the essence of “evangelicalism”.  It’s often believed that what unites evangelicals is this conviction that “you must have a born again experience”.  I have argued that this definition is misguided and is rightly rejected by many traditional Protestant churches.

Nowhere does the Bible command that we have a conversion experience.  Nowhere.  It simply commands us to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 16:31).  We’re told that if we confess with our mouths “Jesus is Lord” and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead we will be saved (Romans 10:9).  Time and again we’re told that such people are spiritually alive.  The classic text is 1 Corinthians 12:3.  It tells us that confessing “Jesus is Lord” is something we can only do by the Spirit’s power.  Basically, if we acknowledge the Lordship of Christ we are spiritually alive, we are born again.

Why does this matter?  Because the dateable conversion experience requirement fails to recognize the unique position of the children of believers.  God is already at work in their lives from a young age.  The Scripture plainly teaches that children can trust God from infancy. 

“Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast” (Psalm 22:9 NIV).

From birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother’s womb.  I will ever praise you” (Psalm 71:6 NIV).

Children of believers usually do not go from a position of unbelief to belief.  More often than not they go from the faith of a child to the faith of an adult, from a faith appropriate to infants and children to a faith appropriate to adults.  What matters is not that they have an experience of being lost and then being found but that they are personally trusting in Christ today.  If they are personally trusting in Christ they are saved, they are born again.

In all this you may have noticed the difference is in emphasis.  I’m emphasizing personal trust in Christ.  My friend is emphasizing a particular experience.  Perhaps you can see the danger.  Putting one’s trust in having had an experience can very easily lead to insecurity.  Did I have the right experience?   Did I really see the light?  A very common response to such insecurity is to try to work an experience up.  It leads to what we call emotionalism. 

A common concern of those who emphasize a personal conversion experience is that people may think they’re Christians and be deceived.  By requiring that they have an experience we’re insuring that they’re really Christians.  I’ve found the opposite is often true.  Very often people will have an experience when they’re younger and assume that because they had that experience they are Christians.  “Once saved, always saved,” they say. 

The truth of the matter is that we’re called to trust Christ everyday.  It’s great that you trusted Christ yesterday but we’re called to run with perseverance the race that is before us (Hebrews 12:1).  This means looking to Christ each and every day.  It’s of such people that we can speak of being spiritually alive.  And if we’re spiritually alive we will change.  We’ll show it. 

Those who’ve trusted Christ in the past but have nothing to show in the present give us little reason to believe that they’ve alive spiritually today.  If they’re living lives of settled sinfulness yet declare that they’ve been born again they’re the ones most likely to be deceiving themselves.  “No one who is born of God will continue to sin” (1 John 3:9 NIV).

The answer to such a lack of change is not to work up this or that experience, however.  The answer is to accept the truth about ourselves (our sinfulness and the sinfulness of those things God calls sin) and trust Christ.  When we do that we are saved.  If we stay in our sins, however, the question remains, Have we really come into contact with Christ?  There can be no assurance for such a person because the sign of being born again is not an experience but a changed life.  The changed life is not a life of perfection but one of struggle, of the Spirit in conflict with the flesh (Galatians 5:17). 

Martin Luther is good on this:

It is, accordingly, necessary to know and to teach that when holy men, still having and feeling original sin, also daily repenting of and striving with it, happen to fall into manifest sins, as David into adultery, murder, and blasphemy, that then faith and the Holy Ghost has departed from them [they cast out faith and the Holy Ghost]. For the Holy Ghost does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so as to be accomplished, but represses and restrains it so that it must not do what it wishes. But if it does what it wishes, the Holy Ghost and faith are [certainly] not present. For St. John says, 1 Ep. 3, 9: Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin,... and he cannot sin. And yet it is also the truth when the same St. John says, 1 Ep. 1, 8: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (Smalcald Articles).

Luther is saying that for the Christian the struggle will remain because we will always have to battle our sinful nature (“still having and feeling original sin”) and yet if we’re Christians we’ll have the Spirit in our lives and by his power sin will not have dominion.  We won’t live in settled sinful behavior.  This is the sign that the Spirit and faith remain in us, the sign that we’ve been born again.