Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"We've Never Done It That Way Before!" (Value Change in A Church)

The famous "seven last words" (actually eight!) of a church or a ministry are: "We've Never Done It That Way Before!" Changing the way a group, especially a church, does things requires immense fortitude, patience and skill. These three qualities operate in tandem, and they are systemic to value-change in a group of people. The older and more redundant the church, the greater resistance to and less buy-in there will be toward change. How, then, does a pastor or leader move forward with needed change in a church context? How do we transform the value-systems of people so that they want and value good change? 

A lot, of course, has been written on the subject. John Kotter in his book, Leading Change, has outlined a number of helpful items about changing a church. Yet, I find that many pastors and church leaders read the materials, yet fail or refuse to make needed changes. I have seen successful change transitions as well as plenty of bad change transitions. I have seen congregations applaud changes, and I have seen congregations fire the pastor or church leader because of the changes. What is NOT said, or at least not said enough, in the books is on what this blog focuses. 

First, agree to live with the PAIN of change. Sociologists and psychologists have pointed out that a major change produces shock or disorientation in our lives. Thinking may shut down for a while. People huddle together, looking for reassurance and information. Fellowship becomes defensive, restrictive and guarded. Anger, sadness and fear become major players in the change process. Sorry to say this, but many pastors simply do not do well with these waves of emotional instability among the people of their church. Additionally, most pastors want to be loving, kind, and well-liked. If a pastor or church leader cannot handle the wealth of conflicting emotions within the people as well as within himself or herself, do not attempt to change! Someone else may need to carry the ball, or the next pastor will have to handle it. I've seen enough broken-hearted, emotionally spent church leaders and pastors who have tried to walk their congregations through change, only to end up in serious depression, and even quitting the ministry.

Second, the change or changes must really, really, really be needed! What you or I perceive as needed change is often flawed, short-sighted, or outside of God's plan or God's timing. Yes, I know we leaders pray and seek God's face. Yes, I know we want the "best" for our churches or organizations, but too often we end up substituting OUR will and wants for God's will and desires. Very few of us hear clearly from God--and that is the problem. We are adept at taking what other churches have done and seeking to import some of these "neat" things to our church or organization. We get the approval from a denominational official or a pastor-friend in a much larger church down the street or across the country. What we miss in the translation of all of this "neat" stuff is GOD'S will and desires for HIS church in OUR place and time. Be honest--how many of your perceived "needed" changes are REALLY directly from God for YOU or YOUR church? They may be great for someone else at another place in God's vineyard, but they are not really for you.

How do you know when God has spoken clearly? The classic Christian answer is three-fold: (1) Does the written Word of God prescribe or imply it? (2) Do mature Christians around you affirm or validate it? (3) Does your inner sense and witness match up with Points 1 and 2? How much of YOU is in the way to really hearing GOD?

Third, carefully develop ownership from the leaders the congregation trust. Whether these are elders, deacons, church board members, leadership team or staff, they need to own the changes. I firmly believe not nearly enough time and energy is given to this factor of ownership. Compliance is NOT ownership. Agreement is NOT ownership. A majority vote is not ownership. Ownership is a matter of the mind, heart and being of a person or group. Other respected congregational leaders need to feel, sense, believe in and want to move through the changes, even if they mean losing some of their best congregational friends. 

Ownership is slowly and carefully developed over a time-period (determined by God, by the way) of prayer, of talking, of sharing, of debating, of listening, of maybe gaining some weight due to the number of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners out telling people about the needed change or changes. 

Fourth, agree to COMPROMISE what you see as needed for what you will GET from the people. Much church change is not black-or-white, as we all know. Changes come in varying shades of gray. So, you may not get the brand-new, multimillion dollar worship complex you believe is needed, and maybe justly is. You may get a renovation project that costs much less with some creative ways to handle the growing numbers of people. This failure to compromise has led to many unnecessary pastoral resignations. The renovation project, in time, may birth the multimillion dollar addition or center. The timing is up to God, anyway, and the people need to own the project and see for themselves that a new worship center is really needed.

Fifth, do a value-transformation developmental chart for the change to take place. An example. VALUE: We value excellence in worship team participation. REALITY: We use all kinds of willing volunteers of differing abilities and gifts and levels of involvement and participation. A developmental chart outlines a series of steps to get from the REALITY to the VALUE. So, in the case of needing an excellence-driven, Spirit-filled, dynamic worship team go from --

(1) Willing volunteers–to-(2) committed volunteers–to–(3) gifted, committed volunteers–to–(4) excellent, gifted, committed participants.

At each "stage" there are "trade-offs." Thus, from "willing volunteers" to "committed volunteers" the trade off is numbers of people involved in worship teams. I may have to work with a limited amount of people for a while until the value of "commitment" takes root in those interested in worship team involvement. I also have to deal with anger and frustration of people. I have to somehow show that while EVERYONE is valued in the church, NOT everyone can lead singing to God's glory and for upbuilding and witness. I may have to move a willing "terrible" singer to a venue in the church that isn't so demanding of excellence, so he/she could sing for a children's class or activity rather than the main Sunday worship. So, the key is to maintain a sense of unity and togetherness while moving forward. This is not always easy or so transparent.

Trade-offs in moving from "committed volunteers" to "gifted, committed volunteers" would be that I need not only commitment but people actually gifted in musical abilities (vocal/instrumental) who can get the team to "excellence." Thus, adding "auditions" for worship team participation becomes part of the process. I am looking at this stage for a gift-mix that fits my team(s) and that spiritually moves people toward God. The old standby: Chemistry, Character, Competence comes into play.

"Excellence" comes about as the church community begins to "expect" a certain level or standard of Sunday morning worship and participation up-front. Just as they expect a decently crafted, biblically based sermon, that makes sense and has some application to their lives, so they begin to desire and expect singers and instrumentalists filled with the Spirit who help them glorify God and lift Him up.

Most of the time I find that pastors and staff simply do not objectify the steps in culture change or transformation. It's just a muddle they hope to somehow get through or that God would miraculously intervene and make it all work out. This is the hard, nitty gritty work of planning and re-planning and visiting and re-visiting our process.

It's like computer programming. One step leads to another and another until the program is built. Missing steps mean the program will not work. So you have to plan, plan, plan and debug, debug and debug to get it right. It takes a lot of PATIENCE and time commitment from the leadership to make this process work. Thus, at our church, for instance, many people are content with "willing volunteers" who have some giftedness, but are sketchy at commitment. The concept of "excellence" has been rejected out-of-hand by many since that is what they see and know from the mega-church two miles away. Of course, "we don't want to be like THAT CHURCH!!!" in the thinking of many people. Thus, it takes courage and much time to move from one stage to another.

Such change takes a man or woman of God who is satisfied with God's timetable, God's way of working with and in his or her people, and God's adding new people to that staid body who will help provide congregational ownership.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Enculturation of the Church 2009>>

Has the church in North America and the Western world been "enculturated?" Wikipedia defines "enculturation" as "the process by which a person [or institution] learns the requirements of the culture by which he or she is surrounded, and acquires values and behaviors that are appropriate or necessary in that culture . . . If successful, enculturation results in competence in the language, values and rituals of the culture."

The issue that I wish to raise in this blog is that I believe in general that the North American church has indeed been enculturated. Instead of successfully responding to the secularization and desensitization of moral values around us, we have become people only a "little bit better" than the worldings around us. Oh--excuse me--we should say the "pre-Christians" around us, as if they just need a bit more Christianization to become full-fledged members of our post-modern church fellowships. We have become so intent on dumbing down the church so that we are "seeker sensitive" or "seeker targeted" that we have lost the church! In larger churches, the Sunday morning service is a "show" to watch. Lest church worship leaders and others object, that's what my wife's fellow workers call their megachurch experience on Saturday night--a "show." 

While many may say this is just another killjoy naysayer who has an axe to grind, the questions and claim I raise in this blog remain. Where ARE the "fully devoted followers of Christ" (a la Willow Creek's vision) that churches tout as the endpoint of their vision??! Where ARE the "disciples" that Jesus demanded in the Great Commission of Matthew 28? Where ARE the in-depth Christians able to take on this world order intellectually, culturally and powerfully? Where ARE the anointed, Spirit-filled, visibly gifted individuals whose presence carries the "aroma" of Christ to a needy and lost world (2 Corinthians 2)?

I predict that many, if not most, evangelical churches in North America will cave in to homosexuality as an "allowable" lifestyle in the near future. They will do so, not out of strenuous biblical research and exposition, but out of a need to "identify" with them in our church fellowships. Just like many accept young couples "living together" as "allowable" if not preferred. And, to those who say that we need to "accept them where they are so as to lead them to become what God wants them to be," where is the evidence that most of them have in fact become "what God wants them to be??"

Evangelical Christians are blamed for many things and many attitudes--narrow, bigoted, right-wingers, hate-mongers, and so forth. What ever happened to the first century sneer--"They're Christ-followers?!" My desire is for the Church to BE THE CHURCH!--not a shadow of what Christ died and rose again for, but a vibrant, powerful force with which to be reckoned. Isn't that what God wants after all is said and done?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Do we need a weekly sermon in church?

Another way to ask this question, "Do we need a single person, usually a trained minister, to regularly preach, on a weekly basis, to a congregation?" In the recent issue of Searching Together (Word of Life Church, PO Box 377, Taylors Falls, MN 55084), a Christian magazine edited by a friend of mine, a case is made by David Norrington (author of To Preach or Not to Preach, Paternoster Press, 1996) against having a regular weekly sermon by a single person, usually a minister, as the "norm" of church practice. Instead of such a regularly defined and proscribed practice, the author would vote for a more "dialogical," whole-body, or congregational style of learning together. He believes that the basis for the "sermon" being the main attraction for a Sunday service has no clear New Testament support, nor was it the norm for church gatherings for the first two centuries. Along with the institutionalism of the church came the single paid minister preaching a Sunday-by-Sunday sermon to passive numbers of people.

In this issue of Searching Together, Norrington takes on his reviewers (15 of them), who were greatly negative. Since this discussion took place in Great Britain, little North American church press has been given to the matter. Such British notables in the Christian academic and church world as Ian Stackhouse, J.F. Dunn, Andrew Davies and such magazines as The Banner of Truth and Reformed Theological Journal have given mostly negative and critical reviews. The weekly sermon has become a staple for churchgoers for a long time, and certainly since the Reformation for the Protestant church. This sermon is usually preached by the stated, regular, paid minister of a local church. While guest speakers and so forth may occupy the pulpit the FORM is a one-way, information directed, message given by a single person to a group of people, who are usually passive during the message.

Norrington's view has been criticized as a man who has an axe to grind against expository preaching. His response has been to say that no one has dealt with the New Testament and early church evidence he gives. His thesis is that "in the early church meetings, we see a practical outworking of the priesthood of all believers in which every member contributes freely, maturing and developing gifts and skills to be used for the benefit of all both within and without the meeting (1 Cor. 14:23-40). This paradigm is evident everywhere in the NT (cf. Heb. 3:13; 10:24-25; 1 Pet. 4:7-11). Indeed, the NT provides no other pattern. The notion that these gatherings regularly featured just one speaker and a passive audience is, as E. Schweitzer observes, 'completely foreign to the New Testament." (p. 52 of his book)

Sounds like an Anabaptist diatribe against the institutional church, doesn't it? Norrington is not, however, an Anabaptist, and the Word of Life Church is not a traditional, Anabaptist church in the Mennonite or Amish tradition. As a matter of fact, this magazine has heralded writers from the Reformed or Calvinistic camp many times. But, true to form, Norrington fits this church's belief that the true church is like a house-church with a more open-ended, community-led dialogue and interpretation of Scripture than the average evangelical church practices in North America.

There are many points for me to make. First, Norrington and a number of other evangelical writers have pointed to the tragedy of the typical Protestant institutional church today. Although there are some sterling exceptions, for the most part it is weak, irrelevant, ignored by the unChristian world, and mostly concerned for itself and its own theology and traditions. And I say this as a churchman and minister for over 30 years! Norrington's addition to the criticism of the institutional church is not surprising or earth shattering.

Second, I fully believe and teach a "gifts-oriented" church ministry. I believe, practice and promote a full-orbed, priesthood of all believers, one-body-with-many-necessary-parts type of ministry. I consult with a number of churches and ministers across a wide variety of denominations, and having a "gifts-oriented" ministry is a necessary part of a healthy, growing church. This is not new either.

Third, if the practice of a single Sunday morning sermon actually helps, rather than hinders, corporate involvement and ministry, what is the practical problem with it? Norrington, again along with many others, believes that such a monologue type of teaching is mostly ineffective. Current teaching theory and group psychology would agree with his premise. But theological and biblical illiteracy is rampant, and the declarative form of teaching is still an accepted way to communicate information. Sure, maybe it's not the best "group-learning" method out there, but it is compact, reproducible and has a place in the overall learning scheme. I would be careful not to "throw out the baby with the bath water" here.

Fourth, the desire and drive to "get back" to the New Testament church form and function is a frustratingly fruitless enterprise. And, I don't believe it is possible. What is possible and mandated is to teach and apply the universal principles from the New Testament and the whole Bible to modern people, times and circumstances. It is the Word of God that is binding, not the forms around which that Word functioned. There is a difference between "form" and "function" to be applied here.

Fifth, let's revitalize and revolutionalize the Sunday sermon! Preachers need to learn to be better spokespeople for the Gospel of Christ. People in the pew need to take more of an active role and part in the Sunday services and communication of the Word of God. Principles of group learning need to be studied and applied at the local congregational level. More and more people would agree with these assertions and suggestions. The Sunday sermon then still has a place, maybe not a New Testament mandated bibically required place, but a place nonetheless in communicating the Word of God today and in the future.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Too Old To Minister??

There is a disturbing trend developing in church and parachurch ministry. That trend is to get rid of "older" pastors, missionaries, workers and replace or substitute them with younger, more "up-to-date" ministers, pastors and church leaders. Lest the reader think I am making this up I have personally spoken to missionary friends and other church leaders and ministers and am finding this to be the case in their lives or ministries.

What is particularly disturbing is that this trend is anti-biblical and simply foolish. The Scriptures exhort us to respect and honor our elders in the faith (Deut. 32:7; 1 Tim. 5:1; Titus 2:2; 1 Pet. 5:5; Heb. 13:7) and their wisdom and years of experience are invaluable to younger leaders and ministers. To be forced out of service at age 65 is not only tragic, but also unwarranted, if the person is fit and able to serve and has kept up on ministry trends, needs and concerns.

All of us have heard stories or experienced older church and ministry leaders that were physically or emotionally unable to effectively continue in ministry. We also know older folks who have not kept up on the times and are unable to appropriately apply the Scriptures to our generation. I am not referring to the obvious. Men or women leaders in their 60s or even 70s should not be summarily dismissed due solely to their age, nor should we suppose that younger leaders are more skilled or equipped simply because they are younger.

I do believe in "age-appropriate" ministry. Thus, a 65 or 70 year old pastor probably cannot effectively attract and minister to twenty-somethings. On the other hand, there are older university professors and people in other professions where their age is an asset to younger people. Why can't this be the case for the church?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Revisiting the "Doctrines of Grace" -- Perseverance of the Saints

(Articles of Faith, 10)

This is a final blog in the series entitled the "doctrines of grace." In historical terms, this is the "P" in "TULIP" -- Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and now, Perseverance of the saints. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts this final category this way: "They whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace: but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved." (Ch. XIX, Sec. 1) Not only are the elect redeemed by Christ and renewed by the Spirit, but they are also kept by the power of God. Nothing can or will separate them from the unchangeable love of God. They are assured of heaven.

What This Does Not Mean
"Perseverance of the saints" does not mean or imply that anyone who ever "professed" faith in Christ will be eternally saved, or is guaranteed a home in heaven. Many make professions of faith that are spurious, temporary or emotional, but not really transformational. True believers do fall into temptations, doubts, fears, may commit grievous sins, but they do not thereby lose their salvation in Christ.

This also does not mean or imply the popular teaching of "once-saved, always-saved." This is not "eternal security" as is popularly understood. That is why the confessional writers were determined to define those who endure to the end as people who are "effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit." The popular teaching of eternal security is often built on the faulty premise of PROFESSION of faith rather than REALITY of faith. Only those REALLY saved are eternally secure.

This teaching does not imply the popular misconception that once a decision is made for Christ a person can then live any way he or she so pleases, and does not need to pursue holiness of life and thought. That is a characterization that is false and misleading. Perseverance of the saints means those who believe will indeed and in fact persevere until the end. Their lives will reflect Jesus Christ. True believers persevere as they are preserved by God.

Biblical Basis
God's people are granted eternal life the moment they truly repent of their sins and trust Christ as their only Savior and Lord. God's love cannot be taken from them (Isaiah 43:1-3; 54:10; John 3:16, 36; 5:24; 6:35-40). Jesus said of his sheep that "they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand" (John 10:27-30). Jesus prayed for all believers that His Father "keep them from the evil one" (John 17:11ff). "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1). In the Golden Chain of Redemption, those who are foreknown are those who are predestined, called, justified and will finally be glorified (Romans 8:29, 30). The great assurance given to true believers is that "nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:35-39).

The beauty of the doctrines of grace is that they systematically and systemically look at a believer's life before God. While the Remonstrants (see previous blogs) wanted to herald a more Pelagian system of thought, the Synod of Dort and others upheld the orthodox faith of the Scriptures. This very compact system of thought in referencing our relationship with God gives a full-orbed and God-centered approach that no other doctrinal system gives. Once truly understood, it is beautiful, satisfying, and most importantly, gives God all the glory.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Revisiting the "Doctrines of Grace" -- Irresistible Grace

(Articles of Faith, 9)

Where is the Holy Spirit in this system of theology? True to its Calvinistic formulation, the work of the Spirit is to "efficaciously" call the elect sinner from his or her sinful darkness to faith and life in Christ. The Holy Spirit never fails to bring to salvation those whom God the Father has called to faith. He applies saving power and transformation to effectually save all of the elect of God. The Westminster Confession of Faith states it this way: "All those whom God has predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ . . ." (Chapter X, Section 1). "Effectual" is an older word which indicates two things: (1) the Spirit's work in the sinner's heart and life cannot be thwarted or refused; and, (2) the Spirit never fails to bring these sinners to a saving knowledge of Christ.

Biblical Basis
It is a fundamental Scriptural truth that without God the Holy Spirit and His work in our lives, salvation and the benefits of Christian faith cannot be ours. Children of God are those "led by the Spirit of God" (Romans 8:14). Salvation is "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:11). Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (or from above)" (John 3:3) We are not saved by our deeds or good intentions but "by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). The Holy Spirit makes sinners whom He draws "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17, 18; cf. Galatians 6:15; Ezekiel 36:26, 27). The Holy Spirit is the operative source of saving and sanctifying faith.

While the gospel invitation is given to all without distinction, only those specifically "called" by God Himself can and will come to faith. "Those whom he predestined, he also called; and those he called he also justified . . ." (Romans 8:30). The "call" of God is particular (Galatians 1:15, 16; Ephesians 4:4; Hebrews 9:15; Jude 1; 1 Peter 2:9) and not everyone is "called" in this divine and effectual sense. "So it depends not upon man's will or exertion, but upon God's mercy" (Romans 9:16). "As many as were ordained to eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48).

The "irresistible" part of this truth flows from the fact that " all that the Father gives me will come to me . . . No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him . . ." (John 6:37ff) God's word and work in a person's life cannot falter or fail. An illustration is often given of Jesus "calling" Lazarus from death to life. Just as Jesus spoke life to his body, so Jesus speaks life to our spiritual bodies, with the immediate and effectual result that we "come forth" from death to life (cf. John 11:43).

Solving the Problems
Again, many have problems with such a teaching. The first is its "discriminatory" nature. If not everyone is given a chance to accept or reject Jesus Christ, then we are but puppets. Our free will is violated, many would say. This objection has been dealt with in the preceding blogs on this subject. And, everyone HAS been given a chance through our progenitor, Adam, and IS given a chance through the call of the gospel to "all who will believe." The "catch" is that only those given the ability or power to believe from God actually believe!

The second has to do with the "irresistibility" of the work of the Holy Spirit to come to faith. Can't we, in fact, "resist" the Spirit (cf. Acts 7:51) The Westminster Confession says that all those effectually drawn by the Spirit to Christ "come most freely, being made willing by his grace." WE still responsibly choose to come to Christ for eternal life, yet the "drawing force" is God the Holy Spirit enlightening, changing, transforming and moving us to Christ. The other way to look at this is to ask one who has been "born again" if he or she did not finally WANT to come to Christ for faith and life. Yes, for some this was a "struggle" with internal and external forces and temptations, but for all, once they came to Christ, they were overjoyed and celebrated their new life.

The essential struggle with this and other Calvinistic teachings has been the much vaunted "free will" of humankind. And, the Bible does indeed talk about making "choices" for or against God and being "willing" or not to come to God. One of my seminary professors explained it this way: There are two parallel tracks that appear to run concurrently here on earth, one being God's sovereign will and the other man's choices. Sometimes the one outpaces the other. It might appear that man is able to choose or not choose what God wants, and sometimes it appears that God decidedly is calling the shots in one's life. It is only in heaven that we will be able to see the tracks cross and make sense of this. Or, as the Apostle Paul says, "continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:12, 13).

Monday, May 18, 2009

Revisiting the "Doctrines of Grace"-- Limited Atonement

(Articles of Faith, 8)

There is perhaps no greater misunderstanding and controversy in the evangelical world than on the historic teaching of "limited atonement," or particular redemption. Most evangelicals in the Western world adamantly deny this doctrine. One particular preacher in a town in which I served a beginning church said publicly that this doctrine "came from the pit of hell!" A number of detractors maintain that such a teaching denies the "free will" of humankind and makes the free offer of the gospel to all a joke or a hoax. If Christ died on the cross for only those whom God the Father has sovereignly elected to salvation, then we truly are only puppets and all attempts to offer the Good News to all peoples are not only doomed to failure but in vain. Others go to such passages as John 3:16 and point out that God's world-embracing love is offered to "all who believe." Still others point to 1 Timothy 2:3-6, in speaking about prayer for all, "This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men . . ."

Some have sought in the history of theology to blunt the force of The Synod of Dort's declaration on this matter. They have wanted to side-step it with what is called "Amyrauldianism," a theory of "hypothetical universalism" in which Moise Amyraut (1596-1664), following in the footsteps of his mentor, John Cameron in the School of Saumur in France, maintained that God has a "double will" related to humankind. On the basis of the distinction between God's particular and God's universal will, Amyraut went on to teach that predestination as universal and conditional was a part of providence. It was a part of what are really “two counsels" in God that He took because of the fall. According to this universal and conditional will, God wills the salvation of all men and promises salvation to all upon the condition of faith. It is only because God knows that man is not able of himself to believe that God also wills particularly and unconditionally to save the elect. This teaching supposedly harkens back to what John Calvin himself taught, but most students of historical theology find this interpretation wanting.

Biblical Basis
In order to secure the redemption of those chosen by God the Father, Christ the Son had to redeem them. Jesus Christ thus came into the world, took upon himself human nature, identified himself with His people and acted as the legal representative or substitute before God for their redemption. Christ's perfect righteousness is credited to all who truly believe. They are saved, not on the basis of their faith or what they have done, but solely on the grounds of Christ's redeeming work on the cross.

Christ's redemption is definite both in its design and its accomplishment. Christ actually secured salvation for His people, the elect of God, upon the cross. As David Steele and Curtis Thomas noted in their manual, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented (Presbyterian and Reformed Pub., 1965, p. 39)--"The salvation which Christ earned for His people includes everything involved in bringing them to a right relationship with God, including the gifts of faith and repentance." Calvinists thus maintain that Christ's death and resurrection definitely saved people, while Arminians maintain that Christ's death only made salvation possible for all, and effectual to only those those believe. The emphasis is on the belief, not on God's sovereign and gracious action.

At first blush, the Bible seems to deny this teaching. However, many verses point to its truthfulness. First, Jesus Christ died to actually save people -- Luke 19:10 -- "The Son of man came to seek and save that which was lost." "Who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity . . ." (Titus 2:14). "For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God . . ." (1 Peter 3:18). We were reconciled to God "by the death of his Son" (Romans 5:10). "They are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:24, 25). "he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior" (Titus 3:5,6).

Then, Jesus died for those the Father had appointed to salvation -- "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and him who comes to me I will not cast out" (John 6:35-40). "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep . . . I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father . . .The works I do in my Father's name, they bear witness to me; but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me and I give them eternal life and they shall never perish . . ." (John 10:11ff). God the Father's eternal choice of people to be saved is done through the Son-- "He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will . . ." (Ephesians 1:3ff).

There are Scriptural texts that speak of the "definiteness" of Christ's sacrifice -- "he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). "The Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28) "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John10:11). "he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance. . ." (Hebrews 9:15) "Christ, having been offered to bear the sins of many" (Hebrews 9:18 with Isaiah 53:10, 11).

Problem Passages
Most of these Scriptural passages use the term "world" or "all." One striking passage is 1 Timothy 2:3-6 -- "This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men . . ." Again, the context is the key to all biblical interpretation. As many biblical Greek scholars will say, Paul's point was to ensure that the gospel of truth goes to all kinds or types of people, not just Jews. So, Christ died for all without distinction NOT without exception. The New Testament writers were not universalists in the sense that everyone was going to be saved, but they promoted gospel universalism, that is the Good News goes to all peoples, not just a select few based on nationality or heritage. The Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, whom many revere on all sides of the question, said that "Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ's death not only may be saved, but are saved and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved." (Quoted from J.I. Packer, John Owen: The Death of Death in the Death of Christ)

What This Does NOT Mean
The teaching of particular redemption never limits God or anyone who proclaims God's Good News. The limiting factor is God's business, not ours. We are told to give the gospel to everyone and everywhere. We are not to limit our presentation to "religious" people, or "nice" people, or "potential" Christian people. "God saves sinners" is the cry of all true, biblical people. The selective process is in God's hands, God's counsels, God's decrees and God's business!

This teaching does not mean that anyone can determine beforehand who is worthy to be saved, or who deserves to be saved, or who can be saved. God saves sinners is the only message we really know and can proclaim with full assurance.

This teaching is not merely a logical extension of the doctrine of unconditional election. People who offer this objection to limited atonement fail to note the definiteness and selectivity already referred to above in the biblical text. Sometimes people will say, "I just read the simple Bible which tells me God loves everyone and Jesus died for all. I don't try to 'theologize' the Bible." To read the Bible simply does not and should not mean "simplistically." What makes "common sense" is often not Scriptural sense.

Others say this teaching kills evangelism. Really?!! If I know that God has ordained that a multitude that no one can number will some day most assuredly stand in glory before him singing his praises, then I have full confidence that my witnessing or outreach efforts are never in vain. Those for whom Christ died WILL MOST DEFINITELY be saved, in God's time, at God's call, and in God's plans. I may be an instrument in their eternal salvation--and I don't want to miss that!!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Revisiting the "Doctrines of Grace"-- Unconditional Election

(Articles of Faith, 7)

Because of humankind's sinful, fallen and irrevocable state (total depravity), God out of His own mercy, grace and sovereignty decided to save many, not because anyone is worthy of His love and grace, but due solely to His astounding and transformational love and power. This is what is called "election" or "predestination." While most Bible students agree that "election" is taught in the Scriptures, there are a number of differences in theological interpretation. The Remonstrants disputed the commonly accepted viewpoint of the Reformers, positing that divine election or predestination to saving grace is conditional upon the free will decision of any man or woman. God foresees this faith response and on that basis "chooses" such people to salvation. This faith response of the sinner is not generated by God, but freely given by the person's "unconstrained" will or choice. In more popular terms, God gets a vote, Satan gets a vote but we cast the deciding ballot!

The historical Synod of Dort in 1619 turned back this viewpoint with the declaration that God's election to salvation is totally "unconditional." God's predestinating grace is given to people not on the basis of any foreseen faith in them or by them, but solely on the basis of God's self-determined choice and pleasure. God gives faith and repentance to each individual He selects. Thus, God's choice of the sinner, not the sinner's choice of God, is the deciding factor and ultimate cause of salvation. The Calvinistic scholar, Loraine Boettner (The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination) puts it this way: "It [unconditional election] was taught not only by Calvin, but by Luther, Zwingli, Melancthon (although Melancthon later retreated toward the Semi-Pelagian position), by Bullinger, Bucer, and all of the outstanding leaders in the Reformation. While differing on some other points they agreed on this doctrine of Predestination and taught it with emphasis."

Such is the strength of the biblical evidence for "election" that non-Calvinists usually maintain that the passages cited in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, such as in Romans 9-11, refer to Jewish national election by God, not to God's choice of anyone to saving faith, inclusive of both Jews and Gentiles. Thus, these interpreters believe they can hold to the Scriptural teaching yet maintain an Arminian-based theology and not interfere with the "free will" of humankind. It is exegetically questionable whether their arguments can stand in the context or weight of the whole Bible on this topic.

Biblical Basis
The Scriptural basis for the doctrine of unconditional election can be found in both the Old and New Testaments. It is obvious in the Old Testament Scriptures that God literally chose a certain people to salvation, as seen in Deuteronomy 10:14, 15 -- "the Lord set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day." Israel is often noted as God's chosen people (Psalm 33:12; 106:5; Haggai 2:23, etc). Jesus affirmed the Father's sovereign choice in such places as Matthew 11:27 -- "no one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away" (John 6:37). Jesus Himself notes that there are "sheep" and "non-sheep" -- "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me--just as the Father knows me and I know the Father--and I lay my life down for the sheep." "He [the good shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:3). And, the classic passage is found in Romans 8:28-30, called the Golden Chain of Redemption, "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son . . .and those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified." God's choice was made before the creation of the earth -- "He chose us in him before the foundation of the world. . ." (Ephesians 1:4). Rather than "foreseen faith," faith is the result of God's choice and power -- "as many as were ordained to eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48).

What This DOESN'T Mean
Unconditional election does NOT mean that God, like a Robot, mechanically selects a few people to be with Him eternally. That is a distortion on a number of fronts. First, divine election always flows from God's amazing LOVE and compassion for sinful mankind. Second, it is sheer mercy that ANY of us are saved, or are chosen by God to be with Him. We DESERVE eternal death and separation from God (SEE the last post on "Total Depravity"). Third, the NUMBER of the elect, according to the book of Revelation, is immense and to our finite minds, uncountable (Revelation 5:9; 7:9ff).

Unconditional election does NOT mean that God damns those unchosen to hell. This is "hyper-Calvinism," a logical, but unbiblical, extension of the teaching of election. The non-elect themselves choose their fate by continuing in their rebellion and hatred of God. They are "left to themselves" in other words.

Unconditional election does NOT save anyone. It is crucial to salvation, but it is by faith and resultant good works that a person confirms his calling and election by God (1 Peter 1:5-11; Acts 13:48; 2 Timothy 2:10). Election is part of the divine process but it is not the end-all of salvation.

What this DOES Mean
The teaching of unconditional election is a precious and wonderful doctrine to the Christian. It gives the believer great hope and security and peace in knowing that God the Father and Jesus the Son have loved us with an everlasting love. Jesus died for us and through the Holy Spirit gives us that wonderful promise of eternal life. Unconditional election never allows us to "pre-judge" anyone. No one knows the elect except God. Unconditional election actually propels the believer to share his or her faith since we know God HAS definitely chosen many to enjoy and experience His saving power. They WILL respond favorably to the gospel presentation and message.

No, this is not a "cruel" doctrine or teaching. It is God's gift to humanity.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Revisiting the "Doctrines of Grace"-- Total Depravity

(Articles of Faith, 6)

"Total depravity" sounds like an unwelcome and antiquated teaching that reminds people of really BAD people and awful human history, like the Holocaust. This first of what are called the "five points of Calvinism" has anchored the remainder of the truths of this system. Without a right and deep understanding of this teaching, there is no real need for unconditional election, the certainly of atonement through the death of Christ, the need for sovereign, Holy Spirit given and irresistible grace and the surety of final perseverance to the end of life. Many people discount the sinfulness of anyone. It is not fashionable, even in conservative, Christian, Bible-believing circles to talk about the extent and depth of human sinfulness. People want to believe they are a bit "defective" but not really damned and doomed sinners without hope, and without heaven as a final end. We always want to believe "the best" about ourselves and therefore hate John Newton's line in the song, Amazing Grace, "that saved a wretch like me." But, that is what we are biblically.

Biblical Basis
The Scriptural basis for the doctrine of total depravity is vast and pervasive. The remarkable statement of God Himself to Noah and the few saved through the flood is astounding -- "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood" (Genesis 8:21). Spiritual death is the result of the fall of mankind through Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:16, 17; Romans 5:12). Ephesians 2:1-3 tells us that conversion to Christ gives us life from the dead -- "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins . . ." (cf. Colossians 2:13) Psalm 51:5 tells us this condition is from conception -- "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me." Ecclesiastes 9:3 tells us "the hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live . . ." and Jeremiah 17:9 proclaims, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" The death knell is given in Romans 3:23, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Many other verses can be cited, but the evidence is irrefutable--humankind without a savior is intensively and extensively in rebellion against God, since that is the essential meaning of "sin." It's not a mistaken condition caused by our circumstances, not an unfortunate set of bad parents or siblings, not a misstep caused by Satan or some other enemy of our soul. It is our settled condition as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.

What This DOESN'T Mean
Total depravity does NOT mean humankind is as bad as it can be. It does not mean that people cannot do, in theirs and others viewpoints, kind and respectable acts. It does NOT mean that people will always act out their "worst sides." But, consistent with this teaching is the doctrine of "common grace." The rain that falls, for instance, falls on the "righteous and unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45). The sun that shines, the food we eat and so on and so forth comes from a perfect and loving heavenly Father without discrimination of a person's faith stance. These are still "gifts" but "common" to all and thus instances of "common grace."

What this DOES Mean
The teaching of total depravity, properly understood and accepted, drives one to realize he or she cannot "earn" or "merit" of "deserve" God's kindness and His salvation. We are intrinsically sinful. We are not sinful merely because we sin. The death-knell to a "merit-based" or "works-based" approach to being right with God rests right here. Everyone who is right with God through faith in Jesus Christ got there purely and exclusively by God's unmerited favor and kindness. If "saved," we are still sinners saved by grace, always to be aware of Bunyan's precious saying, "There, but for the grace of God, go I!" Any other way of looking at gaining God's favor is humanly devised and humanly based.

Depravity Includes Total Inability
The genius of the Reformers was to understand that this depravity is truly TOTAL. Every thought, action, word, deed, desire, motivation and inward longing, apart from an external spiritual renovation, has been permeated, not merely affected, by this sinful nature and reality. We CANNOT choose good over evil by ourselves. Like the leopard which cannot change its spots, the sinful man or woman cannot change his or her nature (Jeremiah 13:23). Jesus Himself said that a "bad tree cannot bear good fruit" (Matthew 7:16-18; 12:33). He said, "no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him . . ." (John 6:44, 65). The ability and power to see and do good in God's sight is a gift from God (1 Corinthians 4:7).

The immediate and rather violent, at times, rejection of this aspect of depravity or the extent of human sinfulness is that man has a will that is free. What that means is that this will remains "unaffected" by the depravity that permeates our beings. Clearly, this cannot be the case. There is not a separate "compartment" in our being where a "neutral" will resides waiting to choose between good and evil. We will default to evil, if left to ourselves and our choices without divine intervention. Humankind's will is in bondage to depravity by nature and by choice.

To get around this obvious problem of inability, some theologies have posited a "prevenient" kind of grace that God has given to every person as a result of the saving atonement of Christ.(cf. Wesleyanism) "Christ died for everyone" means, therefore, that God has given to everyone in the world that has or will ever exist enough of undeserved favor that the will is made able to choose right from wrong and eternal good from evil. Such a position cannot be directly proven from the Bible. It has to be "inferred" from a theory that lack of human freedom means and is equivalent to lack of human responsibility. But, responsibility does not need freedom to be valid.

Is humankind then merely "robots" set on a world stage with God as the Grand Puppeteer? Does man actually have a "choice?" Proponents of total depravity decidedly say, "of course." We can freely choose that which is in accord with our nature! God will not "force" us to choose evil, for that would make Him the author of evil. WE freely and responsibly choose what we want. It is the "want" that is the problem. We do NOT naturally want what God wants.

The only HOPE is divine intervention outside of our natures and outside of our possibilities. That brings us to the second point of the Synod of Dort's declaration -- "unconditional election."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Revisiting the "Doctrines of Grace"

(Articles of Faith, 5)

My wife and I are back from a spring vacation trip on which we were able to spend some time with a good friend from a PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) Church. We know each other through my past association in the OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church). The visit brought good memories of quality spiritual times together. We chatted about worship styles, about evangelistic initiatives, about the state of the church today, especially the church in the Reformed or Calvinistic denominations. This all brought a flood of memories and training which I received, and still cherish, from my Reformed Baptist days in ministry. And, with this, a new, and hopefully maturer, appreciation of what are called the "doctrines of grace."

Why would someone who now ministers in a more Wesleyan-Arminian based church fellowship comment on the Calvinistic "doctrines of grace?" Certainly not to criticize or debate them, but to stand in appreciation for their impact in my life and thought. To a great extent, I have not forsaken or supplanted these precious truths even though they technically disagree with the denominational affiliation I now have. They have played and do continue to play a profound influence on my ministry. Moreover, it is often from the "outside" that one can see more clearly what needs to be emphasized in our day about certain historical theological tenets. This is why I am writing this particular blog. I believe many in the Reformed camp have lost sight of the forest for the trees. The debates and interior struggles of many in Calvinistic circles, I believe, have tended to almost de-value these precious truths.

What are the "doctrines of grace?"
The doctrines of grace are the five cardinal truths re-emphasized by the Synod of Dordt in 1618/19 in their response to the five tenets of the Remonstrants, which we now call Arminianism. This Synod simply noted what had been generally accepted in orthodox Christianity up to their juncture in historical theology, that mankind is totally depraved and therefore unable to save themselves, that God has unconditionally elected or chosen those whom He wanted to save, that Christ died for those whom the Father had chosen, that these are irresistibly brought to saving faith by the sovereign Holy Spirit, and that these are the ones who will most certainly persevere in faith unto the end. More popularly, these doctrines are known by the mnemonic TULIP -- Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited (or particular) atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints. Many Calvinistic pastors and theologians know them well and have been trained in their applications to faith and life. In Reformed Baptist history and circles they are known as the "doctrines of grace."

Why revisit them?
In my first 15 years of ministry, I was a zealous advocate of the doctrines of grace and took on all comers who would argue against them. I saw them more as biblical "sledgehammers" to wield against the man-centered, subjectivistic oriented Christian religion of the day, which was mostly Arminian-laced. I read books, papers and pamphlets condemning "decisionistic" Christianity, where a walk to a church altar or to a Crusade front would "save" a person. I railed against the popular notion that God has one vote, Satan has one vote, but we get to cast the deciding vote on our eternal state. I became associated with churches that staunchly defended and preached the "truth" against such humanistic fluff. Until one day I began to realize that all of the arguing and defending and postulating against other Christians missed the grand points of the Great Commandment and especially the Great Commission of Jesus Himself. So I left the fray, but not the essential truths of the doctrines of grace.

These grand truths are not for sale or debate, I believe. They were never drafted to be bastions of spiritual prowess or in-depth theology. Once truly understood and appreciated, they are precious to any Christian, any child of God. They are grounds for a deep and rich and lavish love for God. Contrary to popular opinion and sentiment, they actually bring heartfelt desire for the conversion of those who know not God and have not a saving relationship to Jesus Christ. They secure the believer, not in any mechanical, once-saved-always-saved format (not really the teaching of perseverance of the saints, by the way!) but in the way of hearing, following and loving the voice of Jesus in the Word of God. They bring a believer's heart close in gratitude and desire to the heart of God. "TULIP" is not a sign of protest, defense, spiritual war or a name badge to wear at Calvinistic conferences! The doctrines of grace emphasize God's GRACE, His undeserved and unearned favor toward rebellious sinners, like you and like me. They resonate with Bunyan's oft-quoted quip, "There, but for the grace of God, go I!"

So let's revisit these grand truths once again and enjoy their biblical and practical richness and power. Succeeding blogs will take them on. Let me know what you think!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Deeper Spirituality Desperately Needed!

When I was in seminary, a professor of practical theology warned us about "Christian psychobabble." This is where we take psychology 101 or what we "feel" is right and good and import it into the Bible and then come out with advice for living and believing. Unfortunately, we have a LOT of Christian psychobabble today.

The books that line the shelves of any Christian bookstore is full of such babble. In fact, at times it seems like the mixed up languages at the tower of Babel!! I am reading such a book now, and will not reveal the author or name prematurely. But it SEEMS like a lot of babble, talking about the "inward journey" and "deeper longings and feelings" and "spiritual transformation" as a "way of life that opens us up to the presence of God in the places of our beings where our truest desires and deepest longings stir." Then the author launches into chapters loosely based on Scripture and mostly based on aestheticism and subjectivism. I know I am being harsh, perhaps, but I need to make a point here.

The point is that spiritual transformation comes from the work of God the Holy Spirit in a person's being, with the channel being a faithful and true understanding of the written text of Scripture. Yes, I have a HIGH view of Scripture and believe it is fully sufficient for everything we need or ever will need in life and thought and desire. It is because we do not REALLY KNOW the Scriptures that we muck around with aestheticism and looking at our spiritual navels. "The Shack" is such a novel. When we venture outside the purview of the Bible and its principles and applications, which by the way cover everything, we tread into dangerous waters of the "self" and our "projections" onto what God really says about true spirituality.

The problem is twofold--biblical illiteracy and postmodern subjectivism. The first is a real problem in many churches. The test of your church or organization is, Do the MEN READ? Not the women, but do the men of your church or group engage in reading the Bible and literature that helps open up the Bible? Many do not, and are therefore unqualified spiritually to evaluate much of anything. (Now don't castigate me with stories of people who have learning disabilities, who are blind, or whatever. There are other well-known ways of reading.) The point is laziness and lack of transformative desire for God to speak in and through His Word. The other problem in this area is bad preaching! Sorry for being so blunt, but biblical, expository, applicatory preaching has fallen on bad times. Few are really trained in the art, and few seek to practice it. Thus, congregations and ministry organizations are failing to "proclaim the Word," adding to the illiteracy quotient of their people.

The other issue of postmodern subjectivism is an extended topic. Suffice to say that postmodern seekers, especially the young professionals, are interested in the Church truly being the Church, and not some show, or performance, or "salvation-factory." Many are also interested in true biblical expository preaching and speaking that opens up the text of Scripture, not with antiquated illustrations or "canned" stories, but with honest, intellectually sound exegesis and illustrations that are relevant, fresh and to the point. This helps make the truth of the Word more applicable and more sensitive to them and their spiritual journeys.

My first in-depth steps into the Bible and its application to all of life came through the Puritan writers. No--not the secular twisted view of the Puritans, nor the uninformed generalized Christian viewpoint that castigates these godly giants of the faith and paints them as morose, hellfire-and-brimstone witch hunters! I'm talking about John Owen, Thomas Manton, Richard Sibbes, Octavius Winslow, William Guthrie, Thomas Brooks and a slew of others. These men delved deeply into the written Word of God and produced volume after volume of rich, in-depth, heartfelt application of Scripture to the darkest places of the human psyche and heart and mind. You can not seriously read these writers and avoid the "eye of God" upon your very being. But who knows of these laborers of the Word today? Too few, I'm afraid.

I'm not advocating a "return to the Puritans" or their era, as if reading old books is the answer to our Christianized churches and people. I'm advocating SERIOUS, sustained and prolonged study and searching application of the Bible to our modern problems, needs, dilemmas and thinking and doing. "Study to show yourself approved" (cf. 1 Timothy 4:11-16) has never lost its persistent and powerful challenge to the Christian and especially the Christian leader. And, please don't tell me that we are "beyond them" today. We have more access to more information with precious little understanding of what is really truth.

People will say, "you are certainly in a minority" on this topic. I don't care. It's time to get deeper, to get more serious with the Word, to honestly and soberly evaluate where we really are individually and corporately. Let me know what you think!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Great Resurrection Debate

“I am a Christian. I have served the Church for over 50 years. I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and in his resurrection power.” Amen!, we would say. But, wait a minute. The person who said these words emphatically does not believe in the literal, physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus, nor does he think that the early disciples did either. They were so overwhelmed by the power of God that they made up a “resurrection myth” to talk about their departed Leader.

On March 20, 2005, the Church Communications Network (CCN) broadcasted a live debate between retired Bishop John Shelby Spong, who made the statements above, and Dr. William Lane Craig from Talbot Seminary on the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why is this teaching so very important and vital to Christianity? Why are Bishop Spong’s words deceptively empty and misleading? Who cares, so long as we have an “experience” with God?

An “Experience” Is Not Enough
To some, the resurrection story was an invention of the early disciples. They needed a “living” Savior to excite people, so they made the story up. To others, the resurrection is a simple, child-like delusion. We end up believing what we want to believe, no matter whether it is factual or not. To yet others, the resurrection is a visionary experience of the power of God, the “ground of all Being.”

Many today claim to have experienced God in some way. From the New Age neighbor down the street, to the Muslim extremist killing “satanic” Americans for Allah, all claim to have “experienced” God. But their experience isn’t enough to solve their sin problems and get them into heaven to live in the presence of the real God.

Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians 15:14ff: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead . . . If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is futile; you are still in your sins . . . If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”

Bodily Resurrection Is the Heart of the Gospel
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that the “gospel,” the Good News of deliverance and freedom and eternal life, is wrapped up in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. A New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, has shown that all Jewish instances of the term for “resurrection” specify a literal, physical resurrection, not a vague idea of afterlife.

In the debate, Dr. Craig made the observation that as most honest scholars have accepted the historical Jesus, so they have to admit to the physical, bodily resurrection of Him as well. There are too many resurrection witnesses listed in the New Testament records to believe otherwise. The early disciples made the resurrection of Jesus the centerpiece of their preaching, teaching, healing, acting and life-witness (cf. Acts 3:15; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; Gal. 1:1f; 1 Peter 1:18-21).

What’s At Stake?
So, what’s at stake in believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? First, God’s declaration of freedom from the eternal curse of sin and bestowal of true righteousness. Romans 4:25 says that Christ “was raised for our justification,” for our right-standing before God. Second, we need not fear death as our last enemy since Christ conquered death through his bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15:55-57).

Third, Christ’s resurrection gives us the power to live in “newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Fourth, we have a living, ascended Christ who now prays for us daily and constantly before the Father in heaven (Rom. 8:34). Fifth, because of Jesus’ resurrection, we are guaranteed of our own future, bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 6:14).

Our life of freedom from sin now, and our hope for eternal life with Christ are founded upon the physical, literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ on that first Easter Sunday.

Are you living in that freedom, that Easter power, that hope and that new life? Trust in the resurrected Jesus this Easter and for a lifetime!