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!