Saturday, March 2, 2013

How Jesus Saved the World, Part 2

Continued from Part 1

By arresting, torturing, and killing Jesus, the authorities thought that they were securing well being and peace again in their society by means of the tried and true method of a single-victim scapegoat. Everyone’s thirst for violence will be satisfied and we can get on with the business of everyday life.

Once they decided on this violence, they were all unified. Everyone’s anger and frustration and hatred converged on a single victim. If we don’t understand this process we will just be baffled by the bizarre unity achieved in John 18–19.  The escalation of the rivalries and the advent of violence always witness the strangest about-faces and the most unexpected regroupings: Pharisees and Herodians; Zealots and Sadducees.  The bodyguards of the High Priests and the Roman Cohort garrisoned in Jerusalem. Judas and Peter. Caiaphas, Annas, and Pilate. Religious leaders cooperated with political.  Barrabas was accepted by the Jews.  Jews and Romans learned to work together! “Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other” (Luke 23:12).

We have a united kingdom—one society, one kingdom, a kingdom of this world unified in their hatred and violence. They all conspire together against the Lord and his anointed (Psalm 2).

And here is Jesus, the innocent victim, the scapegoat. “My kingdom is not of this world, Governor Pilate.”

Continue reading on the Trinity House blog.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Where have all the Presbyterians gone?

This is a thoughtful post by Bill Evans from his blog the Ecclesial Calvinist.
A while back my friend Anthony Bradley posted an insightful and provocative blog piece asking why the popular influence of conservative Presbyterians prominent a few decades back (e.g., Jim Boice, R. C. Sproul, Sinclair Ferguson, and John Frame) seems to have waned in comparison to Baptists of a broadly Reformed soteriological persuasion.  I posted an extended comment at the time, and thought I would expand on it here. 
There are at least two big issues in play—the Baptistic Reformed success as driven by institutions (e.g., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Founders’ Movement) and gifted individuals (e.g., Don Carson, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Mark Driscoll) on the one hand, and the apparent Presbyterian decline on the other. As a Presbyterian I’m not particularly well equipped to comment on the first, but I think I have something to offer about the second. 
Of course, the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition has been declining as a percentage of the American population since the nineteenth century.  But statistics available in resources like ARDA and the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches indicate that some of the NAPARC denominations are plateaued or in decline.  This is worrisome, and the reasons are doubtless complex, having to do with social as well as theological factors.  Below are five general observations from the “for what it’s worth department.”
Read the rest of the post here.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Evangelical Superstars Should Keep Quiet When They Don't Know What They Are Talking About

Sometimes it's hard to categorize stuff.  Is it about guns and shooting or theology and the Bible?  In this case it's both.
I hesitate to write this post.  But I just can't seem to restrain myself.  As most of you know, I am a Presbyterian minister.  I'm not a pastor in the mainline liberal or progressive Presbyterian church.  That organization is scarcely identifiable as a Christian church any more.  I am a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). We broke off from the United Presbyterian church back in 1973 because of rampant unorthodoxy and modernist progressive social dogmatism in their seminaries.  But I digress. 
All of that to say that I identify with a tradition of straight-taking, tough-minded Calvinists that do not view the world through rose-colored, liberal glasses.
Read it all at Simply Shooting.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How Jesus Saved the World, Part 1

We are too used to reading the Gospels’ stories of Jesus’ arrest, trial, condemnation, and death from a devotional perspective and so we miss a lot of what’s going on. We actually have a difficult time trying to figure out the meaning of the details of the story. Of course, we will defend the historicity of the details of the story against unbelieving academics and liberal churchman. But why these details? Why any details at all?

John has already wonderfully summarized things in chapters 1 and 3. “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” and “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” But what does God’s provision of a lamb for the sins of the world have to do with this long story of what happens to Jesus the night before he dies? What does God loving the world have to do with the machinations and conspiracies of Judas, the High Priests, Pilate, and the Jewish crowds? A great deal, truly, but we will have to learn to read the Passion accounts a bit differently.

You see, here in the narrative of Jesus’ arrest and trial and condemnation we have a somewhat surprising perspective.  It does not contradict or compete with the other apostolic explanations of Jesus’ death; rather, it complements and enriches them. Remember, the meaning of the death of Jesus is far richer than we are often used to acknowledging. When we look at the details of the text—what events and characters and words John has carefully chosen to weave together from the story of Jesus’ last few days—we can get a pretty good idea of what he is trying to communicate. This is not fiction, but history. Nevertheless, narrating history is never simply a matter of reproducing what has happened. Out of a million and more little details one must pick and choose just what to record.

Read the rest here at Trinity House.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Young Communicants & Voting

On Interviews & Testimonies, Part VI

Continued from Part V

Q.  Should these young children vote?  If they are full communing members of the church, how can they be forbidden the right to vote?  Should children admitted to the table become voting members as well?

No, young children should not vote.  They can eat at the Table, but they don't participate in ruling the church.  Surely one can discern the significant differences between eating at the Lord’s Table and passing judgments in the church’s council.  What happens in your families?  Children are invited to the family table to eat, but they are not invited to participate in the family’s decision-making process. Why?  That duty belongs to the father and mother since they have the prerequisite wisdom and experience to make wise judgments about the family finances, plans, etc.

Therefore, we must make provision for a two-fold distinction within the membership of the church: 1) members that do not vote (baptized children or new Christians who partake of the Lord’s supper but are not old enough or mature enough to vote); and 3) the adult communing and voting members.

Maturity is needed for voting, not for eating; for making complicated decisions, not for feeding on Jesus.  Jesus feeds all, but not everyone is qualified to make decisions that bear upon the doctrine and government of his church.  Every baptized member of the church is part of the family of God, but not necessarily mature enough to pass judgment in the assembly.  This means that the proper place for training and extensive examinations is at the time when the young man or woman prepares to take on the responsibilities and privileges of voting membership!

The distinction between communing and voting can be biblically sustained, even if the Bible does not really talk about “voting” as we practice it in America.  In the Bible, every circumcised member of the community and his entire family ate at the Passover and participated in the festival meals (Ex. 12:48), but only those who had reached a certain age could go to war and be counted in the census (Num. 1:3).  Oftentimes, modern Christians are more interested in avoiding any criticism of being “undemocratic” than genuinely thinking through the implications of nine-, ten-, or even 16-year-old children voting on pastoral calls, church by-laws, or building programs.  Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me,” not “Let the little children participate in the community's decision making process.”

In our homes we practice this distinction regularly.  Small children are acknowledged by the parents as being part of the family, as having a right to participation in the full life of the family, especially when this is manifest at the family dinner table.  Parents feed their children, they regularly provide them with all the tokens and symbols of their incorporation and membership in the family.  At the same time, parents recognize that until the child grows in knowledge and experience he will not be capable of making judgments about the leadership and direction of the family.   Children are not given responsibility for keeping the budget, nor do we call together the entire family and vote on the weightier matters that parents must consider in ruling the family.  Maturity and experience are needed to make such decisions.  Thus, we must make a fundamental and important distinction between communing and voting members, between partaking of the dinner with which Jesus feeds us and making informed judgments about the administration and direction of the church.

Nothing in the PCA Book of Church Order forbids the Session from establishing a voting age for communing members.  One of the former stated clerks of the PCA once noted that it is, in fact, the prerogative of the Session to establish a voting age if it so desired.   Members of the original committee that wrote the PCA BCO have expressed their desire to keep the language ambiguous so that each Session would have liberty in this area.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Simple Church Year Catechism – Lent & Easter

Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lenten Season) is February 13. The season of Lent lasts for 40 days (not including Sundays). It ends on Easter Sunday (March 31).

The word “Lent” comes from the Middle English lente (“spring”) and from the Old English lengten (“to lengthen’), referring to the time of lengthening daylight from Christmas (around the Winter solstice) to Easter (Spring equinox). The Lenten season lasts 40 days, a time of preparation in anticipation of the great events of Good Friday and Easter.

During Lent we are encouraged to examine ourselves anew in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We follow his example and seek for forty days to wage a more earnest struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Our desire in this is increased sanc- tification and growth in Christian maturity and obedience.

At the heart of any worthy Lenten observance is a cultivated attitude of repentance. True repentance means a genuine change in heart and mind, a change of disposition wherever in our lives we need to return to God. That is why true repentance and a true Lent can never be satisfied by mere external observances, no matter how rigorous they may be.

Lent is not merely a time to remember and think about the history of our Lord’s suffering and death, but is intended primarily as an opportunity for serious self-examination and repentance, even fasting (Luke 5:34-35). The high point of Lent is reached on Good Friday, when we remember that our sins led to the crucifixion of Christ.

The color for Lent is purple or violet—a rich color made with the costliest dyes in the ancient world. It appropriately symbolizes deep, heartfelt, and therefore costly repentance.

The following catechism is something I wrote for the children of the church.  It's a continuation of what is posted for Advent, Christmas, & Epiphany.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Learning the Bible!

For years I've complained that churches don't teach the Bible.  That seminaries don't effectively teach Bible content!  That endless topical sermons in our churches are contributing to an epidemic of biblical illiteracy in the Christian community.  Here is some good stuff on this topic my Michael Bull.

“Pastor, if the local atheist knows the Bible and understands its basic implications for morality, society, politics, education, economics, history and science better than the people you instruct every week, and most likely he does, you are failing them.”
It seems to me that good Christians go off to Bible college and seminary little suspecting that these institutions are places where they teach you how not to read a book. 
Certainly, an understanding of the original languages and cultures is helpful, but somehow the modern mind takes a book that is far more than the sum of its parts and teaches it as parts. For a start, we don’t read any book like that. If we, as Christians, believe that the Bible has a single author, why would an intelligent, committed and passionate minister of the gospel tell me that Jesus’ crown of thorns has nothing to do with the thorns in Genesis 3? Why? Was it because he was taught that the Bible was written by idiots, or was it because he was taught by idiots? Please note that this man is not an idiot. He, like just about all ministers today, has been trained in a tradition that takes young heads, cuts off their ears and gouges out their eyes. They come out deaf and colorblind. They are not qualified to teach the Bible as it really is.
Read the entire article here.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Young Child Communion & the Westminster Standards

On Interviews & Testimonies, Part V

Continued from Part IV

Q. Doesn't admitting young children violate the Westminster Standards?  Shouldn't we only admit mature believers who can understand what is happening at the Table?

Is young child communion consistent with the Westminster Standards?  Yes, I believe so.  First, consider the Westminster Confession of Faith (hereafter WCF).  No mention is made (wisely) of ages or intellectual capacity in either chapter 14 “On Saving Faith” or chapter 15 “Of Repentance unto Life.”  Furthermore, paragraph 3 of chapter 14 shows that the Westminster divines were sensitive to the fact that mature faith ought not to be made the criteria for genuine faith since saving faith “is different in degrees, weak or strong, may be often and many ways assailed and weakened, but gets the victory; growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.”  Surely it would be wrong to insist that a young covenant child give evidence of a mature faith before we count them as a genuine believer!  Genuine faith may be present in covenant children, not having as yet grown up into “the attainment of a full assurance through Christ.”  Why should such faith—weak and immature as it may be—serve as a barrier to the covenant child’s participation in the Lord’s communion meal?

The mention of assurance ought to remind us of another statement in the Confession which teaches that lack of the conviction of the assurance of faith is not necessarily evidence of the absence of saving faith.  The Confession does indeed hold out to us the goal of attaining full assurance since those believers who “truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace” (18.1), but the divines are also quick to remind us that “This infallible assurance does not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it” (18.3).

Friday, February 1, 2013

On Interviews and Testimonies, Part IV

Continued from Part III

Questions About Interviewing Young Children

Let me take some time now to answer some common questions.  Remember, I am a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). We don't practice paedocommunion.  I believe it is biblical.  I have taken exception to the Westminster Standards on this point.  What our church does practice is young child communion.  This is the closest we can get and still be true to our PCA church order.  What this means is that young children are admitted to the Table by the session when they give evidence of a credible, age-appropriate profession of faith.  I say all this because the questions that will be addressed in the next few posts will all relate to this practice—that is, interviewing young children.

What follows, then, is largely advice to fellow pastors and elders who practice some form of "young child" communion.

Q.  My five-year-old daughter is not mature enough to sit before nine blue-suited elders and answer probing questions.  She will freeze up.  Should she be denied the table for this reason?

This is a great question. Why should Christ’s little ones be denied the benefits of the Table simply because they might be too shy to answer questions under the intense scrutiny of a room full of older men?  After all, most adults are often quite intimidated when they meet with the full session of the church.  In the case of most interviews with adults for membership the Session is not examining for knowledge, but a credible profession of faith.  But when our young children come before us we interrogate them with questions about their knowledge of the Bible, the sacraments, etc.  We seldom, if ever, do this in membership interviews with adults!  Why should there be two standards—one for adults and another for our covenant children?  Isn’t it enough that our children confess their simple faith and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins and their hope of heaven?  I would argue that such a confession is sufficient, and that most of our four-year-old children would have an easier time before the elders if they knew that it wasn’t going to be an “examination.”  Our Lord made it easy for the little one’s to come to him.  When he saw his disciples making it difficult for parents to bring their little ones to him “he became indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God’” (Mark. 10:14).  Therefore, the first way that we could deal with this problem is to drop the insanely intense oral examination that we often require of our children before they are allowed to come to the Table.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

On Interviews & Testimonies, Part III

Continued from Part II.

It's been so long since I wrote the first two essays on this topic that I had to go back and read them again to remember what I had written.  What I am trying to do here is work through some of the problems I have encountered when well-meaning Christian leaders conduct "interviews" designed to determine the spiritual condition of a candidate.  The candidate might be a child being interviewed for a place at the Lord's Table or church membership or enrollment in a Christian school.  Adults are also interviewed for the same reasons.  There are any number of situations in which churches, schools, presbyteries, etc. seek to determine the spiritual status of another person.

I have observed that we tend to get stuck in a few well-worn ruts in these interview sessions.  There seems to be a "tradition" of Christian interviewing that has developed over the years.  Interviewers are looking for the right words and phrases.  When we hear them, we relax and move on.  If we don't hear them, we become very concerned.  And not only are there distinctive phrases we are hoping to hear, there are also words that set off flashing red lights and alarms.

In Part II we saw that at the Last Judgment (the final interview) the authenticity of every professing Christian's faith will be judged based on his life and work.  As I said last time, this does not mean we are saved by our works.  Nor does it imply that somehow our good works will have to outweigh our sins.  There will be no righteousness/sins balance sheet.  What it does mean is that everyone who says, "I love Jesus" or "I love God" or "I was saved at age 16" or "Jesus died for my sins" or even "I'm saved by grace alone" will have the authenticity of his orthodox verbal profession either certified or invalidated by his life.