Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"All creatures are effects which declare a first cause. All finite existence, whether natural or moral, is the product of omnipotent power. The great wheels of Divine providence are turned round by the hand of God. The motions of our souls and bodies are alike directed by the agent of him who rolls the stars along."
- Rev. Lemuel Haynes, "Outline of a Sermon on Acts 26:22," Black Preacher to White America: The Collected Writings of Lemuel Haynes, 1774-1833, edited by Richard Newman (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing Inc.,), p. 233. Preached in 1833 when almost 80 years old in Granville, Massachusetts.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Loving Success...

"To love our success more than God and our neighbor hardens the heart, making us less able to feel and to sense."
- Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"I don't do Facebooks": The Gospel Message and Relevance in Society

This morning I listened to a Christian radio station on the way to work. The program covered the recent elections, and the radio host, a "pro-family" conservative, made some interesting comments as he interviewed a number of people.

I had only listened to the program for about 15 minutes or so when something in the interview came up about Facebook. In response, this radio host said, "I don't do Facebooks." Not, "I am not on Facebook," or "I do not post on Facebook." His attitude was arrogant, and his choice of words showed his ignorance about the society he is supposed to be influencing.

This was not the Apostle Paul's attitude. For example, I Corinthians 9:19-23 is a good passage written by Paul about influencing people for the Gospel. He said,

"For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them...I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some...". (English Standard Version)

I think the Apostle Paul would post on Facebook today if it meant reaching others for Christ.

This attitude is important because the current political situation in the United States is an expression of its culture, for good and for bad. It has been said that, "politics is downstream from culture." This is true.

It is also important to remember that Christians can and do disagree about politics. I hold that there is no one political ideology that is universally "Christian." However, the Gospel certainly can make many political ideologies better by helping us to view all humans as image bearers of God. So, if a Christian wants to positively influence politics, he or she should focus on explaining the Gospel in terms and with means relevant to people in that society.

Presently, how can anyone influence society politically in the United States, especially generations younger than 50 years old, by "not doing Facebooks" ? In my view, this radio host basically said that he was irrelevant to society, that he was only preaching to the choir, so to say.

And we wonder why people hold the values and vote the way they do!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Excellent summation of Reformed Theology

This is one of the best explanations of Reformed theology I have found: "Reformed Theology in a Nutshell," which is an excerpt from The Theology Project at The Fellowship of Presbyterians, by Dr. Laura Smit: .

Friday, September 19, 2014

Struggling with Churches while Struggling with Same-Sex Attraction...

The Gospel Coalition has posted an excellent article by Rev. Sam Allberry entitled, "How Can The Church Help Those Battling Same-Sex Attraction?" Before moving on with this blog, I recommend clicking on this link and reading this article.

One thing I found impressive about this article is that it is more about church culture than it is about same-sex attraction. Here, Rev. Allberry shares "five steps that can guide churches in helping Christians with same-sex attraction." Below, I list these five steps and make observations from my experiences of being a Christian and attending various churches for over forty years. Regrettably, I have found most churches do not value the things needed to help people who struggle with same sex attraction. Therefore, my comments are more about church culture than same-sex attraction.

"1. Make it easy to talk about."
This is essential to help anyone struggling with any sin in his or her life. However, I have found that churches have a culturally-based hierarchy of sin that is taught informally church. That is, they unofficially teach that some sins are unacceptable while others are more acceptable, and same-sex attraction is an unacceptable sin. As a result, same-sex attraction cannot be talked about openly, even with pastors. To do so opens such a person up to shame and ridicule, not to mention isolation from being able to minister to others in the church. So, where can such a person go to talk with a concerned Christian about such temptations? There are many secular counselors who will encourage them to explore their sexuality, meaning to try living a homosexual lifestyle.

"2. Honor singleness." 
This is also rarely followed because churches are intentionally built around families. Indeed, families are more stable regarding church attendance than are singles. For example, I was advised by a pastor to focus on families in my community for this reason when starting a small community group. It is not that he was incorrect about stability. It is that churches tend to devalue single people in their respective congregations, as a result. I remember being a single adult years ago, and most single groups at churches reminded me of dog breeding: "Put them together and see if they match up," seemed to be the attitude. As a result, many people struggling with same-sex attraction are marginalized in church if they choose to remain single.

"3. Remember the church is a family." 
Amen! (Please forgive my outburst...I am a former Baptist). For many years, I have seen churches run as businesses focusing on market shares and managed for numerical growth.  An excellent book addressing this approach to ministry is by John Piper entitled, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry. Indeed, radical Christian ministry cannot be compared to secular occupations. When ministry is treated as a profession, churches often also treat members as workers, and workers can be fired or transfered to another business. If ministry is treated as a radical calling from God and church members are treated as a family, people struggling with same-sex attraction would not be "fired" from their church or encouraged to "transfer" to another church.

"4. Deal with biblical models of masculinity and femininity, rather than promote cultural stereotypes."
Excellent advice! I have attended too many churches that treat gender roles in fictional ways. For example, I have heard many a teacher in church promote the idea that women are passive and men are aggressive; that women are caring and nurturing, and men are logical and objective. This is simply not true! I have known many logical and objective women, and nurturing and caring men. An argument might be made that women express aggressiveness differently than do men. The problem is that when a man expresses nurturing and caring traits, he is often considered effeminate. When doing this, christians are actually encouraging gender confusion because they focus on traits that are neither strictly masculine nor feminine. 

"5. Provide good pastoral support."
For many years, I have noticed that churches have many preachers, teachers, builders, executives, and managers leading churches, but few pastors. One of the few exceptions was my mother-in-law's pastor. This man was a real pastor, and I admire him. He is ordained in one of the more theologically liberal denominations (Presbyterian Church - USA), and I am sure he and I have some significant theological differences (I am also a Presbyterian, but evangelical and more theologically conservative). However, this man really pastored his congregation. He knew my mother-in-law personally, and was with her in the hospital along with our other family members when she died. In contrast, my immediate family and I left a church several years ago when we realized we had no pastors in this church that knew us personally, even though I was a teacher there. If facing a spiritual crisis, we had no one to turn to for pastoral help. Today, too many evangelical churches are run as businesses, leaving the pastoring to lay members of the congregation. When a person struggling with same-sex attraction needs to talk with a pastor, they are often left with no one to talk to except other lay members who may not understand what to say or what to do.

I should note that I do not struggle with same sex attraction, but have talked with Christians who do. They live in shame and fear, experiencing loneliness and depression that can lead to thoughts of suicide.

The church's response is often a cultural one that encourages the shame, threatens such people so they live in fear, and shuns them such that their loneliness and depression increases. As a result, I must conclude:

We are truly the church of Laodicea! 
(see Revelation 3:14-22)

We are so rich and self-sufficient that we think we need nothing else and nobody else. In reality, we have many brothers and sisters who struggle with same-sex attraction, and we need these people in our churches. They have spiritual gifts God has given them to help us in our spiritual mission. Without such people, we are incomplete (see Hebrews 11:40).

Finally, another thing I found impressive about this article is that its author, Rev. Sam Allberry, shared how he struggles with same-sex attraction. How many of us would publically admit to struggling with our own sins, especially when they are not on the unofficial "approved" list of acceptable sins in our culture? This takes courage! 

My hope is that we can foster the kind of growth in our own churches that makes them safe havens for members struggling with same-sex attraction. This will happen when such brothers and sisters in Christ are able to share their struggles with us.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday Prayer...

"We confess we have forfeited all our mercies; we have heard much of God, Christ and heaven with our ears, but there is little of God, Christ and heaven in our hearts.  We confess, many of us by hearing sermons, are grown sermon-proof; we know how to scoff and mock at sermons, but we know not how to live sermons..."
"Make us Christians not only by outward profession, but an inward heart-experience, that we may live in heaven while we are on earth and come to heaven when we shall leave the earth."
- Edmund Calamy the Elder, Prayer at Aldermanbury, excerpt. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

If God Did Not Exist...

If God did not exist, I would be an atheist rather than an idolator. I would not want to set up a false God of my own making, which is an idol. Such idols consume those who worship them, and do not return anything that meets the amount of devotion we would spend worshiping them. Yet, I cannot avoid setting up idols.

John Calvin wrote about this in The Institutions of the Christian Religion. After reviewing the origins of idol making among humans, he concluded, "...the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols..." He went on to note,
"The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labors under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth. That idolatry has its origin in the idea which men have, that God is not present with them unless his presence is carnally exhibited...
- Calvin, John (2008-04-03). Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter XI  (Kindle Locations 1963-1966). Signalman Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Indeed, this reminds me of the passage in Isaiah chapter 44 verses 14-20 describing those who make idols:
"He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
"They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, 'Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?' He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”
- Crossway Bibles (2011-02-09). The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Kindle Locations 28816-28821). Good News Publishers/Crossway Books. Kindle Edition.

Certainly, we have progressed beyond those days of making wood idols. Have we not progressed beyond such "primitive" thinking?  I may try to fool myself and think that I am too intelligent to make an idol out of wood, but as Tim Keller notes in his book, Counterfeit Gods,
"What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.
"A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living"
- "Introduction: The Idol Factory," p. xvii - xviii, 2009, Dutton/Penguin Group (U.S.A.) Inc.

So much for my self-righteousness and pride. I am an idol maker! Indeed, I am a 21st century idol maker in that I have replaced idols of wood with modern idols of ambition, pride, lust, and many other vices.

What this adds up to is this: my desire to make idols out of material or immaterial things points to a need in my heart to worship the true God. However, at the same time I also have a will that rebels against the true God. So, I resort to making idols, and become a hypocrite.

As I noted, above, if God did not exist, I would be an atheist. I would not want to set up a false God of my own making. Yet, even if I do not believe in God, I still set up idols of various sorts. Some of my idols are good such as family, work, and the like. Some idols are vices. All of my idols consume me, thus, revealing their false nature.

My only escape from such idols is worshiping the true God. How can I know the true God? John tells us,
"No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known"
- John chapter 1 verse 18. Crossway Bibles (2011-02-09). The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Kindle Locations 41828-41830). Good News Publishers/Crossway Books. Kindle Edition.

This is the man we call Jesus, who was fully man and fully God at the same time. He is my escape from idols, for if I worship Him, I worship the true God.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Untangling Moral Absolutes from Ethical Certainty - link

I have posted an article in my blog, Dr. Rob's Podium, that may be of interest to some people. It is not theological per se, but does touch on morality and theology.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Diversity Pictured and Diversity in Reality

The following NPR article is interesting:
A Campus More Colorful Than Reality:  Beware That College Brochure

It seems some colleges are using photoshopped pictures to create images of a diverse student body on campus. So, the college magazine or website uses images of a more diverse student body than really exists.

I've seen churches do this, too. Such websites show stock pictures of families and individuals of various ethnic backgrounds, while in reality the church in overwhelmingly white. That can be good if they sincerely desire a diverse congregation, or misleading if there are bad reasons the congregation is not diverse.

Indeed, churches often reflect their communities, and as such, may not have opportunity for a very diverse congregation. Using such pictures might be a way of communicating to the viewer that everyone is welcome at the church. In such cases, the intended message is that people of all cultures and ethnic backgrounds are welcomed. However, this does not excuse callous attitudes towards such people.

For example, I once had a minister tell me that studies show that it would have been economically better for African-Americans if the 1964 Civil Rights Bill had not passed (FYI: 80% of Republicans and 60% of Democrats in Congress voted for the bill). He knew my family is an interracial family, and he suggested that this law was a bad law. If you do not understand why this is an offensive remark, please see the movie, The Help, and understand that at that time in which this story took place, my marriage would have been illegal in many states.

There is no excuse, economic or otherwise, to support a system that humiliates people. Taking a callous attitude towards people of color might be one reason a congregation is not diverse. In such a case, using stock pictures of diverse people can be deceptive.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Christians: Anti-Evolution but Pro-Social Darwinists?

As christians, we know God created all that exists. As the Apostle John said concerning the Son of God:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made."
Crossway Bibles (2011-02-09). The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Kindle Locations 41809-41812). Good News Publishers/Crossway Books. Kindle Edition. 

However, many disagree concerning how God created the heavens and earth. What is clearly not compatible with scripture is a naturalistic evolutionary explanation for the universe. This is often called "Darwinian Evolution," and denies any role of the Creator in bringing about the universe.

What I find ironic is that many conservative christians who believe the heavens and the earth were created in six 24-hour days with no evolution involved often, at the same time, believe social problems should be solved primarily through the free market. That is, such individuals believe that even if private charity cannot provide for the needs of the poor, a government should not tax some people to provide for the needs of these poor people. The outcome would be that some will die, but others will adapt and become self-sufficient. This results in an economic "survival of the fittest" system, also called "Social Darwinism,"where the weak die and the strong survive. Sounds Darwinian to me!

While I am convinced a free market economy is best, I also know that all human systems are flawed, including business, economic, and political systems. As such, christians must not raise the free market to a divine position.

I also do not encourage redistributing people's wealth for the purpose of social engineering because this approach assumes an elite group of humans know how to construct and guide society. However, to use a fair tax to provide for the basic needs of poor people does not have to involve social engineering.

Biological evolution and social evolution must be seen in light of God's sovereignty. This means that while christians disagree over how God created the heavens and the earth, we must not hold to a scientific theory that does not allow for the Creator to be the reason for the existence of the universe. Likewise, while christians disagree over the role of government in the economy, we must not hold to an economic theory that allows poor people to die when we have the ability to provide for their needs (Galatians 2:10; James 2:5-7).

Monday, March 10, 2014

Predicting the Return of Jesus Christ.

The following is a small portion of the final sermon delivered by Edmund Calamy the Elder on the 28th of December, 1662, with the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament as an allusion to Christians and God's timing:

"We must not pry into the ark. This was the sin of the men of Bethshemesh. 'They looked into the ark, and God smote them, and cut off fifty thousand and three-score and ten men' (I Sam. 6:19). Be not too curious in searching where God has not discovered or revealed. For example, there are great thoughts of heart as to when God will deliver his people and set his churches at liberty; and many men talk much of the year 1666. Some say that shall be the year in which antichrist shall be destroyed. And there are strange impressions upon the hearts of many learned men as to that year. Some go to the year 1669, and others pitch upon other times. But truly, if you will have my judgment, and I am glad of the is opportunity to tell you, this is to pry too much into the ark. Remember the text, 'It is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father hath put in his own power' (Acts 1:7). And thus to fasten upon any particular time, if you find you are deceived, this is the way to make you atheists, and thus afterwards you will believe nothing. Those ministers do no service, or rather ill service, to the church of God that fix upon the times and seasons."
- "Trembling for the Ark of God," from Sermons of the Great Ejection, The Banner of Truth Trust. New revised and reset edition 2012, p. 25.

I find it fascinating that Calamy notes that fixing upon the date of the Lord's return results in men feeling deceived, and makes them into atheists, believing nothing. This reminds me of the Apostle Peter's prophecy, "...that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, 'Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the father fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.." (II Peter 3: 3-4, ESV). Unfulfilled predictions can lead to scoffing and unbelief.

Likewise, I am fascinated that people predicted the date of the Lord's return in the 17th century just as many do in contemporary times. Instead of focusing on dates, prophecy focuses on God fulfilling His plan. Events are predicted, and some have already occurred (e.g. the first advent of Jesus), but the time of final events is not specified. Indeed, the Apostle John said, "Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour." (I John 2:18, ESV). Notice, an antichrist is predicted to come, but there are already many antichrists in existence. Thus, with prophecy, the end event is preceded by similar events. This has been called "the already and not yet." Therefore, focusing on a date in the future neglects the current situation that resembles the final event. Likewise, confusing current events with the final events results in unfulfilled predictions, which as noted above, can lead to scoffing.

Rather than predicting the date of the Lord's coming, which will happen in His time (Revelations 22:20), we must pay attention to Jesus' words: "Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes" (Matthew 24: 45-46). We are told of Jesus second coming so we will understand that the work He has given us to accomplish while we are alive on this earth has meaning and purpose, not so that we will make predictions which can come close to divination ("There shall not be found among you....anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens...for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD..." Deuteronomy 18: 10 & 12 (ESV); see also Isaiah 8:19 and Daniel 2:27-28). Our work has purpose in God's plan, and according to His plan, this world will pass away and be replaced by the new heaven and new earth one day when Jesus returns (see Revelation 21:1-8). In the meantime, our work does not involve prying into the ark, metaphorically.

[Edmund Calamy the Elder was an English Presbyterian and a member of the Westminster Assembly of Divines in the 17th century who sought to reform the Church of England]

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Older Son and the Laodicean Attitude.

Every now and then The New York Times has a special article about Christianity. David Brooks has written one in an Op Ed piece entitled, "The Prodigal Sons," and references Tim Keller. If you have not read Keller's book, The Prodigal God, do read Brooks' article, and then I encourage you to get a copy of Keller's book and read it

In his Op Ed article, Brooks notes how the attitudes of the prodigal son and his older brother are both seen in American society today, especially in our political culture. This is an excellent article with keen insight into problems in American culture, today.

In my view, too many modern American Evangelical churches are characterized both by the attitude of the older brother in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son, and also by the attitude of the Laodiceans as described in Revelations chapter 3 vs. 14-22. 

The older son's attitude was cold hearted and judgmental, assuming the blessings he had been given were earned by his good behavior. The younger son was the libertine who had no desire for a relationship with his father until he was at the mercy of the consequences of the way he lived his life.

In my view, the attitude of the Laodicean church in Revelations chapter 3 church parallels the attitude of the older brother in many ways. Notice, Jesus does not mention any theological problems concerning the teaching in this church, nor does He mention any specific moral, ethical problems. Of the seven messages to the churches in Revelations chapters 2-3, only Smyrna, the persecuted church, is spared a warning from Jesus. Indeed, Jesus mentions both good and bad things about each of the other churches...except of Laodicea! Jesus has nothing good to say about this church. 

Laodicea is certainly a church made up of believing Christians because it is represented by a lamp stand/candlestick with the other churches in the vision John writes down. Yet, Jesus stands at the door this theologically correct and ethical church, and He knocks to enter in and have fellowship with these Christians (vs. 20). Indeed, this is the only church among the seven in this scripture passage that makes Jesus want to throw up (literally, to "vomit"; see vs.15-16). 

Many of us are spiritually hurting. The "older brothers" shun us in our churches, and the "younger brothers" are no better off then we are in society. So where do we go?

We need to go to the Father through Jesus, and "we" means both older brothers and sisters and younger brothers and sisters; those in churches and those outside these churches. Then we need to meet together regularly as a body of broken people being healed by Jesus. For this type of church to exist, it needs a spiritual leader, specifically a missionary pastor who sees his calling as a mission from God, rather than a "womb-to-tomb" profession (more on this in an upcoming post). These are rare leaders, though. May God raise up such leaders from among us.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

"Have a better heart, good sir, for I assure you nobody can rob you of your God, but by your own consent, nor spoil you of any of the articles of your faith. If you look for them, where God has placed them, in the holy scripture, and take them as he has framed and fashioned them there; there you will always find them safe and sound. But if they come out of an artificer’s shop, and be of human invention, I cannot answer for them: they may, for aught I know, be nothing but an idol of your own setting up, which may be pulled down, should you cry out ever so much, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!”"

- John Locke, "A Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity." The Works of John Locke: The Two Treatises of Civil Government, On Human Understanding, Elements of Natural Philosophy, Of the Conduct of Understanding ... (Kindle Edition, Locations 48992-48996).