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Cultural commentary from a Biblical perspective

'As It Had Been the Face of an Angel' '- A Commission for God's Messengers
Fri, 19 May 2017 11:30:50 +0000

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, 'We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.' And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, 'This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.' And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. [Acts 6:8-15, esv]

We are not gathered here together by accident. Before us are over three hundred new graduates of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, arrayed in all their commencement glory. Beside them sits one of the most remarkable assemblies of scholar-teachers ever to serve Christ's church. Filling out this congregation are those who come to celebrate and witness this great moment. Wives, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and pastors, all gathered for an event that commands our attention and seizes our hearts. This is hardly the first commencement of this institution. Today marks the 219th commencement exercise since Southern Seminary was founded in 1859. But here we are in May of the year of our Lord, 2017 - and the stakes are high. Very high.

The Christian ministry has never been for the faint of heart. The ministry, biblically defined, is combat duty in spiritual warfare. These graduates have been prepared to be front-line officers in that warfare. Today is part of their commissioning. They are to be sent out as ambassadors of the Gospel of Christ, as heralds of the Kingdom that cannot be shaken, as stewards of the mysteries of Christ, and good soldiers of King Jesus. In the centuries since the apostles, the ministry has not changed, the assignment has never changed, but the context has changed and changed and changed again. Jesus told his disciples: "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." [Matthew 10:16, ESV] The wolves have not grown friendlier.

At every Southern Seminary graduation we remind one another of the great and essential fact that the Christian ministry is not a mere profession - it is a divine calling. The ministry is one of Christ's gifts to his church. it is the most serious and joyous of all callings.

I think often of the venerable words of the old Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England for the ordering of the ministry. These words are spoken to new ministers of the Word:

"You have heard, brethren, as well in your private examination, as in the exhortation which was now made to you, and in the holy Lessons taken out of the Gospel and the writings of the Apostles, of what dignity and of how great importance this office is, whereunto ye are called. And now again we exhort you, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you have in remembrance, into how high a dignity, and to how weighty an office and charge ye are called: that is to say, to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord; to teach and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord's family; to seek for Christ's sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.

Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his spouse and his body. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue. Wherefore consider with yourselves the end of your ministry towards the children of God, towards the spouse and body of Christ; and see that you never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until you have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life."

That is, to say the least, a rather demanding job description. To that we would now say even more, never less.

I directed our attention to Acts 6 and the story of Stephen, known as the first Christian martyr. Note how quickly the situation changes. In the preceding text Stephen, "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit," is chosen as one of the first deacons to serve the Christian church. When he and others of "the seven" are chosen, we are told that "the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith." [Acts 6:7] In the very next verse, we are told that Stephen, "full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people." [Acts 6:8] That got attention.

The opposition quickly came, and it was fierce. Stephen was faithful, and effective. "They could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking." [Acts 6:10] You know what followed.

"And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, 'This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.'' They accused Stephen of presenting the Gospel, and presenting it quite effectively. They could not withstand his speaking, so they killed him - but not before he would deliver one last great speech, a marvel of biblical theology.

I draw our attention to Stephen's example, and particularly to perhaps the most neglected verse in this narrative: "And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel." [Acts 6:15]

What are we to make of this? Well, remember that Stephen's accusers had charged him with "speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God." But now, we are told that Stephen, facing these accusations, had the very appearance of Moses after he had been on the holy mountain with God. "His face was like the face of an angel."

One huge problem here is the all-too-common confusion concerning angels. In the Bible, angels are not sweet, cherubic creatures, seeking to bring cuteness to a room. They are messengers of God. They inspired awe and fear. Their purpose was to bring a message from the one true God. This is the ministry of the Word of God - the ministry we celebrate in these graduates today. We dare to pray that when they preach, their faces look like the faces of angels - not cute, not harmless, not ready to jump off of a greeting card, but fearless, faithful, forceful, to the end.

A commencement ceremony takes a quick view backward in order to aim at the long view of the future. This day is far more about beginnings than endings. The completion of these monumentally important programs of study is appropriately marked and celebrated, but our hearts are drawn to the future as we imagine what God will do by his grace and for his glory in these graduates arrayed before us. And so our focus is on the start of new ministries, missionary journeys, and opportunities to serve the church for whom Christ died.

These graduates go out to build upon what others have already built. We will all build on the foundation someone else has laid. Even as the Lord grants opportunity to sow seed, we will spend much of our lives and ministries watering. The Christian ministry is not a career. It is a calling that originates in the sovereign majesty of God and is concluded only by the coming of the kingdom of the Lord, and of his Christ.

In the church age, ministry is handed from generation to generation. Our humble determination and our heart's desire must be to receive this charge and to serve faithfully '- planting and watering in the fields of ministry and taking care how we build upon the foundation laid before us.

The Lord God spoke through his prophet Joel to promise that older men will dream dreams and young men shall see visions. Powerful, faithful, and compelling dreams and visions animate these graduates. They were brought here to this seminary as they were called to ministry, these visions and dreams have kept them here through years of dedicated study, and these dreams and visions propel them onward as they go out into a world of ministry and mission.

But as they go, they join a line of faithfulness that reaches back to Moses and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, John the Baptist and John the evangelist, Peter and Philip, Paul and Apollos. It extends through generations punctuated by names such as Athanasius and Augustine, Luther and Calvin, Whitfield and Wesley, Owens and Edwards, Spurgeon and Moody . . . and so it goes.

Build faithfully upon the foundation laid by Christ and the apostles. Receive the stewardship of ministry that is passed on to you and give your all to this calling so long as you live. Then, pass this ministry to a generation yet unseen and unborn to continue this ministry and extend the reach of the Gospel until Jesus comes.

Start something you cannot finish and give yourself to it for the length of your days, with the strength of your life, to the glory of God. Dream dreams and see visions, and take up this calling as you plant and water in the fields of Christ. Build carefully upon the foundation laid for you. The hopes and prayers of God's faithful people go with you. As you go out, we pray that you will go with the faces of angels.

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Item Category: Articles_gottaremovethis_
Performing Abortion is 'God's Work?' The Real Story of Christianity and Abortion
Mon, 15 May 2017 08:00:14 +0000

To the utter consternation of the abortion rights movement, the issue simply will not go away. Decades after they thought they had put the matter to rest with the Roe v. Wade decision, America's conscience is more troubled than ever, and near panic appears regularly to break out among abortion activists. Such a panic is now underway, and the defenders of abortion are trotting out some of their most dishonest arguments. One of the worst is the claim that Christians have only quite recently become concerned about the sanctity of human life and the evil of abortion.

In fact, one of America's most infamous abortion doctors, Dr. Willie Parker of Mississippi, has made such a claim in his new book, Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. Parker, who refers to himself as a Christian, writes: "If you take anti-abortion rhetoric at face value, without knowing much about the Bible, you might assume that the antis have Scripture on their side. That's how dominant and pervasive their righteous rhetoric has become. But they do not. The Bible does not contain the word 'abortion' anywhere in it."

This is the same argument we so often confront on sexuality issues. We are told that Jesus never said anything against same-sex marriage. The disingenuous nature of this argument is fully apparent when we look to a text like Matthew 19:3-6. Jesus makes abundantly clear that God's intention "from the beginning" is that humanity, made male and female, should united in marriage and "the two shall become one flesh." As Jesus continued, "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate." That should settle the matter.

Similarly, Dr. Parker claims that the Bible does not even mention abortion as a word, which is quite true but irrelevant. The Bible consistently reveals life as God's gift and mandates the protection of human life, made in God's image, at every stage of life and development.

As you might expect, Dr. Parker would not change his argument even if the Bible did condemn abortion by name. Why do I say this? Dr. Parker's words speak better for themselves: "As an inspired document, the Bible is full of guidance for me about justice and love. But as a historical document, the Bible is a ruthless, unsparing record of the historic misogyny of the early Jewish and Christian people." Later in his book he attributes the pro-life position to preoccupation with regulating sexual behavior and "a rigid reading of Scripture that invites no questioning or interpretive consideration." It is only by undermining the Bible's authority that he can make his pro-abortion argument.

Even more recently, Nicholas Kristof, an influential columnist for The New York Times, affirmed Dr. Willie Parker in his column, approvingly quoting Parker as he states, quite astoundingly: "I believe that as an abortion provider, I am doing God's work." Kristof is well known as a humanitarian, a defender of human rights and human dignity. The great tragedy is that his humanitarian vision does not extend to unborn human beings. He celebrates Parker as a doctor who had a "come to Jesus moment," turning from pro-life conviction to performing abortions. He now believes it is "morally right" to perform abortions.

"If that seems incongruous," Kristof writes, "let's remember that conservative Christianity's ferocious opposition to abortion is relatively new in historical terms." He goes on to make Parker's argument that the Bible "does not explicitly discuss abortion" and proceeds to states "there's no evidence that Christians traditionally believed that life begins at conception."

What is the truth? Let's begin with where Kristof's punch lands with force. He makes the case that America's evangelical Christians came late to a consistently pro-life position. On this he is absolutely right. He is able to document the equivocation and confusion that abounded within evangelicalism, from the annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1970s to the pages of Christianity Today. An embarrassing number of prominent evangelical preachers held to "moderate" views on abortion and speculated about when life begins and thus deserves protection. That did not begin to change until the latter years of that decade, when the biblical and theological logic of the pro-life position began to take hold of the evangelical mind and heart.

At this point we need to separate two issues that are confused in both Parker's and Kristof's argument. The first is the historic Christian understanding of the morality of abortion. The second is the question of when what some theologians have called "ensoulment" takes place. As for the second question, though it was a matter of intense speculation in late antiquity and the medieval age, it is not a helpful theological question, nor is it answerable. The only consistent biblical logic is to affirm the sanctity and dignity of every human life from the moment of fertilization.

As for the first question, the evidence is irrefutable. The early church was decidedly, vocally, and courageously pro-life and opposed to abortion. One of the earliest documents of Christianity after the New Testament is the Didache, dated to around A.D. 80-120. The teaching describes two ways: the way of life and the way of death. The way of life demands that Christians "shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, ... you shall not murder a child by abortion nor commit infanticide." Both abortion and infanticide were common in the Roman Empire. Christians were forbidden to murder any child, born or unborn. The way of life honors the sanctity of life.

Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-215) made clear the sin of women who "in order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the matter completely dead, abort at the same time their human feelings." Tertullian (A.D. 160-240) taught even more comprehensively: "For us, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is just a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter when you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in the seed." These two are just examples of a pro-life position rejecting abortion that included - at the very least - Athenagoras, Hippolytus, Basil the Great, Ambrose, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine.

As ethicist Ronald Sider commented, "Eight different authors in eleven different writings mention abortion. In every case, the writing unequivocally rejects abortion." The most comprehensive survey of early Christianity on the question of abortion comes from Michael J. Gorman in Abortion and the Early Church. As Gorman states, "all Christian writers opposed abortion." Every mention of abortion in the early church rejects it, forcefully.

The Apostolic Constitutions, a document from the fourth century, asserts: "Thou shalt not slay thy child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten. For every thing that is shaped, and hath received a soul from God, if it be slain, shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed."

Gorman writes: "Writers of the first three Christian centuries laid the theological and literary foundation for all subsequent early Christian writing on abortion. We will see that three important themes emerged during these centuries: the fetus is the creation of God; abortion is murder; and the judgment of God falls on those guilty of abortion." Those three convictions lie at the heart of the Christian pro-life consensus that came together after the shock of the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

The shame is not that evangelicals hold these pro-life convictions now. The shame is that there was ever any evangelical equivocation on such a matter of life and death and human dignity. Furthermore, there can be no question that historic Christianity condemned abortion and affirmed the sanctity of human life, born and not yet born.

Let there be no confusion on this question. The Bible reveals the sanctity of all human life; the early church affirmed the sanctity of every human life; and anyone who performs an abortion is not "doing God's work." Rather, he is undoing it. As the Didache, echoing Deuteronomy, reminds us from so long ago - we are to choose the way of life, and never the way of death.

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The Gathering Storm: Religious Liberty in the Wake of the Sexual Revolution
Tue, 21 Mar 2017 18:43:30 +0000

In the first volume of his history of World War II, Winston Churchill looked back at the storm clouds that gathered in the 1930s portending war and the loss of human freedom. Churchill wisely and presciently warned Britain of the tragedy that would ensue if Hitler were not stopped. His actions were courageous and the world was shaped by his convictional leadership. We are not facing the same gathering storm, but we are now facing a battle that will determine the destiny of priceless freedoms and the very foundation of human rights and human dignity.

Speaking thirty years ago, Attorney General Meese warned that 'there are ideas which have gained influence in some parts of our society, particularly in some important and sophisticated areas that are opposed to religious freedom and freedom in general. In some areas there are some people that have espoused a hostility to religion that must be recognized for what it is, and expressly countered.'[1]

Those were prophetic words, prescient in their clarity and foresight. The ideas of which Mr. Meese warned have only gained ground in the last thirty years, and now with astounding velocity. A revolution in morality now seeks not only to subvert marriage, but also to redefine it, and thus to undermine an essential foundation of human dignity, flourishing, and freedom.

Religious liberty is under direct threat. During oral arguments in the Obergefell case, the Solicitor General of the United States served notice before the Supreme Court that the liberties of religious institutions will be an open and unavoidable question. Already, religious liberty is threatened by a new moral regime that exalts erotic liberty and personal autonomy and openly argues that religious liberties must give way to the new morality, its redefinition of marriage, and its demand for coercive moral, cultural, and legal sovereignty.

These are days that will require courage, conviction, and clarity of vision. We are in a fight for the most basic liberties God has given humanity, every single one of us, made in his image. Religious liberty is being redefined as mere freedom of worship, but it will not long survive if it is reduced to a private sphere with no public voice. The very freedom to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake, and thus so is the liberty of every American. Human rights and human dignity are temporary abstractions if they are severed from their reality as gifts of the Creator. The eclipse of Christian truth will lead inevitably to a tragic loss of human dignity. If we lose religious liberty, all other liberties will be lost, one by one.

Religious Liberty and the Challenge of Same-Sex Marriage

Even though same-sex marriage is new to the American scene, the religious liberty challenges became fully apparent even before it became a reality. Soon after the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state of Massachusetts, several seminars and symposia were held in order to consider the religious liberty dimensions of this legal revolution. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sponsored one of the most important of these events, which produced a major volume with essays by prominent legal experts on both sides of this revolution. The consensus of every single participant in the conference was that the normalization of homosexuality and the legalization of same-sex marriage would produce a head-on collision in the courts. As Marc D. Stern, of the American Jewish Congress stated, 'Same-sex marriage would work a sea change in American law.'[2] He continued, 'That change will reverberate across the legal and religious landscape in ways that are unpredictable today.'[3]

Nevertheless, he predicted some of the battlefronts he saw coming and addressed some of the arguments that could already be recognized. Even then, Stern saw almost all the issues we have recounted, and others yet to come. He saw the campuses of religious colleges and the work of religious institutions as inevitable arenas of legal conflict. He pointed to employment as one of the crucial issues of legal conflict and spoke with pessimism about the ability of religious institutions to maintain liberty in this context, for which he advocates. As Stern argued, 'The legalization of same-sex marriage would represent the triumph of an egalitarian-based ethic over a faith-based one, and not just legally. The remaining question is whether champions of tolerance are prepared to tolerate proponents of the different ethical vision. I think the answer will be no.'[4]

Stern did not wait long to have his assessment verified by legal scholars on the other side of the debate. One of the most important of these, Chai R. Feldblum, presented rare candor and revealed that an advocate for same-sex marriage and the normalization of homosexuality could also see these issues coming. Feldblum pointed to what she described as, 'the conflict that I believe exists between laws intended to protect the liberty of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people so that they may live lives of dignity and integrity and the religious beliefs of some individuals whose conduct is regulated by such laws.'[5] She went on to state her belief that 'those who advocate for LGBT equality have downplayed the impact of such laws on some people's religious beliefs and, equally, I believe those who sought religious exemptions in such civil rights laws have downplayed the impact that such exemptions would have on LGBT people.'[6]

As Feldblum argued, she called for the society to 'acknowledge that civil rights laws can burden an individual's belief liberty interest when the conduct demanded by these laws burdens an individual's core beliefs, whether such beliefs are religiously or secularly based.'[7] Thus, in Feldblum's argument, we confront face-to-face the candid assertion that an individual's 'belief liberty interest' must give way to what are now defined as the civil rights of sexual minorities. Feldblum believed she saw the future clearly and that the future would mean 'a majority of jurisdictions in this country will have modified their laws so that LGBT people will have full equality in our society, including access to civil marriage or to civil unions that carry the same legal effect as civil marriage.'[8] In that future, religious liberty would simply give way to the civil liberties of homosexuals and same-sex couples. Feldblum, then a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, also understood that this moral revolution would mean that the government is 'taking sides' in a moral conflict, siding with the LGBT community. This necessarily puts government on the side of that moral judgment, which is precisely the point Feldblum is insisting we must recognize. Once government is on that side of the moral judgment, its laws and its coercion will require those who hold to a contrary moral system, whether based in religious or secular convictions to give way to the new moral judgment affirmed by the government.

In her very revealing argument, Feldblum struggles to find a way to grant recognition and a level of liberty to those who disagree with the normalization of homosexuality, especially on religious grounds. Nevertheless, as she shares quite openly, she is unable to sustain that effort, given her prior commitment to the absolute imposition of the new morality by means of the law and the power of the state. Appointed and later confirmed as Commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, nominated by President Obama, Feldblum stated in a different context that the end result of antidiscrimination legislation would mean the victory of sexual rights over religious liberty. She commented that she could not come up with a single case in which, at least hypothetically, religious liberty would triumph over coercion to the new moral morality.

It is crucially important that we understand the moral judgment being made and enforced by legal mechanisms in the wake of this revolution. Feldblum, a lesbian activist who has advocated for same-sex marriage'-and for the legalization of polygamy'-fully understands the law teaches and reinforces a morality. She insists that the law must allow no deviation in public life from the dictates of the new morality. In this case, this means allowing virtually no exemptions to regulations prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

In her presentation at the Becket Fund event, Feldblum cited the writings of Judge Michael McConnell, who both offered support for same-sex marriage and the assurance that the religious liberty of Christians and other religious citizens must be protected. McConnell's argument is straightforward:

"The starting point would be to extend respect to both sides in the conflict of opinion, to treat both the view that homosexuality is a healthy and normal manifestation of human sexuality and the view that homosexuality is unnatural and immoral as conscientious positions, worthy of respect, much as we treat both atheism and faith as worthy of respect. In using the term 'respect,' I do not mean agreement. Rather, I mean the civil toleration we extend to fellow citizens and fellow human beings even when we disagree with their views. We should recognize that the 'Civil Magistrate' is no more 'competent a Judge' of the 'Truth' about human sexuality than about religion."[9]

Feldblum dismissed his argument by accusing McConnell of failing to recognize 'that the government necessarily takes a stance on the moral question he has articulated every time it fails to affirmatively ensure the gay people can live openly, safely, and honestly in society.'[10]

In other words, there must be no exceptions. Religious liberty simply evaporates as a fundamental right grounded in the U.S. Constitution, and recedes into the background in the wake of what is now a higher social commitment'-sexual freedom.

This post is an excerpt from my chapter in First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty, edited by Jason Duesing, Thomas White, and Malcolm Yarnell III.

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The Shack '- The Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment
Mon, 06 Mar 2017 17:46:38 +0000

The publishing world sees very few books reach blockbuster status, but William Paul Young's The Shack has now exceeded even that. The book, originally self-published by Young and two friends, has now sold more than 10 million copies and has been translated into over thirty languages. It is now one of the best-selling paperback books of all time, and its readers are enthusiastic.

According to Young, the book was originally written for his own children. In essence, it can be described as a narrative theodicy - an attempt to answer the question of evil and the character of God by means of a story. In this story, the main character is grieving the brutal kidnapping and murder of his seven-year-old daughter when he receives what turns out to be a summons from God to meet him in the very shack where the man's daughter had been murdered. In the shack, "Mack" meets the divine Trinity as "Papa," an African-American woman; Jesus, a Jewish carpenter; and "Sarayu," an Asian woman who is revealed to be the Holy Spirit. The book is mainly a series of dialogues between Mack, Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu. Those conversations reveal God to be very different than the God of the Bible. "Papa" is absolutely non-judgmental, and seems most determined to affirm that all humanity is already redeemed.

The theology of The Shack is not incidental to the story. Indeed, at most points the narrative seems mainly to serve as a structure for the dialogues. And the dialogues reveal a theology that is unconventional at best, and undoubtedly heretical in certain respects.

While the literary device of an unconventional "trinity" of divine persons is itself sub-biblical and dangerous, the theological explanations are worse. "Papa" tells Mack of the time when the three persons of the Trinity "spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God." Nowhere in the Bible is the Father or the Spirit described as taking on human existence. The Christology of the book is likewise confused. "Papa" tells Mack that, though Jesus is fully God, "he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything. He has only lived out of his relationship with me, living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being." When Jesus healed the blind, "He did so only as a dependent, limited human being trusting in my life and power to be at work within him and through him. Jesus, as a human being, had no power within himself to heal anyone."

While there is ample theological confusion to unpack there, suffice it to say that the Christian church has struggled for centuries to come to a faithful understanding of the Trinity in order to avoid just this kind of confusion - understanding that the Christian faith is itself at stake.

Jesus tells Mack that he is "the best way any human can relate to Papa or Sarayu." Not the only way, but merely the best way.

In another chapter, "Papa" corrects Mack's theology by asserting, "I don't need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It's not my purpose to punish it; it's my joy to cure it." Without doubt, God's joy is in the atonement accomplished by the Son. Nevertheless, the Bible consistently reveals God to be the holy and righteous Judge, who will indeed punish sinners. The idea that sin is merely "its own punishment" fits the Eastern concept of karma, but not the Christian Gospel.

The relationship of the Father to the Son, revealed in a text like John 17, is rejected in favor of an absolute equality of authority among the persons of the Trinity. "Papa" explains that "we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity." In one of the most bizarre paragraphs of the book, Jesus tells Mack: "Papa is as much submitted to me as I am to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her. Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way."

The theorized submission of the Trinity to a human being - or to all human beings - is a theological innovation of the most extreme and dangerous sort. The essence of idolatry is self-worship, and this notion of the Trinity submitted (in any sense) to humanity is inescapably idolatrous.

The most controversial aspects of The Shack's message have revolved around questions of universalism, universal redemption, and ultimate reconciliation. Jesus tells Mack: "Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don't vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions." Jesus adds, "I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, my Beloved."

Mack then asks the obvious question - do all roads lead to Christ? Jesus responds, "Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you."

Given the context, it is impossible not to draw essentially universalistic or inclusivistic conclusions about Young's meaning. "Papa" chides Mack that he is now reconciled to the whole world. Mack retorts, "The whole world? You mean those who believe in you, right?" "Papa" responds, "The whole world, Mack."

Put together, all this implies something very close to the doctrine of reconciliation proposed by Karl Barth. And, even as Young's collaborator Wayne Jacobson has lamented the "self-appointed doctrine police" who have charged the book with teaching ultimate reconciliation, he acknowledges that the first editions of the manuscript were unduly influenced by Young's "partiality at the time" to ultimate reconciliation - the belief that the cross and resurrection of Christ accomplished then and there a unilateral reconciliation of all sinners (and even all creation) to God.

James B. DeYoung of Western Theological Seminary, a New Testament scholar who has known William Young for years, documents Young's embrace of a form of "Christian universalism." The Shack, he concludes, "rests on the foundation of universal reconciliation."

Even as Wayne Jacobson and others complain of those who identify heresy within The Shack, the fact is that the Christian church has explicitly identified these teachings as just that - heresy. The obvious question is this: How is it that so many evangelical Christians seem to be drawn not only to this story, but to the theology presented in the narrative - a theology at so many points in conflict with evangelical convictions?

Evangelical observers have not been alone in asking this question. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Timothy Beal of Case Western University argues that the popularity of The Shack suggests that evangelicals might be shifting their theology. He cites the "nonbiblical metaphorical models of God" in the book, as well as its "nonhierarchical" model of the Trinity and, most importantly, "its theology of universal salvation."

Beal asserts that none of this theology is part of "mainstream evangelical theology," then explains: "In fact, all three are rooted in liberal and radical academic theological discourse from the 1970s and 80s - work that has profoundly influenced contemporary feminist and liberation theology but, until now, had very little impact on the theological imaginations of nonacademics, especially within the religious mainstream."

He then asks: "What are these progressive theological ideas doing in this evangelical pulp-fiction phenomenon?" He answers: "Unbeknownst to most of us, they have been present on the liberal margins of evangelical thought for decades." Now, he explains, The Shack has introduced and popularized these liberal concepts even among mainstream evangelicals.

Timothy Beal cannot be dismissed as a conservative "heresy-hunter." He is thrilled that these "progressive theological ideas" are now "trickling into popular culture by way of The Shack."

Similarly, writing at Books & Culture, Katherine Jeffrey concludes that The Shack "offers a postmodern, post-biblical theodicy." While her main concern is the book's place "in a Christian literary landscape," she cannot avoid dealing with its theological message.

In evaluating the book, it must be kept in mind that The Shack is a work of fiction. But it is also a sustained theological argument, and this simply cannot be denied. Any number of notable novels and works of literature have contained aberrant theology, and even heresy. The crucial question is whether the aberrant doctrines are features of the story or the message of the work. When it comes to The Shack, the really troubling fact is that so many readers are drawn to the theological message of the book, and fail to see how it conflicts with the Bible at so many crucial points.

All this reveals a disastrous failure of evangelical discernment. It is hard not to conclude that theological discernment is now a lost art among American evangelicals - and this loss can only lead to theological catastrophe.

The answer is not to ban The Shack or yank it out of the hands of readers. We need not fear books - we must be ready to answer them. We desperately need a theological recovery that can only come from practicing biblical discernment. This will require us to identify the doctrinal dangers of The Shack, to be sure. But our real task is to reacquaint evangelicals with the Bible's teachings on these very questions and to foster a doctrinal rearmament of Christian believers.

The Shack is a wake-up call for evangelical Christianity. An assessment like that offered by Timothy Beal is telling. The popularity of this book among evangelicals can only be explained by a lack of basic theological knowledge among us - a failure even to understand the Gospel of Christ. The tragedy that evangelicals have lost the art of biblical discernment must be traced to a disastrous loss of biblical knowledge. Discernment cannot survive without doctrine.

This article was based on the novel and was originally published in 2010.

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Expository Preaching'-The Antidote to Anemic Worship
Mon, 27 Feb 2017 16:20:53 +0000

Evangelical Christians have been especially attentive to worship in recent years, sparking a renaissance of thought and conversation on what worship really is and how it should be done. Even if this renewed interest has unfortunately resulted in what some have called the 'worship wars' in some churches, it seems that what A. W. Tozer once called the 'missing jewel' of evangelical worship is being recovered.

Nevertheless, if most evangelicals would quickly agree that worship is central to the life of the church, there would be no consensus to an unavoidable question: What is central to Christian worship? Historically, the more liturgical churches have argued that the sacraments form the heart of Christian worship. These churches argue that the elements of the Lord's Supper and the water of baptism most powerfully present the gospel. Among evangelicals, some call for evangelism as the heart of worship, planning every facet of the service'-songs, prayers, the sermon'-with the evangelistic invitation in mind.

Though most evangelicals mention the preaching of the word as a necessary or customary part of worship, the prevailing model of worship in evangelical churches is increasingly defined by music, along with innovations such as drama and video presentations. When preaching the word retreats, a host of entertaining innovations will take its place.

Traditional norms of worship are now subordinated to a demand for relevance and creativity. A media-driven culture of images has replaced the word-centered culture that gave birth to the Reformation churches. In some sense, the image-driven culture of modern evangelicalism is an embrace of the very practices rejected by the Reformers in their quest for true biblical worship.

Music fills the space of most evangelical worship, and much of this music comes in the form of contemporary choruses marked by precious little theological content. Beyond the popularity of the chorus as a musical form, many evangelical churches seem intensely concerned to replicate studio-quality musical presentations.

In terms of musical style, the more traditional churches feature large choirs'-often with orchestras'-and may even sing the established hymns of the faith. Choral contributions are often massive in scale and professional in quality. In any event, music fills the space and drives the energy of the worship service. Intense planning, financial investment, and priority of preparation are focused on the musical dimensions of worship. Professional staff and an army of volunteers spend much of the week in rehearsals and practice sessions.

All this is not lost on the congregation. Some Christians shop for churches that offer the worship style and experience that fits their expectation. In most communities, churches are known for their worship styles and musical programs. Those dissatisfied with what they find at one church can quickly move to another, sometimes using the language of self-expression to explain that the new church 'meets our needs' or 'allows us to worship.'

A concern for true biblical worship was at the very heart of the Reformation. But even Martin Luther, who wrote hymns and required his preachers to be trained in song, would not recognize this modern preoccupation with music as legitimate or healthy. Why? Because the Reformers were convinced that the heart of true biblical worship was the preaching of the word of God.

Thanks be to God, evangelism does take place in Christian worship. Confronted by the presentation of the gospel and the preaching of the word, sinners are drawn to faith in Jesus Christ and the offer of salvation is presented to all. Likewise, the Lord's Supper and baptism are honored as ordinances by the Lord's own command, and each finds its place in true worship.

Furthermore, music is one of God's most precious gifts to his people, and it is a language by which we may worship God in spirit and in truth. The hymns of the faith convey rich confessional and theological content, and many modern choruses recover a sense of doxology formerly lost in many evangelical churches. But music is not the central act of Christian worship, and neither is evangelism nor even the ordinances. The heart of Christian worship is the authentic preaching of the word of God.

Expository preaching is central, irreducible, and nonnegotiable to the Bible's mission of authentic worship that pleases God. John Stott's simple declaration states the issue boldly: 'Preaching is indispensable to Christianity.' More specifically, preaching is indispensable to Christian worship'-and not only indispensable, but central.

The centrality of preaching is the theme of both testaments of Scripture. In Nehemiah 8 we find the people demanding that Ezra the scribe bring the book of the law to the assembly. Ezra and his colleagues stand on a raised platform and read from the book. When he opens the book to read, the assembly rises to its feet in honor of the word of God and respond, 'Amen, Amen!'

Interestingly, the text explains that Ezra and those assisting him 'read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading' (Neh 8:8). This remarkable text presents a portrait of expository preaching. Once the text was read, it was carefully explained to the congregation. Ezra did not stage an event or orchestrate a spectacle'-he simply and carefully proclaimed the word of God.

This text is a sobering indictment of much contemporary Christianity. According to the text, a demand for biblical preaching erupted within the hearts of the people. They gathered as a congregation and summoned the preacher. This reflects an intense hunger and thirst for the preaching of the word of God. Where is this desire evident among today's evangelicals?

In far too many churches, the Bible is nearly silent. The public reading of Scripture has been dropped from many services, and the sermon has been sidelined, reduced to a brief devotional appended to the music. Many preachers accept this as a necessary concession to the age of entertainment. Some hope to put in a brief message of encouragement or exhortation before the conclusion of the service.

As Michael Green so pointedly put it: 'This is the age of the sermonette, and sermonettes make Christianettes.'

The anemia of evangelical worship'-all the music and energy aside'-is directly attributable to the absence of genuine expository preaching. Such preaching would confront the congregation with nothing less than the living and active word of God. That confrontation will shape the congregation as the Holy Spirit accompanies the word, opens eyes, and applies that word to human hearts.

Article originally posted on August 19, 2013.

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Preaching as a Means of Survival
Tue, 31 Jan 2017 20:54:20 +0000

This post is the last of three in a series on Preaching in a Secular Age.

With our cultural analysis behind us, I would like to consider the role of preaching in a secular age, particularly preaching as a survival strategy for the church. Many today are reconsidering the role and nature of preaching, especially given the massive changes that now characterize our culture. All sorts of new plans and strategies have been created in order to reinvent preaching in light of demographics, sociology, and even management theories. But I want to posit that the only answer to our current crisis in preaching is to recall how many of our forebears approached the task of standing behind the 'sacred desk.'

In a secular age, preaching will be met with one of three responses. First, we will find ourselves preaching in a context of hostility. This will not necessarily take the form of overt action. But, at least in the immediate future, much of this hostility will look like cultural marginalization. Those who listen to us will now do so by paying social capital, not gaining social capital'-a cultural situation notably different from our grandparents or even our parents. Second, our preaching will also often be met with befuddlement. For many among the intellectual elites, Christian preachers are not an object of hostility or derision as much as they are creatures of oddity. The plausibility structures of society are so different from our own that many people simply cannot understand us. Finally, we will find that we will not only be met with hostility and befuddlement, but also indifference. Many in our society will not even care enough about our message to spend their energies either in hostility or befuddlement.

One of the problems we encounter moving forward is that in many circumstances our approach to preaching in relation to other theological disciplines is wrongly skewed. For years in the theological academy, homiletics has been seen as something of a finishing school for clergy. We have imagined that the true theological heavy lifting occurs in the disciplines of theology, exegesis, or church history, while homiletics was merely the practical work for those who were moving on to the professional and less theologically involved environment of the pastorate.

I would suggest to you, however, that this alienation between the classical theological disciplines and homiletics is misguided and detrimental to the life of the church. Historically, the tripartite division in institutions of theological education between theological studies, biblical studies, and practical ministry studies originated in Germany, but was concretized as the accreditation expectation for theological seminaries by the Association of Theological of Schools by the middle of the last century. While there are benefits to specialization in academic disciplines, we should also recognize that segmenting theological study along the lines of specialization has come at a cost (perhaps even unintended) in the lives of many modern preachers. We must recognize that the preacher's task is an exegetical and theological one. Homiletics cannot be divorced from theology and exegesis simply by virtue of the fact that what we proclaim in the pulpit is a biblical theology that originates from the exegesis of God's Word.

Preachers need to be competent in many arenas of life. They need managerial competence. They need organizational competence. But above everything else, the preacher needs theological and exegetical competence. The curriculum in our seminaries and theological institutions must reflect this commitment to train preaching theologians, and not just men who are entertaining.

When we recognize the challenges posed to us by our current cultural climate, we will also recognize that preaching, doctrinally robust and exegetically rich preaching, is the only mechanism for the church's survival in a secular age. The faithful pastor is not a theologian at one moment, an exegete the next, and at other times a preacher. He is, instead, all of those things simultaneously and in equal measure. This means that in our churches and in our theological institutions we are not simply training religious professionals who happen to be able to speak in front of a crowd, we are bringing up theologians who know how to rightly handle God's Word and herald that Word in a way that is understandable to any given audience.

The testimony of Acts and the history of the Church witness to the fact that preaching is the church's only strategy for survival and for multiplication in the face of cultural hostility. Acts regularly points to the fact that the church is a 'creature of the Word,' it is created by the Word and sustained by the Word. Preaching is not just one church growth strategy among others, it is the lifeblood of the church's existence. This is further highlighted by Paul's pastoral commission to his prot ©g © Timothy, 'preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching' (2 Tim 4:2).

The early church fathers met the overt opposition of the Roman culture with faithful preaching'-preaching that was deemed subversive to the Roman Empire. Further, even after the fall of the Roman Empire preaching was central to the ministry of the church. Peter Brown, renowned historian of late antiquity, notes that the Basilica of Hippo was not just the place that housed Augustine's pulpit, it was also a place for business transaction. Brown points out that these transactions would occur even during Augustine's preaching and that Augustine would often be interrupted by interlocutors who objected to the content of his sermons, disagreeing with one point or another. And yet even in the noise of commercial activity and critics, Augustine was clear that preaching must not retreat but continue on as central in the church's mission and ministry.

As we fast-forward to the Reformation, we find that Luther understood preaching as the first mark of the church. For Luther preaching was the primary means by which sinners were able to come to know the truths of the Gospel first revealed to him in the words of Romans 1:17.Again, we must remember that Luther was no arm-chair theologian. Luther spoke about the centrality of preaching the gospel at the risk of his life. One need only consider the mortal peril he was in at the Diet of Worms to understand the seriousness of his commitment to the Gospel and to the proclamation of the Gospel in preaching.

Similarly, Calvin emphasized the union of Word and Spirit in the preaching event, reminding us that the Holy Spirit convicts and converts through the preaching of the Word, doing more than any preacher in his own power is ever able to achieve. This gave Calvin not only a theology of how preaching worked but also fueled his commitment to why one must preach. Without preaching the church simply could not survive, the Spirit would not move, and the flame of the Reformation would be extinguished. This commitment to the centrality of preaching, particularly with regard to the church's preservation and multiplication, continued throughout successive generations of faithful Christians like the English Reformers, Whitfield, Wesley, and Edwards.

The biblical witness and the testimony of church history clearly point to the fact that preaching is the church's survival strategy. By preaching the church expands and by preaching the church remains faithful in a hostile culture. In a secular age, we can no longer rely on the luxury of having other cultural voices do the work of instilling our people with a Christian worldview. The plausibility structures of the culture now work at cross-currents to the message we preach on Sunday mornings. No longer does the culture indicate one 'ought' to listen to preaching or one 'ought' to give credence to the Christian moral tradition. Those days are behind us. Indeed, the plausibility structures of our culture have so radically changed that the cultural 'oughts' are now opposed to Christianity'-one ought not associate with those so far outside the cultural mainstream, one ought not define the human predicament in terms of sin, one ought not speak in a way that the Bible speaks or believe the things the Bible proclaims.

The church's only recourse in a secular city is to continue to do what it has always done, preach the Word. We cannot hope that somehow we might stumble upon a third epistle to Timothy, which gives alternative ministry options to what Paul exhorts his prot ©g © to do in Second Timothy. Our only hope is to continue to do what Jesus and the Apostles' commissioned us to do. Whether we find ourselves in circumstances of cultural acceptance or cultural hostility, we must preach the Word.

We need to recognize that the age of cultural Christianity is disappearing right before us. The kind of preaching that made for 'successful' churches is also disappearing because the people who came for that kind of preaching no longer feel bound to come. We must now recognize that preaching is not just an activity the church engages in on Sunday mornings. Preaching is not a trivial activity. Preaching is a matter of life and death'-preaching in the secular city is a matter of survival.

Fundamentally, the survival of the church in the secular city comes down to a promise and a command given us in Scripture, an indicative and an imperative. First, we must remember that Jesus promised 'I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it' (Matt 16:18). Next, we must remember that we have been commissioned, 'preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching' (2 Tim 4:2). We need to remember both of these words from Scripture in order to serve faithfully in the secular city. Jesus has given his church a strategy for survival in the face of cultural hostility. That strategy, it turns out, is the apostolic call to preach.

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This post is the second of three in a series on Preaching in a Secular Age.

The previous post in this series examined Peter Berger's explanation for the progress of secularization in the Western world. In addition to Berger, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has also carefully traced the influence and effects of secularization on the West. As he explains in his important book, The Secular Age, the way people hold to theological convictions and religious principles in the modern era is fundamentally different than how people believed in the past. Modernity has made religious belief provisional, optional, and far less urgent than it was in the pre-modern world.

I had this notion pressed upon me in some force when I was a doctoral student and I had the opportunity to attend a seminar with Heiko Oberman, a prestigious history professor from the University of Arizona and one of the world's greatest scholars on the Reformation. Oberman was about seventy years old at the time; I was in my early twenties.

Halfway through the lecture, Oberman, through no fault of our own, became exasperated with the class. 'Young men,' he said, 'you will never understand Luther because you go to bed every night confident you will wake up healthy in the morning. In Luther's day, people thought that every day could be their last. They had no antibiotics. They didn't have modern medicine. Sickness and death came swiftly.' Oberman's point was that when Luther closed his eyes at night terrified he was afraid he might wake up in hell. Luther recognized that every day might be his last and he could very quickly find himself either face to face with God or the devil.

Taylor makes the same point, although not as anecdotally as Oberman. As Taylor notes, on this side of modernity when people believe, they are making a choice to believe that previous generations did not make. Belief is now a provisional choice, an exercise of personal autonomy. When people identify

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