Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Long Way from Berea

One of the most remarkable passages of Scripture on the authority and use of the Scriptures in the life of the church is found in Acts 17:11.  The place was a town named "Berea."  Paul and Silas had come to Berea where they began preaching Christ at the local synagogue.  Verse 11 says,
"Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they (the Bereans) received the Word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so."
I have been amazed at this passage for many years.  Paul and Silas are preaching Jesus to these Jewish people, and the text says three important things about what the people were and did. They were noble-minded, they received the Word of God preached by Paul and Silas, and finally they checked with the Scriptures to see if the preaching they heard was true to the authoritative Scripture.  The Old Testament canon of Scripture had already been established by this time, and it was in use in the synagogues all over the empire.  These people knew the Scripture, they trusted the authority of the Scripture, and they knew how to use the Scripture in checking ideas that they heard.

If the American evangelical churches are to regain the spiritual and theological punch they once had, this ministry of the Word must be restored.  We must be willing, able, and ready to check out anything we read or hear with the Word of God.  This presupposes the following.  First, there is a body of biblical teachings that comprise the teachings of the Christian faith.  These are non-negotiables that need to be taught and embraced in the church.  Second, the laymen and laywomen in the church must be taught (and they must be willing to be taught) these biblical teachings.  And third, the people must be willing and able to be discerning about the teachings and ideas they hear by using the Bible as their guide.  This ministry of discernment is vital to the spiritual health and ministry of the church if it is to be what the Lord would have it to be.  Amen!

The All-Sufficient Scriptures Insufficient?

We have had a remarkable period of time in the life of American evangelicalism in the last century with respect to the relationship between evangelicalism and the Scripture.  On one hand American evangelicalism has vocally and formally fought in favor of an inerrant Scripture, which needed to be done.  Glorious efforts have been made in denominations and evangelical institutions to take a stand on the important truth that the holy Scriptures are inerrant.  I applaud this because it is both important and needed.

But at the same time, during the same period, American evangelicalism has been drifting from the Scriptures in several critical areas.  It has increasingly distanced practical gospel ministry from the Scriptures resulting in doing ministry without using the Scriptures at all.  Evangelism is attempted without the use of the Scriptures, expository preaching is becoming rare, and Scripture is only infrequently read in the worship services.  The leadership training ministry of the church rarely, if ever, uses the Scripture as its textbook for doctrinal teaching and leadership development.   As a result the average church evangelical is increasingly illiterate in the Scriptures.  And more than that, the average evangelical is ignorant of the fact that he is ignorant.  And evangelicals have been growing in their use of extra-biblical resources and tools for communicating with God and serving God.  Pastors learn leadership techniques from the business world, charismatics claim to have direct revelation from God, and the church sometimes uses those who claim to have died and gone to heaven only to return to give their "testimony" of what heaven is like.  So, wasn't it the evangelical world which criticized Roman Catholicism for putting tradition and the church's teaching on a level plane with Scripture? Aren't we doing a similar thing when we use subjective experience as a basis for guidance in Christian ministry, living and thinking?

It is not that we can't learn from and use resources and information outside the Bible, but nothing needs to be received as authoritative that come outside the Bible. The church's doctrine and ministry, and the Christian's guidance for living, must all be rooted and anchored in the Scriptures.  All that the church needs for its beliefs and guidance on Christian living and church ministry is contained in the Bible.  This is what the sufficiency of Scripture means.  If we are not careful, we will be found to be preaching a sufficient Bible yet treating the Bible as if it is insufficient for ministry and Christian living.  A church that believes the Scriptures, rightly interpreted, will be a church grounded in the truth.  Amen! 

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Bane of Religious Pragmatism

If I hear one more time, "That church must be doing something right, because it is growing in number", or an advertisement to pastors stating, "Come to our preacher conference where you will learn how to grow your puny, small church to a mega, bodacious size in no time at all", then I just think I will spit in the wind and enjoy the shower!  It is getting crazy out there in evangelical land, and true Christians are experiencing an ever shrinking island of good, biblical preaching and ministry. And pastors who go to preacher meetings and even imply to other pastors that good, solid biblical preaching will do the work of the ministry are looked at by contemporary, hip, and "with it" preachers with the same disdain as might have been given to a leper in the first century.  What is happening to us?

Well, what is happening to us is not something that just started ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. The encroaching crud has been slowly eating away at the lively marrow in the church for over a century.  The twentieth century demonstrated the dangerous and destructive components that is killing the church (Although in truth nothing can kill the true church; perhaps it is best for the institutional church to experience the dead wood gathering of the Father which Jesus spoke of in John 15).  At the heart of all the disconcerting factors creating this deadening effect is the problem of RELIGIOUS PRAGMATISM.  Religious pragmatism is comprised of the following elements:  Disbelief in the power of the Word to change lives and accomplish the work of the kingdom, the mistaken idea that God is passive expecting His covenant people to "get the job done" in ministry, the disengagement of theology from practical ministry, and the greatest and deadliest factor of all - numerical growth equals eternal success.

These deadly factors began at the end of the 19th century in evangelical America, and in the early 20th century they picked up speed with the growth of religious institutionalization.  The church was augmented (now in the 21st century is being supplanted) by para-church organizations, and church identity became equal to institutional denominationalism (Denominationalism is the unique contribution of American evangelicalism to the worldwide church of Jesus Christ, and we ought to consider repenting.), and religious programs and plans substituted for Bible preaching and teaching.  Everything in the church increasingly became subservient to the question of "What works?", rather than "What is true?".  The underlying concern for this question ("What works?") was and remains "What works to get people in the pew, on the membership roll, and start tithing and serving in the church?"  Evangelism became salesmanship, and worship became a meeting to "reach the lost" (whatever "reach" means?). This was the passionate quest of church ministry as a result of religious pragmatism. From this moment on the game was lost for the American evangelical church.  Its destiny was linked with numbers and numbers are linked with attractive appeal, and this is linked to cultural acceptance.  It would only be a matter of time till the culture, like some dark monster, would swallow the church and its identity and message.  It has happened!  It is not "going" to happen; it has happened!  And the deception is so complete that many Christians do not even know it has happened, except for the nagging feeling inside of true Christians telling them that something is fundamentally wrong in their church, and they are starving for some good Bible preaching!

Now we come to the twentieth century where in most evangelical churches (Hark!  I paint with a broad brush for emphasis!) where the biblical vision of the declaration aspect of the gospel is completely lost (The gospel declares the unsaved to be lost and under the condemnation of the just and holy God, and declares Christ's atonement and resurrection to be the only solution to this problem.  The gospel does not survey lost people to see how the gospel can address their symptoms of lostness so that people do not feel so lonely and rejected.).  It is not only a reasonable suggestion, but a high percentage probability that we have a substantial number of lost people in our churches.  Good Bible preaching is now opposed on the grounds that "Well, we just don't believe that."  One person recently told me that in this person's home church the idea of Jesus being the only way to God has become strongly opposed as unreasonable (This is a Southern Baptist church!).

So, what is the answer?  The answer today is the answer that has always been - faithfully preach the truth of the Scriptures with accuracy, fervor, humility, consistency, love, and prayer.  The Bible and its doctrines must be preached no matter what the people in the churches say about it.  The truth will stand for all time; the truth will endure the scorn and the criticism of well-meaning, but misled people in the churches.  It may be that one of the only answers to the present state and dilemma is for new churches to be formed; churches rooted and centered on Christ and the teaching of the Scriptures.  If this is the case, then so be it.  Eschatological writing in the Scriptures refers to a religious ("church"?) institution in the end of of time, but all true Christians have always known that there is a difference between Church History and Christian History.  Just because a religious group has a "church" sign in the front yard doesn't mean it is a true biblical church. But the true church will prevail because it is the church of Jesus which He is building by His sovereign grace.  Amen!

Monday, February 2, 2009

God's Training School

For those of us who have felt the sweet charms of divine grace, there have probably been several (perhaps many) times when we have prayed this kind of prayer, "Lord, make me like Jesus!"  Or perhaps we prayed, "Lord, I want to be what You want me to be!"  We prayed this with heart sincerity and with full intention of being what the Lord would have us to be.  But most of us (if not all of us) had no earthly idea how God would answer a prayer like that. Usually we assume God will give us a book to read, a class to take, or a degree to pursue at school. Possibly we thought God would open doors of opportunity for us to grow in our abilities in serving Him.  But do we really know how God causes His children to grow spiritually into maturity?

James 1:2-4 has been a passage that has inspired and frightened me.  This passage has comforted me and at times made me tremble with fear.  "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."

I recently reviewed this passage for my own soul's edification.  The command given that serves as the heart of the passage is, "Consider it all joy...when you encounter various trials."  This command drives me to my knees begging God for mercy and divine grace and strength.  I never respond to trials initially with joy.  If I have any joy at all when tried and tested, it is because of much prayer, soul-searching, and spiritual discipline.  Somehow I seem to have received an abundant ability to fuss and complain - I do that real well!!!  I don't rejoice in trials very well. But this is the point of the command.  If we always rejoiced in trials easily, then there would be no point to giving us this command.  Thus, we are to obey God in this area by running to Jesus and our heavenly Father confessing our desperate need for help in this area.

But our obedience is not blind obedience.  It is a reasoned, logical obedience.  The text continues to explain why we must rejoice in trials.  First, the text tells us what this trial really is ("testing of your faith"), and second, it explains what goodness trials bring to our lives when we rejoice in the Lord during times of difficulty.  Trials are really a time of testing the believer's faith. This is because (according to 1 Peter 1:7) trials are God's instrument to demonstrate genuine faith in our hearts.  Trials do not destroy our faith; trials reveal our faith (unless we have no faith at all).  And second, these trials become, for the believer, the didactic process that develops the Christian into Christ-likeness.  It is only in times of trials that "endurance" can be processed.  But it is through endurance that we are made "perfect, complete, and lacking in nothing."  That is a pretty good description of Christian maturity.

So, is the believer to pray for trials?  Heaven's no!!!  You live in a fallen world, you will have enough trials to come along as it is.  God measures, forms, and shapes each trial for His specific purpose in our lives.  He will allow them (and send them) in accordance with His loving purpose and grace.  But I know of no way to grow spiritually other than through trials.  So, let's have a time of personal reflection and contemplation when troubles and trials come our way. Let us not give in to despair or a sense of hopelessness.  But rather, let us seek the Lord and His strength trusting in Him for every need and the ability to keep going for His glory.  Amen!