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Speak with conviction – a visual poem

Here’s a great visual poem from Taylor Mali on the importance of speaking with conviction. He challenges the modern notion that it’s a virtue to hold beliefs tentatively and speak with uncertainty. It’s like we want to say,

I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, I’m just like inviting you to join me on the bandwagon of my own uncertainty.

Instead, he calls for conviction. As he says toward the end:

So, I implore you, I entreat you, and I challenge you to speak with conviction, to say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks the determination with which you believe it.

Thanks to Brian Fulthorp for pointing this one out.

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The Messiah of the Month Club

You’re standing in front of a long row of pictures. Each presents the image of a man, and from the look of their clothes they all lived a long time ago. Underneath each picture is a brief bio. Intrigued, you lead closer and read about the first person.

Simon claimed to be the Messiah. He lived in first-century Palestine. Convinced that he’d been called by God to lead God’s people out of their Roman captivity and into the promised Kingdom, Simon raised an army in open rebellion against the Romans. He was captured and killed.

Hmmm. That doesn’t sound like a very promising beginning for a Messiah. So, you move on to the next one.

The Teacher of Righteousness was believed by many to be the Messiah. He lived in first-century Palestine. Convinced that he’d been called by God to lead Israel to a true knowledge of God, he led a group of followers into the desert and established a separatist group committed to personal and corporate holiness. He died and the community eventually dispersed.

Well, at least he wasn’t captured and killed by the Romans. That’s a little better. But, you’d still expect a little more from God’s anointed one.

Judas of Galilee claimed to be the Messiah. He lived first-century Palestine. Also convinced that he’d been called by God to lead God’s people out of their Roman captivity and into the promised Kingdom, Simon raised an army in open rebellion against the Romans. He was captured and killed.

That sounds rather familiar. You’re beginning to wonder how many of these Messiahs were wandering around in first-century Palestine. Was there a Messiah of the Month club? Could you check out a Messiah for a few weeks and see if he was really going to live up to all the hype before the grace period expired and you had to keep him or send him back? I wonder who paid for the shipping.

Jesus of Nazareth was believed to be the Messiah. He lived in first-century Palestine. Convinced that he’d been called by God to lead Israel out of their bondage and brokenness, he gathered a small group of followers and proclaimed that God’s kingdom was at hand. He was arrested and killed.

Okay, this is starting to get a little repetitive. If they’re going to have a Messiah of the Month club, they really should mix things up a bit more. How about a barbarian Messiah who leads his savage hordes on a rampage through Rome? That would be cool. Or at least have a Messiah who actually wins. Otherwise, it just gets depressing.

[You can read the rest of the posts from this series on the Gospel book page.]

Flotsam and jetsam (2/8)

HT James McGrath

Motivation matters here. Yes, personal blogs may be a tool of self-promotion. That’s a given. But if the blogger is motivated solely by the desire to self-promote, then the blog is about building a readership for the blogger’s benefit rather than for the reader’s benefit.

For some, the term “apologetics” has taken on too many negative connotations to continue to be useful. They believe it is time to dispense with the term altogether. I am not convinced. Saving the term, however, is less important than revitalizing and re-contextualizing the concept. Christians need to continue to talk about the best way to communicate the heart of the gospel and the saving message of Christ in compelling and coherent ways. To that end, apologetics (or whatever one may call it) should be evangelistic, integrative, holistic, communal, and contextual.

Because we worship our way into sin, ultimately we need toworship our way out.

Writing tip of the day: In defense of Strunk and White

Boston.com has an excellent article in defense of Strunk and White’s classic writing text, Elements of Style (read it on Scribd here). After surveying its influence and some key critiques, the author concludes:

Meanwhile, as far as everyday, non-literary writing goes, the book is tremendously useful, especially for writers who are just starting out. If you are still struggling to put your thoughts into words, then The Elements of Style is a godsend. Strunk and White take the same tack as E.L. Doctorow, who wrote that “writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Simple sentences get you where you want to go, one mile at a time. Haslett suggests, as an alternative, Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One; Fish, he explains, is a world-class literary critic, “a sentence connoisseur” who offers “a far richer introduction to the capacities of English language sentences.” But beginning writers often find simplicity more helpful than sinuosity.

The current state of American evangelicalism

Is evangelicalism declining, maybe dying, or even dead? You don’t have to look around very long to find posts arguing precisely this. Most famously, Michael Spencer argued that This is the End……of Evangelicalism, my Friend and presaged The Coming Evangelical Collapse in a series of posts that sparked considerable discussion.  Many other authors have presented similar ideas while prophesying the end of evangelicalism.

Before commenting further it’s worth noting that we’re only talking about American evangelicalism here. Our international brethren must find it very frustrating when we critique evangelicalism as though American evangelicalism were its only expressions. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, we need to recognize that evangelicalism is a much broader and more diverse movement than we often recognize.

But, despite these claims of evangelicalism’s untimely demise, others beg to differ. In a recent First Things article, Byron Johnson argues that American evangelicalism is alive and well. His basic argument involves the following two basic claims:

  • American evangelicalism is not declining despite statistical evidence to the contrary. His basic argument here has to do with the failure of recent surveys to account for several key realities: (1) nondenominational church members are largely evangelical but often represent themselves as “unaffiliated” or even as having “no religion” (which raises its own issues); (2) evangelical denominations grew 156% from 1960 to 2000; and (3) self-reported atheists still account for only 4% of the population.
  • American evangelicals are not becoming social liberals. In fact, Johnson argues that younger evangelicals are often more conservatives than previous evangelicals and their non-evangelical counterparts.

Johnson thus concludes:

Leading religious observers claim that evangelicalism is shrinking and the next generation of evangelicals is becoming less religious and more secular, but (as we social scientists like to say) these are empirical questions, and the evidence shows that neither of these claims is true. The number of evangelicals remains high, and their percentage among practicing Christians in America is, if anything, rising. Young evangelicals are not turning to more liberal positions on controversial social issues; in some cases they are becoming more conservative than their parents. Perhaps young evangelicals have become more socially aware and have a longer, broader list of social concerns, but they remain socially conservative.

As with most things, I’m sure the truth lies somewhere in between. The facade of American evangelicalism has developed a number of cracks in recent years, cracks that threaten to widen and permanently scar evangelicalism in years to come. At the same time, American evangelicalism retains a degree of vitality seldom recognized by its critics. I don’t know for sure what the future holds, but it should be interesting.

Finding subtle ways to believe that we’re “worthy” of God’s love

Dane Ortlund posted a great quote from C.S. Lewis today on our incredible ability to find ways of convincing ourselves that we’re really “worthy” of God’s love, even when we do it by being “humble.”

No sooner do we believe that God loves us than there is an impulse to believe that He does so, not because He is Love, but because we are intrinsically loveable. The Pagans obeyed this impulse unabashed; a good man was ‘dear to the gods’ because he was good.

Read the rest here.

Portland area conference on reformed theology (Feb 25-26)

The Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology will be held in the Portland area this year (Feb. 25-26). The conference will focus on the renewed emphasis on a theology of adoption, with the theme “Children of God: Adopted into the Father’s Love.”

Speakers include Dr. Steve Lawson, Dr. Joel Beeke, Rev. Al Martin, and Rev. Richard Phillips. The conference is being held at the Estacada Christian Church on February 25 and 26 with the conference concluding with the Lord’s Day worship on February 27. If you would like more information or would like to register log on to the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals website: www.alliancenet.org and register.

As the website explains:

Reformed Christians are thoroughly conversant with the language of justification and sanctification, but adoption seems to have fallen out of our vocabulary. This would be a shocking situation to Christians of prior generations. A lack of awareness of our adoption in Christ only paralyzes a Christian’s experience of divine grace. As Paul saw it, our adoption is integral to the good news of the gospel: “You are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal. 4:7)!
It is a Christian’s adoption in Christ that holds together the categories of justification and sanctification. All who believe are made sons of God and partakers of the divine nature. No wonder John exclaimed: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn. 3:1). Adoption is what a Christian is saved to through faith in Christ, a personal, family bond of love, life, blessing, and calling. As children of God we have family privileges and family obligations: to know and embrace these is to enter into the fullness of vital Christian living. Indeed, so central is the idea of adoption to God’s saving plan that the final glorification of the entire cosmos is bound up with our entering into the family inheritance: “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19). Given the awesome biblical teaching on adoption, we are not wrong in stating that at the very heart of Christianity is the gathering of the children of God into the Father’s love though the saving achievement of God’s Son. What great truths for us to know and embrace!
We will study the distinctive approaches of Paul and John in teaching divine sonship and plumb its significance for living as believers in Christ. How does our adoption change our attitude towards history and towards the Church? What does the Bible teach me to expect of God as my Father if I am now His beloved child? In our seminars, we will expand the focus to consider the place of children in the Church, the place of God as Father in our preaching of the gospel, and biblical distinctives on gender in the life of the Church. May God bless us as we gather before the Scriptures to study the biblical doctrine of adoption, all to the glory of our elder Brother, God’s true Son, Jesus Christ.

Wandering in the Wilderness: The Impossibility of Theological Education

[This is a slightly altered version of a devotional I recently presented at a dean's conference (yes, there are conferences for deans) on why the task of raising future leaders for the church is impossible.]

Course evaluations can be fun to read. You probably don’t believe me, but it’s true. Every now and then, you run across a student with something particularly insightful to say. For example, I recently saw one that read something like, “This professor is brilliant. I’m just not sure what he’s talking about.”

Oops. Obviously, there’s a disconnect here between the brilliant insights of the professor and the practical issue of making sure people can actually do something with them.

The same thing can happen with our “core values” and “mission statements.” They sound good, but what exactly do they mean? For example, one of the core values of Western Seminary is “truth.” (I’m pretty sure that was put in there to distinguish us from all those other seminaries who are committed to “deceit.”) That’s nice, but what do you do with it? How does that guide the everyday life and behavior of the institution beyond a minimal commitment not to lie to our students—unless we can present it creatively enough to call it “marketing”.

Sometimes we find ourselves flying at 30,000 feet when the people and issues we’re trying to address are down at sea level.

There are times when I feel like Paul could use some help landing the plane too.

2 TIMOTHY 2:2

I have always loved 1 Timothy 2:2. It’s a classic verse for Christian ministry and a great description of what we’re trying to do as theological educators.

And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

What a fabulous verse with a clear principle for effective leadership development: pass along what you have received to others who will do the same. That’s great. But, how do you do this? How will you actualize this? What are your specific learning outcomes? Where’s your strategic plan?

If we continue for a bit in the passage, we’ll find that Paul really never answers these questions.

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. (vv. 3-6)

These are all terrific images for Christian ministry. I’ve used all of them in my teaching and preaching many times. But, when it comes to specifics, they’re still not very helpful. Doesn’t Paul have anything more to offer?

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (v. 7)

Gee, thanks. So now I’m either stupid because I haven’t bothered to think about what Paul was saying, or Jesus doesn’t like me and hasn’t given me understanding. Neither of these options is terribly encouraging.

Come on Paul. What’s the plan? Where’s the blueprint? How exactly do you do this thing we call “developing leaders”?

Instead of answering the question, we’re left with this grand vision of preparing the next generation for effectively leading God’s people with little in the way of specific guidance.

Thanks Paul.

OUR CHAOTIC CONTEXT

And, that becomes a real problem when you consider the chaotic context in which we find ourselves trying to carry out this tremendous responsibility.

Look at the challenges that seminaries face: limited finances, increased competition, contrary constituencies, nosy accreditation agencies, and governmental regulation, among other things. And, that’s not even counting issues that arise from our broader cultural context: new technologies, changing educational paradigms, increasingly diverse communities, decreasing biblical literacy for incoming students, and more.

It may just be me, but these all seem pretty daunting. Many times I feel like I’m wandering in the wilderness of theological education. Paul has shown us the promised land—just entrust this message to godly men and women who will take up the mantle of leadership for the next generation. See, the promised land is right there. But I don’t know how to get there. For all my planning, plotting, striving, and strategizing, I still find myself wandering in the chaos and confusion of the wilderness.

I feel like one of the ten spies who have gone into the land and have come back saying that it can’t be done. The obstacles are too great. Go home.

THOSE WHO HAVE GONE BEFORE

And then I pause and consider what it must have been like for those who have gone before.

Consider poor Timothy as he reads these words. He’s in a hostile cultural context with no books, no schools, very little money, few churches, and leaders who are still fairly young spiritually themselves. What is he supposed to do with this?

Consider the early church it expanded into new worlds: Greece, Rome, Africa, Gaul, Asia. Imagine how they must have wrestled with what it takes to raise godly leaders in these new contexts with all of their cultural diversity, religious plurality, and philosophical complexity. How hard must that have been?

Consider the church of the Constantinian era as it struggled with training the next generation from a posture of relative affluence and influence, along with growing nominalism and institutionalism. Now how do you raise godly leaders?

Consider the medieval church as they tried to develop new institutional educational structures called “universities” to accomplish this daunting task of training new leaders. Imagine the uncertainty. Will this work? Or, will it just turn pastors into professors, leaders into lecturers?

I could go on. God’s people have always struggled with understanding precisely how to raise the next generation of leaders in the midst of many difficult and daunting circumstances.

And, none of them have gotten it “right.” Although every generation approached the task of leadership development differently, each produced more than its share of broken leaders who led broken churches in a broken world.

There’s a vision, but no blueprint. There’s a plan, but there are always problems.

Apparently the wilderness of theological education has been with us for a while now.

OUR IMPOSSIBLE TASK

So, my happy thought for today is:

1. We’ve been given a grand task with almost no instruction for how to carry it out.

2. Every prior generation found this task to be nearly impossible.

Thanks Paul. Don’t you have anything to offer that might be a little more helpful?

To be fair, I probably should have started in verse 1.

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.

Ah, there it is. That’s what my reflection has been missing. Grace.

For this to work, we need to realize that this story is not about us. If it was, this story would have ended a long time ago. Every generation of Christian leaders laments the difficulties of raising godly leaders in their context. And every generation is right. We’ve been given a seemingly impossible task with no blueprint for success.

And that’s okay because it’s not about us anyway.

We will never build perfect seminaries that produce perfect leaders to lead perfect churches. If that’s your promised land, I hope you enjoy wilderness.

That’s not what we’ve been called to do. Perfection is not our goal, faithfulness is. We will always build broken schools that produce broken people to lead broken churches. But, we serve a glorious God who will always be gracious to his people and faithful to his plans.

Our task may be impossible, but that’s not a problem for God.

This isn’t a call to quietism. The fact that we can’t be perfect doesn’t mean that we stop striving to be as creatively faithful as possible. Maybe Paul didn’t give us a blueprint because there isn’t one. Maybe each generation has to be willing to put its models of leadership development on the table and ask afresh if this is the best way to be faithful to the task in this time, with this people, facing these challenges.

Will we fail? Yes. At least, we will fail at being flawless. But, we need not fail at being faithful – if we can rest in the grace and goodness of God and remember that this is his church, these are his people, this is his story, and he will ensure that our efforts are not in vain.

In the face of our impossible task, Paul invites us to “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

And, to that we can only say a humble “amen.”

Flotsam and jetsam (2/7)

If denominationalism simply denotes a “brand” vying for market share, then let denominationalism fall. But many of us believe denominations can represent fidelity to living traditions of local congregations that care about what Jesus cared about—personal conversion, discipleship, mission and community. Perhaps the denominational era has just begun.

  • David Mills warns against using terms like “prophetic” and “biblical” as ideological rhetoric.

Too many of us substitute being right for being good. Holiness is hard, ideology easy. A small step toward holiness, or at least away from speaking as an ideologue, can be made by avoiding our school or party or movement’s pet words. That can force us to try to make an argument, and that effort can lead us closer to truths we would not see otherwise.

  • Richard Beck is starting a series on church giving, reflecting on his own desire to be more directly involved in the end result of the giving.

I think the real reason goes back to looking for a more direct experience with generosity and hospitality. Wanting to live like Jesus people struggle with the impersonal nature of the collection plate. It just doesn’t feel right.

I think the real reason goes back to looking for a more direct experience with generosity and hospitality. Wanting to live like Jesus people struggle with the impersonal nature of the collection plate. It just doesn’t feel right.

Santa Claus and the Coming of the Messiah

[For those of you not interested in the upcoming football game, or those interested but looking for something to do until it begins, here's what I'm thinking about using as the introduction to the chapter of my Gospel book on the coming of Christ and how that relates to God's OT promises. And yes, I realize it's the wrong time of year for a post about Santa Claus. Oh well.]

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My daughters don’t believe in Santa Claus. They never have. That’s mostly because my wife and I are evil parents and we told them from the very beginning that Santa Claus was not real. (If this is news to you, then please accept my apologies for breaking the news in such a heartless way.) We’ve always been careful to point out that there’s nothing wrong with pretending that Santa is real; it can even be kind of fun. So, sometimes at Christmas we’ll go ahead and pretend that Santa Claus is coming, even though we all know he isn’t. And, we’ve also warned them not to say anything to other kids about Santa. We really don’t want to have to deal with a bunch of angry parents who want to know why our kids just ruined their Christmas fun.

Although I like how we’ve handled our Christmas traditions and I wouldn’t want to do it differently, it’s hard not to notice that my daughters never approached Christmas with the same kind of anxious anticipation as other children. There were no eager questions about “When will Santa be here?”, whispers of “I think I hear him”, or little footsteps as they slipped quietly over to the window to see if that was the shadow of a sleigh they just glimpsed in the sky. There’s an element of expectation that comes with the story of Santa Claus that has a nearly irresistible sense of childish delight. And, in the morning, all of that pent up expectation, all the anxious hours of waiting, all the uncertainties and anxieties, they all explode in the delighted yell, “He came!”

Somehow we need to recapture that same sense of eager expectation if we’re going to appreciate what it was like to live on the verge of the New Testament. In the last chapter, we focused on the amazing promises that God offered his people throughout the Old Testament: a new king, a new sacrifice, a new spirit, a new heart, a new creation, and more. For centuries, God’s people had fed on a steady diet of God’s promises, knowing that he had not abandoned them, fearing that he had done just that.

Is the promised one really coming?
Yes, he’s coming.
He’ll be here soon!
Is that him?
No, not yet.
Where is he?
Over there!
No, that’s definitely not him.
He’ll never come.
Yes, he will. I know it. He’s coming.

God promised.

As we turn the page from the Old Testament to the New Testament, we pass through the time of anxious waiting, arriving at the moment when hope becomes reality, when promise becomes present, when not yet becomes now.

He’s here.