Is celebrity the same thing as faithfulness?

30 04 2013

Carl Trueman indulges in a little “what if” thought experiment that is less “what if” and more “what is.”   I’d be interested in your thoughts…

This month, I thought I would use this column to indulge in a little thought experiment. What, I wonder, if the conservative evangelical church world came to be dominated by a symbiotic network of high profile and charismatic leaders (think more Weber than Wimber), media organisations, and big conferences? What if leadership, doctrine, and policy were no longer rooted in the primacy of biblical polity and the local church? What if, in other words, all of this became a function of an Evangelical Industrial Complex?

It is an important question. It is probably a year or so since I raised the question of the impact of celebrity on evangelicalism. As I was told then, celebrity either does not exist in the evangelical subculture or is of no real importance there. Thus, I suspect the Evangelical Industrial Complex either does not exist or exerts no influence; but it is entertaining to imagine what would the signs be that it was a real issue (which, I am sure you will agree, it is not).
The aesthetics of success would subtly and imperceptibly supplant the principles of faithfulness or would indeed come to be identified with the same. The rhetoric of faithfulness would be retained, but the substance would be less and less important. Thus, the key leaders would be the men at the big churches or with the ability to pack a stadium or to handle media with slick sophistication. Fruitfulness and faithfulness would be rhetorically opposed in a way that would be ridiculous if we were talking marriage, but which somehow seems plausible in a church context.

Books that Changed My Life

22 04 2013

Below are a few books that had a serious effect on my life and ministry.  It might be useful for me to share the title as well as the reason why they changed my life.  These are listed in the order that I encountered them.  Each book listed below I have read through, at a minimum, of three times each.  Some (like the Bible, Luther and Owen) I have read many times more than that.  One, such as the Bible, I read through annually cover to cover (you may also include Owen’s Mediations).  As a result I’m familiar with these books.  I love them and can recite large portions of them off the top of my head by memory.  If you’re so inclined, I’d love to help introduce them to you.  If by chance you’d like to read them (or have read them) let me know.  I’d enjoy the chance to speak with you about them.

The Bible:  I became a Christian while reading John’s Gospel at the Citadel.  Whoever provides the funding for the distribution of such Bibles, you have my lasting thanks.  Without that Bible, I would not have become a Christian, nor the type of husband I am, nor the type of father I am.  I would have no ministry to speak of and the source of all my joy would be deprived me.  Again, my sincere thanks!

C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce:  I read this in college but to be honest didn’t get it until I had read my way through several of the books below.  The thing I gained from The Great Divorce was a deeper appreciation of how discipleship and desire go hand in hand. Our desires draw us closer to heaven or closer to hell, but either way we’ll be doing what we want for eternity.  This is why it is so important that the Gospel, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ is proclaimed.  It presents God as good, loving, kind, merciful and just, making him desirable to the human heart.  That is one of the Gospel’s most power effects.

John Donne’s Divine  Sonnets: Also read in college.  Also failed to appreciate what I had in my hands at the time.  I go back to these almost weekly.  Here is a sinner wrestling with his sin and taking refuge in divine grace.  No different than me on that front, although he is (obviously) far more eloquent.

Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians:  Sunk deep in a terrible hole of legalism in my third and final year at Wycliffe Hall, I picked this commentary off of the shelf at the Radcliffe Camera almost by mistake.  More than any work outside the Bible, this book has defined the trajectory of my life and ministry.

Augustine’s Confessions: Augustine helped me understand the pervasive and unreasonable aspects of sin in my life, particularly through the famous story of the pear tree.  Also, if you have heard me preach or teach enough you would have heard me quote the opening paragraph of Confessions more times than you could count.  “O God, you made us for yourself and we are restless until  we find our rest in thee.”  That thought, which runs throughout Augustine’s writings also runs through much of Western Christianity, and finds a happy home in all of the works cited here.  

Dante’s Divine Comedy:  Do you know what T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J.R.R. Tolkien all had in common?  They all held close to their hearts the Divine Comedy.  I’m currently on my third trip through.  Dante is Augustinian in his anthropology and soteriology.  He taught me that the effect of grace is not instantaneous, but rather a supernatural journey driven by the pursuit of the beauty of divine love.  Get an edition with with robust footnotes.  He is multi-layered and complex, impossible to get through without a learned guide (a Virgil of your own!).

John Piper’s Desiring God:  In a list such as this Piper looks out of place.  Snobs will scoff, although they will only make themselves look foolish in doing so.  This is a fine book.  When I first became a Christian I exulted over God, his salvation, and the change he had wrought in my life.  I quickly descended into a works based mindset and my joy evaporated.  Having been primed for grace through Luther and Augustine, I was ready to hear how serving God, in good times and bad, was the most pleasurable and joyful activity that I could ever engage in.  This book taught me that God is after my joy.  When I preach, teach, minister, or disciple it is joy that is in my crosshairs.  I thank this book for that.

J.C. Ryle’s Knots Untied:  If you’re Biblically serious and Gospel centered, even the most conservative parts of Anglicanism (often being just dressed up semi-pelagianism) can feel lonely.  For this reason I was seriously thinking of leaving Anglicanism altogether.  Then I read Ryle.  Ryle is not the most scholarly account of the history of the Anglican Church, but he opened a door for me to investigate the English Reformation.  It was through Ryle that I read Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, Becon, Hooper, Jewel, Hooker (how abused and misunderstood this man is!) and many others.  It was Ryle who clued me in to the fact that the “puritans” were (mostly) Church of England clergyman contending for the vision of the Reformers against the rising tide of something that was antithetical to what the English Reformers stood for.  Knots Untied is the reason I’m still an Anglican.  It let me know I had a home and it gave me the courage to stay and contend for it.

John Owen’s Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ:  More than any other book, this one drew me completely outside of myself to think only on the glory of Christ.  I wept through most of it, but I can’t really tell you why. Owen put me on a journey of Christocentrism that is evident in my preaching, counseling, and hopefully my life.

John Owen’s Communion with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit:  This book taught me that God actually desires fellowship with me and that I was made to be drawn into his intra-Trinitarian joy.  This book made Christianity feel so much larger and more magnificent to me than any book I have ever read.  Where you might see this book evident is a carefully cultivated Trinitarian praying and preaching.  I aim to think about and speak about the work of the whole of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian.  On a final note, Owen is easily the most influential theologian in my life.  I have been called a Calvinist or Reformed.  I consider myself a Christian first.  And Anglican second.  But if we must make labels, then I am an Owenite.  And before the scoffers scoff, let me just say that at the end of his life, Owen swore that he had done nothing except uphold the teaching of the Bible, the 39 Articles, and the theology of Richard Hooker.  So there…

A little something I wrote for KARDIA

19 04 2013

Below is a taster.  You can go read the whole thing by clicking here

In the fifth century Augustine wrote a little book (oft overlooked) called On Teaching Christian Doctrine, where he wrote the following:

Whoever, then, loves his neighbor aright, ought to urge upon him that he too should love God with his whole heart, soul, and mind.  For in this way, loving his neighbor as himself, a man turns the whole current of his love both for himself and his neighbor into the channel of the love of God, which suffers no stream to be drawn off from itself by whose diversion its own volume would be diminished (I.xxii)

What’s he saying?  True love of neighbor, in its highest form, is an urging to love God.  This as we know cannot be done without the preaching and receiving of the Gospel.  It is the Gospel, the good news of God in Jesus Christ for sinners that releases men and women from the fear of God to the love of God.  And friends, we know that the surest, most reliable way to bring the Gospel to the un-churched is through church planting.  Hence, church planting is an imminently practical expression of love towards neighbor.

Go on over to Kardia and read the rest of it

“Men who were certain they had found out truth, and content to die for their opinions…”

18 04 2013

This Sunday at St. Andrew’s we continue our series on the church with the “Persecuted Church.”  As the logic has gone for the past several weeks, the church is what it is because the Lord is who he is.  We had (have!) a persecuted Lord, therefore we have a persecuted church.  In the West we are fortunate that there is so little persecution of Christians, and of such little consequence, that it is hardly worth mentioning compared to our brothers and sisters scattered abroad.  But it was not always so!  Only a few hundred years ago it cost men and women a great deal to confess the name of Jesus Christ.  Below is their story, written by J.C. Ryle, the first Bishop of Liverpool.  You should read it.  You should learn it.  If you are an Anglican it is your story and that is all the more reason for some of you to settle in and work your way through the text.

It is fashionable in some quarters to deny that there is any such thing as certainty about religious truth, or any opinions for which it is worth while to be burned. Yet, 300 years ago, there were men who were certain they had found out truth, and content to die for their opinions.—It is fashionable in other quarters to leave out all the unpleasant things in history, and to paint everything of a rose-coloured hue. A very popular history of our English queens hardly mentions the martyrdoms of Queen Mary’s days. Yet Mary was not called “Bloody Mary” without reason, and scores of Protestants were burned in her reign.—Last, but not least, it is thought very bad taste in many quarters to say anything which throws discredit on the Church of Rome. Yet it is as certain that the Romish Church burned our English Reformers as it is that we are assembled in St. James’s Hall. These difficulties meet me face to face as I walk up to the subject which I am asked to unfold today. I know their magnitude, and I cannot evade them. I only ask you to give me a patient and indulgent hearing.

After all, I have great confidence in the honesty of Englishmen’s minds. Truth is truth, however long it may be neglected. Facts are facts, however long they may lie buried. I only want to dig up some old facts which the sands of time have covered over, to bring to the light of day some old English monuments which have been long neglected; to unstop some old wells which the prince of the world has been diligently filling with earth. Give me your attention for a few minutes, and I trust to be able to show you that it is good to examine the question, “Why were our Reformers Burned?”

Read the whole thing here

Rapper calls out prosperity preachers by name…

17 04 2013

Check it out over at Steve’s blog here

I have three observations about the song.

  1. Christians (in my opinion) have a hard time putting out quality music these days.  As far as rap songs go, this one’s pretty good.
  2. An un-trained (yet nevertheless theologically astute!) rapper was able to do what two Reformed mega-church pastors couldn’t
  3. The comments defending the prosperity Gospel on the Charismamag site (click through Steve’s link) let you see just how pervasive the nonsense of the prosperity Gospel really is.


Re-Imagining Radical Discipleship (Part I)

16 04 2013

In two short posts, rather than critique some of the “radical” books we brought up a few weeks ago I think I’d rather re-imagine them a little bit, hoping to (in some small way) contribute to the conversation as it plays out among friends, church members, and visitors.

There has been a steady stream of literature introduced into the Christian marketplace offering substantial criticism of modern day, North American Christianity.  I would say that the so-called “radical” books fit well within this niche, as they all, on different levels offer critiques at what the church in North America has produced or for that matter failed to produce.  So far so good.  On these points I find it hard to disagree with them.  To be blunt (and brief!), I think North American Christianity is theologically shallow, materialistic, and not particularly Christian.

The first two should be easy to understand.  The last may need some qualification.  When I say that North American Christianity is “not particularly Christian,” I mean the link between the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the practice of many North American Christians (and their churches) is not entirely apparent.  The link could be entirely detached, as it appears to have been with the Episcopal Bishop M. Budde, who called the resurrection of Jesus an “outlandish proposition” (!) or it could be the more subtle detachment but more Jesus and Bible friendly moralistic, therapeutic, deism of much of the Evangelical world.  After all, reducing Jesus from the incarnate Son of God and necessary atonement for sin to some exemplar for a better career, a more proficient parenting, or the key to time management has just as little to do with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as Bishop Budde’s denial of such things.  They appear different in full bloom but they come from the same seed.

If this is the current state of affairs, and I believe it is, what then is the fix?  What the “radical” books suggest, that I wholeheartedly endorse, is discipleship.  But what does this word “discipleship” mean?  Perhaps it means teaching others about Jesus.  This is discipleship.  On this front, recovering some old school catechism, a strategy advocated by J.I. Packer, couldn’t possibly be a bad thing.  Discipleship could also be teaching people to do, or not do, certain things.  This too is a good thing.  Whereas praying, Bible reading, serving the poor, sharing the faith, etc. come quite naturally to some, others must be taught the hows and whys of such things.  That is discipleship.  But discipleship, particularly the radical kind of discipleship I think we want to see, is more than simply knowing and doing the right things.  I would suggest a truly radical discipleship is also, if not primarily, about loving the right things.  This is where I think we’re coming up short.

In the old days (like 1500 years ago) people thought quite a lot about why they did the things they did and why they thought the things they thought.  Within the Christian tradition, knowing and doing are not activities in an of themselves but rather were the fruit of the deeper, more substantial activity of loving.  So for example, Gregory of Nyssa describes love as the “inherent affection towards a chosen object” that “attaches” one being to another through affection (On the Soul and the Resurrection).  Love doesn’t just attach emotion, but it attaches the whole being (emotions, thoughts, actions, etc.) to the object.  Similarly, Augustine describes love as that which “allures and unites us” to the things we love (Confessions IV.XIII).  If you ask the old dead guys, they’ll tell you that your thoughts and actions are dictated by your love.  What you love you think.  What you love you do.

It may be worth pausing for a moment to answer at least one objection.  We are after all, rational creatures are we not?  Loving is not central, thinking is!  Well, I’m not so sure.  Perhaps you have friends with children.  Perhaps your friends think that everything their children do is blog worthy, exceptional, unique, and magnificent.  But you and I know better!  We know that “little Johnny” is not blog worthy, but rather he’s a little devil!  So how is it that the parent‘s thoughts about the child are so distorted?  It is quite simple actually.  The parents love “little Johnny,” and their love has shaped their thoughts.

The point is argued well by Freud and later C.S. Lewis.  Freud called belief in God (thinking) a “collective neurosis” that was really a longing for a father (loving).  So the longing (loving) shaped the believing (thinking).  This appears to be a damaging obstacle to those of us with faith.  But years later Lewis showed this argument to be a bit of a double edged sword.  Lewis argued that unbelief in God (thinking) must be “an admirable gratification of one of our strongest impulses” (loving) because it gives us permission to live without fear of judgment or any higher authority (see Lewis, “On Obstinancy in Belief).  All that to say, you think what you love.  You do what you love.

If love is as central as what we argue above then perhaps the formation of the heart, not simply our thoughts or our behavior, ought to be the chief concern of a would be disciple maker.  So then, how is love formed?  Consider the following from Richard Sibbes:

Things work upon the soul in this order: 1. Some object is presented. 2. Then it is apprehended by imagination as good and pleasing, or as evil and hurtful. 3. If good, the desire is carried to it with delight; if evil, it is rejected with distaste, and so our affections are stirred up suitably to our apprehension of the object. 4. Affections stir up the spirits. 5. The spirits raise the humours, and so the whole man becomes moved.

-Sibbes, The Souls Conflict with Itself

What’s he saying?  You see something, then you imagine if it is good and pleasing or evil and hurtful.  If good and pleasing, you love it and attach yourself to it and pursue it with mind and body.  The more you perceive the goodness and pleasure in something, the great attachment it has over you.  So if we want people, mind and body attached to God, what must we do?  It seems obvious and simple . We must hold God up to be our highest and most pleasurable good, activating the imagination and firing up people’s love.

The English reformer, Thomas Cranmer, knew this well.  Consider the following:

But if the profession of our faith of the remssion of our own sins enter within us into the deepness of our hearts, then it must kindle a warm fire of love in our hearts towards God, and towards all other for the love of God, —a fervent mind to seek and procure God’s honour, will, and pleasure in all things, —a good will and mind to help every man and to do good unto them, so far as our might, wisdom, learning, counsel, health, strength, and all other gifts which we have received of God and will extend, —and, in summa, a firm intent and purpose to do all that is good, and leave all that is evil. (Cranmer, quoted in Null’s Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance pg 185)

Perceive the goodness of God in the remission of sins, says Cranmer, and it kindles a warm fire of love in the heart.  Once this is done, everything else (might, wisdom, learning, counsel, health, strength etc.) falls into place.
For a short post, I’m out of room to discuss method.  But I’ll leave you with one or two thoughts to leap off of from here.  When we teach people to think rightly about Christ, or when we teach people certain distinctive Christian behaviors we must aim at the heart.  The goal is not right thinking, nor is the goal right doing, the goal is right loving.  We must ask “how can I convey this information in such a way as to increase love and delight in God?” or “how can I teach this practice or behavior in such a way that love for God is increased?”  Starting here is a hard road, but I’m convinced it bears good fruit, and warm hearts in the long run.

John Calvin and Church Planting

10 04 2013

From Winfield Bevins over at Kardia

It is widely known that John Calvin was a theological giant of his day.  However, what is little known about the reformer is his influence on international church planting.  From 1555 until the time of his death in 1564 he concentrated on sending missionaries into France.

What followed was a church planting movement of epic proportions.  During this time, eighty-eight preachers were sent from Geneva into France to plant churches.  At least nine of them would become martyrs.  Only seven years after the work began, there were over 2000 Reformed churches in France!  Protestants eventually numbered over two million people out of Frances twenty million population.

Growth was not without a great price.  Fierce persecution followed and in 1572, seventy thousand Protestants lost their lives causing a mass exodus of Protestants from France.  These refugees planted thousands of churches through Western Europe and eventually the United States.

John Calvin left a great legacy of academic achievement, doctrinal integrity, and missionary zeal.  He also deserves to be remembered as the father of a great missionary church planting movement that influenced the world for Christ.

read the whole thing over at the Kardia blog