Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Brief Rant on "The First Christmas"

I typically try to keep my posts more substantive and edifying, but I need some outlet for a brief bit of nit-picking.

I am an annoying stickler for language. I understand the annoyance others experience, but remain nonetheless undeterred. Why? Words create perceptions. It's axiomatic. Just ask a drunkard if he'd prefer to be called an "alcoholic," or whether an adulterer would prefer to refer to his "affair," or (as has recently been highlighted) whether Mormons would rather be described as cult-members or "Latter-Day Christians." Words create perceptions, which is why we should choose ours carefully.

With that in mind, I am unnerved by the unrelenting references to "The First Christmas" or "The Story of Christmas" or "The Christmas Narrative" this time of year. You want to tell the story of Christmas? Fine. It goes something like this: Romans had a pagan celebration of the winter solstice surrounding Saturn's fertility cult that involved trees, lights, gifts, and parties - sound familiar? So, when the Roman Empire mandated Christianity to a pagan populace in the mid fourth century, they amalgamated their holidays with Christian themes and picked December 25th for the solstice turned celebration of the birth of Jesus. In contrast to the very early annual celebration of the resurrection (you know it as "Easter," better, Resurrection Sunday), Christians never celebrated the incarnation until this point. Later, around the 11th century, it was dubbed "Christmas," which is from "The Christ Mass." Yep, the Mass.

And that is the "story of Christmas" or "the first Christmas" or "the Christmas narrative." The plain fact is that the "first Christmas" was held hundreds of years after our Lord Jesus had died on the cross and ascended into heaven. Are there Roman Catholic priests or altars in Luke 2? Do any of the Gospels give a recounting of the Mass? Was Jesus born anywhere near the month of December? If the answer to all these (and other) questions is "No," then quit referring to the birth of our Lord as "Christmas"!

Now, before I am hastily labeled a hopeless curmudgeon, I would direct you to explicit proof to the contrary: the 7ft tree in my living room. Truth be told, I love the lights and the trees and my wife's pumpkin pies (with extra homemade whip cream on top!). But what does it have to do with the humiliation of our Lord Jesus, who became poor for our sakes, took the form of a bond-servant, and was born of a virgin in first century Bethlehem? Absolutely nothing.

Tell the story of Christ. Shout it from the mountaintops! And use every cultural opportunity to declare that all people everywhere must repent before Jesus or be judged by Him (Acts 17:30-31). Just please quit referring to His coming as "Christmas." It's confusing. People have no idea what trees and parties and gifts have to do with the Savior of the world, and because we sinners prefer the former to Jesus Himself, the real meaning of His incarnation is quickly lost in a sea of twinkling lights.

It's not the "First Christmas," it's the coming of the Savior. It is not the "Christmas Narrative," it is the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not the "Story of Christmas," it is the good news of the Son of Man who came to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.

The last thing you ever want to do is confuse people about Jesus.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Edwards' Manuscripts Online

Now, this is just plain fun. Digital images of Jonathan Edwards' original manuscripts are now available online.

For those of us who have yet to make a pilgrimage to Beinecke Library, this is a real treat. And it definitely beats standing in-line this morning for a cheaper camera.

Here is the preface to one of my favorites, Edwards' A Farewell Sermon, where he explains why he's no longer the pastor at Northhampton.

Viva La Resolution!


Monday, November 21, 2011

Singing about Election

just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world... (Eph 1:4)

After Jonathan Edwards was convinced of the doctrine of election from Scripture, that bare conviction eventually grew into a delightful one:
But I have often, since that first conviction, had quite another kind of sense of God's sovereignty than I had then. I have often since had not only a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceedingly pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God.

- Personal Memoir, Works.
Much more recently, Sinclair Ferguson has likewise observed:
Until we have come to the place where we can sing about election with a full heart we have not grasped the spirit of the New Testament teaching.

- The Christian Life, 125.
I have long abominated the sentiment that God's sovereign grace in electing and predestining unworthy sinners is the Church's "family secret." That is not biblical, nor consistent with the best of Christian tradition, nor edifying for Christians today, who grapple with the teachings of Scripture.

So, how can we sing about election? Well, we can learn from prior eras and traditions of the Church that were not as burdened by such foolish sentiments. For one example, the 19th century hymn by Josiah Condor, 'Tis Not That I Did Choose Thee:

'Tis not that I did choose Thee,
For, Lord, that could not be;
This heart would still refuse Thee,
But Thou hast chosen me;
Thou from the sin that stained me,
Hast cleansed and set me free,
Of old Thou hast ordained me,
That I should live to Thee.

'Twas sov'reign mercy called me,
And taught my op'ning mind;
The world had else enthralled me,
To heav'nly glories blind;
My heart owns none before Thee,
For Thy rich grace I thirst;
This knowing, if I love Thee,
Thou must have loved me first.
Paul the Apostle gave the Ephesians much to sing of in chapter 1, and we are constrained by conscience and the Spirit to offer no less in our congregations today. Until we can sing heartily such hymns, we have not truly grasped the meaning of the New Testament.

"If I love Thee, Thou must have loved me first"... sing it!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Prayerful Ministry of the Word: The Pastor's Measure

But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4)

John Owen gets to the rub of pastoral ministry in The True Nature of a Gospel Church:
The second duty of a pastor towards his flock, is, continual fervent prayer for them. 'Give ourselves unto the word and prayer.' Without this, no man can or doth preach to them as he ought, nor perform any other duty of his pastoral office. From hence may any man take the best measure of the discharge of his duty towards his flock. He that doth constantly, diligently, fervently pray for them, will have a testimony in himself of his own sincerity in the discharge of all other pastoral duties; nor can he voluntarily omit or neglect any of them. And as for those who are negligent herein, be their pains, labour, and travail in other duties never so great, they may be influenced from other reasons, and so give no evidence of sincerity in the discharge of their office. In this constant prayer for the church, which is so incumbent on all pastors, as that whatever is done without it, is of no esteem in the sight of Jesus Christ.
Those who neglect the ministry of word and prayer - regardless of their tenacity in other labors - can have no assurance as to the faithfulness of their ministry. Whatever else you do, whatever else you sacrifice, if it is lacking in prayer, it is "of no esteem in the sight of Jesus Christ" - and, to be clear, His is the only esteem that actually matters.

Owen concludes with the simple challenge of whether we actually believe the Gospel we have been installed to minister:
To preach the word therefore, and not to follow it with constant and fervent prayer for its success, is to disbelieve its use, neglect its end, and to cast away the seed of the gospel at random.
See Owen, Works, vol. 16, p. 78.

I ask myself - and encourage everyone who ministers, in or out of church office - how do we measure the discharge of our duties and faithfulness of our roles? By personal labor or by personal prayer? Not an unimportant question.

HT: 9Marks

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn St. and Protecting Children Like Jesus

But Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these" (Matt 19:14).

Our Savior's love for children was built into the fabric of His creation. Just consider His sovereign options before the world began. Our Lord could have made every man and woman like our two fore-bearers (see Gen 2:7, 21-22), straight from dust to adult! But He decreed an entirely different process for Adam and Eve's subsequent offspring. God determined that His image-bearers would bring about His global purposes for eternal glory through conception, birth, growth, and natural dependence as children (Gen 1:28; cf. 3:15).

And "her seed," as we tend to emphasize this time of year, was born in Bethlehem to be our Savior. Do not overlook that the radiance of eternal glory - the exact representation of God's nature and the fullness of Deity - was once Himself a child. Jesus was born (Luke 2:7), circumcised (v. 21), developed in strength and wisdom (vv. 40, 51), and even astonished His parents (v. 48) - though He perfectly subjected Himself to them (v. 51)! So, in the earthly ministry of our Incarnate Creator as an adult, He loved and blessed children. Now, one of the more obvious take-aways for His disciples is: I love children and so should you.

It is possible that this take-away is what makes the recent events at Penn State all the more sickening - and latent with critical lessons for Christians and local churches.

From time to time - fortunately, more infrequently than not - I am contacted regarding my advice as to how to handle a suspected or newly-discovered case of child abuse. You see, the tension that many pastors, church officers, and Christians in general tend to feel is how should we who know the transforming power of Christ for the most heinous of sinners (with the violent, murderous life of our beloved Apostle, Paul, being case in point) address heinous sin when it (inevitably) lands across our desk? Should we minister the Gospel according to Scripture or notify the governing authorities? The answer, of course, is yes. In other words, you call the police and then you follow close behind with your Bible.

I was grateful to read the counsel of Al Mohler to churches and Christian organizations in the wake of the tragic Penn State debacle:
Sometimes Christians are reluctant to report suspected sexual abuse because they do not feel that they know enough about the situation. They are afraid of making a false accusation. This is the wrong instinct. We do not have the ability to conduct the kind of investigation that is needed, nor is this assigned to the church. This is the function of government as instituted by God (Romans 13). Waiting for further information allows a predator to continue and puts children at risk. This is itself an immoral act that needs to be seen for what it is.

... After law enforcement authorities have been notified, the church must conduct its own work of pastoral ministry, care, and church discipline. This is the church’s responsibility and charge. But these essential Christian ministries and responsibilities are not substitutes for the proper function of law enforcement authorities and the legal system. As Christians, we respect those authorities because we are commanded to do so.
It is worth reading The Tragic Lessons of Penn State - A Call to Action, in its entirety.

Mohler's counsel is fundamentally sound and should be heeded by every Christian in these situations. Biblically-speaking, by invoking Romans 13:1-4 (or 1 Pet 2:13-14), we are not thereby denying Matthew 18:15 -20, much less 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 or 1 Timothy 1:15-16. We have not set aside our spiritual responsibilities in any situation by appropriately dealing with the legal or criminal ones.

As a pastor and minister of the Word, I am more than ready to take the Gospel of the grace of God to child molesters, abusive parents, and every other manifestation of unrighteousness that scars His world and bars His image-bearers from the Kingdom (1 Cor 6:9-10). I am willing to proclaim to any and every perverted wretch that he or she may be washed, sanctified, and completely "justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God" (v. 11).

And I am ready and willing to extend that Gospel to them behind bars.

Christians must not perceive contacting the proper authorities and addressing spiritual concerns as somehow inconsistent. It is "an immoral act" to leave children at risk while we dance in indecision. God must not be mocked, men must reap what they have sown (Gal 6:7). Self-evident sins must result in judgment (1 Tim 5:24). And it is not unbiblical nor sub-Christian nor un-Gospel-centered to insist upon this. Quite the contrary, in fact.

The Master who rebuked His disciples for hindering children is the same Savior who gave His life as a ransom for even the most vile of sinners (Matt 20:28). Even for child molesters. Christians, you can preach the Gospel and protect our children. Doing both is very much like Jesus.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Idolatry in Pastoral Ministry

... it is a fine work he desires to do (1 Tim 3:1).

Church-planter, Eric Davis, a friend from my seminary days, has offered a very important post on Church-Planting and Idolatry. I would suggest that the relevance of Eric's thoughts extend beyond church planters to younger pastors, specifically, but even more generally to all the Christians who pray for them, are shepherded by them, and who occasionally form committees to hire them.
A desire for ministry, and especially church-planting, should never be thought of as a sanitized, neutral desire. On the contrary, there are not many more dangerous means of laboring for self-approval than ministry.

... It’s ok if your resume says: “____ has never: spoken at a conference, planted more than one church, written anything, or preached anywhere outside of Ulysses, Kansas. He does 2 services per week with 42 people in a dilapidated modular building.”

Take a deep breath and remember that your well-being is in the finished work of Christ and not filled pews and satellite campuses. Recall that Jeremiah was not invited to a conference, but thrown in a mud pit. This is not to glory in hard ministry or little fruit, but to calibrate our motives. Hunker down and give yourself fully to the word and prayer until your promotion to glory where you will be rewarded by the Chief Shepherd. Neither repudiate, nor be enamored by, apparent success. Praise God that Christ is preached; take heed to your own faithfulness, and thank the Master that you get to shepherd his flock among you.

Much of what is happening in contemporary evangelical church-planting is fleshly. Young men, who, perhaps, mean well, yet are looking to leap over the cross and grab that crown.
Please read Eric's entire post.

I agree - and have previously-posted regarding the same - that the "fleshiness" in many contemporary evangelical circles is distressing and disconcerting. I for one am growing less and less enamored with my own generation, which may be the point (of God's sanctifying work in my own heart).

Interestingly, Paul uses ἐπιθυμέω (epithumeo) in describing the aspirations of the elder / pastor in 1 Timothy 3:1. It is interesting because that word is typically rendered as "lust" in your English Bible. In fact, Paul will use the nominal form in 2 Timothy 2:22 and exhort Timothy to "flee from youthful lusts [= ἐπιθυμίας, epithumias]." Our fight as younger pastors is keep sin, Satan, or the world-system from turning our good desire into one from which we are accountable to flee.

So, if you are not a pastor, this is how you should pray, encourage, and even hire (when that comes up) the younger pastors in your life. And it may be as simple as, "Lord, please make and keep his epithumia the good kind."

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Perfection of Beauty

The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands
(Ps 19:1)

Even though our musical genre preferences are more punk-rock than rap, we cannot help but enjoy and appreciate the Godward efforts of Shai Linne.

shai linne - "The Perfection of Beauty" ft. Blair Linne (Official Trailer) from Lamp Mode Recordings on Vimeo.

Preach it, sister! (Don't get carried away; yes, we still firmly believe in 1 Tim 2:12). By the way, Blair is Shai Linne's wife, who is also an alumnus of TMC.

Our favorite lines:

'Cause dimes get lost day-dreaming in dark gutters,
Unable to hear the call to wake up!

If they truly beheld Your beauty,
You'd make magazines and Mattel go bankrupt.
Shai Linne's new album, The Attributes of God, is being released today and available at Lampmode Records. I believe it even comes with a copy of Pink's book.

Even those of us who like it turned-up to eleven, give thanks for God-centered rap!