February 27, 2010

When you pray

"But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." -Matthew 6:33

Until we get our hearts out of the world, how easily our hearts are carried away with the thoughts of earthly concerns! Until we can separate and purge our spirits, how we mingle our prayers with many ridiculous thoughts!

It is too usual for us to deal with God as an unskilled person that will gather a posy for his friend, and put in as many or more stinking weeds than he does choice flowers. The flesh introduces, and our carnal hearts insert and interlace our prayers with vain thoughts and earthly distractions.

Then, when we come to offer incense to God with our censer, we mingle sulphur with our incense. Therefore, we should always labour to get our hearts above the world into the presence of God, as if we were by him in heaven, and wholly swallowed up with his glory.

Though our bodies are on earth, our spirits should be in heaven. Until we get above the mists of the world, we can see nothing of clearness and comfort; but when we can get God and our hearts together, then we can see there is much in the fountain, though nothing in the stream; and though little on earth, yet we have a God in heaven

This is our great aim, to be with God in heaven. His residence is there, and we seek that our hearts might be there. We have liberty to ask supplies for the outward life, but chiefly we should ask spiritual and heavenly things: ‘First, seek the kingdom of God’ etc..

If God is our heavenly Father, our first and main care should be to ask things suitable to his being, and his excellencies. When we ask supplies of the outward life, food and raiment, God may give it to us, but it is far more pleasing to him when we ask for grace.

In every prayer we should seek to be made more heavenly minded by conversing with our heavenly Father.

Manton, Works, i:60-62


And more.....

Conrad Mbewe at the True Church Conference made a very succinct comment concerning the subtle forms of hyper-Calvinism when it comes to us loving sinners. Conrad Mbewe make the point that one way to spot hyper-Calvinism in the church is to look at it's PRAYER MEETING. He pointed out that any church which claims to be evangelistic but has a dead prayer meeting is hyper-Calvinistic. Likewise he said that any preacher who claims to have evangelistic preaching who's prayer closet is empty is a hyper-Calvinist.

Accurate? I think so!

Prayer is a means of grace which God has chosen to use in the salvation of souls

Prayer is also a means of grace to cause the believer to have more love towards the lost

Prayer is an expression of faith, especially to perform a miracle such as conversion

Prayer is also an expression of our true desires, we pray most for what we care about most

Prayer is also a united and unifying expression of the local church

Prayer is a means of deflecting glory from us and exalting God's grace

February 19, 2010

This is How to Warn the Church! This is "Discriminating" Preaching!

As Iain Murray states in his book "Evangelicalism Divided":

"...the problem evangelicals have faced is deeper than a common acceptance of definitions. It is one thing to agree on statements, another to apply those statements in the current church scene when it comes to admission to full church membership and to the sacraments. Part of the difficulty here lies in the fact that it is beyond human ability to discern the reality of spiritual experience with certainty. While the Bible draws a clear line between the saved and the lost, it is not a line which the church can draw with the same accuracy. Wherever Christianity has been healthy this has always been recognized. In the words of Hugh Binning, the Scottish Puritan,


" Charity (love) hath much candour and humanity in it, and can believe well of every man, and believe all things as far as truth will permit. It knows that grace can be beside a man's sins; it knows itself is subject to such infirmities; therefore it is not a rigid and censorious judger"

Iain Murray continues:

"In his Religious Affections (possibly the most discriminating book ever written on the true and false Christian), Jonathan Edwards repeatedly gave similar warning: "The saints have not such a spirit of discerning that they can certainly determine who are godly and who are not...It was never God's design to give us rules by which we may certainly know who of our fellow professors are His."

This is How to Warn the Church!

"O professors, search yourselves. O ministers, search yourselves. O ye, who make a profession of religion now, put your hands within your hearts, and search your souls.. We live in the sight of a rein-trying God. Oh! try your own reins, and search your own hearts. It is not a matter of half-importance for which I plead, but a matter of double importance. I beseech you, examine and cross-examine your own souls, and see whether ye be in the path, for it will go ill with you if ye shall find at last that ye were in the church, but not of it, that ye make a profession of religion, but it was only a cloak for your hypocrisy—if ye should have entered into his courts below, and be shut out of the courts above.

Remember, the higher the pinnacle of profession the direr your fall of destruction. Beggared kings, exile princes, crownless emperors, are always subjects of pity. Professor, what wilt thou think of thyself when thy robes are taken from thee, when thy crown of profession is taken from thy head, and thou standest the hiss of even vile men, the scoff of blasphemers, the jeer of those who, whatever they were, were not hypocrites, as thou art?

They will cry to thee, "Art thou become like one of us? Thou professor, thou high-flying man, art thou become like one of us?" And ye will hide your guilty heads in the dark pit of perdition, but all in vain, for you never will be able to avoid that hiss which shall ever greet you. "What! thou!" the drunkard whom you told to drink no more will say "Art thou become like one of us?" And the harlot whom you scorned, and the young debauched man whom you warned, will stare you in the face, and say, "What! you! You who talked of religion. A pretty fellow you were! Art thou become one of us?"

Oh! I think I hear them saying in hell, "Here's a parson, come here; here's a deacon; here's a church member; here's a man who has had the sacramental wine within his lips; here's a man that has had the baptismal water on his garments." Ah! take care. There are but a few names in Sardis who shall walk in white. Be ye of that few.

May God give you grace that ye be not reprobates, but may be accepted of the Lord in that day! May he give you mercy, that when he severs the chaff from the wheat, you may abide as the good corn, and may not be swept away into unquenchable fire! The Lord in mercy bless this warning, and hear our supplication, for Christ's sake.

Amen.

CH Spurgeon

Do you see the difference between this and "Ready to Discriminate?"

February 18, 2010

Iain Murray

I will be posting excerpts from the writing of Iain Murray over the course of the next week or so. Tomorrow will be excerpts from his book "Evangelicalism Divided" which a very prominent pastor has recently pulled out of context and twisted.

From: A Senior Saint on Unity
By Iain H. Murray

Christians agree that unity is the gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:3). It follows that when believers experience more of his grace and power, the bond between them will grow. Conversely, what William Hamilton once said is true, "The more carnal a Christian is, the more sectarian he will be." (Note: Sectarian, i.e. One characterized by bigoted adherence to a factional viewpoint)

An outpouring of the Spirit always brings greater unity. What Daniel Baker reported as happening in the revival at Beaufort, South Carolina, was true in many parts of the States at the time of the Second Great Awakening:

"The effect no one can conceive who was not present. Politics were laid aside; business stood still ... The union of sects produced on the occasion was not the least striking feature of the event. Distinctions were laid aside. Christians of all denominations met and worshipped together; indiscriminately in either church, and the cordiality of their mutual attachment was a living commentary on the great precept of their Teacher, ‘Love one another.’

It was unity of this kind, then widely enjoyed, that gave rise to those great trans-denominational efforts of the nineteenth century which shaped the history of the world. I am thinking of missionary societies, Bible and Tract societies, in which there was wider co-operation than had been known before. Remembering this should restrain our controversies over issues which do not directly concern the gospel itself. George Whitefield would never have accomplished what he did had he not acted on the principle, "I despair of a greater union among the churches, till a greater measure of the Spirit be poured from on high. Hence, therefore, I am resolved simply to preach the gospel of Christ, and to leave others to quarrel by and with themselves."

What are the needs in the contemporary scene with regard to unity?

In an age of doctrinal indifference, we need to be awake to the difficulty of obeying the injunction to "follow peace with all men" while contending for the faith. In that regard, we should do our utmost to avoid derogatory terms in speaking of fellow Christians. All distinctive identity labels should be used very sparingly. Christians are to love and serve one another in all circumstances.

Practice, as well as faith, needs to conform to the simplicity of the New Testament. The fear of God and the comfort of the Holy Spirit belong together (Acts 9:31). True worshippers should know something of what is said of Jacob: ‘He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven’ (Gen 28:17)."

Instead of attempting to form new alliances and organizations, we need to discern what God is doing. His work will last for eternity. It is one of the brightest hopes in the United States at the present time that gospel preachers, from different denominational backgrounds, are being spontaneously drawn together in a common concern to advance the cause of Christ. This cause does not need new labels or structures; most of all it needs the anointing of the Spirit, more prayer, love, and humility.

Announcements of success, or satisfaction with numbers, are to be feared rather than sought. God’s work needs no publicity. A true advance and recovery will be marked by the sense of weakness and need which gives all glory to God. Let us not stop short of seeking a real spiritual awakening!

February 17, 2010

Unbelievable!

I urge all to go to this link and listen:

This should concern anyone and everyone who is familiar with the writings of Iain Murray and/or who has thoughtfully read "Evangelicalism Divided". Murray's statements are being pulled out of context and he is being misrepresented to support one man's personal agenda.

Does anyone read anymore? Does anyone hold a man accountable if he should misrepresent the statements of another? This is scary stuff. It is one thing to encourage Christians to be discriminating regarding doctrine and to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith. It is an all together different thing being promoted by this man. There is a difference between false teachers and weak confused genuine believers.

I am trusting the Lord that the parties whom I have contacted, to make them aware of this, will set the record straight.

Never too old to giggle!

O how good it is to giggle like a little child. Life is full of such simple delights. One can find joy in some of the seemingly silliest things--like frozen peas, for example. "Frozen peas? How can one find joy in frozen peas?"

Well here is how. Approximately one year ago, I bought a couple dozen bags of frozen peas (they were on clearance at a grocery outlet store) and brought them to work. For some reason we all started eating peas for breakfast. After the first week I found myself singing a little "jingle" while my peas were in the microwave at work:

Having peas for breakfast is very fun to do.
Having peas for breakfast is very good for you.
Having peas for breakfast--is very strange its true;
But, having peas for breakfast is something you should do.

Of course, in order to get the full picture, you have to imagine a 49 year old woman singing the above jingle (several times and with a Shirley Temple type voice) while swaying back and forth in front of the microwave. Before long, the other gals in the office were saying, "Sing the pea song, sing the pea song" and soon there after, they were, themselves, singing the pea song, while preparing their bowl of peas. Now you have to admit, that is strange and yet delightful.

Now take a grown man--having remembered me sharing the pea story above; he writes the little ditty below while removing a bag of frozen peas from the freezer:

Peas for dinner I have tonight,
Peas that make the eyes so bright.
Peas that once were O, so cold,
Now fill the belly and warm the soul.
Would you with me, now eat this treat,
And laugh and dance with both your feet.


O' let us never get too old to giggle. I can even imagine a children's book with the above little songs which might encourage little ones to eat their vegetables.

February 14, 2010

Your Throne, O God, Is Forever

Now this is a Valentine!

Psalm 45

To the choirmaster: according to Lilies. A Maskil of the Sons of Korah; a love song.

My heart overflows with a pleasing theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

You are the most handsome of the sons of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you forever. Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one, in your splendor and majesty!

In your majesty ride out victoriously for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness; let your right hand teach you awesome deeds! Your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; the peoples fall under you.

Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions; your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad; daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor; at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear: forget your people and your father’s house, and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him. The people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts, the richest of the people.

All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold. In many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions following behind her. With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king.

In place of your fathers shall be your sons; you will make them princes in all the earth. I will cause your name to be remembered in all generations; therefore nations will praise you forever and ever.

Some here see Solomon and Pharaoh's daughter only—they are short sighted; others see both Solomon and Christ—they are cross eyed; well focused spiritual eyes see here Jesus only, or if Solomon be present at all, it must be like those hazy shadows of by passers which cross the face of the camera, and therefore are dimly traceable upon a photographic landscape. "The King, "the God whose throne is for ever and ever, is no mere mortal and his everlasting dominion is not bounded by Lebanon and Egypt's river. This is no wedding song of earthly nuptials, but an Epithalamium for the Heavenly Bridegroom and his elect spouse

So shall the king greatly desire thy beauty. Wholehearted love is the duty and bliss of the marriage state in every case, but especially so in this lofty mystic marriage. The church must forsake all others and cleave to Jesus only, or she will not please him nor enjoy the full manifestation of his love.

What less can he ask, what less may she dare propose than to be wholly his? Jesus sees a beauty in his church, a beauty which he delights in most when it is not marred by worldliness. He has always been most near and precious to his saints when they have cheerfully taken up his cross and followed him without the camp. His Spirit is grieved when they mingle themselves among the people and learn their ways.

No great and lasting revival of religion can be granted us till the professed lovers of Jesus prove their affection by coming out from an ungodly world, being separated, and touching not the unclean thing. For he is thy Lord; and worship thou him. He has royal rights still; his condescending grace does not lessen but rather enforce his authority.

Our Saviour is also our Ruler. The husband is the head of the wife; the love he bears her does not lessen but strengthen her obligation to obey. The church must reverence Jesus, and bow before him in prostrate adoration; his tender union with her gives her liberty, but not license; it frees her from all other burdens, but places his easy yoke upon her neck. Who would wish it to be otherwise? The service of God is heaven in heaven, and perfectly carried out it is heaven upon earth. Jesus, thou art He whom thy church praises in her unceasing songs, and adores in her perpetual service. Teach us to be wholly thine. Bear with us, and work by thy Spirit in us till thy will is done by us on earth as it is in heaven.

I grow so weary at times.....

The more I learn of the controversies that have plagued the Church throughout history, the more I realize that we are like mice on that little wheel in their cage; going round and round, repeating the same arguments--over and over and over again. I am beginning to think that many have fallen in love with the squeaking noise that the wheel makes.

I was reading "Differences in Judgement about Water Baptism, No Bar to Communion" by John Bunyon published in 1673 and discovered that the arguments presented in this 40 page publication are the very same arguments one may read by the men of today. Well, actually they are more versed then the arguments of today (on both sides).

John Bunyon answers a book written by the Baptists entitled "Some Serious Reflections on that Part of Mr. Bunyon's Confession of Faith..." he begins his answer by saying:

"But before I enter the body of your book, give me leave a little to discourse you about your preamble to the same, wherein are two miscarriages unworthy your pretended seriousness, because void of love and humility. The first is, In that you closely disdain my person because of my low descent among men, stigmatizing me for a person of that rank, that need not to be heeded or attended unto."

Here was the remark in their preamble that Bunyon is referring to:

"Who is there that reads these reviling of Bunyon for his poverty and mean descent, but must be struck with the unsearchable wisdom of the Almighty. The salvation of the church requires that God should be manifest in the flesh."

He answers:

What is it that gives a man reverence with you, I know not; but for certain, He that despiseth the poor reproacheth his Maker; yet, a poor man is better than a liar. To have gay clothing, or gold rings, or the persons that wear them in administration; or to be partial in your judgement, or respects, for the sake, or upon the account of, flesh and blood, doubtless convicteth you to be of the law a transgressor, and not without partiality, in the midst of your seeming sanctity.

What need you, before you have shewed one syllable of a reasonable argument in opposition to what I assert, thus trample my person, my gifts, and grace, have I any, so disdainfully under your feet? What kind of a YOU am I? And why is my rank so mean, that the most gracious and godly among you. may not duly and soberly consider of what I have said? Was it not the art of the false apostles of old to say thus--To bespatter a man, that his doctrine might be disregarded".

As one reads through the 40 pages of statements made by the other Baptist men and Bunyon's answers to their arguments; one will find that they are looking at themselves; reflected in either Bunyon or in the other men.

As you read (if you choose to read), ask yourself "Who seems to have a heart and soul more closely knit with, and concerned for: the honor of Christ's name and the love for the brethren? Who seems to exhibit more of the Fruits of the Spirit?". Reflect also on the life of John Bunyon.

Click Here and scroll down to number [37] for the full text.

February 12, 2010

How Sweet and Awful Is the Place

How sweet and awful is the place
With Christ within the doors
While everlasting love displays
The choicest of her stores.

While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast
Each of us cry with thankful tongues,
“Lord, why was I a guest?”

“Why was I made to hear thy voice
and enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice
And rather starve than come?”

‘Twas the same love that spread the feast
that sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste
and perished in our sin

Pity the nations, O our God,
Constrain the earth to come;
Send thy victorious Word abroad
and bring the strangers home.

We long to see thy churches full,
that all the chosen race
may with one voice and heart and soul
sing thy redeeming grace.

Isaac Watts

February 9, 2010

Can you guess who said this?

While reading through a treatise, I came across the following statements and was astonished. They were not contained within the same chapter; but they were part of the same treatise.

Can you guess who said the following:

But because the counsel of God is incomprehensible, we confess that in order to obtain salvation it is necessary to have recourse to the means which God has ordained; for we are not of the number of fanatics who, under colour of the eternal predestination of God, have no regard to arrive by the right path at the life which is promised to us; but rather we hold, that in order to be adopted children of God, and to have proper certainty of it, we must believe in Jesus Christ, inasmuch as it is in him alone that we must seek the whole grounds of our salvation.


The same man said elsewhere:

Moreover, we believe, that since baptism is a treasure which God has placed in His Church, all the members ought to partake of it. Now we doubt not that little children born of Christians are of this number, since God has adopted them, as He declares. Indeed we should defraud them of their rights were we to exclude them from the sign which only ratifies the thing contained in the promise: considering, moreover, that children ought no more in the present day to be deprived of the sacrament of their salvation then the children of the Jews were in ancient times, seeing that now the manifestation must be larger and clearer than it was under the law. Wherefore we reprobate all fanatics who will not allow little children to be baptized.


Do you see the blatant contradiction here? What this indicates to me is how powerful and pervasive loyalty to religious traditions can be. Even the most gifted men that God has given the church, can be blinded by religious traditions and/or sentimentality, to the point that they eventually and ultimately contradict there own doctrines and the Word of God.

So, I ask you two things. 1) Have you guessed who said these things? And 2) What would you do if you had only two choices in terms of church membership; the church he pastored or a Roman Catholic Church?

There never was and there never will be a church, on this side of heaven, that is not plagued with errors. There was a time, however, when lay people didn’t have many options and they didn’t have access to the Word of God and were therefore, much more apt to simply accept things without questioning them. They had to trust what they were being taught was the truth. In the event that they discerned a contradiction, they had only one or two options. (i.e., Rome or Geneva). Some held strong enough convictions that both options would violate their conscience and so they created a third option and that was to start their own churches (denominations), which were eventually also plagued with errors.

It started in the earliest churches and it continues to this day.

“But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses." The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. "And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.

"Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?

"But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will."

February 7, 2010

...the disuse of the OT would have serious practical consequences.

Many readers will be interested to learn that Dr. Lloyd-Jones preached evangelistic sermons from the Old Testament. This was as unusual in his day as were his doctrinal sermons. Murray notes that ML-J is often thought of today as a teaching preacher, but his wife, Bethan Lloyd-Jones, considered her husband to be first and foremost an evangelist (55).

This contemporary misapprehension may simply be due to the sermons that have been published as over against those which have not been released to the public in print. The assumption of publishers was that Christians would make up the lion's share of his readers, so the sermons that went to press were ones that it was thought were more geared to believers already in the way. But Murray points out that in reality, "more than half" of Lloyd-Jones' preaching was evangelistic. As already noted, the "Doctor" often used Old Testament texts in his evangelistic sermons and this was because he saw the "neglect and near disappearance of the Old Testament as exercising a detrimental influence on contemporary Christianity" (61).

Unfortunately it seems the problem is still with us these many years later. ML-J also thought that the disuse of the OT would have serious practical consequences. For these reasons ML-J used the Old Testament for evangelistic purposes. The benefit of using the OT in this context involved the fact that as Scripture, the OT was effective in revealing sin in all its true colors. It also pointed to the fact that a life lived without God was futile. Ultimately Lloyd-Jones preached evangelistically from the OT because it was a "book about God" (76).

From: Lloyd-Jones: Messenger of Grace By Iain Murray

February 6, 2010

It's Not Too Late

As Valentine's Day is quickly approaching, I have the perfect gift recommendation for every women. It is critical, however, that you sit your husbands down and tell them about this before they go out on their own. Don't wait too long. You should probably plan on telling him this weekend--no later than Tuesday, if at all possible.

What is it? What is it that most husbands would absolutely love for Valentine's Day? Well, based on my conversations with men over the past 25 years, as well as, listening and observing how men talk and act about this particular "holiday" (when you cannot hear them); there is something that you can give them that would bless most, if not, all men.

Here is what I would highly recommend: First, ask your husband if you might be allowed this year to tell him exactly what you want for Valentine's Day. Once you have his attention, simply tell him that what you would like for Valentine's Day is absolutely nothing. Tell him that your gift to him this year is to let him off the hook.

Okay, I admit this was not what you might have expected to hear. But, perhaps some of you women, reading this blog, might actually embrace this concept. I don't think you will be disappointed--unless flowers make you happier than your husband's smile.

How I wish more women would do this. Do they have any idea how most men feel about Valentine's Day? I often wonder why women put so much emphasis on these things. Do they actually determine the level of their husbands love by how big a bouquet they get? Forgive me women, but I don't get it and I hope I never do.

Give your husbands a break this year and rejoice in the happiness you might bring him by blessing him with the freedom he will feel when he realizes that you are perfectly content without receiving the obligatory "Valentine's Day" gift. Now, men, make more effort to express your love for your wives all year round so that you don't feel you have to somehow make up for what was lacking the rest of the year by purchasing that ridiculously over priced jar of flowers that will die in a week or two.

Post Script:
In the event that you happen to be a man who absolutely looks forward to this day and can't wait to go shopping for that perfect Valentine's Day gift for your wife, please forgive me for even suggesting such things.

February 4, 2010

A Shift from Theology to Morality - What would Jesus Do?




Those who have memorized Romans 10:9 ("If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved") are often horrified to read Jesus' words in Matthew 7:21 ("Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven").


The Problem of Evangelical Biblical Illiteracy
A View from the Classroom
David R. Nienhuis

Satan's use of Scripture in tempting Jesus is clear indication that a merely cognitive level of biblical literacy does not automatically result in the formation of a Christian character.

For well over twenty years now, Christian leaders have been lamenting the loss of general biblical literacy in America. No doubt you have read some of the same dire statistics that I have. Study after study demonstrates how nearly everyone in our land owns a Bible (more than one, in fact) but few ever take the time to read it, much less study it closely. Indeed, while the Exploring Religious America Survey of 2002 reports that over 84 percent of Americans consider the Bible to be "very" or "somewhat important" in helping them make decisions in life, recent Gallup polls tell us that only half can name even one of the four Gospels, only a third are able to identify the individual who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and most aren't even able to identify Genesis as the Bible's opening text.

Upon hearing these figures (and many more are readily available), some among us may be tempted to seek odd solace in the recognition that our culture is increasingly post-Christian. Perhaps these general population studies are misplaced in holding secular people to Christian standards. Much to our embarrassment, however, it has become increasingly clear that the situation is really no better among confessing Christians, even those who claim to hold the Bible in high regard. Again, numerous studies are available for those seeking further reason to be depressed. In a 2004 Gallup study of over one thousand American teens, nearly 60 percent of those who self-identified as evangelical were not able to correctly identify Cain as the one who said, "Am I my brother's keeper?" and over half could not identify either "Blessed are the poor in spirit" as a quote from the Sermon on the Mount or "the road to Damascus" as the place where Saul/Paul's blinding vision occurred. In each of these questions, evangelical teens fared only slightly better than their non-evangelical counterparts.

These numbers serve to underscore the now widespread recognition that the Bible continues to hold pride of place as "America's favorite unopened text" (to borrow David Gibson's wonderful phrase), even among many Christians. As a professor of New Testament studies at Seattle Pacific University, I know this reality only too well. I often begin my survey of the Christian Scriptures course by asking students to take a short biblical literacy quiz, including questions of the sort mentioned above. The vast majority of my students--around 95 percent of them--are Christians, and half of them typically report that they currently attend nondenominational evangelical churches. Yet the class as a whole consistently averages a score of just over 50 percent, a failing grade. In the most recent survey, only half were able to identify which biblical book begins with the line, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Barely more than half knew where to turn in the Bible to read about the first Passover.

Most revealing in my mind is the fact that my students are generally unable to sequence major stories and events from the biblical metanarrative. Only 23 percent were able to order four key events from Israel's history (Israelites enter the promised land; David is made king; Israel is divided in two; and the people of Judah go into exile), and only 32 percent were able to sequence four similarly important events from the New Testament (Jesus was baptized; Peter denies Jesus; the Spirit descends at Pentecost; and John has a vision on the island of Patmos). These students may know isolated Bible trivia (84 percent knew, for instance, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem), but their struggle to locate key stories, and their general inability to place those stories in the Bible's larger plotline, betrays a serious lack of intimacy with the text--even though a full 86 percent of them identified the Bible as their primary source for knowledge about God and faith.

There are, no doubt, many reasons for the current predicament. In general we spend far less time reading anything at all in this culture, much less dense and demanding books like the Bible. Not long ago I met with a student who was struggling in one of my courses. When I asked her what she thought the trouble was, she replied, in a tone suggesting ever so slightly that the fault was mine, "Reading a lot is not a part of my learning style." She went on to inform me that students today learned more by "watching videos, listening to music, and talking to one another." She spoke of the great growth she experienced in youth group (where she no doubt spent a lot of time watching videos, listening to music, and talking with people), but her ignorance of the Bible clearly betrayed the fact that the Christian formation she experienced in her faith community afforded her little to no training in the actual reading of Scripture.

Indeed, a good bit of the blame for the existing crisis has to fall at the feet of historic American evangelicalism itself. In his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't, Stephen Prothero has drawn our attention to various religious shifts that took place as a result of the evangelistic Second Great Awakening that shook American culture in the first half of the nineteenth century, key characteristics of which continue to typify contemporary evangelical attitudes. For instance, there was a shift from learning to feeling, as revivalists of the period emphasized a heartfelt and unmediated experience of Jesus himself over religious education. While this strategy resulted in increased conversions and the creation of numerous popular nondenominational voluntary associations, it also had the effect of requiring Christians to agree to disagree when it came to doctrinal matters. There was a corresponding shift from the Bible to Jesus, as more and more Christians came to believe that the key test of Christian faithfulness was not the affirmation of a creed or catechism, or knowledge of the biblical text, but the capacity to claim an emotional relationship with what Prothero calls "an astonishingly malleable Jesus--an American Jesus buffeted here and there by the shifting winds of the nation's social and cultural preoccupations."

The most important shift, according to Prothero, was the shift from theology to morality. The nondenominationalist trend among Protestants tended to avoid doctrinal conflicts by searching for agreements in the moral realm. Christian socialists, such as Charles Sheldon, taught us to ask not "What does the Bible say?" but "What would Jesus do?" Advocates of the Social Gospel, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, taught that it was more important to care for the poor than to memorize the Apostles' Creed.

Christians schooled in this rather anti-intellectual, common-denominator evangelistic approach to faith responded to the later twentieth-century decline in church attendance by looking not to more substantial catechesis but to business and consumer models to provide strategies for growth. By now we're all familiar with the story: increasing attendance by means of niche marketing led church leaders to frame the content of their sermons and liturgies according to the self-reported perceived needs of potential "seekers" shaped by the logic of consumerism. Now many American consumer-congregants have come to expect their churches to function as communities of goods and services that provide care and comfort without the kind of challenge and discipline required for authentic Christian formation to take place.

Is it any wonder that Christian youth have had little option but to default to thin, pop-cultural platitudes in their attempts to make sense of their faith? In the largest study to date of the religious lives of American youth, the National Study of Youth and Religion, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton found that though American teens are generally quite happy to follow the faith of their parents, the de facto religion they practice is best characterized as a kind of "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" (MTD). In their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, they describe MTD as a vaguely Christian set of convictions that result in a view of God as a divine butler-therapist figure. The majority of teens interviewed reflected the belief that God is primarily concerned with making people happy, bailing them out when they get in trouble, and providing them with the necessary goods to enjoy life. Apart from these activities, God is uninvolved in the world. In other words, God is basically a nice, permissive dad with a big wallet.

These same teens could be profoundly articulate about drinking, drugs, and sexually transmitted diseases, but were generally stumped when asked to talk about their faith. "Most U.S. teens have a difficult to impossible time explaining what they believe, what it means, and what the implications of their beliefs are for their lives," Smith and Denton report. There is more at stake here than a lack of basic biblical and theological knowledge, of course. The authors go on to say:
Philosophers like Charles Taylor argue that inarticulacy undermines the possibilities of reality. So, for instance, religious faith, practice, and commitment can be no more than vaguely real when people cannot talk much about them. Articulacy fosters reality.

A major challenge for religious educators of youth, therefore, seems to be fostering articulation: helping teens practice talking about their faith, providing practice using vocabularies, grammar, stories, and key messages of faith. Especially to the extent that the language of faith in American culture is becoming a foreign language, educators, like real foreign language teachers, have that much more to work at helping their students learn to practice speaking that other language of faith.Inarticulacy undermines the possibilities of reality. If Smith and Denton are correct in their analysis (and I think they are), then it means that even those teens who are able to answer isolated Bible knowledge questions will not automatically be enabled to make the biblical story a constitutive element of their daily existence. Knowing that Jesus was born in Bethlehem will not in and of itself empower them to speak the language of faith. Satan's use of Scripture in tempting Jesus is clear indication that a merely cognitive level of biblical literacy does not automatically result in the formation of a Christian character.

To make a real difference in people's lives, biblical literacy programs will have to do more than simply encourage believers to memorize a select set of Bible verses. They will have to teach people to speak the language of faith; and while this language is of course grounded in the grammar, vocabulary, and stories of the Bible, living languages are embedded in actual human communities that are constituted by particular habits, values, practices, stories, and exemplars. We don't memorize languages; we use them and live through them. As Paulo Freire reminded us, literacy enables us to read both the word and the world. Language mediates our reality, expands our horizons, inspires our imagination, and empowers our actions. Literacy therefore isn't simply about possessing a static ability to read and write; it is a dynamic reality, a never-ending life practice that involves putting those skills to work in reshaping our identity and transforming our world. Biblical literacy programs need to do more than produce informed quoters. They need to produce transformed readers.

This is part of what I find troubling about what appears to be the dominant model of biblical literacy employed among evangelicals in their attempts to raise children of faith. This approach emphasizes the memorization of discrete Bible verses and "facts," mostly in the service of evangelism and apologetics. By mastery of passages that are deemed doctrinally relevant and emotionally empowering, it is hoped that believing youth will be equipped to own their faith, share it with seekers, and defend it against detractors. Most of the students in my classes who consider themselves "familiar with the Bible" have been trained to approach Scripture in this fashion.

Before I go on, let me be clear that I have a deep respect for the venerable and immensely valuable tradition of memorizing Scripture. Indeed, it is a central component in learning the language of faith. The deliberate, disciplined, prayerful repetition of those texts the church has come to especially value has long been a strategy for inscribing the Word of God directly on the heart and mind of the believer (Jer. 31:31-34). My comments thus far, however, should make it plain that I do not see how a person trained to quote texts out of context can truly be called biblically literate.

I observe two common problems with students who have become "familiar with the Bible" in this way. First, many of them struggle to actually read the text as it is presented to them on the page. Just last week, several of my Bible survey students expressed their surprise and disappointment that "years of church attendance and AWANA Bible memory competitions" never trained them to engage the actual text of the Bible. They weren't trained to be readers; they were trained to be quoters. One in particular noted that all these years she had relied on someone else to tell her what snippets of the Bible were significant enough for her to know. But whenever she was alone with the text, she felt swamped by its staggering depth and breadth; so if she read the Bible at all, her method typically involved skimming the Scriptures in search of the passages she already knew and loved. This method of "reading" (if it can be called that) is seriously limited, if not dangerous, because it reduces the Bible to a grab-bag repository of texts that reaffirms the reader's prior commitments.

Second, this method leads students to uncritically assume that doctrinal reflection is exhausted by the capacity to quote a much-loved proof-text. In doing this they suppose not only that the passage they are quoting is entirely perspicuous as it stands (in complete isolation from its literary and historical context), but also that the cited text is capable of performing as a summary of the entire biblical witness on the matter at hand. In this they are sometimes led to uncritically conclude that Christians who believe differently from them are either incompetent or willfully disobedient. They are therefore often surprised (and occasionally profoundly demoralized) when they read the verse in its actual literary context and discover that the meaning they had come to invest in it is not completely commensurate with the plain sense of the text on the page. Those of my students who are quick to quote Ephesians 2:8-9 ("For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast") are sometimes shocked to read the subsequent verse 10 ("For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life").

Those who have memorized Romans 10:9 ("If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved") are often horrified to read Jesus' words in Matthew 7:21 ("Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven"). In fact it requires both a far more substantive grasp of Scripture and a capacity for careful doctrinal reflection to know how to negotiate the rich plenitude of the biblical witness. Unfortunately my students' encounter with the Bible's depth and breadth often leaves those who have been raised to quote verses feeling very insecure in their faith.

So what then shall we do? What is biblical literacy? Coming to an agreed-upon definition is itself part of the problem. I think all would agree that, at base, it involves a more detailed understanding of the Bible's actual content. This requires:

(1) schooling in the substance of the entire biblical story in all its literary diversity (not just an assortment of those verses deemed doctrinally relevant);

(2) training in the particular "orienteering" skills required to plot that narrative through the actual texts and canonical units of the Bible; and

(3) instruction in the complex theological task of interpreting Scripture in light of the tradition of the church and the experience of the saints. The survey courses we teach at SPU seek to do these very things.

But in the end we want to do more than fill believing heads with objective knowledge about the Bible; we want to empower our whole community--students, faculty, and staff--to buck the cultural trends and take up the spiritual discipline of reading Scripture. It is not enough for a Christian university to function as an outpost of the academy; it must also take up the task of serving the church by becoming an abbey for spiritual growth and an apostolate for cultural change.

February 3, 2010

Natural Discernment vs. Spiritual Discernment



But since we are intoxicated with a false opinion of our own discernment, and can scarcely be persuaded that in divine things it is altogether stupid and blind, I believe the best course will be to establish the fact, not by argument, but by Scripture. Most admirable to this effect is the passage which I lately quoted from John, when he says, "In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not," (John 1: 4, 5.) He intimates that the human soul is indeed irradiated with a beam of divine light, so that it is never left utterly devoid of some small flame, or rather spark, though not such as to enable it to comprehend God. And why so? Because its acuteness is, in reference to the knowledge of God, mere blindness.

When the Spirit describes men under the term "darkness" he declares them void of all power of spiritual intelligence. For this reason, it is said that believers, in embracing Christ, are "born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God," (John 1: 13;) in other words, that the flesh has no capacity for such sublime wisdom as to apprehend God, and the things of God, unless illumined by His Spirit. In like manner our Saviour, when he was acknowledged by Peter, declared that it was by special revelation from the Father, (Matth. 16: 17.)

Man's knowledge of God is God's own work

If we were persuaded of a truth which ought to be beyond dispute, viz., that human nature possesses none of the gifts which the elect receive from their heavenly Father through the Spirit of regeneration, there would be no room here for hesitation. For thus speaks the congregation of the faithful, by the mouth of the prophet: "With thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light," (Ps. 36: 9.) To the same effect is the testimony of the Apostle Paul, when he declares, that "no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost," (1 Cor. 12: 3.) And John Baptist, on seeing the dullness of his disciples, exclaims, "A man can receive nothing, unless it be given him from heaven," (John 3: 27.)

That the gift to which he here refers must be understood not of ordinary natural gifts, but of special illumination, appears from this - that he was complaining how little his disciples had profited by all that he had said to them in commendation of Christ. "I see," says he, "that my words are of no effect in imbuing the minds of men with divine things, unless the Lord enlighten their understandings by His Spirit." Nay, Moses also, while upbraiding the people for their forgetfulness, at the same time observes, that they could not become wise in the mysteries of God without his assistance. "Ye have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, unto Pharaoh, and unto all his servants, and unto all his land; the great temptations which thine eyes have seen, the signs, and these great miracles: yet the Lord has not given you an heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this, day," (Deut. 29: 2, 3, 4.)

Would the expression have been stronger had he called us mere blocks in regard to the contemplation of divine things? Hence the Lord, by the mouth of the Prophet, promises to the Israelites as a singular favour, "I will give them an heart to know me," (Jer. 24: 7;) intimating, that in spiritual things the human mind is wise only in so far as he enlightens it.

This was also clearly confirmed by our Saviour when he said, "No man can come to me, except the Father which has sent me draw him," (John 6: 44.) Nay, is not he himself the living image of his Father, in which the full brightness of his glory is manifested to us? Therefore, how far our faculty of knowing God extends could not be better shown than when it is declared, that though his image is so plainly exhibited, we have not eyes to perceive it. What? Did not Christ descend into the world that he might make the will of his Father manifest to men, and did he not faithfully perform the office?

True! He did; but nothing is accomplished by his preaching unless the inner teacher, the Spirit, open the way into our minds. Only those, therefore, come to him who have heard and learned of the Father. And in what is the method of this hearing and learning? It is when the Spirit, with a wondrous and special energy, forms the ear to hear and the mind to understand. Lest this should seem new, our Saviour refers to the prophecy of Isaiah, which contains a promise of the renovation of the Church. "For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee," (Is. 54: 7.) If the Lord here predicts some special blessing to his elect, it is plain that the teaching to which he refers is not that which is common to them with the ungodly and profane.

It thus appears that none can enter the kingdom of God save those whose minds have been renewed by the enlightening of the Holy Spirit. On this subject the clearest exposition is given by Paul, who, when expressly handling it, after condemning the whole wisdom of the world as foolishness and vanity, and thereby declaring man's utter destitution, thus concludes, "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned," (1 Cor. 2: 14.) Whom does he mean by the "natural man"? The man who trusts to the light of nature. Such a man has no understanding in the spiritual mysteries of God. Why so? Is it because through sloth he neglects them? Nay, though he exert himself, it is of no avail; they are "spiritually discerned." And what does this mean? That altogether hidden from human discernment, they are made known only by the revelation of the Spirit; so that they are accounted foolishness wherever the Spirit does not give light.

The Apostle had previously declared, that "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him;" nay, that the wisdom of the world is a kind of veil by which the mind is prevented from beholding God, (1 Cor. 2: 9.) What would we more? The Apostle declares that God has "made foolish the wisdom of this world," (1 Cor. 1: 20;) and shall we attribute to it an acuteness capable of penetrating to God, and the hidden mysteries of his kingdom? Far from us be such presumption!

Calvin

February 2, 2010

Is Discernment an Art?

A little evening rambling: Today, while reading a book review on The Shack, it dawned on me that even the most learned, godly men of our modern generation have slipped into using terms that are man-centered to explain spiritual things. The book review was entitled, "The Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment" It was a very good review in most other respects. However, the title and the concluding comment which read, "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.

Reader, I ask you "Is discernment an art?" I think not. You can know doctrine inside and out--even teach at an seminary; and, have little to no discernment. There are scholars world-wide who are full of doctrine and yet completely void of discernment. On the flip-side; I have known many a babe in Christ who have had more spiritual discernment than many seasoned church goers. They knew very little doctrine, and yet when they heard or read something that was contrary to the truth revealed in the Word, they knew instantly that something was not quite right with what they heard or read--even if it was very subtle in its error. They didn't know exactly why it sounded wrong, and they could not articulate why it was wrong--they just knew that it was. That is discernment.

I don't think that the lack of discernment in the evangelical community is due to a lack of doctrine (although that is clearly a problem); I believe the lack of discernment is a spiritual problem. I purpose that true discernment is not an art. Discernment is a gift from God. Let us ask our Lord to guard us from thinking that we can, in and of ourselves, perfect the "art of discernment".

Calvin touched on this in the following excerpt from the Institutes:

Without the light of the Spirit, all is darkness

What the Apostle here denies to man, he, in another place, ascribes to God alone, when he prays, "that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation," (Eph. 1: 17.) You now hear that all wisdom and revelation is the gift of God. What follows? "The eyes of your understanding being enlightened." Surely, if they require a new enlightening, they must in themselves be blind. The next words are, "that ye may know what is the hope of his calling," (Eph. 1: 18.) In other words, the minds of men have not capacity enough to know their calling.

Let no prating Pelagian here allege that God obviates this rudeness or stupidity, when, by the doctrine of his word, he directs us to a path which we could not have found without a guide. David had the law, comprehending in it all the wisdom that could be desired, and yet not contented with this, he prays, "Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law," (Ps. 119: 18.) By this expression, he certainly intimates, that it is like sunrise to the earth when the word of God shines forth; but that men do not derive much benefit from it until he himself, who is for this reason called the Father of lights (James 1: 17,) either gives eyes or opens them; because, whatever is not illuminated by his Spirit is wholly darkness. The Apostles had been duly and amply instructed by the best of teachers. Still, as they wanted the Spirit of truth to complete their education in the very doctrine which they had previously heard, they were ordered to wait for him, (John 14: 26.)


If we confess that what we ask of God is lacking to us, and He by the very thing promised intimates our want, no man can hesitate to acknowledge that he is able to understand the mysteries of God, only in so far as illuminated by his grace. He who ascribes to himself more understanding than this, is the blinder for not acknowledging his blindness.