Month: September 2014

Honor The Radicalness of “Born Again”

One of my favorite books is John Piper’s Finally Alive book. In fact, it is THE book I recommend for those interested in reformed soteriology (aka calvinism). I like it because Piper doesn’t address Calvinism in it per se, but the topics arises naturally from the exposition of scripture. Finally Alive is about being born again and all that the New Testament intended it to be. Because the book flows out of a sermon series he preached, the book reads technical but very heart felt. So forget the jargon of “reformed” and “isms” for a bit, and simply dive into the word of God and wrestle with the issue of being born again.

Here’s a great sample:

I want to say loud and clear that when the Barna Group uses the term born again to describe American church-goers whose lives are indistinguishable from the world, and who sin as much as the world, and sacrifice for others as little as the world, and embrace injustice as readily as the world, and covet things as greedily as the world, and enjoy God-ignoring entertainment as enthusiastically as the world—when the term born again is used to describe these professing Christians, the Barna Group is making a profound mistake. It is using the biblical term born again in a way that would make it unrecognizable by Jesus and the biblical writers. Here is the way the researchers defined born again in their research:

—   “Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement. —-

In other words, in this research the term born again refers to people who say things. They say, “I have a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. It’s important to me.” They say, “I believe that I will go to Heaven when I die. I have confessed my sins and accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior.” Then the Barna Group takes them at their word, ascribes to them the infinitely important reality of the new birth, and then slanders that precious biblical reality by saying that regenerate hearts have no more victory over sin than unregenerate hearts.

I’m not saying their research is wrong. It appears to be appallingly right. I am not saying that the church is not as worldly as they say it is. I am saying that the writers of the New Testament think in exactly the opposite direction about being born again. Instead of moving from a profession of faith, to the label born again, to the worldliness of these so-called born again people, to the conclusion that the new birth does not radically change people, the New Testament moves in the other direction. It moves from the absolute certainty that the new birth radically changes people, to the observation that many professing Christians are indeed (as the Barna Group says) not radically changed, to the conclusion that they are not born again. The New Testament, unlike the Barna Group, does not defile the new birth with the worldliness of unregenerate, professing Christians.

1 John 2:29: “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.”

1 John 3:9: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.”

1 John 4:7: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is

from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”

1 John 5:4: “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”

1 John 5:18: “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.”

Thoughts on Israel

What to think about Israel? That’s a very prominent question in our culture today – secular and religious. This is especially true with the current struggles in Gaza and the somewhat related activities of ISIS. It seems there is more and more blog posts and news clips about this question – what to think about Israel – than in recent past years. What is especially interesting to me is how the church will respond, especially the Neo-reformed / Neo-Calvinist camp. Historically, those that hold strong reformed views have NOT held to strong Israel views (at least not ethnic Israel views).

At this point, I don’t have an extremely solid view on the issue, but in studying Romans 9 for a sermon on Unconditional Election / Divine Predestination, a few thoughts come to mind. These are seeds for now. How they will flourish in the coming months for me in this area I’m not sure, but they are worth me jotting down:

(1) Romans 9-11 was not written directly to answer the issue of divine sovereignty in salvation. It was written to answer the apparent failure of the nation of Israel to find faith in Jesus, and therefore, the assumption that God’s word / promises had failed.

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,” (Romans 9:3–6, ESV)

Therefore, it’s wrong exegesis, or at least incomplete exegesis, to interpret these chapters solely with a view for the individual and ignore the issue of the nation of Israel.

(2) Having said #1 above, clearly within these chapters Paul is addressing an issue that direct impacts, primary impacts, individuals and their salvation. I think if it’s wrong exegesis to understand Romans 9-11 without a view on ethnic Israel as a nation, it’s doubly wrong to exegete these chapters thinking Paul is only talking about nations. Even in the thickest parts that deals with Israel as a nation, Paul is thinking about grace / election / predestination in regards to the salvation of individuals:

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.” (Romans 11:13–14, ESV)

(3) Not all of Israel is God’s people (at least not in the sense of divine election and eternal salvation):

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”” (Romans 9:6–7, ESV)

At Paul’s time, Israel was in one sense God’s chosen people wholesale, but that did not mean they were all saved, elected, intended to be saved, God’s people spiritually. It is not derogatory, nor is it replacement theology, to believe in a “spiritual Israel” within a national ethnic Israel. Paul clearly describes a subgroup here, a true subgroup.

(4) Despite their general unbelief, Paul doesn’t seem to believe that God was done with His special purpose in working through a specific ethnic nation – Israel:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” (Romans 11:1–5, ESV)

What is the purpose of a “remnant”? It’s purpose is to refer to the fact that though wholesale failure seems to be the case, still, there is a pocket of God’s purpose still alive, vitally alive. This idea of a remnant only makes sense (in my view – as DA Carson always says) when talking about ethnic national Israel. It makes no sense in regards to “spiritual Israel”. Meaning Paul, as he thinks about the nation of Israel, sees God’s divine sovereign electing hand still at work through this ethnic people. A remnant. Even in Paul’s day. In fact, Paul was part of that remnant!

All this to say, it seems to me that Paul has a nuance here that I don’t see often. He did not hold a view of Israel in such a way that portrays they have special access to God nor special love from God outside of Jesus (that would go against everything he’s written in the first 8 chapters of Romans), but neither does he lose sight of God’s intention to use ethnic national Israel for His own redemptive purposes. A remnant is the key I think.

 (5) Because of #4 above, Paul will follow this with warnings to the Gentile believers:

do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.”” (Romans 11:18–19, ESV)

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” (Romans 11:25, ESV)

Paul seems clear in his warning, one that every Gentile believer (reformed, non-reformed, dispensational, covenantal .. etc) should hold closely: do not be arrogant and wise in your own sight against ethnic Israel. And then he gives a corresponding exhortation:

As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” (Romans 11:28, ESV)

Key phrases for me there:

  • They are enemies in regards to the gospel: meaning, don’t take their theology, don’t take their path and example, don’t think what they hold to is compatible with the gospel laid out in chapters 1-11. They are not. They are enemies, on the opposite side “in regards to the gospel” (ie. theologically). “Enemies” has a scope here for Paul – “in regards to the gospel”. Paul clearly loved his kinsmen, but he opposed them “theologically”. He did not excuse their unbelief. He did not love Israel for the Old Covenant in such a way that made him blind to their rejection of the gospel of the New Covenant. There’s no glazing over this truth for Paul.
  • They are beloved in regards to election: meaning, the same ones that are enemies theologically in the gospel, Paul says are beloved in election. The big question is what does this mean in terms of Israel as a nation? What does it mean that “all of Israel will be saved” in Romans 11:26? Has God elected “all” ethnic Jew so that “all” ethnic Jew will be saved when he grafts them back in (Romans 11:23-24). As one that holds to God’s perogative to divine election, He can do that if He wants. I’m just not sure that’s what the “all” there means. It may or may not (more studying needed). But regardless of the size and scope of “all”, clearly Paul – rooted in a firm belief of election – views the theolgoical enemies of the gospel with an effection of “beloved”. I love it! The hope and comfort of sovereign grace. That’s the whole context of Romans 9-11, understanding election / predestination in light of Israel’s current state. So he loves them with eyes wide open here.

At the end of the day, this is my take away:

Israel must come to faith in Jesus like every Gentile. In that sense, they are not different or special in any sense. I should love them as a nation just like any other nation. At the same time, it seems clear to me that God’s dealing with them, God’s intention and purpose in redemptive history for Israel as a nation and ethnic people is not done, and in that sense, it’s right to think of them with feelings that accord with the word “beloved”.

Paul’s conclusion as he thinks about Israel (ethnic national Israel in my view) :

For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:29, ESV)

What Is Leadership?

What is leadership? I think about that question a lot and still I keep asking. Some things are clear to me and some things are not. As I’m prepping for tomorrow, I ran across these words – from one leader, whose ministry is ending, to another whose ministry is still young:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:24–26, ESV)

My observation about leadership:

(1) Leadership is servanthood – “And the Lord’s servant“. I’m not sure I can think of a passage that says “And the Lord’s leader”. At the heart of it, leaders are servants and those that don’t want to serve should never lead.

(2) Leadership is about character – Paul lists a few of them here:

  • “Not be quarrelsome…”, meaning stop arguing. I don’t think it means stop standing for truth, but standing for truth is clearly different in heart and tone than quarreling. One seeks to be right, the other seeks to love out of truth.
  • “kind…”, meaning attitude matters. It’s not just about truth. Attitude matters. Facial expressions, tone of voice, choice of words, follow up, 2nd and 3rd and 100th tries to say “I disagree with you but love you”.
  • “kind to everyone …”, meaning we may not naturally like everyone we are serving, but the mandate is to be kind to everyone. The verse says “The Lord’s servant’s MUST”. This is not an option. While no one does it perfect, leaders have to grow in their kindness, and especially their kindness to everyone. Leaders are not allowed to have exemptions.
  • “able to teach …”, meaning knowing truth matters, meaning conveying truth matters, meaning clarity of the conveying of the truth matters. People have to understand their leaders and be able to learn from them.
  • “patiently …”, meaning ministry does not go fast, meaning change takes time, meaning God is not panicked at the sanctification process of His people and therefore, neither should leaders. Meaning leaders are ok that ministry is sometimes like watching the grass grow.
  • “enduring …”, meaning ministry calls for a sense of grit and thick skin
  • “enduring evil…”, meaning what is endured is injustice, unrighteousness, things that hurt and sting and are simply not right. Leaders get the privilege not just to lead in vision and direction and privileges, but they get to lead in the high calling to suffer as Christ suffered. Leaders should lead in suffering and enduring evil. Leaders should lead in giving good for bad, blessing for cursing, love for hatred.
  • “correcting …”, meaning leaders know what is correct, meaning leaders are willing to address issues, meaning leaders are relational to those they lead so they can correct.
  • “correcting his opponents …”, meaning leaders will have opponents, meaning not everyone will be on your side.
  • “correcting his opponents with gentleness…”, meaning be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove (not wise as a dove and innocent as a serpent). Paul does not say “correcting opponents” with passion, or determination, or undeterred resolve (those are assumed as correcting means bring them into the correct place), but correct with gentleness. Gentleness. Leaders should correct opponents with gentleness. Apparently correcting opponents gently is possible with no caveats attached.

(3) Leadership is about perspective  – The greatest asset for a leader is not vision, purpose statements, clear strategy and implementation, but perspective. Here’s Paul’s perspective. It has to do with God and it has to do with Satan.

God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”

Perspective #1 – God is sovereign. He must grant repentance. Nothing can be demanded out of opponents. God must work. Therefore it makes sense to be kind, endure, teach, correct with gentleness. God must move of the person being ministered to will never move. Leaders lead in a way that exemplify this truth.

Perspective #2  – Satan snares people. Opponents often fall prey to the snare of the devil. When they do, is it any surprise they become an opponent? They are captured “to do his will” (the unregenerate). 

Perspective matters.

At the end of the day, people are not the enemy, Satan is; leaders are not the end, they are only the means. God is the end. The hope. The goal. The one to grant repentance.

God’s Sovereignty

Week 1 of our Doctrines of Grace series is done. I’m thankful for how well it went, from Sunday morning, to Sunday night, to community group last night. I’m thankful that the church in whole has jumped full into this series with intent to learn and to grow.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned / reminded of after week 1:

1) THIS IS HOLY GROUND – to speak about God in such ways that shape peoples thinking and emotion response to who God is hit me like a brick yesterday. It’s sobering. People struggling through huge / massive sufferings in their life and trying to process what it means when I say “God is sovereign over all things.” This slowed me down yesterday, made me cautious and careful and resolved to only say what the bible clearly says (and at the same time, never NOT say what the bible clearly says). More than ever I realized how dangerous it is to teach God’s word.

2) THEOLOGY MATTERS – I go back to this about every week in my heart – theology matters. Deeply matters –  We live in such a pragmatic world that in the church, we expect the same. We say we want the gospel and grace, but in reality we hunger and thirst for the law. “Don’t tell me what to believe, that’s all heady stuff. Tell me what to do. Make it practical”. I’m all for that, but most people equate “practical” with multi-step doing – 3 ways to fix my marriage, 7 ways to raise teenagers, 5 points on how to live a holy life (which is funny, cause we’re going through the 5 points of Calvinism).

Last night at community group, we studied the horrendous life of Joseph. The summary of his life is: hated by siblings, rebuked by father, human trafficked, falsely accused, falsely imprisoned, forgotten by the one he helped – and all through that the narrative reminds us that God was with him. At the end of the day, when confronted with an opportunity for justice, Joseph says this:

His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” (Genesis 50:18–21, ESV)

Joseph forgives (“do not fear”), he loves practically (“I will provide for you and your little ones”), he shows compassion (“he comforted / spoke kindly”) – in essence Joseph loved his enemies. He demonstrated grace. All of this was possible because of his belief. All this was possible because his heart was anchored in the deep waters of God’s sovereignty over his life.

If hard humble studying of things like God’s sovereignty leads to lives like Joseph – grace-filled and steady in massive suffering – then I pray all the days of my pastorate would be filled with not a casual focus on God’s soveriegnty, but a clear razor sharp one. These are areas not to back off from, but to press into.

3) A.W. PINK – I put this hear for my own records. Pink is not someone I normally read, but in this case, his words are about as clear as any I’ve ever read on the topic:

“How is it possible for God to DECREE that men SHOULD commit certain sins, hold them RESPONSIBLE in the committal of them, and adjudge them GUILTY because they committed them? Let us now consider the extreme case of Judas. We hold that it is clear from Scripture that God decreed from all eternity that Judas should betray the Lord Jesus. If anyone should challenge this statement we refer him to the prophecy of Zechariah, through whom God declared that His Son should be sold for “Thirty pieces of silver” (Zech. 11:12). As we have said in earlier pages, in prophecy God makes known what will be, and in making known what will be, He is but revealing to us what He has ordained shall be. That Judas was the one through whom the prophecy of Zechariah was fulfilled needs not to be argued. But now the question we have to face is, Was Judas a responsible agent in fulfilling this decree of God? We reply that he was. Responsibility attaches mainly to the motive and intention of the one committing the act. This is recognized on every hand. Human law distinguishes between a blow inflicted by accident (without evil design), and a blow delivered with ‘malice aforethought.’ Apply then this same principle to the case of Judas. What was the design of his heart when he bargained with the priests? Manifestly he had no conscious desire to fulfil any decree of God, though unknown to himself he was actually doing so. On the contrary, his intention was evil only, and therefore, though God had decreed and directed his act, nevertheless, his own evil intention rendered him justly guilty as he afterwards acknowledged himself—“I have betrayed innocent blood.” It was the same with the Crucifixion of Christ. Scripture plainly declares that He was “delivered up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23), and that though “the kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against His Christ” yet, notwithstanding, it was but “for to do whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counsel determined before to be done” (Acts 4:26, 28); which verses teach very much more than a bare permission by God, declaring, as they do, that the Crucifixion and all its details had been decreed by God. Yet, nevertheless, it was by “wicked hands,” not merely “human hands”, that our Lord was “crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23). “Wicked” because the intention, of His crucifiers was only evil. But it might be objected that, if God had decreed that Judas should betray Christ, and that the Jews and Gentiles should crucify Him, they could not do otherwise, and therefore, they were not responsible for their intentions. The answer is, God had decreed that they should perform the acts they did, but in the actual perpetration of these deeds they were justly guilty, because their own purposes in the doing of them was evil only.

 

Let it be emphatically said that God does not produce the sinful dispositions of any of His creatures, though He does restrain and direct them to the accomplishing of His own purposes. Hence He is neither the Author nor the Approver of sin. This distinction was expressed thus by Augustine: “That men sin proceeds from themselves; that in sinning they perform this or that action, is from the power of God who divideth the darkness according to His pleasure.”Thus it is written, “A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps” (Prov. 16:9). What we would here insist upon is, that God’s decrees are not the necessitating cause of the sins of men, but the fore-determined and prescribed boundings and directings of men’s sinful acts. In connection with the betrayal of Christ, God did not decree that He should be sold by one of His creatures and then take up a good man, instill an evil desire into his heart and thus force him to perform the terrible deed in order to execute His decree. No; not so do the Scriptures represent it. Instead, God decreed the act and selected the one who was to perform the act, but He did not make him evil in order that he should perform the deed; on the contrary, the betrayer was a “devil” at the time the Lord Jesus chose him as one of the twelve (John 6:70), and in the exercise and manifestation of his own devilry God simply directed his actions, actions which were perfectly agreeable to his own vile heart, and performed with the most wicked intentions. Thus it was with the Crucifixion.