Monday, July 30, 2007

John Piper at the Billy Graham Training Center

No living author has been as instrumental in my personal Christian growth as has John Piper. Some years ago, a friend passed on a copy of Let the Nations Be Glad, and my whole understanding of worship and missions was transformed. Prior to that book, I had no theology for either—I simply believed in doing them because the Bible said so. That slim volume explained to me the Biblical “why” of both worship and missions and their relationship to each other, and my faith life hasn’t been the same since. Thinking there might be more where those insights came from, several years ago I went to hear Piper speak at the Jonathan Edwards Institute Summer Conference and was exposed to Edward’s thinking on God’s “ultimate ends.” Again, my thinking about the Bible was deepened and transformed. Since then, I have made it a point to listen regularly to what Dr. Piper has to say on matters of faith and practice. I seldom read or listen to him that I don’t learn some new principle or gain some new insight.

This past weekend was no exception. My wife and I traveled with some wonderful friends down to The Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove in Asheville, NC, to hear Piper speak on Romans 12 and 13 under the title, The Mercies of God and the Transformed Christian Mind.

What follows are my notes of Session 1, and the Lord willing, I hope to post sessions two through five as well.

Dr. Piper began the session by noting that the majority of conferees are in their 50’s and 60’s. With that in mind, he called attention to Psalm 71 which he said has meant a lot to him for some time now. In vs. 17-18, it says, “O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all who come.”

He noted that at this stage in life, he has seen much of God’s power and grace, and he wants to finish like the Psalm, proclaiming God’s deeds. He expressed his desire that this time together to be surprising for those late in life’s journey for their remaining days. Some think these days might be the same and they won’t. He related that his mother was killed while on a trip to Israel, and his Father wounded. Everything changed for his father. The last years of his life were spent with a global ministry, ROGMA. He never knew such a thing would be. If you have a year left, it may be totally different than you think it may be.

We have before us Romans 12 and 13; preached 350 pages on these chapters—30 sermons; must condense into 5 hours. You will probably think I gave up because tonight we’ll cover ½ verse. Tonight will not get beyond verse 1, but will read verse 2. If you get verses 1 and 2, the rest will fall into place, so we will be heavy on verses one and two.

The most important word in this passage is therefore; what follows is built on something. If we don’t recognize this, we can become first class legalists.

Paul is moving from something to something. As an illustration, our church voted after years of praying and planning, to purchase a property and build an additional campus; after this, therefore, in a short time they purchased the property and began to build. But the action was built on years of prior work, prayer and consensus building.

Another illustration: a missionary in Brazil, Linda, gathered the women together and gave testimony that from the time she was a little girl she wanted to be a missionary. She married a man who didn’t, and ended up divorced, and at age 50 went on to doing street ministry in Rio de Janeiro. She told the story to the group, and the next morning the group gathered and the pastor’s wife explained that her husband always wanted to be a missionary and she resisted; after hearing the story, she therefore made the decision to no longer resist. And she and her husband became missionaries.

Everything in Chapter 12 and 13 built upon something. Paul is moving from doctrine to practice, from theology to ethics. It may seem obvious that Christian living grows out of something, but it is especially important to recognize this today. Quoted from an article by Herbert Hoefer on Hinduism: "The proper name of “Hinduism” is “Sanatana Dharma” or ‘the eternal way of life.’ You can have whatever beliefs you like, but you are expected to live out 'dharma'.” Paul’s worldview is totally different than this—his appeal is based upon something having happened. Why this kind of world? Why does God do it this way? Why does Paul say the universe exists in order to display God? To display the way he is, his attributes. Psalm 150 declares: “Praise God for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness.” The therefore is not there by accident, we live because God has designed the world in such a way that we are to live a certain way.

A practical word to parents: I’ve got kids from 36-11. At 61 never thought I would still be parenting. This therefore means that when you want your children to act a certain way, you have to give them something first. So many parents want their children to “just do it”; however, if that becomes the dominant motif, appealing only to authority, that child will not become a Christian. Their obedience is not built on anything. In parenting we live, sing, Romans 1-11. Didn’t sing together as a family for years, but began to sing—one of the reasons is wanting her life to flow out of worship.

An example from life—we were reading in Luke 11, it says "fear not". Wants his little girl to grow up being a fearless woman. Three times the text says “do not be afraid.” So we pray that God will take the fear out of life. Because of the therefore principle, I search the text for the reasons to not be afraid and found three. First, they can only kill you. (This didn’t really satisfy his daughter, so he explained further about God making all things right—if you belong to Jesus, they’ve done their worse.) Next, God knows the number of hairs on your head, and third, you are worth more than birds. I want this child to know therefore you can be fearless, the why.

Back to Romans 12, the next phrase, “by the mercies of God” is Paul’s shorthand summary of what came before in the book. Amazed at his choice—he’s talked about justification, sanctification, sovereignty, and election, and Paul chooses “the mercies of God”. Why would he choose to sum up using this phrase?

Three reasons:
1) The purpose of life is to glorify God for his mercy. Chapter 15:8-9, the purpose of God in sending his son is that the nations would be amazed at his mercy. The Gentiles are to live in such a way that people can only conclude that God’s mercy is glorious.

2) Mercy in your life towards the undeserving is the best way to make God’s mercy look great. Treating people better than they deserve is the best way to show that God’s mercy is great. Running through Chapter 12, this is repeated over and over. This chapter is saturated with mercy. Mercy flowing out from us must be rooted in mercy coming to us. The overarching theme is, God treats us better than we deserve. A lifestyle of mercy is the way to show God’s great mercy.

3) God’s mercy to us is the key to us living this way. Romans 11:36: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.” From him we received mercy.

We talk about what God did so that Paul could say, therefore, live this way. It isn’t that Christ was simply an example of giving mercy—he was—saving us when we didn’t deserve. We need to see the importance of what he did.

Mercy implies two things: grace is treating people better than they deserve. Mercy is helping someone who is in pain. We need both—we are guilty and miserable. Romans 5:6: while we were still weak, Christ died for us. The mercy we need is in response to our weak and rebellious condition. Romans 3:9 describes the condition: under the power of sin. None righteous, no one seeks, no one does good. Down to v.19, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”

You will never meet anybody who is not accountable to God. You have never met anyone who had done enough good to deserve God’s goodness. If you don’t have a view of human depravity that includes nice people, you need to go to the Bible to see that depravity is ignoring God. Pharisees were squeaky clean and called vipers. If we don’t have a high view of sin, we won’t understand what Christ has done.

Romans 3:21, the best verse in the Bible perhaps, “But now the righteousness of God has been revealed.”

Romans 1:23 explains Romans 3:23, we’ve “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”

By his grace, mercy, through Christ, we received justification, redemption propitiation. Three words; linger there, the center of the gospel, the center of the demonstration of his mercy.

Propitiation: to take away wrath. Our biggest problem is not bad people but a wrathful God. Galatians 3:13—God has cursed us, we’re under a curse, God’s wrath. No amount of doing good will help. And God puts forward Christ to absorb his wrath. Through Christ’s flesh, God condemned my sin. What’s the sin Christ was condemned for? Not his, ours. The gospel breaks pride. There will now never be a day from now on when God is wrathful towards us. He may spank, but it is in love.

Redemption: the word means deliverance at the cost of a price. Paul twice (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14) tells us what redemption is—the forgiveness of sin, the canceling of sin, guilt removed the weight removed, lifted.

Justification: to justify is to declare that you have fulfilled everything required of you. God the judge, contemplates you the sinner, you fly to Jesus, the righteousness provider, you embrace him and make your appeal to the judge to look at him and not me, and he counts us righteous. Romans 4:5,6: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” God, because of our union with Christ, counts us righteous, as having fulfilled everything required. This is more than forgiveness.

How can this be? Look at Romans 5:19: “by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.” By virtue of Christ having accomplishing everything, when we put our faith, trust in him, what he has done becomes ours.

What’s the implication of justification, redemption, and propitiation? Faith is a reaching out to receive what Christ has done. When that happens, we are secure, Romans 8:28, everything is then working for your good. Those whom he calls, he justifies. All the called are justified. The call creates belief. God spoke, when you thought Christianity was boring, God called. Because of wrath removed, sins forgiven, righteousness provided, therefore, live this way.

When did God become totally for me? You might answer, “in eternity past,” because he chose me before the foundation of the world. But Ephesians 2 says we were objects of wrath. When we believed God, he was from that moment for us. The obedience to the imperatives in Romans 12 and 13 does not make him more for us. It is not to get God on our side, but rather because he is already for us.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Jonathan Edwards is on to something

Still in the infant stages of working my way through Jonathan Edward’s The Religious Affections, (click here for entry #1) I’m discovering matters of high relevance both to my role as pastor and as a simple follower of Christ. In 1746 Edwards was exploring a vexing issue of pressing importance for the church today—the tendency (which I find in my own heart) to have more passion, focus and energy directed toward making our way in this world than investment in matters concerning the Kingdom of Heaven. Here’s how Edwards put it:

"And yet how common is it among mankind, that their affections are much more exercised and engaged in other matters than in religion! In things which concern men’s worldly interests, their outward delights, their honour and reputation, and their natural relations, they have their desires eager, their appetites vehement, their love warm and affectionate, their zeal ardent; in these things their hearts are tender and sensible, easily moved, deeply impressed, much concerned, very sensibly affected, and greatly engaged; much depressed with grief at losses, and highly raised with joy at worldly successes and prosperity. But how insensible and unmoved are most men about the great things of another world. "

(Page 51-52; The Religious Affections; The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004.)

I’m only to page 53, but this line of thinking has already made the book worthwhile to have worked through. I’m hoping Edwards goes on to propose some remedy for this state of affairs. In the meantime, I’m finding it valuable to simply meditate on this question: Why are most of us less interested and excited about what Christ has done (and is doing) for us than we are concerning the things of this world, which at best, provide meaning and satisfaction for but a season?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Jonathan Edwards on the Religious Affections

While at the annual Jonathan Edwards Institute Summer Conference, I decided to purchase and tackle one of Edward's most well-known and influential works, The Religious Affections. As everyone I'm aware of who has read Edwards will attest, his writing is at once challenging and rewarding. To put a little pressure on myself to understand and retain what I'm reading, I thought from time to time I'd post segments that jumped out to me. Here's the first of what I hope will become a series:

"The things of religion are so great, that there can be no suitableness in the exercises of our hearts to their nature and importance unless they be lively and powerful. In nothing is vigour in the actings of our inclinations so requisite as in religion; and in nothing is lukewarmness so odious."
(Page 28; The Religious Affections; The Banner of Truth Trust,2004.)

If you haven't already discovered it, Jonathan Edwards Online, sponsored by Yale University, is a treasure trove of access to Edwards' writings. And while I'm at it, thanks to Byron and Beth Borger for every year running such a great bookstore at the JEI conference and providing such helpful information and guidance for their customers.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

D. A. Carson at the final plenary session of the Jonathan Edwards Institute Summer Conference

This was my favorite session of the entire conference for two reasons: 1) Dr. Carson's explanation of a possible reason for God communicating to us by means of the genre we call apocalyptic was as helpful as anything I've heard on the subject and 2) his portrayal of God's majesty and the corresponding excellency of Christ was both instructive and moving. My notes don't do it justice.

The Lamb from the Throne
Dr. Carson began by asking why the Bible features apocalyptic literature, and answered with an illustration: imagine, he said, a modern person going to a remote tribe with a pre-iron age culture and trying to explain electricity. Since they have no concept of the physical objects used to either produce or utilize electricity, it would be advantageous to describe it by means of comparison with everyday objects and concepts with which they are familiar. For example, one might compare our power lines to their jungle vines, or our light bulbs to the sun. In other words, due to their lack of physical reference points, it would be necessary to use analogical, symbolic description. In a similar fashion, God may have thought it best to describe heavenly realities (for which no one has concrete reference points) by means of representations and comparison to objects which the recipients of the apocalyptic texts were familiar.

For the text, he read all of Chapters 4 and 5 of the Revelation.

John writes after his inaugural vision of Chapter 1, that a voice of the exalted Christ speaks to him and is shown what must take place. He is given an experience of the centrality and indescribable majesty of the Almighty. This demonstrates to the persecuted and oppressed, that God is above all and in control. But how do you describe a God purer than driven snow, more beautiful than any gem, more powerful than any storm?

John sees the divine throne enhanced by divine beings, elders. Two views on the elders: 1) rulers in an exalted state; 2) angelic beings. (Carson holds the latter.) In any case, the point is their function is to praise God and enhance the throne. In an earthly example, were we somehow able to visit the president we would be met by intermediaries. In the case of the 24 elders, these transcendent heavenly attendants point to God's position and authority.

Four quick takes on the holy separateness of God’s throne:
• Jewels, with their splendor and sparkle representing royalty.

• Lightning and thunder—Carson illustrates with a poetic description of an approaching thunderstorm from his time as youth growing up in the plains of Canada. The power and magnitude of a storm depicts an aspect of God’s rule.

• Seven spirits—a perfection of power and ability to observe.

• Sea of glass—glass from their time period not clear like ours, but rather colored and sparkling; also, for the Israelite, the sea is not a peaceful place but chaotic, even dangerous. So the sea of glass for them would be heaving, colored, awe inspiring.

The holiness of the place is represented by four living creatures, the highest order of beings, reminiscent of the beings in Ezekiel's vision. They are described using mixed metaphors that don’t make sense if you were to try to draw them. The lion, royal; the bullock, strength; the human, intelligence; the eagle, speed or compassion. These never stop praising. They quote Isaiah 6:3, Holy, holy, holy, said to be worthy because of creation.

In Chapter 5, we have a scene of a scroll with writing on two sides. Two reasons for doing so 1) if you’re cheap or 2)to maintain unity and demonstrate fullness. The first obviously does not apply to the God previously described, so the second must be the explanation. The number of seals an indication of importance of the author and purpose. In the symbolism of the day, the slitting of the seals represented the initiating of the action contained in the scroll.

Who then has the attributes to approach this exalted throne and perform this task?

In 5:4 John weeps for no one can be found to open the scroll, because the judgments and purposes contained will not be enacted. Justice not granted, hope not realized, sins not forgiven.

Then in v. 5, one of the divine beings reminds him of the promise of Isaiah 11, there is one who is able. Another mixed metaphor, lion and lamb together, not to be seen apart. Sevens mean perfections (horns, of kingdom authority).

The worthy one comes from the midst of the throne. The harp is not like ours, rather an instrument of joy. New song because of the uniqueness of the occasion.

Someone has said the best commentary on this passage is the hymn, Crown Him With Many Crowns, which he quotes at length.

This is an astonishingly broad atonement—every people nation tribe and tongue. Thousands upon ten thousands give a perfection of praise.

Unthinkable: if Christ had not died, we wouldn’t be here. All of God’s purposes would fall to the ground. When we speak of the sufficiency of Christ, we are saying that he and he only is able to open the scrolls because of his sacrifice and resurrection, and the whole universe rises in praise.

In our modern world, our deities must be tame. But not so this Christ. From the throne the lion roars.

Monday, July 09, 2007

When times are tough

Phil Johnson over at Pyromaniacs has an exceptional post today on discerning God's purposes in the midst of difficulty. Just read it—anything I say will just detract from it.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

D. A. Carson at the Jonathan Edwards Institute Summer Conference

For the past six years my wife, Carol, and I have journeyed to Annapolis, MD, for the annual Jonathan Edwards Institute Summer Conference. This year’s theme was “The Sufficiency of Christ”, and the plenary speakers were D. A. Carson, Richard Pratt and Scott Haffeman.

This is my first attempt at “live blogging”. Given that the conference began on Wednesday, July 4, and it is now Sunday, July 8, the first thing to be noticed is my sorry use of the term “live”. I’ve heard of “dead blogging” but what to call this? Substantially Delayed Live Blogging? (Attempting this has given me the greatest respect for Tim Challies, Timmy Brister, and the afore-mentioned Pyro’s, who have pulled off true conference live-blogging with excellence.)

Anyway, here are my notes of D. A. Carson’s remarks at the opening plenary session. Warning: please do not give Dr. Carson grief for what may in all probability be a mis-typing or mis-hearing or omission on my part!

"A Living Branch in a Cursed Land"

Dr. Carson began by reading the entire sixth chapter of Isaiah, the one that begins, “In the year that King Uzziah died…”

He noted that when we come to the end of ourselves, we begin to think with eternity in view. Things become less or more important when things like cancer or tragedy strike. Isaiah experiences something similar. In Israel, things were beginning to look pretty bleak. (See Isaiah 2:6; 3:1; and 5:8-11.)

Assyria, a terrible enemy was pressing in. There was moral decay with one pillar, King Uzziah; but then he died in shame. It was in this context that Isaiah wrote, “Then I saw the Lord.”

It is helpful to break chapter into three parts: A Holy God, An Humble Servant, and A Hard Message.

A Holy God
In the heavenly vision, the “train of his robe” is simply the hem of God's garment, and it fills the temple. In Exodus 33:18-23, we note that no one is able to see God’s face and live; he is surrounded by heavenly beings, Seraphs, who despite their lofty status, still cannot look on God’s face.

What does that mean? Some have argued the heart of Holiness is separated. But none cry, “separate, separate, separate”. Some think moral--but none cry “moral, moral, moral”. Holy is synonymous for God—he himself, and him making things around him holy also. Holiness is communicable. The word extends further out to include the domain of the sacred. The word Holy has a rising boundary of concentric circles, with the use of the word depending on context.

We are terribly aware of the marring caused by sin—easy to see its ravages. Yet we’re surrounded by beauty, nature, birds for example. Ever looked at the tail of a woodpecker? (Describes several remarkable features of said tail.) We need to look at nature and think consciously in order to glimpse God’s holiness. The tragedy of naturalism is not giving credit where it belongs. We are wise to sing Immortal, Invisible, Almighty God.

An Humbled Servant
Isaiah experiences not existential angst, but, moral angst—we are ruined. When we glimpse the holiness of God we see our participation in the culture. The standards of holiness are so strong, ours are bound to the world.

Uzziah died, then Isaiah sees the true king. We are fallible, fallen—hopeless compared to his infallibility.

Sense of awe lacking today. Biblical illiteracy rampant—his students often unaware of basic doctrines—and so are not impressed when theological truths are expressed. Instant umbrage is taken, however, whenever he gets anywhere near sin.

Back to the heavenly vision, here also is God’s grace. God acts in response not to a plea, but to bless and redeem. An angel is sent with coals from the main altar, where the lamb is killed on the Day of Atonement. These sacrifices produce coals which take away Isaiah’s sins—he is cleansed. The only way you can be in contact with God is through these sacrifices, quoting Isaiah 33:14:
“The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: ‘Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?’”

God does not challenge Isaiah directly—he asks, “who can I send?” Isaiah volunteers, an humble abashed, seeking request. The heart of genuine call is humility. As soon as we think we’re offering a deal, not much grace is involved.

Carson at this point describes the work of a campus ministry he's involved with that prepares papers on Christian themes which are cast for 22 year-olds who are bright, but Biblically ignorant. They brought in 6 workers with theological degrees and got their input on which topics to address. One young woman who spent lot of time in one-on-one Bible studies at an Ivy League school described three things that drive these students:

• Pressure from parents to never get less than an A
• From parents and culture as well, the advice to be yourself, but reserve a little time for altruism. (Already in conflict with item one)
• From peers, the advice to be hot. (How you dress, establish relationships, involves competition.)

Thus, these students were expected to be Bright, Altruistic and Hot. Now when these students become Christians, they are still influenced by these values. So instead of doing things out of gratitude, they begin working to get God’s approval, practicing a self-righteous idealism where you can never do enough.
"The Gospel doesn’t say “do, do, do”; but rather we respond in joyful gratitude to grace."
Isaiah's call comes late in the book, after time in ministry and comes in the context of difficult times.

A Hard Message
God says, tell this people, "Keep on hearing, but do not understand." Isaiah 6:9-10.

This reminds of 2 Thessalonians; should remind us of John 8, because he speaks the truth they do not believe.
"This is precisely the problem of basing ministry upon observing the culture."
It is by preaching the word that men and women come to faith, but there are times when the declaration offends. The only alternative is to speak the truth.

How long (Isaiah 6:11) will this take? 30, 40 years? (Carson relates how his father planted churches in French Canada, which after 40 years grew from 30 to 500. When he set out did not take an attitude of expecting only a set time.) God warns that the word must be preached until things are ruined, the land forsaken—not until repentance—until a tenth remains which is itself laid waste.

At the end, the only whisper of hope in the chapter:
“And though a tenth remain in it, will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” Isaiah 6:13
The holy seed is a stump--a promise to be fulfilled 700 years later.

Two pastoral, theological implications:

1. God ordained quality of preaching:
We are told not to expect reformation and revival. Examples Japan and Korea. In Japan only 1% Christian; Korea quite Christianized. Were the Japan missionaries less sanctified? Successful preachers cannot be measured by converts. Some are called to preach in hard times.

What about our time? Could tell stories of blessing, but in Europe, due to the low birth rate, the population will be halved in two generations. Muslims however are immigrating with a growing birth rate. Many more Muslims are worshiping than Christians. Not Muslim-phobic—we have the Great Commission. But in light of Israel’s destruction, it is not impossible for Europe to be laid waste and another place, say China, raised up.

God uses the foolishness of what is preached to save, thus the centrality of the declaration of God’s word. Just as God has disclosed himself by his word when it is revealed, God re-reveals himself afresh. As the word is re-disclosed, God is re-revealed.

Another reason why God’s word is declared: if doing is the standard then instruction is required. However, due to the grace of what God has done, then announcement is called for.

Tolerance used to mean allowing different viewpoints; now, however, it means to insist that no one is wrong, therefore the Gospel offends.

2. The God-ordained Finality of Jesus
This promise of a branch makes sense only in the context of the whole Bible’s storyline. Until the storyline is in place, it can be difficult to explain why Jesus is the only way to salvation. The king sends his own son as the means by which he brings all things into submission, and remove sins. Jesus is the only one who can do all that.

Concluding Hymn: Immortal Invisible Almighty God

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

New Creation

I used to call this blog "Manifest Uncertainty" because its purpose was to explore the meaning of Biblical passages about which I was less than certain. Discovering it much harder to get feedback than I anticipated, I gave up on the concept and became a gleaner from others. Additional impetus for the name and format change, came from the realization that wearing uncertainty on your sleeve communicates lack of confidence in what you're, well, confident about--such as faith in Christ's work being the basis for my sure hope of salvation.

So there.