Monday, July 28, 2008

Lo! the Power of the Laptop

I've recently suffered the crash of a laptop, for which I thought I was prepared by making copies of files on an external drive. Then I discovered that I had not considered all those programs that I had purchased online and downloaded, which in my crippled computer's moments of lucidity shone tantalizingly at me through their desktop icons, teasing me from the ephemeral safety of some ghost of a motherboard.

Then there are the email addresses, numbering in the thousands but when culled for use, age and likelihood of actually contacting me, are immeasurably fewer but nonetheless out of reach. This is not to mention the messages themselves, not much use except for mining the email addresses of those I was too lazy to add to the address book, which, one regrettably recalls, is also in cyber exile.

Another category of lost bits and bytes is programs which can be reloaded, but whose information, entered painstakingly over many moons, may not be. iTunes, for instance, can easily be updated to the newest function of Pi (version 3.14159, and counting), but once those tunes are stuck to a certain CPU, they won't tune again for you. And for especially IT-savvy bookworms, Bookography allows one to enter not only the titles of books and their authors, but comments, keywords and other nerdy stuff. What is a geek to do when he is unable to review the notes he made while reading How to Read a Book?

Whatever did people lament when information systems were not so complex? Of what would IT crashes of one thousand years past consist? Of two thousand years? Three?

Perhaps the monastery denizen, a bit woozy from stimulating conversation and strenuous calisthenics, spills his gruel onto a freshly illuminated manuscript. Or the Roman librarian, testing the pyrotechnics text in which he is so engrossed, finds that as it has been reported, one can fry ants with the concentrated sunlight through a refracting lens, but not until they've crawled off that stack of dusty scrolls. Or the Egyptian bookkeeper who finds that his meticulous records, scrupulously inscribed upon clay and carefully dried in the desert sun, have been decimated by a group of wayward teens who made great sport of skipping the hardened tablets across the waters of the Nile.

Some right now might be considering writing to tell me that despite my earnest despair, my info may be recovered. Don't. Let me wallow in technological misery, fondly recalling the simple non-techno life of Thoreau's Walden.

(Unless, of course, you can get my music from the iPod to the new computer.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

When Seeing is not Believing

In the movie, The Eye, starring Jessica Alba, Alba’s character has been blind since childhood and has received a cornea transplant, which is causing her some difficulties (she sees the donor’s visions).

An eye specialist, attempting to help her process the new information that her brain has not received for so long, tells her “Your eyes will want to dominate how you see the world, but you can’t trust them…not yet.”

For believers in Christ, it is the flesh in general that wants to dominate how we see the world. The lingering sin nature wants to dictate to our renewed heart how to view reality, how to perceive truth, how to relate to man and to God. But we can’t trust its interpretation of those things. Not yet.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Granting Letters or Buying Vowels?

Every month, Southern Baptist churches engage in an odd ritual. Given our propensity for oddness, perhaps I should say “engage in a particular odd ritual.” Many congregations, in their monthly business meetings, take a vote on whether to “grant letters” to someone seeking to join a different Baptist congregation.

Having participated in many of these, I fear that not everyone truly knows what’s going on. I secretly wish that one day, to stir things up, the process would go like this:

Moderator: All in favor of granting letters for John and Jane Doe to the First
Baptist Church, Everywhereville, USA, signify by saying “Aye.”

Congregation: “Aye” (anemically, full of fried chicken and very sweet tea).

Moderator: All opposed, by like sign.

Lonely voice: Pat, I’d like to buy a vowel.

What gives with “granting letters”? Are we solving puzzles? Completing crosswords? Playing Scrabble?

Some Baptists might recall that this arcane practice hearkens back to the days when we also knew what “good standing” was, and “granting letters” meant that we were assuring the new church that its prospective member was not subject to discipline at the time he sought to join another church, that he was thus in “good standing,” and that the old church would write a letter to the new church confirming such. Hence, “letters of good standing,” or simply, “letters.”

In light of today’s technological and informational revolution, perhaps the process should be characterized as “sending IM.” (For those who need help here, “IM” is instant messaging, an Internet tool available to those for whom email is not quite fast enough.)

Is there still a place for granting letters/”sending IM”? Absolutely. In an age of “church hopping”, many churches even in the same town or association have no real knowledge of prospective members’ reasons for leaving their former congregation. Many times, members “hop” to another local church simply because they were offended by someone, and declined to address the matter biblically (see Matthew 18), or wronged someone without attempting reconciliation. Perhaps they “skip” to another congregation when it appears they might be “found out,” for who knows what. Or they might “jump” over to a congregation that does not require anything of them. Granting letters would notify the new church of illegitimate reasons for leaving the old one.

Furthermore, in an age when the convention needs to pass resolutions regarding regenerate membership and church discipline, we tend to accept members to our congregations with little or no knowledge of their profession of faith. One walks down the aisle Sunday morning, claims to have “professed faith” in Eastaboga or Timbuktu, and wants to join by “transfer of letter.” A call for vote and hearty “Amen” later, this unknown quantity is a member, no doubt shortly to be installed as a Sunday school teacher. But what if the “letters” demonstrated that he had never joined the previous church? Had never professed faith? Had actually taught heresy or caused a schism or been run out of town on a rail? Proper use of the “letters” would prevent membership before those issues could be resolved.

Proper use of granting letters presupposes, of course, that we retain proper notions of “good standing.” This has, unfortunately, not been the case of late for Southern Baptist churches, which gave rise to the convention’s membership resolutions. Our churches would do well, in keeping with those resolutions, to recover the practice and thus help to ensure the health and faithfulness of our congregations.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Is Godly Counsel Worth the Time?

Joab said, “I will not waste time like this with you.” And he took three javelins in his hand and thrust them into the heart of Absalom while he was still alive in the oak. 2 Samuel 18:14

In this episode from the tumultuous life of David, Absalom has subverted David’s authority as king and conspired to usurp the throne and reign over Israel. David and those loyal to him have left Jerusalem, but David and his men are fighting to capture Absalom and retake Jerusalem.

As David sends out the army to defeat the army of Absalom, David instructs Joab, Abishai and Ittai, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.”

Joab had earlier recognized David’s grieving for the banished Absalom and arranged for an anonymous woman to speak wise counsel to him, which convinced David to bring Absalom back from banishment. He also helped Absalom (after Absalom set Joab’s field on fire!) obtain audience with David to complete the reconciliation between the two of them.

In this episode, Joab finds himself the beneficiary – or victim, depending on perspective – of divine providence. In a scene reminiscent of a spaghetti western or Monty Python movie, Absalom gets stuck fast in the branches of a tree and is dangling there by his head when Joab’s man finds him.

Scripture records that Joab’s man reported to Joab, “Behold, I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.” Star Trek’s Mr. Spock could not be more deadpan in reporting such a thing.

Joab, on the other hand, becomes apoplectic, chastising the man for not killing Absalom on the spot. This anonymous man, though, takes Joab to leadership school:

“Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not reach out my hand against the king’s son, for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, ‘For my sake protect the young man Absalom.’ On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.”

Joab responded, “I will not waste time like this with you.” In other words, “You’re wasting my time, you nameless nobody!”

Not many anonymous foot soldiers in God’s kingdom dare to oppose those in charge, yet this puny peon challenged mighty Joab. The basis of his challenge, however, was not his own pride, nor his will to power, nor a claim to fame, but a steadfast devotion to carrying out the wishes of the king.

He even recognized Joab’s spurious leadership style: had he actually killed Absalom, Joab would have “stood aloof.” In other words, although Joab would have secretly been thrilled over Absalom’s death at the hands of the foot soldier, he would have quickly distanced himself from the soldier and denied any responsibility.

Joab could not be bothered with the impudence of one with so little standing in Israel that Scripture does not even record his name for us. “I will not waste time like this with you.” One can almost hear the disdain Joab had for the man and his advice. Joab also rejected the subject matter: “I will not waste time like this with you.” He thought he knew all he needed with regard to Absalom, David, and apparently, murder. Joab also fell victim to the tyranny of the urgent: “I will not waste time like this with you.” Absalom was not going anywhere. Joab had plenty of time to discuss the matter with the soldier, with other respected men, with David, with God, in order to get it right.

We frequently fail to consider wise counsel. Most often we reject it because it comes from someone who is not like us – someone who is younger, uglier, poorer, less education, not as “important.” We deem the appropriate consideration of that counsel to be “wasting time,” as if we can afford no delay in carrying out schemes that are important to us but are obviously contrary to the will of the king. (Proverbs 1:16 – For their feet run to evil and they hasten to shed blood.)

On the other hand, we frequently fail to take opportunity to speak wise counsel. We do so because we are the younger, uglier, poorer, less education, not as “important.” Or perhaps we fear the rebuke of those to whom we speak, or the breach of “peace” that would ensue, or being accused of not being “loving.”

We do not find ourselves facing decisions of whether to kill the king’s son. Two things, however, remain as true today as in the time of Absalom: boldness in men will speak wise counsel, and wickedness in men takes no time for it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Eternity and the Brain

Skeptics frequently criticize Christianity (and other religions) for its views of eternity. Even believers, without a biblical understanding of what happens when we die and when this world passes away (eschatology), are a bit reluctant to grasp the concept wholeheartedly, thinking that eternity with God is sitting on cloud, strumming a harp. Forever.

Critics point to the observable world and rightly conclude that nothing in the created realm is eternal. Things here may last a very, very long time -- like diamonds, uranium, Styrofoam, plastic bottles. But even fruitcake is not forever. So, they ask, how can we believe anything is eternal?

But God gives us glimpses of eternal realities in the fading one in which we find ourselves.

Scientists know that during times of extreme stress, the human brain releases chemicals and hormones that enable it to process information much more quickly. Mere seconds of "real time" feel like much more, enabling the brain to better direct the body to react to the crisis. We've all had some experience like that. Mine was when I jumped a ten-speed bike off a five-foot ramp. As soon as the wheels left the ground, everything went "super slo-mo," and although I had no time to change the outcome, I did have time to count each click of the turning wheels, look at the saucer-shaped eyes of each of my bystanding "friends," mentally draft my Last Will & Testament, and imagine taking each bite of an entire pepperoni pizza before the bike and I inverted and I landed head first.

Scientists also maintain that we really use only a small percentage of our brain's capacity. One might imagine, then, a supercharged brain processing information so fast that one minute "feels like" five, five minutes feels like sixty, and so forth until time is virtually "standing still." In fact, that is how we frequently describes those instances of stress: "as if time stood still."

And, if time "stands still," it is no longer time, but eternity.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Toward More Fervent Corporate Prayer (Part 3 of 3)

What Can Be Done?

(from Part 2: "Jesus warned us against using 'vain repetitions' and attempting to be heard 'for our many words.' If we pray that way, then our reward is simply what happens on earth. Instead, we should pray with the heavenly reward in mind.")

If we recognize our weakness in prayer and if we desire to change, what can be done to improve? Although prayer cannot be reduced to a formula or program, there are several things that can help us engage in more dynamic corporate prayer.

1. Consider the audience. Unlike individual, private prayer, in which the only one hearing is God, corporate prayer has a dual audience: God and the congregation (I know: just hear me out...). That we should only seek to please God is no less true for corporate prayer than it is for private prayer (probably even more so). But an additional consideration in corporate prayer is that it should also edify the congregation. The one praying is not only praying for himself, but also for the entire assembled body, which must be able to identify with the content of the prayer to truly join the petition as its own. Otherwise, the congregation is merely a rather large group of prayer voyeurs. This means that while a request for God to forgive the congregation's sin and for unity of the body is appropriate, it is not appropriate during corporate prayer, for example, to launch into a confession of the supplicant's most intimate sin details or to pray for disruptive members by name.

2. Consider the occasion. Prayer should be appropriate for the function or circumstance in which it is offered. While petitions for the collective forgiveness of sins and for the salvation of God's people are always appropriate, some topics are not. One would not want to engage in a detailed request for the ill and infirm during the invocation, which is a time to invoke God's presence in worship, his mercy, his aid and his Spirit as we celebrate his worth together.

3. Prepare. Despite conventional wisdom, "preparation" in relation to corporate prayer is not a dirty word, and does not quench the Spirit. Any reading of the Psalms reveals that most of them were the result of quite a bit of thought and preparation, and were not likely composed without deliberation. But does their preparation make them any less sincere or inspiring? To that end, it is entirely acceptable to write your prayer beforehand. You would not want to use a canned prayer that someone else wrote, but jotting down your prayer thoughts beforehand enables you to focus on the audience and the occasion, to be concise, and to be sincere.

4. Plagiarize. It is also perfectly acceptable to plagiarize in prayer, provided, of course, that you are plagiarizing the right source. In prayer, God does not enforce his copyright. In addition to studying the prayers and supplications of Scripture, the whole of Scripture is suitable material for prayer language. When praying the invocation, use the language of the Psalms in describing the majesty and glory of God, of approaching his tabernacle, of his promises to dwell among his people in worship. When praying for the ill and infirm, use the language of Scripture related to the frailty of the body, of God being glorified in our weakness, of the hope and assurance of the future state when the bodily effects of sin are no more. When praying before the offering is taken, use scriptural language of God's ownership of all things, of our stewardship over the created realm, of our complete and utter dependence upon God for every thing, cheerful giving, and sowing and reaping bountifully. In short, pray God's specific promises over specific needs for specific results.

5. Practice. Not in public, but in private. Our corporate prayer is a reflection of what we do in private, and if our corporate prayer is insincere and spiritually thin, it is likely because our private prayer is no better. Worse yet, it may be nonexistent. Practice using the language of Scripture in private prayer and reciting God's promises, his character, his glory as the basis of your heartfelt petition and supplication, and you will likely begin to see a much more dynamic prayer life develop. Follow the scriptural example of prayer and make specific requests about specific results based upon specific Scripture and you will likely realize a much more healthy individual prayer life, which will spill over and effect much more dynamic corporate prayer.

6. Pray for help. Any attempt to be more faithful in corporate prayer should be preceded, accompanied, and followed by our individual petition for God to help us -- which he promises to do -- as well as gratitude for his equipping us.

Corporate prayer should not be dull, drudgery or difficult. Prayer can be invigorated to the benefit of the individual and the congregation, as well as to the honor and glory of God.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Toward More Fervent Corporate Prayer (Part 2 of 3)

Why Are Ours So Different?

(from Part 1: "The truth about biblical prayer leads us to ask several questions: Why is ours so different? Does it matter? What can be done?")

Our prayer is so different from those expressed in Scripture for several reasons.

1. We are slaves to "impromptu" prayer. This may sound, at first, to be contradictory. How can you be enslaved -- bound to a pattern -- to something spontaneous? But when we examine the content of our corporate prayer, we find that we are not truly "impromptu" or "spontaneous" at all, but repeat the same content, use the same phrases, echo the same words in all our prayer. While the idea of permitting the Spirit to move and prompt in us "off the cuff" petitions to God is laudable, the reality is that the Spirit is excluded from prayer that is simply repetitious.

2. We are unfamiliar with the prayers of Scripture. The prayers of the Old Testament saints that we find in the historical books, in the Psalms, and in the books of prophecy are recorded as examples for us of both their content and their style. Each prayer reflects the personality and passions of the one praying, yet maintains a godward focus and humble honesty. They recognize specific attributes or acts of God and make specific requests for specific reasons. They assume a mighty God to whom the prayer is made, expect God to respond for his glory, and rejoice to participate in God's plan through prayer. Similarly, the New Testament prayers are replete with references to the promises God made in the Old Testament, acknowledge how he has fulfilled them in the new covenant in Christ, and make specific requests of God based upon our knowledge that he is the promise-keeper.

3. We are unfamiliar with the God to whom we speak. This assessment sounds incredibly harsh. But if we knew the God who miraculously heals us, who graciously sustains us, and who mercifully loves us, would we actually give a typical visitation prayer? If we truly knew the might God -- the consuming fire -- whose awesome presence we invoke to heed our feeble worship, would we actually pray as we do in invocations? If we knew the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, who sustains the universe with the word of his power, who provides us with every good gift, would we pray the same way before the offering?

Does it Matter?

Does it matter how we pray in public? Absolutely. We must remember first and foremost that prayer is audience with Almighty God. If we were called upon to give remarks to the President of the United States, before an assembled crowd of citizens and statesman, we would not dare repeat someone else's words, or use content that was painfully familiar to everyone, or "wing it," depending upon our powers of impromptu speech or the spontaneous production of a fertile mind. We would prepare and we would speak with reverence. If we would do so with the President, how much more should we do so with the God who placed him -- and all other earthly rulers -- in his position of power?

The substance of our corporate prayer sets the tone for what is to come. If we use trite appeals for God's mercy over the sick, then our prayer meetings will be little more than lists of the infirm and opportunities for gossip. Banality and familiarity in the invocation establishes the expectation that not much is really going to happen in this worship gathering. Repetition before the offering leads to the impression that this exercise is little more than paying my dues to be a members of the club.

Jesus warned us against using "vain repetition" and attempting to be heard for "our many words." If we pray that way, then our reward is simply what happens on earth. Instead, we should pray with the heavenly reward in mind.

(Coming soon: Part 3, What Can Be Done?)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Toward More Fervent Corporate Prayer (Part 1)

Why "Impromptu" Corporate Prayer Dishonors God

There are likely times that all of us could anticipate the content of most of the prayer offered in our corporate church settings. We know all the pet phrases and favorite words. During "prayer meetings" the short, perfunctory prayer by the deacon who is reporting on visitation for the week will always refer to "unspoken needs" and will request that God "heal them according to Thy will," but won't contain much more. The invocation to start the Sunday morning service will repeat bland requests for God's favor "on those who could not attend," for God to "be with them" and to "be with us," and give half-hearted thanks "for this beautiful day of Sunday." Before taking up the offering someone will, quite familiarly, ask God to "bless the gift and the giver.

Prayer during deacon meetings (when it's done: one deacon chairman eliminated prayer on the ground that everyone should be "prayed up" before they got there), committee meetings, Bible studies and other settings does not fare much better, and is usually comprised of a mix of well-worn expressions and spiritual-sounding phrases to which no one really knows the meaning any longer and that are simply rearranged to disguise their age and to fit the occasion.

But it should not be this way!

Prayer is one of those activities that is both a great privilege and also absolutely crucial to the spiritual health of the both the individual believer and the body of believers of the local congregation. Something about prayer unites us i true spiritual communion with God, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and on the basis of the work that Jesus Christ has done to reconcile us to God. The trinitarian aspect of the godhead is truly demonstrated in prayer: the Son enables us to approach the holy God in prayer; the Spirit helps our weaknesses and shapes our prayer; God receives our prayer and communes with us through it.

Prayer in Scripture is vibrant, excited, inspiring, which leads us to ask several questions about our: Why is it so different? Does it matter? What can be done?

(Look for Part 2 "Why is Ours so Different?" soon...)

Thursday, July 10, 2008


“Like the Spartans, every Christian is born a warrior. It is his destiny to be
assaulted, his duty to attack.” – Charles Spurgeon

“Finally be strong in the Lord and in his might power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” –Ephesians 6:10-11
How many of us view the Christian life as something dramatically less thrilling that the life of warfare described by Spurgeon, and advocated by Paul? Perhaps we view it as boring, irrelevant, or uninteresting because we are unaware of the implications of our joining Christ’s “battalion.” Do we truly believe that the devil is scheming against us, our families, our churches, or do we treat that aspect of the Christian life as we would Aesop’s Fables or fairy tales? Do we view other believers as our “band of brothers” fighting together to accomplish the goal, or merely as more dues-paying members of the club?

“There are many ways in which the Christian may to a great degree forget
his military character.” – Charles Spurgeon

Most of our conversation on Sunday morning centers around sports or politics. We speak of those matters with a gusto that is strangely absent from our discussions (when we have them) of spiritual matters. Could it be that all week we have been spoiling for the fight, but released those passions in the only venue we could find? Could it be that we, as Christians, are so unfamiliar with spiritual warfare that we fight our battles vicariously through our favorite teams or preferred candidates? Could it be that we are ignorant of the spiritual battles that occur every week, every day, every moment?

Men of God (and women, to be sure) are warriors, destined for assault and under duty to attack. If we do not perceive those assaults, we attribute them to something else, something less sensational than the “world forces of this darkness.” If we do not attack worldliness, sin and the devil – or at least recognize that we are stumbling around the battlefield – we will have put ourselves in the infirmary with no injury other than sitting on our proverbial helmet. We will have gone AWOL from the spiritual battle.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


I’m sort of nerdy, I guess.

Why do I say so? When you own a book called The Birder’s Life List and Master Reference, it’s not too difficult a conclusion to reach. A conclusion, by the way, repeatedly confirmed by my family units.

Me: “Wow! That’s a Crested Nuthatch!”
Family Units: “Dad, you’re a nerd.”

Me: “Look! There’s a Tufted Titmouse!”
Family Units: “Dad, you sure are nerdy.”

So I provided my feathered friends a bird bath. Nothing too fancy; just a concrete bowl with some fresh water. When it’s really hot outside, and it hasn’t rained in a while, the bird bath is a popular bird destination. At times, the congestion at the bath encourages some fairly raucous disputes between the cardinals and the wood thrushes. Once the jays got involved, and I had to call in the law.

Mostly, though, it’s a single bird stopping by for a drink and a dip. Curiously, the birds don’t seem to mind whether the dip or the drink is first. As I sat on the porch watching the dipping and drinking (remember the nerd factor), I thought “That bird has no clue where that water came from. To him, it’s just there. He doesn’t appreciate what I’ve done for him.”

But then, perhaps the bird does know. Perhaps in his dipping and drinking he is instinctively demonstrating for me and all the other nerds that the water and all other good things have been provided, not by me, but by God who created them and us. And perhaps it’s not the bird who has no clue, but instead it’s me who hasn’t a clue where all the things I enjoy come from.

Truly, though, I – and you – do know that God has provided us many wonderful gifts.

“Every good thing and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, in whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” James 1:17

Sunday, July 6, 2008

REVIEW: The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism

The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism
Craig R Brown
2007 Ligonier Ministries

Perhaps you might have heard of the Sunday school teacher who refused to cooperate with department leaders because one of them was "a Calvinist." Or of the church deacon who criticized the preacher's pastoral skills because he was "a Calvinist." In neither case did the suspect call himself such, announce his doctrinal preference, criticize those nefarious "Arminians," or do anything remotely suggestive of creating or perpetuating that infamous row between the followers of Jacob Arminius and the results of the Synod of Dort.

The former suggested using Baptist catechisms in the children's Sunday school hour; the latter believed in the sovereignty of God in salvation. You might have encountered these or similar situations played out in Southern Baptist churches (and others) all over the country. I've even heard a conference speaker -- pushing his own version of a systematic theology, for sale, of course -- decry "Calvinism" and other "shade tree theologians" because Calvin had once foisted his systematic theology (Institutes of the Christian Religion) on unsuspecting believers.

What could cause all these seemingly irrational and uncharitable denunciations? Calvin, and all things "Calvinist," it would seem, have become the favorite red herring and proverbial straw man against which to rail.

Craig R Brown has taken it upon himself to issue a rejoinder against some of the "misconceptions" about Calvinism, avoiding a rehash of the typical comparison/contrast between the five points or articles of each system, and instead confronting the criticisms of Calvinism raised from the standpoint of "American common sense." Brown is a layman, writing from his experience as an elder in the Presbyterian church (Orthodox and PCA).

R.C. Sproul does the honors of an introduction, notably quoting George Whitfield, who said that "We are all Arminians by nature." Sproul indicates that though Brown's effort is worthwhile, "Craig and I would not always employ the same arguments or come to the same conclusions." Regrettably, Sproul did not spell out these differences.

Before addressing various "misconceptions," Brown reviews the history of the struggle between Calvinism and Arminianism. Pelagius and Augustine first differed over the extent of original sin and its effect on salvation. In 431 the Council of Ephesus condemned as heresy the Pelagian view that sin had not impaired man's moral ability. Cassian later taught that man is able to move toward conversion. Though God's grace is necessary, salvation is dependent on man's exercise of free will. The Council of Orange in 529 condemned Cassian's view -- Semi-Pelagianism -- as heresy.

Followers of Jacob Arminius drew up five articles against the teaching of Calvin and various accepted confessions. In 1618 the Synod of Dort met to discuss Arminianism, a "rehashing of the views of Pelagian and Cassian." Arminianism was condemned as heresy, and the Synod developed five articles (the TULIP acrostic) in refutation of Arminianism.

In view of Brown's recount, many believers might bristle at the idea that their concept of soteriology has been so consistently and roundly characterized as heresy.

Brown then gives a side-by-side comparison of the TULIP and the "Daisy": the five points of Calvinism compared with the corresponding Arminian version. The summary is fair, but anyone desiring more complete information about the opposing systems would need to consult other sources more directly on point. He then discusses the "dilemmas."

Dilemma One: Responsibility. That is, if God is in control, how can he hold anyone accountable? Brown points out that Arminianism posits falsely that human freedom and divine sovereignty are mutually exclusive concepts, while Calvinism posits that both are true simultaneously. Wayne Grudem characterizes the Calvinist view as "concurrence."

Dilemma Two: Motivation. If we are not saved by works, what's the point? Brown proposes that we should do good works 1) because God asks it; 2) out of appreciation; 3) from fear of the Lord; and 4) to earn rewards in heaven.

Dilemma Three: Obedience. If God predetermines everything, why pray and evangelize? Brown asserts that Calvinism, despite its caricature, promotes prayer and evangelism. We should pray because it 1) is commanded by God; 2) is a means of worship; 3) is a blessing; 4) exposes our insufficiency; 5) is used by God to execute his plan; 6) teaches dependency.

Dilemma Four: Evil. If God is sovereign and good, why is there evil? Brown handles the other "misconceptions" fairly well, if not altogether thoroughly, but in this discussion he becomes a bit sloppy. Brown makes statements such as "nothing is outside the providence of God, and that includes evil. Everything that happens in this world comes from the hand of God." Further, "Although God decrees evil, He does not directly perform morally evil deeds." I would have preferred a bit more clarity regarding what comes "from the hand of God" and regarding how, exactly, God "decrees evil" without participating in it.

Brown also proposes his own "Theory of Opposites" to explain evil. Many concepts are known in contrast: white/black; fast/slow; light/dark. According to Brown, this explains evil. "But when He created good, evil automatically came into being as the antithesis or opposite of good." However, many of Brown's examples are not opposites, but examples of degree (mathematically, the opposite of 10 is not 0, but -10). More troubling, though, is the idea that evil "automatically" came into being as an antithesis to good. And Brown does not explain how the angels, or God himself, could understand evil without the presence of evil.

Dilemma Five: Babies. Where do babies go when they die? Brown recounts some of the standard responses to this very real concern. But his "additional reasons" to believe that babies go to heaven prove more helpful, and are worth considering.

I have long believed that when most believers rail against "Calvinism" it is a caricature that they attack. If the caricature were accurate, the attack would be justified. Brown's treatment of the "misconceptions" is worth considering, and goes a long way toward clarifying common unjustified criticisms of Calvinist doctrine. Many readers will be reminded of other different "misconceptions," perhaps to develop responses as Brown has.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


"Teach Them to Your Children"

The Biblical Mandate

God places great value on our passing his instruction on to succeeding generations. He told Israel not to forget what they had see, but to 'teach them to your children and to their children after them' (Deuteronomy 4:9). He required diligence in that instruction: 'Teach them to your children talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates' (Deuteronomy 11:19-20). And Paul repeats the theme when he tells us 'Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord' (Ephesians 6:4).

Yet many observe that our children frequently do not remain in the church, and if they do, they don't know very much about the faith. Children who have been in church every Sunday can't describe essentials of salvation: sin, judgment, forgiveness, faith, atonement, justification. They can't name the books of the Bible, the apostles, or other important facts. They are unable to describe the primary functions of the church or the traditional spiritual disciplines.

"Tell Us Some Stories!"

Recognizing the love kids have for storytelling, those who prepare children's curriculum for Bible study focus on the narratives of Scripture, which can be especially powerful in conveying God's redemption story if used properly. The main problem with most prepared children's curriculum, and with educational programs used by most churches, is that the narratives are not given proper context: they focus on the faith, obedience, or attitude of the human actor in the story; how we should emulate (or not) the various characters; or some other secondary, peripheral or other theme that might not even exist in the text. The story of Cain and Abel might focus on anger and brotherly love, rather than on obedience to God in worship. Noah and the ark might focus on Noah's skill in shipbuilding and animal husbandry, but neglect explanation that the flood was God's judgment on sin. And lessons on events in Jesus' ministry might emphasize his love and compassion, but omit his demands of righteousness and obedience.

This leaves our children without the whole picture -- or with an easily distorted picture -- of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus and of our need for redemption and God's gracious provision. For the church that desires complete biblical instruction for its children and youth, several steps can be taken to ensure that its content is complete and biblically sound and that it is faithfully and lovingly conveyed.

To ensure effective children's curriculum:

  1. It must be comprehensive. Most children's curriculum repeat the same stories year after year, leaving kids with a stale knowledge of Noah's Ark but will little understanding of God's redemption story. By contrast, a two-year plan could easily accommodate teaching the complete Old Testament and New Testament story. Moreover, a plan to teach the basics, with other important materials, by grade six can be very effective. Any good education plan will be intentional about what material will be taught and on what timetable.
  2. It must have Godward focus. Most narrative focus on things other than that for which they were intended. Good curriculum will teach three things about each story: what it says about the condition of man, what it says about the character of God, and how it fits into the overall redemption story. Curriculum that focuses on other themes is in danger of treating God as cosmic magician or entertainer, performing great deeds for our amusement, or of treating stories as life lessons akin to Aesop's Fables.
  3. It must include memorization. Children have great capacity to learn vast amounts of data, which they will, at some point, be able to assemble into meaningful understanding of redemption and of their own need for salvation.
  4. It must include application. All teaching should aim to affect at least on of the following: belief, attitude or behavior. Much teaching will involve all three. Children and youth should be taught in each lesson that God expects them to be different, in some way, as a result of what he has taught us.
  5. It must be challenging. Teaching for both children and youth must challenge them intellectually and morally. It must not be abbreviated, the difficult subjects must not be diluted, and the unpleasant topics must not be avoided. If we tell children for more than six years that Jesus says "you are my friend" but they later learn that Jesus actually says "you are my friend if you obey my commandments" we have done them no service, and have created an integrity problem for ourselves. As youth get older and are able to use logic and rhetoric, they no longer will depend solely on narrative but their education should also include didactic instruction.
  6. It must be taught. Teachers must teach. They must believe the word, obey the word, live the word. And learners must learn. They don't decide what they want to learn about and how it applies. Jesus said to "teach them to observe all that I commanded you," not what they want to hear or what will make them happy.

Children and youth are capable of much more learning than we typically think. We should be good stewards of the mental and moral instruction and take advantage of the ability to teach them during their formative years. Our teaching should be intentional, it should be planned well, and it should be diligently executed.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.' (Matthew 5:9)

But what is involved in 'making peace'? Is it merely 'making nice'? We are, unfortunately, familiar with the term 'wage war.' In the temporal realm we presume that peace is simply what happens when we stop waging war.

Yet in the spiritual realm, in the reality of man's heart, it is peace that needs to be waged. Long after outward hostilities cease, conflict still rages. Scripture tells us that peace is not our natural state, that we do not need to 'wage war' because we are already at war, both with God and with man. Warfare is our natural inclination, both temporally and spiritually.

Jeremiah warned Israel "They have spoken falsely of the Lord and have said 'He will do nothing; no disaster will come upon us.'" He chastised the prophets and priests -- Israel's spiritual leaders -- because they 'have healed the wound of my people lightly (superficially) saying 'Peace, peace' when there is no peace.' (Jeremiah 5:9 and 6:14). Israel merely claimed peace without waging it.

Similarly in the church today we cannot merely proclaim peace. It must be waged, it must be striven for. In Ephesians we are told to 'be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace...speaking the truth in love' (4:3, 4:14). The terms used here imply a military striving to prevail in the warfare that would seek the destruction of peace. If conflict is the frustration of any goal or desire (Ken Sande, The Peacemaker), it could be something simple, in which case 'love covers a multitude of sins.' But it could create resentment and bitterness.

In that case, Jesus tells us what to do to 'wage peace.' In Matthew 18, we are told to go to our offending brother and report the matter. If he listens, you win your brother. If not, take two or three more. If he won't listen to them, take it to the church. If he won't listen to the church, put him out of it. Jesus' method is certainly not passive -- in which the conflict (breach of the peace) is ignored, hidden or glad-handed away -- but is assertive, addressing the conflict head on and waging peace upon it.

Growth with God, and growth between men, does not come by claiming peace where there is none. Claiming peace with God prematurely or on the wrong grounds leads to damnation. Claiming peace with men prematurely or on the wrong grounds perpetuates warfare and conflict. Especially in conflict between men, growth happens when the causes of that conflict are recognized, addressed and resolved.

'Waging peace' is not easy. Sometimes it is not pleasant. It is certainly not 'making nice.' But in contrast to a superficial truce -- one that terminates the gunfire but perpetuates the anger, the difficulty and hard work of 'waging peace.' accomplishes a unity that is truly in the Spirit.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

REVIEW: The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment

The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment
Tim Challies
Crossway, 2007

'With discernment comes division. A person who seeks to be discerning must be willing to
suffer the effects of this division' (p39).

And here lies the rub: not many in the church today seem willing to suffer whatsoever, much less suffer the ignominy of being called 'judgmental.'

Tim Challies points out that the worldview of 'Christians' is no different from the rest of the population, and recognizes the need in the church for believers who are gifted with spiritual discernment. He challenges congregations to seek the gift, overcome obstacles to its use, and actually employ it in the life of the church.

Challies does a good job of assessing the effects that a lack of discernment cause and the various challenges to its use. He surveys the biblical mandate for a discerning spirit, and cautions against improper judgment before setting out what things God tells us to judge.

Challies is unfairly critical, however, of gifts assessment tools. He takes several opportunities to criticize tools such as spiritual gifts inventories and surveys because there is no warrant for these in scripture (p131). However, in the same discussion he asserts that churches must create opportunities for their members to exercise their gifts, which does not seem to enjoy the scriptural warrant he demands for assessment tools. In the right context, and employed by those properly gifted, assessment tools are merely a method of helping to discern each member's giftedness. Besides, Challies later offers 'Five Principles' for a believer to discern his spiritual gift, which itself seems quite like an assessment tool!

Despite this slight misstep, Challies provides a good discussion of the need for discernment and how it should operate in the local church. His list of practical ways to exercise the gift should identify for most readers how their congregations are failing in this area: discernment can help the church 1) separate truth from error; 2) discern the will of God; 3) identify the presence and work of the Holy Spirit; 4) identify worldliness; 5) oversee the exercise of spiritual gifts; 6) decide disputes and 7) protect new Christians.

Good discernment, as it were, would recommend this book.