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A rebuke worth noting

“When you have to come to a Methodist for a biblical sermon, that’s pitiful.”

HT: Pistueo

Those are the sobering words of William H. Willimon, a self-designated liberal preacher who offers a well-deserved rebuke of “conservative” preachers who, despite all their arguments for “connecting”, meeting “felt needs”, “contextualizing”, and (insert fadish buzzword here), have ended up sounding indistinguishable from liberal preachers. When a liberal preacher tells you that you sound like a liberal preacher, that is not to be taken as a compliment.

The primary responsibility of the Church is to proclaim God’s Word. Of the ministry of preaching God’s word, Martyn Lloyd-Jones said it well, “The Church is a special and specialist institution and this is a work that she alone can perform.” In other words, there will always be other agencies that will provide social aid, but there is no other institution that can deliver the Gospel. There exists no other agency whose chief purpose is to tell men to “fear the Lord and keep His commandments.” Whatever other obligations exist for the Church for its fellow man, if it refuses to proclaim of God’s Word it is a useless institution which can be replaced by a hundred or even thousand others secular institutions.

What is commonly thought of these days as being new and innovative is neither new nor innovative. It may have new flash and greater special effects, but it is not new. The argument we hear is usually along the lines that, Man is different than he was a generation ago. He is more sophisticated. He is more technologically savvy. Therefore, the Church must reach out to that person. We must meet the felt needs, the concerns, the struggles because he is struggling as he has never struggled before.

Such an argument could have been given 40 years ago, even a hundred years ago, and it would have been no different in principal. In fact, this argument has been used for the last hundred years. Social Gospel and other experiments have been around for a long time.

The problem is that the argument is always based on the same fundamental error. Man has not changed. He is still sinful, still seeks to overthrow its Creator, and still seeks to be a law unto himself. God has not changed. He still rules as Sovereign Lord, His holiness still demands justice for sins wrought against Him, and He still meets the deepest needs of those whom He has created.

The Gospel confronts the sin and cuts through all excuses and arguments and subjects all men to the authority of God. The Gospel was not intended to alleviate a poor self-image. It was intended to bring those who are made in the image of God to repentance, that they would become worshipers of God. And the only means of this life-giving message comes from God’s people who proclaim the Scriptures and preach salvation to men.

It is a difficult ministry. It is a despised ministry. It is not a ministry for anyone else but Christ’s Bride. She must be faithful to deliver the message of her Husband.

Willimon observes,

We need biblical preachers now, more than ever, to remind us that “He who sits in the heavens laughs” (Psalm 2:4) over our kings and kingdoms. God, not nations, rules the world.

Indeed we do. And I will echo Willimon’s sentiment that when a self-designated liberal preacher needs to soundly rebuke biblical preachers for not being biblical preachers, there is little more needed evidence that many preachers are in need of repentance and must once again desire to faithfully execute their primary responsibility.

And Jesus said to him, “Starve my lambs”

In contrast to John Ryland’s profound thoughts on the office of Christian preacher, I would like to share a clip from a modern pastor who mocks nameless congregants for wanting to go deeper into God’s word:

HT: The Museum of Idolatry

In this clip, after mocking the congregant by using a derogatory word against them, Perry Noble, demonstrating pastoral patience and concern, tells this audience of 2000 pastors, “You know what I tell them? I tell them, ‘Your only as deep as the last person you served.'” He then implies threatening to look at their tithing and service record to “see how deep you are”.

Later he accuses the motive of the congregant(s) stating that the reason why they want him to go deep is so that he would stand up on Sundays and “confuse the heck out of you so you don’t have to apply what I teach on Sundays — I could do that.”

Contrast that with John Ryland’s comment about pastoral ministry for a moment, “The great design and intention of the office of a Christian preacher are to restore the throne and dominion of God in the souls of men…”

What a contrast! How many of the flock are starving for the greatness of God, wanting to feast upon His presence in worship only to find that their shepherd is too lazy to lead them to the green pastures?

What should Christian worship look like? Is it not compared to a feast wherein a soul is satisfied? Consider Psalm 63:

Psalm 63:1 A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah. O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, In a dry and weary land where there is no water. 2 Thus I have seen You in the sanctuary, To see Your power and Your glory. 3 Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, My lips will praise You. 4 So I will bless You as long as I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name. 5 My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness, And my mouth offers praises with joyful lips.

“My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness…”. Is this what we hear Mr. Noble telling other shepherds? The picture David gives us is a contrast of starvation and thirst in a barren land.

Living in the Arizona, I can relate to the picture of thirst very well. I have been on hikes when there was no water around and it was very hot. Knowing that I would need to walk another quarter mile before any water is available can be anguishing and frustrating as I long for that moment of refreshment. And when it comes, there is grace or dignity. There is only ravenous drinking until I am satisfied.

David pictures himself in a barren land and when he finally comes to the presence of God he gorges himself. Nothing can satisfy him like being in the presence of God.

This is the great responsibility of a Christian pastor. He provides the Word of God so that the people may gorge themselves in great and holy worship of God. He is not to berate his people for being ravenous in their appetite. The infinite God alone can satisfy the deepest spiritual longings.

1 Timothy 5:17 The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.

Be thankful for the diligent preparation of your pastor if he works hard at preaching and teaching. Be sure to encourage him that he is doing the Lord’s work and faithfully executing his charge. It would be easier for him to pass on this responsibility and simply provide heart-rendering stories or self-help style homilies, but if he labors to bring forth the “whole counsel of God” thank him personally, and thank the Lord for him. And then pray the Lord will raise a thousand more like him.

S. P. Tregelles Has a Word for Today’s Post-Evangelicals on Sentimentalism

S. P. Tregelles was one of the most noted 19th century Greek scholars. His observations back then still holds true today. He keenly writes,

[I]t has been painful to hear earnest and real desire definitely to study the Word of God regarded and termed by some, as being “occupied with the letter of Scripture.” But do those who say this know what they mean? They speak of principles, and of having their minds occupied with Christ; but how do we obtain true principles except from God’s revelation in the Word? and how does the Spirit lead the mind to be occupied with Christ, except from the definite truth of Holy Scripture? In fact, those who thus speak, putting the spirit in contrast to the letter, appear not to know what they are discussing; and as to Scripture itself, by paying but little heed to what they call “the letter,” they really disregard so far what the Spirit has there set forth. “But oh! (they say) this head-knowledge, this intellectual study of truth! how it lead our minds away from Christ!” It is true that there may be mental intelligence with but little spirituality; but it is equally true that if we obey God we shall never neglect the words of His Scripture.

Of course, with this tone of feeling, all critical study of Scripture is decried; it is deemed a waste of time. Even the study of the Word of God in the original Hebrew and Greek is spoken of as if it were a secular occupation. The English Bible is thought to be enough for teachers and taught alike; and thus they remain alike uninstructed. And if the original languages are looked at, exact scholarship is deemed superfluous. How different is this from the real study of God’s Word; from using and valuing each portion, however minute, as being from Him, and as being that of which He can unfold to us the meaning by the teaching of His Spirit…. All diligent and careful inquiry, and laborious examination of authorities, so as to know what were the very words in which the inspired writers gave forth the Scripture, is regarded as merely intellectual and secular. But is this a healthy tone of thought? Should not those who believe in the Divine authority of Holy Scripture know that they ought not to neglect its critical study? And if it be truly inspired, ought they not to feel that it is of some importance to inquire what is its true text—what, as far as existing evidence can show, were the very words in which the Holy Ghost gave it forth?

Most difficult is it to arouse Christians in general to a sense of the full importance of critical study of Scripture; and especially is this the case when dreamy apprehensions are cherished, and where vague idealism has taken the place of truth, and sentimental asceticism is the substitute for Christian holiness.

There may be an external knowledge of Scripture where there is no spiritual life or light; but that is no reason for cherishing what is supposed to be spiritual in contrast to the words of inspiration. Such a contrast cannot really exist. He who truly loves the Lord Jesus Christ, and is guided by His Spirit, will be the most subject to that which is written in the Word. True acquaintance with Scripture is the best check to mere sentimental emotion. —The Hope of Christ’s Second Coming, 1864, pp. 80-2

On Really Believing the Gospel

Why aren’t you a Roman Catholic? That probably seems like an odd question to many of you. Yet, have you ever considered it? If you are a former Roman Catholic, you might have an answer to that question. But is it a valid answer? A solid answer? If it is an answer that involves “Father Mike was mean to me” or “I really don’t like votive candles,” then your reasons for leaving are probably less than sufficient.

I am not a Roman Catholic because Roman Catholicism is a false religion. It is headed by an imposter, a man who claims to be something he is not. The Pope is not the Vicar of Christ, he is not the head of the Christian Church, he is not a “Holy Father,” and I owe him no fealty, honor, nor respect in the religious sense. Roman Catholicism is a man-made perversion of the truth. While it retains elements of the truth (having moved away from the faith slowly and over a great deal of time), it falls under the condemnation of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 1. If the Judaizers were properly anathematized for their additions to the gospel, it is very clear to me that they never came close to dreaming up half the stuff Rome has added to the gospel over the centuries. Nor do we have any evidence that they attacked the sufficiency of Scripture, included grossly unbiblical offices (priests, Cardinals, Popes), or elevated anyone like Mary to the lofty heights of nigh unto divinity that Rome has over the past few centuries. The Papacy has embarrassed the Judaizers in the realm of innovation and gospel-corruption, to be sure.

So I am not a Roman Catholic by positive conviction that the gospel of grace found in Scripture is not the gospel of Rome. My positive conviction of the gospel that saves utterly precludes my consideration of Roman Catholicism, for to embrace that system would require me to abandon all I believe about Scripture (its inspiration, its preservation, its supremacy, its sufficiency), all I believe about the gospel (the sovereign decree of God, the perfection of the atonement, the power of the Spirit in bringing the elect to salvation), all I believe about the church (its form, function, and purpose). In other words, Roman Catholicism is a different religion than I profess. It is not just a variant, “another flavor.”

One is either convicted that the gospel is something that matters or not. There really isn’t any middle ground. Saying the gospel is important, but, not really definitional, is absurd. It is no wonder that so many today find Paul a disagreeable character, because as far as I can see, I am following very closely in his footprints on this issue. There is a divine gospel whereby God glorifies Himself in the salvation of His elect, and anything less than that isn’t the gospel at all. It’s a sham, a fraud, a deception. Now that kind of thinking doesn’t sit well in a post-modern world, to be sure, where it smacks of “epistemological arrogance.” But to say otherwise is to insist that God has not spoken with clarity and that the Lord has not preserved the gospel for His people.

The fact of the matter is that most “Protestants” in the world today are Protestants of taste rather than Protestants of conviction. They just prefer their religion the way they have it. Maybe they don’t like old cathedrals, or they don’t like backwards collars, or the smell of candles. Maybe they think the Pope’s hat is funny. Whatever the reason, they are not Roman Catholics basically because they don’t feel like it. They are not convinced that Rome’s gospel is false or that her theology is blasphemous. No, they have never really given all of that much thought. They might find the Marian dogmas a bit odd, but in the final analysis, their current religious affiliation is just a matter of taste, nothing more. And let me tell you: those folks are ripe for conversion: either conversion to Rome, or, conversion to apostasy, either one. For if they have no passion for the gospel, they have no passion for Christ, and hence no foundation of faith.

A couple of years ago I wrote a review for the CRI Journal of Mark Noll’s book, Is the Reformation Over? While thought provoking, the book was horribly imbalanced and unfair. I only had 775 words, so I could hardly go in-depth in my review. But Carl Trueman from Westminster Seminary had a much less restricted word limit in his review. Toward the end he wrote the following:

When I finished reading the book, I have to confess that I agreed with the authors, in that it does indeed seem that the Reformation is over for large tracts of evangelicalism; yet the authors themselves do not draw the obvious conclusion from their own arguments. Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in others words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day. It would seem, however, that if Noll and Nystrom are correct, many who call themselves evangelical really lack any good reason for such an act of will; and the obvious conclusion, therefore, should be that they do the decent thing and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church. I cannot go down that path myself, primarily because of my view of justification by faith and because of my ecclesiology; but those who reject the former and lack the latter have no real basis upon which to perpetuate what is, in effect, an act of schism on their part. For such, the Reformation is over; for me, the fat lady has yet to sing; in fact, I am not sure at this time that she has even left her dressing room.

I interpret Trueman to mean “default position” in a historical sense, surely not a biblical sense. Be that as it may, his words touch upon the real problem with so many so-called evangelicals today. Thoroughly infected with a post-modernistic allergic reaction to objective truth and divine revelation, bombarded day and night by naturalistic materialism and its soul-sapping, corrosive effect upon faith, these people live in blissful ignorance of history and the reality of the centrality of the gospel to the event of the Reformation. They are far more likely to be embarrassed by the truth than convicted about it.

A true Protestant is a person who has made that act of will, that act of faith, in purposefully embracing the gospel of grace in opposition to a gospel of works and who recognizes that what he has embraced is fundamentally opposed to what he has rejected. The Apostle put it clearly and bluntly:

4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Rom 4:4-8 ESV)

Paul draws a 180 degree contrast between the faith of the one who does to receive and the one who believes. Clearly the Apostle did not think that the one “who works” was holding a “variant” of the same gospel. This was not a matter of mere taste, of preference. The one message saves, the other does not. But there is the rub: today you are strongly denounced by cultural orthodoxy if you think that there is a right and a wrong in matters religious, and even within “churchianity” today, you will gain many a frown by actually thinking we know enough about the gospel to identify anything, no matter how perverse, as “false” and hence “unsaving.” And that is even more true in much of “academia.”

It is the Easter season, and around this time you hear all about the next crop of celebrity “converts” to Rome. When people leave Rome they rarely get star status for so doing (and they rarely wait till a particular day on the liturgical calendar, either). But the “convert traffickers” like Steve Ray and the Coming Home Network will make a star of anyone. This year we have Newt Gingrich swimming across the Tiber. Do we have any reason to believe he was ever firmly planted on the other side? Not that I know of, but don’t expect that to slow down the adoration and triumphalism. But once again, what do “convert” stories prove? Depends on the convert story, of course! When you encounter someone who was knowledgeably convinced of a position and they abandon it and provide sound, fair refutations of the best arguments of their former position, then you can put weight upon the conversion. But without that, all you have is another personal story that is probably a cover for a far more complex set of personal issues that lead a person from one viewpoint to another. The point being that we should not be surprised when people change their tastes. I recently started eating more vegetables. I am sure those who knew me in younger years are in utter shock! But I changed my tastes! Since “personal preference” is the foundation of many a person’s religious views, then alteration of those views is hardly a surprising thing. And for the sound thinking person, when those views change, they have little impact upon the truth claims of either the religion left, or the religion embraced–except in the mind of the post-modernist, who acts upon feelings, emotions, or trends, rather than upon objective truth.

So if you really believe the gospel, you really believe the negation of the gospel is evil. Just as the person who loves God and holiness will hate sin, so too the person who really believes the gospel will find its negation, its corruption, its perversion, an object of hatred. Can they remain balanced in not tipping over to the side of those who confuse their own traditions, their own narrow personal preferences with the gospel? Yes, they can, for the Scriptures provide that balance. That danger must be faced as well, which is why we so often challenge people to examine their traditions and hold to sound, challenging, and even difficult standards of exegetical discipline. But the spectre of the shallow minded theological bigot cannot be allowed to force us over into the other extreme of “everyone’s personal views are equal, there is no truth, no error.” Balance comes from humility before God’s Word. And that Word tells us the gospel is definable, knowable, and believable. If we really believe it, we will know what we believe, and why we believe it.

Assessing Contemporary Theology

I believe the readers of this blog would enjoy (very much) listening to a recent interview with Dr. Lane Tipton. The discussion took place in light of the new book Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church: Essays in Honor of Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (P&R, 2008), but the discussion is more general in nature.

The interview took place on the Castle Church podcast. Click here to listen.