Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Idol of Relevancy

In a review of D.G. Hart's, John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist (P & R Publishing), which I read in the Westminster Theological Journal (Vol. 67, No.2), there is the following quote: "Christianity's primary influence needs to be evaluated not by the church's ability to influence society, but by its performance of sacred rites and recitation of holy words through which the body of Christ grows." Nevin, one of the Mercersburg theologians, believed the church to be principally a divine institution whereby grace is mediated. In our age, the idol of relevancy has diminished the idea of the church as an agent of grace through word and sacrament. The church today resembles a marketing agency, seeking to sell the gospel at any cost. The result is a dilution of the gospel until it becomes no gospel at all, but is rather a reflection of the society it seeks to transform. The church has never been "relevant." It has, when it has been true to itself, offensive to society, a scandal, and a nuisance.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Eternal Deity of Christ

A sermon defending the biblical teaching of the divinity of Christ.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Church's Task

Having been asked by a colleague to expand on my previous post about how the church lives out its being, it occurred to me that this would require a book-length post! There are, however, several points I would like to make on this subject.

1. An emphasis on expository preaching is a good place to start. So many sermons today are little more than narrative drivel - brief strings of pithy stories and illustrations which have no connection to the text read. The great need of every age is the opening up of God's Word and applying it to the lives of God's people.

2. An emphasis in the church's teaching ministry on the absolute authority of Holy Scripture. The Bible must be held up as the only infallible guide for the life and faith of the church.

3. An emphasis on experiential Christianity is surely needed. Liberals decry the phrase "personal Lord and Savior," as unbiblical, but Christ and the apostles clearly taught the need for an individual to make his or her peace with God. Whole chapters of Scripture are devoted to this very theme (e.g., John 3; Psalm 51; Romans 6, 8, etc.). Salvation is an inherently individualistic thing. Each of us must stand before God's judgment seat alone, unless we are in personal union with Christ.

4. An emphasis on evangelism and holy living would naturally follow these points. The Holy Spirit's empowering of us to share the Gospel is a mark of the true church. The Heidelberg Catechism beautifully articulates this in the answer to Q.86., "Because just as Christ has redeemed us with his blood he also renews us through his Holy Spirit according to his own image, so that with our whole life we may show ourselves grateful to God for his goodness and that he may be glorified through us; and further, so that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by its fruits and by our reverent behavior may win our neighbors to Christ."

Other marks of the church, for example discipline and the proper administration of the sacraments, should be noted. But to summarize, we should be looking toward the ancient church, which set a high bar for membership in the body of Christ, and expected its members to live lives of sacrificial holiness. Countless believers were condemned to death because they followed Christ and his Word, and would not compromise their faith by mixing it with the leaven of worldliness. The Reformed Christian looks not to the world for solutions, but to the Word and like the primitive church, continues "steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42).

Friday, January 26, 2007


At a denominational meeting this week, we were told that the church can no longer do business as usual or do the usual business. We were told that the Spirit is doing something new, and that we must allow the society around us to dictate how we should worship, and what we should believe. This seems to me to be a case of the tail wagging the dog. What I found interesting was that no concrete changes were offered. And how do these self-appointed church experts know the Spirit is doing something new? Why is "new" better? Remember "New Coke"? That didn't work out so well, did it? The Holy Spirit is always invoked by such folks, which is a clever device. Going against the Spirit is a bad thing, so get on board with us and our new thing or you will grieve the Spirit.

What is the business of the church? At the very least the church exists to:
1. Glorify God by the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That faith in Jesus is the only way of salvation (Acts 4:12).
2. Serve as a place of worship of the Triune God. Such worship is to be governed by Scriptural principles, and not by fashionable trends advocated by people who have no interest in Christ or the Bible.
3. Serve as a hospital for sinners. A place where the believer is edified, strengthened, challenged, and comforted by the Word and the communion of the saints.

The direction of the church cannot come from the sinful, fallen, anti-Christian world. The direction of the church can only come from God's revelation in Scripture. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). God's Word and biblically governed worship are surely sufficient for these things. Did not the Apostle Paul say so in 2 Timothy 3:16? I say we cast aside this idolatry of the "new," and return to "the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls. But they said, 'We will not walk in it'" (Jeremiah 6:16). No, they will not walk in the biblical, orthodox, Calvinist way. They want the new, the entertaining, the tolerant, the open, and to heal the wound of the people lightly, so as not to offend.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Bach's Goldberg Variations sent me a voucher of $25, for having spent so much money at their site over the years. So I bought a book by P.D. James (love a good mystery), and two cds, one by Telemann and the other Bach's Goldberg Variations. Of course it was the Glenn Gould recording (1981 version). It was a serious gap in my collection. What a revelation this recording is! It went right into the iPod. Did you know that Bach and Telemann were friends? Telemann was C.P.E. Bach's godfather, and J.S. Bach directed the Leipzig University Collegium Musicum (a form of musical society) which Telemann founded. It was a small world back then too, it seems.

Well that's it. Just trust me and go out and get the Goldberg Variations. Put it next to "Brendel Plays Bach" on your shelf. The "Italian Concerto in F" will lower your blood pressure and assure you that there is a God. Bach! the fifth Evangelist.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Solus Christus

A sermon on one of the five "Solas" of the Reformation from Isaiah 61:1-11.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Plight of Lot

This morning I read the story of Lot, Abraham's nephew, in Genesis 19. He comes across as a thoroughly disreputable character. He chooses to live in a city, Sodom, which is rife with abominable sin and depravity. Indeed, when the angels of the Lord come to rescue him, he is so reluctant to go that he must be forcibly removed from the city limits by the angels' hands. He offers his daughters to the mob to prevent the angels from being raped. His children reflect his character. The married daughters remain in Sodom, while his unmarried daughters ply him with wine and then sleep with him. Then of course there is his infamous wife, who is turned into a pillar of salt as she turns back to look upon all she had loved and lost.

Lot is a direputable character, and so he is a type (i.e., a representative) of every sinner. He is not saved by his virtue, but is plucked out danger by the grace of God because of the virtue of another - his uncle Abraham. We read in v.29, "And it came to pass, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had dwelt." Notice the cause of God's action: his remembrance of Abraham. Abraham is a type (a foreshadowing representative) of Christ. Paul, in Romans 4, describes Abraham in just this way. The story of Abraham "was not written for his sake alone...but also for us. It shall be imputed [accounted] to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised for our justification" (v.23-25).

Like Lot, we delight in the depravities of civilization. Like Lot, we must be "rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son He loves" (Colossians 1:13). Like Lot, we are saved by the faith and righteousness of another - Jesus Christ. Even after our salvation, we continue to sin, to pine for the darkness, and to grieve the Holy Spirit with our ungodliness. Lot is a great lesson for us about the wages of sin, about grace, and about the grounds of our salvation. May we have the ears to hear it and hearts to heed it.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Cost of a Cure

The other day we received the bill from the hospital I stayed in for 30+ days last fall. It was over $370,000. After some haggling, my portion comes to $1,400. That's still a lot of money. Of course the total has yet to arrive, since the $370,000 does not include lab fees, doctors visits, etc., etc. I am facing a stem cell transplant (not from babies), which will likely cost nearly $100,000, along with another three weeks in the hospital. The numbers start adding up. We are still in debt from the first time I had leukemia in 2001. Don't worry, I'm not asking for money. I am one of the fortunate ones who has medical insurance. 46.6 million Americans do not have health insurance.

We are the richest, most powerful nation on earth, and yet we are the only "civilized" nation without universal health care. I am quite sure that the lobbyists and President Bush's friends all have coverage, but even those of us who have health insurance face enormous costs. You may have to wait a while for certain procedures in Canada, but at least you get the procedure, and you aren't bankrupted in the process. It's time for America to join the other "first world" nations and stop spending billions of dollars on tax cuts for the wealthly and unprovoked wars, and start providing health care for every person who needs it. If that sounds like socialism, call me a socialist. I'd rather be called a Christian, caring for the least among us.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

What Consititutes Fruitfulness?

A couple of years ago, a speaker at a regional church gathering berated us for valuing the concepts of "faithfulness" and "family." What mattered, he said, was fruitfulness, which he defined as numerical growth. If you were not growing numerically, it didn't matter if your church was orthodox theologically or a warm, nurturing family.

Of course I disagree with this assessment, pastoring a church which has had almost no numerical growth over the past few years. At lunch today with two ministerial friends, we talked about this issue. If numerical growth is all-important, and a mark of God's blessing, then how do you explain Ted Haggard, who built a mega-church of 40,000, while privately engaging in homosexuality. Some fruit is poisoned, and many of the "successful" congregations offer little but entertainment, psycho-babble, and pablum. Clearly the word "fruitful" needs a better definition than mere numbers.

Christ blessed the church of Philadelphia in Revelation 3:8 when he said, "I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept my word, and have not denied my name." In other words, though outwardly small and weak, they were inwardly strong and triumphant. The door is Christ's presence, his power, and the line of communion between Christ and the church, which cannot be closed. Through the open door flows grace. As Matthew Henry wrote long ago, "True grace, though weak, will do more than the greatest gifts or highest degrees of common grace, for it will enable the Christian to keep the word of Christ, and not deny his name. Obedience, fidelity, and a free confession of the name of Christ, are the fruits of true grace, and are pleasing to Christ as such."

How does the New Testament further define fruit. Romans 6:22, "But having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life." Paul famously lists the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22 as "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness." He makes no mention of numerical growth. In fact Scripture attributes growth as God's activity. "So then neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow" (1 Corinthians 3:7). Numerical growth in a congregation is a wonderful thing, but if we do not grow in holiness, humility, and proclaiming the name of Christ, it is a vain thing.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Beauty of Holiness

A couple of times recently, during my morning Bible reading, I have encountered the phrase, "the beauty of holiness." For example:

Psalm 29:2, "Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness."

Psalm 96:9, "O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth."

And then there is the familiar passage from Psalm 27:4, "One thing I have desired of the Lord, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple."

The Hebrew word for beauty is hadarah, and refers to the fine clothes worn at festive occasions ~ worship festivals. David is referring here to the glory of the tabernacle (later the temple). Where God is, there is ineffable beauty. In Psalm 27 and Psalm 90 (v.17, "And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us"), another Hebrew word is used, no'am, which refers to the brightness or glory of Jehovah. Thus, God is beautiful because holiness is beautiful, and God is perfect in holiness, so much so that He shines to the point of being dangerous for humans to look upon. (e.g., Exodus 33:20). But the danger aside, how keen is our desire to look upon God. Moses said, "Please, show me your glory" (Exodus 33:18). In Christ, however, such danger is past.

But why is holiness beautiful? The most obvious reason is its contrast with evil. Sin is ugly, deforming the image of God. The way of the wicked is hard (Proverbs 13:15). Lines of despair are engraved on their faces. Not so the communion of the saints. Our worship is beautiful, full of beautiful people. Not cosmetically beautiful, but spiritually lovely. For the Christian is marked by joy, and joy beams from God's people like light from the sun, and our spiritual worship is an earthly reflection of the beauty of God's holiness. Are we mindful of this when we come to worship? Are we aware of the beauty of God, the beauty of holiness, and the beauty of worship? If not, we should be, as it would transform our experience of the Sabbath and the communion of the saints.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


God told Elijah on Mt. Horeb (Sinai) not to look for evidence of the divine presence in spectacular events (e.g., great wind, earthquake, or fire ~ cf. 1 Kings 19:11-12), but in God's "still small voice." If we look back over our lives, we can detect God's intervention most often in small, subtle events which only later amaze us. A former parishioner of mine, a most holy woman, would often say, "There are no coincidences, only Godincidents." Our faith is strengthened when we observe how God answers our prayers, especially the small cries of distress we utter as we rush to and fro about our day. As the psalmist says:

"In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried unto to my God: he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry came before him, even into his ears" (18:6).

"I called upon the LORD in distress: the LORD answered me, and set me in a large place" (118:5).

"In my distress I cried unto the LORD, and he heard me" (120:1).

I am sure that in heaven we will thank God for all the times he said "No!" to us in our prayers, but I am equally sure that we will sing praises for the many small blessings, incidents, providences, and other God-directed events we will call to our remembrance. Such a "Godincident" happened to me today; did one happen to you?

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year's Resolution

From The Valley of Vision.

Let me be what I profess,
do as I teach,
live as well as hear religion.