Friday, February 24, 2006
God is still moving, but where?
To today's promoters and followers of evangelical fads and follies, I can say that I agree that God is moving today, but He's certainly not moving through the evangelical fad of the day. If you're seeing people truly turn to Christ in your churches, it's strictly on account of whatever portion of Gospel truth is being preached from your pulpit and is in spite of the man-made means you've been employing, but it is most certainly not your churches that are seeing a true move of God. Instead, it is in those churches that have remained faithful to preaching Christ crucified that God continues to be at work drawing sinners unto Himself. Many of these churches are quite small, and they are widely scattered in location, so you might not be aware of them, but they do exist. In these churches, expository preaching of the Word is primary, and worship is God-centered. The novel inventions of men, no matter how popular they be, are rejected in favor of the clear teaching of Scripture. No, the crowds don't flock to these churches, but that's no wonder because the Gospel is an offense to all save those whom God sovereignly chooses to draw unto Himself.
My friend, appearances to the contrary, the church of Jesus Christ is continuing to prosper and grow wherever the Scriptures are faithfully preached. It is only those churches who have rejected the plain teaching of Scripture in favor of evangelical fads and follies that are dying on the vine. Although I'm grieved by the abuse of men's souls that's being perpetrated by these wayward churches, I remain hopeful for the progress of Christ's church, for we have Christ's own promise that the gates of hell cannot prevail against it. No matter how great the apostasy around us, the true church will continue to prosper and grow.
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
The Fad-Driven Church
What with all the noise that was made by these alleged "moves of God" in their day, I think it's rather ironic that you hardly hear about any of them any more. In turn, each "move" rose to prominence to dominate the evangelical landscape for several months or a couple of years, only to shrink back to obscurity, making way for the Next Big Thing. As each of these "moves" came on the scene, so did the hype, but yet it seems that few noticed when they fizzled out and died. If God was indeed behind these "moves" as so many had claimed, it seems that He's either lacking in the ability to sustain His mighty work or else He has an extremely short attention span.
In any event, it's just as well that these past moves have gone by the wayside, because now American evangelicalism is reveling in Today's Big Thing: the Purpose-Driven Life movement and its seeker-sensitive and Emergent offshoots. Just like PK, Jabez, and the rest, everyone says it's great, and anyone who's anyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Surely the PDL is really, truly, absolutely just what evangelicalism needs! It's going to do everything that all of these other "moves" of the recent past did and more! Right? Right???
If you've read along thus far, I hope you see the point I'm trying to make: American evangelicalism is utterly hooked on following the tossing waves and shifting sands of the latest and greatest religious fad, so hooked that few seem to realize just how foolish this is. To say one year, "This is the thing God is doing", only to say the next year, "Now this is what He's doing for sure," betrays an incredibly short attention span and memory. As the mainstream evangelical church hops from one bandwagon to another, no one seems to realize that it is simply being tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine. No sooner does one fad fade out, another one rises up to take its place, with no one stopping to think, "Hmmm, haven't we been through this before?"
My friend, there's more wrong with the PDL, etc., than the flimsy proof-texting that's trotted out as alleged support. By claiming that these man-made fads are a "move of God" or a great evangelistic tool, we are dragging God's name through the mud and turning the church of Jesus Christ into a laughing stock. As we chase after every fad and fancy in its turn, we look exactly like a flock of blind men following a leader who's just as blind as they. Now, it might be understandable if the evangelical church would fall for a single fad once in a while and learn its lesson, but what we're seeing is a collective chase after an unbroken sequence of fads. This behavior is not only unscriptural: it's also flat out stupid.
By way of contrast, consider Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever. Consider the Scriptures, ever the sole, sufficient Word of God. Consider the true church militant and victorious, founded upon the Rock of Christ: even the gates of hell cannot prevail against its onslaught! While today's man-centered "evangelical" churches persist in going after the latest and greatest fancies, there remains a remnant who by God's grace remains faithful to the pure undiluted teaching of the whole counsel of God. It is through this remnant rather than through the crowds who are following the ever-shifting winds of man-made doctrine that Christ is continuing to build His church. Yes, the Church of Jesus Christ is alive and well and thriving wherever the Scriptures are preached and God remains the center.
I suspect it will not be long before the Purpose-Driven Life and its offshoots will pass from the scene unnoticed and unlamented. Many will be disappointed by their failure, but none of the shepherds who led these sheep astray will comfort them. At best, they will encourage these poor people to chase after yet another folly. In the meantime, the church will continue to grow and prosper wherever the Gospel is preached and Christ is lifted up. The church has no need of man-made fads and follies: it already has all that it needs in Christ.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
The proper cure for spiritual disease
Let us consider what is promised by today's seeker-sensitive churches: meaning and purpose for life, fulfillment, peace of mind, connection with other people, etc.. Although all of these things are desirable in and of themselves, they are woefully insufficient to address the needs of real people. You see, you and I aren't merely lacking in peace or fulfillment, although we could certainly stand to have more of those things. No, you and I and every human being with whom we share this earth has a far greater problem that today's megachurches deliberately fail to address. Given the design of these churches to avoid turning people off to what they have to offer, it's eminently understandable that they'd not want to address the underlying problem of humanity, but yet I would suggest that they are responsible for extreme negligence in their seemingly friendly offer to help people with their problems without saying a word about the fatal disease that is at the root of those so-called problems.
The name of this disease is, of course, sin. It is far and away the most prevalent disease suffered by mankind. The infection rate is 100%, and the fatality rate is the same unless miraculous means are brought to bear to lift the sufferer out of his woeful state. In fact, nothing less than a miracle of God's grace will do the sinner a single solitary bit of good. Yes, you and I have problems, but our problems are nothing more than side effects of our sin.
Now, some will say, "We're all sinners, and we all know that we are, so why run the risk of offending people by harping on what they already know?" Well, as a matter of fact, none of us have the slightest idea of what sin really is until we are confronted with what the Scriptures have to say about it. Sin isn't just problems, and it isn't about making mistakes. It isn't just about the really big mistakes, either. People such Hitler and Stalin and John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson aren't the only sinners, my friend. In fact, you and I are just as sick at heart as they.
In a way, I think all of us are like little Pharisees. I certainly am. I look at myself in the mirror and say, "Dave, you're not a bad guy. You haven't murdered anyone, you haven't cheated on your income tax, and you even help little old ladies across the street. I'm certainly a lot better guy than my neighbor who's cheating on his wife. Yup, God must be really happy with me." We tend to judge ourselves with a quick surface-level once-over, and give ourselves a clean bill of health if we can't find any blatantly obvious warts or lesions.
But are we really as well off as we think? The Great Physician, the Lord Jesus Christ, got right to the crux of the matter when He demonstrated that anger towards my brother is tantamount to murder, and lust towards my neighbor's wife is adultery. Paul expanded on this point in one of the most horrifying chapters of Scripture, Romans 1. "But that's about the pedophile, the homosexual, and the pervert," you may say, "I've certainly never done anything nearly so bad as what Paul's describing!" Perhaps not outwardly, and perhaps not in such a manner that any other person could observe, but if you and I will examine our hearts in all honesty, we will discover that lusts and perversions are indeed festering there. Oh, we may not have ever gone so far as to act upon the wickedness that's brewing in our sinful hearts, but it is there all the same. The fact of the matter is this: whenever I presume to do or even think whatever pleases me in willful contradiction to God's express commandment, I am a perverted man. In the Fall, Adam and Eve willfully chose to disobey God's commandment, thus perverting all that is good and right. When I disobey God's Law, as I do countless times every day, I am just as perverted as they, and just as perverted as a child molestor or drug addict. I don't merely have problems: I am a desperately sick man.
My friend, consider a man who's suffering from sharp, repeated chest pains. Would I be doing him a favor if I gave him a bottle of aspirin and a pat on the back? No, I ought to be exhorting him to see a doctor at the earliest possible moment, because his pains may be symptomatic of a very serious condition. Likewise, the so-called evangelical church does the sinner absolutely no favor by professing to care about his symptomatic ills while willfully refusing to confront him with the true nature of his malady. Although this behavior is thought of as sensitive to the person, in true fact it represents an utter lack of true love and compassion for him. Even if you encourage the sinner to trust in Christ, you will do him no good unless you make it plain to him just why he so desperately needs to receive the imputed righteousness of Christ. Christ came not for the righteous, but for sinners. If my only problem is a lack of peace or purpose, then perhaps all I need is a social club so perhaps my local seeker-sensitive church is all I need, but if I'm desperately sick unto death, then nothing will do for me but Christ.
If you were suffering from a serious disease, and you were to discover that your doctor was withholding the true nature of your condition from you, you'd no doubt be indignant, especially if your condition was curable if it were promptly and properly treated. You might even decide to go find another doctor. This is much like what happens when a so-called minister of the Gospel refuses to tell sinners of their desperately wicked condition. My friend, this is rank irresponsibility, and it ought not to be! Therefore, I charge those ministers who have willfully refused to forthrightly preach on sin and its only Remedy to repent of their sin and to resume preaching the whole counsel of God: both the bad news and the good.
Saturday, February 11, 2006
The only cure for a sick church
History is full of situations rather similar to that endured by the woman of our little story. Take, for instance, the ministry of the famous 19th Century minister Charles Finney. Surely all evangelicals have heard the stories of the amazing results that were seen during Finney's revival meetings. Thousands of men and women professed to have made a decision. In some towns, so many people were affected by Finney's preaching that all of the drinking establishments went out of business. To this day, the stories of Finney's revivals are told as examples of the amazing results that can be expected when effective methods are used to present the Gospel. However, there's more to the story of Finney's revivals. Although his preaching invariably produced quick, visible results, the passing of time was not kind to his revival fruit. Later in life, Finney himself began to realize that the vast majority of his converts had fallen away from the Christian faith.
As Phil Johnson writes in his excellent article on Finney:
Predictably, most of Finney's spiritual heirs lapsed into apostasy, Socinianism, mere moralism, cultlike perfectionism, and other related errors. In short, Finney's chief legacy was confusion and doctrinal compromise. Evangelical Christianity virtually disappeared from western New York in Finney's own lifetime. Despite Finney's accounts of glorious "revivals," most of the vast region of New England where he held his revival campaigns fell into a permanent spiritual coldness during Finney's lifetime and more than a hundred years later still has not emerged from that malaise. This is directly owing to the influence of Finney and others who were simultaneously promoting similar ideas.
The Western half of New York became known as "the burnt-over district," because of the negative effects of the revivalist movement that culminated in Finney's work there. These facts are often obscured in the popular lore about Finney. But even Finney himself spoke of "a burnt district" [Memoirs, 78], and he lamented the absence of any lasting fruit from his evangelistic efforts. He wrote,
I was often instrumental in bringing Christians under great conviction, and into a state of temporary repentance and faith . . . . [But] falling short of urging them up to a point, where they would become so acquainted with Christ as to abide in Him, they would of course soon relapse into their former state [cited in B. B. Warfield, Studies in Perfectionism, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford, 1932), 2:24].
Thus, the fruit of Finney's revivalism, at first so promising, turned out to be rotten at its very core.
In our day, we may observe the sad spectacle of countless once-faithful but now-dying evangelical churches turning to seemingly effective methods and programs in order to revive themselves. Predictably, these methods often seem to work, just as Finney's "new methods" once seemed so fruitful. Today, the results that are garnered by the methods of Rick Warren and others are trumpeted as proof of the value of the methods. "Look at how our church's attendance has grown, and look at how many decisions for Christ we've had since we've gone through our forty days of purpose!" On the face of it, this reasoning looks compelling. After all, who can argue with the results? Remember, though, what became of Finney's alleged results in the end. The witness of church history is clear: new methods developed and practiced without true regard to Scripture, however successful they seem to be in the short run, never produce good, lasting fruit. They always end up doing far more harm than good! Although the history of Christianity has seen times of reformation and revival in which old truths have been restored to the church, I am not aware of any instance in which a totally new doctrine or method proved to be both Scripturally sound and fruitful.
In my fairy tale, the woman who'd been temporarily cured by the forty-day nostrum eventually fell back into sickness, and in desperation called upon the town's old physician who prescribed for her a slower and less trendy cure that nonetheless restored her to full health and long life. In turning to the old, proven cure, the woman found the health that had been promised but finally denied her by the young doctor's new methods. Likewise, the churches who are flocking after the latest and greatest cures for their ailing fellowships would do far better if they were to seek help from the tried-and-true cure: the undiluted preaching of the whole counsel of God. Whereas church growth methods can produce an illusion of life, history and experience show that the lasting fruit will not be good, and that in fact lasting harm will be done to countless souls on account of the very methods that had seemed so effective. Instead, the ailing church ought to turn itself back to the Scriptures and to prayer, calling upon God to revive true religion and sound doctrine in its midst. This, my friend, is the only cure for an ailing church that really and truly works.
Thursday, February 09, 2006
The marriage wars
What a pity, then, that this victory came so long after traditional marriage had become a mere shadow of its former self. By 2004, the time when marriage was viewed by most as a lifelong committment--"till death do us part"--was long, long past. For many years now, 50% of American marriages have ended in divorce. If marriage has ever been viewed as an covenant that's dissolvable only by death or in cases of adultery, those days are a distant memory. The fact of the matter is that the institution of marriage had long been a pathetic joke, a mere sham of what it once had been or ought to have been, so the leap to homosexual marriage was really not so large as it seemed during that election. In fact, the largest steps towards the destruction of marriage as a permanent covenant relationship between a man and a woman had been taken many years before.
Among my various avocations, I'm a fan of classic Hollywood movies and early 20th Century popular music. Compared to today's movies and music, this stuff seems ultra-clean. In some ways it is, but in other ways it reflects the sad fact that American society had already begun to lose sight of the true nature and foundation of marriage. Think of the classic Hollywood romantic flick of the 30's or 40's. With precious few exceptions, the love that is shown as being the prerequisite for wedded bliss is portrayed as emotional euphoria. Although there are instances where the lovers are shown as making great sacrifices for each other, the reason is invariably that they feel so much in love.
Now, I'm the first one to agree that there's something special about affectionate feelings for another person. Should I marry one day, I hope that I will share such wonderful feelings with my wife. However, I question whether such feelings ought to be thought of as sufficient grounds for entering into a permanent relationship. OK, let's say I'm swept off my feet by a lovely lady and we end up marrying. Time passes, and our feelings for each other cool markedly. In fact, we get downright sick of each other. We married for feelings, so why shouldn't we divorce over feelings? My friend, this is essentially what countless men and women have done for several generations now. One is in love when one feels love, and one is out of love when that wonderful feeling goes away. No wonder the divorce rate is sky-high, and no wonder adultery is winked at! My friend, this kind of marriage is hardly less a joke than homosexual marriage!
It is long past time that we face up to facts. Even if homosexual marriage or civil unions are outlawed in every ince of U.S. territory, the institution of marriage is anything but safe so long as the vast majority of marriages are based solely on the flimsy ground of emotional attraction. Pragmatism isn't the answer, either. Several decades ago, couples who detested each other would stay married for the sake of the children. Mind you, that was better than divorce, but yet such marriages were a mere shell of what they ought to have been. Not even social stigma--the fear of losing face--is a good enough reason to keep a marriage together.
In fact, there's only one way to start a marriage, and it's the same way that you've got to keep it together. It's the way that's laid out for us with the utmost clarity in Scripture. Although the Bible does indeed celebrate the joys of conjugal love (esp. in the Song of Solomon), it clearly teaches that marriage is a covenant--a binding relationship sealed by a solemn promise--based not on feelings of love but on Biblical duty love. This is the essential truth that's long been forgotten by American society: love is a duty. Think of the Ten Commandments. They are an expansion or commentary on the two Royal Laws: to love God with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself. Love, my friend, is not primarily a feeling: it is a duty. Husbands are to love their wives, and wives their husbands, not because they share feelings of affection or attraction, even though such feelings ought to be coveted and even cultivated: no, they are to love one another because God commanded them to do so. The difference between this type of love and this type of marriage is as different from the world's view of love and marriage is as great as that between day and night.
Let us make no mistake. Marriage is not under any new threat now. No, it has been under threat ever since our society rejected the essential truth that marriage is a covenant that's kept on account of divine Commandment. If marriage is to be rescued, it is not enough to overturn homosexual marriage. Instead, God must grant our nation the grace to reject our individualistic, feelings-based notion of romantic love in favor of the Biblical standard of duty-based love. In so doing, we need not discard our desire for a affectionate romantic relationship, but rather we must come to realize that true affection can only be built upon the foundation of a love that is constant both in fair and foul weather. It is only the love that denies self and puts others above oneself that can be a proper foundation for true marriage. Until our nation is granted a God-given revival of true religion, marriage will continue to be a faint shadow (at best) of what it ought to be. So, let us not be unduly dismayed if homosexual marriage or even polygamy become legal, for our hope for the revival of marriage is not in presidents or courts but in God!
The parable of the sick woman
Once upon a time in a wealthy kingdom, there lived a woman of venerable age. As a youth she enjoyed robust health. Upon entering middle age she began to lose her youthful vigor, but yet retained enough of her strength and beauty to remain fairly attractive to many suitors. As the years passed and the woman advanced into old age, her suitors gradually fell by the wayside, and her health began to leave her, so she asked the local physician to see what he might be able to do for her. He was a younger man whose head was filled with all the latest medical knowledge. He exuded the confidence that comes only with youth.
It did not take long for the physician to form a notion of what ailed the woman. "Why, it is the very same affliction that has been common amongst many women of your years! I have brewed a potion that has restored youthful vim and vigor to many such women, and I am confident that if you will partake of it for only forty days that it will do you much good!!!" As the physician spoke of the marvelous cures that had been wrought by his potion, the woman found her heart swelling with rising hope. "Very well, then," she said, "let us begin at once."
So, the woman began the forty-day cure, and soon the results were marvelous to behold. In place of her elderly listlessness, she enjoyed a renewed sense of purpose. It seemed to her that everything that the doctor had claimed for his cure was true. Just like the other women he'd treated, this woman found herself with a new vigor and attractiveness such as she hadn't enjoyed since she was a youth. Moreover, her old beauty began to be restored, and--wonder of wonders!--suitors began to come to her door for the first time in many, many years. Needless to say, the woman was more than happy to lend her name to the physician's list of testimonials.
During the next few years, the woman continued to enjoy her renewed vigor and purpose. One day, though, she learned that another nearby lady who had also partaken of the doctor's forty-day cure had suddenly taken ill. Almost as suddenly as it had been restored several years ago, the woman's vigor, beauty, and purpose had been stripped away from her, leaving her worse off than she'd been before she'd begun the doctor's treatment. Upon hearing this news, our woman began to fear and fret. "Why, I have partaken of the very same treatment as this poor creature. Am I doomed to suffer the same fate as she? What is to become of me?"
In due time, the woman's worst fears came to fruition. Much like her neighbor, the benefits of the doctor's forty-day cure suddenly left her bereft of all strength and beauty. Desparate, she called for the physician who'd once done her so much good, but her servant returned with the sad tidings that he'd fled for parts unknown not long ago and had not been heard from since. "What am I to do?", the woman cried, "Who is to help me in my distress?" To this the woman's servant replied, "Well, there remains the old physician in the town. He is ignorant of the new ways, but has remained true to the old treatments. Would you like for me to send for him?" "Very well!" the woman replied. "I had tired of his treatments many years ago, but now I suppose I have no other hope. Send for him if you must."
Later that day, the old physician arrived at the woman's bedside to examine her. His manner was brusque and indelicate, but yet a heart of real concern for the poor woman showed through his craggy exterior. "I understand that you have been a victim of the infamous forty-day treatment of our town's recently departed quack," he croaked. "Yes," she wearily replied, "I'd once thought he'd done me such good, but now I'm far worse off than I'd been before!"
It didn't take long for the elderly doctor to determine what truly ailed the sick woman. "It is a pity that you failed to call for me at the first, because your case and cure are quite simple," he said. "Although your cure will be a slow one, it will in time result in a full restoration of your health and the addition of many, many years to your life. You see, the problem has been with your diet. The foods and drinks of which you've imbibed since your youth have slowly but surely sapped your health, leaving you in your present condition. The quack's treatment had merely added a stimulant to your diet, but failed to remedy your poor diet. I counsel you to go on the diet that I will recommend. Be warned, though, that there will be no speedy cure, and that if you lay off this diet, you will lose everything that would would have gained had you stayed on the diet. You must persevere with it to the very end of your days."
So, left with no other alternative, the woman began to partake of the doctor's old-fashioned diet. As he had warned her, the improvement in her health came very slowly, almost inperceptibly, but in due time she noticed that she'd begun to thrive on the old diet. As the years went on, she adhered religiously to the doctor's diet. Of the many victims of the forty-day quack, only a few found their way back to the old-fashioned diet, so most burned out and died long before our woman. Although she had labored hard to try to persuade her friends to use the old doctor's tried-and-true diet, most of them refused, but our woman in the end lived happily ever after.