Pastor John MacArthur’s recent sermon on Acts 2:42-47 takes up an issue near and dear to our own hearts: the ordinary Christian life and the ordinary church. You can find audio, video, and a transcript of the sermon here. We agree with him that the primary problem is American revivalism and the pervasive influence of Charles Finney.
Last week we inadvertently uploaded the Sept 14th audio rather than the podcast file for Sept 7th. So if this week’s program sound’s like a re-run, you need to go back and listen to the Sept 7th program, which you can access here. Sorry for the mixup!
I’ve just returned from nearly 3 weeks in Australia, encouraged and enlightened. I went to Moore Theological College in Sydney to deliver the annual Moore Lectures, founded in 1977 with F. F. Bruce. My topic was “Lord and Giver of Life: A Theology of the Holy Spirit.” I added a week-long intensive course at Sydney’s Presbyterian seminary (Christ College), finishing up in Brisbane on Saturday (Queensland Theological College) and Sunday (preaching at Village Church).
Founded in 1856, Moore College is not only the premier Anglican seminary in Australia, but has long been a model and resource for evangelical Anglicans worldwide. As the website puts it, “The college has a strong tradition of conservative evangelical and Reformed theology with a strong emphasis on biblical languages, the use of primary sources and, critically, the importance of learning in community.” With 600 students, Moore continues to train all of the ministers in the Sydney diocese as well as many others. There aren’t many seminaries (much less Anglican dioceses) with an unbroken succession of evangelical ministry. Especially when compared with the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and Canada, Sydney churches are thriving. And they’re planting churches locally in challenging mission-fields (including Muslim neighborhoods) as well as training ministers for Asia, India, and beyond.
I first became familiar with Moore as an outsider when I was doing my doctoral work in Oxford, England. You might recognize other Moore faculty from the recent past, such as Broughton Knox, Paul Barnett, Peter Jenson, Graeme Goldsworthy, and the recently retired but still (happily) active New Testament scholar, Peter O’Brien.
Today Moore College is led by Mark Thompson. Prof. Thompson has written a number of key articles and books on the theology of Luther and Calvin as well as critiques of contemporary challenges to classic views of Scripture and Christ’s saving work. Mark is also a key leader in the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, the result of the 2008 Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem. GAFCON leaders called for the event because of “a false gospel” actively promoted in the Anglican Communion that “denies the uniqueness of Jesus Christ” and affirms homosexual practice “as a universal human right.” I met Mark in Oxford many moons ago (sharing Alister McGrath as a supervisor) and he was my host—with his wife Kathryn and four lovely girls for the two weeks in Sydney. Fellowship with faculty members and their family over dinner and morning tea with scholars like Peter O’Brien were additional privileges.
Over one afternoon, Glen Davies, Archbishop of Sydney, explained the work that the Lord is doing not only in Sydney but through “confessing Anglicans” globally. I also taught a week-long intensive course at Sydney’s Presbyterian seminary, Christ College.The course was “Reformed Ecclesiology in Changing Contexts,” with a full class of students, pastors, and—to my delight—faculty who were especially encouraging and informative. I also gave their annual Ferrie Lecture. The Presbyterian Church in Australia is composed of the 600 congregations (with 54,000 members) that refused to join the Uniting Church in 1977 and is engaged energetically in church planting and missions.
The trip concluded with a weekend at the Presbyterian seminary in Brisbane (Queensland Theological College) and preaching at Village Church. It was especially nice being hosted by a good friend from Oxford, Gary Millar, and his family. Gary is a superb Old Testament scholar and is actively engaged in missions. You may know him as a regular participant in The Gospel Coalition, both in the States and in Australia.
As Archbishop Davies pointed out, there are more Anglicans in Nigeria than in the Church of England and the Episcopal denominations of the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand combined. The same can be said of Reformed and Presbyterian churches: with 8 million Nigerian members, compared to 367,000 members in the Presbyterian Church in America, the largest conservative Reformed denomination in the US.. Establishing closer ties with reformers in key centers of the Global South will be crucial for us at WHI especially as we seek to help brothers and sisters in the developing world to avoid catching North American viruses and to help them to know what they believe and why they believe it.
The West is dying. The poet Archibald Leach once said, “An era dies when its symbols, although seen, no longer mean.” Do we believe what our fathers in the faith believed? Many will say yes. And of course, in one sense, they are right. The creeds, confessions, theologies, hymns, and liturgies, are repeated and taught. But faith is more than mental ascent. True faith requires courage. “Courage” comes from the root word which means “heart.” In other words, the life of faith must have its roots both in our hearts and minds together.
Many contend for a return to a stronger confession. According to them it is a reaffirmation of key doctrines that are lacking in our day. This is, no doubt true. We have become historically myopic, theologically obtuse, and biblically illiterate. But we have become blindsided by a foe, who in plain sight inspires no opposition or even consternation. Our society has become profoundly, tragically, and even fatally superficial. We have become a mass of consumers that skim malls, surf channels, and scan Twitter feeds. We have “news” blasted in any political or ideological flavor we prefer, 24/7. And it is in this chaotic and media saturated world of personal unrelenting choice, that our hearts and minds have been filled with pablam. We have become the consumers of the banal.
But the problem is not merely out there in the world. Christians themselves have essentially become consumers of religious products and services. We have privatized the Christian life. We walk it alone, choosing what to see, who to hear and what to believe. We hire pastors who become service providers in this increasingly media oriented faith milieu. Even in the modest venues of small local churches, there is little fidelity to a pastoral authority (a concept all but obliterated in a consumer culture, in which we no longer adhere to a covenant of fellowship). Our lives have almost nothing to do with what is said on Sunday. And even when we enter a church we hear superficial sermons in the increasingly prevalent culture of self-help, self-realization, and therapeutic deism (for more on this, see Michael Horton’s book, Christless Christianity). We worship the flag, which we place on our own platforms beside the cross and sing its hymn on the fourth of July, as “good Christians are meant to do” (something any Christian in the world, outside of the USA, finds incomprehensible). We mortgage our future and risk our fiduciary sanity in order to build a house a bit larger that has more walk-in space, and a deck. In short. We are lost.
We have no heart when it comes to faith. It does not inform our priorities, our work, our leisure, our consumption, or even our sexuality. In fact, it has almost nothing at all to do with they way we live. So we simply do church on Sunday, where we sit in a semi-comatose trance in order to hear another self-help message. On Monday, we will go about being as non-Christian as those who think that Evangelicals are just a bunch of bigots who don’t love homosexuals. It is no wonder that the kids are leaving the church in droves. Any statistician will tell you that the church is rushing towards bankruptcy. But our true loss is one of the heart. There is no doubt that there are great things happening in the Church. There are true believers and great pastors out there. However, there is even greater danger on the horizon.
It is never internal flaccidity that destroys the church. Its growing weakness only makes the Church ripe for conquest. More and more, we will have to take heart to be Christians in the face of real opposition that is getting more and more militant. What we need therefore is courage. It is time to weep and pray. It is time to realize that in our perceived wealth, our true poverty has been obfuscated. We are dying. By taking the Christian life and reducing it to a decision or profession of faith, we have lost the precious message of the pilgrimage. We no longer make disciples, instead we’ve become entertainers. Perhaps we need to become less multimedia and more personal. We must become less oriented to the celebrity and more relational in the community of the strong and weak alike. We must return to prayer, and to the renewing of our minds.
Can this happen? Yes it can. Will it happen? Short of a miracle, no. As has happened in the past, the religious status-quo will likely continue to sink into decay. The light will become increasingly dim. But Christ is faithful. I believe that he will revive, reform and revitalize his Church in his own good time. And we will once again find men of courage. In the words of Charles Spurgeon, “We have reached a crossroads. If we turn to the right, our sons and the sons of our sons will follow. But, if we turn to the left, unborn generations will curse our names for having been unfaithful to God and to his Word.”
May God have mercy on us all.
Walter McAlister appears on the Aug 24th edition of the White Horse Inn (Reformation Brazil, Part 2). He has been a minister for 33 years and is the leader of a small fellowship of Reformed Pentecostal churches in Brazil, called The New Life Christian Church Covenant. Founding president of the seminary Instituto Bispo Roberto McAlister de Estudos Cristãos, and of the Anno Domini Publishing company, he is author of the 2011 Brazilian Christian Publisher’s book-of-the-year, The End of an Era (O Fim de Uma Era). Married to Marta, he resides in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
This just in: After an evidence-based study, Google has identified a surprising trait of the ideal leader. Business Insider summarizes the findings:
The prototypical leader is a hero: gives the rousing speech, inspires the troops, and shows up at the last minute to save the day. At least that’s how leaders are portrayed. But that’s not at all what Google discovered as their most important qualities. At Google, they’re obsessive about looking at data to determine what makes employees successful, and what they found in the numbers was surprising. The most important character trait of a leader is one that you’re more likely to associate with a dull person than a dynamic leader: predictability. The more predictable you are, day after day, the better.
Score another point for “ordinary.” At White Horse Inn, we’ve been focusing on the importance of ordinary, sustainable, faithful discipleship and disciple-making in the body of Christ. In fact, we dedicated a recent White Horse Inn radio series to the topic. In October, Zondervan will release my book, Ordinary: Sustainable Discipleship in a Radical and Restless World.
Church leaders may be as surprised as anyone by Google’s findings. The evangelical world is the product of successive waves of the extraordinary-latest-and-greatest movements. Just compare the ideal characteristics of successful pastors today with those in the pastoral epistles (especially 1 Tim 3:1-13; 4:6-5:25; 2 Tim 2:14-4:5; Titus 1:5-2:15). The apostle’s list is closer to the “predictability” that Google discovered in high-quality leadership.
And what’s true for pastors is true for the rest of Christ’s body. We’re burned out on calls to radically “reboot” our lives and churches—to keep up with the latest spiritual fad or be left behind.
A faithful pastor preaches the Word, administers the sacraments, and looks after the flock with the elders. Faithful believers are also content with this ordinary ministry. It may not be as exciting as joining the latest bandwagon, but Jesus pledges his presence in saving grace to this ordinary church and its ordinary disciples.
Our friends at Books at a Glance have interviewed Mike Horton on his recent work on Calvin and Christian piety:
For its value in both historical theology and Christian living Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series was a terrific idea. Of course such a series cannot go long before it includes a volume on the great Reformer John Calvin. If our count is right, Michael Horton’s Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever is the fifth volume in this series, and an important contribution it is. Horton reflects a close acquaintance with the Reformer, his writings, and his times, and his portrait of Calvin that accents this more pastoral dimension is a landmark event. He is here today to talk about his work.
Books At a Glance:
John Calvin is often thought of as a theological giant, which he was. And he is sometimes considered for his model carefulness in biblical exegesis. But he is not very often thought of as a pastoral theologian, a theologian with deep concerns for the Christian life. Is this because so many have not read Calvinsufficiently? Or is it rather that they just have not read Calvin really at all? That is, how pervasive are these concerns in Calvin’s writings?
I think you’ve put your finger on a popular impression out there, even among many Christians. I have to say, though, that it’s astonishing, given the fact that not a single doctrine or passage is explained without some connection to Christian living. Doctrine and life are interwoven in a tapestry that he calls “piety.” In this, he simply follows the ancient church fathers and the better medieval writers. He says that there’s no point in knowledge that “merely flits about in the brain.” As rigorously thoughtful as Calvin is, it’s all in service to the formation of Christian disciples. In my view at least, Calvin is the most insightful non-inspired teacher on the Christian life of anyone I’ve ever read. His brilliance lies not in creative innovation, but in his remarkable grasp of Scripture and the whole history of Christian teaching and his ability to synthesize the best insights, distilling them for his own age. As he himself said, the goal of all instruction is edification.
If you’d like to read the rest of the interview (and maybe read a few summaries!), click here.
This one courtesy of @darinmstone: “That’s an awful name for a church!”
Saw this one on Twitter today (ht @rbj_ii)
We’re resurrecting an old category: funny church signs!
Here are a few good ones. Send in your submissions!
This past week has been eventful. On Wednesday, I was returning from a trip out of state and as my plane landed, I saw plumes of smoke across San Diego County. One fire came within a few blocks of our home and Westminster Seminary California. My family, cat, and I left as quickly as we could, checking the news for the safest route and location to evacuate. Courageous firefighters put out the threatening blaze within an hour, so we returned home and stayed alert to the news.
Our hearts go out to those who lost their homes and who are still displaced. Nevertheless, like most preachers, I saw in the event a good sermon illustration.
God’s “two words” of command and promise are evidence of his love for us. His law is like the news reports informing our family that the routes we thought first of taking were closed to us because of fires. It’s always hazardous to flee “home base” with so many fires around. You can literally leap from the frying pan into the fire.
Our first response to God’s law is to flee, but we look for safe routes apart from the gospel. Ironically, we flee to some version of the law: observant Jews to Torah and Gentiles to the law written on their conscience. Nevertheless, both fail. There is no passable route.
The righteousness of God, it turns out, is not a safe haven. That’s Paul’s argument in Romans 1-3, concluding in 3:20, “Therefore, no one will be justified by the works of the law, since by the law we become conscious of sin.” The law simply reports the dangerous news. It reveals God’s essential righteousness, by which he must condemn us all, Jew and Gentile alike.
Then the good news: “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction (Rom 3:21-22). Apart from Christ, the righteousness of God terrifies us, but the righteousness from God—the gift of justification—is the best news in the world. “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Rom 11:32).
The law reveals God’s just sentence and the gospel reveals the same God as “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Christ” (Rom 3:26). God’s law sends everyone fleeing, but only his gospel announces the safe haven. As it turns out, that safe haven is home, but it is Christ who has quenched Mount Sinai’s flame.
And now the law does something else. It not only announces the threat; it guides us in safety. There are still “dangers, toils, and snares.” After we fled our San Diego fire, we were glued to our TV set for ongoing reports of danger. We were also reminded to prepare for loss of power and to stock up on water and provisions. Instead of announcing a threat, these reports gave us important information. It was still different from good news (“The fire is out!”), but it was also different from pure threat (“Evacuate!”).
To change the illustration, we are no longer “under the law” in terms of its judgment. Our relation to the law has changed, because we’ve been relocated from Adam to Christ. And now we hear God’s law not from the mountain that burns with fire, but from Mount Zion, the safe haven where no flame can reach because Christ has extinguished it for us. In Christ, we discover a Father instead of a Judge. It’s the love of God that tells us to flee, and it’s the love of God that keeps us informed on what we need to do. Even correction is the discipline of a Father who loves us too much to leave us to ourselves.
From this safe place, we can hear the law as the good and wise commands of a Father instead of the sentence of a judge.
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest…. But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect…. Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:18, 22-23, 28-29).