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The Death of Courageous Faith, by Walter McAlister

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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. 

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Google Identifies a Surprising Trait of Leadership

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.

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Calvin At A Glance

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?

Horton:
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.

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Funny Church Signs

This one courtesy of @darinmstone: “That’s an awful name for a church!”

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Funny Church Signs 2



Saw this one on Twitter today (ht @rbj_ii)

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Funny Church Signs

We’re resurrecting an old category: funny church signs!

Here are a few good ones. Send in your submissions!


 

 

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Fire on the Mountain

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).

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Dropouts and Disciples

Ed Stetzer expands on his recent Modern Reformation article in Christianity Today. Here’s a preview:

LifeWay Research data shows that about 70% of young adults who indicated they attended church regularly for at least one year in high school do, in fact, drop out—but don’t miss the details. Of those who left, almost two-thirds return and currently attend church (in the timeframe of our study). Also, that dropout rate is from all Protestant churches—evangelical and mainline.

Read the rest here.

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The “Jesus’ Wife” Fragment Is a Hoax

When it comes to Jesus, the gullibility of the religious academy and its media know no bounds.

This past Easter, the U.S. media buzzed with excitement over the announcement of an ancient Coptic (Egyptian) papyrus fragment with the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife….’” One more footnote for the story of how a powerful ecclesiastical elite suppressed the diversity of Christian voices and made its own variation “orthodoxy.”

Harvard Divinity School has long been a place where “alternative Christianities”—especially Gnosticism—are defended with “fundamentalist” zeal. Karen L. King, Hollis Professor of Divinity, has been a distinguished evangelist for this “other Christianity.” Properly skeptical journalists might have paused before rushing to the keyboards and cameras. Not with this story. I saw headlines with words like “Certain,” “Confident,” and “Proved.” No question about it: the fragment is authentic and demonstrates that Jesus had a wife, the public was assured.

The New York Times ran with it, although with slight reserve: “…More Likely Ancient Than Fake.”  This story included the doubts of Leo Depuydt, Egyptologist at Brown University, who said that the forgery was so obvious that it “seems ripe for a Monty Python sketch.” Nevertheless, the Harvard Divinity School press team was burning the midnight oil to stir popular interest for a salacious religion story on the verge of Easter.

“Too convenient for some,” the Times article added, the fragment “also contained the words, ‘She will be able to be my disciple,’ a clause that inflamed the debate in some churches over whether women should be allowed to be priests.” There wasn’t any supporting example of inflamed debate in churches over Easter weekend, but I suspect that an example wasn’t needed. For a culture—and especially a liberal academy—that is more inclined to believe ancient Gnostics and Dan Brown than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, even if there isn’t an inflamed debate in the churches, there should be.

Well, none of this matters now, because the fragment has been proved a forgery. On April 24, Coptic scholar Christian Askeland demonstrated that it was “a match for a papyrus fragment that is clearly a forgery.”
On May 2, the Wall Street Journal reported “How the ‘Jesus’ Wife’ Hoax Fell Apart.”  I’m waiting to see the media frenzy over this one—especially since it’s far more conclusive than the press releases of Harvard Divinity School. But I’m not holding my breath.

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Heavenly Days

“Heaven Is For Real,” a movie about a child’s visit to heaven, reportedly grossed $21.5 million at its opening this past Easter weekend. A spate of similar books regularly climb to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List. Judging by the continuing popularity of Jesus Calling (America’s #1 devotional), the nation—and especially evangelical publishers and readers—are craving revelation about the things that matter most. Yet it’s revelation apart from—or at least beyond—the Word of God.

How do we know that God exists and heaven is for real? The apostles answer with one voice: “We heard, saw, and touched him with our hands… and he is risen!”  It’s amazing that at the time when Christians celebrate Christ’s bodily resurrection as “the first-fruits of those who sleep,” a completely different gospel, with entirely different sources of “revelation,” is broadcast in the name of Christ.

When it comes to heaven, particularly to the presence of the Triune God who makes it “heaven” in the first place, are we playing with fire?

Remarkably, one of the best critiques of this genre I’ve come across is a post on the CNN website. It’s by Drew Dyck, editor of Leadership Journal.  “Yes, the Bible teaches that heaven is a place of ultimate comfort, with ‘no more death or mourning or crying or pain’ (Revelation 21:4),” he notes.  “But it is also a place where the reality of God’s unbridled majesty reigns supreme and that’s scary.”  He adds, “We can’t truly appreciate God’s grace until we glimpse his greatness. We won’t be lifted by his love until we’re humbled by his holiness.” In conclusion, he states, “The affection of a cosmic buddy is one thing. But the love of the Lord of heaven and earth, the one who Isaiah says ‘dwells in unapproachable light,’ means something else entirely.”

Another very helpful resource is a video by David Platt.  After pointing to the problem in pop culture over “trips to heaven,” Pastor Platt offers wise biblical counsel for “discerning the spirits.” And isn’t the safest ground to stay close to the words of the one who said, “No one has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father… I am the bread of life” (John 6:46, 48)?

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