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Know what you believe and why you believe it

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Zondervan is celebrating Reformation Week with an e-book sale (which is an arguably better way to do it than the let’s-get-bombed-on-six-kinds-of-sugars-and-additives tradition).  We think it’s a pretty sweet deal (pun totally intended) – $20 for The Christian Faith!

 

Go to www.amazon.com (or any other major e-book retailer) and stock up – just make sure you do it before November 5th.  

 

Happy Reformation Day!

WHI-1125 | What Does it Mean to be Protestant?

On this edition, the hosts walk through the central issues that they believe Protestants need to recover in our time. These issues include the solas of the Reformation, seeing law and gospel as central motifs in Scripture, being both missional and vocational in our outreach, recovering a Word and Sacrament ministry, passing on the faith to each successive generation through catechesis, and finally, holding fast to the truths of the Christian faith as summarized by our church’s confessions.

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Zac Hicks

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Promises, Promises

Political candidates these days summon our confidence by promises they make about the future. We wonder whether we can believe them. Or we jump on one bandwagon or another as if it could actually fulfill our deepest hopes and dreams—and drive away our deepest fears.

But when Jesus says, “Fear not, little flock, I have overcome the world,” he is actually announcing an accomplishment of his agenda. The saints in the old covenant had to wait for the promises to be realized, but we stand on this side of victory. His representative life of obedience fulfilled the law; his death delivered us from the curse; his resurrection brought justification and inaugurated the new creation.

Down to the last word, John gives all glory to “him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom…” (Rev 1:6). He records the words of Jesus Christ: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty’” (Rev 1:8). “When I saw him,” John reports, “I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades’” (vv 17-18).

With this confidence as our ultimate anchor, we can be wildly optimistic about Christ’s future for us without being seduced by the false promises, ideologies, and idols of our age—and the illusion that somehow our cultural and political labors are building or restoring Christ’s kingdom. Rearranging the order of our loves, this good news frees us to exercise responsible vocations—including citizenship—without idealism or, it’s flip-side, cynicism. We can cast our votes while casting our fears on our risen and returning King. We can even promote our candidates (outside the church!), with restored sanity. United to Christ, we should be the most responsible and the least fearful people at the polls on November 6, 2012, because our King already achieved his landslide victory in Jerusalem during Passover, AD 33.

First Things First: The Gifted Kingdom

“‘Therefore I tell you,’” says Jesus to his disciples in Luke 12, “‘do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on.’” After all, God takes care of the birds and in any case, “‘which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?’” Jesus doesn’t tell them that it doesn’t matter whether they have food and clothing, or that they shouldn’t do anything about it. In fact, Paul offers a rebuke to those who refuse to support themselves and their families by working (1 Thess 4:11-12). Nevertheless, Jesus assures them the God is the ultimate provider. “‘Indeed, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you’” (Lk 12:22-31).

Make secondary things primary (i.e., your god) and you’ll always be disappointed; look to Christ and his reign over sin and death, and even if life falls apart you can know that he is working all things together for his glory and your salvation. Jesus doesn’t say that these temporal concerns are trivial; he simply challenges the way we rank his everlasting kingdom and our temporal concerns.

What makes this exhortation more than a pious platitude that no one can seriously entertain in the face of hopelessness and despair? Jesus explains in the very next verse: “‘Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’” (v 32). You mean it’s not, “Work really hard to find God and pursue his kingdom vision and then everything else will fall into place?” Not at all. The kingdom is a gift. It has been given—is being given. It’s coming down from heaven even now, with the forgiveness of sins and new life.

It’s a good time for us to be reminded that our ultimate citizenship is in the kingdom of Christ. He is the King—not the one we elected, but the one who has chosen us and has laid down his own life for his fellow heirs of the Father’s realm. And his is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. It is not an empire, party, or social movement that we are building. Not that we aren’t a part of these temporary kingdoms, helping to build better neighborhoods and nations. It’s just that in these common callings we are contributing to the building and repair of the kingdoms of this age that eventually collapse and, if remaining at Christ’s return, will be shaken to the foundations (Heb 12:26-27). Rather, “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken…” (v 28).

After his resurrection, Jesus returned to Galilee. “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Mat 28:16-17). Then and there the King announced, “‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (vv 18-20).

The disciples would face not only deprivation along with fellow Jews; they would soon be persecuted by their own families. It’s a “little flock”: make no mistake about it. Especially in churches here in the U.S., we don’t quite know what we are. On one hand, we seem to imagine that we’re a “big flock,” with an impressive history of national influence. On the other hand, we play the persecution card a lot, as if we were being thrown to the lions when the City Hall decides not to display the manger on its lawn at Christmas. Maybe it’s not as contradictory as that, though. After all, it’s only when you think you’re big that you take offense at the slightest evidence that you’re not. Our fears, like our hopes, reveal the gods in whom we place our trust.

I fret over making ends meet. Then I encounter believers enduring extreme poverty with remarkable confidence in God—not to mention those I meet under the constant threat of religious persecution in China and across the Islamic world. I want control over the temperature in my car. These folks know that they’re not in control, and yet they seem less fearful. They don’t demand things or fall apart at the slightest inconvenience. Their faith under pressure rebukes my sinful tendency to use God as a resource for my own control over my life instead of falling into the everlasting arms of a Father who so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son. These saints don’t talk as much as we do about their impressive buildings, numbers, and cultural clout. They get the whole “little flock” thing. It’s not a stumbling block to them, but wonderfully realistic and assuring. The church may be nothing in the eyes of the world, but it’s everything to the Triune God. The King announces, “‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Mat 16:18). It’s not “my life,” “so-and-so’s church/ministry,” or even “our project.” We belong to someone else. “‘Fear not, little flock, it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’” It’s a little flock, but what an inheritance!

In John 16 the disciples confess their certainty that Jesus has indeed come from the Father. “Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe? Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me’” (vv 30-32). Jesus’ response would appear at first glance to belittle their strong confession. Indeed, it is true: they would scatter, leaving Jesus alone. However, it’s not a rebuke but just a statement of fact leading to a marvelous assurance that in spite of their fear for their own lives he would be their conqueror even through their abandonment. Building the kingdom, purchasing the kingdom, bestowing the kingdom: these are the things that only he can do anyway, alone. The presence of the Father and the Spirit would suffice to uphold him in this solitary work he has to do. So he adds, “‘I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world‘” (v 33).

This is not just another “our brightest days are ahead” speech. It’s not a question of whether we’re happier, healthier, and wealthier than we were four years ago. It’s a well-grounded hope, anchored in the fact that Jesus has already inaugurated his kingdom and in death his last will and testament will be executed. When he is raised to the right hand of the Father, the seat of all power and authority, he will pour out his Spirit and adopt rebels as his co-heirs with him of his kingdom.

Notice that he didn’t say, “We’ll overcome the world together.” Nor did he say, “Here are the principles you can use to overcome the world.” He did not invite us to share in his redeeming agenda. Rather, he calls us to come to him and enjoy the spoils of his conquest.

In his life, death, and resurrection, this King of kings has secured the victory of God over the forces of sin and death that reign over this present evil age. When he returns, he will cleanse the whole earth to make it his dwelling place with his people forever. In between, it will be an era of, paradoxically, the stunning triumph of the Spirit through the Word in a global empire of grace and a perpetual conflict with the principalities and powers in heavenly places. Besides sharing in the common curse with our non-believing neighbors, the saints will be persecuted in many places during this intermission. The forces of darkness will not only be external threats, but wolves within that seek to wound, divide, and scatter the sheep.

Tomorrow I’ll finish this reflection on our King’s counsel for his “little flock” during this election season.

“Fear Not, Little Flock”: The King’s Promise that Presidents Can’t Match

If our hopes indicate what we value most—what keeps us going, then our fears reveal the same in reverse. What do we need (or think we need) so much that we would be unable to go without it? And what do we believe in so much that if it doesn’t come through for us we’re totally disillusioned?

Even the most casual observer of these final days in the countdown to the general election is aware of the enormous largess being spent on fear. Tragically, some of the most extreme examples of fear-mongering hail from churches, on the left and the right. Earlier in the campaign, some evangelicals expressed alarm that a Mormon might become the high priest of the nation’s soul, while reviving the rumor that Barack Obama is a Muslim. (“After all, he’s not quite like us, is he?”) Yet many conservatives now think that Mitt Romney is just right for the job. In fact, maybe we’ve been too hard on Mormonism. It’s a God-fearing faith of family values. Isn’t that what matters most?

Let’s face it: Mr. Romney belongs to a religious community that officially rejects the Christian creed and Mr. Obama is a member of a liberal Protestant denomination that has largely abandoned it. Since George Washington we’ve been electing presidents with dubious confessional credentials, including a string of deists, Unitarians, and agnostics who nevertheless invoked the Unknown God for the American cause. The real question is not whether Americans generally will elect a non-Christian, but whether churches will redefine Christianity as a surrogate of civil religion. Judging at least by public profession, our next president will once again not be an orthodox Christian. That’s not a tragedy. The real tragedy is quasi-apocalyptic and eschatological claims that are made in churches on the left and the right that create a cycle of false hopes and false fears. The official name for this is idolatry. Who is Lord, Christ or Caesar? Churches and Christian leaders often send mixed signals on that one, especially at election time.

Responsibility versus Fear

Now, there is fear and there is responsible concern. Christians are called to be faithful in caring about and acting for their neighbors’ welfare. Our temporal good is wrapped up in the common good of our nation. We are right to be concerned about the value of human life and marriage, as well as “justice for all,” including our weaker and less privileged neighbors. We are faced with complex crises, foreign and domestic. Some wonder if they’ll ever find employment. Others fear that the economy will hit yet another, perhaps more catastrophic, dip. While the Arab Spring has become a scorching Islamist summer and dictatorships are replaced in some cases with jihadist sects, tensions continue to build between Israel and Iran. North Korea continues its threats, relations with China grow increasingly strained, and many feel a sense of vertigo about the future role of the U. S. in the world. These are not unimportant matters; they demand our attention.

Yet all of these anxieties get whipped up into a virtual frenzy at election time. It’s easy for opinions and strategies—even deeply-held political convictions—to morph into deified ideologies. Unrealistic hopes typically end in disillusionment and cynicism, if not something worse.

My next post will focus on how we put first things first again.

Local Church, Local Restaurant

If you listened to this week’s White Horse Inn episode Is “The Easy Way” Always Best? perhaps you were intrigued by Kim Riddlebarger’s comment in the latter part of the the show about ministers serving a finely prepared meal to God’s people. This reminded me of a great article by Michael Brown from the July/August 2009 issue of Modern Reformation, “Local Church, Local Restaurant”. In this article, Rev. Brown develops this thought of the minister’s primary duty every week being to prepare rich, well-crafted sermons and how the sheep are to be fed with this divinely-served feast throughout the Divine Service:

As a pastor of a local church, I often walk alone through the empty auditorium of our building during the week. In the stillness, I look at the vacant pews and think of the people who will fill them on Sunday during the dinner rush. I contemplate the text I am working through that week and the sermon I am preparing. I look at the raised pulpit and large table and anticipate the food that will be served to them. I reflect on the movement of the liturgy, which, in some ways, resembles the structure of an Italian meal. The salutation after the invocation is similar to an aperitivo (aperitif). The absolution after the confession of sins is like the antipasto (appetizer). The sermon is the primo (first course), and the Lord’s Supper the secondo (second course). A contorno (side dish) might be served, if there is a baptism that day, but the meal will always conclude with formaggio e frutta (cheese and fruits) and/or dolce e caffe (dessert and coffee); that is, a benediction. I think of how, throughout the meal, we will raise our glasses of fine Sangiovese or Nero d’Avola wine in response to the God of grace, singing his praise, and confessing his goodness and mercy to us. This is a dining hall where God meets his people and feeds them with the surprising feast of Christ. These are the means he has ordained to give us refreshment, nourishment, and delight in this present evil age, a foretaste of that great meal to come, which was prophesied in Isaiah 25:6-9.

I hope you were well fed this past Lord’s Day in the preached Word and the Lord’s Supper and that it sustains you this week as you continue your pilgrim journey. However, as you will get hungry by week’s end, prepare yourself for another feast being lovingly prepared right now by your faithful chef.

To read the article in its entirety click here: “Local Church, Local Restaurant”

WHI-1124 | Is “The Easy Way” Always Best?

There is a deeply held assumption in today’s culture of affluence that hard work should generally be avoided, and that everything should be quick, fun, and easy. But what are the implications of these worldly assumptions for Christian discipleship? The answer is seen all around us: churches don’t place demands but only gratify their parishioners, most Christian bookstores stock their shelves with fluffy “get spiritual quick” type resources, and kids in Sunday school work with crayons, glue and glitter, but are rarely found memorizing Bible passages or catechism answers. Is the easy way always best? That’s what’s on tap this week at White Horse Inn.

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Sloth
Michael Horton

MUSIC SELECTION

David Hlebo

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Made in America
Michael Horton

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WHI-1123 | Taking Every Thought Captive

How are we to raise up the next generation of Christians to think seriously about the Christian faith if they have never been taught how to think in the first place? How are we to keep our kids in the faith if they are constantly propagandized by the messages they encounter in college or via television advertisements? The apostle Paul calls us to “take every thought captive, to the obedience of Christ,” but how are we actually to accomplish this task? Joining me to discuss this important issue are Christopher Perrin, Aaron Larson, and Joelle Hodge, contributors to The Art of Argument (Classical Academic Press, 2010).

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Matthew Smith

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RECOMMENDED BOOKS

The Art of Argument
Larson and Hodge
The Argument Builder
Shelly Johnson
Tactics
Greg Koukl

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Modern Reformation Conversations – Reforming A Local Church

Rev. Ken Jones of The White Horse Inn discusses his views on reforming the local church, and why it’s worth the headache.

The reality is that a church has the right to be wrong – if the conviction of the leadership of the church is different from what your new convictions are, and you try to teach in a secondary capacity that which contradicts what the leadership is teaching, it doesn’t matter how sound your doctrine, you are being disruptive.  It’s not a matter of trying to maintain false peace or maintain; it’s a matter of maintaining church order.

Christ is Lord of All

I’ve nearly finished reading Center Church, by Timothy Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  I’m not prepared to offer a review, but recommend it as a thoughtful exploration of various approaches to church ministry and culture.  There are a lot of “how-to” books on church planting, marketing, and management.  There are also a number of more theological books on the nature, ministry, and mission of the church.  However, Keller’s Center Church fills an important and less populated niche: theological vision, which is somewhere between theological convictions and practical applications.

One of the places where I found the book especially thought-provoking was his engagement with various approaches to Christ and culture—especially transformationalism, pietism, and two kingdoms.  I still would demur with a couple of his descriptions of the “two kingdoms” perspective, but I think he does point out helpfully that this view is no more monolithic than other positions.  I also share some of his concerns about how the model can be used to justify unfaithful witness—as in the way that it was used by Southern Presbyterians (under the rubric of the “spirituality of the church”) to justify slavery.

There is nothing, however, in two-kingdoms thinking itself that would ever justify sin and injustice, whether public or private, or keep the church from preaching all of God’s Word and disciplining members who refuse its clear instruction.  In fact, by more clearly articulating the proper authority and jurisdiction of the church and the state, a two-kingdoms perspective is most allergic to any ideology, movement, leader, or party that would make absolute claims.  The reduction not only of religion but even cultural life to politics is something that such a perspective opposes with might and mane.  Christ is Lord of all, even if he rules his two kingdoms in different ways, with different means, toward different ends.

Anyway, lots to talk about—on this and other points he raises—and Center Church keeps the conversation going.  Regardless of whether one agrees with all of his points, this book is the fruit of decades of theological reflection and pastoral leadership.

I recently came across a post from a WSC alumnus who is finishing his PhD work at Emory University in political theology. It’s well worth a read, showing how “two kingdoms” was used during the Nazi era to justify both complicity with evil and resistance to it. Here’s a preview:

[W]hile virtually all German Christians were politically conservative and therefore susceptible to Nazi ideology, theologically conservative Christians tended to be much more resistant to that ideology by virtue of their commitment to orthodox Christian teaching. Theologically liberal Christians, on the other hand, having rejected such orthodoxy as well as the authority of Scripture, had little basis with which to reject a movement that seemed to be so deeply sensitive to the philosophical and social ethos of the day.

Read the whole thing.

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