Category Archives: Theology

Four Marks of Deception

Last Sunday (5/18), I preached a sermon from Colossians 2:4-7.  Verse 4 in particular has stayed with me.  Paul shares his desire for the Colossians to “not be deceived by persuasive arguments.”  He was concerned that the Christians in Colossae would hear arguments from others inside the church that sounded good at first but would ultimately lead them to destructive ends.  As a pastor, I resonate with this concern.  I meet with Christians all the time who are struggling in walk with God because they have believed something false.

Deception inside the church is notoriously difficult to see and refute because it always includes some portion of the truth.  The most dangerous false-teachings, the ones that deceive the highest number of Christians, are half-truths, teaching one part of the Bible but hiding the whole truth.  Every Christian has to grow in his or her ability to discern truth from error for three reasons.  One, most deception is subtle, not overt.  Two, your spiritual leaders can’t be with you at all times.  And three, deceptive teaching leads to destructive living.

How can you begin to grow in your ability to discern truth from error?  Let me give you four marks to look for:

First, false-teaching usually proposes something new or better than historic, orthodox Christianity.  While Christian truth must be applied in fresh ways to the unique challenges each generation faces, this doesn’t require new truth.  Deceivers tend to propose that they have insight into truth that has been hidden until now.  Always beware of novelty when it comes to truth.

Second, false-teaching usually seeks to justify sin as acceptable to God.  The moral code presented in the Bible has not changed since the canon was closed 2000 years ago.  And yet, in every generation, some part of the moral foundation of Scripture is considered outdated.  Usually, those who seek to change the moral teaching of the Bible want to justify something they already desire to do.

Third, false-teaching always appeals to some authority outside of the Bible.  This authority can be a person or an organization or an experience.  The deception lies in telling us that while Scripture is respected and valued, we must decide which parts of it are fully true and authoritative in today’s world.  As soon as the whole Bible is removed as authoritative, truth is in trouble.

Fourth, false-teaching turns our eyes from Jesus and denies our need for His grace.  In Colossians, Paul was concerned that some were encouraging the church to move on from Jesus to deeper truths.  They were teaching that Christ was great, but not sufficient.  This deception continues to this day.  False-teachers tend to point people to themselves rather than Christ, emphasizing self-effort rather than dependence on God’s grace.

Hopefully, these guidelines begin to give you a grid by which to evaluate what you hear and read.  In today’s world, everyone with a webpage, a blog, and a YouTube channel is “an accomplished author and speaker.”  Be on guard against those who seek to deceive you with persuasive arguments and hold on tightly to Christ.

The Meaning of the Cross

Here are my notes from tonight’s Good Friday service on the meaning of the cross:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Roman Empire these days and their use of the cross.  They used the cross as a weapon of execution to demonstrate their power of their subjects, a way to dominate and instill fear in the hearts of men.  And they used it to great effect.  For a time.

One of the men that the Romans crucified was a rabbi from Nazareth, the son of a carpenter.  Jesus was his name, and though He was the Son of God in the flesh, He wielded His power differently.  Instead of murdering those who opposed His reign, Jesus laid down His life willingly on the cross.  He didn’t use the cross to intimidate others.  He surrendered to the cross for the sake of others.

At the time of His death, the Romans surely looked like they had the stronger kingdom, that their approach to the cross was more effective in building a following.  But 2000 years have a way of providing clarity.  The Great Roman Empire sits in the dust-bin of history while the followers of Jesus only continue to grow.  The way of Love has overcome the way of death.  Jesus’ way remains.

But what exactly did Jesus accomplish in His crucifixion?  The Bible uses four words to describe the impact of Jesus’ death on the cross, and I want us to meditate on them tonight before we take communion.  Each gives us insight into the profound spiritual realities that have changed with the death of our Savior on the cross.  It is important that we meditate on these truths so that we fill up the cross with meaning in our hearts.  If we don’t, the cross will simply become background noise in our busy lives.  It fills our jewelry, our walls, and our clothes, but does it fill our hearts?

The first word is propitiation.  1 John 2:1-2 says “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father —Jesus Christ the Righteous One. 2 He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.”  Propitiation is a temple word, one that describes a sacrifice that satisfies the anger of God against sin.  In Jesus, God has fully satisfied His own wrath against sin.  By the cross, we are no longer objects of God’s wrath, but objects of His love and care.

Do you feel like God is angry with you?  If you are in Christ, He is not – because the cross satisfied God’s wrath.

The second word is redemption.  Mark 10:45 says “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life—a ransom for many.”  What is a ransom?  It is a price paid for the purchase of something or someone.  God has purchased our redemption through the cross of Jesus.  The price of our salvation was infinitely high, costing God the price of His precious Son.  And Jesus willingly paid this price to redeem us from our sins – to set us free from bondage.

Do you feel like you owe God a debt you must pay?  If you are in Christ, you do not – because Jesus paid your debt.

The third word is justification.  Romans 5:18-19 says “ So then, as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act there is life-giving justification for everyone.  For just as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also through the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”  Whereas propitiation comes from the religious world and ransom from the business world, the idea of justification comes from the legal world.  To be justified means to be declared righteous before a court of law.  In this way, Jesus has not just paid for our sins, but He has made a way for us to stand righteous before a perfectly holy God.  This is what Romans calls a life-giving justification.  We are not just forgiven, but made righteous by Jesus’ work on the cross.

Do you feel guilty before the Lord?  If you are in Christ, you should not – because Jesus forgave your sin.

The fourth word is reconciliation.  2 Corinthians 5:18-19 says “Everything is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed the message of reconciliation to us.”  Jesus accomplished our reconciliation with God the Father on the cross.  He purchased our relationship with Himself.  We are no longer His enemies, but now His children.

Do you feel lonely and separated from God?  If you are in Christ, you are not alone – you have been adopted by God.

This is what the cross means, and why today is called Good Friday.

HT: John Stott, The Cross of Christ

Eleven Reasons CP Movements Plateau & Decline

I’m pleased to be able to share part of my sabbatical research with all of you.  I have spent many hours in the last month reading and thinking about WHY once-thriving church-planting movements plateau and decline.  I have put my thoughts done in a fifteen page paper called Why Movements Die.  I hope and pray that this challenges you as much as it has challenged me.

Until All Treasure Him-
Keith

Why Movements Die v1 by KPF (Aug2013)

What makes up a worldview?

This Sunday at church, I am starting a new series for Easter called The Gospel Among Other Stories.  You can read more about the series on our church website.  Basically, we will be discussing the different stories that we believe, the narratives that shape our lives – telling us who we are, what is important, and where life is headed.  Some philosophers call these stories “worldviews,” ways of seeing and making sense of the world around us.  In his book on basic worldviews, James Sire gives a set of questions that are answered in every worldview:

1- What is ultimate reality?

2- What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?

3- What is a human being?

4- What happens to a person at death?

5- Why is it possible to know anything at all?

6- How do we know what is right and wrong?

7- What is the meaning of human history?

Every person lives their life according to a set of answers to these questions.  Many people have not reflected on the core story they believe, but it still shapes our lives.  Or to say it another way, everyone believes something.  The question during this series is simple – where does your story lead?

An EPIC Christmas

How do you answer the question “Why did Jesus come?”

The EPIC story of the Bible helps us understand the reasons that Jesus came to earth.

EPIC #1: God – Jesus came to perfectly reveal the nature and character of God.

EPIC #2: Creation – Jesus came because God took responsibility for His creation, even in their rebellion.

EPIC #3: Fall – Jesus came to reverse the curse, the consequences of our sin.

EPIC #4: Covenant – Jesus came because God kept His promises to Abraham, Moses, & David.

EPIC #5: Law – Jesus came because humanity could not live up to the holy standard of God.

EPIC #6: Kingdom – Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on the earth.

EPIC #7: Prophecy – Jesus came to fulfill the words of God’s prophets throughout the centuries.

EPIC #8: Incarnation – Jesus came to be with us, to not leave us alone in this world.

EPIC #9: Atonement – Jesus came to satisfy the wrath of God and justify the ungodly.

EPIC #10: Resurrection – Jesus came defeat death and give life to all who believe on Him.

EPIC #11: Church – Jesus came to redeem a people for God from all tribes and nations.

EPIC #12: Judgement – Jesus came to warn the world that a day of judgment is surely coming.

EPIC #13: Restoration – Jesus came to give us hope that God will one day restore all things.

Thank God that Jesus came to this earth so many years ago.

And thank God that He is coming again.  The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

Book Notes: Four Recent Reads

Here’s a quick summary and review of four recent books I’ve read this fall.

1- Stepping Up: A Call to Courageous Manhood by Dennis Rainey: Rainey is the president of Family Life and has written a book that examines the stages in a man’s life (childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and mentor) and what he needs in each stage.  The book is a short read – I read it while traveling in East Asia this fall – full of short chapters and moving stories.  There is not much here that is new if you have read other books on manhood like Raising a Modern Day Knight or King Me.  But Rainey’s contribution is the call to do something proactive in raising the next generation of men.  I resonated with his argument that most men are reactive in discipling young boys into manhood.  We wait until the wheels come off or at least until your sons ask us about something before we engage.  But Rainey makes a compelling case that we need to start conversations with our sons so that they will come to us when they have questions.  I was moved by this book to start the hard conversations with my sons early in their lives so they are not learning about sex, money, relationships, and their career from their peers.

 

2- Empire of Liberty by Gordon S. Wood: This volume is one of the most recent in the well-regarded Oxford History of the United States.  Each book is a beast (800 – 1000 pages in length), but they are wonderfully researched (footnotes throughout) and well-written.  You would think that books of this length would be impossible to read, but this series excels in making the history of our nation accessible to all.  Wood’s volume covers a period that I am more familiar with than the other periods covered in this series (the early years of the republic – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison), but I still learned so much.  Wood is more favorable to the Jeffersonian Republicans (who drastically shrunk the size and scope of the federal government) than the Federalists, but does show how their over-reaction led to many struggles during the War of 1812.  Overall, an interesting read that has parallels in our own age – showing our country has always vacillated between a larger and smaller view of the role of the national government.

 

3 – Churchill by Paul Johnson: If Empire of Liberty is one of the longer one-volume histories, Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill is one the other extreme of the spectrum.  At only 190 pages (and large, spread-out print), this book is a quick read – a very high-level overview of the life of one of the most interesting and consequential leaders of the 20th century.  I was drawn to this work because I have read widely in American history, but would like to start reading more international history.  Churchill felt like a good place to start because of his close ties to the US and his involvement in worldwide affairs.  Churchill fought in the First World War, led the British people during the Second World War, and made influential speeches on a wide range of current affairs.  As an American, it is hard to understand how the British people could vote him in and out of office so regularly, but the parliamentary system of government seems to work that way – keeping the elected officials more accountable to the people more regularly.  Overall, this book is a great introduction to one of the most important leaders in the last 100 years.

4- God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment by James Hamilton: This monumental work of biblical theology seeks to articulate the theological center of the entire biblical narrative.  This is obviously a high goal given the diversity of the books of the Bible.  I am still working my way through this book, but I think Hamilton is on the right track.  His argument is that smaller phrases like “the glory of God” or “the kingdom of God” as the center of the biblical narrative are too broad to capture the nuances of the full story.  I am withholding a full review on this book until later, but so far, I like what I have read.  This question of the center of the biblical story is on my mind a lot recently for two reasons: one, I am currently preaching a series called EPIC on the biblical narrative, and two, I am currently reading through the Bible with my church family.  Both exercises have challenged me again to see the unity in the diversity of the Bible.  While the Scriptures cover a lot of ground (40 different authors and 66 different books), they are held together with a singular view of God and His work in history.  Hamilton’s proposal is a good start for thinking about the Scriptures as One Unified Story.

Religion as Human Construct?

This Monday’s LA Times carried an op-ed from two writers in the field of the science of religion articulating a position that has been argued for some time – that religion is a product of our natural evolutionary development.  In fact, I reviewed a book several years ago by Douglas Wilson on the same topic.  The position goes something like this: the facts that our brains are hard-wired for religious experiences and that we have a natural sense of morality are proof that religion was beneficial to the survival of our ancient parents, helping them survive the brutal process of natural selection and passing on religious systems to us today. In this naturalistic worldview, all religious dogma is seen as the result of human experience, not as the result of divine revelation.  In addition, all religious experiences are seen as evolutionary by-products that will eventually weed themselves out of our worldviews as unnecessary.

I won’t take the time in this post to review the science involved in examining the way the human body and brain relate to religious experiences.  I won’t even address the religious question of the man-made nature of theological systems – a position that Christians would agree with for most religions throughout history.  Instead, I want to critique the logic involved in the argument made by evolutionary philosophers.  The series of deductions goes something like this: 1) there are physiological explanations for our spiritual experiences, 2) these physiological explanations are evidence of the evolutionary source of religion, therefore 3) all religious systems are built on human experience, not divine revelation.

Let’s take this linear argument one at a time.  First, as a Christian theist, I would not argue point number 1.  What scientists are discovering is that the human body is hard-wired for religious experience.  Our brains, our emotions, our bodies all lend themselves to making spiritual conclusions about the world.  Some have always rejected these natural conclusions (there have always been atheists throughout history), but the majority of people have been religious in the sense of believing in a supernatural reality beyond the observable world.

My major problem is the leap from argument 1 to argument 2.  What conclusion should we draw from the fact that the human psyche seems to be wired for a religious experience?  The naturalist brings their evolutionary philosophy to bear on this question and concludes that it must be a product of natural selection.  But is that reading your presuppositions into the evidence as much as the Christian theist?  Why could that not also be evidence (like Romans 1 argues) that we are made in God’s image (built for interaction with our Creator) and that there is a spiritual reality beyond the natural senses.  Why is that conclusion wrong by the standard of evolutionary science?  Because it cannot be proved scientifically.  Therefore, the most natural conclusion (that our moral nature and religious desires are evidences of a supernatural reality) is immediately discarded because of a commitment to naturalism.  I would think most people (using common sense) would see our spiritual desires as evidence that we were designed for the spiritual, not that we created the spiritual.

Also, this argument cuts both ways.  If you use evolutionary philosophy to discount religion, then why would you not also need to use it to discount atheism?  If religion is only a human construct because the brain is built for it, then why wouldn’t you also say that atheism is only a human construct because the brain is built for independence from authority?  Atheism has always existed – does that mean it is simply an evolutionary construct?  You can’t have it both ways.  Atheist promoters want to say that my worldview is simply the product of my biological heritage, but that their worldview is the product of their superior reason.  Can you imagine a more arrogant position?  My theological position is exclusive (that Jesus Christ is the only God and the only means of salvation), but it is also honest.  I believe some choose to acknowledge God in creation and revelation, and some choose to ignore Him.  But I don’t believe somehow that my position is rational and other worldviews are crazy.  I believe all worldviews are essentially religious – some are right and some are wrong, but they are all in the end theological.  And they should be discussed in those terms – what is your theological philosophy and how did you get there?

This article shows you why the theology of scientific naturalism ends debate instead of furthering it – because it says to people who have a positive religious worldview that their views are deceptions of their own making while the naturalistic atheistic worldview is the enlightened position of reason.  Is it any wonder that you can’t even have a thoughtful, kind, humble discussion with someone who holds this position?  For those atheists who think that Christians are arrogant because they claim to believe that Jesus is the way, truth, and the life, make sure you take time to look at the exclusive claims of your own worldview.  Which position most leads to humble, kind, loving people?  My example is Jesus Christ who died for the world and calls His followers to deny themselves, serve others, and give their lives away for the sake of their fellow man.  Who is your model?

 

The Gospel and The Spirit

As I have preached through Galatians 5 the last two weeks, I have been reminded of the important connection between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Spirit of God.  Not only because it is the Spirit who opens our eyes to see our need for salvation and reveals the Son of God to us, but also because the Spirit is one of the greatest Gifts we receive as a result of the work of Christ.  Paul reminds the Galatians in chapter 3 that they had received the Spirit by faith in Jesus, and in chapter 5 he calls them to live and walk by the Spirit (in other words, to submit to His leadership in their lives).

One of the signs of the New Covenant (promised in Jeremiah 31) was a closer relationship with God where He would write His instruction on our hearts and not just our minds.  The gift of the Spirit in Acts 2 is a fulfillment in Luke’s writing of the promise made to the prophet Joel and a confirmation of the words of Isaiah 44.  In other words, the Old Testament is not just looking for a new way for man to be reconciled with God (from enemy to child) but also a way for God to live with man (as the Holy Spirit takes up residence with every believer).

One of the great consequences of the work of Jesus on the cross is that we are filled with the Holy Spirit of God.  In my experience, many Christians have a strange relationship with the Holy Spirit that has been disconnected from the gospel of Jesus.  Some Christians see the gospel only as a means to have sin forgiven and heaven guaranteed, but have no concept of walking by the power of the Spirit in their daily lives.  Others see the key to the Christian life as receiving ongoing extra fillings of the Spirit every time they attend a worship service.  These two extremes have missed the connection that Paul seems to be making in Galatians.  That Christian maturity comes as we walk daily in the light of the gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We cannot separate these two.

If we ignore the gospel in our daily Christian experience, then we will miss a major part of the Spirit’s role according to the Scriptures – to point us back to Jesus Christ and His teaching.  The Spirit does not work on His own accord, but is sent by the Father and the Son to remind us of all that Jesus taught and all that God has done for us in Christ.  The Spirit loves to glorify the Father and the Son, and so He works to proclaim the gospel to us every day.  In addition, if we ignore the gospel in our spiritual growth, we can tend to start taking credit for our sanctification.  But the Spirit brings us back to who we are in Christ so that we will not forget that our standing before God and our progress in holiness are gifts of God rooted in His gracious activity, not our moral superiority.

While we can ignore the gospel in our daily Christian life, we can also make the other mistake.  We can center our lives on the gospel but ignore the role of the Spirit in helping us grow.  If we do this (which seems to be very common – hence Francis Chan’s book Forgotten God), we are in danger of attempting to power our way to holiness through the strength of the flesh.  And while we can discipline ourselves to act the right way in certain contexts and at certain times, the fruit of trying to please God from the flesh is ultimately pride and self-righteousness.  This explains why so many people who hold to an orthodox view of the gospel also can turn into proud religious people over time.  They have set their hearts to living for God without daily dependence on the person and power of the Holy Spirit.

My main point in this post is to summarize what I’ve learned in leading my congregation through Galatians 5 the last few weeks.  Many people are afraid of the Holy Spirit because of the abuses they have seen on television.  But the right response to these extremes is not ignorance of the Spirit, but biblical wisdom regarding the Spirit.  The Scriptures are clear – we need the Holy Spirit to live in the freedom that Jesus died to provide.  So, don’t react to the craziness of a few by grieving the Spirit in your own life.  He is alive, and if you are in Christ, He is in you.  Listen to His voice.  Trust His guidance.  And walk in His power.

The Illusion of Objectivity

Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and an accomplished author.  He has made a name for himself over the last decade writing about religious illiteracy in America (of our own faiths) and religious ignorance worldwide when it comes to other faith-systems.  His latest book is called God is Not One and explores the “eight major world religions” and how they differ from one another.  Prothero’s main argument is against those who argue that all the major religions are basically the same below the surface. The goal of his book is to demonstrate that the major world religions are not only different in practice and expression but also in doctrine and worldview.  Anyone who has spent significant time reading in the world religions or actually talking to people of different faiths would agree with Prothero’s proposition.  The world religions are not the same.  They don’t teach the same things about god, about man, about the world, or about hope for the future.  Because they have different basic theological views, they have different conclusions about what men and women need to do to experience full life here and forever (if they even have the forever category).

But as Stan Guthrie so eloquently describes in his review of Prothero’s book in Books & Culture, the attempt by a western academic to give equal validity to every religious system (even in the name of education) actually demonstrates the worldview of the writer.  This is not surprising (as Guthrie points out) because it really is impossible to write apart from the presuppositions you bring to a discussion.  The only way to fairly write about a topic like religion is to explain your presuppositions before you begin.  In this way, you are honest that you are not only writing about a topic but you are also evaluating different positions.  In an attempt to be fair and unbiased in order to present every religion in the best possible light, the author is actually presenting a western agnostic worldview position.  This view says that we should understand all religions, but not critique any religions – that would be intolerant.  Of course, this sounds good in theory but is impossible to actually live in.

What I mean is Prothero is advocating a position of educated agnosticism – learn but don’t make value judgments.  But people can’t live without making value judgments.  We make decisions every day about how we use our time, our money, our energy, our mind, our parenting, our careers, our hobbies, etc. in light of what we actually believe about the world. My point is that objectivity is an illusion.  True agnosticism (an epistemological position that says real truth is unknowable) is popular because it allows the individual to deflect commitment to one worldview and seems genuinely humble.  But to hold a position that I am above all other worldviews and can therefore see the good in all religions is not actually listening to what the religious systems themselves are saying and is therefore arrogant. The different religious systems are not just different, they are mutually exclusive. You cannot believe God is Trinity (Christianity) and God is Unitary (Islam) at the same time. And you don’t handle either religion fairly to simply explain how these two positions are different while acting like you are on the outside of the discussion. As Guthrie says in his review, the question in discussing religion is not just pragmatics (does this faith system work) but is ontology (is this faith system true in describing what actually is).

I appreciate Prothero’s goal of wanting everyone in the world to be more informed about the differences between world religions.  This would especially help in loving our neighbor and in global politics.  But we cannot be fair and generous in our description while ignoring our own convictions.  To talk about worldview without discussion of our own is to buy into the illusion of objectivity.

Jonathan Edwards on Heaven & Hell

The first book I finished while on study-break was Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell. This book is in Strachan & Sweeney’s five-volume series on Jonathan Edwards and covers Edwards’ preaching and teaching on eternity.  In light of the recent popular discussion on hell, I was very interested to read Edwards’ take on the biblical view of the eternal state.  Edwards is famous in American history for one sermon that every high-school literature student reads called Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.  But of course, this is only one sermon out of hundreds that Edwards delivered.  Thankfully, most of his messages have been passed down to us today for study and reflection.

Edwards preached his convictions from Scripture about the reality of eternal heaven and eternal hell.  We can learn from Edwards to give weight to the Bible’s teaching on the eternal state.  Edwards vividly described the terrible sufferings of hell as evidence of the holiness and justice of God and ultimately glorifying to God in eternity.  Edwards also passionately taught about the glorious beauty and pleasures of heaven as God’s people enjoy God Himself forever.  In the end, Edwards challenges modern preachers to not ignore the Bible’s clear teachings on heaven and hell, but to faithfully communicate what God has said about both.  Edwards modeled for us an eternal perspective that we must constantly fight for lest we fall into loving the temporal and forget what matters most.