Friday, December 13, 2013

Augustine on the Miracle of Christmas

Man’s maker was made man,
that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast;
that the Bread might hunger,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired on its journey;
that the Truth might be accused of false witness,
the Teacher be beaten with whips,
the Foundation be suspended on wood;
that Strength might grow weak;
that the Healer might be wounded;
that Life might die.
- Augustine of Hippo (Sermons 191.1)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Authentic Manhood: Men as Providers

Recently, I've been preparing to teach a class on "Authentic Manhood."  In preparing to teach this, I came across an article by J.D. Gunter on "Men as Providers."  I thought this article was outstanding, and something young men in our culture need continually impressed upon them.  The full text is below, and the PDF is available from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
Christian men are called to provide for their families. Paul uses some of the strongest language in the New Testament to warn those who do not provide: “But if any man does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).
Whatever a man thinks he is “called” to, this much is clear – he is called to provide for his family. One of the most God-glorifying pictures of the gospel is when a man puts his childhood dreams to the side, steps up to the plate, gets a job, and valiantly cares for his family. This man should be honored and his work should be appreciated. 
Think like a Man 
Something about growing up and having a family changes the perspective of a man. Instead of a professional athlete, he aims for management. Instead of a multi-platinum record deal, he pursues health insurance. Instead of wanting to be a famous astronaut, he dreams of raising one. This is maturity. This is growing up. This is a man dying to self and living for another. 
One of the saddest pictures of gospel-confusion is when a man fails to pursue providing for his family because he is stuck chasing the clouds of his youth. Scripture commands men to give themselves up for their wives, just as Christ gave Himself up for the Church (Eph 5:25). When a man stubbornly refuses to get a job that will support his family or, worse still, when he obligates his wife to provide in his stead because he is entitled to “chase his dreams” or “pursue his calling,” the Bible gives us reason to doubt that man’s faith. Unbelievers intuitively know this is wrong. The conscience of the redeemed condemns it too. 
Work like a Man 
Men should be free to chase their dreams. Great companies were founded, churches planted, and institutions established by men who worked a full-time job, then spent their free-time in a garage, in front of a computer, or in a classroom. These men are heroes. They did not ask their wives or families to carry them into their dreams – they walked there themselves. They held their dreams loosely enough that they would not sacrifice their families to achieve them. 
Is it ever legitimate for a wife to work? Yes, of course. We are thankful when a wife comes alongside her husband to support him in his call to provide. However, this does not relieve him of his responsibility. He is ultimately accountable for the provision of his family; not his wife. 
When a wife helps to support the family, the husband has delegated his call to provide for the family to his wife. This role should never put undue pressure or hardship on her. When a husband pressures his wife into the workplace and away from the home for any reason, he has ceased to delegate and begun to abdicate. 
Gut Check 
How do you know if you have put undue burden on your wife and despised the God-given call to provide? Ask yourself: 
1) How would you feel if your wife unexpectedly got pregnant and you were forced to be  the only and primary breadwinner for your family? Rejoicing or regretting your spoiled plans? 
2) How do you use your time? Are you working as hard as you can to provide adequately for your family? 
3) Are you dependent upon your wife’s income to support your lifestyle or could you live more modestly and reduce the pressure on her to work? 
4) Most importantly, does she trust you as the provider of the home? 
A Call to Provide 
If your wife is willing and able to come alongside you to help you provide for your household, rejoice in that, but do not feel entitled. 
This truth is not meant to shame men who struggle to provide. On the contrary, there is tremendous honor for that man who struggles to provide. I have known men to work three meager-paying jobs to humbly support a wife and children. Men have toiled away for years working faithfully in what the world would never see as a dream job. In the face of great uncertainty, men take what jobs they can find and spend little as they feed, clothe and provide for their kids. 
Some would call this a failure. Some would say that man’s life is ill-spent. He is not chasing his dreams, he is not “called” to this grueling work, and he will never find true fulfillment in this life. 
I disagree. 
This man is not a failure. His work is not something to be ashamed of. This man is a conquering hero. His bravery is to be applauded. His tenacity is to be admired. His steadfastness is to be emulated. Here we have a warrior who will provide for his family in the face of incredible odds and overwhelming hardship. 
The working man understands that a call to marriage is a call to provide. He will not quietly stand by while his family suffers. He will not chase his childhood dreams on the backs of his wife and children. He will struggle, he will provide, and the Lord will honor him for being a picture of Christ who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:6-7). 
The world is confused about the intrinsic nobility of work, and some of that confusion seeps into the Church. We should know better.  Scripture commands, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24). If you have a job, welcome to the ministry! You are serving the Lord. 
The businessman, the mechanic, the salesman, the lawyer, the teacher, the waiter, and the landscaper are all in direct service to Christ. On top of that, the men who hold these jobs to provide for their families are fulfilling a biblical mandate. There is honor and goodness in work. God’s glory is glimpsed each time a man brings home a paycheck. A man coming home to play with his kids after an exhausting day of work has shown us what Christlikeness is. 
Our intuition tells us something is wrong when a man does not provide for his family. Our conscience pricks us when we hear of a woman paying her husband’s way. Our hearts break when we see a man who selfishly refuses a job because it does not align with his dreams while his wife and kids suffer. We are not alone in condemning this man. Scripture condemns him too. He is worse than an unbeliever.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sane Advice for Young Students of Theology

In response to the question, “What advice would you offer to theological students and young theologians as they face a lifetime of theological work?”, John Frame gives the following 30 (!) point answer.  I think this is great advice for both aspiring theologians and anyone thinking of going into ministry.
  1. Consider that you might not really be called to theological work. James 3:1 tells us that not many of us should become teachers and that teachers will be judged more strictly. To whom much (biblical knowledge) is given, of them shall much be required.
  2. Value your relationship with Christ, your family, and the church above your career ambitions. You will influence more people by your life than by your theology. And deficiencies in your life will negate the influence of your ideas, even if those ideas are true.
  3. Remember that the fundamental work of theology is to understand the Bible, God’s Word, and apply it to the needs of people. Everything else—historical and linguistic expertise, exegetical acuteness and subtlety, knowledge of contemporary culture, and philosophical sophistication—must be subordinated to that fundamental goal. If it is not, you may be acclaimed as a historian, linguist, philosopher, or critic of culture, but you will not be a theologian.
  4. In doing the work of theology (the fundamental work, #3), you have an obligation to make a case for what you advocate. That should be obvious, but most theologians today haven’t a clue as to how to do it. Theology is an argumentative discipline, and you need to know enough about logic and persuasion to construct arguments that are valid, sound, and persuasive. In theology, it’s not enough to display knowledge of history, culture, or some other knowledge. Nor is it enough to quote people you agree with and reprobate people you don’t agree with. You actually have to make a theological case for what you say.
  5. Learn to write and speak clearly and cogently. The best theologians are able to take profound ideas and present them in simple language. Don’t try to persuade people of your expertise by writing in opaque prose.
  6. Cultivate an intense devotional life and ignore people who criticize this as pietistic. Pray without ceasing. Read the Bible, not just as an academic text. Treasure opportunities to worship in chapel services and prayer meetings, as well as on Sunday. Give attention to your “spiritual formation,” however you understand that.
  7. A theologian is essentially a preacher, though he typically deals with more arcane subjects than preachers do. But be a good preacher. Find some way to make your theology speak to the hearts of people. Find a way to present your teaching so that people hear God’s voice in it.
  8. Be generous with your resources. Spend time talking to students, prospective students, and inquirers. Give away books and articles. Don’t be tightfisted when it comes to copyrighted materials; grant copy permission to anybody who asks for it. Ministry first, money second.
  9. In criticizing other theologians, traditions, or movements, follow biblical ethics. Don’t say that somebody is a heretic unless you have a very good case. Don’t throw around terms like “another gospel.” (People who teach another gospel are under God’s curse.) Don’t destroy people’s reputations by misquoting them, quoting them out of context, or taking their words in the worst possible sense. Be gentle and gracious unless you have irrefutable reasons for being harsh.
  10. When there is a controversy, don’t get on one side right away. Do some analytical work first, on both positions. Consider these possibilities: (a) that the two parties may be looking at the same issue from different perspectives, so they don’t really contradict; (b) that both parties are overlooking something that could have brought them together; (c) that they are talking past one another because they use terms in different ways; (d) that there is a third alternative that is better than either of the opposing views and that might bring them together; (e) that their differences, though genuine, ought both to be tolerated in the church, like the differences between vegetarians and meat-eaters in Romans 14.
  11. If you get a bright idea, don’t expect everybody to get it right away. Don’t immediately start a faction to promote it. Don’t revile those who haven’t come to appreciate your thinking. Reason gently with them, recognizing that you could be wrong and arrogant to boot.
  12. Don’t be reflexively critical of everything that comes out of a different tradition. Be humble enough to consider that other traditions may have something to teach you. Be teachable before you start teaching them. Take the beam out of your own eye.
  13. Be willing to reexamine your own tradition with a critical eye. It is unreasonable to think that any single tradition has all the truth or is always right. And unless theologians develop critical perspectives on their own denominations and traditions, the reunion of the body of Christ will never take place. Don’t be one of those theologians who are known mainly for trying to make Arminians become Calvinists (or vice versa).
  14. See confessional documents in proper perspective. It is the work of theology, among other things, to rethink the doctrines of the confessions and to reform them, when necessary, by the Word of God. Do not assume that everything in the confession is forever settled.
  15. Don’t let your polemics be governed by jealousy, as when a theologian feels bound to be entirely negative toward the success of a megachurch.
  16. Don’t become known as a theologian who constantly takes potshots at other theologians or other Christians. The enemy is Satan, the world, and the flesh.
  17. Guard your sexual instincts. Stay away from Internet pornography and illicit relationships. Theologians are not immune from the sins that plague others in the church.
  18. Be active in a good church. Theologians need the means of grace as much as other believers. This is especially important when you are studying at a secular university or liberal seminary. You need the support of other believers to maintain proper theological perspective.
  19. Get your basic training at a seminary that teaches the Bible as the Word of God. Become well-grounded in the theology of Scripture before you go off (as you may, of course) to get firsthand exposure to nonbiblical thought.
  20. Come to appreciate the wisdom, even theological wisdom, of relatively uneducated Christians. Don’t be one of those theologians who always has something negative to say when a simple believer describes his walk with the Lord. Don’t look down at people from what Helmut Thielicke called “the high horse of enlightenment.” Often, simple believers know God better than you do, and you need to learn from them, as did Abraham Kuyper, for instance.
  21. Don’t be one of those theologians who get excited about every new trend in politics, culture, hermeneutics, and even theology and who think we have to reconstruct our theology to go along with each trend. Don’t think you have to be a feminist, e.g., just because everybody else is. Most of the theologies that try to be culturally savvy are unbiblical.
  22. Be suspicious of all trendiness in theology. When everybody jumps on some theological bandwagon, whether narrative, feminism, redemptive history, natural law, liturgy, liberation, postmodernism, or whatever, that’s the time to awaken your critical faculties. Don’t jump on the bandwagon unless you have done your own study. When a theological trend comes along, ask reflexively, “What’s wrong with that?” There is always something wrong. It simply is not the case that the newest is the truest. Indeed, many new movements turn out to be false steps entirely.
  23. Our system of doctoral-level education requires “original thought,” but that can be hard to do, given that the church has been studying Scripture for thousands of years. You’ll be tempted to come up with something that sounds new (possibly by writing a thesis that isn’t properly theological at all in the sense of #3 above). Well, do it; get it out of the way, and then come back to do some real theology.
  24. At the same time, don’t reject innovation simply because it is innovative. Even more, don’t reject an idea merely because it doesn’t sound like what you’re used to. Learn to distinguish the sound-look-feel of an idea from what it actually means.
  25. Be critical of arguments that turn on metaphors or extrabiblical technical terms. Don’t assume that each one has a perfectly clear meaning. Usually they do not.
  26. Learn to be skeptical of the skeptics. Unbelieving and liberal scholars are as prone to error as anybody—in fact, more so.
  27. Respect your elders. Nothing is so ill-becoming as a young theologian who despises those who have been working in the field for decades. Disagreement is fine, as long as you acknowledge the maturity and the contributions of those you disagree with. Take 1 Timothy 5:1 to heart.
  28. Young theologians often imagine themselves as the next Luther, just as little boys imagine themselves as the next Peyton Manning or Kevin Garnett. When they’re too old to play cowboys and Indians, they want to play Luther and the Pope. When the real Pope won’t play with them, they pick on somebody else and say, “You’re it.” Look: most likely God has not chosen you to be the leader of a new Reformation. If he has, don’t take the exalted title “Reformer” upon yourself. Let others decide if that is really what you are.
  29. Decide early in your career (after some experimenting) what to focus on and what not to. When considering opportunities, it’s just as important (perhaps more so) to know when to say no as to know when to say yes.
  30. Don’t lose your sense of humor. We should take God seriously, not ourselves, and certainly not theology. To lose your sense of humor is to lose your sense of proportion. And nothing is more important in theology than a sense of proportion.
HT:  Joseph Torres
    This interview can be found in the book, Speaking the Truth in Love:  The Theology of John M. Frame in the chapter, "Reflections of a Lifetime Theologian:  An Extended Interview with John M. Frame,” where Frame is interviewed by P. Andrew Sandlin.

    Tuesday, July 9, 2013

    Douglas Wilson on Youth Ministry

    Douglas Wilson offers a great perspective on youth ministry in this short video interview.  Often, youth group is disdained by those who emphasize family-based ministries because it supposedly diminishes/displaces the role the father ought to take.  On the other end of the spectrum, youth ministry can become a place where students are catered to rather than shepherded and trained to be better disciples of Jesus.  I think Doug's perspective is both wise and balanced.



    Wednesday, May 8, 2013

    Dallas Willard, My Mentor

    Dallas Willard died today.  That's what the news says anyway.

    But if you could talk to Dallas, I think you'd hear a different story.  When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the late summer of 2012, one of his reflections was, "I think that, when I die, it might be some time until I know it."  What he meant was that for the one who trusts and follows Jesus, death itself has no power to interrupt this life.  Jesus himself said that the one who trusts in him will never taste death.

    Dallas was a philosophy professor at USC for nearly 50 years, where he specialized in philosophy of mind and logic.  He was a profound author on spiritual formation, or the kingdom of God, or as he often called it, "the with-God life."  He would often say that there are four great questions humans must answer:  What is reality?  What is the good life?  Who is a good person?  And how do you become a good person?  And his concern was to answer those questions, and live the answers.  And he was simply convinced that no one has ever answered them as well as Jesus.

    Dallas Willard combined a rigorous intellect with a warm heart.  He was sincerely interested in people.  He was loving and respectful to others, even those who were not loving and respectful to him.  He spoke with the slow cadence of a southern preacher, but his words belied a man who had digested thousands of books. (He had four personal libraries of books including his home, his second home, his school office, and a garage).  He was honest and authentic.  He would say, "If you could find a better way, Jesus would be the first one to tell you to take it. And if you don't believe that about him, you don't have faith in him, because what you're really saying is that he would encourage you to believe something that is false."

    Mark D. Roberts recounts a story that is characteristic of Dallas:
    I’ll never forget one thing that happened during one of Dallas’ classes. He had been explaining what it means to live in the kingdom of God, when a member of the class shot up a hand. When I saw who had a question, I cringed. This man lived on the edge of sanity, as did many of the street people who attended Hollywood Pres. From experience, I knew that his question would be a distraction from the point. Sure enough, the man asked a question that asked Dallas to explain something he had just finished explaining. It was asked in a way that insinuated Dallas was misunderstanding the Bible. As the questioner droned on, the tension in the room – and in my stomach – grew.
    Dallas listened patiently, gazing intently at the man with the question. Then he responded. I can’t remember his exact words, but I do remember the way in which Dallas answered this man. He spoke with deep respect for the man and his question. Dallas did not take offense at the way the question had been asked. Rather, after thanking the man for his question, Dallas explained what he had said earlier with clarity and greater simplicity. He seemed eager to help the questioner understand the answer. But, even more striking was Dallas’ obvious desire to offer deep love and respect to this man who was, in many ways, a misfit.
    Willard was quietly subversive of nominal Christianity, always encouraging people to see the grand vision of discipleship that Jesus intended for His followers to embark upon.  His impact his hard to overestimate.  He was a significant influence in a renaissance of evangelical thinkers in contemporary academic philosophy.  In fact, three of the five philosophy professors at Talbot School of Theology were Willard's students.  He has been a mentor and friend to many of the most influential evangelical Christians of our time.  And countless others have benefited from his writings and teachings.

    Although I've never met Dallas Willard, I've heard him speak live a number of times, and I feel as though I've had dozens of conversations with him.  He is one of the few people (who has written more than one book) of whom I can say that I have read all of his books--with the exception of one.  (I tried to read his advanced philosophical work, Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge, but quickly realized that I lacked the requisite philosophical training).  But without ever having met me, Dallas Willard mentored me.  He's one of seven men I would count to be my mentors.  Through his various writings and teachings I learned from him things too valuable to repay.

    To encapsulate what I've learned from Dallas would be far beyond the scope of this blog post.  But I will mention a few things I've learned from him.  More than anyone else, Dallas Willard helped me understand what it means to hear God speak.  Dallas helped me understand that God's communications with us always occur within the context of our relationship with Him.  In his book, Hearing God, he writes,
    Our communion with God provides the appropriate context for communications between us and Him.  To try to locate communication within human existence alienated from God is to return to idolatry, where God is there for our use.  To try to solve all our life's problems by getting a word from the Lord is to hide from life and from the dignity of the role God intended us to have in creation. 
    In his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas taught me to understand the nature and importance of spiritual disciplines for the Christian life.  He helped me to understand that being a disciple is learning to live life as Jesus would live it if he were in my place.  And he helped me to understand that discipleship is simply what it means to be a Christian--it's not just for "super-Christians."

    In his book, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas helped me to see the genius of Jesus' instruction manual for life in His kingdom--the Sermon on the Mount.  He helped me to see that the gospel is not merely a way to manage sin, but rather is an invitation to an entirely new kind of life--the eternal kind of life that he enjoyed on earth and is still enjoying.  He helped me to understand the value in slowing down and living a simple, unhurried lifestyle, with a genuine awareness of God's presence and kingdom.

    His book The Renovation of the Heart helped me to understand who I am, how I change, and how to become the kind of person Jesus is.  He helped me understand character--that the choices I make have real consequences in my soul and I was becoming a certain kind of person.  He helped me understand the nature of my own soul, my propensity towards sin, and the provision God has made for my transformation so that I truly can put on the character of Christ and experience genuine growth and maturation.

    His book Knowing Christ Today helped me understand the importance of spiritual knowledge for all of life.  And finally, his book The Great Omission gave me a larger vision of discipleship.  I've also been shaped by numerous other articles he's written and talks he's given.  Dallas Willard has made a profound impact on my life, and he will continue to mentor me as I reread his books and listen to his teachings.  Although I don't agree with everything he wrote, I've been forever sharpened by interacting with his thoughts.  It's been a great conversation--one I'd encourage you to enter into--and one day it will continue in person.

    I look forward to the day that I'll meet my mentor.

    For more on Dallas Willard, see John Ortberg's excellent tribute to him.

    Tuesday, April 23, 2013

    The Most Offensive Verse in the Bible

    Below is a post by Dan Phillips from the Pyromaniacs blog about how he'd respond to a questioner probing him about a topic they knew was offensive to non-Christians.  I thought his response was stellar!
    In the Sunday School class at CBC we're doing a series called Marriage, the Bible and You. In the second lesson of the series, I brought up the subject of secular talk shows and how they like to try to beat up on Christians of any size, shape, and significance about whatever topic they think is most embarrassing and controversial. Of course, at the moment it's "gay" "marriage," or the topic of homosexuality at all.
    In the course of the lesson, I remarked that I think — from the comfortable quiet safety of my study — that I'd take a different approach.
    When Piers or Larry or Tavis or Rosie or Ellen or The View or whoever tried probing me about homosexuality, or wifely submission, or any other area where God has spoken (to the world's consternation), I think I'd decline the worm altogether. I think instead, I'd say something like,
    "You know, TaPierRosEllRy, when you ask me about X, you're obviously picking a topic that is deeply offensive to non-Christians — but it's far from the most offensive thing I believe. You're just nibbling at the edge of one of the relatively minor leaves on the Tree of Offense. Let me do you a favor, and just take you right down to the root. Let me take you to the most offensive thing I believe.
    "The most offensive thing I believe is Genesis 1:1, and everything it implies.
    "That is, I believe in a sovereign Creator who is Lord and Definer of all. Everything in the universe — the planet, the laws of physics, the laws of morality, you, me — everything was created by Another, was designed by Another, was given value and definition by Another. God is Creator and Lord, and so He is ultimate. That means we are created and subjects, and therefore derivative and dependent.
    "Therefore, we are not free to create meaning or value. We have only two options. We can discover the true value assigned by the Creator and revealed in His Word, the Bible; or we can rebel against that meaning.
    "Any time you bring up questions about any of these issues, you do so from one of two stances. You either do it as someone advocating and enabling rebellion against the Creator's design, or as someone seeking submissive understanding of that design. You do it as servant or rebel. There is no third option.
    "So yeah, insofar as I'm consistent with my core beliefs, everything I think about sexuality, relationships, morals, the whole nine yards, all of it is derived from what the Creator says. If I deviate from that, I'm wrong.
    "To anyone involved in the doomed, damned you-shall-be-as-God project, that is the most offensive truth in the world, and it is the most offensive belief I hold.
    "But if I can say one more thing, the first noun in that verse — beginning — immediately points us forward. It points to the end. And the end is all about Jesus Christ. That takes us to the topic of God's world-tilting Gospel, and that's what we really need to talk about."
    I mean, why quibble about minor offenses, when we know how to take them right to the mother lode of all offense — that God is God, and we are not?
    HT:  Dan Phillips, Pyromaniacs

    Thursday, February 14, 2013

    The Mighty Intercessor

    Below is a short and powerful message by Eric Ludy about intercession.  We desperately need the attitude shift he talks about!